The greatest agnostics of allAugust 28, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
Continuing to look at Chuck Colson’s reply to Russell Glasser, as we did yesterday, we find another contradiction in Colson’s article, this time about postmodernism and the existence of knowable truth.
You write that one of the main things motivating your atheism is the fact that you cannot see any compelling reason to believe in God, and you cannot regard faith as reliably as you can empirical evidence in discerning truth. I suspect you’ve come under the influence of the fact-value distinction, which modernity introduced, largely influenced by the teachings of Immanuel Kant. I would strongly recommend that you read Pope Benedict’s lecture at Regensburg… In a relatively short speech, he summarized the great shift that has taken place in western thinking as a result of the Enlightenment and now postmodernism. Benedict’s case is the same one I would make, and that is that reason always has to rest on faith. That’s what gives it the objective standards to appeal to. What happened in the Enlightenment and what we call modernity was the abandonment of the faith presuppositions, leaving reason naked, cold, and ultimately without a foundation. It was this rejection of sterile reason that has led us to the postmodern era, which rejects both faith and reason.
But the fact-value distinction is false. All thought begins with faith. All intellectual inquiry begins with certain presuppositions. These by necessity are made without evidence and have to be taken on faith. The idea that evidence is superior to faith as a root to knowledge is one of those presuppositions: it is unproven and non-provable. So it must be taken as a priori; that is, prior to experience, or in other words, on faith.
In his book, The Faith, Colson expands on this current evangelical fad of bashing postmodernism. Which is not, in itself, a bad thing. Postmodernism claims to have discovered the truth that there is no truth to discover. All that matters is what you believe about something. There is no right or wrong, there is only faith. But is Colson really saying that postmodernism is wrong, or is he advocating the postmodern idea that faith is all that matters?
Let’s take Colson’s claim that all thought begins with faith, and compare it to the principle that the truth is consistent with itself. Is it possible to know what the truth is? If all thought begins with faith, and if reason always has to rest on faith, then the answer is “No, we can never really know the truth.” A conclusion is only as reliable as its premises, and if our premises necessarily are things we believe just because we believe them—if there’s no objective means of determining whose faith corresponds to absolute, objective truth— then there is no such thing as knowledge of the truth. There’s not even partial or approximate knowledge of the truth. The most we can do is to build up a “worldview” in which our conclusions are reasonably consistent with some arbitrary set of premises, without any assurance that any of it has anything to do with real life.
Now, contrast that with the principle that truth is consistent with itself. Is this a principle we have to take on faith alone? No, because both experience and reason teach us that this must be the case: if the truth is not consistent with itself, if truth contradicts itself and has conclusions that have no predictable relationship to the premises, then reason itself is impossible. The fact that we can reason effectively, and that correct reasoning produces reliable results in real-world experience, confirms that we have a premise that is both valid and relevant to the real world.
From this premise of self-consistency, all other conclusions can be derived. We know that “evidence” (i.e. the truth that we discover in the real world) is superior to faith alone (i.e. things we believe even though we can’t find any real-world evidence to support them) because the evidence already is part of the real-world truth, whereas the faith is defined by its failure to show up in real life, or in other words, by its failure to be consistent with the truth. If we could find that real-world connection, the true evidence that was consistent with what we believe, we wouldn’t be calling it faith, we’d call it the conclusion that was most consistent with the evidence.
Colson is therefore quite wrong. Reliable knowledge does have real-world roots that are superior to just making arbitrary presuppositions. Christians, especially in recent times, have begun to outwardly reject the postmodern idea that the truth cannot be known. Like Colson, however, they are quick to embrace it whenever they need to explain why their beliefs fail to be consistent with the available evidence. Science has repeatedly demonstrated its superior accuracy and reliability as a means of knowledge, and only by rejecting the very possibility of reliable knowledge can Christians put faith and fact back on an allegedly equal footing. In so doing, Christians and other believers make themselves the greatest agnostics of all.