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What makes things different.

  1. Jul 13, 2005 #1
    In an earlier discussion on this list, a few people came to a conclusion that all systems of belief are the same at some core level. That comment caused me to contemplate how someone might so conclude. This post is a bit of my initial thoughts on that.

    Let's start with a person who holds to some system of beliefs. That person might hold to something (something that is part of his system) as an essential item, but an outside observer (maybe a Western Philosopher) might come along and conclude that the same thing is a peripheral matter in relationship to the whole. And if this observer can identify all the peripheral things, then he will feel as if he has arrived at some core set of items in the other person's system (useful for comparing).

    This search for a core -- the search for the essence of a thing -- seems to me to be Western. It is what we do in science. We figuratively boil things down to their essence, and call that the sine-qua-non (that which without) of the thing.

    Perhaps it is only outsider observers who delight in boiling down systems of beliefs. Often the parishioner of a system sees everything in their system as a united whole -- all of it being essential in one way or another.

    For example, one day might be marked out as special (a day on the calendar, or a day of the week). That itself will be viewed as peripheral to the outsider since many systems have special days. But, to the practitioner in the system, there is no neat division between non-essential and essential – everything is essential in its own way.

    Keeping the example going: As a Westerner thinker, I might be trained to filter out the idea of "a special day" as common among systems -- and fail to see how this abstract idea of a day might actually be a profound boundary marker

    That is, I tend to reductionism because philosophy teaches me to. I am the one who thinks that having a special day is a common thing. It might be a mistake for me to say the idea of a segregated day is peripheral -- that could be me imposing my idea of "finding the essential."

    Any thoughts? I might be very unclear in this, but I wanted to throw it out there for discussion.


    Steve Rives
    Last edited: Jul 13, 2005
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 14, 2005 #2
    Nice question. I see what you're saying. An outsider is more likely to look for points of difference and of similarity between belief systems, dispassionately, without having to be overprotective of their paradigmatic beliefs. Makes sense to me. Thus they arrive at a core of commonality. This seems like reductionism in pursuit of holism.

    But I'm not sure why you conclude that the 'search for the core' is a Western or scientific trait. I would argue precisely the reverse, that science is the exploration of the peripheral, and that 'Western' philosophical thinking embodies difference as a fundamental principle, in the form of dualism and the 'tertium non datur' rule. This leads to a proliferation of contradictory beliefs in these areas of research, as it leaves people free to decide metaphysical questions according to their prejudices, temperament etc., rather than go beyond these fundamental antimonies and find their resolution in sameness.

    Thus, to give one example, some people are materialists, some people are idealists, but mystics are neither, for they argue that the truth is that materialism/idealism is a false antimony.

    This is difficult to discuss without risking closure of the thread but, briefly, one might say that mysticism is the search for the core, and that in mystical practice it is found that all differences, and I mean ALL differences, are unreal, artefacts of ignorance as to the true nature of reality, which is said to be rooted in "undifferentiated sameness", to use a term from Zen.

    I know this is not quite what you meant, that you are focusing on differences in beliefs, but there is a close relationship betwen the transcendence of the differences between belief systems, achieved by identifying what they have in common once stripped of 'special days' and the like, and the transcendence of ontological differences, as between subject and object, past and future, good and evil, east and west and so on. This is because, it is said, if successful with reducing the ontological differences then the syncretisation of belief systems becomes straightforward. I'd expand on this but am wary of the moderators.

  4. Jul 14, 2005 #3
    I was thiking of the Platonic and neo-Platonic (even Kantian) notion of being. For example, that there is an ideal that defines horseness. It is the concept of "essence" that I understand as Western (of course, I might by mistaken on my history or Plato, and certainly essence is not unique to the West; I am addressing its employment for the task of discovery).

    Yes, but even that, I think, fits my main point. That there is even such a thing as "peripheral" is something accepted a-priori. Where would we get that? Perhaps from thinking (like Plato) that there is an essence (ergo there is a peipheral). If we applied this to the study of systems of beliefs, I could see how someone might end up interpreting everything as peripheral!

    Yes -- and maybe my next few words will be too philosophical or speculative -- given "difference as a fundamental principle", how do we go about finding the things that are different?

    It seems that in finding how two things are different, we also discover how they are the same, and, at the same time, we deduce an essence that is unique to each one. In the case of the previous religious theread, this was the method followed to discover that all major religions were the same (i.e. having no real differences in essence).

    I may be very unclear here. If I sound like I am speaking nonsense, it may be because I am! But, in my own mind I am seeing a pattern that marks the approach that allows for the flattening of belief systems. Namely, reduce everything to peripheral and then say everything is really the same in essence (and hence we could have one unified system of beliefs). The method goes: Even if the peripherals are different, we can still end with the same essence.


    Well, that's one solution. But it still assumes that differences can be extracted and then flattened into a sameness. I am really trying to get even behind that by saying the identification of differences assumes a non-difference at some level. When really, that level of sameness might not exist except for the differences (or for any other number of reasons).

    No need to expand, I think I follow you perfectly. It is too bad that we have to talk with all this vagueness speech. After all, we are not defending a religion -- there are enough people who can't talk about religion in particular without assigning value (positive or negative), that we have to distance ourselves from that with our vague or technical words. To avoid appearing like those who can't talk about religion without assessing it, here we are talking with all these grand terms that thinly mask a discussion of religion. But, so be it.

    Anyway, to address what you wrote in this last paragraph. Your main point is: "if successful with reducing the ontological differences then the syncretisation of belief systems becomes straightforward."

    But what I am wondering is if this division between the big categories (good and evil, subject and object) is not so tightly bound with the practices and beliefs that they really are not categories unto themselves -- I am thinking now of some of the American Indian religions.

    Of course, in all of this, I may not even be following a valid path of inquiry. So I appreciate the probing posts.

    Last edited: Jul 14, 2005
  5. Jul 15, 2005 #4
    Ah, sorry, I slightly misread your post. Would it be right to say that you're talking here about 'essence' in an epistemilogical sense, as in how we decide to categorise things? In that case we are slightly at cross-purposes.

    When I suggested that many or most religions have a common core I didn't mean as categories. I meant that they arise from a common source and differ only on peripheral issues, that by reduction they share the same ontology, to rather misuse the word, just as pianos and horses share the same ontology. In the same way a number of rivers might arise from a common source and all carry the same water but end up hundreds of miles apart and seemingly distinct. An investigation of their origins will reveal their sameness.

    Trivially, as I think you are suggesting, all religions must share some essential property, since otherwise they would not fall into the 'religion' category. Likewise, all scientific theories must share a common property underneath the peripherals since they all belong in a single category. But it would be difficult to argue from this that all scientific theories are equivalent, and this is not at all the basis of my argument about religious differences, or the arbitrariness of our judgement of differences in general.

    I suppose an analogy might be the wave and particle descriptions of light. The two descriptions are utterly inconsistent with each other in one way, but really thay are just different ways of talking about or conceptualising the same thing. All this is connected to the yin/yang symbol, used to represent both difference and sameness, the principle by which, at the limit, epistemilogical or apparent differences reduce to ontological or actual unity. It is a struggle to discuss sameness and differences without discussing Taoism. Hamlet, I think, says that "There is nought good or bad but man doth make it so," or words to that effect. Shakespeare was a fair philsopher, and it seems safe to take this as a comment on the way in which human beings create apparent distinctions which are conceptual rather than real.

    That's not quite what I was suggesting. Yes, all religions share a common property since we have used this property to define them as religions in the first place. But I was claiming an equivalence, not just a common defining property. A not quite accurate analogy here might be the training of an athlete. There are many different methods of training, and a method is usually not absolutely better or worse than any other but, rather, just more or less appropriate to the athlete. However the goal is always the same.

    This would work, but I'm not sure it would have any purpose if all differences are simply defined as peripheral. By this method we would end up with just the core defining property of a religion, a knowldge of how we use langauge. We would be investigating no more than how we use the term 'religion'. To really explore the extent to which religions are the same means deciding what is peripheral or non-fundamental in their teachings and practices and what is not on the basis of some guiding hypothesis.

    Yes, but this is not proposed as a theoretical solution or methodology but as a fact about reality. It does not take the form "Let us assume that differences are conceptual rather than ontological or real," it states that they are. It is a scientifically testable statement said to be based on knowledge.

    Well, it doesn't necessarily assume anything. Perhaps it can be known that differences are mental constructs. It's a good point though. When one takes away the differences the things themselves seem to evaporate. Perhaps this is what lies behind this comment - "Sin, as such, does not exist." (attrib. Jesus, Gospel of Thomas).

    (Sorry to dissect your post like this but I find it easier to stay on track). I agree with you here. It's like playing golf with with one hand tied behind your back. Half the issues cannot be mentioned.

    This sounds like an interesting point but I don't quite understand it as put. I know nothing about the American Indian religions but would like to. Can you clarify this para. a bit?

    It seems very valid to me. But I think we are still at cross purposes in some ways. Hopefully this will resolve itself. Unfortunately I suffer from an inability to be either brief or clear. Sorry about that.

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