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Strictly speaking, is it inappropriate to make a truth-claim?

  • I am seeking an answer from Philosophy (Epistemology), and feel free to use logic

  • I am speaking "theoretically", not "practically"

  • I am defining "truth" as "an objective truth" (e.g. "there is a car in my driveway")

  • I am excluding divine revelation (miraculous "acts of God" which supernaturally enable you to know that which would otherwise be impossible to know)

In other words, is it more appropriate to say "I think there is a car in my driveway", as opposed to "there is a car in my driveway"?

  • I am new to this site, so feel free to help me out with the wording and tags to make the question more clear to the professional Philosophers out there! – Jas 3.1 Jul 12 '12 at 5:45
  • if you mean "theoretically", perhaps the statement "there is a car in my driveway" is no the best example? :/ – Tames Jul 12 '12 at 15:27
  • @Tames I think Jas 3.1 is asking for a theory of what makes an assertion appropriate, as opposed to a mere recipe or heuristics for asserting appropriately. This is quite independent of whether the content to be asserted is "theoretical" or "practical". – Schiphol Jul 12 '12 at 16:50
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    @Schiphol I'm not sure about this... because the "truth" value of "there is a car in my driveway" would depend on empirical evidence... When he says he means "theoretically and not pratically", this sounds like something as "a priori truth" (this would not be applyable to something as "there's a car in my driveway")... or perhaps he is talking about the theory behind empiricism? this seems more complicated. If it is so, perhaps the question should be reelaborated. – Tames Jul 12 '12 at 17:12
  • @Tames he's asking (I think) for the theory of appropriate assertion. This looks like an interesting question, and as far as I can see one that is independent of the content, empirical or otherwise, to be asserted. – Schiphol Jul 12 '12 at 17:54
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There is a huge literature on the question of what makes an assertion such as

There is a car in my driveway

appropiate. In the philosophy I am familiar with, the debate is cast as being about the norm of assertion:

The quest for the norm of assertion is the quest for a norm (roughly, an imperative) such that a speech act counts as an assertion if and only if it is subject to said norm. Candidate norms of assertion take the form

Norm Schema:

: Assert that p only if F(p)

where F(p) is a function that takes the proposition to be asserted and outputs a specification of the circumstances in which such an assertion is warranted. There are various contenders for the role of F(p) . Let me discuss them briefly in turn.

Truth:

: F(p) takes p to itself.

That is: one should assert only what is true (see Weiner 2005, 2007.) This looks like a natural demand on assertion; after all, assertions aim at the truth -- that is, it is very likely that they fulfill their function in language by mapping onto facts (see Millikan 1984, p. 108f). The standard complaint against Truth is that it is far too weak to be the central norm of assertion. For what if one truly asserts that p on the basis of extremely poor evidence, e.g., one asserts a lucky guess or a correctly believed product of wishful thinking? Surely, one may claim, the asserter in these instances would be subject to criticism despite satisfying Truth. (Lackey 2007, p. 604)

The obvious fix to the this problem is to demand that the asserter be justified in believing the asserted proposition. Thus, the justification norm,

Justification:

: F(p) takes p to the asserter is justified in believing that p.

This is sometimes put in terms of the asserter having a reasonable/rational belief in p. Justification is also plausible: it seems reasonable to assume that the asserter has to be in the right kind of evidential relation to the proposition asserted -- and, indeed, we find assertions blameless when they are done in these circumstances. On the other hand, there are cases of objectionable assertions made in the appropriate evidential state. Lotteries seem to supply such examples: if I assert 'Your ticket did not win' merely because I know that only one in a milion does, I may have extremely good evidence -- one that makes you ticket not winning overwhelmingly likely, and my belief that it won't rational and reasonable -- but I still contravene the norm of assertion. Williamson summarises the idea:

I may believe on good evidence that your lottery ticket did not win; I am not warranted in asserting that it did not win. I may believe on good evidence that I shall not be knocked down by a bus tomorrow; I am not warranted in asserting that I shall not be knocked down by a bus tomorrow. Neither belief nor belief on good evidence warrants assertion. (Williamson 2000, p. 260)

So, if truth is not enough and justification is not enough, the obvious next place to look is knowledge.

Knowledge:

: F(p) takes p to the asserter knows that p.

This is, probably, the mainstream position in this debate. Knowledge has been defended, e.g., by Williamson 2000, DeRose 2002 and many others since. This norm seems to solve the problems with Truth and Justification: in none of these cases does the asserter know the asserted proposition. It is also well positioned to explain the appeal of Truth and Justification: knowing the target proposition implies both that it is true and that the asserter is in a good evidential situation. But Knowledge has not passed unchallenged. Pressure coming from Truth defenders takes, not unexpectedly, the form of unknown but true propositions which it is proper to assert. Weiner 2005, for example, offers examples of assertions based on reasonably competent hunches. For example, 'This is the work of Professor Moriarty! It has the mark of his fiendish genius.' as said by Sherlock Holmes, based merely on the looks of the deed in question -- cf. Weiner 2005, p. 231 -- seems like a proper assertion, but it also seems that Sherlock doesn't know that Moriarty did it; he is just making an educated guess.

This is just a very quick introduction to the problem of the norm of assertion. If you ask me, I think the sensible position is pluralism about such norm: in a certain sense truth is enough to make an assertion appropriate; in another sense justification is enough; in yet another sense knowledge is enough. There are good arguments for this kind of pluralism, but their discussion would take us too far afield.

DeRose, Keith. 2002. “Assertion, Knowledge, and Context.” Philosophical Review 111: 167–203.

Lackey, Jennifer. 2007. “Norms of Assertion.” Noûs 41: 594–626.

Millikan, R. 1984. Language, Thought and Other Biological Categories. The MIT Press.

Weiner, Matthew. 2005. “Must We Know What We Say?.” Philosophical Review 114: 227–251.

———. 2007. “Norms of Assertion.” Philosophy Compass 2: 187–195.

Williamson, Timothy. 2000. Knowledge and Its Limits. Oxford University Press.

6

This is a very old question in philosophy and still very active; it's the very core of epistemology.

Since we only know of their thought via the writing of opponents, it's difficult to know if Sophists were really more interested in money than in truth. But Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle all rejected the idea that truth consists merely in convincing others of an idea. Roughly speaking, Socrates believed truth could not be discovered with certainty, Plato believed that truth could only be known via recollection, and Aristotle believed that truth could be obtained via observation and logic. The latter two, of course, began the two great strands of philosophy that wind their way through Western thought to this day.

Let's take your example of "there is a car in my driveway":

  1. Plato would argue that this claim can't be strictly determined since the world is, in a sense, fluid. Yes, there might be a car there now, but you can hardly call that a truth as it wasn't there earlier and won't be there at some point in the future. Truth claims only have relevance when they are about the immaterial Forms.

  2. Aristotle would argue that if you can verify that there is a car in your driveway, you have discovered something that is true. It may not be true at other times (and therefore isn't as useful as other knowledge) but it can be verified as true now.


As a practical matter, however, there's a lot to be said for the Sophist position. For instance, if the position of your car came up in a court case, the only thing that matters is if you (or your lawyer) can convince judge and jury that your car was where you said it was. Probably you'd use Aristotelian tools to convince them. And if you were arguing your own innocence, you would likely use Platonic tools to show that you conform to that ideal. Under this scheme, knowledge derives from the consensus of the community.

Now you specifically ask for a theoretical, not practical answer. That's tricky since it essentially becomes a loaded question. The question itself defines truth as something that can be distinguished from the world that we can directly observe. Following the logic of the question, we are compelled to view the world in a Platonic sense where Truth exists outside of our conception of it. No doubt, the idea of certain Platonic ideals, such as Truth, Justice, Virtue, Beauty, and Knowledge itself, is so embedded in the fabric of our society, that it must be taken as a given at this point.


One way that philosophers attempt to break through this tangle is to define Knowledge as:

  1. Justified
  2. True
  3. Belief.

While there are still lots of ambiguities in this definition (e.g., we sometimes say that we know things that turn out to not be true or lack sufficient justification), it cuts through a lot of the knots that we can get tied up in. It provides a standard test that generally helps us distinguish ideas that we have from actual knowledge.

Applied to your situation, you might believe that a car is in your driveway, but until you do some investigation, you aren't justified in that belief. And unless you adequately qualify your statement ("At such and such a time, a car was parked in the driveway of such and such an address."), your belief can't be said to be true in any sort of absolute sense.

Conclusion

For a statement to be considered knowledge, it must meet the the test of being a justified true belief. Statements that satisfy that criteria do not need to be qualified with "I think...".

Addendum

As Schiphol explained, even the JTB test is hotly contested by philosophers. As I said, this is a very active question. My conclusion probably ought to be:

I think, statements that satisfy the JTB criteria do not need to be qualified with "I think...".

But at some point, you've got to cut loose of uncertainty and say "this is where I make my stand"! Alea iacta est.

  • Almost nobody believes that knowledge is jtb, you might want to quickly go through the arguments against this identification, and why you don't think they are to be accepted. Also, more importantly, the question is about truth-claims, not about truth and (without further argument) not clearly about knowledge. You might also want to say something about why and how it can be profitably rephrased as one about these other notions. – Schiphol Jul 12 '12 at 17:56
  • Well, your conclusion suggests that the right test of knowledge is justified true belief. Insofar as this is, as you know, contested, the conclusion is misleading. And, to reiterate, you need to argue for the claim that knowledge of the asserted content is what makes an assertion appropriate. Why not just truth of the asserted content, or justified belief in the asserted content? All of these positions have been compellingly argued for in the literature. – Schiphol Jul 12 '12 at 18:17
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Firstly, I belive that anyone answering definitively "Yes" to this question is contradicting themselves :)

Now, on to answering the question:

If we class "I see a car in your driveway" as a statement of objective truth, then there can be no problem with that. Your perceptions are absolute, so talking about them in terms of absolute truth has to be legitimate.

However, the validity of a statement of absolute truth has to be dependent on the reliability of the perception that justifies it. If I have no reason to doubt that perception, or better yet, a good reason to believe that that perception is true, then this is as close to truth as we can get as flawed entities, and I think that that level of uncertainty is understood in general use, but in terms of absolute truth, I guess nothing outside of your own perceptions is 100% dependable, and hence cannot be stated in those terms.

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    There is room for error even in such statements as "I see a car in your driveway", at least as colloquially used to mean the conjunction "there is a car in your driveway, and I am seeing it". After all, it is concievable that they are seeing something which appears to be a car, such as a life-sized model, but fails to have other characteristics such as the capacity to act as a mode of transportation. – Niel de Beaudrap Jul 12 '12 at 12:37
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    In addition to Niel's point, it is has not been demonstrated that seeing a car is holistic (indeed, given the architecture of our brains, confederation seems more likely), raising the possibility that you will utter or think "I see a car in your driveway" despite the car-recognition-and-qualia-sensing parts of your brain vehemently denying that statement. – Rex Kerr Jul 12 '12 at 16:50
  • +Niel (and Rex, to some extent) - yes, I meant something more like "I see something in your driveway that looks like a car" than "there is a car in your driveway, and I see it" - as the latter has to include the absolute truth (there is a car in your driveway) that I was hoping to avoid! – Ryno Jul 19 '12 at 10:29
  • @NieldeBeaudrap I always find it amusing to see signs that say "Model Home". I usually say, "Must be a full-scale model!" – user16869 May 16 '16 at 23:00

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