A while ago, I was watching a YouTube video of Hans Teeuwen (a Dutch comedian) having a discussion with three Muslim women. The women invited him to talk about – as they claimed – his discriminatory beliefs about Muslims. Teeuwen is a comedian who intents to provoke, make you think and attack dogma – not only the Islam. At a certain point in the interview, the women asked Teeuwen: ‘Don’t you mind offending people?’ Teeuwen responded: ‘I don’t think I’m offending anyone. Who do you think I’m offending?’ The women said: ‘Well, us for example. We are offended by your claims about Allah.’ Teeuwen said: ‘Really? Well, I’m offended that you’re offended by my claims about Allah.’ ‘I think it’s of great importance to be able to say what you want in a democratic society, without people like you trying to silence me. That’s what I find offending.’
I found this a very accurate observation. Religious groups – but other minorities as well – have a tendency to act like they’re being victimized, like they’re are being attacked just because their beliefs differ from those of the mainstream. This is a trick they’ve taught themselves, and that they use as a shield whenever they’re being ‘attacked’ by non-believers because of whatever it is they happen to believe. They crawl back into their shell of convictions and claim to be offended, thereby hoping that the ‘offending’ party will stop throwing its beliefs at them, and just leave them alone.
But what if the beliefs of the offended party are considered to be offensive by other people? What if non-Muslims find headscarves to be a sign of suppression, a sign – religious or not – that should not be tolerated in a democratic society: a society in which equality of rights is considered to be a great good. What then? Who’s right and who’s wrong? Who is the offender and who is the offended? Or are both parties occupying both roles at the same time?
This is an important question because it points to the heart of democracy. In a democracy – especially through freedom of speech – people should be able to express themselves and, as a logical consequence of that, should lend others this right as well. And since it’s impossible to say what claims are offensive in any absolute way (see the Teeuwen example) we should be tolerant towards all claims, and hope that the ones we find most reasonable will be the ones that become accepted by the majority. And, since democracy is such a widespread institution in this world of ours, it seems that the majority of people has the same set of fundamental beliefs as you and I have, one of which is freedom of speech: whether we find this offensive or not.
According to a survey of professional philosophers and others on their philosophical views 44.9% of the respondents accept or lean towards correspondence theories of truth. Whereby a correspondence theory of truth states that the truth or falsity of a statement is determined only by how it relates to the world and whether it accurately describes (i.e., corresponds with) that world. As I’ve tried to explain in Does The Truth Exist?, the idea of something – a sentence or a belief – being true can only hold within a set of presumptions supporting this sentence or belief. Also, as I’ve explained in What You See versus What Other People See, we’re always forced to see the world from our own point of view; there is no “God’s eye point of view” from which we can tell which of our beliefs correspond to reality and which don’t. Therefore I was flabbergasted to read that so many philosophers – 44.9% (!) – truly believed that our notion of “truth” must be founded in this – for us unobservable – correspondence relation.
Because think about it: how would we be able to falsify a correspondence relation between a sentence and “reality”, if it’s impossible for us to judge the accuracy of this relation? It is like attaching one part of a wire to the word “tree” and throwing the other part into the dark and asking, “Is it really connected to a tree?”, even though it’s so dark that we are unable to judge whether or not this is the case. And if there’s no way for us to judge this, how then can we base our notion of “truth” on it? Isn’t that ridiculous?
It seems like we’re indoctrinated with ideas about absolute entities “floating around” somewhere in space, waiting for us to find them. Notions like “Truth”, “Right” and “God”. While the latter is losing value in our science-based society, the former two have occupied the empty space left by its departure from our Western “intellectual” belief-system. But isn’t it true that the notions of “Truth” and “Right” are just as unattainable as the notion of “God”? That, although the statement “God does exist” cannot be falsified or confirmed, so can’t statements like “the Truth exists” and “the Right exists”? Isn’t it just a shift in paradigm? A shift in authority between religion and science? A shift that doesn’t bring us any closer towards those absolute – and therefore unreachable – concepts like “Truth” and “God”?
If so, then we have to radically alter our notion of science and what its practice should be. We usually think of science as progressively, by means of getting rid of the “wrong” beliefs, getting closer to the Truth. Of accumulating “facts” and “laws” in an everlasting effort to get to know the world as it really is. But what if the Truth is unattainable, or even more disturbing: what if it doesn’t even exist. Should science then still be involved in the accumulation of “true” ideas? Without knowing whether its ideas are true or not? That seems stupid, right?
The only manner in which the idea of “getting to know the Truth” might be tenable, is by radically redefining our notion of “Truth”. Each annotation of truth as something that “accurately describes the world out there” should be discarded. Scientists should be seen as what they truly are: builders of useful concepts. A revival of instrumentalism should be fought for. This is the only way in which we will be able to take science’s efforts seriously. And it is in this way that science can – like we believe it does – make progress. Ideas can become more and more useful; our knowledge of subatomic particles can provide us with new insights regarding energy supply. Why would we need the notion of “Truth” for that?