June 18, 2009

More Critical Thinking Clarifications: Tolerance vs. Tolerance

APOLOGIABy Hendrik van der Breggen
(The Carillon, June 18, 2009)

More Critical Thinking Clarifications: Tolerance vs. Tolerance

In previous installments of Apologia we disentangled three blurred conceptual distinctions which hinder the art of argument and critical thinking: judge vs. judge (i.e., damn vs. cognitive discernment), argument vs. argument (i.e., quarrel vs. premises supporting a conclusion), and opinion vs. opinion (i.e., mere guess vs. reasonable belief).

This week we will disentangle a fourth blurred distinction: tolerance vs. tolerance.

“Be tolerant” is today’s oft-heard moral imperative. This principle of tolerance sounds good, but critical thinkers should ask: Is it sound?

Answer: No and yes.

It turns out that there are two senses of “tolerance.” Let’s call them tolerance 1 and tolerance 2. (If my labels seem to lack imagination, blame Dr. Seuss.)

Tolerance 1 is the contemporary popular understanding of tolerance. On this understanding, all views or lifestyles are accepted as somehow equal and true and good. “It’s all interpretation,” so a view/behaviour may be “true for you, but not for me” (and vice versa).

According to tolerance 1, you are intolerant if you disagree with someone’s ideas or conduct, that is, if you think someone is actually mistaken or wrong. According to contemporary popular culture, such intolerance is always a sin.

Sin or no sin, tolerance 1 is false. From the point of view of reason and morality, it’s simply not the case that all ideas and acts are equal, it’s simply not the case that all interpretations are equal.

Think about it. That the Holocaust occurred is true and well supported by evidence, whereas the belief to the contrary is false and not well supported by evidence. That 5+5=10 is true logically, whereas 5+5=11 isn’t true logically.

Think about it some more. Western democracy is a better idea morally than a Nazi government (because the former tends to respect the intrinsic moral worth of people whereas the latter does not). Talking with one’s spouse to resolve a dispute is a better idea morally than beating one’s spouse (because ditto). Child care is a better idea morally than child abuse (because ditto). You get the picture.

Now, consider tolerance 2, which is the classic understanding of tolerance. Tolerance 2 is the practice of forbearance (i.e., patience, self-control, and respect in the face of provocation) toward other persons who hold beliefs or engage in conduct with which we strongly disagree. It’s a willingness to accept a person’s right to espouse a view or engage in a behaviour even though we think the idea is mistaken or the conduct unwise or even immoral.

According to tolerance 2, intolerance is not always a sin. We may be appropriately intolerant of an idea if the idea is truly false and can be shown to be false, and we may be appropriately intolerant of a behavior if the behavior is truly harmful to others and can be shown to be harmful to others.

For example, according to tolerance sense 2, teachers are appropriately intolerant of false answers on an exam and of bullies on the school playground. Also, judges are appropriately intolerant of perjury and of murderers. Also, citizens are appropriately intolerant of governments or other organizations which engage in disinformation or commit (or prepare to commit) genocide.

Clearly, the classic understanding of tolerance (tolerance 2) is superior, intellectually and morally, when compared to the contemporary popular understanding of tolerance (tolerance 1).

Of course, the question now arises: Who’s to say what’s true and good? That is to ask: How do we arbitrate between competing claims about what’s true and good?

Answer: We are to say what’s true and good. How? By discerning what’s true and good via critical thinking—i.e., careful investigation coupled with a humble and truth-seeking heart.

Prayer is helpful too.

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is assistant professor of philosophy at Providence College, Otterburne, ManitobaThe views in this column do not always reflect the views of Providence.)

P.S. The photo above is of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., shortly after white supremacist Holocaust-denier James W. von Brunn went on a shooting spree, killing security guard Stephen T. Johns.


Dr. V said...

Dear readers of Apologia,

Here are the words from Joel Geleynse's song, “Presupposition,” from his fine CD The Rebellion of Camouflage (produced by Joel Geleynse & Brad Dugas, Revelation 7 Sound/Silverbirch Productions, 2004). It seems to me that the words (soundbites and lyrics) from Geleynse's song are appropriate to think about along with this week's instalment of Apologia (while keeping last week's instalment in mind too). If you listen to the words along with the music, that would be even better, I'm sure.

Soundbites (spoken by Dr. John Patrick):

 There are some presuppositions to the way we understand the world, whether we are Christian or not.

 “If there is no God,” said Dostoyevsky, “everything is permissible.” That’s exactly where we’re living at the moment, in a world that denies that there is real objective moral good, that insists that all moral truth is personal and subjective, and that tolerance is the primary virtue. Now, each of those statements is untrue.

 The Hittites were a Pagan race, and they gave in to being dominated by the sexual impulse, became depraved, perverted, sacrificed their children to their god. God always wipes out such nations, he will not tolerate them.

 Whenever love is attacked, whenever justice is attacked, whenever truth is attacked, whenever honor is attacked, you have a duty to be intolerant. And the actual strange thing about our society is that it is dependent not upon tolerance, but upon intolerance. Because when our intolerances are appropriate, there is no child abuse, because we won’t tolerate it, there is no wife abuse, because we won’t tolerate it, and so on. And our society declines precisely at a point when we lose our sense of discrimination between good and evil....

Lyrics (sung by Joel Geleynse):

 just cause you’ve said something doesn’t make it true/ even if it seems to work for you/ maybe i’m right and you think i’m wrong/ you think i’m weak but maybe i’m strong

 do you really want the truth to come and set you free/ or are you satisfied with your state of complacency/ so will you set down your pride and open up your mind/ he says will you believe in me

 just don’t start telling me you’re really honest/ and don’t start telling me that i’m closed-minded/ and don’t start telling me about your wisdom/ why don’t we start at the same presupposition

With best regards,

Dr. V said...


It turns out that Joel Geleynse's song "Presupposition" is on YouTube. Here is the address: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PnF6M5IFQPk

Although there are some scenes that are disturbing, I think this music video is worth a look and a listen.

Pvblivs said...

     Actually, I find that the evidentiary support for the historical accuracy of the holocaust has grown weak and is becoming steadily weaker. Consider, for about 50 years it has been illegal in Europe to suggest in any way shape or form that the holocaust did not occur. This is a tactic more often used to protect lies than truths. Now, you can still point to physical evidence, like the camps themselves and the gas "showers." But physical evidence can be forged. After enough time, it is not possible to tell the difference. Add to that the knowledge that a forgery could not be exposed (i.e. if it had been a forgery, and someone could prove it, the proof would be destroyed and the prover jailed) and by the time the century rounds out, the evidence will be wholly unreliable and the only thing people will be able to determine is that it was an "official line."
     "If there is no god, everything is permissible" is a stance claimed by those who seek to use an "argument from consequences" to scare people into believing in a god. For a morality to be truly objective, it must be independent of any god. And, if there is a god, then he can be measured by that morality.
     Now, for my observation. Nobody practices "tolerance 1." A lot of people pay lip service to it. Even that seems to be a reaction to inappropriate intolerance according to "tolerance 2." It is appropriate to intervene when actions are genuinely harmful. It is inappropriate to enshrine a church in law so that everyone must follow its whims.

Climenheise said...

Publius says: "It is inappropriate to enshrine a church in law so that everyone must follow its whims."

You capture a basic problem that we face. If you are right (and I think that you are), it is not just "church" that we should not so enshrine, but any faith stance that encompasses the whole of life.

Of course, what we have done in Canada (and to a lesser extent in the USA) is enshrine a faith stance that begins with secularism as our official dogma. The academy and the public square are the two primary places where one sees this basic fact of modern life.

What do we do if the state church is secularism (as an ideology, not just as "public life")? Then we tolerate that which secularism finds tolerable, and negate with force of law that which secularism finds intolerable.

Dr. V said...


Thanks for your comments. I’ll respond topically (and in separate comments/pieces, since comments longer than 4,064 characters seem not to be allowed).

(a) Evidence for Holocaust.

You provide some good reasons to be cautious in the investigation of the historical accuracy of the holocaust. However, I don’t think it follows that eventually “the evidence will be wholly unreliable.” In fact, I think that good reasons for caution can strengthen a historical hypothesis by encouraging careful investigation.

It seems to me more likely that the reason for the illegality in Europe of suggesting/alleging the holocaust’s non-occurrence is that its horror was a huge affront to the moral sensitivities of those persons close to crimes against humanity, not a tactic for protecting a lie. (I think that this is why in post World War II Germany, euthanasia was deemed illegal too.)

Also, it seems to me that, sure, it’s possible that physical evidence can be forged. But mere logical or even physical possibility (in a particular case) isn’t the same as epistemic plausibility or probability (regarding that case). In view of the considerable prima facie evidence that supports the holocaust, which includes the physical evidence of the concentration camps, “showers”, and human remains, plus photographs and film footage of the findings in the camps shortly after their liberation, plus eye-witness reports of those who discovered the camps, plus multiple eye-witness testimonies of those who suffered in the camps and of those who worked in the camps (e.g., as set out for posterity’s sake in the Nuremberg trial)—in view of this huge amount of evidence in favour of the actual occurrence of the holocaust—the hoax hypothesis, to be reasonable, would need very strong evidence indeed. But it very apparently lacks such evidence.

Saul Friedländer, a professor of history at UCLA, has done considerable work on the historical evidence that supports the reality of the holocaust. I have found quite helpful his most recent book, Nazi Germany and the Jews: 1933-1945 (Harper 2009).

Dr. V said...

(b) “If there is no god, everything is permissible.”

Pvblivs, when you say that the above “is a stance claimed by those who seek to use an ‘argument from consequences’ to scare people into believing in a god,” I think some qualifications are in order. I think it would be more accurate to say that some people use this assertion wholly in the way you describe, but not all do. Some (such as me and probably others) are primarily probing the philosophical implications. Whether these implications are scary or not is interesting and important, to be sure, but not the sole purpose at hand. The larger purpose at hand is to discern what’s true. The important question here, then, is this: Is it true that if there is no God then everything is permissible?

I’ve been reading Friedrich Nietzsche lately. Nietzsche is of course famous for the claim, “God is dead” (where “God” refers to the Christian God). He is also famous for taking serious the logical implications of God’s non-existence. In the end, Nietzsche invites us to affirm life (if we are strong enough to do so in the face of life’s considerable suffering and ultimate purposelessness), live in such a way that satisfies our individual “will to power,” and do this with style—in accordance with our own personal aesthetic sense or taste.

It is relevant here to note that Nietzsche also distinguishes between “slave morality” and “master morality.” Slave morality belongs to people who are weak, whose will to power, because they are weak, promotes the belief in human equality and democracy, so they can control the strong, whom the weak resent. Belief in human equality isn’t true in any deep sense (though the weak would like to foist the illusion onto the strong); it’s merely useful for controlling the strong. Master morality, on the other hand, belongs to the strong, whose will to power, because they are strong, allows them to master their own passions and, ultimately, do what they wish with the weak. Nietzsche thinks that, because God is dead, absolute ethics is dead too, so those of us who are strong should go “beyond good and evil”, i.e., those of us who are strong should transcend traditional values (especially the false belief in the moral equality of humans), and we should invent our own values. Thereby the strong are invited to develop or overcome humanity and go beyond the herd—and, depending on your sense of style, perhaps even do so at the expense of the herd. Enter: Nietzsche’s übermensch or overman … superman.

I think that Nietzsche is, on several important points, correct. If there truly is no God—and we really believe this and take the logical implications of this seriously—then our first-order intuitive perception of the intrinsic objective moral worth of each human being should become undermined by our second-order explanatory theory (e.g., Nietzsche’s will-to-power theory) which explains away that perception (as a projection or fabrication of the will-to-power of the weak). That is, our perception of the intrinsic objective moral worth of each human being should become ungrounded or disconnected from reality (or what we thought was reality). That is (again), we should realize that the foundational moral principles of traditional Western morality (e.g., equal moral worth of humans) are basically guidelines to behavior that were useful and maybe continue to be useful for those who have (or had) power, but that’s about it. In evolutionary terms, as atheist evolutionary philosopher Michael Ruse points out, “Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction...and any deeper meaning is illusory.” (Michael Ruse, "Evolutionary Theory & Christian Ethics," in The Darwinian Paradigm [London: Routledge, 1989], 269.)

Dr. V said...

(b) “If there is no god, everything is permissible.” (continued)

It would seem, then, that the atheist Nietzschean/ neo-Darwinian evolutionary view would tend to favor, morally speaking, the fittest and strongest, i.e., those whose “will to power” can dominate others. In other words, if there is no God, and if one is strong (i.e., stronger than others) and one’s will-to-power is such that one has a taste for X, where X is, say, domination or torture—or whatever—then X would be permitted.

Thus, it is reasonable to think that if there is no God, everything is permissible. That is, in the absence of an absolute moral standard grounded in God, whether X is permitted ultimately depends on and varies with the preferences/whims of those groups or individuals who happen to have the power. Consequently, if there truly is no God, then ethics should vary from culture to culture, or person to person, if the accepted principles and values help a group or individual to flourish by satisfying the group’s or individual’s preferences or will-to-power. In other words, the strong invent/construct morality. Might makes right.

(For more on this discussion vis-à-vis evolutionary theory’s survival of the fittest and how genocide can be justified in evolutionary terms, see my reply to a comment from Dale [Froggie] made in response to the January 15, 2009, installment of Apologia, “Moral Relativism and Tolerance.” Here’s the link: http://apologiabyhendrikvanderbreggen.blogspot.com/2009/01/moral-relativism-and-tolerance.html)

As I have mentioned above as well as in an earlier blog comment, it seems to me that we tend to find the will-to-power/right-makes-right thesis (manifested in, say, genocide and serial killing) to be morally wrong because we have a deep moral intuition (i.e., moral/rational insight) of the following objective truth: that people have real intrinsic moral worth. I am also very inclined to think that people in general, whether atheist or theist or whatever, can and generally do recognize this worth. (For a defence of these points, see chapter 2 of my PhD dissertation: http://uwspace.uwaterloo.ca/handle/10012/4097) Indeed, I have found that a couple of my good friends who are atheist/agnostic tend to agree with me on this. We agree that people have real intrinsic moral worth and deserve respect (i.e., shouldn’t be tortured, murdered, raped, etc.); where we differ is in how to explain that worth. We differ on how to account for it, not on that it is the case. I tend to think it’s due to being made in God’s image; my atheist friends disagree. I also tend to think that it counts as evidence for God’s existence (not as stand-alone evidence but as a part of a cumulative case argument); my atheist friends disagree.

At this juncture, I think it is important to note that the belief that people are made in God’s image reinforces and strengthens the intuition (moral-rational insight) that all people have real intrinsic worth, whereas the atheist Nietzschean/ neo-Darwinian view that people are accidents in a purposeless universe very much seems to undermine and weaken the intuition (moral-rational insight) that all people have real intrinsic worth. After all, as Ruse has pointed out, “Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction...and any deeper meaning is illusory.” After all, as Nietzsche has pointed out, the idea of equal moral worth of humans is merely a will-to-power ploy of the weak foisted onto the strong, a ploy to which the strong needn’t succumb, once the strong are aware of the ploy.

Sometimes I encounter first-year college/university students who question the importance of doing philosophy. The answer, simply stated (and relevant here), is this: Ideas have consequences—and sometimes these consequences are directly related to life and death.

(For more on the importance of “ideas have consequences,” see the quote by serial killer Ted Bundy at the end of the Apologia column, “Tolerance and Moral Relativism.")

Dr. V said...

(c) Re: Pvblivs's claims: “For a morality to be truly objective, it must be independent of any god. And, if there is a god, then he can be measured by that morality.”

I think that you are alluding to what is known in philosophy as the Euthyphro Dilemma and some issues related to it. (The Euthyphro Dilemma is named after the character Euthyphro in one of Plato’s dialogs about the relationship between ethics and the gods, a dialog between Euthyphro and Socrates). Suitably adjusted for monotheism, the dilemma goes like this: Does God will X because it is good, or is X good because God wills it? If one says yes to the first part then X is good independent of God. If one says yes to the second part, then God’s will seems whimsical (ungrounded by the good). Moreover, to recognize God as good requires a prior, independent-of-God understanding of good. Or so the argument goes.

As I mentioned in one of our previous discussions, I wrote a paper on the Euthyphro Dilemma as part of my PhD qualification area study in ethics. I wrote the paper for a fairly well-known atheist. He and I disagreed deeply over various issues, but in the end the professor gave my paper an A grade. (At the University of Waterloo philosophy department the highest grade is A+.) All this to say that I don’t want to write a 30-page paper here! Maybe, though, and somehow, I’ll be able to turn the heart of that paper into a 400-word column and set it out as an installment of Apologia. Or perhaps I can figure out a way of posting my paper somewhere on my blog. A friend of my family has asked that I discuss the Euthyphro Dilemma in Apologia, so I will work on this. In the meantime, I ask that readers be patient with me. (It’s actually quite a challenge to set out deep philosophical insights in a brief fashion without getting technical and without dumbing down those insights.)

(d) Re: Pvblivs's claims: “It is appropriate to intervene when actions are genuinely harmful. It is inappropriate to enshrine a church in law so that everyone must follow its whims.”

Yes, I agree with both claims. But in your second claim I would include temples and mosques (etc.), not just churches. Also—and importantly—I think it is inappropriate to enshrine atheism in law.

I will close by repeating a comment that I set out on this blog on an earlier occasion (in a reply to Dale on January 20, 2009):

I think that a country’s laws should ensure that all people are treated equally under the law and with the respect that each of us deserves as a creature that has real intrinsic moral worth. I think that this logically implies that each of us has the right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, insofar as this doesn’t impinge on others’ rights to do the same. (It seems to me that what I've said here fits well with the U.S. Constitution.)

I think that this also means that we should take the responsibility to encourage one another to seek and live in accordance with what’s true and good and excellent, regardless of one’s religion or atheism or whatever. In our age of worldview plurality, I’m very much in favour of a secular political realm, one that encourages people of all religious and non-religious stripes to find a common ground in truth and reality—i.e., a common ground that recognizes and respects the intrinsic moral worth of each human being—and to therein live peaceably. But, I quickly add and emphasize, this should not at all preclude, or pretend to be a default substitute for, the careful search for ultimate truth, whether that truth is religious or atheist or whatever.

Best regards to you Pvblivs,

P.S. Daryl (Climenheise): I wrote the above prior to receiving your comment. Nevertheless, I appreciate your insights.

Pvblivs said...

Dr. V:

     It may indeed have been done to protect the sensitivities of the victims. But it still gives it the earmarks of propaganda. Governments across the world can always find "witnesses" to confirm their claims. Suppose China was claiming that the U.S. had invaded and built similar death camps on their soil (outlawing all dissent.) In 50 years, how would one conduct a "careful examination of the evidence"? The fact is that governments -- even our own -- use the outlawing of dissent to protect lies. It is plausible that the allies could construct propaganda to serve as justification for initiating a nation of Israel.
     Physical evidence is useful because a sham (while fresh) is likely to be exposed. Witness accounts for an official state position are not useful because a government can always invent witnesses. But ordinarily the official claims can be more or less trusted because of the question "if it didn't happen that way, why didn't anyone speak against it?" Well, in this case, there is an answer to that. No one spoke against it because anyone who did would be silenced and jailed. The evidence is gone, or nearly so.
     I mentioned China because the alternate hypothesis describes activity that one might well expect to come from China. Building fake camps. Filming fake witnesses. And using law to stop exposure of the lie. I could never prove that the holocaust was fictional. But you can't prove that it was not. (I think that we are in agreement that the described events are horrid.) The assertion that the relevant governments were not engaging in deception requires the assumption that they are not engaging in deception when they tell you.

Pvblivs said...

     "Suitably adjusted for monotheism, the dilemma goes like this: Does God will X because it is good, or is X good because God wills it? If one says yes to the first part then X is good independent of God. If one says yes to the second part, then God’s will seems whimsical (ungrounded by the good). Moreover, to recognize God as good requires a prior, independent-of-God understanding of good. Or so the argument goes."
     That's a fair analysis of my argument. Of course, I believe that things can be determined good independent of any god. The Greeks had it fairly easy. They did not assume their gods to be good. They only assumed them powerful.

Dr. V said...


Re: Your claims: “I could never prove that the holocaust was fictional. But you can't prove that it was not.”

Yes, I think that proof isn’t possible in the study of history. Proof is too high a standard for historical knowledge. Rather, we should go with something like: inference to best explanation, i.e., making the best sense we can of the available evidence. I think too that careful historical work can sniff out propaganda. It seems to me that there are just too many sources of information that would need to be completely controlled for the holocaust to be a hoax. I suppose I don’t have enough faith in governments being smart enough to do this sort of thing so well on such a large scale.

Re: The Euthyphro Dilemma.

I will get back to you one day on this. I will be teaching a course on Ethics this fall, so maybe when I prepare my lecture on this topic I can also present a summary of my views in an Apologia column.

I hope that your summer is going well.


Christopher said...

Interesting conversation.

I wonder if anyone caught one of Joel Geleynse's lines: "Even if someone says so, it doesn't make it true."

That got me thinking about the performative logic of traditional church liturgies. For example, by matter of mere incantation and ritualized rites, many people have taken it to be true, ipso facto, that a priest (or someone of similar office) has irrevocably transmuted (with a helping hand from God, of course) wine into the blood of Jesus, and bread into the body and divinity of Christ.

Examples like that, measured against the standards of critical thinking (of which performative logic is a valid category), have caused me to rethink some of the finer elements of my Christian faith. For example, how much of what I believe is actually true because it has been declared to be true by the church officials?

But of more particular concern to me is just how much can critical thinking approach faith before one or the other of them distorts, or blends into the other?

My musings on this topic have brought me to a place of epistemological agnosticism; perhaps even real world skepticism. That is, how does any critical/rational answer attest to being true without a certain investiture of faith that it actually is? One cannot know anything absolutely, so some measure of faith (i.e., trust) is implicit in any and all knowledge. Given that -- and this is a loose premise, I understand -- faith in God seems as rational as reasoning that reliable knowledge is trustably (faith) true.

Was that too convoluted? :S

Dr. V said...


Thanks for your musings. Sorry for taking so long to respond. My wife and I had a short but fun holiday, visiting family and friends in Fort Qu’Appelle (SK), Medicine Hat (AB), Calgary (AB), and Canmore (AB). Prairies and mountains—I love them both!

I first learned about performative utterances in my study of argument theory. The linguistic philosopher J. L. Austin (1911-1960) had much to say about these utterances in his now classic book How to Do Things with Words. Austin made a helpful distinction between locutionary acts (a saying or voicing), illocutionary acts (what’s done in the saying or voicing), and perlocutionary acts (intended effects produced in the hearer or reader). An argument consists of linguistic entities (i.e. a set of truth-bearing declarative sentences uttered/written) that perform the act of rational persuasion (i.e., they invite the hearer to infer a conclusion on the basis of the truth claims/premises presented) and persuade (i.e., bring about in the hearer the intended effect of being persuaded).

In a limited sense, we humans can do quite a few things with words. Besides arguing, performative utterances include promising, agreeing, declaring, describing, threatening, cheering, asking, marrying.

In fairness to Geleynse, when he sings—“just cause you’ve said something doesn’t make it true/ even if it seems to work for you”—he seems very much to be thinking about a descriptive utterance. I say this because in his music video, when he sings this line, someone holds a sign that says “trains don’t exist” and later we see a train. I suspect that Geleynse is addressing a pragmatic view of truth here.

(The pragmatic view of truth defines truth as what works or is useful or serves one’s interests or values. This view of truth is problematic because to make sense of a perjury and lying seems very much to require a non-pragmatic, correspondence understanding of truth. The pragmatic aspect is better understood as a test for truth, not a definition of truth. It’s not the case that a claim X is true because it works; X works because X is true. It’s not the case that X’s working makes X true; X’s working shows, or provides evidence for thinking, X is true.)

Presumably, God can do much more with His performative utterances than humans can. According to Scripture, God creates the universe via His Word. That’s pretty awesome, it seems to me. I suspect that God allows some of this creative power to occur in some church liturgies. I haven’t studied this, so I won’t say more on this.

But I will say a few words about critical thinking, faith, and their relationship....

Dr. V said...

A few words about critical thinking, faith, and their relationship.

It seems to me that the human predicament is such that we truly know some things even though we don’t know the details of how we know. As I mentioned in a previous comment in a previous installment of Apologia, there do seem to be some philosophical theses that are intuitively obvious, regardless of (or in spite of) one’s larger philosophy or worldview, and whose denial seems rationally unacceptable, if not plainly absurd. I’m thinking of properly basic beliefs. As I also mentioned previously, in my list of such beliefs I would include the following: the principle of non-contradiction, valid argument forms, memory beliefs, the belief that my everyday perceptions of the world are veridical, belief that the world has existed more than five minutes, belief in the existence of other minds, belief that whatever begins to exist has a cause, belief in the legitimacy of inductive reasoning. (Of course, the obviousness of these theses may be clouded by philosophical fog, due to a failure to make some important conceptual distinctions, so sometimes philosophical fog-clearing might be needed.)

It seems to me too that not knowing X with absolute certainty doesn’t mean we cannot know X. Yes, we are not God, so we cannot know absolutely as God does. Nevertheless, we can know in part—we can know non-absolutely.

Think of is this way. Yes, it’s logically possible that I’m presently being deceived by Descartes’ evil demon (or a Matrix or a hallucination) to think that I’m married to Carla and that we have two sons, when in reality neither is the case. That is to say, I don’t have absolute knowledge here. However, acknowledging this logical possibility doesn’t impinge epistemologically on my knowing that I am married to Carla and that we have two sons. I know that I’m married to Carla and that we have two sons, and my acknowledging the logical possibility of a deceiving evil demon doesn’t impinge on this knowledge. In fact, to think that the logical possibility of the deceiving evil demon does impinge on this knowledge is to confuse logical possibility with plausibility/ probability. But mere logical possibility of doubt does not constitute sufficient grounds for the epistemological possibility or plausibility of that doubt. Or (to follow Ludwig Wittgenstein here) we can put the matter this way: to imagine a doubt is not actually to doubt. To think otherwise is to confuse cognitive categories.

Of course, much more should be said to diffuse the skeptical challenge concerning our knowledge of the external world, but I don’t want to rewrite here what I’ve written elsewhere. If you have some time, take a look at my article, “Reasonable Skepticism about Radical Skepticism,” Christian Research Journal, Volume 31, Number 05 (2008): 30-38. In this article I set out various arguments against four radical skepticisms concerning the external world—funky/pop skepticism, sensory skepticism, Kantian skepticism, and linguistic skepticism—and I make a solid case for thinking that they all fail. I argue that the burden of proof rests on the epistemic shoulders of those who would deny the obvious, so when radical skeptics fail to provide such proof, the obvious—that we have knowledge of the external world—remains....

Dr. V said...

Okay (if my argument thus far is reasonable to accept), so we can have knowledge of the external world, and this knowledge can be gotten via various critical thinking endeavors (e.g., science, history, etc.). Significantly, I think that our knowledge of the external world is in principle not different from our knowledge of God. I think that as we can have knowledge of the external world, so too we can have knowledge of God. Of course, there are differences, especially because God is a person as well as the cause of the external world. But the signs/evidences that stem from the world itself—e.g., its existence, its design, the design of its contents, its moral order, our ability to know the world (at least in part), the life and death and resurrection of Jesus—these signs/evidences provide a knowledge base for placing our faith in the God who is revealed via the world in general and via Christ in particular. We believe that God exists by using our critical thinking (rational-moral intuition/insight included), and we discern the historical reality of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection by using our critical thinking, but we submit to Christ’s teachings (that He is God, that His death on the cross provides us with reconciliation to a holy God) by faith, and we accept His saving grace by faith.

Of course, we could believe it all by faith and faith alone (i.e., take it all on faith with no evidential grounding in reality). But such fideism, it seems to me, is not biblical. Moreover, in view of the competing and contradictory voices concerning the truths about God, such fideism invites deception. (For a few more of my thoughts about fideism and the reason-and-evidence friendliness of the Bible, see the first and second points of my 14 April 2009 comment in the commentary for the 12 March 2009 installment of Apologia, “Does God Exist?”: http://apologiabyhendrikvanderbreggen.blogspot.com/2009/03/does-god-exist.html)

In closing, I should add (as I added in a previous comment) that, like Plantinga, I think knowledge of God can be properly basic and can be gotten via the careful use of reason and evidence. The two are not mutually exclusive.

I should add too that I think that the Bible is very knowledge-friendly. For various relevant passages, see chapter 7 of D. A. Carson’s Becoming Conversant with the Emergent Church (Zondervan 2005).

I just looked back at what you wrote—and in my rambling I may have rambled away from your original point! Sorry about that. I will end simply by saying that if knowledge per se requires some sort of faith, then it would seem that whether or not we should also put our faith in the objects of our knowledge depends on the objects of our knowledge (i.e., the objects’ faith-worthiness or lack thereof), not on knowledge per se. Moreover, if the object of our knowledge is a person, this would seem to require a different order or level of faith.

Okay, I will stop.

Christopher, I hope that you and yours are having a great summer. Please do stop by if you’re ever holidaying in my neck of the woods (prairies, actually).

Best regards,

Dr. V said...

P.S. Here are some more comments on knowledge.

I pointed out (above) that to know X doesn't require an absolute knowing of X. I can know X even though I acknowledge that it's possible that I'm being deceived by Descartes' evil demon (or the Matrix, etc.).

I should point out too that to know X doesn't require an exhaustive knowledge of X. I can know that there's a wooden pencil on my desk even though I don't know everything about it. I can know that there's a wooden pencil on my desk even though I don't know what type of wood it's made of, what sort of hardness the lead is, what the exact thickness of the lead is, what the chemical composition of the yellow paint is, etc. Rather, I can know that the object in question is a wooden pencil by its salient features: it's about 6" long, yellow, wooden, thin like other pencils, has a blackish lead, brownish eraser, shiny metal band. Yes, it could be a plastic mechanical pencil built to look like a regular wooden pencil, but when I examine it, I see that it's a regular wooden pencil. In fact, I know it's a regular wooden pencil. To think otherwise would be pretty odd, surely.

So I can have knowledge of X even though that knowledge isn't absolute and it isn't exhaustive. Even though I'm fallible and limited, I can know some things.

Via the doing of various types of critical thinking, such as science, history, philosophy, etc., I can know more things, fallibly and in a limited sort of way.

(For further diffusion of radical skepticism about the external world, see my article "Reasonable Skepticism about Radical Skepticism.")