Sunday, June 4, 2017

Reason, Faith, and the Authentic Self

In a society dependent on technoscientific progress, the conflict between faith and reason is liable to be underestimated, due to a rationalist bias. Faith or intuition will be interpreted as an inferior form of cognition, the assumption being that knowledge is the ultimate goal of both science and religion or art. But this rationalist interpretation understates the magnitude of the conflict.

Reason versus Faith

Reason has mostly been a weapon we’ve deployed against obstacles in the social and natural environments: we devise hypothetical models and test them to discover regularities we can exploit. The problem is that the regularities we find in most of the world are perfectly inhuman. The more we exercised reason to know what nature is and how it works, the more we had to doubt our intuitions and our comforting self-image. To take the most glaring example, the natural world we observed, measured and modeled got larger and older, the more objectively we examined it. We once thought we were at the center of a universe that consisted only of our solar system, and that the universe began only “days” before our arrival in the animal kingdom, just several thousand years ago, as the biblical Creation myth speculates. Now we know the universe is unimaginably larger and older than that, consisting of trillions of galaxies and having begun billions of years ago. And that’s just the observable universe. Natural reality includes dark energy and matter, which dwarf the universe as we experience it. Plus, there may be a multiverse which dwarfs even that vaster universe.  

In fact, the smart money is on meta-cynicism. Anthropocentrism has been proven wrong at every turn, and so we can induce that the end of human knowledge will be some supremely negative form of self-effacing anti-humanism. If you want to picture the most rational worldview, you should begin by imagining a monstrous form of objectivity, such as the kind we attribute to the baddies in science fiction, to the indifferent aliens or to the cold and calculating robots. This objectivity devours every precious illusion, including all the life-preserving myths and fairytales that nurture our pride in the human enterprise. But objectivity doesn’t stop there, as indicated by its postmodern, deconstructive phase. Reason embarrasses the life-affirming emotions and intuitions, but it eventually turns on itself so that science and knowledge in general become de-sentimentalized. Knowledge turns out not to be a tool or a weapon, after all, but something like a black hole that negates everything in its path, finally devouring itself. Reason is for understanding the world, but in standing under or apart from phenomena, as we learn to detach from them to see them as they really are, we learn to do the same for ourselves. As a result, the Cartesian divide is undone and the posthuman vision is of a natural universe of amoral, inhuman processes that can’t exactly be affirmed as such, since reason ultimately reveals the world to be indifferent to meaning, truth, value, and other such anthropocentric illusions. The universe as we objectively present it to ourselves is utterly inhospitable, a source of horror or anxiety for enlightened creatures. 

The honourary saint of Reason is thus the devil, beginning with Prometheus or the serpent of Eden whom the Gnostics revered as the first skeptic and truth-teller, because he subverted the shaky divine order as it was naively intuited by the animal slaves that adhered to Yahweh’s commandments. The serpent warned Adam and Eve that their creator was tricking them and holding them back, whereas they had the power to investigate and to exploit natural processes to their advantage. But Reason as symbolized by the nay-saying serpent turned out to be cursed, since the cost of knowledge is death, the banishment from the paradise that the world seemed to be when we encountered it in our innocence as a young species. (We still perceive the world to be a magical paradise when we’re children and don’t know better.) The mythical character Satan became the cynic who challenged Yahweh with doubts as to whether Creation was as magnificent as it seemed, as in the Book of Job. In the New Testament, the devil is demonized, because Christianity began as a barbaric, anti-intellectual form of Judaism that obliged everyone not only to moderate our behaviour but to think as children and to banish ungodly thoughts, to avoid everlasting punishment. Failing those superhuman feats, believers merely had to worship Jesus in a cult of personality to be saved from original sin and from the other flaws of Creation, in a new world to come at the cataclysmic end of time.

Early, radical Christianity thus stood for faith against reason, for delusional happiness that’s opposed to the civilized project of our becoming godlike masters of nature, thanks largely to our rational powers of inquiry. But Christianity was coopted by the Roman Empire and thus came to serve the secular interests that terminate in barely-conceivable, posthuman nihilism. Thus, Christian theologians developed systematic arguments for theism and for the Church’s compromised social policies. Christians thought they could prove their doctrines by citing this or that biblical passage, taken out of historical context in the familiar, pseudoscientific (literalistic) manner. With its dubious claim to offer an all-embracing system for submitting to God, Islam compounds this twisted rationalism so that the self-annihilation practiced by Islamist terrorists is indeed a fitting symbol of the nihilism inherent in any attempt to rationally justify a worldview. Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism likewise make their peace with reason, offering arguments, explanations, and systematic analyses in their theologies, although Hinduism and Buddhism are more up-front about the nihilistic consequences of enlightenment. Nirvana, for example, is a state of mental nothingness that happens after the self is extinguished, that is, after the thought routines are allowed to come and go un-anchored to any mythical underlying ego.

The Zen Buddhist explicitly criticizes reason’s role in our suffering, since reason is supposed to serve the illusion of a self that stands apart from the world in an objective mindframe. Instead, says this Buddhist, we’re all already enlightened and have only to be shocked into recognizing the mystical truth that hides in plain sight. But this criticism of reason is misplaced. The illusions of ego are sustained by faith, emotion, and myths, not by objectivity. As I said, reason eventually devours itself and bridges the Cartesian divide, leaving us with the horrific monism that drives so-called enlightened mystics from all the world’s religions to madness and to act out as sociopathic narcissists who tyrannize their flocks. There’s also the experience of metaphysical oneness, achieved through meditation and a conditioning of self-consciousness, but this form of enlightenment should be impossible without the preparatory work of instrumental rationality, which guides the practitioner to seek to dispense with delusions and to meditate as a means of achieving the goal of awakening to reality.    

But to return to the main theme, if rational inquiry ends in posthuman (anti-humanistic) nihilism, religious faith and the artist’s trust in her muse are conservative preferences for a happy way of life that’s undignified and insufferable from the enlightened viewpoint. This is the post-Nietzschean scope of the clash between reason and faith. Through technoscience, reason brings death to all living things, as the haphazard evolution of organisms gives way to the intelligent design of machines. But reason also brings the death of the humanist’s self-image, since the enlightened soul learns to view herself as the rest of nature “views” her, as a pointless triviality. By contrast, faith, that is, the set of intuitions and sentiments that drive most religions and artistic expressions is a precondition for a way of life that seems worthwhile to the one living it. To live “well,” without stultifying self-consciousness as informed by inhuman objectivity, you need to believe in yourself, your nation, and your species. You need to trust the mega-fictions (noble lies) that bind us together in our overpopulated oases from the undead wilderness.

When God “died,” after the old myths lost their power to enchant, thanks to the Scientific Revolution’s shake-up of the Western power hierarchies, the demonization of reason likewise lost its force. But reason is essentially demonic and the enlightened few are well-conceived of as alien interlopers, although the popular astrotheological conspiracy theories aren't rationally compelling. What’s paramount is the foreshadowing symbol of power elites as cold-blooded lizard demons. Those most affected by inhuman reason are merely clever primates, biologically speaking, but psychologically and ethically these rationalists are on their way to a posthuman outlook, in which case they might as well be the Illuminati aliens or David Icke’s reptilian demons. No one’s proved that the privileged few who capitalize on technoscience are extraterrestrial monsters, but we do seem to intuit that our destiny is to become such pitiful creatures. We feel we’re heading towards a certain future and we project our fear in the form of a sci-fi myth.

Personal Authenticity: the Meeting of Reason and Faith

What, then, is at the root of this clash between reason and faith? What are the processes that pull us in such opposite directions? Reason likely evolved for limited purposes, but once unleashed by self-consciousness, as in ancient Greece, the Buddhist reformation of Hinduism, or the Scientific Revolution, reason in the sense of unflinching objectivity seems to be a self-destructive, countervailing force, empowering our clever species to annihilate all life. When we objectify, when we demystify the world and see past our prejudices and projections, we become as monstrous as the godless universe we behold. Reason unites us with reality, not in some blissful transcendence or lame relation of semantic agreement, but by laying waste to the fictions that separate us from the world of lifeless facts, by skewering our na├»ve self-image and automating our behaviour as we lose confidence in our unconscious, gut reactions or irrational sources of inspiration. We who live under Reason’s shadow seek proof and quantified evidence to force the conclusion, and we will ourselves to perform our duty; we thus turn from subjects into objects, mirroring the lifeless phenomena that flow according to natural “law” which is no law at all, the anthropocentric metaphor notwithstanding. Natural events are forced, just as rational inferences are necessitated by the “laws” of reason which reduce to the pragmatic interest in discovering reliable instruments to increase our power. As texts on critical thinking attest, the ultimate value of logic is its reliability in helping us succeed in instrumentally rational (pragmatic) terms; that is, logic is more likely to get us what we want than, say, mentally disordered, delusional thinking.

Faith, intuition, emotion, and unconscious inspiration also evolved to fulfill limited evolutionary functions. But again, in their advanced forms, these are brakes on our rational union with the nothingness inherent in nature. A familiar example is religious fundamentalism. The fundamentalist is caught up in a cultural backlash, in a degrading tribalism that’s wholly explainable in ethological terms, in which case the fundamentalist has reverted to a subhuman way of life. Religious faith dictates all manner of outrageous lifestyles to prove tribal loyalty, typically rationalizing patriarchal or otherwise tyrannical systems in a sordid con that exploits our existential fears. While pretending to celebrate our alleged transcendent spirits, the fundamentalist’s cult solidifies an earthly power structure that operates according to natural rather than supernatural principles. But more tellingly, fundamentalism, or literalistic religious belief, is condemned for its stubborn irrationality, its blinkered opposition to technoscientific progress, and its physical destruction of modern civilization in the case of religious terrorism. The fundamentalist is supposed to fail to appreciate Reason’s myriad improvements to human life, such as the medical technologies that increase our lifespan or the countless engineered products that elevate our living standard, such as the automobile and the internet.

This latter point about regression, though, is analytically short-sighted. Notice how livestock are cared for in the interim before they’re slaughtered. We’re happy in our artificial retreat from the animal’s struggle in the wilderness, in that we’re self-empowered and don’t have to fear an early and violent death around every corner. But that narrow happiness blinds us to the greater event unfolding—which is the annihilation of life in general on behalf of machines whose objectivity more nearly matches the undeadness of physical reality. The consumer’s bliss is a distraction, like the addict’s fleeting pleasure which allows the underlying disorder or vice to destroy her. In secular liberal society, we’re all more or less feminized and infantilized, and we rationalize the degradations that accompany our techno empowerment, because we reason that we’d much prefer modern civilization, with all its costs, to the so-called state of nature. If, however, we lose our inner selves in our struggle for status and civilized pleasure; if our urge to seem normal rather than deviant in our competitive dominance hierarchies turns us into mediocrities, while the sophisticated power elites lose their humanity in turn, due to corruption and thus an onset of sociopathy; if happiness is construed as requiring extroversion and materialism, which destroy the inner life and surrender the individual’s power to large corporations which exploit technoscience to enslave the mass of consumers with pharmaceuticals, fast food, and other addictions, then that conservative defense of so-called advanced or developed society rests on an illusion. Instead of distinguishing ourselves from nature, we rational, modern consumers are caught in the grip of a natural retrenchment that uses animal pleasures to mollify us so that the unholy work might proceed.

In either case, then, pure reason or pure faith leads to disaster. Objectivity poises us to snuff out the anomalies of life and self-awareness, while faith enthralls us to delusions, preparing us to be manipulated in a religious fraud or tainting our happiness with dishonour. This latter point, though, opens up the possibility of a paradoxical intermingling of reason and faith which we should call existential authenticity. The enduring problem with irrationality isn’t that it stands in the way of rational progress, since as I’ve said and as has been recognized since the Romantics and the Frankfurt School, that progress is an illusion. Instead, the problem is aesthetic and ethical: irrationality in a species with a gift for discovering the truth is a disgusting waste and a mark of shameful cowardice since the philosophical and scientific truth happens to be unpleasant.

Take, for example, the infamous geneticist, Francis Collins, who excels as a scientist even while he fervently espouses evangelical Christianity. Collins’ explanations of the compatibility of his commitment to scientific methods of inquiry and his subservience to anachronistic dogma and faith-based revelation are notable only for their lameness. Collins writes, “But reason alone cannot prove the existence of God. Faith is reason plus revelation, and the revelation part requires one to think with the spirit as well as with the mind. You have to hear the music, not just read the notes on the page. Ultimately, a leap of faith is required.” The notion of a “leap of faith” is an allusion to Kierkegaard, but no Christian has read Kierkegaard deeply, who goes on to write such boilerplate as this:
For me, that leap came in my 27th year, after a search to learn more about God's character led me to the person of Jesus Christ. Here was a person with remarkably strong historical evidence of his life, who made astounding statements about loving your neighbor, and whose claims about being God's son seemed to demand a decision about whether he was deluded or the real thing. After resisting for nearly two years, I found it impossible to go on living in such a state of uncertainty, and I became a follower of Jesus.
That passage is just evangelical propaganda which follows a template as opposed to being evidence that Collins has wrestled, in “fear and trembling,” with the intolerable absurdity of religious faith, with the facts that the leap subverts the comforts of Christendom and that Christ-like individuals must be outcasts who are paralyzed, like Jesus on the cross, by the knowledge that the paradoxical meeting of God and mortal creatures would have to be appalling.

According to the Christian myth, wayward humans executed God, but God used their sin as the mechanism for our redemption, since God’s death became a sacrifice to save us from spiritual death. But that tidy bit of systematic theology, which Kierkegaard would have called Hegelianism, misses the point that religion isn’t supposed to be rational, that the spiritual life can’t be reconciled with secular concerns. On an existential reading, which assumes that reason and faith are at odds and that that conflict produces in anyone with intellectual integrity the pains of angst, horror, or awe, the essence of Christianity isn’t that God literally became a human male at a particular moment in history. Instead, it’s that God’s stay on earth would be untenable, which is why the character Jesus didn’t fit into Jewish or Roman society, why he was ironically executed in horrific fashion, and why his followers soon betrayed his absolutist principles and settled for the compromises of institutional Christianity which rationalize the anti-spiritual exigencies of worldly empires. The long history of the Church’s abuse of power is itself striking proof that faith and reason are at odds, since the Church lost its faith when, thanks to the delayed end of time, the Jesus cult had to live with and thus to excuse the merely rational (and thus typically amoral) affairs of politics and business.

By contrast, personal authenticity would involve an agonizing blend of reason and faith. We would have to understand the unsettling truth that religions are all wrong when taken literally, and that nature isn’t how we would prefer it to be, which is why the ancient animists pretended nature is full of life and why we likewise can’t abide the wilderness, given its manifest indifference to life, but replace it with cities and cultures. Yet we’d also have to resort to faith or to some form of irrationality, to avoid suicide or debilitating anxiety or depression. Contrary to Jung, the psychological ideal isn’t personal wholeness or the unification of all elements of the personality, but the honourable struggle to improvise some beautiful tragedy in the wake of nature’s attempt to undo the anomalies of life and consciousness. 


  1. "What are we to make of creation in which routine activity is for organisms to be tearing others apart with teeth of all types - biting, grinding flesh, plant stalks, bones between molars, pushing the pulp greedily down the gullet with delight, incorporating its essence into one’s own organization, and then excreting with foul stench and gasses residue. Everyone reaching out to incorporate others who are edible to him. The mosquitoes bloating themselves on blood, the maggots, the killer-bees attacking with a fury and a demonism, sharks continuing to tear and swallow while their own innards are being torn out - not to mention the daily dismemberment and slaughter in “natural” accidents of all types: an earthquake buries alive 70 thousand bodies in Peru, a tidal wave washes over a quarter of a million in the Indian Ocean. Creation is a nightmare spectacular taking place on a planet that has been soaked for hundreds of millions of years in the blood of all creatures. The soberest conclusion that we could make about what has actually been taking place on the planet about three billion years is that it is being turned into a vast pit of fertilizer. But the sun distracts our attention, always baking the blood dry, making things grow over it, and with its warmth giving the hope that comes with the organism’s comfort and expansiveness."

    Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death

    1. Becker and I are certainly on the same wavelength, for the most part, although I think he waffles a bit on whether mental disorders should be understood in normative terms. I've got a couple of his other books too, and I'm especially looking forward to reading Escape from Evil.

    2. David Benatar has a new book out. The Human Predicament: A Candid Guide to Life's Biggest Questions.

    3. The book looks interesting. Thanks for the link.

  2. Thanks for your rant, Ben. You seem to be calling for rationalists to acknowledge or value faith in the process of living/dying. Not sure if I interpreted your rant accurately. What example(s) are there of your ideal or philosophical blend of reason and faith?

    1. Scott, I've written about this in other places on my blog. See, for example, the links below. The point I wanted to get across here is that, yes, some form of faith or irrationality, broadly speaking, is needed to avoid insanity or suicide. This is why I argue against scientism and the hyperrational presumptions of some formulations of secular humanism. I agree with Hume, Nietzsche, and the existentialists on this point, that a worthwhile life won't be entirely rational.

      Not all resorts to irrationality (to faith, intuition, emotion, or imagination) are equal; in particular, some fail aesthetic or ethical tests of valor. For example, there's typically a lot of hypocrisy around issues of sex, as I've discussed elsewhere on RWUG.

      But as for an ideal co-mingling of faith and reason, or of humanization and objectification, I rather like the portrait of the last leader in Olaf Stapledon's novel, Last and First Men, which I discuss here:

      The scene is of the imminent end of the human species and most people are depressed, of course, but a leader arises to lift their spirits. This leader shows a grim sort of bravery rather than just a cheap denial of reality, as in exoteric theistic religion.

      If you're looking for a real-life example, I suspect we all display moments of authenticity now and again, when we acknowledge some unpleasant reality and creatively overcome it by circumventing reason and appealing to some nonrational source of inspiration. More often than not, though, we swing back and forth between the extremes of pure objectivity and pure delusion.

      The ideal requires a kind of split personality, since the neural modules involved are independent. We have to understand the unpleasant facts of nature while finding a purpose that makes for a worthwhile life, even while we deny ourselves the luxury of our self-serving illusions about that purpose. Our projects that give meaning to life are mere human creations, having no metaphysical glory or absolute importance (contrary to Spinoza and thus perhaps to the leader's philosophy in that scene in Stapledon's book).

    2. Here's an interesting interview with Dan Harmon, which takes up this question of how life can be meaningful, given inhuman objectivity. I recommend Harmon's great existential SF show, Rick and Morty. It's likely the most philosophical visual work of science fiction to have come along for some decades.

  3. please keep writing....thanks for your posts. that is all

    1. Thanks! I do intend to keep writing.