Archive for April, 2012

BEGGARING BELIEF

21 April 2012

[Picture of Shaman]Belief is such an interesting word. Everyone believes that two plus two equals four because that’s rational — yet the word is probably more often associated with the irrational.

I have always enjoyed reading philosophy, religion, and magic, and their historical contexts, so much so that my bookshelves groan under the strain. I was moving some books today and spotted my old copy of  “The Golden Bough” by  Sir James Frazer, and a flip through the pages brought back a lot of memories.

In my post on Cthulhu, I stated:

“But I am also a human, and brought up in a fabulous fantasy world of Santa Claus and the tooth fairy. I am interested in the arts, and cannot deny there is something weird going on — it cannot merely be a collective, collaborative delusion entirely. …

“All I’m saying is that — rightly or wrongly — I have intuitive feelings, gut feelings, traits that reveal the irrational, illogical, and impulsive emotional over-rides.

“I respond to music, to paintings, to love, to food — in partaking, participating and creating. Hard to define, but nonetheless real to me.  Amongst these is the Cthulhu.”

I also mentioned that had been affected by the philosophy of mechanism, and this, together with my natural atheism, may well seem at odds with my talk of intuition, love, gut feelings and even the evil I call Cthulhu.

It’s not such a great paradox actually — at least not for me; I can live with it all. However I do get asked about this, so I’ll try to clear it up here.

[Picture of Red Ballet Shoes]I recall the revelation when reading The Golden Bough, back in my late teens, that things influence us and we influence things.  This is clearly true; we have relationships with everyday objects.  We put on shoes, the shoes change our feet  and our feet change the shoes. The shoes also wear the steps and floor as much as they wear out the shoes.

Wear and tear humanises and personalises things, and we can grow fond of items — have “favourites”.  People like to be surrounded by things that are familiar — but also because they embody some personal meaning. They are heirlooms.

[Picture of Guitar Signed by Elvis]Worth and value are tricky words when ascribed to things that have memories and meanings attached. In antiques and auction rooms, items gain considerably from provenance. Meaning doesn’t even have to be personal, for anything worn or owned by Elvis Presley, for example, is worth more just because of that fact.

Now, obviously, this is all airy-fairy rubbish. A guitar played by a dead rock star is still just a guitar, a watch passed down from father to son, is still just a watch. Yet it isn’t, somehow.

If you remove gods from religion, if you dismiss the afterlife and other such irrational beliefs, you are left with rituals.

I find this interesting; there is something in humans that needs ritual for the evidence of it is all over the world and throughout history.

I recall playing with my school friends, and a massive part of my childhood was about inventing and adapting games. We would play by the rules until it got easy or boring, then we would up the ante, until the rules were pretty elaborate. It was probably more about setting rules, defining boundaries, negotiation and dealing with consequences than merely playing games.

Society has rules, too, driving about is commonplace, but the rules and rituals are pretty complex when you think about it. We all know when to start work, what is expected of us, where the boundaries are, what we can and cannot do.

The Big Idea is about being able to repeat the process to get the same end. Reliability depends on doing it the same way every time to get the same result every time.

But this creates a new thing – the system, the process itself becomes a subject of study; the scientific method, and in the workplace even today, we try to refine workflow. We need to know what things  in the chain of events are the ones that matter, so then the procedures are analysed and imposed.

[Diagram of a machine]We are mechanised and do our part in the process. Method Statements and QA are about the stages and steps involved in carrying out a task to get a predictable result.

It’s not just at work either; we practice playing our musical instruments to get better and better in order to play the tune without mistakes. Playing a tune is a process of playing chords or notes one after the other to get the desired result. Sports science is all about refining training to get better results.

All this is so much a part of our lives that we have irrational and personal versions — from trinkets for good luck, to routines to get us to sleep at night.  Everyone has heard of being OCD and how comforting rituals and routines can be for certain groups. Religion has ceremonies and rituals, and I call all of these irrational because they are not analysed and improved, and they are not very good at reliably predicting or producing the desired result.

Voodoo dolls, rain-dancing, wedding vows, Christenings, Ramadan fasts, praying, healing, levitation, horoscopes, exorcisms, witch burning — and many, many more — have a role in culture and in history, yet are ostensibly bizarre and don’t actually work reliably, if at all.  It would seem that they are either used willingly as a comforting ritualistic belief, or else used by the unscrupulous to dominate the gullible for their own ends.

Throughout my life I have met people who have told me that they were healed at Lourdes, by prayer, by reiki, or that they can only play winning golf with that “special” club. I’ve heard miracle stories, and tales of people who can predict the future. And I cannot call any of them liars or delusional because the fact is that they are telling the truth. It’s just that the truth doesn’t prove anything; it could be a lucky break, coincidence, or random chance.

It is somehow very attractive to human beings to believe in a karma connection, to see the mystical and the wonderful. The German word, Geist, means more than ghost. There is the Poltergeist, the Geistlos, the Zeitgeist, the Weltgeist (see Hegel), Geisteskrank, and so on — including the Holy Spirit and Guardian Angels. My favourite is the ghost in the machine, I know well that you can build two machines, two cars, guitars, or whatever — in exactly the same way from the same parts, and they will not be the same at all. Once assembled, they get a life, a personality, and it is that geist with whom you have a relationship.

[Photograph of John Ruskin]I quite liked Ruskin’s idea of allowing artisans creative freedom, that their skill and love in making something could somehow be contained within the resulting artefact, and that a mass-produced (or machine produced) item was “soul-less”.

A lot of people throughout history have been called witches because they have done things that were actually good, kind and helpful for everyone. They didn’t merely pray, they used herbs or some routine that worked reliably, and as such it was neither religion nor science — so it had to be witchcraft.

Witchcraft and magic have religious aspects (irrational rituals, spells/prayers) but also scientific aspects (they can get repeatable results). All that science did was analyse the process and call it medicine.

I have always liked the fact that something is magic until it is understood, then it becomes science.

[Artist's impression of God]This is how I came to understand the term, “God”. In primitive cultures, if crops failed, they claimed it was because of God (or a god), if you do the trick of replacing the word “God” with “The Unknown”, then it is clear that the crops failed because of the unknown. In other words they have no idea why their crops failed, or why the rain didn’t come.

From this, it is clear that as knowledge increases, the less unknowns we have — and that means the less God. This is self-evidently true; we know God didn’t make the crops fail as soon as we know why they failed.

Just like something is magic until we understand it, something is unknown until it is known, and the more we know, the less we have a need to have an intervening God.

I do believe in love-at-first-sight, I do have relationships with buildings, furniture, clothes, and animals. I have gut feelings and intuition. I don’t know everything. I like routine, and have my ways of doing things. I cannot explain them all rationally… and I don’t want to either; part of being human (perhaps the most human part of being human) is irrationality.

This is my attempt to celebrate that aspect of our natures.

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