What I Believe

The price of oil did not rise to $150/barrel in July, as I had predicted. Instead, the price climbed slightly above $147 before falling to about $120. John McCain would have you believe the plummeting price resulted from BushCo’s promise to drill offshore. Most economists attribute the decline to a weakening economy, although they fail to admit the profound extent of the demand destruction here and abroad.

What’s the first law of holes? When you’re in one, stop digging. Or, in this case, stop drilling.

Since I was wrong about the price of oil, my views on other issues are suspect as well. I encourage skepticism about all that follows.

I’m amazed anybody cares what I believe, at least enough to ask. Belief is personal, and what I believe is not relevant to what you believe. At least, I hope not. But, since you asked ….

I try not to believe. After all, as Nietzsche pointed out, “Belief means not wanting to know what is true.” Instead of believing, I try to think. But it’s sometimes difficult to separate the two, and it’s often difficult to marshal enough evidence to allow thought to proceed unimpeded by belief. I suppose I’m skeptical, even about my skepticism. Usually, I think that’s a good thing. And I recognize I’m quick to offend, especially when my words are unaccompanied by my smiling face and accommodating body language. Continue reading at your own risk.

I believe we spend too much time in this country debating belief, especially belief in spirits. And I believe we routinely confuse religion with faith or spirituality. I believe we shouldn’t mislead children into believing there is a Santa Claus, an Easter bunny, a tooth fairy, a unicorn on the dark side of the moon, or a god. I think it’s a sad commentary on the state of our cultural affairs that we finally get around to telling the truth about only the former three. Even sadder commentary is provided by the paucity of people who take time to think about what they believe, how they live, and what they live for.

People who know me, even slightly, would describe me as neither spiritual nor religious. I do not believe in spirits, so I can understand the common conclusion about the former. I think organized religions are, to a great extent, absurd, violent, and immoral. When I think about the impacts of organized religion on society, I’m an anti-theist. But most of the time, I’m an indifferent rationalist, open to evidence but realizing faith is based on the absence of evidence. Or, as I tell the occasional student who asks, I believe in one fewer god than you. Unless you’re Hindu, in which case I believe in 33 trillion fewer gods than you.

I believe all life is loaded with religiosity. After all, religion is merely a set of beliefs and practices. Consider, for example, the set of beliefs and practices in my own uniquely quirky life: I’m a self-proclaimed rationalist and skeptic with a penchant for social criticism. In the latter role, I comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable with religious fervor. I religiously seek the truth (and I believe it should be spelled with a lowercase ‘t’). I religiously count steps when I’m walking. I religiously exceed the posted speed limit when I drive. And like Albert Einstein, I am a deeply religious unbeliever. And so on, ad nauseum. I suspect you get the point.

I believe Spinoza nailed the issue about religious spiritualism when he concluded that, if a triangle could think, it would imagine God to be like a triangle. Upon learning this story, most people accuse the triangle of hubris.

I believe Nietzsche was correct about our lack of free will, and overwhelming evidence accumulated since his death supports this view. Nietzsche recognized that our ability to choose can overcome our lack of free will, but only with great intellectual effort (and, very often, intellectual suffering). Our absence of free will constrains, but does not eliminate, our freedom to choose. I believe education facilitates the process of choice over will — that is, I believe education, when it works, is an intellectually painful process — and I believe all education is, ultimately, autodidactic.

I agree with Jules Henry, in his classic book, Culture Against Man: “School is indeed a training for later life not because it teaches the 3 Rs (more or less), but because it instills the essential cultural nightmare fear of failure, envy of success, and absurdity.” Public education in this country has become exactly the essential cultural nightmare it was designed to become by the likes of John Dewey and the United States Congress. It serves corporate Amerika by creating belief-filled drones incapable of deep thought. And, paradoxically, I believe John Dewey was right when he wrote: “Education is not preparation for life. Education is life itself.”

In part because of the virtual absence of deep thought by mainstream Americans, I believe western civilization will suffer a profound and sudden collapse, thereby joining the 23 major civilizations that failed before it (albeit at different rates, from different apexes and to different nadirs). I believe the collapse of civilization will be complete, in this country, within five years, and will be accompanied by suffering that is unimaginable to most of us.

I believe this is a damned sad state of affairs.

I believe I will not live through the ongoing collapse. But I will fully engage the collapse, and act as if I will survive it. Acting “as if” is one rapid and appropriate way to ensure something positive will happen. Rosa Parks sat on the bus “as if” doing so were right. And, of course, it was.

Acting and living “as if” is a powerful approach to improving the human condition. It enables quick identification of the obstacles to improvement. It is the route to social change often espoused by contrarians and social critics (not to mention Buddhists). To live in opposition, as Christopher Hitchens points out in Letters to a Young Contrarian, “is not to be a nihilist. … It is something you are, not something you do.” Hitchens knows about our lack of free will.

Many people, including several friends, find it hard to believe I can go on, given what I believe (and especially what I don’t believe). As if spirits, or faith in a life better than the one we get on Earth, make life worth living. As if one life is not enough, given its rarity and splendor. As if we need the promise of something else to carry on through our trivial existences on this celestial speck of dust at the edge of an insignificant galaxy. As if dying wasn’t part of the deal from the beginning, for individuals, civilizations, and entire species.

I have no problem finding things to live for, finding meanings in this most insignificant of lives. But I’ll save that issue for another day. Meanwhile, I welcome your thoughts, especially the ones that point out the many errors in my logic.

Comments 20

  • Nobody can predict short term price fluctuations. And anyway, what are they evidence of other than unpredictability? Or predictability only in terms of the distribution. But then along comes a Black Swan, as Taleb calls it, and even the distribution is not predictable. No wonder people turn to religion. Thinking is hard work, it seldom produces material rewards, and is generally held in low regard. Religion, on the other hand, gives answers, directions, and a sense of belonging to a community. We are, after all, herd animals. But who first conceived of god and the spiritual side? It could have been the first person to eat an Amanita mushroom, as hypothesized in the book Soma. Of course the most useful thing about religion is that it is the best means ever invented to mind control the masses.
    There are a couple other thoughts I had that have now become rather old and stale. A very early post on this blog by Webb suggested that Jim Corbett taught us decades ago about sustainable living on the land. I found a copy of his book, Goatwalking, used through a bookstore in Las Cruces, and discovered that it was more philosophy and spirituality than survival, although the survival was there. I wonder how Guy’s mudhut community and the end of empire pact that fell apart might have evolved had it been based on the Saguaro-Juniper Alliance (Appendix A). I also read the online book produced by the students of McPherson’s surviving the collapse class and wondered: how would that document have been shaped if Guy had taken them all goatwalking? Lastly, a time or two every month Guy drops a few pearls of wisdom amidst some musing and rambling. But then this is followed by a vigorous discussion in the comments. It almost seems like this could be a moderated forum much like The Oil Drum or Life After the Oil Crash. I’ll bet those IT wizards at UofA could set it up in an hour.

  • I found Guy’s comments to be perfectly rational. Among other things, I believe they demonstrate that the human experience allows for a wide range of beliefs and belief systems, many contradictory to one another. This seems appropriate, but can be dangerous when dogmatism or manipulation enters the picture. To me, what is important is that people be honest and treat other people fairly and justly, taking into account as much as possible one’s beliefs and the beliefs of the one he is interacting with.
    For instance, I was once asked by someone to remove my shoes when entering their house, and I think I recall that the request was based on that person’s religious practice. It was not my practice, but I acquiesced and removed my shoes to honor the belief of other person. On the other hand, if someone asked me to kill someone because that party’s beliefs made them worthy of death, I would probably have to draw a line somewhere.
    I happen to believe that there probably is some sort of unseen spiritual world on a different plane or dimension, but I have no idea how to access or benefit from that world (and I do have some history of spiritual training in a religious tradition). I tried breaking chicken wishbones and making wishes for wealth or lust a few times, but that didn’t work.
    I have had little luck with earnest prayer, either.
    On the other hand, I remember reading a biography of Lakota Indian Chief Fools Crow, who it is claimed was documented more than once to be able to pray over a pile of stones in a sweat lodge and the prayer resulted in supernatural heating of the stones and manifestation of amazing things in the sweat lodge, including presence of animals. I remember reading of Hopi Indians who, after many years of training, could speak and interact with eagles. Something primieval within me wants to believe these tales are valid and true, but I have not the training to enter communication or meaningful communion with outer worlds. But I am pretty happy observing nature regardless. And some of those shamans, while holding certain (alleged) powers, led lives of great responsibility, turmoil, and personal suffering, so there is no guarantee that a spiritual connection is the key to a trouble-free life.
    I think it is possible to be happy in the moment without luxury, without outside stimulation, and without compromise. The trick, I believe, is to find what we need within ourselves, and the added joys of human companionship, beauty of nature, sensual gratification, etc. is gravy. And I love gravy, too!
    I fully agree with Guy that humanity is facing another civilizational collapse. There is a real possibility of human extinction in the mid-term future. But these facts are externalities to the lives of individuals. It is good to care for others, to prepare for the future, and to do our best to make the world a better place. But ultimately, we live a moment at a time and can find peace in the moment in virtually any circumstance. I am a raptor person (bander, falconer, etc.) and I see mighty hawks and eagles and owls living moment by moment, whether in the wild or in captivity. I think there is a valid lesson for survival in that context.
    And I will leave it at that.
    Stan Moore
    Petaluma, CA

  • This is very nice and well put. I don’t see any real conflict between a recognition of the tragedy of human existence and still being able to face the world with joy and hope (or at least the strength to keep on keeping on).
    A huge unremarked tragedy is the endless waste of human potential that results from the deliberate stunting of people’s intellect and moral sense. Efficiency and mono-acculturation have always won out over the development of human potential, which is tragic enough; but now we have the tools to wreck the place, and our ability to blind ourselves grows stronger all the time as we develop better techniques of pacification and mind control (advertising and media telling stories that will destroy us). It’s all rough stuff, and the only thing that gets me through it is my sense (which could be wrong) that I have enough freedom and mental tools to make a positive difference if only on a small scale. That’s enough.
    Lovely blog, BTW.

  • On Sunday someone who had just been cut off from their food stamps and unable to find employment for the last few months decided to take out his anger by walking into my Knoxville church and shooting my friends. He killed some, seriously injured others and permently affected how everyone involved in my church community thinks about life. People can try to keep track of oil prices or whatnot, but the reality remains the same. This is a divided, angry, declining country. Security is rotting away. My friends are dead. My sanctuary was a bloodbath. This is reality. The old days of safety, and the illusion that it would last forever for us, that we middle class Americans once enjoyed, has come to a bloody halt.
    My friend, John–ironically the man who introduced me to move-on.org, and hosted the documentary Out-Foxed (which greatly affected me)– jumped on the shooter, and stopped him from killing everyone in the room (he had the intent and enough amminition to do it).
    You know, we don’t know what is going to happen, but we can keep doing what we know is right. We can keep fighting for life even when it seems hopeless. So, I guess I’m trying to say, we are immersed in a long emergency and decline, and one by one, our lives will be touched by tragedy. Yet we must keep hope and our “religous” spirit, and our dear friends. We must not let a fear of death keep us from living, and we must be ready to take action when we need to. If we don’t accept that death might happen, then we can’t have the courage to live fully. We don’t have a lot of control over how things will play out. The only thing that is for sure is that death will knock on our door one day. Sooo…I agree, Guy, that we must live while we are here. I agree with you that dying is part of the deal from the beginning. I agree that we should not dissolve into despair. Although I am in great pain right now, I know that today is a day, and I am blessed to have it.

  • I’ve long had an interest in educational issues and held views similar to yours. In my part-time work with high school-age students, I’ve seen these views confirmed. How little they are able to reflect on their uber-artificial suburban surroundings, or to be critical in any meaningful way of the system in which they have grown up, is staggering and frightening. If I make a comment the slightest bit analytical, invariably someone says, “very philosophical,” as if such discourse is terra incognita. Verbal ability is declining in even the best students (who retain high math ability). They cannot draw meaning from a text or do most problems not based on a formula. Sometimes online one reads a comment such as, “Let an 11th-grader read a sentence aloud, and prepare your ears for disaster.” I assure you it is true! The words they trip over would astonish you. I would say about half of high-schoolers are functionally illiterate. It is easy to tell that most have never read a book in their lives. Without good reading skills, how can they develop good thinking skills?
    All of this also goes for those preparing for grad school, whom I also work with. Yet, they are all trying to get addicted to the system. If they were offered a college diploma tomorrow for no work, and therefore no learning, I have no doubt a large majority would take it.

  • Dear Professor Guy,
    Congratulations–you have been amazingly prescient in your oil predictions !!You came within a couple of bucks of picking a peak of $150/barrel,an astounding intellectual feat.The current pull-back is just a short term blip on the chart.Barron’s tells us that since 1986 there have been 26 oil bear markets,lasting an average of 125 days,and producing an average 32% decline.There is no reason to suggest that your long term projections are not right on track.
    Throughout history there have been two groups that have always mentally and psychologically enslaved the ignorant and gullible masses: the priests and the rulers working in concert.Each uses just one word to accomplish this.For the priests it is “God”, for the rulers it is “Country”. Notice how often you hear the phrase “for God and Country” used.Human nature is unchangeable and immutable.Humans are no more capable of independent and discreet thought than they were 20,000 years ago.Religion and superstition are the same.
    Intelligent people do not go to church, and they do not display the American flag–this is the truth.

  • Just a thought on the current crude correction:
    Probably the refiners underestimated the drop in demand from higher gasoline prices,and overstocked for the summer driving season.They won’t make the same mistake again.
    As I write this oil is spiking up over $4/barrel as the U.S. Energy Department just reported an unexpected decline in gasoline inventories–stay tuned.

  • As guilty as the witch doctor and Attila were and are for tyrannizing the human mind, my money is on a different kind of tyranny as a source to our larger problems as a species. In many ways Nietzsche successfully killed God. We were left without an anchor, confronting a basic need and an unwelcome responsibility to provide meaning to our own lives. It hasn’t been pretty. Paradoxically for rational thinkers, mystery provides meaning. The rational thinker recognizes that the future is not only unknown, it is unknowable. Wisdom, for a rational mind, is making peace with the emergent. And giving freedom to the emergent provides real meaning because it is an ethical act. It is not only a rejection of nihilism, but a boundary condition placed on Nietzsche’s superman. Alas, peace with the emergent is difficult. For most it is a fearful road to travel. We are all fifth graders staring into the eyes of a great horned owl.

  • Jeremy, how true that one is about the eleventh graders… College is little better, and by far the most illiterate people I ever met were ones that attended a mid level composition course with. At one point I was forced to ask exactly how they had come this far in the Criminal Justice bachelor courses without the ability to read, or better yet comprehend written English.
    Frank, Your comment about intelligent people is funny to say the least. I am inarguably somewhat intelligent (Else would I not be too much a simpleton to even write a simple complete sentence?) and not only am I religious, (But not churchgoing) but wear an American flag on my uniform and am proud to do so.
    Dare I say, it is far more un-intelligent to group anyone and everyone that happens to believe in a higher power or be proud of their country as stupid or below you. Intelligent people come from all walks of life, and from everywhere. The least intelligent people I ever met by far, I met while in college. They had no capability of rational, complete thought, could barely write or even comprehend third grade writen English, and had no grasp of understanding the world around them aside from their “Legalize weed” slogans. In some cases these were the very professors who were to instruct us.
    Dare not throw stones Frank, for they are all too easily picked up and thrown right back.

  • One thing though, I am not talking about our professor guy. I have never taken a course from him aside from the one we are all taking now.

  • No one has a crystal ball. Or, I should say, no one that I know owns one. So, failing to call things 100% is pretty standard for most people. Look at Paul Ehrlich, his batting average is nothing to boast about but there he is, year after year, swinging away like there is no tomorrow.
    The beautiful thing about free speech is the fact we can all mouth off at will–which leads to interesting discussions, at the very least.
    Sometimes faulty predictions and incendiary comments can spark creativity or useful introspection–so, it isn’t a loss. If it got some people thinking, then, that’s hardly a bad thing.
    As for Peak Oil in general, I would say this: Rome didn’t fall in a day. It declined and by the time it actually “fell” it was already close enough to the ground that one wouldn’t have noticed much. Is America the new Rome? Maybe, maybe not, but we’re definitely not headed UP at the moment–so that much was correct…and people really need to be talking about this fact.
    People need to wake up and seriously discuss the environment AND social justice issues. It makes me physically ill to think of all the time being wasted on BS right now.
    As for belief in God, in the end, that is personal. I don’t think it is more rational to adopt non-belief than to believe. It is a personal choice.
    Arguing for or against ultimately leads to errors in logic on either side.
    Either way, argumentum ad ignorantiam applies. It is the ultimate tie. Nobody can actually win it.
    While I disagree with Nietzsche–especially with regard to the eternal return and things of that nature–I respect your right to your opinion.
    Personally, I believe in a deeper spirituality that transcends the “superstitious” form of faith that often passes for “religion”. I have no problem with evolution. I don’t find (or look for) Jesus in grilled cheese sandwiches. I laughed my arse off at the Life of Brian. As a bedtime story I read my children David Sedaris’ “Six to Eight Black Men” which made them roll with laughter at the thought of St. Nicholas pretending to kick people in Spain. I still enjoy reading the Skeptic from time to time or watching Penn & Teller’s BS (even though with regard to God I am a polar opposite of the views expressed).
    I don’t think I could describe my own faith other than to say it fills me, it transforms me for the better. I spent years as an atheist, myself, an evangelical one at times to boot, but I couldn’t describe the shift. You’re either there or you’re not.
    My God isn’t the easter bunny. Nor is my God a grandfather dolling out easy answers and spiritual candy to his jejune adherents.
    I do believe in free will, though. We do choose, within certain parameters, our actions. My God allows everyone to make their choice–even when that freedom of choice means losing that person.
    If you have a moment and an open mind, you might consider reading CS Lewis (no, NOT Narnia) or the work of Dr. Francis Collins. If not, that’s just as well, but they do present a very reasoned argument FOR faith that isn’t shrill or juvenile as so many times can be found in the God vs. No God debate.
    Wherever your path takes you, though, I hope you enjoy the journey.
    Best regards,

  • I wanted to throw this link in for a laugh:
    I think the faithful are probably often just as (if not more) disgusted by superstitious garbage that prances around pretending to be authentic spirituality–only to make a mockery of themselves and the faith.

  • Hey Turboguy,
    I defer to your superior wisdom.The two topics one should never discuss are politics and religion.But how did I get the idea you were Canadian?Do you live north?I remember blogs talking about how it was too cold to survive in the north post-carbon.But you wouldn’t be wearing a US
    flag if you were Canadian.So please clear this up by telling us where you do live.
    I’m in Sun City,Arizona where it seldom gets over 120 F.Off to my local,more later.

  • Memo to Turboguy,
    I came across your posting of 7-15-08, where you mentioned being in Canada many times–that’s how I got the mistaken idea you were Canadian.I’ve been there many times myself for various reasons.

  • Nope Frank, 100% red blooded American. I live in Minneapolis Minnesota where it goes from cold to “Oh My God My Boogers Just Froze In My Nose” cold. Right now it’s very warm, yesterday it was in the lower nineties with the full blast of rediculously high dew points to keep us all veritably uncomfortable.
    The other guy, I disremember his name at the moment, was a Canadian.
    My wisdom is not in any way superior, it’s just a different way of taking it all in, and in particular, not underestimating anyone based on their belief system.