Derbyshire’s brilliant “proof” that there is no transcendent truth

Here is the entire John Derbyshire post on transcendent truth (previously discussed here, where VFR readers expressed shock at Andrew Stuttaford’s sneer which Derbyshire was approving of), so that everyone can see the quality of his thinking:

Transcendentally Yours [John Derbyshire]

I have to line up with Andrew on that Atlantic piece about Arthur C. Clarke.

“What Clarke failed to understand about the supposed ‘mind virus’ of religious belief is that it answers exactly this question—it grounds human dignity in transcendent truth.”

The problem here is that the word “truth” ought to be plural. So ought “religious belief.” There isn’t just one, there are lots of them, and they disagree fundamentally among themselves about the transcendent stuff.

  • This one says that after you die you go to a different plane of existence; that one says, no, you are reborn on earth.

  • This one says there is an invisible Sky Father supervising our affairs, that one says, no, there are lots of Sky Fathers, each with a different portfolio; while yet another one says there are no Sky Fathers at all, only an ineffable void.

  • This one says you should love your enemies; that one says you should kill them.

  • This one says the Sky Father sent us a messenger 2000 years ago to show us the right path; that one says, yes, but he sent another messenger 600 years later, whose message was even more definitive; a third group tells us that, no, the second messenger didn’t show up till 200 years ago; while down the street there’s a religion that says the Sky Father will send a messenger in his own sweet time, but hasn’t yet …

Doesn’t look very dignifying to me, nor for that matter much like truth. Compared with this mess, those corny, laughable old non-transcendent truths—stuff like water is wet, fire burns, E = mc2, and ei + 1 = 0—look pretty good.
03/20 10:52 AM

So, for this intellectual adolescent, this village atheist Derbyshire, the fact that Christ said love your enemies, and Muhammad said kill your enemies, means that there is no truth and that Christianity is false.

Derbyshire’s idiocies encapsulate the effect on the West of importing Muslim immigrants. In order to include Islam, we must relativize and cancel out Christianity. Since liberalism tells us that we must treat all religions equally, and since Islam radically contradicts Christianity, the only way to treat the two religions equally is to treat them as equally true, and thus as equally false. Importing incompatible religious means delegitimizing our religion, just as importing incompatible cultures means delegitimizing our culture.

All this is standard left-liberal thought, fueled by left-liberal policies. And Derbyshire, unopposed and unchastized, advances it at the blog of America’s leading “conservative” (and once Catholic) magagine, during Holy Week.

Derbyshire’s comment was, of course, in support of Andrew Stuttaford’s post, in which he said:

… why humanity has to have a ‘purpose’ escapes me. We just are. As for human dignity being grounded “in transcendent truth,” well, lets say that I feel a sneeze coming on.

The only other reply was from Kathryn Jean Lopez, the editor of the online version of National Review, who said, in an impotent and detached gesture which ceded the floor to the atheists:

Just another Holy Thursday on “The Corner.”

That was it. No one at that magazine—not Jonah Goldberg, not Andrew McCarthy (a Catholic), not the editor Richard Lowry, not Stanley Kurtz, not Peter Robinson, not Victor Hanson, not John Miller, not Clifford May, not Lisa Schiffren, not Ramesh Ponnuru (a Catholic), not anyone, protested or even disagreed with Derbyshire’s comment, let alone with Stuttaford’s.

National Review is to conservatism what Britain is to the nation state: a contemptible nullity.

- end of initial entry -

Hannon writes:

I had not seen this powerful idea of yours before: “In order to include Islam, we must relativize and cancel out Christianity.” A further conclusion from Derbyshire’s message is that it simply doesn’t matter if America becomes an Islamic nation. We would still all be Americans, no? If everything remains intact physically—same geography, same layout and hardscape—then the state of our evanescent political or religious expression is superfluous. This can be seen as a not-so-clever manipulation of the idea of America as a concrete reality consisting of real people, real systems and real estate.

If we couple this train of thought with one world globalism and the erasure of international borders, we have a perfect cultural and political incubator for Islam to flourish and achieve its ultimate ends.

Whatever the scale of thought here, these are disturbing revelations for me.

LA replies:
Thank you. The basic idea has been part of my analysis of diversity and multiculturalism from the start. Once you admit incompatible peoples and cultures into America (on the false and utopian assumption that any incompatibilities will disappear though assimilation), and you find yourself with these incompatible cultures, peoples, and religions in your midst, how do you adjust to their presence and avoid conflict? By saying that all cultures are equally valid and equally a part of America. And that is multiculturalism—the idea that America has no dominant culture or religion, but that it is a collection of equal cultures and religions. But if Christianity cannot be dominant, and if Islam and Christianity are equally valid, then every truth claim of Christianity must be put aside, because to assert its truth is to make it “superior” to the claims of Islam. The only way to make the incompatible religions equal is to say that the respective religions consist of nothing but opinions, with all opinions equally valid (just as, under modern liberalism, all desires of all individuals are equally valid). But if Christianity is turned into nothing but an opinion equal to all other opinions, it ceases to be true and ceases to be Christianity. (Which, by the way, is exactly what has happened to the Episcopal Church USA.)

Multiculturalism thus cancels out both the dominant culture of a particular society, which is that society’s unique way of expressing transcendent truth, and it also cancels out the belief in transcendent truth itself, by which we know that Christianity is the highest and most complete religion.

Finally, it’s only the Christian host society that delegitimizes its own culture and religion in this fashion, while the Muslims, who still believe most tenaciously in their religion, move eagerly into the vacuum we have created.

Jeff in England writes:

I agree with you about Derbyshire etc, such lightweight spiritual thinking.

Alan Roebuck sent this e-mail to John Derbyshire:
Dear John:

This is regarding your Corner post “Transcendentally Yours.” You are being, not to put too fine a point on it, irrational:

You have spoken, correctly, of truth. I assume you are using the correct definition of “truth,” namely “correspondence between a proposition and reality.” If you are using any other definition, then we are stuck in a postmodern, subjectivist hell, in which case there is no point in engaging in rational discourse.

You said that common sense, science and mathematics, give us truth, at least some of the time, whereas religion, when it is speaking of the transcendental, never does. I would ask you to explain how you know that religion contains no truth about the transcendental.

OK, people disagree. But disagreement never proves that no truth exists.

If you were an atheist, then at least your belief about religion would be logically consistent. But you deny being an atheist. How, then, can you know that there is no truth about the transcendent?

The truth, I think, is that you find these religious doctrines personally distasteful. But distaste is not a reliable test for truth.

And note that all your objections to the transcendental doctrines of religion apply equally to morality. To be consistent, then, you would have to declare morality to be no more than a necessary Noble Lie. Do you want to do this?

Unless you are a full-blown atheist, you will need to admit that there can be truths about transcendental religion, but that you are uninterested, or not sufficiently trained, in determining this truth. To be sure, transcendent religious truths cannot be known with the same degree of precision and confidence as can some other types of truths, but this is entirely different from saying that they cannot be known.

Bottom line: you are saying that only the most obvious, tangible facts can known. But man cannot live by the obvious alone, and so your position, because it is quite popular in the West, is one of the main reasons why the West cannot summon the courage to defend itself.

Alan Roebuck

George R. writes:

Neither you nor any of your readers have been able to refute John Derbyshire’s objection. For example, Alan Roebuck in his email to Derbyshire writes:

“You said that common sense, science and mathematics, give us truth, at least some of the time, whereas religion, when it is speaking of the transcendental, never does. I would ask you to explain how you know that religion contains no truth about the transcendental.”

But Derbyshire never said this about religion. What he said was “Doesn’t look very dignifying to me, nor for that matter much like truth.” Now I, for one, who believe in transcendental truth, absolutely agree with Derbyshire on this point. The cacophony of religious blather that passes for transcendental truth in our society is a scandal.

Mr. Roebuck also writes:

“OK, people disagree. But disagreement never proves that no truth exists.”

Again, Derbyshire never said that truth doesn’t exist. However, the multiplicity of opinions does tend to make it difficult accept that any certain one of them is the truth, which is the point he was making.

Furthermore, Larry, your opinion that the expression of the particulars of transcendental truth is somehow a product of culture accomplishes nothing but completely confirming all of Derbyshire’s suspicions about religion in the first place. For if the particulars that constitute religion are not from that which transcends all cultures, why should other cultures accept it as true? And if other cultures ought not accept a religion as true, why should anyone?

LA replies:

I did not say that the “particulars of transcendental truth are somehow a product of culture” but that the way transcendent truth is expressed in different cultures is different. Each culture, starting from its own particularities, seeks to create order for itself, by ordering itself toward truth. Men and cultures being very different in their mental constitution, acquired traits, history, social forms, and so on, will naturally see and express order in different ways. The fallacy of George’s position is that it implies that unless there is only one religion for the whole human race, there is no basis for people to believe that any religion is true.

This doesn’t mean that all religious expressions are equally good and true. The pre-Columbian religions, with their sadistic gods consuming human sacrifices, were monstrous. Many religious cults are wacko. There is no guidebook to tell George what is the best truth with no effort on his part, which is what he seems to demand. Each of us needs to search and filter things for ourselves. But once we begin to do that, we realize, if we are honest, that certain truths, certain expressions of order, are more true than others. The Koran is not on the same level as the Gospels. And that by the way doesn’t mean that we should seek to convert all Muslims to Christianity, because that is impossible. Therefore, since the religion of the Koran and the religion of the Gospels are incompatible, the only solution is geographic separation between the followers of the respective religions.

“The cacophony of religious blather that passes for transcendental truth in our society is a scandal.”

Yes, because religions are the expression of imperfect human beings trying to understand that which is beyond the human, and humans vary greatly in their intelligence, wisdom, and goodness. Therefore we must make the effort to seek for the truth. Then we will see that true religions come from a source that is beyond the human. It is evident to me that Genesis and Exodus, for example, are not the product of ordinary humans. The Gospels are not the product of ordinary humans. The very existence of these works proves the existence of God and of men who had knowledge of him. Yes, they were written by humans, and therefore will show various human imperfections and inconsistencies, which do not take away from their overall divine character and effect.

Now consider the Koran. Let’s say for the sake of argument that Muhammad initially had a genuine experience of the deity. It remains the case that this experience was filtered through the personality of a man filled with hatred and will to power, and that the religion he created was an expression of those traits. Any reasonable human being can see that there is a vast gulf between Muhammad and Jesus Christ—or, to be more precise, since here we’re speaking of the human beings who wrote the respective books, there is a vast gulf between Muhammad on one side and the authors of the Gospels and Epistles on the other. But, given that we now live in the post-modern world, there is no generally acknowledged social authority to guide us in these matters. You’re going to have search and figure it out for yourself.

By the way, if we were having this conversation in Europe in the 12th century, you would not be complaining about a cacophony of religious blather, because there was one Church for all Europe. Even if we had this conversation in the 18th, 19th, or early 20th century, you would not—notwithstanding the important differences between Catholics and Protestants—have called Europe a cacophony of religious blather. The cacophony we have now is the product of Western man’s progressive loss and rejection of Christian truth.

Patrick H. writes:

Derbyshire’s counterexamples to the “mess” of religious rivalries are really not as helpful to his cause as he thinks. Take “water is wet.” Science does not tell us that water is wet. Nor does mathematics—there is no equation that describes the wetness of water. The wetness of water is an example of “qualia,” the way things seem to us, part of the irreducible inwardness and mystery of consciousness. The intrinsic inwardness of qualia means that the qualia of you and me and Derbyshire and every conscious being are completely inaccessible to anyone other than the consciousness that is “having” them. Now, the “transcendent” is held to be that which is beyond our senses and experience. Well, my qualia are transcendent to you, as yours are to mine, and both of ours are to Derbyshire. The reality of other minds is an instance in our lives of something fundamentally transcendent, and yet in which we, all of us, Derbyshire included, believe wholeheartedly with a faith that is not only deep, but inescapable. But Derbyshire uses the phrase, “water is wet,” as if it means something about which we can all agree, whose common meaning is something our own senses and experience give to us. But he has no evidence—and cannot have any, not even in principle—to support that claim. The transcendence of other minds to our own is a fact that should stagger Derbyshire, not reinforce him in his smugness. (It will do Derbyshire no good to reply that he does experience his own qualia, and they are not therefore transcendent. For one, many religious persons also claim a direct inward experience of transcendence, as real to them as the wetness of water. Furthermore, Derbyshire has contrasted the unanimous experience of water as being wet with the multiplicity of religious views. But he cannot claim his very own qualia—the only “water is wet” qualia of which he has experience—as an instance of universal agreement, unless he has become a solipsist, which I doubt.)

The difficulties with his examples continue. The second of his equations contains two terms, pi and e, which are, ironically, the two most famous and important of the transcendental numbers. Both numbers are uncountably large, and extend infinitely beyond the last digit to which we have so far managed to compute them (and which are therefore beyond the range of our senses and experience). Most mathematicians believe, however, that in some sense, the as yet uncomputed infinitely long reaches of both numbers are “there,” waiting to be discovered, not invented, transcendentally present, but as yet unsensed and unexperienced. So it seems that mathematicians believe in transcendental realities too. (Interestingly, mathematicians are much more likely to believe in God than are biologists—I can’t remember where I read that, but I believe my memory is accurate.)

The point of all this is not to deny that religions have promulgated varied and contradictory views. It is say only that Derbyshire cannot claim that this variation is the inevitable result of the emptiness of claims to transcendental knowledge. His very examples of reliable knowledge contain transcendental assumptions and transcendental elements, and yet are proffered by him as examples of the kind of unanimity achievable only by the rejection of the transcendent. But in choosing his examples, Derbyshire has not rejected transcendence, he has illustrated it.

The problem with Derbyshire is not so much his atheist position as his philistine temperament, his refusal to open his eyes, his mind and his heart. Infinities abound in every moment of his life; the transcendent opens before him in every direction he looks or thinks or feels. And yet, there are always those who simply refuse what is offered to them. Tolkien described an encounter with such a one in The Two Towers:

Rider of Rohan: Do we walk in legends or on the green earth in the daylight?

Aragorn: Then green earth, say you? That is a mighty matter of legend, though you tread it under the light of day!

LA replies:

I understand the idea that the consciousness of each of us is “transcendent” to other people. Indeed, I would go further and say that our own consciousness is transcendent to ourselves.

However, I do not understand this:

But Derbyshire uses the phrase, “water is wet,” as if it means something about which we can all agree, whose common meaning is something our own senses and experience give to us. But he has no evidence—and cannot have any, not even in principle—to support that claim.

I don’t understand why we can’t all agree that water is wet for all people, and don’t see what that has to do with the transcendence of our consciousness to other people.

Patrick H. writes:

Thank you for posting my message. While we do agree that “water is wet” for all people, we cannot know that it is a fact by means of the kind of evidence that Derbyshire is willing to accept: mathematical reasoning or sense experience. We have no direct experience of other people’s inward experiences. We cannot know from the outside what other people feel inside, even though we, all of us, do in fact believe wholeheartedly that other people feel wetness and redness and pain and other qualia as we do. The inwardness of qualia and their inaccessibility to others is one of the mysteries of consciousness that makes it so difficult for a materialist to explain. We know in our hearts (not emotionally, but by our intuitive faculty) that others have the same inward life as do we. This knowledge is, in my opinion, a fundamental spiritual truth, not a sensory or mathematical. We only sense the exteriors of other people; we intuit their interiors. My point would have been clearer, I think, if I had stated it as, “But he has no evidence of the kind that he will accept—and cannot have any, given his principles—to support that claim.”

P.S. I agree that our own consciousness is transcendent to ourselves, in its root and cause certainly. We do, however, have access to its contents in a way that no one but us can have.

Ilion Troas (a name which means Troy Troy) writes

LA (to Patrick H.): “I don’t understand why we can’t all agree that water is wet for all people, and don’t see what that has to do with the transcendence of our consciousness to other people.”

Certainly, we can agree … which is to say, we can assume it to be true, we can assert it to be true. But, we cannot test whether it is true: “wet” is not an observation, it is an experience.

The wetness of water does not inhere with the water; the coldness of snow does not inhere with the snow; the redness of the rose does not inhere with the rose. And so on. Qualia exist “within” our individual minds, they do not exist “out there” to be observed and measured.

Have you never wondered to yourself whether others experience “red” (or “wet”) the same as you do? Might it be that if you could peek into another’s experience/perception of “red” you’d learn that their experience/perception is equivalent to what you’d call “green.” Or, perhaps another’s experience/perception of “wet” is what you’d call “scent of apple blossom.”

LA replies to Patrick H. and Ilion:

I follow your logic verbally and logically, but it still doesn’t “click” with me. It’s one thing to say that we can’t experience another person’s consciousness. It’s another thing to say that we do not definitely know, as a matter of observation and logic, that other people experience water as wet in the same way that we do. We, all of us individually, experience the wetness of water. We see other human beings (also other mammals), and see that they are constituted the same as we are physically, and that they respond to water (and to the lack of water) in exactly the same way that we do. I therefore think we can say that we know for a fact that they experience water the same way that we do.

Yes, we don’t know this as a matter of “mathematical reasoning or sense experience,” which you said is Derbyshire’s standard for certain, immanent knowledge. But we do know it as a matter of sense experience combined with logic and general experience of life.

Now maybe I’m misunderstanding here, and Derbyshire would not even accept sense experience combined with logic and general experience of life as a sufficient basis for certain, immanent knowledge. But it seems to me, in the terms I’ve laid out, that knowing that the wetness of water is true for all people is not dependant on transcendence or intuition.

My underlying point is that, while your argument may be formally true, I think it may be too abstract and detached from experience to be helpful in serving the purpose of refuting the Derbyshire position.

Ilion Troas writes:

“Ilion Troas (a name which means Troy Troy)…”

That struck me as so funny, so I just had to thank you for making me chuckle. (And, of course, that’s exactly what it means.)

David S. writes from England:

… Whatever happens, all religions are agreed that the human mind when incarcerated in an earthly body is not likely clearly to see the unvarnished, undistorted final truth. If we are lucky, we might see enough of it to discern the next step on our path, inevitable a very particular path, whether personal or general. There are bound to be a thousand versions of the true story and, as long as life changes and humankind goes through different ages and phases of civilization, with differing characteristics and needs, I doubt if that story will ever have a final or perfect expression. Is Derbyshire telling us that it is otherwise with science, and that science has now arrived at a final explanation of the universe, or indeed ever will? I trust not!

Scott B. writes:

The arguments on this thread which attempt to demonstrate that what Stuttaford said was logically incoherent are just silly.

No one seriously argues that life has no purpose. When people say life has no purpose what they always mean (with the rare exception of nihilists) is that they don’t believe life has any Purpose (or, as in Stuttaford’s post, “purpose”).

I.e. actions have purpose in the sense of that they have good or bad consequences, but they do not have any over-riding Purpose, any value in terms of their being consonant with some transcendent plan. In other words—things have purpose relative to values, rather than things have values relative to Purpose.

(Whether that’s right or not is another matter … )

Posted by Lawrence Auster at March 21, 2008 06:37 PM | Send

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