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B. Do These Claims Defeat Christian Belief?

Various claims plausibly labeled ‘postmodern’ do indeed conflict with Christian belief. As we saw in chapter 11 (above, p. 366), however, this is not yet to say that these claims or the making of them constitute defeaters for Christian belief. One often hears that this or that element of Christian belief has been “called into question” by postmodernism or postmodern ways of thinking, or that postmodernism has “destroyed” this or that traditional way of looking at the world. But you don’t automatically produce a defeater for Christian belief just by standing on your roof and proclaiming (even loudly and 426slowly), “God is dead!” (Not even if you add: “And everybody I know says so too.”) Nor can you call Christian belief (or anything else) into question just by declaring, “I hereby call that into question!” You can’t destroy a way of thinking just by announcing, “I hereby destroy that way of thinking!” This will not do the job, not even if it is embodied in writing of coruscating wit and style, and not even if you adopt a superior air and elegant gestures while intoning it. Something further is required. What? Well, as we saw in chapter 11, to provide me with a defeater for my belief B, you have to do or say something such that (given that I am aware of it and have heard and understood it) I can no longer rationally continue to believe B, or continue to believe it as firmly as before. In the typical case, you will do this either by putting me into a position where I can see that my belief is to be rejected (e.g., by arranging for me to have the right sorts of experience) or by giving me an argument of some kind.

Here someone will point out that many postmoderns would not agree. They typically don’t think arguments are either necessary or sufficient for anything of importance; they may be unsure that there is any such thing as rationality; indeed, they may even reject the whole warrant-and-defeaters structure of our discussion. If so, wouldn’t it be a waste of time to inquire whether postmodern thought does provide a defeater for Christian belief? Not necessarily. Their rejection of the notion of defeaters does not imply that, in fact, they have not provided a defeater. They could certainly provide a defeater even if they (mistakenly) rejected the whole line of thought presupposed by the idea that there are or could be defeaters for Christian belief. You are a card-carrying postmodern and reject all talk about defeaters; I am not. I believe there are no cacti in the Upper Peninsula; you show me one. The fact that you don’t yourself think much of defeaters doesn’t for a minute imply that you haven’t given me one, anymore than the fact that I don’t believe in viruses means that I can’t give you a cold. If I am right about viruses, then I can’t; but I’m wrong. The same goes for the postmodern who doesn’t believe in defeaters: if she’s right about there being no such things, then no doubt she can’t give me one; but perhaps she’s wrong. In adopting the warrant-and-defeaters framework, we are, of course, presupposing that she is wrong. If so, she might be able to produce a defeater for Christian belief, even if she doesn’t think she can.

Still, she can’t do it by bare assertion, no matter how impassioned or confident. Must it be by way of argument then? We saw in chapter 11 that you can give me a nonargumentative defeater for certain kinds of beliefs; but could she give me a defeater for an element of Christian belief without giving me an argument? Here is a possibility: perhaps she can give me a defeater by citing the trajectory of her own intellectual and spiritual life. Perhaps she was raised as a traditional 427believer; in her sophomore year in college, she is introduced to Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche; the next year she advances to Heidegger, Derrida, and Rorty. She is captivated by Nietzsche’s brilliant, sparkling style, by Heidegger’s air of Teutonic profundity, by Derrida’s mischievous and playful spirit, and by the brave, ‘making-the-best-of-a-really-lousy-situation’ attitude of Rorty. She tells me about these authors and their ideas, presenting them in an attractive and favorable light. Does that give me a defeater? Not automatically. Nor do I automatically get a defeater by retracing her steps and reading these authors myself: where she finds profound insight, I may find posturing obscurantism. Reading these authors is unlike perceiving a cactus (realizing that it is a cactus one sees) in the Upper Peninsula. One can’t see the cactus and rationally continue to believe that there are no cacti there. On the other hand, one can sensibly read these authors and—despite verbal pyrotechnics and airs of profundity—remain unmoved, rationally continuing to accept Christian belief.

Are there other possibilities for nonargumentative defeaters here? Postmoderns sometimes point out the involvement of Christians in the injustice and oppression our sad world displays. As I’ll argue in the next chapter, however, the suffering and evil our world contains don’t automatically give me a defeater for Christian belief. Neither does the fact that Christians are responsible for a good bit of it; after all, it is part of Christian belief to see human beings, Christians included, as deeply flawed and sinful. Are there still other possibilities? Perhaps, but it is hard to see what they could be. So it seems that something like an argument is needed. Postmoderns, however, don’t ordinarily give arguments for claims inconsistent with Christian belief. Indeed, they don’t ordinarily give arguments for anything at all, perhaps because they think the whole frame of mind that makes argument seem useful is something we should ‘get beyond’. Still, there are at least a couple of postmodern arguments worth considering here, although neither is such that its relevance to Christian belief is completely obvious.

1. The Argument from Historical Conditionedness

The first argument appeals to historicist consideration: we are all of us heavily constrained and conditioned by the society within which we live and within which we have been socialized. Had I been born at a different time and place, I would have failed to believe many of the things I do in fact believe—among them being, perhaps, some of the things I take most seriously. Perhaps, for example, I wouldn’t have been a Christian or even a theist; perhaps I would have thought of those outside my tribe or clan as subhuman; perhaps I would have thought slavery was entirely acceptable, and so on. So the claim is that in my doxastic life I can’t transcend my cultural setting—at any 428rate with respect to religious and philosophical belief.543543   See John Hick, An Interpretation of Religion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), p. 2. But then those beliefs are somehow substandard, unwarranted, irrational, or in some other way not up to par. Christian belief, therefore, is irrational or at any rate unwarranted. Now what we have here so far is not a purported defeater for Christian belief itself, but for the different belief that Christian belief is warranted. Still, if I come to see or believe that Christian belief is not warranted for me, then perhaps I thereby acquire a defeater for it.

Why should we accept the argument? There are powerful reasons not to. First, like many such skeptical arguments, it discredits itself if it discredits anything; it falls into the very snare it sets for others. For consider its central premise:

(CP) Suppose a person S holds a religious or philosophical belief B: if B is such that if S had been born elsewhere or else-when, she would not have accepted B, then B is not warranted for S.

But suppose I accept (CP), which is itself a religious or philosophical belief. Isn’t it clear that there are times and places such that if I had been born there and then, I would not have accepted it? If I’d been born in nineteenth-century New Guinea, or medieval France, or seventeenth-century Japan, I would (very likely) not have accepted (CP); so according to (CP), (CP) is not warranted for me; and once I see that it isn’t warranted, I have a defeater for it; so I shouldn’t believe it. Perhaps you think that this argument is just a nasty little dialectical trick, not worth taking seriously. Well, I disagree: if you see that a belief really does defeat itself, then you can’t sensibly hold that belief.

No matter what you think of that argument, however, why can’t it be that we know more at some times than at others? Had Einstein been born in the eighteenth century, he would not have believed special relativity; nothing follows about special relativity. Many now think it is wrong to treat someone with hatred or contempt or indifference on the mere grounds that they are of a different race: their views are not automatically unwarranted just because they might have believed otherwise if they had been brought up in Nazi Germany or ancient Sparta. Perhaps we should think, instead, that if they had been brought up in Nazi Germany or ancient Sparta, they wouldn’t have known something they do know. I argued in Warrant and Proper Function that warrant is relative to circumstances; some circumstances are warrant conferring and others are not. I could therefore have been in other circumstances, circumstances that 429would not have conferred warrant on some belief B I actually have. Indeed, some of those circumstances are such that if I had been in them, I would not have held B at all. At present, for example, I believe I hear a crow cawing in the woods behind my house; had I been out of town, I would not have believed that. That fact, however, does nothing at all to suggest that my present belief lacks warrant. As it stands, therefore, (CP) is clearly too strong. No doubt the partisan of (CP) will say that he didn’t intend (CP) to apply to all beliefs; it is to apply only to religious and philosophical beliefs. But why think it is true even thus restricted? You believe there aren’t any things that do not exist; the philosopher Alexius Meinong, notoriously, did not. Now suppose you had been his student; given his charismatic personality and powerful intellect, perhaps you would have been misled into thinking there are some things—unicorns and golden mountains, for example—that do not exist. How would that so much as slyly suggest that you don’t in fact, as things stand, know that there aren’t any things that do not exist? This argument therefore fails. No doubt there are various ways in which to complicate the argument and make it subtler; none of these is successful, I think, because the basic idea of the argument is just a mistake.

2. Do Human Beings Construct the Truth?

There is a second argument I wish to consider briefly. Richard Rorty is widely credited (some might say “debited”) with the view that “truth is what our peers will let us get away with saying.”544544   What he actually says is:
   For philosophers like Chisholm and Bergmann, such explanations must be attempted if the realism of common sense is to be preserved. The aim of all such explanations is to make truth something more than what Dewey called ‘Warranted assertability’: more than what our peers will, ceteris paribus, let us get away with saying. (Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979], pp. 175–76)

   It is clear from the context here (and elsewhere) that Rorty sides with Dewey against Chisholm and Bergmann.
Now this is a bit vague, but if taken seriously, it does, indeed, seem to be incompatible with Christian belief. That is because if a proposition is true (true ‘for me’, I suppose) if and only if my peers will let me get away with saying it, then, given proposition (1) on p. 424, God is dependent (‘for me’, if that makes sense) for his very existence on my peers. For if they were to let me get away with saying that there is no such person as God, then it would be true that there is no such person, in which case there would be no such person. So whether there is such 430a person as God depends upon the behavior of my peers.545545   And what if my peers are an unusually tolerant bunch who will also let me get away with saying that there is such a person? Would it then be true (‘for me’) that there is such a person, and also true that there isn’t? Not easy to believe. The view in question has still other peculiar consequences. For example, it promises an auspicious way of dealing with war, poverty, disease, and the other ills our flesh is heir to. Take AIDS: if we all let each other get away with saying that there just isn’t any such thing as AIDS, then on this Rortyesque view it would be true that there isn’t any such thing as AIDS; and if it were true that there is no such thing as AIDS, then there would be no such thing. So all we have to do to get rid of AIDS, or cancer, or poverty is let each other get away with saying there is no such thing. That seems much easier than the more conventional methods, which involve all that time, energy, and money.

Similarly, consider the Chinese authorities who murdered those students at Tiananmen Square and then compounded their wickedness with bald-faced lies, claiming they’d done no such thing. From the present point of view, this is a most uncharitable way to think about the matter. For in denying that it ever happened, the authorities were merely trying to bring it about that their peers would let them get away with saying it had never happened, in which case it would have been true that it had never happened, in which case it would never have happened. So the charitable thought here, from a Rortian point of view, is that the Chinese authorities were only trying to bring it about that this terrible thing had never happened: and who can fault them for a thing like that? The same goes for those Nazi skinhead types who claim there was no Holocaust and that Hitler and his cohorts were as gentle as lambs and never harmed a soul; they too should charitably be seen as trying to see to it that those terrible things never did happen. And in your own personal life, if you have done something wrong, no problem: lie about it, get your peers to let you get away with saying you didn’t do it. If you succeed, then in fact you won’t have done it; furthermore, as an added bonus, you won’t have lied about it either!

Now you will no doubt say that all this is belaboring a straw man; Rorty couldn’t mean to assert, as the sober truth, that truth is what your peers will let you get away with saying. That is just a rough-and-ready, informal, and conversational way of conveying his real opinion. Putting it thus informally accords with his idea that philosophy is best thought of as a sort of conversation, and with his scorn for the analytic philosopher’s panoply of definitions, principles, necessary and sufficient conditions, attempts at rigor, and all the rest. (If you and a friend were having a conversation, would you begin a sentence by saying, “Necessarily, a proposition P is true if and only if?” Well, maybe it depends on the friend.)


Perhaps that’s right; unfortunately it does complicate matters. My aim is to ask whether Rortian thought offers a defeater for Christian belief; one of the most prominent strands in Rorty’s thought is what he has to say about truth; but then I need to know whether what he means to say about truth is or isn’t incompatible with Christian belief. For that, it would be nice to have a relatively serious way of stating what this strand of thought might be. What could he mean? Well, presumably Rorty’s claim is that the truth of a belief or proposition depends in some important way on social reality of one sort or another; truth is in some way a function of society and what it does or would do. What is true ‘for us’, then, will depend somehow on our own society. For any proposed truth B, there is some property P—some property a society can have—such that B is true (‘for us’) if and only if our society displays P.546546   And of course we aren’t thinking of ‘Cambridge’ properties like being such that B is true. But then precisely what properties are we thinking of? It would be entirely out of the spirit of a Rortian inquiry to answer that question, so I won’t try. Of course Rorty might regard that way of putting the matter as a bit gradgrindian if not outright silly (perhaps on a par with that obsessive concern with quotation marks which Derrida playfully ascribes to Oxford philosophers547547   The Post Card from Socrates to Freud and Beyond, tr. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 98.); but life is too short to worry about a thing like that.

So our problem is that one can’t easily tell, without further elucidation, whether Rorty’s view of truth is or is not incompatible with Christian belief. This problem about determining what Rorty intends here is not trivial. Gary Gutting, for example, suggests that Rorty doesn’t really intend to say anything at all shocking or paradoxical about truth, or anything out of accord with robust common sense. He doesn’t really mean to say that what is true depends in some way upon properties of society; instead, he is only rejecting certain eminently rejectable theories of truth. “The key point,” says Gutting, “is that our ‘discourse on truth’ should be limited to an assertion, without philosophical commentary or elaboration, of the baseline commonplaces about truth; and a review of the arbitrariness and/or incoherence of efforts to criticize (i.e., analyze, modify, or justify) the baseline truths.”548548   “Richard Rorty: The Rudiments of Pragmatic Liberalism,” in Pragmatic Liberalism and the Critique of Modernity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999). The basic idea is that there are a number of commonplace and commonsense truths about truth: that beliefs are true or false but not both, that you can’t ordinarily make a belief true just by wishing it to be true, that it is possible that we all hold false beliefs (just as we think people once held false beliefs about the shape of the earth), that the belief that all men are mortal is true if and only if all 432men are mortal, and so on. These platitudes are all true and are all to be accepted; furthermore, any philosophical criticism of them, or elaboration of them, or modification of them, or rejection of them is bound to wind up in “arbitrariness or incoherence.” Gutting proposes this as an interpretation of Rorty, at least of Rorty “by his own best lights.”

So construed, Rorty seems a bit like Thomas Reid transposed into a conversational key, perhaps seasoned with a dash of Wittgenstein. If this is what Rorty means, then he is certainly not vulnerable to those charges of dissolute antirealism and relativism often flung his way. Thus taken, his views aren’t so much as mildly shocking; they certainly don’t constitute defeaters for Christian belief. But could this really be what he meant when, for example, he sided with Dewey in suggesting that truth is what our peers will let us get away with saying? If so, he has expressed himself a little carelessly. And even making all due allowances for the license conferred by his intent to be conversational and not pedantic, wouldn’t it be a bit of a stretch to think that what he intends here is only a rejection of some philosophical criticism of those baseline platitudes? And isn’t it also a little hard to swallow the suggestion that Rorty is ambiguous as between rejecting truth itself, on the one hand, and some particular theory of truth, on the other? This would be a little like being ambiguous between rejecting some theory of kangaroos and rejecting kangaroos themselves. This suggestion, it seems to me, implausibly emasculates Rorty.

What Rorty really opposes, according to Gutting, is a view ordinarily associated with realism with respect to truth—that is, representationalism. This is the idea that we (or our minds) possess and think by way of representations, which are true just if they “correspond to reality.” The problem with this view, according to Rorty (according to Gutting), is that it inevitably encounters the question how we know and whether we know that our representations do, in fact, correspond to reality. Here further problems arise. According to Gutting, Rorty endorses all the commonsense, baseline platitudes about truth and our relation to it; but don’t these platitudes themselves include this very representationalism? Isn’t representationalism—at any rate the basic version of it—itself platitudinous? It is a baseline platitude that beliefs are about things of one kind or another; for example, some of my beliefs are about the moon. It is another baseline platitude that beliefs can represent things as being one way or another; for example, one of my beliefs about the moon represents it as a satellite of the earth. And it is still another baseline platitude that this belief is true if and only if, in fact, the moon is a satellite of the earth—that is, if and only if the way that belief represents the moon as being, is the way the moon really is—i.e., if and only if the belief about the moon corresponds to what the moon is like. Representationalism itself seems to be included in that stock of baseline platitudes; at any rate, there is a platitudinous version of it. So Rorty really 433can’t both reject representationalism and accept all those baseline platitudes.549549   Could it be that what Rorty is rejecting is not representationalism as such, but some more specific and detailed version of it—one, perhaps, in which the correspondence in question involves some kind of isomorphism between elements of the representer (thought or sentence) and the represented? Perhaps; but then (as with truth) Rorty’s rejection of representationalism isn’t nearly as interesting as it looks at first sight.

On Gutting’s semi-interpretation, then, Rorty isn’t open to those charges of irresponsible antirealism and relativism; on the other hand, his views do turn out to be a bit pedestrian, and of course taken this way they don’t constitute a defeater for Christian belief (or much of anything else). So suppose we take Rorty the more robust way, as making substantive and controversial claims about truth. Let’s take him as claiming that truth is a human construction and that a belief or other candidate for truth is true (‘for us’) just if it stands in a certain relationship to (our) society. As I suggested above, this does indeed seem incompatible with Christian belief. First, it seems to make the truth about God (if only the truth about God ‘for us’) dependent on what we do or think. This is clearly incompatible with Christian views about God, according to which God is not dependent on anything at all. And second, this Rortian doctrine implies that there is some contingent property (some non-Cambridge contingent property) P such that it is true (‘for us’) that there is such a person as God if and only if our society has P. Now presumably our society can have a property only if our society exists; hence it looks as if the existence of God entails the existence of our society, so that if our society had not existed, God would not have existed either. Again, this is clearly incompatible with Christian theism.

Of course this claim on Rorty’s part will constitute a defeater only if he also makes us aware of some reason why we should believe it; the mere fact that he or someone else merely makes the claim doesn’t provide a defeater. Now in general, Rorty is a bit standoffish about arguments; still, he does present something that could perhaps be construed as an argument for the conclusion that truth relevantly depends on us as a society. He begins his book Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (hereafter CIS) by claiming, “About two hundred years ago, the idea that truth was made rather than found began to take hold of the imagination of Europe,” thus apparently contradicting one of those platitudes, the one according to which (in the general case, anyway) truth is discovered or found rather than made. This certainly sounds like the nonplatitudinous suggestion that truth is a social 434construction, and that a given candidate for truth depends for its being true, if it is, on something we human beings do. In any event, here is Rorty’s argument:

To say that truth is not out there is simply to say that where there are no sentences there is no truth, that sentences are elements of human languages, and that human languages are human creations.

Truth cannot be out there—cannot exist independently of the human mind—because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there. (CIS, p. 5)

How exactly shall we understand this? It is hard to be sure, but here is a possibility: truths are sentences, sentences are elements of language, and languages are human creations; therefore truths are human creations, and if there weren’t any human beings (or other language-using creatures), there wouldn’t be any truths. According to this thought, we human beings create truths. The way we do this is perhaps not within anyone’s direct control (just as the stock market isn’t within anyone’s direct control), but still we somehow do it. I think this is what Rorty intends to assert; what he actually says, of course, is terse and enigmatic (as befits a conversational contribution). If it is what he means, however, there are two sorts of objections to the argument, one serious and the other fatal.

First, the serious objection. Sentences are indeed true or false, but they aren’t the only things that are. Beliefs are also true or false, as are assertions, claims, suggestions, and the like. Rorty’s argument seems to presuppose that beliefs, assertions, claims, suggestions, and so on are all themselves sentences. Alternatively, perhaps his idea is that it is sentences that are true or false in the primary sense, with other things (beliefs and assertions, for example) being true in a secondary way. (Thus he might say that an assertion is true if it is the assertion of a true sentence.)

This is at best dubious. Here is a reason for thinking that at least some things true in the fundamental sense are not sentences. Suppose we use the term ‘proposition’ to denote the things that are true or false in the primary sense, leaving open just what they are and, in particular, whether or not they are all sentences. Consider, then, the proposition (the truth) that 2 + 1 = 3. Now this truth, as we ordinarily think, is necessarily true; that means, among other things, that it couldn’t have failed to be true; there are no possible circumstances in which it is not true. But the sentence ‘2 + 1 = 3’ could have failed to be true. That is because it is a sentence, and is true, on Rorty’s view, because of something we do with it. Furthermore, what we do with it is something we could have failed to do. Therefore, on Rorty’s view, things could have been such that this sentence would not have been true; indeed, before there were human beings, Rorty thinks, there was no such thing as the sentence ‘2 + 1 = 3’; under those conditions, that sentence would not have been true. Hence the 435sentence could have failed to be true. The proposition 2 + 1 = 3, therefore, has a property that the sentence ‘2 + 1 = 3’, does not have: being necessarily true—that is, being such that it could not have failed to be true. The proposition (truth) that 2 + 1 = 3, therefore, is not the sentence ‘2 + 1 = 3’.550550   Or, indeed, any other contingently existing object: see Warrant and Proper Function (hereafter WPF), pp. 117ff. The same will go, naturally enough, for any other necessary truth. This is an argument for the conclusion that some truths—necessary truths—are not sentences; but we can make a similar if slightly more complicated argument for the same conclusion with respect to contingent truths. In the interests of brevity (whose interest you may already think has been shamefully slighted in this book) I shall omit that argument.

That was the serious objection: at least some of the things that are true or false in the primary sense are not, contra Rorty’s assumption, sentences. I turn now to the fatal objection. Suppose for the moment that sentences were the only things that are true (or false) in the primary sense. Then perhaps we could say that truths are made by us human beings: for we make it the case that a given sequence of sounds or marks is, indeed, a sentence and thus capable of being true or false. (What we make to be sentences, I take it, are types as opposed to tokens.) For take any given truth: it is a sequence of shapes or sounds, and is also a sentence. We don’t make the string of shapes or sounds; perhaps we create tokens of those types, but the types would be there whatever we did or didn’t do. Still, that string of shapes or sounds owes its being a sentence to what we, the users of language, do with it. And perhaps we could express this by saying that truths are made.

Of course it wouldn’t follow that we make a given sentence true, or that it is by virtue of something we do that a given sentence is in fact true. We make it the case that the sequence of marks ‘There once were dinosaurs’ is a sentence and thus capable of being true or false. It doesn’t follow that we make it true that there once were dinosaurs. By virtue of our language-making activity, we bring it about that a certain string of marks—‘there once were dinosaurs’—is true if and only if there once were dinosaurs. But that is not sufficient for making that sentence true. For the sentence to be true, there must once have been dinosaurs; and that, presumably, is not something we have made to be the case, by our language-making activities or in any other way. Taken one way, therefore, the conclusion of Rorty’s argument is that we human beings are responsible for the existence of sentences (for the fact that certain strings of marks or sounds are sentences) and thus for the existence of the things that are true or false; so taken, the conclusion is unobjectionable, platitudinous, and certainly not a candidate for a defeater of Christian belief. Taken the 436other way, as the nonplatitudinous claim that we human beings are responsible, not just (for example) for the sentencehood of ‘God created the world’, but for God’s having created the world, the conclusion of the argument is, indeed, incompatible with Christian belief; taken that way, however, there is not the slightest reason (beyond a certain confusion) for thinking that conclusion true. It certainly doesn’t follow from the premises. Either way, therefore, there is no defeater here.

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