on 2 April 2009
Alone it stands, assailed on all sides by priests and postmodernists and prophets and pseudoscientists and practitioners of public relations, how are we ever going to approach a word like "truth" in its solitary majesty? With a philosopher like Simon Blackburn at your side, and with this brilliant book in your hand. The difference between him and them is the degree of commitment to reason, the degree to which obfuscation is avoided and the temptation to hide behind jargon is resisted. Blackburn could easily dazzle most of us with technical arguments, but he wants to clarify, not mystify, and he succeeds. This book is about a "war of ideas and attitudes... not only between different people, but grumbling within the breast of each individual": today, are we a believer, a sceptic, a cynic, a rationalist, an absolutist, a relativist? And tomorrow? Many of us will sensibly shrug off such labels, but we should not and we do not shrug off questions about truth: it matters if "politicians claim that some country has weapons of mass destruction when they know that it does not, or if NASA says that a shuttle is safe" when it is not.
Chapter 1 - "Faith, Belief and Reason" - draws in three more similarly abused and important terms. While this might seem to be multiplying our difficulties before we have begun, these are all connected and their meanings interdependent. People either give reasons for or have faith in the truth of any particular belief. That sounds simple, inclusive and nicely symmetrical, and surely covers all bases. The harmony is an illusion. The absolutist, often of a religious temperament, cannot resist the allure of dogma, while relativism "chips away at our right to disapprove of what anybody says." Both sides bicker over questions of authority. Blackburn's opening sentences hold out the promise of finding a way through this maze: "There are real standards... We must not believe that anything goes."
Indeed, we "have a duty to believe carefully, in the light of reason alone" as the following story illustrates. A shipowner who acquires "a sincere and comfortable conviction" that his vessel is thoroughly safe and seaworthy, and who ignores any doubts to the contrary, is putting his trust in a higher power and putting his passengers at risk when he allows the vessel to sail. His belief in the safety of his ship has not been earned "in patient investigation, but by stifling his doubts."
This is from the essay "The Ethics of Belief" by William Clifford, who argues that it is always morally wrong to take an intellectual shortcut and believe on faith alone. Blackburn agrees. Someone "sitting on a completely unreasonable belief is sitting on a time bomb. The apparently harmless, idiosyncratic belief of the Catholic Church that one thing may have the substance of another" (transubstantiation, a process still believed to fuel the Eucharist) "although it displays absolutely none of its empirical qualities, prepares people for the view that some people are agents of Satan in disguise, which in turn makes it reasonable to destroy them." Lack of faith is not a deficiency, and a refusal "to believe something is not a kind of faith." I would argue in addition that a lifetime of exposure to such false beliefs corrodes our powers of critical thought. How else to explain Cormac Murphy-O'Connor's recent assertion that secularists are not "fully human"?
"Making ourselves gullible or credulous, we lose the habit of testing things and inquiring into them" and risk "sinking back into savagery". Children, who are naturally open to all sorts of beliefs and have their lives before them, must therefore be protected from their own credulity just as we protect them from running into the road. An important first step is to recognize that children "are born human beings, but nothing else."
Blackburn has a wonderful way of bringing a discussion about truth down to earth and can write the kind of sentence you're unlikely to find elsewhere: "we do not have to resort to dark forces to explain my status as an announcer of butter". He believes there is butter in the fridge because he has opened the door and seen it. What's more, since the age of around four, when we ceased to be self-centred realists, we have all known that it is possible for others to hold a false belief about there being butter in the fridge - if we have eaten it and not owned up! This appreciation of truth is not metaphysical speculation but an ordinary part of being a functioning human being. No one is "born a Muslim, or a Hindu, or a Jew" but we are all born with the potential to work out what is true and what is not true without recourse to supposed higher powers. A just and humane society must nurture and not extinguish such potential.