Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Rules of Thought

We have no independent means of testing the truth of a proposition. We cannot check the back of the book for the answer. We have methods of discovering the truth, but if the methods are not working we would not know. We are not completely helpless, we have some additional methods of testing our methods. If our truths are contradicting each other, we know that we have gone wrong. If our truths lead us to behave in ways that do not work when interacting with reality, we know that we have gone wrong. The first of these leads to the theory of truth called coherentism; the second to pragmatism. Neither of these show that we have come to truth, though, it merely shows that some falsehoods are so false that we have ways of knowing them to be false.

We have been called “rational animals.” That is, animals with the capacity for reason. That is, animals with a faculty designed to come to truth. However, whatever we have that is coming to truth is bound up with an object that is reliant upon biology. Our brains. Or perhaps we could say that it is our entire body, since the brain is dependent upon the senses for information to reason through. Our senses provide the information that the brain then processes. One must understand, however, that because we are animals all of our processing is interested processing. Our thinking is thought toward some end. Psychology and neuroscience (or, to use a computer metaphor, the study of software and hardware respectively) have both shown that our minds are full of bias. They function in a way that would be considered erroneous – if their ultimate aim were truth. In fact, our entire lives are conducted in ways that seem strange if looked at by a perspective that is trying not to be human.

If we accept evolutionary psychology, our brains operate toward the ends of reproduction and maximizing survival. It is hoped that this includes truth as a means toward maximizing survival, the hope following the line of thought that holding beliefs that correspond to reality will increase our odds of behaving in a way that will ensure a long life. This is just a hope, though. And in fact, there may be facts and parts of reality that are best not believed to ensure a long life. This is why we cannot depend on our brains to find facts.

This is not a new notion, this is what we've thought since Plato. Back then it was phrased differently: Plato believed that reason and emotion were two horses pulling us in separate directions. It was hoped that we could pursue reason, live according to the facts, and place emotion under reason's dominion. We wanted all those biases and erroneous thoughts to belong to the emotion or to a misuse of the reason. If we could just pursue reason correctly, then we could live rationally in accordance with the facts of reality. The difference between then and now is that we are now aware that what we call the reason is just as much a part of our animal brain as our emotion, and we are beginning to realize that reason must be the servant of emotion or we will fall into apathetic nihilism due to the distinction between facts and values. Some of us are fighting this second realization in philosophy, but neuroscience and its study of prefrontal cortex damage are quite secure in its reliability.

Our brains are biased. Our brains do not work to discover truth. We are in fear of this, though, because we have an emotional craving for truth. The possibility of our lives being lived according to lies fills us with anxiety. Even if the truth is ugly, we would rather see exactly what kind of ugly it is, since our imagination is bound to come up with something uglier than reality could ever be. So we export our reasoning. We stop relying on our brain's natural reasoning processes and we create rules for reasoning. This was Aristotle's project. We still are not finished. We want to know how we can know, that's why we developed concepts like epistemic justification. We want to be able to think in such a way that we transcend all of our typical pitfalls and think strictly according to the facts, and for that we have developed rules of thinking.

Again, though, we cannot check the back of the book for the answers. We cannot ensure that these rules are actually helping us flesh out a picture of reality. We check them for consistency, we check to see if they work when we interact with reality, but neither of those are the same thing as ensuring that they correspond to reality. How, then, do we develop the rules?

This is where we are floundering. We develop rules that allow us to come to the truths we already know. Or we develop rules based on the way we know objects in reality relate to each other. Or we develop rules according to pure reason. And then, in the course of following these rules we discover that things we had taken for granted were wrong. But, then, the rules themselves were based on ideas whose truth we took for granted. The search for truth and the search for reliable rules of truth-seeking thought are hopelessly circular.

And it makes me wonder just whether the search is likely to pay off.

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