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Divergent authenticities: the tension I grip with

April 9, 2010

I have heard several speakers and writers talk about tension and paradox in very high terms. For some reason, these things seem to be philosophical ambrosia for many. Tension is the sign of life at its fullest, or a personal philosophy at its most mature.

I don’t really “get” the sentiment. I mean, I get how hardship can lead to improvement and progress. But I think that’s still glossing too much over the concept of “tension”, really. And even if hardship and trial were all that is meant by “tension” or “paradox”, I don’t think I’d want to constantly be in such a state. I hope that I pass through whatever the trial may be. That’s really where the satisfaction is…in the respite after one trial and before the next.

I doubt I have even really captured the idea. I wouldn’t know where to begin. I know a lot of high thinking (for lack of a better term) Mormon blogs often focus on the idea…and this is spooky, but John G-W just wrote an article about Mormons as a People of Paradox.

Anyway, I was thinking about some of the stuff I believe, and whether I have to grip with any tensions there.

In another article here on this blog…John Gustav-Wrathall had commented that perhaps, we use such exclusive language like “this is the one true path” in order to reinforce a total commitment to such a path (which is, perhaps, the only way for the path to be beneficial.)

And then he commented something else.

By the way, I might add that I haven’t met an atheist yet who didn’t think that his or her way of understanding the world was “the only true way.”

I wanted to respond to this…but I realized it was something tricky to respond to.

To believe in something, I think that one necessarily should believe that thing is true. Otherwise, they don’t really believe in that thing at all, do they? So, from this angle, his comment must be true. Atheists must think that their understanding of the world is “the only true way.” It can’t be both ways, or all ways.

And yet…I still didn’t think this addressed everything.

After all, the belief that one’s way is correct doesn’t necessarily imply, “…and this belief is better than what you think is correct” or “…and you should believe this as well.” (Fact-value distinction?) I didn’t think it was the case that John had never met an atheist who could say, “But hey, atheism isn’t necessarily the best/ideal position for all.”

So I thought about saying something dangerous like, “Maybe we should be less concerned with truth!”

…What a silly thing to say. I’ve been beaten up and down the internet in plenty of philosophical debates, and one thing I’ve learned is: don’t be the truth relativist. It never ends well.

So, dismissing truth wasn’t an option. Instead, what was the truth I was really supporting and pushing for everyone to accept? I didn’t (and don’t) think it’s atheism (and that’s why I didn’t like the sound of John’s comment there in the first place.)

And then I realized it. It’s authenticity.

I believe in personal authenticity. We need to live lives honest to ourselves. How miserable will we be when we attempt to lie to ourselves — when we most certainly will always know we are lying — and despair?

But I think that, because people are different, what is authentic will differ. It is subjective. So, my commitment to authenticity allows (requires?) me to say that it doesn’t matter what I think about the existence or nonexistence of god — whatever the truth of that doesn’t matter as much to me as whether I (or anyone) can say that they were authentic to themselves in the matter. Some people, I think, just don’t “get” atheism. It makes them miserable. You can tell, because they then attribute the misery to atheism itself as if atheism is intrinsically miserable. Why would I suggest these people to be atheist, when it’s not them?

On the other hand, some people just don’t “get” theism. I don’t. It makes us miserable to try to reconcile what doesn’t represent the data as we see it with everyday experience.

But that’s important. It’s not the data. It’s the data as we see it. As we perceive it. So, the subjective aspect makes or breaks.

A commitment to authenticity does bring tension though. Not only can authenticity differ, but it can differ in a way that makes for tense situations. For example, I feel utterly comfortable to describe my thoughts and feelings as my thoughts, my perceptions, my interpretations. But I know that most people talk in terms of objectivity. They want to talk as if they are describing what actually is. It is not enough for me to acknowledge that they perceive God. Rather, they want to establish that God is real. It is not enough for me to acknowledge that they perceive atheism to be miserable. They want to establish that atheism is miserable.

That is authentically them. So, what can I do?

What I would like to see is a decreased fetish for “objectivity” in the language we use. More “I think,” “I believe,” “I perceive,” “I interpret” rather than “that is” or “this is.”

But, as I noted…this isn’t authentic for many. People want to believe in an objectively existent deity, not just say they perceive something they personally and subjectively interpret as god.

Instead, I see people nearly extinguish subjectivity from their language. So, things that could plausibly be referred to in terms of subjectivity (my favorite is morality) are assumed to be objective. People look at you crazy if you suggest non-objective morality.

People commit violence to each other’s authenticity through objectivity. If x is objectively morally wrong, then to prevent person A from doing X is ok, justified, and morally required. No guilt should be felt for it at all. We were just doing the right thing.

…now, I’m not going to suggest that we stop person A from doing X…I don’t take a position of wishy washy anything goes.

However, I think the next tension comes in realizing that we are committing violence to A when we stop him. Instead of ignoring this, or hiding behind “objectivity,” if our moral code is so important to us, then we should be able to ACCEPT that we are committing violence against person A, deeming the moral standard as being more important than that prized authenticity.

Ultimately, I have become more conscientious from thinking in terms of this. For strongly felt moral sentiments, I can easily feel “ok” to commit the violence against the individual. But for a great many things, I feel enough guilt from the prospect of limiting another’s pursuit of authenticity that I refrain or cease. Truly, it is that reaction that makes me feel like something better than a monster.

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3 Comments
  1. Andrew – I thought about responding to your last comment on the other post, but ended up not having time between my teaching schedule and life in general.

    But I also didn’t go there for the same reason you didn’t… Because of a perception that people would throw stones at me for saying what I really thought. In my case, the stones would be thrown not for upholding subjectivity, but for upholding objectivity.

    BTW – I see simultaneously see the value of subjectivity and objectivity. There is value in insisting that each individual has their truth that is right for them and nobody else, because it enables us to coexist more peacefully. But there is value in objectivity because sometimes it is not enough simply to coexist, sometimes it is worth it to reach for a deeper level of interaction and community that becomes possible when we insist that there is a single, objective ground of reality that can unite us all.

    I wrestle with the demands of subjectivity and objectivity all the time. There’s value in letting people just figure it out for themselves (subjectivity). But there’s also value in bearing witness — whether it is as a gay man, explaining to folks how their conception of homosexuality is just plain wrong; or whether it is as a Mormon telling people what I know about the nature of God (objectivity). Though even then, I clearly understand that my witness (on whatever topic) is for others just data that they can use to evaluate their own views on a topic. I can never compel them to see it my way, and must also acknowledge that my data is incomplete and my understanding of truth partial (subjectivity). But my goal is to achieve some kind of understanding of the true nature of reality. If this were not my goal, life would seem meaningless and hollow in significant ways (objectivity). I understand the demands of both subjectivity and objectivity, I understand them as conflicting, and I try to work my way through life the best I can by weaving back and forth between the two.

    I agree with you, that a one-sided approach that upholds ONLY subjectivity (i.e. wishy washiness) or ONLY objectivity (i.e. violence) is not helpful or desirable. And we encounter folks who feel obligated to recede to one pole or the other all the time. And they often make life miserable for the rest of us.

    I this way, I feel as though I have far more in common with certain atheists than I have with certain people of faith, or as if I have more in common with certain people of other faiths than I have with certain people of my own faith. I agree with you that authenticity is an excellent intermediary value.

    But I still hold to my initial comment… That people generally choose a certain path because they, at some level, see it as having greater objective value than other paths. An atheist simply does not believe that the universe has been structured by an intelligence like God; they might see how belief in God might help others to cope, or even might be open to the idea that belief is good for society. But when push comes to shove they simply do not believe there is, in any objective sense, a god.

  2. I also reiterate — like you, I think — that this is a good thing. There can be no search for authentic, objective truth without authenticity, and I would always rather have an honest atheist than a dishonest believer.

  3. John, thanks for the responses.

    I guess I have a issue – that may just be semantic – with what you’re saying. It doesn’t seem like you’re delineating the difference between subjective and objective when you say you want to go beyond “coexisting” to “reaching for a different level of interaction and community.”

    Rather, you’re still completely within the range of subjectivity. Instead, you just highlight what I refer to as “intersubjectivity.” And I do NOT believe intersubjectivity requires us to insist that there is a single, objective ground of reality that can unite us all. Again, I think this is a bit of a smokescreen or a red herring…when we’re coming up or discovering or developing or projecting this ground of reality to unite us all, it is still subject — it is still something that we perceive or project. This perception and projection is MOST important. I say this because you later say:

    But my goal is to achieve some kind of understanding of the true nature of reality. If this were not my goal, life would seem meaningless and hollow in significant ways (objectivity).

    This is false. It is repeated so many times. Whether life is meaningless and hollow in an *objective* sense is unimportant (for that matter, if life IS meaningless and hollow in an objective sense, then that very fact is meaningless and hollow). Rather, what remains important is that we *perceive* the meaning and substance. I think many people think that if meaning and substance *aren’t* objectively existent, then there’s no way to perceive meaning and substance, or that that perception is always a deception because it’s subjective. But what they perhaps don’t think is that their most vivid perceptions — the ones that they consider “more real than anything else” — could *potentially* be deceptions as well.

    Does that mean we should give them up? No. Their subjectivity does not make them value-less, meaningless, or hollow, because WE get to determine what the value, meaning, and substance is! It is something WE perceive.

    I still maintain that when you bear witness, you are bearing subjective witness. When others evaluate the data, that is a subjective evaluation. Even when you bear witness of things that you believe to be objectively true, you can only reach out in a subjective way, and the other person can only take it in a subjective way. This is why people can bear witness of demonstrably false things, but people can still be truly convinced about these things and believe they are completely true. (Not saying that what you believe is demonstrably false…but the demonstrability is unimportant.)

    I wasn’t exactly saying that subjectivity is always wishy-washy and objectivity is always violence. Rather, it was something more like, many people who emphasize subjectivity (or relativism especially) often end up being wishy-washy…when neither really requires it. And many who emphasize objectivity often are masquerading around a subjective concept and forcing it around (with violence.)

    In response to your final part, I am very certain that people choose paths because they see it as having greater objective value than the other paths. But within that statement is my statement. because they see. Every photo you will ever see bears witness of a lens, and yet we always forget that! My point is to focus on the lens, and then recognize how a difference in lens will necessarily skew the photo. Even though every photo attempts to take a snapshot of objective reality, each actually takes a subjective perception, which may or may not even afford with actual reality. We can then say, “Well, let’s reach a deeper level of interaction and community and compare and contrast photos to see which are “objective.”” But here…we aren’t finding objectivity. We are simply finding agreement among subjectivity. That nearly all humans see a certain spectrum of light doesn’t mean that infrared and ultraviolet don’t exist.

    As you describe for an atheist, they do not believe in the *objective* existence of a god. But quite obviously, the subjective force of the idea of god is readily apparent in societies.

    I would pose a question, since you want to pursue objectivity (or say you want to), what would you do if the objective reality were less than you expected, or different than you expected? For example, what if — despite all of your experiences — in the end, the universe were *objectively* purposeless, valueless, meaningless. Or what if, even stranger, there were some kind of god, but he was a tyrant and tyrannical and unsympathetic to your plight or your journey?

    Would you see to find that objectivity and accord with it, or would you follow your EXPERIENCES — which are still very real to you and people around you — which nevertheless don’t conform with the ultimate reality?

    This hypothetical proposes that we know that objective reality is x way or y way, but in the end, we have a bit of a different scenario…where we don’t know for certain what ultimate reality is objectively like. Yet, this doesn’t stop us from PERCEIVING and PROJECTING what reaches down deepest to us. That is authenticity.

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