Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Realities > ideas

803 words, 4 min read

During the last weeks I have been thinking a lot about one of the lemmas that Pope Francis presents in Evangelii Gaudium, namely that realities are greater than ideas (§231-233). There he argues that "[t]here [...] exists a constant tension between ideas and realities. Realities simply are, whereas ideas are worked out. There has to be continuous dialogue between the two, lest ideas become detached from realities. [...] This calls for rejecting the various means of masking reality: angelic forms of purity, dictatorships of relativism, empty rhetoric, objectives more ideal than real, brands of ahistorical fundamentalism, ethical systems bereft of kindness, intellectual discourse bereft of wisdom." This, however, is not a one-way street of adjusting ideas to match reality, but also a call to putting our ideas and convictions into practice: "Not to put the word into practice, not to make it reality, is to build on sand, to remain in the realm of pure ideas and to end up in a lifeless and unfruitful self-centredness and gnosticism." Leaving ideas and realities disconnected either results in our being deluded and/or disconnected from the world.

The above words of Pope Francis came to my mind recently in the context of hearing about how a friend of mine had made a mistake at work and how their attempt at presenting the situation in a way that didn’t correspond with the facts lead to a lot of tension, hurt and ultimately evil. What occurred to me then was another of Pope Francis’ recurring expressions, that the Devil is the “Father of Lies” (John 8:44). If lies then are a mismatch between reality and ideas, and the Devil personifies a turning away from God, who is good, then calling him the Father of Lies both points to that turning away being from the truth too (which also has its pinnacle and fulfilment in God) and it elevates lying to a privileged position among sins. Not necessarily from a perspective of gravity, but as the principle behind all evil.

Ultimately, it now seems to me, all evil has its roots in lies, in ideas being disconnected from reality and there being no correspondence between the two. If I hate, exploit, discriminate against or even murder another person, I have to have believed or at least implicitly assumed that they are different from me, that they are inferior to me, that their life matters less, that they are not beloved children of God. It is lies like these, mismatches between ideas and realities like these, that are the basis of and pre-requisite for evil.

Now, looking at the above, it might at first seem like an impossible situation: a mismatch between ideas and realities leads to evil, we only have direct access to ideas (challenge: try to give an example of something that is not an idea) and their mismatch with realities (that we do not have direct cognitive access to) is unknowable and seemingly inevitable. What a cruel setup!

Well, I don’t believe that this is what is actually going on. Instead of the above prison of ideas - inescapable and unsurpassable - I believe, with psychologists everywhere, that we experience reality not only in terms of ideas, but also in a variety of other conscious and unconscious ways. As a result, we may be saved from erroneous - and therefore potentially evil-oriented - ideas by our unconscious experiences. At some point we may be overcome by a feeling that our ideas just don’t add up and we may be prompted to re-examine and potentially change them, in spite of the epistemological gulf that persists between our minds and whatever gives rise to our experiences.

How can such a safety mechanism be triggered? Not primarily by being exposed to ideas (sadly, including these very ones), but by participating in realities and allowing these to interact with my conscious and unconscious processes. Having a low opinion of certain attitudes, choices or world views, the best thing to do alongside engaging with them rationally is to get to know those who have, have made or hold them. Like that, I can relate not only to their ideas, but also to their realities in a richer and fuller way and any lies I believe in may be challenged and overcome, much like the example given by the Marxist thinker Terry Eagleton, who suggests that meeting fulfilled childless women can lead one to abandon the untruthful conviction that they are all embittered.

This is both the way to stress and refine my own ideas and the mechanism by which I can have an effect on the ideas of others - not only by sharing my own ideas with them but by putting them into practice myself so that the other may experience them more fully than ideas alone would allow them to.