“What is truth?” Behind this caustic retort by a representative of the classically educated elite of Roman society, this quip epitomized a final status of human thought of ancient Western civilization. It epitomizes the status of our own modern [Western] thought.
When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead, an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd.1
Pilate is characteristic of those lacking conviction; whereby no idea, principle or ideal is deemed worthy of defending. If sufficient pressure and threat to survival and self-interest is mounted against persons without belief, such persons will fold. Whatever Pilate’s personal sentiments about Jesus, it was insufficient to extend his neck over; unlike the zeal of the Jews over a trifling matter of images of Caesar being displayed in Jerusalem.2
In the end, those who fail to confront evil are little better than those who advocate it. The latter thrives in the presence of the former.
Loss of belief, whether in God, nation, utopian social visions, community etc, results in loss of moral and civic courage. And on the heels of losing of all conviction, modern western civilization evidences that truth. It is implausible to expect this generation to trudge into a barrage of artillery and machine gun fire for worthy causes, let alone for that cauldron of folly and futility, which was WW1. Indeed, the wealth and weight of all Europe could not subdue a second-rate Serbian dictator within their midst in the 1990s. Western hedonism excels at enjoying the peace, just like their ancient Roman counterparts. They are far less willing to personally defend and sacrifice for it.
And such should be expected. What reasonable person risks life and limb for an uncertain truth, a transient ideal or a delusional sham? And loss of belief in objective truth logically undermines all other convictions.
Subjectivism advances like a great Nothingness; logically and invariably giving way to skepticism and nihilism about truth and its knowability. If truth is in the eye of the beholder, verifiable objective truth cannot exist. What is objectively true if the same object is perceived floating off into space while concurrently gravitationally grounding into the Earth, depending on which set of eyes behold it?
At eighteen, I realized that the subjectivist relativism, propagated by my public school, endemically undermines thirst for knowledge. Knowledge merely becomes that which tickles one’s crotch and turns one’s crank. Ersatz reasons must therefore be fabricated to replace curiousity and natural wonder. Schooling exists for credentials, so that we can graze and hump in style and emulate glorified beasts. Hereby is the dumbing down of thought and culture since my youth, profoundly explained. We are a confederacy of dunces.
Intellectual integrity falls by the wayside. Why honestly pursue that, which one has concluded, does not exist or cannot be ascertained? Thereby, rational argument becomes but a tool to advance self-interest by deceiving the gullible; easily discarded when no longer useful towards those ends. No genuine social dialogue and political discourse can be undertaken without persons committed to determining what is true and good.
Intellectual integrity becomes psychologically difficult to sustain whilst those all around take initial advantage in their mendacity. Pandemic academic cheating in colleges and universities (around 80% of students) is, in no small measure, assisted by the rationale of evening out an uneven playing field in a highly competitive employment market. And leopards do not change their spots once beyond the academic churn.
Moral integrity falls by the wayside. For, maintaining integrity involves potential peril and heavy costs and risks. But under skepticism, there exists neither intellectual nor moral basis to uphold the Good. Most learn ways to compromise with excuses or denial of their compromise or capitulation in a slow, creeping degeneracy.
Without truth convictions, one can remain moral. But it is tragic Stoic stance; one which defies reason if skepticism be valid. History furnishes few who can forebear and sacrifice in the face of philosophical, epistemological, ethical and existential nihilism.
Social laws lack inherent moral validity, authority and credence in the eyes of the skeptic. Private operators (i.e. business) perceive laws as mere impediments and cost of operations; having no internal conviction to their intrinsic merit unless in accord with their own self-interests. Violations of law become but cost/benefit calculations. Consciences are at ease in violating the spirit of the laws through technical loopholes while remaining observant of their specifics.
Skeptics, obtaining a measure of public power, do not aspire to the true, good and just. They seek to reshape society to serve raw self-interests or existentialist conceptions of the desirable, regardless of whether those subjective fantasies correspond with any actuality.
These attitudes become a contagion; spreading from sole of foot to top of head of society. The idealism of youth is quickly swept aside by lack of integrity and public spiritedness among existing elites and elders. “Each of us has turned to his own way”3 and “everyone [does] what [is] right in his own eyes”4. “Where there is no vision, the people perish”.5 “The people cast off restraint”.6
And subjectivism/nihilism and disintegration of thought is followed thereafter by societal entropy and disintegration. The community can no longer aspire to cohere through common consent in a unifying body of ideas, ideals and principles. And without such common consent, the intellectual underpinnings and moral authority of law and governance evaporate. Factions become unable to communicate at any point of contact. It soon becomes apparent that one’s sociopolitical safety and welfare requires the surmounting of the Commanding Heights of society by force, with or without moral authority and consent of the governed.
Seen in ancient Israel, Greek city states and the Roman Republic; loss of social cohesion through common consent to common ideas and ethics gives way to coercion, power politics and autocracy. Free civil institutions and a semblance of liberty and civic participation in the affairs of state wither in the wake of the death of truth. Increasing reliance on harsher external coercion is required to maintain coherent social order.
When a state or organization must rely on coercion to maintain internal order, its people will do no more than what is coerced. An apathetic populace conforms in the face of overwhelming threat and power. But the government is no longer their government. Willingness to dedicate and sacrifice for a common good and enduring vision lacks rationale and justification. The ‘sovereign’ becomes isolated and increasingly burdened in its concerns; increasingly relying on threat and bribe to execute its will.
Loss of conviction in objective truth enervates the will. Between skepticism and naturalist philosophy, there is loss of hope in the eternal or enduring. There is neither objective and enduring meaning, nor purpose, nor significance in our being and doing. Existentialist assertions of meaning are but necessary fantasies to allow conscious beings to endure the dark night of existence. Consciousness becomes a curse in the absence of truth, eternality and God.
A barometer of nihilistic despair can be found in suicide rates. Youth suicide rates (U.S.) triple in the last 50 years as secularization gathers apace.7 And secular societies systematically retain higher suicide rates than religious; although socioeconomic conditions in religious societies tend to be less wealthy. Overthrow of religious and moral taboos can only partially explain the difference and dynamic. For, all organisms have fierce desire to survive. But a desolate pall of despair overwhelms these natural and inherent defenses in a nihilistic cultural milieu.
These realities are well known. Any honest and non-partisan religious or secular thinker has and will acknowledge them. They are entirely rational and psychologically coherent. Those, who deny this, have not thought it through, are too fearful to think it through, are too disingenuous to admit it, or are too stupidly frivolous to consider it.
Moral degeneracy, loss of civic virtue and courage, loss of intellectual integrity, enervation of curiousity that leads to cultural and intellectual degeneracy, suicidal despair, loss of liberty and free civic participation, apathy and social disintegration ensues skepticism’s encroachment.
The life of the first Greek skeptic philosopher, Pyrrho (360-270 B.C.), suffices to demonstrate the full practicable implications of non-committal to any truth assertions and a committal to chaos.
And his life corresponded to his principles; for he never shunned anything, and never guarded against anything; encountering everything, even wagons for instance, and precipices, and dogs, and everything of that sort; committing nothing whatever to his senses. So that he used to be saved, as Antigonus the Carystian tells us, by his friends who accompanied him…And once, when Anaxarchus had fallen into a pond, he passed by without assisting him; and when some one blamed him for this, Anaxarchus himself praised his indifference and absence of all emotion.8
Nowadays, such esteemed philosophers might be trudging the hallways of psychiatric wards.
It is intellectually fashionable, if deceitful, to purport to subscribe to skepticism while living otherwise as necessary ‘delusion’. However, such are often quick to pounce on the hypocrisies of their ideological adversaries. But the very act of criticism for inconsistencies incriminates the skeptic of hypocrisy; indicating the upholding of an objective standard. For under an honest and true skepticism, neither inconsistency nor hypocrisy is a vice.
Contained within the very emotion of anger, to which these adherents are no less prone, is judgment of some kind (i.e. intellectual, rationality, moral). Things are not as they ought. And whenever there is an ‘ought’, one betrays genuine belief in some objective value. For, why should one be angry at the lion who acts like a lion? Similarly, if others should desire to exploit and cannibalize you; well, that is the caprice of existence. Why should others live according to your personal framework of delusion? Self-interest might seek to survive by fight or flight. However, anger and anxiety have no place in a consistent skepticism.
There is no personal safety in a skeptic society. For, what is the value of one’s existence under a regime of philosophical nihilism or subjectivism? The law of the jungle reigns. To live in genuine skepticism is to dwell in sub-human existence; deliberately setting aside practicable use of one’s reason. All things are fresh surprise; with neither foresight nor hindsight, nor cause and effect, nor action and consequence. Nothing makes sense. Events just happen.
But even animals have a modicum of rationality. The wildebeest anticipates danger upon sensing the presence of lions. Only a rock can rationally and psychologically aspire to be a true skeptic.
However, detrimental ramifications from an idea are insufficient proof of an idea’s invalidity.
The Self-Contradiction of Skepticism/Nihilism
The notion that two assertions, which diametrically contradict each other, can be equally valid is incoherent and absurd. One or the other is true or both are untrue. If someone believes that two plus two equals four and that two plus two can also equal five; there are financial advisers, I would like that person to meet. And if this logic law of non-contradiction is objectively valid, there is evidently something that can be objectively known; even if it just be an algorithm of deduction.
Every variant of skepticism proves self-negating. Ancient skeptics needed to revise their earlier dogmatic assertions that truth is unattainable (incomprehensible). For, the assertion of the assertion proved negation of the contents of the assertion. Most modern skeptics have carefully recalibrated their rendition of skepticism to avoid that trap. However, if I state “nothing can be known, not even this”, it yet remains a dogmatic truth statement that differentiates it from alternatives. Indeed, any assertion contradicts skepticism. Scrupulous integrity and logic insists that skepticism cannot make any meaningful statement at all beyond an incomprehensible and incommunicable caveman grunt, subject to the broadest of interpretations. Thereby, skepticism becomes the philosophical disposition of brutes and rocks.
Every argument utilized to support skepticism is invalidated by the very central premises of skepticism. For, each and every supportive argument must be inherently deemed suspect of its validity. By its own logic, skepticism becomes an orphan from reason and evidence; an assertion floating in intellectual and ideological ether, without foundations.
The Heart Foundations of Skepticism
Considering the enormity of incomplete datum in which one might lose one’s way, were a person’s skepticism, the product of long study and rumination, I could respect that person’s despair. However, for the most part, the position is held by intellectual babes in diapers, without much rigour of thought, often parroting the propaganda line of their mentors or absorbed from their culture.
Skepticism and nihilism are natural rebel cries of hearts, averse to coming under any authority and circumscribed restraint, regardless of the demonstrated virtue of such order and constraints. But such will have exchanged reasonable limits on autonomy with that based on capricious power. Non-existent truth cannot speak to power with any cogency. Flashes of revolt quickly dissipate into incoherence (i.e. 1999 Seattle WTO riots on globalization, 2011 Occupy Movement). The logical consequence is law of the jungle within a civilized structure.
It ought not to surprise that the locus of skepticism in this modern era should be Europe. After a near century of revolution, wars of attrition and ensuing plagues, civil strife and wars, tyranny and oppression, concentration camps and genocide, current generations of Europeans have become understandably apprehensive of all firm commitment to any idea, which might inspire a resumption of hostilities. However, in the absence of conflicts of ideas and ideologies, remain the conflicts of self-interests; by which most of history’s conflicts have been fought.
To maintain civic peace and ‘niceness’ in an era of rampant immigration and pluralist cosmopolitanism, a nihilist version of Toleration is advocated; promoting intellectual, ideological, ethical, aesthetic, cultural and even ‘performance’ equivalence. Schools do not permit zeros for zero work. Sports’ score are not to be kept. There is to be no differentiation between excellence and mediocrity. It is an ethos advanced, not for its validity, but because of perception of its social necessity.
However, the history of other multicultural and pluralist societies (i.e. Roman & Austria-Hungary Empires) does not augur well. Pluralist tolerance barely papers over cracks, which are easily exploited by astute adversaries. It requires a low threshold of extraneous events to explode those latent cracks into open schisms (pre-WW1 Balkan powder keg, Yugoslavia). It reduces the meaning of civic (and ecclesiastical) commitment to minimalist flag-waving and tee-shirt-brandishing inanities; hardly inspirational to civic participation, dedication and sacrifice; hardly contributive to social cohesion. If ideological homogeneity tends toward oppressive conformity, ideological pluralism lends to entropy.
But this Cult of Nihilistic Toleration becomes itself a philosophical dogma and disposition, with its own inherent capacity for inconsistency, intolerance, oppression and persecution; as any honest observation of Human Rights Commissions can attest. Legal tolerance of convictions, sound or unsound, is intolerable. Even truth and truthfulness provides no defense. Social opprobrium must be neutered, even pathologized. Blanket social acceptance, normalization, even admiration and exaltation of the absurd, perverse and mediocre must be coercively insisted. The consciences of adversarial factions must be trampled, marginalized, pathologized and criminalized; even as this prevailing faction erects and imposes its own ‘ethical’ disposition upon these other factions.
A Reasonable Regime of Tolerance
An alternative form of toleration exists, which does not require the emasculation of truth and ethics, while permitting considerable latitude in the inculcation and expression of ideas and their practicable implementation.
It permits actions, however foolish and even evil, so long as the detrimental effects are of limited nature. It states that even if particular acts are wrong, there remains insufficient warrant or prudence to legally forbid it. For, in censuring every minutiae of wrongdoing, as both secular social liberalism and social conservatism is wont to do, the overall social consequences of overregulation is far worse than permitting a cacophony of petty evils to persist. It differentiates between allowable and unallowable forms of evil, and limits the scope and extent of harm that might occur when the evil themselves govern.
It is a seminal theme throughout New Testament Scriptures; this principle of liberty of conscience, to be extended beyond the confines of a limited Christian pluralism. Christ intimated as much in “let the dead bury their own dead“9? And although Apostle Paul insisted upon a measure of moral purity within the church; as to those outside, he declared “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside.”10 It allows individuals to most ardently subscribe and practicably implement their beliefs and values unless the harms and potential harms are of such caliber as to threaten general society in an immediate or near-immediate, severe and scrutable way.
Unfortunately, although entrusted with this ‘best of all possible’ form of liberty, all streams of Christendom have been most hypocritical and unfaithful in the implementation and promotion of this Scriptural principle, through hermeneutical contortionism and dishonest sophistry. They have thereby discredited it. It is easier, more comfortable and convenient to coerce than persuade, and convince oneself that coercion is persuasion.
Like their secular counterparts, with whom they share common human proclivities; whenever any faction feels their relatively superior sociopolitical strength, and become deluded in the permanence of their triumphalist supremacy, these temporary victors are prone to impose their ideological worldview and ethical framework upon all others. The cause of such oppression is less about religion or irreligion. Rather, it is the universality of arrogance that permeates all humanity that is culprit and perpetrator. For, with every St. Ambrose and Tomas de Torquemada, there are Antiochus IV and Jean-Baptiste Carrier. For every Inquisitor and Salem witch hunter, there are Hébertistes and Leninists-Stalinists.
The Intellectual Foundations of Skepticism
The foundations of skepticism are not ultimately rooted in reason and knowledge. It does not originate from any philosophical axiom, induction, deduction or any epistemology. Rather, its genesis proceeds from existential realities apart from reason. It develops from the chasm between the human condition and humanity’s psychological aspirations, perhaps pathological need, for unassailable certainty (a.k.a. Cartesian Certitude), which might provide material security and psychological assurance.
In the absence of a Deity or willingness to trust/obey a Deity, who declares Himself to be fount of all knowledge, wisdom and goodness, humanity is driven to seek its material and psychological security elsewhere. In this, it requires perfect understanding in order to navigate the caprice of existence. (Even in the complete willingness to trust God; this psychological need can be manifest in inerrancy.)
However, the human condition is beset by lack of omniscience, an attribute self-evident and easily substantiated. Lack of omniscience undermines any possibility of attaining unassailable certainty. Greek sophists of old and the sophist tradition to which the legal profession adheres, exploit this fact. Because we can only know in part, the sophist can organize one set of arguments proving the truth of a proposition, while organizing another set of arguments disproving it; bringing doubt and discredit to the project that humanity can really know anything at all with full and incontrovertible assurance. It is the disingenuity that the Academic skeptic Carneades pulled on the Romans in 155 B.C.; praising Roman justice one day and thereafter, refuting all arguments, made the day prior.
Under the regime of Cartesian Certitude, every “i” must be dotted and every “t” crossed before one can be certain of anything. But under this philosophical standard of proof, since humanity is incapable of knowing all things, it cannot categorically know anything. For, in the unknown might lay a germ of datum which potentially and significantly falsifies an aspect, a paradigm or perhaps everything that it believes it currently knows.
Modern science officially subscribes to this philosophical standard of proof; suggesting that all facts, truths and laws are, at best, contingent and tentative. But if the scientific community was sincerely consistent with this underlying premise, science would remain a theoretical hobby with no real practicable application. Scrupulous integrity to the premise would suggest that we should not depend with our lives on those tentative truths, which undergird our complex technological creations.
The meandering logic of this Cartesian standard of proof will always invariably and inevitably lead to total philosophical skepticism and nihilism. Modern Western thought has eerily echoed the historical trajectory of Classical thought towards similar variations of subjectivist and nihilist themes.
Manifestations of this dynamic erupt and transcend every philosophical approach to ascertaining objective realities. It lends to a pervasive sentiment amongst the intelligentsia that fashionable doubt is the only intellectually respectable position. Thereby, such individuals are disinclined to grant steadfast and loyal commitment to any idea, ideal, cause or person etc. But without true commitment, there is little true passion in life.
Cartesian certitude is the perfect granddaddy of all sophistries and circularities; rigging the rules of inquiry and setting up humanity for automatic failure because the standard of proof is inherently beyond the limits of mortal minds. It is a standard of proof for gods and the omniscient. It guarantees skepticism and unwillingness to commit or assent to any truth in lesser beings. The fault lies not in our inquiries, but in the unreasonableness of this standard and disingenuous device.
Every matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.11
Can one know anything in the absence of perfect knowledge? And herein, the Biblical standard of proof points to a more sensible and prudent standard of truth for sentient beings who lack that omniscience; a standard of long-standing and one which has sufficed for legal judgments, even judicial executions; even if fallible. It is a more reasonable approach for the limitations of humanity than to eternally suspend belief, assent, commitment and decision on the unattainable capacity to know all things before one can know anything.
On matters of pivotal significance, one should aspire to acquire as many artifacts as possible to justify primary beliefs. One should seek to acquire reasonable levels of confidence; whereby the artifacts are of such number and caliber and from differing epistemological ‘senses’, that failing to assent, commit and rely upon them, is inordinately more irrational than to commit and rely.
Because humans are not omniscient gods, we cannot consider every jot and tittle of data to reach conclusions. We cannot guarantee infallibility. There shall always exist a ‘leap of faith’. However, that ‘leap of faith’ is not of the variety that Søren Kierkegaard promoted; a leap apart from all rationality. Rather, it is the leap of faith between reasonable proof and actionable conclusion. And it becomes increasingly more of a step than a leap the more we close the gap between what is evidenced and that which we conclude.
A parallel existential fact of the human condition, upon which skepticism and nihilism builds its edifice, is the fallibility of our ‘epistemological senses’; (that is the means and approaches to ascertaining objective realities; whether they be sensory, empirical, rationalism, coherency, correspondence, foundationalism (axiom/presupposition), revelation, authority, intuitions, ‘public opinion poll’ etc.) Steven Pinker makes great effort in “How the Mind Works” (1997) to demonstrate how easily deceived our perceptions can be; intimating, perhaps inadvertently, that we should rely upon a scientific priesthood for our authority instead. Since the ‘senses’ cannot be fully trusted, we cannot know anything for certain, so goes the argument. Therefore, intellectual respectability demands that we refrain from giving assent to any proposition; (unless ordained by the scientific Magisterium).
It is a variant of the Cartesian Certitude argument. Until we have infallible cognition in ascertaining truth, we cannot know and commit to anything. For, in that germ of datum that we misapprehend, an aspect, a paradigm or perhaps everything that we know is overturned. However, the human existential condition guarantees epistemological imperfection. And thus, the rules of inquiry under this standard are also similar rigged for automatic failure; invariably guaranteeing skepticism and nihilism.
Scrupulous application of these arguments to technology would prevent the building of sophisticated machines and software applications. We should not build such devices because not every component and bond between components are certain to meet specifications; even assuming that the specifications are sufficiently rigorous. By this principle, humanity would still be dwelling in hovels in a Hobbesian state of barbaric nature.
However, standard procedures in engineering include built-in redundancies and error routine handling. In similarly applying the Biblical/judicial principle of the testimony of two or three witnesses, it is prudent to determine a truth by utilizing more than one or two unrelated epistemological approaches.
Multiple cognitive approaches provide means to overcome the ‘inverted spectrum’ (qualia) problem; the possibility that two individuals might perceive in the same way yet have different subjective experiences. If one observer sees green as red but calls it green and red as green but calls it red, while the other sees green as green and red as red; they may not know that they are talking about different subjective experiences of the same objective entities. However, when they both view a rainbow, one will see the ‘red’ band in a different place than the other. The discrepancy should raise doubts in the observers that they are perceiving similarly. Different senses or even different attributes within the same sense can overcome epistemological fallibility.
However, it is not only in the frailty of mortal minds, by which each epistemological approach suffers. There are limits to the scope and inherent ‘flaws’ within each approach. Like Newtonian physics, the laws of cognition and epistemology seem to break down at the outer fringes. (i.e. Foundationalism (axioms, presuppositions) suffers from eternal regress.)
In order to reliably ascertain objective realities through any epistemological approach, one must commit to intellectual integrity. However, intellectual integrity is, at best, a derived value from first principles. Therefore, one immediately runs into logical circularities. How does one establish that intellectual integrity exists and is a necessary good without first presupposing and conducting oneself with intellectual integrity? Intellectual integrity becomes a necessary but arbitrary prerequisite for all inquiry.
Nietzsche suggested alternatively, that we approach existence on the basis of that which affirms life instead of truth. But how coherent is that approach if we lack intellectual integrity to determine what affirms life? A man can sincerely and strenuously affirm that dancing in a WW1 no-man’s land is life-affirming.
The above essay only serves as a cursory and concise treatment against classical lines of arguments that have historically buttressed skepticism and nihilism and that have sought to discredit objective truth. It has again become necessary to refute these silly and largely self-serving propositions, which pervade not only secular, but religious society, and which will lead to total intellectual and moral chaos and invariably spread to sociopolitical chaos.
From the standpoint of Christianity, it is impossible to be a Christian unless one subscribes to the existence objective truth and its knowability. For, “without faith it is impossible to please Him: for he that comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him”12. Scripturally and rationally, it is impossible to believe in The God Who Is There, if one believes no objective reality or entities exist. It is impossible to practicably trust that He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him if we doubt that we can know of His existence and faithfulness. God merely becomes a phantom of our furtive minds to get us psychologically through the dark night of existence.
I do not deny that ascertaining the truth is extremely difficult for beings that are limited and fallible; let alone suffering from many other impediments. However, the skeptic/nihilist disposition, which precludes the possibility of objective truth, is simply untenable.
Copyright © 2013 John Hutchinson
- Matthew 27:24
- Josephus, The War of the Jews, (75 A.D.), Trans. William Whiston (1737), Book 2.9.3. A similar incident is reported by Philo, On the Embassy to Caligula, (39 A.D.), Trans. Yonge (1854-5), 299-305 and Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, (94 A.D.), Book 18.3.1.
- Isaiah 53:6
- Judges 21:25 (AJV)
- Proverbs 29:18 (AKJ)
- Proverbs 29:18 (ASV)
- See Cutler et al., Explaining the Rise in Youth Suicide, (Harvard University, March 2001). A corresponding modest decline amongst the elderly can be largely explained by Social Security programs and their improved socioeconomic lot.
- Diogenes Laertius, The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, (Early 3rd Century A.D.), Trans. C.D. Yonge (1895), Life of Pyrrho.
- Matthew 8:22. Also Luke 9:60
- 1 Corinthians 5:12-13. See all 1 Corinthians 5.
- 2 Corinthians13:1
- Hebrews 11:6