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Tuesday
Mar182008

To the Limited Rationalists

For those who believe certain materialist thinkers to be fountains of freedom, I offer a brief and harmless essay to the contrary.  

It appears you have certain issues with what liberty and choice might really mean, and aver that any organized religion who offers some perspective on these matters should be roundly criticized as engaging in antiquated hogwash.  I am particularly drawn to your denigration of one journalist’s claims that the Abrahamic religions, instead of being the golden shackle on our scrawny shins, provided Western society with the basis for liberty and individualism.  You have wisely put your faith in “limited reason,” which is arguably redundant, and promoted the great and underappreciated Baruch as the most sagacious thinker since the Church began its onslaught.  All these steps are in keeping with the modernity of the Enlightenment; and as technology has shown us, the world is not flat, nor the sovereign of the sun, nor the breeding ground of demons (well, I suppose that’s still debatable), and Jesus was wrong about everything except his sense of the beyond, of the cosmic forces that seem at times to steer our decisions, because the logos was the beginning of it all and He knew it.  And now so do we.

The problem with reason is not so much that it is limited, or that it is constantly reinventing itself, or that, like religion, it has more than a few internal disputes, but that it seems to question everything except, well, reason.  When I plug in a blender and make myself a smoothie, I have acted reasonably, because blending those fruits together by some other method would be a colossal waste of time and energy.  But when I say a prayer to my deity to thank it for allowing me to live in a society that produces such a machine, as well as a surplus of fruit that affords me luxury menu items while millions starve, I am acting like a fool.  

I am also a fool when I believe that capitalism in its evitable excesses is bad, and actually do it a disservice by attaching to it that impish tail which characterizes the ephemeral and trendy fancies of intellectual cabals.  After all, capitalism is the economic law of the jungle and the most successful and most accurate market reflection of the greatest scientific discovery of all time, evolution.  Now I certainly believe in evolution.  I believe we were all once amoebae, then prior to that some form of subsentient lava, then microparticles of some galactic geyser.  Who or what set off that geyser, or whether it created itself out of nothingness, is the subject of eternal speculation that has led many to think of religion as a fallback position.  The resort, in other words, of those too lazy to subscribe to issues of Limited Reason Monthly.

Let us go, therefore, with the Bang.  It happened, and gazillions of years later, we happened.  We are the logical outcome of that Bang.  Along the way, of course, there was much infighting, internecine, purges, extinction, and specicide, but we and our countless forefathers and mothers made it to the magnificent present.  We are the poster children for evolution, laissez–faire capitalism (the genuine article), and survival of the most deserving.  Those who did not make it, or continue to die out in conditions neither you nor I can rightly imagine, simply could not or cannot muster enough effort or strength to do away with facetious credos and superstitious tales of redemption.  They or their ancestors were not strong enough.  And so they have to die.  

Limited Reason Monthly tells us that we should pity these people.  We should pity them not because they are human souls sinking in an eddy of inequity, but because their leaders, be they chieftains, generals, popes, or presidents, have not been enlightened.  These leaders, the lodestars for their miserable nations, are ignorant of true freedom.  They believe in shibboleths, crosses, and magic books.  They warn their faithful that those who have dispensed with the need for absolute moral laws will be dealt with in the hands of Time.  Often these same leaders, old hypocrites for the most part, utilize these sermons to further their own Darwinian urges: they erect palaces and monuments and regale themselves on the finest goods available on the politically neutral capitalist markets.  The barbarians who mutilated the De Witt brothers in 1672 have not fallen, it seems, far from the prison tower.  In fact, they make most of their decisions today based on their cookie–cutter ideologies and regardless of what rational thought might otherwise suggest.
 
But what if we could somehow inculcate the teachings of reason?  What if, wonderful to recount, everyone were to consider life as Spinoza or his Collegiants once did and some, a vocal and proud minority, still do today?  (There are probably some who think Spinoza is an epidural or a type of cactus.)  What paradise would then obtain!  It would be a paradise because everything would be run according to reason and logic, with compassion and irrational love panting behind them in the far distance.  Logic has many benefits, not the least of which is determining who gets what in society.  Obviously, the more enlightened you are, the more likely you will be to make use of societal levers and pulleys to acquire everything that rightly belongs to those who can get it (this may sound familiar).  Being enlightened, you understand that you cannot understand everything (you have renewed your subscription for another glorious decade or two); but after those things you can understand you dive headlong and surface with the proverbial golden dagger between your teeth.  I am free, you scream as you take a deep breath and bob up and down on the waves like a bottled message finally retrieved.  I am free from any god or government or ideology!   I believe in myself and in rational and peaceful thought!   I am at the apex of human achievement!
 
And it gets even better.  Once you believe in all this, there is nothing left to do.  The world is rational and so are you, so both of you will get along swimmingly.  No more injustice, no more crime, no more silly wars over some holy–schmoly rigmarole.  The world and you are free like the birds to which you are distantly related; all that remains is to decide what to do with your time.  It would be arrogance itself to think that the Mysteries of the Universe (a regular Limited Reason Monthly column) could be solved in your lifetime, although hints and implications keep piling up like leaves in your front yard.  Thus, now freed of all ideological baggage, you proceed to list (here you giggle in anticipation) all the things you know: you know where we came from, although not ultimately, and you know why we are alive (although not where we go, if anywhere, when we die; perhaps we do not die; you need to think this one through a little more and add a small question mark in the margin).  You also know what everything costs, which is great!  The market determines itself, so if you pay sixty–nine dollars for a blender, that must be correct because the market is never wrong.  Sixty–nine dollars may be also a month’s wages in Malawi or Somalia, but that’s what those people deserve.  They deserve a blender a month.
 
But we are all free!   You are free to buy your blender, and Somalis and Malawians are free to work for forty-odd cents an hour in those aforementioned terrible conditions.  Once they work a little harder, perhaps knife a couple of other laborers to death to derail competition for a promotion, the market will take care of them.  If they really put their nose to the grindstone, although it’s probably so close already that flint particles array their cheeks, their children will earn a blender a week.  That’s a 400% increase in GDP over one generation, and no economist worth his salt or salt substitute would ever argue with that number.  After all, the forefathers of those Somalis and Malawians, or at least the leaders elected or tolerated by those forefathers, were not enlightened and were not thinking about their blender purchasing power.  Everything will fall into place in time and look wonderful and uniform and good.  Just like your smoothie once you pour it out of your blender.

Now, I have been naughty and not mentioned that you provisionally accept the idea that good and simple people leading a good and simple life have a chance for the Big Stage in the Sky when they pass on.  Nor have I said that you are not atheists, but simply reject revealed and organized religion in all forms and push for some kind of rational cosmic force, if anything, as the center of it all.  I believe you also stated that this force is indifferent to human activity, and by very logical mimesis, so are you.  And this is where we diverge.

Despite your claims against the inhumanity of the world, logic and compassion do not go hand in hand.  Equally unattracted to one another are capitalism and compassion, or evolution and compassion.  In fact, compassion has had a hard time finding a date.  Those compatibility boxes that she checks in her online profile don’t yield any matches except from altruism (which hasn’t logged on in years) and love, who is going through an unbelievable identity crisis and cannot even tell others what he’s really all about (everyone has a differing opinion on him).  Meanwhile, logic, capitalism, and evolution have become the best of drinking buddies, with some long and thirsty nights (there is much to celebrate) even resulting in sexual hijinks.  After a long period of time with such freedom (maybe even extending into old age), you wake up one morning, take a good look at yourself in the mirror and are rather appalled at what you see: all youth and hope are gone and replaced by a permanently furrowed brow, a cobweb of wrinkles, and a dimness that might even suggest senility.  Life is coming to its slow end, so how do you presume?  Well, you do have positivism and reason, and they have always stated in unison like twin insurance agents who finish each other’s sentences that you are completely free as long as you’re signed on with them.  This is an obvious policy to adopt when you’re young and brash and life’s accomplishments wait in some distant throne room.  But now you are old.  You are free, but old.  Positivism and reason tell you not to worry about age, because your existence will end at exactly the biologically determined time.  Perhaps you might look into some vitamins or other remedies (candy for the free!) to give yourself a couple of more years.  But sooner rather than later, you will die.  
 
You get dressed laboriously and go for a walk around your neighborhood.  It is probably privileged since you have understood the free market now for the great majority of your life, and you have invested soundly.  You walk, it hurts a bit to move (you remember when you could race!), but you keep at it and, at the same time, gaze upon the younger generations.  Children and teenagers, mind you, still subject to parental whims and decrees.  They play and whoop and holler, yet they are not free, you think.  At some point they will realize that they have to listen to no one except logic and reason, true enlightenment’s bicephalous beast of burden.  Then they will be free.  Oh, it won’t be long now, laddies!   This you think but do not say.  And you walk around them.  
 
But as you walk away, you hear laughter.  You turn (it hurts to turn quickly) and eventually see those same children snickering.  Much quieter now because they’re cowards and fear authority, but you take one look at their faces and know that they don’t respect you.  Their stifled contempt is more than they can bear and their faces turn into giant beets before they break out again in mocking guffaws.  How old are these children, anyway?  Perhaps ages six to fourteen, it doesn’t really matter.  You wonder why they could be laughing at you and you start touching yourself all over like some arthritic octopus.  Why are they still laughing?  You keep feeling around until you get to the seat of your pants and then you understand: it’s wet.  And, you feel higher, you’ve gone and tucked your shirt into your boxers.  Those are two of the most hilarious and pathetic things you could ever do, and the children know that and so you get no compassion.  That type of semi–dementia deserves no pity because you are old and useless anyway and your breath already smells like some dank plot.  What is their advantage in pitying you?  You’ve had a life of freedom and privileges (you’ve owned several different blenders) and now it is time to pass on and leave all this freedom with the younger generations.  They deserve it, too!   Their forefathers evolved just as properly and ruthlessly as yours!   Step aside, old man, the parade of enlightenment is coming down your street!

So you change course and go home and, after a few near–bowel movements, ironically snap on a pair of bladder–control geriatric diapers (officially called “adult protective undergarments against incontinence”) and lie down for a nap.  You look, for the millionth time, at night stand pictures of loved ones lost.  Who knows whether any sliver of them ever left those dank plots you saw them lowered into.  You lie back and rejoice in the fact that, if for but a moment of two, nothing really hurts too much.  You also realize that moments like these will become rarer and rarer.

Fear should not be used to convince anyone of anything; indeed, it is precisely the use of scare tactics that is debunked in essays on Spinoza and his concept of liberty.  We should not be scared of anything, including death, which are the very strong words of very young and courageous souls.  The point is, however, that regardless of why you believe we are here and what the point of life is now, while you are young, that logic will fade over time because death makes no sense.  It does not reward life nor reverse it.  It is simply its termination and if we do not see why it ends, then life itself is cleft from anything greater than evanescent significance.  And who has ever jumped out of bed in the morning and proclaimed, “today is a day of complete freedom of evanescent significance!"? 
 
But if we are compassionate and see the tragedy of life, in both what we have and what we don’t, then we do not act like children mocking an old man.  We do not walk guiltlessly past the homeless or the poor, regardless of whether they reek of some abominable alcoholic concoction.  We do not look on without sorrow or anger when we are shown images of Somalia or Malawi or any country whose GDP is so wretched and inadequate that the only pictures we have of those beautiful nations are on UN relief posters.  And we do not under any circumstances equate liberty with reason, because compassion is the most illogical and irrational emotion in the universe, even more illogical and irrational than love.  Compassion hurts you and helps no one.  You feel miserable and gluttonous and yet there is often nothing you can physically do to abate it, especially in terms of long–term relief for the subject of your pity.  But compassion is liberty, true liberty, it is the freedom to feel irrationally responsible for the misery of the world, and to start to do something about it by changing how you treat people and what you value in life.  Without compassion, we are merely evolutionary wonders, the undisputed champions of adaptation and survival who use elaborate means to do what all animals do: satisfy our urges and stay alive (which is our greatest urge).  
 
And if we love — well then.  Then anything and everything makes sense because we have something stronger than the puppet strings of numbers and theorems, we have our true essence and what we will miss when our days slip into evening.  Will anyone truly miss the hard—won solution to a geometrical problem or the bargain cleverly snapped up after extensive comparative shopping?  Will anyone truly regret not having been more logical with friends and family and believe that they showed them too much emotion and attachment?  Will anyone sincerely smile back on a life whose vital cogs were endless reasonable deductions and evaluations, but which were deductions and evaluations at which anyone, applying that same whitewashing coat of reason, could have arrived?  In what way do cats differ from one another apart from age and basic physical features?  If we also differ in age and physical features, but all reach the same prefabricated conclusions, how have we truly been free? 

A plethora of mathematicians will doubtless claim that there is nothing more liberating than solving or even posing a math problem (I used to agree with them more when I participated in national math tournaments as a child).  Perhaps old mathematicians and logicians do dream of perfect problems and do close their eyes each night grinning at the possibility of several frustrated generations failing to crack their codes.  But they can have their obtuse angles, imaginary numbers, and hebesphenomegacorona, and I will have all of my secret and not–so–secret loves.  Who and what we love, you see, are the characteristics that make us different and truly free.  They can be loved by others, surely, but only we can love in our particular way and for certain particular reasons that come upon on us on a twilight walk through an autumn street kicking through leaves that seem to be there for a reason.  And we love them and feel compassion for them because that is our greatest asset as living beings and what gets us up all those dark mornings. Otherwise, there is nothing to separate us from those amoebae or that lava or those microparticles except billions of years.

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