Do Atheists Worship Truth?

This is a guest post by Eric Steinhart, Professor of Philosophy at William Paterson University.

Although many atheists seem hostile to metaphysics, that hostility is misplaced.  Any deep philosophical position is bound to presuppose some metaphysics.  Pure reason is also highly abstract.  Should pure reason be constrained by empirical evidence?   How?   All efforts to specify any criterion of empirical verifiability or falsifiablity have failed.  Science today is highly abstract – if you’re looking for other dimensions and other worlds, you don’t need to go to an occult bookstore, you just need to open a current scientific work in cosmology or basic physics.  Science abandoned naïve empiricism long ago.

Atheists, we should all hope, are committed to truth.  Truth is not a thing – it is a quality of things.  And the things that bear truth are strange entities like sentences, thoughts, maps, models, or formal propositions.  You cannot see or touch truth with your naked senses nor can you observe it with any instrumental extensions of your senses.  Neither microscopes nor telescopes will enable you to visually observe truth.

Truth is objective and mind-independent.  A truth-for-you and truth-for-me is not truth at all.  If there is no common standard of truth, then there is no truth.  If someone asserts that all truth is relative, then the question is: is that relativism true?  If so, then not all truth is relative.  Relativism refutes itself.  It’s hard to see why any atheist would affirm relativism and deny the objectivity of truth.  That would make Christianity true for Christians and naturalism true for naturalists; but there would be no common standard according to which those two doctrines could both be judged, with one found to be false, and the other found to be true.  There is one objective common standard for logical judgement: truth.

Perhaps human cognitive systems (brains, nervous systems, sense organs) are material things that are able to more or less reliably detect those truths that are relevant to the survival of human animals.  That is, when it comes to thoughts (or sentences or propositions) that are relevant to human survival, human cognitive systems are more or less able to distinguish between those that are true and those that are false.  But the system of truths relevant to human survival is a very small part of the truth.

And truth is weird.  As Tarski showed, if your language contains the expressions “is true” and “is false”, you’ll have to provide the definitions of those expressions in a higher-level language; and then in an even higher-level language; and so on endlessly.  As Pat Grim showed, there is no set of true propositions.  As Godel showed, within sufficiently powerful formal systems, like arithmetic, truth exceeds provability (so that there are truths that are not provable).  Note please that this does not mean that mathematics is uncertain.  But it does add up to this: there are truths that are not verifiable in any way at all.  Empirical verifiability is not truth.  Truth exceeds every logical attempt to define it.

Neoplatonists will say that truth is a power of being.  It is a power that is inherent, more or less, in thoughts, sentences, mental images, maps, photographs, works of art, scientific theories, mathematical axiom systems, and so on.  Truth is the quality that all true things have in common; they all participate or have their share in truth.  Truth has the power to influence behavior – you can act in accordance with the truth, and, if you do, your action is more likely to succeed.  One classical metaphor is that truth is a light that shines out of true things, that shines out of true abstract structures.  But truth is not a thing.

It’s hard to see why an atheist would deny truth: if you deny that there is any truth, is what you’re saying true?  It would be odd for anybody to affirm: there is no truth.  My guess is that atheists are going to affirm the reality of truth: an objective power of being that exceeds every attempt to define it.  Truth (like beauty) is a very high level ideal.  To use some philosophical jargon, truth is a universal rather than a particular thing.   On the Neoplatonic understanding of universals (which differs from Plato’s), to say truth is a universal does not mean that truth is a transcendental quality floating in some Platonic other-world beyond this universe.  Truth is a logical quality that is located within structures in this world and is wholly active within the world.  The power of truth is ultimate: deny it and you fail, follow it and you succeed.  So truth is an ultimate immanent power of being.

Truth is a power to which your mind and behavior must submit, on pain of failure.  If you don’t submit to it, you act in accordance with falsehood, and you fail.  Augustine, in the second part of his book On the Free Choice of the Will, identified truth with God.  It’s easy to see why atheists would want to deny that identification, and it’s hard to see why truth would be the Christian God that Saint Augustine worshipped.   It is impossible to identify truth with any theistic deity.  The theistic deity is a particular thing; but truth is not a particular thing, it is a universal.  Truth is not personal, it is impersonal; it does not transcend the world but is found in structures in the world; it does not intervene in the universe from outside, but it is wholly active within things in universe.

However, this raises the deeper question.  Paul Tillich wrote that “whatever concerns a man ultimately becomes god for him, and conversely, . . . a man can be concerned ultimately only about that which is god for him” (1951: 211).  For many atheists, truth seems to be the ultimate concern.  On Tillich’s definition of god as ultimate concern, it looks like truth is the god of the atheists.  Of course, it would not be the Christian God, nor would it be any theistic deity.   Is this right?  Is truth the god of the atheists?  Do atheists worship the truth?  I doubt it.  Perhaps it’s more accurate to say this: atheists revere the truth, and, for atheists, truth is holy, truth is sacred, truth is divine.

References:

Augustine (1993) On the Free Choice of the Will.  Trans. T. Williams.  Indianapolis: Hackett.

Tillich, P. (1951) Systematic Theology.  Vol. 1.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Other posts in this series:

Atheism and Wicca

The Wiccan Deity

The Wiccan Deity: An Initial Philosophical Analysis

The Wiccan Deity: Related Concepts in Philosophy

On Atheistic Religion

Nine Theses on Wicca and Atheism

Atheistic Holidays

Criticizing Wicca: Energy

Atheism and Beauty

Some Naturalistic Ontology

Criticizing Wicca: Levels

Atheism and the Sacred: Natural Creative Power

Atheist Ceremonies: De-Baptism and the Cosmic Walk

Atheism and Possibility

The Impossible God of Paul Tillich

Atheism and the Sacred: Being-Itself

Pure Objective Reason

Criticizing Wicca: Rationality

The God and the Goddess

Wicca and the Problem of Evil

The Wiccan God and Goddess: Reality and Mythology

On Participation in Being-Itself

Criticizing Wicca: God and Goddess

The Increasing Prevalence of Woo

Wiccan Theology and Sexual Equality

Revelation versus Manifestation

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://www.russellturpin.com/ Russell

    The problem I have with this account is that truth is not unitary. And maybe not even unifiable. Consider the following claims:

    1) There are infinite prime numbers.

    2) The cat is sleeping on the mat.

    3) All cats sleep.

    4) If you exercise, you’ll get stronger.

    Though they all are English assertions, in fact they express very different kinds of claims. The first is math, which we now reduce to logic. And we rigorously define what it means for a statement in pure logic to be true: it holds in all models of the formal system. That definition of “true” doesn’t work for the next three claims.

    The second is perhaps the simplest, a claim about current conditions of familiar objects. Presumably, the listener knows what the cat is, and knows what the mat is, and can go look and see if the cat is indeed sleeping there. The definition of “true” for such statements isn’t as rigorous as for logical assertions. But it seems the kind of statement where Tarski’s schema might have some leverage.

    The third statement is a more complex, for several reasons. a) It introduces some notion of classes of things. b) It has a historical scope. It’s a claim not just about current cats, but also past ones. c) It also has some future scope. Does any notion of truth for it need to account for the possibility that an experimental biologist, one day, will tinker around with cat genetics and make a variety that doesn’t sleep?

    The fourth is more difficult yet, because it introduces a kind of modality. Defining what it means for a counter-factual to be “true” runs into a host of philosophical difficulties.

    I’m not arguing against a notion of truth for any of these. Though I’m a bit skeptical that there is a clear notion of truth for general counter-factuals. What I am arguing is that different notions of truth are involved. Or at least, seemingly different notion, for which there isn’t now a unified account. A philosopher who argues that there isn’t a notion of truth for general counter-factuals doesn’t thereby collapse into relativism, because they might well hold to a notion of truth for other kinds of claims. In particular, the ones they are pressing.

    How much work is there in the the philosophical community these days to write a general theory of truth?

    • Ariel

      (1)The first is math, which we now reduce to logic. (2) And we rigorously define what it means for a statement in pure logic to be true: it holds in all models of the formal system. (3) That definition of “true” doesn’t work for the next three claims.

      Oh my. You got it completely wrong, I’m afraid. As for (1), “there are infinitely many primes” is not a theorem of logic; you can translate it into set theory at best. As for (2), the question is: which formal system do you have in mind. Some number theory? Some set theory? In both cases what you obtain is not a truth definition, but an explanation of what it means for a given sentence to follow (semantically) from a formal system. For first order systems this corresponds to theoremhood, not truth. As for (3), it looks really fine: your definion of “true” doesn’t work for the next three claims, I completely agree. But it doesn’t work for the first one either :-)

    • http://www.russellturpin.com/ Russell

      Ariel says:

      What you obtain is not a truth definition, but an explanation of what it means for a given sentence to follow (semantically) from a formal system.

      If that’s not truth, what is? It is commonly called “truth.” See the usual metalogic texts by Hunter or Boolos, for example.

      For first order systems this corresponds to theoremhood, not truth.

      Only if the 1st-order logic is complete. Godel’s famous theorem is precisely that any 1st-order logic for arithmetic isn’t complete in that sense. (2nd-order arithmetic is complete, in the sense that every true statement is provable, but since its theorems are not a recursive set, there’s no search procedure that will find the proof. Which is another form of incompleteness.)

    • Ariel

      If that’s not truth, what is? It is commonly called “truth.” See the usual metalogic texts by Hunter or Boolos, for example.

      I’m sorry but it is you who should check your manuals.

      “Now that rigorous definitions of formula and sentence, and of satisfaction and truth, have been given, we can proceed to the definitions of main notions of logical theory. A set of sentences G implies or has as a consequence the sentence D if there is no interpretation that makes every sentence in G true, but makes D false.” (Boolos “Computability and logic”, p. 119)

      Just in case you have problems with reading: Boolos gave earlier the definition of truth, and he proceeds to define the notion of consequence. Equivalent to the one you gave, thinking (mistakenly) that it’s a truth definition. Check the definitions please. (And yes, “interpretation” in the quotation is the same as “model”.)

      In the rest you are just as confused.

      Only if the 1st-order logic is complete.

      1st order logic is complete. Check “completeness theorem” in google.

      Godel’s famous theorem is precisely that any 1st-order logic for arithmetic isn’t complete in that sense.

      Godel’s theorem is not about 1st order logic (which is complete, whether it is “for arithmetic” or not), but about systems containing 1st order arithmetic. You are still confusing logic with arithmetic. Please try to check these two notions before commenting. And please, try to read something first before commenting. I’m not here to teach an elementary logic course.

    • http://www.russellturpin.com/ Russell

      First-order predicate logic is complete. First-order arithmetic is not. If you’re picking some nit about calling one a “logic” and the other a “system,” you’re the one who needs better reading skills.

    • abb3w

      For myself, I find the distinctions of relational (propositional logic), semantic (mathematical), correspondence (probabilistic translation of phenomena to noumena), and moral “Truth” to be conceptually useful as a model.

      For each of these categories, a correspondence can be set up to a poset (or in some cases, a poset-analog for a proper class), where “truth” corresponds to the supremum and “false” to the infinimum on the ordering relationship.

      Mind you, I’m just a dabbler.

  • SAWells

    “Neoplatonists will say that truth is a power of being”.

    Well, yay for them.

    Others might stick with simpler propositions such as: true statements are the ones which describe the world as it is, whereas untrue statements are the ones which don’t. And we might be incredibly cautious about reifying our description of things as “true” into some kind of immanent yet oh-so-real Truth.

    Eric, are you ever going to go back and make any substantive response to criticisms? Or are you just here for a length neoPlatonic wank? You have a great deal of unfinished business – e.g. your nine dubious theses are still teetering in the breeze and you won’t go back to shore them up.

    • http://www.russellturpin.com/ Russell

      True statements are the ones which describe the world as it is.

      What about statements that describe the world as it might have been, or could be, or should be? Can those be true? No one can talk five minutes, using just English that describes the world as it is.

      Of course, that might just mean that no one tells the truth for five minutes straight!

    • SAWells

      Well, if it is true (as far as we know) that such-and-such might be true, then the statement “Such-and-such might be true” is true (as far as we know).

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

      Take this statement:

      Luke Skywalker was a Jedi.

      Depending on what you take to be the world, this statement can be considered either true or false. It is not true about the world we live in because Luke Skywalker doesn’t exist, and neither do Jedi. So if that’s the limit of the world for you, then the statement is clearly false (not indeterminate, but false). If, however, you are talking about the fictional world of Star Wars, then the statement is, in fact, absolutely true, and again not indeterminate. I know that Luke Skywalker was a Jedi, and so the statement is true, but asserting it as a truth about the world outside of movies is obviously false. So if we want to stick to our intuitions about truth and falsity, we have to account for this somehow. And if you solve it by saying that truth can reference other and even fictional worlds, or that the world includes all fictional concepts as well, then there doesn’t seem to be anything interesting said by saying that true statements describe the world as is; it seems no less vague than saying true statements are those that are true since “world” covers pretty much any possible realm where you could have a meaningful statement.

    • SAWells

      Yup. Was there a problem?

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

      It doesn’t actually allow us to do any better at saying what is true than what we had when we were just defining them as true. Your definition should help us identify true statements, but for the most part the only thing we can get out of your definition depend on our existing intuitions about what is true. So it’s not a good definition.

      You never said, for example, if your definition of “world” included truths about fictional worlds or not.

    • SAWells

      My whole point is that the label “true” is one we attach to statements when we think they correspond to the way things actually are, as far as we know. That’s all there is to it; there is no reason to reify some kind of Truth which is Immanent and a Power and yadda yadda yadda.

      And yes, sometimes you can’t decide the truth of statements without more context. In the context of Star Wars, Luke is a Jedi. In the context of the real world he’s a fictional character in a story, and the story describes him as a Jedi. I still fail to see why we have to get our panties in a knot about this.

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

      Well, that would be your theory. Eric has a different one. I’m not sure that either is right, at least in part because I’m not sure what either your views really entail. But I do know that you don’t get anywhere by simply saying that you have a different definition and you’re right and he’s completely wrong; there are issues with your definition if you don’t define it clearly. For example, I have heard people use your definition of truth to deny that mathematical truths are truths because they aren’t about the world. It sounds like you won’t do that, but you should be able to see why I raised the example of fictional truths. If you accept fictional truths, you probably accept mathematical truths, but then would clash with people with a narrower view of the world, and would be open to the same challenges they muster against mathematical and philosophical truths.

      It’s not about panties and bunches, but about figuring just what exactly our terms mean and what it means that they mean that.

  • grung0r

    Coincidentally, I have also written an essay(just like I had for your last post) that is highly relevant to this topic. I hope you, and everyone else enjoys.

    Atheists, we should all hope, are committed to ugliness. Ugliness is not a thing – it is a quality of things. And the things that bear ugliness are strange entities like sentences, thoughts, maps, models, or formal propositions. You cannot see or touch ugliness with your naked senses nor can you observe it with any instrumental extensions of your senses. Neither microscopes nor telescopes will enable you to visually observe ugliness.

    Ugliness is a power to which your mind and behavior must submit, on pain of failure. If you don’t submit to it, you act in accordance with beauty, and you fail. Augustine, in the second part of his book On the Free Choice of the Will, identified ugliness with God. It’s easy to see why atheists would want to deny that identification, and it’s hard to see why ugliness would be the Christian God that Saint Augustine worshipped. It is impossible to identify ugliness with any theistic deity. The theistic deity is a particular thing; but ugliness is not a particular thing, it is a universal. ugliness is not personal, it is impersonal; it does not transcend the world but is found in structures in the world; it does not intervene in the universe from outside, but it is wholly active within things in universe.

    However, this raises the deeper question. Paul Tillich wrote that “whatever concerns a man ultimately becomes god for him, and conversely, . . . a man can be concerned ultimately only about that which is god for him” (1951: 211). For many atheists,ugliness seems to be the ultimate concern. On Tillich’s definition of god as ultimate concern, it looks like ugliness is the god of the atheists. Of course, it would not be the Christian God, nor would it be any theistic deity. Is this right? Is ugliness the god of the atheists? Do atheists worship the ugliness? I doubt it. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say this: atheists revere the ugliness, and, for atheists, ugliness is holy, ugliness is sacred, ugliness is divine.

    Keep ‘em coming Eric. Post-modern mad-libs is a really fun game.

  • Ariel

    As Godel showed, within sufficiently powerful formal systems, like arithmetic, truth exceeds provability (so that there are truths that are not provable). Note please that this does not mean that mathematics is uncertain. But it does add up to this: there are truths that are not verifiable in any way at all.

    May I know how you derive the existence of “truths that are not verifiable in any way at all” from Goedel’s theorem?

    • http://www.russellturpin.com/ Russell

      I know when I was a math student, if I or other student claimed that something were true, whether surgical possibilities on manifolds or the measurability of a set, a proof was the only basis on which such claim was accepted. Of course, there may be some who claim they can know mathematical truths without the need for proof. But if you accept the notion that the way to verify a mathematical claim is by proof, then Godel’s theorem implies what Ariel says.

    • http://www.russellturpin.com/ Russell

      Ooops: reference confusion. That should have been “what Eric says,” not “what Ariel says.”

    • Ariel

      I know when I was a math student (…) a proof was the only basis on which such claim was accepted. Of course, there may be some who claim they can know mathematical truths without the need for proof. But if you accept the notion that the way to verify a mathematical claim is by proof, then Godel’s theorem implies what Eric says.

      No, it doesn’t, and it’s one of the popular misconceptions concerning Goedel’s incompleteness results. The (first) incompleteness theorem states: (a) “for every axiomatizable, sufficiently strong, consistent system there is a sentence independent of this system”. It doesn’t state: (b) “there is a sentence independent of all axiomatizable, sufficiently strong, consistent systems” ((b) is patently false, by the way). And observe that Eric’s claim “there are truths that are not verifiable in any way at all” is formally more similar to (b) than to (a). Obtaining it from Goedel’s theorem requires some nontrivial moves. I was just curious whether Eric has some argument here.

      By the way, I hope you will accept my apologies for the tone of my last comment directed to you. It was a difficult moment in my life. My wife was yelling at me, my kid was yelling at me – and being too weak to fight these superpowers, I (sort of) yelled at you. Sorry about that.

    • http://www.russellturpin.com/ Russell

      Ariel writes:

      No, it doesn’t, and it’s one of the popular misconceptions concerning Goedel’s incompleteness results. The (first) incompleteness theorem states: (a) “for every axiomatizable, sufficiently strong, consistent system there is a sentence independent of this system”. It doesn’t state: (b) “there is a sentence independent of all axiomatizable, sufficiently strong, consistent systems” ((b) is patently false, by the way).

      That’s so. You can add the independent sentence as an axiom. Or its negation. That’s one of the lemmas that (IIRC) is labelled Lindenbaum’s.

      The problem is, you don’t know whether it’s the sentence or its negation that is compatible with arithmetic. Which has a complete definition in the 2nd-order theory. *That* system is categorical — it has only one model, up to isomorphism. The only problem is that not every truth in it is provable in it. Now, yes, you can add to its axioms to increase how much you can prove. The problem, again, is there is no telling which way is the right way. One way creates an inconsistent theory (assuming it is consistent as it stands.)

      By the way, I hope you will accept my apologies for the tone of my last comment…

      It’s forgotten. Forgive me for working from memory — all my logic texts are packed away. ;-)

    • http://lifetheuniverseandonebrow.blogspot.com/ One Brow

      The problem is, you don’t know whether it’s the sentence or its negation that is compatible with arithmetic. Which has a complete definition in the 2nd-order theory.

      Oftentimes, both are. The Axiom of Choice, and it’s negation, are both compatible with artihmetic, IIRC, in the sense that it has been proven that is ZF is consistent, than so are both ZF+AC and ZF+~AC.

    • abb3w

      Proofs are the primary but not the only way statements are taken as true in mathematics. The other is by the statement being taken as an axiom.

      It’s not a direct result of Gödel’s Theorem (I don’t think), but the Theorem is related. Statements that are independent of the Axioms, such that neither Affirmation nor Refutation may be derived (unless the system is already inconsistent), may have either Affirmation xor Refutation taken as an additional axiom, such that the new axiom system remains as self-consistent as the original.

  • jacobfromlost

    I can’t say I agree with much of any of this. Your definition of “truth” seems to be tacitly changing quite often, and there is an implication of “absolute truth” floating about that seems to be taken for granted.

    As an atheist, I have no problem with metaphysics AS metaphysics (or abstractions AS abstractions). When people start making claims beyond that, I start to worry.

    Also, I wouldn’t say some TRUTHS are not verifiable in any way at all, if in this instance you are defining “truths” as fundamental properties of existence. I would say the Laws of Logic are foundational, not “true”, as true would require a model to correlate to an observation (and even with this correlation, we can never be absolutely sure, hence cannot say it is absolutely true). However, if the Laws of Logic are not foundational, there can be no models, no correlations, and no observations (and so there can be no indicating true things or false things). If we don’t accept that a thing that exists (in whatever manner it exists) is what it is and is not what it is not and can’t be both or neither, then there cannot be truth nor falsehood nor anything else. You can’t apply the label “true” to the foundational Laws of Logic any more than you can apply EVIDENCE to them, because they are foundational to BOTH truth statements and evidence–ie, there can be no truth statements, no false statements, and no evidence of any kind, if the Laws of Logic are not foundational to everything, including themselves. Can you have evidence that evidence is evidence without relying on the Laws of Logic as foundational? Can you say that it is true that true statements are true without relying on the Laws of Logic as foundational? No. Therefore calling foundational elements “true” misses the point entirely. They simply are what they are and are not what they are not and are not both nor neither…and what they are is abstract and metaphysical, not “true”, as there is no condition under which they could be “false” (ie, not apply).

    • http://lifetheuniverseandonebrow.blogspot.com/ One Brow

      You can’t apply the label “true” to the foundational Laws of Logic any more than you can apply EVIDENCE to them, because they are foundational to BOTH truth statements and evidence–ie, there can be no truth statements, no false statements, and no evidence of any kind, if the Laws of Logic are not foundational to everything, including themselves. Can you have evidence that evidence is evidence without relying on the Laws of Logic as foundational?

      The “Laws of Logic” (I find the capitalizaiton inappropriate, since there is no one law, much less group of laws, worthy of capitalizaiton) are foundational, but also arbitrary. You need to have a formal framework to discuss things formally. However, this framework is an arbitrary construction, with precepts chosen arbitrarily by us.

    • abb3w

      And some such starting points are reducibly equivalent. The form of logic that results from the Robbins Axioms is identical to that from the Boolean axiom; the results from axioms of ZF are equivalent to those of vNBG.

  • felicis

    I’ve yet to see any evidence for this statement: “many atheists seem hostile to metaphysics”, yet it forms the thesis for your last couple of posts. Perhaps you could expand a bit on that (as well as maybe giving the less philosophically educated among us a little description of just what metaphysics is that we should either be accepting or hostile to it?)…

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      Well, look at the comments on my previous posts.

    • SAWells

      Yes, do PLEASE look at the comments, don’t just take Eric’s word for what’s in there.

  • http://psychoticatheist.blogspot.com/ Psychotic Atheist

    I guess you are taking quite a bit of criticism for these essays. Allow me to add another voice to the critics: You start by saying

    Although many atheists seem hostile to metaphysics, that hostility is misplaced

    And then launch into an explanation of what I would characterise as epistomology, by describing atheists as seekers of truth, of having a definition of what truth is, whether some things can be known to be true, and so on.

    I do however agree, that many atheists have metaphysical positions. The position ‘God does not exist, or is unlikely to exist’ is an ontological claim so is a position on metaphysics.

  • Belial

    The question in the title is horrible. You might as well have asked if theist desecrate reason or do xtians drink beer with Buddha.

    Please understand that your framing is broken and not consistent with rational thought. You’re down a rabbit hole of complicated abstract philosophy. Worse, your attempts to describe “truth” aren’t consistent with each other.

    Picking a sentence at random:
    “Truth is a power to which your mind and behavior must submit, on pain of failure.”

    Um, no. When you act as though reality is wrong, you have a problem. Your notion of truth has some resemblance to reality but it’s tenuous resemblance.

    I don’t understand the deal with submission though. I’ve never really wasted much time trying to use the power of my mind to fly (sans aircraft). As a rational being, I can make pretty good guesses about the Real World(tm) and avoid ‘pain of failure.’

    Belial
    (currently submitting to my chair by sitting on it, and submitting to air by breathing it)

  • Steve Schuler

    Hey Eric!

    Well, you certainly are taking a lot of heat in the comments to your posts, and being the tender-hearted guy that I am I can’t help but feeling a bit of sympathy for you. Yes, some of the comments are written with a pretty ascerbic tone, but we all know that serious philosophhy isn’t for the thin skinned or the faint-hearted.

    Looking over the comments to your last post on atheism and beauty, it appears that the overwhelming concern and focus by commentors was on the objective nature of beauty. By my rough count approximately 12 people questioned or rejected this notion with 1 person speaking in defense of the objective nature of beauty.

    I am not sure that this constitutes evidence of the “hatred of metaphysics” by some atheist or not, but I don’t think that it does. That you never responded in defense of your proposition about the objective nature of beauty makes me wonder if you have any defense to provide. If not, then thus it is…

    I can understand that you might prefer to move ahead in this series, and I don’t mean to torment you by bringing this up. My apologies if I am beating a dead horse.

    Peace

    Steve

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      Indeed serious philosophy is not for the thin-skinned! I’m more than happy to hear from critics, though I do want to keep things moving along, as I’m aiming to get back to Wicca and atheism. I’m eager to see whether the folks who think beauty is subjective also think that truth is subjective. I’ve been moved to wonder whether atheists think truth is holy, sacred, divine. Ultimately, since Camels With Hammers is devoted in part to philosophy of religion from an atheistic viewpoint, that’s my question.

    • Steve Schuler

      Truth, Beauty, and Goodness might fairly be considered to stand as my personal Trinity of what one ought to pursue both in thought and deed. Obviously, there is nothing original in my claim to the virtues of this ancient Trinity and I would do better at rationalizing their philosophical value than providing a compelling case of precisely how to define them and to reasonably justify their central role in philosophy, in life. But then again, I consider myself a philosophical neophyte and am better suited to learn than to teach.

      Carry On!

      Steve

    • http://therobotmonster.tumblr.com Trent Troop

      Let me lay down at least what this atheist thinks:

      1) Beauty is all but certainly subjective and exists only within the minds of thinking beings. It is a reaction to stimuli by minds, specifically the minds of at least one (possibly more) species of animals on the planet Earth. This reaction is likely a combination of biological impulses and cultural values.

      Definitions and standards of beauty vary from individual to individual in the human species and we have no verification that animals wildly different from ourselves have even the vaguest concept of what beauty is, beyond perhaps a primal impulse to gravitate towards pleasurable things.

      I’ve seen some discussion of evolutionary psychology (nothing really testable yet, sadly) that suggests that a lot of the things we find beautiful are so because there are survival advantages. We tend to like things that sparkle and shine. This may be because in the wild, if you see something that sparkles and shines, it’s probably a lake or stream in the distance. The protohumans who liked ‘shiny’ and found it ‘beautiful’ had a survival edge of those who didn’t, as finding a shiny stone instead of water and treasuring it didn’t harm survival risks as not caring about either and dying of thirst.

      If at least some element of the ‘that is beautiful’ impulse exists to help apes find water on the savannah, then it is hardly an objective trait. Were a reptile to suddenly be made sapient, it would not find mammary glands beautiful as I do. Nor do I find the mammary structures of, for instance, a cow beautiful.

      For beauty to be an objective trait of an object, independent of an observer’s opinion, it would have to be recognizable to any observer without variation. This would include non-human minds. There would have to be a means of measuring it objectively, as we can measure other objective traits (mass, size, density, color (in the sense that light reflected/emitted is within a given bandwidth of the spectrum), etc.)

      Unless you propose the idea that beauty is somehow an objective trait but that differing creatures, or even individuals in the same species, can have ‘beauty sense’ of varying acuteness. The problem here is that all our other senses measure objective phenomena and through study we have determined how they do so. Whereas a ‘beauty sense’ involves no impulse or stimuli outside of those senses and occurs entirely within the brain. Where the rest of the subjective data processing goes on.

      The legwork to show that beauty is objective has not been performed (at least in anything I have seen or read) beyond mushy, wibbly-wobbly word-games barely more meaningful than “God is love, love is blind, Ray Charles is blind, Ray Charles is God”.

      2) Truth is a measure of the accuracy of statements. Anything beyond this confuses language and reality and rapidly breaks down into semantic games. The assumption that truth is a ‘quality’ things possess is incoherent.

      Truth is a weasel-word with an ever-shifting definition which holds no descriptive value in the way that it is used by philosophers, religionists and woo-artists. Statements describing the world can be accurate or inaccurate. Inaccurate statements can be inaccurate by varying degrees. One might say “the Earth is round” and be wrong. However, they would be less wrong than the person who says “the Earth is flat”, as an oblate spheroid is more like a sphere than it is a coin-shaped object.

      3) What I see here is a lot of attempts to salvage some element of “meaning” to existence. If I’m misreading the impulse I’m sorry. As an existentialist, I see this as no different than asking “why” when you should be asking “how”.

    • http://therobotmonster.tumblr.com Trent Troop

      Ugh, major phrasing issue. Kindly read:

      “The protohumans who liked ‘shiny’ and found it ‘beautiful’ had a survival edge of those who didn’t, as finding a shiny stone instead of water and treasuring it didn’t harm survival risks as not caring about either and dying of thirst. ”

      As

      “The protohumans who liked ‘shiny’ and found it ‘beautiful’ had a survival edge of those who didn’t, as finding a shiny stone instead of water and treasuring it didn’t harm survival chances as much as not caring about either and (more frequently) dying of thirst.

  • Art

    Worship the truth seems to me to take it too far. Worship strikes me as too strong a word. And “Truth” also seems too absolute. The wording I would go for is that atheists prefer the better answer. When and if an even better answer comes along I will drop the first and adopt the one that gives better, more effective and workable, answers.

  • SAWells

    I’d also like to take issue with Eric’s claim that “Truth is objective and mind-independent. A truth-for-you and truth-for-me is not truth at all.”

    Since “My name is Stephen Wells” is true when I say it and not when Eric says it, and “It’s Tuesday” is true one day out of seven, the idea of truth being inherent in sentences looks pretty ropy, doesn’t it? Truth is a description of the relation between statements about the world and the way the world actually is (as far as we know). Reifying it into some neoPlatonic TRUTH doesn’t win you anything.

    Amicus neoPlato, sed magis amica veritas :)

    Eric, since you do apparently read comments, your nine theses are still all wrong, do have a look when you have a moment, there’s a good chap.

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

      I don’t see how this addresses any questions of truth being mind-dependent, which is what you are objecting to. You are talking about propositions that depend on the context for their truth, but once we make the appropriate reference to the appropriate contextual objects those statements are universally true. If you and I both say “It’s Tuesday”, if we are in the same relevant context then that’s going to be equally true or false no matter what our minds are like.

      Ultmately, here you’re at least partly confusing a sentence with a proposition. When you say “It’s Tuesday”, the natural language sentence is that, but the proposition is not. The proposition is “The current day is Tuesday”, and once you figure what what the current day is then that proposition is true. What the current day is changes from day-to-day, but not the proposition itself, nor do the steps we’d need to take to determine its truth. The same thing holds for “My name is Stephen Wells”. The proposition really is “The speaker’s name is Stephen Wells”, which again is going to be universal once we’ve figured out who “the speaker” refers to.

      But there’s no mind dependence here at all; it’s all mind independent, if anything is.

      I loosely agree with your definition of truth here, but then have to ask you the million dollar question: what sort of relation IS that relation between the proposition and the world? You aren’t saying anything by calling it that sort of relation until you can define what that relation is. For example, Betrand Russell held at least at one time pretty much that position, but he insisted that it was a relation to a specific truth object in the world, and that that was the part of the world that you hooked up to to get truth. I highly doubt that you’d like that sort of position, so then what sort of relation do you have in mind?

    • SAWells

      “what sort of relation IS that relation between the proposition and the world?”

      One of description. True statements describe the way things are, false ones describe the way things are not. I honestly don’t know what other kind of answer you were expecting. “I’m sitting down” is currently true for me because my current posture is, indeed, chair-supported in the gluteal region. “I have wings” is not true because I am not alate, otherwise my shirt wouldn’t fit.

      I’m also not pretending to be able to categorise all statements as true or false – “I don’t know” is often the valid answer.

      Eric’s thing about Truth as an Immanent Power just seems kind of weird if we have to imagine this Truth coming to inhabit “It’s Tuesday” on Tuesdays and going away again on other days.

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

      Wouldn’t this mean, then, that to you truth is mind-independent and objective? Then you’re agreeing with him on that, but just don’t like how he goes about making that work out argumentatively.

      Note that you are conflating how we DETERMINE truth with what truth really is. A proposition is either true or false, but you may not be able to determine which. Or, at least, that’s one theory. Saying “I don’t know if that proposition is true or false” does not mean that it is neither true nor false; only if a proposition is indeterminate could you possibly say that, and even that’s controversial.

      Your final paragraph might be a challenge to Eric’s view of truth as a Immanent Power although you need to ascertain exactly what his definition is to see if it’s really a problem.

  • http://lifetheuniverseandonebrow.blogspot.com/ One Brow

    As Pat Grim showed, there is no set of true propositions.

    There is no set of cardinal numbers either. However, there is a proper class of cardinal numbers, and the same seems to be true for the class of true statements. What this means is that there are too many truths to number, even infinitely. However, this doesn’t put true statements beyond our logical grasp, any more than cardinal numbers are beyond our grasp.

    I think your characterizaiton of Tarski’s and Goedel’s results over-reaches just a little bit. Both apply strictly to the domain of formal languages. In any formal process, you need to start with axioms that are not verifiable within the formal process. This applies whether your formal process is a discussion of truth, mathematics, or a game of chess.

  • satan augustine

    What happened to the other “Do atheists worship truth?” post? I had posted at least twice in the comments section and those appear to be long gone now. What gives?

    Did some of us give wrong answers? (I ask that sarcastically). Were some comments deleted and, if so, why? My comments were on topic and respectful.

  • B-Lar

    I love truth. Its the only thing that matters, because its the only thing that is real.

    Truth is the absence of any deception or delusion (and ommission, althought part of the truth can be just as true as the whole truth depending on whther the ommision is deceptive or not.). Truth is that which is. Deception and delusion are things that are not.

    We create deception and delusion. Truth was always there, as unshakeable as reality. I high five Ghandi thus:

    “There is no god greater than Truth” – Ghandi


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