Beauty and the Mirror

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.

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66 Responses to Beauty and the Mirror

  1. Darrell says:

    Hi JP,

    “I don't really understand what it would mean for a theory to be the correct one.”

    So you don’t know if mine’s correct, yours’, anyone’s? What is the problem then? How do you fault me then? Or anyone? Again, to think truth is an invention and not out there, is a theory, you get that, right? Is it the only true and correct way to view what truth is?

    “As to your unwillingness to provide a clear and short definition… I mean, you put much more effort evading the question than it would take to put down these few sentences. Or to link to a SEP article related to your position. This is puzzling. Why is this so hard to do?”

    Not hard at all. As I already noted, many of the aspects I noted I held to, critical realism, pluralist, are all mentioned on your link. No evasion. I've unpacked more of what I think about truth than you have. Sort of curious then to accuse me of evading.

    I do see some evasion however in addressing your own claims here and what you would do differently.

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  2. Hi Darrell

    You ask, are objective and subjective statements equally true? I think the answer is, who knows? It's not that a subjective statement can't be true, indeed it may be spot on, just as an objectively established 'fact' may still be subject to future modification. So, to call one set of beliefs truer doesn't appear to be justified.

    The best we can say, and all I would say, is that some beliefs about the nature of reality are established by way of shared criteria, that reality, whatever it may be, appears to force our hand. Other beliefs require a subjective component. One must, in order to establish such a belief, take a leap, whilst understanding full well others examining the same circumstance could see it differently.

    Those of us who choose not to form the latter style of belief are of course interested in how those who do, justify their leaps (as the difficulty of justifying them is one of the reasons we hold back).

    Some say, well I just like the way this belief makes me feel. It's useful to me. I respect that, there's something very sensible about it (although my temperament keeps me form joining them). Others seem to either wish to deny the subjectivity, by attempting to build some method for establishing belief, or claim that everybody else is also subjective in their methods of belief forming, that there is no choice.

    I've yet to see anybody succeed in the either of these projects. Your claim that we are all in the same boat appears to me to be simply false. In the past you have gone as far as acknowledging that the agnostic commits to no propositional beliefs that might be thought of as subjective. As to what a non-propositional belief might look like, I'm entirely lost there.

    Bernard

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  3. Darrell says:

    Hi Bernard,

    I think it rather simple really. If one cannot say that a statement like “The Holocaust was evil” is truer or as true (although in a different way, obviously) than a statement like “The sun is hot,” then the reason they cannot, or will not, or don’t know if there is a difference, is based upon a subjective position. As you yourself note: “Those of us who choose not to form the latter style of belief…”

    It is a leap of faith to choose to not see the world that way. Logic nor reason compel one to make that choice.

    And even if that position is stated in a negative sense, like, “I restrict my beliefs to those things…” it is still a subjective position, thus, still the same boat. And, again, isn't it ironic that your concern regarding a “shared criteria” (at only the most mundane level) has led you to a position (agnosticism) that is not widely shared.

    We settled that issue some time ago and as I pointed out then, you couching your faith in negative terms changes nothing. And you've never shown otherwise.

    Getting back to the point of the post and series, it remains that I think it possible to evaluate differing narratives using this criteria and while one may disagree with this approach, it is an entirely reasonable one.

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  4. JP says:

    Hi Darrell,

    Consider your statements: (1) The Holocaust was evil; and (2) The sun is hot.

    You will agree that they are statements of different kinds. (1) is a moral claim; (2) is an empirical fact about the world. If you want to call both of them “true”, you will use two different definitions of truth. (2) is clearly a correspondence claim – this is how it is meant to be understood, through a very specific verification process. (1) is not (whether or not we agree on what it means, objective moral facts and all).

    Here's the first issue: the same word (“truth”) used with two different meanings.

    But now you want to order these statements, one being “truer” than the other. What does that mean? We can only order things after we have specified some ordering relationship. If you decide to put moral claims in front of empirical claims and then call (1) truer according to this relationship, you have said nothing at all. It's just an arbitrary ordering of classes of statements.

    If, on the other hand, you are implicitly referring to another kind of attribute shared by both statements (allowing for some ordering process), you still have to point out what it is. Is it “truth” in another sense? If so, we now have three different concepts of truth mixed up in the same discussion. Not a recipe for clarity.

    Perhaps you want to say that (1) expresses a more important fact than (2). Then, why not simply say so? If you mean “importance” why use another word instead?

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  5. Darrell says:

    Hi JP,

    “If you decide to put moral claims in front of empirical claims and then call (1) truer according to this relationship, you have said nothing at all. It's just an arbitrary ordering of classes of statements.”

    Well, that is your subjective opinion. I do think it says something. I don’t think it’s arbitrary in the slightest. I think if you were a Holocaust survivor it would not be an arbitrary ordering.

    We are slightly off track here though. I would like to hear your response to my last comment.

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  6. Hi Darrell

    A subjective position, of course. But not a subjective belief, in the sense of any sort of proposition about the world. This we did indeed settle some time back.

    And so, we're not in the same boat at all, for a great many people resist the urge to form propositional beliefs about those aspects of reality where subjectivity is the only way forward.

    You are not one such. Rather you embrace speculative narratives. Fair enough. But the claim that we all do this is nonsense. That you find it hard to accept this suggests a certain self consciousness about the methods you employ,which I can understand.

    Bernard

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  7. Darrell says:

    Hi Bernard,

    Whether you want to use the word “position” or “belief” it is a distinction without a difference in this conversation. It is what you believe. And, as you even agree, it is subjective. Same boat. You are not watching from some objective shore, you are right here with us.

    “…for a great many people resist the urge to form propositional beliefs about those aspects of reality where subjectivity is the only way forward.”

    Well, not a great many—but a few. And, that need to “resist,” that choice, is a subjective one. This should be easy to see.

    “You are not one such. Rather you embrace speculative narratives.”

    Well, I could be one. I could couch my position as this: “I restrict my beliefs (or positions) to those areas where there is a shared criterion as to the transcendental aspects to reality.” I would find myself then in the great majority where the shared criteria would actually lead to a shared view. But I could claim at the same time that I’m not making any assertive propositions about the world. And, of course, most people could see that such was a complete dodge (as Burk even noted). But whatever. (You may want to read one of Eric’s latest posts:http://thepietythatliesbetween.blogspot.com/2013/10/tossing-out-just-one-more-god-atheism.html)

    You (and everyone) inhabit (embrace) a speculative narrative. It is an empiricist/scientific view of the world as derived historically from the Enlightenment (a speculative narrative) and more modern sources. There are very few philosophers out there, other than the new atheists (who clearly aren't even philosophers) and evangelicals like Moreland and Craig who don’t think we all inhabit and see the world through some narrative (how ironic the company we share, right?). You are of course welcome to believe you do not embrace a narrative(frankly an incredible view and one that could only be defended…from some narrative—some perspective). I think with such a perspective, all the “others” can easily become “nutters” and in my view—this would be another reason to see such a perspective as not very wise. Someone who doesn’t think he is seeing the world through some perspective can hardly be self-reflective.

    We will have to agree to disagree here. Getting back to the point, I stand by this post, this series and the criteria. Cheers.

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  8. Hi Darrell

    I'm unsure why it is so very difficult to explain agnosticism to you, but apparently it is.

    Yes, the decision to restrict one's belief is subjective. of course it is. Bt it does not entail a belief about how the world is, as even you acknowledge.

    Thus, we can reasonably say that the theist chooses to commit to subjective belief whilst the agnostic does not. So, it is not that I do not embrace a narrative, but rather that the narrative I embrace avoids subjective beliefs (here I mean belief in the sense of committing to some proposition about reality). This, I think, you also accept.

    The distinction matters, because when you offer a method for choosing between narratives, it requires a prior commitment to subjective propositional beliefs, and the defence you offer, that we all must do this, is simply incorrect.

    Bernard

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  9. Darrell says:

    Hi Bernard,

    No, I think I understand your brand of agnosticism (it is very reasoned and thus so narrative driven!). Again, negation or stating it as a restriction or boundary doesnt help you here at all. At all. We could all state our beliefs as negations rather than propositions if we wished. Zero difference in the long haul. And ultmately still a subjective view. Sorry.

    We disagree is all. Cheers.

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  10. Darrell says:

    One last thought here:

    “Rather you embrace speculative narratives. Fair enough. But the claim that we all do this is nonsense.”

    “So, it is not that I do not embrace a narrative, but rather that the narrative I embrace avoids subjective beliefs…”

    And that narrative you embrace (which you admit here) is embraced subjectively as it seeks to avoid the views that those “others” subjectively embrace.

    What you are missing here is so obvious that you must think I’m trying to say something else. I can’t imagine who would disagree with my observation. It says nothing about you being right or wrong about anything.

    Oh, well. Again, cheers.

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  11. JP says:

    Hi Darrell,

    If I understand, you're asking of me that I produce an alternate approach to the evaluation of narratives. Well, don't get me wrong – I am all for making suggestions when I can – but I certainly won't develop such a theory here. And I don't have to. This is your blog, you have spelled out your position in a number of posts and this is what I'm interested in discussing. Perhaps some day I will do the same and then I would be happy to read your thoughts.

    Let me stress something, though. I'm not saying your approach is pointless. In fact, much of what you are proposing as means to compare or evaluate narrative seems very sensible to me. Certainly it's worthwhile to analyze what are the effects of a given narrative, and so on. And I don't think anybody would dispute this.

    My criticism concerns something else. First, your position, as I see it, is often ambiguous and lack clarity. I have tried a few times to understand more clearly some points of detail by asking specific questions but, so far, I have been unsuccessful.

    Second, I think your use of the word “truth” is misleading. To be sure, I am not saying you're trying to mislead, not at all. But, as I understand it, misleading it is. The confusion arises when you want to call a narrative “truth” (in your sense) without regard to the factual truth of propositions within the narrative. I would suggest that most people will understand “The Christian narrative is true” to mean that individual tenets of Christianity are true in a correspondence sense (God exists for real, it's a historical fact that Jesus came back from the dead, and so on). You have denied that this is the case, hence the confusion.

    In fact, while your approach could be used to argue for (or against) the usefulness of a the belief in God, it has nothing to say about whether or not this belief is actually true.

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  12. Darrell says:

    Hi JP,

    Thank you for those observations and comments. I try my best to be clear and I'm sure I often fall short of the mark.

    Cheers.

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  13. Hi Darrell

    'We could express our beliefs as negations rather than propositions if wished.'

    This is incorrect. Consider the negation 'I do not believe the coin will land on heads.' There is no proposition implied by this, as it does not suggest the person believes it will be tails, but simply that no belief is held. Hence, lack of belief can not be expressed as a proposition, whereas a negative belief (it will not be heads) can.

    This is what you seem to struggle to understand about agnosticism, and is why you've had to accept we don't hold propositional beliefs. With holding of belief does not equate to negative beliefs.

    And so, the believer clings to the truths discovered by subjective methods, whereas the agnostic doesn't. This difference is crucial, in that it makes a nonsense of the argument that we all must commit to subjective beliefs. What aspect of this you are struggling with perplexes me.

    Bernard

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  14. Darrell says:

    Hi Bernard,

    If philosophical conversations and the decisions regarding the process of how people belief in God or do not believe, or to not know, were analogical to a coin toss or comparable in any way, you would have a point. Unfortunately, they are not. To believe they were, would require a narrative (whoops, yours is showing again)—and one held subjectively and by faith. But we’ve been over that too. Sorry.

    Again,

    “So, it is not that I do not embrace a narrative, but rather that the narrative I embrace avoids subjective beliefs…”

    And that narrative you embrace (which you admit here) is embraced subjectively as it seeks to avoid the views that those “others” subjectively embrace.

    Cheers.

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  15. Hi Darrell

    The comparison is simply this. When we express a lack of belief, we are not by definition expressing a belief in the negative, and hence you are incorrect to assume it can be re-expressed in propositional form. Here is an example of a clear error on your part.

    Bernard

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  16. Darrell says:

    Hi Bernard,

    We will simply have to disagree here. Thank you for your comments and observations.

    Cheers.

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