Emotional Substructures and Belief Boxes
Yet I still want to be a Catholic. Post 4.
Emotional Substructures and Belief Boxes (1) A theological blog 30 – iii – 20
We all like to think we are rational people who make rational decisions. Ah, you think, I’ll have a cup of coffee rather than a cup of tea. But Benjamin Libet showed, decades ago now, that your brain made the decision seconds before you thought you did. That’s weeks in brain terms. We should never forget we are still so close to the animals from whom we evolved, we are after all a species of chimpanzee. Underneath our rational thoughts there are algorithmic emotional substructures inherited from our animal origins, and the more important the decisions we have to make, the more we tend to draw on these deep wells of feeling rather than acting for logical reasons. The referendum campaign of 2016 was an interesting case in point. The remain campaign put forward a compelling case for staying in the EU. Pretty much every competent economic authority in the world was telling us that to leave the EU would be economically damaging, even disastrous. It would, said Cameron, be a leap in the dark. But the leave campaign understood that people tend to act, on something as important as this, not from reasoning but out of this deep emotional place. Leave didn’t offer compelling logical arguments at all. They just kept on repeating over and over again ‘Take back control’, ‘Turkey is about to join the EU’, ‘Project Fear’. Cameron’s leap in the dark played into Cummings’ hands. It fuelled the heroic chauvinism of people who for decades had felt ignored and impotent.
The leave campaign had only a nodding relationship to truth. Turkey was not about to join the EU and the infamous red bus was a celebrated lie. It made no difference. Only two days before the referendum I received a leaflet through my door telling me Turkey was about to join the EU and Britain could be invaded by 80 million Turks, many of them Islamic terrorists. It was all lies. I was furious. But it worked. Project Fear indeed. You’d have thought it would have been obvious to experienced politicians that a campaign designed to appeal to people who have read PPE at Oxford is not going to cut much ice with unemployed people in Hartlepool and Barrow-in-Furness. Imagine their rage when Cameron started lecturing them about The Big Society. Why wasn’t it obvious? Cummings understood about deep emotional substructures and Cameron and Osborne didn’t. Underneath our logic we are deeply emotional beings in the way animals are, and much of our reasoning is little more than a justification for our irrational feelings.
You might have thought that philosophers who dedicate their lives to clear and lucid thought and freeing themselves from irrational prejudices would be immune from such influences. But far from it. My experience in the monastery was that the philosophers were even more irrational than everybody else. I remember Joseph Coombe-Tennant, who had studied philosophy at Cambridge, so shaking with anger when I said I thought the Falklands War wasn’t a good idea he had to rush out of the room. Descartes took it for granted that a human person is essentially a reasoning mind trapped in a physical carcass. Is not what distinguishes us from the animals our capacity to reason? That there is a sharp division between mind and body was the foundation of his philosophy and was so obvious to him it needed no justification. I think therefore I am, he said. But now the neurologist Antonio Damasio shows us in his book Descartes’ Error that mind and body are inseparable. We think with our whole bodies. So that’s Descartes up the spout. But why was it so obvious and why was he so convinced? It was so obvious to Hegel that we think thoughts not things, there can’t be a solid objective physical world out there because we only think that there is. We can’t get outside our own thoughts. Thinking about history, which only happens in our minds of course, he noted that progress occurs in a process he called dialectical. A clashes with B and out of their confrontation a more advanced state of affairs, C, arises.
Marx pinched Hegel’s idea, but whereas Hegel thought everything was mental, Marx thought it was all material, hence dialectical materialism. Out of the internal contradictions of capitalism as it replaced feudalism socialism would arise. Because history is dialectical progress must be leading somewhere. Hegel thought there was an Absolute progressing through history which would lead to the Triumph of the Absolute, whereas Marx thought it would culminate in a socialist paradise. Hegel thought that the Absolute was at the time progressing most purely and absolutely through Germany and in particular through Prussia. which at that moment was top German state. Since it is the study of philosophy that reveals all this, the arrowhead of evolution was most absolutely absolutely passing through the Department of Philosophy at Berlin University. I am sure I don’t need to tell you who the most absolutely absolutely absolutely important head of the D.Phil. was (admittedly this is grossly unfair, but then so is life). At least Marx and Hegel were agreed that there is no other alternative to such grand culminations, because this is the inevitable and irreversible shape of history. It took Karl Popper to point out that there is no evidence for these grand and sweeping interpretations of history whatsoever. So why were these great philosophers so convinced that there was? They were trapped in what I call their own belief boxes, by which I mean a particular way of seeing, or rather feeling the world that is anchored deep in an emotional substructure that, for all the logic in which it expresses itself, is trapped in it, and is so convinced of its own truth it can tolerate no other. After all, we do think only thoughts, and the social and economic injustices in the world do cry out to heaven for justice. You can’t refute that. Do we all feel the need to convince ourselves that the world isn’t a meaningless chaos but we all have an absolutely important part to play because we are participating in an absolute universal narrative? You can see where humanity’s need for religious belief comes from.
Another logician who was tightly entrapped in his own logic was the early Wittgenstein. Noting that a lot of the statements that people make are pretty silly, he thought that the task of philosophy is to unearth the logical structures underlying language in order to separate what you can say that is logical from what isn’t. How could that possibly be wrong because what could be more logical than logic? The only true propositions are those that refer to what is either materially verifiable and/or logically coherent. Everything else is mythology. Having listed all the kinds of propositions we can propose that adhere to these criteria in his book Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, he announced that philosophy was now complete and at an end and retired to Austria to teach school children, believing that only the unspoilt minds of children were exempt from the velleities and ambiguities that pollute the minds and languages of adults. Unfortunately, the naughty pranks of the children aroused such insane rages in him he only just escaped appearing in court on a charge of child abuse. So he went to Ireland to study birds, but, as it turned out, they taught him a thing or two.
We are all imprisoned in emotional substructures, and the belief boxes they underlie, and indeed they do under lie them, for evolutionary reasons. Cameron and Osborne appeared to be the rational ones in the referendum of 2016 but they were Just as imprisoned in their own emotional substructures, carefully constructed in expensive prep schools, then at Eton and finally polished at Oxford, as the rabid Brexit voters in Hartlepool and Barrow-in-Furness. They had no capacity to enter the minds of people Cummings understood so well. I find it hard, too, to think of a more imprisoning and intolerant belief box than the Catholicism of my childhood. Forget about the fall and the redemption. We were right and everybody else was wrong because we ate fish on Friday and were guaranteed right by papal infallibility. I want to devote much of the next post to the later Wittgenstein. I love Wittgenstein. He is the only philosopher I know who was prepared to say he had been entirely wrong. He knew he was back in Cambridge for his second coming, after the lessons he took from his sojourn in Ireland, because as soon as he stepped onto the platform he could hear people saying ‘oh really’. I believe he gave us in his later teaching a way of thinking about philosophy that enables us to escape from the narrow, you could almost say tribal, constrictions of the belief boxes. Letting the fly out of the fly bottle he called it.
He understood that philosophy is especially deceptive precisely because it is so rigorously logical. It is hard to think of twaddle more unfounded and unevidenced than Marx’s doctrine of dialectal materialism. Yet throughout most of the twentieth century half the world believed it. Few had read Das Kapital. It was the promise of a coming paradise that did the trick. I want to say the same about science. Science so easily misleads us precisely because the discoveries it makes are so true. I have come to think that all those secular humanists who say only science can be relied on because only science follows the rigour of the scientific method and everything else, especially religion, is just mythology, have got it totally wrong. That too will take some explaining. But we are not going to give up philosophy because trying to think rationally about the universe is one of the noblest things we can do. Nor are we going to give up science, because we thirst to know more about the universe we inhabit. Nor do I want to give up being a Catholic. Catholic means universal. Despite the aberrations of pre-Vatican 2 Catholicism, I have found nothing that so opens us to the universe and releases us from the narrownesses of ourselves as the Catholic faith. I hope I’m going to be able to convince you.