Two nights ago I had a discussion with a colleague about ‘truth’. Her point of view was that people have different opinions on various topics so we can never claim to be uniquely right. To do so would be arrogant and narrow-minded since people who disagree with us also believe they are right. Why should we think that it is only us who is in possession of ‘the truth’?
Uttering the words ‘the truth’ sometimes prompts a certain kind of person to wiggle two fingers on either side of their face to indicate that they don’t believe in ‘a truth’ singular, only in truths plural, and the more plural the better. After all, this is a democracy, not an autocracy. What kind of Nazi would insist on imposing ‘his truth’ on everyone else?
I’m pleased to report that my colleague didn’t wiggle her fingers annoyingly about in the air. However, as well as voicing the ‘Who are you to say what is true?’ argument, she also brought up the ‘Even if people are wrong, why not let them believe what they want as long as it’s harmless?’ argument.
There is so much that I disagree with in all this that it is hard to know where to start. I think on the evening I tried to answer it all at once and ended up babbling incoherent nonsense, so let me take another run at it here.
Firstly, just because people hold different opinions doesn’t mean that one of these views can’t be the entirely right one and one entirely wrong. If you ask a hundred people what the capital of America is, most people will say Washington, and they would be right. However, one or two people might say New York. Yet simply because they answered incorrectly doesn’t mean that we should now be unsure of the correct answer, nor should we imagine that the correct answer lies somewhere between the two points of view, say in Philadelphia. Some people are simply wrong and that’s an end to it.
Similarly, just because some uneducated people wish to convince themselves that the Creation story in the Bible is literally true and evolution must therefore be wrong does not mean that the Theory of Evolution is any less secure than if everyone believed it. Truth is not defined by a majority vote but by evidence. Since Darwin published On the Origin of Species 150 years ago a wealth of evidence supporting his theory has been amassed. We are now at the stage where the Theory of Evolution it is one of the surest theories in science, on a par with Newton’s Gravitational Theory. The only reason religious people claim that evolutionary theory ‘is just a theory’ while gravitational theory is unquestionably true is that the former contradicts their holy book while the latter doesn’t. Their scepticism has nothing to do with a lack of supporting evidence and everything to do with science contradicting their cherished beliefs.
And don’t be fooled by the scientific use of the word ‘theory’. Most people assume this means the same as a hypothesis, a mere conjecture that may or may not be right. It doesn’t. In science the word ‘theory’ means an idea that explains a multitude of phenomena. This is why a theory can never become a ‘law’. Laws are simple things while theories are overarching explanations. A theory can be just as sure as a law.
Some modern people, while disagreeing with Creationists, like to claim that fundamentalists and scientists each have their ‘own truth’. This is something that smug people say to appear open-minded and tolerant but it is garbage. What they actually mean is that there are many opinions about what is true, not that there are many truths. The idea that truth is plural comes from people who have had it drummed into them that, in a political sense, we are all equal. They then assume this applies to all realms, thinking that everyone is equally well placed to recognise the truth. Therefore all opinions must be equally valid, regardless of a person’s proficiency in a subject, or of their mental health; everything is reduced to an opinion. ‘That’s just your opinion’ and ‘I’m allowed my opinion’ is something you often hear. What do you say to someone who claims he is entitled to his opinion that the capital of America is New York?
I think what lies behind some cultural relativists’ dislike of the claim that we are right is the way most cultures prefer their own way of doing things. Some stupid people then make the false step of assuming that because they prefer something it must therefore be better in an objective sense and everyone should adopt their ways. It was the ancient Greeks who first noticed this when they started travelling among different peoples. After looking at many cultures around the Mediterranean the Greeks concluded that there were different ways of doing things and the best civilisation was…their own!
The idea that the Greeks may actually have been right floors some people. They assume that there is no such thing as better but merely personal preferences and prejudices. Yet can you look at North Korea and New Zealand and honestly claim that neither country is better than the other? After all, no one tries to break into North Korea but plenty of people try to escape from it. This doesn’t mean that New Zealand is better in some mathematical sense or cross-species sense; it just means it’s better in the sense that all reasonable humans would prefer to live there than in North Korea.
The same is true of immigration. There are no hordes of Swedes flocking to Somalia but plenty of Somalis wishing to live in Sweden. Yes, one reason Somalis want to live in Sweden is due to economic factors, but that is precisely the point. Sweden has structured its society in such a way that wealth creation is possible. It is by most measurable factors a better country to live in than Somalia. If it weren’t then Somalis wouldn’t emigrate there.
Other people like to point out that 500 hundred years ago scientists believed the sun went around the earth. Nowadays scientists believe that the earth goes round the sun. So maybe scientific knowledge is not as secure as scientists like to claim? (Actually, scientists never claim that their laws and theories are secure. This is something imagined by people who know no science. All scientists do is attach degrees of certainty to their ideas). But, the sceptic continues, perhaps if we wait another 500 years scientists might go back to a Geo-centric model of our solar system. Then we can all say, ‘For Christ’s sake, make up your minds!’
The suggestion here is that we never get any closer to the truth. On this view knowledge is like fashion. First we wear flares, then bell-bottoms, then drainpipe trousers, then ripped jeans and maybe back again to flares. Fashions change but they never get objectively better.
This might be true of fashion but it is nonsense in regards to truth. In the same way that children know very little when they are young and gradually learn more, so the same happens to the human race. Simply because we haven’t learned everything since climbing down from the trees in Africa doesn’t mean we haven’t learned anything. To pretend that we know no more now than we did when we used to burn witches for casting spells, or when we blamed Gods for making our crops fail and visiting plagues on us, is modern day cultural relativism gone mad.
There are cultural relativists who claim that we only believe what we believe because we are stuck inside our culture, just as other tribes are stuck in theirs. Richard Dawkins once described talking to an anthropologist who believed the following. He said that for us in the West the Moon is a rock that orbits the earth at an average distance of 235,000 miles. Yet for a tribe in Africa the Moon is a pumpkin that their god threw up into the sky. The pumpkin now hangs there suspended, just beyond the tree tops. Each tribe, ours and theirs, believes their own ‘narrative’ to be true yet in reality neither one is more true than the other. Each tribe has its ‘own truth’.
Wouldn’t you just like to hit a person who professes this belief full in the face – with an iron?
Let’s imagine that I agree to take the tribal chief up in my plane. He has seen it fly and concludes it should not take too long to reach the Moon. So we take off and head directly for the Moon which on this lovely evening sits just above the dark horizon. The chief soon notices that we aren’t getting noticeably nearer, despite the fact that we have now been flying for as long as it takes to skin a snake.
Primitive people don’t have the advantage of a modern education but they are not stupid. Unlike Father Dougal they understand perspective. The tribal chief now realises that the Moon must be a lot further away and therefore a lot bigger than his tribe believe.
Even if he still isn’t convinced, he can hitch a ride on the next Moon mission and see for himself just how big and far away the Moon really is. He would soon understand that his tribe was wrong and that the white man’s science is better at getting at the truth than folk lore. He would accept that sending a rocket into space and bringing it back again to earth is the surest confirmation that science maps onto reality in a way that pumpkin Moons don’t.
The one thing that would probably perplex the chief is why the bearded anthropologist still insists on telling him that the traditional beliefs of his African tribe are just as ‘true’ as the scientific view. The chief can see for himself that this isn’t the case. Why is the bearded one lying to him?
Some people believe that the real danger to society comes from those who are too sure of themselves and hold strong beliefs. Scientists are often described as being too sure of themselves, though this couldn’t be less true. If you want to see unwarranted certainty, go to a prayer meeting. If you want to see doubt and questioning, go to a science conference. Science only moves forward through questioning accepted ideas. Religion has no interest in moving anywhere. It knows as much now as it did 2,000 years ago and has no desire to learn any more.
Anyway, some people think that if no one held strong beliefs then we could all live in peace and harmony. After all, the doubtful never rise up in revolution. But this again is nonsense. Given that there are people in this world with strong convictions then the best way to combat such people is with equally strong counter-convictions. Passivism and relativism never stopped a despot.
Let’s say that you have the strong belief that homosexuality shouldn’t be a criminal offence. Does this put you in the same bracket as Hitler and Bin Laden who have the opposite strong belief that gay men should be killed? Yet you are convinced that strong beliefs, regardless of their content, are the problem. You are also convinced that you have no good reason to privilege your own personal beliefs over those of Adolf who, like you, also believes he is right. What then will be your response to the Hitlers and bin Ladens of this world? To simply allow them to kill your gay friends because to hold your counter views too strongly or to ‘privilege’ your views over their would be arrogance? If so, and I were gay, I really wouldn’t want you as a friend.
This problem was addressed by Bertrand Russell when he said:
“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser men so full of doubts.”
and Edmund Burke said:
“In order for evil to flourish, all that is required is for good men to do nothing.”
and W.B. Yeats wrote:
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
I think we should all remember that we could be wrong and that something may happen to make us change our minds but this shouldn’t stop us from acting now on our convictions. All sensible people know that their point of view is not god-like and none of us can achieve Thomas Nagel’s ‘view from nowhere’. However, this does not mean that everything we believe is mere personal or cultural prejudice. It may actually be true that Canada is a better country than North Korea, regardless of when and where you were born. In the world of science people can agree on quite a lot, regardless of where they are from. Thus if a modern day Iranian scientist went back in time to meet Isaac Newton, they would agree on what constituted good evidence and what didn’t and would see eye-to-eye on pretty much everything relating to science. And science can perhaps form the basis of agreeing on how to act in real life situations. Sam Harris’s book ‘The Moral Landscape’ is the best argument yet for this hope. Here is Sam speaking about this topic.
Since there is no way of standing outside yourself and viewing things as God might, then you have to do the best you can. It seems to me that looking at things as objectively as you can and trying to see things from another person’s point of view are both worthy attempts. However, to become paralysed by the thought that you can never be completely impartial or imagine exactly what it is like to be someone else, is silly. By being so scared that you might be privileging your own prejudices you leave the field open to less scrupulous people.
Regarding my colleague’s belief that some false views are completely harmless, I doubt this is true. Some views which once seemed harmless have turned out to be destructive, like the idea that the soul enters the person at the moment of conception. It is mainly due to this belief that stem cell research stalled in America for ten years. Who knows how many people might have been saved if research had gone ahead earlier.
I also suspect that young Muslim suicide bombers might not be quite so keen to blow themselves up if they didn’t believe there would 72 dark-haired lovelies waiting for them up in heaven to tend to their every need – that is, once the ringing in their ears from the almighty ‘BOOM!’ has stopped.
It’s almost impossible to say in advance what beliefs are likely to be harmful and which ones won’t. Either way I don’t think it’s a good idea to allow false beliefs to spread. Filling the world with untruth can only have bad consequences; and even if there were no bad consequence I’d still be against false beliefs. After all, I want to share the world with reasonable people rather than fantasists and wishful thinkers. There is something demeaning about believing something simply because it makes you feel good. The belief in an afterlife is clearly not based on evidence but rather on the human desire not to die.
Talking of believing things purely for the feel-good factor, another of my colleagues believes that we have souls that are made of balls of light. I said that I thought this was nonsense and that we were lumps of flesh with a developed nervous system that navigate as best we can through our world. He said that my view was very scientific. I was pleased but I think it was meant as an insult, ‘scientific’ meaning ‘narrow-minded and intolerant’ to him.
Anyway, he said, I couldn’t prove that we didn’t have balls of light for souls and I had to concede that I couldn’t, even though it broke my heart to do so. He smiled at this as if to say “Gotcha!’ I think what was on his mind was that since neither of us could prove the other wrong, then we must be on an equal footing and each of us had a reasonable chance of being right.
If this is what he was thinking then he was wrong. I could claim to be Greta Garbo reincarnated and there is nothing he could say to disprove this nonsense. Even so, his inability to disprove my claim doesn’t make it any less ridiculous. The onus is on me to put forward reasons why anyone should believe I am a long-dead Swedish goddess of the silver screen rather than a bald, middle-aged English teacher from the East Midlands. Similarly the onus is on him to show me why I should believe we have souls made of radiant balls of light.
What he didn’t seem to understand is that just because there are two possibilities this doesn’t mean that each has an equal chance of being right. If F.C. Barcelona plays football against my ageing local pub team the chances of Barcelona winning aren’t 100% but neither are they 50/50. If I am ill and I talk to both my doctor and John down the pub who knows nothing about anything, there is more chance that my doctor’s advice will be more useful to me, even though neither men can claim omnipotence. It’s just that one opinion has a greater chance of being nearer the truth than the other.
And there are often several competing possibilites. Christians like to think that the chances of there being a god are high. After all, there is either a god or there isn’t so the chances must be 50/50, right? Wrong. Even if you accept the weird idea that a god made the universe, the chances that it was the Christian God are vanishingly small. Humans have dreamt up hundreds of thousands of gods since the dawn of history and none of them is more likely to be true than the others.