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Samizdata quote of the day

Better (a thousand times better) an athiest who believes in objective truth than a “religious” person who does not.

– our very own Paul Marks

36 comments to Samizdata quote of the day

  • Indeed – and said by one of the wisest people I know.

  • Kathy Staab

    I would say it applies to the other way around too. Not al atheists believe in objective truth.

  • hennesli

    does ‘objective truth’ include morality? believing in an objective physical reality is one thing (I do), but claiming moral codes as objective physical ‘facts’ is probably trickier

  • does ‘objective truth’ include morality? believing in an objective physical reality is one thing (I do), but claiming moral codes as objective physical ‘facts’ is probably trickier

    No, not really. Moral theories are based on objective reality or they are not really worthy of the name.

    But implicit in your statement is the notion that (if you will allow me to paraphrase what I think you are saying) “facts are simple but morality is tricky”… well, no… everything, even ‘facts’ are conjectures with varying degrees of confidence attached to them: indeed the very notion of “objective reality” is a conjecture, a falsifiable theory… a bloody good theory in my view and one I certainly have a critical preference for… but a theory nevertheless.

    My theory is that reality is not all a figment of my imagination… this is of course unprovable, but it seems to explain the nature of existence better than the alternatives, so that gets my critical preference… and as a consequence, all subsequent theories I form are based on the meta-contextual assumption that reality is objective (or “existence exists” as the Randians would say).

    Moral theories are no different. They are either based on objective reality or they are not meaningful theories at all.

    So yes, I am with Paul Marks 100% and agree with Kathy Staab (as would Paul I am sure) that it is equally true the other way around: Better (a thousand times better) a religious person who believes in objective truth than an atheist who does not.

    And I am an atheist.

  • David Gillies

    This is quite thorny territory. It’s probably with the Critique of Pure Reason that we really start to get a full epistemological handle on what we mean by ‘truth’, and the process reaches its apotheosis in the Tractatus Logico Phlosophicus. Die Welt ist all was der Fall ist through tovWovon mann nicht sprechen kann, daruber muss mann schweigen.

    As it happens, I’m an atheist with at least some leanings towards objectivism (although I’m really more of a minarchocapitalist.)

  • Laird

    “Minarchocapitalist” is a fine word. Put me there, too.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    Consider the case of Smith, a physicist, who with brilliant theory and elegant technique has conclusively demonstrated proton decay. His work has been replicated at every turn to universal praise, and it is only as he stepping forward to receive his Nobel Prize from the King of Sweden that he realises he has left his pants back at the hotel and wakes up.

    ‘Smith’ nicely illustrates a point which physics generally ignores, that we can never quite be sure the material world is there; the most careful measurements in the best-equipped laboratory in the world, replicated forever, may be only a dream. But the dream is real, independent of any externalities, and its existence is the surest thing we can know about the nature of the world.

    Objective truth? Sure. But the way to it is through introspection, not measurement.

  • Indeed, PFP – no one said that reality has to be “physical”, whatever that means (or at least I didn’t:-))

  • Objective truth? Sure. But the way to it is through introspection, not measurement.

    Indeed… a conjectural objective epistemology… This is also where the wheels fall off Objectivism v1.0 and why I really only have time for the v2.0 Kelley folks rather than the secular religious Church of Rand with its infallible Pontiff Peikoff I.

  • John B

    The atheist and the religious share a common approach. And that is they work at something. They hold to a construct of the human mind.
    Jesus was/is not religious.
    He simply knows God is.
    And wishes you did too.

  • lucklucky

    What’s “objective truth”
    In what is it different from “truth”?

    Is it because “truth” sounds religious?

  • nemesis

    If you lived 200years ago and someone told you that lazer beams and nuclear energy were real, would you consider that an objective truth. Perhaps people insisting on scientific proof are just limiting their beliefs.

  • What’s “objective truth”

    Something that is true based on objective rather than subjective (what is sometimes called ‘social’) criteria.

    In what is it different from “truth”?

    Different in that it indicated something about the nature of the criteria used to derive the theory that something is or is not “the truth”.

    Is it because “truth” sounds religious?

    “Truth” sounds religious to you? It strikes me as a rather neutral term in and of itself with no particularly pre-loaded overtones until you plonk it into a suitable context.

  • Hoth

    “Better (a thousand times better) an athiest who believes in objective truth than a “religious” person who does not.”

    That depends. Is this atheist an actual atheist, or is this atheist actually an ANTItheist? You know, those who aren’t content to disbelieve and leave it at that, but feel some compelling need to mock, deride and belittle those who do believe. Because objective truth aside, as an agnostic I’d prefer the company of a religious person to that of a antitheist who suffers from being a chronic ass.

  • Clovis Sangrail

    What is this objective truth?
    Is it an attempt to distinguish it from truth as in: “everyone’s truth is different and all are deserving of equal respect”?
    If so, fine; but, to me, it always smacks of an attempt to colonize the high ground. “My truth is objective, yours is subjective and not worth the brain cells it’s stored in”.
    Let’s face it, empiricism is a fairly shaky framework when you stare at it closely and probably the main things on which everyone commenting here agrees are that the Universe is “regular”: i.e. has underpinning laws which natural science seeks to elucidate; and predictable: in the sense that, if we can keep everything the same in a suitable sense, the same actions will produce the same outcomes.

    THis is the outcome of about 2700 years of Western thought and is not a view held by some major world cultures.

    Speaking as a mathematician, that leaves me with only mathematical theorems as objective truth (and that only after I’ve stated the underlying axiomatic framework).

    What we have in common (and so what might underpin our agreeing to accord some statement the description objective truth) is a large class of shared absolute presuppositions (that which R G Collingwood described as the proper study of Mataphysics [and thus defined Metaphysics as a branch of History] – see http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/collingwood/#EpiMet(Link)) such as the two outlined above.

    What was the point of all this?
    Oh yes-preferences between atheists and religious people.
    Well, I’ll take the nice ones of either sort, any day, provided they possess the virtue of prudence http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prudence(Link). That is, provided they try their hardest to take into account their experience of the world and to predict what their actions will really accomplish (rather than what they’d like to happen) when they embark on or advocate a course of action.
    The rest deserve Hell or death by Flying Spaghetti Monster (whichever would be more disconcerting).

  • Ian F4

    Better (a thousand times better) an athiest who believes in objective truth than a “religious” person who does not, unless he’s a Muslim

    Corrected for the leftists out there.

  • Antoine Clarke

    On football forums a couple of the types of commenters here would be categorised as “WUMs” [Wind Up Merchants].

    I’m sure neither Ian F4 nor I know enough about the intricacies of Islamic thought to seriously comment on that faith’s view of objective or subjective truth.

    For the context, I suggest one reads the whole article here.

  • Vinegar Joe

    “Tell me one last thing,” said Harry. “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?”
    “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

  • lucklucky

    Well because Truth is Truth.
    “Objective” is doing nothing there. Truth by definition is supposed to be Objective.

    “Objective Truth” reminds me of Marxists and newspeak like “Social Justice” and there are many more in that list…

  • Antoine Clarke


    I’m afraid you are mistaken. Objectively. 😉

    Truth can be subjective: if two species of astronomers discover a new planet that is spinning on an axis, one of them decides that one end is the “North Pole” and the other independently decides that it is the “South Pole.” Both statements are true, because a “North” and a “South” pole is a convention that does not reside in objectivity. So long as each species is unaware of the other’s convention they are both correct, in a subjective sense.

    It seems plausible that the laws of mathematics are objective. Whether red or white wine should be served with chicken is not.

  • Antoine: the astronomers’ example is not a good one, as it deals with semantics which describe reality, not reality itself. I have to agree with lucklucky: if there is such thing as reality, it is objective by definition.

  • I have to agree with lucklucky: if there is such thing as reality, it is objective by definition.

    How do you know that ‘reality’ exists out side of your own head? I suspect it does and have a critical preference for that theory (ie I am not a figment of your imagination) but I cannot prove it.

    Likewise, I think ‘objectivity’ is a compelling notion and certainly my definition of reality has ‘objective’ as a prominent feature, but as we can only theorise about much of reality given that I seems we cannot directly perceive the totality of reality, I really cannot be sure all aspects of reality are indeed objective… I assume they are but…

  • Well because Truth is Truth.

    Bollocks. Well, let me qualify that duosphereical exclamation… ‘truth’ and ‘objectivity’ live in the same parish but they are not synonyms.

    Millions of trees perished to publish the works of people who deny the existence of objective truth and I suspect a very substantial portion of people everywhere in the world believe in ‘social truth’, not ‘objective truth’.

    If you think objectivity features in most people’s understanding of ‘truth’ I think you are just plain wrong and I can only assume you never read newspapers or listen to political debate.

    You and I both believe in truth-means-objective-truth… but when most people use that word, do not be so sure or you fall into the trap Objectivists do with the word ‘altruism’… I agree that altruism as defined by Rand is a wicked things… but unfortunately hardly anyone who is not an Objectivist defines ‘altruism’ the way Rand did, making much Randian social commentary semantically preposterous.

    So when you say ‘truth’, for you the fact said truth is ‘objective’ resides at the unspoken meta-contextual level (not unreasonably I must add) but to think it therefore need not be hyphenated is only true when discussing it with people who share your meta-contextual assumptions.

    Most do not.

  • You seem to have missed that little ‘if’ there, Perry.
    Also, nowhere did I specify a location in which reality (if it in fact exists) must reside in order for its existence to be acknowledged. It can be inside or outside my head, it can even sit under my kitchen sink (or someone else’s), if there is any room left there.

  • lucklucky

    So you are surrendering the word “truth” to the enemy because of speech tactics.
    With that you cannot simply say they are lying.
    You have to say they are “objective liars”.
    It looks perhaps adult – it’s kids that call each other liars isn’t it?- pompous, appears more intellectual for university guys but for common people it is just an artifice, noise. Maybe could work when it is novelty in certain places, but then later the enemy will take “objective” word since it fits nicely in their typical newspeak like you said they took the word “truth”.
    And then you do what?
    The left always finds a new codeword after loosing the last one to reality.
    Will you invent another tag to put near truth?

  • Richard Thomas

    I have to confess that I get more and more suspicious about “objective reality” the more I think about it. I tend to accept it because it’s the only reasonable way to proceed but I’m thinking that an uncritical acceptance of it may be something of a crutch the way religion is.

  • A bit late to this game, but I’m curious, wrt Perry’s comment of June 30 3:25pm, what a “falsification” of any objective reality theory would look like? Under what circumstances would the thesis be proven false? I’ve always thought of the “objective reality” question as falling firmly into Kant’s list of questions that are inherently unanswerable. Meaning: whether or not a singular reality exists objectively outside of all perception of it, we humans are constituted in such a way that we cannot conceive of what the universe would be like if there were no external, singular objective reality. It is an assumption built in to our sensory faculty, and trying to imagine a universe without objective reality is futile. Whether or not reality *is* that way, that is how we perceive it. Showing how one could demonstrate that there was no objective reality would go a long way toward disabusing me of this notion. So, how could it be done in principle?

  • Clovis Sangrail

    @Joshua-we aren’t in the realm of natural science and “falsification” here, but rather in that of premises (in the logical sense).
    We don’t necessarily perceive reality as objective (how drunk/stoned have you ever been?) and we certainly can conceive of the existence of multiple realities (even within the context of science). Have you heard of the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics?
    To give another example, my understanding is that Islamic theology holds that God/Allah recreates the world at each instant, since only in this way can he not be bound by the rules of causation or logic (which would compromise his omnipotence). How’s that for an alternate view of reality?

  • Laird

    An Islamic “many-worlds” theory? Islamic quantum physics? Who knew? And people say that Muslims haven’t contributed anything to the development of mathematics and science in a thousand years! (Well, that might still be true, since this “many worlds” doctrine is probably at least that old.)

  • I have heard of, but never understood, the “many worlds” theory in quantum mechanics. My impression was that the pop science version of that is not much like the one that actual physicists use, and that one needs an advanced degree to really understand it.

    As for the Muslim version, that is rather my point. If you try to imagine what it means to say that God “recreates the universe at every second,” you can’t really do so without some prior concept of time. First the universe was this way, then God decided it should be that way, then it was some other way, etc. In any case, the objective truths remain that reality had list of characteristics x at point-in-time a, list of charateristics y at point-in-time b, etc, and, more pertinently, was ONLY as described by list x at time a, list y at time b, etc. There were never simultaneous competing versions of reality. Now, probably the point for the Muslim is that all this is mysterious, as we have no way of even speculating about by what mechanism God creates reality, or what it means to say that some reality existed and then didn’t. But that is also the point for me: WE CANNOT IMAGINE IT. It’s outside our comprehension. The best we can do is say “reality that is not objective,” but that phrase doesn’t have much actual content to anyone, as far as I can tell. It’s a hypothetical never really understood, and we arrive at it simply by having an “opposite_of” function in our brains, whereby if we understand a concept, then we can talk about its opposite. But the problem is that no one can list any characteristics of the return value of “opposite_of(objective_reality);” without speaking in terms that assume an objective reality. The concept “opposite_of(objective_reality)” is outside the limits of human perception in the Kantian sense. We cannot talk meaningfully about such a thing.

    As for drunk/stoned – those are perception problems, not alterations in reality. At least, no one I know talks about them as anything different. Do you?

  • Clovis Sangrail

    I think when I ask about the drunk/stoned state I’m referrring to the tenuous nature of the word “objective”.
    For me it refers to an idea that, in some sense, we can all look at something and are guaranteed to see the same thing because the thing enjoys an objective reality.
    this may not be what you mean at all, but is certainly buggered up by quantum mechanics (if you want something more objective than drunkeness).

    As for the many-worlds theory, it is a real (at least as real as the Copenhagen one) interpretation of quantum theory: each observation which collapses the wave function of “the Universe” actually collapses the wave function of each observable into each possible state in some Universe which does then exist. So in one Universe when we open the lethal chamber Schrodinger’s cat is dead and in the other it’s alive. There’s now a you and me in each Universe, one in which we stare sadly at a dead cat and the other in which we desperately fend off an outraged live one.
    Now the existence of both universes may be an objective truth but we’re not gonna see it and that makes me very itchy indeed.
    In spirit, I’m with you all the way, but I’m not quite so confident about coming out and saying it’s a no-brainer.

  • Paul Marks

    To turn from philosophy back to the Oslo murderer.

    The New York Times has declared that he was a Christian Fundementalist – which is odd for, as Ann Coulter points out, in his 1500 page manifesto he does not cite the New Testiment or the teachings of Jesus. Or claim that he believes that Jesus was God (even that there is a God – in the traditional sense) or that he believes in life after to death.

    He does, however, mention (with no hostilty) “Christian Athiesm” – we are in ultra flexible “relgion” land (William James indeed – cited by all the most elite fashionable, and most poorly attended by ordinary people, churches of the early 20th century).

    The Oslo murderer cites all sorts of publications – including (many times) the New York Times.

    So if we want to use headlines “New York Times reader goes on killing spree” would be more accurate than “Christian Fundementalist”.

    The NYT (and the rest of the media) have form on this – for example the effort to present the Arizonia murderere as a pro life Christian (rather than a pro abortion athiest). That was unsuccessful.

    However, the effort to present Tim McV…(the OK city bomber) as a conservative Christian was successful – in spite of the man actually being a pot smoking nonChristian fond of saying “my religion is science” (by the way I wonder how the Oslo murderer’s long term use of steriods ….)

    None of this proves that Fundementalist Christians can not be murdering scumbags – no doubt some of them are.

    However, we must be careful not to believe (without checking) the description of this or that person as a “fundementalist Christian”.

    Of course if there is no such thing as objective truth (i.e. anything that is “expedient”, useful to our aims is “true”) then the New York Times can “truthfully”claim that the Oslo murderer is a Fundementalist Christian.

    And, equally, all the claims made by the Oslo murderer in his 1500 page manifesto are “true” as well.

    The power of the unifying myth (William James – and Sorel) – the Oslo murdererer shares that concept with the msm. They just have different myths.

  • To turn back from the Oslo murderer to philosophy:

    @Clovis Sangrail – OK, I see what you mean about drunkenness. I’m not that interested in discussing this on that kind of a functional level, though. More interesting to me is that even if we can’t get two people with different diets and backgrounds to agree down to niggling detail about what they perceive, neither is capable of talking about reality as though it were anything other than singular and objective. They chalk up their disagreements to sensory errors and internal processing miscalibrations.

    I’ll have to read up on the Physics I guess. Thanks for the background. For what it’s worth, I’m not quite confident coming out and saying it’s a no-brainer either, which is why I was asking in the first place. If someone can show me how to conceive of multiple realities, I would of course do so. Maybe there are some physicists who can, then.

  • Paul Marks

    Let us say there are mulitple universes.

    That does not mean that reality is not objective.

    It just means that one can speak of a “multiverse” as well as a universe.

  • Paul Marks

    Possible mulitple universes.

    Louis XVI does not dismiss Turgot – French Revolution does not happen?

    Louis XV gets rid of the the statist system created by Louis XIV and Colbert (whose tomb is in exactly the church it should be in Paris) – ditt the French Revolution does not happen?

    Gladstone does not submit to the demands for licensing laws over pubs – wins the 1874 elections, gets rid of the last bit of income tax (which he has almost finished getting rid of) and the orgy of statism (and the start of the decline of liberty in Britain) started by Dizzy in 1875 does not occur.

    The driver of the Archduke Ferdinand’s car does not get confused and make the wrong choice about the road on the way back from the hosptial (where Ferdinand and Sophia had been visiting the victims of the bomb attack) – Ferdinand not murdered, World War One delayed (or does not happen at all).

    The Communist murderer trying to shoot Governor Roosevelt in Palm Springs aims correctly (in our universe he hit the Mayor of Chicago – killing him). No President F.D.R. – Jack Nance Garner (the strong Texas conservative – F.D.R. Vice President who rejected the regime in disgust) becomes President instead, no New Deal.

    And on and on.

  • Laird

    Paul, that’s why I don’t like “alternate history” novels much: too depressing to think about what might have been.