Ibrahim Lawson responds to last post
Here’s Ibrahim’s latest response to the immediately preceding post on religion and intellectual black holes.
I think your piece on the ‘madness’ of mystical beliefs is very apposite and highlights the difference between us very well. I would add that the contributor who cites Lois Theroux’s work raises a similar point. I saw the program on white racists and the two girls being brought up to be pop stars singing racist songs who seemed to be quite comfortable with the abhorrent ideology their parents were imposing on them. This raises the quite valid question as to how a committed ‘non-‘, ‘anti-‘, ‘ir-‘ or supra-rationalist such as I may be can justify their own particular brand of ‘mythos’ as the only ‘true’ one having apparently denied any grounds on which this might be done. You suggest that these ‘mythoi’ may be cultural memes that evolve according to some sociological principle until such time as ‘rationalism’ emerges and puts a stop to the process by providing clearly objective and universal grounds for critiquing belief systems that are based on a faulty understanding of how the world, and particularly the human mind, works. You also say that some people will claim that ‘rationalism’ is just another mythos, no more or less true than its rivals, though you do not believe this yourself for some reason.
Notwithstanding the interesting discussion on the social construction of madness, perhaps there is more I can contribute.
You begin your argument with a parody of religious belief in an all good god, intending to show that such a belief is as equally (un)warranted as the object of parody. Arguing from analogy, you conclude that belief in an all good god is as psychologically unsound as belief in an all evil god, from which it is, to all intents and purposes, indistinguishable epistemologically. You suggest that arguments based on the mystical basis of belief in god as traditionally defined serve equally well in the defence of an all evil god, and, by extension, other paranoid or otherwise delusional beliefs.
Clearly you believe that all beliefs not based on empirical evidence are nothing more than fantasy; they are unjustifiable and therefore cannot constitute knowledge. I accept that this would be the case if religious beliefs and claims to knowledge fell into the same category as claims about the existence of material objects. What I feel unsure about is whether or not the same criteria of justification are applicable to non-material entities. I think that there are sufficient examples of claims to the existence of such things as moral and aesthetic qualities for example to challenge us to come up with other ways of acknowledging that belief in their existence is warranted.
In fact, when we look at what evidence and logical argument IS able to prove the existence of, we find that it is very little, if anything. Descartes is responsible for a lot of this confusion (and that is not a negative criticism) when he proposed his infamous ‘cogito’. It does indeed seem that all we can be really sure of, theoretically, is that we are thinking and that therefore we must at least exist even if we can be sure of nothing else.
I have to say that I hope this won’t be taken to mean that I think it is reasonable to doubt the existence of the world as object of experience. The point I am making is only that we don’t have an adequate theory to explain why we believe that such a world exists. In the absence of such an explanatorily adequate theory we should remain open-minded about knowledge claims, even when they are made on the basis of theories of knowledge that we find questionable, such as mysticism. (I say ‘we’ but I mean ‘you’, l since I am quite certain about my own knowledge claims).
In fact, Descartes famously missed out the major premise in his syllogism which should read: (1) thinking things are; (2) I think; thereore, (3) I am. Whether the first premise is true is unclear and the conclusion may not be true.
So where does this leave us? We are committed of the existence of all sorts of things for which there is no empirical evidence because they are not material objects perceivable by the senses. Is there really no other way to decide competing truth claims, whether about god, the wisdom of Lao Tsu, the superiority of the white ‘race’, the morality of sex outside marriage, the beauty of Mozart’s music, Shakespeare’s sonnets or Picasso’s paintings?
You will say that belief in god is in a different category from belief in moral and aesthetic qualities or the existence of gravity (which is unproveable too). I accept this. I say only that we need to have a way of speaking about god that enables us to have some kind of intelligible discourse, as we do about ethics and aesthetics. This discourse will have its own rules and they will not be like those governing discussions about empirical matters, for example.
It is a category mistake to suppose that claims about the existence and qualities of god are equivalent to claims about the existence of material objects and I think it is unwarranted to deny any reality to such beliefs or to categorise them all as a form of delusion or madness. It is necessary to recognise that religious beliefs perform a different function in life from empirical beliefs and that is why attempts to treat them as the same lead to nonsense. The problem is that any way of talking about distinguishing between, let us call them, non-empirical existence claims will seem as ludicrous as the claims themselves to someone who has already written the whole discourse off as ‘madness’ or ‘fantasy’ or whatever.
So much as I would like to say that Islam is not a wacky cult because, for example, we do not believe that Muhammad was the incarnation of god, as Rastafarians believe about Haile Selassie, or that black people are superior to white, as in the Nation of Islam, or that the world is inherently evil (Gnosticism) or the battle ground between two equally matched and opposing divinities (Zoroastrianism) etc etc I will not, as that will inevitably invite from some people the crass question ‘Where’s your evidence?’ to the tune of ‘nah nah na boo boo, you haven’t got any’ (for the benefit in turning to face Mecca when you die, or example).
The ‘reasoning’ I would use might resemble appeal to evidence and argument but would not be functioning as such, having been uprooted from its empiricist context, so to speak. It would resemble more a rhetorical form of argument or sophistry, which has got itself a bad name in the western tradition. But let’s not forget, the purpose of having an argument is to win; it’s only you rationalists who insist on the use of reason exclusively, and, like good catholics, have declared all other forms of argument heretical.
So I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere while the criticism of religious belief is that there is no evidence to justify it and that it is therefore indistinguishable from any arbitrary belief you can invent or indeed, schizophrenia..