This is my last retrospective posting.
From now on I will blog in real-time and keep any private correspondence as e-mail. This was my response to a list member who said that she could not justify her faith. I am now in my stride and am trying to sound shamelessly clever-
“It’s 2 :30 in the morning and I am as bright as a button so I thought it would be fun to challenge myself to address your point about ‘justification’ – something that I, on occasion, get quite excited by. Forgive pretentiousness and gobbiness.
As I see it engaging with these sorts of issues for most people is not a priority. Frankly they are not interested. That does not mean that they cannot or should not engage. In your case you say you are not worried, but you clearly spend time worrying enough about ‘meaning’ to engage with L’s poetry and all your other cerebral cultural pursuits. I would suggest that like many people of faith you think it’s integrity would be despoiled if you sought to justify it. In other words it is by nature ‘beyond justification.’ By beyond justification what you really mean is that words cannot be used to describe it and in that respect Wittgenstein and me would agree with you. I will come back to this point in a minute.
‘Faith’ is believing in something without seeking justification. That is fine as long as it is not allowed to preclude debate. Some religions (not all) exercise political authority by valuing faith over faithless. Notions of the faithful compared to the faithless are then imposed usually by powerful men over the less powerful (quite often women) in their society. Thus religion and society become intertwined, and while in the less offensive examples there are checks and balances imposed by political systems like democracy, many living under these ‘faith based philosophies’ are simply bullied. And nobody likes bullies! You may note for example there is no leading political figure in America who is openly atheist. In this case political expediency promotes unfairly the notion of Christian faith. Fortunately there are so many other counter-forces at play, not least technology and the media that the outcome is not disastrous.
Back to Wittgenstein. His argument, as I understand it, is that the only tool we have to engage in debate or to seek out truth is words. But most words are meaningless except as relative expressions of other words. This produces cyclic arguments where one definition can only be true when compared to an agreed definition of another and vice versa. Faith and faithless would be an example of an argument which is ultimately without meaning. Hence he implies not worth bothering with. He was an exceptional mathematician and I am afraid I just don’t have the intellect to engage with the maths but my lay persons interpretation of the next part of his argument is as follows. (I am really not sure this is what he intended but so what).
Some expressions are less amorphous than others (for him those formulated in the language of maths in particular) but for me, at least one step away from maths, those formulated in the language of engineering are more accessible and the outcomes can then of course be simulated on computers. Things like weather, populations and economies can be simulated but the results are not reliable. On the other hand the fundamental factors underlying these models are discrete numbers ie. with fixed not continuous values a bit like words which can be defined in terms sufficiently absolute to mirror the laws of physics. In particular the number 1 and 0. So my argument is that the closer a word comes to being definable as either a 1 or a 0 the more it is potentially subject to worthwhile debate (particularly in a political context where real outcomes affecting people are likely) the further it is from being definable as one and zero the less worthwhile it is. Of course it can still be worthwhile for reasons like exercising the intellect or enjoying the discourse, that’s absolutely fine, but it should not influence the more fundamental values of broad societal fairness. This list sets out a few potential test cases that get increasing more problematic
On or off
Live or dead
Hungry or fed
Schooled or illiterate
Man or woman
Free or enslaved
Now we can go on arguing about the degree to which these binary oppositions are truly binary or meaningful but my point holds that some of my examples can be abstracted and tested reliably by a machine and thus there is some evidence that they exist as quasi absolutes outside of human variability and fallibility. Of course that has nothing to do with God who cannot be defined in binary terms.
But ‘on’ and ‘off’ can, and there is some broad consensus that a dead rabbit is the binary opposite to a live one. Even in religious terms that the two rabbits are in different states, however those states are then defined by the particular religion.
So where does that get us.
My argument is that for religion, faith, belief, instinct, gut feeling etc to be meaningful beyond the personal they must be justified in terms that broadly respond to our best and most current guess about the laws of the physical universe. This can then to some degree be tested. We can measure whether our rabbit has a pulse for example.
My view is that It is the physical universe that matters in terms of a cure for Ebola, feeding, clothing, housing people, ensuring that bullies aren’t allowed to lord it etc. It is only as a result of the emergence of societies like ours, where these issues are to some degree addressed that we are empowered to recognise injustice and do something about it. That is a responsibility that must be exercised politically by encouraging the global redistribution of wealth which is the biggest single factoring in proliferating justice that we are able to control (there are plenty of even more important factors we cannot control). Faith has singularly failed to address these predicaments and if anything it has made them worse. Thus it’s about time the faithless were given an opportunity to have a go and those with faith shut up for a bit.
G’s argument would be that disastrous post enlightenment political systems have had their chance (and I agree the soviet model didn’t work) but as I see it the 2 or 3 hundred years worth of failed attempts pales in comparison to the millennia of failure demonstrated by the faith based status quo. I think the real dawn of robust but tolerant atheism (not the Dawkins brand) has yet to break. I don’t suppose I will be here to see it but I really hope my children or their children will be. The alternative is really quite unthinkable but sadly very possible unless there is some significant resistance. It is certainly not just Muslim fundamentalism that needs to be addressed. We need to continue to ensure there is a wholesale deconstruction of links between church and state along the French model. State support for religion should be as competitive as state support for the arts. Education must encourage faith debate but not support a faith.
End of rant.
Had a great time at Chemo yesterday. Met somebody else from the village who I used to be in W with me. M abandoned me and went to talk to him at his bedside cos his wife has died (breast cancer just after M as it happens) really felt for him going through his treatment alone. I continue to be so moved by the compassion and care exercised by the staff at Y. I really think it has been the most positive thing to come out of this. I find myself really liking people in a way which I didn’t somehow have time for before. Not that I didn’t like people it’s just that now I am almost in love with them all – male, female, senior, junior whoever – they just need to be nice to me and like a Labrador I come running up to lie on their lap. MUST BE THE DRUGS.
Anyway 4:50 now so time to get up.
Please, please never take my vents seriously. I cannot account for why I take such pleasure in mouthing off but the absolutely last thing I want to do is hurt anyone. On the other hand the other absolutely last thing I want to do is to turn into some sort of ill person that cannot be berated or challenged.