This post was originally published on December 8th, 2021
I had the pleasure of stumbling upon Coffee – Philosophy for Everyone edited by Scott F. Parker and Michael W. Austin. Head over to your favorite book seller and grab a copy if coffee and/or philosophy is your thing! One chapter that perked the interest of both the philosopher and coffee drinker in me was “The Necessary Ground of Being” by Austin. Aptly named for both its coffee reference and distinction between necessary and contingent truths (the “grounds” of truth), Austin frames the chapter by explaining the deeply metaphysical distinction between necessary and contingent truths and then leads into coffee and ethics. Austin asks: are there necessary ethical truths? If yes, can these truths exist without God? With this in mind, Austin introduces arguments on both sides.
As a quick primer on necessary vs contingent truths; a necessary truth is one that could not be otherwise. 2 + 2 = 4 in the base 10 system–this could never logically be different. Another necessary truth is that “Nothing can be red all over and green all over at the same time” (Austin). A final necessary truth example if the following statement: “If A < C, and C < B, then A < B”. The negation of the solution “A < B” is a logical impossibility. A contingent truth is one that could be otherwise; I sit here today unbearded, but my being without a beard is only contingently true; I could be sporting a nice no-shave November beard still untouched.
On one hand, it seems unethical that unfair trade exists even if God does not exist. If so, how is this truth necessary and not contingent in regards to something in the universe? Since it might be deemed a necessary moral truth, what makes this truth necessary and something that could not be otherwise? Austin puts forth Wielenberg’s view that necessary ethical truths are “part of the fabric of the universe”. There are certainly philosophers that would take issue and want further argument. On the other hand and in response to Wielenberg, some philosophers argue that God is required for necessary ethical truths. Austin goes one to discuss the question of “Why we should be moral” and arguments put forth by both naturalists and idealists (or theists).
Anyone who has spent any amount of time in analytic philosophy knows that it is difficult to make any headway on answers to some of the largest questions that exist. Austin does the key task of introducing the arguments and asking the likely next questions that a person would logically ask when shown the arguments. Austin also closes the chapter with the following: If you’re reading this book, you probably don’t need any convincing about the goodness of a quality cup of coffee, though the issues about God, moral goodness, and the ultimate aspect of reality may not be so clear. It is here that philosophy can help, not because there is an agreement among philosophers about these issues, but because philosophy can help us ask and seek to answer in a reasonable manner questions related to the possible existence of the Necessary Grounds of Being. [pun seems intentional]
This is exactly right. Strict analytic philosophy may not produce consensus, but it allows a thinking human to better understand the nature of truth.