Why foundationalist logic fails at life
Cogito Ergo Sum–“I think therefore I am”. Such were the words of Descartes in reference to what he perceived as a self-evidential foundation for knowledge. His cogito became the basis for a transcendental ego, or in simpler terms, a self beyond the vicissitudes of being, superior over the order of being. This contrasted sharply with what Heidegger would later call Dasein, a German term he used to describe a being in the world that was constituted by the world, inseparable from context, history, language, time, space, and death. Descartes’ foundationalist logic, which placed the ego over all as arbiter of all Being, led to the justification of the industrial manipulation of our planetary ecosystem. And by elevating the ego by differing it from other animals on the basis of soul vs. no soul, Descartes ruled that other animals have no souls and thus we can do as we please with them. Hence, animal torture in the West by the food industry has roots in Cartesian logic. This is just a small example of the negative operative power of foundationalist logic in life.
One would expect then that if a foundationalist ideology can direct one to perform harmful actions in the world, becoming foundational to one’s way of life, it likewise follows that it can direct one to perform good actions when the ideology points toward such. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
The hard truth of the matter when it comes to ethics is that one’s ideological foundation only serves as the logic for one’s way of being in the world when and where one desires it to. In other words, I can employ the logic of my beliefs as foundational to my actions when it is convenient for me, but I can just as easily dismiss my beliefs or distort them when they become inconvenient. As Peter Rollins has pointed out, what we truly believe in our core is found in our daily actions: these are our operative beliefs. But our ideological beliefs–what we think we believe so as to help us sleep at night–can easily be quarantined in the cognitive realm so that our operative beliefs remain untouched. Those operative beliefs need no foundation other than desire itself.
[A quick thought: neuroscientists have discovered that sociopaths do not produce a normative response in the amygdala to emotional and moral stimuli. In other words, their brains are wired so that they are unable to respond emotionally to moral disturbances. Their consciences are inoperative. Beliefs at the intellectual level would make no difference.]
The burdensome gravity of this truth weighs down upon us very heavily these days. Those of us who live in the West–particularly the United States–are citizens of a nation politically conflicted between white Christian dominionists and a great plurality of other demographics. These Christian dominionists, while claiming to carry on the legacy of Jesus, to worship him, and to follow his teachings, have actually turned increasingly toward the spirit of anti-Christ. In other words, their operative beliefs in relation to current world crises are unequivocally anti-Christian.
Example: Jesus was an undocumented immigrant who condemned the elitists of his society who collaborated with the empire and participated in the oppression of the poor. Jesus taught his followers that the way to relate properly to God, to build God’s world and to participate in it, was to act radically and subversively against the tribalistic borders that separated the rich from the poor, the Jew from Samaritan and Gentile, etc. He argued that it is only by undermining these borders between people that the Kingdom of God will come. He regularly ate with the outcasts of his time and place, feeding the hungry and crossing boundaries to extend the friendship of God to the other. And yet, today’s Christian dominionists are fighting tooth and nail to keep child refugees from crossing the American border, not caring if we send them back to the violence and poverty they are running from. Some have even formed militias to shoot anyone who crosses over. I’m afraid that if Jesus came back he would be one of those children trying to cross the border. He might even get shot by one of his “Christ-followers,” crucified all over again.
Example: Christian dominionists in America have thrown in their uncritical moral and economic support with Israel, even as the Israelite government tears hundreds of innocent children to shreds with flechette bombs. As the death toll rises among innocent civilians in Gaza and the Israelite military pursues an act of genocide–action backed up by Zionist ideology–Christian dominionist supporters quickly forget that Jesus opposed Zionism. The people around him pushed him to enact a violent and bloody revolution. His own close follower and friend, Judas, tried to force his hand to take up the sword against the empire by betraying him into their hands. But Jesus remained firm in his commitment to nonviolence, even as he was tortured and nailed to a cross. And yet many Christian dominionists unapologetically support the use of torture on foreign enemies. Most ironic of all: while Jesus was simply teaching the oppressed not to take up the sword against the empire but to practice love, Christian dominionists are imitating the empire that crucified him and oppressed his friends, bringing the sword down on weaker enemies–even as the innocent are caught in the crossfire.
As these examples show, many Americans who claim to follow Jesus don’t actually care about what he really taught. They will even go so far as to twist his teachings into a dogmatic ideology that condemns those who would truly seek to follow Jesus! People do not act on the ideological foundation they claim. They simply adopt and shape ideological foundations to match the desires of their hearts whether for good or evil.
Jesus himself mocked the Pharisees for searching the Scriptures for salvation and missing it when it was standing right in front of them in a body of flesh. The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas argued that the ethical call to do good is not found in the words of a book but in the eyes of another. When I choose to look, to see, to open my eyes to the needs and suffering of the bodies of flesh around the world, from the homeless person on my city street to the child torn to shreds in Gaza, there is an inner call that emerges–a voice of compassion. All of us know what is right, we just don’t want to do it.
We know that it is wrong to kill children or to send financial support to those who do.
We know it is wrong to build walls and block out children who are running from violence, crime, and chaos.
We do not need an appeal to foundationalist authority, whether in religion or political theory, to know this. To the contrary, such appeals to authority are often the barriers we adopt to justify not doing what is right.
May we listen to the light that is in us all and do what is right, lest we destroy one another.