Saturday, October 23, 2010

Extraordinary is one word for it.

Last week I posted on a gnus-vs.-accomodationists thread at Pharyngula. PZ, building on the “it’s about truth” theme of his conference talk, had said:
I am unconvinced by these feeble appeasement tactics that don't really advance the ideas, but do leave people unperturbed from their comfortable positions of ignorance. But here's something else to consider, if the marshmallows of accommodationism are still committed to convincing me otherwise. Even if Rosenhouse's argument wasn't valid, if there were a thousand concrete empirical studies demonstrating that my approach was turning people into fundagelical Christians faster than a tent revival, it wouldn't matter. I'd still be me. I'd still express myself as I do, as I want, because that is all I ever do here — I have never considered myself to be competing in a popularity contest.
Seeing people (understandably) express incomprehension at what might appear to be intransigence in the face of evidence, I thought Václav Havel’s work on “living within the truth” was apt (I also had him on my mind since I had just read Largo Desolato). I posted two links with excerpts from his writings. There is much contained even in these short passages from the days of the Cold War: Havel is presenting – in response to those who see politics in terms of organized movements and parties and governments – seemingly simple, personal, local acts of living within the truth as the genuine form of political action and necessary basis for any movements for change. He’s also suggesting that these acts, which are inherently defiant even when not thought of as such, have a political power in terms of changing conscience and consciousness that is largely unrecognized. Their power lies in the fact that these actions respond to a drive for honesty, a refusal to participate in a lie.

I saw these arguments as completely relevant to and supporting of the gnu atheist position: Living without beliefs that have no basis in reality and without deferring to those beliefs or the people who hold them – without practicing ritualized deference or remaining silent in the face of nonsense – is living within the truth. It’s a stand of conscience and life rather than a narrow political tactic.

After posting this, I started to wonder about Havel’s religious beliefs, about which I don’t think I had ever read anything. My googling, unfortunately, quickly turned up this bit of blather from the constitutionally confused professional troll Andrew Brown. It begins “Václav Havel made a perfectly extraordinary speech yesterday...,” and that is certainly accurate. It’s about Havel’s opening remarks at this year’s Forum 2000, which are remarkable.

Since the speech lends itself, and since it’s become a habit, I’m going to respond to Havel’s remarks as I would a blog post:
While I am aware of the countless more serious problems with human settlements on this planet – from the slums on the fringes of Asian or Latin American megalopolises to cities devastated by earthquakes or floods – with your permission I will start in a somewhat personal vein.
I’ll just start by pointing out what he’s brushing aside in this first sentence, in the form of a link:

Years ago when I used to drive by car from Prague to our country cottage in Eastern Bohemia, the journey from the city centre to the signboard that marked the city limits took about fifteen minutes. Then came meadows, forests, fields and villages. These days the selfsame journey takes a good forty minutes or more, and it is impossible to know whether I have left the city or not. What was until recently clearly recognisable as the city is now losing its boundaries and with them its identity. It has become a huge overgrown ring of something I can’t find a word for. It is not a city as I understand the term, nor suburbs, let alone a village. Apart from anything else it lacks streets or squares. There is just a random scattering of enormous single-storey warehouses, supermarkets, hypermarkets, car and furniture marts, petrol stations, eateries, gigantic car parks, isolated high-rise blocks to be let as offices, depots of every kind, and collections of family homes that are admittedly close together but are otherwise desperately remote.

...In other words all the time our cities are being permitted without control to destroy the surrounding landscape with its nature, traditional pathways, avenues of trees, villages, mills and meandering streams, and build in their place some sort of gigantic agglomeration that renders life nondescript, disrupts the network of natural human communities, and under the banner of international uniformity it attacks all individuality, identity or heterogeneity. And on the occasions it tries to imitate something local or original, it looks altogether suspect, because it is obviously a purpose-built fake.
Congratulations. You’ve discovered urban sprawl.
There is emerging a new type of a previously described existential phenomenon: unbounded consumer collectivity engenders a new type of solitude.
There is nothing new about what Havel’s describing here. Note, though, that the cause is being introduced as the “unbounded consumer collectivity,” an abstract entity disconnected from any social, political, or economic referents.
Where has all this woeful development come from and why does it go on getting worse? How is at all possible that humans can treat in such a senseless fashion not only the landscape that surrounds them but the very planet which they have been given to inhabit? We know that we are behaving in a suicidal manner and yet we go on doing it. How is it possible?
Capitalism and unequal political power. Violence. You may want to ask some of the “business leaders” participating in your conference, or maybe some of your corporate sponsors – Coca-Cola, Imperial Tobacco,... – whose names keep flashing on the side of the screen as I read your remarks. Where in the city are the conference-goers staying, I wonder? (There are several people in the list of participants whom I admire, but I don’t admire their participation.)
We are living in the first truly global civilisation. That means that whatever comes into existence on its soil can very quickly and easily span the whole world.

But we are also living in the first atheistic civilisation, in other words, a civilisation that has lost its connection with the infinite and eternity. For that reason it prefers short-term profit to long-term profit. What is important is whether an investment will provide a return in ten or fifteen years; how it will affect the lives of our descendants in a hundred years is less important.
Yes, he really said this. That disembodied consumerism is...atheism. Forget that this isn’t what atheism means and join the chorus of misrepresenters. Atheism, “in other words,” is capitalism. (I always wonder what these arguments would look like if “Jewish” were substituted for “atheistic”...) What the part about infinity and eternity is about, and what it has to do with cities, I don’t know. Sounds quite like the standard “Science lacks a sense of wonder or appreciation of the cosmic” claptrap.
However, the most dangerous aspect of this global atheistic civilisation is its pride.
Of course it is! Where would atheist-and-science-bashing be without the overweaning-pride trope?
The pride of someone who is driven by the very logic of his wealth to stop respecting the contribution of nature and our forebears, to stop respecting it on principle and respect it only as a further potential source of profit.

And indeed, why should a developer go to the trouble of building a warehouse with several storeys when he can have as much land as he wants and can therefore build as many single-storey warehouses as he likes? Why should he worry about whether his building suits the locality in which it is built, so long as it be reached by the shortest route and it is possible to build a gigantic car park alongside it? What is to him that between his site and his neighbour’s there is a wasteland? And what is to him, after all, that from an aeroplane the city more and more resembles a tumour metastasizing in all directions and that he is contributing to it? Why should he get worked up over a few dozen hectares that he carves out of the soil that many still regard as the natural framework of their homeland?
Remember: this isn’t about capitalism, but about atheism and science.
I sense behind all of this not only a globally spreading short-sightedness, but also the swollen self-consciousness of this civilisation, whose basic attributes include the supercilious idea that we know everything and what we don’t yet know we’ll soon find out, because we know how to go about it.
Not capitalism or governments at all. Nope. Don’t bother to look into it. It’s The Atheistic Technological Society pure and simple (no slight meant to Jacques Ellul’s book, which I quite liked).
We are convinced that this supposed omniscience of ours which proclaims the staggering progress of science and technology and rational knowledge in general, permits us to serve anything that is demonstrably useful, or that is simply a source of measurable profit, anything that induces growth and more growth and still more growth, including the growth of agglomerations.
Who is convinced of this? Atheists?
But with the cult of measurable profit, proven progress and visible usefulness
In other words, atheism, of course.
there disappears respect for mystery and along with it humble reverence for everything we shall never measure and know,
Naturally it follows: The problem of cities (aesthetic issues are very important; yeah, slums, too, but he’ll get to those some other time) is due to atheistic, scientific arrogance, so the solution is the return to naive, humble reverence for mystery.
not to mention the vexed question of the infinite and eternal, which were until recently the most important horizons of our actions.
This has no meaning.
We have totally forgotten what all previous civilisations knew: that nothing is self-evident.
Who has?
I believe that the recent financial and economic crisis was of great importance and in its ultimate essence it was actually a very edifying signal to the contemporary world.
Yup, the financial crisis, too – ATHEISM.
Most economists relied directly or indirectly on the idea that the world, including human conduct, is more or less understandable, scientifically describable and hence predictable. Market economics and its entire legal framework counted on our knowing who man is and what aims he pursues, what was the logic behind the actions of banks or firms, what the shareholding public does and what one may expect from some particular individual or community.

And all of a sudden none of that applied. Irrationality leered at us from all the stock-exchange screens. And even the most fundamentalist economists, who – having intimate access to the truth - were convinced with unshakeable assurance that the invisible hand of the market knew what it was doing, had suddenly to admit that they had been taken by surprise.
In fact, science told us that it would happen; it was entirely predictable to (and foreseen by) those using empirical knowledge and reason and not blinded by market fundamentalism.
I hope and trust that the elites of today’s world will realise what this signal is telling us.
To fear atheism? (Again, pay no attention to capitalism. This is all about atheism and science and how prideful they are.)
I regard the recent crisis as a very small and very inconspicuous call to humility.
Of course you do.
A small and inconspicuous challenge for us not to take everything automatically for granted. Strange things are happening and will happen. Not to bring oneself to admit it is the path to hell. Strangeness, unnaturalness, mystery, inconceivability have been shifted out the world of serious thought into the dubious closets of suspicious people. Until they are released and allowed to return to our minds things will not go well.
Yes, this is precisely what we need more of.
The modern pride that I refer to did not manifest itself in architecture only recently. In the inter-war period many otherwise brilliant avant-garde architects already shared the opinion that confident and rational reflection was the key to a new approach to human settlement. And so they started planning various happy cities with separate zones for housing, sport, entertainment, commerce or hospitality, all linked by a logical infrastructure. Those architects had succumbed to the aberrant notion that an enlightened brain is capable of devising the ideal city. Nothing of the sort was created, however. Bold urbanist projects proved to be one thing, while life turned out to be something else. Life often demands something quite different from what the architects offer, such as an urban district consisting of the strangest hotchpotch of different functions, where the children’s playground is next to the government building, the government building next to a pub, and the pub next to an apartment house, which in turn is next to a small park.
Urban planning/”development” has very often been undemocratic and imposed with no attention to real human needs or nature and no respect for the rights of people in cities. The solution is to make it democratic, rights-based, and responsive to needs. This can’t be done on the basis of reverent awe, and it requires real struggles.
Wonder and an awareness that things are not self-evident are, I believe, the only way out of the dangerous world of a civilisation of pride.
No, democracy and the sorts of struggles you used to talk about a few decades ago, which take different forms in a different context, are the only way out of a destructive world of corporate and technocratic power. These have to be founded on reason and empirical knowledge – it’s impossible otherwise.
Can anything be absolutely self-evident?
Wonder at the non-self-evidence of everything that creates our world is, after all, the first impulse to the question: what purpose does it all have? Why does it all exist? Why does anything exist at all? We don’t know and we will never find it out.
These might not be questions of any value in any case. But shouldn’t you be telling this to the religious? Also, “wonder at the non-self-evidence of everything that creates our world” (a strange phrase) is also the impulse to investigating it (humbly, cooperatively, skeptically – scientifically) and discovering amazing and awesome things.
It is quite possible that everything is here in order for us to have something to wonder at.
It is?
And that we are here simply so that there is someone to wonder.
But what is the point of having someone wonder at something?
I don’t know. You posed the inane idea.
And what alternative is there to being?
Not being.
After all if there were nothing, there would also be no one to observe it. And if there were no one to observe it, then the big question is whether non-being would be at all possible.
The big question for whom?

A disappointing read, to put it mildly, and far removed from his earlier writings.

1 comment:

  1. well, that was headache inducing. but unfortunately, it was also very familiar. I just stumbled on the same sort of thing recently after reading some of the Archdruid Report archives (I started reading because he had interesting gardening and permaculture stuff, but it went downhill from there): the looming resource crisis is caused by the death of spirituality, is a long-developing consequence of "rationalists" and enlightenment thinkers setting out on a crusade to "eradicate what they thought useless superstitions"(paraphrasing here), and a general failure of reason. Oh, and the "secular religion" of progress.
    It seems a common trope, but I really fail to see why atheists are being blamed for capitalism/industrialism. It wasn't us praying to the golden bull on Wall Street :-(