Category Archives: Philosophy/Ideas

Coronaviruses of the Mind

 

I have been trying to explain why we are not entitled to just believe anything at all because we want to. If we do that we encourage ourselves and others to be credulous. People should only believe what the evidence supports.

Part of the problem is that people pass on their superstitions and their prejudices and irrational beliefs to their children. Added to that, ordinary people in ordinary situations can infect others with their irrational beliefs. Irrational beliefs are never innocent. Such beliefs often have seriously harmful consequences.

Philosopher Arthur Schafer “sees irrationality as a kind of infection.” If we didn’t before, we now know how dangerous infections can be. The same holds for infectious beliefs. For example, Lewis Weiss the Reeve of the R.M. of La Broquerie said if he did not feel sick he could not pass on Covid-19 to anyone else. The science says he is wrong. He should listen to the science or he might infect others who in turn can infect even more people. That is how a virus works. Weiss’ belief, just like the coronavirus, was not innocent. In fact it was dangerous.

When the evidence is not clear, people should suspend belief. But people love to take a leap of faith. This is exactly why irrational beliefs are so dangerous. They can spread like a virus leading to others believing what you believe, even though there is no evidence to support that belief, but even worse, can lead others to believe other irrational beliefs because they have been conditioned to do that by the culture of belief. I think that is what happened recently in the United States. Trump believed (or at least claimed he believed) that the recent election was laced with voter fraud and had been stolen from him. He had no evidence for that, as was shown repeatedly in various courts. Yet many people came to believe that. As a result these people won’t believe in the legitimacy of Biden’s election. That could have very dangerous consequences in a country as polarized as the U.S.

Because of our long-standing habit as people in both Canada and the U.S. and many other countries, “Credulity is a rampant disease in modern societies,” according to Arthur Schafer. Not only that, but it is one of the most dangerous diseases our world has ever faced.

Particularly where an issue is complex, such as Covid-19, or a complex election, it is very easy to confuse people. We are not a skeptical rational society, even though our very capacity to survive, not just flourish, is dependent upon our diligently, conscientiously, and thoughtfully looking at evidence to support our beliefs.

As a result Schafer concluded said those who feel a liberal tolerance to those who espouse superstitious or irrational beliefs (beliefs that are not supported by evidence) have got it wrong. “It is not permissible to believe whatever makes you feel good,” says Schafer. It is ethically wrong. And we ought to be willing to say so. According to Schafer those who take the attitude that it is permissible to believe whatever makes one feel good is sort of like stealing. “Such beliefs are equivalent to stealing from your fellow citizens by making yourself credulous.” says Schafer. That weakens society and we all suffer as a result.

We have to remember that giving up reason and evidence, as the only valid basis for beliefs, is not just unwise it is dangerous. If we base beliefs on sacred texts, authority, or wishful thinking we can come to believe absurdities. Voltaire got it right when he said, “Those who make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” Perhaps a better current example, might be, those who can make you believe an absurdity can make you believe that the coronavirus is not dangerous.

We have to remember that irrational beliefs can have very serious consequences. We should not do anything to encourage them. We ought to do everything we can to stamp them out. We should be cultivating a spirit of questioning, of careful scrutiny of evidence, of diligent searching for the best and most reliable evidence, and of conscientious analysis of arguments based on evidence. We should listen to experts, but do so critically, not with blind acceptance. We should do everything we can to foster critical thinking for it is in such horribly short supply and our lives depend on it. If we could not see that before we can certainly see that in the midst of an international pandemic. That’s why it is unethical to believe without evidence. The rational life is the ethical life. The superstitious life is based on moral flaws. We should choose the ethical life.

The Ethics of Belief

 

In the United States Covid-19 has become the leading cause of death in adults. In other words, it causes more deaths than heart disease. What is really disappointing about that is that we could have done much better, had we paid more attention to science instead of theories without a sound evidentiary basis. Why do we do that?

We should know by now that when times get tough our best instrument at our disposal is usually critical thinking. At such times we need to weigh the evidence and data carefully, apply our best reasoning powers, set aside our prejudices and biases, and reach the best conclusion we can in the circumstances. We must ignore faith, feelings, instincts, guesses, hunches, and most important wishes. We live in a society where this is not commonly done. People usually prefer the opposite approach. This is particularly true in the United States, but it is true everywhere.

A while ago I learned from a University of Manitoba philosophy professor, Arthur Schafer, about the dangers of this approach. He said there is such a thing as the ethics of belief. Schafer in turn based his theory on what he had learned from a 19th century English philosopher by the name of William Kingdon Clifford. I had never heard of  him before.

Clifford argued, that to believe anything because it comforts you, or makes you feel good, or sustains you in life, or makes life a little less intolerable, is not just epistemically wrong, not just intellectually wrong, but actually one of the worst crimes that you can commit. It is a travesty and has some horrible consequences. We will get to those. According to Clifford this is a morally wrong. As Schafer agreed saying,

“ when we believe things because they make us feel good, rather than because we have good evidence for them, Clifford argues that we make ourselves credulous people.”

 

That is wicked according to Clifford and Schafer. If we are credulous people we can easily believe stories—like the story that Covid-19 was deliberately produced by Bill Gates in order to gain control of our minds and make profit by selling a vaccine entirely without evidence. Or we can believe that the end of the pandemic is “around the corner,” even though there is no evidence to support that belief. Or we can believe that the recent American election was stolen by evil Democrats despite the fact that there is no credible evidence to support the claim. If we are credulous we can believe anything because it makes us feel good. And that is a very dangerous thing.

 

According to Schafer “our society which many of us think of as secular, is actually “impregnated with a lot of irrational superstitions.” Now Schafer puts all kinds of things into the category of irrational superstitions such as religious beliefs. All of them. Now I know many of my readers will not accept that. I don’t want to tackle those beliefs now. Save that for another day. But I do want to tackle the beliefs people have had about Covid-19 entirely without evidence to back them up.

We have tolerated those beliefs. Often we have smiled at them or even mocked them. We have had such an easy target in the White House. We have had another easy target here in Steinbach with the crazy beliefs held by the nearby Reeve of the Rural Municipality of La Broquerie. Or the nearby Church of God Restoration. These are not beliefs we should tolerate. I have criticized them, but my criticism have been much too timid.

This is the attitude of tolerance. This is a liberal good—a very high good at that. Usually. But it is not acceptable in times of a serious health pandemic. Usually, we tolerate the fact that others have irrational beliefs. We tolerate that they believe any kind of superstition no matter how nonsensical as long as they don’t try to impose it on us. This is not the time for tolerance. According to Schafer “there are no innocent beliefs.” That is because all beliefs have consequences.

Many liberals hold that I have the right to believe whatever I want, so long as I don’t harm anyone else. Schafer says that by believing irrational things we are exposing ourselves to serious potential harms. As long as we would harm only ourselves that might be acceptable. But by our actions we are also  exposing many others to serious harms  through our credulity. That we are not entitled to do. That is morally wrong.

According to Schafer,

“we should not believe anything except those propositions for which we have good evidence and that the confidence we place in our beliefs should be proportional to the amount of evidence that supports them.”

He says we have a moral duty to engage in the hard work of looking at science, or our own good work, in order to consult the best available evidence conscientiously and honestly before we commit to believing. We have to be open-minded. That means that we have to be willing to accept evidence that contradicts our cherished beliefs or those propositions we would really like to be true and we must be willing to discard or modify them if the evidence entails such actions. Only on that basis are we entitled to believe something. Only on that basis can a belief be ethical.

Schafer says that if we believe a statement without evidence because we want to believe that, we are conditioning the mind to do that again. It will then tend to believe another statement without evidence just because we want to believe it is true. This is really a kind of slippery slope argument. Credulity leads to ever more credulity. It is not possible to sequester such beliefs in order to avoid contamination. Contamination will follow inevitably from our acceptance of beliefs without evidence in one case. Our mind is so trained to think that this is acceptable.

Professor Schafer gave an interesting example from his experience as an ethics consultant with hospitals. If you accept beliefs, such as religious beliefs, without evidence, you are more likely to believe that you should let their children die rather than giving them a needed blood transfusion. I don’t know if it’s true, but I was told the members of the Church of God Restoration don’t believe in modern medicine, trusting instead, without evidence, that God will take care of them. One irrational belief leads to another and that other may be seriously harmful.

This is what has happened with regard to Covid-19. The minds of too many people had been trained to accept irrational beliefs and hence misinformation has spread through our countries and disarmed people from looking instead at the actual evidence and taking reasonable precautions based on the best evidence.

Promiscuous Devotion to the Untrue

Kurt Andersen in his book FantasyLand diagnosed the problem as an attitude. This is how he described it:

“What’s problematic is going overboard, letting the subjective entirely override the objective, people thinking and acting as if opinions and feelings were just as true as facts. The American experiment, the original embodiment of the great Enlightenment idea of intellectual freedom, every individual free to believe anything she wishes, has metastasized out of control. From the start, our ultra-individualism was attached to epic dreams, sometimes epic fantasies—every American one of God’s chosen people building a custom-made utopia, each of us free to reinvent himself by imagination and will. In America those more exciting parts of the Enlightenment idea have swamped the sober, rational, empirical parts.”

 

Andersen believes, as I believe, that the roots of fantasy are deep and it is important for us to understand them if we want to understand where we are at in the modern world. As he said,

“Little by little for centuries, then more and more and faster and faster during the last half-century, Americans have given ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanation, small and large fantasies that console or thrill or terrify us. And most of us haven’t realized how far-reaching our strange new normal has become. The cliché would be the frog in the gradually warming pot, oblivious to its doom until too late.”

And the consequences of giving ourselves over to fanciful thinking are not innocent. They are very dangerous and we are paying the price now. We are paying it bigly. As Andersen explains:

“Much more than the other billion or two people in the rich world, we Americans believe—really believe—in the supernatural and miraculous, in Satan on Earth now, reports of recent trips to and from Heaven, and a several-thousand-year-old story of life’s instantaneous creation several thousand years ago.

We believe the government and its co-conspirators are hiding all sorts of monstrous truths from us—concerning assassinations, extraterrestrials, the genesis of AIDS, the 9/11 attacks, the dangers of vaccines, and so much more.

We stockpile guns because we fantasize about our pioneer past, or in anticipation of imaginary shootouts with thugs and terrorists. We acquire military costumes and props in order to pretend we’re soldiers—or elves or zombies—fighting battles in which nobody dies, and enter fabulously realistic virtual worlds to do the same

And that was all before we became familiar with the terms post-factual and post-truth, before we elected a president with an astoundingly open mind about conspiracy theories, what’s true and what’s false, the nature of reality.

We have passed through the looking glass and down the rabbit hole.

America has mutated into Fantasyland.”

As a result of this attitude, 500 years in the making Americans, and to a lesser extent their little cousins, Canadians, have come to believe in a large host of wildly extravagant  beliefs, when you really think about it. About 2 out 3 Americans believe that angels and demons are active in the world. About a half believe that a personal god is looking after them no matter how much evidence there is to the contrary. At the same time about a third of Americans reject the science of climate change even though 97% or more of scientists assure them it is real. In fact many Americans believe climate change is a hoax or an evil communist plot against them. About 25% believe that vaccines cause autism. These are just a few of their wild beliefs. We will look at lot more. About 20% believe that the government adds secret mind controlling technology to television broadcasts. None of these beliefs are benign. They all have consequences. The problem is that Americans and Canadians too, have what Andersen called a “promiscuous devotion to the untrue.”

The Death of Truth and we have killed it

 

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche invented an astonishing idea—the idea that God is dead. Naturally, many people were deeply disturbed by that idea. I want to propose an equally startling idea—the truth is dead and we have killed it.

This is what Nietzsche said in his book, The Gay Science in his parable of the Madman. The tale went like this:

“Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly, “I seek God! I seek God!…”Wither is God! He cried. “I shall tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers…But how  have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained this earth from its sun? …is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing?…Must not lanterns be lit in the morning? Do we not hear anything of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God?…God is dead. God remains dead and we have killed him…What was holiest and most powerful of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us?”

I want to propose a new parable. It is very much similar. It goes like this:

Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly, “I seek the truth! I seek the truth!…”Wither is Truth! He cried. “I shall tell you. We have killed it—you and I. All of us are his murderers…But how  have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained this earth from its sun? …is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing?…Must not lanterns be lit in the morning? Do we not hear anything of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying Truth?…Truth is dead. Truth remains dead and we have killed him…What was holiest and most powerful of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us?

I found proof of this momentous event about week or so ago.

The war against truth is over and truth lost! It is a sad day. The enemies of truth have won the war decisively. I have long suspected that, but now I know it is absolutely true. I am not trying to exaggerate to make a point. Truth has surrendered and been executedsand we are all doomed.

The final straw in the battle occurred about a week ago when the President of the United States tweeted that Stella Immanuel was “very impressive,” “an important voice,” and, believe it or not “spectacular.” What did she do to warrant such gushing by the President. First, she endorsed the use of “hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 wonder cure.” That of course is plenty enough to secure Trump’s dying devotion in his relentless search for a Hail Mary cure for the virus in order to give him a chance of winning the 2020 US presidential election which he likely sees as slipping through his fingers at this time. I personally do not think he has lost it yet. The devotion of his followers is theologically based and is quite able to overcome innumerably obstacles. Don’t count him out yet as Hillary and her much less rabid followers did prematurely in 2016.

Trump has praised Stella Immanuel on social media and as a direct result millions of his followers have read or heard his direct endorsement of her. Most of those followers believe everything he says, no matter how outrageous, and no matter how much evidence is easily available to contradict him, so it is very likely, if not certain, that tens of millions of Americans believe what she says too.

 

And what does she say? This is where it gets bizarre. Here is how Andrew Sullivan has described some of her beliefs:

“Will Sommer of the Daily Beast took a deeper look this week into Immanuel’s beliefs. “She has often claimed that gynecological problems like cysts and endometriosis are in fact caused by people having sex in their dreams with demons and witches,” Sommer wrote. “She alleges alien DNA is currently used in medical treatments, and that scientists are cooking up a vaccine to prevent people from being religious. And, despite appearing in Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress on Monday, she has said that the government is run in part not by humans but by ‘reptilians’ and other aliens.”

Immanuel said in a recent speech in Washington that the power of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment means that protective face masks aren’t necessary. None of this has a basis in fact, but try telling that to the tens of millions who have not only seen it but have been urged to believe it by the President of the United States.

These are views that Trump has endorsed as “spectacular” and has referred to her as “an important voice.” Not only that but since these posts, his popularity among Americans has gone up! As a result of this the conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan has asserted,

“Given this and a few other hideous developments, it’s time to acknowledge the painfully obvious: America has waved the white flag and surrendered.

With nearly 150,000 dead from COVID-19, we’ve not only lost the public-health war, we’ve lost the war for truth. Misinformation and lies.”

I concur.

Remember that millions of people follow Trump and believe in him with theological devotion. They believe this nonsense! The proof that truth is dead is that hardly anyone objects when people believe stuff like this. That would not be possible if truth were still alive. Yes truth is dead and we have killed it. And that has some profound consequences. I wish it were not so, but this subject will be continued.

 

Religion in the time of Plague (or Pandemic)

Some last thoughts on The Plague by Albert Camus. In that novel Camus  challenges the religious approach to suffering. Suffering is of course a fundamental problem for anyone who believes in an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving God. How can there be such a God if there is suffering?

In the novel a Catholic priest Father Paneloux tries to approach the problem. He did that in response to a horrendously painful death of a young child from the plague. He set himself a difficult task. He said that there was a fact that we should under all circumstances take into consideration. We should always bear in mind that “Appearances notwithstanding, all trials, however cruel, worked together for good to the Christian. And, indeed, what a Christian should always seek in his hour of trial was to discern that good, in what it consisted, and how best to turn it to account.” We should not try to explain the plague; we should try to learn what it can teach us.

Paneloux acknowledged that “nothing is more important on earth than a child’s suffering.” He also refused to take ‘the easy way’ out of the dilemma. In his second sermon to the people,

“He, Father Paneloux refused to have recourse to simple devices enabling him to scale that wall. Thus he might easily have assured them that the child’s sufferings would be compensated for by an eternity of bliss awaiting him. But how could he give that assurance when to tell the truth, he knew nothing about it? For who could dare to assert that eternal happiness can compensate for a single moment’s human suffering? He who asserted that, would not be a true Christian, a follower of the Master who knew all the pangs of suffering in his body and his soul. No, he, Father Paneloux would keep faith with that great symbol of all suffering, the tortured body on the Cross: he would stand fast, his back to the wall, and face honestly the terrible problem of a child’s agony. And he would say to those who listened to his words to-day: ‘My brothers, a time of testing has come for us all. We must believe everything or deny everything. And who, I ask amongst you would dare to deny everything?”

The priest considered this “the All or Nothing”, “the greatest of all virtues.” Father Paneloux did not want to dodge the question. He wanted to face it head on. He did not want to sleep-walk through this question. Again a real (though fictional child) in the novel faced that terrible suffering. Could he not do the same?

While on the one hand religious thinkers for millennia have seen suffering as a way towards spiritual enlightenment, others have seen suffering as the greatest spiritual challenge. Perhaps there is no inconsistency there. Perhaps that is the point. Father Paneloux is certainly not trying to get around the problem. He wants to go through it. Paneloux knew, “religion in a time of plague could not be the religion of every day.” Paneloux also concluded, “The suffering of children were our bread of affliction, but without this bread our souls would die of spiritual hunger.”

This meant that Father Paneloux had to have  “a total acceptance” of that child’s suffering. This entailed that “since it was God’s will, we too should will it.” As Collin Wilson in Problematic Rebel said, we have to say yes to it all. So Paneloux says “believe everything so, as not to be forced into denying everything.” What a terrible choice, but he took it. “The Christian should yield himself fully to the divine will, even though it passed his understanding.” Paneloux would not allow a half-measure from the Christian. It was not good enough to say, ‘This I understand but that I cannot accept.” That was just a sorry attempt to weasel out of the piercing dilemma.

Paneloux’s position is certainly a courageous one. He said “we should go forward, groping our way through the darkness, stumbling perhaps at whiles, and try to do what good lay in our power.” Once again like Tarrou and like Camus himself, we must be satisfied with the small good. We need not concern ourselves with the grand design. That is above our pay grade. Do what good we can. That’s all. We need not be or even try to be saints.

Yet this is a very tough position.

“There is no island of escape in time of plague. No, there was no middle course. We could accept the dilemma; and chose either to hate God or to love God. And who would dare to hate Him?…’the love of God is a hard love. It demands total self-surrender, disdain of our human personality. And yet it alone can reconcile us to suffering and the deaths of children, it alone can justify them since we cannot understand them, and we can only make God’s will ours.”

But of course this was not Camus’s position, or at least Rieux, the narrator. Like Dostoevsky in that other classic, Brothers Karamazov, he could not accept a world that required a child to suffer, He was not prepared to “justify” the suffering of a child. He would even dare to hate God if necessary. How bold is that? Who could be that brave?

The Plague: My Mother-in-law and Wiley Coyote were Existentialists

 

I am not quite finished with Albert Camus’ The Plague. Existentialism is a philosophy that grew out of Europe before and after World War 11. No one has been able to define it. Many philosophers, like Albert Camus, and Jean-Paul Sartre have renounced their membership in that group, not always fairly in my view. Albert Camus in my opinion exemplifies what existentialism was all about.

The novel emphasizes that it is the story of real (though fictional) living people. That is not a contradiction. That is what concerned Camus—real living people. It is the basis, in my view, of the philosophy that came to be known as existentialism.

The best explanation I have ever heard for what existentialism is all about was given at a public lecture by University of Winnipeg Professor Carl Ridd when I was a young student. I think it was 1975. I was a student of philosophy at the time at the University of Manitoba, so I was not inclined to think that Ridd (from the wrong university) could advance something very worthwhile. But he did.

Ridd told us that existentialism was demonstrated by what Wiley Coyote did when he chased the Roadrunner over a cliff. The Roadrunner could fly or duck, but Wiley chased him right over the cliff and kept running without sinking—until he looked down. The moment he looked down he was sunk—literally sunk, as he dropped to the ground. These chases always ended up with Wiley Coyote not being wily enough and suffering as a result. That moment of looking down is what Professor Ridd said existentialism was all about.

The Plague demonstrates that well. The people of Oran, suffering from plague, like other countries suffering from totalitarianism, had to avoid looking at the past or the future. In the midst of COVID-19 epidemic we are in the same position. They had to concentrate on the here and now—the eternal present. As Camus said in the book, “Therefore they forced themselves never to think about the about the problematic day of escape, but to cease looking to the future, and always to keep, so to speak, their eyes fixed on the ground at their feet.”

The narrator in the novel, whose identity is not revealed until the end, compares the people of Oran to people in prison:

“…there was always something missing in their lives. Hostile to the past, impatient of the present, and cheated of the future, we were like those whom men’s justice, or hatred, forces to live behind prison bars. Thus the only way of escaping from that intolerable leisure was to set the trains running again in one’s imagination and in filling the silence with fancied tinkle of a door-bell, in practice obstinately mute.”

This view of concentrating on the here and now, was one of the central themes of his philosophical book, The Rebel. He used this idea to create separation between his position and Marxists who, he believed were willing to impose certain suffering today in order to achieve a highly dubious future nirvana. It was a powerful argument in that book, and is in this book as well, but from a different perspective. As his narrator said, in Camus’ beautiful prose: “Thus each of us had to be content to live only for the day, alone under the vast indifference of the sky.” Camus is one of the most brilliant writers of the 20th century.

Later Dr. Rieux who everyday had to minister to the sick and dying, knows what is important: “I have no idea what’s awaiting for me, or what will happen when all this ends. For the moment I know this: there are sick people and they need curing. Later on perhaps they’ll think things over: and so shall I. But what’s wanted now is to make them well. I defend them as best I can, that’s all.” That sums up what I call his existentialism. Ideology is not important. People are sick and they need help. That is all that matters.”

I have recently been criticized for not doing what Dr. Rieux did. Put ideology aside. Analyze later. Just do it now. I must admit there is justification for this criticism of me personally. I stand chastened. It is difficult for an old man like me, confined to my room, to help. But I must be scrupulous—more scrupulous than I have been—to make sure I do not stand in the way of others who are helping. I am chastened.

Again echoing the words of the Rebel, the narrator enunciates Camus’ position:

“Without memories, without hope, they lived for the moment only. Indeed the Here and Now had come to mean everything to them. For there is no denying that the plague had gradually killed off in all of us the faculty not of love only but even of friendship. Naturally enough, since love asks something of the future, and nothing was left us but a series of present moments.”

In an essay “Reflections on the Guillotine” he told the true story of his father. I will quote in full the opening paragraph:

“Shortly before the war of 1914, an assassin whose crime was particularly repulsive (he had slaughtered a family of farmers, including the children) was condemned to death in Algiers. He was a farm worker who had killed in a sort of bloodthirsty frenzy but had aggravated his case by robbing his victims. The affair created a great stir. It was generally thought that decapitation was too mild a punishment for such a monster. This was the opinion, I have been told, of my father, who was especially aroused by the murder of the children. One of the few things known about him, in any case, is that he wanted to witness the execution, for the first time in his life. He got up in dark to go to the place of execution at the other end of town amid a great crowd of people. What he saw that morning he never told anyone. My mother relates merely that he came rushing home, his face distorted, refused to talk, lay down for a moment on the bed and suddenly began to vomit. He had just discovered the reality hidden under the noble phrases with which it was masked. Instead of thinking of the slaughtered children, he could think of nothing but that quivering body that had just been dropped onto a board to have its head cut off.”

That is what existentialism is all about the existence and death of real people beyond the abstractions of ideology. That is what is important. Beside the reality of the living person the ideology fades into insignificance.

In The Plague there is a similar story told by Tarrou to his friend Dr. Rieux about Tarrou’s father. His father was a Public Prosecutor, a very respected position, who took his son to watch him prosecute an offender. According to Tarrou there was no doubt that the criminal was guilty. Tarrou described the man as “a little man of about thirty, with sparse, sandy hair,” who “seemed eager to confess everything, so genuinely horrified at what he had done and was going to be done to him, that after a few minutes I had eyes for nothing and nobody else. He looked like a yellow owl scared blind by too much light. His tie was slightly awry, he kept biting his nails, those of one hand only his right…I needn’t go on, need I? You’ve understood—he was a living human being.”

Those little details, a balding head, disheveled tie, and biting his nails nervously make it clear that this was not someone to fear. His eyes were obviously bugging out. He was like an owl with yellow eyes blinded by the light. When Tarrou’s father saw the pathetic criminal he could no longer see him as that abstract “criminal.” He was “a living human being.”

Tarrou learned a valuable lesson that day. Behind the bland officially approved words of crime and punishment is a stark reality—the state murdering a poor hapless young man, who deserved punishment but not what he was getting. As Camus described it:

‘As for me, it came on me suddenly, in a flash of understanding; until then I’d thought of him only under his commonplace official designation, as “the defendant.” And though I can’t say I quite forgot about my father, something seemed to grip my vitals at that moment and riveted all my attention on the little man in the dock. I hardly heard what was being said, I only knew that they were set on killing that living man and an uprush of some elemental instinct, like a wave, had swept me to his side.’

As soon as Tarrou’s father saw the real man, he had fellow feeling for him, and the ideology he held, or thought he held, evaporated. He also asked Dr. Rieux if he had ever witnessed a man shot by firing squad? Tarrou explained the reality of the shooting:

“…the spectators are hand-picked, and it’s like a private party, you need an invitation. The result is that you’ve gleaned your ideas about it from books and pictures. A post, a blindfolded man, some soldiers in the offing. But the real thing isn’t a bit like that. Do you know that the firing-squad stands only a yard and half from the condemned man? Do you know that if the victim took two steps forward his chest would touch the rifles? Do you know that, at this short range, the soldiers concentrate their fire on the region of heart and their bullets make a hole into which you could thrust your fist? No you didn’t know all that; those are things that are never spoken of. For the plague-stricken their peace of mind is more important than a human life. Decent folks must be allowed to sleep easy o’nights mustn’t they?”

The existential philosophy wants to know the truth. It does not want to let us sleep soundly. Those who don’t want to know the truth are plague-stricken. They are the sleep-walkers. They don’t want to know the truth. An existentialist wants to wake them up. Like, Wiley Coyote must be made to look down after he has crossed the cliff edge and seems to be running on air. Once he knows, he is done. That is the existential moment. For Camus’s father it was when he saw a real decapitation. For Tarrou’s father it was when he heard his father clamoring for the death of the pathetic defendant. Once we see the real shivering human person in his actual existence our theories can fail us; our ideology can be shredded.

I now want to offer a much more mundane example from my own life. This was the case of own my mother-in-law. She was the sweetest, kindest, person I have ever known. I am not exaggerating. This is gospel truth. She was a staunch Catholic and had firm Catholic principles by which she lived without doubt or question. Her Catholic faith was her bedrock foundation for life. She was also French and proud of it. When she found out her daughter wanted to go out on a date with an English non-Catholic (me) who she had never met, she was appalled. How could this happen? This would not do. But when she met and found out what a great guy I was, she cast aside her ideology and we got along wonderfully. I loved her and she loved me. She wished I was a French Catholic boy, but I would do. When she was confronted with reality she was able to set aside her ideology.

My mother-in-law was exactly the same with her next son-in-law, Norm, even though he was not as nice as me. He did not marry another daughter, but he lived with her. In sin! To her that was what they were doing—living-in-sin. But she didn’t care. She loved him too. She saw through her own ideology and set it aside. She actually did that with many people who according to her ideology ought to have been rejected. That was not her style. She accepted people for whom they were, unless they were actually bad people. Like Wiley Coyote, my mother-in-law was an existentialist! Camus would have approved.

Toni Morrison on Hate

 

 

I have still not got over Toni Morrison’s  novel–Love. It is that disturbing. The novel is actually much more about its opposite. Hate. It is about a specific kind of love—love that is transformed into hate. How can that happen?

Morrison has a fine understanding of hate. She described how the Cosey girls fought over the coffin of Bill Cosey, the patriarch of the family , until one of the women, L (does that stand for love?) restored order. But the hate lived on. Hate is darn hard to destroy. Morrison described the haters this way: “their faces as different as honey from soot, looked identical. Hate does that. Burns everything but itself, so whatever your grievance is, your face looks just like your enemy’s.”

The novel is deeply imbedded into a racist society infused with white male dominance, even though there are very few white characters in the novel and none of them is a major character. The natural product of such a society is that the dominated black males turn to dominate those  “beneath” them. And of course that is only other non-whites.

The man at the centre of the novel is Bill Cosey a 52-year old black man who rapes an 11-year old black girl with the consent of her family. The girl is so young and ignorant that she “grinned happily as she was led down the hall to darkness, liquor smell and old man business.” And as so often happens, the young victim ends up hating herself after the abuse. “I must have been the one who dreamed up this world, she thought. No nice person could have.”

Heed and Christine–11 and 12 year old friends—end up competing for a 52-year old man, entirely unworthy of either of them, and the two become transformed into enemies in the process. They learn to hate.  “The eyes of each are enslaved by the other’s. Opening pangs of guilt, rage, fatigue, despair are replaced by a hatred so pure, so solemn, it feels beautiful, almost holy.” Can you imagine a hate that is “almost holy”? Even the holy is turned perverse in a world ruled by hate and dominance. The dominance of whites over blacks turns the blacks into dominating other blacks.  That is the world that is a product of hate and in such a world even the holy turns evil.

Heed and Christine had a hard time maintaining their hatred for each other. Hate does not come easily and it is difficult to maintain. As Morrison said, “Like friendship, hatred needed more than physical intimacy; it wanted creativity and hard work to sustain itself.” They had “bruising fights with hands, feet, teeth and soaring objects…once–perhaps twice–a year, they punched, grabbed hair, wrestled, bit, slapped, never drawing blood, never apologizing, never premeditating, yet drawn annually to pant through an episode that was as much rite as fight. Finally they stopped, moved into acid silence, and invented other ways to underscore bitterness.”

Both of them ultimately realized that neither one could leave. They were married to each other in a dark perverse marriage. They both had “an unspoken realization that the fights did nothing other than allow them to hold each other.” That is what undying hatred is all about. It bonds the two in unholy matrimony. “There in a little girl’s bedroom an obstinate skeleton stirs, clacks, refreshes itself.”

 

I’ve been told I’m going to Hell Soon: Fellow feeling and Religions

Some people just cannot grasp the idea that religions might actually have something in common. A couple of years ago I got in serious trouble with a real estate agent from the Bible Belt of Manitoba. I was speaking at a continuing educational seminar for real estate agents and we were talking about ethical rules. I told the real estate professionals, ‘Don’t worry about trying to memorize all the rules.’ I said, ‘Just know where you can find them and remember this—the fundamental rule: The Golden Rule. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I should have stopped there. Instead, I made a big mistake. I brought in religion of all things to an educational session for real estate agents. How stupid could I get? I said to them, this rule, the golden rule, was the basis of all moralityandall religion. I said all religions had this important rule in common. I presumed this would please people. Religions actually agree with each other. There is no reason to argue. They should be able to get along. But at least one agent did not accept that.

After my talk I was approached by a real estate agent. He asked me if I was “born again.” I knew immediately I was in trouble. No I said, “I was born only once to my knowledge.” But I did think about Bob Dylan who said, “He not busy being born is busy dying.”

The agent pounced on my comment. “I thought so,” he said. “You are obviously nota Christian because you are equatingChristianity with Islam. That means you are going to hell.”  And that was not enough. He added, “And you’re an old guy so you will be going to hell soon.” That last part really hurt. (Well not really)

Obviously this was a man without fellow feeling. He could not grasp that it was a good thing, not a bad thing that all or most religions agreed on the fundamentals. He much preferred to think that hisreligion was superior to all others. I would say that meant he was not religious at all. No empathy; no religion. No connection; no religion.

As I have already said, the word “religion” in fact comes from the old Asian/Indian word religiothat means “connection.” I think it explains religion perfectly. It explains how religion is what connects us to others. I would even add it is what connects us to the world, to nature, to all beings.

It is deeply interesting to me that religion has a common core.  Karen Armstrong has some interesting things to say about this. She had joined a convent at the age of 17 but found it was not for her. She became a scholar instead. For the next 40 years she learned a lot about compassion and dedicated her life to the concept. In my view she did not move far from the world of what a convent or at least religious retreat should be. When she studied world religions she too was surprised to learn that compassion was the core of allmajor religions.

She became a historian of religion, received the prestigious $100,000 TED prize in 2008 for her work promoting interfaith dialogue, and founded the Charter for Compassion, a multilingual and multi-denominational effort to transform the world’s religions into a force of global harmony rather than discord. She enlisted a wide array of thinkers from many faith and moral traditions.

Armstrong summed up her life long study in a book called Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. In it she wrote:

 

One of the chief tasks of our time must surely be to build a global community in which all peoples can live together in mutual respect; yet religion, which should be making a major contribution, is seen as part of the problem. All faiths insist that compassion is the test of true spirituality and that it brings us into relation with the transcendence we call God, Brahman, Nirvana, or Dao. Each has formulated its own version of what is sometimes called the Golden Rule, “Do not treat others as you would not like them to treat you,” or in its positive form, “Always treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself.” Further, they all insist that you cannot confine your benevolence to your own group; you must have concern for everybody— even your enemies.

 


         Armstrong also challenged the common view that religion is the cause of all wars:

“In fact, the causes of conflict are usually greed, envy, and ambition, but in an effort to sanitize them, these self-serving emotions have often been cloaked in religious rhetoric. There has been much flagrant abuse of religion in recent years. Terrorists have used their faith to justify atrocities that violate its most sacred values. In the Roman Catholic Church, popes and bishops have ignored the suffering of countless women and children by turning a blind eye to the sexual abuse committed by their priests. Some religious leaders seem to behave like secular politicians, singing the praises of their own denomination and decrying their rivals with scant regard for charity… Disputes that were secular in origin, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, have been allowed to fester and become “holy,” and once they have been sacralized, positions tend to harden and become resistant to pragmatic solutions. And yet at the same time we are bound together more closely than ever before through the electronic media… In a world in which small groups will increasingly have powers of destruction hitherto confined to the nation-state, it has become imperative to apply the Golden Rule globally, ensuring that all peoples are treated as we would wish to be treated ourselves. If our religious and ethical traditions fail to address this challenge, they will fail the test of our time.”

 

Armstrong quoted the final version of the Charter for Compassion, which was launched in November of 2009 and came to embody this spirit by offering an antidote to the voices of extremism, intolerance, and hatred:

 

“The principle of compassionlies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honor the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.

It is also necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others — even our enemies — is a denial of our common humanity. […]

We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity.”

Armstrong offered the following as a definition of compassion:

 

“Compassion is aptly summed up in the Golden Rule, which asks us to look into our own hearts, discover what gives us pain, and then refuse, under any circumstance whatsoever, to inflict that pain on anybody else. Compassion can be defined, therefore, as an attitude of principled, consistent altruism.

In fact, the first person to formulate the Golden Rule predated the founding figures of Christianity and Islam by five centuries and a millennium, respectively — when asked which of his teachings his disciples should practice most tenaciously, “all day and every day,” the Chinese sage Confucius (551–479 BCE) pointed to the concept of shu, commonly translated as “consideration,” which he explained as striving “never to do to others what you would not like them to do to you.”

Armstrong clarified this as follows:

“A better translation of shu is “likening to oneself”; people should not put themselves in a special, privileged category but relate their own experience to that of others “all day and every day.

Compassion, thus, is a matter of orienting oneself toward the rest of humanity, implicitly requiring a transcendence of self-interest and egotism. I would say that this means that we are not required to renounce self-interest, but rather to transcend it. We must combine it with beneficence. We must love others like ourselves, but clearly that entails, that first we love ourselves.”

Centuries after Confucius, the three major monotheistic religions adopted the strikingly similar doctrines that many believe are at the core of each religion. I also believe that this same principle—the Golden Rule—is the also at the heart of all morality. I hope to explore that in a subsequent post. It is also interesting that the compassionate spirit is ennobling in all cases and even when it has a secularorigin.In other words, fellow feeling or compassion is the basis of religions and a morality. I think that is important.

I think that real estate agent did not understand religion at all. Nor morality for that matter.

Golden rule

 

The golden rule is ancient and wise. It has 2 basic formulas—one positive and one negative. The positive version says something like this: “One should treat others as one would like others to treat us.” The negative version, sometimes called the ‘silver rule’, says, something like this: “”One should not treat others as would not like to be treated.” For my purpose it does not really matter which version is better. Both are good. It is a good rule.

I was stunned to learn that almost all religions have adopted the golden rule. They all have a version of it. Christians have it, but so do Jews. Islam has it. Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and many other religions have it. Even very ancient religions have it. Some Christians think they had it first but that is far from the truth. Members of other religions probably thought they had it first too.

The Initial Declaration of the Parliament of World Religions proclaimed the Golden Rule. It was signed by 143 respected leaders from all of the world’s major faiths, including Baha’i Faith, Brahmanism, Brahma Kumaris, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Indigenous, Interfaith, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Native American, Neo-Pagan, Sikhism, Taoism, Theosophist, Unitarian Universalist and Zoroastrian.

In ancient Babylon there was an early incarnation of the Rule in the Code of Hammurabi, one of the earliest codes of moral conduct ever. The Torah had a version. The Old Testament had it, “Love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.”(Leviticus 19:18).

Ancient Egypt had a version: “Now this is the command: Do to the doer to cause that he do thus to you.” Another example from a Late Period (c. 664 BCE – 323 BCE) papyrus: “That which you hate to be done to you, do not do to another.”

Ancient Greek philosophy had versions: “Do not to your neighbor what you would take ill from him.” – Pittaccus  (c. 640–568 BCE). Thales (c. 624 B.C.- c. 546 BC): “Avoid doing what you would blame others for doing. Pythagoras who lived about 500 years before Chris had a version, and so did Epictetus and two of my favorite Greek philosophers, Epicurus, and Socrates.

Ancient China had it as well as shown by its  most famous philosopher, Confucius. So did Laozi. I could go on and on, but I think that is enough to make my point.

Virtually every religion has adopted the Golden Rule. It is what virtually all religions have in common. There must be something good about. And there is. It is the basis of religion. It is what connects us to each other. It is truly religious. And there is no need to denigrate any other religion. That divides us. They all have it! I think that is fantastic.

The Sleep of Reason

 

Goya, the famous Spanish painter was well known for dark art.  No one ever accused him of seeing only the sunny side of life. Goya inscribed one of his works with the following words: “The sleep of reason brings forth monsters.” I find that profoundly true.

Voltaire the child of the Enlightenment, one might say a Fundamentalist Enlightenment thinker, said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

Our species has impressive powers of reasoning. It is what sets us apart from most species. Yet we give up our advantage all the time. Why do we do that? Why do we allow reason to go to sleep? More importantly, why do we do that when it is clearly against our own interests to do that? That is a very big question. One I would like to answer.

One of the worst things that we can do is to abdicate our power of reasoning. If ever—ever–we give up our rationale for beliefs we are doomed.  We must always insist that all beliefs are based on reason and evidence.

Our reasoning power may be weak. It is certainly far from perfect. For each and every one of us our power of reasoning is flawed, but we never have a better tool to justify belief. Any belief. Beliefs based on evidence and reasoning are not guaranteed to be true. They are not certainly true, but they are the best-grounded beliefs we can have.

Reason goes to sleep whenever we don’t base our beliefs on reason and evidence.  The bars to reason are many and varied and include the following among many others: faith substituted for reason, indoctrination, fear, prejudice or bias, laziness, ignorance, herd instinct or wish to conform, wishful thinking, ideological blinkers, and advertising or propaganda.

 

I am going far beyond religion now. Beliefs based on something other than reason, like faith, or feelings, or wishes, can have dangerous consequences. This can lead to crazy beliefs. No where is that more obvious than the United States. There is a good reason for this. America is in my opinion the most religious country in the west. At least by conventional definitions of religion. Kurt Anderson described this phenomenon this way in his book Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire(2017): “Unlike the Earth’s other moderns, we have rushed headlong back toward magic and miracles, crazifying some legacy churches, filling up the already crazy ones, inventing all kinds of crazy new ones.]Because the US has given itself over to beliefs without reason to such a fantastic extent for so long it has become vulnerable to believing all kinds of crazy things. Americans have become vulnerable to all kinds of crackpots from the ludicrous to the deranged.

For example it is astonishing how many Americans believed, without any evidence whatsoever, that Hillary Clinton ran a child sex ring out of the basement of a pizzeria that had no basement. Or that there is a government conspiracy to spread toxic vaccines. Or that Satanic child molesters are everywhere.  That Obama is the anti-Christ, a  Muslim and was born outside the United States. That the massacre of elementary school children in Sandy Hook by a lone gunman was a scam promulgated by paid actors. That climate change is a hoax. That the high school students at Parkland Florida who were terrorized by a gunman were also paid actors.

The gullibility of millions of Americans is truly astonishing. Where did this come from? I believe that it is the result of checking reason at the door for decades if not centuries.    When reason sleeps monsters are indeed brought forth.