Thursday, 27 December 2012

Voyage XIII – Virtuous Heathens

Something about what Lou said the other day has been bothering me. I’m not sure what it is precisely, something about belief.
It was a favourite topic of debate among us at the Poly - faith and religion and spirituality and all that. We used to get into some terrible rows. Colleen (the politics student) used to get very frustrated with us – told us we were all typical art students and wouldn’t have been able to follow a rational argument if our lives depended on it. She was the only one who had any training in philosophy so inevitably we took the piss out of her, but she was on our side, in the faculty of arts and humanities, not science, so she was allowed. Cat was the opposite. In the end I became very frustrated with the way she insisted on the infallibility of her intuitive understanding of the world and the futility of trying to think it through in any rational way whatsoever. If she said she knew, then she knew. That was all there was to it.
For example, one morning in the refectory Cat told me, in response to something I’d said I’d been dreaming about, that dreams are not just in our heads – that the events we witness in dreams are actually happening. She didn’t feel the need to explain where exactly, or how, she simply knew it to be true, and she informed me of all this as if it should be obvious, with a chuckle and that heavy condescension that people who consider themselves very spiritual mistake for serenity and wisdom. The others just nodded as if this was a perfectly valid way of understanding the world but I found the whole idea preposterous and I guess it showed on my face. I said how can you possibly know that and was greeted with the kind of abuse she normally reserved for pornographers, Thatcherites and road builders. Who was I to question her insight, especially since I was male and white and middle class? (For the record, she was also white and had been to a private school.) I told her my dad worked for the council and she said well it must be cultural then. I suppose she was referring to the fact that I was quite well spoken. Anyway I still say she spouted utter crap a lot of the time.

So perhaps you’ll understand when I say I had a special suspicion of people who should have been on our side (alternative, radical), but who insisted they alone had some special insight into the workings of the universe. I don’t know how we stayed friends for as long as we did, Cat and I, but we did.
I had a lot of very strong opinions myself but if it came to it I knew I couldn’t fundamentally defend any of them with any real conviction. Some of us spouted political theory and saw conspiracies everywhere. Others saw the struggle as a manifestation of imbalance in the interplay of cosmic forces. They all claimed to know exactly what was going on, who we were up against and what we should be doing about it. All I saw was a world of chaos and confusion and human frailty. As far as I was concerned nobody had any better idea what was going on than anybody else. My only really strong conviction was that nobody should be in a position to force anyone to do anything they didn’t want to: not Thatcher, not the Brixton police, nor the apartheid regime, the Pope, the bosses, teachers, parents or landlords, and certainly not the scientists.
To be frank though, although we all had powerful opinions on technology and conventional medicine and the exploitation of the environment, and of course we were against it all, I don’t think, in that entire time, that we ever actually spoke to a real live scientist. We read a lot of articles in newspapers of course and watched a lot of documentaries and generally considered ourselves rather well informed, but I don’t think we ever read any actual science. There would have been no point. It would have been written by scientists and they were the enemy.

Lou is therefore a member of a rather exotic species. He intrigues me. I’ve put it off but eventually I just have to search him out and I find him in the library, perusing a book on dinosaurs. I come straight to the point. I ask him how come scientists think their opinions are so much better than everyone else’s. ‘Hello Gabriel’ he says. ‘Nice to see you too’ but I won’t be deflected. I sit and stare at him and wait.
He looks at me for a moment, smiling his supercilious smile. ‘Alright’ he says, putting his book down carefully, as he always does, as if it’s a precious exhibit. He gets comfortable, lays his head back and closes his eyes.
‘People have come to assume of science a role previously taken by religion’ he begins. He sounds like he’s dictating an essay. I suppose it’s not the first time he’s heard this question. ‘And some scientists have been all too happy to step into the role of priest or guru, claiming that science will give us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and that there is no other route to the truth.’
I nod. ‘Exactly’ I think.
Some scientists’ he emphasises, ‘not all. But science isn’t like that, or it shouldn’t be. Science should lay no claim to ultimate truth and especially not ultimate meaning. Science is something much humbler – it is merely an extension of our ordinary everyday methods for working out why the car won’t start or why the soufflé flopped or whether the butler did it – trial and error, reason, evidence, probability. It’s very ordinary Gabriel – just a problem solving method, not scripture.’
‘But what if God or whatever is involved? I mean – you do your experiments, use your logic, maths, whatever. You’ve ruled out God from the start, and surprise surprise, you don’t find Him. That’s a circular argument.’
‘No I haven’t – it’s merely a working assumption, a “for the sake of argument” clause if you like. The true scientist would not claim to know for sure that God does not exist. He (or she) simply doesn’t include Him in the methods and materials.’
‘But if God, or spirits or what-have-you were everywhere, then you’d have to take them into account.’
‘Or accept that science is impossible, yes. And yet it appears science is possible. It does in fact appear to work. We do indeed build bridges and fly to the moon, so either the supernatural doesn’t matter or it doesn’t exist.’
‘Or it’s playing a very clever game with us.’
‘I concede that that cannot be discounted.’
I sit and think for a while. I find myself suddenly feeling like giggling. I look at him. He’s smiling too, and nodding, which I’ve noticed he does a lot in quiet moments.
‘So you really don’t believe in anything?’ I say eventually. ‘Not even logic?’
‘Logic is another working assumption science has to make, like the irrelevance of the supernatural. It appears to be more or less universally applicable but I wouldn’t claim to be one hundred percent certain even of that.’
I sit and think for a while. I think I understand what he says but still find it unsatisfying, infuriating even.
‘It just seems a bit, I don’t know, a bit inadequate’ I say after a while, ‘not believing in anything.’
His head rolls forward. He stares at me. ‘You take it as a sign of weakness perhaps – that I simply can’t make up my mind. Personally I don’t understand humanity’s insistence on having “beliefs”. Perhaps I’m deficient in some way.’
I nod contemplatively too now. I’d always assumed everybody had to believe in something or else lost their mind. I was afraid for a while that that might happen to me, because I couldn’t kid myself that I was certain about anything. The received wisdom was that I would descend into some sort of nihilistic hell, or worse, just do what everyone else did - get a job, get married, have kids and not worry about it. Now it seems that might not be so. Lou is odd but apparently not insane, and he seems relatively happy too.
‘How do you do it?’ I say finally.
‘How do I do what?’
‘Live without beliefs – not that I’m totally convinced you do, but anyway...’
He leans forward with his hands out in front of him, clasped together as if in prayer. He looks up into the light coming in through the window opposite. Still nodding he considers his response.
‘I don’t know, to be honest. All I can say is it’s never bothered me particularly. If you want to know the closest thing I have to a deep inner conviction it’s that there probably isn’t anything out there to believe in, and that that isn’t a problem. My basic intuition is that we can’t really know, but that that’s fine. Actually I find it rather exciting.’
‘But what about right and wrong? What about, I don’t know, racism or child abuse, or environmental destruction? How can you claim to know those things are wrong?’
‘You’re not going to try to tell me that religion has brought us peace, justice and tolerance are you?’
‘But what about the Nazis, and Stalin? Weren’t they all atheists?’
‘Apparently’ he sighs. ‘Apparently you don’t strictly have to be religious to believe you are infallible. It doesn’t prove anything.’
He chuckles and distractedly flips a few pages. I look about the room.
‘Religion is inimical to morality in any case’ he says blandly.
‘Excuse me?’
‘Religious people don’t do the right thing out of the goodness of their hearts. They do it because they don’t want to go to hell. I don’t find that terribly laudable.’
‘What about people like Olly?’ I say after a while. ‘He seems very moral.’
‘I don’t deny that there are religious people who also happen to be highly moral. Olly is an example. But we should not take it that religion and morality have any especial affinity. Look at history.’
I study the pattern on the carpet. Of course under other circumstances I’d have been making the same argument as he is against religion, which in truth I’ve never had much time for. But I’d always assumed there was something out there. There it is, that word – “assumed” rather than “believed”. He’s getting to me.
‘I don’t need God to tell me what’s right and wrong Gabriel’ he says at last. ‘And even if He did I’d reserve the right to argue with Him. I actually consider myself a very moral person.’
‘I know. I just don’t know where you get your morals from.’
‘The same place you do. The same place Olly does. The same place we all do. I look about, see what everybody else is doing. I work it out for myself and I negotiate. The difference is that I’m under no illusions about it.’
‘But ultimately?’
‘You might as well ask what the one true ultimate language is. Who cares? We use what we have. We modify it as we go. We come across other languages, equally useful, or not, as the case may be. We make a decision.’
‘But doesn’t that seem a bit, well, empty? I mean, with nothing...?’
‘Actually no. It feels every bit as wonderfully full as anything you... We’ve been over this Gabriel. I think you’re confusing believing in something in the sense of having hope and trust – positive thinking and all that, which I am all for by the way, with believing in something in the sense of being convinced of the truth of it, which I am not. It’s a common linguistic confusion.’
He stands up and looks down at me. I guess the conversation is coming to an end. I close my book up and stand too.
‘And even if it did feel empty’ he says, putting his hand on my shoulder, ‘I couldn’t kid myself. Even when I was dying I knew - it was life, friends and beauty and nature and love that kept me going. I don’t judge those who kneel and pray when all else fails but personally I never felt the need. I suppose I was lucky.’
He pauses and looks into my face. ‘Does any of this make the slightest sense to you Gabriel?’
‘I’m not sure’ I say, vaguely, but actually I think it does. Actually I think I knew it all along.
He pats my shoulder and turns for the door. ‘Well that’s a good start’ he says, ‘your not being sure. Confusion and doubt are not so terrible as people imagine. Actually they’re rather liberating.’
I stand up to follow him.
‘Gabriel’ he says, ‘people believe so many different and contradictory things, and their conflicting certainties can never be reconciled. Don’t you see that it is only in admitting that, as mere human beings, we can never be certain of anything, that there can be any hope of reconciliation among peoples?’
‘You’ve had enough, I can tell’ he says. ‘Come on, let’s get a beer.’
And we head down to the bar.

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A life backwards

It's in the nature of blogs of course that you come across the latest postings first (or you find yourself in the middle.) Normally it doesn't matter but if you want to read my novel in order, the first installment is as you'd expect, the oldest posting.
Thanks for your patience.