30 January 2018

Irrational Faith

Trolling through our bookshelves, I recently discovered that I am a creature of faith. Which means I am totally irrational.

I did not see that coming.

As Bertold Brecht has the physicist say in his play Life of Galileo, "Without this faith, I wouldn't have the strength to get out of bed in the morning!".  Indeed, we need to believe in something, to trust completely in at least one foundational concept upon which we can build the entire structure of our lives.  The object of that faith, however, varies quite a bit from person to person.

For some, it is faith in a form of God.  For some, it is the strength of the State, or a tradition of Honor.  Others find security in the warm nest of their Family.  The recent rise in authoritarian politics reminds me that many have the most faith in Themselves.  

Brecht attributes faith in Reason to his Galileo:  "I believe in Man, and that means I believe in his Reason."  And that, too, is why I get out of bed each morning:  because no matter how stupid humans prove themselves to be (over and over again), I just can't let go of my faith that Reason will prevail.  After all, I've always been a fan of the Enlightenment, which was all about delivering us from the irrational, the Social Contract deified Reason, and even Adam Smith based the theory of economics on human rationality.  When Albert Camus says in The Rebel that "The future is the only transcendental value for men without God", he doesn't just mean the future per se, but our faith in how Man will behave in that future.

Technically, though, this means I'm insane, because even though nearly every time our society has the chance to do the right thing it chooses not to, I still expect that--any day now--it will choose the right things.  This desperate hope that, maybe this time, everything will come out OK can only be described as faith.  When Camus attributes to the Rebel the aspiration to "wager, in spite of human misery, for happiness", he embraces our fundamentally romantic nature.

But the problem with faith is that it is never right nor wrong, cannot be proved or disproved.  Faith is a theory that we proudly whip out whenever it jives with the facts before us, and quietly omit when something fails to support it.  Almost regardless of what it is, it is assaulted daily by the reality that life is way more complicated than can be explained by any single concept, so in order to stick with it no matter how often reality contradicts it, you need a lot of, well, faith in your faith.  And that means that faith in Reason is totally irrational.

There is a consolation prize, though:  it gives you purpose.  As Camus puts it, "[The Rebel's] only virtue will lie in never yielding to the impulse to allow himself to be engulfed in the shadows that surround him and in obstinately dragging the chains of evil, with which he is bound, toward the light of good." 

That's a pretty tall order, so it's a good thing I'm irrational enough to not care!

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