Archive for December, 2009

Good King Wenceslas Looked Out

Posted in Faith Experience on December 27, 2009 by RWZero

A belated Merry Christmas to anyone reading this.

I have not written a “chapter” from my notes this week. I am surrounded by the wrapping paper of a few small gifts, the contents of my desk drawers, and an insular silence. I have had two days to properly reflect on the past six months, and I have realized–as if somehow I forgot–that if I do not make time for this on a regular basis, I will not be happy with the result.

Christmas draws attention to the human condition. Dickens painted the picture well enough, and to this day I think of the VHS tape of The Muppet Christmas Carol that I watched every single year, with the miniature kermit puppet portraying Tiny Tim. Everyone makes an effort to remember those things that they should remember at all other times of the year as well. As I stare at the passersby, I wonder why it can’t stay this way: the awareness of our fellow man (or woman), the recognition that we are alive, well, and safe. Would we get used to it? Are people incapable of proper kindness if they can’t compare it to their natural (and less kind) state of being?

I have just read two stories of Auschwitz survivors. I feel a certain reverence, as someone who has not properly suffered, and knows nothing of this great and terrible truth about human existence. I feel a certain stillness, knowing that I am likely to remain a man who has not been beaten, whipped or starved. It seems as if we have to listen to these people. What they say matters, because what they say can only be generated by experience.

This feeling of peace–of having escaped something awful because of when and where I was born, and of having the freedom to reflect upon history as if it is no longer being written–washes over me no more than once per year. I realize that I am so afraid of being unoriginal and trite that I often fail to act. And I realize that kindness matters when others need it, not merely when I enjoy providing it.

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Science as a Clue

Posted in Faith and Science on December 20, 2009 by RWZero

Verified and Proposed, the Similarities

I spent a large part of my youth wondering something that is likely uncommon for children to wonder. I wondered: why is it possible for us to design?

I remember the last time I asked myself the question. It was a winter night, and I was staring up at the orange-hued bulbs of the streetlights up above. I wasn’t a child anymore. I knew that streetlights harnessed electricity, but I had never understood why it should be possible for us to trick nature into behaving in so many useful ways. It did not seem to me that there should be a most efficient way of doing something, as if there were other ways of doing it that were incorrect. Even the word “way,” in and of itself, implies design. That’s when an answer occurred to me, and it is the answer that I rely upon today—we can design because the universe itself has design. It is this way, rather than some other way. Therefore, it is possible for some specific thing to have a special and unique relationship to one particular manner of accomplishing it.

I find that there are similarities between scientific practice and religious belief. I do not mean to suggest that religious beliefs are true simply because they bear similarities to science, under the pretense that science is a sound and unquestionable thing. What I do mean to suggest, is that religious beliefs are a legitimate response to the truth.

Science is a wonderful thing, but it does not contain reality. It does not even accurately describe reality—it merely describes it in ways that are useful, which we are content to dub “accurate,” inasmuch as we require accuracy. The models of the universe that we have built are merely names and symbols given to the inexplicable circumstances that we find ourselves in. They are based on the assumption that things happen for a reason, and these reasons do not change.

No thinking person today will claim that religion contains reality. For all the accusations of heresy levied by the pious against each other, they know deep down that their religious convictions are only a method of dealing with the reality of God himself. To suggest that religion is an accurate description of reality is to suggest that humans, by understanding their own religious beliefs, understand the mind of God. This has always been a heretical thought, regardless of the era.

Why is it that we permit change in science, but not in religion? When science changes we rejoice in the advancement. When religion changes we wonder how it could possibly be true, as if it should have been correct from the start. The Newtonian understanding of physics that so many of us have learned is, strictly speaking, wrong. Yet nobody has argued its usefulness, and nobody calls it inaccurate. As we further refine our understanding of physics, we now find that the models are only inaccurate when they are used for the most esoteric purposes. Similarly, there are some questions that religion cannot answer for us. But it describes much of the human experience quite well.

The deeper you dig, the more counter-intuitive science becomes. At the superficial level, we appreciate concepts such as momentum and energy. We do not easily appreciate relativity and superposition. Similarly, we appreciate the idea of a loving God who has a plan for us. We do not easily appreciate predestination, or why any of this is happening in the first place. In short, the fundamental discoveries of science have often been counter-intuitive. It is not so surprising that religion does not make any sense to us either.

I am fed up with those atheists who insist that the universe makes sense. I believe that there is no more insecure and blind a person than he who claims that “most of what we know is actually quite logical.” These people have buried their heads in the sand, and would not even have required Richard Feynman’s advice when he said:

Do not keep saying to yourself, if you can possibly avoid it, “But how can it be like that?” because you will get “down the drain,” into a blind alley from which nobody has yet escaped. Nobody knows how it can be like that.

Things are definite, things can be categorized. We believe based on experience. Things are strange, things are unimaginable. We refine our understanding of the truth, we inevitably fail to capture it—but at no point were we chasing anything besides the truth. We create images and systems to facilitate our relationship with the truth, full well knowing that it is a thing we will not comprehend in this lifetime. Yet one need not comprehend something in order to properly experience and act upon it.

Utility

Posted in The Facts and Ideas on December 13, 2009 by RWZero

The Terms of Judgement

There is something wrong with regarding religion as a means to obtain the exact things that we would want if it were totally false.

As soon as we speak of religion having utilitarian “value,” we have swallowed the pivotal assumption that all of us are in agreement as to what these values are. Even if this holds in a great many scenarios, it is still an unequivocally false assumption. While love and compassion are virtues to most of us, the explanations for this may vary. I may be compassionate because it gives me pleasure, and why is it important for anyone besides me to experience pleasure?

The moral values that religion speaks of are quite different from the moral feelings of human beings. It is the distinction between something that has significance, and something that has significance only to me. To say that religion is “helpful” or “hurtful” is a practical thing to do in conversation, but upon close inspection, it leaves out crucial information.

I must make the observation that religion cannot hold back man’s progress towards enlightenment until the non-religious define enlightenment. I must observe that the best way to do something is rarely self-delusion, and yet if religion contains no truth about the matters that it addresses, we should not expect it to be useful. As such, we ought not to debate the utility of religion before we are in agreement about what we are trying to accomplish—in agreement about what our core values actually are.

Religion is often critiqued based on how well it lives up to the values of the culture. If people experience guilt or limitations on their freedom, we tell them that religion is wrecking their lives. But religion is not wrecking their lives; it is wrecking the lives that you think they should live.

This is not an inadmissible critique, but it must be justified.

Philosophy

Posted in Faith Experience on December 6, 2009 by RWZero

We are familiar with the consequences of studying a subject academically; that it can no longer be extricated from the academic treatment of the thing, with each renewed glance resurrecting the trained mindset, confined to the certainties and the uncertainties known to the observer–as if the subject can never be viewed again with innocent eyes, and never again freely speculated upon.

I cannot imagine why one might wish that thoughts of our very existence should acquire this quality.