Thursday, August 28, 2014

Life Matters

There are two ways to look at descriptions and representations.  One way is to imagine that a description or a representation functions like a portrait, that it captures the likeness of the object of the portrait.  Now, certainly, a portrait is a kind of representation, and we could imagine that a diary might provide something like a written portrait of someone's mind.  This is obviously a metaphor, but the metaphor works.

But not all descriptions or representations are intended to be likenesses.  For example, a legal description in a deed does not give us a likeness of the parcel conveyed, it is intended to clearly specify the reference of the deed.  Rather than a portrait, a good deed functions like an index finger, telling us "that real estate."  An architectural rendering is an interesting case.  In some sense, we are interested in the representational value of the rendering.  We want to visualize how the flow of the building may or may not work.  But on the other hand, blueprints serve another function, they help the crew constructing the building to know how to proceed.  Thus, a description might variously show us what an object is like, help us to find where an object is, or even tell us what to do.  It is important to note that a description or a representation might be nothing like its object, but might still tell us how to find the object, and how to go about getting there. 

For me, I start from the supposition that human life matters, by which I mean that I believe that all our choices, no matter how insignificant, matter in the ultimate scheme of things.  This belief may be criticized as irrational.  The sun is due to burn out in five billion years, and all life as we know it on Earth will be dead.  Will it ultimately matter that Hitler murdered millions of people?  Can we say that it would ultimately have been better if Hitler spent his life striving for world peace and not world war?  I fall in with those who choose to say it does matter, that all our lives matter ultimately.

But what does it mean to say all our lives matter ultimately?  Ultimately, life as we know it will cease to exist, the sun will burn out, the universe may experience heat death.  It is clear that when I speak of the ultimate, it cannot be the ultimate in the domain of facts.  What I mean is that based on the choices we make in our lives, we will face ultimate reward or ultimate punishment.  This reward or punishment will not happen within the space of facts, but in the after-fact or after-life.  I am, of course, speaking of the reality of Hell.

Why do I write of the reality of Hell?  This sounds very old fashioned, and may strike some as evidence of intellectual or mental decline.  But the bottom line is this:  our lives can only have ethical meaning if our lives have some kind of ethical consequence.  Rather than absolve us of some great burden, the denial of Hell divests our lives of great meaning.  If there is no Hell, then in what sense has Hitler been held accountable for his choices?  What distinguishes him from Gandhi, ultimately?  Why would one follow Gandhi over Hitler if it does not matter in the end?  Ironically, the denial of Hell, rather than spare us, condemns us to live lives from the point of view that our lives ultimately don't matter.  It takes Hell from its location beyond mortal life, and makes mortal life the realization of its condition.  It is better to try and fail than live a life devoid of hope.

In the oldest conception, the question of heaven and hell is nothing more than the expression of the relationship of a soul with God.  Heaven is communion with God, and in Hell we choose ex-communication.  If God is love, then to live with a view toward heaven is to live in communion with love.  Heaven may be impossible here, but intimations of heaven are.  Certainly, cruelty, despair, hatred, envy, these are all possible, and give us visions of alternative human possibilities.

So what does it mean to say that one believes in the reality of God and God's judgment, and the reality of heaven and hell?  The mode of God's being, to my understanding, is inconceivable.  Whatever heaven and hell might be, they are surely not actual places anywhere.  Certainly, we have mental images, of court rooms, of burning landscapes with tortured souls, of angelic choirs and light.  But there can be no issue of these images "corresponding with reality."  There can be no question of proof in these matters.

What I am talking about is a specific attitude that one takes to life.  The purpose of the pictures was never to describe some metaphysical castle in n-space.  The purpose of the pictures is to orient us in the world, and to direct us in how to live.  Perhaps in walking this path, we begin to understand the truth which we are called to, this truth that is a higher truth, beyond a world of mere facts and trivialities.  A truth written in the heart, not in text books.  But not something that can be written out to the satisfaction of geometers.  The truth of faith.

The question of attitude is a question of choice.  We can live our lives as if they don't matter, or we can live our lives as if they do.  Nothing can ever prove, one way or the other, whether our lives have value, except perhaps ourselves.  So why do we deny Hell?  Why do we embrace meaninglessness?  The reality of salvation is something that can be experienced in this life.  Why do we choose to turn away from it?  What are we running from. . . if hell does not exist?

Tuesday, August 26, 2014


"What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that remains is the empty print and trace?  This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself."  -Pascal


The seeds were planted invisibly in the darkness.  No one saw the hands, no one witnessed the footprints in the dust.  No one noticed the disturbance in the earth. 

The sun rose and set over the field.  Light, dark.  Eventually, the rains fell, soaking the earth, until the sun returned.  Then suddenly, they appeared, golden shoots through the soil.  Some of the plants grew strong and tall and bore fruit.  Others withered and died.  The villagers were no fools.  Someone had planted the seeds, although no one saw the identity of the farmer.  They knew that the plants grew from seeds although no one saw the seeds themselves.  No one thought to doubt the existence of the farmer or the seeds.  Otherwise, what they witnessed would be unintelligible.

Matter and (In)Difference

What we call matter is the principle of difference.  Material things can be differentiated from one another.  Material things are discrete and exist in relation to each other.  We can speak of beautiful things, but beauty is omnipresent.

Beauty is not material, and thus beauty cannot be differentiated in any absolute way.  It is not an ingredient of material things, the way carbon atoms may be.  Quantity necessitates measurement, which necessitate materiality.  To measure something, it must be capable of differentiation from what we use for measurement. (Because beauty is not material, beauty is not differentiated, ergo beauty is one, not in the sense of a numerical unity, but in that it forms an undifferentiated unity of many contrasts, a family resemblance.  Because it has no material limit, it admits to no ultimate description or definition the way a material phenomenon like electricity does.  A definition can only be possible by considering only a limited number of its manifestations.  Such a definition is always a lie, because it is founded in placing a material limit on a concept which has none.)

Can beauty be said to exist?  Certainly, the existence of beauty cannot be proved by scientific investigation of the world, as beauty is not material.  On the other hand, beauty cannot be said to be subjective, as after all, beauty is a concept, and "beauty" is a word, and the meaning of the word is not completely idiosyncratic.  We may never agree that Van Gogh's paintings are beautiful, but you still know what I am saying if I say that "Cypress Trees" is beautiful.  On the other hand, if I made up some word, "zalligook", which I employed to idiosyncratically label random things, you would have no idea what I was talking about.  So to be clear, the use of the word "beauty" is governed by intersubjective norms of usage.  Beauty in this sense exists, similar to the way in which we say that trees exist based on insubjective agreements of perceptual judgments.

But beauty is a concept, and beauty is incapable of measurement, and we can imagine a tribe somewhere lacking a concept of beauty, and another tribe with a sense of beauty which was completely unintelligible to us.  We can ask, why is it that our concept of beauty doesn't simply fall out of our language?  I think we have to say that beauty has not been erased from the language because beauty is something we value.  Of course, I also have to admit that beauty has a worth, it is in general, a good means of selling something.  Beauty has its fair admixture of the meretricious.

Worth I will leave alone.  It is clear that worth relates to the realm of quantity, that is to say, it is by nature material.  Value, on the other hand, is clearly immaterial.  We value our children without generally assigning them worth.  Furthermore, it is clear that worth is in some sense parasitic on value.  If someone we value dies as a result of another person's negligence and there is a lawsuit, we will be forced to place some worth on the life of our dearly departed, and if we get a favorable verdict, we will be said to get justice which will in fact be a lie.  Yet worth and value are disentangled.  The performance of certain financial transactions yield great worth, but are difficult to justify as manifesting anything in the way of value, in fact, sometimes they yield negative value.  Likewise, we may value Van Gogh's paintings, but they never yielded anything significant in the way of worth during the life of the painter.

Yet it is difficult to conceive of a society of people in which the concept of value had no place.  Certainly, the life of a traditional person is soaked in value.  There is the ritual performed before the planting of the corn, to demonstrate the value of the corn and the value of powers which sustain the corn crop through the growing season.  There is the ritual of harvest, of thanksgiving to the benevolent powers which yield such bounty.  There are the rituals performed for the dead, to celebrate their value to their families and their communities.  There are rituals of birth, and marriage, to celebrate the creation of new forms of life and connections.  On the other hand, the modern person has made progress, and has disposed with the rituals and superstitions of the past.  One way to view this progress is in the devaluation and desacralization of ordinary life.  Yet even the modern person, who mindlessly plants and harvests mere things, still manages to conduct rituals for dead relatives and marriages and the like.  People are still ready to make sacrifices for political or charitable causes.  The reduction of the human being, and the reduction of the human environment to a mere series of mechanical events in time has not been accomplished.  We have been denuded of our ancestral memories, of our historic customs and our ways, but there is still room for progress, there is still more we can forget before we become like the machines we idolize.  In fact, perversely, the cult of progress may be nothing more than the valuation of machinery over people and our collective memory.  Only a person would be called to sacrifice their humanity in order to become a part within a mindless machine.   The machine, like a sadistic killer, is supremely indifferent.

Ultimately, a humanity without value, no matter how twisted or warped, is inconceivable.  A world without value would negate the need to measure or to ascribe worth.  What is depression, if not the total devaluation of human life and the world?  For the material world to function as a space in which human forms of life are possible, we must presuppose the existence of something from outside the material world, the source of this mysterious value.  We may even initiate new rites:  the breaking of the machine.