Kuhn James Pierce Popper Descartes Al-Ghazali Essay

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Philosophy of Truth

One of the most intriguing and long-standing debates in philosophy is exactly what is worthy of philosophical consideration and debate, and what should be dismissed as futile and meaningless sophistry. For skeptics of both the rational and empirical schools, true and certain knowledge (in the traditional senses of these words) can never really be attained, and metaphysical pursuits that attempt to determine the amount and/or level of certainty available through human thought are largely pointless. Positivists lie at the other extreme, believing that certain truths can be considered absolute and that other conjectures built from these truths can also be established with certainty. There are many philosophers and a wide panoply of philosophical views on the nature and achievability of truth that lie between these two extremes, however, and this is the true grounds of the ages-old debate regarding knowledge and certainty.

For many, the study of epistemology -- the branch of philosophy concerned with discovering and explaining the nature of knowledge and the ability of humans to achieve an understanding of truth -- consists of answering the essential questions of philosophy; it explains the ability, or lack thereof, for other philosophical inquiries to come to objective and meaningful conclusions (or plateaus, as might be a more appropriate term). Few thinkers have seriously put forth the idea that all thinking and inquiry is entirely pointless simply because absolute certainty is an unachievable idea, as the assertion defeats itself along with the rest of human knowledge. This has made the grey area between absolute skepticism and absolute positivism a place of extraordinary nuance and minute categorization for many philosophers. An examination of some of these prominent philosophers reveals a general belief that the framework within which a "truth" is derived is essential to an understanding of the concept.

Philosopher William James was among the first philosophers to break the issue down along the lines that would continue to define the quest for the nature of truth over much of the twentieth century. He made a distinction between knowledge derived through volition, or will, and through passion, or desire. Volition led to knowledge based on facts and relationships between knowledge -- discrete facts that could be objectively observed. James argued that knowledge obtained through the desire to believe, however, was equally valid when intellectual knowledge was unavailable. He even argued that not making a decision on matters that do not have intellectual answers, like most religious questions, is itself a passional decision -- just like deciding yes or no -- and is attended with the same risk of losing the truth."

James also considered himself an empiricist, believing that observation led to the largest degree of certainty but that there was no such thing as true objectivity, and therefore no "true" perception of reality. He cites several examples of opposing "certainties" which could not both be true and yet were both asserted to be absolute fact by their proponents. This is compelling evidence to James that truth and certainty are essentially subjective. This ties closely in with his beliefs concerning passional knowledge; if there is no certain truth in any instance, than there are certainly instances where believing in a truth without proof can be beneficial, even in science with the application of "coercive evidence."

James does not mean that truth is purely in the eye of the beholder, but rather that pure truth can never exist in the human mind.

Charles Sanders Peirce, who wrote at approximately the same time as James, had a very different and more pragmatic approach to truth and knowledge. Essentially, he believed that knowledge should be approached from the negative; when a doubt or uncertainty existed, investigation leading to knowledge and understanding was the simple required action. Though he toyed with metaphysics and the underlying nature of reality to some degree, he believed "that the whole meaning of a (clear) conception consists in the entire set of its practical consequences."

As a practicing scientist for most of his life, such practicality is not surprising.

Thomas Kuhn, who contrary to James and Peirce was planted firmly in the twentieth century, began his career in physics and moved into philosophy, so it is perhaps equally unsurprising that he recognized two distinct and largely incompatible ways of viewing the world and the issues of certainty and truth. In his most famous work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn lays out the basic methods by which science -- and thus the pool of human knowledge -- is able to grow and progress. The first is through what he termed "normal" science, and what most people traditionally think of as the practice of science -- repeated trial and error, careful measurement, and the adjustment of known facts, addition of new facts, and occasional adjustment of error.

The great advances of knowledge, however, occur quite differently.

In order to understand Kuhn's claims regarding scientific revolutions, it is necessary to understand in some basic way his use of the word paradigm. For our purposes here, a Kuhn's paradigm can best be understood as the basic framework of knowledge and/or assumptions (which are often taken as essentially the same things in many paradigms) in which a certain pursuit of knowledge/scientific inquiry is being made. It is Kuhn's contention that the history of science is punctuated by revolutions that cause a massive shift in the overall scientific paradigm, rendering previous conclusions moot and potentially changing the standards of truth and knowledge within the particular science. Kuhn also saw that this could, and often did, lead to incompatibilities between scientists and their assertions during times of paradigm shifts. As Kuhn puts it, "practicing in two different worlds, the two groups of scientists see different things when they look from the same point in the same direction."

Clearly, an understanding of one's paradigm is essential to the understanding of transient truth in Kuhn's construct.

Karl Popper's theories concerning knowledge are mercifully straightforward. Using rationalism to explode the supposed knowledge arrived at through inductive reasoning, Popper's philosophy basically seems to reaffirm the simplistic form of the scientific method. As an empiricist in the same vein as James, Popper believed that knowledge was obtained through observation, and that as such it was never entirely certain. His basic test for a new theory was that it needed to come from a new idea or theory and that its propositions must be "risky" or refutable. Knowledge, then, is differentiated from belief by virtue of its falsifiability -- the truth is never certain, and the evidence of its uncertainty is the essential evidence of its possible truth.

Though seemingly paradoxical, this is the essential measure of truth in the sciences.

Though all four of these philosophers shows a belief in a certain type of empiricism, whereby knowledge is obtained through observation but is always somewhat suspect, there are salient differences in their theories of knowledge and truth that bear comment. James and Kuhn, though approaching the basic question of knowlegde from radically different perspectives, are somewhat aligned in that they both make allowances for beliefs that are not -- or do not seem to be -- empirically based. James accounts for this with his theory of passional knowledge, or the desire to believe something or not rather than to leave it undecided. This leaves the option for a change in one's decision should empirical evidence arise. Kuhn's theory of paradigms and their ability to shift also allows for change, but in a much broader and more pervasive, profound, and indeed revolutionary way with effects far beyond a specific instance.

These theories contrast to those Popper and Pierce, for whom knowledge was somewhat more absolute. Truth and knowledge are still mutable according to both of these two scientists, but through the replacement of facts and theories with new ones as the old are proved incorrect, rather than through the establishment of desired beliefs as James advocated or the broad paradigm shifts hypothesized by Kuhn. Whereas Kuhn and James both saw knowledge as something that consisted of positive progression, albeit with a certain level of refutation, Popper and Peirce both saw a strong negative influence in the progression of knowledge, as doubts (for Peirce) and falsifiability (for Popper) became the hallmarks of, respectively, old or omitted areas of knowledge in need of examination and new theories developed to fill the voids.

Despite the dissimilarities between these four theorists and theories, they are all much more closely aligned than certain other conclusions about certainty and truth. Descartes, one of the most preeminent rationalists, believed that certain absolute truths could be deducted -- or inducted -- with the use of pure rationality. His famous utterance cogito ergo sum, usually translated as "I think therefore I am," is the foundation upon which this certainty of rationalism is built. Al-Ghazali's departure from modern Western philosophers is even more extreme; his philosophy is built on the logical assertion of God's (or Allah's, more precisely) existence. His establishment of the natural laws as the simply manifestations of… [END OF PREVIEW]

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