Art, Poetry, Religion, Uncertainty

George Szirtes mentioned in a comment on that post Science and Religion that he has a blog, where he commented further on the subject we were discussing there. (It doesn’t have permalinks, so scroll down.) This subject interests me, and I agree with George on most of it. Especially some of it.

My contention is that the experience of listening to, say, Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion, strikes some people with the force of truth. It is not some verifiable truth about the existence or otherwise of God. The music doesn’t set itself out as proof of anything. The sense of truth arises because the music seems profoundly true to some element of human experience. In that sense – though not in the ‘grass is green’ verifiable sense – it is experientially true. Art without that notion of truth would indeed be airy-fairy.

Absolutely. Agree completely. Have no trouble whatever agreeing comepletely – am aware of no tension at all between that and my chronic suspicion of the truth-claims of religion – the factual truth-claims, the claims that there is a deity and that the deity is omnipotent and benevolent. I have zero problem being powerfully moved by powerful art – also by certain kinds of landscape, and the quality of the being moved seems to me to be pretty similar. (Eve Garrard has a terrific essay on the way we are transported by landscape and how mysterious that effect can be, in the current [just out] Philosophers’ Magazine.) My paradigm example is ‘Hamlet.’ To some extent I think I know why it moves us the way it does – I’ve dug into it somewhat obsessively, piling up mountains of notes, and I think I know some of how Shaksespeare did it; but only to some extent; for the rest, I just think it’s a kind of magic. Not literal magic, but something that isn’t really completely explicable. Or that is only explicable by saying it seems profoundly true to some element of human experience. Actually that is it, pretty much. Maybe it is explicable. The thing about ‘Hamlet’ is that it seems profoundly true to so many elements of human experience, all packed into three and a half hours – love, loss, regret, betrayal, doubt, loyalty, despair, irony, wit, lying, truth-telling – and an immense amount more. It’s not many plays that can do that. There’s something…exciting, exhilarating, a little alarming about digging into ‘Hamlet,’ because you keep feeling surprised. The more you dig the more you realize Shakespeare wove this web, the tightest most drawn-together web ever woven; that he laid all these little charges, that go off one after another, in every line – and you start to wonder, how the hell did he do that…

So I completely agree with George about that. It’s just that I don’t really think most religion belongs in the same category – because of the truth-claims about the deity. Religion without those truth claims is a whole different ball game, but that’s not what I’ve been talking about here all this time. And it’s not what Dawkins is talking about. (He says that, in one of the essays in A Devil’s Chaplain.)

That, I suspect, is hard for people of a stiffly rational temperament to understand. They look for some verifiable truth claim that they can refute. They think I am making a verifiable truth claim. No. What I am saying is that some truths, certain profound truths to experience, are not easily, if at all, verifiable.

But few if any rationalists that I know of would deny that. They don’t look for verifiable truth claims in everything. They do perhaps point out veiled truth claims that are lurking behind fluffy verbiage, like the kind we keep seeing in those soppy Guardian columns. But that fluffy verbiage is not the kind of thing George is talking about – so I think we don’t disagree all that much.

But we may disagree about the link between religion and uncertainty.

Uncertainty continues to exist: art and the religious instinct, I suggested, proceeded out of uncertainty. The uncertainty principle seems to me humane and ‘true’ in that it corresponds to our experience of life. It behoves even scientists and rationalists to be uncertain about that which they cannot know, because not everything is knowable by scientific method, only that which is verifiable / falsifiable.

But there again – they are. The scientists and rationalists I know are uncertain about that which they cannot know; it’s religious people who claim to know things they don’t and can’t know. And the religious instinct may have proceeded out of uncertainty – that seems quite plausible – but I’m not at all convinced most of it hung onto the uncertainty once it arrived at the religion. Some believers, true, will say that their beliefs are beliefs and that they know they’re not certain; but oh dear, what a lot of believers won’t say any such thing – and what a lot of them get indignant at people who don’t share their beliefs, which seems odd if they’re really uncertain about them.

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