Creativity / Ethics / Ideology / Incompleteness / Philosophy / Politics / Religion

Living with Gaps And Cracks

File:Paul Klee, Hauptweg und Nebenwege, 1929, Öl auf Leinwand, 83,7 x 67,5 cm, Museum Ludwig 1976.jpg

The basic and, in my opinion, defining property of the human mind is creativity: the ability to break out of any scheme, any fixed pattern or law of thinking.

This results in our world to be “open”, in contrast to the closed, defined worlds of animals. We are able to grasp new phenomena and re-interpret known ones in new ways and in doing so, we are able to extend our world and our understanding of it as well as enter into novel interactions with the world.

A single unified and unifying theory of human thinking and human culture is, as a consequence, not possible since we are able to break out of the bounds of any such theory. It is therefore impossible to come up with a complete description of the human mind and of human cultures. We cannot understand or define ourselves completely. This is reflected in the vast plurality of topics and methods of the humanities.

As a result of creativity, our cultures split up into an unbounded multiplicity of different groups showing an unlimited multiplicity of different phenomena.

One way to deal with this situation is to embrace it and accept the multi-cultural and pluralistic global society resulting from it as something positive. This way of reacting to our fundamental “world-openness” leads to the development of the ideals of tolerance and a pluralistic and democratic open society.

Some people, however, seem to experience the fundamental incompleteness of our self-definition as a threatening gap, as an abyss. They try to patch this gap in different ways, by institutions limiting the freedom of action and by dogmas limiting the freedom of thought. Such systems may come in the form of religions or any kind of political ideology. The “gap” can always be ripped open again by creativity, so creativity is a threat and must be limited. Limiting the freedom of thought therefore results in the disruption and crippling of creativity. Creativity, however, is at the core of intelligence, so attempting to close the “gap” for good results in humans and societies that have reduced their own human and cognitive potential. One could say: it is not stupidity that results in ideology, but ideology that results in stupidity.

As long as ideological thinking is retained in the private sphere, however, it hardly causes problems for an open society. The attempt to build a society based on any such ideology, however, will almost necessarily lead to violence. The creativity of humans can always break out of the limitations imposed by a religion or ideology. Since this would undermine the basis of a society based on the religion or ideology, creative thought as well as the people who think or behave differently must be suppressed, in one form or another. This is only possible with some form of violence, from brainwashing and propaganda through peer pressure and suppression of books and free speech, to imprisonment, torture and killing. So the attempt to create a secure and fixed foundation of society and moral causes immoral results. Similarly, such societies and cultures will tend to get into antagonism against other societies and cultures, resulting in conflict up to the level of open war.

The attempt to turn the open, creative human being into a closed follower of any fixed system of thinking can thus be seen as one of the main sources of evil. To avoid it, I can see no alternative to an open, pluralistic, cosmopolitan and tolerant society. However, not all cultures can participate in such a multi-cultural society. People or groups who are not able to apply a minimum of tolerance themselves and who claim to own absolute truth must be excluded.

The challenge lies in doing this in a way that does not compromise the basic openness of society. This might lead into dilemmas and difficult problems in many cases, but the basic values of openness and freedom must be kept up or else our societies will themselves flip into some form of closed ideology, be it patriotism or whatever. Solving these problems can be very hard, and limiting creativity here causes deadlock situations in which opposing ideologies are facing each other. We must not succumb to the temptation to patch the gap. Doing so is, in my opinion, actually a childish attitude.

Instead, we have to bear the fundamental and unavoidable incompleteness and patchiness of our own human existence. The inability to give complete answers and find perfect solutions is the inescapable back side of that same creativity that makes us what we are: human beings. We should understand this as a source of strength, and we have to use this same creativity to try to tackle the problems resulting from it.

(The picture is from

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Paul_Klee,_Hauptweg_und_Nebenwege,_1929,_%C3%96l_auf_Leinwand,_83,7_x_67,5_cm,_Museum_Ludwig_1976.jpg)

23 thoughts on “Living with Gaps And Cracks

  1. Pingback: Prometheus | The Asifoscope

    • Exactly!
      This gave me the idea for the Prometheus text. Prometheus represents creativity. The gods (Zeus etc.) represent power, authority, ideology (and yes, commerce, thanks for the hint). Ideology and power restrict creativity, so they cripple themselves intellectually, because creativity is the core of intelligence. That is why the “gods” cannot understand this. But humans can and will set Prometheus (i.e. creativity) free.
      The price to pay for creativity is incompleteness. Incompleteness is the back side of creativity. We can never get the whole picture of ourselves and of our culture because we can always create something new. In the Prometheus story, that is my reinterpretation of the Eagle (remember, in the original story, the Eagle was ripping Prometheus open and eating his liver, as a punishment). The gods mean it as a punishment, but it isn’t from an ideological perspective, the creation of a rupture appears as disturbing, as a punishment, but for the free mind, it isn’t.

    • And thanks for reminding me of the term “subversive”. I had not been thinking of that word, but that is exactly what these articles are about.

  2. Pingback: Power and Creativity | The Asifoscope

  3. Pingback: Living with Gaps And Cracks | Leonardo34's Blog

  4. Should we accommodate Popper’s paradoxical idea of not tolerating the intolerant, and if so, how do we do so without compromising what you term “the basic openness of society”?

    “Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.” – K.P.

    • I agree with Poper here. I think tolerance should be as far reaching as possible, but there are limits. An open society cannot tolerate people who are trying to destroy it. Examples would be Nazis or proponents of Sharia, if they are trying to take over power. I think we must also not tolearte people whose activities deny others their right of free development. For example, I don’t think we should tolerate people who keep slaves in their homes.

      Defining the limits is, however, a thorny matter. It is absolutely a non-trivial problem. Open discussion is needed here.

      A hard problem in this is also how to organise the society in such a way that it stays tolerant, but is still able to ward off those who would try to destroy it or who try to restrict the access of some people to it. I think we have to live with some level of insecurity here. Trying to produce total security turns society into a suppressive police state. (see also https://asifoscope.org/2013/06/12/what-is-a-crime/).

  5. Sorry in advance because this will be misunderstood ; please do not put Sharia & Nazis in the same category . I am sure you know a lot about Nazis , I doubt very much that you know as much about Sharia .

    • My main source of information about it is Alber Hourani’s “A History of the Arab Peoples” (published 1991). Now Hourani was of Lebanese descend but not a Muslim, but I consider him an expert on the history of the region. But indeed I am not an expert on Sharia, so please correct me if you think I am getting things wrong.

      The purpose of my comment was to give examples of groups and ways of thinking and of organizing society that I consider incompatible with an open society. I think this is clear for authoritarian ideologies like that of the Nazis. I would not put Sharia into the same basket. However, I think that Sharia is also incompatible with an open society. (There are extremist groups of people calling themselves Muslims that one can indeed compare with the Nazis in some respects (I think the IS is such a group), but as far as I understand it, they themselves violate the Sharia in many ways, especially in their treatment of women and of members of other religions. Such groups are incompatible with an open society, but that is not even what I had in mind here.)

      I see two main problems with Sharia, from the point of view of an open society:

      1. In an open society, society will not prescribe how people should lead their lives. It will try to minimize any such restrictions in order to protect people from one another. In constitutions that attempt to implement the ideal of an open society, you normally have a principle of equality, e.g. equality of the sexes, and a right of free development of the individual.

      In Sharia, on the other hand, there are fixed role models for men and women. As a woman, you cannot develop your personality freely in a society that works according to Sharia. There is no equality. Additionally, as far as I know, Sharia allows slavery under certain conditions. Other elements of inequality concern religion. In Sharia, certain religions are tolerated, but only with some restrictions. As a Muslim, you must not convert to another faith. So the different faiths are not equal.

      2. But my main point is even another one: in an open society, nobody can claim to know how to organize the society in the best way. As a result the laws are changeable and adaptable, and members of the society will have some way to participate in the process of legislation. So, at least in theory, the system of laws can be improved by the people, based on experience and changing circumstances. So democratic constitutions that attempt to implement the ideal of an open society normally define a system of institutions and processes of legislation and legislative, and this is one of the core elements of such a society.

      In Sharia, on the other hand, there is no such thing as a system of legislation. The law is finished, once and for all, and it is derived from religion. It needs to be interpreted in particular instances (this will be done by some kind of ulama, like a qadi or in more complex cases by a mufti writing a fatwa, but the law itself remains unchanged. I think this is the main point of its incompatibility with an open society. In an open society, you may derive your ethical guidelines from a religion and this might influence your political opinions and your decisions in elections or other forms of participation, but the basis for the laws is the will of the people, not the will of God.

      I am living in Germany. There are additional properties of the Sharia system that make it incompatible with the constitution of my country. For example, in Sharia there is death penalty, in the German constitution, it is abolished. In the German constitution, there is a right to physical integrity, in Sharia there are, to my knowledge, punishments like beating and even cutting off ones hand. You have freedom of opinion and belief (I think there are restrictions to this in Sharia). Note that the right of freedom of faith is understood as an individual right of single people, not as a right of religious communities to live according to their respective religious laws. The law is secular and not derived from any particular religion. It might be a specific problem of Islam that it was connected to political power right from the beginning, by Mohamed becoming the political leader of the state of Medina that then expanded into the Islamic empire. This intrinsic connection of religion and political law might make it difficult now for Muslims to accommodate with other types of political systems. But as an outsider, I cannot say much about that.

  6. I don’t plan to argue against your interesting points about open societies except to ask if you have read Feyerabend on this ? The main point about Sharia law is that it is not monolithic . There are 4 recognised Sunni schools of jurisprudence and 2 Shia . The schools can vary considerably in their interpretations and not merely in apparently trivial matters of ritual . All also have centuries of caselaw which judges (qadis) study altho’ the attitude towards precedent is more flexible than in eg British law ( where the rule is absolute – at least theoretically ) . There is also law on how Muslims should behave in non Muslim majority countries – Tariq Ramadan has covered this in ‘To be a European Muslim’ . He was able to draw on the experience of Muslim trading groups living in Africa and Eastern countries since virtually the beginning of Islam . As legal system’S’ (emphasize the plural) go Sharia law is no more fixed than any other . I can’t go on for pages but would like to point out 2 more things –
    1 the penalties in Sharia law are maximum penalties and hence not always applied even when someone is found guilty (yes we do have trials) given also the principle of mercy . This principle is often wanting but that does not erase its existence . Much depends on the injured party . Even in Saudi Arabia , to my amazement , a convicted murderer was freed because the victim’s family forgave him .
    2 the Qur’an is the ultimate source for Muslims ‘the principles of the surahs are for all time’ so interpretation must be continually renewed but not added to or contradicted . There is huge debate going on now within the Muslim world about all this and what it means for the traditional jurisprudential schools . They do not and did not only rely on the Qur’an , you see .
    A lot of problems arise because of the past assumption that rulers of countries had the right to decide that country’s official religion (everyone did this) . So there is an organization called ‘Muslims for a Secular Democracy’ which believes that our ie Muslims best chance of freedom of religion will come about under non (religiously) partisan governments . I agree with them .That means I think not even ‘one nation under God’ , or as in the UK a church designed not to offend anyone .
    I await any reply or question with interest !

    • Sorry it took so long for me to answer. I was quite busy recently.

      I haven’t read Feyerabend on any of these topics. What did he write about them?

      I am aware of the multiplicity of different traditions within Islam and within Islamic law, although I do not know them in detail.

      I mainly have some questions to ask.

      You mention a “huge debate”. Would you say that there is a tension between more conservative interpretations of Islam and more “liberal” ones? Is the conflict (that I am seeing) between Islam and what I have called here an “open society” inevitable or is it possible to develop a more “open” form of Islam. Would that require to take the Qur’an less seriously (saying something like “we have to put this or that section in the context of its time, we can skip that…”)? On the other hand, if you insist that the Qur’an has to be taken in its entirety, are there different ways of interpreting it? In short: (to what extent) is a “liberal” Islam possible (if yes, then how?).

      You mention rules about living in non-Islamic countries. So if Muslims dispense with living in an Islamic state, is it then possible to live in a Western style state without compromising the religion? If you live like that, would you still describe that as a life according to Sharia or do you have to make a compromise here, dispensing with part of Sharia. So is this a matter of

      – giving up parts of what used to be the Islamic belief system and law,

      – or of finding a different, more “liberal” interpretation,

      – or does the original (if such a thing exists), unchanged way of life (at least from some of the traditions, perhaps in traditions from India which developed in a context of living among people with different world views) allow you to lead an Islamic life in a basically non-Islamic environment.

      (I guess all of these ways do occur).

      Or must the questions be asked in a different way?

  7. OK I was going to answer this in order but some things are easier than others so here goes :
    1 Feyerabend – I can’t remember whether it’s in ‘Science & Society’ or the 2nd edition of ‘Against Method’ (which incorporates it) but there is a section where he discusses anarchism as applied to the actual organization of countries . He doesn’t use the term ‘Open Society’ maybe because he wasn’t a huge fan of Popper’s (no more am I) or maybe because he envisaged something going a bit further . Anyway he suggested a mosaic of mini-societies , each of which would have people of the same opinions/habits/beliefs who would then not interfere with each other – the only rule . This avoids the rather draconian judgements of others which you and Popper seem to be happy with and which you & other commenters seem to suggest should automatically exclude religion , politics , patriotism or anything judged (there it is again !) to be an ideology . He did think there would be severe problems with eg groups like Catholics (his example) who would want to proselytise or generally would be unable to bear that anyone else should have different views . I was interested by the example altho’ would hardly advocate it . (I’ve been a political animal since I was 10 and interested in anarchism since I was 1st involved in feminist campaigning at 19 .) This trained me to look for the unexamined assumptions upon which societies rest , whatever their stated values . And I venture to suggest that outsiders may often see these when true members do not .
    2 Muslims living in non-Islamic countries . I’m afraid I have to suggest you read what I said before again because it answers your questions on this . If it really doesn’t then read Tariq Ramadan . If you don’t already know he is Swiss and earned his doctorate with work on Nietsche (I think) . His father was Egyptian and I think he has himself also studied at Al-Azhar University . The book addresses Muslims living in Europe , firstly to reassure them that it is entirely permissible to live in a non-Muslim country and secondly to explain how and what they can do . In the history of Islam there were small trading communities even during the time of the great Empires eg in Beijing from the Sung dynasty or Indonesia from the 8C (I think) . They became neither centres of conquest nor centres of apostasy .
    3 I’d like to introduce the concept of the linear religious fallacy . The idea that believers in any religion fall along a linear spectrum from those whose faith rules their lives all the way to those who never let it get in the way of conforming to current fashions in behaviour and that this also represents the history of that religion &/or its intellectual development . No the first Muslims were not ‘fundamentalists’ in the modern pejorative sense nor are contemporary Saudi Arabians actually traditional – Salafism and its offshoot Wahhabism are 19C movements . Islamic scholarship is usually agreed to have peaked in mediaeval times with at least one modern Pakistani writer describing those intellectuals as ‘a bunch of raging liberals’ . Progressive Islam still exists and was the approach I was brought up in . For accounts of the various 19c & 20c revival movements I’d recommend ‘Thought in the Liberal Age’ which is also by Hourani and deals largely with Egypt .
    4 I have to confess to disliking the term ‘Liberal Islam’ largely because the Facebook Page of that name is pretty awful – and I quarrelled with one the admins ! But it tends also to mean ‘has a diluted belief , drinks , takes drugs , sleeps around and exposes as much flesh as possible’ !
    5 It is worth mentioning that the word ‘Sharia’ means path (the related word ‘sharih’ means street and thus turns up in addresses) . If it was called ‘Way’ would people be so hostile ? In the UK there are Jewish religious courts and RC ecclesiastical courts as well as Sharia courts but only the last are widely believed to be a danger and so are campaigned against .

    Here are some of my favourite Progressive Muslim writers ;

    Muhammad Asad – translator of the Qur’an into English despite Austrian origin
    Farid Esack – South African theologian working in the US
    Ziauddin Sardar – British Pakistani writer of science textbooks , autobiographies , journalism , Qur’anic interpretation

    All of whom would be better at answering your questions than me , I think ! You see there are between 1.2 and 1.6 billion Muslims in the world so when I said a huge debate I meant it !

    • Thank you for the interesting references, especially Tariq Ramadan. I am going to have a look.

      For me the rule would be “live and let live”. I don’t see me doing what you call “rather draconian judgement of others”. I cannot speak for Popper here, it is a long time since I have seen his book, and I don’t have it at hand at the moment.

      What Feyerabend might have had in mind here seems to be a „society“ in which separate groups live side by side, each according to their own laws and rules. I think this does not work. Some groups might live quite separate (e.g. I once visited a Carmelite monastery, where we only saw one single nun who was responsible for receiving guests – these women isolate themselves from the rest of the world). But normally, people mix.

      To explain this, let me write something about my own family. I am German and an atheist. My wife is from Cameroon and Catholic. I have a sister in law who is a nun, and one uncle of my wife is a Bishop. We have a daughter. My sister (Lutheranian, I think) is married to a man from Eritrea. He happens to be Lutheranian, but there are other relatives belonging to the Ethiopian church. My step-grandson (grandson of my ex-wife) is a Sunnitic muslim, his father is Turkish. My other sister is married to a man from New Zealand (Scottish ancestors, I don’t know about his beliefs). Members of the family are from New Zealand, Cameroon, Eritrea, Germany, Turkey, Portugal (with Nigerian ancestry), Nigeria, Liberia, The US (including Native American ancestry). They live in New Zealand, Cameroon, Italy, Holland, Germany, Eritrea, Austria, South Africa… Probably I have forgotten some countries now.
      We have friends from even more countries and places. Classmates of my daughter come from several countries and several ethnic groups. One of her best friends is German-Jewish, another one is Chinese. And so on.

      So the reality of the family, the society, the workplace, etc. I am living in is multiethnic, multicultural, multi-religious. People from all over the world and with lots of different backgrounds mix. People are not living in cultural ghettoes. My wife is going to church on Sunday, and mixing there with English speaking Catholic people from different countries. She is attending meetings of Africans, of Cameroonians and of the Kom-People she belongs to (since Cameroon, like most African states, is a multi-ethnic artificial result of the time of colonialism). So the same person is moving around in different contexts defined by ethnicity, language, “nation”, religion, colonial language (Anglophone or Francophone), etc. Religion is no big topic inside our family, because everybody believes in something else. Everybody eats different food. People use and understand a range of different languages, used in different circumstances (English, French, Italian, Tigrinya, West African Pidgin, Kom, Turkish, German…). People have different passports.

      And this actually works. This is not some theory of an armchair philosopher, but the everyday experience of my life. Of course there are problems and conflicts and lots of misunderstandings (which are interesting in hindsight, once you understand them). I like it this way. And there are more and more families like this who are culturally mixed.

      If there is a rule, it is “live and let live”. This kind of multi-cultural society is not a set of segregate cultures living each by their own rules, but it is mixed, and this mixing also exists in public life, in shops and workplaces. The bank clerk responsible for my bank account is from a Turkish family. The woman who sewed the curtains I just hung up in my new apartment is Russian. Colleagues at the workplace are from Cameroon, from Russia, from Latvia, and former colleagues included people from Turkey and Guinea.

      There are groups who challenge this cosmopolitan life style. This includes religious groups who claim to be in the possession of absolute truth and who want to impose it on everybody else. It includes certain “fundamentalist” Christian and Muslim groups (I am aware that this “fundamentalism” in both religions is a recent development), as well as certain right wing, often racist groups, who want to define their “identity” in terms of Genetics or of “German” culture, people who would not accept that my daughter is German. These are the groups that I think a multi-cultural, open society has to fight, so yes, there is a limit to tolerance.

      Since the multi-cultural society that we actually have (not as something theoretical but as our everyday reality) does not consist of segregated groups, no single group can live just according to the laws of their religion or culture. There must be a common basis. This common basis should provide as much freedom as possible, but this cannot mean that every group can live according to their own laws (example below).

      I am living in Germany. The basis of living together here is the constitution of Germany. This constitution could be improved in some points, but I think it provides a rather good basis for such a society. It contains, among other things, a principle of “Freie Entfaltung der Persönlichkeit” (free development of the individual, or self-fulfillment). This implies that the state cannot impose any cultural preferences on the individual, beyond the principles of the constitution itself. It actually implies that a multi-cultural society is mandatory. Those German right wing groups who want to impose a “Deutsche Leitkultur” (a mandatory German cultural identity, however that would be defined) are unconstitutional. It also means that laws of single cultures that deny some people this right, e.g. laws that would impose pre-defined role models to men and women, would be unconstitutional as well. You have religious freedom; you can live here as a Jew or a Muslim, but where the Talmud or the Sharia contradict the constitution, you have to forego those parts of religious law. For example, there was recently the case of a Christian sect (the “Twelve Tribes”) who practiced excessive beating of their children as part of education. In the end, the authorities took the children away from them. Here the individual rights of the children (based on the right for physical integrity that is guaranteed by the constitution) have precedence over the laws of a community. I read that some members of that group now have left Germany. So religious freedom is an individual right, not the right of communities to live according to their laws.

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