I’m going to wrap up this series on evaluating differing narratives. To reiterate, often I am asked, if we cannot found or prove a narrative empirically/scientifically, how can we know which one is true? My first response has always been we must first note the presuppositions behind such a question. They presume we can only know what is “true” by way of empiricism and science and they also presume that “true” must mean something that can be measured or quantified in some empirical/scientific fashion. I’ve challenged both presuppositions.
Whether or not a person is secure enough to at least acknowledge they are bringing their presuppositions to these questions and whether or not they can set those aside or at least bracket them for the purposes of conversation, is up to them. If they cannot, then most responses will just be question-begging. If they can, then a conversation can take place. But this is up to all who participate and I have no control as to who wants to converse and who just wants to argue their already presumed position.
As to the issue of “truth” I’ve addressed that in many places but especially here and here and what I’ve been writing will be difficult to grasp unless one understands (whether they agree with me or not) what I mean by “true” or “truth.” I am using the term in a philosophical sense, not in a mathematical analytic sense, although it speaks to both uses, and, in fact, put both in perspective. And one should remember that there are many theories of “truth” not just the correspondence theory or the empirical/scientific notion. One can hardly just look up the definition in the dictionary. In response to anything I write here, those theories cannot just be assumed. They are disputed. If one wants to make their case for their view of “truth”, please do, but please don’t simply assume it for the purposes of your response here.
If we cannot simply presume the narrative we inhabit is true in some empirical/scientific manner, and to avoid begging the question, my method was to ask some other types of questions. These were:
What are some of the consequences of a culture/civilization believing or inhabiting this narrative?
Does this narrative have the philosophical resources capable of moving a culture to resist evil and inspire even those who perhaps don’t agree with the narrative to also resist that evil?
And I’ve made it abundantly clear by now that in no way am I saying any answers to these questions “prove” a narrative to be true. All these answers can do is act as signs, hints, or clues. Each person has to then reflect upon those, evaluate further, investigate, and journey onward. At the end of each road, one might find the narrative was true, false, or somewhere in between. We might even call this process, “life.” We all hope we are walking toward the “truth” but this is a process of encountering and interpreting a continual parade and plethora of signs, clues, and hints.
Finally, I think there are two other questions we can ask of a narrative. The first one is, “Is this narrative beautiful?” Dostoevsky once wrote: “Beauty will save the world.” I agree. We are what we love. Modernity has tried to tell us we are what we think. As much as we would like to believe we are always making objective, analytic, reasoned, and cold hard decisions when it comes to what we think “true,” I think the more accurate view is that we are drawn to beauty and to those stories that touch us deeply. We fall in love. The most important decisions we make in our lives, more often than not, are made with the intangibles coming into play, our first impressions, our intuition, our loves, our desires, our heart, our “gut” so to speak; these intangibles, wrapped as they are in mystery, probably have the greatest impact on those decisions that rise above the mundane (Should I have chicken or a salad?) and touch the most important (Should I marry this person?). A narrative is that story we inhabit (we don’t observe it from a distance) and that we believe tells a true story about ourselves, others, and existence. It need not tell it exhaustively and we can have our doubts. But it is still the story we believe and are working through, not just individually, but as a community. And one reason we believe what we do is because something about that narrative “rang” true and was attractive and this happened at a level wherein while our reason and analytic powers were engaged, the other intangibles like beauty hit us just as hard and hit us deep within.
People are not reasoned into narratives, they are loved (attracted) into narratives. Is this narrative relational or just useful? Beauty is useless. It does nothing. And yet, we long for it. We seek it out. If we kept someone locked up in a dark austere, bare, chamber, fed them, and gave them water, but deprived them of the outside world, nature, sunlight, fresh air, music, literature, art, love, and personal relationships, no one would consider this “living.” Notice, all their practical needs are met. They can survive. They can keep breathing. They need none of those extraneous components to survive, and yet, many would rather die than live without all those “useless” aspects to life. And those “useless” aspects are beautiful.
Some narratives are ugly. The story told by the Nazis was ugly. Who could possibly care if it were “true” or not? What would it even mean for it to be “true”? Who would say, “Yeah, 6 Million Jews killed and the world being thrown into war was bad, but wow, what a true and accurate view of the world?” No one. Or no one we should take seriously. We link, just as a matter of common sense, outcomes to the ideas that produced them. We evaluate those links. One could have the most reasoned, rational, and empirically founded narrative ever conceived, and if it led to outcomes that made the world we live in worse, no one would care about its correctness, accuracy, or “truthfulness” in some other fashion or aspect.
Beauty is hard, maybe even impossible, to define. And yet, we know it when we encounter it—we know when it “happens.” If a narrative does not attract us, speak deeply to us, touch us at the level of knowing the difference between seeing a sunset and merely seeing that, “the sun is hot,” then one would be hard pressed to show how, or in what way, such a narrative would be beautiful or “true.” In the philosophical sense, wisdom is being able to see the “good, the true, and the beautiful.” Something is “true” if it’s good and beautiful—each is impossible without the other.
The second question is, “Does this narrative pass the mirror test?” How self-aware and self-reflective does this narrative cause us to be? A very good book that touches on those questions can be found here. Because world-views/narratives/faiths are the anchors in which our worlds are held together, because they provide security and some semblance of certainty, we naturally protect them and tend to use them as a sort of fortress where we can patrol the perimeter and look down on, what we are usually convinced, are the lesser narratives (shacks really) in the village. There are different ways we do this however. From the book:
“The way we initially encounter the other is captured in the following story.
One evening a young man returning home after a long and tiring day at work gets a call from his concerned wife. ‘Dear, be careful on the way home, as I just heard on the radio that some crazy guy has been spotted going full speed the wrong way up the freeway.’
‘Sorry love,’ he shouts back, ‘can’t talk right now, there isn’t just one nutter, there are thousands of them!!!’
One of the interesting things to note about this little anecdote is the way the husband does not even entertain the possibility that he might be going the wrong way. Instead he takes it for granted that he is right. This is not a belief he is conscious of; rather all his conscious thoughts are filtered through his belief.”
When I speak of the need for all of us to recognize that our world-views are founded on faith, it is so we can all avoid doing what this young man is doing. We need to be conscious of what we are doing. When we are aware of it, we can then begin to question our own world-view. As long as anyone believes, unconsciously, that he is simply going by the evidence, facts, and science, outside any world-view/faith/narrative, then all he can ever “see” is one way (even if it’s the wrong way!). And when he encounters the “other” those who see the same evidence, facts, and also understand science, but “see” it differently, he can only see “thousands of nutters.”
The writer goes on:
When we encounter a worldview different from our own, there are four common responses.
The first involves engaging in a form of consumption, by which we attempt to integrate the other into our social body, much like eating an animal makes it a part of our physical body. Here the other is made into a version of ourselves, just as the Borg in the Star Trek universe integrate any species they find into their singular collective. The Borg consume other species in order to strengthen, enhance, and advance their own collective. In this way the Borg are inherently a conservative force in that they attempt to conserve their own structure instead of opening it up to genuine transformation by an encounter from the outside. By attempting to consume the other, we strive to render them into out likeness, a process that involves an apologetic strategy in which we attempt to persuade them that they should believe and practice in a particular way.
The second approach is intimately connected with the first and can be described as the act of vomiting the other out. This means that anything within our social body that cannot be properly integrated is pushed out. It is a process of exclusion whereby we condemn and reject the other who cannot be consumed by us. They are thus viewed as an enemy that must be excluded from our institutions, an enemy whom we must insulate ourselves from to avoid contamination.
The third approach is where an individual or community responds to someone different from themselves via toleration. In this approach, there is an attempt to accept the other, even though they seem strange to us. We continue to work alongside them, buy from the same shops, and even relate to them in areas of common interest. Toleration in the West is premised upon the existence of a public square in which our various differences remain hidden. People can believe and practice a variety of strange and obscure things behind closed doors as long as it isn’t visible in public places. The toleration is thus exposed as a form of accepting the presence of the other so long as their otherness is not directly expressed.
The fourth common response to someone who different from us is that of a dialogue aimed at finding agreement. At its most simplistic, it is the idea that beneath all our little differences, we’re really pretty much the same. We may give different names to things, but we are broadly worshipping the same God or upholding the same values. While there are some moral differences, we operate within the same ethical framework.
Amidst these obvious differences, each of these responses to the other (consumption, vomiting, toleration, and agreement) share something significantly in common. In each of them we stand over the other. In all four we judge the outsider from our position. In the first three, I am right and the other is wrong, while in the fourth we are both largely right. In other words, when I approach the other, I approach them from a higher position, deciding whether to agree or disagree with them in relation to my already established beliefs and practices. We are thus looking down upon their tradition, even when we affirm it—for we are affirming it only insofar as it aligns with our own.
There is, however, a different way of approaching the other. This different approach involves placing ourselves beneath them in the sense of allowing their views to challenge and unsettle our own.
Is a narrative secure enough to listen to others, not from a position of seeing where they agree with us, so we can grant them our acceptance (how big of us!), but from a position where we actually entertain the idea we may be wrong? That is the question. Whoever that “other” is to you- is your narrative capable of giving you the philosophical resources where you are open and can tend toward “listening” to the “other” with an honesty wherein we allow [other] “views to challenge and unsettle our own”?
We each inhabit some narrative. It doesn’t matter if one is a theist, atheist, agnostic, or some mix. That is where we need to start. Otherwise, if we examine other views without any prior introspection, without any humility, without a strong sense of our own limitations, and given our tendency to assume the best in our own opinions and the worst in others, then we become the one lone sane person in a world full of “nutters.”
Therefore, initially, our job isn’t to discern or probe the weakness of the “other’s” world-view. To all the atheist or theist Internet trolls out there surfing and itching to get in a verbal food-fight with the “other,”- a word of advice: Get a life. You are pathetic. You do far more harm than good. All you reveal is your insecurity as you imagine yourself some cosmic defender of truth, righteousness, and the atheist or theist way. Get over yourself. Move on. Take up bird watching. Please.
Our job is to look in the mirror first. Central to the Christian narrative is this very process and idea. It is traditionally referred to as repentance. And the journey one then embarks on is this process of discovery, wherein everything we had previously trusted in is questioned and deconstructed. And that journey never ends. We never arrive. We are always on the way. Repentance is just the long journey home.
Another good example of this type of thinking (everyone else is a nutter) is that it always looks for psychological reasons behind the “other’s” views, but never realizes this approach is a double-edged sword and cuts both ways, which I’ve already addressed in a couple of posts. One’s own views could also be entirely motivated by a certain psychology, but is blind to it if one thinks this only possible for the “others.” If we think that everyone else’s views are wholly attributable to psychology, while only our own are founded solely empirically or scientifically then we are sure to see a lot of “nutters” out there, even though it may be us who are going the wrong way.
So another factor to consider when looking at our own world-view or another’s is to consider how self-aware it appears to be. Is it humble? Does it reveal some introspection and reflection? Is it aware that it stands by faith- that it stands on equal ground as to other narratives as far as their founding? Does it respect the idea that we all have the same evidence, the same facts at hand and before us? Does it grant that the “others” are reasonable and logical people as well? Does it acknowledge that its view of the physical world is always an interpretation and not a one-to-one (correspondence)—a purely objective direct capture of the truth of physical existence? In other words, does it know its interpretations could be flawed and are always only partial?
Again, I note: None of these factors “proves” or makes an “air-tight” case for a narrative. There is no such argument or case to be made (for any narrative—including the atheist’s or agnostic’s)—which is partly the reason for the entire series! It would be a fool’s errand to even try and “prove” such in that manner. But again, one can consider a cumulative case, gestures, nods, hints, signs, and clues if you will, that tend to make some views more compelling and attractive than others. It is at these levels that one can evaluate world-views/narratives/faiths without the condescending fight that inevitably results from the assumption that only “my” view has reason, logic, and all the facts and evidence on its side—because to believe that is to become a fundamentalist, whether of the secular or religious type.
Consequences, ability to resist evil, is it beautiful, is it reflective and humble. The answers to those questions, I believe, reveal truth. Choose wisely.