Beyond Truth

Aristotle chilling with Plato

Plato chilling with Aristotle

In yesterday’s post I touched briefly upon how the Kantian ethics of duty has distorted our thinking on morality. Today, I shall focus on the ways in which it might even be said to have infiltrated our thinking about truth.

In a valuable recent exchange with a few ardent atheists, I came across a classic argument that runs something like this: people turn to religion because it makes them feel better about themselves and their lives, and, even though sometimes this mindset can actually lead people to do better in real life, what atheists are concerned with is not ‘feeling good’ but the ‘truth’. Now, in yesterday’s post I outlined both why Christianity in particular cannot be said to be a ‘feel-good’ religion (it has a crucified Jew at its core!), and I also observed that the fact that Christianity may well succeed in making people feel better about their lives is not necessarily a bad thing (bizarre that that even needs to be said). But here the argument is slightly different.

The underlying logic of the atheist thesis is thus: people who turn to religion feel good about themselves therefore it cannot be true. Now, even ignoring the fact that the first half of this proposition is patently false, and that ‘religion’ in the abstract is senseless, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the logical connector (‘therefore’) is illogical. It is a confusion of categories. Since when has it been a pre-requisite of truth that it make you feel miserable? Traditionally, and in everyday practice, truth can be defined via the Aristotelian concept of adequatio: ‘saying of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not.’ It is a supposedly perfect equivalence between mind and world. Of course, philosophically, this is highly problematic, but even if we accept this workaday definition it is obvious that whether or not one feels good regarding a particular truth has nothing to do with its veracity. I may feel sadistically delighted that I’ve just dropped a meat cleaver on my bare foot, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s true and that I need immediate surgery.

The most boring genius in history?

The most boring genius in history?

But even this doesn’t get us very far, for it still relies on Kant’s archetypally bourgeois separation of pure reason, practical reason (ethics), and aesthetic judgement. In fact, the ‘moment of truth’ in the atheist’s logical short-circuit is that it attempts – in spite of itself – to reunite rationality and the sentient body. In medieval scholastic thinking, the tripartite Kantian scheme would have been almost literally unthinkable. ‘Reason’ was a way of life – a way of moving, loving, thinking, feeling and praying in harmony with the world – not something you confined to a white-washed lab and a textbook. So, even if at the level of content the atheist argument that feeling good equates to falsehood is totally wrong, at the level of form their unintentional attempt to unify body and mind is spot on.

When it comes to faith, the ‘adequation’ concept of truth is, ironically, inadequate. It remains trapped within the realm of bourgeois alienation. This form of ‘truth’, removed from the lived context of human community with its squabbles and fracas, its murders and lovers, its sweethearts and heart-attacks, is like a small squib of a phantom at one’s command. Facts and figures I can dominate; I am their lord. But to critically and willingly submit myself, through making sacrifices and putting myself at the service of those in need, that is something over which I have no mastery. In the messy, difficult and tangled web of human relations, truths of the Kantian kind remain important, but they can only get you so far. At best, you will remain unchanged – just like the world around you – but, as compensation, you will have an army of dates and theses at your command. (This, of course, is perfect for the capitalist status quo, which spreads injustice like disease.) But the real truth is a holistic totality of lived, empirical and imaginative worlds, and the forms of loving human interaction that can arise within it. If that doesn’t sound like what we traditionally mean by ‘truth’, then all the better: truth is, ultimately, beyond truth.