Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Faith, Complexity, and Choice: Making Yoga to Address Ordinary Chaos

In the first years of my Harvard doctoral program W. C. Smith spent a good deal of time talking about his book entitled Faith and Belief. We had more than one very difficult conversation about this book's thesis and it wasn't easy being the only implacable dissenter in a sea of the...umm, faithful. I've always been accused of not understanding his point. I merely read out of the book and replied. (Here's a bit of advice to anyone in a very competitive and merciless graduate program: think twice before arguing with the Chairman of the program because it will put you at real risk. Smith at least twice tried to have me removed.)

Smith argues that there is a human quality called "faith" that is not to be confused with belief. "Faith," he argues, must be distinguished from belief because the latter is subject to methods of verification, can and should be revised whereas faith is something that puts us in a religious frame of reference since it is a feeling that one has. Smith maintained that not only was this the key to religious being as such but that all people had this feeling. I objected on at least two grounds.

First, what if someone didn't have this feeling or claimed they didn't. . One would be in the position of having to tell someone that they weren't somehow human or human enough. The result is that the faith-thesis becomes a declaration imposed: you see, you have it but you don't know you do. The patriarchal imposition was far more than I would tolerate.  Once again The Man is telling us what we feel, what we must want, why we do things because he orders as much.  Order is the problem, as we shall see.  And it is not one we can solve.

Second, how could one claim to know another's feelings as such, much less something ethereal? When Rudolf Otto argued for "the holy" he said _on the first page_ of the text that if you didn't share his feeling that you need not read on. I would have taken his advice had it not been a requirement to read the book. It wasn't faith that moved me to do my duty; duty can be coercive or rooted in other feelings like anger or fear and prove to be just as motivating. It may matter what motivates you but it is not necessarily one's faith or feeling in an abiding value of something sublime. Why must it be?

Further, and this may be a third reason depending on how you think about it: we have any number of compelling . religious-minded behaviors or religions that demand we _not_ use either belief nor some inner feeling of earnestness and positivity to procure its promises (or results). Vedic ritual is as perfectly faithless as anything I can imagine insofar as it is, as Staal argued, acts of material transaction, which I called then "information exchange." This was disputed by another graduate student who was studying Veda and I still maintain that Vaidikas don't need faith to carry out their commitments to the ceaseless ritual life of information exchange but merely a context of social compulsions: it is what they _do_ to be human in their world. In other words, how people feel about what they are doing may not matter whatsoever if they somehow understand that what they are doing must be done. I don't stop at Stop signs because I have faith. I stop for, umm, other reasons. Professor Smith never agreed.

I never relented. I repeat: when you argue with the boss, the boss can fire you. Unless you have an ace. I try not to enter an argument with these kinds of consequences without an ace. You can still lose for any number of reasons but, as Krishna reminds Arjuna, sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do---and when you do, don't be fool enough to set yourself up to lose because that's just plain dumb. No sheep to the slaughter; follow no such shepherd. When I tried to make my impudent metaphor stick, reminding all that it was not _my_ metaphor but theirs, Professor Smith was displeased at my seemingly anti-Christian sentiments. I merely reminded him that a homegrown metaphor tells us a great deal more about feelings than claims about feelings, like faith. Good thing that the Sanskrit Professor was willing to offer me a parachute---and bless his ace, offered not because he had faith in me but because in the cruel world of can you do it or can't you, I could do it. To wit, further evidence that there is information more determinative than "he liked me" and the other guy didn't. Definitely, the other guy didn't and with the Sanskrit Professor, well, you just never knew about likes or dislikes
I'm drawn to these recollections today because the people of faith are once again proving that it is not faith that moves them but rather that different bits of information that are working on them to create a complexity. Complex things are not merely complicated or confusing. Following a recipe for Thanskgiving chutney can be both complicated and confusing because you can make any number of mistakes along the way. But it could also be complex if several things have to happen _at the same time_, which makes their execution harder by matrices. 

Think of having two things, let's call them A and B. If you put them in a row you have two choices, just two. If you add C then you have six choices. If you get to J, that's 10 things, well that's 3,628,800 ways you can put them in a one row. That's complexity because all of these little things add more choices just by adding them to the mix. The world we live in is complex simply because there are lots of things and we see or need or make or don't arrangements. That's order, that's Dharma.

When things fall apart putting them back to their original order is darn near impossible. Let's say you have all 10 things lined up just so, in a way you somehow want them to be. Now they fall off your desk. Putting them back in exactly the same order might take a long time---there are over 3 million ways. If there were only 2 or even 3 things? It's a lot easier.

Life never really gets easier because there are never really fewer things and, for that matter, arrangements rarely go as planned. Complexity is a real thing, not to be trifled with if you are looking for arrangements or, as we might put it, Dharma. Back to the faithful and their seeming bad faith that some say misaligns with "true" Christian values---I mean, of course, the intransigent support of the Trump Cult. Do note that nearly all of them demand our acknowledgement that they are faithful. What we might suggest is that this is yet another piece of information, albeit a crucial one that helps us understand the seeming incongruity between their professed "values" (think: mercy, the poor, turning the other cheek, loving thy neighbor, etc.) and their behavior, which entails an imperturbable tolerance for venality. It is not that they are merely discreditable hypocrites, however true that may be if we assign the matter to bad faith. It is that they have _complex_ reasons, all of which suit their ends.

Before we turn to their psychological desire to be led which is aligned to their need to believe (rather than doubt, a trait that we know distinguishes conservatives from liberals), let's try not to get lost in all of the reasons they are "with Trump." I refer you here to a fine piece in Psychology Today that makes sure we understand the _many_ reasons the Trump supporter is with him to the end. (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/mind-in-the-machine/201812/complete-psychological-analysis-trumps-support?fbclid=IwAR1pv1afrI6ylOFuRAHCJiKGU5b4-JYEILGRs3Zuba8Fbu5vMXtK98bk_9o)

The author means to explain that they are not merely deranged, that they have multiple and _different_ reasons for their choice. I find that indisputable if not at all comforting. But the author doesn't get to the heart of the matter: the matter is the complexity itself, not its contents. 

When we think the past was simpler we may not be wrong. The sheer number of different forms and kinds of information we encounter everyday has increased exponentially. And as we've made clear it only takes 10 things to make 3.6 million arrangements: now try making some and you are quickly overwhelmed by how many choices you have, without even trying. Thus, we attempt to reduce, at least partly out of subconscious frustration and feelings of being daunted and overwhelmed, and because living in a complex world requires much more than we expected---unless we have faith. Wait. What? 

Faith is the great reducer, the one thing that can re-procure simplicity, that is fewer number of things we _think_ we have to deal with. Faith tells that one god or one person or one thing can do all the arranging for us or that we needn't arrange at all. Faith tells us we aren't the arrangers, that there is another presiding agency to do that for us; we must live in the mysteries of faith. What this, of course, does is bypass complexity because complexity is real, it _is_ daunting---just go back to just 10 things arranged the one way you want them. Now we can get a better grasp of the underlying problem.

Faith makes complexity "go away" but in fact _it does not_. Faith lets us _believe_ that complexity can be solved when _it can't_. Do you have time enough to arrange 10 things in all the possible ways? Of course not. So once you get that one way you've decided is _your_ way you don't want them to fall apart. But as Yeats reminds us, "the centre cannot hold." "Faith" isn't a feeling so much as it is a way of deflecting and dealing with complexity that so deeply disturbs our sense of order.

Trump's faithful, like all of us, want to feel safe, to find meaning, or make something out of chaos, despair for a world that we cannot manage or control. They seek control, as much as they can. We all do, just to get out of bed. But the world cannot be controlled with so many variables at work at once---this being the very definition of complexity. The result is that _changing your mind_ is a lot like dropping those 10 things arranged just the way you want them off your desk. The outcomes now are chaotic because there are too many ways they need to be re-arranged just to get back to the original preferred arrangement. But it isn't just that we want the preferred arrangement, it's that we feel the chaos and, frankly, most don't like that and don't know what to do about it. Thus, the task of re-arranging your ideas, beliefs, and feelings uses faith to tell you that you don't in fact have to live in the complex world that you do.

The dissonance should be clear: there is no avoiding complexity and the world is not getting simpler, no matter what you do or say to make that happen. Unless you check out. Don't do that. What we have is a situation where people rather understandably can't fathom complexity because it is never less daunting. Faith becomes bypass because we all really do want the information to take care of itself. It won't but why should that stop us? Thus, in Trump Cult Land there is an already built in value that makes a complex world not less complex but rather lessens the requirement to address it. You can simply not change or rather say you don't because change creates too many other variables and leads to the daunting, dislikable feeling of chaos.

The kind of chaos, distraction, noise, and nihilism that Trump uses are likewise because he cannot personally deal with _any_ complexity and thus reduces "truth" to the moment, to oneness which is the most pernicious form of false order. There is no solution for those with faith in their one. To change their minds would not free them but rather _invoke_ chaos. That is, it would force them to deal with at least 10 things and so millions of variables. For many it is complexity itself that requires the reductive power of faith to "solve." But that is no solution. It is merely a way of dealing with a world that creates too many choices, feelings, things that we must understand are literally beyond time we have to deal with them.

So rather than reduce yourself to the false simplicities that let faith do the work, we can make a few alternative proposals.
(1) The world is never going to be more amenable to faith providing much help because it is never going to be more simple. Just count how many things are on your desk at any given moment.
(2) Thus complexity, made of many simpler things by quantity (or the illusion thereof), will not reduce and this fact means that too-much-ness is our ordinary crisis of chaos.
(3) The "solution" is not to reduce---the faith bypass being one of the worst choices. Rather it is to live in complexity with an appreciation of what cannot be done---real limitations---and what you are willing to do, or what can be attempted knowing it may or may not be able to be done.
(4) Living in the space between what cannot be done because we are complex beings living in an increasingly complex world and what you _want_ to achieve is what Rajanaka calls yoga. 

Yoga is engaging yourself as a complex being. That means not merely "accepting" or recognizing complexity as ordinary crisis made of everyday complexity; it means finding room to embrace boundaries that move in ways we can control in limited ways and can't control because otherwise complexity will consume us.

Time (kālā) becomes finite when we realize that infinite is, like faith, a reduction, a bypass, a choice not to deal with complexity. What we need instead is to learn how to savor the complexity, the crisis itself, the fact of chaos being the best choice. You can learn to live with the risks or become simple. But simplicity is by far the less interesting life and one that puts you at even greater risk.