Joshua Rosenau on truth

A week ago, Jerry Coyne wrote a blog post accusing Josh Rosenau of the NCSE of, among other things, denying the existence of truth. I finally found the time to look at the Rosenau post Coyne was talking about, and while I wonder whether Coyne’s attack was quite accurate, Rosenau certainly does provide a lot of examples of how not to do philosophy. Let’s take a look.

The first flaw–common to a lot of attempts to reconcile religion and science–is a disregard for how normal people actually talk about the issues. His entire discussion of the supernatural relies on defining the word in a way that doesn’t match how anyone actually uses it–something I won’t dissect in detail here, because Richard Carrier already has.

In the same category is the way he defaults to talking about all religion as non-literal, akin to literature. Years ago, at the blogspot incarnation of this blog, I wrote about how misleading it is to emphasize “literalism,” in discussions of fundamentalism, but the full extent to which the “literalism” issue can be used to distort the issues is something I’m now coming to grasp. Promoters of liberal religion like Rosenau (he’s far from alone) set up a false dichotomy between literalists and non-literalists, by which they mean “people who believe absolutely everything in their holy books is literally true” and “people who don’t believe a single religious belief is literally true, so God doesn’t literally exist.” This is of course nonsense. Most people who call themselves religious take at least a few things literally. Ken Miller, for example, who I’m sure Rosenau would consider one of his closest allies in these discussions, appears to believe that God literally exists.

The other huge flaw in the post–which pisses me off to no end, as a professional philosopher–is the simultaneous disregard for serious philosophical discussion, combined with assertions that he must be right, because of some vague facts about academic philosophy. It’s claimed that, since logical positivism failed, science cannot produce truth, a complete non sequitur, because the logical positivists had all kinds of doctrines aside from “science can produce truth” that can be fingered as their fatal flaw, while leaving “science produces truth” intact. Similarly, the fact that philosophers don’t agree on a theory of truth is presented as having important but never really explained consequences for how we should talk about truth. It’s hard to say that Rosenau is wrong here, because it’s not clear what he’s trying to say, but I’d ask him this: does the controversy over theories of truth prevent us from saying that astrology does not produce the truth about anything, or that looking in the fridge can tell us the truth about the contents of the fridge?

Just doing these things, I should mention, already shows disregard for serious philosophical discussion, but there other indications that Rosenau is clueless about philosophy. In particular, he casually assumes that there is no objective truth about questions of value, like aesthetics and morality, an assumption that would be offensive to most of the liberal religious believers he’s trying to be chummy with, since God is usually defined partially in moral terms. It really amazes me how many people seem completely unaware that anyone, anywhere believes in objective value, though I do know that assumption has been along for a long time–C.S. Lewis was complaining about it decades ago in The Abolition of Man.

Final thought: a lot of religious apologetics out there turns on tempting fallacies, and you have to do some work to show people why the stuff they’re used to thinking is wrong. This is an example, though, of lousy arguments to being used to apparently deny the most basic of common sense: that we can use our minds to settle questions about the truth of the world. Is it even possible that Rosenau is serious about denying that?

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