Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Rap Sheet by Anthony McCarthy

Dedicated to liberal religious leftists who should stop putting up with this stuff.

The criticism of pop materialism I posted here two weeks ago has led one of my habitual carpers to challenge me to state, positively, what I believe by way of religion. Though I could point out that I reluctantly did some of that quite a while ago, that doesn’t satisfy his curiosity. Or is it a desire for me to provide ammunition for me to dodge later? I don’t know. The challenge includes a dare, the assertion that I must be ashamed of or embarrassed about what I believe or I’d confess it. No. Having struggled with Augustine’s psychodrama in my youth and witness to this age of instantly provided, and unrequested, self-analyses by the bucket load, the form isn’t quite my bag. And, as a native New Englander, it’s not part of my cultural heritage to talk about faith to strangers. Not to mention that it was superfluous to the topics I’d posted on. Yet there does seem to be some level of curiosity about it. And it was put in the form of a dare.

What do I really believe, at least as of today? And in particular to the usual, notably uncreative, accusations.

You can start with the skeptical assertions about the limits of “empirical”* knowledge. Very, very little of what the most exigent of thinkers know is held within limits allowing it to go into the category of “empirical knowledge”, as that phrase has developed in recent times. Most of what we know is “known” within tolerances of reliability. Quite frequently, of undefinable tolerances of reliability. Some of it is sound, some of it is unsound. A lot of what was taken to be sound at one time, turns out to have been mistaken. Quite frequently that determination isn’t solely a matter of personal appraisal but depends on what other’s are willing to accept as being sound. Science, the asserted touchstone of my correspondent, clearly depends on that fact or peer review would be a superfluous requirement.

You can also continue with the distinction between knowledge and belief and my assertion that everyone holds ideas as fact which are actually faith. I use the provocative synonym, :”faith” as a motivation for self reflection and as a weapon. We are all, to a person, “faith-heads”. Not a single one of us “knows” most of what we “know”.

OK, so it’s down to brass tacks, what do I believe in the way of “religion”? How did I come to believe it?

I believe what I do based on personal, often extremely personal, experience. I believe in a God, a supernatural God, a God which is not a person, which is not a thing, which is not in any ways comprehensible by human thought or language. How could a God be comprehended by a human being? God is unlimited, I’m not. Are you?

Is this God a “personal god”? God isn’t a person. Even what relationship there might be between a person and God certainly can’t be defined accurately in those terms. And yet, it’s my personal experience that such a God exists. Me being a person, the personal part is my experience of God in so far as I can put it into words. God isn’t limited within that experience any more than the part of the Atlantic Ocean I see from York Beach limits the ocean. And that analogy is only a shadow of the situation. The ocean is a part of the natural universe, in the grand scheme of things, it’s more on the scale of my body and field of vision, than even the Milky Way. Which is tiny in comparison to even the known dimensions of the universe. God isn’t merely bigger than the universe. God doesn’t exist in any scale that can be defined. The idea of “scale” itself doesn’t apply. God, and you’re not probably going to like this, doesn’t merely exist. That’s a point that has been made by religious believers for quite a while now, you might not like it but I believe it to be true.

I don’t believe that anyone really, truly, believes anything except on the basis of their own experience. You can’t “find out what you believe” by consulting any kind of catechism, not the Baltimore Catechism or the scribbles of A. J. Ayers. Heaven help you, you’re definitely not going to find it in the pale imitation of his stuff from today’s Best Sellers list.

The deadender, generally Anglophile, remnants of logical positivism would assert at this point that all of what I am saying here is “meaningless” due to their inability to find a logical foundation in it. That is the point I addressed in the criticism that motivated this piece. There is no logical reason for us to conclude that our human inabilities have a single thing to do with banishing these ideas to non-existence. That humans are unable to deal with the existence of paradox in the universe, fitting it into a tidy logical network isn’t a bar to belief. Even in science there are paradoxes that have yet to be worked out. It is not clear that any paradox presented at any given time will ever be reconciled. Yet those same people have no problem with the existence of those. To each their own form of faith, as long as they don’t bother other people with it.

I am neither a monotheist nor a polytheist because even that most basic distinction of human numeration isn’t reliably applicable. I have no problem with anyone who is either or neither as long as they’re equally unwilling to aggressively impose their limited view on other people**. It is one of the great ideas, found in the Jewish scriptures, in Buddhism and in many mystical writings that God is not definable. Indeed, some of these traditions don't even define the ultimate reality as a god. Assertions that to talk about God is to create an internal idol, a limited creation of our cognitive necessity, seem to be to be wise. It is exactly those limited idols that are the easy marks of people who want to be rude, it is exactly those idols that fail those who cling to them even as they really don’t believe in them. Shaky belief is that belief which elicits the most extreme emotional reaction in the form of fundamentalism. I don’t believe that fundamentalists really believe in the gods they assert so rigidly. I think real belief is marked by tolerance borne of a realization that we aren’t going to have a comprehensive view.

Why the metaphysical inapplicability of the category “knowledge”, which developed in our need to cope with phenomena of the physical universe, bothers some people who can’t accept its limits of our ability to answer these questions, is suggestive of a deeper anxiety. What is it that they just can’t stand about people who believe things they don’t? Why are these self-asserted paragons of rigor and reason so irrational when you point out that their own ideas are based on foundations that are not knowable? In that they remind me of nothing so much as biblical fundamentalists who live in terror of the truth about their touchstone’s contents, history and, in the end, their own subjective choice of authorities.

What’s the experience I’m talking about? I don’t know how to transfer it to you. I can’t accurately describe it. I don’t have any idea why I have it, never mind why someone else might not have. I can tell you that it came in the midst of a very contented and relaxing agnosticism, one which was not atheism only because I’d accepted the conclusion that it isn’t possible to know any of this. Maybe that agnosticism had killed off the last idol in my mind. I don’t know.

Part of that experience is that I am now a universalist, believing in the inexorable reconciliation of all beings with God. At times there is the suspicion of a unity of all of existence, inert matter as well as living beings with God. Sri Aurobindo talks about a similar experience, though I don’t remember if I’d had it before reading him. As a living being, it’s hard enough to concentrate on just that aspect of the question. The rocks are going to have to find their own way.

When questions of religion are asserted by those who are generally reasonable about it and who don’t demonstrate an desire to impose their beliefs on other people, you would think it would be the reasonable and responsible thing to just accept that people can believe different things. That some of us are fed up with the worst of that is a reaction to the aggressive rudeness and dishonest assertions of some people. There is an explicit campaign to stigmatize us as beyond respectability mounted by so0me pop-atheists, most of them pretty threadbare and shoddy thinkers**. Their fundamentalism often has a pretty similar function in our lives to that of the more intolerant of our domestic religious fundamentalists. They might not kill people but they can make real jerks of themselves.

People have individual rights based in the fact that we are all born into the world as individuals. I’ve gone into those rights quite extensively and this piece is going to get very long if I answer every point and the necessary results of those answers. Needless to say, those include all the rights commonly held by liberals and some that don’t.

People have responsibilities that result from their own rights. The foremost of those is to allow people to exercise and enjoy their rights. All of us have the responsibility to not impinge on the necessary rights of other people. That these rights and responsibilities are sometimes in conflict and that there are necessary hierarchies in them, and those hierarchies are not universally agreed on might unfortunate but that’s just how things are. It could present us with learning opportunities in just these same areas. So we need politics and democratic government. We also need a faith neutral government, one that can encompass the entirety of civil disagreement on the questions of personal belief, no matter how small the group holding that belief is. The government being neutral ensures that, in so far as our government is concerned, we all retain that freedom equally. That neutrality isn’t a requirement in our own private lives and speech, the limits on how far you can go in asserting your own belief without it becoming an unwelcome imposition on the unwilling isn’t marked with a bright line that can be found. It is a shifting line and like all of those it is frequently violated. Just a hint, you can object to that imposition without being a jerk. And people will be a lot more receptive of your view point if you’re not one. In the end, only other jerks will voluntarily associate with jerks.

One of our greatest responsibilities is to do as little harm as possible to the living world we in habit, to preserve life so other beings can live out their lives to whatever end they are given. We are not going to be able to do this perfectly, I believe it is our responsibility to try our best.

I believe most fully that we are called out of the bounds of our narrow and limited self and that the most important means of becoming more than our narrow, finite selves is through the free and seldom achieved love of other beings. Love that breaks the bands of selfishness that imprison our souls, the few moments of freedom that we get from the cell we generally languish in. We are called to not settle for just being our self but to break out of our selfishness. That’s not easy. I’m hardly a master of the art. I suspect that the estimate given in a light hearted discussion of the topic put it, I’d need two more incarnations, at least, to master it. .

That’s a general outline of it. I believe with The Rev. King that the arc of the universe is towards justice, I believe that people are born to strive towards that goal. Whether other beings are tasked with that goal is beyond my experience.

Politeness and fairness help, they certainly don’t hurt. Their opposite won’t buy you the admiration of anyone who is reliable in the long run. Jerks might band together out of the sheer desolation of loneliness but the resulting cliques provide them with just another opportunity to practice on each other. As with so much of organized, social scientism, they’re a pretty unattractive, competitive and nasty bunch even among themselves.

There, are you satisfied?

* Today’s “empiricism” fetishists don’t seem to understand that the real definition of the word doesn’t make it a synonym for “scientism”. Experience, not defined as being only that experience that could be analyzed scientifically, was included in that judgement of sound knowledge. What began as a reaction against the faults of medieval scholastic education, has devolved into a kind of silly dogma refusing to be honest that it’s not got much to do with the way people really think and get by in life. Today’s page boys of blog “empiricism” are quite often dumbfounded when you challenge them on these points. There might be something to learn in their automatic accusations in response, which amount to little more than charges of a modern form of heresy. It seems to be a common trait among the Praetorian Guards of the Empire of Empiricism, they’re not so good on the history of philosophy or using the dictionary. You can give that much to the scholastics, though often deficient in their observations, they were often a lot better at defining the terms of their authority based logical discourse.

** The currently fashionable, and already very, very old, rudeness in these matters is an invitation to refutation, retort and derisive humor. Hopefully given out in an appropriate and good natured way, though one is only human.

I think a lot of the worst of that in the United States is due to the activities of those involved with the old CSICOP and other organized, alleged, skeptics. I’ve read quite a bit of their intolerant junk and think on the whole their influence in the culture have been extremely bad for civil discourse and bad for science. Some of the most prominent among them are really, really lousy scholars. Some of the worst are just as much flim-flam men as those they hold up as representing their opponents. A lot of them are just plain jerks of the sort you couldn’t stand in high school.