Saturday, November 12, 2011

Tiny Sharp Sins

If you have ever had a splinter, you will know exactly what I'm talking about.

Imagine having a bad, crooked splinter stuck in your skin, so that you couldn't move, couldn't do anything without feeling it.  Imagine if it were impinging on a nerve, so that it was either numb or intensely painful all the time.

Sometimes I don't even realize it's a splinter.

If you can, try to imagine that feeling growing and growing, so that it's not just in one finger but spreading throughout your body in waves of numbness and pain.  Then imagine that it's not a physical pain, but an emotional one, alternating through waves of numbness and pain and fear and feeling empty and dead inside.  Sometimes emotional pain is far more excruciating than any physical pain I've had.  You've probably been there.

But if you followed the first part of the metaphor, you probably also know the feeling of finally gripping the splinter with tweezers and extricating it.  It hurts, but then the skin relaxes back where the splinter was.  The whole limb seems to breathe a deep sigh of relief, feeling the blessed absence of the horrid sharp thing that caused so much pain.  Every few minutes you remember where the splinter was and feel such a depth of gratitude that it's finally, finally gone.

It's not always easy to tell a priest how long (or how not-so-long) it's been since my last confession, and then to tell him I did this, and this, and this, and this.  But nothing in all the world can replace that deep, quiet peace that remains once the dark, crooked splinter is finally pulled.  Much of the time, I'm surprised how much pain that tiny, nasty splinter caused; usually I had blamed the pain on everything in the world but the splinter.  But once it is finally out, I have to pause every few minutes and marvel that it's really, truly gone.  

Once again, how did I ever live before Confession?

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Light and the Blind

Hello.  I am the automated robot that writes blog posts for Sarah in the event of her death at the hands of nasty medical school exams.

Just kidding, it's me.  

I said I had things to say after exams, so here I am; let the saying commence.

I left off in Sirens of Insanity by explaining how, for me, the use of reason leads to the death of reason at its own hands.  But I realized a few days after I posted it that I only explained why I don't think we can reason our way to ultimate truth; I did not actually explain what I do think.  The whole post left my inner editor-skeptic thinking, "Well, that's nice that you don't trust reason, but reason is humanity's only way to think about the world and come to conclusions.  So we had better trust it anyway, or else just accept our ignorance and stop trying."

(On the one hand, this is true.  Even though we know reason is ultimately flawed, we still use it to deal with the vast majority of the situations of life.  We know Newtonian mechanics is flawed. But we still use it for the vast majority of problems, because it works most of the time and only breaks down around the edges.  It's the same thing.  I think it is a mistake to turn against reason, and much of the Western world over the last three hundred years agrees.)  

So where do we go from here?  We cannot expect to derive all truths from observation and reason.  As I explained, there must be aspects of the ultimate truth that are immutably inscrutable to us and will therefore always seem illogical despite being completely true

Here is my metaphor.

Imagine that humanity was born into a giant biosphere that was utterly dark.  Because of the dark, we used our senses of hearing and touch to interact with the world and invented lots of tools to help us understand the world and not stub our toes on things in the dark.
(Of course, in such a situation, we would probably eventually invent flashlights, or even just fire.  But this is one place where the metaphor breaks down; no metaphor is perfect. I don't think it affects the conclusion.)

Now imagine that one day in one isolated little corner of the biosphere, light was found streaming in from the outside through a pinprick.  People couldn't touch it or hear it, but they have a seeing organ, the eye.  A part of them is sensitive to the light.

Some people would see it, but shrug it off as a weird... something.  Some people would see it and be forever moved by it in some way.  But some people would hold firmly to their senses of hearing and touch and remember all those principles had done for humanity. Then when the light remained silent and non-material, they would reject it.  Maybe it was a hallucination; many disease processes can cause flashes of light to appear.  Maybe it was a conspiracy.  Maybe it was wishful thinking.  Maybe it was an unsolvable mystery. In any case, they would see no reason to trust their sense of sight, especially when it seemed completely uncorroborated by hearing, touch, or common sense.

In fact, some people might have been born blind, and others might never have figured out how to open their eyes.  Some people's eyes might have atrophied.  Some of those people might believe it anyway.

Studies might be devised to see if consistent exposure to the light could cause any heat changes in a material.  Results would be mixed and probably not very impressive, and the methodology would be questioned extensively. Scientists would show that exposure to the light causes certain brain changes that are also observed under such-and-such other conditions.  They would show that people seem genetically programmed to see the light.
People would use the light and the perceived lack of light as excuses to indulge various hideous parts of themselves and as inspiration to do great things.
But the light would remain, and the sensation of sight would remain, and the objections would remain, and the arguments would remain.

This is how I see humanity.  We were born into a physical world.  But part of us responds to something that is not of the physical world.  This is why the vast majority of the people who have ever lived have believed in a spiritual reality.

One interesting part of this metaphor is that it illustrates how sincerely sympathetic I am to atheists, the people who maintain that there is no reason to believe in the pinprick of light far over our heads.  It would probably be the scientists, the academics, the educated people in the metaphor who would have the sense to not accept what they see at face value. I think their position makes sense. I see their point, I understand their reasoning, and I think they're being very smart about the whole thing.  But at the end of the day, I also think they're mistaken.

Some people just don't seem to respond to non-material things at all, like people in the metaphor who are blind.  The other failure of this metaphor is that a light is non-personal and has no way of knowing of or caring about the people in the dark.  Most world religions, on the other hand, believe in a much more personal being.  In the metaphor and in real life, I hope and believe that those who simply cannot see the light will not be punished for it.  Same thing for those who ignore the light without malice, from a genuine desire for truth.

This is why I believe in God.  I am one of those people who sees the light and is moved to tears by it.  I see in the light something from beyond the physical world, something that transcends reason, and something that offers a way to know truth that does not depend on reason.  This something just might be the answer to the fatal flaws in reason that I mentioned in Sirens of Insanity.

Take my belief for what it is worth, and do what you will with the light.  But just in case, don't keep your eyes shut.  It takes practice to learn how to focus them.  Don't give up.