Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Truth, Beauty, Meaning, Morality

How is it that smart people with similar values can come up with such different worldviews and belief systems? What makes one person become an atheist while another becomes a deist and still another turns towards a more traditional religion? I've written before about the powerful influence of inertia on religious affiliation -- the single most predictive factor in religious choice is the religion of one's parents and a close second is the religion of one's country, if different than the parents'.

In this post, I'd like to look at what might be the next most important factor. That is, what is the question that most informs your choice of worldview? People who ask different questions will reach different answers. I think each of us has a primary question, although it may be unconscious. Everybody asks pretty much all of the questions, but the order in which we rank their importance will inform our most important decisions.

What is true?

This is the question of the skeptic, who wants to know the truth regardless of its consequences. If her entire life has been a lie, if her husband has been cheating, if she's got six months to live, she wants to know. Ignorance is never bliss as long as she's aware that she's ignorant. The skeptic doesn't do denial. These are the atheists, the agnostics, the religious skeptics, some of the theologians and philosophers.

What is beautiful?

This person prefers the beautiful answer, even if it's not necessarily the literal truth. He prefers the dramatic response over the most effective one, the storybook version of history over the nitty-gritty details, the poetic description rather than the reductionist one. He thinks of the flower turning towards the light as an act of love or worship rather than an unfeeling response to stimulus. These are the religious mystics, the wiccans, the blissed-out holy men.

What is meaningful?

This person craves purpose. She's not satisfied with the how but demands to know the why. She doesn't do anything for its own sake but rather for its part in some larger project. She finds meaning in the shulkhan aruch's instructions on how to tie one's shoes. These are the ones who "talk" to God, the millenialists, the eschatologists, the Purpose-Driven Life readers.

What is moral?

This is the rule-abider. He believes that every action must be guided by morality, that we must live by strict rules. These are the people adopting the latest stringencies, the fans of Dr. Laura, the judgemental of others.

What makes me feel safe?

(Edited to add.)

Conclusion

Maybe we talk past each other because we're answering different questions. People searching for morality won't be touched by evolution while people searching for truth will be mystified by the "beautiful sunset" proof of God. People looking for meaning won't like scientific materialism while those looking for beauty won't be moved by legalistic or nit-picky argumentation.

33 comments:

Sadie Lou said...

Good post.
I enjoyed it. I guess I would say that I asked," What is true?" followed by,"What is moral?".

CyberKitten said...

Sadie we agree on something...

First, last and only question: What is the truth?

asher said...

Truth is beauty
and beauty is truth
that is all ye know
and all ye need to know

I never had a clue what the poem was talking about.

Jewish Atheist said...

I think I forgot one:

What makes me feel safe? Lots of people are in that category.

Anonymous said...

all of this begs the question of what accounts for these different types of "questioners"?

Mary Hogan said...

Too many movies, too little Torah.

Random said...

Asher,

The poet is probably trying to say that falsehood and lies are intrinsically ugly. Though as one cynic put it "if truth is beauty, then why do women wear make up?":-)

More seriously, I think there's a false dichotomy in JA's first two categories. Or to put it another way, a beautiful answer is more likely to be true, and vice versa. To take an example from science, set the wondrous simplicity of Kepler's ellipses alongside the messiness of Ptolomey's epicycles and judge for yourself which is more beautiful as well as true.

Beauty speaks to something deep inside us, as does truth - it's not irrational to assume they might be connected.

Jewish Atheist said...

More seriously, I think there's a false dichotomy in JA's first two categories.

I didn't mean to say that they are mutually exclusive, just that people are generally driven more by one question than the other. Obviously, they overlap.

Foilwoman said...

Random: On the truth and beauty front, I think people do connect those two a lot, sometimes in horribly mistaken ways. I think the truth can be very ugly, and the assumption that it will be beautiful can be lead one in the wrong direction.

I'd like to think I'm one of the truth-seekers who can look at the world sceptically, but that itself might be self-deception.

wayne said...

There are a great many people (myself included) who came to faith because faith came to them. The story is almost identical every time: I reach the bottom pit of my life and finally come to the point where I can run from myself no more.

It's die time, the point where you taste the barrel of the gun, where the edge of the razor touches your wrist, you are staring at the pile of pills in your hand, gazing out at the air beneath your feet, or feel the rope against your neck.

This is the point where you make that last cry: help meeeeeeeeeeee!

And He answers back with Love and just asks you to give it all to Him.

Then you know everything is going to be all right. You are no longer alone and He will never desert you. He has always been there just waiting for you to ask Him in.

Orthoprax said...

"I didn't mean to say that they are mutually exclusive, just that people are generally driven more by one question than the other."

To note, aesthetics are often used as one gauge to judge scientific theories. Einstein is famous for his many statements regarding the beauty of accurate theories of nature's activities.

SecularHumanist said...

Why do have the sense that this post was somehow a reaction to recent encounters with jewishphilosopher?

Okee said...

I've learned in both my science and Torah classes that truth and beauty are one and the same. I know I've always felt that way. I'm often asked, "Why do you believe in G-d?" After clarifying whether the questioner is referring to me personally or believers in general, one of my answers in regard to myself is that after intensely studying Torah, I was so overwhelmed by its intricacies of truth and beauty that I knew it must be Divine. I should also add that the fact that the beauty/truth of the Torah is infinite adds to that beauty.
JA- I thought your post was superb as an answer to the general believers question.

Chana said...

But can't we ask more than one question?

I think I've asked myself (at different points in time) all those questions. Oftentimes, truth and beauty seem the same to me.

One more integral question focuses on the "Know thyself" dictum.

Who am I?

How many people are really self-aware? I know very few...

Also- what/ who do I respect?

I find that we learn a lot about ourselves based on the type of people or institutions that we respect, and whose good opinion we crave.

The Jewish Freak said...

JA: finally some useful categories. I also agree with the question of anonymous - what accounts for these different types of questioners?

Jewish Atheist said...

wayne:

There are a great many people (myself included) who came to faith because faith came to them. The story is almost identical every time: I reach the bottom pit of my life and finally come to the point where I can run from myself no more.

Good point. There do seem to be a lot of people like you. It seems like you'd mostly fall into the "whate makes me feel safe" category.


SecularHumanist,
Why do have the sense that this post was somehow a reaction to recent encounters with jewishphilosopher?

Could be. Wasn't consciously.


Chana,

But can't we ask more than one question?

We can and everybody does, but for most people (I'm hypothesizing) one question is more important than the others.

Who am I?

Interesting. But I think that it can be broken down into the other categories. One can ask, "What's the truth about me?", "What's the purpose of my life?", "How can my life be beautiful?", etc. Some people take "Who am I?" and set out to conquer the world, building their self-image by beating people up and having sexual conquests. Others say "Who am I?" and follow a philosophical or religious path.

Anonymous and The Jewish Freak:
I also agree with the question of anonymous - what accounts for these different types of questioners?

Nature? Nurture? I don't know. It's something to think about, though.

Esther said...

How about "What is Easy?". I don't mean to be disparaging about this, but it seems that many folks are looking for clear concise answers to hard questions. I grew up nominally Jewish and I have to say Judaism does not provide easy answers to hard questions. On the other hand, it's my impression that certain strains of Christianity do provide comprehensible answers and that's a comfort to many people.

For example is the question "What happens to me after I die?" I'd be hard pressed to provide a concise Jewish response to that question. On the other, in spite of limited contact with evangelicals, (everyone I know is a Jew, Catholic or mainline liberal Protestant) I know the evangelical answer to that questions like the back of my hand.

That's probably why evangelicalism has become such a potent force.

Foilwoman said...

The biggest problem with the whole line of inquiry is that most people have trouble defining the question they think they are asking, much less the question they really are asking in their hearts.

For example, someone might say "I am looking to find out what is true" (or "what is right"), and believe that they are searching for truth, but they may really be searching for security, or a quasi-truth that is palatable. They want meaning and security and beauty, even if they think they are searching for truth and justice. JMHO.

CyberKitten said...

foilwoman said: They want meaning and security and beauty, even if they think they are searching for truth and justice. JMHO.

Indeed. As with everthing - first define your terms. If a person is searching for truth they should have at least some idea of what it means and should at least have an inkling when they've found it - or are simply approaching it. Otherwise how do you what you're doing and where you're going?

Jack's Shack said...

This is part of the beauty of people. In spite of our similarities we are all so very different.

Chana said...

Hmmm. I see the questions as more interconnected than separate. So I don't think that one matters more than another simply because they are all linked.

What is moral? The truth. And the truth is beautiful, as well as meaningful. The truth may not make me feel safe, but security is not always the correct answer.

Foilwoman said...

Chana: To sound a bit too much like some sophomoric philosophy student, I have to say: there is no right answer . . . the important thing is to ask the right questions and to continue to ask the right questions.

B. Spinoza said...

what makes truth stand out from among the rest of the choices is that is objective while the rest are subjective

dbs said...

An excellent post. People are seeking different things. Some are more cognitive, some more emotional, some more aesthetic. But the ‘question’ doesn’t determine the answer. Two bright, honest, intellectual truth seekers may end up on opposite sides of the faith issue. Our emotions play the deciding role in what we will choose to believe. Perhaps the most honest question to ask ourselves is ‘what is motivating us’.

Okee said...

esther- "what happens to me after I die?" you say that judaism doesn't offer a concise response. Do you mean a simple response? Cause the answer to that question is complex only because the question itself is so complex, but there is a concise (though not simple) answer: Your body gets buried, and your "soul" lives on in an existence of purification and, if you merit it, eternal spiritual pleasure. One sentence, but yes, infinitely complex. Shouldn't all significant answers be complex? I mean, if they truly matter so much...?

jewish philosopher said...

I think that people who are interested in happiness, a feeling of satisfaction and well being, will be more inclined toward religion. They are willing to make sacrifices for a family and are interested in developing self-discipline. In addition, people who are poorer and older will be more inclined toward the comfort of religion. The Middle Ages was a time of great poverty and great piety for example.

On the other hand, people who are more interested in having fun will be more attracted to the unbridled freedom of atheism. People who are more educated, younger and wealthier will be attracted to the idea that they themselves they are the supreme beings.

So I think a lot of choices have a basis in ones priorities and life situation.

Foilwoman said...

JP: I know a great many atheists and agnostics who are very responsible and rule-oriented (they just want to understand the rules), and who view the world in terms of duty and obligation rather than immediate satisfaction (I certainly do). I know religious people who are into the next minutes worth of fun and personal satisfaction. Neither is dispositive of religious belief or lack thereof.

jewish philosopher said...

In some cases other factors are involved. A person's teachers and peers from age 12 to 22 plays a huge role for individuals.

But even though environment has a big effect, my question is more - where do these environments come from? What leads certain societies in certain directions?

Just as a rule of thumb - the money comes in, God goes out.

Jewish Atheist said...

Just as a rule of thumb - the money comes in, God goes out.

One could just as accurately say, "Just as a rule of thumb - the education comes in, God goes out."

Stephen (aka Q) said...

I'm arriving late at the party. But here's my thought.

What is true? — This is the question of the skeptic.

I don't think so. I think the skeptic simply says, "I will doubt everything until you provide evidence to demonstrate that it is probably true."

That philosophical starting point does not lead us to truth. Why not? Because for the most important things in life, there is not enough evidence to decide the matter one way or another. So the skeptic is bound, by his or her own philosophy, to continue doubting; yet it may very well be true.

For example, do I exist? I don't know how I would begin to prove that I do. The only evidence available is my subjective experience — I feel like I exist. But subjective evidence doesn't count for much.

If I doubt even my own existence, what can I know of truth? Not a hell of a lot.

Skeptics may ask, What is truth? But they will never find the answer. Instead, they will continue to doubt many things that are true: indeed, they are duty bound to doubt many of the most important truths.

jewish philosopher said...

One could just as accurately say, "Just as a rule of thumb - the education comes in, God goes out."

If the teachers are atheists, yes. The Jews of Eastern Europe were educated but religious.

The more secure and comfortable a person feels the more likely he is to drop religion. He simply has no need for the joy of spirituality since he has the joy of materialism.

jewish philosopher said...

This study showed a clear connection between poverty and religion http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?ReportID=167

This survey indicates that the majority of scientists and physicians do believe in God. http://www.livescience.com/othernews/050811_scientists_god.html

I think research indicates that the more wealthy people are and the more intelligent they are the less likely they are to be religious. However it is difficult to draw any firm conclusions beyond that.

iconoclast said...

Thoughtful post, but as someone who just visited the Galapagos...Mecca for atheists, one might say, since that's where Darwinian theory was hatched, I have for years looked at the "does God exist?" debate from a point of view rarely expressed,namely, "Who cares?" If He does(since those on this site are reflecting on the Old Testament One's disputed existence)it would be unfortunate since his behavior seems to reflect symptoms that would mark him as a sadistic psychopath more often than not. Better to believe in Darwin's randomness than give allegiance to this
character.

Although it's about a Christian fundamentalist and fictional I heartily recommend a very twisty and thought provoking film...if you can find it..called The Rapture. It's about someone who lives a hedonistic but empty life and comes to believe in Jesus and is happy and then something happens that tests her faith but doesn't eliminate it and, in the final analysis, after making an incredible and horrible sacrifice, she realizes God does exist and she can be elevated to Heaven The woman REJECTS the opportunity.Doesn't want to be with someone who caused her to experience such pain and do things she can't forgive herself for.It's a revolutionary idea. God exists, but we can do the judging and find Him wanting.

So that's another option, my back up position if we're talking about the Old Testament. There may be more appealing gods out there whose surprising existence wouldn't bother me.

Incidentally, for those wanting to engage controversy on the secular side
you might check out www.differentdrummer.typepad.com