Thursday, March 24, 2016

Till They Give Replies

The complaint was the answer. To have heard myself making it was to be answered. Lightly men talk of saying what they mean. [...] I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?
On a whim I reread Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis. I suppose the impulse arose from my discussion of the sincerity of belief. In that entry I encouraged analyzing the deep-seated "statements" the believer makes through their outward actions—and the inward imprint left by the belief on the believer's stream of consciousness and their feelings. After intense self-examination, believers who shy from firmly articulating their positions may find that they believe in both less and more than they originally imagined they did. Like I stated before in an entry on another book by Lewis, he returned several times to the subjects of sincerity, self-deception, and wavering resolve. (The obligatory line from the Bible for this is "the heart is deceitful above all things", which apparently is Jeremiah 17:9.)

This book is a rewritten form of the old story of Cupid and Psyche. But the narrator and main character is Orual the older sister. She writes the full "true" account of her role and life, along with a passionate commentary. To stop the gods' wrath, Psyche was bound and left for them at a remote mountain location. Orual painfully missed Psyche, so she returned later to recover the body. She discovered her vibrantly alive.

Psyche explained that she was now living in a luxurious palace as the wife of the mountain's god. Curiously, by the god's orders, their encounters are always in the dark. But all Orual can see is the mountain's natural environmental setting. In an attempt to force Psyche to return home, she manipulated her into lighting a lamp next time the god met her. She suspected (and hoped?) that the unseen god was a fake, and she wanted to prove it to her. Psyche reluctantly followed the instructions, received harsh punishment for breaking the rule, and endured an exile far away. Decades later, Orual furiously recorded her personal account to "correct" the story but also to prosecute the gods themselves. The above quote is her shocked realization after she had her chance to deliver her complaint.
Nothing that's beautiful hides its face. Nothing that's honest hides its name. 

"[...] Who that loved you could be angry at your breaking so unreasonable a command—and for so good a reason?"
"Foolishness, Orual," she answered, shaking her head. "He is a god. He has good grounds for what he does, be sure. How should I know of him? I am only his simple Psyche."
When I previously read this in years past, I recall pitying Orual's stubbornness to not trust in the invisible spiritual realm. And I disliked her self-serving arrogance to reject Psyche's differing (bizarre) view of her own marriage situation. Yet presently, I'm...compelled to side with Orual. In the story her perception is limited, but in my opinion her objections are open-eyed. She has her substantial faults, but her blunt request for viable replies doesn't qualify. She herself doesn't "poison the well" for her well-chosen points. If there were gods, why would they consistently act act covertly at all times? Why would they judge someone for their amount of honest belief in allegedly objective stuff? As she pleads:
They would not tell me whether she was the bride of a god, or mad, or a brute's or villain's spoil. They would give no clear sign, though I begged for it. I had to guess. And because I guessed wrong they punished me—what's worse, punished me through her. [...] I say the gods deal very unrightly with us. For they will neither (which would be best of all) go away and leave us to live our own short days to ourselves, nor will they show themselves openly and tell us what they would have us do. For that too would be endurable. But to hint and hover, to draw near us in dreams and oracles, or in a waking vision that vanishes as soon as seen, to be dead silent when we question them and then glide back and whisper (words we cannot understand) in our ears when we most wish to be free of them, and to show to one what they hide from another; what is all this but cat-and-mouse play, blindman's bluff, and mere jugglery? Why must holy places be dark places?
Of course, my reaction is predictable. Holy places must be dark places because holy places are mythical. It's no surprise that those places, e.g. Atlantis or Prester John's kingdom, can only show up by apocryphal methods. Fantasy is an easy path that lies outside the bright light of straightforward inquiry. The details of prophecies and other psychic intuitions are peppered with holes that an audience can fill for themselves. Momentary visions and inconclusive signs of the spiritual domain shouldn't be considered satisfactory. Orual occasionally has these experiences and notes the inadequacy herself:
What is the use of a sign which is itself only another riddle? [...] They set the riddle and then allow a seeming that can't be tested and can only quicken and thicken the tormenting whirlpool of your guess-work. If they had an honest intention to guide us, why is their guidance not plain? Psyche could speak plain when she was three; do you tell me the gods have not yet come so far?
From time to time I think, "I'll stay an atheist until an unmistakable god tells me I'm not." I can't decide whether this thought is flippant or serious. I'm perplexed about why the lesson of this book appears to be that opposites are the exclusive options. The spiritual domain is either overwhelming or translated into a baffling puzzle. Spiritual beings are either too extreme to talk with or they're reduced to muttering paradoxes. They're either too near to permit people to live normally or they're too absent to appear in reports beyond scattered rumors.

Slightly rewriting Orual's questions: assuming there were gods eager to interact meaningfully, yet eager to not inundate beyond human capacity, why wouldn't the gods quickly try moderate strategies? If the replies were confusingly complicated, why wouldn't they take the time to break the replies up into cogent steps, instead of replying in impenetrable profundities? If coming to dinner in native shape would be unbearable, why wouldn't they resort to an avatar (tall blue torso optional) or a hands-on representative, instead of dumping the R.S.V. P. in the trash? If the divine language would be unintelligible, why wouldn't they condescend to outspoken English or Latin, instead of leaving out the equivalent of squiggles for people to decipher as they can? If Psyche's husband would wish to avoid undue suspicion, why wouldn't it be more forthcoming with either or both sisters about the need for its secretiveness—or at minimum the rationale for not revealing that need?

It's irrelevant to deflect by suggesting that gods won't give replies until people meet the conditions of no longer fooling themselves and/or admitting their moral failings. These conditions are unrelated. People constantly juxtapose inaccurate and accurate ideas. They might arrive at marvelous insights while misrepresenting or misunderstanding themselves. Someone's miscellaneous deficits don't require fixing or confession before they can be informed about some general topic. They may not end up listening to it fairly, but unless their questions are complete pretenses they would welcome it as a replacement for blind speculation. Yes, people often lack candor and an omniscient frame of reference; given that gods would be superior in this aspect then they could be a better example, not follow the mortals' fumbling lead.
I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice? Only words, words; to be led out to battle against other words.
Lewis is Lewis. The book includes the repeated sentiment that when people meet gods they're embarrassed that they're (ugh) people. At the end, face to face with them, Orual is embarrassed by her accusation that they neglected to give her all the facts she could've applied to avoid provoking them. Such as it is, this final nonverbal "reply" is one more undisguised evasion of her earlier thoughtful questions. The phenomenon of words falling short isn't an absolutely insurmountable barrier to transmitting meaning; it's arguably a typical case. Communicators may use relative analogies: X is more like A than B. They may use negation: X is unlike Q because of characteristic C. They may use approximations and sketches.

Alternatively—I'm playing along with the notion not defending it—if The Face were indeed the best reply to be given, it would be more just to never evaluate humans for their commitment before they've seen The Face. Perhaps they'd see it subsequent to physical death, which would entail waiving their beliefs and actions in life. Lewis might have learned toward this "universalism" kind of doctrine: everyone would have as many chances as there could possibly be, throughout eternity, to finally capitulate to the supreme master of the universe.

I would comment that I won't hold my breath to find out, but in this instance I wouldn't find out without totally stopping my breath. If Orual's statements were intended as illustrations of a fundamentally misguided standpoint, raised up then torn down, the statements should've been less wise.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

if only you try

Last time I encouraged believers to drop the excuse that they don't want to be tied down to stating their beliefs outright. Not to worry: assuming they express their beliefs somehow then that expression is making a statement. The expression might be mild. (It might consist of guiding other beliefs, like Einstein's belief "God does not play dice with the universe" guiding his beliefs about physics.) Its idiomatic meaningfulness might have greater pull on the believer than its literal content.

Tracing from the expressions back to the expressed beliefs is only step one. Step two is sifting through the presumable symptoms of the beliefs meaning something. In 2012 I gave step two an uninspired name to parallel the search for meaning in life which it filters: the "demand for meaning". It refers to pinpointing and validating the distinctive assertions imposed by found beliefs. The search for meaning isn't done until the searcher appraises their findings to judge if they're fake. A belief that can't survive relevant checks, or a belief that has no checks, is undeserving of loyalty. Believers who stop before step two shall become comfortable with the role of perpetual seeker.

Fortunately, translating a belief into digestible pieces isn't an advanced or rare undertaking; a timeless child's story can supply an example. What if the intrepid, well-traveled, talkative Peter T. Hooper tells Liz that he has collected hard to reach eggs by riding on top of a Ham-ikka-Schnim-ikka-Schnam-ikka Schnopp? Whether she trusts his tale or not, she probably wants definite information about the elements of this belief he's communicating. In essence, what is the Ham-ikka-Schnim-ikka-Schnam-ikka Schnopp, anyway?

Toward that goal Liz could ask pointed questions, assuming Peter can't show her a whimsical artist's rendering. She could focus on the realities that he would be expected to know if the belief of him on the top of the Schnopp were accurate. He wouldn't get credit for recounting additional information without explaining how he knows it, such as the Schnopp's age. Nor for cryptically calling the Schnopp a variant of another new creature. Nor for relaying hearsay from unknown or unqualified origins (internet public forums?). Nor for speaking exclusively in brief generalities or hunches.

To the contrary, persuasive answers would revolve around how its existence uniquely impinged on him. What was different because it was there? What perceptions did it register in his eyes, ears, fingers? What familiar creatures did it remind him of? How did he learn where to find one? What did it eat? The meaningfulness of the belief he proposes hinges on the kinds of particulars that Liz, or anyone, could potentially rediscover. He might have been on top of a rare creature with an official name that he doesn't know. The more unequivocal clarification of which belief someone's talking about, the less opportunity for confusion, and the more opportunity for inspecting its accuracy.

Liz may accept the belief in the Schnopp either with or without a comprehensive concept of what it is as well as the detectable outcomes its existence would/does lead to. But if the absence of the comprehensive concept nudges her to decline the belief, she shouldn't be scolded for an "oversimplified" and/or "close-minded" view on the belief. Beliefs can be minimally possible and be in competition nonetheless. During that competition, beliefs backed by elaborate, coherent, and abundantly verified concepts surpass beliefs that aren't.

Realities are complicated (and thereby more riveting). It's not feasible for every belief to be equally evident. Some beliefs can't help being more exploratory, abstract, or obscure. That said, children reading an imaginative book have enough shrewdness to understand that a creature in it should have more than a name and a few descriptive features before convincing anyone that it ventures outside the book's covers. Effective hoaxes require more effort than that. For genuine creatures such as the platypus, to avoid being labeled hoaxes might require more effort still...

Sunday, March 06, 2016

making a statement

I was raised to be charming, not sincere. (said by Cinderella's Prince in Into the Woods)
Last month I covered an overzealous compromise. In it, people would agree to a large communal "middle" category of beliefs, built on stiff and unassuming methods of investigation and deduction. In return, they would be entitled to follow, without any outside judgment whatsoever, completely unfiltered beliefs at or beyond the "edges". The compromise's drawback, which I tried to portray before, is that it poses more questions about the overall scheme's coherency. Do they unconditionally urge that all edge beliefs are equally probable? If not, they're applying some set of benchmarks in practice. Then which benchmarks are they using on the edges as well as the middle...and would their own edge beliefs meet or exceed these benchmarks? Where, i.e. by what rules, are they sketching the chasm between the middle and the edges? When believers' edge beliefs are strikingly dissimilar from the middle, how are they convincingly justifying the times that happens?

These questions might be answerable to various degrees of satisfaction and/or vagueness. But the discouraging yet unsurprising possibility is that a believer might not respond. And their unresponsiveness might not be sinister in the least; they could be being sincere about the half-examined sincerity of their edge beliefs. Depending on the kind and depth of their engagement, they might state that statements of their beliefs aren't paramount. Yes, they're, uh, linked with beliefs, but they're not communicating or defending solid pronouncements.

Their professed indecisiveness requires more probing. It might be harmless or it might not. If their squishy beliefs are so shallow that they can and do mostly live (and think) without accounting for the beliefs, then so be it. By contrast, if the beliefs that they can't/won't formulate are presiding over them, then more focus is warranted. This is an occasion that benefits from binding a statement's meaning to identifiable repercussions. Like a gravitational deflection revealing the presence of a central mass, the principle goes in both directions: identifiable repercussions on a believer are making a statement on their beliefs.

Actions speak louder than words. I'm guessing an economist would say that exchanging an amount of money for item A but not B is making a statement about the relative preciousness of A over B to the purchaser. Show the allocation of minutes in an average week, and you'll make a statement about what ends up being priorities. Nor is this always a cold-blooded calculation. Arousing events make a statement about the attachments of the aroused. The books and music and TV they're willing to experience for hours upon hours make a statement about them.

The pitfall is that symbolic objects embody the interpreter's thoughts through their eyes. They're the context for the statements their actions make. Their doing something wholly (or partially) for the sake of Q doesn't prevent their sibling doing the same thing wholly (or partially) for the sake of R. Once more the solution is wider checking of identifiable repercussions, some of which are subtle or even internal. Doing something that's making a statement about the doer's public compassion points toward expecting a potential inconsistency with private doings. Doing something that's making a statement about the doer's driving purpose points toward expecting a thousand echoes of it in miscellaneous, seemingly unrelated doings.

In the final analysis, a "Pragmatism-ish" definition of meaning isn't permanently deterred by a shrugging reluctance to overtly commit to ideas. To be coy but active is to make statements about the motivating beliefs. To be unable to systematically summarize but nonetheless able to reply to a series of informative questions is to have a perspective, however murky it may be beforehand. The disquieting discovery might be that the believer doesn't really believe in much. Or, they might believe in more than they themselves suspected. Perhaps they regularly attend a service in which they parrot severe statements as part of a group...but their parroting act means nothing to them other than, "Good people join in the recitation; I am a good person too." The semantics of the statements are ignored. Meanwhile another may honestly say that they haven't pledged the exclusive accuracy of a belief or delved into its intricacies...but they proceed to loudly despise a specific behavior because, "I've been told that's just not permitted by my beliefs."

Whether beliefs have substandard corroboration or not, effective discussion cannot start until the believers have boldly unearthed what they believe and why: the statements they make despite not embracing the simplistic words.