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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Can Multi-Cultural Canada Tolerate a Prime Minister in Brownface?

Well, isn’t this embarrassing. Our national election campaign has dissolved into a quivering puddle of racial angst thanks to a set of 20 year old photos showing our Prime Minister playing dress-up in various skin colours that don’t belong to him. His polls are down 1.268 percent in the national horse race, and progressive, right-thinking citizens are faced with a terrible conundrum: Do they condemn the Prime Minister for his thoughtless racism and risk letting the dreaded Conservatives take the election, or stay silent and endure the guilt of being complicit in the Prime Minister’s oppression of people of colour everywhere?

Forgive me for being glib. There’s a serious issue here, but I find it a bit hard to keep a straight face with the amount of overwrought vitriol that is floating around. I’m sure I will attract my share of it by the end of this piece, but please hold your fire for a moment and consider whether investing such seriousness in Justin Brownface might in fact be distracting from more serious and intractable cases of racism. This article in The Tyee lists a dozen examples of racism that are far more worthy of discussion than Trudeau’s 20 year old party photos. Incarceration rates and the number of children in foster homes, both of which are disproportionately high for indigenous people are two good examples.

Actually, that’s a false equivalence. The high indigenous population of our prisons is not the same kind of injustice as what Trudeau did. It is something else entirely. Both masquerade under the word racism, but they are otherwise completely different issues. One is an example of structural oppression. The other is a display of prejudice. The challenge is that the structural issues — the racism that is serious, worth discussing, and hard to solve — are less photogenic, and therefore less media friendly, than our Prime Minister in costume.

What’s wrong with this? Well for starters, the photos are an obvious dead cat. This being an election, it’s no accident that they emerged in the middle of it. They were timed to embarrass Trudeau when it would hurt him the most. Global News even quoted Andrew Sheer as the source for the video they released.

I have to wonder what the dead cat is distracting us from. Who is responsible for throwing it on the table in the first place? Aside from the obvious political damage to Trudeau, what else are they trying to achieve?

The situation feels a bit like revenge porn: Trudeau has been caught on camera with his pants down, and the evidence of his transgression is being published widely by someone with an axe to grind. Whoever tossed the dead cat has also crossed a moral line. Who is worse? If we extend the revenge porn analogy, the publisher is the true villain, but in our situation I suppose it depends on how serious we think Trudeau’s crime is.

So how serious is it? Earlier, I called it a display of prejudice to distinguish it from structural racism. Prejudicial racism is the racism we think of intuitively: Treating someone differently based on the colour of their skin. Prejudice is person to person; there’s a perpetrator and a victim. It’s not clear to me the Trudeau’s actions — or brownface in general — qualifies as prejudice. Who is the victim? The two smiling Sikhs who Trudeau has his arms around in the photo? Granted, he’s dressed as an Arab, not a Sikh, but there doesn’t seem to be much cultural tension in evidence. Perhaps there’s an offended Arab off camera, though putting it like that seems mildly prejudicial in itself, as though it were a stereotypical trait of Arabians to be offended.

Two real Sikhs and one fake Arab.

Offended Arabians aside, it doesn’t seem like brownface fits easily into the box of prejudice, and if the racism isn’t structural and it’s not prejudicial, then what kind of racism is it? At risk of exposing myself as a non-expert in racism, the best answer I can come up with is that the history of blackface in America has been generalized and exported. As I understand it, blackface was a theatrical practice that was problematic for at least three reasons: It allowed white performers to keep black ones out of the entertainment industry and reinforced segregation, it promulgated false stereotypes about black people, and it appropriated black culture to mainstream American culture.

The first reason clearly does not apply. The context is a party, not a performance; Trudeau isn’t putting any actors out of work, whatever the colour of their skin. The third doesn’t seem relevant either. It’s hard to be definitive from a photo alone, but the costume is so clownish it’s hard to imagine it’s appropriating anything. Only the second seems remotely applicable to Trudeau’s situation. He does seem to be reinforcing a certain false image of Arabians, but again, it’s so obviously cartoonish that it’s hard to take seriously. If I’m not mistaken, he’s dressed up as Disney’s Aladdin, which does have an issue with promulgating stereotypes, but that makes Trudeau more of a patsy than a perpetrator of racism. I think the worst that can be said of him is that he’s participating in a flawed aspect of American culture, which we have also adopted in Canada.

I don’t think it’s fair to eviscerate Trudeau for participating in American culture, even if that culture is a bit racist. Participating in culture is what people do. It’s automatic and habitual, and it seems unfair to attribute malice or poor judgment to Trudeau for acting within those cultural norms. It may have been deserving of criticism when it happened twenty years ago, but it isn’t enough of a skeleton in the closet to be worth bringing up so long after the fact. In this situation, the culture was more problematic than the person. I do think this is an excellent opportunity to have a discussion about how that culture might be racist, and that discussion is happening. But, I don’t see how 20-year-old brownface photos belong on the list of factors that should influence how we judge our politicians (and, by extension, how we vote).

The age of the photos is important. I wonder if these photos would have attracted a similar reaction back in 2001 when they were taken? I was in high school in 2001. I would say it’s a near certainty that something similar went on at my high school. Does that mean we were more racist back then? Maybe. Or maybe our ideas about racism have shifted.

As it happens, I can recall a halloween in Grade 2 where I went trick-or-treating in brownface. I dressed up as Prince Caspian — a fictional character from C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. To the best of my knowledge, Lewis never specifies the good prince’s race, though culturally I think we can assume he is Christian and English. That means I (or perhaps my mother) added brown skin as a feature of the costume. What did it mean for me to do that? Was it racist then? Is it now? It’s hard for me to fit this situation into the racism box. I get zero for three when I consider the three factors I identified earlier: I wasn’t appropriating culture; the character I played was very much within my own cultural background (English). I wasn’t perpetuating stereotypes; if anything I was breaking stereotype by implicitly recognizing brown skin as belonging within a white literary world. And I definitely wasn’t taking jobs from non-white actors.

Perhaps I’ve missed something, or perhaps I need a lecture about white privilege, but I’m unable to find the racism in my brownface costume in no matter how I squint at it. I see it as something different: An expression of that great Canadian value, multiculturalism. I was taught that Canadian multiculturalism is distinct from the American melting pot because we celebrate our differences, rather than expecting newcomers to assimilate. The Canadian way is to have multiple cultures, not to homogenize them all into one. That’s a very high minded difference, and perhaps more idealistic than the reality in both countries, but I think it means something, and I think that something is important in evaluating both Trudeau’s behaviour and how we think of brownface in general.

That something is this: Celebrating our differences means more than just staying in our cultural lane. It’s not enough to just acknowledge our differences and say your skin is brown, mine is white, and can’t we all just be who we are? If we are to truly celebrate those differences, we need to understand what makes them worth celebrating; we need to experience first-hand what it’s like to wear somebody else’s skin.

Which brings me to brownface. I don’t know why I decided Prince Caspian had brown skin. But I do know that I was playing a character, and in doing so, I was learning what it was like to be someone else. That’s what dressing up is about. Did I learn anything about what it was like to have brown skin? Probably not, but the point is that skin colour was a way to make myself not me. The potential for learning was there. And that potential disappears if we consider it racist to play at being someone else.

If we are to be multicultural, we need to be able to share culture with each other. We need the freedom to adopt new bits of culture from people who are different from us, and we need the openness to be honest about how we perceive cultures that aren’t our own, even when those perceptions are negative or skewed. How can we learn from each other if we are not permitted to share how we see each other?

To me, this makes the Canadian context for brownface different from the American one. Blackface in America meant whitewashing black culture so it could be safely considered part of the mainstream (cultural appropriation). And it created a caricature of black culture that did not allow outsiders to truly understand the black experience in America (stereotyping). Brownface in Canada lacks such a specific history — our opinion of it is extrapolated from the American context. How would it look if we interpreted it in the context of Canadian multiculturalism rather than American history?

For one, cultural sharing works differently. Multiculturalism means there is less urgency for the mainstream to own all of its cultural practices. Canadian culture is fundamentally one of borrowing, and we like to acknowledge and celebrate the original source. And, while we are certainly not immune to stereotypes, our assumption that having multiple cultures is a normal part of being Canadian does mean we are used to dealing with differences, and that makes us conscious of when we do not have the whole cultural picture.

That’s a very black and white picture, if you’ll pardon the expression. Canada is not a multicultural utopia, and America is certainly more diverse than the myth of the melting pot would suggest. To some extent, both stories apply in both places. But, if the ideal of multiculturalism has any power at all, I think it’s worth noticing that brownface doesn’t have to be racist. And, if we believe in multiculturalism, we should also believe that acknowledging and talking about our differences can be healthy. Taking on someone else’s appearance can be done to mock and offend, or it can be done to learn and communicate. Or, it can simply be done in play.

In Trudeau’s case, it seems to have been mostly play. His brownface was not done maliciously, nor was it intended to offend. His costumes are cartoonish to the point of mockery, and I think if the photos have genuinely caused offence (and not just partisan self-righteousness), that mockery is the reason. It’s not hard to see the photos as disrespectful.

But I think we have now answered the question of how serious Trudeau’s crime is: Not very serious. Whoever leaked his photos for political gain deserves a harsher judgment than Trudeau himself. Of the ways his actions could be construed, racist is only one of multiple possibilities, and, if we choose to believe in the ideal of Canadian multiculturalism, it’s not the most salient one.

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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