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We're all believers

Updated: Mar 5, 2019

This article is part of the Writing to Mary and Jack series.

Dear Mary and Jack

Our times are traversed by many convulsions, triggered by the constant friction of contrary ideas and philosophies. These frictions are neither more frequent nor more philosophically disputed than the ones our ancestors had. But it seems that through a set of circumstances, we as mankind have today less of an ability to entertain thoughtful disagreements, than we might have had in the past.

To quote one of the most ardent and luminous proponents of more maturity in political debate, I really like the way Michael Sandel [i] traces the problem back to its roots when saying:

"Lying just beneath the surface of the arguments, with passion raging on all sides, are big questions of moral philosophy, big questions of justice."

What is at stake then, is not policy itself, but our conceptions of the world, of the good life, and what values are worthy of honour and reward. I can only recommend his Ted talk on the subject, one of the many brilliant talks that he has made freely accessible to all.

Others have created online platforms like Kialo or Argu to moderate a debate and separate the rational argument from unwanted passion. I can recommend you to take a tour on both and see how constructive conflictuality can also exist and be moderated online when social media is designed for it.

At the root of the challenge of exploring our differences peacefully, and at the heart of today's letter, dear Mary and Jack, is our subjective experience of the world. We experience the world in a way that is unique to ourselves. That's what it means to say it is subjective: it depends on us, the subject of the experience.

Our experience of the world is subjective

We have grown in a secularized [ii] society, where one of the dominant beliefs is that reason and science will solve every problem, and that all things can be discovered, explored and explained objectively. When this movement really took flight in the age of enlightenment (End XXVIIIth century), it was a revolution. Scientists and polymaths of the time pretty much said to church authorities that their blessings were of no scientific value compared to demonstrable proof, and set a path towards a rational future. The initial scientific thrust of the age of enlightenment and the liberating effect it had on the human mind, gave birth to a prolific scientific age which is still developping today at a cadence so high, that it seemingly exceeds our ability to adapt to our own discoveries.

Since then gods and churches started to live and exist in smaller and smaller spaces, and we have grown to believe that there exists an objective truth about the world, and that one person may therefore be closer to it than another, which would make them right, and the other, wrong. And just like this, we have fallen victims of a collective illusion: that scientific exactness and objectivity also count for the human experience, that there are things about life that are certain.

Mathematics are totally objective. There is a reassuring certainty in the fact that 2+2=4, and that it will stay like this for ever. Maths are the essence of rigor, they perfectly and beautifully incarnate the premacy of rational thought on the fuzzy world of emotions. They are also totally theoretical. The more we move away from mathematics, the more we come towards describing the human experience in all its practicality, the less objective and rigorous it all becomes.

Two brothers, different father?

We say that two brothers have the same father for example, and that is true, genetically, mathematically. But let's now ask these two brothers to describe particular memories of their father that have marked them, and you will hear two completely different stories. It might even be that, had you not known them to be brothers, you would not spontaneously think the two anedcotes to be about the same person. From a human experience standpoint, two brothers have a different father, because how they experience their relationship with him is totally and irreducibly subjective.

How does that work then?

To function in this world we need it to make sense. We need to assign meaning to the events surrounding us. It allows us to make choices and live our lives normally without every other minute being terrified by something we do not understand. When I hear thunder today, I know it's the cracking sound of a lightning, even if I cannot see the lightning, I can assign the sound to it. When I was little, I knew for sure that thunder was the sound of giants moving the furniture around in their house in the sky. In the end, what I am pointing out here, is not the explanation we give to things, it's the fact that we need one.

And no matter how hard we try, there are no two humans who give to their experience of life quite the same meaning. You Jack, and you Mary, and all of us, are unique in the way we experience our lives and the world around us, and yes, even in the way 2 plus 2 makes 4.

Contrary to what our illusion described above would have us believe, it is not the world that imposes its meaning on us. It is us who dress the world with whatever thoughts and beliefs inhabit our heads. This basic psychological aptitude is essential to our survival, and it is called projection. We project on the world around us the meaning, theories and thoughts that inhabit us about it. And when our experience challenges our beliefs we are confronted with two choices: We can change our belief or interpret what we see in a way that suits them, either way, we will continue to form a picture of the world in our mind and project it outside of us.

We are all believers.

We do not all believe in God, and those who do, do not all believe in the same God or gods. But we are all believers. I am not here making the claim that we are all religious. Even atheists, who by definition are not religious, are believers. They believe something: that there is no God.

Beliefs are things that we hold to be true. I find it funny that our beliefs are called beliefs and not certainties. Implicit in the word belief, is the fact they are about things we cannot positively prove, so there may be some doubt about it. We hold on our beliefs with more or less force, but in the end, we can never know for sure. I can believe that God exists, but I have no objective proof of it (Neither does the atheist have objective proof that God does not exist, by the way).

When we are certain about something we do not really feel the need to defend the argument. You may say to me that 2+2=5, and I will not respond. I don't care, because I know it's 4, so why would I even try to defend it? But I don't know that God exists, I can only believe it, and hearing that belief challenged by someone else will confront me to the lingering doubts I have about it.

We only defend things we believe in, and the more strenuous the defense, the more we probably doubt... deep down.

I hope you will forgive me for loving paradoxes, but isn't it ironical that the very thing that gives a belief its seal of authenticity is the measure in which you would be able to doubt it?

And so for me, faith is the human art of constantly hesitating on the threshold of certainty, never quite crossing it, always letting doubt holding us back.

Leaving faith, and crossing the threshold into certainty

Doubting is tiring, scary, corrosive, and should it become too burdensome, we may leave the realm of beliefs, cross the threshold and start stating our beliefs as facts, and act accordingly. I contend that people acting in this way are believers who have lost their ability to shoulder the weight of doubt.

At the point of crossing the threshold of certainty, in the human experience, all relativity disappears. The bearer of certainties will ruthlessly divide the world between those who agree and those who don't, and one thing is sure in such a world, there is not room for everyone. There will be winners and losers, good people and bad people. There are plenty of examples of such behaviours in politics, but a most striking example of such a crossing of the threshold of faith into the realm of certainty is perhaps the manifesto of faith of Cardinal Gerhard Müller, released on 11 February 2019 [iii].

I am not discussing the doctrine itself exposed in the manifesto, I would not be able to, and being a specialist, I give Cardinal Müller the credit of having done his homework. But I am stricken by the way the argument is proposed with the force of certainty. Not as a truth, not a faith, but as The Truth without a shadow of a doubt. Winners and losers, come what may.

Wrapping up

Dear Mary and Jack, I am not suggesting that you be soft, tentative or inaccurate in your beliefs, and I wish you to hold about the world, beliefs that are strong enough to guide your action in the most difficult of circumstances.

But I humbly propose that maybe someone else who believes a different set of beliefs can also be right, and that without letting your own beliefs go adrift, you simply hold onto the knowledge that your experience of the world is subjective, that it can coexist with a competing view without losing one ounce of its merit, and that it is permitted to see the other as your brother, from a same father who nonetheless looks and feels to him completely different...

Yes our experience of the world is subjective... Of that I am absolutely certain!



[i] Michael Sandel, born in 1953, is an american political philosopher and the author of many article and essays, among which the brilliant book Justice. (Sandel, M, 2010, Justice, what's the right thing to do, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

[ii] A secular society can only exist where there is a separation of religion and state. It is the case is in western countries and in all democracies. Secularization also denotes the movement of society away from established religious practices. A fact based presentation of secularization by David Voas is available here.


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