Category Archives: Truth

How Do We Know Truth Is Absolute, Unified, and Objective?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Tom Howe, in his book Objectivity in Biblical Interpretation, makes the case that there is unity, objectivity, and absoluteness in truth.  To start his explanation, he quotes Mortimer Adler from his book Truth and Religion:

1. The human race is a single biological species, renewed generation after generation by the reproductive determinations of a single gene pool. Hence, man is one in nature— that is, in specific nature. All individual members of the species have the same species-specific properties or characteristics.

2. The human race being one, the human mind is also one. The human mind is a species-specific property found in every individual member of the species, the same in all, being subject to variations in degree. This precludes the notion that there is, within the human species, a primitive mind that is characteristically different from a civilized one, or an Oriental mind that differs in kind from an Occidental one, or even a child mind that differs in kind, not just degree, from an adult mind.

Howe observes that

These two theses, along with a third, are propounded by Adler for the purpose of attempting to identify the necessary basis for a world community in the face of cultural diversity. That basis, as Adler articulates it, is the unity of truth.

Adler explains that

To affirm the unity of truth is to deny that there can be two separate and irreconcilable truths which, while contradicting of one another and thought to be irreconcilably so, avoid the principle of noncontradiction by claiming to belong to logic-tight compartments.

From here, Howe continues by claiming

the principles of the unity of man and the unity of truth demonstrate that there was not a “Hebrew” mind or a “Greek” mind or an “ancient” mind such that truth among those cultures at those periods of time were somehow different than truth today. On the contrary, truth is the same for all ages and among all peoples. The issues relating to men and God were the same issues with which we struggle today, because man is one race and one mind. The differences, then, between these ancient cultures and our modern culture is not the nature of man, or of truth, but are the social and cultural expressions of the same truths.

Given the principles of the unity of man and the unity of truth, is it possible to deny that truth is absolute or that truth is objective?  Howe thinks not:

For someone to claim that there is no such thing as absolute truth is to assert that it is absolutely true that there is no absolute truth. All such relativistic assertions are self-defeating and false. Likewise, for someone to claim that there is no such thing as objectivity is to count on the objective meaning of this very claim, which is likewise self-defeating and false. Truth is unavoidable. Likewise, objectivity is unavoidable.

To deny absolute truth or objective truth is self-defeating, for the very person who denies the absoluteness and objectivity of truth believes that their statement about truth is absolutely and objectively true.

What Is Objectivity? Part 2

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In part 1 of this post, we looked at contemporary notions of objectivity, as reported by philosopher Tom Howe.   In part 2 we continue to flesh out the concept of objectivity.

Tom Howe quotes philosopher Mary Hawkesworth:

In the context of philosophical and scientific investigations, an objective account implies a grasp of the actual qualities and relations of objects as they exist independent of the inquirer’s thoughts and desires regarding them. In the spheres of ethics, law, and administration, objectivity suggests impersonal and impartial standards and decision procedures that produce disinterested and equitable judgments. Objectivity, then, promises to free us from distortion, bias, and error in intellectual inquiry and from arbitrariness, self-interest, and caprice in ethical, legal, and administrative decisions.

We see the idea of existence “independent of the inquirer’s thoughts and desires regarding them.”  The moral fact, “It is wrong to torture a child for fun,” is objective if it is true independent of the inquirer’s thoughts.  Whether a person believes this statement is true or not is irrelevant to its truth.

In addition, Hawkesworth introduces the concept of “impersonal and impartial standards.”  The statement, “It is wrong to torture a child for fun,” is objective if it can be judged by a standard which is impersonal and impartial.

Howe finishes his survey of contemporary views on objectivity with the following summary:

First, there is a recurring theme . . . that in some sense objectivity involves the notion of a neutral judgment that strives to be free from all biases, prejudices, presuppositions, preconceived ideas, preunderstandings, or other factors that might distort one’s understanding or conclusions.

Objectivity is almost universally equated with what Richard Bernstein calls “objectivism,” which he defines as “a basic conviction that there is or must be some permanent, ahistorical matrix or framework to which we can ultimately appeal in determining the nature of rationality, knowledge, truth, reality, goodness, or rightness.”

Objectivity, then, is about judgment without the undue influence of bias or prejudice.  The worldview of the judge is taken out of the judgment as much as possible.  The judge is to tell it like it is.

In a second, and arguably more important sense, objectivity is, as Richard Bernstein states, a “permanent, ahistorical matrix or framework to which we can ultimately appeal” to on issues of morality, truth, and knowledge.  Any person that denies that this ahistorical and permanent framework exists is thus denying that objectivity exists.  Ironically, the person who claims that ahistorical objectivity does not exist believes this to be true for all time.  To deny objectivity is to affirm it.

What Is Objectivity? Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt

We’ve recently featured several blog posts centered around the idea of moral objectivity.  Objectivity is also a concept that can be applied to truth, knowledge, interpretation, and even beauty.  Although we’ve tried to carefully define objectivity versus subjectivity, it might be worth revisiting this concept to see what contemporary thinkers have to say about it.

Philosopher Tom Howe provides a brief, but insightful survey of several contemporary views on objectivity in his book Objectivity in Biblical Interpretation. Howe starts things off with a quote from the famous agnostic Bertrand Russell:

Subjectively, every philosopher appears to himself to be engaged in the pursuit of something which may be called ‘truth.’ Philosophers may differ as to the definition of ‘truth,’ but at any rate it is something objective, something which, in some sense, everybody ought to accept.

We start with the idea that something is objective if it is something that everybody ought to accept.  If we take the clear moral truth, “It is wrong to torture a child for fun,” this statement would be objectively true if it is a statement that everyone ought to accept.

Howe then describes Paul Helm’s “ontological” objectivity.  According to Howe, “This is basically the question of whether the extra-mental reality exists apart from human perception or is the construct of the human mind.  As Helm puts it, ‘Does the character of the world change with the very fact that we are interpreting it?'”

Here we see another important aspect of objectivity.  Something is objective if it exists “apart from human perception.”  Taking our example again, the moral truth,  “It is wrong to torture a child for fun,” would be objective if the statement was true regardless of whether any human being perceived it to be true.  In other words, if all human beings went extinct tomorrow, it would still be objectively true that torturing a child for fun is wrong.

Here is an interesting thought experiment.  If an intelligent alien race came to earth and began torturing human children, would we react with moral outrage and accuse them of atrocious immoral acts, or would we say to ourselves, “That’s a shame they are torturing kids, but they obviously just have a different moral code than we do.  It must be morally acceptable, under their moral system, for them to torture human children.”

I think that we would obviously be morally outraged.  In fact, this very situation, or something like it, is portrayed in dozens of science fiction movies where intelligent aliens attack and/or torture humans.  The humans in these movies are almost always portrayed as holding the aliens morally culpable, but if moral facts only exist in human perception, then it would be truly bizarre to hold aliens morally accountable.

They might have their own moral facts, or they may perceive no moral facts at all.  Why is it, at least in the movies, humans always assume that hostile aliens have the same moral sensibilities we do?  I submit that it is because the writers of these movie scripts, just like the rest of us, assume moral facts exist apart from human perception.

Attacking aliens aside, this aspect of objectivity seems to confuse many atheists, because they fail to see how something like a moral fact could exist without human minds perceiving it to be true.  For theists, of course, truth also exists in the mind of God, so we have no problem with moral facts being objective in this sense.  If you are a non-theist, you could posit that moral truths exist as brute, fundamental facts of the universe, but this answer merely leads inevitably to the question of why the universe would come furnished with moral facts.

In our next post, we will continue to look at the notion of objectivity.

Is Raping Little Children Just a Matter of Taste? – #2 Post of 2011

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Some statements about the world are objectively true, meaning they are true for all people, places, and times, regardless of whether anyone actually believes the statements.  Other statements about the world are subjective, meaning they merely refer to a person’s preferences or tastes.

An objective statement would be: “The sum of three plus five equals eight.”  This statement is not a matter of taste, but is an objective fact about the world.  It is true for all people at all times in all places that “the sum of three plus five equals eight.”

A subjective statement would be: “French roast is the worst tasting coffee.”  This statement is clearly a matter of taste, of my personal preference.  It gives information about me, not French roast coffee; you don’t learn anything objective about French Roast coffee from the statement.  It should also be clear that for all people at all times in all places, it is not true that French roast is the worst tasting coffee.

That brings me to my question.  Consider the following statement: “It is wrong to rape little children for fun.”  Is this statement objectively true or subjectively true?  Is the statement referring to a matter of fact about the moral wrongness of raping little children for fun, or is it expressing a personal taste or preference that I have against raping little children for fun, similar to the statement about French roast coffee?

Please answer this question in the poll below and be sure to leave comments explaining why you have answered the way you answered.

Is Science Dependent on Other Disciplines?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

The use of the scientific method as a way of learning about the natural world has yielded fantastic technologies and discoveries over the last few hundred years.  Nobody can doubt the power of the scientific method – collecting data, developing hypotheses about that data, and then testing those hypotheses with empirical experimentation.

In fact, some people are so enamored of the scientific method that they declare that this is the only way we can gain true knowledge about anything.  Philosopher J. P. Moreland was once told by a man finishing his doctorate in physics that “science is the only discipline that is rational and true.  Everything else is a matter of mere belief and opinion. . . . if something cannot be quantified or tested by the scientific method, . . . it cannot be true or rational.”

Is this true?  Does science stand on its own without any support?  Is it the only way to know anything?

The answer, my friends, is an unequivocal no.

Moreland explains that the statement “only what can be known by science or quantified and empirically tested is rational and true” is self-refuting.  Why?  Because this statement itself is not a statement of science but a statement of philosophy about science.  In other words, at least one philosophical statement must be true for science to even get started.  The aims, methodologies, and presuppositions of science must be upheld by disciplines other than science, for science cannot pull itself up by its own bootstraps.  Science is like the second story of a house; it cannot stand without the first story and the foundation underneath.

What are these things underneath science, supporting it?  Moreland provides several examples.

First, “one must hold that the senses are reliable and give accurate information about a mind-independent physical world.”  This is a philosophical position and there are some in academia who would deny its truth.  The scientist must take this philosophical statement to be true before he can start doing science.

Second, “science must assume that the mind is rational and that the universe is rational in such a way that the mind can know it.  Science must assume some uniformity of nature to justify induction (i.e., science must assume that one can legitimately infer from the past to the future and from the examined cases to unexamined ones of the same kind).”  For example, just because hydrogen and oxygen have formed water in the past, why should we believe it will continue to happen in the future?  Again, this is a philosophical presupposition of science.  In fact, the assumption that the universe is rational such that we can know it is a big surprise if you are a naturalist who denies the existence of a rational creator.

Third, science assumes that “the laws of logic are true, that numbers exist, . . . that language has meaning, . . . that truth exists and involves some sort of correspondence between theories and the world.”  None of these things are demonstrated by science.  They must all be true for science to work in the first place.

Fourth, “science assumes certain moral, epistemic, and methodological values.  Regarding moral values, science assumes that experiments should be reported honestly and that truth-telling is a moral virtue.  Regarding epistemic virtues, science assumes that theories ought to be simple, accurate, predictively successful, and so forth.  Regarding methodological values, science often values such things as disinterestedness, organized skepticism, and procedural rules.”

Fifth, and finally, boundary conditions are not accounted for by science.  “The mass of a proton, the rate of expansion of the big bang, the existence of the big bang itself – in short all cases of genuine brute givens not subsumable under higher laws – are boundary conditions for science.  They are givens which cannot be accounted for by science.”

The idea that science is the only way to find truth is obviously false.  Science rests on piles of presuppositions and assumptions that science-worshipers seem to forget.  Why is this important?  Because there is a whole world of metaphysics, ethics, logic, mathematics, and linguistics that must be studied and understood.  As soon as these things are pushed aside as irrelevant, and forgotten, science dies.

When Should We Doubt Expert Consensus? Part 2

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Continuing from part 1, below are 5 more reasons you should doubt a scientific consensus, taken from Jay Richards’ article on the topic.

8. When the subject matter seems, by its nature, to resist consensus. An an engineer, this point has always bothered me about both evolution and climate change.  Richards explains:

It makes sense that chemists over time may come to unanimous conclusions about the results of some chemical reaction, since they can replicate the results over and over in their own labs. They can see the connection between the conditions and its effects. It’s easily testable. But many of the things under consideration in climate science are not like that. The evidence is scattered and hard to keep track of; it’s often indirect, embedded in history and requiring all sorts of assumptions. You can’t rerun past climate to test it, as you can with chemistry experiments. And the headline-grabbing conclusions of climate scientists are based on complex computer models that climate scientists themselves concede do not accurately model the underlying reality, and receive their input, not from the data, but from the scientists interpreting the data. This isn’t the sort of scientific endeavor on which a wide, well-established consensus is easily rendered. In fact, if there really were a consensus on all the various claims surrounding climate science, that would be really suspicious. A fortiori, the claim of consensus is a bit suspicious as well.

9. When “scientists say” or “science says” is a common locution. Which scientists?  The ones that agree with the theory?  Since when does science speak for itself without human beings interpreting?

10. When it is being used to justify dramatic political or economic policies. Always be suspicious when politicians and ideological activists are wielding the sword of science to further a particular agenda.  As Richards notes, that is happening in spades in the global warming debate.

11. When the “consensus” is maintained by an army of water-carrying journalists who defend it with uncritical and partisan zeal, and seem intent on helping certain scientists with their messaging rather than reporting on the field as objectively as possible. In the last few years, I can recall weeks where our local newspaper was running story after story about global warming, and none of them critical of it.  When the supposedly unbiased media line up and promote one viewpoint with little dissent, be suspicious.

12. When we keep being told that there’s a scientific consensus. Richards captures the essence of this point:

A scientific consensus should be based on scientific evidence. But a consensus is not itself the evidence. And with really well-established scientific theories, you never hear about consensus. No one talks about the consensus that the planets orbit the sun, that the hydrogen molecule is lighter than the oxygen molecule, that salt is sodium chloride, that light travels about 186,000 miles per second in a vacuum, that bacteria sometimes cause illness, or that blood carries oxygen to our organs. The very fact that we hear so much about a consensus on catastrophic, human-induced climate change is perhaps enough by itself to justify suspicion.

Some food for thought.  I think Richards has done a wonderful job putting into words some of the intuitions we have about science and its reported results.  In fact, most of his 12 points apply to other non-scientific fields where we’re told there is a consensus.  There is nothing wrong with consensus, inherently, but we just need to be vigilant and do our homework before concurring with an alleged “consensus.”

When Should We Doubt Expert Consensus? Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Lately on the blog I’ve had some people question why I side with the majority of experts on some issues and not with others.  I had never really thought about this before, but then I ran across an article written by Jay Richards, entitled, “When to Doubt a Scientific ‘Consensus’“.

Richards gives 12 reasons why a scientific consensus should be doubted, using the global warming “consensus” as his example.

1.  When different claims get bundled together, be suspicious.  Whether the earth is warming and whether human beings are causing the earth to warm are two different claims that need to be supported by two different lines of evidence.  Advocates of global warming often conflate the two and act as if they are a package.

2.  When ad hominem attacks against dissenters predominate. When dissenters of a particular scientific view are frequently called names and personally attacked, be suspicious.

3. When scientists are pressured to toe the party line. Richards reminds us that “tenure, job promotions, government grants, media accolades, social respectability, Wikipedia entries, and vanity can do what gulags do, only more subtly.”

4. When publishing and peer review in the discipline is cliquish. How open is the peer review process in a particular field?  If the same small group of people are deciding which articles get published in the scientific literature, be suspicious.

5.  When dissenting opinions are excluded from the relevant peer-reviewed literature not because of weak evidence or bad arguments but as part of a strategy to marginalize dissent. If you’ve paid any attention to the climate change or evolution debates, there is plenty of evidence that this is occurring on a regular basis.  Watch the movie Expelled to see what is going on in the evolution/intelligent design world.

6.  When the actual peer-reviewed literature is misrepresented. I have seen this occur many times in the evolution debate.  Not only is there plenty of disagreement among scientists about the mechanisms of evolution (you will often hear there is not), but there is plenty of misrepresentation of intelligent design research.

7.  When consensus is declared hurriedly or before it even exists. True science requires time before results can be properly analyzed.  According to Richards:

Scientists around the world have to do research, publish articles, read about other research, repeat experiments (where possible), have open debates, make their data and methods available, evaluate arguments, look at the trends, and so forth, before they eventually come to agreement. When scientists rush to declare a consensus, particularly when they claim a consensus that has yet to form, this should give any reasonable person pause.

In the next post, we will cover the final 5 reasons a person should doubt a scientific consensus.

Are Christians Arrogant for Believing They Are Right?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

One of the most common accusations hurled at Christians is arrogance.  If Christians believe that only they are right about who God is, that is arrogant.

Usually, but not always, I hear this accusation from atheists.  They say something like, “If you think that the Christian God is the only true God, then you are excluding the rest of world who believe in other gods.  You are also excluding those who don’t believe in any god.  That betrays an incredible arrogance and narrow-mindedness.”

Typically these kinds of statements put Christians on the defensive and a few of us, unfortunately, will even claim that all religious concepts of God are basically the same so as not to seem narrow-minded.  After all, who wants to be seen as arrogant?

But there’s a problem with this accusation, especially for atheists.  Most religion surveys indicate that there are about 2 billion Christians in the world, which is about 1/3 of the world’s population.  That means that about 4 billion people don’t believe in the Christian God, or 66% of the world.

If we look at the number of atheists, those who deny that any kind of god exists, it’s probably around 150 million people, or 2.5% of the world population (see this link for data).  Even if we double that number, we get 300 million people.  That means that approximately 5.7 billion people are wrong about the existence of god, or 95% of all the people living in the world.

Now who is calling who arrogant?  If anybody is exclusive, if anybody is narrow-minded, it is atheists far more so than Christians.  As an atheist, you have to believe that 95% of all people alive are wrong about the existence of a higher power, a god or gods.  In fact, if numbers are how we determine arrogance, Christians are the least arrogant of any religious group because they have the most adherents!

Do I really believe atheists are arrogant for saying that no gods exist, a belief that contradicts 95% of the rest of the world?  No, of course not.  Truth claims are narrow, by definition, because they rule out falsehoods.  Numbers don’t determine truth, and it’s certainly possible that atheists are right, despite their relatively small numbers.  But that means that the accusation that Christians are arrogant also needs to be put to rest.  The atheist claiming that Christians are arrogant is sawing off the limb he is sitting on.

Let’s drop these silly accusations of arrogance and get back to reasonable and rational discussions about the existence or non-existence of God.  Can I get an atheist “Amen?”

Do We Each Get Our Own Interpretation of Scripture?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Darrell and I were talking today about people who claim that one interpretation of Scripture can be no better than another.  Or, put another way, we can’t know what the correct interpretation of Scripture is, so we shouldn’t debate it.  To each his own interpretation.

My sense is that people who say this in the midst of a discussion of a Bible passage feel trapped in an argument they can’t win, and this is their escape hatch.  If they relativize the Scriptures, making the meaning completely subjective, they get to keep their interpretation of Scripture and deflect anyone who disagrees with them.

This is the same tactic some people use when they are in a debate about a particular immoral behavior.  When they feel trapped, they say something like, “There is no objective morality any way.  Everyone decides for themselves what’s right and wrong.”  Again, if they relativize morality, then they no longer have to defend their position and they get out of an argument that they aren’t winning.

The real irony here is that the very people who relativize the interpretation of Scripture actually do believe that their view is objectively correct.  If they didn’t, then they wouldn’t have been debating in the first place.  They would have just agreed with everything their opponent said, because, after all,  everyone can have their own subjective interpretation of Scripture.

It seems to me that the best thing to do when someone plays the “relativism card” is to help them see that they really don’t believe what they are saying.  Remind them of some of the core beliefs that they have derived from Scripture and ask them if those beliefs are objectively true.

If they are honest, they will stand by their beliefs.  If they refuse to claim that their cherished beliefs about the Bible are objectively true, it’s probably time to move on, because they are more interested in saving face than having a conversation of substance.  Come back to them when they aren’t so defensive.

Can Naturalistic Evolution Yield True Beliefs About Reality?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

Philosopher Ken Samples, in a recent “New Reasons to Believe” (Vol 1 , No 1) publication, argues that naturalistic evolution cannot explain how human beings can have true beliefs about anything.  Naturalistic evolution posits that there only exists the material, natural world around us.

Everything that exists is the result of  random, material processes working over billions of years.  According to naturalists, the ultimate result of those natural processes is the wonder of the human mind.  So why doesn’t this theory make sense?

Samples offers three reasons.  First, “Naturalism postulates a nonrational source for man’s rationality.”  Naturalists believe that nonrational, impersonal, unintelligent, and purposeless processes produced rational, personal, intelligent, and purposeful human minds.

But, as Samples argues, every effect must have a cause greater than itself.  This is exactly the opposite of what the naturalists would have us believe!  The effect of the human mind is orders of magnitude greater than its alleged cause, the matter of which it is composed.  Samples concludes that the naturalist “is assuming a trustworthy reasoning process only to conclude that his reasoning is is ultimately untrustworthy.”

Second, Samples argues that “evolution promotes a species’ survivability, not its true beliefs.”  Natural selection, the primary evolutionary mechanism, only selects for survival.  But having true beliefs about the world is not always required for animal survival.  One can think of examples where an animal’s beliefs about its surrounding environment are irrelevant to its survival.

Human beings survived for thousands of years without knowing about the theory of relativity or quantum mechanics or the DNA double helix.  Are knowledge of the laws of logic and geometric proofs necessary for humans to reproduce?  Our knowledge about the world seems to be complete overkill for evolutionary survival.

Third, Samples reasons that “false beliefs illustrate evolutionary naturalism’s epistemological unreliability.”  Many atheists today argue that mankind’s beliefs about God, morality, and life after death are mere evolutionary vestiges that must have served some survival purpose in the past.

It seems that almost all of humankind, through recorded history, has held that God exists.  Evolutionists admit this, but answer that this belief was necessary in the past, but is no longer necessary.  It is left over from man’s earlier evolutionary stages.

But that means that evolution can produce false beliefs about reality.  Naturalistic evolutionists strongly urge that religious beliefs are false, but they also believe evolution produced these beliefs.  Samples asks:

If evolutionary naturalism can cause a person to believe that which is false (such as religiously oriented beliefs) in order to promote survivability, then what confidence can evolutionists muster that their convictions are reliable, true beliefs?  And if evolution cannot guarantee true beliefs in a person’s mind then how does one know that belief in evolutionary naturalism itself is a true belief about the world?

Maybe naturalism is just evolution’s false belief du jour.  There is no way for evolutionists to know!  Now that is some serious irony.

Christians, on the other hand, are able to easily explain the human mind and its ability to have true beliefs.  A rational, personal, intelligent, and purposeful God is the source of our rational, personal, intelligent, and purposeful human minds.

Samples concludes, “Such conceptual realities as logic, mathematics, knowledge, and truth flow from a supremely intelligent divine mind.”  In this case, the cause more than adequately explains the effect.