Sunday, November 25, 2018

The Absurdity of Faith and Reason

Art by Stephen Gibb
If you confine yourself to the internet’s secular byways, you’d likely be reassured to read that theistic religions are preposterous. For example, suppose I say that having faith in wild ideas about an afterlife, books written by gods, and anthropocentric miracles is degrading, since as the universe’s only known highly-rational creatures, we’re obligated to live well with the harsh apparent truths of nature. Regardless of religion’s social benefits, faith in silly ideas is for children or for childlike adults who are exploited by the sociopaths that tend to operate at the apex of those very societies in which religion is deemed so useful. To function in civilized society, you need to strive to be happy, and religious faith makes you happy by disposing of existential fears of death and life’s underlying pointlessness and unfairness.

Again, if you’re already convinced of atheism, you’ll likely nod your head in agreement with the thrust of those remarks. Of course religion is a childish hangover from ignorant times long past! Progress in scientific understanding and in technological control over our environment has shown that while religion persists despite the rash hopes of certain prominent atheists, mass religious faith is awkward in this milieu. Like the man-child suffering a midlife crisis who attempts to regain his youth by divorcing his wife, buying a sports car and attempting to date young women, whose antics his friends and coworkers can only tolerate but not respect, theistic beliefs and practices are flat-out embarrassing. If you live in what is euphemistically called a technologically-undeveloped part of the world, including a rural area of an advanced, wealthy country like the United States, your “clinging to your guns and religion,” as President Obama put it, may be required for you to fit in, but your way of life is nonetheless a disgrace according to higher standards for humanity.

All of which, again, can be taken more or less for granted, assuming you’ve travelled the intellectual dark web to arrive at this article. Religion’s a folly for the most embarrassing kind of clown: the kind that’s unaware he or she is covered in nutty attire. Would it surprise you, however, to learn that rationality, including logic and science, philosophy and skepticism is just as preposterous and clownish? That there are very few non-clowns inhabiting the circus tents of our societies? Reason, too, is foolish because rational people suffer from delusions that are just as gratuitous, albeit not as anachronistic as those that discredit the religious masses. When we reason, we think we’re in control of circumstances because we’re in agreement with reality. We think the world itself is rational, that there’s a natural order which we can approximate with our models and theories and worldviews. We think we’re progressing, maturing beyond the childhood phase of our species, by leaving behind myths and fairytales and dealing with the facts we discover through the hard work of rational investigation. In short, we subscribe to the ideology of humanism. Reason isn’t merely a tool we pick up and apply instinctively like an animal with no delusions of grandeur. No, we idolize reason and replace theistic religion with a civic one that derives from early-modern fanfare.

We do control our environment and improve our living-standard, thanks to objectivity and rational doubt, but this progress backfires since we turn out to be parasites wrecking the host planet that’s sustained us. Our notion of progress is as thoroughly self-centered as the theistic personifications. We still presume that our species is special, that a person has a greater right to life than any animal. We “progress” when we increase our pleasure as a result of the suffering of a multitude of lesser creatures. Moreover, our rational techniques run amok so that we attempt to manipulate each other as we dominate the wilderness. We intellectualize culture and the mystery of being alive, turning society into a soulless bureaucracy, as Max Weber pointed out. Life becomes a bore, as Heidegger said, as reason strips every pastime of its meaning. We overanalyze and entertain even the most paranoid doubts so that our philosophies become mere conspiracy theories. Our pleasures are fleeting as we addict ourselves to technology and to antisocial media. Our entertainment industry infantilizes us with tales of comic book superheroes. Our vaunted happiness is a Stepford-wife trance that holds off depression and anxiety. Our reason is compartmentalized to allow us to ignore the fact that consumerism depends on the subjugation of slave labourers, a problem that will be “fixed” only when machines and computers make those human workers worthless.

And the rational order we find in nature is superficial, as quantum mechanics shows. Far from being a void filled with mindless, passive chunks of matter whose motions can be predicted in the Newtonian manner and thus controlled, nature is fundamentally bizarre and barely even there in the objectivist’s sense. There are no clockwork objects! No self-contained, submissive lumps of raw material, and only a modern myth ever compelled us to think otherwise. We secularists were captivated by a fantasy of universal domination in the name of early-modern Men who longed to avenge their honour when they learned their medieval forebears had been badly misled about God. Matter instead is a vibration of some tenth-dimensional we-know-not-what, and the scientific models don’t even refer directly anymore to natural reality but only to the chances that something real will happen. Like the linguistic turn in analytic philosophy, “hard” science has gone meta. The subject matter of these sciences is fundamentally nameless like the dark matter and energy that pervade the universe. The hard scientist is thus like the politician who employs statistics without ever specifying the source of those vaunted numbers, except that the politician does so only because she means to bamboozle gullible listeners, elbowing her way through the rat race. The physicist has, rather, been led to a dead end by the sadism implicit in the instrumental aspect of the Scientific Revolution. We wanted to glorify human nature when we found God to be absent, but we settled on masculine nature and so accelerated the psychopathic schemes of conquering the world.  

To say, then, that we naturalists are “fact-based” shouldn’t be taken to imply that our thoughts agree with the world. Agreeing with the world would entail that we turn to stone like a withdrawn Buddhist or that we descend into monstrosity like a depraved, socially-indulged alpha male. The only thought that agrees with reality is all-consuming horror tinged with awe. There’s nothing else to say that’s reality-based. Our myriad propositions are so many self-serving postures and games, webs made of words our minds traverse like hidden spiders. A statement about rain agrees with rain in the way a pebble would agree with a mountain if the pebble could somehow cause a ditch to believe that incorporating the pebble is as good as having the mountain. In reality, our mental labours have nothing to do with the intergalactic matters that comprise the whole which is the essence of natural reality. Reason doesn’t enable us to capture the world; reason condemns us to know that we’re clowns. Far from establishing a rapport with the facts, objectivity alienates us from the world. To understand the real world we must be as impersonal as mindless nature, and so it’s just that loss of humanity, that pre-death which puts us in touch with the facts, not the contents of this or that pretense arising from some all-too human scheme. Again, even science will one day seem as quaint and asinine as some hunter-gatherer’s tale of how a turtle made the universe by stroking a moose’s antlers.

The Existential Stance    

What’s going on here relates to something I wrote in 2011, called The Curse of Reason. As I said then,
Language and culture, too, become absurd when viewed by an outsider. The symbols that carry meaning to a speaker are so many noises or curious squiggles to anyone else. Taboos, rituals, and social conventions can appear as extravagant follies to anyone who isn’t invested in the culture. The rules of games or sports are relatively arbitrary and so the player’s strenuous exertions to follow them are comical: were the rules changed, the player would have to play the new game instead, rendering his or her earlier efforts meaningless. Relative to the perspective in which a set of rules matters, the game makes sense and fans can even become obsessed with a game’s vicissitudes. But someone who views a game objectively, from the position of nowhere in particular thereby prevents herself from identifying with its dynamics or its symbols. Instead of personal involvement, then, there’s ironic detachment and a sense of the futility of complex developments due to their narrowness and transience. Complex forms are often inflexible and thus unstable.
Objectivity gives us an outsider’s perspective, and any insider’s way of life seems comically arbitrary from that stance. The more elaborate the game’s rules or the culture’s conventions, the more irrelevant they appear to the underlying reality from which we’re all divorced as self-aware creatures. Reason is therefore self-destructive in so far as it detaches us from anything worth living for.

However, what I’m saying now is slightly different since there’s a perspective deeper than either faith or reason. This perspective is more a sense or a feeling than a mode of cognition. Both faith and reason are preposterous when compared to nature’s indifference. Reason proves that nature is unintended and that faith in a deity is thus an arbitrary projection, and reason proves also that the universe is far larger than we can manage and that humanism is thus the Faustian mode of arrogance. But the search for such foolishness stems from the suspicion that irony abounds, that the more jarring the mental displacement, the more we face the absurdity at the root of cognitive dissonance, the closer indeed we are to uncaring nature. Horror and awe are all we need to bestow upon reality what it deserves.

The existentialist’s hunt for absurdity isn’t the same as cynicism. A cynic wants to demonstrate the hypocrisy of sophisticated lifestyles and to bring civilization down to an animal level. Most cultures are indeed hypocritical, but the problem is, as Peter Zapffe said, self-consciousness rather than mere hypocrisy. Even should we live as animals, we wouldn’t be one with the wilderness since our mental architecture would continue to alienate us from anything with which we don’t fully identify. Our awareness of ourselves as being other than everything else would still be a source of comical misery as we seek comfort despite our knowing that the world is bound to disappoint us.

We suffer because we attach to what’s impermanent, as the Buddhist says, but my point again is slightly different. The problem isn’t just that nothing lasts in nature, but that no one cares except us and so nothing really matters. And the cost is horror and the development of a satanically-enlightened character, rather than just disappointment. A consumer or an egotist is let down when events don’t unfold as planned, and neither need understand the existential situation. But regardless of our measure of success, what we might call true enlightenment or the art of being as non-clownish as possible amounts to a vision of how everything is infected with absurdity. We’re all clowns until we’re preoccupied with that sense that all our endeavours are preposterous. Whether we idolize reason and human empowerment or some god we imagine will reward us, we seldom escape the great beclowning. Only when we bask in nature’s audacity, when we marvel at the folly of attempting to vindicate the atrocities involved in evolving life in a cosmic void do we begin to wipe the clown paint from our face. No one knows what truly enlightened beings would do, though, since no one can stand to be horrified for long.  


  1. Love the pictures.

    Reading this, I had an image of a bunch of people sitting around and one of them is listening to music through headphones and he's the only one who can hear it. The others are just sitting around perfectly contented and he's dancing around and really into what the others can't even hear.

    He's not better or higher for it. In fact, he's less there with the others.

    I'm not sure how that relates with your piece, exactly, but it's the image I got. It's a better image to have in my head than cosmic pessimism leaves!

    1. That's actually a very fitting image. We're dealing here with outsiderism, with the feeling of not fitting in, not just because of some character quirk but because of the irony that mass society is in some respects the opposite of meritocratic. The worst among us often rise to the top while the best are forgotten. The existential outsider or "stranger" hears the music of the spheres--only the music is more like an alien roar. And the outsider's puzzled that few others are running around shouting and pulling their hair out like mad prophets. Why are so few bothered by the silliness of most of our endeavours? Partly, it's because like children we're easily distracted or otherwise manipulated.

      Incidentally, it would be too easy to say the authentic philosopher is just mentally ill, because this would beg the question: who says an ongoing experience of reality in itself, of the world as it would be without us wouldn't drive anyone mad?

  2. love the article.

    quite literally in my case,
    "The existential outsider or "stranger" hears the music of the spheres--only the music is more like an alien roar."
    and that experience is impossible to share with most people, without suffering all sorts of repercussions, the least important being the basket case label...

    a note on quantum mechanics.
    i went to a big qm event today and the vibe is not that qm is weird, quite the opposite, that it's the pinnacle of true science, a massive apotheosis of the power of scientific reason, extremely practical and will make us (us = the companies presenting) piles and piles and piles of money, cringe worthy powerpoint schematics included... i kid you not.

    i agree with you completely, don't get me wrong. but trust me, don't even try to exlain your views to the ecstatically science cheering "qm for unlimited progress and profit" crowd i was with today.

    also, i really, really like the thought that
    "Incidentally, it would be too easy to say the authentic philosopher is just mentally ill, because this would beg the question: who says an ongoing experience of reality in itself, of the world as it would be without us wouldn't drive anyone mad?"

    but then again, perhaps, i am trully mad as a hatter... you know, i have been told that i am sooooooo many times, more than i care to remember...

    in my experience, it's not just that it would be too easy, it's perhaps exactly because it's too easy that it happens so invariably reliably and systematically. especially, in my experience, in the geographical area where we both live.

    1. Thanks, Mr. Zombie. I should note that I'm aware that quantum mechanics works and is responsible for the success of postindustrial technologies. So I have no doubt the theory will continue to apply to nature in magnificent ways. This success is consistent with my point that the interpretation of quantum mechanics is a dead end. The theory is onto something because it works, but that's not to say that anyone knows what the theory means or could stand to live for long if he or she fully understood the sort of world that makes quantum mechanics true.

      Thus, I say, 'The physicist has, rather, been led to a dead end by the sadism implicit in the instrumental aspect of the Scientific Revolution. We wanted to glorify human nature when we found God to be absent, but we settled on masculine nature and so accelerated the psychopathic schemes of conquering the world.'

      "Instrumental aspect" means that we search for technological applications to control the conditions of life. Just because we're biased (masculine) in attempting to conquer the world doesn't mean we'll fail in that endeavour. Evidently, a theory can work well, however, without anyone having an intuitive grasp on the theory's concepts. Quantum mechanics is purely quantitative. It's like an alien machine that runs and has certain reliable effects without anyone knowing how the machine works.

      By the way, the homeless Rashad the Cackler will likely rant soon on my blog about the ironies of sanity and madness.

  3. Benjamin, what strikes me after reading this is that there remains a real opportunity to accept absurdity, clowning, irony and the like. You've observed correctly that many will not as individuals lift the veil to All, and also that at least part of what's back there will be terribly funny or make even the most erudite among us look stupid. What I question is whether such tragedies of humor and intellect can even possibly amount to an ultimate offense? In a place wholly absent her defenses of pretense, ineffability and perceptiveness, only ultimate remains. Thus only in guarding from offenses of humor and intellect does awe suffice.

    1. I'm not sure I'd say the essence of reality is funny, exactly. Absurd, alien, tragic, horrific, sublime, awe-inspiring--yes. What's funny, rather, is the herd's ways of dealing with that essence. What's funny is our self-deception, delusions, distractions, and perversions. If we can laugh at nature's grim absurdity, because of its pointlessness and insensitivity, the laughter comes from a sense of gallows humour, as I've said elsewhere.

      You wonder whether cosmic absurdity and tragedy (e.g. the ultimate meaninglessness of each and every one of our struggles) is offensive. What could be more offensive? Granted, there's no one to complain to, but that only completes the offense, adding insult to injury. It's like having the worst day of your life and realizing there's no one to blame, not even yourself. At least if there's a mischievous swine responsible for your suffering, as in the case of buying a lemon of a car from a used car salesman, you can take out your frustration on the blameworthy agent. Granted again, from an Eastern perspective such venting is pointless in turn, and a Stoic viewpoint might be wiser. But there's comfort in understanding that suffering can come about from a misdeed, from a selfish or malevolent choice or from some character defect. If the cosmic All is to "blame" for what philosophers of religion call natural evil, for unintended suffering, that's as good as saying no one's to blame. But the suffering is still real, contrary to Buddhism. It's not just an illusion in our minds. Sure, we can adjust our expectations and inure ourselves to a bad situation, but nature's inhumanity remains as a palpable, objective fact regardless of how we feel about it. It's not as if we can learn to responsibly view nature as heavenly. To view it that way would be to fall prey to a ghastly delusion, as in the case of some cult's myopic and deranged ideology.

      But to be precise, would I say cosmic absurdity is offensive? Not really. That word "offense" is laden with politically correct connotations, making the word unsuitable for philosophical analysis. To "take offense" is almost synonymous with confessing to some passive-aggressive scheme for avenging yourself. The point of recognizing the horror in nature isn't to give us an excuse to vent our bitter feelings. It's the chance to marvel in awe and ecstasy, to bow before the true god, to our alien master that calls on us to be satanic rebels (to speak facetiously). To paraphrase Godfather, the kind of vengeance required on behalf of all life isn't personal; its strictly our existential business.