Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher


Faith and ways of knowing truth

posted by Rod Dreher

Today in New York, I paid a visit by the Beliefnet mothership, and said hi to some of the great people who bring you this here blog. I’ll admit, it surprised me that they have upended bottles of Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame in the office water coolers, and it was pretty startling to see our editrix Ju-Don Roberts being carried around the office on a sedan chair manned by interns, scattering vintage Cognac upon the sweaty brows of the laborers with her platinum aspergillum. But that’s life in the big city, I guess.
Tonight Templeton sponsored a small dinner in honor of Rebecca Goldstein and her new novel “36 Arguments for the Existence of God.” Her husband Steven Pinker was there, as were other luminaries. I’m not going to tell you how the book ends, of course, but it took me by surprise, and was, I think, about as good an argument for the value of the religious life as your going to get out of an atheist philosopher. That sounds uncharitable, maybe, and I don’t mean it to be; I actually mean it as a compliment. I was struck by listening to Goldstein talk tonight how much sympathy she seems to have for the religious mode of existence, even if she doesn’t share religious belief.
At one point in the group discussion, I mentioned anthropologist Wade Davis’s contention that the disappearance of indigenous cultures and their beliefs and ways of seeing the world impoverishes humanity, and asked her if she thought it would be a loss or a gain to humanity if everyone in the world who professed religious faith became an atheist. She said that the answer to that question “torments” her (and she didn’t answer the question). If you think about it, it’s a very hard question to answer, but an illuminating question for that reason. (The Christian version of that question would be: would it be a loss or a gain if everyone in the world who didn’t profess Christianity accepted Christ?).
In both the atheist and Christian version of the question, the obvious answer would be: the world would be better off, because it is better to live in truth than by an untruth. But is it not possible that people who live according to foundational beliefs that are not in fact true are able to see, or at least to embody, truths that elude those who hold objectively true beliefs. In other words, does the shaman’s religious beliefs and practices in some way give him insight into truth that eludes the atheist scientist? Could it be (from a Christian perspective) that the Orthodox Jew who denies that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah nevertheless embodies a vision that, however distorted by error, somehow refracts the pure light of truth in a useful and beautiful way, such that it would be a loss to humankind if it disappeared.
I guess what I’m asking has something to do with whether or not the world would be a poorer and more benighted place if people stopped telling stories and spoke only in non-fictional phrases.
Anyway, the concusion of “36 Arguments” suggests that in certain instances, it can be more noble to live what you believe to be a lie if it serves the greater good of one’s community. That propositional truths aren’t the only truths. At one point toward the end of the discussion, Kierkegaard’s argument that “truth is subjectivity” came up — the idea that the deeper truths that make life worth living cannot be apprehended objectively, but had to be taken into one’s heart and lived out to have force and meaning. The fellow sitting on my left said that was preposterous, that no truth that cannot be stated propositionally, and argued for in that way, deserves to be taken seriously. I think I see where he’s coming from, but how do you argue propositionally for the truth of a father’s love for his son? You can’t; it can only be known experientially. It’s that way with God too. As one of the dinner guests, an observant Jew and a friend of mine, put it playfuly tonight, proofs for the existence of God are “goyishe naches” — things that delight Gentiles. Funny, that.



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Pat

posted January 14, 2010 at 12:54 am


What do you mean by arguing something ‘propositionally’? Do you mean presenting evidence? Because in that case, what the son experiences is the evidence of the father’s love. Absent any evidences of love, how could the son believe it existed? And if experiences incompatible with love accumulate, they will eventually disprove the proposition ‘father loves me.’
I suppose you could argue from the father’s point of view – that nobody can really disprove somebody else’s claim to feel love, no matter how that person behaves, because ‘love’ is an internal feeling which nobody can directly observe. Is that what you mean, in using the counterexample?



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godisaheretic

posted January 14, 2010 at 1:04 am


“…father’s love for his son?”
let’s see… there’s overwhelming evidence that fathers exist and that sons exist.
that’s a good start, eh?
there’s also lots of evidence that shows that it’s very likely that some father somewhere has some love for his son.
there is no evidence for the existence of God of the high quality of the evidence for fathers and sons and love.
in-your-face-reality faith hope love joy peace to all…



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public_defender

posted January 14, 2010 at 5:43 am


Pretty much anytime everyone believes in the same vision without listening to outside criticism, you end up getting a corrupted and arrogant version of that vision. People of different faith (including those of no faith) need those who disagree with them.
I don’t know if my profession has changed my belief in the value of disagreement, or if I chose my profession because of my belief in the value of disagreement, but if you engage with people who disagree with you, you will generally end up smarter.



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John E. - Agn Stoic

posted January 14, 2010 at 6:31 am


I think I see where he’s coming from, but how do you argue propositionally for the truth of a father’s love for his son?
It is at least theoretically possible that advanced brain scanning technology might show a difference between the brain activity of a person who is performing actions out of love and the brain activity of a person who is performing those same actions because that is their job.



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meh

posted January 14, 2010 at 7:52 am


“Anyway, the concusion of “36 Arguments” suggests that in certain instances, it can be more noble to live what you believe to be a lie if it serves the greater good of one’s community. That propositional truths aren’t the only truths.”
Why call “greater good” a “truth”? Why not just call it greater good?



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Hector

posted January 14, 2010 at 8:40 am


Rod,
Your question is one that also causes me, as a Christian, a lot of soul searching. Especially so because, coming from a Hindu family, I have a lot of respect and, dare I say it, affection for what is good in the tradition I grew up exposed to. Do I really want to see them all become Christians and for that several thousand year old tradition, with all the stories, mystical experience, poetry, and way of understanding the world, disappear? The same goes for various other faith systems in Africa, Asia, and the Americas.
I tend to hold to the C.S. Lewis line that Christianity is the true fulfilment not just of the Old Testament, but whatever is true and good in all religions, and so I don’t see such non-Christian religions as ‘alien’ or ‘false’ as much as I see them as incomplete. I hope it is possible for a culture and a nation to come to belief in Christ without giving up their unique understanding of how God spoke to their ancestors, and how he speaks to them today. But I don’t know if it is possible. We can only hope.



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Ray Ingles

posted January 14, 2010 at 9:11 am


…how do you argue propositionally for the truth of a father’s love for his son?
How many songs are there about the difference between saying you love someone and actually acting like it?



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Saint Andeol

posted January 14, 2010 at 9:22 am


(The Christian version of that question would be: would it be a loss or a gain if everyone in the world who didn’t profess Christianity accepted Christ?).
is this really an equivalent question? i ask because atheists don’t believe people who don’t believe what they do will burn in fire and suffer eternally. shouldn’t all Christians think it would be a gain, since that means no one would burn in hell and all of God’s children would come back to him?
that’s why Hector’s response confuses me. does Hector believe all these people with their “several thousand year old tradition” will burn forever if they don’t incorporate Christ into their existing belief structure? he seems to think that them saving their souls will make their traditions “disappear”. should a Christian be at all torn about this possibility, when the alternative is Hell?
also, let’s see if i did the italics right for Rod’s parenthetical.



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Turmarion

posted January 14, 2010 at 10:06 am


Pat: Absent any evidences of love, how could the son believe it existed?
Well, this is using the rules of geometry or algebra to deal with human emotions. People may love someone to various degrees and in different modes, which may wax and wane over time; they may be able to express that love to a greater or lesser extent depending on temperament and culture; etc. etc.
Ray Ingles: How many songs are there about the difference between saying you love someone and actually acting like it?
Good point, just as there are many songs about, “Do you love me,” “What is love, anyway,” and so on. If merely logging evidences for or against love were sufficient, probably two-thirds of poetry, songs, and literature would never have been written, would they?
meh: Why call “greater good” a “truth”? Why not just call it greater good?
To the broader question: The analytical philosophers of the early 20th Century took the attitude that “truth” means solely the correspondence of propositions to the observed world. If I say, “It’s raining,” and it is, then that’s a true proposition, else it’s false. Since only such statements can be empirically observed, it follows (according to them) that statements of preference, value, morality, and metaphysics are neither true nor false (they have no “truth value”, in the jargon of the trade), are in fact not meaningful at all. “It is raining” can be observed as true or false. “Rain is good” or “The rain is beautiful” cannot be compared to anything since these propositions state moral or aesthetic judgments. Since there is nothing to which they can correspond (the “correspondence theory” of truth), they have no “real” meaning. Ditto, implicitly, emotions. Short of mind reading or some such device as John E. postulates, there is no correspondence for “The father loves the son” or “Susie hates Bobby” or any other such emotional statement.
Thus, analytical philosophy threw out religion, spirituality, ethics, and metaphysics tout court and focused solely on issues of semantics. Many who were not analytical philosophers saw this as a sad narrowing of the once-noble field of philosophy.
In any case, I think this is what Rod is getting at by what he said about “propositional” truth about love and such. You can’t “prove” love or hate or nobility or most of the the things that humans really value in the way that analytic philosophers suggested, or in a mathematical or empirical way. You have to assume another realm of values, if you will, which is independent of pure statements of empirical observation. Some (such as analytical philosophers and hard-core materialists) don’t like this; they insist either that such things can (somehow!) be derived from purely impersonal material forces, or that they are epiphenomena or emergent phenomena, or in the most extreme case, that they don’t “really” exist. One is entitled to that opinion, of course, but it goes against the intuitive beliefs of most of humanity (including those who make these arguments–they don’t say, “My love, I burn with emergent epiphenominal passion for you, if it exists”!).
Thus, for those of us who are not analysts or materialists, things can be “true” in a different sense. An analyst would say that the proposition “Stealing is wrong” has no truth value, since it has no correspondent. One could say, “Society outlaws stealing” or some such, but one could never say that “Stealing is wrong” is either true of false. Most of us, however, judge from a different standard, based on human dignity, Aristotelian “practical reason”, what’s good for society, Divine Law, or some such. From such standards, one can indeed say that “Stealing is wrong” is a true statement. Thus, in a like manner, I don’t necessarily share meh’s reluctance to say that a “greater good” may also be a “truth”. It depends largely on how one defines “truth”.
Saint Andreol: i ask because atheists don’t believe people who don’t believe what they do will burn in fire and suffer eternally. shouldn’t all Christians think it would be a gain, since that means no one would burn in hell and all of God’s children would come back to him?
Well, not all Christians believe this. Catholicism says that those who have no opportunity to believe, or who have “invincible ignorance”, etc., are capable of being saved if their disposition is correct; and being a believer as such is no guarantee against Hell, for those who believe in it. It’s not quite as simple as all that. I tend to be a universalist, but don’t deny the possibility of Hell. If anyone ends up there, I think it’s not because of what they believe or disbelieve (if that were so, God should have made the “correct” belief a lot clearer!), but because of the kind of person they were. It’s interesting that in the Parable of the Sheep and Goats (Matthew 25:31-46) belief is never even mentioned, and both the saved and the damned seem rather surprised at the outcomes. Perhaps God prefers a non-believer who acts in good faith and is a good person, to a believer who is a blackguard? Food for thought for all of us.



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Connie Connie in Wisconsin

posted January 14, 2010 at 10:19 am


it can be more noble to live what you believe to be a lie if it serves the greater good of one’s community.
I believe there exists an interview with William Safire where he almost admts he believed this.



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Arabesque

posted January 14, 2010 at 10:41 am


I don’t understand what ‘refracts the pure light of truth in a useful and beautiful way’ could mean. It is nonsense. To further torture your metaphor, it seems to imply there is some Photon of Truth that the Mis-ground Lens of Honest Mistake might project into the watery depths of all people’s hearts to give an experiential knowledge of god.
I would recast the question as: Is there any truth, that can not be arrived at by other means, discoverable by belief in a false proposition? Stated this way the answer is no, there is not.



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MH

posted January 14, 2010 at 11:14 am


Rod said, “In both the atheist and Christian version of the question, the obvious answer would be: the world would be better off, because it is better to live in truth than by an untruth.”
I don’t think all atheists would agree with this statement. There’s a strain of atheism sympathetic to Leo Strauss’s concept of “Noble lies and deadly truths.” In this formulation of atheism the average person becoming an atheist risks society running off the rails. They view religion as good for crowd control although they view it as false.
The “New Atheists” view this as condescending to the average person and do agree with Rod’s statement.



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Turmarion

posted January 14, 2010 at 12:18 pm


Arabesque: I don’t understand what ‘refracts the pure light of truth in a useful and beautiful way’ could mean.
Depending on the experiment you perform, a beam of light can be perceived either as a wave or a stream of particles (photons). Common sense is that these two are mutually exculsive, and yet a single photon, beamed through slits, seems to go through both at once–i.e., it acts like a wave. So is light “really” a wave or a particle? Well, the answer is both–and neither.
One way of putting it is that our senses, conceptual apparatus, and machines are incapable of grasping what, say, light truly is. Rather, we can perceive it in different aspects, as a wave or as a particle, depending on how we make the observation. Or one could say that the pure light of truth is refracted in different ways through our limited perceptions.
Not that this has a direct bearing on the religious issue, but I think it shows that such statements about seemingly different perceptions of the one truth are not inherently absurd or meaningless.



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MikeW

posted January 14, 2010 at 1:11 pm


Hector has a good point. I’ve struggled with the exclusivity of Christianity in general and Orthodox Christianity in particular and have found Lewis’s perspective helpful. That does, however, leave me out in the cold, particularly amongst my Orthodox friends who believe that Orthodoxy is, well, the most authentic expression of Christianity. And so I’m happy to answer to being a Christian, but I don’t necessarily embrace dogma that seems to have less to do with bettering my soul and more to do with rules of the club, if that makes sense.
Thanks for the post and comments.
Mike



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MikeW

posted January 14, 2010 at 1:28 pm


Rod, this is completely off topic, but when you announced your move to Templeton, I was curious so snooped around at there web site. I guess what surprised me was that Templeton has a focus on science, religion, morals, and so on, but what I didn’t find is any mention of the arts. Am I missing something?
Art is certainly one of the most important expressions of a culture. I can’t count all of the really smart programmers, program managers, and software engineers I worked with at Microsoft over the years who also turned out to be musicians, or visual artists, or poets, and so on. For many of them, art was their passion, and technology was just a way to make money. Tough to really move people with a new version of Microsoft Word, but stand up in front of a 100 people who are brought to their feet by your banjo solo, and that’s really something.
Anyway, just wondering if you might have time to comment on this some time. By the way, I’m now working for a small town symphony orchestra. We’ve recently become much more involved in working with area kids, trying to change lives for the better one violin (or guitar, cello or trumpet) at a time through our various programs for kids.
Best,
Mike



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Alicia

posted January 14, 2010 at 1:36 pm


Rod, you said:
“I guess what I’m asking has something to do with whether or not the world would be a poorer and more benighted place if people stopped telling stories and spoke only in non-fictional phrases.”
That’s a pretty good summary of the premise of Ricky Gervais’s recent movie, “The Invention of Lying.” If you by chance read Nell Minow’s review on Movie Mom, she argued that “The Invention of Lying” suggests that a world in which there was no imagination, but only objective truth, would be a much impoverished one. Not all atheists are anti-religious. However, “The Invention of Lying” was criticized as such for asking questions that made some people uncomfortable.



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Mark

posted January 14, 2010 at 1:39 pm


I think the world would be a far worse place if all who professed faith suddenly became unbelievers. Something you often hear from believers is that if they didn’t believe in God, there would be no reason for them to behave ethically towards others. I trust them on that point, and sincerely hope they keep the faith.
There’s another way of looking at it though – in this hypothetical world where everyone’s an atheist, Pat Robertson would be just an annoying old guy on a barstool in Virginia! And on what would the Jihadists base their actions? In this world where supernatural friends are banished from the imagination, one could no longer justify transgressions on their behalf, or on their orders. Hmmm.



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Quiddity

posted January 14, 2010 at 1:48 pm


A lot of this debate about God’s existence could be quickly settled if someone could make an empirical demonstration that he (or she, or they) exist. You know, do another Elijah on Mt. Carmel test.
Why isn’t that the test? Pretty much everybody else (especially scientists) are supposed to demonstrate that something exists (or is “true”).
Why the retreat into purely linguistic/logical-land by believers?



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MH

posted January 14, 2010 at 1:50 pm


Turmarion, your first post was great and beat me to the punch. Essentially how someone defines the word truth depends upon their metaphysics.
From my point of view metaphysics can’t be proven, so the only truth we can posses is the pragmatic facts on the ground truth. Basically that which self-evident or pragmatically assumed to be true.
I have to get picky with your quantum mechanics analogy in your second post. Most physicists don’t see quantum mechanics as an objectively real description of the universe. Instead they tend to view it instrumentally because of its predictive power, and struggle greatly with interpretations and their meaning.
At the present time there’s no interpretation of quantum mechanics that can be falsified and no consensus on which one can assumed to be true. For example your statement came closest to the Copenhagen interpretation, but the many-worlds wave only interpretation has become more popular recently.
To me this controversy fits in with my bias towards the view that there are limits to knowledge and pragmatic truth is all we’ll ever have.



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Michael

posted January 14, 2010 at 2:03 pm


The number of ideas that have disappeared from this Earth far outnumbers the number of species. They flitted their way into human minds and were variously summarily dismissed, briefly entertained before being eradicated, absorbed into a neural network before withering to nothing, or uttered aloud only to be met with violent reaction- their host learning a valuable lesson. By and large, as is the case with postmodernism and New Age Spirituality, we are better off for their timely disappearance.
No doubt, some traditions and beliefs found in indigenous cultures have and had value. I suspect that Christian missionaries, crusaders, and exploiters are more responsible for their eradiction than any plagues or lack of technical advancement or reason itself. If the concern is cultural diversity and its values, the place to start is silencing Christianity (and Islam, the faith which tears down ancient Buddhist shrines).
One more thing. How about start with truth. Does the proposition express the reality or not? If it doesn’t, then ask who is making money, working a domination, or exploiting understanding by lying. Then call them on it. That’s plenty spiritual a life for me.



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David J. White

posted January 14, 2010 at 2:43 pm


Do I really want to see them all become Christians and for that several thousand year old tradition, with all the stories, mystical experience, poetry, and way of understanding the world, disappear?
I’m a Classicist, as well as a Christian. Not too many people worship Zeus anymore, but certainly a great many of the stories and poetry, embodying at least some of the mystical experience and way of understand the world found in pre-Christian Hellenism, have survived and haven’t completely disappeared.



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editrix

posted January 14, 2010 at 4:31 pm


Rod, you are hilarious. :-)



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Turmarion

posted January 14, 2010 at 7:01 pm


MH, thank you.
For example your statement came closest to the Copenhagen interpretation, but the many-worlds wave only interpretation has become more popular recently.
Very perceptive–I am rather conservative in this area, and while I don’t have enough depth of knowledge of quantum physics to have strong opinions, I do lean more toward the Copenhagen interpretation. While the many-worlds theory is interesting, by me it fails to be true science by being non-empircal, non-falsifiable, and distressingly ad hoc.
Most physicists don’t see quantum mechanics as an objectively real description of the universe. Instead they tend to view it instrumentally because of its predictive power, and struggle greatly with interpretations and their meaning.
Very true–I was egregiously oversimplifying, of course. My point was that it’s not necessarily unintelligible or muddle-headedly mystical to say that a truth that can’t be directly perceived in its entirety can be seen or manifested in different (sometimes even seemingly contradictory) modes. As to physicists’ interpretations, those arguments will probably continue for some time yet!
Arabesque: Is there any truth, that can not be arrived at by other means, discoverable by belief in a false proposition? Stated this way the answer is no, there is not.
It just occured to me to point out Michael Polanyi’s work on tacit knowledge. He had a background in the hard sciences, but later on did work on the philosophy of knowledge. Polanyi argued that there are certain things that we know but cannot express; in some cases we don’t explicitly “know that we know” them, or how. This is not the same as coming to truth through a false proposition, but I think it gives some basis for the concept of types of knowledge gained through religious exprience which cannot be attained in other ways.



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meh

posted January 14, 2010 at 7:33 pm


Turmarion: “One way of putting it is that our senses, conceptual apparatus, and machines are incapable of grasping what, say, light truly is. Rather, we can perceive it in different aspects, as a wave or as a particle, depending on how we make the observation.”
When we observe light as a particle, that’s what it truly is at that moment of observation. It’s not that the wave aspect is there in definite form at the same time but can’t be observed by the apparatus. The wave aspect literally exists as a superposition of possibilities at the moment of particle observation.



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MMH

posted January 14, 2010 at 7:40 pm


“Every truth stated is a lie.” That may be an extreme expression, but at least it might make us stop short and note that every expressed truth is just that, an expression; it’s not the truth itself. Thus, even from an exclusivist point of view it would be hard to hold that the world would be a better place if no other faiths existed. It seems obvious to me that, whatever the truth of other traditions, a Hindu who practices his faith deeply and sincerely or an intellectually honest atheist is bound to be closer to reality than a Christian who’s recites the creed but lives by Joel Osteen.



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the stupid Chris

posted January 14, 2010 at 7:50 pm


I guess what I’m asking has something to do with whether or not the world would be a poorer and more benighted place if people stopped telling stories and spoke only in non-fictional phrases.
Is it science, atheism or Christianity that you think unimaginative?
And while I’m here, I’d second MikeW’s observation about the arts at 1:28.



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Turmarion

posted January 14, 2010 at 8:26 pm


meh: When we observe light as a particle, that’s what it truly is at that moment of observation.
Is it? That’s a metaphysical assumption. Superposition of states is an interpretive model, but saying what it means in reality also involves metaphysical assumptions (after all, e.g., many-worlds theorists say in effect that there is no real superposition of states, just different worlds where different states obtain). As MH pointed out, physicists have been debating the interpretation of quantum physics for nearly a century now, with no sign of slowing.



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meh

posted January 14, 2010 at 8:57 pm


And saying that the apparatus is incapable of grasping what light truly is isn’t a metaphysical assumption?



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MH

posted January 14, 2010 at 9:14 pm


Turmarion, you beat me to the punch.
In the “Wade Davis on ancient religious knowledge” Franklin Jennings asked me what basis I used to prefer one action over another. I assume because he’s picked up on my skepticism.
So I borrowed a trick I learned from the philosophy of science and liberally sprinkled the “as if” clause around my reply. This is because scientists have an aversion to metaphysics, so they avoid saying that X is Y and instead say X acts as if it is Y. The use of the “as if” clause sidesteps an argument about metaphysics and keeps the philosophers at bay.



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meh

posted January 14, 2010 at 9:58 pm


Okay, so if we make a particle measurement of light, it acts as if it is a particle. If we make a wave measurement, it acts as if it’s a wave. By what assumption are these measurements incomplete and haven’t truly grasped what light is?



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MH

posted January 14, 2010 at 10:58 pm


No one would disagree with the measurements. But there’s the possibility that a new measurement could show you the incompleteness of your understanding and interpretation of that measurement.
For example Newton said that gravity acted as if it was a universally attractive force. But later measurements showed that understanding of gravity was flawed. So Einstein said that gravity acted as if objects moved in straight lines through curved space time. So far no carrier particle for gravity has been mentioned, so a theory of quantum gravity will likely force an amendment of that statement yet again.
So lets assume that someone finds a way to falsify many-worlds using something less risky than the quantum suicide experiment. They win a Nobel prize and it turns out we live in the many worlds. At that point light is purely a wave phenomena and its particle nature is illusion brought on by the many worlds. Conversely there are
particle-only views that rely on hidden variable models that are still possible even after the experiments demonstrating Bell’s inequalities.



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MH

posted January 14, 2010 at 11:26 pm


I personally think particle-wave duality is real and the problem is with us and not quantum mechanics. The problem is that our brains evolved to deal with matter on our scale and have an intuitive grasp of physics at our scale. So our expectations that quantum scale objects play by the same rules as us is flawed.
In any event sorry for the tangent to those uninterested in it.



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Turmrion

posted January 15, 2010 at 12:10 am


meh: And saying that the apparatus is incapable of grasping what light truly is isn’t a metaphysical assumption?
Touché.
Let me rephrase to make my original point.
1. One interpretation of the wave/particle nature of light is that light per se exists in a form incomprehensible to us and our instruments in its true form, manifesting itself either as a particle or as a wave, according to our (and our instruments’) limited perceptions.
2. While this is indeed a metaphysical assumption, there is at present no empirical, demonstrable, universally accepted reason to declare it any worse (or better) than any other metaphysical assumption (e.g. that it really is a particle sometimes and a wave at others).
3. For most of the life of quantum physics, my interpretation or interpretations similar to it have in fact predominated–Bohr himself inclined this way. Thus, while it may be equal to any other metaphysical view, I personally think (and I’m with MH on this) that it’s more equal than others. It seems more reasonable to me that our perception is limited than that something literally changes depending on the experiment you perform.
4. Thus, barring a breakthrough that decisively renders my interpretation untenable, I think it is a reasonably good example to support my original contention, viz, that it is not, as you indicated, incoherent to say that a truth may be partially perceived by us who cannot grasp it accurately in its true form.
However, suppose you want to toss out my model of quantum mechanics. Consider this: A three-dimensional object, say, my hand, may cast all kinds of different shadows that look very much different from each other, depending on how I orient it respective to the light source. To two-dimensional lifeforms on the wall, each shadow would seem to be a completely different thing, and if someone told them they were actually representations of the same reality, that is, my hand (which does not change but merely alters its position relative to the light and plane) they’d consider him crazy. Their necessarily limited perceptions of the two-dimensional projection of the three-dimensional reality give them a glimpse of the truth, though the glimpses seem to indicate different things.
If you don’t even like that, I refer you to the old parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant.
Okay, so if we make a particle measurement of light, it acts as if it is a particle. If we make a wave measurement, it acts as if it’s a wave. By what assumption are these measurements incomplete and haven’t truly grasped what light is?
1. There is no other area in our experience in which different modes of measurement give such radically different views.
2. Given some of the analogies I’ve given, it seems less repugnant to reason to say that we are measuring differing aspects of an underlying reality that we can’t directly apprehend than to say that a measurement magically changes particles to waves and back again.
Now you may disagree with point 2, but at the current state of our knowledge it is no worse or less likely than any other. To me it’s also more intuitively satisfying. Maybe not for you–but in either case, at the current state of our knowledge, it’s a matter of aesthetics or taste. Apparently you find the idea of the underlying reality more offensive or less to your taste–I’m on the other side. À chacun à a son goût, for now.
MH: In any event sorry for the tangent to those uninterested in it.
Hey, you never have to apologize for quantum physics! ;)



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meh

posted January 15, 2010 at 10:53 am


Turmarion, I could be wrong, but from his last comment I think MH agrees with me that the quantum world really is different from the classical world. It’s not that we can’t perceive the “normalcy” of the quantum world, it’s that we evolved in the “normal” classical world and have trouble apprehending the “weirdness” of the quantum world.



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Turmarion

posted January 15, 2010 at 12:16 pm


meh, maybe we’re miscommunicating. I agree that the quantum world differs from the classical, and that we have trouble apprehending the former, having evolved in the latter. MH said, at 11:26 yesterday, “I personally think particle-wave duality is real and the problem is with us and not quantum mechanics.” I took that (maybe wrongly) to mean the same thing as my assertion–that light is neither wave nor particle, but some other, incomprehensible thing that sometimes seems to us one way or the other. I took your statements (also possibly wrongly) to mean that light actually chages from particle to wave and back, depending on circumstances. If I’m interpreting you right, then I disagree with your view, which is OK–there’s plenty of disagreement in interpreting quantum theory.
The overall point I was making really had nothing to do per se with quantum mechanics, though. As I said, that was, I thought, a useful example of how an actual, real, truth could be perceived in partial and incomplete ways by different people under different circumstances. It was this concept to which you seemed to object when you said, “I don’t understand what ‘refracts the pure light of truth in a useful and beautiful way’ could mean. It is nonsense.” I don’t think it is necessarily nonsense, and I used the example from physics to illustrate, and later the other example (projections of 3D objects into 2D). You still may disagree with such ideas, which is OK, too–I just think they’re not ipso facto “nonsense”, conceptually speaking.



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MH

posted January 15, 2010 at 12:24 pm


meh, you and I are in agreement that the quantum world is different from the classical world. But to be clear the difference is not because the rules of quantum mechanics don’t apply at our scale. They do, but usually the weirdness averages out and is hidden from us. So there’s no quantum world versus our world dichotomy and reality is continuous.
Because the weirdness is hidden our brains weren’t set up to handle it, nor is our language up to the task of describing it in a consistent manner. So the word particle and the word wave are both inadequate to describe the underlying reality of a photon. So while I think duality is going on, it’s hard to discuss it without falling into a linguistic trap.
I think an area of agreement between Turmarion and I is our preference for the Copenhagen interpretation. Here the concept of a wave function which collapses was introduced to try and avoid the language problems. But we’re still not out of the woods because the underlying reality of a wave function is a point of disagreement even with this interpretation.



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meh

posted January 15, 2010 at 1:29 pm


Soooo, getting back to what Rod was writing about – could saying that a noble lie points to a deeper “truth” be a meta-noble lie that gives the noble lie more versmilitude?



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MH

posted January 15, 2010 at 2:00 pm


Ouch meh my head hurts.
I’m squarely in the enlightenment tradition and believe that the truth as best we can discern it will not hurt mankind. So noble lies in any form end up ignoble in practice.
I have a deep suspicion that proponents (like Leo Strauss) of the noble lie are probably lying to themselves. Their real motivation is to use the lie to obtain power over other human beings, but they want to convince themselves their motives are pure. Probably because they wouldn’t like looking in the mirror if they told themselves the truth.



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Turmarion

posted January 15, 2010 at 6:01 pm


A noble lie is still a lie–simple. I didn’t necessarily think that’s what Rod meant, though.
If I know X is true but tell you Y, which is false, with the motivation of making you happier, or better, or whatever, that’s a “noble” lie. Like the way they used not to tell cancer sufferers that they had cancer, long ago. As I said, it’s still a lie which, as MH says, will end up ignoble in practice. I think MH also hits it right on the head about the Strauss types.
In the case of different religions or worldviews, which is what Rod is talking about, it’s less simple. A Christian, for example, would think non-Christians are wrong in not acknowledging Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah. Jews would say Christians are wrong in thinking that Jesus is the Messiah. And so on. Propositionally, it is not possible that all religions are “right”, though all could be wrong, and there could be admixtures of error in some or all of them.
However, there is no agreed-upon way of determining religious truth (or falsity). Thus, while, say, with a Jew and a Christian one has to be wrong and one right (or both wrong)–that is, Jesus either is the Messiah or he’s not; and there might not even be a Messiah–neither is engaged in lies. Each sincerely believes his own position. To be wrong is different from being mendacious.
Now, a Christian, while believing his own faith to be right, or at least the most right, of religions, might acknowledge a Divine influence in other religions. Unless you assume that all non-Christian faiths are totally demonic or the result of complete delusion or deliberate lies (and though some Christians might think this way, most don’t), this seems reasonable. Thus, a Christian might say, “Though I think all non-Christians are in some sense and to some degree religiously wrong, I can nonetheless learn from them; in fact, some of them display more clearly than my own faith certain key virtues. I can learn from the passion for truth of the atheist, the tolerance of the Hindu, the awe of God’s majesty of the Muslim, the deep psychology of Buddhism, etc.” I think this is what Rod meant in speaking of “a vision that, however distorted by error, somehow refracts the pure light of truth in a useful and beautiful way, such that it would be a loss to humankind if it disappeared.”
As a Christian, I do not believe that all other religions are equal, but I don’t think (as Pat Roberson apparently does) that they’re automatically the work of the Devil or that non-Christians can’t be saved. I do think they all reflect some truth, and sometimes reflect aspects of it better than my own faith does. Given that God could have “made of us one people, had He desired,” to quote the Koran, I assume that in some sense He desires religious diversity, perhaps so that we will “compete with one another in doing good.” (the Koran again, both of these from Surah 5:48-50).
More broadly, I think that the great religions, myths, and even stories all embody truth in non-propositional form. I go with Polanyi in believing that truth is more than a bunch of propositions you can tell someone, like mathematical axioms. “Tacit knowledge” is more complex and deeper, and conveyed indirectly in non-propositional and sometimes non-cognitive ways; but it does convey true knowledge.
Thus the Iliad, the Odyssey, and The Lord of the Rings, for example, all are profoundly true. That doesn’t mean I believe Cyclopes or Hobbits once inhabited the Earth, or that the stories “happened”; but they do convey profound truths about the human condition that can’t be reduced to simple propositional knowledge. This is how I tend to look at Greek or Norse mythology or the great stories of other faiths.
I think much of the Bible is the same way, with the difference that (as C. S. Lewis put it), it’s a myth that actually happened; that is, the Resurrection of Christ, the Kingdom of Heaven, etc., are myths, but they actually happened, unlike the voyages of Odysseus or the Scouring of the Shire.
How’s that?



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meh

posted January 15, 2010 at 10:23 pm


Turmarion: “I think much of the Bible is the same way, with the difference that (as C. S. Lewis put it), it’s a myth that actually happened”
I think that could be a meta-noble lie that gives the noble lie that much more oomph. :)



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meh

posted January 15, 2010 at 10:51 pm


“that is, the Resurrection of Christ, the Kingdom of Heaven, etc., are myths, but they actually happened”
Maybe it would be nicer of me to say that it’s a meta-myth that gives the myth that much more oomph.



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MH

posted January 15, 2010 at 11:35 pm


Turmarion’s post seemed very much in the Karen Armstrong thinking mythically groove. Her criticism of modern man is that we all take things too literally and fail to connect with the underlying meaning in stories and religious allegory. Although she seems more of a universalist than Turmarion.
To me this seems like a hazard of living in an age of extremely precise quantitative measurements and analysis. The precision of our tools changes the way we think and relate to the world. We then judge the writings of previous eras with the same strict standards when they might have been speaking more figuratively. We might also need to be less figurative because of our precision.



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meh

posted January 16, 2010 at 8:26 am


Secular Heather Mac Donald does not agree with Armstrong’s take on religion:
http://secularright.org/wordpress/?p=2685#more-2685
Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins have companion essays on the implications of evolution for religion in the Wall Street Journal. I am not very familiar with Armstrong’s writings. I tried her book on Islam and found it saccharine, and I know that supporters of traditional religious belief regard her tolerant relativism with deep suspicion. Her argument here strikes me as so revisionist that it must grow out of some broader intellectual or ideological agenda of which I am unaware.
Armstrong blames the 17th century scientific revolution for the belief in a literal God. Until then, she claims, Christians were highly sophisticated consumers of religious myth, well-aware that
“what we call “God” is merely a symbol that points beyond itself to an indescribable transcendence.”
It was Newton who made people think that God actually created the universe, Armstrong says, and set them up for unbearable anguish when evolution showed that “there is no Intelligence controlling the cosmos” and that “God had no direct hand” in making human beings (Armstrong’s addition of “direct” to “hand” here is supremely disingenuous. Did he have a hand in creation or not?)
The idea that Medieval crusaders, relic-seeking pilgrims, or Europe’s warring sects possessed an ironic, purely metaphorical conception of “God,” one requiring scare quotes, strikes me as preposterous. The New Testament purports to be a historical account of a real God incarnate and his miraculous life on earth. The earliest cathedral iconography stressed just those miraculous aspects of the Jesus story, such as the resurrection and Jesus’ faith healing.



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Hector

posted January 16, 2010 at 10:02 am


MH,
I don’t agree. Turmarion’s vision of how religions relate to each other (which is also pretty much mine) is _not_ the same as Karen Armstrong’s. Turmarion (and C.S. Lewis, and me) are starting from the premise that the events of the Christian story, as recounted in the New Testament, actually happened. I’m fine with seeing much of the Old Testament, particularly the book of Genesis, as mythical, but I see the New Testament as history- sacred history, but no less historically and literally true for all that. Karen Armstrong, however, sees the New Testament accounts as myths, and the edifice of Christian theology built up since then as metaphors, which I roundly disagree with.
Turmarion,
Thanks for your post- I agree with most of it, and it expressed what I’ve long felt but never been able to express so well. I’m somewhat reminded of what George Orwell said about art, in an essay on Jonathan Swift, and why so many great artists had such strange personal lives, or such strange ideas about the world. He said, essentially, that what makes an artist great is precisely that they see one aspect of reality more clearly and more vividly than anyone else, and that this is seldom compatible with being able to have a healthy and balanced view of how the different aspects of reality relate to each other. The ordinary post office worker, in Orwell’s terms, would have a healthier and ‘saner’ wordlview then Tolstoy or Yeats, but what made Tolstoy or Yeats so off-the-wall in their ideas was intimately related to what made them a great artist.
In that same light, I believe that Christianity, on the whole, is the best explanation of supernatural/metaphysical reality that we have (as science is the best explanation of natural reality) and is the truest of the world religions. That said, there may be (and i think, are) individual aspects of reality which other religions may see very clearly, even more clearly than we do, and where they may have something to teach us.



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Turmarion

posted January 16, 2010 at 11:10 am


meh: I think that could be a meta-noble lie that gives the noble lie that much more oomph.
Well, “lie” implies deliberate deception. I don’t believe the Iliad or The Lord of the Rings is literally true to begin with, and no one is trying to push them on me or to insist I accept them as literal accounts. In short, no one is lying to me. Thus it’s not so much a matter of a noble lie, but of perceiving certain truths through non-literal, non-propositional modes of expression, since certain truths cannot be conveyed propositionally. You might disagree, but I don’t see that as a matter of a lie, although it is perhaps meta-linguistic.
Regarding Christian doctrines, a non-Christian would be perfectly free to consider them meta-myths (ditto the stories of any religion); but for most religions, certain foundational beliefs are usually considered non-negotiable. An orthodox Christian would say that the Resurrection and the Divinity of Christ are not metaphors, and that the faith would fall if they were (some heterodox Christians might disagree). Likewise most orthodox Jews would consider the literal transmission of the Torah to Moses indispensable, Muslims would require that Muhammad be the Seal of the Prophets, etc. For the believer, these things are not myths or meta-myths; or if they are, they are myths or meta-myths that are also literally true. One would not expect the perspective of believers and non-believers to be the same, and that’s OK. In my view, God is not going to smite those who just honestly don’t see it that way–had He wanted, He could have made things crystal clear for all.
MH: Turmarion’s post seemed very much in the Karen Armstrong thinking mythically groove.
Ahhhh!!! I hate Karen Armstrong!!! Actually, there are some similarities, admittedly. My problem with her is twofold: One, she tends to be hard on Christianity while minimizing the flaws of other religions–she should be more consistent. Two, she tend to take the mythological stuff too far. She seems to view religion as a mythically couched vehicle for making humans better people and making a better world. Not that those are ignoble goals, but I think that’s a tremendously shallow view of what religion’s about, and it always seems to get expressed by educated, white, First World people who’ve never really experienced deep suffering or known what it’s like to live one’s whole life in desperate poverty, violence, and uncertainty. Her perspective, in short, is sort of like secular humanism with cooler stories. That’s fine if it’s your cup of tea, but I’d rather be a humanist or a religionist, one or the other, not some weird combination of the two.
In this respect, I’d have to agree with Heather McDonald as quoted by meh. She, coming from the secular perspective, doesn’t have any more patience for Armstrong than I, coming from the religious side, do.
Aside from this, I’d largely agree with MH’s post.
Hector, excellent post. I’d pretty much agree.



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TravisG

posted January 21, 2010 at 2:07 pm


I recommend that you check this out, and even join the discussion if you like:
http://www.reliefjournal.com/2010/01/21/world-peace-all-figured-out/



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Siarlys Jenkins

posted January 21, 2010 at 7:33 pm


I am quite certain that a Jewish person, who denies that Yehoshua ben Yosef was the Messiah, can perceive a certain aspect of God’s truth which is not visible to a faithful believing Christian. I’ve asked an orthodox rabbi many questions about the original Hebrew meaning of the Old Testament, and he makes Genesis in particular, and some other portions, fall into place in a way no Christian could ever have done, resolving seeming contradictions and ambiguities in a way that makes so much sense it must be what God intended. In fact, I’m convinced that the reason there are still so many Jews in the world is precisely that God knew the gentiles would get things all mixed up and confused — better than remaining pagan, but far from a perfect understanding — and the Jewish scholars had to be there to serve as an anchor to exactly what God intended to say to all of us.



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