Sunday, March 20, 2011

Destroying the Idols of Local Truth

Moral philosopher Immanuel Kant’s first formulation was that of normative behavior. He posited,

Always act according to that maxim whose universality as a law you can at the same time will.”
Stated otherwise, behave as though the decisions you make would be acceptable to you if made by everyone, everywhere. Hence, if buying ones wares is a behavior that you can universally will or abide, then do not exempt yourself by theft. This is sometimes called the “universalizability test.” When the “universalizability test” is applied to epistemology, we find that the only way of knowing, the only paradigm that can stand is naturalism or methodological naturalism.

Religious Fundamentalism—Local Truth Systems/Privatized Truth

How does a religious fundamentalist know—what is her epistemology? Using the example of theistic religions, the Christian or Muslim fundamentalist knows by the same means that everyone else does—by use of the senses. However, fundamentalist epistemology diverges when it comes to authority and subjectivity. The fundamentalist’s primary epistemological commitment is to remain faithful to the “faith/truth once given” generally in the form of apodictic revelation like the Bible or the Quran. Fundamentalist truth is static, and the fundamentalist is not able to abide or abet revisions to dogma (Clayton, p. 33). Hence, fundamentalism is characterized by “tenacity, authority, a closure of inquiry, and an absence of growth” (Anderson, 3030).

Fundamentalism privatizes truth. It appeals to the authority of scripture or to subjective experiences. It is closed to criticism, walling itself up into privatized, localized truth systems, and the fundamentalist exempts her dogma, her truth from criticism, sheltering her beliefs in a veil of ignorance. She maintains her local shrine and protects it from criticism.

Science—Global Perspectives

Unlike privatized, localized truth systems, science seeks to find the realities, the truths that cut through and transcend subjective contexts. Science is a process, a way of knowing, and an epistemological commitment. By definition scientific knowledge is empirical, fluid, and continually open to revision. It does not cluster around sacrosanct ideas, it does not enshrine and wall in the sacred; rather, it exposes all ideas to criticism and to the rubric of empiricism and naturalism.

Dogmatic Epistemologies are Immoral

When we apply Kant’s first formulation, the “universalizability test,” to fundamentalist epistemology, we find it immoral. The scientist and scientific epistemology seek to “discover a single underlying framework that belongs to every possible observer” (Clayton, p 41). This single framework is naturalism—the paradigm that everyone can share in regardless of birth or life position. The fundamentalist seeks to create and defend a local truth system, a shrine, a set of impassible truth and unalterable knowledge that is exempt from the same criteria she would apply to other truth systems.

Would the fundamentalist Christian, for example, abide and abet the Muslim believer in making the same gratuitous assumptions and defenses of the Quran that she makes for her own view of the Bible? No, she exempts her local truth shrine from criticism, from the universal acid of naturalism, that she would gladly apply to her neighbor’s local truth shrine. If there ever were an idolatry, it is that of local truth systems, that of fundamentalism.

In light of Kant’s first formulation, the only responsible and ethically consistent epistemology is that of methodological naturalism and/or science. Every other epistemology is local, non-universal, and exempts itself from the stream of progress.

Works Cited

Anderson, Douglas. "Pierce's Common Sense Marriage of Religion and Science" in The Cambridge Companion to Pierce. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Clayton, Phillip. Adventures in the Spirit: God, World, Divine Action. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008.


John said...

I appreciated this post. Good read.

Uruk said...

Very, very interesting perspective. I have a few new wrinkles on my brain from reading that.

Jamie G. said...

Ouch... idealogical elitism, much? Global truth vs. local truth? Too many underlying assumptions philosophically for me.

Peter said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peter said...

amie....good points. I really did not mean to come off that way.

My focus is not on bodies of knowledge but ways to knowledge, epistemologies. I think you would agree that science is the most unifying epistemology. I think you would also agree that fundamentalist epistemologies, with reliance on revealed truth and subjective experience (e.g., voices, visions, leadings from the Spirit, etc.) work the opposite direction--to fragment.

However, I see and feel your criticisms for what they are, and I am not sure if my reply above suffices. More thought...

Jamie G. said...

Hope I didn't sound too harsh.

Yes, science is pretty damn awesome (in it's utter purity philosophically).

Ultimately, in my opinion, the lines aren't so clearly defined. Words work well to create concepts... mental fences to parcel the whole of reality out into usable portions that are set on our survivability.

Yet, and I think why I seemed so harsh, is that among the "New Atheists" there seems to be this "Science is All, and the End in Itself"... I totally disagree with that. Not that I'm saying we should pick up every fantasy and myth, but since as finite beings, we will always deal with myths, it is impossible for us to capture the Holy Grail, God (or the Universe) itself passing for our eyes... we must, I think, forever be satisfied with being graced enough in just seeing its ass, Science included.

Peter said...

Hey Jamie,

I am with you relative to the positivism and "scientism" that often attends the "New Atheism." I do feel there is that which is worth knowing and experiencing beyond scientific empiricism. Maybe this is the romantic in me, but it is how is feel.

I realize that science is always tainted by human subjectivity. However, that does not remove the fact that science is the most objective way of knowing and that it, in principle, breaks the shackles of local truth systems. You might find it worth knowing that I acquired the term "local truth" from Chet Rayamo, a religious naturalist who wrote Without God Everything is Holy. Though I feel my post represents his thinking well (which was not my goal, just an ancillary accomplishment), he would completely agree that science is imperfect but the best epistemology yet to be devised.

And, yes, I agree that we will always be learning. The more we learn, the broader the field of unknowing becomes. The more beach, the more contact with the unknown beneath the waters.

Jamie G. said...

Oh, I definitely don't disagree with you here... science is pretty damn special.

I guess I meant it like this:

Religious folks have been driving around a "pimped out" Ford Fiesta... crappy car, but they figure the 20" rims, slick paint job, and huge fin on the back makes it something great.

Along comes the Science folks with their Lamborghini Reventon... definitely awesome to behold, and it's epic watching the Science folk give the religious folk a good beat-down.

The problems is, those New Atheist guys are cruising town letting the religious folk know their Fiesta ain't shit, but at the same time they are yelling out their windows that my Chevy Cobalt ain't shit either. Um... I know that, but my Cobalt gets me where I want to go.

Not everyone can be a scientist and have formal training in science and philosophy. There are those of us who are trying to get by day-to-day... and in the end, we all form our own personal metaphysics to deal and survive in this world. Some got Reventons, some got Fiestas, and some got Cobalts, etc.