A Point of View: Why not caring about anything is only for the young
- 8 August 2014
- From the section Magazine
It is not the content of our beliefs that really matters, so much as the practice of believing itself, argues Will Self.
In Dostoevsky's great metaphysical whodunit, The Brothers Karamazov, the main philosophical point of the novel - inasmuch as it has one - comes early on. Throughout a turbulent meeting in the cell of the venerable monk, Father Zosima, the driven, atheistic intellectual Ivan Karamazov has his heterodox opinions coaxed out of him. Ivan maintains that without belief in the possibility of an afterlife, one in which we will be judged for our sins, there can no longer be any moral stricture limiting our Earthly behaviour - we may fornicate, intoxicate and even murder as much as we want. If we were to paraphrase Ivan's contention, it's that in a godless world, "Do what thou wilt" constitutes the whole of the law.
I'm not interested in discussing the existence or otherwise of God or gods - and nor, I think, was Dostoevsky - but what this passage, and the novel overall, forces our attention on to is the question of our beliefs. Dostoevsky understood that what humans are, in terms of our moral being, is crucially tied up with what - if anything - we believe. In the contemporary secular era, one the lineaments of which Dostoevsky could perfectly well discern when he was writing in the 1870s, there are plenty of people keen to assert that they have no beliefs at all, if by this is meant a settled conviction about such big questions as why we are here, where we are going, and whether good and evil are ultimate realities or merely functions of a given social structure during a particular era. The Cubist painter, Francis Picabia, was the herald of this new scepticism when he proclaimed, "Beliefs are ideas going bald".
But is it really true to say we have no beliefs? After all, if we truly believed nothing it would be difficult for us to operate in a world where everyone else behaves as if they did believe in something, that something being - by and large - the efficiency and reliability of the technologies we rely on for our daily life. When we push button A we very much expect B to happen, when we flick a light switch we anticipate the light going on. We may not understand the minutiae of wiring, but we know someone who does, so we've outsourced this particular belief - in domestic electricity - to someone qualified to hold it. It's the same with whole swathes of our existence - they depend upon beliefs that we hold on trust, rather than because we've personally empirically verified them. In an earlier era it would've been said that we had faith in electric lights.
This reliance on essentially occult beliefs for the smooth running of the physical aspects of our lives has engendered a further strange belief in us, a belief about our beliefs concerning those big, metaphysical questions. We may not have read Wittgenstein ourselves, but we're attuned enough to the philosophical zeitgeist to have absorbed the import of his ideas, which is that mulling over the nature of our existence, or that of God or gods, is symptomatic of a linguistic confusion - because there's no real agreement about what these terms refer to, to ask questions about them is simply nonsensical. This abrupt curtailment of the Western metaphysical project has left us at the bottom of our metaphorical gardens, in our figurative garden sheds, and depending for our belief system on a series of makeshift structures we've knocked up ourselves.
So it is that the "beliefs" we depend upon are a species of DIY - we take a bit from Eastern mysticism, another piece from Freudianism, a spare part left over from Christianity and cobble them together into something workable in the short-term. If called to account on the gimcrack quality of our convictions, we relapse into a sort of stoicism light: "Well," we say, "it's true that these beliefs aren't altogether credible, but that doesn't matter because at root I don't believe in anything - I'm just trying to get by like the rest of us." But the problem with stoicism light is that it just can't deal with the heavy stuff. A full-blown stoic unreservedly accepts the vicissitudes of fate and the privations of life - we, on the other hand, squeal like the Gadarene swine when we can't get hold of an electrician. The true stoic - such as the discredited Roman Boethius, condemned to death in his prison cell - achieves a perspective from which he can view death with an unwavering gaze. But if we faced his predicament, we'd probably try to sue the Praetorian Guard for neglecting our health and safety.
It isn't, I believe, the content of our beliefs that really matters, so much as the practice of believing itself. The problem with our contemporary secular beliefs is that they're either makeshift, or entered into unconsciously, simply as a necessary operating system for our busy and digitised lives. The great believers in the wonder of the universe, as revealed to us by science, seem to have considerable difficulty in either galvanising us to social solidarity, or providing us with true solace. I've yet to hear of anyone going gently into that dark night on the basis that she or he is happily anticipating their dissolution into cosmic dust, nor do I witness multitudes assembling in order that they may sing the periodic table together, or recite prime numbers in plain chant. By contrast, religious beliefs continue to offer many people genuine succour, and they do this, I think, as Dostoevsky realised, not because of the specific concepts they appear to enshrine - such as an afterlife or eternal judgement - but because they place the human individual in a universal context, and thereby give her life meaning.
Nihilism is all very well when you're young - existentialism can also seem a meaningful philosophy if all you have to worry about is being true to your own self. After all, you never saw Simone de Beauvoir - let alone Jean-Paul Sartre - pushing a baby buggy along the Rive Gauche. As we grow older, and perhaps take on the responsibility for other, putatively autonomous lives, we may find it hard to get them to tidy up their rooms if we've brought them up to believe that human existence is a series of fundamentally meaningless actes gratuits. With middle and then yet older age, the baggy and shapeless scepticism of our prime can begin to seem a very threadbare garment indeed, while our own state of dependency and the habits of a lifetime force turn us into positive zealots - if the electric kettle fuses, or the bus doesn't arrive on time it's as if the music of the spheres has become horribly discordant.
Ivan Karamazov's rejection of any belief whatsoever has a paradoxical effect on him: he becomes so afflicted by an irrational sense of responsibility for the murder of his father that it drives him mad. I said at the outset that I wasn't interested in discussing the existence or otherwise of God or gods, and nor did I think Dostoevsky was - but belief in God's existence is far from being synonymous with belief in a transcendent source of moral authority, or even with belief in some form of posthumous judgement. Lewis Carroll's callow but smart Alice asserts that 'There's no use trying… one can't believe impossible things.' But the Red Queen - who's presumably had a lifetime of church attendance - is the very personification of wisdom when she asserts: 'I daresay you haven't had much practice… When I was younger I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.'
A belief is thus not the same thing as a fact - a fact need only be verified once, but a belief, being akin to a proposition, requires continuous reassertion. I'm happy to reassert the existence of electricity, kettles and hot water every morning before breakfast, but I very much doubt that my belief in the nice cup of tea to come makes the world a significantly better place.
A Point of View is broadcast on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated Sundays 08:50 BST or listen on BBC iPlayer
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