Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Counsels of Defeat

Andrew Sullivan today quotes Leszek Kolakowski on the counsels of defeat:
Religion is man's way of accepting life as an inevitable defeat. That it is not an inevitable defeat is a claim that cannot be defended in good faith... One can accept life, and accept it, at the same time, as a defeat only if... ne accepts the order of the sacred."

I categorically reject such counsels of defeat and despair. I reject a retreat into delusion and lies in the face of death. I pity those without the imagination to contemplate victory. And I'm filled with disgust at those traitors to the human spirit who would undermine our chance of victory to justify their cowardice.

The hundred millennia and more of all of human existence is a merely a blink of the eye in the age of the universe. In that short time, the blind uncaring forces of evolution have shaped us, and we have shaped the tools--language, art, technology and science--to make ourselves as great as we can imagine ourselves to be. We can surpass any limitation, overcome any obstacle, and achieve any victory--even over death itself--but only if imagination does not fail us.

There have been billions of human casualties in our struggle against death. Perhaps, in the past, our religions have served some purpose in maintaining our morale in the long millennia of this struggle. Victory seemed unachievable, but still we fought. But not so today. It is not hubris, it is not vanity, to believe we can find victory in our struggle against death. Those who label such victory as hubris or vanity are traitors to humanity who would snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

I myself may fall in this great struggle, but I will fall still fighting; I will fall never for a moment accepting the counsels of fear, the seductive whispers urging the comfort of delusion against the inevitability of defeat.

And when--not if, but when--we win the struggle against death, we can have more, much more, than mere vanity or satiation with the centuries, the millennia, perhaps even the eternity available to our minds. There is an infinity of knowledge awaiting us, a vast and glorious universe to explore, and worlds in every grain of sand.

The contempt for the real is the counsel of cowardice and the failure of the imagination. It is the creed of the slave, willing to accept any suffering, any degradation, any delusion to save himself from the terrible burden of freedom and choice.

Perhaps I may die. Perhaps you may die too. You have a choice, though, the choice that not even the slave can escape: You can die in the service of comforting lies and flattering delusions, or you can die in the service of the truth and the greatness of humanity.


  1. Well said... one could take Sullivan to be insinuating that religious belief is a necessary fiction (or perhaps he would label it "fictitious truth") - but you can't exactly blame a gay man who lived through the aids epidemic for having a morose metaphysics. Thankfully not all us are so limited by our histories (personal and cultural).

  2. The more I learn about about people, the less confident I become about understanding why anyone does anything.

    Regardless of the reasons, I think there is something defeatist in the conservative mindset. Everything of this world is contemptible; trying to "improve" things can only make it worse and can never, in any case, approach the mysterious perfection of the divine.

    As a liberal, I might well be deluded in my hopes for humanity. But I'd rather be deluded by hope, than fear. I'd rather be deluded by imagination than despair. I'd rather be deluded to the service of human greatness than to the servile craving for nothing greater than the undeserved forgiveness of our inalienable wretchedness.

  3. Thank you for responding to that post so very much better than I could have. I do love Sullivan though, and I'm glad he's going to Atlantic Magasine, which I've been suscribing to since I was a teenager, more than 40 years ago; it's as if he's joined my family. But it was disappointing to watch his debate with Sam Harris devolve into Sullivan declaring (in so many of his own words) that he just believes in his Catholicism because it comforts him and he is entitled to be comforted by fantasy. That's the first time I ever doubted his complete commitment to intellectual integrity, and when I doubt something or somebody once, I seldom cease to remove that doubt in later instances.

  4. It doesn't take being a gay man to have "morose metaphyics," merely a healthy dose of reality. While your optimism is certainly touching, history is more than a limiter--its a definer.

    Yeah, we are always trying to reach above ourselves (indeed, relgion, by and large, is a moral and social structure which boils down to "There is something larger beyond yourselves that you need to strive for"). Whether we do so as a religious person with blinders or a non-religious person with blinders trying to evolve past religion, it doesn't matter.

  5. A perfect response, very well expressed. If you do have to die, it will happen regardless of what you believe or don't believe. But you can still gain a kind of victory by keeping your dignity intact, by refusing to be seduced by comforting delusions (not that I personally find the specific delusions of the Christian belief system very comforting anyway).

    I have a lot of respect for Sullivan even when I disagree with him, because he is his own man and doesn't mindlessly follow any party line. But it is striking that all the defenses of religion he has been presenting are ultimately based on the emotional need to believe, as opposed to the standard of accepting what the evidence reveals, which he (like all intelligent people) rightly insist on upholding for all questions other than religious ones.

  6. "I categorically reject such counsels of defeat and despair."

    The problem with that rejection is that you and Leszek Kolakowski have got it backwards. Religion is NOT man's way of accepting life as an inevitable defeat. It's a DENIAL of that defeat, it's a denial of death.

    Explain to me how believing in an immortal soul that goes to an eternal heaven is accepting defeat. You and Sullivan have taken Kolakowski out of context. The people he attacks there are the communists he once was. The only "inevitable defeat" in Kolakowski's mind was thinking of a possible communist utopia. That's the defeat he has in mind.

    There are other places to put your hope than in politics. In that regard it's atheists who accept defeat -- accept death, accept life's limits -- and there are more options than "the sacred" for finding a meaning in this limited life.

    As far as Sam's Debate with Andrew -- I'm on Sam's side, but I think Sam is missing something. I nailed the emotional side of religion over a decade ago:

  7. Whoops, you also said:
    "But not so today. It is not hubris, it is not vanity, to believe we can find victory in our struggle against death."

    You're talking transhumanism, the technological singularity, Ray Kurzweil:

    Not every atheist is a transhumanist, and transhumanism is not what Leszek Kolakowski had in mind.

    I think we'll get there, the singularity, but not in our life times. Uploading into robotic bodies is at least a couple generations away.

  8. Kurzweil puts the full Singularity about forty years away. He and de Grey think that the technological conquest of aging (and thus of the biological limitations on the human life span) could come as soon as 20 years from now. Hundreds of millions of people who are now 43 or considerably older will live to experience "the centuries, the millennia, perhaps even the eternity", and the "vast and glorious universe to explore".

    Even if this were not the case, the basic point would remain valid. Hope based on belief unsupported by any evidence is false hope, and without worth.

  9. Let me respond briefly to these terrific comments.

    Yes, my post and my subsequent comment were explicitly polemic. I hope many of you coming here from Andrew Sullivan's blog might take the time to read more of this blog. There are times for reasoned argument, and times for polemic. I think you'll find both here. Note that I read every comment and do my best to respond to them all.

    I don't think the neatly drawn line between liberals and conservatives is entirely of my own invention. Since my response is specifically to Kolakowski, the only neatly drawn line that can be confidently inferred--and the only line I intend--is between his views and my own.

    I think it is an admirable part of human nature that we constantly seek that which is larger than ourselves, our immediate existence. Even towards the religious, I have much more sympathy to those who use their religion to motivate them to greatness than to Kolakowski, who does not seem to offer even unfounded hope, but rather (in my reading) offers only, in the faceof certain defeat, retreat from greatness to the comfort of delusion.

    Even if thermodynamics are the last word, we still have billions, or perhaps trillions of years available; plenty of room for greatness. And while I think the "transhuman singularity" is an interesting idea, ordinary human science, plodding along even at a linear rate, can still give us real and meaningful victories; no singularity is necessary to defeat death, just another century or two of medical science.

  10. Isn't it a bit hypocritical to denounce religious fantasy, and then turn around and claim that your antidote to despair is the prospect that someday you might live forever? You don't believe that Heaven exists, but you do believe you could upload your brain into a computer? This sounds very much like comforting lies and flattering delusions.

    But even if we pretend that its true, it doesn't save us from loss of other varieties. Our accomplishments can be eclipsed or simply forgotten, our friends and family can abandon us, everything could collapse. Oh yes, and we are immortal, so we suffer forever. The defeat of life is that everything is temporary, but to call it a defeat is a self-centered perspective, since every end makes way for a new beginning.

    So despair is caused by the delusion that the world revolves around me, and how dare you suggest that I am temporary! For the atheist: "What great works I have created!" For the Christian: "My soul will live forever in Heaven!" An immortal human being is nothing more than rendering Christian mythology with materialist metaphysics.

  11. Barefoot Bum,

    If you think it's going to take a century or two of medical science to defeat biological death, why do you employ the phrases, "perhaps I may die, and perhaps you may die."?

    Why not, 'You and I will almost surely die.'?

    On the lighter side, and in keeping with your moniker how 'bout a jaunty little tune?

    "I got me ten fine toes to wiggle in the sand,
    Lots of idle fingers snap to my command,
    A loverly pair of heels that kick to beat the band,
    Contemplating nature can be fascinating,
    Add to these a nose that I can thumb, and a mouth by gum have I,
    To tell the whole wide world, if you don't happen to like it,
    Deal me out, thank you kindly, pass me by.

    Pass me by-y.
    Pass me by-y-y.
    If you don't happen to like,
    pass me by.

  12. In response to Alto's comment -- these two concepts are not comparable at all. Rendering the human body immune to aging and disease would require us to solve a number of very complex problems of biological re-engineering. Over the last few years we've accumulated a lot of the relevant basic knowledge, and there's no reason to think this can't actually be accomplished given enough time and resources.

    Uploading the pattern of electrochemical reactions which make up a human individual from the organic supercomuter (the brain) on which it currently runs into a more durable artificial medium is, similarly, an engineering problem. It would require a computer with the capacity to run a perfect simulation of the 100 trillion or so synaptic connections in an individual brain, plus scanning technology capable of mapping all those connections in an organic brain to be run on the computer. These things are far beyond the capabilities of the equipment we have today, but extrapolating from the current rates of improvement in sophistication of what we do have, it's very reasonable to think we'll get there in thirty or forty years.

    By contrast, the existence of the Christian Heaven or any other kind of afterlife is supported by no evidence whatsoever. None.

    It's like claiming that antibiotics and prayer are equivalent in the kind of hope they offer for overcoming infections. Technological solutions work because they are human-designed to achieve specific objectives based on the knowledge we gain through science. Passively believing that there are supernatural forces which work for our benefit, when there is no evidence at all for the existence of such forces, is merely self-delusion.

  13. I don't think I'm being hypocritical.

    At one level, I'm simply declaring my existential preference for the attitude of hope over the attitude of despair. In an important sense, this post is just contra Kolakowski; one can be religious, even a Christian, without buying into Kolakowski's defeatism and contempt, and an atheist can buy into Kolakowski's defeatism (even if he rejects the proposed cure).

    At another level, though, yes, I do think I have some rational justification for my hope. It is true that we do not know everything, it is true we that have not conquered every obstacle. But we have through only human agency learned much, overcome much--not enough to declare victory inevitable, but more than enough to reject the idea that defeat is inevitable.

  14. I agree with the sentiment, but I have to disagree that death is defeat, and only eternal life is victory. The rules of the game, so to speak, include death as the final buzzer. Your analogy is like saying that no one can win a basketball game because eventually the clock runs out and the game ends. We are victorious or vanquished in the way in which we live our lives during our limited time in the universe. As atheists we have to accept that we will die eventually, not in the children's fairy-tale way that Christians do, but gracefully and with a clear head. And then get busy living or get busy dying.

  15. Infidel753, the religious and secular narratives of victory over death differ only in that one is supernatural and one is not. But both are narratives that are driven out of an inability to really come face to face with finitude, and in fact, the hope that we will never have to. In your mind, the only thing that matters is that the proposed solution is not supernatural, and you are unwilling to admit that an atheist could be just as deluded as a theist.

  16. Alto: I don't think you're correct. The secular transhuman narrative requires that we come face-to-face with finitude, or at least the narrow limitations we currently face. What this narrative denies is the uncritical acceptance of these limitations.

    I'm absolutely willing to admit that I'm deluded—if I actually were deluded. However, neither your own slavish, uncritical devotion to death nor your unsubstantiated insults prove that I am in fact deluded.

  17. Intriguing read!

    I always find it interesting that people somehow choose to believe that accepting something something higher or beyond themselves is somehow demeaning.

    Whether it be God's eternal life or some scientific fantasy of infinite preservation - what's wrong about defining what you believe victory might be and respectfully going towards it? Does it means you're less of a person because there is still room to develop, learn and discover?

    Fantasy, hope, an unproved hypothesis, faith ... isn't it nice to look forward to something and be positive about it?

  18. Bart:

    I don't see specifically religious fantasies (just vague supernatural mumbo jumbo) as particularly hopeful; I don't see scientific hope as fantastic or requiring the same sort of uncritical faith as religious belief.


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