Monday, March 21, 2011

Self and the Other

I happen to be sitting in on faith and science discussions on a bi-weekly basis this year. It's been an interesting journey, as two representatives of UVA's atheist/agnostic society have been joining us pretty faithfully. Last week I became especially intrigued by some of the fundamental philosophical issues that finally came up as a result of our conversation. One of the atheists in our group was led by a conversation about where we find meaning to say the following (I must paraphrase, since my memory is not exact):
I realize that in my worldview I hold two contradictory beliefs together: one in strict scientific determinism, and the other in the absolute freedom of the individual.
And there it is! Anyone who is a true philosopher, in my opinion, has already come to this conclusion: that the freedom of the individual and the reality of the Other exist in tension with one another, not in harmony. For everyone knows that his own actions are his own responsibility, yet simultaneously he knows that he is the product not of himself, but of that which is other than himself. I think, therefore I am; yet my thoughts are not my own, but they are the product of genetics, environment, culture, all the result of the mere passage of time. One may search endlessly to truly locate his own identity, and never find it. Am I my thoughts? My emotions? My body? Yet none of these things seem really to be me, since my thoughts are often conflicting with myself, as are my emotions, and my body perhaps most often of the three of them.

There is no resolving the tension; it is inescapable. The only question is, what shall we do with the tension? How do we interpret it? I can name two options; there may be others, but I know of two. One option is nihilism, that is, in the words of my friend, the self is nothing. The self is nothing, because it cannot control its own fate, not really; and yet it must control its own fate, because there is no meaning apart from this. The self is ultimately alone; there really is no Other. "Reality" itself is nothing, with the self eternally separated from it, yet always enslaved by it. With a simple act of will, the self can create meaning for himself, but he never really believes in it. This is nihilism.

The second option is love. Love finds its own identity precisely because it doesn't seek its own identity. Love locates the self in the Other, fully acknowledging its own emptiness. Love's epistemological foundation is grace, the sense that reality is given, not constructed. The self becomes one with the Other, without the two ever being confused. It is only because they are one and the same that they can truly be distinct. In this the self finds true freedom, because love knows that freedom is all of grace, and grace is free. It is this givenness, this freedom, that allows us humans to grow in the knowledge of reality; without grace, we are but nothing studying nothing.

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