Tuesday, July 16, 2024



Inadequacy of our Daily Epistemic Language

by Francois Tremblay

  1. Definitions
  2. The different categories of evaluation
  3. Argument for the relativity of truth-value
  4. A new scheme of epistemology
  1. The diaphanous model as the culprit


    I. Definitions

    Our daily language seems to be sufficient to discuss issues of truth. When we say “this is true”, “this is false”, “this is rational”, we understand what this means. The problem is that this kind of language, when applied to more complex issues, is wholly inadequate, and can lead people to believe that truth is absolute, when it is not.

    To understand why, I first need to define two terms.

    1. Our context of knowledge is the knowledge that we hold at a given moment, either by ourselves or gained from others. The context of knowledge dictates our possibilities of discovery. Rationality applied to our context of knowledge wields truth.

    2. Our transcendent knowledge base (TKB) is the result of the accumulation, generation to generation, of the knowledge necessary to improve man’s life. This knowledge base is usually advanced by scientific progress. It is transcendent in the sense that it is accumulated as information in books and other media, instead of individual minds.


    II. The different categories of evaluation

    How is our daily language inadequate ? Because, when talking in the present, there are two meanings of “X is true” :

    1. X is part of our knowledge base.
    2. I judge X to be true.

    One person, who has not been instructed in science, may judge a proposition to be true quite reasonably, even if that proposition is in fact false. taking the TKB into consideration. For instance, someone who is ignorant of science may reasonably conclude that some kind of personhood is responsible for the functioning of nature, as the Ancient Greeks did. This is not to say that, when knowledge is acquired about science, the person would still be justified in holding such a belief.

    Nevertheless, as I discuss in “A Process-Based Theory of Knowledge”, a proposition can only be evaluated on the basis of its rationality. We should fault someone for believing something we know is true, if he does not possess the context of knowledge necessary to believe it. To do so is just as irrational as someone holding a belief about the number of moons around Alpha Centauri. A proposition such as :

    (AC1) There are ten moons in the Alpha Centauri system. (proposition in present time)

    Is at the moment no more rational than :

    (AC2) There are twenty moons in the Alpha Centauri system. (proposition in present time)
    (AC3) There are thirty moons in the Alpha Centauri system. (proposition in present time)

    Since there is absolutely no objective evidence on the topic available for anyone. When our context of knowledge grows, making our instrumentation more powerful, we will no doubt be able to determine whether (AC1), (AC2) and (AC3) are true. But until then, no such statement is true. Even if our future discovery is that :

    (D) There are ten moons in the Alpha Centauri system. (proposition discovered in the future)

    This does not in any way make (AC1) true. While the object – the number of moons – remains the same in both cases, one of the propositions is rational and the other is not.

    I have just introduced the notion of time. In cases separated by time, we have to introduce two more distinctions.

    1. X is part of our knowledge base.
    2. I judge X to be true.
    3. X is part of a knowledge base of another time.
    4. Individuals living at another time judge X to be true.

    1-4 all express a judgment of truth, but in a different respect. What differs in each case is the context of knowledge. An individual living in Ancient Greece may arrive to quite different conclusions than ours, but insofar as they are rational consequences of his context of knowledge, they are true. Likewise, people in the future will gain knowledge which is unimaginable today, because the context of knowledge that we all have through the TKB will grow and grow. Therefore, things which cannot be validated due to our lack of knowledge may very well be validated tomorrow.


    III. Argument for the relativity of truth-value

    There cannot be an absolute truth-value to any given proposition, because judgment does not exist apart from human minds. Depending on one’s context of knowledge, a proposition may be judged as true or false. We can formalize the argument as such :

    (1) Truth-value could be absolute if it was independent of our context of knowledge.
    (2) Truth-value could be independent of our context of knowledge if it was not dependent on our minds.
    (3) Something can only be dependent on our minds if it is contained within our minds.
    (4) Truth-values are not contained outside of our minds. Neither are information. Only the referents of propositions and information are located outside of our minds.
    (5) Truth-values are not dependent on our minds. (from 3 and 4)
    (6) Truth-values are not independent of our context of knowledge. (from 2 and 5)
    (7) Truth-values are not absolute. (from 1 and 6)

    This must not be misinterpreted as meaning that there is no objective reality. While the existence of an objective reality is absolute, truth-values are not. Truth-values are not inherent to objects outside of us, since there are no propositions outside of us to compare our propositions to.

    All that we perceive are existents such as table, chair, moon, star. We perceive them with our senses, and that much is absolute. But our propositions based on the information we interpret from these percepts are entirely ours, and do not belong to the table, chair, moon or star. That information is not absolute but the result of our discoveries about the natural world. That process of rational discovery is relative.

    Is there something absolutely true ? Is anything absolutely true ? No. All knowledge is subject to reasonable doubt, pending on the growth of our TKB. While extremely unlikely, things that are known today may be overturned tomorrow.

    Does this relativity imply that epistemic responsibility does not exist ? Not at all. As I said before, one is responsible for aligning his own knowledge with the TKB of his own time. To be ignorant of scientific fact is one thing : to willfully argue against scientific fact is another. To follow one’s childhood beliefs about religion or politics is one thing : to willfully ignore rational argument to the contrary is another.


    IV. A new scheme of epistemology

    How can we classify and compare the two epistemic models – the realist model that I present, and Correspondence Theory ? By looking at the kinds of things that participate in the epistemic process. Here is how I would classify the perspective of the realist model :

      Existents exterior to the mind Information Propositions and concepts
      medium : paper, light… language : maths, english… networks of neurons (material)
    piece of paper with writing 1. perception of the paper 2. it’s a grocery list ”The grocery list has milk on it. I should buy milk.”
      OBJECT   SUBJECT AS OBJECT (there is no such thing as subjectivity)

    The passage from one to the other is obvious, from our example. We understand existents as information based on the languages we know. We translate information into propositions and concepts based on other epistemic and moral concerns, such as “If I read something on a list, then it is part of that list” or “I need to buy what is on my grocery list”.

    Correspondence Theory, on the other hand, holds that we must compare our propositions with “reality as it actually is”. This implies that one can grasp the informational content of objects in an unmediated manner, that we do not need information at all. For the fact that information exists implies that we cannot know “reality as it actually is” without internalizing it, with all the context of knowledge that this implies.

      Existents exterior to the mind Propositions and concepts
      piece of paper with writing ”The grocery list has milk on it. I should buy milk.”

    How may one transpose one into the other without one’s context of knowledge – language, for instance – being involved ? This now seems an absurdity. Without the capacity to understand the information presented to us by existents, we could not grasp anything. The world would be nothing more than a dance of colours and shapes without rhyme or reason.

    Is the Correspondence model what we observe, in science for instance ? No, of course not. Scientists must observe, experiment, constantly refine and revise their models. They do not have a list of “reality as it actually is” truths that they check everything to. We properly say that reason is an active process. We must seek out and understand reality. The Correspondence idea that we should compare our propositions to a “divine revelation” coming to us from an unrecognizable reality is against reason.

    Truth-values are not inherent to objects outside of us, since there are no propositions outside of us to compare our propositions to.


    V. The diaphanous model as the culprit

    I have explained the diaphanous model at length in my article “The Diaphanous Model of Awareness : Using Illusions as Arguments”. It basically consists of considering the mind as a diaphanous veil, through which reality must shine untouched. But since our mind does translate and change reality, then our reasoning faculties are useless, or so goes the argument.

    I think that the diaphanous model is also at the origin of the Correspondence Theory. Inherent in the theory is the idea that we can know “reality as it actually is”, unmediated. This seems to be perfectly in line with the diaphanous model.

    If my models of both theories are correct, it is information that acts as this epistemic mediator between reality and knowledge – half-exterior and half-interior. The object of information (such as a piece of paper) is exterior, but the interpretation (such as language) is interior. As such, to ask the mind to grasp knowledge without information is as irrational as asking the mind to perceive things without using neurons or senses. Both are very similar.

    Correspondence Theory seems to be “more objective” since it seeks to compare our propositions with “reality”, but the realist model I propose is in fact more in line with objectivity. In Correspondence Theory, the mind is privileged. In my model, the mind is one of the multitudes of existents in the universe. It has no more access to a metaphysical ideal than anything else in the universe. It accesses reality within its own identity – its own decoding, its own language, its own processes.

    The lack of absolute truth should not concern us unduly. It is merely a rephrasing of the fact that the human mind, and its context, is our only tool to find truth. This is not depressing, but rather freedom and hope. For it reinforces the fact that we stand with our destiny is in our hands. We all share the moral responsibility of not delegating our thinking to passion, priests, slogans or dogmas, and to take charge of it.

    Last updated: January 1, 2005