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.

Recent Posts

The Homicidal Bitchin’ that goes down in Every Kitchen


From the homicidal bitchin’
that does down in every kitchen
to determine who will serve and who will eat.

Democracy is coming
to the U.S.A.

Leonard Cohen

This post is inspired by Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, about how money is made of mass surveillance. I’m not overly impressed by the book, but there’s a section describing the Chinese Social Credit system which made me reflect on how we should determine — and how we actually determine — social status.

For the uninitiated, The Social Credit System is a “social score” that measures, in essence, how good a person you are (as determined by the Communist Party of China). It’s compiled automatically, without input or knowledge from the citizens themselves, on the basis of online behaviour: What you buy, who you communicate with, what topics you talk about. It’s enabled by mass surveillance, but the basic idea of keeping dossiers on social behaviour and using them for social control is much older than our current problems with online tracking. Think Stasi, the KGB, and all the stories of secret informants that came out of the Soviet era.

Essentially, it’s a government-run system of social status. Call it a class system (but don’t tell the Communist Party). By Western standards, it’s terrifying and Orwellian, and Zuboff’s description of the system is intended as a dystopia. She quotes the Economist to describe the systems social consequences:

People on the list can be prevented from buying aeroplane, bullet-train or first- or business-class rail tickets; selling, buying or building a house; or enrolling their children in expensive fee-paying schools. There are restrictions on offenders joining or being promoted in the party and army, and on receiving honours and titles.

China invents the digital totalitarian state — Economist — December 17, 2016

She goes on to describe the benefits of having a high social credit score:

Those with high scores receive honours and rewards … They can rent a car without a deposit, receive favourable terms on loans and apartment rentals, receive fast-tracking for visa permits, enjoy being showcased on dating apps, and a host of other perks.

Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, p.390

Dystopian it may be, but it got me thinking: How do we distribute the rewards of high social status here in Canada? Who gets social privilege in our society?

The answer should surprise no one: Money. Money is our system of social credit. Only people with money can buy aeroplane tickets or houses, or send their kids to private schools. Perversely, having money will gets you better mortgage terms from the bank or determine whether you qualify for a mortgage at all! We idolize the rich and we act as though the ability to make money is the mark of superior person — the more money, the more superior the person. Not having money is worse — without money, we are deprived of any number of privileges and comforts, including basic human needs like food or shelter.

That got me thinking even more: Is determining social status though wealth really a better system than determining it through social behaviour? Don’t we want to reward the people who act in socially positive ways rather than just rewarding the rich? Does that make the Chinese system better than our own?

I’m not here to defend the Chinese system. I think it’s terrifying. I think most Westerners would prefer equality — a fair system would distribute housing and aeroplane tickets more or less equally, not according to social status. That’s the American dream: Freedom and equality. The ability to make it on your own, no matter who you are.

But I think that’s how we ended up using money to represent social status. We’ve persuaded ourselves that we’ve actually built an equal society, and in doing so we’ve made ourselves blind to the ways that social status is actually determined. We believe in our ideals more than the reality we live in. By saying we have no class system, we have ignored how social status is actually determined. Like it or not, humans are incredibly sensitive to social status, and even the most egalitarian, communal organizations quickly and inevitably create a pecking order. We cannot create a fair system by ignoring status. Somebody has to speak first; someone has to take the first bite. Social status is our way of figuring out who deserves those privileges.

So what are our options? How should we determine social status? What’s fair? I can think of lots of ways that have been tried. Money. Popularity. Age. Heredity. Beauty. Strength. Intelligence. The Chinese system, terrifying as it is, assigns privilege on the basis of moral quality.

On a practical level, we make status judgments on a person-to-person basis. We compare ourselves to each other, and decide for ourselves whether we are superior or inferior, and then modify our behaviour based on that judgment. There are dozens or hundreds of social cues that go into this judgment: All the factors I mentioned above and plenty more. The important thing though, is that it is our judgment. The terrifying thing about the Social Credit system is that the system’s judgment of our worth may not match our own. We may be forced into a status that does not match our self-image. Money is harder to argue with. We may not like the amount we have, but we know how much is there. I’m not sure that makes money a better measure of status, but it may explain why we are more comfortable with it. Or, perhaps we are just more familiar with it.

I’ve struggled to think of a fair way to determine status, and I’m not sure there is one. Our sense of status is given to us by the culture we live in, and it’s immensely difficult to try and change it. There’s nothing about our culture — or any other — that says status has to be fair. Our individual assessments of status may be self-determined, but there are any number of small social pressures that let us know when others disagree with our self-assessed status. If we “choose” a status that doesn’t match social expectations, we may fool a few people (and ourselves), but in the long run, we’ll inevitably come across as foolish or delusional (two very low status images) if we act too far outside our station.

I’m not sure how social status should work, and that bothers me. I started writing this piece because of an intuition that the ways we determine who deserves to be high status could be improved. At the end of the day, I don’t think wealth is a good way to distribute housing and aeroplane tickets, and the idea that they could be distributed on the basis of some higher ideal of social worth appeals to me. At the same time, the Chinese Social Credit System is too horrifying to contemplate. I doubt any centralized institution of social status could be fair or workable. But, if we don’t think consciously about how social status works, we will be at the mercy of those who do, whether they are Chinese software engineers or American capitalists.

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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