The Inability to be at Home in the World: Religion, Salvation and Value Pluralism

It is rare for a human being to be completely at home in the world. No matter how well things go for us we have a sense that our lives are missing something important. As we move about our lives we may have moments of exquisite joy, and we may feel that our lives are going extraordinarily well, and yet it always seems, for me at least, like my life is incomplete as it misses out on some valuable good. In this entry I would like to point out that while traditional religions like Christianity are very good at explaining this incapability of humans to be at home in the world, the Berlinian philosophy of value pluralism is also adept at explaining it. In a sense, this entry is meant to be a response to theorists like Peter Lawler who contrast the attempt to make humans at home in the world through technological and social progress with traditional religion’s acceptance of this anxiety as a necessary part of our worldly condition. For theorists in this tradition of thought the fact that we have not gotten rid of human anxiety and made human beings entirely at home in the world is a testament to the truth of traditional religion, and Christian faith in particular. While this contrast discloses an element of reality, by not making mention of non-religious philosophies that can make room for the human incapability to be at home in the world, it leaves out something very important.

Many traditional religions are adept at explaining our inability to be at home and our perennial sense that there is something more, but for the sake of this entry I will examine Christianity in particular. At its most basic thinkers like Lawler point out that society or nature is not our natural home, and in these places we are still estranged from God no matter how idyllic the environment we inhabit is. We are creatures who have fallen from grace and while we may be able to get closer to God through faith and religious practise, our anxieties will not be abolished as long as we are estranged from him, and we will remain at least somewhat estranged during this life. This explanation is powerful, and while I am not a Christian I cannot help but find it beautiful in a certain way.

On the other hand, we might explain our inability to be at home in the world by looking to the nature of value. According to Berlin, and his many followers, values are incommensurable or incompatible in some basic sense. Thus, while it may be true that life of a monk and the life devoted to artistic creativity are both valuable, these values cannot be simply evaluated according to simple criteria, and further these goods may not be able to be woven into the life of person or the life of a community.

For example, if I commit myself to the pursuit of artistic creativity this necessarily means that I will not be able to fully develop other goods in my life like familial affection, or the life of quiet reflection, as goods must be developed and commitment to one good tends to exclude others. That said, there is no reason to commit to one single good, but even for those of us who try to combine many goods into a single life, there is a limit to which goods can be combined into a single life. For example, I may appreciate the generosity and courage exemplified in the life of the aristocrat who takes care to make sure that his subjects are protected and well cared for, but I could not combine these goods with a life that affirms the legal and political equality of human beings. I cannot be an excellent aristocrat while being an excellent jobholder in a liberal democratic society.

From this understanding of value we might say that the reason why we are unable to feel completely at home in the world in our lives is because our lives always lack a significant array of goods that we recognize as valuable despite their incompatibility with the goods we have built our lives around. These goods that we lack call to us and tell us that there is something more, but yet they cannot be coherently brought into our lives without destroying other goods that we hold dear. So we are never to be completely satisfied or at home with the lives we build as they always remain the cobbling together of many valuable things, but at the expense of others that we never stop longing for. This longing is what underlies our lack of ability to be at home in the world. Consequently, an affirmation of value pluralism can serve as another basis for explaining our perennial anxiety and sense that there is more, and thus traditional religion does not have the monopoly on being able to explain the human inability to be at home in the world. Therefore, the contrast is not simply between technological and social progress directed towards eliminating all anxiety and traditional religion.

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Reason, providence, inspiration and value conflict: Is reason able to reconcile value conflict?

Many people within developed western nations believe that if reason is applied consistently we will be able to create the most perfect society imaginable. I call this idea providential rationalism. From the standpoint of providential rationalism it is through rational speech that we are able to overcome conflict between seemingly opposed values and it is through the application of reason that we will be able develop technology that will enable us to truly be masters of our destiny. For the purposes of this entry I will examine the former facet of providential rationalism, while not considering the latter in detail. In particular, I will show that this facet of providential rationalism, let us call it dialogical providential rationalism, is implausible unless one assumes some form of providence. Furthermore, I will argue that that the alternative view that reason is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for the overcoming of value conflict is more plausible than dialogical providential rationalism.

Dialogical providential rationalism rightly points out that when conflicts between seemingly opposed values are overcome, this occurs through the medium of rational speech. Through an exchange of arguments , we come to either see that the conflict between values was really illusory, or that one value is more important on reflection and consequently should take precedence when the two conflict. For example, it might seem that the value of the family is threatened by having the state intervene in family life where this is necessary to ensure a decent level of well-being for the child, as the family is necessarily based on paternal authority, rather than state authority. But on reflection this conflict is only illusory as it seems more plausible to think that the people, through the state, entrust parents with authority over their children on the conditions that the parents adequately provide for their children. However, if the parents break the element of the social contract that requires parents to adequately provide for their children, then the state may intervene because the entire point of parental authority is to secure the proper development of children. Consequently, while there seemed to be a conflict between the family and the rights of children, this conflict is not really a conflict at all. I am not expecting everyone to buy into this particular interpretation of the conflict between the family and the rights of children, rather it is just an example to show how seeming value conflict can be overcome.

However, the problem with dialogical providential rationalism is that it suggests that reason is sufficient to overcome all conflict between values. This seems implausible as there are many conflicts that do not seem to be reconcilable no matter how much we argue about these values. It seems plausible to think that if some reasonable person committed to the belief that equal freedom is the fundamental end of the state, and a reasonable person who believes that happiness is the ultimate end of the state would never come to an agreement about the ultimate end of the state. It is possible that they will be able to convince one another, or come up with an imaginative solution to reconcile their conflict, but it does not seem to be true that if they spoke for long enough they would overcome this conflict. What makes conflict between values so difficult to overcome is that the only way the conflict can be overcome is if the subjects to the disagreement are persuaded by some solution to the conflict. If one party provides a solution to the value conflict, but the other is not persuaded by the solution, then the conflict has not been overcome.

In consideration of the preceding, it seems to only make sense to think that if two reasonable agents reason for long enough about a value conflict, they will be able to overcome the conflict, if we assume that nature or God has structured reason and humanity in such a way that all conflicts can be reconciled with the application of enough rational speech. Furthermore, what is the belief that God or nature has made it so that reason can overcome all value conflicts, but a belief in a providential universe? Consequently, it seems that dialogical providential rationalism depends on the assumption of providence. Of course it is true that when we look back at history we see that seemingly opposed conflicts between values have been overcome, but this only suggests that reason has overcome some value conflicts, not that reason can overcome all value conflicts. Thus, this fact does nothing to damage the argument I have put forth. It should be noted that I am not arguing that providence is an implausible belief, but that dialogical providential rationalism assumes that we live in a providential universe.

The alternative that I would put forth to dialogical providential rationalism is that reason aids humans in overcome conflict between values, but that reason is a necessary as opposed to a sufficient condition for the overcoming of such conflict. But if reason is only a necessary condition for the overcoming of conflict between values, then some other element is necessary to overcome conflict between values. The other element is inspiration or imagination. This is made clear because in order to overcome conflict one must be possessed by something like, artistic inspiration, or imagination, in that the agents engaged in dialogue must imaginatively go beyond their current understanding of the values to reconcile the conflict. If the agents just reiterate arguments in favour of one value within the conflict, it is highly unlikely that the conflict will be overcome. But, if they are inspired and imaginatively reconcile the insights behind the conflicting values, then the value conflict may be overcome.

In many ways the overcoming of value conflict is like the creation of music, rather than the building of a house according to a blueprint. In creating music one cannot just decide that at 3:00PM one will write a piece of music, rather inspiration strikes and you are able to create something beautiful and unique. And when inspiration strikes is a matter of fortune rather than human control. Likewise, with value conflict simple rational argument is not sufficient to overcome the conflict, rather the agents must be struck by some kind of inspiration that enables them to see beyond their current understanding of the values to an understanding that is deeply convincing to all subjects of the disagreement, but yet overcomes the conflict. Furthermore, like with musical inspiration the imagination required to overcome value conflict is something that one is struck by, rather than something that one controls. Consequently, reason is a necessary condition, not a sufficient condition for the reconciliation of value conflict, and over and above reason what enables value conflict to be reconciled is being struck by inspiration. The alternative that I have put forth seems plausible as it recognizes that reason is the only tool that humans are in control of that can assist them in overcoming value conflict, but it also recognizes the limits of reason in facilitating the reconciliation of value conflict. Therefore, the alternative I have put forth seems to be more plausible than dialogical providential rationalism.

Reason is an amazing capacity of human beings, and it has great value. For example, it can help us to better understand others and learn from them. But we need to clearly understand its limits so that we do not turn reason into an idol that can solve all of our problems. Reason may be a less dangerous idol, than others, but when it is transformed into an idol, it still poses great dangers.