First off, posting is going to be sporadic until early September. I got a good rhythm going until about a month ago, but I’m literally all over the place right now. Literally. All over it. In the meantime, I wanted to discuss an issue that I’ve run into a few times, and which I find very interesting. (this will probably continue over a few posts).
Consider the parallel that opponents have often drawn between revolutionary and religious beliefs. Bertrand Russell, for instance, says that “To understand Marx psychologically, one should use the following dictionary:
- Yahweh=Dialectical Materialism
- The Messiah=Marx
- The Elect=The Proletariat
- The Church=The Communist Party
- The Second Coming=The Revolution
- Hell=Punishment of the Capitalists
- The Millenium=The Communist Commonwealth”
The first four of these concern more the institutional practice of Marxism, which I won’t discuss – what interests me is the latter three, that ‘the revolution’ and its aspects are (‘just’?) surrogates for belief in the Second Coming or something like it.
Personally, I’ve had it put to me on occasion (and wondered over myself) that my cautious belief in the likeliehood and desirability of world socialist revolution just reflects my own ‘issues’, a sort of adolescent fantasy of redemptive destruction.
As a critique of revolutionary beliefs, this is particularly neat since it can just borrow and reapply an analysis of religion that most revolutionaries would accept. As I see it, that analysis goes something like this:
- People suffer from various frustrated desires, which they can see no observable way to satisfy;
- This leads them to posit an entity that can satisfy those desires…
- …locate that entity in an unobservable realm,
- and also to connect this unobservable entity to certain selected observable things (books, people, buildings, words, doctrines, etc.)
The line of criticism I have in mind is that religion and revolution are simply two versions of this basic process: where one features a supernatural creator somewhere beyond time and space, the other features a human political process sometime in the future. But they’re just giving different names to “the thing that will set it all right.”
This process is then open to at least these four criticisms (none of which mention opium). Firstly, this is irrational and epistemically irresponsible – it’s believing something without good evidence, just as wish-fulfilment.
Secondly, because practical reasoning is largely about weighing competing values against each other, this introduction of an imaginary good is liable to derange practical reasoning, and lead to the sacrifice of genuine goods.
Thirdly, the frustrated desires are typically both positive (wishing for happiness or cleanliness or fairness or harmony or the cessation of pain or misery) and also negative (anger, indignation, resentment, wishing to avenge, punish, denounce or destroy perceived injustice). Hence hellfire, the scourging of the earth, and the cataclysmic revolutionary struggle – it is not enough that things turn out ok, there must be some cathartic ‘smashing’ of the state, windows, patriarchy, or whatever.
Fourthly, moreover, this process of wish-fulfilment typically operates unconsciously, and so reduces the opportunity to distinguish carefully between genuine moral wrongs that God/the revolution will correct, and personals problems, failures or perceived insults, and so there’s a risk of personal grudges being legitimised as a transcendent cause and justification for violence.
All in all, then, a fairly damning indictment. The problem is that this critique is presented as taking aim at a distinct, intrinsically pathological mechanism of belief-formation. But I think it’s actually just a breakdown of a normal, respectable mechanism.
A simple example of that mechanism would be this: I’m hungry, but I can’t see any food around me (1). I form the idea of something that would satisfy my hunger (2) and which is presumably somewhere else where I can’t see it (3). Then you search through everything you know to find a way to link this postulated somewhere-else-food to something you can see (4) such as the money in your pocket, the cupboard behind you, the front door and lands beyond it, etc. The crucial difference is that between a hypothesis and a conclusion: our emotions and desires shouldn’t determine the latter, but always influence the former.
So the question is whether in completing step 4 leads to revision or abandonment of the postulated idea (“there is no food”) or to some convenient invention (“this item here which I just dismissed as being a coaster is actually some sort of delicious biscuit”). These options are usually fairly easy to distinguish with concrete objects like food (nobody can say “food works in mysterious ways”), but with complex subjects like history, politics, or metaphysics, it’s much harder to tell.
What’s the upshot of this discussion? It’s basically this: that knowing the psychological origin of a given belief can’t on its own yield an evaluation of it – in particular, showing that a belief serves an emotional need does not on its own, warrant dismissing it as ‘fantasy’.
That sort of psychological analysis can be very useful, though, because it can illuminate how, if a belief is unwarranted or unjustified, what sort of failing it represents. Sometimes people hold unreasonable beliefs out of charity or politeness, other times out of desperation or resentment, and other times out of laziness or greed, and these differences can be important.
But this is always a secondary sort of evaluation, which presumes that the beliefs are in fact unwarranted – a decision which must itself be established not on psychological grounds but by judging evidence and argument.
That’s not a very stunning conclusion, is it? Writing it helped me clarify some things for myself though, and perhaps the next post will say something more substantial.