You’ll find none of the comfort of received opinion here. No claim to truth, let alone Truth (that capital T always makes me nervous). None of that astounding confidence (aka hubris) that cloaks ignorance and prejudice. The aim is to question, to explore, to keep my mind — and yours — open, raise some sparks, and see what happens.
I wrote that eight months ago by way of introducing myself in ‘Who is the AT?’ Perhaps you thought I didn’t really mean it. If so, you’ll likely hit the Escape button in about one minute from now, because most of us, myself included, hate it when people challenge what we take for granted. We have, each of us, established certain fundamental principles by which we live our lives or see the world (the word ‘fundamental’ used deliberately), and these are our ‘last-ditch’ positions – our sacred principles, and sometimes our sacred cows. They’re the base from which we sally forth to do battle in the ever-expanding world of ideas, even as we insist that it is not expanding, and that certain verities – truths – are universal or eternal.
I am talking about what we often call “the obvious.” The big O, if you like. Here and there, it has been making an appearance in comments posted on this blog, along with its close cousin, the big S – simplicity. “It’s obvious that…” “It’s really quite simple…” Such comments make me feel like I’m being preached at – always an excellent way to get me to stop listening – but my real problem with them is that they cling to simplistic certainties in a complex and uncertain world. I am an advocate of uncertainty, of doubt, of inquiry — a lover of paradox and of the ironies that seem to me inherent in human existence. Simplicity might be all very well as a life style, but as a mind style, I find it stifling.
The Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing, hero of the ‘anti-psychiatry’ or ‘existential psychiatry’ movement of the 1960s and 1970s, once said this about the obvious:
To state the obvious is to share with you what (in your view) my misconceptions might be. The obvious can be dangerous. The deluded man frequently finds his delusions so obvious that he can hardly credit the good faith of those who do not share them… The obvious is literally that which stands in one’s way.”
Or, he summed up,
“One man’s revolution is another man’s platitude.” *
I’m not sure if Laing meant it this way (you couldn’t always be sure of anything Laing said – I once interviewed him at his home near Hampstead Heath in London, and came away after a couple of hours none the wiser), but what I take from this is that the obvious is what prevents us from thinking. It stands like a brick wall between what we already think and what we might think if we allowed ourselves to inquire further. In other words, once we decide that something is obvious, we stop thinking about it. We accept it as a given: sometimes as a sacred given – “Torah from Sinai,” as they say in Hebrew – sometimes as a scientific one, sometimes simply as an unquestionable assertion. We take it for granted, and lose patience with those who don’t.
That, I think, is what Laing meant by the obvious being dangerous. While we see it as a matter of fact, it is in fact one of faith, which becomes clearer when you consider how deeply attached we are to it. Fact requires no emotional investment; faith does.
Though I lack it myself, I see great courage in faith. My image of faith is of a person walking out on a limb – a real limb of a real tree, reaching far out into the air — in full awareness that the limb might break and that they might fall and break one of their own limbs, but in the faith – trusting — that this will not happen.
This kind of faith I admire. It’s certainty that repels me. Religious certainty, atheist certainty, scientific certainty, political certainty, moral certainty: the absolute conviction that you are right and that “they” – fill in the blank for whichever “they” most concerns you right now – are wrong.
If we can let go of what increasingly seems to me the pernicious idea of the obvious – the idea that we are somehow in possession of “the” truth, that “we” are the enlightened ones while “they” are living in delusion and darkness – perhaps then we might begin to be able to move toward something that could honorably be called knowledge.
Just please, don’t ask me to walk out on the same limb with you. We live in a huge forest of trees, and I’m more interested in the forest itself than in any particular tree, let alone any particular limb. Besides, I discovered as a child that I was no good at climbing trees. Either I’d get halfway up and get stuck, afraid to go higher and equally afraid to climb back down, or I’d fall. And yes, I have the scars to show for it.
* The Laing quotes are from a speech reprinted in The Dialectics of Liberation, ed. David Cooper, which also includes speeches given at the same event in 1967 by Gregory Bateson, Paul Goodman, Stokely Carmichael, and Herbert Marcuse. The book is out of print.
You know, I think it’s obvious that you’ve got a certain advantage here (humor intended).
I notice that when I am writing, I am constantly finding myself writing something that I’m quite sure of until I put it down to paper. Once there, I find I have to challenge it- can I really put that to posterity with the same certainty with which it flowed onto the page? How many times have I actually said that thing without really questioning it?
In conversation- and indeed, in places like the comments sections of blogs or in forums, I will leave those statements lying there. Ripe to be picked at.
The thing that I hate about writing, as much as I love it, is that I will realize that I don’t believe some tenet of my belief system. It’s some bit of trivia or slant of perception that I’ve become comfortable with merely because it has been there for a long time. Then I write it down, look at it, and realize that it’s just a piece of hypocritical or bombastic tripe (without the useful past of that much maligned organ).
Which leads me to the question- wouldn’t you sort of expect such “simple” responses to be part of the foundation of the blogosphere? Here they seem to have given you a nice jumping off point of the intractable problem with obviousness. Of course it’s hard to see the forest, the trees are getting in the way; so too, certainty in the obvious is a great crutch for getting through the day, especially in trying times or places. Pesky journalist…
What a spectacular perspective to begin a new year. Thanks for the reminders.
I find it interesting that your proposed lack of faith comes across with such certainty. More of the interesting ironies, I guess. If you really lacked any kind of faith why would you write the way you do, which is to say in a searching manner but refuse yourself any kind of faith? Maybe you don’t always make that assertion. Christopher hitchens does something similar but with much more certainty. I don’t begrudge him his atheism but it seems his non belief is directed toward the god of religion as come through men and women which is often stomach turning. But to deny faith altogether especially separate from religion seems farcical.
I enjoy your work.
Another point which seemed, i hate to say, false was your description of the kind of faith you admire. It seems to me the individual who walks the branch knowing it could quite possibly break is a foolish one, outside of that quaint illustration of faith. It seems to me that you would think that and the illustration comes across as patronizing. I don’t mean the criticism as malice just questions about the certainty of uncertainty. I search for similar things and find myself just as dissatisfied and tormented by faith/non faith as ever. Sometimes I feel it often I don’t.