Merely

A basic technique of modern science is to explain various aspects of objects or phenomena by reducing them to their parts and the interactions between those parts.  We are told that what we saw this morning was, in fact, not a “sunrise” but merely a  turning of our planet.  This is also done in psychology, anthropology and religious studies.  Freud and Marx tell us that religion is merely a coping mechanism for our fears and attempts to make sense of our environment and our mortality.  Morality, we also learn, is merely the human herd’s social adaptation.  Merely, for all its humble appearance, turns out to be a very powerful idea.

Let’s see how a common notion fares when this reductionism is applied:

I have a “pet”

By pet I mean dog

By dog, of course, I mean an animal

By animal I mean an organism

By organism we know that we are talking about a collection of chemicals

By chemicals we mean various molecules

When speaking of molecules, we really are talking about arranged atoms

Those, we learn, are groups of sub-atomic particles

Which can easily be accounted for by strings

It turns out that I don’t have a pet….I merely have strings.

“Sit!”  Good Strings.

But you cannot go on `explaining away’ for ever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on `seeing through’ things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to `see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To `see through’ all things is the same as not to see.

The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis

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Did you hear the one about the lawyer……..?

  I don’t believe we have adequate appreciation for the task of the attorney.  He gets chosen to take a side of the case (a client) and fight to get the judge to agree with him about the facts and about what should be done in light of those facts.  Any sympathies the lawyer has with the opposition’s case must be suppressed in light of the duty to create a favorable outcome for his own client.  In a world where we are limited in point of view, intelligence and our own prejudices, the lawyer’s task is crucial to our system of justice.  In the same vein of thought, let us consider a similar case.

Modern science, with its strict methods, observes, describes, and makes predictions.  To the degree to which it can control some experiment on a thing or a phenomenon, it can often give clear insight on what the thing is or what is actually going on.  As a methodological rule it excludes supernatural causes as an explanation precisely because it cannot control or repeat them. Like the lawyer, many scientists feel a duty to press natural explanations as THE explanation.  This, in itself, does society the same valuable service the attorney does for his client.

This leaves still leaves the job of the judge to be done.  In the courtroom and in the minds of those who need justice and truth concerning their case, judgements must be made. Too many important things hang in the balance for the judge to only let one explanation be heard, even if the advocate is famous and successful.  Likewise, too many things hang on the big questions of life to let only one source of truth be considered.  We should not begrudge naturalistic science a license to come before the bench, but we should think long and hard before we put a judge’s robe on its shoulders.

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How’s your turn signal?

In this ever more self-centered world in which we live, I have come to notice an odd “indicator” of our condition.  The humble turn signal is a mid-modern device that lets us communicate our navigational intentions without the primitive arm waving that used to be required for signaling a turn or a stop.

As a public endeavor, driving must harmonize many individual driver’s goals under a set of rules about how we relate to each other out on the road.  Thus, I acknowledge the importance of your purposes and plans by letting you know what my intentions are, as a fellow motorist.  This lets you begin to slow down, to know when to proceed, or to plan a means of avoiding a delay.

This is a small thing to many people and one may seem petty for its mention, but I think it serves to illustrate what has become the norm for our society.  Me-ism.  I just don’t have time to take my civic, social, citizen, or motoring responsibilities seriously.  The common attitude is to assume that others will make allowances for my actions and I would be foolish for not taking advantage of this fact.

Signaling my turning plans may not seem like an important activity (many police officers are apathetic towards this violation) but it is a small way to acknowledge others and their rights and importance.  Signaling says “I want to do my part to integrate my individual driving into the community of driving.”  It is an act of respect.

How’s your turn signal?

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The Human Multiverse

When my daughter was small, she would make pronouncements about what was the case. If questioned about how that could be, she would sometimes reply “that’s just how it is in MY world.” I have heard adults do much the same thing when faced with facts that conflict with what they want. “That’s YOUR truth, I have MY truth” they might say. I understand that is the way they see the world. The question then becomes whether there as many “worlds” as there are people.

Others, who would not claim to have their own personal “world,” resist the life they experience because it is not the way things “ought” to be. Their vision of the ideal world is insisted on before action can be taken. By refusing to come to terms with what must actually be dealt with, they cannot step into a larger life.

Both of these groups deny themselves access to the full range of reality. The first does it by denying any one way the world is and refusing to acknowledge those unpleasant skinned knees that unyielding reality can deal.  The second group is no freer because they turn inward and reject a life that fails to meet their expectations. Where then does freedom lie?

In modern cosmology, the Multiverse is a popular theory that seeks to avoid having to explain the apparent design and fitness of our universe for life.  It does this by theorizing an infinite number of universes such that one like ours was bound to exist.  The lack of observable evidence and other problems that count against this idea are ignored or minimized. Likewise, a human mulitverse, where we all are deities of our own kosmos and write comfortable laws that govern there, is a theory that seems to be avoiding something.

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precipice

Every now and then you get a look at yourself and wonder why you never noticed a thing that’s kinda obvious.  I thought I was afraid of heights. Nope. I ride in airplanes and I go up in tall structures. No problem. Just don’t ask me to walk out on a cliff or an observation deck of a tall building. It turns out that I am deathly afraid of edges. Perhaps some of you will understand.  I can close my eyes and imagine myself on a rock overhang of the Grand Canyon and create chemical changes in my body. Fear. Take me to an edge of anything tall and some primal thing in my brain will begin to scream about how gravity becomes unpredictable and a 60 mph wind could come out of nowhere in this place. Irrational. Fear.

It’s like I heard a guy say one time “you can’t fall off the floor.”  I’ll admit that he was slightly intoxicated, but truer words had never been spoken. Back here away from the edge I can tell myself comforting things like how walking out to the rim would be pointless. I could explain how the return-on-investment just doesn’t add up. I have 99% of my life to explore…why does that dangerous 1% matter? If only it wouldn’t call to me I might be safe and content.

For a Christian there are popular books, regular Sunday sermons and the odd thrill of transcendence at a sunrise. The adventuresome may even take weekend getaways that promise spiritual experiences and insights. These may be done in the 99% arena without that dreadful feeling of losing control or performing “without a net.” But at what cost do I play it safe?

There have been a few sacred adventures where I followed a trail of thought from one possibility to the next without looking down. Like moth to flame my goal seemed almost within reach when I found myself at the boundary of my understanding. As I searched the  ground for the path, I saw that it ended in at a sharp precipice and left me exposed.  At my feet was a chasm. What came next has made all the difference. I took a deep breath, reached one hand back for the anchor of saints gone on, and leaned out over the empty space and found…..an altar.

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head on

I have always believed the old saying “Don’t worry about what people think of you.  You’d be surprised by how little they think about you at all.”  Much unnecessary stress is brought into our lives by failing to understand this little gem of a truth.  We assign motives to people’s actions that have nothing at all to do with why they actually behave the way they do.  People, by and large, are not out to “get” us.

I am a runner (recreationally speaking) and I live just off of a busy four-lane highway.  I have a two mile loop that goes up the highway for a ways and then comes back to my street.  I run on the side that faces the oncoming traffic.  I like to see the potential squashing coming before it squashes me.  Also, I run on the very edge of the road where a car would not even have to leave their lane to not commit vehicular assault upon my poorly-dressed person.  Because of the monotony of the activity, I don’t have anything else to look at but my potential oncoming demise.

As I considered the oncoming traffic I realized that most cars would begin to veer towards me and then move over at about 200 feet away.  “What a lousy bunch of bullies,” I always thought, until one day I remembered hearing that we tend to move towards what we focus on.  Automatic programming was causing the partially asleep morning drivers to drift towards me without any ill-will on their part.  When their brains finally engaged they’d give me a bit of room and even sometimes wave.

There are several lessons in this, but the one that has impacted me is that paranoia about the bad will of others is not justified.  My own wounds and experiences give an interpretation to events that simply don’t reflect the truth.  They are ghosts and shadows that I must meet “head on” if I am to be whole.

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democracy of the dead

In honor of our nation’s birthday and the principles on which it is built I thought we might consider why democracy is so highly prized. It seems that there is no one reason.  One pundit wrote:

“The core of democracy is choice, and not something chosen.”                     – Ernest Barker

In his famous 19th century work Democracy In America, Alexis de Tocqueville teases out some advantages of a democracy.  He writes:

Democratic laws generally tend to promote the welfare of the greatest possible number; for they emanate from the majority of the citizens, who are subject to error, but who cannot have an interest opposed to their own advantage.

So it seems that de Tocqueville’s point was that human self-interest was, over time, the best insurance of good governance. Many voices have echoed this idea and there is clearly a wisdom in it. I do wonder about what the value of each generation’s collective wisdom is if it can be cast aside when the next generation’s desire arises. It seems that only the living get a vote. It may be that there are no universal truths that apply to all people at all times, but the tiresome repetition of war, cruelty, oppression and such that have been a consistent feature of human history suggest otherwise.

If the principle of democracy provides the advantages mentioned, why not extend it to the thoughts, opinions, and successes of all men in all periods of history. It was such an idea as this that our nation was founded upon.  While trying to learn from past mistakes, the crafters of our political system took the things that had been shown to promote flourishing among people and forged them into a document called the constitution. This great work was a tour-de-force of philosophical thought and axiom. There was also, within its pages, the humility of admitting the need for amendment as conditions (not basic human nature) changed and the provision for doing so.

An ever increasing portion of our population has begun to chafe under a system that defines limits to the expression of individual desire. Dallas Willard has written “Modernity has come to stand for a rejection of the past as a guide to the present.” So it seems. The “dead hand” of the founders has its fingers in too many lives to suit many of our enlightened citizens.

We don’t like acknowledging a debt to those who can no longer vote in an election, contribute to a political campaign, or stand and deliver at a press conference.  Maybe the point of our current democracy is not to pool our wisdom and come to better terms with truth, but for the living to negotiate with each other about what we’ll let each other get away with. Those that came before are an embarrassment and an unnecessary consideration. We are like the young child who was placed, by his father, out on the third base of a baseball field who then began to yell “I hit a triple!”  Yeah, right.

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