catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 10 :: 2010.05.14 — 2010.05.27


Fallibilism is true!

Every culture has a narrative of deception.  Buddhists seek Bodhi or “enlightenment” as a way out of the endless cycle of birth and death.  Christians participate in theosis or “divinization” to shun the deceptive powers of evil and become more like God.  Zoroastrians believe that druj (evil) is in constant antithesis to the good (asha) of Ahura Mazda, who was proclaimed God by Zoroaster.  This kind of talk is also featured in less religio-metaphysical settings, like everyday life.  Bohemian artists rail against the co-opting power of the “machine.”  Political activists of myriad stripes here in the U.S. turn out in droves to protest the dark overlords of the local, state and Federal levels of government practically on a daily basis. “Foodies” have an interest in pulling back the curtain on abusive and environmentally destructive agricultural practices.  Alternatively, Monsanto CEO’s warn of the misanthropic aims of “food justice activists.”  The list goes on and on in dizzying variation.       

The only thing that distinguishes these narratives is the guilty party.  Entire economies emerge around bolstering the case of A against B or C against D with the guiding hope that A and C are getting things “right” and that, soon enough, B and D will dissolve in defeat.  Since any letter and any cause can be placed in this informal equation, it bears asking broader questions like: What informs our convictions about right and wrong?  Whence our anxieties about deception?  And what does it mean to “get things right?”

Descartes famously became philosophy’s anxious poster-child soon after his Meditations on First Philosophy emerged.  In it, the soon-to-be famous philosopher claimed that there could be an Evil Demon who beams a fake reality into our minds without our ever realizing it, thus casting doubt on the reliability of our perception. Descartes eventually (after much ado) realized that he couldn’t doubt his own doubting and notoriously remarked, “I think, therefore I am,” thus “dissolving” the gap between the individual knower and the realm of ideas.  Descartes even situated an argument for the existence of God upon his newfound confidence in his own existence.  The rest is sort of philosophical history.  Or, that’s at least how the headline would have read.  In truth, this Cartesian formulation of the way the world works raised more questions than it answered.   

As a result, a lot of the themes presented in Descartes’ work have never left the Western psyche.  We are still tempted by the notion that we need “groundings” for morality, cognition and aesthetic value.  A lot of our theologizing, too, remains preoccupied with proper belief and the conditions for such belief.  These types of concerns stem from a deeper switch, hustled along by Descartes and John Locke, which claimed that philosophy could be in the business of separating mere opinion from certainty about the external world.  The full story about how this happened, and why, is convoluted and lengthy.  But for our purposes here, it is enough to say that this transition of philosophy from one discipline among many to the foundational discipline occurred and is, perhaps more importantly, a recent development.  Descartes and Locke, among others, introduced the Western mind to philosophy as “theory of knowledge” and thus were quite content, as a result, to begin viewing philosophy as the “queen of the sciences” and “arbiter of truth” — a referee of all claims to knowledge. 

A lot of the popular focus on deception is the direct lineage of the Cartesian program.  It’s not that Larry and Andy Wachowski had Descartes specifically in mind when writing the screenplay for The Matrix.  But if it had not been for the Cartesian re-imagining of the source of knowledge behind a cloudy “veil of perception,” we may not ever have had films like The Matrix or The Truman Show or anxieties about the reliability of what we think we know based upon what we think we ought to know.  We may not have had these films if we had never become entranced with Cartesian anxiety.  Why we ever did remains an open question and one for a philosophical anthropologist. 

The Matrix, Bohemian artists, Monsanto executives, political activists, Christians, Buddhists and Zoroastrians — if it’s not already evident, any ideology can become preoccupied with carving the world up into bite-size chunks of “appearance” and “reality.”  This was precisely Descartes’ approach. And this is one of the many reasons philosophy became a profession.  Descartes and his successors laid the ground for an academic discipline expressly motivated by the desire to “get things right.”  Contemporary rhetoric regarding deception tends to do the same thing.  

One of the most engaging essays I have read lately regarding these themes is by Donna Bowman of the University of Central Arkansas.  In her piece The Gnostic Illusion: Problematic Realized Eschatology in The Matrix Reloaded, Bowman neatly crafts an argument that convincingly claims if Neo is the messiah of The Matrix films, it is clear that Zion (the Wachowski’s idea of a community in exile) “awaits the coming of a Paul.”  Here is Bowman at her best:

As the Corinthians mistook the triumph of Christ for the abolition of the category of sin, the Zionites mistake being unplugged for being free. Paul created Christianity as a stable religious institution by identifying a third way between asceticism and libertinism: a praxis of realism liberally salted with regeneration, undergirded by Christian hope. This third way required the proponents of a realized eschatology to recognize the real conditions of ongoing life in the world, including relationships of dependence and practicality. Paul’s tone to the Corinthians is aggrieved, exasperated: “Wake up,” he seems sometimes to be saying through his structure of rhetorical questions and reductiones ad absurdum. Salvation — enlightenment — is not the end of the story, nor does the plot continue only at the level of the cosmic battle between God and Satan….  In other words, the only dichotomy that the Corinthians recognized was Christian/pagan, forgiven/sinner; Paul wanted to show that the category of Christian contains the possibility of grievous error, deceit, and even evil. The Zionites and the Nebuchadnezzar crew have yet to open their eyes to this reality. Blinded by the Gnostic underpinnings of their worldview, they consider themselves already to have attained transcendence over every dangerous illusion. (emphasis mine) 

Bowman concludes her essay by remarking that the Nebuchadnezzar needed a “Paul” to teach them a “sustainable, honest perspective on their situation.”  For only a “Paul” could “reconcile their belief system with the unstated assumptions in their practice.” 

The parallels between Descartes’ philosophical program and The Matrix films are strong.  Descartes could also have used a Paul.  Paul could have helped unhitch the Cartesian obsession with accuracy of belief from human flourishing.  Paul could have also chastened the Cartesian anxiety about deception with honest words about how enlightenment, in Bowman’s words, is “not the end of the story.”  This is the lesson all narratives of deception need to take seriously.  For anyone staid about the possibility of enlightenment must remain just as serious about the possibility for mistake.  To assume otherwise is to confuse “knowing” with salvation.  And that is never what Paul, or Jesus, promised.

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