Blog Post

Defining "moderate" belief

When we believe something in a moderate, as opposed to a fundamentalist, way, we tend to think of it as subject to contestation, to correction by further or better knowledge, to discussion and interpretation. When we believe something in a fundamentalist way, in contrast, we think of it as ultimate and unchanging, never subject to further interpretation or discussion. One way of picturing the difference between these ways of believing is to imagine a group of children playing a game in which they sit blindfolded in a circle and try to describe an object. If one of them secretly takes off his blindfold and sees exactly what this object is, he now "knows" what the others can only "think" or "believe" is there. While the others argue back and forth about which interpretation is better, the cheating child no longer needs to take part in the discussion. Now let's project the circumstances of this simple game onto the entirety of human knowledge. While someone may take the blindfold off when dealing with an object in a room, there is no such thing as seeing the whole of the universe as it really is apart from our different attempts to measure and explain it, or as understanding the ultimate meaning of life apart from its various interpretations. This is the case because "seeing" and "understanding" are human activities that depend on our senses and concepts, and take place over time and in space. There can be no "seeing" or "understanding" or, for that matter, any kind of knowledge, that can comprehend the totality of the world as it is in itself, independent of our senses, our concepts, the movement of time, or positioning in space. Just to make this last point clear: what would it mean for you to "know" any object or experience if you were able to look at it simultaneously from every possible perspective and from every moment in time, or if you were asked to describe it without being limited by the senses of your body or the concepts of your language? To believe something in a fundamentalist way is to claim implicitly that you are the seeing child in a room full of blindfolded children. It is not merely to believe that you know more than others; there are many cases in which you might be justified in believing that. Rather, it is to believe that there is an ultimate way to know the world, and that you have access to that knowledge. Since that knowledge is ultimate, it is never subject to correction, and hence anyone with even a slightly different interpretation must be wrong. If my neighbor and I each believed in this way that, for example, our own recipe for paella was the best and indeed only way to make paella, while we might refuse to eat one another's cooking, the resulting conflict would not necessarily end in violence. If we each happened to believe in this way, however, that the land we communally inhabited was our own to do with as we wished, then we might have a serious problem.

William Egginton's picture
William Egginton is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at the Johns Hopkins University, where he teaches on Spanish and Latin American literature, literary theory, and the relation between literature and philosophy. He is the author of How the World Became a Stage (2003), Perversity and Ethics (2006), A Wrinkle in History (2007), The Philosopher's Desire (2007), The Theater of Truth (2010), and In Defense of Religious Moderation (2011). He is also co-editor with Mike Sandbothe of The Pragmatic Turn in Philosophy (2004), translator of Lisa Block de Behar's Borges, the Passion of an Endless Quotation (2003, 2nd edition 2014), and co-editor with David E. Johnson of Thinking With Borges (2009). His most recent book is The Man Who Invented Fiction: How Cervantes Ushered In the Modern World (2016).