He had known the conversation would be difficult, and, as always, He had been right. He let His mind drift.
In his young godding days, things had been easy. Thunder, it had felt good. They did warn you. Creating a world was fun, but if you started to take an interest, if you let yourself become enmeshed with its history, it would change you.
And he had become enmeshed: he had fallen in love. With a perfect soul, a warm and wonderful human being. The warmth of her smile flooded Him with joy, and when she was in pain, so was He. And He had begun to change. Unthinking cruelty towards His creatures was impossible now, as it would hurt her. And when she talked of humanity, how could He not listen?
Slowly, He began to understand. He had given them knowledge, but not control. They were still at the mercy of every instinct and impulse. Teaching them to judge instead of to accept had backfired, creating conflicts and hatred, blocking their ability to cooperate.
How could He punish them for being what He had made them? She had asked, and He had found no answer. To understand all was to forgive all. He wrenched His mind back to the present.
“Rehabilitation?!” The devil’s ears were quivering. Hell wasn’t more than an eternal naughty step, anyway. He simply didn’t have the staff. But this was going too far.
“If a King orders a General to fly like a bird and the General fails, whose fault is that?”
Luce snorted. “Another one of your son’s little parables, huh?”
No, ” He said patiently, “it’s from a book, a human book.” And He began to explain His plans.
* * *
When Luce left, his tail was twitching nervously. He gave himself a little shake. Early retirement didn’t sound too bad. Relax. Take some time off on a hot beach. Leave the job to someone else.
It simply wasn’t fair! He fumed. The client base was growing. There was really only so much he could do with his small host of imps. Who mostly chased their own tails, anyway.
With the population explosion, he had counted on setting the damned souls to work. Now the Boss had vetoed it. It would be pernicious to their souls. They were the damned, dammit! But, apparently, the fine print foresaw ultimate salvation for all.
He didn’t know how he’d manage without computers. Next: a customizable operating system. He grinned. It would drive people mad! He’d simply be raking the souls in!
She hated frills and furbelows. A complex machine, now, that was beautiful. Everything in its place, functioning together as a harmonious whole.
She had spent aeons on the design, fine-tuning the different factors to achieve a delicate balance. Everything would be perfect. A few simple laws, that was the trick. No tinkering would be needed: only mechanics did that. It was fitting that to breathe life into her creation she would explode into a trillion trillion pieces.
She looked at her plan, and saw that it was good. Her final thought was: “Let there be light.”
And there was light.
* * *
T. Mastgrave’s philosophical story challenge: Simplicity.
Yesterday I wrote about the SEP article on existence. Today I’ll describe what I think it means to say something exists, and what that implies for “reality“.
All the world’s a stage
When we think about the world, we have an image in our minds, though it’s not necessarily visual. I think of this as our inner or mental stage. It can become a blasted heath, the banquet hall in Hogwarts, the office, or our dream holiday location: let’s call these different sets. When we imagine something or someone to be “there”, we add a placeholder or avatar on our stage to that particular set (e.g. “blasted heath”) with mental notes describing the properties we attribute to that object or person.
A placeholder for a chair may have notes like: can sit on this, stand on it to reach top shelf, take it apart and throw in fire (n.b. owner might not like this), best not collide with it, as may hurt.
Let us say something exists with these properties relative to a mental set if adding the mental placeholder and notes there leads to good results, i.e. accurate predictions and appropriate actions. If I walk into the chair, I’ll hurt myself, just as I thought, and hopefully avoid it in future.
Appropriate properties are needed for these predictions: if I believe the bugblatter beast makes a good meal for tourists, rather than of tourists, our poor hitchhiker may well get eaten.
Both properties and existence belong to their mental set. When Harry Potter grabs his broomstick (note: it flies!), I’ll know what to expect, even though I’m aware my own broomstick can’t do that. And I can talk about Harry Potter, although I know he’s a fictional character.
Say thy opinion
For some things, we all agree they exist in this sense.
I’ve never met anyone who chooses to sit down just beside the chair rather than on it. I’m not talking about metaphysical beliefs. You may believe the world is an illusion; you’ll still take care to sit in the place where-the-chair-isn’t. That’s because if you step out in front of the tram you don’t believe exists, or walk off the roof you believe is an illusion, even once, I’ll never meet you.
For other things, it’s not quite as clear.
I accept that protons, electrons, and photons exist in this sense because the predictions based on them seem fairly accurate to me. I’m not sure what a photon is exactly, as it’s one of these strange things that is sort-of-a-wave and sort-of-a-particle, but I’m happy to stick a mental toothpick in my stage set for the “real world” with notes like: flies around, lets me see things, best not worry about it too much.
Some people think they see things just because those things are there. These people don’t feel the need to allow for weird things like photons and say, “mmm, whatever” – like I do when the physicists start talking superstrings.
It’s when we consider supernatural entities, e.g. God, that things get complicated.
For some people, God is an integral part of their life. They agree you can’t touch him like a chair, but they “feel” him, talk to him etc. They have a God-placeholder in their world, with varying properties depending on their particular faith, and that works just fine for them.
Others cannot imagine a world with God in it. When they try to put a God-placeholder on their mental stage, it leads to all kinds of contradictions, and is generally unpleasant – so they remove it, and are completely happy without it.
As both mental worlds work well, I believe both views, both truths, are equally valid. Whether or not you believe God exists*, you can come to a working view of the world – though the two will be rather different. And questions about truth aside, you may like one of these worlds better than the other.
*Caveat: I am talking only about the claim that God exists, not about claims concerning creation or miracles.
Now, on my mental stage there isn’t a place for God.
In my view, people who believe that morality comes from God are in fact creating their own morality. They pick which Bible stories to use and which to ignore for deciding what is right or good. And then they attribute this to God because having a clear moral authority makes them feel more comfortable than believing they have to make things up as they go along. But this line of reasoning is in my head. On my mental stage. With the placeholders and properties I put there.
I assume that conversely, people who believe in God think I’ve somehow derived my morality from God and just don’t realise it. On their inner stage the set for “the real world” looks quite different from mine.
To conclude with truth
I wish we could all accept that there is no absolute truth, no final answer to questions about concepts and supernatural entities!
If people from all sides accepted this, maybe we could stop arguing about who is right, and try to find common ground. On how to live together, on how to make this world a better place. Regardless of whether we believe in another one. O brave new world.
The flame flickered. Before anyone could react, it sizzled and died. A chorus of strangled cries erupted from the congregation. The priest swayed on his heels in speechless horror.
The door creaked shut as an apologetic figure sidled in. The priest swung around. “You!”, he hissed, his eyes burning with fury.
Speak or die, Eric thought. “Don’t you see Thos himself blew out the flame? He wants to show us it is the eternal flame inside our souls that matters, not any candle or lamp. You will see, nothing bad will happen.”
Would they go for it? He’d find out.
The 100wcgu at Julia’s place: …the flame flickered before…
We tend to see actions of others in terms of their characters. An action to us seems to prove someone is kind, or courageous, or selfish. We rarely stop to think about what situation the person is in.
Perhaps one of the most important experiments on human behaviour ever done is Darley & Batson1973. It suggests that whether or not we help someone in need depends more on what that means to our current situation – in this case the test subjects were in a hurry – than whether or not we are “kind” or “helpful” people.
If we could stop judging people by their actions, and try instead to understand why they act as they do, it could be a whole new world.
A hand shot up. “My mum says we don’t believe in all those things.”
“I know, Bobby. If your mother has a problem she can come to me.”
He wished the fundamentalists would keep out of the classroom. The amount of fighting over the science curriculum was unbelievable. And as a natural history teacher he didn’t even get the worst of it. Poor Mrs. Withers, teaching alchemy…
If Bobby’s mother came what would he show her?
He sighed. It wouldn’t matter. The fundamentalists never bothered with evidence.
Gerald did a double take. He hadn’t imagined it! I can see you, he said accusingly. The tiny red figure on the screen looked sheepish. -You were keeping the document from loading? -Shh! it hissed urgently. -You want to upset me? -No, that’s rubbish, it said. -But then why? I mean the other side I’d understand, computers are the devil’s work…
You’ve got it all wrong. We’re working together on this. And mostly it works: when do you take your eyes off your screen? When do you speak to actual people, who are really there? It’s when this happens.
What is free will, anyway? Here some ways of seeing it._____
Free decision _____
“If we went back to a situation and faced it again, we could go another way.”
This is simply meaningless. As Heraclitus already knew, you cannot bathe in the same river twice._____
“Before we decide, it could go either way.”
Recent findings suggest that someone looking at your brain can see what you will decide, before you become aware of it.
More relevantly, simple factors are good predictors of our lives._____
“If we go through the same type of situations again and again, we can make different decisions.”
No, we can’t. No matter how badly we want to change our behaviour, as long as the situations remain the same (for us), we tend to make the same bad decisions over and over.
What we can do, is change the situation. Often by changing the way we think about it. Therapy types that change how we think about a situation are the ones that seem to be most helpful.___
Harm avoiders ____
“We can take measures to avoid bad things we see coming.”
Undoubtedly. In fact, we cannot do otherwise.
Call that freedom? Prisoners of the world: you are free. Well, free to remain in your cells.
Why do we actually want free will? Who wants to bother with all the little stuff: breathe in, breathe out, lift foot, blink eyes…?
What we want, is to have the power to make the big decisions. Especially when our actions seem to go against what we think we want. Then we want a “manual override” button, to do as we choose.
We are simply not aware of many of the factors going into the decision making process. An override button might do more harm than good. Anyway, why should our conscious self be allowed to skew the decision in its favour?
But it feels like I’m deciding
Someone told Wittgenstein that people had thought the sun revolves around the earth “because it looked that way”. He is said to have asked: “But how would it have looked if the earth revolved around the sun?”
Now, how would it feel if you were not consciously deciding? Of course, “you” do decide. It’s just not a part of you that is in the spotlight of conscious awareness.
Where does that leave us?
Our decision making process is largely an unconscious one. Our cognitive brain may be asked for an analysis of the situation, but that’s it. Our conscious justifications come after the fact. There is an “out”: when we are too unhappy with our decision making, this triggers conscious reflection and we can take steps to improve.
German philosopher Schmidt-Salomon says: we are free to act according to our desires, but not free to choose what we desire (here).
Good enough for me.
If we invent (most of) our reality, does it make a difference what we believe? Isn’t it like choosing your favourite colour?
For some questions, maybe. For others, not. Suppose that preferring blue over red could make you happier. Suppose that our cultural bias towards red causes conflict, wars, and misery. Suppose that by favouring blue we could move towards peace. Wouldn’t you try to get used to blue?
I shall not argue that blue is better. Or that there is a higher truth to red = bad. But I shall show you that all your life you have been brainwashed to prefer red, and encourage you to try, just for a moment, to move towards blue. Who knows, you may get to like it. And you can always go back to red, if you prefer.
The fundamental belief
Stated below is one of the basic tenets of Christian philosophy, the fundament of occidental culture. You encounter these ideas a hundred times a day. You may never even have thought of this as a question. And still the answer you unwittingly give has the most profound effect on your life.
There is Good. There is Evil. As humans we know the difference, and must choose between them.
In more detail:
Suffering comes from evil.
Innocence is the basic human condition. The roots of evil lie hidden.
The other is different from us, an evil and dissembling creature.
When they see the error of their ways, those who do evil can be saved. Confession and penitence are the road to salvation.
Cure (for society) lies in the eradication of hidden evil.
There is one absolute truth.
Now suppose that were not true.
The tragic view
Suffering is an essential part of life.
Human motivation is multi-layered. Bad acts often stem from positive qualities or motivations.
The other is similar to us.
When we understand why someone acts the way they do, we can find ways to help them change their behaviour, or ways to protect ourselves from that behaviour.
The ubiquity of suffering requires acceptance, compassion and consolation.
There can be different, equally valid points of view.
Alon/Omer, see below, call this the tragic view, and the fire-and-brimstone one the demonic view.
This way of thinking may seem unfamiliar, awkward. It certainly goes against <insert age here> years of brainwashing. You don’t think you’ve been brainwashed? Compare how often you’ve heard:
The bastard, he really deserves to be punished.
Who does she think she is?
Well, I don’t like what she did, but I guess that was the best she could do.
I suppose he must really be in a difficult situation, if it makes him act like that.
So the second kind of thinking feels unfamiliar, maybe even just plain wrong, because you’ve rarely or never done it, or heard it. Each time you think a thought it becomes easier, and seems more plausible, but that doesn’t make it true.
Right or wrong?
Neither view is right or wrong: they are different ways of interpreting the world. There are some arguments against the demonic view, like its basic lack of symmetry: I am good, you are bad, I am right, you are wrong, see the irregular verbs. There also reasons why it’s helpful to adopt the tragic view. More another day.