Traditionally, truth means the correspondence of the mind with reality. In this sense, truth is formally an aspect of propositions or judgments. But there are other ways in which the word “truth” can be understood. One of these is the pragmatic model of truth, according to which the truth of something is assessed in terms of its functional value or its usefulness. Another is the disclosure model of truth, according to which truth is that which manifests or “unconceals” itself. For example, a great work of art or literature can have such a profound effect on us that we are immediately certain that a new depth of reality, previously unknown, has now been revealed to us. This experience of truth as disclosure is most naturally congenial to the idea of religious revelation, though in a limited sense the correspondence and pragmatic models may also be used in our assessment of its truth status.

If there is truth in religion or in revelation it would fall, primarily at least, in the category of “manifestation” or “disclosure.” In this case, it would be inappropriate to employ the notion of truth as correspondence of mind and reality, since by definition the content of revelation far surpasses the adequacy of our own minds. As in art, music, and poetry, the truth of revelation is not something that we might arrive at in the same way as scientific or logical truth. It is, instead, a truth that grasps us by its disclosive power. We could hardly subject it to our verificational control, but would instead be required humbly to surrender ourselves to it in order to encounter its content.

Still, after acknowledging this obvious fact, we are nonetheless obliged to determine whether there is a positive relationship between revelation and scientifically enlightened reason which employs the correspondence notion of truth. If these are in conflict, as indeed they seem to many critics to be, then the notion of revelation will not be taken seriously by intelligent people. We must at the very least establish that revelation does not contradict science and reason. And if we could go further, and demonstrate that a trust in revelation actually supports the work of science and reason, we would have taken a further step in responding to the skeptics.

— John F. Haught, Mystery and Promise: A Theology of Revelation, Chapter 11: Reason and Revelation (available online)

Published in: on February 28, 2010 at 10:28 am  Leave a Comment  


The ancient British bards had for the title of their order, “Those who are free throughout the world.” They are free, and they make free. An imaginative book renders us much more service at first, by stimulating us through its tropes, than afterward, when we arrive at the precise sense of the author. I think nothing is of any value in books, excepting the transcendental and extraordinary. If a man is inflamed and carried away by his thought, to that degree that he forgets the authors and the public, and heeds only this one dream, which holds him like an insanity, let me read his paper, and you may have all the arguments and histories and criticism. All the value which attaches to Pythagoras, Paracelsus, Cornelius Agrippa, Cardan, Kepler, Swedenborg, Schelling, Oken, or any other who introduces questionable facts into his cosmogony, as angels, devils, magic, astrology, palmistry, mesmerism, and so on, is the certificate we have of departure from routine, and that here is a new witness. That also is the best success in conversation, the magic of liberty, which puts the world, like a ball, in our hands. How cheap even the liberty then seems; how mean to study, when an emotion communicates to the intellect the power to sap and upheave nature: how great the perspective! nations, times, systems, enter and disappear, like threads in tapestry of large figure and many colors; dream delivers us to dream, and, while the drunkenness lasts, we will sell our bed, our philosophy, our religion, in our opulence.

There is good reason why we should prize this liberation. The fate of the poor shepherd, who, blinded and lost in the snow-storm, perishes in a drift within a few feet of his cottage door, is an emblem of the state of man. On the brink of the waters of life and truth, we are miserably dying. The inaccessibleness of every thought but that we are in, is wonderful. What if you come near to it, —you are as remote, when you are nearest, as when you are farthest. Every thought is also a prison; every heaven is also a prison. Therefore we love the poet, the inventor, who in any form, whether in an ode, or in an action, or in looks and behavior, has yielded us a new thought. He unlocks our chains, and admits us to a new scene.

This emancipation is dear to all men, and the power to impart it, as it must come from greater depth and scope of thought, is a measure of intellect. Therefore all books of the imagination endure, all which ascend to that truth, that the writer sees nature beneath him, and uses it as his exponent. Every verse or sentence, possessing this virtue, will take care of its own immortality. The religions of the world are the ejaculations of a few imaginative men.

But the quality of the imagination is to flow, and not to freeze. The poet did not stop at the color, or the form, but read their meaning; neither may he rest in this meaning, but he makes the same objects exponents of his new thought. Here is the difference betwixt the poet and the mystic, that the last nails a symbol to one sense, which was a true sense for a moment, but soon becomes old and false. For all symbols are fluxional; all language is vehicular and transitive, and is good, as ferries and horses are, for conveyance, not as farms and houses are, for homestead. Mysticism consists in the mistake of an accidental and individual symbol for an universal one. The morning-redness happens to be the favorite meteor to the eyes of Jacob Behmen, and comes to stand to him for truth and faith; and he believes should stand for the same realities to every reader. But the first reader prefers as naturally the symbol of a mother and child, or a gardener and his bulb, or a jeweller polishing a gem. Either of these, or of a myriad more, are equally good to the person to whom they are significant. Only they must be held lightly, and be very willingly translated into the equivalent terms which others use. And the mystic must be steadily told, —All that you say is just as true without the tedious use of that symbol as with it. Let us have a little algebra, instead of this trite rhetoric, —universal signs, instead of these village symbols, —and we shall both be gainers. The history of hierarchies seems to show, that all religious error consisted in making the symbol too stark and solid, and, at last, nothing but an excess of the organ of language.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, pp. 342 – 345 (Signet Classics: 2003)

Published in: on February 21, 2010 at 10:58 pm  Leave a Comment  

Egalitarian Epistemology

Egalitarianism supposes that the same knowledge is in principle available to us all. For example, although you may not understand advanced mathematics, it is claimed that you could understand it, if only you spent enough time studying it. But this is not true. Not everyone is capable of mathematical genius, whether by nature or nurture. The truths of mathematics may be rational but only a relatively few gifted people possess the ability to see them. One need only make a cursory survey of the popular understanding of science to see that, for all its supposed objectivity and openness, the vast majority do not understand even a shred of scientific theory. The general understanding of philosophy is even worse.

The examples I give are biased towards the rational, intellectual areas of life: I have said nothing about art. But the situation here is much the same. Most people, and I include myself in this category, have a very poor grasp of artistic expression. I am ashamed to admit it but I honestly do not think I know how to read poetry properly. Furthermore, even among those who study the arts, it is clear that some people have a deeper and more intuitive understanding than others.

It simply is not true that all forms of knowledge are equally available to all people. Through natural inclination and aptitude, through education and training, people differ wildly in their capacities for diverse forms of knowledge. It is a rare person indeed who can excel in all the arts and sciences.

And yet, for some reason, we are inclined to treat the claims of scientists as objective while we dismiss the claims of saints and mystics as subjective. If a Buddhist must practice a regime of meditation for many years before he is able to perceive the truth of Buddhism, does that invalidate his truth? A scientist must also undergo many years of training before he can perceive the truths of science. Scientific truths are just as unintelligible to the layman as religious truths are to the uninitiated.

Religions make many claims whose truth is not obvious to me. However, I must admit that the claims of most scientists are also not obviously true either. I have almost no training at all in most sciences, very little training in mathematics (most of what I used to know I have since forgotten) and yet, for some reason, I blithely accept the claims of scientific orthodoxy while doubting the claims of religions.

I think the reason for this is merely that there is a simple procedure for deciding between competing scientific claims, which religions lack. Although I do not understand mathematical physics, I can see for myself that the predictions of physicists are quite accurate. I would not be able to type this article on my laptop if that were not the case. Similarly, I do not understand the principles behind aeronautics but I believe they are valid for the simple reason that I have flown in an aeroplane.

Whereas science has recourse to experiment, religion does not. There are many religions, most of which contradict each other. How does one decide which religious claims are true and which are false?

To the extent that a claim falls within the realm of logic, one can employ metaphysical reasoning to distinguish the incoherent from the coherent. But this method is limited. It leads, in my reasoned opinion, to theism, but it does not lead to any particular religion. Here I would be prepared to defer to an authority with greater power to judge such things than I have. I do not, a priori, assume that the claims of holy men have no validity. Indeed, it seems quite likely to me that some people have privileged access to spiritual knowledge, just as some people have privileged access to mathematical knowledge. But when the mystics disagree with one another, how does one decide between them?

Bill Vallicella recently expressed this crisis quite pithily: “The modern mind won’t allow in any Transcendence that cannot be certified, whose epistemological certificate of authenticity cannot be produced on demand, to put it vaguely but suggestively.” [1]

There is something very modern about this egalitarian epistemology, this demand that even though only a few talented and educated individuals may be able to discover and truly understand truths, everyone must be able to authenticate them. The Royal Society, the oldest scientific academy in existence, has as its motto, “Nullius in Verba”. [2] Translated literally, “There is nothing in words”, which is perhaps more readily understood colloquially, “Take nobody’s word for it.” This motto epitomises the scientific revolution: no claim is to be accepted without evidence; experiment is the final and only reliable arbiter of truth.

When it comes to the natural world, it is hard to argue against such a motto. People are fallible creatures, much prone to flights of fancy and egotistical guarding of their own pet theories, not to mention corruption by great political and financial temptations, such that the human understanding of the natural world makes very little progress towards truth when it is not held on course by strict reference to the natural world itself. However, such an approach cuts us off from any knowledge that cannot be tested by experiment.

[1] William Vallicella, Maverick Philosopher: Professor Anderson and the Hyper-Inscrutability of the Trinitarian Doctrine (Peter Lupu)

[2] See the Royal Society website: What is the Royal Society?

Published in: on February 19, 2010 at 9:19 pm  Leave a Comment  


Thanks to the Language Log, I have just discovered Sidney Morgenbesser. Here’s a quotation to whet your appetite:

To B.F. Skinner, “Let me see if I understand your thesis. You think we shouldn’t anthropomorphize people?”

Published in: on February 19, 2010 at 8:17 pm  Leave a Comment  

Feynman’s Hierarchies

We have a way of discussing the world, when we talk of it at various hierarchies, or levels. Now I do not mean to be very precise, dividing the world into definite levels, but I will indicate, by describing a set of ideas, what I mean by hierarchies of ideas.

For example, at one end we have the fundamental laws of physics. Then we invent other terms for concepts which are approximate, which have, we believe, their ultimate explanation in terms of the fundamental laws. For instance, ‘heat’. Heat is supposed to be jiggling, and the word for a hot thing is just the word for a mass of atoms which are jiggling. But for a while, if we are talking about heat, we sometimes forget about the atoms jiggling — just as when we talk about the glacier we do not always think of the hexagonal ice and the snowflakes which originally fell. Another example of the same thing is a salt crystal. Looked at fundamentally it is a lot of protons, neutrons, and electrons; but we have this concept ‘salt crystal’, which carries a whole pattern already of fundamental interactions. An idea like pressure is the same.

Now if we go higher up from this, in another level we have properties of substances — like ‘refractive index’, how light is bent when it goes through something; or ‘surface tension’, the fact that water tends to pull itself together, both of which are described by numbers. I remind you that we have to go through several laws down to find out that it is the pull of the atoms, and so on. But we still say ‘surface tension’, and do not always worry, when discussing surface tension, about the inner workings.

On, up in the hierarchy. With the water we have waves, and we have a thing like a storm, the word ‘storm’ which represents an enormous mass of phenomena, or a ‘sun spot’, or ‘star’, which is an accumulation of things. And it is not worth while always to think of it way back. In fact we cannot, because the higher up we go the more steps we have in between, each one of which is a little weak. We have not thought them all through yet.

As we go up in the hierarchy of complexity, we get to things like muscle twitch, or nerve impulse, which is an enormously complicated thing in the physical world, involving an organization of matter in a very elaborate complexity. Then come things like ‘frog’.

And then we go on, and we come to words and concepts like ‘man’, and ‘history’, or ‘political expediency’, and so forth, a series of concepts which we use to understand things at an ever higher level.

And going on, we come to things like evil, and beauty, and hope…

Which end is nearer to God; if I may use a religious metaphor. Beauty and hope, or the fundamental laws? I think that the right way, of course, is to say that what we have to look at is the whole structural interconnection of the thing; and that all the sciences, and not just the sciences but all the efforts of intellectual kinds, are an endeavour to see the connections of the hierarchies, to connect beauty to history, to connect history to man’s psychology, man’s psychology to the working of the brain, the brain to the neural impulse, the neural impulse to the chemistry, and so forth, up and down, both ways. And today we cannot, and it is no use making believe that we can, draw carefully a line all the way from one end of things to the other, because we have only just begun to see that there is this relative hierarchy.

And I do not think either end is nearer to God. To stand at either end, and walk off that end of the pier only, hoping that out in that direction is the complete understanding, is a mistake. And to stand with evil and beauty and hope, or to stand with the fundamental laws, hoping that way to get a deep understanding of the whole world, with that aspect alone, is a mistake. It is not sensible for the ones who specialize at one end, and the ones who specialize at the other end, to have such disregard for each other. (They don’t actually, but people say they do.) The great mass of workers in between, connecting one step to another, are improving all the time our understanding of the world, both from working at the ends and working in the middle, and in that way we are gradually understanding this tremendous world of interconnecting hierarchies.

— Richard Feynman, the 1964 Messenger Lectures at Cornell University, published as The Character of Physical Law (The Modern Library, New York, 1994).

It isn’t clear to me whether Feynman was a reductionist or not. At times he seems to suggest that we could explain everything in terms of fundamental physical laws, if only we understood the connections between different levels of the hierarchy better than we do now. At other times, he seems to appreciate that although we can move up and down the hierarchy, each level has its own irreducible form of explanation: “up and down, both ways.” J. R. Lucas discusses reductionism, both ontological and explanatory, in chapter 13 of his book, Reason and Reality.

Some of you may recall that I once claimed the world was like an onion…

Published in: on February 17, 2010 at 8:47 am  Leave a Comment  

Ash Wednesday

I sadly missed Pancake Day (or Shrove Tuesday, as some would have it) but given my work schedule at the moment I doubt I would have had time to make pancakes even if I had remembered. However, thanks to prompting from others, I have been planning my lenten fast for a while.

I shall give up alcohol for Lent this year. It will be difficult, since after a long day at work I look forward to a bottle of IPA when I get home, but there wouldn’t be any point if it weren’t. I shall ruin the symbolism by exchanging a Sunday of respite for a weekday in March but only because I shall be drinking champagne in celebration on that day, which those who know the reason would not begrudge me.

Published in: on February 17, 2010 at 8:13 am  Leave a Comment  

Non-physical Minds

I was going to write this up as a proper argument. I probably will at some point. However, for the time being, here is a sketch of an argument which appears to conclusively demonstrate the non-physical nature of the mind. Please let me know if you spot a flaw.

First, a definition. By ‘physical’ I mean that which is amenable to the science of physics. Contemporary physics is essentially a body of mathematical theorems and models applied to empirical data. The ‘physical world’ consists of everything in the world that is amenable to mathematical treatment. That which is not mathematical is deemed not to exist, or to have some sort of lesser existence.

Now, if anything physical is essentially mathematical, it could be simulated on a computer. Of course, in practice, we lack the hardware necessary to simulate anything large or complex realistically. We use approximations, we take short-cuts and so on. But, in theory, we could write a computer program to simulate a physical system completely.

Therefore, if the mind is physical it could be simulated on a computer. It is not necessary to identify the mind with the brain but, for the sake of example, let’s do that. Then all we would have to do is to map the brain accurately enough — maybe with some new scanning technique, or nanobots, or whatever — and use the data obtained to construct a software model. That model would then be functionally equivalent to the brain, hence it would be a mind.

However, all computer programs can be represented in the lambda calculus. And anything in the lambda calculus is equivalent, via a Curry-Howard isomorphism, with a logical proof — specifically, a proof in first-order logic.

But first-order logic is incapable of expressing things that the mind can express. Famously, Gödel proved that any first-order system will contain sentences that are not provable within that system yet are obviously true. That is to say, a human mind can see that they are true but they cannot be proved within the system itself. J.R. Lucas explains this well: take a look at his article Minds, Machines and Gödel for a more detailed exposition of this bit of the argument. (Also note that, according to Tarski, truth itself cannot be expressed within a logical system.)

Lucas says, “Gödel’s theorem seems to me to prove that Mechanism is false, that is, that minds cannot be explained as machines.” However, based on what I have said above, I wish to go further:

1. If minds are physical then they can be explained as machines.

2. Gödel’s theorem shows that minds cannot be explained as machines.

3. Therefore, minds are not physical.

This does not necessarily entail dualism. All it means is that minds are not physical in the sense that they cannot be completely described by physical science. However, that does mean that the physical world is not the whole world.


Published in: on February 9, 2010 at 9:42 pm  Leave a Comment  


If extraterrestrial life exists, and that life has evolved to a level of intelligence similar to that of humanity, which would imply that it exhibits free will to the same extent that humans do, then what would Christian theology have to say about its redemption? Was God’s only begotten Son killed and resurrected on Earth that aliens might enjoy eternal life? Would such alien lifeforms still exist in an unfallen state of grace? Would they be guilty of original sin with no hope of redemption?

At the beginning of the Space Age, these and similar questions were seriously tackled by Catholic theologians. In 1999, Professor Allen Tough organized a conference for the Foundation for The Future in order to investigate the possible impact of contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence. The results of that conference are available for free online. Section V contains a fascinating paper entitled “Roman Catholic Views of Extraterrestrial Intelligence”.

Meanwhile, the Hubble telescope has photographed a strange dust pattern, moving at 11,000 mph, which looks remarkably like a science-fiction spacecraft.

Published in: on February 7, 2010 at 7:43 pm  Leave a Comment  


This is disturbing.

Published in: on February 5, 2010 at 2:20 am  Comments (1)