Frames of Reference

Posted in Dialogue, Philosophy at 7:51 am by Haider

Discussions often operate on the level of arguments, or statements. One party makes an assertion, and the other party dismisses it as “not making sense,” “being flawed,” or a number of other reasons for not accepting the assertion. What is often overlooked is the frame of reference used to justify that assertion.

In other words, the assertion makes sense, based on the assumptions of the speaker. It is part of a whole. In order to understand the part, we must see where it fits into the whole, determine where the fault lies in the entire outlook of the speaker (if one is to be found) and judge the part accordingly.

For example, suppose someone tells you he believes religion should bring happiness. For a religious person with a different understanding of religion, this idea might not make sense, because he thinks religion is about obedience to God, and doing the right thing. “Happiness” doesn’t have a place in religion (at least not in this life time). To resolve the misunderstanding, you wouldn’t go anywhere by repeating the same statement. The two have different frames of reference. The statement doesn’t make sense to the listener, because it doesn’t have a place in his frame. It’s not part of his “big picture.” He would have understood what is being meant by the statement, but doesn’t think it is a correct assertion.

Now, if the speaker moves up one level, and presents his frame of reference, or a part of it that places the statement in a more meaningful context, then the discussion can move forward:

“Religion doesn’t bring God any benefit, but is for the benefit of mankind.”

“God created human nature, and His religion is compatible with their nature.”

These statements, while not necessarily sufficient to convince someone that the initial statement is true, offer a wider scope – and reveal a greater part of the picture – to understand what the speaker’s opinion is based on.

There are two things that need to be done in order to have fruitful discussions:

1-Reveal the frame of reference to the point of commonality: Most beliefs share a common overall frame, then branch off when dealing with more specific issues. In order to resolve misunderstandings, and to have a discussion on the level that matters, you need to begin with the belief you have in common. This defines a common frame of reference for both parties to use.

2- Question the validity of your own frame of reference: Your personal frame of reference might not be a valid one. Assess whether the other party’s frame of reference is more realistic than your own. This presents the problem of judging your frame of reference by the standard of your own frame of reference (which is why all religions are correct according to their followers)! What is important here is the willingness to accept that your frame of reference can be wrong and should be questioned.


The Ethics of Death

Posted in Ethics at 8:32 am by Haider

This post is not about whether it’s moral or immoral to die. I think we know the answer to that question!

It’s about how Muslim preachers remind people of their impending death in order to jolt them towards morality. The basis of the argument is that you will soon be held accountable by God, and you should, therefore, make sure you are prepared for judgment, and make use of your time on earth to improve the outcome of the life you’ll live beyond the grave.

How Morality is Understood

Muslims, in general, see morality as a list of actions that we must perform, and others that we must avoid, in order to be graded on the Day of Judgment. The value of morality is seen in the rewards we expect to receive in heaven, and the torments we wish to avoid in hell.

Many preachers usually counsel their fellow believers when facing difficulties to uphold Islamic ethics by pointing out that non-Muslims seek the pleasure of this world, whereas Muslims should seek the pleasure of the akhirah (the after-life, i.e. life after death). This argument is bizarrely used to explain the rationale behind Islamic practices: “Practice X doesn’t make sense in this world, but it makes sense from the point of view of the akhirah.

This approach can be and is being used to justify any practice, since the criteria of the “akhirah” is very vague. If you think you can blow yourself up in a crowded market and enter heaven, then you can easily justify burying young girls (the practice of pre-Islamic Arabia, which the Holy Koran vehemently condemns) and enter heaven as well. Both practices don’t make sense on earth, but they can equally be justified if you can assume that God has sanctioned them.

The idea that morality is only for the after-life is based on the following assumptions:

- That morality is something noble, and this world isn’t. Therefore, morality cannot be seen to serve a purpose on earth

- Morality isn’t a tangible subject. Therefore, it shouldn’t be measured by “worldly” instruments, such as reason, knowledge, science, philosophy, etc.

- Morals aren’t based on principles, but commandments. Therefore, the basis of morality is obedience in order to secure a better life after death..

The Collapse of Morality

The ethics of death separates morality from principles and principles from understanding. If you subscribe to the ethics of death, then you do not know why you observe the moral instructions that you observe, apart from the rewards or punishments you expect after you die. In other words, you cannot determine the consequences of your actions, or evaluate the consequences you experience on earth.

This understanding of morality doesn’t promote morality, but death. It asks you to shun this life and to work for the day you die. And if we wish to blame anyone for the collapse of morality, then we should turn our attention to these preachers, and the idea of morality they are promoting.