Part of the series God: From Magic to Motivation
Is meaningful really just another word for predictable?
I’ve been distracted lately with an opportunity I can’t ignore. However, something else happened that I wanted to share. The question above is something I wrote in the margin of J. Peterson’s Maps of Meaning. In some passages, he seems to pretty much equate the two.
Four mature women stood in the street dividing up the houses and coordinating their campaign. When it was time for our house, the woman in a long beige coat approached our door. She had short sandy hair, fading from blonde to dignified grey. She was accompanied by another woman in a dark blue jacket. Her hair was longer, much more white, but still very sensible and refined.
When I answered the door they beamed warmly. The shorter, sandy haired one asked me if I knew what was in store for the future. She asked if I struggled with the tough questions of life and had found the answers. The other woman said nothing but looked dignified, thoughtful and confident.
I don’t mind talking to Jehovah’s Witnesses. I like observing the language they use and trying to guess at what parts are scripted from what parts aren’t. I usually try to return the beaming, welcoming, everything’s-gonna-be-all-right face to them and then translate for them their convictions of a magical God into personal, social and symbolic motivations. At the end I give them a business card and invite them to check out my websites. Fair trade?
Within a very short time, the sandy-haired woman had quoted for me, from her well-worn Bible, three underlined passages – one from the Psalms, one from Timothy, and then something from one of the Gospels. I noticed her hands were trembling lightly, so I tried to look all the more calm and reassuring for her.
When she was done, and still very much on script, I made a comment on the passage of time between the writing periods of the particular passages she quoted, and the further amount of time needed for the Bible to be put together and massaged into the narrative people read today. I was trying to lead the conversation towards how valuable it might be to study the motivations of the writers. It might make more sense to not trust the whole text as a whole text, but instead see if it says something valuable about how those writers were wrestling with things like imagery, meaning, social responsibilities and aesthetics. She cut me off to continue with her script.
“You know what makes me really know I can trust the Bible? The prophecies!”
She dived for another passage. I realized she didn’t come to my door to see the world differently. Confirmation and conviction got her here.
I’ve been reading Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan. Taleb is fascinated by just how awful we are at prediction, and interestingly, just how fixated, addicted we can be about prediction. Much of Taleb’s writing has to do with yelling at established powers, screaming at them and then making fun of them. Much of his message is do not sanctify past measures, past models, past stories and past data. In many areas of our lives, especially the social aspects of our lives, it creates a bloated sense of false security. And when it is well past the time to abandon our idols, things like denial, hubris and vanity are almost all too “natural” reactions. (Yes, we can be predictable… sometimes. That’s not always good…)
When I looked at the two women on my front step, I didn’t see a threat to the world. I saw two women clinging to what they felt was a predictable anchor – a model-making text that tied past, present and future into something that could be decipherable and trusted. And if everyone could just see it their way, maybe the world would be more predictable.
I tried again, but we found an impasse. Her God was quite literally tied to the books in her hands and she wasn’t going further. She was not ready to abandon her idols. She suggested I read something from one of her group’s publications. I suggested she join the conversation on my website, or on several other available websites. She told me she does not have internet in her house.
Not to be disheartened, I gave her and her friend each a card, and said that if any of the younger people in their group is struggling with these questions, I’d be willing to talk to them and start them on some remarkable journeys of discovery. And the whole time, I gave them that calm, reassuring smile. Everything is going to be fine if you could be willing to say, “I don’t know” about a few things.
It’s no wonder that some folk get uncomfortable around scientific talk. I think a lot of it is undecipherable for them. They don’t have the training, the culture or the background for it. What can they trust?
The combination of Taleb’s rants and the two gracious women at my front step got me wondering. Will atheists, when sufficiently tired of saying, “Just be rational!” (or read: just be consistent, or predictable), put more efforts into education than argument? When regular people get it that science is a prediction mechanism that eats and regenerates its own models, more people might want to take part. And if everyone just saw things your way, maybe then the world would be more predictable (… ahem…excuse me… something’s caught in my throat…)
Problem? Well yes, education takes a hell of a lot more effort than argument and anger. But at least with anger, you know you care about something.
If the idea of a supernatural God is just too preposterous, too unappealing to atheists, then some sort of aesthetically pleasing social mechanism should be developed to predictably, reliably inspire and foster social responsibility.
I have no idea what it would look like, but I’d like to be part of something like that. It could be the most important work and accomplishment ever dreamed up.
If atheists want to really provoke people, maybe they should start going door-to-door, spreading invitations to whatever meaningful gatherings they think people should be taking part in. Alternatively, you can just leave people alone to sit and stare at their screens at home. Maybe that kind of culture will make a meaningful, predictable world too.
What do you think?
How should you go about changing your world into what it should be?