Seeing Is Believing

Years ago I wrote an earlier version of this post and it fell on deaf ears. While I admittedly have written a number of rather weak posts,  I thought this one of my better ones. In fact, I included the earlier version in my book, Alone In The Labyrinth. In any event, I found it especially relevant in these trying times when we seem lost and face an uncertain future with a purblind leader on a planet that is under attack by greed and self-interest.  

In one of the most dramatic portions of that most dramatic novel, The Brothers Karamazov, the two brothers Ivan and Alyosha meet to discuss the “dossier” that Ivan has put together to prove that God does not exist. It is a collection of brutal stories of human cruelty, capped off by the gruesome story of a landowner who turns his dogs loose on a small child because the child threw a stone that hurt the paw of one of the man’s favorite hounds. He does this in front of the child’s mother. As Ivan says after reading the story,

“I believe the [man] was later declared incompetent to administer his estates.”

These were stories that Dostoevsky himself culled from the newspapers and saved for the purpose of working them into his novel. After the reading, while Alyosha, the devout and saintly brother, sits in stunned silence, Ivan tells him he does not accept a God who would allow such pain and suffering: because of the evil in this world, he “returns his ticket.”

The chapter in which this dialogue takes place is the heart of the novel where Ivan also tells his story of the return of Christ to Spain during the Inquisitions. The Grand Inquisitor tells Christ that he has done more harm than good in coming back to earth a second time. It has taken the Church years to remedy the situation created by his first visit, to take upon itself the burden of freedom that Christ wanted to place on humankind, a species that really only wants “earthly bread” and is quite content with the illusion of freedom.  As the Inquisitor says

“Know then that now, precisely now, these people are more certain than ever before that they are completely free, and at the same time they themselves have brought us their freedom and obediently laid it at our feet.”

Indeed we have. If not to the Church then to the state on which we have come to depend.

The dialogue between the atheist and the devout Christian brings up many fascinating problems, one of which has to do with the nature of faith. In fact, I would argue that the novel as a whole revolves around the question of faith — what it is and how humans can hold on to it in a world that makes no sense. And that is the key here: faith is necessary because things don’t always (seldom?) make sense. Indeed, if things made sense we wouldn’t need faith; we could simply look and see or draw logical conclusions to prove that evil is a fiction (as Augustine and others of his ilk attempted to do). In a word, faith is precisely the capacity and willingness to accept the irrational — that which makes no sense. There is no rational response to Ivan Karamazov with his dossier. There is only stunned silence and blind acceptance. We must simply accept. And that is precisely what we moderns cannot do because we think we have all the answers. We have become, indeed, disenchanted.

Ironically, the point was made brilliantly by Cervantes in his monumental Don Quixote. When a merchant questions whether Quixote’s beloved Dulcinea “really exists” and wants visual proof, the Don, who was much maligned and ridiculed by the fools around him, says:

“Were I to show her to you what would you have accomplished by acknowledging so obvious a truth? What’s important is that you believe without seeing her, that you acknowledge, affirm, swear, and defend the truth. . . . “

It is difficult, if not impossible, to say precisely when Western humankind lost its faith, when we started to insist that we need to see in order to believe. But Nietzsche loudly proclaimed that God was dead at the end of the nineteenth century. Perhaps that was the moment, though, if Cervantes is correct the process had begun years before. In any event, it surely came on the heels of volcanic eruptions, plagues and warfare — and the benefits accruing from scientific and industrial revolutions that prolonged human life and refocused man’s attention on the here and now. If it wasn’t gone when Nietzsche said it was, it surely was by the time of  Great War in which thousands of young men died in the trenches in a war that was completely insane. Those were times that truly tested human faith and it was found wanting. Faith in an unseen God who demanded sacrifices and promised rewards in an after-life became less and less real to growing numbers of people whose attention shifted to immediate pleasure and the gratification of desires in this world — and who definitely did not want to make sacrifices. Ivan Karamazov would understand this because he, too, returned his ticket. But then he also went mad in the end.

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31 thoughts on “Seeing Is Believing

  1. Hugh, by the way, I picked up your book again and read six or seven posts therein. I chose a random method. It is nice to revisit them.

    As for this one, this is the question of all times. I guess I take a more practical view as we all need something to believe in, as a glue to our leaky lives. If one is faithful to God or not, I just wish we could learn the more valuable lessons of religious teachings and apply them to our lives.

    Gandhi once said he admired Jesus, it was Christians he had worries about. The same could be said of other religions as well. We just need to be the best versions we can be. It is too easy to go down a path of maltreatment.

    Yesterday, my wife read me an anecdote of an elder Native American speaking with his grandson. He said we have two wolves inside of us. One wolf is kind, generous, helpful, forgiving, selfless, etc. The other wolf is mean, disdainful, hurtful and selfish. The grandson asked which wolf wins out. The grandfather said, “The one you feed.”

    Keith

    • I’m not making a case here for Christianity — or any other religion for that matter. The history of humankind is full of the mistakes and horrors we have committed in the name of a “God.” I am seeking to pry open eyes to help us see that there is more in Heaven and Earth than is suggested by science or common sense (Sorry, Shakespeare). I don’t think it’s simply about being the best person we can be, though that is important. It is also about believing there is something greater than the SELF which we worship in this culture.

      • Well said. Not off the subject, but there is data in Alcoholics Anonymous that reveal those with faith have higher success rates. Psychologists say it is the belief in something more than oneself that helps. Keirh

      • Like the myth about only using 10% of our brain, the SELF which we worship, is, at best, 50% of the total persona. So much more could be done if we recognise it, find it, and utilise it – but it is internal not external. No God (or gods required). 🙂

    • This reply is not just for you, Keith, it is for anyone who wants to consider it. But I am sending it to you because I know both you and Hugh will get a copy, so I am at the very least talking to both of you.
      I hear assumptions in what both of you are saying, but I will start with this one, “I take a more practical view as we all need something to believe in.” This “belief” can take many levels, but I think you are asking it on the level of belief in a god, or a great man who leads. God, Buddha, Gandhi, those kinds of beings. But is that really practical. Who among us can be like these men? Surely some humans can, though I doubt there are many, especially since their times are gone, and will never again reappear. The most practical beings we can be are ones appropriate to our own time, whenever that might be. And the other half of that statement is that we all must have something [or someone] to believe in. I have heard this statement many many times in my life, and I still see it as a strawman statement. We do not “need” something to believe in, though we can “want” something to believe in. But why would we want to believe in anything but ourselves. I do not mean “SELF” as Hugh uses it in his reply to your comment, but self as in I cannot trust I understand any self but my own. This is not a greedy self, or a power-seeking self, but the self we have developed over our lifetimes. These “selves” can be very caring selves, compassionate and selfless as anyone’s, wanting not only to help humankind, but all living beings. To me, these are the selves we are striving towards being, as you suggest “the the best version [of a living being] we can be.” I am sure you are noticing the slight alterations I am adding to your words, because my “self” feels the need for them to be there, alterations I am hoping both of you will agree with. My experiences say they belong there.
      In effect I am saying this conversation needs to be had at a much deeper level than it is presently seeming to be, though you both might think it is already there. Am I clarifying anything, or just muddying the waters. My self sees it as clarifying, because I am trying to speak with my Spiritual Self, the one I think Hugh is striving to discuss. I honour my self, Hugh, but I certainly do not worship it. I don’t even worship my Spiritual Self, because I am just another being trying to find my way through the jungles of life.
      All this aside, I know I call myself an atheist on this place, because I want to distinguish myself as a non-believer in most things others find to believe in. I might lean towards certain things, but mostly I choose to believe in little but what I have experienced in this life, and others. On other levels I would not call myself an atheist, as the word would be meaningless. Maybe I am not making sense to one of you, or both of you, I have no way of knowing right now. But I am trying to say something, and that is assumptions hurt communications. Keith, you assumed we need something to believe in. And you, Hugh, assumed there is something greater than the SELF we worship in this culture. IMO, your assumptions are both equally right and wrong. I think clarification is needed, but I could be wishful thinking.

      • Very thoughtful comment, and I thank you. But I do think we all NEED something to believe in besides the self. In fact, there is considerable psychological evidence that this is the case. But the self you describe is certainly not the self I describe — nor the one so many are caught up with in this culture! It is much more worthy of interest and development.

      • Would you say the self you talk about is more like ego, concern for the self rather than self itself? I don’t mean to be cruel, but isn’t the need to believe a facet of being unsure of oneself? If you have confidence in your self, however you want to define that, you have no need to believe. Life is acceptance of what is in relation to that self. It is once you start to question yourself that you start to lose confidence, and therefore look for something to believe. But since you already lost confidence in yourself you look outward rather than inward, a terribly commonplace mistake.
        I started from belief, things told to me by others, and lost confidence in that. At first I continued to look outwards, since that is where I was taught belief comes from. But I found nothing there “I” could believe in. By default I looked inside myself, and there I found lots to believe in. And as I ran my new belief through the filter of my experience, I found belief was no longer necessary, because I could know my own experience. Experience is the best teacher there is, bar none. Confidence is the best lesson, bar none. Put them together, there is no need to believe. Life is experience.

      • Very thoughtful comment. I like how Hugh responded. My sentence about belief should not be limited to religion. It could be a greater good or cadre of people or other influence. I think that was the view of psychologists with AA – believing in something more than oneself helped the alcoholics achieve a higher degree of success. Keith

      • Have you been to an AA meeting, Keith. When I worked in the addiction industry I had to go to them, and a higher power always translated to a god of some kind, something outside of the addict. And, yeah, it worked for some, but not for most.
        I know belief doesn’t have to be about religion, but the religion industry tries to make it that way. Religious authorities want people to define belief as knowing god. I could not go that route. My schtick was trying to bring the goodness out in people, taking responsibility for their lives. I always gave my clients the power to change themselves. Maybe I didn’t have as many successes, but I had fewer recidivists, at least as far as I was able to follow them. My supervisor would send his clients to 21 day programs, and if they didn’t come back for further counselling he marked them off as cured. His stats were good. I tried to keep mine honest.
        But I have to ask, what kinds of thing are you suggesting people Need to believe in. Please give me some examples of what you are thinking?

      • I’m not sure who you are directing your question to or where this comment will appear! But I would say that we need to believe in a power greater than ourselves that manifests itself in the world around us creating great beauty and at times quite terrifying that reminds us how small we are ourselves. This power is not something to worship, necessarily, but something through which we can gain a sense of connection to the world and to all of life.

      • My point was to say not all of us need to believe in a power greater than ourselves. We all have that power within us, no matter how small we are, which is mighty small in comparison to the cosmos. But small doesn’t mean powerless, nor does it mean weakness.
        Teaching people that they need a power greater than themselves, whatever you consider that power to be, is taking away our power from us. Giving people the opportunity to learn their own strengths, that is what life is all about.
        But we seem to be at an impasse. You believe you need an outside force, I believe that force in a priori inside us. It is probably best to agree to disagree.

  2. I have, of course, read this before, but took the time today to read it again, for I agree that it is one of your better posts. I shall forgo commenting on the issue of faith, but rather make note of one phrase that I find thought-provoking: illusion of freedom. When I read this post in your book several months ago, I highlighted that phrase, for it was around that time that I received a comment on one of my posts from Sha’Tara, where she informed me that we had never been free, only thought we were. I meant to ponder further on it at the time, but got side-tracked, as I so often do. It is a notion worth some thought and discussion, though. Have we, in fact, “… brought us their freedom and obediently laid it at our feet.” Whether to church or state doesn’t matter, but are we automatons, content to allow others to make our choices for us as long as our life is convenient, our bellies full, and our favourite television show playing to distract us from deeper thought? Is our freedom illusory? I have no answers, only questions, but questions worth pondering, I think.

    • To try to treat your question as non-rhetorical, Jill, and from having gotten to know you over two years, the freedom “you think you have” is illusory at best, and damaging at worst. However, the freedom you do have is limitless, as long as you know that you have it. Thinking and knowing are two different things. Generally speaking, if you only think you know something, there is a disconnect somewhere. You know in your gut something is missing. In my experience my gut always knows the truth. Does yours work like that?
      Meanwhile, knowing something in your gut is a feeling of comfort. The freedom that you have is to roam the cosmos with your mind, unfettered by any imposed limits. You may not consider everything, but what you do consider I find you consider with an open mind. You look for answers that are meaningful to you, not to someone else for their sake. You search, you think, you conclude. What could be more free than that?

  3. Reblogged this on Filosofa's Word and commented:
    Our friend Hugh is a much deeper thinker than most of us. Well, he taught Philosophy in college, so he should be, yes? Last year, Hugh published a book, a compilation of some of his best posts, and this one was included in it. I, of course, own a copy of the book, and it is a treasured volume, for my copy is autographed by Hugh himself! This post is thought provoking on at least two different levels and addresses ‘faith’ and ‘freedom’. Hugh’s posts most always make me stop and think, and this one is no exception. Thank you, dear Hugh! By the way, I notice your book has almost sold out on Amazon! Congrats!

      • It was my pleasure! After I left a comment and moved on, I kept thinking about it, thinking how important that message is. Ellen read it and tried to buy your book at B&N, but they were sold out and expecting more soon!

  4. Interesting discussion from my point of view because I believe (which in my world means ‘I know’) that the greatest power extant in the cosmos is the unfettered power of the self, or individual as practiced through self empowerment. There is however another source of great power that resides outside of the individual, and that source is ever and always malevolent to life, but particularly inimical to the self empowered because only the self empowered can know of this great enemy and what its agenda is. Think Gandalf and Sauron of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Gandalf is self empowered; Sauron relies on the power he can suck from all life in Middle Earth. So it is with us. We can believe in all sorts of forces beyond and greater than ourselves, including Gaia, God, Spaghetti Monster, Science, Technology, Sasquatch … whatever but all of those forces take us back into mind slavery to something we can never understand; can never have a positive relationship with; can never break free of to create our own realm of personal freedom until we let go of their claim to be superior to us as individuals. What we do with our freedom and power once we have taken it back from any force claiming to be above us, well, that is up to you, and up to me.

    • I am constantly impressed by how much you are able to take away from books like “Lord of the Rings”! It leaves me fairly breathless. But I do think you have confused freedom with license.

  5. Quote: ” I do think you have confused freedom with license.”
    You’re going to have to explain that to me, I’m not letting such a juicy statement from a teacher go unchallenged. When you speak of faith, you say it has failed. Has it “failed” or has it become focused on something other than invisible spirit entities or bugaboos? If faith has failed then what are moderns looking to for guidance if not within themselves? Media? Politicians? Success religion? Nature? Entertainment personalities? Science and technology? Infamous types? All of the above?
    What do you make of the concept of total self empowerment, Hugh?

    • I have written endlessly about freedom and its complexities. There’s an entire chapter in “Alone In The Labyrinth” devoted to the topic. I’m not sure what “self-empowerment” means. It’s one of those fig-leaf terms that is designed to hide our ignorance.

      • Hi Hugh, OK, why don’t I start again by defining what self empowerment is as opposed to what believers think it is. Self empowerment is quite simple making a personal choice to take full responsibility for all aspects of one’s personal life: feelings, thoughts, words, acts. No expectations for personal fulfillment from any other source but one’s own. That’s it. Any other definition is false. Self empowerment is not selfishness, it is the safeguarding of one’s power against theft by what are called energy thieves, namely all those who make their living from the blood, sweat and tears or emotional outlay of their prey. I can think of quite a few of those, can’t you?
        Only after one decided to choose self empowerment as a way life can one discover the meaning of freedom. Again, freedom is a very simple concept in its proper context. If I am self empowered, I am free. If I choose to believe, trust or serve any power I accept as being above me, I will never, ever, experience freedom. Why not? Because to believe is to expect and to expect means I want something I can have only if this power that I place above me grants it to me. But as I am willing to accept good things from that power, so must I be willing to accept the bad things this power grants – for I have no choice.

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