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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.

Dec 1 2008

I think the expression “I have an idea” or “I think” is curious. It seems to presuppose that I am the creator of the idea and that it is somehow mine, but when I am honest with myself and try to see where “my” ideas come from I see that almost all come from other people, dead or alive, that have influenced me somehow. At birth I was thrown into a culture that was already there before me, jam packed with contradictory ideas, like a patchwork without an overall pattern. This is the memesoup on which my mind has been raised. Had I been born somewhere else at some other time I would have been profoundly different, and so would my thoughts. 

Sure enough I have my understanding of each idea that has influenced me, and that might be unique to me, but I really can’t take credit for anything much original in what is going on inside my head. There have been of course one or two original ideas that I seem to have “come up with” but even then – from where did they come? Maybe I had a flash of insight which meant that one moment I did not see something with my minds eye and the next I did - but how did I create them? I have no idea. I paid attention. I listened and the universe gave them to me I suppose. A lot of creative people have said the same. Take David Lynch for instance, one of the most original and innovative film-makers ever. In his book on how he gets his creative ideas “Catching the Big Fish” he describes the creative process as one of diving into the inner sea to fish out a new idea. For him that is a daily meditative practice. An effort. “Desire for an idea is like bait. When you’re fishing, you have to have patience. You bait your hook, and then you wait. The deisre is the bait that pulls those fish in – those ideas.” But Lynch is clear on the point that the ideas come to him, and he often doesn’t know what they mean. After Mulholland Drive there were lots of debates about how to interpret the movie, in fact there is a whole website dedicated only to that and the range of suggestions is staggering. Everything from dream analysis, to meetings with the Devil and parallel universes. Particularly people wonder about what the box and the blue key meant.

Lynch view is: “I don’t have a clue what those are”.

Mullholland Drive

Mullholland Drive

The point here is that Lynch is considered an original thinker. He meditates and contemplates. Most of us are not in the habit of neither. Still we like to think that we think and that thoughts are not just things that happen in us. Ok, so lets do a simple experiment. If indeed there is a thinker that controls the thinking surely it can stop thinking at will no? Try not to think at all for a short moment of say 2 minutes. Look at a watch and try to keep the mind completely silent.

 

It hasn’t been 2 minutes yet…

 

No dice?

 

Oh well. It is tricky, but if one can’t keep concentration for 2 minutes one isn’t much of a thinker. Yes yes you might object, so what? We are not all Platos and Freuds but the phrase ”I think” is just a linguistic construct, a convenient way of talking. No harm in that right? Well I think there might very well be, because as is often the case, this is no linguistic accident. The fact that we say “I think” expresses several dubious assumptions we hold.

  1. There is an I that is the active and responsible thinker
  2. Because you are the thinker you as a person are responsible for you ideas
  3. My identity hinges on my ideas about the world and myself

It thinks in me.

Because we don’t tend to recognize the extent to which we are innocent of our own ideas we get emotionally involved with “our own” opinions. If someone said to us, “you only think so because your mom told you to” we would get offended. “Why, you don’t think I can make up my own damned mind?!” I’m not saying one cannot make one’s mind up, but it’s harder than we tend to think. To me it implies going deeper: Why do I hold a certain belief? Where did it come from? What purpose does it serve for me to believe it? Is it really true? If it is faith more than knowledge, am I free to believe the opposite? If I could not believe anything else, if their is no choice, how is it MY belief?

The number of active critical minds responsible for original ideas is almost insignificant in comparison with those that more or less passively spread those ideas. The amount of fundamental ideas is actually rather limited. There are new cross-breeds and new flavours, but the basic classes of ideas are not as varied as one might imagine.

The linguistically correct way of expressing things in many situations would be to say:”In Joe it thinks that a horse shoe over the door brings luck.” Joe didn’t invent this idea, he wouldn’t claim it as his, and he probably couldn’t have come up with it even if he tried. He is probably living in a culture in which this belief is common, and perhaps he hasn’t even reflected on it. He feels he belongs to that group and the horse shoe might be just “one of those things one does”. It was part of his memesoup as a symbol of belonging, like a flag. 

“It thinks in me” rings weird at first, but when I introspect that seems to be what happens often. Psychosynthesis has developed this other way of speaking that reflects this insight. Instead of saying I think A and B one often say: ”There is a part of me that thinks A, and another part that thinks B.” That opens up a space for exploration and clears out the emotional need to defend my ideas. Ultimately I am not responsible for being born and why should I defend all the beliefs I have been fed?

Another consequence of the expression “I think” is obviously “you think” and “you are wrong”. When there is no separation between the person and the idea in language, it makes it very difficult to separate them in practice. A person comes to represent the idea – for better and for worse. Agreeing or disagreeing with someone is often a matter of liking or disliking the person more that the idea. Do we trust them? If so we tend to agree with what they say. Do we adore them? They can make us believe anything. Do we dislike them, then it hardly matters what they will say and we will disagree. It seems to me that in general, if we really want to understand someone we can. When we say we don’t understand someone, we are often indirectly saying that we don’t like them.

Anything with which I identify myself controls me.

These kinds of considerations helped to foster the ideal of the rational debate. Traditional authority, personal preference, unquestioned opinions, twisting the opponents words, seeing only what one wants to see, etc. all of these were summoned up in the contemptible concept “subjective” and not fit for a genuine debate. In fair debates we should be able to justify our beliefs with arguments, but not all kinds of arguments qualify. To argue ad hominem for instance is not accepted i.e. to use arguments about the personal character of the opponent. Like “You are an alcoholic, therefore you cannot be trusted and your claim X is false” or “What you say is not true because your middle name is Hussein, and that sounds fishy to me”.  The truth value of X of course cannot be settled with such rhetorical “tricks”. These ideals still govern academia, wikipedia and the political parliaments but they are very difficult to adhere to. (Check out these tragic fist fights in parliaments for instance.) The difficulty stems from, I think (I doubt it is my original thought actually), the whole issue of personal identity and that as long as we think we think, we identify ourselves with whatever happens to be thought in us. And we treat others the same way, which is why we feel we should punch them in the face when they are wrong.

Anxious juice maker

How is it possible for us to identify with an idea? It is amazingly curious the whole thing.  Fascinatingly puzzling and uniquely human. If a juice maker could think would it believe it was an orange? Will computers get upset when we no longer use Windows? 

If we call an idea a “thing” it is a curious thing, so odd indeed that many philosophers believe they live in a whole different world, a 3rd world beyond the physical and mental. Be that as it may, but they are not ordinary things in so far as they always point to something other than themselves. An idea about a thing is not the thing itself. It points to it. And then we come around, jump on that idea and say that we are it! Huh?! The idea that there is a heaven, or karma or reincarnation or whatever, points to something “otherworldly”. It is this “pointing to” that gives it meaning, and that makes it “not-a-thing”. But as if that wasn’t odd enough already, we come and sit on the poor beast and claim that we are it. I am a Muslim! I am a Marxist. Yes sir, that is what I am. All of it. That is me.

One might object: “If I am not [a Christian, scientist, dentist...] then what am I?” Well, you are what you are. The idea doesn’t change that. Seems to me we don’t know what we are, therefore we feel a need to invent an identity. But the idea we identify with is necessarily something other than what we are. But we don’t know what it is like just to be, so we feel a need to fill the silence with images and words.

In psychosythesis there is an idea that says that anything with which I identify myself controls me, and that I think is the stone in the shoe. There are many practical exercises to disidentify from parts of oneself that help increase the inner space and freedom. Check out this one for instance.

I leave you with another Lynch gem… 

“Little fish swim on the surface, but the big ones swim down below. If you can expand the container you’re fishing in – your consciousness – you can catch bigger fish.”

Please leave comments and show me how bonkers this all sounds!

Oct 30 2008

Protologism is a unique word, not only because it is new, but because it is probably the only word that for a limited time is an example of itself. Protologism is itself a protologism – it is autological – but as opposed to autological words like “noun” or “polysyllabic” it will not remain autological for long. Like a quantum particle that changes as a result of being observed, the fact that I use the word has the curious effect of ever so slightly changing not what it means, but what it is. The fact that you are learning about the concept protologism again contributes to the process by which it is no longer itself a protologism.

What on earth am I talking about?!

Protologisms are new concepts that are suggested by someone to be adopted by society. It is a word made up of proto, as in prototype, proton etc meaning first, and logos, meaning word or law. They should be distinguished from neologisms which are words that have already been adopted by at least a group of people for at least some time, eg. to google or chatear [Esp]. At the other end paleologisms are ancient words that have been with us for centuries. Protoloogism as a concept has been proposed by the authors of wiktionary, but has yet to be widely circulated.

I think it is a brilliant concept for a brilliant thing. Coming up with new words is one of the best cures for the common illness of thinking one understands something just because one has a word for it. Truth is that using old familiar words often blinds us from seeing new things. Protologisms can give us a jamais-vu experience (seeing old things in new ways, never seen before, itself a neologism).

Here some of the wiktionary protologism contenders:

  • aaaabuse: The act of trying to use unusual naming conventions to get your entry placed ahead of everyone else’s. Cf. the George Lopez episode where Angie states that she had her wedding planning business put in the phonebook as Aaaaangie’s Wedding Planning. “I knew I’d get more business if I came before Triple A Weddings!”
  • a: The fear of short words, not to be confused with hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia, the fear of long words.
  • wonkalicious: Expression of delight on the flavour of a food that looks disgusting.

Some are less promising than others I guess, but I think everyone should make up words, as many as possible. I suppose that makes me a linguistic liberal, or simply a pro-protologist – one for the list?

Oct 30 2008

Sarah Jane, a mother of three with a stable if not exciting marriage to a lawyer, is staring at a text message from a rather dashing young journalist by the name of Laurence. They met at a party at a common friends house and she let herself flirt and insinuate she was up for play. When they ran into each other at the local supermarket she felt a thrill at the mere thought of a secret adventure and that is when she gave him her number. As her heart is beating and her eyes re-reading the message in that old black and gray Nokia font for the fifth time she takes a deep breath and decides to ignore the invitation. It is not a choice based in what her feelings are yearning for now, she knows that right now her skin would come alive as if back from the dead, but she knows that if she makes this choice it will lead her up to another choice. She may change due to the choice she could make now. She might change into someone that is prepared to loose that which she now holds the most precious – her marriage, her family and her reputation. It is not a mere choice based in her wish, it is a pre-emptive choice protecting herself from a future choice by her potential self.

A lot of choices in life are like Sarah Jane’s. You might want to stay away from a crowd of earlier wild friends once you find yourself studying for a degree or in a stable relationship. You might avoid reading a book you suspect might challenge your faith or opinions, not because you think the opposing ideas are false – rather the contrary. You are attached to your ideas and prefer to keep them whether or not they are true, so you pre-emptively avoid scrutiny.

The difference between a normal choice and a pre-emptive choice is that the latter is aimed at preventing yourself from making another choice. It is an act of will against developing another will. You currently do not want what you suspect you might come to desire, and now you do not want to be such a person.

pre-emptive: made so as to deter an anticipated unpleasant situation

UPDATE: 8 FEB. 2012

After having listened to a wonderful podcast from Little Atoms featuring the neuroscientist David Eagleman I have come to learn that there is actually a concept in decision making theory that captures this idea, and that is goes all the way back to Homer. It is called a Ulysses contract. “The term refers to the pact that Ulysses (Greek name “Ὀδυσσεύς”, Odysseus) made with his men as they approached the Sirens. Ulysses wanted to hear the Sirens’ song although he knew that doing so would render him incapable of rational thought. He put wax in his men’s ears so that they could not hear, and had them tie him to the mast so that he could not jump into the sea. He ordered them not to change course under any circumstances, and to keep their swords upon him to attack him if he should break free of his bonds.

Upon hearing the Sirens’ song, Ulysses was driven temporarily insane and struggled with all of his might to break free so that he might join the Sirens, which would have meant his death.”