I have a degree in philosophy. So when I read certain things, I cringe. Like Mat Staver’s press release from Liberty Counsel on Friday, that objective reality itself (!) could be destroyed by transgender rights.
Objecting to the idea of “gender identity” as opposed to “biological sex,” Staver wrote,
The push for transgender rights is all a part of the homosexual agenda to create sexual anarchy in order to destroy marriage, morality, and objective truth. This is not civil rights; this is the abolition of civil rights. It is the deconstruction of objective reality and natural law.
Sexual anarchy and the deconstruction of objective reality. Wow. Who knew transgenders could undo the creation of the universe. They would be trumping God himself, at least according to Staver’s understand of creation. That’s quite a feat.
I did not know objective reality could be threatened. Seriously. We are speaking here of the difference between subjective reality (subjectivism) and objective reality (objectivism). One of my early philosophy professors like to call objective reality “the really real.” You could say subjective reality is just what you perceive, or think, to be real.
The really real is “out there” and just because we might interact with it based on our limited senses – “filters” – does not mean it is not there. We might not see the tree “as it is” but the tree is there, dammit. I just walked into it.
We are getting here into the areas of metaphysics, which studies the nature of reality, and epistemology, which is the study of how we know what we know (or indeed, if we know it, or can know it).
It can get pretty silly:
- Does my chair exist? As one comedian said, “Yes, or my ass would be on the floor.”
- Does my chair exist only because I see it?
- Does my chair exist, because as George Berkeley postulated, God sees it?
I had a lot of fun over Berkeley in college – or rather at Berkeley’s expense. Berkeley may have been, as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has it, “a brilliant critic of his predecessors,” but at least Descartes didn’t think his chair wasn’t real, or rather, that it exists only because he sees it and pops in and out of existence as he enters and exits the room.
There are naturally all sorts of practical objections to such thinking. Berkeley had a neat little limerick to explain how this can be, and this is where God comes in:
There was a young man who said God,
must find it exceedingly odd
when he finds that the tree
continues to be
when noone’s about in the Quad
Dear Sir, your astonishment’s odd
I’m always about in the Quad
And that’s why the tree
continues to be
Since observed by, yours faithfully, God
Cringe-worthy, is what I called this at the time, and I still maintain it today.
We spent quite a bit of time wondering where his ideas about immaterialism, what is now called “subjective idealism” – that objects do not exist unless they are perceived – had originated (and not God, we would say), and I think our skepticism showed.
Let us put it this way: Berkeley argued against Isaac Newton.
I have borderline anxiety attacks at the memory of Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous, published in 1713, even today.
Our professor was less amused than we. While a general skepticism is an essential component of the study of epistemology, he believed we had taken it too far. He took reality far more seriously than we felt Berkeley had, though no doubt Berkeley was quite sincere.
It got worse when his associate revealed to us that Berkeley might have been suffering from mercury poisoning.
Our professor said this was immaterial, if you’ll pardon the use of the term here, but we thought it explained a great deal. Obviously, Berkeley’s weird ideas about chairs popping into and out of existence when you close your office door, were the product of a deranged mind.
Since Plato wasn’t around to do it, Immanuel Kant put an end to this silliness, and you should thank him for it, and celebrate by reading his Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics.
It’s just a shame he isn’t available to respond to Mat Staver.
I don’t think objective reality can be threatened, or deconstructed, or destroyed. That is a violation of the very idea of objective reality. Berkeley would be offended by the idea, I think, because it would violate his Christian ideas of God as unchanging (what need has the perfect being of change?) and from the point of view of an objectivist, the idea that we can change objective reality makes reality not only an inferior thing but the objectivist a subjectivist.
I can chop the tree down, and then I won’t see it, or be able to interact with it, but reality is not dependent upon the tree.
Obviously, Staver gets into ideas of “objective truth” here too, and by that he means his mostly unread Bible and the little analyzed justification for his bigotry he gets out of those unread pages, while still willfully and flagrantly violating the other sacrosanct rules of the Law of Moses.
Staver’s objective truth turns out to be more than a little subjective, as he picks and chooses passages to suit his own dislikes and ignores the rest.
Kant wrote of Scottish philosopher David Hume, a contemporary of George Berkeley, that, “Hume suffered the usual misfortune of metaphysicians, of not being understood.”
In his An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751), Hume wrote something that is relevant to this discussion, namely that “[m]oral decisions are grounded in moral sentiment.”
Morals excite passions, and produce or prevent actions. Reason itself is utterly impotent in this particular. The rules of morality, therefore, are not conclusions of our reason.
Staver attempts to claim reason, though reason and rationality (as in The Age of Reason) was a reaction to Church-espoused belief, and he attempts to lay claim to “natural law” as though “natural law” (a term used as far back by Plato, in Gorgias 484 and Timaeus 83e) were synonymous with “God’s law.”
It is not. Thomas Hobbes, in his Leviathan (1651), wrote that natural law is “a precept, or general rule, found out by reason, by which a man is forbidden to do that which is destructive of his life, or takes away the means of preserving the same; and to omit that by which he thinks it may best be preserved.”
Not, you may note, what God says you must do, and least of all what you say God says you must do. And, perhaps more decisively, in the introduction of the Declaration of Independence we see natural law and God’s law spoken of as separate entities.
Natural law can be discovered. It is not dependent on revelation from above. And which version of what comes from above is to be believed anyway?
If metaphysicians are not understood, we understand Mat Staver all too well. He is a bigot who not only purposefully misreads his Bible, and picks and chooses based on his preconceptions which bits God is truly serious about (apparently just joking about the rest), but insists we live according to his cherry-picked and subjective morality, and that his appalling abortion of ideas should form the basis of American jurisprudence and government.
It’s a shame for him the Founding Fathers already decided we wouldn’t appeal to the Bible, but to English Common Law, for the basis of our own laws.
Mat Staver is not a philosopher and he completely misreads the reality of our times, which is a surge toward inclusion and away from exclusion. He is a lawyer but he is not much of a thinker. He is a reactionary, a hater, and what he calls his rationales are really only excuses for turning his hateful ideas into hateful actions.