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, logic and science, philosophy and skepticism are 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.

    2. To the contrary Benjamin. I am not wondering if the cosmic is offensive; I am saying it can't possibly be offensive and that only in guarding against offense does awe suffice. It's my position that in your post you are guarding against its offense with the cloak of awe.

      Your position reminds me a great deal of C.S. Lewis's protagonist Orual in his final novel Till We Have Faces. It's a retelling of the myth of the love between Psyche and Eros. Orual tells the story. She is Psyche's eldest sister, surrogate mother, and eventual Queen of their "kingdom" despite her deformed face.

      The story begins "I... have not much to fear from the anger of gods. ... Being, ..., free from fear, I will write in this book what no one who has happiness would dare to write. I will accuse the gods, especially the god who lives on the Grey Mountain [Eros]. That is, I will tell all... as if I were making my complaint of him before a judge. But there is no judge between gods and men, and the god of the mountain will not answer me. Terrors and plagues are not an answer."

    3. That looks like an interesting novel. Is the idea that I'm a Job-like figure? The biblical book of Job would seem like the archetypal story in this vein.

      I'm still finding your charge somewhat cryptic. Are you saying the cosmicist mystic uses awe to avoid feeling offended by natural evil, rather like how a delusion can be used to avoid suffering cognitive dissonance?

      I don't have a problem with saying that nature deserves a mixed response. Much of the universe is sublime in terms of the scale of nature's creativity and the mystery of there being anything rather than nothing. However, nature's godlessness (lack of intelligent or benevolent direction) makes for much unnecessary suffering (the classic religious problem of evil) and for much absurdity, owing to the remorselessness of natural law and the role of chance in each of our successes and failures.

      I've written about how an enlightened person would use comedy to counter the angst that comes with being rationally informed about the horrific philosophical implications of scientific knowledge. Some sublimation is needed to carry on the existential struggle, just as soldiers need downtime between battles.

      You say nature can't possibly be offensive, but I suspect that's a semantic point. As I said, I wouldn't use (and haven't used) the word "offensive," but I take your point here to be that being offensive requires having the intention to offend. So there's no such thing as an accidental offense. I don't know if that's strictly true, but anyway it's a red herring. Instead of being "offended" by nature, in the way liberals are offended by politically-incorrect language, we should be primarily _horrified_ by nature. So you'd have to show the universe doesn't deserve our overwhelming fear (or disgust or sadness). See, for example, Rudolph Otto's analysis of faith in the holy--faith as _fear_ of God. The pantheist's faith in nature should be full of terror and pity and sadness and disgust, as well as wonder and awe. We should have faith (irrational conviction) that nature is vastly horrific beyond our capacity to imagine. Just think of all the creatures that have likely been naturally destroyed throughout the universe. I argue at length that the universe is monstrous and thus horrific (link below, among other articles).

    4. Attributing "godlessness (lack of intelligent or benevolent direction)" to nature seems to be about letting humans off the hook for their unwarranted attachments to the very terribleness (or virtue) they tend to complain (or boast) about. If one acknowledges those as human traits, nature is left to be largely mysterious, an easily un-offended and un-offensive condition.

      I love your metaphor of existential sublimation through downtime between battles. I'm reading War & Peace right now. Tolstoy speaks to some of the most intense ironies in his resting-in-the-midst-of-war scenes.

      My daughter came to me recently: "Why do people get so upset when predators hunt and eat what they catch? They're doing what comes naturally them and it's part of the cycle of life."

      Self-impelled entities consume the very existence of others, though not always with such great flare as a lion or an orca. As well, self-impelled entities are inevitably consumed. Is that horrific? It's my view that existential suffering of this level is in truth a bittersweet gift. Through it we benefit from the capacity for mutual consummation through emergent co-creation.

      Have you seen the island of the gang-hunting, lizard-eating snakes? Makes war look like a feast for cowards.

    5. When you say atheism lets us off the hook, you seem to be thinking of Dostoevsky's allegation that everything is permitted if God doesn't exist. Unlike your typical new atheist or secular humanist, I agree with Nietzsche that nihilism or relativism is a threat, since morality is, at least at first glance, harder to sustain without theism. But that whole discourse is quite superficial. Theistic belief never justified morality, as Plato's Euthyphro argument showed long ago. And as 9/11 showed, anything is permitted to the theist, since the end of eternity in heaven can compel the theist to rationalize any means necessary to bring about that end. Moreover, it's not atheism that makes morality problematic, but naturalism.

      This seems to be the root of our disagreement. I take naturalism as my starting point, more or less, whereas you question the scientific foundations. I'm not qualified to question the scientific community's consensus. But it's the philosophical implications of the general scientific findings that matter to my attempt to carve out a worldview in my writings. If you could show that cosmology entails teleology throughout nature, that would be a big change in the general findings, so I'd certainly have to take that into account. I've written about Aristotle's four causes (links below), and the problem with positing final causes throughout nature seems straightforward.

      It's like Daniel Dennett's point about the intentional stance. The questions we ask in explaining some real pattern are ultimately pragmatic. We take up the intentional stance when explaining a person's behaviour, because we have prior reason to suspect that other people have minds and because that level of explanation will be immensely useful in that context. But to paraphrase Laplace, scientists lost the need for the God hypothesis. It no longer made sense to assume that stones were designed to be heavy and to fall downward, while air was designed to be light and to rise upward. Universal teleology became explanatorily empty, meaning that it offered no testable predictions that challenged mechanistic explanations. If we knew the final cause of the universe's development and could test that prediction of where the universe will end up, and if that purpose made no sense on strictly mechanistic grounds (so the two models were in conflict), that would be one thing. (Could dark matter and energy be part of some such teleological challenge?) But if animism (the assumption that everything effectively has a mind behind it) doesn't carry its empirical weight, it won't be part of science.

    6. I wouldn't stoop to disabusing a child who thinks she's come to terms with what goes on in nature, since that would be obnoxious. But I can't help wondering what that Alaskan father is thinking about nature, whose wife and daughter were mauled by a bear. Sure, animals are doing what comes naturally to them, and they're following their cycle of life. But that obviously begs the question: Is what comes naturally or is the cycle of life appalling, from an existential perspective? A child has no business taking up such a perspective, and frankly neither do most adults. Philosophy ought to be unpopular because it's bad for your health, as is the ultimate truth about nature.

      I think of the Tool song that goes, "Life feeds on life feeds on life feeds on life..." Doesn't sound so bad when a Buddhist speaks of it with great equanimity, but listen to the Tool singer roaring out those lyrics and you get a different interpretation. Or have a look at Kazantzakis's Saviours of God (link below).

      Still, we agree about the benefits of emergent co-creation. I think I just put a more tragic spin on things than you do.

    7. Thanks for the replies and shares Benjamin. Illuminating as always.

      I can't see how the ultimate truth about nature could be bad for your health. It's not impossible to grasp that the capacity to heal comes from the same capacity that breaks down decaying material. To boot, all healing isn't painless and all death isn't untragic!

      Signing out for now

  4. I have a picture in mind of a castle-like African anthill. When we see that all our religions, our comforting myths and tropes (including all our bold rejections - humanism, atheism, nihilism, whatever) - are so many illusions, it's as if the anthill is kicked open and the ants frantically scurry around in bewilderment. Some, by virtue of their instinct perhaps, immediately go about rebuilding, protecting their queen, returning to the crumbling ruin of their colony, seeking the cool dark tunnels which gave them life. Yet others seem to remain in a state of confusion, their internal 'maps' permanently disrupted. Guess I'm like one of the last mentioned ants. What happened to the home I once knew? My ant-brain asks, but not from nostalgia, more from disorientation. I wave my antennae at the others but they're too busy trying to fix their broken city. I meet others on the parched earth beyond the crumbling tower, and they too seem oddly calm after the destruction. Perhaps the metaphor ends here, the anthill castle in ruins, a few wandering ants under a hot African sun.

    1. Well said, Scott! I especially like the last couple of sentences.

      Your allegory reminds me of a time I was driving and I noticed an ant had hitched a ride on the windshield. Maybe it had crawled onto the car or jumped onto it from an overhanging branch when the car was parked on the driveway. Anyway, I drove a long way, taking the ant far from its home. I might as well have been an astronaut piloting a spacecraft, as far as the ant should have been concerned. And it was likely a one-way ticket. Where did the ant go when I parked the car? Did it disembark and wander the alien territory? Did it hitch another ride when I drove back home, to be reunited with its kin? An accidental horror, like the trillions of others in the impersonal universe.

  5. “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." Where do the drones that he used fit into the "higher standards for humanity?" Who sets the standards for humanity, and what gives them the authority to set those standards?

    1. I've criticized Obama's neoliberalism and centrism elsewhere.

      I think of the standards of humanity as arising out of reflection on our existential predicament. Existentialism used to be interpreted in religious, spiritual terms. Those who set the standards are the creative geniuses whose philosophies and stories set the cultural agenda for centuries. They're enlightened Ubermenschen. Their authority is due to their charisma and to the greatness of their art.