Carl Sagan on moving beyond us vs. them, philosopher Martha Nussbaum on how you know whether you love somebody, Anaïs Nin on how reading awakens us from the slumber of almost-living, and more.
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“Unless we are very, very careful,” wrote psychologist-turned-artist Anne Truitt in contemplating compassion and the cure for our chronic self-righteousness, “we doom each other by holding onto images of one another based on preconceptions that are in turn based on indifference to what is other than ourselves.” She urged for “the honoring of others in a way that grants them the grace of their own autonomy and allows mutual discovery.” But how are we to find in ourselves the capacity — the willingness — to honor otherness where we see only ignorance and bigotry in beliefs not only diametrically opposed to our own but dangerous to the very fabric of society?
Sagan considers how we can bridge conviction and compassion in dealing with those who disagree with and even attack our beliefs. Although he addresses the particular problems of pseudoscience and superstition, his elegant and empathetic argument applies to any form of ignorance and bigotry. He explores how we can remain sure-footed and rooted in truth and reason when confronted with such dangerous ideologies, but also have a humane and compassionate intention to understand the deeper fears and anxieties out of which such unreasonable beliefs arise in those who hold them
When we are asked to swear in American courts of law — that we will tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” — we are being asked the impossible. It is simply beyond our powers. Our memories are fallible; even scientific truth is merely an approximation; and we are ignorant about nearly all of the Universe…
If it is to be applied consistently, science imposes, in exchange for its manifold gifts, a certain onerous burden: We are enjoined, no matter how uncomfortable it might be, to consider ourselves and our cultural institutions scientifically — not to accept uncritically whatever we’re told; to surmount as best we can our hopes, conceits, and unexamined beliefs; to view ourselves as we really are… Because its explanatory power is so great, once you get the hang of scientific reasoning you’re eager to apply it everywhere. However, in the course of looking deeply within ourselves, we may challenge notions that give comfort before the terrors of the world.
Sagan notes that all of us are deeply attached to and even defined by our beliefs, for they define our reality and are thus elemental to our very selves, so any challenge to our core beliefs tends to feel like a personal attack. This is equally true of ourselves as it is of those who hold opposing beliefs — such is the human condition. He considers how we can reconcile our sense of intellectual righteousness with our human fallibility:
In the way that skepticism is sometimes applied to issues of public concern, there is a tendency to belittle, to condescend, to ignore the fact that, deluded or not, supporters of superstition and pseudoscience are human beings with real feelings, who, like the skeptics, are trying to figure out how the world works and what our role in it might be. Their motives are in many cases consonant with science. If their culture has not given them all the tools they need to pursue this great quest, let us temper our criticism with kindness. None of us comes fully equipped.
But kindness, Sagan cautions, doesn’t mean assent — there are instances, like when we are faced with bigotry and hate speech, in which we absolutely must confront and critique these harmful beliefs, for “every silent assent will encourage [the person] next time, and every vigorous dissent will cause him next time to think twice.” He writes:
If we offer too much silent assent about [ignorance] — even when it seems to be doing a little good — we abet a general climate in which skepticism is considered impolite, science tiresome, and rigorous thinking somehow stuffy and inappropriate. Figuring out a prudent balance takes wisdom.
The greatest detriment to reason, Sagan argues, is that we let our reasonable and righteous convictions slip into self-righteousness, that deadly force of polarization:
The chief deficiency I see in the skeptical movement is in its polarization: Us vs. Them — the sense that we have a monopoly on the truth; that those other people who believe in all these stupid doctrines are morons; that if you’re sensible, you’ll listen to us; and if not, you’re beyond redemption. This is unconstructive… Whereas, a compassionate approach that from the beginning acknowledges the human roots of pseudoscience and superstition might be much more widely accepted. If we understand this, then of course we feel the uncertainty and pain of the abductees, or those who dare not leave home without consulting their horoscopes, or those who pin their hopes on crystals from Atlantis.
Or, say, those who vote for a racist, sexist, homophobic, misogynistic, climate-change-denying political leader.
Sagan’s central point is that we humans — all of us — are greatly perturbed by fear, anxiety, and uncertainty, and in seeking to becalm ourselves, we sometimes anchor ourselves to irrational and ignorant ideologies that offer certitude and stability, however illusory. In understanding those who succumb to such false refuges, Sagan calls for “compassion for kindred spirits in a common quest.” Echoing 21-year-old Hillary Rodham’s precocious assertion that “we are all of us exploring a world that none of us understand,” he argues that the dangerous beliefs of ignorance arise from “the feeling of powerlessness in a complex, troublesome and unpredictable world.”
In envisioning a society capable of cultivating both critical thinking and kindness, Sagan’s insistence on the role and responsibility of the media resonates with especial poignancy today:
Both skepticism and wonder are skills that need honing and practice. Their harmonious marriage within the mind of every schoolchild ought to be a principal goal of public education. I’d love to see such a domestic felicity portrayed in the media, television especially: a community of people really working the mix — full of wonder, generously open to every notion, dismissing nothing except for good reason, but at the same time, and as second nature, demanding stringent standards of evidence — and these standards applied with at least as much rigor to what they hold dear as to what they are tempted to reject with impunity.
Devising a sort of incompleteness theorem of the heart’s truth, Nussbaum writes:
We deceive ourselves about love — about who; and how; and when; and whether. We also discover and correct our self-deceptions. The forces making for both deception and unmasking here are various and powerful: the unsurpassed danger, the urgent need for protection and self-sufficiency, the opposite and equal need for joy and communication and connection. Any of these can serve either truth or falsity, as the occasion demands. The difficulty then becomes: how in the midst of this confusion (and delight and pain) do we know what view of ourselves, what parts of ourselves, to trust? Which stories about the condition of the heart are the reliable ones and which the self-deceiving fictions? We find ourselves asking where, in this plurality of discordant voices with which we address ourselves on this topic of perennial self-interest, is the criterion of truth? (And what does it mean to look for a criterion here? Could that demand itself be a tool of self-deception?)
With an eye to Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and its central theme of how our intellect blinds us to the wisdom of the heart, Nussbaum contemplates the nature of those experiences “in which the self-protective tissue of rationalization is in a moment cut through, as if by a surgeon’s knife”: Proust’s protagonist, Marcel, has rationally convinced himself that he no longer loves his beloved, Albertine, but is jolted into confronting the falsity of that rationalization upon receiving news of her death; in the shock of his intense sorrow, he instantly gains the knowledge, far deeper and more sinewy than the intellect’s, that he did, in fact, love Albertine.
Proust tells us that the sort of knowledge of the heart we need in this case cannot be given us by the sciences of psychology, or, indeed, by any sort of scientific use of intellect. Knowledge of the heart must come from the heart — from and in its pains and longings, its emotional responses.
Illustration from An ABZ of Love, Kurt Vonnegut’s favorite vintage Danish guide to sexuality
Such a conception of love’s knowledge, to be sure, stands radically against the long intellectual tradition of rationalism stretching from Plato to Locke like an enormous string of reason that plays only one note, deaf to the symphonic complexity of the emotional universe. The Proustian view calls for a restoration of lost nuance. Pointing to “the pseudotruths of the intellect,” Nussbaum revisits Marcel’s predicament, wherein the intellect has imposed an illusory sense of order and structure upon the entropy of the emotions:
The shock of loss and the attendant welling up of pain show him that his theories were forms of self-deceptive rationalization — not only false about his condition but also manifestations and accomplices of a reflex to deny and close off one’s vulnerabilities that Proust finds to be very deep in all of human life. The primary and most ubiquitous form of this reflex is seen in the operations of habit, which makes the pain of our vulnerability tolerable to us by concealing need, concealing particularity (hence vulnerability to loss), concealing all the pain-inflicting features of the world — simply making us used to them, dead to their assaults. When we are used to them we do not feel them or long for them in the same way; we are no longer so painfully afflicted by our failure to control and possess them. Marcel has been able to conclude that he is not in love with Albertine, in part because he is used to her. His calm, methodical intellectual scrutiny is powerless to dislodge this “dream deity, so riveted to one’s being, its insignificant face so incrusted in one’s heart.” Indeed, it fails altogether to discern the all-important distinction between the face of habit and the true face of the heart.
Nussbaum considers how our over-reliance on the intellect for clarity about love produces instead a kind of myopia:
Intellect’s account of psychology lacks all sense of proportion and depth and importance… [Such a] cost-benefit analysis of the heart — the only comparative assessment of which intellect, by itself, is capable — is bound, Proust suggests, to miss differences of depth. Not only to miss them, but to impede their recognition. Cost-benefit analysis is a way of comforting oneself, of putting oneself in control by pretending that all losses can be made up by sufficient quantities of something else. This stratagem opposes the recognition of love — and, indeed, love itself.
To remove such powerful obstacles to truth, we require the instrument that is “the subtlest, most powerful, most appropriate for grasping the truth.” This instrument is given to us in suffering.
Our intelligence, however lucid, cannot perceive the elements that compose it and remain unsuspected so long as, from the volatile state in which they generally exist, a phenomenon capable of isolating them has not subjected them to the first stages of solidification. I had been mistaken in thinking that I could see clearly into my own heart. But this knowledge, which the shrewdest perceptions of the mind would not have given me, had now been brought to me, hard, glittering, strange, like a crystallised salt, by the abrupt reaction of pain.
Central to this method of truth-seeking is what Nussbaum calls catalepsis — “a condition of certainty and confidence form which nothing can dislodge us.” To be cataleptic — from the Greek katalēptikē, derived from the verb katalambanein, meaning “to apprehend,” “to firmly grasp” — is to have a firm grasp of reality. But, of course, the implied antinomy is that because reality is inherently slippery, either the firmness of such catalepsis or its conception of reality is false.
Noting the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Zeno’s view that we gain knowledge of the heart’s truth through powerful impressions that come directly from reality, Nussbaum returns to Proust’s Marcel:
The impression [that he loves Albertine] comes upon Marcel unbidden, unannounced, uncontrolled… Surprise, vivid particularity, and extreme qualitative intensity are all characteristics that are systematically concealed by the workings of habit, the primary form of self-deception and self-concealment. What has these features must have escaped the workings of self-deception, must have come from reality itself.
We notice, finally, that the very painfulness of these impressions is essential to their cataleptic character. Our primary aim is to comfort ourselves, to assuage pain, to cover our wounds. Then what has the character of pain must have escaped these mechanisms of comfort and concealment; must, then, have come from the true unconcealed nature of our condition.
And yet there exists another, more dimensional possibility. Nussbaum writes:
For the Stoic the cataleptic impression is not simply a route to knowing; it is knowing. It doesn’t point beyond itself to knowledge; it goes to constitute knowledge. (Science is a system made up of katalēpseis.) If we follow the analogy strictly, then, we find that knowledge of our love is not the fruit of the impression of suffering, a fruit that might in principle have been had apart form the suffering. The suffering itself is a piece of self-knowing. In responding to a loss with anguish, we are grasping our love. The love is not some separate fact about us that is signaled by the impression; the impression reveals the love by constituting it. Love is not a structure in the heart waiting to be discovered; it is embodied in, made up out of, experiences of suffering.
Marcel is brought, then, by and in the cataleptic impression, to an acknowledgment of his love. There are elements of both discovery and creation here, at both the particular and general levels. Love of Albertine is both discovered and created. It is discovered, in that habit and intellect were masking from Marcel a psychological condition that was ready for suffering, and that … needed only to be affected slightly by the catalyst in order to turn itself into love. It is created, because love denied and successfully repressed is not exactly love. While he was busily denying that he loved her, he simply was not loving her. At the general level, again, Marcel both discovers and enacts a permanent underlying feature of his condition, namely, his neediness, his hunger for possession and completeness. That too was there in a sense before the loss, because that’s what human life is made of. But in denying and repressing it, Marcel became temporarily self-sufficient, closed, and estranged from his humanity. The pain he feels for Albertine gives him access to his permanent underlying condition by being a case of that condition, and no such case was present a moment before. Before the suffering he was indeed self-deceived — both because he was denying a general structural feature of his humanity and because he was denying the particular readiness of his soul to feel hopeless love for Albertine. He was on a verge of a precipice and thought he was safely immured in his own rationality. But his case shows us as well how the successful denial of love is the (temporary) extinction and death of love, how self-deception can aim at and nearly achieve self-change.
We now see exactly how and why Marcel’s account of self-knowledge is no simple rival to the intellectual account. It tells us that the intellectual account was wrong: wrong about the content of the truth about Marcel, wrong about the methods appropriate for gaining this knowledge, wrong as well about what sort of experience in and of the person knowing is. And it tells us that to try to grasp love intellectually is a way of not suffering, not loving — a practical rival, a stratagem of flight.
And yet this notion of measuring love by degree of suffering seems to be a particular pathology of the human heart — could, Nussbaum asks, Marcel’s sorrow at the loss of Albertine be evidence not of love, or at least not only of love, but of grief or fear or some other constellation of contexts? She writes:
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