Sunday, July 31, 2016

Three Glories: A Sunday Rumination

     “You don’t see yet, Genry, why we perfected and practice Foretelling?”
     “No—”
     “To exhibit the perfect uselessness of knowing the answer to the wrong question....”
     “The unknown,” said Faxe’s soft voice in the forest, “the unforetold, the unproven, that is what life is based on. Ignorance is the ground of thought. Unproof is the ground of action. If it were proven that there is no God there would be no religion. No Handdara, no Yomesh, no hearthgods, nothing. But also if it were proven that there is a God, there would be no religion....Tell me, Genry, what is known? What is sure, predictable, inevitable—the one certain thing you know concerning your future and mine?”
     “That we shall die.”
     “Yes. There’s really only one question that can be answered, Genry, and we already know the answer....The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.”

     [Ursula LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness]

     There’s a strange, yet simple idea haunting, or perhaps taunting, me today: the idea that the three “theological virtues” – faith, hope, and charity – are independent of adherence to any religious creed. The theological virtues are closely identified with the Christian tradition. Yet when I put them under close examination, it became necessary for me to ask whether that binding is real, or merely assumed.


     Let’s look at faith first.

     To have faith is to believe a proposition without requiring conclusive evidence of its veracity: i.e., without requiring proof. Yet which of the many propositions upon which we stake life and wealth every day is provable? The only truly provable propositions belong to mathematics and formal logic. Science rejects the possibility of proof; all it will allow us is confidence based on experimental repeatability. You cannot prove that any of the things you rely on will persist for even a moment longer. You cannot even prove that the floor beneath you won’t suddenly collapse under your weight. Your confidence in these things demonstrates your capacity to believe without requiring proof: i.e., faith.

     Faith, so long regarded as a word pertinent only to religious propositions, is in reality ever present and ever operating. Without it, we would be paralyzed.

     The total absence of faith leads to solipsism: the inability to accept that anything outside your head is real and definite. Yet in solipsism we find the germ of an important idea. I once allowed a character to put it thus:

     “A very smart man once said that imagination is more important than knowledge.” Redmond guided the truck out of the parking lot and onto NY 231. “It was an overstatement, and context-free to boot. Still, he had an important point in mind. He wasn’t the first to make it, either. What is an outline, Todd?”
     The conversational swerve jarred Todd into a curious state. His thoughts seemed to drift free of mundane reality. He struggled to discipline them.
     “The boundary around an object?”
     “Have you seen any outlines lately?”
     “Huh? I don’t...hm.”
     “In the world outside our heads.” Redmond piloted the truck smoothly down Kettle Knoll. “Did you see anything you could point to and say ‘there’s an outline,’ at any time recently?”
     “I don’t think so.”
     “And why is that? Every object has a boundary, so it must have an outline, right?”
     Todd was overwhelmed by the sense that he was being introduced to a higher realm of thought, a sphere of concepts and relations whose existence he hadn’t suspected.
     He’s way beyond me.
     He fought down his distaste at the admission.
     If I’m going to learn anything more from him, I have to accept it.
     “Outlines are imaginary, then?”
     Redmond pulled into the Iversons’ driveway, stopped, and set the parking brake. “Not quite. It depends on whether you’d say an image—a picture of the world you have in your brain—is imaginary. When we look at the world, we see...things. Objects we take to be bounded and separate from one another. Most of us view the world that way, most of the time. We have to. It makes organized thought possible. And it’s what moved a great writer to write that ‘wise men see outlines, and therefore draw them.’”
     “Who was that?”
     “William Blake. A poet of the late Enlightenment.” Redmond’s eyes twinkled. “He wrote something a bit different a few years later, though.”
     Todd waited.
     “‘Mad men see outlines, and therefore draw them.’”
     “Huh?”
     Redmond held up a hand for patience. “It was an important insight, centuries ahead of its time. Modern physics tells us that there are no absolute boundaries between things, that boundaries and outlines are only tools of thought.” The engineer’s smooth, solemn face seemed to acquire the weight of centuries. “They exist, whatever that means, only as long as we insist on them. And there are subjects where we can’t make any progress at all unless we refuse to see them.”

     [From Polymath]

     The most important aspects of existence, from the perspective of human consciousness, are the categories and concepts we apply to the reality around us. We do that to make orderly thought possible – to provide for the operations of deduction and induction from which all our knowledge of reality flows. And all those products of our minds, and the uber-concept upon which they’re founded – i.e., that they’re truly applicable to reality – require acts of faith.


     Hope requires faith. Without faith that, broadly speaking, we know what we’re talking about, that it’s constructive to theorize about it, and that our theories can be tested against external reality, we cannot proceed. All of classical physics was founded on two assumptions:

  • That the universe is lawful;
  • That behind all the more detailed laws stands a law of cause and effect.

     Perhaps the most important contribution of modern physics to human understanding is this: cause and effect, as classically understood and employed, does not rule all of reality. To cope with the very smallest and very largest of natural phenomena, our notions about cause and effect, so useful at the “macro” level at which ordinary human life takes place, must give way to other premises. But the real significance of that shift in understanding lies in this: despite the failure of “macro” cause and effect – what’s sometimes been called the “clockwork universe” of classical physics – our faith in the lawfulness of the universe, even at those extreme phenomena, remain unviolated. In other words, even where classical cause and effect cease to apply, there are governing laws; we can determine those laws by study and experimentation; and having determined them, we can hope to put them to use technologically.

     Of course, there will always be realms beyond human experimentation. Though we can conjecture about things like the ultimate creation of the universe, we cannot test our conjectures by creating a fresh one. Yet the discovery that human thought is applicable to so much allows us to hope that natural law is pervasive – i.e., that all phenomena are orderly in an ultimate sense. We can entertain phenomena that exhibit randomicity while remaining confident that even seemingly random events are governed by laws we might someday grasp. Consider radioactive decay, the foundation of nuclear physics, as an example.

     All our hope of progress – “the improvement of the human condition, morally, with declining input” – depends upon maintaining our faith in our perceptions and the operations of our minds.


     Charity, despite its seeming distance from faith and hope, isn’t about generous actions performed in a conceptual vacuum. It depends upon hope: specifically, the hope that:

  • We can see the troubles of others clearly enough to grasp their genesis;
  • We can distinguish those that should be helped – the “deserving” – from those that shouldn’t;
  • We can then contrive to help the “deserving” without causing them material, emotional, or spiritual harm.

     Now, this is not how most people think of charity today. That’s because of the largely successful campaigns by the apostles of envy to persuade us that anyone who lacks something that he wants but is unable or unwilling to pay for is an appropriate object of charity. That this is not so should be obvious to any thinking person. As I wrote some time ago:

     True charity requires proximity, for at least two reasons. First, the necessary personal connection, the sense that one is helping one's own, fails at any great remove. Second, human fallibility and weakness guarantee that just as some will fail to prosper on their own, others will fail to employ charity properly; indeed, to receive money from others sometimes makes one's troubles worse. When this occurs, the giver must give no further, for other measures -- criticism, instruction, discipline -- are clearly indicated. With any separation between the benefactor and his beneficiary, it becomes impossible to know whether help helps in fact, or only in theory and intention.

     The ultimate aim of true charity is to return its beneficiary to a condition in which he doesn’t need it. Is it not clear that proper charity, that helps those who deserve help without doing them harm, requires knowledge and conviction of uncertain kinds – i.e., knowledge both of how a particular person came to be in need, and the conviction that his need can be remedied nondestructively? Is it not clear that one can never be absolutely confident in such knowledge and such conviction – that one must have faith in one’s ability to know another’s state adequately well, and maintain a firm hope that he can be helped without being harmed?


     The above seems to detach the “theological virtues” from all theology. Indeed, having mulled the matter over for several hours now, I can’t see a necessary connection between any theology and any one of the three. That they should be so firmly associated with the Christian faith must have another lesson for us.

     But the theological virtues are not all the virtues by a long shot. There are four cardinal virtues – prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude – vital to a stable, peaceful, and prosperous social order, and these too are usually regarded as Christian teachings. So there’s more juice in this orange than I’ve yet managed to squeeze out. Though it’s rather unusual to conclude a “Sunday Rumination” this way, I’ll take my chances and say:

     More anon.

     (And may God bless and keep you all. Can’t leave that out!)

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