March 14, 2010

When do you know that you are you?

At a key point at the end of Michael Frayn's play Copenhagen, Werner Heisenberg explains to Niels Bohr that life is made up of moral decisions between absolutes, it is only when you make them that you actually profess which is more important. The play's Heisenberg had to choose between his family who might be bombed and destroyed by allied aircraft and the fact that only that bombing could destroy the odious Hitler regime: he chose his family and worked, he thought, to prevent Hitler getting the bomb by going slow. Whether that was a real choice or a historically accurate presentation of the real choice that Heisenberg faced is immaterial, the real issue that Heisenberg demonstrates there is a conceptual one- between tyranny and family- and he argues that you can only resolve that through an action. You cannot know which you would chose until you are faced with that choice. Isaiah Berlin's idea that there were absolute and incompatible moral principles which at times you could not reconcile comes into play here- but so does the idea that it is only with a willed action that you can express moral choice.

In that context this argument from Gracchae is very interesting. She is currently in the process of becoming a Catholic- this obviously involves a ceremonial signification of conversion- an act which says that freely she consents to being a member of a community. The idea of a ceremonial assertion of a belief is dying out: in the early modern period, you would sign oaths, in the medieval you would perform homage, but now if I'm a socialist or a conservative the most that happens it that I put a cross into a ballot box. Like Gracchae I wonder about the effect of this. Go back to Heisenberg, he argues in Frayn's play that the way I know what I believe is through my acting it out- in a sense the way Gracchae knows she is a Catholic is by being confirmed. How do I know though what my beliefs are if I do not act them out- if it is merely a cross in a ballot box? They are not less important but in some sense I wonder whether they are less imposing- whether the rhetorical importance of conversion diminishes if you do not have to act it out and whether like changing a suit of clothes, you can more easily change your views if you come into new company. Whether that is a good or a bad thing, I'm not sure. Neither am I sure about the relationship between ceremony and opinion- but there must, as Gracchae is finding out, be one.


Graccha said...

I wrote back. :)