Leaving Truth Introduction – Keith Sewell
The trail that led to the Leaving Truth essays started from some very simple observations and questions. If I hold out a stone in my hand, and let it go, we all know that it will fall. But how, exactly, do we know that? From what basis do we believe it? Moving to the other extreme; if I want to convince you of some highly dubious claim – for example, that I’ve seen a flying pig, or a man walk on water or turn it into wine, or reanimate after having been dead for three days – what must I tell you about that claim to have any chance of success? As what must I present it in order to compel your belief? Finally – and the 64,000 dollar question – can we ever be honestly and functionally justified in believing ourselves to have that implied better kind of knowledge?
This question’s pursuit led down through philosophy and into philosophy’s basement, epistemology: the study of how and why we can coherently select only some proposals (rather than all of them) as knowledge. I now think that our past 300 years have seen two events of enormous importance in epistemology. First, David Hume’s dismissal of induction as our legitimate basis for objective proof (and so, it seemed at the time, effective dismissal of empiricism). Second, Karl Popper’s rescue of empiricism, but only and explicitly as our basis for science. In the book that achieved this (originally Logic der Forshung; later, in English The Logic of Scientific Discovery) Popper recognized that the rescue could not in any meaningful sense include our truth concept. Essentially, that science can coherently qualify itself as knowledge only through repudiation of its claim to being truth. Popper flirted with the obvious next step; the implication for our truth concept – and so, by extension, for all of the knowledge proposals that we can still see ourselves to be maintaining primarily as ‘truths’ – of our observably most powerful and reliable form of knowledge not being truth. But he didn’t take the plunge. It is taken, with a vengeance, in the Leaving Truth essays. They demonstrate – analytically, and through clear reference back to on-demand-repeatable physical observation – that we have been using our truth concept as an independent and reason-opposable basis for knowledge propagation; and that we have been wrong in doing so. The blade cuts beneath all of our ancient systems of emotionally seductive irrationality. They are shown to be wrong to the full extent of our minds’ ability to distinguish between right and wrong. Our theistic religions are shown to be merely the most obvious and high-profile of these systems. The bottom line, on impact to our now resurgent science vs. religion debate, is definitive victory for science and reason. Logically, our side won the debate 80 years ago. We have just been a bit slow on the uptake; and beyond that, on how to explain it to the theists clearly enough to preclude any possibility of their intellectually honest misunderstanding. These two issues are covered in, respectively, my essays Leaving Truth and Crystal Blue Persuasion.
Addendum: I’m adding this to address an unexpected implication from some of ‘Leaving Truth’s early feedback. I’ve been surprised by the number of self avowedly rational people who seem instead to have lost faith in reason at its deepest level. If we are so thoroughly cowed by “the human condition” and “you can’t change human nature” that we dare not even attempt this – if we have so completely given up on our intellectual peers among the theists as to presume their inability to understand and accept a clear demonstration of the incoherence of their proposals however powerful and compelling we may make it – then our most important battle is already lost. We won’t win because, being convinced that victory impossible, we won’t try. How can members of a species that so recently crossed the gulf of space to walk on its planet’s moon think like this?