Monday, September 03, 2012

in praise of the clash of cultures

NYTimes | Can we be sure that our beliefs about the world match how the world actually is and that our subjective preferences match what is objectively in our best interest? If the truth is important to us these are pressing questions.

We might value the truth for different reasons: because we want to live a life that is good and doesn’t just appear so; because we take knowing the truth to be an important component of the good life; because we consider living by the truth a moral obligation independent of any consequences; or because, like my Egyptian friends, we want to come closer to God who is the Truth (al-Haqq in Arabic, one of God’s names in Islam). Of course we wouldn’t hold our beliefs and values if we weren’t convinced that they are true. But that’s no evidence that they are. Weren’t my Egyptian friends just as convinced of their views as I was of mine? More generally: don’t we find a bewildering diversity of beliefs and values, all held with great conviction, across different times and cultures? If considerations such as these lead you to concede that your present convictions could be false, then you are a fallibilist. And if you are a fallibilist you can see why valuing the truth and valuing a culture of debate are related: because you will want to critically examine your beliefs and values, for which a culture of debate offers an excellent setting.

Of course we don’t need to travel all the way to Cairo to subject our beliefs and values to critical scrutiny; in theory we can also do so on our own. In practice, however, we seem to need some sort of unsettling experience that confronts us with our fallibility, or, as the great Muslim thinker al-Ghazâlî (d. 1111) puts it in his intellectual autobiography “The Deliverance from Error,” that breaks the “bonds of taqlîd” — the beliefs and values stemming from the contingent circumstances of our socialization rather than from rational deliberation.

In his own case, al-Ghazâlî writes, the bonds of taqlîd broke when he realized that he would have been just as fervent a Jew or Christian as he was a Muslim, had he been brought up in a Jewish or Christian community. He explains taqlîd as the authority of “parents and teachers,” which we can restate more generally as all things other than rational argument that influence what we think and do: from media, fashion and marketing to political rhetoric and religious ideology.
Related
More From The Stone

Read previous contributions to this series.

The problem of taqlîd (or what social psychologists today call “conformism”) has a long history. Socrates explained the need for his gadfly mission by comparing Athenian citizens to a “sluggish” horse that “needed to be stirred up.” Note that philosophers, too, fall prey to taqlîd. Galen, the second century Alexandrian doctor and philosopher, complained that in his time Platonists, Aristotelians, Stoics and Epicureans simply “name themselves after the sect in which they were brought up” because they “form admirations” for the school founders, not because they choose the views supported by the best arguments.

If we take taqlîd to be a fact about human psychology and agree that it is an undesirable state to be in — at least when it comes to the core convictions that underlie our way of life and worldview — then we should particularly welcome debates across cultural boundaries. For if we engage someone who does not share the cultural narratives we were brought up in (historical, political, religious etc.), we cannot rely on their authority, but are compelled to argue for our views — as I had to in my discussions with Egyptian students in Cairo.

5 comments:

umbrarchist said...

Every culture is really about getting children to accept the approved lies and attitudes.

The Laws of Physics do not give a damn about any culture.

It is curious how science fiction books communicate that idea. Every fictional alien species must deal with the same physics so ever real culture on Earth must have the same problem.

CNu said...

From the perspective of evolutionary fitness, every culture will ultimately be adjudged successful or failed based on how its extended phenotype interfaces with its physical environment, correct? For example, this culture is about to crash in a very major way. It'll be interesting to see exactly what remains/survives the pending reality correction.

Umbra, why do I picture you as a black Burgess Meredith in Time Enough at Last? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Time_Enough_at_Last (and how far off the mark is this imaginal impression your commentary has engendered?)

umbrarchist said...

Well I can read without my glasses, in fact I usually do when reading a book.

CNu said...

I'm glad to hear that, you're much better off than I am in that regard!

Cleggg said...

"The Laws of Physics do not give a damn about any culture."

But people need to give a damn about other people, which is not an attitude we can prove with "physics."