Chautauqua: Wherein Phaedrus Misunderstands Zealotry

I’m still moving slowly through the book, taking time to read other things too.  But something I came across requires comment.

When I first read Zen & the Art, I was in my third year of college, and emerging from an interesting religious experience that had lead to my being “born again” while in high school.  While I was within that first religious community, everything had made sense.  But once I had emerged, I began to have a different perspective.  While I still put some value on faith, the, well, externalization of faith (what was called in those days “witnessing”) started to seem positively creepy.

And so I read, with some approval, and took to my bosom, with considerable agreement, a set of statements that Pirsig makes about Phaedrus.  Pirsig has just written about a lecture that Phaedrus gave in an English class he was teaching, which he calls the “Church of Reason” lecture.  It was about the idea that a university is not made of bricks and wood, but rather of ideas (see previous posts regarding TRUTH) and that the faculty are merely (my interpretation) the priests of the Church of Reason–in essence, that The Church continues to exist even if and when a church (or even every church) is shut down.

Cool.  I can get into that.

But Pirsig notes that Phaedrus lectured on the Church of Reason with more appearance of certainty than he actually felt:

The explanation I’ve come to [for this stridency] arises from the discrepancy between [Phaedrus’s] lack of faith in scientific reason in the laboratory [NB:  see discussion of hypotheses, above] and his fanatic faith expressed in the Church of Reason lecture.  I was thinking about the discrepancy one day and it suddenly came to me that it wasn’t a discrepancy at all.  His lack of faith in reason was why he was so fanatically dedicated to it.

You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in.  No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow.  They know it’s going to rise tomorrow.  When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it’s always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt.

When I was 20, I agreed with Pirsig without reservation on that last line.  That dedication, fanaticism, emerged from a lack of certainty.  Indeed, in an honors thesis I wrote on the emergence of the Gay Rights movement, I bootlegged in the assumption that people who were nearer in time to their “conversion” to a movement or an idea were necessarily more strident.  I discovered some problems with this hypothesis, but I did not make them explicit at the time, and besides, internally I still had not distinguished belief systems and theories (again, see above.  Sorry).

I no longer agree.

I think that there are beliefs, ideas–dogmas, if you prefer–and goals that one can believe in with certainty and yet regarding which one can be a zealot.

Consider climate change, nee global warming.  I’m absolutely convinced it’s happening.  I’ve seen the data.  More to the point, I’ve seen it.  It’s not a question of having faith in it any more than it’s a question of having faith that the sun will rise tomorrow.   And yet, I am a zealot with respect to global warming, in two respects.  First, in saying that we should do something about it, second, in trying to convince skeptics.  The first, Phaedrus might turn aside by saying that I’m a zealot with respect to policy, and that policy remains uncertain.  I suppose he’d be right.  But the second:

I’m not trying to convince people that global warming is real because I’m uncertain.  I’m trying to convince them that it’s real so that they’ll do something about it.

And there are people who are certain to the bottom of their feet that their god is real, that X is Y, etc.  And they’re zealous about those beliefs even though they’re by no means uncertain.

I suspect here that Phaedrus was bringing in the world-weariness of the 1970s in which he was writing, but I can’t be certain.

The one thing I can be certain of here is that he’s making an argument that only looks logical.  It’s a deductive argument.  And as a brown-dirt inductivist, that makes me suspicious.

Let’s be careful out there.

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