An Internalist Pluralist Solution to the Problem of Religious and Ethical Diversity
In our increasingly multicultural society there is an urgent need for a theory that is capable of making sense of the various philosophical difficulties presented by ethical and religious diversity—difficulties that, at first sight, seem to be remarkably similar. Given this similarity, a theory that successfully accounted for the difficulties raised by one form of plurality might also be of help in addressing those raised by the other, especially as ethical belief systems are often inextricably linked with religious belief systems. This article adumbrates a theory that is suitably sensitive to the challenge posed by cultural diversity, and that is respectful of ethical and religious differences. The theory, called “internalist pluralism,” provides a philosophical account of the widely differing claims made by religious believers resulting from the tremendous diversity of belief systems, while simultaneously yielding a novel perspective on ethical plurality. Internalist pluralism is based on Hilary Putnam’s theory of internal realism. This article is not concerned to defend internal realism against its critics, although such defense is clearly required if the theory is to be adopted. Its more modest aim is to show that internal realism has a distinctive voice to add to the current debate about how best to understand religious and ethical diversity.
KeywordsInternalist pluralism Religious diversity Ethical diversity Internal realism Hilary Putnam
Putnam’s Internal Realism
In our increasingly multicultural society there is an urgent need for a theory that is capable of making sense of the various philosophical difficulties presented by ethical and religious diversity—difficulties that, at first sight, seem to be remarkably similar. Given this similarity, a theory that successfully accounted for the difficulties raised by one form of plurality might also be of help in addressing those raised by the other, especially as ethical belief systems are often inextricably linked with religious belief systems. In what follows, I adumbrate a theory that is suitably sensitive to the challenge posed by cultural diversity, and that is respectful of ethical and religious differences. The theory, which I call “internalist pluralism”, provides a philosophical account of the widely differing claims made by religious believers resulting from the tremendous diversity of belief systems, while simultaneously yielding a novel perspective on ethical plurality.
Internalist pluralism is based on Hilary Putnam’s theory of internal realism.1 I suggest that Putnam’s internalist approach, with certain modifications, offers the prospect of the best theory of ethical and religious pluralism. But before applying Putnam’s internal realism to the problem of ethical and religious plurality, I first highlight the aspects of his theory that are most relevant to these concerns. Here I am not concerned to defend internal realism against its critics, although such defense is clearly required if the theory is to be adopted.2 My more modest aim is to show that internal realism has a distinctive voice to add to the current debate about how best to understand religious and ethical diversity.
Putnam contrasts ‘internal realism’ with ‘metaphysical realism,’3 the former rejecting the three central claims that he regards as definitive of metaphysical realism, namely: (1) that the world consists of a fixed totality of mind-independent objects; (2) that there is exactly one true and complete description of the way the world is; and (3) that truth involves some sort of correspondence.4 While rejecting these claims, the internal realist is not, or so Putnam argues, committed to a non-objective account of truth. Putnam proposes an account of objective truth that, unlike the metaphysical realist’s account, is not premised upon a correspondence between statements and some mind-independent reality.5 The key claim within Putnam’s account is that statements can be considered objectively true (or objectively false) within the context of a conceptual scheme, while outside any conceptual scheme the notion of objective truth lacks content.
A conceptual scheme, according to Putnam, is a framework that enables us to differentiate ‘objects’ and consistently refer to them. It is only by virtue of such frameworks, with their built-in ontological commitments, that our experience presents us with an ordered world. Putnam also claims that whatever objects the world is thought to contain will differ according to which conceptual scheme is employed.6 Thus, ontological questions can be intelligibly raised and addressed only within some conceptual scheme.7
It follows from this construal of conceptual schemes and ‘objects’ that what is true with regard to objects is dependent upon which conceptual scheme is employed. But, argues Putnam, this does not imply that truth is subjective or that objective truth is unattainable. As we have seen, Putnam limits objective truth to whatever is true within a particular conceptual scheme. Thus, if I subscribe to a conceptual scheme in which a ‘horse’ is a ‘member of the canid family,’ then ‘if X is a horse, then X is a member of the canid family’ is objectively true within my conceptual scheme. Objective truth, according to Putnam, is achieved when one succeeds in making statements in accordance with the established practice of a particular community of language users. The way a particular community uses language is guaranteed to be appropriately linked to what the members of that community, by means of their shared conceptual scheme, identify as objects. The role played by a community of language users in Putnam’s understanding of how a conceptual scheme comes to be established and maintained explains why, in his view, conceptual schemes are not subjective (in the sense of being created and employed by solitary individuals).8 One might say that the practice of a linguistic community is a necessary condition for the possibility that certain statements might be objectively true in the internal realist’s sense: because statements can be objectively true or objectively false only with reference to some particular community’s linguistic practice.9
However, while conceptual schemes are alike in being established by communities of language users, this does not entail, in Putnam’s view, that they are all equally rationally acceptable. Whether or not it is rationally acceptable to endorse a particular conceptual scheme can be judged, Putnam claims, by answering two questions: (1) Are the theoretical beliefs mutually coherent? And (2) do the theoretical beliefs cohere with the experiential beliefs? The extent to which both theoretical and experiential beliefs can be coherently endorsed determines how rationally acceptable it is to adopt the scheme.10
Signs do not intrinsically correspond to objects, independently of how those signs are employed and by whom. But a sign that is actually employed in a particular way by a particular community of users can correspond to particular objects within the conceptual scheme of those users. ‘Objects’ do not exist independently of conceptual schemes. We cut up the world into objects when we introduce one or another scheme or description. Since the objects and the signs are alike internal to the scheme or description, it is possible to say what matches what.11
Moreover, given that, according to internal realism, it is only possible to discuss intelligibly within some conceptual scheme what objects exist and what is true, then it follows that justification must also be regarded as conceptual-scheme dependent. This latter claim might, at first glance, be thought to entail that internal realism is incapable of distinguishing between the notions of truth and justification.12 But truth, as Putnam argues, while being a property of certain statements, is supposed to be one that cannot be lost, whereas justification may be forfeited. Therefore, truth and justification cannot be identical. And a commitment to the characterization of truth as a property that cannot be lost by any statement that possesses it is enough by itself to avoid the conflation of truth and justification.13 How, then, should ‘truth’ be conceived? Putnam subscribes to a form of the idealization theory of truth, stipulating that what is true is what it is rationally acceptable to believe in ideal epistemic conditions.14 And this view of truth ensures, Putnam argues, that truth and justification are not exhaustively co-extensive.15
Moreover, internal realism constitutes a unique position that differs not only from metaphysical realism, but also from the three principal forms of non-realism: Dummettian semantic anti-realism, error theories, and non-factualism.16 According to the latter two theories, facts do not determine truth-value. Internal realism is clearly distinct from both of these forms of non-realism in virtue of its key claim that truth-value is indeed determined by facts (albeit ‘facts’ that are internal to a conceptual scheme). Dummettian semantic anti-realism, on the other hand, makes the more qualified assertion that only recognized facts determine truth-value. Internal realism is clearly distinct from this form of non-realism in claiming that truth-value is determined not by facts that have actually been recognized but by facts that would be recognized in ideal epistemic circumstances, and which may therefore be beyond what we are currently warranted in asserting. From at least the perspectives of Dummettian anti-realism, error theories, and non-factualism, then it would seem that the internal realist position is a genuinely realist one.
Before we consider how internal realism can be employed to provide an account of ethical and religious plurality,17 we should ask whether ethical and religious traditions are sufficiently similar to justify our seeking to address the problems raised by ethical and religious plurality in the same way. Several reasons can be adduced that suggest that there is a relevant similarity. First, ethical and religious traditions would seem to be remarkably similar to the extent that they typically prescribe ways of behaving (or lifestyles) that are supposed to issue from the relevant beliefs. Thus, both purport to offer action guidance, which results in a lifestyle that is coherent with the beliefs endorsed by the tradition. Second, many moral and religious disagreements would seem to be related to different ethical and religious prescriptions regarding how to live. Third, ethical and religious beliefs, and their associated lifestyles, have traditionally been deeply interwoven.
Moreover, both forms of plurality generate the same key difficulty for anyone who subscribes to an ethical or a religious belief system, and who desires to respect the beliefs of those subscribing to alternative systems. The difficulty is essentially this: rational commitment to an ethical or a religious belief system would seem to require that one holds the belief system in question to be the correct one. Fulfillment of this requirement would seem to entail that one regards all alternative belief systems as constituted by claims that are, by and large, false. Yet such a judgment cannot be part of an appropriate outlook within the context of a multicultural society that would seem to require mutual respect and toleration. At the very least, respecting an alien belief system cannot merely involve interpreting that belief system from the perspective afforded by one’s own belief system, nor is respecting it consistent with the assumption that all ethical and religious beliefs that are not lodged within one’s own ethical or religious belief system are false. While one might be able to respect a person even though one held that the majority of her beliefs were mistaken, most people would surely find it impossible to view a belief system with respect if they held that the majority of the claims it endorsed were false. Surely, respecting a belief system minimally requires that one at least entertains the possibility that its core beliefs may turn out to be true.
I shall argue, below, that internal realism provides a theoretical position on the basis of which one can be rationally committed to an ethical or a religious belief system without holding that all other belief systems are made up of claims that are mostly false. In developing this argument I refer to ethical and religious belief systems as conceptual schemes in order to emphasize the extent to which they provide their adherents with a highly structured conceptual framework and system of meaning that organizes their thoughts and perceptions, thereby allowing them to identify objects and consistently refer to them. Given the complexity of the world’s ethical and religious traditions, however, I do not presume a direct relation between, for example, Christianity and ‘the Christian conceptual scheme.’ Indeed, I doubt that there is ‘a Christian conceptual scheme,’ for it would seem more plausible to regard traditions that have undergone substantial evolution and bifurcation as composed of overlapping conceptual schemes.18 But, however we choose to individuate conceptual schemes, it is surely undeniable that there is a plurality of them.19
Non-Realism. Adopt non-realism with respect to the apparent objects of all ethical and religious conceptual schemes. This strategy involves denying that one’s own ethical or religious discourse, as well as that of others, has truth-value. For those who adopt such a strategy, there are thus thought to be no ethical or religious objects (or relevant facts) with reference to which ethical or religious statements can be true or false.21
Provincialism. Assert that only the objects of one’s own ethical and religious conceptual scheme exist objectively. For those who adopt such a strategy, only statements within their own ethical or religious discourse are thus regarded as capable of having a positive truth-value.22 The implications of following this strategy are that the apparent objects of alternative conceptual schemes simply do not exist, and that claims made within rival conceptual schemes either lack a truth-value or are straightforwardly false.
Transcendentalism. Claim that some transcendental, noumenal reality ‘lies behind,’ and is partially represented by, each conceptual scheme. For those who adopt such a strategy, the immediate objects identified within ethical and religious conceptual schemes are not regarded as the real thing. Instead, they are thought to bear some (more or less obscure) relation to the noumenal object or objects. Consequently, those adopting such a strategy cannot regard statements within any ethical or religious discourse as literally true, although they might consider them as possessing ‘practical truthfulness.’23
There are serious problems attending the adoption of any of these strategies. Consider the first: that of adopting non-realism with respect to the apparent objects of all ethical and religious conceptual schemes. It would seem that denying that ethical and religious conceptual schemes identify any genuine objects would hardly facilitate a genuine respect for the diversity of beliefs within a community or facilitate a sensitivity to cultural differences, nor would dismissing all ethical and religious claims as non-cognitive, for a person who adopts this strategy might be construed as claiming that those who subscribe to any ethical or religious conceptual scheme (including, perhaps, himself or herself) are suffering from illusions insofar as they claim to recognize objects that are not in fact there to be identified. And this is hardly a case of showing respect to ethical or religious beliefs. Indeed, the adoption of this strategy would appear to involve respecting the beliefs within alien schemes no less than one’s own by, in effect, no longer fully respecting one’s own beliefs. In short, to any committed believer, those who sought to level the playing field by asserting that everybody on it was equally mistaken about their ethical or religious beliefs would no doubt be viewed as attempting to undermine the believer’s faith rather than genuinely displaying toleration of others’ beliefs.
Now consider the second strategy—that of asserting that only the objects of one’s own ethical and religious conceptual scheme exist objectively. This strategy seems to suffer from a fatal weakness: namely, that there is no justification for regarding one’s own conceptual scheme as in principle superior to any other. For as John Hick has pointed out, the principal reason why a person holds one particular religious faith rather than any other is likely to be the cultural context into which they were born.24 And this also seems likely to be true of a person’s ethical commitment. Yet as long as any unprejudiced justification for the superiority of one’s own conceptual scheme is lacking, it would seem irrational to adopt this second strategy. Such a strategy also seems at odds with any requirement within a multicultural society of respecting alien beliefs.
Finally, the third strategy—that of claiming that some transcendental, noumenal reality ‘lies behind’ each conceptual scheme—is unattractive for two principal reasons. First, it would seem to require a radically deflationary account of the ‘truth’ of ethical and religious claims. Insofar as such claims are ‘true,’ it cannot be in virtue of their successful representation of the mooted transcendent, noumenal reality. This is because, according to a typical way of interpreting what it means to be transcendent and noumenal, such a reality could not be adequately represented. To claim that a statement is ‘true,’ then, may be to claim little more than that it effectively inspires people to strive for an ethical or religious ideal. Second, it can only account for plurality by redescribing the ethical and religious objects purportedly identified by each conceptual scheme—a redescription that would involve specifying their relation to some irreducibly mysterious noumenal realm. Yet that seems, as with the first strategy, to constitute a failure to respect fully all ethical and religious belief systems.
The inadequacies of these three strategies indicate that an alternative is required: one that can account for ethical and religious diversity with regard to both ontology and truth-claims, and yet take both diverse ethical and diverse religious beliefs seriously. I suggest that the appropriate alternative is internalist pluralism.
An internal realist holds not only that objects are dependent upon the conceptual scheme employed, but also that the very notion of ‘existence’ is conceptual-scheme dependent. For consider Putnam’s famous example of a world comprising three colored ‘atoms’: in the conceptual scheme of ‘the Carnapian logician,’ they constitute all the objects that exist. However, in the conceptual scheme of ‘the Polish logician’—one that counts aggregates along with atoms—seven objects exist: three individual atoms, three pairs of atoms and one trio. Hence, not only does what counts as an ‘object’ depend upon one’s conceptual scheme, but it also is equally the case that what counts as ‘existing’ depends upon the conceptual scheme employed. In a word, reality—the totality of what exists—must depend upon one’s conceptual scheme. And thus it makes no sense to talk of anything existing outside of all conceptual schemes, for the very notion of ‘existence’ depends just as much on one’s conceptual scheme as does the notion of ‘object.’25
In other words, there is no way of discussing what exists in a manner that is neutral as to conceptual scheme. What happens when we apply this conclusion to religion? A thoroughgoing internal realist should, to be consistent, recognize that claims about the reality of the divine must be interpreted in the context of some particular conceptual scheme or what we might call a ‘faith-stance,’26 for it would make no sense to talk of the objects purportedly referred to by religious believers as existing outside of any faith-stance.27 But given different faith-stances—given different conceptual schemes—this suggests the possibility of different truths and different realities.28 At first sight, this might suggest that people inhabiting different religious conceptual schemes would not be able to enter into discussion with each other about their respective claims. Later I will argue that this is not, or, at least, not always, the case.
What happens when we apply this perspective to ethics? According to an internal realist, if there are any ethical objects (that is, moral properties) successfully identified within any particular conceptual scheme, then they are to be regarded as real within that scheme. And it would make no sense to talk of moral objects (such as, for example, goodness and justice) existing outside of any conceptual scheme. Now, a moral ontology will include all the moral objects that could be identified by those subscribing to a particular conceptual scheme. For example, a conceptual scheme that identified benevolence as a moral property would have a moral ontology in which benevolence was recognized as a moral property. What objects are included in any moral ontology will, of course, be determined by the conceptual scheme that is employed. Thus, given a plurality of ethical conceptual schemes, different—and, presuming the internal coherence of their beliefs, equally legitimate—moral ontologies and different moral truths could thus be entailed.
In short, just as the truths within the conceptual scheme of ‘the Carnapian logician’ differ substantively from those within the conceptual scheme of ‘the Polish logician,’ the truths, if there are any, within one ethical system or religious tradition may differ substantively from those within another. But as with the case of the two logicians, a mere difference in the claims of adherents to different ethical systems or religious traditions does not entail that either set of ethical or religious claims fail to be genuine truths. The mere fact that ‘the Carnapian logician’ claims that there are three objects while ‘the Polish logician’ claims that there are seven does not entail that at least one of them must be mistaken.
Moreover, as we have seen, according to internal realism, because the very notion of ‘existence’ is conceptual-scheme dependent, it makes no sense to talk of existence outside of all conceptual schemes. Internalist pluralism therefore correspondingly holds that claims made within one ethical system or religious tradition can remain truths without any form of correspondence to some reality outside of all ethical or religious belief systems. This is because the moral or religious ‘objects’ to which the claims purport to refer only ‘exist’ within some particular conceptual scheme. Thus, there are no moral or religious ‘objects’ outside of any conceptual scheme to which such claims could, even in principle, correspond, and hence refer. Indeed, from the standpoint of internal realism, there is no reality outside of our conceptual schemes. A belief system could thus be seen as a self-contained world—and there is a plurality of such belief systems. Thus, what we might call ‘internalist pluralism’ constitutes a new and distinctive theory capable of taking seriously the various claims deriving from both ethical and religious plurality.
For example, in the religious domain, internalist pluralism could thus allow one to say that within Shaivite Hinduism, Shiva is a real, objectively existing God, while within Christianity, the Trinity of Father, Son and Spirit objectively exists. But what one could not do is intelligibly discuss the qualities of, say, the Shiva of a Hindu from within a conceptual scheme in which Shiva has no place. Thus, internal realism generates a radical form of religious pluralism. However, this form of pluralism—internalist pluralism—does not amount to philosophical relativism about religious beliefs. For a philosophical relativist denies that any statement is objectively true. The adherent of internalist pluralism, on the other hand, can talk about objective truth—although it remains objective truth within a conceptual scheme. For when the ‘Polish Logician’ encounters three atoms and the four aggregates they form (namely, three pairs and a trio), his statement made within his conceptual scheme that there are seven objects is objectively true.
Moreover, within some conceptual scheme, given ideal epistemic conditions, what is objectively true could in principle be identified. But this is not to deny that any particular faith-stance may come with its own set of objective truths that are non-commensurate with those of other belief systems. Even if ideal epistemic conditions were to obtain in every conceptual scheme, the objective truths within any conceptual scheme may well be incommensurable with those of any other. In other words, an adherent of internalist pluralism is not committed to the claim that the objective truths of different conceptual schemes would converge given ideal epistemic conditions. It follows that many disputes between those within different belief systems about the objectivity of their respective claims may be illegitimate. For example, consider the case of a Christian asserting that Jesus is the Son of God, and a Muslim replying: ‘No, he isn’t!’ They might not, in fact, be disagreeing, but merely talking past each other (just as ‘the Polish logician’ is not actually contradicting ‘the Carnapian logician’ in denying that there are only three objects).29
For parallel reasons, an adherent of internalist pluralism can talk about objective moral truth. Any particular ethical conceptual scheme may have its own set of objectively true claims. But these objectively true claims could be non-commensurate with the objectively true claims, if there are any, made by those subscribing to other ethical belief systems. Moreover, when those within a particular ethical conceptual scheme dispute the truth of claims made within another such scheme, their objections may be illegitimate. As with the Christian and the Muslim, those within different ethical conceptual schemes might simply be talking past each other.
Consider an example that involves both the ethical and the religious domain. Imagine Anna, within conceptual scheme A, claiming that killing innocent people is always morally wrong because God had decreed it so, and Bill, within conceptual scheme B, claiming that killing innocent people is not morally wrong in every case. According to internalist pluralism, each claim could be objectively true within the appropriate conceptual scheme. Thus, Anna’s claim could be objectively true within conceptual scheme A, while Bill’s claim could be objectively true within conceptual scheme B. Moreover, if Anna’s claim is, in fact, objectively true within conceptual scheme A, while Bill’s claim is, in fact, objectively true within conceptual scheme B, then the disagreement between them would only be apparent. The claims made by Anna and Bill would not, in such a case, genuinely contradict each other. Rather, Anna and Bill would merely be talking past each other. Their claims may, for example, presuppose radically incommensurate meanings for terms such as ‘innocent’ and ‘person.’ Indeed, while remaining outside of conceptual scheme B, Anna would not be in a position to understand the meaning of the statement through which Bill’s claim is expressed; nor could Bill, while remaining outside of conceptual scheme A, understand Anna’s statement.
The example of Anna and Bill may appear counterintuitive to many. Both use the same natural language to express their claims. Doesn’t this imply a similarity of conceptual scheme? But in response, the use of the same natural language by Anna and Bill may well disguise the fact that their claims carry very different meanings. Powerful religious commitments, for example, might strongly flavor the whole of one’s thinking. But perhaps the most convincing types of cases will involve claims made by people who not only speak different natural languages, but also belong to radically different cultures.30 In such cases, internalist pluralism’s claim that, despite any appearances to the contrary, genuine debate is not taking place will likely seem more plausible to many than in cases where the same natural language is involved. But this notwithstanding, according to internalist pluralism, all cases are on a par when we are dealing with people who employ significantly different conceptual schemes. And the fact that some people use the same natural language merely disguises the fact that they may, nevertheless, be employing different concepts, for those concepts may take their meaning from quite different conceptual schemes.
Notice that an adherent of internalist pluralism is not claiming that what appear to be fundamental moral disagreements can be resolved merely by recognizing that many of those who take themselves to be involved in such disagreements are operating with different conceptual schemes. Rather, the claim is that (in many cases) the disagreement may only be apparent. In order for genuine debate, and hence disagreement, to take place between those employing different conceptual schemes, it would be necessary for one of the parties to enter into the other’s conceptual scheme. (Minimally this would require that the person entering into the formerly alien conceptual scheme comes to accept the relevant meanings within that conceptual scheme. It would certainly not require that the new initiate accept as true all the claims made by people who subscribe to the conceptual scheme in question.) But then the debate, and disagreement, would take place within a conceptual scheme rather than between two conceptual schemes. This implies that fundamental moral disagreements (and, analogously, fundamental religious disagreements) should be regarded as taking place only among those subscribing to some particular conceptual scheme rather than between adherents of different conceptual schemes.
Consider again the much simpler case of a world containing only three ‘atoms.’ ‘The Carnapian logician’ and ‘the Polish logician’ may appear to be disagreeing about how many objects such a world contains when the former claims that the answer is three while the latter claims that it is seven. However, on the internal realist’s view, there is no genuine disagreement here. From within the conceptual scheme of ‘the Carnapian logician,’ there are three objects, while from within the conceptual scheme of ‘the Polish logician,’ there are seven. While the assertion that there are only three objects is objectively false within ‘the Polish Logician’s’ conceptual scheme, there is nonetheless no obvious obstacle to ‘the Polish Logician’ coming to understand why ‘the Carnapian logician’ makes this assertion and why he is correct to do so given his conceptual scheme, and vice versa. If this level of understanding is achievable, it may be possible for the two logicians to engage in a meta-level debate about which conceptual scheme to adopt. However, this would not be a debate about how many objects a world contains (because this question would only be meaningful after some conceptual scheme or other had been adopted). So internal realism does not entail that no meaningful debate is possible between people who hold different conceptual schemes, but only that such debate must be pitched at a meta-conceptual scheme level and cannot be expected to address issues concerning conceptual-scheme specific ontological claims.31 Issues concerning the latter type of claim can only be meaningfully discussed within a conceptual scheme, so would require that both parties in the debate subscribe to the relevant scheme, at least for the purposes of the argument.32
As we have just seen, the claim that the meanings of statements differ according to which conceptual scheme they are employed within and the further claim that statements made within one conceptual scheme can thus be incomprehensible to those within another conceptual scheme have implications that may, at first sight, appear counterintuitive. What, then, motivates an adherent of internalist pluralism to make these claims? It is simply that the meaning of any statement depends upon the conceptual scheme in which it is proposed. And this would clearly be the case if the meanings of statements are determined holistically within each conceptual scheme. Thus, the meaning of any statement could not be fully grasped without understanding the meaning of other relevant statements within the conceptual scheme in question. This would imply that a statement could not, so to speak, be removed from its native conceptual scheme and retain the full meaning that it held there.33 While in some cases it may appear that the same statement is used in different conceptual schemes, it may actually be a case merely of the same pattern of words being used. And on closer inspection, what appear to be instances of ‘the same statement’ may thus turn out to be different statements because their meaning is different. It might further be argued that if the true statements within one conceptual scheme cannot be removed from that scheme without forfeiting their truth, then the meaning of statements would be forfeited by isolating them from their original context within a conceptual scheme. Yet meaning holism is widely held. And internalist pluralism would seem to be its, perhaps, surprising implication.
Furthermore, if internalist pluralism’s account of moral and religious disagreements is correct, we would expect to find that many instances of apparent moral or religious disagreement would seem to be intractable, given the claim that genuine disagreement can only take place between those employing the same conceptual scheme. Indeed, adherents of internalist pluralism would expect those who take themselves to be engaged in moral or religious disagreements occasionally to report their frustration due to the lack of progress in reaching agreement, or the fact that—after yet another excruciating round of debate—stalemate has once more been reached, or, again, their despair of ever being able to sway the other party to their point of view by rational methods. Needless to say, such reports seem to be much more common than accounts of moral or religious disagreements being successfully resolved.
But given the holistic theory of meaning and the account of truth to which internalist pluralism is committed, it might seem that its adoption would render it difficult to explain how people can make mistakes within their conceptual schemes. What is to prevent internalist pluralism—despite its promise to deliver an objective account of truth—from degenerating into a version of ethical or religious subjectivism, where ‘truths’ are demoted to whatever the individual takes them to be? The answer is that internalist pluralism is no more a form of mere subjectivism than is internal realism, and it can provide a robust theory of error. In a world of three atoms and their aggregates, ‘the Polish logician’ is objectively wrong if he thinks that there are ten objects, just as ‘the Carnapian logician’ is objectively wrong if she thinks that there are only two. The number of objects in the world is not a matter of subjective taste. We can easily get the number wrong. Furthermore, getting the number wrong is not simply a case of disagreeing with those who share our conceptual scheme. What counts as an object is conceptual-scheme dependent. But once a conceptual scheme has determined what is to count as an object, then specific objects are, or are not, there to be counted.
This applies also to conceptual schemes themselves. Internalist pluralism is a meta-conceptual scheme that identifies a plurality of first-order conceptual schemes as objects within it. And accepting the meta-conceptual scheme of internalist pluralism allows one further to identify as objects those that are identified as such by any first-order conceptual scheme recognized by internalist pluralism. And this is precisely how one can adopt internalist pluralism without thereby undermining one’s own ethical or religious belief system. Put another way, the ontological status of the objects within any first-order conceptual scheme remains unchanged even when one adopts internalist pluralism as one’s meta-conceptual scheme, for the kind of existence that first-order conceptual schemes possess is determined by the meta-conceptual scheme that identifies them as objects. But the kind of existence that objects within a first-order conceptual scheme possess is determined by that first-order conceptual scheme.34 Hence, while rejecting provincialism, internalist pluralism does not undermine ethical or religious beliefs in the way that non-realism or transcendentalism does.
Some Advantages of Internalist Pluralism
Finally, I shall outline five advantages that suggest the fruitfulness of applying the perspective of internalist pluralism to ethical and religious diversity.
The first and rather obvious advantage of this is that an adherent of internalist pluralism has no need to reinterpret ethical or religious discourse, or to claim that those who engage in it are necessarily mistaken about their beliefs (as those who adopt either the first or third strategies of non-realism or transcendentalism are compelled to do). Internalist pluralism, then, allows us to accord equal respect to all ethical and religious belief systems, which constitutes a considerable advantage over alternative strategies of accounting for ethical and religious plurality.
A second advantage offered by internalist pluralism is that it can provide a robust account of moral and religious knowledge. Locating the objects of knowledge within conceptual schemes removes the problem of explaining how we can know objects that are thought to be transcendent to our viewpoint. Consider, for example, a conceptual scheme that identifies cruelty as a moral property. Moral knowledge of cruelty would be accounted for in terms of persons reasoning within the conceptual scheme in question correctly identifying cases in which this property was instantiated. Moreover, within a conceptual scheme in which cruelty is an objectively existing moral property, a statement that correctly identifies an action as instantiating the property of cruelty will be an objectively true statement. An internalist pluralist account of moral knowledge would thus have no need to invoke anything transcendent to the conceptual scheme. In short, internalist pluralism avoids a problem incurred by many other theories that attempt to preserve an objective account of the objects of moral and religious knowledge: namely, that the purported objects of knowledge turn out to be unknowable because they are characterized as transcendent. Internalist pluralism avoids this problem because it regards the objects of knowledge as internal to whatever conceptual scheme identifies them.
A third advantage of internalist pluralism is that, unlike most other theories, it does not attempt to accommodate ethical and religious plurality by denying that there are genuine and substantial differences between moral and religious traditions. Any theory that denies genuine differences between traditions can be accused of providing a distorted account of those traditions, and thus of not taking diverse belief systems seriously enough. Clearly, this is no problem for an adherent of internalist pluralism who regards each conceptual scheme as, in effect, a self-contained world. There are no transcendent objects that adherents of all the different conceptual schemes are seeking to refer to within their systems (as envisaged in the third strategy of transcendentalism). So an internalist pluralist has no difficulty whatsoever with acknowledging that there may well be genuine differences between claims made within different conceptual schemes.
A fourth advantage of internalist pluralism is that it can accommodate ethical and religious conceptual schemes that endorse minimalist ontologies. Emotivism provides an example of a meta-ethical conceptual scheme that is committed to a minimalist ontology, while Theravada Buddhism could be viewed as an example of an ontologically minimalist religious conceptual scheme. Internalist pluralism, as a meta-conceptual scheme, is capable of accounting for all first-order conceptual schemes because it allows us to respect whatever ontology is endorsed by a conceptual scheme, just as internal realism respects both the minimalist ontology of ‘the Carnapian logician’ and the more luxuriant ontology of ‘the Polish logician.’ In short, internalist pluralism accounts quite naturally for the diversity of all ethical and religious phenomena.
A fifth advantage is that an adherent of internalist pluralism does not have to characterize all ethical and religious belief systems as leading people to the same end. This characterization is often thought to be a problem for John Hick, who claims that all religions, ultimately, encourage people to move towards the same goal, which comprises a shift from self-centeredness to reality-centeredness. This commits Hick to the further, highly implausible claim that core concepts such as ‘salvation’ ‘liberation,’ ‘enlightenment’ and ‘moksha’ are all roughly equivalent.35 Likewise, the same can be said of the ethical domain. An adherent of internalist pluralism will not attempt to re-describe the goals of every moral tradition in the terminology of one ethical conceptual scheme (for example, as the realization of eudaimonia), for the core concepts of an ethical or a religious system have their meaning within the ethical or religious belief system in question. Nor does the adherent of internalist pluralism have to claim that all ethical or religious systems share the same goal. For what counts as a moral or religious goal will depend on one’s conceptual scheme. Thus, there is no need to ignore or misdescribe the diverse data offered by the plurality of ethical belief systems or by the various world religions.
Internalist pluralism takes all ethical and religious beliefs much more seriously than do alternative theories that attempt to account for ethical and religious plurality. And it does so by discarding any notion of conceptual-scheme transcendent objects of moral and religious discourse, while yet retaining the actual objects of such discourse. It is in a position to acknowledge the genuine differences between moral and religious traditions because it is able to accept that some claims that seem clearly false, or even meaningless, within one conceptual scheme may be true within another. Indeed, the internal realist might go so far as to say that some statements, even ones made in the same natural language, might be incommensurable across schemes. Hence, internalist pluralism is more than happy to accept that ethical or religious statements can be objectively true within the relevant conceptual scheme, if not within another. Moreover, the moral and religious phenomena of all traditions can therefore be given equal weighting, and none need be re-described in a manner that brings them closer to other traditions. Nor does internalist pluralism have any need to re-describe the core concepts or the goals of any moral or religious tradition. These constitute considerable advantages over other approaches to the plurality of ethical and religious belief systems.
Internalist pluralism thus succeeds in accounting for the considerable differences between the various ethical systems and the various world religions, while remaining sensitive to cultural diversity. All of this suggests that internalist pluralism constitutes a possible solution to the key difficulty that ethical and religious plurality presents us with: namely, it explains how, by adopting internalist pluralism at a meta-conceptual scheme level, one can be rationally committed to one’s own ethical or religious belief system without having to regard all alternative systems as necessarily false. It thus constitutes a theoretical approach that is especially suited to the needs of those living within a multicultural society.
To be more precise, internalist pluralism is a development of the internal realism advocated in the middle period of his philosophical career. See, for example, Hilary Putnam, Reason, Truth and History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).
William Alston has been one of internal realism’s most influential critics. See, for example, William P. Alston, A Sensible Metaphysical Realism (Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Marquette University Press, 2002). For my defense of internal realism in response to Alston’s key criticisms, see Victoria S. Harrison, ‘Internal Realism, Religious Pluralism and Ontology’, Philosophia 36 (2008): 97–110.
See Putnam, Reason, Truth and History, op. cit., Chapter 3.
See ibid., p. 49.
See ibid., p. xi. Also see Hilary Putnam, ‘Realism and Reason,’ American Philosophical Association Proceedings 50 (1976–77): 483–498, and Hilary Putnam, ‘The Question of Realism’ in James Conant (ed.), Words and Life (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1994), pp. 304f.
See Hilary Putnam, Renewing Philosophy (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1992), p. 120. Moreover, according to internal realism, facts are to be analyzed in the same way as objects. Thus, what ‘facts’ are thought to obtain will depend upon which conceptual scheme is employed.
See Putnam, Reason, Truth and History, op. cit., p. 49.
It also explains why internal realism does not collapse into solipsism.
Although linguistic practice alone, according to internal realism, is not enough to secure the truth of particular statements but only the possibility that certain statements might turn out to be true. I have explained this issue in more detail in ‘Internal Realism, Religious Pluralism and Ontology,’ op., cit. There I introduced the terminology of ‘conceptual-scheme targetability’ and ‘successful conceptual-scheme targeting’ to elucidate the difference between the claim that a conceptual scheme makes it the case that a statement is true and the more complex claim that a conceptual scheme makes it possible that a statement is true.
See Putnam, Reason, Truth and History, op. cit., pp. 54f.
See ibid., p. 52.
See ibid., pp. 49f, passim.
See, ibid., p. 55.
Putnam has defended his idealization theory of truth against criticisms by Crispin Wright. See Hilary Putnam, ‘When “Evidence Transcendence” is not Malign: A Reply to Crispin Wright’, The Journal of Philosophy XCVIII, 11 (2001): 594–600. For Wright’s criticisms, see Crispin Wright, ‘Truth as Sort of Epistemic: Putnam’s Peregrinations’, The Journal of Philosophy XCVII, 6 (2000): 335–364.
In so arguing, Putnam is distancing internal realism from the anti-realism of Michael Dummett. Dummett reduces truth to what one is warranted in asserting. But if ‘truth’ is equated with ‘warranted assertibility’, then because there are some claims that one is neither warranted in asserting nor warranted in denying, they are neither true nor false. This constitutes the basis of semantic anti-realism. See, for example, Michael Dummett, ‘The Reality of the Past’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society (1968–1969): 239–258.
For an analysis of the three principal forms of non-realism, see Crispin Wright, Truth and Objectivity (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1992), Chap. 1.
Adoption of internal realism in these contexts does not commit one to applying the theory in all contexts. One might accept an internal realist account of truth, objectivity, and so on in the ethical and religious domains, while subscribing to an alternative theory in another domain. Such a pluralist account has been elaborated by Wright; see ibid.
Despite this recognition of diversity, I would not go so far as to say that every individual might have their own version of a conceptual scheme. As explained above, according to internal realism, a conceptual scheme is produced and maintained by a community sharing a linguistic practice; this rules out the possibility that a solitary individual might create and maintain a conceptual scheme.
Following Carnap, I have argued elsewhere that the key criterion for individuating conceptual schemes will be a pragmatic one. See Victoria S. Harrison, ‘Internal Realism and the Problem of Religious Diversity’: Philosophia 34, 3(2006): 287-301 and Rudolf Carnap, ‘Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology’ (1950), reprinted in P. Benacerraf and H. Putnam (eds), Philosophy of Mathematics, 2nd edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983); pp. 241–257.
Of course, one does not have to adopt the same strategy to account for both ethical and religious pluralism. Nevertheless, the same strategies are available for each domain. Failure to adopt the same strategy in each case would at least seem to require some explanation.
This strategy has been employed in ethics by, for example, the emotivist A. J. Ayer and the value-subjectivist J. L. Mackie. It has been applied in the philosophy of religion by, for example, D. Z. Phillips and Don Cupitt.
Within ethics, certain forms of intuitionism seem committed to this strategy, while within philosophy of religion it is embraced by religious exclusivists.
Within philosophy of religion, John Hick has adopted this strategy in his attempt to provide a theory of religious pluralism. In the ethical domain, Michelle Moody Adams has resorted to this type of strategy to explain moral disagreements.
See John Hick, ‘The Epistemological Challenge of Religious Pluralism’, Faith and Philosophy 14, 3 (1997): 281.
To employ Eli Hirsch’s terminology, words such as ‘object’ and ‘existence’ exhibit quantifier variation—what they quantify varies over the contexts (conceptual schemes) in which they are used.
See Victoria S. Harrison, The Apologetic Value of Human Holiness (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 2000).
A further implication of this analysis, which I cannot elaborate here, is that the ‘common-core thesis’ of religious experience, which many philosophers of religion subscribe to, is erroneous. For a critical discussion of the ‘common-core thesis’, see Peter Moore, ‘Mystical Experience, Mystical Doctrine, Mystical Technique’ in Steven T. Katz (ed.), Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), pp. 101–131.
It might be objected that many religious believers make claims about what was the case prior to the existence of humans—God creating the universe, for example—and therefore before there were any human minds to generate conceptual schemes. Such an objection, however, misses a crucial point: past events are, of course, conceived as having taken place prior to there being any human minds or conceptual schemes, and hence any conception of divine creation is always lodged within a particular faith stance. Put another way, not only is it the case that whatever ‘existing’ is taken to mean is dependent upon one’s current conceptual scheme, but it is also the case that whatever ‘existed’ means is equally conceptual-scheme dependent.
Two possible objections to this account immediately come to mind: First, what if someone were to object that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, and merely make conflicting assertions about that God? This view presupposes that there is an object—God—that exists independently of either the Christian or the Muslim conceptual scheme, and that both conceptual schemes offer rival ways of conceiving this God. Clearly, this objection is premised upon the sort of metaphysical realism that an internal realist rejects. Internal realism claims that what is recognized as an object is determined by the conceptual scheme in question. Hence, only if Christians and Muslims turn out to share the same conceptual scheme could one say that they worship the same God. Second, it might be objected that many religions share certain factual, or historical, claims. Both Christians and Muslims might, for example, both assert that ‘Jesus was born in Palestine.’ Such apparently shared claims might seem to compromise the view that each conceptual scheme provides its own unique world. However, as we shall see later, according to internalist pluralism, such common ground between religious traditions may well be merely an appearance generated by the fact that people who employ different conceptual schemes can, nevertheless, use the same natural language to express themselves. Hence, when a Christian asserts ‘Jesus was born in Palestine,’ that statement can, in fact, possess a different meaning from the statement ‘Jesus was born in Palestine’ uttered by a Muslim—there may well be two statements here, not one. Whatever meaning the statement has will crucially depend upon the significance attached to the name ‘Jesus’ and that significance is clearly not independent of the particular conceptual scheme employed. We might, analogously, think of a natural language as a tool. And when the same tool is employed in different contexts, it creates different products.
Consider, for example, the following statement made by Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama: ‘The aim of spiritual and, therefore, ethical practice is thus to transform and perfect the individual’s kun long. This is how we become better human beings.’ His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Ethics for the New Millennium (New York: Riverhead Books, 1999), p. 32. ‘Kun long’ is one of the most fundamental concepts within the Tibetan Buddhist ethico-religious conceptual scheme. It cannot be accurately translated into English, and its meaning is embedded within a complex system of ethical, religious, and metaphysical concepts. Would, for example, any Western religious leader be able to enter into debate that might issue in disagreement with the Dalai Lama about the concept of ‘kun long’? It seems likely that one could only do so after having first been inaugurated into the conceptual scheme of Tibetan Buddhism.
For a discussion of meta-conceptual schemes, see Harrison, ‘Internal Realism, Pluralism and Ontology; op. cit’.
A fictionalist stance towards religious and ethical claims might be an advantage to our would-be debater.
D. Z. Phillips illustrates the idea that there can be no translation of meaning from one conceptual scheme into another thus: ‘If I hear that one of my neighbours has killed another neighbour’s child, given that he is sane, my condemnation is immediate…But if I hear that some remote tribe practices child sacrifice, what then? I do not know what sacrifice means for the tribe in question. What would it mean to say that I condemned it when the ‘it’ refers to something I know nothing about? If I did condemn it, I would be condemning murder. But murder is not child sacrifice.’ D. Z. Phillips, Faith and Philosophical Inquiry (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970), p. 237.
In this way, a vicious, infinite regress that would otherwise seem to follow from containing conceptual schemes within conceptual schemes can be avoided. I lack the space to deal with this matter in detail here. For a less cursory discussion of this apparent difficulty, see Harrison, ‘Internal Realism, Pluralism and Ontology’; op. cit.
Harold Netland offers such a criticism of Hick in Dissonant Voices: Religious Pluralism and the Quest for Truth (Leicester: Apollos, 1991).