What do I believe?
As a child, I was told that Jesus Christ was my lord and saviour, and that to avoid an eternal suffering in hellfire I would have to, as it was put, “accept Jesus into my heart.” I asked my youth minister what that meant and he told me that when it happened I would know. Oh, right.
The word belief most often places emphasis on the observer, not the observed. Saying words like I observe rather than I believe on the other hand calls for exogenous justification and reason: what is this observed all about? rather than, what is it that I want? For example, a whole lot of people have observed a whole lot of things that amount to an amalgam observation that the world is one whole hell of a sticking shit show older than the bible says it is (I just recently visited Hutton’s Conformity on the Isle of Arran in Scotland, so it’s on the brain). A whole lot of people also believe, on the other hand, that the world is something like 6000 years old, because they believe that the scripture is the word of God, and therefore they believe that they should believe it. They’ve been told that, it deadens their fears, and it feels comfy. Belief and observation are different things.
I do believe in some things – things that are more purely propositional, often morally complex, and that evade clear evidential foundations. I believe in them nonetheless. I believe, for example, that in any given society people with the means to do so should take care of those without those means, and yet, this is not a thing that one might ultimately talk about with evidence for or against. It’s propositional, based on unsupportable assertions, e.g. that human life is inherently valuable. I suppose I believe that thing about human life too. But such assertions have a different relationship to the quagmire of confirmation bias and the associated backfire effect, and all the trickiness of evidence. It isn't a position that counters common sense, like so much of scientific knowledge. And yet, when one tries to observe what's really going on with this belief, one gets an entirely different picture. It comes down to the fact that in my society, it is generally not acceptable to counter the proposition that human life is inherently valuable, yet the evidence that many don’t really buy it is pretty damn strong.
Well, then, I’ll leave that aside – it's too messy – and I will tell you what I observe. First and foremost, I observe that life, and especially life that knows (uh oh, gonna get challenged on that one, how about life that knows it knows?), e.g., humanity, is unendingly complex. I use that word technically here, as it’s used in the fields of complexity, chaos theory, emergent behaviour, system dynamics, and the like. I mean to say, as simply as I can put it, that it is impossible to draw out clear cause and effect relationships that give us a predictive model of what we would broadly call culture in general. Let’s face it, ‘the humanities’ is not rocket science, it’s really much, much, much harder. Particularities are a different story. We’ve got pretty good at predicting how people will react given a specific set of circumstances. So, you know, cultural systems are in fact systems, which means that they behave in a way that is robust and observable. Otherwise they wouldn’t be systems! But reality never gives us a reliable specific set of circumstances. We can't really ultimately say exactly why the U.S.A. ended up with a reality TV star in the Whitehouse.
The wacky Jesuit/philosopher/priest/weirdo Teilhard de Chardin tried to philosophically reconcile Christian faith with evolution, and the third of three infinites (infinitely large, infinitely small, and infinitely complex), was key to his efforts, as our pal The Brief Pope Benedict used to like to talk about. But upon reading Hymn of the Universe – which is excellent by the way – I can’t help but see his whole project as tied up in a profound confirmation bias. The whole world of life, the energy, complexity, dynamism, and beauty, found in all the tiniest details, and mind-boggling interconnected cycles, etc, etc – at some point, if all of that is the manifest expression of God and His Glory, when do these words God and His Glory become basically synonymous with Life Itself? Is it all just semantics? People believe in God ostensibly as a reaction to what they observe in the world. But the belief is a construct, a little building built with a purpose, and living in it requres ignoring lots of observation, no different in nature from my son believing in Santa because he observed the half-eaten cookie.
So that’s me being a bit of a dick. I don’t wish to hide the fact that I also believe that people really should be religious, if that’s their thing, because, well, I’m a composer, and that makes about the same amount of sense from the outside. It’s only that, when people are being religious, what they seem to be saying to me is, “belief, belief, belief”, but what I observe is something else entirely. Also, when people are telling me that Beethoven was the greatest composer ever because of his “humanity”, what they seem to be saying to me is, “belief, belief, belief”, but what I observe is the exact same something else as in the first example. Ivory tower types would call it lots of things, but maybe I should call it being human.
This is an absurd blog post, the result of procrastination, springtime, and caffeine – that holy trinity of random productivity. I think my thoughts are trying to escape the logic train of if/then sentence structure. My mind is more butterfly than caterpillar. Anyway, I once had a chat, half drunk, with a Christian guy named Eric at in a wedding in the Catskills. What this poor chap didn’t know was that I’m obsessed with religious people, not because I want to challenge their beliefs, but because they represent to me something essentially human. Eric told me that he was religious for essentially the same reason that people are artists.
Between that time and this, I have started to believe (I believe!) that placing inherent value in a work of music (or any art) is just as empirically nonsensical as Jesus coming into my heart. But that’s OK! What David Elliott and his merry band of musico-praxialists don’t get is that the work concept of music is itself a social praxis. I’m tempted to add, “duh”, here, but this is actually kind of hard to get one’s head around. The work concept is just the same as any other social praxis, and it has given us an enormous amount of social-praxial thing-doing, even though one of the things it does is focus attention particular Works of Music. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about then please go read this 500 page book and then we’ll move on. Cheers.)
We can observe that social praxes exist, in all their diversity. To put as fine a focus on it as I can, what I mean to say is this: When you have this thing called people, which we have had for five to seven million years now, they get up to all kinds of weird shit when left to their own devices. And they really have been left to their own devices, unless someone I’m not aware of has observed God – PM me if you’ve seen or heard anything. Some of the weird shit they get up to includes, but is not limited to; sitting in the sun to make their skin darker even though they know they could die of a thing called skin cancer; making stuff that serves no other purpose than to make other people say “hey, look at that, nice” (it’s called ‘art’); raping and killing each other; burning liquids refined from long-dead plant life so they can hurl large metal objects full of themselves over large areas of land and sea (flying); chillin’ with their dead relatives; riding cows for sport; chucking babies off buildings to demonstrate belief. People will even spend 400 years developing an absurd system of dots and lines that one special kind of person hands to a bunch of other people to make squeaky bonky noises in order to have lots of other people say “hey, listen to that, nice” (it’s called classical music); and, last on my (very) limited sample list, people will make up totally arbitrary systems of belief to justify lives that they never chose to live, that they only live because of the wildly random happenstance of their geographic and historical location. I need to be really clear here that I am not saying I want to go hang out with my dead relatives’ bodies, but neither also am I trying to condemn that activity. I am only trying to crack the door.
The door. We all live in houses. We call the houses different things depending on who we are and the context of the calling. Right now, I’ll call the house a worldview. I’m not trying to leave my house. I’m not even wanting to visit the neighbours, really (I’m kind of a homebody). I’m just trying to crack the door and have a peek out at the abyss.
But to stand in the abyss, and to look back into the house, well, I don’t give a shit what the song says, *that’s* what it’s all about, folks. To go home. To realise that it is all merely a worldview, but to inhabit that worldview, and to say things like “Beethoven is simply the greatest composer that ever lived because of his humanity”, and yes, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creater of Heaven and Earth”, and to believe it to be true, and to hear, to really, really hear, in a way that matters, the music once again. Perhaps only from the abyss can I let Jesus into my heart. Is that what my youth minister meant? Probably not, and I’m not saying I can see any way of calling myself religious, or in the very least doing so would require that I HEAVILY qualify it to the point of absurdity. But maybe this is a version of, “when it happens, you’ll know”.