Daily Archives: November 3, 2008

Faith, philosophy and abstract concepts

Religion and philosophy have in common that they cover non-empirical thinking on life and the universe in general. Therefore philosophy is a non-scientific branche of thinking and at best, if practiced at an academic level, it may be seen as an art or humanity. Academic philosophy tries to answer the why- and how-questions of life in a how to-manner and tries to so through reasoning without judgement. Thought-experiments and reasoning are it’s main tools. Ideas cannot entirely be proven through empirical evidence, however, solid information through other philosophers’ literature and the media on political and other developments may give a philosophy more solidity. These developments can very well be objectively observed facts and through deductive or inductive reasoning lead to a valid conclusion.

Philosophy is, like religion, basically a non-protected discipline. Thinking is, like believing, free. No one needs permission to think, it is part of our innate nature, like breathing, walking and observing. Throughout the ages people, however, have tried to pose restrictions on the outcomes of thinking and observing. Every amateur may think and therefore talk, but will his or her words be seen as philosophy? In order to avoid the situation of re-inventing the wheel academic standards have been set for philosophical thinking and if you want to achieve academic status as a philosopher mastering the literature of your predecessors is usually seen as minimum requirement. We may call a theory a philosophy when it is possible to falsify it through deductive or inductive reasoning and then lead to a proved axioma, true statement. Trying to avoid re-inventing the wheel is not the only annoyance that scholars want to avoid, they also want to avoid ‘errors’ in thinking. This is a no-end area, because what is a mistake in thinking? How can we prove error? In deductive, logical, cause-consequence dominated thinking it is possible to expose errors, but the error may be restricted to the method and not to the truthfulness of the mistaken thinker’s idea. It is possible to decide that artist X does not belong to the Dada movement, but is it possible at all to deny X the artist’s status at all? Dadaism used a certain starting philosophy on which it based it’s creative methods, therefore we can say that X may called a Dadaist when we see him follow the Dada-philosophy and -methods.. To defy X’s artist status, we have to set creative standards and that is open for debate. When is a person’s creativity ‘big’ enough that he may be called an artist? This question loses its rhetorical status, as does philosophy, as soon as other interested people set certain minimum standards and in many cases economics are involved in the answers. Would you and other people spend money on the artifact and are there any similar artifacts already? So economics have a say in standards for a ‘good’ academic and artistic product, in so far that they decide the product’s value, but do not answer whether the product truly is good.

A piece of visual art or a stage performance is a tangible item, however, philosophy also involves in abstract concepts like freedom and permission to others to spread their ideas and products at all. In that case it is a lot more complicated issue to set boundaries to expressions. One may say that a publication is not good enough to ‘allow’ it a place in art and literature, but is it possible to forbid publication at all? This last question has philosophical aspects that may have political implications. The various peoples on this planet set their own boundaries to philosophical freedom.

Abstract topics are philosophy’s main field of interest. What is time and what is its function in history, movement and space, what is morality and what function does and may it have in society and what are the boundaries to freedom and choice. What is art, what is beauty, what is knowledge, what is existence and when do things exist. Faith in a god or creative force is part of philosophical thinking. A more imperative dimension appears as soon as people include philosophical teachings in their legal and political systems, but also in their daily life and this is not confined to religious systems only. The ideal of democratic thinking and decision making and the ideals of freedom, equality and solidarity for each member in society is not necessarily a religious ideal. What’s more, in western culture most people say that these ideals can only be achieved in a non-religious system. Democracy is in modern westerners’ thinking not possible in a system where a god reigns supremely over society, because God’s power is seen as an invented yet unlimited force with no boundaries and no free space for human beings. Philosophy in other words plays a role in setting boundaries to freedom. It tries to set standards for acceptable ideas and behavior based on reasoning. Philosophy also tries to look beyond the visible truth of observation and give this or these invisible truth(s) a place in society. Again setting boundaries is important: what place and what authority do we give these truths and how does society deal with transgression of these truths’ territories? This is a question with big political implications, because it deals with real people and their fostered ideologies that they even fight for.

Learning, gaining knowledge from other thinkers is greatly appreciated in philosophy as an academic discipline and it appears to be absent in religious faith. To some faith is logically speaking the most simple discipline there is and yet the hardest to live by. However, among religious people even the first part of this sentence is not true: true faith requires knowledge of a revealed truth from the deity and therefore also knowledge of the prophets’ lives and sayings as they were the mediums between God and the people. For this reason most religious communities value the opinions of academic scholars who gained important detailed knowledge of the religious traditions. They are the people who set the standards and make compulsory religious decisions, sometimes for individuals and sometimes for the entire community. However, how far their power may reach, remains a source for heated debate between communities and also within them. As long as the religious community has faith in the validity of traditions, they tend to lend them and those who gained academic knowledge of them, more weight. In Christianity’s community the thought that tradition may not be truthful and reliable, has gained prevalence. In the Islamic community, however, the faithful consider their tradition reliable enough to trust them as authoritative. Maybe it is about time to take this Islamic claim seriously. The Islamic umma needs not be discarded as silly to believe in its own tradition and valid proof to reject Islamic tradition should be found and if not then outsiders should make an effort to at least respect its status as reliable. It is not without good reason that the Islamic umma still follows its tradition. The first step towards tolerance of other people’s ideologies is honest and respectful treatment of their contents, even if one does not believe or follow them.


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When religious scriptures and the wonders of nature meet

The metaphysical world of divine revelation in the scriptures and nature as a divine creation, are two fields that touch each other and it is a known fact that descriptions of natural phenomena and historic events in religious scriptures not only were proved to be truthful by scientists and archeologists, this match between both worlds is also a big inspiration for those in search of religion. Others, those who will never accept religion to be truthful, make it their life’s work though to prove that there is no link between divine revelation and science, that scholars in the ancient days had enough scientific knowledge to write a truthful religious scripture like Bible and Koran on their own.

Abstract phenomena like time, good and evil or the afterlife are are topics that typically fit in the religious outlook on life. Their abstraction makes them an important field of interest for philosophy too, as philosophy has a certain common ground with religious thinking. Philosophy usually confines itself to the ‘how to-questions’ behind abstract phenomena like time or morality, when religion also tries to answer their ‘why-questions’. Natural phenomena best lend themselves to¬† not only pondering about how a possible creative and operating force makes them tick, but also to research them in a more scientific manner. The meeting between scientific knowledge, even the knowledge of ancient or nature oriented animistic peoples, and religious¬† systems is often a fascinating and spectacular one, because natural phenomena are used to enforce the latter ones with natural empirical evidence and many peoples have reached great creative and scientific achievements on this path. Some societies mastered astronomy remarkably well in an early stage of history, such as the Persians, ancient Egypt and Greece. The Persian astronomers kept detailed and accurate records of the night skies that historians even today refer to. Belgian author Robert Bauval thinks that ancient Egyptians knew enough about astronomy to use their knowledge of the Orion belt’s course and constellation for the design of their king’s graves in Gizah. In 1995 he published his book ‘The Orion Mystery’ about this topic and about the role the Orion belt may have played in ancient Egypt’s religion. It seems very likely that there is no truthful combination possible between ancient Egypt’s poytheism and islam’s strict and abstract concept of only one God who has no resemblance with anything we know. Yet it is true that the position of the Gizah pyramids is an exactly calculated copy of the Orion belt, it is also true that their constructors valued astronomy in their religious concept and Bauval had noticed that one of Orion’s stars and the star Sirius precisely lit the narrow corridor in the Cheops pyramid leading to respectively the King’s and Queen’s Chamber. The function of these chambers has never been discovered, since there were no graves and mummies present. Therefore many people have thought that the bodies were stolen from the chambers. However, it is also known that ancient Egypt used to bury it’s dead in the earth, which isn’t present in these chambers either. Under the watchful eye of main custodian dr Zawi Hanwass a range of archeologists and television stations speculated over the possible purpose of the pyramids. The door to the air shafts between the King’s and Queen’s Chambers and the outdoors were first discovered by robot engineer Rudolf Gantenbrink. Dr Robert Bauval, however, thinks as a result of investigation into these air shafts that the pyramids were no mausoleums and that they had a broader religious worship function in which the Orion stars and Syrius may have represented both the supreme god and goddess, Osiris and Isis, and the country’s king and queen and the future of their dynasty, plus that in his opinion, no king could afford such extravagance in his personal grave monument.

However, religions offer different tales about the origins, structure and movement of the many creatures in the universe. This is an awkward aspect of religious thinking that may leave the faithful dumb and numb in face of the atheist claim that religious thinking is untrue. There is no proper scientific answer to that issue: why do the creation stories of religions differ. The popular answer is that the various ancient peoples who lacked much of the sophisticated knowledge that we have now, invented their own answers to life’s problems and to the philosophical questions of why we are here and what destination our lives have. No matter the awkwardness of issue: there is usually no hard evidence of such fabrication. What’s more, the majority of the stories cannot be exposed in an empirical, scientific way. It may very well be true that religion has its own truth parallel to that of science; we may believe in it, or reject it, but we cannot discard it as a set of lies. Those who came up with them are no longer with us and we have no hard evidence. Yet this should give us no reason not to enjoy the benefits and wonders of their connection to valuable cultural heritage or practical use of ‘holy’ items in everyday life. A holy plant used by a traditional Brazilian shaman may thank its holiness to proven medical qualities, qualities which in modern times have been rediscovered by reputed multinational drug manufacturers.

There is, however, also a field between natural science and abstraction that may have religious aspects and that may be psychology and the humanities. We see their results and those are, as said earlier, suited for a scientific or medical approach, but they are invisible abstract concepts. It is a statistically proved fact that young healthy people think differently about how to spend their money than senior citizens in a nursing home. There is according to most religious scriptures a soul, but no one has ever seen it. The same can be said about emotion and preference. The book of Islam, the Qur’an, says the soul resides in the heart, however, a scientist will say that the heart is no more and no less than an muscular pump for our blood. Difference between individuals and communities leads to different scientific theories, but only in natural sciences their validity can be fully proved. In humanities this is not always possible, because they deal with these abstract invisible concepts. Customer satisfaction can be measured, but only partly it may be predicted and interpreted. Why people behave and think the way they do at a certain moment, is not easy to predict either. Or to interpret, sometimes. This is why different theories on economics or psychology do not necessarily lead to a best solution and may continue to co-exist. Communism has been rejected as not useful, however, its offshoot socialism still exists in a diluted form in economic and political systems. So does Milton Friedman’s liberal market system. Yet the different economic thinkers have used religion in their ideas, sometimes in a rejective fashion and sometimes quite the opposite. Something similar can be said about different approaches to psychology: behaviorism is not the same as introspection and both are still applied.
Read on Robert Bauval’s web address.

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