Saturday, September 08, 2007

Standards of Truth

On my early morning walks, much mistier and cooler now than in the summer, I'm still thinking about fundamentalism. It is a question that doesn't seem to go away, even after I have paced it through morning after morning.

For the past two days, I have been thinking about the standards of truth, and I have come to this conclusion.

People who live in today's scientific, rational world have a natural standard of truth based on experience, sense information, testing, researching, comparison and contrast, deduction, and induction. We've been raised this way, our education has formed us this way, and that's how we come to conclusions. We must understand an idea and test it against standards before we accept it. And when there are contradictions, we probe further--there must be an error, an omission, deliberate or incomplete misinformation: for two truths cannot contradict each other and yet still be true.

Now, someone who is a fundamentalist--and it doesn't matter what kind of fundamentalist--has to switch to using a different standard of truth for religious matters. This religious standard of truth is based on whether something appears in a book or a doctrine, or whether it has been stated in a pulpit. If experience, sense information, testing, researching, comparison and contrast, deduction, and induction suggest something different, fundamentalists are supposed to block those ideas from their mind out of devotion to this religious truth standard. They call this faith. If there are contraditions, they must either ignore them or delicately step around them.

Yet these two standards of truth are mutually exclusive. They are polar opposites. Moreover, you can't switch standards of truth on and off like lightbulbs; and you can't do both at the same time. Deep down, you have only one standard of truth.

I think it's the superhuman effort to maintain two mutually exclusive standards of truth in the same brain that pushes fundamentalists to extreme action. They have to prove to themselves that they think according to the religious standard, when deep down, they think according to the natural standard. They have to distract themselves from the discordance in their own minds and from the natural-type truths that must be nudging them.

Perhaps this is why converts are often the most extreme of fundamentalists. They have to work harder to shove their natural standard of truth aside to make room for the religious standard of truth.

Quakers have that old sentence from Fox about knowing things experimentally. Fox's idea was (or appears to have been) that religious truth must be true by natural standards. Reading even revered books demands scholarship and academic discipline, the same as everything else. He seemed to have scorn for people who quoted scriptures to justify their beliefs (You say the apostle says this, and Paul says that, but what do you say?). I believe he was advocating against having a different (and lower) standard of truth for religion. For Fox, religious experience as a natural experience had to be the foundation of religious beliefs and doctrines.

A fundamentalist friend once told me that experience was the basis of fundamentalism. I replied that a religious experience doesn't come with a name tag. It comes simply as a sense of Something Out There or Something Within, or a Nudge or a Beckoning. It's vague and formless, even though it is compelling. You can't have an experience of a doctrine of a trinity, or a duty to wear a burqa.

If one believes that their is only one Being out there, then religious experience must be the same for all religions. (Unless one rationalizes that God speaks to my religion, and the Devil speaks to everyone else's!) So it's the differences that have to be maintained by the religious standard of truth.

Perhaps this is why the world's religions are polarizing into two camps: the moderates, who focus on the commonality of religious experience, and the fundamentalists, who focus on the differences of doctrine.

M. Scott Peck, the author of The Road Less Travelled, wrote another less well-known book called The Lie, about the nature of evil. Peck suggests that all evil proceeds from lying. It's an interesting thesis. Lying can take many forms--running away from truth, abusing truth, masking truth, deliberately distoring truth, omitting truth, and especially lying to oneself and self-delusion. Lies from government, powerful classes, middle-class complacency, myths, and outmoded ways are the spawning grounds of crime, poverty, injustice, violence, and of course, more lies.

One has to lie to oneself in order to hold two opposite standards of truth.


At 9:40 PM, Blogger R. Scot Miller said...

Hi Nancy, I think it must be very hard to live in such a dualistic world. One is either rational, sensible, and I'm quite sure "liberal," or one is simply a fundamentalist who is guilty of lying to themselves, and of course, others, no matter how unwittingly. I would like to raise two points.
First, there is absolutely no empirical evidence that pacifism is consistently the best response to the suffering of the innocent due to violence perpetrated by an unjust agressor. Secondly, I fail to see how empiricism has produced any truth outside of the medical field and some other hard sciences that has actually produced rational solutions to a broken world that continues to be burdened with all of those people who decide that that social sciences are the best response we have to offer broken people.
Accordingly,pacifism must be irrational, a matter of faith, and thus, pacifist must be fundamentalists and possibly suffering from pathological tendancies toward some sort of messiah complex.
As for empirical responses to brokennes made manifest through social sciences, as one who has worked and studied in the field, I an tell you that the so called human sciences are far from empirical, and that humans defy any process intending to classify or diagnose the human condition. My friend, while fundamentalism is not an appropriate response to brokenness, the enlightenment has failed. Science has failed humanity the very minute irrational humans defend themselves with nuclear bombs, and believe me, military science suggests this possibility.
I would like to think that most of us live with uncomfortable truths about ourselves, and that most of us recognize that hypocracy is an unwelcome, but very real, part of our lives. I claim to want peace, yet I continue to benefit from the systematic economic violence carried out by my country of origin. I continue to benefit from injustice and privilege, yet I refuse to suggest that I should give up more than my fair share. When will science correct these problems. To this point, the enlightenment and liberal democracy
has failed in its claims of truth, the claims that most everyone seems to be buying into without regard for their own complicity in the brokenness of humanity.
I am terribly sorry this is so long, and probably far to harsh. I would look forward to hearing from you.
scot miller

At 7:48 AM, Blogger Nancy A said...

Scot -- yes, I see what you mean.

I guess the best kind of "dualism" is thinking with the head (naturally, or as you say, empirically) and the heart--rather than with the head and with the religious text.

I guess the point of the posting was just that one person can't hold two different types of truth in the same head without twisting him/herself into knots. There are, of course, other dimensions of thinking.

The point about pacificism is interesting. Is pacificism irrational? I always thought war was a product of religious thinking -- you know, that God is always on our side, we are the good guys, etc. War is irrational because it refuses to examine the issue from all sides. It also uses means that are incompatable with the end. Certainly science is involved in war (bomb technology, etc.), but natural thinking isn't.

Fundamentalists are certainly not opposed to using science and rational thinking when it serves their purposes. But they don't use it consistently, and they don't use it to draw toward new conclusions, just to confirm old ones. For example, Christian fundamentalists are always looking for scientific proof that the theory of evolution is wrong--ignoring all the existing scientific proof that the theory is right! This is an abuse of natural thinking, to my mind.

One interesting facet of the war/pacifism split is that the fundamentalist people out there seem to be very keen on war, Christian, Muslim, or Jewish. Whereas natural-thinking people tend to be opposed to war.

At 8:23 AM, Blogger Nancy A said...

Also: Is empirical thinking the same as natural thinking? I see empirical thinking as a subset of natural thinking. Natural thinking strikes me as being much broader than mere science.

The scientific method is, after all, just a method--one tool in the toolbox. It's meant only to test certain kinds of ideas, but to test them rigorously.

So when the posting speaks of natural thinking, it's meant in the broader sense, not in the narrower sense.

At 11:44 AM, Anonymous Joe Carter said...

Using the empirical branch of a naturalistic point of view does address "the human condition" as well as that of life itself.

Scientific method is myopic in that it reveals processes, but not meaning unless that meaning is a restatement of process.

The empirical approach finds that biological life as an organized structure is predicated on interdependent relationships. In other words, cooperation is the foundation of what nourishes and sustains biological systems. It also communicates loud and clear that it is a whole set of mutually beneficial relationships, not just one or two. Heart, lung, kidney, and so on produce a valuable function within the whole system and each depends on the other "organs" for life as well. An interconnected whole if you will. This does not stop at the boundary of individual creatures either. Plants are the organ that makes oxygen and carbohydrates, and we make nitrates and CO2 in a mutual exchange as well. The perversion is predatory and parasitic relationships that can interfere and halt the developmental journey toward our full potential. This is a plain statement made through the structure of life and is also the empirical basis of what one might term pacifism, but actually includes the statement that doing something of nourishing value in the context of the greater whole of which we are part is the only way we can be fulfilled.

Is this really that hard to see? I am asking sincerely.

Thanks for the thoughtful comments to Nancy and Scott.


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