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How are we sure that anything is true because our whole world is based off of the circular logic that we assume our logic is right?

March 15, 2006

Response from Peter S. Fosl on March 16, 2006
It's a great question, and the way you pose it raises a number of fascinating issues. About the concern whether "anything" is true, I assume you mean any truth claim. Things can be said to be "true" in certain contexts ("That's a true Rembrandt"; "That way is true north"; "Mine is true love"), but typically in philosophical contexts it's statements that are either true or false. Here I'm inclined to say that it's not unwise to withold some measure of judgment on virtually any truth claim. If by "sure" you mean, impossible to doubt, then I think we might be better off not trying to achieve it. Skeptical philosophers like Sextus Empiricus, Hume, and Montaigne have in various ways advanced ideas like this.

On the other hand, Ludwig Wittgenstein and other philosophers have held that in many contexts it's simply senseless to raise doubts our to try to raise doubts. I must say, I've not been persuaded yet by this strategy. But, as Hume reminds us, we must be as diffident of our doubts as of our beliefs. Perhaps we can be sure about some things.

Speaking of beliefs, one of the things Hume maintains and I think is correct, at least in a qualified way, is that we are the kinds of entities that believe--it's characteristic of our "nature." There are different modes of belief of course, and the way you put your question might be read to mean something like: why do we believe in the mode of being "sure," or how is it possible that we believe in this way? That's a good question, too.

One possible answer is that there was some evolutionary advantage in believing in this way. Another, perhaps more philosophical and historical answer, is that we've developed a set of practices and procedures for justifying/validating truth claims that we've found over time to be reliable, useful, and capable of producing agreement in beliefs. Those practices and procedures might be gathered under the rubric of science, logic, reason, and various other customs and conventions related to "knowing." Perhaps we might call them collectively the history of belief.

So, I wouldn't exactly say that our logic is circular. For one thing, as Aristotle points out (if I recall properly in the Prior Analytics), any attempt to refute the basic rules of logic presupposes them. There is a kind of assumption in thinking that the present and the future will resemble the past, but the past success of these procedures might be thought of as a kind of proof. Perhaps, one might say, there's even something intuitively compelling about ideas like the idea that contradictory claims can't both be true, at least true in the same way.

Anyway, to put it tersely, I think it a good idea to yield to a fair amount of sureness in many cases, especially when the relevant belief gains warrant through sciences, reasoning, and certain more or less basic features of what Hume called "common life." But it's also a good idea to innoculate our beliefs with a tincure of skepticism.


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