NOTESWhere to now?9
- I – along with other members of my cohort – was asked by the author to read this book and write a review as part of the Philosophy_of_Religion1 module at Heythrop.
- The end-result appears here2.
- What follows here is basically a selection of text-extracts, and otherwise section-headings. Sometimes I have created a bullet-list myself.
- See my usual colour-conventions for an indication of provenance.
Part 1: WHAT IS TRUTH?
- In the first part, three ways of underpinning truth and the nature of the debate between realists and anti-realists will be outlined.
- Anti-realism will be shown to be highly persuasive and its conclusions to have some parallels with those of post-modernism.
- This part will also look at constructivism in psychology and the parallels this has with anti-realism.
1. The implications of a denial of truth — or the claim to have it – 3
- Young people and radical relativism
- Rant against postmodernism, anti-realism and relativism
- The three parts of the book
- Setting out the problem
- Examples of sought-answers driving questions
- In countless classrooms around the Western World, young people are taught tolerance, openness to alternative perspectives, to value themselves and their own views and to accept and revel in diversity. All this is praiseworthy, but it carries with it a very real danger which seems clearly at work within society. There is a radical relativism amongst many young people who have in some cases come to see truth as a dirty word. This radical relativism is no accident. The intellectual origins are the result of a long philosophic process, not least the impact of post-modernism which sees truth in all fields as radically perspectival and the search for any ultimate truth as folly.
- In this book I want to try to defend the search for truth and, by implication, the claim that in the field of education there is a need to reintroduce a curriculum which takes the search for truth seriously. Unless there is truth to be sought, the distinction between truth and untruth becomes meaningless. That which is generally accepted is taken as real and true, and the idea of what is ultimately real becomes a chimera. This is highly dangerous politically, philosophically, socially, environmentally and personally. In the absence of a search for truth, the most powerful influence on young people is the media and the world of appearance. With the increased influence of the media and the increased concentration of media power, young people are never left alone — television, radio, music and popular culture bombard them with images. Advertisers seek to persuade and to create desires and hopes which they would not otherwise have. Politicians manipulate their perceptions of the world and the idea of achieving some sort of truthful appraisal of the human condition seems doomed. Indeed, many today would argue precisely that ultimate truth is folly.
- In the face of a culture in which truth is seen increasingly as a dirty word, there seem to be no firm landmarks, no points that can hold sure and unchanged in a sea of relativity. One person's view seems as good as any other, leaving the door open for people to believe in anything. One of the consequences of this is an increase in the popularity of religious cults. Also, millions of people in the United States firmly believe that unidentified flying objects and aliens frequently visit this planet. At the same time, religion is seen either as increasingly irrelevant, a minority activity which is tolerated because it is harmless or else is being taken over by increasingly strident voices.
- In the face of all these factors, I want to put forward a case for truth, perhaps even for ‘Truth' with a capital ‘T'. However, I also want to challenge those religious groups which claim in a strident voice to have the truth. They are to be found in many fields as well as in more extreme forms around the world. I will argue that their lack of modesty and humility, their seeming lack of awareness that they may be wrong, is radically misguided. In too many cases around the world fundamentalism is on the rise and few either dare or are willing to stand against it. Sadly, in the Western World many responsible churches, or parts of them, are being hijacked by those convinced that only they have access to the Truth and everyone else is wrong. It is not easy to persuade them otherwise, as Thomas Merton recognised:
It is relatively easy to convert the sinner, but the good are often completely unconvertible simply because they do not see any need for conversion ... What matters then is to cultivate this quality of acceptance in a sociological milieu and then ... even objectively unjust works can be counted virtuous and Christian, since they are approved by those who are locally certified as `good' ...Truly the great problem is the salvation of those who, being good, think they have no further need to be saved and imagine their task is to make others 'good' like themselves!'
- This book is partly intended to resist such people. Felipe Fernandez-Armesto provides a good definition of fundamentalism:
Fundamentalism means uncritical, literal acceptance of what are supposed to be the founding doctrines or documents of a tradition. It demands a closed mind and the suspension of rational faculties; it is attractive only to the desperate and the dim. The huge allegiances it commands are proof of the strength of the reaction against relativism, evidence of the revulsion people feel from the prospect of a truthless universe. Its power to reassure is irresistible to its adherents and repulsive to everyone else. For people who I recognise as religious, it is the very negation of religion, for doubt is a component of faith and reason a divine gift which only devilish inducements can make you forego.
- I am a philosopher and philosophers traditionally have been held to have a passionate interest in truth. Today this interest appears to have waned and the search for wisdom, the search for a truthful understanding of the human condition, is no longer at the forefront of the minds or activities of many philosophers. For many, philosophy is now concerned with linguistic analysis or perhaps with a survey of the historical landscape of the history of ideas. Yet truth has always been at the centre of human endeavours. Poets, artists and writers have sought truth and devoted their lives to it. Countries have gone to war to defend it and virtuous people have put all else to one side to enter its service. Scientists have been inspired by it and generation after generation of young people have grown up with a conviction that the point of education is to seek truth and to see the world in a more truthful light. The conviction that some forms of behaviour are `better' — inherently more valuable and more worthwhile — than others underlies all human society, even if agreement on precisely what form this takes is not always easily achieved.
- Once truth is abandoned, the distinction between truth and falsity disappears. Witnesses in a court case swear to tell the truth; truth telling is associated with virtue and a denial of truth leads to the collapse of virtue. It has always been a premise of major religions that living truthfully is central to the human enterprise. In fact, one of the features of evil forces is their association with lies. Propaganda aims precisely to undermine the distinction between truth and lies. The idea that there is no distinction would be its greatest achievement and allows those with the loudest media voice to determine and control not just morality but human perceptions of reality itself.
- Fundamental human rights as well as duties and obligations become radically undermined once truth is denied. The Nuremberg war crimes trials and similar trials in more recent times are not simply the victors' morality judging the vanquished, as has sometimes been claimed. If they were, then there would be no essential difference between the morality of the SS guards, Pol Pot, Ghandi and Nelson Mandela. War crimes trials are based on the fundamental conviction that certain forms of behaviour are, in an absolute sense, wrong and that there is, in the final analysis, a distinction between right and wrong that must be defended. This conviction transcends any idea of simply defending one's cultural norms against those of another culture.
- I invite you on a journey, an argument if you like. This book will maintain that those who claim truth in the area of religion and morality by definition may not have it, and that those who do not think they have it may be nearer to it than they know. It will reject the two poles of fundamentalism and relativitism, and it will try to chart a way between these perilous and persuasive rocks.
Setting out the problem
- There is a moral dimension to the study of truth and knowledge. There have been periods in history when scepticism was rampant, and in these periods a whole way of life and morality was called into question. Once the process of questioning what we know seriously begins, it gives rise to a moral uneasiness. Two examples will illustrate this.
- The Greek philosopher Protagoras' claim that ‘man is the measure of all things' was a position of scepticism whereby human perception of reality was the final arbiter of certainty. Out of the relativism that this implied arose Plato's writings on moral issues, particularly Plato's Theatetus in which he portrays Socrates expressing admiration for the wisdom of Protagoras while not agreeing with him. Socrates and Plato sought to separate knowledge from mere opinion. Knowledge, for Plato, was concerned with the timeless and spaceless Forms which were neither creative nor did they create. The Forms were organised so that the highest Form was the Form of the Good. Knowledge and morality were, therefore, closely related. For Plato, to act badly was due to ignorance, leaving no space for someone knowing what was wrong yet choosing to do this nevertheless.
- Descartes sought to provide foundations for knowledge that were absolutely certain, and thus to stem the tide of doubt that prevailed in his time. This was an era when people disagreed about the religious truths which previously had been held as certain. There was, therefore, a moral uneasiness similar to that prevailing before Plato. The Church, as a source for absolute truth claims, came to be substituted, through Luther and other reformers, by the authority of individual conscience and appeal to the Bible. These new and apparent certainties in turn gave way and people no longer knew where they stood.
- In both these periods, scepticism was commonly accepted and this was not isolated from a general unease in society. We have the same problem today. There is a general scepticism coupled with a general feeling that Western society has lost its way and has no clear ideas of the values for which it stands or, indeed, if it stands for anything. When Eastern Europe fell to capitalism, it brought supposed benefits such as freedom, but it also brought the lack of values that has become widely accepted in Western society. Freedom in Eastern Europe has been bought at a heavy price, including mass unemployment, lack of food in some areas, the lack of leisure facilities that were generally accepted under the Communist regime, a feeling of hopelessness and a massive increase in corruption. A small elite at the apex of society have prospered hugely, but for the rest the advantages of `freedom' have been mitigated by many adverse factors. It is not surprising that in parts of Russia and some of the former Soviet satellites there is beginning to be a yearning for the old days with their clearly laid down certainties when at least there was food and employment and the Soviet Union was respected around the world as a superpower. These issues are rarely confronted today since Western interest in values, as in truth, is now peripheral. Yet to many round the world who suffer because of the acceptance of Western `values' that have been imposed on them, the issues of the ends towards which society is directed are real.
- Investigation of knowledge and truth are not self-contained. They affect the whole of society and the way society sees and conducts itself. They affect moral issues from sexuality to business. Understanding the moral uneasiness of society is part of understanding scepticism. This is a preliminary point but one whose significance will emerge later.
- Sociologists claim that it is the answers people arrive at which often say more about those seeking the answers than they do about dispassionate inquiry. The motive for asking certain questions often leads to the answers desired by those who ask the question — there is frequently an implicit agenda in place. For instance, in the history of science, the most interesting questions stem from WHY certain sorts of models of understanding are promoted at certain times. For example, the idea of the Earth being the centre of the universe and all stars moving round it fitted perfectly with a religious model which saw the world as one in which God created the first man and woman at the centre of the universe. A picture that allowed human beings to exploit nature in whatever way they wished fitted with a mechanistic universe which arose around the time of Newton. Humans being treated as means rather than as ends in themselves leads to a concentration on a scientific understanding of human nature.
- It is often the answers which people seek that determine the questions they ask. This is well illustrated by looking at those who make truth claims for particular interpretations of the Bible:
- Early Christians had no difficulty finding ‘the truth' of pacifism abundantly clear in Jesus' teaching. This led to passive resistance to the government and a refusal to fight on behalf of the Roman Empire.
- After Constantine and once the Roman Empire had become Christian, St Augustine soon found ‘the truth' that it was legitimate to fight in a just war on behalf of the Christian empire.
- St Thomas Aquinas had no difficult looking to the Bible to justify `the truth' that God divinely ordained kings to rule and that the structure of society should be feudal with lords, freemen and slaves. • Wilberforce and his followers appealed to the Bible to justify ‘the truth' that slavery was wrong.
- Victorians quoted the Bible to show ‘the truth' of women's inferiority to men, and some religious groups still do so.
- Calvinist Africaaners quoted the Bible to help prove ‘the truth' that apartheid was permissible.
- Mormons looked to the Bible to justify ‘the truth' of their claims about the inferior status of non-Caucasians and women.
- Some Orthodox Jewish writers appeal to the Scriptures to justify ‘the truth' of their claim to Jerusalem and the promised land.
- Today militant feminists look to the Bible to establish ‘the truth' that Jesus was in favour of the radical equality of male and female.
- By contrast, Conservative Catholics appeal to the Bible to justify ‘the truth' of the claim that priests must be male.
- The Roman Catholic Church and Protestants of various types have not been shy in claiming truth for their views — indeed a recent document from the Catholic Magisterium was entitled 'Veritatis Splendor'. It is entirely reasonable to hold that truth is splendid and of central importance, but not necessarily that a particular religious group has access to it. The 1998 Catholic encyclical ‘ratio et fides' emphasises the importance of the search for truth, but does so from within a faith framework which is held to be immune from challenge. Evangelical Christians of various brands insist that only through Jesus and the word of the Bible can salvation be found and are certain about their rejection of the evils of homosexuality and sex outside marriage.
- Today, more than ever, the idea of a search for truth seems to many to be folly. A number of movements have come together which would seem to justify the view that there is no absolute truth and that truth is radically multiple:
- Post-modernism rejects any single truth and sees it as being entirely dependent on the viewpoint from which truth is seen.
- In ethics and aesthetics what is right and wrong, what is beautiful and ugly is widely accepted as depending on culture and tradition and having no reality independent of such settings. As Hamlet put it, ‘There is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.'
- In the philosophy of religion a growing number of supporters of anti-realism see truth as internal to the language game being played or the story being told. Religious truths, it is held, are not discovered, they are made — religious truths are essentially truths internal to a fictitious story.
- In mainstream analytic philosophy there is a general acceptance of the view that the search for any metaphysical underpinning for knowledge is folly. Since the work of Kant and the later Wittgenstein, the search for firm foundations for knowledge or for any metaphysical underpinning has been almost entirely abandoned.
- These trends tell us something about the age in which we live — an age in which intellectual scepticism is rampant and the old certainties amount to shibboleths which are regarded as unacceptable and naive. It may well be that the above views are those of a cultural and intellectual elite whose ideas are becoming radically unconnected with the discourse of most ‘ordinary' people. Many ordinary people will reject all the above points yet the intellectual elite will affirm them. This disjunction is dangerous for society. One purpose of this book may be to provide the vocabulary to express a deep distrust with, particularly, the above claims. It is infuriating to believe something passionately and to have these views disdained by the elite.
- It is important to point out at this stage that relativism is not universal. It is a view of only one group of Western intellectuals and it is too easy to assume that these views are universal. They are not. Another aim of this book is to recognise differences in values between East and West and to hold that there may be ways of resolving these without going down the path of relativism.
- The following chapters of this first part look at the way claims to truth are justified by different religious groupings and the claims which sustain the moral values they uphold. It will be argued that all these approaches are fraught with difficulties and that the only sure way of claiming religious truth involves a philosophic position that, while persuasive, many believers will wish to reject.
2. Realism and anti-realism – 12
… Contrast with Anti-realism
… Naïve realists
… Critical realists
… Internal realists
- Natural Theology
… The Cosmological Argument
… The Ontological Argument
… The Design Argument
… The Moral Argument
… The Religious Experience Argument
… The Cumulative Case Argument
- Reformed Epistemology
3. Foundations without indubitability – 29
- The legacy from Descartes and Locke
- G.E. Moore: In defence of common sense
- Wittgenstein and On Certainty
4. Anti-realism in religion and morality – 38
- The power of education
- The power to influence the story
- The development of stories
5. Constructivism in psychology – 49
- Freud and Jung
- St. Theresa of Avila
… Seven stages in the spiritual life
- A.T. Beck
- Constructed reality
- Constructing lies
- Constructing God
6. The scene is set – 61
Part 2: THERE IS NO TRUTH OUT THERE
- In the first section it was argued that Natural Theology fails to establish reference to God and so, likewise, does Reformed Epistemology.
- The only rational alternative seems to be anti-realism which has considerable explanatory power and which avoids the need for a claim to reference while still maintaining truth claims, albeit within different forms of life.
- The idea of truth being relative to different forms of life seems to be supported by constructivism in psychology. In both cases, therefore, truth is relative to the human community.
- In this section, this analysis will be extended and it will be argued that a divide in the road after Immanuel Kant has led to .a widespread present view of the meaninglessness of life and the march for truth being seen as folly.
- Post-modernism, in different forms, has value and has revealed important insights but, in some versions, it has undermined confidence in crucial areas of human life. This represents a primary challenge both to education and to the way human beings see themselves.
- In the second part, the divide in the philosophic road after Kant will be examined, and the influence of Dostoyevsky through Ivan Karamazov and Nietzsche will be argued to be profound.
- It will also argue that one path leads to post-modernism, anti-realism and relativity. This is the path that culminates in the perceived views of meaninglessness and in some of the problems our society faces today.
7. Ontology and epistemology – 65
- No absolute truth, in …
… Philosophy of religion
… Mainstream analytic philosophy
… Ethics and aesthetics
- The ontological realist & the ontological idealist
- Immanuel Kant
… Realist ontologically
… Idealist epistemologically
- Moral regeneration
- Five key Katian points
8. Hegel and Marx – 74
- Georg Hegel
- Thesis, antithesis, synthesis
- Karl Marx
- Adopted Hegel’s approach to hstory
9. Nietzsche and Ivan Karamazov – 79
- Influence of Schopenhauer
… but Nietzsche not a pessimist
- God is dead
- The evils of Christian weakness
- The Will to Power
- The Superman
- A visionary rather than a philosopher – no “proofs”
- Ivan Karamazov
- Stories from the Russian press
- Nothing is worth the suffering of innocent children
- Elie Weisel and Night
- Camus and The Plague
10. The denial of a real world – 89
- Rant on academic opinion, “refereed journals” and the marginalisation of the philosophy of religion
11. Post-modernism – 95
- Jacques Derrida
- Emmanuel Levinas
- The Nietzsche strand of Post-modernism
- Karl Popper
- Thomas Kuhn
- Richard Dawkins & the Selfish Gene
12. Post-modernism and self-identity – 105
- Rorty versus Derrida
- The question not the answer
- Construction of terms
- Luce Irigaray
- Elizabeth Schlussler-Fiorenza
- Simone de Beauvoir
- Summary7: It is possible to isolate some principles which underpin the post-modernist positions, although there is no single position that may be regarded as 'the' post-modern. The whole enterprise is vague, diffuse and complex and resists easy categorisation. However, broadly, the essential elements include the following:
- Reality is a product of constant change and flux, of interpretation and reinterpretation. There are no fixed certainties, no objectivity.
- Language plays an active role in forming our perceptions of reality and these perceptions govern who we are. There is no pure knowledge outside of society or culture or language and its symbolism.
- Human beings are not separate from this reality, and there is no one reality. Instead, what we perceive and make sense of as real is itself ever changing.
- Abstract principles, metaphysics and any search for a single truth or for any commitment to an ontology independent of our experience are to be rejected.
- There are, and can be, no final truths, nor is there any possible idea of progress except in so far as we recognise progress, in so far as we recognise the perspectival nature of all we experience and communicate.
- Gender differences are of vital importance in forming and interpreting reality. For too long, reality has been and still is constructed on male terms, and this has been and is used as a vehicle for oppression.
- There needs to be greater emphasis on difference and a rejection of any idea of a single nature. Male, patriarchal, Western ideas and values deny difference and attempt to impose an artificial uniformity. There are clear links between this and Liberation Theology.
- In art, science, aesthetics, literature, morality and religion, as well as in all other fields, there are no absolutes. The Boston telephone directory should be placed on the reading list alongside the works of Shakespeare. To one version of post-modernism (not that of Derrida or Levinas), the one has no more intrinsic value than the other, just as a child's daub has no more value than a Picasso or a Constable, or the Spice Girls music has no more value than Mozart. Derrida and Levinas, by contrast, are motivated by a strong commitment to 'justice' and 'the other', and are quite the reverse of relativists.
13. Interim conclusion – 117
- Where we started8
- We started with Kant and saw a tension present in his thought between wishing to give first place to reason and to science but at the same time to leave space for God, and wanting to maintain that there is a real world, one that is completely unknowable. After Kant, two possibilities lay open:
… 1. to reject all ideas of a God who creates and sustains the universe, as well as all idea of a noumenal, real world; or
… 2. to affirm the idea of God and a real world.
- After Kant, Hegel and Marx started the progress down one path by effectively rejecting God and making the real world lying behind the world we know irrelevant. Nietzsche took this further and rejected God entirely and with God any claim to truth at all. Nevertheless, he was not a total relativist and still saw truth in the claim that history led to the emergence of the Superman and to the understanding of the danger of Christianity and Christian morality. Dostoyevsky's Ivan Karamazov rebels against God in the name of humanity and, as he says, after rejecting God 'everything is permitted'.
- Many modern philosophers tend to dismiss all ideas of a real world, with truth being radically perspectival. Some versions of post-modernism takes this trend further and we are left floating on a sea of meaninglessness, where truth is a dirty word or anyone's truth is as good as anyone else's.
- The journey
- In the first two sections of this book, a picture has been painted which leaves us intellectually vulnerable. God and metaphysics have been rendered irrelevant. Science is increasingly successful in explaining human beings in terms of the double helix that is their genetic pattern but leaving little or no room for meaning or value other than those meanings we create for ourselves. Anti-realism persuasive in portraying religious truth claims as being true simply within the form of life that different religious believers inhabit.
- This poses a real challenge for the way human beings see themselves. Although not directly aware of post-modern culture and deconstructionism, many young, and not so young, people implicitly share many of the assumptions of these movements and are affected by feelings of despair and futility that go to the heart or their lives. Yet few other alternatives present themselves.
- Where do we go from here? What alternatives are there, if any? It is this challenge to which the third section will attempt a response.
- The divide in the road after Kant can be sketched as follows:-
… Kant to Hegel / Marx … to … Nietzsche / Ivan Karamazov
… Denial of a real world … to … Post-modernism
- Kant: affirmed the distinction between the phenomenal and noumenal worlds. The phenomenal is the only knowable world while the noumenal is unknowable. God was needed as the guarantor of the fairness of the universe and to overcome evil within human beings.
- Hegel: Hegel still left a role for 'God' or Absolute Spirit which emerged in history and was dependent on human reason. He rejected Kant's noumenal world and substituted a study of history for theology
- Marx: Marx rejected God entirely and saw the triumph of working people as being inevitable through the onward march of history
- Denial of a real world: The denial of Kant's noumenal, real world is taken further with the denial of any reality beyond that which humans construct. Language is a cage which constitutes the reality in which human beings live.
- Nietzsche and Ivan Karamazov: Nietzsche rejected God and Ivan rejected the world God made. 'Everything becomes permitted', and with the death of God also dies all meaning, value and purpose. Christian values such as love, compassion, pity and humility are denied in favour of the values of the strong.
- Post-modernism: Post-modernism is difficult to characterise but, broadly, there are two possible versions, both of which reject metanarratives. One view holds that human beings are afloat on a constantly changing sea where perspective is all. Culture, gender, sexuality, social station and other factors determine what is real, and truth is finally abandoned. According to the other view (Derrida, Levinas and others), texts and claims to truth must always be viewed with suspicion, but there is also strong a commitment to 'justice' and 'the other'. Post-modern culture leads to a denial of any absolutes and truth becoming a word of oppression. Every perspective is equally valid.
Part 3: THE CENTRE CAN HOLD
- The search for truth seems to be at an end. Post-modernism is the culmination of a movement that started with a divide in the road of intellectual history after Kant and now there seems to be no way forward. Anti-realism in religion and morality merely confirms the radical relativity of different truth perspectives and the younger generation, as well as those who are older, may come to despair at lack of meaning and value in the world in which we live.
- The third part of this book will go back in order to go forward, recapture the alternative path that lay open after Kant. This will be explored and its development traced through the insights of Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein as well as those of Vaclav Havel and the Hasidic Jewish rabbi, the Kotzker, and possibly of the Sufi mystics and a minority of others. It is an unfashionable understanding of truth, a path that few espouse, but a path that still lies open and which can provide a way forward, provided the necessary conditions that it entails are accepted. I will argue that the search for a truthful understanding of the world and the human condition is essential. However, this search also necessarily carries with it an attitude of humility that many religious believers fail to exhibit. I will maintain that many new religious movements and cults, as well as longer established religious groups, are guilty of this failure.
14. The path to truth11 – 123
- This book seeks to chart a path between the rocks of fundamentalism and relativism. It seeks to maintain that the passionate intensity of the former should be rejected and that the centre can hold.
- In the first part of this book the anti-realist challenge to a traditional, realist approach to religious, moral and other truth claims was set out. It was argued that the attempt to prove the existence of God fails and that an appeal to revelation, by use of Reformed Epistemology, also fails. The obvious alternative is anti-realism or, in psychology, constructivism, which allows each religious group to claim truth and only to appeal to their own stories and traditions to substantiate this truth. Truth is then based on coherence within a specific form of life.
- The second part began with Kant and traced a path down one divide in the intellectual road through Hegel, Marx, Ivan Karamazov and Nietzsche, which leads to post-modernism and an even more radically relative understanding of truth. This renders the whole idea of a real world absurd and, with it, all talk of God.
- The task in this third part is to consider how religious and moral realist truth claims can still be made in the face of the challenges presented by anti-realism and post-modernism. The history of religion has included claims to transcendence which go beyond a transcendence located solely within the human psyche or community. Yet such claims seem increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to justify. This part will maintain that traditional realist claims can still be made, but if they are made, they necessarily involve humility and ambiguity. If these qualities are absent, then the only conclusion is that those who lack these qualities are arrogant, bigoted, philosophically naive, intent on seeking power rather than truth or that they are anti-realists. These are harsh words but I will argue in this part that they can be demonstrated to be true. Many cults and new religious movements could be claimed to fit into one or other of these categories, as well as certain forms of evangelicalism in the Anglican Church, groups such as Opus Dei in the Roman Catholic Church, Hindu fundamentalists in India, certain right wing Orthodox Jewish groups in Israel and fundamentalists in Islam, whether they are the Taliban in Afghanistan, some Sunni Muslims in Iran or Shias in Iraq.
- If a claim to truth in a realist sense is to be defended, then truth needs to be found in many quarters of the globe and not in one religious tradition alone. Any understanding of truth must not be confined to a particular revelation to a privileged group — truth is something that should, in principle, be accessible to all human beings. If this is denied, then a form of apartheid would exist with some human beings being confined, through no fault of their own, to ignorance or error, while a privileged group had access to truth. If there is any God, then this could scarcely be a just way of proceeding. I shall be drawing on Jewish, Christian and Islamic sources in this section but also on a contemporary politician, poet, philosopher and playwright.
- The approach to truth advocated here has a long history, starting with Socrates and possibly even before him with the priests of the Greek god Apollo and the prophets of ancient Israel. ‘Know Thyself' read the inscription over the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Only as the individual turns away from obsession with the realm of the temporal can he or she begin to understand and approach truth. This was also Plato's position in his allegory of The Cave. Socrates, into whose mouth Plato put many of his own ideas, recognised in Phaedrus his inability to understand himself:
- I've not yet succeeded in obeying the Delphic injunction to ‘know myself', and it seems to me absurd to consider problems about other beings while I am still in ignorance about myself. For Socrates and Plato, truth was bound up with knowledge of oneself and philosophy was centrally connected with the personal search for truth. This search was costly and demanding; it involved seeing through the shadows of illusion present in the world around us. Socrates believed that one could seek knowledge both of truth and of oneself by the effort of one's own will.
- The same position was held by Pelagius who opposed St Augustine and who, because he lost a crucial vote at an early Council of the Church, was condemned as a heretic. Augustine's view was that nothing was possible without the assistance of grace. In other words, divine aid was needed to overcome the effects of original sin. The human will was, therefore, permanently impaired and God's grace was needed to overcome the effects of sin. However, the priests of the god Apollo, Socrates, Pelagius and St Augustine all agreed that knowledge of the truth about oneself was a vital precursor to any understanding of truth.
- A common view today is that truth does not matter but love, pity and compassion do. I want to argue against this view and instead argue for the reverse. Truth is the most fundamental thing of all. This was made clear in a dispute between two of the greatest influences on Hasidic Judaism, the Baal Shem Tov and the Kotzker.
15. The Kotzker – 126
16. Soren Kierkegaard and subjectivity – 132
- Kant and the subsequent divide
- Truth as Subjectivity: “Kierkegaard12 wished to move people away from the usual, objective way of talking about truth. Those who read this book may well have been expecting a discussion on the nature of objective truth, but for Kierkegaard such a discussion was uninteresting. Propositions may express something of the reality of the universe, whether in terms of history, science or other areas, but they cannot capture fundamental truths on which an individual might stake her life.”
- Coram Deo
17. Wittgenstein and perspicuity – 141
- The search for perspicuity
- Was Wittgenstein an anti-realist?
- Phillips versus Lindbeck
18. The Sufis – 151
- Reason and philosophy are but partial and limited ways to truth.
- Transformation of the self
- Different order of knowledge to that provided by traditional philosophy.
- Hazrat Khan: going beyond books, dogmas and beliefs
- Rumi: Philosophy, poetry, mysticism
- Ibn Al Arabi: speaking to the audience
- Sufism as a Way, a lifelong journey
- Nasrudin: forms of truth. Denial of bivalency? Real truth and relative truth.
- Sufi mystics seek truth, but not through philosophy or theology.
19. Vaclav Havel and living the Truth13 – 156
- Living in the Truth
- Ideology and living a lie
- The baker and ”Workers of the World Unite”
- The steps in Havel's argument are effectively:
Notice that the first step includes ecclesiastical systems together with political and corporate systems. All may be used because it is through compliance that unity and security are found. In this sense, Nietzsche was right to recognise the widespread existence of power relationships between human beings. However, it may be precisely in resisting this power that truthfulness may lie. Living in the Truth may mean resisting the power of evil found within structures through which it operates. All the greengrocer's friends would have conformed and would have found it almost inexplicable that he could have staked his life on standing out and achieving, apparently, nothing. Almost all of them would have rejected him as the ‘outsider' on whom society turns its back.
- Totalitarian systems, whether these are political, institutional, corporate or ecclesiastical impose their constructed views of truth by means of ideology, mythical stories and ritual. This imposition is backed by a system of organised violence (which may or may not be physical) and power.
- Compliance, obedience and a willingness to participate in the system matter as these are the means by which the system and its controllers maintain power and influence. The world of appearance is maintained in existence by the compliance of the majority.
- The system will, therefore, use whatever means is necessary to enforce compliance, notably exclusion with various penalties. This is where the real struggle takes places — between a few individuals who refused to conform and the power of the institution.
- In spite of the power of the system, individuals have the ability to refuse to comply. This is Havel's realist claim: there is ultimate truth to which the individual must be responsible.
- Because individuals can refuse to comply, they are culpable if they fail to stand up against the system and instead conform in the interests of their own security.
- This means that each individual must take responsibility for living in the Truth, responsible to an ultimate Truth which goes beyond the individual psyche or community. This responsibility cannot be avoided by conformity to the institution or community since conformity is itself a moral choice. Religious people will see this ultimate Truth as resting in God, whereas non-religious people may speak in other, possibly Platonic, terms.
- Failure to live in the Truth is a moral failure for which individuals must account.
- Living in the Truth is very different from accepting religious or moral truths laid down by any group. As with other systems, to live in the Truth may require the individual to stand against the religious group to which he or she belongs and to which primary loyalty may otherwise be given. This can create real tension for individuals who belong to such groups. They may well seek to deceive themselves and to suppress questioning because they realise that once they allow themselves to recognise a claim to truth, they will find themselves in an intolerable position. Some examples may illustrate this problem:
- A young Nazi joined the Waffen SS in 1942 and gave an oath of loyalty to the Feurher. If he then came to consider that Hitler was wrong, few would doubt that he had a moral duty to reject Hitler (in spite of his oath) and to `live in the Truth' even though this may well have cost him his life.
- A young US airman who joined up to fight in Vietnam took an oath of loyalty to his country and president and then felt that, in order to live in the Truth, he had to disobey the order to slaughter innocent Vietnamese.
- A married woman swore fidelity and lifelong commitment to her husband. She then found he was a wife-beater who suppressed her. very person and who made her life hell. He also refused to allow their children to have a religious education even though she considered that providing children with the option to take a religious perspective seriously was important. She might decide that `living in the Truth' meant recognising that the marriage was at an end and she should leave.
- A man in Ghana who married three wives and then became a Christian might then find that he felt compelled to renounce two of the wives.
- Truth, then, can come into conflict with a vow of obedience. Which will have primacy? The Kotzker, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein and Havel all maintain that it is truth that must always be first. Religious people, like people in every other way of life, will often have a strong motivation to deceive themselves and to convince themselves that their group has the Truth. Any appeal beyond the group can be seen as `sinful', wicked and to be resisted. Such individuals will be threatened by philosophy or by independent thought because they see the danger that this might undermine their own cherished beliefs. Often those who are most violently opposed to a position are those who are personally most threatened by it. We may well ask why this is the case. It may be that the fierceness of their opposition is a means to ensure that they do not have to face their own uncertainties about the truth of their position. Fundamentalism is often a manifestation of a fear of confronting truth or ambiguity. It is a means of self-protection. Havel claims that there is a moral dimension to this which cannot be avoided.
20. Fear and freedom – 164
- The fear of truth
… Living in fear of truth is similar to living in fear of God
- Freedom and truth
… Hoose versus Grisez: 12 objections to the magisterium
… The acceptance of doubt is one of the driving forces of the human spirit
- Vaclav Umlauf14 maintains that in living a life of integrity, in living in the Truth, three factors need to be balanced, and the individual needs to live in the centre of a triangle formed by these three. They are:
- Conscience. For the religious believer this may mean living Coram Deo, before God, and being willing to account to God for everything one does. It also means developing discernment so that one can separate the true from the false.
- Inner dialogue. Each individual needs to engage in an inner dialogue with him or herself, in which they will interrogate themselves about their motives and reasons for actions. This comes close to the idea of ‘knowing oneself', to which reference has already been made.
- Concern for one's ‘good name'. By our conduct in life, we create ourselves, and we should be concerned with who we become. This is not to be determined by reputation or by what other people think of us, but it does mean living our life in such a way that it can bear examination.
There is no suggestion that ‘living in the Truth' is easy nor is it simple to know what this will require in a particular situation. However, the willingness to wrestle with these dilemmas is precisely what living in the Truth requires.
- Jesus before Pontius Pilate.
21. Bringing the threads together15 – 182
- In the film Contact, Jodi Foster plays a scientist named Dr Ellie Armstrong who first discovers signals from an extraterrestrial intelligence. The first signal is the number pi which is a transcendental number, a number which goes on forever and never repeats itself. So far, pi has been analysed to 50 billion places without there ever being a repetition. Then the signals take the form of Prime Numbers which are likely to be the basis of any universal language. The point of this film is clear: mathematics represent an absolute in the universe discoverable by any intelligent species. Of course, some challenge this view and say that we simply create or construct the laws of mathematics and there is no proof.
- The signal, however, is not simply mathematical. Overlaid on top of it are detailed plans to build a complex structure, the purpose of which is not clear. The cost is a third of a trillion dollars and eventually the decision is taken to proceed. There is space within this structure for one person and, eventually Ellie is selected to go. She enters above the structure which rotates at incredible speed. The capsule containing Ellie is dropped into the centre of the structure and she finds herself speeding through a wormhole in space. After a brief interval she goes down another wormhole, and then another to emerge in the Vega star system. She is then placed gently on a beautiful beach where she encounters her dead father with whom she used to be very close. She realises that her father is not real and the figure admits as much. The Intelligence that brought her to this place took a form that would be acceptable to her. It explains that the universe contains countless life forms and that human beings are special and rare, capable of great beauty and sensitivity, but also of great savagery. It points the way forward for human beings to take their place among the other peoples of the galaxy using the technology that has been given to them. However, nothing is precise. This is the whole of the message.
- Ellie returns through the wormholes and finds herself in the capsule in which she started. To those observing the structure and her capsule, it appeared that the capsule simply fell through and landed in the sea, with hardly any time elapsing. To Ellie, 18 hours elapsed. She is called before a US Congressional hearing, and one of the scientists who rejects her account of what happened says that she is the victim of a `self-reinforcing delusion'. Ellie is asked whether she is familiar with Ockam's razor, a principle to which she herself has previously appealed. She says that it is the principle that `all things being equal, the simplest explanation is likely to be the right one'. Which, her questioner now asks, is more likely:
... that a message from aliens results in a magical machine that whisks you away to the centre of the galaxy to see your Dad and then a split second later returns you home without a single thread of proof or that your experience is the result of being the unwitting star ... in a hoax or a delusion ... In saying this, her questioner is echoing the Scottish philosopher David Hume who maintained that it was always more probable to hold that miracles had never taken place than that natural laws should be broken. Another critic says to Ellie:
You come to us with no evidence, no record, no artefacts only a story that to put it mildly strains credibility ... are you really going to tell us that we should take this all on faith? Ellie replies:
Is it possible that it didn't happen?Yes. I am a scientist I must concede that ... I had an experience which I cannot prove and I cannot explain but everything that I am as a human being tells me that it was real. was given something wonderful, something that changed me forever. A vision of the universe that tells us undeniably how tiny and insignificant and how rare and precious we all are. A vision that tells us that we belong to something that is greater than ourselves, that none of us are alone ... I wish I could share that with you. Ellie's experience cannot be proved, but neither can she deny it happened. In many ways it is akin to a mystical experience and the many mystics from many different religions around the world also say that their experiences cannot be proved. They claim that the world has a meaning and a purpose, that ultimate Truth exists and that it can sometimes be approached more closely through mysticism, love and beauty than by rational inquiry.' Of course they could be wrong, but they are willing to stake their lives on the claim that they are right. This is an essential part of any realist claim — that one makes a truth claim that depends on correspondence and that the possibility of error always exists. The most any individual can do is to stake their life on the claim to truth. Nothing more is possible.
- In the first part of this book anti-realism and constructivism were shown to pose a significant challenge to conventional understandings of truth in the areas of religion, morality, aesthetics, literature and history, among others. The claims to establish reference to foundations for knowledge by means of reason are not convincing, and appeals to revelation as a ground for certainty, in the absence of some independent criteria to determine which revelation to accept, are similarly based on sand. Anti-realism maintains that truth is located within language games and denies there is any ultimate truth.
- In the second part, the first of two divides in the philosophic road after Immanuel Kant was traced, passing through Hegel and Marx, Nietzsche and Ivan Karamazov down to modern versions of post-modernism. Philosophy along this road was seen to deny all ultimate meaning and value, and any idea of God or any idea of absolute justice and truth. In many ways there are parallels between anti-realism and post-modernism, although the differences are also significant. However, they both join forces in rejecting any idea of a real world to which truth claims can approximate and, indeed, any non-relative claims to truth. The challenge facing society from this denial of traditional realist truth claims is extreme and few theologians or philosophers are facing it today.
- The Kotzker was not aware of the atrocities in the holocaust, just as Kierkegaard was not aware of the atrocities of Stalin or Pol Pot's regime, but neither would have been surprised. Once the power of the lie takes over, once truth is trampled in the dust and regarded of no account, then human beings cease to matter.
- Where is Truth to be found? It is largely absent from university departments of philosophy and theology which have always claimed it was their primary concern, and it is not to be found in many university departments of literature, history, aesthetics or psychology. It is rarely found in politics and almost never in the media. It is still alive and well, however, among many so-called `ordinary' people, who are in fact the extraordinary ones, and who show it not by their words but by their lives. Socrates said that he could not prove the truth of his claim that the soul was immortal, but he was prepared to stake his life on this `if'. Similarly countless people around the world stake their life on the existence of ultimate Truth and seek to live in relation to this, even though there is no proof that this exists.
- If a realist claim to truth means admitting the possibility of error, then the intolerance of any religious grouping that is not open-minded, humble and willing to be tentative in the realist claims it makes must be recognised and opposed. There is a need to stand up to those who are so certain of their beliefs that they reject others, look down on others, make them feel guilty or brand them as `sinners'. There has been a moral failure of many in the Western world to stand against fundamentalism and to reject it. This is seen, perhaps, most clearly in Western nervousness in standing against Islamic fundamentalism because of an understandable reluctance to discuss religious views which others hold as sacred. However, when these views are used to impose suffering on others (as is clearly the case with groups like the Taliban in Afghanistan), then failure to speak out is a moral failure.
- Wherever truth is, it is least likely to be found among fundamentalists, who are best avoided or approached with the greatest of caution. Islamic and Hindu fundamentalists, New Age cults, many of the new religious movements, right-wing conservative groups in the Catholic Church, some evangelical Anglicans and fundamentalist Protestants all need to be challenged and resisted. By contrast those:
have precisely the marks of those who are seeking a realist understanding of truth. This is not an accident; it is a necessary consequence of the truth claims they are espousing because, if they are realists, they have to be committed to the possibility of being mistaken.
- who wrestle with ambiguity
- for whom much is unclear
- who have a broad commitment to the common human search for understanding and meaning, and
- who are willing to learn from others and accept that whatever their position, they could be wrong
- When we see:
then we need to ask ourselves where is the humility, the openness to the possibility of their own error or the error of the sects they support. If there is no willingness to concede that they may be completely mistaken in their perspective — even though it may, or may not, be one which they personally are willing to stake their life on — then the most they may claim is an anti-realist understanding of truth. If they are anti-realists, then they have grounds for certainty within their own language game, but they have no claim to absolute truth, only to a truth expressed within the community they inhabit. There is no need to take any more notice of them than of flatearthers, those who think they are regularly abducted to Mars or those who see UFOs.
- those who loudly proclaim certainty
- those who restrict the syllabuses of schools they control or use their influence so as to limit the search of young people for Truth and understanding
- those who are intent on ensuring that others believe as they do and seek to coerce uniformity
- those who claim that there is only one understanding of truth and that anyone who departs from it will be condemned or is sinful
- By contrast:
may be closer to ‘living in the Truth' than those who claim to ‘know the Truth'. None of them may be the sort of people the world would regard as `successful' and, in many cases, the world may pity them, but it may be the world which deserves pity. Those who are comfortable and secure may be the ones who have ceased to struggle and to strive precisely because they no longer regard it as necessary. They may be the living dead who have died as selves long before their physical death.
- the political prisoner locked up because he refuses to conform even though no-one knows of his existence
- the unregarded academic who refuses to play the `game' required by his department or institution and instead devotes himself to care of his students, and who loses his job or fails to secure advancement because of his failure to publish
- the aged homosexual who tries to live his Christian commitment as he lovingly cares for his incontinent dying partner
- the Islamic theologian who argues that the Koran needs to be interpreted in the light of present knowledge even though this leads to a Fatwah being pronounced against him
- the Jewish rabbi who criticises the State of Israel's treatment of Palestinians in the name of justice and identifies and supports the Palestinians in their struggle for nationhood against his own people in spite of hatred and abuse
- the young unmarried woman who lives with her partner, who has had fourteen previous partners starting at the age of thirteen, who takes her faith seriously and who struggles to try to live rightly before her God
- the young man who tries to follow his God in uncertainty and ambiguity, wrestling with moral dilemmas and the challenges faced by a changing world, recognising goodness and truth in people from diverse cultures and traditions as well as those who, while within his own tradition, take a completely different stance to his own
- the dedicated English teacher who devotes his life to trying to communicate something of the genius of great literature to the young people who pass through his hands and to show its relevance to their lives, even though they rarely seem to comprehend
- the committed woman who decides against marriage and family in favour of caring for the poor, the refugees and those in prisoner of war camps in some of the worst affected areas of the world, and who has no money, no prospects and no real understanding of what religion requires or means, and
- the atheist who is tortured by the problems of the human condition, who is angry with the God whom he does not believe exists and who devotes his life to the search for understanding
- Where is truth? Not, it is claimed, in this book, with those who assert they have it, but perhaps it is with those who do not know but passionately seek a perspicuous understanding of what it is to be human and who then try to faithfully live this out. Socrates found this and as a result the Delphi Oracle judged him the wisest man in Athens, but he was condemned to death by the citizens of Athens because he represented a threat to the established values of their society. Truth is always an approximation. We may never have the whole story, but this does not mean that we may not have part of the story, which may mean widening our search to embrace not just philosophy but also psychology, literature, poetry, drama, art and mysticism.
- This understanding has considerable implications for education. It means that any education system that fails to help individuals to think for themselves, to challenge the accepted conventions of society and to be passionate about the search for Truth is flawed. Yet in schools throughout the Western world this dimension is neglected. Education about science provides a paradigm case. Young people are taught how to handle genetic engineering and to understand the complexity of chemistry and physics, but they are hardly ever helped to think through to what end science is to be applied. In business courses young people are taught about accountancy and economics but they are not taught to think about the ends to which business works or how one measures the commitments of multinationals to staff, customers and the communities in which they operate. This represents a general failure on the part of education which is allowing dark clouds of mendacity to gather.
- Those who emphasise the importance of perspective are right and they are also right that for too long a patriarchal, rational, Western view of reality has dominated and has been seen as the only way of looking at truth. As Newton said, `I stand on the beach and play with pebbles while the whole ocean of truth stretches before me'. The ocean is still there. We may have some access to it but this access is partial and incomplete, and it may well depend on where on the beach we stand. The alternative is not to abandon the search but to seek to learn from and to listen to each other.
- God's existence cannot be demonstrated, nor can the existence of any ultimate reality on which the universe may depend for meaning — which is why faith is required. Faith is a risk; it is staking one's life on claims to truth that may be false. This is part of the human adventure. To stake our lives, to decide what sort of selves we willcreate with the lives which we have been given. Post-modernists, at least some of them, leave us afloat on a sea of meaninglessness; they leave us without a centre. By contrast, the Kotzker, Kierkegaard, some Sufi mystics, Wittgenstein and Havel claim that beyond all apparent absurdity and chaos there is meaning, order and truth. This may or may not be the case, but it is a claim that is as sustainable today as ever in the past.
- Truth is something that will not be arrived at easily but only by struggle, by searching and by a willingness to be open to alternatives. It will only be found by those who try to live the Truth and reject the easy option of living a lie. These individuals will stake their lives on the search and, with passion and commitment, seek to pierce through the veils of illusions, the masks of falsehood, the constructs of society and the self. Truth lies outside the comfort zone and the security blanket, and it may only be accessible by those who are troubled about existence and who are prepared to stake their lives on the search.
My review of this book is filed in "Various - Heythrop Essays & Supporting Material (Boxes)".
Footnotes 3, 6: Taken from Chapter 1 (p. 6).
Footnote 4: Basically, the whole of pp. 3-11.
Footnote 5: Taken from p. 63.
Footnote 7: Taken from pp. 115-6.
Footnote 8: Taken from pp. 117-8.
Footnote 9: Taken from p. 119 (and the end of p 118).
Footnote 10: Taken from p. 121.
Footnote 11: Taken from pp. 123-5.
Footnote 12: Brief extract from p. 137.
Footnote 13: The quoted extract below is from pp. 161-3.
Footnote 14: Not a typo! Taken from p. 179.
Footnote 15: This is the whole of Chapter 21; pp. 182-9.
Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
- Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2018
- Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)