In praise of the clash of cultures
An interesting essay in the NY Times by Carlos Fraenkl:
About 12 years ago, while studying Arabic in Cairo, I became friends with some Egyptian students. As we got to know each other better we also became concerned about each other’s way of life. They wanted to save my soul from eternally burning in hell by converting me to Islam. I wanted to save them from wasting their real life for an illusory afterlife by converting them to the secular worldview I grew up with. In one of our discussions they asked me if I was sure that there is no proof for God’s existence. The question took me by surprise. Where I had been intellectually socialized it was taken for granted that there was none. I tried to remember Kant’s critique of the ontological proof for God. “Fine,” Muhammad said, “but what about this table, does its existence depend on a cause?” “Of course,” I answered. “And its cause depends on a further cause?” Muhammad was referring to the metaphysical proof for God’s existence, first formulated by the Muslim philosopher Avicenna in the 11th century: since an infinite regress of causes is impossible, Avicenna argues, things that depend on a cause for their existence must have something that exists through itself as their first cause. And this necessary existent is God. I had a counter-argument to that to which they in turn had a rejoinder. The discussion ended inconclusively.
I did not convert to Islam, nor did my Egyptian friends become atheists. But I learned an important lesson from our discussions: that I hadn’t properly thought through some of the most basic convictions underlying my way of life and worldview — from God’s existence to the human good. The challenge of my Egyptian friends forced me to think hard about these issues and defend views that had never been questioned in the European student milieu where I came from.
The other thing I realized was how contested my views were. I completed high school in a West German town in 1990 in the middle of Germany’s turbulent reunification (I ended my final exam in history describing the newest political developments I had heard on the radio that same morning). For a few years after the breakdown of the Soviet bloc many thought that everyone would be secular and live in a liberal democracy before long. The discussions with my Egyptian friends brought home that I better not hold my breath.
Since that time I have organized philosophy workshops at a Palestinian university in East Jerusalem, at an Islamic university in Indonesia, with members of a Hasidic community in New York, with high school students in Salvador da Bahia (the center of Afro-Brazilian culture), and in a First Nations community in Canada. These workshops gave me first-hand insight into how deeply divided we are on fundamental moral, religious and philosophical questions. While many find these disagreements disheartening, I will argue that they can be a good thing — if we manage to make them fruitful for a culture debate.
Can we be sure that our beliefs about the world match how the world actually is and that our subjective preferences match what is objectively in our best interest? If the truth is important to us these are pressing questions. . .