Monday, November 21, 2016

Against politics

My blog has taken a turn toward philosophical and religious speculation in the past several months. I have no talked about the election. I have not even discussed political issues. Although I do engage in political discussions on facebook (and no, I don't always find it a complete waste of time) I have very consciously avoided politics on this blog.

I will admit that some of it is fatigue. When we talk about politics, passions can get the better of us. It's not good to think about it all the time, simply because it will suck us dry.

On the other hand, I've never been one to avoid controversial topics out of the desire not to offend. The idea that we should all just "get along" presumes that the way we all live is basically OK and there's nothing wrong. But many political issues are important just because they point out what's wrong with the way we live, and more particularly with the way we treat others who are on the "outside." Sure, maybe we can get along, but what about people who are influenced by our foreign policy and immigration laws? What about the children we abort? What about the unarmed civilians who get shot by police? What about people who lose their livelihood because of government regulation of the economy? I've never been able to ignore these issues of basic justice, nor do I understand how anyone else can.

Indeed, if the increasing polarization of our society bothers me, it's not because I wish we could all agree to get along and empathize with one another. Don't get me wrong, empathy and getting along are great, and if we get better at them, we've certainly accomplished something. But to me the real danger is not just that polarization makes us mean but that it makes us stupid. We become so angry at "the other side" that we justify everything that "our side" does. It makes us incapable of applying principles consistently. The most obvious is when one party criticizes the other party's president for enacting virtually the same foreign policy (secret kill list and all), for encroaching on our civil liberties in many of the same ways, and so on. I could also get more specific on particular issues, but there's no time for that here.

So anger makes us blind, damaging our relationships and distorting our thinking. But where does this anger come from in the first place?

I think it comes from a belief, sometimes conscious and other times subconscious, that the most important thing we do is politics. If we don't elect the right candidate, we will doom our society by leaving it in the hands of evil or incompetence (or both). But if we can just enact the right policies, we can cure society's ills and have justice. It is tempting to think this is the highest of all human endeavors. Every election becomes the most important in our lifetime. The news can find nothing more important than the decisions of government.

I claim this belief is false. We have only to imagine a world in which government is just, and good policies are implemented. What, then? Have we finished all the important work? Is there nothing left but to sit back and relax and enjoy an easy life? Would that not be utterly devoid of meaning? Would it not be...boring?

Christians have long wondered (and debated) what the kingdom of heaven will really be like. Will we just play harps all day and sing praise to God? Will it be one endless party? There are many people who say they would not want immortality, because they would be utterly bored. If the limited visions presented are literally correct, I suppose they are right. We need to refine our imaginations a little bit.

I don't see how the mind can live forever without continually growing and, indeed, working. The end of evil would not mean the eternal victory of laziness. On the contrary. Work is at the heart of who we are, who we are intended to be. The mind is satisfied when it creates and discovers. The reason we are so miserable in this modern age is that we have so many things to distract us that we fail to satisfy our deepest need to discover things eternal and spiritual. We have reduced everything to a problem to be solved, and presumably once that problem is solved we have no purpose left.

This is vanity and a chasing after wind. Impatience makes us miserable. If we want a cure for all this anger and grief caused by politics, the only answer is thinking beyond the next four years, beyond even the next century. I am not drained by politics only because it provokes anger, but also because it disconnects me from the mysterious, the beautiful, and the transcendent. I forget about music and poetry and nature. I forget about those haunting questions about free will and salvation and the nature of mind.

Supposing we managed to enact all the right policies and save society from its ills, what would it then have? Would there be any meaning in such a perfect existence? Does satisfying every physical need of human beings give them what their souls desire?

It is fashionable these days for Christians to critique the older tendency to reject temporal concerns in favor of eternal, spiritual ones. But we have slipped into the opposite tendency. I think we need to rediscover the virtue of relativizing the needs of the present. It is only by rediscovering the eternal significance of our lives that we can address our temporal needs without losing our minds. Life is not one big problem to be solved. It is a gift, one which we can learn to appreciate more and more for all eternity.

So I think I need to detach myself from politics, at least until I am able to come back to it with a right perspective. Engaging in politics should be an act of love on the part of one who has the proper goal in mind. Jesus entered into our world and did not despise the temporal, but he came down from heaven. We ourselves also need to enter into the heavenly realms, so that we can labor on earth with the energy of heaven.

But I have said this the wrong way. It is not so that we can labor on earth that we strive for the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven is the goal; all the rest will be added to us because "your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things." Let us strive first for the kingdom.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Could the world have been otherwise?

Often I feel like I'm dreaming, or not quite sure if there's a difference between asleep and awake. Like Descartes, I wonder how I can trust my senses. All of life feels so trapped "inside," like my mind is a chamber from which I never really leave. Ultimately I can't prove that what I experience inside ever really comes from outside. Maybe it's all just my imagination.

On the other hand I'm quite convinced it's not my imagination, because if it were, I would enjoy so much more freedom. Why is it such a fixed law that I cannot pass through solid objects? Why, in order to get from point A to point B, must I pass through all the points in between? Why am I subject to forces, unable to turn them off, so to speak? If I could turn off gravity at will, making it no longer universal but applicable only when I wanted it to be, then I could fly at will. But I could do better; I could simply decide to change my location at will. There would be no physical constraints.

There would still be constraints, of course. Wouldn't logic always constrain my thoughts? As long as one is one and two is two and three is three, one and two make three; it simply cannot be any other way, even in a dream world. It is only the rules governing physical events that seem arbitrary to my mind, not the laws of thought themselves. If I saw someone instantly move from one point to another, I would think I am dreaming, but I would not think there is no difference between falsehood and truth. In a world where people can teleport, they can still be right or wrong about what they think, can't they?

Still, there are at least two things that puzzle me. One is time. Is time logical, or merely physical? When we imagine time travel, we are able to get a long way before we run into irreconcilable paradoxes. We create entire stories based on time travel, but they are always written to carefully avoid the details that bother us. If I can go back and change my own past, then how can I be who I presently am? As my past changes, I change, and therefore I can never actually be who I presently am. That seems to be a logical absurdity, not merely a physical one.

But the deeper puzzle, in my opinion, is how, if at all, I can imagine a world of my own without simply rearranging what I experience in the "real" world (assuming there is such a thing). If I dream up a world by visualizing some new landscape, are there not colors? Are not those colors those I have already seen with my eyes? And if I don't visualize, must I not at least hear or feel something? And how can I possibly imagine sound apart from "remixing" the sounds I have already heard? Or what can it possibly mean to feel other than what I actually experience every day? Is it possible to totally invent a new sensation which has no connection at all with what has already been imposed on me by life in this world? I confess I have tried many times, but I utterly failed.

This is frustrating, because I am aware that there are many sensations which a being could theoretically experience in this "real world" which I cannot. There are animals which hear higher and/or lower frequencies of sound than I ever will, or see different frequencies of light. There are creatures which tolerate different temperatures; do they then have different experiences of temperature? Yet all of these are simply differences of degree, after all. Each of these things can be put on a scale with a number assigned to them, and there are indeed precise mathematical relationships between those numbers. Double a frequency and you go up an octave, or cut it in half to go down. One can almost imagine going higher and higher or lower and lower in frequency with no limit. For me it is much more difficult to understand how different frequencies of light would lead to different experiences, but maybe it is possible, in principle.

The fact that these basic experiences are so attached to mathematical relationships suggests that maybe there is something fundamental about them. Perhaps even in a dream world one could not escape them. Although one can amuse oneself by wondering if anyone else sees the exact same color blue as in one's own mind, maybe the truth is that there is only one color blue, just as there is only one musical note that one hears at 440 Hz. It might be hard to say the same about feelings--how can smoothness, roughness, softness and hardness be quantified? Yet the mere fact that such feelings exist on a continuum suggests that even these might be literally quantifiable and, on some level, fundamental.

In other words, maybe there inheres in all things that exist some fundamental principle of existence. If so, is this not God Himself? But is God's creation of the universe an act of the will, or is it almost a forced decision, a mere logical outworking of principles which even He cannot contradict? Can God himself decide that the laws of logic do not apply? If this is absurd, what if it is no less absurd to think that God could have created a different color blue?

It seems to me impossible to state which would be preferable--that God Himself is subject to laws beyond His own control or design, or that God made the universe according to an arbitrary act of will. The first implies God is not really God at all, but rather an impersonal force which may not have a will of its own whatsoever. The second implies that God is an arbitrary dictator, forcing us to live in a world which very easily could have been different, and for which we may therefore rightly complain about Him.

But if we reject the dichotomy, insisting that in some mysterious way both of these assertions are true--God created the universe both according to His will and according to laws which cannot be altered--we find the world suddenly illuminated with meaning. Nothing is merely arbitrary. Everything possesses some special relationship with that which is absolute, eternal, profoundly mysterious and beautiful. Every single thing. The color blue is worth meditating on. The frequency 440 Hz is worthy of our contemplation. The intervals studied by music theorists are not merely patterns found in our own music; they are divine creations, which can be explored even by the mind and the heart. The laws of physics are no longer constraints, for through them we have access to that which has no location--the divine Himself.

Still, one wonders then what becomes of prayer. If all these relationships are so precisely attuned to God's own will, how can He change them? Why would He ever intervene with a miracle? Why would He ever listen to our input? But our own minds must have some eternal relationship to Him; if language is related to our own actions, why not His as well?

I make no attempt here to resolve these paradoxes. I just find them delightful.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Origen on the inspiration of Scripture

From On First Principles, Book IV, Chapter I:
"Now if we consider how in a ery few years, although those who professor Christianity are persecuted and some are put to death on account of it while others suffer the loss of their possessions, yet the word has been able, in spite of the fewness of its teachers, to be "preached everywhere in the world" (cf. Mt 24:14) so that the Greeks and barbarians, wise and foolish (cf. Rom 1:14) have adopted the religion of Jesus, we shall not hesitate to say that this achievement is more than human, remembering that Jesus taught with all authority and convincing power that his word should prevail (cf. Mk 13:31).
"Consequenctly we may reasonably regard as oracles those utterances of his such as...." 
Further on:
"Now when we thus briefly demonstrate the divine nature of Jesus and use the words spoken in prophecy about him, we demonstrate at the same time that the writings which prophesy about him are divinely inspired and that the words which announce his sojourning here and his teaching were spoken with all power and authority and that this is the reason why they have prevailed over the elect people taken from among the nations. And we must add that it was after the advent of Jesus that the inspiration of the prophetic words and the spiritual nature of Moses's law came to light."
In other words, the Scriptures themselves do not attest independently of their own inspiration; they are wholly dependent on the coming of Jesus Christ.

Later on in Chapters II - III he explains that the Scriptures must be understood in a spiritual way. Passages have both a "soul" and a "body." The body is the physical, literal, or straightforward meaning, when there is one. But there isn't always a "bodily sense" that is acceptable! Origen gives a list of examples (Chapter III) in which the Bible cannot be taken literally, starting with (interestingly enough) the creation story:
"Now what man of intelligence will believe that the first and the second and the third day, and the evening and the morning existed without the sun and moon and stars? ... And when God is said to 'walk in the paradise in the cool of the day' and Adam to hide himself behind a tree, I do not think anyone will doubt that these are figurative expressions which indicate certain mysteries through a semblance of history and not through actual events."
He gives many other examples of things from Scripture which he finds to be unlikely or even "impossible."

To me, the most significant thing about these arguments is that they come from what is perhaps the first systematic theology ever written in the Christian tradition. Far from some modern liberal interpretation of the Bible, this comes from one of the oldest sources we have on Christian doctrine. And while I disagree with Origen about many things, this is one thing on which I agree totally, and I can't express quite enough how thankful I am for it. It makes the Bible readable. Everyone who has read the entirety of Scripture knows that there are passages and even whole themes (such as the divinely ordered destruction of the peoples of Canaan) that present impossible problems for Christians. But if we read every passage in a spiritual way, inspired not just by any thoughts that happen to arise in our heads but rather by the person of Jesus Christ found in the gospels, we rediscover the Bible as a source of power. We find in all of these stories of war and divine wrath a story about our own struggles with sin and evil and longing for redemption.

And what could be more Christian? Christ is the center; the rest must be understood in terms of him.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

The heart and the head

Yesterday as I was finishing up a blog post, I surprised myself with these words: "And although the heart is quite easily intimidated by the head, I think one sees more clearly through it than through any power of reason." I admit this is not obviously true. When we consider the kinds of debates that occur on the Internet, we find most people swept away by their own feelings rather than committed to rational inquiry. At the same time, no one wants to admit that the heart is overpowering the head. They will argue by telling you what books or articles they have read. They will criticize your intelligence, not your gut instinct. They will give you their credentials, rather than admitting that what they are saying is simply what they want to be true. In other words, the heart is never secure in its beliefs; it always needs the head to bring the appropriate amount of intimidation.

Atheism is born of skepticism, and skepticism is essentially a moral principle. We must not accept a claim simply because we would like it to be true, or because many other people accept it. Rigorously applied, this leads us to question all hope, including and perhaps especially that of eternal life. Even if everyone would naturally like to live forever (and in fact this is apparently not the case), that is not a good enough reason to think eternal life is real.

I think all of us accept this principle, but then it is a question of rigorous application. We realize we need the head to discipline the heart, because the heart is so easily confused. But I think that if the head finally wins out, so that it no longer serves the heart by its discipline but instead becomes a tyrant over it, then we are just as lost as if we allowed the heart to abandon the head.

It is true that the truth is not always what we want to hear, but how can the truth be devoid of anything good? In that case I don't see why we shouldn't abandon it. It is only because of an ingrained moral principle that we insist on seeking the truth. By what argument will we insist on upholding this moral principle when the truth has nothing good to offer?

I remember an argument we had in a philosophy class in college. We had a speaker give a presentation on altruism and the "free rider problem" in evolutionary biology. The basic idea is that the presence of altruism in any species is somewhat remarkable, because altruists expose themselves to greater danger of extinction relative to those who benefit from their altruism. Some of my classmates objected that in the human species, at any rate, we never see any genuine altruism. Instead, we only see people motivated by some reward--eternal life, perhaps, or maybe just the good feeling of being morally superior, or even just the feeling of being good (even without the superiority).

Now, my classmates thought they were being very clever. I think they were being idiots. Someone who acts unselfishly for no reason whatsoever is not a "true altruist" but a robot. A true altruist has some vision of the good and pursues it. To be unselfish simply means to act for the sake of others, rather than thinking of one's own needs first. That one does so thinking that it leads to eternal life does not diminish its value, but rather shows that one believes there is justice in the universe. For if altruism is ultimately rewarded by a cold, empty universe in which no one exists to even tell the tale of such deeds, what was the point of doing it at all?

Of course one need not believe in eternal life in order to have some vision of the good. One might consider that the propagation of the human species as long as possible is an end worth pursuing. Or there may be other candidates. But in any case, we are motivated by this fundamental good, which we hope will be realized.

I see very little appeal to the idea that truth is good for its own sake, except insofar as it is beautiful. But not all truth is beautiful. In mathematics, I find many truths beautiful; but there are many facts in life which I find boring or burdensome, and not at all beautiful.

And as for the ultimate truth about the destiny of the universe... It is true that we cannot simply wish it to be good. But if we are convinced that our destiny is bad, what argument do we have that finding out the truth was even a worthwhile pursuit? In what way does it help us to know that everything we do will come to nothing?

Not everything is truly good. Many of the things we cling to with the heart are only distortions of what is good. Political visions tend to fall into this category. We develop a theory of a just society and seek to impose it on others, not realizing that what we have is an imperfect vision of the good. In that case the head must come to discipline the heart, pointing out that what we thought was good is not consistent with other things which we know are good. The head demands consistency from the heart, and so disciplines it until it arrives at its true destination.

But for the head to stamp out all hope, so that the heart no longer has a destination, is to render life absurd. It is not because the Bible is primitive that it holds out promises of life and death. Moses does not say, "Choose truth," but rather, "Choose life, so that you may live." That is the ultimate wisdom. Truth does not exist for its own sake, but rathe for the sake of life, which is the ultimate good.

So while I believe that the world could always use a large dose of rationalism to correct for its excessive laziness in thinking about what is good, at some point the rationalist must allow the heart to keep itself from being crushed by the head. If this sounds like vain optimism or even sentimentalism, I can only reply that it doesn't make sense to me to live otherwise. I prefer vain optimism to hopeless futility.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Consciousness and reality

Descartes' "cogito" is not a syllogism but a profound mystical experience of one's reality. (Pavel Florensky)
It is all the rage these days for scientists to become interested in the question of consciousness. We want to explain this phenomenon, because it seems like the last bastion of metaphysics where physics cannot touch. No scientific materialist can resist such a challenge.

But consciousness is not simply a "phenomenon." It is the background of all phenomena. To assert that something exists is the same as saying, "I am conscious that it exists." If there is no consciousness, there is essentially no existence. We can imagine a closed system in which no conscious being exists. But such a reality is merely hypothetical. It would not--could not--have any meaningful existence outside of our own thought experiment, which is itself the product of consciousness!

Reflecting in this manner, one is slightly tempted by solipsism. Perhaps all of reality is actually the product of my consciousness. Yet this is only a very slight temptation, because it feels immediately absurd. In reality, I have so little control over my surroundings, so little understanding even of myself. If I am at all self-aware, I have the constant sensation of being a very small part of a vast universe which goes on existing whether I do or not.

So if the existence of the universe depends on consciousness, it certainly does not seem to depend on my consciousness.

Both of these reflections have such a strong intuitive appeal that I can't help but accept them both. I conclude that my own consciousness is in fact one small result of a much greater consciousness, to which all things in existence are attached.

The materialist will argue that all of my experiences are the result of processes which occur physically in the brain, and therefore there is no reason to posit any notion of immaterial consciousness. But this is only to explain consciousness as an external phenomenon, one which we can observe, test, and then circumscribe in physical theory. That is not at all what consciousness is. We cannot reduce consciousness down to anything else because it is the most fundamental fact of all, as Descartes sensed vividly when he said, "I think, therefore I am." The most fundamental fact is, "I am." But that fact is precisely consciousness, which is why for Florensky this is not a syllogism but rather a mystical experience, that is, a powerful awareness that we normally suppress.

This is why the name of God translates to, "I am." There is nothing more fundamental than that something exists. But that fact would no longer be a fact if it were not known. Hence the universe comes into being through the words, "I am."

Obviously our own awareness of the universe is very limited, and it is only made possible by our extraordinarily complex material composition (in particular, the brain). But as much as we might understand the human brain, we will never remotely penetrate the question of why there exists something rather than nothing, and in the same way we will never be able to theoretically circumscribe consciousness. Indeed, consciousness is that which circumscribes all our theories.

Instead, we ought to try to understand the whole universe as an outworking of this assertion, "I am." Although our own consciousness is receptive, seeking to understand that which precedes it, God's consciousness is an active one, calling things into existence. The physical complexity of our brains is a requirement for us because we need so many complex functions to be able to respond to the world as it exists. God, on the other hand, needs no complex parts, because His consciousness is all-encompassing.

We encounter here the mystery of human existence. If we retreat into our own minds, we encounter consciousness, and it is as if we ourselves were God. But if we look outward for even a moment, we realize that we are mere creatures, and it is only because of the absurdly rich genetic inheritance that we have received that we have even a drop of consciousness in us. We cannot decide whether we are creatures or creators.

Scientific materialism leaves no room for this mystery. It makes us into mere creatures because it wants to assert that we are creators. It is the ultimate irony. We are alone in the universe; apart from sufficiently complex organisms, there is no such thing as consciousness; the universe is empty, no one is listening, no one is watching. We therefore must make our own reality, except that reality is already imposed on us; we are mere creatures, desperately attempting to be creators on the basis of our intellectual capacities. But since we are not created but the product of mere time and chance, we are not even creatures but rather objects. There is no mystery of existence; rather, it is a tragedy, or a farce.

I realize that it is with a very aggressive tone that I make these assertions, but that is not because I am so certain of my own position. Quite the opposite. I admit it's plausible, when we look at the world from a human point of view, that we are an accidental blip of consciousness in an otherwise dead universe. For me, it is more the heart than the head which rails against such conclusions. And although the heart is quite easily intimidated by the head, I think one sees more clearly through it than through any power of reason.