Saturday, July 30, 2005

On Faith and Love

I've written before that faith has little to do with a belief in unverifiable tenants, in so called "articles of faith', but is instead an essentially optimistic approach to life and other human beings. Rote beliefs in metaphysical or magical propositions are no more than mere superstition, and have little influence on practical considerations. Belief in the afterlife is as likely to encourage the acts of the suicide bomber as it is to encourage altruistic behaviour. Stubborn adherance to the superstition of creationism says little about the ethical character of the believer beyond a tendancy to willful ignorance, itself a major character flaw. Indeed, M. Scott Peck, in People of the Lie, attributes evil to willful ignorance. And unquestioning adherance to the literal word of any scripture is at best ethically neutral. These same works have inspired acts ranging from the selfless devotion of Mother Theresa to the homicidal manias of Charlie Manson. The interpretation of these works says much more, since people will find there what they bring with them. Those seeking the Fellowship of Humanity will find it there, but so will those seeking a justification for whatever crimes they are already inclined to commit.

There is one area in which we are required to make assumptions without proof, and that is in our opinions of people we do not know, and in future outcomes involving unknowns. Faith in human beings has two essential aspects: the trust that they will deal fairly with us, and the confidence that they can do what they say they can. If we habitually assume the worst, we will often find our suspicions justified when those we suspect react to us in kind, or become discouraged by our show of doubt. If we assume the best, we may be disappointed, but we will also be far more likely to encounter the best in others, and we will be more likely to succeed. Pessimists have a more accurate estimate of the outcome, but optimists are more likely to succeed. This may be in part because pessimism both anticipates failure and contributes to it. The pessimist is not disappointed in his expectation of disappointment. But he is also unlikely to take the risk needed to find that rare nugget of gold, that true friend, or that serendipitous discovery. Faith, hope, and charity are in fact different sides of the same thing.

Faith extends to ourselves as well as others, in our confidence in our own abilities. Certainty of failure prevents action; success in any endeavour is prevented because the endeavour is not attempted. This is the paralyzing gaze of the black dog of depression. The concept of grace is that quality of confidence that some have and others lack, which may be rooted in past experience or in brain chemistry. The roots of this faith or doubt in self may lie in psychological or physiological causes. The physiological causes are now coming into view, but the psychological conditions may take a lifetime to unravel, if they can be unraveled at all. It is no wonder, then, that doctors are so willing to prescribe pills, which in some cases may be all that is required to break the cycle.

But this faith in oneself is by no means a necessary or sufficient condition for ethical behaviour. Sociopaths tend to have a rather high estimation of themselves. Self esteem is by no means a guarantee of virtue. Something else is required for this, and that something is love. I am not talking about mere sentimentality here. Sentimentality is the love of person as an object, a construct of imagination in which the person become the mere repository of the wishes and desires of the beholder, a hollow automoton that we paint with our favourite colors. Sentimentality quickly turns to anger and hate when the object in question suddenly reveals themselves to be another messy human being, with all the flaws humans are heir too, and with a will of their own that frustrates our expectations. The romantic perfection promised by our grandiose wedding ceremonies is an illusion. It's one thing to throw a lavish party, it's another to expect the party to last forever. Sentimentality is easy; love is hard work. And marriage is not the only relationship that requires love--to some extent, even the briefest encounters require some measure of it.

Love is the motivation that powers faith, the desire to see the best in others and to accept their imperfections. Love is comprised of three aspects: good will, compassion, and empathy. Good will is the willingness to root for the other person, to take pleasure in their achievements without petty jealousy. A uniform application of good will requires a conquest of one's own ego, the petty, needy desire to be better than others. Compassion is the capacity to forgive and give aid to others in need, a counter to greed and selfishness. In fact, compassion counters greed at the societal level as well--ubiquitous generosity calms the fear of material ruin. If helping hands are there to catch us, we need not spend our lives hording wealth in fear of the spectre of poverty. Generosity encourages generosity in others.

Empathy is the counter to sentimentality, a genuine effort to understand the other person. Without understanding, good deeds are worthless. If I were hungry, I would like a peanut butter sandwich, but that same sandwich would kill someone with a strong allergy to peanuts. A glass of wine might be of great benefit to someone in stress, but if that person is an alcoholic, that glass of wine might destroy them. In order to help someone, you must first take the time to understand them. This means listening rather than assuming, giving them what they need rather than what you think they need. This applies, again, at both the personal and societal level. There have been many aid programs that have done more harm than good, in which money or goods blindly given have supported corrupt governments or harmed the health or economic prospects of the recipients. Charity without empathy is simply an attempt to feel good about ourselves, without any real concern for the recipient of our charity.

All of this demands that the question of evil be faced; how do we deal with those who would be all to willing to take without giving back, those in whom no faith is justified? The answer, I think, is fairly obvious--you give them the benefit of the doubt on your first meeting, and punish or simply avoid them after this if they betray your trust. Researchers have discovered that people will, even at a real cost to themselves, punish others they perceive as having cheated them or others, and the desire to do this seems to be very deeply rooted. This, in fact, is called in game theory optimistic tit-for-tat, and is the best general strategy for the prisoners dilemma. However, it produces negative results when applied against a pessimistic or aggressive strategy. One of the ways to recover from this is a variation that allows optimistic tit-for-tat to forgive periodically, or give two chances rather than one, but that still does not deal with the case of the uniformly aggressive strategy, in which the other person always cheats. Such simple models of game strategy, however, do not take into account that aggressive players eventually get a reputation as such. The number of people willing to give them the benefit of the doubt dwindles as the number of people waiting to exact revenge grows. Eventually, they lose all their winnings.

Contrary to the simplistic philosophy of Star Wars, anger is not always the path to the Dark Side. Simple anger directed at a clear transgression has a corrective effect. Sustained anger does not--this is hatred, and leads to the same aggressive behaviour which loses the game. We have evolved this strong tendency to punish cheating because it threatens not only us, but the entire society upon which we depend. We retaliate against those who betray our trust because they are a threat to our kind, to humanity itself. Consider the value of money. It is in fact, merely a promisary note, ink on paper. We attach value to it based upon our faith that others will make good on it. Money is a magical object. The real currency is the faith we hold in others and our institutions. Each betrayal of trust erodes this faith, threatening the very basis that our money, and our entire society, is based on. People who lie, cheat, and steal are like the Coyote in those old Road Runner cartoons, sawing the board in the middle between himself and cliff, cutting his only means of support. The pathetic thing about most criminals is their incapacity to grasp the consequences of their own actions. And yet, there are many legitimate businessmen who act just within the boundaries of the law, and yet are guilty of the same ignorance. If a critical mass of corruption and distrust is reached, the very money they have sacrificed so much else for will be worth less than the paper it is printed on.

If betrayal of the faith in others for personal gain is evil, the ultimate evil is betrayal of faith for the purpose of destroying faith itself. This is the intent of terrorists. Freedom and responsibility are inseparable; one earns one by demonstrating the other. We extend and defend freedoms as a testament of our faith--real faith, not some inconsequential, childish superstition. There is always the danger that someone will abuse this freedom, but that is the price we are willing to pay. To exploit this freedom in an attempt to destroy it is to declare war on humanity itself. And to do this in the name of God is to declare good evil and evil good.

I do not believe in God. The Muslim extremists better hope I'm right. Because if I'm not, they have declared war on God as well.