This is a response to an essay by my friend Josh on his own personal philosophy. It seems that his essay confused some of his friends (including myself). I think that this is because he was trying to get his thoughts down quickly and failed to make some of his assumptions and reasoning clear. So I will attempt to clarify his argument, and point out where I agree and disagree with what he says.
To save scrolling, I have broken this response down into three parts. This is the first. I’ve also placed a complete, printable version of the essay on my website.
What I think Josh means
Josh starts out by rejecting what he calls relativism. By ‘relativism’, I am assuming he means the denial of absolute truth. That is, the idea that there is no such thing as objective truth and reality is essentially just a construct of our own perceptions. Looking down this road and seeing where it ends, all knowledge becomes meaningless—including the knowledge that there is no truth. If there is no truth, then there is no point in saying anything. I might as well stop my essay here.
On the other hand, claims to complete, 100% objective, literal truth are arrogant and fail to take into account the finite nature of human understanding and language. We cannot make our own reason the arbiter of truth, since our own reason is fallible. Neither can we claim complete understanding of everything by divine revelation, since our understanding is still subject to a finite brain. A judge can only make a certain, correct judgement if they know all the facts. To claim absolute objective certainty about transcendent truth is in essence the same as claiming to have all the facts. In other words, this is claiming omniscience and in some ways is equivalent to claiming to be God.
So, we must discount ‘relativism,’ or knowledge ceases to exist. On the other hand, we must be wary of claims to knowledge of absolute truth. Hence, we acknowledge that absolute truth exists, but must admit that complete and universal understanding of it is impossible for human beings. How then do we proceed? It is at this point that Josh’s argument becomes slightly difficult to decipher (and I do hope he will clarify it for us). As best I understand it, Josh proposes realism, rationalism, pseudo-subjectivism and post-modernism as the way forward. This seems to mean three things:
- Rationalism in subjecting ideas to careful criticism. An idea must at least be internally consistent, or we may reject it as false. We must be able to reject the absurd. The sciences, for example, are generally well established disciplines, and scientific knowledge is open to criticism within the scientific method. If a hypothesis is shown to be false by repeatable experiment, then we can reject it. Similarly, mathematics has formal methods of proof. Any epistemology that requires us to reject such methods of understanding as arbitrary and meaningless itself becomes meaningless. We assert that understanding truth, while necessarily limited and incomplete, is still possible.
- Holistic, contextual understanding must supplement rationalism however. That is, understanding of an idea must include understanding the context in which it arises, including the political, social, and historical context, as well as limitations on where the idea applies. To illustrate this, Josh uses the example of Newtonian physics. ‘[W]e can say that gravity obeys Newton’s law far [sic.] all measurements of scales larger than a nanometre. Now this is true that it is a very good approximation, but not technically the truth! The truth is in the realm of quantum physics – so let’s assume that this quantum laws [sic.] is the objective actual truth (not that we know that for certain either!).’ Now, scientists developed Newtonian physics before we had adequate knowledge of quantum physics. At that point in history it was not possible to measure things on a quantum scale. These physical laws were tested and verified by scientific method, not by pure logic or analysis of historical texts (though these may have had an influence). So we can say that within the context of scientific method, for scales of greater than a nanometre, Newton’s laws regarding gravity hold true. Thus it is important to understand the context for Newtonian physics.
- Humility in acknowledging that we are finite beings, and thus our understanding and reasoning will always be limited. We cannot claim 100% complete knowledge of universal, transcendent truth since this has all the arrogance of claiming omniscience. As Josh says ‘Once we start claiming correct clear universal knowledge of him [God] we are on a dangerous path!’
So, rationalism, contextual understanding and humility are key foundations if we want to say that we know some truth. So far I agree with Josh (assuming I have understood his position correctly), however I would like to say a few more things about contextual understanding before we go further.
Contextual understanding is more than simply defining the limits of where a truth applies. It also must deal with questions of purpose, bias or motive. For instance, if I read a book by Richard Dawkins, I should understand that he wrote the book in a particular context. The author is a white male who was born in Kenya, brought up an ‘Anglican’ and is now an avowed atheist. He studied as a zoologist (as opposed to a literary critic or even a physicist) and has been married three times, and so on. The more I am aware of the context in which he writes, the more understanding I can gain of his biases, assumptions and motivations. Understanding when, where and why Richard Dawkins writes is an important part of understanding what Richard Dawkins writes.
Similarly, when I read the bible’s accounts of Jesus, I should be aware that they were written in first century Palestine, in the Greek language, by followers of Jesus. Jesus himself was a Jew who mainly spoke to Jews living under Roman occupation. Some of the gospel writers were more highly educated than others, and it is clear that they had different motivations in writing, etc. etc. These are all important things to understand when reading the gospels.
Taking this reasoning one step further however, to be consistent I must also apply this reasoning to myself. I am not context free. When I read Richard Dawkins, or the bible, I should be aware that I am a white, tertiary-educated male, born in Australia, and raised in a western culture, etc. etc. Thus I have my own personal biases and motivations in reading and thinking. In social theory, the technical name for this is reflexivity. The same rules I apply to my understanding of others, I must also apply to myself.
This, as I understand it, is the basis for Josh’s philosophy. Please do correct me if I have misunderstood it. And this far, I agree. With some of the entailments, and conclusions he draws however, I disagree. I think it would be very helpful if Josh were to lay out his assumptions and reasoning behind the conclusions he draws so that we can better understand the context he is writing from, and reduce the danger of setting up straw-man arguments. If I do not have a clear grasp of what someone is saying and why they are saying it, then it makes it incredibly difficult to work out where I agree or disagree with them.
Thus far, we have laid some groundwork for the discussion. If we are going to argue anything, it should be rational and grounded in a holistic understanding of context. At the same time we must be humbly aware that we are finite and our own limited understanding is also situated within a context.
Where Josh and I disagree
One point where Josh and I disagree is on the problem other religions. If I have understood it correctly, the argument is something like this: If we cannot claim 100% certain knowledge of absolute truth, how can we claim that our understanding of God is the only correct one? How can we say that other religions are wrong? As Josh writes, ‘Only the extremely arrogant would claim they have a complete understanding of God largely derived form [sic.] a few apostles[’] contextual writings to various church[e]s (indeed ambiguous and almost contradictory at times).’ In our western context, Christianity and Christian thinkers have significantly impacted our society and history. Hence, in our context, Christianity makes sense to us. ‘In other contexts other religions are much more appropriate for the individual. They are still ‘god’ fearing people – seeking the eternal truth.’
For the sake of argument, let us assume that all the major world religions are internally consistent. This seems fair given that they have all been around for many hundreds of years. If they are internally consistent, would it not make sense to say that they are ‘true’ within the context that people believe them? So, if I am a white, educated male living in a western culture which Christianity has influenced heavily, then Christianity will make a lot of sense to me in my context. But it would be arrogant of me to say that in this (and the bible in particular) I find complete knowledge of God, and that therefore all other religions are wrong. Who am I to say that these sincere people, who are trying to understand God as best they can in their own particular context, are unequivocally wrong?
Obviously I disagree with Josh on this point. So far however, his reasoning makes sense. On the other hand, I think there are things he has not taken into account and certain flaws in this line of reasoning. Before I outline where I disagree however, I would like to clarify what I think Josh is not saying.
- Please correct me if I am wrong in this particular assumption.
- I will must confess that I ripped this information straight from Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Dawkins) and I actually know next to nothing about Richard Dawkins.