The following rant should be turned into an essay at some point, like so very many other ideas currently bouncing around, but I feel like babbling for a little while to-night as a way of distracting myself briefly from my reading. This is not a new idea per se, though I do take an extreme position within it, and it is important that I begin to outline my relationship to it in my own language. If I turn it into an essay for this site the points made will be elaborated and supported, of course; for now, I merely ramble aimlessly, making little sense, but extemporaneously elucidating the contents of my evening brain. Love me.
It is my contention that the ultimate expression of human hubris is certainty, in all its forms. That is, to feel absolutely convinced that one is “right” and another “wrong” is, for me, the purest expression of pride- an intellectual conceit. In a concrete and relevant example, this applies equally to the certainty of atheism (absolute denial of the existence of God) as to that of religious belief (absolute conviction in same).
I believe that to be intellectually honest, one must always acknowledge possibilities that are contrary to one’s own views. Whilst forming opinions or positions on matters of faith or philosophy, one must remain open to the spectre of error, as well as retain a sense of over-all perspective. All faiths, for example, depend upon the decision of an individual to believe in the absence of direct evidence; is this not as prideful as the protestations of the devout atheist, who rejects out of hand the possibility of God? Both positions rely upon the judgement of the believer, and neither can be logically defended- they are equally emotional in derivation.
For Kierkegaard, the objective uncertainty of religion is the very foundation of its appeal; he denied that any religion could be demonstrated as representative of an objective reality, and relied upon a “leap of faith” into the unknown as the highest religious ideal. Whilst addressing the ambiguity and subjectivity that would later define existentialism, Kierkegaard’s leap is ultimately unsatisfactory philosophically. I believe that he is correct in assuming that it is the only basis for religious expression however; religious truth is, at its core, subjectivity. “Faith does not result from straightforward scholarly deliberation, nor does it come directly; on the contrary, in this objectivity one loses that infinite, personal, impassioned interestedness, which is the condition of faith.” -SK
For me, this principle has broad applications beyond the religious. Ambiguity is everywhere around us– it is in philosophy, in science, in communication, in relationships. We are all ultimately unable to define anything beyond the reaches of our own consciousness, and have to make assumptions regarding others’ understanding of the same realities. This ambiguity can be found applied to language in the works of Derrida, for example, but again, I do not wish to limit the thesis.
Personally, I hold that all “truth” is personal and subjective, defined by and existing within the limitations of our own experience of the world. Whether or not there is an objective truth, an ultimate reality, is in the end irrelevant to the human condition, as it is by definition unknowable and inconceivable. What we can know with some certainty, is that consciousness exists. It is from this point that philosophy may being to answer questions. Even here, however, ambiguity must be considered.
Sartre attempts, for example, to demonstrate phenomenologically the theory of direct realism; that is, that there is an objective reality outside of ourselves, and it is exactly as we perceive it to be. His proofs fail to account adequately for differences in perception, and break down further when quantum theory is brought into play.
I’m stealing an example from physics and misusing it here. Stated briefly, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle deals with the location of particles at the quantum level, and runs like this: “The more precisely the position is determined, the less precisely the momentum is known in this instant, and vice versa.” This idea has implications beyond physics, in particular within philosophy. Without going into details, I will point out that quantum mechanics, and this principle of indeterminacy, is a powerful argument for the subjectivity of reality, since it limits our ability to achieve full knowledge of physical reality. To see why, add in the famous Schrödinger’s cat demonstration of indeterminacy, wherein it’s argued that our perceptions act to -determine- the world that we experience. Where Sartre goes wrong is in denying this (the ideas predate his by a decade or so) and insisting upon the objectivity of our sensory perceptions.
Getting back to metaphysics and the religious experience, I will remind the reader that the desire to seek God, and the feelings that accompany such connexion, are demonstrably founded in neurology. Extensive studies of shifts in brain chemistry during religious experiences from wildly divergent faiths have shown an identical response. In short, religion as a concept is hard-wired into the human brain; only the manifestations vary.
Who can truly explain the differences of the major religions? Is it possible that they all reflect a deeper truth? It is possible that only one is correct, and all other Men are deluded, and if so, why is this truth known only to a few? Is it possible that none are true beyond the subjective needs of the believer? My position follows the latter question. The experience of religious truths is a subjective element of individual human consciousness, and not an expression of any external reality. This does not make them “untrue,” of course; it merely reduces them to a more appropriate foundation within subjectivity. Well, and the peculiar form of religious truth would be rooted in historical contingency, i.e., in the culture surrounding the believer.
If we were to accept, hypothetically, the proposition that the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God exists outside the universe, and is its ultimate source and doom, could we ever hope to comprehend His ineffable nature? What frame of reference could we bring to bear? How can one hope to comprehend a God with such awesome properties; any definition we could possibly provide would be a limitation on, by definition, an infinite and limitless being. One would have to be a god to know the mind of a god, or to understand its motivations or desires. Kant shows this pretty well perfectly in his first Critique, where he limits the realm of human knowledge to the phenomenal- that which we can know through the senses- and cuts us off from knowing anything about the noumenal realm of objective reality. Brilliant work, but he doesn’t follow his epistemology far enough and makes excuses later for his beliefs.
Furthermore, I must accept that proposition that no two beings experience the world in exactly the same way, and that even shared value systems are defined by personal judgements- the same creed is expressed countless different ways by different Men throughout history. When we come down to it, all value systems, whether or not they are purportedly divine in origin, are intimately human, as it is our individual interpretations that give them form, and our actions that give them meaning.
So what do I believe? Well, to paraphrase a zen aphorism, the only thing that I feel certain about [know] is that there is nothing to be certain of [is that I know nothing]. I do believe that it is within the province of Man to make value judgements, form religious and philosophical opinions, and take steps better to understand the world around them. I do not believe that it is possible for Man to understand the ultimate nature of reality, nor do I think it healthy for cultures or individuals to develop complex systems of belief and then accept them as absolute fact. I believe in the questioning nature of Man, which is the source of scientific, religious and philosophic thought; I do not, however, believe in our ability to answer all questions through any of these methods. I think it most prudent to form opinions, but to refrain from final conclusions, maintaining always an understanding of ambiguity and subjectivity, and the effects of these ideas on our evolving conceptions.
*phew!* Enough ranting for one evening; I am exhausted.
“Since belief is measured by action, he who forbids us to believe religion to be true, necessarily also forbids us to act as we should if we did believe it to be true. The whole defense of religious faith hinges upon action.” -William James