Religion and Truth

It is difficult even to recognize issues that we lack the language to frame because we cannot discover the means of reducing the problem to its constituents, an issue I discussed in last week’s entry on reductionism. The problem seems irreconcilable because of its complexity or ambiguity when in truth we have either not found the means of isolating it from related problems or of finding the natural fault lines that enable us to see its components. We need neologisms that allow us to conceptualize the missing elements. For example, we can use the related terms coherence virtual circle and correspondence virtuous circle constructively to examine a thorny issue for which we commonly find inadequate language: the problem of truth in religion.

If you have not read previous postings, allow me to define the four critical terms above. Coherence references the method of justifying truth, goodness, and beauty claims that measures each new claim against a set already accepted by the thinker. Its justification thus becomes a matter of non-contradiction with personal “truths” (I use quotations because of this term’s unique meaning when used with coherence justification. To a coherentist, the only claim acceptable as truth is one that does not violate his personal schema) without reference to any external reality. Correspondence requires some means of establishing a relationship between the new claim and and that reality. It recognizes five such relationships: empirical, logical, expertise, authority, or experience. Coherence builds its schema of truth in a relational web called the virtual circle. Because it requires no outside verification, the virtual circle is idiosyncratic. Everyone’s is different. This personalism leads to problems in resolving conflicts among persons’ differing conceptions of truth, goodness, and beauty, which I have discussed previously as elements of postmodern thought. Correspondence acts on the assumption that the only virtual circle that matters is the one composed of all elements of reality, the virtuous circle, which is the harmonious integration of all truths about reality confirmable by correspondence truth tests. Since a powerful correspondence test is logic, the harmonious integration of all truths would pass the test of logic and therefore be justified. Consider the harmony of scientific disciplines to exemplify this possibility.

These opposing justification methodologies are not always oppositional. For instance, the correspondentist must resort to virtual circle warrants in issues for which there are no external referents, as in the case of emotions and beliefs. The coherentist may accept some correspondentist methodologies in part or sum. It would be difficult to embrace scientific truths and the technologies they spawn on coherence grounds, for instance. One should be careful in accepting the possibilities of harmonizing the two modes of justification despite their partial compatibility; at their core, these two modes are fundamentally oppositional and produce opposing ways of looking at ourselves and the world and the truths we derive from our perceptions. I will devote a future post to efforts to combine these two approaches in determining truth.

For now I wish to examine the conflict that arises not from an attempt to reconcile the correspondentist and the coherentist positions but from a failure to recognize the kinds of verification appropriate to each. The issue of religious truth fissures along a natural fault line when examined in light of these terms that might not be apparent otherwise. The initial revelation—or to use a less charged word, insight—that a religionist might proclaim should be separated from the truth claims of the religion that become its settled dogma or teachings. The former is verified solely by coherence means and the latter by correspondence, nearly always by authority. These different means of warrant obligate those who examine the religion’s truth claims to respond differently not because the claims are necessarily different but because the modes of warrant are.  Allow me to illustrate.

It is revealing that what might be called the conversion experience is such a common factor in religious history. The list is illustrious: Gautama, the Buddha; Paul; Augustine; Mohammed; Thomas Aquinas; Martin Luther. In some cases, the adherent is moved from disbelief to faith, in others from a lesser faith to a greater. But all share this common thread: his virtual circle is radically reoriented. In an earlier post, I explained that a virtual circle is augmented by each new truth accepted by the coherentist, which in turn becomes part of the schema that justifies further truth claims. When an anomaly is examined, one may either reject the anomaly or reorder the entire schema. This latter process is an event commonly called catharsis. Consider what that reordering must feel like to the thinker whose virtual circle has not only ordered her world view but also has formed her only means of knowing truth, goodness, and beauty. To call it cathartic isn’t the half of it. The conversion experience is such an event. It must be because the jolting truth claim that prompts it has no simple relation to an external reality that can be verified by correspondence means. Revelation and insight by definition are internal events not amenable to the correspondence tests. It is interesting to read the accounts of those who experienced such jolts. The reordering may be sudden. Aquinas is said to have compared all his previous writing to “straw” after his experience and did not write again for the brief remainder of his life. Or it may be gradual. Augustine speaks of his previous objections to Christian belief gradually evaporating in the face of his new understanding. The experience, of course, is an essential one for many fundamentalist Christian faiths and characterizes branches of Islam and Buddhism as well.

Its essence is ineffable, and that is the problem. It cannot be communicated. It certainly cannot be justified to another. Should a fellow communicant be moved by her conversion experience, it strikes me as impossible that either could compare their experiences: so personal, so ineffable, so intense. The essence of the virtual circle is its private nature. Its constituents are formed from the private experience of its creator and possessor. Its radical reorientation is not a fit subject for words, which believers seem to recognize when they say such deep and radical conversion moves them to silence.  That response deserves a respectful silence from the observer as well.

But therein lies the problem, doesn’t it? For the experience, private as it is, communicates a truth about external reality. No revelation is about the communicant alone. No insight reveals truths applicable to only one soul. It is in the nature of religious truth claims that they be correspondence, meaning they profess some element of universal reality. And not just any element, but the key knowledge of the virtuous circle that underlies all metaphysical reality, at least so it seems to the believer.  It would be a small deity indeed that effects a catharsis meant to change only one virtual circle. The problem thus becomes a clear issue of justification: how can one justify the claim to correspondence truth using coherence means? There is no way.

Bear in mind the urgency of the issue. The communicant has experienced something intense, profound, and life-altering. Her world view has been shattered and reassembled to reveal a much deeper truth, one as old and as exhilarating as Plato’s cave dweller crawling out into the sunlight. Yet the pedestrian tests of correspondence—empirical, logical, expertise, authority, experience—can do little to support her new claims. She might attempt experience, yet what moved her was internal, not open to observation, communication, or repetition. If founding a new religion or altering an existing one, the believer must rely on the trust of her followers in the truth of her claims, yet they cannot duplicate the unique realignment that she has experienced, nor can they appeal to correspondence warrants to verify the truth that has so changed her life.

Something similar that can be approached through correspondence is the kind of synthesis felt by initiates into some of the grand theories of the human sciences, which reveals just how powerful the cathartic experience can be. Karl Popper examines this sort of conversion in his famous essay on falsifiability, as he recalls his amazement at seeing followers of Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx attempt to explain the rush of reorientation they experienced when exposed to the explanatory power of these theories. So overwhelming was the conversion experience that followers easily disregarded contradictory correspondence evidence despite their education and sophistication. For it is the dizzying clarification itself that forms the most powerful argument in favor of the catharsis. Not only does everything make sense at last, but the catharsis has revealed an entirely new and previously hidden essential element of reality. What countervailing evidence would be strong enough to blur such a crystalline vision? Popper urged a relentless search for anomaly as a corrective to that enthusiasm in reference to such secular conversions, but where is the anomaly to be found in a coherence warrant?

One possibility might lie in examining repetitive conversions, though these are not all that common. They do occur, though, and each should cause at least a moment’s hesitation in the believer before complete acceptance. I have known persons of deep and sincere faith whose understandings deepen through the years, who regard each new insight as the final truth and dismiss all old ones as error despite their total prior commitment. These successive revolutions each reorient the believer’s virtual circle; in the face of the conversion, it probably asking too much of the believer to compare this thrilling catharsis to earlier ones. She also now faces the daunting task of reaching out beyond her virtual circle to communicate what she sees as a vital universal truth claim, a hopeless task.

The warrant must surely be correspondence, not coherence, and the communicant must claim to be offering to her listeners not a virtual circle but a most vital arc of the virtuous one. To what proof of correspondence does she appeal and how can she justify that claim?

With that reaching out beyond what might be called the perceptual wall of her own virtual circle, the believer changes the claim because she now must change the warrant. She must now appeal to her listeners on the grounds of her authority, and even if they find in her persona some experiential warrant, the next generation of believers most certainly must find in authority the correspondence justification they need to move others to accept the truth of their message.

Next week I will explore why that is not easy to accomplish.

A Good Week for You!

S. Del


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