Thursday, March 3, 2011

Pareto on Jesus, cont'd.

I really wasn't anticipating the response that I got with the beginning of this essay last week, and now find myself regretting not having finished it all in one go, as statistically it is improbable that I will be able to finish it as well as I (apparently) started it. I also find myself regretting the rather hasty title.

Oh well, it is what it is.  Hopefully the finale won't be too anticlimactic...


With the investment of a bit of investigation and some reading, one is able to go on for some time with arguments and answers of the previous sort --

The story of Creation, Noah's Ark, etc. -- those are all just myths.

-- Of course they are myths. They are powerful, important, and insightful myths, and I believe every word of them.

The Church and religion in general has always oppressed science and other forms of reasoned inquiry.

-- That is also a myth, but in addition, it is a fabrication. In other words, it is a lie that does not remotely reflect the truth.

The Pope had Galileo imprisoned.

-- He deserved it.

If God rules the world and is perfect and good and holy as you say, why would He allow evil and suffering to exist?

-- God doesn't rule the world. Satan does.

OK... that's really weird. But it evades the argument. How could an omnipotent and perfectly good God permit the existence of any evil, anywhere at all, in the first place?

1) God is not omnipotent in the sense that you mean.
2) God is a libertarian.

...and from the other side --

Evolution is just a theory, not a fact.

-- It certainly is a theory. If it were only a fact, nobody would bother much about it. But a that's something!

All of theses are terse answers to arguments that really shouldn't be advanced at all, but all too frequently are. Hopefully, by way of (or in spite of) my tireless and inexcusable rambling, the reader will have arrived at the conclusion I have drawn -- that, far from being the intellectual exercises they appear (or at least pretend) to be, attitudes are more fundamental to these debates than arguments, especially as relates to the logical dysfunctions I have noted.

The Real Problem -- The Zeitgeist

zeitgeist -- n. the spirit, attitude, or general outlook of a specific time or period, especially as it is reflected in literature, philosophy, etc.; "The Spirit of the Age"

What got me when I first encountered the arguments above (the arguments I am making -- not the ones I ripped off of Bob's blog, which appear practically everywhere) is how obvious they seem in hindsight. They are not particularly complicated or difficult ideas, but I never would have come up with even one on my own in a million years. For some of them, one factor that might prevent their more widespread use is probably obvious – 'normal' people would never advance an argument if he would be quite embarrassed to admit to such thinking. They are, in a word, 'uncool.'

The second main factor is the more fundamental – that otherwise highly intelligent people are simply unable to come up with them because they run so counter to the 'modern way of thinking.' A third is an extension of the second – anyone capable of arriving at such arguments would not make them anyway, because he will immediately realize that practically no one else would be able to accept them. He knows that his opponents would think it 'arguing for argument’s sake,' or more likely, the response would merely be a blank 'does-not-compute' stare. No serious person would be expected to actually, honestly hold such an opinion, no matter how logically impervious it might be to attack.

In other words, the attitudes expressed in these arguments are taboo, or at least not generally accepted. The phenomenon one is looking at is cultural, not rational. It is the problem of what some have called the zeitgeist -- 'the spirit of the age' -- that is clouding people's judgment.

In The Pilgrim's Regress, C.S. Lewis uses the image of a philosopher-mountain-tyrant holding his victims prisoner with metaphysical arguments as a sort of allegory or parable to illustrate the effect of the zeitgeist on the minds it holds hostage. The mountain has given the prisoners the ability to 'see through' themselves and one another (into their internal organs), and bombards them continually with rationalistic sounding arguments, trapping them in a state of materialist despair -- i.e. they are hopeless, mortal, 'pieces of meat.' The protagonist eventually breaks the spell of the mountain when, after the prisoners receive a meal consisting of milk, the mountain attempts to demoralize them with the observation that milk and dung are equivalent as they are both excretions of a cow. The protagonist realizes that this assertion denies the purpose inherent in the two, and is able to reject the illusions that had trapped him. Eventually, all the prisoners are freed when the tyrannous mountain is slain by Reason, in the form of a female knight-errant.

That's a pretty trippy -- but effective -- way of illustrating how the zeitgeist can trap minds with what appear to be logical sounding arguments into a point of view that rejects, or is unable to process, or unable to recognize, important truths that would lead one to very nearly opposite conclusions about a particular topic or situation under consideration. It blinds them to what should otherwise be clear and obvious. The cutting off of certain lines of thought is, in a sense, a matter of 'self-preservation' because the conclusions they lead to usually contradict some other aspect of the zeitgeist itself. One may choose to see that as an 'equilibrating characteristic' of the zeitgeist that naturally arises and must necessarily exist to stabilize a particular set of attitudes, as otherwise they would either be in a state of turmoil or quickly dismissed altogether as logically contradictory. Alternatively, one might see in this a glimmer of the element of design.

In maintaining this stealthy coupe of the intellect, it would seem that Pareto's law tends to operate in favor of the zeitgeist. Of all the people infected with its attitudes (which is practically everyone), perhaps 20 percent would really give the attitudes any thought, as most of the time one is perfectly capable of getting by without doing so in material comfort. Of those inquisitive few, the 4 percenters might actually detect any real problems. Only the 1 percenters are likely to get as far as recognizing that it should be rejected, and even that comes with significant external barriers, as we have seen. The way is wide and the gate narrow, I suppose.

Much of the attitudes that comprised Lewis's description of the zeitgeist would still apply today -- materialism, mainly in the form of skepticism towards anything impervious to 'the scientific method' chief among them, plus the 'logical' corollaries of this attitude, many of which have already been mentioned. Other attitudes would include –
– dismissiveness towards the 'unmodern' past
– disdain for, and practical misunderstanding of the functions of, fiction, the arts, language, myth and philosophy
– elevation of the practical over the theoretical
– elevation of rationalism and reason over tradition, even as the capacity for the former degrades and the latter is ever more desperately needed
– discomfort with conclusions based on the use of intuition and deduction and a very urgent preference for physical evidence
– fixation on 'objectivity,' even as the capacity to render 'objectivity' degrades with escalating insularity of perspective
– hostility and discomfort towards any issue of 'faith'
– cynicism and skepticism towards the spiritual, especially anything beyond the vague and non-specific
– physical materialism and nihilism
– difficulty and aversion towards human issues, especially simply dealing with other people

The net effect is to produce a prevailing culture that is disconnected with and ignorant of the past, preoccupied with the present, willfully and consciously parochial out of fear and hostility towards the 'unscientific' and unprovable, stale and stunted in its capacity for imagination and fantasy (even openly hostile and derisive of it), uncreative outside of scientific and mechanical pursuits, and most tellingly, very prone to a dry, mechanical, atheistic outlook on life. Where it departs from this characterization, it tends towards the the bizarre, the depraved, the cultish and the violent, as such activities have become socially excluded and are therefore principally the demesne of those at odds with society and its norms.

In particular, the failure of the vast majority of Christians to deal with the 'Paganism Is Silly' argument successfully should be frightening in this respect, as it would tend to suggest that even professed believers who would dare to take on an openly hostile, atheist debating opponent (i.e. a strong indication of a 20 percenter, at the very least) are effectively operating under an atheist outlook. They are instinctive intellectual atheists. Worse, the established, accepted, majority religion of Christianity is in many ways accepted as part and parcel of the dry, 'scientific,' lifeless, faithless, prevailing zeitgeist outlook, as it seeks to maintain its status as 'normal' and 'cool,' rather than being the counterpoise to such forces that it is supposed to be.

Glimmers of design, indeed.

But to return to the topic at hand, it seems to me that the zeitgeist has debilitated the God debate to such an extent that it has produced the bizarre outcome of very intelligent people not being able articulate relatively simple, obvious arguments. The various points of view are so poisoned by it that the debate itself is stunted. In the same way that communism couldn't break the ironclad law of Mr. Pareto, but could only poison wealth creation among those under its grip, so the modern zeitgeist has stunted even the most enthusiastic thinkers who choose to ponder the existence of God. Pareto's curve has been crushed down so low by the burdensome weight of the mountainous zeitgeist that to scrabble one's way up to the very top of it almost isn't worth the effort.

Better, rather, to squeeze out from under the mountain altogether, onto a new, less populated curve whose lowest slopes tower above the pinnacle of the old one. Yes, I think that is possible, for individuals willing to make a few sacrifices and give it a try.

Again, just my opinion.

Escaping the Zeitgeist

Alas! This turned into yet another of those tiresome and endless chronicles of the problems of the age and the decline of civilization, for which we've all been duly informed that there is no escape. No matter. This isn't about civilization. It's about individuals. As well, I'm afraid I may have built this thing up into something rather bound to disappoint, as the means of escaping the zeitgeist is a bit anticlimactic, and likely quite a few have already guessed it.

I posit that people can escape the undue influence of the modern age by a number of means, though it is doubtful that anybody can rid himself of the influence entirely. But before I get to the 'how to,' I should forewarn that there are some likely side effects of any attempt to jump ship –

– disinterest and disappointment in politics and other contemporary affairs, no matter how fervently they were once followed
– feelings of isolation from others and difficulty communicating with them
– the tendency to create long, awkward silences in conversations, virtually at will and often without intending
– funny looks and raised eyebrows
– feelings of detachment with respect to all of the above - in light of one's new interests

Above all, any who really manages to escape must remember that to be outside the zeitgeist is to reject it and to be rejected by it. One shouldn't expect those still trapped within to have a lot of sympathy for a bunch of weird ideas.

On the other hand, the fugitive will be able to articulate ideas that are positively outrageous to others and defend them rather brilliantly. They are ideas that are some of the best and most inspiring ever produced in the history of mankind, and yet vanishingly few in today's world have even heard of most of them. Which leads to the principle benefit of undertaking what would otherwise be seen by this age as profoundly impractical and a colossal waste of time – the enrichment and meaning it will potentially bring to one's life, supposing supposing he is up to 'absorbing it.' That is one part of this whole topic that simply can't come out in an essay like this one.

It might appear that it was enough simply to consciously attempt to suppress these attitudes. Call it the 'Don't think that way! Don't think that way!' approach. That probably won't work to any significant degree on its own, and hopefully the reader easily sees the faulty assumption behind it is the same one that leads so predictably to the bungling of the 'Clear Explanation' argument. To really 'absorb,' one needs immersion, not chains of reasoning. Likewise, the zeitgeist within a person also probably cannot be defeated through the exertion of his own reasoning against it, Lewis's allegory notwithstanding, though theoretically it might appear that one could do it. This is as much an emotional battle an intellectual one, and probably more.

The problem, in a few words, is of one's perspective being too rooted in the here and now. Naturally, one of the best solutions to being rooted too deeply in the present is to spread one's roots into other ages and places. Here we encounter the anti-climax of the essay, as the answer should now be obvious. There are, of course, several relatively impractical ways to do so – become a freelance news correspondent in some foreign land, divorce your spouse and marry someone from the other side of the world – but the easy way is simply to –


Especially fiction, as it is both more enjoyable (and therefore more likely to be pursued with enthusiasm) and as it asks the reader to really immerse himself, not simply to read about something and observe from without. In so doing, one gets not only displacement of place, but displacement of person and time. One also gets, in a sense, to 'inhabit the mind' of some other person in the form of the book's author, who was in all probability a deepish thinker if he managed to get a book of his into someone else's hands long after his own death. Experiencing the curiosity, imagination, and thoughtfulness of others is an amazing antidote to the poison of a life that, all too often, is far too routine, sterile, and mechanical. The literary sojourner will find himself surrounded by a mastery of language and thought not typically found in his own whereabouts. Surrounding oneself with superior influences is one of the more helpful ways of acquiring useful mental habits.

Note that this will not evade the zeitgeist phenomenon, by any means. Every age and place has its zeitgeist, some more oppressive than others. But the thing about any of them is just how absurd their flaws appear to one who is alien to them. As such, there is scant chance of the wayfarer absorbing much of their bad influence, but he will at some point confront ideas that challenge the flaws in his own. At least, he will do so with a far higher probability than he will sampling arguments that appear in his own time and place. Cue the 10,001 variants of the 'Paganism is Silly' arguments that one would sift through before he found one mediocre refutation at a place like this (and, likely, dismiss it as bizarre because he wasn't ready for it). Probably most importantly, he will also find himself bombarded with many of the great ideas and attitudes of old that were either forgotten or dismissed by the present age for no good reason, but went a long way towards making the West what it is today.

And are unmaking it as we speak, as they slowly disappear down the memory-hole of unpopular history.


That, I suppose, brings this essay to a close. Nobody fully escapes the zeitgeist. Even the tone of this very essay is evidence of as much. G.K. Chesterton would have come up with a much more playful, witty, entertaining, human way of putting the same thing, as he still had his toes in a great age. I'm stuck writing in a droning, humorless dirge (compared to him, anyway), at least partially the product of living in an age obsessed with objectivity, 'science,' and the appearance of intellect, but woefully short in all three departments. I'm stuck in it. I can't help it, and neither can anybody else. But that doesn't mean a person can't man-up to it, and face it down, laugh at it for what it really is, and put it in its place.

Our age is overserious, and, whether paradoxically or as a direct result, unworthy of being taken very seriously. As it stands, on the topic of God, merely participating in cheesy Internet theology debates for a month or so will place one among the 20 percenters, as most people aren't even interested anymore. They are too busy with American Idol and other pop-culture brain-cell killers. Reading a good, old book or two will catapult one into the 4 percent bracket, easily. But making it a habit...and persevering...and questioning...and thinking...might just send one flying off the end of the curve and into the mysterious, exhilarating unknown.

When it's all said and done, dear reader, where on Pareto's curve will you fall?

Suggested Reading:

In case you happen to be looking for a place to start, here is a list of books I have found extremely helpful and enjoyable. Most of them (excepting C. S. Lewis) can be found online for free. Also useful – Internet Archive, where you can find free audiobook versions of most of MacDonald and Chesterton's works, as well as a slew of others I am only beginning to sort through. Not always of the highest quality, but hey, you can't complain about the price. I listen to them in the car on the way back and forth to work.

C.S. Lewis: – practically anything, but especially:

The Space Trilogy ( Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength)
The Great Divorce
Till We Have Faces
The Pilgrim's Regress
The Abolition of Man (non-fiction)

George MacDonald: – practically anything, but especially:

MacDonald's Short stories can be amazing. Very good for short reads...

G.K. Chesterton: – practically anything, but especially:

The Everlasting Man
(both non-fiction)


Paradise Lost, John Milton
Ben-Hur, Lew Wallace
Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Dafoe

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