Friday, April 27, 2007

Objectivism and the Correspondence Theory of Truth


This essay is a discussion of the Correspondence Theory of Truth (CTOT) and how the theory fits into the philosophy of Objectivism. I will argue that properly understood, the CTOT is compatible with Objectivist epistemology. I will also discuss pitfalls that must be avoided to keep the door closed to skepticism.

Readers should note that I am writing here for two distinct audiences. The first is the Objectivist community at large, those who are already familiar with the philosophy. I am also presenting this essay to my Senior Seminar in Philosophy class at the University of South Carolina for peer review.

To the Objectivist community: Some have expressed dissatisfaction with an unqualified acceptance of the Correspondence Theory, and with good reason, as I hope to demonstrate. A proper understanding of the Correspondence Theory is necessary to defend against Juggernaut of skepticism that has been sweeping the academic community for the past century.

To my classmates: This paper is based on information contained in my in-class presentation of Objectivist Epistemology, and it assumes the truth of Objectivism. I will glaze over some technical aspects of Objectivist principles. I encourage any of you to approach me with questions about these principles as you are working through the text.

The Correspondence Theory of Truth

The first formal expression of the Correspondence Theory of Truth (CTOT) can be traced back to Aristotle, who wrote: “To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true” (Metaphysics 1011b25), though Plato wrote very similar formulations (Cratylus 385b2, Sophist 263b). Kant considers the issue so obvious that it doesn't even deserve arguement, writing "“The nominal definition of truth, that it is the agreement of [a cognition] with its object, is assumed as granted.” (Critique of Pure Reason, 82). The Correspondence Theory has endured over the centuries, in part because it is seemingly so axiomatic, so elegant in its simplicity.

According to the CTOT, a statement is true iff (if and only if) it corresponds to reality. If I make the statement "Dr. Donougho is the Professor of my Philosophy class," this statement is true iff Dr. Donougho is, in fact, the Professor. If anyone else is the Professor (or if I don't have a Professor), then my statement is false. According to most interpretations of the CTOT, my statement would be false even if I have every reason to believe that Dr. Donougho is the professor, but he is not in fact because some impostor has taken his place. One's context of knowledge is irrelevant. Please keep this in mind, as we will have reason to return to it in a moment.

The Correspondence Theory of Truth is an alluring philosophical principle on many levels. At root, it is an epistemological expression of axiomatic metaphysical principles. Two such axiomatic principles in Objectivism are the Law of Identity and the Primacy of Existence. The Law of Identity states that "A is A," or "a thing is what it is." The Primacy of Existence states that "existence has primacy over consciousness," implying that consciousness has no effect on the identity of entities. If one accepts these metaphysical principles, then the task of man becomes to discover the identity of the world around him. His consciousness does not have the capacity to create, only to identify reality.

The Standard of Omniscience

The biggest problem with the common interpretation of the CTOT is that it sets a standard of omniscience for truth, making certainty impossible. If we accept that certainty is impossible, then we leave the discipline of philosophy open to skeptics (who will gleefully agree that reality is unknowable) and mystics (who offer a supernatural source for certainty).

As mentioned earlier, one's context of knowledge is deemed irrelevant when determining the truth value of his statements. If I say that "Dr. Donougho is my Professor," then my statement is false even if I have every reason to believe that it is true. These kinds of situations are not uncommon. The history of man is marked by an ever-expanding degree of knowledge about the nature of reality. In the realm of science, when new data is discovered that contradicts old theories, then the old theories are discarded, and new ones devised. Does this mean that the old theories were always false? How can we ever be certain that our theories will not be contradicted by new evidence at some point in the future? This creates a problem. If truth is determined without regard to context, then one's context must be all-encompassing (i.e., omniscient) to make a claim of certainty. An omniscient standard of truth is incompatible with Objectivism.

Knowledge As Contextual

Objectivist epistemology lays the foundation for a bridge between subject and object, and the reconciliation between the CTOT and certainty. Objectivism states that absolute certainty is possible within a specified context of knowledge. Any statement made by a human being necessarily implies the preamble "within my context of knowledge." This preamble is necessarily implied because man, by his nature, is a being of limited consciousness. He is not omniscient.

For example, Newton's Laws of Motion are true, and will always be true, given Newton's context of knowledge at the time. Einstein has access to better technology and higher levels of mathematics, and was able to expand man's understanding of Physics. He discovered new data that could not be explained by Newton's Laws, and he was able to construct a new theory which did account for the data. It would be false for Einstein to state that Newton's Laws will always always be true regardless of context, but Einstein could agree that, give Newton's context of knowledge at the time, his theories are still true.

The contextual nature of knowledge allows man to continually expand his understanding of the world around him, while at the same time avoid being paralyzed by uncertainty. The rational man forms principles on the basis of evidence, and treats them as absolute unless and until he discovers new evidence that would require him to restructure those principles. This methodology can be applied to ethics, politics, and esthetics, as well as science.

The Implied Conditional of Absolute Principles

Another helpful way of viewing absolute principles is in the form of a logical conditional. One can assert "If there are no aspects of reality outside the context of my knowledge which come into play, then principle X will always hold true." If one has properly formed his principle, and integrated it with all of the evidence available to him, then this statement will always be true, forever and ever.

One can view this logical conditional the same as any other, in terms of truth value. We can represent the statement as:



p = there are no aspects of reality outside the context of my knowledge which come into play


q = principle X will always hold true

Note that the truth value of this statement follows the same format of any other conditional statement. If 'p' is true, then 'q' must be true. If 'q' is false, then 'p' must also be false. And if 'p' is false, then the truth value of 'q' is indeterminable.

Let's return to Newton to demonstrate this method in action. Newton makes the claim that "if there are no aspects of reality outside the context of my knowledge which come into play, then The Laws of Motion will always hold true." If Newton acquires evidence that his Law of Motion does not apply to a particular case (for example, when entities approach the speed of light), then he knows that an element outside his context of knowledge has come into play. Now, he is challenged to integrate the new data with his old principle, modify it, or discard it favor of a new one. Note that, while 'p' and 'q' in the above example can have varying truth values, the logical statement p-->q is itself an absolute principle.

A New Perspective on CTOT

I have argued that theories and principles can be held with absolute certainty within a specified context. How then can one marry this with the CTOT?

When one formulates a theory based on evidence he has gathered, and integrates it without contradiction into the whole of his knowledge, then his theory does indeed correspond with reality. He has properly identified a relationship between his consciousness and some specified aspect of reality. It is important to keep in mind that a conceptual consciousness is an entity in reality, and an understanding of that consciousness is an instance of correspondence. One's integration of data into concepts and principles corresponds to the reality of his conceptual consciousness, and the contents therein.

One will never be able to step outside of his consciousness and make propositions based on information unavailable to him, but that does not mean that his limited theories do not correspond to the aspects of reality within his contextual range. It is unfair, and indeed irrational, to demand that man define "truth" in terms of the metaphysically impossible, i.e., omniscience.

The Importance of Semantics

An understanding of epistemological concepts is critical to maintain the integrity of philosophy as a discipline. In academic circles, classrooms, journals, online discussion forums, and even private philosophical conversations, the defenders of rationality must insist on the precise use of epistemological terms like "truth" and "certainty." The reason why there is so much misunderstanding about the proper application of the CTOT is that many just assume that the CTOT requires a standard of omniscience. This misunderstanding must be identified, clarified, called out, and rooted out of existence.

When engaged in discussion with an intellectual opponent, especially on issues of epistemology, take care that your opponent is not demanding that you step outside your context of knowledge in order to make a claim of certainty. A flaccid refrain of rationalistic "what ifs" does not take the place principled, logical, evidenced-based discussion. In the of spirit of Socrates, define your terms, and challenge your opponent to define his.


I must anticipate a challenge to my argument with respect to communication. If all knowledge is contextual, and each individual is working from his own context, then how can one defend against the charge of relativism? Is it reasonable to assume that one can effectively communicate with other individuals, and that the ideas being communicated are understood in the proper context?

My answer to this last question is 'yes!', given that one goes to the effort of defining his terms. This is why the precise definition of philosophical terms within one's own mind is so important. Individuals may define concepts in subtly different ways, so when a misunderstanding arises, the first step is to make sure that participants in a discussion understand each others' context of knowledge with respect to the issues being discussed. Misunderstandings are always possible, but can be limited through proper discourse of ideas.

Also, while individuals may have different contexts of knowledge at any given time, as men we all have access to perceptual concretes. Another method of clarifying interpersonal communication is to logically reduce ideas as close as possible to the perceptual level.

Looking Forward: A Complete Theory of Induction

There are many challenges in the field of epistemology that must still be overcome. The most important of these, in my view, is a more complete theory of induction. Logical induction is man's method of forming rational principles based on evidence of the world around him. Ayn Rand presented a powerful theory of induction with respect to concepts in her Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, but some questions remained unanswered.

First, what degree of evidence is required to form a (contextually) absolute principle? In Objectivism - The The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, Leonard Peikoff discusses degrees of certainty with respect to principles (p67). He classifies theories on a graduate scale, from "possible," to "probable," to "certain." But what delineates these degrees of probability? More importantly, at what point can one settle on any given principle as "certain?" One clue offered by Peikoff is that in order to settle on a principle, "all evidence points in one direction, there is no evidence in any other direction, and no contradictory evidence." This idea is helpful, but insufficient.

If philosophers can agree on the CTOT and proper standards of rational discourse, then I believe these questions are answerable within our lifetimes. The only way to defeat the specter of skepticism in the academic community is through our consistent and determined effort to define our terms in philosophy with the most rigorous logical integrity.

--Dan Edge


Anonymous said...

Dan Edge:
"This creates a problem. If truth is determined without regard to context, then one's context must be all-encompassing (i.e., omniscient) to make a claim of certainty. An omniscient standard of truth is incompatible with Objectivism."

The problem here is on the other hand that the following statement can be true and an absolute certainty within someones context of knowledge:

Fontana di Trevi is located in Paris.

But this "truth" does not name a fact, and this is a problem since Rands explicitly require knowledge (an therefore by implication truth) to name/correspond to facts. Thus, you cannot cut the link between truth and fact (by making truth a matter of available evidence) and still be consitent with Rands definition of knowledge, something have to give.

Anonymous said...

Hi Dan,

I don't think your post accurately reflects the Objectivist theory of knowledge. You seem to imply that an idea that doesn't correspond to reality is true if it corresponds to the facts one is aware of. Or, to put it different, you imply that a non-factual claim can be true given a person's context of knowledge.

But that is not the Objectivist view. A true idea *has to* correspond to the facts.

The question is: how can a fallible, non-omniscient consciousness reach truth?

Objectivism says that one can know the truth without knowing the *whole* truth: this part of what is meant by saying knowledge is contextual. So, to use the standard Objectivist example, one can know that like-blood types are compatible without knowing that other factors can render the blood of a person who is type B incompatible with another person who has type B blood: different RH factors. The discovery that the RH factor can affect the compatibility of blood does not contradict one's previous knowledge--it expands it by identifying another relevant factor.

This is distinct from the issue of error. There are cases where a person can have every reason to think that X is true, yet later discover that he made an error, either in his reasoning or because he lacked relevant evidence. Such an error was not "true in a context." It was false and is false. For instance, a rational juror had enough evidence to conclude that OJ murdered Ron and Nicole. But suppose a videotape is discovered showing that really it was Osama bin Laden. In such a case, it was never true that OJ committed the murder even though that was the proper conclusion to draw given what was known at the time.

So how does Objectivism address the issue of error?

The aim of epistemology is to give man guidance for bringing his mind into conformity with reality. Or, to put it differently, it is to tell man how to go about grasping facts. (A truth is a grasped fact.)

Man grasps facts by a certain method: logic. Logic tells man how to proceed in order to ensure his ideas conform to reality, i.e., in order to discover truth. Does this method make man infallible? Absolutely more than a method of growing corn ensures that a farmer will end up with a field full of healthy crops. Fallibility is a fact about man's consciousness, and no method can eliminate that fact. But this does not open the door to skepticism: just as a method for growing corn *does* enable a farmer to produce healthy crops, all else being equal, so a method for discovering knowledge, enables man to reach truth.

Once one has validated logic as the method of reaching knowledge, by showing that is derived from reality and approrpiate to man's consciousness, then the only question one may ask of a person who claims knowledge is: did he adhere to that method? One may not ask, "Well, you followed the method that leads to truth, but how do you know you're still not wrong?" Such a question rejects the need for and possibility of a method for reaching truth. To say to someone, "You've logically proved this idea...but it's possible to prove an idea that later turns out to be wrong, so maybe you're wrong now" is as arbitrary (and therefore as illegitimate) as claiming, "Maybe there are purple elephans dancing in the next room."

Thus, Objectivism's position is: error is possible and the only way to avoid it is the scrupulous use of logic...and if you do make an error, (only) the continued use of logic will enable you to discover and correct it. The proper attitude of someone should be, "I have proved this and so I am certain of it. And if I later learn that this is an error? Then I'll be certain of that. I don't care if I'm wrong a million times, I will unflinchingly stand by any conclusion I've reached logically, until I'm shown otherwise."

What the wrong view of correspondence does is dispense, not only with context: it dispenses with a *knower*. It regards truth, not as the product of a mind conforming to reality, but as a disembodied proposition which has some intrinsic property of truth absent a mind in contact with the facts. Thus, when a modern philosopher asks, "Is this idea true?" he is not asking, "What logical processing was involved in reaching the idea and was that processing valid?" He is asking, in effect, "Would God say this conforms to reality?" This is what it measn to take omniscience as the standard. It's not just that they claim man must know everything to know anything--it's that they claim man must know everything *without any processing*, in a flash of insight that "sees" the intrinsic correspondence of a proposition to reality. But that is completely illegitimate, in every way, from every perspective.

Anonymous said...

By the way, that previous comment was written by PMB.

Dan Edge said...

Greetings PMB,

Thanks for your comments. Considering that my blog has only been around for a month, I'm hungry for feedback!

You wrote: "You seem to imply that an idea that doesn't correspond to reality is true if it corresponds to the facts one is aware of. Or, to put it different, you imply that a non-factual claim can be true given a person's context of knowledge."

I have heard this criticism before, and while I take it seriously, I think it is a mischaracterization of my position. If a man makes the claim, "Within the context of my knowledge, X is true," then he is making a factual statement regarding the relationship of his mind to reality. My position is not that "an idea that doesn't correspond to reality is true if it corresponds to the facts one is aware of." I argue that one cannot make a claim about whether or not an idea corresponds to reality *outside* of his context of knowledge.

Let's use Peikoff’s blood example. At one time doctors thought that all B-type blood was compatible. Is this belief true? In your response, you said that this belief counts as validated knowledge, and that the discovery of the RH factor “does not contradict one's previous knowledge.” But you also implied that this belief is false. The statement “All B-type blood is compatible” is a false claim, and by the standard you set this idea has always been false. We know this now, because of the RH factor. Can a false idea qualify as knowledge? Your line of reasoning implies that this is the case.

My position (which in my view is merely a restatement of the Objectivist position) reconciles this discrepancy. I argue that when the researcher makes his claim regarding blood types, he implies the preamble “Within the context of my knowledge.” While it may be false that B-type blood is always compatible, based on the evidence available to doctors and researchers at the time, this was a valid inference. Given the same data – given the same context – this inference will always be valid, forever and ever.

Regarding whether this is a correct identification of the Objectivist position: I just listened to Peikoff’s presentation of contextual certainty and the blood example a few days ago (on 2nd to last tape of the History of Philosophy series), so it is fresh in my mind. Based on his presentation, I am more confident than ever that my position is the Objectivist one. However, I think I may be misusing some terminology. I’ll have to write about that at more length when I have time, but I can give one indication here where I may have gone wrong:

In the ITOE (I think), Rand characterizes the concept “fact” as a metaphysical term, referring to the identity of entities regardless of human contextual knowledge. I think I may have misused or misunderstood this term in the past. I would have said that “All B-type blood is compatible” is a fact, when in reality it is not.

Thanks again,

--Dan Edge

Chris McKenzie said...

Wonderful essay. I couldn't agree more. Very concise!

Anonymous said...

Hi Dan,

You wrote:

"Let's use Peikoff’s blood example. At one time doctors thought that all B-type blood was compatible. Is this belief true? In your response, you said that this belief counts as validated knowledge, and that the discovery of the RH factor 'does not contradict one's previous knowledge.' But you also implied that this belief is false."

I didn't mean to imply that, because it isn't false. The conclusion, "B-type bloods are compatible" is true. It's a fact. They *are* compatible...under certain conditions.

And this is the crux of the issue. You say in your initial post that all knowledge comes with the preamble "within the context of my knowledge." That is not the Objectivist position. You only have to say, "This is true within the context of my present knowledge" when you have reason to suspect there are relevant factors at work which you don't yet know about.

So let's take medicine as the example. Even today there is much about the human body that we don't understand, and so we have reason to believe that what we learn about the body will involve many causal factors we aren't yet aware of. This is what is captured by the contextual theory of knowledge: it says, "I don't know all the factors at work, only some of them." But you wouldn't say, "Man must be rational in order to live, within the context of my present knowledge."

Context does not render a factually incorrect idea "true in a context." Context refers to actual, real, existing causal factors one is aware of, in cases where one has reason to suspect that there are other causal factors at work one *isn't* aware of.

To go back to the blood type example: it is a valid causal identification that B-type blood will not reject B-type blood. What doctors discovered is that this is only a necessary, but not sufficient causal factor. That, then, is what the contextual theory of knowledge says: discovering new causal factors doesn't render one's previous identification of other causal factors false.

Dan Edge said...

PMB (I assume)

I don't have time to respond at length right now, but I do have one question:

Are you saying that the researchers who discovered blood compatibility were not justified in making the claim "All B-type blood is compatible?" I agree that, in the realm of biology, we know that there are many factors unknown to man at this point. I was assuming that all knowledge is contextual in this way. Should I challenge this assumption? I'm open to it, I just want to more fully understand your position. More later.

--Dan Edge

Anonymous said...

Hi Dan,

"Are you saying that the researchers who discovered blood compatibility were not justified in making the claim 'All B-type blood is compatible?'"

No. I could quibble with the word "all" (observe that Dr. Peikoff formulates the generalization as "A bloods are compatible."), but, yes, they were justified in making that claim.

Why? Because what that claim means is "So long as no other causal factor interferes, A bloods are compatible." (That's simply another way of saying, "Within the context of the circumstances so far known, A bloods are compatible.") That's as true today as it was before doctors knew about RH factors, i.e., knew about the other causal factor that could interfere.

Take a different generalization: "Turning my key causes my car to start." That generalization is contextual in that it obviously means, "...absent any unusual causal factors that would interfere with it starting." Thus, if you turn your key and the car doesn't start, that does not invalidate your generalization--it points to a new causal factor involved, say, a dead battery. The dead battery is analagous to the RH factor in the blood type example.

But to take an absurd example, suppose you were to discover that turning your key actually had nothing to do with whether or not your car started--it was all just one big coincidence. In such a case, your previous conclusion (that turning your key caused your car to start) would be false. It would have always been false. It would not have been "true in a context." It would simply be an error, albeit an understandable one.

"I agree that, in the realm of biology, we know that there are many factors unknown to man at this point. I was assuming that all knowledge is contextual in this way. Should I challenge this assumption?"

I think so. According to Objectivism, all claims must have evidence (or else they are arbitrary)...including the claimn that there might be other causal factors at work you don't know about.


Anonymous said...

According to David Kelley, in his Foundation of Knowledge series, the problem of induction has already been resolved, by Aristotle.

Roderick Fitts said...

I agree with PMB here, Dan.

PMB says: "You say in your initial post that all knowledge comes with the preamble 'within the context of my knowledge.' That is not the Objectivist position."

This preamble doesn't apply to the axioms, for example. "Existence exists" admits of no contraries; for some new context to arise which could call that axiom into question, the context's constituent elements would have to exist, which demonstrates the absurdity of someone claiming that "Existence doesn't exist."

Interesting essay, nonetheless.

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