In 1992 I listened to a remarkable lecture titled, Possible Answers to Basic Philosophical Questions. Dr. Schaeffer, the presenter, had made the point in an earlier lecture that philosophy is really a remarkably simple discipline because, unlike biology or physics, there are only a handful of questions and an equal number of possible answers. The other disciplines have thousands of such questions, each with thousands of possible answers. The study of the history of philosophy is a different matter because in it, you must learn the biographies of hundreds if not thousands of philosophers and their ideas.
When we came to this lecture, Dr. Schaeffer made the statement (my paraphrase) “At the end of the day there are only about five people left standing in the room, meaning five possible answers.” This lecture, in its simplicity, left such an impression on me that I studied it much longer and developed my own workshop, which I held at the Peter White Public Library in Marquette, Michigan. I titled my six-week workshop, “Eastern Vs Western Answers to Basic Philosophical Questions.”
This final installment of my series on Pluralism, Tolerance, and Relativity may be the most important one. I say so because, here in America at least, we are losing our concept of truth. This idea of relativism cuts to the center of this issue. But I must define once again what I mean by truth. I’m not talking about “my truth” or “your truth” and certainly not some kind of religious or political truth. I’m talking about truth in the classical Greek sense of “that which is.”
Right now, I am sitting on my deck, listening to the American Robins sing, my Saint Bernard snoring at my feet, under a seamless steel sky of azure blue. The official scientific name for this color is:
HSV (h, s, v) (197°, 43%, 92%)
sRGBB (r, g, b) (135, 206, 235)
Source X11 color names
ISCC–NBS descriptor Very light greenish blue
Now you can reasonably argue about the exact hue of the sky over me right now, but you cannot say it is red or yellow. You can also argue that in certain places and at certain times the sky may appear red . . . or even yellow. But the truth is, from my angle on my deck, at this moment in time, the spectrum of light coming to me is in this blue range. This is the kind of absolute truth I’m talking about.
When it comes to relativity, it is the process where we, for the noble pursuit of peace, erase the boundaries of truth that tend to cause divisions. It may have good intentions, but at what cost?
In my previous article I discussed the basics of intolerance. One way to try to erase intolerance is to dilute truth into a bland soup that embraces all views as the same. This is the post modern view of truth and for the aspiration of harmony as the pluralistic society is becoming more so. According to some historians that was how Hinduism was birthed, with the merging of several large polytheistic cultures. This blending is the source of the word relativity, where one person’s perspective of truth is equal or relative to the others. The problem with this, while I respect the desire for peace and tolerance, is sacrificing not only truth, but the very aspiration of ever finding truth again.
Imagine that two other people join me right now on my deck and they each look up and tell me the sky is a different color than blue. Maybe there is a problem with their perception of color, neurologically. You may argue here that maybe something is wrong with my perception. But color can be measured and analyzed scientifically, beyond our perception. Just walk into a Sherwin Williams store and they can do it right there in front of you, then reproduce that exact color in paint.
Now imagine these two friends are deeply invested in their notion that the sky is either yellow or red. The three of you start to argue about it. The argument starts to get ugly until one friend, with a noble intention, says, “Wait a minute. We are all just saying the same thing. We see the same color, but from our experience we call it a different name. Let’s just merge (in a relative way) our different views into one and call the color sky which is yellow, red, and blue.” The three of us smile and the conversation becomes civil again . . . but the concept of truth is lost forever.
The above was an imaginative narrative, so I will use a historical example to make this clearer.
On July 9, 2018, Donald Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh to be a Supreme Court judge. His regular hearings for nomination were September 4-7. Then it was revealed that Dr. Christine Blasey Ford had made a written accusation that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her, while intoxicated, in high school in 1982. Kavanaugh Immediately denied even knowing Dr. Ford. All my evangelical friends immediately said that Dr. Ford was a liar and fraud while many of my liberal friends said that Kavanaugh was a liar. This was without either side knowing the details or the character of the individuals and both sides chose the reality that they wanted to believe for political (culture war) purposes and without due diligence to find the real truth. Watching Fox News or MSNBC is not due diligence.
During the hearings, it became a clear “he said, she said” situation. Dr. Ford said she was 100% sure that her account was true, Judge Kavanaugh said the account never happened, period. But during this episode I heard people on TV, trying to be peacemakers in the situation, saying that both were telling the truth but from different perspectives, based on life experiences. That is an example of the relativity of truth or what is called “synthesis” in philosophical terms.
It is certainly worthy of debate if sexual misconduct in high school should disqualify someone from serving on the Supreme Court. I don’t know if it would. However, that was not the debate. It was a metaphysical debate. Brett said he had never met Ford and Ford said specifically that Brett had assaulted her. In classical logic, only one of those could be true. It is possible that both could be false, but both can’t be true without losing all aspirations of finding truth.
I did do some limited due diligence on the matter. My opinion? I have no clue as I was not there in the physical space in 1982 to witness what really happened. But I will never tailor my truth to fit my political point of view. If I were pro-life and expected that Kavanaugh would try to overturn Roe Vs Wade I would not assume that Ford was a liar, or as I heard one Baptist friend of a friend say, “Ford’s a slut, and I can tell a slut when I see one.” Put that in your head and think about it for a moment.
If I were pro-choice, I would not automatically believe Ford just so Kavanaugh would be disqualified, helping to preserve Roe Vs Wade. It would be easy for me for political reason to choose a “truth” but then that truth has nothing to do with reality. I do know that historically in “he said, she said” situations where the truth is later discovered (e.g. finding security camera footage) that the woman is correct more than 90% of the time. But that doesn’t mean that in this case Dr. Ford was either mistaken (wrong guy) or lying.
I want to say one more thing about tolerance before I move on. I am not saying here that we must stick to objective truth even if it causes intolerance. Hell no! We seek tolerance by respecting the other person despite their views, trying to understand their perspective, and by questioning our own views, but not by throwing out the concept of an absolute truth. On top of this, tolerance, at least for the Christian, should be a function of love, not agreement. But in America at least, most Christians have lost their interest in truth for the sake of the culture wars that they have, regrettably, decided to make their priority.
Now I will dive into the crux of the matter, the possible answers to the basic philosophical questions. I come to you as a stereotypical used car salesman, but I’m not trying to sell you a car. I’m trying to show you that every car on the lot is different from the other.
The basic philosophical question #1 is a metaphysical question. Why does the material universe even exist? I call it the great enigma. We exist and that creates a huge metaphysical problem, why or how? The following will describe the simple options that are available. Some of you are already saying that this is stupid because they know x, y, or z is the answer. I say emotional certainty is the enemy of real truth.
- Nihilism. You can interpret this philosophical position in several ways. One is that nothing is there. There is no universe, we don’t exist and there is nothing to consider. Very few people try to hold that position. The broader interpretation is that something is there, but it is totally meaningless, and that view is more common.
- Impersonal Genesis. This is the idea that all that exist came about through some impersonal process, the laws of physics (Newtonian and Relativistic, different from how I used relativism above) caused the creation of the universe, and those natural laws has sustained it and caused it to evolve to the present state. This is the atheistic view. The holders of this view sometimes cheat and add meaning or even personality to the universe (“I guess the universe didn’t want me to catch that bus today”). Even the late Carl Sagan would do that in my opinion. But honest atheists cannot add personality or meaning, beyond implied meaning, “Our purpose is to survive.” Says who? Maybe the earth would be better off without humans.
- Pantheistic. This is the notion that God is not a person but a force within the universe. Hinduism and Buddhism are pantheistic in nature. But there is a lot of “pop-pantheism” belief systems that have developed in the west since the 1960s.
- Polytheistic. This is the view that there is more than one God, but each with personal traits. The Greeks and Romans were the prime examples of this belief system. However, as I’m mentioned, some historians believe that Hinduism and other pantheistic beliefs evolved from the situation where several polytheistic systems merged.
- Monotheistic. This is where there is one creative, personal God and is best represented by the Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. But of course, there are strong differences between those faiths, Judaism and Islam being more similar and Christianity making the claim that Jesus was divine. My Muslim friends used to say that if we say that Jesus is divine, then Christianity is a polytheistic religion and not in the same league as Islam and Judaism.
So that my friends are the five people standing in the room, or the five cars on the lot. They are different, very different.
Again, I know much more about Christianity than the rest, second most about Islam. While Christianity has many interpretations (see my previous article about intolerance) there are a handful of tenets or pillows of these belief systems, that once removed, the entire system degrades into something implausible as a religion. For Christianity, it is the belief that God exists, that God created the universe, that evil is real, that Jesus existed in history and is different from all other persons in that he alone is divine. I will add that Christianity states that there will be no other revealed information from God after the Bible.
While Islam holds the tenets that God exists and is the creator, it also holds that Jesus was a historical figure and a prophet. But in contrast to Christianity, it holds the belief that to imagine Jesus as divine would be a sacrilege. They also hold that since Mohammed came 500 years after Christ, and too was a prophet, that he would have the most accurate information from God (The Koran) and that information supersedes anything written in the Christian scriptures.
I won’t even try to show the contrast with Judaism as it would show my ignorance. But I will briefly mention Hinduism as the major pantheistic view.
Hinduism would share with the other systems that truth is absolute and eternal, but, and that’s a big but, it can we expressed by wise people in different ways. This is what opens the door to the relativism that makes Hinduism and pantheism so palatable in a pluralistic society. The three men on my porch could be looking at the same sky and come up with three legitimate colors because their interpretation of the absolute truth is relative.
More so, the difference lies in the character of God. Hindus believe in one creative God, Brahman, who is truth and reality, but is not defined in a creative being separated for his/her creation as in the Abrahamic faiths, but the creation itself is part of the God-force that permeates the universe.
I will stop here, but there are very fundamental differences that matter. In Hinduism, if you re-define Brahman in the Abrahamic traditions, a person outside of creation, Hinduism would collapse. Too complicated to get into here.
In closing this piece, I will switch back to Christianity, which I know best. Christianity in America is in serious trouble. But if you study church history, which I have and have taught classes on it, the church has always been in trouble with one nonsense or the other. Of course, it has done some good too.
Today, the more conservative branch of the Christian church has been completely neutered by being subdued, then absorbed into right wing political philosophy, including American Nationalism. This absorption is almost comprehensive. Jesus, not a fan himself of organized religion, gave the metaphor of salt losing its saltiness, then what is it good for . . . absolutely nothing (to quote Edwin Starr).
On the other side of Christianity, the progressive or liberal wing, it is being absorbed into this relativistic Christianity, blending pantheistic ideologies for the sake of tolerance. Noble cause but will result in the tragic loss of an aspiration of truth. To many progressive Christians, God is now a force within nature, part of nature, but did not create nature as a separate entity. To them, Jesus’ existence in history or his unique divinity is extraneous. Their common currency with all other (even radically different) religious systems is experience or mysticism. Therefore, it too will become useless as it fades eventually and completely into this new Hodge-Podge pantheism.
Islam is facing almost the exact same pressures as Christianity. On its conservative side, it is blending Islam with radical right-wing political ideologies to end up with such products as Al Qaeda or ISIS. I have spent time with the Taliban, and they sound remarkably similar as conservative Christians do now. But Christianity is non-violent, isn’t it? Just give them time. Jan 6th was a literal shot across the bow as the “Christian flag” was carried into the capital building to assault the police and representatives, not to mention our democracy. I’ve seen on Face Book that evangelicals are now buying up assault weapons at an alarming rate, taking their homeschooled evangelical kids to gun ranges, all in preparation for what they see is the coming real war (as opposed to just a figurative culture war of this day) with the “lib-tards.” American Christianity is seriously sick. Just like their pro-Al Qaeda counterparts, they too bathe their brains with nonsensical conspiracy theories, which they harvest from fringe websites and preachers.
But all five of these possible metaphysical answers have major issues. For the sake of space and time I hardly touched on the compromise in real Hinduism or atheism. I know that Hindu and Buddhist purest, especially those in the homelands (e.g. India and Tibet) are disturbed by how their religions are being cherry-picked by western pantheist-wannabes.
I also want to point out that someone who takes truth seriously, and can see the real differences between these five answers, must still be tolerant, loving, and cooperative. There are many things a good Christian and a Good Muslim and Buddhist can agree on, protecting nature and human rights are an example. You can gleam truth from other religions without compromising the pillars of your own.
I was going to close this series, but I think I should address two complimenting issues to this discussion, what I call “The Cancer of Certitude” and “Malignant Agnosticism.” Certitude is the real cause of intolerance and malignant agnosticism is often the hopeless place that people end up once they have left their original belief system.