Scrapblog (like a scrapbook but not)
In the original 2005 address, there’s an additional story that’s been cut out of the print version.
Here’s another didactic little story: there are these two guys sitting in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious and the other is an atheist and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer. And the atheist says, “Look, it’s not like I don’t have actual reasons for not believing in God. It’s not like I haven’t ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from camp in that terrible blizzard and I was terribly lost and couldn’t see a thing and it was 50 below. So I tried it. I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out, Oh God if there is a God, I”m lost in this blizzard and I’m gonna die if you don’t help me. The religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled, well then you must believe now he says, after all you are here alive. The atheist just rolls his eyes - no man, all that was was a couple eskimos happened to come on by and showed me the way back to camp.
It’s easy to run the story through a kind of standard liberal arts analysis: the exact same experience can mean two totally different things to two different people given those peoples’ two different belief templates and two different ways of constructing meaning from experience. Because we prize tolerance and diversity of belief, no where in our liberal arts analysis do we want to claim that one guy’s interpretation is True and the other guy’s is False or Bad, which is fine except we also never end up talking about just where these individual belief templates come from. Meaning where they come from inside the two guys, as if a person’s most basic orientation towards the world and the meaning of experience were just hard wired like height or shoe size, or automatically absorbed from a culture like language. As if how we construct meaning were not actually a matter of personal, intentional choice.
Plus there’s the matter of arrogance. The non-religious guy is so totally certain in his dismissal of the possibility that the passing eskimos had anything to do with his prayer for help. True, there are plenty of religious people who seem arrogantly certain of their own interpretations too. They’re probably even more repulsive than atheists, at least to most of us. But religious dogma’s problem is exactly the same as the story’s unbeliever: blind certainty. A closed-minded that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn’t even know he’s locked up. The point here is that this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean: to be just a little bit less arrogant, to have just a little critical awareness of myself and my certainties.
Atheism deserves better than the new atheists, whose methodology consists in criticising religion without understanding it, quoting texts without contexts, taking exceptions as the rule, confusing folk belief with reflective theology, abusing, mocking, ridiculing, caricaturing and demonising religious faith and holding it responsible for the great crimes against humanity. Religion has done harm; I acknowledge that candidly in chapter 13. But the cure of bad religion is good religion, not no religion, just as the cure of bad science is good science, not the abandonment of science.
The new atheists do no one a service by their intellectual inability to understand why it should be that some people lift their eyes beyond the visible horizon or strive to articulate an inexpressible sense of wonder; why some search for meaning despite the eternal silences of infinite space and the apparently random injustices of history; why some stake their lives on the belief that the ultimate reality at the heart of the universe is not blind to our existence, deaf to our prayers and indifferent to our fate; why some find trust and security and strength in the sensed, invisible presence of a vast and indefinable love. A great Jewish mystic, the Baal Shem Tov, compared such atheists to a deaf man who for the first time comes on a violinist playing in the town square while the townspeople, moved by the lilt and rhythm of his playing, dance in joy. Unable to hear the music, he concludes that they are all mad.
“Pay attention, boy. The next suitable person you’re in light conversation with, you stop suddenly in the middle of the conversation and look at the person closely and say, “What’s wrong?” You sat it in a concerned way. He’ll say, “What do you mean?” You say, “Something’s wrong. I can tell. What is it?” And he’ll look stunned and say, “How did you know?” He doesn’t realize something’s always wrong, with everybody. Often more than one thing. He doesn’t know everybody’s always going around all the time with something wrong and believing they’re exerting great willpower and control to keep other people, for whom they think nothing’s ever wrong, from seeing it. This is the way of people. Suddenly ask what’s wrong, and whether they open up and spill their guts or deny it and pretend you’re off they’ll think you’re perceptive and understanding. They’ll either be grateful, or they’ll be frightened and avoid you from then on. Both reactions have their uses, as we’ll get to. You can play it either way. This works over 90 percent of the time.” 0 david foster wallace
“…a sort of interior war between your deep need to believe and your deep belief that the need to believe is bullshit…” - david foster wallace
Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on. Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing. - David Foster Wallace
from his 2005 commencement address: this is waterTags: quotes david foster wallace life
It’s not that students don’t “get” Kafka’s humour but that we’ve taught them to see humour as something you get - the same way we’ve taught them that a self is something you just have. No wonder they cannot appreciate the really central Kafka joke: that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle. That our endless and impossible journey towards home is in fact our home. - David Foster Wallace
well, shit.Tags: books david foster wallace quotes life
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