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.

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