Thinking Makes It So?

From: Dan Fabulich (
Date: Mon May 08 2000 - 03:49:33 MDT

[I wrote this not long after reading Rorty; I never posted it. This was
more to get my own thoughts in line than any great piece of thought.]

I want to provide a little argument for this otherwise totally implausible
assertion, by restricting its scope in an important respect.

Shakespeare's quote is the anthem of what is today called "anti-realism."
Realists about a given area of discourse are the sort of people who claim
that certain things in the real world determine whether our sentences are
true or false. Anti-realists claim (for various reasons depending on the
type of anti-realist with whom you're conversing,) that things do NOT do
that job (by themselves), but rather WE determine the truth of our
sentences. The anti-realist's scope may be as broad as to include all
sentences whatsoever, or restricted to a certain area of discourse.
Common targets for anti-realism are art, ethics and history, though even
science has its anti-realists.

An interesting fact about anti-realism is that it can provide a real
iron-clad response to skepticism. If the skeptic can be taken to be
asking "how do you know you're right about X?" where X is some belief in
the given area of discourse, an anti-realist can reply "because I'm the
one making it right!" in a way that the realist can't. :)

Can we think of anything which we obviously take ourselves to be right
about simply because we've agreed on it? Well, certain games might fit
the bill. So long as we all agree on the same rules, it can't reasonably
be said that we're all playing our game "wrong." Simply by agreeing on
the rules, we know that we're playing *our* game correctly.

Wittgenstein argued (in his later years) that language is agreed upon in
precisely the same way as any other game, and that our use of language is
therefore, as such, a kind of language-game. Whenever we debate, write
poetry, or discourse on anything whatsoever, we can remain confident that
we're playing our language-game correctly. But another way of saying that
we're playing our language-game correctly is to say that we're using
language correctly, that one is "right" about whatever it is one is
talking about. Voila! You've got the anti-realist's anti-skeptical
result: We can't be wrong, that is, we can't be playing our language-game
incorrectly, because we made up the game! (Though, of course, we can make
mistakes from time to time.)

Notice as well that this view leaves plenty of room for things in the
world and facts about the world to determine the truth of sentences, but
that's because we all have agreed that in the games we play, certain facts
about the world are what allows one to make a true statement. This is
just like a conventional game, in which we, the players, are the ones who
decide who wins, but we have decided to base our judgement on which cards
the players hold in their hands. Is it the cards or the players that
determines who wins? Well, both. But, and this is the key point, if the
players were to decide not to make the cards determine the winner, (by
playing a different game, we imagine,) then the cards would be rendered
irrelevant. So it is always, at least, the players who determine when one
wins or loses. Similarly, the players of a language-game can agree that
you're right about acids only if the litmus paper turns green under such
and such conditions, or that you're right about ethics only if your
results agree with certain intuitions, or whatever.

The next step semi-plausible anti-realists make is a certain kind of
sollipsism or ethnocentricism. (Rorty is a popular writer who adopts this
strategy.) Sollipsism, in this context, is the belief that whatever I
think to be right is right, whereas ethnocentricism is the belief that
whatever WE think to be right is right. Ethnocentricism, on this picture,
is a sollipsism of "we." Where "we," I guess, is everyone I agree with.

Why would anyone accept a view like this? Well, because one can't help
it. You can't help but think that the beliefs that you hold are right,
and there's no useful sense in which you could accept the idea that all
(or even most) of your beliefs are wrong, without some substantial
convincing thesis to give you some new beliefs. So we have to just accept
that what we think to be right is (basically) right. As Rorty would say,
trying to justify why this is in terms of things in the "real world" is
just patting oneself on the back, like claiming that WE are the chosen
ones of God, and that explains why OUR ethical beliefs are true. Rorty
would instead have us say that we're right only because that's what we
think, because we can't reasonably accept anything else without some
plausible argument to convince us.

Here a realist could say "But wait a minute. Suppose we came to some
really ridiculous beliefs, like [blah blah]. We'd be WRONG then, but we'd
have just as good an argument as we do now. So our beliefs could still be
radically wrong." Anti-realists want to respond that we only accept the
fact that we'd be wrong THEN because *right now* we think someone would be
wrong if they thought that (including us). This "realist" argument
requires us to call upon ethnocentricism, calling upon the other beliefs
which we take to be right.

There are "anti-realists" who conclude that since truth is determined by
us and our social group, there is no "objective notion of truth." We're
playing our game correctly, they say, but we can't say that anyone else is
wrong. They usually attempt to show this by showing that ethnocentricism
is wrong (by our own lights, of course!). But, if you're like me and
Rorty, you'll counter that ethnocentricism ISN'T wrong, it's only wrong
when it gets too closed minded, when we start trying to get solidarity
through force and ignorance. And besides, WE take it that relativism is
self-refuting, and if we didn't accept our OWN beliefs to be right, if we
didn't accept sollipsism or ethnocentricism, we'd have to accept
relativism, which we strongly reject.


I orginally began by saying that I'd limit the scope of Shakespeare's quote that "... there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Thus far, I've only been extending its scope to include good/bad beliefs, suggesting that *everything*, *all* discourse falls prey to this.

But in what respect? We can't reject the beliefs which we have (though we can and should be open-minded about them), and our beliefs themselves dictate that OTHER things, and not just ourselves, determine the truth of our sentences. We've agreed that the cards in our hands determine the truth of the sentence "I've won this hand," we've agreed that certain properties about a work of art makes it more pleasing to the eye, we've agreed that certain facts about human nature determine what makes an ethical statement true or false (though it's harder to find agreement about ethical or aesthetic claims than it is to find agreement about card games and litmus paper).

Similarly, the question as to whether ethics is "objective" or "subjective" is simply *not useful* to us if we come to accept our own beliefs as the only beliefs we can have right now. I have to accept my own beliefs to be correct, barring some better argument. The fact that you have to do the same, though we disagree, doesn't mean that we're both right, it means that, unless we can convince one another (which we take it, I should do by persuasion, not by force), we can't agree. I'll still believe that I'm correct, however. I could claim that I'm right because I have access to what's objectively right, but this is no better than claiming that I'm right because I'm the chosen one of God. It's just another way of saying that "I'm right."

Brent said that death is bad, and no amount of thinking differently will change that. This is true, but the only account of WHY it is true that we can give, is that we think that way. Luckily, that's all we need.


-unless you love someone- -nothing else makes any sense- e.e. cummings

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