What “Timeless Truths” Can Tell Us

asefSpend much time on the water and you’ll quickly realize the value of buoys. Whether they signal an underwater obstruction or the edge of a narrow channel, they mark the way for mariners, helping them find their way safely home. But to serve this valuable function, the buoys must remain fixed in place – literally “grounded” to the earth beneath the waves. Otherwise, the forces of wind and current would move them and eventually deposit them, useless, onto a distant shore.

Buoys are not the only things that must remain “fixed” in order to have value. A bit of reflection reveals that certain unchanging concepts must also be somehow grounded. Unpacking this idea provides considerable support for a belief in God and displays the lack of explanatory power of the atheist’s worldview. For in the end, without a supreme transcendent eternal Being – God – to ground these permanent concepts, they simply could not exist.

We acquire information about the world from our senses. The evidence of what we see, hear, touch, smell and taste provides the clues which, assembled by our minds, tell us about the world around us. The vast majority of what we encounter is changing; it is in a constant state of flux. Matter does not remain fixed but moves from one form to another. The components of this computer I am presently using were once things that were quite different and one day will either be reconfigured to some other use or begin to decay in a junkyard somewhere. Even more “permanent” things like mountains and rivers did not always possess their current appearance and also are in the process of transformation.

Just as the forms of matter are not fixed, neither are our thoughts. “Minds” are constantly in the process of changing. My knowledge base is much greater today than it was ten years ago, and some things I thought to be true then I no longer believe to be true. Many of my thoughts relate to current and shifting feelings, such as hunger or thirst or the need for sleep. My opinions as to events or places or people are also constantly changing. For most of what we encounter, those things and ideas that are changing, we know the thing itself, or at least something about the thing. When I know that the sky is blue, I am knowing the sky and the color it emits. When I know that the Roman Empire fell, I know something about an historical event. When I know I am hungry, I know something about my physical condition.

But there is a separate category of known things that are different – things that we know to be necessarily permanent. I know, for instance, that the sum of the squares of the sides of a right triangle equals the square of the hypotenuse. I know that a particular number – pi – will always result if I divide the area of any circle by the square of the radius. I know that if A equals B and B equals C, then A must also equal C. Moving to a different arena, I know that courage in the face of adversity is a virtue and that betraying a friend is bad. I know that it is wrong to derive pleasure from torturing children.

I am also aware that these concepts, which I conclude are not subject to change, are also shared by all rational people. NASA demonstrates this when it sends spacecraft hurtling to the distant reaches of our solar system and beyond; the probes bear messages in the form of mathematical equations, because rational people recognize that anywhere this craft may go, and for however long into the future that it may continue to exist, those concepts will not change. These “necessary truths” will outlive everything that is physical.

But what is it that I am recognizing when I realize that a particular concept is not subject to change? When I say that the sum of the angles of a triangle is always 180 degrees, where is it that such “laws” abide? Where were they before man first developed the intelligence to discover them? The value of pi may be a constant, but it is a constant that is unknown to non-sentient beings.

Our experience tells us that ideas are not like rocks or rivers; they are not physical things. They do not have a physical location, but exist only where minds exist. But minds do not fall into the category of unchangeable things; minds, like matter, are changeable and always changing. If both mind and matter are constantly in flux – constantly subject to change – how can it even be that some concepts are in fact not subject to change?

The atheist has no answer to this. Saying that these are simply features of the universe is no answer, because the universe has been changing from the moment it came into existence. Moreover, a “mindless” universe cannot be the source of ideas which must come from minds. With no permanent mind to serve as the grounding for unchanging eternal truths – atheists have no satisfactory explanation for the way things really are. It’s like saying that mail carriers are the source of mail, without ever bothering to consider who authored the letters that they carry. Theists, by contrast, have an explanation that is sound: if there are ideas that are eternal and not subject to change, then there must be an eternal and unchanging mind that grounds those ideas.

These changeless truths, then, are our “buoys,” fixed not in the good earth but in the firmament, marking a safe path for us to in finding our way home – the way back to the mind that is God.

Posted by Al Serrato

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  1. Ben says:

    Al Serrato,

    I hear stuff like this a lot, and almost always it is couched in some kind of metaphor or other vagueness. In your case, you use the metaphor of “ground” or “grounding.” But if you strip away the metaphor, what are you really saying? In other words, you are claiming to offer an explanation, but it’s hard to understand what that explanation is supposed to be.

    Nor is it really clear what you are trying to explain, either. Take the Pythagorean Theorem, for instance. If you are looking to explain how my mind, which changes, can grasp this truth, how does it help to invoke another, changeless mind to also grasp it? If instead you are looking to explain how the truth can “exist,” then I would have to wonder, in what sense does it exist other than that some (not all) human beings have conceived it? And if that is the sense in which it exists, then—again—what help to invoke God?

    • Al says:

      Ben, “grounding” is not a metaphor. It is a description of what is necessary to make sense of the fact that we perceive some things to be unchanging. Since minds change, and since matter changes, we should conclude that nothing is fixed or unchanging. Once I identify things – concepts – that are unchanging then I need an explanation that will meet the task. I recognize that explanation as God, a transcendent infinite eternal and unchanging being who is the source of these eternal truths.

  2. Jordan says:

    I would point out further, Ben, that these truths are tied to the origins of the universe itself. If the universe has not always existed, did the laws that govern the universe also have a beginning? Was there still a law of gravity in existence before matter, or did this unchanging law “change” by popping into existence? How about the law of non-contradiction; where did logic come from? If these laws are eternal and unchanging, should not the universe itself be? Why then all the change that we do see? The law of entropy itself says that our universe is neither eternal nor unchanging. When and how then did these absolutes come into existence and change from nothing to something? If though, as the Bible says, we see glimpses of the invisible atributes of God in creation, then laws, morality, order, logic, consistency, etc. make sense.

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