Thursday, March 19, 2015

Off The Mishnory Road: Absolutes

I’ve long held the belief that any man who’s willing to assert the absolute truth of even one statement must eventually accept that every well-formed statement – i.e., a statement that either posits a fact or a causal mechanism -- is either absolutely true or absolutely false, men’s contrary opinions notwithstanding. The concept behind that assertion is, of course, that there is such a thing as absolute truth – objective reality itself – which makes my notion quasi-tautological. For all that, note how few persons are willing to contradict the anti-objectivity propagandists of our time. That latter sort is permitted to gambol about screaming that “There are no absolutes!” virtually without contradiction – not even a murmur of “Including that one?”

Note how this applies to argument. This significant episode related by Mike Adams:

When I asked another feminist to debate me on abortion she said that she didn’t discuss such personal topics publicly. But then I read her biography. After talking about losing her virginity (including details about how she cleaned the blood off the couch afterwards) she dedicated countless pages to the issue of abortion and how a “lack of choice” adversely affects young women. After reading on, I realized why she didn’t tell me the truth. She revealed that she was a postmodernist who didn’t like to use the word “truth.”

The next time I got into an argument with a feminist – over whether a female student who lied about a rape to get out of a test should be expelled – I understood the postmodern feminist position better. Feminists just can’t help but lie because there really is no such thing as the truth.

Since so many feminists cannot tell the truth - because it doesn’t even really exist - I simply cannot take them seriously.

Columnist Maggie Gallagher once wrote that if there is no such thing as objective, absolute truth, then all our statements to one another are merely instruments of manipulation, attempts to use one another, or to avoid being used. Apply that insight to Mike Adams’s encounter related above, and ponder the implications.

A couple of recent political polls have presented the reader with an intriguing question: “Among the following issues in current political discourse, which would be your ‘hill to die on?’” To select any of the subsequent choices – or an issue not listed – would imply that the reader holds that position as “a matter of principle,” not to be compromised at any price. But given how few persons grasp the meaning of principle, we might prefer a clearer statement: “My position on this issue is absolutely right; therefore, I cannot be persuaded to retreat from it.”

In that connection, have a favorite quote from Herbert Spencer:

I asked one of the members of Parliament whether a majority of the House could legitimize murder. He said no. I asked him whether it could sanctify robbery. He thought not. But I could not make him see that if murder and robbery are intrinsically wrong, and not to be made right by the decisions of statesmen, then similarly all actions must be either right or wrong, apart from the authority of the law; and that if the right and wrong of the law are not in harmony with this intrinsic right and wrong, the law itself is criminal.

...and a snippet from 1984:

The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command. His heart sank as he thought of the enormous power arrayed against him, the ease with which any Party intellectual would overthrow him in debate, the subtle arguments which he would not be able to understand, much less answer. And yet he was in the right! They were wrong and he was right. The obvious, the silly, and the true had got to be defended. Truisms are true, hold on to that! The solid world exists, its laws do not change. Stones are hard, water is wet, objects unsupported fall towards the earth’s centre. With the feeling that he was speaking to O’Brien, and also that he was setting forth an important axiom, he wrote:
Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.

If Spencer and Orwell were correct, then our adversaries’ entire campaign consists of the assertion that two plus two can be made not to make four by political decree. Ponder the implications of that.

There is an underlying objective reality. All the froth and gas about the irremediable uncertainty of human knowledge is merely an attempt to confuse the issue: to substitute human limitations for that metaphysical postulate. While we can never achieve absolute precision in our knowledge of reality, we can approach it asymptotically. The Principle of Correspondence, the very heart of theoretical physics, expresses that postulate as well as it can be expressed.

Consider also the Aristotelian approach to definition: the assignment of objects to categories on the basis of their shared properties. No other approach to definition makes abstraction, and therefore reasoning, possible – and it rests immovably upon the assumption that an object’s properties are objectively real rather than mere matters of opinion.

It is possible that objective reality has a dynamic aspect – i.e., that some or all of the laws of nature change over time, albeit very slowly. Indeed, modern cosmology is founded on that conjecture. However, whatever reality is at a given instant is what it is. Quoth Star in Robert A. Heinlein’s Glory Road:

"May it please milord hero, the world is not what we wish it to be. It is what it is. No, I have over-assumed. Perhaps it is indeed what we wish it to be. Either way, it is what it is. Le voila! Behold it, self-demonstrating. Das Ding an Sich. Bite it. It is. Ai-je raison? Do I speak truly?"

Either that truism is true beyond the possibility of refutation, or there’s no point in saying anything at all.

One point of these “Off The Mishnory Road” pieces is to deflect current conversation from politics, a realm in which “everybody’s got a right to an opinion,” to the bedrock upon which all argument must be based, political argument most emphatically included. Given that, this essay should be considered the prerequisite to all the others. It’s rather a pity that that didn’t occur to me up front, but here we are.

In effect, I want us to be equipped to make the following statement to a political opponent:

“Regardless of how passionately attached we are to our respective positions, we can’t evade this: one of us is right and the other is wrong. We have to have some criteria to determine which is which, if our politics is to be beneficial rather than harmful. What criteria should we use? In other words, what evidence would persuade you to reconsider your position, and what evidence would persuade me to reconsider mine?”

Evidence – facts – data from objective reality – is the only means by which any position can be verified or falsified. He who is not prepared to accept the possibility that data might exist that contradict his position has elevated it to an article of faith...and you know it’s useless to argue matters of faith.

More anon.


Dr.D said...
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Backwoods Engineer said...

"'...what evidence would persuade you to reconsider your position...?'"

You know and I know Progressives, Marxists, Leftists, and other truth-benders will never, NEVER ask such a question. Their entire worldview would fall apart, and they cannot abide that. They will cling to the Death of Truth Express, even as it roars and screeches on sparking steel wheels through the broad gates of Hell.

ApoloDoc said...

I am pleased to see you making this point, Fran. For a number of years I have made noise in various corners of the 'net making my plea for Logic and Critical Thinking to be attended to. State-directed education has certainly fed into this post-modernist trend towards relativism...and "feelings" as the ultimate standard. Few young people even grasp basic rules of logic, struggle to grasp TRUTH, and are unable to recognize logical fallacies that they are bombarded with every day.

I do take issue of you characterization of "faith" as though it is somehow outside of the realm of logic and reason. There are REASONS for the faith that we have. When Jesus was approached by followers of John the Baptist and asked if He was the Messiah, Jesus did NOT merely say "trust me, have FAITH." He talked of the miracles He had performed, He gave them evidence to support who He was. We do not have BLIND faith. I have very strong reasons for the faith I hold in Christ.

Francis W. Porretto said...

Please don't mistake me, ApoloDoc. Faith is not somehow independent of reason; it merely involves propositions that can neither be proved nor disproved. That aspect of our convictions is what makes faith important. It's also what makes it unavailing to argue about articles of faith.

Every phenomenon in our temporal realm can be explained at least two ways. Irreproducible phenomena, which includes everything we call a miracle, are beyond the sort of empirical testing that would confirm or disprove any proposed explanation. We who believe are unable to prove our beliefs, but those who disbelieve are equally unable to disprove them, which is why they constitute articles of faith. I'm very serious about this stuff, as I was once a physicist.

Consider the "global warming" advocates. They won't accept that any imaginable development would constitute conclusive disproof of their thesis. Therefore it cannot be disproved, which makes it an article of faith. The only way to lure them into the rational realm is to get them to commit to the possibility that such developments could occur...but they won't. So our comeback is that their thesis isn't the result of reasoning, but of unreasoned conjecture. That actually makes it more a matter of faith than Christianity, since there is written evidence for the life and ministry of Christ (just not conclusive, irrefutable evidence).

ApoloDoc said...

The atheist left operates far more on "blind faith" than they will acknowledge. Frank Turek expressed this with wonderful irony when he titled his book "I Don't Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist" pointing out the mass of evidence that points towards a theistic world and ultimately that Jesus is who He claimed to be.

I would define miracle slightly differently, more in terms of a violation of our known laws of physics. This is really just semantics, though. We deduce laws of physics by repeated, observed phenomena so this really comes back to your point.

Falsify "global warming" huh? Yeah, it is interesting to define a 'belief' so vaguely that it cannot be falsified => therefore they always claim it is true. Rather funny coming off the coldest February on record in some places.

Whether or not we can falsify a proposition is only one approach to "truth." Historical truths are known differently, and we DO believe that we can know history. We could not have criminal court convictions without the ability to examine evidence to logically deduce past events. There are clearly held principles in examining historical evidence to assess and validate their reliability. Unfortunately non-thinking people refuse to do this and won't examine the evidence for the historicity of Christ. I disagree about how conclusive the evidence is for Christ. Carefully examined it is quite compelling. People are convicted and sentenced to death with far less conclusive evidence!

All of this underscores the devastating effect of the corrupted educational process in our "public schools." What a joke! Then again I'm just a middle aged white Christian veteran so we know what that makes me!

Keep up the writing! A voice of one crying in the wilderness and all that!

Anonymous said...

ApoloDoc, your assertion regarding the historicity of Christ in relation to what believers "know" of him is in itself a leap of faith. I'm not arguing with you, I can't disprove your theory, but you also cam not disprove the theories of disbelievers. Christ, as a historical figure, existed. That's practically all that is known about him. I am an atheist, albeit a non-militant, conservative one, and my stance on "faith as faith" is in line with Fran's. Any assertion for or against faith IS an expression of faith. We can argue 'til we're blue in the face, no one can present irrefutable evidence, because it doesn't exist. But this is ok. Our personal leaps of faith, and the "articles" we refer to, are based on something deeper, and potentially immutable. I think of it as a higher power "switch" in our brains, and whether this switch is "on" or "off" determines if we accept all that follows from believing or disbelieving. You wouldn't be an authentic Christian if you didn't truly believe, if you didn't hold your personal beliefs to be somehow "superior" to mine. (They may in fact BE superior to mine, not correct in my estimation, but possibly superior, at least as touches human relations...think about THAT for a minute) But you can't say that your beliefs are empirically true, just as I can not. They're ALL based on faith.