Truth is, to be sure, an absolute notion, in the following sense: “true for me but not for you” and “true in my culture but not in yours” are weird, pointless locutions. So is “true then, but not now.” [William] James would, indeed, have done better to say that phrases like “the good in the way of belief” and “what is better for us to believe” are interchangeable with “justified” rather than “true.”
Truth cannot simply be rational acceptability for one fundamental reason: truth is supposed to be a property of a statement that cannot be lost, whereas justification can be lost. The statement “The earth is flat” was, very likely, rationally acceptable 3000 years ago; but it is not rationally acceptable today. Yet it would be wrong to say that “the earth is flat” was true 3000 years ago; for that would mean that the earth has changed its shape.
The Consequences of “Truth”: Thinking in Jewish XIII
A question I am struggling with at the moment is simply this: is it possible for the same thing to be ‘true’ in one circumstance and ‘false’ in another? The answer to this question depends on a rational definition of ‘truth’ and the implications that definition has on a warranted claim based on a consensus of normative ‘facts’ available through rational experience. To simply make the assertion that something is true as an a priori ‘fact’ begs the question of rational acceptability or, as John Dewey would propose, warranted assertability.
For Dewey, inquiry must be open, subject to self-correction over time only if ideas are submitted for testing by a community of inquirers. Such inquiry clarifies, justifies and refines and/or refutes claims made as truth when the evidence suggests a rational shift in rational justification of ideas. Richard Rorty suggests that such communities of inquiry simply set aside claims that no longer meet the standards of open inquiry rather than reject said claims completely. An example of this might be the maintenance of Newtonian physics as it applies to gross objects while, at the same time, accepting the relativity of Einstein incorporating the notion of space-time as a dimension as it explains the gravitational warping of space, something Newton could not conceive of in the 17th century.
If I were pressed to choose one single idea that helps me understand what counts as ‘true’ or ‘justified’ it would be the foundational idea that inquiry can have no pre-conceived ‘Truths” guiding all inquiry. Inquiry must be unfettered, have no boundaries, be completely open to questions, most of which will land on the scrap heap of ideas. Open inquiry, more often than not, builds on existing knowledge, on what Rorty calls normative discourse or what Thomas Kuhn calls paradigmatic thinking. Paradigms or normative discourse are suggestive of theoretical concepts accepted across nearly the entirety of a discourse community; conventional thinking is a nice way to think about this. Kuhn points to the time before the ‘discovery’ of chemical elements. Just 300 years ago there were but four recognized elements among the scientific community, earth, wind, fire and water. All else was something called phlogiston. Because of the work of several scientists in the mid to late seventeen hundreds, and an experiment using mercuric oxide heated using a flame thereby breaking atomic bonds separating the metal from the oxygen (an experiment every high school chemistry student does today) the discovery of oxygen set aside the prior normative theory and phlogiston is no longer on the minds of any reputable scientist. A new discourse emerged as the old paradigm lost its grip and a new one replaced it. Because phlogiston was the stuff that wasn’t earth, wind, fire or water did not make it true. To the contrary it was ‘justified’ by the prevailing thought of its day and revered among alchemists. The fact that oxygen was not recognized as an element does not mean that oxygen did not exist until it was discovered; to the contrary, it was there just waiting for someone to observe an unexplainable anomaly and puzzle out the consequences of that anomaly.
Paradigmatic thinking is normative within any given discourse community; paradigms guide inquiry, suggest reasoned questions that should be asked and, because of that, exert a strong hold on that which is thought to be normative. It is only when unexpected results from experiments show up that the community, if it is a true discourse community, engages in what Rorty calls abnormal discourse, discourse that is other than normative. New questions get thrown out, new experiments or observations find their way into the peer reviewed professional discourse and are picked apart by those committed to preserving the paradigm. Good ideas, ideas that pass through the filter of peers and critique, tend to survive while others are pushed aside because they do not stand up to the scrutiny of review. Sooner or later, those good ideas change the face of the inquiry community and the discourse it uses to guide future inquiry. This only happens in open inquiry communities. In closed inquiry communities, those who have determined that there are certain untouchable, sacrosanct starting points, the inquiry can never proceed beyond the point of the starting point and this is the problem I spoke about at the beginning of this post.
There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the community of rational thinkers that are Orthodox Jews are brilliant, thoughtful, focused and sincere. Their starting point, however, is an archaic a priori position that, as I understand it, requires the acceptance of certain points as outside the bounds of challenge. 1) the Torah is perfect and must be taken literally word for word, 2) the Torah (written and oral) were revealed to Moses, our teacher, at Sinai and passed down to Joshua, then to the Elders, to the Prophets, to the Men of the Great Assembly (rabbis) who conveyed it to the people, and 3) that all Jewish souls, from the beginning of time to the end of time, those already dead, those living and those yet to be born, were present at Sinai when the Torah was revealed. To question any of these principles and the consequences of questioning is prohibited from the discourse. Rabbinical literature (the oral Torah and all of its components) create a hypothetical world in which the purpose of the contained dialectic is to show that 1) God exists, and 2) God’s law is unified and eternal. To question these a priori ideas is to engage in something akin to heresy and is prohibited. In brief, the discourse community comprised of Torah scholars past and present, from Sages to rabbis of our present times is not an open discourse community and are, therefore, unable to accommodate science to their particular brand of theology.
Yet, I find the rational process intriguing. Beginning with a proposition, the rabbis engage in an exegesis that, in the end, leaves no stone unturned. From the proposition the Sages turn to competing voices that disagree as to the impact of the proposition. When that dispute is made clear, the Sages turn to similar cases to make their point that the law is always unified. Finally, they return to the original case resolving the conflict where possible but sometimes leaving the resolution open to further review. This is an intriguing way of thinking, one I have yet to fully appreciate but one I am working hard to learn.
In the final analysis, I cannot reconcile the stubborn insistence on the a priori ideas that guide the entire process; the closed system of inquiry finding proof texts from within to justify one’s conclusions. This practice, I think, leads to more and more difficult justifications when often the simplest answer (vis. Occam’s Razor) is the best one to follow. The more convoluted the argument is the less convincing it becomes; yet there is some value in learning the rhetorical form and the conventions that make understanding the method productive in other areas of textual interpretation.