A Dostoevsky Inspired Thought…

Human life is not some sort of collective movement from a backward past to a better future. This fiction thrust upon the Western world by well-meaning, but overly optimistic philosophers, has been used to justify engineering societies for the sake of the illusion of progress at the expense of real people. The Age of Reason may have given us modernity; yet, it seems modernity is failing us. Opinions are successfully replacing facts. Dogmatism, or fervency of belief, is mistaken for genuine conviction. We’re giving up on terrible freedom, exchanging it for a collection of pleasing cages called social media, smart phones, political correctness and Internet echo chambers.

And so, every person stands in each moment on the edge of an eternity confronted by decisions: to move either forwards or backwards; to progress or stay the same; to side with the tribe just for the sake of doing so or embrace uncertainty leaving behind a family of superstition and ignorance; to submit to an artificial past because of its superficial gravity; or to mistake ignorance for truth, tradition for certainty, and habit for wisdom.

So, what’s the point a Russian asks me? There is none and never was I reply.

Dreams of Radiohead & the Apocalypse

FYI: I am a male in the 20th century interpretation of the word.

I had the weirdest dream last night: a subtle, in so far as I can tell, unpublished Radiohead song (strong acoustic and drum presence) plays in the background. I am a female, East-Indian physics student at a university during the Apocalypse. There are riots and the expected cannibalism. I wander about with a group of other female physics students. During one of the stranger conversations I have with one of my female colleagues I quoted some fictitious physicist saying, “Purity in the theories of physics is not limited by physics but by our DNA.”

Is this what it’s like for females all of the time?

Prose Poem on a Sunday

Walking in darkness long enough we convince ourselves an absence of light means the domination of night: yet, as obscured as things are, if we scan the sky honestly (if we persist while avoiding all the roots conspiring to trip us up), we’ll catch a break in the cover and a glimpse of a little but inextinguishable star I like to call Hope.

Belief in an Age of Doubt

Introduction
Art imitates life compelling us to look deeper into the significance and meaning of human experience. For this reason Roger Lundin, author of Believing Again, felt studying literature was vital to our collective well-being—books weaved experience and sensation together giving expression to certain underlying truths about human existence. When Lundin was thirteen years old he read Jack London’s short story “To Build a Fire.” After finishing it he felt like his life was taken away from him for a moment—measured and judged—and then returned to him in the form of an “alienated majesty.”  (He realized his own situation was essentially identical to London’s main character.)

“To Build a Fire” is a story about a man lost in the Yukon wilderness. He must build a fire or die. Everything that can go wrong goes wrong. When the nameless man’s efforts fail, he submits to fate by falling into a sweet, dreamless sleep of death. London’s story of a hapless man freezing to death made perfect sense to an impressionable young Lundin: life was not directed by any divine being towards some sort of beautiful purpose; instead, life was governed by accident and blind necessity. Things, sometimes terrible things, simply just happened to people for no particular purpose or reason.

The death of Lundin’s older brother during routine surgery reinforced his sense of purposelessness. To him everything was either random or the workings of a divine power so distant and indifferent the thought of submitting to such a power was unbearable. These events deepened Lundin’s appreciation for literature: books seemed to confirm his sense existence was ultimately meaningless; and for the next two years only his high school English classes offered any sustenance for a famished spirit.  The poets and novelists he encountered during this time placed him on a path towards eventually believing in God.

In Believing Again, Roger Lundin describes his personal journey from unbelief to belief: using the thoughts of various 19th century thinkers as his reference points Lundin makes sense of the path he took towards returning to faith.

A Changing Zeitgeist
Lundin takes the beginning of the 19th century as his starting point: the Enlightenment was in full swing and people, buoyed by a sense of hope and optimism, believed reason and education was the solution to all of humanity’s problems. However, despite all of the optimism by century’s end a number of assumptions about God and the world were successfully challenged thereby darkening the theological horizon.

Traditional notions around faith were challenged by refinements in the elder sciences of geology, biology, chemistry and physics and the emerging sciences of sociology and psychology. An increase in scientific knowledge contributed to the development of a new Zeitgeist (“Spirit of the Age”): as science increased our understanding of the physical world it did so at the cost of placing in to question certain long held, cherished beliefs, e.g. where once we thought of ourselves as special, advances in biology indicated we were not; where once it was believed the Earth was only thousands of years old advances in geology pointed to the planet being tens of millions of years old. In a sense science knocked humankind off of its pedestal; and by the end of the 19th century people were filled less with optimism and more with a feeling of being adrift, even alienated.

Science cannot really be blamed for causing this cultural shift; rather, it was the perceived implications of scientific findings causing people to question the existence of a divine order or purpose to life. Many of the major intellectual and cultural figures, like Emily Dickinson (1830-1896) and Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881), wrote their most important works during this period. Both writers felt they were living during a time of challenge and bracing change; and although doubt had always co-existed alongside faith, it was during the 1800s open unbelief (atheism and agnosticism) first became an intellectually viable and, perhaps most importantly, a socially acceptable option.

In the 21st century, we have learned to live with unbelief. Yet, when unbelief first broke upon the scene in the mid-nineteenth century, the sense of disruption and disorientation it caused was palpable, even overwhelming for some; by the end of the 19th century unbelief went from being an isolated experience on the cultural margins to becoming a central feature of modern life.


Changing Expectations

Up until the middle of the 19th century young people were simply expected to adopt the same values and worldview as their parents. No questions asked. The situation has changed today.  Nowadays young people—with exception of course—are expected to make their own way through the world; they embark alone on a quest for meaning and cannot entirely rely on either society or their family to guide them. Further still, young people are expected to examine things from a distance and not just accept things at face value. Today people possess a degree of freedom and individual responsibility inconceivable to our ancestors. We moderns—again, with exception—do not just trust authority for the sake of doing so or believe what we are told. We test our assumptions against science, against experience and against physical reality.

Roger Lundin is a child of the 20th century. He grew up living with significant doubt. At times he entertained the idea some force (a God) governed the course of life; however, he had no idea what it was like or whether it even had a name. He clearly did not believe it was a loving, forgiving, or personal power directing history or events from behind the scenes. As a child of the 20th century, Lundin believed the laws of nature and the world took no notice of his personal longings, or the prayers and destiny of people. Instead, it appeared to him people were simply wandering around from nowhere to nowhere. The Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004) describes the situation this way in his poem “Road to Nowhere”:

If what is proclaimed by Christianity is a fiction,
And what we are taught in schools,
In newspapers and TV is true:
That the evolution of life is an accident,
As is an accident the existence of man,
And that his history goes from nowhere to nowhere,
Our duty is to draw conclusions
From our thinking about the innumerable generations
Who lived and died deluding themselves,
Ready to renounce their natural needs for no reason,
To wait for a posthumous verdict, every day afraid
That for licking clean a pot of jam they go to eternal torment.

As Milosz’s reference to the “evolution of life” indicates, Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection nourished the emerging 19th century sense that all who had trusted in God had merely been “deluding themselves.” The Darwinian account of life did not require a conscious divine power to explain the origin, intricacy, or destiny of life.  Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859. His theory of evolution immediately caused controversy. His so-called “dangerous idea” was viewed as dangerous for primarily two reasons: firstly, it provided an alternative explanation to the biblical account of our origins; and secondly, the theory contributed to the feeling all previous generations were somehow deluded or just plain superstitious by comparison to the current one.

For his part Charles Darwin (1809-1882) was never an atheist. He did not develop the theory of evolution to disprove religion. (He actually completed work to become an Anglican priest.)  In reality the main inspiration for developing thinking around natural selection and evolution was a product of his study of barnacles. He wanted to find an explanation for the variety of barnacles he encountered, e.g. why did they differ from one another? He was also anxious to de-legitimate the basis for slavery in the 19th century—slavery being justified both through a wrong-headed appeal to scripture and a completely unscientific belief in white supremacy—as it was practiced in the United States in the 1850s and 60s.

By the end of his life Darwin was an agnostic in the strictest sense of the word, i.e. he accepted the fact some questions were simply unanswerable by their nature, e.g. you could not prove or disprove God in any scientific sense. He never said at any point evolution disproved God’s existence. Rather, Darwin observed in his autobiography scientific theories merely describe how a process unfolds; theories, he insisted in his autobiography, do not answer the question why the observed process exists in the first place; moreover, and unlike some opponents of religion claim, evolution never unseated God; yet, it is accurate to say evolution certainly challenged some beliefs people had about God.

Ultimately, what Darwin’s theory actually does is describe creation not as a single static event, e.g. Special Creation, etc. but as a dynamic process continually unfolding, e.g. evolution. No scientific theory or law—whether we are talking evolution, thermodynamics, gravity, or germ theory—implies or proves there is no God. Theories simply provide descriptions for how processes observed in nature unfold.

That’s it.  Nothing less, nothing more.

To make any claims to knowledge beyond this point is to go beyond the science. To put it simply, insisting there is no God because evolution is taking place is like saying God doesn’t exist because objects fall to the ground at a rate of 9.8 m/s2 or vaccines help prevent disease. One thing does not necessarily mean the other. If people better understood the nature and limitations of science (and their own understanding of things) better, they might be more willing to take a nuanced view of the situation, i.e. the situation is not black or white—if evolution is true God must be false or if God is true then evolution must be false—but accept both possibilities as potentially true at one and the same time, e.g. theistic evolution (or to simply acknowledge we do not know). (Then any apparent challenge evolution poses for the believer diminishes (though if we are honest with ourselves it never entirely disappears)).

Modern believers are shaped equally by faith-based and scientific knowledge claims. Consequently, today even “firm” believers appreciate that while religion provides a meaningful account of life, science likewise contributes a great deal to our picture of life. To be a believer today is to recognize that in the deepest personal sense, belief in God is optional: whatever a person is able to accept and affirm he or she is also free to reject or deny. Faith, therefore, is a choice; and by the same line of reasoning unbelief is a choice, as well.


The Adulthood of the World

There is no point in regretting our freedom to choose. We cannot turn the clock back and return to some sort of romanticized former state. The Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) said as much in his Letters and Papers from Prison. Bonhoeffer argued it made no sense for Christians to try and fight the “adulthood of the world.” (He used “adulthood” as a metaphor for the advances made in science and the subsequent leaving behind of certain invalidated beliefs, e.g. the earth being 6000 years old.) Specifically, he observed that it was “in the first place pointless, in the second place ignoble, and in the third place un-Christian” (Bonhoeffer 327) to jettison scientific findings if and when they conflicted with established belief. Admittedly, some ideas and certain historical perspectives are uncomfortable for many believers to entertain. Nevertheless, Bonhoeffer asserted if gainsay (denial) was your only defense against such criticism—just opposing for the sake of opposing—you accomplished nothing.

What we need to appreciate is our understanding of God has changed over time alongside our changing understanding of the world; further, while certain previous assumptions about how God works might be successfully challenged, this does not mean God is challenged per se; it means our assumptions are challenged; and God and our assumptions about the Deity are not the same thing. Not even close.

When your assumptions turn out to be wrong it means you were wrong in this instance; it also means you did not know as much as you thought you did (which should not surprise you). God, nevertheless, remains perfectly untouched and unaffected by the entire process. All anyone can say with certainty is they do not know what God is entirely or that God even necessarily is. By extension they cannot say God is not. When it comes right down to it faith is a choice: it’s not a collection of ideas; it is a state of being (akin to trust) not a series of logical propositions the believer is supposed to memorize and learn by rote. Appealing directly to St. Paul, faith has less to do with belief (fide) in series of ideas or doctrines and more to do with a state of trusting (pistus) God, anyways.

Shortly after Lundin’s conversion to Christianity, he dreamt about how much better his life might have been had he been born during the middle ages. Life was simpler then and the authority of the Church and the Bible were not questioned (actually this authority was challenged but the Church’s ability to kill or imprison opponents kept such questioning to a minimum). Yet, Lundin’s view of the medieval period was correct in at least one respect: the Christian narrative then was firmly accepted “as is” without any real challenge from science or reform-minded Christians like Martin Luther. Lundin, though, freely admits wishing to be alive at this time is an example of foolish idealism.  When he was a child his life was saved twice by modern medicine. If he lived during the middle ages, he would have died twice by the age of ten. Lundin does not cry over our loss of innocence and certainty though. Instead, he accepts reality for what it is: something is true not because it is believed in; rather, something either exists or is true because it doesn’t depend upon a believer at all. Lundin, echoing Bonhoeffer, asserts there is no point wishing we could go back to a simpler time; we have to learn to navigate modernity.

To writers like Fyodor Dostoevsky, Emily Dickinson, W. H. Auden, and Czeslaw Milosz , belief and unbelief were real tensions, and as was the case with Jacob wrestling with the angel, these authors wrestled with God—and in some cases also with the shadow cast by His apparent absence. To her credit Emily Dickinson appreciated the significance of both the promise and peril posed by the modern world to traditional belief earlier than most. In the case of Dostoevsky, we find one of the greatest talents in literary history, e.g. creating the polyphonic novel, etc. while also grappling with an exceptional collection of pressing intellectual, political and personal issues. Both writers knew that the theological ground had shifted dramatically in their own lifetimes from confidence to doubt in God. They found the new dynamics of belief challenging and grew weary by the pursuit of God; though they had strong convictions their self-dividing doubts always remained. Near the end of her life Dickinson observed to a friend that on “subjects of which we know nothing…we both believe, and disbelieve a hundred times an hour, which keeps [belief] nimble.” Her observation captures the essence of what it means to believe or not believe in the 21st century—we are as justified in practicing one position as the other.


Conclusion

In his book The Secular Age, Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor explains the position of the modern believer this way:

Now this change, which has taken place over the last [thousand years] in our civilization, has been immense.  We move from an enchanted world, inhabited by spirits and forces, to a disenchanted one; but perhaps more important, we have moved from a world which is encompassed within certain bounds and static to one which is vast, feels infinite, and is in the midst of an evolution spread over aeons (Taylor 323).

English poet W. H. Auden (1907-1973) looked at the effects of modern science as both admirable and harmful. According to Auden, science liberated men from misplaced humility before a false god. The god whose death Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) declared in the late 19th century was not the Christian God but a cultural deity or rather a “Zeus without Zeus’ vices.” To Auden, the singular achievement of science in the modern world was to de-mythologize the Cosmos; and since God created the universe He could not be directly encountered within it—“just as when I read a poem, I do not encounter the author himself, only the words he has written which it is my job to understand” (Kirsch, Auden and Christianity, p.162).

In 1849 Fyodor Dostoevsky was arrested by the czar’s secret police in Russia for criticizing the government’s policies. He and several others were condemned to death; at the last moment, a note from Czar Nicholas I was delivered to the firing squad. The Czar decided not to put the novelist to death but commuted his sentence to four years’ hard labor in Siberia. A woman named Natalya Fonvizina gave Dostoevsky a copy of the New Testament just before the novelist’s four-year exile began. Dostoevsky wrote Natalya a letter while in prison. The contents of the letter place the Russian author squarely at the center of the 19th century discovery of unbelief and the subsequent efforts to believe again:

I will tell you that I am a child of the century, a child of disbelief and doubt, I am that today and (I know it) will remain so until the grave. How much terrible torture this thirst for faith has cost me and costs me even now, which is all the stronger in my soul the more arguments I can find against it. And yet, God sends me sometimes instants when I am completely calm; at those instants I love and I feel loved by others, and it is at these instants that I have shaped for myself a Credo where everything is clear and sacred for me. This Credo is very simple, here it is: to believe that nothing is more beautiful, profound, sympathetic, reasonable, manly, and more perfect than Christ; and I tell myself with a jealous love not only that there is nothing but that there cannot be anything. Even more, if someone proved to me that Christ is outside the truth, and that in reality the truth were outside of Christ, then I should prefer to remain with Christ rather than with the truth (Frank, Dostoevsky: Years, p.160).

I don’t know that I’ve read a more passionate statement of faith than what I found in Dostoevsky’s letter. We are as much a product of reason as we are of passion. If we are genuinely thoughtful, and value intellectual humility and honesty, the modern believer cannot ever entirely escape some degree of doubt. But then I remember one simple thing I learned as a young person reading scripture for myself: Jesus never told me I had to have the right ideas in my head; he didn’t tell me faith consisted in having the right understanding; he told me I was literally born to do good. Maybe the question of God’s existence is not so important after all (since it cannot really be answered in any empirical sense). Perhaps faith then is best understood not as a series of logical propositions, doctrines, or dogma, but more of conscious decision to choose to love the good and live in hope.

The Buddha and 2 Live Crew

Enjoying a moment of Zen tonight (a precious frozen present like when cherry blossoms fall like snow on a summer’s day): it is night and there’s a contrast–from west to east–through the sky of deep blue to even deeper blue, a reverse ocean covering sparkling star-stones, and there is a moon ensconced in stratus clouds shining brilliantly.

Making the moment even more lovely is the fact there are no mosquitoes; there’s a slight wind; it’s late September but still comfortably warm; the sounds of leaves wavering. I’m lying on my back with my two youngest sons Andrew and Alec on the trampoline in the backyard.

Perfect blossom.

zen

I observe aloud that the ash trees have lost their leaves much earlier than the silver maples. I further observe maples keep their leaves a long time.

Jumping off the trampoline my budding Zen master son Alec observes, “Me love you long time.”

Quotables #7

It is indeed interesting to see how the books we read and the thoughts we expose ourselves to shape one’s understanding of the world. I believe firmly that through reading books–autobiographies and biographies in my particular case–that the quality of one’s thinking can transcend limits imposed by either age, circumstance or direct experience. If I hadn’t been exposed to the thought of Socrates through his student Plato, it would have taken me decades to form as complete an appreciation as I’ve gained for the nature of our profound ignorance and the limitations of human knowledge.

I wrote the following insight a couple years ago on to my Facebook page. What’s funny about it is I couldn’t tell whether I was quoting someone else or if I was reading my own thoughts. The principles contained in the quote below are certainly one’s I espouse but they are ones that could just as easily have been spoken by Michael Foucault, Noam Chomsky, Simon de Beauvoir, or Naomi Klein.

All genuine criticisms of power and tradition will be by their very nature subversive. You must become an enemy to unaccountable power to preserve freedom.

I find it odd so many distrust skeptics or critics of power. There seems to be something in the human psychology almost preferring the certainty of unquestioning and abject obedience.

A Debate on the Nature of Belief

A Debate on the Nature of Belief 
The medieval philosopher Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109 AD) argued faith in something was evidence for the existence of the thing believed in. Anselm was a scholastic philosopher who didn’t worry about whether or not the argument was logical so much as it supported established wisdom (Church doctrine).. Once such doctrine was put forward by the Apostle Paul when he remarked in Hebrews 11: 1 that faith was “evidence in things not seen.” There is a fatal flaw affecting Anselm’s approach though: simply believing something exists does not make that thing exist any more than disbelieving in the existence of a thing makes that thing cease to exist.

Being a scholastic philosopher Anselm was not worried about anything other than preserving the Church’s authority and maintaining respect for Church teaching; therefore, he explained away the above contradiction by constructing the following supporting argument (which eventually came to be known as the Ontological Argument), e.g. we would not even have an idea or concept of “God” in our mind in the first place if this Being did not exist.

William of Ockham’s Reponse to the Ontological Argument
A century and a half after Anselm, the monk and philosopher William of Ockham (1287-1347 CE) refuted the Ontological Argument (also known as the “argument from necessity”).

First off, it should be noted William of Ockham (1079-1142 CE) was not an atheist. He shared a lot in common with the famed medieval thinker Peter Abelard: a person should not place unqualified faith in the power of belief but test claims and go wherever the evidence takes you. truth (not faith or belief). William also appreciated Thales of Miletus’ (624-546 BCE) approach to learning about the world. Thales was an ancient Greek philosopher who, unlike Anselm, did not just employ reason alone, but actually conducted experiments to test whether his ideas had merit. There was a tendency in Thales’ time to invoke the  gods to explain the mysteries of the physical world. Thales did not invoke the gods. Instead he looked for material and logically consistent explanations for why things worked the way they did.

When it came to disproving Anselm’s Ontological Argument, William used a combination of logic and an appeal to experience. In the great scheme of things, the existence of God simply is not falsifiable. William therefore addressed whether or not Anselm’s argument was logically supportable by testing its plausibility.

William put forth the following counter-argument, i.e. if faith was evidence for the existence of things unseen then faith in the existence of, say, unicorns would likewise be proof of the existence of a one-horned white horse. Ockham pointed out that while faith in God supported the idea of God, it did not support the reality of God’s existence. In other words, it would be absurd to conclude that the simple idea of a unicorn was proof for a unicorn’s existence. We can quite literally conceive of a million different “things” that exist in mind only but do not exist “out there.”

Therefore, to be consistent William rejected the idea that belief in God was evidence of anything; he asserted with equal vigor that believing God did not exist also did not cause God to cease to exist. In the end, God did not depend upon a person’s belief to exist at all. Further still, God could not be postulated out of existence by simply disbelieving in Him. His existence was entirely independent of a person’s belief or lack thereof. Logically, this led William to the following conclusion: God, you, your friend, that cat over there, even that chair, etc. all exist despite of our belief and not because of it.

Yet, for William to successfully refute Anselm he had to tackle Anselm’s supporting idea, e.g. How would the idea or concept of God enter the human mind if it did not already exist in reality?

William used the following two arguments to place the ontological argument in to doubt: firstly, there is a difference between a concept and a thing. For example, an actual thing like a white horse or a single-horned goat do exist in reality. This is an indisputable fact. But there is no such thing as a horse, as defined, that has a horn.

Let’s look at another example: while short Irishmen most certainly exist, it is doubtful that if you chased one down they’d necessarily give you a pot of gold (as per a leprechaun). Yet, the concept of a leprechaun exists. But this concept is just a variation and recombination of things that do exist, e.g. pots, gold, Irish people, short people. The reason the concept–leprechauns, unicorns or God–is a lack of critical discernment on the part of the believer. We literally believe in the power of belief (and frequently do not know what we do not know).

The same logic applies to the existence of any mythological creature. Actually, every single mythological creature—even space aliens—is just a recombination of multiple animals people have first hand experience with; that is, we “copy” and then “paste” the parts of one animal on to another animal to create a new concept. For example in Thale’s time harpy’s and the Chimera were believed to be real. The concept of a harpy most certainly can exist but short of some significant cosmetic surgery a “hawk lady” is simply not possible.

harpy and chimera

In the case of aliens, just think of the way they are represented in film: they’re essentially “little green men” who just look like a weird version of us. They are believed to be uber-intelligent and logically get represented as having extra large heads and eyes. Logically speaking, why would aliens necessarily look like us? The funny thing is on the planet Earth there are stranger looking things than aliens when compared to humans. Consider how different snakes and viper fish are from one another or humans; it stands to reason then that an alien, a being from another planet millions of light years distant, is going to evolve to be at least as different as a viper fish is from a human being (if not more so, e.g. why are both aliens and humans bipedal?).

Conclusion
Producers of alien movies today are an analogue to the scholastics of Anselm’s time: scholastics deal with concepts but not in reality. The philosophy of humanism, which William of Ockham most certainly later influenced, gave people better tools of logical discernment and methods of testing reality.

Secondly, William argued that the creative capabilities of the human mind made people capable of imagining things in to existence that simply did not exist; that being, opinions can exist on things that do not. Therefore, a concept or idea was only evidence of a particular way a person thought about the world; it revealed little about how the actual world operates. So if you believe witches can cast spells then witches cast spells.

Again, a concept is not a “thing” in and of itself; and things do not need us to believe in them to exist. In the end, a concept is just an opinion; and the existence of opinions—or ideas—are not evidence of anything other than the existence of a thought bumping around in a person’s mind; and, again, opinions can exist on things that do not.

William of Ockham was not an atheist. He was a Catholic monk. He also wasn’t even a Renaissance writer and thinker; however, his work anticipated both the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution. This is because he was one of the first scholars (in a long line including Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, and eventually, Albert Einstein) who wanted to see the world as it actually was as opposed to how it was believed to be.