Friday, April 10, 2015

Murphy’s Law and Jesus in Hell

Okay, if we’re all done laughing about #SalonChristianitySecrets ….

The problem with clickbait headlines is that, all too often, they don’t entice you to read the story. Rather, they become the story. More often than not, the link is shared with other people, to be ridiculed or praised whether anyone actually reads the copy or not; their joy and outrage is sparked solely by the one or two deliberately misleading lines at the top of the page. Not even the lede gets a glance. Moreover, if someone does read the copy, their understanding is front-loaded by the headline, giving false strength to weak evidence and arguments.

Such was the case with Ed Simon’s “Jesus went to hell: The Christian history churches would rather not acknowledge”. Contrary to Simcha Fisher’s impatient dismissal in her National Catholic Register blog, Simon did do some research on Jesus’ descent to Sheol, and showed some understanding of the teaching. Knowing the teaching, however, isn’t the same as knowing the divisions in modern Christian culture. It’s here that Simon trips up in his analysis, leading himself to the theme from which someone at Salon derived the title, in all its conspiracy-theorist awkwardness … and to all the hoo-hahs of the Twitterverse.

(My two favorites: “BREAKING: Jesus flipped tables in a fit of rage one time. IS THIS YOUR CHRIST?” and “‘I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.’ #JesusMicroaggressions”)

For my own part, I suspect Simon is a Christian, even possibly one of an Eastern Orthodox communion. However, I suspect that he was raised in the West, and therefore infected by the materialism and reductionism in our culture. Certain aspects of Christianity strike him as weird because he expects everything to be rational, which no reasonable person would expect. The simplest, most readily-available cure for such an odd view of the world is to consult the many permutations of Murphy’s Law.

The human mind is engineered to see patterns. Under certain conditions, we may see patterns where they don’t exist; under other conditions, we may miss patterns that do exist. Murphy’s Law and its many derivatives are simply formalizations of a pattern, the observation of which crosses national and cultural boundaries — “If anything can go wrong, it will.”

The universe, Murphy tells us, takes malicious delight in foiling our efforts. (Harvard’s Law: “Under the most rigorously controlled conditions of pressure, temperature, volume, humidity, and other variables, the organism will do as it damn well pleases.”) Murphy tells us that we humans are our own worst enemies; that if we make progress at all, we do so not because of our best efforts but despite our best efforts. (Shirky’s Principle: “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.”)

The logicians tell us that we operate from a false-correlation fallacy. The psychologists tell us that we suffer from confirmation bias, that our minds are imposing order on random events while ignoring data that don’t fit the pattern. And there isn’t a one of them that won’t ruefully smile to read a law that reflects their experience. (Rothbard’s Law: “Everyone specializes in his own area of weakness.”)

James Kalb, in “How We Think Helps Explain the Culture Wars”, notes that the “Flynn effect”, the fact that people around the world are improving on IQ test questions that emphasize abstract reasoning, appears to show that we’re getting smarter, that “most nineteenth century people would be classified as mentally retarded by today’s much higher standards.” However, Kalb argues, “any improvement in purely abstract reasoning must be coming at the expense of other abilities.” We’re not thinking smarter; we’re thinking differently … and in a way that may be worse.

[The new way of thinking] has some connection to the achievements of the modern natural sciences, but leaves out too much to apply to life in general. That principled rejection of essential aspects of human thought makes it radically defective. It explains why socialism and social engineering don’t work, sexual rationalism doesn’t make people happy, and most ordinary people find the arguments of libertarian purists deeply unconvincing: the ways of thought that lead to those things leave out half of reality.

Nor is a strict Techno [Kalb’s term] view — and the view tends strongly toward strictness — adequate for science itself, since the practice of science depends on common sense and an ability to size up situations that goes beyond formal reasoning. So it’s not surprising that the general triumph of the view among educated people has been followed by complaints that scientists have less theoretical acumen than in the past, their work is losing its vision and becoming agenda and money driven, and basic advances are becoming ever more rare.

“The real trouble with this world of ours,” G. K. Chesterton said in Orthodoxy, “is not that it is an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one. The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite.” In A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking quotes a friend who quips, “God abhors a naked singularity;” but the truth is that the modern way of thinking — Kalb’s “Techno” mind — can’t stand the inexplicable, the oddity that can’t be explained from what’s known. In one way, this is good, for it drives our search for knowledge. On the other hand, it also drives us to cram ideas into categorical boxes that don’t precisely fit; it drives us to make the data conform to the paradigm, instead of the other way around.

Remember that the opposite error from seeing patterns that don’t exist is the inability to see patterns that do exist. Confirmation bias operates on both the believer and the non-believer: “for those who don’t believe, no proof is possible” (Stuart Chase).

We have gotten into the bad habit of exclusively associating irrational with false. A landslide, a phobia, and the value of pi are also irrational, because they are not products of reason: they simply are, and are therefore beyond dispute or disproof. Before you can begin to prove anything, you must accept something as already true without need of proof. If nothing can be assumed, then nothing can be proven: reason itself requires an act of faith, both in its first principles and in its own validity. The attempt to rationalize Christianity, to untie its paradoxes and clarify its enigmas, isn’t a product of Catholicism or the scholastic tradition. Rather, it’s a product of the Reformation and the Enlightenment.

The Christian who’s steeped in the apostolic tradition accepts the weird aspects of Christianity because weirdness — the paradoxical and the enigmatic — is part of our human experience. Kalb’s Trad is far more comfortable with Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and Gödel’s theorem than is the Techno; ironically, it’s the Techno who takes Schrödinger’s cat as a thought-experiment, while the Trad sees it for the reductio ad absurdum it was intended to be. It was a French priest, Msgr. Georges Lemaître, who told the astronomers how to find evidence of a “big bang”, because only a physicist who believed in a Creator could conceive of creation as a physics problem.

At its core, Murphy’s Law is our humorous acknowledgement that we are fallen creatures, and also our suspicion that our world is indeed haunted by malicious demons. Pace Slavoj Žižek, the only reason the core of Christianity could seem perverse is because we ourselves are too rational to be realistic; as J. R. R. Tolkien put it, “to crooked eyes, truth may wear a wry face.”