From all the irrefutable testimonies of human misery there is no logically sound path to the great heavenly Physician; from the fact that we are sick it does not follow that we can be cured. It is possible, as Pascal repeatedly argued, that the human condition, including all its sorrows and evils, as well as its splendours and greatness, is unintelligible and meaningless unless it is seen in the light of sacred history: creation, sin, redemption. If so, it appears that the admissible options are: a meaningful world guided by God, spoilt by men, healed by the Redeemer; or an absurd world, going Nowhere, ending in Nothing, the futile toy of an impersonal Fate which does not distribute punishments and rewards and does not care about good and evil. Promethean atheism might appear, on this assumption, a puerile delusion, an image of a godless world which rushes on to the Ultimate Hilarity.
A mythology, if it is to be effective, must be all-encompassing. The death of gods is a chain reaction; each drags another down into the abyss. Abyssus abyssum invocat. Hence the necessity – of which experienced priests are well aware – of maintaining the mythology as a system in which every detail is equally important and equally holy. The logic of mythology is familiar to every priest; it is there in his mind when he says: today you will miss Mass, tomorrow you will curse God, and the day after that you will become a Bolshevik. This is why only Stalinism, because it was all-encompassing, was a viable mythology. Stalin’s priests said: today you will admire a painting by Paul Klee, tomorrow you will cease admiring socialist-realist architecture, the day after that you will start to doubt the leap from quantity to quality, and the day after that you will renounce your loyalty to Caesar. And since Caesar’s rule is the rule of the people, you will be an enemy of the people. So by admiring a painting by Paul Klee you become an enemy of the people in potentia; you are ‘objectively’ an enemy of the people, a spy and a saboteur. The power of this strategy, confirmed by centuries of historical experience, is undeniable. And its collapse had to be as total as its rule had been: a chain of divinities, collapsing like a pack of cards. What folly to imagine it was possible to extract just one!
— Leszek Kolakowski, “The Death of Gods”
I think it’s generally known that one wing of the New Atheism, led primarily by Jerry Coyne, has made the denial of free will a major cause. Well, so have Calvinists! (Just for somewhat different reasons.) I think all aspects of the Great Free Will Debate are illuminated by this wonderful passage from Leszek Kolakowski’s magisterial book on Pascal and the Jansenist controversy, God Owes Us Nothing:
The belief that everything is preordained by God is psychologically compatible with the belief that I am free in my actions. Personal freedom is an irresistible and elementary experience; it is not analyzable any further because of its elementary character. The former belief acts as a source of trust in life: God rules and orders everything, thus everything is directed toward a good outcome, even if we cannot know or see the cunning tactics of providence. This psychological compatibility proves doubtful when exposed to theological scrutiny, and the task is then to make a coherent, logically sound whole out of the two experiences.… The most elementary facts of experience – “I,” existence, freedom – once converted into theoretical concepts, tend to resist logical examination and are therefore threatened with a verdict of theoretical annihilation; indeed, they have on many occasions been denounced as figments of the imagination. Still, they do not vanish from experience; they stubbornly refuse to evaporate, all philosophers’ condemnations notwithstanding. To accept all-embracing providence without denying the irresistible experience of freedom is psychologically possible even for people who cannot be accused of having simply failed to learn their first lesson in logic; they do not necessarily feel mental discomfort because they believe in, or experience, both. But to unite both in a consistent “theory” seems hopeless, and when theologians ultimately admit that there is a “mystery” in combining providence and freedom, they do not claim to explain anything, but accept the inadequacy of “human reason.” Rationalists normally shrug off the idea of “mystery” (as distinct from something not yet known) as a verbal cover for simple illogicality. However, when people think of ultimate realities, the experience of mystery, which often includes a logical helplessness, may be intellectually more fruitful than rationalist self-confidence that simply cancels metaphysical questions, relying on doctrinal dogmas. To be sure, we have only one logic at our disposal but we are not sure how far its validity can extend when dealing with those ultimate realities.
My liberal friends complain about my conservative views, my conservative friends about my liberal ones. Some of them seem equally puzzled about where I am coming from and where I am going.
The fact of that matter is that I find myself moving largely against the prevailing winds, which means that I cannot make intellectual progress except by tacking back and forth, back and forth. This is why my friends see me moving in one direction and and then another. But it also means that whatever direction I am headed at the moment does not indicate the general path I’m following.
The one trait that can never emerge from this method is consistency, and it is difficult to convince people that certain forms of inconsistency are features, not bugs. Twenty-five years ago Leszek Kolakowski pointed out the “unpleasant and insoluble dilemmas that loom up every time we try to be perfectly consistent when we try to think about our culture, our politics, and our religious life. More often than not we want to have the best from incompatible worlds and, as a result, we get nothing; when we instead pawn our mental resources on one side, we cannot buy them out again and we are trapped in a kind of dogmatic immobility.”
Kolakowski’s pawnshop metaphor is a brilliant one, but if I were to stick to my own, I’d say that it is the epitome of foolishness to decide, when trying to move against the prevailing winds, to pick a direction and stick with it. Either you become lodged in “dogmatic immobility,” or you drift insensibly backwards, or, worst of all, you pretend that a starboard tack is an established course and sooner or later run aground on the rocks.
Kolakowski calls his essays “appeals for moderation in consistency” and concludes that there are therefore “not edifying.” But surely this is to take too narrow a view of what is edifying. I can be edified by the awareness that I am homo viator, a wayfarer, one on the journey — one who knows my destination but has not yet arrived.
To change the metaphor once more: “Thinking too has a time for ploughing and a time for gathering the harvest,” says Wittgenstein. But there are also long periods in between, waiting for what one has so carefully planted to come to maturity.