Gleanings

Back on September 11th I wrote a piece here, Letters passing in the night as Rome burns, that provoked a long series of follow-on comments (32) that ran on until September 21st. Without a doubt, it was the longest chain of comments on anything I’ve written so far.

I’ve been extremely busy of late but I haven’t forgotten all the various things that were discussed in that series of comments. Some excellent points were made in reaction to some very deep questions.

I think each one of the folks who participated (or even those who just read along) could summarize what they thought were the pivotal points and we would likely each come up with a different list and for different reasons.

Not withstanding that, I’d like to attempt to summarize the discussion and note the points that I felt were key.

The issues

We opened with a discussion of whether or not it made sense for a person to rail against the way the world is (full of environmental problems and injustices and getting worse by the day) when there was and is very little likelihood of changing things.

This advanced into a discussion of where people find purpose and meaning (P&M) it their lives. Some (like myself) felt that P&M arise from our spiritual beliefs and that these same beliefs call us to try to ‘fix’ the world regardless of whether of not there seems to be any possible chance of succeeding. I also asserted that I failed to see where and how folks without any spiritual basis to their lives could find P&M in their lives.

This last point was roundly and well opposed and I’ve come around now to believing that we all, regardless of our spiritual beliefs, create our own P&Ms and that everyone’s P&M’s are equally persuasive and valid.

A lot of the discussion also focused on whether there was any reason to believe there is, in fact, a spiritual underpinning to our existence.

The rationalists among us asserted that rationally there was none.

And those who believed (like myself) that some sort of spiritual intelligence pervades existence, acknowledged the a-priori nature of their beliefs – while asserting that the beliefs of the rationalists were equally a-priori – since nothing can be proved either way about the existence or non-existence of Spirit (or God or whatever one wants to call it).

I also believe, if I understood the points Fergus Brown was making at this point, that there’s also a middle ground in which the issue need not be decided because the individual understands that he himself creates his or her own P&M by choosing to.

“In other words, if we feel as if we want to be responsible and to care about others, we have already created the grounds of a purposeful life which aspires to goodness, and which is founded on goodness.”

The conversation continued on into a discussion of why someone would act to do good if they believed that Spirit underlies reality. I.e., Does someone who believes in Spirit acts to do good from fear of Spirit or because they recognize that the very definition of right is inseparable from what they believe Spirit wants?

From one POV, the individual is driven against their own natural urges to do good by fear of the Deity. From the other POV, the individual freely embraces what they believe Spirit wants as the good and acts in accordance with this. In one view, one is the oppressed slave of Spirit driven by fear and in the other one is the child of Spirit driven by Spirit’s apparent example.

I don’t think there can be any resolution to a discussion like this. In the end, I think it will be for each of us, however we believe it to be.

Again, I think Fergus summed it all up the best. He said:

This discussion could go on forever… let me leave you with this proposal:

The meaning (and sense of purpose) of our existence is determined by us, our relation to the world, and the relation between our meanings for ourselves and the meanings others posit for us. This holds true whether there is an ordering force external to us or not. But inasmuch as the meaning of our being exists in our own narratives (stories) and those of others, it is we who are the ordering force behind them; we make our own meanings, both individually and ‘in the world’. we cannot know whether our interpretation of our meaning as grounded in spirit is true or not, so we must accept that it can have no more status than that of any narrative; in the end, the meaning is subjective and relative, even if the truth behind the meaning exists, because this is opaque to our perception.

I think at this point, I should have let the entire discussion come to a graceful stop of its own weight. And I regret that I did not. I brought forth Pascal’s Wager as if it would help folks see my POV when, in fact, I’d already agreed with Fergus that there’s not likely to be anything that will decide these matters and they are all just as we believe them to be.

So, I do apologize to all for continuing to press the argument when I already knew it to be pointless. I can offer (tongue in cheek) an explanation on how and why folks continue to beat a dead horse here – but I don’t imagine this excuses me.

The significant points for me

I was convinced by good arguments that purpose and meaning belong equally to all of us; atheists or spiritualists.

Michael Tobis contributed the idea that

“We should not be so foolish as to expect that our efforts will turn the tide, but we must hope so and act as if the possibility exists. If we don’t act as if the possibility of a better world exists, the possibility vanishes instantly.”

which I think stands as a great indictment against the notion that we should give up acting if we cannot see winning in our cards.

I still believe that the issue of God or Spirit’s existence cannot be decided logically and that we each must make our own choice on this (including to make no choice) and that the choice we make is unavoidably arbitrary and a-priori.

As Fergus pointed out, any decision we make and try to justify that involves pre-existing human-derived values is going to lead us into circular reasoning:

“But what criteria should we use to make such judgements? If we make use of a set of values which already belong to one of the world-views already posited (in our cases, it is often Judaeo-Christian), then we are inevitably going to end up with a circular argument at some point.”

If human-centric justifications are necessarily suspect, then can we find deeper justifications? I suggested one based on the universal interplay between Entropy (Second Law of Thermodynamics) and Complexity. The thought went something like the following:

In our universe, the Second Law of Thermodynamics tells us that the amount of energy in a system will either stay the same or decrease. This is true in all places save those which are fortunate enough to have an excess of energy in the local area (example: planets orbiting suns). In these places, matter can store the excess energy that bathes it as organization and increasing complexity. And once these storage processes have advanced to the point of creating self-replicating entities, we call the process evolution and its product, life.

As complexity increases in evolved life forms, it may eventually result in consciousness of the type we possess.

And it is here that I think I see purpose. It is here that I choose one side of the game (Entropy vs. Complexity) over the other because I am necessarily prejudice and biased – because I am life.   So I chose for my purpose to aid the progress of complexity and increasing awareness and intelligence and to oppose all that which would pull it down. I can see no higher purpose in existence.

Personally, I like this formulation. It stands alone without recourse to anything human-centric or spiritual.

———

Well, from my POV, it was a great discussion.

As life, I think we need to support life or, as Dylan Thomas famously once said, “To rage against the dying of the light.”

We can be atheists or spiritualists. We each have an equal place at the table. We each decide our values and live by them or not and none of us can really know the implications of any of it.

4 Responses to “Gleanings”

  1. MD says:

    Dennis,

    Thanks for the summation.

    At the risk of opening this debate up yet again, I have a short comment. I just read your latest post “The Nature of The New World”. The summation of “Plan B 2.0 – rescuing a planet under stress and a Civilization in Trouble” flies in the face of what you state in your summation of “Letters Passing in the Night as Rome Burns”. You even handed out 25 copies fo the book to the people that most need influencing. It fell flat on its face. Also, the latest evidence on the prognosis of the demise of the Universe is that it is expanding at an accelerating rate and in the end it just fizzles out and dies; entropy wins.

    So I will end my comment with the one that started this in the first place:

    The definition of Stupid is: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

    Nevertheless, I suspect you will continue to hitch up the mule and plow that field again and again and again. Good plowing to you.

    Cheers,

    MD

  2. Dennis says:

    MD,

    I guess I’m deeply persuaded by what Michael Tobis said:

    “We should not be so foolish as to expect that our efforts will turn the tide, but we must hope so and act as if the possibility exists. If we don’t act as if the possibility of a better world exists, the possibility vanishes instantly.”

    And, as to the Universe fizzling out billions of years from now? Perhaps, just perhaps, we might be able to squeak out just a bit of self-generated pseudo purpose and meaning before then? It seems a bit early to give up.

    Your eternally optimistic head-banging friend and savior of the Universe, I remain,

    Dennis

  3. MD says:

    Dennis,

    I love the last line. That one was really funny!!!

    Its great to laugh. One of life’s most treasured pleasures. Hum, I wonder… does spirit die when the last star fades and the energy dissipates to nothingness?

    Bang on.

    MD

  4. fergus says:

    Hi guys,

    MD: you seem to have missed the point. Action is what matters. Expectation or hope are chimerae, irrelevant. The choice is to do or not to do. Dennis has chosen to do. As have I, and Michael.

    You could always think in terms of the way of Zen (as I understand it); you bang on and on with the same nonsensical koan until, one day…

    The you go and do.

    Best wishes,

    fergus.