"What embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism." - G.K. Chesterton

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Objective Truth

I’ve been mulling over the issue of ‘objective truth’ – i.e. truth which exists above and beyond our opinions and perceptions.

The big problem I have with this notion is that I can’t see how, even if it existed, we could ever have access to such truth: our knowledge of the “external” world is subjective, and therefore any knowledge we could have of ‘objective truth’ would be the same.

Some have suggested that ‘objective truth’ and ‘God’s truth’ are the same thing – so if we know the latter we have the former. However, we can’t escape from the fact that any knowledge of God would also be subjective – so we’re back where we started.

Any thoughts?

Labels: ,


Blogger revvvvvvvd said...

Enter the scientist...and critical realist.

Scientists aren't philosophers of science, although some of us become philosophers of science. As such, not too much sophistication should be expected of us.

Most of us are critical realists. As realists, we think there is a "world out there." An "objective" world, if you must call it that. And we think that science is the best (or one of the best) methods to bringing our knowledge of the world closer to the reality of the world.

But, as critical realists, we are not naive to the skeptic's cry, "But you could be wrong." Indeed, we admit as much. And without being pragmatists, we try and say, "Well...science seems to work, seems to generate useful results, so there is a sense in which we can trust science even if it's not infallible."

Your last paragraph summarizes the problem of "faith." Religious people say that they know X (e.g. the authority of Scripture) by faith. But what does this mean? Does it mean that a baseless, arbitrary decision has been made to believe in X? It appears that religious people want to say that, "I believe X because God told me so." That is, they appeal to testimony, the best possible testimony: that of God. That is, they believe that X is God's truth, to put it in your words. But you're right, the question remains: How did you know it was God?

A recent unpublished study presented at the Society of Personality and Social Psychology meeting in Tennessee recently found that people often make God in their own image. THey project their beliefs and convictions upon God. It's not just that they believe what they think God believes...when the experimenters manipulated the participants' beliefs, they (the participants) went on to say that God believed the same thing (i.e. the manipulated beliefs).

If you're worried about all this stuff...look up Peter van Inwagen and his ther skeptical theist colleagues. The only problem is their penchant for Plantinga, whom I'm not inclined to endorse.

12:56 PM

Blogger Matt M said...


without being pragmatists, we try and say

I'm reading Rorty's 'Philosophy and Social Hope' at the moment, and though I won't claim to understand more than a fraction of these high-minded philosophical concepts, I can't quite see how you avoid adopting a "Rortian" pragmatic stance - either science is supported because it's proven useful in the past, or because it brings us closer to the "Truth".

If it's the former, then the position is purely a pragmatic one - even if those holding it don't quite want to admit that. If it's the latter than we still need to establish quite how we can conceive of knowledge in a way that isn't subjective, which isn't dependent on how we perceive it.

Personally, I'm with Hume on the issue: there doesn't seem to be anyway of establishing that an "external" world exists, but it proves useful to assume that it does - so all knowledge, regardless of how we treat it, is ultimately subjective.

7:02 AM

Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

'But, as critical realists, we are not naive to the skeptic's cry, "But you could be wrong." Indeed, we admit as much.

Absolutely. A common charge is that scientists are too obsessed with the facts when we're not at all; we're obsessed with probability, if anything.

3:43 PM

Blogger james higham said...

It's observable all round us. As JC said: 'for those with eyes to see'.

5:22 AM

Blogger Matt M said...

An observation is subjective though.

6:47 AM

Blogger revvvvvvvd said...


I don't disagree at all. With Hume and yourself, I don't think we can know (in the strongest sense possible) that there exists a world beyond our perceptions of it. But it's in our best interests to assume that there is. Of course, where we are justified in making such assumptions is fair game for philosophers of science. And once we've established some pragmatic or prudential reasons for making this assumption, we have to deal with Kant's assumption that God exists. He think there are pragmatic/prudential reasons to assume that God exists. Are there? Maybe.


Well said: We're obsessed with probabilities...and in my field, correlations. My supervisor (and boss) likes to say, "In social psychology, the things we are confident are true can be counted with two hands." Not exactly accurate, perhaps, but it gives a good picture of what science is really like.

9:26 PM

Blogger Alex said...

I see the point you are trying to make. You are saying that even if there is an objective truth we still need to rely on our senses to perceive said truth. Our senses require interpretation, our interpretation allows for error, therefore how can we really know we have achieved knowledge of an objective truth?

Like Revvvvvvd said, in the strongest sense possible I don't believe you can ever be that certain of anything.

The next question is then, how far do you take this skepticism?

When crossing the street and you see a bus coming, you assume there "really is" a bus coming. If you hadn't learned to trust your sense at least to that degree you'd have been dead long ago.

Then jumping from the mundane to the metaphysical, your life experience has lead you to realize that something does not bring it's self into existence. Each thing that is, is dependent upon something for it's existence. You are dependent upon your parents, they upon theirs, on down the chain to the beginning of the universe it's self. Where did that come from?

For anything to exist at all there needs to be a being or force that is not dependent upon anything else for it's existence. Enter the concept of eternity. An eternal source of energy. An eternal source of life.

To me and many others this seems quite intuitive. Sure I could be wrong, perhaps my senses have not yet developed to the point of being able to realize certain variables that would otherwise explain my existence as a conscious agent.

I guess all I'm trying to say is that I like you have used my life experience to gauge which types of assumptions are worth holding onto and which ones are based on false premises. Working from that I can see the necessity of God. Do I have an ultimate guarantee that I am correct? Nope, but neither do you. I put my faith in God. You put your faith in yourself, which without God will ultimately come to nothing...

unless, of course, God is true and you were made for more than plant food, then He will do with you what seems right in His eyes. I will not presume to know the answer to that question.

12:49 PM

Blogger revvvvvvvd said...

Here is the atheist's response to the cosmological argument:

1. The existence of the Universe is not a contingent fact (i.e., it is a necesary fact).

2. Even if it were contingent, the existence of the Universe would be a brute, contingent fact. It requires no explanation.

3. Even if it required explanation, the theist has not shown that God is the best/only explanation for the existence of the Universe.

4. Even if the theist has shown that God is blablabla, he has not shown that God ends the quest for explanations? Is God's existence necessary? Does that fall into the ontological argument's fallacy? Is God's existence contingent but a brute fact? Then why can't the Universe be thus too?

If, Alex, we are going to appeal to the cosmological argument, we have these obstacles to face. Arguing for the contingency of the Universe isn't difficult. Arguing that it requires explanation (i.e., arguing for the Principle of Sufficient Reason) is more difficult, but not impossible. Arguing that God is the best/only explanation is increasingly difficult, but not insurmountable, I think. And arguing that God stops the quest for explanation appears to me to be straightforward but questionable. But I'll leave that up to you.

1:23 PM

Blogger Matt M said...

Alex and Revvvvvvvd,

Okay - I'm trying to balance out the glasses of wine I've had with a strong cup of tea, so this might not be too focused.

For anything to exist at all there needs to be a being or force that is not dependent upon anything else for it's existence.

That's a straightforward contradiction though. If everything is contingent, then nothing can be necessary by definition. But, if we say that some things are contingent and others are necessary then we're still no closer to God then we were before.

There's a huge leap of faith between "something caused the universe to come into being" and "God exists". So God isn't necessary at all.

1:50 PM

Blogger Alex said...


Good stuff, I guess personally I don't need to go that far down the road of explanation. Not only that, but I'm not so sure that a super heady "proof" that God is the one and only necessary being that puts an absolute final end to the questions would even convince anyone who didn't already want to be convinced. I am willing to go along with it because to me it fits perfectly with my already established conviction that there is indeed more to this life than mindless matter banging around off the mysterious natural laws. In light of my holistic life experience, including my relationships, my loves, my dreams, my hopes, I see much more reason to believe in a creator God than not. Granted all of that is very emotive and harkens back to a childlike sense of "wonder", but what's to say that in these matters those intuitions are invalid? Of course that's not the only pig I'm riding here. The cosmological argument is by no means illogical. In fact, to my mind, all of the creative ways one can twist around it seem far less probable than there being an intelligence behind it all. Point is, belief can be robustly intellectual if one needs it to be, but for the most part I don't believe people will be won over to belief by clever arguments. Our clever arguments can only go so far on the limited knowledge that we have in this place.

Now don't go taking that as me not being interested in your posting. I am. I just unleashed my mind and let it run for a bit and that's what came out. Also I'm glad the clever arguments are developed. They serve their place. I wish I knew them all better than I do, but it frustrates me to know that no matter how eloquent you are with these the influence it has on one's propensity towards belief seems to be very little.

Take our Good friend Matt for instance. Had he grown up in my situation surrounded by the people I was surrounded with he may very well be sitting where I am today blogging to a crowd of interesting atheists. The same could be said for me if I had his upbringing. I can see this full well, but it does nothing to weaken my faith. If anything it clarifies why Jesus puts such a high premium on loving others. It would seem this experience of love has a much more transforming effect than well executed arguments.

Now for Mr. Matt,
If everything is contingent, then nothing can be necessary by definition.

Come now Matt, can you really imagine a world where everything is infinitely contingent? What is so hard to imagine about a wholly contingent universe created by a necessary being? Sure there's a leap of faith there, but why any more than to believe we are just dumb luck?

I'm still having a hard time understanding why you seem to want to rail so hard against the idea of God. Why do you seem to want to be the product of dumb luck? Is there something about the idea of God that is offensive to you?

9:34 PM

Blogger Matt M said...


Come now Matt, can you really imagine a world where everything is infinitely contingent?

Actually... yes.

It's really no different from the idea of an infinite God.

But when it comes to issues such as the origin of the universe, I'm quite content to acknowledge that, as I'm a fairly advanced primate on an insignificant little lump of rock orbiting a star on the edge of one of the many galaxies in the known universe, I can't expect to have all the answers. So it gets lumped firmly in the 'Unknown' category.

Sure there's a leap of faith there, but why any more than to believe we are just dumb luck?

Chance is always more likely than intention - it requires less to come about. Ockahm's Razor.

I'm still having a hard time understanding why you seem to want to rail so hard against the idea of God.

I'm not exactly railing - and I should point out that YOU started all this by claiming that my life was a meaningless delusion. I'm just standing up for the atheists. Someone has to.

Why do you seem to want to be the product of dumb luck?

To be honest, I really don't care where I came from - it's what happens now that's important. Evolution and the Big Bang are fascinating from an academic point of view though - like an intellectual puzzle.

Is there something about the idea of God that is offensive to you?

Depends what you mean by God.

I have no problem with the idea that there's "something" out there which influenced the direction the universe has taken, but I've yet to see any real evidence that's true.

The Christian God - He of Biblical fame - would be annoying if real, as he seems to have set life up to be as baffling as possible, rather like He's playing with us. If He existed then the least He could do is have the decency to make sense! Lives have been lost and happiness squandered for centuries because He decided that extreme ambiguity is the way to go.

11:46 AM

Blogger Alex said...

I'm not exactly railing

My apologies. Poor use of terminology. To be more accurate I should have said: I don't understand why you wish to maintain such a high degree of skepticism

I'm working on something over lunch here. Hopefully I can finish it and get it posted yet today.

12:03 PM

Blogger revvvvvvvd said...

Infinite contingency...so that's the "the world is a brute fact that requires no explanation" line, a la Russell. And that's fair enough. Liebniz's response to that would be to unleash the Principle of Sufficient Reason. And it is, I think, up to the atheist to show that the PSR is either (a) false or (b) false in this case. Some theists do concede that the PSR is either false or inapplicable to the existnece of the world. I think they're wrong, but whoopdeedoo for me.

I wonder if this 'infinite contingency' is not really a kind of necessity, after all. Theists whou say that God is a necessary beings surely still concede that "it is possible that God does not exist." But doesn't that mean that "there is a possible world in which God does not exist"? And doesn't THAT mean that God is a contingent being? In what sense then, is God necessary? Well, if the ontological argument can show us anything at all, it is that "if God exists, he exists necessarily." But this "necessity" is not the strong kind of necessity (which involves the non-existence of an entity being contradictory/impossible). It's a much weaker sort of necessity. Perhaps an "infinite contingency"?

2:21 PM

Blogger revvvvvvvd said...

Could've sworn I responded to Matt. Again:

That's my point exactly. There's a gap between "The Universe exists" and "God exists." And it's up to Christians to fill that gap, if Flew is right in presuming negative atheism. I think he is for precisely the reason you mention: Parsimony. A world without God is more parsimonious than the world with God.

And this leads a little into why I think the PSR holds. Ockham's Razor (why do we call it that? Aquinas mentioned a similar principle long before Ockham!) is a principle for which we have pragmatic reasons to apply. Are there really good deductive or inductive arguments for it? Possibly, but they are never employed. Likewise, the PSR is crucial for scientific discovery. And for intellectual pursuits of all kinds, I might add. So, there are pragmatic reasons to apply the PSR. QED.

But I digress. Matt, I agree completely: There's a gap. We merely disagree on whether it can be filled.

2:31 PM


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home