CURIOSITY: The desire to enlarge oneself is the desire to embrace
BIOGRAPHY | RATIONALE
“I am waiting for someone to really discover America and wail / and I am waiting for the discovery of a new symbolic western frontier / and I am perpetually awaiting a rebirth of wonder.” — Lawrence Ferlinghetti, “I Am Waiting”
“Great doubt: great awakening. Little doubt: little awakening.
I am an avid reader of philosophy, psychology, essays and literature; a writer of e-mail essays, which sometimes go out to a news group of about 40 people or are posted directly to this Web site; also a journal writer for 22 years, occasional book reviewer, former teacher and onetime newspaper columnist. Currently an assistant news editor at The Cleveland Plain Dealer, and today I am celebrating 10 years of freedom from an impossible marriage, which showed me as much as anything that passionate certainty is more likely a byprodouct of personal psychology than factual knowledge.
IDEAS OF ORDER
This Web site is called Rumors of Order because it explores the nature of belief, the consequences of certainty and the problems of literalism as they play out in personal interaction or eventuate in systems that claim to describe the ultimate, timeless order of the world and lay down absolute rules and practices for us to follow. This Web site sees literalism, certainty and the glorification of order as the final expression of simple habit, or of cherished metaphysical beliefs, or of disowned psychological factors unjustified by divine intervention, cosmic truth, personal experience, right thinking or “the facts.”
David Bohm says, “Throughout history there has been a succession of world views; that is, general notions of cosmic order, and the nature of reality as a whole. Each of these views has expressed the essential spirit of its time, and each of them in its turn, has had profound effects on the individual, and on society as a whole. ... These effects were multiple in nature, but among them, one of the most significant is notions of universal order.” Such notions of order — unproved as they remain — are thereby hopes, dreams, fears, theories and ideas: rumors of order.
The Web site theme is summed up in this quote from Henry Miller: “It should be borne in mind, of course, that there is an inevitable discrepancy between the truth of the matter and what one thinks — even about himself.” William James said it this way: “Objective evidence and certitude are doubtless very fine ideals to play with, but where on this moonlit and dream-visited planet are they found?” Milan Kundera offers this perspective: “It is precisely in losing the certainty of truth and the unanimous agreement of others that man becomes an individual. The novel is the imaginary paradise of individuals.”
While reading books and writing about them come first, watching movies and writing about them is second. It is often stunning how expertly a movie presents a philosophical idea or enacts a psychological theory. Watch “Chinatown” or “12 Angry Men” or “The Truman Show” or “Damage” or “Adaptation” or “Black Robe” and you'll see what I mean.
By the numbers: Nine years in college; four degrees from The Ohio State University; two fellowships; two national honor societies; 22 years as a journalist; and five years as a teacher. But still a student at heart, still wondering about the big questions, not willing to embrace any of the big answers culture and tradition call ultimate truth.
It should be noted that I was academically bewildered until I went to college; indeed, I graduated in the bottom half of my high school class, and the prospect of success in any sort of higher education seemed slim. The problem? I could never pay attention for more than a few minutes before going off in a daydream. In the late fifth century CE the Bodhidharma spent long years teaching monks the difficult practice of “wall-gazing,” yet I had it mastered before I was out of first grade. I would come back from my mindless meditations having no idea what the teacher had said and spent most of my class time totally confused. But I loved reading, even more on my own time than at school. Maybe that saved me. And besides, there's something beneficial about being at ease with confusion; you get out of the habit of grasping after conclusions and learn to float on a sea of information without dropping anchor before the voyage is done. Wall-gazing is still a hobby of mine.
And maybe it is important to my current view of life that I changed from one sort of person (total nonstudent) into another all in the space of a few years at Ohio State simply because my interests changed. Maybe such transformations — powered by inspiration and enthusiasm — give one the confidence to attempt new things, to follow one's interests wherever they lead, to float far and wide on a sea of ideas. As Henry Adams wrote of himself: Not that his ignorance troubled him! He knew enough to be ignorant. His course had led him through oceans of ignorance; he had tumbled from one ocean into another till he had learned to swim; but even to him education was a serious thing.
My personal reading-and-writing project is summed up in this statement by Richard Rorty: “The desire to enlarge oneself is the desire to embrace more and more possibilities, to be constantly learning, to give oneself entirely over to curiosity.” And I hope people say this about me: “He was willing to live with uncertainty, with no supernatural justifications, no complete explanations, no promise of permanent stability, with guides of merely probable validity.” (Peter Gay writing about philosopher David Hume)
Some people hear this and conclude, “You're saying there's no such thing as God or truth: You don't believe in anything!” But emphatically that's not the case.
I believe belief is complicated. I believe we confuse ordinary, mundane, verifiable, bureaucratic, historical and personal truth — that you were born in a certain year, live in a certain town, work a certain job and enjoy certain things — with metaphysical truth, which can't be verified but only accepted on faith, a form of judgment based on partial knowledge and forgotten assumptions.
I don't deny the existence of truth and facts. I simply believe the complexities of human psychology drastically limit our ability to know when we have a solid grip on them. You see, there's always the problem of knowing something thoroughly; then comes more complicated issue of knowing that you know, and this is where we play amazing tricks on ourselves, for how do we verify the mind to itself? As the great historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin put it: “There is no Archimedean point outside ourselves where we can stand ... to observe and analyze all that we think or believe by simply inspecting it ... the supposition is a self-evident absurdity.”
The pre-Socratic philosopher Xenophanes showed he was a pretty good psychologist when he wrote: “For even if by chance he were to utter the final truth, he would himself not know it: For all is but a woven web of guesses.” Maybe we should be less concerned with truth and more concerned about making good guesses. Maybe we should develop the art of guessing.
In regards the problem of complexity and the art of guessing, I am reminded of what Berlin says about depth: “According to the romantics — and this is one of their principal contributions to understanding in general — what I mean by depth, although they do not discuss it under that name, is inexhaustibility. ... No matter how long I speak, new chasms open. No matter what I say I always have to leave three dots at the end. Whatever description I give always opens the doors to something further, something even darker, perhaps, but certainly something which is in principle incapable of being reduced to precise, clear, verifiable, objective prose.”
Which is to say, human subjectivity runs to the core and metaphysical “truth” is more about influences and assertions than facts. There are certainly “facts” and assertions enough to interpret any way you wish — but infallibly? As Cicero said about the gods: “Surely, even those who believe they have attained certainty in these matters must feel some doubts when they see how widely wise men have differed about so crucial a question.”
Yet evidence shows we are stunningly poor judges in the matter of metaphysical “facts,” and that's why we have so many gods and truths in the spiritual marketplace around the globe today and stretching back to the dawn of humanity, long before Cicero reigned as the master of Latin prose. Indeed, anthropologists estimate between 30,000 and 100,000 religions since humans started worshipping. How much “truth” can one planet accommodate — and how many opinions?
Journalists are supposed know the difference between fact and opinion, but believers are required to feign infallibility and ignore those differences, and so tales become “truths” and feelings become “facts.” Then persecution starts and pretty soon jetliners are crashing into buildings. We are starting to realize that fanaticism is a horrible byproduct of a global village and cultural diversity, as Karen Armstrong points out in “The Battle for God.” (See the “Insider” section of the Web site for a look into Armstrong's book.)
When will we realize that the stunning variety of “true” beliefs ultimately calls True Belief itself into question? People blame philosophers, psychologists and scientists for eroding religion when it's religion itself, and its long history of incompatible and irreconcilable ideas and requirements, that really transform the accepting mind into the questioning mind. As Wittgenstein said, “Belief comes before doubt.” Belief has ruled. Doubt is coming. You might as well learn a little bit about it on Rumors of Order.
Which is to say, I think it's time to study belief, not simply indulge in it and certainly not glory in it. It's time to admit we're all fallible in matters of faith. It's time to realize our beliefs are our beliefs and not necessarily facts about the world. I think our beliefs should trouble us at least as much as they comfort us, an unpopular view that's beyond the comprehension of devout believers.
FREEDOM IN 2004
People talk a lot about freedom as we go into 2004. President George W. Bush recently said he believes it is the destiny of the United States to bring freedom to the Middle East. He also said he believes freedom is god's gift to every human being. Yet “Islam” means complete surrender, and indeed almost every major religion requires surrender: total allegiance to a single deity and submission to rules, ideas and practices. No one seems to know how to reconcile these views, and it doesn't help that Bush is a devout Christian, a man who some believe was “sent by god” to lead our nation at this troubled time. Talk about disturbing metaphysical assertions!
More recently (December 20, 2003), a Plain Dealer story was headlined, “Where Twin Towers once stood, an icon to freedom will rise.” New York Gov. George Pataki said in unveiling plans for the Freedom Tower that the building “will show the world that freedom will always triumph over terror.” This is stunningly ironic if we realize that most people value their freedom only insofar as they can give it away to some all-powerful god or system of absolute belief to better cope with all-too-human fears of catastrophe, confusion, chaos and death. Freedom is something we hate to lose but love to give away.
Are we really born for freedom, or is spiritual surrender the best we can hope for? I think Pataki has it backwards: In most cases fear and dogma conquer freedom; we shrink life down to a theological-totalitarian point on the spiritual map and settle in for life. What would a real Freedom Tower look like? An infinite stack of books — but that's my own prejudice talking. One of those books would be Thomas Mann's “The Magic Mountain,” published in 1924, which contained an interesting observation that hits home today: “The mystery and precept of our age is not liberation and the development of the ego. What our age ... will create for itself, is — terror.”
I aim for freedom, and this Web site aims for freedom, freedom from absolute authorities and literalisms that rule the mind and heart, and it celebrates the inspiration and transformation that freedom of thought can bring. And it explores the various meanings of freedom.
It also explores the tensions between democratic freedom and religious devotion, where, on the one hand, rules and practices are subject to group agreement and, on the other hand, are the product of absolute dogma. Which comes first, freedom or devotion, the freedom to find “the truth” or the freedom to change our minds endlessly as we learn new things and have life-changing experiences? (See Fluid Religion in the “Something New” section of this Web site for an account of our church-hopping leaders and a great new product: the inflatable church.)
Freedom requires a flexibility religion does not normally allow; one might be tempted to say that freedom and religion are opposites and cannot long endure together, not without a deeper understanding of the nature of belief, not as long as absolutes are cherished as holy and timeless, not until we realize religion itself has always been in a state of evolution and that most (or all) absolute ideas are really just human theories and personal preferences, not eternal but products of time and change.
The real battle is not going to be between nations or religions but between freedom of thought and feelings of certainty.
And though you may think differently, it is clearly not the case that people require a god or absolute truths to live by. In “Doubt: A History,” Jennifer Hecht writes of the East that, “It is central to our story that a world of individuals, across half the Earth and several millennia, did not live under the gaze and regulation of God or gods.”
So when I'm charged with not believing anything I can say that I firmly believe this: Absolute certainty is more habit and indulgence than a basic human necessity.
Please note that I put that forward as a deep personal conviction, an aspect of my character, the result of my experience, and a byproduct of untold influences bombarding me since May 21, 1951, but not as an absolute truth. Not as a fact.
You see, I try to remember the difference between fact and opinion even in regards my own cherished views. I find it very easy to remember that I am a flawed and fallible human being with severe limits: limited intelligence, limited knowledge, limited wisdom, limited understanding, limited comprehension, limited experience, limited insight, limited intuition, limited memory, limited time, limited energy, limited courage, limited empathy and limited sympathy ... monumental limits across the board.
These limits don't stop me from having strong personal beliefs by the score, but they prevent me from making absolute claims about those beliefs — nor do I feel the need to do so. I am reminded of a wonderful passage by Nicholas Fearn: “An idea becomes an idol when an expression of our will to truth masquerades as an objective truth about the world. ...(but) a healthy philosopher is happy to carve his truths out of appearances and leave them at that because self-doubt does not compel him to seek a status for his truths higher than his own affirmation of them.
Granted, not all people embrace their fallibility, or the problematic nature of truth and knowledge, or the fragility of their cherished personal views, or the myriad limits that undermine their every endeavor; and, granted, not all people are built for the radical freedom this Web site explores. But if you can tolerate a little uncertainty and want to expand your views, welcome to Rumors of Order, where you may learn what Marcus Aurelius came to believe: “It takes as much repetitive reading, ritual and practice to live well as a doubter as it does to live well as a believer.” (Hecht, “Doubt: A History.”)
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Previous biographical notes from the initial Web site — with pictures: CLICK HERE
UNCERTAINTY: Living with no supernatural justifications,