Last night I had an online chat with one of my friends, a person who I am very fond of. Among other things, we talked about philosophy and the movie ”The Matrix”. As I woke up this morning, I had a message waiting from last night. She said that she believes in nothing. The statement was followed by a friendly wink-smiley, and it was obvious from the context that she is happy with having no beliefs.
Until only a few years ago, I didn’t believe in anything either. In my youth, I adopted a radical agnosticism and radical subjectivism. I knew that science works, but only within the framework of reality. And who am I to say that reality even exists, anyway? For all I know, the whole thing could be a dream, or a simulation like in The Matrix. As for religion, I had no opinion about the friendlier kinds. But I despised when people sought to ruin or limit other people’s lives based on their own beliefs. My opinion was, and still is, that people may believe whatever they want as long as they don’t try to push it on other people in any way. The mindset of ”Your existence or lifestyle is against my religious or personal spiritual beliefs, thus you should not have equal rights.” is not okay.
Since then, my worldview has become more complex. There are three levels of literal reality. These literal realities are physical reality, social reality and psychological reality. The social level includes, but is not limited to, culture. We also have a kind of spiritual ”bonus level”, that many experience – but each person who experiences it experiences it in his or her own way.
This spiritual reality may be interpreted either as a transcendent existence beyond the confines of time and space, or as simply as a sub-set of psychological and social/cultural reality. For all practical purposes, this distinction is irrelevant. People experience spiritual reality, and these experiences are very different from each other. This is a fact. We have many different religions, with huge variations within each religion, and we have a lot of people who have spiritual experiences without belonging to any specific religion.
In recent years, I have developed two beliefs. These two are things that I believe with all my heart, in spite of the fact that I will never be able to prove them.
My first belief is that physical reality exists.
My second belief is that physical reality is not a conspiracy.
These beliefs may not seem like much, but their implications are actually huge.
I took them for granted all my life, but as long as I didn’t believe in them they did not give me a solid ground to stand on. The choice to truly believe in them is liberating.
Through scientific methodology, we gain actual knowledge about the actual truths about the actual world that we actually live in. The truth is out there. We have solid ground to stand on. This is reality.
There are moral implications as well. Knowing that reality is real, you know that other people exist. Solipsism is not true. Knowing that reality is not a conspiracy, you know that these other people are just as real as you are. Not automatons pretending to be human. Their feelings are just as real as yours, their thoughts are just as real as yours, and their needs are just as real as yours. Thus, all human beings have inherent equal value.
Subjectivism and relativism has a lot of truth and wisdom to offer, for understanding the three other levels of reality: Psychological reality, social or cultural reality, and spiritual or non-literal reality.
For these three realities, we need subjectivism or relativism. However. The subjectivism and relativism must not infringe on physical reality. Most importantly, it must not infringe on the fact that every individual human being is a person in his or her own right, with equal rights and equal dignity. The psychology, social structure, culture or spiritual/religious beliefs of any person or group must never be allowed to justify oppressing, harming or killing people. Religion and culture can inspire the best in us, and should be encouraged to do so. Meanwhile, we must fight against the dark sides.
When people use culture or faith to justify oppression or hatred against individuals or minority groups, we must stand up against them. To be able to do so, we must embrace pluralism without losing the solid ground in reality and the respect for every individual human being.
Is the moon made of stone or cheese? Does the moon even exist? These questions are about facts, not about opinions. Applying relativism to physical reality is silly at best, fascism at worst. The holocaust did happen. Jews are really human. This is not a matter of opinion. Believing some random history revisionist is not equal to believing the massive evidence that science has to offer on these issues. Likewise, the universe is billions of years old. This is a fact, supported by massive evidence. For example, telescopes picks up starlight from galaxies billions of light-years away. This means that this starlight has traveled at light-speed for billions of years. And no, the speed of light itself was not manipulated to test our faith: Reality is not a conspiracy.
Should is be legal to argue that physical reality does not really exist, or that physical reality is a conspiracy? Of course it should. However, such arguments must be countered and exposed for what they are. The vast majority of mankind takes for granted that reality exists and is not a conspiracy. They do so for the very good reason that this is in fact the reality we live in. A relativism or subjectivism that reduces physical reality to being a matter of opinion is a threat to democracy and human rights. It is an invitation to the mindset that disputes are not settled by finding out who has the best arguments, but instead by finding out who is best at murdering or otherwise silencing anyone who disagree. It is an invitation to genocide against ”heretics”, ”unbelievers” and ”blasphemers”.
The scriptures of various religions hold psychological truths, cultural truths and spiritual truths. Since minds and their spiritual experiences are subjective, these scriptures can all be true. They can coexist peacefully and even reinforce each other in a good way. But they must not be taken as literal truth about the physical world and it’s history. It is destructive to accept as literal truth for example the Genesis story of the Bible, the Norse Pantheon story of how Odin created the world, or the stories of Vedic tradition. First of all, they can’t all be the one truth. If one of them is “The Truth” rather than “a truth”, then the other ones are lies. Second, none of them can be literally true without physical reality itself being a conspiracy to conceal this truth. This all invites paranoia, fear, and intolerance against those who hold different beliefs.
However, a story such as Genesis can still be true on a spiritual or psychological level. On these levels, the story has truths that physical reality could never have. Genesis is not a history lesson; it is a story about the basics of defining the world. Sun and moon. Sky, sea and land. Different species of animals, with mankind on top. This is a story of categories.
Categories do not exist in the physical world. They exist in the psychological, social/cultural and spiritual worlds. One of the greatest turning points of my life was when I read the book The Greatest Show On Earth, and it explained that specieses of animals do not exist. Only actual animals exist. Sorting thee animals into specieses is merely our way of categorizing them. This system of categorization makes it harder for us to understand evolution. Just like the fact that the universe exists, this is something that I already knew, but didn’t believe in yet. I merely took it for granted. I had already been working on my concept of categorism for many years, but this simple statement made me realize just how much on the right track I am with this intellectual project.
A few days ago, I saw a very interesting youtube clip with that book’s author, Richard Dawkins. In this interview, he explains that there was never such a thing as a first human being. Mankind evolved gradually, it did not suddenly come into existence.
In fact, religion as we know it may very well be older than mankind itself, considering how deeply embedded in our nature it is. Perhaps the pre-human primates dreamed of heaven. We will never know for sure. Maybe today, some dolphins are dreaming about heaven. Maybe we’ll find out about this, one day.
The physical world does not give us a starting point for who we are. For those of use who want to have a starting point, they need to find it in the cultural or spiritual realm. Doing so can be a very good thing, as long as one doesn’t lose one’s connection to understanding the physical world. Belief in Genesis or in any other creation myth can be combined with accepting evolution, thanks to separating the spiritual from the physical. These days, the global Catholic Church accepts evolution. So does a steadily increasing percentage of Protestant priests and Islamic scholars. As for the followers of the Norse Pantheon, I don’t think any of them are literalists. I have met many of them, since belief in the Norse Pantheon is having a revival in Sweden. Some of these people are my friends. They are honest and deeply spiritual in their belief in Odin, Thor and the others, but of course they don’t mistake the myths for being literal historical truth.
There are different kinds of beliefs. There is an enormous difference between spiritual beliefs and beliefs about the physical world.
For the physical world, most people take for granted that the world exists and that it is not a conspiracy. I recommend them all to solidify this assumption into a belief. To stand up for the fact that yes, this is actually the way it is. Those who believe otherwise are, in fact, wrong. If they want to convince us otherwise, they will have to overthrow the entire reality, not merely make exceptions from it whenever it suits them.
For psychology and spirituality, I recommend total subjectivity and relativism. Each person has her own experiences, and this should be respected. If you want to join a religion, or several religions at the same time, do so. Find your personal truths wherever you can. But don’t lose your connection to the reality of the physical world, the one that we all share and live in. If your religion threatens to engulf your life or shroud reality, leave it.
Religion can hold people back. If your religion holds you back from doing bad things to others or to yourself, please stay in your religion. If your religion holds you back from despair and emptiness, please stay in your religion. But you should also find yourself some solid ground elsewhere. Don’t let religion be your only comfort, your only safety. Build a decent life, find stability in many places. If your religion is only holding back your intellectual, emotional, social or spiritual development, then it is time to leave. If you still want to have a religion, choose another one. If you don’t want to have one, that’s okay too. In either case, beware of destructive cults. A sure sign of a destructive cult is that it strongly discourages having a life outside of the group, and that it shuns anyone who wants to think freely or leave the group. Please remember that this is true not only for religious groups, but for secular ones as well. Many destructive cults are based squarely on political ideologies such as Communism and Nazism, on (empty) promises of economical gain, or on social identity.
As for culture and social structure, we need a balance.
Cultures should be cherished and respected. However, people exploiting or otherwise oppressing other people is not something that we should cherish or respect. Not even when the oppressors and the victims share a mutual culture, and this culture is used as an excuse to justify the oppression.
Culture is relative, but a culture consists of human beings.
Besides, the same individual human can belong to more than one culture, or no culture at all. Different members of the same culture can define their membership differently. In any case, they are human beings.
Human beings, and their human rights, are not relative.