If Western readers are familiar with any Taoist text, it is probably the Classic of the Way and Virtue, attributed to Laozi. (Ronald Reagan even cited it in a State of the Union Address.) However, cognoscenti are aware that the Zhuangzi is the Taoist classic that it most influential and most highly regarded in East Asia. Among the many philosophically challenging passages in this book (named after its supposed author) is the following, which contains an argument that is brief but appears to be absolutely devastating for any conception of rationality:
Once you and I have started arguing, if you win and I lose, then are you really right and am I really wrong? If I win and you lose, then am I really right and are you really wrong? Is one of us right and the other one wrong? Or are both of us right and both of us wrong? If you and I can’t understand one another, then other people will certainly be even more in the dark. (Ivanhoe and Van Norden, eds., Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, 2nd ed., p. 223)
In order to appreciate the point of this passage, consider what it means for A to “win” in an argument with B. It might mean that the audience of the argument (which could range from an ancient Chinese king to those who watched and listened to the Kennedy/Nixon Presidential debates in the 20th century) was convinced by A that A’s position is correct, while B’s position is mistaken. Does this demonstrate that A is in fact correct and B is in fact mistaken? We cannot believe this, because we all know of cases in which we believe an audience is mistaken in being convinced. For example, if you believe in evolutionary theory, you must acknowledge that there are audiences that are convinced (mistakenly, in your view) by arguments for intelligent design. Or, conversely, if you believe in intelligent design, you must acknowledge that there are audiences that are convinced (mistakenly, in your view) by evolutionary theory. This same problem will arise however we interpret the concept of A “winning” an argument with B. Another way of framing Zhuangzi’s point is the following. All we really know is whether people are convinced by certain considerations. However, there is no way to establish that those considerations will arrive at the truth without begging the question in their favor. (Ironically, Zhuangzi’s skeptical argument here undermines even itself: all we know is whether we are convinced by his argument, but it is question-begging to assume that for that reason its conclusion is warranted.)
Is there any way to salvage rationality from Zhuangzi’s argument? I can think of one. The early 20th century American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce proposed the definition that true beliefs are those that an ideal community of inquirers would converge on in the limit of history. In other words, to say that a belief is true is to say that it is one of the beliefs that a community of ideal human thinkers would agree upon after discussing, observing, experimenting, and arguing over an infinite amount of time. Of course, we never will achieve an ideal community of inquirers and we never will reach the end of time, but we can try to approximate the beliefs of that community.
How does this answer Zhuangzi’s challenge? Zhuangzi suggests that the fact that an audience is convinced by an argument for a belief does not demonstrate that the belief in question is true. This seems plausible, and Peirce would actually agree with it – at least as a description of any non-ideal community in the short term. A non-ideal community in the short term could become convinced of any number of beliefs that are mistaken. However, the beliefs that the ideal community of inquirers converge on in the limit of time is the standard of truth, so those beliefs are, by definition, not mistaken.
Although Peirce’s view is attractive in some ways, it involves a much more radical revision of our common-sense notion of truth than is obvious at first glance. Peirce is not assuming that “true” means what we normally take it to mean (whatever that might be), and then simply asserting that an ideal community of inquirers will converge on the beliefs that are true in that sense. This would be an empirical claim that two distinct properties just happen to refer to the same things: “true” and “believed by an ideal community of inquirers.” But this is an empirical claim for which there is no evidence. Peirce’s claim is not empirical, though; it is conceptual. Peirce is stating that “true” means (or that we should start using it to mean) “believed by an ideal community of inquirers.” In other words, there is nothing to the notion of truth other than acceptance by an ideal community of inquirers. So if Zhuangzi asked, “How do you know that the beliefs held by the ideal community of inquirers in the limit of history is true?” Peirce’s response would be, “That is what ‘true’ means. There is nothing more to truth than belief by that ideal community.”
But is Zhuangzi’s argument as powerful as I am making it out to be? And has Peirce offered a plausible conception of truth?