From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Russell Turpin)
Subject: Why care about truth?
Summary: Was: Normative aspects of belief
Date: 16 Jan 90 05:17:42 GMT
References: <email@example.com> <firstname.lastname@example.org> <email@example.com> <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Organization: U. Texas CS Dept., Austin, Texas
Mr Wingate asks:
> But why care whether a belief is true?
And for this question, I must give him a lot of credit, both
because it strikes at an assumption underlying much of my writing
in this thread, and also because it moves the discussion into
another realm. It moves past epistemology and into what might be
called meta-epistemology: why people choose the methodologies
they use to acquire positive belief.
Along these lines, I would like to correct a misconception of
Mr Wingate's, or at least to indicate where my lines are drawn.
> It is true that I have something that you lack, but it is also
> clear to me that I lack something that you have, something which
> makes faith impossible.
> My epistemology doesn't lead inevitably to faith. But it doesn't
> forbid faith. Yours clearly does, and for reasons which we don't
> seem to be getting at here. ...
My epistemology doesn't forbid faith, it simply lacks it. It is
not clear to me how an epistemology acquires faith when it is not
included at the ground level, if not directly, then embedded in
Moving past the epistemological, it is most likely that what
motivates me is different from what motivates Mr Wingate. In
this regard, I have no desire to make weaker claims or lesser
commitments. (Once one moves away from the epistemic, it is no
longer correct to talk about making assumptions, and unlike
epistemic assumptions, making fewer committments has no clear
And this returns us to Mr Wingate's question.
The first thing to note about the question is that it cannot be
answered on epistemological grounds, because it is questioning
the why behind epistemology. In other words, it cannot have a
true answer, because "Why truth?" is the question. There will
not be a resolution to it, a forceful argument or a decisive
rebuttal, the way there can be to questions within the epistemic
framework. Having said this, I will put forward a three part
answer, more in the way of narrative than argument. The first
part describes a problem that arises when one veers away from
truth as the epistemic lode star, the second shows how beliefs
can be structured without faith, and the third part explains an
advantage in staying the course. I should warn the reader that
I have not fully worked through some of the issues I broach; what
follows will in places be sketchy and have some holes.
I have no doubt that in these answers, Mr Wingate will find much
with which to disagree, because on this ground, a normative field
rather than an epistemic one, we undoubtedly conflict. Before
proceeding, I would like to turn the question around on
What goals, other than finding truth and avoiding error, do
you set for your epistemology? And why?
A Problem Innate to Faith
When one adds to one's epistemology -- one's methods for
acquiring positive belief -- goals other than finding truth and
avoiding error, an inevitable conflict arises. What happens when
a belief one acquires for one of these other goals conflicts with
a truth of the more mundane variety? Of a sudden, one is
involved in an odd compromise, which usually includes both of two
disagreeable acts. On the one side, one must acknowledge that
the 'additional methods' produce 'deeper truths' which conflict
with the more mundane ones. These methods have to be carefully
revised to reign in the potential havoc they wreak on mundane
truth, while maintaining them enough to yield the 'deeper truths'
for which one wants these methods in the first place. On the
other side, mundane truth is also modified. From the perspective
of someone without these other goals, one's view of "factual
matters" is biased by one's religion.
This conflict shapes the course of Christian thought since the
renaissance, and is ubiquitous in believers today. To point to
the most glaring example, one either changes one's interpretation
of Genesis, or one runs up against all of geological and
biological knowledge. Or to give another example, one either
rejects the inspiration of certain verses in the Old Testament,
or accepts that homosexuality is the result of sinful choice, or
admits that one can be cursed with an actual (not just potential)
The point is NOT that faith opens the door to creationism, but
that the kind of intellectual contortions seen in the
creationists are required for any substantial faith. It may be
that one's faith never required belief in sudden creation, and
that it never required viewing homosexuality as a choice, but
unless one's faith is paltry indeed, at some point it will
conflict with mundane truth. If one is fortunate, the article of
faith is minor or the truth it conflicts with is small, so that
making this compromise is easy. But one is already caught in the
process. Once one admits this at all, one cannot honestly
criticize from the basis of mundane truth those who make this
compromise in other areas. It becomes dishonest to criticize the
creationists *from the viewpoint of science*. (Creationism can
be made as philosophically bulletproof as any other faith, as has
been known since the Omphalos theory of the 19th century.)
Instead, the battle necessarily becomes one between faiths; that
the creationists added the wrong goals to their epistemology or
interpret God's word in the wrong fashion.
I see this compromise also in Mr Wingate's writings: in the way
he reads into non-believers characteristics that apply more aptly
to him; in his attempts to argue by redefinition; in his hints
that there are objective ways to decide that the Christian faith
is the right faith to choose, but his failure to produce these;
in his failure even once to state what he thinks the correct
route to faith is, and what it correctly means. Undoubtedly,
this is a biased reading. I offer it to him as such, so that he
can read through it whatever meaning he can.
Some fideists view this kind of compromise as a courageous and
important task. To them, the goals of faith (what goals?) are
well worth the price.
Belief without Faith
It may be that I have never made clear in all this dialogue just
how meagre my positive beliefs are. For the purposes of
exposition, I may have left the impression that the only
difference between me and a fideist is that I have fewer and more
sharpened epistemological tools for labeling a belief 'true'. In
this regard, many believers on the net have spoken of "choosing"
belief, and perhaps they think that I choose on a different basis
than they. The truth is that for me, positive belief almost
never involves choice. It doesn't need to.
There is no need of many assertions to decide whether or not they
are 'true'. What one knows about a belief can fully constitute
its epistemological status without ever having to categorize it
further. Rather than weighing evidence to reach a decision, the
evidence *is* the decision. My belief about a typical assertion
is, as a whole, my belief about how I learned it, what arguments
I know for it, what holes I see in the arguments, what evidence I
have heard, my knowledge of the evidence's sources, etc. In
short, I have taken to heart the idea that knowledge encapsulates
its own provenance, to the point that knowledge is provenance.
In all of this, there is little room for choice.
As an example, concerning whether HIV is the infectious agent for
AIDS, I know that it can be isolated in most AIDS patients, but
not all of them; that this inability has lessened as better
techniques are developed; that blood infection is evinced by
epidemiological patterns including studies of needle pricks and
blood transfusions; that screening for HIV apparently prevents
transfusion infection; that one biologist was arguing that HIV
was not the infectious agent against the ever stronger concensus
of almost all his colleagues; that one article gave as one of his
criticisms the low amount of virus particles found in AIDS
patients; that recent results (as reported in Science) have found
that the amount of virus particles is a few orders of magnitude
larger than previously measured ...
In all of this, there is no need to make an absolute assignment
of truth. Instead of a list of propositions one believes
'true' and another list of propositions one believes 'false',
there is a complex web of beliefs. Related beliefs are connected
to each other; sometimes one reinfoces another, sometimes one
conflicts with another. This web does not permit absolute
assignment of 'truth', but it does support deciding the relative
strength and weakness of beliefs.
Many will object to the lack of any absolute truth in this
scheme. The first thing to note in this regard is that absolute
truth is not required to decide between different courses of
action. Given any practical decision, there are finite
alternatives to decide between. The meagre web of belief I
describe is fully capable of deciding the relative merit of
various courses of action, thus giving reason to practical
Even though there is no absolute truth in this scheme, some
truths are as certain as one can get. One cannot doubt that
2+2=4 without doubting the working of one's own mind. One cannot
doubt that the sun came up morning last without doubting one's
own memory. As sceptical arguments show, one cannot be
*absolutely* certain of one's memory, perceptions, or thought --
Leibniz's demon might really exist and control all of these --
but we will depend on them nonetheless. Truths that cannot be
doubted without undermining the believer's own sanity are as sure
as anyone can demand.
One of the more practical things one does with beliefs is
communicate them to others. Communication always has a purpose
and a context. For this purpose and in this context, one selects
what beliefs to assert and how to do so. (It is hard to imagine
what would be effectively communicated by listing all one's
beliefs in random order.) The context often includes assumed
background beliefs and the amount of certitude required of truth.
To the question "Do you know if it is raining?" a student in a
graduate class on the phenomenological philosophers would be
naive to answer "Yes, just look out the window", while a
metereologist reporting the weather would equally fail to
communicate well if he starts a digression on philosophical doubt
about the ontological status of the external world.
This is one of the reasons that I frequently compare religious
beliefs to other kinds of beliefs; it establishes the context for
saying "I believe" and "I don't believe". In the web of my
beliefs, I can compare what I know about Jesus with what I know,
for example, about Buddha, and find that I have no more grounds
for believing that Jesus is god incarnate than I do for believing
that Buddha achieved nirvana.
The Advantages of Meagre Belief
The original question is: Why care about truth? Why not augment
the web of belief with "articles of faith" that have a purpose
other than knowing what one knows?
The web I describe contains positive beliefs -- matters of
(putative) fact linked by philosophic, scientific, historical,
and literary arguments which relate the truth of the linked
assertions. There are other kinds of beliefs which are not
directly included in this web: motives, commitments, goals,
hopes, fears, and dreams. There are two things I would like to
quickly note about these latter beliefs, which I will call
normative, even though that stretches the term some.
First, normative beliefs are indirectly included in the web of
positive belief. If one's greatest commitment is protecting the
environment, that does not establish the environment as a
standard of positive truth, but that it is one's chief commitment
is a matter of fact as long as one keeps it.
Second, normative beliefs are essential to human life, and in a
crucial sense are more important than positive belief. Facts --
positive beliefs -- are important only to people with particular
goals, fears, and dreams. Facts are no good to someone who has
It is now possible to put forth one reason for not assuming
normative beliefs as matter of fact. When one does this, it
blurs the distinction between what one knows and what one
chooses. Choices become embedded as fact, and then become set in
concrete, constraining what one might later choose and directions
in which one can grow. It is much easier, and more sensible, to
retract a previous choice than it is to deny what one thinks is
true. A simple example: it is one thing to reconsider one's
attitude toward homosexuals if one recognizes one's bias against
them as prejudice (normative belief), and something entirely
different if one thinks this bias is backed by "facts" (positive
By retaining this distinction, by never choosing fact, by never
taking one's normative beliefs as fact -- in short, by keeping
truth as one's *only* epistemic goal -- one retains the greatest
freedom in choosing one's normative beliefs. This freedom is
what many writers who fear the loss of faith (and some posters)
here have derisively and perhaps fearfully described as
"despair", the "emptiness of disbelief", or the "Void".
Existentialist writers first recognized this rhetorical device
for what it is, and showed how this void is a prerequisite to
(the cause of?) personal freedom. In this regard, inserting
articles of faith into one's epistemology becomes a way to short
circuit conscious choice and to mask the fact that choice is
People who treat their normative choices as knowledge reveal
their attitude toward (their fear of?) having to choose what
attitudes to hold; what goals to strive for; what joys to
cultivate; in all, how to live. Even the most open and liberal
variants of Christianity determine a normative background that
fills in that "Void". One makes one choice, and everything else
follows. When a Christian says that their religion gives meaning
to life, that "Jesus has ... given me more fullness than anything
I've ever known", I don't doubt it. I do wonder whether they
understand what they have done.
The "Void" that they see as the dark pit of nonbelief is to me
its beautiful and airy chamber in which one can choose how to
live fully conscious of the fact that one is, indeed, choosing.
Pretending this realm of choice is not there, by treating some
key choices as fact, denies much of the potential in life.
Choices that should be squarely faced are glossed over; to face
them, in the language of faith, is despair. What to them is
"despair" is to me some of the wonder of life.