Sunday, December 02, 2012


It’s total nonsense to argue about the existence of God.  As any good counselor would tell you (and I’m including Dear Abby here) the place to start on a problem is the end that you can control.  Since we cannot control God, nor does her/she/it need us to, but we certainly need to control ourselves, then that’s where we must start.  Who are we?  How do we operate?  Forget the Higgs boson, the so-called “God Particle.”  Where is the particle for being human?  

Clearly we are code coming out of code and leading to more code.  Genome deriving from a throw of the dice between two other genomes and leading to future genomes.  The results of a good throw (defined as one that fits the circumstances of the birth and suits the person for the life that follows) are happy, so choose your parents with care.  Virtuous people seem to be as much a result as a cause.  But it is the mutations, the aberrations, the misfits that drive evolution towards what is more complex, more adaptive, even more beautiful.  “Higher,” if you like.  That is, if they don’t get crushed before they can reproduce.  And if they live in a world where people are pleased to reproduce.  Right now the birth rate is going down.

With luck, most people who don’t quite fit are restless and resourceful enough to change themselves or seek new circumstances or find compensations so that on balance they end up satisfied and even contributing to good lives for others.  By “others” I mean animals, vegetables, minerals and fellow humans to say nothing of the skies and the oceans, for as every butterfly knows, the smallest perturbation can become a cyclone.  Some guy figures out that coal will burn and the next thing you know an acid sea is engulfing Manhattan.  Just takes time.

But you’re not the only butterfly in the field.  Think of all those perturbations and commotions interacting -- fractally, I suppose -- and all the emergent phenomena coming from that.  “Emergent” is my favorite word lately.  I used to like “organic” and “creative” but they’re a little threadbare.  Emergent means something like the same thing except that the emphasis is that it's something that just naturally happens because of the interaction of forces.  You don’t need a gardener or an artist -- a creator -- it just happens.  Unexpectedly.  Like a black swan.  Or white crow.  Except without an egg, which is a one-celled entity that becomes very complex -- think of all those feathers!

A scientific rule is that if you have a lot of something, it becomes something new.  The neuro-scientists say that our brains register some small thing -- maybe a color or a musical note -- and then some more until things pile up enough that a pattern becomes emergent and it accrues with something else and that interweaves with another something and pretty soon you’ve got music or art.  It’s not arithmetical or according to geometry or an algorithm.  It “folds” like a molecule does, a little origami of newness, and there you have it: a piece of paper looking like a swan.  Or crow.

This is too fancy.  The major problem with God is called “Theodicy.”  That’s the technical term for a good God that lets bad things happen.  But where’s the technical term for HUMANS that let bad things happen?  I’m reading about genocide -- that’s about as bad as humans can get -- and the big surprise is that humans make bad things happen in self-defense!  Or so the theory goes: that if some other kind of humans come around saying you’re no good and your whole understanding of the world is wrong, then you can hardly help but kill them.  It’s more blameless if you can just stand back and let them starve or die of disease.  What could you do?  I mean, that wouldn’t cost a lot of money.  Better to do the world a favor and let them die -- natural evolution, you know.   Not so dramatic as taking a machete to your neighbor.  But it could lead to the elimination of humans from the planet -- what could be more self-defeating?

Wilshire can really turn a phrase.  He talks about “that primal, moody, mythic engulfment and involvement that creates the basic erotic level of world-experienced, world-meant, world clutched and hoarded as ours.”  This is what we protect by not acting to protect others and their worlds.  Wilshire talks about “mimetic engulfment” which means that people try to do what all the other people around them are doing: dress like them, eat like them, talk like them -- without reflecting about what it really means or how “right” it is.  Except recently the “North Atlantic” culture, as Wilshire calls it, has begun analyzing itself.

I subscribe to a listserv where psychoanalysts and literary scholars discuss the most elegant and abstract of concepts.  They were horrified by the article called “The Monster of Monticello” in the New York Times about Thomas Jefferson keeping slaves.   These sophisticated people who delve into the deepest obsessions of dark recesses could hardly believe that Jefferson kept slaves, sold them away when he needed more money for the luxuries of his life, and refused to free all but his own genetic children with his slave Sally Hemings.  He did not free Sally, who had the same father as his first, white, legal wife.  (This is the place where I always make flip remarks about the distinction between marriage and slavery.)

I reminded these people that Clark of Lewis & Clark also refused to free York after promising he would and after York had been an equal so long as they were on the expedition.  I’m not the first to realize that Sacajawea was about as much owned as married.  And I said something else I read in an article: there are more people enslaved and trafficked in the USA today than in the year Jefferson composed the Declaration of Independence.  Yes, I believe these things are true.  We just didn’t want to know them.  Making slavery illegal merely pushed it underground.  

So scholars and philosophers are as captured by what Wilshire calls “the trance of everyday life” as anyone else.  I’m not good at taking in strays or marching in parades or wearing ribbons for this or that.  But I do try to wake people up from that trance.  Part of it is encouraging them to tolerate those who cannot be healed from whatever terrifying affliction they suffer even though we wish them well and devote energy and money to their care.  How dare they not respond to our caring?   They say that those who must treat burn victims come to hate them because the burned suffer so much, screaming when their necessarily excruciatingly painful treatment -- like abrading off dead skin -- is administered.  Enough pain killers to prevent the hurt would kill them.

Nice people with portraits of heroes on their coins do not want to hear about their inevitable limitations, because that means we’re limited, too.  We are.  We are so very limited in what we can understand, much less do.  Happier to imagine some unlimited Being that might rescue us.  But a few people will simply see what they can do within their resources and maybe push back some of those limits.  That’s virtue.  A flutter of the wings.  It might eventually be enough.  

1 comment:

Dr Dave said...

In Div school, as a protest to the feminist usurpation of all dialogue about God that was not about sexism, I used the pronoun she/he/it instead of HE or SHE or GODSELF. The prof was not amused.