(A Contribution To The Reeler’s Totally Unrelated Blog-A-Thon)
If I can be said to have any heroes, the American thinkers of the late 19th century are probably near the top of my list. One man in particular holds a fascination for me; One of the greatest thinkers America has ever produced, Charles Peirce is a man whose work and strange, tragic life proved a tremendous inspiration for me when I got to study just a little bit about him back in my college days. Peirce worked in extreme poverty and obscurity for the majority of his life, scraping together an existence in his home in Milford, PA* and never stopping his work. What I find most romantic about Perice, aside from the importance of his ideas which ranged from developing the initial theory of semiotics (which has had a deep impact on how I see the world, no pun intended) to his discovery of how electrical currents can carry out logical functions (the grandfather of today’s computer processors), is the life he lead; Huddled like a secret in an old house, working like mad to understand the world around him, flourishing in absolute obscurity only to have his ideas rediscovered and validated years after his death. He was deeply dedicated to logic, to science and mathematics and to rational inquiry, and when I read a few of his works in my early twenties, his skepticism and commitment to logical analysis struck a deep chord in me. This passage in particular;
“Above all, let it be considered that what is more wholesome than any particular belief is integrity of belief, and that to avoid looking into the support of any belief from a fear that it may turn out rotten is quite as immoral as it is disadvantageous. The person who confesses that there is such a thing as truth, which is distinguished from falsehood simply by this, that if acted on it should, on full consideration, carry us to the point we aim at and not astray, and then, though convinced of this, dares not know the truth and seeks to avoid it, is in a sorry state of mind indeed.“– Charles Peirce, The Fixation of Belief Popular Science Monthly 12 (November 1877)
Which, if I may, summarizes perfectly for me the problem with American life today. The truth, the pursuit of truth through the integrity of belief, has become undermined by the inversion of rational thinking; Desire has replaced reason. We are a nation of ideas born of conclusions, where beliefs are inherited and then presented prima facie. An example? The government demands that we go to war and then manufactures the premise. The desire becomes the reason. We call it preemptive war, a secondary inversion that is seen as a natural progression of ideas. Collectively, the nation embraces this decision making process because, to my eyes, it has a fundamental affinity to another brand of reasoning-inversion which still holds this country in its sway; Faith.
When I was nine years old, my maternal grandmother took me to another in a long line of Sunday services at St. John’s Episcopal church in Mt. Pleasant, MI. I don’t remember when it happened, but I do know that sometime, during one of any number of Holy Eucharist Rite II services at that lovely little church that year, I stopped believing in god. What began in me as serious doubt about the veracity of religion’s claims has, in the intervening years, blossomed into full-blown atheism. I am proud of my atheism, of my refusal to let the conventions of polite company force me to give passes to reason-free thinking, but I have to admit, the 21st century has been a tremendous challenge for me as, day after day, I watch the parade of intellectual dishonesty, emotional pandering and political grandstanding march by without an organized, rational response from free-thinking people in this country. What times are these in which we live? How can it be that when confronted with the insanity of fundamentalist religious extremism, our society responds like for like?
What continues to trouble me about faith in America is the way in which the right to believe is mistaken for veracity of belief itself. Despite some refreshing nastiness on his part, Christopher Hitchens describes the problem quite eloquently in his book god is not Great when he says
“Our belief is not belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason… We are not immune to the lure of wonder and mystery and awe: we have music and art and literature… Most important of all, perhaps, we do not need any machinery of reinforcement.” — Hitchens, god is not Great (pgs, 5-6)
and although we do not need “any machinery of enforcement”, we do need some effort to be made to win the war against enforced ignorance. It is truly a strange time to be alive when truth and the pursuit of truth has become negotiable because of the application of rational ‘aping’ to lend superstitions a false sense of rational authority. This is the most jaw-dropping technique that I see in our culture, more so for its audacious ineptitude at actually applying the rules of logic than for the crowd of true believers who accept the bullshit parade. My favorite current example of this Barnum-esque hucksterism is The Creation Museum which, in an attempt to lend credibility to an impossibly false understanding of the world, tries to mimic the tropes of a natural history museum (and apparently, a movie studio theme park) in order to showcase the veracity of the idea that the world is only 6,000 years old. This is America after all, the land where money is proof, and no expense has been spared at The Creation Museum to spend as much as possible in order to prove that the creation myth in the book of Genesis is literal truth. Browsing the museum’s website, I found a lovely testimonial that sums things up with a neat and tidy bow:
“As a result of hearing Ken Ham speak … I decided to quit avoiding the descrepancy (sic) between Genesis and ‘science’, and look into the question(s) head on. Your organization has been a tremendous help—I now completely accept God’s Word in Genesis and feel led/equipped to carry the message of Truth further in my own life, work and church.’ – Supporter from Virginia (USA)
Did you catch that nice little rhetorical move? The supporter feels “led” to “carry the message of truth” after looking into the discrepancy between Genesis and… wait for it… science. The best part? The supporter chose Genesis! I would really love to see what “help” The Creation Museum provided as the supporter “looked into the questions head on.” That inquiry, that “looking into the questions head on” is, of course, the crucial information that is missing from the discourse. No nonsensical rejection of actual logic would be complete without making claims for truth; Co-opting the language of reason is simply another way of undermining reason itself.
I’ve given a lot of thought as to whether or not I should have posted this bit of thinking, but I am tired of feeling like I should somehow hide my appreciation for reason while deferring to what I consider to be the undermining influence of popular irrationality. We have a national election coming up in the next year, and I know that the campaign trail is going to be littered with pandering and ridiculous situations where we ask our future leaders to respond empathetically to all sorts of irrelevant nonsense. This is perhaps the most troubling issue of all; Instead of a sober examination of the myriad of issues that our next President will inherit, the parade of crazy “what if” scenarios cultivated from television program scripts and skirting of real dialogue in favor of calculated sympathizing with superstitious concerns will continue on, unabated. It feels like a surreal dream, as if the impossible reality of an Orwell novel has somehow begun to bloom in the world around us. It is a long road to reconciliation for our society and the integrity of belief. But it is one we must travel, together.
* One day, when I was out at the MoMA Film Archive visiting a friend who worked there, we drove past Peirce’s house, which has a historical landmark designation. I took a few photos which were lost in my computer’s hard drive crash a few years ago, but it was pretty amazing to stumble upon Peirce’s house like that, driving down a two-lane highway in a small Pennsylvania town. A lovely little moment for me.