The Spectacle Blog

The Assault on Truth

By on 3.5.14 | 4:26PM

Asserting that Truth is knowable is punishable by guillotine in contemporary philosophy. Last week, Gary Gutting interviewed philosopher Louise Antony on the possibility of God’s existence. It’s safe to say that the heads of both philosophers will be spared.

The interview led to the fundamental question of what it means to know something in a genuine sense of the word:

[L.A.:] I don’t think that when two people take opposing stands on any issue that one of them has to be irrational or ignorant.

G.G.: No, they may both be rational.

I can’t agree with either Antony or Gutting. If two people have properly functioning rational faculties, and if they arrive at contradicting conclusions, then at least one reasoned poorly, dare I say wrongly? Of course, that assumes the decapitating position that truth is not subjective.

Antony tosses my objection into the “abstract” world:

In the real world, there are no epistemic peers — no matter how similar our experiences and our psychological capacities, no two of us are exactly alike, and any difference in either of these respects can be rationally relevant to what we believe…we have no idea how to seriously compare the cognitive powers of two people.

But there is no abstract world apart from the real world; there is only reality—composed of both the abstract and the practical. When we say something works only in the abstract, we mean it simply doesn’t work. Reason has reached its limits. Conversely, if a position contradicts what reason tells us is necessarily true, then the position is false. The distinction between something working abstractly and working practically doesn’t hold up.

Natural reason is that common cognitive playing field that Antony denies is attainable.

How could we know that? To start, it’s impossible to deny. Gutting says:

…on your view we don’t have any way to judge the relative reliability of people’s judgments about whether God exists…Then shouldn’t each of you [the theist and the atheist of equal epistemic power] recognize that you’re no more likely to be right than your peer is, and so both retreat to an agnostic position?

In other words, because there is no firm ground to believe, one should not affirm some proposition one way or another. But unless that statement itself is true—indeed, True—then we can’t even make that bare claim. Not being able to “judge the relative reliability of people’s judgments” would disable us even from being able to judge that rational handicap, trapping us in a mindless rut. Either claim would require that we admit that there is such a thing as Truth, and that it is attainable.

Better to lose our heads than our minds.

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