Monday, November 3, 2008

Faith, Philosophy, and Abstract Concepts

Religion and philosophy have in common that they cover non-empirical thinking on life and the universe in general. Therefore philosophy is a non-scientific branch of thinking. At best, if practiced at an academic level, it may be seen as an art or a humanity. Academic philosophy tries to answer the why- and how-questions of life in a how to-manner and tries to do so through reasoning without judgment. Thought-experiments and reasoning are it's main tools. Ideas cannot entirely be proven through empirical evidence. Through other philosophers' literature and the media on political and other developments, however, solid information may strengthen a philosophy. These developments can very well be objectively observed facts and lead to a valid conclusion through deductive or inductive reasoning.

Philosophy is, like religion, basically a non-protected discipline. Like believing, thinking is free. No one needs permission to think -- it is part of our innate nature, like breathing, walking and observing. Through the ages, however, people have tried to pose restrictions on the outcomes of thinking and observing. Every amateur may think and therefore talk, but will his or her words be seen as philosophy? In order to avoid the situation of re-inventing the wheel, academic standards have been set for philosophical thinking. If philosophers want to achieve academic status, mastering the literature of their predecessors is usually seen as minimum requirement. We may call a theory a philosophy when it is possible to falsify it through deductive or inductive reasoning and then lead to a proved axiom, a true statement. Trying to avoid re-inventing the wheel is not the only annoyance that scholars want to avoid; they also want to avoid 'errors' in thinking. This is a no-end area, because what is a mistake in thinking? How can we prove error? In deductive, logical, cause-consequence dominated thinking it is possible to expose errors, but the error may be restricted to the method and not to the truthfulness of the mistaken thinker's idea. It is possible to decide, that artist X does not belong to the Dada movement, but is it possible at all to deny X the artist status at all? Dadaism used a certain starting philosophy on which it based it's creative methods, therefore we can say that X may be called a Dadaist when we see him follow the Dada-philosophy and -methods.. To defy X's artist status, we have to set creative standards, and that is open for debate. When is a person's creativity 'big' enough to be called an artist? This question loses its rhetorical status, as does philosophy, as soon as other interested people set certain minimum standards and in many cases economics are involved in the answers. Would you and other people spend money on the artifact, and are there any similar artifacts already? So economics have a say in standards for a 'good' academic and artistic product, in so far that they decide the product's value, but they do not answer if the product is truly good.

A piece of visual art, or a stage performance, is a tangible item. Philosophy, however, also engages in abstract concepts like freedom and in the concept of granting permission to others to spread their ideas and products at all. In that case it is a far more complicated issue to set boundaries to expressions. One may say that a publication is not good enough to 'allow' it a place in art and literature, but is it possible to forbid publication at all? This last question has philosophical aspects with possibly political implications. The various peoples on this planet set their own boundaries to philosophical freedom.

Abstract topics are philosophy's main field of interest. What is time and what is its function in history, movement and space; what is morality, and what function does and may it have in society, and what are the boundaries to freedom and choice. What is art, what is beauty, what is knowledge, what is existence, and when do things exist. Faith in a god or a creative force is part of philosophical thinking. A more imperative dimension appears, as soon as people include philosophical teachings in their legal and political systems, in their daily life, and this is not confined to religious systems only. The ideal of democratic thinking and decision making, and the ideals of freedom, equality and solidarity for each member in society, are not necessarily religious ideals. What's more, in western culture most people say that these ideals can only be achieved in a non-religious system. Democracy is in modern westerners' thinking not possible in a system where a god reigns supremely over society, because God's power is seen as an invented yet unlimited force with no boundaries and no free space for human beings. Philosophy, in other words, plays a role in setting boundaries to freedom. It tries to set standards for acceptable ideas, and behavior based on reasoning. Philosophy also tries to look beyond the visible truth of observation and tries to give this or these invisible truth(s) a place in society. Again, setting boundaries is important: What place and what authority do we give these truths, and how does society deal with transgression of their territories? This is a question with big political implications, because it deals with real people and their fostered ideologies they even fight for.

Learning -- gaining knowledge from other thinkers -- is greatly appreciated in philosophy as an academic discipline and it appears to be absent in religious faith. To some, faith is -- logically speaking -- the most simple discipline there is and yet the hardest to live by. However, among religious people even the first part of this sentence is not true: True faith requires knowledge of a revealed truth descended from the deity and therefore also knowledge of the prophets' lives and sayings, as they were the mediums between God and the people. For this reason most religious communities value the opinions of academic scholars who gained important detailed knowledge of religious traditions. They are the people who set the standards and make compulsory religious decisions -- sometimes for individuals and sometimes for the entire community. However, how far their power may reach, remains a source for heated debate between communities and also within them. As long as the religious community has faith in the validity of traditions, they tend to lend more weight on them and on those who gained academic knowledge of them. In the Christian community, the thought has has gained prevalence, that tradition may not be truthful and reliable. In the Islamic community, however, the faithful consider their tradition reliable enough to trust them as authoritative. Maybe it is about time to take this Islamic claim seriously. The Islamic umma needs not be discarded as silly to believe in its own tradition. Valid proof to reject Islamic tradition should be found and if not, then outsiders should make an effort to at least respect its status as reliable. It is not without good reason, that the Islamic umma still follows its tradition. The first step towards tolerance of other people's ideologies is honest and respectful treatment of their contents, even if one does not believe or follow them.