Friday, February 25, 2011

Determination and Conscience

In the eulogy that I wrote for my father, I said that while determination may make bullies of us all, conscience makes cowards of us all. The second half is from Macbeth, and while the character was hardly a reliable witness, I think Shakespeare was right. W. B. Yeats echoes this in The Second Coming: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst \ Are full of passionate intensity." He is almost certainly talking about conscientious people as the best, and ideologues as the worst. Ideologues are but the latest incarnation of men of certainty--the type that founded our religions and most of the major political movements.

Of course, there have been lot of bad religions and political changes. "I beseech you in the bowels of Christ to consider that you may be wrong", said Oliver Cromwell, yet he seemed to be immune to second thoughts himself, and scarcely ever considered himself wrong. Cromwell was one of the lowest points in English political history--he beheaded Charles I, became king in all but name, and employed his New Model Army to impose draconian policies both in England and in Ireland, even abolishing Christmas. If you are determined to change the world, the last thing you can afford is cowardice. If your intention is to be the overman, you cannot afford doubt, unless it is about the opinions of others. The conscientious, on the other hand, sometimes harbour doubts only about their own opinions.

And yet, if it is disastrous never to question yourself, it is equally disastrous, if not outright immoral, to be paralysed in the face of opposition. There is evil in the world, and opposing it requires that we take a stand, even if we cannot be certain of all the details. But certainty is an unrealistically high standard; human beings never really get to be certain about anything. Many try to finesse this certainty by invoking God, but this is no more than projecting their own beliefs onto the stars. For while they may convince themselves that they are acting upon the standards of their faith, it is they that choose the religion, the pastor, minister, imam, or guru, the interpretation, and they who choose which parts they like, and which doctrines they discard. All religion is a la carte. In the end, it's just us.

And yet, we are social creatures. We have evolved moral instincts which are shy on particulars at the outset, but are quite emotionally demanding, because they are instincts which encourage us to live harmoniously with other human beings--a minimum requirement for human survival. We despise injustice, cruelty, dishonesty, and selfishness, particularly when we suffer it, and we value truth, beauty, justice, and mercy. These are what we need to live, and we appreciate those who act in accordance with them, and will punish, even at our own expense, those who violate them. We are not rational self-interested actors, however much some economists might suggest we are. We will often go out of our way to punish those who transgress against these values. Through the medium of culture we have reflected en masse through the centuries upon these core sentiments and have arrived at principles which we believe best express and support them.

These advances are neither individually nor culturally relative. Human nature and human circumstances are real and non-negotiable. Years ago I read Satre and thought him great and wise; I recently re-read excerpts of Being and Nothingness and realized that, like much of late 20th century continental philosophy, it all hung upon the assumption of the blank slate, the conviction that there is nothing fixed in human nature. This is false, and so the whole edifice collapsed before my eyes. We are done with Sartre and the relativists. But that does not mean that anyone has the final answer, the perfect solution--nor should anyone be required to. Certainty breeds monstrosities, but neurotic perfectionism is a self-indulgence we cannot afford.

The West now seems transfixed in a state of moral cowardice. Embarrassed by our less than perfect past, we forget that other people in other cultures may be planning a less than perfect future. Many in the West are transfixed by the accusation of Islamophobia, forgetting that the egotism of Mohammud has held an entire culture locked in place for a thousand years that could have been better spent learning about themselves and the world. China and the Middle East have not given up on the idea of a colonial empire--they are buying up arable land in substandard Africa. What will the Africans eat? Nothing. We are on the brink of the worst genocide of human history, because millions of conscientious hand wringers cannot be bothered to look beyond their own navel.

The most assertive figures remain the ideologues; people who start out with a fixed idea and stick to it no matter what. When the facts come in, they are suspect, the work of a conspiracy; the more compelling the evidence, the bigger the conspiracy. Ideologues are at war with reality. In Canada, we now have a government that wants to shut down Statistics Canada, and is at war with our Public Service because they don't like their recommendations. They are convinced that these people have a liberal bias, but as Stephen Colbert quipped, the facts have a liberal bias. No one can win a war with reality, and not only is the cost of waging such a war prohibitive, but everything spent in it is lost.

In service to this war on reality we have a war on science, often justified by appealing to Thomas Khun's theories on scientific revolutions. But Khun was wrong. Science does not change by radical paradigm shifts, throwing everything away. Even Copernicus himself did not fit this pattern; he maintained the Ptolemaic idea of orbits, simply swapping the Sun and the Earth in the scheme. Galileo built on Copernicus, Newton on Galileo, Laplace on Newton, and Einstein on Laplace and Newton. The relativistic and quantum terms vanish on scales of the middle world--nearly all engineering applications still rely entirely on Newtonian physics. Only in extremely large or small scales do we need the mathematics of relativity or quantum mechanics. If we see far, it is because we stand on the shoulders of giants. Khun implies that nothing needs to be known of the achievements of the past, because all can be swept away in a heart beat.

Epistemological relativism is attractive because it allows the ignorant to claim equal footing with the educated. It's another form of the blank slate; everyone starts from scratch, so anyone can spin theories to their heart's content and demand equal time. But reality is no myth. "I am who am" says the God of the Old Testament--in other words, I am reality. Note that this is not the same as saying God is real--that is an invitation to invent reality, rather than taking it as it is and understanding it. To say that something is real is simply to assert the reality of something regardless of its essence, but to say that something is reality is to define that essence. Religion was an attempt to put a human face on reality, but the mask won't stay put. What has not changed is that reality is still as cantankerous and destructive as ever when ignored, as vengeful as Old Jehovah. Any attempt to create your own reality, however determined, will fail if you ignore the truth.