Friday, March 12, 2010

Truth, Knowledge, and Comparative Worldviews

[I have used the following essay for some of my undergraduate courses in philosophy.]

I. Truth and Knowledge

The central question for the first section of our course is how moral claims fit (or do not fit) into a larger philosophy of life. Ethics deals with truth-claims about matters of moral value. The classic and common-sensical definition of truth is: That which corresponds to reality (although some dispute this). (I defend this view of truth in chapter four of my book, Truth Decay.) So, a statement is true only if it is made true. If I say it is 72 degrees in our Ethics classroom on September 17, 2007, at 7:00 PM, and it is, in fact, 72 degrees at that time, then my statement is true. It is true whether or not I had any good reason to assert it. Philosophy concerns truth-claims: statements about what it taken to be real. But how can we know what is true and what isn’t? Philosophy is also necessarily concerned with deriving knowledge. The classical definition of knowledge (going back to Plato) is justified, true belief. So, for a person to have knowledge of any statement (P):

One must belief that P.
P must be true.
P must have adequate justification or warrant. That means that there is sufficient reason to believe P.

Knowledge is, therefore, a privileged or advantaged kind of belief. Not all beliefs rise to the level of knowledge, since our beliefs may be either false or unwarranted. One can accidentally believe P and P end up being true. Consider this example: You have no idea how old Bill is, but you guess that he is twenty-four. You later find out that he is twenty four. When you guessed his age you held a true belief, but one without knowledge, since your belief lacked warrant or justification. On the other hand, one may have good reasons to belief P and P end up being false (because one was not able to have access to evidence that showed P to be false). For example, you believe that Sarah was born in Africa because she looks and sounds African. Moreover, she associates with many people you know to be African. However, it turns out that Sarah, while raised by native Africans, was born in another country and then moved to Africa at a young age with her family. In this case, you had some reason for your belief (you were not irresponsible in your judgment), but your belief was not true, nevertheless. You did not possess knowledge.

II. Worldviews and the Moral Meaning of Life

The first section of this course looked at Eastern religions, atheism, and theism (mostly Judaism and Christianity, but I mentioned some things Islam not included in the textbook) with the goal to determining which of these broad worldviews provides the best account of moral meaning. In other words, which worldview provides moral knowledge (justified true belief about morality)? Although we addressed religious worldviews, which are often taken “on faith” apart from reason, we tried to assess these worldviews philosophically. That is, can a religious worldview offer a reasoned defense of itself as a source of moral knowledge? In a philosophy class, religious truth-claims need to be addressed philosophically. That is, do they give good arguments or supply good reasons for their truth claims? We saw that Eastern religions, atheism, and theism cannot all be true because they affirm views that conflict with each other. Consider the differing claims about ultimate reality:

1. Eastern religions claim that ultimate reality is an infinite and impersonal sacred state that transcends the human, such as Nirvana in Buddhism. Spiritual liberation is release from the human condition. Ethics are instrumental to that end.

2. Atheism claims that the universe is all that exists. There is no sacred state above the material realm. Ethics must be based on some aspect of the material world, since nothing else exists. Russell, Sartre, and Camus all emphasize struggling against the evils of life despite the fact that life itself has no ultimate meaning.

3. Theism claims that the ultimate reality is a personal and moral God, who is infinite—that is, unlimited and perfect—and who created the world out of nothing (ex nihilo). Christianity and Judaism (but not Islam) further claim that humans are made in God’s image and likeness. Morality is based on a personal God who reveals truth to humanity.

III. Toward a Philosophically-Integrated Worldview

Many people operate intellectually with a dichotomy between an upper story and lower story concerning their beliefs. (For more on this see, Francis Schaeffer, The God Who is There [InterVarsity Press, 1998.])

Morality, spirituality, personal/private truth, faith. Not verifiable or reasonable. Things not knowable.
Facts, science, objective truth, reason. Things that are knowable.

But philosophically, the goal is to have an integrated worldview or philosophy of life. One’s beliefs about the most important things in life should at least aspire to knowledge, not rest in mere belief or hope without sufficient evidence. Philosophy can help one sort out one’s worldview in this respect.

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