on truth

The elfvillage blog was kind enough to post a long response to my previous post on plantinga, science and religion. I will try to do the post justice by answering what i take to be its major concern, namely truth.

The objection is that i implicitly distinguish between scientific and religious types of truth, without ever coming out and clarifying the distinction. And i will agree that i was unclear.

Elfvillage offers three possible solutions and opts for the third: (1) both science and religion are true, but in different senses of the term; (2) only one of the two (presumably science) is true; (3) neither can claim to be true. Elfvillage prefers the third option because it diffuses tensions, though he does admit that it would create difficulties for some religious people, who ‘need’ to believe their religions are true (and one might add certain atheists who need to believe science is true).

This is indeed the problem. Neither am i, nor are many other people ready to abandon the word ‘true’ or ‘truth’ – though it is perfectly acceptable to drop any references to metaphysics and a perhaps dubious greek ancestry; the word still represents a very important idea, namely that we can understand the world within which we live, and agree upon those understandings. So i will have to stand by my initial post and adopt some variant of the first solution proposed by elfvillage. Religion and Science both get at the truth of the world, though different truths: truths that come from different perspectives, have different purposes and deal with different sections of the world.

Saying that both are true has some important advantages: for one, the two endeavours can critique and influence one another; they are not hermetically sealed from one another by a film of relativistic plastic, but can and must interact – to the benefit of both sides (though currently mostly to be benefit of religion). Science can explain religion and explain some of it away; religion can try to put a damper on some of science’s excessively dangerous feats of engineering. For another, we can hope, if both are said to be true, to slowly move towards reconciling the two perspectives and understanding how both can be important and useful at the same time. After all, it is the same human beings who are scientists and church goers, and the same minds that have spawned both systems.

Conflict will naturally arise in those areas where science and religion both want to stake out a piece of ‘metaphysical’ territory. And in these situations, the culprit is almost always religion. Science is very clear about what types of truth it is pursuing and how it arrives at them. Religion is obviously not. So when science claims the world is a few billion years old, for all practical purposes we should believe it. When religion makes claims about the age of the universe, we can safely discard them as infringing upon science’s well delimited territory. Religion has not yet clarified what types of truth it pursues; rather, it claims final authority in all areas, which is preposterous. We needn’t refuse religion its use of the term ‘true’, but we must force it to clarify in what sense and in which areas it wishes to use the term. And until religion comes up with a solid system for expressing its true statements, a credible methodology that produces tangible results, we will always believe science first. We live in a practical age, and religion must become practical if it is to survive.

So both science and religion can be true, and their different ‘truths’ must be thought of as ultimately reconcilable. The onus is on religion because science has already proved itself many times over. Religion must change, it must become more like science, while sticking to its own areas of excellence: guiding people through life and musing upon the meaning of it all.


8 Responses to “on truth”

  1. The understanding of truth rather than Truth is a subject of vocabulary. It is also a historical event that is root in presuppositions of its time.

    I take issue with what I sense is fundamentally an enlightenment presuppositions that”

    · There is such a thing as human nature;
    · Individuals have something that could be called a core self;
    · There is an objectively existing external reality that can be mirrored in thought and communicated via language;
    · Truth (with a capital T) can be found; and
    · Rationality is based on an accurate representation of “reality”

    I have come to see individuals as the products of acculturation and culture as the ever changing product of linguistic practices. To me I see the self is a network of beliefs and desires that are shaped, to a large extent, by language and linguistic processes. We are born into a linguistic environment; a world which has already been linguistically carved-up and classified. Our perceptions of the world as well as our social interactions are guided by a pre-existing, socially-constructed “reality”. Likewise, our thinking is linguistically grounded, as is our sense of morality. In short, “the human self is created by the use of a vocabulary..”

    Vocabularies, however, are not fixed and immutable. I tend to follow Wittgenstein’s lead in considering alternative vocabularies as analogous to tools. Just as some tools are more appropriate for certain tasks than other tools, some vocabularies are better suited than others for achieving certain human objectives. The vocabulary of modern physics, for instance, is more efficient than the vocabulary of Chinese philosophy for guiding the construction of a space craft. And just as new tools are invented to replace old tools, vocabularies may be created to replace old vocabularies. As creativity is the process of destroying something old because a new synthesis is more efficient and insightful than the old. New vocabularies can be thought of as new ways of describing some part of “reality”, but new descriptions require a continuation of the accustomed usage of some words while using other words in new and unaccustomed ways. So is the notion of truth. It is what we need or demand or place our armies on alert to protect.

  2. oldude59,

    i am myself an avid student of the latter Wittgenstein (i just reread the first paragraphs of his PI on language games last night!) and am very sorry if i at all gave the impression that i was advocating any of the ‘enlightenment’ points you mention. I am certainly no great believer in capital-T Truth nor in any antiquated essentialism or correspondence theory of truth.

    And now that i’ve got the philosophical jargon out of the way: to reformulate my post in Wittgensteinese, i would say that ‘truth’ is a very old and useful word with many different uses, which, moreover, all have enough family resemblances to warrant us using the same word in these many different circumstances. Furthermore, the word does denote some sort of adequacy of fit to the world. Namely, true theories about chemistry and physics will get SpaceShipOne into orbit, false ones won’t; true religions will be readily adopted by people and will produce good outcomes, false ones won’t.

    These are truths with little ts. The science truth seems to encounter less problems at the moment and is therefore a better truth, in the sense that is is more useful or more reliable. No scientific theory is, however, completely True; but in their own delimited area, and for our current practical purposes, our science is true.

    Human nature will have to wait for a post of its own 🙂 but i would also be willing to use non-essentialist wittgensteinese to describe it too – though i would still use the word, because it too is rather _useful_.

  3. Religion, as it stands now, is founded on myths and guesswork. You are right on one thing: science cannot actually tell us the objective truth behind it all, only what kind of model the “objective truth” satisfies. However, religion doesn’t do that. Science is a quest for understanding through continuous improvement of existing knowledge. Religion, on the other hand, is not a quest for understanding but instead for answers, whether they be true or not. Religion makes no attempts to improve existing “knowledge”, or dogma. Religious guesses are no better than other guesses.

    Saying that both are true is misleading, because while science investigates the nature of reality and gets as close as we can get, religion is nothing but guesswork.

    Religion has an additional purpose, though. It’s also considered with how things should be, not only how they actually are. When it comes to truth about the nature of reality, religion is no better a guess than yours or mine. When it comes to how things should be, it frequently claims absolute authority, an authority it cannot support. Instead of being based on rational thinking, it’s based on unfounded authority.

    So basically, to “fix” religion you’d need to abandon truth claims about the nature of reality and then stop basing its ethics on absolute authority. But then what you’d get wouldn’t be religion, but would better be called schools of thought or simply philosophy.

    So when you talk about religion and science being “true in different ways”, I think you abuse the word “true”. Truth with capital T can be found in mathematics and logic. Truth with small t, as in “a model of the truth that satisfies a certain set of tests”, can be found in science. You seem to be making up a third meaning of truth to fit religion in, namely “guidance through life”. This isn’t truth in any meaningful sense, it’s simply guidance. You can find guidance without religion. So basically, whatever you think should improve upon religion, I think would make the word “religion” not apply, because what you’d end up with would be neither truth nor religion as we know it, but simply guidance. Science, while not providing undisputable Truth, is useful. I think religion too can be useful, if it abandons its truth claims.

    Just because religion has a special position in today’s society doesn’t mean we should carve out special meanings of words to fit religion into what its proponents wants it to be. Similarly, those who stretch the term “evidence” so much that it doesn’t have any resemblance with what we call evidence just so they can say their beliefs have evidence are just deluding themselves, and perhaps some others too.

  4. i am torn between saying we need to fix religion and just saying that we need to abandon religion and work on ethics instead. It is only a matter of teminology, but one that seems to be very important to people.

    The reason i am trying to keep the word ‘true’ in religion is both an historical as well as a systematic one. Religions have always been understood to be true, even before the philosophers and scientists showed up. And even if religion no longer has command of a truth that anywhere resembles the truth of science, there is nevertheless a sense in which some religions are better than others. Those are the religions i want to claim are more true. More importantly than being able to claim that some religions are true, is to be able to claim that some are more false than others. And to do that we must retain the word ‘true’ in our religious vocabulary.

    When all is said and done, my position seems to lie on the assumption that religions (should) deal mostly in ethics (call it a Kantian presupposition if you want to) and that the good is closely related to the true and that both are _natural_ qualities that can be discovered. So my new religion is to a great extent nothing more than a scientific ethics, and that is perhaps what i should call it. However, that name does not get at the eschatological and the mystery/meaning of life aspects that i also believe are natural concepts that can be investigated in a way that will justify our calling them little-t true.

    i want us to come up with a non-dangerous and valid version of religion – not for atheists to embrace but for proponents of old religions to switch to. A sort of new and improved ersatz. But that might be wishful thinking.

  5. I’ve posed another comment for you on truth. I’d be interested in your response.

    I’m not religious, but my argument for religion over ethics is that the former but not the latter actually speaks to people. Almost no one — and empirical psychology seems to bear this out — actually acts on the basis of ethical theory. Religion seems to succeed, although not often, in actually reaching its aims of solidarity and bliss.

  6. “Whoever undertakes to set himself up as judge in the field of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.” -Einstein

    “Keep walking, though there’s no place to get to.

    Don’t try to see through the distances. That’s not for human beings.

    Move within, but don’t move the way fear makes you move.”
    – Jelalludin Rumi


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