Argument in Religion and Philosophy

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RichardGarfinkle

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The impetus for this thread came from a discussion I had with a Christian friend of mine arising from the recent Supreme Court decision about gay marriage.

We're both in favor of the decision. It wasn't that sort of a discussion.

But in the process of talking, I came to realize that we had very different attitudes toward the purpose of argument in religion and philosophy.

Background: I was raised Jewish, but am now an atheist.

In Judaism argument can itself be a holy action. There's a quote I can never find the reference for that says that whoever finds a new true interpretation creates a new Heaven. Thus, one of the religious duties is to sit around arguing Biblical interpretation. For a long time this was a duty reserved to learned old men, but recently some branches of Judaism have allowed women and children to get into the act. I was brought up in a household where argument was just what one did.

< Chorus of people I've annoyed on AW>
That explains everything.
< /Chorus of people I've annoyed on AW>

But argument is not a good in and of itself. One has to know what one is talking about. Thus there is a push in Judaism for education and argument. While for some of the Ultra Orthodox the concept of "learned" is restricted to being learned in the Bible and the Talmud, for most Jews it extends into all areas of learning and, of course, arguing.

Now, obviously, argument is not confined to Judaism, but I think that there is a subtle difference in the underlying argument philosophy between Judaic argument and specifically Christian argument and that this difference also manifests in differences in Biblical interpretations and cultural attitudes.

Judaism presumes an ongoing discussion that, for want of a better word, evolves. The assumption is that new interpretations will be made, and are needed as life changes. The argument is an ongoing necessity. It does not end because as long as there are people there will need to be new interpretations.

A lot (not all) of Christian argument seems to seek a final answer, a way to close the book on a subject and be done with it, a Last Judgment as it were.

I think that hidden within this difference in argument views is a difference in views of humanity. Judaism does not, on the whole, have an idea of human perfectibility. Everyone screws up, everyone messes up, and even God's aid will not make people perfect. The Hebrew Bible consists in large part of God sending prophets to chew the people out for their latest mess up and send them back to the right course of action. It's kind of like a long history of bug reports and upgrades on the Humanity App.

Christianity has a concept of human perfectibility. The usual premise is that with God's help, people can become perfect. The Old Testament consists of prefigurings of this eventual perfectibility which comes about in the New Testament.

This is where I think the reading gap between Judaic and Christian interpretations of the books that make up The Hebrew Bible on the one hand and The New Testament on the other comes from.

I don't wish to confine this thread to discussions of these two religions, but I did wish to highlight very different views of the roles of argument and the underlying cultural views behind them in order to lead into a general discussion of the roles of argument in religion and philosophy.
 

Rufus Coppertop

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People with a genuine interest in religion and philosophy.....and who enjoy argument..........throw in some savoury food and nice wine and it would be absolute heaven!
 

kuwisdelu

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It's always seemed to me that the "one true interpretation" thing is a problem mostly for those religions with set religious texts.

When you rely on oral history, everything is interpretation.
 

RichardGarfinkle

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It's always seemed to me that the "one true interpretation" thing is a problem mostly for those religions with set religious texts.

When you rely on oral history, everything is interpretation.

Please note that the examples I supplied were of two religions that not only have set holy texts, but indeed partially share them. I would argue (self reference iteration : 1) that it is not the texts that distinguish them, but the relationship of the people to the texts.
 

rwhegwood

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Though no expert, as I understand the theology of my own faith, Eastern Orthodox Christianity, argument and rational discourse would have certain natural limits. Much that is religious is simply irrational...not in the sense of crazy, or lazy minded, but that it involves knowing by means other than the logical/discursive. We have a saying, the true theologian is the one who prays truly. This is to say a theologian is one who has experienced God, not just become an expert in what others have said about Him. By way of limited analogy we can speak of honey tasting. A man may study the chemistry of honey to a gnat's hair, but he is an infant in his understanding of honey compare to one who has tasted honey. All the learning about honey is hollow in absence of the experience of honey. Now...to educated honey tasters in conversation...that's knowledge. And that is how Theology works for the Orthodox. It begins with the revelation of God of Himself. Those who enter that revelation and who persist in that relationship are those who know God. They guide others into that same relationship, into that same knowledge. This is because the knowledge of God is not objective, but experiential. And that's why many people don't get it. It's why all the show me the proof arguments are just silly. They demand proof of apples in terms of shellfish. God is not a trained monkey to validate you in front of all the scary lab coats.

That said, there remains the problem of whose testimony do you trust. If I ask my sister in law her expert opinion on brain surgery, I doubt it will have the same value as the same question asked to a brain surgeon. This comports with the Orthodox Jewish Rabbinical perspective, that not every one's opinion on the Scriptures are equally valid. Orthodox Christianity would certainly agree with this. Our difference would not rest so much on a question of study but of the depth of one's prayer and spiritual life in God. If presented with the opinion of one who has studied much and the opinion of one who is simple, humble, given to ascetic labors and who is known to shine like the sun when he prays, we are predisposed to accept the opinion of the humble man who lives in the fire of God's presence....and yes, we have and have had such among us from the beginning. Now if we have the same spirit of prayer invested in one who is well studied of the Scriptures and the Tradition, then that is even better...and when have had many of those as well.

So while we do value education, and learned discourse, we understand they have natural limits being non direct and non participatory. Knowledge is an object outside the person in the rational/objective system. In the perceptive system, perception is knowledge. It is direct and experiential. The drawback of this is the need for verification/authentication. One man may claim to have been touched by God and be a prophet. Another may make the same claim and be a raving lunatic. How are others to tell the difference?

Our solution is the testimony of the Tradition, and those approved within it. To take an example from the NT. St. Paul claimed to have been spoken to by Christ on the way to Damascus. He even began to preach the Christian faith. This convinced some, but not others. When able he presented himself to certain of the Apostles who had been taught by Christ personally, and who were partakers of the miracle of Pentecost (the one following Christ's resurrection wherein the Holy Spirit was poured out on the nascent church). These men examined Paul's claims, his experiences, and his subsequent works. Doubtless they also knew their spirit bore witness with his...they knew him experientially in God as their brother and fellow laborer. They authenticated Paul's experience and revelation of Christ as genuine...as consistent with what they were taught, what they experienced, and what they knew by the Spirit of God. And this is how it continues. A man or woman gives themselves to a life of prayer, they open their hearts to those of long experience, trusted to guide souls in the finer point of deep spiritual life. A some point these students begin to taste of heavenly gifts, and not trusting their own discernment, they submit what they have received to those who come before them in these gifts, men and women not only experts in prayer and the life that brings but in the teachings of the elders and saints who came before them. Two thousand years of spiritual life serve as the filter for genuine or spurious, or even demonic revelation. Those who pass muster often find themselves in their later years blessed and appointed as guides for younger souls. The knowledge these souls teach and facilitate is not didactic, or rational, but spiritual and experiential.

One of the interesting outcomes of this sort of gnosiology is that in the Tradition one occasionally encounters seemingly contradictory teachings...such as that of the Possessors and the Nonpossessors (both of whose opposed founders were canonized as saints). Those who try to approach these matters from a strictly rationalist point of view see only evidence that someone is wrong and that the tradition is somehow flawed to approve both contradictory assertions. The non rationalist views the contradictions as poles which hold an otherwise difficult to express truth in dynamic tension between them. For example, in the 26th(I think) chapter of the Book of Proverbs, there are two very interesting verses. One says to answer a fool according to how he has spoken lest he appear wise in his own eyes. The very next verse says to not answer a fool according to how he has spoken lest one be like unto him. So how then is one to answer a fool? That answer hangs between to two poles established by the verses. The wisdom to discern how to speak comes with experience and it is presumed with close attention the Person and instruction of the Divine One. The knowledge comes with familiarity...just like you know how those close to you will respond in given situation...sometimes one way sometimes another...but the difference will be determined by a constant point of their personality and mindset.

That is how the Orthodox do theology. In discussions of theology, our practice bears a lot of similarity with Jewish Orthodox practice, if not so particularly formal. This is to say, when presented a question, we examine the Tradition: Elder so and so said this, Saint so and so said that. In the Desert Fathers, a similar incident is reported. And so on."

One joke we have is that in a remote Russian village the parish was divided over how a certain service should be served with one set of hymns or another set. They went to their priest, each arguing that this was the tradition...no, the other is the tradition. He could not satisfy them, so the went to bishop, each side rounding on the other about what was and wasn't the tradition. So, the leaders of the factions were at last sent to a wise and holy elder who lived as a hermit deep in the mountains. When at they found him and ask him to judge, they said, this one says these hymns are the tradition and we say these other hymns are the tradition, we've been arguing about it for weeks, help us. To which he replied, "That is the Tradition."
 

sunandshadow

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For comparison, the branch of humanism I come from sees the fact that humans are incapable of being in harmony (i.e. agreement, a lack of argument) as the fatal flaw of humanity. So argument is seen as being (the secular equivalent of) sinful, and often taints oneself and directly harms one's fellow humans.
 

RichardGarfinkle

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For comparison, the branch of humanism I come from sees the fact that humans are incapable of being in harmony (i.e. agreement, a lack of argument) as the fatal flaw of humanity. So argument is seen as being (the secular equivalent of) sinful, and often taints oneself and directly harms one's fellow humans.

It seems to me that there is a problem in equating harmony with agreement. Harmony is when things work together even if they do not agree. Different perspectives and ways of thinking and ways of working need not share too much in common to be able to work upon the same thing and make it better. Gilbert and Sullivan did not agree, indeed they often argued, but they made great works together.

Argument and disharmony are not identical. Indeed, argument can be a form of harmony if all people involved accept their own limitations and aren't trying to beat the others down. That's the principle of dialectic.

This gets back to my initial examples. Argument among people who know that none of them know or understand all aspects of a situation is qualitatively different from people who each assume that they have the whole truth.
 

Roxxsmom

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Interesting article. I wasn't raised in a religious family, but the way we debated and discussed things was much closer to what you describe as the Jewish model, I think (and there was also he very strong belief that you shouldn't flap your mouth about an issue unless you'd done your homework, so to speak). I definitely see this in discussions I've had with some Christian friends and family members--the idea that logic cannot arrive at anything approaching a satisfactory resolution to moral issues.

Two examples:

1. A discussion with a evangelical Christian cousin about the impossibility of taking the entire Bible literally (this started with a conversation about how to treat/interact with people whose "lifestyles" don't meet with the approval of his church, and he stated that the answers to any and every question a person might have about how to live their life lies in the pages of the version of the King James Bible used by his Church). When I pointed out that he himself doesn't adhere to all the rules in Leviticus etc., we went back and forth for a while, with him denying this at first via applying creative re-interpretation of some of the rules. When I asked him how he knows when and whether to reinterpret those rules in light of modern needs, he got a troubled look and said, "I pray on it."

2. A student in my biology class who "just couldn't even with evolution," no matter how compelling the empirical evidence. He kept coming back to the idea that science is wrong because humans are inherently imperfect and will never agree on everything unless they take the Bible as the literal word of God. The idea that the absolute truth is knowable and that everyone must agree about it, of course, was central to his logic. When I pointed out that there are literally hundreds of Christian religions that interpret different versions of the Bible in different ways, he didn't bat an eye, but simply asserted that every interpretation besides the one imposed by his church was wrong. Again, assertion that the absolute truth is knowable and unchanging.

Both illustrate logical disconnects with my way of thinking, and with what you describe as a Jewish approach to scriptures too. BUT to be fair, both of these people are members of literalistic, evangelical churches.

So thinking on liberal Christians I've known, it's more varied.

I can't say for sure that they all (or mostly) feel that argument and exploration of spiritual, theological, or moral issues should drive us towards a final and all-encompassing answer to these questions or not. I have a hunch it might be so with at least some of them, as it's consistent with some things I've been unable to put my finger on but have always ascribed simply to their being theistic and me non theistic in our approach.

For instance, it seems to be very important to some liberal Christians I know to posit that the people who wrote the Bible weren't homophobic at all (or weren't talking about homosexuality as an orientation or in reference to who loves whom, but simply as a condemnation of specific acts, like anal sex specifically, or the sexual abuse of boys by adult men).

My reaction is to shrug and say, "So what if the ancient Hebrews, or Saint Paul or whoever hated gay people, even in the modern sense of the word? They lived in a different time and place, and whether or not any or all of the scriptures resulted from some kind of divine revelations, people would clearly be filtering them in light of their own biases and in terms of what worked for their society at that time and place in history. Obviously, Christianity is so robust because its followers can reinterpret its core texts in light of changing needs of society."

Again, I assumed that this was more a theist/non theist difference, but what Rufus said in the OP makes sense.

It's an interesting idea. And in a different vein. This makes me think a bit about the "Originalist" branch of Constitutional interpretation--the focus on elucidating exactly what the founding fathers meant at the time they drafted it and the belief that this is what should be applied today in all federal court decisions. Contrast this with the idea that the Constitution should be debated and reinterpreted in light of our current needs and knowledge, based on a strong understanding of history and legal precedent, certainly, but also on an understanding of potential consequences to society.

Interesting that our justices (Scalia, Alito etc) who fall closer to originalism seem to be Christians and the ones who fall closer to a dynamic interpretation model seem to be Jewish (Ginsberg, Breyer, Kagen). Though the correlation isn't 100%, since Sotomeyer is Catholic. Kennedy comes from a Christian background too, I believe, and while he's not liberal, I wouldn't call him close to an originalist in judicial philosophy.

SCOTUS is a small sample size, though. To make a strong case for this and to test it, one would need to look at all the federal court judges and their rulings.
 
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sunandshadow

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It seems to me that there is a problem in equating harmony with agreement. Harmony is when things work together even if they do not agree. Different perspectives and ways of thinking and ways of working need not share too much in common to be able to work upon the same thing and make it better. Gilbert and Sullivan did not agree, indeed they often argued, but they made great works together.

Argument and disharmony are not identical. Indeed, argument can be a form of harmony if all people involved accept their own limitations and aren't trying to beat the others down. That's the principle of dialectic.

This gets back to my initial examples. Argument among people who know that none of them know or understand all aspects of a situation is qualitatively different from people who each assume that they have the whole truth.

Things that don't agree usually don't work together. In my experience, when two people disagree, there are only three possible outcomes; two negative, and one neutral.

1. The disagreement is resolved by one side's opinion being forcibly overruled. 'Forcibly' here can include political or economic pressure, as well as physical force or threats of physical force.

2. One or more people involved decide that no agreement is possible, and the argument is futile, so the only useful think to do is stop talking about the topic.

3. A new piece of information changes what one or more people involved think is correct. This new piece of information can convert someone from one side to the opposite side, but more often it either modifies one side or introduces a new side. Almost do the two sides directly compromise to come to an agreement. The more invested in arguing people are, the less willing they are to look outside the context of the argument for new information, so the less likely this outcome is.
 
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RichardGarfinkle

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Things that don't agree usually don't work together. In my experience, when two people disagree, there are only three possible outcomes; two negative, and one neutral.

1. The disagreement is resolved by one side's opinion being forcibly overruled. 'Forcibly' here can include political or economic pressure, as well as physical force or threats of physical force.

2. One or more people involved decide that no agreement is possible, and the argument is futile, so the only useful think to do is stop talking about the topic.

3. A new piece of information changes what one or more people involved think is correct. This new piece of information can convert someone from one side to the opposite side, but more often it either modifies one side or introduces a new side. Almost do the two sides directly compromise to come to an agreement. The more invested in arguing people are, the less willing they are to look outside the context of the argument for new information, so the less likely this outcome is.

This seems to blur the distinction between disagreement and believing that ones ideas must be true.
Two people seeing the same thing from different sides will produce disparate statements if asked "What do you see in front of you?"
If they understand that they are seeing two sides of the same thing then they can reconcile their points of view. If they refuse to accept this their disagreements will never be reconciled.

The story of the Blind Men and the Elephant can be turned around from its usual warning about ignorance to a practical process of argument toward synthesis, if the Blind Men accept their own ignorance.

To take a geometric example, consider a cylinder. If you project it onto a plane right below it what, you get is a circle. If you project it onto a plane parallel to it, you get a rectangle.

Someone seeing the circle says that the thing is a circle. Someone seeing the rectangle says it's a rectangle. If they first try to understand their own placements relative to each other, they can deduce the possibility of the cylinder. That's productive argument based on awareness of ones own limited abilities. Unproductive argument comes from stubbornly holding to the view that ones own view must be right and the final answer.

Culturally, we are inundated with the idea of a single perfect final answer, and a suspicion of the kind of reconciled relativism I was just discussing. The strange thing about this is that the universe is relativistic and seeking an absolute final perfect perspective upon the whole universe is actually impossible.

But that relativity is not a gloopy all POVs are equally valid relativity. It works by underlying principles and methods of reconciling information and points of view. It takes skill and practice to be able to put views together. Hence productive argument takes more than just a willingness to see other POVs, it takes the mental work to try to understand not only how views can be reflective of reality, but also how they can reject it.

The traditions of argument that I mentioned in the OP and other traditions like dialectic, and scientific method, are not just a matter of people talking. They take practice and work. They are complex mental tools that are continually evolving as people apply them to more and more difficult situations. Learning them is not simple and refining them is tricky to say the least.

To take a related example from writing. Learning to take critiques and incorporate them into ones work is a difficult skill that many people don't try to learn, working under the assumption that their POVs on writing (their own or somebody else's) represent a single absolute truth following a perfect standard that coincidentally follows their tastes. Getting past this assumption is needful in learning to write, and getting past the absoluteness of ones general POV is just as needful in learning to discuss Life, the Universe and Everything.
 

Rufus Coppertop

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Things that don't agree usually don't work together. In my experience, when two people disagree, there are only three possible outcomes; two negative, and one neutral.
My experience is that positive outcomes can arise when people disagree and continue to do so but in a civilized fashion with respect for each other's viewpoints and logic. Often the people involved discover new ways of considering a topic and more open to different ways of viewing that topic.

Another positive outcome is that both sides gain a deeper understanding of their own viewpoint because the argument forces them to consider their views more carefully and examine the logic they're using and find new factors and arguments to support their views.

Another word for 'argument' in the sense that Richard's using it in the OP is 'debate'. Debate is traditionally an important didactic tool in the tantric schools of Buddhism where monks or lay students take opposite sides in philosophical argument and one of the seriously important methods is that an adherent to a particular school of philosophy needs to adopt the viewpoint of an opposing school, study it, consider as many angles as possible and then argue in favour of it. It forces them to understand both the viewpoint they do adhere to as well as the one they don't.

There are some absolute classics of Buddhist literature written in the form of debate and also, Islamic literature such as Al Ghazali's 'Incoherence of the Philosophers' and Averroes' answer, 'The Incoherence of the Incoherence'.

Without argument, philosophy would have been stillborn and would never have spawned modern science.
 

Rufus Coppertop

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Rufus, I hadn't heard of this aspect of the tantric schools.
Can you recommend some specific Buddhist documents on this?
My main teacher said, during a retreat, that in the shedra he runs, he encourages monks to adopt different views, so one day they might argue from the madhyamika view and the next from that of the vijnanavada.

There was a famous Buddhist scholar who debated a Hindu scholar and as part of his preparations he debated from the point of view of Hinduism and did so well that his students began to suspect that he was actually a closet Hindu. I can't think of his name at the moment but I'll let you know when it comes to me. It'll be a d'oh with facepalm moment when I think of it.

One particularly weighty book on the subject is 'Debate in Tibetan Buddhism' by Daniel E Purdue but I'm not sure that it specifically states anything about the swapping of views or the arguing from 'heretical' viewpoints as a didactic method.

Another book I've just found after consulting Google Rinpoche is 'Dialectical Practice in Tibetan Philosophical Culture' by Kenneth Liberman which is now going into my amazon wish list and a wonderful translation of a classic text by Nagajuna is 'The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way' by Jay Garfield which presents the text and then commentaries explaining which verses are opposing viewpoints and which are refutations of them from the madhyamika point of view.

I'll tuck your question away in the back of my mind and when I find something more definitive, I'll let you know.
 
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Ken

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It's good Jews question their religion. Better yet if they kicked it to the curb, imo. Maybe this questioning trend is a leading in that direction. That'd be great, between us.
 

RichardGarfinkle

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It's good Jews question their religion. Better yet if they kicked it to the curb, imo. Maybe this questioning trend is a leading in that direction. That'd be great, between us.

Ken, that sounds really offensive. Could you clarify what you mean?
 

Ken

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I just don't much care for religion and believe people would be better off without it. It is the source of so much strife in the world, for one thing. As an atheist I figured you'd appreciate that to some extent, which is why I said between us. Anyway, sorry for any offense to anyone. I'll bow out of this convo. The only forum I seem to do okay with are the writing ones. So I guess I will stay with those. Kinda hard to say something offensive about where to put a verb or a noun ;-)
 

RichardGarfinkle

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I just don't much care for religion and believe people would be better off without it. It is the source of so much strife in the world, for one thing. As an atheist I figured you'd appreciate that to some extent, which is why I said between us. Anyway, sorry for any offense to anyone. I'll bow out of this convo. The only forum I seem to do okay with are the writing ones. So I guess I will stay with those. Kinda hard to say something offensive about where to put a verb or a noun ;-)

Ken, while I am an atheist, I don't evangelize. Furthermore, this forum is not the place for one upmanship between religions and philosophies. Here RYFW means that we don't go around insulting each other's views and attitudes.

This thread isn't about how one religion is better than others. It's a discussion of the place of argument in each religion and philosophy. In the course of which the benefits and drawbacks of that form of human interaction in those religions can be bandied about, but it isn't a "my view's better than your view" sort of thing.

You've been on AW much longer than I have, so I shouldn't have to remind you to Read The Stickies!

http://absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?133033-One-Basic-Rule-PLEASE-READ
http://absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?133312-Board-Culture-Question-Defining-Others
http://absolutewrite.com/forums/sho...amp-Writing-From-Other-Religious-Perspectives
http://absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?302846-On-Not-Understanding-Others
 

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