An Atheist Reads Evidence That Demands a Verdict
Part Four: Truth or Consequences
Chapter 32: The Nature of Truth
- Right before this chapter is a note from the author in which McDowell explains why he’s included material on the nature of truth. The reason is, to counter responses to Christianity such as “that may be true for you, but that’s not true for me.” By establishing that truth is not a relative thing, McDowell intends to strengthen his case for the unique truth of Christianity.
- “Some readers who are very philosophical in thinking may feel these chapters are either challenging or may conclude that my treatment of various critical issues is rather unsophisticated. Some may complain that the material is too complicated or hard to understand, while others may feel that the material is too simplistic and not conclusive enough on each issue.” (Josh McDowell, THE NEW EVIDENCE THAT DEMANDS A VERDICT, p. 584)
- In other words, what is true about these next several chapters for some readers may not be true for others. Got it.
- On to the chapter. McDowell spends most of it summarizing the correspondence theory of truth, citing Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Bertrand Russell, and other philosophers, all of whom generally agree: there is a world independent of our minds, and our beliefs about that world are true if they correspond to that world, if they describe the actual state of affairs. If our beliefs don’t, then they must be said to be false.
- McDowell goes on to describe some of the pitfalls of a relativist theory of truth — it denies the law of noncontradiction, it’s incoherent since it requires at least some absolute truth to exist (truth is either relative or it’s not), etc.
- I don’t have a problem with this, by the way. My own concept of truth is much like McDowell’s — beliefs about the world beyond our minds are either true or false, and two contradictory beliefs cannot both be true in the same sense at the same time.
- And personally, if I were in an argument with someone and they resorted to denying the existence of truth, I would feel I had won the argument.
- McDowell moves from arguing for absolute truth to arguing for absolute morality, as he attacks the concept of moral relativism. Moral relativism, McDowell tells us through a quotation from J.P. Moreland, implies that moral propositions are neither absolutely true nor absolutely false, but rather depend on the context, and the moral standards that are being appealed to.
- Still citing Moreland, McDowell lists five consequences of moral relativism:
- It complicates the process of determining the rightness or wrongness of a given action if the involved parties come from different societies with different moral standards.
- It complicates the process of determining rightness or wrongness of actions if the involved party is simultaneously a member of multiple societies with different, conflicting moral standards. (For example, if you were born in Society A, but live in Society B, and you do something that is acceptable in Society A but unacceptable in Society B, is your act acceptable or unacceptable? How do you determine which standard to apply?)
- It makes moral reform impossible, because any moral reformer would by definition be wrong because he or she would stand in opposition to the morals of his or her society.
- Certain acts are wrong regardless of social convention — torturing babies, for instance.
- It makes it impossible for one society to criticize another society for immoral behavior.
Chapter 33: The Knowability of Truth
- The first thing I notice about these five consequences of moral relativism is that none of them have any bearing on whether morality is relative or not. They are five different faces of an appeal to consequences. If morality is relative, then this happens, and that’s bad. Okay. Maybe, maybe not. But whether a proposition brings with it undesirable consequences is irrelevant to whether that proposition is true. It’s possible that all five of those consequences could happen, and morality would still be a relative thing, whether we like it or not.
- And, as it happens, morality is relative — or subjective, as I’d prefer to say it — and those five consequences McDowell and Moreland list aren’t quite as horrible as they’re meant to sound.
- My response to the first two of the five — that subjective morality makes it more difficult to determine whether a given action is right or wrong — is so what? It is what it is. The flaw in McDowell’s absolutist view of morality that reveals it to be false — not to mention simplistic and useless — is that it posits morality as a simple thing. It’s not. Morality is complicated. Morality isn’t always black and white. In fact, if we take a few steps back and look at the whole of human experience and all that moral decisions, large and small, we’re all asked to make over the course of a lifetime, all the interests we have to balance, all the responsibilities we have to bear in mind, we see that it’s hardly ever black and white. Often it’s not obvious whether we should praise, condemn, or passively tolerate a given action. Often we have to grapple with difficult moral decisions. Often it’s not clear what the right thing is. Sometimes it’s never clear, even after much struggle and deliberation. And guess what? That is fucking life. A child might wish it were simpler, that there was a list of dos and don’ts handed down from on-high for us to follow, but that doesn’t seem to be the situation.
- The third consequence McDowell and Moreland list is that relativism renders moral reform impossible. But to consider that a consequence of relative/subjective morality, McDowell and Moreland have to misunderstand both subjective and absolute morality, which is no easy feat. First, they misunderstand subjective morality by simplifying it. How can a reformer improve the morals of his society, they ask, if he has already demonstrated himself to be wrong by opposing the morals of his society? Simple: subjective morality is not rigid. McDowell and Moreland describe it as though every society has its own morality, and each society’s morality is set in stone and forever unchanging. But what subjective morality actually means is that moral standards can evolve and change over time. Yes, moral standards can differ from place to place, community to community, but they can also differ within communities, and the moral consensus of a community can change, and sometimes that change can be driven by reformers. In fact, moral reform can only occur within such a society. This is where the misunderstanding of absolute morality comes in. A society that views its present moral standards as absolutely true is not very susceptible to reform.
- The fourth consequence, that some things are just wrong regardless of the moral consensus of one’s society, is essentially the same as William Lane Craig’s childish moral argument: “If there were no God, there would be no absolute moral standards. But absolute moral standards do exist.” Says who? What are these absolute moral standards? How do you know them? If someone holds to a conflicting standard that he also believes to be absolute, how do we determine whose moral standard is the true one? Even something as easy as “torturing babies is wrong” is, ultimately, a matter of opinion. It’s a very, very widely held opinion, but it’s still an opinion. You might not like that. You might wish that there were some absolute, transcendent moral standard completely independent of human thought that defined baby-torture as absolutely wrong. But I see no evidence of that standard, or any other absolute moral standard. We’re on our own here. We have to make our own moral judgments — as individuals, as families, as communities, as civilizations, and ever increasingly as a species. If torturing babies is wrong — and I kinda think it is — it’s wrong because we — because we — decided it was. And that requirement that we participate in our morality, that we engage with moral questions and argue with each other and decide for ourselves whether something is right or wrong — I consider that a strength, not a weakness. I think our morals would be absolutely worthless without it.
- The fifth consequence, that relativism makes it impossible to criticize other societies on moral grounds, against misunderstands what relativism — or subjectivism — means. Acknowledging that morality is a subjective matter doesn’t require us to endorse every moral standard held by every other group.
- Let’s appeal to Hitler, shall we? Let’s pretend it’s the 1940s. I can acknowledge that when I say something like “it’s wrong for Hitler to murder Jews in the Holocaust” I’m making a subjective statement. I can acknowledge that, according to the moral code Hitler recognizes, it is not wrong to murder Jews in the Holocaust. But that doesn’t mean that I have to endorse, or even tolerate Hitler’s murdering of Jews in the Holocaust. Why? Because I didn’t just decide arbitrarily that murdering Jews — or anyone else, for that matter — is wrong. I have good reasons for thinking that what Hitler is doing is wrong. Is it just my opinion? Yes. Does Hitler have a different opinion? Yes. Does that mean I’m helpless, that I’m not allowed to intervene to stop Hitler from murdering Jews in the Holocaust? No. Quite the opposite — I acknowledge the difference between my moral code and that of Hitler, but that doesn’t mean I’m bound to act according to Hitler’s moral code. I’m bound to act according to my moral code, and my moral code compels me to intervene to stop Hitler from murdering Jews in the Holocaust. It’s not required that killing Jews be absolutely, objectively, transcendently wrong in order for me to intervene. All that’s necessary is that the moral code that I recognize tell me that it’s wrong and should be stopped. No absolute morality necessary.
Chapter 34: Answering Postmodernism
- Having defined truth as that which corresponds with reality in Chapter 32, McDowell announces that Chapter 33 will be devoted to demonstrating that we can know things about reality, and therefore know whether our beliefs about reality are true.
- McDowell begins by discussing first principles. These are the basic assumptions underlying knowledge. They are the starting points of reason. First principles include:
- Identity: A thing is identical to itself, otherwise it would not be itself.
- Noncontradiction: Contradictory statements cannot be simultaneously true.
- Excluded middle: A proposition is either true or false. There is no middle ground.
- Causality: Every proposition that is not a first principle depends for its truth on another proposition, and ultimately on the self-evident propositions of first principles.
- Finality: Propositions communicate some meaning. Agents act toward an end.
- These first principles can all be reduced, ultimately, to the principle of noncontradiction, which McDowell (with assistance from Norman Geisler and Mortimer Adler) defines as the axiom that underlies all reality: a thing cannot both be and not be at the same time.
- We can be certain the first principles are true because their truth is self-evident. As soon as we understand the terms being used to talk about these principles, we see that they must be true — a thing cannot simultaneously be itself and something other than itself. We don’t need to demonstrate this; we can simply perceive that it is true.
- Now, McDowell and I don’t disagree too much on this stuff. I don’t feel the need to resort to denying the existence of truth, or denying our ability to know things about reality, or proposing that all truth is relative and what might be true for you might not be true for me, or any of that to justify my atheism. And neither does any other atheist with whom I am acquainted. But is one thing McDowell says in his defense of first principles that I feel the need to comment on.
- McDowell says first principles are natural knowledge, that we don’t learn them from experience, but we are born with them already in our brains. He refers to Norm Geisler and Thomas Aquinas, who also hold this opinion of first principles. Natural knowledge of first principles is ingrained in our nature, says Geisler, by God himself.
- I have a problem with this. Obviously, I don’t think “God gave us natural knowledge” is a reasonable explanation for how we know first principles. My problem is, unless we’re talking about instincts or tendencies of the mind (like our pattern-seeking) that toward which we have been predisposed by evolution, I don’t see how natural knowledge can exist, or where it can come from. To me, all knowledge of the external — that is, everything we know about what is outside our own minds — must come from experience. It must be empirical. Even something as fundamental as the law of noncontradiction must originate from our experience.
- The first principles are laws of logic. They tell us how we have to think if we want our thoughts to yield useful, reliable information about the world. But like the laws of physics, these laws are descriptive, not prescriptive. Just as the law of gravity doesn’t determine how fast an object falls to Earth, but rather describes it, so too does the law of noncontradiction not determine that a thing cannot be itself and not itself at the same time, but rather describes that this is the nature of reality. How do we know this is the nature of reality? We experience it.
- Now, if even the first principles upon which we base all of our reasoning are derived ultimately from experience, doesn’t that mean reason is circular? Aren’t we evaluating our experiences using reason that is itself based on our experiences? I think the answer is yes. And I also think it does no good to pretend otherwise by claiming that our starting point is an imaginary ultimate source of truth like God. Reason itself may be circular, but it also seems to work, when honestly and consistently applied. The trick, then, as someone much wiser than me whose name I have unfortunately forgotten once said, is to make the circle as big as possible.
- McDowell first summarizes what he calls the chief characteristics of postmodernism: the rejection of the correspondence theory of truth, incredulity to metanarratives (that is, rejection of grand stories that claim the ability to explain and account for reality), our inability to ever encounter the thing in itself, the denial of an ultimate foundation for knowledge or reality, regarding objectivity as illusory, and regarding truth as totally subjective.
- McDowell then replies, although he doesn’t take on each of the chief characteristics specifically. Rather, he first chooses to employ what Norman Geisler and Frank Turek call the “Road Runner argument” (remember that?) to assert that postmodernism is self-defeating. Postmodernists argue that it’s true that there is no such thing as truth.
- Did you miss the Road Runner argument? Because I didn’t. I’m not a postmodernist, but that doesn’t mean you can just dismiss the entire philosophy or any of the points it makes with such a rhetorical trick. “The truth is there is no such thing as truth” may be a self-contradicting statement. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t refer to an actual state of affairs. Whenever we make use of language, we’re dealing in constructs and symbols, some of which refer to things in reality. Pointing out that the language used to attempt to describe something about reality is self-defeating only points to the limitations of our language or our ability to use it. It doesn’t prove that the something being referred to doesn’t exist. It may be that the only absolute truth is that there is no such thing as absolute truth. The fact that our language ties itself in knots attempting to describe the concept could only reflect the limitations of our language, not the impossibility of the concept — or rather, the thing to which the concept refers.
- Confused? I am. But in an invigorating sort of way, so it’s all good.
- Speaking of language and symbols and concepts and referring to things, McDowell next quibbles with the postmodern idea that we can never know the thing itself. Quoting extensively from Etienne Gilson, McDowell responds to this idea that we can never know the thing itself with his own argument, which I can summarize as follows: “Can so!”
- Seriously, that’s the gist of it. Gilson’s version is much more verbose — and I would suggest deliberately abstruse — asserting things like “the sense differs from the sensible, but the sense is not different from the object sensed.” But all he’s doing, in the end, is making an assertion of his own to counter the assertion that the thing itself can’t be known. He doesn’t even attempt to give us any reasons why he is right and those he’s arguing against are wrong.
- As I said, I’m not a postmodernist, but this is one feature of postmodernism I hold to very firmly, and not for philosophical reasons but for scientific ones. It’s true that we can never know the thing itself, because we are inescapably imprisoned by our senses. We are totally dependent on our senses and our brains for every single thing we know about the world outside our own minds. When you look at me right now, you’re aware that you’re seeing not me, but a video image of me. But even if we were in the same room and you were looking directly at me, you would still not be seeing me, myself, but rather an image of me created by your brain, based on sensory information gathered by your eyes. We don’t actually experience the world — we experience our brain’s interpretation of the world. This is a fact — a fascinating, and somewhat unsettling fact. That’s why a disorder like paranoid schizophrenia is so frightening, why most of us would rather not even contemplate what it’s like to suffer from it. It’s an extreme reminder that we are all completely at the mercy of our brains.
- Now, this doesn’t mean our senses are unreliable. Our experience tells us that most of the time, they are reliable, and we can usually be assured that what we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch is close enough to reality — the things themselves — that we can disregard that separation between perception and reality for the purposes of our everyday lives. What it does mean is, we should be very, very careful when it comes to attaching certainty to our beliefs. Reasonable certainty? Certainty beyond a reasonable doubt? Reliable certainty? Certainty sufficient to act upon? Sure. Maybe if you don’t like cluttering your inner monologue with qualifiers, you could call this sort of certainty “confidence” instead. We can have confidence in our senses, confidence in our reason- and evidence-based beliefs. But not absolute certainty.
- And the main reason for denying ourselves absolute certainty is so that we don’t become rigid and dogmatic in our beliefs, so we remain flexible and open enough to accept good evidence or good arguments that contradict our beliefs, no matter how confidently held. I think it’s important that we don’t go through life constantly questioning everything we think and do. We shouldn’t assume that we’re wrong. We could hardly function with a mindset like that. But I think it’s important to always leave open the possibility, however unlikely, that we are wrong. We should be open and willing to change our minds if compelling evidence comes along.
- It should go without saying that if we can’t have absolute certainty about the world we experience every day, we can have even less certainty about something like God, a being who is said to transcend even the most basic physical laws of our reality, and maybe some of the logical laws, too. Anyone who speaks of God with anything even approaching absolute certainty is a fool.
- But of course, that’s just my opinion, not an absolute truth.
Next: Continue Part Four: Truth or Consequences
Chapter 35: Answering Skepticism
Chapter 36: Answering Agnosticism
Chapter 37: Answering Mysticism