CBC Basics: Part 1

Editor's note: This is the first of a three-part series that will attempt to explain the CBC as an entity, as well as address where it will be in the future. Thank you for your patience.

An Unexamined Truth Is Not Worth Believing

Let's do an exercise.

Find a scrap of paper and write your name at the top. Now write it again just to the right. Write it again, and again, and again. Fill up the paper with your name, then flip it over and fill the back with your name, also.

By the end of this exercise, you will find something strange has happened: your name will look foreign to you. You may even have difficulty spelling it after a while.

There's actually a term for this phenomenon: Semantic Satiation. It's a weird quirk of our brains that the closer we examine a jumble of letters that we've given meaning, the more they appear to be... well, merely a jumble of letters. Without any meaning at all.

This thought has plagued me and kept me up at night. On some level, words are just these symbols that we've collectively decided mean something. Perhaps Semantic Satiation is just our brain's way of waking up to the fact that the stuff we examine isn't quite as meaningful as we'd like to pretend it is.

One of the most persistent pursuits in human history is that of truth. Parmenides did it. Socrates did it. Sages in every era of human development have done it. Countless religions claim to have found it; countless prophets claim to proclaim it. But the same thing happens to Truth as to our name on a page: the closer we get to it, the farther we are from knowing what it is.



A Crash Course in Epistemology


In the 1800s, the Scottish philosopher James Frederick Ferrier coined the term "Epistemology," which takes its name from two Greek words:  ἐπιστήμη - "Episteme," meaning "Knowledge/Understanding," and λόγος - "logos," meaning "the study of." So it means "the study of how we know things." 

Ferrier said that in order to say we know(K) something, we must have a true(T) belief(B) about it. We can write this out in an equation: 

K = TB

If I said, "I know that I'm in Tennessee right now," we can credit that to me as knowledge, because it checks out: I am actually in Tennessee. If I said, "I know that I'm in Georgia right now," we would not credit that to me as knowledge, because it turns out that I am not in Georgia. 


In order for me to know something, the thing I know has to be true.

Sounds great. Case closed, Knowledge solved.

Easy, now: there are problems with this definition.

It needs something else. 

If knowledge is simply the act of acquiring true beliefs, then if you want to know more things, I'd suggest going and memorizing the phone book. That would be an easy way to acquire true beliefs.

I would know that John Smith's phone number is (xxx)xxx-xxxx. I could dial that number and it's John Smith who would pick up.

We deal with these kinds of truths every day. If I dial my mother's number, I will be connected to her phone. If I have gas in my perfectly working car and I do not hit any unforeseen traffic hazards, I will arrive at work in a reasonable time. 

But these aren't the only truths that exist. What about if I tried to apply the same kind of understanding to this statement: "God exists." 


By probing deeper into Truth-talk, we see that the above definition of knowledge is lacking something.

Let's say I'm at a horse race with some friends. One friend comes up to me and says, "I just bet all of my money on Tinker Town winning, because I know that he will." Of course, I'm going to ask him how he knows such things, since the race hasn't even begun yet. His answer: "Because of how pretty his coat is! Look at how beautiful his coloring contrasts with the brown of the track. I know he's going to win because he looks the coolest."

If Tinker Town wins, I think that we all would agree this man simply got lucky. Sure, he had a true belief--Tinker Town won, and he "knew" it--but I don't think that we could credit him with having the knowledge that Tinker Town would win.

The next week at the track, my other friend, a sort of big guy with a suit and scary sunglasses, named Vito, says "I bet all of my money on Screw Loose, because I know that he will win." I ask how he knows this, and he says, "because my cousin Crazy Joe drugged all of the rest of the horses this morning." Then, if Screw Loose won that race, we'd probably agree that yes, Vito knew Screw Loose would win.

It seems as though there are things that need to be added to our definition of Knowledge. Both of these people had beliefs that ended up being true, but we'd only argue that one of them truly knew it. 

In order to address the "thing that needs to be added," there are two camps of people: Externalists and Internalists.


Let us take another example. My Aunt's mother is a professional archer. Her living room is adorned with the remnants of various beasts she's slain with her bow, she's won tournaments, contests, and awards, and if you ask anybody who knows her if she knows how to shoot a bow, they'd ask you if monkeys know how to sling poo. Mel is a professional, very good, archer. 

Let's pretend that Mel and I are going shooting one day. She takes out her fancy archer glove, strings her bow up in a particular way, threads an arrow that she hand-made from the feather of a bird she, herself, killed and flint she mined and carved herself, pulls the string back, adjusts her breathing, gauges the wind, lets the arrow fly, and nails the bullseye in a hay bale 75 yards away. 

She does this 9 times of the next 10. Because she has this method for producing reliable results, everybody will agree that she is a very good archer. This is the Externalist view:  having a method that produces reliable (R) results equals knowledge.


Now it's my turn. I shot a bow once when I was 7 or so, but besides that, I am as far from an archer as one can find. I have to have her string my bow for me, I fiddle around with an arrow to try to figure out how to get it on the string, I am surprised by how hard it is to pull the string back, and I don't really know where to aim. To the best of my ability, I emulate her steps: I pull the string back, try to adjust for whatever wind I can feel, steady my breathing, and let the arrow fly. 

But it NAILS the bullseye. I'm surprised, so quickly, I do everything I just did again and it smacks the bullseye again, and both of us are blown away by it. But neither of us would say that I am a good archer--I'm merely lucky.

One more brief example: I had this computer that served me well for many years, but it has since reached the end of its life. Whenever I turn it on, the bottom half of the screen goes blank! But one day, in frustration, I figured out that I could make the screen work again by squeezing around the edges and, I suppose, reconnecting some frazzled connection in its innards. I could even do this reliably: every time, some days. I procured a document clip and attached it to the edge to make it so that I didn't have to squeeze with my fingers, and most of the time, the screen would stay on. 

But NEVER would I tell you that I fixed my computer, even though I could make it work with reliable results. In both of these cases, "hitting the bullseye" and "fixing the computer" can be equated with "having Knowledge." It turns out that having a method that produces reliable results is not enough to equal knowledge. 


The other camp agrees with that statement; what they propose instead is that what is needed is the proper justification(J) for knowledge. Internalists say that Knowledge only counts if you can justify the steps it takes to get there.


"Oh, you know something?" they ask. "Prove it." 

When Internalism came on the scene, it sharply reduced the amount of Knowledge possible, but in doing so, properly raised the value of every bit of Knowledge one could acquire. Truth is valuable, and finding it everywhere would be a bit like cheating.

It was the preferred school of thought for a while (though obviously, apologists can be found for every different view on the subject), until a Wayne State University professor who had written next to nothing of note before, nor has he since, published an incredibly short (3 page) paper which completely dismantled the idea that True Belief must be Justified in order to count as Knowledge. This man's name is Edmund Gettier.

Here is an example of a "Gettier" case he used to disprove the thought that Knowledge is a Justified True Belief:

Two guys, Smith and Jones, are going in for a job interview. Smith has every reason to believe that Jones is going to be the man who gets the job, perhaps because the boss has said "Smith, you had better step your game up; Jones is a shoe-in for this job." Whatever the reason, Smith knows quite well that Jones is going to beat him out. 

As they are walking in, Jones notices a nickel and a penny on the ground and bends over to pick them up. He puts them in his pocket and continues on his way, but all Smith can think, in his somewhat distressed and downtrodden state of mind is, "How weird is it that the man who gets this job will have six cents in his pocket!" 

His belief is justified: he's been told that Jones is going to get the job and he watched Jones put the change into his pocket. Much to his surprise, though, Smith, himself, gets the job! Further to his surprise, when buying lunch, he reaches in to get his wallet and finds that yesterday's lunch's change is in there: exactly six cents. His Justified belief, that the man who gets the job will have six cents in his pocket, is true. You and I both know, however, that he didn't really know the outcome: he merely got lucky. 

Things spiral from there. Ideas about how Truth can be known ranged from the bizarre ("You can't know that you're not merely a brain-in-a-vat, connected to a bunch of electrical stimuli to simulate reality") to the hopeless. It came back around to what is called "Agrippa's Trilemma." 

Agrippa the Skeptic was a man who lived in the first century A.D. who used the following logic:

A) All justification must be justified
If justification must be justified, then the trail has to continue: you must justify that justification's justification. This is called an Infinite Regression, which is a logical fallacy, and must, therefore, be cast out.

As a side note, my favorite example of Infinite Regression comes from Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time:
"A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: 'What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.' The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, 'What is the tortoise standing on?' 'You're very clever, young man, very clever,' said the old lady. 'But it's turtles all the way down!'"

Infinite regression. It can't be turtles all the way down.

B) You can justify with a circular argument, but then the argument is invalid.
A circular argument which annoys me to no end: "God exists, because God's Word says He exists." This cannot hold up, for you cannot use a conclusion to justify a premise. Another example: "Anything less dense than water floats, because whatever is less dense than water cannot sink in it." You get the picture.

C) You cannot stop at self-evidence. 
These truths are self-evident: that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, some of which are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
Self-evidence, however, goes against the main premise: that all justification must be justified. What must be justified in the above, for instance, is the definition of "all men," for several of the men who wrote that were slave owners. Nothing is self-evident, for it all requires justification.

D) Therefore, we can conclude that knowledge is impossible.

So that's it. The death of Knowledge. We resort to relativism: "True for me" becomes Truth. It could be that everybody is right, so long as they stoutly believe and can back their arguments.


Freedom Through Destruction

We are hardwired to search for--not necessarily understand--capital-t-Truth. This sort of talk tends to make many in my crowd of people slightly uncomfortable. Particularly for a bunch who worship a God who calls himself "Truth," we don't like it when Truth's toes are stepped on.

But what I would like to propose is that raising the bar for "Truth" is not something that devalues or renders it impossible. It makes the stakes higher because seeking Truth is, arguable, the most important endeavor a human can undergo.

Seeking Truth is also the thing that binds us as a species. I am presently sitting on my couch next to my dog, who is chewing on a bone. He has no conception of Truth and no care for it. He is concerned with what will fill--or rub--his belly next. Even the more intellectually complex creatures like octopi or dolphins or chimps don't undergo philosophical projects. It could be argued that what separates man from beast is his ability undergo and fascination with embarking on self-reflection.

Sure, some put this human part of themselves off and mask it with frat machismo or base YOLO rubbish, but thinkers have argued for millennia that lives well-lived are those which fulfill a grander purpose than satisfying the base, animal desires so many have devoted their lives to indulging.

But Truth-seeking alone is hardly a practical existence. We must still forge relationships, earn a living, survive the everyday periods between waking up and lying down to sleep. A monk may have the luxury of meditating on Truth, but the rest of us certainly do not.

Therefore, we must be as Augustine said: "lovers of truth, no matter where it is found." This is where it gets tricky, though. Because show me thirty people and I'll show you thirty opinions of what is actually true.

Think of the great wedge of our era: Donald Trump. I have Facebook friends who think him the almost-literal antichrist; some an actual gift from God, Himself. Some say, "Can't you see why ____ is what's going to be the end of American society as we know it?" and others about that same thing, "Can't you see why ____ is necessary?"

Each of these groups think that what they are saying is true. They evaluate the good- or badness of Donald Trump (for instance) based on how well what he does aligns with how they perceive that the world should be. This is called bias. And in many ways, bias is the opposite of Truth.

I propose the destruction of bias: the rejection of seeing complex issues as black or white.

Listen, I understand that this sounds like a bit of a contradiction, considering I just made a point that something is either True or it is not. But here's my point:

Only in the destruction of your preconceived beliefs will you truly understand the freedom that Truth brings. If you are committed to Truth, you must be committed also to exposing falsehood--even if that means being wrong.

Build Your Boat

Otto Neurath proposed a method for truth-seeking that is at once practical and reverent. He used the metaphor of a boat. Here it is a nutshell:

We're all floating on an ocean and must stay afloat at all costs. But to do that, we must build a boat. There is driftwood floating by, so we build that boat out of whatever we can scrap together. As we scrap more wood together, our boat becomes more seaworthy; but we must be willing to replace old boards with newer, more robust ones. Eventually, we have a vessel that can keep us afloat, even if the individual pieces of it are subject to change.

So it is with undergoing Truth projects as regular humans. We absolutely must have ideals to cling to if we are to navigate the sea we're floating on. So we scrap Truth together as it helps us evaluate the world around us, and we keep building our Truth-boat better and better as we go along.

But the catch is that each plank of our boat must be examined for seaworthiness. If there are rotting boards, we have to fix them, or else they may endanger the entire vessel.

This is our desire at the Coffee Break Collective. By all means, collect Truth as you see it; but do not believe a Truth you have not examined. Truth is too valuable a thing to leave unexamined; commitment to it is too important to accept something simply because a headline--or a friend--tells you to.

It is only after you've whittled a stick down that it becomes useful as a spear. It is only after you've shed the fat that you can begin to build muscle.

It's only after you've removed the rotten boards that you can cling to the ones that will keep you afloat.

Hamilton Barber

The subject of this page is an introverted writer/musician/lunatic from Chattanooga, TN who dabbles in lexical dexterity, unorthodox thoughts on prosperity, and being overwhelmingly undeserving of the privilege of waking up every day. He hopes that everybody who reads these words takes them to heart and leaps higher than he ever could. He reads, thinks, and speaks too much; he listens, works, and loves too little; and he says “I” entirely too often. The words on these pages are not his: they are the words that were given to him.