Top News, Articles, and Interviews in Philosophy

Announcement: A New Podcast You’ll Want to Check Out

AheadofOurTime_Logo-IUBen Olsen (@bendotolsen), educator and expert in data science and its relation to philosophy (Ben has an undergraduate degree in philosophy from Seattle Pacific University, and works for the Microsoft Corporation in 21st Century Jobs, Skills, and Employability) has just launched a podcast called Ahead of Our Time, where he interviews the leaders and rebels of today who are mastering the skills of tomorrow.

On the surface, the worlds of data crunching and creating algorithms that run the largest companies and services couldn’t seem any more disconnected from pure philosophical contemplation. But dig deeper and many, including CEOs and hiring managers, are finding important links between philosophy data science (one of the hottest jobs of the 21st century). In his new podcast, Ben is interested in highlighting those links. 

For example, he recently interviewed Kristen DiCerbo, one of the world’s leading experts on the future of games in the classroom, as well as a contributor to the largest education company in the world’s study that predicts what skills people will need in 2030 and beyond. Their talk focuses on a future skill of finding the “essence of things out of the big picture” which Ben calls out as a very “philosophical” exercise. “[Philosophy does] the same thing: taking the ‘data points’ of “justice”—anecdotally, intuitionally, and politically, scientifically, and making inferences about that—is the same skill for me as it is to crunch data and make inferences from it.” he notes in the interview.

CEOs in industry back this up: "You take a look at the vast variety of people that move into the profession of being a data scientist — they do come from traditional computer science. There's a big population that's coming out of math, especially statistical analysis, and there's also a big group coming from philosophy," Mike Gregoire, CEO of CA Technologies said on CNBC. "Philosophers understand how to think very logically." Philosophy News’s Paul Pardi agrees, having created a free online course with Microsoft in Logic and Computational Thinking, making the link between technology work and philosophical tools and techniques explicit.

Topics covered in Ahead of Our Time are broader than data and education and Ben seeks to show how philosophy education can help one move into many different fields and contribute. Guests include game-changers in social transformation, conflict resolution, artificial intelligence, comedy, and more. Ben tries to get to the heart of meaning and purpose, common philosophical themes that students and professors care about. His guests are answering critical questions about our future: what skills do we need to survive and thrive in the coming decades? How do some people rise above the rest to achieve great things? And, most importantly, how can we live meaningful lives in a rapidly changing world?

Listen and subscribe on iTunes and SoundCloud.

Free Online Course: Logic and Computational Thinking

dev262x-378225I just released the third installment of my free course “Logic and Computational Thinking” on edx.org published by Microsoft (outline below). This is a fundamentals course focusing on the basics of formal logic and associating that learning with computer science. I focused this course on helping the student develop basic skills in formal logic with the goal of helping him or her become stronger in thinking about how to apply logic to programming and other technical development tasks (such as testing and even circuit board design). The course includes case studies, plenty of assessment questions, and a large body of fellow students to bounce ideas off of.

As a part of the course curriculum, I was able to license content from a recent book by Dr. Paul Herrick called Think with Socrates: An Introduction to Critical Thinking published by Oxford University Press—probably the most preeminent publisher of philosophy right now. The value of using Dr. Herrick’s book is that it provides a practical perspective on using logic in real-world scenarios and with Dr. Herrick’s more than 30 years of teaching logic, the book provides a solid foundation to the rest of the material I developed for the course. Dr. Herrick was kind enough to record a few videos with me so you can learn from the author of that text directly.

In the two quarters that I’ve taught the course, it is has been well received by the almost 12000 students that have enrolled and I’ve had enormous joy putting the material together. If you’ve never had a formal course in logic, this free offering is a great opportunity to learn about this very important topic so check it out!

You can learn more about the course and enroll here: https://www.edx.org/course/logic-computational-thinking-microsoft-dev262x-1

Paul

Here’s the outline:

1)      Module 0: Introduction to the course

a)       What this course is about

i)        Analytic logic and its relation to computer science

ii)       ii. Critical thinking as both a lifestyle and aide to better programming and testing

iii)    iii. Note: This is not a programming course

b)      Let's get started: critical thinking and logical reasoning

i)        What does it mean to think critically?

ii)       An overview of definition, induction, and deduction

iii)     Computer programming and logical thinking

2)      Module 1: Logic and Computer Science

a)       Formal Logic and Computer Science

i)        Introduction and prolegomena

ii)       What is a Turing Machine?

iii)    Bits and Bytes

iv)     Algorithms

v)       Logic and Computer Science

b)      Introduction to Formal Logic

i)        Introduction to Logic

ii)       Arguments

iii)     Statements

iv)     Propositions

v)       Truth Value

vi)     Review Questions

c)       Symbolizing and Logical Operators

i)        Symbolization

ii)       Introduction to Operators

iii)     Negation Operator

iv)     Conjunction Operator

v)       Disjunction Operator

vi)     Conditional Operator

vii)  Sidebar: Operator of the largest scope

viii)  Truth Tables

ix)     Review Questions

3)      Module 2: Deductive and Inductive Arguments

a)       Types of arguments

i)        Arguments again

ii)       Review Questions

b)      Deductive Arguments

i)        Valid and invalid arguments

ii)       Soundness

iii)     Sound deductive arguments

iv)     First two deductive syllogisms

v)       Sidebar: formal fallacies

vi)    Two more deductive argument forms

vii)  Deductive arguments and computer programs

viii)  Review questions

c)       Inductive Arguments

i)        Introduction to inductive arguments

ii)       Strong and weak arguments

iii)     Cogency

iv)     Determining strength

v)       Review questions

4)      Module 3: Categorical Logic

a)       Introduction to Categorical Logic

i)        What is categorical logic?

ii)       Aristotle's theory of forms

iii)     Some, all, and none

iv)     Quantity and quality

v)       Review questions

b)      Categorical form and syllogisms

i)        Standard categorical form

ii)       The categorical syllogism

iii)     Forms of categorical syllogisms

iv)     Review questions

c)       Venn Diagrams

i)        Categorical statements and validity

ii)       Venn diagrams: I and O statements

iii)    Venn diagrams: A and E statements

iv)     Using Venn diagrams with categorical syllogisms

v)       Venn diagrams: testing categorical syllogism for validity

vi)     Review questions

5)      Module 4: Introduction to Critical Thinking

a)       What is Critical Thinking?

i)        Introduction to critical thinking

ii)       Socrates and critical thinking

iii)     Socrates's definition of truth

iv)    The Socratic Method

v)       Two Socratic questions

vi)     Applying the Socratic Method to computer science

b)      Inductive Reasoning Applied

i)        Forms of inductive reasoning

ii)       The logic of science

iii)     Confirmation and disconfirmation

iv)     Mill's Method

v)       Mill's method: agreement

vi)     Mill's method: difference

vii)  Mill's method: variation

c)       A Case Study

6)      Module 5: The Final Exam



IAI Discussion the Nature of the Self

LOGO_iai-black_40x373222 Our friends at the Institute of Art and Ideas have posted another essential discussion on philosophy of mind. In this conversation, top philosophers talk about age-old, but still very poignant topics relating to the self and personal identity. This topic is especially relevant given modern advances in neuroscience and reductionist models in psychology and philosophy. Is the self merely a construct produced by the brain that helps humans survive or is the self a substance that is different from, and independent of the body?  From their website: There is no self, no 'I', only a flickering illusion. So claim many neuroscientists and philosophers. Yet for the rest of us, the denial of the self feels like a bitter pill to swallow. Is the self a fantasy? Or is it essential to our being and consciousness?

The Panel: Cambridge and NCH philosopher Simon Blackburn, neuroscientist Colin Blakemore, philosopher and author of Are You an Illusion? Mary Midgley seek out the all seeing I. In association with New College Humanities.

Check out the video below and visit their website to join the conversation!

The Graduates and the Pizza

The graduate with a science degree asks, “Why does it work?”

The graduate with an engineering degree asks, “How does it work?”

The graduate with an accounting degree asks, “How much will it cost?”

The graduate with a philosophy degree asks, “Do you want fries with that?”


Q: What’s the difference between a philosopher and a pizza?

A: A pizza can feed a family of four!

When a Fundamentalist Finds Philosophy

I was rummaging through some stacks of stuff in the garage today sorting through items that needed to be recycled, discarded, and saved. I found an old, dust-covered briefcase that I used as a student, locked tight with long-forgotten combinations on the clasps. After trying various three-digit combinations that might have meant something to me back then, I gave up and grabbed the biggest screwdriver I could find and pried the locks loose. Among some dried up pens, an old notebook, and some tissues, I found a purple Pee-Chee with two dozen or so papers—obviously important since they were set aside from the reams of notes I have in an old metal filing cabinet at the rear of the garage. In back of the handwritten notes on epistemology and the dot matrix printout of reference materials I grabbed from the library, I found a single page on which I had written some lines in red ink. It’s dated June 1995 which makes it just a touch over 20 years old almost to the day.

In June 1995 I was scouting graduate schools with the goal of studying philosophy. I had grown up a Christian fundamentalist who generally had the world figured out by the time I was a teen and had my eyes firmly set on full time ministry. I took a required intro to philosophy class during my senior year at an ultra-conservative Baptist college by a professor who was not so conservative (and not so Baptist it turns out). I would never be the same. For the first time in my college experience, I had found myself with questions. Real questions, not the kind you’re taught to ask knowing you already have the answer. And there was something else. For the first time in my life, a small seed of doubt had been planted. I found myself with the terrifying consideration that some items in my worldview may not have been as iron-clad and irresistibly true as I had been led to believe they were. That seed flowered and by the end of the summer I had, for the first time, started reading to try to discover the truth rather than to reaffirm it.

Three years later, my worldview was in shambles and I knew I needed more training. Graduate school seemed like the best option and I headed to southern California to check out the program at Biola University. I stayed at a friends house not knowing who I was or where I was headed. I was alone and contemplative, one foot in the warm, comfortable old world and one out in the frigid unknown. Thoughts flooded into my head in that quiet room on that hot summer June evening and I jotted down these words.

At the top of the page, I simply wrote,

“Philosophy”

Look inside, outside, through pages of endless thought
endless mind in weary, dreary droll.

A slight glimpse a shadow vague—a stick, a nail
a jury-rigged edifice growing on the knoll.

Take, steal, beg, borrow desperately humbled
to light (or dark) not quite my own.

But shoulders are strong and tall enough
to bring heaven closer, nearer (not alone).

Secluded so it seems. A bubble impenetrable or only slightly visible.
A flame to few.

Half moon—silly half as many see it. Intelligence and genius reign
for those outside the pew.

Taste it. Good? You know it now. Ghosts haunt my mansion.
You live in an exorcised house.

Empty though it is, free, loose, explode! What’s beyond? Look!
The heres and nows.

Hand in hand we stand? Confusion with glasses on. Look closer.
More, heavier pages.

It squiggles and squirms. Can you catch it?
Not for all the stacks filled with sages.

Heidegger on Why Our Presence Matters

In this piece (also for the New York Times) author Lawrence Berger talks about the conversation between the sciences and existentialists over what it truly means to be human. Many in the hard sciences believe we should seek to analyze the human person solely in terms of their physical selves and reduce the focus on human experience as a key to what it means to be a person. Berger argues otherwise. 

"The thought is that our worldly presence matters for how things actually unfold, well beyond any physical or physiological processes that would purport to be the ultimate basis for human activity. So, for example, when we feel that someone is really listening to us, we feel more alive, we feel our true selves coming to the surface — this is the sense in which worldly presence matters."

Why God is a Moral Issue

In the "Contemporary Issues" department, atheist Michael Ruse writes on religious faith and atheism for the New York Times. This is a good example of the current dialogue taking place over religious belief.

"What is truly striking is that atheists of Dawkins’s stripe don’t just say that believing in God is an intellectual mistake. They also claim that it’s morally wrong to believe in the existence of God or gods."

Harvard, MIT, and Microsoft Team Up on Free Courses

edx-logo-headerI’ve been working on an exciting project at Microsoft that I wanted to share with you. Recently, Microsoft established a partnership with the Harvard/MIT joint educational project called edX to deliver free and certified technical training in MOOC-style classes. My team and I have been actively involved in creating courseware for this partnership and have seen a phenomenal response. These courses are designed to provide depth technical training on topics that range from C#, Bootstrap, and Transact-SQL to PowerShell Fundamentals and programming Office 365.

Paul-Anders-DanI’m working directly on the Introduction to TypeScript course that covers the basics of programming small to large scale JavaScript applications using this new framework. TypeScript essentially enables you to write type-safe code at design time which can dramatically reduce run-time JavaScript errors and make managing code bases much easier. I’ve had the opportunity to work with programming language luminary Anders Hejlsberg on this project and that has been a ton of fun. You can enroll in that course for free here.

The partnership between Microsoft and edX gives both companies an opportunity to reach hundreds of thousands of students across the globe and provide depth training to many that would not have the opportunity to learn these topics.

For more information, see the edX press release here. Engadget has also done a write up and provides more information into the joint venture. The project also got some press in the venerable Harvard Crimson.

Visit the edX Microsoft page for a listing of all the free courses and register any that interest you. Let me know if there are any questions I can answer.

Paul

What is Truth?

Truth-Torn-Paper-smTruth, like knowledge, is surprisingly difficult to define. We seem to rely on it almost every moment of every day and it's very "close" to us. Yet it's difficult to define because as soon as you think you have it pinned down, some case or counterexample immediately shows deficiencies. Ironically, every definition of truth that philosophers have developed falls prey to the question, "Is it true?"

Simply, we can define truth as: a statement about the way the world actually is. We'll look at various theories below that philosophers have considered but that's an adequate rough-and-ready definition to get us started. Coming up with a definition of truth falls under the discipline of epistemology or the study of knowledge though some philosophers categorize it as a study in metaphysics--the study of what is real.

In this essay, we'll look at some reasons why defining truth can be challenging. Truth seems like something we naturally comprehend and while intuition can help us a great deal in understanding what it is, surface definitions present us with unique problems and I’ll illustrate why. I'll then lay out some terms and concepts that will help us get a better handle on understanding what truth is. Next, we'll look at three main views of truth. The coherence theory describes truth in terms of interconnected belief. A belief is true if it is consistent with other beliefs we have. The correspondence theory describes truth in terms of a relation concepts or propositions have to the actual world. Finally postmodernism lays out a view of truth in terms of individual perspectives and community agreement. While this essay does not focus on practical issues like why a view of truth is important, I'll say a few words about that idea at the end and provide more resources for further reading.

Elusive Truth

I stated above that defining truth can be challenging. Let’s briefly look at why this is so by way of a seemingly simple example. Suppose you examine an apple and determine that it’s red, sweet, smooth and crunchy. You might claim this is what the apple is. Put another way, you've made truth claims about the apple and seemingly made statements about real properties of the apple. But immediate problems arise. Let's suppose your friend is color blind (this is unknown to you or her) and when she looks at the apple, she says that the apple is a dull greenish color. She also makes a truth claim about the color of the apple but it's different than your truth claim. What color is the apple?

Well, you might respond, that's an easy problem to solve. It's actually red because we've stipulated that your friend has an anomaly in her truth-gathering equipment (vision) and even though we may not know she has it, the fact that she does means her view of reality is incorrect. But now let’s suppose everyone is color blind and we all see "red" apples as green? We can make this objection even stronger by asking how we know that we all aren't in fact color blind in a way we don't understand and apples really aren't red after all. No one has access to the “real” color of the apple. Again, the response might be that that this is a knowledge problem, not a truth problem. The apple really is red but we all believe it’s green. But notice that the truth of the apple’s color has little role to play in what we believe. No one knows what the truth is and so it plays no role in our epistemology.

The challenge is that our view of truth is very closely tied to our perspective on what is true. This means that in the end, we may be able to come up with a reasonable definition of truth, but if we decide that no one can get to what is true (that is, know truth), what good is the definition? Even more problematic is that our perspective will even influence our ability to come up with a definition! These are no small concerns and we'll explore some responses below.

Some Preliminaries

Before we get to definitions of truth, we need to define some terms used in those definitions which will make things a little easier to digest. Epistemologists (people who study truth, belief and knowledge) use the following concepts as the framework for their study of truth.

Propositions. A common technical definition of a proposition (credited to Peter van Inwagen) is "a non-linguistic bearer of truth value." A proposition is a representation of the world or a way the world could possibly be and propositions are either true or false. Propositions are different than sentences. Sentences are symbolic, linguistic representations of propositions. Okay, that's all very technical. What does it mean?

Let's take the sentence, "The moon has craters." This is an English sentence that supposedly states some fact about the world or reality (and specifically about the moon). Because it’s in English, we say it's "linguistic" or language-based. If we're going to get philosophical about it, we could describe its properties as having four words and 17 letters, it's in the English language written in 11 point font and it's black. I could write the same sentence like this:

The moon has craters.

This sentence has different properties from the first one above. This one still has the same number of words and letters and it's in English. But it is in 18 point font and is written in blue. Now let's take this sentence, "La luna tiene cráteres." This sentence has four words but 19 letters. It's written in 11 point font and is black but it's Spanish. What do all three sentences have in common? Well, they all express the same idea or meaning and we could say the same "truth." We could express the same idea in Swahili, semaphore, Morse code, or any other symbolic system that conveys meaning.

Notice that the symbols themselves are neither true nor false. The meaning the sentences represent is either true or false. Sentences are symbolic representations of something else—propositions. The common property true of all sentences that express the same truth is what philosophers call the propositional content of the sentences or "the proposition." Now we can better understand the idea behind "non-linguistic bearer of truth value." Propositions are non-linguistic because they aren't written or spoken in a language. They bear truth because they are the things that are true or false. This is what allows them to be expressed or "exemplified" in a variety of different symbolic systems like language-based sentences. When it comes to understanding truth, many philosophers believe propositions are at the center.

Belief. Beliefs are things (at least) people have. They don't exist outside the mind. Some philosophers say beliefs are "dispositional." That is, they incline a person to behave in a way as if the thing they believe is true. So a belief, simply, is a proposition that a person accepts as representing the way the world actually is. Beliefs can be about false propositions and thus be "wrong" because the person accepts them as true. This is a critical distinction. While a proposition has to be true or false, beliefs can be about true or false propositions even though a person always accepts them as being true.

Some philosophers attempt to define truth "mind-independently." That means, they want to come up with a definition that doesn't depend on whether humans can actually believe or know what is true. Truth is viewed as independent of our minds and they seek a definition of it that captures this. Other philosophers have developed theories that keep people at the center. That is, truth and belief are considered together and are inseparable. I will try to make the relevance of the "epistemic" vs. "independent" views of truth relevant below.

Knowledge. Knowledge is belief in a true proposition that a person is justified in holding as true. The conditions under which a person is justified is complicated and there are many theories about when the conditions are met. Theories of knowledge attempt to describe when a person is in a "right" cognitive relationship with true propositions. I describe some theories of knowledge and some of the challenges in understanding when a person knows in an article for Philosophy News called "What is Knowledge?"

Common Definitions

The Coherence View of Truth

The main idea behind this view is that a belief is true if it "coheres" or is consistent with other things a person believes. For example, a fact a person believes, say "grass is green" is true if that belief is consistent with other things the person believes like the definition of green and whether grass exists and the like. It also depends on the interpretation of the main terms in those other beliefs. Suppose you’ve always lived in a region covered with snow and never saw grass or formed beliefs about this strange plant life. The claim "grass is green" would not cohere with other beliefs because you have no beliefs that include the concept "grass." The claim, "grass is green" would be nonsense because it contains a nonsensical term "grass." That is, you never formed a belief about grass so there’s nothing for this new belief to cohere with.

As you can see from the above description, coherence theories typically are described in terms of beliefs. This puts coherence theories in the "epistemic" view of truth camp noted above. This is because, coherence theorists claim, we can only ground a given belief on other things we believe. We cannot "stand outside" our own belief system to compare our beliefs with the actual world. If I believe Booth shot Lincoln, I can only determine if that belief is truth based on other things I believe like "Wikipedia provides accurate information" or "My professor knows history and communicates it well" or "Uncle John sure was a scoundrel".

These are other beliefs and serve as a basis for my original belief. Thus truth is essentially epistemic since any other model requires a type of access to the "real world" we simply can't have. As philosopher Donald Davidson describes the situation, "If coherence is a test of truth, there is a direct connection with epistemology, for we have reason to believe many of our beliefs cohere with many others, and in that case we have reason to believe many of our beliefs are true." (Davidson, 2000)

Figure: The Coherence Theory

 

The Correspondence Theory of Truth

Arguably the more widely-held view of truth (stemming from a broader rationalist tradition in philosophy), philosophers who argue for the correspondence theory hold that there is a world external to our beliefs that is somehow accessible to the human mind. More specifically, correspondence theorists hold that there are a set of "truth-bearing" representations (or propositions) about the world that align to or correspond with reality or states of affairs in the world. A state of affairs just is a particular way the world or reality is. When a proposition aligns to the world, the proposition is said to be true. Truth, on this view, is that correspondence relation.

Take this proposition: "The Seattle Seahawks won Super Bowl 48 in 2014." The proposition is true if in fact the Seahawks did win super Bowl 48 in 2014 (they did) and false if they didn't.

Notice that on this view, propositions about reality are different from beliefs we may have of reality. We believe propositions--I believe that the moon has craters. What follows the "that" is meant to signify the proposition that a person believes. So truth on this view is when the proposition matches reality.

Figure: The Correspondence Theory

The correspondence theory only lays out the condition for truth in terms of propositions and the way the world actually is. This definition does not involve beliefs that people have. Propositions are true or false regardless of whether anyone believes them. Just think of a proposition as a way the world possibly could be: "The Seahawks won Super Bowl 48" or "The Seahawks lost Super Bowl 48" -- both propositions possibly are true. True propositions are those that correspond to what actually happened.

You'll notice that this definition does not include a belief component. That is, unlike the coherence theory, the correspondence theory describes truth in terms that are independent of beliefs humans may have. This has the distinct advantage of separating truth from the messy business of belief and knowledge but may warrant complaints of being impractical.

Postmodernism

Postmodern thought covers a wide theoretical area but informs modern epistemology particularly when it comes to truth. Postmodern theories of truth are difficult to articulate in strict terms because postmodern theorists tend to eschew hard and fast definitions. But we can provide some insight here. Put in simple terms, postmodernists describe truth not as a relationship outside of the human mind that we can align belief to but as a product of belief. We never access reality because we can never get outside our own beliefs to do so. Our beliefs function as filters that keep reality (if such a thing exists) beyond us. Since we can never access reality, it does no good to describe knowledge or truth in terms of reality because there's nothing we can actually say about it that's meaningful. Truth then is constructed by what we perceive and ultimately believe.

Immanuel Kant

I'm inclined to earmark the foundation of postmodern thought with the work of Immanuel Kant, specifically with his work The Critique of Pure Reason. In my view, Kant was at the gateway of postmodern thought. He wasn't a postmodernist himself but provided the framework for what later developed.  

Immanuel Kant

Kant makes a foundational distinction between the "objects" of subjective experience and the "objects" of "reality." He labels the former phenomena and that latter noumena. The noumena for Kant are things in themselves (ding an sich). These exist outside of and separate from the mind. This is what we might call "reality" or actual states of affairs similar to what we saw in the correspondence theory above. But for Kant, the noumena are entirely unknowable in and of themselves. However, the noumena give rise to the phenomena or are the occasion by which we come to know the phenomena.

The phenomena make up the world we know, the world "for us" (für uns). This is the world of rocks, trees, books, tables, and any other objects we access through the five senses. This is the world of our experience. This world, however, does not exist apart from our experience. It is essentially experiential. Kant expressed this idea as follows: the world as we know it is "phenomenally real but transcendentally ideal." That is objects that we believe exist in the world are a "real" part of our subjective experience but they do not exist apart from that subjective experience and don't transcend the ideas we have. The noumena are "transcendentally real" or they exist in and of themselves but are never experienced directly or even indirectly.

The noumena are given form and shape by what Kant described as categories of the mind and this 'ordering' gives rise to phenomenal objects. This is where it relates to truth: phenomenal objects are not analogues, copies, representations or any such thing of the noumena. The noumena gives rise to the phenomena but in no way resembles them. Scholars have spent countless hours trying to understand Kant on this point since it seems like the mind interacts with the noumena in some way. But Kant does seem to be clear that the mind never experiences the noumena directly and the phenomena in no way represents the noumena. kant's metaphysics - noumenal and phenomenal

We can now see the beginnings of postmodern thought. If we understand the noumena as “reality” and the phenomena as the world we experience, we can see that we never get past our experience to reality itself. It's not like a photograph which represents a person and by seeing the photograph we can have some understanding of what the "real person" actually looks like. Rather (to use an admittedly clumsy example) it's like being in love. We can readily have the experience and we know the brain is involved but we have no idea how it works. By experiencing the euphoria of being in love, we learn nothing about how the brain works.

On this view then, what is truth? Abstractly we might say truth is found in the noumena since that's reality. But postmodernists have taken Kant's idea further and argued that since we can't say anything about the noumena, why bother with it at all? Kant didn’t provided a good reason to believe the noumena exists but seems to have asserted its existence because, after all, something was needed to give rise to the phenomena. Postmodernists just get rid of this extra baggage and focus solely on what we experience.

Perspective and Truth

Further, everyone's experience of the world is a bit different--we all have different life experiences, background beliefs, personalities and dispositions, and even genetics that shape our view of the world. This makes it impossible, say the postmodernists to declare an "absolute truth" about much of anything since our view of the world is a product of our individual perspective. Some say that our worldview makes up a set of lenses or a veil through which we interpret everything and we can't remove those lenses. Interpretation and perspective are key ideas in postmodern thought and are contrasted with "simple seeing" or a purely objective view of reality--something postmodernists reject as impossible.

We only have interconnected beliefs and for each individual, that's what truth is. We can see some similarities here to the coherence theory of truth with its web of interconnected and mutually supported beliefs. But where the coherence theory holds that coherence among beliefs gives us reason to hold that what we believe corresponds to some external reality, postmodernists reject that. In postmodernism there is nothing for our beliefs to correspond to or if there is, our beliefs never get beyond the limits of our minds to enable us to make any claims about that reality.

Community Agreement

Postmodernism differs from radical subjectivism (truth is centered only in what an individual experiences) by allowing that there might be "community agreement" for some truth claims. The idea is that two or more people may be able to agree on a particular truth claim and form a shared agreement that a given proposition is true. To be clear, it's not true because they agree it maps or corresponds to reality. But since the group all agree that a given proposition or argument works in some practical way, or has explanatory power (seems to explain some particular thing), or has strong intuitive force for them, they can use this shared agreement to form a knowledge community.

When you think about it, this is how things tend to work. A scientist discovers something she takes to be true and writes a paper explaining why she thinks it's true. Other scientists read her paper, run their own experiments and either validate her claims or are unable to invalidate her claims. These scientists then declare the theory "valid" or "significant" or give it some other stamp of approval. In most cases, this does not mean the theory is immune from falsification or to being disproved--it's not absolute. It just means that the majority of the scientific community that have studied the theory agree that it’s true given what they currently understand. This shared agreement creates a communal "truth" for those scientists. This is what led Richard Rorty to state the oft-quoted phrase, "Truth is what my colleagues will let me get away with."

Practical Concerns

Philosophers are supposed to love wisdom and wisdom is more oriented towards the practical than the theoretical. This article has been largely about a theoretical view of truth so how do we apply it? Most people don't spend a whole lot of time thinking about what truth is but tend to get by in the world without that understanding. That's probably because the world seems to impose itself on us rather than being subject to some theory we might come up with about how it has to operate. We all need food, water and shelter, meaning, friendship, and some purpose that compels us to get out of bed in the morning. This is a kind of practical truth that is not subject to the fluidity of philosophical theory.

Even so, we all contend with truth claims on a daily basis. We have to make decisions about what matters. Maybe you're deeply concerned about politics and what politicians are claiming or what policy should be supported or overturned. Perhaps you care about which athlete should be traded or whether you should eat meat or support the goods produced by a large corporation. You may want to know if God exists and if so, which one. You probably care what your friends or loved ones are saying and whether you can count on them or invest in their relationship. In each of these cases, you will apply a theory of truth whether you realize it or not and so a little reflection on what you think about truth will be important.

Your view of truth will impact how you show up at work and impacts the decisions you make about how to raise your children or deal with a conflict. For example, suppose you're faced with a complex question at work about something you're responsible for. You need to decide whether to ship a product or do more testing. If you're a postmodernist, your worldview may cause you to be more tentative about the conclusions you're drawing about the product's readiness because you understand that your interpretation of the facts you have about the product may be clouded by your own background beliefs. Because of this, you may seek more input or seek more consensus before you move forward. You may find yourself silently scoffing at your boss who makes absolute decisions about the "right" way to move forward because you believe there is no "right" way to do much of anything. There's just each person's interpretation of what is right and whoever has the loudest voice or exerts the most force wins.

An engineer may disagree here. She may argue, as an example, that there is a "right" way to build an airplane and a lot of wrong ways and years of aviation history documents both. Here is an instance where the world imposes itself on us: airplanes built with wings and that follow specific rules of aerodynamics fly and machines that don't follow those "laws" don't. Further most of us would rather fly in airplanes built by engineers that have more of a correspondence view of truth. We want to believe that the engineers that built the plane we're in understand aerodynamics and built a plane that corresponds with the propositions that make up the laws of aerodynamics.

Your view of truth matters. You may be a correspondence theorist when it comes to airplanes but a postmodernist when it comes to ethics or politics. But why hold different views of truth for different aspects of your life? This is where a theory comes in. As you reflect on the problems posed by airplanes and ethics, the readiness of your product to be delivered to consumers and the readiness of your child to be loosed upon the world, about what makes you happy and about your responsibility to your fellow man, you will develop a theory of truth that will help you navigate these situations with more clarity and consistency.


Bibliography

Ackerman, D. F. (1976, December). Plantinga, Proper Names and Propositions. Philosophical Studies, 30, 409-412.

Barrett, W. (1962). Irrational Man. Garden City, New York: Anchor Books.

Brown, C. (1986). What Is a Belief State? Midwest Studies in Philosophy, 10, 357-78.

Brown, C. (1992). Direct and Indirect Belief. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 52, 289-316.

Chisholm, R. (1957). Percieving: A Philosophical Study. Ithaca: Cornell University.

Chisholm, R. M. (1989). Theory of Knowledge (3 ed.). Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Davidson, D. (2000). A Coherence Theory of Truth and Knowledge. In S. Bernecker, & F. Dretske (Eds.), Knowledge: Readings in Contemporary Epistemology (pp. 413-428). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Dennett, D. C. (1998, August 13). Postmodernism and Truth. Retrieved December 26, 2014, from Tufts: http://ase.tufts.edu/cogstud/dennett/papers/postmod.tru.htm

Frankfurt, H. (2005). On Bullshit. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Frankfurt, H. (2006). On Truth. New York: Knopf.

Gettier, E. (2000). Is Justified True Belief Knowledge. In S. Bernecker, & F. Dretske (Eds.), Knowledge: Readings in Contemporary Epistemology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

James, W. (1907). Pragmatism. Amazon Digital Services, Inc.

Kripke, S. (1980). Naming and Necessity. Cambridge, Massachusettes: Harvard University Press.

Strawson, P. F. (1950). On Referring. Mind, 59 (235), 320-344.

Williams, B. (2004). Truth and Truthfulness. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

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