Sunday, October 23, 2016

Breath, spirit, will

My wife pointed out to me the other day something profound. The breath, she said, is essentially the border between the conscious will and the unconscious, automatic processes governing the human body. The heart, for example, beats at whatever rate it's supposed to. The stomach gets to work whether you tell it to or not. On the other hand, most things we control consciously do very little automatically. We choose to walk around; it is extremely rare for someone to start walking in their sleep. As for our mental life, well, it is true that we may have both conscious and subconscious thoughts, but how they interact is a complete mystery to me; in my common sense experience of the world, my thoughts are purely conscious.

But the breath is in between. On the one hand, I don't need to consciously think about breathing. When I sleep, my body automatically breathes. Even when I don't sleep, my lungs will automatically work at the pace they need to when the occasion calls for it. Yet I can choose to override these automatic rhythms. I can hold my breath. I can choose to breathe more slowly, or more quickly if I so desire.

This is especially evident in that most human of all activities: speech. To speak, I must take a breath big enough to finish the phrase I have in mind. This act of will is taken to a higher level in song.

In the Bible, "spirit" means "breath" or "wind." As far as I know, this is true in both Hebrew and Greek, both Old and New Testaments.

The Spirit of God, then, might be seen as the will of God coming to life in the physical world. As God prepares to speak, He takes a breath... and the Word that comes out will not fall to the ground without accomplishing its purpose. God is a good speaker, a well-trained singer.

The traditional Christian Trinity is recited as "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit," but one could make the case that "Father, Spirit, Son" is also an appropriate order. The Son is the Word, and the Word comes from the Father through His Spirit, that is, His Breath. Do we not say that the Son was conceived by the Holy Spirit? And if the Son is God Incarnate, that is, the Will of God made into a body, then is not the Spirit of God, so to speak, the boundary between God and His body? But I am stretching the image rather far; I don't mean to invent new theories, only jot down hypotheses.

For us, I think rediscovering the breath as spirit is important for our lives. When we focus on the breath as the center of our being, we reconnect the spiritual with the physical. We reconnect the human will with the human animal.

Sit and concentrate on your breathing. Sit up straight, fix your posture so that you have plenty of room to take in the air. Breathe slowly, so that you can enjoy it. As you breathe, you will notice that the rest of your body responds. Your heart changes its rhythm in response to the breath. You will feel the blood flow through all parts of your body and be made more aware of them. You will come into contact with your body on a physical level which is not habitual. On the other hand, you will also be more spiritually alert. The breath is an act of the will; it is a striving toward truth, toward beauty, toward the good. As you straighten out your back and breathe deeply, you will be reminded that your body is a sanctuary for the divine, a building that reaches upward.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Florensky on evolutionism -- "What is the differential equation?"

From At the Crossroads of Science and Mysticism, Lecture Four:
Renaissance culture also gave attention to the other principal form of being--time. The examination of the concept of time occurred later, and the fragmentation of being in time was performed later than the fragmentation in space: evolutionism came after mechanism.

Evolutionism does have a healthy seed--gentism, according to which an essence does not unfold in some single moment, and the spiritual meaning of an object is not exhausted by some single state, but exists in the totality of its states. But evolutionism errs when it states that this genesis is made up of infinitely small additions, so small that each separately can be considered not a creative act. ...

For example, let us consider the question of the origin of man. Evolutionism denies that there is a qualitative and fundamental difference between man and animals. But if this process occurs discontinuously, if man is descended from the apes, this theory loses its anti-religious character, since a qualitative change suddenly occurs. And if man was created from the dust of the earth by a special creative act, why not then allow in principle--only in principle--that man was created by a momentary addition of spiritual qualities to the ape?
What I am pretty sure Florensky is saying is that one need not take the creation story in the Bible literally to have a Christian worldview, but on the other hand he does insist on a "discontinuous" development of spiritual qualities. On the one hand, I suppose that science can't now and perhaps never will be able to address the important qualitative differences between man and the apes. For example, there will never be a fossil record of spoken language, so we will never know definitively when or how speech developed. On the other hand, Florensky (writing in 1920, mind you) could be taken as throwing his lot in with what might be called the "intelligent design" crowd. How else to interpret this statement, particularly with its wording about "creative acts"?

There's a very thought-provoking passage on how the differential calculus was absorbed into modern science:
For the immediate consciousness rest is opposite to motion, while the essence of science is the fact that we can study motion only by separating it into states as if of rest, with the result being the differential equation. The latter becomes the universal instrument of mathematics, and then of all science and the whole Renaissance epoch, since, to quote Kant, every science is a science insofar as it incorporates mathematics.
 He goes on:
What is the differential equation? Some sort of process is occurring, and we stop it and break it up into a series of instants and see it as if in sectional view. The differential equation is a general formula suitable for the sectioning and study of any process. With this method we are not concerned with the past, with what occurred earlier in time, with whether these are people or whether they are statues who suddenly started moving again after we had stopped them. Only the present is important for us here, not the past; but for many phenomena it is precisely the past that is important.
Writing in 1920, I suppose Florensky could simply not have known about all the modern developments in differential equations. Now it is commonplace to deal with integro-differential equations which were developed to take into account nonlocal interactions across both time and space. I wonder what he would say if he could have lived to see the era in which most differential equations do not involve continuous functions and Taylor series, but rather wild, mysterious functions and generalizations thereof.

Even today, one might think at first glance that Florensky is basically right in his description of differential equations, in that they are meant to break down a process into infinitesimal moments, each of which may be viewed as "not a creative act" but rather a blind obedience to some universal law. But even creative acts or subjective experiences can be modeled quantitatively. The whole use of optimal control theory to predict social behavior comes from the idea not that human beings follow mechanical laws but rather that they exhibit optimizing behavior, i.e. genuine acts of will. Florensky simply could not have seen this, since its development came only after his death.

Still, Florensky challenges me like no other thinker, perhaps because so few theologians know or write anything about differential equations! It would be naive to assume that mathematical objects appeared in a philosophical vaccuum. I should pay closer attention to how today's concepts are used (or could be used) to shape our world view.

To me, there will always be one fundamental discontinuity that cannot be ignored by any scientific theory, and that is the mere fact of existence. Between existence and non-existence there is no continuum. There can be no "probability" that the universe would come into being. Rather, its existence is pure impenetrable mystery. For me, this is basically the same thing as to say that God spoke the universe into being.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Florensky on philosophy

"Psychologically, it is natural for people to say that everything is very simple. This is opposite to the sense that begot philosophy--the sense of wonder. To be a philosopher is always to perceive reality as something new, as something that is never boring or stale. The adventure of the spiritual life consists in the fact that everything is renewed, first is one's consciousness and then outside oneself. The one essential thing is to transform all of reality. We must die and forget everything that seemed boring and stale, and when we awaken, all will be renewed for us; it will be beautiful and eternally joyous." -- Pavel Florensky, At the Crossroads of Science and Mysticism
I think this is my new mission statement for life. For context, this is actually part of a critique of modern thought. The quote continues:
"And to some degree this actually happened. The second part of Faust represents spiritual renewal after suffering. Its beginning is depicted in hues reminiscent of the sky, an approximate vision of the primordial creature, in contrast to the task of Renaissance culture--not to wonder at anything." 
 This book is a gem, absolutely necessary for anyone thinking about building a Christian worldview.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Elon the Zebulunite

After him Elon the Zebulunite judged Israel; and he judged Israel ten years. Then Elon the Zebulunite died, and was buried at Aijalon in the land of Zebulun. (Judges 12:11-12)
There are certain passages of scripture, like this one, which stand out for being so...useless. There is no wisdom, no moral teaching, not even a story. Even Ibzan of Bethlehem and Abdon son of Hillel the Pirathonite, who came before and after Elon, had little tales attached to their name (Ibzan had thirty sons and thirty daughters, who all married people from outside the clan; Abdon "had forty sons and thirty grandsons, who rode on seventy donkeys"). Elon judged ten years; that's it.

That's not to say there isn't a lot to be gleaned from a deep analysis of these two verses. A quick Google search yielded an article delving into the historical Israelite practices surrounding transfer of territory. Of course, even that topic is history mainly for history's sake. If Israel is itself sacred, then understanding its history is of religious value. Perhaps that is one of the main draws of this brief passage. We can imagine an historian dutifully recording Elon's brief appointment as judge, for no other reason than to faithfully reproduce the sequences of events that led Israel from the days of Joshua up to the time of the kings.

Still, what about Elon himself? We will never know anything about him other than his name, his title, and the fact that he bore that title for ten years. I often imagine all the saints meeting in the kingdom of heaven. Many of them will meet Elon and ask him what he did during his life on earth. Perhaps he will respond with many stories. Or maybe he will just smile and say, "I judged Israel ten years."

Following the teaching of Jesus, who said such things as "the last will be first and the first will be last," and, "whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave," one might say Elon is the greatest of all the judges. There are no stories glorifying him. It is enough for him to have served the nation of Israel, God's people. In this way, maybe a Christian can glean from this brief mention of Elon a model of heroism, after the manner that Christ taught us. But I suppose that's rather reaching. After all, Elon was judge. He was not slave of all; unlike Christ, he did not refuse to be put in a position of power (cf. John 6:15).

Implicit in my questions about this text is the notion that every text of scripture should be edifying, as in 2 Timothy 3:16, "All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness." One has to really reach in order to apply this principle to all scripture. For the Christian, it's not enough that a passage should faithfully record the history of Israel; some application to our lives, as we strive to become more like Christ, is necessary. And anyway, modern historical criticism casts so much doubt on the history recorded in scripture that taking these passages at their word is a leap of faith.

So what do we do with Elon the Zebulunite? What do we do with any of the judges? Even the great ones like Samson can hardly be considered models. But at least a story like that of Samson may or may not have an allegorical interpretation which is edifying. Elon is simply a footnote.

But there he is, eternally etched into the narrative of scripture, refusing to budge. I am tempted to think one simply has to have a sense of humor when approaching the Bible. It did not come together the way anyone would expect if one were imagining God speaking directly to us. Now that it has enjoyed its 2000 year status as canonical, there's no changing it. We can rest assured Elon the Zebulunite will remain there, challenging us to find a spiritual meaning behind his name and his ten years as judge.

I think there is something edifying about this, after all. We need continual reminders that the universe is the way it is because of events that preceded us, that we cannot change, and that defy any sort of theoretical explanation. We live in God's world, not a world which is "designed" according to human standards. Not everything has an immediately obvious purpose. And yet, if it had not been for all of these apparently meaningless events in the exact sequence they happened, I would not exist.

In other words, as much as I might naturally feel that my life would be totally unaffected if Elon the Zebulunite's name did not appear where it does in scripture, in fact it would change everything. Over two thousand years of history would be altered. If a butterfly flapping its wings can cause a hurricane...or however that's supposed to go,,.one can only imagine what it would mean if even a single character, however uninteresting, were removed from the Bible.

The more I read the Bible and reflect, the more I become less concerned with the abstract principles it teaches (though I have not lost sight of them), and the more I am aware of its very presence. Almost the very essence of the Bible's power is that it cannot be changed. Although it may have gone through many revisions to become what it is today, from now on no such revision is even conceivable. (Here I am not talking about translation and interpretation. I am mostly certainly aware that there will always be as many interpretations of scripture as there are human beings on the planet, but I think this can be safely distinguished from the content of the Bible.) That is the kind of presence in our world that can be felt, all the more so when one makes it a habit to read these now unchangeable document.

Paradoxically, this judge without a story has provoked in me more thought than any other, thus becoming the judge I would be least in favor of omitting from any reading of scripture. Of course, I doubt anyone would know who I'm talking about if I casually brought him up in conversation. The presence of scripture can be felt, but its contents remain a secret hidden in plain sight. I suppose that's natural. I don't mean to lament the lack of biblical literacy of our society based on the evidence that no one has ever heard of Elon the Zebulunite. This is simply a meditation, one that cannot possibly resolve all the mysteries surrounding this strange text.

Then again, it would be nice to know that the Christians who, in speaking about scripture practically deify it, actually knew its contents. Maybe then they would speak about it with much less certainty.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Aristotelian realism

An article I read in Aeon Magazine by James Franklin gives me a good springboard for some of my own thoughts about the philosophy of mathematics. The author (who has a book on the subject) essentially opposes two extreme positions, the one nominalist and the other Platonist. The nominalist seems to say that mathematics doesn't study any real objects; it is merely a language, a series of tautologies that has great instrumental value but has no content on its own. The Platonist says that, on the contrary, mathematical objects exist in their own realm, and that the human mind has access to that realm through contemplation and logical reasoning.

The problem with the first view is that to any mathematician, it seems fairly straightforward to assert that we actually discover something--not just logical relationships between symbols, but actual content. The problem with the second view is that the world of mathematical concepts seems remote; how can we physical beings have access to it?

The alternative is Aristotelian realism, which asserts that mathematical objects inhere in nature. Our minds have access to them initially through observation, then through abstraction and logical reasoning.

This alternative is very attractive for at least two reasons. One reason is that it makes sense of applications far more easily than either Platonism or nominalism. Why should mathematical models be so good at describing real world phenomena? Under the Platonist view, there's not much reason even to wonder about it, since mathematical objects are eternal and inherently separate from the contingent world we live in. Under the nominalist view, the puzzle is why a mere language would be so effective in discovering things about the universe before they are even observed (think about the mathematical development of general relativity). Realism has a simple explanation: we draw mathematical concepts out of the real world, so it's natural that we should use them to explain how it works.

Another reason is that it's satisfying from the point of view of a practicing mathematician. Platonism also has that trait, in that it elevates the objects of mathematical study themselves. But Aristotelian realism allows us to assert that mathematics has real content without divorcing it from common experience. I find this accords well with my own practice of mathematics, both in research and teaching. I always emphasize to my students that common sense should be the starting point for thinking about any mathematical problem. Of course we have to take a long journey out from that starting point, but ultimately each step is grounded in reasoning that any flesh and blood human being can understand.

For me there's a third, more theological reason to appreciate Aristotelian realism. Franklin alludes to theological import himself:
Aristotelian realism stands in a difficult relationship with naturalism, the project of showing that all of the world and human knowledge can be explained in terms of physics, biology and neuroscience. If mathematical properties are realised in the physical world and capable of being perceived, then mathematics can seem no more inexplicable than colour perception, which surely can be explained in naturalist terms. On the other hand, Aristotelians agree with Platonists that the mathematical grasp of necessities is mysterious. What is necessary is true in all possible worlds, but how can perception see into other possible worlds? The scholastics, the Aristotelian Catholic philosophers of the Middle Ages, were so impressed with the mind’s grasp of necessary truths as to conclude that the intellect was immaterial and immortal. If today’s naturalists do not wish to agree with that, there is a challenge for them. ‘Don’t tell me, show me’: build an artificial intelligence system that imitates genuine mathematical insight. There seem to be no promising plans on the drawing board.
This paragraph is delightfully provocative. I suspect many proponents of artifical intelligence believe they are not so far off as Franklin believes, but I can neither confirm nor deny such claims. In any case, artificial intelligence is not what interests me most. Instead, I tend to fixate on this question, "What is necessary is true in all possible worlds, but how can perception see into other possible worlds?"

To me the advantage Aristotelian realism has over Platonism is that it lets us see the eternal, even the sacred, in all things. Whereas the Platonist sees objects in the world as mere shadows on the wall, as it were, the Aristotelian sees them as sources of truth in themselves. For this reason I think Aristotelianism can affirm creation in a way that Platonism can't.

It is common for applied mathematicians to point out that their models are only approximations of reality, and that real life, unlike beautiful mathematical theories, is "messy." And I think that both for the nominalist and the Platonist, there is a sense in which one must choose between the beautiful realm of theory and the messy realm of facts. I reject this dualism by taking the radical position that eternal, necessary truths are inherent in real objects. I do not thereby deny the contingency of the universe; of course it could have been different from the way it is. Yet every object reveals necessary truths; paradoxically, we find the infinite and the eternal in the finite and temporary.

To put it in starkly theological terms, I would compare Platonism to gnosticism and nominalism to idolatry. The one would have discovery be a way of escaping the created order; the other would have discovery be entirely about finite, contingent reality. Instead, I think discovery involves an interlocking of the temporal and the eternal. From real world objects we discover eternal, necessary truths; in return, we can use these eternal truths to understand--and also care for--the world we inhabit.

Indeed, is it not the mystery of whether physical laws are truly necessary that drives so much of theoretical physics? One encounters mathematical relations between objects with fundamental constants which can be measured empirically, and it is natural to wonder whether such constants could actually be deduced from some deeper principle. Or whether the laws of physics themselves are actually corollaries of some more fundamental Law. Could the universe have "come into being" through some means other than what we call the "big bang"? Such questions magnify the interlocking of the eternal and the temporal, the necessary and the contingent. God's glory shines in all things, to such an extent that it is difficult to see where his invisible glory ends and the more visible nature of things begins.

As a corollary, I see mathematics not so much as a way of escaping into abstract truths in a higher realm, nor as a mere tool of the sciences, but rather as a humble servant of empirical investigation. We study mathematics not only to understand what the world is like but also how it must be, and in that sense it gives some of the deepest insight of any science. Yet the inspiration for its progress is not so much a desire to ascend toward heaven as to see the heavenly on earth. Whose heart can be so cold as to resist finding the beauty in Euler's formula? Yet if we never saw such things as oscillations in common experience, I'm sure we never would have seen such a beautiful equation.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Sleep and death

A: Last time you were saying that life was our most fundamental desire, and that it didn't make sense not to seek eternal life, even if we had no proof that it exists.

B: More or less.

A: I thought about that some more. What if we make an analogy between death and sleep? Imagine the end of a long day of work, both physical and mental. You lie down in bed, your work finished, no more distractions. You don't just accept sleep--you embrace it. You relish the moment when your eyes close, and there is nothing more to do than to simply drift off.

B: I know the feeling. I suppose you're going to say we could accept death the same way.

A: Exactly. That's the ideal, anyway. A life well lived, leading to a noble death, which you can embrace just as much as you relish sleep at the end of the day. What's wrong with that?

B: There's no denying that having a need satisfied feels wonderful. I love that feeling of falling asleep, all cozy and warm, just as anyone else. But sleeping is like eating. It is a need we satisfy so that we can keep on living. Nothing feels better than to eat after feeling famished, or to drink after feeling intense thirst. That doesn't mean I actually "embrace" hunger or thirst, except in the sense that I know I need to eat and drink and that doing so brings pleasure.

A: That's quite a lot of ambivalence, there. You don't embrace hunger or thirst, but you do get pleasure out of eating and drinking.

B: Exactly! I love eating and drinking, not hunger and thirst.

A: That supports my point, not yours. You love eating, drinking, and... sleeping! And in the same way, one could come to appreciate death as a satisfaction of our ultimate desire--to be set free after a life well lived.

B: But death is not analogous with the other three. I eat and drink and sleep in order to sustain my life.

A: No, you also said there was pleasure involved. Isn't it true that we do these things primarily for the pleasure they give us? Sure, after the fact you can give this justification that you're sustaining life, but the immediate effect is to satisfy a desire.

B: True. Desire is a complicated business. Our desires compete with one another. We can't discretize them and satisfy them one by one, and call that happiness.

A: I suppose not. Still, can't one have the desire to die a good death, and be happy with fulfilling that desire at the end of a life well lived?

B: The problem is that death is an end to all desire, hence to all satisfaction of desire. I submit that part of what it means to live, especially as a conscious being, is to continually learn better what it is we truly want and how to find fulfillment.

A: OK, but eternally? That sounds tedious.

B: Not if there is genuine discovery all along the way. Although one might describe it abstractly as a repetitive existence--one always learns new things--in terms of concrete experiences, it is never dull, never repetitive.

A: Fine, fine, but you haven't responded to the initial comparison between sleep and death. Sleep is not like eating or drinking; it is much more like death, since in falling asleep you let go of consciousness. And you do so willingly, even gladly. How can you do that if the desire for life is so fundamental?

B: Hold on. I never said the desire for life is fundamental in the sense of being "primal," in the way that food and drink and sleep are. I don't have an "urge" for life. It would be more reasonable to say that life is made possible through urges, since only by continually searching to meet our needs can we grow and sustain life. At the same time, not all urges should be listened to equally. We often have urges to eat bad food or to drink too much. If we care for our life, we won't give into these urges.

A: Are you saying sleep can be the same way?

B: Sometimes. "As a door turns on its hinges, so does a lazy person in bed."

A: Right, but keep in mind the analogy I've been trying to make. Just as one shouldn't desire sleep until the end of a day well spent, so also one shouldn't desire death until the end of a life well lived.

B: At the end of a day well spent, one ought to desire sleep in the same way that three times a day, one ought to desire food. Our hunger for food should be kept in check, but we also need food, so we should listen to our bodies. In the same way, we need sleep, and we ought to listen to that need.

A: And one day, we all must die.

B: Only if you mean we must die in order to live, which in fact I believe.

A: Well there's an interesting twist.

B: Just as you cited last time, Jesus did say, "Those who find their life will lose it, but those who lose their life for my sake will find it." The goal behind renouncing one's life is to find true life, eternal life. The goal is not simply to embrace the void.

A: I know it seems like I'm willing to "embrace the void," as you say. I understand there's a tragic element to a vision of the world without eternal life. But it comes down to making the most of what we actually have, rather than wishing it could be otherwise. So we're really back to where we started.

B: Indeed. I still think you're being the defeatist in the desert.

A: I am by no means a defeatist. On the contrary, I think we should make the best of what we have now, rather than hoping for an eternity that probably isn't going to exist.

B: And what would that mean? How does one make the most of what is here?

A: By savoring every moment, by loving people, by leaving the world better than we found it.

B: Leaving the world better than we found it? But how can it ever be better than we found it, when in fact it is destined for destruction?

A: What, you mean several billions of years from now? That doesn't mean we can leave our descendants with something better than what we have.

B: I suppose we can, but they are just as doomed as we are. Each generation can decide, out of stubborn devotion to an ideal given to them by their ancestors, to leave the world better than they found it, yet no matter how many generations of human beings exist, you say that the human race must one day die out, do you not?

A: Who can know for sure? I mean, the best science we have says that's true, but we have a long time ahead of us to discover some way around that. Besides, even if the human race will all die out, why would that mean we shouldn't leave the world better than we found it for the next generation?

B: I don't know if it means we should or shouldn't. I'm simply trying to understand what it means to "make the most of what is here." When you say "make the most," you must realize that whatever you make is only temporary, and no matter how good you make it, its destiny is destruction. Or do you believe in the possibility of eternal life after all?

A: I never said I had proof that eternal life doesn't exist. I just don't think it's very likely, given what we know. And I think it's more important to accept what we know to be true than it is to hope for things for which we have no evidence.

B: Yet you persist in hope for things for which we have very little evidence. You want to leave the world better than it is for the next generation. Setting aside the ultimate destiny of the human race, why should we have faith in the next generation? Will it be much better than ours? Who is to say it will not destroy itself and/or the world?

A: You're being a bit pessimistic. We don't have much evidence to suggest that the human race will destroy itself in the next few generations.

B: What kind of argument will you give for that? "It's never happened before"? That's hardly a good argument, firstly because in fact entire civilizations have been wiped out before, and secondly because modern humans have more dangerous means than ever before. History may be cyclical in many ways, but nuclear weapons simply didn't exist before 1940, and that changes many things.

A: I'm not sure where you're going with this. Are you trying to pin me down, saying that I really have some sort of quasi-religious faith after all? Look, I have no illusions about humanity. I agree that we are in danger of self-destruction all the tie. All we can do is put our best foot forward, hoping that the next generation will benefit from whatever we do now. And even if they don't, we only have one life to live, so we'd better appreciate the time we have.

B: So it ultimately comes down to appreciating one's own personal experiences.

A: I suppose it does. That's all we have, in the end.

B: And even they won't last.

A: No, they won't, not as far as I can tell.

B: I agree with you, the evidence that we can examine for ourselves seems to point in the direction you say. As much as I would love to assert that the argument for the resurrection of Jesus Christ is air tight, that is far from being true. If I'm going to base my opinions on our best science, on science alone, then I will have to admit that all we can do is appreciate the short life we have. But that is precisely why I place my desire for life above my desire for truth. If I strive to make myself an "objective thinker," if I scour the evidence and try to make the most dispassionate assertion I can about what is most likely, I am confident I will come to the same conclusion as you. But I did not marry my wife because I had dispassionately investigated whether or not I would actually be able to fulfill my vows to her--to love her my whole life long. Rather, I made that vow in the hope of fulfilling it through daily effort, because she is my true love. In the same way, I have made a commitment to Christ in the hope of obtaining eternal life, not because I have measured the odds solidly in its favor, but rather because it is my one true desire. Knowledge comes afterward, in service of life, not the other way around.

A: That's fine for you, but you know the problems I have with that approach. Anyway, we can continue this discussion later.

B: You have some other moments to savor now, do you?

A: Exactly.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Truth seekers

Some friends converse over the question of God's existence and eternal life. They bring up many sophisticated arguments, summarize insightful books they've read, and share their own intuitions. None of them seem to have changed opinions, but the conversation is both stimulating and civil. The friends all sense that this is, in itself, a sort of victory.

Then two of them get into the following dialog:

A: Well, the important thing is to seek the truth--to follow the argument to its logical conclusion--no matter what the end might be.

B: Really? No matter what the end might be?

A: Of course! You wouldn't want to believe a lie just to derive comfort from it, would you? You may have perfectly respectable reasons for believing in God, but that would be beneath you.

B: There's deriving comfort, and then there's deriving basic motivation. What if some opinions are necessary even to begin to search for what we really need? In some sense, that necessity might be an argument in favor of the truth of these opinions, but not in a traditional, logical sense.

A: What do you mean?

B: Imagine two men wandering through a desert, dying of thirst. They have been left with no supplies, and they have no idea where they are going. One of them looks around him and says, "There is simply no evidence of any oasis anywhere. We are going to die of thirst. I, for one, would rather accept this grim fact than believe a fantasy for which there is no evidence." The other retorts, "I, for one, want to live. I will continue to search for an oasis." The first one bows his head in exhaustion and waits for death to come. The second continues on and finds water. The first one dies; the second is saved. Now, it is true that the second man had no proof that his path would lead to life, but if he had not acted on this belief, he would have died.

A: Ah, yes, but eventually the second man did find proof!

B: Did he? Proof of what, exactly? Only proof that there was, after all, an oasis. There is no proof that he will live much longer than the first man. Perhaps there is an oasis, and nothing more. Will he then be able to find food? Shelter? Every step he takes will be motivated by an entirely unproven assumption: that somehow, if he manages to find the correct path, his needs can be satisfied.

A: There is no reason to actually believe this assumption. One can simply search in hope of finding, all the while realizing there is no guarantee.

B: True. Though I wonder whether the statement "I believe X" is the same as saying "I believe X is guaranteed." But there is another point to consider. Haven't you noticed in life that very often those who truly believe succeed more than those who only advance half-heartedly? They put themselves more fully into their mission, because they are convinced they will succeed, and so in fact they do.

A: Yes, I know, but sometimes they don't succeed at all, because their mission is either wholly or partially misguided. Everyone has heard of people who sincerely believe in all sorts of crack pot medicine, but you know what? They don't get better. In fact, in some cases those people die younger than they should have.

B: Right, but I am talking about something far more fundamental. Rather than the belief that one particular path will lead to life, I am simply talking about the belief that a path exists. That is more akin to the belief that there exists a cure, even if we might not have it within our grasp at this moment.

A: And that might not always be true. Are you suggesting we should believe, just because it's more likely we'll find a "cure" for death if we really believe than if we don't?

B: I suppose I am.

A: Why do you want to live forever, anyway? You make an analogy to a man in a desert searching for water. Why is eternal life such a basic need? Why not just be content with this brief existence?

B: Would you say that to a child who's dying? "Why not just be content with this brief existence?"

A: Well, no. I'm not sure what I'd say to a child who's dying. It's horribly sad to think about children who die. There's so much they'll never get to experience. But an adult who has lived a full life--whether through a career, or family, or simply a multitude of rich experiences--why should they be sad to die?

B: What makes a life "full"? Is it not simply a comparison to the life of the more fortunate among us? We are no different from children who die. There are always infinitely many experiences of which we are deprived, whatever age we happen to die.

A: Is that so? That statement seems based on the idea that one can continue to learn and gain new capacities for all eternity. Yet most of our lives end up going around in circles. We work at the same job every day, we shop at the same stores, we eat the same foods, we spend our time with the same people... Imagine being stuck in such a circle forever!

B: I don't say that it would be enough to simply exist forever. Life implies the potential to experience new things, or at least to experience old things anew. Indeed, sometimes the quaint life of people who have lived in the same village all their lives can seem very dull, but they manage to experience every moment with the same old friends, every bite of the same old food, and every glimpse of a new day with a fresh feeling of thanksgiving and joy. So whether it's an infinity of brand new experiences, or an infinity of joy to be derived from a finite number of experiences, there is still an infinite reward which we miss out on whenever we die.

A: Again, there's no guarantee that this is so. Perhaps we simply don't have an infinite capacity for new experiences, or for experiencing old things anew.

B: But you are simply being the first man in the desert. You are giving up before you have ever found that oasis.

A: Yes, I thought you might say that. OK, suppose I concede your point, that one should always go in search of a path toward eternal life. With all the different paths that have been proposed, which one do you choose? Even a man dying of thirst will look for some clue that he's really on the right path toward an oasis. After all, his life depends on it! So you can't just choose a belief based on the comfort it gives you.

B: I don't disagree. As I was saying earlier, the second man in the desert doesn't finish his journey at the oasis, because if he wants his life to continue, he will require much more than water. But suppose he finds not an oasis but rather a guide, who leads him first to an oasis, then to food, then to a city where he can make a new life for himself. Will he not continue to trust the advice of that guide? At no point does he have proof that all the guide says is true, but his test is simple: if he continues to live--not just to exist but really to enjoy existence--then whatever the guide says must be right.

A: That is a perfectly legitimate proof that what the guide says is true! Of course, if the guide starts making claims that his advice will lead not only to longer life but eternal life, that is a different story. No matter how long his advice seems to hold true, it can never be proven to lead to eternal life, because the life we have lived thus far is always infinitely shorter than eternal life! To compound this problem, consider that there is never just one guide. There are often several who seem to have equal legitimacy, or even a myriad. How should the man distinguish between them?

B: As for your second question, I think we've addressed this at many other points in our conversation. We can certainly compare different religious claims based on historical evidence, internal coherence, and so on. I don't want to rehash all that right now. But as for your first point, I can't really object. It seems unavoidable that no claim to eternal life can ever really be proven.

A: I'm a bit surprised to hear your concede that point. Are you saying that when you go to heaven (I assume you believe you will), you will still not have any proof of eternal life?

B: Strictly speaking, I guess not. Even if I rise again from the dead, who is to say that I will not die again one day? Eternity is a long time.

A: So, if I understand you correctly, you're saying we should believe in eternal life, even though we can never prove its existence, even while we're living it.

B: Exactly.

A: And yet, you seem to have come to that conclusion by your own logical reasoning. So I don't see how any of this contradicts my initial statement, that we ought to follow the argument wherever it leads.

B: But you said "no matter what the conclusion." I'm simply confessing that I've chosen the conclusion in advance. Why shouldn't I? It's living I'm committed to, more than being right.

A: I suppose that goes for all of us, even those of us who don't believe in eternal life. After all, I tend not to think so much about these arguments that I stop eating or working.

B: You see? And so, if you ever heard an argument telling you to stop those things, would you really take it seriously? Knowing that the conclusion contradicts your most fundamental desire for life, why should you care about the details of the argument? What could you possibly gain?

A: We don't have to take every argument seriously in order to be truth seekers. There have to be some standards. Some arguments are just so obviously foolish that we can move on to other, more serious arguments.

B: How is it more foolish than arguments against eternal life? Both call on us to accept death at one moment or another, which is against our most basic need--to live.

A: That's easy. We know for a fact, because we see it all the time, that people die. However hard that may be to accept, it's blatantly obvious. How can you go on saying it's "foolish" to deny eternal life?

B: Again, how are you different from the first man in the desert? He looks around and sees no evidence that he can live much longer. Perhaps he even sees dead bodies, or vultures in the distance. And perhaps he's right. One could easily change the end of the parable, saying that both men die. Yet is the second really worse off? They both died, as was to be expected. What, now? Was the second man wrong, after all? No, I say, because the only way to find any hope of living at all was to believe in the improbable. Again, what purpose does it serve to be right? What we truly desire is to live.

A: No matter how much we might desire to live forever (and I can't say I really do), that won't cause it to happen.

B: Of course not. But there are those of us who respond to our deepest desire for life, and there are those of us who bow our heads and wait for death to come.

A: I wouldn't put it like that. I think I tend to enjoy many things in this life, even though I think it won't last forever. In any case, you can say that, but I know you believe that Christianity is true. Otherwise, how could you entrust it with your eternal destiny? How could you afford to be wrong?

B: Strictly speaking, I don't entrust my eternal destiny to anything.

A: Oh really?

B: Really. As we said, eternity is a long time. I take each moment as a sign that I'm on the right or wrong path. Like Samuel, who set up the stone Ebenezer, saying, "Thus far the Lord has helped us." It's all about whether thus far the path seems to lead to life. Just like the man in the desert who finds a guide--the journey doesn't end at the oasis.

A: Right, but how can you say that you seem to be on the right path? People--certainly a lot of them Christians--are dying around you all the time. Have you seen any evidence of them rising from the dead? Do you have any evidence that they still exist in some way? I don't know about you, but I don't buy any of these stories about people reaching beyond the grave. So what evidence do you have that you're on the right path?

B: My evidence is in this: the more I live on this path, the more I desire life.

A: I'm not sure how that proves anything.

B: You say you wouldn't even want to live forever. But the more I live, the more I want to live forever. As I said earlier, it's only the ones who embrace their desire to live who will live.

A: This is not a serious argument. Are you really saying that because this "path" you're on increases your desire, that it is therefore more likely to satisfy that desire? Again, wanting something more doesn't mean you'll get it.

B: OK, I know, desire is certainly not sufficient. Yet every coach knows at some point to motivate his players to "want it more," meaning that if they don't desire victory, they will never win. It seems to me that life itself is intextricably linked with desire. Those who desire it more are more likely to have it. That is precisely because it is so basic.

A: Didn't Jesus say, "Those who want to save their life will lose it?"

B: Touché. But then, Saint Paul wrote, "To those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, [God] will give eternal life."

A: Right, whatever. So, tell me, why is it that you desire life more every day?

B: It's not easy to describe. Every moment is a window into the infinite. The mere fact of existence is...enchanting. Why should we expect anything to exist at all? And yet, here I am, experiencing and thinking and reflecting on both experience and thought... And then there's the sheer beauty of the world. When I'm on my way to work, meditating on the words of Jesus, suddenly I notice, as if for the first time, the amazing beauty of the sun as it hits the trees, the fresh air, the river as I pass by, the people walking or driving...

A: That's all well and good. I'd like to think I can experience the goodness of life in the same way, but it doesn't make me want to live forever.

B: How can you say that? You can appreciate the goodness of the world, yet you accept that it will all go away?

A: Some things you just have to accept.

B: But that's different from not wanting to live forever.

A: Right, well, I suppose it's not so straightforward to answer that. Some of it is precisely this fear of losing the kind of wonder you describe. What if I stop enjoying it after enough time? Like an old married couple grown tired of one another. They've lost their romantic spark. I don't think I could bear an eternity like that.

B: What I'm saying is that the path I'm on does precisely the opposite. It increases my desire for life. And as long as it does that, I will continue to think it is the right path.

A: There seems to be something oddly circular about that. You think it is the right path because it confirms your desire; indeed, it amplifies that desire. What if your desire can't be fulfilled? What happens when, one day, you do die?

B: I will be no worse off than you.

A: Except you'll have been wrong.

B: I don't mind.

A: I know you don't really believe that.

B: And I know you don't really accept that you're going to die someday.

A: Maybe not. I don't know. But I was sure that all of us here were committed to the truth, not just about making ourselves feel better.

B: Again, I'm not so much after truth as life itself.

A: I guess I would say that you might be missing out on pleasures and enjoyment in this life, but it sounds as if you might be enjoying life more than the rest of us (although we can't really measure that). Still, I'm rather troubled by your approach. It seems much too self-serving, as if the mere fact that you desire something to be true makes it true.

B: That's not really what I'm saying. But it seems that everyone is leaving now. Maybe we can talk about it more next time.

A: Maybe so. I'll think about it until then.

At this point several people from the group had already left because of their busy schedules. Everyone remaining agreed that they would meet again to discuss these things, because whatever the outcome of their conversation, they always learned something.

And so perhaps they will meet again, so long as they are still alive (God willing) to continue in their truth seeking.