Devonism

Not long after I received my degree in philosophy, someone glibly introduced me to the idea that a philosopher can end up in one of two places:  They can become cynics, bitter that the world does not revere the importance of their work, or they find god.  I found god.

Someone once asked me what my religion was, and I jokingly responded:  “Devonism”.  But that led to a followup question:  What are the fundamental tenets of Devonism?  What do I believe?

That’s a difficult question, not least because saying you believe something is fraught with baggage.  Saying you believe in something is almost like saying you know better but  believe anyway.  “Do you believe in god?” is a loaded question, and the answer is political:  It’s more about identifying with a group than about god.

Belief also operates on a deeper level.  One of the problems that philosophers face is the problem of how we know the things that we know (this is an entire branch of study, called epistemology).  When we say we know something, we generally mean there are good reasons to believe it is true.  The problem is, you can the ask the same question again:  How do you know the reasons are true?  You have other reasons.  And how do you know the other reasons are true?  You can keep asking why indefinitely, chasing the chain of reasoning back forever.

Eventually, if you want to claim that you “know” something, you have to justify that knowledge, and there are only a limited number of unsatisfactory ways to do that.  You can assume that the chain of reasoning is infinite.  But, it’s impossible to follow an infinite chain of reasoning; proving it would take forever.  Since we don’t have forever, we have to take it on faith that the chain of reasoning is correct.  You can assume that the chain of reasoning is cyclical, which means putting faith in the correctness of a very special case of circular reasoning.  You can assume that the chain of reasoning isn’t a linear chain at all (a position known as coherentism).  This requires having faith that a greater truth can arise from a web of otherwise unrelated facts.  Or, you can assume that the chain of reasoning is justified by certain foundational beliefs.  This requires having faith that foundation is self-evidently correct.

All of these possibilities involve some form of faith, and that faith is where we tend to identify god.  We can even identify different types of gods with different faiths:  Judeo-Christians tend to put their faith in foundational reasoning.  Scientific, empirical minds tend towards coherentist views.  Buddhist and Hindu cultures see the universe as cyclical, and the oldest, mystical religions put their faith in the infinity of the universe.

At the end of the day, we can’t avoid faith; no matter what we try to explain, we have to put our faith in something.  Everything we know about the universe, about ourselves, everything we know about this planet and everything on it, depends on a leap of faith that is unjustified by logic.  This is the deeper level of belief that I mentioned; the one we can’t avoid; the one that is truly being asked about when we ask “What do you believe?”  This is the domain of the “big” questions:  “Why are we here?”, “Where did we come from?”, “What are we here for?”.

So, what do I believe?  My big insight after studying philosophy in depth for four years was that human knowledge is a better mirror of the ways that we think than it is of reality.  We understand the universe in terms of atoms and energy because those are the terms under which we can understand it, not necessarily because the universe actually contains those things.  This understanding is the consequence of a fundamental axiom of science:  That there is a rational explanation for everything.

I don’t mean to denigrate the power of science.  Our understanding of nature allows us to do amazing, terrifying, wonderful things, and that would not be possible if our ideas of the universe did not correspond to reality on some level.  What I’m saying is that we frequently confuse our understanding of things with the way things are; we assume that our explanation constitutes everything we need to know about reality.  And we don’t recognize that our explanations depend on the unsupported beliefs that make up the foundational axioms of science:  Beliefs in empirical data, in testing hypotheses, and in the power of rational explanation.  These are useful beliefs; they are beliefs that I share.  But, they are not all I believe.

This is where I think Devonism begins:  In the space beyond explanation and rationality.  Kant called this space metaphysics and concluded that there was nothing useful to be said about it, but I’m not so sure.  The foundations of science are beyond explanation, but that doesn’t stop science from being useful to us.  I think the same is true of spirituality.  It is a space where nothing can be proven; instead, how we see the world is literally up to us.  It can’t be proven true or false, but what we choose to believe has just as much effect on our lives as science does.  Unlike science, which is a description of the reality outside of us, spirituality is about the part of reality that we create for ourselves.

One of the most important abilities we have is the ability to choose what is important to us.  Science and rationality are very useful tools for understanding what the outcome of a particular action will be, but they are silent on the question of whether doing it is a good idea.  Science tells me that launching a nuclear missile will result in widespread destruction and possibly the end of life on earth.  It is silent on the matter of whether or not that is a good thing.  I cannot empirically test for good or evil.  Instead, this is a matter of what values I hold, and this is something I get to choose.

How do I make that choice?  This is the question at the heart of most religions, Devonism included.  In my case, I think the deciding factor is this:  Does the choice bring me closer to god?

Now I’ve done it.  I brought up god.  I use this word quite deliberately because, whether you are Christian or Pastafarian, the concept of god serves a common purpose.  I’ll do my best to describe this purpose in the language of Devonism, but the purpose is the same whether it is described in my language, the language of the Holy Church, or your own internal language.

Let’s use the Christian tradition as starting point.  The Christian God is described as omnipresent (god is everywhere) and omnipotent (god is all-powerful).  This is a reasonable way to look at god, but I think Devonism can be simpler.  I say this:  God is everything.  Literally everything.  God is the word that we use to describe what’s around us when we don’t feel like being specific.  It is the ultimate generalisation.

That makes it a very frustrating concept to grapple with, because human thought is fundamentally about being focussed and specific.  If you want to say something meaningful, the way to do that effectively is to distinguish what you are talking about from every other possibility.  There is literally nothing useful we can say about god because it’s impossible to narrow things down.  God is every possibility, so the answer to any possible question we can come up with relating to god is “yes”.

The heartfelt “waaaahhhhhhh” of a newborn baby is just as profound a comment on god as any of the 1,200 or so words I’ve written here so far.  Possibly more so, since the waaaahhhhhhh is literally the first thing that baby has ever said, and it’s difficult to imagine what a newborn could be expressing other than a comment on his or her newfound separation from god.

“Separate from god”?  But … didn’t you just say god is everything?  How can you be separate from god?  Well, you can’t.  But, you can experience separation from god.  Each one of us has a separate viewpoint, a separate consciousness.  That consciousness is a part of god, like everything else, but my consciousness is uniquely mine, and yours is uniquely yours, and I have no way of accessing your consciousness or knowing what it is like.  All I can do is appeal to god.  God knows what it is like, because your consciousness is a part of god.  But, I will never know what it is like, because I am something separate from you.

And, really, that’s what makes me me.  I am a point of view, an infinitesimally small part of a much, much larger whole.  With that point of view comes the ability to see selectively.  I see only what is around me, not the whole of everything that is god.  My point of view comes with a consciousness, which means as I grow up from being a newborn, I learn to separate out the parts of my point of view that are important to me, and I give them names.  I make them separate, independent entities that my limited consciousness can understand.  I start to see the world as a collection of things, rather than an undifferentiated mass of god.  I start to see things happening, and this helps me to see relationships between things.  As I grow up, I start to reason and make sense of the things in front of me.

All of this happens as a consequence of my consciousness having a limited point of view.  The way that we think is dictated by the fact that we need to make sense of the world around us, and thinking provides us with a way to identify what is important in our field of view.  This need is a survival need; if my consciousness is going to continue as a separate piece of consciousness, I need to assert myself as a separate entity.  This means taking care of the physical shell that holds my point of view.  It means feeding my shell to keep it strong, and it means identifying predators so my shell doesn’t get eaten.  All of this requires the ability to identify separate parts of the world and to make judgements about which parts are food, which parts are friends, and which parts are frightening.

This is what I mean when I say that human knowledge is a better mirror for the way we think than it is for any objective reality.  Objective reality is god; it is undifferentiated, an unordered collection of countless individual points of view, none of which is really independent of any of the others.  Atoms and energy only exist once there is a point of view for these things to matter.  They exist to help us understand the world as seen from our individual points of view, not because they are fundamentally separate from anything else.  We see them because it is useful to us that we see them; because separating them out from the rest of reality helps us accomplish something.

I don’t mean to say that the knowledge we hold about reality is false.  What I mean is that the truth of our knowledge rests on whether our knowledge is useful from our point of view.  Our knowledge is an interpretation of reality that serves a purpose.  A consciousness with a different point of view might well divide things up differently (or not divide things at all) and be equally correct in its interpretation.

Now that we’ve talked in depth about separation and division, let’s go back to the choice I was talking about:  How do I make a choice that brings me closer to god?

For the most part, we do not have a choice in our knowledge of reality.  The earth really is a globe, and I cannot simply choose to make it flat.  Life really does progress according to the principles of evolution; I cannot keep the world static by refusing to believe in change.  Those particular parts of our knowledge are bound to our particular point of view (a point of view that is broadly shared by humanity).  That knowledge more-or-less accurately describes reality from our points of view, even though it says nothing about reality from any other position.

What we can choose is how we apply that knowledge.  And, when we do that, we can choose actions that cause us to be more or less separate from everything else.  We can narrow our point of view so that it is harder to connect with other people, or we can grow to appreciate other points of view.  The choices that connect us to other conscious beings — other points of view — are the choices that bring us closer to god.

Something seems impossible about this.  We are fundamentally restricted to our own point of view, yet, we experience god when we transcend that point of view.  It is here that we reach the limits of what our choices can achieve.  We cannot choose to step outside of ourselves.  It is beyond us to voluntarily touch god.  But this is not true both directions.  God is not restricted to a point of view.  God is everything, and sometimes, that everything imposes itself into our consciousness.  So, although we cannot choose to reach out of ourselves, we can choose to be open to god and to put ourselves in situations where god can touch us.

When god does touch us, the experience is unmistakable.  We get a taste of the whole of reality, transcending our limited point of view.  The experience is fundamentally beyond explanation, because explanations are an expression of thought.  To explain something is to frame a thought within a point of view, which is obviously incompatible with trying to frame the whole of everything.  The divine is spontaneous; it cannot be predicted and it appears without cause.  No explanation is possible; we can only take in the experience and expand our consciousness to accommodate it.  And, if we are wise, we will use that experience to create new understanding for our newly expanded point of view.

Just like god, spontaneity is everywhere.  Getting closer to god means opening yourself to spontaneous experiences. There are lots of paths to the spontaneous.  Art is a common one; it is impossible to create without allowing yourself to try things for no reason other than whim.  We experience the divine in each other every time we act with conscious intent.  Intent expresses a desire that bubbles up spontaneously within us; we act on our desires, but the desires themselves come seemingly from nowhere.  This is free will:  We do things for no reason other than it is our wont to do them.  We may be aware of motives within ourselves that affect our actions, but we are oblivious to other people’s motives, which makes their actions seem spontaneous:  an expression of the divine.

This gets us to the core of Devonism.  I’ve written 2,500 words to explain these two words:  Seek spontaneity.  And, even those 2,500 words are inadequate, because, like any religion, Devonism is beyond the realm of explanation.

Which says something about my degree in philosophy.  I spent four years thinking intensely about the nature of reality, and the best I could come up with is that it is beyond explanation.  You can see why so many philosophers end up as cynics.  And, hopefully, you can also see why, given the choice, philosophy led me to god rather than disillusionment.

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 Devonism by Devonavar is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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Documentaries, Respect, and Cultural Appropriation

I think it is valuable for us as documentary makers to dig deeply into the idea of cultural appropriation.  We are both creators and users of culture and it behooves us to think about what we are doing when we create our works.

First and foremost, I want to acknowledge that, although I am about to seriously question the legitimacy of treating culture as property and the idea that interacting with culture artistically requires free, prior, informed consent, by endorsing UNDRIP, our First Nations have stated clearly that they expect both of these things as part of reconciliation.  And thus, I believe it is incumbent on me and and anyone else who wishes to see reconciliation to respect these wishes, even if we disagree with them.  I believe that respect overrides purity of principle.

I will start by critiquing the idea that it is useful or valid to think of culture as property, even communal property.  The idea of property — of ownership — is most fundamentally a right to exclude others.  It is the right to control that piece of property to the exclusion of anyone else.  The idea of culture is opposed to this:  Culture is, at its most basic, simply the act of sharing within a group.  But the act of sharing is fundamentally opposed to the idea of exclusion.  If one person claims to own a part of culture for themselves, it ceases to be culture because it is no longer shared.  Culture cannot be property — the moment someone claims it as theirs, they destroy it as culture.

Things work differently at the level of community.  In some sense, a group can “own” a piece of culture because membership within that cultural group is determined by how much they share within that group.  To some extent, a cultural group is defined by the things that they share with other members, to the exclusion of anyone else.  Thus, cultural appropriation is a threat because it threatens the identity of the group.  But “property” is the wrong analogy here.  In the case of physical property, it is easy to exclude others because physical things must exist in one place and time, and thus it makes sense that only one person can have it, but culture is not like this.  Culture is like an idea:  When you share it, it spreads and gets bigger and more powerful.  When you share an idea, it does not leave your mind and reappear in someone else’s; it is present in both minds.  Culture is also like this, if you share it with someone outside your group, you expand the group to include that person.  Cultural appropriation is not theft — the original culture is expanded, not lost when it is shared outside the group.  Cultural appropriation is a threat because it dilutes the identity of the original group, not because the group is losing anything.

The real issue behind cultural appropriation is a loss of autonomy, not a loss of culture.  Thus, a central concern is consent — prior, free and informed.  It’s quite understandable that a group under threat would want to control how its culture gets shared, and requiring consent is a mechanism for doing this.  It’s also unrealistic.  It’s unrealistic because of how culture spreads:  one person shares with another person, who shares it again, and again, and again.  Culture is viral, it inevitably expands geometrically, and it is inherently uncontrollable.  Moreover, attempting to control it — attempting to treat it as property — can have some quite adverse effects.

Those effects include prejudice and xenophobia, and, more directly relevant for us as filmmakers, censorship and loss of freedom to comment on and critique anything to do with the culture.  The problem is that claiming ownership of culture misunderstands how a group identity is created.  A cultural group is not defined by the external cultural artifacts that they are sharing; it is defined simply by the fact that the group is sharing things with each other.  A strong cultural group is constantly generating culture in many different ways, and that culture is constantly fluid and evolving.  But, if instead, the group becomes identified not with itself, but with certain cultural artifacts of its past, we quickly end up with prejudice.  What is prejudice if not the misidentification of a group with some of its most salient external attributes?  Identifying first nations as “the people who wear feather headdresses” is racist, but that doesn’t mean that feather headdresses don’t play a cultural role or have history within (some) first nations.  It just means that first nations aren’t exclusively defined by that particular culture, any more than they are defined by any of their other culture.  First nations *create* their culture, and because they keep creating it, they continue to be first nations.  And that is true regardless of what happens to their past culture, or who else makes use of it.  By asserting ownership of culture, our First Nations are at risk of creating too strong an association of the group with their cultural artifacts, and the end result is likely to be prejudice and a fragile group identity, not a strong culture.

Cultural appropriation is sometimes regarded as an issue of consent.  But, by framing the issue this way — of who gets to control access to culture — we perpetuate the victimhood of our first nations by assuming that their culture is so fragile that it will collapse if it is not rigidly prevented from leaking out into the wider world.  This is true whether we are first nations ourselves, or outsiders who are trying to respect our first nations.  Either way, the idea of consent gives the illusion that culture can be controlled, and when that illusion is broken, victimization is the result.  The reality is that culture spreads wildly and uncontrollably.  Popular ideas and popular art, wherever they originate, spread because they are powerful, and they do so without regard for cultural boundaries.  Consent is an attractive illusion because it appears to offer a way to protect the oppressed, but, ultimately, it cannot offer the protection it promises.  In reality, it is an attempt — an understandable one given our collective history — at enforcing cultural purity, and that should worry us.

That idea that a group such as a First Nation can consent (freely or otherwise) to how others interact with, talk about, or view their culture is a fiction, and because it is a fiction it is dangerous.  It is a fiction because — really ­— how can anyone control what others think of them?  The art of trying to do so is called PR, and as media makers, I hope we are all intimately aware of what PR can and can’t do.  I also hope it is obvious how dangerous it could be to view PR through a moral lens.  Can you imagine if, say, Monsanto could legitimately claim that they were entitled to consent before Marie-Monique Robin made The World According to Monsanto?  Could CitizenFour have been made if Edward Snowden has asked for the NSA’s consent before he made public their inner secrets?  Obviously, neither Monsanto nor the NSA are a cultural group, and thus to consider them in terms of “cultural appropriation” is strange, but the principle not so different.  Whether it’s Monsanto or a First Nation, it’s a bad idea to grant any group a moral right of consent to how they are viewed.

How then should we, as non-First Nations, view cultural appropriation?  I come back to the idea of respect.  Using First Nations culture without asking is rude.  Using it to make broad statements about First Nations without consulting them (and making sure you understand the culture you are using) is insulting.  It may not be morally wrong to do these things, but there is a social cost to be paid just the same.

Sometimes, there are good reasons to ignore social niceties — sometimes outside criticism is legitimate, and it needs to be made without asking.  But, when we criticize, we need to recognize that that affects our relationship, and, for the criticism to be effective, an open and trusting relationship needs to exist before the criticism is made.  Right now, that relationship with our First Nations is tenuous, so we need to be extra cautious in how we make criticism.  At the same time, sometimes we use First Nations culture in ignorance, or sometimes their culture has expanded into greater Canadian culture and it’s not clear where the line is.  In those cases, I think it’s polite to ask forgiveness (since offense may have been taken), but I also think it’s reasonable to expect some flexibility from our First Nations here:  We live together, and our cultures are going to blur a bit.

It’s not the end of the world if I, as a person without First Nations heritage, eat some bannock and call it skookum.  I think it’s unlikely, but perhaps my doing that without permission will insult someone.  If it does, it’s incumbent on me as a human being to recognize that and make amends — even though I believe there is no cause for insult.  To build a relationship, someone has to reach out first, and if we are too worried about principles and being right, nobody will reach out.  That’s what Reconciliation is:  A relationship between those of us whose families came here from elsewhere, and those with whom we share this land.

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 Devonism by Devonavar is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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