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Beyond Belief.  Necessary Fictions, Noble Lies.

Values and Rights after Belief.







… if values and rights are so important to civilization -indeed to any notion of civilized living- then why do we leave one of the best arguments in their favour in the hands of those who least respect them?





Where is, what is, the place of rights and values? There is no such place, not in this world; yet there is no other. How can we have what we need in such a situation? How to find, how to found (how is it we have found) such a place…?


Where is, what is, the rightful place of rights and values, the place where such can be valued? Where they already exist – in the only places where they can possibly exist. Where they have their origin (not where they had their origin -this is not a historical matter- but where they continue to originate from; the places they can be found in now…).


Yet the history is interesting: different rights arise for different entities, different groups in different societies at different times; different aspects of our experience, of what we can experience and what we can imagine, are valued in different ways by different groups and individuals (and at different times).


Where can we find such a place, a place of origin which is not a place of historical origin? Rather a place of perpetual origin; like a fountain, or a spring. Coming from who knows where; yet always with us (science informs us of some possible lines of causation, religion suggests yet another source, experience only notes a near miraculous replenishment, on-going, unceasing…). Always with us; accompanying the passage of our lives, present in every choice. With us at every place that we are. Omnipresent as time itself (another gift we receive, a gift that we identify as with us, but not of us). But this time, unlike time, we are in possession of a gift we can return – cannot but help return. Indeed, the one gift which can cure the damage caused by the uni-directionality of time, with its guarantor and guardian, the entropy which mocks all structure, physical, social, mental. Making of our sojourn in the eternal present, a one way street. Irreversible; but not irreparable. What is valued is repaired: objects are maintained; society and identity renewed through the varieties of ritual. Bestowal of value, of the right to value, as our return of gift, the giving of our finite and passing time (our debt to all that is without us repaid). Values and the rights they imply, wherever and whenever these come into being, they do so as something we feel, as much a part of our ‘now’ as the things we perceive – as this which we are perceiving, feeling - now. Feelings we then consider, rationalize, axiomatise, take as given (so permitting them to continue as tradition). Of such matters at least we can truthfully say that they exist; we act as if they exist - therefore they exist… The best we as a species can offer to the world (in terms of its protection against ourselves) and to ourselves (alas for similar reasons) is utterly fragile and yet fortuitously is also incredibly easy to create. As fragile and as easy to create as our hold on consciousness, on life, on human existence – fragile, contingent and… unavoidable. If we experience our world as such, value such and such, such it is… such are we…


From our perceptions and the thoughts and feelings they produce, to their objectifications, our currency of communication, our materializations of spirit, of what matters, the proofs of spirit we exchange and preserve in text, sound and image, we are continually engaged in a mammoth, all encompassing generation of values – values as fragile as forgetting and as easily disposed of as the smoke from a burning page. These are the matter of culture; and perhaps the only cultures that truly matter, that we should value, are those that can guarantee and sustain these precious, ephemeral entities.


Second order experience and past experience, memory of direct experience and the knowledge, or memory, of that which we have not experienced directly, only survives individuals, individual memory, by way of collective memory; tradition, learning, institutions, customs and so finally… culture as the stuff we can share and which can be recorded and preserved, passed-on (perhaps most cogently in Bordieu’s sense of habitus). What is valued is passed on. If not passed on: it dies out… So transmission is all important. And what is valued bears the marks, bears witness to the act of valuation; making of every such transmission simultaneously a transmission of values. Moreover the mode of transmission will leave its own imprint, its mark of appropriation, as will the context of the society in which it is propounded, in which it survives (as witness the institution of Christianity, as opposed to the teachings of Christ). So passing into the individual; the learning of second order experience to complement and re-orientate direct experience. Attaining the force of habit (perhaps not without resistance) in turn predisposing us to certain perceptions, prioritisations and justifications. For the motions of the self, the winds that pass thorough our portal on the world, blow both inwards and outwards. Leaving us at the cross currents of receptivity and predisposition, of consciousness-altering inputs and the ‘transcendent’ programming and accumulated habits that order them. Even permitting us to ‘see’ something in the first place; activating awareness. Yet it is both processes taken together that constitute awareness – the product of a kind of agon of which we may at times be dimly aware, may try, with difficulty, to alter… All this is, in no small part, due to the founding fragility, that is receptivity, flexibility and creativity, of human consciousness and memory, of our lodgment in the ‘eternal present’ with its civilizing complements of memory (including memories inherited from others) and foresight (a fragility witnessed in those religions that command the repetition of the most simple nostrums on a daily basis – would-be axioms for life that can never be forgotten – because we repeat them endlessly – little rituals as the ultimate foundations of the grandiose rituals in stone and in time that sustain civilizations – and destroy them). Only humans are so fragile that they can offer themselves such a gift. So fragile that such a gift would make all the difference.


Such a gift is that of bestowing value on things, on the life of things, on lives themselves, ours and others, Ours and Others, so re-finding enchantment in the world; our ability to confer enchantment, both as spur and creation of the casting of value; enchantment with its practical value, the conferral of protection, of rights…





Should we leave the tradition of the ‘noble lie’, product of the success of philosophy and education relative to religion and its reliance on belief (originally observing the necessity of religion for others whilst not requiring belief for oneself, but increasingly indicating that democratic values and human rights are read as if such). Can we leave this strategy to conservative thought alone - or more precisely to anti-liberal thought (as a comfort to those who do not value liberty - or at the very least only value their own, at the cost of others’). If at first sight the answer is yes - then let us think again. For with the bathwater of the gods there may also fly the baby of a civilization beyond the leverage of power and money. And this has been the aim of every thought of the good society since feudalism. (So it is not just a question of the ‘white lies’ of everyday good manners or pragmatic tolerance.)


The suggestion is that practical and pragmatic arguments on the problems and difficulties of naïve belief ’after philosophy’ -or maybe even ‘after education’- need not be left to the critics of political liberalism or civil liberties whether from left or from right. Such arguments (self-evident to those beyond belief, incapable of believing in essence or other forms of natural priority or authenticity) are actually appropriable by defenders of such, only providing they too are ‘unbelievers’, who see the necessity of belief (provisional, pragmatic, axiomatic) of its ‘side-effects’, in many of the central tenants of a good or open society, as necessary to civilized social life. Thus the critique of such arguments (concerning the ‘existence’ of rights and values) as subjunctive, irrational (or rational as religious) religious, or ideological and without foundation, without essence, become irrelevant; the decision is made to ‘believe’ or adopt such arguments much as others would adopt the stratagem of the ‘noble lie’ to conquer (or hide) their own doubts before a public and so still profess the necessity, or priority of religion and belief (for whatever it is that requires some gesture of public profession) for yet ‘others’ - for such a public (whilst not able to believe themselves…). With one significant difference; the provisional acceptance of such arguments is no longer a matter of conning the masses, a new ‘opium of the people’ (or even of the survival of reason in a society given over to irrationality, as in the past was often the case) but rather a decision taken to value what contributes to a good social manifold even if it lies a little beyond the kind of belief that most of us are capable.


‘I can not believe myself but choose to…’ Meaning both: I cannot believe in transcendent universals myself, even when I intuit them, feel them, even when I feel such I still cannot believe myself – yet the choice is there to do so. Or rather, not to do so. Not to believe. But to value, anew, afresh - ex-nihilo. To value that which calls forth its need from us. (A valuation supported by pragmatic arguments, by the agreed axioms of a good and just society). So permitting the valuing of intuitions whose utility cannot be rationally defended by any argument relying on transcendentals.


From belief in the shadow one casts one self… from an operation of the ‘noble lie’ type as supporting (organized) superstition, to creating ‘truths’ and values, ex nihilo… to choosing the tablet to be placed on the altar. 


If the ‘’noble liars’ can choose any and every superstition, then why not choose a more dignified one… one more in keeping with their ‘noble’ philosophical pretensions… a non-superstition, because no longer requiring simple undivided belief (whilst not denying the belief in such by those who must…) and no longer a lie, as it functions as a performative, if we assert it, such it is…


…no longer a lie.


For belief asserts that something is, exists, somewhere, even if ‘outside’ (indeed especially as outside, as existing eternal, the usual bedrock of any system requiring foundation); a performative statement of value, however, operates ‘inside’ - no entities ‘outside’, or Beyond, are asserted (nevertheless, until negated, or withdrawn, the affirmative speech act does appear to carry a trace of the insistence of eternity about it (‘I now pronounce you man and wife’, ‘…until you are divorced’). We humans do this, place our foundations, our a priori-s, our eternal verities, outside - ‘even’ reason cannot dispense with this piece of necessary, but wishful thinking - witness the operation of axioms. So a strategic use of this ‘faculty’ would seem to recommend itself (and may be, if such an operation is ‘hard-wired’ into our psychology, unavoidable).


This argument for the appropriation of impossible ideals becomes all the more important for those who can not hold to naïve beliefs in common goods, in humanity as essentially good or perfectible, given the loss of their transcendental foundation and the ubiquity of power relations (after Foucault, the Frankfurt school) and yet… still hold to ideals as sources of reform or continuity of the good life, or civilized society. Such critics are amongst the best critics of liberal society (and the most unforgiving of illiberal societies) but their aim is not give succor to the worst – but rather to be honest about the realities of mass society and the implication of power, of economic, gender and generational gradients on notions of equality and equity, on justice and fairness, in our actually-existing societies today and in whatever form they might take in the future.


How to sustain the best of the (political) liberal tradition, of Locke, Kant, Mills, Berlin, Rawls, on rights and values against all the odds, against the critiques ranged against them? By so doing bypassing the tradition of Plato and Hobbes, Hegel and Marx, Schmidt and Strauss, Noszik and Macintyre… whilst learning from the most acute criticisms produced by the latter; and remaining skeptical about claims for any absolute or ontological foundations for the beliefs of the former (yet with Strauss, as with Hobbes, it may be better to appropriate, rather than to damn and in so doing falling into the scape-goating, excising, sacrificial mode that founds other, prior, sets of belief - as we are not, after all, suggesting a belief system but rather… a going beyond all such).


(So… if not quite ‘Beyond Good and Evil’, then beyond that which gave them their foundation, their claim to absolute validity).


(Since Plato… at least).To follow philosophy and (yet) support religion; so in concert with the religious camp, yielding a society where all sides (appear to) support religion, albeit from their respective viewpoints, one from faith (or organizational exigencies), one from reason which would otherwise gainsay it. For religion we may here read any belief-based system… sacred or secular… Or to disbelieve all and believe nothing, as a defacto support for all the above unless actively nihilist… pure reaction, pure egoism, pure selfishness… back to the ‘power-only’ position, or some version of a market naturalist Darwinism… Better; using reason and experience to support belief as unbelievable but necessary, due to pragmatic, rational and empirical evidence… thus to have both belief and not-belief, as required by exigencies of advanced thought and the necessity of (belief in) values to human existence… the positing of universals as avoiding the evocation of god(s) but keeping the support of the eternal, or ‘outside’ in its traditional role of trans-historical guarantor (universal as always and everywhere, again impossible in time).


If the assertion that something is necessary despite disbelief is fine and suitable for them (the would-be philosopher kings), it is fine and suitable for others too…what works for gods and other mythologies will work as well, or better, as no sleight of hand nor ideological concealment is intended, nor evident, in an argument that argues for the priority and necessity of values and rights whilst denying them any ontological foundation or independent existence.


Also in this way the gap between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ is maintained, credulity is not stretched, yet the foundations of civilized life are also maintained. Maintained on the basis of their usefulness and practicability as part of our culture (some made by us, although generally not consciously) not an (imagined) part of our nature… (a would-be ‘authentic’ or ‘essential’ aspect of our make-up). Something indeed made-up, though unconsciously; requiring perhaps the complement of consciousness, but is consciously decided upon as required, then beyond belief, beyond our belief in its essential being – so something we need to ‘make up’… to create.


(Something we did collectively, as part of our species-being, make-up before the dawn of our history, and then forgot that we did so…). Positing the necessity of values (beyond belief) as an act of anamnesis.


One difference perhaps is the disbelief shared by critics and provisional supporters of political liberalism alike in the absolute version of liberalism’s basic tenants or axioms, a distrust that lies in a shared disinclination to belief (based on education, philosophy ‘after Plato’ at least, so a part of the Western tradition: ‘the East’ too can be found to offer a pragmatic appeal to ‘the gods and ancestors’ most cogently in Confucian thought). There is a marked preference for thought, for a thinking, a philosophical approach whose basis is reason, but (after the caveats of the tradition from Kant and Hume to Nietzsche and Wittgenstein) a reason anyway tempered by some admixture of empiricism and experience. The result is usually a rejection of all ‘metaphysics’ but this suspicion not only includes religion, but all of its successors and replacements, all apparently requiring some measure of belief (which appears as opposed to choice, being felt as instinctive and intuitive for those who profess it…).


Zeitgeist. All the ‘post-s’ of our epoch: Postmodernism, Post-foundationalism, Post-structuralism with their affinities to skeptical and pragmatic thought, arriving in the course of the late-twentieth century to offer a similar model for thought or critique of ‘essentialism’, ‘natural rights’, ‘authenticity’ and ‘alienation’ (so rejecting the models for cure and redemption offered by theories of alienation and authenticity as partial, interested, and artificial) thus leaving rational argument (augmented by the correctives of empiricism and pragmatic experience) to offer replacements for required beliefs. To offer only what is required…


Between the giving of gift and return of gift; we give value to things. Even, or most especially, to imaginary things; (like) universal rights. We assert them and they ‘exist’… (otherwise put: when we attach them to actually existing people, key aspects of their lives, or upon things, then we confer value upon them, as in the case of the environment). In this way re-offering a re-enchanted world that belief alone either cannot any longer offer or devalues by its deferral to the beyond (or the destructive tendencies that often accompany sacrificial or excisional belief systems), nor can reason alone make this offer due to its denial of quality or ‘irrational’ values…


Performative: we do it (say it) so it is… a speech act… the words that call a state into being; a kind of ritual (with the inclusion of gestures, ritual defined).


(Performative explained. How is it that ‘speech’ can ‘act’? Through our belief, stimulating action or compliance with new definitions. But first the new definitions; a change in the symbols that carry our culture, sustain our traditions. The old stream of ‘single’ is replaced by that of ‘married’; all at the behest of the word: ‘I now pronounce…’. A change in the stream of signs in which we swim (mediating ‘subject’ and ‘object’, engulfing what was once the difference between them). A break in the flow of signs, the affirmation of a new stream. A ritual break; a ritual affirmation.)


Ritual; entropy of belief requires ritual as the means of refreshment or cyclic re-foundation; we choose the rituals that support our identities and our ends (‘fair play’, ‘universal rights’ etc).


Eternity. (Fiction at the heart of ritual, or appeal at the heart of it; the appeal as event is certainly true - even if the recipient or putative destination can not be shown to be). The universal still founds its base in the beyond but not as provisional necessity, nor as last irreducible remnant of our inner architecture, that which required something ‘like’ religion, or anyway a fiction located ‘outside’ of the self (read ‘inside’ the imagination of the self). This doubling of self, effectively a doubling of the ‘eternal present’ (by its imitation, an ‘eternity’ ‘outside’ of and parallel with the ’eternal present’ of the ‘inside’) can be used in a number of contentious areas as a support for necessary fictions…keeping those with, as well as those without (outside) belief, happy…


That which is beyond belief may nevertheless be necessary.


(But only if everything is beyond belief…)







© Peter Nesteruk, 2011