The spiritual view is that man is divine in origin with an immortal soul. The materialist view is that man is an evanescent accident with no moral nature except that created in him by his experience and culture. As mortal human beings, we have no way o’ knowing which view is correct, Eric. What holds and constitutes Christianity is a body of myths. We each interpret these myths differently. Most Christians believe them, some don’t, but all revere them. As a matter of faith, we believe there is an immortal soul that survives the death of the physical body. I’m not blind. I’m as convinced as anyone that a corpse canna come back to life, but I do believe the immortal soul goes on whether or not I can imagine how. But that is not the point. Whether or not we travel through eternity, we do, at the very least, have this moment here on earth. You are alive now, and that’s what matters. What you must do is to make the most of that, my son. You must make each day count even if it is to be your last. Behind the Locked Door
Your blogger in chief at Think in the Morning has been working on a novel for the past several years. That book is now about to be published. More on that in future blogs. Having read through the book several times in the process of editing and preparing for publication, it has become apparent to me that the book is in some sense an interior argument—that is, an argument with myself. It is my supposition that anyone who is not an unthinking fundamentalist argues with themselves during moments of reflection that can occur any time anywhere. The quote at the top of this blog is one example. Which is correct, the spiritual view or the materialist view?
My character, an unconventional Catholic priest, Father Jordan, gives the definitive answer: “As mortal human beings we have no way o’knowing which view is correct.” Science, reason, the emotions—none of these can prove either point of view beyond doubt. Father Jordan sensibly gives the novel’s hero, Eric, the best and most useful advice: “Whether or not we travel through eternity, we do, at the very least, have this moment here on earth. You are alive now, and that’s what matters. What you must do is to make the most of that, my son.”
A few years ago I made a deep study of these matters reading among others the philosopher John Gray, the theologian Hans Küng, the anthropologist Melvin Konner, the biologist E. O. Wilson, the cosmologist Janna Levin, the writer Bill Bryson, the multi-talented author-poet Jennifer Michael Hecht, the essayist, novelist, poet, playwright and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, the historian Roy Porter and the science writer Martin Gardner. I also listened to countless hours of fascinating interviews by Krista Tippett on Speaking of Faith (now called On Being). Thus far, I’ve come up short. Thus, my default to the wise counsel of Father Jordan.
I’m still arguing with myself. Hans Küng puts the existential question best:
[All of us] are confronted with the existential alternative: Is the evolutionary process meaningless and a last abandonment of the human, or not? To put it succinctly, what makes itself felt in the infinitely many individual variations of concrete life? Either one says no to a primal ground, primal support, and primal goal of the whole evolutionary process, in which case one must take account of the meaninglessness of the whole process and the forsakenness of the human being. To quote Monod once again: “If he [the human being] accepts this message in its full significance, man must at last wake out of his millenary dream and discover his total solitude, his fundamental isolation. He must realize that, like a gipsy, he lives on the boundary of an alien world: a world that is deaf to his music, and as indifferent to his hopes as it is to his suffering or his crimes.” I concede that for me this is neither a hopeful nor even a rational prospect. Or one says yes to a primal ground, primal support, and primal goal. In that case, while one may not base the fundamental meaningfulness of the whole process and one’s own existence on the process itself, one may trustingly presuppose it. Eigen’s question would then be answered: “The recognition of connections still does not produce any answer to the question asked by Leibniz: “Why is there something and not nothing?” This is the question I have attempted to answer. The Beginning of All Things: Science and Religion.
There are those, like me, who dwell on these conundrums. My guess is that a Buddhist would laugh at me and say get over it, there is no you. Lao Tzu would remind me: Heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs. [This is from the Witter Bynner translation of Lao Tzu’s Way of Life from which John Gray takes the title for his book Straw Dogs.]
I plug along arguing with myself to no end in spite of the warning from the mathematician Kurt Godel:
It was a time in history when most mathematicians, I think it would be fair to say, believed that mathematics could address every mathematical proposition. And that’s a fair enough thing to believe in retrospect. Why shouldn’t mathematics be able to prove every true mathematical fact? So when Gödel came along and he found a very surreal kind of tangle, a mathematical proposition that makes a peculiar claim about itself, which cannot be proven within the context of arithmetic — it was in the context of arithmetic that he did this — it really shocked people. It really shook them up. And I think the way he said it is actually the clearest and nicest way to say it. “There are some truths that can never be proven to be true.” And it opens up this idea — which terrified people — that there are limits to what we can ever know. Janna Levin (interview on Speaking of Faith)
I might be better off if I followed the example of another one of my characters in Behind the Locked Door, Louie Frieze [these are shameless advertisements for my book but hey, I’ve got to pay for the damn thing]:
Frieze didn’t bother with the unanswerable questions. He didn’t dwell on his eternal inadequacies or try to explain life. Behind the Locked Door
The human tragedy, if you wish to call it that, is immortalized by Yeats in The Coming of Wisdom with Time(quoted by E. O. Wilson in On Human Nature).
Though leaves are many, the root is one;
Through all the lying days of my youth
I swayed my leaves and flowers in the sun;
Now I may wither into the truth.
I might be better off if I ended this vain search for answers to the unanswerable questions. But I can’t stop. With Albert Camus: I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I do not know that meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it. The Myth of Sisyphus
So, here I am, arguing with myself. Quoting again from Camus:
Man stands face to face with the irrational. He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world. The Myth of Sisyphus