November 21, 2007
Twitter, Futility, and Belief
Posted by Jeff Lipshaw
I haven't been blogging much over the last month or two (I will be guest blogging over at Concurring Opinions in December, however), leaving Mike Frisch with the laboring (and probably far more useful) oar. I have to admit that some of my inactivity has to do with things like Twitter and Facebook and MySpace, which aren't blogs, but are simply more information than I care to have about just about anybody. So I figure that unless I have something to say on a subject, I'll do everybody a favor and keep a log of my daily activities, as illuminating as they may be, to myself.
Okay. So much for my curmudgeonly rant. Here at Suffolk we have a wonderful set of clinical offerings under the direction of Professor Jeff Pokorak (right). We were talking to someone the other day about our juvenile justice clinic, and the problem of burn-out among Legal Aid lawyers who represent juvenile clients in the system. I wondered how much burn-out had not to do to with the overwhelming amount of work without sufficient resources, but instead the ultimate futility of trying to hold back the ocean of a broken component of society on a case-by-case-by-case basis.
I have compiled a reading list for December, and one entry is Charles Taylor's A Secular Age. (This is quite a commitment, given that there are 776 pages of text.) The thesis, though, is fairly simple, and given to the reader in the first twenty pages. Why is it so easy in 2007 not to believe in God (at least in the North Atlantic world with which he is concerned) when in 1500 it was almost impossible not to? He proposes three concepts of secularity and focuses on the third: (1) the decline of religion in public spaces (i.e. the separation of church and state); (2) the decline of religious practice; and (3) the development of a culture in which it is acknowledged that there are many routes to spiritual "fullness" (Taylor's term) one of which is an exclusively humanist or secular. It seems to me that the whole notion of futility is a modern and secular one, captured by Taylor's description of a whole class of "unbelievers" (i.e. those who no longer believe in God as one might have believed in 1500), who nevertheless live the experience of something like nostalgia for the transcendent as a basis for fullness. To put it more simply, futility arises from a kind of cognitive gap: between the understanding that it's entirely possible nothing will ever make a difference, and the desire to be fulfilled. If you have no particular expectation of fullness, on one hand (see pragmatism, atheism, skepticism, post-modernism), or you are positive in your belief that everything DOES make a difference (see fundamentalism), I suspect futility is not an issue for you. But in between the assurance of a transcendent truth and an unawareness or rejection of anything but the material there is the possibility of futility.
So you just stand in awe and admiration of people who slog through it all day by day, plugging holes in the dike, or pushing back the ocean, wondering how they keep at it. Or the cosmologists like Andrei Linde at Stanford (right) working the question of the origins of the universe knowing they will never know if their theories, like inflationary cosmology, are correct. Or I suppose, in a comparatively trivial way the futility of my own intellectual endeavor, which is to keep proposing answers to imponderable questions, even though I know none of the answers will suffice.
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Just a minor quibble: the co-opting of the term "humanism" by those who champion secularism is unceasingly irritating to me, in no small part because the actual historical humanists would almost assuredly not recognize contemporary "humanists" as their descendants. Very few of the humanists rejected religion per se. Some of them, like Petrarch and Erasmus, were particularly devoted Catholics, though the latter mercilessly criticized the excesses of the Church.
I love Taylor, and am looking forward to reading TSA, as well as hearing your comments on it.
Posted by: Daniel Goldberg | Nov 21, 2007 10:35:57 AM