The Essential Tension

Sunday, July 12th, 2009 at 5:07 am
by Borg
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.



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.

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22 Responses to “The Essential Tension”

  1. Guy Says:

    There's a lot in this to discuss but I'll just pick a few bits out.

    First of all, Martin Luther was a massive anti-semite:
    So he was not the most balanced of fellows anyway.

    You say: "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".

    This is true, but is there an assumption here that Darwinism has all the answers?

    How do we explain people who risk certain death to save others- in other words put 'something' above bodily survival itself? And they often seem to do this without recourse to reason, but act completely spontaneously. Is this kind of selfless action mere unreasonable stupidity? Or is it an inner emergence of a consciousness that knows the mere survival of the physical body is less important than a kind of integrity of action which transcends even life and death?

    Of course to a rationalist survival of the physical body must be the most important thing, as nothing other than this scientifically-measurable reality can possibly exist. All ideas of anything non-measurable by science are just that, ideas in our physical brains and when the brain ceases, so do they, for ever.

    But studying the work of respected academics like CG Jung and Joseph Campbell (Jung called himself a scientist but to a pure rationalist I suspect he would not be considered one) another perspective emerges- that myths are not *just* myths, but are as it were the soil in which this physical reality is growing, and have in fact a more permanent character than most of the objects and institutions of our physical world. The concept of the collective unconscious seeks to show that certain myths and archetypes emerge in totally unconnected places in the world, often at the same time, and showing remarkable similarities.

    It seems to me that it is these eternal myths which are the 'healthy' ones, and the ones invented or distorted by individual humans are the ones to watch out for- for example, to me there seems to be a great deal to ponder in the great religious myths and much less depth in the flimsy modern myths of communism, capitalism or (for a real stinker) Scientology. These modern myths are like little laboratory plants, grown on fake chemicals and destined to die an early death.

    Also I think the assumption here is that 'myth' basically is equal to 'lie' and we just need to find out which lies are useful and which aren't. I would say the true myths, when contemplated deeply, show us a truth which could not be put into words any other way than in mythical or poetic language. In a certain scientifically-measurable sense, the myth of Judaism (for example) is much less real than a McDonald's Quarter Pounder. But in a (totally unprovable) way, it is the myth which 'hides' the reality and the hamburger which 'hides' the lie.

    I would be wary of sanctioning beliefs in things we ultimately believe to be untrue just because they are useful- this veers dangerously close to the Neo-Con doctrine of necessary lies- i.e. the masses need to be lied to for the greater good of social cohesion (ref. 'The Power of Nightmares' for full explanation of this). If we think these myths are essentially void of truth and value them only for their usefulness I think it's better to say so and try to do without them completely- or find the truth within them.

    This does NOT mean 'believing' in myths – people who think the world was literally made in seven days obviously need their heads examined, yet we can accept it as true as part of a larger mythical system which seeks to show certain eternal verities. And also this does not pit it against 'competing' mythological systems- these myths can easily be complementary as much as they can be set up against each other. Witness Joseph Campbell who loved and appreciated Nietzsche, a total anti-Christian in every sense, yet could quote almost anything out of the Bible and evidently had a fondness for the Judaeo-Christian myth, alongside the Nietzschean.

    I too love 'The Devil's Whore', and I believe we should sometimes persuade her to look at things she is not entirely comfortable with, just to see what happens. I hope you have fun with her on the road as she is everyone's Whore to do with as they will…

  2. Guy Says:

    Oh yeah and I had the book of Struwwelpeter as a kid- scared the living shit out of me!

  3. Nils Borg Says:

    Thanks so much for taking the time Guy. I feel the issues are so complex that you can look at them from any angle and see contradictory things and still feel that each take is valid. It´s like philosophizing around a disco ball. You have touched upon aspect that I have split off for the up-coming posts, such as the political abuse of myths, the problems of reducing truth to what is expedient to believe, and the need to recast myths not as negative, distorting and destructive fictions but as carriers of meaning and "the soil in which this physical reality is growing". I think we both have a lot more to say about all that so maybe postpone some discussions. Some quick fertilising (hopefully) comments though:

    @re Luther as Jew hating bastard: He is himself like a myth to me. I don´t know anything much about him, but it is not the true qualities of character that interest me, but the unhealthy impact (in this context at least) he has had on the Western world. It says a lot about us that such an unpleasant person can create myths that, true or not, healthy or sick, still have reverberations 500 years later.

    @re Darwinism having all the answers. Nothing has all the answers, the disco ball has many fragments. But the idea I want to bring out in this post is the TENSION behind our need for answers. If Copernicus put nail number one in the coffin for our feeling of being ¨the special beings¨Darwin put number two. But classical Darwinism (or rather Herbert Spencer) doesn´t say much more than "he who survived was most fit to survive", which is not saying much more than "he who survived, survived". Not much of an answer. So we are left with a vacuum, and immense need for meaning. What do we do with that need? Why do we even have it? How does it affect us? Do we tweak our views to fill the gap?

    @re altruistic sacrifice: I think that loosing yourself in the glory of something grand is not necessarily perceived as sacrifice by the individual, but as a relief from the burden of personal responsibility. This drive for meaning is itself nothing you would easily predict as an outcome of natural selection, and I am not convinced you can fit it into Darwinism without some lubrication. Darwinism, even though it is limited in what it offers does have the benefit of being quite specific. I think I would need you to expand on what "inner emergence of a consciousness that knows the mere survival of the physical body is less important than a kind of integrity of action which transcends even life and death" really means. Is it a theory? Is it empirical or metaphysical? Are there facts to support it, or at least not contradict it?

    @re Judaism goes McDonald´s: I love it..ha ha. Issues though: 1. Where do you draw the line between the natural and the artificial? 2. Even though the same notion has arisen in many parts of the world, doesn´t make it true. We might be wired to make the same mistakes. 3. Why would old myths be healthier than new ones?

    @re the political abuse of propaganda: I am aware of it of course, but even before discussing it I want to highlight the Essential Tension, i.e. the bias I bring to the table. Like all people who believe in democracy I want the world to be in a certain way, that there are enough well-informed and fairly rational people in the world to make it possible. I want to live in a world where lies are not required. At the same time, I personally do not think the National State or the Christian God actually exist outside our minds. In a way they are illusions, but people cling to them, so how can I say they are not necessary?

  4. Tania Maria :-) Says:

    la razon tiene su importancia, como bien defiendes, por lo que abogar en este sentido queda demas…tienes bien claro para que te ayuda en la vida…por mi parte tengo que ejercitar este aspecto, hahaha…urgente! y traducir algunas de tus palabras…

    y que hay del otro lado?, que hay del amor, de la belleza, de la fe…?

    podemos explicarlos racionalmente e incluso cientificamente….tales endorfinas se segregan, el numero pi detras de las cosas consideradas bellas, la necesidad "estupida" de agarrarse a algo ante la inmensidad del cosmos o estrategias para someternos facilmente…(aunque creo que fue antes la fe que la estrategia)

    en el puzzle de las realidades la verdad y la mentira van de la mano….la dualidad, ….algo no existe sin su contrario… paradojas!

    y creo que la magnificencia de la existencia se pierde la poesia sino queremos escuchar las irracionalidades del corazon en nuestro camino…musica celestial,…misterio que nos trasporta a la certeza…sin caminos de logica de por medio…

    e ah'i la puta, sucedanea que nos aleja de la mujer a la que amamos..

    ambos lados del cerebro deben ser conciliados…no hay hombre, sin mujer… cado uno tiene su propia razon de ser 🙂

    gracias por hacernos pensar…

  5. Nils Borg Says:

    Había mucha gente que dijo que la ciencia quitó la poesía del arco iris por explicarlo. Otra gente vio más poesía, menos mágico, pero más fantástico. Yo me pregunto lo mismo que tú – puede la realidad tal cual, vista de la luz de plena razón satisfacer nuestra necesidad de sentido y misterio. Básicamente, las puras racionalistas no deberían leer ni cuentos para sus niños. Pero lo siguen haciendo porque los quieren. Saben que tenemos estas necesidades que tu llamas irracionales, para sentirnos felices. Hay mitos, cuentos, poesía que da sentido a la vida. A la vez hay mentiras negras que crear injusticia en la sociedad. Mi manera de preguntar entonces es, como se puede distinguir entre mito sanos y mentiras negras? Cuando debes utilizar razón, y cuando no? Puede parecer una pregunta muy intelectual y teórica, pero no lo es. Las consecuencias de dejarse llevar por lo irracional, de un mito de un pueblo elegido por ejemplo (Nazi, Judío o Cristiano igual) puede llegar a Auswitch, o que dios nos ha dado la naturaleza para explotar puede extinguir muchos especies de animales.

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