Wednesday, 27 March 2013

An Unbridgeable Gap?

In recent months I've largely withdrawn from commenting on sites where people already largely agree with me, and I've tried my hand at commenting at more neutral or even hostile venues. My hope was (at least how I consciously rationalise it) that the conversation would improve because one factor contributing to hostility - venturing into a place where people disagree - would be removed. Needless to say, it was a fool's hope.

I'm not trying to say it's everyone else who is the problem; I see no reason to think that my attitudes and biases weren't a factor in my failure to have meaningful dialogues. The cynic in me would write it off as: one's desire to have an interfaith dialogue is inversely proportional to their ability to engage in one, though that is probably a skewed view from encountering too many Jesus-bots*.

Perhaps a more charitable interpretation is that there is a gap between the language of the scientific and the language of the spiritual. To be more precise, there's a focus on private experience at the heart of many spiritual claims that are shielded and privileged beyond anything the sciences can say.

The general argument is that there are certain things that we can hold as self-evidentially true simply by our experience of them. In the case of near-death experiences, we'd have to take at face value the accounts of people sensing themselves leaving their bodies and experiencing that environment without the sensory organs nor the brain to process it. In the case of private revelation, we'd have to take it at face value that the experience of God is a divine one.

And due to privileging the private experience, the lack of having a private experience is taken as lacking the knowledge to make an informed decision. One claim was that Richard Dawkins is deluded to deny the supernatural because he hasn't taken any magic mushrooms - a nonsensical proposition until it is factored in that private experience trumps all. The same factor makes sense of those who define faith as God-given. It may seem to the outsider that it's an irrationality, but that's because they haven't been touched by God.

Because of all this, I'm coming around to the opinion that interfaith dialogues aren't just hindered by our personal biases and convictions, but that the nature of beliefs act as a barrier to exploring the issue at all. While one can discuss and share publicly-accessible knowledge, private knowledge is off limits to all but the one who has the experience. Any belief that ultimately roots itself in a private experience means that the conversation hinges around accepting such an experience at face value.

If one side is approaching the question through reason / evidence, while the other is relying on personal experience, what's left to discuss? Perhaps all that's left is the argument over whether private experience can really have the epistemic power that is assigned to it, but that approach is fraught with motivated reasoning, and really not the domain of anyone outside of the relevant scientific and philosophical disciplines. For the rest of us, the gap between what's publicly debatable and what's privately held prohibits any meaningful dialogue.

*To be fair, it wasn't just aspiring apologists. There were plenty of people of various backgrounds all believing they were right, and spoke only to that effect. One of the saddest cases was someone whose interactions with others was to call them "word slaves" ad nauseum. A more facile case was someone who claimed to be the world's foremost expert on religion as well as a branch of quantum mechanics (nowhere to be found on Google Scholar), then got offended when asked to present his qualifications. In any case, it wasn't the ideal circumstances for reasoned conversation. Perhaps I was just in the wrong place.

1 comment:

Walter Reinhart said...

It depends who you are arguing with but enough religions do ground their beliefs in history and as such those facts can be challenged. Christianity has the entire Easter account as the basis for belief. If that is falsified then the rest of it comes falling down (providing the Christian is orthodox).

I agree it is definitely hard to get past personal experience.