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 (see “Reductionism for Dummies“). 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  and correspondence constructively to examine a thorny issue for which we commonly find inadequate language: the problem of truth in religion.

I will begin by defining the two 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 her personal schema) without reference to any external reality. Correspondence requires some means of establishing a relationship between the new claim and and perceptual reality open to universal reason and to shared reality. It recognizes five such relationships: empirical, logical, expertise, authority, or experience (see “What Counts as Justification?“). Coherence builds its schema of truth in a relational web, testing each private truth claim against prior ones already accepted. Because it requires no outside verification, coherence is idiosyncratic. Everyone’s schema is different. This personalism leads to problems in resolving conflicts among persons’ differing conceptions of truth, goodness, and beauty (see “Truth and Goodness Do a Dance”). Correspondence acts on the assumption that the only schema that can be publicly verified is the one composed of a comprehensive grasp of all elements of reality, the harmonious integration of all truths about reality confirmable by correspondence truth tests. Since a powerful correspondence test is reason, the harmonious integration of all truths would pass the test of universal reason and therefore be justified. Consider the harmony of scientific disciplines to exemplify this possibility, though these only apply to a small slice of truths about reality (see “The Limits of Empirical Science”

These contrasting justification methodologies are not always incompatible (see “Pure, Poor Systems of Knowledge”). For instance, the correspondentist must resort to coherentist warrants in issues for which there are no perceptual referents, as in the case of emotions. and for declarations about which no knowledge is possible. These uncertainties are properly called beliefs (see “Knowledge, Trust, and Belief”). The coherentist may accept some correspondentist methodologies in part or sum, though such acceptance would rely on their harmony with other elements of the thinker’s schema rather than the one-to-one correspondence that might justify a public judgment. It would be difficult to embrace scientific truths and the technologies they spawn on coherence grounds, for instance. That a drug passed rigorous clinical trials might matter less to a coherentist than that her neighbor found it helpful. 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. In the blur of ordinary experience, any such effort is likely to be incomplete and error-ridden (see “Better, Blended Systems of Knowledge“). Fortunately, it is also open to continual improvement by better reasoning or evidence over a lifetime.

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 (see “Can Belief Be Knowledge?”). 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: one’s worldview is radically reoriented, shifted dramatically and totally and realigned into what the believer sees as an enlarged understanding. Even for a coherentist, such a jolt is unnerving. Ordinarily, his schema is augmented by each new truth as it is first examined in light of and then integrated into his schema of understanding and  in turn becomes one more personal truth that justifies later truth claims. When an anomaly is examined, one may either reject the anomaly or reorder the entire schema. But the latter cannot happen too often, for it requires a resubmission of everything he had known in light of the anomaly that challenges it all. That challenge must contradict the essential structure of the coherentist’s worldview, and must do it so convincingly that it overturns all that had formerly made sense of her world.  This latter process is an event commonly called catharsis. Consider what that reordering must feel like to the thinker for whom the principle of non-contradiction 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 religious conversion experience is such an event. It must be cathartic 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 public warrants. It is interesting to read the accounts of those who experienced such spiritual shocks. 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 persuasive, so indescribable, so intense. The essence of the experience is its private nature. Its constituents are molded in the prior experience of its possessor and the force of its motivation in the reordering of private reality that is as incommunicable as it is overwhelming.  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 arc of experienced reality that underlies all metaphysical reality, at least so it seems to the believer and so the truths proclaimed by that believer must prove if warranted. It would be a small deity indeed that effects a catharsis meant to convey a solely private truth. 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. It may be ineffable but it is also indubitable to her mind.  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, public 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 her followers have in the truth of her claims, but the root of such a trust cannot touch the essence that would confirm it, and so followers cannot duplicate the unique realignment that she has experienced, nor can they or she 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 (see “The Calamity of the Human Sciences”). 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 sought in the privacy of the conversion experience, excepting only inconsistency or hypocrisy?

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 understandings; 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 private experience 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 private truth but a crucially important public one. To what proof of correspondence does she appeal and how can she justify that claim?

With that reaching out beyond the harmony of her own convictions, 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 resort to authority to find the correspondence justification they need to move others to accept the truth of their message And that is not easy to accomplish (see “The Fragility of Religious Authority“).


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