Category Archives: Realism vs. anti-realism

Limits and Importance of the Law of Love

In Matthew 22:37-40, of the New International Version, we read the following.

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

How does the moral law “hang on” these two commandments? For instance, can we use these two commandments to decide that premarital sex is immoral? No, but they do tell us that there is an objectively correct answer to the question and God has determined the objectively correct answer.

To love is to will the good of the other. We cannot choose that things good for God happen to God for nothing bad could happen to God So, to will good for God is to will, or always try to will, the good God wills. The good God wills for people is lives in accordance with the moral laws since lives in accordance with moral laws are good lives for humans. For God always wills what is good.

Next, to love our neighbors as ourselves is to will for them the same good life we will for ourselves when we correctly will what is good for ourselves. Hence, to love our neighbors as ourselves is to will, or try always to will, that all of us live in accordance with the moral laws God has laid out for human beings.

The limits of the two laws of love are that they do not tell us any definite moral rules. And, of immense significance, they do not tell us that any feelings of love are a guide to morally correct behavior. The importance of the laws of love are that they tell us that there are objectively true moral answers and getting and following these right answers lead to good human lives.

Coherence and Theories of Truth

This post is terminological clarification. I hope to clarify what appears to be totally dismissing coherence as an important feature of a philosophical world view.

I not talking about what are sometimes called “coherence theories of truth.” Coherence theories of truth propose that a true sentence is one which “fits in” with a large body of other sentences which are accepted as correct. Coherence theories are not realist theories of truth. So, I, as a realist, am not concerned with coherence theories of truth.

I have proposed that ordinary human thought about reality is essentially incoherent. But this incoherence is not an obstacle to getting the truth as is inconsistency. If we tolerate self-contradiction we cannot really think what is true if we think at all. Incoherence only leaves some alleged questions unanswerable. At worst, incoherence is a barrier to getting the whole truth. For instance, we can think of no way of systematically connecting how we talk – think – of thinking and how we talk about the physical. This incoherence is typically, if not always, exposed by philosophic questioning requiring an answer to a question which assumes the law of excluded middle? For instance, we ask ourselves “Is an image inside the skull or is not?” Or: “Is motion being at a succession of places or is it not?”

However, we can apply “coherent” to things in addition to thought and word. I have said nothing against thinking of reality as an immense complex unity with everything somehow connected with everything else.

The type of coherence I am explicitly setting aside is a requirement for realist theory of truth conditions. This requirement is that there be a search for one set of basic elements and one set of basic rules for their combination to provide truth conditions for all claims. Ultimately, the same kind of elements and structures should make true claims about the physical, biological, psychological, social and supernatural, if such there be.

There is no hope of doing so. Standard philosophical problems show that we have no way of talking about such a basic uniformity in reality. And, of most importance, such a requirement is a requirement for a theory of truth conditions. As, I have brought out, there can be no theory of truth conditions. See Theory of truth All that a realist theory of truth can specify is “A true sentence says of what is that it is or of what is not that it is not.”

To link with earlier posts, I can say that here I am explicitly dismissing the Parmenidean Postulate that the order and connection of thought is the order and connection of reality. See Parmenidean postulate However, we can still hold with Parmenides that being is one.

Morality a Foundation of the Supernatural

If there is truth, beauty, goodness and holiness independent of human thought, then this objective truth, beauty, goodness and holiness are supernatural realities along with the human capacity to perceive them.

I am seeking the foundations of divine command morality. So, I focus on goodness. Since I am a professed moral realist holding that authoritative moral theory is correct, it is not surprising that I need the supernatural for the realm of reality in which divine commands are given and heard.

Discussion about belief in more than the natural should be divided into two parts. Part one is whether or not there is such a belief. Part two has two parts. Is such a belief to be interpreted as about something apart from it, viz., interpreted realistically? Or,is such a belief to be interpreted as a human invention.

Two famous arguments in moral theory show clearly that moral thought cannot be reduced to thought about the natural. Hume’s famous observation that “ought” cannot be derived from “is” show clearly that moral obligations are more than what is the case. To modify the opening remark of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, let us say that the natural contains only what is the case. G.E. Moore’s observation that attempts to define “Good” in terms of natural states of affairs is always question-begging – what he called the “Naturalistic Fallacy”- shows that belief that something good is not to be understood as belief in any natural condition.

Since humans do think morally, humans do think of the supernatural. Admittedly, it is not usual to classify morality as supernatural. Typically, the notion of supernatural carries the connotation of the action or force of something non-human as well as non-natural. However, a bit of reflection on moral thought soon, as I hope I have shown, leads to the ideas of a moral authority to whom all of our actions are transparent.

Here is a list of a few supernatural realities.
The moral obligations of a human being such as “Do not kill!”
The goodness of a natural human condition such as human knowledge
The moral agent causality of human beings, viz., free will – the ability to choose what is good and what ought to be done
The beauty of a landscape
The holiness of a site
The truth of a sentence

I wish that I could do more than claim that we have to take a stance on whether or not moral thought is purely a human invention or is given by a reality apart from it. One has to take a stance on whether or not to be a moral realistic. I can only add that unless one constantly keeps in mind philosophical motives for being an anti-realist the human default stance is realism about morality.

It is in this supernatural realm of the moral that we must specify how moral commands are given and received and how an order of morality is developed. The moral order will be complex because not only are there basic commands there are also many ad hoc rules because of violations of basic commands. These ad hoc rules can be eliminated by restitution and retribution.

Much takes place in moral reality. Humans with our physical, mental and social capabilities interact with the moral. There is no coherent account of how humans interact with the supernatural. But in the previous post it was pointed out that consistent talk is enough. We can talk consistently of the physical, mental and social interacting without any real hope for giving a coherent account of the interaction.

In a subsequent post, I hope to characterize how commands are given and received.

Distinguishing the Supernatural From the Natural

In distinguishing the supernatural from the natural I am making truth claims. However, my truth claims are about our ways of thinking and speaking about what is real and unreal. They are not directly about the realities we might call the natural and supernatural. For instance, I am not talking directly about the truth of a claim such as “Her cure was miraculous.” I am talking about what I mean by saying her cure was miraculous. In short, I am talking about conceptual schemes as opposed to what the schemes are used to represent. Sometimes talking about thinking is called second order thinking as opposed to first order thinking which is saying of what is that it is a certain way.

These second order claims can be true or false. But their truth is not so directly dependent upon realities as that of first order thinking. Truth of second order claims is filtered through human consensus. Second order claims are offered to human thinking as proposals on the best ways to think directly about reality. In short, they are claims describing and correcting, if necessary, the fundamental human conceptual scheme, viz., the way of thinking to distinguish between the real and unreal. If in the opinion of those who think in this second order way about realities my characterizing this way of thinking aptly characterizes their way of distinguishing real from unreal, then there is support for my truth claims about the way of distinguishing real from unreal. Note that support for me would come not only from the consensus. Support comes from other’s agreement that these are appropriate ways of thinking about the reality with which they are acquainted. Reality is not ignored in the forming of the consensus.

It needs to be emphasized that agreement with my proposed conceptual scheme for distinguishing real from unreal need not be agreement on what I think is real and unreal. For instance, someone could agree with me that I have characterized a supernatural reality properly. Some might well agree that if there were supernatural realities, they would be as I have said they would be. However, they might go on to argue that their experience and efforts to explain how things happen and what there is show them that there are no supernatural realities. They would claim that the supernatural is an empty category. They might add that they can understand acquaintance with supernatural realities as natural mental occurrences. However, they should not proclaim that the notion of “supernatural” is meaningless or that it is impossible there be anything supernatural. I am working under the assumption that the only impossibility is logical impossibility; there cannot be anything whose description is logically inconsistent.

I, though, believe that there is a supernatural reality. But what is it? Here are some of my beginning speculations.

First: supernatural realities are dependent upon the Transcendent for their existence. Of course, then, the Transcendent is not a supernatural reality. Fundamental metaphysics is not an investigation of the supernatural. However, realities dependent upon the Transcendent which are clearly not any kind of natural reality would be supernatural realities.

At this point, I am using “natural” in the broad sense in which it is opposed to the supernatural. I am not here using “natural” in the narrow sense in which it designates the material or physical in naturalism as a philosophy.

The supernatural realities are those which are not any kind of natural realities. What, though, are the natural realities? I characterize the natural epistemically. Natural realities are those humans develop beliefs about with use of human empirical reason. Supernatural realities are those human beings develop beliefs about with faith. Faith is itself a supernatural reality. So, only with faith can one develop beliefs about faith! (This role I attribute to faith may require correction as I go forward.)

Human empirical reason is that which we use in developing beliefs about the physical, mathematical, social and moral.

So, a first outline of my conceptual scheme for distinguishing the real from the unreal is as follows. There is the supernatural and everything else is natural. The categories of the natural are the moral, mathematical, social, mental, physical and material.

Reality of the Supernatural

This brief post applies a post from May 2021, Truth of Spiritual Claims to my previous post of December 2021. Here, however, I write of supernatural reality instead of spiritual reality.

It is a fallacy to conclude from “Reality – what exists – is one” that “There is only one kind of existent in reality.” There are no rules of careful thinking which show that someone who thinks Luke’s account of the Annunciation is an assertion of what happened believes in a fiction. I think Luke’s account speaks of what was and how it was a couple of thousand years ago in Nazareth. To emphasize: I say “Luke’s account is true” to express my intention to endorse Luke’s account as a correct account of reality.

Of course, an angel speaking and a virginal conception are not normal or natural occurrences. So, careful critical thinking requires distinguishing then from the normal or natural. Depending upon a person’s intellectual standards and those of communities of people whose approval he wants, distinguishing these non-normal events from normal events requires careful distinctions which are probably of no interest to the vast majority of people.

A product of this careful thinking is to specify the distinction between what one asserts with religious faith from attempts to describe and explain what normally exists as a distinction between talking of supernatural instead of natural reality.

Careful critical thinking does not endorse presenting this distinction as between the real and unreal.

True as an Intention Marker

The intention of getting it right

“Getting it right” is a relational phrase because the phrase can, and unless context makes it clear, should be completed with a specification about what one intends to get it right. For instance, get it right about the theory of evolution, get it right about what Christians believe, get it right about the IRS rules on charitable giving, and get it right about what Alfred Tarksi and Donald Davidson wrote about truth. The list could grow very long. In am interested in two: getting it right about reality and getting it right in reasoning.

I cited Tarksi and Davidson in my sample list to provide an occasion to apologize for ignoring philosophical literature on truth. I am terrible at exegesis. To figure out why a philosopher wrote something on a topic I have to figure out why I would think what was written. To figure out what I think I need to develop my own theory of the topic. Because I assume the writer was trying to get it right about the topic, I assume the writer was trying to think as I do. The result is that I distort the writer as thinking my way. Of even more significance for dispensing with exegesis, I conclude that if I have to think the issue out for myself as a preliminary, why risk attributing to someone else errors of my own thinking.

As already indicated, the phrase designates an intentional activity. Usually, people simply speak without being clearly conscious of what they intend to accomplish by their speech acts. Of course, though, intending without an articulation of an intention is typical of intentional activity. Sometimes, though, the intention of speaking is indicated by a warning or emphasizing phrase.

For instance, phrase such as “once upon a time,” “according to what the Hindus belief” and “just possibly” indicate that the intention is not to tell truth. The phrases “true” indicates an intention to get it right about reality. Because “true” is an explicit indicator of an intention adding true to what we are saying adds nothing to what we say.
Thus:
To say “P is true” to say no more than P. Famously: “Snow is white” is true if and only if snow is white.

However, the word “true” is still very important for indicating the intention to say what is right about reality. As I have been arguing in several posts, the word “true” need not be interpreted as a designating a relational property of our sentence to reality.

I have shown that we can doubt our ability to think anything accurate about a reality apart from what we say. So why do I propose that there is an intention to get it right about reality? The list of topics about which we can want to get it right is immense. Usually when we want to get the truth, there are many topics in the context about which we need to get it right. To solve any problem involves solving many problems.

I grant that for a theoretical account of seeking to get it right we do not need to assume there is a reality beyond thinking and speaking. Theoretically, we can dispense with the unclear believe in such a reality – things in themselves. However, philosophy has existential interests as well as theoretical interests. Ockham’s razor need not be used in philosophy. A postulate – a faith – that there is something fundamental underlying all the other passing things about which we can get it right is legitimate provided that we do not accept any picture of its stucture as more than a heuristic for providing theories about it.

Mention of theories provides an occasion for calling attention to another fudamental intention for getting it right. We want our thinking to get it right in reasoning by being in accord with he best – the clearest and most convincing reasoning. For better or worse, mathematical reasoning has frequently set the ideal for reasoning at its best. In philosophy the aim is to think in accordance with reason at its best; it is not to get it right about reality apart from reasoning. I call attention to this intention for getting it right to find a place for philosophic reasoning; especially the kind of high level metaphysics which develops theories about the Transcendent. Claims about the foundation of reality beyond reality will not be claims about reality. We intend our metaphysical claims to be in accord with best reasoning.

Skepticism About the Fact Value Distinction

At the beginning of my philosophy training, I was taught the basis for the sharp distinction between fact and value. The philosophy classes convinced me of the correctness of the fact/value distinction which seemed to be a dogma in my University of Minnesota humanities course. From David Hume I learned that we cannot infer and “ought” from an “is.” Statements of fact do not logically entail a claim about what ought to be done. From G.E. Moore I discovered that “good” cannot be defined with any factual characterization. We can always ask of any X allegedly defining “good” “Is X good?” The word “good” should add something to whatever else describes X. This open question shows that our language does not permit reducing the value good to any set of facts.

In my previous post, I made a case that we should not take seriously pictures of how reality gives us truth. I traced taking such pictures seriously back to an assumption that structural features of our thinking gives a picture of the structure of reality. Taking the fact/value distinction as reflecting a fundamental feature of reality is unnecessarily projecting a structural feature of our thought on reality. It’s unnecessary because we can believe there is a reality making our thoughts correct or incorrect without having any account of how this comes about.

There is a bias accompanying this assumption of thought’s fact/value distinction mirroring reality. The first statement of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus forcibly expressed our “fact bias.” Die Welt ist alles, was der Fall ist. Reality is everything which is the case. There is the vast domain of facts with values being projected upon the facts by humans. We do not have to take this metaphysical picture seriously as showing some fundamental feature of reality. Indeed, if we choose to talk of structural features of thought being projected upon reality, we could talk of the fact/value dichotomy as being a projection.

What is the significance of setting aside the fact/value distinction as reflecting a fundamental feature of reality? For me it increases immensely the intellectual respectability of moral and religious thinking. Of course, even if moral and religious thinking with the intention of “getting it right” is in principle as capable of “getting it right” as scientific thinking, there can be greater danger of being stupidly and dangerously wrong in moral, and especially, religious thinking. Religious thinking is always in danger of leading us into superstition and fanatism.

Perhaps, on another occasion, I will argue that the fact/beauty distinction is not fundamental. Perhaps, what is true, what is good, what is beautiful are all equally fundamental in reality although I could never picture how this could be the case.

I close with four remarks on what I am not proposing.

First, I am not proposing setting aside the law of non-contradiction as fundamental. For what, though, is it fundamental? Inconsistent thinking can never “get it right.” This is not because we project consistency on reality as a fundamental feature. Consistency is fundamental to our operation of thinking to “get it right.” Inconsistency frustrates our intentions to think we have truth because we deny we have a truth when we have one.

Second, I am not sure that the law of excluded middle is fundamental to our thinking.

Third, I am not recommending any changes in how we speak except for not speaking as if the fact/value distinction is a fundamental truth about reality. I prefer to say that a moral law is valid rather than true.

Finally, I am not totally dismissing the fact picture of truth conditions. I believe that the picture of reality as a vast domain of facts may be a valuable heuristic for scientific thinking. At least for me this fuzzy picture of reality layed out as objects and processes in a vast domain of which natural science keeps giving us an ever more clear picture is a valuable heuristic for believing natural science “gets it right.”

A Skepticism Which is a Genuine Antidote to Nihilism

This post reflects the thesis of an earlier post We Cannot Know that We Know

In the fifthteen and sixteenth centuries skepticism supported nihilism by undercutting religious beliefs. Twentieth and twenty first century nihilism is supported by dogmatic adherence to scientism. Traditionally skepticism removes knowledge to make room for faith. Skepticism can resume its traditional role by undercutting nihilism with skepticism about scientism.

Scientism is the faith that there is nothing but that whose order and connection is uncovered by the methods of natural science. The “stuff” of science is the “stuff” of reality. I characterize scientism as a faith to avoid distractions from attacking the roots of scientism with superficial attacks upon scientism as a knowledge claim or faith in a successful practice. Scientism is easily refuted as self-referentially inconsistent when characterized as the theory that we can know nothing but that which is known by the methods of natural science. Science does not address the truth or falsity of scientism.

Scientism is a temptation. Despite the critiques of scientism as a doctrine, I am tormented by a thought that if I were honest, I would not hope that reality be such that religious claims be true of it. A man betrays his wife if he hopes for a love with a woman which is higher, better, etc., than any love he can ever has with his wife.

What is that to which I ought to be faithful by not seeking more than scientism? It is not any scientific theory. For a principle of science is proposing all theories as in principle refutable. Science, so to speak, is not married to any theories. There actually is not any scientific community to which one can owe any deep loyalty.

I fear that I am betraying truth by hoping that more than what can be discovered by science is true. How might I be betraying truth? I have a picture of reality as that which provides truth conditions for what we think and say. This picture is of an immense plurality of separate things spread out in some spatial temporal order. It is a very fuzzy picture. Even fuzzier than my picture of the cosmos with galaxy upon galaxy. Nonetheless it is a significant aspect of my realism that there is a reality apart from sensing or thinking. As a beginning student of philosophy Wittgenstein’s Tractatus articulated this picture for me. It seemed to me to go to the heart of what philosophy should say.

I write “significant aspect” because my aim here is to use skepticism to separate a picture of truth conditions from belief in truth conditions. I do not betray truth by setting aside pictures of truth conditions. Indeed, I betray truth by fantasizing something else as showing me the truth about truth.

As fuzzy as this picture may be, it leaves no place for whatever it would be that makes religious accounts, such as Luke’s account of the Annunciation, true. Whatever makes claims true in this fuzzy picture is composed of, constructed from, stuff – the separate things. Reality, if such there be, that makes religious claims true is not built up from simpler components.

According to the picture underlying scientism the only real possibilities are those which are compositional. Thus on the realism which underlies scientism, God is not possible. And whether they admit or not, millions of educated people are realists about science and also hold something like that fuzzy pluralist picture of truth conditions. It is “the facts out there which show science gives the truth.” Thus for millions, nihilism threatens because of what I have called “modal atheism.” A modal atheist holds that God is not a real possibility. See my A Kantian Condemnation of Atheistic Despair, New York 1998

The faith I aim to undercut is faith in human thought as representing reality only if it represents reality as constructed from elements. Human thinking, though, is compositional. I do not want to cast total doubt about human thinking. I aim to cast doubt upon the associated belief that reality is structured as thought is structured. The scepticism which undercuts deep scientism is skepticism that the order and connection of reality is the order and connection of human thinking. I have called this the Parmenidean Postulate.

The standard philosophical problems provide enough evidence to cast doubt on this picture of truth conditions. An old, but classic, dismissal of this picture is the Appearance part of F. H. Bradley’s Appearance and Reality. A more recent critique is Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979.

I do not want to cast doubt on one picture of reality to make room for faith in another picture of reality. The target of my skepticism is pictures of reality. I can have faith that there are truth conditions without any picture of truth conditions. I will not choose between pluralism and monism. I only cast doubt on the pluralistic compositional picture.

A corollary of dismissing attempts at an account of how descriptions are true of reality is that there is no epistemology that tells us how truth is attained from reality. Such an epistemology would be a theory about truth.

Epistemic & Metaphysical Transcendence, Religious Truth

Epistemic and metaphysical transcendence

This post is an effort to clarify to myself what I think and mean by transcendence. Also I want to point out that conceding transcendence over theoretical thinking does not need to paralyzing doubt about the reliability and accuracy of our thinking; especially about religious truth.

When I write about getting the truth, I write as a representative realist. I write about our representations representing correctly or incorrectly a represented reality. Typically, the represented reality is thought of as not being a representation.

But what is the thought of not being a representation? A systemic feature of representative realism comes from it being reflective thinking, viz., thinking about thinking. In this theoretical thinking we are always thinking of representations. Consequently, while thinking as a representative realist, we cannot think of realities which are not representations. Thus, representative realists posit realities beyond thought as truth conditions for thoughts. This is epistemic transcendence.

However, acceptance of epistemic transcendence is a result from theoretical thinking about our thinking. It does not follow that when using practical reasoning we do not think directly about the realities which are beyond thought when using theoretical reasoning. For instance, when driving a car in traffic one is thinking directly about what is in the traffic; not representations of what is in the traffic. You are thinking about the car in front of you; not on how thoughts about the car can be correct.

A metaphysical argument for an ultimate reality on which all other realities depend is conducted in reflective theoretical thinking. A result is reached that an ultimate being is different from anything which can be thought. This theoretical result that there can be no thought of the Transcendent is metaphysical transcendence.

In both cases, we have theoretical claims that something cannot be thought in theoretical thinking. This concession should not lead to paralyzing doubt about our ability to think reliably and accurately.

First, it is almost impossible to separate our theoretical thinking, which is reflective thinking, from our practical thinking which, for all that we can say, deals directly with non-representational realities.

Even in the most austere theoretical thinking such as metaphysics and epistemology, we engage in the practical thinking of what words effectively express our thoughts and how to use technologies for writing those thoughts. Even in the most mundane technical projects such as washing dishes or painting a wall, we do the theoretical thinking of remembering what we have just done. For roughly the same reasons that we cannot think of things in themselves (non-representations), we cannot think of realities merely given to thought for practical reasoning. So, thinking which is totally theoretical and thinking which is totally practical probably transcend thought.

I take this as a basis for believing that for most of our thinking we do not need worry about the limitations of thought in epistemology and metaphysics.

Second, epistemic transcendence leads only to the mild skepticism that we cannot know that we know. See We cannot know that we know.

Third, metaphysical transcendence need only lead to decision that the “high metaphysical” thinking which posits the unthinkable Transcendent is not the only way to attain religiously significant truths. If the high metaphysics were the only way of attaining religious truths, true religion would be a mysticism indistinguishable from totally agnosticism or atheism.

There does, however, remain the problem of developing a religious epistemology showing how there can be truth conditions for religiously significant theories, such as a divine command moral theory, even if those truth conditions transcend our thought. These religiously significant propositions will be in that middle ground between purely theoretical thought and purely practical thought. We have noted that there is such a middle ground. It will be faith seeking understanding which motivates developing such a religious epistemology. And, yes, in this epistemology, we will concede for religious knowledge that we can never know that we know.

We Cannot Know that We Know

We Cannot Know that We Know

Before I move on to my main goal which is to present and support as a philosophical truth that moral laws are Divine Commands, it is appropriate to confess my skepticism. It is a healthy skepticism conceding only that we cannot know that we know.

From my realistic stance, I have to confess that I cannot compare the representation of a truth claim with the truth conditions it allegedly represents. As I have so frequently proclaimed: Truth conditions apart from our representing cannot be represented. Hence, truth conditions apart from our representations cannot be compared with our representations to determine how well, or poorly, they are represented.

This holds for even Descartes’ “I exist.” I know, of course, that I exist. I cannot, though, reflect upon my thinking that I exist in order to compare my thinking with what makes my thinking of my existence a true thought. Of course, our knowledge that we exist is of great importance for supporting realism. By knowing that we exist, we know that we are amongst the existents of which we want to have knowledge. We can have contact with existents because we are some of them!

This claim about not knowing that we know is both individual and general. As a claim about the individual who I am, it says that I do not know that I know. As a general claim it is a claim that none of us know that humans have knowledge.

This is a healthy skepticism because there is no denial that humans can have knowledge but it leaves open the prospect of correcting all knowledge claims.

Also I think this skepticism is healthy because it allows setting aside efforts to define “knowledge” exactly. I can accept that knowledge is justified true belief plus meeting some fourth condition to accommodate examples dreamt up by epistemologists. If we cannot know that we know, we do not have to worry about knowing exactly what knowledge is. We are not required to have a complete concept of knowledge if we do not make a claim about having knowledge.