Squaring the Culture




"...and I will make justice the plumb line, and righteousness the level;
then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and the waters will overflow the secret place."
Isaiah 28:17

10/23/2008 (5:54 pm)

I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist: Does Truth Exist?

This is the second installment in a series based on a seminar that I teach, which is in turn based on a book by Frank Turek and Norman Geisler entitled I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist. The introduction can be read here.

I became a Christian when I was in college (dinosaurs were just recently extinct) and I began engaging people in conversation about what they believed. One of the first times I did this, the guy I was talking to said “I don’t really have a religion, but I have some ideas I thought of myself,” and then he said “If you believe something is true, then it is true… for you.” “That’s funny,” I thought. “Back before I was a Christian, I used to claim I had my own religion, and I said exactly the same thing — ‘If you believe something is true, then it is true… for you.’ Word for word. Hmmm…”

About the 15th time I’d heard that same phrase verbatim, preceded by “I don’t have a religion, but I have some ideas I thought of myself,” it occurred to me that they didn’t really think this idea up all by themselves, and neither had I. As President Lyndon Johnson used to say, “If two people are saying the same thing, you can be sure that one of them is doing the thinking.” If fifteen people are saying the same thing, somebody must have been teaching them.

Postmodern professors and writers had filled the minds of young people with notions that claimed to grant respect to all ideas equally, and we’d all swallowed it uncritically. The problem is, there’s a perfectly good English word to describe this idea — the idea of a belief that’s so forceful that it has the force of truth to the believer, even if that belief has no connection with external, provable reality. They’d written long books and papers describing it, but it’s a concept that has existed in English as long as the language has existed, and existed as a single word.

The word is “delusion.”

In other words, we were being taught, “Here’s a wonderful, progressive view of the world that accurately describes all thought, and will produce peace and harmony among men. Are you ready? Here it is: ‘Truth is delusion.'”

They called this “multiculturalism.” I call it Orwellian, and I call it nonsense.

Of course, this is also a veiled insult to religion: “Religious people are deluded.” Even today, people who pretend to believe multiculturalism nonetheless drop their pretense when they’re speaking of religious people, and call them deluded — even while defending the contradictory notion that every culture’s ideas are as valid as any other’s.

Everybody believes that truth is objective, whether they say so or not. We all live by it. When the clerk at the grocery store tells us, “That will be $75.39,” we accept that as a truth claim, and we pay it — or we dispute it on the basis of other specific truth claims on the register tape, or from the advertisement flier. When the cop who pulled us over tells us we were doing 78, we either accept his truth claim, or we dispute it on the basis of some other relevant evidence: “I had the cruise control set on 70.” The Matrix was cool speculation, but the only folks who genuinely think that we’re all batteries powering a giant computer, and that our common perception of reality is being fed to us by the same giant computer, sleep under cardboard and eat at church soup kitchens.

I recall an incident when I was nearly finished with high school. I was discussing what I thought were interesting ideas with my mother, while she was cutting vegetables at the kitchen table, with a small paring knife and a cutting board (my mother was a very bright woman, and didn’t mind tossing philosophy about). I was resting my hand on the table not far from the cutting board. I said to her, “I don’t even know that I can take it for granted that you and I are really here.” Without saying a word, she reversed the paring knife in her hand into a stabbing position, and stabbed it into the cutting board about an inch from where my hand was sitting. I yanked my hand away, startled, and most likely my jaw dropped. She looked me square in the eye and asked, “Real? or illusion?” I never said that to her again.

In fact, I never said that again to anybody, because I got the message: I could utter whatever nonsense I wanted, but I didn’t believe myself that the facts we all encounter are illusions. It turns out that we’re all likewise rooted in reality, whether we like to admit it or not.

We learn by differentiating, and differentiating requires accurate facts. Knowledge is not even possible without being able to tell one thing from another. We say “That’s a cat,” pointing to a short, four-legged, soft, furry animal that purrs, yawns, ignores you unless it’s hungry, and places itself directly where your foot is about to land. We can say with certainty that it’s not a dog, which would be taller (usually), pant, bark and growl, smell bad, and do whatever you trained it to do. Philosophers call this “the Law of Non-contradiction”: the fact that contradictory things cannot be true at the same time and in the same sense. If “the world is spheroid” accurately describes our world, then “the world is flat” cannot.

All truth is absolute. A statement that is true, is true for all people, at all times, and in all places. For example, it is true that I am wearing what I call a navy, cotton sweater. Regardless of who’s asking, where they’re standing, or what day it is, it is equally correct that at this moment I’m wearing such a sweater. Reader A might object, “Well, I think it’s teal.” That doesn’t make the first claim false, it simply adds a second truth claim, which is likewise true for all people, at all places, and in all times: Reader A thinks my sweater, which I describe as navy, is actually teal. That’s an absolute truth claim about what Reader A perceives. The perception itself may be relative among the players — we may all have a different name for the color of my sweater — but we can make absolute truth claims about what each of us says, and also what I’m wearing. If we needed to, we could even perform a spectral analysis of the sweater and produce a technically precise definition of the color that I call “navy” and Reader A calls “teal.”

I’ll repeat: no matter what people say, they think and act as though the Law of Non-contradiction were true. It’s not possible to function otherwise.

It turns out that most of the things people throw at you when you talk about religion are meant to make the point that religious notions fall into a special category marked “Things about which nothing can be known.” That’s also nonsense. Truth claims about religious topics are no different from truth claims about any other topic; if your argument and your evidence are sound, you have a valid basis for claiming truth, and if someone wants to claim otherwise, they need sufficient evidence and sound argumentation to do so. The Law of Non-contradiction applies equally to all truth claims, regardless of the topic.

Here are a few of the most common statements attempting to make the claim that religious truth cannot be known. You’ve probably heard all of these in some form or another, since they’re so common:

  • “It’s true for you, but not for me.” Sounds like my college buddies, right?
  • “You can’t know truth.”
  • “All truth is relative.”
  • “There is no truth.”
  • “No one has the truth.”
  • “Truth can only be known by science.”
  • “You should not judge others.” This belongs in the category with the others because it relies on the claim that no set of truths can properly be said to be more accurate than any other set of truths.

Whenever I hear somebody say “It’s true for you but not for me,” I kinda want to see them try that on the bank.

“Mr. Relativist, you wrote a check for $20,000 to cash, but you only have $84.79 in your account.”

“Well, that’s true for you, but not for me. I say I have $25,000, and I want $20,000 in cash, please.”

Think Mr. Relativist is going to win that bout?

The best thing to do with a relativist who’s trying to paste one of those bromides on you is to apply his statement to itself. Invariably, any claim that truth is relative is self-refuting, because every such claim is, itself, a claim of truth.

Here’s how it works:

Mr, Relativist wants to deflect you with “There is no truth” You might ask him in return, “Is that true?”

Oops. Mr. R is now stuck. If he says “Yes,” he’s admitted that there IS truth… his. If he says “No,” then he admits that he’s just made a false statement, and there is such a thing as truth. And now he’s confused, and you look like a genius. Once you explain the point, he’s likely to say something like “You’re confusing me,” to which you reply with the truth: “No, you were confused already. I’m just helping you see it.”

Here’s another example: Mr. Relativist tries “All truth is relative.” You ask, in reply, “So, THAT truth that you just articulated, is THAT relative?” Or you might phrase it more cleverly, “Are you absolutely sure of that?” Again, if “Yes,” — if he’s absolutely sure of that — then he’s made an absolute truth claim and refuted himself, but if “No,” then he admits the possibility that some truths are absolute. His position is self-refuting.

Most of the rest write themselves:

  • “It’s true for you, but not for me.” Is that true for everybody?
  • “You can’t know truth.” How do you know that, then?
  • “No one has the truth.” So, how did you come by that truth?

“Truth can only be known by science.” This one’s a bit trickier. The question is, where is the peer-reviewed, replicable scientific research that establishes that truth statements can only be discovered by science? The reason this one is self-refuting is that the claim, “Truth can only be known by science,” is actually a philosophical claim from the sub-topic called “epistemology.” Epistemology is the philosophical inquiry into how we know what we know. Since the claim, “Truth can only be known by science,” is an epistemological truth claim, it purports to be truth from philosophy rather than science — demonstrating that the speaker believes truth can be derived from science or philosophy. And thus, the claim that “truth can only be known by science” refutes itself.

Finally, “You should not judge.” Isn’t that a judgment, based on a claim of truth about truth claims? Any statement with “should” or “ought” in it posits a standard of behavior that claims to be authoritative. If there are no truths sufficiently authoritative to make judgment possible, then it would not be possible to say “You ought not judge.” It’s a self-refuting declaration, just like the others.

All of these are self-refuting because everybody operates instinctively by accepting that some things are true, and that truth is absolute by definition. That truth exists is one of those self-evident truths everybody lives by, and falls into the category that philosophers call “properly basic.” Truth does exist, and everybody knows it.

Next time: The introduction to Does God Exist, followed by the Cosmological argument.

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13 Comments »

October 23, 2008 @ 5:55 pm #

[…] welcome to the seminar. Next installment: Does Truth Exist? See you then. | Related posts: […]

October 24, 2008 @ 7:33 am #

Phil –

Seminars like yours served a huge purpose for me and many young Christians like me when we were going to a major university, but sometimes it wasn’t the purpose we thought.

We thought we were arming ourselves to do battle with those professors and fellow students who had set themselves up against God (and we often did, with very mixed results). What the arguments really did was simply help us to understand that the Christian faith was reasonable, and to hold us long enough in that thought pattern so that we could mature in our relationship with Him.

Interestingly, while both effects were important, the second one usually breeds more confidence than the first… and bears more fruit in the lives of others. But that deeper relationship would not have been possible had our minds drawn us away from Christianity too quickly.

On the academic front, a ray of sunshine is also apparent – my friend Joe reports that it is very hard to find a relativist at conferences of philosophy professors – they are very, very rare. The huge majority of them believe in an objective truth that can be known – of course, most don’t have a name for it.

October 24, 2008 @ 7:57 am #

Welcome back, darkhorse.

Your first point has come up every time I’ve presented this material in any form. Yes, it would be foolish for a student to hear this seminar and then consider him- or herself equipped to do battle with the aggressive anti-Christian professor. The professor is a trained, authoritative adult, and the student would be participating in a power-laden exchange in which he or she has no power. I do need to make that clear at the beginning.

The purpose of this information is twofold:

1) To reassure the believer that sound arguments do exist for the things they believe; this helps the student’s faith survive while under assault from the angry atheist prof.

2) To raise questions in the mind of the atheist, and assault their confidence that theirs is the only sensible explanation of the facts. It’s not, but many atheists have never heard a cogent defense of Christianity, and imagine that their atheism stands on very solid ground.

Regarding relativism, I remember you telling me that about philosophers, but relativism has served its purpose — multiculturalism is now the default cultural notion, firmly entrenched in public grade schools and high schools around the country. If we were to regard the trends of philosophy as the devil building a building, relativism served as a scaffold to build the edifice of multiculturalism, and now that multiculturalism is standing on its own, relativism is no longer needed. That’s not a sign of any sort of progress we should welcome.

October 24, 2008 @ 8:35 am #

Hi Phil,

I definitely can see, being in Massachusetts, how you’d feel like “multiculturalism is now the default cultural notion, firmly entrenched in public grade schools and high schools around the country”. You’re probably right in that the effect is felt all over; however, I will continue to sing the praises of the school district I was raised in in Iowa, and the one our kids are in here in Spokane.

All the nonsense about multiculturalism (everything is as good as everything else) is absent here, while still holding to the value of studying those other cultures.

I can’t think that these districts are unique. But the concern is there for the pretty widespread effects you point out, and I like where your going with your seminar.

October 24, 2008 @ 4:46 pm #

Oh, and by the way Phil,

Just to try and perceive the reasoning behind your reaction, I don’t think the bright spot of the Philosophy professors removes the necessity of what you are teaching – though it is good to know that most people coming through those programs will not be ethical relativists in the strict sense, no?

December 1, 2008 @ 5:42 pm #

[…] that there exists such a thing as absolute truth, and that truth claims may be made about religion just as they can about any other topic (see the post here). […]

December 1, 2008 @ 7:02 pm #

[…] that there exists such a thing as absolute truth, and that truth claims may be made about religion just as they can about any other topic (see the post here). […]

June 23, 2009 @ 1:02 pm #

[…] that there exists such a thing as absolute truth, and that truth claims may be made about religion just as they can about any other topic (see the post here); […]

July 28, 2009 @ 5:39 pm #

[…] that there exists such a thing as absolute truth, and that truth claims may be made about religion just as they can about any other topic (see the post here); […]

August 3, 2009 @ 10:00 am #

[…] that there exists such a thing as absolute truth, and that truth claims may be made about religion just as they can about any other topic (see the post here); […]

August 14, 2009 @ 10:11 am #

[…] that there exists such a thing as absolute truth, and that truth claims may be made about religion just as they can about any other topic (see the post here); […]

March 17, 2010 @ 8:06 am #

[…] that there exists such a thing as absolute truth, and that truth claims may be made about religion just as they can about any other topic (see the post here); […]

April 16, 2010 @ 2:09 pm #

[…] that there exists such a thing as absolute truth, and that truth claims may be made about religion just as they can about any other topic (see the post here); […]

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