Archive for October, 2009

Schatten des Zeitgeists

Posted in The Narrow Path on October 25, 2009 by RWZero

The Dark Corners of the Age

People are not aware that they are living in a particular historical period, having particular qualities. This is how I remember the words of my professor on that blustery fall day. He was a historian, this was my free elective, and the subject was technology and war.

As I descended the stairwell of Victoria College, I reflected on this. The professor had intended to help students understand the mindset of people who lived in the past. At that moment, however, I was struck by the implications that it had for my actions in the present. Everything that I was experiencing would one day be recreated in writing, theatre and cinema. A university student, just after the turn of the millennium, descends a stairwell with books in hand. He wears blue jeans and a red sweater. He carries no electronic devices, which, even for his time, is strange.

When looking back on our time, we might speculate as to how future historians will view our technology (and our wars). I believe, however, that we do not ask ourselves often enough how they will view the Zeitgeist. We do not think of ourselves as westerners living just after the turn of the millennium, because the future is not available to us. Furthermore, we view the past as inferior to the present, imagining that things have only changed for the better. As a result, the Zeitgeist is largely unchallenged; the predilections and biases of the time reign supreme. The assumptions ingrained in our present-day thinking are the finest that have ever existed—we soon forget that they were ever assumed.

Throughout our lives, we challenge many ideas before we accept them. There are, however, times when we encounter an idea that is so universally accepted that we do not make a fuss. We presume that it must have been properly challenged at some point in the past. Some of these ideas are demonstrable and self-evident; others are simply universally accepted. These latter ideas are the assumptions of the age.

It is not impossible for a modern observer to notice the quirks of our culture. In example, many have identified the damaging and widespread trends of consumerism. I believe that this, however, is tied to an underlying attitude that is far more pervasive. It is the only attitude that I wish to write about at the moment—the belief that the individual has an inviolable right, even an obligation, to fulfill, and freely pursue, his or her personal desires.

Whether or not we individually accept this in private, it shows in our actions as a society. We have been destroying the environment, but we are not likely to change the public behaviour by asking them to voluntarily exercise restraint. Our best hope is to point out that we will soon be depriving ourselves. The divorce rate is extraordinarily high, with “irreconcilable differences” frequently cited. The cause, however, is often the possibility of somebody else who appears more reconcilable. The birth rate has plummeted, but it is not because we are concerned about overpopulation; it is because children do not always make a net positive contribution to the happiness (and freedom) of the individual. We make tongue-in-cheek movies about punching the boss or burning down the office, but we really would like to do some of these things, if they were not punished. Whether our satisfaction is commensurate with the long-term impact on the boss is irrelevant. If it feels good, do it, even if you shouldn’t—don’t let people mess you around.

Religion will fall out of fashion in any society in which the aforementioned assumption prevails. If it is already falling out of fashion, it will fall out of fashion more quickly. The Christian faith has nothing but bad news for an individual who lives this way, much less sees it as a moral obligation. Worse than requiring its adherents to abandon such attitudes, it asks that that they freely abandon it, as if the choice is theirs. How many of us, in this part of the world, and at this time in history, have retained any concept of sacrifice that has not been forced upon us? At best, we may be willing to make major sacrifices that accomplish something heroic (the kind you see in the movies). At worst, we may be willing to make insignificant sacrifices that we are properly recognized for.

I once learned of a simple paradox: in a place where there are two roads running between two places, it is theoretically possible to build a third road between these same two places, with the result that everyone goes slower. Of course, this is not really a paradox—it occurs because each individual person travels the quickest route, until all the routes have the same travel time (thus eliminating the need to switch routes). There is no guarantee that adding a road will reduce this universal travel time. In order for the entire system to run at peak efficiency, it would be necessary for some cars to travel suboptimal routes. Of course, this would work out in the long run, since the people traveling suboptimal routes would be regular users of the same system that they are optimizing. Yet in the absence of social pressure, who will willingly choose a disadvantaged route? In my view, selfishness is only one of many crimes committed on behalf of today’s Zeitgeist—but it is no small matter. Even our efforts to be unselfish have become self-centred. Their chief aim is the preservation of self-righteousness, rather than the benefit of others.

One might assume that I have written this in order to posit God as a solution to human selfishness. This would be oversimplified; I do not believe in God merely because it is a pragmatic thing to do. Indeed, it is hard to define pragmatics without first ascribing absolute value to something. Nonetheless, I have always been impressed by the apparent pragmatic value of the Christian faith, according to the values that many humans share, and the extent to which its principles are independent of the Zeitgeist. This is one of the reasons that I find faith compelling.

The Fallibility of the Learned

Posted in The Facts and Ideas on October 19, 2009 by RWZero

Trusting the Experts

We, as a culture, are obsessed with the experts. They are celebrities; they are the gatekeepers of human knowledge. This does not stop us, however, from having our own opinions about things. There are experts in all of the areas in which we possess opinions, and hence, on many occasions throughout are lives, we are faced with a familiar decision: do we trust the experts, or not?

I, personally, have never been inclined to accept the opinion of an expert simply because he or she is an expert. This holds true even when the experts generally agree with each other, as I expect that they will also supply me with the evidence that has led them to their conclusions. Nonetheless, we are often unable to judge the data for ourselves, ignorant as we are of the subject matter. As such, we must decide when—and when not—to trust an expert.

I have concluded that the learned are fallible. This may seem obvious, but we do not always behave as if they are. Along these lines, there are two trends that strike me as troubling. First, I believe that we afford experts a measure of respect for their titles that either greatly exceeds (or greatly falls short of) that which they are due, because we fail to ask ourselves whether their expertise would allow them to say what they do. Second, I believe that we—especially if we fancy ourselves intellectual—flatter ourselves with the outrageous idea that we can entirely free ourselves from our most basic human biases.

As to the first of these points, I have surprised even myself with the conclusion that I’ve come to. I’ve concluded that no amount of understanding in one field of knowledge necessarily conveys upon you the understanding of a schoolchild in another. Anyone who truly disagrees with this has likely forgotten the examples. It may seem counterintuitive that a brilliant physicist could hold philosophical views inferior to those of a layman, but experience indicates that this is not impossible—the fragmentation of knowledge has subdivided the intellect beyond repair. Whatever extent physicists have mature philosophical views, I imagine they have developed them from scratch, having intentionally turned their intellect towards philosophy for the requisite amount of time.

It is not difficult to think of people who, in spite of their academic training, have severely underdeveloped views on a great many topics. Furthermore, academic training has done little more than to endow them with the confidence and the tone of an expert. This trend is no more prevalent among the irreligious than the religious, and it is in fact more obvious in the latter. Whether or not we recognize these shortcomings in ourselves, we should be discerning when weighing the value of a person’s experience. Would this experience equip such a person to answer the question? Might it even make their opinion even less valuable than that of a common person?

Far stronger than selective ignorance, however, is human bias. Despite the tremendous intellectual snobbery that is wielded against this point, it remains true. No amount of disciplined thinking can raise us so high that we are able to speak in a detached manner about life, death, faith and meaning. We cannot remain entirely neutral on these issues, because our biases on these subjects are the fundamental driving forces that have caused us to take up learning in the first place.

The complex intellect, like a tool, can be used to serve the most basic intentions. Consider a criminal genius—by way of his superior mind, he better fulfills his most basic desires. An electrical engineer builds a secret dungeon in his basement, sealed off by complex locking mechanisms, all so that he can impregnate his daughter and imprison her for twenty-four years. A bright law student perfectly arranges the deaths of dozens of victims. The very intellect that allows such a criminal to carry out his crimes could advise him against committing them, but it does not. It is no more difficult to believe that a man may write an excellent essay, however sound, driven solely by his basic desires.

Of course, few people are driven so completely by their desires, but this does not eliminate the existence of bias. We will always remain more open—however slightly—to those things that we wish to be true. Furthermore, we will not always be aware of what we wish to be true. We cannot think properly on life without thinking of our own life. We cannot think properly on death without thinking of our own death. We cannot think without thinking of ourselves.

I have concluded that an expert, when speaking about the specific thing that he or she has experience with, is probably more correct than I am able to imagine (provided the amount of controversy surrounding the topic is low). Beyond this, we are not obligated to regard words as having any more value than they, themselves, contain.

Sex and Compatibility

Posted in The Narrow Path on October 11, 2009 by RWZero

How Things Go Together

“What guys basically want is sex,” said the speaker to his teenage crowd. “Even the old married dudes won’t deny it.” He imitated the conceding, shrugging motion that old married dudes make when asked to comment on the matter.

“Now you girls may be thinking, ‘Oh nooo, not my boyfriend. He’s a good little Christian boy.’ Well yes, he is. And he wants good little Christian sex.”

I laughed, but there are controversial implications underneath this comment: that it’s possible—or even a good idea—to want good little Christian sex, and keep on behaving like a good little Christian boy. Many people may think that religion has nothing useful to say about sex. The word “fornication” is an antique. To any extent that the church gets involved, it is seen either as repression, or the idealism of bygone Victorian values. But I have something to say about this.

The Christian (particularly evangelical) approach to sex and relationships is just one example of an entire set of behaviours that I mean to highlight. It is the type of principle that has utilitarian value, yet it is adopted by adherents primarily because it follows from their most basic beliefs.

In example, there is significant utilitarian value to full monogamy, however much the local culture may deny it. It does not have significant adverse effects, but it avoids many. Its advantages can be greater than those of the alternative. It (or something like it) has been a common theme throughout human civilization. Nonetheless, it still does not follow that one should behave this way simply because it can be useful.

Quite simply, there is only one real reason to ascribe to an outdated, socially conservative principle. It is not because it has universal utilitarian value, but because it is the most consistent way to live, assuming that your assumptions about faith are true. This way of living is not necessarily something you can demand of others, if they do not share these assumptions. People live this way because they have a reason to—not because everyone else has a reason to.

The church is often perceived as an entity that preaches morality to the outside world. This is unfortunate, because people within the church are only living according to moral principles that make good sense, when all other things are considered. In speaking to the world at large, the church should speak chiefly about matters of faith. It may be necessary, when the stakes are high, to invoke the language of ethics and morality. However, it is ultimately senseless to preach objective morality apart from faith, because it does not exist.

Pixie Dust Sh_t

Posted in The Narrow Path on October 7, 2009 by RWZero

On Divergent Norms

Smoke trailed from the cigarette that dangled from Seamus’s fingers. Our crew sat on the slope of the hillside, buried in the wild grass. The drop bag, filled with seismic equipment, sat off to the left. It was a sunny day in the mountains near Grande Cache, where for a short time in my life, the morning consisted of cream cheese bagels, safety meetings, and helicopter rides.

Seamus was an Irishman. He was largely shameless, unabashedly dirty-minded, and full of stories that were far from my own life experience. At his previous job, he had defecated in the boot of a friend (who didn’t notice until he had put the boot on) simply for amusement. He had escaped from prison, been sent back to prison, been pepper-sprayed multiple times, and gotten a beating from Owen Hart in an alley behind a bar.

Seamus knew that the three of us, who had come out there together, were Christian. It was the subject of numerous jokes. He and his longtime friend Jason repeatedly tried to offer us some of their high-quality pot, which they were certain we would eventually take, and which we always declined. For the most part, this was a subplot that occasionally infiltrated our daily conversations. It was only that day, on the hill, that we really discussed it.

Despite his apparent affinity for debauchery, Seamus was self-aware. He understood a great deal about life. As for his religious background, he had been raised as a Catholic in Ireland. He told us that on one occasion the priest had seen him look over at his sister and nudge her during the service. In order to recapture his attention, the priest had immediately marched up the aisle and punched him in the face.

When we talked about the church, Seamus shook his head.

“I came from a country that was in the middle of a holy war,” he said. “Not this pixie dust sh_t you’ve got going on here.”

It was a statement I would not forget. It was true; my experience with church had nothing to do with fists and priests. It had everything to do with being nice and censoring expletives.

Inasmuch as we have access to the truth, we have limited access to the truth. Inasmuch as Christians agree on the truth we claim to have access to, we still allow for only so many differences before we fragment into sects and denominations. How many of these differences have to do with truth, I cannot say. But what Seamus had drawn my attention to was the alarming amount of subculture that has become undistinguishable from religion; the frightening possibility (for evangelicals) that being especially polite was no more essential to Christianity than punching children on a Sunday morning.

This brings two concerns to my mind. The first is that we may find it difficult to properly assess people who have similar beliefs, but come from different backgrounds.  It is commonly said that God’s dealings with mankind are subject to change, whereas God himself is not. One must wonder, however, about our dealings with ourselves. The norms of conduct in other faith traditions and cultures are so divergent, at times, that it may be difficult to find a common denominator. Yet we can learn something from other faith traditions. It is permissible to criticize behaviours and norms that are heavily ingrained in other cultures, but it is not necessary—once this is recognized—to do so indiscriminately. I write this because it seems, to me, that many people fear a slippery slope when accepting (or criticizing) such differences.

The second concern is, of course, that people may become convinced that the subculture surrounding their particular faith tradition is the essence of the faith itself. The problem here is not (as one might assume) the unwarranted criticism that you will heap on people who “do things differently.” The problem is that you will waste a great deal of your life working on the decorations and trimmings of a faith that you don’t even have.