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Truth and Solidarity

There have been two members of Jehovah's Witnesses visiting every now and then, since last August. At first I was bit wondering what should I do with them - should I just ask them not to visit me anymore, kindly telling them that I'm not interested in converting into any religion? Or should I adopt a counter-strike strategy, and print some information material of Finnish Support group for the victims of religions, saying that I will read their brochures if they read mine - kindly asking them to consider if they feel any uneasiness within their religious order. Oh well, but then I decided just to take it easy and see where it goes. Every time they visit, I don't offer them any counter-arguments, but instead I pay close attention to what they say, and ask for more details. Just because I want to better understand what they themselves believe in, and how it makes their personal lives better (as I hope it does).

Basically, they seem to believe that their version of Christianity is the Ultimate Truth, and all the other religions are incorrect. According to the brochure they gave me, we can be sure that The Bible contains the Word of the God. The proof for that is that The Bible contains many detailed predictions about future incidents - many of which came true. Only The God knows all of the future, and can give true prophetic visions for His followers. Oh, OK. If I'd like to counter this, I'd ask that how do we know that The God is the only one who is able to foresee the future? Maybe because it says so in The Bible? But what if there also are other creatures capable of seeing some things in the future? What if The Evil Satan is one of them, and the whole Bible is just a big lie set up by Satan? Designed to lead souls astray, and to spread mayhem and havoc amongst the creations of The God? Looking at the world history it would actually be pretty easy to believe in something like this...

Philosophically speaking, I guess that a lot of their argumentation is based on the following premises:

  1. "Because it says so in The Bible"
  2. "The Bible contains the Truth"
  3. "The Bible is the Word of The God"
  4. "and only The God knows the Ultimate Truth"
  5. "In The Bible The God has said everything He has to say to the mankind - the message is universal and true in all times. It is perfectly fair to assume that in the whole globe and amongst all the cultures there has been just one tribe who has been receiving The Ultimate Truth from the God. This is because... well, because, that's the way God chose to do."

Now, to me it seems clear that if you deny any of those premises, the whole belief system will collapse. Because, something essential to them gets destroyed as soon as you say that what they believe in might not be The Ultimate Truth, but merely one finite and partial interpretation of The Truth which necessarily is always something more than we humans are capalbe of comprehending.

I like those Jehovah's Witnesses because they have so strong and clear religious and metaphysical views, and they are trained in expressing their views. Also, I feel that in their system of beliefs they pretty well reflect some core beliefs which have been influential in Western culture, thus affecting us all who have grown up in this tradition. I think that even our post-modern secular superficial commercial culture still carries some versions of the old Christian attitudes. But intsead of analysing more of them now, I'd like to ask a more general question: Is it essential for a religion to believe that the given religion is the only one which got The Truth and that all the other religions are wrong? And more generally, is it necessary in politics, science and ethics to believe in some form of Ultimate Truth - as if we deny the possibility of knowing The Truth doesn't that necessarily lead to the endless swamp of relativism? If there is no foundation for The Truth wouldn't we find an Abyss opening up under our very feet, leaving us infinitely falling down in total uncertainty?

Recently a friend of mine posted in facebook a link to a philosophical essay by Richard Rorty. No doubt, late Rorty is one of my favourites of the 20th century philosophers. If I read him correctly, one of Rorty's central claims is that we can never find an absolute foundation for the ultimate truth. Still, Rorty denies laissez-faire relativism. He has strong philosophical, ethical and political views, only that at the same time he is perfectly aware that there is no way justifying that his set of beliefs would be the final truth on anything. There is no way to prove that every rational person should ultimately have the exact same set of beliefs as he does. Human knowledge is always partial and finite, bound to historical changes. And Rorty seems perfectly happy to admit that. He calls this the attitude of irony - not regarding ones own beliefs as fundamentally true, not taking oneself so serious, but still not collapsing into apahty or indifference. (In my bookshelf I have one collection of Rorty's writings. Reading the above linked essay made me feel that I'd like to buy Rorty's main works, and read them again.)

Well, when I began my studies at The Tampere University, I had somekind of religious / spiritual word view, and I believed that it is both possible and necessary to formulate that world view in a coherent way. So that in it ethical, epistemological, metaphysical and scientific views would fit together in one great single vision. And I was struggling with myself asking if that single vision, once formulated, would be the ultimate truth. Towards the end of my studies I was convinced that the answer is "no". The ultimate truth will always be beyond human comprehension. Now, the religious counter-argument is that in a special state of mind human comprehension can blend with The Trancsendent Reality, to come in direct touch with The Absolute Truth, to transcendent the finite human viewpoint and feel the Omnipresent World Spirit. Well, and my own world view is also based on such experiences - it is only that I see those experiences as... well, as experiences. I mean, an overwhelming sense of The Absolute Truth is an essential element of any mystical experience. But to be honest to oneself, there is no propositional knowledge to be justified based on such an experience. Actually, to me it seems that knowledge itself isnt' that essential after all. What is essential is sense of Love, willingness to show empathy and solidarity towards others and oneself. The aspect of truth in such a deep spiritual experience is beneficial as it brings an end to inner existential angst or uncertainty. It brings peace of mind, tranquility. But, by the very nature of such an experience, it escapes all the definitions, all the propisitions, all the systematical sets of beliefs. So, with these thoughts I ended up thinking that it is possible to have a religious content in ones own thinking, while adopting a Rortyan attitude of irony.

Actually I see the attitude of irony being more profoundly ethical than a traditional foundationalist attitude. (Foundationalim here refers to a belief that there is a foundation of knowledge - a way to find a basic set of axioms which would be beyond doubt and universally true.) As a foundationalist can always classify all the other people in just two categories: those who agree with him, and those who have false beliefs. The danger of this attitude is that it easily comes with arrogance, and doesn't give motivation to stop to listen to different points of view. And, in extreme cases, foundationalism can be developed to a violent fundamentalism - a belief that the truth you posses justifies using destructive violence over others. But I guess that it would be impossible to be a fundamentalist with ironical attitude. It would be impossible to say: "We have the Truth, and that other group out there are evil enemies of The Truth, and it is my duty to go destroy those enemies, as it is a good thing to protect The Truth. And sure I do know that all this is just one interpretation among the others, a view I have adopted based on my historical situation, and it might be that I'll adopt different views as I grow older and read more books and go through more of self-critical thinking." - No, as soon as you admit that your own views are not the absolute truth, I guess you won't find motivation to go kill human beings just because they have different views?

Which kind of a leads us to another paradox. Here I am at the same time thinking that there is no universal truth to be spread everywhere - and wishing that more people would adopt ironical attitude. Does it mean that I'm still secrectly believing that the ironical attitude is True and the foundational attitude is Wrong? Not necessarily. I don't even believe that there would be some innate universal Rationality which would guarantee that any rational self-critical thinker would eventually end up adopting the ironical attitude. As the forms of rationality themselves are as well bound to historical and cultural differences, slowly changing over the time. But the good thing is that even if there wouldn't be any final truth to be found, there still are many basic things that people seem to share. Maybe not in exact the same forms, but in slightly different versions many people around the world seem to agree that there is a world out there, that communication with other beings is possible, that it is not OK to deliberately cause pain to your fellows, and that if you have two apples and eat one, you have one left. So, if there are a lot of things we can all agree about, I guess that with some good discussion we could also basically agree that we share one single globe and it would be better for everyone if we learn to live together without major warfare. And part of that discussion might lead to realizing that while we can respect different religious traditions, we can say that religious fundamentalism is not a nice thing. And not only religious fundamentalism but also political, nationalistic and economical fundamentalism are all equally counterproductive for the wellbeing of the mankind.

So, I'm not forcing my ironical attitude on those Witnesses. As long as they don't use physical or emotional violence towards me I'm OK with them. I just think that the more I feel that the younger of them might feel somehow uneasy and under pressure in his own religious order, at some point I might empatethically ask him if he is so sure that it is a good think to be a member. And that if he feels like escaping, there is help and support available. The ironical thing is that it is basically the same stuff they are doing - they see us non-believers as in need of help, and they kindly come to offer their help. It is up to every individual to decide if they receive the help offered. I don't know what would happen if I one day reflect that same attitude back to them, offering them brochures of Support group for the victims of religions.

Also, dear reader, if you have a differing opinion about the way I interpret Rorty, or about my views on ultimate truth, please feel free to write a comment.

ps. No images today. But I installed a "thumb up" -button for blog entries =)

488 users have voted.


Root meaning of the word "fundamentalism" appears to be just biblical literalist. Jehovah's Witnesses' fit the bill, even if there are other biblical literalists who don't even count them christians. By extension one could say that anyone with strong belief in the truth of specified propositions is a fundamentalist about them. But clearly there's nothing bad in strong belief. There's nothing intrinsically wrong in acting on a strong belief either. So why do people use the f-word pejoratively? Who are the bad fundamentalists?
-Traditional or conservative folks are not necessarily fundamentalists.They might even be private ironists. Sometimes it's good to challange them exactly by reminding them of principles and ideals.
-Activists who act on strong moral beliefs need not follow any rigid Party line. Sometimes party line can check counterproductive behavior.
-Intolerance and harassment may flourish without any kind of doctrine. They are often caused by mere selfishnes and opportunism. Public moral doctrine could be helpfull in our own over-permissive society.
-Literalists about some faith, doctrine or ideology need not be aggressive at all. It depends on the doctrine in question.
So what do people mean, when they use the f-word pejoratively? Usually the idea is that fundamentalism equals authoritarian, intolerant and aggressive behavior. We are supposed to think about animal rights activists or islamists here, people who challange the mainstream western society.

So, basically you are saying that a fundamentalist can be (and in most cases actually are) morally responsible, nice people showing solidarity towards the others? And that intolerant, aggressive behaviour is not always linked to a fundamtentalistic doctrine? And even that some people with ironic attitude might show social non-resposibility by being over-permissive? If so, then does that mean that our philosophical views don't hold a special position determining our moral behaviour?

As, I guess this is exactly what Rorty wants to say. He argues against the view "that being right about philosophical matters is important for right action." Rorty thinks that it is solidarity which really matters. So, if we take this point seriously, it shouldn't be a big deal if people are fundamentalist or ironists - as what really matters is how these people get along with each other.

(But then, in the other hand, I still think that many of the fundamentalists like to think that it is important to have the right world view. Abandoning this sense of importancy equals to rortyan irony, does it?)

Oh well. But at this point I find myself again thinking that now there are two lines to go by. 1) Asking what did Rorty think and do I understand him correctly. 2) Asking what is my personal opinion on the matter. I hope that I can take a deeper look at both of these questions in the posts to come. But for now, a brief comment for each question:

I'm not sure if Rorty is using the word "fundamentalism" pejoratively. In his 1993 paper "Hilary Putnam and The Relativist Menace" Rorty writes: "Here I think Putnam has a good point. There is a tone of Carnapian scorn in some of my writings (particularly in the overly fervent physicalism of Philosophy and The Mirror or Nature), and there should not be. I should not speak, as I sometimes have, of 'pseudo-problems', but rather of problematics and vocabularies which might have proven to be of value but in fact did not. I should not have spoken of 'unreal' or 'confused' philosophical distinctions, but rather of distinctions whose employement has proved to lead nowhere, proved to be more trouble than they were worth." Well, of course it remains open for discussion if a distinction like "true belief / false belief" has indeed been proved to lead nowhere. And it might be a matter of taste if it is pejorative to say that foundationalism is of more trouble than it is worth... (Now WHAT did Rorty actually mean? Someone should write a doctoral thesis about this =) )

What comes to my own opinion, I tend to think that fundamentalism and a social order based on strong beliefs might have served us well for a long time since the dawn of civilization. And that post-modern over-permissive laissez-faire relativism doesn't take us very far. It might have some good effects on liberating us from authoritarian structures, but it comes with a set of new problems. So, I'd say that instead of going back to some sort of fundamentalism we'd better go on with our cultural evolution. Finding new ways of thinking that could help us navigate in the 21st century situation. And personally I feel that building on some sort of rortyan attitude of irony might prove fruitful. But I'm not to say that it is the only option which works.

And, lastly, returning back to the main thing - solidarity. I guess that the old Cartesian way of thinking sees it so that human action is based on human decisions, and decisions are based on beliefs, and beliefs are propostions, and a coherent set of propositions form a world view. So, if we see people behaving badly, we can infer that there must be something wrong with their world view - that they believe in false propositions. From this point of view it seems fundamentally necessary to find the right set of propositions to believe in, as that would also guarantee the moral behavior of believers. (And, to some extent I guess this kind of attitude is still well alive in some forms of psychology and maybe in the theory of cognitive therapy.) Well, we could examine this with methods of psychology, introspection, literature, art, and maybe also with methods of philosophy. Personally I think that most of the time we act accorind to how we feel - and that there is nothing bad about that. The solution is not to better control our feelings, to force oneself to behave according to a set of beliefs no matter how one feels. I see that a more solid approach would be to work with ones emotions and feelings, finding more peace, benevolence and solidarity. Philosphy might play a part in that process. (ah, again I say that of course we also need social control, a set of moral rules, legislation and law enforcement. I'm just saying that they alone might not be enough to guarantee maximum solidarity.)

"He calls this the attitude of irony - not regarding ones own beliefs as fundamentally true, not taking oneself so serious, but still not collapsing into apahty or indifference."

I like this attitude. I enjoyed watching Michael Sandel's series of Harvard lectures, and my favorite part is at the very end, when he says nothing is the absolute truth, but that that fact should not be an excuse to give up discussing and debating and searching for the truth. I think too many otherwise intelligent people of our age forget the second half of that statement.


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