Truth and reference

by Neil Rickert

I recently posted this in a comment on another blog:

We cannot just take a sentence and ask if it is true. We first have to inquire about everything referenced by that sentence. If people don’t agree on the references, they won’t agree on the truth of the sentence.

It’s a rather obvious point.  Yet it is often overlooked.

Earlier this year, I proposed a modest theory of truth, in which I suggested that we judge the truth of a sentence based on whether it conforms with standards.  What I mainly had in mind, and what my example illustrated, were the standards that we follow for settling questions of reference.  Likewise, my posts about carving up the world are really all about how we go about finding ways to reference parts of the world.

Consciousness

In a way, the problems of consciousness are also closely connected with reference.  The so called “hard problem” arose because people thinking about AI (artificial intelligence) did not see how a computer could possibly be conscious.  Well, of course it cannot be conscious.  For to be conscious is to be conscious of something, to be conscious of a world.  Consciousness depends on reference.  Or, as philosophers usually say that, it depends on intentionality.

A computer can only indirectly reference things in the world.  The computer uses the symbols.  But it depends on us or on the engineers designing its sensors and effectors, to determine what those symbols reference.  So a computer cannot actually make reference.  It depends on derived intentionality, but lacks original intentionality.  John Searle is right about that.

For the most part, philosophers seem to take intentionality for granted.  Searle does have a book on intentionality, but it mainly seems to discuss how to talk about it and how it fits into philosophy.  Presumably, Searle takes it to be a scientific question as to how intentionality is actually possible.

To explain the mechanisms by which a particular organism is able to make reference — that would be a scientific question.  But it seems to me that studying the general principles of reference is more a question of philosophy.  And that’s what my recent posts have  been about.

Subjectivity

I’m currently re-reading Nagel’s “Mind & Cosmos“.  Nagel seems to think it a difficult puzzle, to explain why there is subjectivity.  But establishing reference is, unavoidably, an ad hoc thing.  Science can be systematic in the way it establishes reference.  But we, individually cannot, for reasons mentioned in earlier posts.  We cannot get our reference from the culture, because being able to make reference is prerequisite to being able to see the culture.  So we must each go about it individually.  We may eventually agree on what we reference, but we have no way of being systematic about how we reference.  And this has a lot to do with why our access to the world is, unavoidably, subjective.

Of course that short paragraph does not answer all of Nagel’s questions.  I plan to discuss subjectivity further in future posts.

Mathematics and reference

There’s a sense in which mathematics can manage without reference.  The number 3 could at one time refer to three eggs.  And, at another time it could refer to three books.  In some sense, we are able to shift the reference depending upon the use.  This is why I’m a fictionalist about mathematics.  Of course, when we shift the reference, or apply the mathematics, we do have to make sure that the axioms remain applicable.

Knowledge

I’ll end this post with a comment about knowledge.

Philosophers generally describe knowledge as justified true belief.  I have often expressed disagreement with that.  And it is precisely because of the issue of reference.  Philosophers tend to take reference for granted, and put their effort into investigating truth and belief.  I would prefer that they make the study of reference more central.  From my perspective, our knowledge is in our ability to make reference.

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One Comment to “Truth and reference”

  1. Neil, I like this post. I particular found your parts on Subjectivity and Knowledge intriguing as it touches on some of the domains I’ve covered recently and last year on my blog.

    We cannot get our reference from the culture, because being able to make reference is prerequisite to being able to see the culture. So we must each go about it individually. We may eventually agree on what we reference, but we have no way of being systematic about how we reference. And this has a lot to do with why our access to the world is, unavoidably, subjective.

    Seeing the culture(s)! Yes! I’ve come to realize — and this segways into Knowledge next — that in order for humans to lessen their subjectivity, they MUST be constantly kinetic! Not just literally/physically (which of course is valid), but with all our human senses. I do believe that stagnation of these exploratory sensory processes can eventually dilapidate or bankrupt practically all of our pursuit (motion) and bank account of objectivity… or said another way, increases our subjectivity. This also affects our Knowledge AND Ignorance, i.e. Agnotology, one of my new favorite fields of study. 🙂

    Hence, should “Reference” remain as fluid, flexible, kinetic as is possible individually, and inclusive of OTHER frames/constructs of reference you think?

    Liked by 1 person

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