The moralizing on this blog may lead some readers to ask about any religious beliefs and after the previous post I feel that there’s an early opportunity here to get some things straight on the topic of faith and also truth, or rather, truth with a capital T… First of all, I’m not religious in the ordinary sense. However, I wouldn’t call myself an atheist either. None of the labels on that spectrum work for me for that matter, which include ‘agnostic’ and ‘spiritual’. How about ‘confused’ then? Actually, my position rests on a philosophical outlook that’s central to my academic interests, but there’s plenty to say before I get to writing a dissertation; (anyway, aren’t we all part-time philosophers?)
It’s Easter Week here in Cyprus (known as Bright Week in the Eastern Orthodox Church), the most important and jubilant festive period for Orthodox Christians. This means two things for onlookers like me. One is, of course, more frequent and fervent church services which are always nearly entirely sung and accompanied by bell ringing (the local church is only a stone’s throw away from my apartment!) The other is less savoury—the ‘tradition’ here of the youth setting off pipe bombs at night, late into the early hours! And it was this contrast of piety and irreverence which brought on a critical frame of mind.
Religion is the clearest example of how faith goes hand in hand with truth, but that link is found everywhere. We marvel at the power of technology and the beauty of mathematics like we’re privy to the blueprints of the universe. The scientific method may not be subject to the dogmas of religion but it instills in many a level of trust and confidence that can be likened to that of a religious devotee. Certainly, science goes beyond practicality—it’s also an ideology, a way of life—it provides ‘answers’. Science and religion together encompass all popular belief systems, and it’s actually how they might be sized up from a moralist’s perspective that would best explain my take on faith and truth.
I’ll start with the truth bit. It ain’t pretty I’m afraid. There’s just no way that I could ever stand by a full-blooded truth claim of any sort without feeling that I ought to slap myself in the face! I know that truth is what we ‘do’, we can’t yet manage without it, it’s a trait that has secured world domination for the human species! But I can’t help but feel that it’s a psychological throwback, a vestige of our evolution which no longer yields as much bang for our buck. To me, professing any kind of belief in such a way as to lay claim to reality is a dismal exhibition of our limitations, a lesson in humility at best. Maybe I’ll get around to a Part II sometime but for now I’ll just throw my view out there and say that our measure of things not only fails to live up to the hype but is also, as philosophical sceptics have had it since ancient times, fundamentally problematic and unsound.
These problems are not only theoretical. Science and religion each present an example of how truth can impede moral progress. In the case of the former, anything that can’t be tested via the scientific method is effectively discounted. Unfortunately, nature (not least that of the human mind) doesn’t always fit into a formula and for that reason it is, for all its dynamism, rather rigid and narrow in scope in this important respect. Religion suffers from a similar drawback for obvious reasons, but it does have a notable upside of its own.
A couple of months ago I was approached by two Jehovah’s Witnesses on a quiet street and they came prepared with a multilingual pamphlet. Of course, the language barrier was the least of our problems, but in that void I always find a sense of communion. It was one of those rare occasions where you must confront the divide, and I always find reward in reaching out like that. But it was really the narrative on offer that opened up that avenue because narratives of all kinds represent the human condition better than anything. Stories and the like are tailor-made to involve the intangibles of life because they’re a product of our inner workings. It’s why they’re so powerful and why I for one can do just fine without the truth bit.
Another story of my own would help here. Just last week I was standing in a queue in a small bank and there was one of those TV screens you see these days up above the cashier’s desk. At the end of a loop of corporate filler they threw in a random historical quote, which on that day just so happened to be one from my favourite philosopher:
Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.
You know that things aren’t right in the world when you see something like that in a bank! But it ties in uncannily with what I want to drive at. Life itself can be rich enough so that it provides all the meaning you could ever need. This really isn’t an unfalsifiable cop-out, it’s an emotional matter of fact in my experience. While there’s no proof here, our feelings are real at least (whatever ‘real’ means) and anything and everything that matters simply couldn’t without them. Reasons matter, of course, but not because they’ll lead you to the end of the line. And if you can live happily without those answers then Aristotle got it right.
So what about faith? Again, perhaps a Part II is in order but hopefully I’ve done enough work here to end with the following. We all need to put our faith in something and if a fulfilling life is the ultimate goal then what better choice is there than morality? I hope I’m not opening too many cans of worms but it’s clear to me that if we don’t have to worry about free will or any of that stuff then surely we ought to take a chance on trying to do the right thing. That’s what all this moralizing is about, anyway.