How do we know what we believe is true?

Ultimate Questions by Bryan Magee invites us to reconsider the very nature of truth - but its answers are sometimes vague.

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Famously or notoriously, a great phy­sicist claimed some years ago that if we were able to construct a “theory of everything”, reconciling the various paradoxes that arise in trying simultaneously to affirm general relativity and quantum field theory, “we should know the mind of God”. Stephen Hawking may have lived to regret using precisely this form of words, but we all know, more or less, what he meant. One of the implications of Bryan Magee’s new essay, however, is that even if we did ­manage to settle a way of reconciling these two fundamental theoretical frameworks, we should be an inestimably long way off from knowing all that could be known, or, rather, all that could count as true.

Magee, now aged 85, is a very unusual figure who has combined active political engagement (as a Labour and then SDP MP until 1983) with a much-acclaimed career as a historian of philosophy and a lucid broadcaster on the subject. In Ultimate Questions – a sort of personal credo – he writes that there are two sorts of difficulty entailed by the search for truth. First, each one of us inhabits a specific location in time and space: there are countless true propositions that are inaccessible to me because I exist here and now. True propositions are timelessly true; so, in 1316, it was true that in 2016 David Cameron would be Prime Minister – but no one could have known that. In 2016, whatever is going to happen in 2116 is “already” the subject of true propositions, but no one can know in 2016 what they are. Second, and more significantly, there are true propositions that are inaccessible to us because we constitutionally lack the equipment to know what makes them true. Magee’s favourite comparison for this is the condition of someone with congenital blindness: the sighted person knows what makes propositions about colour true, or what makes certain other habitual ways of speaking about spatial experience true (light and dark, distance and nearness); but the non-sighted person could not understand anything of the claims being made, and the sighted person could not explain them.

Accepting that we live in “permanent ­exclusion from the understanding of total reality” is the beginning of wisdom; yet such wisdom does not involve any “occult” or supernatural implication, any reference to mysterious agencies outside our habitual experience. This frequently, almost obsessively, repeated protestation is of a piece with Magee’s insistence that any intrusion of “religion” into philosophical discussion is profoundly corrupting: he writes that, “In any honest intellectual inquiry there is no place for religion”; “Religious discourse . . . is a form of unjustified evasion”; and “The merest spoonful of religion in philosophy acts like a spoonful of sugar in coffee: it takes away the edge and insinuates blandness into the whole.”

For Magee, religion, bracketed with the “occult and supernatural”, is an illegitimate and deceptive way of resolving problems for which we do not have the equipment to provide an answer. But, frustratingly, he does
not give any instances of what he means. It is true that the question “Why is there anything rather than nothing?” may be answered by the proposition that God willed to create the world. You may or may not accept this proposition, but what it isn’t is a putative solution to any question about the specific processes of the world. It does not intrude on any other discipline of inquiry.

There has been plenty of discussion about whether we could treat cosmological myths as even claiming to be an explanation as we normally use the word. It is something of an Aunt Sally to say that “religion” is characterised by interference with routine rational processes or the blocking off of inquiry into the normal regularity of the cosmos. After all, the idea of a consistent universe in which natural explanations properly could be sought is rooted in a theistic philosophy. But Magee’s irritable defensiveness about this is connected with his awareness that, in his exposition of the nature of our moral commitments, we have to move well beyond what normally counts as demonstrable certainty – beyond what is often understood as “knowledge”. His concern is to defend the possibility of unconditional assertion (“torturing children is always wrong”) without leaving any doors open for appeal to something outside our possible sphere of knowledge that would make such assertions true.

Magee’s robust insistence that we can feel sure about some things that we cannot “know” (torture is wrong, Mozart is a greater composer than Schubert) is welcome in its way, and he gives commendably short shrift to the idea that in making such assertions we are merely saying what we happen to prefer. But of course (as he recognises) we do have arguments about these issues. When he writes, “Perhaps things are not right or wrong for reasons,” there are confusions lurking. Magee says he found it impossible to “justify” his absolute opposition to torture to relatives of those who had died in terrorist activity; but does he mean that he failed to convince such people, or that he had no arguments to advance in defence of his position?

When we commit ourselves to ­holding that an action is right or wrong, we do so in a context, not as a matter of assent to isolated moral intuitions. The context will vary depending on the person or community, but moral argument looks for ways of building not only common policies about such things as torture, but enough common discourse to say that an act is wrong because it infringes human dignity (or some such formulation) in a specific way. This is why we have a language of human rights. In other words, there are considerations that “make” an act right or wrong.

Justifications are diverse – in Magee’s words, we cannot “provide justifications . . . in a way that precludes dissent” – and yet that is not a reason for abandoning debate. This is the ordinary process by which human beings develop moral literacy: thinking through different ways of connecting actions, different narratives of commendable lives, different accounts of what is damaged by evildoing.

If the norm for knowing anything is justifying it “in a way that precludes dissent”, this suggests that there is an ideal linguistic situation in which agreement about the facts is available and that the only alternative is a bald assertion of what I am sure of. This is where we need a “grammar of assent”, to borrow the title of Cardinal Newman’s unusual and still underrated philosophical treatise of 1870. Various processes of reasoning lead us to a point where we commit ourselves to a position; in justifying it, we lay out those processes, allowing for what Newman called the “illative sense” (that which carries us beyond the mere balance of arguments) to bridge the gap between high probability and “real assent”, the acceptance of a proposition as one on which we can risk building further (and practical) conclusions. Persuading others to see things this way is no more a matter of irrefutable argument than our own decision is.

But this doesn’t mean that it is “irrational” in the sense that all we could say is “I just know this is right”. Wittgenstein remarked in his notes in Culture and Value that people were converted to or from religious belief not by argument, but by certain levels of experienced history. That is not the same as arguing that nothing at all could be said to elucidate or defend such a commitment.

Notions of justifiability based on established facts bring a number of difficulties to the context-based nature of our ­knowledge. A medieval person could have known nothing about television; but, Magee says, he or she would have had the capacity to describe it or to recognise a description: “it need not have taken him [sic] more than a few sentences to give some sort of indication of what he had in mind”. This is a bit odd. An imagined medieval person might indeed describe a flat surface covered with moving images, but we would have no way of knowing whether he or she intended to describe or (better) identify a television, because there would be no more that he or she could say about either its workings or its use and significance. It is rather like the point made by the American philosopher Richard Rorty, that if we could predict accurately what human beings would be saying in a few hundred years’ time, we should still not be able to understand them. There are large issues of language here but Magee doesn’t offer much help with them.

And when he offers personal speculation about the origins of moral sensitivity, his terms become alarmingly vague. ­Morality rests on “a sense of immediate contact” with other lives, on empathy of a sort – “the notion of inner oneness may possibly contain the key not only to morality but to the enigma of life itself” – as evolution implies that there is an unbroken line of “individual existence” from the beginnings of life to the present. This sounds uncomfortably like an appeal to what he elsewhere calls the occult: to invisible and unmappable forces.

Despite all the protestations, exactly what is it that makes this kind of explanation ­legitimate, and metaphysical or religious framings of the problem dishonest or evasive? I think Magee would say that he knows he’s guessing, whereas believers pretend they are not, and treat their systems as matters of certainty. It’s a fair point; but what makes the difference is that someone with a religious world-view might say that his or her world-view does not exist simply to solve a specific problem; there may be further, broader reasons for accepting it. In other words, their assent to that world-view doesn’t depend on being a demonstrable “explanation” for its moral sensibility.

In a way, the tantalising vagueness of Magee’s proposal highlights a general problem. He writes with relaxed fluency and even elegance: no jargon, much common sense, frequently very good and vivid illustrative points. Yet at too many stages, he backs away from actually arguing a case beyond the basic contention about the different sorts of irreducible ignorance in which we live. Magee believes in consciousness and liberty and moral judgement as matters beyond debate. Yet there is fierce argument among philosophers about these: sophisticated cases have been advanced for the opposite position to each which deserve more than impatient dismissal.

This weakens his critique of religion, too; he assumes without question that religion is “essentially” a poor system of elucidation, an appeal to inaccessible forces to explain puzzling facts. He does not seem to notice that quite a lot of both religious philosophers and philosophers of religion would not start from there. Magee once again owes readers a bit more than a summary dismissal of Plato, Plotinus, Augustine, Al-Ghazali, Aquinas, Berkeley – or, indeed, Charles Taylor, Michael Dummett or Elizabeth Anscombe – as Mary Poppins figures, adulterating the strong black coffee of philosophy with sugary banalities. And he disappoints greatly when he slides over the moral and practical problems of nuclear arms and ecological exhaustion with an eyebrow-raising claim that “nuclear weapons may turn out to be the saving of the human race” because a very powerful nuclear missile might be able to divert an asteroid heading for Earth; or that
we may find “somewhere better to live” beyond the confines of our exhausted planet.

Accusations of blandness against other thinkers come strangely from anyone defending such positions. The problems in view have some claim to be regarded as pretty near ultimate for us as human beings. It is a pity that Magee’s philosophical idiom leaves us with so little resource to address them with the kind of courage and sanity he would like to commend in other areas.

Rowan Williams was the archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012

Ultimate Questions by Bryan Magee is published by Princeton University Press (168pp, £11.95)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article appears in the 10 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Psycho