Over at Mere Orthodoxy, the possibly pseudonymous tex has been pondering unassailable truths. While I don’t have the facility with philosophical jargon with which he is comfortable I’d like to offer some thoughts on the matter.
tex is considering the problem of the existence and utility of unassailable truth. He writes:
Something is unassailable in two possible ways:
1. There is no way of testing the validity of the thing and so it cannot be assailed in any way
2. All the things that support the thing are tested and found to be true and to rest upon a final principle which is itself true; that is, the attempted assailing if you will, was unsuccessful.
And it seems he is not so happy with the first, and thinks the 2nd is rare. tex also points out that the there is another possibility, that
A foundation need not be unassailable at all; however, an assailable foundation comes with a price. It must constantly be defended and upheld, and all the beliefs that flow from it cannot be known to be true (insofar as the foundation is not known to be true and is thus assailable).
Now, it might be that “truth” is not the most useful criterion. Mathematics in the 20th century failed in the Russell/Whitehead programme to axiomatise and make itself internally consistent. Godel’s little theorem showed that programme to be flawed. However mathematics, while thus not being able to be shown as “true”, still has two other, perhaps better, criteria which drive it along in the remainder of the 20th and 21st centuries. The other virtues of beauty and utility drive mathematical intuition and research. Perhaps these two criteria when taken hand in hand in an indirect fashion touch truth in a way more fundamental than is immediately apparent.
In the same way that Riemann’s seminal doctoral defense was beautiful and in fact useful giving rise to differential geometry and general relativity, good philosophy and theology can be internally (logically) beautiful and useful. If a foundation and its accompanying edifice touches, ala Aquinas and Augustine, and unites natural science, philosophy and ethics with the spiritual and theological … if it is useful and beautiful (and perhaps Good), is “unassailable truth” even still a requirement?
Physics uses the assailable yet beautiful Mathematics to develop a representation or a model of the truths hiding in Creation. These models are not “truth”, but are in fact representations and models of reality, i.e., the truth for which they seek. Likewise, philosophers and theologians should (if in fact they do not) realize their models as well are merely representations of the truths for which they seek. Beauty, utility, and perhaps the guiding light of the Spirit are signposts lighting the way. Godel dooms any particular model, but … not the project.