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After an interesting discussion in my Cyberspace and the Law class this morning, I would like to throw out another question with which cultural relativism must grapple: what should we do about Internet censorship?

For instance, would a cultural relativist support a group like the OpenNet Initiative, whose goal is “to identify and document Internet filtering and surveillance, and to promote and inform wider public dialogue about such practices”?

On the one hand, this goal aims to promote a more open global dialogue about the issue, something which seems to be at the core of cultural relativism. But, on the other hand, don’t we have to assume an objective ethical baseline (censorship bad) in order to achieve this global platform?  As a logical matter, some methods of filtration and blocking must be removed in order for this dialogue to even take place.  How can cultural relativism reconcile this tension?

Daniel Corbett

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Thanks for the links, Tim. It looks like we’ve got some pretty heady company in this discussion. Here are my thoughts on the discussion over at Concurring Opinions.

Initially, I have to give Braman some credit for his forceful defense of the tenets of cultural relativism. And, I must admit, I agree with some of these tenets, at least in the abstract. I would not contest the claim that an increased openness to other points of view and a greater emphasis on dispassionate assessment of empirical data are both desirable goals. Putting the merits of cultural relativism aside for the moment, I think it’s interesting that Braman at least appears turns his back on cultural relativism to some extent when he writes of female genital mutilation:

“I’m also open to the idea that, when done safely and when not physically traumatizing/destructive (at least when it is no more physically injurious than the typical male circumcision) and when done in a social context that lends it positive meaning, it may not be as abominable as I was previously inclined to think.”

Braman seems to be appealing to some fairly objective, concrete standards here. Granted, one could reasonably interpret this passage as simply claiming that female genital mutilation is perhaps not so “abominable” that it should be outlawed in all cases in the United States. I think this is a fair reading of Braman and is very likely what he was arguing. What I find problematic, however, is that implicit in Braman’s statement is the idea that he is making an outright assessment of the practice in general, finding it less reprehensible than once thought.

After all, why should we be concerned with safety? Or with the avoidance of traumatizing or destructive practices? Or with supporting “positive meaning?” If Braman is arguing that these are merely metrics that will help us determine whether the practice should be embraced in the United States, he is being intellectually honest. (In my opinion, this is a bizzare mental exercise. If these metrics could be successfully met, the practice would be bear little or no resemblance to the practice as currently conducted in many cases.) But to the extent that Braman would like his claim to be taken seriously by any culture other than the United States or a culture that practices female genital mutilation, he is being intellectually dishonest. How can cultural relativism reach beyond any particular culture? On what ground, if any, can this theory rest?

If cultural relativism is not completely right, as is my working assumption, we will need to find some sort of objective morality.

How do we begin to argue for an objective or innate morality? Psychologist Steve Pinker has recently noted that “[t]he moral sense, then, may be rooted in the design of the normal human brain.” Pinker’s article surveys various psychological research that demonstrates clear neurological reactions in patients encountering “moral” dilemmas. In short, when we make a moral decision, it lights up a particular part of our brain.

I am painting with an incredibly broad brush, of course. Pinker himself recognizes the potential for culture (and personal biases) to shape moral values. This is evident as Pinker humorously notes that, for some, “[d]riving a gas-guzzling Hummer is reprehensible, but driving a gas-guzzling old Volvo is not; eating a Big Mac is unconscionable, but not imported cheese or crème brûlée.”

There is no question that morality and society share a powerful and meaningful feedback loop. I think the so-called “white male effect” currently subject to academic scrutiny is a perfect illustration of this fact. The important thing to bear in mind, I think, is the fact that it is a feedback loop and not a one-directional system in which culture dictates morality.

Daniel Corbett

We’re not the only ones contemplating cultural relativism. Over at Concurring Opinions, there is a debate budding about Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting. Blog author, Donald Braman links to the Yale center investigating cultural cognition (relinked here). The comments that follow are equally worth the read.

– Timothy DeHaut

I’m well aware of the relativism debate in philosophy of science and philosophy but as I stated before, I have not had the time to look into the full cultural relativism issue in regard to the legal arena. I’ve come across some interesting articles I hope to read on my quest to define what I think about how it applies to law and society. Standing in opposition to Mr. Corbett, I must admit that I’ve been a proponent of relativism in philosophy, religion, mathematics, and science. The question, I think, is a fundamental one that goes to the heart of our existence. We may be venturing into that fuzzy area of metaphysics again and I must admit that I have quite the aversion to the field.

Here’s my personal syllabus:

In 1998, Posner set out his moral positions and its relation to the law in “The Problematics of Moral and Legal Theory.” 111 HARV. L. REV. 1637 (1998). From the table of contents and a quick read it seems he sets out a qualified cultural relativism position. If there is any place to start, I’d be inclined to start with Posner.

Michael Goodhart, from the esteemed University of Pittsburgh, has an article “Origins and Universality in the Human Rights Debates: Cultural Essentialism and the Challenge of Globalization.” 25 Hum. Rts. Q. 935 (2003).

Stanford’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy has an entry on moral relativism.

I am also aware that Paul O’Grady, a Trinity College Dublin philosophy professor, has put some significant work into the area and hope to read some of his work soon: Paul O’Grady, Wittgenstein and Relativism, International Journal of Philosophical Studies, Vol. 12, (3), 2004, p315 – 337 Paul O’Grady, Relativism, Chesham, Acumen, 2002.

– Timothy DeHaut

Dan,

Because it’s early and I don’t understand the concept of “absolute truth,” I’ll steer clear of it. Let’s see if we can make do without it. It seems to me you made two arguments in your last post, both rooted in pragmatism. First, you contended that “…neither science nor religion can uncover an absolute truth.” Next, you argued for religion’s relative “truth” as a factor of, or flowing from, its use to individuals or society.

First, it may be true that scientific principle x is just a low-uncertainty hypothesis but, given its roots in the scientific method, I’d say its uncertainty value is much, much lower than any theism’s, absent a concerted defense of theism’s “truth.” Even if it’s true that neither science nor religion can uncover absolute truth, that’s certainly not to say that the two disciplines (and again, I hesitate to call religion a “discipline”) are equally suited for the task. I drop a rubber ball in my kitchen 99 times; each time it bounces. Now, my statement that “It will bounce again on the hundredth time” is really just a low-uncertainty hypothesis, but I’m entitled to make it because I’ve just conducted 99 trials. Evidence, gathered by human observation and analysis, chases out uncertainty as light chases out shadow. So where is the evidence for theism? I’m not arguing there is none; I’m just demanding to see it. Theism needs a positive argument!

Second, I have a hard time accepting the notion that a thing’s truth value can be a direct function of its utility. Santa Clause is a beloved cultural icon in this and many Western European countries…but he’s still just a story. I know this is a cartoonish view of pragmatism–the theories of pragmatism rest on more than just assertions that “truth is what works”–but I can’t take this further because I’m lost. What are you arguing, exactly?

Finally, the challenge. The thing for which I’ve been waiting, in this and a number of conversations I’ve had with friends about Dawkins’ book, is a positive argument for theism. Pacal’s Wager, arguments about the ends of epistemology or social utility–these are all merely implicit cases for theism. Can we build anything stronger?

–Morgan Hubbard

Morgan,

Great debate we’ve gotten ourselves into, right? You’ve raised some very good points and gotten me thinking hard about God and belief when I should be thinking about torts and contracts. For that, I salute you!

I’m afraid that your last post brings us to the irretrievably pretentious world of– you guessed it!— epistemology. And from what it sounds like so far, you and I are coming at this discussion from opposite epistemological poles.

You wrote:

Doctrines that teach the “unknowability” of things are de facto impediments to knowledge!

I disagree. I believe that all knowledge— spiritual and material– is limited by at least some level “unknowability.” In any endeavor, it’s not truth, but probability that we’re really looking for.

You’ve praised science for its coherent, systematic, and progressive nature. It’s reason, objectivity, and empiricism that make science “good” and bring us closer to discovering the “truth.” If you hold these values in such high esteem (and you do so with good reason), then you (and Dawkins) are going to be skeptical of other modes of inquiry (here, religion) that do not rely on those values.

Where you and I part ways, I think, is in our view of “truth.” I think your arguments so far have expressed an earnest concern for discovering the truth– pinning it down, examining it, and bettering society as a result. I’d agree with you that the search for truth is an important thing, and we’re all better off when people embark on this journey. I disagree with you, it seems, because I think that “truth,” on its very best day, is “warranted assertability” or “low uncertainty.” (Bounce this notion off a physicist, and see if they agree). In my opinion, neither science nor religion can uncover an absolute truth. Our minds, the world, the universe are all part of one giant grey area. This shouldn’t make us hopeless, however. I actually think it’s empowering– having uncertainty as a backdrop should 1) provide a catalyst for inquiry and action and 2) provide a humbling, philosophical ground for all of our human achievements.

I’m something of a pragmatist, so I’ll use the words of William James to shed some light onto where I’m coming from:

On pragmatic principles we cannot reject any hypothesis if consequences useful to life flow from it. Universal conceptions, as things to take account of, may be as real for pragmatism as particular sensations are. They have indeed no meaning and no reality if they have no use. But if they have any use they have that amount of meaning. And the meaning will be true if the use squares well with life’s other uses.

James seems to put the spiritual and material on equal footing. And I think he’s absolutely right in doing so. If you aren’t looking for some sort of absolute, objective “truth,” what makes science any more “right” than religion?

In James’ lecture “Pragmatism and Religion” he, an avowed disciple of the scientific method, admits to having his own religious beliefs that lay somewhere “between the two extremes of crude naturalism on the one hand and transcendental absolutism.”

I, too, stand somewhere in this grey area, in between these two extremes. It’s enough to drive both fundamentalists and atheists mad.

As a final point, back to Dawkins’ book, I wonder how much of his project is simply in the interest of giving atheists a sense of belonging. My girlfriend, Erin, raised this point in a discussion we had over Thanksgiving. Atheiests, like Christians, Jews, Muslims, and any other religious sect like to have others with whom they identify. Is Dawkins giving atheists a community, or is he building a dogma?

I guess I’ll have to read the book to see for myself.

Daniel Corbett

Morgan,

I cannot disagree with Steve Pinker’s thoughts on the proper role of faith in academia. As I’ve tried to make clear, science should be a purely secular endeavor. Religion should be studied in religious institutions or as an elective for those who are interested. There is no good reason to give creationist science a “fair hearing” in biology classes. Sure, it’s a theory, but it’s not a particularly viable or robust one. Secular science tells us with relatively low uncertainty how the world around us works. But it cannot tell us why. This is where theism properly comes in– at least as one of many competing theories.

To answer you’re question, I don’t think theism shuts any doors to attaining knowledge. True, belief in God requires a “leap of faith” in the sense that one must accept the existence of something without any material or empirical reason for doing so. When a person takes this leap of faith, it does not mean they are rejecting wholesale the importance of making conclusions based on evidence. Most theists are content to stake their knowledge of the material world on empirical facts. In short, religion and science are not mutually exclusive. There are countless academics and professionals who excel in their fields and who also happen to believe in God. These people excel for the same reasons atheists in their respective fields excel– because they have mastered the information and best practices surrounding the field.

As a final point, I must reiterate that spiritual matters are not the only thing people accept on faith. Morality, too, requires belief in something absent empirical justification. Your comments about “knowing” when something is wrong (e.g. the feeling one gets at the Holocaust Museum) are a bit misleading. I will concede that moral sentiments can be quite strong (as can spiritual beliefs), but this is not proof that these sentiments are somehow natural. Both morality and religion are social phenomena. There is no empirical justification for either, but people over time have chosen to accept certain aspects of each.

Going back to your last question about attaining knowledge as a theist. What, exactly, do you mean? Can you think of an example (other than creationism or some other encroachment of the spiritual into the material) where religion might hinder knowledge?

Daniel Corbett  

Dan,

Steven Pinker, in an address to colleagues on this year’s Curricular Review Committee on General Education at Harvard, raises exactly the concern around which we’ve been dancing. I think his conclusion leaves room for both of us, though our conversation on god’s place is far from settled. In discussing the Harvard curriculum’s “Faith and Reason” requirement, Pinker worries that

“…the juxtaposition of the two words makes it sound like “faith” and “reason” are parallel and equivalent ways of knowing, and we have to help students navigate between them. But universities are about reason, pure and simple. Faith—believing something without good reasons to do so—has no place in anything but a religious institution, and our society has no shortage of these. Imagine if we had a requirement for “Astronomy and Astrology” or “Psychology and Parapsychology.” It may be true that more people are knowledgeable about astrology than about astronomy, and it may be true that astrology deserves study as a significant historical and sociological phenomenon. But it would be a terrible mistake to juxtapose it with astronomy, if only for the false appearance of symmetry.”

He’s exactly right. Universities work because the processes on which real, rational knowledge is built are transparent, accessible, repeatable and above all knowable. In matters of faith, where accepting mysteries is a prerequisite to everything, how is knowledge attained? This is as clear as I can make my question. What do you think?

–Morgan Hubbard

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I’m going to try to address your thoughts, Morgan, along with the comment Chris posted to my earlier entry.

Morgan, your point (“Theology ought to be put through the same kind of rigorous wringer as empirical science“) is a strong one. I, too, am a firm believer in reason, empiricism, and cold, hard facts. And I think we generally make things better by expanding the use of these methods. The technology that makes our lives better each day is one of the benefits of living in a secularizing, modernizing world.

But I don’t think the spiritual realm can be properly touched by science. Sure, scientists will try to infer from “gaps” the existence of God, but I think what I said in my first post establishes where I stand on this matter. While well-intentioned, these scientists may actually be doing a disservice to religion by trying to make the spiritual conform to the material.

In short, I can’t offer any material “evidence” for the existence of God. I know it’s been attempted, but I don’t find these attempts particularly appealing or useful.

Which brings us to you, Chris. You argued that “to believe in something without evidence is faith” and that Dawkins is criticizing this. You’re right in the sense that Dawkins, like many scientists, thinks it foolish to believe in something without evidence.

This argument is flawed because the acceptance of any realm requires a “leap of faith,” to use John Hick‘s term. To accept the existence of the material world and defeat solipsism (the belief that “it’s all in your mind”), one must take a leap. To accept in the existence of some sort of moral framework, a further leap is needed. And, finally, to establish the existence of a spiritual realm, we need yet another leap of faith.

Dawkins has spent his career studying the material world, but to get there he had to take a leap of faith. He had to take another leap in order to be able to deploy such pithy normative arguments as “Atheists should ‘come out of the closet’.” Taking the leap to the spiritual level may be less accepted and may lead to more disparate conclusions across cultures, but there is nothing irrational in itself about choosing to believe in something outside this world. And, for reasons I’ve given earlier, once people make this choice, they’ve waived off any serious critiques from other paradigms. Each realm has its resident expert: the scientist, the moral philosopher, and the theologian. True there’s some overlap, but at the end of the day, they must all confine their arguments to their camp. Science has gotten better, in large part, because morality and religion have started to keep their distance. Why should it be any different with religion?

Finally, Morgan, to come back to the general question your last post begs– “Why should a thinking person believe in God?”– my best, and perhaps only serious response is to point you back to Pascal’s Wager, and simply say, “Why not?” As Pascal told us, we’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain when we choose to believe in God.

Daniel Corbett 

Dan,

It speaks well of your intellectual fortitude that you, without yet reading the book, seem to have struck on its major fault. On the face of things, it seems like the philosophical confluence of natural science and supernatural religion is, well, nonexistent. The two paradigms are parallel; they govern the same universe but never actually intersect. This is the gist of most conversations I’ve had on the topic of Dawkins’ book, and it seems to be a pretty common sentiment.

So let’s accept that the two paradigms are really mutually exclusive in terms of their ability to explain what we see and hear and feel. Dawkins’ book is still a valuable contribution to public knowledge in the way it targets aspest of human society where meddlesome religions have muddied the distinctions between the two. There are all sorts of questions that have rational, empirical and beautifully simple answers, but which have been co-opted by religions. Darwinian evolution is only the most visible example. Looking through Dawkins’ hyperskeptical lens, it’s hard not to see creation myths as power-grabs, and it’s hard not to laud Dawkins’ efforts to put the gods where they belong.

But Dawkins does take things a step further, positing a few tendentious pseudo-evolutionary theories to explain why religion seems, in many ways, to be hardwired into the human psyche. Much of this is conjecture, and he acknowledges it as such. But in the course of the book he does hit on what I think is a critical node for this discussion. I side with Dawkins on this, and so I’ll pose the problem to you:

Dawkins thinks (and I think) that it is not enough to declare by fiat that there are other “modes of knowing” that exist outside rationality. It is not enough to pronounce that science cannot explain everything in human experience. And it is intellectually dishonest to portray holes in empirical science as automatic evidence of the supernatural. A real-world example: gaps in the fossil record absolutely do not serve as evidence of divine creation; they serve as evidence that there are gaps in the fossil record. That’s all. God cannot fill science’s holes just because. To let God do so is to give him a pass.

We trust knowledge gained by science because the process by which it’s obtained is demonstrable, transparent and simple…even the most complex physical or chemical laws are really just compilations of smaller and smaller laws, all of which are testable. Theology ought to be put through the same kind of rigorous wringer as empirical science. Here’s where my nonexistent theological training hinders me: perhaps there is such a wringer, and I don’t know what to call it. But I will not accept a religion’s history or geneology as evidence of its “correctness.” Nor will I accept simple declarations of belief as prima facie evidence of the supernatural. I submit this as the understatement of the millenium: people have been wrong before. There must be something else.

So what do you think? Without straying too far into the labyrinthine world of metaphysics, what evidence can we marshal that there really exists some plane of inquiry beyond the rational?

–Morgan Hubbard 

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