What did Jesus say to the disciple? “Don’t do as I say, do as I do.”
If a correct interpretation is defined by simultaneous internal and external consistency, then a text such as the bible could (should?) be re-written in order to re-align its contents, both with reality (external), and with its own teachings (internal). But, this relies on the assumption that the bible is intended to contain facts and specific teachings. If it is meant to be a novel like any other, then a correct interpretation would simply be that which the author intended. However, in that case we shouldn’t place much importance on finding a correct interpretation, as it would have fewer consequences in reality, knowing that it was merely an entertaining story.
All stories are externally inconsistent to varying degrees, by virtue of them being imagined scenarios, characters and worlds, but all factual texts should strive for complete consistency.
You can find many interesting and perhaps charitable interpretations of how to use a gun, but only one of those will be entirely consistent, and not violate Occam’s razor with unnecessarily contrived explanations and uses.
Suppose you find a remote control, and upon replacing the batteries with a fresh pair (you must never mix them) you discover that the remote happens to operate your television, although the chances of this happening are…slim. Nonetheless, you continue to use this mystery remote for channel-surfing, and dismiss certain buttons which seem to have no effect, as being there for purely aesthetic reasons.
But one day, your friend Timotei pays you a visit and happens to spot the discrepancy between the brand of your television and the apparent brand name on the remote. He informs you that Phlem is the name of a Swedish company who manufacture therapeutic massage chairs, and he wonders how and why you are using such a remote to flick between Masterchef and Temptation Island.
It turns out that those ‘aesthetic buttons’ are actually for regulating the chair’s ‘pulse’ and ‘wave’ modes, and that you were simply misusing the control according to the intentions of its designer.
We may never have access to what these intentions might be, directly or otherwise, but this doesn’t change the fact that there is an inextricable link between the designer and his design. But it is from this practical inaccessibility and irreproducibility that personal interpretation springs.
Some people seem to approach and argue in defence of religious texts as if they were statements of scientific fact, i.e. that there is one true interpretation, when the evidence suggests the contrary – that the texts are merely stories which are open to multiple readings.
If we were to agree with the notion that the basis for our beliefs rests upon a text or idea that has the possibility of multiple readings, as in the case of religion for example, then what we would really be saying is not that “I believe in X because this book says so”, but that “I believe my personal interpretation of this book is the most important one”. In other words, “I can believe what I want, reality be damned!” Put another way: “I believe in god because this book says so, yet I accept that this book can be interpreted many ways, so I simply favour my own interpretation by default. I.e, I believe this because I believe this, not because the belief corresponds to reality in any significant way, or that I have strong evidence to confirm this particular interpretation over any conceivable other.”
If a text cannot be retracted and re-written as a method of rectifying consistency errors among those who follow it for spiritual guidance through the physical realm, then we must have certain criteria for evaluating the cogency, or appeal of its many possible interpretations. An example of such criteria might be:
“Does this particular interpretation make me feel better about myself?”
“How does this particular interpretation benefit me?”
Since we have accepted that we are simply interpreting a text/fact/statement as we wish in order to benefit ourselves in some way, we are no longer limited to choosing those interpretations that are externally consistent with the world (which is a much more limited set). Thus, individual motivations, pressures and influences will affect and result in varying interpretations. One reason for the apparent consistency within a religious group for example, may be due to the fact that the group itself serves as proof of what is correct or incorrect interpretation [link to social proof]. The less a person’s interpretations align with those of the group, the less likely they are to be, and therefore feel accepted, at least to the extent that a person is open about their beliefs. This would, on average, result in further distancing, and therefore less influence by the group. In this way, anomalies naturally get pushed out of sight or out of the group entirely, whilst the average person who is in line with the accepted interpretations is comfortably assimilated, and truth becomes defined by majority rule.
Problems arise when two or more groups are at odds over whose interpretation is the correct one, when an outsider would prefer to just say that neither are right (although one results in marginally less violence, oppression and ignorance).
The second problem comes from accepting the seemingly harmless notion that it is the majority who decides what is right, when this idea should be taken as a heuristic, and not a universal method of deduction.
A further problem, although less likely given the accessibility of evidence, is that the correct interpretation is the one that leads to death and destruction. So the question we are then faced with is “how can we reduce harmful interpretations, while simultaneously allowing freedom of interpretation?” But perhaps this in itself is a mistake, and that the two are ultimately incompatible. This feels closer to a less-wrong conclusion, as I think that in order to arrive at the truth you must first accept that there are unacceptable truths, and one such fundamental truth is that not everything is open for interpretation. For this reason, I believe that it is not any specific religion or spiritual teaching that is damaging to the pursuit of scientific truth, but instead, it is a general method of reasoning about the world, that is not confined to any particular establishment which poses a barrier.
Any sufficiently well-written fiction is indistinguishable from fact.
It looks as if the problems of religious violence (among others), stem from the methods we use to deal with or insulate ourselves from the truth, and how coping mechanisms have undesirable side-effects. For example, some people report that after coming to the conclusion that there is no god, and subsequently no higher power to enforce all morality, they have proceeded to act, for lack of a more fitting word, immorally. This suggests that in such cases there was no safety net, that no immediately available alternative was there to replace the framework that had been destroyed – If we rely on a book or other authority to tell us how to behave then we are vulnerable to being manipulated into acting for the purposes of others rather than out of our own interests. This is the much overlooked cult aspect of modern terrorism.
My own experience is that whatever my concept of god was, it was stored independently from that of morality, and that morality seemed good enough on its own, for its own sake, so that by removing the god module from my brain, the rest of the structure still stood firm – it ‘grew legs’, or had simply always had its own.
For goodness sake, I had decided to be good, as more often than not, the experimental evidence confirmed that it was the most beneficial course of action. I thank god that I was raised in an environment reason-able enough to reward good behaviour over bad.
I think that religion seems to promote ideas, some of which are generally beneficial in a more-or-less universal sense (love thy neighbour), however, this is done by building unstable structures upon each other, in the same way that the threat or reward of supernatural punishments and gifts is used to coerce children into behaving well.
Studies conducted by Jonathan Freedman indicate that contrived obedience only works as long as the threat of punishment is around, and that once removed children will do as they please, which is often exactly what they have been forbidden from doing. Personal responsibility gave the children the opportunity to see themselves as the authors of their actions, which is the opposite of psychological reactance whereby people desire things more when they feel that their freedom to do or experience them is being restricted. Like this, banning religion will increase not only its popularity, but perhaps more importantly, the perceived veracity of its claims and teachings.
Fiction is not a good foundation for truth, even when it is obviously fiction, as in the case of movies as guides and role models. In fact, fiction can be so riddled with recurring tropes, that by using it as a basis for action we become trapped within a state of perpetually maintaining the status quo, or confirmation bias, rather than attempting to uncover new truths.
Proving that your interpretation of religion X is the correct one is by Bayesian standards equal to, or greater in difficulty than proving that your religion as a whole is correct; that its teachings correspond to reality. Therefore I am inclined to give the ironically relativist reply that Islamic terrorists and other Muslims who use their religion as a justification for inhuman acts or for condoning them, are no more ‘extreme’ than those who interpret their religion otherwise. That is to say, if I agree to argue from the perspective of accepting multiple interpretations, then I must accept them all, as long as the playing field we’re on is called ‘use this questionable work of fiction as your life mentor’. The point being, that there is no domain crossover, whereby you get to prove that your belief in the tooth fairy is the one true account, and that all others are aberrations.
Until you can at least prove that your religion’s claims are just, you will be left to accept the idea that your interpretation is just one among many.
Another option is that the moderates are correct, and that no true Muslim would ever think, say or do such things. But this merely addresses the problem of identifying a correct interpretation, which still leaves the problem of using such a text as a source of morality and truth still intact. Not to mention the crazy people committing murder because of what it said in some book.
Being right about the intent of an author in relation to their work of fiction does not turn that fiction to fact.
If an agnostic happens to kill some Buddhists and cites his agnosticism as the motivating factor, we’d be wrong to say that he wasn’t a true agnostic, unless however, we had access to reliable information that contradicted him. Instead, we would accept his beliefs or non-beliefs, and chalk his actions up to psychological factors – we’d write him off as crazy rather than blaming his philosophy. This may at first appear as a bias against extremist Muslims for example, as instead of categorising them based on their actions, we focus on their beliefs as being the most important factor. But, it’s when numerous incidences with the same apparent motivator occur that we begin to put more weight on the person’s beliefs due to the presence of correlation. Isolated incidents don’t have the luxury of being examined in the same light. So if more and more people cite the contents of an old book as their reasons for committing murder, rationally, we must assign more importance to the role of that book. That’s not to say that we go so far as to entirely blame the book (that would be too extreme), but we assign a probability greater than zero that the book played a part in the altering actions of the reader.
If someone says what their motivation is, then we must take this as strong evidence that this really is their motivation. What matters is that they say they killed because of a book.
If an idea or non-belief is consistently produced in tandem with such a side-effect, then it would count as evidence that there is a link between the two. So far, atheist or atheism-inspired killings seem few and far-between (this may be a reporting bias), but even taking this into account there seems to be a disproportionately high number of atrocities attributed to religion. What role religion plays exactly, I’m not sure, but it looks as if it is more of a catalyst than an instigating factor, however this reasoning may be backwards. Instead of helping trigger extremism, extremists might simply be drawn more to religion and specific religious ideas as an outlet for expression.
Does football create or attract hooligans?
Does atheism create rational thinkers, or does rationality create atheists?
It also matters how “creation” took place, because a football fan by birth is not the same as someone who takes an interest in football during their twenties. There must be born extremists/fanatics, but I imagine that more are created, or rather converted at a later stage.
The three main positions are as follows:
- You believe in one true interpretation, or
- You believe in multiple readings, but just happen to favour your own, or
- You believe in multiple readings and view them all as equally valid within their particular contexts.
These three options are essentially the Objectivist, Subjectivist, and Experientialist viewpoints.
Nobody is capable of really having a correct interpretation, except the creator or originator themselves, but even the creator has difficulty in interpreting their own work because opinions and perspective change over time so that we are unable to accurately recall our initial motivations or state of mind without bias. Therefore, the idea of a correct interpretation is a practical illusion.
Most interpretations are accepted and sustained by respect for an authority i.e. the subject considers themselves inferior to the authority figure, therefore it is disrespectful (a sin) to even dare thinking that their own personal perspective may be more important (correct).
“Generally, we can say: meaning is part of an object to the extent that it acts upon intelligence in a predictable way.”
– Douglas Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach
With the above quote in mind it may be apparent that there are a multitude of possible, predictable effects on groups of people, i.e. a single object (text etc) can have multiple meanings. As an obvious example, the bible has different groups of followers that arise from different interpretations and different understandings of what the text means. The same is true of other religious texts, and is not limited to Christianity, but more importantly, it is true of all texts and ideas. If we accept the possibility of there being multiple predictable, and different effects we must also accept that we cannot privilege one over the other – there cannot be one true meaning. Put another way, as discussed by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in the book “Metaphors We Live By”, truth is relative to understanding, and an experientialist view is incompatible with the idea of universally true interpretations.
If we have some prior information about which group an individual may belong to, this can help us predict which way a particular piece of information may affect them.
The above quote is also an example of the metaphor “an object is a container”, and if we become fixated on analysing a text in search of meaning or truth as if it is there in the words, we overlook the importance of the individual: the one who is doing the interpretation and de-coding. This directly reflects Roland Barthes’ view as expressed in Death of the Author and Camera Lucida among others; that the reader or observer should be the one to determine the ultimate meaning, not the creator.
By viewing concepts and ideas as stories rather than facts, fluid rather than solid, we are freed from the tyranny of trying to confirm or conform to their truth, and consequently we free others by refusing to become tyrants ourselves.
The concept of one true interpretation leads to the often unanswerable and awkward question “what finite set of characteristics define X?”
Instances of the no true Scotsman fallacy in use can simply be seen as a rough reflection of how we draw boundaries for ourselves, and how those boundaries conflict with those drawn by others.