Friday, August 1, 2014

At the end of reason lies an invitation to pretend

Where Reason Ends and Faith Begins,” Stanford anthropology professor T.M. Luhrmann wrote for the July 26 edition of the New York Times Sunday Review, in an apparent attempt to articulate where, or perhaps why, we should simply throw in the towel and give up the quest for knowledge. “FAITH,” introduced in all capital letters by Luhrmann, offers the invitation not just for us to extend ourselves beyond the limits of reason, where those exist, but also so that we can pretend facts don't matter when it comes to clarifying what “really matters to us,” and how it might be accessible by contemplating the “ridiculous,” like “bikinis on the out-of-shape.”

INFORMED SKEPTICISM, not faith, asks people to consider that the evidence of their senses (and biases of their thought processes) is wrong. It is faith, however that asks people to “believe that their minds are not always private; that persons are not always visible; that unseen presences should alter your emotions and direct your behavior; that reality is good and justice triumphant.” And informed skepticism should raise a red flag on every one of those things, not just because they are wildly improbable—and it doesn't matter that Luhrmann notes that people often recognize the unlikeliness of their patently dubious beliefs because it is common that they are accepted uncritically—but because every one of them is laced with the potential for consequential failure.

There's something more insidious than the usual kind of sinister in believing that the contents of our minds are not always private, something Orwell spoke to lucidly, even if his dystopian landscapes now lie mostly beyond our “boggle line.” Even without taking into account the potential for real and exploitable paranoia—that NSA story is still big, isn't it, and how many "false flags" do we have left to hear about this year?—even without that, there is nothing glamorous, eloquent, or comforting about the idea of inescapable surveillance that penetrates even into the most secret recesses of our mental lives. Much, indeed possibly all, of our mental activity lies outside of our conscious or moral control, and faith asks us to accept a tower of guilt for all of it, built brick by brick on a superficially comforting and politically useful lie. Indeed, since this invitation to imminent supervision is hinged upon judgment upon the contents of our minds, and of our own doom as a result, the invitation is menacing and thus despicable, the kind of trick a flailing parent at his wit's end or smarmy huckster would try to pass off in a desperate attempt to wheedle control over another.

For all in it that isn't yet more superintendence, there's nearly nothing worth commenting upon concerning the invitation faith sends to believe in invisible persons, though, for besides being silly, it isn't clear what anyone should do with it. Such invisible persons aren't only invisible, they are plainly powerless, indistinguishable from blind luck in their efficacy upon our fortuity. Asking someone to pretend such helpful, or in some cases harmful, invisible agents are there, presumably to sway the circumstances around them, is inviting them to pretend that there might be help when there is none.

It is enticing, admittedly, to consider the idea that unseen presences, perhaps persons and perhaps not, can alter our emotions and behavior, not least because it is partly true. The myriad unseen influences, both internal and external, that can, as J.K. Rowling put it in the mouth of Hogwart's potions master Severus Snape, “ensnare the mind and bewitch the senses” are complicated and often intractable. Faith asks us to believe things about them, though, that anyone who disparages deception should reject. If we are to live carefully and intelligently, spurning the spurious and seeking to get things right, we must be vigilant to skip the invitation to ascribe attributions that lie outside of what we can know to the phenomena we experience.

Included in that vein, of course, our want for goodness and justice is of profound worth and should be encouraged, but it is an unctuous invitation to shirk our moral accountability to each other to believe that these forces are built into the fabric of reality. They are not. They are up to us, both as human constructs and as constructs important to humanity. We cannot take the lure of the easy road, of setting them aside for the universe, or some imagined God, to sort out on its own, for those are the very seeds of moral evil and abject injustice, seeds that reliably bear the most rotten fruits on the most twisted vines.

If God, imaginary or not, is unknowable, then we are under an intellectual and moral obligation not to make believe otherwise. “Many struggle, at one point or another, particularly in a pluralistic, science-sophisticated society, with the despair that it all might be a sham,” Luhrmann insightfully notes about religious belief, somehow missing that, so far as we can honestly profess to know, it is all a sham. She muses, following Soren Kierkegaard, that “if faith is...a leap into the unknown, perhaps being clear about what is foolish makes people feel safer about where that leap might land them,” but fails to note that accepting claims of truth on faith is itself foolish, on the far side of the contemporary default for the boggle line.

What faith asks of us is to set aside and surrender our better judgment, our caution, and our reasonably informed skepticism of the mountains of bull and sinkholes of bias that surround us. The place where reason ends is not where faith begins. The place where reason ends is where questions and hard work reside, and faith asks us to skip those responsibilities to ourselves, each other, and our future generations, to put up our feet and pretend, pretend, pretend they don't matter.

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