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The Truth about Heresy?

Grant Bartley lays down the law in favour of the ‘right’ sort of heresy.

“Religions are kept alive by heresies, which are really sudden explosions of faith. Dead religions do not produce them.” Gerald Brenan Thoughts in a Dry Season.

“A heretic is a person who offers too good a criticism of the authorities,” Brant Gartley, fictional documentary telejournalist.

Advances in rational understanding can be achieved in at least three ways:

1) Through novel ideas popping up, their rationale unentangled by old proofs;

2) Through the refinement of an existing set of ideas; or

3) Through heresy.

‘Heresy’ can be defined most simply as a challenge to orthodoxy. A set of beliefs is called an orthodoxy when it becomes the official line of those who have the power to plausibly say where the official line is to be drawn. Or for a more precise and more useful definition, an orthodoxy might be thought of as ‘a publicly-shared official belief system’. For a view to be heretical presupposes a canon of opinions held by those claiming, and sometimes having, authority about the subject in question. The basic recipe for creating heresy then, is at least two people who share a common opinion, and someone else who disagrees with them. (You’re free to be heretical against this wannabe orthodoxy about the word ‘heresy’, by the way.)

The traditional use of ‘heresy’ is about challenging religious authority on religious doctrine. (In the OED ‘heresy’ even has a specifically Christian application.) Even today, a central definition of heresy still does not escape these historical roots of a concern with spiritual/moral authority, but now the word also refers to challenges to other types of authority. A scientist might write about “Gould’s heretical opinion on evolution” in a use of the term so extended it’s not even metaphorical anymore. Similarly, a non-religious use of ‘orthodoxy’ means the set of ideas being espoused by whatever relevant authorities in whatever area of knowledge the heresy is attacking.

Heresy is perhaps motivated by a desire to escape dubious authoritarian moral boundaries and other perceived baloney. Evidently and in fact, heresy is only incorrect when the orthodox opinion it’s challenging is right. This suggests that we can think in terms of good and evil challenges to orthodoxy: good heresies are ones that benefit human culture, by bringing its pool of approved beliefs closer to the final truth; evil heresies are lies, or are simply false. (One big assumption here is that the aim of knowledge is for our description of reality to ultimately be absolutely valid, ie true in all its statements.) But, how do we know which beliefs are wrong, and which are right: the orthodoxy or the heresy? That’s the pertinent and usually the difficult question to answer.

So perhaps one primary question about any orthodoxy is, ‘What should constitute authority in this area?’ The asking of this question does not seem encouraged often enough to me. But asking this question is asking an authority what gives it its authority. To challenge authority like this, directly, going for the aorta so to speak, could be considered a cardinal heresy – probing the foundations of authority is a challenge to be dealt with most severely by those having authority who want to keep it. The closer to the core principles of a belief-set a heresy is aiming at by asking its questions, the more significant a challenge it presents to the authorities, and therefore the more significant a heresy it is. A major heresy is anathema to established opinion, and leaves the authorities branding their potential prophets as devils bearing poisonous thoughts. Heresies are dangerous... But remember, Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed were all anti-authority heretics in their own times too.

Does a heresy have to be rationally coherent to be plausible? I think so, but that’s only my orthodoxy. Yet any perspicacious question, or even better, any rationally-framed and subtle counter-argument to a set of beliefs, has thereby already earned the right to fair consideration. (Is this true? If you say it’s not true that a reasonable argument deserves consideration, what are your reasons for saying that? If you don’t think reasons are important, then you’re probably reading the wrong magazine.) By contrast, I think lies, malice and nonsense are not directly philosophically appealing. Life’s too complex to waste time dealing unnecessarily with clear lies and other known evils.

While we’re on the subject, what would constitute philosophical heresy – either a heresy concerning the nature of philosophy itself, or heresy within a particular area of philosophy? One good general philosophical heresy would be, “Let’s deliberately try to think in terms of ideas we know are wrong or deceptive.” This is philosophical heresy because one of the central aims of philosophy is to develop better methods of thinking and analysis.

Not purely coincidentally, authorities of whatever category of belief-system are right in fearing their heretics: they are a fearful distraction from whatever ‘pure thinking in line with the truth’ the authorities would like to encourage. Caution is understandable here for another reason too. If the heretics show that the authority’s official and expressed beliefs are wrong, the authority loses all justification. (‘Authority’ could also be a metaphor for the word ‘justification’ here, incidentally.) A need to protect their aura of expertise is perhaps why the cardinals of the Catholic Church were quick to try and silence Galileo, for instance. Galileo went against the Church’s official line on astronomy (which was Ptolemaic rather than distinctly Biblical, actually) when he put the Sun rather than the Earth at the centre of the Solar System. But the idea that the Earth goes round the Sun doesn’t itself obviously endanger people’s souls: it’s rather that this idea contradicted what the Church was then saying was true. Perhaps a religiously-rationalised power-intoxication dulled the Inquisition’s desire for real truth regardless of what it turns out to be.

A world-view is a perspective built up from of a core set of rational beliefs. Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, defined a paradigm shift as a fundamental shift of world-view in a specified area of knowledge. Heresies bring paradigm shifts when they catalyse new ways of understanding old fields of knowledge. Galileo and Darwin belong to the select set of paradigm shifters, revolutionaries and heretics all. A major aspect of the Reformation was that Martin Luther took the authority for the interpretation of the Bible away from the priests, and put it into the hand of other believers. This sparked off a new way for Christians to interpret and understand their religion, and so can also be said to be a new way of understanding an old subject. The Church has been enduring further ‘refinements’ ever since.

Galileo’s case shows with particular clarity that an act of heresy, in the sense of challenging authority with significant ideas, can potentially be a constructive thing. But if you want to be constructive, then for consistency’s sake your challenge to established opinion has to be made in a civilized way, manifesting the benign ideal of the search for truth which is usually heresy’s justification. So be civilized, or you’re being irrational in your expression of your disagreement, and so not respectable. But, being civilized about your beliefs means toleration for the sake of peace and understanding. It means not penalising someone if they don’t think the way you do. Importantly, it is not civilized to kill someone because of their beliefs – even though your disagreement concerns anything from ‘Who is this God person anyway?’ to ‘Which economic ideal do you support, capitalism or communism?’

Galileo believed in a Sun-centred Universe. We now know that the Universe is bigger than it was in Galileo’s day: our Sun is just an ember flickering at the edge of an ordinary galaxy lost in space. But Galileo’s example tells us that today’s heresy can be a step to tomorrow’s orthodoxy. T.H. Huxley puts it better: “It is the customary fate of new truths to begin as heresies and end as superstitions.” (Science and Culture and Other Essays.) Or consider Darwin. Once Darwin was a heretic (as well as a trainee Unitarian minister, curiously). Now Christianity is taken as heresy in the West by the materialist, Godless, neo-Darwinist educated cultural authorities. (But global culture still has a long way to go before it has finished evolving its belief system... or does it?)

What might be good modern heresies? How about: “War is good. War is fundamentally natural selection...”? Or, a modern scientific heresy might be for instance, the idea that there are ghosts, ie aware wilful beings which are disembodied but active in the world. Scientific heresy per se is to admit into scientific theory ideas not amenable to (scientific) proof or disproof; for example, intelligent design. This doesn’t mean these ideas are necessarily false, just that they haven’t been demonstrated scientifically; and therefore that it is scientific heresy to use them in science. That intrusion means you’re not doing science. It’s a sort of exclusion by definition.

What about heresies for other modern elites? For the relativists, it (might) be any claim to knowledge of absolute truth: “I’m right, you’re wrong!” One could even argue that today’s popular opinion is that any claim to authority except from science is heresy. In particular, anybody saying “You can’t do that!” earns the indignant rebuttal, “Why not?”

I’ll leave you to think of further modern heresies. Or ponder this instead: What’s heresy specifically for you? Again, for me, philosophical heresy is to knowingly present irrational, confused or false ideas as true. Or it can be to say that some things are beyond questioning. Even that idea is not beyond questioning: which proves it’s right...

The concept of heresy has a social function, binding groups of people together against it. One type of human identity comes from belonging to a group sharing common world-views defined by sets of beliefs or ideologies; such as ‘Christian’, ‘Nazi’, ‘Marxist’ or ‘Shi’ite’. Here, as a matter of definition, the heretics, those that challenge the prescribed beliefs of a group of believers (either privately or publicly held), are the enemy of the ideology. The heretics are the outsiders who are inside the group, attempting to corrode the foundations of the truth. (By coincidence or by Freud, the title of Colin Wilson’s first book was The Outsider. He’s in this issue, too...) But in response, one could also say that a good challenge to assumptions is like a nuclear ballistic missile in the war of ideas which is human history. As we’ve seen, heretical thinking can be useful, sometimes. A good heresy at least presents an interesting challenge to the sometimes too comfortable, sometimes false opinions of perceived authority. (Sometimes true opinions too, it must be said. If the authorities were never right, we could simply safely ignore them.)

Prophets or liars, bearers of good or of bad consequence, heretics will always be potential harbingers of paradigm shifts, potential destroyers of sets of beliefs. No wonder they’re unpopular. But still, philosophers and seekers of understanding should listen to heresies, if the formulation of the heretical idea sounds plausible and significant. We need to use the best heresies as tools to expose error and discover the truth. Or as Yevgeny Zamyatin says in his essay ‘Literature, Revolution and Entropy’, “Heretics are the only bitter remedy against the entropy of human thought.” Absolutely nobody would want the human race to end up stupid. Would they?

© Grant Bartley 2006

For his sins, Grant Bartley is currently Assistant Editor at Philosophy Now.


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