Monthly Archives: May 2013

Belief Systems, Dogmatism and Intolerance

I often feel a sense of frustration at people’s closed mindedness when they are confronted with facts or viewpoints that do not neatly fit within their personal worldview. These people are not skeptics according to the strict definition of the word, that is: open minded people who are prepared to critically evaluate their current views in light of new evidence or facts. They are in fact closed minded dogmatists who have already made up their mind on how the world works, and are often not prepared to ever seriously question their own worldview irrespective of whatever inconvenient facts might come along and contradict their current views. And the irony is that these people invariably present themselves as being the objective ones who uniquely have the capacity to transcend subjective fanciful thinking and wishful belief systems in favour of a more scientific and rigorous framework of thought. Most commonly, from my experience, these people are militant atheists and/or materialists (although to be fair I would probably have to include some religious people as well) who are oblivious to the fact that their views actually constitute a belief system, and are not simply objective facts as they claim. And ironically it is contemporary science that proves reductive materialism to be incorrect. (I have studied modern physics, including quantum mechanics at university, so know this to be the case.) Another irony is that militant atheists often defend their strong views on the basis that religions contain an unacceptable degree of intolerance. Whilst it may be true that sectarian religious groups can be somewhat divisive and intolerant of each others views, I often feel that the best way to promote tolerance in the world is to display it yourself!

Although I would describe myself as spiritual (as opposed to religious) I am at the same time an agnostic (technically this places me in the same category as Richard Dawkins!) in that I don’t claim or believe to know anything for absolute certain. However there are a few minor caveats to this cautious disposition: Firstly I don’t extend my reservations concerning certain knowledge on everyone else, and insist that they should likewise uphold an agnostic stance. For one thing some people, having had transcendental experiences, claim they know for sure their experience was real and what they learned from their experience constituted certain knowledge. Despite being an agnostic myself I would not presume to claim that these people, who have had experiences I have not personally had or fully understand, have no right to regard their experience as being real, and their subsequent knowledge from it to constitute certain knowledge. In addition to this, there are perhaps others who may have not had spiritual experiences as such, but are able to intuitively know things for certain. In other words perhaps they are able to transcend the logical/analytical human mind and directly perceive (to some degree) a higher level of reality which we cannot readily apprehend by just using the limited five human senses. I do not have such intuitions myself but perhaps other people do.

All I am basically claiming is that intellectual reasoning alone can never lead to certain knowledge. It is always possible to be mistaken irrespective of how persuaded one is by the power of one’s own corroborative arguments and supportive chains of reasoning. And since I personally have always had to rely merely on analytical reasoning alone I do not feel I can claim to know anything for certain.

The second caveat is this: Although I believe that nothing can be known for certain by intellectual reasoning alone, I nonetheless believe it is possible to know for certain that particular viewpoints are incorrect. For example, I am absolutely certain that reductive materialism is an incorrect worldview, even though I can’t legitimately claim to have certain knowledge of the true nature of reality. If this might seem a contradictory position to take, a simple analogy might help:  If you lose your car keys (like I did the other day) and look in a drawer only to discover they are not there, you can then claim to know for certain that the keys are not in that particular drawer. There is no contradiction in making this claim whilst at the same time not having certain knowledge of where the keys actually are. And the same principle applies to worldviews. I do not know the true nature of reality, but I know what it isn’t – and it is not reductive materialism! This is a paradigm which is essentially rooted in outdated 17th century Newtonian physics, and is not compatible with the more recently observed physical facts of the world.

In summary, it would be accurate to say that I categorize my thoughts and opinions in a probabilistic fashion, as opposed to a definitive black and white correct/incorrect mode of thinking. Based on my knowledge of near death experience research (primarily conducted by cardiologists and surgeons) and also my knowledge of contemporary science (primarily from studying at university) I would put my money on the following propositions being true: i) There is an afterlife. ii) There is a ‘god’ (but perhaps not in the traditional religious sense of the word, hence the inverted commas). iii) The world we experience via our physical senses is illusory.

Behind all these subjective viewpoints however, there are objective definitive answers. It is just that most of us are not in a position to assert what these answers are, even if what we believe just happens to correspond with the objective true facts of the world. Oscar Wilde once said “The truth is rarely pure and never simple” and I think this sentiment is largely applicable to most of our human based knowledge and opinions, and the multitude of lines of reasoning and philosophical arguments that are used to support them. But at the end of the day there are still objective facts of the world that ultimately have definitive yes/no answers. But most of us will have to wait until another time to know the answers for sure – that is of course assuming there is some kind of existence beyond this physical plane…..which I personally would put my money on.