Posts Tagged ‘knowledge’

Whither Truth?

January 25, 2009

While the intuitive meaning of truth seems obvious, contemporary philosophers and other scholars have no broadly-accepted definition. The epistemological (epistemology: the nature of knowledge) stakes are high and have gone in many interesting directions. In illustrating some of the dilemmas, permit me self-consciously to mix categories to show a couple of more extreme options with fideism, a theory of truth, vs. postmodernism, a cross-disciplinary perspective. The careful observer will see both of these at work in contemporary Western societies.

Fideism (from Wikipedia):
Alvin Plantinga defines “fideism” as “the exclusive or basic reliance upon faith alone, accompanied by a consequent disparagement of reason and utilized especially in the pursuit of philosophical or religious truth.” The fideist therefore “urges reliance on faith rather than reason, in matters philosophical and religious,” and therefore may go on to disparage the claims of reason. The fideist seeks truth, above all: and affirms that reason cannot achieve certain kinds of truth, which must instead be accepted only by faith. Plantinga’s definition might be revised to say that what the fideist objects to is not so much “reason” per se — it seems excessive to call Blaise Pascal anti-rational — but evidentialism: the notion that no belief should be held unless it is supported by evidence.
The fideist would claim we ascend the mountain of human knowledge, but even having ascended to the top, there are ultimate truths and realities that are still unobtainable by rationality, so one must make the leap of faith into the arms of God. A current expression of this heard in church circles would be to “let go and let God.” There is no rational (or as per Plantiga above, evidential) reason to believe that there is a god to catch the aspirant, but because she believes, she moves into places beyond the pale of the merely rational.

Postmodernism (also Wikipedia):
Postmodern philosophy is skeptical or nihilistic toward many of the values and assumptions of philosophy that derive from modernity, such as humanity having an essence which distinguishes humans from animals, or the assumption that one form of government is demonstrably better than another…. Postmodern philosophy is often particularly skeptical about simple binary oppositions characteristic of structuralism, emphasizing the problem of the philosopher cleanly distinguishing knowledge from ignorance, social progress from reversion, dominance from submission, and presence from absence.
Most varieties of post-modernism despair that there may be no absolutes and everything is relative, or if there are absolutes, they are unknowable. Note that when pushed to the extreme, believing that that can be no absolutes, particularly absolute truth, this becomes a non-rational faith perspective that is self-contradictory: how can we know absolutely there is no absolute truth when there IS no absolute truth from which to learn such?

Is all of this just “the talk on a cereal box”? Interestingly, many postmodernists would agree, even as their hermeneutic (interpretive scheme) rests on a deep, philosophical foundation. And, too, the fideists would claim the only meaningful truths are revealed by God, so rational and evidential inquiry is ultimately fruitless. Even if some of the fideists were right, the truths they arrive at contradict the truths of other fideists coming out of different faith perspectives, unless one wants to claim that fideist knowledge is absolutely subjective, in which case it is not truth in a widely-accepted sense. Likewise, it seems to me that the radical postmodernist gives up without trying and ultimately lapses into nihilism and hedonism. I would argue aesthetically (so again, with a non-rational motivation) that the pursuit of truth is a beautiful, noble, and worthy thing; life is a journey and not a destination.