Wednesday, August 23, 2006

philosophical blah blah blah

I've been reading the Sword of Truth book, Chainfire. Despite the author's tendency to ramble about previous events in this long series of events and to spend maybe half the book reminding us of what's happened already, and despite his habit of preaching on the same subjects for pages at a time, it has been a rather thought-provoking book. I like the idea of the main character remembering someone that no one else can recall ever existing and everyone thinking he's delusioonal. For me, whether the author presents the dilemma satisfactorily is beside the point. The fact is that someone's version of reality differs from someone else's, and so they end up arguing about truth. But the author's point isn't a postmodern one. According to the author, only one of these viewpoints is right. There is something not right with the situation, because the person that no one thinks is real, we know is a central character in the story. There is something entirely upsetting and disturbing about the fact that she's gone, missing, and no one remembers her. But because they all really do not recall her existence, they take it for granted that the main character, who actually "knows the truth" is delusional, and they often take it upon themselves to get him to see the "truth."

So this gets me thinking. I have postmodern-thinking friends, and I'm on the verge of being one myself. But there comes a point where I just wonder where all this no-one-is-right or this everyone-is-right business is really going. Because my version of reality may be different than yours, and we can't be sure exactly which one is right, because we're inherently limited beings with perspectives that are limited by our nature and experience, and since we don't all have the same experience and we can't be certain we all have the same nature, we can't be so arrogant as to impose our version of reality on other people. The logic leading up to it seems disturbingly coherent. But how far do we take it. Do we give anyone and everyone's opinions and perspectives validity? Do madmen and murderers have just as much a right to live the way they want as everyone else? Do they have the right to practice their beliefs? Or suppose we impose our societal standards on these people, on the basis of a majority rule: do we then allow them to think as they please, or do we make efforts to teach them the "truth." Because if the majority rule is our standard for conduct amongst each other, considering the fact that we all have to get along somehow, despite all our differences, then what kind of efforts should we make to impose not only our majority rule, but to impose our perspectives on life and reality. Because if it is only majority rule which makes it wrong to murder people, that by no means indicates that our majority perspective on the value of life is actually more valid and therefore worthy of imposing on others. It only means that that is the way we have chosen, as a society, to function together. So there is really no reason to teach others conform to our way of thinking, because after all, despite our majority and despite the way we've chosen to function together as a society, those murderers might actually be right. Their version of reality may be just as good as ours.

Clearly I'm going too far. Clearly, I'm just embellishing the issue to try and make my point. Okay, so that's what I'm doing. But lets be honest. None of us believes that murder is right (I'm assuming there are no self-professed murderers reading this, who believe that what they've done is good). We all think that those who think that murder, rape, theft, and other heinous crimes are acceptable, that they should all be locked up. Not just because that's not the way we've chosen to conduct ourselves as a society so that we can get along together, but because it's wrong, because such a perspective is beneath the true standard of human dignity, because we believe that life has value, because we believe in some kind of fairness. Otherwise, we would not call prisons "correctional facilities." There would be nothing to correct, if we did not think such a perspective was entirely and utterly flawed. So I've made my point, kind of.

Some people want to do away with arguing. Once we move out of the realm of the nearly-universals like murder, how can we possibly deal with the rest on that kind of level. Some people want to throw in lying, stealing, cheating - fine. We'll throw those into the mix. Most of us can agree on those, so we can be pretty sure that they fall along the same moral lines. What about homosexuality? What about different religions? What about politics? What about rudeness? Some people think that when they are rude, it is alright because they have a good reason. Others will see that rudeness and say it was wrong. It might not be worthy of imprisonment, but no amount of perspective hopping will change the fact that you just shouldn't act that way to other people. They might not say anything, but that complete confidence in the higher moral road is there. What do we do about those questions? This whole thing is why no one wants to argue religion or politics in the first place: we can't ever agree on the issues, so let's just forget about it as much as we can. We can't actually know who's right and who is wrong, because none of us has a "God's-eye view." It has a sort of coherence about it. The impracticality of arguing about moral and spiritual reality is just too overwhelming to ignore.

But I find it's a dilemma for me. Not because I feel entirely confident in my own perspective that I should think that everyone else is wrong when I am right, but because I know there are things like murder and rape that I will not allow to be given any amount of validity. There is no justification for a man forcing himself on a woman, despite what some cultures would say about their men having the right to take from his wife what he wants. It's not something I'm willing to give ground to at all, and I'm certain that there are others, many who may be of the postmodern perspective philosophically, who yet feel the same way. If there are certain standards we're not willing to compromise, then we have a perspective that we think is right and we're willing to impose that perspective on others, not just so that we can get along, but because we believe in justice and goodness.

So where do we draw the line? Is it arbitrary? Do we only draw the line at things that are really important? Do we draw the line where we meet the least resistance? I mean it's easier to cling to standards like that when most of the people around you believe the same thing, but what if I were smack dab in the middle of a culture where rape was acceptible. What would I do? Agree that my perspective on the matter is not necessarily God's perspective on the matter because I'mnot God and I don't have access to moral perspective that he has based on my limitations as a human being? Or do I stand up for what I believe is right? It's all well and good talking about standing up for what you believe is right when everyone in America is telling you "right on! Stand up for those rape victims!" But when the conservative evangelical christian stands up, because he believes, just as strongly, that homosexuality is a sin, and he tries to convince everyone around him of what he knows to be "true," we don't hear the same thing. So how different is it? Regardless of what you or I believe about homosexuality, how different is it? We believe we're right when we talk about rape, while others believe it is their God-given right to take from their women what they want because that is the right that men have. And the conservative evangelical christian believes he is right when he talks about homosexuality, while others believe it is their God-given right to live according to how they feel.

So I know that the typical postmodern person's solution (and by postmodern person, I do not mean the philosopher, so much as the person who has been formed by postmodern culture) is a simple analysis. Which of these dilemmas involve something that is done to another person, anything unpleasant or unwanted. Murder, certainly. Rape, no question. Lying, cheating, stealing, yeah those basically are activities that impact other people in a way they don't want. Homosexuality? They're not hurting anybody, right? Abortion? The unborn foetus isn't actually a human being. And come to think of it, little white lies aren't a big deal, cheating on your taxes is practically your God-given right, and you wouldn't have bought the cd you just downloaded off the internet for free, so they're not really losing anything. Regardless of what your answers are to these questions, it points out the fact that there are gray areas. Some people will assert that yes, little white lies hurt people, no unborn babies actually are human and have a right to life, and actually cheating on your taxes takes money away from important government aid that gives significant service to those in need. And I'm sure some would argue that the immorality of homosexuality is a pervasive perversion that will have a terrible impact on our society. Say what you will. They believe it to be true, and that is the crux of the issue. the postmodern experiment (the human product of the postmodern mindset) is wondering why the hell these weirdo conservative christians have a problem with the way they live their life, and the weirdo is wondering why people can't see the "truth."

I'm just bringing this all up, because it does not seem to me that any philosophical framework, like postmodernism, which I admittedly have not in any way outlined here, has given us a solution to these issues. I feel, having grown up in the both public school and evangelical church settings, that I am a child of both parents, and I hardly know where to fall. I cannot let go of some moral standards. Will I impose them on others? Perhaps I won't use force, but I'm willing to argue some of them (ok, it's true - I'm willing to argue just about anything that I believe at the time). Is that wrong (not the just about anything comment, but arguing for moral standards that I believe in)? I mean I'm willing to let God judge the unjust and allow people to make their own mistakes and all that. But at what point do we stand up and defend others? Do we take Bonhoffer's alternative and join the plot to assassinate Hitler, thereby imposing our knowledge of the truth on a fellow human being, who by the way happens to be murdering millions of people? Sounds fair to me. Unless it's not quite as important as something like murder? But do we decide we can't impose our views on someone just because it's not quite as important? To the conservative christian, all areas of morality are essential and important and people have to learn to follow them. This is something our postmodern culture can't accept or understand. I'm just saying we seem to be stuck, at an impass. We can compromise and say lets be friends and lets not judge each other, but we haven't really gotten anywhere toward reconciliation an love.

Okay, I'm going to stop before I start really rambling (yeah, I know, too late).


Brother James said...

Ok Jake, I didn't read the entire entry, but let me offer a couple of ideas that may be helpful:

1. A safer, and probably more common, idea amongst intellectual circles is the idea of post-structuralism. It's similar to post-modernism except that it does not eliminate the idea of some sort of ultimate truth. The catch is just that we can't access it because each person is informed by their own perspective on things and also by the fact that, through language, we impose meaning on things that isn't exactly inherent. For example, beer is not inherently "beer". That is just the name that we give to the fermented beverage made from barley so that it is easier to identify for those who speak English. Confused yet?

2. I think that because everyone is informed by their own world-view we should be obligated to cooperate and discuss our view with one another in order to be more informed about the world. I think the attitude of "well, we're all 'right' so it doesn't matter" is irresponsible. We should work together to gain a clearer idea of what Truth, if there is such a thing, may be.

3. There's an old maxim if civics that goes "my rights end where yours begin". I think there's some truth to that. I mean, there's a pragmatic side to all this: no matter what our ideas of truth are, we should be working towards the benefit of the community. Maybe they say murdering is "right", but most people themselves would not like to be murdered or raped or robbed. That doesn't mean they can't deal with it, but most pragmatic people would not willfully go through with it. If they do, they need to read a few Dostoevsky novels.

Was that at all helpful? Maybe we could add another dimension to our Risk games. Don't be afraid of being confused by the whole issue. That's kind of the point of post-modernism: you're not supposed to "get it". At least not right away. I sure don't.

Josh Fuller said...

Jacob, you write so well and so thoroughly about this. Most counterpoints to your points you've already thought of and mentioned, without necessarily dismissing them which is commendable.

I think one possible postmodernist response to your question 'where do we draw the line' is to wonder why it's so important to draw it. Wanting to state exactly where it is and why is a modern tendency and a purely theoretical exercise, I would suggest. Like you say, when it comes to down to practicalities, people tend to agree on the big stuff and agree to disagree on smaller stuff. No matter where you finally decide to draw that line, you will have to live in a world where someone disagrees with you. And I think that's where postmodernism has something good to say; that it's possible to live and love in community even when that happens. The object is not to obliterate the line; we all have one. The object is to recognize that the line isn't what's important. Not most important, anyway.

Disclaimer: Not meant to be speaking on behalf of postmodernism, only my own opinion.

Jake said...

Thanks Josh. I would just point out one thing about the proverbial "line." For me it's not just about the line of what it is we hold on to with complete trust. The line I'm really talking about is the one that everyone places somewhere about what beliefs we stand up for and which ones we "agree to disagree" on. I think this line is much more important than a lot of postmodernists give it credit, because it is essential to how we interact with one another and we're doing it all the time anyway, often without even thinking about it in any intelligent analytical manner.

So my concern is twofold, both societal and personal. The postmodern experiment vs the modern conservative: how do they meet. Because most conservatives I know want to meet somewhere, but they think certain things are important for them to stand up for and those things fly in the face of our culture, which like I said is wondering what the hell the problem is. So I'm asking, is it good for them to stand up for their beliefs, right or wrong, when it's abrasive to the culture surrounding them? And at what point does it become inappropriate. I don't think that's a question that we can easily sidestep by avoiding the drawing of lines, if we have any interest whatsoever in interacting with one another on a basis of both moral standards and of God's love.

My other concern is personal, but along the same vein. I am a bit of an argumentative person. Sometimes I am certain of my views, though I may sometimes mask my conviction with humble disclaimers, and I nevertheless argue my points, sometimes to the discomfort of others. This tenacious stubbornness on my part seems on the one hand true to my beliefs and nature and on the other hand sometimes alienating. I don't know how they do it in correctional institutions, but at some point they must have the goal of bringing the criminal around to their point of view in the hopes of that person becoming a valuable member of society. So I feel I need to know at what point my stubborn insistence on my perspective becomes inappropriate. Where do I draw the line about what's important? You might argue that that's a matter of conscience, but there are so many times that I feel justified in arguing my case and then I make an ass of myself. So there you have it.

For those of you who know me and have seen me argue ridiculous things, I don't need examples of ridiculous instances; I can easily recall many of those for myself. And frankly I'm not asking for anyone to lay out suggestions for answers, so much as to participate in the conversation and perhaps provide questions or insights from your own experience. Thanks