The pragmatists understood truth to be what it is good for us to believe. Truths are beliefs confirmed or denied by further experience. Thus, a truth can be found ultimately to be false. Intersubjective agreement is the appropriate objective of scientific inquiry.
Scientist, mathematician, and philosopher, Charles Sanders Pierce, suggested that concepts of knowledge, truth, and reality be grounded in the community of inquirers rather than in the individual consciousness. Notions of truth and falsehood, then, “appertain exclusively to the experimental method of settling opinion.” Who can I get to agree with my story? What does my story need to make it credible?
The philosopher and psychologist William James added that it was not enough for a system of propositions to be rational—it must also strike us as rational. Upon hearing this system of propositions, he believed those hearing would say “why, that is the truth!—that is what I have been believing, that is what I have really been living on all this time, but I never could find the words for it before.” In the end, it is our human nature rather than the nature of reality in general that decides what we think about the nature of reality in general. We must, James advised, “live today by what truth we can get today, and be ready tomorrow to call it falsehood.”
For John Dewey, the notion of truth in our beliefs and ideas meant the same thing as it did in science. Thus, ideas become true simply by virtue of their ability to assist us in arriving at satisfactory relations with other parts of our experience. James extended Dewey’s theory to propose that the truth of an idea “is not a stagnant property inherent in it. Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events.” This is the same way we establish the veracity of all stories—they become true, are made true by events—and science is no different. We make our world of stories.
Philosopher Donald Davidson pointed out that “nothing can count as a reason for holding a belief except another belief.” Of course, this completely undercuts the notion of objectivity in science or in everyday life. Philosopher Richard Rorty agreed with Davidson, adding that notions of truth and rationality are simply descriptions of the familiar ways a society justifies propositions in various fields of inquiry. Rorty explains that for the pragmatist, “‘knowledge’ is like ‘truth,’ simply a compliment paid to the beliefs which we think so well justified that, for the moment, further justification is not needed. An inquiry into the nature of knowledge can, on his view, only be a sociohistorical account of how various people have tried to reach agreement on what to believe.”
The concern that arises in response is a concern regarding relativism which is fundamentally a concern to maintain the conventions of Enlightenment. From the pragmatist’s perspective, the Enlightenment belief in the “transcultural human ability to correspond to reality” conceals the socio-historical practice of justifying its beliefs. Nietzsche reminded us that to subscribe to this practice of justifying our beliefs does not diminish the notion of truth: “a movable host of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding.” Our stories are truth for us as long as we are believing them, and this applies to science as much as it does to anything else.
In an attempt to support the growth of knowledge and the progress of science, the highly-influential philosopher of science Karl Popper focused on “conjectures” or tentative solutions to our problems. The only steps toward truth are made as we learn from our mistakes through the refutation of our conjectures. That is, we can never know for sure, but our knowledge can continue to grow as we learn from these mistakes. There is, then, no end to our search for alternate causal stories and a similar endlessness to our efforts to overcome or negate these stories. Thus no story is ever final. Whatever theory/story proves the most resistant to criticism, and thus closer to truth, would be “science” as it could be defined at that time.
From the Cartesian standpoint, whatever assertion is made must be justified. Popper determined that this is the problem of the validity of empirical science—when asked how we know, we must provide the sources of our assertions, and for the scientist, this means we must have observations to underpin our assertions. The question for Popper was whether observation is the ultimate source of our knowledge, and if not, what is? For him, “the program of tracing back all knowledge to its ultimate source in observation is logically impossible to carry through: it leads to an infinite regress.” Testing, rather than observation or deferral to sources, is the common-sense approach when one doubts an assertion. Thus, from Popper’s perspective, the empiricist questions like How do you know? and What is your source? should be rephrased because they beg an authoritarian response. The question becomes, “How do we hope to detect and eliminate error?” And Popper answered, “By criticizing the theories or guesses of others and—if we can train ourselves to do so—by criticizing our own theories or guesses.”
We do not know anything for certain—all of our assertions are no more than guesses. Sources and pedigrees have little bearing on truth, but attempting to refute an assertion with an experimental test will help us get closer to truth. For Popper, there is no criterion of truth, but there are generally criteria available to us which reveal error and falsity. “Clarity and distinctness are not criteria of truth, but such things as obscurity or confusion may indicate error. Similarly, coherence cannot establish truth, but incoherence and inconsistency do establish falsehood.” This can be seen in our scientific stories and the stories of our everyday life. With these small steps out of the darkness, we move closer to truth. Attempts to justify our knowledge by positive reasons cannot get us there.
Popper’s viewpoint differs from the general pragmatist position as he holds that when they neglect falsification and stress application, they have left the true domain of science. He maintained “it is only in searching for refutations that science can hope to learn and advance.” Without concern for truth and falsity, the instrumental position leaves aside the importance to pure science of critical testing. Popper held that “we ought not to aim at theories which are mere instruments for the exploration of facts, but we ought to try to find genuine explanatory theories: we should make genuine guesses about the structure of the world.” Finally then, at least in the realm of science, Popper’s alternative to empiricist justification is the severity of the tests applied to an assertion or theory. Scientific stories are rarely put forth lightly.
By way of example, consider a thoroughly researched and debated scientific proposal that has been widely accepted for nearly a century. Most people, including most physicists, subscribe to the Big Bang theory. But more recently some theoretical physicists have proposed that the universe came into existence when a four-dimensional star fell into a black hole. The debris then thrown out of the black hole created a three-dimensional membrane suspended within a four-dimensional universe. Note that in order for this story to be comprehensible, one must also subscribe to the stories we currently hold about black holes and dark energy, both of which—like that of the birth of the universe—are things about which we cannot have certain knowledge. We may also require the story of the multiverse which some theoretical physicists propose as a self-generating fractal that is capable of generating other inflationary universes (i.e., other Big Bangs) in order to account for the existence of the four-dimensional star.
Origin Stories in Science
The Big Bang theory is an origin or creation story for the universe. Origin or creation stories can be found across cultures throughout time as cultures used them to explain how the universe and humankind came into being. They are usually very grand narratives in which we try to find our place, to locate ourselves. As discussed in a preceding chapter, Native American tribes each had their own origin stories, some similar to those of other tribes, some highly divergent. And in the First Principles- Part I post, I lay out the origin stories of the founding peoples of the Americas as they have been told through the various scientific disciplines.
Western science strives to set itself apart from what it considers to be the stories of myths and religions. The Big Bang theory is put forward by science as coming from a completely different realm of knowledge than the origin stories of the world’s cultures and religions. There are many vastly different origin or creation stories for humankind overall. In the Abrahamic religions (the Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions), the story as told originally is that human origin stems from the first two people created by God—Adam and Eve, who together give rise to the human race. Adam was created by God in his own image. He first molded him of dust from the earth and then breathed life into him. So that Adam would not be alone, while he slept, God took one of his ribs and from it created Eve. God had commanded Adam not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Eve succumbed to the temptations of the evil serpent who lived in the tree and soon Adam joined her in eating the forbidden fruit of that tree. Awakening now to the knowledge of good and evil, their primordial innocence was gone and they were immediately ashamed of their own nakedness, clothing themselves in fig leaves. God recognized their new coverings as a sign of their transgressions and assigned punishment to each of them. To Eve he assigned the punishment of painful childbirth and perpetual subordination to man; to Adam, he assigned the punishment of ceaseless sweat and toil for his own subsistence.
Contrast this with the origin story for humans coming out of the scientific disciplines and arrived at by biologist Lynn Margulis. The story as Margulis conceived it begins two billion years ago when different kinds of bacteria cells began to congregate in interactive communities, which led to them living symbiotically together. These prokaryotic communities ultimately formed the larger compound cells called eukaryotes. The newly evolved eukaryotes continued their evolution to become protoctists (or protists), fungi, plant, and animal cells including humans. Every human is a community of 100,000,000,000,000,000,000 eukaryotic cells living symbiotically together. And each of these cells is a community of thousands of bacteria contained within the boundaries of that cell. According to this story then, rather than all being the children of Adam and Eve, we are all the children of bacteria.
Like all stories, each of these two origin stories has consequences for believing in or subscribing to the story. The origin or creation story of Adam and Eve separates humankind from the rest of nature, with all the attendant consequences resulting from that standpoint. It also takes a decided stand on the human quest for knowledge—the first step out of the garden and a path we continue to tread on daily ever since regardless of the consequences. The origin or creation story of symbiosis in cell evolution from Margulis comes out of the scientific paradigm. Margulis was a provocative thinker and a staunch advocate of the Gaia hypothesis of nature, but her origin story is still embedded in a detached kind of scientific materialism. With no real attachment to our ancestor bacteria, we are still left with a worldview that is separate from the rest of nature. Looking more closely at some of the origin or creation stories of Indigenous tribes, there is a difference in the language of the stories from people who lived as part of nature. And of course, there are consequences for believing in or subscribing to those stories as well. (Further, the stories of science regarding Indigenous origin stories can be used to marginalize and oppress Indigenous people.)
Molecular biologist, biophysicist, and neuroscientist Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of the double helix, had a different origin story for life on earth, one he believed to be well-grounded in science. Crick was a passionate proponent for the extraterrestrial seeding of life on this planet as he found the complexity of DNA such that he could not conceive of it having evolved naturally on earth. “Directed panspermia” is the intentional transfer of life to other planets by intelligent life existing in the universe. In Crick’s directed panspermia story, small grains of DNA are put on a number of rockets and set off in all directions. He estimated that one metric ton would contain 1017 micro-organisms separated into distinct packets of ten to a hundred samples. This would, Crick speculated, allow for the best chance of seeding life on a compatible planet somewhere in space. He found it credible that this story describes how life came to be on this planet, perhaps sent by a more advanced culture facing some sort of catastrophic annihilation.
Every theory is a story and every story is a theory. And it is through these theories/stories that we continually remake the world for ourselves and for others (if they’ll have it). The formation of basic premises and decisions made in science is not so different from the way we form our basic systems of belief in everyday life. All experiences put forth as “fact,” whether they occurred in everyday life or are posited through science, are based on an interpretation, a theory, a story. The difference consists in the criteria applied to the interpretation. It is only when science is reified that its relevance is challenged. Instead, it’s imperative to remember that science is tentative, always preliminary and provisional.
The next post for the first principle of being will explore the notions of truth and knowledge as we experience them in our everyday life.
Buchler, Justus (Ed.). 1955. Philosophical Writings of Pierce. New York: Dover Publications.
Crick, Francis. 1981. Life Itself: Its origin and nature. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Davidson, Donald. 1986. A coherence theory of truth and knowledge In Ernest Le Pore (Ed.), Truth and Interpretation: Perspectives on the philosophy of Donald Davidson (pp. 307-319). Oxford: Blackwell.
James, William. 1977. The Writings of William James. (John J. McDermott, Ed.). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
James, William. 1981. Pragmatism. Indianapolis: Hackett.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1979. On truth and lies in a non-moral sense. In David Breazeale (Ed.), Philosophy and Truth: Selections from Nietzsche’s notebooks of the early 1870’s (pp. 70-101). Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press.
Popper, Karl. 1963/89. Conjectures and Refutation: The growth of scientific knowledge. New York: Routledge.
Rorty, Richard. 1985. Solidarity or objectivity? In John Rajchman & Cornell West (Eds.), Post-analytic Philosophy (pp. 3-19). New York: Columbia University Press.
 Popper pointed out that the fact that the doctrine that truth is manifest cuts off this regress may be the reason the doctrine has been so seductive.
 Mythologist Joseph Campbell sees one form or another of this particular origin story as being basic to all human cultures. He sees in the universality of the story a primal memory of our original connection to all of nature.
 If you are struggling to embrace the notion of directed panspermia as our origin story for life here on Earth, you might find it interesting to note that humans are concerned about doing the same thing unintentionally in our future space exploration on manned or unmanned vessels. Space researchers are consistently concerned with this kind of contamination as they look for signs of life on other planets.