Many of our materialist friends do not seem to know the difference between the epistemological categories of “self-evident” and “apparent.” I am providing this primer on the difference to help them understand.
Here is a typical exchange where a materialist makes this category error.
Barry: It is self-evident that torturing an infant for pleasure is evil.
Materialist: Yeah, lots of things that have seemed self-evident have turned out to be false. For example, people used to believe it is self-evident that the earth is flat, and they were dead wrong.
Where has M gone wrong? First, M has gone wrong on the basic factual premise of his comparison. The ancients knew the earth was round and even measured its circumference. Great discussion here.
But the fact that materialists continue to spew this factually incorrect chestnut over and over after repeated correction is secondary for our purposes today. More importantly, M has failed to understand the epistemological difference between “apparent” and “self-evident.” “Apparent” means “according to appearances.” M has asserted that it is apparent to many people that the earth is flat. That appearance is false. And by equivocating between “apparent” and “self-evident” he attempts to prove that some self-evident propositions are false.
Nonsense. In the sense we are using it, “self-evident” is not a synonym for “apparent.” Instead, a self-evident proposition is defined as a proposition that is known to be true merely by understanding its meaning without proof. In that sense, is the proposition “the earth is flat” a self-evident proposition? Let’s see.
P1: The earth is flat.
P2: How do you know?
P1: Just go outside and look at it.
What has P1 just done? He has appealed to evidence in order to prove his statement. That very appeal means that his statement cannot be considered self-evident. Go back to our definition. A self-evident claim is one that we know to be true without proof.
An example of a self-evident claim is that 2+2=4. I cannot “prove” that 2+2=4. But does the fact that I cannot prove the proposition mean that I must conclude it is false? Of course not. I know the proposition to be true without proof merely because I understand what it means. Another way of looking at it is that I know for an absolute certain fact that the proposition “2+2 is not 4” is absurd in the sense that it cannot possibly be true, and in order to accept it as true I would have to reject rationality itself.
Unlike the statement “the earth is flat,” the statement 2+2=4 is not merely apparently true, it is necessarily true in any rational universe.
We have a clue that we are not talking about a self-evident truth when a proposition is appended to the word “believe.” Yes, people believe self-evident truths in the sense that they must necessarily accede to the fact that they are true. But people do not “believe” self-evident truths in the sense that they have evaluated the evidence and reached a conclusion they think is justified. Self-evident propositions are not subject to proof or disproof by empirical evidence. They are necessarily true. A person’s belief about a self-evident truth is irrelevant and is therefore rarely expressed. Thus, when one talks about a proposition that is either “believed” or “disbelieved” it is a clue that the proposition is not a proposition of self-evident truth.
This brings me back to my original statement. Numerous materialists with whom I have argued have denied that the statement “torturing an infant for pleasure is evil” is self-evidently true. They always agree that it is true. They never agree that it is self-evidently, necessarily true.
And I always ask them this question: Please describe the circumstances under which the proposition “torturing an infant for pleasure is not evil” is true. I say we can know for an absolute certain fact that the proposition “2+2 is not 4” is absurd because it cannot possibly be true, and in order to accept it as true we would have to reject rationality itself. The same is true of all self-evident propositions. The negation of any self-evident truth is absurd and rationality itself must be rejected in order to accept such a negation. I say the proposition “torturing an infant for pleasure is not evil” is just such an absurd negation of a self-evident truth. You, materialist, say it is not. Please support your assertion.
Dear readers, note that my challenge is extremely risky, epistemologically speaking, because even a single instance where it is met will shatter my project into a million pieces.
Happily, no one has ever come remotely close to answering this challenge. And it is easy to see why.