Ante omnia quaestio
November 14, 2019
Knowledge and truth
January 11, 2020

Emptying his glass – see: God as stopgap –, at some point Werner Heisenberg may have moved from knowledge to faith, deeply impressed by the ingenuity of the universe. Here, Heisenberg crossed a clear-cut horizon. In natural science, explanations are essentially third-person. This type of knowledge can be distinguished from meaning, from understanding as well as from faith; these are essentially first-person and our access to them is private. It may even be doubted if we have full access to our own understanding or faith, see the quote from Carl Jung in God as stopgap.

But what about knowledge in the humanities? Since most of their knowledge concerns humans, here we deal with a double private access problem; humans act from private motives, of which our own interpretation is also private. Although the motives of others become manifest through their behavior – this including statements they make –, all we get to see of them is essentially reducible to processes going on inside of them. Philosophers of the mind have come up with quite some plausible explanations for our mental phenomena, but they are careful to not speak of truths.

Quite some thinkers have sought to discredit any kind of ‘objectified’ knowledge, holding that knowledge is worthless when it lacks meaning, understanding, or faith. Their major strategy is to claim that a deeper understanding of and giving meaning to knowledge is essentially a cultural phenomenon. This claim however burdened them with having to find a solution for really sharing meaning, understanding, and faith across culture, but at the level of the individual mind – which they didn’t.

One of the most counterproductive phenomena of much philosophy is on one hand the desire for general truth, and on the other seeing its achievement as a basically subjective, faith-driven process, an obvious contradiction.

Leap of faith

Karl Jaspers (1883-1969)

German philosopher Karl Jaspers called for a ‘leap of faith’ into the ‘transcendent’ realm, where empirical science ‘has no access’. Jaspers’ views remind us of Plato, who believed in a transcendent – ‘supernatural’ – reality, containing perfect, universal properties – the realm of the Forms – of which everything that can be experienced in the material world was an imperfect copy. Later thinkers integrated these ideas into Christianity, hence the idea of a perfect, but nonetheless realistic God, who is the source of all there is to know and who embodies the difference between the actual world and perfection.

In his Timaeus dialogue, Plato pictures the cosmos as a continuous, intelligible whole. In his Theaetetus he defines rational explanation of the cosmos as “an orderly approach to the whole through the elements.” But what if from these elements of knowledge something is missing, or irrational, inexplainable – in one word: inconsistent? Then the whole might never be known, and, as Plato understood very well, one might be drawn into skepticism. Christian thinkers saw only one means to save mankind from this ‘danger’: faith.

Plato himself chose a different approach. He used his Analogy of the Sun from the sixth book of The Republic to explain that Light was analogue to Goodness, making knowledge of truth possible for those capable of the above mentioned “orderly approach”, that is: philosophical thinking. Obviously, Plato’s Light shines for everyone, regardless of faith. But Christianity, with its strong tradition of monopolizing truth – see The ethics of truth – took possession of this Light for itself alone.

In John Paul II’s 1998 encyclical letter Fides et Ratio, the sentence immediately following the quote I used in God as stopgap is: “At the same time, it becomes apparent that reason needs to be reinforced by faith, in order to discover horizons it cannot reach on its own.” Just like in Jaspers’ quote, there is no explicit mention of faith in the Christian God; the word ‘faith’ is monopolized in the same way as ‘truth’, though those who do so carefully avoid being all too explicit. Whereas for Plato faith was faith in the human capacity to acquire knowledge helped by Goodness, for Christians, it meant a type of faith of which Christianity was the sole distributor.

Knowledge and understanding

Until now, when speaking of science, I have been mainly referring to natural science, concluding that no natural science requires a theory of God to make ends meet. But how about the humanities?  Their field of studies being human culture or society, they rely less on empirical observation and more on interpretation or even imagination. Whereas in natural science knowledge is mostly seen as cumulative, in the humanities we see an ongoing process of invention and reinvention and the continuous rise and fall of paradigms. Already this feature gives reason for serious doubts about their claims to truth. The hard core of the knowledge of the humanities is of disciplinary nature; the value of knowledge is determined not by its substance or its consistency with prior knowledge but at the best by the method used to gather and interpret it.

Yet, especially in the continental philosophy of science, ever since the beginning of the Romantic era in the late 18th century, there has been a strong anti-positivist and anti-methodological current seeming to prefer consistency above method. Only individuals, conscious of the historic stream of thought and their own connection to it were considered able to really understand cultural or social phenomena, inspired by an already present view of the world. Prejudice, that had been so wrongly pressed aside by enlightenment and positivism was now turned into an asset. The humanities’ claim to consistency simultaneously justified their pretension of cultural and social relevance.

Already in the late 19th century Friedrich Nietzsche demonstrated the paradoxical nature of this claim: “Thus, though there undeniably exists a faith in science, it cannot owe its origin to such a utilitarian calculus, but it must rather have originated in spite of the fact that the inutility and dangerousness of the ‘will to truth’, of ‘truth at any price’ are proved to it continually…” In other words: presuming relevance only leads to dangerous truth-claiming. We don’t need much fantasy to transfer this attitude of the humanities to the majority of religions.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900), painting by Edvard Munch (1863 – 1944)

A few lines after that, Nietzsche shows the moral consequences: “Consequently, “will to truth” does not mean “I will not let myself be deceived”, but – there is no choice – “I will not deceive, not even myself’  and with this we are on the ground of morality.”  Implicitly, Nietzsche offers us an original and sympathetic redefinition of truth as a function of the human conscience, not as correspondence with reality: “Every belief, every considering something-true, is necessarily false because there is simply no true world.”

Others however severely criticized all forms of ethical relativism. Leopold von Ranke, who tried to turn history into an empirical science based on the critical study of sources, met with severe criticism when he wrote that “all ages are equidistant from eternity, and just as immediately accessible to God’s presence”. It was unbearable that 19th-century mankind hadn’t come any closer to God compared to, say, the Middle Ages.

Still another approach to the humanities roots in the thinking of Karl Marx; not in the rigid ideological versions of Marxism, but in his earlier philosophy. For the young Marx, relevance was not enough: he shaped his philosophy for action against the existing order, not flinching from fierce rhetoric. In 1843 he wrote:

“Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness.” 

Max Horkheimer (1895 – 1973)

In the first half of the 20th century, philosophers mostly from Europe started using the ideas of Kant, Hegel and Marx to investigate the possibilities for social change. Change was to be realized by rational institutions, creating a philosophy known as the Critical Theory, the core of the philosophy of the Frankfurt School. It was meant “to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them”, as Max Horkheimer put it. This philosophy was very critical also of the idea of spiritual authority as given later by Hans-Georg Gadamer – see The epistemology of truth. –. In the humanities, recognizing authorities will only lead to institutionalization and canonization, again very similar to many religions.

Jean-François Lyotard (1924 – 1998)

In 1979, French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard criticized ‘big stories’ such as those about progress, enlightenment and emancipation and their reliance on some form of “transcendent and universal truth”: one of the biggest stories, of course, was Christian religion.  Four years later, Lyotard attacked the traditional viewpoint that the meanings of phrases is determined by the reality they refer to. Therefore, sceintific knowledge is not necessarily superior to narrative knowledge, and reality, or ‘truth’ if you like, will always remain indeterminate. In short, language is inadequate to describe reality: not a new problem, as we already saw when discussing Wittgenstein, see The epistemology of truth.

So, the double private access problem is worsened by the weak relation between language and reality. No doubt there exists a realm where empirical science ‘has no access’, as Jaspers said, but it is not a transcendental realm and no ‘leap of faith’ will take us there. It is just an inaccessible area of reality.

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Buy now