A Matter of Taste?

I have been involved in a very interesting conversation here regarding subjective/objective distinctions and agnosticism.

At the very last, my interlocutor, Bernard, sums up the issue as he sees it:

Your last point, that my agnosticism requires me to dismiss other subjective positions, doesn’t seem to work, precisely because my position, I acknowledge, is purely about taste. I’m not saying your position is wrong, I am saying, given its implications, I have no taste for it. The problem of dismissing others as less capable of sensing truth, the problem of having to extend this belief right to all beliefs, no matter how apparently weird, worries me. And, until I can see how these are not logical implications of the beleif position, these worries wil keep me from believing.

So, let me just try and parse this out a bit and I am just thinking out loud here. We have all run into people who believe (and perhaps it’s true) they have very good taste in matters of decorum, fashion, wine, food, art, plays, literature, music, comedy, and other similar areas. Many give us their opinions about such things professionally, and we call them “critics.” Even though the matters under consideration are subjective preferences and don’t fall into a category of being right or wrong, we still respect some opinions over others and recognize that one person’s taste can be more refined, informed, reflective, and thoughtful than another person’s. It is not that one person is wrong and the other right, it is that we can usually recognize the wisdom, the reflection, and the thought that has gone into one opinion where the other opinion lacks such qualities. We also consider experience, age, and a person’s knowledge of the matter he is opining on. We even will make comments such as, “what horrible taste that person has in clothing or movie watching,” or to the contrary—we sometimes recognize the “good” taste a person has in some areas.

Now these “critics” or people we recognize who have good taste and are knowledgeable generally fall into two categories. The first we call a “snob.” These are the critics who wear their knowledge and “taste” on their sleeve and rub it in the other person’s face. They look down on the unwashed masses. They have no interest in educating people. Their sense of educating someone is to let that person know how common and trashy their views. They would prefer to embarrass rather than educate.

Now Bernard, to his credit, does not seem to fall into this category. He falls, in my view, into the much more positive category of knowledgeable educator. This is the person that, if we’ve lived long enough and been able to see it, has helped each one of us expand our conceptual horizons. These are the people who took the time to explain to us why “this” type of wine is better than this “other” type. Whether it was literature, art, social skills, music, poetry, drama, or some other similar endeavor, there were people in our lives who enabled us to “see” certain things and helped us to appreciate why certain types or forms were better than some others. Even though all these areas are subjective preferences, most of us have come to understand that certain forms and types are better (not right or wrong) than others.

Now before I go further, I would point out what I think are a couple of misrepresentations in Bernard’s response. First, I did not mean to say his agnosticism requires him to “dismiss” the subjective opinions of others. And again, it is misleading for him to presuppose the “subjective” part in the sense that the question we are speaking to is the assertion on the part of believers that God is real in an objective sense, meaning outside their minds and wills. So I would say we need to qualify what is being said there or one is just presupposing that belief in God is a subjective preference and so begging the question. Second, I did not say that others are “less capable” of sensing truth. I thought I made that quite clear. I did say it is possible that certain belief systems such as empiricism and scientism can prevent one from really “seeing” and understanding what believers are asserting. I think we are all capable of seeing and understanding truth.

As far as extending this “belief right” to everyone, I call that freedom. I would be more concerned if there were voices calling for the repression of this right because others either took their beliefs seriously (didn’t consider them to be a matter of taste) or because they didn’t have the same “taste” as the majority. As long as one’s beliefs do not incite hate or require violence, then let a thousand flowers bloom. The proof will be in the pudding so to speak. There have been thousands of movements, cults, belief systems, religions, and other forms of social construction and they have either failed or progressed based upon their ability to provide meaning and give one a sense of purpose and life beyond eating, pooping, and procreation. Either the narrative you believe true is beautiful and attractive or it isn’t- and people will make their choices.

As to the canard that “religion,” by its very nature, must incite hate and require violence I would say see the work of William Cavanaugh who has shown repeatedly such a view to be a myth. In comparison to, for instance, the violence visited by secular governments upon their own or other people, how is this comparison even trotted out? How anyone could make this claim after the atrocities of the 20th Century where a pagan/pseudo scientific state (Nazis) and an atheistic state (Soviet Union, but let us also not forget China, North Korea, and Cambodia/North Vietnam) turned that century into a graveyard is beyond me. I find it quite incredible that people want to talk about the last few decades or so of violence attributable to Islamic fundamentalism (and mostly just because it finally touched the United States), but want to pass over centuries of violence committed by secular states.

Here is why I think Bernard’s default to “taste” rather than saying “wrong” does not work. First, to reduce deeply held beliefs, whether a love for God or an assertion like “The Holocaust was evil,” to a matter of personal taste is really quite incredible. In fact, I can’t think of a better way to communicate to someone that one doesn’t take the other person’s views seriously than to relegate it to “taste” as if we were talking about wine or fashion. It is the ultimate dismissal. At least a Hindu and a Christian take one another seriously enough to say, “I know you truly believe in this God or gods you speak of in a real and objective way, but I simply have to disagree with you.” At least the belief is taken seriously and not as if the person had just asserted that Jazz was the best music in the world, and you, liking classical, remarked, “Well not for me but you are welcome to it.” It is really the ultimate condescension when put to the big questions of life and the things, for instance, that a Martin Luther King Jr. was willing to lose his life for. No one puts their life on the line over which wine or music is better. No one goes to war over which color is better, red or blue. No one. To relegate the things that people are willing to give their life for to matters of “taste” is, well, in really bad taste.

Just as God or “evil” does not belong in the category of wine, or music (clear philosophical category errors), so to should we not relegate the differences in belief (in matters of God’s existence and objective morality) to matters of taste. They are entirely two different questions and areas of life and thought. One would think the scale, as to the difference, would be rather obvious. Imagine someone asserting that saying something like “The Holocaust is evil,” is no different, in any significant way, than saying something like “I really hate spinach.” What would we think of such a person? If a President or Prime Minister of a state or country said something like that he or she would be roundly condemned. If a college/university president said something like that, they would lose their jobs. Not only would people say that it was in bad taste to assert these statements mean the same thing (just stating a preference), they would say it was WRONG.

Bernard’s position fails for another reason. No matter how anyone wants to couch it or hopefully glide over it, to say that one has better “taste” than another or conversely that the other fellow has bad “taste” is to still carve out a place of difference such that it is clear one thinks more highly of his “taste” than the other’s. I see no way around this. If one really believes he is saying nothing different, better, or worse than the other chap, then he would not spend the time defending his indifference by marking out that very difference. Whether someone says, “I think you are wrong,” or whether they say, “I think what you are doing is in bad taste,” they are noting a difference and the inherent meaning within such statements asserts a clear movement of favor toward one view or the other. To even assert something as mild as “I just have a different taste,” in this area is to mark out a difference and let’s not kid ourselves as to the implication of such a statement.

Now, I am assuming Bernard is using the word “taste” in its normal sense. I am going by the standard dictionary definition. Here are some examples:

1. A personal preference or liking: a taste for adventure.

2. The faculty of discerning what is aesthetically excellent or appropriate.

3. A manner indicative of the quality of such discernment: a room furnished with superb taste.

4. The sense of what is proper, seemly, or least likely to give offense in a given social situation.

If Bernard is using the word “taste” in a different manner, then I could have very well completely misunderstood him. I will leave it to him to let us know if he was. If he was using the word in its normal usage, then I think my arguments stand.

Finally, I think Bernard’s motivation for wanting his position to be neutral is admirable. He clearly wants to find a way where our deepest held beliefs do not incite hate or violence. I couldn’t agree more. I think, however, that the way he chooses to create this space fails for the reasons already noted. Difference is a fact of life and difference is good. How we choose to deal and live with our real differences and not sweep them away as just matters of taste is the true issue at hand.

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12 Responses to A Matter of Taste?

  1. Burk Braun says:

    In liu of Bernard not commenting, I'll add my mite …

    ” … the assertion on the part of believers that God is real in an objective sense, meaning outside their minds and wills.”

    Well, that is rather an assertion, isn't it? What exactly differentiates an “assertion” from knowledge or truth? Why isn't this a matter of taste, after all? It may be my taste to assert that I am the king of a secret world of Leprechauns, that no one else can see (though it is perfectly objective!). That is an assertion, and may be highly or “deeply” relevant to me. But what makes it compelling to others? Not very much.

    ” … certain belief systems such as empiricism and scientism can prevent one from really “seeing” and understanding what believers are asserting.”

    Yup, indeed. But what is the nature of this seeing? The best you seem to do is to refer to “everything” and one's general, accumulated, holistic judgement about the world. How is this different from intution?

    “No one puts their life on the line over which wine or music is better. No one goes to war over which color is better, red or blue. No one. To relegate the things that people are willing to give their life for to matters of “taste” is, well, in really bad taste.”

    But just before, it was religion that supposedly did not lead to violence. Now it is something that people stake their lives on, as we see in the Islamic world. Why is that? Does anyone stake their lives on gravitation, and beat up anyone who does not believe in it? Why the need to have others share a belief that can not be entertained rationally and arises from intution? I've got a suggestion.. it is a powerful mind-virus that bonds us into groups, but isn't true.

    I've been reading Hume's Inquiry concerning the principles of morals, which I recommend. Their origin lies in utility, which is pretty clearly the case. It clarifies things substantially. You may well say that evil is “WRONG”, but that is not because some celestial math provides the answer. It is because evil harms us, individually and/or collectively.

    “Finally, I think Bernard’s motivation for wanting his position to be neutral is admirable. He clearly wants to find a way where our deepest held beliefs do not incite hate or violence. I couldn’t agree more.”

    Then why insist that you stake your life on these beliefs, and you are willing to go to war about them? Bernard is trying to reduce the temperature by properly categorizing these beliefs as ones that can not in any fair sense (let alone rational sense) be foisted on others. Nor do they provide license for adherents to formulate public policy that affects everyone … on abortion, contraception, marriage, Leprachaun protection, etc… Others either share the intuition or they don't. Wars and other forms of coercion are hopefully not necessary.

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  2. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    “Well, that is rather an assertion, isn't it? What exactly differentiates an “assertion” from knowledge or truth? Why isn't this a matter of taste, after all? It may be my taste to assert that I am the king of a secret world of Leprechauns…”

    A clear category error. No one, unless they have an a-priori belief that the material is all there is, believes that a leprechaun is like God in the sense most people use when speaking of God. No one comes as an adult to belief in leprechauns. No one takes them seriously. No one thinks when someone says, “I believe in God,” that it is similar to saying something like, “I believe in leprechauns.” Just because your atheism and belief in empiricism/scientism demands you think them the same is an issue you have that is nowhere even much contemplated in the academy or on the street. Most reasonable and rational people know the difference between a person saying “I believe in God” and the person who says “I believe in leprechauns.” The first person could be the President of the United States like Obama or the president of most universities and is readily believed he is being sincere by most people. The second person would probably be someone with mental disabilities or drug/alcohol problems and is likely to be unemployed. And, no rational person would believe him. Philosophical inquiry and common sense tells us these are two different categories.

    “But just before, it was religion that supposedly did notlead to violence. Now it is something that people stake their lives on, as we see in the Islamic world.”

    You are missing the point. It has always been something they staked their lives upon. That is why we have martyrs. But most of them died not in being violent but in having violence visited upon them by Rome or other pagan or modern secular states. It is also why we have soldiers who are willing to die to defend the freedoms and values they cherish. And no one thinks those freedoms or values are matters of taste. They know the difference between fighting for a value like freedom of conscience and a “taste” like preferring white wine to red. (Continued)

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  3. Darrell says:

    (Continued)
    “Finally, I think Bernard’s motivation for wanting his position to be neutral is admirable. He clearly wants to find a way where our deepest held beliefs do not incite hate or violence. I couldn’t agree more.” (Darrell)

    “Then why insist that you stake your life on these beliefs, and you are willing to go to war about them?”

    I have no idea what you are talking about. I am noting the universally understood difference between things believed to be true in an objective sense- and something like “taste”-preference in a subjective sense like preferring jazz music to classical. If you believe something to be true in the sense that Martin Luther King Jr. believed equal rights to be TRUE, then each person has to decide the lengths he will go defend or seek those rights for others. I am insisting nothing. I am also against war in general unless one is talking about protecting innocent life after every other measure has been exhausted. My point is that people only go to war, including America, you, and most rational and reasonable people, over those things they believe are intrinsically different than matters of “taste.” Are you a pacifist? I doubt it. And I’m sure any reason you might cite for going to war or losing your job, reputation, or freedom would certainly not be over a “taste” difference but something much important.

    There is hardly a better way to be dismissive of another’s views in this area and demonstrate one believes his position more rational/truer or in better “taste” than to equate a person’s deepest held belief in God to that of belief in a leprechaun. To go further and suggest it is a “mind virus” is to add insult to injury. I wonder if that would bother Bernard at all, since it would seem the very thing he is trying to avoid. So his position certainly hasn’t spoken to you or helped you in any way.

    The last time I checked, it did not lower the temperature to tell people that their deepest held beliefs about matters of the deepest importance (love, meaning, purpose, good, evil, if there is a God and what does that mean as far as eternity and how to live life) were similar to belief in leprechauns, non-existence entities, or just a personal subjective preference similar to liking white wine to red.

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  4. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    One other point:

    ” … the assertion on the part of believers that God is real in an objective sense, meaning outside their minds and wills.” (Darrell)

    “Well, that is rather an assertion, isn't it?”

    No it’s not at all. It is as common and accepted an assertion as one can find. It has been the default position of most cultures and people groups going back as far as you want to go. On the other hand, if we were to associate a “well, that is rather an assertion…” reaction to statements it would be one like, “God does not exist.” Atheism is a small blip on the radar screen of history. It is a radical view held by a tiny minority of people in the West. To put this into perspective, imagine what a radical thing it would be if the US were to elect an atheist president. Well, why would it be such a big deal? Exactly. To think that believing in God is “rather an assertion” leaves us asking, “what planet to you live on?” None of that, of course, means atheism is wrong. It does mean that atheism is the more radical assertion and carries the greater burden of explanation and the demonstration that it fits with what we know of life, history, philosophy, and the human experience and condition. In that regard, I would suggest that if fails in every way.

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  5. Burk Braun says:

    “The last time I checked, it did not lower the temperature to tell people that their deepest held beliefs about matters of the deepest importance (love, meaning, purpose, good, evil, if there is a God and what does that mean as far as eternity and how to live life) were similar to belief in leprechauns, non-existence entities, or just a personal subjective preference similar to liking white wine to red.”

    Is that because they stake their lives on such beliefs? I wouldn't deny all this at all. The question is what the philosophical basis to all this is, and how it actually differs from belief in leprachauns in degree of evidence or other relevant (non-subjective) characteristics. As you can tell, my aims are different from Bernard's.

    You take umbrage and take refuge in popularity, and in bare assertion that there is a category difference. In what does that category difference lie? In emotional involvement? I will grant that, but that has never made anything true or false. In the hugeness of the model? That has zero bearing, since I can come up with “huge” models at will- that also doesn't make them true or false.

    The bottom line is that the foundation of religious ideas is intuitive. That accounts for their popularity and persistence and much else. But it doesn't make them categorically different from belief in leprachauns, ghosts, gaia, ESP, dowsing, or an endless variety of other more or less hairbrained beliefs … that come from within, not from without.

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  6. Burk Braun says:

    Correction… “harebrained”

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  7. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    One would think I had dreamt up or created the idea of a category error. It is a common and relatively well known designation in philosophy especially in the area of ontology. Go to a college library. Search online. Your argument seems to be one with the philosophical world, not me.

    Bryan Appleyard (Cambridge) the agnostic gets it. Even the atheist Alain de Bottom gets it. Did you think believers, conspiratorially, dreamt the idea up? It doesn’t matter you have one category in your mind: the material. There are also people who think we never went to the moon. So what? You have the burden here, not me.

    Ultimately, the problem with militant neo-atheism is that it represents a profound category error. Explaining religion – or, indeed, the human experience – in scientific terms is futile. “It would be as bizarre as to launch a scientific investigation into the truth of Anna Karenina or love,” de Botton says. “It's a symptom of the misplaced confidence of science . . . It's a kind of category error. It's a fatally wrong question and the more you ask it, the more you come up with bizarre and odd answers.” (Appleyard)

    What do you not understand about the above quote? Did you think they (or I) just pulled that phrase out of the air? Further: What civilization or its laws has been significantly influenced by belief in leprechauns? Where are the churches, the universities, the departments, the scholars, the philosophers, and the works of art, literature, music, poetry, and similar endeavors seriously devoted to belief in leprechauns? Who has given their lives as martyrs, like Martin Luther King, Jr., to belief in leprechauns? What person, like a Mother Teresa, has done similar things out of their devotion to leprechauns? How many orphanages, charities, and works on behalf of the poor have been done in the name of leprechauns? How many hospitals and relief organizations have been named after or inspired by leprechauns? The scale here is so immense I can’t even believe there is a discussion. Name one serious person outside the tiny fundamentalist world of new-atheists that thinks God is like or belief in God is like believing in leprechauns. Right. Exactly. You can’t be serious. Awkward. Embarrassing.

    In the face of all those, both atheists and believers, who understand category errors (and reasonable atheists understand that it doesn’t mean God exists to admit to philosophical categories and at least acknowledge such an obvious and common sense difference) you have bald assertions and ranting. You have nothing.

    It’s unfortunate you think the great majority, both scholars and lay people, to have been overcome by a “mind virus.” Of course, what if atheism is a “mind-virus”? What if you have been infected? What if you have not come to any of this by way of reason or free-will? Oh, that’s right, you are immune somehow and the great unwashed masses are, sadly, open and vulnerable. That one could take such utter nonsense (talk about harebrained) as a “mind-virus” seriously and then turn around and question a common, reasonable, and known idea like category errors tells us all we need to know here.

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  8. Burk Braun says:

    “To show that a category mistake has been committed one must typically show that once the phenomenon in question is properly understood, it becomes clear that the claim being made about it could not possibly be true.”

    I think this part is lacking. My claim is that beliefs in gods, leprechauns, esp, dowsing, the efficacy of relics, … have similar foundations of imaginative intuition, unenhanced with non-subjective evidence. Faith is required, and countless similar beliefs have grown and died in over time. I was not claiming that there are as many charitable leprechaunist hospitals as Catholic ones. So the categories I was dealing with stand quite well.

    And de Bottom writes as you cite to say that religion is a matter of psychology, not of physics. If you agree, then we are all on the same page and not making any category errors. If not, then we are not making category errors either, but disagreeing about which category applies to the belief phenomenon. Is Anna Karenina “true”? No- she is imaginary, though psychologically highly affecting. That is in the same category as religion, as far as I have argued, I believe.

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  9. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    The key here is, “once the phenomenon in question (God) is properly understood…” which is something you have never even attempted. I guess it would be like asking a creationist to actually investigate and consider what evolutionists are saying before dismissing it out of hand.

    I can only speak for the Christian narrative. Not only do you have no idea what it means when Christians speak of God (Trinitarian), you fail to account for the “scandal of particularity” in that Christians believe God became man (The Incarnation) in the historical figure of Jesus Christ. The complexity and depths of these claims, including the vast amounts of literature and philosophical inquiry generated by these understandings, makes any comparison to leprechauns or any other imaginary beings simply ludicrous. The bottom line is that no one believes God (or the idea even) is similar to a leprechaun or that when people say they believe in God they are saying something similar to saying one believes in leprechauns. No one. You have nothing here. No one believes leprechauns exist and if they did, their mental health would be suspect or alcohol and drugs would be suspected. Conversely, a vast majority of people over time, including people like President Obama, Francis Collins, M.D., and some of the most respected and intelligent people in history believe the Christian God, revealed in Jesus Christ, to exist. If you cannot understand the gulf inherent in the difference- I feel sorry for you and to equate the two is commit philosophical malpractice.

    “Faith is required, and countless similar beliefs…”

    Faith is required for atheism, so your point?

    The remark about leprechaunist hospitals reveals you didn’t even understand why I listed all those questions. You really thought it had to do with some comparison of number. Wow.

    As to de Bottom, regardless of what he might think the ultimate cause to be, he understands enough to know that the category “love” or “God” is not something that can be proved or disproved by empirical methods or the way one would go about proving the category “gravity” or even “leprechaun.” Although he is not directly addressing a comparison between God and leprechauns, but my point was that even he understands the concept of category errors.

    Further, not only would we not try and prove what was evident in a book like Anna Karenina empirically—the TRUTH demonstrated in such a book is more important than a fact like the rays from the sun are warm. Knowing the latter might keep one from getting cold—knowing the former will change your life. I think the atheist de Bottom would agree with me there too. Again, if you can’t see the difference here- I feel sorry for you. Like all religious fundamentalists, you have allowed your zeal for your own brand of fundamentalism to give you warrant to believe nonsense (“mind-viruses”) and to dismiss accepted philosophical understandings and basic common sense.

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  10. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    Oh, and I love this part:

    “My claim is that beliefs in gods, leprechauns, esp, dowsing, the efficacy of relics, … have similar foundations of imaginative intuition, unenhanced with non-subjective evidence.”

    What question begging nonsense.

    And when it is pointed out that because one’s criteria (empiricism/scientism) could not possibly apply to at least the categories noted by de Bottom and certainly not to God, the response is…”Oh, never mind…I will just repeat myself.”

    And of course this is the very ridiculousness Appleyard and de Bottom (an agnostic and an atheist) were pointing out. When the other side is pointing this stuff out and taking issue with it, what else is there to say?

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  11. Burk Braun says:

    Darrell-

    From what I see over at a relevant site is that these issues you claim as “understandings” are not understandings at all, but are “problems”.

    I “understand” trinitarianism as well as the next person. I just don't believe it is true. There is a difference. And when something is not actually “understood”, but is asserted by way of faith, then one might as well be talking about leprechauns, which in their heyday were perfectly fine “objects” of objective belief. Indeed, “When Christianity took religious precedence, the importance (and thus, the size) of the leprechauns decreased.” One can see a clear relationship in the mind-share they occupy.

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  12. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    If you understand disagreements or different interpretations as “problems” then what in the world do you do with science? In the area of the philosophy of science and theory there are as many differences of thought as in any field. So what?

    “I “understand” trinitarianism as well as the next person. I just don't believe it is true.”

    This isn’t about what you think “true.” De Bottom and Appleyard doubt or don’t believe in God and disagree with you, as to the topic of this conversation, for the same reasons I do.

    Once can certainly see the “mind-share” that the new-atheist fundamentalists have with all other similar movements.

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