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Fundamentalism and Relativism Forum

Welcome to the on-line forum for discussion related to an essay on "Fundamentalism and Relativism". Like all Serendip forums, this is not a place for the last word but rather a place for thoughts in progress, a place to leave ideas that you think might be useful to others and to find ideas of others that might be useful to you. Please join in, and let's see what new ways of thinking about things emerge from thinking aloud together.

Comments are posted in the order in which they are received, with earlier postings appearing first below on this page. To see the latest postings, click on "Go to last comment" below.

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Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2005-04-21 20:02:07
Link to this Comment: 14770

Thanks for coming by. Hope you found something .... interesting, provocative, puzzling, whatever in Fundamentalism and Relativism: Finding a New Direction. And that you'll share your thoughts here. No story is ever finished, and the best ones tend to be those that reflect the different perspectives of lots of different people.

Along those lines, a few immediate thoughts of my own about the essay, based on reactions from friends who saw it in progress. Interestingly, some read it as too "edgy" and "authoritative" in tone even while thinking some of the ideas were worth stating. And others had the opposite reaction, that the ideas in the essay were important but the presentation was too polite, too PC. One might say something along the lines of "you can't please all etc" but there are, I think, some additional useful issues here, so let me treat each briefly.

I don't MEAN to sound "authoritative", and CERTAINLY don't mean to imply that there is only one correct way to think about these matters and others should accept mine. Anyone who knows me knows I am personally and deeply committed to a profound skepticism applied to my own stories as much as to any others. And so to listening to/being affected by the stories of others. At the same time, I think its very important to tell stories in an assailable form, ie to tell my own story as clearly and directly as possible so that it can effectively and productively rub against the stories of others. The associated style may, perhaps, convey to some a sense of "authoritativeness". If so, please accept that it is not intended to do so.

On the flip side, I recognize that many people feel that there are times when one has to pick sides and make clear that one has done so, and I recognize that wish in myself. Do I honestly believe that the Pope would share my interest in engaging in a productive conversation? that sharing stories would help? Perhaps so, perhaps not. What does seem to me terribly important though is to stay true to the logic and values I try and express in the essay: to say as clearly as possible what one's own story is at any given time, to recognize where and how it rub against other stories, and to put confidence in the power of story sharing to alter minds right up to the last possible minute. That is, I think, neither PC nor inaction; it is action aimed at changing stories that deeply influence our lives and actions. Drawing lines in the sand has all the hazards described in the essay and is, for me, to be resorted to only when all other alternatives have been exhausted. " One may agree to go to war, but ONLY by first admitting ... an utter inability to conceive of alternative and preferable paths to the resolution of human conflicts."

Stories are not only inevitably but desireably read differently by different people, and my intent here is not at all to defend the particular reading of mine that may (or my not) have been in my mind when I wrote it. Instead, what I hope I have shown is the way in which the rubbing of stories against one another can productively yield new issues, and in turn revisions of old stories and creation of new stories. Very much looking forward to seeing what more we can do here along these lines

Name: Jeff Orist
Date: 2005-04-21 20:19:19
Link to this Comment: 14772

(excerpted from emails to PG as dated)

Wed, 20 Apr 2005 09:23:00

I think (hope) we are actually witnessing, in this recent religious fervor, the last gasps (or at least the beginnings of the last gasps) of a dying animal. We really need to convince these people that they can have a life with meaning and purpose which they define, and that this form of life is no less significant (and meaningful) than the one which they now rely on. 

Wed, 20 Apr 2005 10:14:37

If the reports are correct, Ratzinger himself has had some first hand experience with being "carrried here and there by any wind of doctrine." Of course a major component of avoiding this danger is to maintain a healthy and vigorous skepticism toward ALL doctrine. It's ironic that skepticism flies in the face of the Church's answer to this question, which of course is that "OUR doctrine is truth, while others are not." At least Ratzinger appears to be consistent in his behavior. 

Again, I think the deeper need is to offer an explanation for the value of life which is scientifically-based. The prevailing view of most people who turn to religion is that life has no meaning or value without positing the existence of a creator who placed us all here for some reason of His. If we can convince them that they can lead a secular existence without giving up meaning and value of their lives, it will make the scientific mindset more palatable and will provide a new, more flexible, but no less substantial, foundation for resisting various forms of "radical individualism".  I agree that this is a tall order, and will take a long time.  But I think it can, and will, be done. 

Thu, 21 Apr 2005 10:04:17

Some of the things this guy (Ratzinger) has said are truly remarkable. Frankly, he makes it hard for me to desire a "conversation".  It seems to me that the Democrats have been trying to carry on a conversation while the Republicans have been waging war, with predictable results. Actually, that's not so accurate. Maybe Ralph Nader is interested in conversation, the major parties both want war, though one party is quite a bit better at it than the other. There's always time for conversation once the dust has settled, but you can't allow for a conversation (one which has an impact), where one side screams while the other whispers. I would contend that this describes the current situation in this country. Personally, I'm ready to rumble, but I'll do so all the while wishing there were more priests (more people, in general) like Lindon Eaves (that's really a wonderful essay).    

Along these lines, a very nice comment of yours got me thinking. You wrote of a culture where "each individual themselves become for themselves (and each other) the active agents resonsible for not being "carried here and there by the winds of doctrine". It's really the old centralized vs. decentralized/self-organized distinction, no? Can we get people to buy into self-organized stability? Enough to still derive sense of value and purpose in their lives? I think neurobiology can teach us a lot here, right? I wonder if it is possible to convince people that this type of society will work, even work better than our current one, for many of the same reasons that the brain is a better all-purpose problem-solver than any Turing-machine run algorithm. .

Name: Iva Yonova
Date: 2005-04-22 15:29:23
Link to this Comment: 14787

i am really happy that this has been brought up! indeed, there are people out there who don't walk through life like horses with blinds on their sides (sorry thats a direct translation from bulgarian:))... ever since i came to this country i was so disappointed and almost gave up on America... wasn't it supposed to be "the land of the free"..... thats a bunch of crap, excuse me for the language, because people here are so brainwashed that its painful to watch.... and im talking exactly about fundamentalism, religious, political and even social.... and i define social fundamentalism as the obsession of people with being a part of a society that is understanding tolerant generous considering and so on and so forth...... somebody should teach all these people that they can live without a "meaningfull" meaning of their life (and this is not a taftology:( ).... i find it wier to see people who feel they have a meaningfull purpose in their life just because thay eat only "happy chicken"!..... or donate their old cd player to a poor kid in sudan!....

i am sorry i went a little off and probably was way too bitter.... but i find it extremely bothering to be surrounded by fundamentalists who think they are open minded and free....

Name: Orah Minde
Date: 2005-04-23 08:10:59
Link to this Comment: 14792

“Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital.” Oscar Wilde from the preface of ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’

“So we see concretely two types of religion in sharp contrast. Using our old terms of comparison, we may say that the absolutistic scheme appeals to the tender-minded while the pluralistic scheme appeals to the tough.” William James from ‘Pragmatism’ (Dover, 1995, 113)

“In short, she widens the field of search for God.” Ibid on pragmatism, 31.

The affect people have on each other, the ability to be molded by another, is not caused by similarities between people, but rather, change occurs when differing surface textures move alongside each other. I find one of the absolute joys of life to be the fact that since we are all subjective beings, cloistered in a space that cannot be known outside, this learning from difference can occur in any human interaction. The subjective p.o.v. allows for constant growth, a constant capacity for the rush of realization. The abrasive surface texture of the subjective human p.o.v. holds us together in the movement of mutual molding. I am sometimes struck by the lonely quality of difference that haunts the subjective life. Life is, however, at this point in my life, about learning to become myself; once this learning comes to completion at the end of life I might be more accepting of absolute objectivity, but, for now, I assert that, though difficult at times, the subjective prison of the self is the place from where I want to live life. Not only do I want to live life as a subjective being, but, to the extent that life is about learning, about story revision, retelling, to the extent that life is mythology, cyclically ascending and simultaneously descending, I assert that the only way this path can be trekked is through the subjective vehicle (i.e. the body), seen through the lens of the self.

So, having said all that, I address Pope Benedict XVI’s statement:
A dictatorship of relativism is being built that recognizes nothing as definite and which leaves as the ultimate measure only one's ego and desires ... Having a clear faith, according to the credo of the church, is often labeled as fundamentalism. Yet relativism, that is letting oneself by carried here and there by winds of doctrine, appears as the sole attitude good enough for modern times.
The Pope makes the assumption that if one “recognizes nothing as definite” “one’s ego and desires” will be left wild and unharnessed. According to church doctrine “one’s ego and desires” are held in check by “faith, according to the credo of the church.” I do not think it is too assumptive to say that the “faith” that he speaks of as keeping the “ego and desires” in check, is one of a threatening nature. The “faith” of which the Pope speaks is not a belief in an innate goodness, or loving nature within the human, but rather, a faith that if the ego carries out her desirous impulses, exactly proportionate consequences will be inflicted.

The Pope realizes that we are subjective beings, that we have desires that originate in the ego, but he demands that through “faith” we attempt to view these desires from a glorified objective. Since faith is an act that does not depend on response, on confirmation, but rather is a constant outward movement, the Pope suggests a life-long denial of our subjective nature, a constant molding of life to external imposition, a constant attempt to disembody ourselves, or, at least define and form the self by the demands of an external law.

The Pope forges a connection between “faith” and anti-relativism, regards them in constant contrast to each other. I understand that a relativist’s faith could be seen as a challenge to a monotheist’s faith: that if each person’s faith is turned inward than who is to say that each is regarding the same One? I realize that relativism could threaten the unifying effect of the act of faith turned outward. Throughout this whole statement I have never denied that the subjective is a difficult place to be. I suggest, nevertheless, that since the subjective is the only possible place for the human being to be, one would benefit from attempting to make sense of the universe from this vantage point.

The subjective is mind: a funneling of the perceived world into a contained space. While the perceived world might not make sense to the mind, whose whole universe is determined by what fills it, the container quality of the mind makes the mind a metonym-machine of sorts. Any mind, any subjective p.o.v, therefore, is a unifier, a loose sense maker. The objective view, the view originated from that which is not mind, is only a unifier in that it demands a convergence of subjective minds upon itself. Subjectivity is the very quality that disables the mind from achieving absolute convergence with objectivity. Externally directed faith, therefore, not only demands a certain self-loathing, but also, disables the mind from realization, defines salvation as that which is not mind.

In my quest to realize self, to fill mind, I choose to direct faith inward to the unity that is within the walls of the mind. The universe is my perceptions. For you, the universe is your perceptions. Your universe does not, however, disallow my universe from being. I am not suggesting a multiplicity of universes, but rather, am emphasizing the fact that to the subjective mind is the convergence of perceptions in mind. I could say: each person’s perceptions create his own universe. This statement, however, is an attempt at an objective view, the assumption of an objective view. If faith is turned inward there is no need for objectivity, there is already a unity within. There is no multiplicity for the subjective mind; there is only the perfect sense of the universe in mind.

The already present perfection of the unified mind, however, does not disallow an intensification of this perfection, or, heightened awareness of this perfection. While the universe is unified in mind, it is impossible for the mind to be aware of the fullness of this unity. We come to fuller awareness of this sense when perceptions are brought into closer proximity, when metonymic connections are lassoed into metaphor. The compression into metaphor, the web-threading of metaphor, gives us the impression of making sense of the universe, of creating poetry into the universe. I am inclined to suggest, however, that the sense is already present, and life is the fluxing awareness of an already perfect sense.

Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2005-04-23 14:52:37
Link to this Comment: 14793

Glad to find that I didn't have to worry about being heard (here at least, so far at least) as either authoritative or too polite. And even more pleased to be sharing a space with others interested in neither authoritativeness or politeness but rather in the engaged sharing of stories that rub against one another to create both revisions and new stories. Some things that have struck me so far ...

"I find it extremely bothering to be surrounded by fundamentalists who think they are open minded and free"

Yeah, me too (obviously?). And I do think it is worth pointing out to people that they may in fact be less free than they think they are. And I do think that we, ALL of us, would be better off in cultures that encourage people to create meaning for themselves rather than trying to give it to them (either explicitly or covertly). To ponder further though, in the interests of further story revision ... in what ways might those of us who see others as less free be also so ourselves? and what might we learn from others both about that and about the aspiration to create meaning ourselves rather than to be given it? Why does that aspiration seem to be more important to some people than to others? And what are the implications of that for making human cultures that work better for everyone? "Frankly, he makes it hard for me to 'desire' a conversation" Yep. And therein is, it seems to me, a VERY interesting/difficult/quite general issue that has to be faced/addressed in lots of contexts. How does one deal with "conversation stoppers", be they particular statements that particularly take on aback, or more general opinions/attitudes/perspectives that one feels are diametrically and unshakeably inconsistent with one's own? Our tendency, of course, is to back off, at best, and, at worst, draw lines in the sand and write off/oppose people who have such opinions/attitudes/perspectives.

Could we perhaps learn to appreciate such moments? to take them as a sign of the likelihood of productive rubbing of stories against one another? Yes, of course, when an action has to be taken and there are incompatible perspectives, one will be acted on and the other not. But more commonly there isn't any immediate need for action. At these times perhaps we could learn to recognize that others, like ourselves, do not actually have fixed and unshakeable stories but rather are also (whether they know it or not) continually testing and revising their stories. And hence that they could learn from us and we from them? If we look for commalities and move from that instead of presuming that the only ground is that where we seem to irreconcilably conflict?
"since the subjective is the only possible place for the human being to be, one would benefit from attempting to make sense of the universe from this vantage point" Its intriguing to me that a statement like this might well be a "conversation stopper" for two quite different groups of people who would normally regard each other as the principle conversation stoppers: those who rely heavily on religious doctrine and those committed to scientific objectivity. Maybe we're moving towards a point in history of significant realignment? a time when the interesting distinctions are not between "religion" and "science" but rather between those from either community whose concerns are best satisfied by a sense of some form of definitive answer "out there" and those more inclined to be personally and continually involved in exploring/creating what isn't but might yet be? If so, where are the commonalities that might prevent those two groups from being "conversation stoppers" for each other? "It's really the old centralized vs. decentralized/self-organized distinction, no? Can we get people to buy into self-organized stability? ... ? I wonder if it is possible to convince people that this type of society will work, even work better than our current one" So do I. No hierarchy ... wonder whether there's enough common ground there ... Looking forward to more stories, more rubbing.

Name: Lucy Kerma
Date: 2005-04-24 20:32:35
Link to this Comment: 14813

I find myself having two -- possibly contradictory -- responses to these thoughts so far. The first is that Paul (and perhaps others?) is more optimistic than I am about whether the act of “story sharing” can really change people. Do people really listen deeply enough to others to change in any lasting sense? Always? Sometimes? Under what circumstances does hearing someone’s “story” really make me change how I think, enough to change my actions and interactions? How does that work? What happens when someone’s stories get to us that deeply? The truth is, people don’t like hearing things that challenge their senses of self, they don’t like feeling offended, and they tend to resist change under those circumstances. And indeed, Paul’s image of “rubbing” suggests (to me at least) only the slightest of changes – rubbing against the edges of something else, while remaining essentially intact.

My other thought relates to what feels not like rubbing but like friction and sparks when people of different points of view talk these days. It seems to me that among the greatest challenges to democracy in our time is our discomfort with profound and permanent disagreement. And yet nothing is more natural – particularly if we respect and embrace difference among people – than that these disagreements will not only exist but persist. I sometimes think the real task is for us to get to the point where we can accept profound disagreement without having to kill someone, legislate against them, or, in the best case, shun them. I like to think it is possible, through respectful dialogue, to reach a compromise or a common vision. But maybe the point is to find a way for societies to work without requiring agreement.

Maybe the problem is that people expect some kinds of ideas – religious, scientific, ethical, perhaps even political – to have too big an impact on society, and are looking for too much affirmation from the outside. What if the goal were not to find similar inclinations – even the inclination for “exploring/creating” -- but to live comfortably with disagreement, together in a community, but alone in our thoughts. Could we imagine a society, bounded by laws, that wasn’t so ideological?

Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2005-04-26 22:25:12
Link to this Comment: 14882

"The notion of metaphor sometimes replaces agreement."
The Emergence of Everything (with thanks to Alan Baker)

Okay, so I've been mulling over these matters...and here's where I've gotten so far. Yep: War is a Bad Metaphor. So: let us find a better one, one not driven by the concept of a clear opponent over whom a decisive victory can be won.

Such a search might begin by refusing to engage in the insistant (war-creating? line-drawing-in-the-sand?) binarization of these vexed matters:

Such clear waters need muddying.

The proposal that it is very important to tell stories in an assailable clearly and directly as possible so that it can effectively and productively rub against the stories of others carries all sorts of associations: of friction between two intact bodies, of pressure put against that which is resistant, of the impenetrable (those who have faith in doctrine, AND those who have faith in the positive outcomes of skeptical inquiry).

Might we try out another metaphor instead, one which admits to the possibility of (inter)penetration--and so of alteration on the inside? And which does so not by direct assault, but obliquely? Cynthia Ozick, whose reading of a parable was once poorly received by a group of doctors, tells the story well:

They wanted...plain speech. They were appalled by metaphor (the shock of metaphor), by fable, image, echo, irony, satire, obliqueness, double meaning, the call to interpret, the call to penetrate, the call to comment and diagnose. They were stung by..."ambiguity."

Ozick took the risk of telling a story, of constructing a metaphor that

relies on what has been experienced before; it transforms the strange into the familiar....Metaphor uses what we already possess and reduces strangeness. is the way of metaphor to transform memory into a principle of continuity....Through metaphor...those at the center can imagine what it is to be outside....We strangers can image the familiar heart of strangers.

I want to pull out of Ozick's account (from Metaphor and Memory) the possibility that imaginative, associative language can weave the sorts of surprising and unexpected connections that clear, direct assailable stories may not be able to. I have frequently played the game of asking my students what metaphor they would use to describe their (ideal/actual) classroom experiences. What inevitably arises from this exercise, in a range of venues--

--is that students realize, through the loosely-woven web of associations that metaphors invite, the oblique implications their own self-conceptions have for the roles of others in the world (if you are listening w/ "big ears," to your classmates "mouths," while the teacher, as "finger," points the way...where's the brain? who's in charge of this body?).

So: instead of the war between "fundamentalism vs. relativism," how about we have a go @ this by drawing on (say) one or 'nother of these metaphors?

Emulsification: the suspension--not the mixing--of small globules of one liquid in a have always a consciousness of the larger world in which it is suspended. Liable to stir things up in or to be stirred up by what happens beyond. But liable, too, to separate out....all emulsions are unstable...a matter of different degrees of coalescence. (Kaye Edwards, in Teaching to Learn/Learning to Teach).

It seemed as if this were the Loom of Time, and I myself were a shuttle mechanically weaving and weaving away at the Fates. There lay the fixed threads of the warp subject to but one single, ever returning, unchanging vibration, and that vibration merely enough to admit of the crosswise interblending of other threads with its own. This warp seemed necessity; and here, thought I, with my own hand I ply my own shuttle and weave my own destiny into these unalterable threads. Meantime, Queequeg's impulsive, indifferent sword, sometimes hitting the woof slantingly, or crookedly, or strongly, or weakly...must be chance- aye, chance, free will, and necessity-wise incompatible- all interweavingly working together. (Herman Melville, "The Mat-Maker," Chapter 47 of Moby-Dick)

How 'bout, as an alternative to the war-like clarity of "versus," we take up Melville's metaphor of weaving (alternatively, Naslund's quilting?):

Not relative, not fundamental. Intersecting, interwoven.

RE: Emergence and the Pope
Name: Kenneth Ri
Date: 2005-04-27 16:28:44
Link to this Comment: 14901

I don't see any obvious connection between emergence and relativism. Some philosophers of mind have thought of emergence as a determination (or dependence) relationship. For instance, it can be a way in which to describe how physical properties determine mental properties. In this scenario, the physical determines the mental in the same way no matter how we look at it. On this model, emergence might be compared to "chaos"--it is very complicated, sensitive to initial conditions, etc., perhaps a global rather than a local relationship, but it doesn't sound like relativism at all.

Hope all is well,


on making the connection
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2005-04-27 21:53:52
Link to this Comment: 14912

Hi, Ken! How's life in Boston/doing philosophy with pharmacists?

Interesting you should show up here/now, since, in the Emergence group this morning, this matter of the relation between relativism and emergence was the (well, one of the) topic(s) ....

See crossing the threshold for a (somewhat belabored/tortured) account of how "emergence" has everything to do w/ "relativism," occuring in the context of an interactive process, which (stigmergically) leaves its traces in an environment, wherefrom they are picked up unpredictably, put to use unpredictably....

Swirling- again
Name: Judie McCo
Date: 2005-04-29 19:01:26
Link to this Comment: 14998

So I think I must stop trying to read these forums in big chunks like the one I've just swallowed (yes, for me the ideas are more important (and tasty ) than food). Having been invited by Paul during GIF this morning to read this, had to follow to the end.

As someone who is in the midst of spiritual re-evaluation, as well as re-evaluation of commitment to social norms, figuring out how much pleasure one gets to engage in during the "rubbings" of stories together, etc., I'm probably ripe for the new Pope's accusations (as indeed they are framed) of relativism. And yet...and yet..

First a story. As the good daughter of a Methodist minister, yet highly aware and accepting of diversity (thanks to my sociologist mom), I came into my doctoral education thinking that if we all could recognize ourselves as children of God- however he/she/it was envisioned, we'd all be in a loving, socially just society (I'll pause here a second while everyone gets their fingers out of their throat). I truly wasn't that naive- had been in plenty of tough, real situations (I'm a social worker after all!), but still thought that was an ideal to embrace as a goal. It took my first year of a challenging prof (S. Schramm) to confront me on how even this vague notion was disrespectful of groups, unfounded (which I knew, but figured, what the hell, it might work), and totally utopian in an unrealistic, unaccomplishable way.

This continues to work on me, as has a recently read book- The Spiral Staircase- Karen Armstrong (brings images of your comments Orah)- which essentially says (not to blow the ending for you Anne) that there probably is no "god/God" out there, but there seems to be something- a god/God presence inside humans. This fits with the Quaker notion I'm coming to embrace that there is "that of God in each of us"- which may or may not have anything to do with some supernatural entity.

Another thought- in addictions treatment, there is a notion of the "God-sized void". The idea is that when folks believe/ have a relationship with something bigger than themselves (any notion of "god" will do), they have little need to fill the empty existentialist space inside with alcohol, drugs etc. Parenthetically, for those of us for whom this applies, depression is supposed to be the precursor of this space/void.

Anyway, I guess to me this all synthesizes into the idea that maybe a belief in something creator-like is worthwhile, but all this fundamentalism of Popes and presidents only serves to distance us from our own understandings of what that could be. (Is this where our storytellers come in?)It reminds me of earlier comments by Anne on another forum that "certainty leads to violence" (back when we were reading The Metaphysical Club). Therefore, no individual's understanding of "the creator" can possibly fit for everyone else. Hence, any person's (Pope's, president's) attempts to define one for all must be challenged (too war-like a word, but I'm not thinking of a better one) in order to ensure that certainty doesn't take root and become a Crusade/War.

I no longer long for the notion that we all just understand we're children of God/god- I now long for the notion that we all know that our understandings are only transient- good for us (each one as an individual) in this place and time with the information and emotional voids that we have in this moment- but always ready to be remediated by new knowledge and new experiences and new emotion- not relativistic, but grounded in one's own (I know a tautology) empirical experience.

continuing ...
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2005-04-30 15:50:23
Link to this Comment: 15002

That sounds perilously close to becoming a relativist (as opposed to a solipsist, by virtue of "grounded in"), or at least a "profound skeptic". Trust Sandy, if not the Pope, would be pleased.

Is an interesting idea, that different people may be differently susceptible to a "god-sized void", with absence there corresponding differently in different people to existential angst/depression/substance abuse. Wonder where, in a bipartite brain model, the void is? Yeah, as per other discussion, suspect its not in either of the two parts but rather in the relation between the two, in a "story" that provides too little meaning to make adequate sense of what is going on in the unconscious (which could in turn have to do with what the unconscious is (or isn't) feeding on empirically?). Worth thinking more about. Is perhaps relevant that Freud denied having "oceanic feelings" himself but acknowledged their existence in other people.

Backing up a bit, I like the idea of finding "a way for society to work without requiring agreement". Maybe we could not only tolerate disagreement but learn to value it? After all, there isn't much point in "rubbing" (actually my original word was "grating") unless something is going to be changed as a result. And therein, perhaps, lies some reluctance to go with either "emulsifying" or "weaving". Putting things together in different ways can certainly lead to interesting constructions but the issue here, for me at least, is the slighly different one of what produces productive change in the things themselves.

Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2005-05-01 22:22:09
Link to this Comment: 15009

there isn't much point... unless something is going to be changed as a result...the issue ...what produces productive change in the things themselves.

Exactly. But "rubbing and grating" just get you irritation, not

the possibility of (inter)penetration--and so of alteration on the inside.

an ancient solution
Name: Sharon Burgmayer
Date: 2005-05-02 09:48:52
Link to this Comment: 15011

Like others, I shudder at the thought of fundamentalism—and by corollary, lack of tolerance—gaining further endorsement, especially from the head of the Catholic church. What I found most striking in the response proposed by Paul in Fundamentalism and Relativism, is the similarity of his suggestion of an "alternative...that it puts confidence in ... having "nothing as definite" to the central ideas of the Zen Buddhism. As an illustration, below are some excerpts from the Hsin Hsin Ming, Verses on the Faith Mind written by Chien-chih Seng-ts'an in 606AD. So I also take issue with the Pope's assertion that "A dictatorship of relativism is being built that recognizes nothing as definite" because, far from being a recent develoiment, such ideas have been around for thousands of years. In this ancient way of thought, dualities are denounced in addition to even becoming attached to any one ideal.

I also found myself agreeing with Lucy's doubts that "people really listen deeply enough to others to change". It seems to me that the words of the Hsin Hsin Ming also describe the path to acquiring the tolerance needed for positive outcomes of listening to others' stories and positive social change (actually, if "the Way" were deeeply integrated, 'tolerance' would become irrelevant).

The Great Way is not difficult
for those who have no preferences.

When love and hate are both absent
everything becomes clear and undisguised.
Make the smallest distinction, however,
and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.

If you wish to see the truth
then hold no opinions for or against anything.
To set up what you like against what you dislike
is the disease of the mind.

The Way is perfect like vast space
where nothing is lacking and nothing is in excess.
Indeed, it is due to our choosing to accept or reject
that we do not see the true nature of things.
Be serene in the oneness of things
and such erroneous views will disappear by themselves.

Do not remain in the dualistic state;
avoid such pursuits carefully.
If there is even a trace
of this and that, of right and wrong,
the Mind-essence will be lost in confusion.
Although all dualities come from the One,
do not be attached even to this One.

If you do not discriminate between coarse and fine
you will not be tempted to prejudice and opinion.

To live in the Great Way
is neither easy nor difficult.
But those with limited views
are fearful and irresolute;
the faster they hurry, the slower they go.

The burdensome practice of judging
brings annoyance and weariness.
What benefit can be derived
from distinctions and separations?

To come directly into harmony with this reality
just simply say when doubt arises, "Not two."
In this "not two" nothing is separate,
nothing is excluded.

One thing, all things;
move among and intermingle,
without distinction.
To live in this realization
is to be without anxiety about nonperfection.
To live in this faith is the road to nonduality,
because the nondual is one with the trusting mind.

(You can download HsinHsinMing.doc. for the complete verses or see


dualities denounced (translated? reconciled?)
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2005-05-02 15:04:38
Link to this Comment: 15016

In this ancient way of thought, dualities are denounced....

The Graduate Idea Forum was discussing, just last week, Richard Nisbett's The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently...and Why, which led to the construction of this dicotomous list:

"universal" (?) bipartite

"relativism" "fundamentalism"
verbs ("reactive," "relational") nouns ("inert," "categorical"/categorizing)
"natural" "normative"
"modelbuilder" "storyteller"
"modelbuilding" "storytelling"
"unconscious"" conscious"
"female""male "
"eastern" "western"
"emotional" "analytic"
"acceptance of contradictions""curiosity about contradictions"
"cooperation" "competition"
"relevance" "rigor"
"middle way" "two ways"
accept the two resist, then insist on resolving the two


So now I'm wondering:

Name: Lucy Kerma
Date: 2005-05-02 20:56:27
Link to this Comment: 15020

This reminds me of the old joke: there are two kinds of people in the world, those who see the world in terms of black and white and those who don't. I guess I'm one of the ones who doesn't. Not sure if that makes me a Buddhist, but I found Sharon's text appealing.

The “dichotomous list” looks more to me like pairs of words along a continuum, interesting in relation to each other, but by no means exclusive or definitive. That’s not to say there aren’t genuine dichotomies, or that setting ideas against each other isn’t at times illuminating or instructive. But not always, and not all the time. For example: I like to think about the tension between "individual rights" and “the common good" in civil society, and I find it useful to pose the choices in opposition. But they aren't always in opposition, and it is equally useful -- and, perhaps, more productive -- to see the points of intersection. So, rather than just thinking in terms of individual rights and the common good, if we add "enlightened self-interest," it bridges the individual and society, and opens up the kind of harmony impossible in the either/or formulation. There's black and there's white, but there's also pink and blue and yellow and green and …

It may be a useful short hand to think in these big buckets of either/or dichotomies, but it is also a recipe for paralysis, and it isn’t the whole story. People tend to think - and live - with much more ambiguity. Rather than dividing all difference into twos, why not take the implications of difference seriously, and pay attention to variation and nuance? Instead of rules – that the world is divided in twos – why not see things fresh, as they appear, differently for each person, differently each time? Maybe it’s in that grey area – or, more accurately, that rainbow of color between black and white – that change can occur.

So we're back to my point- never /seldom binary!
Name: Judie McCo
Date: 2005-05-03 05:41:46
Link to this Comment: 15025

I'm loving the discussion!

Thank you Sharon for introducing me to a wonderful text. Though I have little time to write, I have a question: I buy the Way thinking/ philosophy, but there are parts (about "not distinguishing between") that make me think about the arguments against "color-blindness" or the feminist branch that denies any differences at all between men and women. This can get us into a bind to say- "no difference"- and how does that differ from saying "not distinguishing between"? Even so, it does seem to me that fundamentalism only becomes a risk when people think in binaries and assume that one end of the pole must be assigned "good," making the other "bad".

While looking at ancient scriptures, I've been thinking about the myth of the story of the Tower of Babel. What does it mean that the myth asserts that all were living in oneness and harmony until they decided to try to become God-like in their creating? What does it mean (even more frighteningly) that the myth implies that diversity (creation of difference via new languages that separate) was brought as a judgment/ punishment for that? Instead of diversity (and Not-twoness [God/ non-God]) being viewed as the strengthener/ positive factor that biologists know it to be, diversity through this lens is "bad", something that divides people from each other and God. Doesn't quite fit with my world view.

So, for having no time, I still managed to write a lot- but one more thing- Anne. I have to argue again with the placing of storyteller on the certain /male side and model builder on the relative/ female side. The model builder has The Answer- "here are the building blocks, here are the steps of the process and it always works like this": the storyteller is constantly revising- intentionally or not, the story changes with each telling. I believe those two need to switch sides. But doesn't this just prove our point that the dichotomies don't work. Thanks to Paul, we know we're all story-tellers; just as we scientists of various sorts are all model builders as well. I'm certainly willing to concede that thought experiments can benefit when considered through dichotomies- I'm just not willing to conceded that the world is made of binaries.
(A favor to ask- Anne- are you able to put this at GIF as well since it fits there- thanks- gotta catch a plane)

difference vs indifference?
Name: Sharon Burgmayer
Date: 2005-05-03 09:27:34
Link to this Comment: 15026

Judy- a quick response back to you.

First, I must say, I'm no expert when it comes to Zen Buddhism ... I've read some and it's very mystical, mystifying stuff. But I just started a book you might want to seek out. Its author is Karen Armstrong, whom you've read before (in The Spiral Staircase).
After that disclaimer, I'll offer a speculation that understanding how "no difference" is not the same as "not distinguishing between" is a major point in Zen. I'll go even further out on a limb and attempt in "Zen-speak", that, vis a vis "no difference", everything (objectively) is different and unique, but at the same time, all is one. In contrast, (I think), distinguishing begins with you (someone) making the separation of this thing from that, destroying their inherent oneness.

As for the Tower of Babel, try looking up another book (it is summer, after all!) of short stories, Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang that has a really intriguing version of the Tower of Babel.

2? 10?
Date: 2005-05-03 09:30:51
Link to this Comment: 15027

This reminds me of the old joke: there are two kinds of people in the world.
This reminds me of a new joke: there are 10 kinds of people in the world.
(Those who can read binary and those who cannot.)

vector stories
Name: jan
Date: 2005-05-04 15:14:57
Link to this Comment: 15035

It's hard for me not to think of this in terms of specific examples. I wish, for example, that I could sit down with the pope and have him explain to me why he thinks condom use would dissipate the African population at a faster rate than would the spread of AIDS. He knows how the virus is spread, and I know what the objections to contraception are, but would we ever get past the point of the latter, which is the one that has meaning in doctrine and that I do not believe? (I do, however, see the value of extreme religious views about not taking lives or preventing them from happening insofar as they set a high bar for valuing life as much as we are able.) Would we ever get past the futility of relying on abstinence by the population, which he, I guess, is unable to accept?

boredom and belief
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2005-05-04 16:54:58
Link to this Comment: 15038

When Sharon recommended our looking up a... book...of short Ted Chiang that has a really intriguing version of the Tower of Babel, I thought, oh! that short story is particularly intriguing--and particularly useful--for this particular forum. It's actually called "The Tower of Babylon," and Chiang says that it's

Babylonian science fiction....the characters may be religious, but they rely on engineering rather than prayer. No deity makes an appearance in the story; everything that happens can be understood in purely mechanistic terms....It's in that sense that...the universe in the story resembles our own.

What Chiang's "Babylonian" story also provides is an answer to Judie's query, What does it mean that the myth ...implies that...creation of difference via new languages that separate...was brought as a judgment/ punishment?

What it means, Chiang says, is that it is time for a new story. I think so, too. See Where Do Stories Come From? for the Genesis version ("Without one language: the people are powerless to act...") laid alongside of a contemporary counter-narrative ("Without one language: the people have a means of discovering things they didn't know....In other words, it is the restraint itself which is productive of meaning").

The newly reactivated Language Working Group has also been playing w/ this idea, and associated notions that language use 1) arises from boredom and 2) is a way of dealing with puzzlement. That is: it's BECAUSE we don't understand one another that we have to keep on talking....

Occurs to me this afternoon that that sort of contrast between "closing" and "opening" conversations might be another useful way of describing the difference between fundamentalism ("delivery of information about which one is certain") and relativism ("inquiry as a means of addressing uncertainty"). Question still remaining for me is whether the former is/can be--and how?--supplanted by the latter. Are these incommensurables?

Another way, perhaps, of re-framing Jan's query to the Pope, who finds meaning in doctrine... that I do not believe?

Name: orah minde
Date: 2005-05-05 11:24:08
Link to this Comment: 15047

for a number of years now my summer jobs have been working with 3 year olds and this year for the first time i spent a whole year working at the thorne school in which i watched a group of 3 yr olds turn into 4 yr olds. i have found that this is the span when the kids start learing that language is a system that is more complex than a mere "getting what you need" system; they realize that, if used in a more complex fasion, language can be a "getting what you WANT" system. because "getting what you want" is alot of the time "getting what OTHERS want" a higher compexity of language can mean being able to use language so YOU get something that another does NOT get. some of the faster language developers have learned to wield language as a manipulator: to use language to "trick" the other, to HIDE meaning from the other . so, i'm wondering if the basic use of language is NOT in order to understand one another , but rather, in order to disable the other from truly seeing (and therefore having power over) us. (the book "holy terrors" by bruce lincoln (a haverford grad) compares the overtly religious rhetoric in bin laden's speeches to the hidden relious rhetoric of bush's speeches.) in this case, than, we have to keep on talking in order to maintain the BLOCKAGE between us. i love working with 3 year olds bc that feeling of pre-language connection: a connection that i suggest is deeper than any language-forged connection. i wonder: since we can't get back to that pre-language state: by learning language are we cloistering ourselves away from each other, or, do our language-knowing brains have the capacity to connect beyond langauage, to reach a place beyond ink-contained meaning ?

a terrain mapping report ...
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2005-05-06 14:11:00
Link to this Comment: 15061

I actually think we're on to something serious and useful here, but something that requires picking one's way pretty carefully and deliberately to avoid either slipping down one or another ravine or bumping into an unclimbable wall. Maybe that's inherent in serious/useful things? Anyhow, let me take a crack at mapping the terrain we seem to have found ourselves in ...

Off to one side, we have "fundamentalism", located somewhere down thataway, along a slope that no one here (so far) seems to want to descend. And that's actually a bit of a problem for our conversation/exploration. There do seem to be people who are interested in and familiar with that terrain and it would behoove us, if we're really trying to make sense of things around here, to get some information from those people. For the moment, though, we have to make do with the Pope's words, a concern about "letting onself be carried here and there by winds", and with "It's hard for me not to think in terms of specific examples ... I do, however, see the value of extreme religious views about not taking lives or preventing them from happening insofar as they set a high bar for valuing life as much as we are able". From which we might (tentatively) conclude that what is down that direction has some appealing features in terms of concrete day to day decisions and being able to make them with some sense of personal integrity/agency/control. But it also seems, at least to those in the current expedition, to have some problems ...

Off in another direction, we have Zen Buddhism, or something like it. Here too, of course, we could benefit from some people who have more experience with that terrain but, for the moment, we'll have to make do with what we have. The "Great Way" clearly does seem to speak well to peoples' distastes for/uncomfortablenesses about having to make binary choices, and certainly is supportive of greater diversity and interpersonal tolerance. But there may be some problems about "not distinuishing between = no difference". And, if we DO have to act in day to day terms and there ARE differences (or at least we perceive them) is it actually enough (or even possible/desireable) to "hold no opinions for or against anything"? Seems to me there are some possible risks down that slope as well ...

And then, off thataway, there is the language problem? Are we talking here (are people talking elsewhere) "BECAUSE we don't understand one another" or in order "to 'trick the other', to HIDE meaning from the other"?. My personal guess is that's a choice we all make all the time, and need perhaps to be more aware of, here and elsewhere. But that the language matter actually represents as well a deeper problem and choice. Why are we so concerned with "understanding" one another? with being understood ourselves? Is that possibly just another route down the "fundamentalism" slope? a substitution of interpersonal "understanding" for either oneness with God or the "Great Way"? "why not take the implications of difference seriously, and pay attention to variation and nuance?". Maybe we could take the fact that we are different from one another AND not fully capable of understanding one another as a good thing, not a bad one .... as a continuing and reliable source of "getting it less wrong"? And we could choose (and learn to more actively choose) to value that and encourage it, rather than trying to make it go away?

Which, of course, over thisaway, brings us to "relativism". Given that people seem to be moseying in other directions, I gather this one isn't too appealing either (yet?). And it does, of course, have a bad name, due not only to the Pope but to a connection to something I might call "postmodernist whateverism" as well. So let me make that distinction a little clearer. "Postmodernist whateverism" genuinely IS "letting oneself (and others) be carried here and there by the winds"; it is the position that not only is everyone (and every culture) different but that one stops with (or enjoys repeatedly showing) the conclusion that there is no legitimate general basis for adjudicating among the diverse possibilities presented, that they all must be accepted as equally valid.

"Relativism" (at least as I used the term originally) accepts the differences and the absence of any legitimate GENERAL basis for discriminating among possibilities. But it doesn't stop there, leaving one passively "carried here and there by the winds". Instead it says there are at any given time and place for any given person a whole host of quite legitimate and effective ways to discriminate among possibilities exists at that time and place. And that having lots of possibilities is an asset rather than a problem, since they are the grist from which one makes choices, has new experiences, and reshapes (again and again and again), onself and the repertoire of ways one has to discriminate among possibilities in the future.

Where's the downslope on that one? It seems to me to provide a way to make concrete, day to day decisions with integrity and at least some sense of control (at least as much as can be managed given that one is embedded in universe of other people and things). And it celebrates diversity while avoiding rigid binary choices and the (unreasonable? undesireable) ambition "to hold no opinions". It even gives us a reason to talk together. So whaddya all think? Can we mosey together in that direction and see what happens? If not, what am I missing?

slipping down the slope
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2005-05-06 18:43:05
Link to this Comment: 15067

I actually think we're on to something ...that requires picking one's way pretty carefully and deliberately to avoid...slipping down...a...ravine....

Maybe don't be so careful? A student of mine once posited a new state emerging from the act of slipping, a temporary loss of control that yields...a changed state that has moved away from "a standard" and into new thought and order. Instead of chastising people for "slipping"...perhaps we should consider ...[that] sometimes only by slipping we notice that there is something down there that needs to be cleaned up.

A fear of "slipping" could also keep us from descending the ravine we have to transverse, in order to reach the (higher) hill on the other side. A colleague of mine once proposed this method:

Start at a random place on a hill. Pick a direction to step. If the place you would step to is higher than where you are, make the step, otherwise stay where you are. This little algorithm will eventually take you to the top of the hill. However, it might might not take you to the highest place around because you could get trapped on a little plateau (i.e., you would have to step to a lower place before stepping to even higher ground).

A slightly better version of hill climbing allows you to take random steps sometimes, regardless of whether or not the step would put you on higher ground....start off taking random steps quite often, but then slowly curb the habit....

What could be better...? How about a whole group of people spread over the country side....they can communicate with each other. "Hey, I'm on high ground over here!" or "This area looks promising! Come over here!"

That's why we are so concerned with "understanding" one another" & with "being understood ourselves"--[not as] "just another route down the 'fundamentalism' slope," but as a way to get some help in negotiating the landscape, to make available to us answers that others, guarding other sheep in other valleys, have given, and thus to include them in the consultable record (Clifford Geertz, Interpretation of Cultures).

Name: Lucy Kerma
Date: 2005-05-06 20:09:29
Link to this Comment: 15068

I know this is picking, but I for one am having trouble with the term "relativism." I wonder if we are using it because it is the best articulation of the concept -- that each person makes his/her own decisions based on the best available information at any given time, not according to rules and without insisting on uniformity or agreement -- or just because the Pope placed it in opposition to fundamentalism. If the latter, why accept his terms? Seems to me it is uncomfortably close to “postmodern whateverism", at least as it is used in common parlance, and carries with it unnecessary baggage.

I like the basic concept, though. Reminds me of the advice I have always given my children: live your own life in your own terms, however scary it is to depend on yourself; and learn from and respect the difference of others. So, where should we go with it? Can we use it in this discussion to open new perspectives?

Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2005-05-08 22:53:05
Link to this Comment: 15086

I know this is picking, but I for one am having trouble with the term "relativism."

My carelessly metonymic brain (which takes a word and then runs circles around it) picked up on this nit-picking. When my kids were little, they had more lice than I care to remember, and I spent more Saturday mornings than I care to remember picking lice out of their hair. And there seemed no other way to get rid of them, than pick them out, one by one. Being "picky" about relativism--actually, being picky about the words we use in general, and conscious of/responsible for the associations they evoke-- seems as necessary to me as picking the lice out of my children's hair--and as potentially productive (see various meanings for "lousy": 1) infested 2) disgusting, but also 3) well supplied/teeming...).

So--here's where Lucy's invitation to "pick" took me....

Having taken that notion of binaries about as far (okay: further) than it could usefully go, I tried something new/the reverse: not just synthesizing, or even diffusing, but refusing/replacing the dicotomy w/ a continuum. I took my inspiration both from Doug Blank (in the Emergence forum: "there is no fundamental distinction...there is a continuum") and from a weekend just spent at the Centennial Conference Track and Field Championships, where the (my) favored runner got his best time ever...which didn't "really" matter, because three other guys ran faster. Which put me in mind of...

fundamentalism vs. relativism:

The way you chose to measure/the standard against which you measure yourself will affect how good you feel about your time....

but these runners don't actually choose between those binaries; absolute best/human best/personal best/comparative best all exist on a continuum.

And suddenly I thought: so do fundamentalism and relativism. I can show that they do etymologically (this will take a couple of minutes, but stay with me: I think there's a pay-off here). First, from Webster's:
fundamental: serving as a base, foundational (fr. L. fundus, bottom)
relative:1) not absolute, significant in comparison to something else
2) a species related to another by common origin
(see? the second "something else" to which a "relative" is compared is something primary, original, "foundational"; it derives from L. relativus, fr. referer, to carry back or trace, "with reference to"--think: referee).

Fundamentalism, etymologically (and yes, I think logically) is relativism, with reference to a different point of comparison: that which came first, rather than that which is concurrent. Ergo: both fundamentalism and relativism are fundamentally relative.

Something similarly fluid-and-dissolving happens when you look into the etymologies of (what I think are synonyms of "fundamental" and "relative") "dogmatic" and "pragmatic." To be "dogmatic" is to assert one's opinions arrogantly. Such assertions are deductive, based on a priori principles, but--the etymological surprise--"dogma" means opinion, fr. Gk. dokeo, seem. In contrast, being "pragmatic," or making decisions based on practical consequences, derives from pragma, which means "deed."

So get a load of this non-binary:

to trace/ascribe/carry back/refer to what is....
opiniondeed to do the same thing/one action.

Etymologically and logically, to be "pragmatic" is to be "dogmatic" (=dependent on opinion); etymologically and logically, to be "dogmatic" is also to be "pragmatic" (=dependent on practice, on deeds done). Just as being relative can involve looking for what is fundamental, and being fundamentalist is to be searching for what is related to what is.

want to mosey this way?
Name: Sharon Burgmayer
Date: 2005-05-08 23:27:54
Link to this Comment: 15087

Paul is wondering why, in this conversation, we're not moseying very far in the direction of relativism, instead of investigating all these side paths we've opened up along the way. It's not that relativism isn't appealing. It is. In fact, I suspect it's so self-evidently preferable for those of us who have posted in this forum, that there's no argument needed by us to affirm any perspective that "celebrates diversity while avoiding rigid binary choices". We see the value in Lucy's advice to her children, to "live your own life in your own terms, however scary it is to depend on yourself; and learn from and respect the difference of others" and we know Anne's right about how language is the vehicle to accomplish "understanding one another; a way to get some help in negotiating the landscape". We see no obvious "downslope" to relativisim.

But I wondered, as I played at being a devil's advocat for the fundamentalists, aren't there perhaps times when participation in a group whose values and beliefs are homogeneous could be useful? Like when a social structure is being created? If people never had the inclination to affiliate with kindred minds, wouldn't a cohesive and stable social structure be much slower to emerge?

Perhaps we could mosey in a direction where indeed both idealogies are useful—the preference of some folks for finding birds of (the same) feather and flocking together, as well as the preference of those other folks who prefer the diversity of being among people who don't think just like them and who are energized by difference. And can we imagine a time when the folks of a feather could look over at the folks of many colors and tastes, and smile and nod and say, that's good that they flourish by being individuals. And a time when the folks of many colors and tastes could peek in at the folks of a feather and smile to see what they have accomplished in their homogeneity.

And can we imagine how both ways could be valued by all for what they contribute to all?

the discontented god-sized void, revisited
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2005-05-10 16:01:50
Link to this Comment: 15102

Is an interesting idea, that different people may be differently susceptible to a "god-sized void"....Wonder where...the void is? ...suspect a "story" that provides too little meaning to make adequate sense of what is going on in the unconscious (which could in turn have to do with what the unconscious is (or isn't) feeding on empirically?). Worth thinking more about. Is perhaps relevant that Freud denied having "oceanic feelings" himself but acknowledged their existence in other people.

The New York Times Book Review ran a piece by Lee Siegel this past weekend (5/08/05) called "Freud and His Discontents," which seemed to me to pick up on Paul's musings, above, to "think more about" them, and to offer one possible answer to the question of wherein lies the source of the "god-sized void." Setting those "with faith in the inherent goodness of humankind" against those who espouse "Freudian skepticism," Siegel says,

Neither of these two groups will ever talk the other out of its worldview. In this sense the conflict is not between the Islamic world and the "liberal" West; it is between religious people everywhere and people who, like Freud, see faith as an illusion, a set of self-deceiving either grasp the reality of Freud's dynamic notion of the subconscious intuitively...or you cannot accept that it exists. For that reason, the most intractable division in the world now is between those who believe that the subconscious plays a fundamental role in human life, and those who don't. That's the real culture war, and maybe even the real clash of civilizations.

So--following Sharon's suggestion that birds of a feather could learn to appreciate birds of different feathers (and vice versa)--if consciousness could learn to appreciate the (fundamentally?!) rich resource that is the unconscious...

we'd all be in fat city?

And/but: can that not "ever" happen by talking (=collectively put(ting) faith in our own stories and story-sharing)? Can it only happen "intuitively"? And what role does/might story-telling play in altering our intuitive understandings, our unconscious?

Relatively Fundamental
Name: Wil Frankl
Date: 2005-05-11 15:24:10
Link to this Comment: 15118

Anne makes what seems to me a conciliatory claim regarding the essential similarity between “relativism” and “fundamentalism”, namely

Fundamentalism, etymologically (and yes, I think logically) is relativism, with reference to a different point of comparison: that which came first, rather than that which is concurrent. Ergo: both fundamentalism and relativism are fundamentally relative.

and I don’t mean to proclaim dogmatically any truth, but I do believe there is an important difference between the Big F and the Big R, heretofore, F & T. It rest on the concept of infinity…no beginning, no end, nothing created or destroyed. I will argue Kenneth’s position from his book “Finding Darwin’s God” which is essentially that you can generally explain all life and physical matter, except where it came from, but neither can you prove it came from god or that is did not come from god. However, if you assume all matter was always present, that is, if you deny the assumption of linear beginning and end, then you lose the necessity to ask where it came from and thus lose the necessity to even wonder about creation. Without creation all you can wonder about is change and that is more than covered by evolution and the generative process of emergence. (See many others who have done it better, Gould, Dawkins, Holland, Hofstadter etc.)

And unbounded infinity seems to me a useful paradigm that puts the search for meaning and a basis for action squarely on Paul Grobstein’s profound skeptism briefly

…that having lots of possibilities is an asset rather than a problem, since they are the grist from which one makes choices, has new experiences, and reshapes (again and again and again), oneself and the repertoire of ways one has to discriminate among possibilities in the future.

This is not to say that reductionism and some search for fundamentals is useless. As a scientist or at least one who is familar with the process, I am acutely aware of the need and usefulness of defining bounderies, explicitly asserting assumptions and then trying to derive useful generalizations. But that is always within a clearly defined space with clearly defined components/agents and interaction rules, which of course reduces to R, but not "postmodern whateverism". Science surely does not value all and any story, only the most useful, predictive and generative ones.

My point is to generally start from unbounded infinity and then F can always be defined relatively/contextually. Is infinity incommensurable with the idea of primacy - beginning and end? We see beginning and end all around us, death of our parents, our own looming death, but what of reincarnation, or the first law of thermodynamics - energy is neither created nor destroyed.

I see only change....? Einstein's invariants? Not entirely sure that the theory of relativity doesn't suffer from "essential incompleteness" of all formalized mathematics - i.e., they are all self-referential, have nothing "fundamental" to rest on. Or..maybe God created them.

Wow- anti-fundamentalist fundamentalism
Name: Judie McCo
Date: 2005-05-11 22:18:37
Link to this Comment: 15125

Wow- what a bunch of conversation was going on while I was out in St. Louis- and then grading papers!

Anyway- two quick thoughts:

PAul's notion about having multitudes of choices in relativism makes that sound like a good thing. Yet, there's a guy at Swarthmore- whose name of course escapes me now- who has written a book (maybe 5 years ago or so) about the oppressiveness of too many choices- ie people end up immobilized, overstimulated, and just plain grumpy when having to make a choice among too many choices. I find this affecting me when pulled back and forth between/ among competing notions of what is socially just, what requires some action, what are the bottom line social norms that have to be accepted to make relationships respectful ( a form of fundamentalism?)- Just for fun- friends of mine refer to these people as "Fundys".

So another thought- is anti- fundamentalism- as Anne said- all about the standard against which one is measuring- meaning that a sense of antipathy about fundamentalism becomes a form of fundamentalism itself? We love to dislike the fundys...

Ok- one more thought- when the women I interviewed for the dissertation were making their choices, they were overwhelmed with multitudes of information and choices- yet most elected to focus on just one aspect of the diagnosis, wait for more complete information about that one aspect, and then make decisions based on that. Are most of us really just fundamentalists who want to boil our options down to one (binary!!) question instead of keeping our eyes open (and overstimulated by..) the ,multitudes of choices/beliefs/ ways of being in the world?

Terrain mapping, Part 2
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2005-05-16 10:41:40
Link to this Comment: 15194

DO think we're continuing to make some progress here, and happy to be the fuddy-duddy who keeps an eye on things while others who prefer to slip and slide do so. So here's what I see as the additional issues that have arisen recently about relativism ...

  1. It seems insufficiently "social"
  2. It seems to be simply replacing one kind of fundamentalism with another (or relativism with another?)
  3. It requires that one "learn to appreciate the (fundamentally?!) rich resource that is the unconscious", with associated problems of how the unconscious and conscious influence one another
  4. It raises a specter of " the oppressiveness of too many choices"
  5. It has too much of a whiff of "postmodern whateverism" OR its too "self-evidently preferable" OR yeah, so what can we DO with it?".

I (obviously) think there is something to be said from the fuddy-duddy perspective, perhaps some things more visible there than from other locations, so, for whatever they're worth, some thoughts about the various concerns (and their relationships) , starting (and ending, I suspect) with the last. Relativism can't of course be BOTH "self-evidently preferable" AND distasteful (in some way), so there is, at a minium, something to be gained for our own understandings from the conversation so far. Moreover, there are obviously LOTS of people for whom relativism is very much NOT "self-evidently preferable" and so the story (if one wants to sell it) clearly needs to be sharpened.

I think item (2) is both a bit of a red herring and particularly important. Its a bit of red herring in that I don't think I would give up "relativism" for any form of the revealed word even if it WERE simply another variant of fundamentalism (or fundamentalism a variant of relativism). At the same time, the suggested symmetry of relativism (as I understand it) and fundamentalism (as I understand it) doesn't work for me, for reasons that may help to further clarify what I (we?) mean by relativism. One reason is fairly straightforward: relativism is a posture towards life that makes no claim for validity on any grounds other than the living of life itself. There is no first principle from which it can be defended or argued. Nor is there any assertion that there is any reason for others to adopt it, other than its possible usefulness to them in their own lives (which they are not only free but encouraged to judge on their own). Fundamentalism, on the other hand, presumes SOMETHING outside of one's own experience of living is a "base", a "foundation" from which some form of wisdom and wise choices can be derived. And that one can get others to agree by exhibiting the base and the things that derive from it, with that being presumed to be the same for all people (or by compelling acceptance of the base and what derives from it, and feeling justified in doing so). To put it differently, fundamentalism is "relative" to a fixed something. Relativism is not.

One can generalize this point, in a way that I think relates to "an important difference between the Big F and the Big R". While it does connect to infinity, Einstein, and related things, the point is actually quite simple and practically significant. One can measure own's own velocity, someone else's velocity, and by subtracting one from the other say how rapidly someone else is moving relative to onself. In this mode, the original velocity measurements were made relative to a fixed something (the earth in this case). One can however get the same number much more simply by starting with onself as a base and simply measuring the other person's velocity relative to oneself. In this mode, the measurement is genuinely "relative". There is no necessary presumption that ANYTHING is fixed or invariant (assuming, see below, that one understands that one is not onself fixed or invariant).

"The universe has lost its centre overnight, and woken up to find it has countless centres. So that each one can now be seen as the centre ..." (Berthold Brecht, Galileo). Everyone their own "centre" ... now THAT I assert is genuinely different from "the big F", whatever form it takes. Of course, it does perhaps exacerbate rather than ameliorate concerns related to item (1) above, both practically and generally. If everyone measured velocities only relative to themselves, we'd have some serious trouble comparing observations ("I'm sorry, officer, I was NOT going seventy; I was stationary"). And for this purpose it may well be convenient for people to agree to accept some common imaginary fixed reference point to refer to in common. Of course, there are times when the "consultable" record is useful. And there may even be purposes for which "participation in a group whose values and beliefs are homogenous could be useful". There is nothing in relativism that denies either of those possibilities. On the other hand, relativism, in the sense of "everyone their own centre", does disallow individuals defaulting responsibility for their own behavior on the grounds of responsibility to or a presumption of greater wisdom in some group. That might be a legitimate reason to not be comfortable with relativism, though my own experiences (and my reading of the history of human experiences) is that having individual choices (and the associated enhancement of alternatives) as a check on group behavior would not be at all a bad thing.

How confident can we be in the wisdom of individual choices? of our own choices? The answer, of course, is that there is no more guarantee of wisdom in ourselves than there is in any of the external things fundamentalists (of whatever ilk) one might appeal to. But there is, in each of us, a very large and distinctive mix of all those things, some conscious and some unconscious. And there is the ability to act based on some or all of it (unless we inhibit action by trying to sure we get things "right"; its interesting that a plethora of alternative actions may be bad if we have to "think" about them but doesn't seem to be a problem otherwise, and may even be an asset). And, perhaps mostly important, there is an ability to learn from our actions, to change not only what we understand and value but also how we understand and what we value. What matters most (in a "relativism" posture) is not the past, nor even the present, but our continuing evolution. For that, it seems to me, we each have all the wherewithal needed to do the best we can, and need only to encourage ourselves and others to use it.

So, that's what things are currently looking like from the fuddy-duddy (THIS fuddy-duddy perspective), and it IS, I think, sharpening the argument. "Relativism" as future-oriented, building alway on the past but not preoccupied with it. And "relativism" as denying neither the importance or value of social interactions but insisting that in the last analysis each individual is their own distinctive center. Waddya all think? Do we mosey THAT direction? And, if so, "where should we go with it? Can we use it in this discussion to open new perspectives?" Can we use it elsewhere?

Maybe a useful place to start is with the recognition that "relativism" (in the terms we're elaborating it here) is not itself a state but rather an "ideal", something we believe it to be desirable to move towards rather than something already achieved (and perhaps even something that can never be fully achieved). Like all humans, we each find it useful, at any given time, to act as if some things were fixed and foundational, out of passion as well as reason, out of fundamentals as well as relatives. None of this is inconsistent with the kind of relativism we're talking about here. What IS inconsistent is refusing to recognize the likelihood, even the desirability, that what we take as foundational at any given time may change in the future, and that we ourselves have a role to play in such changes. There are things (will always be?) in each of us, both conscious and unconscious, that are not fully consistent with a complete "relativism". We could commit ourselves to the task of finding and altering those, taking them not as "sins" but rather as the needed grist by which evolution occurs.

And we could approach others from that same perspective, recognizing that for others, as for ourselves, the ideal of relativism is a challenging one, one that flies in the face of many of the things we have grown up with, learned, and taken for granted. Maybe we should think of the fundamentalism/relativism distinction not as categories into which to place people but rather as a spectrum along which we encourage and help people (others as well as ourselves) to move. Thinking of it this way, we can both listen to other peoples' stories for whatever contributions they might make to our own, and tell our own for whatever use they might prove to be to others. To put it differently, we could use the ideal of relativism to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, to listen and talk to others in a way that encourages their own movement towards greater relativism as well as our own.

Finally (for the moment), we could commit ourselves not only as individuals but also as parents, teachers, participants in various communities, professional and otherwise, to the same task. We are contributors to social structures that in one way or another discourage individuals from creating themselves as their own centers. Maybe we could give some thought to those social structures, to how well they do (or do not) encourage everyone to think of themselves as their own center and so build successful communities on that foundation, and how each of us might contribute to altering social structures so they are more effective in this regard? Does that ambition perhaps provide some new directions for conversation here?

"Truth comes out of error more readily than out of
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2005-05-16 14:34:48
Link to this Comment: 15196

Not so fast.

I think [the claim that relativism] seems to be simply replacing one kind of fundamentalism with both a bit of a red herring and particularly important.

Not quite able (yet) to see the redness of this herring/irrelevance of this query. If

...relativism is a posture that makes no claim for validity on any grounds other than the living of life itself. [If] there is no first principle from which it can be defended or argued,

then I'm still not getting how these claims hold:

What matters most in a relativism posture is not the past, but our continuing evolution ....Relativism as not itself a state but rather an ideal, something we believe it to be desirable to move towards.

Life? Evolution? Growth? An orientation to the future? An ideal to aim for? These seem to me first principles. Values. Desired ends. Measured relative to something prior (if not fixed): a trajectory, an arc of development, from some chosen point--like where we were yesterday.

...we could use the ideal of relativism to give everyone the benefit of the a way that encourages their own movement towards greater relativism...insisting that in the last analysis each individual is their own distinctive center...

If relativism is a (never fully realizable) ideal, a "last analysis" in which evolution is valued over stasis, one's own (moving) centre over (fixed) group norms (and moving group norms over an individual's fixed center?)...isn't it not relative? Mightn't it taste somewhat of fixed-ness and fundaments....?

To smell of dead fish?

Name: Lucy Kerma
Date: 2005-05-23 12:38:38
Link to this Comment: 15227

Watching the meltdown in the Senate got me coming back to this conversation. Not to label either side in these terms -- I don't think naming (or do I mean name-calling?) is all that useful -- but rather to think about the issues around extremism that are destroying not only international relations, but conversation in this country as well. Paul's thought about giving people the "benefit of the doubt" struck a chord for me. There's got to be a way for people to have and tell their own stories, and listen to and respect others -- and then to move beyond that to finding a way to get along. That's where the issue of what to "do" with this insight becomes so important for me.

Jihad via McWorld
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2005-05-24 08:34:28
Link to this Comment: 15229

The Graduate Idea Forum Study Group is reading a new book this week which added some insight, for me, to the intractability of the questions of extremism we've been talking about here. The book is Jihad vs. McWorld: Terrorism's Challenge to Democracy, by Benjamin Barber, and--briefly--its argument is that the forces of "Jihad" (disintegral tribalism and reactionary fundamentalism) and those of "McWorld" (integrative modernization, economic and cultural globalization) exist in an interdependent and dialectical relationship.

Barber refigures "Jihad vs. McWorld," in other words, as "Jihad via McWorld": The homogenizing reach of laissez-faire markets exacerbates human psychological needs for identity and community, while (contri-wise) the assertions of tribal identity are appropriated and commodified in various market niches. Fundamentalism and globalization feed one another reciprocally, and one of Barber's claims is that--since our human needs for both security and freedom are by nature insatiable--they cannot but be dependent on one another. We cannot but seek out security when the freedom gets too frightening, cannot but seek out freedom when the security gets too claustrophobic. (Barber's lament is that civil democracy is not served--is actively undermined--by both the particularism of tribes and the globalization of the market; neither respects the conveniently in-between-sized structure of nation-states. )

Barber's "Jihad and McWorld" don't map exactly, of course, onto "fundamentalism and relativism," but it seems to me that there might be a helpful intersection here. The profound (sic) interdependence Barber identifies might help make some sense of the current seemingly-intractable stalemate among fundamentalists of different stripes, as well as between fundamentalists and relativists of all stripes, by highlighting the ways in which the particularism of fundamentalism and the globalization of relativism keep one another perpetually in play. So far, in telling our stories, we seem largely to activate counter-stories, oppositional ones. The larger the claims of globalization, the more intense the counter-claims of the local; the more intense the claims of the particular, the larger the counter-claims of integration and homogenization.

getting rid of "isms"?
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2005-05-24 14:20:04
Link to this Comment: 15233

Recent Senate happenings and Jihad vs McWorld are both germane, of course. And good reminders that what's at issue is real life problems in real life worlds. So maybe the "isms" are useful insofar as they give us the wherewithal to conceive new ways to approach contemporary problems and not worth arguing about themselves?

Along those lines, it does strike me as interesting that fundamentalism and globalism (at least in the economic sense of that term) may feed off of/reinforce one another. And that both are forces of "homogenization". No, I don't think that maps onto "fundamentalism and relativism", but it certainly says (to me at least) that one doesn't want to equate (or permit others to equate) "globalism" and "relativism", anymore than one wants to allow people to equate "tyranny" and "relativism". More importantly, perhaps, it suggest that perhaps one wants to encourage "heterogenization" as an antidote to both fundamentalism and globalism.

Maybe this is another reason to argue for the idea of encouraging everyone "to be their own centers"? As a way to correct the evident shortcomings that result from forces of homogenization of whatever kind? What might one do in (and about) one's own life to encourage heterogenization? What social/economic/political changes might one try to bring about with the same objective? What could we call efforts to enhance heterogenization, something that doesn't end with "ism" and wouldn't encourage or even allow others to add an "ism" to it?

Cute- but ism- watching isn't enough
Name: Judie McCo
Date: 2005-05-24 18:25:39
Link to this Comment: 15234

My gut reaction/ immediate response is that many of your questions- albeit good ones- have been answered in the sixities. Question authority! Don't trust anyone over thirty (presumedly a stand-in for questioning entrenched ideas)! These seem the answers to keeping things heterogenized. Of course, I certainly have seen that this kind of questioning tends to scandalize/ alienate/isolate those who practice the "profound skepticism" (uh-oh- an 'ism') this kind of answer entails. As we discussed earlier, people in power certainly have no interest in rocking the status quo (no ism there). So as much as I like the notion, I'm not sure the ism thing holds- but I'm all for a society that allows questions instead of believing it has all the answers.

Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2005-05-24 20:55:39
Link to this Comment: 15236

From Jihad vs. McWorld: "Life cannot be both in play and in earnest."

Can too.

And I can't resist stepping off from skepticism (uh-oh- an 'ism').


"-ism" is the suffix which has, classically, been used to turn a verb into a noun (=action into stasis; for example, to criticize becomes "criticism," the thing done). But curiously it is also a word itself, a "quasi-noun" meaning a form of practice with a distinctive character, used disparagingly, with implied reference to schism.

The OED provides a whole range of apt derivatives:
'ismal: pertaining to an ism
'ismate: to furnish with the suffix -ism
is'matic: adherent of an ism
(hence is'maticalness)
'ismatize: to designate with an ism
and--my favorite--
'ismdom: the world of isms.

The OED also supplies a couple of great usages: In 1884, mention was made of "all the influences, ismal or dismal," and in 1888 "every ismatic who wants something without knowing just what it is."

So, proposed first step in the enhancement of heterogenization: refusing the 'ismatic, ending 'ismdom.

Name: Lucy Kerma
Date: 2005-05-25 16:57:02
Link to this Comment: 15241

Isn’t “heterogenization” really just another way of getting at a long-time theme here, of the importance of appreciating and validating different perspectives in our efforts to create inclusive and well-functioning communities -- even while recognizing that these are subject to change and growth? Do we really need to worry so much about all these abstract definitions, these endless “isms” and “ismdoms”?

What I found interesting – and at least temporarily promising – about the Senate compromise was the effort at moderation. I don’t want to get into whether it is really “homogenization” or not, but it does seem to me that finding middle ground – “enlightened self interest” between seeming poles – can be a useful thing in real world situations. I particularly appreciate the language of “checks and balances” that has dominated the national discussion: that the filibuster protects the rights of the minority and balances the will of the majority; that the Senate, with its traditions, balances the more “democratic” House; that the Congress represents one check and balance in the division of power in the government – which of course comes back to the essential issue of judicial independence to begin with, that famous balance of power among the three branches of government.

Maybe there is more than just claims and counter-claims.

Name: Elizabeth
Date: 2005-05-29 11:05:25
Link to this Comment: 15258

I think that this forum needs to spend some time playing on the swings or standing on its head. That is to say, I think it could benefit from something completely unrelated entering into its space or from more work in metaphor. In spite of saying this, I'm going to add belatedly to what has, perhaps, already been discussed (I have only followed the trail about two steps back and not even visited its source) and speak in the way that discussion has been going on. This is because I do not quite know how to make this forum stand on its head.

I was thinking that the Fundamentalist viewpoints often stem from moments of psychological trauma and the inability to handle trauma. If there is a situation that is uncontrolable, we want to control it and so believing in only one thing, or that that thing is right is comforting. And to really see something as relative must be to fully embrace the reason for fundamentalist viewpoints (maybe this is what we're trying to do in this forum? not sure.) If you are hit by someone, the first thing you do is not to go home and weigh different options for how to make yourself feel better, it usually is just to put one single thing on the place where you have been hurt, immediately. Then, when the extreme hurt has lessened, other options seem to open can go to the doctor, or lie down, or listen to meditative tapes or... This is related to fundamentalism. Every relativist is always a fundamentalist first. Relativism is something that is taught and then embraced, the starting point is often fundamentalism. When counting, who starts with 100 and works backwards? People generally start with one and build up. No one counts like this 54 89 1002 1....You start with one thing, then choose to open up. So (as indicated in one of the steps backwards in this forum)...relativism is indeed a choice. Perhaps human instinct lies in fundamentalism?

I was playing with my young cousins again and trying to get them to share and take turns inventing games for the marbles. When it was Carrie Jean's turn to play with the marbles (she is seven), my cousin George Thomas (almost 4) said "Her games are boooorrring." To which my cousin Carrie Jean replied "His games are STUUUPID". I asked Carrie Jean to tell George Thomas that his games were stupid without any anger in her voice or without exaggerating the word (i didn't say it in those terms because one can't get through to a seven year old like that...the methodology was imiatating how she was saying STUUUPID until she laughed and then saying it another way to see if she could do it). Then I (sort of) got George Thomas to do the same. This to me, was a good step towards getting them to see multiple viewpoints. That is to say, articulating the singular viewpoint without anger.

Then, since George Thomas still didn't want to play Carrie Jean's game, we put Carrie Jean's stuffed bunny in his place and he played alone, finally getting frustrated and taking some of Carrie's marbles. To this I said that he needed to ask Carrie if he could have the marbles and he said "if i ask her, she won't give them to me." And I told him that sometimes even when you ask the answer is still no, but you need to ask anyway. So he asked for the marbles and Carrie gave them to him. And I told him that we were almost done with Carrie's game, that it was almost his turn. But what he wanted was not the marbles but to destroy Carrie's game and prove that his was better. He could not see the games as simply different. This goes back to the idea that articulating difference is sometimes more useful than saying that one thing is better than another thing.

When it came time for George Thomas's marble game, i noticed that it was strikingly simlar to Carrie's and pointed out how he was setting them up in similar ways. Then he said "but you have to trow the marbles in the center instead of moving the side marbles". And then Carrie said "oh, so it's like my game but none of the marbles on the sides move." and George Thomas said "YES." And then all of a sudden all of us were playing the second game (including the stuffed bunny of course).

Realizing the difference and similarities made everyone comfortable playing the game. I would like to suggest, in a broader sense, that since we are all human, we are playing with the same finite possibilities and's just that some of us are willing to push the marbles edges outward and some of us want to play the game by throwing the marbles into the center of an established framework. And that of course, both can eventually play together.

Perhaps a rearticulation of the same story or a misunderstanding of the terms, but maybe productive in all that...And, not to belittle what I'm saying but I think that mostly it was just fun to talk about marbles and stuffed bunnies.

The Jedi Pynchon's Response to Benedict.
Name: Wil Frankl
Date: 2005-05-31 11:15:53
Link to this Comment: 15261

At Cornell's graduation ceremony this past weekend I was pleasently suprised by the
address (here, in it's entirety) to Cornell graduates of 2005 given by Cornell's President, Jeffrey S. Lehman. It seems to me a not so subtle response to Benedicts' "Call to Arms" against relativism. Below is just the most obvious points he made to pique your interest.

....After you leave Cornell, you will have the opportunity to take positions of authority and responsibility. In those roles you will be required to act under conditions of uncertainty, to use your best judgment about what is going on when you have little information. These will be wonderful opportunities for you to do good in the world. They will invite you to draw on your very best qualities – your compassion, your intelligence, your intuition.

And at these moments you will also have the opportunity to negotiate the temptations of the Tristero Dark Side. It will be surprisingly easy to believe that you know more than you do, to see more order in the universe than is really there, to see less entropy, to see conspiracies where there is only coincidence. It will take hard work to remind yourself of the limits of your own knowledge, to stay receptive to new evidence, to keep an open mind, especially when you feel very real time pressures weighing on your decision.

Think, for example, of the national leaders who must assess the danger posed by other countries. The journalists who must decide how much credence to give an anonymous tip. The labor negotiators who must decide whether to trust the latest representations that management has made to them. In these contexts, people are naturally tempted to connect the dots. It is more satisfying to know the answer than to live with ambiguity. And often it is easiest to have that answer take the form of malevolence, or conspiracy. It is so tempting to rush to judgment.

And yet, you can defeat the temptations of the Windigo Dark Side and the Tristero Dark Side. You do not have to develop moral tunnel vision. You do not have to rush to judgment. I am happy to provide you with five strategies for staying true to your best selves. Think of them, if you will, as the five virtues of a Jedi Master: a love for complexity, a patient spirit, a will to communicate, a sense of humor, and an optimistic heart.....

finite=fundamental? infinite=relative?
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2005-06-01 21:47:15
Link to this Comment: 15282

Skipping back over the lessons of the Jedi Master to get back to the marble game(s)....

I'm smiling very broadly @ Elizabeth's playful description of the evolution of a game that *everyone* could enjoy....

And/but I have a couple of observations/questions. I was very struck by her account of George Thomas's desire to destroy his big sister's game, to "prove that his was better." We discussed this in the Emergent Working Group this morning: the desire of some (are these fundamentalists?) to "understand better than others" what's up/what's "truthful" (vs. the desire of others--are these relativists?--to "open up new spaces").

Which brings me back to Elizabeth's gloss that we are playing with the same finite possibilities and's just that some of us are willing to push the marbles edges outward and some of us want to play the game by throwing the marbles into the center of an established framework.

I actually think our differences go deeper than that:
some of us believe that the possibilities are finite.
Others of us do not.

Is that another way of distinguishing the fundamental from the relative?

And might the bridge between us be...

widening the search space?
and/while acknowledging its limits/the rules which govern it?

contradicting myself to get to O
Name: Elizabeth
Date: 2005-06-02 20:14:10
Link to this Comment: 15289

I actually think our differences go deeper than that:
some of us believe that the possibilities are finite.
Others of us do not. -Anne's post.

It's interesting to consider that the difference between finite and infinite is two letters. Perhaps finite and infinite are not two different words but actually the same word (in terms of meaning), not as one person might have brown hair and another black hair but as one person might dye her hair black when it was originally brown. It is the same hair in a different form. I don't think that I'm quite saying that the infinite is made up of finite bits...I really am saying that they are the same. Or that maybe, to get to a new place (lets call it O since i do not know the significance of this place or why I want to get there), ((footnote: That is the letter O, not a zero...pronouced Oh. As in Oh yes and Oh dear.)) To get to O one should open one's mind just for a moment to considering that finite and infinite are the same. [here would be where i would puzzle the way in which they are the same to sound convincing, but i am not sure of how to do so] If they are the same then it is just an illusion that some people consider themselves relativists and some fundamentalists. These are labels that get in the way of being human beings, of "understanding" human essence. And if we thought about how fundamentalism and relativism were the same, we would eventually get to the point where neither exist (close cousin to finite) and they both exist in thousands of wordless incarnations (close cousin to infinite). If we got to this point, then perhaps we would say "O(h)!" And having gotten to O, have nothing else to say because we would understand our position as "beings." That is to say, we'd understand that there was no need to puzzle over stories or labels. We'd be playing together quite well then, I think. *^&%, who wants to get to O then. Forget that. Perhaps if I were brave enough, I'd continue there. Right now, I want to save that particular journey for another day.

not doing unto others what you would not have done
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2005-06-03 14:27:02
Link to this Comment: 15290

we'd understand that there was no need to puzzle over stories...

I think Elizabeth's on to something here. Judie McCoyd just recently shared a book w/ me by Karen Armstrong, The Spiral Staircase, which I also found very compelling (found myself still reading @ 3 a.m.....). It's full of insight about cultural abilities/disabilities and religion. Here's a taste that seems particularly apt for this forum:

Jesus had...taught a version of Rabbi Hillel's Golden Rule...."Do not do unto others as you would not have done unto you"....I think Hillel's version is better than Jesus'....It takes more discipline to refrain from doing harm to others. It's easier to be a do-gooder and project your needs and desires onto other people. When they might need something quite different....

...theology is just not important in Judasim, or in any other religion, really. There's no orthodoxy....Within reason, you can believe what you like....We have orthopraxy instead of orthodoxy..."Right practice" rather than "right belief." We Jews don't bother much about what we believe. We just do it instead. Or not do it--if you follow Hillel...."

Sounds like pragmatism to me: just DO it, stop trying so hard to make up a STORY (=construct a belief system) to explain WHY you are doing it...

and see what emerges!

Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2005-06-10 16:20:13
Link to this Comment: 15322

Recently saw Crash (showing at the new Bryn Mawr Film Institute). Strongly recommend it to anyone interested in the realities of trying to create a more effective pluralistic society. See elsewhere for thoughts along these lines.

Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2005-06-13 18:57:33
Link to this Comment: 15339

Crash is most relevant to these discussions of fundamentalism and relativism.
So too (as Sharon Burgmayer first mentioned here weeks ago) is Buddhism.

another relevant bit ...
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2005-06-15 10:21:46
Link to this Comment: 15346

Caught on NPR's SoundPrint last night a bit of a report called "A Complicated Friendship" ( About a Candian radio producer who created the report and his "unusual - but long running - friendship with a fundamentalist preacher in Kentucky". Relevant to our conversations here, particularly in re "We need to find ways to make common cause with those whose perspectives are different from our own, to live in ways that are more fully engaged with them".

more complicated/complicating friendships
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2005-06-19 13:20:18
Link to this Comment: 15356

I'm just coming up for air after four days of engagement in the annual conference of the Friends Association for Higher Education, an organization of intellectuals and academics who have serious faith lives, and see themselves as being guided by spirit. (Complicated friendships indeed, not just among but within.)

One session of particular interest to me--and I think of particular relevance to this forum--was trying to see if the postmodern conception of the "decentered self" could be compatible with the Quaker tradition of "centering": if there is no center within (or without?), what do we center on, with--and how? The presenter, Roy Gathercoal, first juxtaposed three world views and their core values (a core value being "that which needs no further explanation"):

There are trade-offs in each view (in the modern world, for example, where science reigns, there exist difficulties in dealing with the nonquantifiable: "if it is not sense data, or derivable from that," then it is "non-sense," not real).

Here's another concrete example:
Among a group of students returning from a semester abroad,

The first two of these cases might be understood as acts of "strip mining" or "narrative mining"; that is, as "extracting" narratives from others not in order to have a reciprocal exchange, but rather to 1) assure ourselves of our own superiority or 2) to benefit ourselves alone.

Next step: if we conceive of the postmodern self not as a "thing" (as it is in modern and popular conception), but rather as a place, where we put into play a set of strategies for selecting/suppressing/compartmentalizing some of the great cacaphony of discourses each of us hears within, then

The interesting discussion which followed dealt, in part, with the challenge that "organizing" that internal space is a "modern" approach to a "postmodern" condition. "What" is it that imposes order here? What better words might describe what goes on, for instance, in a Meeting for Worship? Receptivity (listening without having to sort out or order)? Equilibrium or balance? Moderating? A civil internal dialogue? Foregrounding some thoughts and feelings, while allowing others to drop into the background? Mention was also made of all the current work being done on self-organizing systems, of the variety of ways in which, in the absence of an external actor, complex structures can evolve through random interactions.

All of this seems to me quite helpful in our discussion here of fundamentalism and relativism, because it clarifies the different investments/values held by each world view, and so helps to explain why we continually talk "past" rather than "with" one another, and why those exchanges result in no changes on either "side."

Several other accounts of attempts made to moderate between varieties of voices/complicated friendships (particularly among the "scientific" and the "religious") at the conference can be found @

Name: joseph bac
Date: 2005-08-19 15:33:10
Link to this Comment: 15906

Merriam-Websters 11th Collegiate Dictionary fundamentalism 1:----- 2: a movement or attitude stressing strict and literal adherence to a set of basic principals. -Islamic fundamentalism- -political fundamentalism-

i.e. anti-scientific, unless you are talking about the scientific method. In that case of course scientists are scientific fundamentalist.

would the practice of scientific fundamentalism be called --groan-- scientism?

against scientism
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2005-08-19 16:23:31
Link to this Comment: 15908

Groan indeed. Some of us scientists think it is actually possible to be one without "strict and literal adherence to a set of basic principles" other than "getting it less wrong". See Revisiting Science in Culture and Getting It Less Wrong, The Brain's Way: Science, Pragmatism, and Multiplism. Useful stories?

regarding the concept of fundamentalism & relativi
Name: dan collin
Date: 2005-11-27 19:46:45
Link to this Comment: 17173

It seems that to consider fundamentalism or relativism as valid approaches towards a better society is to continue being held captive by words.

Is not any 'ism' simply just another way to instruct?

And, wouldn't it be more self-instructive (and it surely is obvious that we may not go further societarily until we each become more adept at living individually) to see for oneself, rather than take the short cut of attending to words of another?

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Name: Webmaster
Date: 2007-04-26 12:41:07
Link to this Comment: 21713

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