Belief, Reality, and the Rising of the Sun

Another long and pseudo-philosophical rambling.  This one started for several reasons.  Reason the first, a conversation in a chatbox on Theocafe‘s site where my primary opponent was an atheist (and something of an existentialist) who said that religious people don’t have justification for believing in the supernatural.  The mere possibility wasn’t enough for him, even personal revelation wasn’t enough for him: he wanted a thing to be verifiable, reproducible, provable-in-a-lab before he believes anyone should have the right to believe in it.

Reason the second is the following:

(From the TV movie based on Terry Pratchett’s “Hogfather.”)

Now I love the writings of Terry Pratchett dearly–he is an excellent excellent writer, with a sense of humor that makes me laugh and a philosophical mind that makes me think.  And I entirely believe that humans need fantasy to be human.  But fantasy is, well fantasy.  Pratchett is going further than that: he is saying we should believe in something that isn’t true even though it isn’t true.  However, the things he speaks of (through Death) as fantasy, Justice, Mercy and the rest, I don’t believe that they are fantasy, I believe that they do exist.

These two people, fine thinkers both, are trying to deal with the question of what really is, and how we can know what is.

It’s easy to believe that chairs exist when I’m sitting in one, can touch it and smell it and see it and even (I suppose if I really wanted to) taste it.  But what of abstract ideas and supernatural entities and things we cannot sense?  What of Truth and Justice and seraphim and principalities and dragons and dark matter and Goodness and fae and parallel universes and a Creator and an Adversary and things-that-lurk-under-our-beds and dryads and quarks and antimatter and an afterlife and souls and those-strings-that-make-up-reality?  What should be the criteria for believing those things exist?

To an extent, this seems a lot like the ancient disagreement between Plato and Aristotle, arguing over the existence of souls and “forms” and absolute essentials, trying to prove/disprove their existence using logic.  They held to entirely different paradigms regarding such things, except for the following commonalities: they both believed that whether or not such things existed was important, and they both believed that pure logic and reason were sufficient tools to prove or disprove such things.  In that first conviction they also agree with me–I believe that the existence or nonexistence of invisible or abstract things is dreadfully important, that what the conclusion of that argument is will affect every aspect of one’s life.  And in that, Plato, Aristotle and I differ wildly from the postmodernist (whose conviction is that it doesn’t matter whether such things are real or not or not as long as one believes in them: ultimately, that what we call “reality” is somehow contingent upon one’s perception or belief regarding it).  But maybe I differ from these eminent thinkers on that latter part.  Maybe the totality of what exists can’t be proven or disproven by logic.  Maybe our logic is finite like we are, or limited by the premises we put into it.

Perhaps in this, the philosophers seeking to prove the existence of God (via the watchmaker argument or the uncaused Cause argument) are just like the scientists seeking to prove string theory.  Perhaps one day all their logics will be unraveled simply because they started with the wrong premise.  Perhaps their basic assumptions are flawed to begin with.  How can we know?  We are finite beings, limited in cognitive ability and limited in perception and limited in time.  Is it even feasible to state that we should be able to understand all of what is, when our data is in all likelihood unrepresentative?  It may be that one day we find we’ve been asking the wrong questions, that asking things like “Is light a particle or a wave?” will one day seem as nonsensical as “What time is the color yellow?”  It may be one day that we have simply not had the instruments to properly perceive, like astronomers before the telescope.

Modernists seek to use science and logic to know everything.  There are two problems with this.  Firstly, that logic is only as good as the information one plugs into it: that an argument can be valid but untrue due to a false premise.  And secondly, that Science itself does not state that a thing is not necessarily true unless it can be proven by Science–modernists operate under a general assumption akin to faith.

So if we cannot necessarily know all of what is, all of reality, through observation and Science alone, it seems fallacious to state that because we cannot perceive a thing we have no right to believe in it.  There are many things that exist, that are, that were not perceived for a very long time: the moons of Jupiter, for example.

(Figure 1-1: Premodernists operate under an assumed paradigm: their “reality” is one that, they believe, exists whether they perceive it or not, akin to the concept of “Absolute Truth,” and they only know about reality through a sort of faith in “revealed truth.”  Modernists operate empirically: they construct their conception of “reality” through gathering data.  Postmodernists believe “reality” to be subjective and fluid, “What’s true for you may not be true for me,” and thus believe that their beliefs shape and form their individual “reality.”)

Pratchett’s ideas, however, are unlike Plato’s and Aristotle’s in that he allows a thing can exist without any empirical evidence.  In this he and I agree entirely.  He loses me, however, when he speaks of belief causing a thing to exist.

This is a common theme in postmodern fantasy.  In Discworld, Pratchett’s fantasy series, a god has more power the more people believe in and worship him.  A god who loses all his worshippers becomes an empty voice on the desert wind, powerless and mindless.  Similarly, in Neil Gaiman’s works (both in Sandman and American Gods), belief is the currency and food of the gods, not to mention their creator.  If enough people believe in a deity, that deity comes to life in the shape of their beliefs.  This is even more prevalent in the Coldfire Trilogy by C.S. Friedman, on a planet where belief and doubt have an active effect on the world around you.  On that world, if you pull the trigger on a gun and have the slightest doubt in its ability to fire, that gun in all likelihood will misfire.  Similarly, if you attempt an impossible action and have absolute faith in your ability to perform it, you are far more likely to be able to.  In this trilogy there is a Church whose purpose is to concentrate the faith of millions, on the premise that even if God does not exist, their faith will create God in the image of their belief.

Now you say to me, dude, these are just stories.  Don’t take it as the postmodernist’s manifesto.  And you are correct, none of these stories are meant to be taken as a blueprint of what “reality” is.  Yet the ideas are there, the concepts are there, which you hear in postmodernism.  “Well, that’s true for you.  It’s not necessarily true for me.”  You see, postmodernism states that the quest for “an objective truth that is describable through language” has been discredited, and so now any declarative statement regarding scientific fact, religious truth, or the nature of “reality” in any way cannot be held to be objective or even universally true.  This extends to the afterlife: in interviews regarding the afterlife taken with college students, some have stated that “those who believe in resurrection will be resurrected; those who believe in reincarnation will be reincarnated; and those who believe in extinction will become extinct at death.”

“Belief creates reality.  What you believe will determine what happens when you die.”  This is the ultimate expression of postmodernism, the logical conclusion of a pluralist understanding of reality.

And it violates logic and empiricism all over the place.  The laws of logic aside, which state that contradictory statements cannot be true (thus the statement “Jesus is Master of the Universe” cannot be true if  “Odin is Master of the Universe” is true–either one is true and the other is false, or both are false), even a cursory observation of the human condition will reveal that no amount of belief will enable one to break the law of gravity, for example.  I might believe I can fly, but that belief will never reach out and shape reality.

A pluralist understanding of reality is a polite belief.  It enables tolerance, because no theory is wrong, no paradigm is wrong, no religion is wrong…  If I believe the fae exist, then in my reality they exist–and no-one can tell me otherwise.  Postmodernism would say “that I get to be a Christian and my neighbor a Hindu and no discussion about who is right should enter the equation.”  It’s a very nice belief.  Very tolerant.  But as polite as it is, it is ultimately nonsensical.  Many beliefs exist, many paradigms exist.  But they cannot all be valid.

Essentially, my belief does little to affect reality if reality is something that exists independently, something that exists whether or not I believe in it.

Quid est veritas?  –Pilate

In the end, my understanding of “reality” is very premodern.  I understand reality to be what is, to be something that exists whether or not I perceive it and whether or not I believe otherwise.  I reject both the totalitarian rule of empiricism and the chaotic non-reality of pluralism.

This is not to say that I believe I know all that is to be known about reality.  On the contrary: it means there are things about reality that I am willing to throw up my hands over and say “I don’t know, and probably will never know.”  It is the understood ignorance of a child, the embrace of paradox of the mystic.  It requires one to surrender one’s own intellect and one’s own beliefs to someone else, to say “Teach me,” to admit ignorance and ask to be taught by one who does understand it all.  And, since no human understands it all, that is why just about every premodern society appealed to a deity for knowledge via sacred stories: only something superhuman could understand all of what is.  That is why any truth that premodernism declares is “revealed” truth.  And thus why premodernist thinking has the ability to embrace seemingly paradoxical statements, on faith that what is paradoxical to humans makes perfect sense to the gods who understand the universe.

This is not to say I reject empiricism wholly: only that I do not give it rein, that I do not make it arbiter of reality.  I see, touch, and smell a tree, and I believe that tree exists.  Yet if I do not see, touch, or smell an angel, I am not bound to believe that angels do not exist.

Premodern thinking also means that I embrace abstract concepts–Justice, Mercy, Duty–as being real, objectively real, as real as my own existence.  In my specific case, it means I believe them to be real because they are embodied, that all justice in the world exists because it derives from one who is just.

It is faith-based, yes.  My premodern paradigm is not based on rational theorems so much as on instinct and “common sense” and as such is impossible to prove in the modernist sense of proving.  Yet I would like to point out that both modernism and postmodernism have similar faith-based underpinnings: modernism, a faith in the existence and consistency of logic; postmodernism, a faith in the equality and effacity of all belief.  Neither belief is provable.  Even Euclid had to start out with five unprovable Postulates, five assumptions without which he could not get all of geometry to work.

And so, I reject that I cannot believe a thing simply because it is not (yet) empirically verifiable, and yet I reject that I can believe anything I want.  What I believe must be true, must be based on reality–even if that reality or that truth is not scientifically provable.  I walk the tightrope between modernity and postmodernity, believing in the unseen objective truth as my ancestors did before me.


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