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.

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

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