Sunday, 24 March 2013

Thoughts on Truth

Richard Dawkins was in a very smug mood yesterday. He has decided that a good way to take a snipe at religious beliefs was to Tweet the following:
The question is not "Is your belief entitled to respect?" but "Is it TRUE?"
The question is not "How many millions believe it?" Nor "Did Isaac Newton believe it?" But "Is it TRUE?"
The question is not "Does it give people a sense of belonging?" Nor "Has it inspired great art and music?" But "Is it TRUE?"
I can see where he is coming from. Some apologists for religious faith do often point to how much good their faith may do, even if it is not true. But that's hardly the whole story. C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton, for example, argued precisely along the lines that Dawkin's laid out - what matters is truth, and that is what should bother us. Chesterton, in a dispute with Mr Blatchford, noted:
"The Blatchfordian position really amounts to this--that because a certain thing has impressed millions of different people as likely or necessary therefore it cannot be true."
Isn't there a hint of that lurking in Dawkin's position, that because millions believe something, but he thinks it is not true, that it cannot be true? He assumes that his own beliefs are, of course, beyond any dispute. He knows for certain; other people, the millions in his tweet, do not.
There's a false dichotomy here, of course. Millions may believe something and it may be true. Something may give a sense of belonging, and it may be true. The tweets almost set up a deliberate contrast, as if something that millions believe, or inspired great art and music cannot be true. And it leaves out agnosticism completely. The position that says: this is beyond the scope of truth and falsity.
It must be wonderful for Richard Dawkins to have such an omniscient sense of self-assuredness. Thomas Huxley, who coined the word "agnostic", and Stephen Jay Gould, who also professed agnosticism, had their own sceptical beliefs, but were careful not to elevate them to a kind of scientific infallibility; on the contrary, they were aware of the dangers of such a position. And of course it goes back to the ancient Greeks. Xenophanes professed doubt as to whether anyone could know what is really true, rather than "a woven web of guesses".
But the notion of truth itself can be a limiting concept in the Dawkin's scheme of rationality. Here is a parable.
"Listen! Once there was a man who went out to sow grain. As he scattered the seed in the field, some of it fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some of it fell on rocky ground, where there was little soil. The seeds soon sprouted, because the soil wasn't deep. Then, when the sun came up, it burned the young plants; and because the roots had not grown deep enough, the plants soon dried up. Some of the seed fell among thorn bushes, which grew up and choked the plants, and they didn't bear grain. But some seeds fell in good soil, and the plants sprouted, grew, and bore grain: some had thirty grains, others sixty, and others one hundred." (Mark 4:3-8)
Now a parable is a fiction, it is most decidedly something that has not happened. And most people, I suspect, when asked, will agree that it conveys something that is in some sense true. It is not scientific truth, a truth that can be measured in a test-tube or on a voltmeter, but it is true, nonetheless. There never was a Good Samaritan, but we know the type, as we know the types who just pass by on the other side and make excuses for not helping the suffering of a fellow human being.
And fiction does that as well; it illuminates the human condition.
Most people, even young children, have come across that slight masterpiece by Charles Dickens, "A Christmas Carol". It is not true. Like a parable, it is a fiction.
In fact, Dickens was going to write a much drier factual tract about the hardship that the poor faced. Instead he wrote a "Christmas Carol". But I think many people would say that it illuminates the human condition. It shines some light into darker corners, and it shows us how we ought to behave, and how we ought not to behave. But it is not a sermon; it does that by telling a story.
We are story-telling animals. The oldest written story in the world is the Epic of Gilgamesh, but cave paintings show storyboards, as it were, showing that even before writing came to be, we told stories.
These early stories we call myths. At the time they were written, no one made a sharp distinction between fact and fiction, between history and legend. We make that now, but we would live in a much poorer world if we dismissed the legendary or mythical because it told us nothing.
There is a story told Theseus, one of the Heroes of Greek Mythology. He comes across a servant girl who warns him of her master:
"Men call him Procrustes, or the Stretcher," said the girl-and she talked low and fast. "He is a robber. He brings hither all the strangers that he finds travelling through the mountains. He puts them on his iron bed. He robs them of all they have. No one who comes into his house ever goes out again."
"Why do they call him the Stretcher? And what is that iron bed of his?" asked Theseus, in no wise alarmed.
"Did he not tell you that it fits all guests?" said the girl; "and most truly it does fit them. For if a traveller is too long, Procrustes hews off his legs until he is of the right length; but if he is too short, as is the case with most guests, then he stretches his limbs and body with ropes until he is long enough. It is for this reason that men call him the Stretcher."
That's a legendary story. It is not a real story, and can be found with other stories, some about Medusa, or the Minotaur and the Labyrinth. It is more realistic in some ways, but that's not what the story is about. It is all about making things fit.
We can take the odd things that don't fit into our picture of the world, and dismiss them. We lay them on Procrustes bed, and stretch them to fit, or hack them off. It's a story about how not to look at the world. We should take the world as it is, and not try to squeeze it into our own narrow views, be they religious or scientific.
For it is not just religious faith that does this. The kind of scientism that Richard Dawkins peddles does just the same. Anything that doesn't fit into his concept of rational, and scientific explanation is chopped away so that what is left fits.
Truth in story is something that Dawkin's just can't fit into his scheme of things. It is a form of non-rational truth. That story and myth can explore the human condition, and show us things that are true about ourselves, like a mirror, is a concept outside the scope of his scientific rationalism.
The teacher Mr Gradgrind in Dickens's Hard Times is committed to one narrow vision of truth. He is described as "a man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over."
"Now, what I want is, Facts. . . . Facts alone are wanted in life."
I suspect that in our somewhat secular world, a lot of people don't spend a lot of time considering religious matters, any more than they consider politics as a prime motivator in their lives; they have other interests.
But they keep, I venture to say, a certain folk-belief, which can be regarded on the one hand as superstition, or on the other as an open attitude to the mysterious, to what we don't know, and to the notion that the world might conceivably not be as simple as some rationalists make out.
It's very much as Chesterton put it, that there is a kind of simplicity in Dawkin's rationality, but it is a simplicity which really leaves out most of what people find important about the world. It can only address one kind of truth, and doesn't know any kind of truth apart from that, and would cheerfully place those ideas on its bed of Procrustes and chop them away.
"As an explanation of the world, materialism has a sort of insane simplicity. It has just the quality of the madman's argument; we have at once the sense of it covering everything and the sense of it leaving everything out.  Contemplate some able and sincere materialist, as, for instance, Mr. McCabe, and you will have exactly this unique sensation.  He understands everything, and everything  does not seem worth understanding.  His cosmos may be complete in every rivet and cogwheel, but still his cosmos is smaller than our world.  Somehow his scheme, like the lucid scheme of the madman, seems unconscious of the alien energies and the large indifference of the earth; it is not thinking of the real things of the earth, of fighting peoples or proud mothers, or first love or fear upon the sea.  The earth is so very large, and the cosmos is so very small.  The cosmos is about the smallest hole that a man can hide his head in."

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