A trilemma transition

Contemplations on the Tree of Woe contemplates the implications of what appears to be a Münchhausen Trilemma transitory period playing out in modern society:

The so-called Münchhausen Trilemma is actually Agrippa’s Trilemma, attributed to Agrippa the Skeptic of the Pyrrhonist school of 4th Century BC. Agrippa’s Trilemma phrases the attack a bit differently:

  • Circularity: The truth asserted involves a circularity of proofs.
  • Progress ad infinitum: The truth asserted rests on truths themselves in need of proof, and so on to infinity. 
  • Assumption: The truth is based on an unsupported assumption.

However it is phrased, the Trilemma presents a choice of “three equally unsatisfying options.” Or so it is claimed. Is that the case? Perhaps one of the three options is not “equally unsatisfying” and there are good reasons for adopting one of these three. But before we delve into that, let’s first explain why it matters. It seems a strange thing, after all, to dwell on an unsolved 2,500 year old philosophical dilemma. Why should we care?

Human beings are rational animals; each of us is endowed with our own sense organs and our own mind. By our sense organs we receive precepts about the world, from which we form concepts about what we have perceived. What we perceive and conceive is unique to each of us; no one else has access to the qualia of our senses or the thoughts of our mind. Our consciousness is independent of others.

Human beings are also social animals, who by nature flourish only in society with others of our kind. To exist in society, human beings must cooperate, which requires establishing and asserting their needs and wants, and consensually exchanging value for value with others of their kind. When humans cannot or do not cooperate, they struggle instead, using force or fraud to extract value from others nonconsensually. In both cases, our existence is dependent on others, either as creators, traders, looters, or moochers.

The juxtaposition of our independent rationality and dependent existence creates the necessity for agreement on what can be justified as true. Man in solitude doesn’t need to know or care what others think is true. Man in society must know and care what others think is true: The very concept of exchanging value without fraud presupposes the existence of not-fraud, which is to say, truth.

When human society is simple, the justification necessary to establish truth is equally simple, and typically based on foundationalism relying on sense perception. “Is it rain out?” “Hand feel wet. Yes.” As the complexity of human society increases, the justification necessary to establish truth also becomes more complex. More and more matters arise over which each independent consciousness might disagree. “Does Theodore rightfully own Breckenridge manor?” is no simple question.

As a result, every society of sufficient complexity has created institutions such as courts of laws, trials by jury, assemblies of law, boards of peer review, and other tools to decide what is true. Each such institution fundamentally works the same way: The individual consciousness, with its ability to reason, is embedded within a group of other individuals, and a method used to force the group to come to an agreement (often by deliberation and voting, as in a jury or parliament, but sometimes randomly, esoterically, or even violently).

Over time these institutions, in the process of defining what is true, build a great scaffolding – law, custom, tradition, craft, and practice – that collectively form its culture. But always it remains that what is true about complex matters is reliant on a core set of propositions which are deemed foundational and outside the scope of deliberation. (In the words of America’s founders: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”)

That is, the culture of every society has historically arisen from a series of agreements made out of necessity to permit cooperation to accept certain propositions as justified, with these agreements developing over time in a hierarchy as society becomes more complex, with all ultimately justified by reference to propositions held by that society as foundational.

But Münchhausen’s Trilemma holds that foundationalism is merely one of three “equally unsatisfying” resolutions to the impossibility of proving any truth. And if there is no possibility of proving any truth, it would seem there is no possibility of justifying the culture of any society as good, beautiful, or right. Worse, those who would argue against our society’s way of life do not even have to grapple with its truth-claims at all: They can simply develop another culture, based on another set of propositions that are self-consistent with themselves, and dismiss our own as irrelevant, unfounded, and wrong.

Read the whole thing there. Because what we tend to regard as a culture war is just as much a philosophical war as it is a spiritual war. The reason American society is showing cracks is that its philosophical foundations have been under assault for nearly 120 years.