Sunday, 13 March 2016

Something to Believe In?

I've been writing this incarnation of my blog for something over a year now. And where I used to get a handful of readers I now get about 300% more, on average. That is to say that I get three times more readers than I did at the start. Thank you very much for reading. One thing I very rarely get, though, is any comments. That's a bit of a shame but I understand and its certainly not compulsory. But occasionally I do get a comment and this blog is going to be about a comment I got to a recent blog. Since the comment was made publicly (and its still there to see in full anyway) I will quote the relevant sentences (the highlights in italics are mine) so that we are all on the same page before I begin:

We all have faith in something. Some have faith in God, some have faith in their spouse, their government, their employer, their children, their income. Without faith, what is the point of living? If I don't even have enough faith to think I will see tomorrow, why should I put any effort forth living today?

I read this comment again the other day. Of course, I was very thankful that the person concerned had made it. It is part of my understanding of the world that no person is omniscient. No person has all the answers or all the insight. Some would be extremely skeptical and say that none of us have any at all. I'm not one of those people but in my appreciation of all things human there is room for the view that we human beings are bundles of beliefs and those beliefs are situated and self-interested. One corollary of this situation is that other points of view can be informative and open our eyes to things we cannot currently see. This, indeed, is how beliefs ever change at all. Someone or something happens which opens a chink of light in an area there was no light before. And a pathway to a new belief is formed. So I was very glad of the comment. It made me think about the subject of faith and especially the two sentences I highlighted in italics, above. In many ways these three sentences get to the very heart of my own worldview. First of all, I asked myself if its really true that "We all have faith in something".

I must be honest and say that for 48 hours I've racked my brains on this one. I've been asking myself if my correspondent is right. Do I have faith in something? The correspondent gave examples - God, spouse, government, employer, children, income. I don't have most of these. I think that I have faith in none of them. But, still, there could be something that I do have faith in. My correspondent, who I respect, seems quite sure that this is the case and I want to do them the courtesy and give them the respect of thinking it through to see if they are right. My conclusion is that I don't have faith in anything but I want to be as bullet proof as I can be in saying it. If you have read any amount of my blogs, particularly the more philosophical ones, then you know that I have an affinity to existentialism, to absurdism, to some extent to nihilism. You know that I have had a great deal of thought about "the void" and the essential and fundamental problem of meaning that afflicts our species. Meaning is a problem because it is open-ended and it cannot be fixed. It is always only rhetorical. No one can force you to accept a certain meaning and it can always be re-made. Things can always be seen another way.

So what place is there for "faith" in a world that is seen like that? Faith implies both belief and trust, at least in the understanding of faith I have. I have had considerable input to my thinking from Christian sources in the past and I am well used to Christian scholarship. "Faith" is, accordingly, quite a strong word in that tradition. "Faith", for the biblical Christian, should be something to do with believing in things that cannot be seen with the eyes. It is, in some respects, believing in the impossible (that God exists, that he has acted to save creation) and trusting that, even though from some angles it seems silly and ridiculous, it is true. I do not think that every human belief comes under the category "faith". It is very trivially true that every person alive holds beliefs. It is part of our human make up to take stances and hold beliefs about the world around is. Quite simply, we cannot function as a human being without doing so. But is this "faith"? I don't think so. Its simply part of the mechanics of being a human being. I think that some people do have faith in the strong, positive, "believing and trusting" sense I use here but I don't think that I am one of them. And so my correspondent's sentence is explicitly challenged. To challenge it is to say that we don't all have faith in something. It might be worth asking yourself if you have faith in anything. And then ask yourself why and if it deserves it.

So what I'm saying here is that, yes, everybody believes things but that isn't quite faith. Some surprising people do have faith, I'm sure. I've argued many times that the seemingly anti-faith person Dr Richard Dawkins is, in fact, very much a person who does have faith. He doesn't believe in God but he is more than happy to believe in Truth (the capitalized "T" is important for it denotes a divinized concept) and in what he regards as our human truth-finding abilities. Dawkins is very much a strong anti-skeptic. He thinks that we can truly know the way things are unconditioned by our context, our humanity or anything else. I'd call that a faith and I'm sure he wouldn't like the fact. Which is a bonus as far as I'm concerned. So I think that people can have faith. But I don't think everyone does. I don't think I do. I don't even have faith in myself or in the void as some kind of "nothingness that resolves all things". Some try to make of the nothingness a mystery and it takes on God-like properties. Its either a re-imagining of God or a god by the back door. I think that needs to be resisted too. The natural processes of the physical universe and their apparent lack of meaning are not a savior nor can they be turned into one. The meaninglessness and emptiness is real and thorough-going. It can't be sugar-coated.

Now in the context of my correspondent's comment my belief that I don't have faith in anything (and since I think I don't I must assume that others have this possibility too) is important. My correspondent has gone on to say that "Without faith, what is the point of living?" So, naturally, this question addresses me directly now that I have taken up a position towards the first proposition. I can only think of one answer: there is no point to living. I think its a very great assumption, one which we then work on filling in retrospectively, to think that there is a point to living. Why would there be a point? Why should there be a point, antecedently? Why could or can it not be the case that an uncaring universe birthed things and there they are, just milling about in a physical universe of decay? I don't have faith in this because why would you? To describe things as you see them is not, for me, to have faith. But I believe it for now until or unless something comes along which opens up an alternative chink of light, another pathway to follow. To say that something has a point is to ascribe it a meaning. To create a creation myth, for example, is to put things in some order and say what they mean and how they mean it. It is simply to relate things one to another which is all giving meaning to things is. We humans, and this is the really interesting thing about the universe, are self-aware, sentient beings. We need to make meaning. But we have no knowledge that anything else does. We don't know that sharks or elephants or rabbits need meaning. We don't know that stars or moons or space dust does. We don't know that the universe itself does - even though some would put up vague arguments for its sentience. We only know that we do. But how valid is it to go forcing our own necessary meanings on everything else? This is the very absurd problem of human meaning re-stated once again, part of the riddle of what it means to be human.

So I need to admit to my correspondent that I don't "have enough faith" for I don't think that I have any. And I don't see any "point" to life, save that I might give it myself. I see a universe of actions and consequences and I keep it that simple. Things happen and this makes other things happen within the possibilities of what can happen in any given situation at all. When things happen there are consequences to the actions. That's about it. I like to keep things simple and this is a guiding idea behind some approaches towards logic: the simpler answer is to be preferred. I think this is based on the observation that life is rarely needlessly complicated for its own sake. Whilst its not true to say that I think we humans can, given enough time, figure everything out for ourselves (such people do exist and some of them give this as a reason for not needing any gods), I do think that things largely are "up to us" to make of what we can. We are each given a mind and being human we have certain needs and requirements. You could say that each of us is given the riddle of figuring out who we are and why we are here and what we are supposed to do with it. This, to me, is a more meaningful suggestion than saying we all must have faith in something. I don't think that life is a matter of faith. Faith is the illusion of meaningfulness and, strictly speaking, life is not a matter of very much at all. You don't need to care, think, love or even really feel in any rigorous or meaningful sense to get through life. You are just going to live the years you are allotted anyway. No one says you have to take life seriously and there's no punishment for not doing so outside of the circumstances of the life you live (actions and consequences, remember?). Lives both good and bad end up in the same dowdy funeral parlor with a few people there, some of whom you didn't like, to see off your physical remains.

So "what is the point of living"? There isn't one if by that you mean something antecedent and overarching. But such a thing, should it exist, sounds very permanent and meaningful. But where is it to be found and why wasn't it signposted very well? If everyone's life has a point I would have expected it to be more firmly recommended to us human beings rather than being something we can totally bypass. I notice merely several, sometimes connected, alternative versions of what life might mean. But, like some flavors of ice cream, I'm not sure I like the taste. All we have left are any meanings that we ourselves ascribe to things and I guess that we all, in some way, however loosely, do something like that. But, for me, life is about getting from point A, birth, to point B, death, across the arid wastelands of the world we live in. It doesn't really matter very much which path through the brush you take. Everyone gets to point B in the end anyway. And then which path you took seems just a little bit beside the point. (Its worth saying, though, that of course this answer is different while you are still alive in the world of actions and consequences. For whilst you are still alive what you think and say and do takes part in that continuum, it has consequences for you. But dead people don't have any actions and suffer no consequences. That's the difference.)

This leaves me one question left to answer for my correspondent says "Why should I put forth any effort living today?" Of course, we need to see what is being said here as all joined up together. This thought flows from the suggestion that everyone needs faith in something. For the writer of the comment a life without faith would be meaningless and empty, I assume. I once, almost, used to think this way myself. Instead, now, I am a living, breathing example of the fact that you don't need to worry about this. A life without faith need not be empty even though to those who think you do need faith it will seem that way. But how could a person who thinks you must have faith see any other way anyway? Honest beliefs honestly held do color how people see things. That is the point of them. Beliefs denote what can even be seen. That's why we have them. They are the rails on which we run the trains of our lives. Sometimes we get pushed off into a siding. Sometimes we are full steam ahead. Sometimes we are held at a red light. But we are always on the rails of our beliefs. 

But to the question. Is life a matter of "effort"? Would a person not putting any effort into their life be committing a sin? I don't believe in any gods so I literally have no deity to sin against. But let's push this further to the boundary. What's so darned special about life and living anyway? There are trillions of things that have lived and will live. Most of them you wouldn't care less about. But, in our human way, as things get bigger or fluffier, we start to care. We want to save the fluffy or cuddly things but the ugly things, the unseen or unremarkable things, well, not so much. Life is prodigious. Its breaking out all over the place. Many would want to say it is special. This is somewhat sentimental and being sentimental isn't necessarily that smart. 150,000 people die every day and 99.999% of them you never knew. The point of living is to die. When you are dead how you lived is irrelevant. How you lived only matters while you or anyone else is alive. No, I'm not sure that life is about "effort". In fact, even reading the sentence makes me want to be lazy, to put in no effort. To just exist. I see the idea of effort as some egotistical notion, some notion that somehow I'm letting the side down because I didn't try. The idea of effort suggests there is some authority I need to impress with the sweat of my brow. But I don't see myself as being on any side. I have no one to impress or disappoint. I'm just me. I have been born, I'm living and I'm going to die. In one sense these three simple facts are entirely trivial. That's the sense I would bring to bear on this question. Life, in general, is not about effort. There is no one to impress and no standard to meet. In the same way it doesn't make any abstract sense to say it makes a difference if I live 15,000 or 25,000 days either. Life is in general. Life is not anything else in particular.

I'm listening to my album "The Gospel of Existence" as I write (quite by coincidence, I might add). This is appropriate for it expresses musically the thoughts I am writing about here. The track "Joining the Dots" is playing. The idea behind this track, and the album, was of a vast chaos that has dots in it. You can really join these dots up any way you like and make whatever picture you want - just as you can with the books you can buy with join the dots puzzles in them. Of course, in the books you are meant to join them in a certain way for there some god-like figure has determined what picture your dots shall make at the end. But is life really the same as that? I stand with those who say it isn't. Join the dots any way you like. All that is is really just a "Chaos without Consequence" in the end - to quote another title from the album. 

And in the end, of course, I see things very differently to my correspondent. I don't think that is a bad thing. I think it is a wonderful, marvelous thing. My correspondent, in caring enough to write me a reply, made me question and think about what I believed and helped me to sharpen it up. We all need this and it bothers me that very many of us don't see it. We sit there always being informed by the same views or those who we know will explicitly reinforce them. This is intellectual and personal suicide. Beliefs thrive on being questioned or opposed. They need to live and breathe and do work to be healthy. Any fool can sit in a cave and believe something unchallenged. So spare a thought for those who think differently from you. It turns out you need them, their beliefs and even their faith too.

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