Saturday, February 14, 2015

John Searle’s Argument for Objective Truth

Clear, simple and very powerful, and given by the analytic philosopher John Searle in an interview here:
“The problem that all these guys [namely, postmodernists and poststructuralists] have is that once you give me that first premise—that there is a reality that exists totally independently of us—then the other steps follow naturally. Step 1, external realism: You’ve got a real world that exists independently of human beings. And step 2: Words in the language can be used to refer to objects and states of affairs in that external reality. And then step 3: If 1 and 2 are right, then some organization of those words can state objective truth about that reality. Step 4 is we can have knowledge, objective knowledge, of that truth. At some point they have to resist that derivation, because then you’ve got this objectivity of knowledge and truth on which the Enlightenment vision rests, and that’s what they want to reject.”
Postrel, Steven R. and Edward Feser. 2000. “Reality Principles: An Interview with John R. Searle,” Reason (February)
As Searle points out, once we admit that there is an ordered reality independent of our thoughts about it, then language really can refer to reality. Many of our words, and the concepts they represent, do refer to objective things in reality, and clearly many concepts we have (signified by words or sounds) are constrained, limited and defined by reality. Or, as some analytic philosophers would say, language is isomorphic to thought (including concepts and ideas), and in turn language can indirectly correspond and refer to reality (Schwartz 2012: 182), as is also argued by modern linguists and in the discipline of evolutionary epistemology. Objective truth follows from the way language can describe or picture reality. This leads us directly to the most convincing theory of truth: the correspondence theory.

Moreover, note clearly how Searle’s argument works just as well if we adopt an idealist ontology, when we make the appropriate changes: for then the reality that objectively exists independently of our own subjective feelings or wishes or desires simply becomes the world of sensory experience created by Berkeley’s god or some “supermind.” In the world of sensory experience, we find a high degree of regularity, consistency and order. Berkeley’s “objects of perception” become those mental “objects and states of affairs” to which our words can refer and name.

Most of us, however, find the argument for indirect, physicalist realism more convincing than idealism and so argue for a real external world.

I often hear from advocates of Postmodernism that these views are “out of date” or “behind the times,” or few believe these ideas any more. As a matter of fact, most professional academic philosophers think objective truth and an external world are the most convincing views of epistemology and ontology.

A recent survey of 931 academic philosophers in 99 leading departments of philosophy around the world completed in 2009 gives us very good evidence on what most philosophers think (Bourget and Chalmers 2014).

We find in this survey that 81.6% of academic philosophers endorse or favour the arguments for the existence of an external world (Bourget and Chalmers 2014: 494). Only 4.3% would endorse some form of idealism (Bourget and Chalmers 2014: 494).

We also find that 64.9% still endorse or favour a valid analytic versus synthetic truth distinction and 71.1% accept the existence of real analytic a priori knowledge (Bourget and Chalmers 2014: 493).

Just because in what passes for “philosophy” down in the languages/literatures or cultural studies departments we find a lot of people who reject objective truth, it does mean professional philosophers have followed this path.

These findings are not a good argument for objective truth, of course. They are simply an interesting fact.

The idea of objective truth is justified by the good arguments and evidence in its favour, not ultimately by how many people believe it. Even if the majority people did not believe it, there would still be good arguments for it.

Bourget, D. and Chalmers, D. J. 2014. “What do Philosophers Believe?,” Philosophical Studies 170: 4 65–500.

Postrel, Steven R. and Edward Feser. 2000. “Reality Principles: An Interview with John R. Searle,” Reason (February)

Schwartz, Stephen P. 2012. A Brief History of Analytic Philosophy: From Russell to Rawls. Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, UK.


  1. Do you think Searle's idea of 'collective intentionality' - by which Ingham claims money becomes manifest - is an objective truth? Seems more like an assumption to me.

    This what Ingham says:
    " is produced by an authority in an act of sovereignty in which what is to count as money and how its myriad forms and media are to be recognized as belonging to the same class of phenomena is established by ‘collective intentionality’..."
    (Geoffrey Ingham Further reflections on the ontology of money: responses to Lapavitsas and Dodd Economy and Society Volume 35 Number 2 May 2006 p.261)

    Generally Searle proposes that social reality is created by the assignment of function, collective intentionality and constitutive rules.

    What are your thoughts on critical realism ?

    1. Steve Keen would think it's a product of double entry book keeping...

  2. Perhaps those who claim that external reality is "out of date" or "behind the times" should forego the technologies provided by those scientists— would expect nearly 100% of whom—believe in external reality. If they truly think that everything is just "what you choose to believe", then they can just "wish" or "will" their way through a magical life.

    1. Also, what I meant by 'behind the times' is that Anglophone philosophers are still having arguments that were superseded by others centuries ago. That such ignorance is 'in fashion' is not remotely surprising as most philosophy departments are as stale as economics departments these days. And those working in them, in the majority, tend to be windbags who place taboos over which issues can and cannot be raised. Your 'survey' finds exactly what they would find if they surveyed economics departments: a crushing lack of pluralism and intellectual diversity enforced by a bully culture.

    2. "And those working in them, in the majority, tend to be windbags who place taboos over which issues can and cannot be raised"

      I disagree. Most analytic philosophers I met happily discuss idealist, Continental and postmodern philosophy and you find some people in their departments doing it. The point is: they aren't convinced by it. And they are right.

    3. Your own survey says otherwise.

      And no, there are VERY few departments in the US and the UK properly introducing students to these strains of thought.

      That may change but the reaction has been vicious in the 1990s and 2000s. Your hostile blogs are highly reflective of that.

  3. (1) Searle only pretends that he is arguing with the 'postmodernists'. In fact he is really arguing against certain forms of idealism and structuralism. I cannot emphasise this enough. Writers like Foucault simply side-stepped these questions altogether (Lacan not so much as he was far more structuralist).

    (2) It is clear that objective truth can exist for idealists. But it is always theological and this has massive implications for epistemology that, say, Berkeley and Hamann drew out in detail. It means that, since the 'supermind' figure is inaccessible to mortals then we have severely limited abilities to actually grasp at objective truth. Thus the way that we structure our lives is by and large arbitrary; it is based on custom and tradition and cannot be 'rationalised'. This allows a good deal of crossover with 'constructivist' epistemologies because it recognises that we largely build these things ourselves. Not to say that they are fully constructed -- there are limits -- but to a very large extent we structure the world in and through our customs, culture and language; hence, structuralism.

    I would say that a very similar argument is inherent in Keynes' arguments surrounding ontological uncertainty. Indeed, I'm fairly convinced that many of Keynes' ideas on uncertainty, animal spirits and so forth can be traced through GE Moore back to the British Hegelians.

    1. (1) I find this very strange. Postmodernists are forever trying to say words and language cannot refer to an external reality, and then attempting to deny truth on this basis

      (2) "It means that, since the 'supermind' figure is inaccessible to mortals then we have severely limited abilities to actually grasp at objective truth. "

      But you need not know any details about your postulated supermind: in fact you could remain agnostic, and merely observe that overwhelming empirical evidence that there is a world of experience/objects of perception (with a high degree of regularity, consistency and order). Even if you throw aside any belief in or need for an external material world, from the reality of a world of experience/objects of perception come a clear argument for objective truth.

      Words and sentences can refer to objects of perception and their properties and relations: when there is correspondence between what a sentence asserts and observed reality, you have objective empirical truth.

    2. (1) These are structuralist and idealist arguments. Those are the ones that you are angry about. It really has nothing to do with 'postmodernism' per se.

      (2) Now you're just restating your own argument and ignoring the implications of the alternative argument.

    3. On (2), I have shown how you do not even need to accept any supermind even under an idealist ontology: you can say we do not know why we live in an idealist world, but the argument for objective truth still works.

      Not to say that they are fully constructed -- there are limits

      What are the "limits"?

      Is the scientific description of many diseases caused by pathogenic microorganisms objectively true and not socially constructed? Is the germ theory of disease objectively real and not socially constructed? Is malaria an objectively real disease and not some socially constructed fiction that oppresses people because it is "privileged" by a powerful medical profession?

    4. (1) Yes, you can. By engaging in mysticism where 'objective truth' rests on an unspecified, mystical 'ding an sich'. I find this ridiculous.

      (2) All of the things you list are obviously constructed. The medical conditions are brought into being through a language of taxonomic classification and so on.

      The limits I would tend to think of as empirical and anthropological. For example, every society seems to have an incest taboo in place. This seems to be culturally universal.

      In terms of such anthropological limits it might be worth considering that Foucault's first major work was an introduction and exploration of Kant's views on anthropology.

      This is what I mean by these thinkers being so far beyond the curve. Kant raised these issues hundreds of years ago and the Anglophones haven't even begun to try to tackle them. That is why analytic philosophy and has produced nothing of interest while, say, Foucault has produced massive shifts in contemporary historiography.

    5. (1) you must know that "Ding an sich" is the Kantian term for the real external world, but I have eliminated that concept from the arguments I offered you and shown how -- even on idealist ontology -- the case for objective truth can be strongly made: because words can and do refer to objects of perception, and sentences can and do accurately describe things and events we experience in our sensory world, and there is an accurate relationship of correspondence (truth).

      (2) "All of the things you list are obviously constructed."

      If you contracted malaria, would you think you are rationally justified in choosing a scientific medical treatment for it, instead of, say, exorcism, faith healing, a witch doctor or leech-treatment?

      If you would you choose modern medicine over these things, why? Do you think it is a rational choice? Or do you think it is merely irrational?

      If it is irrational, why not choose a witch doctor?

    6. (1) I already pointed out that the objects of perception are constructed through language. Malaria is a construction of a certain taxonomic structure; demon possession is the construction of another. You keep confusing what in philosophy are called 'objects' and what is called 'sensory perceptions'.

      (2) It is a choice. That is all. What choice you make will produce different results. Just like wearing a coat will produce different results in cold weather than walking around naked. Which is the 'correct' or 'rational' thing to wear? Depends on your own subjective evaluation of the situation and what you aim to achieve.

      Me drinking quantities of alcohol that are likely not good for my health, for example, is an 'irrational' choice from the perspective of medicine; i.e. in purely biological terms. But in terms of how I live my life it is not 'wrong' in any way. And anyone who tells me otherwise is just an idiotic moralist cloaking themselves in the language of Science rather than of Religion.

    7. I leave the discussion here for today:

      (1) note I already showed how idealist objects of perception can exist without language, e.g., as they clearly do for infants who come to learn to associate words with things. We also have very strong evidence higher animals with visual systems similar to ours see the same objects of perception we do, even if, say, some of them see in black and white. Yet animals clearly do not have language.

      No, "objects of perception are constructed through language" is wrong: they exist independently of language.

      You have not refuted this.

      (2) "What choice you make will produce different results."


      But you are just faced with the same question: yes, modern medicine has different results: it has overwhelming evidence on its side that it actually cures diseases, when exorcism, faith healing, a witch doctor or leech-treatment does not.

      You appear to be telling me that your choice (if you choose modern medicine when you have all the symptoms of what doctors call malaria) has no rational basis: but it clearly does. All the evidence demonstrates modern medicine cures this disease and other things do not.

      Apparently you cannot even make the reasonable statement that your choice is rational, on the basis of overwhelming evidence.

      Frankly this speaks volumes about where postmodernism will take you: to total intellectual disaster and irrationality.

      As I said to Unlearningeconomics, the postmodernist epistemology will actually undermine and destroy any coherent Left economic or political program -- even a Post Keynesian one.

      If we have no rational reason to think Post Keynesian theories are true and that Post Keynesian policies would work, nobody has any business advocating Post Keynesianism to anyone. Or indeed any economic theory whatsoever.

    8. Phil:It means that, since the 'supermind' figure is inaccessible to mortals then we have severely limited abilities to actually grasp at objective truth. That is not what Post-Kantian Idealists, who almost all rejected the ding-an-sich, thought. The main stream, e.g. to Hegel and beyond did not believe in any inaccessibility or particular limitation of grasp on truth, or cosmic arbitrariness of the way our lives are structured. You are probably right on Keynes, Moore & the British Hegelians.

    9. (1) If you don't understand what in philosophy we mean by 'objects' then I can't help you.

      (2) You don't get this at all. Take an example. A Christian scientist refuses treatment for cancer because it is against his belief structure. Is this 'irrational'? You and your moralist friends would like to believe it is. But its not. They choose to live their life one way; you choose to live your life another. The fact that many 'rationalists' don't see this shows that they are the same as the old Christian missionaries.

      The fact of the matter is that the Christian scientist would rather die than accept treatment. You think that this is 'irrational'. But that's just a judgement you pass on the way they choose to live their lives.

      Personally I would prefer to see them not live like this. But at least I recognise my judgement for what it is in this regard. I don't patronise the person with high moralistic nonsense where I am 'rational' and they are 'irrational'. I literally find that attitude sickening.

      (3) I find it enormously amusing that the people who tell me that postmodernism will ruin Post Keynesian policies tend to not be remotely involved in the policy debate. Nor do they make any attempts to actually get the policies in place through political action. The phrase 'hot air' comes to mind; as it so often does with the 'rationalist' crowd.

      Varoufakis is inclined toward what you would consider 'postmodern' ideas and I'd imagine that you'd give him the same lecture. Good luck with that.

    10. (1) I use "objects of perception" in Berkeley's sense of mental entities in my argument to you (and where, for the sake of argument, I assume a real external world does not exist).

      Do infants without language see objects of perception? Please answer this question.

      (2) There is nothing moral/ethical about the argument rationality: this an argument about justification, and about whether the success of science is an argument for the idea that science gets at a real reality.

      (3) Varoufakis is inclined toward what you would consider 'postmodern' ideas

      Here is what Mr Varoufakis has said about Postmodernism:

      "Without wishing to discuss the 'postmodern condition' generally, I shall concentrate entirely on its likely effects on the struggle to 'civilise' economics. In this regard, the problem with postmodern thinking is that it stands no chance of success. .... For despite its considerable oeuvre, postmodern criticisms of economics are doomed to shrivel and be absorbed by mainstream economics; the predator turning into unsuspecting prey. I risk this prediction for two reasons. First, postmodernists allow economics to parade as equally scientific as the natural sciences (albeit on the grounds that no discipline is truly scientific).etc "
      Yanis Varoufakis, "Postmodernism: conspiring with the orthodoxy," 10 June, 2002 - 11:00

      Read the whole thing. It is a damning indictment of postmodernism and a commitment by Mr Varoufakis to some kind of realism.

      See Y. Varoufakis, 2002. "Deconstructing Homo Economicus? Reflections on an Encounter between Postmodernity and Neoclassical Economics," Journal oj Economic Methodology, 9.3: 389-396.