CERTAINTY  – TRUTH AND SUBJECTIVITY – PART I

“In our cognitive as well as our active life  we are creative. We add, both to the subject and predicate part of reality. The world stands really malleable, waiting to receive its final touches at our hands…Man engenders truth upon it.” – William James, Pragmatism.

Now we come to a major obstacle in assessing certainty, do we actually understand the nature of truth and knowledge?  Can we box all truth up in a package of objectivity, of absolute pre-existing reality with our knowing as simply incidental? The answer is surprising, even unsettling, and is the focus of the next three posts. On reflection there are at least five facets of truth that are not objective, but subjective (in approximate order of increasing depth):

1.    Pragmatic truth

2.   Sensation

3.   Observer impact on reality

4.   Inner reality

5.   Relational truths

First let’s take up pragmatism, where truth is seen as the utility or instrumental function of an idea. Its best known advocate is William James who divides philosophical temperaments as tender-minded (truth as rationalistic, idealist, religious, or principle-based) or tough-minded (truth as empiricist, materialistic, irreligious, fact-based). Clearly the tender-minded outlook is more subjective while the tough-minded is more objective. Materialists like Bertrand Russell and A.J Ayer are brutal to James, a physician turned philosopher, and see his pragmatism as implying that truth is relative.1

But James offers a simple example that seems to me to be inconvertible evidence of at least some subjective truth. Assume you come across a chasm and must decide whether you can jump across it. Here the subject alone determines the truth, for if you believe you cannot, you will not and the truth of your belief is confirmed. If you believe you can, and then jump it, your subjective truth is verified when you do (we will not consider the decision to jump and fail).2 Of course James believe the subjective truth of pragmatism is more extensive, applying to other circumstances.

James considers another example: the subjective truth of mystical experience. It seems arbitrary for one to say to another that his mystical experience is not real  because it can neither be shared nor proven.3 But this opens up the door to contesting empiricism itself. If our experience of reality is the measure of truth, then the subjective sensations of each individual define truth at least for that person. As we discussed in an earlier blog, it seems irrational to deny a person has pain when he sincerely claims to be in pain. Likewise if a color-blind person says red and green traffic lights appear identical, we might say his sensation is inconsistent with our own and offer scientific arguments against him, but we cannot say that his experience of them is untrue. Human sensation is always subjective; we only assume (and hope) our sensory functions are consistent as a species.

Human concepts also involve subjectivity: the Big Dipper is a recognizable constellation to most men in the northern hemisphere, but not presumably to the cosmos. Is it real? True? Certain? A final example is the six-pointed star; is it two triangles or a hexagon with legs on each side? Are both descriptions true? Or is neither true? Dependent on the observer?4

(continued next post)

Share this post:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *