Wednesday, April 25, 2007


Someone at work told me the story this morning of what kind of a life one of their relatives had led and what kind of a death -- cancer and asphixiation at 41 -- that life had led to. In as respectful a manner as possible, I asked the person how they were able to reconcile what they had just narrated with the concept of a supreme creator. I brought up The Problem of Evil. One possible answer, the person said, as prescribed by a book she was reading, was that pain and suffering arise from our own limitations, because we're simply unable to grasp a larger purpose or design at work. If that's the case, though, I think, then why believe in a plan at all? Is it more comforting to believe in an incomprehensible design, one that by its very defeat of human understanding leads to agony, or to not believe in one at all? Surely, other considerations must weigh in on us.

Well, here's another consideration. Gabriel McKee, in his excellent book The Gospel According to Science Fiction (2007), has a brief discussion of a 1971 short story by Theodore Sturgeon titled "Dazed". I haven't read the story, but it sounds sufficiently intriguing to get a hold of. (And I really need to get my act together and purchase the ongoing short story Sturgeon volumes.) McKee writes:

"Depending on one's interpretation of this ambiguity, this story may suggest that increased sin is needed to restore the world from its fallenness. 'Dazed' suggests that the only way for a world to be saved from sin is for it to fall further into it."

Interesting stuff. What I'm interested is in the application of this to human relationships. How does the notion of evil or sin sit with personal suffering and pain?

I don't think my friend could relate to this in an emotional sense. I'm not sure I could. How far should we fall? Haven't we descended quite enough already?

Of course, "The Cold Equations" provides further food for thought, dramatically portraying the harsh lack of morality expressed by the very laws of Nature. The Universe is not a compassionate place; it's governed by uncaring rules. But isn't this a misapplication of categories, philosophically speaking? We cannot reasonably ask for something that is intrinsically outside the scope of morality -- a cloud, a car -- to be either a manifestation of morality or amorality, and especially of moral or amoral behavior. After all, what does it mean for something to be compassionate? Compassion can only be defined through action, not merely existence. Something must be actively behaving in some way for the label to apply. Yet the Universe merely exists, it does not "behave" in this same sense at all. The laws of Nature, I would therefore argue, aren't cold nor warm -- these terms cannot be applied, by their very definition, to the cosmos.

If there's nothing wrong that leads to pain -- if it isn't original sin, or the devil, or simply immoral behavior -- then where does it come from? Here, I think, Buddhist metaphysics offers a much more convincing argument. Pain results from attachment, which in turn derives from the illusion of identity.

My friend's pain stems from her attachment to her relative, from her notion that, in a very real sense, her relative existed and had a continuous identity over time. If we didn't believe that identity to be real, we wouldn't become attached to begin with. But how can we grasp the non-existence of identity on an emotional level? How does it feel for us to understand, to truly know inside, that identity doesn't exist? I don't have an answer to this question but I do struggle with it time and again.

Cancer, death. A life unfulfilled. Children with no father. Out of the blue. Happened suddenly. Fast. A few weeks. A tumor in the face. A disfiguration into death, literally. A case of conscience? I don't believe anyone is keeping tabs. I don't believe there is a purpose or meaning to a person dying, just as there isn't to a leaf falling or a star going nova. Things die and transform, because mechanisms play out, with no awareness or direction.

Later, in a different chapter of his book, McKee writes of Asimov's story "Reason":

"Asimov's attitude toward faith as depicted in 'Reason' is clever, albeit somewhat condescending: it is self-delusion, but if it produces good bevahior, faith can be useful to society as a whole."

I'm a little puzzled as to why McKee thinks this is condescending. True, it is defining religious experience through functionality. But all operational definitions of Christian religious experience revert to functionality -- becoming less sinful, going to Heaven, having stronger faith, etc. etc. Anything that leads to good behavior is of tremendous use. Who would rather, intrinsically, be in a relationship with another human being who was terribly immoral but non-religious or one who was moral and religious? Given those two choices, I would pick the latter. Unfortunately, the flaw I see in this particular argument is that the dichotomy of choice is a false one. It is entirely reasonable for someone to be completely moral and non-religious. The existence of absolute morals within religion does not imply that one cannot have morals not derived from this religion (or any other).

So. Let us be moral, and let us behave as best we can. Why? Certainly not because it's commanded, or is absolute. It's our choice. We should choose it because our good behavior, our cooperation, will lead us to progress and evolve more successfully, both technologically and organically. It is essential in humanity's quest to redefine itself and perhaps even banish death.

I want humanity to overcome death, because I do not wish to die.
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