Guest column: ‘Welcome to Las Vegas: A faith-based community’

Guest Column by Alan Jones

When I started to think about the theme for this week at Chautauqua — privacy —  I kept bumping into a couple issues which claimed priority. Before you can talk about “privacy” you have to have some understanding of not only freedom, but also of what manner of creature a human being is.  I thought of  the cartoon — a flashing highway sign with the message, “Welcome to Las Vegas! A faith-based community!” It expresses the fact that we all live in some sort of “faith” community, which makes assumptions about what the human enterprise is about.

Las Vegas is a good place to start because it’s a community of obvious wishful thinking with its places of worship, seductive liturgies and opportunities for both pleasure and penitence. So, in this very broad sense, we are all part of a faith-based community.

Think of it this way — there’s a movie going on in our heads, which isn’t necessarily true but is, nevertheless, necessary for our being in the world. It’s not that we’re passive moviegoers. We interact with it. It can change, and yet we’re not in control of it. One clue about the movie in your head can come from asking yourself, “Am I an Arcadian or a Utopian?” Are you an Arcadian — looking to an idealized past (wishing you were 30 again and Eisenhower were president) or are you a Utopian — looking to an idealized future, where the Internet makes us all friends in one happy global family and all of us are making money and buying stuff? 

Think about the battling movies going on in the minds of those we send to Congress. Our politics is a cacophonous melee of conflicting movie plots. Whose vision of the world rings more true to you? Does America have a “manifest destiny”?  Are we truly “exceptional” and, if so, in what way? The movie studios of Congress are busy churning out movies about health care, foreign policy, entitlement reform, the role of government. Politics, cosmology, culture — all provide the storyline and dialogue for our movie. The trouble is the cultural movie we have in common tends to assume a mechanistic view of the universe. We tend to take it for granted that truth becomes something proved by argument. What current thinking about the relationship between the brain and the mind has brought to the fore is the importance of another, and, to me, ultimately more powerful revealer of truth — metaphor, the stuff of movies.  

Iain McGilchrist — a psychiatrist and teacher of literature — laments the fact that a mechanistic view of the universe has come to dominate the movie going on in our heads. He tells us: “We need metaphor and mythos in order to understand the world. Such myths and metaphors are not dispensable luxuries or ‘optional extras,’ still less the means of obfuscation: They are fundamental and essential to the process. When we are not given anything better, we revert to the metaphor or myth of the machine. But we cannot … get far in understanding the world, or in deriving values that will help us live well in it, by likening it to the bike in the garage.” 

The myth of the machine leads to a smallness of vision.

McGilchrist’s book, The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, is written from the perspectives of philosophy, neurology and neuropsychology. The title is taken from a short story by Nietzsche. The Master is betrayed by his emissary who comes to think he should be master. When it comes to the brain, the claim is that the Right has been betrayed by the Left. McGilchrist’s thesis is that the hemispheres have complementary but conflicting tasks to fulfill, and need to maintain a high degree and mutual ignorance. At the same time, they need to cooperate. The entrenched prejudice is that the Left is superior to the Right. The right hemisphere adds a bit of color to life; it’s the left that does the serious business.

One of the problems McGilchrist warns us is of “a misplaced need for certainty.” “The left hemisphere likes things that are man-made. Things we make are also more certain: we know them inside out, because we put them together. They are not, like living things, constantly changing and moving, beyond our grasp.” The left hemisphere “needs certainty and needs to be right.” The right “makes it possible to hold several ambiguous possibilities  in suspension together without premature closure on one outcome.”  

Again, “Certainty is … related to narrowness, as though the more certain we become of something the less we see.”  

Jonathan Haidt’s point in The Righteous Mind  is that we lead with the emotions. The model we choose to use to understand something determines what we find. “If we assume a purely mechanical universe and take the machine as our model, we will uncover the view that — surprise, surprise — the body, and the brain with it, is a machine. To a man with a hammer everything begins to look like a nail.  The metaphor we choose governs what we see.”  

Which brings me back to the movie inside our head and how what we pay attention to enacts our relationship with the world. It determines what you deem is worthy of keeping “private.” Attention is not just another “function” of the brain. “The kind of attention we bring to bear on the world changes the nature of the world we attend to … Attention changes what kind of a thing comes into being for us: in that way it changes the world … And yet nothing is objectively has changed.” Take, for example, the way we might talk of a mountain.  “A mountain that is a landmark to a navigator, a source of wealth to a prospector, a many-textured form to a painter, or to another a dwelling place of the gods, is changed by the attention given to it. There no ‘real’ mountain which can be distinguished from these, no one way of thinking which reveals the true mountain.”  Now play the same game with the words “privacy” and “freedom.” These words can mean a whole myriad of contradictory things: “privacy” as a means of keeping some dark and smelly secret from seeing the light of day;  “freedom” as the right to own slaves.

Many adolescents — let alone adults — do not have the skill, which only creativity can bring, of being able to negotiate the great absence at the heart of the psyche. And, why have a benign view of the world anyway?  Why choose to be kind and compassionate?  Why embrace an imaginative charity? Because it is the antidote to the idiocy of a totally private world of the isolated self — a caricature of “privacy,” a travesty of “freedom.”

How to sum up and bring some of this together? The truth is we need storytelling to make sense of the facts. We need stories to connect the dots. A friend of mine gave me a CD reissue of an old recording of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. Here are the “facts.” The year, 1938; the place, Vienna; the conductor, Bruno Walter. These are the bare facts but when you think about them, a story (not a pretty one) emerges that ties all these facts together in the context of a terrible war and the persecution and attempted extinction of a whole people. There’s no such thing as an isolated “fact.” You need a way of connecting  the dots.

When we confuse “fact” with “truth,”  the result is a comforting shrinkage in understanding. What we think we understand we can control. The intellectual challenge is expressed by Jaron Lanier from Silicon Valley. In his book You Are Not A Gadget, he makes the simple point that  information under-represents reality. We live in a data junk yard, and we need a new kind of “faith-based” community, which, in a never-ending conversation, helps us enlarge our horizons, discern the facts and connect the dots. We need both science and art — a revolution in religion — which, at their best, increase our tolerance for ambiguity and our appreciation of wonder.

So, “Welcome to Las Vegas!”