Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Lazy Reason

Defenders of civil rights, like defenders of the environment, are at a rhetorical disadvantage. So long as they succeed in preserving the guarantees of the Bill of Rights, it will be possible to assert or imply that there never had been a serious threat to anybody’s liberty, just as the fact that nothing very dire happened at the turn of the millennium is routinely used as evidence that the preparations that prevented Y2K problems had been unnecessary in the first place. In the eras of the Alien and Sedition Acts, the Red Scare, and McCarthyism, however, threats to our rights were only thwarted after a protracted struggle led by determined politicians, lawyers, and journalists who had to withstand abuse, official oppression, and sometimes violence. There was nothing preordained about who was going to win these struggles, either, as witness the fact that some of the battles went the other way as in the episode in which the South instituted the Jim Crow laws.

Whatever physics rules the history of mankind, it is rather more complicated than simple harmonic motion. Unlike a pendulum whose steady beat results from the operation of an automatic restoring force, the cycles of repression and freedom are mediated through the intelligent—or unintelligent—action of individuals. That’s a very scary fact. Blasting down Interstate 5, it’s comforting to think that the semi ahead of you stays in the lane through the operation of some sort of gyrostatic stabilizer instead of the occult operation of a human brain; but we know perfectly well that those thousands of pounds of metal would quickly veer off the road or crash into your Mustang absent the continual intervention of the driver. Of course, from a purely statistical point of view, the human nervous system is usually up to the task of steering a car. Indeed, its complexity probably makes it more rather than less reliable than a simple feedback system. Nevertheless, we prefer not to dwell on the way in which the functioning of the world depends upon the care of human beings and not some imaginary thermostat. Besides, to revert to the political sphere, the notion that excess automatically corrects itself provides an effective apology for complacency. Worse than that, it licenses those who attack civil liberties and democracy because those who indulge their sweet tooth for authoritarianism secretly believe that they’ll be restrained before they go to far.
Words at Work

Georges Bataille, the French philosopher, novelist, and pornographer, used to talk about the "job" of a word, not what it means or what it refers to but what it is used for. Like many other theological words, spirituality doesn't have very much to offer on a conceptual level--nobody is very interested in specifying what it denotes--but many people obviously find it useful.

Sometimes people appeal to spirituality as a way of complaining about the narrowness of the scientific outlook. Even the most souless secularist can certainly sympathize with that. To listen to the rhetoric of pan-scientism, you'd have to conclude that its supporters are unaware that science is a vanishingly tiny fraction of human experience. The question was asked "have you ever had an experience that you could not scientifically explain?" as if it weren't obvious that almost every experience is not reducible to some sort of scientific explanation--"spiritual" experience, which always seems to be exemplified by sighing at a beautiful vista, is nothing extraordinary in this regard. Most of what we do—hoping, enjoying, hurting, arguing, sympathizing, cursing, laughing, trying, playing—isn't captured by the sciences and can't be, not because of some defect of science but because science is about knowing about things in a particular way while living is comprised of all the ways we do and suffer. One can imagine an explanation of a joke that accurately and adequately described it in terms of atoms and void, but the explanation wouldn't be funny. Category mistake. The best screwdriver in the world is a lousy adverb.

Another job of "spirituality" is less complicated. One insists on possessing spirituality as a no-fuss, shorthand way of asserting "I am not a philistine." If most of these folks really weren't philistines, however, you'd think their spirituality would amount to more than a verbal gesture about oneness with the all. Except for the odd mystic, however, who spends appreciable time communing the cosmos anyhow? Well, experiencing the unity of all things has this much going for it: it requires no complicated or expensive equipment or time-consuming training, you can do it anywhere, and nobody can prove you're faking it.

One small cavil: it's cheating to think that the absence of spirits is an objection to spirituality since the whole point of claiming that you're a spiritual person, as opposed, for example, to a Methodist, is that vaguing things out gets around the necessity of making unlikely empirical claims about the reality of ghosts or angels. That's part of the job of "spirituality."