Thursday, December 01, 2011

Why Be Patient?

I've been having a discussion about secular vs. theist ways of grounding (or just making sense of) patience with my colleague Mike Austin. Here is what Mike suggests about theism providing a stronger ground for patience of certain sorts:
Consider the virtue of patience. I think it is clear that it is reasonable to be patient. But certain forms of patience are not reasonable, if naturalism is true. On naturalism, I can be patient in line at the store, or with other drivers, or with my children, because of the therapeutic and relational value of patience in these realms. However, the naturalist cannot as easily account for the patient endurance of suffering or trials, in the following way. What am I waiting for, in the midst of terminal illness, challenging trials and tribulations, or an apparently irresolvable situation, when the desired states of affairs are outside of my ability to bring about? On naturalism I’m waiting for “my luck to change” or something along those lines (and whatever that means). This seems to be a weak basis for patience, and not a good reason to think that whatever I am waiting for will in fact occur. On naturalism, the attitude is “Wait and see.” By contrast, on theism I am waiting for God to come through. The attitude is not merely wait and see, but rather “Wait and see how God will prove his faithfulness.” For the theist there are positive reasons for patience, for expecting something good, sooner or later, to happen. There are reasons to be hopeful in patience. This is not the case on naturalism, making patience in many contexts, for the naturalist, irrational.
I suppose the "naturalist" could just accept this, and say, sure, there will be points at which there remains no reasonable ground for hope or patience. (I will not worry too much here about how Mike may be running hope and patience together here; I agree that patience only makes sense when there is room for hope of some sort.) What I want to object to is the implicit assumption that patience is passive--that it is just a kind of waiting for someone else (e.g. God) to do something or something else to occur (e.g. a turn of "luck"). I think we can also talk about being patient with oneself, and in the sort of case that Mike seems to think pose a problem for the naturalist--where great adversity must be endured--it might be argued that we sometimes need patience with ourselves, in terms of our current ways of understanding our own situation, in order to make room for other ways of seeing the situation that make it more bearable, or which allow us to see a (new) point in enduring. I don't just mean being patient until one is struck--either by divine grace or dumb luck--by the "silver lining." Rather, I mean the patience, roughly, to explore other possible ways of seeing the situation, and perhaps along with this a kind of hope that we can find a way--through our own creative thought, the example of others, and so forth--of making sense of our situation that gives us some reason to endure.

One could object--if naturalism is true, then there's no guarantee that this as-yet undiscovered perspective is "out there." The situation may indeed be hopeless. But there's also no guarantee that there isn't. One reason for patient endurance in the face of adversity is the possibility of learning some lesson, which may only be clear when and if one comes out the other side. And here, I would emphasize that patient endurance would only be one part of the story, since such endurance is renewed by the continued search for a meaning within the situation (i.e. by activity).

Of course, that reason seems moot when the affliction one faces is, as it were, "terminal"--what room for hope, and so patience, is left there? Here, perhaps the issue depends on what one thinks it means to die with dignity. Suicide might seem to be the cardinal sin against patience, particularly if one thinks that we should always wait for death to come to us. But given medical technology, and the ability to keep a brain-dead body alive long past any point of possible recovery, and the presumption that loss of autonomy can be completely psychologically overwhelming, such that it becomes impossible for a person to be an agent (and so to exhibit any virtue, let alone patience), I'm not sure that the decision to end one's life in some situations is the same thing as losing one's patience.

At any rate, the short story is that I think Mike is wrong to think that the naturalist is short on grounds for patience even in fairly incredible situations, in part because waiting needn't be waiting for something external to happen, but waiting--and working--for a shift in one's own perspective, the creative discovery of a reason, as Dylan Thomas put it, to rage against the dying of the light.


  1. I feel that I might be missing the point, but the answer to the question "What are you waiting for?" is surely: the end of one's suffering. In some cases this means death. Why can't a secular person do that? If I'm seriously ill and/or in pain then either I can do something about it, in which case, presumably, I would so so, or else I can't. If I can't do anything about it, what sense does it make to be anything other than patient? There is nothing to do but wait for the suffering to end. A theist might plead, impatiently, with God, but a true atheist surely wouldn't. They might wail, but there is no reason to do so that I can see. Ex hypothesi it will do no good.

  2. DR: Sure. If it comes to, I think not just wailing, but totally uncontrollable suffering, which completely breaks down the person, the ending life might make sense. Some might argue that as long as you are capable of making a reasoned decision, however, then that point hasn't come. (Interestingly, few of the people who seek lethal prescriptions in Oregon do so just because of pain--palliative care is pretty successful in most cases--but rather because of a loss of autonomy.)

    I don't think end-of-life cases were what Mike had in mind in discussing the idea of waiting for God to come through, it's just something that popped into my head. (I guess I could have put more pressure on that--God doesn't "come through"; God's work is done, one might argue, and that would support my point that the waiting is not waiting for God to do something but having the patience to recognize, as it were, what God has done, or "why this is happening," etc.

    Maybe then the question would be--putting aside truly terminal cases, "what are you waiting for?" or "why bother waiting for the suffering to end?" and the answer would have to do with the hope of something on the other side. Mike would say that for the non-theist, there's no guarantee of another "side" (in this world or hereafter). But I don't think this is exactly right either; think of Viktor Frankl--at least, the hope one puts in a future cannot be too specific (this is Lear's point, I think, in Radical Hope, too). And so Frankl seems to suggest that there can be a point to bearing one's suffering, to the extent one can--and I don't know whether he says this, but in the case of the concentration camps, the point could be one of defiance, of refusing to be broken, and in that way of trying to bear witness to a strength of spirit that the Nazis could not completely stamp out. But maybe patience isn't the right concept here, but rather endurance (though the two seem very interconnected to me).

  3. I wondered whether I was going wrong by focusing too much on end-of-life cases. So here are two others: a headache (or other minor, non-terminal episode of suffering) and being in a concentration camp (or other potentially non-terminal episode of major suffering). Why be patient while you wait for the headache to end? Well, what else are you going to do? Waiting is the only option. Why be patient while you wait to die or be liberated from a concentration camp? Like you, I'm not sure that patience is really what we're talking about in such cases, but defiance (as you say) might be one reason. Another might be hope of liberation Or self-respect. Or not letting the bad guys win without a fight. Or love of life. Etc. I just don't see theism making a relevant difference here.

  4. Well, what else are you going to do?

    Yes, I should have said that above. In a sense, that's the best response in a lot of cases. But I think that Mike would agree that those are precisely the one's that wouldn't be problematic for the "naturalist."

    I've talked to Mike about whether the big difference is rather to do with hope, and the grounds for/and reasonable limits of hope on the two different worldviews. I think that's probably the place to focus. And I'm trying to work out a way to expand on some of Lear's ideas in radical hope as a way of articulating something like a secular version of the kind of infinite hope (and patience) that Kierkegaard sees as central to a life of faith.

  5. Matt is right that I've run hope and patience together, but this was intentional. However, let's just consider patience on its own. I agree that there are many things to wait for, e.g. death, the end of suffering, change in one's own perspective, and so on. Waiting, in patience, might truly be the only option in many of these cases. My question, though, is how to make sense of this on naturalism and on theism, and I think that in a range of cases the naturalist runs into difficulty when trying to ground patience, so to speak.
    With respect to Matt's points at the end of the post:
    1. Why wait and work for a shift in perspective?
    2. Why rage against the dying of the light, on naturalism?
    The larger point, and the issue I'm in the midst of thinking about, is that while I agree there are many existential reasons which support the cultivation and exercise of patience, I'm not sure at the end of the day how we relate all of this to ultimate reality, on naturalism. If, as I believe, one of the primary points of knowledge-acquisition is becoming rightly related to reality, then I'm interested in seeing how naturalism can accomodate, justify, and explain the virtues.

  6. 1. Why wait and work for a shift in perspective?
    2. Why rage against the dying of the light, on naturalism?

    Mike: I think there are two ways of taking these questions--the first is to read there as being a question behind the question(s), which takes the form, "What is the point of doing anything at all if naturalism is true and there is no objective meaning/telos in/to the universe?" Now, the whole point of my post and project is in some sense to answer that question, and as I've suggested before, part of it has something to do with flourishing as a social individual. "But why should anyone care about flourishing as a social individual if there is no objective meaning/telos?" Roughly, I think that if you're a naturalist and if theism is a dead option for you, then this question just doesn't have much weight. It's like asking, "What's the point of getting out of bed in the morning if there's no God?" What can the naturalist say except, "I have things to do, and those things have value (say, for me and for other people I care about, etc.)."??? There's obviously more to say at this level, but I'll leave it at this for now.

    Now, the second way of reading your questions is to take them at face value: why do x rather than not-x (or y)? As for the examples above, I'm not strongly committed to the idea that either of these are always the right thing to do, on naturalism. They're just examples. However, the argument could go something like this: we are fallible and often short-sighted, especially when we are miserable and depressed, and so we run the risk of missing ways of making something meaningful of our lives or situations. Despair, we might say, is thinking that we have run out of viable, meaningful options. I guess the issue is that for the theist, there is NEVER a reason to despair in this sense, but it seems that there are in principle points at which despair would be the rational attitude for a naturalist. I think what I would suggest here is that giving our limitations, it's not clear that we can always know when we have run out of options (ways of seeing/making sense of our situation that make persistence and endurance meaningful--though I can imagine cases where the way a person chose to risk their lives and/or die could also express meaning and not necessarily be incompatible with patience; we'd need to look at some specific cases/stories).

    Perhaps what I'm expressing here is in part an underlying faith in the creative (and perceptive) human spirit. The naturalist, I would suggest, can draw hope from the examples of others who have faced adversity in various ways that show excellence, perseverance, etc. And that hope, by keeping despair in check, creates room for patience as (part of) a reasonable response to one's own adversity. So I certainly agree that there's a connection between hope and patience.

  7. Matt, this is good, and I think it leads directly into a point I want to make about this whole discussion, but I'll do it as a post over at my blog. The short version is that there is clearly a way to build a naturalistic morality, including reasons for being patient, with the presence of the following: rationality, intersubjective moral agreement, loving human relationships, and a connection between morality and human flourishing. However, I would argue that such a world is impossible apart from the existence of God. When you excise God out of the picture, we can conceive (in the epistemic sense) of our world having these properties but God not existing. However, my own view is that this is metaphysically impossible. I suspect that the essence of our disagreement lies here.

  8. Mike: Fair enough. To be honest, however, if this all goes back to metaphysical arguments (first cause, intelligent design, etc.) for the existence of God, my own interest wanes (in a certain sense). In part this is because at some fundamental level, what interests me is the possibility of a pluralistic ethic, that allows for what Rawls called an "overlapping consensus." Or the kind of moral universalism + religious pluralism embraced by the Dalai Lama. There's more to say, and despite what I said about interest above, I look forward to your next post.