Monday, April 23, 2007

Another thought on truth and beauty

Cognitive science has found that intuition passes for thought even when the thinking is done to weigh moral choices of great import. Aesthetic judgements, even the trained and reasoned findings of art historians and music critics, sometimes seem arbitrary to my farm boy tastes. Now I see that arbitrariness as inevitable and not to be attributed entirely to schools of thought or institutions but more to the formative circumstances which incline one toward this school of thought or that. That is to say, as I often do, we hardly know where our "reasoning" comes from and ought to be much more deliberate and communal in coming up with our endorsed findings [thank god for juries?]. In a disagreement over whether Picasso paintings are universally stirring things to behold or whether that other Austrian Arnold produced grating impenetrable music, you can just walk away from the contentiousness with a shrug: "there is no accounting for taste".

Keats deeply believed in the immortality of the pattern, the threads of longing that run uninterrupted through the sequence of chopped off lives since before that urn was fired. So do I, in a way. What he deeply believed became, for him, synonymous with beauty.

We may think our science seems to bear on these matters when we understand that thread as the twining of gene and culture. Still, if there is comfort in the perception of pattern, the comfort of it comes from an intuitive spot, a "belief" that that cycle of longing is in us, IS us, is how we connect to all time outside our finite selves. I may only speak for myself but that is my view of the conditions from which the sensed meanings of our lives arise. And it is necessarily the case that coming to this admittedly intuitive understanding of all these deep currents we sense first and explain later as perhaps only the workings of gene and culture, we have not thereby reduced their "beauty". We have not reduced the reality of the passions with which we follow out these faint guidelines of fate, or the awe they may strike in us as the patterns spring into consciousness gathered from scattered experiences.

It might more simply be that beauty is our name for the sensation that arises when the deepest patterns we hold in us are confirmed by a painting, a piece of music or even a sermon. In a way, physical beauty, such as the face or figure of a beautiful woman is also the apprehension of unusually pure examples of patterns. When they deserve their category of special respect, sermons have earned it for being representative of an entire scheme of beliefs and perhaps for coupling values to actions and expectations.

The patterns we carry within us need not reflect any objective reality. They come by sundry means to be within us: by wiring or upbringing, observing nature or even from reading blogs. But we scan constantly and detect matches with little conscious effort. When the match is found, the beauty is noted. Belief has too much to struggle against if it is contrary to basic observable elements and facts. But patterns and rules that we believe in, especially those allowing exceptions, can be profoundly resistant to disproof and will persist as the organizing principle of our experience, the way to find whats right out of so much that is wrong. I recently opined that it must be very difficult to create a beautiful lie. That was an incomplete thought. Beauty can be seen where the pattern is only hoped for and the evidence, in an objective sense, is missing. In this sense, I consider religion to be a beautiful lie.

I will accept the sloppy way in which we grasp for the root of motivation. The hunger for "whys" is universal and will be satisfied even if it has to eat the empty box. I will not demand that we all prove or compute, with the rigor of Russell and Whitehead, the schemes of belief we claim: so long as we actually live by our preachings, their viability is soon tested.

Why can we not admit that much of what we dispute and defend about one or the other forms of deity that some people espouse are also arbitrary, intuitive and primarily the result of which household we happen to grow up in? What makes this such a sore topic? Why do we deal with religion as if, unlike so much else about which we disagree, it could only have one right answer? If I grew up eating peanut butter sandwiches and you ate only bologna, we could each try a bite of the other's lunch, expecting to change no preferences but to widen understandings. What puts it in our heads that our sandwich is cosmic and the other guy's is store bought? It is unfortunate that there are categories of belief that hold themselves to be worthless if they are not considered absolutely true, more "true" than rules of math or laws of physics. Tolerance is all that will save people on either side of such beliefs. The fear of worthlessness fuels intolerance.

To say your religious beliefs are rationalized intuition is not to say they are less valuable guidance than my scientifically informed world view. PZ Myers, among a few others, makes the argument that the non-believers give too much deference to the believers. I probably stepped on enough toes already but I do want to be clear that my own lack of certainty and my pragmatism caution me that anyone who is doing at least as much good for their town and country as I am is not to be questioned but to be sought as a confederate. My scale of "good" being all I can use to make that determination, no further questioning is needed.

Religious scales of goodness may be fine inside ones own head. But the rest of us lack access there so let the scale of goodness be communal. Ever since the idea of the social contract was put before us, there has been a fitful trend to codify "good" as some blend of the greatest good for the majority and stopping short of harm to the minority. Always an imperfect blend in a pluralistic world, the progress of its formulation in America has been brought to a halt, even reversed lately. I am not a person without faith. One of the beautiful patterns I dream may yet be realized is that the progress toward a more whole and beneficent society will resume when all of the personal and denominational scales of goodness weld together in all the matters where they find common tenets of altruism and compatible views on which ways individuals are responsible for each other and their community. That there IS a pattern has been obscured because we have lived for over a decade under media siege from the neocons promoting the views that only divisive matters, such as abortion and gay marriage should be emphasized. They have, in effect, told us that tolerance and common ground are the ugly lie. Its past time for that disservice of the conservatives to be done away with. Even the confrontational atheism of a PZ Meyers would work better within the "lets work together" paradigm I hope for: he has not been battling to teach evolution in church but only that church teachings not be forced upon his biology teaching. Tolerance takes place at the boundaries of belief, battles occur when invasions are attempted. The pattern of cooperating scales of goodness that looks so beautiful to me is one played out at the boundaries of belief communities.

This post marks no intent to change minds on matters of belief but rather is my statement of protest that, since minds will not be changed and outside of the cases we each state for our own belief, there is no generally accepted super-case to recommend one over the other, we ought to just let it be. There is work to do. The world is a place full of hurt and want. There is a super-case for our putting aside arbitrary differences and fixing up our neighborhoods, our wells, our glaciers, for cleaning our oceans and air, for preventing disease, for seeking the population levels whereby we could all live within our means and within our borders....and only after all that, will I try a bite of your sandwich.

This post is linked among some very interesting writing in the 65th Carnival of the Godless at Klaasacts.

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