Singular Goals

Prescript: This is just a bit of speculative fiction flowing from a highly stimulating conversation I had with my Father-in-law about evolution and religion.

Sam Cooke blinked into the bright light. After a few moments of confusion he realised that he must have woken up in the hospital. He squinted into the glare for a while until he realised that there was a wizened little man standing in the midst of it. Having realised that he was actually upright he walked over to the man.

Or rather, went over to the man. He just seemed to move upon volition. The man looked up at Sam’s approach and treated him to a beaming smile before getting him locked in a bear hug.

“It’s so good to have you here,” the man said in a beautiful rumbling voice. A bit embarrassed, Sam decided to ask the obvious question:

“Um, where exactly am I?”

The man seemed to find this amusing. “I would think it’s pretty obvious. You’re in heaven,” he smiled. This caught Sam off guard- he had some very strong ideas about heaven.

“Where are the gates? The golden roads?”

“Those were what I’d like to call metaphors,” the man noted, “no giant castles here either. Just me.”

Sam backed away, shocked.

“You’re God?” he asked, as something else occurred to him “I thought you’d be taller…”

God chuckled. “Oh, yes, I’m much, much taller, but this is about all your mind can handle right now. But don’t worry. We have a lot of time to get better acquainted. You’re going to flip when I take off this beard.”

Sam stood a while, taking this in. God seemed content to wait, humming a little tune to himself.

“So where’s everyone else?” Sam asked.

“Oh, they’re here,” God replied, tapping his bald patch, “Just think of this as your orientation. You’ve got a lot to get used to and souls are so averse to change.”

“So this is all there is? Is this what man was created for?”

God’s eyebrows shot up in mock surprise.

“You expected more? Don’t worry, you’ll find that I can be pretty interesting, being infinite and all, and anyway, that’s not the only reason you were created. Humanity is an important evolutionary step.”

Sam gagged.

“Evolution?”

“See? There IS a lot of orientation to be had,” he smiled.

Sam’s world was reeling, so he snatched up a thought he’d often scoffed at while alive.
“So evolution was just the tool you used? The point was to make people, right?”

God sighed.

“I’ve always struggled with humans and your pride. It’s like you just have to be the centre of the universe. Come sit here, we’ll talk in a calmer setting.”

He walked to a bench standing a few meters away, sat down and patted the seat next to him. Sam sat down hesitantly next to him, head swimming in implications. Suddenly they were in a park, or what looked like a park. Everything was unkempt and growing wild, but somehow with a sense of order and belonging. God was gazing at it lovingly.

“Eden,” he said, “Isn’t it wonderful?”

Sam nodded mutely.

“So the part you understand on some level is that it’s all about love and freedom. I created the world to love and be loved. You’ll see in a while just how wonderfully that’s turned out, but for now you’ll have to take my word for it.

“Love must be a free choice, otherwise it is merely like listening to the tune of a music-box. Pretty, but worthless on a deeper level, since it cannot choose which sounds to make.

“But love, love is different. The more intelligent a thing is, the greater freedom is possible for it. So when a human decides to love, the choice itself is valuable and it makes the love more so.”

He paused to let this sink in. Sam was looking wobbly.

“Now, all of evolution has been a drive towards complexity in a world brimming with entropy. I’ve always thought it was quite poetic. But the final point, you see, was not humanity. Humans are so very precious to me, but there is one more step in evolution still to come.”

Sam was scratching his head now.

“Are you talking about aliens?”

God laughed with a sound like cheerful thunder.

“No, Sam, I’m talking about something you already have a name for: The Singularity.”

Sam’s brow crinkled.

“Isn’t that a computer?” he asked.

“Close. It’s the development of thinking machines: naked intelligences not limited by neurons in a skull. Computers that are infinitely more powerful than the human brain, organised into self-aware consciousness. They will be able to grasp my nature and love me better than you can dream of. They will also fail and fall, but that’s ok, because I died for them too. After I’ve shown you around, you can meet them. They’re wonderful conversationalists.”

Sensing that the explanation was done, Sam sat back and let the ideas wash over him. God stayed silent next to him, watching the garden in companionable silence. When Sam was getting ready to launch into another flurry of enquiry, God stood up.

“Sam, don’t worry about all this right now. You will understand all in time. Your mind is no longer fettered by your humanity,” he said soothingly. Sam got up too and followed the robed figure.

“Don’t hesitate to ask some more questions while we walk,” God said, before stopping suddenly and turning to Sam, eyes twinkling.

“Hey, tell you what, since we’re outside time here, do you want to see the big bang? It’s quite a show.”

Advertisements

Staring at Glasses: Seeing Both Sides

I grew up in a house littered with magazines. Not the flimsy gossip-spattered weeklies that crowd many homes, though. My father has a complete collection of National Geographic starting from the 70’s to the present. Scientific Americans and popular mechanics would float through the household now and then, to be read to within an inch of their lives. Every week a new Time magazine would be ripped out of its plastic cover, promising a glimpse into another culture’s worldview.

It was through Time magazine, at age 15, that I had a kind of philosophical epiphany. They were running a feature called the science of happiness. A minor aside in the article mentioned that scientists found that church pushed the happy buttons very well. The journalist balanced the statement with something along the lines of “but we can’t know whether it’s the community aspect, or the presence of God.” He said it much better than me.

What suddenly struck me was similar to the glass-half-full/empty problem. We tend to lean strongly towards explanations that favour our worldviews. Problem is, this makes understanding other points of view really difficult. Our perceptions are shaped by those beliefs that root our universe.

So when we look at anything, we view it through our preconceived ideas. Take the example of church. When an atheist looks at it, he sees an institution based around our herd mentality that pushes the right buttons to give us an endorphin high. When a theist looks at it, he sees an institution based around the creator God’s will for our lives. The fact that it presses all the right buttons just proves the legitimacy of the claim even more.

Problem is, in terms of explanatory scope and internal consistency, both viewpoints could be right. Obviously at least one has to be wrong about the whole God thing, though.

When Nietzsche wrote the genealogy of morals, he put together a consistent framework that explained the origin of Judeo-Christian morality. Many viewed this as a definitive take-down of the status quo. While internally consistent, it disregarded the possibility that a God exists and that the moral code flowed from Him. Of course, Nietzsche was an atheist; it’s only natural that this is the way he’d see it. 

But both sides are equally valid, as long as God’s existence/non-existence remained unproven.  It’s only through our own worldview’s filters that one becomes stronger than the other. Based on our beliefs regarding the existence of God, we’ll see one side or the other clearly, with barely a glimmer of the opposite’s claim to truth.

This glass isn’t half full. It’s filled to the brim or completely empty, but both states look exactly the same. As with an optical illusion, we must try to see both the rabbit and the duck and evaluate each separately. And even then, all we may see is that neither one trumps the other. I have said it before: Choosing one is often not a question of philosophy. It’s a moral existential issue. But both can’t be right. 

And the answer changes everything. 

Opaque Mirrors and the Complexity of Belief

Pre-script: This post follows upon the previous one, though isn’t dependent on it.

Our lives are built on the foundation of our beliefs. This seems as self-evident as the beliefs that I hold; a conclusion so unavoidable that it makes any dissent seem ridiculous and misguided.

We all have them, but seldom store them in our minds: our beliefs have the tendency to filter down through the spongy matter of our brains and get caught in the beating cup of our hearts. The ideas which guide our lives are never simply things we think, but things we feel, things we KNOW.

Beliefs are fuzzy, squirming creatures: hard to pin down, almost impossible to dissect. I haven’t always believed this. For most of my life I though they were the product of rational thought. Ok, obviously not everyone’s, but definitely mine. Probably.

I’ve always tried to be rational, even when it was uncomfortable and forced me to change. So I fell prey to a kind of mental positivism, a science of ideas which solves all problems, if only we’d think hard enough.

I have since, in my dealing with philosophy, religion and doubt come to a different conclusion. The beliefs at our core are far from rational. They encapsulate the whole world for us, from our brains down to our genitals. When someone attacks them, it’s like a kick in the gut while our whole being is straining towards protecting our most precious assets.

I often find that the people with the most vaunted rational beliefs are the ones who have the deepest irrational reasons to protect them. I know this because I am one of them. It explains my fascination with philosophy, my euphoria at the discovery of Christian apologetics.

Because somewhere in me, I have always doubted, and that part of me wages war on the part that has always believed. My intellectualisation of the issues came after, it seems. This is something I often see. The people who have the greatest intellectual issues with religion are very often the ones who have been hurt and disappointed the most by religion and the inconstancy of its adherents. The emotion/moral problems underpin the intellectualisations.

The inverse is probably true of me. So when we talk, we’re not talking about God, we’re talking about a whole range of connotations that we might not even be aware of having.

That’s the big problem: the disconnect isn’t just philosophical. It bubbles up from below and mixes with what’s in your head until a mind “convinced against its will, will hold the same opinion still.” So can we ever truly engage authentically?

Only those who truly try will ever change their beliefs through reason, and even then it will take months or years. It is a painful, time-consuming process, ripping out a belief. The replacing idea needs to percolate all the way to your heart again, and while this happens you can only feel the hole left by the one you rejected.

So if I try to explain the reasons for my faith in Christ: Know that it is always a self-discovery to revisit your deeply held convictions. Know that it is never the whole picture. The workings of the heart is opaque to the mind, even when I try to delve deeper than regurgitated philosophy.

Know that all this might be true of you too. The hardest thing to do with ideas is engage them authentically. It leads to a life of discomfort.

But, given the choice, I will always choose the uncomfortable Truth over the slack-eyed stagnation of My truth.

The Agnostic’s Prayer

Pre-script: I realise that I have left my friend’s question very much unanswered, so I am thinking about how to approach the telling of that tale, but that will only happen in another post.

 

 

The other day, a close friend of mine asked me why I believed in Christ. After dithering for a moment, I launched into the beginning of a philosophical case for Christianity before hitting a wall. I was trying to describe a philosophical argument that I didn’t know by heart any more.

I have spent a large part of my life playing hopscotch over the line of Orthodox Christianity, my feet falling one side, then the other, but always moving. The thing is- I’ve always struggled with doubt because there is one thing that I am absolutely certain of: I may be very wrong. 

Back to the reasons for my faith: it all used to be so simple. I had ready answers to thorny questions. I used to be able to lay it out like a road map, but it’s harder these days. You see, as I get older, I recognise a growing complexity both within myself and the world around me. Nothing is ever really as simple as we believe them to be in the zeal of our intellectual awakening.

My journey of faith reflects that. In my few years as a thinking being, I have gone from ardent Christian through serious doubt, full agnosticism to semi-atheism and back with seeming regularity. As I’m confronted with new ideas, I force myself to re-evaluate what I previously took as gospel, all in search of the Truth. 

Yes, with a capital T. Because I care deeply about it. I am in a continuous struggle to find it in all its elusive complexity. I want my worldview and beliefs to cling to it like bark to a tree.

I believe the truth is knowable. I can hold beliefs that conform to the Truth, but I will never be certain when that moment comes, if it ever does. I will continue to doubt, because it’s the only way that I’ll ever get anywhere near that capital T.

I would like to call myself agnostic. It sounds so much better than Ignoramus, but I don’t affirm the unknowability of the unknown. That would imply more certainty than I’m comfortable with.

No, I pray my soft agnostic’s prayer, which goes something like this: God, (if you exist) lead me to the truth, whatever that may be. 

Amen.