Friday, March 1, 2013

The Truth Is Out There, We Just Can't Reach It

I used to debate theists on the merits of evolution, the origins of the universe, and the foundations of morality. I never thought I’d say it, but those were the good ol’ days. I’ve had seven of my last ten apologetic opponents throw literally everything into question as soon as they realized they weren’t debating a newb. It's finally happened. They've come to the conclusion that there’s only one defensive strategy when the entirety of human knowledge is mounting against their belief: to throw human knowledge under the bus.

Epistemology (\i-ˌpis-tə-ˈmä-lə-jē\) is the study of the nature and grounds of knowledge especially with reference to its limits and validity. Apologists have their own theory on the validity of knowledge--that is, knowledge is only valid when grounded in the divine. There is no truth, only Truth. The capital “T” relates the word to the imaginary and changes the definition to the less accepted yet, in their minds, more accurate attribute and/or synonym of God.

The apologist is applying the philosophical argument that objective truth is impossible to determine to the naturalistic worldview. This speaks to my aversion to pointless philosophy, and yet, I must admit, I can’t refute their claim. When I take into account thought experiments in which our reality could be an elaborate holographic simulation or our brains could be drugged and electrically stimulated to perceive things that are false, I intellectually have no choice but to accept that any objective truth is out of my jurisdiction. Where the apologist goes wrong is their claim of exception.

Any philosophical argument for why I can’t know what I believe can also be applied to Catholics, Fundamentalists, Mormons, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Taoists, Scientologists, Buddhists, Pagans, Occultists, Rastafarians, whatever. In a naturalistic framework, we are all in the same uncertain boat. Claiming divine revelation of capital “T” Truth isn’t an argument based on reason or logic, it’s a claim of exception based on probable myth--which tends to be unconvincing to those who actually value reason and logic. Moreover, believers face further uncertainty simply by subscribing to a supernatural worldview. Sure, their brains could be in something as pedestrian as vats, but also could their brains be telepathically manipulated by any number of magical entities (gods included,) forever beyond our ability to quantify. For the supernaturalist, all bets are off, giving any epistemological high ground to the naturalist.

While I can’t deny philosophical uncertainty, I see no reason to apply it. Absolute truth is beyond our grasp, fine. Then there’s no point in trying to grasp it. I’m pragmatic. If something looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck--that’s good enough for me. It’s a duck--especially if others agree. There is something to be said for consensus reality. Essential truth is what we can ascertain about our consensus reality, and science is the most objective method to ascertaining this truth. When I say something is true, I mean it is the best, most objective data available. It’s not capital “T” Truth, but then nothing is.


  1. Oh, how I loathe the epistemological defense. I'm not sure if I ever thought to try turning it around on them though. That's a great idea! :-)

  2. Do you consider the Flying Spaghetti Monster to be "probable myth" as well?

    If you do, I won't be reading this blog anymore. ;)

    1. The FSM is, at the very least, subjective truth. :-)

  3. Apologists play the skeptical card when they start losing a debate and this is highly dishonest because they don't actually believe that all faiths are equal or that all positions are equal. They are more than happy to make reasoned arguments when they have a script to follow. But force them to deviate from their scripts and *BOOOOommmmm* suddenly reason is no longer a means to the truth and we truly cannot know anything because everything is a matter of faith.

    Most of this debate arose over philosophers arguing over whether the senses or reason was the most reliable means to human knowledge. The former position is called empiricism and latter is rationalism. Rationalists say our senses cannot be fully trusted and that we are clearly limited in what our scenes can perceive. Empiricists argue that reason is unreliable; we cannot even be certain we are not dreaming.

    Then philosophers like Kant started to reconcile the two. Kant agreed with the empiricists that all our knowledge about the world comes from our senses. But our reason also contributes by determining how we see the world. If you put on a pair of sun glasses, then your senses will tell you the world has gone dark. But reason knows the world has not actually gone dark because you are wearing dark glasses. Reason and empiricism are not actually in conflict.

    Objective usually means 'existing outside the human mind' but reason of course does not exist outside the human mind; rather it is a property of the human mind. So talk of objective knowledge or objective truth is usually a category mistake. Knowledge is the intersection of the human mind with the natural world - It's how we see and understand and communicate the world. It's neither objective nor subjective, but a property of our species.

    1. Great comment. I try to take them off script as often as possible.

    2. Stephen Law is very good on this point. He calls playing the skeptic card 'going nuclear' because it destroys the battlefield.
      Stephen Law blog

  4. Isn't it logically impossible for absolute truth not to exist? Consider that if it doesn't, that would itself be an absolute truth and so it seems that it must exist.

    With my debating with theists, the problem I have is semantics. They always define their terms is such ways that make their irrational stance seem more plausible, and so we always end up debating the definition and meaning of terms.

    1. As the title of the post implies, I'm sure there is absolute truth, but it may be beyond our ability to determine--in a philosophical sense, that is.

  5. Getting, and maintaining, clarity and stability in the semantics is, as suggested by The Thinker, quite difficult.

    Don't give up.

    Without endorsing any position, see this article & site:

    Critical Idealism (neo-Kantian)

    Don't miss the long article on the site entitled, "Critical Idealim and Religion."

    I consider myself more of transcendental critical realist, but that's a story for another time. Good blog post!

  6. Very nice post!

    Next argument I have with a theist, I think I will cut straight to lil jon's position. Then the argument will distill itself to Howie Mandel's old bit, "What? What?".


  7. Very deep thinking on a subject you correctly state there is no possible way for humanity to know the true answer to. Exactly why there has to be an argument is what I don't understand. Those that use faith as reason you are not going to change any faster than the Romans could change the minds of martyrs. Those that claim science proves those who reason with faith are wrong...are just as wrong. We each have the birth right to decide for ourselves what we want to believe about what our life is about.

  8. > But when I lie to myself with compliance to someone else's perception, my annoying mind doesn't allow me to get away with it. It keeps showing me pictures of what's wrong with the instant theory I was willing to accept.

    Nope, not from Anna Maria's comment above but from her own blog here. I'm a little new to cross-blogging, so I hope I didn't violate any protocols, but her statement seemed so appropriate here.

    I think there are absolute truths, but no absolute ways, as yet, of confirming the big metaphysical ones (nor many of the little metaphysical ones, either, for that matter). It's the name of the game. A bit like craps, or poker.

  9. So . . . as someone who does a lot of work in epistemology I have a few things to say.

    First, "truth" ought to begin with a capital "T" only when it's at the beginning of a sentence. A sentence is true if it says something that's actually the case (This very very broadly a correspondence theory of truth. However the details end up being cashed out, most philosophers accept something basically like this). So, "the cat is on the mat" is true iff the cat is on the mat.

    “Objective truth” is somewhat of a redundancy, since “relative truth” is somewhat of a contradiction. Insofar as something is true, it is true for all of us, since, though we are embedded in different cultures and traditions, we all inhabit the same world.

    We can think of a given belief as a sort of commitment to the truth of a particular sentence. A belief is a sort of taking-true. So, if I believe that Paris is in France, I'm committed to the truth of the sentence "Paris is in France" in the same way that if I assert "Paris is in France" I'm committed to the truth of what I assert.

    A given belief is knowledge if it is warranted (I use "warranted" rather than the traditional "justified" because "justified" ends up getting confusing and over-intellectualizes the issue) and actually true. Since we are largely rational beings that understand the world in certain ways (evidenced by the fact that we can have reasonable discussion with others about the *world we share) most of our beliefs must, in fact, be true. If most of our beliefs were false, we'd be like fish out of water, constantly bumping into things, unable to make sense of the world at all! And, warranted by this explanation (once again, however the details end up being cashed out), most of our beliefs must be knowledge.

    Most people working in contemporary epistemology endorse a fallibilist conception of knowledge. Fallibilism is the thesis that we don't need to absolutely certain of something in order for it to count as knowledge. Since I'm not absolutely certain of any empirical fact, if I equated knowledge with absolutely certainty, I'd have to say that I don't know anything, and that's patently absurd. I know lots of things, and everyday understanding and competence attests to this.

    Is it possible that most of our beliefs are false? I don't think so. The author brings up the possibility of a sort of Matrix scenario. Is this an actual possibility? I'm not sure. Either way, whether the universe is physical or a digital simulation, it's real. If we're in a simulation, it just so happens that the objects we're talking about and interacting with are virtual rather than physical but they're still just as real. David Chalmers has argued this point saying that the Matrix hypothesis is a metaphysical rather than epistemological argument.

    So yes. We have a lot of true beliefs, most of which are knowledge. Epistemologists are working to figure out the details on how it all works, but the general picture really isn't that hard to get a grasp on. Saying "I don't really know anything," or "We'll never really know what's true" is just plain silly. Skepticism of this sort should have ended with Hume.