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Faith, Reason, and Secular Hegemony Print E-mail
By Francis J. Beckwith   
Friday, 13 April 2012

About a year ago, I was invited to contribute to a book on the topic of political philosophy and religious beliefs, to be published next year by a university press. My chapter, tentatively titled, “Fides, Ratio et Juris: How Some Courts and Some Legal Theorists Misrepresent the Rational Status of Religious Beliefs,” addresses the claims of courts and legal theorists who argue that religiously informed policy proposals have no place in a liberal democracy because the religious worldviews from which they herald are at their core unreasonable, for they are dependent on irrational beliefs.

While preparing for this chapter, I read and reread scores of court cases and academic monographs. The judicial opinions, most of which affirmed or implied the irrationality of religious belief, did not surprise me, since the jurists who wrote them are often unacquainted with the sort of literature on the rationality of religious belief that has been the staple of Anglo-American philosophy for nearly five decades.

What did surprise me were the legal theorists. Their ignorance was embarrassing. Take, for example, this claim made by one of these scholars: “Secular science and liberal politics, both committed to the primacy of reason, necessarily deny that any truth is incontestable.”  We can put this claim in the form of a proposition:

A.    Reason necessarily denies incontestable truths

Is this an incontestable truth? If reason necessarily denies incontestable truths, and this author is offering A as a canon of reason, then A is not an incontestable truth. But in that case, it is not incontestable that reason necessarily denies incontestable truths. Thus, reason may in fact affirm incontestable truths.

On the other hand, if A is an incontestable truth, and the author is offering A as a canon of reason, then it is not the case that reason necessarily denies incontestable truths. Consequently, reason requires that we believe at least one incontestable truth, namely, that reason necessarily denies incontestable truths. In that case, reason is downright unreasonable.

But not only can one reject A because it is, as we philosophers like to put it, self-referentially incoherent, one can also reject it because it is simply false. Take, for example, these claims:

B.     All bachelors are unmarried males
C.    2 + 2 = 4
D.    C = 2πr

B, C, and D are necessary truths. They are true in every possible world. But necessary truths are incontestable truths. If it is reasonable to believe in necessary truths – and it would seem to be so because they are in fact “truths” – then it is not only not true that reason necessarily denies incontestable truths, but in some cases reason necessarily affirms incontestable truths.


      Back to basics: Christians must make the case that faith aligns with reason.

Now consider these claims:

E.     It is morally wrong everywhere and always to torture children for fun
F.     The proper end of the human mind is the acquisition of wisdom
G.    Human persons are beings of immeasurable worth and dignity

E, F, and G seem like perfectly rational beliefs for one to hold. They are, to be sure, not incontestable as are B, C, and D. But they seem far less contestable than Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, an established scientific theory if there ever was one. Nevertheless, one can easily imagine Einstein’s theory being refuted, but it’s difficult to imagine how one can ever be wrong about E, F, and G. So, it seems that there are beliefs that one has no obligation to contest or prove that are nevertheless perfectly rational to hold without the assistance of argument or evidence.

The legal theorists I read all claim to be experts in law and religion, and their works appear in law reviews published by prestigious universities. And yet, I could not find in them a hint that they had even a superficial acquaintance with the vast literature on religion and rationality produced by religious (and some non-religious) thinkers (mostly philosophers) over the past fifty years.

There was no mention of Alvin Plantinga, William Lane Craig, Robert C. Koons, John Haldane, William Alston, J. P. Moreland, Brian Leftow, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Linda Zagzebski, Charles Taliaferro, C. Stephen Evans, Dallas Willard, Richard Swinburne, John Polkinghorne, Eleanore Stump, John E. Hare, or N. T. Wright.

These contemporary scholars, along with scores of others, have published some of the most sophisticated and carefully wrought arguments for important aspects of the Christian faith, including the rationality of belief in God, the failure of philosophical materialism, the existence of the soul, moral realism, the incoherence of scientism, the historicity of Christ’s resurrection, and the reconciling of God and evil.

Although references to these writings were nowhere to be found in the legal articles I consulted, their authors nevertheless confidently proclaimed that all religious belief is insulated from evidence and the ordinary standards of rationality. 

It should not surprise us, then, that when political conflicts between church and state arise that academic and media elites treat the church’s point of view as if it were an irrational outlier to contemporary culture.  As I have come to reluctantly realize, they simply do not know any better, since their education insulated them from views contrary to the unquestioned secular hegemony that was ubiquitous in their intellectual formation.

This means that we Christians – Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox alike – cannot settle for mere cultural toleration (or just having the right to speak) without at the same time making the case that our faith, and all that it entails and presupposes, is aligned with reason. As Pope John Paul II once said, “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.” 

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He is one of four primary contributors to Journeys of Faith: Evangelicalism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Anglicanism (Zondervan, 2012).
 
 
 
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written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, April 13, 2012
Miss Anscombe illustrated the necessary link between metaphysics and ethics by the following consideration: “Generally people act for reasons, and these reasons have to do with what seems good to the agents in question. Not everything that seems good really is good, of course, but not just anything can even seem good. If someone’s reason for acting is to get all his green books up on a roof then, in knowing this reason, we gain no understanding of why he is behaving as he does. His behaviour is as unintelligible as it would have been if we had not been told his reason. So the behaviour of our fellow human beings is only intelligible if we can and do relate it to a certain limited range of ideas about what might be regarded as good.”

Manifestly, religious reasons fall well within that limited range.
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written by Dave, April 13, 2012
Dr. Beckwith, thank you for this article, which I find amazing in itself for its bibliography alone and for the skill with which it treats briefly yet completely the silly notions passing for truth in the political realm. Two observations, if I may.

First, there is a lifetime of reading in the handful of great philosophers you have cited above. Is there any on-line course or guidance as to how to develop a deeper, richer, sounder, more cultured understanding of philosophy, including a philosophical apologetics. Such a website would be an almost immeasurable boon.

Second, am I correct in noting that the great work to which you make reference has been conducted in the last fifty years by Protestants alone, or that there is no great work being conducted at Catholic universities? For most of the philosophers you cite either appear to be Protestants or they work at Protestant or secular universities. Were you to respond that work by Catholic philosophers in these realms has been thin lo these last five decades, I confess with sorrow that I would not be surprised.

For some time now I have believed that the great philosophical challenge of our time lies in epistemology. Wittgenstein's language games, and the work conducted at Yale in the 80s, seemed to offer some hope as to the rationality of truth claims, but the project collapsed, at least as far as I can tell, or, perhaps more openly, at least for me. The great ressourcement projects that bring us back to medieval philosophy seem very good to me for ordinary discourse about ordinary truth claims, but -- again a revelation of my own gaps -- I'm not altogether certain as to how they stack up against the claims of modern science, when that science is militantly atheistic (and thus dishonest).

Whatever guidance you can give will be so appreciated. You have touched upon in this column what could be the next two or three decades of personal study and reflection, were God grant me the time and strength of mind to conduct it.

Thanks so much.
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written by Gail Finke, April 13, 2012
Scotty Ellis: I'm certain that Mr. Beckwith knows perfectly well what the statement "Secular science and liberal politics, both committed to the primacy of reason, necessarily deny that any truth is incontestable" means. His saying that it's false is not because he doesn't understand your points, but because he does not agree with you that "all claims, again including this one, make use of socially and culturally contingent symbols whose meaning is not fixed." Neither do I. Moreover, if what you say is true (although how it could be, when there are no incontestable truths, I don't know) then there is no point in the discussion, or any discussion, because all those symbols are just going to change again anyway. So why bother? Of course, acting on that would mean having no courts, no government, no schools, and no systems of any kind, which would be inconvenient. But that is the logical outcome of your position and those like it. Silliness and sophistry dressed up as deep thought are still silliness and sophistry.
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written by Titus, April 13, 2012
"Secular science and liberal politics, both committed to the primacy of reason, necessarily deny that any truth is incontestable."

Scotty Ellis, writing supra, insists that this sentence derives coherence from post-modern deconstructionist. This claim strikes me as nonsense of the very worst sort. It does so not, principally, because deconstructionism is absurd---though it is---but rather because the claim predates the existence of deconstructionism. It is by no means a new claim that science is predicated on reason and faith on irrationality: the idea predates post-modernism, in all its forms, by several centuries. Furthermore, the scientific and liberally political structures to which the speaker appeals themselves are now of venerable age: we cannot seriously now claim that the scientific method only acquired its true nature once people started writing about how nothing had a true nature. Finally, I question whether the author who Dr. Beckwith quotes intended to invoke this deconstructionist hermeneutic at all: this is by no means the manner in which I am accustomed to seeing that claim used.

For good measure, it may be said that Mr. Ellis's criticism of necessary truths is not convincing. His explanation of the differences in number systems shows nothing about the indeterminacy of any particular human concept. It merely shows that humans are capable of determinately expressing many different concepts. If I ask A to imagine a baseball game, and then ask him to imagine that various elements of the game were different, until what he was imagining was actually a hurling game, I have not shown that "baseball" and "hurling" are indeterminate constructs. I have merely demonstrated the differences between two entirely unique, identifiable things. Mr. Ellis's thought experiment cannot claim any more than that.
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written by Scotty Ellis, April 13, 2012
Gail:

"His saying that it's false is not because he doesn't understand your points, but because he does not agree with you that "all claims, again including this one, make use of socially and culturally contingent symbols whose meaning is not fixed."

Would you mind providing an example of a claim which does not make use of socially and culturally contingent symbols? Even one example, and I will happily withdraw my claim.

"Moreover, if what you say is true (although how it could be, when there are no incontestable truths, I don't know) then there is no point in the discussion, or any discussion, because all those symbols are just going to change again anyway. So why bother?"

You are confusing the claim "no statement is incontestable" with the statement "no statement is meaningful." You are also confusing something being provisional with something being worthless. We bother because through symbols we are able to achieve things that we could not achieve without them: culture, society, science, knowledge - poetry. All these things are meaningful - but we cannot simply enshrine any of them (even my statements) as being absolutely true in some unmediated way. They are all dependent upon our biological, social, and historical contexts.

"Of course, acting on that would mean having no courts, no government, no schools, and no systems of any kind, which would be inconvenient. But that is the logical outcome of your position and those like it. Silliness and sophistry dressed up as deep thought are still silliness and sophistry."

Again, no. I never said that you cannot make assertions, truth claims, institutions, social structures, etc. My claims are built upon presupposing all these things exist and are meaningful. I just said that they are subject to change and revision, which I assume from history you are well aware occurs.

Titus:

Ideas have histories: yours and mine. They did not pop their heads out yesterday. But they do develop, and one thing that the postmodern has become very keenly aware of that the ancient and medieval thinkers were not explicitly aware of is the nature of society - that is, the objective reality of culture we see around us - is a product of finite, temporal processes, not necessarily a reflection of some higher, transcendent, or eternal order. We have become even more keenly aware of the constructed nature of our symbols, something that was certainly known by previous ages but which nevertheless was sidestepped by appeal to philosophical realism, an attempt to ground changing symbols in unchanging ideas and associated universal mental concepts in a way that overcomes the difficulty of the temporal, finite, produced and changing nature of social symbols. Unfortunately, research into language and its relationship to mental concept reveals that mental concepts are quite plastic and are actually molded by the social symbols used, so that mental concepts and social symbols can be seen as having a mutually informing relationship that does not guarantee the universality of either a social symbol or a mental concept or symbol.

As for numbers, I never said that numbers are indeterminate in themselves: I merely said that the symbols have a constructed or produced definition. Actually, your baseball example is a perfect demonstration of this: baseball is a social artifact with a history (that is, its rules developed over time) but whose form is not, strictly speaking, indeterminate. Mathematics developed historically as a useful tool, a set of symbols that allowed us to model facets of reality - we defined the symbols to model reality and refined them as needed. Of course, like any tool, it developed its own reality - its own internal logic, much like plows are inventions whose reality nevertheless presents its own objective reality and requirements on the user. But we also know that a specific context is necessary to speak of mathematical propositions, and the truth of any is entirely dependent upon the context - much like what counts as a score in a game is dependent entirely on the context, as found enmeshed in a particular social history.
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written by Francis J. Beckwith, April 13, 2012
Scotty, the fact that language changes does not mean that reality changes, unless you think that reality is entirely a creation of language. In that case, I can just assert, "Scotty is wrong," and I win the argument. That is, of course, silly.

2 + 2 = 4 indeed requires symbols, which we can replace with other symbols, such as II + II = IV, or even something strange like %% * %% - ##. But the meanings of the symbols remain the same. Why? Because they refer to abstract objects that are immutable and immaterial. That doesn't change if, for example, society began using "@" instead of "2." Now "@" would refer to that abstract, immutable, and immaterial object to which "2" used to refer.

An example of a contingent truth is "Barack Obama is President." It is certainly not necessarily the case that Barack Obama is President, for John McCain could have beaten him. It was not logically impossible for that to have occurred. On the other hand, the claim "Barack Obama is both President and non-President" is necessarily false (if we understand these terms to mean how they are used presently). So, now we have an incontestable truth, "It is not the case that Barack Obama is both President and non-President." Here's another one.

Suppose that someone reading this exchange concludes, "I think that Beckwith and Ellis are both correct." Clearly, that person would be confused, since, as you claim, my essay shows a misinterpretation of the position I critiqued. As you concede, we can't both be right about the matter at hand. Either one or both of us is wrong about the way things really are, though one of us could be right. (Our views are contrary, not contradictory, since it may be that there is a third view that we have not entertained). But to make that sort of claim about the contrariness of views requires that it is necessarily the case that two contrary claims about the same subject matter cannot both be true at the same time.

We now not only have another necessary truth and thus an incontestable one, we also have a reason to believe that language--though certainly subject to change--sometimes may refer to objects external to the mind.

Recall the quote: “Secular science and liberal politics, both committed to the primacy of reason, necessarily deny that any truth is incontestable.” To say that a view "necessarily" denies something means that one cannot rationally contest it, that it is "incontestable." Now, if the author had said that “Secular science and liberal politics, both committed to the primacy of reason, contingently deny any truth is incontestable," then she would be saying what you are saying, though even here she would have to assume the incontestable truth that it is necessarily the case that contingent truths are not necessary truths.

But she is in fact making a claim about two rational enterprises--secular science and liberal politics--and saying each has a necessary property that entails its rationality, the denial of incontestable truths. Thus, according to this author, there is no possible world in which secular science and liberal politics exist and do not possess this property of denying incontestable truths. But to say that is to utter a truth that one believes is necessarily true and thus incontestable. So, according to this author, it is incontestably the case that in every possible world in which there is a rational enterprise that rational enterprise denies incontestable truths. Consequently, in this actual world, which is necessarily a possible world (after all, it couldn't be actual if it weren't possible), the drawing of this conclusion cannot be a rational enterprise since the conclusion drawn is that there is an incontestable truth.

It seems, then, that we cannot even begin to think unless there are necessary, i.e. incontestable, truths.
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written by Richard A, April 13, 2012
In Euclidean space, the square of the hypoteneuse equals the sum of the squares of the other two sides.

The words - symbols - used to express this 'truth' have changed radically over the nearly three millenia which have elapsed since this truth was discovered, and demonstrated to be true. Indeed, this truth is expressible even today in several score of languages, and yet the truth of it is the same. Sensible philosophers over the centuries have understood that our symbolic representations - language - need to be defined carefully, so that the unchangeable truth can be known and communicated in changeable language. What is it with us moderns that insist on treating this as an insuperable obstacle, indeed, as a "proof" that there is no truth to be known?
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written by Just wondering, April 13, 2012
This is far too high falutin for me but i always wonder when people say that 2 plus 2 is contestable. When I have two eggs on my plate and I add two more eggs do I not have 4 eggs on my plate? When restaurant menus say that the item comes with three eggs does not EVERY person ordering that item have a certain expectation about what will be served? If two plus two is contestable then can I expect that when I give two ten dollar bills to the person I owe 50 dollars to that my debt will be cancelled because after all we can't be certain that 10 plus 10 is equal to 20?
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written by Burton, April 13, 2012
Scotty,

Upon what basis do you ascribe "meaningfulness" and "worth" to thing like culture, poetry, etc. Is there some absolute quality or characteristic that makes something meaningful or worthy?
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written by Other Joe, April 13, 2012
Mr. Ellis seems to be making a mistake in degree (among many others). It would be the same as saying (as some do) that quantum uncertainty means that reality is unknowable. The fact that cultures may color meaning does not render meaning meaningless. Oh &%^#. I took the bait. Still, an academic pose is not the same thing as truth no matter how vigorously put forward.
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written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, April 13, 2012
Three hundred years ago, Pascal pointed out in his "Art of Persuasion" the limitation of reasoning, namely, that we cannot define all our terms or prove all our propositions, for that would involve us in a perpetual regress.

The solution he proposes is well known, "We know truth, not only by the reason, but also by the heart, and it is in this last way that we know first principles; and reason, which has no part in it, tries in vain to impugn them... For the knowledge of first principles, as space, time, motion, number, is as sure as any of those which we get from reasoning. And reason must trust this knowledge of the heart and of instinct, and must base every argument on them. The heart senses that there are three dimensions in space and that the numbers are infinite, and reason then shows that there are no two square numbers one of which is double of the other. Principles are intuited, propositions are inferred, all with certainty, though in different ways."

We do not need to make dubious claims for reason, in order to avoid scepticism; we only need to remember that "the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing."
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written by Scotty Ellis, April 13, 2012
"Scotty, the fact that language changes does not mean that reality changes, unless you think that reality is entirely a creation of language. In that case, I can just assert, "Scotty is wrong," and I win the argument. That is, of course, silly. "

You're right: reality is not entirely a creation of language (although some of reality is). But that's not what I said at all. I said that our claims about reality are entirely composed of social symbols, which means our claims are mediated by the social-historical processes which developed those symbols as well as by the limitations of our biological symbols - that is, the representation of reality provided us by our sensory organs. Reality is what it is - though it is constantly changing. That is not in question. The question is: are our truth claims incontestable, which I believe can also be phrased, are the claims we make about reality such that they are beyond correction or revision?

"Because they refer to abstract objects that are immutable and immaterial."

Really? What object? Where? An abstraction is a mental process, and is also therefore a mental product - a mental symbol. Does number model facets of reality? Of course! And quite well! But the development of numbers and arithmetic and geometry and calculus has been a long process, because constructing such a complicated model takes trial and error - and at each step of progress, it was necessary to recognize (as we do today) that our mathematical knowledge is incomplete and subject to revision. We can model certain things, like the geometry of a Euclidean space - but when we discover that reality does not always behave like Euclidean space, we reveal that the abstraction is a construct and is not identical to reality. Inasmuch as truth is precisely this, the harmony of a claim or concept with reality, it is quite easy to see that even apparently "necessary" truths are not absolutely true without qualification: they are only true within certain parameters and contexts, and they are subject to revision (i.e., are potentially contestable).

"But to make that sort of claim about the contrariness of views requires that it is necessarily the case that two contrary claims about the same subject matter cannot both be true at the same time."

The oddest thing is that you continue to address a claim I did not make. You write as though I said "nothing is true," when I simply said, "no claim is incontestable." I hope you can see the vast difference between these two statements. I believe things are true: for example, I believe that the acceleration of an object is inversely proportional to its mass and directly proportional to the force acting on it. However, I would not say this is incontestable, because this statement - like all statements - is a series of culturally and socially defined symbols attempting in some way to represent or model reality. Tomorrow, it is possible (though I would say quite unlikely) that we discover some new object that has mass and does not behave according to this model, or we discover that really we have been missing some third ingredient all along, or so forth - and I would very gladly revise that statement. So I believe things are true insofar as I believe them to be the best model of reality, both insofar as we know it through sensory representations (which are themselves limited and which add yet another layer of difficulty to the matter) and insofar as we have symbols to express it. But I do not believe that I can point to one and say, "behold, the incontestable, unmediated truth."

"But to make that sort of claim about the contrariness of views requires that it is necessarily the case that two contrary claims about the same subject matter cannot both be true at the same time."

I will overlook the potential that reality might just behave that way at different times (or, indeed, that certain facets of reality may very well be indeterminate - or, to be more precise, cannot be perceived as determinate and so may as well be treated as indeterminate) and instead simply note that I do not believe anything I said is the "incontestable truth," whatever that might mean; everything is simply the truth insofar as I am able to know and express it, which is also to say that it is the best that I can do with a physiologically mediated experience of reality and a historically mediated set of mental and social symbols.
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written by c matt, April 13, 2012
Scotty Ellis:

l;kaeh fpwi [oqwui f[oj [weo' p ;sl ;l'a'l rr a ew3r lsjl'aslfkj ;ll;s;faiu

The above conclusively disproves your argument. If you do not see that, it is only because you are bound by socially and culturally contingent symbols.
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written by Tony Esolen, April 13, 2012
See my article above.

The legal scholars would never make such a mistake if they had read, not only the works of Plantinga or Haldane (or Maritain or Gilson or McInerney or DeKoninck), but also if they had read even such Enlightenment authors as Johnson and Burke ...

Oh heck, what's the use! What's the danged use! We're not just dealing with people ignorant of poetry -- which is bad enough, for such matters. They're ignorant of theology and philosophy too, except they've read a couple of the more au courant sorts, like Rorty or Rawls, depending on their tastes. And here I find myself defending the rational humanism of people like Pope Benedict or Hans Urs von Balthasar or Pope John Paul. It's like defending Rembrandt to people who execute paint-by-numbers pictures of Lassie on velvet.
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written by Francis J. Beckwith, April 13, 2012
Scotty writes that "no claim is incontestable." But we know that is false. Why? Because it cannot be the case that that claim is both true and false at the same time. So, the claim that ""no claim is incontestable" cannot be both true and false at the same time" is necessarily true. You have now arrived at an incontestable truth.

Abstraction is indeed a mental process. But nothing follows from that concerning the existence or non-existence of abstract objects. Neither Plato, Aristotle, nor Ockham denied abstractions. Rather, their differences were over the ontological status of those abstractions.

The examples you proffer actually establish my point. That reality proved challenging to Euclidean geometry is not the result of numbers not being immutable and immaterial. Rather, it is the result of these immutable and immaterial objects providing the intellectual infrastructure by which the scholar may test his hypothesis. To take a simple example. Suppose my wife tells me that she has purchased a 6 pack of beer. So, in my mind I have an image of 6 beers sitting in the fridge, an abstraction if you will. But when I open the fridge there are only 5 beers. My a priori abstract understanding of the number of beers was wrong. But when I adjust my belief to fit the evidence--there are only 5 beers--because my 6-beer theory's been refuted, "5" and "6" have not changed. In fact, I could not have had warrant in adjusting my belief unless "5" were "6" were immutable.

You write: "I would not say this is incontestable, because this statement - like all statements - is a series of culturally and socially defined symbols attempting in some way to represent or model reality." We are back to square one. For this claim, as with the rest of your commentary, is a correction of me. This means you think I'm wrong, and you're right about *the nature of knowledge.* Thus, again, implying that we both can't be right at the same, and thus you implicitly affirm a necessary, and thus incontestable, truth: No two contrary positions on the nature of knowledge qua knowledge cannot be true at the same time.

It may in fact be the case that there is no unmediated knowledge. But say that is no unmediated knowledge means that to claim there is mediated knowledge is to utter error. Thus, we have yet another incontestable truth: it cannot be the case knowledge is both mediated and unmediated at the same time.
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written by Scotty Ellis, April 14, 2012
Dr. Beckwith:

"Scotty writes that "no claim is incontestable." But we know that is false. Why? Because it cannot be the case that that claim is both true and false at the same time. So, the claim that ""no claim is incontestable" cannot be both true and false at the same time" is necessarily true. You have now arrived at an incontestable truth."

This looks familiar, because it is identical to the argument you made in your last comment, an argument I already responded to by saying that 1) believing that no claim is incontestable is NOT identical to believing that something can be true and false at the same time; it is believing that mental concepts and statements are socially and historically dependent representations and thus are subject to revision and change as symbols, and 2) our inability to perceive everything about the cosmos, a result of our physiology, means all our statements are based off incomplete information and are subject to revision. This all applies to the statement "there are no incontestable statements," too - that is contestable, subject to revision as we learn more. Now, if you would like to continue addressing an issue that is irrelevant to my argument, that's fine: I agree with you that most things cannot be true and false at the same time (as I mentioned before, this appears a risky proposition with some facets of reality, but it works for the things we encounter on the macro level).

"Abstraction is indeed a mental process. But nothing follows from that concerning the existence or non-existence of abstract objects."

If abstraction is a mental process, then whatever the product or result of that process is not an object already existent in reality aside from that process; for example, color does not exist in reality as an object. It is a product of physiological sensory representation. We can identify the facet of reality which color represents (it represents certain wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum), but except in an informal way these wavelengths are not identical to the colors of the phenomena they invoke through our perception. So, too, the mental process of abstraction does represent information about objects - but the abstraction "one" or "two" does not exist as an object floating about in the world that we know of. Can you speculate about such a thing? Sure. I can speculate that if we look hard enough, we will find blue orbiting somewhere around Neptune - but we have no evidence to confirm these speculations.

"The examples you proffer actually establish my point."

Sure, once these symbols and representations exist, they take on a reality of their own - they become part of reality and thus are not easily subject to change, especially if they are models that we have very good reason are true. Numbers do represent facets of reality, just like colors do. They are not subject to pure whim. However, their truth is still dependent upon reality, and reality is not guaranteed to not change (indeed, our best cosmology indicates that the universe is subject to change at the most fundamental levels, such that even the laws we now assume govern most things need not always and have not always applied). Because our understanding of reality is limited, and because our social and cultural use of numbers change, our definition of what counts as a number changes too. Your most intelligent medieval man had no clue what 2i means, because he had no experience with encountering 2i of anything in the world (and neither do you, mind you) and had no cultural and social use for it. It had not been defined yet.

"No two contrary positions on the nature of knowledge qua knowledge cannot be true at the same time. "

This again looks familiar. If A is better than B, does that mean B is perfect? You are proceeding with a very strange series of assumptions, such as the belief that if I think something you say is wrong then I must believe that my own belief is incontestable. I do not. I simply have to believe that, given what we know about reality through our sensory representations and given how my thoughts and expressions are limited by sets of culturally derived symbols, my statement is more true than yours.

"It may in fact be the case that there is no unmediated knowledge. But say that is no unmediated knowledge means that to claim there is mediated knowledge is to utter error."

And again. Your statement only makes sense if you believe "there is no unmediated knowledge" is an incontestable statement - which, clearly, I do not.
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written by will manley, April 14, 2012
This essay and most of the ensuing comments constitute a distracting and indulgent exercise in sophistry and semantics. The reality is that religion invariably gets into trouble when it involves itself in public policy. The church, in particular the Roman Catholic Church, needs to reform its own house before it starts wasting time and resources trying to reform government through public policy involvement. If it really wants to influence public policy in an effective way, the Catholic Church needs to model the values it preaches. We are a long way from that.
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written by Francis J. Beckwith, April 14, 2012
Because I do have a day job, I can't go on forever here. Let me first suggest some of the authors recommended by Tony Esolen in one of the comments above. Second, Scotty simply does not get what I am saying. It's probably because I am not that good of a teacher. But, let's try it one more time. Take, for example, this rebut:

"This looks familiar, because it is identical to the argument you made in your last comment, an argument I already responded to by saying that 1) believing that no claim is incontestable is NOT identical to believing that something can be true and false at the same time; it is believing that mental concepts and statements are socially and historically dependent representations and thus are subject to revision and change as symbols,"

Actually, you didn't respond to it. That's why I had to say it a bit differently in order to increase the possibility of it being better understood. Apparently, it didn't work.

I am not saying that you are denying the law of non-contradition. What I am saying is that the law of non-contradition is IN FACT AN INCONTESTABLE TRUTH. The examples were an attempt to illustrate that. The fact that two equally rational human beings can both come to different conclusions about the same data is a point with which I agree! In fact, it is a point that I think reveals that the modern view of reason, narrow foundationalism--inherited from folks like Descartes and Hume (who differed, of course, but were united in placing the self at the center and their rejection of universals)--is deeply flawed. So, for example, two rational scientists disagree on how many mountains are on the moon. One says, 10,000 or less, and the other says, more than 10,000. We don't know who is right. But we do know one thing for certain, they both can't be right and they both can't wrong. One of them must be right. That insight would not be possible if not for the fact you and have direct acquaintance with necessary truth that is incontestable, a law of thought, the law of non-contradiction.

The bottom line is this: the laws of thought--i.e., non-contradiction, identity, excluded middle--are incontestable truths. You and I cannot not use them. We come to know them through experience, to be sure. But that does not mean that they are material empirical realities that are contingent truths. I can exist. I can not exist. But I can not exist and not exist at the same time. I am not saying you are affirming such a thing. What I am saying is that it is literal nonsense, precisely because the law on which that judgment depends is an incontestable truth.
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written by Scotty Ellis, April 14, 2012
"Because I do have a day job"

I thought philosophy is your job :)

"What I am saying is that the law of non-contradition is IN FACT AN INCONTESTABLE TRUTH."

I agree that it is true so far as I can tell on the macro level. This is not the same as saying it is incontestable - in fact, it is possible that the law does not quite hold - or at least does not hold in the same way - under quantum mechanics, especially under the Copenhagen interpretation. Such events may very well defy a classical understanding of causality at all, meaning that we may have to admit - at least for the sake of our mental concepts - that the statement you suggest does not hold for the symbols we have available to describe certain quantum states (we may later be able to create symbols that avoid this, of course, or we may come to find out that the entire situation is different, but for now it is at least a possibility). So, it seems that even this basic statement is prone to question in some contexts, once again suggesting that it is not, indeed, an incontestable truth.

"The bottom line is this: the laws of thought--i.e., non-contradiction, identity, excluded middle--are incontestable truths."

Again, the qualifier "so far as we know" is a good idea - especially considering the potentially contextualized nature of these statements (there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy).

"I can exist. I can not exist. But I can not exist and not exist at the same time."

Perhaps not under classical mechanics, but insofar as the interpretations of quantum mechanics are speculative at this point this is still, potentially, contestable. However, my point is not about reality in itself at all: it is about statements. There is reason to believe that systems of logic may be incomplete in ways that force statements to be both true and not true at the same time (or, rather, that a statement and its contradictory statement are both true), such as dialetheism. Such theories are exclusively about symbols, which is my concern and which is the basis of all statements - which all make use of symbols - being potentially subject to revision or correction.
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written by Jacob R, April 15, 2012
Scotty

Philosophy scholarship is his day job.
Arguing endlessly with a philosophy student who is tickled to death that a professional philosopher would respond to his provocations is not part of Professor Beckwith's job.

He already answered your question several times (more than I would have done if I were in his position). You're making yourself look like a fool by refusing to acknowledge what he's talking about.

We simply have no reason to talk, you and I, if we can't even agree that it's possible for one thing to be true and another to be false.
As other commenters have already pointed out, what would we even talk about if nothing could be true?
How can you accuse Prof. Beckwith of being wrong if you don't believe in wrongness in the first place? (To your view he's not even really wrong, he's just putting different meaningless cultural symbols on top of different meaningless language constructions.)

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written by Jacob R, April 15, 2012
Also if you want to convince us of anything you have to give us concrete examples, as Prof. Beckwith gives you several examples of the philosophical points he makes.
You can't just say: "well technically it's possible that there's something so wild out there that we haven't even thought of yet that could change EVERYTHING and then I'll be right, now prove to me that it's not possible that whacky new logic will be discovered and prove that nothing is true!" (Still, I'm with everyone else, I simply can't wrap my head around how something can be proven not to be true if there's no such thing as truth in the first place! This leads me to wonder why, given your beliefs, you go on making statements.)
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written by Scotty Ellis, April 15, 2012
Jacob:

"Arguing endlessly with a philosophy student"

I am not a philosophy student. Also, as indicated by the insertion of a smiley face, it was clearly a joke.

"He already answered your question several times"

No, he's answered a different question which is not at all my question. He's said over and over again that 1) the law of non-contradiction means that something can't be and not be in respect to the same thing at the same time, a statement which I assume means to say something about reality. Fine (although as I noted, and most certainly relevant to the larger question, this might not be the case any way). My question is not: can reality contradict itself? My question is: are my statements about reality incontestable? I argue no for no other reason that 1) all my statements make use of socially and historically contingent symbols and representations that are themselves subject to change and development, and 2) all those statements are based upon reality as I experience it through another set of physiologically-dependent symbols that do not represent everything with perfect accuracy and which do may not report a great deal of relevant information about reality at all. This means my statements are always contextualized, and potentially subject to correction and revision. Bringing up over and over again in a variety of forms the law of non-contradiction does not help, partly because as I mentioned it might very well be subject to correction by the insights of quantum mechanics but also because it has been already argued that the law of non-contradiction might not hold for statements themselves, which is all I have been talking about in the first place.

"We simply have no reason to talk, you and I, if we can't even agree that it's possible for one thing to be true and another to be false."

Yet again, this is not my belief. I believe, obviously, that it is true that I cannot make incontestable statements. I do not believe that statement to be incontestable. Truth is the harmony of one's statement with reality, but because our beliefs are expressed in limited and contextualized sets of symbols and our experience of reality is also limited by our physiology, my point is that ascertaining the truth of a particular statement is not an absolute, unmediated process: it is more like a function approaching an asymptote.

"Also if you want to convince us of anything you have to give us concrete examples,"

Every statement is a concrete example. Take, for instance, the claim "A thing cannot be and not be at the same time in respect to the same quality." First of all, this is an English sentence with English grammar and syntax, which means that it already introduces a large number of assumptions about the structure of the world. It is heavily subject-oriented, for example: it assumes there is both a thing and that thing's being, which it signifies under two different symbols. This is an assumption, and it means that our analysis of the claim must be done within the context of that assumption in such a way that the grammar itself already suggests contextualization. the words are socially produced symbols whose definitions also have histories of change and development, and inasmuch as words shape mental concepts and vice versa, we can note that this statement is only meaningful to a very specific sort of person at a very specific time in history. Put it on a rock three thousand years ago, and it's not even identifiable as language. Translating into a different language means altering its content, even if only slightly, because alternate grammar and syntax will also change its meaning. And, finally, as I mentioned there is also the challenge which reality poses it: currently under a wide variety of interpretations of quantum physics it is believed that prior to observation waves and a number of other objects actually exist in a blurred state of indeterminacy regarding their qualities - that is, like the famous cat in the thought experiment, it might be dead-alive until it is observed, the act of which actually causes the cat to assume a determinate state of alive or dead.
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written by Martin Snigg, April 16, 2012
@Scotty either you exist or you don't. If you don't think you can be sure of that its best that you remain silent and/or have a lie down. Those of us who can agree that there exist foundational axioms of rational thought will talk amongst ourselves and organise our lives together.

You mentioned quantum mechanics. The father of quantum mechanics:


“The physicist may be satisfied when he has a mathematical scheme and knows how to use it for the interpretation of experiments. But he has to speak about his results also to nonphysicists who will not be satisfied unless some explanation is given in plain language, understandable to everybody. Even for the physicist the description in plain language will be a criterion of the degree of understanding that has been reached. To what extent is such a description at all possible? This is a problem of language as much as of physics…. (168)
Furthermore, one of the most important features of the development and the analysis of modern physics is the experience that the concepts of natural language, vaguely defined as they are, seem to be more stable in the expansion of knowledge than the precise terms of scientific language, derived as an idealization from only limited groups of phenomena. This is in fact not surprising since the concepts of natural language are formed by the immediate connection with reality; they represent reality. It is true that they are not very well defined and may therefore also undergo changes in the course of centuries, just as reality itself did, but they never lose the immediate connection with reality. On the other hand, the scientific concepts are idealizations; they are derived from experience obtained by refined experimental tools and are precisely defined through axioms and definitions. Only through these precise definitions is it possible to connect the concepts with a mathematical scheme and to derive mathematically the infinite variety of possible phenomena in this field. But through this process of idealization and precise definition the immediate connection with reality is lost.(200)
We know that any understanding must be based finally upon the natural language because it is only there that we can be certain to touch reality, and hence we must be skeptical about any skepticism with regard to this natural language and its essential concepts. (201-2)”

Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1958).
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written by Ben of the Two Men, April 16, 2012
Did a quick post about this once, but perhaps easier to read for the the average person if you are interested. It's called "All Statements are False" which can be Googled at Two Catholic Men and a Blog.
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written by Scotty Ellis, April 16, 2012
Martin:

"@Scotty either you exist or you don't. If you don't think you can be sure of that its best that you remain silent and/or have a lie down."

I do think I exist, thank you. I'm not sure what, if anything, would make you think I think otherwise. I do not believe the statement "I exist" is incontestable, if by incontestable one means beyond the possibility of correction or revision: I acknowledge, for example, that these two symbols "I exist" have certain grammatical and syntactical features that may not perfectly map reality (perhaps there is no difference between the "I" and the "existing"). Certainly those two symbols may need revision as the English language and culture changes, although I would reckon that by the time such a transformation occurred to render "I exist" indecipherable or inapplicable I will have long been dead.
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written by WSquared, April 17, 2012
Mr. Manley, once again, you seem not to understand that the Church "getting her house in order" is also a theological matter, and not just "modeling the values that she preaches and teaches." In fact, the two go hand in hand.

For it would seem that given the unfortunate silence from many a pulpit, many a parent, and many a teacher, there's a lot of apathy at worst and confusion at best that actually hampers "modeling the values that she preaches and teaches," given that enough people either do not know what the Church teaches and/or actively dissent from it. It would seem to me that concern with these issues is part and parcel of "cleaning house."

Furthermore, the Church is not wasting time trying to reform government; the Church rightly protests when the government attempts to silence her. For one thing, the larger issues at stake invariably involve our understanding of what a human being is, which is at the heart of any and all public policy, anyhow. Is it necessarily the hierarchy's job to get involved? Not necessarily. But it is, however, the job of the Catholic laity to engage. Both make up "the Church" (though the Church is also made up of the saints in Heaven and all souls in Purgatory, and not just those of us baptized faithful who happen to be walking about). The Church, after all, is Sacramental in nature, and not just organizational.

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