Who is Certain?

Jan 30, 2012 by

by Colin Hannaford – Most human societies have imagined God to be in human form. Most have agreed to be told how God wants them to behave.

I have proposed that behind all the many forms of social behaviour which have emerged in this way is a far more fundamental imperative.

We now know of countless billions of galaxies, of trillions of possible worlds. No matter whether simple or complex, the probability of an organism’s survival will depend on its active adaptation to its environment. This active adaptation can be generally described as learning to be honest: not demanding to be accommodated by a changing environment whilst remaining unchanged; constantly exploring the possibilities of a more fitting adaptation.

Whilst this requires only a minor change to the more mechanistic theory of evolution, it requires a very much more drastic reduction of belief in God as an all-knowing, all-powerful father figure; and even more particularly of a God believed to be especially concerned with the survival of only a minority of people.

Many societies imagine that active forms of the discouragement of life may also be material. Demons are held to be responsible for many misfortunes, and the most powerful of these is imagined to have one name. His name is Satan.

In Judaic and other traditions, Satan has actually a special responsibility to God. He is sent by God to try to seduce men and women from remembering their duty.

But what, essentially, is this duty to God?

There is usually little disagreement in a new faith concerning this first imperative. Initially, nothing may be required but a simple avowal of belief.

But, as they have matured, the same difficulty has arisen in most. Different interpretations are announced by different scholars and schools of scholars to be more certain than others.

These new certainties will not accepted by everyone. Some agree. Some disagree. Some are not sure. The most certain faction decides it is most faithful. The less certain are held to be less faithful, even heretical. It becomes important to decide what to do with them.

Written at the beginning of the 18th century, ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ contains a savage parody of how such matters may be resolved:

“ … the Bulk of the People consist wholly of Discoverers, Witnesses, Informers, Accusers, Prosecutors, Evidences, Swearers … It is first agreed, and settled among them, what suspected persons shall be accused of a Plot; Then, effectual Care is taken to secure all their Letters and Papers, and put the Owners in Chains. These papers are delivered to a Set of Artists, very dextrous in finding out the mysterious Meanings of Words, Syllables, and Letters … Where this Method fails, they have two others more effectual, which the Learned among them call Acrostics and Anagrams. First, they can decipher all initial Letters into political Meanings … Secondly, by transposing the Letters of the Alphabet … they can lay open the deepest Designs of a suspected Party.”

This may be imagined is how Satan works. A fraction of people of a faith are persuaded that they are more certain than others. All the work that brought them together is destroyed. Soon the same will begin to happen again, and again.

It is not necessary to believe that this is Satan’s work. It is caused by being certain.

The day before I decided to attempt this essay, a friend sent me some notes I had made in 2009 in an old house in the Hebrides without telephone or radio, but with a great library of books.

They arrived the day before I began. They contain a perfect set of quotations, collected, then forgotten. Neither Jonathan Swift nor my next helper refer to Satan to explain how people within a faith, religious or political, may drive their scholars to define its particulars with ever greater certainty, with inevitable consequence of creating ever more heresies and heretics, dividing their faith into even more mutually loathing fractions.

Three centuries after Swift, Albert Schweitzer, after being awarded the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize, offered this explanation:

“The organised political, social, and religious associations of our time are at work to induce the individual man not to arrive at his convictions by his own thinking but to make his own such convictions as they keep ready-made for him. Any man who thinks for himself and at the same time is spiritually free, is to them something inconvenient and even uncanny. He does not offer sufficient guarantee that he will merge himself in their organisation in the way they wish. All corporate bodies [my italics] look today for their strength not so much in the spiritual worth of the ideas they represent and to that of the people who belong to them, as to the highest possible degree of unity and exclusiveness. It is in this that they expect to find their strongest power for offense and defense.”1

The Korean War had begun two years before. The Cold War which followed was to last for thirty years and consume tens of trillion dollars of essentially useless expenditure by the West and the Soviet bloc, whilst making the secrets of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons ultimately available to every true patriot and any serious crackpot of every nationality.

Yesterday evening I was privileged to hear a lady lecturer of psychology talk about the historic Jewish tradition of the possession of women by spirits: not, please note, by spirits of men.

Invited to question at the end of her talk, I asked: “It is the obvious presumption of modern psychiatry that a minority of people are sick whilst that the majority are sane. Has anyone ever considered that the reverse may be true?”

This is not at all a frivolous question. In mediaeval Christianity, and still in modern Christian dogma the majority of people are irreversibly damaged morally by Original Sin. Only a few priests are unscathed.

The lady was somewhat bouleversed, as the French might say; but she made a brave attempt to reply. “How could we know if that is true?” she asked in return.

Her question was then answered by a tall rabbi, immaculate in black, sitting behind me with his wife and family. “The majority,” he suggested, “would behave pathologically.

How can we teach our young people not to behave pathologically: to ignore all Satan’s tricks and seducements, to regain both the sense of their unique good fortune to be alive on this precious world of ours, in the immensity of its vast universe, and of the intelligence and determination required of them to return to God’s path and survive.

The extraordinary diversity of Satan’s repertoire of flim-flam is again apparent in the modern perplexity of whether or not anyone, young or old, has actually any ability to choose.

This is no minor problem. To many philosophers consciousness and free will appear so difficult to define that it is simpler for them to insist that neither exists: rather like God.

Some weeks ago I had an occasion to test this belief when I was trying in an earlier essay to describe the range of human emotions.

I wrote that, of course, at one end of the spectrum there is ‘hate’, whilst at the other is ‘doubt’. No! I didn’t mean that. I meant to write ‘love’. The opposite extreme to hatred is obviously love. Of course! What ever did I mean by writing ‘doubt’?

By now, as you will realise, two levels of my consciousness are deployed. The one which intended to write ‘love’. The other, which wrote differently.

The first level is surprised. The second is waiting.

Curiously, I felt no compulsion to erase this mistake. This was because a still higher level of consciousness, just now engaged, was telling me: ‘It’s true. Leave it.’

And so, trusting that final level, and although I did not understand why, I left it.

I had exercised free will.

If you have read of my experience in www.gardenofdemocracy.org/source.html, you may also that I am possibly possessed by several spirits. One repeatedly annoys me by producing the most splendid support for ideas after I have struggled and sweated to outline them.

The example above is unusual. There must have been some reason not to work to rule. Another spirit guards my door to paradise. Yet another holds the key to all the knowledge that I felt was streamed into my twenty-nine year old mind in those few seconds of illumination.

It is not easy to retrieve this kind of knowledge. Plato and his old friend and tutor Socrates believed that much the same store is possessed unknowingly by everyone, and that to help them retrieve it everyone needs a very careful and very patient teacher.

The great obstacle to their being successful is described in Plato’s famous parable of the prisoners in the cave. They can see only the shadows thrown on the wall in front of them by the light of reality streaming in from the cave’s entrance behind them. They cannot stand up, turn around, or leave their cave to see the reality outside.

To this Swift and Schweitzer might add: and they dare not.

Shortly after my question, I was joined over the chocolate fudge cake – chocolate fudge cake and intellectual challenge: an unbeatable combination – by a young man, about the age of most of you, with some interesting questions for me.

Whilst we ate fudge cake, I discovered him to be a physicist.

Oxford University’s physicists may not be the smartest in the world, but as Yogi Bear might remark: ‘They’re still smarter than they really need to be.’

“Which is more powerful in science,” I asked him finally, “Truth or doubt?”

Without hesitation, he replied: “Doubt”.

Which is why, without knowing why, I wrote ‘doubt’.

Science has learnt how to avoid Satan’s trap. Most other systems of thought have not.

Satan’s trap is certainty. To avoid it, all one has to do is to renounce being certain so eagerly. It’s not so much more difficult than taking a smaller slice of fudge cake. Try instead to be honest about what you really know: not what you have been told. And keep on asking questions.

Paradise is this way: hell, in the other.

Oxford, 30th January 2012.

1 My Life and Thought’, H. Holt Inc. 1933; Mentor 1953.

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