Self-Indulgence

Blogs are very self-indulgent media. Every time one publishes a post to one’s blog, one assumes that someone else cares what one has to say. There are excuses and attempts to claim mitigating circumstances — “I really only write for myself”, “It’s more of a personal diary than a blog”, “I don’t care what other people think” — but none of them stand up to scrutiny. If one were truly writing only for oneself, or writing a personal diary, or one did not care about the opinions of others, one would not publish one’s writings on the Internet. If one is honest, one must admit to a certain level of self-indulgence, a bit of pompous arrogance in the assumption that the great unwashed care a fig about what one has to say.

My blog has very few readers and I know most of them personally — those that I do not know well I have at least corresponded with by e-mail. I am not sure if that makes my situation better or worse, more ludicrous and self-absorbed or less. I at least try to avoid the temptation to write a public diary: I try to post things that may amuse or interest without assuming that you care about my personal life.

However, sometimes the urge is just too strong. Now that the year AD 2010 has well and truly begun, I would like to review the previous year and wallow in the intemperate narcissism of it all.

2009 was the year in which I left London, the stinking metropolis that had been my home for around seven years, and moved across the Atlantic Ocean. I began by living in a small town in Ontario for about three months, continuing my previous employment but now working from home with the aid of the Internet. The next three months were spent on unpaid leave: I travelled west by car through the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific coast, drove south to the Sonoran and Mojave deserts, then back across the prairies to Ontario, where I spent the final month on the shore of Lake Huron. I returned to Britain for a month, only to move west again in December, when I took up a new job (albeit with the same company) in California. It is looking probable that the United States Customs and Immigration Service will soon force my return to Britain (although I have a visa to stay here for three years, it seems that my Canadian fiancée is not welcome.) Still, for the moment I live in San Francisco, which is a great improvement over London.

My greatest intellectual development in 2009 must have been the belated realisation that theism has a lot more going for it than I had thought. I had, admittedly in common with many people in the modern West, assumed that the philosophical debate between theism and atheism had been settled long ago. I thought that only those who clung to irrational faith were theists and that those who were honestly rational recognised the logical imperative to accept atheism.

My first surprise was the discovery that the debate is far from over. The book Atheism and Theism by J.J.C. Smart and J.J. Haldane (published in 2002 by Wiley-Blackwell as part of the Great Debates in Philosophy series) was very illuminating. I think J.J.C. Smart is now my model atheist philosopher. In particular, I appreciated his point that there are few “knock down” arguments in philosophy. I later came to appreciate the two-sided nature of rationality (it is always essentially a dialogue rather than a monological deduction) even more when I read Reason and Reality by J.R. Lucas (unpublished but available in rough form on his website: http://users.ox.ac.uk/~jrlucas) at the end of the year. Without hyperbole, I think it is probably the most important philosophical text I have read for some time.

My second surprise was the discovery that theism is in many ways a more rational position than atheism. The first inkling that this might be so came to me from reading A Comprehensible Universe: The Interplay of Science and Theology by George Coyne and Michael Heller (published in 2008 by Springer). More evidence came from Is God a Mathematician? by Mario Livio (published in 2009 by Simon and Schuster) and especially the aforementioned Reason and Reality by J.R. Lucas. From a rather different perspective, the possible rationality of theism was made clear to me by Edward Feser’s books on Thomist philosophy, such as Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide (published in 2009 by Oneworld Publications). I owe a great debt to “Deogolwulf”, author of the brilliant blog The Joy of Curmudgeonry, for not only introducing me to many of the above authors but also for sharing his own ideas in personal correspondence with me. He also introduced me to Bill Vallicella’s blog, Maverick Philosopher, which is one of the better philosophy blogs on the internet.

It is possible that I was able to approach the theism/atheism debate with an open mind only because my general attitude towards religion changed over the course of 2009. For that, J.R.R. Tolkien is mostly to blame. I read The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (edited by Humphrey Carpenter and published in 2006 by HarperCollins) over the summer and found them curiously inspiring. Tolkien had an ability to see and articulate truths in a manner that I have seldom encountered elsewhere. I find it hard to explain exactly what it is about his work that I find so moving, but perhaps his own explanation, given in his essay On Fairy-Stories, which I re-read for the umpteenth time at the beginning of the year, is better than anything I will ever produce. (On Fairy-Stories was published as part of a collection entitled Tree and Leaf: Including “Mythopoeia” in 2001 by HarperCollins.)

I am currently reading J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter (published in 1995 by HarperCollins) which a friend lent me before I moved to California. I read it while sitting in my armchair by the window, smoking my pipe and occasionally looking up at the leaves of the tree outside.

Tomorrow I shall attend a Latin Eucharist with Gregorian chant at my local Anglo-Catholic church.


The final counter to the sceptical questioner is to ask what alternative he has in mind. Since reasoning is typically two-sided, it often involves an assessment of alternatives. If alternatives are offered, we can compare them with what we ourselves have put forward, possibly finding them preferable, but more probably finding them less well supported than the position that is under attack. But if, as often, no alternative is offered, we are not engaged on a serious exercise. It is the converse of an argument of Hume’s, who concluded that “a total suspense of judgement is . . . our only reasonable resource”, arguing that, since “every attack and no defence . . . is successful, victory must go to the man who remains always on the offensive and has himself no fixed station or abiding city which he is ever, on any occasion, obliged to defend”. But guerilla warfare wins no territory. The metaphysician is looking for a position in which he can abide, and which he would be willing to defend. His thoughts and communications may sometimes be troubled by a Humean sceptic, but he will have no incentive to abandon his position for another, if no other is on offer. For he is serieux; metaphysics is not a dilettante occupation, but a guide to life, and life is short and will not allow an indefinite suspense of judgement.

Reason and Reality by J.R. Lucas; pp. 76 – 77

Published in: on January 15, 2010 at 10:18 pm  Comments (5)  

Blindness

I came across the above poster at work today, which made me laugh.

Someone told me that he doesn’t hold oil companies to blame for the impact they have on the environment. He said the demand for oil is to blame: it isn’t the oil companies’ fault if they are merely meeting other people’s demand. This strikes me as an even worse excuse than “I was only following orders.” At least one could plausibly argue that obedience to orders could constitute a moral good, albeit probably not one that outweighs the wrong typically performed by people who have cause to use that excuse. But meeting a demand? Really?

Published in: on January 12, 2010 at 8:51 am  Comments (3)  

Truth

To most observers, Dawkins is the textbook aggressive champion of evolutionary theory. His new book, The Greatest Show on Earth, is intended to amass the scientific testimony for evolution in one place, answering creationist critics who say there is no evidence that evolution by natural selection has ever taken place. In person, Dawkins fails to live up to the “aggressive” label.

The Greatest Show on Earth tackles more controversial matters, too. Included is a transcript of his 2008 interview with Wendy Wright from Concerned Women for America, an out-and-out creationist who simply denies the existence of evidence for human evolution. As Dawkins urges her repeatedly to visit any museum and see the skulls and skeletons for herself, she simply ignores him and repeats her own orthodoxy. “Why is it so important to you that everyone believes in evolution?” she asks, almost plaintively. “I am a lover of truth,” he simply tells me. [1]

While I sympathise with his efforts to refute irrational creationists, I am astonished that anyone can claim to be a lover of truth and yet fail to study philosophy, at least to some extent.

Truth is one of the central subjects in philosophy. It is also one of the largest. Truth has been a topic of discussion in its own right for thousands of years. Moreover, a huge variety of issues in philosophy relate to truth, either by relying on theses about truth, or implying theses about truth. [2]

Dawkins, it appears, is ignorant of all such work: he switches between various different truth theories as it pleases him, apparently without even noticing that he does so. Sometimes he seems to adhere to some sort of correspondence theory, sometimes a pragmatist theory, sometimes it isn’t clear what he means. [3]

It is odd that someone should make a career out of antagonising others, ostensibly because he thinks that they are mistaken and he cares deeply about being correct, without ever wondering what it means to be correct.

A couple of months ago, Bruce Charlton published an article entitled Is Atheism Literally a Delusion? [4] in which he attempts to counter Dawkins’ claim that belief in the existence of God is delusory by arguing that, in fact, atheism is a delusion. He employs a pragmatic theory of truth to do this, which Bill Vallicella criticises in his latest article: Is There a ‘No God’ Delusion? [5]

I believe that to be true is to reveal some aspect of the world as it really is. This is similar in some respects to a correspondence theory of truth, according to which a proposition is true if and only if it corresponds to the way things really are. For example, the proposition “snow is white” is true if and only if snow really is white. However, I find such theories inadequate in that they fail to capture the truth of myth. A story, although it might be classified as fictional by a correspondence theory of truth, may yet reveal some truth about the world: a truth, moreover, that may not be expressible in any system of formal logic.

That some genuine truths are extralogical should not, I think, be controversial. But it can be rigorously demonstrated anyway: Bill Vallicella has argued at some length, in book and article and blog, that existence is extralogical. [6] J. R. Lucas has shown that reason in general is not rule bound: rationality impels us to accept inductive arguments as well as arguments to the “best explanation”:

If reason is universal, it can reason about reason itself, and from self-referential reasoning, it emerges that it is not possible to set bounds to reason, and in particular that metaphysical argument is not beyond the bounds of reason. Deductive argument gives rise not only to recursive arguments, but to Gödel’s self-referential theorems; and inductive arguments merge into Inference to the Best Explanation, sometimes invoking entities beyond the bounds of possible experience. Practical reasoning leads on to empathy and moral argument, and they in turn lead to the humane insight of the humanities, and varieties of political, legal and judicial argument. Gödel’s theorem shows that even with deductive argument, we cannot formalise completely; however far we formalise our rules of inference, there will still be some inference which is clearly valid but does not fall under any of the rules thus far formulated. Even deductive argument is fuzzy-edged, and the transition from one type of inductive argument to another shows that the same holds good for inductive arguments about matters of fact and their explanation; and counts against the contention that reason cannot lead on to the various styles of practical argument.

We can go further. The simple argument of the Logical Positivists against metaphysics does not work. If metaphysics could be ruled out by the Verification Principle, so too would the Verification Principle itself. Similarly, any claim to set a boundary to reason can be challenged. Clearly, if the bounds of reason are so tightly drawn as to exclude philosophical argument, the claim will exclude any possible justification of itself. But more generally, in order to determine the boundary exactly, it will need to specify what lies beyond it and is to be excluded, as well as what lies within it and is to be included. And if the boundary is really a boundary reason cannot overstep, reason will be precluded from stepping over it, to specify precisely what is to be excluded. Reason itself, then, is unbounded. We have a negative, self-referential argument, analogous to the negative, self-referential mathematical argument underlying Gödel’s theorem, against any claim that reason can be corralled within any antecedently set limit, and are led to a crucial conclusion. Reason is not “thin”. [7]

This suggests to me that a correspondence theory of truth can only capture part of the nature of truth. Clearly the sentence “snow is white” does reveal some aspect of reality if it is the case that snow really is white. But equally some other sentence, or more likely a story, although it may not simply correspond to an empirical judgment about the world, may reveal some aspect of the world as it really is.

We could, perhaps, still call this a correspondence theory of truth, in as much as our hypothetical story expresses something that is true if and only if that something corresponds to reality. However, I think to call it such may be misleading. I do not mean to suggest that the story must be metaphorical or allegorical, like a parable, in which case its meaning might be otherwise expressed but we have chosen to use a story for didactic reasons, but rather that the story is itself true just as it is. I think this is the distinguishing mark of myth, in contrast to allegory or fable.

Heidegger espoused a concept of truth, which he called alétheia, that captures a similar idea of revealing or unveiling reality. But whereas he juxtaposed this with the correspondence theories of truth, I would rather attempt to include them. I find Heidegger’s theory of truth appealing because it allows myth and art in general to be true in more than a weak, metaphorical sense. However, if it cannot also accommodate the sort of truths that a correspondence theory can accommodate (e.g. snow is white) then it is just as inadequate as those theories that cannot accommodate the truth of myth.

I would like to formulate a theory of truth that includes simple correspondences between propositions and reality, so that the proposition “snow is white” can be counted as true if snow really is white, but which also recognises such simple correspondences as being only particular instances of a larger conception of truth, a conception not unlike the Heideggerian unveiling or revealing of reality, so that a myth that reveals truth is recognised as such.

One might perhaps start by making reference to J. R. R. Tolkien’s theory of Secondary Creation, as espoused in his essay On Fairy-Stories [8]. A myth might then be said to be a story consisting of propositions that correspond to how things really are in a secondary world. Tolkien alludes to the power of secondary worlds to shed light upon the nature of the primary world, thus a proposition that is true in a secondary world according to a correspondence theory of truth might be said to be unqualifiedly true in as much as it reveals some aspect of primary reality.

Such a theory of truth would be dependent on a full explication of the relationship between Secondary and Primary Creation, which is not only outside the scope of a single blog article but also perhaps best understood by reading what Tolkien has already written.


[1] Richard Dawkins: ‘Strident? Do they mean me?’, interview by Emma Townshend, The Independent on Sunday, 4th October 2009. Available online: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/richard-dawkins-strident-do-they-mean-me-1796244.html

[2] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Truth, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/truth/

[3] For example, see my earlier blog post: Simulations

[4] Christianity explored: Is Atheism literally a delusion?, http://scientistsconsideringchristianity.blogspot.com/2009/10/is-atheism-literally-delusion_150.html

[5] Maverick Philosopher: Is There a ‘No God’ Delusion?, http://maverickphilosopher.typepad.com/maverick_philosopher/2010/01/is-there-a-no-god-delusion.html

[6] A Paradigm Theory of Existence: Onto-Theology Vindicated by William F. Vallicella, Springer, 2002. For examples of his many blog posts on the topic, see Maverick Philosopher: Pavel Tichý on Existence (http://maverickphilosopher.typepad.com/maverick_philosopher/2009/10/pavel-tich%C3%BD-on-existence.html) and Maverick Philosopher: Nausea at Existence (http://maverickphilosopher.typepad.com/maverick_philosopher/2009/11/nausea-at-existence.html) among others.

[7] Reason and Reality by J. R. Lucas, available online: http://users.ox.ac.uk/~jrlucas/

[8] Tree and Leaf: Including “Mythopoeia” by J. R. R. Tolkien, HarperCollins, 2001.

Published in: on January 10, 2010 at 7:34 am  Leave a Comment