Man Can Try

A Former Debater’s Musings on Truth and Knowledge

By: Chau Chun Chung


“Consider me convinced. But for all we know, you could still be wrong.”

Could I though?

I could…in the sense that nowadays winning an argument means nothing more than continuously supplying reasons until the opponent is satisfied. It does not follow from a claim being well justified that it is necessarily immune from falsity: A sane individual with no visual impairment may conclude that there are sheep on a hill as he sees one while speeding by. We generally take visual evidence to be adequate in justifying claims about the physical world, sensibly so or scientists will have a tough time justifying any conclusion whatsoever given they cannot trust what they see. It follows this individual is justified in concluding as he does. What he will never know, however, is the fact that the “sheep” he “sees” is but a cardboard erected in the middle of nowhere just to fool him into believing that there are sheep on the hill. Then it would appear his justified belief is manifestly false. In principle, it seems nothing in any reasonably held belief guarantees its truth.

What if we avoid the subjective standard of justification like the plague? Instead, using logic, we systematically interpret claims and endeavour to gauge at the truth within their meanings? By elevating the standard of proof to that of absolute certainty, our ground for holding a particular conclusion will be infinitely stronger than if it only stands the test of some biased adjudicator in debates.

Ideally, a claim would be translated into the logical form (p), which is then negated or accepted vis-à-vis its opposite (~p). Debaters conclude their cases with clashes – points of contention that can be resolved in favour of one side or the other. Whilst debating whether global warming is fact or fiction, depending on the points previously raised by all the benches, a potential clash would be whether State-funded papers on global warming is factually reliable given the existence of vested interest. In a sense organising debate rounds into clashes mirrors the logical reformulations of propositions vis-à-vis their opposites, both being an attempt to map out the terrain of the opposition of ideas. However, any supposed parallel between the two ends right where it begins, as clashes are resolved in favour of the winning team only for meeting the subjective standard of justification, whereas in logical reformulations of claims, the outcome is necessitated by the force of reason.

But reducing claims into the binary form is not always a clear-cut process. “I cleaned the room” cannot gratuitously be taken to mean “I did not clean the room” is false because the meaning of “I did not clean the room” is ambiguous. The speaker could mean any of the following:

(1) Someone cleaned the room, but not the speaker

(2) The speaker did something to the room but not cleaning

(3) The speaker cleaned something but not the room

(4) The speaker cleaned the room but the room did not become clean

There are circumventions, though none of which satisfactory: We can pick any of the above and roll with it, but the outcome of such an election would be arbitrary. We can ignore the ambiguity, but the true meaning of the opposing proposition might be lost. We can consult the speaker, but not if she has already passed away. All these have to do with the natural confusion of language, however. If we can look past definitional issues, then what?

Scottish philosopher David Hume believed truth is established by logic and the meaning of words alone whenever the negation of a proposition results in a contradiction. “contradiction” could mean: (1) a contradiction with the state of the world as we understand it, or; (2) a semantic contradiction, which is by virtue of the consistency language users routinely and religiously hold themselves to whenever they speak. Consider the now-obsolete ontological argument for the existence of the Christian God:

P1: The Christian God is by definition perfect

P2: Perfection is being in possession of every conceivable property that a being is objectively better with than without

P3: Existence is a property objectively better to have than lack

Therefore, the Christian God exists

Now of course you, as many others already have, can contest any of the given premises, but it does not change the fact that if those premises are true, the only consistent way of using language would be to acknowledge the existence of the Christian God contained in the argument. Language, fueled by the force of logic, compels us to, in its usage, give up the proposition that the Christian God contained in the argument does not exist, or be at risk of saying things we do not mean.

Truth is just between the lines…Sounds too good to be true no? Because it is. Ultimately, logical propositions are detached from reality. Notwithstanding lingering issues with definitions, it does not follow from the mandatory existence of the Christian God on some analytical level that the same must hold on the physical level. Any claim which is semantically and logically consistent will still be vulnerable to contradictions with the state of the world as we understand it.


“But we don’t debate for the truth alright! We debate just so we can think better.”

Was that the beginning of the end?

If truth does not follow a winning case, we essentially accept a method that confers absolutely nothing but a warm fuzzy feeling because…reasons? That is unless my opponent and I were both wrong: Maybe there is something to behold in the subjective standard of justification. Ask any seasoned debater, and she will say it is never an arbitrary placing of goal post but a careful calibration exercised to evaluate the strength of any argument. She will support this with maxims, e.g. burden proportional to the strength of claim, burden depending on context, etc. She will claim it is in trying to frame and argue in deference to these rational rules of argumentation that we develop as better thinkers.

But rational vis-à-vis what? A subjective standard of justification? Without taking the mere feeling that an argument is convincing as the endgame there is no way of telling whether: (1) these rules, which aim solely to foster a subjective feeling, are rational, and; (2) anyone’s adherence to them is rational. The debater’s argument is fallacious: Rules of argumentation are worth nothing if not for the soundness of outcomes begotten from their adherence, just as rationality does not distinguish itself from irrationality if not for the former’s necessitation of rational outcomes. The debater implores the sceptic to: (a) place her unquestionable faith on rules the validity of which derives entirely from the outcomes of their operation, all the while; (b) turning a blind eye to the soundness of outcomes simply because soundness is unguaranteeable. The point is simple: Patterns of argumentation only instruct one’s thinking absolutely for the better if they rationally lead to satisfactory outcomes. Given the absence of the latter, we do not know.


Maybe the point is not to answer questions, but to know which ones to ask. Consider the thing we call “colours”. Recall René Descartes, famous 16th century French rationalist, his account of the subject in particular –

Colours are powers or dispositions to cause experiences of a certain type

The account is a powerful one. It shows us how we use the word “colours” to denote a metaphysical existence that attaches itself to objects like a splash of paint engulfing the surface of a three-dimensional structure, when in actuality they are nothing more than effects in our cognition produced by interactions between microphysical structures underlying “coloured objects” and the retina of our eyes. What we call “colours” is not the same as what we want colours to be when we call them so. Similarly, if every good argument we have ever made on the basis of the subjective standard of justification is sound only on account of an abuse of the term (we want the argument to be sound in a way that it actually is not) where does this soundness that we really want, which we constantly conflate with a subjective sense of justification, actually locate?

Descartes never defined the thing that we want colours to be when we misuse the name. There is a name, however, for the soul of every sound argument, and it is called “knowledge”. Knowledge is the relation between cognition and truth. When an argument is absolutely sound, I can claim knowledge because it is something I have reasoned through which stands in absolute relation to truth. To most it is a comfortable notion to hold that such a relation rests on our paradigmatic understanding of objectivity. Hence the right question must be a closed question, one with a settled method of resolution. But what even is objective knowledge? Truth constitutes knowledge only if one subjectively believes in it. And if this standard itself is objective, being a part of truth, we do not fully know about it until we subjectively succumb to its truth quality…the cycle repeats until one fails to see where subjectivity ends and objectivity begins. In framing deep questions about reality on closed terms, have we all become utilitarians, begrudgingly giving curiosity the short end of the stick simply because it is considered better to have a narrow, half-hearted answer rather than to admit ignorance?

Maybe the reason why a concept as ancient and fundamental to our lives as knowledge still fails to be fully captured by an objective, conceptual analysis is because it is just a mental state, like the state of pain, or love. We analyse knowledge objectively only because on one account it is a conjunction between: (a) subjective belief, and; (b) objective truth: To know that I am a man is to believe that I am a man with cause and that I am actually a man; therefore justified false belief corrupts knowledge. But if we think of knowledge as an attitude we hold toward things that are true, then to know that I am a man simply means being in the mental state of knowing about the fact that I am a man, and it so happens that I am. Notice knowledge here is part accident, which some may find off-putting. But rationally saying knowledge is a factive attitude, at the expense of our ill-deserved comfort about the notion that one can become a know-it-all in true fashion, is still superior to an irrational endorsement of the subjective standard of justification, or painstakingly trying to seek out that panacean element which completes certain justified true beliefs intuitively falling short of knowledge. Like Descartes, we must guard against false judgments, even if it means not judging at all. Yet provided one never stops reaching for truth, the attitude of knowing is at least something we can effortlessly conjure up, something innate. We need only permit the conditions for knowledge to accrue by detaching ourselves from the arguments we make and keeping an open mind. Therefore, this conclusion is by no means a resignation to the fatalist view of truth and knowledge. Quite the contrary, it liberates us from the hubris of reason and is ultimately – optimistic.

I believe the message is quite clear.

“Man can try.”

“Yeah, right.”