It has been a common assumption in the Western world since at least the time of Plato that that which is true is also necessarily that which is good. A basic premise of the Western philosophical and scientific projects, for example, has been the axiom that a greater understanding of man and of the world in which he lives lead inevitably to an increase in the quality of his life, whether individually or in communities. The search for truth, then, has been prompted by the belief that such truth would be for the ultimate good of human beings. This equation of truth and goodness persists as an essential aspect of the paradigm of Western thought. Yet, given the largely naturalistic framework which has emerged as the dominant mode of thought, there does not seem to be reason to believe that that which is good for man must be that which is true nor that that which is true is necessarily good for mankind.
Charles Darwin, writing during the emergence of our contemporary naturalistic framework in the nineteenth century, presents a curious case of the desire to cling to philosophical principles—especially moral principles—which seem ill-fitted to the incipient naturalistic framework to which he contributed a great deal in its development. In his Descent of Man, Darwin moves quickly—nearly imperceptibly—from a descriptive to a prescriptive mode of thinking and writing as he attempts to discuss the development of the sense of moral responsibility humans feel toward other humans. “As man advances in civilisation, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him,” he writes. As in this sentence, he goes on to waver several more times between ought and is as he simultaneously advocates for and believes himself to be describing the extension of sympathy to “all sentient beings.”
Such attempts to grasp at the equation of goodness and truth within a paradigm that excludes the necessity of this connection are, it should be added, hardly a relic of the early development of modern naturalism. One of the key aspects of the argumentation of so-called “New Atheist” figures like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens is the assertion that religious faith and practice have a deleterious effect on individuals and societies. That “all religions are bad,” to use Dawkins’ blunt phrasing, does not inevitably lead one to believe that any or all of them are untrue unless one presupposes that the good and the true are always aligned.
It can hardly be the case, however, that goodness and truth always coincide within the frameworks of a universe that was not designed for the ultimate good of man and for man’s rational inquiry into that good. In a universe that is indifferent to mankind qua mankind and person qua person, it just as possible that what is true may be harmful for mankind and what is false may be of benefit to him. To return to the example of Dawkins’ pontification on the goodness and badness of religion, there is good evidence that religions in a general sense do in fact contribute positively to mankind, as in the development of the various cultural, philosophical, and literary traditions of the world. One could hardly deny the marked positive influence of Buddhist religion in the development of East Asian culture, for example. While this does nothing to prove the truth of Buddhist doctrine, it does provide an example of the ways in which the potentially false serves the role of the good for mankind.
If older frameworks are to be abandoned in favor of one that is purely naturalistic, the assumptions of the older frameworks must also be abandoned along with them. Among these assumptions is, of course, the assumption that goodness and truth are identical. It has been a key component of the Western perspective for more than 2000 years. A naturalist paradigm of thought, however, necessarily excludes it and must be willing to say that what is true may in fact be bad for mankind and what is good may in fact be false.
[I]t is not unusual to meet people who think that not to believe in any truth, or not to adhere firmly to any assertion as unshakeably true in itself, is a primary condition required of democratic citizens in order to be tolerant of one another and to live in peace with one another. May I say that these people are in fact the most intolerant people, for if perchance they were to believe in something as unshakeably true, they would feel compelled, by the same stroke, to impose by force and coercion their own belief on their co-citizens. The only remedy they have found to get rid of their abiding tendency to fanaticism is to cut themselves off from truth.
Jacques Maritain, Heroic Democracy
“Before a man studies Zen, to him mountains are mountains, and waters are water; after he gets an insight into the truth of Zen through the instruction of a good master, mountains to him are not mountains and waters are not waters; but after this when he really attains to the abode of rest, mountains are once more mountains and waters are waters.” – D.T. Suzuki, Essays in Buddhism
by Richard Wilbur
A thrush, because I’d been wrong,
Burst rightly into song
In a world not vague, not lonely,
Not governed by me only.