Tuesday, November 3, 2009

In quest of a human truth

In his appealing blog, Amod Lele has recently argued that we can apply the concept of truth as correspondence with an external state of affairs in all fields ( even in regard to human states, for instance). The blog is wonderfully written and it does not deserve criticisms coming from a different point of view, so I will just use it as a departure point for an epistemological excursus on this matter. In fact, I am convinced that the truth-as-correspondence does NOT work in all cases. In many cases, on the other hand, the truth of a certain state of affairs is closely linked with its subject and cannot be judged independently of her. By that I do not mean that truth is 'subjective', i.e. whimsical. I just mean that it is subjective because it is essentially linked with the subject. A neuroscientist could calculate the number of neurones involved in a painful sensation and the frequency of signals they transmit. But this has no necessary connection with the quality of the pain the subject is experiencing, which could depend from many other, subjective, factors (such as the presence of what the Buddha labelled a "second arrow"). So, 'pain' is a real state of affairs and it is subject-dependent. No scientist could convince me that the pain I am experiencing is unbearable if I can bear it (and vice versa, different people react very differently to what seems to be the same neuronal stimulus).
A similar case may be the experience of God. Taken for granted that God's non-existence could be demonstrated, this would not invalidate the subjective experience of His presence of people like St. Teresa of Avila. (A different way out would be to argue that all these people were liars -but this seems to me deeply implausible. The alternative view that they were deceiving themselves does not alter the point: they were anyway 'perceiving' God's presence.)
Hence, we need a concept of truth beyond that of correspondence with external state of affairs. I suspect that the truth-as-correspondence is applied to human fields because of a sort of inferiority complex of human studies in regard to natural sciences. So, scholars of the human psyche strive to become natural scientists dealing with an objective entity, the brain, and the like.


Amod said...

Hi Elisa - basically I'll say the same thing here that I said on my blog before: correspondence does not necessarily mean correspondence to an external state of affairs. Statements about our internal human states can be false by virtue of inaccurately describing those states. On my blog I mentioned that it is entirely possible, and indeed frequent, to misjudge whether we are happy. The same is true of pain. I know a physiotherapist whose job involves asking people to rate the pain they're currently experiencing on a painfulness scale of 1 to 10, and is exasperated when people describe the pain from a relatively minor injury as a 10 - he knows from experience that if they actually experienced a stronger pain they would know that this is not the highest pain they could perceive. These states are indeed partially subject-dependent - they exist within the subject experiencing them - but statements about them can still adequately or inadequately correspond to the facts of the case, even when the subject believes herself to be telling the truth.

The point holds even more strongly in the case of God. The subject knows she has had an experience of something - but that does not mean that it was God. I can have an experience of perceiving a snake, but that doesn't mean there is actually a snake there - it could just be a rope. A statement about an experience of God (unlike a statement about pain) is not simply a statement about what is in one's individual mind; for the whole idea about God is that he has a larger existence than that. Even if one's conception of God is entirely mental, he is supposed to exist in everyone's mind, not merely one's own. A God who existed only in St. Teresa's mind is not the God that St. Teresa actually worshipped.

VS said...

I would just wonder what is the definition of 'truth'?

Its amusing that we talk about 'truth' because the word is appealing. Replace 'truth' with 'falsity' and the arguments would still hold.

elisa freschi said...

Amod, my problem is with the definition of truth as correspondence with a state of affairs deemed to be independent of the subject. As for your points, I think that then physiotherapist's exasperation is understandable (too many people are inclined to think they are the unhappiest people on earth), but is epistemically wrong. It is not fair to ask someone who has only experience of a feeble pain to collocate it on a scale from 1 to 10. She would, rightly, collocate her present pain on the 10th level, because the '10' as a level of pain sensation can only make sense in regard to the pain we have actually experienced. A child will say that 10 is the pain one experiences after a minor fall, a woman who has just given birth will describe the 10-level-pain as something different, but they are right in maintaining that the pain they are presently experiencing is the highest they have ever experienced. The physiotherapist asks them to conform to an objective scale, valid for everyone, hence his disappointment.
I agree with you, one might be mistaken about oneself. Still, I guess that these mistakes cannot have to do with physical sensations. If I am deeply concentrated in writing, someone hurts my arm and I do not notice it, I am right in maintaining that it does not hurt, even if a neuroscientist would say that neurones have been affected by the event.
Turning to St. Teresa, I agree that she can be mistaken about the God she worships. The historicity of Christ, for instance, is a matter of debate. What she cannot be mistaken about, I argue, is that she is perceiving God sending an arrow towards her hearth, etc. The theological side of this God is, in fact, not part of her sensation.

elisa freschi said...

VS: you are right, the problem lies in our definition of truth. Amod, if I am rightly understanding him, argues for a truth as correspondence with state of affairs independent of the subject, whereas I am sceptical about it. I am playing with the thought of just using a truth-as-consistency concept of truth. The problem with it is that it risks to invalidate the possiblity of dialogue among people bearing different world views. So, one should assume a consistency frame as wide as possible, probably identical with rationality itself.
As for the truth-falsity replacement, can you explain a little bit further? I am not following you.

VS said...

Truth is subjective, falsehood is subjective.

Amod said...

Just a quick note to let you know I've followed this discussion up in a post on my own blog:


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