Friday, 15 April 2016

(Ig)noble Suffering and the Persistence of Faith

I have suffered too much in this life not to expect another . . . . All the subtleties of metaphysics will not make me doubt the immortality of the soul for a moment; I feel it, I believe it, I want it, I hope for it, I shall defend it to my last breath. J.-J. Rousseau

Noble suffering we can endure. Perhaps it is for a worthy ideal that we suffer, perhaps at the hands of a brutish tyrant who would crush our spirit and vanquish our will. In the face of such suffering, we stiffen our resolve and harden our hearts and know that we will not be broken. We know that the pains we suffer today will be rewarded tomorrow with glorious redemption. Our suffering will be recognised as worthy and righteous. And knowing this, we can endure it.
But most suffering is nothing like that. Most suffering is appallingly mundane. Maliciously quotidian. Disastrously ordinary. Bills must be paid. Rent found. Mortgages kept up. We make our weary way to work. We are anonymous among the anonymous crowd. Our fellow-sufferers. We toil at our jobs, unsure why. We make our way home, minds numb, souls worn.

A bit late for prayer?

None of this produces the obvious and grand signs of suffering, of servitude, of punishment. There are no marks of the lash across our backs, no chains about our feet, nothing to suggest that here is noble suffering. There is nothing noble in eternal tedium and the knowledge that tomorrow will be unrelentingly like today. And this simply makes the suffering harder to endure. There is no promise of redemption, no promise that one day someone will say, ‘See how he suffered for his cause. See how he endured and how he fought for freedom or justice or something decent on the TV’. There is, that is to say, no point to our suffering, and it is this—this abject pointlessness—which so strips it of anything noble. The worst malady a human can suffer is an abiding sense of pointlessness. Without a reason why, the smallest pin-prick can become a torment worse than anything imagined in Dante’s hell. But give us that reason, explain to us why, and then we can endure.

Those latter-day prophets of rationalism like Richard Dawkins or the late (and tediously boorish) Christopher Hitchens who shriek hysterically about the evils of faith are like an excitable teenager who has just discovered Nietzsche and goes around daringly proclaiming to the world that God is dead. While it’s excusable in a teenager, it becomes less so once a person is of more advanced years, say twenty. From the comfortable and lofty heights which zealots such as Dawkins proclaim their message, it is easy to be unbowed by the meaninglessness of it all, but if your life is not quite so privileged, or yours is a disposition—unelected—which simply can find no comfort in science and reason, then faith in something unseen, glorious and transcendent may be all you have to make this life bearable. And so be it.

Monday, 4 April 2016

A Victory for Science? Hardly.

People are, as a general rule, quite willing to believe anything, without bothering too much with the details. If it has the barest appearance of truth, that will do. Actually, even the barest appearance of truth isn’t always necessary. It is, after all, always better to believe something than nothing, certainty is preferable to doubt, false belief better than no belief at all. So, visitors from outer-space travel improbable distances to speed through our skies (occasionally stopping over long enough to probe some (un)lucky individual) before leaving again (having, presumably, decided the trip was a wasted effort), molecules of water retain memories of whatever has passed through them (minerals, plants, faecal matter), and vaccinations unquestionably cause of autism (which explains why populations in which 85–90% of individuals are vaccinated have autism rates of about 1%).

Just paying a flying visit.

Now, that people might hold false beliefs is not, in itself, a cause for much ado. For one thing, much of the time false beliefs cause no great harm. If you want to stay up late watching the skies for passing aliens, that’s your business and no one else need be bothered (provided you don’t make any noise and disturb their slumber).

For another, even if we find people’s false beliefs entirely risible and feel a strong urge to point out to them the error of their ways, it is most often an exercise in futility. The thing about beliefs is they’re the one thing we can truly call our own and we cannot be easily dispossessed of them—chain me to a wall, tickle my feet and do all manner of dastardly things to me, have me confess to all manner of crimes and recant all manner of false beliefs, and yet I will still, in my deepest core, hold firm to those beliefs, and there’s not a thing you can do about it. It’s frustrating, but then, so too is watching Arsenal—that’s life.

Of course, it is also true that some false beliefs may impinge on others in ways that aren’t entirely tolerable. For instance, if you are curious as to whether or not the old lady next door really is a witch and decide to use the traditional mediaeval method of dunking (in which drowning is a sign of sweet innocence, bless), the old lady next door might, reasonably enough, raise some objections. If a common cold ails you and you decide to sip the elixir of homeopathy, that’s your problem, but if your child has leukaemia and you eschew ‘conventional’ medicine in favour of an ‘alternative remedy’, well, be it on your conscience. And, let it not go unsaid, if you refuse to vaccinate your child, relying on the willingness of others to do so to ensure we aren’t returned to a world in which fifty per cent of children die before the age of five, then you are a parasite on society (unless, of course, you choose to take yourself and your unvaccinated child off to a deserted island, there to savour the intoxicating deliciousness of a vaccine-free world).

Another not entirely inconsequential point to consider is that we live, nominally at least, in a liberal society. If the basic premise of liberalism is that all should be free to do as they wish provided they don’t harm others (to put it crudely), then people must be allowed to cherish and nurse their false beliefs to the utmost content of their hearts, provided only they harm no one else as a result. And if we struggle at times to determine whether someone’s beliefs do harm others—does not vaccinating a child actually harm anyone?—well, that’s the price to be paid for liberalism. No one said it was perfect.
And that, finally, brings me to the question of Vaxxed, a film directed by that disgraced and disgraceful demagogue Andrew Wakefield, the man who is so tirelessly working to raise mortality rates the world over. When it was announced that the film was to be shown at the Tribeca film festival—in the interests, said Robert de Niro, of having an open discussion—a powerful body of scientists and other right-thinking persons swung into action. No sooner had they mobilised than the film was withdrawn from the festival, the searing heat of righteous scientific rage too hot for the festival organisers. This, said Alison Singer, one of those opposed to the film, ‘showed the weight and heft of the scientific community when it comes together’. ‘It’s wonderful,’ she enthused, ‘that we are now seeing science triumph—to me that was the message of what has happened: science won.’
Now, you may well be able to discern my views on vaccination from what I’ve said above. I’m no friend to the Luddites. But was this a victory for science? No, of course not. Science didn’t win. Brute force won. The scientific community merely demonstrated that it can punch harder than we might have thought—the latex glove of the scientist concealed an iron fist. Science only wins when people accept the reasoning of science. If I wander about proclaiming that one plus one equals three, it is no victory for science if I’m taken off the streets and locked up in the loony bin. Singer’s suggestion that this was ‘not about free speech; this is about dangerous speech’ is merely laughable, if we really do live in a liberal society. This is the price we pay.
So, by all means, do what you want to stop people spreading a gospel of lies, but don’t pretend you’re doing science. As Diderot observed in the mid-eighteenth century, the ‘progress of Enlightenment is limited—it hardly reaches the suburbs—the people there are too stupid, too miserable, and too busy—there it stops’. In the early 21st century, nothing has changed—welcome to our world.