Jaroslav Hašek and the kernel-monitor meme

The other day I suggested that “religion” is a useful concept only if you’re interested in theology, which I’m not.

The post was probably too long, and it certainly confused some. So let me try and summarize.

First, I argued, “religion” is the study of the thoughts or actions of paranormal entities. If paranormal entities were observable, they wouldn’t be paranormal. Beliefs about paranormal entities (“Baal hates Jews”) are only relevant to the observable world inasmuch as they imply beliefs about the observable world (“To please Baal, we must burn the Jews”), and thus motivate actions in the observable world (burning the Jews).

So why do we categorize other’s beliefs first and foremost by their positions on the paranormal? Why not focus on beliefs about the real world, which are what actually affect us?

Second, I argued, this irrelevant categorization is dangerous, because it impairs our ability to recognize patterns across the categorical boundary. When comparing two delusions, when one is “religious” and the other is merely “fallacious” (i.e., it purports to be derived from pure reason but in fact is not), we have a hard time deciding which of the two is more dangerous.

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil,” said Burke, “is for good men to do nothing.” Well, technically, he was right. But in practice evil will do a lot better if it can get the good men to side with the greater evil, and fight against the lesser. Being, of course, evil, it seldom overlooks this device.

This is a nasty situation. And I think it calls for a remedy which is too drastic for most household uses, but which has to be retained as the philosopher’s last resort: inventing new words.

I actually prefer to borrow words from other fields. As a computer programmer, I have an enormous stock of gobbledegook to choose from, from which I choose “kernel” and “monitor.”

(It’s a waste of time to go into the technical meaning of these words. There is an analogy, but it’s very loose.)

Let’s say that a religion is a “kernel” and a church (the institution, not the building) is a “monitor.” But let’s try and define these words without reference to the paranormal world.

Your kernel is your set of received beliefs about the real world. A belief is “received” if you got it from someone else, if it is not something you observed or decided yourself. I always hate using the word meme, because it makes me sound like an asshole, but there’s no denying that it says “received belief” with a lot fewer wiggles of the tongue.

A kernel has two parts: the set of statements (about the real world) that you consider true or false, and the set of actions (in the real world) that you consider righteous or wrongteous. The Greek words logos and ethos are handy here. We can speak of a “logical kernel” and an “ethical kernel.”

(I believe these concepts are human universals—that is, the words “true” and “false”, “right” and “wrong” translate into all languages. If you disagree, you’re welcome to, but I wonder how you can function at such a refined philosophical level.)

The interesting question is: where do you get your kernel? How is it, as it were, installed?

Installing memes is a privileged operation. It requires trust. Some people believe everything they hear—or, worse, read on the Internet. But most of us are a little sharper than that.

You have three basic classes of trusted party: your parents, your friends, and the monitor or monitors which you credit.

A monitor is a trusted institution. You apply some intrinsic credibility to the memes this institution distributes. Trust may not be boolean. It just means that you are more likely to install a meme into your kernel if you get it from a monitor to which you ascribe some trust level, than if you, say, read it on some anonymous blog. If you ascribe any trust at all to any monitor, we’ll say you credit it.

For example, I am not a physicist. So if I have to believe something about physics, I may turn to Luboš Motl or Peter Woit. I trust these people—on the subject of physics—not because I know them personally, but because Harvard was willing to hire the one and Columbia the other. This is pretty strong evidence that Harvard and Columbia are in the monitor business, and that I credit them—at least on the subject of physics.

You may find it interesting to try to describe the kernels and monitors you see in the world around you. Discuss. (I always wanted to say, “discuss.” And now, thanks to Blogger, I can.)

But all this philosophy is thirsty work. I could certainly use some Laphroaig, and as a matter of fact I think I’ll have some. Who says it’s too early in the morning? I’d share, but unfortunately the Internet, “series of tubes” though it may be, isn’t very good at routing Scotch.

So instead I thought I’d appropriate a bit from the Great Czech Novel: Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk (1923). As you’ll see, it’s highly pertinent. However, it can’t really be described as philosophy, so if your only interest in Unqualified Reservations is in the deep-thought department, class is definitely over.

From page 136:

In the evening they received a visit from the pious chaplain who had wanted to serve the drumhead mass for the sappers that morning. He was a fanatic who wanted to bring everyone close to God. When he had been a catechist he had developed religious feelings in children by slapping their faces and there had appeared from time to time in various journals articles about ‘the sadistic catechist’, ‘the slapping catechist’. He was convinced that a child learns the catechism best with the help of the birch.

He limped a little on one foot, which had been caused by a visit made to him by the father of one of his pupils, whose face he had slapped for having expressed certain doubts about the Holy Trinity. He got three slaps on the face himself. One for God the Father, a second one for God the Son and a third for the Holy Ghost.

Today he had come to lead his colleague Katz on to the right path and to have a heart-to-hard talk with him. He began it with the remark: ‘I’m surprised that you’ve got no crucifix hanging there. Where do you say your breviary prayers? And there’s not a single portrait of the saints on the walls of your room. What’s that hanging over your bed?’

Katz smiled: ‘That’s Susanna and the Elders, and that naked woman underneath is an old friend of mine. On the right there’s something Japanese, depicting the sexual act between a geisha and an old Japanese Samurai. Very original, isn’t it? The breviary’s in the kitchen. Švejk, bring it here and open it on the third page.’

Švejk went away, and from the kitchen could be heard the sound of corks being drawn from three bottles of wine.

The pious chaplain was aghast when the three bottles made their appearance on the table.

‘It’s a light sacramental wine, brother,’ said Katz, ‘of very good quality, a Riesling. It tastes like Moselle.’

‘I’m not going to drink,’ said the pious chaplain stubbornly. ‘I’ve come to have a heart-to-heart talk with you.’

‘That’ll dry up your throat, my dear colleague,’ said Katz. ‘Have a drink and I’ll listen. I’m a very tolerant fellow and can listen to other views.’

The pious chaplain drank a little and rolled his eyes.

‘It’s a devilish good wine, my dear colleague, isn’t it?’

The fanatic said sternly: ‘It has not escaped me that you are swearing.’

‘That’s habit,’ answered Katz. ‘Sometimes I even catch myself blaspheming. Pour the chaplain out some more, Švejk. I can assure you that I also say: “Himmelherrgott, krucifix and sakra.” I think that when you’ve served in the army as long as I have you’ll find yourself doing it too. It isn’t at all difficult or complicated and it’s very familiar to us clergy—heaven, God, the cross and the holy sacrament. Doesn’t that sound marvellously professional? Drink a bit more, my dear colleague.’

The former catechist sipped mechanically. It was obvious that he wanted to say something, but could not. He was collecting his thoughts.

‘My dear colleague,’ continued Katz, ‘cheer up! Don’t sit there so miserably, as though they were going to hang you in five minutes’ time. I’ve heard about you, how once on a Friday by mistake you ate a pork cutlet in a restaurant, because you thought that it was Thursday, and how you stuck your finger down your throat in the W.C. to get rid of it, because you thought God would obliterate you. I’m not afraid of eating meat in Lent and I’m not afraid of hell-fire either. Excuse me, please go on drinking. Are you better now? Or do you have progressive views about hell and keep up with the spirit of the times and the reformists? I mean, instead of ordinary cauldrons with sulphur for poor sinners, there are Papin’s pots and high-pressure boilers. The sinners are fried in margarine, there are grills driven by electricity, steam rollers roll over the sinners for millions of years, the gnashing of the teeth is produced with the help of dentists with special equipment, the howling is recorded on gramophones, and the records are sent upstairs to Paradise for the enjoyment of the just. In paradise sprays with eau de cologne operate and the Philharmonic Orchestra plays Brahms so long that you prefer hell and purgatory. The cherubs have aeroplane propellers in their behinds so as not to have to work so hard with their wings. Drink, my dear colleague! Švejk, pour him out some cognac. I don’t think he’s feeling well.’

When the pious chaplain came round he started to whisper: ‘Religion is a matter of rational reasoning. Whoever does not believe in the existence of the Holy Trinity…’

‘Švejk,’ Katz interrupted him, ‘pour out one more cognac for the chaplain, so as to bring him round! Tell him something, Švejk!’ ‘Humbly report, sir,’ said Švejk, ‘near Vlašim there was a dean who had a charwoman, when his old housekeeper ran away from him with the boy and the money. And this dean in his declining years started studying St Augustine, who is said to be one of the Holy Fathers, and he read there that whoever believes in the Antipodes will be damned. And so he called his charwoman and said to her: “Listen, you once told me that your son was a fitter and that he went to Australia. That would be in the Antipodes and according to St Augustine’s instructions everyone who believes in the Antipodes is damned.” “Reverend sir,” the woman answered, “after all my son sends me letters and money from Australia.” “That’s a snare of the devil,” replied the dean. “According to St Augustine the devil doesn’t exist and you are just being seduced by the Anti-Christ.” On Sunday he anathematized her publicly and shouted out that Australia didn’t exist. So they took him out of straight out of the church into the lunatic asylum. More people like him ought to be put there. In the Convent of the Sisters of St Ursula they have a bottle of the Holy Virgin’s milk with which she suckled the baby Jesus, and in the orphanage at Benešov, after they’d brought them water from Lourdes, the orphans got diarrhea the like of which the world has never seen.’

Black spots were dancing in front of the pious chaplain’s eyes and he only came to himself after another cognac, which went to his head.

Blinking his eyes he asked Katz: ‘Don’t you believe in the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary? Don’t you believe that the thumb of St John the Baptist, which is preserved in the Piarists’ monastery, is genuine? Do you believe in the Lord at all? And if you don’t, why are you a chaplain?’

‘My dear colleague,’ answered Katz, patting him familiarly on the back, ‘until the state recognizes that soldiers who are going to their death at the front don’t need the blessing of God for it, the chaplaincy remains a decently paid profession, where a chap isn’t overworked. It was better for me that running around on the drill-ground and going on manoeuvres. Then I used to get orders from my superiors but now I do what I like. I represent someone who doesn’t exist and myself play the part of God. If I don’t want to absolve anyone’s sins then I don’t, even if they beg me on their bended knees. But you’d find bloody few people nowadays who’d go that far.’

‘I love God,’ declared the pious chaplain, beginning to hiccough. ‘I love him very much. Give me a little wine. I respect God,’ he continued. I respect and honour him very much. I respect no one as much as I respect him.’

He struck the table with his fist until the bottles jumped. ‘God is an exalted being, something unearthly. He’s honourable in his dealings. He’s a radiant revelation, and no one’s going to convince me of the contrary. I respect St Joseph too, I respect all the saints, except St Serapion. He’s got such an ugly name.’

‘He ought to apply to have it changed,’ observed Švejk.

‘I love St Ludmila and St Bernard,’ continued the former catechist. ‘He saved many pilgrims in St Gothard. He carries a bottle of cognac around his neck and looks for people caught in snow drifts.’

The conversation took a new turn. The pious chaplain started getting completely muddled. ‘I honour the Innocents. They have their Saints’ day on the twenty-eighth of December. I hate Herod. When the hens sleep, you can’t get any new-laid eggs.’

He gave a guffaw and began to sing ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Sabaoth.’

He broke off at once, and turning to Katz and getting up asked him sharply: ‘You don’t believe that the fifteenth of August is the day of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary?’

The fun was in full swing. More bottles appeared, and from time to time Katz could be heard saying: ‘Say that you don’t believe in God, otherwise I won’t let you have a drop!’ It was as though the times of the persecution of the early Christians had returned. The former catechist sang a song of the martyrs of the Roman arena and yelled out: ‘I believe in God. I won’t forswear him. You can keep your wine. I can send for some myself.’

Finally they put him to bed. Before he fell asleep he proclaimed, raising his right hand in a solemn oath: ‘I believe in God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Bring me the breviary.’

Švejk put into his hand a book which was lying on the night table. The pious chaplain then fell asleep with Boccaccio’s Decameron in his hand.

(If anyone is having trouble with the Š’es, please pop by the comments section and let me know what browser and OS you’re using…)