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Knowledge and truth - it's a Catch-22

By Mark Christensen - posted Monday, 30 August 2010


Christopher Hitchens is no atheist - he just thinks he is.

The title of his recently published memoir, Hitch-22, reflects his hard-won realisation that “it is an absolute certainty that there are no certainties”. Having once adored Oscar Wilde’s reasoning that “a map of the world that did not show Utopia would not be worth consulting”, the eminent contrarian has apparently given up the “fantastically potent illusion” of social justice, contemplating instead the “shipwrecks and the prison islands to which the quest has led”.

Confronted by such an epic sense of unfairness, Blaise Pascal, more than three centuries ago, recommended the dread be managed by betting in favour of God’s existence. Hitchens, heroically modern and irreverent, but no less troubled, backs the alternative.

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Both wagers are contrived, and ultimately futile.

The idea that knowledge cannot be grounded in objective truth is not new.

Socrates proclaimed a paradox: an unexamined life is not worth living, yet wisdom comes from accepting we effectively know nothing.

David Hume argued it’s only instinctive extrapolation of the past, “custom acting upon the imagination”, that causes us to naively believe nature operates in a completely deterministic fashion. His radical scepticism was confirmed empirically in the 1920s, when Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg used quantum phenomena to demonstrate the so-called laws of physics do not hold true in the sub atomic realm. The basic building blocks of reality, at least when they’re not being observed, are best described as random wave functions.

More recently, social critics have queried the legitimacy of Western civilisation itself, pointing out that the truth about the truth means all hitherto moral and economic progress, dependent as it is on tangible goals and notions of control and authority, is the product of a grand deception.

Postmodernism, even before it was thus named, has always threatened our arrogant mind. Socrates was put to death for supposedly corrupting others, while Einstein refused to accept quantum theory, rebutting with the very unscientific response that an “inner voice” informed him that God “does not throw dice”.

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Unknowingness is also derided as self-contradictory. How can one claim the absence of capital-T truth only to then argue it amounts to an ideology capable of explaining reality?

It’s a Catch-22, as Hitchens, somewhat begrudgingly, notes. There is no way to prove life is a by-design mystery. Expecting cognitive traction is equivalent to asking for proof infinity is real. Merely posing the question confirms you are already halfway down the rabbit hole to cerebral oblivion.

The essential weakness of Postmodernism is its failure to explain why, if there are no answers, humanity is endowed with the wonders of reason and language. Is God a sadist, equipping us with nifty tools, an insatiable curiosity, only to then set us off in search of a non-existent quarry?

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About the Author

Mark is a social and political commentator, with a background in economics. He also has an abiding interest in philosophy and theology, and is trying to write a book on the nature of reality. He blogs here.

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