Thursday, June 18, 2009

Wonder 2

TF has written quite a treatise in response to my thoughts on “Wonder”. I appreciate the effort he has put into it. This response is not intended as a criticism of him, or his beliefs, but as an expansion of my own (comparatively half-baked) ideas. The other thing to understand, TF and any others reading here, is that I use “god” (small ‘g’) to indicate any venerated supernatural (including the anti-heros), and if I intend the Christian “god” then out of respect alone I must use “God”. Clear? No disrespect intended.

His opening paragraph really has the conundrum in a nutshell –
My understanding of God… I base my belief in God…
For my part there are two very different thoughts there.

I have just received an email (serendipity at work here) from a co-worker. It contains a .ppt of artworks by Otavio Ocampo; of whom I have never before heard. It is a propos because the pictures (and I have to admit they are very well done) illustrate (pun intended) the difference that I see between “understanding” and “belief”. It is difficult to explain, but one (chosen because it is the least controversial in this context) is a painting of a partial profile of a young lady’s face. As the picture is enlarged, it becomes obvious that the features are in fact small (swallow-like) birds, similar in appearance to the Disney “Bluebird” theme. So, one bird becomes eyebrow and eye, others become the septum and nostrils, lips and so on. As I said, well done and very clever.

But it is the illusion created that is the connection. What appears to be one thing at a distance, on a small scale, becomes another as you get closer. The connection between belief and understanding is like that.

The difference between what you have said, TF, and my view is really quite simple.

In order to “understand” your world, you have to “believe”.

My world requires no “understanding”. It “is”. Nothing more, nothing less.

I “understand” my world to the extent that there is nothing that I have observed (in 62 years) that requires anything more than an (known and proven) objective explanation. That is to say that I do not follow anything like the “deus ex machina” explanations of natural phenomena, including “the creation” of this universe. I put “the creation” in quotes there because in part it is the heart of the debate. Is this a “great glorious coincidence”, or was it “created” for totally unfathomable reasons by some unfathomable super-being. Perhaps it is no more than the plaything of a bored child. One of our local tv funding agencies Te Mangai Paho ( the valve at the end of the funding pipe from government to maori tv programme makers) has a very clever avatar. It starts with a “picture” of the earth and zooms out to the galaxy and ends with a small girl holding that galaxy between her hands. You may correctly deduce that I have never seen UFOs, ghosts, spirits (other than the bottled kind), Leprechauns, demons, angels, or any of the other supernatural beings some people seem to have infesting their universes.

The Bhuddists have it differently; “All is illusion”. Sort that idea out, they tell us, and you will get closer to “enlightenment”; whatever that might entail. As I see it, enlightenment is (somewhat cynically) no more than another “illusion”. That does not imply any form of nihilism. Far from it. It is the tat tvam asi (that art thou, thou art that) of the Upanishad. My meager understanding is that the illusion is of “separateness”, “non-unity”, rather than the non-existence of reality. Expressed more definitely, we are part of reality and that reality is part of us. To try and separate the two creates the illusion. (That is behind my statement that I was “close” to Bhuddism).

One can look to a similar dichotomy in the idea of “the principle of revelation” – all will be revealed as and when god determines the time is right. In the absence of “proof”, inspiration becomes similar to “the creation”. Is there a god leading the mind? Or is inspiration the result of taking a different viewpoint and the ability to recognise what and how the picture has been changed? I return at that point to the illusions portrayed by Ocampo, or Escher. There is no proof that revelation or inspiration is the intervention of God, any more than there is proof that it is not. That Newton “realised” the effects of gravity is undisputed. Was the idea his or God’s? Unprovable.

As an aside, in none of the biographies I have read of Ernest, Lord Rutherford has there been any mention made of his religion. Rather than try to argue he was an atheist – an assumption both facile and unwarranted – let us just assume that he was just too busy to be bothered with formal “worship”. Why would God chose a humble son of a farmer in NZ to reveal the secrets of atomic structure (specifically the relationship between nucleus and electrons) when there were far more “deserving” candidates such as Cavendish.

And that leads to another aspect.

If “inspiration” is the consequence of supernatural intervention, then an incorrect inspiration – let’s use the geocentric universe as an example seeing that it was referred to by TF – is the consequence of what? An intentional diversion of mankind from the truth? Human error? Or the intervention of another (anti-hero) supernatural? The downfall of Adam and Eve is the same moot path if you want.

I would not attribute either to the deus ex machina of divine intervention. To argue divine intervention (either and both ways) is to effectively remove the entire universe of voluntary action, choice, and self.

At least the ancient Greek gods and the Norse were up front – they bribed, peddled, persuaded, cajoled, threatened and even thunderbolted, people into following a particular course of action. For the most part they were content in their own carousing, and enjoyment of all of the pleasures of a normal life and left mankind to their own devices.

If I have the total free will that I imagine, then that is also an attribute that I must recognise in all others. That is why I have never (could nor would) presented my beliefs in a form that is intended to influence the beliefs of others. Hence the explanation at the beginning of this – “This response is not intended as a criticism of him [TF], or his beliefs, but as an expansion of my own (comparatively half-baked) ideas.”

That is why TF is wasting his time in proselytising (to the ol' probligo) his “physical beings” who are in some way more substantial than the “vaporous cloud” of my imagination. Actually, TF, that ties quite nicely back to the point that Botton was making and where I probably differ quite markedly from the religio-political atheists that make his point. It is that belief which has given so much of what I admire in man’s legacy. Not just Christianity, every religion has left its mark on our species. Who is to say that the Blue Mosque in Constantinople, the Pyramids of Egypt, the Ratana Church in Te Kao, or the great Bhuddist temples of Thailand are any less than The Vatican, Notre Dame, or St Pauls as statements of the power of man’s beliefs. Who is to say that the St Matthew Passion is any greater than the prayer chants of Bhuddists, or the readings from the Torah or Koran. Nothing diminishes the beauty of those works. Nothing makes one supreme over any other. They are all expressions of the power of faith held by humans whatever their religion. I have no doubt that the prayer chants of the Druids or the even more ancients were as powerful in their own way as the modern works and no less beautiful. It is sad that they are lost.

They are all works of man. I do not believe that any are the result of divine guidance. I revere them as artifacts of who and what we are as a species.

So, if I labour under the delusion of free will, of choice, of freedom from the intervention of a supreme being whoever or whatever alien that might happen to be, you must forgive me.

At least that delusion or illusion is making me happy; as a human, as a sentient being, and as an animal.

1 comment:

T. F. Stern said...


Expressing views which are important to me at a personal level with a respected acquaintance is never a waste of time. May you always find those wonders offered by life which cause you to have fulfillment.