Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

I have written several posts about the notion of "Lightness," based primarily on some cursory reading and a reasonable amount of thought. I had not, until now, read The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera, which is considered one of the definitive works on the topic. There is so much to say about this novel and the ideas in it that I almost do not know where to start, but in the spirit of lightness I will simply start.

The first and most important idea to note is that Kundera does not necessarily view lightness as a positive. Indeed a major point of the novel is to explore the question: "The only certainty is: The lightness/weight opposition is the most mysterious, most ambiguous of all." There is a reason the title refers to lightness as "unbearable," but this doesn't mean he comes out clearly against lightness, either. It depends on person and on the circumstances. Lightness represents our choices and our freedom, but weight represents our commitments and habits, and thereby provides meaning. Though it is not a perfect map, it reminds me a bit of some of the thoughts David Brooks has expressed recently on happiness and suffering and happiness vs. meaning.

Some people, when faced with an oppositional ambiguity, yearn to select one, which is in this case a meta-preference toward weight. Others refuse to select one - though choosing not to commit is itself a commitment. But it is not necessary to choose one or the other in all things. We can choose lightness in some areas, weight in others. We can leave our professional options open while marrying and having children, or remain single while changing career frequently. My general interest in the topic of "lightness" is in understanding how to navigate this ambiguity.

Just to get into a particular point, one notion in the book that caught me by surprise is the connection of public persona and weight. There is an exploration of whether "living in truth" means being transparent - the same in public and in private - or having a distinct private world where one need not assess the public implications of actions. Some might view the weight in the lies or at least inauthenticity of separating public and private; others would see it in having to maintain a chosen public face (whether it is chosen by oneself or others). It seems like where one feels this weight might depend on whether one is an extrovert or introvert. It is clear to me: I could not bear to have an "authentic" public persona. It would mean either having to manage the implications of being my authentic self in public, or changing who I am to control those implications. I like having a private world that I do not have to justify. This is a subjective assessment - everyone is different. But it is surely a good lens for understanding oneself.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Religion as a Psychological Device

In Section 3 of Human, All Too Human, Nietzsche launches into a polemic against religion in general, Christianity in specific, and the Catholic church in particular. He emphasizes the psychological reasons for belief and for particular practices, and unambiguously treats the metaphysics as fiction. He illustrates how individual people would come to believe, or want to continue to believe, and how the church and its most devoted followers propagate these inclinations. Most notably, he points out that one who emphasizes intellectual rigor can no longer believe in the dogmas of religion, yet at the same time must accept deep sorrows of the truth about life.

Though Nietzsche elsewhere predicts a decline in Christianity, he does not particularly do so here, and in fact one could use this chapter as an explanation as to why it has not declined more rapidly. To be sure, in western Europe it has progressively waned, but even 140 years later it is still plural or even dominant. In eastern Europe, the reign of communism shredded the historical and familial traditions, yet even there a significant population believes. Elsewhere in the world, among educated people, religion has become more fractured and includes practices of eastern religions, some of which are not monotheistic but instead pantheistic, panenthestic, or merely mystical. Nevertheless, some of the same psychological benefits and practices seem to remain.

We might claim that religion today is more strongly driven by values than metaphysics. The greater mobility and general independence from family means that individuals often view their religion as a choice. The Razor's Edge by Somerset Maugham observes a young man who explores his spirituality and finds eastern religion to his liking; at the time (1940s) that was a rare situation, but today it is quite common for young people to do something similar. My impression is that this generally proceeds by first identifying resonant values, then selecting a spiritual tradition that supports those values, and finally accepting whatever metaphysical and other dogmas are associated with the tradition. The most successful religions today are those that match the market for clusters of values, and also support some of the psychological needs outlined here by Nietzsche. Interestingly, those clusters of values seem to correspond reasonably well with those of the creator and of the herd.

Historical analysis aside, Nietzsche's goal here seems to be to persuade the rational, science-respecting individual that he should abandon Christianity or whatever his religion. His approach of elucidating the psychological needs serviced by religion gives the reader pause to consider whether this is "all it is" - especially in that time period, when religion was dominantly held through family tradition. He regularly emphasizes that his scientific, rational viewpoint does not hold the promise, the palliative benefit, the eternal rewards of religion; this represents a bit of reverse psychology to cause the scientific-minded not to want to fall prey to happy falsehoods. Finally, he rounds out his effort with direct argument, such as pointing out the internal contradictions of original sin and the inconsistencies of Christianity with modern science.

For a God-fearing, traditional European audience, this must have been jaw-dropping. As an atheist reading it today, it seems rather obvious, yet it nevertheless helps to explain some of the continuing power of religion and faith in the world.