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Archive for July, 2009

Jul 12 2009
Reason the greatest enemy of faith

Reason the greatest enemy of faith

Reason is the Devil’s greatest whore; by nature and manner of being she is a noxious whore; she is a prostitute, the Devil’s appointed whore; whore eaten by scab and leprosy who ought to be trodden under foot and destroyed…

Martin Luther, 1569

Why would Martin Luther refer to reason as the Devil´s whore? What was the vile threat he perceived justified such a bitter rant? Officially salvation in the Christian faith is both something highly desirable, and something that requires a leap of faith, and no amount of logical debate would get you there.  Fine, but supposedly there are many things that would not take you to heaven, such as whistling or dancing madly backwards, and I am convinced they did not receive the same slander. What is it about reason that particularly upsets Luther? Reason gives us something none of the other capacities do – an indication of the boundaries of the possible. If reason shows that the dictates of faith fall on the side of the impossible it becomes problematic. A beam in your eye as someone put it. Instead of seeking to remove it Luther tried to kill the messenger.

Denial is not the best way to treat an eyesore I fear.

But what if reason had disclosed the boundaries of the possible to be as permissive as Luther wished, would he then have hailed it as the new highway to heaven? For example, if the rational view of the world had seen it populated by spirits and run by a sociable and benevolent God, who would lovingly bend the rules of the universe to please the whims of his favourite creations, would Luther then have held it in such contempt? After all, not all Christians have been opposed to reason. “Early Christian doctrine held that God was the author of two texts, the Book of God, or The Bible, and The Book of Nature. The two were co-extensive: given the right interpretative tools, one could read the eternal verities of God’s design from Nature back to the Bible, and vice versa.” The Dutch 17th century biologist Jan Swammerdam for instance, thought that studying insects in great detail would not contradict God as the creator, but to the contrary, underpin the greatness of his work. Unfortunately though, by the end of his life, Swammerdam gave up science as he came to believe that his work no longer was in the service of God. Thus it seems it is not reason by itself that is so despicable, but what reason discloses. Quintessentially the culprit, I believe, is the Coperican insight that we were not the centre of the universe.

These days the educated enemies of reason attack it with the charge that there is no external and independent reality. That cannot be the religious strategy though since most religions claims the existence of a non-man made and immutable God. While they differ in their way of attack the enemy is the same: The Copernican insight. As opposed to pure rationalists I agree with the enemies of reason that the Copernican fact is dangerous, and I believe the intense resistance people have shown towards it expresses what I will call the essential tension between how we need or want the world to be, and how it really is. The distinction between what we need and what we want is as crucial as it is nebulous. It may be the case that a sane society needs what I will call therapeutic myths to prosper. It may also be the case that humans are capable of adapting to reality. I believe it is an empirical question and only history will tell.

My contention is that our need for truth is only one of many psychological needs, each fighting for satisfaction in our minds. When the going gets tough it also tends to be one of the first ones to be left by the road side. For the well-being of most people, the self-image and status is more important, that their life has meaning and purpose and that their life´s narrative is gratifying. The universe as a blind careless force just does not do the trick. It induces a fear we could call reality anxiety or Copernican anxiety. For people with very strong reality anxiety reason is indeed the Devil´s whore.

We are suspended in an essential tension between how we want the world to be and how it really is.

I hope (and think) there are better solutions to the reality anxiety than denial. To blow the Enlightenment trumpet for a second, critical thinking is crucial for a healthy society, and for our future. Without it we cannot draw conclusions from facts or predict consequences of our actions. Without reason we are very vulnerable to fraud and manipulation. It is our only power of calling a lie and find contradictions between various statements, and between statements and facts. Irrationality paves way for fascism whereas people that think for themselves are harder to control. Both the traditional realist and rationalist positions are problematic though as they carry historical burdens. The traditional rationalist and realist position is that there is an independent reality and that we can form an accurate image of it by objective means. My position is that there are independent rules that govern reality, but that human beings are in the crossing of at least three distinguishable and interrelated processes that unfold according to different rules. The first unfolds in astronomical time, the second in historical and the third in personal time. Only the first process unfolds independently of human beliefs and wishes. Thus it is true that there is an independent and external reality, but it is not the whole truth. It is true that we create our own realities and live in different worlds, but it is not the whole truth.

The aim of knowledge is not truth, but a healthy society.

Further, the worst historical hangover rationalists need to overcome is the glorification of a value neutral truth. The aim of knowledge is not truth, but a healthy society. I have tried to argue that the rationalist´s belief that truth is always good for people is an irrational assumption akin to the rationalist´s own religious conviction. There is nothing in Darwinism that supports that knowing the truth always gives better chances for survival than not. Survival must come before truth, and what is most important is our survival, well-being and to find sustainable ways of living. Hiding behind value neutrality science has figured out how to construct nuclear weapons but not how to make people happy.

Over the next few days I will argue that the role of rational people is not to aim to undermine the belief of every believer, but only attack those beliefs that are unhealthy, to try to identify destructive myths and attack them like antibodies attack viruses in our bodies. To be able to tell the difference means to be able to distinguish between healthy and destructive myths. This I confess is for me the biggest and most difficult philosophical problem, harder yet than to distinguish between the true and the false. It is not difficult because myths are arbitrarily good for some people and bad for others. To a certain extent that is of course true, but like all such relativistic objections it focuses on the shallow differences between humans instead of the depth we have in common. It is possible I believe to find criteria to use to assess the fertility of a myth, as objective as any used in a court of law to arrive at the truth. I don´t think it is easy. It will never be exact, and it will also not essentially depend on the truth of the belief itself. The difficulty does not stem so much from the fallibility of any criteria we may use – they will inevitably be inexact – but from the paradoxical relationship between the doctor and the patient. Science deals with a world independent of, and agnostic to, our existence. Myths on the other hand are all about us. Not only do they provide meaning for our lives, but through them we create the world we live in.

The mind secretes culture like the body secretes sweat.

The mind secretes culture like the body secretes sweat. Within the limits set by nature, myths become self-fulfilled actualities given enough number of believers. How do you distinguishing what is real in a make-believe world? This self-referential relationship is one source of paradoxical difficulties.

The second cause of complication is that reason and delusion are like day and night, and it is very hard to examine a myth, discard the rotten parts and keep the healthy once it is clear it is all a myth. From the view of psychological development a myth may be a necessary tool to overcome difficulties for a person or a community at a time of crisis. Later on it may be discarded like an old crutch, but if a Struwwelpeter like person were to spill the beans prematurely the placebo effect of the administered medicine would vaporise as the patient realized it has no active ingredient.

Struwwelpeter

Struwwelpeter

So much in society depends on myths. They are essential to everything from stock-market transactions, patriotism, religious faith, corporate team-building, political propaganda to the glory of fame and romantic love. How many of those twilight creatures would survive the lucid light of day? In philosophizing about them I sometimes feel like just such a Struwwelpeter, destroying that which I touch. Luckily, I have realized the negative Struwwelpeter effect mainly affects some therapeutic myths that are demostratively false, and then only mildly as beliving people show impressive resilience to critical thinking.

The third challenge is how politicised the question becomes the moment you realize how closely related the creation of myths is to power. This, I will show, was perfectly clear at the very birth of Western philosophy, and from Plato all the way to the Bush administration and corporate marketing, powerful men have abused our need for myths for the most illegitimate causes. Conspiracy theorists like to blame a concentrated elite for their evil ways of utilising the credulous nature of the masses, but the real enemy, I believe, is within. We don´t want to accept reality, and we resist even our own better judgement. When powerful people offer meaningful myths the Freudian reality principle caves in to the pleasure principle and we welcome them as gifts.

I find all of these subjects extremely difficult and if I speak as if I had it figured out please forgive me as it is not my intention. If I sound arrogant please consider it intellectual myopia as in a few years from now no doubt reading my own thoughts will make me cringe. I am travelling for the next month and I will try to keep these complex ideas in mind and maintain a cohesive discourse. I am writing from mountain tops and airports and that will be reflected in the texts no doubt. I feel I am only dipping my toe in a very deep pond but at the same time I might be on to something. I greatly welcome criticism but I would ask that you let me try to present my case as best I can before tearing it to shreds. I am trying to accommodate both the realist, the social constructivist and the subjectivist position, all under the glorious banner of helping make a happier world.

Talking for myself, having spent a good few nights with the Devil´s whore, I can safely say that she knows some tricks that would make your virgin saint, Indian guru, Holy Book, prozac, spliff, Dan Brown cliff hanger, home brewed moonshine, cheap crack hooker or whatever else normally gets you through the night, appear as mind blowing as a decaf latte. Luther might have disagreed but I can think of no greater bitch to take with me on the road.

Jul 11 2009

I came across a new word recently and I realized it might be the most beautiful word in the world, yet it has no direct correspondence in English. Mudita is a Pali word, and is usually translated as “sympathetic” or “altruistic” joy. Basically it means to take pleasure in someone else’s well-being. Isn’t that lovely? I think we need that word desperately as I sense there is a widespread suspicion against even the remote possibility of it. Allegedly someone’s success only genuinely provokes envy in others, and some cynical bastards even claim that people that show joy about other’s success only do so for strategic purposes, i.e. if they stand to benefit somehow. If this is not a “misunderestimation” of our emotional capacity I do not know what is. The claim is based on the (potentially self-fulfilling) notion that human’s are ultimately only selfish, as for instance people that give to others only do so to feel good about themselves. The absurdity of this argument is that it implies an idea of altruism that is impossible to ever fulfill short of actually being the other person. Of course a giver will feel good, since we do everything with some emotional motivation, and those rewarding emotions cannot be anywhere else than in the doer. Would having no emotions in association with a good deed make the person more altruistic rather than more schizoid? The difference between selfish and altruistic actions is not that the latter have no benefit for the doer but that it has benefit not only, or primarily, for the doer. The great, yet linguistically overseen, fact about humans, contrary to common thinking, is that we are fully capable of taking great pleasure in helping others, or seeing something become realized just for the beauty of it, or watching our loved ones overcome obstacles. Mudita is something every parent recognizes.

I agree that there must be something quite rotten about us since the opposite of mudita has made it to English language, namely the German shadenfreude, to take pleasure in the misfortunes of others. That in my mind must be one of the ugliest traits in our nature, and it comes as close to pure evil as I can imagine. The fact that the ugliest and not the most beautiful word has made it does carry a seed of redemption however. If it is accepted that we are capable of being emotionally excited by the suffering of others, logically it seems to refute the claim that we are not capable of vicarious emotions, i.e. the emotional participation in the experience of others. (That there should be any doubt about that baffles me seeing with all the football, religious worship and patriotism going around, vicarious living seems to be then norm rather than the exception. ) And if we have this capacity, which no doubt we do, we can chose to cultivate the positive aspect of it rather than the negative.

Without sounding to spiritual, thinking about mudita also has a self-fulfilling or reflexive quality. The more I can take joy in the happiness of someone else, the happier I get and the better I get at taking joy in the happiness of others… There is something very relaxing and cozy about it. If I can take joy in someone else’s joy I also feel great about myself, like I am a grown-up or something. I am normally just busy with my own projects, but if I stop for a moment and take in someone else’s achievements there is actually an abundance of great things to enjoy. I can think that so-and-so is a truly beautiful and gifted person. How wonderful it must be for so-and-so to have that financial freedom. I can listen to a song and think, are we not lucky that this composer managed to write that tune. It cultivates a gratefulness for all the good things in life, instead of a frustration about what I do not have.

Damn it….sounds way to cheesy…better stop or I will make a New Age ass of myself.