Reason and Human Nature (Part III): Indicative and Imperative Truth

What is the relationship between the statements “Thou shalt not kill” and “George Washington was the first president of the United States of America”? Both purport to state facts–but are they equally true facts? Many have certainly thought so, from the writers of the Bible (“Your righteousness is righteous forever, and your law is true” -Psalm 119:142, ESV) to prominent atheist Michael Ruse (“The man who says that it is morally acceptable to rape little children is just as mistaken as the man who says two plus two equals five”). Nevertheless, affirming such self-evident truths is unthinkable for today’s postmodernists–clearly, they insist, moral obligations are simply subjective preferences foisted upon individuals by the power-hungry leaders of their cultures. On this view, the humans with the greatest power become little gods, intimidating but minuscule compared to the ultimate God, power itself. Frighteningly, though, this bizarre compartmentalism has the potential to destroy not only moral truth but indicative truth as well because of its abandonment of the theological foundation of truth.

As discussed in the previous post on this blog, truth relies for its validity upon the infinite, eternal mind of God, which, due to God’s immutable nature, necessarily ensures the eternality of truth. How, then, is imperative truth related to the nature of God? To begin, even if morality is simply a human construction, the propositions describing these arbitrary moral prescriptions must be eternally true in the same way that any fact about the physical world is true because of God’s eternal knowledge of all facts.

Yet to assert only this much and proceed no further is blatantly unbiblical. Does not Scripture resound with the truths of God’s goodness and mercy (Psalm 145:9), His uprightness and justice (Deuteronomy 32:4), and, above all, His faithfulness and love (Psalm 25:10)? Yes, the truths of our physical world are important to and dependent on God, but they touch only the domain of His mind. The truths we call morality, however, touch His very heart and reflect the eternal, incomprehensible bonds of the truest love that unite the Holy Trinity.

Necessarily, then, if we humans render subjective the moral truths that govern not only our universe but the very Godhead, are we not in grave danger of abandoning the reliability of the factual truth imparted to us from God’s knowledge? Rather than being less sure or significant than so-called “factual” truths, imperative truths are equally or perhaps more unshakable because of their indivisibility from God’s character. More sadly still, by thus relinquishing moral truth, we lose not only our certainty of reality–we also abandon our profound God-given key into the heart of our Maker.

Reason and Human Nature (Part II): Subjective and Objective Truth

What is truth? Even if the Enlightenment assertion that reason leads to truth is correct, this theory is useless unless the premises reason employs can themselves be verified. But how can any human being driven fundamentally by a rationality that seeks to ensure survival and to justify pleasure rather than to discover truth hope to lay hold of such absolute knowledge of reality? Our senses clearly are not sufficient; individual sensory experience frequently varies from one person to the next, resulting in innumerable “facts” that may be true, but only subjectively so, reliant for their truthfulness on the imperfect minds that hold them. Reason is not entirely neutralized by subjective premises—but as its postulates are, so also will be its conclusions. Even proper syllogisms necessarily produce falsehood if they employ false presuppositions. Thus, reason must rely upon the superrational to procure objective truth.

Literally, a subjective truth is any truth that relies upon something else—a corresponding state of affairs in the physical or metaphysical world—for its veracity. In a sense, then, this universe does not provide a basis for any ultimately objectively true facts. While the universe itself and every planet, human, and quark within it (presumably) exists objectively at a given moment, any of these things, from the smallest particle to the entire universe, quite conceivably might not have existed and might not exist the next moment. Only an entity that cannot not exist can provide the basis for an unshakable truth—or, more succinctly, as St. Augustine long ago formulated, truth cannot exist objectively unless an unchanging God exists to uphold it.

Yet here is an awesome theological paradox. If God is who He claims to be—“I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14), “the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8 ESV), the great Creator who does not change His mind (Numbers 23:19) in Whose necessary existence our contingent existence is wrapped up—if this is true, then our existence, thanks to His unchangeable character, is as unshakable as His. Being good Himself, God wonderfully saw fit to create the universe He deemed similarly “very good” (Genesis 1:31) in such a way that its existence would be inextricable from His and, incredibly, His existence inextricable from ours.

What, then, is truth? Truth is the facts about the world that is in an astounding sense as objectively real as the God who created it, and, of course, the facts (barely conceivable to the human mind though they be) of that God Himself. Furthermore, these facts are gathered by the senses and reason with which God equipped humanity to leave His children “without excuse” (Romans 1:20) for denying their knowledge of His existence. Ultimately, reason proves to be integral to the eyes of faith that are more trustworthy than the eyes of flesh because, unlike our physical senses alone, reason can direct us to the great Truth that upholds our own existence.

Morality, Atheism, & Reason

In 2007, atheist writer Adam Lee of PatheosDaylight Atheism wrote a post responding to and attempting to discredit a column from the Washington Post’s Michael Gerson in which Gerson argues that morality is ultimately untenable in the absence of God. In his reply, Lee commits a number of the blunders common to traditional atheistic moral arguments, fallacies that have been widely rebutted and thus will not be addressed here. In one of the arguments near the end of his post, however, Lee does raise an interesting point. Speaking to Gerson, he writes:

You asked what reason an atheist can give to be moral, so allow me to offer an answer. You correctly pointed out that neither our instincts nor our self-interest can completely suffice, but there is another possibility you’ve overlooked. Call it what you will—empathy, compassion, conscience, lovingkindness—but the deepest and truest expression of that state is the one that wishes everyone else to share in it. A happiness that is predicated on the unhappiness of others—a mentality of “I win, you lose”—is a mean and petty form of happiness, one hardly worthy of the name at all. On the contrary, the highest, purest and most lasting form of happiness is the one which we can only bring about in ourselves by cultivating it in others. The recognition of this truth gives us a fulcrum upon which we can build a consistent, objective theory of human morality. Acts that contribute to the sum total of human happiness in this way are right, while those that have the opposite effect are wrong. A wealth of moral guidelines can be derived from this basic, rational principle.

The utilitarian argument here presented for atheistic morality is a common (and insufficient) one, but Lee’s wording uniquely highlights one of its major flaws. Because he labels the sociological phenomenon he addresses as a “truth,’ his argument begs a pivotal question: how does he know that “happiness that is predicated on the unhappiness of others . . . is a mean and petty form of happiness”? Presumably, he makes this claim because his personal experience validates it, but thanks to the unavoidable principle of restricted access in human thought, neither he nor anyone else can definitively prove that this is the case for human beings in general. To assert such a claim, one must appeal to the knowledge of some omniscient psychologist—truly, to some revelation—to do so with confidence.

Indeed, the central crisis of naturalism is not a spiritual or moral crisis; it is an epistemological one. Undeniably, the existence of God is a difficult fact to incontrovertibly prove, but by even approaching the topic in a rational manner, the theist and the atheist alike make a perhaps greater leap of faith even than the theist’s belief in an invisible God by assuming that the inscrutable mind and especially the chemical complex that is the human brain can be trusted to follow a trail of rational arguments to truth in a metaphysical quandary. Even the theist is obligated to be slightly speculative to conclude that the rational mind can be trusted based solely on his belief in the existence of a rational God, but neither of these basic beliefs are remotely so flimsy as the atheist’s insistence that the trustworthy rational brain evolved through sheer chance. By his own logical dogma, the atheist ought to distrust logic because of the extreme improbability of its accuracy—which, ironically, he cannot do without justifying his suspicion with logic.

In the end, then, Lee’s mediocre argument for morality without God is potentially tenable only if God—or, if he finds God too extreme a term, some immaterial, omnipotent, and omniscient being that upholds reason—does exist. Otherwise, the reason on which he bases his moral framework (and presumably his atheism as well) is highly unreasonable.