Reason and Commitment
by Roger Trigg

A critique of relativism in religion, morality, and science. Trigg points out the incoherence of subjectivism and other views that deny objective truth and reason. He makes some great points about objective and somewhat stable reality being a precondition for language. He is very reasonable except on the subject of free will. There could be a psychological explanation for an individual’s commitment to reason. A second individual would have a different history and possibly a different psychological cause for his commitment to reason. Regardless of the cause for their commitment to reason, these two individuals can be reasoned with. Similarly, two people could have different causes for their interest in playing chess, but given their interest, they would know the rules for legal and illegal chess moves and they could not be expected to declare that the rules do not apply to them.

Contrary to Trigg’s assertions, determinists do not have to focus on the causes of individual decisions any more than do the proponents of free will. Determinists simply maintain that there are causes for decisions and proponents of free will claim that decisions are always made for no reason. Neither side has to be exclusively interested in this issue. They can both ignore the question of causation and investigate the logical soundness of the decision.

Trigg wrongly claims that truth can only be established by an uncaused process of reason. (144)

Determinists claim that if something is uncaused it doesn’t occur. But this does not leave the determinists without a way to establish truth. Determinists can believe in a caused process of reason that can actually occur and that can be used to test the validity of a claim.

Trigg correctly points out that “Why people believe something is a totally different question from the validity of what is believed.” (145) Then he accuses determinists of focusing on the former question and ignoring the latter. It is true that a determinist qua determinist is guilty of focusing on the former question, but so is an advocate of free will qua advocate of free will.

“Truth is in the mind of the thinker, according to the subjectivist, or arises from the collective agreement of a society, according to the relativist.” (4)

Margaret Mead developed “a form of cultural relativism based on generations rather than on geographically separated societies.” (12)

Cultural anthropologists who argue that one cannot understand a society from outside the society undercut the very possibility of cultural anthropology. (13)

“If understanding and commitment go hand in hand, anthropology and sociology are certainly threatened. In addition, the history of science and of religion become in principle impossible.” (161)

“... conceptual relativists are only drawing the moral for meaning which is already implicit in the ordinary relativist’s treatment of truth.” (26)

“Many have then fallen into the temptation of insulating religious belief from awkward questions about its truth or meaningfulness, by saying that religious language has its own criteria of meaning and truth.” (27)

He describes many Christians this way: “His beliefs are not really beliefs after all. They are the frills on a commitment to a certain way of life.” (36)

“Wittgenstein’s rejection of the role of reason in religious belief has nothing to do with this traditional Christian view of faith. ... he is thinking of faith as merely a commitment to a way of life. He would deny that it involved belief in the truth of any propositions.” (54)

“Tillich cannot distinguish between justifiable commitment and satisfying illusion.” (57)

Theologians such as Tillich protect Christianity from criticism at a high price. ... total vacuity ...” (58)

Anthony Flew described this as “death by a thousand qualifications.” (59)

“the fact that such systems are considered immune from criticism means in effect that they must all be considered of equal worth. It becomes impossible to distinguish reasonable belief from illusion and superstition.” (59)

“Any religion, however bizarre, has to be accepted as constituting a ‘form of life.’ ... the concept of superstition is denied any application” (59)

“R.M. Hare built up a whole moral theory on an individual’s ultimate commitment to a basic moral principle.” (61)

“The concept of fanaticism, like that of superstition, presupposes the existence of objective standards to which we can appeal.” (63)

“It is unimpressive to be told that a certain moral disagreement can only be explained by difference in forms of life from which those in disagreement come, and then to find that the disagreement is itself the only criterion for identifying the two forms of life.” (66)

“If they do not have any existence except as the sources of the disagreement, the notion loses all explanatory power.” (69)

“Kuhn seems to think it is possible to have ‘progress’ even when it is not progress in any direction.” (116)

“It would be nonsense for a subjectivist to claim that some people have a better claim to knowledge than others.” (128)

“There must, however, be something very wrong with the notion of a justification of rationality, because clearly it is itself a concept from within rationality. Anyone who wants such a justification wants to stand outside the framework of rationality while remaining inside, and this is obviously incoherent.” (149)

The antirationalist “... cannot coherently state his case without already assuming that there is such a thing as truth, and that therefore good reasons for belief are possible. If he is right (and given his assumptions he could not be, since there would be no such thing as being ‘right’) his only course is silence. (166)

“Because a main function of language is to talk about and communicate what is the case, the absence of any distinction between truth and falsity (i.e. between what is and is not so) will destroy language. Anything could be said with impunity, and nothing could be ruled out as inappropriate. This would render it pointless to say anything, since there would be no difference in practice between assertion and denial. It would be impossible ever to teach a language. If there was no chance of using it incorrectly it would be impossible to pass on the correct application of words and sentences, since ex hypothesis there would be no such thing.” (154-155)

“If things altered quickly, the words which apply to them would be unable to retain their meaning.” (155) “... it is a precondition of language that the world has a certain stability. ... We must have the assurance that when we pick things out and draw other people’s attention to them, they too can identify what we are referring to, and agree or disagree with what we say.” (156)

“... those philosophers who have preached versions of conceptual relativism have used language normally, and have not put forward their views as if they only applied to a limited range of people. Even the relativist, if he uses language at all, has eventually to say something which purports to be true.” (157)

Year Read: 2000


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