DiaBlogue: The Pursuit of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth

In a A Scattered Review of The Pilgrim’s Regress, Alan does an excellent job of summarizing the intersection of Lewis’ ramblings and our diablogue. I must commend him on such a quick and comprehensive read, as well as a remarkably concise summation.

Alan then asks, “Ernie, is there anything to which you would draw my attention, or wish to clarify*”

Yes, there is. [Read more] to explore the importance of Intense Longing…

One of the recurring themes of our DiaBlogue has been “How can we know Truth?” In particular, one of Alan’s earliest statements — and one of the first things we were able to agree upon — is:

I. Belief in Truth is inherently Good

which implies (at least to me):

II. Belief in Truth is inherently Possible

While I think we’d both agree that it isn’t always (ever?) possible to completely capture truth, we presumably consider it realistic to hope to approach it more clearly. However, that implies a fairly strong epistemic constraint which (borrowing from Hebrews ) I might phrase as:

III. Whomever would draw near to Truth must believe that it exists, and that it [ultimately, if partially] rewards those who seek it.

Alan, do you still affirm (I)? Then do you also affirm (II) and (III)? In response to C.S. Lewis’ description of Intense Longing, you said:

This seems a very dangerous road, to take an intense longing and from that longing infer that a fulfillment of that longing simply must exist. “If nature makes nothing in vain, the One … must exist.” Perhaps nature does make some things in vain. And he also admits “how easily the longing accepts false objects” but claims that by following the desire faithfully the false objects will be rejected. I reject the idea that because he has some desire, the fulfillment of that desire must exist, and I am skeptical about how reliably he is able to identify what is false and what is true.

While admittedly dangerous, and in some sense arbitrary, I believe it is actually the only road worth taking — as the other road leads to death!

I think there’s really two different issues here, which you may (or may not) be unintentionally conflating:

A. Believing we have distinguished truth from falsehood.
B. Believing we can distinguish truth from falsehood, a least in part

I completely agree that “A” is dangerous, and in fact evil. I reject both religious and scientific systems that claim to have completely captured all knowledge in a timeless certainty that denies the need or validity of further inquiry — and I presume you do the same.

However, I heartily affirm “B”. I completely agree that “B” by itself is not sufficient; we also need experimentation, analysis, counsel, and all the other things Lewis demonstrated on his journey. However, all those were outflows of “B”, and in fact were more-or-less accidentally discovered by people who passionately pursued truth due to belief “B” (as can be seen in the history of science).

Further, I argue that denying “B” — if carried to the logical conclusion — is morally equivalent to nihilsm. If you allow nihilism, then disbelief in everything is always justified, and no belief in anything is ever justified. In which case, we — quite literally — have “nothing” left to talk about (which I’m still happy to do, by the way :-).

If you deny nihilism — do you? I’m not sure I ever got an answer — then I wonder what you assert in its place.

This, to me, is the essence of Lewis’s argument (and journey). The only thing that makes his journey possible is his belief that the journey is meaningful, even if it never quite ends. That is, there really is an Island containing all those highest ideals — Truth, Beauty, Goodness — that humanity strives after, at least in our better moments. But at least this means we really do have better (and worse) moments, rather than good and bad themselves being just as vain (unknowable) as truth and falsehood. There really is a Vision, and we really do see it, however imperfectly, and that provides a moral compass for triangulating everything else we do.

And while we never reach a complete understanding of that Vision, the more we cherish the Ideal — rather than settling for a specific, partial instance — the closer we can draw near to it. Even if we never get there completely, and continually discover that our earlier certainties were fundamentally mistaken. At least we are moving forward, however erratically. Even if sometimes we take the long way ’round.

But if either:

i. Those ideals have no ontological reality
ii. We are epistemically incapable of ever approaching them, or knowing that we’ve gotten closer

then life is ultimately pointless, and your point (I) seems a cruel mockery. In such a world:

* Truth, in practice, is whatever The Establishment (however defined) says it is
* Beauty is a merely an accidental artifact of brute sexual urges, projected onto the world by confused humans
* Goodness is just a matter of what you can get away with

The guiding principle of that world — which a great many people live by, in practice — is really:

IV. Belief in Truth is inherently Arbitrary

Which, again, is logically self-consistent. To deny it is, at some level, an arbitrary choice. Yet you (like me) apparently do in fact reject such an approach to Truth. Which I find commendable, but (frankly) incomprehensible.

So, perhaps you can help me understand. Given that you appear to have rejected all my (and the classical) rationales for why Truth is knowable, why do you persist in asserting that it is? (assuming you still do). You may well be right — but why? And how do you know whether or not you are? Or is this in fact your (sole) non-contingent religious belief?

I am not saying I know truth perfectly. Despite my Ph.D., I don’t claim to know Physics perfectly, much less that Physics-As-We-Know-It “correctly” describes the tangible universe. However, I do claim that I know (and understand) Physics far better than I did when I entered MIT, and that the Physics we have now is a much better description of the universe than the one we had 100 years ago — yet still continuous with it. And I have faith that the physics of 100 years in the future will maintain continuity with the physics we know now — though not necessarily in the way we expect!

Similarly, I do NOT claim Christianity-As-We-Know-It (CAWKI) is “correct” in the fundamentalist sense of correctly capturing all relevant truth for all time. However, I do believe it describes divinity (the ontological universe) and humanity (us) far better than the paradigms which preceded it. And further, whatever belief system comes after *must* similarly maintain continuity with CAWKI. After all, at least _some_ of its core assumptions must have been “close” to the truth in order to account for its extraordinary (even if not unique) explanatory, predictive, and transformational power. Though I confess I have only a fuzzy idea of which assumptions will survive, and how.

So, Alan, my questions to you are:

a. Do you believe that Truth (as an ideal) exists, and is both possible and important to pursue?
b. Do you believe that Goodness exists in the same way?
c. If so, why?
d. If not, then what — if anything — do you believe in?

As I’m sure you must realize, Christians and scientists are just about the only communities left in modern America who believe in the reality, power, and relevance of objective truth. The tragedy, in my opinion, is that Christians have learned Why but forgotten How, whereas scientists have the opposite problem.

Why not take this opportunity to work together, to forge a new understanding that transcends the historic limitations of both approaches?

In Love,