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.
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.
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