A brief note on analogies

Several commenters on earlier posts have suggested that I am claiming that religious truth claims are the same as literary truth claims.

I understand how that misunderstanding could be reached, but it is a misunderstanding. I think that religious truth claims would include aspects of literary truth claims (the Bible surely uses metaphor and other literary techniques), but for religious believers, it clearly encompasses much more. As a non-theist, I don’t fully grasp the level of meaning that theists experience in religion, and my analogy to literary truth claims is meant to set a lower limit, not a maximum, on the components of religious truth. And like any analogy, it is imperfect.

My point with the analogy to literary truth claims is to help inform a discussion conducted largely among non-theists about why science should not be regarded as possessing a monopoly on truth. If we can at least agree on that point, we can have a more productive discussion of what, if anything, distinguishes religious truth claims from other sorts of truth claims.

The beauty of metaphor and analogy is that they inform us not just when they succeed in capturing similarities, but when they fail. The same could be said of a good scientific experiment. If you think that analogy is wrong, then, great. Let’s explore how it breaks.


  1. #2 travc
    September 19, 2009

    If I may offer a minor bit of criticism.

    I think you’re using “truth” a bit too loosely. Fiction does not make “truth claims”, but it may offer analogies, parallels, metaphors, ect which illustrate something which is objectively true. “Illustration” is a very useful concept… it isn’t true or even pretending to be true, but it does reflect characteristics of something which is true.

    Anyway, “true” has only two clear meanings. One is in logic (A=>B => !B=>!A is true). The other is shorthand for “conditionally objectively true”… the meaning of ‘true’ used in science and every day life (admittedly science stresses the conditionally part more than common usage.)

    Other uses of ‘true’ quickly devolve into word games. There is theological Truth, artistic ‘truth’, and such… but they are at very best terms-of-art which should not be used beyond those specialists.


  2. #3 Richard Wein
    September 20, 2009

    I think you’re tying yourself in knots with your talk about different types of “truth claims”. Literature and religious texts are just varieties of media in which claims can be expressed, as are science textbooks, newspapers, word of mouth, etc. A truth claim doesn’t become a different type of claim just because it’s expressed in a different medium. Even wrapping a claim up in a metaphor doesn’t change the claim, though it may affect the reader’s response to the claim.

    In talking about “claims” rather than knowledge, you’re getting away from the question of how we (the human race) know things in the first place. Once one person has some knowledge, he can communicate it to other people through various media. But how was that knowledge acquired originally? The only known way is rational inference from evidence. (I take effective intuition to be a form of subconscious rational inference.)

  3. #4 Richard Wein
    September 20, 2009

    P.S. Perhaps I should add something about knowledge of fictional worlds, since you’ve brought up fiction in previous threads. (I don’t feel comfortable talking about fictional truth claims. It seems like an oxymoron.)

    Just as with other sorts of knowledge, knowledge about a fictional world can be communicated from person to person, starting with the author. But the knowledge didn’t originate in a rational inference by the author. It originated in a creative act, which was a phenomenon occurring in the author’s mind. The author’s mind doesn’t need to make inferences about this phenomenon because it’s a phenomenon of that mind. From the reader’s point of view, the author’s work can be seen either as evidence (about what’s going on in the author’s mind) or as communication of knowledge by the author.

  4. #5 Dave2
    September 20, 2009

    The discussion keeps mixing up two distinct views:

    1. There’s no truth other than scientific truth (i.e., science has a monopoly on truth).
    2. There’s no truth other than ‘accurate description of reality’ truth (squishy artistic ‘truth’, for example, is not really truth).

    Both of these are opposed to:

    3. There are other kinds of truth besides ‘accurate description of reality’ truth (e.g., squishy artistic truth).

    But people keep treating 1 and 3 like the only alternatives. This overlooks 2, which is clearly the true alternative to 3, and which is acceptable to a wider range of people than 1. After all, lots of scientists and philosophers and ‘literalist’ religious believers can agree on 2, even if they don’t agree on 1.

    This gives 3 an unfair advantage, an unwarranted air of plausibility. It makes it seem like the only alternative to 3 is a seriously controversial thesis (1), when in fact the true alternative to 3 is a widely-accepted thesis (2).

  5. #6 Paul Murray
    September 20, 2009

    I’m reminded of that Star Trek episode, where Data is testing the truth of that saying “A watched pot never boils”.

  6. #7 josefjohann
    September 21, 2009

    Dave2, I like where you are going as I think you’ve laid things out a bit more clearly than they have been in the past on the blog, but as someone sympathetic to #1, could you tell me what kinds of truth are unique to #2?

    I’m wondering whether I should lay my cards on the table right now… and I think I will. I think #2 is strictly false, but #1 can be described in a way that would satisfy people who think #2 is true.

    This description would point out that the truths supposedly unique to #2, are promised in principle to scientific descriptions in cognitive science, and saying such things are artistic truth are “impossible to describe scientifically” is premature, or worse, a failure of imagination for what the (biological, physical, scientific) brain can do.

  7. #8 Josh Rosenau
    September 24, 2009

    Dave2: Is it fair to ask which sort of truth it would entail to assert any of those definitions as true? In short, if we’re to claim that there’s an objective standard for “truth,” do any of those statements meet definition 1? Definition 2? They clearly meet #3, and I think a definition that cannot be true by its own terms doesn’t do us much good.

  8. #9 Nathan Perkins
    November 5, 2009

    Truth is truth no matter how it’s expressed, how it’s believed or how it’s proven. The word “truth” means that it’s incontestable. The perception of course is something that can be contested. The whole idea that there is a relitive nature to truth itself an oxymoron.

    For expression, truth can be presented in different ways. Some of those ways will make it clear and others may make it muddy (< --analogy). Still the truth remains whether presented well or not. The fallen cleric illustrates this well with an analogy, of all things, at http://thefallencleric.com/2009/11/05/making-the-spiritual-world-real/

    Great discussion. I’m glad I found it.

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