Truth Travels

Another papal encyclical. Faith and Reason. Fides et Ratio. His body of work is impressive. Almost as voluminous as that other Jean Paul. Jean Paul Sartre. Wouldn't even dream of reading all their stuff. I wait for scholarly people to appraise their material and produce nice little digests in books or the newspaper. Punchline philosophy. As it happened an encyclical by Jean Paul 11 appeared in an Irish newspaper circa end 1980s - early 1990s. Don't even know what it was called. Just that it contained the line "There exists a truth and Man should spare no effort to find it". Without knowing that much about him, it was easy to tell that Jean Paul was seeking the truth long before Mulder was a glint in Chris Carter's imagination. Sartre was a completely different proposition. God could run and walk at the same time, Sartre concluded, therefore he didn't exist. Couldn't do the marathon walk in the Olympics either. Disdained religion with a passion. Everything could be understood, and a god of the gaps answer to life's questions wouldn't suffice. Didn't understand the bulk of his stuff, but suspected he was deeply insightful. That aphorism about hell being other people, actors being a miscellany of gestures, and life beginning on the other side of despair. The anguished, considered atheist was a wonderful thing, I guessed. Didn't think I'd ever meet one, but I was ready.

About this time I volunteered to do a presentation. The guys in the university had run out of reasons to winkle beer out of the suppliers, and since I was reading psychology... I was the reserved type. A presentation in front of the peers in another university was an awesome challenge. Used to think that reticence was like a reservoir. All you had to do was to face challenging situations and the reservoir would gradually drain. In life, you are your own lab. They wanted beer. I wanted to see would I become an abrasive, arrogant monster. The presentation passed off OK. Afterwards I mused that if I was asked to make another presentation a week later, would the prospect be quite as daunting. Daunting, and then some. Had to figure that the reservoir model was wrong. That's the way it was. It's hard to get a handle on human experience. To put a framework around it. In the beginning, all you have is a belief that life is purposeful and you can eventually make sense of it all. More specifically, if you sought truth enough, you could make sense of yourself. Insight, I suspected, lay at the interface of belief and reason.

The church has this concept called original sin. It states that Man is fallen, and in the same sense, that Man is unrisen. This argument does not agree that Man is fallen, but does agree that Man is unrisen. Or to use current terminology, Man has to graduate. All of which is consistent with a macro, overarching definition of Man which describes him as "an animal with human potential". Now what stops Man graduating is what the church calls the devil, when every graduand will tell you that the only devil is ignorance. Specifically, it's so hard for Man to answer the question - What is he and where lies his individual and collective optimal happiness? - which is what graduating is all about. It is the contention in this argument that Man graduates through belief, if indeed belief is possible, and also that there's enough information out there for us to cobble together an elemental definition of belief, a definition which applies in the realm of Man's experience. To do this we need to digress a little.

A colleague of mine is addicted to smoking. Heart attack, strokes, blood clots. Still can't give them up. Wonderful territory for an exploration of belief. Before we continue, I'm only too well aware that there is a ragbag of solutions out there to address smoking addiction. Not relevant to our argument. We have a real life case, and the boast of belief which claims to be able to fix this situation. We've all we need to progress.

You're all familiar with the marketing "that if you believe you can move mountains". So somehow if this guy believes in something he can beat his addiction and, critically for us, belief will reveal itself. The guy is dying for a cigarette and you swagger up with all your knowledge.

You: You have to take the pain. You have to believe that the self-control implicit in doing so is beneficial, psychologically and physiologically.

Smoker: So you're saying that pain is good?

You: No. All I'm saying is that as you go through life you'll meet situations that Man would appear to have no constructive means of dealing with. Like addiction, rejection, depression. And so on. This definition offers Man a necessary outlet.

Smoker: Look, that definition of belief may well be right. But what's the point? At the end of the day it's all about being the best looking corpse you can be.

So what have we done here? We've applied belief to a real life situation and found that death makes belief impossible. Unless the promise and premise of belief really is that Man lives forever, without the intervention of death, it is impossible to believe at all. Was Jean Paul Sartre right? Should God be thrown out of the Olympian marathon walk? Well intentioned, but nonetheless a fraud.

Patrick Dillon

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