Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Away from Truthiness towards Truth???

Let me start by saying that I am very happy that the people of the United States (and Australia, New Zealand, Canada and other countries) are not the bigots of the 19th century, and are more supportive of cultural diversity and the rights of indigenous groups and ethnic minorities. I am a great admirer of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
(As an aside, I wonder why that clause is often interpreted to mean that government should or should not give precedence to religious rather than other groups. When a national park has a multiple use policy, and is asked to allocate space to entertainment, recreation, culture or religious activities, does it not have to make a decision of the importance of the latter with respect to the former?)

But I wonder whether we have not become too politically correct when we refrain from arguing the credability of religious beliefs. We know some beliefs held by some religions are simply crackpot! Think about all the failed proficies of the end of the world that had true believers. Think about suicide cults. It seems to me that Jefferson was as concerned with freedom of speech as much as freedom of religion, and thought that people would argue theology and that good ideas would drive out bad in the marketplace of ideas.

I don't think it matters whether we let theologians argue in ivory towers about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. I think that there are many examples of situations in which conflict arises out of differences in beliefs, and where it is relatively important to resolve the conflict.
  • The United Nations debate prior to the Iraq invasion focused on whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and links with terrorist organizations, and the United States ambassador argued positions which were proven false.
  • The creationism-evolution debate is between those who believe evolution was divinely guided and those who believe that the evidence of natural processes is convincing and the issue of divine guidance is untested.
  • The stem cell debate is between those who believe that embryos have souls and those who do not think the sacrifice of an embryo is at all comparable to the killing of a person.
  • Various debates between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples related to the exclusion of non-religious people and uses of areas with religious significance to the former.
In such debates, where matters of fact are fundamental, it seems to me that debate should focus on the truth of the matter, and not refrain from challenging religious (nor semi-religious) beliefs. At least one reason to do so is to keep people from faking religion for advantage in the resolution of conflicts. (Note that some religions in which outsiders are not permitted sacred knowledge lend themselves to claims that the outsider would understand the importance of an argument if only he could know the premises on which it was based, but that such knowledge is denied to the outsider. An argument that is difficult to counter with reason.)

One of the problems of such debates is that groups differ in their beliefs about what constitutes credible evidence. Scientists give priority to controlled observation while religious authorities give priority to texts describing revelation. Jews, Christians and Muslims differ in the degree of authority they give to different texts; so too do Sunni and Shia Islam. Within biblical scholars, there are similar disagreements as to the credibility of different texts of the bible.

So too do different groups disagree about the credibility of alternative processes for the derivation of conclusions from the same evidence. Thus Catholics give relatively more credibility to clerical interpretations and Protestants to the interpretation of the individual church member.

The differences cited are all between groups that are relatively similar culturally. One can expect that the cultural differences between Australian aboriginals and the descendants of Australian immigrants, or between indigenous tribes of South America and the westernized descendants of immigrants to carry still greater differences in the credibility assigned to different sources of information or processes of drawing conclusions from evidence.

Indeed, I am not sure that the concept of "credibility" is not itself a cultural construct that is not shared among cultures. I suspect human nature is such that all normal adults realize that some things are true and others not, that sometimes people tell the truth and sometimes they don't. Thus all cultures I suspect have means for distinguishing that which is more likely to be true than that which is less likely to be true. But Western culture has a tradition of philosophers debating epistemology that is not shared. Is the cultural view of Talmudic scholars of credibility the same as that of Christian theologians or the Islamic scholars who study the Hadiths?

So how does society resolve conflicting interests between groups that differ in culture? There are examples of successes. When science and the church clashed on the question of whether the sun or the earth was the center of the solar system, the church eventually came to the position that it had perhaps misinterpreted biblical sources. That is, it came to the conclusion that when its analysis came up with conclusions that differed from observable fact, since it would not question the original evidence, the analytic interpretation of that evidence must be suspect.

The discussion above has been adduced to suggest, however, that often neither negotiation nor arbitration will be successful. In such circumstances, the dominant culture tends to impose its institutions for conflict resolution on the problem -- it is settled in the courts or the legislature. Both have been relatively successful in preventing the escalation of conflict to violence. Both prove useful from the viewpoint of the powerful (or merely influential) of often favoring their views.

However, I think neither the courts' nor the legislatures' procedures for arriving at truth are very effective (as compared with for example science or humanities). Nor are these institutions especially good at promoting negotiations nor arbitration between differing cultures. Indeed, both tend to more fully understand the culture of the power elite than of ethnic minorities;

I note with interest that in Australia, disputes between the majority and the aboriginal groups can be referred to task forces. Sometimes anthropologists are employed because they are supposed to be especially skilled in understanding the cultural bases of each side's arguments. Indeed, sometime each competing interest group hires its own anthropologist, and one can find debates among social science advocates of the different positions.

I wonder, however, if it would not be best to institutionalize a process for the argument of fact and epistemology in such cases, rather than simply a process "respecting" the cultural beliefs of each cultural group. Such a process would inherently recognize that cultures change, but would seek change in ways the improved the epistemological processes accepted by the culture. Most likely, institutionalization of such processes would involve some imposition by the more powerful over the less powerful culture. Still, if done in a generic way rather than in the heat of dispute over specific conflicts, such institutions might be negotiated.

No comments: