Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Spero: All the Other Bits

Well, not quite all the other bits. I have gotten cold feet and left something out.

"I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s” - William Blake

Or should that be:

"He had passed from Hegel into Hume, thence through Pragmatism, and thence through Logical Positivism, and out at last into the complete void." – From That Hideous Strength, by C. S. Lewis. (Is that Wither? Or Frost? I can’t find the passage in my copy.)

I think I had reached as far as ‘What to do next?’ on my originally foreshadowed plan. This is of course *the* big question of Life the Universe and Everything.

And I’ve said that before, so I’m repeating myself.

I shall therefore sum up my Spero document, with a few extra things that have occurred to me along the way.

I. I have entrusted the writing of these words to a common man;
they will never be what I want to say but only their shadow
.” – Jorge Luis Borges

Science is the faith that the universe is rational and comprehensible.

Why should we hold this irrational faith rather than an irrational faith in magic, Scientology, astrology, or fundamentalist Christianity? Ultimately, we have to point at the fruits of this faith. What has holding this faith enabled us to do? What has it produced? How does this compare with the fruits of other faiths? Here the scientific worldview easily stomps over all the others as far as its ability to materially improve the well-being of real human beings and other creatures in a measurable way.

Think of the worm Bilharzia, which is one of the plagues of Egypt. It bores its way into the urinary bladder or the rectum, and there often sets up a peculiarly unpleasant form of cancer. For thousands of years men and women had prayed to Osiris, to Jesus, and to Allah, for deliverance from this agony. Bilharzia carried on. In 1917 Christopherson discovered that this disease, provided cancer had not developed, can invariably be cured with antimony tartrate.’ – J. B. S. Haldane

Religion is the faith that the universe is good.

We have a duty to be optimistic. We should not believe that the universe is, in its essence, just a mass of suffering and futility. We should hold an irrational faith that the criminal horrors of the universe can be harmonised into a system in which the universe is in essence a good thing. Why should we hold this irrational faith? Again, the only real excuse is that it is justified by its fruits. How much of lasting value has been created by people who held the faith that the universe was basically bad? That nothing was worth doing? I assert, not very much.

II. ‘The more the universe seems comprehensible the more it seems pointless.’ – Steven Weinberg

If this were true, would it be so bad? Wouldn’t it be much worse if the universe had a point, and it was a point that we didn’t think much of? A point that sucked. I can’t think of anything that would crush our spirits more.

My discussion of absolute morality in terms of ‘upness’ might have suggested that there is ultimately just one outcome that is ‘most good’, one ‘point’ for the universe. But this is an accident arising from my use of an insufficiently good metaphor. Similarly, my analogy of the history of life as a role-playing game with God as the GM might have suggested, to those more familiar with campaigns in the style of ‘DM of the Rings’ than ‘Darth and Droids’, that God is hustling us along towards one ideal universe. But this is not really what I believe. Someone (probably Chesterton) has observed that all tyrants are boringly the same, while the Saints are gloriously different: and the more saintly, the more different. There are an infinite number of ‘best’ universes. Which one we end up in depends on what we do. In metagame theodicy, as its pretentious name suggests, the actions of the players in playing the game not only create the universe, but determine the point of the game.

This suggests three new definitions of Good:

Good1 is the ability of an entity to play the game. The more freedom an entity has, the greater capacity it has to act and influence its environment, the better.

Good2 is the aggregate ability of all entities in the universe to play the game. We should not trample on Good2 to increase Good1. Maybe we need to strive towards a Loftingesque universe where everything is a player, where everything is sentient, and somehow come up with an ethics that will work in this universe.

Good3 is whatever contributes to the point which the players and God eventually come up with.

Maybe we are late in the game, and the universe does have a point. But I think we are early, and it doesn’t. But maybe one day, it will. Glory be to God, Lord of the Worlds!


Dave said...

In lieu of a more considered response, on your first point, I agree that science assumes the universe to be rational, but does it necessarily follow that it is also comprehensible?

Dr. Clam said...

It is very much a 'suck it and see' approach... confronted with any phenomenon, science assumes that we *will* be able to understand it and is happy to keep banging its head against for generation after generation in the hope that we will be able to comprehend it. I think 'comprehensible' is an important part of the definition because there are plenty of religious worldviews that would claim the universe is rational, but beyond our ken- but at the same time, you are right, it is probably overstating the case a bit. We hope rather than confidently assert that the universe is ultimately comprehensible.

Dave said...

Fair enough, that's more in line with my view, which is that it may well be comprehensible, but not to anyone that we might currently recognise as human. Posthuman loosely-coalescent thought-nebulae or martians might be able to crack omni-comprehension where squishy-brained humanity simply cannot.

That is to say, science's viability or otherwise is independent of the humanocentric perspective. I take no particular stance on religion's dependencies.

Anonymous said...

See my comments on your definitions of good in my blog