Sunday, January 23, 2011

Dividing by faith

Oh, little children, I believe
I'm a Methodist till I die
I'm a Methodist, Methodist, 'tis my belief
I'm a Methodist till I die
Till old grim death comes a-knocking at the door
I'm a Methodist till I die

The author Robert Pirsig traces his collapse into madness to a casual statement by a colleague, that "they don't teach quality any more." I've had many, and because I'm not schizophrenic, they are far less bathic descents that quickly float back up like Queequeg's coffin. Like Job, I've escaped to entertain thee and I won't be talking about motorcycles, the doctrine of transubstantiation or the Metaphysics of Quality. It's been done. This is about bumper stickers -- the ones that come in colors and proclaim:

I continue to see these stickers on cars, proclaiming the concept of belief as a virtue and by the fact that it is being so advertised; a virtue that in some way is meaningful to advertise. Like all philosophies and especially those condensed into two words, it conceals a philosophy. Like all words Believe is a prejudice.

So let's ask what qualities define belief and make it something to wave like a banner? Does it need any, is the quality of all belief the same and indeed can the nature of belief have a quality beyond the nature of the belief?

I can guess, knowing some of the people to whose vehicles the stickers are attached, that it's an advertisement for some specific assertion and that it's a religious assertion and that it's displayed as a rebuttal. I say this because there's so often some specific attention being payed to a challenge; a real or fabricated challenge to a religious proposition or assertion that is congruent to the cyclical outbreaks of these printed adhesive credos available on line for $4 plus postage. Every time it's Christmas, every time someone complains about his kid having to say "under God," every time someone repeats Washington's and Jefferson's claim that ours is not a Christian Nation and needs to remain so, out come the stickers. Thus, I have reason to doubt that the thing behind the assertion of belief is the natural born citizenship of Barack Obama, the antiestablishmentarian nature of our Constitution or confidence in the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.

Many of the vehicles do have other stickers advertising themes and shibboleths of the religious right such as the chrome fish and the logos of football teams and motorcycle manufacturers. But of course I BELIEVE does not specifically say that the owner of the vehicle believes in Krishna as the Lord of Light or Osiris as the ruler of the underworld: that he likes Harley-Davidsons and the 'Gators' is beyond the scope of this investigation and its doubts. Nonetheless, I have some degree of confidence that I know what the sticker means.

So is it belief as a virtue of absolute value in and of itself that is to be applauded or is it the specific nature or quality of the belief? Perhaps the ambiguous silence of a sticker is a way to avoid the explanation that might be required by an inquisitive intellectual, should one be found in these parts. As any belief, abstract or specific, rational or irrational; any disbelief in fact can equally be expressed by I BELIEVE , the probability of a specific credo justifying the immodest bit of sticky-backed braggadocio is strengthened if not proven.

Let's propose that I believe there are no spirits or gods or souls and no purpose to existence that concerns us in any way. Can we say that belief then has only an absolute value and the polarity, the direction, the vector is meaningless? Perhaps I've shown that to be logically true but still, owners of sticker emblazoned trucks will not think so.

No, it's a particular belief or set including certain beliefs that is virtuous to a degree to specific individuals and sets of individuals -- and others to a different degree. Have I shown that belief as belief can have any value and so must be as un-virtuous as it is virtuous? If there can be an equal and yet opposite belief to any belief one can assert, it must be so.

If, of course the vehicular assertion is not to be applauded, or at least not universally to be applauded, one has to consider that it's intended to be an affront, a rebuttal to one or many who do not believe in general or in a specific proposition. It could be intended both ways, making it serve as a tribal totem distinguishing between those who do and those who do not: a more literate and up-to-date version of the untrimmed beard, unusual dress or even circumcision.

I'm different because I believe and because I'm proud of it, I say I'm better because I BELIEVE. That would of course make a specific belief, or as some prefer to say 'belief system' a test of virtue and of membership. Does belief , if belief has all possible values, allow everyone into the group of believers? It does not, only belief that lies substantially within that system or universe will do. Again we see that I BELIEVE has no value independent of the content of the belief. The virtue to be proud of lies not in the believing itself.

So it's likely, I should think, that the virtue of the virtue lies in the object of faith; the specifics and not the faith itself even though some seem to think of faith in and of itself as being worthwhile and not necessarily only virtuous by virtue of the content. One has to ask, would the faith promoter see virtue independently and I suggest that the simple substitution of objects would produce at least a spectrum, a ranking of value. Is faith that Refafu will make the rain stop or that we hear the hammers of Thor in the storm or that Jesus is Lord whatever that means, the same as faith that there is an intelligence behind the universe or behind the manifestations of existence? And of course, can we rank faith by it's intensity? Am I better if I'm willing to die so as not to contradict my faith or allow anyone else to contradict it. Am I best if I'll kill you to stop contradiction? Martyr or madman, it depends on whether it's your belief or some other. I suspect that here again, the virtue of the virtue is a virtue that hinges on the personal faith of the faithful. Both faith and belief can and so do have all possible values, ranks and properties.

Indeed can we say that one belief is better than another if all belief is beyond any comparison that involves observable demonstrations? At least one common belief is that God cannot be tested -- at least not successfully -- and of course most religious beliefs cannot be successfully exposed to experiment. We can't show that prayer works in any unambiguous way. The weather is what it is, justice is what we make it and even if you postulate that God is behind our sense of justice, we can't demonstrate it as God is so often used to support injustice and there are more convincing arguments for it from other sources.

There are no valid proofs of the existence of anyone to pray to and all attempts I have yet seen to prove any god would, if not essentially fallacious, prove an infinite number with infinitely different attributes. How then can we assign relative values to belief in divinities; one or many?

Dividing us by faith, by belief, whether by the existence of these or the nature of these is the virtue of putting an I BELIEVE sticker on your car. Further, since no one would be putting an advertisement for inferiority on his property, it's an assertion of superiority; an assertion that seems to fit the definition of vanity and indeed, if any belief will do, a gratuitous vanity. If only one belief will do, it's still a self appointed vanity since belief is optional if we are rational. If we are not rational, why are you reading this? I'm better if I believe in anything and I'm better still because I choose to believe in the divinity of a mythological figure, but at any rate, whether it's Jesus or John the Baptist, I'm at least one of the better sort.

When we divide by belief, are we dividing by zero? Well, when the denominator decreases in value or absolute value, the result approaches the infinite: approaches all values. Can I say that the attempt to divide us by something of no determinable relative value results in a meaningless number? I think I just did. To get back to Heisenberg; back to things that are beyond the need for belief or faith, the only universal certainty is that the more of it we ask for, the less we can possibly have and there's no way around it. It's not faith, it's the law.

Tat Tvam Asi.
You are that you are, no more, no less -- and that applies, I think, to everything else that is. The sticky piece of plastic ruining the finish on your car makes you no different than the convictions it pleases you to have and nothing you do and nothing you believe extends to the world outside your head. How you treat other people will however.

All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.
This is the law,
Ancient and inexhaustible.
You too shall pass away.
Knowing this, how can you quarrel?

-The Dhammapada-


RR said...

One of the biggest coup's perpetrated on the mind of modern man: convincing a substantial part of the American public that faith is 'virtuous'.

With all of the evidence all around us that the scientific method -- based on data, evidence and reason -- works, and that faith is a disaster, you'd think people would glean the obvious...

Maybe thinking critically about some nonsense uttered by authority figures is simply too much for a large portion of our society. Besides, it feels so good.

Capt. Fogg said...

If faith were virtuous, independent of the content, then faith in the devil would be virtuous. Elementary logic would seem to agree.

I think it takes more virtue to accept the uncomfortable truth, and in the long run that truth will reduce us all to ashes and expanding gas clouds.

d nova said...

i believe 4 every drop of rain that falls a flower, wait, that's nuts. i believe tomato(e?)s are nutritious.