First Things First
There is only one truth, and everybody must operate by its implications. You needn’t (yet) believe this Truth is God, nor must you even know that this Truth exists. But you’re stuck with it all the same. A man jumping from a tall building need not know it is gravity which grips him, nor need he have any idea what is about to happen to him. Another man may believe he can fly. A third fellow, a physicist, may spout his controversial theory that gravity is a fiction. But all will reenact the flight of Newton’s apple.
Parmenides will walk from town to town lecturing that all movement is impossible. Zeno will hear of Parmenides’s approach and will claim, even as he sees him cresting the horizon, that Parmenides will never make it. Berkeley will follow Johnson and stub his toe, and then deny the swelling. A solipsist will lecture earnestly how wonderful the world would be if only everybody believed as he did that nobody else existed. A materialist will lecture earnestly how wonderful the world would be if only everybody acknowledged as he did that other people existed, but that they were all fictions of their own imaginations.
A relativist will argue that it is certain that there are no truths. A scientist will claim it is certain that only observation can tell us that there are certainties. A socialist will—but enough insanity!
It is clear enough, to most of us, that we must operate by the “laws” of physics. Ignorance of these laws is no excuse. Unlike human laws, it is impossible to break the dictates of physics. Even if one claims that one can or has. Exceptions are only apparent, the result of lack of knowledge. And so it is will all Truth, even metaphysical truth. We must follows its laws, even when we’re unaware of them, or claim to be.
Observation cannot tell us all truth. This is proved simply: we cannot observe that only observations can tell us all truth. We can and do—must—use reason to deduce that which cannot be observed. It then follows that we must come built with (or are at some point given) the revelations necessary to carry out these operations. The three paths to truth are: revelation, reason, and observation. Scoffing? You shouldn’t. This is how all mathematics works. Axioms are revealed, reason carries them forward, observations prove the application. It is is not through reason or observation that we know the axioms. It is not through revelation or observation that we know there are an infinity of numbers. It is not through reason or revelation that we learn which equation fits a set of numbers best.
Now given all this, it behooves us to sit and to think and to figure out just what the truth is. The first question is: what can we know? The first result is that we cannot know all of Truth. The proof is trivial: most, including the living and dead, people didn’t or don’t. Consider a scene from Hannah and Her Sisters, in which Woody Allen’s character is telling his aged parents of his (temporary) conversion to Catholicism. His mother is distressed and somehow the conversation turns to history. The mother shouts to the father to explain to Woody why there were Nazis. “How the hell do I know why there were Nazis,” the father says, “I don’t know even how the can opener works!” “We” don’t know anything; only an individual can know. Plus, there is no proof that all can be known; the universe and reality are far too complex for most of us, perhaps for any of us. Observations—history is saturated with examples—shows that mistakes are easy and common.
Obversely, there is plenty we do know, including philosophical and metaphysical truths. Feser says scientists begin with the metaphysical truths that
[T]here is a physical world existing independently of our minds; this world is characterized by various objective patterns and regularities; our senses are at least partially reliable sources of information about this world; there are objective laws of logic and mathematics that apply to the objective world outside our mind; our cognitive powers—of concept-formation, reasoning from premises to conclusion, and so forth—afford us a grasp of these laws and can reliably take use form evidence derived from the sense to conclusions about the physical world; the language we use can adequately express truths about these laws and about the external world; and so on and on.
But it is only recently, in the last few minutes of intellectual thought, that some scientists would deny not just these metaphysical truths, but all of metaphysics. These scientists are, however, no different than the man who denies gravity. Feser quotes from E.A. Burtt: “even the attempt to escape metaphysics is no sooner put in the form of a propositions than it is seen to involve highly significant metaphysical postulates.” You can deny truth, but you cannot escape it: “…your metaphysics will be held uncritically because it is unconscious; moreover…it will be propagated by insinuation rather than by direct argument.” The scientist who disbelieves in metaphysics “must have a method, and he will be under a strong and constant temptation to make a metaphysics out of his method, that is, to suppose the universe ultimately of such a sort that his method must be appropriate and successful.”
Very well: we must have a metaphysics, and as we have seen above—to quote from The Highlander, a source which never stops giving—there can be only one. Next time we start with Feser’s recounting of Aquinas’s First Way.
1Note: all comments about Feser’s tone or about the personalities of the New Atheists will be removed to Part I of this series. A related dodge—which is always obvious—is to say, “These arguments stink” and then to leave without saying exactly, precisely, logically why. However, you’re welcome to use this ploy if you think that, just this once, it will work. The comment by “Cole” at the top illustrates this technique.