Monday, August 4, 2014

The Zero Theorem (2014) and Faith vs. Reason

The late twentieth century and early twenty-first century are marked by several key ideological shifts. The collection of uprisings and popular movements of the late 1960s, collectively referred to as “1968,” ushered in the rise of identity politics to replace the “old” politics of class or national consciousness. Before 1968, politics had been marked by one type of optimistic belief or another. Leftists believed that a new world could be forged through class struggle; American liberals believed in an “American dream” whereby successive generations would prosper ever more; black Civil Rights campaigners led by Martin Luther King, Jr., believed that social justice was commanded by an almighty God. Starting with 1968, however, people’s politics stemmed less from their metaphysical beliefs and more from a sense of belonging to a particular identity. This resulted in the fragmentation of the “New Left,” whereby a movement once united by the tenuous and abstract notion of class was broken up into various single-issue groups campaigning for environmental justice, animal rights, a free Palestine, LGBTQ rights, etc. The decline in the importance of belief and the rise of identity politics has over time developed in some people into an outright aversion towards people who profess strong beliefs. People who hold such hostile opinions about belief are well known, and are often referred to under the umbrella term “New Atheists.” Another popular term for such people is “anti-theists,” since not only do they not believe in God, but they are morally opposed to believing in God. In this essay, I refer to them as unbelieverists, using the suffixes -ism and -ist to show that an ideological system is involved. According to unbelieverists, irrational belief is the cause and culprit of all of the world’s evils – genocides, massacres, wars – and the antidote is science and reason.

Of course, it isn’t hard to see why people might be skeptical of passionate belief; the horror stories of twentieth-century fascism, communism, and religious extremism are all that need to be referenced to demonstrate that believers are often the most violent, dangerous, and destructive of human beings. But unbelieverists aren’t just skeptics of belief; rather, they are contrarians – gainsayers and negators of anything and everything that believers believe. The guiding principle behind this philosophy is that belief is irrational, so therefore the negation of belief must be inherently rational. But anyone who thinks about this for just a moment knows that this isn't true. Martin Luther King, Jr., was acting on his Christian faith when he led Civil Rights rallies and marches, but only a fool would say that he was immoral or irrational for doing so.

Belief may be irrational, but it does not automatically follow that acting on a belief is an immoral or even an irrational action. To say so would itself be irrational. Nevertheless, unbelieverists often do say as much. According to the late New Atheist author Christopher Hitchens, religious belief is inherently immoral, poisoning a person's consciousness so that she or he can do no good. Physics professor Lawrence Krauss also equates science and reason with morally positive traits like fairness, openness, and full disclosure, and religion with negative traits like deceit, trickery, and hidden agendas. Richard Dawkins recently stated that teaching children about hell is more immoral than fondling them repeatedly. I have never heard any of these people comment on the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr., but I wonder whether they would say that his religious belief made him an inherently immoral man. (Hitchens, of course, is well known for his attacks on Mother Theresa, but he preferred in his rare discussions of Civil Rights to talk about how Christians since MLK have tarnished the legacy of Civil Rights rather than confront the problem of MLK's faith ouright.)

Unfortunately, we are not able to run an experiment in order to find out what a world without beliefs would look like. However, it is possible to peer into such a society using the medium of film. The 2014 Terry Gilliam film The Zero Theorem provides us with a suitable example. The film’s protagonist, Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz), is an anomalous believer in a society of unbelief.  During the daytime, Qohen works for the Mancom corporation doing research using hyper-rational data more complex than numbers.  Every evening, Qohen sits eagerly beside his telephone at home, waiting for it to ring.  In stark contrast to Qohen the ardent believer, the society at large is one in which belief has ceased to exist. The head of Mancom, a man called Management (Matt Damon), is an absolute atheist, a man who despises irrational belief and embraces the cold logic of business.  Mancom is Management’s brainchild: A rational, centrally-planned organization, uninfected by belief and instead thoroughly governed by practical reason.  Workers at Mancom are not indoctrinated with any kind of belief system; they aren't told that their work is for the betterment of society or the improvement of the economy. Rather, the workplace walls are plastered with purely pragmatic platitudes aimed at increasing production like, “Don’t ask – multitask” and “Everything is under control" (and "Arbeit macht fun!"). 

Management, an atheist, is certain that all that exists is chaos. He's convinced that the universe originates in nothingness and will eventually collapse back into a supermassive black hole. The Zero Theorem, which states that 100% = 0, is the mathematical formula for expressing this fact. For Management, proving the Zero Theorem will be the culmination of his ultimate goal in life. Why? If all is nothing, then wouldn’t that just mean that existence is meaningless? For a believer like Qohen it would, but for Management, the Zero Theorem would provide the only possible meaning that can ever exist: “There’s money in ordering disorder. Chaos pays, Mr. Leth. Chaos comprises a rich vein of ore that, with Mancom’s muscle, will be all mine to mine.” Commodifying the chaos gives meaning to it. Management, the ultimate disaster capitalist, sees the supermassive black hole as the ultimate engine of capital accumulation, which exists to be mined, refined, and sold in order to create the only thing of any meaning to him – commercial value.

In order to mine the chaos, though, Management still needs to prove that chaos is in fact all that there is. Unfortunately, the math hasn’t been forthcoming. The Zero Theorem has been given to numerous researchers and baffled them all. So Management adopts a new approach: He will instill in someone a sense of belief that is so strong that it seems unshakeable, and then he will bring it crashing down. He therefore constructs a myth for Qohen to believe in; this myth is the “call” Qohen sits awaiting at every free moment. Once Management reveals that the “call” is a ruse, he thinks that this will be sufficient evidence to prove that the universe begins and ends in chaos. Qohen, the last believer, will finally be converted by the logic of pure reason, and at last the Zero Theorem will be proven.

At first, it seems that Management’s plan has worked. Qohen is utterly devastated by the news that the “call” was just a conspiratorial hoax. The supermassive black hole that is gradually sucking in everything emerges before him, and he sees all the people he knows drifting into its void. Instead of succumbing to nihilism, however, Qohen’s faith is re-energized. He jumps into the black hole, a leap of faith that proves to be the right choice: Qohen reemerges in a tropical beach paradise.

This scene from The Zero Theorem exposes a critical paradox: Sometimes it is irrational to be rational and rational to be irrational. Management, of course, is rational to a fault, using reason even where it doesn't apply.  Whereas he ought to have known that Qohen’s deeply-held beliefs could not possibly be shaken by cold logic, he nevertheless pursues this course to his own downfall.  Qohen is the exact opposite; he sticks to his beliefs even when it would seem that they have been logically refuted. Instead of succumbing to Management’s logic, Qohen takes a leap of faith into the black hole – which turns out to be the most rational thing he could do!

Was it possible to see this conclusion ahead of time? Indeed, a close examination shows that Management has a strong irrational streak, try though he may to hide it from view. But his irrationality bubbles to the surface in ways that can be noticed if we look hard enough.  For example, note that Management’s atheism oddly takes the form of a fanatical religious belief. Management has invested all of his desire in proving the Zero Theorem, a mathematical equation that all logic seems to indicate is false. Some of Mancom’s greatest researchers have worked on the problem, but to no avail. A truly disciplined man of reason would discard the Zero Theorem for a more nuanced theory, but Management holds to the same dogmatic line. This has a very similar structure to the way that New Earth Creationists defend their beliefs. When presented with overwhelming evidence that he is wrong, Mancom still insists that he is the one that is being the most rational.

Now taking a look at real life, we see that Management’s syndrome of irrationality masquerading as reason is rather common among unbelieverists. Richard Dawkins, for example, deplores religious belief with all the same fervor and rancor as Management does. But Dawkins is far from innocent of speaking out irrationally. Recently, Dawkins made excuses for pedophilia in English boarding schools on the heels of comments he made earlier in the year that teaching kids that hell exists is worse than abusing them sexually.  Importantly, he says that this latter conclusion was reached not through reason but rather through spidey-sense: “It seems to me to be intuitively entirely reasonable that that is a worse form of child abuse.”  Of course, no psychologist or social scientist would ever speak from intuition about child sexual abuse, but Dawkins seems to have no problem with abandoning reason whenever it's convenient.

In fact, Great Men of Reason who speak and act irrationally are the norm, not the exception. Philipp Lenard, the German physicist who won the Nobel Prize in 1920, was convinced that that rise in nuclear physics in the 30s and 40s was due to Jewish influence, and warned agianst “relativity theories produced by alien minds.”  Bobby Fisher, perhaps the greatest ever Master of the hyper-rational game of chess, denied that the holocaust took place and was plagued by paranoid delusions.  My idea is not to suggest that scientists who claim that their social and political views are motivated by the same pure reason that motivates scientific inquiry are somehow more irrational than the average person; rather, what I'm saying is that everyone's political and social beliefs are motivated by one ideology or another.  As all ideologies are to some degree irrational, this means that everyone's politics, including scientists', are irrational to the core.

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