Sunday, May 1, 2011

Awe v. Control

A stubborn mystery cleaves to existence because we cannot of our own accord explain what we are doing here and why. We can make sense of life only by reaching for explanations that transcend the visible, tangible, measurable—but the transcendent is by definition out of reach. Humility is built right into us, you might say—if we but look around. But that our existence should make sense is also quite natural. I favor the word “innate”; the usual term is “instinctive.” We should make sense—but we don’t really, not from what we can see. A lifetime and then a meaningless death? Therefore a great mystery surrounds us.

Awe is the appropriate response if we assert the presence of both—the mystery and the meaning. And the denial of transcendence necessarily produces the denial of meaning. If all we get is what we see, the world makes no sense. Dostoyevsky was therefore right, even if he did not actually pen the words so often attributed to him: If there is no God, everything is permitted. The appropriate response to that, of course, is a rush to Control.

In a deeply secular society—one in which religion is trivial because it is a life-style choice and, using that sort of phrasing, equivalent to a hair-style or a mode of dress—ultimate meaning is denied although relative meanings survive. The demand for Control, however, is very much present—however unreasonable it is. The deepest wisdom modernity offers is that Shit Happens. One of the dominant scientific explanations of reality is statistical (for more, see here). Thus the so-called laws of nature are extremely high probability recurrences of a fundamentally random reality. Control, therefore, is only relatively possible; no sooner achieved, it dissolves.

This almost reflexive demand for control manifests inevitably in the Blame Game when the events are not routinely explicable by visible chains of causation. How does this work? Well, humanity innately feels that meaning is present—and if not in nature, then in humans. Therefore when things fail, we must find somebody to blame. Accidents may happen, but they shouldn’t. Not if meaning is present, and it is—in people. Therefore, sooner or later, no matter what happened and no matter how unavoidable, our media will sooner or later discover a culprit or be seen diligently to be seeking him or her. Thus I found myself rolling my eyes watching an interviewer trying to blame the weather service for failure to predict the tornadoes that savaged the center of the country (turns out, they did warn). Where people are involved—and we’re not in the least interested if they are not—sooner or later human failure can and will be found, and will be held responsible. The Japanese nuclear problem was due to ignoring a report about cracks years ago—and never mind the tsunami. Secularists are not the only people who exploit disasters to play the blame game. No big disaster, human-caused or otherwise, can go down without some TV evangelist revealing that Gohhd had told him the cause—which was to punish the wicked.


  1. If there is no God, then everything is permitted. However, every thing being permitted does not imply that one should do every thing, nor any one thing in particular.
    Hence Morality does not depend on God for its existence; I think it may be a matter of Virtue, for a virtuous man or woman would tend to avoid degradation, no matter whether it be permitted or not.

    Perhaps our society is not so much secular as it is lacking in certain Virtues. Perhaps not. I have just started thinking about these things in terms of Virtue.

    I think it is interesting to note that many very public evangelists and politicians that promote religious values are quite lacking in virtue, underscoring the wide divide between "values" and Virtue.

  2. Dostoyevsky's character was thinking of the rootings of morality. It must arise from something. If from social consensus, then anything goes that majorities agree on. Therefore also morality is relative to public mood. If from the evolutionary contention for survival, its rooting is raw power: might is right. If morality isn't actually grounded in something more real than opinion or force, "promoting religious values" is just a ploy to gain popularity or power and equivalent to "promoting sex and violence" in order to pump up viewership for TV programs to sell ad time.

  3. Right.

    There is a widely held belief that all Morals are rooted in God; hence, no God, no Morality.
    But this is a belief founded upon some sort of arcane fetishism... it reminds me of people who feel the compulsion to demand a plaque of the Ten Commandments be placed on the City Hall plaza, in order that Law & Order not break down. Good luck.

    I am trying to find my way out of the Juridical notion of morals: i.e., being good is obeying laws. Obeying laws is tantamount to saying "I was just obeying orders." Sometimes it works, sometimes it tragically fails.
    In a degraded age, I have let myself be persuaded by the gospel of man's inherent evil, totally ignoring any inherent good.

    There is more than God or nothing. Else why was man created?

  4. People know what is right and wrong innately. No need for God here although God helps infinitely when one needs peace. Right is not doing things for the wrong reasons, wrong is doing them for those reasons. If we are honest, we all know why we did something and we know if the intention was good, if we were being careful, attentive to our own good and the good of others and the necessary balance between the two. It seems quite simple really. Only psychopaths do not know right from wrong because they lack empathy.

    This was basically the subject of one of Max's philosophy papers. I like your discussion.

  5. Michelle: The link to God is through that word "innate" -- as we infer the presence of a real author through the concept of "theme" in a genuine work of art. And you certainly have your finger on the pulse of reality by emphasizing "empathy"...