"When an old and distinguished person speaks to you, listen to him carefully and with respect – but do not believe him. Never put your trust in anything but your own intellect. Your elder, no matter whether he has gray hair or lost his hair, no matter whether he is a Nobel Laureate, may be wrong... So you must always be skeptical – always think for yourself." --Linus Pauling


The Sacred And The Profane

A conversation I had tonight with Jeremy:

Jack: A question: Do you think people who cannot appreciate the profane in the world (i.e. the clever use of profanity, expression of ideas that might be considered dirty, etc.) also have a corresponding lack of appreciation of the sacred?

Jeremy: I believe that the more simplistic view of the world you have, the weaker your soul. So, yes.

Jack: You know, I don't know what I like and am impressed by more: My question, or your answer.

Jeremy: (Laughs) Hint: It's your question.

Jack: Ah, but your answer to the question was sublime.

Jeremy: I've got to stop putting this essay off. Seems you've worked your way into my theme.

Jack: Excellent! My fifteen minutes of fame is assured! Now I can focus all my energy on achieving another gratuitous fifteen that I wasn't even allotted!

Jeremy: You've heard of the Turing test, of course.

Jack: Yeah.

Jeremy: No program has been able to pass it yet. The reason is because of a lack of nuance. There simply aren't enough programmers in the world to put that much character into an intelligent system.

So the point is, since I always approach these things obliquely for some damn reason, and also because you're currently fascinated by Dawkins & the complexity of nature, it's become clear to me that simplistic views, ones that summarize (as in racism or stereotypes), or are absolute (with us or against us), or are a work of accounting (health of a child is worth some dollar value) are the exact forms of thought that steal our souls.

Jack: Interesting. You know, we had a conversation about this kind of thing a few months ago.

Jeremy: Really?

Jack: Yeah. It was expressed differently, though. We were talking about the American Revolution and came to the conclusion that if you looked back at the great figures of history... (Benjamin Franklin, Marie Curie, Victoria Woodhull, Gandhi, Winston Churchill, etc.) what you notice is that the greater the subject, the more complex as people they were.

Jeremy: Oh yes, I remember that conversation. They were Shakespearian in stature, with flaws as great as their presence.

Jack: Right. And your real fucking bastards were simplistic in comparison. Everything was an either/or, black & white proposition with them.

Jeremy: E.g., In religio-fanatic world, everything is a summarizing symbol. "Cross", "tit on the TV", "Flag on the Floor," "Muslim/Christian": It all strives to simplify.

Jack: You know what I find really cool?

Jeremy: What? Redheads?

Jack: I notice that when all ideas of 'Fate' or 'Destiny' or 'Religion' are expunged from my worldview (but not the possibilities of same), when everything I am becomes my sole responsiblity...

I suddenly feel capable of anything.

Jeremy: Perhaps it's comforting to know it's all a playground anyway.


D said...

I think most of us are mentally lazy. It is so much easier to oversimplify things in the manner in which the two of you were discussing. Actually considering the different sides to an argument and attempting to understand their complexities takes a lot of mental effort. And oversimplifying a situation can allow us to feel self-righteous, which I think is one of the most intoxicating feelings around if you give in to it.

Lisa said...

Wow. Lots of stuff going on there, too much to really sink my teeth into here. But I do have a few balls to lob into the conversation.

1. The effect of religious belief on the individual and on the larger community is an interesting one. Certainly, much harm has come from religious belief, but also has much good. One effect is that to the good, religious belief inspires a striving towards betterness, leading people to behave better towards one another. Mother Teresa is an excellent example, as is President Carter. To the bad, religious belief can also inspire groups to wage war on the infidels, such as the current state of the FCC, Al Quaeda, and our own Bush Administration.

Religious belief can also inspire feelings of nonresponsibility, that whatever happens is God's Will, that we are forever sinners doomed to make mistakes and will always be forgiven. Even the converse, "the Devil made me do it," proves this point.

However, by reputing the existence of the divine, we do indeed underline our own personal responsibility for not only our actions, but also who we are. That can be very freeing. Without any divine being to scoop up blame and praise for us, we alone are the masters of our own destiny.

As for appreciation for the sacred and the profane, well, I don't think it's possible to state authoritatively the content of another's true thoughts. Do those who object to Janet Jackson's tits have an equal inability to appreciate a sunset? Hell if I know. Only they do, in their heart of hearts, and they ain't talking.

Jeremy said...

D, sometimes I think it is due to mental laziness, other times I think it's from a desire to solve everything. And sometimes I think it's a natural ability gone wild. Humans are brilliant at seeing the patterns in things, and tend to associate one thing with another quickly. There's no doubt, though, that by reducing complex situations incessantly we renounce our base human ability to recognize the intricacies of the world, and lose a smidgeon of wonder each time.

Lisa, I agree. Religion is a powerful enabler for both the good and bad parts of Man. I think this is because for good people, it provides a strong conviction to create a better world, yet for bad people, it provides the absolutes they require to purify it.

As to the profane enhancing the divine: I believe grey areas are crucial to understanding our own morality. Within mixtures of evil intent/good result, zealotry/forgiveness, breast feeding/"wardrobe malfunction", and so on, we understand who we are, where our thresholds lie, what the real deal is, and tend to become better human beings. Without appreciating the profane, or at least exploring it, we do our good parts a disservice. Missing a reference point, we will always "feel" right, even when we are not. We'll see profanity where there is none (interracial marriage, for example), or righteously commit atrocities. That kind of thing.

And about denying Fate & Religion: I think rejecting the divine has its dangers too, some of them being isolation, arrogance, and immorality. But most of these dangers can be thwarted with a heavy dose of curiosity, for with curiosity comes humility for sure, and a powerful sense of engagement in the world.

Anyway, that is what the theoretical hypothesis speculator inside my brain conjectures. Price for analysis: $.02.