Dogma, Ideology and Truth

by George Hatjoullis

Dogma is a set of axioms that is laid down by some authority as incontrovertibly true. Ideology is a set of goals, expectations and actions, conscious or unconscious, or more simply a way of looking at things. Ideology may be rooted in dogma but need not be. Truth is a difficult and complex concept and arguably the source of all human conflict. It continues to challenge philosophers and is not going to be resolved in this blog (I am not that arrogant). The issue of interest is the role that the pursuit of truth plays in human society and the good, and harm, that it may cause. The controversial element, the gestaltz element if I may, is that the pursuit of truth may be harmful to humankind.

To pursue truth presupposes it exists. A truth indeed exists but what of The Truth? Underlying all human endeavour and culture there seems to be a notion of foundational truth. It is something upon which all other knowledge is built. It is a fixed point in human understanding and meaning which anchors all understanding and meaning and from which everything flows. Dogmas function like foundational truths that someone has decided upon and many people have accepted. It seems human society cannot function unless it believes it has uncovered a foundational truth even though human history is replete with new foundational truths superseding old foundational truths.

At any point society functions on the basis of a given set of foundational truths. To be effective as cultural cornerstones it seems they must be accepted without question. Yet somehow they are questioned and change over time. In science the process of change occurs through empiricism. Once a sufficient body of evidence accumulates to render the old truth unuseful, a new truth is constructed that explains the old evidence and the accumulated evidence. The criteria for judgement in this culture are the 5 senses. Emotion, it seems, plays no part in empiricism. One need only look at the ever-expanding periodic table to understand how the reductionist empiricist seeks foundational truth. At each point the table is treated as including all elements even though people continue to look for more and seem to find them. How will we ever know we have discovered all the elements? We will never know. We will simply stop discovering new elements and assume we have them all. An empiricist will argue that emotion has no part to play in this truth uncovering process but if you start to question the prevailing foundational truth or any aspect of the method, you will get a very strong emotional response!

Emotion plays a bigger part in foundational truth than anyone seems willing to concede and often people get very emotional if you suggest it plays a part (go figure!). The purpose of this massively simplified discussion of epistemology is to illustrate that even empiricist science (evidence based as Brian Cox would say) involves an act of faith, and faith is emotional. We choose to believe that many things are foundational truths because it is helpful to do so. The foundational truths provide fixed points upon which to anchor our lives. They provide certainty in an uncertain world, or at least the delusion of certainty. History tells us, in so far as it tells us anything, that there are no universal fixed points, constant over time and space. Todays foundational truths are tomorrows superstitions. This might not be a problem if we all zeroed in the same set of foundational truths. But we don’t.

Religion uses dogma as a set of foundational truths. These truths are accepted as an act of faith, so it is an inherently emotional process. The key foundational truth, or dogma in this case, is that there exists a deity (and often lesser deities). People of faiths base their lives on this foundational truth. Societies tend to privilege people of faith, provided it is faith in the deity that society accepts as the foundational truth. Unfortunately, different societies construct the hierarchy of faith a little differently and become very emotional about small differences, even if they accept the same deity. Theirs is the truth so everyone else is false. The belief in foundational truth leads to strong emotions and mutual disrespect. If mine is The Truth, I should disrespect others, surely? The idea of mutual respect among faiths seems mildly absurd when viewed from this angle and indeed does not consistently arise. Faith in, and the pursuit of, foundational truth is the source of all human conflict.

What is the alternative? Let us take the debate down a notch to the individual emotional reaction. If I am 100% convinced I am right, how should I respond to someone who disagrees? I could ignore this person and avoid this person. I could try to debate the issue but if it is about faith in a foundational truth I cannot expect to convince the person by debate. As long as we can live separately and in parallel the difference might not be too serious. However, once we find ourselves sharing the same social space the difference would be a constant source of potential conflict. Of course, If I recognise and accept that I might not be 100% certain and the other person reciprocates, there is a basis for reconciliation and mutual respect. The greater the uncertainty the two parties exhibit, the greater the scope for an accommodation and conflict resolution.

Recognition that truths are relative and contingent would also have a modifying impact on human conflict because the emotional energy would be diminished. Fixed points would be temporary and constantly renegotiated. This would diminish the delusion of certainty but this seems an unhealthy psychological condition (as are all delusions) so why lament the loss? The universe may not have begun from the big bang but it is a useful working assumption until a better one comes along. Global warming is probably man-made but simply cutting carbon emissions may not be a complete response. Let us think a little deeper. Global warming may not be man-made but cutting carbon emissions may be a good idea anyway. Maybe no God and maybe there is. If there is, does he really want us to kill each other over this debate? If there is not, then what on earth are we doing?