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The Elephant in the Room

More on Margaret Somerville’s The Ethical Imagination

For those who remember, Somerville’s project is to argue for a shared ethic based on what she terms “the secular sacred” (a term that I continue to have reservations about). I read her take on “truth” a couple of days ago and while my initial reaction was somewhat negative, I now find myself wondering if there may be some pragmatic merit in what she says.

Perhaps not surprisingly for someone arguing for an ethical system that can be universally embraced, Somerville seems to just put forth a version of truth similar to religious pluralism:

I start by imagining that which we are looking at in order to discover the truth about it—whether it’s a person, an object, an idea, a theory, a principle, a belief. I then imagine it in the centre of a big circle, and imagine all the people who are looking at it standing around the circumference of that circle, each holding a light. The lights are of different kinds and have different-coloured lenses, and a few of them fail to work (their batteries are dead) or they show a distorted image (what they show is not true). Some of the lights were invented recently and show us truths we didn’t know before; others are old and show us truths we still need. The different-coloured and different kinds of light reveal different aspects of the entity we are looking at. These aspects are not all the same, but they are all aspects of its truth.

Initially, I thought that this view of truth was extraordinarily unhelpful and not entirely honest. And as a theory of truth I still do. Lesslie Newbigin has a great take on religious pluralism which demonstrates the arrogance of the kind of claim Somerville seems to be making. According to religious pluralists (John Hick, for example) each religious tradition is analogous to a blind-folded man being asked to describe an elephant. Each will describe the part of the elephant that he came into contact with, but none will define the elephant as a whole. The elephant, of course, is ultimate truth, and each blind man’s partial and inadequate description of it represents one of the various religious traditions.

Newbigin points out the obvious flaw in this argument: someone must have the ability to see the “whole elephant” in order for it to work. Someone (in this case, the religious pluralist) claims to see “the full truth to which all the world’s religions are only groping after.”  The claim that different religions or, in Somerville’s case, different perspectives on truth are partial approximations of the greater whole is itself a partial, limited, human understanding of truth. It is just one more blind man claiming to describe the entire elephant based on his own understanding of it.

So Newbigin’s argument was whirring around in my head as I read Somerville’s quote above. However it turns out that all Somerville may be arguing for is a healthy, pragmatic appreciation of our epistemological limitations. A few paragraphs earlier she says that

once we accept the unavoidable presence of uncertainty, our understanding of truth and consensus in ethics shifts… [T]he kind of ethical truths we look for, those on which we can agree, are forms of “temporal truth”—always open to challenge, of course, and to change. Some of us would see any such change as a change in the truth; others would see it as a clarification or correction of our previously inadequate or mistaken articulation of truth. In other words, the concept of temporal truth in no way denies that there can be Eternal Truth. Rather, if we believe in Eternal Truth, we hope that what we see as temporal truths are partial manifestations of it.

To put it another way, Somerville seems to be saying that there might well be a real elephant, but none of us know what it looks like and from the perspective of one seeking to discover the grounds for a shared ethic, we’re better off just assuming or “hoping” that our views of the elephant are accurate partial representations of it. In other words, her adoption of a pluralistic version of truth is provisional and pragmatic. She feels it is necessary to “get stuff done” ethically in a pluralistic environment.

I still have my reservations—I obviously think there is a lot more that can be said about truth (I think that some views objectively describe the elephant better than others), I think in some ways her view requires more faith than any religion, and it certainly requires a higher principle (unstated, so far) by which to evaluate which “lights” contribute positively to the mix and which just distort and destroy—but adopting a view such as Somerville’s may be about the best we can hope for in our current political context. At the very least it’s humble about what we can actually know for certain and, from my perspective, it seems like the sort of vision that a Christian could imagine positively contributing to in his/her obedience to God and promotion of shalom.

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