The Talking Dog

August 8, 2007, TD Blog Interview with Marshall Onellion and Steven Fortney

Marshall Onellion and Steven Fortney are the co-authors of "Seeking Truth: Living with Doubt", a variation on those ambitious books seeking to constitute a brief history, or a unified field theory, of everything. Onellion and Fortney's book discusses hermeneutic aspects of evaluating knowledge in an uncertain universe, from the standpoints of scientific, religious and artistic angles, and they are quite critical of all aspects of dogmatism, particular in fundamentalist religions, though whereever found. Both reside in Wisconsin; Steven Fortney was a high school English teacher for 31 years, has written a number of works of fiction, and practices Buddhism. Marshall Onellion is a physics professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, previously served in the Air Force, and practices agnosticism. On August 8, 2007, I had the privilege of interviewing Messrs. Onellion and Fortney by e-mail exchange.

The Talking DogWhere were you on September 11th?

Onellion and Fortney: At our homes in Stoughton, WI.

The Talking Dog: :  September 11th seems a nice jumping off point for asking about the overall theme of your book.  Certainly, you are harsher in your treatment of fundamentalist Islam than fundamentalist Christianity or fundamentalist Judaism; is this a conscious decision, and if so, to what extent is this because of the events of September 11th? 

Onellion and Fortney: We are more critical of fundamentalist Islam because of what we have learned, not as an emotional reaction to blame Muslims for the attack of 9/11/01. Our criticism is very much a conscious, considered judgment arising from what we have learned. One of us, Onellion, has spent 3 1/2 years of study and writing while Fortney's writing and studying antedates 9/11 by many years. All fundamentalists share some common attitudes. As we emphasize in our book, Christian fundamentalists pose a danger to our country and would subjugate other religions, atheists, homosexuals and the secular if only they could get the political power to do so. Unfortunately for Muslims, fundamentalists have more influence in many Muslim communities than Christian fundamentalists have- at present- in our country.

The Talking Dog: : As an aside, what's your view of why, at least prior to the final ousting of the Moors in Spain in 1492 (a big year all around), the Islamic world was ahead of the West technologically, scientifically, economically, etc, and yet after that, things went downhill for it and have since?

Onellion and Fortney: We discuss this very point at some length, and benefited from The rise of early modern science by Toby Huff and similar books. Here we give only a partial answer. First, we were lucky. Rationality was, although criticized by the Roman Catholic Church, also used by Christian religions. Science, specifically, was not seriously attacked by the Roman Catholic Church until just a bit too late. The Protestant Reformation helped tremendously to buttress science and rationality. Islam, unfortunately for Muslims, treated science as "foreign" knowledge- suspect- and closed the door on any reformation in the 1300s.

The Talking Dog:  Does knowing the religious extremism of many in the Islamic world actually help, or hinder our understanding the events of September 11th? 

Onellion and Fortney: Yes it helps. Understanding that what we might call 'religious extremism' in Islam is not viewed by many Muslims as extreme is important. We spend quite a bit of the book discussing the motives and goals of Islamic fundamentalists, both Sunni and Sh'ia, because Islamic fundamentalists are prototypical ideologues.

The Talking Dog: : My primary question about September 11th and its aftermath, however, concerns not the perps, but us.  To what extent has our national reaction-- a sort of counter-jihad--  perceived by the Moslem world as "a Crusade" and sometimes called that by our officials in their rare moments of candor-- a reflection of our own knee-jerk fundamentalism, to wit, the "You're for us or against us" and "we're battling evil-doers" and other easy sounding sound-bites reflecting a Manichean view of the world... To what extent is this really an actual reflection of our actual values, i.e., our national psyche has been so addled and riddled by orthodoxies, whether religious, or political, that this (stupid) view was actually a pretty good fit with where Americans (25% of whom as it is believe the Rapture will occur this year) pretty much think the world is going anyway?

Onellion and Fortney: The last of our 12 chapters- a la the 12 Apostles- is "Hope". In it, we contrast the certitude of fundamentalists, Islamic and other, with the moral vaporware of so many who claim to seek truth. In some ways, what we say is similar to the article published just after our book by Paul Berman, Who's afraid to Tariq Ramadan? in which he goes right to the end of the diving board but cannot bring himself to jump- to call his fellow intellectuals cowards. Two things are missing from the false dichotomy of Christian Soldier or secular wimp that so many portray. One is gumption, a courage, a fortitude that refuses to knuckle under to the fundamentalists. Many people seeking truth, both religious and non-religious, have gumption. More will need it, because, as we argue, matters will get worse before they get better. Just as there were liberal, progressive anti-communists after World War II, one of us, Fortney, is a liberal progressive anti-jihadist. It needs to be remembered that our stance fits into the larger context of anti ideology of all sorts, not just religious. Islamic, Jewish, Christian, economic and political ideologies are all targets of this book.

The other is a misunderstanding of doubt. Our view of doubt- that it is valuable, indeed essential, that it keeps us honest about what we do and do not know- is unconventional. Make up your mind- be decisive- don't doubt yourself- we get such epigrams our whole lives. Not only is one of the chapters entitled "Doubt" but much of our discussion centers around the value of living with incomplete knowledge- with doubt. Indeed that one major message of the entire book.

The Talking Dog: : This point segues with my question of the themes of your book regarding this: to what extent is the explanation of what fundamentalist religion is nothing short of a matter of the development of one's character and the relationship of that character to interrelationships with authority (a point made directly or indirectly at various times by Jean Piaget, Alice Miller or Ken Wilber)? 

Onellion and Fortney: We argue that there are three main motivations to embracing any fundamentalism: fear, social acceptance, and need. Much of our thinking on this issue was helped by and anticipated by Eric Hoffer in The True Believer and other books. As Hoffer says (sect. 61): "…The fanatic is perpetually incomplete and insecure. He cannot generate self-assurance out of his individual resources- out of his rejected self- but finds it only by clinging passionately to whatever support he happens to embrace. This passionate attachment is the essence of his blind devotion and religiosity…". There are cultures (Bali, Tibet) that in fact have a tradition of the social acceptance of a more tolerant world view than does our own country. We agree that social influence is important.

The Talking Dog: : In other words-- "modern" churches, say, Episcopalians or Methodist or Unitarians, or Reform Judaism, presents a limited kind of authority, and treats its adherents in a sort of "adult to adult" authority relationship; mystical traditions may go "trans"- adult levels, and try to connect adults with the collective of the universe, but again, to the extent the "guru" or "teacher" has an authority, it is mostly an instructive or guidepost one; by contrast, fundamentalists, such as the worst aspects of fundamentalist Protestantism, or the Roman Catholic Church as its more conservative elements view it, or certainly fundamentalist Islam (and less so, though still present in elements of Orthodox Judaism) involve authority really at the parent-child relationship level-- often at a small child level at that, of the "you will do this because we tell you to" variety.  Can you discuss that observation (or speculation) with what you see as the overall theme of your book?

Onellion and Fortney: As in the last question, it is a wish to be subsumed- "The Borg" as it were- that is part of a fundamentalist's motivation. We repeatedly emphasize acting as an adult, standing on your own feet and doing your individual best to understand this world of ours. In this sense, even moderate expressions of the doctrinal religious traditions of the West must be regarded with caution since they hold fast to the single, complete-truth authority of the creeds and the church as do their extremist brethren.

The Talking Dog: You raise a very interesting and not often discussed enough aspect of the history of scientific advances and developments-- to wit, the degree a given scientific observation is given general validity and consensus is heavily dependent on (as much or more so) than the value of the advance or development itself... based upon the standing of the scientist involved (e.g. Einstein's break-throughs were no less brilliant when made as a Swiss patent clerk than with a chair at Princeton, though they were easier to accept and disseminate in the latter position!)  I would argue that this is part of the human condition ("no one ever got fired for buying IBM"), and is, if anything, even more true in the other two sectors your book discusses ("art" and "religion") than even in science.  How would you respond to my proposition that there is just something innately cautious or conservative-- people are just afraid of novelty or change, whether it be in their science, religion or art, almost as an intrinsic matter (whether innate or learned)?

Onellion and Fortney: We agree. This is why, as we discuss in our book, social influence over science, for instance, is always a tension between opposing impulses. Too much influence and science advancements die. Contrast, for instance, Leonardo da Vinci and Galileo with the subsequent almost 400 years of stagnation in Italian science until the Papal States were ended and the Papacy no longer had dominant control over the intellectual life in Italy. On the other hand, too little influence and scientists do not benefit their society much. The social attitudes in Latin America, for instance, drawing a bright line between intellectual activity and the larger society, has resulted in much less benefit to the society from scientists compared to, say, Germany before World War I.

The Talking Dog: Let me jump back to an earlier point about deference to authority-- since it clearly appears to me that those most comfortable with authority in their religious lives happen to be the same people most comfortable with authoritarian governments (such as, of late, "big R" Republicans in the United States), how does one combat this?  To flip the argument that "the Constitution is not a suicide pact" to justifying compromising our civil liberties and fundamental rights in order "to protect us," how would you suggest "protecting us" from the permanent assassination of progress in science, art, and all human knowledge (including, btw, progress in religion), from what is clearly a fundamentalist backlash and resurgence right now (particularly in a country where a much, much higher percentage of such people vote than do everyone else)?  Put another way, how can the "how can we be expected to lead to the world where we can't even keep our bridges from falling down?" degree of reality break through to a country where 25% of the people believe that the Rapture will occur this year, the vast majority refuse to accept the validity of the theory of evolution on religious grounds, etc.? 

Onellion and Fortney: As with the Islamists, we argue in our book that even among Christian fundamentalists there is a grey scale. The key is to appeal to the less delusional part of this grey scale. Again as with Islamists, the wrong approach such as taken by Dawkins (The God Delusion) is to dismiss and deride the religious impulse. Instead, as we argue, the religious impulse per se is a valid 'channel' for truth seeking. The argument to make is to decouple this impulse from any inerrant religious doctrine. Progressive Christians, whom we mention along with Buddhists, Taoists, and Hindus, are examples of religious truth seeking in touch with reality. You are right that the majority of Americans with their odd devotion to outmoded religious doctrines has a long way to go before they become adults in religious knowledge. We regard this as a lamentable situation.

The Talking Dog: How would you respond (presumably in defense of such thinkers as John Dewey, or perhaps Richard Rorty who died not long ago) that with the exception of perhaps "brute facts" like gravity or thermodynamics, or other established and indisputable (i.e. universally observable) attributes of the physical world, there really are no absolute truths (given your particular intellectual bailiwicks, you may well dispute the intractability of even these "brute facts")... i.e., everything [else] is "provisional" and based on evolving agreements and consensuses, but always open for discussion?  Or put another way, how do you deal with the widely spouted view (and yes, I mean from blowhards like Joe Lieberman) that there are absolute, intrinsic, inherant moral truths and rules handed down from God Himself (at Mt. Sinai)...definitions of beauty, truth, right, wrong, are somehow innate, eternal and intrinsic to us all, and atheists are less able (or unable) to live "as moral" lives as God-fearers (and especially, how do you deal with it, when I tend to think Lieberman may be reflecting the views of huge segments of the American electorate?)  

Onellion and Fortney: This to us is the central question because it goes to the heart of "doubt". As many have been taught, doubt is the same as "don't know" so if information or models are tentative this means you don't know anything. Instead, in our book we argue for doubt to denote the limits of our knowledge, not whether we have any understanding at all. For instance, in physics the motion of objects is very accurately known and predicted by Newtonian mechanics when the objects are moving at speeds low compared to the speed of light. It is only when the speed of an object approaches the speed of light that Einstein's special theory of relativity is needed. In fact, at low speeds Newtonian and Einsteinian mechanics give the same answer! So do I know anything if I know Newtonian mechanics? I surely do. At the same time, if all my experience has been with low speed objects, I would, if prudent, have doubt about whether my idea, my model, worked at all speeds.

Now let's consider the apparent paradox of living with doubt and having moral and behavioral standards. We discuss this in several different ways in the book. To begin with, you- you the individual- and I, and each one of us is not merely of some value, we are uniquely valuable, irreplaceably valuable. No one else living or dead has our combination of DNA and life experiences. No one, which makes us of unique value. Next, every philosophy and religion has some variation of the Golden Rule, so God Himself at Mt. Sinai is not needed to get and try to live up to the Golden Rule. Beyond this, do we want to live in a mutually beneficial society or as individualistic cannibals? We discuss this very point, and argue that certain consequences follow from wanting a beneficial society. Finally, we discuss how you deal with outsiders, "The Others". None of these issues require Mt. Sinai. The Golden Rule we have asserted is a rational deduction from the cosmology science has given us. That is to say ethics belongs to the rational order of things, not to revealed or doctrinal religious "truths".

As to the idea that those who profess to be God-fearing are more moral than the rest of us, there is no evidence I know of for this, and a fair amount of evidence against such an assertion. One key difference is that, as you raised in a question earlier, a person acting as a responsible adult is more likely to act in a moral way than a person in the role of a child, a role that absolves people of responsibility.

The Talking Dog: Am I correct that given your analysis of "wasteland", and the fact that arguably atheistic regimes (Communist China and the Soviet Union and other communist states) have been every bit as devastating or more so than religiously motivated ones, you would acknowledge that the "enemy" of freedom and progressive thought and advancement is not so much "fundamentalist religion" per se (of any denomination) so much as orthodoxy and certainty itself-- i.e., we should beware of anyone, in any field, that claims to have the answers to everything?  That said-- if you agree with it-- please reconcile this with our democracy where people equate cocksure certainty with strength, and even people's own experience with the problems caused by this doesn't seem to matter? 

Onellion and Fortney Yes, we argue repeatedly that the "enemy" is orthodoxy and certainty, which can and has appeared in science, religion, politics and economics, just to name a few areas we discuss. As to reconciling this with equating certainty and strength, we discuss- and agree with you- that this is one reason we worry about our society's future. We need to emphasize the fact that unrestrained capitalism is guilty of intimidating and diminishing vast numbers of individuals. This is not merely a religious issue.

The Talking Dog: Is there anything else on the themes of your book "Seeking Truth, Living with Doubt" that I should have asked you but didn't, or anything else that you believe that my readers and those who might be interested in your book should know?

Onellion and Fortney: In emphasizing doubt as a positive rather than a negative or weakness we are definitely contrarians. In endorsing both rationality (a/k/a science) and introspection (a/k/a religion) we refuse to say one is right and the other wrong since we believe both are valid channels of truth seeking.

We criticize science, doctrinal religions, postmodernism and examples from the arts, so our criticism is far from limited to fundamentalist Islam.

We also make two arguments we have rarely seen elsewhere. We argue that the religious fundamentalist praying and the writer or scientist using introspection are doing exactly the same thing. We also argue that the Buddhist concept of Emptiness is exactly the same as the Christian concept of Grace, without the need to invoke a God. Finally, we argue for viewing the world as a monistic unity, not separating it into a dualistic Heaven and Earth. We discuss the consequences of monism rather than dualism in several places in the book.

The Talking Dog: Let me join all of my readers in thanking Professor Onellion and Mr. Fortney for that very interesting interview, and invite interested readers to take a look at "Seeking Truth: Living with Doubt".