Thursday, August 04, 2011

descriptive or prescriptive Pragmatism

As I understand Pragmatist philosophy (and repeat endlessly), truth is a holistic enterprise which a human performs using the available mental tools: sensation, experimentation, imagination, reason, assumption, intuition, inclination, and so on. If a truth survives this gauntlet, it "works".

The all-too-obvious problem (for philosophers) of this rather realistic definition of truth is that it doesn't take a theoretical "position". Essentially, the complaint is that this Pragmatist account of truth is descriptive, not prescriptive. It seems patently evasive to answer the fundamental question, "Is X true?", with the reply, "X is true when the human evaluating X determines it." The questioner can hardly be blamed for making the rejoinder, "By thrusting the evaluation of truth onto individual humans, you can't avoid the conclusion that 'truth' differs depending on who's evaluating. I'm so sorry, but in my estimation Pragmatist 'truth' doesn't work, therefore it's false. In your estimation, it may work and be true, but my results happen to diverge from yours, unfortunately."

Sly remarks aside, acknowledgment of the pivotal role played by the perceiver/interpreter/thinker is both inescapable and valuable. Two uncontroversial corollaries follow. First, there's no excuse for a single human to pretend to have an egocentric total grasp of all truth. Since humans have differing actions and abilities and outlooks, the truth they discover can be different in highly illuminating ways. Pooling the truth among a group is the best strategy. Advanced cooperation and language are two of the strengths that enabled the predominance of the human species. Second, conceding the importance of the subjective contribution leads to a personal "time-based humility". Humans change and adapt. An unrelenting and honest seeker notes that the present collection of truth isn't identical to the collection five years ago. Considered separately, the present self and the prior self are a pair who don't agree about everything. "They" could be equally certain of having superior knowledge of the truth. At any one time, the self could bloviate and/or blog about many things undeniable, and then deny the same at other times. If truth has no element of subjectivity, then how can you say that you know the truth better now than before, or be sure that you will never know the truth better than now? Even declarations of timeless truth happen in time.

No matter the downsides or upsides of the descriptive aspect of the Pragmatist concept, I believe it's prescriptive too. Given no standalone ideas can be inherently true, we are spurred to carry out human verification, i.e. whichever physical or mental actions are sufficient to produce proof. We aren't obligated to categorize an idea as true when it lacks proof convincing to us. Alternative claims on truth aren't satisfactory. Explanations and justifications, of why a statement is concretely true, defeat unfounded assertions.

Furthermore, I believe the Pragmatist "prescription" is to judge the strength of a proof in proportion to the strengths of the proofs on which it depends. As much as possible, proofs and truths shouldn't be treated as independent. Large chunks of evidence are mutual supporters. Data substantiates other data. Chains or networks of proof are the Pragmatist reality. Unconnected pillars or islands of proof are prone to suspicion; "Why is the truth value of this one statement excluded from the standards and substance of the rest?"

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