Wednesday, September 21, 2011


On what should we base our beliefs? "Reason and evidence," some are inclined to reply. Sure. Fine. But what is reasonable, and what counts as evidence?

Biblical fundamentalists think that something being asserted somewhere in the Bible is a piece of evidence that the asserted proposition is true. Why do they treat such a thing as evidence? Because, we might say, they believe a certain story about the Bible and its origins, a story which, if true, implies that biblical assertions have enormous evidentiary weight. But why think this story about the Bible is true?

Most everybody thinks that sensory experiences can serve as evidence for the truth of claims about a world external to the mind, claims prompted by our sense experience. Why?  Maybe there's a story here, too, a story about our senses and their relation to the world that would have to be very different from the story told in the first part of the movie "the Matrix." But why believe that story? Or maybe there isn't a story here at all. Maybe we just believe the deliverances of our senses, period. There is no reason. We just can't help it.

Leibniz thought that the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR), much like the principle of non-contradiction, was a self-evident principle (self-evident to our intellect) which could reliably guide our reasoning. As such, he thought he could reason from some pretty uncontroversial propositions to the conclusion that a necessary being must exist. We might say that, based on his understanding of "reason," the existence of contingent things is evidence for the existence of a necessary thing. Why does Leibniz accept PSR? Why does Hume reject it?

In each of these cases we are led to think about foundations. Our reasoning has to have starting points from which we reason--things that are either immediately taken as having evidential value, or are taken to have evidential value on the basis of some broader system of beliefs--perhaps organized into a narrative framework. And our reasoning doesn't merely need evidential starting points. We also need to have standards of reasoning--principles which guide our inferences, leading us to take some body of evidence to be evidence for a conclusion.

In short, to base our beliefs on reason and evidence, we need rational and evidential starting points. Foundationalist epistemologies treat our starting points as that upon which our whole network of beliefs is ultimately built.  Following the metaphor of building construction, we need a solid foundation or the whole edifice becomes unsound.

In my last post, I suggested that Hegel could be viewed as a foundationalist, but of a special kind--namely, a fallibilistic foundationalist. In this post, I want to distinguish some different species of foundationalism, locate Hegel's dialectic within this taxonomy, and offer a case for the advantages of Hegel's approach.

I'll begin with a broad distinction between what I’ll call absolute foundationalism and fallibilistic foundationalism. Absolute foundationalism treats one’s foundations as beyond challenge, and might be further divided into two sub-species: what I’ll call Cartesian-style foundationalism, and what I’ll call dogmatic foundationalism. Cartesian-style foundationalism seeks to discover which foundations are, in fact, beyond dispute—through something like the methodological doubt pursued by Descartes in his Meditations—and then rely only on such foundations. Dogmatic foundationalism, by contrast, treats its starting points as beyond dispute but makes no attempt to offer a philosophical case for doing so.

In fact, dogmatic foundationalism might be viewed as arising out of the perceived failure of Cartesian-style foundationalism, based on a pair of prima facie compelling critiques. The first critique runs basically as follows. To rely on nothing other than those starting points which are indubitable is to rely on starting points that can’t get you anywhere. If you insist on believing only what can be grounded on such starting points, you are driven to a kind of solipsism: the only thing you can trust is the existence of your own thoughts, and you are unwarranted in believing that any of those thoughts correspond to any reality outside your own mind. This is a kind of extreme skeptical outcome that is intolerable—it makes living a human life impossible—and can only be overcome by allowing in foundations that don’t have the Cartesian stamp of indubitability.

The second critique should be familiar to followers of this blog: No attempt to prove that one’s foundations are beyond dispute can be successful, because no such attempt can be ungrounded. How, then, can the attempt itself avoid relying on foundational starting points? And these will be either the very ones one is attempting to establish, or different foundations which, therefore, have not themselves been proven to be beyond dispute.

In effect, dogmatic foundationists draw three lessons from these critiques of Cartesian-style foundationalism: (a) everyone has foundations, (b) everyone has more foundations than the class of indubitable ones (assuming this class has members at all), and (c) no set of foundations can be justified or shown to be the right ones, since all such efforts are either circular (and hence dogmatic) or appeal to deeper, unconsidered foundations that are held to dogmatically.

This third lesson is what leads them straight to dogmatic foundationalism: we have no choice but to be dogmatic foundationalists, but we do have a choice about which dogma to embrace. On this view, the only difference between the empiricist and the biblical fundamentalist is which foundations are being held to dogmatically—"who" one has chosen to treat as one’s ultimate epistemic authority.

The problem with this argument, of course, is that it is a false dilemma. There are more options than the two versions of absolute foundationalism (Cartesian-style and dogmatic). There is fallibilistic foundationalism.

The fallibilistic foundationalist accepts (a) and (b), but isn’t prepared to embrace an unqualified form of (c). Instead of insisting that “no set of foundations can be justified or shown to be the right ones,” the fallibilistic foundationalist wants to say instead that “no set of foundations can be justified or shown to be the right ones prior to their adoption.” But once one has adopted a set of foundations, a critical stance becomes possible with respect to specific foundational beliefs.

Hegel's dialectic can be seen as falling into this class. I will concede that there are those who would resist using the term "foundationalism" to describe Hegel's method, but this is a linguistic quibble in which I'm not much invested. I recall that once, at a party in graduate school, I announced that Hegel "has a coherence theory of knowledge but a correspondence theory of truth." In so doing I classed him as a coherentist rather than as a foundationalist. But these are terms of art in the discipline--and there is something about Hegel's epistemology that strikes me as warranting the foundationalist label (as I noted in my last post).

In describing Hegel's approach as it relates specifically to philosophy, Michael Allen Fox notes in his surprisingly accessible book on Hegel (called, interestingly enough, The Accessible Hegel) that Hegel was largely indifferent to one's starting point in the philosophical journey. Wherever we start, "our philosophical journey will inevitably be a prolonged process of self-examination in which thought interrogates itself and remedies its deficiencies as it progresses." The end result of this process will be what "'justifies' the starting point we have chosen by proving its fruitfulness in yielding knowledge."

We have to start somewhere--to think at all requires us to have rational and evidential starting points that characterize what that thinking will look like. But as we engage in whatever style of thinking these starting points entail, we will inevitably encounter and transcend deficiencies. Whatever we think about, we will eventually be forced inward to thought itself, and called upon by its failures to revise our starting points.

In fact, Hegel thought this was true not just of philosophy. The same dialectical process plays out not just in the history of philosophy, but in human history. The efforts of human societies to engage with the world drive humanity towards "self-interrogation" in which deficiencies are discovered and remedied.

As a way of clarifying and defending this Hegelian approach, I want to consider a version of fallibilistic foundationalism out of which Hegel's species might be thought to arise. I’m inclined to give it a big mouthful of a name: defeasible-but-trustworthy doxastic practice foundationalism. After all, it’s important for academics to come up with pretentious-sounding names, or they wouldn’t be academics. But to save space, I’ll call it DTDP foundationalism for short.

To understand this species of foundationalism, we need to know what a “doxastic practice” is. The term is one I get from William Alston, and it basically refers to any belief-forming practice one might engage in. Here are some examples: 
Assign a set of contrary beliefs to heads and tails on a coin, flip the coin, and believe in accord with the outcome of the coin flip.

Use your senses to investigate your environment, and believe whatever propositions you find yourself immediately inclined to believe based on such sensory investigation.

In attempting to form beliefs about what happened to you in your past, consult your memory.

In forming beliefs about regularities in nature, make predictions about what one ought to observe under given conditions if the supposed regularity holds, then create or put oneself into the given conditions and determine if one observes what was predicted. Keep doing this. If the supposed regularity remains unfalsified after extensive testing, accept it as true.

In forming beliefs about what happened in Europe in the 19th Century, consult your old “History of Western Europe” textbook.

In forming beliefs about what happens after bodily death, consult the Upanishads and the Vedas and believe whatever is clearly stated on this matter in these texts.
 DTDP foundationalism attaches credibility to some but not all of the range of possible doxastic practices, in effect treating as foundational any belief that comes from this select list of “trustworthy” practices. But a belief coming from a “generally trusted” practice is not immune to criticism. Rather, any such belief, call it B, is believed unless and until it is confronted with “defeaters,” that is, other beliefs that arise out of trusted doxastic practices and which call B into question.

There are different sorts of defeaters, but I won’t get into that now. What this rough characterization makes clear is that this species of foundationalism acknowledges the fallibility of our foundations, and builds a kind of checks-and-balances system into our belief-forming practices. The checks and balances cannot be implemented apart from embracing the presumptive trustworthiness of a set of doxastic practices, but insofar as the trustworthiness of their deliverances is only presumptive rather than absolute, it allows for specific foundational beliefs produced by the agreed set of doxastic practices to be rejected based on the total deliverances of the entire set.

But how do we arrive at which doxastic practices to trust in the first place? Here, there seem to be a range of alternatives. You could take an essentially social approach: identify those doxastic practices that enjoy both wide social use (they are widely relied on in the formation of beliefs) and a high degree of intersubjective corroboration (they typically lead most people to the same beliefs when used in the same circumstances).

Then there’s the introspective approach. You look to the “phenomenological features” of the doxastic practice and its deliverances—that is, those qualities or characteristics available to introspection. Perhaps the beliefs formed by the practice consistently just seem right to you, so much so that you essentially “cannot help but believe them.” Or maybe the practice itself has an inner “veridical feel”—a sense of putting you in touch with truth as you’re engaging in it.

Or maybe you identify those doxastic practices you pretty much have to trust if you want to live anything remotely like an ordinary human life, and you trust them and only them.

Alternatively, you might take the approach of someone like Alvin Plantinga, saying that those doxastic practices are trustworthy which involve the use of cognitive faculties under those conditions in which the faculties are generally reliable. The problem here, of course, is that there may be a difference between a doxastic practice being reliable and our being able to tell that it is reliable. Plantinga has famously proposed that we have a cognitive faculty dubbed "the sensus divinitatus" which is responsible for theistic belief and which produces that belief reliably. His critics instantly cry foul--but part of Plantinga's point is that we have no inner guarantee or non-circular proof that any of the things we treat as reliable cognitive faculties are reliable cognitive faculties. That a congitive faculty is trustworthy, in the sense of consistently delivering true beliefs, does not clearly entail that we have immediate access to this fact.  And that, of course, is part of the problem. How do you decide which doxastic practices to presumptively (not absolutely) trust?

However you decide, it appears at least initially as if you confront variants of the same troubles that plagued absolute foundationalism. The problems have simply shifted from the level of foundational beliefs to the level of foundational doxastic practices.

Consider: Suppose I adopt a social version of DTDP foundationalism—trusting my senses, the pronouncements of certain socially agreed-upon authorities, etc. Either I have grounds for believing that doxastic practices embodying the relevant social features are more likely to produce true beliefs than those that lack these features, or I don’t. If I do, what would those grounds be like? Wouldn’t they either be circular (relying for their support on beliefs that are ultimately derived from these very same doxastic practices) or based on different doxastic practices that then fall outside the scope of justification in terms of their social features? Aren’t we then driven to being dogmatic in our embrace of the doxastic practices we embrace, simply shifting the problem from unjustified trust in certain foundational beliefs to unjustified trust in certain foundational belief-forming practices?

Here is where we are, I think, pushed towards something more Hegelian. The reason why DTDP foundationalism offers a basis for critiquing foundational beliefs, even when they come from trusted doxastic practices, is because the whole set of trusted practices can generate defeaters for individual beliefs. But by the very same mechanism, DTDP foundationalism also provides a basis for critiquing the doxastic practices themselves.

Here’s what I have in mind. If a doxastic practice that was initially put into the “trustworthy” class keeps encountering defeaters for the beliefs it generates, it might eventually be bumped out of that class. Or if the doxastic practice encounters defeaters in a certain context, it might be judged untrustworthy in that context. We might find that it encounters fewer defeaters when certain refinements are made to the practice, and so the practice might evolve to embody these refinements. It is very easy to see the scientific method as emerging out of precisely this sort of refinement.

But keep in mind that all of this evolution is influenced by one’s starting points—that is, by which doxastic practices one has initially included in the generally trustworthy set. What set of doxastic practices one treats as trustworthy will shape what defeaters, if any, drive the evolution of the whole set. Start with too narrow a set, or get “unlucky” in your starting points, and you may be left with only a few refined doxastic practices that you trust—and can you really trust even them? Maybe their having escaped defeat is mostly a function of the shrinking set of possible sources of defeat.

The worry here is this: The smaller the set of trusted doxastic practices, the less likely any of them are to encounter defeaters—simply because of how few they are, rather than because of their intrinsic merits. And as the evolutionary process described above continues, you won’t be pumping out new doxastic practices. Defeaters destroy. They don't create. As the evolution continues and the number of trustworthy doxastic practices shrinks, we’ll thus be put into a position in which we should be increasingly less confident that continued-failure-to-be-defeated is a good gauge of trustworthiness.

Perhaps this worry isn't decisive, but a different worry looms nearby. Even if one's remaining doxastic practices are deemed trustworthy based on their success in producing undefeated beliefs, we might worry that the subset of beliefs generated by these practices is far too narrow to be representative of reality, or that it is too narrow to help us live our lives in a way that meaningfully embodies the truth about ourselves and our world. We may have evolved certain practices to a point of high refinement but left ourselves with a set of practices that is nevertheless deficient, because the boundaries of the knowable that they establish are too narrow.

But once one treats doxastic practices as mutually evolving in the light of each others’ deliverances, one can begin to ask whether this fixation on nothing but doxastic practices might not itself speak to a set of unconsidered presuppositions—some hidden starting points that shape our ideas about what should be our starting points. Why should we make doxastic practices the sole underpinnings of our belief system? Why not, instead, begin with an interpretation of the whole of experience, embrace a set of doxastic practices based on that interpretation, and then critically live out this whole?

In other words, starting with doxastic practices as the foundation for all our beliefs is not the only way to start, nor is it the only thing that can lead to an evolutionary process. So, why not allow as a legitimate starting point a perspective which treats a narrative picture of reality as foundational, and doxastic practices as derivative?

A process that treats only doxastic processes as foundational, and then evolves by successively refining and discarding doxastic practices in the light of experience, is in danger of ultimately leaving one with too small a set of foundational beliefs on which to build. As noted above, while experience with the failures of doxastic practices can refine and rule out ones that were already part of your epistemic arsenal, it doesn’t generally introduce into your arsenal wholly new doxastic practices that you’ve never thought to try.

Consider the analogy of natural selection: to take advantage of all the "niches" available in the environment, it’s not enough to have a mechanism that kills off unsuccessful species. You also need some creative wellspring from which new species arise. Storytelling, speculative philosophy and theology, mythological narrative—these things are the creative side of the human endeavor, and it is in part from them that new ways of engaging with the world, of wrestling with what to believe and what not to believe, come about. Perhaps, then, we shouldn't just allow holistic interpretations and narratives as potential starting points, but should allow a place in our epistemological lives for the creative process by which such interpretations and narratives arise. In other words, we should treat storytelling and speculative thinking as not just an entertaining diversion but as helping us in the quest for truth.

This is not to say, of course, that every story we tell should be immediately embraced as true or anything like that. But some stories resonate in such a way that people are moved to live them out as if they were true. And in some cases these initial experiments don't immediately come crashing down by virtue of a volley of defeaters. Instead, the experiments knock down some parts of the story but not others. And some elements in the narrative motivate new doxastic practices which themselves prove extremely fruitful, in the sense of pumping out beliefs that resist defeat. Many see the birth of the scientific method in these terms: the Christian conviction that the universe is essentially orderly, that there must be a regularity and structure beneath even the most chaotic-seeming dimensions of our experience, set the stage for science.

And of course there’s more to life than telling stories and engaging in doxastic practices. We have artistic and athletic activities, cultural and religious rituals, spiritual practices, ways of life that embody value systems and moral codes. Engaging in the business of living impacts, in all sorts of ways, our beliefs and our ways of forming beliefs.

The point is that doxastic practices are not isolated from human life in all its richness and diversity. To allow them to evolve in isolation from the rest is to presuppose that there isn’t anything in the rest that has the power to promote the quest for coming into alignment with the Truth. And I would say that the fallibilism implicit in DTDP foundationalism calls one to be suspicious of any such presupposition. So, not only does DTDP foundationalism move beyond criticism of the deliverances of one’s adopted doxastic practices and towards lived-out criticism of the practices themselves; it also moves towards allowing for more than just doxastic practices into the class of legitimate starting points one might legitimately live out critically.

And so we've made our way towards something that looks more like the Hegelian approach. But how does it work, you may ask? How does one framework give rise to another? What sorts of deficiencies motivate a change in one's system?

Here I must confess to an attempt to be clever. In case no one’s noticed yet, this post has not merely been an attempt to make a case for the Hegelian dialectic. It’s also been laid out, however imperfectly, to serve as an example of the Hegelian dialectic at work.


  1. Eric-

    "But once one has adopted a set of foundations, a critical stance becomes possible with respect to specific foundational beliefs."

    I have to say that human psychology tells us that quite the opposite is the case. Once one has adopted a stance, especially a momentous life stance, it become increasingly impossible to take a critical attitude towards it. We become invested in it, selectively seek confirmation for it, and suffer astonishing degrees of degradation and harm before giving it up.

    The key to the success of science, psychologically speaking, is its withdrawal of personal commitment, (as far as possible, expressed in some degree in its mincing third person language, etc.), and its dependence on /culture of free critique from those motivated to do the most devastating job of it.

    So even if a set of foundations leads us into misery, (say, into fundamentalist Mormon polygamy, if you are a woman, perhaps), giving it up is monumentally hard to do. That is one reason I am highly suspicious of these hosannas that are sung to the lived experience of some presupposed set of foundations as proving themselves out in one's life. This is all aside from the incommensurateness of proving the correspondence truth of, say, neutrinos, or cosmic origins, by the inner happiness index of my household.

    Incidentally, "doxastic" sounds rather suspiciously like "scientific". Various forms of evidence and logic are weighed in the balance of the most critical experience possible, (experiment, when possible), bad practices thrown off the list, and the community progresses by this rinse-repeat cycle. It all sounds great, except when it is used to support curiously uncritical (or perhaps utilitarian) acceptance of hopelessly unprovable fairy tales for their socially uplifting nature.. that is where we seem to part company.

    "His critics instantly cry foul--but part of Plantinga's point is that we have no inner guarantee or non-circular proof that any of the things we treat as reliable cognitive faculties are reliable cognitive faculties. That a cognitive faculty is trustworthy, in the sense of consistently delivering true beliefs, does not clearly entail that we have immediate access to this fact. And that, of course, is part of the problem. How do you decide which doxastic practices to presumptively (not absolutely) trust?"

    Absolutely. As long as you are navel-gazing, you have no criterion at all. Introspection is incapable of giving one on its own. Doxastic practices only work if they engage with the outside.

    ... cont ...

  2. ... cont ...

    "So, why not allow as a legitimate starting point a perspective which treats a narrative picture of reality as foundational, and doxastic practices as derivative?"

    I am afraid you have lost me here. Clearly you are alluding to a Christian story or some other such pre-commitment. But while the doxastic practices were nicely open to critique and revision, this is.. what? It seems to operate at a psychological depth where the only choice may be to build on it or die. I hope we are not all so welded to our narratives, but many seem very much to be.

    "But some stories resonate in such a way that people are moved to live them out as if they were true. And in some cases these initial experiments don't immediately come crashing down by virtue of a volley of defeaters."

    Very well, but I think that anyone can see that the Christian narrative does indeed get shot down by any child with a bow and arrow. The whole thing is a mess of untruths and fantasy. Artistic, yes, and occasionally wise, but far from any kind of metaphysical let alone physical truth.

    "Many see the birth of the scientific method in these terms: the Christian conviction that the universe is essentially orderly, that there must be a regularity and structure beneath even the most chaotic-seeming dimensions of our experience, set the stage for science."

    Ah- by the fruits shall we know them. Wouldn't it have been a bit better for science (among much else) had Rome been succeeded by, say, the Epicureans? This scintilla of positive influence comes straight from the Greeks, mainly. And anyhow, does a successful guess about the mere existence of order at some level of reality (not such a spectacular guess, given the revolutions of the earth and sun, frankly, and ridden as it is with chaos and randomness at other levels) warrant the whole story? Hardly, especially if one part of the story (order) proves out on independent and thorough grounds, while all the other cruft (prayers, goodness, father in heaven, etc.) have nothing going for them at all, evidence-wise. They lie at the level of any other religion, life style, or imaginative pursuit (say, gaia-worship) in validating themselves simply by the life they render enjoyable... and only to that extent.

    Isn't it about time that Christians settle down and just say that .. we like Christianity, but don't have a shred of evidence to believe in it. We love it, we think it socially and personally beneficial, and that is that. We are fideists. All this sophistical defense of the indefensable is getting rather absurd.

  3. Hi Eric

    Suppose my foundation narrative involves a compressed walnut of pure evil from which all existence obtains. It seems to me, there is nothing in the dialectic process that will ever require me to lose that foundation, as the process will simply be one of refining and extending the metaphor in order to increase its degree of constistency. And because this narrative informs my sense of self and the world, then as I process my life's experience, they will perhaps tend to reinforce the foundational beliefs, there is at least some evidence that human psychology possesses this quirk. Might not the Hegelian process therefore lead the traveller to their own local mountain top, so to speak, rather than on any grander journey (unless, as Burk suggests, the testing involves something other than intuitive goodness of fit)?


  4. Hi Eric,

    You ask what counts as evidence?

    We can look at this differently: the stories of the Bible are evidence. First person accounts also constitute evidence. This is not the point. The crucial questions are: evidence of what? And, how reliable is it?

    All these various pieces of evidence must be (and have been) evaluated, analyzed, pondered, compared with one another. We know, for some kinds of evidence, that they are not reliable and often understand how it comes to be this way. We have identified sources of errors and bias and learned how to avoid them. And so on.

    Of course, it does not mean that unreliable evidence cannot be occasionally right. But how are we ever to know this?

  5. Hi Eric,

    You write: So, why not allow as a legitimate starting point a perspective which treats a narrative picture of reality as foundational, and doxastic practices as derivative?

    This is what fundamentalists do (as well as Bernard's evil walnut believers). The evidence shows it is perfectly possible to build an entirely consistent and self-contained world view this way, with no way out. What gives?

  6. Got to get to work on some other things, but a few short remarks here. First, it is true, I think, that one characteristic feature (not sure if it's a necessary one) of fundamentalism is that it begins with a foundational narrative. But even if this is a necessary feature of fundamentalism, it isn't a sufficient one. What is most definitive of fundamentalism in any form is the uncritical posture that is adopted towards one's starting points. The Hegelian dialectic utterly depends on maintaining such a posture. Without it, the dialectic on an individual level doesn't happen, and on a collective level is slowed to a crawl.

    I make this distinction here between individual and social levels because, on a social level, the dubiousness of a set of starting points can become externally manifest through social conflict and disputes, even if the individual adherents to those starting points refuse to see any internal deficiencies. I think such social level conflict is an inevitable outcome of living out a deficient worldview (although social conflict can also have other sources--so the presence of conflict is not by itself sufficient to conclude a deficiency in one's worldview). But the fruitfulness of such conflict in motivating reassessment and revision in a worldview is severely undermined if dissent is socially suppressed or disallowed, if cries of heresy and practices of excommunication (or the equivalent) are at work. The critical Hegelian spirit demands, on the social level, that such things be set aside.

    This last remark touches on another expressed concern about the Hegelian dialectic--namely, the possibility of starting points that are utterly insulated against Hegelian evolution, because something about their content protects them against the discovery of deficiencies.

    I'm skeptical of this possibility for several reasons, the first being that the deficience can be made manifest at a social level even if not at an individual level, thus driving a critical evolution. The second reason rests on a point I think I understated in the original post--namely, that what starting points we adopt is itself going to be influenced by the impress of "reality" on our subjectivity, in the following sense: We are "hardwired" to presumptively trust certain cognitive faculties and the doxastic practices they undergird--sense perception, memory, logical inference, etc. While it is possible for persons who resist living out their starting points in a critical spirit to ignore the places where logic and empirical evidence generate defeaters for their other foundational beliefs and practices, such persons are not engaging in the Hegelian dialectic.

    And while it is possible for someone who is honestly engaging in the Hegelian dialectic to continue to cleave to foundational beliefs that would be undermined by sense experience and logic--on the assumption that they do not in fact put any presumptive trust in these faculties--human beings are so prone to treat these faculties as presumptively foundational that such cases will be very rare indeed. One might say that for these rare individuals (those we call insane?), the Hegelian process will fail (assuming nothing else within their worldview could possibly generate a defeater). But recall, again, that the social level is an important one in the Hegelian process.

  7. The last point above leads to a final remark about the public/private distinction that Bernard has been invoking, in terms of how that distinction relates to the Hegelian method.

    For Hegel, making such a distinction, hashing it out in a particular way, and treating it as epistemically relevant--well, all of that might well be among one's starting points. In fact, this distinction seems to have a givenness for us arising out of our nature, and so is a natural piece of our foundations whihc we should feel free to help ourselves to and make use of--but not, of course, uncritically. The private/public dichotomy is one of the things that the dialectic will interrogate through living it out and investigating its fruits. And like a presumptive trust in sense experience, it strikes me that it is one of those starting points that is, inevitably, going to be widespread.

    But this does not imply that it will at no point be transcended--not in the sense of utterly doing away with it, but in terms of re-envisioning it in the light of a more enveloping point of view in the course of the Hegelian process. Among other things, it's important to recall that a narrative (which Bernard is inclined to put into the "private" category) can take hold of a community and can be lived out "publicly." In other words, it is possible to experiment with what we treat as public and what we treat as private. Part of our current ideas about public and private has emerged as an OUTCOME of such experimentation--and to abandon what we have socially inherited here in favor of a brand new conception of the divide would be to throw out the progress that has been made and start anew. But this is not to say that we should be uncritical.

  8. Hi Eric

    You're right, I do tend to associate narrative with private, not because narrative is not lived out, tested and refined publicly, but because I can't think of an example from history where a set of personal narratives have been overturned (in the sense of being universally rejected in favour of a superior narrative) in the manner that happens again and again within the realm of non-narrative, or falsifiable, models. Where is the narrative equivalent of the flat earth, I guess is the counter example that would force me to revise this position. Even things we assume have progressed (like a modern rejection of slavery) appear problematic; today on the globe more people live in slavery than at any time in history, apparently.

    With regard to the ability of foundations to insulate themselves, I suppose I would argue that we should not assume that sense experience and reason will always clash with 'false' foundations. In mathematics, for instance, we can take a set of starting axioms and then build up a system that is consistent with those axioms. That the axioms themselves are not undermined by the system they imply does not in itself lead us to conclude there is something inherently correct about the axioms. Might not something similar be happening with the dialectic? Or is the difference here the starting assumption that as we explore our systems of belief, we are testing them against something more than simply our own psychological make-up, and its interactions with the physical world?

  9. I can't think of an example from history where a set of personal narratives have been overturned...

    Are all narratives personal? Or are some narratives communal in a very essential way? It seems to me that some narratives serve a defining function for a community or culture--that is, they are a story around which, in part, a community is formed. And as communities live out these stories, the stories don't remain stagnant but evolve.

    And in some cases, it seems to me that a narrative evolves because it encounters a kind of pragmatic variant on falsification, which then demands modification in the narrative. What I have in mind here is well-demonstrated in Lynn White's famous essay, "The Historic Roots of Our Ecological Crisis." (Well worth reading if you haven't done so)

    White highlights a way in which a certain dominant Christian narrative shaped our understanding of the relation between humanity and the broader natural world, in the process motivating a technological approach to problem-solving paired with a scientific optimism about the prospects of further science-driven technologicial solutions to our problems. White argues, persuasively I think, that our enviornmental crisis is in large measure a result of these phenomena. He then argues that a neglected dimension of the broader Christian narrative--one emphasized by St. Francis of Assisi--could help move us away from the brink of disaster, were it to displace the elements of the earlier narrative that drove us to that brink.

    The last few decades have seen enormous creative work in environmental ethics among Christian moral theologians who have taken White's challenge to heart. I'm even tempted to say there is a critical mass building in Christian communities towards a kind of paradigm shift. While uncritical fundamentalist forces have slowed the rate of change, the rise of evangelical voices demanding that we rethink the human/nature relationship gives me hope that we have reached a tipping point.

    This seems to me a case of Hegel's dialectic at work on a collective level. And it also strikes me as a case of a communal narrative being driven to evolve by its communal implications, which pragmatically falsify the story--in the sense that living out the story has proven the story to be unworkable in the long run.

    By the way, I think it is oversimplified to put all the blame for our environmental problems in one place. There is another, secular narrative--a capitalist/individualist/success-through-endless-economic-growth narrative--that is also facing pragmatic defeat in the face of the environmental implications of living it out. It has yet to be seen whether the "fundamentalists" in this area will keep the narrative from evolving until it is too late to prevent catastrophic harms.

  10. Hi Eric

    The environment is perhaps an excellent example of the way objective physical measurements can serve as falsifiers for non-narrative/public belief systems. To the extent that a particular belief system can be implicated in environmental destruction (and it's a tremendously complex case to make) the theory holds water because it is adjudicated against objective measurements (water quality, soil quality, climate stability, extinction rates etc). My claim is that when the falsifier is personal rather than public, we don't witness such progress. Or at least, I can't think of any examples.


  11. Eric,

    That is one of the best responses I’ve read in some time as to what a narrative encompasses. You, clearly, do a much better job than I when unpacking what a narrative means.

    Many, if not most, Philosophical Naturalists/atheists believe a narrative that goes something like this: Once upon a time men everywhere lived in ignorance due to the false beliefs they held in gods, fairies, magic, and so forth. But due to the fortuitous turns of history, men found SCIENCE. And SCIENCE revealed to them how the physical world really worked. They were able to turn from the fables of old and now trust in their reason, logic, and the scientific method. They were saved.

    Of course, I exaggerate. But, if one is familiar with the Western Secular Enlightenment version of history, I don’t think I’m too far off the mark.

    Putting that aside, I think you point out very well why there really is no private/public distinction. There are only narratives (like Western Liberal Democracy or the “Free Market”) that have resonated to a degree and are believed in strongly enough, by the elites and enough people, to become “public” “truths.” They become so embedded within the collective conscious that one is led to think something along the lines of, “well, of course that is true—everyone knows that.” It becomes the conventional wisdom as it were. These are narratives. There is always a reigning narrative and others that compete. And they are all based upon interpretations of the “Facts” and “Evidence.”

    This is why, in my opinion, a simple appeal to “Facts” and “Evidence” without understanding the nature of narratives and how they function is such a non-starter in conversations like these.

    The differences over environmental issues and matters such as global warming are apt. Both sides know the science including the facts and evidence. And yet, they interpret such differently. Why? I believe because they are interpreting the “science” through different narratives of meaning. This seems rather obvious to me. Otherwise, if it were really that easy for all of us to just note the facts and evidence, why aren’t we all coming to the same conclusions?

  12. Bernard,

    “My claim is that when the falsifier is personal rather than public, we don't witness such progress. Or at least, I can't think of any examples.”

    But no one in these types of issues (differences over global warming or evolution) simply says things like, “I am just personally against (or for) global warming—I just don’t like it.” No one makes a personal private appeal. Each side gathers the evidence and believes the evidence confirms their point of view. Each side would claim they were being objective and just following where the evidence led.

    I go back to my earlier point and echo Eric’s, a narrative is not a private account of reality in opposition to public “facts.” Facts, rather, only make sense and have any meaning whatsoever within narratives—which if powerful enough then become public TRUTH.

  13. Darrell

    My point is simply that the dialectic appears to yield progress when the defeaters are public/measurable. Do you disagree? Do you have a counter example?


  14. Bernard,

    “My point is simply that the dialectic appears to yield progress when the defeaters are public/measurable. Do you disagree? Do you have a counter example?”

    Yes, they were just shared with you: The debate over global warming and other environmental issues. Further, what about the evolution debate? What about capital punishment? What about abortion? I could go on and on. In every one of these debates, the facts and evidence each side marshals are all “public/measurable.” Right? Has that settled any of these debates? Has any side ever said, “Oh, wait, I did not know that one fact—that changes my mind?” If this does happen, it is rare and it rarely makes an entire side change. Most people change their minds because they hear a different story (I go back to Wallace’s point). The “facts” remain the same. What changes is the narrative that places those “facts” in such a way that now perhaps I can “see” and “hear” them in a new light.

    Now, if we were talking about going to the moon and one side was saying, “Well, I think we need this amount of fuel,” while the other side is saying, “Well, I disagree, I think we need this amount of fuel,” then yes, there is probably a mathematic model that would decide the issue. Unfortunately, Eric’s blog and the issues he writes about do not fall into this category. And I do not understand why, after knowing something regarding the issues under discussion, those sort of examples are brought up as relevant.

  15. Hi Darrell

    Have the facts ever settled the debate? Yes, absolutely. In science this happens on a daily basis. Evolution is the perfect example. Look at the various theories that have fallen by the way side (spontaneous generation, Lamarkian evolution, grand creation events) simply because they lost out in the battle for supporting evidence.

    My suggestion, again, is that we only see this happen when our statements are falsifiable and evidence can be brought to bear. Global warming is an excellent example too. Some people believe the climate isn't warming, others that the warming is part of natural cycles, and others that warming is real and anthropogenic. If we rely upon our narratives to sort this out we will do precisely what you suggest, talk ourselves around in circles. The alternative is to do the hard stuff, the climate science. Careful measurement, model building and predicting. While interest groups build up their myths, a hard won consensus in climate science is emerging. I do hope we'll put our stories down long enough to listen. And soon.

    A counter example would be one where humans have one of those, 'oh right, I buy that, the earth is round' moments in a sphere where the truthmaker or defeater is not an objective set of measurements. My question to you, and Eric, and anybody really, is does history provide us with any such example?



  16. It certainly seems right to me that, in most cases in which corporate worldviews evolve in the light of being lived out, "empirical facts" are implicated. This is because, to determine whether living out a worldview generates a "contradiction," we must "observe" the implications of living it out. And to make such observations in a way that will speak to the adherents of the worldview, one must appeal to methods of collecting and interpreting data that can earn the general assent of all (or most) members of the community that is living out the worldview.

    For example, you wouldn't have had the sort of pragmatic falsification of the narrowly anthropocentric version of the Christian worldview that, I think, has started to be recognized without the climate science and the scientific evidence of consumption rates exceeding sustainable limits. But that the conclusions reached by scientists are regarded as observations of the actual effects of living out the worldview depends, I think, in part on what the worldview accepts as counting as evidence. I think it is a testament to the Hegelian process that the scientific methods have come to be endorsed as evidentially significant across worldviews--a kind of evolutionary convergence.

    In other words, I agree that you can't have pragmatic falsification without "public facts"--but what counts as a public fact may depend on what worldview is being lived out on the public level; and that science is widely taken to provide public facts is an outcome of a process of social evolution of the Hegelian sort.

    But even granting that "factual evidence" is necessary for pragmatic falsification of a worldview, it doesn't follow that it is sufficient. And, in fact, we see certain extreme versions of Christian fundamentalism utterly unmoved by this scientific evidence even when they accept it as accurate (they shrug it off as evidence of the approach of the end times, and hence as a confirmation of rather than as a deficiency in their worldview). If these fundamentalists are going to face a contradiction in their evolving worldview, it will come from a different direction, given what their worldview is.

    Put another way, when science leads to the judgment of "contradiction," it does so in conjunction with the values embedded in the worldview or narrative. The anthropocentric narrative is self-defeating because (a) it holds up human flourishing as the ultimate value and (b) the single-minded pursuit of human flourishing seems to inevitably lead, given the nature of human communities, to a neglect of natural systems...upon which human flourishing depends.

    Making the case for (b) likely cannot be done without invoking empirical science. But it isn't the empirical science alone that generates the falsifier. One also needs the values by which the empirical science is assessed--values emerging out of the very worldview that is being lived out critically. In living out the worldview on a corporate level, certain results are observed (by the best means of observation available within the context of that worldview), and those results are then assessed in light of the worldview's values, which in turn motivates refinement of the worldview.

  17. Hi Eric

    I agree with much of this. Facts do not determine world views, but they do constrain them. So, if my narrative assumes a certain factual position (living this way doesn't harm the environment) then when that position is falsified, my narrative must be adjusted. The key point I would make is that the manner of this adjustment is never compulsory, and we see the myriad of narratives springing up in response to the best models of climate change as excellent evidence of this (and your example of fundamentalist interpretations seems relevant).

    Science's distinguishing feature is that it offers at a method for deciding upon the best available model or explanation of a physical phenomenon (by providing predictive mechanisms that outperform any alternatives).

    My claim is that there is no such equivalent in the world of narratives, which are ultimately judged against criteria that appear to vary from person to person (in the way the measurement criteria of science do not vary from one measurer to another). So, when we face a contradiction within a personal narrative, we are faced with an almost infinite array of next moves, limited only by the power of our imagination, and there will exist no test for publicly choosing one over the other until such time as those narratives begin to assume new testable facts (as in your case of the environment).

    This is what I mean when I say there appears to be no counter example, one where the empirical data is not a necessary part of determining which narrative model is indeed preferable. Hence, historically, we see massive progress over time in terms of our understanding of the physical world, whereas it is much harder to argue broader cultural progress, as this appears always a matter of perspective.