Monday, June 26, 2006

Seeking Middle Ground

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief.

In The Pursuit of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth, Ernie responded to my invitation to clarify what I had previously written in A Scattered Review of The Pilgrim's Regress.

In answer to Ernie's question, yes, I still affirm that belief in truth is inherently good, and I agree that belief in truth is inherently possible, to the limited extent that we are able to discover it or describe it. I also agree that those who do not believe that truth exists are unlikely to discover it (assuming it does exist), and that belief of truth can reward those who find it, in the sense of providing an advantage over those who believe falsehood. What an individual does with his (incomplete) belief still may not actually be to his benefit or to anyone elses'.

As a bit of a sidebar, I might also add that belief in falsehood is, according to this view, worse than no belief at all. I do not have time to go into this too deeply here, but I was reminded of an aphorism found in Tom DeMarco's "The Deadline: A Novel About Project Management". (For those who do not know, Tom DeMacro is a sort of luminary in the software development world, a co-author of "Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams", which is something of a classic in the field.) In "The Deadline", which is a rather quick and humorous read about a project manager who is kidnapped and then given a unique opportunity to lead a number of software projects, Mr. Tompkins (the project manager) is struggling to figure out how to meet the impossible deadline he has been given. It is in this context that he discovers what he believes to be a fundamental human error:

It's not what you don't know that kills you, ... it's what you know that isn't so.

But back to pursuing truth...

At this point, I think Ernie misses my point, and perhaps Lewis' point (if in fact I have understood Lewis' point). The longing that Lewis describes is rather more specific that a general longing for truth. For instance, it is an "immortal longing". The conclusion that, because the longing cannot be satisfied in this life, its satisfaction must lie in the next (and that the next life must exist) is unjustified. Lewis has failed to admit in any real way that the longing may have no satisfaction. He also has not demonstrated that this longing is universal, and I rather suspect that it is not.

When I said:

This seems a very dangerous road, to take an intense longing and from that longing infer that a fulfillment of that longing simply must exist. "If nature makes nothing in vain, the One ... must exist." Perhaps nature does make some things in vain. And he also admits "how easily the longing accepts false objects" but claims that by following the desire faithfully the false objects will be rejected. I reject the idea that because he has some desire, the fulfillment of that desire must exist, and I am skeptical about how reliably he is able to identify what is false and what is true.

the important point was to deny the inevitability of Lewis' conclusion. Secondarily, I intended to call into question Lewis' methods of distinguishing truth from error. The example of Mr. Enlightenment was meant in part to support this, as Lewis' description of science, his caricature of it, is so distorted.

I think Ernie understood me to be making a more general claim about the possibility of distinguishing truth from error, thus suggesting nihilism. As I said above, I do believe it is possible to approach the truth, though often slowly. I do deny nihilism, at least as I understand it, though in the Wikipedia article on the subject, there are hints that Nietzsche (for instance) intended a rather different emphasis than what I normally associate with the term.

In defending Lewis, Ernie (unintentionally I think) supports a point that I have made before, which is that belief itself can have transformative power, regardless of whether or not truth underlies that belief. For he says, "The only thing that makes his journey possible is his belief that the journey is meaningful" (emphasis mine). That may very well be true. But Ernie proceeds as if he had said "The only thing that makes his journey possible is that the journey is meaningful", thus making its possibility evidence of its meaningfulness, and its meaningfulness evidence of the destination's existence.

In doing so, I think Ernie and Lewis, like many theists, go too far. They demand that either there is an ultimate meaning, or no meaning at all; Good with a capital G, or no good at all. This is a false dichotomy, a fallacy of the excluded middle. We can adopt purpose, we can create meaning, we can observe what leads to happiness and call it good. We may argue about the details, and I will not claim that any such purpose or meaning or measure of goodness is necessarily unique or necessary, but their existence provides a middle ground that lies between theism and nihilism.

Just today I came across a transcript of an interview with Steven Weinberg from the PBS show, "Faith and Reason". He addresses this very point. In reference to a statement he had made years ago in a book on cosmology about the pointlessness of the universe, he said:

I don't think this means [however] there's no point to life. Usually the remark is quoted just as it stands. But if anyone read the next paragraph, they would see that I went on to say that if there is no point in the universe that we discover by the methods of science, there is a point that we can give the universe by the way we live, by loving each other, by discovering things about nature, by creating works of art. And that -- in a way, although we are not the stars in a cosmic drama, if the only drama we're starring in is one that we are making up as we go along, it is not entirely ignoble that faced with this unloving, impersonal universe we make a little island of warmth and love and science and art for ourselves. That's not an entirely despicable role for us to play.

Similarly, we may very well approach the truth without reaching it in this life, and this does not imply that there must be an afterlife so that we can reach it. Perception of beauty may be the result of complex neuro-chemical processes; perhaps it is an accidental artifact, but that makes it no less real, even if there is not a divine Beauty somewhere. I have also previously attempted to describe how it can be sensible to call something "good" without a reference to divine Goodness.

So, the statement "Belief in truth is inherently good" need not be a cruel mockery to an atheist. To a nihilist perhaps, but nihilism is not the sole alternative to theism. If you are looking for a positive -ism to associate with such a view (rather than the simple lack of belief implied by atheism), secular humanism is one example. This paragraph on ethics from A Secular Humanist Declaration summarizes this idea pretty well. I could also include my obligatory reference to Richard Carrier, whose "What an Atheist Ought to Stand For" also addresses this subject.

So why is truth knowable, Ernie asks. My short answer is that there is an objective reality that we can (imperfectly) perceive and which appears to operate according to reliable (at least statistically speaking) rules. While our limitations (and indeed those very rules, e.g., quantum mechanics and the finite speed of light) prevent us from knowing completely or perfectly, practically speaking there are some things that we know very well and many things that we do not. The pursuit of truth is necessary to better inform and enable our ethics, among other consideration.

I do very much appreciate Ernie's continued emphasis that Christianity-As-We-Know-It is merely the current state of a belief system that has been and will continue to evolve as its proponents seek the truth. I will have some more to say about this when I get to my intended posts describing my reasons for unbelief as well as my feedback on the second book which Ernie recommended, "Generous Orthodoxy", which I am part way through.

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