Monday, December 31, 2007

Resolved:

1. Make new mistakes.
2. Make my fears roughly proportional to the dangers.
3. Put myself where fate can find me.
4. Emote, sympathize, help.
5. Maybe do some friggin' math.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

In another vein:

Our day-to-day life is bombarded with fortuities or, to be more precise, with the accidental meetings of people and events we call coincidences. "Co-incidence" means that two events unexpectedly happen at the same time, they meet: Tomas appears in the hotel restaurant at the same time the radio is playing Beethoven. We do not even notice the great majority of such coincidences. If the seat Tomas occupied had been occupied instead by the local butcher, Tereza never would have noticed that the radio was playing Beethoven (though the meeting of Beethoven and the butcher would also have been an interesting coincidence). But her nascent love inflamed her sense of beauty, and she would never forget that music. Whenever she heard it, she would be touched. Everything going on around her at that moment would be haloed by the music and take on its beauty.

Early in the novel that Tereza clutched under her arm when she went to visit Tomas, Anna meets Vronsky in curious circumstances: they are at the railway station when someone is run over by a train. At the end of the novel, Anna throws herself under a train. This symmetrical composition—the same motif appears at the beginning and at the end—may seem quite "novelistic" to you, and I am willing to agree, but only on condition that you refrain from reading such notions as "fictive," "fabricated," and "untrue to life" into the word "novelistic." Because human lives are composed in precisely such a fashion.

They are composed like music. Guided by his sense of beauty, an individual transforms a fortuitous occurrence (Beethoven's music, death under a train) into a motif, which then assumes a permanent place in the composition of the individual's life. Anna could have chosen another way to take her life. But the motif of death and the railway station, unforgettably bound to the birth of love, enticed her in her hour of despair with its dark beauty. Without realizing it, the individual composes his life according to the laws of beauty, even in times of greatest distress.

It is wrong, then, to chide the novel for being fascinated by mysterious coincidences (like the meeting of Anna, Vronsky, the railway station, and death or the meeting of Tomas, Tereza, and the cognac), but it is right to chide man for being blind to such coincidences in his daily life. For he thereby deprives his life of a dimension of beauty.

-Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Meaning, Motivation and Morals

I haven't read much of Richard Dawkins before; in general, I distrust the quality of today's controversial intellectual celebrities, and much prefer to read the thinkers of yesteryear. But when I came home for Christmas, I found a copy of The God Delusion lying around (I assume that my father had been reading it in the hope of better understanding his son), and I gave it a try. I've been mostly impressed by the book; where I'd frankly been expecting a collection of straw men and shoddy arguments regarding the nonexistence of God*, Dawkins has been rather honorable in confronting the actual objections in a clear manner. (There are a few cheap shots at religion's expense, and quite a bit of egotistical name-dropping, but these are cosmetic flaws as concerns the content.)

That being said, I've noticed a few places where the best reply on the part of religion quite simply seems to be overlooked by Dawkins. The most significant one concerns his main argument, that the existence of an ultimate God is terribly unlikely because complex entities like intelligence are more likely to arise through certain gradual processes than all at once. But I'll have to devote another post to my difficulty both with that argument and, on the other side, with the Uncaused Cause argument for God's existence (for both fall into the same trap, in my opinion). Another oversight concerns the Bible as a source of moral insight and inspiration; I think that he gives short shrift to the exegetical traditions around Scripture as the wellspring of its real moral and spiritual content for believers.

At the moment, though, I want to address an argument of Dawkins' which engages the subject of my last post (as poorly as I expressed it then). In a section of Chapter 6 entitled "If There Is No God, Why Be Good?", he confronts the assertion that religion is necessary for the motivation of right and wrong, but restricts himself to the mercenary interpretation of motive- that a religion only motivates its adherents to do good and avoid evil by promising rewards and punishments in the next life. He afterwards confronts the notion that a God is necessary to know what is good and what is evil, and argues against it on the basis that we do in fact disagree with what was in the past the content of religiously revealed morals.

But there is a third alternative, the one with which I struggled most in the last few months. It is that the existence of a God of the sort believed by Christians provides a guarantee that there is some solution to the problems of morality in human life, even if in some theologies we are not guaranteed to know that answer yet. I had no problem with ethics continuing to evolve (as I had no problem with some amount of development in doctrine), but I had assurance that the moral truth was objective and discoverable (at least with God's assistance)- and this provided psychological comfort when following the commands of Catholic morality became difficult†. The sense that some mode of being resonates with the very cosmos is very satisfying- and it is this that I have at last been forced to surrender by my apostasy.

I hope that I shall be able to hold fast to reasonable conceptions of the good even without this metaphysical assurance that they conform (better or worse) to some objective standard; but I can't pretend I've lost nothing in abandoning that semi-Platonist viewpoint.

* In retrospect, I'd assumed that "Darwin's bulldog" would prefer sensationalism to argument because I'd assumed he rose to prominence in the role of instigating controversy, but in fact he first arrived on the scene as the promulgator/popularizer of a better understanding of Darwin's mechanism of natural selection- the zoologist's equivalent of Stephen Hawking, more or less.

† However, it may or may not be true that this subjective aid provides real help in actual situations; I wonder how psychological studies compare the ability of atheists and theists to hold fast to their professed standards in the presence of temptation.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

So This Is Christmas

Or: No, Virginia. I'm sorry.

Christmas is perhaps a good time to take stock of my cosmos, in the wake of these last few months. Before I finally abandoned the faith, I lived in fear that apostasy would mean despair, insanity, vicious egoism; imagine my surprise to find how little I've changed, and how in some ways I've changed for the good. Prior to my aversion, my social anxiety had developed into a full-blown complex which I would at times disguise with the help of religion- telling myself that my touted awkwardness came not from simple worrying about how others perceived me, but from awareness of the great gap between the believing Catholic and the unbeliever. (No, of course that didn't make sense.) In the months after apostasy, my social anxiety reared its head again and again; but this time I had no choice but to face it down, and I feel that I've begun to make some progress toward proportion in my fears.

I have personal crises now and then- rather dramatic ones- but no longer the protracted existential crises that had become my trademark. In my years of piety, I constantly feared and suspected that I was wrong about it all, whether I dealt with this overtly in anguished crisis or covertly by suppressing my doubts beneath an attitude of total confidence. As much as I would seek and invent patches for all my difficulties with the Catholic faith, there were always too many leaks for me to face it honestly.

And now?

As much as I'd like to say the situation is symmetric between the Catholic faith and materialist atheism, it truly hasn't been so in my experience. The longer I've persisted in unbelief, the stronger the atheist account of reality becomes, and the weaker the justifications of faith. (For example, my youthful essays to the contrary notwithstanding, there is no reason but self-deception to adopt a completely different hermeneutic for evaluating the Gospels' historicity than for evaluating other ancient accounts.) In both my age of piety and my age of apostasy, I've desired to believe, but my reason has pointed away.



I've come to the conclusion that there is no objective meaning to life, no universally binding morality, and I find I'm relieved- but not for the reasons one cynically might expect. What I rejoice in is the freedom to be genuinely altruistic and loving, not simply a prudent egoist.

You see, I've always had it in my mind that there is some objective meaning to life- just as I'd believed there was one true mathematical theory- and it was only a matter of trying to discover its content. But in a world without God, if there were an objective morality, it seems that examination of the material universe would lead only to this content: Survive. Reproduce. Conquer.

How freeing, then, to realize that the universe is quite indifferent to our very survival! There is no immutable law of human action written into the fabric of the cosmos, because we are in fact only important to ourselves. We can indeed compare different accounts of meaning and ethics, on their own terms (à la MacIntyre) and with regard to our experience and understanding; but we should not thereby expect to arrive at the One Correct Answer To Life.

And so, if caritas indeed makes sense as a human ideal, then I can pursue it after all- with only this caveat vis à vis the Catholic ideal, that futile sacrifices are indeed futile. If my noble and selfless act benefits nobody, then it is mere folly.