TA 106 (Müller)

Response 25 (to C 68 by Taylor and Habermas)

by Herbert FJ Müller
3 December 2009, posted 12 December 2009

The discussion between Taylor and Habermas raises important points about the foundations of ethics.   For what it may be worth, I add a few points that to me seem relevant in this context.

Toward the end of the discussion, Taylor briefly mentions Eastern religions.  This is important because some of the Eastern religions are not theistic.  Some of them instead have a central concern with an unstructured background, such as Nirvana or Tao, which does not imply loss of spirituality.   So firstly, ‘religion’ is not identical with theism (either poly or mono), as it appears to be implied in most of the presented discussion.

Secondly, it may be useful to understand mental structures, be they more intellectual or more ethical, in terms of design (structuring) in the unstructured matrix, and that includes the ‘foundations’ of both God and morals, whether they are seen in a religious or secular way.   A non-structured matrix is, it seems to me, the deepest background one can reach.  If we do this, some of the differences between religious and non-religious reasoning become less fundamental, because they have the same background. 

For instance, if you want to have God create people in his image and be in charge of everything, you have to create God to start with, as some mystics have long known (e.g., Angelus Silesius, 1657).  God’s existence then depends on your structuring, and is not otherwise available.  He is also a two-way street, or, one may say, one of the possible tools for ethical foundations, which is shared, among other ways, by means of discourse (Taylor).  

The traditional religious and cult practices are based upon that, as is salvation, as opposed to social consensus for moral behaviour.   In that sense the religious groupings are secondary.   The revealed truth comes only with belonging to a specific group (Habermas).   The discourses are mutually  understandable to the extent that they are grounded in the unstructured, rather than being rituals.

Similarly, the foundations of science as a cultural enterprise (Habermas) depend largely on the communal acceptance of ‘objects’ as pre-structured stable entities.  That assumption is not entirely reliable (see for instance Merleau-Ponty).   For instance in particle physics this does not always work, and mathematics is more reliiable.


Herbert FJ Müller
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herbert.muller (at) mcgill.ca>