THE SERENITY PRAYER

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. – Reinhold Neibuhr, 1892-1971

What it is to know something is the same whether we’re talking about how to thaw a frozen pizza or whether the Holy Spirit proceedeth from the Father and the Son or just from the Father alone. Both are important, or at least could be important. And to the same person. After all, even the Pope, on his cook’s day off, needs to know how to operate a microwave. But they’re important in very different ways. The one has to do with one’s immediate survival, or at least his delectation. The other not so much. In fact probably not at all. Lunch time requires me to do something, and that something might involve my knowing how to thaw a frozen pizza. By contrast, the ontological status of the Holy Spirit just is what it is. It makes no demands on me other than, if but only if I so choose, to have an opinion on the matter.

This distinction – between judgments that eventuate in action and those that don’t – is important, because each calls upon very different epistemic protocols. The epistemic warrant for believing I should 1) select and push the power level button, 2) enter the desired number of seconds, and then 3) push START, is that I was taught it, I tried it, and it worked. The epistemic warrant for believing the Holy Spirit proceedeth from the Father and the Son – otherwise known in Latin as the filioque – is, well, that’s the question, isn’t it?

The Logical Positivists, who dominated analytical philosophy from the 30’s through to the early 60’s, thought that since claims about things like the ontological status of the Holy Spirit can be neither verified nor falsified, they are for all intents and purposes meaningless. Hence, concluded Rudolf Carnap, we can eliminate all metaphysical speculation from our things-to-do list. But the distinction I’m drawing here is orthogonal to his. For me it’s not that metaphysical claims are meaningless. It’s that so few of them make any practical difference in our lives.

But in this respect they’re not alone. The world – or at least the anthropicity of it – has to come to an end sometime. And we (by which I mean scientists) are getting closer and closer to calculating the date, within a couple million years or so, with some confidence. But what would we do with that information? Not a damn thing. We’re just going to carry on, pretty much as we have, and leave the worrying to that generation that has something more immediate to worry about. But the end of the world isn’t a metaphysical matter. It’s a purely physical one; just one outside our control.

Moreover, there are metaphysical claims that do matter. If kindergarten Christianity is true, I’d be well-advised to change my ways. The problem is I have no way of knowing whether kindergarten Christianity is true or not. So I want to divide things we might want to know into two categories: things we both need to know and can know, and things we either can’t know or don’t need to know. How to thaw a frozen pizza falls into the first category. The ontological status of the Holy Spirit falls into the second.

Now put that distinction on the back burner and allow me a short digression. I have a theory. No, that’s too strong. I have a conjecture, a suggestion, if you like. I want to suggest that there’s an instructive parallel between believing and hearing. I don’t mean that what we hear often causes what we believe. That’s just a duh. Rather I mean that they share a common cognitive protocol. To explain:

Somewhere between the inner ear and the central processor in the brain, there’s a transducer which decides whether what we’re hearing is sound or language. If the former we then process it as and only as sound; if the latter as and only as language. That’s why, though she knows what Chinese or Italian or Russian sounds like, no English speaker knows what English sounds like. She doesn’t know what it sounds like because to her it’s not sound, it’s language. And so the question, “What does English sound like?” makes no sense to her, because English just isn’t the kind of thing that sounds. English is only the kind of thing that means.

My suggestion, then – and I emphasize it’s only a suggestion – is that something similar is going on with beliefs that call for action, and those that don’t. There’s a transducer, somewhere in the mind, that tells us which is which. How do I thaw a frozen pizza is sent off into one algorithm; what’s the ontological status of the Holy Spirit goes into the other.

Each of these algorithms, in turn, has its own set of logic gates. Each gate asks a question. On the pizza side, probably the first is, “What do I want?”, and the next is probably “What do I already know about how I might get it?”. And so on. But none of these questions make sense on the Holy Spirit side. There’s nothing I want out of the Holy Spirit. I just want to have a view about its ontological status. And so neither does the question, “How do I know?” make any sense, because there’s really nothing to know. There’s only something to believe. That is, the question, “How do I know?” what I believe about the ontological status of the Holy Spirit makes no more sense than “What does English sound like?” English doesn’t sound like anything because it’s not sound. The ontological status of the Holy Spirit doesn’t call for knowledge because it’s not the kind of thing to be known, it’s only the kind of thing to be believed.

So the question to be asked – at least the question meaningful to the mind – is not “How do I know?” but rather “How ought I go about believing?” And the answer to that question requires an answer to the prior question, namely, “What work do I want my believing to do for me?”

This might look the same as the “What do I want?” question over on the pizza side. And in the most obvious respect it is. But on the Holy Spirit side it requires a very different kind of answer. On the pizza side it’s asking after what will get me my lunch. On the Holy Spirit side it’s asking what will ensure my ongoing membership in the tribe upon which I depend for my survival, delectation, and companionship. If this be doubted, ask yourself what else hangs on your belief about the ontological status of the Holy Spirit.

If I’m right about this – and as I write this I’m becoming more and more convinced that I might be – then ask yourself this: Does whether there was or was not a Holocaust fall on the pizza side or the Holy Spirit side? Well, let’s see. Whether there was or wasn’t, there’s nothing you’re being called upon to do about it. So it must fall on the Holy Spirit side, which means the question to be asked is, “Which position ought I to adopt so I’ll keep getting invited to dinner parties?”

Does whether there is or is not global warming fall on the pizza side or the Holy Spirit side? Well, let’s see. Whether global warming is true or not, there’s nothing you’re being called upon to do about it. You would be called upon to do something about it if those you depend on for dinner invitations insisted that you do. But they won’t insist because then you’d probably insist they do likewise, and nobody wants to be first to do something about global warming because that would make her a fanatic, and nobody wants to have a fanatic over for dinner.

There are, I suspect, no more than a dozen people on the planet whose knowledge about the Holocaust or global warming is more than mere parroting. To the rest of us all that matters is having an opinion on the matter, namely one shared by members of our gourmet club. So, it would seem, belief in the Holocaust, global warming, the idiocy of Donald Trump … the list goes on and on … is patter. It’s social lubrication.

But, of course, I can’t believe that – or at least say it – because if I did I wouldn’t be getting too many more dinner invitations. People don’t like to have it pointed out to them that their strongest convictions are grounded in nothing but the expectations of others. And they certainly resent having their most heartfelt convictions reduced to social patter. I get that. And I accept it. So what’s a bloke to do other than just recite the Serenity Prayer?

Maybe tomorrow I’ll write a blog about Rudyard Kipling’s If.

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