This post can be viewed as a companion piece to my one about “proof.” Proof is a kind of test to which a certain, rigidly constrained, set of ideas can be subjected. While it is important within that limited context, proof mostly stands out as an all-but-unachievable ideal, the kind of ideal that suggests the outside limit for the types of tests that might be applied to ideas, concepts, claims, hypotheses, and so forth. There are a great variety of such tests, and they do not line up along a single unimodal, univocal spectrum. But it does seem to me that they do converge at the far ends of this lattice, this partially ordered set of possibilities, to proof as the highest ideal at one end, and vapid opinion, as the most dispensable example at the lowest (and, sadly, commonest) end.
There are primarily three families of tests for ideas, and each such family breaks out in a variety of ways: logical coherence, empirical adequacy, and narrative intelligibility. Following Whitehead’s argument in the early pages of Process and Reality, I take “logical coherence” to be something that is vastly larger than just proof-theoretic completeness or model-theoretic semantic sufficiency. Both of these latter are formal ideals, part of the above, generalized concept of “proof,” that seldom realize themselves in the real world. Logical coherence is not such a desiccated abstraction; rather, it is the requirement that ideas “hang together,” at least “locally” (in metaphysics, this requirement becomes “globally.”)
Perhaps the easiest way to illustrate coherence is by a preliminary comparison with narrative. Taking any story one might choose, on a “local” scale within the story, the points of reference are required to “hang together” in a way that permits these imaginary universes to stand on their own as vaguely possible worlds. This act of “hanging together” goes beyond the mere story-telling of the narrative, which may or may not be intelligible (much less any good). Logical coherence remains a formal, rather than an aesthetic, criterion. Which is to say, it is about the systematic form of the connections and their over-arching inter-relatedness, not if or whether those connections satisfy any aesthetically defensible function of story-telling. (I’ll have more to say about narrative in a moment.) Logical coherence is about the rigorous systematicity of the whole. It is from this systematicity that more narrowly construed (formal) deductions can be made.
“Empirical adequacy” seems to be obvious and straight forward. But it really is not, because the modes of empirical/observational experience are so many and varied. For one thing, no observation is ever “simple.” (Consider, for example, the staggering lack of reliability in stranger eyewitness identification in criminal cases.) The sciences are successful – to the extent that they are successful – insofar as they are able to constrain the promiscuous multifacetedness of observations to the point where those observations that are obtained are able to provide something like a “yes or no” responses to rigorously narrowed and deliberately posed questions. But even with this narrowness of observational content, that content remains deeply problematic since the very selection of what qualifies as data to be observed is theoretically informed. (Both John Dewey and Thomas Kuhn discuss this problem, from two very differently informed theoretical viewpoints.)
Narrative is sometimes overlooked in philosophical contexts (but not always), while it is disregarded more or less wholesale in scientific ones. This latter is especially unfortunate, as it arguably contributes to the vicious model centrism that has so undermined contemporary gravitational cosmology with its willingness to embrace mathematical cleverness in favor of an adequate concept of nature. Narrative forms are not specifically “interior” to scientific inquiry, as much as they are the context in which that inquiry is conducted. Insofar, they might be described as “exterior” to that inquiry, and that exteriority makes the structuring force of those operative narratives largely invisible to the inquirers.
To be realistic, though, narrative forms tend to be “exterior” to all of the activities which they contextualize and shape, and herein lies their great danger. To begin with, human beings are promiscuous with their habits of narrativizing everything. Tests from the 1940’s using animations of simple geometrical shapes showed people consistently inventing a story to account for the movements of the shapes in the animation. Yet there was almost nothing within the animation – which was hardly more than particles being bounced around as with Brownian motion – that could be said to have imposed such a narrative upon the pictures.
The story lines were brought to bear upon the animations by the people watching them, as a way of making the movements intelligible. (See the comments below with David Beierl. If you read the original article, it becomes apparent that the Aeon piece significantly misrepresents the extent to which the experimenters manipulated their questions so as to mandate a narrative interpretation of their little film.)
The exteriority of narrative makes the stories we tell ourselves invisible to anyone not habituated to teasing out its pressures and pulls. Thus, many conservatives reject well-established science because it threatens their narrative about profit-making enterprises being the salvation of civilization; meanwhile, gun fetishists see their very self-identity wrapped up in their instruments of murder. These delusions are not a matter of logical coherence, and certainly not matters of empirical adequacy. And they can only be dismissed as signs of degraded intelligence by those who are themselves unable to usefully or effectively analyze matters; such dismissals, it must be added, are themselves the products of unexamined – hence, largely UNTESTED – narratives.
(It must also be noted that a great deal of philosophy is devoted to just such examination. While that branch of inquiry that is generally classified as “Analytic” philosophy will focus much more closely on logical coherence and empirical adequacy, such investigations as fall under the heading of “hermeneutics” and, too a lesser degree, “phenomenology,” do explore the implicit forms of narratives in our lives. It is here that one finds race and gender studies, as well as others, that try to “look behind the curtain” in order to find and articulate the secret interstices of power that have embedded themselves in the narratives of our cultures.)
While still quite complicated, there is a kind of straight-forwardness to how one tests for logical coherence and empirical adequacy, and what might qualify as a “pass” or a “fail” in these regards. But how does one go about determining if or whether the narrative intelligibility underlying some account or other is “correct”? Well, the first step is recognizing that there IS a narrative, and the second is then to tease that narrative out and make it explicit. As noted above, when we are embedded in a narrative, it often becomes invisible to us. Thus, overt racists on various cable “News” programs gull and entertain their base audiences by declaring that racism is a thing of the past, and dismissing minority protests as the mewling of entitled thugs. These racist broadcasters get away with their blatant lies by ignoring the narrative within which they are themselves embedded, disregarding their own grotesquely entitled lives, and pandering to the paranoia suffusing their, and their base’s, own narratives, that declares themselves to be innocent of all wrongs, and denies the very real existence of institutionalized racism at every level of this culture.
So, suppose you’ve done that, suppose you’ve peeled back the layers, found the narrative, and made it explicit; so what? “I see that this is my narrative, and I agree that this is my narrative. But why should I doubt this narrative? What “test” should lead me to question it?” Well, we are in luck here, because none of the three criteriological standards mentioned above, ever stand isolated or alone. Logical coherence and empirical adequacy have their say here as well (which was hinted at above, when issues of logic veered into matters of narrative.) A perfectly intelligible narrative where pots talk and candlesticks dancei can never rise above the standard of fiction for the simple reason that we never SEE such things (empirical adequacy), and hence cannot possibly integrate (logical coherence) such stories into a picture of the world with any standing.
Regardless of what comforting fairy-tales your narrative assures you, there really are facts of the world which must be taken into account. This does not guarantee agreement or even clarity, but it does provide the basis for testing these ideas.