I. Theism and affirmation
The central purpose of this essay is to find a way out of the simplistic prejudice (arising as much from some atheists as theists) that if we do not believe in God’s existence, the notion of truth itself loses its grounding, or at least its dimension of objectivity. The problem has frequently been expressed through quoting G. K. Chesterton’s dictum that ‘If we don’t believe in God, the problem is not that we believe in nothing, but that we believe in anything’.
It must be acknowledged to begin with that this claim has a certain psychological, if not logical, force provided that the part played an independent witness in any attempts to verify truth claims is ignored. But it is important to recognise the presence of two different, although related, lines of argument for the notion that truth loses its importance and even meaning if the divine will is denied: (a) A strictly theological argument, illustrated by Hebblethwaite (1988: 107-8) that any commonsense or scientific realism, accepting as it does the reality of the universe we observe and a notion of objective truth to go with that, is vulnerable to scepticism unless it secures the metaphysical backing which only grounding objectivity of Nature and capacity to produce minds (such as ours) in an objective God ‘whose creative will explains both the objectivity of things and the fact that the universe includes minds’ can provide. (b) That sort of argument is linked, via the danger of a complete epistemological scepticism, to an historical argument, also put by Hebblethwaite (Ibid: 103-4) that the history of philosophy (and implicitly, social and political history also) since the Enlightenment demonstrates how vulnerable the concept of truth, and even of reality itself, is to loss of belief in God. That resembles the claim of Novak (1995: 14ff) that modernity has detached God from truth, making Him alien from ourselves, although Novak’s libertarianism (rather different from the position of Hebblethwaite) links to his belief that freedom, including not least political freedom, depends upon truth.
To say more, whether in support or denial of either – or both – of these arguments (a) and (b), has to involve addressing the arguments around the idea of truth in modern philosophy since Nietzsche and Frege, arguments which in part deal with precisely the question of whether that idea of truth has any real significance for us on something other than a theological basis.
Although the contention that truth has no proper standing outside the realm of thought, i.e., is purely a construction of language, is commonly associated with ‘post-modernist’ theories of the sort that Hebblethwaite had especially in mind, it also connects closely with the argument to be found in several strands of analytic thought that predicating truth of a statement by adding that it ‘is true’ adds nothing beyond what the core statement itself says. Accordingly, it is understood that ‘It is true that Sarkozy is President of France’ adds nothing to ‘Sarkozy is President of France’. In some forms of such an argument (sometimes expressed that truth is not a predicate), notably Strawson’s (1949) theory of performative utterance with respect to truth, a distinction was drawn between information which the word ‘true’ supplements to the core statement (viz., none) and some other function which that word can perform. Strawson argued that conveying information is only one of the linguistic tasks we employ our language for. Accordingly, attributing truth to a statement or proposition could find its place as affirmation or confirmation; in general, expression of agreement. Likewise, ‘untrue’ or ‘false’ serve to express disagreement; they act as a denial.
Strawson’s theory has not been the only way in which a different linguistic function for truth from supply of information has been sought. Grover et al. (1975) attempted that in terms of treating phrases like ‘that is true’ or ‘it is true’ as prosentences which stand in for full statements in a manner analogous to the way pronouns stand in for words, names, or phrases. Perhaps Quine’s (1972) theory of ‘disquotation’ can be seen in a similar light. However, these other interpretations again carry an implication of agreement and confirmation with regard to what is being said.
It certainly seems natural to agree that ascribing truth to a statement does indeed express a form of confirmation that merely making the statement might not achieve. It does also need to be pointed out that this appears very weak as an account for the emotive force which ‘true’ and ‘truth’ often carry, not least in the context of religious truth. That point is especially clear where truth is being allegedly denied. The problems with trying to work out an account of truth based on a linguistic function which could supplement the sheer supply of information come especially clear if we shift attention to arguing a proposition which some people hold to be true and others deny. It is in cases of propositions like ‘welfare benefits are corrosive of neighbourliness and family life’ it is hard to escape the implication that ascribing truth includes a claim that there is some basis in ‘fact’ which can be resorted to in support of the speaker’s or writer’s personal affirmation if that is challenged. A similar point applies to allegedly factual statements when they are liable to be challenged, as in a court of law.
Instances like these, however, draw our attention to a different perspective from that customarily taken in the various philosophical arguments about truth. This other perspective need not, and does not, suggest that affirmation of a statement, not to mention putative correlation between our words and whatever may be found to apply in the world (or linguistic conventions about how we may express such), is unimportant. What it does suggest is that, very often, what we are most concerned with when we say that ‘p is true’ is not p itself but the person(s) making the statement (or arguing the proposition) p. To affirm that ‘p is true’ or, perhaps even more strongly, a blind affirmation like ‘what Roger says is true’, is to endorse that the speaker has got something right, understood something properly, described something accurately, or bears an honest witness to certain events or situations. The point is still more potent when we reverse the focus to look at denial, so as to say ‘p is untrue’ or ‘false’, especially if we are suggesting the speaker is not merely making a mistake or misunderstanding, but deliberately lying, i.e., setting out to deceive. Then the statement itself is secondary to the focus on whoever is making the statement and her knowledge or intentions. This aspect of truth's role connects very closely with the arguments of Rattan (2010) and Kovach (2010) that truth serves as a norm of standard for thought and belief in general; as such being a norm not so much ethical in itself as providing part of the basis for ethics as requiring a measure of trust in people's dealings with each other. In a sense, theologians would endorse such a view of truth as underlying ethics or morality although they would connect it with revelation, a connection which, of course, secular thinkers would not accept.
This shift in perspective also helps with another issue recently raised about truth; i.e., whether it is 'context dependent', either in social or epistemic sense. If 'truth' is understood as serving to assess the reliability of the speaker or writer, that in itself provides a social context, and moreover, one well adapted for meeting the concerns of Alpoff (2013) about philosophy abetting oppression rather than resisting it. As for epistemic context, the truth conditions for a statement to be true (that is, have a positive truth value) themselves depend on recognition of truth, or more precisely, that we know what the truth conditions (the context) are in the first place. Thus, by shifting perspective from the information claimed in any statement or belief to the reliability or trustworthiness of the information source, a context is naturally provided for the concept of truth, one we dispense with at our peril.
Up to this stage any questions about approximation or degrees of truth have not been germane to the argument here, but such can clearly be significant in this context. When assessing someone making a statement we may very well be concerned with how accurate, ‘close to the truth’, reliable, and so on, she is, and that often appears as a matter of degrees and approximations. Frequently, we may also refer to the statement as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, in the non-moral sense of those terms rather than true or false, and certainly that may be a matter of degree. Yet the possibility of varying degrees only reinforces the point that, in making judgements of this nature such as which of differing witnesses is the more reliable, we do seek some form of objective basis, i.e., a basis which is not dependent upon our own thoughts and the language in which we express them.
In that context it is essential to remember that, contrary to some widely held beliefs, modern culture (as distinct from some variants of ‘modernism’ or ‘post-modernism’) has not systematically dispensed with the idea of objective truth or its application.
To understand both the general principles and contemporary outlooks better it is important to begin by reflecting on the common tendency to treat objectivity in tandem with certainty. For these are far from being identical or interchangeable concepts. A limited distinction is already traceable from Hume’s treatment of chance and probability, together with recognition of stochastic (random) processes where different outcomes are possible. So, when Courtney and Courtney say that experimental (or observational) repeatability is what ‘allows scientific assertions to be tested with a level of objectivity and certainty unavailable in other areas of empirical knowledge’ they still acknowledge the probability aspect of stochastic process, so that certainty does not apply to any given outcome of the process, but the larger the number of repetitions or the larger the size of a statistical sample, the higher the level of certainty pertaining to each of the estimated probabilities relating to each possible outcome of the process. The result of this sort of reasoning is to apply certainty (or, more precisely, a ‘level’ of certainty expressible as a degree of statistical confidence) to the overall analysis, but not at all to the result of any particular observation. However, the criterion of objectivity is held applicable to each and every observation individually.
Now, once an idea of inherent uncertainty in the natural world is posited, for instance by the advocates of ‘fuzzy’ systems, the distinction between objectivity and certainty may appear in a more radical guise. It is significant that ‘post-modernist’ thinking need not affect this perspective at all, since the positions going under that label are inclined to reject both objectivity and certainty, not least in science. But in the thinking behind fuzzy systems the notions of objective observation and/or expriment leading to knowledge applicable in various technical processes are retained. What is at least further diluted, and for purposes of theoretical analysis even abandoned altogether, is any idea of certainty in our knowledge. Instead, we are warned not to treat our knowledge as certain, even as to the levels of probability we can expect to find in at least some stochastic processes.
From another point of view, although still with connections to computing and systems analysis, the idea of objectivity itself becomes problematical, at least at the quantum level where events can be influenced by the very presence of a conscious observer. The comforting reflection that quantum effects do not trouble us at the level of the world we see and work with may need to be qualified in at least two ways: First, there is the argument that consciousness, obviously including human consciousness, has to be understood by way of quantum mechanics. The most distinguished exponent of this position is the mathematician Roger Penrose (1989, 1994), although it has appeared in a less sophisticated form in writings on ‘mystic physics’ sometimes associated with so-called ‘New Age’ theorising. Second, development of technologies operating at the molecular and perhaps even lower levels leads to our practical activities reaching into the realm of quantum phenomena previously subject only to more specialised study.
At the present time it remains a matter of speculation as to what impact these factors, and our understanding of them, might come to have on our notions of objectivity. Suffice to say here that a plausible result might be some kind of overall theory or explanation which can be held objective (i.e., which is found to apply to each sequence of events), but without objectivity for detailed observations. Whether certainty would have any place in such a picture is even more questionable.
However, I have argued elsewhere (O’Kane, 2005) that, at least so far as human activities are concerned, there is a more directly practical sense in which (conscious) observation influences what is observed, with no need to introduce quantum effects at all. Further, it need not even lead in principle to uncertainty about the levels of probability which may attach to occurrence of various possible patterns of behaviour – that is to say, classical probability theory can be sufficient to understand what is happening – although in terms of practical analysis greater uncertainty results. Simply that where human activities are concerned we must expect the sheer publication of observations about them to have an effect on people’s subsequent behaviour. In many cases, such as advertising and market research or public information on health and safety matters, publicity of the observations is intended to affect behaviour, although notoriously the response may be different from what is predicted. But the effect of observation and (actual or expected) publication need not be confined to future behaviour; for example surveillance cameras can be expected, and intended, to influence what is being presently observed. Even in cases like academic studies of social phenomena where no impact on behaviour observed is intended, there is no reason to deny that publication of the results may affect the phenomena concerned. The role of consciousness in all this is simple and direct: If we were acting in particular ways without conscious deliberation, for instance out of habit, we might be inclined to change our actions in response to being told more about other options or the (say) health effects of what we do, but even if we were acting deliberately the same point applies except that in that case we might be more likely to refuse to change our behaviour.
Nonetheless, the presence of consciousness ensures that such are not examples of stochastic processes. Despite that complication the place of objectivity in the picture can be seen as broadly similar to study of a stochastic process; namely, observation and analysis of observations can be objective even when changes in behaviour are intended. (Normally, sellers of a product will want their initial information about customers to be as accurate as possible just so as to be aware of difficulties as well as opportunities ahead.) At the same time, certainty is likely to be the more elusive as the probabilities indicated by observation become liable to change – not always in predicted ways – with publication of the observations or sometimes with the observations themselves.
As a provisional conclusion it emerges that the concept of objectivity, and through it of objective truth, might be expected to retain its position alike in intellectual and practical thought, as discussed in more general terms below. However, the place of the concept of certainty, and therefore of certain truths, is quite different; very often they appear as representing a limiting or extreme case not normally encountered in real situations, and possibly there are areas, at least in the quantum realm, where they would have no place whatsoever.
One of the strengths of the analytic tradition in philosophy is just that it has always addressed the issue of whether truth really is a serviceable concept, irrespective of divine inspiration. But it has thrown up diverse views on that topic, ranging from radical denial by Ramsay and Neurath that the truth concept serves any worthwhile purpose at all to varied attempts at a correspondence (to the world) theory by Russell and Austin. One case where, however, analytic thought and ‘post-modernism’ in fact overlap is the argument, originally drawn from Wittgenstein’s later philosophy but fitting well to the ideas of Rorty and Foucault, and recently put by Allen (1993: 6) that truth values1 have only the determinability that comes with a language game ‘making their estimation a practical possibility’. If this argument were to secure a broad acceptance throughout philosophical circles and wider culture then the first part of Hebblethwaite’s case about the alleged weakening, or at least limiting, of the truth concept itself in modern culture would appear the more convincing. Further, the notion of objective truths not subject to influence from human thinking and its expression in language becomes highly dubious. It is not clear, however, that the argument about truth values being impossible to estimate apart from a language game is at all so generally accepted.
The reason why, despite the pleas of Rorty in particular, it remains so hard to discard the notion of something in the world by which we can check or assess the truth, or otherwise, of our beliefs or ideas, and statements that we make to others, is shown by a statement which Allen (Ibid: 178) takes to be a platitude, but which is anything but: ‘Nothing in the world would be true or false if there were no speakers or speech’. The error in that statement is the failure to recognise that nothing ‘out there’ in the world is true or false anyway, whether there are speakers or not. In one sense the restriction of truth value determination to the action of our language games fits to truth and falsity (and somewhere in between) being a matter of what we say about things in the world, and not the things themselves. Yet that very language game, i.e., saying, or believing, anything about something in the world, has to be open to others to reply – ‘play back’ so to speak – with their own part in the language game of confirming or denying, entirely or in part, what the first person says or believes with reference to whatever it is in the world that bears upon the statement or belief. It is this fact that others can play the game which means that modernity has not generally been able to exclude the idea of truth, and, indeed, of objective truth. It is worth noting here that political and other forms of persecution involve precisely the attempt to prevent others playing the game by replying to official propaganda with a contrary set of statements and publicly expressed beliefs of their own. Accordingly, neither the attempt to restrict the concept of truth to a limited linguistic function nor the thesis earlier advanced by Ramsay (1927) that the concept of truth should be seen as actually redundant, i.e., serving no effective purpose at all, has really shown truth to lack essential practical applications, notably in the fields of science and logic as well as its traditional legal application.
When it comes to the applications, modern cultures – including within the Occident – still take it that ‘truth’ carries an objective meaning. In specific cases the truth may be understood as connecting with some kind of reality essentially independent of our particular beliefs and interests and, indeed, may serve as a standard for criticism and assessment of how well (or badly) the applications are being conducted. The different theories of truth, such as coherence, correspondence, semantic, or pragmatism, differ about what that independent reality (that is, independent of the individual speaker or writer, not necessarily of her community) consists of. But that an objective check or standard is available for each individual speaker or believer is held in each case. Further, what the objective check is first of all used for is to assess the bearer of that piece of information being judged as true, partly true, or false, not to supplement the information itself. Understood this way there is no rationale for suggesting that modern culture, any more than its predecessors, has dispensed with an idea of objective truth. This point is especially important since redundancy theories will certainly encourage theist and other commentators to believe that objective truth has been moved aside.
For purposes of practical application the objectivity covers three areas in particular:
(i) Scientific truth: Although the revolution in scientific thought during the early twentieth century carried us away from the notion of certain scientific ‘laws’, except as a convenience in particular cases, and introduced the idea of relativity, the idea of objective truth was retained in a more subtle form. First, there might be relativity in terms of the position of an individual observer, but the broad principles according to which the universe operates hold without reference to our position or beliefs. Second, the principle of falsifiability as applied to scientific theories (hypotheses) might take it as axiomatic that we are never to be absolutely certain about the statements and propositions we make, even in seemingly obvious cases like the statement that water always freezes at 0oC, but that principle depends upon our being able to access objective truths through experimental and observational tests of the theories and the predictions they make, at least sufficiently to decide whether to continue accepting those theories.
(ii) The conception of scientific truth continues to derive from a legal conception of truth as, first, empirical, and, second, capable of being witnessed by anyone ‘of sound mind’ regardless of her own beliefs or intuitions. Very importantly for contemporary arguments around science and scientific truth, such witness has to include the ability to assess whether scientific research is itself being conducted honestly and not being unduly influenced by, for instance, career, funding, or political forces. Truth in this legal form of application is not in itself treated as a value or as an item of information. Rather it acts as potential arbiter for other values, be they those pursued by parties to a case or the values proclaimed by the law itself, i.e., as a sort of meta-value. Again, it does not serve as an informational supplement to anyone’s case or argument, but as a standard by which each case can be judged. It is in this role that a dimension of objectivity, as capable of being ‘objectively’ witnessed by a trustworthy agent, is essential even (or especially) when certainty is not possible.
(iii) It is with the theorems of mathematics and logic that modernity still finds objective truths which transcend the empirical, as being capable of proof by pure reasoning and therefore holding for all cases falling within the range of each particular theorem.
This listing of categories is not profoundly affected by the question of which of the philosophical theories of truth is to be accepted, because in point of fact modernity in general – as distinct from certain dissident trends – has not borne out Hebblethwaite’s fears by endorsing those theories of post-modernism and some varieties of pragmatism which would reduce even the above categories to at most a provisional status. Probably, most practitioners of modernity and ‘modern’ thinking, sometimes with little thought, accept a ‘correspondence’ interpretation of truth for (i) and (ii), most likely on Austinian lines as relating conventional linguistic use to realities to be found in the outside world. For (iii) modernity is able to find room for something more like a Tarskian interpretation in the sense of propositions which are satisfied by all possible cases falling within the range of each, as distinct from the empirical ‘correspondence’ (that is, to whatever is observed) which is thought to hold for this particular case.
The issue most likely to be raised by a theist in particular about modernity will in fact relate not to any supposed absence of categories of objective truth, but to what a suggested list such as that above appears to leave out. It will readily be seen that the list does not obviously include any kind of objective truth which can provide grounding for valuations. That exclusion applies not least to objective truths which could ground moral valuations.
That sort of objection itself arises from a general failure to understand that ‘truth’ and ‘is true’ can have a part in supporting values, and indeed virtues, which is independent of any specific truths. Once it becomes understood that the linguistic role of truth is not about attempting to add to the information supplied by a statement in its own right, save (perhaps) for illocutionary emphasis, but about affirming the reliability of the information bearer or source, then it becomes clear that truth supports such values as honesty, integrity, trustworthiness, and so on, simply through its own use. More accurately, truth supplies the rationale for such values being needed at all. When the matter is viewed in these terms, it emerges that the relation between truth and values as such does not conflict with recognising a logical dichotomy between ‘facts’ and ‘values’. That relation leaves the fact/value division still holding in a logical sense, so that we cannot deduce from any given set of facts, of whatever nature, by pure reasoning which valuations we should accept and try to apply through our actions. However, if we see truth as focused on information sources themselves, as distinct from whatever specific pieces of information they may be claiming to provide, then it becomes natural to find a practical relation between facts, as we may observe or deduce them, and values we may wish to practise. For these facts are our means of verifying or confirming the trustworthiness (or otherwise) of the speaker, writer, observer, witness, or other source of the information or knowledge we are being offered. The influence of facts on values is never a matter of strict logical necessity, even in cases where raw survival appears at stake, for it is always possible for a person to hold her values as overriding survival (it is less imaginable for a community to do so and even less imaginable for humankind as a whole to do so). Yet the ethical notions connected with truth run deep and powerful. It is here that a distinction between objectivity and certainty comes into play once more; it is entirely possible for people to be certain about false beliefs and lies but objectivity can never attach to these.
From a standpoint opposed to that of Hebblethwaite, G. Watson (2014) has presented a picture of ‘Western’ thought since the middle of the nineteenth century turning toward a set of outlooks; scientific, artistic, and philosophical, which comes closer to Eastern (especially Buddhist) thought. In particular, this includes acceptance of indeterminacy and vagueness as well as process moving on without having to arrive at a fixed destination, for instance in contemporary ideas about the self as being continually remoulded through life and its experiences. Watson herself says that in the Western context these ideas are still often felt in terms of the kind of loss of grounding and certainty that Hebblethwaite points to, with ’emptiness’ being experienced as lack rather than openness or opportunity.2 But that in no way prevents Watson from advocating a ‘philosophy of emptiness’ as being positively valuable – as therapeutic and developing awareness. Nor does such a position have to mean abandoning the notion of objective truth (although Watson sometimes writes as though it does), for ongoing process and indeterminacy may themselves be objective facts about the universe. Conceivably they might turn out to be certain facts of the universe if we had a complete understanding. None of this removes the observable circumstances of everyday living, along with our need to interact with other people, which gives rise to moral or ethical valuations in the first place. On the contrary, contemporary neuroscience is getting to grips with consciousness, sentience, and personality as objective realities – fluid as they may well be – rather than either illusions making no sense or just inexplicable mysteries.
Even when loss of faith in God is experienced as loss, it does not destroy the power which an idea, and experience, of objective truth can have to act as an antidote to deception as well as simple error, and it is that power which connects truth on a practical level with crucial moral evaluations. Provided there are some things which we may call ‘realities’, that is, that we can discover and experience as well as simply imagine (so not just like dragons which we can imagine and describe from our imaginations, but have never found), it will be possible for us to represent those realities in ways we call ‘true’ or ‘accurate’ or, indeed, ‘honest’. Some of the most important of these realities (for us) are those about ourselves and our own conduct, including towards one another. Many of these realities – perhaps all that are not metaphysical truths like mathematical relations – will have aspects of uncertainty and fluidity, and the virtues of honesty and diligence apply also to recognition of these. That still leaves truth, and objective truth definable as capable of being experienced or witnessed by others besides ourselves, connected with ethics and also capable of serving as an antidote to abusive or oppressive power.
Part of the point of the above arguments is to avoid an assumption common in philosophy and theology that we can cognize only those things which we are capable of determining on an analytical, or more generally, metaphysical basis. It is that assumption which lies behind Hebblethwaite’s belief that our ethics in particular, and even the notion of truth itself, need a (determinative) metaphysical grounding which only the divine will can provide. This belief is not confined to theists; many atheists follow a similar line of thought. Fear of an absence of metaphysical grounding for ethics and truth itself can have a certain validity as a point of psychology or sociology regarding the absence of divine authority within a society, and such is the strength behind Nietzsche’s analysis, but we are not prohibited thereby from finding practical reasons for either making value judgments or finding use for the notion of truth.
From the realm of politics and sociology we learn that it is in the nature of not only modernity in general, but also of constitutional government in particular, to accept at most a limited range (and duration) for certain truth. The aspect of constitutional government is commonly overlooked in discussions of this topic. For, when the theory and practice of constitutional government was first developed in the eighteenth century, it was already seen that disagreement and diversity must be accommodated within political life but still assumed that there is a reliable underpinning of shared moral ideas, exemplified, for instance, by Adam Smith’s theory of ‘moral sentiments’. The wide and deep confluence between moral and political questions in our own time shows that this is most often not so and, further, that since a constitution which excludes religion from politics cannot also exclude it from ethics then the exclusion from politics becomes inoperative. To maintain constitutional government with legitimate opposition therefore requires a cultural – as well as philosophical – recognition that the grounding for values has to be open to political debate, precisely if the civil rights constitutional government depends upon are to be respected. Even applying basics of criminal law, such as excluding violence and intimidation in public affairs, requires maintenance and renewal of an understanding going beyond constitutional government itself, for instance about respect for persons.
This bears upon Novak’s (1995) protest (largely correct in itself) that modernity has treated God as different from truth. His commitment to truth, not only as a metaphysical position but also ethically as being the way victims of persecution can hold on to their freedom and personality, confronts the problem of disagreement not only about politics but about theology. For logically, to identify God with truth, or include the existence of God within the realm of objective truths as a matter of faith, has to mean denying the validity and, indeed, the possibility of dispute about the most fundamental issue of theology, which is the existence and nature of God. Even Hebblethwaite (1988: 88ff) has accepted that his arguments for the existence of God are not in the nature of formal proofs – although, in his view, they clearly show that the hypothesis of divine volition is the most plausible one available.3
The practice of constitutional government (which Novak wishes to defend) has often been felt to require a formal separation of religion from politics, or at least a structure for equal treatment of religious denominations, as in the German case.4 Moreover, the case of the ‘unwritten’ British constitution, which has formally retained a church establishment, is not apparently a happy one for the Anglican community itself. But the varying ways in which constitutional systems attempt to ensure that religion is not a disruptive force in politics, or vice-versa, in the way that it had been in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (and threatens to be today) are not the most profound problem that Novak’s plea for a union of a market liberalism with theism faces. Naturally, even if the developing idea of constitutional government, and then democracy, in the eighteenth century was seen to need a separation between religion and politics, there was no way it could ever obtain a separation of religion from ethics, or from metaphysics. Therefore, whenever matters of an ethical or moral nature, and even scientific understanding, find their way onto the political stage, then religion might be expected to return to the political stage also, regardless of formal constitutional provisions. Such is the lesson of American experience with such issues as abortion, education (especially school prayer and teaching of evolution), and, indeed, the moral underpinning of constitutional equality as regards race. In any such circumstances a claim that God can (or should) be identified with (objective) truth must be liable to turn the religious claim into an absolute political claim – precisely the claim of the ideological tyrant that Novak would fear most. Here may be found the kernel of validity in the notion that ‘to accept the idea of moral truth is to accept authoritarian control’, if moral truth is identified with certainties.
Novak was not wrong to say that truth, and ability to speak the truth, is essential to human freedom and, potentially, to respect for persons. Accordingly, we observe that political persecution is routinely accompanied by efforts to prevent anyone from bearing witness to truths which a regime finds unwelcome. Yet this point may be stated within the context of that limited set of categories of objective truths which was set out as characteristic of ‘modern’ thinking earlier in this essay, especially the legal and empirical category. Liberal and constitutional – as distinct from the various forms of authoritarian – modernity has not needed to claim a universal metaphysical Truth to find that access to manifold particular truths and the ability to express them, is essential for freedom in the ordinary sense of ability to choose between effective alternatives, just the ability which the political tyrant does not wish people to have. Accordingly, ‘liberal’ modernity as well as science and constitutional government, has been inclined, despite its refusal to extend the range of objective truth to cover our valuations, to answer Nietzsche’s question about the value of truth in the affirmative. The real point of a case against modernity here, such as that of Hebblethwaite, has been to claim that modernity is unable to justify its affirmative answer.
Nietzsche’s question about the value of truth – the first time in the history of philosophy such a question had been asked – is indeed a good starting point for considering the problem of truth without some kind of theistic support. Yet Nietzsche’s own refusal of transcendent value (or support) to the notion of truth, and subsequent argument about whether it can be accorded value at all, has not destroyed the possibility that truth can, after all, find an objective validity. In a strange way Rorty’s attempt to confine it to a ‘pragmatic’ role offers one way to proceed.
It remains open to argue in Nietzschean (and Darwinian) terms that the conditions of living for any organism incorporate the need to represent its external world as accurately as possible. This might very plausibly be related to movement of the organism through its environment (see Cotterill, 2003), whilst need to respond to changes therein which inherited programming could not anticipate places a premium on consciousness and conscious action at certain times. On the basis of such an argument, it is perfectly reasonable to ascribe objective value to ‘truth’ in a simple sense of such accurate representation, including need to combat deception which is itself a common feature of the natural world. If extended to the point that any organism needs to relate to others at least of its own kind (and not just fight them), then a rudimentary basis for ethics already appears. This sort of argument and any value it can justify is thoroughly ‘pragmatic’ in the sense of being linked to practical needs of living and not at all transcendent (unless it were to be linked to some kind of design argument for God). Yet it is also objective by virtue of being open to confirmation by an observer at least in the sense of recognition of a living organism’s needs. It may be noted here that need for accurate representation of the ‘world’ quite naturally extends from simple observation to the kinds of understanding which abstract reasoning can provide.
Ironically in light of Nietzsche’s iconoclastic reputation, such an argument from basic needs of living to placing a value on truth fits well with all the categories of objective truth outlined earlier. But it fits most of all with the legal conception, which is, after all, the one most attuned to combating deception. In that context what is meant by ‘facts’ is quite simply accurate (as distinct from inaccurate or misleading) accounts or representations of events and presences in our world. It bears reiteration to say once again that such ‘facts’ are not true in themselves; it is our statements and presentations of them which are true, false, or carry some degree of truth in between those limits. The point also bears reiteration that ascribing truth, or lack of it, to our statements and presentations of facts does not add to or supplement those statements or presentations in themselves, but directs our attention back to ourselves as sources of the factual informaion we are providing. That is why Ramsey’s original point that to say ‘p is true’ adds nothing, as regards the information p in itself, to simply saying ‘p‘ is correct, and yet does not show what he thought it did, i.e., that truth is a redundant or useless concept. In the context of the practical task of a court or tribunal to try to determine which of different accounts and descriptions of events and situations (for instance, of rival claimants) comes nearest to the truth as the phrase goes, the concept of truth finds its use just as the benchmark for judgment. Such is the core of sense behind the post-modernist notion that our language makes things true or false, since we are using our language to make these representations and accounts of things outside ouselves in the world, and to reason about them.
To think of truth as having such practical value for living, and as accurate representation and therefore as a standard for assessing information given rather than as part of the information itself, has the additional merit of avoiding some philosophical problems which attach to a ‘correspondence’ theory of truth in any simple sense. In this guise there is no need to suggest that our thoughts and beliefs ‘correspond’ directly to anything in the outside world, so the obvious strangeness of saying that my belief that men and women have different mental and emotional characteristics corresponds to those actual characteristics is avoided. Rather my belief can be interpreted as representing (more or less accurately as my belief may be more or less ‘true’ or ‘correct’) those characteristics, but it remains something distinct fom them. Moreover, the feature of accurate (or more accurate) representation avoids puzzles over contextualising truth, if that is helpful rather than leading to obfuscation and distortion.
But when it comes to the question of Rorty’s objection to the notion of a metaphysical dichotomy between thoughts and the world, a question arises: What exactly is the problem with that? For it would seem that an idea like truth, on any reasonable understanding, cannot have any relevance or meaning save for a conscious being which needs to be able to assess truth and its negation so as to judge what to say or believe. There would be no reason for the theist to cavil at this, since God is understood to be a conscious being but not to have infused the natural universe with any conscious awareness. Such is the difference between monotheism in particular and any belief in a spirit world which enters the natural physical world. The distinction being made here is simply between any conscious being and its environment, for all that it interacts with that environment all the time. Then to distinguish between truth of thoughts and beliefs and the world, including those aspects of the world which the thoughts and beliefs may be about, or which may be represented through thoughts and beliefs on the basis of the approach to truth proposed here, is merely to reflect the natural distinction between conscious being (organism unless God be included in that category) and environment. Naturally, the environment includes other conscious beings but the ability to consider truth of statements and beliefs does not disappear when those happen to be about unconscious and indeed inorganic events and phenomena rather than about other people or other animals.
Such considerations leave open the possibility that truth itself serves as a meta-value, furnishing the only objective basis for values in general we can find. All too often attempts to establish specific valuations, not least moral valuations, as objectively valid and grounded run into the sand in face of the sheer fact of contrary examples, arising both between diverse cultures and from diversity within cultures which may have been defined by such common features as language, statehood, class, religion, or ethnicity. A peculiar point about ‘truth’ is that contrary examples are hard to find, except from the point of view of the liar or deceiver. Here it appears a Kantian line of argument can be effective even without appeal to any transcendent reality in that, except for a limited range of ‘white lies’ which can serve to protect people from needless distress and without provoking fear and suspicion amongst others, deliberate falsehoods are typically a sign of disregard at best and of outright enmity at worst. It is one of those profound differences between modernity and culture in earlier times that we have greater reason to fear the making of enemies in itself.
The sort of argument outlined above does appear to lend support to part of the case against notions typically associated with modern (and ‘post-modern’) culture such as Hebblethwaite and Novak have made, at least fortuitously. Thus they make the claim that basic moral ideas like respect for persons require the concept of truth to be given an objective grounding. If the previous argument is sound then an objective grounding for the concept of truth, or more accurately, for our employment of that concept, can be provided. However the grounding emerges as quite secular in nature and does not in itself support the further theist claim that truth considerations make it necessary to take divine presence and volition seriously. That is to say, it does nothing to resolve questions of theology.
Naturally, if any secular grounding for truth is credible then the objection to modern culture loses some of its force and, indeed, some of the more extravagant claims of post-modernism in particular can be held refuted thereby without recourse to the divine, as defenders of scientific truth would say.4 What it still does not say is that truth reveals a supernatural will and purpose behind the universe which also sets out a path for our own lives, not least including moral instruction. But that is a far stronger claim than any emerging from efforts made, for example, by Ring (1993) or Swanson (2003) to document scientific evidence for the existence of realities which can be reached or experienced in ways not accounted for by conventional scientific analysis. In some cases (notably ‘near-death’ experiences) these appear to have been witnessed, and not only by the individuals having the experiences, but the most that any claimants for the ‘paranormal’ advance is the idea of consciousness having access to an energy which can alter the laws of physics. They do not posit a supernatural purposive action capable of setting evaluative standards or obligations within the present universe.5
Accordingly, we can still be left in the position that to the best of our knowledge and belief truth does not of itself require us to accept a theist claim. The only way in truth in itself provides objective grounds for making selective judgments about other valuations comes through concrete practical needs which judgments of truth alone can reveal. That also follows from those categories of objective truth which modern culture has been able to employ. There is just one such category (category iii in the list offered earlier) containing metaphysical truths, or truths of pure reason, and they do not in themselves prescribe valuations or goals for action. However, the manifold applications of mathematics for social, economic, technical, and other purposes does enable mathematical truths to play their part in delimiting the scale of practical constraints on our actions and the possibility of achieving our goals. Further, mathematical checks have a part to play in judging how accurately and how honestly the constraints are being portrayed, for instance in statistical information. So it is that practical reasoning or judgment in this sense accords applied rather than pure mathematics (and logic) the direct significance for valuations in general, and moral valuations in particular.
None of this would refute existentialist notions of our‘choosing’ or ‘creating’ our values, or even, more radically, accepting ‘absurdity’, thereby leading again to the moral nihilism which the theist most fears if we leave the issue in terms of pure thought or metaphysics. At that level truth sets no limits whatsoever on our values. But once the idea of a practical relevance for truth, especially with regard to the essential subject matter of ethics, i.e., how we relate to others individually and severally, is introduced we have the chance to develop a far more realistic conception of freedom which yet does indeed extend to values and ‘meaning of life’. At the simplest level we can recognise that, for instance, deliberate deception curtails the freedom of others whilst (usually) offering nothing in return. In such a way it is possible to recognise the extent of the freedom which we actually do confront, and the limited way actual specific truths will curtail it even for those who do not hold to a theist position, without going to the extent of some other post-modernist theorising and ascribing no role to truth at all.