Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Opening the chinks of reason

This evening, in a news report about Jewish settlements in the occupied territories – the new US administration is trying to pressure the Israeli government into halting the spread of these settlements – a Jewish settler was interviewed. Her remarks, as presented, were brief.

'People say we shouldn't be building here because it's Arab land, but that's not accurate. This is Jewish land, given to us by God.'

Such arrogant claims aren't likely to endear themselves to a secular audience, and yet, on reflection, there was one word in this small stream that shone out like a glimmer of hope. That word was 'accurate'. While not exactly a scientific word, it's a word science is fond of. Accuracy in measurement, accuracy of results, accurate experiments, accurate targeting. It's a word much associated with reason, and it tends to draw attention to itself as such. So when somebody says, 'uhh, excuse me, but that's not accurate', it alerts you. You eagerly await the details of this inaccuracy.

So the second sentence above seems a grotesque anti-climax, both hilarious and tragic, like much religious belief.

The hope lies in the choice of the word 'accurate', the appeal to reason of some kind, some claim to objectivity. The person using that word wishes to invoke an objective truth-claim, offering some hope that she can be reasoned with.

Since my youth I've always fantasised that people could be swayed, their certitudes undermined, via the Socratic method. Get as many people to talk like Socrates as possible and the world would be a much more sociable and reasonable place. My growing awareness that I was too hot-headed, emotional and impatient to hold down the Socratic role for more than thirty seconds in 'real life' only served to make the fantasy more enticing. I talked rationally enough to myself – at least from time to time.

Socrates: Good afternoon, Hannah, how is the building going?

Hannah: Slowly Socrates, slowly, but God willing it will be complete before my sister gives birth in August.

Socrates: And are you feeling any pressure, Hannah? I couldn't help but overhear what you said to that journalist just now.

Hannah: Ah, I should've known you would bring that up, you can always be counted on to sniff out a dispute. No, I feel no pressure Socrates, God is on my side.

Socrates: No doubt, Hannah, but I was interested in the precise words you used. You said, did you not, that it is not accurate to say this is Arab land?

Hannah: That's right.

Socrates: It's more accurate to say that God gave you and your people this land. Correct?

Hannah: Correct.

Socrates: A little more accurate or a lot more accurate?

Hannah: Socrates, I know you're trying to trip me, but it's completely accurate. It's the truth.

Socrates: Right, completely true then. And the claim that this is Arab land is completely false, even though the Arabs vehemently say it's true.

Hannah: We have God's word on it.

Socrates: And do you think that you've convinced the journalist, and the global audience he reports to, of the accuracy of your claim?

Hannah: The world can think what it wants, Socrates, the truth is the truth.

Socrates: But Hannah, surely you are concerned with what the world thinks, otherwise why would you talk to the journalist and point out the inaccuracy of one group's claims to this land, and the accuracy of another's? You recognise that there are standards of accuracy, measures of accuracy, do you not?

Hannah: Yes of course.

Socrates: Universal standards of accuracy, recognised by everyone we can imagine this journalist's report reaching – the Russans of the Steppes, the Australians of the Outback, the Americans of the Prairie, the Chinese of the Provinces, the Italians of the Alps, the Indians in their crowded cities. You accept that all these people will have standards of accuracy, and that they may agree with each other on these standards, as they apply to different measurable entities?

Hannah: Well, no, I'm not so sure about that. I think there would be a lot of disagreement.

Socrates: Well maybe there would be some entities that people will agree can be measured accurately – the height of a mountain, say, whereas others are not so easy to agree on, as for example your case.

Hannah: There is no measuring in the case I put forward Socrates. Who can measure God?

Socrates: The God who gave you this land?

Hannah: There is no other God.

Socrates: So you say, Hannah, but where I came from people believed in many gods, a squabbling nest of gods. Out in the wider world, the world this reporter reports to, there are also many gods, with strange names, gods you and I have little inkling of, just as some of the people out there have little inkling of your god. You are claiming, I presume, that their gods are all false, even though these people believe in their gods as fervently as you believe in your god, and would if asked, presumably say that it is your god who is false. Do you agree that they would most likely say that?

Hannah: Most likely.

Socrates: Most likely indeed, for these are the matters upon which people most fervently disagree, is that not so?

Hannah: Yes, history shows this. Let me assure you I'm not a fool Socrates.

Socrates: I've never thought so, for I recognise and admire your great concern for accuracy, in this and in all matters. But here we have reached an impasse. You say there is one god, your god, the Jewish god, and that this land was given to you by that god. The Arabs in this neighbourhood say it is their land and, though I haven't spoken to them, I wouldn't be at all surprised if they claimed this land in accordance with their own god. How can this situation be resolved?

Hannah: For me it is already resolved. We are on this land and we will remain on it.

Socrates: You would be prepared to die for the sake of this land?

Hannah: I don't think it will come to that, but if need be, yes.

Socrates: And does that make your claim more accurate?

Hannah: That's a very clever question Socrates. I know your tricks. I think I need to be getting on with my work now.

Socrates: But I can assure you Hannah, I ask this question only because I want to know what makes your claim to this land an accurate one, or more accurate than the claim of the Arabs. Do I understand from your response that you don't consider the preparedness to die for this land of you and your people a proper measure of the accuracy of your claim to it?

Hannah: No I don't. You're right about that.

Socrates: So we return to our impasse. You claim this land according to your god. The Arabs claim this land according to their god. We need a way of measuring the objective accuracy of these competing claims, do you agree?

Hannah: Yes, but that will never be achieved.

Socrates: That's a terribly pessimistic response Hannah, but at least you agree that an objective standard is needed, even if it's impossible to arrive at such a standard? You will concede that much?

Hannah: I concede no such thing. I'm not prepared to concede anything, Socrates, least of all my own God-given land. This conversation is futile, and I really have work to do. Good day to you.

Socrates: Well I'm sorry you feel that way. For me it's been most absorbing. You've recognised the need for objective standards of judgment, and that's very wise, though there's so much more to discuss and hammer out. Hopefully we'll both continue to think about these matters, and get further on in some future discussions.

Hannah: Yes, yes, goodbye Socrates. You're a good man.

Socrates: Well thank you Hannah, you're a good woman to say that, whether it's true or not! Good day to you.

pavlov's cat