Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Great Conversation: Knowledge and Belief

In The Clouds, Aristophanes examines the dynamic tension between inquiry, which draws its authority from skepticism and religion, which draws its own from certainty. The two ideas can be thought of, in this sense, as two extreme points on a continuum that connects Knowledge to Belief. Geometry tells us that any line with two points on it can be bisected. What idea then lies at the mid-point between Knowledge and Belief? Are the differences between them irreconcilable?

Great Books’ Editor, Mortimer Adler, opens his Syntopicon entry on Religion with a short passage directly germane to the contrast between Knowledge and Belief.

“Argument is unprofitable—worse than that, unintelligible—when opponents do not share some common ground. Between the skeptic who denies reason’s competence and the philosopher or scientist who appeals to it, no common ground exists. Between the man who obeys the rule not to contradict himself and the man who finds nothing repugnant in answering Yes and No to the same question, there can be no argument. There is an issue between them, but the position each takes reduces the other to silence.” [466, Adler].

Despite Adler’s candid assessment of the difficulties in reconciling Belief with Knowledge (couched in his terms as Religion and Science), there are a number of truths that I, at least, hold to be self-evident that suggest that the decision to simply allow them to agree to disagree is not only unwise but, perhaps, dangerous. The first is that, for ill or well, whether by merit of truth or biology, the Belief in ideas that are either scientifically unknown or unknowable have been with us since prehistory and show no signs of becoming outmoded. The second is that Knowledge (or Science in whatever form it might take) draws unshakeable authority from its relentlessly skeptical inquiries and its discoveries may be thought of as true as anything can be until disproven. Both ideas obviously play an important part in understanding what it means to be human and so, the task falls to us to act as the arbiter in what seems to be an otherwise intractable negotiation.

We posed the question that opens this post to our growing community of readers on Facebook, evoking the active verb part of the Great Conversation by opening the broad ideas up to scrutiny in a general rather than a specialized way.

Dr. Sarah Webb, a writer and practicing Buddhist, postulates that the mid-point between Knowledge and Belief was “ambiguity and staying with uncertainty.” Drawing upon her own faith as a practicing Zen Buddhist, Dr. Webb directs our attention to the “religious traditions that are apophatic (which believe that ultimate reality is beyond the verbal, the rational, the constructed, and thus not entirely knowable.)” The key in reconciling these diametric viewpoints is based in one’s willingness “not to know because complete knowledge is impossible” while “looking into one's own experience and examining it in a questioning, open way without the expectation of a final and definitive answer.”

Though the Great Books deal most specifically with Western religious traditions, we were reminded that each of the extant faiths (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) once contained traditions (Kabbalism, Gnosticism, Sufism) that prized an experiential relationship with the source of their faith over the texts supposedly containing his Holy Writ. Turning more specifically to Christianity, we find Augustine, first, finding ambiguity to be a valuable commodity when interpreting what he supposes to be the Holy Words of God.

“When so many meanings, all of them acceptable as true, can be extracted from the words that Moses wrote, do you not see how foolish it is to make a bold assertion that one in particular is the one that he [Moses] had in mind?...There is only one God, who caused Moses to write the Holy Scriptures in the way best suited to the minds of great numbers of men who would all see truths in them, though not the same truths in each case.”

Aquinas restates Augustine’s position succinctly, noting that one must “hold the truth of Scripture without wavering” while adhering to “a particular explanation only in such measure as to be ready to abandon it, if it be proved with certainty to be false; lest Holy Scripture be exposed to the ridicule of unbelievers, and obstacles be placed to their believing.”

Here, at this early point in the development of both Christianity and Science, the methods by which both might be further and better understood show more similarities than irreconcilable differences. In all fairness, there was a parity that existed between Religion and Philosophy (of which Science was still considered a part) in terms of describing what could be known by the latter and speculating on that which cannot with the former that has become drastically unbalanced in the modern age.

William James, writing in the late 19th century as the gap between the two yawned ever wider suggests that Philosophy might yet play some intermediary role between the warring factions. The observations validated by the scientific method are, James suggests, “anything but ultimate…the data assumed by psychology, just like those assumed by physics, must sometime be overhauled. The effort to overhaul them clearly and thoroughly is metaphysics.” While James would definitely argue that Philosophy is distinct from his conception of Metaphysics, he does imply that each of the involved parties (Religion, Philosophy, Metaphysics, Science) exist on a continuum that flows smoothly from one mode to the next and are each, in some way, dependent on the health and stability of the others for its own growth and well-being.

For James, the divergence of Science from the realm of Philosophy can be traced to the emergence of Positivism (a term coined by pioneering sociologist Auguste Comte) as the dominant scientific worldview from the mid-19th century onwards. Positivism, according to Adler, is the “identification of science with knowledge of fact, and further, the restriction of such knowledge to conclusions obtained and verified empirically. Whatever does not accord with this conception of science is either, like mathematics or logic, a purely formal discipline, or, like philosophy and religion, it is conjecture, opinion, or belief—personal, subjective, even wishful” [Adler, 542]. For James, educated liberally in all of these subjects, abandoning all other modes of knowing for one, whatever benefits it may promise, is unthinkable.

Sigmund Freud, however, did not share these reservations and sketches out the hard-line positivist position clearly enough; noting that, “There is no other source of knowledge of the Universe, but the intellectual manipulation of carefully verified observations, in fact, what is called research, and that no knowledge can be obtained from revelation, intuition or inspiration.” It is ironic that a psychoanalyst and a sociologist (both from fields considered to be soft sciences) share an almost erotic attachment to empiricism (which had existed as an important if not isolated element of scientific inquiry since its genesis on the fringes of philosophic thought). They were, of course, not alone in this great migration towards the certainty of uncertainty as, by the mid-20th century, universities from all over the world joined in the fray to convert every possible discipline into a Positivistic one.

One would think that social trends pushing the agenda of Positivism to civilization writ large for over one hundred fifty years running might result in a dramatic change in the way that people saw the world in which they lived. We might expect belief in supernatural powers, at the very least, to show weakness in the face such overwhelming data to the contrary. A Harris Poll conducted in 2003 showed, surprisingly, that 90% of Americans surveyed expressed a belief in God. Another Harris poll, conducted in 2009 on the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, found that nearly half (45%) of persons surveyed believed that humans were created “directly by God” while only 29% believed that they had evolved from another species. To be sure, polling data is only as useful as the questions that generate it but the contour here is unmistakable.

While die-hard positivists might look at this data and conclude that all it proves is that 71% of people polled about Darwin are willfully ignorant, it is more telling that the polls asks them not what they know, but what they believe. What these numbers tell me is that science is a poor substitute for belief and the sooner that we come to reconciling our innate need for both, perhaps visualized under the idea of Ambiguity, the sooner we will be able to identify which value is appropriate for judging the merits of a particular argument.

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