The Truth by Reason Project

There’s a question wending its way through philosophy: what is the relationship between reason and truth? What, for that matter, is the relationship between the senses and truth? Do we know truth directly, through reason, through sense, or not at all? Heidegger, who I haven’t read, but have heard interesting things about from a classmate, apparently says that truth is unconcealment, and talks about the essences of things concealing and unconcealing themselves on a metaphysical plane. That’s cool and suggestive, but I don’t very well know what it means. Kant, as far as I can tell, thinks that we cannot know the truth of things in themselves – their essence – even in our own selves, for we have no unmediated experience of the intelligible world, but we nevertheless partake in Reason, and therefore participate in the intelligible world, from whence comes our capacity for freedom. But those aren’t his words; I think they’re a hybrid of Kant’s words and theological words – things like partake of and participate in. Aquinas says that reason is how we know truth, but our reason has been darkened on account of sin, and thus we reason imperfectly and cannot know the truth very well without revelation and grace. For Plato we have some sort off capacity to see into the realm of forms which must be trained by increasingly abstract uses of reason, like the prisoner being dragged around so he’s facing the light. Apparently Reason sort of sees or recollects Truth. For Aristotle we have a capacity for seeing first principles (nous) and we take those principles and apply reason to attain scientific wisdom. But it’s really more like mathematical wisdom, because it doesn’t involve much observation or testing; there’s no scientific method, just reason and first principles. Modern science, on the other hand, seems much more concerned with the sensory world, however mediated it may be by sense and various instruments of measurement.

But at some point the philosophers must have pushed the Truth by Reason Project too far, and something broke. What has broken seems to be the connection between the noetic and the emperical. Perhaps there’s no such thing as a that which perceives the immaterial; perhaps even those senses that perceive the material realm access reality through too many veils of conditioning and neurology and who knows what else; perhaps we’re just brains being stimulated in particular ways to think we perceive actual things; perhaps we can’t really know anything absolutely; perhaps Truth is Subjectivity; perhaps it’s just subjective; perhaps it’s unconcealment; perhaps we don’t actually partake in the intelligible world after all. So now non-philosophers who wish to maintain that, yes, through sense and reason and spirit we can know Truth, at least partially, feel forced to talk about objective, inerrant, really, truly, certainly true truth.

There’s a paragraph I unfortunately couldn’t find again from The Hedgehog and the Fox by Isaiah Berlin where he talks about Tolstoy leveling his “devastatingly destructive geniusagainst all the theories of life and history of his day in a desperate attempt to find something that could stand up to his criticism, but everything crumbled before his stunning grasp of particulars  – for nothing could explain all of them, and he would accept nothing less. So in the end he supposed that the best thing was not to be so very rational; to be like the peasants with their possibility of intuitive understanding, unmediated by rationalization – but could not be so himself and it tormented him to the end of his life. (that’s the fuzzy version of Berlin’s take on things, anyway) It does seem to be the case that reason left to itself is way better at finding cause for doubt than for belief. We find that there are hallucinations and doubt that what we sense in true; we find that peoples differ in what it acceptable behavior and doubt that there is morality; even in mathematics we cannot find a complete system to satisfy our rationality entirely (something about the set that contains every set?); untempered rationality becomes the god who binds his own parents and the monster who eats her children.

The hope of objectivity is that there can be something sure, certain, and consistent that everyone can agree on. The fear is that if there isn’t everything will shatter and we will become isolated individuals uncertain of everything outside our own minds; and even much within us. In a word, that we’ll swing from Modern rationality to Postmodern nihilism. The danger is more convincing than the hope: human experience cannot be reduced to axioms and worked out logically. To call a truth objective is to set it up like a scientific theory, where it cannot be absolutely proven, but it can be disproved by any exception. If it is true that Reason is always better at disproving than at proving, Truth by Reason is bound to fail eventually.

This doesn’t mean I consider truth to be unknowable; but that’s a comment for another time.


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