Sunday, April 24, 2005

Relativism Strikes Back

A friend of mine suggested that the mystical experience of the divine in all things might be a possible motivation for the conviction amongst religious believers that God is necessary as the underpinning of morality. Plato's argument, as presented in my last post, presents goodness and God as two separate things, one coming before the other. Instead, the believer may see God and the Good as being indistinguishable. As God is the basis for all of being, this means that goodness is the ultimate reality. Therefore, to deny the existence of God is to deny that goodness exists.

I have a great deal of respect for the mystical experience. As much as I despise the attempts by the religious to impose their views upon the physical world, I am still convinced that this esoteric experience is not just some brain fart. It is this experience that lies at the root of all religions and much of our art. If fundamentalists really wanted to return to the foundations of their faith, this is where they would go.

But I do not for a moment think that this is where conservative Christians are coming from. The equation Reality = God = Good doesn't really require the middle term--neither Plato nor the Bhuddists use it. For them that Goodness is inescapable. To see the world as anything else is an illusion. But the middle term introduces a qualifier, a volitional aspect. Goodness isn't necessarily the Ultimate Reality; Christianity still has its Manichean streak. If God can save you by showering you with Grace, it is equally obvious that God can withold his Grace and let you rot. You see, if the true nature of reality is goodness, you can't charge admission. It's already there all around you, and within you. I found it comical that in the Catholic Bible, Jesus words "Heaven is within you" were immediately explained away in a footnote as meaning "it is within your grasp, it is Jesus." Although there may be Christian mystics who see God as the Unifying Principle of Being, organized religion is a political endeavour, and God is used as a term of separation.

The second snag lies with the mystical experience itself. As Lao Tzu put it, the Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao. The experience is inexpressible, and yet we feel compelled to express it. This means that this universal ground is expressed in billions of different ways around the world and throughout history. Each expression is true insofar as it springs from this Truth, but is imperfect because this Truth is ultimately beyond our ability to express. So what you end up with, again, is relativism, but a relativism which is closer to the relativity of Einstein than the relativism of the postmodernists. The reality is what it is, but what you see depends upon your frame of reference. For our current discussion, this means that there will be almost as many religions as there are people.

So while the Truth may be absolute, its expressions are always dependant upon the person or group in question. Christianity and Islam are triumphalist religions, however, and that means that for the believers in those faiths, it is not only their right, but their responsibility, to eradicate all other expressions of this Truth but their own. This is like a one-eyed man insisting that everyone else be blinded in one eye, so that the heresy of depth perception may be stamped out. By dwelling upon one expression to the exclusion of all else, they deny the very Truth that it is based upon, and accentuate the importance of the merely contingent. They make an Idol of their own beliefs and the particular expression of the Truth that they adhere to. In other words, they enshrine the value of the purely contingent and deny the very possibility of a universal truth that might lie beneath all the religions. Ethics are considered dependant not just on religion, but upon a particular religion, and indeed, upon one sect within that religion.

There is much to be said for ethical relativity, as opposed to relativism. Take the golden rule: "Treat all others as you would have them treat you." Well, I like peanut butter. If I were very hungry, I would very much like for someone to give me a peanut butter sandwich, which would give me a good mix of proteins and energy. But someone with a severe peanut allergy would die if they were given the same thing. In this case, what is good for me is bad for someone else. So there is more to following the golden rule than just following it to the letter. It is an imprecise expression of a deeper principle. We have to understand the other person's circumstances in order to carry it out. What is good for them is only good relative to their situation. The first and most important part of loving your neighbour is empathy; putting yourself in his or her shoes, seeing things from their point of view. Generosity is pointless if what is given is useless or harmful to the receiver. And you cannot know what someone needs without trying to understand him. It is this very attempt to understand the other that the primitive absolutism of reactionary religions would like to forbid.

Thursday, April 21, 2005


The newly appointed Pope Ratzinger rails against 'the dictatorship of relativism", and conservative Catholics, like columnist David Warren, agree. It is the opinion of many conservative Christians that ethical values originate with and are supported only by religion, and that without religion anything goes. As Dostoyevsky put it, without God, everything is permissible.

This is nonsense, and very old nonsense at that, first refuted by Plato. Plato's argument separated morality from religion, and it still stands firm. It goes as follows: if something is good simply because God commands it, then the most horrific injustices might be commanded and therefore considered good. The definition of good and evil would then be completely arbitrary... in other words, relative. In fact, this is precisely what you do find in the Old Testament, though Plato had never read it. But if God commands something because it is good, then it is already good whether God commands it or not. So either divine authority is irrelevant to ethics, or basing morality upon such authority constitutes a claim that all ethics are relative, and can only be supported by pure force of will (in this case, Divine will.) This claim, incidently, is the guiding motive behind fascism, and the reason that a fascist will beat you up rather than engage in a discussion with you; fascists are essentially nihilists who do not believe in truth, and therefore have no faith in rational argument. The Nazi's so-called 'Triumph of the Will' was intended precisely as the imposition of a purely invented moral order onto what they believed was a moral vacuum. In the absence of the Divine Will, a State will is imposed, but in either case, there is no truth.

By insisting that divine authority is needed to support ethics, Ratzinger is in effect claiming that there is no support for moral behaviour apart from the irrational. It is this very argument which has opened the door to relativism. Ratzinger is playing a kind of philosophical brinksmanship; he is claiming that all hell will break lose unless we agree with him (fallacy of consequence.) Unfortunately, he is not the first to do this, and too many people who have abandoned religion have taken this claim at face value. The real relativists here are the likes of Ratzinger and Warren.

Consider what relativism is: in logical terms, relativism may be summarized as A & ~A, where A is any well-formed statement. One of the standard conventions of logic is that the acceptance of such a contradiction can be used to prove anything; by tolerating the contradiction, you abandon sound argument itself, and anything can be true. Contradictions are not tolerated in logic, mathematics, or in science. If something known to be true contradicts your theory, your theory is destroyed.

Religion, however, seems to revel in contradiction. Kierkegaard believed that faith required the "crucifixion of reason." The scriptures of virtually all faiths are riddled with contradictions. This is not merely due to difficult esoteric ideas--indeed, the difficult spiritual ideas are usually the first casualties to this method of teaching. These are real inconsistencies which result because the scriptures are patchworks gathered from sources with opposing views and different goals, assembled by people who may have held still other views and goals. The leaders of the faith usually consider this a good thing; you cannot charge for your expertise if everyone can figure it out for themselves (this was why the Catholic Church suppressed vernacular translations of the Bible.) And indeed, the only way you can figure out something like the Bible is to realize at the outset that some parts of it are just plain bad--bad poetry, bad history, bad ethics, and even bad religion.

Pass the Bible off as the infallible Word of God, and you can use it to prove anything. The Bible has been used to justify wars, torture, slavery, murder, genocide, and virtually any other crime you can think of. It has inspired as many serial killers as saints. Its contradictory content can make it like an empty book, waiting to be filled, but cloaked with authority that its interpreters claim for themselves.

Certainly, reason isn't the only faculty required to form a clear ethical picture of the world, but it is an essential component. Observation, empathy, introspection and self-knowledge, study, and consultation all play a part. Blind obedience is not a path to moral understanding, but a way of avoiding it. The advance and refinement of our cultural mores--indeed, of civilization itself-- does not occur within the bosom of orthodoxy, but at the fringes. Even the messiahs and saints live at these fringes, which is why they so often die horrible deaths at the hands of the authorities. Orthodoxy always brings up the rear, supporting the kings against the people, the owners against the slaves, the workhouse directors against the children. Religion is not the source of our values. At best, it expresses them, but more often, it simply co-opts them well after the fact, plagiarizing the work of others.

The most troubling aspect of this is that these religions are at heart very old and primitive. The fate of Islam could become ours. The Bible does not condemn slavery; though many have reinterpreted passages as such, there are no direct condemnations of the practice. Although Jesus himself died on the cross, there are no protestations against the diabolical cruelty of the punishment itself. Nor are there any hints in the Bible of support for democracy. We should not be surprised by this. The Bible was prepared primarily by Romans under the watchful eye of Constantine the Great; they still owned slaves, sentenced people to the cross, and Constantine certainly wanted no hint of democracy in the new religion. The Divine Right of Kings is probably the direct result of his influence. Christianity is not only primitive by our standards, it was even primitive by Roman standards.

A return to some imagined glorious past would, at best, force us to repeat a number of difficult lessons. At worst, it would squander the advances of hundreds of years of civilization, at a time when population density and sheer human technological power may well destroy us if we move anywhere but forward. The religions of the middle east may well be the cradle of our civilization, but our civilization is not a child any longer. We cannot go back there. And very few secular humanists are actually relativists; Ratzinger is arguing with a straw man of his own fevered imagination. We hold our values quite firmly. So firmly that we believe they can stand on their own, without God to bully people into believing them.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

The Two Realms

Subjectivity is a pain in the ass. Nobody knows what to make of it. You see, we have two perceptions of human beings: the perception of other human beings or ourselves as these creatures walking around the world, and the perception of ourselves from the inside--the endless procession of mental, emotional, and sensational events. Personally I don't think that there is any question that the cognitive and emotional realms emerge from the physical processes of the brain. It's not just a temporary resident. Destroy the brain and you destroy the mind. But there is something irreducible about the mind. You can look at the firing of neurons, the balances of neurochemistry, the physical brain, for as long as you want, and never know what someone is actually thinking. There was a time that we could say that you could not figure out what someone was feeling, but analysis of neurochemistry and brain scans can actually tell you a lot about this. But something about the mind remains irreducible.

I suspect that the irreduciblity is actually due to the sheer complexity of the brain. If it were possible for us to hold in our mind a picture of the sum total of all neural events in real time, we might very well be able to see how the mind arises from brain function. But we can't do this, and never will. So we're stuck with the two realms, the realm of the subjective and of ideas, and the realm of the objective, of observable objects and events. We can't draw the causal link between them because it's not one link, but billions of silmultaneous links, none of which is relevant in isolation. And because of this we get into a lot of trouble.

I heard a minister on BBC radio, for example, claim that the mind's very ability to comprehend reality is a proof of the existence of God. This is a miracle that just couldn't happen without divine intervention. Well, duh... if our ancestors had not been able to comprehend reality in any way, they would have promptly run off pursuing imaginary creatures instead of food, and that would have been the end of that. And in fact, that is precisely what some humans do to this very day. It's called superstition, and in extreme cases, psychosis. The extraordinary level of comprehension typical of mathematics and physics are extremely rare and take a lot of discipline to master, and a lot of the people who achieve this tend to be a bit deficient when it comes to noticing, say, that they're not wearing matching socks. The fact is, the majority of the human race have a fingernail grip on reality at best. So if God is responsible for making us comprehend the world, he's botched the job.

The attempt to reduce one realm to the other provides us with no end of entertainment. On the one had you have the analytics who tried to convince us that all statements pertaining to the inner world were meaningless. This made many people want to punch them, and for good reason; it's this sort of thing that gives philosophers a bad name. It takes a staggering insensitivity to insist that the private thoughts and feelings of the entire human race are meaningless. In fact, the analytic discussions were themselves phenomena of the inner world, and therefore meaningless by their own criteria. This is why Wittgenstein would sit facing the wall and chant Vedic poetry during these discussions.

On the other hand, you have the seething hordes of New Age flakes who believe that reality is only what they think it is. This is really an excuse to believe whatever you want to believe without the embarassment of evidence. It also means you can stay stupid and still be a Zen Master, a good Christian, or whatever current misinterpretation is making the rounds. An ignorance of sound reasoning makes the hermetic seal complete, and these people can stumble through life in a narcissistic haze like a bull in a china shop.

In fact, there are certain domains of knowledge that pertain to the facts of the physical world, and other domains that pertain to phenomena arising from the mental world. Beliefs are irrelevant to one but have a critical influence on the other. Believing you can fly will not make it so. You cannot move or remould matter with your mind. Opinion doesn't have much bearing in mathematics or logic either. Big Brother cannot make two plus two equal five, though many dictators have tried.

Nevertheless, belief does matter when talking about how we think and behave. It was recently discovered that Economics majors, who had been schooled to believe that people were motivated by rational self-interest, were in fact far more motivated by this than any other segment of the population. A theory of human nature may not tell us much about human nature, but it speaks volumes about the theorist. The problem with 'sciences' like social studies and economics is that they tend to produce self-fulfilling prophecies. The purpose of science is to be able to predict and control, but for social sciences prediction is control, if only enough people can be convinced that the prediction is true.

The postmodernist falacy, that everything is just a matter of opinion, is based on a kernel of truth: some opinions are presented as scientific fact when they are merely emotionally motivated beliefs. Evidence appears to support these theories because the theory leads one to consider only the evidence that supports it. Having found a few pseudo-scientific theories guilty of this, the less subtle postmodernists took this is mean that all science was pseudo-science. Magical thinking is also an exageration of something real: humans have such influence on the environment (and on the lives of others) that our beliefs, through our actions, can change the reality we live in. There is an objective reality which has nothing to do with what we want to believe, but it is also true that what we believe colours our perceptions of reality, and we tend to remake the world in accordance with our beliefs.

Due to the sheer complexity of neuralogical process that produces it, mind cannot be reduced to terms of simple physical process without the loss of essential information. So we're stuck with mind and body, not because they're separate in any way, or somehow free from each other's influence, or for any mystical or spiritual reason. We're stuck with them because we cannot talk about the world, and what it is like to live in it, without both of them.