Wednesday, 24 June 2015

The Point

     My last post, like many others, precipitated a reply from an anonymous reader asserting that all my speculation is pointless without God. In the interests of keeping that conversation from taking over the subject of the original post, I'm going to raise the topic here: what does it even mean to have
"a point", and am I mistaken in thinking there can be one without God?

     Let me begin by acknowledging that I've said things like that myself. In particular, I have said that nothing in biology makes any sense without the theory of evolution, and that physics makes no sense without the concept of energy. I stand by those claims, because it really is unfathomably difficult to construct a meaningful, useful understanding of natural phenomena without the cognitive framework these theories offer. Maybe there is a way to do it, but no one seems to have come up with one that offers a smidgeon of a fraction of the predictive and explanatory power. So, I'm not necessarily hostile to the form of the argument: maybe there is a sense in which everything is pointless without a belief in God.
     What, then, can that mean? I will invite Anonymous (and anyone else who cares to comment) to explain this if I get it wrong, but as I understand it, the idea is simply that God is the ultimate source of all meaning and intention, and that to say that something has "a point" just is to say that it serves some purpose God somehow intends, either directly or indirectly. (Anonymous often seems to think that purpose ultimately leads back to a wish for all of us to acknowledge, love and worship God, but that may be getting ahead of ourselves. For now, it's enough to leave God's ultimate purpose unspecified, and just posit that God's will is ultimately the end and beginning of all points.)
     Now, I'm actually quite sympathetic to this as a logical statement. If we accept the premise that God exists as the omnipotent and omniscient creator of the Universe, then it could not be otherwise. The problem, however, is that it's a tautology, and devoid of any meaningful information. Everything that happens happens because such an omnipotent God wills it. Everything. Good and evil, it's all the same, part of God's plan. His Ten Commandments may say "Thou shalt not murder," but every murder happens because He wills it. He may will us to have free will, but he ALSO wills us to use it however we end up using it. He wills us to cooperate, and He wills us to strive against one another.
     This is problematic, because it pretty much pulls the rug out from under attempts to evaluate any moral choices at all. You no longer can tell me that I shouldn't commit this or that act because God says it's wrong, because obviously if I do it that's what God wanted me to do. The best you can hope for is to say that God also commands you to do whatever it is you ultimately end up doing to oppose me. And that is a really, really nasty path: anything goes.

     In contrast, I think that the only morally meaningful stance to take is to acknowledge that responsibility is ours, not God's. Whether God exists or not, it's up to us to decide what we should do, because whatever we ultimately decide, God will ratify it when we attempt it. So the real question is not what God wants of us, but what we want God to want of us. (Kind of like how Her Majesty traditionally gives royal assent to pretty much anything Parliament passes. It's kind of pointless for MPs to debate amongst themselves what law the Queen wants to sign; their job is to decide what to pass.)
     In other words, I believe we have a moral obligation to act as if God does not exist, or at least as if God's wishes are unknowable. The Point, if there is one, is for us to exercise our volition, to engage in our own moral deliberation, and to find whatever Point we can to our existence.
     I do not know if God exists, but at the moment I tend to think He doesn't, and I've been pretty stable in that suspicion for quite some time now. Whether He does or not, though, I do feel that there is some kind of Point. There may not be, but that's not really my concern. I'm wired to feel there is, just as I'm wired to get hungry from time to time, so I live as if eating is a good thing, regardless of whether or not there's anything intrinsically, cosmically Good about eating. If you tell me that without some Platonic ideal of Satiety out there, my hunger means nothing, I will stop chewing just long enough to laugh at you. Similarly, if you tell me my life has no point without God, I refute it thus, by continuing to breathe.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Thoughts on a Violent Death

     Today my city, Edmonton, buries Corporal Daniel Woodall, its first police officer killed in the line of duty in 25 years. There has been an enormous outpouring of support for EPS, and there are blue ribbons tied to every tree and lamppost on many streets. By all accounts (including that of my own son, who knew him from training in the same martial arts school), Corporal Woodall was a kind and gentle person, respectful and respected, and his death can only be seen as an untimely tragedy.
     Yet while I do not in any way wish to diminish the honours paid to the fallen today, I have a question: why does violence occupy so disproportionately large a space in our emotions? Why is it that we attach such significance to a violent death, compared to a death that results from accident or disease?
     Is it because he took a bullet so we don't have to? That's a compelling and poetic way to put it, but probably not completely true; it's not at all clear that the man who shot him would have gone on to shoot civilians if he hadn't been arrested. But perhaps he might have, as he was being arrested on charges relating to extreme stalking and threatening behaviour. In any event, the precise details of the incident aren't really helpful here: the principal claim is that officers put themselves at risk to make us safer, and in principle that I can accept. It is indeed a noble thing to put oneself at risk for the benefit of others.
     But consider this: On April 22, a truck accidentally dumped a load of sand and gravel on a worker at an industrial park, and six days later he died of his injuries, on the very same day another worker was killed when the sewer trench he was excavating collapsed on top of him. They died to keep our highways safe, and for modern sanitation, which has saved countless millions of lives.
     In 2014, there were 25 fatalities in farming accidents in Alberta.  These people died to keep us well-fed.
     In 2013, 1129 people died in the collapse of a Bangladesh garment factory. These people died to keep us inexpensively clothed.
     Again, I really do not mean to diminish Corporal Woodall's sacrifice. What I am trying to make sense of here is why we fail to recognize the sacrifices of these other workers as heroic as well. Their deaths were no less tragic, and for purposes no less noble.

     I think it comes down to violence. We seem to fear violence much more than we fear other more serious threats.  People buy guns to protect themselves from crime, yet the risk of a home invasion or mugging is considerably less than the risk of accidentally (or intentionally) shooting yourself or a loved one. People choose to drive (and bear the substantially higher risk of a traffic accident) to avoid the perceived danger of terrorist hijackers on commercial airlines.
     Why is this? Why do we see violence as so much more frightening than other dangers? Maybe it's because of the malice involved, that it's someone's deliberate choice to do harm. It's hard not to take that personally, to be offended that the aggressor valued his or her personal interest higher than another human being's life. And when something is purposeful, it feels harder to escape it, somehow; an accident doesn't care if it misses you, and won't keep trying.
     Whatever the reason, our fear gives violence huge and unwarranted power over us. I've written about this before, and don't really want to go over it at great length again here. What I want to do in this post is to encourage some reflection on our emotional response to violence. I am not suggesting that we shouldn't be expressing sympathy and support for EPS -- of course we should! -- but rather that in doing so we should be careful to avoid inadvertently reinforcing the fearful mystique of violence.