Friday, April 20, 2012

The Psychology of Conviction

"What's wrong with our politicians these days," one hears often, "is that they have no convictions."  This familiar complaint gets at a real problem.  So many politicians are unprincipled, in the sense that what drives them is exclusively their own short-term interest.  They will say anything to get elected, no matter how outrageous, or how little they believe it themselves.  We can and should detest this.

We should not, however, let our justified indignation mislead us into thinking that we simply want politicians who are "principled."  Why not?  It's easy to think of people who are sincere and "principled" in a sense, but who hold utterly wacky views, and refuse to subject these views to examination and evidence.  Such types might in fact be more dangerous than their unprincipled counterparts.  

"After all, it is putting a very high price on one's conjectures to have a man roasted alive because of them."  This line from Montaigne should not be forgotten.  Nor should these ironic words from C.G. Jung: "Even the holy Christian church, which is the incarnation of divine love, burnt more than a hundred thousand of her own children alive."  There is little or nothing admirable about the mere fact of having convictions.  The problem with Anders Breivik is not that he has no convictions.  It is not that he is unprincipled or insincere.  Nor is it that he is insane, in the clinical sense (if there is such a thing).  That's an extreme example, but it illustrates the point well.  

Nietzsche speaks to the issue: “This is our conviction: we confess it before all the world, we live and die for it.  Respect for all who have convictions!  I have heard that sort of thing even out of the mouths of anti-Semites.  On the contrary, gentlemen!  An anti-Semite certainly is not any more decent because he lies as a matter of principle."  One might take Nietzsche's point to be that content is more important than sincerity.  Someone who does something good, whether on principle or out of expediency, is preferable to someone who does something wicked but on principle.  Sincerity, if it is a virtue at all, is not the highest virtue.  Insincerity, though almost certainly a vice, is yet not the worst vice.

Nietzsche’s emphasis, however, is a little different.  He seems to think that one can be fully sincere, fully convinced or “convicted” (as some like to say), and yet fundamentally dishonest.  For Nietzsche, honesty is not really a function of subjective sincerity.  It has to do, rather, with one’s willingness to resist not only deceiving, but also being deceived.  Positively, it requires one to continually ask hard questions and to subject one’s answer to those questions (and indeed, one’s formulation of the questions themselves) to the most probing tests.  No matter how sincere the anti-Semite is in holding his anti-Semitism, he is guilty of a fundamental kind of dishonesty, because he is lazy with himself.  He is willing to deceive and to be deceived.  He holds anti-Semitism out of conviction, but not out of intellectual honesty.

What's the alternative?  Something like this: views based on an examination of things which proceeds according to what Nietzsche calls the “intellectual conscience.”  (See the second aphorism of the Gay Science.)

Nietzsche combines an attack on the “psychology of conviction” with a strong affirmation of the intellectual conscience and its attendant virtue, honesty or probity (Redlichkeit)  That alone prevents him, I think, from approving of politicians who are simply unprincipled.  It also enables him to distinguish between the ersatz honesty of subjective sincerity and the genuine article. 

Monday, April 16, 2012

Should we chase superstition and fear from our hearts?

"We should chase superstition and fear from our hearts, if we're going to survive and take levels of sanity higher."  This won't win any prizes for beautiful poetry, though it does scan perfectly well when sung by Andy Partridge.  At any rate, as I was listening to "Merely a Man" the other day (it appears on XTC's 1989 double-LP Orange and Lemons), I started to think less about the music (not their best, not their worst) and more about the sentiment expressed.

These questions took hold of me and refused to let go: Why does this sentiment seem particularly associated with self-proclaimed atheists and "free-thinkers"?  Why do we so rarely hear it expressed by the self-identified religious?
One possible answer: Religious folks share the sentiment, but simply don't think it gets at a serious problem.  While superstition and fear are not good things, godlessness and atheism are much worse.  We don't need to worry too much about the superstitious and fearful.  We can assume they're OK, as long as they're saying their prayers, receiving the sacraments, or whatever.  Even those who have a bad diet overall simply can't help but provide themselves with the nutrition they need for the general well-being of their organism. Superstition and fear, while not exactly praiseworthy things, pose no real threat to spiritual well-being.  The intellectual conscience is fine for those who want it.  But ultimately, it's optional.  It's not integral to piety.

This answer strikes me as hard to defend.  Consider the analogy to bodily health just invoked.  To slowly poison yourself through bad food and drink means that you will not feel as good as you should feel.  It entails that you will probably die an earlier death than you would like.  In matters of the spirit, things are much worse.  Any approach to God infected by superstition is likely to be a form of idolatry.  It will cause one to miss the mark altogether.

Some penetrating religious observers see the point. Pascal, for one, insists that genuine piety is different from superstition.  He notices that there are many who claim to believe, but do so out of superstition.  Indeed, he does not merely notice this, but uses it to support his claim that "there are few true Christians."  Or, as Nietzsche says in one place, in every religion the religious person is an exception.

So Pascal and Partridge agree (if only on this): we should chase superstition from our hearts.  But my original questions seem to re-emerge: why do religious folk seem generally not to be inspired by the sentiment?  Why do we so rarely hear it coming from them?  Why might an impartial observer conclude that those who concern themselves with superstition and fear as problems are more likely to be anti-religious than religious?

A second, darker answer suggests itself.  Many religious folk have a bad conscience about the whole matter.  In their quiet moments, they suspect that their own faith adds up to little more than fear and superstition.  The cry to "chase superstition and fear from our hearts" does not resonate, because it would mean to empty their own hearts.  Easier to go after other people, rather than worry about one's own darkness.

Is this answer correct?  I don't know.  Perhaps it applies to all of us some of the time, and some of us all of the time.

Here's a third possible answer (really a variant of the first): smart religious folk don't think too much these days about superstition, because they see that the alleged imperative to rid ourselves of superstition and fear is a bit old-fashioned.  However worked up those quaint Enlightenment folks might have been, we occupy a different historical moment.  For the most part, we've managed to let go of the worst superstitions, including the superstition that reasoned opposition to superstition will produce a more humane society.  As for the superstitions that remain, what harm do they do?  It's nice to have a bit of enchantment in our lives.  The real threat to our humanity, in any case, does not come not from the superstitious.  It arises from those who would mercilessly debunk anything and everything.

The last strand of this answer derives from a certain reading of C.S. Lewis's The Abolition of Man.  Lewis is right, I think, to take aim at a certain kind of "debunker" who, whatever his intention, does not exactly succeed in producing better thinkers or better human beings.  Moreover, when Lewis calls for the "irrigation of deserts" against the tendency of the debunkers, he does not mean to suggest that deserts should be watered by superstition.  I can follow Lewis a good way down this path.  Nonetheless, the sense that in our present times, credulity and superstition are not much of a problem strikes me as mostly an error.  We have little interest in chasing superstition and fear from our hearts.  But is it really because there is nothing to chase away?

I don't pretend to have exhausted the possibilities.  I'm still wondering.  Feel free to wonder with me in the comments...