Friday, March 21, 2008

The Argument from Disagreement in Action

My favorite writer at National Review, John Derbyshire, has deployed the Argument from Disagreement over at the Corner. The Derb styles himself a "mysterian", but it is hard to tell the practical difference between him and an atheist.

In this case, Derb cites the varieties of religious belief as a reason to be skeptical of religion, and he compares the truths of religion with those "corny, laughable old non-transcendent" truths, among which he cites E=MC squared and Euler's Equation. And, of course, it is certain that it is more difficult to become certain of religious truths than it is of the truths of math and the physical sciences (which isn't to say that such certainty is unobtainable.)

But we may compare the corny, laughable old non-transcendent truths with religious truths in another way. The object of religious truth is the end of man, or the point and meaning of his existence. Knowing the end of man or, if he doesn't have one, that in fact he does not have one, is necessary to understanding the nature of man. And understanding the nature of man is essential to living a reasonable life, a "reflected life." Unfortunately, Euler's equation and anything like it doesn't help you at all in discovering the nature of man (other than the fact that man is the kind of creature who can know Euler's equation.) The non-transcendent truths the Derb cites are very useful as means but no use at all as ends. They are very useful at helping you achieve your goals but no help at all in knowing what those goals should be. Of what use is it to have a supremely fast car if you have no idea in what direction to drive it? This is an image of the modern world: A world of high-powered sports cars driving in circles, the quest for ever more speed and technical virtuosity an end in itself because we know of nothing else to do. Derb doesn't like the Space Shuttle and International Space Station programs because they serve no purpose outside themselves: The point of the Space Station is to be a destination for the Shuttle, and the point of the Shuttle is to have a means of getting back and forth from the Station. But these two programs encapsulate nicely the philosophical state of the modern world. We are unsurpassed masters at technical achievement but have forgotten how to know anything in non-technical terms, the only terms in which the end can be known.

Science and mathematical truth is more certainly known than much of philosophical truth (but not necessarily religious truth, and not philosophically known, self-evident principles), but it is less valuable than philosophical or religious truth, or truth about ends. This was a truism of ancient philosophers: "The slenderest knowledge of the highest things is worth more than the most certain knowledge of lesser things" (St. Thomas Aquinas). The two qualities of truth are its nobility and its certainty, and "it is the mark of an educated man and a proof of his culture that in every subject he looks for only so much precision as its nature permits" (Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics). We in the modern world have lost all sight of the nobility of truth; for us, the only noble truths are certain truths. Thus the truths of mathematics look "pretty good" compared to religious truth because the only scale on which we know to judge truth is by its certainty. But they don't look so good when you are not just trying to get to Miami, but trying to understand why the heck you should even be going there in the first place.

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