The Meaning of Life
September 28, 2007
A friend of mine has a fridge magnet that reads “the meaning of life is to give life meaning.” It is a neat summation of twentieth century philosophy, the centrepiece of which was existentialism; the idea that humanity was itself responsible for finding meaning. Existentialism was an unprecedented break with prior tradition – both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were “rebels from tradition” (as Hannah Arendt puts it), albeit in markedly different ways. Kierkegaard strived to regain the deeper meaning of religion, while Nietzsche hoped to break free of traditional religion.
One of the problems of the modern Western world is that having made a philosophical break with tradition, we now struggle to address this problem of meaning. In fact, we still tend to turn to the traditional ways of finding meaning more often than we attempt to carve our own meaning from the raw substance of our lives: religion remains the principle means by which most people explore or acquire meaning in their lives, although there is considerable strain between traditional religion and the modern world.
Tolstoy, writing in 1879, neatly summed up the importance of religion to the question of meaning:
The essence of any religion lies solely in the answer to the question: why do I exist, and what is my relationship to the infinite universe that surrounds me? It is impossible for there to be a person with no religion (i.e. without any kind of relationship to the world) as it is for there to be a person without a heart. He may not know that he has a religion, just as a person may not know that he has a heart, but it is no more possible for a person to exist without a religion than without a heart.
A century later, Raimon Panikkar (an exceptional Catholic Priest whose perspective combines the Hinduism of his father with his mother’s Catholicism) stated:
The essentials of the religious teachings could be summed up in three ideas: the relinking of onself with the rest of human beings, with our neighbours, with the community, with our true self; the relinking of humankind with Nature, with all things, with the environment, including machines; the relinking of humanity with the Divine, with Mystery, the Sacred, the Numinous, the Absolute, Transcendence.
These are the three central themes of religion: our relationship with humanity and each other, our relationship with Nature, and our relationship with the infinite, which some refer to as God. Whether we are looking at the Abrahamic faiths with their focus on surrender to the infinite, or the Dharmic religions with their focus on uncovering the individual path we must follow, these same themes emerge from diverse sources. The meaning of our lives depends upon these three relationships.
Is it possible to give life meaning without religion? Certainly. But in Tolstoy’s terms, any attempt to do so still implies a religion. Most twentieth century attempts to create meaning resulted in ideologies (such as Marxism or Humanism) that deal very much with the issues traditionally handled by religion. What, if anything, do we have to gain from denying that these modern attempts to create meaning are functionally religious? It is as if we believe that ceasing to use the word ‘religion’ will somehow change human psychology so that the problems that can and do emerge from thoughtless slavery to an entrenched ideology (religious or otherwise) will miraculously vanish.
Whatever we choose to call those beliefs that give our lives meaning, we all either have such beliefs or we seek them. Some reject traditional religion, others embrace it, still others work to help mediate traditional values with the modern world. But whatever you choose as your inspiration, the meaning of life is something we each must discover for ourselves as individuals. If you cannot find it within traditional religion, as many people in the West struggle to do, you must strike out and find your own path – you must, in effect, create your own religion. This is not an easy road to travel, but the rewards are more than commensurate to the challenge.
I'll just hand you a(nother) virtual tin hat before you get sniped at by the band of irate humanists who don't play your language game and therefore don't share your identification of humanism as a religion :-). For example, I can't stop you stating that my beliefs form a religion - I can't stop you stating anything you like! But I wouldn't use that term to describe those beliefs myself.
Aside: Why is our relationship with other humans a matter for religion as opposed to, say, ethics? Or can they not be separated?
Posted by: Peter Crowther | September 28, 2007 at 01:45 PM
Thanks for the virtual tin hat, Peter! :)
I recognise that many people do not use the term 'religion' in the manner that this post does, but at the same time I find the word 'religion' being kicked about and abused by all and sundry; I feel it is worth making the case for its defence every now and then. :D
As for the issue of whether ethics and religion can be separated - in the terms of this post, and in the terms by which I previously developed a definition of religion, ethics and religion are inseparable. Of course, one can develop a system of ethics outside of traditional religious frameworks, but it's still a religious issue in Tolstoy and Pannikar's terms.
My challenge remains the same: what does one have to gain from denying that beliefs that provide meaning are functionally religious? If it is simply the capacity to label one group of the population "religious" and then identify with the converse group, this seems like a weak justification.
Our international agreements (even though some of our leaders fail to keep them) guarantee freedom of religion and belief - so either one allows one's beliefs to be considered religion/belief and enjoys the protection thus offered, or one needs to get the international statutes changed to conform to one's own language game. This is what I don't get about the Humanist term "life stance" - it's sole purpose seems to be to provide a synonym for religion that those opposed to traditional religion are willing to be labelled with. This just doesn't seem like enough of a motivation to make it worth trying to draw up new international legislature. Wouldn't we do better, all in all, to focus on protecting these rights that we have already agreed to, rather than fighting over the wording of them?
Posted by: Chris | September 28, 2007 at 02:11 PM
I suspect a lot of confusion results from conflating philosophy or maybe the traditional teachings of religion, the activities of the priesthood, the dogmatic traditions, the activities of certain followers, and the institutions like churches, rich monasteries, etc., all into the term religion as some form of shorthand to relate to all the above (very diverse) phenomena. A non-religious believer will then cite the absence of one or more of the above aspects (e.g. no priesthood, no dogma, no institutionalized rituals, no supernatural beings, etc) as proof that his belief is somehow superior to religion...
Posted by: translucy | September 28, 2007 at 04:07 PM
translucy: in general, I'd say people (some who identify religions and some who don't) don't tend to outright say when they think their own beliefs are superior, they say their beliefs are *different*. They may privately think that their beliefs are superior, but they rarely if ever voice it aloud.
"no priesthood, no dogma, no institutionalized rituals, no supernatural beings, etc"
Of course, this neatly describes many of the Chinese folk religions too, and Confucianism in particular. :)
I do wonder: if Christianity hadn't been so vicious at eliminating alternative religions in Europe, would we have the same problem? It's striking how open Hinduism is to alternative paths - to the extent that it can absorb other religious traditions within its own framework without batting an eylid. How much of the problem is a kneejerk reaction against Christianity's historical excesses, formulated as a rejection of religion as a whole?
Posted by: Chris | September 28, 2007 at 05:01 PM
I was a Christian, but no longer believe in a God, at all. Last week I was talking to a friend about how I believe I have a small 's' spirituality. That is, I do believe in what most people refer to as spirituality. The ideas of awareness, character, being relational, selflessness, and other ideas stolen from religious traditions.
It was great to read that Tolstoy quote. I'm not particularly concerned about whether I'm religious or not. But it legitimised my feeling that my beliefs are "spiritual" in some sense of the word.
Posted by: John S | October 01, 2007 at 12:13 AM
John: thanks for the comment, John! For some reason, discussion in recent years on the subject of religion and spirituality has too often devolved into partisan conflict... It's not helpful. I suspect that there are many people like you who don't want to identify with a formal tradition (for various reasons), but still feel they have a personal spirituality - and why not! It's your path to discover and follow, after all. Best wishes!
Posted by: Chris | October 01, 2007 at 02:41 PM
My views are hard to define. They are a sort of mix of Utilitarian Humanism, Quakerism, Unitarian Universalism, and Mahayana & Vajrayana Buddhism. I can never really pin them down. I often find myself alienated from traditional religion and having more in common with atheists I know than, say, Christians I know, yet I still consider myself a fundamentally religious person just not, as I like to put it, in the traditional sense.This article strikes to the heart of that feeling.
Posted by: Daniel | June 24, 2010 at 07:04 AM
Daniel: thanks for your comment!
I know what you mean about "having more in common with atheists than... Christians" - I think a lot of people with diverse religious beliefs find themselves in this situation today. Personally, I've been lucky enough to have friendships that cross the spectrum of belief, and I have many Christian friends who - like you - find it hard to get on with many other Christians, because their own beliefs are far from orthodox.
Have you read the serial on Charles Taylor's book A Secular Age? This talks about the incredible diversity of beliefs today, and how religion is no longer neatly compartmentalised. You might enjoy it.
Posted by: Chris | June 25, 2010 at 11:53 AM
You say: "What, if anything, do we have to gain from denying that these modern attempts to create meaning are functionally religious?"
Indeed, denying that modern (and other not-at-all modern) philosophical attempts to give life meaning share the same function than religion serves no purpose.
But the problem here is a lack of clarity: where religion gives life meaning via faith and belief, philosophy at least attempts to answer this existential question by reasoning and avoiding illusions and false statements. This is a rather useful distinction, isn't it?
Posted by: Gabriel Legaré | August 20, 2010 at 04:21 PM
Gabriel: "But the problem here is a lack of clarity: where religion gives life meaning via faith and belief, philosophy at least attempts to answer this existential question by reasoning and avoiding illusions and false statements. This is a rather useful distinction, isn't it?"
It would be - but it is in itself an illusion. :)
It is true that the Abrahamic faiths (and other numinous traditions) begin from a position of faith, but the Dharmic traditions often operate from a quite distinct perspective, which I might dub nonfaith. (There is also unfaith - but this isn't the time to discuss that). Nonfaith challenges our perceptual assumptions, such as self and time, and as such sometimes goes deeper than conventional philosophy to strip away the role of belief in experience.
Now you want to claim that modern philosophy explores via "reasoning and avoiding illusions and false statements". This is certainly the goal of analytic philosophy. But if there's one thing that is becoming abundantly clear, it's that this is also a matter of faith. Nietzsche was the first to recognise that science shed of God still holds onto its faith in the value of the "True"... analytic philosophy, which is science's bitch most days of the week, suffers the same problem. ;)
The idea that philosophy is able to avoid false statements is beginning to erode away... Feyerabend undercut the claims of reason to any kind of supremacy, and Stephen Yablo has shown that Quine's bold hopes for an ontology that would be purely literal were optimistic. As it happens, our relationship from the world is deeply figurative at every level, and distinguishing between true and false might be something we can only do from within a system. There may be no comparing those systems with the "outside" at all.
When all of our approaches to meaning are revealed as stories of one kind or another, some will still prefer the analytic clarity of certain schools of philosophy or critical reason, and that is their right. But the idea that these viewpoints enjoy some kind of preferential access to reality will be exposed, as indeed, post-metaphysics/post-modernism has already demonstrated (cf. Gianni Vattimo, for instance).
And ironically, this is a lesson that the nonfaith religions have been teaching for millennia. It's just taken the West a long while to "get over" Plato. :D
Thanks for sharing your views!
Posted by: Chris | August 25, 2010 at 11:29 AM
Thanks for your answer... and well, once again, I'll cite you, because I get stick at that point:
"science shed of God still holds onto its faith in the value of the "True"".
Science shed of God? I mean, English is not my first language, and I may not understand this accurately, but if there is one thing far from the concept of God, well, it's science.
But let's get down with science itself: science (and philosophy), as I understand it, is an approach that tries to explain the world (and sometimes ouselves). In this approach, what means the word "true" is what can be said of a statement which actually describes a part of reality accurately. It's not a matter of faith. It's a methodological choice.
Therefore, whether "The Truth" (The Perfect Explanation) exists or not, or is attainable or not, doesn't really matter: it's only a matter of trying to go in a direction, chosen, not knowing if that focal point over there is there or not.
(At this point, I believe we're largely agreeing; am I right? 'Cause, I don't know anything about analytic philosophy)
Now, I'm thinking, the only significant difference between the focal point ("truth") of science and philosophy, and the focal point of anything that is based on faith, is that the definition of truth given by science at least "tries to make sense". It is the only one really appealling on what most human beings have been learning to constantly rely on: reason.
This is of course very dependent of my personal experience - and so for others - but me being myself, I couldn't really rely on emotion or plain belief. In my perspective, I could hurt myself, I could fool myself, I could get unhappy. I have to rely on reason. For me, yes, it claims to some kind of supremacy, at least to understand reality.
Could you tell me, how do you approach reality, if not by reason?
Posted by: Gabriel Legaré | September 21, 2010 at 02:03 AM
Gabriel: Welcome back, and thanks for continuing our discussion!
You scratch your head over this quote from me:
"science shed of God still holds onto its faith in the value of the "True"".
"...but if there is one thing far from the concept of God, well, it's science."
The above quote is a direct reference to Nietzsche. If you're not familiar with Nietzsche, you can check my brief overview of some of the high points of his philosophy in a post entitled Rumours of God's Death.
Now it's true that *today* we do not think of God and scientific activity as being comparable, but this was not the case prior to the twentieth century. Theology was until our time considered a science - indeed, it was known as the "Queen of the Sciences". What happened in the late nineteenth century in science was effectively an "exile" of God - this is one of many ways one can read Nietzsche's phrase "the Death of God", as the explusion of God from the sciences.
So my quote above is to be understood in a historical context, and the point I'm making - which again, comes from Nietzsche - is that when God was an allowable element of the sciences, God served the role of the guarantor of absolute truth. This goes back to Plato in many respects, and Nietzsche knew it. But having cast out God from the sciences, Nietzsche observed that the scientists *still* held onto the *priority* of truth. Truth was still given the status of ultimate value, and it is this that Nietzsche challenges. But this part of his challenge, alas, is all too often overlooked in favour of the naive reading of Nietzsche's phrase.
"what [the word] "true" [means] is what can be said of a statement which actually describes a part of reality accurately. It's not a matter of faith. It's a methodological choice."
Two points. Yes, there is a goal (or at least a hope) that 'true' can be used to mean 'reflective of reality'. There are critiques to be levelled here about this assumption, but this might not be the place to pursue them.
But as for your second point, yes, it is *still* a matter of faith that what science produces can be trusted as 'true'. Now you can say that it requires *less* faith - a hop of faith rather than a leap, if you like - but there is still a step to be taken. Because, for instance, modern scientific methodology rests on assumptions about experimental method.
What are these assumptions? Well they include: (1) induction works; that things will remain the way they currently seem. This premise has long been challenged, at least since Sextus Empiricus, and more recently by Karl Popper (2) that experiments are neutral; i.e. that the beliefs of the experimenters do not affect the outcome of the experiment. But as it happens, we now know that this isn't the case - not only the experiment but the interpretation of the experiment depend upon people's prior beliefs. The experiment is not interpreted in a contextual vaccum. (3) that formula modelling experimental results (or constants in those formula) can be assumed to be both universal and eternal; e.g. the speed of light has always had the value we currently calculate - which, as it happens, need not have been the case.
For these reasons and others, there is still an element of faith in science, but it is a "weak faith" or a "small faith". (In a future post, I'll be calling it "unfaith" but let's save that discussion for later).
"Therefore, whether 'The Truth' (The Perfect Explanation) exists or not, or is attainable or not, doesn't really matter: it's only a matter of trying to go in a direction, chosen, not knowing if that focal point over there is there or not."
This is a nice statement - I wish more people were aware that science is better understood as an interpretative choice aiming at better modelling the world and not an inevitable journey towards 'truth'.
"[Science] is the only one really appealling on what most human beings have been learning to constantly rely on: reason."
But how much can we actually trust our reason? A great deal of philosophy addresses this question, which is too large to go into in any depth here. Paul Feyerabend represents the most extreme position in this regard, with his "Farewell to Reason", but there are plenty of intermediate positions - such as Hume's claim that "Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions" i.e. that we inevitable use our reason to reach the conclusions we want to reach (and furthermore that we are morally justified in doing so!)
"In my perspective, I could hurt myself, I could fool myself, I could get unhappy. I have to rely on reason."
But of course, one can rely on reason and *still* hurt oneself, fool oneself and get unhappy. Many people do. In fact, the people I've met in life who rely *solely* on reason to guide them are almost all either miserably unhappy, or recovering from having been so. You have to have some faith if you are going to live a life worth living. For instance, if you are going to have a long term loving relationship with another person you have to have faith that your feelings for one another will last, even though there is nothing in reason to guarantee this.
"Could you tell me, how do you approach reality, if not by reason?"
I would suggest that the problem here is that reason alone just isn't enoguh - to use reason to interpret reality requires other things, such as "small faith" (or confidence, if you prefer) in induction etc.
But to return to Nietzsche's point that we opened with, the question for me is not "how do you approach reality if not by reason?" but "should approaching reality be our highest concern?" This is the crucial issue for me.
I do not mean to be suggesting that reality (whatever it is) doesn't matter - what I *do* mean to suggest is that an obsession with reality flattens human experience in a manner which is simply not reasonable.
There was a philosopher called Willard Quine who proposed a program of understanding reality (which in philosophy is a practice called 'ontology') in which one should only believe in those entities that our best theories imply. A lot of people today follow a belief system containing something similar to Quine's ontology.
But supposing you adopt something like Quine's ontology - what are you going to do with it? Are you going to spend your time attacking people who believe in entities that you have confidently dismissed as "not real"? If so, how is this different from the worst excesses of Christendom, when people were abused if they did not hold the decreed beliefs concerning God? In short, any attitude to reality that is going to attempt to enforce one interpretation opens the door to abominable behaviour towards other people.
My preference, therefore, is to allow a little more slack in what we mean by 'reality'. I do not deny that there is a "real world" out there - but we don't have perfect access to it. And it is this humility towards reality that I believe is the appropriate starting point for a more humane ontology.
Hope this answers your question!
Posted by: Chris | September 21, 2010 at 07:49 AM
Chris, this is a really an interesting discussion. Thanks for your answers and your interest!
I would interpret Hume in another sense when he says that reason is the slave of passions. Instead of allowing our passions to twist and shape reason's work, I believe we better "instrumentalize" our reason, so it can really work for us by analyzing reality (which includes our own being and passions) and tell us what are the best choices to make to fulfill in the most profitable way all of our passion's needs. In that sense, reason is truly a slave, but a slave who can do his job quite well, even if his bosses are a bunch of mad passions and desires. The slave puts some order in that agitation and tells the party what is best for them.
I don't know Feyerabend's work, but I easily concede that reason is not perfect (just as science), and that yes, my little slave there could as well hurt me.
As you say, living implies that littlest faith, or "unfaith".
And supposing I adopt something like Quine's ontology (and I might not be far), well, I don't see why I'd start attacking other people who believe in bizarre entities. (I don't see either why you suppose such an option. Personally adopting a certain stance towards reality doesn't have anything to do with the person's attitude towards other people.) I am not a man who wants to impose his certainties to others, nor a man who believes that reason alone is the key to happiness and all the problems in the world.
As a matter of fact, my family is deeply christian, which I am absolutely not, and we go along very well.
I agree with you when you say that "an obsession with reality flattens human experience in a manner which is simply not reasonable." Reasonable. I love this word. Reason, this little, feeble passion, is so reasonable that it even tells us (you!) we shouldn't give it too much importance.
Approaching reality is not my highest concern (which actually is living happy), and I believe it shouldn't be for anyone, but it sure is in the top-5 list. Though, approaching reality through reason - and NOT through faith - is the key to happiness. Faith is 100% sure misleading. Reason at least has a lower percentage, even though we are unsure of it, as all reason's critics tell us. Reason however stays the best choice out of an infinity of poor and uncertain faiths.
There is my conclusion, because it opposes the original conclusion of the first text, up there: that we "must, in effect, create [our] own religions".
I totally disagree, and would instead state that we have to create our own philosophies, for all the reasons mentioned.
Thanks for the debate Chris; I'm happy of this "deep diving" into that subject. And indeed, if you're able (but I doubt) to convince me of the contrary, I'll be even happier!
Posted by: Gabriel Legaré | September 22, 2010 at 01:19 AM
Gabriel: Thanks for continuing our discussion.
I like your reading of Hume here; I believe what you suggest is indeed what Hume himself thought (it makes sense of the clause "and ought to be") - but I feel we are now in a position to be aware that this critique cuts deeper than Hume intended.
"And supposing I adopt something like Quine's ontology (and I might not be far), well, I don't see why I'd start attacking other people who believe in bizarre entities. (I don't see either why you suppose such an option. Personally adopting a certain stance towards reality doesn't have anything to do with the person's attitude towards other people.)"
I appreciate it doesn't seem that way at first, but the evidence of "ontological prejudice" is all around us. Let me start by giving some examples that probably do not apply to you, but that do apply in the world at large. Firstly, the terrorist who does not recognise the ontological status of the nation that occupies a land which they consider theirs. Secondly, the militant atheist who attacks those who believe in God (or, for that matter, angels, astrology, chi/energy, feng shui etc.). Thirdly, the holocaust denier who disavows any claim to the ontological status of historical events others take as certain. Fourthly, a "flat earther" who denies the Earth is round. In all these cases, hostile and even violent conflict centres around ontological disagreements.
This critique cuts deeper than the extreme examples above, however. Consider what effect the medical ontology has on people who are labelled "sick". Remember when homosexuality was a sickness? Consider those who are (say) autistic who are currently stigmitized because a methodology that presumes categories of sickness are always ontic (i.e. ontological in the context of things, rather than in the context of being). Ivan Illich has raised a serious critique of "medicalisation" in this regard.
It may be that you are a supremely tolerant person for whom these kinds of ontological issues do not affect how you deal with other people - but this is certainly not the norm.
"I love this word. Reason, this little, feeble passion, is so reasonable that it even tells us (you!) we shouldn't give it too much importance."
Ha ha! Nice turn of phrase. Is this conclusion the product of reason? The die-hard rationalist is unlikely to agree! :)
"Approaching reality is not my highest concern (which actually is living happy)"
Glad to hear it!
"Though, approaching reality through reason - and NOT through faith - is the key to happiness. Faith is 100% sure misleading."
Goodness, I wonder quite how you use 'faith' that it is 100% certain to be misleading! :) Also, I find it very unlikely that denying faith is the key to happiness... if this were true, all Christians would be miserable. I find the opposite is the case! :) (Although this is not to claim that all Christians are happy, of course!)
Is faith 100% misleading when a couple take a leap of faith and choose to get married, something that goes far beyond any claim of reason?
Is faith 100% misleading when one chooses to believe they can be happy, despite manifest reasons that suggest otherwise?
Is faith 100% misleading when one decides to believe that's one's creative work (a book, a song etc.) will succeed?
"Reason at least has a lower percentage, even though we are unsure of it, as all reason's critics tell us. Reason however stays the best choice out of an infinity of poor and uncertain faiths."
The presumption that the product of reason will always "outperform" the product of faith makes a lot of assumptions - perhaps the biggest of which being that these two processes can be clearly delineated. In fact, any action of reason involves an element of faith. Another classic problem with reason is that the conclusions are only as good as the assumptions - and in this regard, I would suggest assuming that reason "outperforms" instinct or intuition (particular kinds of faith) is a dangerous game.
Consider, as one example, the person who adopts a mysophobic stance, being paranoid about germs. The germs are indeed everywhere - the person in question is not unreasonable in this regard. But their *fear* of these germs has a deeply negative effect on their life. Most of the germs we encounter are a part of our natural microflora, and indeed trying to stave off these germs (especially in children) will weaken immune systems and have a negative effect. The mysophobe is convinced that what they are doing is reasonable - and their conclusion does follow reasonably from their premises - it is just that the premises are deeply confused. A person who, by comparison, takes faith that they are unlikely to encounter dangerous germs in everyday life, and curtails any mysophobia to simply washing their hands before eating, is far likely to have a happier life.
How does one know that one's premises, which which reason works, are indeed sound if not by an act of faith?
"I totally disagree, and would instead state that we have to create our own philosophies, for all the reasons mentioned."
You want to assert a boundary between "a philosophy" and "a religion". To be sure, one can draw this distinction. But my claim is that even if one does not draw against religious traditions in forming one's philosophies (which we all do, whether we realise it or not) any philosophy which offers a complete stance on life - an ontology, an ethical system, a set of guiding narratives - functions identically to a religion. The barrier between philosophy (in your sense) and religion is artificial.
It amuses me how often rationalists want to exclude Buddhism from the category of a religion, preferring instead to see it as a philosophy. This reflects a prejudice against other forms of religion (usually, against faith based religions). It amuses me even further that individuals who follow faith based traditions like to say that what they follow is not a religion but "a way of life" (i.e. a philosophy). They *too* hold the same kind of prejudice against "religion" - they just reserve this term for *other* religions. I make the claim that the rationalist is pretty much in the same situation.
There is a strong desire these days to fence off "religion"; this creation of a seperate category which one denies applies to oneself is a breeding ground for prejudice.
Finally, I wish to be clear that in having this discussion my goal is not to convince you of anything, but merely to engage your questions in the manner of my own perspective. My hope is merely that we will learn something from each other by having the discussion. You might say, I have faith that we will both benefit from the conversation! :)
Posted by: Chris | September 30, 2010 at 07:51 AM
Well, thanks to give me the opportunity to continue to challenge your "own perspective", Chris!
All that you say is pretty true - no game on this word's implications please! ;) - but all the examples you give imply that the person who makes assumptions, who have "faiths" (big and small) does not, or is not ready to let them away, to reconsider them in the light of "new evidence", or to look at them from another perspective.
I persist and sign as to say that there is a fundamental difference between a philosophy and a religion: a philosophy is perpetually searching and asking questions. A religion claims to have found answers. (No matter how many).
Of course, this implies that a lot of philosophical systems are indeed religions.
So, being skeptical, as to always be ready to abandon some beliefs when finding indications that they are false or incomplete, seems to be the only way of "being rational". (Being "actively skeptical" --> searching for our premises' counter-arguments is pretty my attitude.)
This is deeply ironic, for even the skeptical approach relies on the assumption that "nothing can be taken for granted", and that "reason is reasonable", or things like this. However, I am not sure if these contradictions really have any importance, for the skeptical process in itself ought to consider them. I guess this is not so far from the limits of human condition.
I believe you and me fundamentally agree on the necessity of never being so sure of any assumption as to become dangerous fools. Only, we express and understand it quite differently.
While you insist that "there are always faiths everywhere", I consider that only one faith cannot be torn apart; that reason is our best ally.
Indeed, my words were not well chosen when I said that "faith is 100% misleading". Of course, you can get lucky with it. And all the choices made on "faith" that you give as examples (marrying, publishing...) are, I think, rarely made solely on "faith". Intuition would be a proper word, I guess, and it is more a mix of belief and reason ("incomplete reasoning"?) than pure faith. Pure faith is pure non-sense.
As I said earlier in the discussion, I haven't, ever, learned to rely on non-sense. People who do, do have a lot of ontological prejudice, no?
And if so, I really don't understand how you can tell people that they have to make their own religion; except if you take a relativist stance, that all "truths" are equivalent. Which is to me the summum of all faiths put together, the Grand Absolute Non-Sense. (lol)
So, well, I can't understand that predicament of making religions. It can't be good (except by "luck"). Can it?
Posted by: Gabriel Legaré | October 01, 2010 at 07:08 PM
Gabriel: Thank you for expanding your points here; it brings a clarity to our discussion to view it in this way.
"all the examples you give imply that the person who makes assumptions, who have 'faiths' (big and small) does not, or is not ready to let them away, to reconsider them in the light of "new evidence", or to look at them from another perspective."
Well what I am claiming is that the purpose of faith where it serves us is to escape from the self-critical trap of constantly questioning. A married person who constantly questions whether their spouse will be true to them does not trust their partner; that trust requires faith, and for the relationship to work one must to some extent abandon oneself to it.
But accepting faith in a specific role such as this is not the same as allowing one's faith in one thing to dictate one's beliefs about *everything*. This is the "error" of the Creation Scientist, who failing to understand the nature of their own religion takes their commitment to the factual authority of their holy book and uses this to undermine evidence that in no way should be a challenge to their religious commitments.
I admire a married couple who keep faith in one another through life, but I would scarcely admire a married couple who said "because we believe in our love, the angles of a triangle do not add up to 180 degrees". When faith extends beyond its remit it loses its virtue.
"there is a fundamental difference between a philosophy and a religion: a philosophy is perpetually searching and asking questions."
This is your distinction, and you're welcome to it, but I believe it (a) is essentially perjorative against religion, i.e. displays bias and prejudice and (b) fails to accurately describe actual religious practices. The many schools of Buddhism would be split between religion and philosophy on this account, and I don't find that a very useful approach. It is as if your faith in your own definitions is more important than observations. :)
"A religion claims to have found answers."
Well this makes many scientists faith in science into a religion, which I wryly approve of as a viewpoint, and the modern skeptics's answer of dismissing anything incompatible with materialism as "unscientific" without appeal to experiment would also be a religion. ;)
But seriously, the honest pursuit of any religion makes no claim to have found answers. The Abrahamic faiths are faiths - when honestly followed, one at most accepts that one has sensed a truth that cannot actually be grasped, and thus one acknowledges a central role for mystery. The Dharmic faiths suggests ways of living and offer means of disbelieving certain illusions, but I'm not sure I would take any of these things as "finding answers".
In so much as your definition of religion is constrained to claims to have found answers (presumably universal answers?) it is a definition of fundamentalism (which is not always a bad thing, I might add - the Amish seem to make it work) rather than of religion, per se.
"So, being skeptical, as to always be ready to abandon some beliefs when finding indications that they are false or incomplete, seems to be the only way of 'being rational'."
But if this is so, then no-one is rational, since even the skeptic is not ready to abandon some of their beliefs - although the skeptic certainly makes loud public protestations to the extent that they will. The modern skeptic (as opposed, say, to the ancient Greek sceptic or zetetic) is deeply committed to a particular way of seeing the world - materialism/physicalism - and no evidence presented will sway them from this. Evidence that seems to refute this belief is dismissed a priori as an error or fraud (cf. the Ganzfeld experiment). So the skeptic practices what you call religion - they claim to have found answers, specifically, the materialist perspective as the ultimate determinant of truth.
Note that I'm not saying the skeptic is epistemologically wrong for choosing to deny that which contradicts materialism - this may be correct as far as epistemology is concerned. What I am claiming is that it is no use suggesting that this approach isn't founded on faith.
I also want to make a psychological counter-claim to the merits of skepticism, which is that if one *really* begins to challenge all the assumptions, one ends up either going insane or skirting the edges of madness. This, perhaps, is why skeptics do not pursue your policy of challenging everything in practice, but accept certain things as a foundation from which they will explore. And in this regard, they are not greatly removed from a lot of practictioners of religion.
"While you insist that 'there are always faiths everywhere', I consider that only one faith cannot be torn apart; that reason is our best ally."
I certainly dispute that reason cannot be torn apart - Feyerabend does a remarkable job in "Farewell to Reason" of setting up its limits. But I am mindful of Charles Taylor's observation that if one is to have a worthwhile debate on the merits of different construals of reality, it has to take place in the court of critical reason - because without this, what kind of discussion is possible? (Taylor, incidentally, is a practicing Roman Catholic. He still asks a great deal of very pertinent and relevant questions! Does this mean Catholicism isn't a religion? *laughs*)
"Of course, you can get lucky with [faith]"
How very gracious of you to concede this possibility. :) My claim is far stronger: by choosing faith, one can create one's own luck. Those people who remain happily married for their entire life do so because they had faith. They didn't "get lucky" (except from the perspective of pure statistical analysis where the individual is entirely obliterated from consideration) - their faith was precisely the reason their marriage worked.
"Intuition would be a proper word, I guess, and it is more a mix of belief and reason ("incomplete reasoning"?) than pure faith."
Well on this, we are perhaps in agreement. Precisely my position is that faith and reason are not as clearly separable as you originally suggested, and that to live a good life one must accept a little from both.
"Pure faith is pure non-sense."
As a Discordian, I believe in salvation through nonsense. >:)
"As I said earlier in the discussion, I haven't, ever, learned to rely on non-sense. People who do, do have a lot of ontological prejudice, no?"
Do I have a lot of ontological prejudice? If I do, then so do we all.
"And if so, I really don't understand how you can tell people that they have to make their own religion; except if you take a relativist stance, that all "truths" are equivalent."
All truths are not equivalent - I am not advancing a position of pure relativism, just a position of non-foundationalism. It is not that different construals of the world do not have their different merits, just that there is no single construal of the world that is built on perfect bedrock. This, in fact, was the major philosophical thread of the latter half of the twentieth century.
And let me clarify: I do not say "people have to make their own religion", what I say is "no-one gets away without something that functions as a religion". I am not saying "make your own religion!" (although I am in support of people who do!) but "you will not get by in life without some kind of metaphysical and ethical system, and the narrative that either implies these or is implied by it". And those three things together are what makes a religion. Hence, everyone always already has a religion (or a non-religion, to make an allowance for those people who suffer cognitive dissonance in the face of the suggestion that they have any connection with religion!)
"I can't understand that predicament of making religions. It can't be good (except by "luck"). Can it?"
If this is so, then life is pure luck. And neither of us believe this.
Posted by: Chris | October 06, 2010 at 07:36 AM
Well, Chris, thanks! I think I'm (at last) understanding all the stuff you write on this blog.
Except maybe the part where you say you rely on non-sense, but eeehhhh... I guess it's just about relying on these "truths" we feel, we see and we learn, without any possible experimental evidence.
And for this, I have to say I totally agree with you. If having "faith", out of the fundamentalist meaning of the word, lies precisely in the act of not throwing away these truths, well, yeah, I am a religious man. Only, I feel that your use of the word - that I now approve - is not what most people understand. It's probably just a question of linguistic and conceptual evolution, though :)
It was nice to have this discussion with you, Chris.
Posted by: Gabriel Legaré | October 07, 2010 at 12:58 AM
Gabriel: I rely on nonsense because I find it easier to trust than truth. Truth shifts with one's beliefs, but nonsense is always nonsense. :D
A pleasure having this discussion with you! I hope you will get involved with some of the other topics here in the Game at some point.
All the best!
Posted by: Chris | October 07, 2010 at 11:06 AM
Gabriel, unfortunately I was so slow that most of this is already covered (and better), but I enjoyed your remarks so I might as well throw it out.
"the examples you give imply that the person who makes assumptions, who have "faiths" (big and small) does not, or is not ready to let them away, to reconsider them in the light of "new evidence", or to look at them from another perspective."
Your analysis of faith is a bit strange - history strongly suggests differently! In Christianity alone there are a good dozen major heresies, three full-on schisms, dozens of lesser schisms, and when it comes to lesser intellectual modulations of doctrine - probably thousands upon thousands of alternative perspectives. Even before the scriptural canon is fully formed in antiquity there are dramatic intellectual developments in interpretative technology (analogical readings, in essence) - and Christians have mined the Bible ever since, an exegesis mirrored in all major religions.
The anti-dogmatic argument fascinates me - I would like to read its history one day. I find it a considerable paradox in this argument that immutable forms like sacred texts have never historically inhibited novelty - I rather think they promote it by providing a stable intellectual field functioning as a meta-language - and by forcing reason to subvert the terms of that field where it does not consummate them! I imagine even that the degree of inhibition in this field is vitally correlated to the intensity of efforts to bring about transformation. This is similar to the novelty/conservation dynamic that Gershem Scholem wrote about with reference to Kabbalah; it is transparently obvious in natural science - which, were it to "reconsider" with every single "new piece of evidence", would drown in a sea of confusion. If you read the newspapers you can grok this from the incessant 'health advice' and 'cancer risks', which are frequently in self-contradiction in the space of a week - in a single paper.
I like to call this field 'cybernetic' (probably wrongly :D) ; it is there to form the control-set whether an experiment is religious, moral or scientific (chemistry has a calibrant, so this is intellectually the technology of calibration I suppose). Or judicial - what else is casuistry? Etc etc - sometimes I wonder if you could usefully take it all the way down to psychology's most popular artefact, Ego, and further...
Does 'faith' differ for the individual in the light of this? I gain a disposition of values like a poker hand; I test my desire to hold them by experiences of doubt, by novel situations and such - indeed I am forced to test them operationally, 'in the field' - a functional reality that is even built into the cosmology, especially, of Judaism and Christianity (Pagel's Satan(s) as Adversary and Prosecutor; yetzer hara in Judaism).
"a philosophy is perpetually searching and asking questions. A religion claims to have found answers."
I do not in essence disagree but I would like to add certain angles. Firstly, is either of these conditions preferable? Are they not technological complements - philosophy the discernment, invention and refinement of new (and old) modalities of reason - the mining and artifice of valencies (possible values) - and religion one operational manifold of that activity, involved in generating, manifesting and capitalising values? A language-grammar type complementarity (dialectics under scholasticism comes to mind immediately). Crude but useful. What is skepticism in this technological view? It is nothing more nor less than a useful tool - Nietzsche's tuning fork function (I hope I'm remembering that rightly) - the operational field of calibration. Faith is another tool, one which capitalises the field of values by enclosing portions of it - creating power from its topological gradients and qualities. I suppose reason, as a tool, generates causal networks based upon logical grammars, if such a statement is sensible - those fields which determine permissible connections between elements, and what those elements are etc.
I'll leave that since it's getting terribly sketchy. It was too much fun rustling it up...
"I am not sure if these contradictions really have any importance, for the skeptical process in itself ought to consider them"
I think these contradictions are vitally important. Do they not reveal that skepticism is an attitude of the will, and not a product of reason - or certainly not complete reason? Is it not a framework of judgement and adherence that is arbitrarily tilted towards a willing refusal to capitalise or invest in some beliefs, and one which operates under precisely the same indeterminate and incomplete framing as faith itself? Is a skeptical attitude not inherently incomplete, since it must involve an inhibition, a reasonableness, toward the investigation of its own premises - which would otherwise result in an ethos not unlike that of the Cynics? Why does the heresiarch of our day coyly stop short of full atheism, if not to employ the maximal degree of pretentious bigotry from the dismal sophist throne of 'reasonable' skepticism?
"I consider that only one faith cannot be torn apart; that reason is our best ally."
I sympathise, but my feeling for why "there are always faiths everywhere" would be that the considerable majority of human experience involves degrees of incompleteness that demand the intervention of judgement. Put another way, reason in itself cannot decide - it provides a splendid plenum, but an interminable one; it is this plenum that the act of judgement intersects. Is the value produced by this act of elimination not trust in all its formations - oaths, honour, integrity, deceit, paranoia...? These are as vital to civilisation as they are to everyday life, yet they are all faiths. Try renouncing faith in your mortgage, in property rights, the tax code, your creditors... Alas, they believe in you rather more! For them, reason is also their best ally - a weapon for tyranny :D
But perhaps my view is too much an idiosyncratic cabalism :D. The path between Judgement and Splendour is that of the Hanged Man, of sacrifice and suspension (and a lot more, but glosses for now) - no surprise then that Judgement has the signature of Mars, of power and conflict, while Splendour is under Mercury. There's a good laugh in how one of Splendour's virtues is submission, or surrender - humility? There's always another reason not to yield, right? Hehe.
Lastly, I do find it fascinating that you mention relativism - since is this not the very effect of infinitely regressing - interminable - decidability? Probably some nice stuff hiding up that sleeve but I'd better stop chewing your arm off.
Well, it was a lot of fun chipping (butting?) in. Hope I didn't come across like a pillock - I haven't really set any of this out on paper before. I'm a gobby neophyte :D . Or naif, perhaps!
Posted by: Robb | October 07, 2010 at 08:10 PM
Robb: delightful comment! I enjoyed reading it, but since the bulk of your remarks are directed at Gabriel there's little I can contribute.
I do want to say, however, that your characterisation of skepticism as "an attitude of the will... tilted towards a willing refusal to capitalise or invest in some beliefs" was quite marvellous. This is precisely how I see the modern materialist - as a miserly investor determined to ferret out the "sure things" and dismissing the merits of backing anything else.
Thanks for sharing your viewpoint!
Posted by: Chris | October 12, 2010 at 07:43 AM