Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Technology, Entertainment, and Design

Arthur Stanley Eddington:
If the kind of controversy which so often springs up between modernism and traditionalism in religion were applied to more commonplace affairs of life we might see some strange results. Would it be altogether unfair to imagine something liked the following series of letters in our correspondence columns? It arises, let us say, from a passage in an obituary notice which mentions that the deceased had loved to watch the sunsets from his peaceful country home. A. writes deploring that in this progressive age few of the younger generation ever notice a sunset; perhaps this is due to the pernicious influence of the teaching of Copernicus who maintains that the sun is really stationary. This rouses B to reply that nowadays every reasonable person accepts Copernicus’s doctrine. C is positive that he has many times seen the sun set, and Copernicus must be wrong. D calls for a restatement of belief, so that we may know just how much modern science has left of the sunset, and appreciated the remnant without disloyalty to truth. E (perhaps significantly my own initial) in a misguided effort for peace points out that on the most modern scientific theory there is no absolute distinction between the heavens revolving around the earth and the earth revolving under the heavens; both parties are (relatively) right. F regards this as a most dangerous sophistry, which insinuates that there is no essential difference between truth and untruth. G thinks that we ought now to admit frankly that the revolution of the heavens is a myth; nevertheless such myths have still a practical teaching for us in the present day. H produces an obscure passage in the Almagest, which he interprets as showing that the philosophy of the ancients was not really opposed to the Copernican view. And so it goes on. And the simple reader feels himself in an age of disquiet, insecurity and dissension, all because it is forgotten that what the deceased man looked out for each evening was an experience and not a creed.
Eddington goes on to distinguish "creed" on the grounds of Quakerism, and the absolute rejection of metaphysical knowledge (let us call it that, although "metaphysics" draws up consideration of matters that are sometimes supposedly physical, only ever so much more so.  I should, in other words, hesitate to use the term, except that "metaphysical" also properly means "beyond the physical," and so encompasses thought itself, and human experience; a subject upon which Eddington also has some interesting comments.)  Being an ordained minister and a faithful believer in the power of liturgical worship and the liturgical calendar, I'm not quite ready to join Eddington in throwing out creedal statements (and I recognize his bias; Eddington was a Quaker); so I don't think he's quite put his finger on the problem, but I appreciate the impulse nonetheless.

Grant that thy Church may be delivered from traditions which have lost their life, from usage which has lost its spirit, from institutions which no longer give life and power to their generation; that the Church may ever shine as a light in the world and be as a city set on a hill.

That's really as anti-creedal a statement as I can sign onto.  I think I would take Eddington's enlightening example rather as a starting point for existentialism, and for questioning the value of ratiocination in the examination of what really matters to the living individual.

Or, as William James put it:

1. A living option is one in which both hypotheses are live ones. If I say to you: "Be a theosophist or be a Mohammedan," it is probably a dead option, because for you neither hypothesis is likely to be alive. But if I say: " Be an agnostic or be Christian," it is otherwise: trained as you are, each hypothesis makes some appeal, however small, to your belief.

 2. Next, if I say to you: " Choose between going out with your umbrella or without it," I do not offer you a genuine option, for it is not forced. You can easily avoid it by not going out at all. Similarly, if I say, " Either love me or hate me," " Either call my theory true or call it false," your option is avoidable. You may remain indifferent to me, neither loving nor hating, and you may decline to offer any judgment as to my theory. But if I say, " Either accept this truth or go without it," I put on you a forced option, for there is no standing place outside of the alternative. Every dilemma based on a complete logical disjunction, with no possibility of not choosing, is an option of this forced kind.

 3. Finally, if I were Dr. Nansen and proposed to you to join my North Pole expedition, your option would be momentous; for this would probably be your only similar opportunity, and your choice now would either exclude you from the North Pole sort of immortality altogether or put at least the chance of it into your hands. He who refuses to embrace a unique opportunity loses the prize as surely as if he tried and failed. Per contra, the option is trivial when the opportunity is not unique, when the stake is insignificant, or when the decision is reversible if it later prove unwise. Such trivial options abound in the scientific life. A chemist finds an hypothesis live enough to spend a year in its verification: he believes in it to that extent. But if his experiments prove inconclusive either way, he is quit for his loss of time, no vital harm being done. It will facilitate our discussion if we keep all these distinctions well in mind.

Is the creed, in other words, a living option for you?  If so, you adopt it; but recognize always its limitations.  This, I firmly believe, is the underlying basis of the parables.  The story of the Prodigal Son is really the story of the Crazy Father, a father who casts aside all reasonable social restraints and respects his son absolutely.  That respect is not only absolute toward his son, it is also absolutely contrary to the interests of society.  What example does the father set, to allow such a crude and gross insult as:  "I want what's coming to me, and I want it now?"  It is a demand that can only be interpreted as:  "Drop dead, old man, and get out of the way of my inheritance!"  Which, to say the least, violates the "creed" of one of the Ten Commandments.

And yet the father acquiesces.  Is this good, or bad?  And when the prodigal returns, the father uses the brother's property (the father having divided everything between the two sons) to celebrate the return, and worse, leaves the brother with the social and moral quandary:  to acquiesce to the father's insanity, or to challenge the father's love, which here truly does conquer all (we seldom think of it that way, do we?).   Recognize the older brother's struggle here:  he's done everything right.  He's honored his father; he still does.  But is his father crazy?  Or a genius?  And if we all ordered society as the father does, what then?

Which returns us to the point of religious belief, and of Eddington's engaging example:  the real question is not, how do we explain life?  The real question is:  how should we then live?


  1. "[T]he real question is not, how do we explain life? The real question is: how should we then live?"

    But, when we look carefully at the question of how we should live, that inquiry includes, and leads us back to, how we explain life.

    It is good and right that we should love one another, and tell others so. But what then do we answer when someone asks us (or I ask myself), why?

  2. If the question of how we explain life does not lead us back to how we live our life, it is an empty question.

    I don't disparage the questioning, except as it leads to the kind of discussion Eddington presents as a thought experiment. When that is the telos of "explaining life," it is an empty goal, indeed.

  3. I'm thinking of posting more of Eddington who had some interesting things to say on things like this. Those posts were some of my most popular ones. Maybe after the allergy-Benadryl season is over. My editing goes completely to hell during allergy season.

  4. "If the question of how we explain life does not lead us back to how we live our life, it is an empty question."

    I wouldn't necessarily agree; I think there is such a thing as knowledge for it's own sake.

    Still, in fact, "what is" and "what one ought to do" are for most of us interrelated questions, neither one of which "is" or "ought to be" superfluous.

    I have noticed in many of these exchanges I have advocated a "both/and" as distinguished from your "either/or." I don't want to give the impression that I consider "both/and" always, or even more often, prefereable to the "either/or." But, in this case, I don't think we need to choose between thought and practice.

    It also seems appropriate to note that the commandments form no part of any creed. "Do not kill" is an imperative, not an indicative statement. It tells us how to live. By contrast the actual creeds don't include the commandments, the golden rule, the greatest commandment, or any reference to love. Because those undoubted essentials of the Christian faith are imperatives, not credal assertions.

  5. Regarding creeds, Eddington opens the topic with this sentence:

    Religious creeds are a great obstacle to any full sympathy between the outlook of the scientist and the outlook which religion is so often supposed to require.

    I disagree. Nor do I think the creeds necessarily "words to live by." And certainly there is knowledge worth knowing for the simple sake of knowing it. But simply pursuing that knowledge, even for the simple sake of curiosity, is to lead you to live a certain life. And the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, can too easily and quickly become a pursuit of self-interest.

    I'm reminded of the story of a monk of the New Skete community, when the head of the community warned him against his interest in books and knowledge, lest they become his "god." He was a monk. It wasn't likely he would turn into Faustus. But knowledge cannot be pursued without abandoning other pursuits, and knowledge pursued becomes how you live your life. Perhaps not totally, perhaps not absolutely, but the "both/and" is too easily a siren's song that convinces us our self-interest is in the best interests of the world; or at least, of those we know and who know us.

    All questions, in other words, that are worth pursuing, lead back to how we live our lives. But only some questions force us to face that fact. The questions that distract, are the ones that lead us neither to wisdom, nor to God. And it is only in living, that we come to God.