What is True About Truth? | Interview with Dr. Khaldoun Sweis
We met with philosopher and apologist, Dr. Khaldoun Sweis, to discuss the power of story in connecting with students, relativism versus literalism, what is true about truth and so much more. Enjoy!
Notable philosopher and Christian apologist Dr. Khaldoun Sweis discusses the power of story to connect with students, the unity of Descartes’s mind-body dualism, Kant’s noumenon, relativism versus literalism, and the problem of hard sciences as the sole source of truth. Associate professor of philosophy at Olive Harvey College, Dr. Sweis talks with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of AcademicInfluence.com and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.
Interview with Philosopher and Christian Apologist, Dr. Khaldoun Sweis
00:00 KS: Once we recognize our own biases, our own limitations, our own worldviews, at that point we’re coming closer to understanding that not everything I see and believe and understand in the world is completely, absolutely true.
00:16 JM: Hi, I’m Professor Jed Macosko at Wake Forest University and at AcademicInfluence.com. So today we have another wonderful guest. This time it is Professor Khaldoun Sweis, who is a professor of philosophy. And I wanted to ask you, Professor, how did you get interested in philosophy when you were younger?
00:34 KS: Hey, hello, Jed. It started off when…I think the pivotal point that I can remember was when I was in about second grade. I’d been asking questions of my teacher of why we’re doing what we’re doing and what is the presuppositions behind what we’re doing, and the questions became so intense and so presuppositional and so bothersome to her that she actually put a sign on my desk that, “Five questions an hour are allowed” for me.
01:05 KS: Which was frustrating, but it actually helped me to hone my questions and to articulate them better. And I think my journey began to start that way in a classroom setting.
01:14 JM: So you started your journey at five QPM, or QPH, and now you’ve probably ramped up to 65 QPH. But I’m so glad that it started that early. And then as you were thinking about college, did you know that you’d major in philosophy?
01:33 KS: I didn’t, I wasn’t sure philosophy was an actual discipline, per se. So I started off in psychology, understanding human behavior, understanding the soul, and then as I began to study that, it was all about the nuances of how people interact with each other and not the theories behind it, and I wanted to know more about the ideologies and the beliefs and the theories people believe, not necessarily how they interacted with and the diagnosis or misdiagnosis of psychology or parapsychology, whatever it is that they were studying. So when I was doing that, they indicated, “Hey, that’s philosophy, man, not psychology.” So, “Oh, really?” So I took a course in it, and I was completely enraptured by it.
02:10 JM: Wonderful, so who were some of the teachers that really inspired you back then, and what university were you at?
02:16 KS: It was Professor Aylesworth, Professor Berkeley, at Eastern Illinois University, when I first got into philosophy. Actually, before that, I met a professor called Justin Synnestvedt at Moraine Valley Community College, when I was there, and he would meet outside of the quad in the area when it was summer, it was beautiful, we’d all sit together in the grass and have discussions about everything under the sun, and he was a great professor, a great inspiration to me.
02:45 JM: Wow, so you’ve had some really good mentors over the years. Who encouraged you to go and get a PhD?
02:55 KS: There was a few professors in the time who encouraged me to move into that route. There’s a few people who come to mind, the ones who actually worked with me on my master’s degree, John Feinberg, at Trinity International University in Deerfield, Illinois. He was very instrumental in that part. Douglas Sweeney was also a professor in New Testament studies and analytical analysis of the ancient manuscripts of the Bible. I studied under him; and he said, “Your ideas are more ideological and more in that realm, so philosophy is best for you,” and so they were encouraging me to go that route.
03:31 JM: Wonderful. And how have you found it in philosophy, like where do you get to do most of your activities and scholarly pursuits, or do you enjoy teaching, or do you do a balance of both?
03:45 KS: The irony is I’m actually getting paid to do what I love, [chuckle] which is question the ideologies and the societal perspectives in government, and in communities, and in religion and spirituality and psychology, and in the theories behind the theories. So it’s fascinating to me, I’m able to do that at an academic level and publish articles, books in that regard. I was also able to do podcasting and engage people on a general level, videos and blogging and things of that nature. Primarily it’s done through public speaking; I travel around the world speaking. Now it’s through Zoom, you’re traveling around the world through the COVID drama, but I’ll continue to do it.
04:25 JM: So you really enjoy the dissemination of the ideas that you have relating to each of those areas that you mentioned.
04:34 KS: Yes, very much so. It’s a blessing.
04:35 JM: Great. Well, that’s really fun. So what do you think are some of the best critiques that you’ve had of the different…You’ve mentioned several different areas, so I don’t know if you wanna just dive into one of them and talk about what critiques you’ve made on the way things currently are done and the way that you think they should be done?
04:55 KS: Sure. In regard to teaching in general, pedagogy, it’s engaging the students in a way that connects to their mind and their imagination and is relevant to them at the current time. So you’re dealing with different demographics, so one of the most important things to deal with in the issue of public speaking or communicating, is to know your audience, if you don’t know your audience, you can be…I remember speaking to a group of businesspeople and I was making a bunch of jokes of things I thought were great and they worked with the other crowd, and I got deadpan stares the whole time. Nobody connected with anything I said. What’s going on? Why aren’t these people enjoying these wonderful ideological jokes? Well, because they’re not the demographic I was pointing to, and I had to learn that the hard way.
05:36 KS: So one of them is understanding, when we teach, we’re not just going to be disseminating information by taking out a fire hose and spraying our students with the info, and only bits of the water, if I may, information or data, is gonna be actually retained. So I’ve learned through the process, and in communicating, that you do need to use analogies, you do need to use stories, you need to engage people with your own life work, as well as use body language like I’m doing now. ’Cause sitting down, monotone speaking, does not connect to the average person who is now caught up in videos that are everything exploding around them as a child. So communicating is something that I’ve learned and has revolutionized how I communicate and how I talk, and how I connect to students and people around me. That’s in pedagogy. And regarding theory, I started off doing my doctoral work on the concept of the soul, or dualism and materialism, and I studied the work of Rene Descartes.
06:35 KS: Great philosopher in his time and wonderful work he’s done in the concept of dualism, of Cartesian dualism, where he argued that the body and the mind are two separate entities, are two substances that work together and mold together to make the human person, but they’re ultimately two separate things. And I think modern work in neuroscience, neurobiology, as well as in biology, has shown that the distinction between the two is not as clear as we want it to be. We’re too intricately connected between our body and our mind, or our soul and our flesh, whatever way we wanna put it. They’re so connected intricately that the psychosomatic unity between the two, it’s like pouring, if I may use an analogy, it’s like pouring milk into your black coffee; it is impossible to separate them after that. They’re together, at least on an average level, unless you go into their chemical components. But they’re connected, they’re intricately connected.
07:34 KS: And this is what happens, I think, when the human begins to develop, the soul and the body, the mind and the flesh, become so intricately connected you become what your soul is, or your body. So the old saying is, “We don’t have a soul. We are a soul.” And I would take that a little further and say, “We don’t have a body, we are a body.” We’re both. Both of these make us who we are. To deny one, to not feed the other, is to hurt one or the other. You do need both of these in your life, you need to have a balance, you need to feed your mind with the good, the true and the beautiful. The same thing with your body, you need to feed it with nutrients, healthy vitamins, minerals and things of that nature. All of these make you who you are.
08:18 JM: That’s great. Well, it reminds me a little bit of an interview we did recently with Marshall Sahlins, the famous anthropologist at the University of Chicago, not far from where you’re living. And he, of course, picked up on the fact that I’m a physics professor and he said, “Well, anthropology has a better chance of finding truth than physics.” And he expected me to protest, because, you know, I’m a physicist and most physicists kind of poo-poo the idea of a soul, the idea of body soul being together, the idea of humans creating the meaning of the universe, because the universe really is just the cosmos, as Carl Sagan would say, that that’s all there really is. So he and I had a wonderful discussion. It sounds like you would agree with that, that the study of humans is sort of our best chance at getting truth. Would you say that that’s the case?
09:16 KS: Getting truth about ourselves, yeah, studying anthropology. Right, definitely, yeah. How could we possibly learn about ourselves unless we study our past, and study where we came from or what it means to be human? And anthro is Greek, meaning man; studying what it means to be a man, what it means to be human. These terms we take for granted, but they convey such intense meanings that are dividing peoples and dividing medical communities and bioethics, that divide on what it even means to be human.
09:41 JM: Yeah. And not only anthropology, but philosophy too. A philosopher is really studying the human mind as it grapples with these big ideas, in some sense, which makes sense why you started looking in psychology, because you intuitively knew that there was something about the human mind that you wanted to study, and then you found your way into philosophy. But wouldn’t you say that sort of these sociology, anthropology, philosophy, psychology, all of these studies have a chance of understanding truth in a way that physics and biology and chemistry don’t have? Would you say that? And can you explain why, if you think that’s true, why do you think that is?
10:26 KS: Why philosophy would have a better chance, you mean?
10:28 JM: Yeah. And all the other sciences that I’ve mentioned.
10:32 KS: I don’t think one or the other is. You do need all of them together to understand a whole robust understanding of your life. It’s like looking at one page in a book and figuring out, well I just got the book down, or one book in a shelf. No. Human life is just too diverse, too magical, too incredible, too much variety in it to look at one aspect to think that you understand the rest. That’s as foolish as materialism, which actually looks at only the physical parts of life and ignores the psychological, ignores the theoretical, ignores the literary, ignores the moral, ignores the mathematical. I’m only looking at the one part of the fist of reality, which is the material, and saying all of it is material, which is naïve, to say the least. And that’s ironic coming from a very high-level materialist like Carl Sagan, who was a materialist himself.
11:17 KS: So we do need to look at the fist of reality, which includes a variety of different structures, to understand that. I don’t think one of them has a monopoly over the other. Although, Augustine, maybe Aquinas, would say theology is the queen of the sciences, which is the one that encompasses all of those. But even theology is better understood by reading and understanding anthropology, psychology, sociology, neuroscience. So even that brings and adds to the discussion in ways that theologians themselves will not understand and grasp.
11:46 JM: Wonderful. Well, you’ve said something a little bit negative about being a materialist, which I think I would agree. It sounds better to have all the different facets of life. If you were trying to criticize people on the other extreme who are not materialists, what would you call those people that see things only one way, but it’s kind of the antithesis of being a materialist? Is there such a person who focuses on one thing and one thing only, and it’s kind of the opposite of being a materialist?
12:17 KS: Well, maybe there are different terms and more derogatory terms than anything else, right? Like Richard Dawkins in his book, The God Delusion, has a whole list of [chuckle] derogatory terms for people who are spiritual or dogmatic. There are terms that we can disparagingly call people, which I think is more of an ad hominem attack rather than analyzing the structure of their arguments and their evidence as they said.
12:39 JM: So I’m thinking of words that you…
12:41 KS: But the extreme…
12:41 JM: Yeah, I’m thinking of words you might use like a fundamentalist or a fanatical fill-in-the-blank, Muslim fanatical, Christian fanatical, Buddhist. So those are the people you’d say would be kind of on the opposite side, compared to the materialists, or…
12:57 KS: Yeah, a literalist. A religious literalist or the…
12:58 JM: Oh, there. Yeah, I’ve heard that word before. Fundamentalist literalist. Yeah, okay.
13:00 KS: A religious literalist or fundamentalist, yeah, there are different terms for that, or dogmatist. The problem with that extreme level is, those people are unteachable, because they are convinced in their own mind of what they’ve been taught, and from their own books and their own ideologies and their own spiritual background, is the Truth with a capital T. And if that’s the case, there’s no need to learn more, there’s no need to engage other people ’cause everyone else is wrong and you’re right. The other extreme from that is complete and utter relativism which says, “Nobody’s right. Everybody has a grasp of the truth. Let’s just go smoke something.”
13:34 KS: That’s the other extreme, and they do, do smoke something. [chuckle]
13:37 JM: Oh gosh. Well, hey…
13:38 KS: Both of those extremes cannot learn, ’cause they both of them has discounted the ability to say that I do not have a monopoly on truth, I do not have omniscience. No matter where I am in life, no matter how much I learn, there’s always somebody smarter, better, faster, quicker, and has more of a grasp on certain parts of reality than I do. And humility is a virtue that we cannot ignore.
14:04 JM: That sounds so amazing. Now, I understood from your little background that you must be a Christian, having studied at Trinity in Deerfield, Illinois. So, wouldn’t Christians be accused of seeing Truth with a capital T, and how…You just described a group of people that you say are doing it the wrong way, because they’re convinced in their own mind that they have Truth with a capital T, and yet doesn’t that just apply to you?
14:35 KS: [chuckle] There’s a difference by recognizing that there is such a thing as an absolute or an objective truth in the universe. Such as, mathematical equations are true in an objective sense, the fact of the matter that the Earth is an oval space, and then there are certain things about evolution and global warming, and the biological distinction between male and female that are just true, and in a biological objective sense, and we can debate that of course, and it’s being debated, but there are things that we can recognize that there are truths in the universe. I recognize there’s absolute truths, there’s universal truths, that does not make me a fundamentalist, close-minded bigot. It just recognizes that I do have a recognition that there’s such a thing exists, and that some of us have a closer understanding of parts of that than others. That’s just reality. And that’s not just Christians, Muslims also have that, atheists, and as well as materialists and those on the post-modern spectrum. Everyone believes what they believe is actually true, because it’s cognitively impossible, Jed, for me to believe something that I know is false. That’s just not possible.
15:38 JM: Yes. I can see that’s like a circular square or something like that. A circle square. So I hear what you’re saying, but it is a fine line and a nuance that I think a lot of people are gonna have a hard time listening to this video. You’re saying that on one hand, there are these dogmatists who believe that they have Truth with a capital T, and on the other hand, there’s you and people you think are getting it right, who believe that there is Truth with a capital T, there are objective truths, and that they themselves believe they are closer to that Truth with a capital T, because they believe what they believe, and as you just pointed out, you can’t believe something that you don’t think is even true. So I’m really having a hard time seeing where that fine line goes, and the nuance. Can you get into that a little bit more? How are we gonna know when we see a dogmatist versus when we see somebody who you think is getting it right?
16:35 KS: I love your questions. [chuckle]
16:38 JM: Well, I think everybody’s got these questions, and when they watch this, they’re gonna wanna know.
16:42 KS: Yeah, they’re great ones. Okay. So Immanuel Kant talked about what’s called the numinous, the realm outside of our realm. So when I’m actually looking at you, I’m not actually seeing you, I’m seeing an image of you that my eye has portrayed to me and changed into a neural structure that I can actually see in the internal workings of my mind through the optical nerves endings in my eyes; I’m not actually seeing you. In the same way, when I see the world around me, I see trees, plants, I see ideas, all I’m hearing is a filter of my own mind, my own worldview, my own analysis is filtering everything that’s coming in. It’s like seeing the world through the way you’re raised, your presuppositions, your background, your community, your religion, the constant things you are bombarded with on a daily basis, influence how you see the world. And that’s just a reality.
17:27 KS: Once we recognize our own biases, our own limitations, our own worldviews, at that point we’re coming closer to understanding that not everything I see and believe and understand in the world is completely, absolutely true. But that does not follow from that logically that there is no absolute truth and no objective truth, logically speaking. It doesn’t follow. Matter of fact, if I were to claim that that is actually true, then I would be giving in to the idea that there is an objective truth, mainly that there is no truth, and there’s a contradiction there within itself.
17:55 KS: So the key issue with me is recognizing that there are things in life that are true, and some things are false, and some things I know are, such as maybe my spouse loves me, or I have a child, or a woman could say, “I’m pregnant,” or, “I’m not pregnant,” you can’t be both at the same time. Logic dictates that either one thing is the case or the opposite of it cannot be the case at the same time. Aristotle came up with that over 2300 years ago, he didn’t came up with it, he recognized it. It’s the laws of logic within the very structure of the very being of the universe. And these laws are true and I can’t violate them no matter how much I try to violate them. But recognizing that I’m limited in understanding everything, of course I am. To claim that I have a complete monopoly on that is not only the height of arrogance, it’s complete foolishness and does create divisions, and pulls us away from understanding ourselves.
18:49 JM: And as some of the people that I’ve interviewed, they would use the word hubris to describe exactly what you’re talking about. And so, if I understand you correctly, the way you can distinguish between the dogmatist on one side, and a person who believes in absolute truth in a proper and good way that can help our society, is that the dogmatist doesn’t acknowledge that they have their own blind spots, and the person on the other side who’s helping society and yet still believes in absolute truth, that there is such a thing, that can be actually known or at least approached, right? Approached towards the absolute truth, is a person who recognizes that they have blind spots, that there’s gonna be filters, and that they have to work hard to overcome them, and they can overcome them and get closer to absolute truth. Is that what you’re saying?
19:44 KS: Yeah, I’ll put it that way. Great. Yeah. A physicist can’t do physics unless you recognize there are certain elements in nature that you can find, you can study, and they’re going to be constant no matter anybody else studies them. That’s what’s called peer-reviewed research. They’re gonna look at the same data you did, and come up with similar conclusions and say, “Hey, Jed is wrong,” or, “Jed is right, and here’s some documentation to evidently show that.” That can’t be the case unless there are things in life that are actually true to do that. So yeah, recognizing.
20:09 JM: I think…Just thinking about my own colleagues in physics and, you know, I’m also a chemist and a molecular biologist by training, thinking about all these different people, and I would say that for the most part people just don’t even think about their presuppositions or their assumptions. They have sort of this general idea that, if it has to do with the material aspect of the universe, then it can be absolutely true. So what you just said, as physicists, we have to believe that there are these elements and these entities that we can all agree on, then we can peer-review our papers; that’s just the water that we fish swim in and we don’t even know it’s there. You know, one of the guys I interviewed said, you know, there was a joke between a little printed cartoon, one fish says to the other, “How is the water today?” and the other fish replies, “What’s water?” You know, it’s like we just swim in that water.
21:08 KS: Yeah, we assume it.
21:09 JM: Yeah. So, I feel like what you’re saying is true, but if you said that to one of my colleagues, they would look kind of cock-eyed, tilted like, What are you saying? What’s water? Like, yeah of course, we can peer-review stuff.
21:25 KS: Right. But we assume methodological naturalism and how we study.
21:28 JM: Yeah, but then as soon as…
21:29 KS: Right.
21:29 JM: I’m sorry, the point I was gonna try to make is, as soon as they get something that’s not the material universe, the cosmos, that is all there ever is, there ever was, there ever will be, according to Sagan, then it’s like a totally different ball game. You can’t talk about anything. That’s why when Marshall Sahlins said that, “Anthropology has a better handle on truth than physics,” he thought I would be shocked because he’s used to people out there saying, “Well, Marshall, you’re crazy. There’s nothing beyond the cosmos that can bring about truth.” And so, it seems like a real uneven playing field. Do you feel that that way too?
22:11 KS: Yes. So I wrote a book, an ebook, which is on my website, Logically Faithful, called “Ten Things That Cannot Be Proved By Science Alone”, and it’s specifically going after this ideological water that many people are swimming in, that believe that only that which can be proved through the hard sciences, biology, physics, chemistry, etcetera, is actually true, and everything else is just hogwash or poetry. And my point is, “No, that’s not the case. Even the very idea that only the physical is actually true is itself a philosophical idea that cannot be proved physically.” I give you an example of what I mean by this. One of my students, brilliant student, came in my office a number of years ago, and he was telling, “Professor, I love philosophy but it’s all just ideology, it’s all just words and it’s just ideas, and there’s no solid grounding to it. I can’t believe anything, I can’t test, touch, taste, feel, etcetera, through my five senses.” I told him, “You don’t believe that, John.” He said, “I do.” I said, “You don’t.” He said,“I do.” I said, “No, you really don’t.” He said, “Okay, explain.” I said, “Sure, I’ll be happy to. That’s what we do here, right? The very idea that you have, that I can’t believe anything that’s not physical, is itself not physical, and you believe that don’t you?” He thought for a moment and said, “I guess I do.” So, yeah…
23:26 JM: Problem solved, problem solved.
23:27 KS: Problem solved. Let’s break out the wine, right? But the point is, no, the structure of thought itself cannot be understood and analyzed without referencing to philosophy, without to ethics. So if you have two scientists in a room, two chemists and who are studying, for example, the problem with COVID-19, and one of them comes up on an actual vaccine that’s actually works, and tested and done by peer-reviewed research, and he’s about to publish it and before he does he realizes the TV’s on, he comes out and he sees his colleague publishing his own research. What happened? Ah, he just stole it from you. Now tell me, where in the scientific room can you find, it was wrong to steal it?
24:12 JM: You can’t.
24:13 KS: It’s not there.
24:13 JM: That’s what I’m saying…
24:14 KS: Because morality is not a scientifically analyzed discipline. Although, some people have tried to do it, but they’re still stealing from a philosophy to do it, like our wonderful colleague, maybe Sam Harris.
24:26 JM: Yeah. Well, that’s what I was saying. It’s just, it’s an uneven playing field, and that’s why I was so glad that somebody as revered as Marshall Sahlins, who’s known in the anthropology community, but also even outside the anthropology community, was bold enough, I guess he doesn’t care at this point, he’s old enough, to just call a spade a spade and say, “Look, there’s things that you can’t find out from physics,” and I was totally in agreement. He was surprised, but I was totally in agreement, because I see what you’re talking about.
24:56 KS: Right.
24:56 JM: I see that there’s this uneven playing field and people have gotten themselves stuck in a hole, and I think it was GK Chesterton who said, “The universe is the smallest hole that you can still fit your head.” [chuckle] And I had to think about that for a second but, you know, it does work, you can fit your head in it but it is a small one and you’re probably gonna get stuck, is the idea.
25:25 KS: It is.
25:25 JM: I maybe misquoting him, but it’s something like that.
25:28 KS: That’s okay. I know he did say something regarding the logician and the poet, regarding that position, and he said that, and I love this because I’m very much a logician aspect of that side of the spectrum, that, “The poet seeks to stick his head in the heavens and is in a wonder and an awe. The logician seeks to stick the heavens in his head and it is the logician that goes mad, not the poet.”
25:55 JM: I do kind of remember that. Yeah, he’s an interesting guy, you know, GK Chesterton. So, we could have a whole interview about our thoughts on him. Anyway, it has just been truly, truly wonderful to get to interview you today. I feel like my mind has expanded. I feel like this has just been so fun. So, thank you for taking the time today, Professor Sweis and we hope to have you on again.
26:18 KS: It was an honour, Jed. Thank you for having me.