Dogma, in religions and other places

Most people are familiar with the dogmas promoted by powerful religious institutions such as the Roman Catholic church, evangelical protestant churches and some branches of Islam. The institutions claim they have sole possession of the truth, direct from God, and that anybody that does not agree is a heretic, someone to be avoided, and who may be punished.

Dogmatism is annoying, anti-social and causes a great deal of misery, both for people growing up under the power of the institution proclaiming the dogma and for some of those that interact with them.

It’s also pretty well recognised. One need only mention religious dogma and heads start to nod. People know what you’re talking about.

Despite the negative connotations the word has for most people, the leadership of the RC church does not object to the term and still uses it as a core part of its teachings. They invented the term, and use it without shame to describe propositions that the church says RCs are obliged to believe. When I was an RC I never thought to ask what happens if one does not believe a dogma. It seemed too impertinent. But now when I research it, the answer that appears fairly consistently across different RC sources is that it is not a sin to disbelieve the dogma, as long as you don’t say so aloud, because that might encourage somebody else to disbelieve it. That would be heresy, which is a grave sin, punishable by an eternity in hellfire. A few centuries ago, the punishment was lighter – a mere burning at the stake.

Although the RC church invented the word ‘dogma’, it is not the only institution to proclaim dogmas. There are plenty of dogmas in evangelical protestantism, and some variants of Islam are heavily dogmatic. Perhaps non-RCs would reject the application of the word ‘dogma’ to their essential beliefs, given the pejorative sense in which the word is mostly used these days. But it would be hard to argue that concepts such as ‘biblical inerrancy’ or ‘justification by faith alone’ are not dogmas for some protestant sects.
It would be a mistake to equate dogma with religion, because most religions are not dogmatic. It is just our misfortune that the three most dominant religions of our world: Roman Catholicism, Evangelical Protestantism and Islam have many adherents that assert an obligation to believe the relevant dogmas.

I am not aware of any pre-Christian religion that had obligatory beliefs. Judaism had many rules, but they were about practices, not beliefs. Even for worship, the injunction was to not worship other gods, or idols in particular. As long as you didn’t bow down or offer sacrifices to golden calves or statues of Ba’al, it didn’t matter whether, in the privacy of your own thoughts, you really believed Yahweh was the greatest god. In fact the Torah says nothing at all about obligatory beliefs, so far as I recall. Other pre-Christian religions, like Buddhism, the many variants of Hinduism, Mithraism, Zoroastrianism and the ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian religions also appear to set no expectations about their members’ beliefs.

Dogmas appear in places other than religions. Just as some protestants, while abjuring RC dogmas like the Immaculate Conception or Trans-substantiation, insist on their own dogmas, people who are opposed to all religions – the so-called New Atheists – can be as dogmatic as those they criticise. Classic New Atheist dogmas are things like ‘it is wrong to believe anything that cannot be proven to be true’, or ‘for all questions and human challenges, science is the best means to an answer’. For some militant atheists it even seems to be an item of faith that adherence to any religious belief at all must be a sign of stupidity. I know these dogmas because for a while I was a born-again atheist and subscribed to them. I used to listen to podcasts of debates between Christians and atheists about whether God exists, cheering on my side and hoping for the unconditional surrender of the other. Looking back, it seems such an odd thing to do. Neither the debaters nor their supporters in the audience ever changed their views one iota. Each side had their dogmas and stuck steadfastly to them. They may as well have both been shouting into the wind. But really I suppose they were just playing to their supporters. I believe such debates can never get anywhere because it is impossible to prove or disprove the existence of a god, and any attempt to do either relies on presuppositions – usually unstated –  that one side will accept and the other will not.

I have not completely forsaken atheism. I am still atheist on Mondays and alternate Wednesdays. But I have forsaken the dogmatism that accompanies the more aggressive variants of atheism.

Dogmas manifest in wider circles than the theological and anti-theological. Other areas where they crop up are philosophy, politics, economics, psychology and sociology. People debate whether there is such a thing as objective morality, whether equality is more important than liberty, whether wealth really does ‘trickle down’ in a capitalist society, and whether most psychological disorders can be traced back to early childhood experience. Debates between evangelical christians and militant atheists seem mild and friendly compared to the vicious passions unleashed in a debate between a Berkeleyan Idealist and a Materialist acolyte of GE Moore about whether a tree that falls in a forest makes a noise if there is nobody there to hear it.

I’m not suggesting that none of those things matter. It matters very much what political and economic theories are adopted by governments. They affect many people’s lives. Even some sorts of philosophy have huge effects. One can trace the roots of many important social movements to the ideas raised by philosophers, such as the influence of Enlightenment philosophers on the American and French revolutions. It’s hard to see how the ‘actual existence’ or otherwise of impossibly distant galaxies could affect our lives, but other similarly meaningless topics, such as whether the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father and the Son, or just from the Father, have led to wars, the rise and fall of empires and many burnings of people that had the misfortune of siding with the wrong opinion.

The common element of dogmatic claims is not their capacity or otherwise to affect our lives, it is their total immunity to proof, disproof, or experimental testing of any kind.

There is no dogma about the law of gravity, no dogma of quantum mechanics or a doctrine of the periodic table. A good biology teacher will not demand that her class believe that cells of mammals have a nucleus containing bundles of DNA and little packets of RNA. A good mathematics teacher will not demand that the class believe that the method being taught for long division works. The teacher is saying: “Here is a method, or an approach to understanding something. Most people find it useful in getting important things done“. The teacher could add – but generally doesn’t bother – “If you don’t like what I’m teaching and want to go and invent your own method of long division (or theory of the elements), be my guest! I’ll still be here to help you learn this method if you change your mind.

It is both ironic and predictable that the claims about which we humans get most dogmatic are those about which it is least possible to be certain. When there is a high level of certainty – as with Newton’s Laws of Motion – there is no need for dogmatism. You can take it or leave it. More fool you if you leave it. But when there is little to no certainty available, as with doctrines of neo-liberal economics (or, to be fair, Marxist economics), doctrines of the nature of the Holy Ghost, or proofs and disproofs of the existence of god(s), people generally ramp up the dogmatism and turn the volume to eleven. They use dogma and noise to make up for their lack of confidence and inability to provide any concrete evidence for the proposition.

This has led to my strongest philosophical position being anti-dogmatism. No matter what proposition somebody makes, be it about religion, ontology, economics or politics, and regardless of whether I sympathise with the belief being promoted or not, I now instinctively react against it and look to debunk it, if it is made dogmatically. That doesn’t mean I don’t hold any opinions on those topics. I have loads. Some of them – mostly the political ones – I hold very strongly and am prepared to march the streets, donate to a cause and publicly argue to try to persuade people over. But I hope I never get to the stage of believing that I am unquestionably right about something and that those who disagree are unquestionably wrong. That seems a poor way to live. I have sometimes been like that in the past, but I think I am not now and hope I won’t be again. For me, unquestioningly accepting a dogma is the coward’s excuse for not thinking for oneself.

That is my opinion, which I acknowledge may be mistaken.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, April 2019


Metaphysics as a creative craft

In my writings I have not infrequently been dismissive of metaphysics, arguing that most metaphysical claims are meaningless, unfalsifiable, and of no consequence to people’s lives (leaving aside the unfortunate historical fact that many people have been burned at the stake for believing metaphysical claims that others disliked).

Perhaps it is time to relent a little – to give the metaphysicians a little praise. At least I will try. The basis for this attempt is a re-framing of what metaphysics is about. Instead of thinking of it as a quasi-scientific activity of trying to work out ‘what the world is like’, perhaps we could instead think of it as a creative, artistic activity, of inventing new ways of thinking and feeling about the world. Metaphysics as a craft, as delightful and uncontentious as quilting.

Why would anybody want to do that? Well I can think of a couple of reasons, and here they are (except that, like the chief weapons of Python’s Spanish Inquisitor, the number of reasons may turn out to be either more or less than two).

We know that there is a very wide range of human temperaments, longings, fears and attachments. A perspective that is inspiring to one person may be terrifying to another, and morbidly depressing to a third. For instance some people long to believe in a personal God that oversees the universe, and would feel their life to be empty and meaningless without it. Others regard the idea with horror. Some people are very attached to the idea that matter – atoms, quarks and the like – really, truly exists rather than just being a conceptual model we use to make sense of our experiences. Philosophical Idealists (more accurately referred to as Immaterialists) have no emotional need for such beliefs, and accordingly deny the existence of matter, saying that only minds and ideas are real. Indeed some, such as George Berkeley, regard belief in matter as tantamount to heresy, which is why the subtitle of his tract ‘Three dialogues between Hylas and Philonous‘, which promoted his Immaterialist hypothesis, was ‘In opposition to sceptics and atheists‘.

So the wider the range of available metaphysical hypotheses, the more chance that any given person will be able to find one that satisfies her, and hence be able to live a life of satisfaction, free of existential terror. Unless of course what they really long for is existential terror, in which case Kierkegaard may have a metaphysical hypothesis that they would love.

One might wonder – ‘why do we need metaphysical hypotheses, when we have science?‘ The plain answer to this is ‘we don’t‘. But although we do not need them, it is human nature to seek out and adopt them. That’s because, correctly considered, science tells us not ‘the way the world is‘, but rather, what we may expect from the world. A scientific theory is a model that enables us to make predictions about what we will experience in the future – for instance whether we will feel the warmth of the sun tomorrow, and whether if we drop an apple we will see it fall. Scientific theories may seem to say that the world is made of quarks, or spacetime, or wave functions, but they actually say no such thing. What they say is, if you imagine a system that behaves according to the following rules – which might be rules about subatomic particles like quarks – and you observe certain phenomena (such as my letting go of the apple), then the behaviour of that imaginary system can guide you as to what you will see next (such as the apple falling to the ground).

It’s just as well that scientific theories say nothing about ‘the way the world is’, because they get discarded every few decades and replaced by new ones. The system described by the new theory may be completely different from that described by the previous one. For instance the new one may be all about waves while the previous one was all about tiny particles like billiard balls (electrons, protons and neutrons in the Rutherford model of the atom). But most of the predictions of the two theories will be identical. Indeed, if the old theory was a good one, it will only be in very unusual conditions that it makes different predictions from those of the new theory (eg if the things being considered are very small, very heavy or very fast). So by recognising that scientific theories are descriptions of imaginary systems that allow us to make predictions, rather than statements about the way the world is, we get much greater continuity in our understanding of the world, because not much changes when a theory is replaced.

I think of metaphysics as the activity of constructing models of the world (‘worldviews’) that contain more detail and structure than there is in the models of science. We do not need the more detailed models of metaphysics for our everyday life. Science gives us everything we need to survive. But, being naturally curious creatures, we tend to want to know what lies behind the observations we make, including the observations of scientific ‘laws’. So we speculate – that the world is made of atoms like billiard balls, or strings, or (mem’)branes, or a wave function, or a squishy-wishy four-dimensional block of ‘spacetime’, or quantum foam, or ideas, or noumena, or angels, demons, djinn and deities. This speculation leads to different mental models of the world.

So metaphysics adds additional detail to our picture of the world. Some suggest that it also adds an answer to the ‘why?’ question that science ignores (focusing only on ‘how?’). I reject that suggestion. As anybody knows that has ever as a child tried to rile a parent with the ‘but why?’ game, and as anybody that has been thus riled by a child knows, any explanation at all can be questioned with a ‘but why?’ question. No matter how many layers of complexity we add to our model, each layer explaining the layer above it, we can always ask about the lowest layer – ‘but why?’ Whether that last layer is God, or quarks, or strings, or the Great Green Arkleseizure, or even Max Tegmark’s Mathematical Universe, one can still demand an explanation of that layer. By the way, my favourite answers to the ‘But why?’ question are (1) Just because, (2) Nobody knows and (3) Why not? They’re all equally valid but I like (3) the best.

Some of these mental models have strong emotional significance, despite having no physical significance. For instance strong solipsism – the belief that I am the only conscious being – tends to frighten people and make them feel lonely. So most people, including me, reject it, even though it is perfectly consistent with science. Some people get great comfort from metaphysical models containing a god. Others find metaphysical models without gods much more pleasant.

So I would say that metaphysics, while physically unnecessary, is something that most people cannot help doing to some extent, and that people often develop emotional attachments to particular metaphysical models.

Good metaphysics is a creative activity. It is the craft of inventing new models. The more models there are, the more people have to choose from. Since there are such great psychological and emotional differences between people, one needs a great variety of models if everybody that wants a model is to be able to find a model with which they can be comfortable.

Bad metaphysics (of which there is a great deal in the world of philosophy) is trying to prove that one’s model is the correct one. I call this bad because there is no reason to believe that there is such a thing as ‘the correct model’ and even if there was one, we’d have no way of finding out what it is. There can be ‘wrong’ models, in the sense that most people would consider a model wrong if it is logically inconsistent (ie generates contradictions). But there are a myriad of non-contradictory models, so there is no evidence that there is such a thing as ‘the right model’. Unfortunately, it appears that most published metaphysics is of this sort, rather than the good stuff.

It’s worth noting that speculative science is also metaphysics. By ‘speculative science’ I mean activities like string theory or interpretations of quantum mechanics. I favour Karl Popper’s test for whether a model is (non-speculative) science, which is whether it can make predictions that will falsify the model if they do not come true. A model that is metaphysical can move into the domain of science if somebody invents a way of using it to make falsifiable predictions. Metaphysical models have done this in the past. A famous example is the ‘luminiferous aether’ theory, which was finally tested and falsified in the Michelson-Morley experiment of 1887. Maybe one day string theorists will be able to develop some falsifiable predictions from the over-arching string theory modeli that will move it from the realm of metaphysics to either accepted (if the prediction succeeds) or discarded (if the prediction fails) science. However some metaphysical models seem unlikely to ever become science, as one cannot imagine how they could ever be tested. The debate of Idealism vs Materialism (George Berkeley vs GE Moore) is an example of this.

So I hereby give my applause to (some) metaphysicians. Some people look at philosophy and say it has failed because it has not whittled down worldviews to a single accepted possibility. They say that after three millenia it still has not ‘reached a conclusion’ about which is the correct worldview. I ask ‘why do you desire a conclusion?‘ My contrary position is to regard the proliferation of possibilities, the generation of countless new worldviews, as the true value of metaphysics. The more worldviews the better. Philosophy academics working in metaphysics should have their performance assessed based not on papers published but on how many new worldviews they have invented, and how evocatively they have described them to a thirsty and variety-seeking public. Theologians could get in on the act too, and some of the good ones (a minority) do. Rather than trotting out dreary, flawed proofs of the existence of God. the historicity of the resurrection, or why God really does get very cross if consenting grown-ups play with one another’s private parts, they could be generating creative, inspiring narratives about what God might be like and what our relationship to the God might be. They could manufacture a panoply of God mythologies, one to appeal to every single, unique one of us seven billion citizens of this planet. Some of us prefer a metaphysical worldview without a God, but that’s OK, because if the philosopher metaphysicians do their job properly, there will be millions of those to choose from as well. Nihilists can abstain from all worldviews, and flibbertigibbets like me can hop promiscuously from one worldview to another as the mood takes them.

We need more creative, nutty, imaginative, inspiring metaphysicians like Nietzsche, Sartre, Simone Weil and Soren Kierkegaard, not more dry, dogmatic dons that seek to evangelise their own pet worldview to the point of its becoming as ubiquitous as soccer.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, January 2015

i. Not just a prediction of one of the thousands of sub-models. Falsifying a sub-model of string theory is useless, as there will always be thousands more candidates.