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Beyond the Cave: A philosopher’s quest for truth, by Peter Vardy

15 January 2021

John Saxbee considers a philosophical passion

IN RECENT years, Peter Vardy’s books have become a byword for clarity, topicality, and learning lightly worn. His latest is no exception. With a nod to A. N. Whitehead’s description of all philosophy as but footnotes to Plato, the title refers to the parable of the Cave, in which human beings settle for mere shadows cast on a cave wall rather than turn to the light of eternal Truth.

The book is by turns a primer, a protest and an apologia recounting his philosophical quest for such Truth in our post-truth post-modern Western cultural environment.

Pope Benedict identified the issue of Truth as the single most important issue facing the world today. This issue Vardy explores with a passion driven by regret that “most people live in a world of shadows and do not want to confront anything that challenges the shadow world which they take to be so real.”

It has not always been so. The idea that there is something called “The Eternal” (a term that Vardy prefers to the word “God”, which “has become devalued and denuded of meaning and content”) has been around for a long time. Religion has been central to the development of this idea. So, the opening chapters provide a primer expertly tracing the part played by religion in humanity’s quest for Truth, the rise of atheism, the recent emergence of a post-truth world, and the potential influence of artificial intelligence on the future of humanity.

Two “dragons” have risen to prominence in the course of this historical journey. They are post-modern relativism, denying any single truth, and fundamentalism, which claims to know the truth and seeks to impose its certainties on others. Along the way, philosophy has retreated from a search for Truth, concentrating on mere linguistic analysis, while religion has become institutionalised around dogmas and rituals, and all too often does more harm than good.

The chapter on the rise of atheism, culminating in the New Atheism of Richard Dawkins and co., provides a masterclass in lucid explanation and interpretation.

The seeds of protest are sown in these chapters, and in Part Two Vardy becomes ever more passionate about how the Christian faith that he espouses has been corrupted by religion; education has been reduced to preparation for the world of work; and people perish for lack of a vision — “afloat on a sea of flux”.

Contrary to the claims of reductionist relativism, positivism, and empiricism, Truth with that capital T cannot be arrived at purely empirically. We must move on from deduction and induction as the binary choice when it comes to philosophical and theological argumentation. As C. S. Lewis demonstrated, abduction, which does not seek to arrive at a conclusive proof, but at the most plausible explanation, is the most effective tool in our quest for such Truth.

For example, John Polkinghorne argues that God is the most plausible explanation for how the created order is and came to be. Likewise, for Vardy, what he describes as “the Eternal” provides the most plausible explanatory framework for access to what is really real.

Raymond Tallis, from a humanist perspective, rejects the arguments of those who perceive human beings to be merely material objects. Vardy agrees, but goes further by emphasising our potential as free agents to transcend the physical, material, and external so as to go on an “inner journey” to a place where the Eternal is to be found.

Drawing extensively on Kierkegaard, Vardy encourages latter-day cave-dwellers to live as if the Eternal holds the key to the fulfilment of human potential as beings living in the eternal light of Truth — even though, here and now, certainty cannot be assured.

Vardy’s righteous indignation is widely shared, but seldom expressed with such persuasive passion and authenticity.


The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.


Beyond the Cave: A philosopher’s quest for truth
Peter Vardy
Iff Books £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30

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