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Undecidability and pluralism

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Posted

(This unpolished post is adapted from a conversation Michael and I had in chat recently.)

As part of another discussion, I pointed to the potential impact of undecidability, or:

... the idea that if an ethical choice is an application of a rule or relies on knowledge then it is not truly ethical. In effect, then, an ethical decision has to be a leap of faith in Kierkegaard's sense, except that this undecidability applies to all decisions and should not be restricted to religion.

In an organisational setting, one implication of undecidability is that a business should not use a corporate code of ethics because if the code is used in decision making then it refers - or defers - responsibility to the code rather than it remaining with the individual. There is research to this effect, but we talked about any consequences for religious claims in a political system.

For example, the fact of reasonable pluralism in Rawls means accepting that there inevitably will be 'a diversity of reasonable comprehensive religious, philosophical and moral doctrines found in modern political societies'. Given this fact, and to shortcut a long argument, Rawls says that we have to seek an overlapping consensus with others of different views because we all have good reasons for our beliefs and we cannot expect agreement on a single one.

Now consider any religious claim based on a holy text. Given reasonable pluralism, not everyone will accept the justification. Moreover, given undecidability, no one should accept it, because this would make belief in the claim a deferral rather than a positive step. Does this mean that undecidability supports political pluralism and/or undermines religious claims? After all, any decidable claim would, by definition, exclude faith; it would be inviting deferral, but this should be rejected on ethical grounds ab initio.

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... the idea that if an ethical choice is an application of a rule or relies on knowledge then it is not truly ethical. In effect, then, an ethical decision has to be a leap of faith in Kierkegaard's sense, except that this undecidability applies to all decisions and should not be restricted to religion.

In an organisational setting, one implication of undecidability is that a business should not use a corporate code of ethics because if the code is used in decision making then it refers - or defers - responsibility to the code rather than it remaining with the individual. There is research to this effect, but we talked about any consequences for religious claims in a political system.

For example, the fact of reasonable pluralism in Rawls means accepting that there inevitably will be 'a diversity of reasonable comprehensive religious, philosophical and moral doctrines found in modern political societies'. Given this fact, and to shortcut a long argument, Rawls says that we have to seek an overlapping consensus with others of different views because we all have good reasons for our beliefs and we cannot expect agreement on a single one.

Now consider any religious claim based on a holy text. Given reasonable pluralism, not everyone will accept the justification. Moreover, given undecidability, no one should accept it, because this would make belief in the claim a deferral rather than a positive step. Does this mean that undecidability supports political pluralism and/or undermines religious claims? After all, any decidable claim would, by definition, exclude faith; it would be inviting deferral, but this should be rejected on ethical grounds ab initio.

Undecidability (which, in my usual manner of expression, would most often be discussed in terms of indeterminateness or a variant thereof) can support political pluralism if and only if political is understood as an interest in problem-solving in conjunction with an awareness that highly relevant are the limits concomitant (or constitutive) of any perspective from which the problem is considered. From that problem-solving interest and that appreciation for the relevance of the limited-ness of (especially the more initial) perspectives, it follows that alternative additional perspectives (hence the pluralism) would be desired and welcomed so that there would be opportunity for the development of a more trans-perspectival perspective.

However, the undertaking to develop trans-perspectivalness is (more often than not) most significantly a project of transcending the manners in which each perspective is expressed so that a new perspective can be put forth in a largely new expression, where this new manner of expression, in effect, initiates a new language or mode of expression.

As I remember it, Rawls asserts that his political approach makes redundant such matters as love and its charitable aspect. I disagree, because I maintain that it is only with charity that the expression of an other perspective can be mined for the meaning intended despite the manner of expression presented. To put it another way, it is by virtue of charity that a sense can begin to be developed of the meaning which transcends the expression. To put this in still another way, the charity at issue fails to occur when the manner of an other expression is disregarded, ignored, or rejected up front. Instead, in charity the other expression is engaged, incorporated, or to some extent adopted in order to attempt to reach beyond for the meaning which is presumed to transcend the limit of the presented expression.

Essentially, then, charity is always concerned with - and tries to guard against - what we might call semantic imposition.

If I recall correctly, the discussion we had in chat emanated from my disgust with a piece written by Peter Singer in which he concludes:

Those considering joining an extremist Islamic group should be told: You believe every other religion to be false, but adherents of many other religions believe just as firmly that your faith is false. You cannot really know who is right, and you could all be wrong. Either way, you do not have a sufficiently well-grounded justification for killing people, or for sacrificing your own life.

Granted, some people are not open to reasoning of any kind, and so will not be swayed by such an argument. But others may be. Why rule it out in advance by denying that much extremist violence is religiously motivated?

As reasoning, Singer's approach is so very shallow as to be repulsive; Singer's use of apparent undecidability does not move discussion forward, because Singer does not engage at all with any (in this case) Muslim perspective (which, for the purposes of our discussion, could be used as an example). Even if undecidability is ever a proper first basis for presenting and addressing a problem, it is only when undecidability is joined with charity that there might be any voluntary and willing - uncoerced - movement away from whatever happens to be the problematic status quo.

In fact. there is already much in all sorts of religious expression that itself serves as a basis for recognizing, appreciating, and dealing with undecidability as well as for being aware of undecidability as an unremitting condition despite it being possible to transform any undecidability to instances of decidability. The religious basis for undecidability is typically expressed in terms of the association of God or gods or the metaphysics of reality with the Infinite or by outright assertions that those realities can never be fully circumscribed by any expression. I think that this clipped transcript of remarks by Abdulazziz Al-Qattan can be appreciated (or interpreted) as a Muslim argument for undecidability and against the decidability fabricated as codes and rules.

All this is to say that pluralism - even political pluralism - does not undermine the religious perspective even if some religious claims are intended to be exclusivist so as to be contrary to pluralism.

Finally, for now, let me just point out that the above discussed charity when initiated from the religious perspective will also result in the development of a language (which will still be a religious language even if this new manner of expression is utilizable by others who deny all religiosity on their own parts) which transcends the expressions used to that point to present the religious perspective.

Michael

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We could conceive of it this way:

On the one hand, you have a perspective that says, 'you can't go around killing people because you can't be sure that you're right in what you believe; moreover, lots of other people believe differently and they may decide that their beliefs mean killing you. The best thing is to seek compromise, if for no other reason than we don't know what position we might occupy tomorrow with respect to the power to decide things.' This can be shortcut, though, by just insisting that we have special, revealed knowledge, such that what you are calling Singer's undecidability matters everywhere else except for this one case.

On the other hand, even if it were possible to obtain this revealed knowledge and live according to it in every respect, we should reject this ab initio because it is precisely the undecidability, indeterminateness or ineffability that makes religion or ethics worth pursuing at all. Echoing Kierkegaard, insofar as we know exactly what to do, or insofar as there are cognitivist truth values to ethical decisions, we must still make a non-cognitivist choice to accept revealed knowledge, a set of ethical norms, or whatever. Deferring this choice is inauthentic, but wouldn't an unwillingness to let others decide for themselves also be?

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Posted

On the one hand, you have a perspective that says, 'you can't go around killing people because you can't be sure that you're right in what you believe; moreover, lots of other people believe differently and they may decide that their beliefs mean killing you. The best thing is to seek compromise, if for no other reason than we don't know what position we might occupy tomorrow with respect to the power to decide things.' This can be shortcut, though, by just insisting that we have special, revealed knowledge, such that what you are calling Singer's undecidability matters everywhere else except for this one case.

You bring up the matter of compromise; for the time being, I will resist the temptation to delve into considerations about the varieties of compromise (although that could be interesting, particularly in the way that compromise would relate to charity).

The matter of "revealed knowledge", on the other hand, has to be addressed briefly, because it is relevant to your next paragraph. I understand that revealed knowledge was brought up as part of a thought experiment, and that it is a principle of belief frequently encountered - although only sometimes explicitly. In any event, with regards specifically to revealed knowledge of the religious variety, and, in keeping with the remarks about charitable engagement in my previous posting, it is worth noting that what is revealed is quite often described in terms of guidance rather than in terms of knowledge or rather than in terms of knowledge alone.

For instance (here prolonging the Muslim/Islamic example from my previous posting), it is interesting to note how the Qur'an is described as guidance but also as clear proof (2:185); it is described as containing verses that are decisive and others that are allegorical, and sometimes knowledge appears to be regarded as secondary to - or as of lesser importance than - understanding (3:7).

God would certainly be a "decisive" (which is to say determinate or decidable) fact (especially given the Qur'anic claim that God is closer to a person than is the person's own jugular or neck vein and given the concept of the fitra or the Christian sensus divinitatis, all of which could well be thought of as enthusiasm), but it is those matters which cannot be expressed determinately (for instance as facts) which characterize the space in which human life occurs. Even if the enthusiasm appears to be or is a fact, it is its utility and relevance which remain imbued with indeterminateness or which serve as the source of undecidability. Now, I am not presenting terms such as fitra, sensus divinitatis, or enthusiasm to suggest that familiarity with terminology that is personally alien is necessary to be able to engage with an other; rather, I am simply trying to indicate that undecidability or indeterminateness (and awareness thereof) is essentially in-built in the bulk of human thinking. If nothing else, it is quite an easy matter in discussion with many - if not most - people to draw attention to The Heretical awareness that it is very nearly impossible for any person to avoid relying frequently on interpretation when encountering the world.

There are certainly those whose lives are dedicated to denying metaphysical (including ethical) undecidability or indeterminateness and to insisting that there is only metaphysical decidability or determinateness such that undecidability only reflects the epistemic status of a mind that does not see clearly or completely, a mind that does not understand. Returning to the example of Muslims and Islam (in particular, those varieties of Islam which appear to have much affinity with Wahhabism), it is clear that someone like Rabi'a al-Basri insists and focuses upon the overriding importance of undecidability in its persistence despite whatever and however much is decidable. Traditionally, ordinary believers (as distinguished from scholars) revere the insight of someone such as Rabi'a and regard her as a saint, but those who are dedicated to denying metaphysical undecidability or indeterminateness, when faced with some of Rabi'a al-Basri's thoughts about God and characterizations of Godliness, are hemmed in such that they must allow for the undecidability that she espouses or they must, in their dedication to consistency, reject her insights as apostasy or, at least, heresy.

This is the sort of situation which is to be most cherished in any engagement with a differently-thinking other, because this is a point of judgment, an opportunity for creativity.

On the other hand, even if it were possible to obtain this revealed knowledge and live according to it in every respect, we should reject this ab initio because it is precisely the undecidability, indeterminateness or ineffability that makes religion or ethics worth pursuing at all. Echoing Kierkegaard, insofar as we know exactly what to do, or insofar as there are cognitivist truth values to ethical decisions, we must still make a non-cognitivist choice to accept revealed knowledge, a set of ethical norms, or whatever. Deferring this choice is inauthentic, but wouldn't an unwillingness to let others decide for themselves also be?

Even from the perspective of it being a fact that there is such a thing as revealed knowledge, it is also a fact that there remain spaces of undecidability or indeterminateness. A quite common way of dispensing with or downplaying the significance of undecidability is to characterize revealed knowledge as regarding that which is obligatory (where obligation can include an obligation to refrain from that which is prohibited) while regarding anything not so revealed as being permissible (where permissibility can also be graded on a scale of how strongly some way of acting is encouraged or recommended). Even so, what remains inescapable is the fact that each life is still characterized - or given content or meaning - by or in terms of individual judgment (and/or interpretation).

The point is that we would not reject religious or even ethical references on the basis of their claim to being facts of decidability; rather, we have our own experiences - as well as assorted religious statements about the prime importance of such indeterminate matters as love, compassion, and the like - which lead us to strongly doubt the adequacy of any claim of having done away with the possibility of undecidability.

With regards to letting others decide for themselves, even when it is agreed that it is preferable to have others decide for themselves to be ethical (or come to understand the undecidability of the ethical which, despite its undecidability, nonetheless effectively forces ethical judgment upon each person even when the ethical possibilities of the moment are not sensed or are ignored), it will (sometimes reasonably) be insisted that there arise circumstances in which the other is not to be permitted to act in accord with what that other would decide - for instance, when there is yet another other - as per Levinas, a relevant third person - who is rightly to be considered. Levinas claimed that such a relevant third person was the basis for politics as distinguished from ethics as the response to the encountered other.

That is a distinction about which I am dubious, and the matter which I would actually like to pursue here is a related aspect in which it will be asserted that the other (not even a third person) is not so much to be left to his or her own decision as he or she is to be somewhat aggressively encouraged or coerced (such as via shame or punishment) to decide in a particular way (some such perspective is to be expected to arise in defense of the picayune religious perspective that is supposed to be material to the recently passed Indiana religious freedom law). Amongst those who would confess a dedication to ethics as love, there are some who will insist that coercion is not necessarily incompatible with love, and the relationship of a parent to a child will be proclaimed as archetype. Let us grant the compatibility of that archetype. The fact is that the analogy (and the justification it would intend) fails without a far more thorough consideration into and presentation of the the nature of the love from which ethics follows.

Given the undecidability or indeterminateness of that love, what the more thorough consideration or analysis ends up doing is isolating and highlighting the inescapableness not only of ethics but also of personal judgment, judgment that because of the pervasiveness of undecidability/indeterminateness in such a matter as love is never justified by the decidability that is knowledge (revealed or otherwise).

Michael

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That is a distinction about which I am dubious, and the matter which I would actually like to pursue here is a related aspect in which it will be asserted that the other (not even a third person) is not so much to be left to his or her own decision as he or she is to be somewhat aggressively encouraged or coerced (such as via shame or punishment) to decide in a particular way (some such perspective is to be expected to arise in defense of the picayune religious perspective that is supposed to be material to the recently passed Indiana religious freedom law). Amongst those who would confess a dedication to ethics as love, there are some who will insist that coercion is not necessarily incompatible with love, and the relationship of a parent to a child will be proclaimed as archetype. Let us grant the compatibility of that archetype. The fact is that the analogy (and the justification it would intend) fails without a far more thorough consideration into and presentation of the the nature of the love from which ethics follows.

What do you have in mind with this 'more thorough consideration'?

On the face of it, I wonder if the political analogy of the encouragement or coercion is Mill's arguments on truth being suffered to be vigorously and earnestly contested; but I think your contention is stronger and is more about forcing people to confront the violence of Levinas's totalization of the Other. This makes some sense of the parenting example, but how does it extend - if it can - into the political?

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That is a distinction about which I am dubious, and the matter which I would actually like to pursue here is a related aspect in which it will be asserted that the other (not even a third person) is not so much to be left to his or her own decision as he or she is to be somewhat aggressively encouraged or coerced (such as via shame or punishment) to decide in a particular way (some such perspective is to be expected to arise in defense of the picayune religious perspective that is supposed to be material to the recently passed Indiana religious freedom law). Amongst those who would confess a dedication to ethics as love, there are some who will insist that coercion is not necessarily incompatible with love, and the relationship of a parent to a child will be proclaimed as archetype. Let us grant the compatibility of that archetype. The fact is that the analogy (and the justification it would intend) fails without a far more thorough consideration into and presentation of the the nature of the love from which ethics follows.

What do you have in mind with this 'more thorough consideration'?

On the face of it, I wonder if the political analogy of the encouragement or coercion is Mill's arguments on truth being suffered to be vigorously and earnestly contested; but I think your contention is stronger and is more about forcing people to confront the violence of Levinas's totalization of the Other. This makes some sense of the parenting example, but how does it extend - if it can - into the political?

The "more thorough consideration into ... the nature of love" in the above context would, of course (especially after having granted that some types of coercion with regards to children can be compatible with love), immediately and very easily focus upon love between adults and specifically love as a condition wholly independent of any sort of preference or liking or approval held for the adult other. Such a presentation of the nature of love dispenses with the too quickly attempted justification of coercion by love.

Even then, further insight into the nature of love would arise from additional consideration into the use of coercion in the love of children; this benefit, in part, would come from the development of some sense regarding the difference(s) between what could at least in part distinguish loving coercion from a loveless coercion.

In loving parenting, some coercion is certainly intended to have the child develop a sense of what is required to function well within the societal context into which the child is born (or which the child inherits). In itself, however, that sort of shaping of the individual person is actually love-less, and that is because the crux of loving parenting does not regard - or have as its aim - the production of a person whose being will be well characterized simply in terms of how well or how comfortably the person meshes with or serves the societal context, momentum, or stream into which the person is thrown.

Instead, the crux of loving parenting regards having an always developing sensitivity for what would highlight and foster the (and for the sake of brevity here I will refer only to what might well be called constructive) uniqueness which would come to be that other person, in this case the child. This is to say that whereas parenting is concerned with helping a child to develop in order to function well within a societal context, loving parenting seeks to bring out the uniqueness of the other while doing what it can to see to it that the child might develop the fortitude to be able to devote himself or herself to furthering his or her own constructive uniqueness within - or, when necessary, even despite - the societal context. At the very least, such loving parenting seeks to impart to the child the sense that his or her uniqueness is not to be discarded or sacrificed simply for the sake of functioning easily within the societal context.

From such a consideration, it follows that to act lovingly (not just in parenting but also generally) is to be not disinterested in the uniqueness of the other, and to be interested in the uniqueness of the other (to act with love for the other) entails being interested in fostering the conditions under which that uniqueness can develop.

In order to love, one must develop one's own ability to respond to and for the other, and that is why love for an other is first and foremost a response-ability -- a responsibility -- for the sake of the other.

Inasmuch as an other is not in a static condition, or inasmuch as it is possible for an other to be not-static, which is to say dynamic, responsibility (love) for an other is itself dynamic: there is no one utterly determinate (decidable) way to respond to an other either at any given time or at all times and in all circumstances.

Returning again briefly to the matter of loving parenting, the need for dynamic responsibility manifests in large part as responding differently to a child as the child grows up in such a manner that the child might learn not only to be responsible for (love) himself or herself but also to respond for the sake of others whom the child encounters. Even given coercion as a necessary aspect of love in the earliest years of life, loving parenting aims to move away from that coercion over time so that the child has more direct access to recognizing and making use of the possibilities available for that person's response-ability. This indicates that although coercion might in some conditions be compatible with love, love attains its fullest only if and when recourse to coercion is cast aside.

Accordingly, love can be described as always being concerned with the effecting of goodness for as well as by an other without there being any resorting to coercion. The aforementioned goodness is intended to be understood as necessarily tied to the constructiveness associated with the previously mentioned uniqueness of person. This means that acts intended to produce conformity in an other - acts that would seek justification in terms of best functioning within a societal context or on the basis of either religious or legal codes - are acts that are not themselves loving; indeed, most such acts - certainly those being done in service to ethics codes (whether legal or religious) - are not even much concerned with the love that is responsibility, if only because all such service codes are based upon and expressed in terms of generalizations or compartmentalizations which, really of a practical necessity, are disinterested with regards to the uniqueness of individuals that is the core concern of love.

Given love as a response-ability, and given the indeterminate (or infinite) nature of love, love is an ability which must be developed or, possibly, even initiated before it can be developed. Given love as an ability to respond for the sake of (the uniqueness of) an other (even if the uniqueness must be presumed before the characteristics of that uniqueness can become apparent), and given the (presumed) possible non-stasis of the being of the other, the response for the sake of the other seeks (or prefers) to at least minimize imposing upon the other. The minimizing of imposition occurs by having the response for and to the other seeking, in effect, to be informed by whatever can be discerned about the frank otherness of the other. This is to say that the person responding to and for the sake of the other does not, in love, demand that the other be substantially the same as the responding person or even reciprocate with the same response-in-love.

Especially given the uniqueness presumed to characterize each other and given the always unfinished development of one's own response-abilities, it is, of course, preposterous to imagine that each person can respond as effectively for the sake of an other as can every other person. Nonetheless, at the very earliest part of any encounter, the response for the sake of an other always includes a concern with being able to bring to the other the pause from being that is enjoyment.

However, what about when there is an encounter not with an other but with more than one other? This is where Levinas appears to claim that love must give way to politics and the justice associated with politics. He also insists that politics does not produce actual justice if politics is divorced from love. For anyone who is aware of having any ability to love, the insistence that politics and its justice have a persistent connection to love is sensible. For that matter, I expect that there are many people - it might even be most people - who have a sense of there being something beyond the justice produced in politics that must be repeatedly (possibly even often) taken into account in order for justice to be best attained.

But this "something beyond" always threatens politics with a disorderliness. Hannah Arendt well captured this disorderliness when she said, "Love" - the something beyond justice - "by its very nature, is unworldly, and it is for this reason rather than its rarity that it is not only apolitical but anti-political, perhaps the most powerful of all anti-political human forces." Arendt was always interested in the possibility of a politics which would need not ever resort to the something beyond, to love. But she also became aware that all attempts at such politics always ended up lacking authority.

Of course, for Arendt, politics was a matter of there being a public space large enough to accommodate the participation of individuals as individuals in their uniqueness. Such a politics could be understood as demanding a public space so large that there would be room for the disorderliness - technically, and in Levinas's terms, the anarchy - of the love above discussed. And all that is fine for theorizing about politics in the abstract, but, because of its very abstractness, it is a politics that is readily characterized as lacking the concreteness demanded by practical concerns, politics as a practical and practiced matter. Arendt objected that the practice of practical politics was not genuine politics inasmuch as that practical politics left to itself tended quickly to be unconcerned with the status of the public space with which she identified politics. She regarded the practice of the practical as more of a sociological (and, it could be argued, scientistic) than a political endeavor, but that sort of distinction, although valid, remains abstract rather than concrete.

Love, while always indeterminate or undecidable, is never love unless it is concrete (here meaning effected in actuality). And, yet, there seems to be no place for love in the practice of practical politics. Is that because love is unworldly as per Arendt? Or is it because love is indeterminate/undecidable and, therefore, imagined as too great an individual burden by most people such that politics attains and preserves its power by promising a march of determinateness, a march which bases its promise on what amounts to a ceaseless attempt at reducing the space in which love can operate such that love would seem less and less practical until it is mistaken for a feeling that occurs only in the supposedly relative smallness of what is supposed to be the relative insignificance of personal life?

This posting is already lengthy and contains plenty of points which could serve as tangents despite not yet having dealt with how multiple others might be dealt with in love rather than by what has been called politics; so, I will close this response with some passages written by Maurice S. Friedman about Martin Buber in Friedman's Martin Buber: The Life of Dialogue, published in 1955, passages that might set the stage for furtherance of this discussion:

Buber's ... concern for the [personal, loving] relations between man and man ... merged into one mature whole - the message of true community. This community starts not with facts of economics and history but with the spirit [of love] working in the depths. [...] he refused the clamouring either-or of the modern world - the demand that one accept the centralized socialist state because of the defects of capitalism or the capitalist society because of the defects of socialism.

... The socialist power-state is not, for Buber, evil in itself any more than the capitalist state. Both are evil in so far as they prevent the springing-up of the good [tied to the response for the sake of the uniqueness of the other], the socialist state in that it makes impossible even those remnants of true community which exist in the capitalist state, the capitalist state in that the relations between man and man are indirect and perverted, based on the desire for exploitation rather than true togetherness. The remedy for these evils is not the ... establishment of some super-society but ... the strengthening of the forces of good through the will for genuine relationship and true community. (p. 47)

Michael

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