1. Introduction
  2. The nature of belief and the nature of the underlying problem
  3. Beliefs as propositional assertions and principles of action
  4. The necessity of logical coherence and non-contradiction
  5. Beliefs as true or false representations of the world through a mirroring correspondence
  6. The “philosophic fallacy” again
  7. Pragmatist “epistemology” exemplified: the scientific conception of atmospheric pressure
  8. Freedom of belief reconsidered and rationality pragmatically conceived
  9. Conclusion



In The End of Faith, Sam Harris rests his critique of religious belief in large part on an epistemology of belief in general.  Specifically, in Chapter 2 he states that beliefs, and therefore religious beliefs inclusively, are intrinsically epistemic; that is, they are logically coherent and mutually non-contradictory propositional statements about the world, the truth of which depends on their faithful (or not) correspondence to a reality they ostensibly mirror.  To support this claim, Harris endorses a self-admittedly “naïve” and relatively unrepresented form of realism, one he contrasts specifically with pragmatism, and one against which he contrasts the epistemological claims of faith.  Specifically, Harris rejects faith-based belief as being, by its own stipulations, inherently non-realistic: there is no, and can be no, real evidence for or against it; therefore, when judged against the nature of belief generally, religious belief fails even in its purported aims.  In this respect, then, Harris’ realist epistemology plays a central role in his critique of faith.    Should that epistemology fail in some way, the faithful or those on their behalf might find room to re-assert the claim that religious belief is somehow exceptional, that if the epistemology of belief Harris offers fails to describe the nature of belief in general, then it can’t be used to judge religious belief against the norms of intelligent inquiry now accepted by all reasonable people.  In other words, one might argue that if Harris’ epistemology is as “naïve” as his realism, then so is his critique of faith.

This essay contends that this situation is unfortunate.  For as it stands, Harris’ epistemology is in fact naïve in an undesirable sense, despite being essentially correct in intent, and as such, it is open to criticisms and counter-arguments that would only deflect from its merits, a deflection which in turn would draw attention away from the force of Harris’s legitimate arguments against supernatural religion, steering them instead into pointless philosophical muttering and obfuscation.  Perhaps some religious philosophers have already engaged in this muttering and obfuscation; perhaps not.  But either way it is suggested here that Harris’ epistemology should be replaced with the “epistemology” of pragmatism—not the white-washed, neo-pragmatism of Richard Rorty and Donald Davidson, but rather the more robust theory of inquiry specific to the traditional pragmatists.[1]  To this end, in place of Harris’s naïve realism is offered a pragmatic realism, one asserting, like him and without blushing, the common sense reality of tables and chairs, blue skies, green grass, and everything else those of us with “ten fingers and ten toes” inherit in our innocence of philosophy (p. 279).  This pragmatic realism avoids any potential confusion that could arise from Harris’ use of naive realism, since his use still invokes traditional philosophical positions despite its non-philosophical representations.  In other words, the pragmatic “epistemology” suggested here tries to capture more faithfully that innocence of philosophy Harris endorses in principle, though in exposition may miss in practice, and in this respect any contribution from this essay remains largely cosmetic: in place of substantive criticism it offers a different  conceptual adornment, one that might nevertheless be useful for enhancing the overall appeal of the original to open minded folks who know a little about philosophy but usually end up scratching their heads in confusion as to what it’s is all about.  It is hoped that his adornment will occur both in the eyes of the original author as much as in the eyes of others who admire his expressed ideas as much as the current writer.  In any case, since the conclusions of this essay largely, if not completely, coincide with those in The End of Faith, the relative means of arriving at them may not be important.

The nature of belief and the nature of the underlying problem

In Chapter 2, Harris lays out five principles specific to his epistemology of belief, and he offers more detail on the philosophical underpinnings of these epistemic demands in two footnotes throughout the book.  First, beliefs are propositional assertions or statement of fact.  Second, these assertions represent principles of action.  Third, these beliefs must logically cohere with one another; specifically they should not contradict.  Fourth, these logically coherent and non-contradictory beliefs represent the world.   And fifth, these representative beliefs either correspond (when true) or don’t correspond (when false) to reality in a relationship where belief is said to mirror the world.  He suggests as an auxiliary that because of 1-5, there is in fact no—or very little—freedom of belief, i.e. one is not free to believe whatever one wants about the world.

Using these five characteristics of beliefs in general, Harris go on to develop a notion of rational belief differentiated from religious belief by virtue of the epistemic status of evidence.  Specifically, faith inherently disavows the need for evidence in either the formation or verification of belief, and in this respect it is intrinsically defective because even though its propositions ostensibly represent states of the world (or “reality” in the broadest sense), no evidence for them is offered—and even more problematically, evidence in principle cannot even be obtained.  Yet evidence sometimes is hypocritically endorsed anyway (in so called prophecies and fulfilling miracles), and courses of action are prescribed, including those imposing ‘belief’—or what amounts to the same thing, its consequences—on those who do not believe in the first place.  More will be said on the implicit freedom of belief that in fact underlies the ‘beliefs of faith’ (or any belief, for that matter)—that is, on Harris’ understandable folding of a norm (that ‘freedom of belief ought not be taken so seriously among rational people’) with a fact (that ‘freedom of belief in fact exists because plenty of people are irrational’).[2]  But for now the focus is on each of Harris’ five epistemic principles.  Taken together they potentially obscure the notion of rationality that Harris has them to serve—one based largely on his naïve realism—but they are not necessary for that essentially correct position.  In fact, since the naïve realism Harris endorses is usually befogged when coupled with the epistemic principles he asserts, this essay purports to clear up that potentially confusing air.

First and foremost, in general terms, in what way does the epistemology of belief that Harris sketches potentially confuse the “innocence of philosophy” inherent to the “naive realism” he espouses, admittedly confusions endemic to philosophy beginning with Descartes and lasting well into this century?  In fact the underlying issue is deceptively simple, and it has been formulated by the traditional pragmatists: if one distinguishes between belief and existence and asserts that true knowledge is the agreement of beliefs and this independent existence, then “what is the experience in which the survey of both idea and existence is made and their agreement recognized?”[3]  Or to put the matter more generally: if an event or thing or existence is “what-is-to-be-known,” and hence by description is unknown and is capable of being known only through the mediation of a proposition or belief—one which in turn must correspond to the to-be-known in order to be true—how is it ever possible to independently know anything?  For “the doctrine states that a proposition is true when it conforms to that which is not known save through itself.”[4]  No matter how one answers this question—whether one answers it with either “facts” or “ideas” given in a direct or immediate experience of self-sufficient, self-possessed, or self-evidently true propositions (Rorty’s “privileged representations,” representations that then serve as the basis for valid inferences)—once belief and existence are antecedently distinguished into two independent realms, one is left wondering how “something in experience could be asserted to correspond to something by definition outside of experience, which it is, upon the basis of epistemological doctrine, the sole means of ‘knowing’.”[5]  Since Descartes philosophy has struggled to free itself from this puzzle, ever since it began with the idea that we know the world through representations (or ideas, beliefs, etc.) of it.  The traditional pragmatists maintain that once one goes down this conceptual rabbit hole of belief as representation of the antecedently real, one is forever stuck in it.  There is just no getting out of the problem of trying to figure out how an antecedent reality can correspond to a belief about it when the only access to that reality is through the mediation of belief itself.

In order to avoid this enduring puzzle of representation and knowledge, Harris strikes out a rather rare epistemological position[6], one where “our senses, along with their extensions—telescopes, microscopes, etc.—merely deliver us the facts of the universe as they are” (p. 279).  That is, he maintains that this stipulation delivers us from the morass of philosophical paradoxes endemic to the dilemma just described, in that it preserves our innocence of philosophy and lets us get down to the business of simply examining what is right there in front of us, waiting to be known in the direct sensory and instrumental ways in which we can know it.  As a consequence of this realism Harris also says that “certain statements about the world are [therefore] true, whether they can be justified or not—and many justified statements happen to be false” (p. 283).

Now this writer happens to agree with both of these assertions, and he also sympathizes with Harris’ apparent desire to avoid the epistemological puzzles endemic to analytic philosophy, particularly the truncating relativism typical of the neo-pragmatists like Richard Rorty.  In fact, this writer would probably go even further in claiming that the philosophical-epistemological paradigm developed in American analytic philosophy and criticized by Rorty is, to put it bluntly, a colossal waste of time[7].  But unfortunately the genuine import of naive realism that Harris espouses is inconsistent with the epistemology of belief he presents; that is, asserting the latter undermines the perfectly sensible assertions of the former.  In other words, Harris’ five assertions about belief and knowledge commit him to an untenable position within this pointless philosophical-epistemological debate despite his best intentions.  In this respect, then, the main import of this essay can be read as an attempt to show how this commitment can be avoided concurrently with complete agreement on the essential thrust of the position he presents, specifically with its consequences for religious belief.

This divergence despite near complete agreement can be specified still further.  For instance, it should be stressed that it is not here denied that our eyes and our instruments give us unproblematic access to the things themselves, enabling us to assert without blushing that the sky is usually blue, that the grass in summer is green, that atoms make up matter, etc.  Nor is it denied that this access frees us to establish scientifically why these facts are the way they are, i.e. to determine the nexus of causes and conditions governing the truth of the statements about them.  In other words, no interesting epistemological questions arise from simply examining the world in a direct or instrumental manner and gathering data about it in our efforts to do and know; throughout what follows this relatively unproblematic access is assumed.[8]  Nevertheless, it is maintained that an epistemology where “true beliefs represent reality” because they “correspond to the world” through an apriori “mirroring” inevitably but equally unnecessarily obscures the nature of this unproblematic access—that it in fact mischaracterizes it.  In other words, as an epistemology, claiming that “true beliefs” are “representations of reality,” representations themselves composed of “beliefs” or “propositions” generated by the brain through sensory contact with the ambiently real—representations that in their turn must “correspond” to the world somehow because they mirror it in their very origin… as an epistemology this formulation mistakenly takes a sensible position like naïve realism and puts it into traditional philosophical terms that misleadingly suggest a philosophical quagmire that obscures—and even undermines—its best intentions.  Specifically, it embroils one in the pseudo-philosophical question of: if beliefs and representations are beliefs and representations of the world as antecedent to them, how is it that this antecedently real is truly known, if our only access to it is though the beliefs and representations generated by the senses and the brain, to wit, if this medium of representation as mediate access is our only means of knowing?  Perhaps Harris does not intend this formulation; perhaps his intentions are different.  And they seem to be.  Nevertheless it is maintained here that understanding knowledge as “true beliefs representative of reality” because they “correspond to” and “mirror” the world leads one, if great care is not taken, into a morass of unsolvable philosophical puzzles.[9]  In short, the position is often, if not inherently, problematic.

This problematic epistemological stance need not follow from naïve realism.  In fact, if the proper provisions are made in advance, naïve realism is a perfectly defensible position.  So to that end, a functional notion of belief as used in inquiry is suggested in this essay as a replacement for Harris’ existential notion of belief as a representation of the antecedently real.  Specifically, belief is said to be functional because in using it one remains mindful not of a correspondence with antecedent reality per se, but rather of the evidentiary role it plays in any intelligent inquiry, one that is examined with an eye to the tested consequences of any proposition.  That is, instead of basing the usefulness or validity of belief on a correspondence with the antecedently real it allegedly mirrors or represents (a correspondence that is always ultimately presumed in advance), the utility of belief is determined through the assessment of its consequences, both explicit and implied, irrespective of the question of an apriori ‘conformity’ to what antecedes it.  This functional understanding of belief defines traditional pragmatism and differentiates it from virtually all pre-pragmatic philosophy, particularly from the neo-pragmatists who misuse its mantle to prop up their own defunct epistemology; in essence they are “pragmatists” in name only.  In this pragmatic conception of belief, truth is determined by correspondence with the real consequences entailed in the belief; in the traditional epistemological conception, truth is determined by its conformity to an antecedent existence.  The goal of this essay is to stress the implications of this conceptual shift though an examination of each of the five principles specific to Harris’ conception of nature of belief.  Then the shift as such is discussed in more direct terms, particularly with regard to its power to explain how science actually works.

But before attempting to reach that goal, it should be stressed again: since the underlying motive in both Harris’ epistemology and this essay could reasonably be characterized as a commitment to the essential truth inherent to “our innocence of philosophy,” as stated before, what Harris’ appears to be aiming for remains untouched, and only his execution is questioned as to its potential implications and consequences—implications and consequences that embroil the reader in the potentially obfuscating puzzles of pre-pragmatic epistemology, or its neo-pragmatic varieties.   At the end of the analysis an alternative ‘epistemology’ of belief as “correspondence with” and “representation of” reality is offered, one that hopefully accommodates everything Harris seeks to accommodate with his naïve realism and its implied notion of rationality as an adjudication of belief through the public exchange of reasons and evidence.  And to this end, a specific scientific discovery is offered as a working example.  But before that more positive convergence can be appreciated, some conceptual groundwork must be cleared away and a more secure footing put in its place.  Discussion begins, then, with Harris’ five epistemic principles.

Beliefs as propositional assertions and principles of action

Harris states at least once but implies throughout the chapter that beliefs are “statements of propositional truth,” and in light of this, human beings, via the brain, can largely be seen as proposition generating machines who through “a capacity to evaluate new statements of propositional truth…knit together private visions of the world” that are useful in their everyday lives because the beliefs in this vision logically and semantically cohere with one another in ways that can be said to represent accurately states of the world—or colloquially, they can be said to correspond to ‘the way the world is’ (p. 51).   Implied in this claim—an implication developed in the first section of Chapter 2—is that our commerce with the world is mediated by these beliefs, and for Harris, these beliefs appear to be of a specific kind.  As examples he offers: “The house is infested with termites”, “tofu is not a dessert” and “Muhammad ascended to heaven on a winged horse.” Notably, these beliefs, along with the others he offers throughout the chapter, represent assertions of fact, and more specifically, assertions of fact about isolatable events, states of the world, or the properties of things, all of which can only be appreciated as true or false upon an examination (on independent grounds) of the claims intrinsic to the belief itself.  This examination of a belief is essential, in that it occurs in light of evidence invoked and/or sought on grounds ‘outside holding,’ as it were, the belief itself—in short, the evidence sought is relevant to the belief in so far the type of evidence that would make it true or false is implied in the belief itself, but this evidence remains sought through independent operations relying on independent grounds for that operation.  Presumably, naïve or direct realism provides these grounds, but whether or not that is the case, it can be said that these beliefs remain epistemically centered in a search for that ground: that is, they are implicitly truth claims, even when they are not explicitly expressed as such, and as truth claims they gain validity through corroboration with this independent evidence.  This characterization of belief as such suggests the first limitation to Harris epistemology: most of our beliefs are simply not epistemically centered truth claims, though it always remains possible to epistemically center them in the way that Harris (mistakenly) suggests is intrinsic to their nature.  Instead, most of our beliefs are functional or practical, and as functional and practical they are both different in kind than epistemic beliefs and corroborated in a different way (though to be sure, they are still thought of as true).

Now it is not here contested that people in their daily lives and their commerce with world do in fact form epistemic beliefs of the kind Harris presents; of course they do so often enough.[10]  Nor will it be asserted that factual propositions of this sort do not obtain from that commerce; clearly they do.  Rather it will be offered here that factual, inherently epistemic propositions of the kind Harris describes—the kind that must logically cohere and not contradict one another, the kind that are tested and corroborated through independent evidence obtained from independent grounds—are in fact largely derivative of beliefs of another kind, beliefs equally based in language and its representative function, but beliefs that are nevertheless more basic than factual propositions about the world generated within an epistemic interest.  In a word, then, these more basic beliefs are practical or functional, not epistemic per se—and perhaps better stated, functionally practical beliefs are only “epistemic” in the sense of their known correspondence with real, performed actions and its anticipated consequences, and not with the correspondence of the proposition to antecedent states of the world—a correspondence required in the propositional facts of Harris’ stripe.  Examples of functional, practical beliefs would include: “if I turn the handle and push, the door will open”; “if I turn the key, then the car will start”; “if I twist the gas cap, then it will come off”, “if I turn the knob, then the stove will come on,” “if I swing the hammer, then I’ll drive the nail”, “if I drink the water, I won’t be thirsty,” “if I have a snack, then I won’t be hungry,” etc.  In general, practical beliefs take on the form, ‘if I do this with x, then certain consequences entail’—or concomitant with that formulation, they state the action and its consequences into a subject-predicate form, as in “x is for…”  These beliefs are clearly propositional, and they remain about existent things, but they prescribe actions to be performed on or through objects more than they reflect factual properties about those object or states of the world related to them.   Instead, our “knowledge” of these objects is, as it were, primarily what we can do relative to, or on, or through them, coupled with the anticipation of the consequences entailed in this doing.  Thus any “epistemic interest” is rather limited, and more precisely stated, it is limited to knowing a function and its anticipated consequences.  It is suggested here that the overwhelming majority of the beliefs people have are of this sort—that they so dominate the architecture of our mental lives that it simply makes little sense to characterize belief as such in terms of the relatively infrequent epistemic beliefs we have.  Instead, the nature of belief should be understood in terms of its functional nature in doing and knowing, and this understanding has some important consequences.

First and foremost, because of the limited “epistemic interest” in functional practical belief, the truth of these belief occurs not so much in establishing a correspondence between the belief and the world, as much as it involves anticipating consequences that either happen to occur or not.  In other words, it is by correspondence with these consequences that a belief is thought to be true, i.e. it is true when the predicted consequences entail.  In this respect, then, practical beliefs are certainly knowledge, but they are not propositional knowledge corresponding to “facts about the world” in Harris’ sense—in other words, the sense in which they are facts about the world is limited to the sense in which the actions and consequences are indeed factual, i.e. that they do indeed occur.  Colloquially speaking, of course, these facts are known, but this knowledge remains different in kind than what is typically called propositional knowledge about states of affairs.  Instead of corresponding to the antecedent states of the world epistemic beliefs are purportedly about, practical beliefs prescribe activities or actions, and any truth as correspondence occurs in determining predicted consequences entailed in these actions.

Secondly, the different kind of knowledge characteristic of functional-practical belief is largely tacit knowledge—tacit in the sense that it is always already understood in our commerce with implements in the world around us without being brought explicitly to mind, much less stated in the form of propositions.  Uncontroversially—or at least, it should be uncontroversial—this tacit understanding is required for virtually everything we do: it is simply computationally impossible and utterly impractical for our actions and agency within the world to be directed by a propositional understanding of the meaning inherent in implements and tasks we take on.  In fact, this tacit understanding is so pervasive and directive that in almost all cases it is completely unnecessary—if not counter-productive as well—to formulate propositional beliefs about what we do and know.  Our functional and practical beliefs already contain all the information needed to ‘get by’ using the implements around us, and as such, knowledge as ‘correspondence with fact’ is both relatively rare in the use of these implements, mainly because the ‘contents’ of ‘factual propositions’ used in practical belief is always already observed or appreciated without explicit understanding—that is, without propositionally assertive statements of fact.[11]  This non-propositional characteristic of functional-practical belief—as asserted here, the beliefs by which the nature of belief should for the most part be understood—and its differentiation generally between from epistemic belief, is best illustrated with a concrete example involving both kinds.

As an example, consider just about any practical task a person might be faced with, say scrambling eggs, driving a car to work, or even just leaving the house in order to drive the car to go to work, to wit, opening the door to the garage.  Under Harris’ account, beliefs as “statements of propositional truth about the world” would govern this conduct; indeed, for him they would make this conduct possible and would even be generated in the first place because we are organisms that sense at a distance and have to act and move based on what we sense (as he notes, it is probably our capacity for movement that drove the evolution of cognition as belief formation).  But the question is: what kind of beliefs do people form when faced with a task—a “task” here tautologically defined as something people do in order to get something done?  Do they first obtain propositional facts about the implements or objects involved in the task, and then perform the task based on the stated truth claims therein, or do they first formulate a belief as a principle of action that is based on something one must do, then look to the consequences of that action through using the object, thereby determining whether or not the “belief” about the object is true?  ‘Propositions of fact’ as such may or may not follow.  Admittedly this later kind of belief would still be an ‘assertion of fact’ of a kind, but it would be both existentially and functionally different than the propositional truth of the kind Harris seems to have in mind, for in actuality it would prescribe a course of action out of which certain existential consequences would entail—consequences relying on the appreciated properties of the object, to be sure—but, critically, those properties need not be known per se beyond their relevance for use; in fact, they remain largely unknown in any other way.[12] So the question boils down to this: is an acting agent’s interest primarily epistemic or practical, and is there difference between the kinds of belief formed in the two interests?   This issue is germane to Harris’s epistemology of belief, in so far as he says that beliefs are true or false epistemic propositions about the states of the world upon which are based principles of action.  This statement is almost certainly true in a sense, but that sense must be carefully de-coupled, as it were, from doing any work in an epistemological argument—i.e. the kind of work Harris assigns for it.  In other words, the nature of belief ‘as such,’ if described in those terms, must be more carefully described in terms of the beliefs we are most likely to have and to use, and not in terms of those best suited to making a philosophical argument.

In any case, it is suggested here that functionally speaking there is an important difference between epistemic and practical beliefs, and more specifically, that the initial interest in belief formation is practical and not epistemic, and that this initial interest has important consequences for any “epistemology” of belief.  Specifically, because of the initial practical interest, most beliefs formed will in fact articulate a principle of action, one with anticipated consequences, one in which the implement or objects involved will be understood in light of their potential use for the task at hand, and not in terms of it factual properties per se—properties onto which an activity is then grafted ex post facto, acting thereby as a basis for a principle of action.  In other words, propositional, factual assertions about objects do not come first, followed by stipulations for use; rather, practical operations using objects comes first, operations and their consequences being enshrined in the belief itself.  This difference is epistemologically important, and it is important because functionally speaking practical beliefs carry within their very formulation both a principle of action and an intrinsic criterion for the ‘truth claims’ contained within them, a criterion based on evidence disclosed directly in the operations prescribed.  This can be contrasted with beliefs formed with an epistemic interest, for those require independent operations of inquiry in order to seek out and evaluate evidence related to the truth claims implied in the proposition.  The significance of this difference will be elaborated upon shortly.  For the time being it is important to make the distinction between practical and epistemic beliefs more concrete by returning to the chosen example.

Returning to the idea of opening a door, when approaching a door to leave the house, one does so with something like the following proposition in mind: “if I turn the handle and pull, then the door will open.”  That proposition is, as it were, the belief about the door.  In other words, one approaches the door practically, directly, with a purpose in mind, and when faced with opening it, one does not have, and one does not need to have, a set of propositional statements of the kind “the house is infested with termites” or “tofu is not a dessert,” etc.—in this case, perhaps, factually determinate propositions such as “the door has a handle”, “the door has hinges on which it swings”, “the door is light enough to be moved,” “the handle is within arm’s reach,” “handles open the latches on doors,” etc.  To be sure, these factual conditions must obtain in order for the door to work as the door that it is, and these factual conditions can always be asserted propositionally.  But to work the door, one need only have one belief about how the door functions, not many beliefs about its properties from which to infer its function and formulate an action.  In this respect, then a practical belief differs from Harris’ epistemic belief: it’s usually one belief about how to do something to or with an implement, not several propositions about the implement upon which one then bases knowledge of how to use it.[13]

The import of this difference can be further appreciated by noting that in the case of the door, one can be completely ignorant of its asserted (or assertable) properties as such and still manipulate it perfectly well.  In other words, one can know little or nothing about how or why an object works, so long as it works the ‘way it is intended to’.  Summarily, one need not know any facts about it.  Not only is this fact readily observable in most cases of dealing with objects in daily life (who really knows, epistemically and propositionally speaking, anything about electricity, or how cars work, or for that matter why water boils); it can be even better illustrated in an instance where we know, by the limits of cognitive development, that ignorance, not propositional knowledge, prevails.  For consider what occurs when a toddler learns to open a door.  Toddlers clearly know nothing factual or propositional about doors—if “know” is taken as “statements of propositional truth” reflecting the real properties characteristic of an object.  Yet they learn to open doors rather readily.  In most cases they only have to observe how an adult does it, then perform the action themselves.  Now it could be said, plausibly, that the toddler has a belief about the door; otherwise how or why could she ever act on it.  And it may even be that in some form this belief is propositional, in the sense of “if I do this, then that will occur.”  But clearly, even if the knowledge is propositional in some sense, it is not epistemically factual: the toddler is not asserting a factual property about doors and then formulating a principle of action based on it, for as a toddler, he is vitally ignorant of these factual properties, even as she forms a ‘belief’ about the door.  Instead, the belief about the door is the principle of action upon it, and that belief is known in so far—and only in so far—as the consequences of that action are observed.  Far from epistemic assertions of fact, toddlers ‘believe’ and ‘know’ about the objects in their world largely through their functional correspondences, not correspondence of beliefs to isolated, antecedent states of the world.[14]

It is maintained here that in this respect toddlers represent all of us who know and act: we need not and in fact do not know much of anything about propositionally-factual properties of the objects or world around us, even as we act on or through implements on this world.  But nevertheless toddlers—and we epistemologically ignorant adults—can be said to have beliefs about these objects, or more generally, beliefs about the world.  It is here maintained than the lion’s share of the beliefs we form about the world are like this, in that they have little, if anything, to do with what could be called ‘factual propositions’ garnered under an epistemic interest; that therefore it makes little sense to characterize beliefs as such in terms of the properties of a relatively small number of beliefs we hold—or to use Harris’ terms, to characterize beliefs as such in terms of “statements of propositional truth” that are then checked against the world for their “correspondence.”  For consider, if Harris epistemic stipulation is true—that is, if belief as such is intrinsically epistemic—it becomes hard to imagine how people would ever be able to do very much of anything, for 1) in actuality they are usually ignorant of all but the trivially observable properties of the objects they use, and those properties are usually limited to the ones only directly implicated in use,[15] and 2) with beliefs as epistemically centered propositions, our practical activity becomes nearly inexplicable, for in placing an epistemic interest in the truth of propositions over a practical interest in the use of objects, Harris’ epistemology of belief consigns us to formulating and processing massive, if not uncountable, numbers of true beliefs prior to prescribing courses of action on objects.  And furthermore, this formulation would have to apply to a nearly infinite variety of situations, the details of which cannot possibly be anticipated in advance.[16] With both consequences in mind, practical activity becomes highly problematic—and in any case, problematic or not, beliefs as propositions of fact (the kind that are or are not verified epistemically) are not relied on very often in daily life, and as such they don’t likely represent the ‘nature of belief’ in general.  Much simpler beliefs about functional correspondences and rules of actions with consequences prevail.

Now even if it is granted that most of our belief are practical propositions, not epistemic ones of the kind Harris offers, it could be pointed out that belief in the proposition “if I turn the handle and pull, then the door will open” is in fact an true statement about a state of affairs in the world, to wit: that doors open when you turn their handles and pull on them.  It could also be called “epistemic” in the sense that it represents real knowledge about those affairs.  And what is more, it could be pointed out that this belief is true when the state of affairs proposed in the belief corresponds to the reality ‘the door in fact opens when I turn the handle and pull’.[17]  But far from being an objection to the point directed at here, it illustrates its confirmation.  For all that is maintained is that propositions of an epistemic kind like “the house is infested with termites” and “tofu is not a dessert” and “Muhammed ascended to heaven on a winged horse” differ functionally from propositions of a practical kind like “if I turn the handle and pull, then the door will open”, and relative to the latter, they former are too rare to characterize ‘the nature of belief’ as such.  First, they differ functionally in that the former state facts about the world upon which a course of action may or may not be based—and in any case one which must be inferred—whereas the later prescribe action based directly on the belief itself.  But secondly and more importantly, they function differently with regard to how the truth of the propositions is determined.  In an epistemic claim like “the house is infested with termites” or “Muhammed ascended to heaven on a winged horse”, truth can only be determined through independent operations of conceptualization and observation always requiring new courses of action and their anticipated consequences (test, observe, measure, etc.)—consequences that must in turn be contextualized as evidence for or against the proposition.   For a practical belief like “if I turn the handle and pull, then the door will open,” the truth or falsity of the proposition is obtained naively and directly through the application of the belief itself; no independent or intervening steps are required.  In other words, to test the veracity of an epistemic belief, one must gather evidence in operations independent of having the belief, whereas in having a practical belief, the evidence virtually gathers itself in the performance that the belief represents.[18]  Since this second functional difference is particularly germane to Harris’ notion that propositional knowledge both comprises our cognitive life and serves as causes of action, it will be developed in more detail first.

With regard to how the truth of a proposition is obtained, the functional differences between a practical belief and an epistemic one can be said to be structured into the belief itself, as the instant example shows.  For in the case of practical belief, “if I turn the handle and pull, then the door will open,” either the door opens or it does not; there are no mediating beliefs or steps involved: the evidence for or against the proposition is virtually ‘self-evident’ in the test by the predicted consequences.  But in the case of an epistemic belief as a factual proposition about the world (“the house is infested with termites,” for instance), several intervening steps of belief are required in order to affirm or deny the belief.  In this case, wood dust at a base board could be taken as evidence that termites might be at work, a belief itself guided by a belief about what termites do, i.e. chew through wood.  An operation is prescribed: remove the wall and observe.  The wall is then opened up and the frame boards examined.  If there are tunnels and more wood dust (again, a belief about termites is invoked), then there are probably termites, but it could be carpenter ants.  If termites are found, then the proposition is confirmed, but if they are not, perhaps it is modified in light of the evidence to say “the house was infested with termites” or “maybe it was infested with ants”…and so forth.  Regardless of the ‘complexity’ of an epistemic claim, independent operations and conceptualizations of this kind are required for the evidence relevant to the proposition to bear.[19]  In the case of the practical belief, they are not, and this functional difference is important in so far as Harris seems to conflate beliefs of an epistemic kind with those of the practical kind in both his genetic account of belief (its origin in movement) and in his conception of the kinds of belief comprising our cognitive life (he only offers examples only of the epistemic kind).  In both respects he seems to err: beliefs originating in sensing and movement are almost certainly practical and not epistemic, and most of the beliefs we have, if counted up (assuming such a task is possible), are functional and practical as well, not epistemic.

Recurring to the previously highlighted difference between epistemic and practical beliefs—the stipulation that epistemic beliefs are themselves principles of action—Harris seems to err there too—or if not err, per se, then at least link epistemic beliefs and principles of action in a problematic way.  For in the first section of Chapter 2, “Beliefs as Principles of Action,” Harris suggests that beliefs of the kind he has in mind are by their very nature principles of action.  However, to simply state the contrary here, beliefs as ‘principles of action’ necessitating a specific action—in other words, beliefs that by their very nature are a principle of action—must prescribe the action in their formulation, and not remain as one possible implication in an assertion of fact, as in: “if I swing the hammer and strike the nail, then the nail will be driven into the board” versus “a hammer is for driving nails”—or returning to the operative example, “if I turn the handle and pull, the door will open,” not “the door is for opening a way into another room”.  In other words, practical beliefs as principles of action differ in kind from factual propositions like “the hammer is heavy,” “hammers are for driving nails”, “the door has a handle, it has hinges, doors open on hinges with handles”…and so forth, and only beliefs of the former kind directly lead to or cause action per se: the latter cause it no more than having a hammer causes one to drive a nail, or believing facts about a door causes one to open it; one can simply use the hammer or door not—or in this case, one can simply use the factual proposition for form a belief as a principle of action or not.[20]  In so far as Harris seems to conflate factual and functional beliefs generally, he errs specifically on the question of beliefs as principles of action.  Simply put, epistemic beliefs can be modified into practical beliefs as principles of action, but they do not by themselves serve as that principle—and in fact, in the order of genesis, the reverse is likely true: epistemic beliefs about the world largely follow upon, or are contextualized inside, practical beliefs that are themselves intrinsically principles of action, and not vice versa.[21]

To summarize this section, then, Harris appears to conflate two kinds of beliefs, those generated in an epistemic interest and those generated in a practical one, and he does so by only offering beliefs of the former kind as defining the kinds of beliefs we have, then implying that principles of actions are essentially one-of-apiece with those epistemic beliefs.  Both conflations are unfortunate because beliefs do in fact make up a large component of our cognitive life, they are in fact usually causes of action, and they do most likely originate, evolutionarily speaking, in the fact that we sense at a distance and move.  But contra the epistemology implied in Harris’s examples and discussion, it is maintained here that practical beliefs as primary serve all these function much better than beliefs of the epistemic kind (the only kind he offers), in that they account for all he seeks to account for without imposing the unlikely cognitive burden of a life of activity incessantly driven by corroboration and verification though independent and intervening operations.  Since this corroboration and verification neither explains how we actually get about in the world, nor is likely simple enough to be evolutionarily sound, epistemic interests and the belief specific to it is likely secondary to practical interest and the belief specific to it.  Conflating epistemic beliefs with the nature of belief as such obscures the vital and likely primary role of practical beliefs in our cognitive life.[22]

The necessity of logical coherence and non-contradiction

This conflation of epistemic with practical belief, if present so far in Chapter 2, becomes even more evident in the requirement that in order to be true in the strict sense, our beliefs must largely cohere with one another both semantically and logically, semantically in terms of what the propositions mean and logically in terms of remaining non-contradiction—or as Harris says, “the first thing to notice about beliefs is that they must suffer the company of their neighbors” (p. 53).  The only way to approach this stipulation is to assert that it is over-specified in once sense (semantic coherence is important when beliefs are used in the context of specific inferences about the world, but it is not a property of beliefs themselves when taken as a whole) and in error in the other (practical beliefs need not, and to be functional indeed cannot, be subject to the law of non-contradiction, except in their application in specific, case by case circumstances).  First, the problem of non-contradiction.

In an opening illustration that could be multiplied to include quite a few practical beliefs regarding artifacts or tasks one encounters, for a belief to be useful it must, when taken as a belief as such, be able to endure being contradictory with other beliefs, though in actual practice the import of this ‘contradiction’ dissolves; that is, it becomes disambiguated when the belief is put to use.  Take as an example of a useful belief that virtually all of us have: “if I turn (or lift, etc.) the handle and pull, then the door will open.”  Now set this next to another belief that virtually all of us have as well: “if I turn (or lift, etc.) the handle and push, then the door will open.”[23]  If examined as beliefs might be examined in a logical textbook, i.e. simultaneously on a page, these beliefs clearly contradict one another.   That is, they prescribe contradictory operations to get the same result.  Therefore, if by analogy one stipulates that they ‘reside in the mind’ somehow, waiting to be used—in the sense that they are available cognitively in some way prior to their use, existing as on a page in a logic textbook, ‘suffering the company of their neighbors’—then these beliefs will  contradict.  However one conceptualizes their being held by a person harboring a set of beliefs, taken strictly as beliefs—as one related to another ‘in waiting,’ as it were—they are opposites.  But in fact both beliefs are not just eminently useful for practical affairs but are arguably also necessary in their “contradiction” because doors in fact both push and pull to open and close (handles sometime work in similarly opposite way, as well, as do many other implements).  Holding both beliefs is therefore quite useful, and this particular instance could be multiplied for many beliefs about many kinds of tasks and objects, especially those involving opposite actions to get the same or similar effects in the real world.

Though trivial in a sense as an example of contradictory beliefs, the underlying point expressed is not trivial at all.  And to that point it doesn’t really matter for the purposes of the logical non-contradiction of beliefs that the propositions offered in this example in a real sense ‘mean different things’ because they technically apply to different situations, to different kinds of doors, or to the same door relative to entering or exiting.  That much is of course true, but it is true not because different beliefs are in fact held.   Rather it is true because having contradictory practical beliefs inherently allows for the possibility that in different situations one encounters different kinds of doors.  In real terms, then, the inconsistency of the beliefs simply reflects the inconsistency of the world, and one of the strengths of belief is that it is flexible in this regard; it’s eventual meaning can dissolve the contradiction because as applied only one of the beliefs is put to use, or both are and one eventually figures out which belief actually enables opening the door.  But it should be noted: this difference in the eventual meaning because of the application of the belief(s)and therefore any resolution of the logical contradiction via that eventual meaning— invokes an extra-logical element.  In other words, the differentiating criterion determining the application of the belief comes from existential determinations ‘outside’ the propositions, as it were; it does not follow from the meaning of the terms in involved.  Taken in their plain meaning, the two beliefs remain contradictory, and this suggests two things.

First, when formulating practical beliefs, agents do so in simple terms that may lead to contradictions when the beliefs are compared as ‘logical propositions’ held together ‘as waiting in the mind,’ but this contradiction disappears when the belief is disambiguated in actual situations through the introduction of extra-logical elements (to wit, existential facts pertaining to the actual door, to the situation in question, etc.).  And second, people, when holding practical beliefs, don’t as a rule formulate them in all their specificity, such that as they are ‘held together in readiness for use,’ the contradictions disappear—that is, they don’t, in holding them, exposit the full set of conditions or contexts in which the beliefs are true or false and also non-contradictory in advance of or concomitant with holding them.  And indeed, how could they?  How could one ever have all the specific beliefs one would need to believe just to function for a day, much less for a lifetime, of varying situations, prior to encountering this variation—and once these belief are formed, police them for non-contradiction?  How would one even formulate beliefs with all their required specificity so that when held somehow ‘in the mind’, none of them would contradict?  And finally, how could one store beliefs for every encounterable situation, beliefs remembered in all their specificity required to get the thing done, but usually only applicable to that specific use for that specific implement?  It seems much simpler (and therefore more likely) to form beliefs useful to specific kinds of tasks, even if those beliefs contradict one another, leaving the resolution of the contradiction to the disambiguating extra-logical elements specific to the task at hand (turning the screw clockwise or counter clockwise to insert or remove it even as “turning” is believed to accomplish both, or twisting the lid one way or another, etc.).

So contra the requirement that beliefs must be inherently non-contradictory, it is much more effective to hold simpler beliefs like the rule just described, beliefs that stand in whatever relation they happen to stand with one another, with a norm like the logical consistency of non-contradiction applied not to their ‘occurrence in the mind’ as ‘held’ before their use but reserved rather for their specific use in specific situations.  To be sure, in a specific situation a door cannot both pull and push open, and in the application of one of the beliefs, the law of contradiction would apply: both rules can’t be true in the same situation at the same time.  But the “contradiction” prior to that between the two beliefs would be completely immaterial to them as tools for navigating around in the world, so long as the belief is applied when conditions for its truth factually obtain (and this would be known by the results, that is, if in fact one accomplished what one set out to do).  Whether or not those conditions factually obtain is often, if not usually, a matter for separate inquiry, or even a matter for trial and error; in any case it is extra-logical.  But this inquiry and trial and error would not be very productive, if even possible at all, if in advance of it beliefs had to be logically coherent in the sense of non-contradiction.  If they had to be, belief formation would require too much foresight to be possible and too much specificity in memory to be either possible or even useful.  In other words, without leaving beliefs in a general form that may or may not contradict one another, they would not be general enough to apply to situations in the real world that are ‘contradictory’, or perhaps to unforeseen possibilities at all.[24]

With this analysis of contradictory practical beliefs in mind, Harris’s American embassy example can be seen in a different light than the one he suggests, one that illuminates not the exception of belief that must be accounted for but rather the nature of belief that must be considered when beliefs are put to eventual use to resolve a situation or solve a problem.  For in that example Harris and his wife naturally compartmentalized beliefs relative to two tasks at hand, namely 1) finding a room somewhere in a booked up city, preferably one with a good view and 2) sight-seeing while avoiding the American embassy because of 9-11 and the 4th of July.  But when the beliefs specific to the two tasks at hand came together in unified whole—the situation of having a room at a hotel overlooking the embassy—the ‘contradiction’ within the two beliefs used in the separate tasks became apparent in light of the facts at hand: the room was right next to the American embassy.  This performative contradiction is illuminating precisely because it shows that contradiction between beliefs is only an issue in their application, not in their antecedent existence, irrespective of the functions to which they are put.  As in their case, ‘contradiction’ among beliefs may not even be evident, and it certainly need not apply, prior to this use.

To elaborate on this point, consider the matter this way.  If this example involved a situation as simple as opening a door, where the obvious and immediate step of deciding to push or pull it open is dispositive, no doubt the contradiction experienced by Harris and his wife would never have arisen—or to put the matter more accurately, resolving it would have inherently solved the problem of how to open the door.  But since finding a hotel room and avoiding the American embassy both take several mediating steps, each with its own set of intervening beliefs, the potential inconsistency of two contradictory, underlying beliefs only became apparent once those mediating steps were played out.  Compartmentalizing belief in this way relative to separate tasks, though not necessarily in this stark an example with this kind of belief, is perfectly normal.  By analogy it is very much like the carpenter not worrying about the ‘logical coherence’ or ‘logical non-contradiction’ of the tools in his toolbox, or a decorator not seeking the same principle of design in different parts a house, prior to execution of either tasks for which the tools or principles are used.  It is suggested here that as with tools, so with beliefs: the issues of internal coherence and contradiction just don’t come up as they ‘relate’ to one another just ‘waiting in the mind’ anymore than the issue comes up for tools ‘sitting in the box’—and in fact, taken as tools with various functions, some may indeed ‘contradict’ one another, or fail to cohere into a single purpose.  But so long as they are used appropriately as means towards specific ends with an eye to the truth of their use as determined in terms of the consequences obtained, and not with respect to how one antecedently conceives them, then the carpenter or the decorator will be fine with whatever relationships the tools or principles may have to one another prior to the task for which she uses them.  Issues like non-contradiction only arise in the specific use of belief.  It does not arise as an issue in their conformity to a norm that precedes that use.

Turning from the issue of non-contradiction and toward another of the ways in which beliefs must suffer the company of their neighbors, Harris also stipulates that we must “seek coherence among our beliefs whenever we can” even though total coherence, “even in a maximally integrated brain, would be impossible to achieve.”  By “coherence” he seems to mean valid logical and/or semantic relations between the propositions one could construct out of the words one uses to describe most situations, such as: “I am walking in the park; parks generally have animals; lions are animals… therefore I may or may not see a lion in the park..”—relations including, but not limited to, inferences based on those propositions (p. 57).  As Harris seems to imply, in order to be both true and useful representations of the world, these valid logical relations must apriori obtain among propositions, and that being coherent in this way is inherent both to their utility and to their truth—in fact, because of this condition utility and truth are indeed one and the same; they would not be useful if they were not also true in this way.

Now if “coherence” is taken merely as a matter of logical consistency in any attempt to know or settle a given practical problem, then there is little ground to dispute the claim.  For when used in this way, beliefs must logically cohere in order to be useful, otherwise they wouldn’t likely solve the problems they purport to solve.  In the example just quoted, the problem to solve or the attempt to know might relate to what kind of animal one might see in the park, and so forth.  But with that point conceded, the computation Harris uses to illustrate the impossibility of “total coherence,” even in a “maximally integrated brain,” should in fact be taken to show that even minimal coherence among beliefs prior to their functional role in solving specific problems is impossible, and therefore uncharacteristic of belief as such.  For in his example some fraction of 300 beliefs of the sort he describes might get one out of bed, dressed, breakfasted, and out the door and on the way to work in the morning, but anything beyond that and the computational demands of coherence simply suggests that coherence is not demanded: too many beliefs are required for agents to get by in the world, and the intractable problem of policing coherence among them all suggests that apriori coherence is not a real problem in the first place.  Again, in any specific attempt to know something or solve a specific problem, there will be far fewer beliefs, and these beliefs must logically cohere, otherwise the steps in solving the problem will lead to some outcome other that its intended solution.  But coherence among beliefs as a set existing prior to their specific use is not desirable because it’s just not possible.  At this point the metaphor of a toolbox or a decorated house is again invoked.  Like with non-contradiction, logical coherence need not be a property of beliefs as a set ‘in the mind’ any more than the logical coherence of the functions of tools need be a property of the tools ‘in the toolbox.’  Like with linguistically, formed beliefs it is enough to stipulate that they are all tools, to be used as tools are used—or in the case of beliefs, that they all are or can be propositionally stated, to be used as intermediaries in controlled inquiry.  Prior to that the issues of non-contradiction or logical coherence of beliefs as a property of the set simply need not arise, and in fact does not arise.  For how could it, given the computational impossibility of establishing logical coherence among anything like the number of beliefs we need, even if delegated to unconscious processes?

At this juncture a tightening up of the perspective implied throughout the preceding discussion is almost unavoidable.  And to tighten it up, it could be said that in his epistemology of belief Harris seems to commit what traditional pragmatists have called “the philosophic fallacy”—that of turning an eventual function into properties of an antecedent existence, applicable in this case in that beliefs are for Harris proposed to exist antecedently ‘in the mind’ with properties than in actuality only emerge in their eventual use, namely propositionality, non-contradiction and logical coherence.  To invoke the metaphor of the toolbox once again, it is one thing to say that the tools in use, as used, function coherently and without contradiction in the eventual uses to which they are put, i.e. that they don’t get used in ways contrary to their efficient function.  But it is another thing altogether to say that prior to that functional use the tools in the box must functionally cohere and can’t stand in relations of exclusion to one another.  In actuality they don’t cohere and they do stand in mutual exclusion, for they are different tools, sometimes with exactly opposite purposes, or even the same tool for opposite purposes.  This guiding metaphor may be weak, or it may not be, but in either case the underlying point is the same: it is a philosophical mistake, one made since Locke and Hume and brought to fruition in recent Anglo-American philosophy, to take beliefs as a set of any sort existing in the mind prior to their eventual use, but still in that antecedent state be possessed of properties that only emerge in their eventual function—specifically, to be possessed of the properties that only emerge in their eventual function as tools for adapting to the world by solving the problems encountered there.  The import of this mistake can be seen chiefly by articulating both what it acknowledges and what it avoids.

In this first place, pointing out the philosophic fallacy acknowledges that in some respect beliefs must exist in some sense prior to their use; indeed, they must, for it simply makes no sense to say that in one’s mind there are no beliefs lying in wait to be used.  For otherwise how could they be used.  But in the second place, recognizing the fallacy is to admonish any prescription that these pre-existing beliefs must, in their prior existence, necessarily obey rules or have properties that accrue to them primarily—and for a true pragmatist only—in their specific uses.[25] To put it simply: beliefs prior to their use in knowing and doing need not logically cohere and need not not-contradict one another because they need not relate to each other at all, except in the simultaneously loose and narrow sense that they are linguistically formed, or formable, propositions[26].  The rules of logical and semantic coherence, in other words, don’t characterize belief as such prior to the roles they play in doing and knowing, and to assume they must simply by virtue of being beliefs—as Harris seems to assume—mistakes accruals from eventual use with the properties of an antecedent existence—in short, it commits “the philosophic fallacy”.

Pointing out the commitment of the philosophic fallacy is not to deny, of course, that in actuality many, if not most, of the beliefs we have prior to any given use do in fact logically or semantically cohere, or that they don’t contradict one another.  Indeed, many established beliefs that have already been successfully used in getting about in the world will obey these rules prior to any repeated use.  But this submission to logical coherence and non-contradiction is not inherent to their nature as belief as such; rather these properties have accrued to them through their prior, established uses, and those properties persist to more or less degrees as the beliefs are retained.  So in so far as they have been successfully used to resolve prior situations and to know prior facts about the world, beliefs can be said, relative to a repeated use, to exist “apriori” as semantically coherent and logically non-contradictory.  But this relationship among the beliefs need not—and indeed cannot be, as a matter of computational intractability and/or usefulness in new situations—be a cognitive requirement inherent to having beliefs as such.  This last suggestion about usefulness in new situations is important enough to warrant separate development.

Specifically, if it were necessary that beliefs logically or semantically cohere and not contradict one another solely in virtue of having them, it is difficult, if not impossible, to understand how beliefs could ever be appropriate for new contexts, where they would acquire new meanings specific to new problems or new facts.  In other words, if logical coherence and non-contradiction were inherent to having belief as such, then it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to understand how belief could be flexible enough to adapt to new situations which require enduring contradictions in order for discovery to be made, as well be capable of adapting a new logical and semantic coherence when that new coherence will be inconsistent with what is already known.  Requiring their compliance to these epistemic rules apriori simply by virtue of having belief would restrict their uses to things already known and problems already solved, yet contrary to this restriction beliefs are in fact used all the time in novel situations to solve problems, solutions which force a redefinition of their logical and semantic relations with one another, and in this way give them new logical and semantic properties.  As such, coherence and logical non-contradiction adhere after that fact of use but not before it, except in cases where previous use has rendered them coherent and non-contradictory, and therefore applicable to the same, or very similar, situations.  Simply put, if logical or semantic coherence were required of having belief as such—as Harris suggests it is—belief would not be flexible enough to adapt to new situations that contradict or fail to cohere what is already known or done in prior situations; it wouldn’t be able to adapt to new situations requiring a new logical and semantic coherence.  In short, coherence and non-contradiction as properties apriori of belief as such makes it impossible to explain learning, as opposed to expositing what is already known or established.

So the required flexibility of belief indicates that logical or semantic coherence and non-contradiction accrue to belief after that fact of use and not before it, but it may suggest something even more far reaching about the nature of belief as such, in that most of the ‘beliefs’ we have priori to knowing and solving actual problems may not even preexist ‘in the mind’ as propositions in any meaningful sense of the term—that in fact propositional beliefs per se are mainly constructed ‘on the fly’ from a non-propositional and tacit understanding, one based in part on prior beliefs, to be sure, but an understanding that nonetheless remains largely, if not exclusively, non-propositional.[27]  In this respect, then, propositional belief formation in its own right could be grounded in a non-propositional appreciation of the qualities of objects and an apriori understanding of the referential context in which tasks are carried out, tasks for which specific problems arise.  Along this line it could even be stipulated: the most useful ‘beliefs’ we form, as propositions, don’t pre-exist their use in the formulation of the problems they purport to solve, in that they exist as part and parcel of the statement of its terms, and as the means to its eventual solution—in other words, they only come to persist ‘in the mind’ as available for possible use in similar situations after they have been so constructed from a pre-propositional understanding to solve the prior problem.  Understood in this way, as means that afford a solution to a problem or consummate a task, propositional beliefs as “statements of fact” (or per above, as practical statements of ‘if-then’) must logically cohere with and not contradict one another, but prior to their use in formulating a problem and obtaining a solution, there do not exist as propositions beliefs per se that can even be said to conform apriori to epistemic norms.[28]  Instead, they ‘recede,’ as it were, back into the tacit understanding of qualities and/or a referential context out of which they emerged and which acts as the basis of their formation—a basis that would ipso facto insure the kind of flexibility needed for obtaining useful beliefs in a variety of situations (in that they are formed with their very use in mind, as they are needed).  Such a flexibility tolerant tacit understanding would be far superior—and therefore may be more likely—than what might otherwise exist as a set of propositions arrayed with respect to one another.  In short, most of our pre-existing knowledge may in fact remain non-propositional, even as this non-propositional understand always remains ready to be stated in terms of propositions.

In any case, non-propositional understanding or not, Harris seems to say that beliefs, as propositions inherent to our cognitive apparatus, inherently conform to epistemic norms—that properties like logical coherence and non-contradiction define beliefs as such.  And he seems to do this because he takes our “private vision of the world” to be composed of propositional statements of fact which stand in relation to one another under the mandate of these epistemic norms.  In the strict sense of the term, however, “belief” is probably not principally propositional knowledge, and even if it is, these propositions do not—because they need not and indeed cannot—inherently adhere apriori to epistemic norms, despite the fact that their eventual use in knowing and doing require that they be able to take on those norms.  By imposing on belief epistemic norms as features inherent to them in an antecedent existence, instead of as properties accruing to them in their eventual use, Harris commits what pragmatists have called “the philosophic fallacy”, a commitment that in this author’s eyes obscures the thrust of his legitimate point that belief as used to know the world should in fact be judged by epistemic norms.  By making this compliance intrinsic to their existence, however, Harris only weakens the import of his argument in so far as this intrinsic compliance is an error, and this error potentially opens a crack into which a lot of nonsense about religious belief as an exception could then pour (for if Harris is wrong, must not his opponents therefore be right?).  It would be more in the spirit of his intent to simply say that when used to do and know, beliefs indeed must logically or semantically cohere and not contradict one another, not that in their antecedent existence they intrinsically do so.

Beliefs as true or false representations of the world through a mirroring correspondence

Before examining Harris contention that true beliefs are representations of the world that mirror reality, it is important to reexamine the epistemological stakes invoked in any such claim.  Specifically, “naïve realism,” as an epistemological position set against something like neo-pragmatism, should be differentiated from “naïve realism” as a claim of common sense.  In other words, one can be a naïve realist in a common sense way—i.e. that the world exists in such and such a state, and we can reliably determine those states through careful examination, specifically through direct experience or instruments, both of which yield reliable information about them —without being a naïve realist in an epistemological sense—i.e. that knowledge claims about the world are based on a correspondence where beliefs mirror the world in a directly real way, with that direct knowledge acting as a foundation either beginning with or terminating in immediately known and ultimately self-justifying propositions.  In the former sense, naïve realism is certainly true—or at least it is presumptively true based on our extraordinary success in common sense, science and technology.  In the latter sense it is certainly false—or at least logically false in that is presupposes what it seeks to explain, and this presupposition makes it both circular and unnecessary.  Harris seems to equivocate between these two senses of naïve realism, in that in one respect he seems to assert that accomplishments of knowledge are real, in that they are about real states of the world; but in another respect he seems to assert they are real because knowledge is obtained through a mirroring correspondence between the means of knowing and the antecedently existing knowns, i.e. between belief and world.  In what follows the sense in which knowledge is real and about the world (common sense naïve realism) is distinguished from the claim that knowledge is real because beliefs mirror reality (epistemological naïve realism).[29]  It will be shown that the former can be true even as the latter is false, thus preserving in one way Harris’ naïve realism while rejecting in another its epistemological invocations.  But first, Harris’ position.

Harris contends that belief as a representation mirrors reality because of an inherent correspondence between environmental stimulation and patterns of neural firing.  As he states, “for even the most basic knowledge of the world to be possible, regularities in the nervous system must mirror regularities in the environment” (p. 58), and to this point he adds: “if a different assemblage of neurons fired whenever I saw a person’s face, I would have no way to form a memory of him” (p. 58), or to differentiate him from anyone else—or for that matter, differentiate him from a “toaster.”  Harris goes on to add that not only is this correspondence required for beliefs to form; the very possibility of rationality itself arises from this formation, once the laws of logic and probability are also applied.  For as he states, citing Pinker: “it is only the orderly mirroring between a system that processes information (the brain or a computer) and the laws of logic or probability that explains ‘how rationality can emerge from a mindless physical process’ in the first place” (p. 58).  And to this end, he notes: “words are arranged in a systematic and rule based way (syntax), and beliefs are formed likewise (in that they must logically cohere), because both body and world are so arranged” (p 58).  It is this mutual arrangement of body and world in a correspondence through mirroring that ensures truth or falsity of representation in Harris’ epistemology of belief.  When the mirroring is faithfully acknowledged, true beliefs obtain; when not, false ones do.  Presumably, this causal account of neural firing and environmental stimulus is why we in fact have little, if any, freedom of belief (more on this last point later).

Now as an account of how we perceive the world in a direct, common sense sensory way (one consistent with naïve realism), there is little fault to be found the points Harris makes.  That is, in any explanation of how we come to recognize, discriminate, and distinguish objects and events in the environment—stable objects with stable properties—some kind of “correspondence” and “constancy” between environmental stimulus and neural firing must surely exist, otherwise, as Harris points out, one would have no grounds to be surprised by any inconsistency between what one expects to perceive in the course of perceiving it and what one actually perceives because “there would be nothing for a given neural pattern of activation to be consistent with” (p. 58, emphasis original).   But acknowledging this fact for any causal account of perceptual apprehension doesn’t get one very far in explaining how knowledge in the honorific sense occurs, specifically the kind of propositional knowledge Harris tries to explain; it only explains—speaking loosely and combining the two terms—perceptual “knowledge” and or perceptual “belief”.   In other words, as a causal account of how we perceive basic objects and events in a stable and constant environment, surely something like ‘constancy’ and ‘mirroring’ occurs.  But as a means of insuring the veracity of the kinds of beliefs Harris offers—specifically, the beliefs we form about what we perceptually apprehend—the account falls short, and it falls short in a very specific way.  Just how this is so needs to be examined in some detail because Harris is both right to assert the truth of naïve realism and wrong to use it as a basis for an epistemological position.

To begin this examination, consider just a simple perceptual ‘belief’ like the one Harris suggests is typical of naïve realism, “the grass is green.”[30] In a common sense way, this proposition can be said to be directly confirmed or refuted by simple perceptual apprehension: one need only look at the grass to see if in fact it is green; in fact, one probably formulated the proposition just because of this looking.  In other words, as naïve realism (and this author) would have it, the “evidence” for or against this proposition is so easily obtained that for all practical purposes it is “immediate” and “self-justifying” (philosophical obfuscations notwithstanding). And furthermore, this ‘immediate’ and ‘self-justifying’ evidence can be said be based on a correspondence between the representation “the grass is green” and the real greenness of the grass as perceived.  In short, a simple perceptual belief like “the grass is green” does seem to involve a direct mirroring and correspondence between the representation (belief) and reality (the world), one that both motivates the formation of the belief in the first place and confirms or refutes its veracity in the second.  Presumably, this is what Harris means when he says that naïve realism asserts that “our senses, along with their extensions—telescopes, microscopes, etc.—merely deliver us the facts of the universe as they are” (p. 279).  These “facts of the universe” are, minimally then, the immediately apprehended and constant qualities of objects and events around us, facts like “smoke follows fire”, “there is a typewriter,” “the gauge moved to the right”, “the ‘greenness’ of the grass is right there to see”, etc.—qualities and constancy that would require the neural constancy Harris suggests.  All these notable operations of common sense are here granted as more or less true.  But having granted them, it must be asked: is this kind of common sense realism a sufficient basis for a theory of knowledge?  That is, does it follow from these rather unshakable intuitions—and philosophers have often gone to puerile lengths in trying to shake them—that direct apprehension of the objects and events in the world is in fact knowledge in the strict sense, if knowledge is to be understood in the honorific sense of warranted assertion or justified belief?

To sharpen the stakes of this question, it can be re-asked in several ways.  For instance, from the (apparent) lack of mediation in the direct perceptual apprehension of grass as green does it follow that knowing “the grass is green” is as immediate and direct as common sense would have it, i.e. that is, is it truly direct beyond being “direct” because the evidence of it is so directly apprehended and obtained?  This way of asking the question is important because it invokes an important distinction: that between the “directness” and “immediacy” implied in naive realism as a common sense stance and the epistemic immediacy and self-evidence required in naïve realism as an epistemological position.  In other words, does the correspondence between representation and the antecedently real implied in later the obtain simply from examining the “facts of the world” asserted in the former, or does it instead refer to the nature of the evidence obtainable in certain schemes of justification employing those facts—does it still rely, in other words, on a discourse of justification, as the neo-pragmatists contend, or perhaps even on deeper coherence still?  To put the matter in the terms already established for the epistemological dilemma,[31] does the apprehension of “greenness” serve as the kind of privileged, immediate representation that would allow one to say, without blushing, that the apprehended “fact” affirms itself (as in, perhaps “the grass is green just because it is”)—a self-affirmation that acts as the bedrock of justification beyond or outside discourse, subtending it as a foundation would support a house from beneath or a footer an arch over a door way?  Or does “greenness” simply serve in an evidentiary function within the broader context of justification for the proposition “the grass is green,” a context that requires the giving of and asking for reasons?  A closer examination of how even a proposition as simple as “the grass is green” is confirmed or refuted addresses all these questions.

Despite the apparent ‘directness’ and ‘immediacy’ of apprehending the “greenness” of the grass in a common sense way, the determination that “the grass is green” as a warranted assertion (i.e. as propositional knowledge in the strict sense, as a statement of knowledge) in fact requires several mediating steps, all of which belay any role it might serve as an immediate, self-justifying “privileged representation” in the epistemological sense required to stop the justificatory digging on a foundation of bedrock, presumably because a mirroring correspondence to a state of the world has been reached (or alternatively, an ‘atomic proposition’ has been reached), one beyond which no further questions can be asked and therefore one which serves as an epistemic basis for previous questions.  For recurring to previous discussion about simple apprehension,[32] apprehending the “greenness” of grass is not such an unmediated ‘belief’ after all, one to which a ‘state of the world’ can be said to correspond in an apriori way—or at least, correspond in a way that precedes all intervening operations that make that “correspondence” possible in the first place—or more specifically, makes it ascertainable.  In the first place, the “greenness” of the grass, as a ‘belief’ derived from perceptual apprehension, is not really such a simple, immediate apprehension because establishing it requires several conjoint operations that must first cohere with one another in order for the belief to be true—thus disqualifying it as an epistemic foundation on the grounds of ‘immediacy’ alone.   And in the second place, “the grass is green” as a warranted assertion only corresponds to a ‘simple’ state of the world after that state of the world is isolated from equally valid concomitant states through these very operations—again disqualifying the epistemic sense in which these states can be said to correspond to the representation as its basis.  The import of both disqualifications of naïve realism as a basis for any epistemology will be now considered.

Regarding the first point—the alleged simplicity and immediacy of the “greenness” of the grass as a direct perceptual apprehension—to even discern this “basic fact” of grass requires several mediating or conjoint operations, mostly automatic to be sure, but mediating and equally dispositive nonetheless: all of them are equally required in order to apprehend the greenness of the grass, much less to affirm the proposition “the grass is green”; therefore no single one of them can stand out as an immediate, self-justifying basis.  For instance, recognizing the grass as grass and not the ground from which it grows or the flowers near it requires first discriminating the grass from its surrounding objects, itself an organic operation at one level (perceptual differentiation and object permanence), but nevertheless a conceptual determination at another (one must already know what “grass,” “ground,” and “flowers” are, and this is surely learned).   Thus as a first operation one must form, as it were, a “belief” that there is grass to be observed, and not simply the ground or flowers.  Furthermore, to even do this, the grass must be isolated perceptually from within a visual field; it must be ‘seized upon’ as an object in the foreground against a background of vaguely apprehended ‘objects,’ mostly in the form of colors and surfaces and shades, not in the strict sense of permanent, definable objects (to be sure, they remain these things, but visually they are not objects in the same sense that the foreground object is a stable object with determinate properties).  The rest of the perceptual operations implied in even the simple act of apprehending an object like “grass” and determining its properties like “green” need not be addressed; it is enough to say that they are all equally required in the very act of apprehending the “greenness” of the grass, and in so far as they represent distinct neurological operations subtending and making possible the ostensibly “immediate” predicating act, that predicating act cannot be said to be immediate or foundational in an epistemological sense, to wit,  as something in effect ‘based on itself.’  As a so-called “basic fact” this one feature requires other “basic facts” that are no less elemental than one another for the perception of ‘the greenness’ of the ‘grass’ to be possible, much less for the main proposition under consideration, “the grass is green.”  As such, the basic perceptual ‘belief’ that “greenness” belongs to the grass cannot by itself be the bedrock or foundational ‘self-justifying’ belief for anything, for to be true at all this “basic fact” must “cohere” with other “basic facts” —in this case perceptual operations and their corresponding apprehensions—in order to be epistemologically salient in the first place.  This salience means it certainly can serve an evidentiary function, but it does so as a mediate ‘belief’ that must ‘cohere’ with other beliefs in order to be true in the first place.  As such, it cannot serve as a self-justifying proposition that stops all evidentiary searching.  In short, as much as it can be the most salient evidence available, it cannot be the epistemologically stopping point on which all other evidence rests because it too rests on subtending or minimally conjoint ‘evidence’.

To be sure, at this level of perceptual apprehension, the objects and their features can be said to be known directly, even in a loose sense ‘immediately’; that is not denied.  But in order to serve an epistemological function—the one required in Harris’ account—they must be knowable in a stricter sense of immediate.  In order to be epistemically foundational, they must be immediate in the sense that they do not require other operations or ‘beliefs’ in order to be true; that is, they must be self-justifying—or perhaps better stated, immediately self-evident.  But if at even a basic level of perceptual apprehension the isolation of “greenness” as a property of grass requires several distinguishable mediating operations equally elemental to this isolation and predication, on what basis can one say that this particular operation is immediately self-evident, and therefore foundational?  In what sense is it immediate as opposed to being mediated by these other cohering operations—not “mediated” in the sense of interposed between but “mediated” in that the coherence of the distinguishable operations is itself the basis of the apprehension?  Clearly none.  Though to common sense and its implied naïve realism the apprehension of “greenness” of the grass is “direct” and “immediate,” epistemologically speaking it remains mediated, and as such it cannot serve as a privileged representation that itself requires no additional justification.  In fact it does require other representations in order to be justified, even though these other representations are just as automatic and elemental as the one in question (and therefore likely to be overlooked in biased search for an epistemic foundation).  In short, the entire operation may yield a belief that is taken to be elemental without it being given as such—but, immediate giveness that involves no taking is required for an epistemic foundation, otherwise the justification for belief remains either unending or entirely circular.[33]

Recurring to the second point—that “the grass is green” as a warranted assertion only corresponds to a ‘simple’ state of the world after that state of the world is isolated from equally valid concomitant states—it follows from the above account of the perceptual apprehension of grass as such that a specific state of the world to which this apprehension can correspond only occurs through the mediating acts of establishing the stable object in the first place.  In other words, since the stable object must perceptually be established as a stable object to which predications can attach (otherwise it is just one indeterminate ‘object’ in an array of other indeterminate ‘objects’), the ‘state of the world’ to which the stable object corresponds cannot be said to precede this perceptual act, in the sense that “precede” means waiting there in a stable, determinate state just waiting to be perceived.  For prior to the act that isolates the object in perception any ‘state of the world’ related to these objects could correspond to any act; that is, any and all ‘factual relations’ obtaining among the objects under consideration (all of the possible patterns of environmental stimulation waiting to be picked up, like “the grass stems from the ground”, “the flower is next to the grass,” “the flower is red”) could potentially correspond to any selective act.  Simply put, prior to these perceptual acts there is no apriori ‘state of the world’ to which the representation could attach in any one-to-one correspondence because the state of the world as represented is the apprehension.  To be sure, in the common sense way specific to naïve realism, prior to perceiving it the grass is green.  Furthermore, “greenness” must both be perceptually salient in a constant way and distinguishable in this salience from surrounding colors.  Both of these environmental ‘patterns’ must be out there to pick up.  But it does not follow from these two “facts of the universe” that some ‘state of the world’ precedes the apprehension of “the grass is green” in an epistemologically relevant sense.  Rather the epistemologically relevant state of the world is established by the very act for which it is ostensibly epistemologically relevant.  Without this establishing act, nothing in perception would be epistemologically relevant or evidentiary at all.  This is in no way to say that the existence of objects and their relations and properties depends on our apprehension of them.  It is merely to say that the “facts of the universe” selected by apprehending them are not apriori salient because it is only through perceptual interest that one fact among another is salient in the first place.[34]  Thus as naïve realism would assert, it makes perfect sense to say that there corresponds to a predicating act like “the grass is green” a ‘state of the world’ in which belief and environment mirror one another, but this mirroring is less a copying of an antecedent reality (“a state of the world’ preexisting the apprehension) than it is a selecting of relevant information from an array of equally salient information available for any perceptual act, and in this selecting the construction of a relevant percept out of available information.  As such, the mirroring correspondence between the belief “the grass is green” and the state of the world is the result of this a perceptual act, not the antecedent basis for it.  In other words, it is the result of selection and construction and not an antecedent state of the world as ready-made or pre-self-constructed, as it were, just waiting there for perceptual apprehension.

With these two points in mind—namely, the mediate basis of direct perceptual apprehension and the a posteriori nature of the correspondence between belief and world—the distinction between naïve realism as a common sense position and a naïve realism as an epistemological position can be made more clear.   As already noted, the simple proposition, “the grass is green,” can be seen as an apprehension without any epistemic interest: the greenness of the grass can be apprehended directly, and this directness is evidence enough of its truth; no conscious mediating beliefs or acts are required.  In this non-epistemic sense, then, the proposition “the grass is green” is self-evident upon looking.  But assume the interest in the grass becomes epistemic—that is, assume one approaches the grass with the intent of formulating a warranted assertion about it, namely the assertion, as knowledge in the honorific sense, “the grass is green.”  In this case, as already noted, the immediacy required in an epistemological sense disappears because the very act of predicating “greenness” of grass requires the mediating coherence of several equally important acts.  In this respect, the immediacy of the greenness of the grass is insufficient for establishing the epistemic status of the proposition because in actuality this “immediacy” is the result of several equiprimordial factors, all of which go into constituting and making possible the taking up the percept of green grass, therefore none of which is epistemically given as prior.  Nevertheless, the common sense directness of this observed “greenness” need not go unnoticed; it cannot and should not be discounted.  For even though it fails as an epistemological basis for the proposition “the grass is green,” this directly apprehended “greenness” of the grass does serve an direct evidentiary role, in that the “greenness” predicated of the grass is the first and obvious evidence for the proposition “the grass is green.”  With this “first and obvious” status of evidence the common sense of naïve realism inserts itself into the epistemological problem, but it should be noted that instead of acting as an epistemological basis for belief it acts instead as the basis for reliable evidence.  In other words, the truth of naïve realism is that the ‘facts of the world’ are what we observe them to be with our senses and instruments, but these facts, instead of acting as self-evident, self-justifying foundations for belief they play a far more important evidentiary role.  In this example, the “greenness” of the grass can be selected from other potentially salient ‘facts of the universe’ (Harris’s patterns of environmental information).  And this selection means that “greenness” serves as evidence for or against the proposition.  But it does not act as an epistemological foundation for it.  To be sure, it remains direct as evidence, in that the observed “greenness” of the grass is both directly apprehended and directly bears on the truth of the proposition, but this directness is not by itself dispositive for its warrant (as naïve realism as an epistemological position would maintain).  Other facts must also be considered.  Only through a more elaborate chain of justification than that implied in ‘immediate perceptual giveness’ (in a common sense way) can one truly say that “the grass is green” is knowledge in the honorific sense.

For instance, regarding considerations that surely never arise in practical interests but necessarily would in an epistemic one, in order to establish that the grass is green, truly green in a warranted sense—and please forgive the triviality of what follows, for it does bear a point despite its embarrassing philosophical pedigree—one would have to insure that the ambient conditions during the apprehension of the grass are such that the physically defined color green in fact appears “green” to the unaided eye, conditions both of physiology and optics.  Additionally, one would need to distinguish “green” as a color in the colloquial sense from “green” as a color in the scientific sense, and one would want to make sure that the conditions in the perceiver were such that perception is normal, and so forth…. many conjoint ‘facts of the case’ would need to be considered, all of which require independent operations of conceptualization and evidence.  In short, before one could warrantably assert, in the strict epistemic sense, “the grass is green,” all this investigative operation would have to be completed.  For a simple and straightforward proposition like “the grass is green,” the necessity of additional operations for verification or refutation beyond simply looking are hard to see; they are in fact trivial and unnecessary for all practical purposes.  But for virtually any proposition in science or practical affairs beyond the directness presupposed in reading instruments or observing direct features of the environment, the necessity for these operations should be obvious.  In virtually none of those cases could one sufficiently rely on a single observation within direct experience to warrant a proposition, though in all of them one would be required to maintain that what is observed as evidence is in fact the evidence that is observed—in other words, that the evidence sought for proposition is itself reliable.  This reliability is precisely what naïve realism insures: that the things we perceive really are the ways in which we perceive them to be, all of which would suppose a “correspondence” of sorts between belief and the world—a mirroring, as it were—without presuming for this mirroring correspondence any epistemic role beyond insuring that the evidence used epistemically is itself reliable—i.e. that it is what it is.  Beyond this assurance naïve realism has no epistemological role to play.

This necessary role of naïve realism in insuring reliable evidence without itself being a sufficient epistemological foundation for belief can be illustrated using one of Harris’ own exemplary beliefs, “tofu is not a dessert.”  For in this case there is clearly required a constancy and correspondence between environmental stimulus and neural pattern in some sense if one is going to establish the truth of the proposition, even as there is no specific “state of the world” to which this necessary constancy can correspond.  In other words, with a proposition like “tofu is not a dessert” there can be no mirroring correspondence with the world that would directly serve as an epistemic foundation for the belief, even as a perceptual constancy of an important sort insures the reliability of the evidence employed in the affirming or denying the proposition.

To see how this is so, recall again Harris’s stipulation that in order for there to be “basic knowledge,” some kind of correspondence and mirroring between belief and world is necessary, otherwise a person’s face could look like a face one moment and a “toaster” the next, and one “would have no reason to be surprised by the inconsistency” because without an apriori constancy “there would be nothing for a given pattern of neural activation to be consistent with” (p. 58).  In an important respect, as already noted, this is certainly true: some basic ‘constancy’ and ‘mirroring’ between stimulus and neural patterns guarantees the ability both to perceive things like a constant face and to differentiate that face from a toaster.  Applying the same principle to the “tofu” example, in order to know that “tofu is not a dessert,” one must certainly be able to differentiate, say, tofu from ice cream, to reliably taste tofu in the same way each time it’s eaten in a given preparation, to know these tastes differ from the tastes one tastes in a dessert, etc.  But even granting these basic facts about the basic perceptual constancies of perceiving tofu—Harris’ “basic knowledge”—there is simply no reason to think there is a state of the world “tofu is not a dessert” to which the brain can have any kind of mirroring correspondence.  In other words, the fact that “tofu is not a dessert” does not because it cannot represent anything like a recurring pattern of stimulation obtainable from the world; therefore there can be no recurring and mirroring pattern in the brain.  To be sure, believing the proposition “tofu is not a dessert” will have a definable neural pattern—definable when and if the science of the brain matures enough to detect it.  And to be sure there will be recurring and definable patterns to the ways in which one might justify (or refute) the proposition (specifically regarding the various sensory experiences on which the belief is based, and the mental operations of sorting through them).  But it simply makes no sense to say that “tofu is not a dessert” represents a state of the world to which a state of the brain can correspond, if one means by “correspondence” a posterior reality (the “representation” as a brain state) relating to an antecedent reality (the “facts of the universe” which the representation is about, a pattern of environmental information)—a correspondence where in fact the two elements mirror one another in any way.  A perhaps predictable—and certainly in any case determinate—brain state will correspond to having the belief, but from this it does not follow that this determinate brain state mirrors a state of the world.  Instead, beyond confirming the rather trivial[35] perceptual features related to holding the belief, Harris’ stipulated correspondence between neural states and states of the world as “basic knowledge” can play no direct epistemic role in the truth of the proposition—or to be more precise, it does not and cannot play the role of mirroring reality because there is simply no perceptual “state of the world” to mirror.  Instead of any mirroring providing a basis for its truth, evidence directly obtained for or against the proposition plays a mediating role through a “discourse of justification,” as it were.  In this discourse evidence is gathered and weighed ‘in the space of reasons’, and any and all “correspondence” between the proposition and the world—and there is a correspondence in some sense—is determined after the fact of the justification; it is the result of warranting the proposition, not the copying of antecedent reality that insures its truth—for simply put, no copying or mirroring of an antecedent reality can apriori insure its truth because there is just no antecedent  ‘state’ to ‘copy.’  To assume that there is simply conflates what is determined through evidentiary operations with antecedent ‘properties of the world’ established in fact by the very evidence through which they are known—or recurring to a previous point, it is to commit “the philosophic fallacy.”  For beliefs like “tofu is not a dessert”—in fact, for virtually all of the beliefs we form about the things we perceive in the world—there are simply no perceptual  ‘states of the world’ to which the belief as a pattern of neural firing can apriori mirror or correspond.[36]  As such, warrant for their truth must be based on something other than a mirroring correspondence, even as the fact of constancy, mirroring, and correspondence all play a—and in simple cases the—crucial evidentiary role.  Naïve realism insures that role.

It should be noted here that Harris’ error on this point—his conflating what is established only through evidence with what allegedly antecedes it—is not rare.  In fact, it might be the defining error made by most, if not all, epistemological realists, and perhaps even all epistemologists.  Specifically, Harris error in this particular example can be generalized into a single underlying temptation, namely: only under the assumption (almost always unstated) that belief as propositional knowledge equals belief as perceptual apprehension does naïve realism even appear to be true as an epistemological position.[37]  In other words, the idea that all propositions can be justified through “naïve realism” as an epistemic basis is only persuasive if one models how we know in general on how we perceive objects in general.  Given the relatively simple and straightforward kinds of perceptual ‘beliefs’ we have—“the face is not a toaster,” “there is an apple and an orange in Jack’s lunchbox,” etc.—a straight-up “correspondence” between a representation and the world is tempting, and in some respects even irrefutable (to common sense at least; neurologically it may be more difficult to obtain).  This correspondence, once established, will even appear to be a directly mirroring relationship, in that the perceptual salience in distinguishing a face from a toaster etc. will strictly correspond to a specific kind of neural state; the correspondence can then be said to be a reflection from the world, and so forth.  But as already shown, establishing this correspondence is in the first place not so direct and immediate as it first appears, even in the simplest acts of perception, and in the second place the “correspondence” as such follows from the determination of whether the belief is true or not; it does not antecede it—in fact, this retrospective antecedence as an epistemic basis is an illusion born out of how easily and directly perceptual apprehension takes place, of how easily perceptual ‘beliefs’ are tested and confirmed.  In any case, for propositions of the kind of which Harris offers—and in an epistemic interest his represent most of the beliefs we have—the final judgment, i.e. the truth or not of the proposition, always requires additional and intervening acts, all of which must cohere both conceptually and existentially regarding the ‘facts’ and ‘concepts’ offered for or against them.  As such it simply makes no sense to say that the truth of the belief is a function of an apriori mirroring of the world and brain because this mirroring is in fact only known through the very operations which establish it.  Otherwise, in virtually all other cases, it doesn’t even exist.

The issue of the correspondence between representation and the world can be summed up as follows.  For belief and knowledge in the honorific sense, i.e. warranted assertion expressed in propositions, the mirroring and correspondence Harris asserts is either 1) nonexistent in the strict sense of the term, as it is for the vast majority of the beliefs we have, 2) if existent it occurs only after the fact of things known and not prior to that knowledge as establishing its foundation, and 3) when existent in sensory experience it can at most stipulate that the evidence obtained in the “discourse of justification” is itself reliable, that it is the evidence that is it because the features of the world really are as we perceive them to be.  But as already stressed: this evidentiary role does not in advance of the proposition insure the truth or falsity of propositional knowledge, as would be required in an epistemological realism of any kind.  It merely insures that the course of obtaining evidence is itself reliable, and that the evidence is reliable because it really is what it purports to be.  As already stated, beyond providing this basis for reliable evidence used in final justification, naïve realism plays no epistemic role.

And indeed, as already noted,[38] how could it?  How could this “correspondence” and “mirroring” between body and world play anything other than an evidentiary role in knowledge in the honorific sense (as warranted assertion in propositional form), if our knowledge of the world is always mediated by belief?  In other words, how could we ever independently determine the features of an antecedent reality purportedly beyond our mediated access to it (the world), when the only means of knowing it (representation) is at the same time the only means of confirming or denying these features to be known?  What immediate knowledge must exist outside the discourse of justification; what privileged representations?  That we can directly obtain evidence for or against our beliefs through our experience and instruments is indisputable, but does it follow from this indisputably direct evidence (common sense realism) that belief directly corresponds to reality as a representation through mirroring (epistemological realism)?

Pragmatism answers no, and it maintains that to say “yes” is tantamount to hopping onto the logical–epistemological merry-go-round of assumption and misdirection that is the debate between epistemological naïve realism and neo-pragmatism, where the only way off (besides not getting on in the first place) is privileged representations that not only do not exist; they wouldn’t serve the function they purport to serve even if they did.  Harris for his part tries to get off this merry-go-round by re-affirming naïve realism as an epistemological position; thus he seems to imply—or at least seems committed to the position, given the stakes in the debate—that some “the facts of the world” somewhere and somehow provide the self-justifying representations required to stop the justificatory digging for true belief on some kind of foundational bedrock; in short, at some simple, irrefutable suppositions that ‘the facts of the world are what they are’ just because ‘they are what they are’.  This is certainly true, but the tautology gets one virtually nowhere when it comes to generating useful knowledge, i.e. in knowing things about the world beyond its obvious perceptual and sensory features.  In saying that it does, in saying that the tautology can be reached in a concrete way for a specific knowledge claim as an end to and retrospective penumbra for justification, Harris mistakes the true import of naïve realism.  Instead of seeing it as insuring reliable evidence for or against a belief, he gives it an untenable epistemological lift, one requiring a correspondence between belief and world, where representations mirror reality, where body mirrors world, when in fact for the kind of propositional knowledge Harris wants to discuss the required apriori representational mirroring simply does not occur.[39]  As a result, in so far as this epistemological lift can be ascribed to his naïve realism, Harris’ epistemology of belief is untenable, and as untenable it opens up the obvious question: what should be put in its place?  What other position accommodates all that Harris wants to accommodate with his epistemology of belief with regard to realism, rationality and truth, without in the terms he uses committing him to the errors he makes?

In a word, pragmatism—not the silly[40] neo-pragmatism of Richard Rorty (and to a lesser extent Donald Davidson), the one that stresses consent in or internal coherence of justificatory discourse as the only viable criterion for truth (assuming “truth” as a concept is even to be retained, which for Rorty it isn’t) [41] —but rather the traditional pragmatism of John Dewey, the one that emphasizes, as indicated above, tested consequences over conformity to antecedent reality as the adjudicator for true belief.  The import of this emphasis and its bearing on Harris’ epistemological concerns will be taken up shortly.  For now let it be said that pragmatism is preferable to Harris’ epistemology of belief in that 1) it incorporates the core claims of naïve realism both as a common sense position (i.e. that the features we perceive about the world through the senses and instruments reflect how the world really is) and as an epistemological one (i.e. that some propositions will be true before they are fully justified, and some justified proposition will turn out to be false),[42] 2) even as it accommodates the only ‘truth’ to be found in neo-pragmatism (i.e. that knowledge in the strict sense of warranted assertion requires as a necessary condition some kind of discourse of justification)[43].  All that is required to make this pragmatism work is the stipulation, one that Harris grants, that our sensing and our instruments give us reliable information about the way the world is.  So long as this stipulation is used in its evidentiary function and not as a basis for ensuring in advance the conformity of belief to an antecedent reality, the logical-epistemological the merry-go-round of realism versus neo-pragmatism can be avoided, and the bandwagon of a much more potent form of pragmatism can be jumped on.

The “philosophic fallacy” again

Now, to be sure, it could be said that Harris is shooting for just this ‘pragmatism’, that this is what he is trying to articulate with his “naïve realism” and recognition that “rationality” requires a discourse of giving and taking of evidence and reasons—in other words, that he is trying to articulate a philosophical positon more like the one reached here than the one criticized as inadequate along the way.  And if he is, then this author can only fault the way in which he tries to get there, not the destination itself.  But regarding that way, Harris seems to commit the “philosophic fallacy”—conflating eventual function with antecedent existence—in a manner that obscures this final destination.  That is, as pointed out already, Harris apparently confuses the properties that accrue to belief in its eventual function in behavior and inquiry with antecedent properties of belief as such, just as he conflates the correspondence obtaining between a representation (or proposition) and its referent as the result of inquiry with an antecedent mirroring that insures apriori the conformity of a proposition or representation to the ostensible ‘state of the world’ it purportedly represents.  How he commits this fallacy elsewhere will again be illustrated, this time using lunchbox example.  In this illustration, the inherent truth of naïve realism can even be better appreciated, even as the errors from committing the philosophic fallacy come to particular light in a case where it is especially tempting to do so.  As such, discussion of this example also offers a segway into what a pragmatist “epistemology” might look like, once the philosophic fallacy has been avoided, and that segway will lead in to discussion of the “epistemological implications” of pragmatism in an exemplary case of scientific discovery, specifically, the discovery of atmospheric pressure.

In his lunchbox example, Harris points out, correctly, of course, that if there is both an apple and an orange in Jack’s lunchbox, one cannot deny (and still make sense) that “there is an apple in Jack’s lunch box and “there is an orange in Jack’s lunch box,” since in fact both an apple and an orange are there prior to forming those two propositions.  As he suggests, if one denies this propositional knowledge derivable from the situation, either one doesn’t understand what the word “and” means, or one doesn’t appreciate what “apples” and “oranges” and “lunchboxes” are.  To support this point he concludes that words like “and” imply this kind of propositional knowledge because they “mirror the orderly behavior of objects,” and that at some point “the meaning of words, and their syntactical relations, and rationality itself can no longer be divorced from the orderly behavior of objects in the world” (pp. 58-9).

Now in an important respect, the point Harris is makes here is irrefutable (at least if one want to be part of any rational conversation): when we articulate the properties of a situation, the basic laws of logic and syntax will reflect how that articulation is ordered, so long as we use those words and rules correctly.  But while this much is certainly true, Harris seems to imply more.  For recurring to his citation of Pinker, Harris implies this reflection of orderly relations in the world is due to a mirroring between body and world, a mirroring itself governed by the laws of logic and probability—or more specifically, a mirroring between the “system that processes information” and the “regularities in the environment,” the nature of which is inherently logical and rational, presumably in an apriori way.  In other words, the laws of logic and probability reflect the specific relations of a situation because, as structured, the situation is inherently logical or probabilistic—or as Harris says, referring to the inherent structuring of these laws, “both body and world are so arranged” (p. 58, emphasis added).

Is this additional implication warranted?  That is, does it follow from the apparently necessary way in which the basic laws of logic apply in the lunchbox example that this applicability occurs because the situation is inherently logical, that the world is structured logically?  Or to put the issue yet another way: do the laws of logic and probability (and more generally, rationality itself) reflect the situation because the situation itself is antecedently logical and rational; therefore the “reflection” occurs because the laws were already present to be reflected back in their use, as happens when one holds up an object to a mirror: the properties of the reflection are what they are because they are first present in the object of which the image in the mirror is the reflection.  A mirroring of this sort seems to be what Harris has in mind when he says “the body and world are so arranged.”   But is this a valid metaphor for how logic relates to experience and the world?

Almost certainly not, for as with the apparent “immediacy” of the judgment of a perceptual simple, “the grass is green,” it is not so evident as it first appears that the laws of logic apply to this situation because the situation is antecedently logical—i.e. because there is a mirroring correspondence of representation with the real prior to explicit logical assessment.  For in this lunchbox example, it can simply be asked: to which state of the world does the logical conjunction correspond?  In other words, since there is both a “state of the world” (a situation) to which the statements correspond in a logically valid way, and multiple “states of the world” (situations) to which the statements don’t retain their validity when they are applied, what grounds is there for saying logic mirrors the world, and vice versa, when an act of selection must intervene for the logical relations to obtain?   Like with the representation “the grass is green,” strictly speaking the “state of the world” as logical is this act of selection and application itself; in this respect the “state of the world” cannot be said to be the antecedent ground for the correspondence between logic and world (insuring their mutual conformity, as it were, in advance) because the correspondence is a consequence of selection and application.  Logic, in this sense, only applies to the situation as a state of the world because the situation which is ostensibly “logical” has been selected and articulated in a logical way; then, and only then, are the basic laws of logic applicable.  Why this is so remains to be seen.

To see this, consider first that there are states of the world in which can be true that “there is an apple and an orange in Jack’s lunchbox” without it being true “there is an apple in Jack’s lunchbox” and “there is an orange in Jack’s lunchbox”, to wit: Jack simply needs to have two lunchboxes for alternating days of the week, in which case it can be perfectly true that there is an apple and an orange in Jack’s lunchbox on Monday but not true on Tuesday that “there is an apple in Jack’s lunchbox” and “there is an orange in Jack’s lunchbox,” if in fact neither, or simply one or the other, were put there—that is, Monday’s lunchbox has both but Tuesday’s does not. Logically there are no grounds for assuming that Jack uses the same lunchbox every day, that at the same time on one day both statements apply; that determination is instead existential, and therefore extra-logical.  Similarly, Jack could use the same lunchbox on all days of the week, and in the morning there can be both an apple and an orange in it, but after lunch, neither, both, or just one or the other.  Again, logically there is no ground for assuming the exact temporal sequence in which the conjunction validly obtains from the original situation; as statements they stand independent of these existential factors and one simply assumes—as most readers likely will—that one is talking about the same lunchbox at the same time, the one with an apple and an orange in it.  Formal logical analysis of propositions runs afoul of these extra-logical considerations more often than logicians would like to admit when it comes to the so-called apriori applicability of logic to experience and the world[44]—and it may in fact be true of all instances of it—but in any case, regarding the statements in Harris’ example, they can all certainly be true under the right existential (factual) conditions, but there are equally likely states of the world in which the logical relations, as propositions with inherent implications, simply do not hold.  From within the propositions themselves there is no way to decide apriori which case obtains, and this casts doubt on any “mirroring” relationship by invoking the question, as in: given as internally valid among themselves, if they are to mirror the world, which states do they mirror?

Now it could be pointed out that invoking the extra-logical conditions for the validity of the logic in Harris’ example merely deflects from the point he makes, in that since there is a situation where in fact the relations prescribed by his propositions and logic necessarily follow, the point he makes is valid: that logic and world do mirror each other, once the proper situation is found to illustrate this mirroring.  In other words, once that situation is selected, one might still ask: how do the basic logical relations among propositions about it necessarily follow from it?  The answer to this question illustrates again what pragmatists call “the philosophic fallacy,” and this illustration involves in two steps.

First, the fact that there is only one among many equally likely situations in which statements pertaining to Jack’s lunchbox are undeniably true remains dispositive for the point at hand because it suggests that logic is more like a tool for expositing the terms of specific, determinate situations than a mirror for the structure of the world as such.  In other words, that logic applies validly to the world only if one either tailors the statements precisely to a situation, or selects the situation to which the statements apply using extra-logical means, suggests—though not proves—that logic involves more selective application a posteriori than an apriori mirroring between body and world.[45]  And in fact this seems to be the case: the apparent mirroring correspondence between world and logic—the sense in which logic so perfectly describes a situation that “body and world” must be simultaneously so “arranged” in order for the description to obtain—seems to derive precisely from the suitability of a tool to its task, not a mirror to its object.  In much the same way that an axe seems perfectly tailored to chop wood even as wood seems to afford perfectly being chopped, logic seems perfectly tailored to exposit specific situations once the necessary extra-logical determinations are made, such that those situations come to appear ‘antecedently’ or ‘inherently’ logical; in short, that is what logic is designed to do.   But the inherence is an illusion, and it is an illusion born of specific, eventual use: it concerns a functional suitability so perfectly fitted to its task that the fit seems both antecedent and inevitable.  In the instant example, once the same lunch box is apprehended with both an apple and an orange in it at that time, it follows propositionally that “there is an orange in Jack’s lunchbox” and “there is an apple in Jack’s lunchbox” because in fact both are there to be perceived.  But logic, instead of making this existential relation true, merely gives us a direct means of articulating this perceptual fact.  In other words, the basic relations that logic exploits are already present in our representations of the world, and logic gives us the means of articulating this presence in way useful for both determining the facts of situations and for orchestrating means to solve the problems emerging therein.  Reverting to the tool metaphor, it can be said that logic applies so readily to experience because experience can so readily take on logical forms, not because experience itself is inherently logical but because logic exploits the latently ‘logical’ operations in experience, much like formal arithmetic exploits the basic number sense we have of objects in groups.[46]  This difference is both subtle and important, and it constitutes the second step in showing that logical relations can necessarily follow from a determinate situation without stipulating that that situation is in advance of its application inherently logical as such.

Regarding the second step in the this argument, pragmatists have long maintained—contrary to non-naturalistic conceptions of logic, and correctly, in this author’s mind—that the relations and rules of formal logic accrue to subject matter when that subject matter is submitted to the operations of controlled inquiry; in other words, that logical relations as a set of formally articulated rules emerges out of patterns of use that ultimately have their genesis in the controlled ordering of specific subject matter.  In this sense, logic—and there are many forms of it—emerges from inquiry and is then applied to further operations once successful results obtain from prior developments; it does not precede inquiry in any other apriori, determinate sense.  While defending this thesis would take an entire book—and Dewey in fact devoted an entire book to defending it[47]—it will be stipulated here that what Harris calls a mirroring correspondence between logic and world is best understood instead as a functional relationship, one born of the fact that “experience is capable of taking on logical form,” with “existences in particular” being “capable of taking on differential logical form” (Dewey, Logic, p. 387).  Furthermore, this capability in taking on logical form may best explained by the hypothesis that the rules and relations of formal propositional logical have as both their genesis and the condition of their applicability the latently ‘logical’ operations inherent in experience as such, the very experience to which they then retrospectively apply.  For instance, phenomenologists, following Husserl,[48] have long maintained—again, correctly to this author’s mind—that basic operations like negation, antecedence and consequence, affirmation, possibility, and so forth all occur in pre-predicative perceptual life (i.e. normal perception in which no specific cognitive or epistemic interest is yet invoked) prior to the arousal of explicitly logical or epistemic interests.  As such they mark the genetic basis for extracting formal operations that then exposit in an explicit way the relations first obtained in that experience.  In short, the explicit operations of formal logic have their origin in the relations and operations inherent to pre-predicative perceptual experience, and as such they would both apply to it necessarily—since they are formalization of basic operations therein—even as they appear to mirror it—for as derived from these basic operations, they will correspond to them aposteriori in a most compelling way.[49]

Under this general argument, the two steps elaborated so far can be brought together into one point bearing on Harris’s lunchbox example, namely: as a humanly devised tool, logic would be especially suited to the task for which it is used (expositing the relations inherent to a situation) because it in fact derives from making explicit in a cognitive interest the basic operations already used to organize basic perceptual and linguistic experience.  So as an axe is so suited for chopping wood that the wood in turn seems to afford so well being chopped, logic, by having its genesis in the basic operations of pre-predicative experience, in turn applies logical form so effectively to experience because the tool was derived for the very purpose of that application.  In this way, then, body (as the originator of logic) and world (as the realm of the applicability of logic) can be “so arranged,” not in a relationship of apriori mirroring but rather one of eventual function emerging out of, and applied back to, ‘antecedent’ conditions—conditions that in their own right take on the operations of these functions so perfectly because as explicit functions they are ultimately derived from ‘latent’ operative versions of themselves.[50]  In an important respect, then, this explanation of the correspondence between logic and world does not differ in effect from the mirroring that Harris proposes, but it nonetheless differs in that under this pragmatic reading, Harris could be said to confuse the eventual function to which logic is put—parsing out some determinable properties of a situation over others—with its inherence in an antecedent existence—saying that logic works because body and world intrinsically mirror one another in a logical way.  They don’t, exactly, for mirroring implies that the formal laws of logic are preformed and present in experience to be reflected in our representations when in fact they are derived from more basic experiential operations that are then the basis for their development and application in the first place—thus giving the appearance of always already having been there.  Recurring to the tool metaphor to drive this point home, Harris’s position amounts to saying—if this pragmatist reading is correct—that the world is inherently chop-able simply because a selected property of one substance within it, wood, can be subject to the explicit operations of chopping.  Surely in so far as “wood” is part of the “world” it makes sense to say that chopping applies to the world, but since this operation is only valid under the prior operation of selecting the situation to which the operation can be successfully applied, it is better stated that wood is such that it has the potential to be chopped, and that an axe brings out this potential in an explicit operation.  Regarding logic, it can be said analogously that logic applies so directly—and under the right conditions, necessarily—to situations in the world because experience of the world has the potential to take on logical form, and it can take on logical form because the formal and explicit operations of logic apply precisely because they are derived from more basic ‘proto-logical’ operations constitutive of experience itself.  As a pragmatist would say, though, calling the world antecedently logical because of this applicability is to conflate the eventual function to which logic is put with an inherence in antecedent existence—in other words, it represents the “philosophic fallacy” par excellence.

To sum this section up, Harris is certainly correct to point out that for a given lunchbox containing both an apple and an orange at the same time, it follows necessarily that there is both an apple and an orange in the lunchbox; that the propositions he derives and their relationships to that effect must be true.  That conclusion, one so specific to the situation that it is virtually impossible not to see it as the premise too, is inescapable.  But, that point noted, this valid conclusion about the world has nothing to do with apriori validity of the rules of propositional logic: it is a simple perceptual fact.  Propositional logic merely offers anyone with a cognitive interest in fruit, the lunchbox, or its contents one tool among others for elaborating this perceptual fact into terms affording exposition for use—say, if someone wants an apple, someone else can tell them that there is in fact one in the lunchbox.  Furthermore, the apparent “mirroring” that occurs between the truth of the propositions and the truths of perception is the result of the former explicating the later, not later reflecting the former, and it can explicate the later because in their genesis the basic operations of conjunction, disjunction, negation, possibility—in short, all of the operations of traditional formal logic—derive from more basic operations intrinsic to pre-predicative perceptual life itself, more basic operations that then allow experience to take on logical form.  In other words, logic accrues to experience because experience can take on logical forms, but to assume from this accrual that the world is therefore inherently logical—that “body and world” are so “arranged” to mirror one another in inter-relations that are intrinsically logical—is to conflate the eventual use to which logic is put (explicating experience) with the structure of experience itself (the world as so arranged logically).  In an important respect, experience can always become logical because the basic forms of logic are anticipated in it, but it remains an error to conflate experience with logic as though experience were inherently logical, much less that the rules of logic makes coherent experience possible in the first place.  It’s just so happens that in the lunchbox example the evidentiary role of naïve realism so perfectly overlaps with naïve realism as an epistemological position over one and the same perceptual fact that this conflation is almost inevitable; but that inevitability remains a conceptual illusion.  Instead of an apriori relationship of mirroring, the fact that the lunchbox experience can take on logical form suggests instead a functional relationship like a tool suited specifically to its use.  Under this pragmatic reading, logic remains a humanly devised instrument,[51] one apparently perfectly—even almost miraculously—suited to its purpose because, tautologically, it’s purpose is what it was designed to do.  Only in this relation of a consequence-following-an-explicit-use can experience be said to ‘mirror’ logic, and vice versa.  In this respect, the “mirroring” between the propositions about the lunchbox and the perceptual facts of the situation is strictly an a posteriori affair, one that does nothing in advance to insure the veracity of belief, as Harris implies it does, and in so far as he implies this, he commits the philosophic fallacy—a fallacy that has led to no end of paradoxes involving logic, experience, and the world.[52]

Pragmatist “epistemology” exemplified: the scientific conception of atmospheric pressure[53]

Before laying out in a specific example pragmatic “epistemology” at work, it is useful to summarize the discussion of Harris’s epistemology of belief up to this point.  In a nutshell, Harris’ five epistemic criteria regarding the nature of belief as such commit what can best be understood under the rubric of the “philosophic fallacy,” namely, conflating eventual functional use with properties of antecedent existence.  Independent arguments as to how this conflation occurs and why it fails have been offered for the idea that 1) beliefs are propositional assertions or statements of fact, 2) that beliefs are principles of action, 3) that beliefs must logically coherence and not contradict one another, 4) that beliefs are representations of the world, and 5) that these representative beliefs correspond (when true) or don’t correspond (when false) to reality in a relationship where belief mirrors the world, a mirroring insured by a constancy between stimulus and neural firing.  In all five stipulations, either directly or indirectly, the philosophical fallacy has been observed, even as it has been acknowledged that there is much essential truth in what Harris says.  All of what has been discussed up to this point can be summed up as saying that Harris’ epistemology of belief is deficient because it is either based on, or directly commits, the philosophic fallacy.  In short, it confuses the function of belief and representation with properties inherent to its antecedent existence, and in this respect everything Harris says about the nature of belief would obtain once its functional role is better circumscribed.

But now it is time for the rubber to hit the road.  That is, the benefits of a pragmatic ‘epistemology’ over Harris’ epistemology of belief have been merely asserted and sketched; now it is time to draw out the implications of that assertion and flesh them out using a specific example, one that accommodates the truth of everything Harris wants to say about belief and representations, while simultaneously avoiding the errors he makes.  To that end, the scientific discovery of atmospheric pressure will now be considered.  In that consideration it will be seen how naïve realism fails as an epistemological position, even as it takes on its proper and critical evidentiary role, insuring as it does that evidence for or against the belief is the evidence that it is, the evidence that it purports to be, and not something else.  Furthermore, certain properties of belief that Harris hypostatizes into antecedent properties will become clearer in their functional role (specifically the functional status of logically coherent and non-contradictory propositions), even as a new distinction between ideational and factual propositions is introduced.  From this vantage point, then, the sense in which the representation in final judgment (what will shortly be called an explanation) can be said to conform to an ‘antecedent reality’ will be assessed, particularly in light of the fact that this conformity can only be known through evidence of tested consequences—therefore it adds nothing epistemically to see it as a copying or apriori mirroring, unless “epistemic” here means a subjectively consoling sense of validation in the well-foundedness of a belief, a foundedness conferring an unnecessary consolation of inevitability.  And finally, the lack of constancy between neural firing and environmental stimulus when it comes to knowing something like atmospheric pressure will be noted, with an eye toward reconsidering the alleged mirroring between representation and the real that subtends Harris’ denial of much, if any, freedom of belief.  In this way, the main elements of the criticisms of Harris’s epistemology thus far will be brought together into a positive account exemplifying the scope and power of pragmatic “epistemology.”  Then, and only then, will the epistemological dilemma endemic to Harris approach—that perpetual debate between naïve epistemological  realists and neo-pragmatists—be solved.  Then, and only then, will the truth and error of Harris’ epistemology be best appreciated in an analysis showing both how it is true and how it is false, and how both aspects can be reconciled into a more coherent point of view of greater explanatory power.

The discovery of atmospheric pressure begans with two widely observed phenomena from practical life: the limits of suction pumps and the flow of liquids from closed containers.

Before Galileo subjected the fact to scientific investigation, it was common knowledge that a suction pump could only lift a column of water approximately 34 feet, whether from underground or from on the ground.  As a matter of practice, then, the limits of suction pumps were widely known, though as far as this author knows, this limit was not subjected to specific investigation; in short, no one asked “why” it was so.  This lack of investigation into why pumps are limited in the way that they are is itself telling, and it goes to a fundamental point raised earlier about the derivative status of epistemic from practical belief, namely:  a fact can be known practically in terms of the referential context of tasks in which it occurs, without it ever being taking up as an object of knowledge per se, without it also being known in the honorific sense of knowledge as warranted assertion.[54]  For clearly artisans could formulate, as a statement of fact, a proposition to the effect that “a column of water can only be lifted 34 feet by a suction pump,” but this statement of fact had no epistemic status per se beyond the practice of building pumps.  It specified a limit—one in a sense “known,” to be sure—against which anyone building a pump could expect to hit, but it was not knowledge in the stricter sense, in the sense of understanding the principles governing why this it occured.  Simply put, before Galileo, no one ever treated this limitation as due to an intrinsic property of nature, or as a clue to the discovery of any natural knowledge.  It was a mere practical fact thought to be limited to the nature of the mechanics of pumps, and as such, it can be said that practical belief dominated epistemic belief.  So long as pumps worked the way they were expected to work, nothing else about why they worked the way they did needed to be known.  Like with most of our commerce with the implements of daily life, no “epistemic” facts about them were necessary beyond the factual descriptions of their properties as such.[55]

Now again before Galileo (and his student, Torricelli, and then shortly afterwards, Pascal and his brother), no one seems to have thought to associate this widely observed limit of suction pumps with another widely observed phenomenon, namely, that liquid will not flow well from a barrel or container with only one opening (and the more airtight the barrel or container, the worse the flow).  In so far as this later fact was explained at all, it was explained by the epistemic construction of a “full universe,” in that the air surrounding the barrel displaced by the flowing liquid must in turn be able to enter the barrel from another opening, hence the dictum, accepted as fact since Aristotle, that “nature abhors a vacuum”.  It was occasionally thought that the same principle might apply to how pumps worked, in so far as the sucking action of the pump pulled air out of the column and water rose to fill the void—or again, to prevent a vacuum from forming—but no one before Torricelli suspected that these examples of water flow in two difference kinds of devices could be brought into a unified explanation as to why pumps were limited in how far they could draw water, and why liquid failed to flow well from a sealed container with only one opening.  In other words, no one investigated what these phenomena might have in common, even as both were widely used and exploited in practical situations.  The salient point here is simple, and it is related to the one just made above: propositional statements of fact can be, and in fact often are, formed without a specifically epistemic interest in mind, beyond the more limited ‘epistemic’ sense of coordinating means towards ends in accomplishing certain tasks—in other words, facts are more functional in their role for getting things done than they are antecedently reflective of the epistemic properties about things known as such.  In this respect, propositional statements of fact certainly represent a practical knowledge—knowledge of how to fit means to ends—but, as already noted: these practical beliefs should be seen as prior to properly epistemic ones.  Both in origin and function, the later typically only occur when either the former require augmentation (say if someone needs to build a pump to a depth of 50 feet), or the former are set aside altogether and a proposition of fact is investigated as a statement about reality in its own right (as Torricelli did in examining flowing water).  In short, knowing the world is for the most part secondary to doing things in the world, in the sense that most of what we know is geared toward doing things better, and because of this dominating practical interest, beliefs as propositional knowledge properly speaking usually require that practical interest be intentionally set aside in order to take on a more disinterested appraisal of the ‘facts of the world’ as such.[56]  In any case, historically speaking water flow in suction pumps and barrels was not linked together under the unifying rubric of knowledge until Torricelli began conceptualizing both phenomena in a radically new way, even though both facts were known and exploited almost daily in practical tasks.

So what, exactly did Torricelli do, and how did he understand what he did?  The experiment is disarmingly simple, and arguably it so powerful and far reaching because of this simplicity itself.  All he did was fill a glass tube with mercury, hold his finger over the end so that the mercury would not flow out from the bottom, then he placed the open end (covered by his finger) in a dish of mercury and released his finger.  Then he observed [any reader should pause and reflect here on this moment of observation, for observation of this kind is among the most powerful tools we have, and this one in particular is among the more powerful examples from science.  We now feel its reach literally every day].  Resuming….As Torricelli observed, he noted two things: first, that a vacuum formed in the tube, and second that the mercury from the tube flowed into the bowl until the column left in the tube was about 30 inches high.  In a single stroke, then, Torricelli linked two widely observed phenomena (that there is a limit to the height of a column of suspended liquid in a ‘pump,’ just as there is a limit to flow of liquid out of a ‘closed container’ with merely one opening) with an apparently impossible one (namely, that a vacuum can form, that nature does not necessarily abhor one).  In other words, his experiment and the barometer he used (for that is what he invented) showed how systematic manipulation of an apparently unrelated situation can make evident how two practically known phenomena (fluid behavior in suction pumps and barrels) can be brought under the rubric of a single, potentially unifying explanation—in his case, that of air exerting pressure on the surface of the earth.[57]  In other words, for the first time two “propositional facts” derived from practical belief were conceptually linked, at least potentially, under one unifying scheme that not only upended centuries of natural knowledge; it also opened up an entirely new avenue of investigation that promised to explain practical limits long encountered but poorly understood, even as it transformed how natural knowledge of this and similar phenomena could be acquired in the first place. Several aspects of this accomplishment should be highlighted.

First, Torricelli’s experiment, though epistemically motivated, was intrinsically ‘practical’ as well.  That is, he didn’t just sit in a chair and think—he acted.  He didn’t just write ideas down—he invented a device.  He didn’t just dialectically take up old ideas and work them into new forms—he manipulated antecedent conditions with an eye to the anticipated consequences of that manipulation.  In a word, Torricelli was a pragmatist: he manipulated antecedent conditions in the formulation of a problem, and he looked to the anticipated consequences of that manipulation in order to understand those consequences under a new conceptual scheme, one that both reframed the antecedent conditions into a new understanding, even as it ‘settled’ the problem invoked by the situation in an explanation.  For a pragmatist, that explanation is knowledge.  Torricelli, then, as a scientist, was essentially a pragmatist, and as a pragmatist—i.e. using the very method pragmatism formalizes from successful scientific practice—he came up with an explanation that now stands not just as knowledge, but as useful knowledge that, as David Deutsch appends, “transforms the world.”

Second, Torricelli, as a pragmatist and scientist, employed two essential tools in his manipulation of events: fact and concepts.  That is, as facts he had in hand the consequences of using his barometer (he could standardize those consequences in measurements, and state those measurements as facts), but he also had other factual observations he could make about the world around him—anything that might or might not bear on the experiment his barometer embodied.  As concepts, Torricelli has at his disposal the natural knowledge of his day, as well as the new concepts he derived as a means of both formulating a problem—to wit, why does water in barrels and pumps behave the way it does—and as a means to proposing a solution—because air in the atmosphere exerts pressure on the surface of the earth.   It is beyond the needs of this essay to explain precisely how the corroboration of facts and concepts work together both to pose problems and offer settled solutions—that is, how their corroboration in inquiry leads to explanations (“warranted assertions”) representing real knowledge.  Suffice it to note here that in pragmatism, as in science, both ideational and existential subject matter work together in both posing a problem for knowledge and in offering an explanation that settles the problem as posed—in other words, inquiry leads to explanations that exemplify real knowledge.[58]

Torricelli drew a far reaching explanation from his barometer experiment (atmospheric pressure), but the reach of that explanation was limited by the limited scope of his experimental manipulations.  However, according to the historical record, Pascal, already known for his work on hydrostatics, heard of Torricelli’s experiment and decided to see if it could be amplified by his own explanations of water pressure—that is, he thought to relate his work on hydrostatics to this newly postulated phenomena of atmospheric pressure.   In short, Pascal sought to extend the explanation’s reach, and he did this by examining further the idea that the air is a substance analogous to water, one exerting pressure on the surface of the earth because of the downward force of its own weight, a pressure therefore that would be relative to height within the atmosphere.  The investigation was itself revolutionary: few, if any, times in intellectual history had one investigator taken the explanations of another and tested them in such a way that would either refute or expand them.  In so doing, Pascal defied centuries of conceptual and dialectical manipulation as the means to “natural knowledge,” and as if that wasn’t revolutionary enough, he also defied this tradition[59] by questioning something completely undetectable by unaided observation, specifically: no changing pressure on the body similar to the known changing pressures at varying depths of water can be felt, even if one climbed the highest mountain or descended into the lowest valley.  Simply put, the air feels either weightless or as the same weight at all altitudes.  But Pascal entertained a contrary belief; he maintained that the weight of air is different even if you can’t feel it.  Furthermore, to this test this belief—this propositional fact—he devised an equally radical potential explanation: it is not abhorrence of a vacuum that causes mercury to form a suspended column in a tube, but rather the pressure of the air on the mercury in the dish which balances out the column’s weight. To this effect, Pascal deduced a principle to test his explanation: “if the column of mercury varies relative to the altitude at which the experiment is performed, then the relative pressure of the air explains the difference, for there is no ground for asserting that nature abhors a vacuum more or less at lower than higher altitudes”.[60]

The details of Pascal’s test and the way in which it relates (through its own corroborative uses of observed “facts” and deduced “concepts”)  to Torricelli’s explanation are not important here, nor are all the issues surrounding scientific inferences that arise from any such test of this kind (Conant discusses them all in this specific case, pp. 75-77).  Let it be simply noted that Pascal used new conceptual tools in light of newly available existential observations in order to test an explanation.  Specifically, as new conceptual tools he employed the concept that air has weight, that this weight exerts a pressure, that the universe is “not necessarily full” and need not be kept that way—in short, he used these new conceptual materials to form a testable hypothesis: “if the earth is surrounded by a sea of air and if air has weight, then the pressure of the air will be less at the top of the mountain than at the foot,” for in principle there must be less weight bearing down the higher up one goes (p. 75).  As new existentially observable evidence for or against this hypothesis, Pascal had estimates of the height of a mountain, the readings from Torricelli’s barometer as a measure of the relative pressure of air, etc.  In other words, Pascal blended concepts as “ideas” and observations as existential “facts” both to pose a scientific problem and to determine the means of its eventual solution.  And notably, his main means of observation—the barometer— itself embodied the new conceptualization into an instrument from which observations could be read, one that could most reliably be said to work according to the very principles it was used to test.  As such, all that was needed once these tools were established was a specified sequence of actual, practical operations in which the instrument could be put to use, use the consequences of which could then be observed, thus yielding various new facts germane to the original conceptualizations.  In this way both the principles by which the instrument was said to work and the hypotheses it was used to test could be simultaneously assessed.  Pascal and his brother performed these operations at the top and bottom of Puy-de-Dome, and in the final analysis, after appropriate provisions and qualifications and tests, the hypothesis was borne out—a new unified explanation was reached: because of the pressure of the air on the surface of the earth, water in a suction pump can only be lifted 32 feet, and liquid in closed containers cannot flow well without a second opening.  Atmospheric pressure became a warranted scientific fact—it became real knowledge—and the practically and separately observed phenomena of the limits of suction pumps and the flow of liquids from closed barrels were brought together epistemically together under a new single, unifying explanation.

Several salient aspects of this discovery can be observed here, all of which bear on both Harris’ epistemology of belief and the pragmatist ‘epistemology’ that is offered in its place.  In an important way, these salient points are ipso facto illustrations of the scope and power of this pragmatic ‘epistemology, since despite not being epistemologists in any sense of the word, pragmatic ‘epistemology’ is nothing more or less than the logic of scientific inquiry used by Torricelli and Pascal writ large into any operation of useful inquiry, no matter the subject matter to which it is applied.  As such, although not formulated explicitly in their time, Torricelli and Pascal exemplify pragmatist ‘epistemology’ at work.  In other words, this ‘epistemology’—if the term is even retained, and for true pragmatists, it is not—is simply the “set pattern of experimental methods” writ large into philosophy.[61]  In an important respect, then, the experimental method of science is pragmatism, once the useless epistemological and irrelevant psychological conceptual baggage is discarded, and all the dilemmas this baggage invokes are left behind.[62]  Therefore discussion now turns to the aspects of this scientific discovery germane to the arguments offered thus far.  In doing so, the sense of pragmatic ‘epistemology’ as a pattern of inquiry will be ipso facto revealed.

First and foremost, like with both the pragmatists and Harris, Torricelli, Pascal and his brother were almost certainly naïve realists.  That is, there is no record that they ever engaged in philosophical doubt as to whether or not the external world really exits, or whether or not our senses and instruments give us reliable information about it (as their contemporary Descartes famously did in his Meditations).   Rather, they simply assumed the world was there and that what they observed about it was in fact what they observed about it, in this case, things like: the column of mercury was so many units high, the column had observable bubbles or not, the air exerted no obvious felt pressure on the body, and so forth.  In other words, per previous discussion,[63] Torricelli, Pascal and his brother started with the existence of the world and asked: how does one reconcile various observations about it into a coherent explanation of the way it is, as opposed to asking: is there an external world at all, and how can we be sure we know it if there really is one.    In short, they started with scientific and pragmatic reasoning, not philosophy and epistemology.

Second, although they were almost certainly naïve realists in practice, contra Harris and consistent with pragmatism, they were certainly not epistemological realists in principle.  That is, their naïve realism served no epistemic role beyond insuring reliable evidence for or against the propositions in question; beyond insuring that the evidence was what it was, it added nothing to their explanations.  And indeed, how could it?  How could any of their propositions about the world serve as an epistemological  foundation of bedrock—as a stopping point of justification retroactively justifying all prior steps in their inferences—when their reasoning was principally to ask for the significance of these of these potentially ‘bedrock’ facts in the first place, not take them at their face or ‘self-evident’ value, as would be required for the immediate and self-justifying “privileged representation” of epistemological realism?[64]  For instance, as a statement of ‘basic knowledge’ or a potentially ‘bedrock fact,’ the evidence directly offered by the senses contra-indicated their proposition about air and weight and pressure—i.e. to unaided observation air has no apparent weight.  Instead of taking the proposition that ‘air is weightless’ at face value, they asked for the significance of this fact by entertaining the contrary proposition that it did have weight, and furthermore, that this weight would vary by altitude.  To assess these propositions as candidates for knowledge, not as established examples of it, they then postulated that the instrument they were using would respond to this weight at different altitudes, if in fact it existed at all.  As a supporting fact that air has weight exerting a downward pressure, they found that the column of mercury in fact changed with height: at the top of the mountain, the column of mercury was lower than at the bottom.  Would this fact, then, be the ‘bedrock fact’ at which the chain of justification ends, the self-evident “basic knowledge” or “privileged representation” supporting the inference that air has weight and exerts pressure?  It would be a peculiar self-evident fact if it were, for it is evidence of atmospheric pressure only within a nexus of conceptual subject matter that contextualizes it, a nexus that relates it other facts observed; by itself it says only that the column is a specific height.  This simple instance of assessing the evidentiary value of a fact for a proposition can be generalized into a broader principle, in that one can look all one wants—and as epistemological realists looking for self-evident or self-justifying propositions Torricelli and Pascal would have had to look—and one will encounter the same problem with all allegedly immediate self-evident or self-justifying “privileged” representations or propositional facts one finds: asking after the significance of each fact is precisely the point of scientific inquiry because the ‘facts’ of themselves say nothing beyond affirming ‘I am what I am.’  That is, absent their relationship to other facts, mediated by conceptual subject matter, no fact, or even set of facts, acts as a self-evident or self-justifying proposition for anything because the significance of all relevant facts is bestowed in the course of investigation, not given beforehand to be read-off and applied.  In short, the evidentiary significance of facts in inquiry is taken as opposed to given, and since naïve realism as an epistemology requires that their sense be self-evidently or self-justifyingly given in order to stop justificatory digging on a foundation of bedrock, no facts in science can qualify for the part.  Clearly, as pragmatists, Torricelli and Pascal were naïve realists in the sense that they believed the facts admitted into evidence simply ‘were what they were’ as plain, ‘brute’ facts, as “basic knowledge”.  But it remained the entire point of their investigations to ask after the significance of that evidence for their explanations, not simply to take it for what it was, at its immediate face value.  At face value, facts literally say nothing to an inference; what they say must be established, so as much as Torricelli and Pascal were naïve realists in the practice of taking up evidence, they simply couldn’t be epistemological realists in principle and still be practicing scientists because the very nature of using factual evidence requires not taking significance of facts as self-evidently and immediately given—as required by epistemological realism.  It is rather taking them up in a mediating context that situates their dispositive value as evidence for or against the explanation.  Simply put, no facts were taken as the immediate knowledge required by realism as an epistemological position.

Third—and perhaps most importantly—for both Harris’ epistemology and pragmatism, another sense of the “realism” inherent to the discovery of atmospheric pressure applies to this discussion, in that in a very real sense the discovery of atmospheric pressure can be seen as the discovery of something really existing antecedent to its discovery—that is, in accord with an inevitable form of common sense realism, of course the atmosphere exerted its pressure on the earth prior to the discovery of this fact.  But this realism admitted, contra Harris’s epistemology and in line with pragmatism, of equal importance it should be noted that this discovery is not one of finding a representation that mirrors an antecedent reality per se, as though that representation could then be checked against the original as the test for its veracity (as is implied in epistemological realism).  Rather, this obvious and common sense “conformity to antecedence” is known only in so far as the representation is determined true through its tested consequences.[65]   Only after the fact of observing the tested consequence of the concepts implied in “atmospheric pressure at varying altitudes” can the concept of atmospheric pressure be said to be known; therefore its mirroring antecedence to  pre-existing reality is, strictly speaking, neither here nor there with regard to its truth—or more precisely stated, since the truth of the representation is only known through its evidentiary consequences,  any correspondence to what antecedes therefore remains presumed and determined after the fact, not residing in the representation itself as some kind of a guarantor beforehand, simply waiting to be confirmed.  All realist epistemologies of representation prior to pragmatism assert this conforming attendance as the guarantor of a representation’s warrant; in other words, all pre-pragmatist epistemologies conflate the functional sense in which a representation must ‘conform’ to antecedent reality in a common sense way in order for an explanation to be an explanation as such with the apriori necessity of conformity inherent to the representation itself, one that can be confirmed by going back to the ‘original’ reality somehow ‘outside’ the representation as a ‘test’ of its truth.[66]  To be sure, the representative value of an explanation as an explanation of something really independent of itself existing prior to the explanation as such remains warrantably presumed in so far as the evidence for it is strong—and in a common sense way this evidence can be said to show “conformity” of the representation “atmospheric pressure” to an antecedent reality ‘atmospheric pressure’ based on this strength.  But in an epistemological sense—the only sense that matters for any realism that also invokes a mirror theory of knowledge as reflections of the antecedently real—any “mirroring”, such as it is, is established aposteriori by evidence and argument for the proposition, and as such it cannot be said to be given beforehand in any relevant way, as though this prior giveness within the proposition prior to its warrant bears on its veracity.  In short, since it is only through to consequences of tested ideas that we can presume conformity to the reality representations ostensibly represent, the truth of the representation should be said to follow from its tested consequences and not from conformity to an antecedent reality.  “Conformity”, in any sense, is only established after the fact, and therefore its “truth” cannot be the basis of the truth claim, since in fact that truth is precisely what is established by the inference in the first place.

Fourth—and with the preceding point in mind—and contra Harris and in line with pragmatism, it simply should not be said that a distinct pattern of neural firing corresponds to a distinct pattern of environmental stimulation when it comes relating explanations (or propositions) to ‘states of the world,’ first because discarding the mirror basis of knowing makes such appeals moot, and second, because for ‘states of the world’ like atmospheric pressure (or as noted above, for propositions like “tofu is not a dessert” or the mutual attraction due to gravity), no such correspondence occurs.  In fact, in this particular example, any such correspondence would probably conceal, not reveal, the phenomena.  For instance, the “constant pattern of neural firing,” taken in any sense, would surely have to involve the proprioception of feeling the air on the skin at whatever altitude one is at; and since, strictly speaking, this pattern of environmental stimulation would change (the pressure would in fact vary), the ‘constant pattern of neural firing’ would presumably change as well.  But to all appearances it doesn’t: the air feels the same on the skin no matter what altitude one is at, even when in fact the pressure change is quite measureable.  Now it can certainly be said that in fact the pattern of neural firing taken altogether (including the firing one the skin) does change, but this change simply doesn’t rise to the threshold of sensational awareness—though in truth if it doesn’t it’s hard to see how the pattern really would be the same.  But instead of deflecting the force of the problem it only reinforces it with respect to the question of an alleged correspondence and its role in the formation of belief.  For at issue for Harris regarding the constant correspondence of patterns of neural and environmental stimulation is the question of belief formation and confirmation.   As such, if in actuality the pattern of neural firing does change but belief does not, then the problem remains the same: there would be no correspondence between belief and the constancy of environmental stimulus, as Harris asserts, because under conditions of differing stimulation the belief remains the same.   As indicated before with respect to the “tofu is not a dessert” example and the related footnote on the explanation of mutually attracting bodies by gravity, there is no doubt that a constancy between neural firing and environmental stimulus related to the reading of instruments occurs; that in the basic sensory experiences of ‘naïve realism’ an important correspondence between neural and environmental patterns obtains.  And there would almost certainly be some kind of constancy of neural firing specific to the reasoning process that produces the laws of gravity or atmospheric pressure, as well as a constancy to appreciating those laws once produced (and in a perfected neural science, this constancy could be determined).  But there is simply no pattern of environmental stimulation that could correspond to the pattern of neural firing when it comes to atmospheric pressure because the ‘environmental pattern’ specific to the belief cannot even be observed without instruments—and in the case of mutually attracting bodies through gravity (or “tofu is not a dessert”) there is simply no constant pattern to detect in any case.  In short, when it comes to the critical question of how beliefs are formed and how they are confirmed, this basis simply cannot be a constancy of neural firing mirroring ‘the states of the world’ with which belief is concerned.  Within the confines of simple perceptual experiences, and the largely simple acts specific to reading instruments or observing simple events within them, constancy of brain and environment makes sense, and is surely even necessary.  But within the broader scope of the epistemology of belief, it simply doesn’t apply.

Taken together, these four points regarding the scientific discovery of atmospheric pressure show in what sense the main thrust of Harris’ epistemology of belief holds, even as they illustrate the scope and power of a pragmatism that corrects for the ways it doesn’t.   Specifically, Torricelli and Pascal were clearly naïve realists who formulated logically coherent and non-contradictory propositional beliefs in order to represent a ‘state of the world’ that, upon discovery, could be said in a very real sense to ‘correspond to’ or ‘reflect’ an antecedent reality, i.e. the representation was true because it ‘corresponds’ to the ‘real.’  But just as clearly, this correspondence to the antecedent state of the world was not presumed in advance in a mirroring relationship that somehow pre-exists the discovery of the appropriate representation.  That is, there is no presumed mirroring that could ever serve as an epistemological guarantor of its truth.  Instead, the discovery, as asserted in propositional form, was presumed true based only on the correspondence of the conceptual (the ‘ideas’) and existential (the ‘facts’) subject matter with the eventual solution, namely, the settled, determinate explanation of atmospheric pressure.  As such, this correspondence is known only through the consequences of tested belief; in an epistemological sense it cannot be said to precede it, except in the loose colloquial sense that the reality the representation purportedly represents ‘preceded’ the existence of the representation.  In this crucial respect, then, pragmatism differs from Harris naïve realism as an epistemological position, even as it incorporates its truth into its practice, for unlike naïve realism as an epistemology, pragmatism does not conflate the ‘mirroring correspondence’ established functionally and after the fact of inquiry with an antecedent property already existing between the real and its representation, one that precedes any determination in inquiry.  In this respect, it does not commit “the philosophic fallacy”.  In so far as Harris bases his epistemology of belief on an apriori correspondence between the representation and the real in a mirroring relationship between neural firing and environmental stimulus—and even if this apriori mirroring is maintained in some way irrespective of the failure of this correspondence—he both commits this “philosophic fallacy” and fails to offer an epistemology consistent with how proven modes of inquiry (read “science” in the broadest sense) actually work.  Consequently, it is asserted here that his awkward epistemology be replaced with pragmatism, an ‘epistemology’—if the term must be preserved, and it shouldn’t be—that both avoids this fallacy and makes explicit the actual investigative assumptions and operations used in science, operations so natural and successful now that they in fact need no philosophical foundation, only exposition into conceptual clarity.  Pragmatism provides this exposition, as worked out in the principle works preceding American neo-pragmatism by at least a generation.  Only this traditional pragmatism as a ‘philosophical position’ disavows the need for a philosophical “grounding” of knowledge and gets straight to the business of describing how we successfully come to know when we in fact know.[67]  Only pragmatism starts with the assumption that there is real knowledge and then asks: what means by which did we get it?  Pragmatism, then, is not really philosophy, if philosophy is thought of as intrinsically epistemological, for unlike philosophy—which at least since Descartes in the first place asks if there is an external world and in the second if there is, how can we know we know it—pragmatism (like science) begins by presuming there is a real, external world then it stipulates that we in fact know it when we can in fact transform it according to predicted, directed means toward specific ends.  In short, knowledge for pragmatism is this successful transformation through explanations.  As such, it is maintained here that pragmatism, and not naïve realism as an epistemology, best aligns with the apparent intent of Harris’ epistemology of belief, even as it brings this intent in line with an exposition of the best, most successful methods of inquiry we actually have.

The discussion thus far, in sync with Harris apparent intent, has taken as its starting point pragmatism in its understanding of “science” broadly conceived, not philosophy as historically understood, at least since Descartes and currently in American analytic philosophy.  So it seemed appropriate to close the critical portion thus far with a reference to a specific scientific discovery, atmospheric pressure.  It should now be evident from this example, and the preceding discussion, that pragmatism—and not Harris’ epistemology of belief—best represents the rationality and scientific spirit towards which Harris himself seems to be striving.  In short, pragmatism represents the best conceptual adornment for the position Harris apparently intends, without embroiling it in unintended epistemological commitments and confusions.  As such, a brief consideration of the consequences of pragmatism for his positive examination of religious belief vis-vis rational belief will now follow.  But before considering this, Harris’ notion of “freedom of belief” must be reconsidered.

Freedom of belief reconsidered and rationality pragmatically conceived

On the topic of freedom of belief, Harris is quite clear: because of the epistemic nature of belief as such, we have little, if any freedom of belief (p. 51).  By this he presumably means that because beliefs by nature are propositional statements of fact mirroring an antecedent reality, we are not in fact free to believe what we want to believe because beliefs must be—or intrinsically are—adjudicated according to their correspondence (or not) with the actual states of the world they purportedly represent.  Or to put the matter more precisely, Harris seems to suggest that one can truly believe only what corresponds to valid mirroring—in short, that only true beliefs are truly believed, and we are not free to believe otherwise.

Now it has already been shown that this understanding of the nature of belief as “mirroring” is misguided, conflating as it does the functional properties of belief as a result of inquiry with antecedent properties of existence as such.  As a result of this conflation, it can be simply asserted now that Harris gets freedom of belief exactly backwards, namely: because of the functional nature of belief, all we have is freedom of belief, even though this freedom most emphatically does not entail that any belief is ‘free’ to be as true or as likely as any other.  In other words, by overlooking the functional nature of belief and mixing its entailments, Harris conflates freedom of belief with freedom of justification, and therefore he denies the former when in fact all that really should be denied is the latter.  Why this is so will now been shown, and the notion of ‘freedom of justification’—or lack thereof—will be developed in its place.

First, it should be observed that without freedom of belief, it is impossible to account for the possibility of error inherent to Harris’ own description of naïve realism.  For in that realism, Harris notes that sometimes one can be justified in a belief that turns out to be false, just as one can be unjustified in a belief that is in fact true—“unjustified” in the sense that warrant for the belief is not yet established, though in principle it could be established.  Freedom of belief is implied in this account, in that the possibility of ‘error with justification’ and ‘truth without it’ presupposes that one is ‘uncoupled’, as it were, from the mirroring correspondence with the world that in Harris’ epistemology otherwise  insures the veracity of belief.  In other words, Harris seems to want to say that we have little or no freedom of belief because beliefs in the authentic sense of the word are formed through faithful replication in propositional form of what antecedes them, an antecedence known through a coupling of the nervous system mirroring the world.  But if this were so, this mirroring antecedence coupled to reality is inconsistent with his description of naïve realism, for in that description one must be free to form belief irrespective of this mirroring correspondence—as in fact we are—otherwise one could not be ‘justified and err’ or ‘believe without justification and not err’.  In short, justification, if there were no freedom of belief, should follow naturally from having belief (as Harris otherwise maintains).  Without the freedom to form beliefs that either err or anticipate justification, one could not err or anticipate it—in other words, without this freedom, naïve realism as Harris describes it collapses under its own weight, even as with this freedom his other stipulation about the veracity of belief fails.  There is simply no consistent position from which naïve realism as Harris describes it, and the lack of freedom of belief that he draws from it, can get along together without forcing inconsistency.

Second, Harris’ basic epistemological premise of belief as generated in a mirroring correspondence between representation and the real is, as has been shown here, both correct and misguided—correct in the sense that the ‘mirroring’ ‘corresponds’ to the world after the fact of justified belief, but misguided in the sense that this correspondence of belief and world, under his account, allegedly precedes and subtends, as a guarantor, belief’s veracity.  Therefore, with the rejection of this ambivalent premise goes the conclusion from it—in other words, with the rejection of a coupling of belief to world through an apriori mirroring goes the basis for asserting that we have little, if any, freedom of belief.  Simply put, since there is no apriori mirroring as the basis for an antecedent correspondence—and therefore of true belief—all that’s left is freedom of belief, and the question turns to what little, if any, freedom of justification remains.

Third and finally, the movement of scientific progress would be literally inexplicable without this shift of freedom of belief to freedom of justification—without, that is, postulating near complete freedom of belief coupled with little, if any, freedom of justification (except in the obvious and trivial sense that one is in fact free to pursue justification or not).  For consider just the single example of scientific discovery already considered here: without the freedom of belief to form a proposition in stark contradiction to most, if not all—and at the very least the most foundational—principles of existing natural knowledge at the time—and even in defiance of sense experience itself—how could Torricelli and Pascal have even conceived of atmospheric pressure, must less discovered it?  That is, if they were not free to believe in something yet unjustified despite what passed for justification in their time, how could something new even be postulated?  Recurring to Harris description of naïve realism, their belief in atmospheric pressure could be considered true even before it was justified (though of course it was later justified), even as their prior belief in abhorrence of a vacuum was false despite being, by most reasonable standards of the time, justified.  Without freedom of belief, how would this situation even be possible—and it just won’t do as a way to say that Torricelli and Pascal didn’t really believe until they were justified.  That may or may not be true, and that fact that either could be the case is precisely the point under consideration.  Only freedom of belief explains how scientific postulation and discovery occurs, even as having little or no freedom of justification is required for understanding how true scientific knowledge is established.  In short, the movement of scientific postulation is the freedom of belief in action, even as the self-correcting and inherently self-limiting lack of freedom in justification is scientific confirmation or rejection at work.  The coupling of the two together is the movement of controlled inquiry in postulating new beliefs and examining their truth through anticipated consequences—in other words, the coupling of the two represents both postulation and subsequent justification as practiced in all valid modes of inquiry.

With this notion of limited, if any, freedom of justification within a regime of near complete freedom of belief, one gets to the heart of rationality pragmatically conceived, and presumably to the rationality Harris seems to be aiming for in The End of Faith, though he doesn’t seem to specify in any detail just what that rationality entails.  But in a sense, the details are not necessary because the book itself exemplifies the stakes of the issue.  People are in fact free to believe what they want to believe, otherwise there would be no need to write a book challenging some of the most dangerous and destructive beliefs they entertain—to wit, certain forms of supernatural religious belief.  But with equal certainty, people are in fact not free to be justified in those beliefs just because they want to believe them; justification—as Harris implies in his folding of ‘ought not be free’ into ‘are not free’—is in fact delimited in advance by the evidentiary paths indicated in the formation of the belief itself, and in the possibilities afforded by the world for following those evidentiary paths; in other words, by the kinds of evidence sought and obtainable there.  So recurring to previous mention that Harris conflates “ought not be free” with “are not free,” this conflation is essentially correct in so far as it means that freedom of belief is completely irrelevant to the question of whether or not beliefs are justified, but it is incorrect in so far as it conflates lack of freedom to believe with lack of freedom to be justified.  In other words, even if one is free to believe what one wants to believe, as one is, this freedom is completely irrelevant to the question of justification—and that question is the most important one when it comes to action, social policy, or whatever consequences belief entails.[68]  Despite his conflation of freedom and justification, on the issue of justification pragmatists and Harris completely converge, specifically with respect to their respective notions of rationality.  Since Harris doesn’t describe rationality beyond observing that it is based on belief grounded in the giving and taking of evidence and reasons, discussion of this convergence will begin with a discussion of pragmatic “method,” then move on to the question of rationality itself.

As already noted, pragmatism generalizes as the “method” of inquiry the pattern already observable, and proven successful, in experimental science.  As Dewey says in his chapter, “The Supremacy of Method”, knowing in general, “in all its phases and conditions,” should be “understood after the pattern of experimental inquiry, instead of upon the groundwork of ideas framed before such knowing had a systematic career opened to it.”[69]  And to this he adds: the results of this method—knowledge—should be seen as “the fruit of the undertakings that transform a problematic situation into a resolved one”.[70]  But this point about “method” noted, adopting the method of experimental science, as a pattern of previously successful inquiry, does not alone insure reliable results, for this method as such does not yield any hard and fast rules for choosing the problematic situations to which it can and cannot be applied, then formulating those problems in terms that afford their resolution by these scientific means.  In other words, given the method to be employed, when and how does one employ it to solve problems?  What guides the employment, so to speak, both in choosing the initial problems and formulating them in terms that lead to solutions?  Is there a rule or set of rules governing when and how it is ought to be used, one supplementing the knowledge of how to use the method itself, once that method is deemed appropriate?[71]  This question goes to the heart of whether or not science is or can be the sole method of valid inquiry, and bound to this question is one germane to one of the essential issues addressed in The End of Faith, namely: do science and religion ask different kinds of questions in different areas of non-overlapping subject matter, questions where the means and methods of one are entirely inappropriate to the subject matter of the other?  In other words, are there apriori rules for deciding when and how to apply the scientific manner of asking and answering questions, and does the presence or absence of these fixed (or fixable) rules mean there are alternative means of posing and answering questions in religious matters, specifically with respect to the role faith plays in the assertions endemic to supernatural belief?

Setting aside for now the import of second part of the question—the supposed division of labor between science and religion—and focusing instead only on the first point—are there hard and fast rules for choosing the problems amendable to scientific scrutiny and for formulating those problems into solvable terms—on this issue Dewey is quite clear: there are none.  For as he says most plainly after elaborating in exquisite detail the means and methods science actually uses, he admits that when it comes to choosing and formulating problems amenable this method “there are no set rules to be followed.  The only ‘rule’, it might be said, is to be as intelligent and honest as lies in one’s power.”[72]  And to this he adds: the “honesty” and “intelligence” must be “public,” that way everything remains “above board”.[73]

With these two provisions in mind, it could be said that for the pragmatists, like for Harris, the rational maxim guiding science—and “science” here means generically any form of intelligently controlled inquiry—the rational norm that guides its application, the one that most accounts for its broad explanatory power, is principally and simply intellectual honesty, specifically one deployed in the giving of and asking for reasons and evidence for or against beliefs.  In other words, to be rational is to found beliefs on evidence, then to scrutinize that evidence with further evidence disclosed in continuing inquiry, evidence that tests those beliefs with respect to the consequences implied in holding them. This straightforward, candid, intellectual honesty is precisely what Torricelli cultivated when he looked at his barometer with an eye unprejudiced by current natural ‘knowledge’ and a mind open to the possibility of discovering an explanation for a question he had in mind. In practice his intellectual honesty was plain, candid, public, and intelligently directed. And really nothing more. No guarantees for truth or a better life.  No certainty assured.  Just honest, intelligent effort guiding the deployment of proven methods yielding real explanations that have transformed our world.  For pragmatism, and presumably for Harris as well, the best we can hope for in using science to solve real problems is to be always intellectually honest, and in that honesty one must always remain open to—in fact it must even seek out—new evidence that continually tests beliefs as a means to solving those problems.

With this common emphasis on intellectual honesty, as already stated, Harris and pragmatism converge, but with this emphasis pragmatism perhaps goes even further than Harris, in so far as it derives the norm that one ought to be intellectually honest from the fact that intellectually honesty serves as the best actual means to the ends of scientific inquiry, namely, reliable knowledge—or for that matter, that it serves as the best means to the ends of any inquiry or activity.[74]  For pragmatism, rationality—rationality conceived as the general fitting of means toward ends—can be said to entail the obligation to be intellectually honest, simply because in fitting any means to all ends aspired, intellectual honesty carries the most general application.  In other words, since intellectual honesty is in fact so effective in adjusting means towards ends in any inquiry or activity, it ought to be used to do so[75].  And that’s not all.  Pragmatism recognizes freedom of belief; in fact, for pragmatism, freedom of belief is an intrinsic feature of belief itself, and as an intrinsic feature freedom of belief is instrumental in the experimental method as a means toward establishing reliable ends.  As such, in so far as intellectual honesty insures reliable fitting of means towards ends, and in so far as freedom of belief is essential as means in all processes known, for pragmatism the recognition of freedom of belief entails an inherent obligation to be intellectually honest, as well as to accept, as inherent to that honesty, a limited freedom of justification—a freedom limited only by the norms of “the public space of reasons.”  Understood in this way, a rational person is one who always feels obligated to be intellectually honest, who is always ready to test his or her beliefs according to their evident consequences, thereby testing the evidentiary basis for their formation, or for holding them at all.  In this respect, freedom of belief and rationality are really one of apiece: because one is free to believe what one wants, one ought to be rational about it, and one out to be rational about it because this rationality best fits the means of inquiry and activity (the experimental method) to the ends of inquiry and activity as such (reliable results).  In short, to be free to believe entails recognizing a lack of freedom of justification, if progress in any art or vocation or pursuit of any kind is to be expected—for what other beliefs than those that are justified, those that suit as means to ends, those that are “true” yield reliable results?  Pragmatic rationality is thus inherently normative, not descriptive (to wit, people are often, if not most of the time, in fact irrational), but the implied norm converges almost perfectly with a description of how successful inquiry actually works.  As such it also appears to converge with the rationality indicated and embedded in Harris critique of religious belief, in that it captures what he seems to be driving at about intellectual honesty and evidence, just it does so without conflating the limited freedom of justification with a complete lack of freedom of belief.  In this respect, then, one might say that pragmatic rationality is Harris’ rationality purged of the last vestiges of the philosophic fallacy, in that a functional aspect of belief (lack of freedom of justification) is finally separated from any claim to antecedent existence (lack for freedom of belief itself).   Therefore, although they arrive at a common destination, pragmatic rationality ought to be the preferred path to it.

A final word on this preferred path to a common destination should be added here.  In effect, lack of freedom of belief serves Harris’s broader argument against the epistemic status of religious belief, or more to the point, it buttresses his argument that because of the status of evidence, supernatural religious belief—as an epistemological claim—is inherently flawed.  The distinction between freedom of belief and freedom of justification offered here leaves this basic conclusion untouched, even as it arrives at it in a different way.  Basically, for Harris, one is in fact not free to believe because belief, when understood properly, is grounded epistemically in an apriori mirroring correspondence with the world, whereas in the account proposed here, one is in fact free to believe what one wants but remains unfree in the justification for that belief, since justification itself establishes any ‘mirroring correspondence’ with the world.  So limited, if any, freedom of justification here serves the same role as lack of freedom of belief serves for Harris, but it does so, so to speak, from the direction towards consequences, not reliance on antecedence.  In so far as we are not free to be justified however we like when it comes to our beliefs, we remain epistemically responsible for the consequences of our beliefs, both regarding how these consequences bear on the formation of belief in the first place, and why they are maintained in the second.  In short, where Harris puts epistemic responsibility on belief formation as such (in that one is obliged, or should be obliged, to form true beliefs because of their origins), the emphasis here is placed on belief justification after the fact (in that one is obliged, or should be obliged to accommodate the epistemic norms of reasons and evidence once beliefs are freely formed).  At the end of the day, it may be a distinction without any practical difference, but in an epistemology of belief, the distinction remains important, in so far as it is necessary to accommodate what de facto occurs (freedom of belief) with what de jure should occur (inherently limited freedom to be justified or not).   Pragmatism places emphasis on the later in the same way implied in Harris’ epistemology, even as it avoids the error inherent in denying the former.  In this sense, then, Harris could be considered a pragmatist on belief, albeit a non-self-conscious one.  In any case, pragmatism and Harris converge on the question of justified belief about as well as they converge on rationality as essentially intellectual honesty—in other words, they end up in the same place.  This underlying similarity should overshadow any remaining cosmetic differences between the two views, and because of it a pragmatist should find no fault with the substance of Harris’ critique of supernatural religious belief.  It stands as it stands; pragmatism shares it with both hands.


At this point, the primary purpose of this essay has been achieved—or so it is asserted.  Harris’s five epistemic characterizations of belief have been examined in light of the epistemology of belief he presents, in part explicitly and in part by implication, in Chapter 2 of The End of Faith.  That epistemology has been found wanting, and to summarize that section of this essay, Harris appears to incorrectly prioritize an epistemic interest in belief formation, even as he conflates the properties accruing to belief in its eventual function with properties inherent to beliefs as such.  This conflation leads him to deny a freedom of belief that is in fact observable, in favor of a normative version of rational belief that is unfortunately written into the fabric of belief itself.  To be sure, as has been emphasized, a notion of rationality does follow quite readily from the epistemically functional role of belief,[76] but instead denying freedom of belief and finding this rationally in conformity to an antecedently known reality, pragmatism affirms freedom of belief and focuses instead on the limited, if any, freedom of justification.  In other words, pragmatism denies attributing into belief as such a limited freedom even to believe, where rationality then derives from a faithful mirroring of antecedent states of the world,[77] and it looks instead to the justification of belief through testing the consequences implied in the belief itself.  However, this primary difference withstanding, once the philosophic fallacy is purged from Harris’ account, the apparent intent behind his epistemology dovetails almost perfectly with pragmatism, for they both end up in the same place: intellectual honesty as the most basic rational virtue—a virtue they both ground in the open-ended exchange of evidence and argument in the public ‘space of reasons’.  As a result of this convergence, the critique of religious belief is also the same: religious belief in the supernatural fails in any epistemic test because evidence for it, in practice and in principle, is simply non-existent—non-existent both with respect to the grounds for forming belief in the first place, but more especially with respect to any possible test for the consequences implied in the beliefs themselves. [78]   Absent all possible evidence and because of this failure, reasons for believing in a supernatural god remain in both accounts intrinsically irrational: either they are tautological references to the grounds for belief itself—to wit, “revelation” in the sources presumed to be the sources of revelation—or they are self-confirming biases that simply “justify” believing what one already wants to believe in the first place—to wit, virtually everything, if not everything, believed in supernatural  religion.  To put it bluntly, rationality still precludes religion, and faith still ends where reason begins.  While more could be said on the positive function of religious belief in ordering emotional and intellectual life, or on how for pragmatism faith as “the unification of the self through allegiance to inclusive ends” can still be rational once all reference to the supernatural is discarded, and those ends are conceived as ideal possibilities intrinsic to natural existence and human interaction,[79] developing those points is reserved for another time.  Suffice it to close here by pointing out that in substance, pragmatism and Harris differ little—if at all—in maintaining that devotion the supernatural deity specific to any religion is just silly at best, pernicious in the middle, and at its worst inherently destructive of human potential.   In this regard they differ only in their respective ‘epistemological’ means to that common end, and in the end, perhaps that convergence is all that really matters.  The rest here may be mere cosmetic window dressings for a position wisely held.

[1] For the ways in which Rorty’s pragmatism is essentially a nonsense pseudo-pragmatism best refuted by not taking it seriously, see “Richard Rorty is no pragmatist”, “Philosophy and the Fun-house Mirror of Nature,” “E-piss-temological behaviorism,” “Cling-ons in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature”, and “Uh, it’s really dumb to sacrifice answerability to the world” at

[2] It should be noted immediately that his is not an invocation of that bugaboo endemic to moral philosophy, the so-called “naturalistic fallacy.”  It is merely that Harris in this specific case does mistake what is the case for what ought to be the case, to wit: freedom of belief does in fact exist, but it ought not to in an important sense—or to make the implied premise in Harris’ argument explicit: freedom of belief does not exist if believing also means being justified in the belief.  While it is true that one is either right or wrong and does not remain free to be otherwise, given the specifics of any given belief, one remains free to be right or wrong, and that freedom is (unfortunately) freedom of belief.  This distinction between freedom of belief and a strictly limited freedom of justification is developed in detail later (p. 53).

[3] Dewey, “The Control of Ideas by Facts”, p. 198.

[4] The argument and quotation is taken directly from Dewey, “Propositions, Warranted Assertibility, and Truth”, p. 178.

[5] Ibid. p. 179.

[6] As he himself notes, his version of “naïve realism” has “few defenders” in philosophical circles, though one could note it is pretty much universal—if still unstated—among practicing physical scientists.

[7] For a series essays to this effect, see  This waste of time would include Rorty’s so-called solution to the problem—or to be more faithful to his stated intent, his setting the epistemological problem aside and moving on to other questions (though as one of those essays shows, he doesn’t really set it aside after all, at least not like he thinks he does—unless changing the subject and posing a ‘solution’ as silly as any other counts as ‘moving past’ a problem.  See “E-piss-temological Behaviorism” specifically).

[8] By “relatively” is meant “non-epistemologically”.  There may be important considerations in interpreting, for instance, MRIs, like: does differential blood flow reliably indicate differential cognitive activity in a simple one-to-one way by specific area?  But there is no interesting philosophical question in asking whether or not the MRI is really about the brain, as in: does that image really represent what it purports to represent, blood flow in the brain? Are our sensations of the image itself even reliable; how do we know they are, etc.?  Naïve realism, and this author, asserts that it does represent the brain and that we have no trouble reading the image because we just don’t; then it leaves the matter at that.  To put it succinctly, science begins with understanding the significance of the MRI (and other evidence), whereas philosophy begins by questioning its veracity.  Like Harris, this author begins like science, not philosophy.


[9] Harris maintains that he has disposed of these puzzles with a logical demonstration of the superiority of naïve realism over pragmatism, specifically by showing that the inherent logic of pragmatism tacitly endorses the tenets of realism “with both hands” (either it directly contradicts itself—in which case naïve realism is left as true—or it must assume naïve realism in order not to contradict itself—in which case it still does, again, leaving naïve realism as true).  But it can be shown with just a little more application that Harris merely gets off a logical-epistemological merry-go-round at one hemisphere as opposed to the other—in short, that nothing is resolved by his argument.


For instance, Harris says pragmatism is logically contradictory in either of two ways: either it refers to itself or not.  If it does refer to itself, then it must tacitly accept some criteria beyond a discourse of justification to determine its own truth, thus contradicting itself by appealing to an extra-discursive justification.  If it does not refer to itself, then it can be shown to be contradictory in its own attempt to permit truth by assent in a discourse of justification because it always remains possible to assent to a proposition that undermines what it stipulates.  Regarding the first option, Harris seems to assume that it makes no sense to stipulate in a non-provable way the truth of any proposition (like one might stipulate an axiom), and to demonstrate the second he starts by granting that (P) is true, i.e. all truth requires, and only needs, assent in a sphere of justificatory discourse.  Then he asks: what if everyone in this discourse assented to naïve realism (R), i.e. that some statements are true without justification, and some justified statements are false.  Since assent in a sphere of discourse is all that is needed for a statement to be true (by the stipulations of (P)), and since assent to (R) in said sphere is possible ((R) could therefore be true), if and when such assent occurs, (R) becomes true, thus leading to the contradiction—(P) and (R) are both true but they contradict one another.   Therefore, Harris contends, when taken to its logical conclusion, (P) either contradicts itself by claiming to be self-authenticating in a non-discursive way, or it leads to a contradiction because if granted as true it could be used to endorse a statement like (R), thus proving that in fact it is not true after all.


Now it is maintained here that arguments like these, as common as they are in analytic philosophy, are usually disingenuous, and when they are not disingenuous, they still remain futile.


First, they are usually disingenuous in the sense that the alleged contradiction is artificially forced into the argument either by demanding that no extra-logical stipulation is possible (as in an axiomatic stipulation), or by forcing a consequence onto a proposition through a new premise, one that would not usually arise (for instance, granting that the original point is true, then constructing a situation in which that truth leads to a contradiction).  Regarding the first move, it may just be true by stipulation that a statement like (P) is true, and this stipulation may be grounded in a recognition that no other form of justification has ever been successful, therefore no other kind will likely work. This is essentially what Rorty thinks he has shown, so he stipulates an alternative like (P).  Justification of the kind required in the statement would in this instance not be required, any more than external justification of an axiom is required. Regarding the second move, it just does not follow from believing (P) that everyone would ever consent to (R), or that they must hold out for the possibility that they would ever do so.  Indeed, why would they ever do so if they believed (P) is true—and it is neither here nor there that the possibility that they could somehow contradict themselves exists, or that the possibility of this contradiction can be constructed and forced upon them against their own better sense.  Besides, even if they did assent to believe (R), (R) stipulates that some statements are true without justification, so the believers of (P) who say (R) is true too could simply retort that their original statement (P) is precisely one of those statements that are true without justification, therefore the ‘truth’ of (R) persists under the umbrella of (P) after all.  From there is costs them nothing to admit that sometimes justified beliefs are false too (as they already could believe that under (P).


Secondly, and more importantly, if arguments like the one Harris presents are not disingenuous (and he is certainly in good company with this kind of argumentation), then they are ultimately futile in that they arbitrarily step out of a logical circle that just keeps on going around and around, onto itself with invoked and revoked premises, thus creating a virtual epistemological merry-go-round that just never stops spinning.  To illustrate this, consider Harris’ second argument against pragmatism, where he grants (P) but says perhaps all (P) believers assent to (R).  In this case, one can always point out that once (R) is established, how else but in a discourse of justification would one ever know which propositions are in fact true or false, thus knowing in fact that (R) is true by anything other than plain stipulation?  In other words, how would one ever determine which statements are true and which ones are false without engaging in offering and accepting reasons?  This giving and taking of reasons is exactly what the neo-pragmatists mean by a “discourse of justification.”  The only apparent recourse outside this “space of reasons” of evidence and assent for believers in (R) that does not re-invoke (P) would be to appeal to evidence ‘outside’ a discourse of justification, i.e. some form of direct or privileged immediate representation that is self-evident or self-affirming.  But whence these privileged representations, and if such representations do exist, 1) why would one ever fail to justify a true proposition, for one should always be able to trace back the true proposition to its self-evidentiary, self-justificatory base, otherwise holding it would be illogical or irrational; or 2) why would one ever hold a false proposition that is justified, for if given a self-evident base to start with, only illogic or irrationality would lead one to a false proposition.  So once (P) is granted in a way that leads ‘logically’ to (R), (R) itself either again invokes (P) or else invokes another provision that in turn makes (R) untenable or even self-contradictory—namely, self-justifying and immediate privileged representations.  No matter where one starts—with (P) or with (R)—one ends up right back with what one excluded or proved false: the logical –epistemological merry-go-round goes on and on, turning back onto itself through terms that are alternatively implied, invoked, and revoked.  One only ‘wins’ the argument either way by getting off the wheel at a logically arbitrary place.


Harris is right to show that (neo)-pragmatists can’t get of this logical-epistemological merry-go-round, but he is wrong to think that his naïve realist epistemology succeeds where pragmatism fails.  In fact both positions are part of the same vicious circle of premise hiding, invoking, and revoking, probably because in an important respect both are ideas true: direct, non-discursive evidence (per naïve realism) is used in a discourse of justification (per neo-pragmatism) that remains for a rational person the final court of appeal for generation of and assent to warranted assertions, what has traditionally been called ‘justified true belief.’  It is suggested in this essay that true pragmatism ‘gets off’ this merry-go-round by never getting on, and it never gets on because it assigns to conceptual coherence and direct existential evidence their mutually reciprocal and functional roles in controlled (read “scientific”) inquiry, testing the efficacy of either in the settling of a problematic situation through the examination of consequences, not by asking the question of representative conformity to an antecedent reality.  How this is so may be the defining issue of the ‘epistemology’ guiding science.  That it likely is so certainly undermines analytic epistemology of all of its varieties—at least that is a main contention in this essay.

[10] Anticipating an upcoming example, example of statements of fact would include propositions like: doors open and close; doors have handles that turn; doors have hinges on which they swing; the handle of a door is in arm’s reach; when the door stops moving, it is shut, etc.  All these are propositions of fact represent the world and in this case are “epistemic” in that they are knowledge of facts about part of that world, in this case of course doors.  It is granted here that these propositions can be formulated and recognized as true in a direct and unproblematic way, i.e. naïve realism is true.

[11] “Tacit” works well enough to describe this kind of understanding, and the issue of whence the origin of this tacit understanding is largely set aside for now.  But it is important to note what is tacitly understood.  In general, this tacit understanding consists of two aspects: first, the basic qualities of objects as observed in sensory experience, and second, the ‘meaningful nexus of functionality’ that may be best characterized as the referential context in which all the implements and tools and articles around us have their meaning—or as Heidegger called it, as the context of the “in-order-to.” (Being and Time, Chapter 3).  The discussion just offered, as well as that which follows, could be said to correspond largely to Heidegger’s analysis of the everyday ready-to-hand, though in fact it derives more from Dewey’s emphasis on the practical over the epistemic, so prevalent in his work that a specific citation seems unnecessary.

[12] In a meaningful sense the properties of an object must be known in order to formulate a use for it, in that “this edge is sharp” must be known of an object before its affordance for cutting can be appreciated—i.e. from this knowledge one can formulate a tool for cutting, as in: “since this edge is sharp, therefore it will cut.”  But as will be discussed in detail shortly, the things known in these cases are largely limited to basic sensory qualities that are directly apprehended and not formulated into beliefs as propositional knowledge per se; they belong to the tacit, not propositional, understanding that largely directs activity.  Furthermore, in order of genesis it is likely that the idea of a function leads to an appreciation of qualities, instead of vice versa—though of course no doubt the reverse occurs too, as in a case like finding fire and appreciating its useful qualities (but even here, the useful qualities are most likely appreciated because of a prior functional need).  The question of the role and genesis of propositional assertion will addressed more fully later.

[13] One might note that a factual proposition of the kind Harris has in mind could be “the door is for opening,” and based on this known fact representative of doors, one could formulate a principle of action.  This is granted, and all that is added here is that the practical belief ‘if I turn the handle and pull, then the door will open’ is the basis of forming the former proposition, not the consequent of having it. As a rule for genetic origins, ultimately practical beliefs enshrining the functional use of objects precedes the formation of propositional beliefs about that use (though of course in a particular case, once that practice is so enshrined, one can learn the proposition that such and such object is for such and such task, as in “the hammer is for driving nails” when someone is teaching someone else about carpentry, without first knowing how to use the object for the task.  It is just that ultimately, before anyone could form propositions about the task, that task itself must have been assigned in terms of a belief prescribing and action and predicting consequences.)

[14] Applying the point in the preceding footnote here, the toddler would first learn how to use the door in terms of a belief prescribing a rule with anticipated consequences, and only then, on that basis, would it understand that the door is for opening.  In other words, they do not first learn a proposition about the use of an implement prior to understanding and learning that use.

[15] Granted, this tacit understanding of use and properties can be asserted propositionally into truth claims about the world, and once implements are understood in their functional context, propositions about them can—and sometimes are—formed in this way (like understanding what to eat for dessert translates into “tofu is not a dessert”).  The point here is that this need not be, and rarely is, done, at least epistemically.  The conditions under which it is done will be taken up shortly.  For now it will only be suggested that it just won’t do to see practical interest as derivative of an epistemic interest, though it seems to make sense, both conceptually and in order of genesis, to say that epistemic interest is derivative of practical interest, particularly when that interest breaks downs or new or improved means are sought to establish the ends within it.  It is also here asserted (to be established later) that the knowledge derived in “naïve realism”—that kind that we can say represents the unproblematically determinable features and properties of things in the world—is knowledge of a kind, to be sure, but not knowledge in the honorific, epistemic sense.  This distinction, and the role the former plays in the later, is also taken up in what follows.

[16] Though perhaps we can anticipate the details in a general way, and this is precisely why practical beliefs of the kind offered here are likely superior to epistemic beliefs as a basis for action.  For practical beliefs like “if I turn the handle and push to door will open” will work for most doors in most situations, whereas propositional statements of fact about doors as a basis for using them would need formulation and independent corroboration for each door encountered, even if doors are broken down into kinds.  In other words, the first kind of belief is inherently generalized, whereas the second requires additional operations to achieve the necessary generalization to be useful.

[17] Again, it could be noted that the practical belief could be formulated based on an epistemic belief, such as “doors are for passages to other places; doors open and close…”etc.  But this order of priority is unlikely.  Although the familiarity one has with what a door is, and its properties, can be articulated in this way once one learns how to use one (once one has a practical belief), the propositional knowledge one can articulate about a door comes after and because one understands its function, i.e. one has a belief about it in terms of how one can use it and the consequences that can be gleaned from that use.  The question is one of the order of knowing: does one know how to use the door first and from there derive propositional facts about the door, or does one examine the door epistemically and from there formulate a practical belief?  The former is maintained here.

[18] This fact alone suggests the superiority of practical beliefs over epistemic beliefs in our commerce with the world, and it could account for why the former are far more common than the later, for they are simpler, they lead directly to courses of action, and they are more or less self-confirming and self-refuting.  Naturalistically speaking, then, it seems far more likely that our cognitive make-up is comprised more of beliefs of the practical kind than of the epistemic kind, particularly since successful practical beliefs lead directly to the securing of things like food, shelter, etc.

[19] The need for intervening and independent steps is required even for simple propositions like “this here is red”, for even in that case steps are required to distinguish “this here” from “that over there” and perhaps things otherwise “near” it.  Conditions must be ascertained as to whether or not they are the normal ones for the color red to appear.  Some act of looking at it as opposed to nearby things is required, etc.  Even the notion of “red” must be operationally distinguished in its everyday versus its scientific use.  That these steps are trivially easy does not mitigate their being independent and intervening in the inference.

[20] A jihadist may believe that killing unbelievers is a ticket to heaven, but this belief doesn’t by itself cause suicide bombing, any more than believing a hammer drives nails causes one to drive nails.  The practical belief ‘if I kill unbelievers, then I will go to heaven” must intervene.  Although in this case the epistemic belief (what the jihadist [sic] knows) affords the formulation of a practical belief as a cause of action (killing unbelievers), the belief itself doesn’t have to do so, for one can easily follow other paths to heaven based on those prescribed in principles of action derived from other epistemic beliefs (‘believers who follow Sharia go to heaven’, etc.).   Without the intervention of a practical belief prescribing a course of action within itself, it is problematic to say that “some propositions are so dangerous it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them,” for the former are the real danger whereas the latter are merely afford a danger one step—the crucial step, morally and legally—removed from action.

[21] In the example just noted, an epistemic belief about heaven and paths to it did lead to a practical belief as a principle of action, but for most tasks in daily life involving implements and such, assertions like “the hammer is for driving nails” or “the door is for opening a passage to another room” most likely follow from the already understood function of either, a function itself understood in a broader referential context of ‘in-order-to’ as such.

[22] This import of this section could be summarized in a simple phrase: we are doers before we are knowers, except in the rather obvious sense that we ‘know’ what we do, and its consequences.  Epistemology, then, follows practical activity and ultimately serves it, not vice versa.

[23] Equivalently one could formulate it this way: “if I turn the handle and push the door, then the door will open” and “if I turn the handle and push the door, then the door will close.”  In this case the existential operations will differ, but the principle remains the same.

[24] It should be stipulated here that people most likely in fact hold contradictory beliefs all the time and unfortunately get tricked up when trying to think despite this.  For instance, one may believe it is wrong to kill but still believe in the death penalty, and the fact that one believes both in some sense is the reason for more elaborate inquiry, to wit: is there a mediating belief that makes both true?  The contradiction that exists prior to this elaboration is not dispositive, but if enduring at the conclusion of a searching inquiry it would be.  Or consider the set of beliefs one might have about people when dealing with friends and family versus strangers and business contacts.  One unlikely disambiguates the contradictions between these sets prior to the situations in which they are applied, for as long as one remains aware of the specifics of the situation in which one applies them, one can believe both that “people can generally be trusted” and “people can generally not be trusted.”  As a statement about cognitive coping it is here maintained that people use this ‘short cutting’ all the time: two general but contradictory beliefs about the same thing often serve so long as one remains aware of the existential conditions under which their truth obtains, conditions sorted in the separate instances where the kind in question can be encountered (in this example, strangers versus friends as kinds of people).  This heuristic is both cognitively simple and explicatively robust, in that it would permit one to deal effectively with ‘contradictions’ in the real world that themselves must be conceptualized, navigated, and resolved, as it were, into a unified whole.  The difficulty of this heuristic would obviously arise when people fail to disambiguate it properly in its application to achieve that unified whole.

[25] In so far as these properties and forms have accrued to beliefs because of their use, the ones ‘in the mind’ ready for use will likely possess some, most, or all of these properties (depending on the types of beliefs), much like a well-worn tools will assume the ‘properties’ or ‘signs’ of regular use.  The point here is not to deny this likely occurrence and character of well-formulated beliefs at one time used and now lying in waiting ready to be used again.  It is merely to point out that these properties and forms are not requirements apriori.  They certainly can and do accrue logical forms by habitual use and can be remembered as such, but that is a habit formed aposteriori, not a required property of beliefs as such.

[26] And it will be challenged later that they even do pre-exists as propositions

[27] Harris alludes to the fact that some beliefs are formed as needed, and the consequences of that allusion are expanded upon here—prior non-propositional understanding.  For instance, as example of the priority of this non-propositional understanding, consider a belief, or ‘set of beliefs’, about the layout of one’s bathroom.  Surely one knows the layout quite well, all the way down to where the articles are set on the counter or in the vanity cabinet, readily available for use.  But is this layout known in terms of a set of propositions about the articles their place, or is it known through a tacit understanding of how these things are ordered in relation to one another, without the mediation of specific propositions (even as this tacit understanding can be asserted into propositional form)? As a description of how people actually orient without explicitly thinking about how they are doing it, the tacit understanding seems more likely.  And since this arrangement can be expressed in a nearly uncountable set of propositions—for it would be propositionally true that the toothbrush” is “next to” or “on” any number of things, and similarly for every other article standing in relations to each other which such and such properties, all of which would be epistemically valid—it seems more likely that the understanding remains non-propositional.  Simply put, since there is no end, or even apriori criteria, for the kinds of valid propositions (“beliefs”) truthfully descriptive of layout of the bathroom, it seems impossible in principle to specify propositions as the source of understanding that layout.

[28] Repeating what has already been said in a slightly different form: many, if not most, of the beliefs we have are the result of prior existential operations.  It’s a contention of the philosophic fallacy that this genesis as prior accomplishments in which logical norms were employed fosters the illusion that beliefs must comply to logical norms as such.  In other words, that they obeyed logical norms in their creation and use does not imply that logical norms are intrinsic to their existence as beliefs, that belief as such conforms to these norms.


[29] Recurring to the analysis offered above, in technical terms the naïve realist, as an epistemologist making claims about how knowledge is justified, must assert that certain “facts about the world” serve as self-justifying beliefs immediately disclosed in some kind of privileged representation, one that cuts through or cuts off the coherentist discourse of the neo-pragmatists and establishes a foundation on bedrock for belief.  The coherentist neo-pragmatist will always retort that no such representations exist, and if they did, the claims of the naïve realist can’t be true, i.e. it can’t be true that some justified beliefs are false and some true without being justified.  The question at stake in Harris as epistemologist is thus: are facts about the world these epistemologically necessary privileged representations?  Are they ultimately self-justifying and immediately obtained beliefs against which all knowledge claims can be assessed? This question is separable from Harris as a common sense naïve realist: that is, the idea that knowledge is real because it yields reliable beliefs about actual states of the world.  The goal in what follows is to tease out this distinction and affirm that Harris as epistemologist is wrong even as Harris as common sense realist is right.  In short, it is maintained that he himself confuses the two positions, and this confusion undermines the epistemology of belief he presents.

[30] The proposition “the grass is green” is being called, following Harris, a “belief,” but it could perhaps better be designated “knowledge by acquaintance” or even better as simple apprehension, in that it can just as easily be a “seizing or grasping” that occurs “intellectually” but without any form of deliberate questioning (Dewey, Logic, p. 146).  Without this explicit questioning it would be opposed to knowledge per se.  In other words, in a simple apprehension where there is no epistemic interest; there is no established object of knowledge because the nature and/or properties of the object (“that is grass,” “that grass is green,” “there is a flower,” etc.) are simply noted to be what they are.  The importance of this distinction between apprehension and belief-as-propositional-knowledge will be developed in some detail, but by way of indication it can be said here that while the proposition “the grass is green” may start as a simple apprehension, it can later take on the form of a knowledge claim (i.e. a justified assertion) through deliberate inquiry into the conditions that make it true, an inquiry that ascertains the truth of the proposition by gathering evidence for or against it, or more generally in determining the factual and casual circumstances under which it obtains.  The significance of this distinction is at the heart of this example as developed here.

[31] See pp. 3-6, especially footnote 9.

[32] See footnote 17.

[33] For recall that under the traditional epistemological demands, justification must terminate in a self-evidence existing outside the process for which evidence is taken up; it must end somehow in something immediately known in order to insure itself as a basis for the valid the inferences following from it.  If this basis is taken up just like any other evidence gathered for the belief, the chain of justification does not terminate in something known as given and instead refers back to the process of justification itself.  The paradox to be avoided here is that of looking for givens in the first place.  Since no such givens are possible, justification must be sought by other means—or so pragmatists maintain.  Anticipating later discussion, as much as for common sense purposes these elemental takens can be ‘givens,’ for epistemological purposes they only serve as a realism useful in securing reliable evidence, i.e. a realism insuring that the evidence is what it is, just because that is what it is and not something else.  Pragmatism does not deny that such a statement is relevant to questions of knowledge. It merely asserts that aside from insuring reliable evidence, a statement like that can only be the conclusion of inquiry, not its epistemological basis in the first place.  The importance of realism in its evidentiary role will be taken up shortly.

[34] That the “state of the world” salient to the perceptual act is in an important respect ‘constructed’ by the act of taking up available stimulus information is supported by what is neurologically known about the role of the brain in constructing the visual perception of the world, as opposed to simply copying or mirroring an antecedent state (see Kandel, et. al., Principles of Neural Science, chapters 21 and 25). To be sure this “construction” of the percept—what is in the final analysis our only access to the world, what therefore is the world for us—touches on some of the most difficult questions in neural science, but given what we know, it seems most judicious to say that the state of the world as represented is the apprehension instead of that the apprehension mirrors an antecedent state of the word. Subjective idealism under this stipulation is easily avoided in so far as it is recognized that this process of brain-world interaction is itself an observable event of the world, subject to its own set of unique causal conditions, conditions and circumstance that in a developed neural science, with the right instruments, would be so observable.

[35] “Trivial” only in the sense in which they are so frequent and basic and normal in everyday life, to a naïve realist, anyway (analytic epistemologists love to differ).  The scientific question on how, causally speaking, these operations arise is not trivial in any sense.

[36] This lack of mirroring correspondence is even more evident in the rationally justified beliefs of science.  To consider just one example that could be multiplied from any of the physical sciences: in what meaningful sense would the ‘pattern of neural firing’ and the ‘pattern of the features of the world’ correspond or mirror each other when it comes to formulating the mathematical law of the mutual attraction of one body to another in a gravitational field?  At most, the mathematical formulation of that law would require its own constant neural firing—that much is surely true, since the brain does the mathematics—but this pattern would bear no one-to-one correspondence with the perceptual constancies of bodies moving in space, despite the fact that the constancy of the perception of those bodies is both the existential basis of, and plays an evidentiary role in, the formulation of that mathematical law.  If it did, the law could be presumably derived directly from these experiences, just as “greenness” can be derived directly from the grass in order to formulate the proposition to be known, “the grass is green.” But clearly it can’t—many intervening conceptualizations and observations are required—illustrating even more poignantly just how little epistemological mileage on can get out of the notion that “body and world are so arranged” as to mirror each other in an antecedent correspondence.  This lack of mirroring correspondence will be revisited later in the discussion of the discovery of atmospheric pressure.

[37] This implicit stipulation could be said to be the defining feature—and error—of the British empiricists, Bertrand Russell, and to a lesser extent the logical positivists and their quest for “atomic propositions.” It is certainly rampant in contemporary analytic epistemology, if examples like “the cat is on the mat” are any indication.

[38] See pp. 3-6 and footnote 9.

[39] And even when it does occur, as it can be said to in simple sense perception (and probably in language comprehension too), “mirroring” only applies “in a loose sense” because when and if science progresses enough to determine which specific brain states correspond to which pattern(s) of stimulation are picked up from the environment, “mirroring” would be either an unwarranted or unnecessary addition to the causal account.  It would be unwarranted in that we never really would be able to specify what “mirroring” means in this context.  Is the pattern the same, or do the different but recurring patterns simply occur together? In the first case, the relationship wouldn’t be one of mirroring as much as it would be one of identity, and in the second, the hypothesis of “mirroring” would be superfluous.  That is, one would only need to know that the two patterns in fact occur together regularly, that the one causes the other, and this causal link itself would establish the relationship absent any sense given to “mirroring.”  To say they “mirror” one another would simply giving be causal power to the word used for the effect described in the causal action.  In short, it would add nothing beyond a peculiar epistemological consolation that our basic perceptual ‘beliefs’ are true, or can be true, in that it would assure us that we do in fact know truly when perceive correctly after all.  But in that respect, if the brain pattern is just caused, in what sense do we really need to specify out a conception of knowledge, and secondary to that question, do we really need the epistemological consolation at all when the causes of simple perceptual ‘beliefs’ are in fact known?  Isn’t it enough to say that the qualities and distinctions etc. apprehended in sensory and instrumental examination are what they appear to be, reserving the designation “knowledge” for the warranted assertions we make about the objects and events observed in this examination?

[40] “Silly” here may be unfair, but it may not be either.  This author is simply unsure what else to call a view that forces one to say, using what Rorty was fond of saying in his finer moments, that justification for the knowledge that goes into building things like hydrogen bombs amounts to “getting away” with saying “what society will let one get away with” saying, i.e. delimiting justification by “what society says.” Obviously the makers got away with saying what they said, but noting that does absolutely nothing to explain how they knew what they in fact did know, factual knowledge rather justified by the fact that the thing worked.  Given that, clearly they could have simply used the damn thing to blow up any society that said they couldn’t get away with saying what they said, then replaced it with one that did, then they would have been “justified”—a proposition no sillier than the one it clearly refutes.

[41] “Is Truth a Goal of Inquiry?  Donald Davidson versus Crispin Wright” in Truth and Progress, Philosophical Papers, Volume 3.

[42] For instance, pragmatism asserts that it is entirely possible to be justified in a belief given the coherent evidence one has and still turn out to be ‘wrong’ because new evidence reveals the limits of the belief (for instance, Newtonian versus relativistic accounts of gravity), just as it is possible to hold a true belief without as yet having proper justification for it or a full exposition of its details (for instance, Copernicus heliocentric theory).

[43] A necessary condition, not a sufficient one, as Rorty maintains, and some kind, just not one that limits itself to internal coherence, much less anything like consensus.  Rather, in true pragmatism, “the discourse of justification”—if it means anything beyond simply the internal coherence of conceptual subject matter used to justify an assertion—if it means anything beyond that, it would probably refer to the process of inquiry itself, one that functionally employs both conceptual and existential subject matter in the formulation of problems and as a means to their eventual solutions.  But a description of this process lies far beyond the needs of this essay (for instance, see the entirety of Dewey’s Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, but particularly Chapter 6). Suffice it to say here that there is virtually nothing left of Dewey in Rorty’s so-called pragmatism, a fact discussed at length in “Richard Rorty is no Pragmatist” and “E-piss-temological behaviorism” on

[44] To take just two examples, consider first the rather famous proposition that shows, allegedly, the direct applicability of logical necessity to “states of the world”—or in other words, a mirroring structure between deductive logic and world.   The proposition goes: “If there are more inhabitants in a town that there are hairs of the head of any inhabitant of that town, then some two (or more) inhabitants have the same number of hairs in their heads”—unless, of course, one inhabitant is bald; then each habitant can have a unique number of hairs.  Whether one is bald is extra-logical, in that there are no logical grounds for assuming either way.   Or again: “if A is to the right of B and B to the right of C and C to the right of D, then D is of the left of A” is usually valid—unless A, B, C, and D are seated around a circular table, in which case it is not; the validity presupposes a straight linear arrangement, a supposition that is extra-logical.  Both examples are taken from Dewey, Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, p. 380 and 309, though the first analysis is unique here.  They could easily be multiplied, but suffice it to say the two are enough to illustrate the main stipulation here: that logical necessity is usually necessary of the world only after extra-logical determinations are made, ones dispositive to its valid applicability.

[45] Or in short, since the necessary applicability of propositional logic to a situation can only be decided independently by recourse to extra-logical means, that applicability cannot be said to be based on a mirroring of the inherently logical situation back onto the validity of the propositional logic…

[46] That there is a basic number sense preceding knowledge of formal arithmetic has been demonstrated in several studies of infant cognition, but see specifically Lipton and Spelke, “Origins of number sense: large-number discrimination in human infants” as one source with numerous cited references.  That this sense is related to later mathematic performance has empirical support as well (see Starr, Libertus, and Brannon, “Number sense in infancy predicts mathematical abilities in childhood”).  For a general treatment of the issue, including references to supporting literature, see Stanislas Dehaene, The Number Sense: How the Mind Creates Mathematics.  This line of research, when taken together, suggests that formal arithmetic both develops from and exploits this basic number sense, even as, of course, it is not reducible to it.  An analogous argument for logic out or pre-predicative experience is entertained here.

[47] Logic: The Theory of Inquiry

[48] See Experience and Judgment and Analysis Concerning Active and Passive Synthesis for a genetic account of basic logical forms, the forms used in judgments about propositions as found in virtually any elementary logical text.  For the more elaborate logical forms, see Formal and Transcendental Logic.

[49] To this genesis of basic formal logical operations in the more basic operations of pre-predicative perceptual life could be added a genetic account of higher logical forms as extracted from regular linguistic practice, but to this author’s knowledge no one has worked such an account out in any detail.

[50] For an example of this basic principle applied to language use and grammar, see Tomasello, Constructing a Language: A Use-Based Theory of Language Acquisition.

[51] It could be noted here as a tangential aside that this pragmatic account of the origin of logic is naturalistic, as opposed to the quasi-metaphysical status it would have to take on in Harris’s account—and in any similar account of how logic is woven into the ‘fabric of the world’—of intrinsic mirroring.

[52] One could point out here that these paradoxes really find both their origin and home in Kant, who more than any philosopher before him mistook the eventual use to which logic is put for antecedent properties inherent to the constituting operations that make experience possible in the first place, thereby insuring the ostensibly apriori applicability of both mathematics and logic to experience—to wit, making synthetic apriori judgments possible.  Though name calling will never do in philosophical exposition, Harris nevertheless seems Kantian in this respect, just absent any speculation as to what transcendental operations subtend the mirroring he describes.  Beliefs for Harris can be true in much the same way that synthetic apriori judgements for Kant must be true.

[53] The account which follows draws heavily from Conant’s discussion in Science and Common Sense.  Direct quotes are cited by page, but where those citations are absent it can be assumed that the argument closely follows the train of thoughts Conant developed, even as it is given independent significance here.

[54] In this case, the sole basis for the warrant would be no pump to date had lifted water beyond 34 feet, but that would not establish as a principle that one couldn’t lift it further.

[55] For a description of how this epistemic interest arises out of practical belief, see Heidegger, Being and Time,

[56] Both Heidegger and Dewey stress this point, Heidegger in Section 13 of Being and Time, and Dewey in so many sources that virtually any one serves as a citation.

[57] The use of explanation for what pragmatists call “warranted assertion” comes from David Deutsch, The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that Transform the World, a book that embodies more than any other this author has read the accomplishment of the pragmatic method.

[58] “Real” is added here simply to contrast real pragmatism with the pseudo-pragmatism of Rorty.  Rorty denies with one side of this mouth that knowledge is real, even as he admits with the other side that it has to be, resulting, ironically enough, in an incoherent discourse on the issues of knowledge and justification that consigns justification only to coherence in discourse.  For coverage of the conjunctive relation of facts and ideas in inquiry, see Dewey’s Logic: Theory of Inquiry, especially chapter 6, Essays in Experimental Logic, chapter 4, and “Control of Ideas by Facts, I-III.”

[59] It could be noted here that despite all his protests against, and ostensible overcoming of, traditional philosophy, Rorty’s pragmatism—by rooting justification and knowledge solely in the manipulation of concepts in a discourse—in fact embodies the vices of a traditional philosophy that consigns knowledge to dialectical manipulation.  In other words, Rorty’s “hermeneutic pragmatism” embodies the very vice that proper pragmatism was instrumental in overcoming.

[60] Conant, Common Sense and Science, p. 73.

[61] To this point, Dewey summarized the method of pragmatic inquiry in a way that could apply to virtually any properly scientific investigation.  Specifically, the “chief factors bringing about the reconstruction” of a “problematic situation” into a “determinate solution” are: first, “acts of analytic reduction of the gross situation to determinate data—qualities that locate the nature of the problem”; second, “formulations of ideas of hypothesis to direct further operations that reveal new material”; third, “deductions and calculations that organize the new and old subject matter together”; fourth, “operations that finally determine the existence of a new integrated situation with added meaning, and in so doing test or prove the ideas that have been employed” (The Quest for Certainty, p. 189).  As far as the specifically philosophical-epistemological question of “how do we know there is an external world”—or more to the point, “how do we know when we know it”—Dewey had only this to say: “we know whenever we do know; that is, whenever our inquiry leads to conclusions that settle the problem out of which it grew.  This truism is the end of the whole matter—upon the condition that we frame our theory of knowledge in accord with the pattern set by experimental methods”. (p. 158).  In short, when it comes to epistemological questions—questions Nagel and other critics of “pragmatism” start with—Dewey never condescended to ask them, much less try to answer them; therefore his “solution” to the “problems” of “epistemology” amounts to not getting involved with its problems in the first place. For Dewey, to even ask such questions as the starting questions of philosophy is to commit oneself to answers utterly useless for all other branches of inquiry, since no one in those disciplines inquiring  into ‘how the world is’ seriously asks the question of whether there is one to know in the first place.  And frankly, what sensible person ever does?

[62] As Dewey once said, “epistemology, so called, is a mixture of logical conceptions, derived from analysis of competent inquiry, and irrelevant psychological and metaphysical preconceptions” (Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, p. 517).  Pace Rorty, Dewey called for simply jettisoning these irrelevant metaphysical and psychological preconceptions, and looking instead of the successful methods that yield real, reliable knowledge.  However, unlike Rorty—whose own epistemological behaviorism is nothing more than a dialectical reworking of these irrelevant preconceptions in light of a puerile rejection of knowledge as such—Dewey actually did jettison them. (See “E-piss-temoligical behaviorism” and “Richard Rorty is not pragmatist” at

[63] See note 8 and the embedding paragraph.

[64] Recall that for naïve realism to work as an epistemological position, some form of immediate and self-justifying propositional knowledge or representation is required to stop the chain of justificatory digging on a foundation of bedrock.  See footnote 9 on page 5, and further discussion on page 23.

[65] In all that follows, presumed true means probable, that no knowledge claim or explanation is certain in so far as it remains intrinsically open to further evidence that may in fact refute it.  But salient to the point being made here, this evidence must be related to the original explanation as contra-indicating an implication within it, an “implication” understood as a consequence of the explanation that has been tested and refuted by this new evidence.  For pragmatism, all knowledge, all explanations, remains probable in this way, regardless of how well they are warranted.  So in addition to ditching the reliance on conformity to copied or recapitulated antecedence, pragmatism also ditches the quest for certainty that implicitly—and sometimes explicitly—motivates it.  For a full account of how this can be done and why it should be done, see Dewey, The Quest for Certainty.

[66] This reliance on antecedence is most clearly seen in the “copy” theory native to realist epistemology from Locke to Sellars and Quine.  It is even latent in pragmatism’s critics like Nagel, and it is present—as least by implication—in Harris.  That is, representation, or sensation, or impression—whatever the basic unit of out of which belief and knowledge is comprised—is presumed to copy or mimic or mirror in its epistemological function the original from which it originates.  Truth, then, in some sense, is faithfulness to this copying; in some sense, the veracity of a proposition is sought by going back to its faithful adherence to the antecedent reality it represents.  That pragmatism corrects  this error by reversing ‘priorities’ is what is asserted here.

[67] Again, as Dewey said of “epistemology” as a philosophical enterprise: “we know whenever we do know…this truism is the end of the whole matter—so long as we frame our theory of knowledge in accord with the pattern set by experimental methods.”  See note 51 above.

[68] It could be argued that Harris stacks the deck against religious belief by folding justification into the nature of belief itself, as he does when he conflates “ought not be free” with “are not free.”  For clearly, when it comes to an epistemological leg to stand on, religious belief in a supernatural god as some kind of personal deity committed to our eternal salvation is about as dignified as belief in Santa Clause delivering presents to all the good little girls and boys. That being true, however, it just won’t do to commit the philosophical fallacy in this way, i.e. commit it in order to insure a winning hand against religion, as Harris’ epistemology does, irrespective of his actual intent.  For conflating beliefs that are functionally justified with an antecedent property of belief (as in, beliefs must be inherently justified if it is really to be a belief) sets up tautology, in effect stipulating that belief is a justified belief because only a justified belief is a true one—in other words, it asserts (contra naïve realism’s claims that some justified beliefs can be false) that by their nature genuine beliefs are justified or justifiable as true ones.  As applied to religion, this tautology would imply the following: since it is impossible to be justified in a belief in a supernatural god according to any acceptable epistemic canon of evidence and justification, and since belief must be inherently justified or justifiable, religious beliefs lose any argument.  While it is true that religious belief in a deity or its mandates will lose any argument requiring justification simply because of the inherently unjustifiable nature of religious belief, this follows directly from the kinds of beliefs religious practitioners have and not from the properties of belief as such, specifically from a lack of freedom thereof.  Harris conflation here is perfectly understandable and in fact quite subtle, but it needs to be corrected in light of the freedom of belief we actually have.

[69] The Quest for Certainty, p. 193.

[70] Ibid.

[71] The distinction operative here is starkly illustrated by the “quants” in finance, who used elaborate mathematical techniques that ‘folded’ the uncertainty inherent in markets into the quantifiable risks of portfolio investments.  No one, to my knowledge, has ever doubted the validity of their mathematics, i.e. whether their models follow deductively from the stipulations and assumptions from which they began.  As probability models and statistical techniques they appear internally sound.  What is at issue, though, is the validity of the assumptions guiding the mathematics and the formulation of the problems to which those assumptions and methods are then meant to solve.  Is that formulation and application appropriate to the phenomena in question—or alternatively, given that the mathematics is valid, how can it be determined whether or not the models are validly applied, and therefore that the predictions from the models will work for the real world?  For a discussion of how this question ‘meta-method’ and its implied “ought” applies to the quants, see Nassim Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and Markets.  His discussion there can be generalized to any field where internally valid models or techniques are used in a routine and largely automated way, without much emphasis placed on whether or not they validly illuminate the research question in the first place, or offer viable explanations of its implications in the second (for instance, see Jacob Cohen’s and Gerd Gigerenzer’s criticisms of routine null hypothesis testing in psychology).  As just noted, the question is not so much about the validity of the methods as techniques as such, as it is whether or not the recognizedly valid methods are appropriately applied to a specific problem.  In short, it asks: has the investigator formulated the problem in such a way that the methods afford the right solution? Clearly the quants who thought they eliminated uncertainty in investing by mathematizing uncertainty into risk misapplied the models they used because they intrinsically misstated the problem they were trying to solve, to wit, uncertainty cannot be reduced to calculable risk.  The complete failure of their portfolios, despite their calculations of near or even sometimes zero risk, is proof enough of that.

[72] Logic, p. 480.

[73] Ibid. p. 501.

[74] If the reader can think of one activity, from relationships to work to regulating even one’s own cognitive and emotional life, that doesn’t benefit more from “honesty” than from any other means, she will have done one better than this author.  “Honesty,” of course, does not mean being honest with others all the time, only that in the understanding and appraisal of circumstances and facts, honest appraisal and understanding always prevails, even in cases where how to put this honest understanding and appraisal into practice is unclear.

[75] No doubt some philosopher will jump at the chance to point out the favorite bugaboo of moral reasoning, sic, “the naturalistic fallacy”—the idea that one can’t derive an ought from an is.  Never mind for the time being that the only useful place to derive an “ought” is from an “is”; in this case rationality ought to follow from freedom of belief because rationality—i.e. having justified beliefs because those beliefs correspond to the way the world is—is precisely what insures, both tautologically and ontologically, the ability to use beliefs as suitable means to achieving ends, any end one chooses in their freedom to choose ends.  Since virtually everyone in fact uses beliefs in this way (as means toward ends), having justified true ones follows quite naturally from what people in fact do; therefore the ought derives quite well from the is.  The only required additional stipulation to insure the derivation is that people want to be successful in the things they do, and that is hardly controversial, even if logically the contrary can be imagined (and in fact, sometimes even occurs, as in some forms of mental illness).  So as a concession to the moral bugaboo, one could grant that logically an “ought” doesn’t follow from an “is”, even as one asserts that existentially it does every time a rather self-evident end is conjointly noted with any means as a ‘means’ to that end (being safe, being successful, being healthy, getting to a destination, etc.).  This issue may be taken up another time in defense of Harris’ idea of an objective determination of values within a moral landscape, but for now it is set aside as merely asserted, not defended in detail.

[76] And it should be noted, also in and probably even more evidently in its practical function as well, for how else could means be fitted to ends otherwise.

[77] The idea that rationality follows from having true beliefs, and that having true beliefs follows because one is only really free to believe when beliefs are true—i.e. when and because they mirror the reality they represent—is itself a tautology that follows from committing the philosophic fallacy, and as such it should be avoided in any conception of “rational.”

[78] In other words, a pragmatist would adopt Harris’ critique of religious belief because one can no more test belief in the supernatural against anticipated consequences in an attempt at justification than it can claim conformity to an antecedent reality based in the same; the underlying evidentiary problem is identical.  Simply put, it is epistemically impossible to justify with evidence a belief that is based entirely on the absence of evidence, regardless of whether the justification is offered as proof of conformity to what antecedes or as proof of correspondence with anticipated consequences.  Hence the pragmatic critique of religion is essentially the same as Harris’, though it comes, as it were, from ‘the other direction’—that is, from failure of tested consequences instead of failure of conformity to antecedence.

[79] Dewey, A Common Faith, p. 33.  The parallels between “spiritualty” and “faith” as rational replacements for religion once a supernatural deity is kicked out of the human abode is another compelling convergence between Harris and pragmatism, one that might bear development another time as well.  To that end, it could simply be pointed out that there is no better means for finding the ideal possibilities intrinsic to actual existence than to be fully present and open in the now in clear-minded and intellectually honest way.

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