One man's bullshit…

Bullshit was under discussion on Night Waves last night. Stephen Law has a new book out on believing tosh and how to avoid it. The discussion set me thinking because one of the areas highlighted was what he called pseudo-profundity – the kind of talk that appeals to a mystery or the unknown in a way that throws smokescreens around the credulous.

It is always a risk. Discernment is a critical task in matters religious and spiritual. But I suspect that what lies underneath the desire to expose bullshit is a question about the nature of reason. (I was tempted to write ‘deeper question’, but then ‘deeper’ is one of those words of which to be wary…)

For example, I suspect – having read Humanism: A Very Short Introduction – that apophatic theology counts as bullshit for Stephen. As he writes there: ‘The view that we cannot say what God is, only what God is not… has it’s attractions, perhaps the most obvious being that, if you never say what God is, you can never be contradicted.’ Touché.

Only, clearly rational theologians, like Thomas Aquinas, who are also big on apophaticism, show that it’s quite straightforward to talk about something only by saying what that something is not.

Imagine you have lived all your life in a landlocked country, where there is no talk or sight, let alone comprehension, of the sea. There’s not even the word. Then, one day, you venture across the horizon and after a long journey reach the end of land. And you see it. The sea. Astonished, you contemplate the view for a while and then you head back to your fellows. You try to describe what you’ve seen. It’s not land, you begin. It’s not hilly or mountainous, you continue. It’s not possible to walk across it. It’s not covered with grass and trees. It’s a bit like that lake, only it has no apparent bounds and it does weird things like approaching the land and then retreating from it, day by day.

You take the point. Quite a lot can be said negatively, by saying it’s not like what the landlocked peers are familiar with, and by using some analogies with a negative twist. Similarly, as Aquinas says of God, it’s not that mere mortals can have no knowledge of God, but because by definition what God truly would be lies beyond comprehension, that knowledge will always be provisional and hedged with mystery.

If the analogy holds up, it also implies something about reasoning. Reason, if you like, cannot pull itself up by its own bootstraps. It needs an intuition – something pre-rational – to get itself going, to get its teeth into. In other words, it has a subsidiary role to experience, inklings, encounters, hunches – the full panoply of ways in which we engage the world.

When it comes to God, I suspect that this is why few people reason their way into belief or non-belief. Rather, it’s experience that does most of the work, which is then honed by reason. For myself, I can see now that atheistic philosophy, particularly that of Nietzsche, made sense to me when I left the church because it spoke powerfully to me during my experience then. Now, though, I’d be more inclined to say that whilst Nietzsche has brilliant critiques of religious belief – probably the best – he’s actually a help to the believer because he assists with the task of discernment.

This suggests that the other big question you need to consider when sifting the bullshit is what counts experientially. This is a massive issue, as one person’s clear experience is another person’s dizzy delusion. Plato knew as much, when he wrote about how the individual who has seen the sun, and returns to the cave, will be mocked, even killed, by those who only know the shadows on the wall.

However, it seems inevitable that pseudo-profundity will always be with us. And it’s well worth living with because life for we humans just is, it seems to me, more than we can grasp. Better some bullshit than denying that. Of course, there are many ways of extending our clear grasp of life, not least the traditions of science and theology, with their different kinds of rationality. (Ironically, alongside the discussion of bullshit on the programme was a discussion of the ‘visionary painter Samuel Palmer’, about whom a new biography has been written, entitled: ‘Mysterious Wisdom’.) But our sure knowledge will always rest on a sea of unknowing.

Hence, so long as the bullshit does not do individuals lasting damage – ‘by their fruits you will know them’ – I’m inclined these days to stomach it. Crystals, angels, astrology and the like are not to my taste, and I’d encourage discernment. But I’m quite prepared to accept that they speak powerfully to many. After all, theology is not to the taste of many. But I think it’s worth doing. I suspect it is speaking of a real and truly profound mystery.