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Many people are allergic to the word ‘faith’; in skeptic circles it tends to be used in the sense of “believing in something in the absence of any evidence or rational basis for believing in it.” When non-skeptics say “ah, but everyone has a faith of some kind – yours is just in ‘skepticism’ and ‘rationality’,” they often respond with anger, vitriol and Richard Dawkins quotes.
I think there is a more useful definition, however:
We all accrue various fragmentary models of reality in relation to aspects of our lives as we go along. We may well think that we have good reasons for using these models, such that they become the default interpretive frameworks in their appropriate contexts – in which case, they can fairly be called ‘beliefs’: I believe that the Earth revolves around the Sun (because I find the scientific reasoning behind that supposition convincing), and that societies work better when people better understand one another’s perspective (because many people have observed this throughout history, and because I’m a big old hippy), and that the best remedy for having put too much lemon in a dish is soy sauce (I worked that one out myself); but none of these beliefs impacts greatly on the others - they are, essentially, fragmentary and isolated.
Faith occurs when enough of these fragments of experience, perception and belief coalesce that they form an integrated ontology, a stable and unified way of relating to the world.* Such gestalt perspectives can still be examined and analysed using the same tools of reason, experimentation and contemplation that we often use to determine the validity of our fragmentary beliefs. However, the experience of developing such a gestalt feels very different to the individual – it is an experience of being immersed in a pool, rather than gauging the amount of water left in the kettle, or of being carried along by a strong tidal current, rather than judging the strength of flow from a showerhead.
The defining characteristic of a faith, then, is the sense of surrendering oneself to it; of accepting it not as just an owned fragment of knowledge but as a context that is fundamentally constitutive of one’s being and personality. This is, in essence, to say ‘I do not intend to spend much more time questioning the validity of this overall approach – it has come to seem self-evident to me that it is helpful, meaningful and profound, such that I wish to live my whole life, and to engage the world, on the basis of it’.
Such a description can be applied to religious faiths of course (and I believe the above is a more accurate description of the way in which most people come to religious faith than the skeptics’ common assumption that people have somehow been tricked or brainwashed into accepting every dogmatic proposition of the religion in question) – but it is also an appropriate description of the place ideas such as ‘rationality’ and ‘skepticism’ can play in the lives of the non-religious.
*As we point out in the comments, we actually start out with this kind of integrated ontology, also known as ‘just being’, before we start to develop conscious thoughts (and awareness of those thoughts). But we don’t really think of it as an integrated ontology, because we’re too busy sleeping and crying and stuffing our faces with rusks. Some people retain a sense of unified being into adulthood, which forms the basis of their religious faith. But for those of us who discover the joys of existential angst, it’s only after we’ve lost this kind of integration - and then rediscovered it - that we are consciously aware of the presence and significance of it, and are thus drawn to try to rehabilitate the term ‘faith’ as something meaningful and valid.
The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the ‘disenchantment of the world.’ Precisely the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life either into the transcendental realm of mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct and personal human relations.
It is not accidental that our greatest art is intimate and not monumental, nor is it accidental that today only within the smallest and intimate circles, in personal human situations, in pianissimo, that something is pulsating that corresponds to the prophetic pneuma, which in former times swept through the great communities like a firebrand, welding them together.
If one tries intellectually to construe new religions without a new and genuine prophecy, then, in an inner sense, something similar will result, but with still worse effects. And academic prophecy, finally, will create only fanatical sects but never a genuine community.- Max Weber
"You can’t have your cake and eat it" has always annoyed me. You can’t eat a cake if you don’t have it in the first place, so presumably the phrase means "You can’t eat your cake and still have it afterwards."
But why would you want to? It’s not like a wedge of cake can be usefully repurposed as a functional doorstop. There’s icing and that, but compared to chandeliers and Kandinsky prints, cakes don’t have any great ornamental value. It’s not like we look at photos of past cakes in our lives and say “I wish I still had that cake, to remind me of the good times”. The only viable function of a cake is to be consumed.
But if by “You can’t have your cake and eat it”, or even the marginally preferable “You can’t eat your cake and have it”, we simply mean “I wish I could eat this cake and still have it afterwards so I could eat it again”, we could have just started with more cake in the first place. Or just made another cake. We aren’t alotted a cake quota at birth allowing us to consume but a single cake once in our entire lives, such that the eating of it is a bitter-sweet moment of meditation on the mutability of all things. It’s a fucking cake.
In summary, this phrase is dumb.
A quote from Gus Speth in the latest Common Cause newsletter: “I used to think that top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that thirty years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.”
Two things determine the functionality of a car engine - whether it is getting enough of the resources it requires (petroleum and oxygen), and whether the various internal components of the engine are operational and in appropriate relationship with one other.
An engine may run at less than optimal efficiency because it is receiving insufficient fuel or oxygen - perhaps due to a blocked fuel line, or to driving at a high altitude. Or, an engine may run at less than optimal efficiency because the carburettor is wrongly calibrated and is mixing the fuel and oxygen in the wrong quantities, or because the cylinders are not firing in well-timed sequence, or because the engine is not properly lubricated.
An engine can fail entirely because it overheats or a vital component breaks; or because there is simply not sufficient fuel or oxygen available.
Much of modern economics concerns the appropriate relational functioning of the economy’s internal components - whether there is enough money to lubricate the interaction of the economy’s various elements, or what the best mixture of state and private sector activity is. Very occasionally, war or natural disaster forces it to consider the temporary effect of a vital component failing.
This is largely a function of the fact that, for 1st World (sic) industrialised nations over the last century or so, it has been safe to assume that the flow of input resources will be continuous and uninterrupted. Through expansion, conquest, colonialism and the exploitation of untapped natural wealth (including shifting from wood to coal to oil as energetic feedstock), the input-flow has largely been assured, and the problems that have arisen have largely been a function of internal calibration and emergent systemic phenomena.
Much of the knee-jerk criticism of Keynesianism, for example, (often by people who have never actually read Keynes), argues that increasing the amount of money in circulation without a concomitant increase in real wealth will simply devalue the currency - in an economy of 100 groats and 100 loaves, minting an extra 100 groats will just make loaves cost 2 groats instead of 1 (will make the groats worth half as much, or the loaves twice as dear, depending on your preferred perspective).
This ignores the possibility, however, that a when a systemic problem occurs (one independent of any interruption of fundamental inputs), it may indeed require a purely systemic - and often counter-intuitive - intervention to correct it.
If a fuel line is blocked, for example, rather than simply adapt to a lower input of fuel, it might be appropriate to try to force fuel through the hose at higher pressure, to dislodge the blockage. When a cold car engine keeps stalling, we make higher rather than lower demands on it, revving the engine in the hope of keeping it turning over long enough to warm up.
And when an economy becomes locked into a downward spiral of decreasing demand, activity and expenditure, it can be (and has been) appropriate to flood the economy with artificial demand or increased monetary lubricant to break out of the dysfunctional systemic pattern, as Keynes suggested.
When there is a genuine shortage of external inputs, however - oxygen for engines or grain for economies; petroleum for engines, or, erm, petroleum for economies - such internal systemic considerations are no longer relevant.
Keynes’ idea can be re-stated as: assuming a continuous throughflow of resources, governments should save during times of surplus in order to be able to overcome systemic slowdowns in times of scarcity. Nowhere did Keynes deny that a choking-off of the supply of fundamental inputs would result in a very different kind of economic problem, to which Keynesian solutions would not apply (although, from the perspective of Edwardian Britain, the prospect of such an eventuality probably seemed very remote to him).
At this stage, most of the mainstream economic conversation still revolves around ‘to stimulus or not to stimulus’; Krugman vs. Friedman, Stiglitz vs. Bison (A., not M.), Keynes vs. Keynes-haters. But if, as I would suggest, our current economic difficulties primarily arise not from an internal systemic dysfunction, but from our having reached the peak and decline of conventional oil, alongside the near limits of agricultural, mineral and ecological extraction, then this kind of economic thinking is less than helpful.
To attempt to resolve our current crisis using the economic theories of the last two centuries is like trying to fix an engine by endlessly tinkering with the carburettor, timing, sparkplugs and oil levels, without actually bothering to check whether there is any gas left in the tank.
I’m writing this as Zoe Ball is on the TV presenting some kind of live reveal-a-thon for the new Doctor. Or rather the actor playing the new Doctor. I’ve got the sound off, because I can guess how mind-warpingly awful it must be, and I’m not sure that dwelling on the identity of the actor playing the character (in the guise, evidently, of that most oxymoronic of TV events, the BBC Sports Personality of the Year), is really likely to help me with the necessary suspension of disbelief when it comes to believing that the character played by that actor somehow is the same as the character played by the previous actor.* But we’ll get to that.
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