Pakistan Observer

In praise of the clash of cultures

Carlos Franaenkel

Tuesday, September 04, 2012 - About 12 years ago, while studying Arabic in Cairo, I became friends with some Egyptian students. As we got to know each other better we also became concerned about each other’s way of life. They wanted to save my soul from eternally burning in hell by converting me to Islam. I wanted to save them from wasting their real life for an illusory afterlife by converting them to the secular worldview I grew up with. In one of our discussions they asked me if I was sure that there is no proof for God’s existence. The question took me by surprise. Where I had been intellectually socialized it was taken for granted that there was none. I tried to remember Kant’s critique of the ontological proof for God. “Fine,” Muhammad said, “but what about this table, does its existence depend on a cause?” “Of course,” I answered. “And its cause depends on a further cause?” Muhammad was referring to the metaphysical proof for God’s existence, first formulated by the Muslim philosopher Avicenna in the 11th century: since an infinite regress of causes is impossible, Avicenna argues, things that depend on a cause for their existence must have something that exists through itself as their first cause. And this necessary existent is God. I had a counter-argument to that to which they in turn had a rejoinder. The discussion ended inconclusively.

I did not convert to Islam, nor did my Egyptian friends become atheists. But I learned an important lesson from our discussions: that I hadn’t properly thought through some of the most basic convictions underlying my way of life and worldview - from God’s existence to the human good. The challenge of my Egyptian friends forced me to think hard about these issues and defend views that had never been questioned in the European student milieu where I came from. The other thing I realized was how contested my views were. I completed high school in a West German town in 1990 in the middle of Germany’s turbulent reunification (I ended my final exam in history describing the newest political developments I had heard on the radio that same morning). For a few years after the breakdown of the Soviet bloc many thought that everyone would be secular and live in a liberal democracy before long. The discussions with my Egyptian friends brought home that I better not hold my breath.

Since that time I have organized philosophy workshops at a Palestinian university in East Jerusalem, at an Islamic university in Indonesia, with members of a Hasidic community in New York, with high school students in Salvador da Bahia (the center of Afro-Brazilian culture), and in a First Nations community in Canada. These workshops gave me first-hand insight into how deeply divided we are on fundamental moral, religious and philosophical questions. While many find these disagreements disheartening, I will argue that they can be a good thing - if we manage to make them fruitful for a culture debate.

Can we be sure that our beliefs about the world match how the world actually is and that our subjective preferences match what is objectively in our best interest? If the truth is important to us these are pressing questions. We might value the truth for different reasons: because we want to live a life that is good and doesn’t just appear so; because we take knowing the truth to be an important component of the good life; because we consider living by the truth a moral obligation independent of any consequences; or because, like my Egyptian friends, we want to come closer to God who is the Truth (al-Haqq in Arabic, one of God’s names in Islam). Of course we wouldn’t hold our beliefs and values if we weren’t convinced that they are true. But that’s no evidence that they are. Weren’t my Egyptian friends just as convinced of their views as I was of mine? More generally: don’t we find a bewildering diversity of beliefs and values, all held with great conviction, across different times and cultures? If considerations such as these lead you to concede that your present convictions could be false, then you are a fallibilist. And if you are a fallibilist you can see why valuing the truth and valuing a culture of debate are related: because you will want to critically examine your beliefs and values, for which a culture of debate offers an excellent setting.

Of course we don’t need to travel all the way to Cairo to subject our beliefs and values to critical scrutiny; in theory we can also do so on our own. In practice, however, we seem to need some sort of unsettling experience that confronts us with our fallibility, or, as the great Muslim thinker al-Ghazâlî (d. 1111) puts it in his intellectual autob iography”The Deliverance from Error,” that breaks the “bonds of taqlîd” - the beliefs and values stemming from the contingent circumstances of our socialization rather than from rational deliberation. In his own case, al-Ghazâlî writes, the bonds of taqlîd broke when he realized that he would have been just as fervent a Jew or Christian as he was a Muslim, had he been brought up in a Jewish or Christian community.

He explains taqlîd as the authority of “parents and teachers,” which we can restate more generally as all things other than rational argument that influence what we think and do: from media, fashion and marketing to political rhetoric and religious ideology. The problem of taqlîd (or what social psychologists today call “conformism”) has a long history. Socrates explained the need for his gadfly mission by comparing Athenian citizens to a “sluggish” horse that “needed to be stirred up.” Note that philosophers, too, fall prey to taqlîd. Galen, the second century Alexandrian doctor and philosopher, complained that in his time Platonists, Aristotelians, Stoics and Epicureans simply “name themselves after the sect in which they were brought up” because they “form admirations” for the school founders, not because they choose the views supported by the best arguments. If we take taqlîd to be a fact about human psychology and agree that it is an undesirable state to be in - at least when it comes to the core convictions that underlie our way of life.—Courtesy - The New York Times. [Carlos Fraenkel is an associate professor of philosophy and Jewish studies at McGill University in Montreal, and the author of the forthcoming book, “Teaching Plato in Palestine.” More on his work can be found at his Web site].
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