A Straight Shot of Politics

A blog from a gentleman of the Liberal political persuasion dedicated to right reason, clear thinking, cogent argument, and the public good.

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Location: Columbus, Ohio, United States

I have returned from darkness and quiet. I used to style myself as "Joe Claus", Santa Claus’ younger brother because that is what I still look like. I wrote my heart out about liberal politics until June of 2006, when all that could be said had been said. I wrote until I could write no more and I wrote what I best liked to read when I was young and hopeful: the short familiar essays in Engish and American periodicals of 50 to 100 years ago. The archetype of them were those of G.K. Chesterton, written in newspapers and gathered into numerous small books. I am ready to write them again. I am ready to write about life as seen by the impoverished, by the mentally ill, by the thirty years and more of American Buddhist converts, and by the sharp eyed people [so few now in number] with the watcher's disease, the people who watch and watch and watch. I am all of these.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Facts, Truth, and Belief: A Reply to Reverend Sensing

Reverend Donald Sensing over at One Hand Clapping has posted a marvelous new Sunday Sermon. They are always enjoyable, and I usually drop a short comment on them over there every Sunday, but this one is so meaty that I've decided to write a longer reply here. Since the link is available, I won't recap the Reverend's argument, but will act as if we were on his comment page:

First of all, Reverend, I would point out how little any of us have true contact with any "facts" whatever. Consider the flap over forged documents at CBS. No one who has pontificated on the truth or falsity of the claim of forgery has actually seen an "original" document. CBS has stated they only have "copies" and, by definition, everybody else only has copies of copies. The whole question actually can be stated this way: Were the "originals" typewritten documents from military files or were they computer printed forgeries? A strict application of a correspondence theory of truth would render either answer unprovable because no one has access to the relevant "facts".

In fact, most of our practical beliefs in truth are generally "coherence" theories rather than "correspondence" theories of truth, because, nine times out of ten, we are relying upon independent testimony about facts to which we have no direct access. This is part of what is expressed (badly) by "We can each have our own personal Truth regardless of facts." When we judge truth under these conditions we actually ask two questions: Do I believe this testimony? and Does the explanation of it make sense? There are a minimum of four possible answers: Yes, Yes; Yes, No; No, Yes; No, No. And any of these answers are a matter of judgment rather than certainty, involving inner standards for testimony and coherent narrative which we may not share.

The alternate definition of truth as "utility" is also more than just an excuse for the Nazi "Big Lie". In fact, it has little to do with the matter of lying at all. All scientific statements are essentially applications of truth by utility because they are about the physics behind the facts, which the facts themselves, of and by themselves, do not make clear in the least. The world I see doesn't look in the slightest like Steven Hawking's descriptions of it, and those descriptions are acceptable as truth only when their utility (in this case, ultimate explanatory consistency with what I can see) has been thoroughly tested.

Moreover, what is also expressed, more accurately, by 'something can be "true for you" and another thing "true for me"' is that, when the facts actually refer to our inner life rather than to the outer world, the "you" is not talking about the same set of facts as the "me". They may be similar (and how similar is also a matter of judgment) but they are not identical. This is the case of the preference for cauliflower. But it is not because cauliflower is more trivial than football. In fact, your example is a rare lapse of thought on your part. Both are equally subjective, which was not, I'm sure, the point you intended.

But it is this same lapse which underpins the key conclusion which you come to:

"Christian faith and practice relies on correspondence, not relativism or utility. On the first Easter morning, the women went to the tomb and observed certain facts: the stone was rolled away, the tomb was empty, they saw Jesus alive. So they drew the obvious conclusion, "He is risen!" "


In fact, that conclusion was not in the least obvious, even though, in the Gospel narrative, it proved to be true. [This is not, by the way, my endorsement of the "truth" of the narrative itself. That is a separate issue.] A strict application of the correspondence theory of truth would state, "His body is gone." And a perfectly coherent alternative narrative about it would be that some people rolled away the stone and took the body.

"He is risen!" is actually an affirmation of faith at this point rather than an acknowledgement of truth. It seems to me important to keep that quite clear, for the only people who could make that statement as an acknowledgement of "truth by correspondence" would be those, like Thomas, who put their fingers in the palms of Christ's hands.

The women at the tomb were exactly in the position of the truly Christian faithful today, acknowledging "belief" in a Resurrection which was, literally, incredible, since no one had ever done it before, and, as far as we know, no one has ever done it since.

For the rest of us, including myself, we are left, as usual, with our private individual judgment both of the accuracy of the testimony and of the coherence and believability of the explanation. This is why Faith itself is a "mystery". It is not merely a matter of trust, but clearly--speaking from the outside of the Communion of Faith--something radically different than any ordinary way other people relate to facts. Perhaps a better way to relate to them, but certainly a different way.

Nor is it just a Christian mystery. "There is no God but God and Muhammad is His final prophet!" is a statement of the same type of "belief" which must held without reference to any available facts to which it corresponds. And our judgment of its truth is a judgment of the narrative which surrounds it rather than personal acquaintance with the facts described by that narrative in the Koran.

Faith of this type is also, frankly, not the only way to run a Religion. On the Buddhist side of things, there is, inevitably, trust in what you are taught. And there are certain things you must assume as a starting point, such as the existence of prior and future lives. But my teachers have been very clear about one thing: there is nothing in Buddhism which must take solely on faith alone. If you put Buddhist teachings into practice, everything in the Dharma can, sooner or later, be tested directly by its correspondence to the facts which confront you.

From my side I can say that this has, so far, proved to be true. For over 25 years, everything my teachers have said about the facts, both inside me and outside of me, that I can truly check, has been unfailingly accurate. So I am inclined to trust them about the stuff I cannot check out just yet, such as multiple lives and rebirth, which make up the very coherent narrative surrounding us all.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is it not true that buddhism is based on what is "seen" ie. a confirmatory experience ?

The key to the inner life of the Church is Faith.
And christian faith is based on the "unseen".

Tell us what is utility ? Who is the arbitrator of this experience ? And can that person decide accuracy based on reason alone ?

E2

6:24 PM  
Blogger Joseph Marshall said...

In Buddhism, the basic religious starting point is with you.

Shakyamuni taught first about the universal things all could recognize in themselves: life as we commonly live it is fundamentally unsatisfying. Why? Because we misapprehend who we are and how the world works. It is essentially our problem, down with our hands in the kitchen sink, rather than somewhere else with someone else who does things for us to make it all better.

He then taught how to start down in your own kitchen sink and clear up your confusion about who we are and how the world works. Since he started in exactly the same way, with his own kitchen sink, and became completely enlightened, he could teach others to do so.

How do we know he did this? To start with, as I pointed out above, we have to take this on trust, with an open mind, and listen to the instructions, just like we might listen to or read the instructions about how to do anything. We Buddhists call this "hearing". Then we think about the instructions, turn them over in our mind, see if they make sense, and keep asking questions until we get them clear. We call this "contemplating". Then we try them out. This is called "meditating".

To hear, contemplate, and meditate means cultivating a fundamental trust in your own capacities and judgment. The question is really simple, Am I less confused or not? After 25 years of work I am certainly less confused than when I started and the process and how I got that way is perfectly plain to me. So I am willing to trust that the process will continue.

The actual instructions are, of course, more detailed and extensive than one can shoehorn into a comment. But there will probably be occasion for me to expand on them in the blog sooner or later.

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