Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Truth in Fictions

Last week, our itinerant buddy IOZ castigated the religious left for, among other reasons, accepting the poetry of the bible as its truth.*

"Exhibit A", he writes, "is such personage as Karen Armstrong, who became an atheist when she started studying religion, and then converted back toward heaven with vague statements about the 'immaturity' of atheism and the essentially good, unified, beautiful, beneficent, magnificent . . . poetic nature of the divine. This god, more East than West, exists as a sort of endless metaphoric vehicle for some universal demiurge whose impersonality is taken by proponents to be somehow more mature, more complex, and more true than [...] traditional religions".

Ms. Armstrong's spiritual quest is, however, the stuff of powerful narrative. It's a classic one: the scholar questions her core beliefs only to find them wanting, and this results in a nebulous open-mindedness that leads to a blossoming of faith. The credulous acceptance led to a contrarian rejection, which ultimately led to a more mature growth of possiblity. It's the stuff of a pretty decent novel.

We like to say that truth is stranger than fiction. The big difference between the two--the reason that truth appears by contrast to be nonsensical--is that the former is in no way bound by the laws of drama. There are physical causes and effects, but in real life no epiphanies or catharses can be counted upon, no growth before death is likely, there are no expectations of justice beyond the extent to which we invent them. In life, the tonic never comes--not until, we say, in revision, that it did. We read fiction that it may illuminate greater truths. It may be more accurate that it reinforces treasured fictions. In many ways, the human experience is an exercise in applying facts to the shapes of myriad plots, and not the opposite.

This urge to apply a storyline to life is the basis of religion. There have been better or worse attempts to pen the outline (or speak it, which has really made for some shitty cohesion overall), each with broader or narrower tolerances for deviation from the declared framework. But even at the broadest level of interpretation, the vaguely religious still share the same hopes of the storyteller, namely, that there's a point to it all, that poetic justice exists, that the universe is elegant and not just an ineffable pile of random cosmic bric-a-brac. It's a nice thing to believe.

But if the possible absence of an external celestial logic is alarming, there's a deeper internal fiction just waiting to be ambushed. We believe that our selves are special, that consciousness is special. The evidence is growing against this: consciousness, as we understand it, is a collection of biochemical events which, if sufficient information on its initial conditions (and on its external conditions) could be obtained, would ultimately be deterministic. A greater knowledge of the mechanism of thought is going to be a lot more devastating than the evidence against an all knowing sky father. Consciousness is not likely predictable, but that doesn't free it from the chains of cause and effect. Free will? A fiction. The self? Another fiction.

It's neatly circular to describe our selves as an biological mechanism that exists to delude ourselves. As a gedanken experiment, consider what form a higher consciousness might take. Could the observer maintain sanity understanding that the oberver is unreal? Is awareness limited below the threshold at which awareness negates the questioner?

Anyway, the funny thing is that even if we're all little more than a pile of dreaming meat, it doesn't really behoove us to break from the fleeting logic of dreams. It's important that we, the fanciers and the fancies both, establish the axioms which make the burden of selves tolerable to those very selves which consider it. Even if the experience is false, we're still stuck with it. We're here to write the story of our existence, dammit, so therefore there is one.**

The point I'm trying to make is that spiritual faith, even and perhaps especially in the form of a vague open-mindedness, is nearly as important to humans as the faith we harbor in our conscious selves. We trust that we can make rational choices, and who knows, maybe there even is a point to it all. It's sure nice to believe; it sure feels right; and you sure can't prove the negative.


* Apologies for all the recycling. I've posted along these lines before, but I badly need to drain the pool just now so I can do my job. Hopefully it's new to you.

** I'm reinventing the philosophical wheel here, I know. Cogito ergo ...sumthin. Maybe I should try reading the stuff one of these days.