26 May 2009

Articles of Faith: SSSSayyyy FFFFear Is a Maaaan's Besssst FFFFriend

where ignorance is bliss,/'Tis folly to be wise.
Thomas Gray, Ode On A Distant Prospect Of Eton College (1742)
Ignorance is bliss, and in a sense it is. Gray here is speaking of the ignorance of cosseted children, fenced off in paradisal playground, unaware of the realities of the world. To the childishly ignorant, wisdom seems a foolish intrusion.

Gray is not trying to show us the way to live. He is using irony. Ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance masks what I've been calling the 'ur-story': consciousness of our mortality, existential pain, adult melancholy, the sense of loss. Where wisdom is available, where truth can be grasped, ignorance is a refusal of reality. Ignorance is the mask of a deep-seated and unreconciled fearfulness of life.

This is a very personal post—perhaps the most personal post I've yet written. This weekend, we entertained people from out of town—three generations aged roughly 75, 45, and 15. These are people I love. Yet, they aren't curious about the world, about reality. Like the school children in Gray's Ode, they exist in a comfortable psychological world where their beliefs are a bulwark against knowledge. They don't want to know; don't want to understand. They have what Paul in his Letter to the Phillippians called "the peace...that passes all understanding." Thirteen billion year old universes, 47 million year old fossils: these things threaten them.

They are worried about where to send their youngest, the 15 year old, to college. They believe that academics are hostile to them, that science is a threat to them, that universities persecute them. They don't want to expose her to such things as cosmology, evolution, homosexuality, mixed race couples, etc. Apparently, there are colleges out there that will allow them to maintain their ignorance unchallenged.

Ignorance, in general, bothers me. Their ignorance pains me. That there is nothing I can do to enlighten or educate or awaken them vexes me. That such "colleges" exist angers me.

Now, these are not stupid people. These are people with high IQs. Two of them have post-graduate degrees. Some of them voted for Obama. They are capable of learning, but, when discussions of certain things arise, they shut down, retreat into their biblical cocoons, and refuse to entertain new ideas. I have learned from painful experience not to broach these topics with them. Their ignorance is stubbornly willful.

If they were open-minded, logical, it would be simple to disabuse them of certain epistemological lacunae. For example, I've heard them say something like "I don't believe in the theory of evolution." To me, this is something like Gilbert Ryle's 'category mistake.'

It is a mistake to ascribe belief (certainly in the sense they intend) to a scientific theory. For example, one doesn't believe in the theory of gravity: one observes a ball or an apple fall to the ground; one jumps out of a tree and promptly falls to the ground; in fact, one observes that everything that has no independent form of propulsion falls to the ground. The theory of gravity is proven inductively, that is by the accretion of consistent examples. I don't have to believe it. I've learned it from a combination of observation and experience. I understand it. The theory works: its explains all these phenomena. Most importantly, I know that the next time I jump from some place high off the ground, I'm going to fall to earth unless I can come up with some adequate means of propulsion to keep me up. And I can warn others of the same thing.

But, if I am an ignorant religionist observing the same phenomena, I might postulate that since I can't see (or hear, smell, touch, or taste) gravity, gravity is a mere theory; it hasn't been proven conclusively (or at least to my stubborn satisfaction). Further, I can then postulate that there must be some god living under the earth who commands everything to come to him, and he holds the moon, the sun, and all the stars in his thrall. This all-attracting god alone is real. If anyone challenges my belief in the attractive god, they are persecuting me personally.

I can't prove to these true believers that there isn't some invisible all-powerful deity down there, and as long as I ignore the fact that the earth (and I) is not the center of the universe, then that belief is at least a plausible explanation of the facts. But once I start looking at facts—the known facts about the origins of the universe or the positioning of the earth relative to the sun, moon, planets, and stars—I realize I have to really work hard to maintain this silly, ignorant superstition.

The clincher, though, is not proof; the clincher has to do with actual thought. I may never be able to prove gravity, in the sense of observing it directly. But I can imagine what it might take to disprove the theory of gravity. I know that if an apple ever falls up or if I ever leap out of a tree and simply float around in the sky, it will disprove my current theory of gravitation, and I will have to either refine it or junk it and come up with some newer, better explanation. This is the condition of its falsification. I know what it will take to make the theory false.

With the attractive deity (invisible, all-powerful, etc.), I do not know what evidence or what facts will prove her existence false. I don't know what it will take to falsify this superstition. Belief is not subject to truth conditions or to falsification. If something falls up, the believer can simply say "the god willed it to test my faith" or "my belief and faith in the all-attracting god was so strong she suspended her thrall and let me fly" or some such. True belief always trumps the facts.

A theory can be falsified. It doesn't demand belief, it demands understanding. A religion commands absolute belief. To its adherents, it can never be falsified.

This is the caliber of ignorance we in the 21st century America have to face. Ignorance reinforced by religion. People afraid to send their children to college because they fear their beliefs will be challenged. College-educated people who obstinately cling to their ignorance.

My personal dilemma is whether and how to tell my loved ones they are ignorant, how to educate them, how to enlighten them, how to awaken them from their blissful state. Can this be done in a loving manner? Can this be done gently? What are the risks (to me, to them, to the rest of my friends and relations)? What are the benefits? Is it a project I should even consider? Is it my place to even try?

[to be continued]


BDR said...

!Great! Cale capture.

You can't change people's minds if your trying to challenge their faith it is part of their faith's narrative of challenged faith.

Be nice, frank and respectful. The one's who want to talk more will find you.

Not that this has worked for me.

Frances Madeson said...

Illuminate them in the name of love, Jim, or you'll lose the love you feel for them anyway. Guaranteed. Take them with you if you can to the rainbows, where happiness is. It's not that much trouble to aim a flashlight behind you even as you lengthen the steps of your stride. Shine the beam just inches ahead of where their feet are. Let them take baby steps at first, as you continue to bound forward. We in the avant must always remember to reach all of our octopus hands behind and around us to bring as many other deep sea creatures with us as possible. The more is truly the merrier.