Dec 08, 2017
Whether it is online, in politics, in the media, or in the classroom, we are witnessing an increasing demonization of the other, an inability or unwillingness to listen, and a loss of common courtesy and sense of decorum. These problems have immediate but also ultimate causes. While we are familiar with how toxic social media culture, political culture, and popular culture can be, we sometimes forget that we also have a culture of ultimate questions, made up of the three broad domains of science, philosophy, and art. The ever-present discord we experience at the social and cultural level is partly a result of the fragmentation at the level of ultimate questions and the failure of our intellectual culture to provide the rest of society with the form and substance of just and compassionate discourse. So, while it is worthwhile to discuss the nature of political, social, and religious disagreement, and to practice being more civil, empathetic, and understanding, I wish to take the discussion deeper.
Let us begin by asking: about what do we agree and disagree?
There are three kinds of claims we encounter in intellectual life. First, there are factual claims, such as the statement “The speed of light is 299,792,458 meters per second,” which we can only know when we interpret our experience in light of an existing theory of how things work (e.g., mathematical physics) and a moral framework regarding what is good and whom to trust (e.g., the scientific community).
Second, there are theoretical or analytical claims, whereby one predicts or retroactively explains what might happen, cannot happen, or must happen. For example, a scientific theory is meant to tell us, given some initial state of a system, what will definitely happen, what definitely cannot happen, and the probability of certain other things happening, and how. A social science theory, such as Marxism, will do the same in the realm of human affairs: explain or predict states of human affairs based upon a certain vision of cause and effect that leads to conclusions about what can, cannot, or must occur in society. Such theoretical claims make sense only in light of a reality they make predictions about (the world of nature in the case of science, human beings in the case of Marxism), and in terms of a good or goal that justifies them (e.g., revealing the workings of the natural world, or the improvement of the state of human beings’ lives).
Third, there are moral or normative claims about what is good and bad, such as “People should elect their leaders.” Moral stances are only intelligible as moral stances when understood against the background of other possibilities (e.g., “People should submit to kings because God chooses kings” or “The strongest should rule”), and also in light of what reality is, such that the moral claim in question and the spectrum of possibilities from which it is chosen make sense (e.g., the belief that human beings are free agents capable of contemplating monarchy or democracy).
All disagreements, no matter how trivial or profound, are about one or more of these kinds of beliefs or commitments: what is, what can be, and what ought to be. For example, two people can agree that a religiously motivated mass shooting happened and that this kind of event is the price of freedom, but one person thinks there was a single shooter while the other thinks there were two shooters working together: this is a factual disagreement. Or one person believes that the shooting was likely the result of religious fanaticism, while the other assumes it was caused by mental illness: this is a disagreement about what can make people do something like this. Or two people may agree that a religiously motivated mass shooting happened, but while one person believes that these events are the price of freedom, the other person believes that we should restrict gun ownership: this is a normative disagreement about how to judge the good and bad of a situation.
“The chaotic and abusive nature of disagreements in our everyday culture has its roots in our fragmented intellectual culture, whose ongoing rebellion against the sacred is unfolding before us like a slow-motion explosion.”
We know how ugly conversations about such matters can get, but in reality the chaotic and abusive nature of disagreements in our everyday culture has its roots in our fragmented intellectual culture, whose ongoing rebellion against the sacred (which began in Europe centuries ago and is now global) is unfolding before us like a slow-motion explosion. Traditional wisdom has been blown apart, and its three modern fragments—science, philosophy, and art—are drifting away from each other, with no sign of reunion. This is a major crisis because it is these three domains that sit atop the intellectual hierarchy of our world and create the dominant lingua franca of intellectual life today globally.
Here is what I mean by the fragmentation of traditional wisdom. Modern culture relies on science to tell us what reality is, to provide us with the objective truth; scientists make this claim, and most others assent to their authority. The role of artists—whether they be novelists, filmmakers, painters, or poets—is to articulate and sustain our sense of values, our sense of what matters, of purpose. Art is all about the subjective, about feelings, attachments, and aspirations. It tells us what we ought to ultimately care about. Modern philosophy’s job in intellectual culture is analysis, critique, question formation, and interpretation, but it does not supply us with the objective truth or with a subjective purpose (and according to almost every self-definition, would not dream of doing so). Its domain is establishing and refining our sense of what is rational.
These three modern domains have divided up amongst themselves the custodianship of what we call objectivity, subjectivity, and rationality, but instead of keeping them in harmony with each other, they have isolated them and rendered them dissonant. I will return to the relationship of each of these domains with religion, but first it is important to establish that part of this fragmentation—this trifurcation of wisdom—is caused, or made worse, by the failure of modern science, philosophy, and art to properly demarcate themselves from each other.
What is the definition of science? We have some serviceable approximations of a definition, but no reliable definition that both includes everything scientists call science (e.g., organic chemistry) and excludes what they consider to be non-science or pseudo-science (e.g., astrology). No reliable criterion for “science” or the “scientific method” exists, a fact few scholars deny. There are certainly ideas about what science ought to be—or more precisely, what ought not to be considered science—but that is not the same thing as formulating the demarcation of science from non-science or pseudo-science that has been the dream of many thinkers for several decades. Every formulation thus far either is too vague, leaving out the right things and including the wrong ones, or is logically flawed.
In place of demarcation, we have proclamations that we must demarcate science from pseudo-science because if we do not, then very bad things will come to pass, which is certainly true in many cases. But stressing the importance of demarcation has yet to deliver an actual rigorous articulation of it, and so the only argument left is a moral one: an appeal to the authority of scientists, and an invitation to have faith in a certain community and set of institutions (educational, research, commercial) who know what they are doing. And this introduces a disastrous incoherence in the self-image of science because none of the avowed definitions of scientific rely on this kind of appeal to trust or faith as part of the definition. Are we not always taught that the spirit of modern science is the very antithesis of faith in authority?
Perhaps the answer to such questions will come from the philosophers, but alas, what is a philosopher? This question is often misleadingly phrased “What is philosophy?” and misleadingly answered, “Philosophy is….” But the real question is “What should philosophy be?” and its real answer is “Philosophy ought to be…” It is this normative question that continues to bedevil the philosophers of our day, with no agreement and not even a majority opinion anymore. So, one might ask: how can we non-philosophers know that the people in philosophy departments are doing philosophy and not something else? If even they do not agree as to what it is, how is anyone supposed to check? There is no reliable test.
Instead, present-day philosophy is whatever a professional group called “philosophers” happen to believe it is at the current moment, which means we can only know what philosophy is based upon the faith we first place in a certain community of thinkers and institutions. But this also introduces an incoherence, because the definitions provided by philosophers for philosophy (in its modern and post-modern forms, at least), despite their seemingly intractable differences, universally deny such belief in authority, such faith in tradition, to be the starting point or foundation of “philosophical” thinking. That is something that dogmatic or religious people are supposed to do. Philosophy, so the story goes, is generally about analysis, clarity, method, theory, technique, and the like—not a set of beliefs to which one must first subscribe, or people in whom one must first place one’s trust. Where does the credibility of philosophers in the eyes of non-philosophers come from?
Finally, when it comes to the third domain—art—there is no criterion, available to anyone who wants to understand it, that can distinguish between art and non-art, or between “culture” and “not culture.” There is no shortage of articulated attempts at such criteria, but in the case of art, the very same logical problem arises. The “What is art?” question, in the context of establishing a criterion amongst theorists of the subject, actually is “What should art be?”, or in other words, “What ought to count as art?” In our culture, this question is answered by a network of people and institutions called the “art world.” If they say something is or is not art, we have no available criterion to wave in their face to tell them they are wrong. Indeed, the “eye-of-the-beholder” sentiment is so widespread in our culture that the idea of establishing a useful criterion feels pointless from the start.
We should all care about the state of the definitions and demarcations of these ultimate disciplines because they are at the origin of the intellectual and spiritual food chain. When we watch a nature documentary or listen to the speech of a political activist or read the arts section of the newspaper, we would do well to remember that the ideas, methods, techniques, and commitments we encounter were acquired from someone, who got the principles from someone else, who was a student of someone else—until we come to the first link in that chain. Follow these links to their origin, and we arrive at the level of ultimate questions. To put it in the language of Islamic intellectual culture, our favorite professor, activist, or artist all have their sanad (support or backing) or silsilah (chain) even if neither they nor their audience view their ideas, method, or commitments in terms of such chains of authority. Taken together, the aggregate conception of what science, philosophy, and art are—and what scientists, philosophers, and artists do—forms the very framework that global modern life has for inquiring into ultimate questions; they are the de facto dimensions of thought, the building blocks of discourse.
If we cannot come up with a coherent, non-circular, non-question-begging way of conceptualizing what these activities and people are and do—beyond a kind of cultural inheritance and informal agreement (“I know it when I see it”)—then we are in a very odd and ungrounded intellectual position. And despite the failure of demarcation for science, philosophy, and art, these and related words (scientist, scientific, scientifically, philosopher, philosophical, philosophically, artist, artistic, artistically) are constantly and widely deployed in our intellectual discourse to make sweeping and consequential arguments, as if their boundaries of meaning were as clear as the difference between addition and subtraction or between the sun and the moon.
In the discussion thus far, the concepts of “religion” and “religious” have been conspicuous for their absence. Not only is religion (at least in the traditional sense) not part of the modern culture of ultimate questions, but it is precisely in opposition to religion that science, philosophy, and art have most strenuously demarcated themselves.
In the case of science, the opposition is most direct and even hostile, with some version of “religion and science” (implying religion versus science) in the name of many a book, article, or polemic. To be scientific is to be impartial, objective, and self-effacing. One lets nature speak for itself, without prejudice or preconception. Religion, it is said, seeks for the “supernatural” (a word that depends on a good definition of “natural,” which we do not have) and demands certain truths from nature, turns its eyes away from certain possibilities, and allows itself beliefs without evidence—unlike the scientist, who follows the evidence wherever it may lead. The only way to avoid such conflict is to declare that science and religion should not even be evaluated by similar standards, since they are “non-overlapping magisteria,” meaning they are simply about altogether different parts of reality. Even in the most sympathetic and irenic approaches to religion and science in the modern intellectual culture, “religion” and “science” are assumed to be two realities that by their nature do not commingle. And crucially, in all such cases, “science” is the final arbiter of the real truth—the factual truth, at least—regardless of whether religion and science conflict, cooperate, or disengage.
Even in the most sympathetic and irenic approaches to religion and science in the modern intellectual culture, “religion” and “science” are assumed to be two realities that by their nature do not commingle.
For philosophy, the foil of “religion” appears under the guise of “theology” as well, with philosophers often jealously guarding their territory from any possibility of encroachment by “faith” or “dogma.” Philosophers begin with no assumptions and rely purely on reason, it is said, while theologians already know what their conclusions are. One kind of philosopher sees religion as yet another system of power, or as a vain attempt to say something objectively true about the world. For such thinkers, the problem is not that religion is not fully rational, but that it even believes in anything like the truth or the good. Religion is the ultimate metanarrative, and incredulity toward such entities is the order of the day for postmodernists, who nevertheless heroically avoid any incredulity toward their own doctrine of incredulity.
The case of art and religion is less straightforward, with many points of harmonious contact and overlap, but the opposition comes sharply into view once we consider art under its alternate name, culture. Muslims especially will be familiar with the seductively intuitive bifurcation between culture and religion. (This is “culture” not in the sense of a particular culture, but essentially as an equivalent to “refinement” or “the arts,” as when one speaks of “a man of culture” or the “arts and culture” section of a newspaper.) The contrast or polarity between culture/art and religion is subtle, and in some ways, more harmonious and less fraught, and it is more difficult to characterize in a few words; nevertheless, the dividing line is still important. It is relevant to note that the notions of “artist” and “artistic” (in their current usage) appeared at the same time as “scientist” and “scientific” (in their current usage), roughly in the mid-nineteenth century. In fact, the two terms developed in relation to each other, the “artistic” being the realm of the subjective, and the “scientific” taking over the realm of the objective. Relatedly, the terms subjective and objective (again, in their current usage) appeared around the same time as artist and scientist. Art was considered the product of personality, idiosyncrasy, and impulse, and was, in a sense, allowed to manifest those aspects of the self over which scientific objectivity had not claimed dominion. Thus, in a sense, art can be anything except objective, which means that art can also be religious, and that religion can be artistic—but only insofar as religion is a subjective matter, like longing or despair. Any harmony between art and religion requires the restriction of “religious” to the category of subjective. Art (or culture) explores ultimate questions regarding the good and the beautiful as the refined expression of a collective personality, the repository of accumulated subjective selves. When religion and faith can be classified as aspects of personality and subjectivity, then they can be tolerated in modern culture. It is when religion is posited as something more than the aggregated effect of certain kinds of human sentiments and impulses that objections arise. It is at that point that religion challenges the prestige of art/culture and its supremacy over the subjective by trying to be both the content of the subjective and also the matrix within which that subjectivity finds its place and makes sense.
The problem, then, with how religion is demarcated from these three domains is that none of these alleged differences are as absolute or clear as they are typically made out to be. Science is supposed to be the rational inquiry into the nature of things, but we need a prior belief in how the world works to be able even to know how to inquire. We need a theoretical framework to be able to decide how to set up experiments. We may modify our beliefs over time, but we always begin with such beliefs, always have them, and are never free of them. Moreover, the commitment to such inquiry (and trust in the “scientific community”) is neither a finding of that inquiry nor even the theoretical framework within which that inquiry takes place. We begin with that commitment, and are sustained by that commitment, unless, as often happens, our commitments change, too. A person who does not believe that reason is good is unlikely to be a scientist, but reason cannot tell us that reason is a good thing.
Philosophers—many of them, anyway—fault religion for its already existing metaphysical commitments: for example, a belief in God, and especially in a specific revelation. Philosophy, on the contrary, is said to begin and operate solely based on human reason and not on the kind of authority and limitation that is demanded by the metaphysical background typical of theology. But is that true? Do any philosophers begin with literally no beliefs about the nature of the world? Sometimes philosophers will say that their discipline is about “the most general features of things” or the like, but we can only know the most general features if we already know what things essentially are, such that we can recognize their most “general” or “particular” features.
What it is about the already existing beliefs of philosophers that makes them better than the already existing beliefs of others? Why do the philosopher’s presuppositions about determinism and randomness magically allow him or her to think objectively, but presuppositions about purpose or consciousness encumber the theologian? Why are the philosopher’s starting beliefs weightless and invisible? A human being, beginning from a certain set of notions about the physical and moral world, can then through his or her life experiences, come to an objective knowledge that may or may not confirm the initial set of assumptions. Do philosophers tend to end up in a place radically different from where they started, more often than do theologians? Most people tend to stick to their original beliefs most of the time, but the assumption that a believer in purpose or design is necessarily dogmatic while a believer in determinism or randomness is not dogmatic, is just that: an assumption, and often a quite dogmatic one, too.
And finally, “art” is never about the subjective only. Art only makes sense against the background of truth, and in relation to a collective experience of forms that makes up the vocabulary and grammar by which someone experiencing the art will be able to fully comprehend it. Art always exists as a choice among possibilities—that is, among conceivable iterations of some particular form that the artist makes—and these possibilities present themselves to the imagination on the basis of the artist’s experience and his or her view of what the truth of things really is. The opposition of art/culture with religion, moreover, tends to reduce religion to a thing that is essentially a set of obligations and propositions, while being only incidentally a thing of beauty and creativity, if beauty and creativity are part of it at all.
As science, philosophy, and art—and our ability to conceive of what is, what can be, and what ought to be—drift further and further apart, human thought loses its unified character. We are hurtling along a trajectory in which pervasive forms of bad thinking in our collective intellectual life are likely only to get worse, and these distortions of thought, which originate at the deepest level of intellectual culture, reverberate throughout the general culture. These errors are of three kinds, corresponding to the three fragments left when the unity of traditional wisdom was broken into pieces. Keeping in mind our earlier classification of beliefs into three kinds (the factual, the theoretical, and the moral), we can now consider how these patterns crystallize.
The first problem in our intellectual culture is the invocation of evidence as truth, but without fully acknowledging one’s theoretical framework and without making clear how much one is relying on trust and faith.
The world of nature does not simply hand us evidence. Rather, any data or observations must be interpreted in order for us to understand anything about them. There are an indefinite number of theories that can fit a given set of observations. We choose, necessarily, from among those contenders; but more than that, without an already existing method of analysis to guide our inquiry, we would never have any set of observations in the first place, just an undifferentiated mass of information. We would not know what to look for or which experiments to run. The failure to recognize or make explicit this framework of interpretation and analysis—namely, the theoretical assumptions and imaginative leaps that allow us to interpret data—is a major pattern in modern intellectual culture that often leads us to believe whatever scientists claim or whatever is claimed in the name of science, even if those claims are theoretical assumptions and not empirical findings. This false sense of the obvious hinders our ability to distinguish between the finding that the earth is round and the assumption that minds are simply brains. The way we justify the former is totally different from how we justify the latter, yet both are simply called “scientific.”
Alongside such questions of theory and interpretation, there is also profound trust and faith that goes unacknowledged. The very dangerous phrase “we know,” often deployed by popularizers of science, is very instructive in this regard. “We” do not ever know, but rather “I” know some things and I trust in others to tell me what they know, as when people say, “We know that the speed of light does not change,” which really means “I trust those who say this is true.” This implicit trust is another kind of unresolved ambiguity: the “we” in “We saw the eclipse” is different from the one in “We can predict a solar eclipse.” In cases such as the latter, it is not a theoretical framework but a moral one that helps us interpret our experience.
The second problem arises when a certain method of analysis or theoretical framework grows so powerful that it undermines itself, forgetting what it is about and what it is for.
“Every time someone denies the possibility of objectivity, they are proclaiming, “No human being can do what I, a human being, am doing right now.” We constantly encounter claims that abolish their own validity.”
We are told in countless ways that it is impossible for human beings to escape from outside factors—our genes, class, ideology, gender, race, language—that determine and shape our subjectivity, but if this claim is to have any validity, then its claimant must have achieved objectivity, which means that it is possible to escape. Every time someone denies the possibility of objectivity, they are proclaiming, “No human being can do what I, a human being, am doing right now.” We constantly encounter claims that abolish their own validity. Thinkers deny free will or reason or goodness, but that very denial is an argument that presupposes free will, reason, and the good, since the denier was free to deny, understood what he was denying, and deemed it worthwhile to deny. If human beings are determined by the molecular activity in their brains or by race and gender or by their cultural-linguistic inheritance, then the theory that makes such a claim about human beings is also determined (because it came from a human being), and hence is meaningless. And if people are indeed entirely driven by such factors outside themselves, then the goal toward which they work in providing such an analysis is similarly determined by those outside factors, and is thus also arbitrary.
The third problem consists of moral or normative demands that are unconnected with the set of choices from which they are deemed best, and with the account of human nature that renders such possibilities intelligible.
In modern culture, values are something people simply have. They do not correspond to anything beyond the personal and the subjective. That is why art or “culture” has complete freedom to make absolute proclamations about what is good, worthwhile, and beautiful, because art is utterly subjective, and lest it trespass on the territory of science or philosophy, does nothing more than reflect the personality and idiosyncrasies of individuals. Severed from the sense of what is possible and what is real, values have become neither defensible nor indefensible. They are simply there.
But surely, one might protest, people argue for their values all the time? Think of a moral commitment as a destination: if you receive GPS driving instructions on how to get to several different locations, there is nothing in those instructions to tell you what your destination should be, only how to get to the place you already deem it worthwhile to visit. In the field of ethics, one typically encounters various modes of how-to-reach-such-and-such-good, but what makes us care about that good in the first place? And what are we, and what is the world, such that the good and our care for it is even intelligible? Any methodological stance, any advocacy of a mode of analysis, any activism in favor of a program or formula, can only result from some kind of commitment that considers that method, analysis, or formula to be worthwhile to pursue, and the expected results of it to be desirable. That is, one must realize that all good is good “for something” and good “in light of something.”
Some thinkers, such as Foucault, whose ideas are still incredibly influential in the fields of humanities and social sciences, disavowed the notion of morality entirely, all while making their own moral demands. Others, such as the philosophers in the analytic movement (which completely dominates philosophy departments in North America), have mostly denied that anything “meaningful” or “interesting” could be said about questions of good and bad, and have avoided questions of value to focus on “real” philosophical issues. This approach simply renders them incapable of seeing the assumptions about what is good and bad that guide their ideas.
How do these three themes relate to the question of discourse and disagreement between people? Three patterns of error arise when each type of claim (factual, theoretical, normative) is not properly understood in light of the other two. Each pattern contributes in its own way to an intellectual culture in which talking with people with whom you disagree about your points of disagreement ultimately makes no sense and serves no purpose.
The first problem (the false sense of the obvious) produces people who think that what they believe is obvious and needs no argument. They tend to believe that people who disagree with them are either obstinate or stupid, because it’s obvious what is true. Only someone with bad intentions or defective intelligence could possibly miss what is so clearly there.
The second problem (methods of analysis run amok) produces people who think that an opponent’s beliefs (though never their own) are completely explainable in terms of some outside factor, and thus that person’s arguments can be ignored in favor of analyzing that outside factor. Every event or state of affairs is read through the prism of class or race or gender—or in terms of some mysterious “evolutionary past” whereby all human behavior (mental or otherwise) is seen as a function of random genetic mutations that enabled the owners of those mutations to survive and reproduce, while other genetic configurations simply disappeared.
The third problem (arbitrary morality) produces people whose goals or agendas are hidden to others or even themselves, and whose commitments can never be open to critique or discussion. They become muddle-headed or tyrannical. They do not situate good and bad in terms of what is rational or real, so the best they can do is loudly proclaim what they want. The good becomes a blind impulse, an incomprehensible given, or even a sublimated glandular effusion.
All three of these problems produce people uninterested in listening or responding to the beliefs of others. What is there, really, to talk about? This is not a failure to agree, but an inability to even disagree. We rightly lament the incivility at the level of popular culture, but often fail to notice that these problems have their roots in the fragmented and scattered fashion through which science, philosophy, and art deal with ultimate questions. This fragmentation has at its root the disavowal of the sacred—which encompasses truth, reason, and beauty. Modernity (or more precisely, modernism) can only sustain its rejection of the sacred by dividing it into pieces and keeping them apart.
What should we do about all this? Traditional religious civilizations did much better at keeping these three realms harmoniously related, and we can learn much from them through careful and serious study. Muslims, for example, must avail themselves of their own great intellectual tradition. Islamic civilization once had a thriving culture of ultimate questions, and it was sustained mostly from within three realms of discourse: falsafah, kalām, and taśawwuf, loosely translatable as philosophy, theology, and mysticism. It was among these thinkers and practitioners—luminaries such as al-Ghazālī, Rumi, Ibn Sīnā, Ibn al-ʿArabī, Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, Mullā Śadrā, and countless others—that ultimate questions were posed and explored, and it is their writings and works of art that we should cherish as a storehouse of wisdom, insight, and intellectual profundity. Muslim thinkers across these three disciplines—especially in the era before colonialism and the encroachment of modernism—had developed, through argument, elaboration, refutation, and engagement with each other, a marvelously limber, rich, and stable way to both frame issues and explain their competing and often profoundly diverse points of view. We need to study them, learn from their example, and continue their work in a way that makes sense for us.
No individual today can undo the fragmentation modernity has handed us, but one can resist that fragmentation in one’s own mind and help others to do the same. In the realm of agreement and disagreement, of claims and counterclaims, one can have recourse to a spatial metaphor: think of the way pilots keep track of their own three spatial coordinates (latitude, longitude, and altitude), as well as the coordinates of other places. This image can help one to remember that one should evaluate one’s own claims and those of others by keeping in mind the three types of claims (factual, theoretical, normative), or “thought coordinates,” and remembering that no single one of them is fully intelligible in the absence of the other two. Like the three dimensions of space, the three dimensions of thought always go together. This means we ought to remember that every factual claim is embedded in a theoretical claim and dependent upon a moral claim, every theoretical claim is about a factual claim and guided by a moral claim, and every moral claim presupposes a factual claim and is chosen via a theoretical claim.
The spatial metaphor can serve as a kind of mnemonic device that helps us keep in mind the true parameters of our disagreements. To adopt this stance does not resolve difference, but it helps set the condition for people to then resolve, or at least mitigate, them. It is fine to tolerate someone who disagrees with you, but it is better to tolerate that person while understanding the parameters of the difference; otherwise, your tolerance will likely be fragile. However, if we can understand the universal dimensions of human thought that give rise to difference, our tolerance of others will be more robust because we will understand the difference even when we cannot surmount it. And God knows best.