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  • Kenneth Jacobs

Must We Verify Everything for Anything to be True?

There are countless things we take for granted: Timepieces, location services, and weather forecasts to name a few. If not in your hand, then they are in your pocket or at your arm's reach. They coordinate your actions in time, space, and under various climatic conditions. They are so-named smart; they are not just phones; and they are ubiquitous. They help get you to where you are going, and they do so reliably, without question.


Have you ever doubted your "smart" phone's time?


If so, then maybe you've looked into its works. "Probably not a pendulum, maybe electrical, but what about quartz?" Personally, I do not know, but that is the point. Must we verify everything for anything to be true? My smartphone's time has never been wrong before, and I don't know near enough about quartz to be able to verify its accuracy. I take it for granted that my time is right. I take it for granted that my time is true because we cannot personally verify the truth of every thing.



Truth in Others' Verifications


William James' notion of truth depends, in part, on its verification in practice. In some cases, verification is as simple as looking under the bed: "No monster's there!" In other cases, verification takes a masterclass in deciphering signal from noise: "Given the null, the probability of these data is unlikely." Unless you are Jerzy Neyman, or one of his students, that last statement won't make much practical sense. The devil is in the details, but for many of us––including myself––the details are inaccessible. It is the detail that I cannot verify, and it is for that reason that I must rely on others. Scott Page sums up the problem like this:


"Whether the topic is renewable energy, diabetes, fuel cells, or nonlinear optimization, no one person can master all that is known and relevant. In building that knowledge base, the tens of millions of cognitive workers also develop analytic tools, create new perspectives and categories, and make new models of how the world works. No one person can keep up. Hence the rise of teams. By definition, those teams must be diverse" (p. 42).

That is, diverse in order to address the complexity that comes with a problem like child poverty. How do you address the physiological, psychological, and social toll of poverty on children? If you're wondering, then see Anthony Biglan's The Nurture Effect for answers. There he describes the increased risk of heart disease, asthma, depression, academic failure, and delinquency due to being poor in America. There's no simple solution, but there is a mantra around which we can coordinate our diverse teams: "Make our environments more nurturing." Nurturance is a master variable that prevents abuse, addiction, and crime among other things. No one person, however, can verify the accuracy of each and every piece of evidence that contributes to nurturance's status as a master variable. Therefore, like my smartphone's time, I have to take it for granted that the nurturance mantra will serve as an effective and reliable guide.


Your Direct Verifications are My Indirect Verifications


Relying on other peoples' verifications is a form of indirect verification. We can get on with our lives because we do not have to directly verify the works of a clock or satellite coordinates of a GPS. James describes indirect and direct verifications like such:


"Take, for instance, yonder object on the wall. You and I consider it to be a 'clock,' altho no one of us has seen the hidden works that make it one. We let our notion pass for true without attempting to verify. If truths mean verification-process essentially, ought we then to call such unverified truths as this abortive? No, for they form the overwhelmingly large number of the truths we live by. Indirect as well as direct verifications pass muster. Where circumstantial evidence is sufficient, we can go without eye-witnessing" (p. 99).

Many of the truths we live by are indirect verifications; ones that others have worked out for us––like the weather forecast on your phone. I've seen Doppler radar, but I certainly could not verify it by its works. I take Doppler radar for granted; it hasn't failed me yet; and that is largely due to someone else's verifications. As James will tell us, such faith in others' verifications is built on trust:


"Truth lives, in fact, for the most part on a credit system. Our thoughts and beliefs 'pass,' so long as nothing challenges them, just as bank-notes pass so long as nobody refuses them. But this all points to direct face-to-face verifications somewhere, without which the fabric of truth collapses like a financial system with no cash-basis whatever. You accept my verification of one thing, I yours of another. We trade on each other's truth. But beliefs verified concretely by somebody are the posts of the whole superstructure" (p. 100).

We trade each others' truths, and we do so successfully when those truths "cash-out" in terms of their intended effects. So to answer the question that is the current post's title, we do NOT have to personally verify every-thing for any-thing to be true. James said it best:


"Indirectly or only potentially verifying processes may thus be true as well as full verification-processes. They work as true processes would work, give us the same advantages, and claim our recognition for the same reasons" (p. 100).

For the full text of James' Pragmatism, click here. And for those who worry about our reliance on others for truth, see my posts titled Pragmatic Truths are Not Personal Truths and When Truth Lags.

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