Reference: rationalism’s reality problem

Samoyed and formulae

Referring to Samantha. Samoyed photo courtesy JF Brou

Representations must refer to something; truths should be true of something; beliefs have to be about something. For example, the belief “Samantha the Samoyed is white” is about (and refers to) Samantha.

Most rationalisms hold versions of the correspondence theory of truth, which says, more-or-less, that “Samantha is white” is true because Samantha is white.

This theory is usually pretty much true.1 The problem is not that it is false. Its failing is that most of what you’d need to make the story work is missing. It’s not really a theory at all; it’s a vague specification of what a rationalist epistemology would need to do, without an account of how. It doesn’t explain:

  1. What sort of thing is a representation, or belief, such that it can refer to a Samoyed?
  2. What sort of relationship is reference (or aboutness, or correspondence)? How does that work in the material world?
  3. What sorts of things are capable of being referred to by a belief?
  4. How does “Samantha” pick out a particular Samoyed? Bearing in mind that there are many with that name.

These questions sound at first like ivory tower metaphysics, with no relevance to everyday technical work. However, instances include important practical, technical, and social problems. For example, how does a bank connect the representation “David Chapman” in its database with me? Personal identity verification is complex and never perfectly reliable.

Rationalist philosophy has failed to provide answers to the key questions about reference, despite huge effort.2 Attempted answers typically are metaphysical, and don’t seem compatible with a naturalistic worldview. The abstract formulae of rationality seem non-physical. How can an abstraction interact with a dog? If the interaction itself is abstract, how does it connect to the dog? If the interaction is physical, how does it connect to the formula? Alternatively, if formulae are physical after all, what sort of physical thing are they? Formal reasoning depends on “Samoyed(Samantha)” displayed on a computer screen being the same thing as “Samoyed(Samantha)” written on paper. How does that work? And, how does either of those physical things physically connect to a dog?

The next several chapters of The Eggplant explore these and other difficulties for rationalist epistemology and ontology. The aim is not a philosophical refutation. Rather, it’s to motivate particular aspects of the meta-rational alternative, in practical terms.

I will suggest naturalistic answers, compatible with a materialist worldview, which also seem to better reflect how rationality works in practice. Taking questions 1-4 out of the metaphysical realm turns them into practical, everyday problems, whose answers can be critical to the success of rationality. In Part Two, we’ll see how reasonableness (unlike rationality) deals directly with the material and social world, and what this implies for belief, reference, and truth. Part Three explains how rationality depends on reasonableness’ aid for making beliefs be about things. Parts Four and Five explain how, by understanding this, you can sometimes make rationality work better.

Not to hold you in suspense: aboutness is something we do together. Abstracting from reality to the formal realm, and applying formal results to reality, are activities we perform via perception, action, improvisation, interpretation, and negotiation. The correspondence theory of truth works only because we make it work, each time we need it—by any means necessary.

The question then becomes “what are some concrete methods people use for making beliefs be about things?” The answer will be “here are several, but there are unenumerably many more.” For example, you can alter reality to fit rationality by physically attaching identity labels to things. You can put a metal tag that says “Samantha” on her collar. That helps make the name reliably refer to the dog. If you put up a LOST DOG poster, someone who believes “I’ve found Samantha” may depend on that. You could go further and have your vet inject her with a radio frequency microchip, with her National Dog Registry number on it. “How we refer,” in Part Two, explains another dozen reasonable methods.

Such suggestions may seem unsatisfactory, because they won’t lead to a unified abstract rational theory of belief, reference, and truth. Indeed, in the Eggplant understanding, each of those metaphysical categories disintegrates into a hodgepodge of concrete practical considerations, connected only by a nebulous “family resemblance.” There is no single common feature, it’s just that this is similar to that, which is similar to another thing.3

I don’t think unified theories of belief, reference, or truth are possible—which is why no one has found them. But, proving this in principle is not necessary. We know for sure that we don’t currently have workable rational theories of them; and yet that is no obstacle to our using rationality effectively.

And, I will suggest that sometimes we can do rationality better by drawing on the nebulous, naturalistic account that I’ve just sketched. That often includes understanding correspondence as part of the story. Correspondence does often explain rationality’s effectiveness. It’s just that correspondence is something you have to figure out how to make happen, on-goingly. It’s not something that occurs by magic, or that is once-and-done.

One major meta-rational activity is examining the theory/reality relationship to see if it is working as well as it could.

  • Sometimes you may not notice your rational model is wrong, because the routine practical work of maintaining the correspondence relationship compensates for, and covers up, the model’s defects, which appear as routinely manageable hassles.
  • Sometimes the system suddenly breaks down when its lack of contact with reality can no longer be papered over with reasonableness.
  • Sometimes a system can be made to work better by improving concrete practices for maintaining correspondences.
  • Sometimes insights about details of how abstraction and theory application are accomplished lead to improvements in the rational system.

All these are central aspects of meta-rationality.

  • 1. Although, for several reasons, the correspondence theory is not straightforwardly and entirely true. Metaphor is an example: what would it even mean for “financial market storm-watchers are eyeing a growing debt default typhoon” to be true? Various schools of philosophers and semanticists have attempted to account for such difficulties. The Eggplant’s alternative explanation in Part Two is quite different.
  • 2. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s “Correspondence Theory of Truth” article explains some of the problems. The “Reference” and “Intentionality” ones cover closely related topics. Particular philosophers advocate one approach over another, but nearly all acknowledge major unresolved difficulties, on which significant short-term progress seems unlikely.
  • 3. The understanding of categories in terms of “family resemblance” originates with Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.


This page is in the section Part One: Taking rationalism seriously,
      which is in In the Cells of the Eggplant.

The next page in this section is The National Omelet Registry.

The previous page is Overdriving approximation.

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