Sunday, October 25, 2015

Should philosophical ideas be subject to empirical verification?

One question is whether empiricism itself can be empirically verified. Michael Lerner:

"Consider its [scientism’s] central belief: ‘That which is real is that which can be verified or falsified by empirical observation.’ The claim sounds tough minded and rational, but what scientific experiment could you perform to prove that it is either true or false?"

Another is whether, although empiricism is indeed a value, there may be other methods and approaches that are also valuable. Sir James Baillie:

"Empiricism is so true that the closer one keeps to it – without becoming an empiricist! – the better. Just as, on the contrary, Idealism is so questionable that the farther one keeps from it – without ceasing to be an idealist! – the truer will one's view of reality be."

Daniel C. Dennett:

"This spell must be broken, and broken now. Those who are religious and believe religion to be the best hope of humankind cannot reasonably expect those of us who are skeptical to refrain from expressing our doubts if they themselves are unwilling to put their convictions under the microscope. ... If the case for their path cannot be made this is something that they themselves should want to know. It is as simple as that. They claim the moral high ground; maybe they deserve it and maybe they don’t. Let’s find out."

In philosophy, it is important to define one's terms precisely, as advised by Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet:

"One of the essentials for any sound philosophy is to produce for every science an exact and precise language in which every symbol represents some well defined and circumscribed idea; and so by rigorous analysis to guarantee that every idea is well defined and circumscribed."

Defining terms enables them to be verified. However, if defined too rigorously, one loses the flavor, subtlety and ambiguity of ideas, as well as the different human perspectives that generate them.


Michael Lerner. The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right. HarperSanFrancisco, 2006. p. 132.

Sir James Baillie, Reflections on Life and Religion, London: George Allen and Unwin, 1952. p 252-3

Daniel C. Dennett. Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. New York: Penguin Group, 2006. p. 17.

Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet. Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind. (1794) Translated by June Barraclough. Westport, Conn.: Hyperion Press, Inc. 1955. p 44.

Philosophy to bring joy

Epicurus said: "Philosophy is useless if it does not drive away the suffering of the mind."

What will end suffering and bring joy? Is it a final analysis, or is it the process of thinking itself?

First, we may need to begin with reverence, as Sir James Baillie wrote: "The final and supreme destiny of the scholar is to unite wisdom with kindness, knowledge with love, care for truth with love of man – and without reverence that is not possible." We may also need curiosity, as St. Augustine wrote: "We learn better in a free spirit of curiosity than under fear and compulsion." We may need to accept our humble limitations and contradictions, as Johannes Climacus wrote:

"That which makes understanding so difficult is precisely this: that he [the learner] becomes nothing and yet is not annihilated; that he owes him everything and yet becomes boldly confident; that he understands the truth, but the truth makes him free; that he grasps the quilt of untruth, and then again in bold confidence triumphs in the truth."

And we may need to resist assumptions, conclusions, labels, and roles that are given to us, as James Baldwin wrote:

The world's definitions are one thing and the life one actually lives is quite another. One cannot allow oneself, nor can one's family, friends, or lovers – to say nothing of one's children – to live according to the world's definitions: one must find a way, perpetually, to be stronger and better than that.


Epicurus, quoted by Alain de Botton, The Consolations of Philosophy, Vintage Books, 2000. p 55.

Sir James Baillie, Reflections on Life and Religion, London: George Allen and Unwin, 1952. Title page.

Augustine, Confessions, I:14

Johannes Climacus (Soren Kierkegaard), Philosophical Fragments, ed. and trans. by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton University Press, 1985. p 30-1.

James Baldwin, quoted by John Stoltenberg as an epigraph to Refusing to Be a Man: Essays on Sex and Justice. New York: Meridian, 1989.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Truth is a bully

A character in a novel by Gregory David Roberts called truth a "bully". People feel they have to pursue and honor truth even when they don't like it or it doesn't seem to serve them.

"...take yesterday, for instance, when we were all talking about truth. Capital T Truth. Absolute truth. Ultimate truth. And is there any truth, is anything true? Everybody had something to say about it – Didier, Ulla, Maurizio, even Modena. Then you said, The truth is a bully we all pretend to like. I was knocked out by it. Did you read that in a book, or hear it in a play, or a movie?"

This truth, this bully, requires its own bully – the challenge of falsehood – to compel it to strengthen itself. John Stuart Mill wrote, "If opponents of all important truths do not exist, it is indispensable to imagine them and supply them with the strongest arguments which the most skilful devil's advocate can conjure up."

But then, maybe the devil's advocate is also correct, as per Neils Bohr: "There are trivial truths and there are great truths. The opposite of a trivial truth is plainly false. The opposite of the great truth is also true."

Some see a "hierarchy of truth," as explained by Kovach and Rosenstiel:

"It is interesting that oppressive societies tend to belittle literal definitions of truthfulness and accuracy, just as postmodernists do today, though for different reasons. In the Middle Ages, for instance, monks held that there was actually a hierarchy of truth. At the highest level were messages that told us about the fate of the universe, such as whether heaven existed. Next came moral truth, which taught us how to live. This was followed by allegorical truth, which taught the moral of stories. Finally, at the bottom, the least important, was the literal truth, which the theorists said was usually empty of meaning and irrelevant. As one fourteenth-century manual explained, using logic similar to what we might hear today from a postmodern scholar or a Hollywood producer, 'Whether it is truth of history or fiction doesn't matter, because the example is not supplied for its own sake but for its signification.'

"The goal of the medieval thinkers was not enlightenment so much as control. They didn't want literal facts to get in the way of political/religious orthodoxy. An accurate understanding of the day threatened that control – just as today it is a weapon against oppression and manipulation."

What reins in truth? It does require "a measure of some kind" or else it is not viewed as truth. Nicholas Fearn:

"The wider conclusions of Protagoras may be self-refuting, but he did hit upon an important insight. This is the thought that every truth requires a measure of some kind. Truths are not true of and in themselves, but are true within a system of thought, or according to certain rules that test their veracity. This would be the case even if there were only one objective measure of truth. It is unequivocally true that two plus two equals four, but only because four is always the result when we apply the rules of addition correctly. The value of a pair of shoes, on the other hand, may be different according to whether they are given to a beggar or a king, but in each case their value is a value to someone. In both cases, the measure of the truth is external to what it evaluates. How we are to evaluate the measure is another issue, and one that does not always have an easy answer. It will certainly not do to say that this measure is simply 'reality' or 'the way things are,' since how we divine the nature of things is precisely what is in question."


Gregory David Roberts. Shantaram. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2003. p. 60.

John Stuart Mill. Essay on Liberty, quoted in Rollo May, Power and Innocence: A Search for the Sources of Violence. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1972. p 109-110.

Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2001. p 38.

Nicholas Fearn. How to Think Like a Philosopher. New York: Grove Press, 2001. p 15.