Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Autumn 2005

Truth: A Guide for the Perplexed, by Simon Blackburn

reviewed by Andy Armitage

Truth has never been easy to find, or to hold still once one has found it. In a world of relative values, one finds it hard to define truth, or even to say whether such a commodity exists at all.

Simon Blackburn is a philosopher who brings much clarity to the subject in this next book on from his similarly tersely titled Think.

From classical to modern times, truth has been interpreted in a variety of ways, and Blackburn examines them all – or what seems to be all of them. He uses real examples and a teacher’s technique to unravel for us the often perplexing nature of this seemingly simple word.

Of particular interest for freethinkers and humanists will be his chapter on religion, “Faith, Belief and Reason”, in which, among other things, he takes apart the well-known argument between the American philosopher William James and William Clifford, a nineteenth-century polymath and mathematician, who argued that we have a duty, as Blackburn words it, “to believe carefully, in the light of reason alone”. Clifford, in his essay “The Ethics of Belief”, said it was wrong – always, everywhere and for anyone – to believe anything on insufficient evidence.

James, on the other hand, argued in a lecture published in The Will to Believe and Other Essays (1896) with Clifford’s stance, and defended going beyond the evidence as a practical necessity in various matters, and those matters included religious faith. James believed that the benefits of being right could make the risk of error well worth taking.

Blackburn says his book is “about a war of ideas and attitudes”, and there are plenty of those here to stimulate thought and self-examination, as well as examination of those ideas and attitudes.

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Created : Sunday, 2005-12-04 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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