Magic and Realism

This is part of a long response to Jeremy's comment on a previous entry. You might want to go there and read his comment, first.

"As a realist, if you observe magic, you believe it."It's been a while since I've read the BK, so I shouldn't attempt to debate it with you, really. But that quote introduces Alyosha who, in this part of the novel, is so enamored of Zossima--a living saint! He observes the miraculous healings, the supernatural wisdom, and he believes it all! But what happens? Zossima dies and his body putrefies immediately. He was no saint, and those weren't miracles--he was simply a very good person, dedicated to his good works. But of course the whole novel is a dialogue about faith and acts, and it has been too long. When will you read it with me, Jeremy? (Anyone else want to join us? We'll set an ambitious schedule.)

Everything in the world has an explanation. Certainly there are many things in the world (probably most things, actually) that have an explanation that no one has figured out yet, but there is an explanation, nonetheless. Who know, perhaps some things may well be explained by "the actions of god", but this just means that god is a part of this world, a natural part of it, and the It affects things.

To say that God is not a part of this world, or to say that god's actions do not affect it, is to say (as I do) that "in all respects, it is exactly as if god was not"*. By my lights, this is atheism. It isn't really Strong Atheism, but it's close enough for me. I'll believe in your god--or anyone else's, really--provided that the existence of this god makes no difference to the world. By the way, don't confuse this statement with the claim that your ideas of god make no difference in the world. Ideas about god are enormously influential.

Everything can be explained, but there's never a guarantee that these explanations will fit nicely into the current worldview. How do the planets work? They orbit each other in space. How do they do that? According to gravity. How does gravity work? According to relativistic principles. Each question has an answer, but the original questioners weren't always ready to hear it. Einstein shatters Kepler, Kepler shatters Aristotle.

Quantum Mechanics is crazy, crazy stuff, but it isn't "miraculous". Or no, I take that back--it is miraculous, but that doesn't change the fact that it is also "a fact of nature till then unrecognized". Miracles can be quite commonplace--each night a child is born, &c. &c.

So, yes, sometimes the explanation may be radically different from what one would expect. The apostle Tomas thinks, "I saw what looked like a figure resembling my dear friend and teacher. That seemed quite unlikely, however, as I saw him die recently. Having performed further investigations, however, I can see his features quite clearly. Moreover, the wounds are consistent with those my friend received and, finally, I have verified that they have the physical properties consistent with objects in the world--for example, I can touch them. I must therefore reevaluate my view of the world in the following ways: 1) My friend, whom I had thought to be dead, is not currently dead; and 2) given that he had predicted as much beforehand, it is highly likely that he was right about the other metaphysical claims that he made. Thus, the only reasonable course of action is to live my life according to those principles the he has explained, insofar as I can square those with my understanding of correct moral action. Fortunately, his teachings align perfectly with my understanding of how I should act. I will express this all to him in the following manner: 'My Lord and my God!'".

That thought experiment contained two propositions: namely that one should base one's view of the world on reasonable evidence (let's pretend that Cartesian skeptics don't exist for now, ok?), and that actions should be based on more than experiential phenomena.

Perhaps a counter-example or two will help: The first night after the Crucifixion, Apostle Thomas misses his teacher greatly. Late at night, out of the corner of his eye, he sees a tattered cloak hanging from a tree--could it be his old teacher, returned from the dead?! It must be! Without a second glance, Thompson rushes towards the town square, shouting about his immortal teacher. This was a poor decision on Thompson's part. He thought that he had observed "magic", but his grief made him a fool. It was just a cloak on a tree--sometimes these things happen*.

Then there is this: Imagine Thomas, after Christ has been crucified but, again, before he has risen. The devil dresses itself up to look just like Jesus, and gives itself identical wounds. In addition, it blows smoke from its ears and adds an electric halo--very impressive! Thomas touches the wounds and concludes that this is no vision--it must be real! But this devil tells him, "Everything I said was wrong, and now that I've returned from death I have new teachings: Go forth, and kill!"(A similar thing happened to Mohammad, by the way.) Now Apostle Thomas must say, "Although you are real, and not a hallucination, and even though I think that you are my teacher, and even though you had predicted that you would return from the dead, I still have no reason to accept your new teachings--going forth to kill is still wrong, and you've given me no reason to change my mind."

So I maintain that it is not enough merely to question the "magic"that one observes, one must also question the actions that one should take--unexpected phenomena have no necessary correlation with correct moral teaching. It is true, of course, that if you perceive a large number of new phenomena, it will cause your worldview to change, and this new worldview might very well call into question one's ideas of morality, which should then be reŽxamined.


*It's just occurred to me that my view of God is almost the opposite of my idea of Truth. Truth may or may not exist in the world, but we should act in all ways as if it did exist, while we should act as if god does not. This is because we can approximate Truth--we have great reasons to believe that one thing is much less True than another thing--but we can't really approximate god. Where do you start? Which is more macho, pineapple or knife? This footnote is, perhaps, a bit fuzzy. I just thought it was an interesting observation.

*Feynman has an awesome story about this: "I remembered the time I was in my fraternity house at MIT when the idea came into my head completely out of the blue that my grandmother was dead. Right after that there was a telephone call, just like that. It was for Pete Bernays--my grandmother wasn't dead. So I remembered that, in case somebody told me a story that ended the other way."

Oh yes, and should you wish to read the Brothers Karamazov with me we could set a time for that. And an ambitious reading schedule would be just the thing. I've read it twice, however. But it is my favorite book in the whole wide world, barring and perhaps Don Quixote.

Really quickly, and exercising great discipline, I write only to say that I've read the BK once, and would love to read it again. Alternatively, I've never been able to get through Camus' Sisyphus, and maybe that would be an even better choice for us to read.

Without responding to what you've writen (I will not! I must not! I have work to do!) I'll just observe that for me the crucial distinction is that of intervention--I like a lot of what Spong calls has written about this.

Imagine a universe in which there was no god (and let's set aside, for now, questions of origin / First Causation, &c.). Many folks would be able to list a great number of things that would be very different in this alternate universe--hundreds of saints would not have healed thousands of lepers, millions of monks and nuns would not have been inspired to dedicate their lives to helping their fellow humans. All manner of miracles could not have taken place.

Some would also argue that thieves would never repent, and that virtuous folks would never be rewarded. Would you tell me about your beliefs? How do you envision this counter-factual godless world? If you find it impossible to answer this question because creation without god breaks the whole example, I'll try to modify the experiment.
NON SEQUITOR! This conversation which I am not party to reminds me that I stumbled across a good example of what you requested over dinner in Rock Hill. Someone (Tyler?) posited that it is necessary to make certain assumptions rather than question everything. You agreed, but asked for an example in which you would be unlikely to question a base assumption. What reminds me of this is an interesting little blurb from your man Rus: "If a cat appears at one moment
in one part of the room, and at another in another part, it is natural
to suppose that it has moved from the one to the other, passing over a
series of intermediate positions." This scenario, I think, is a good example. When I see my cat on the couch after I saw her by the sink, I assume that she walked from point A to point B. It isn't typically necessary to consider alternate theories, for example the possibility that a burgler picked her up and transported her while robbing my house or the possibility that it is an identical looking cat who has wandered into my home.
Sure, I'd assume that my cat walked across the room--there are billions of things that I assume without question, but that doesn't mean that they are axiomatic, which is what (I think?) Tyler was saying.

Or maybe I've misremembered.
Hey Benjamin,

Sorry it's been so long, I've been packing all my stuff into boxes in order to move. Yay! Twice the space for a mere $125 more! Okay, I haven't proofread the following, so readers beware.

"How did you leave out Reason from that list?" Because for me, reason is a form of law. Reason assumes as its premise that the world behaves in predictable, systematic ways, that is: according to laws.

Though there is some subtlety here: if the laws that govern reason are external to the individual and objectively existent, then they are "Law". But if they are subjective manner in which the individual attempts to comprehend the world via systemic reasoning, then they would fall into the category of "inner god or goddess".

I think the sense in which God can be understood is as an ideal. It is not as though we lack gods in our life. Most of us are, as the Muslims put it, "secret polytheists". It is few of us that muster the burning zeal to sacrifice ourselves to a singular idea like your Truth or Reason. It seems as though we are not debating as to whether or not there is an order to the world: rather, whether or not that order is personalized in the sense of a Being.

However, to me, to believe in an objective truth of any kind is to slip dangerously closer to monotheism. And it also seems as though your Truth/Reason are singular ideas to which one subordinates oneself. This, then, seems to me more like monotheism that atheism.

"Won't god help you to be a better person, even if you never pray for it?" A prayer is the expression of the heart's desire. I believe, according to the Christian tradition, but also according to my experience as I understood it, that God does not seek perfection in action, but rather the full zeal of a heart devoted to loving God and others. To love God is to love Love (and Justice, Truth, etc.). Also, a false prayer is empty, but a true prayer is worthwhile. Thus a letter to the English teacher that seeks to improve reading comprehension is falsified by a lack of effort in English class. Superficial prayers, also, are meaningless.

Assuming no God, prayer is simply a way of solidifying one's own desires by speaking them, thus they gain in certitude.

Assuming a God, they are a means of strengthening a relationship with an existent being who cares for one and wishes one well. True- hearted prayer, that is prayer mixed with purposeful action, can help one achieve a godly goal, as God responds with encouragement, advice, and aid.

"Christianity does posit such a God, but other religions posit other gods. Myself, I posit a God whose nature is equivalent in all respect to non-existence. None of this positing helps us to judge anything, however, except within the system that contains that particular axiom. So if you're merely saying, "If you were a Christian, you'd think X" then, while true, I don't see how that's any more useful than me replying, "And if you were a Manichean, you'd think Y"."

Of course. The question is not whether or not you bend your life towards some ideal, effectively worshiping at and making it your God (or gods). For instance some have chosen Pleasure, Power, Money, Social Justice, Truth, Communism, Atheism, Self, Spouse or Partner, etc. Given this, the question is not whether there is a Higher Power or guiding force or principle of some kind in one's life, but rather what it is. I can merely speak to the God that I worship and that God of historical or contemporary Christianity.

But the question is not whether or not there is a God within one's own personal system of belief, but whether or not there is a God. All have gods. But are there gods? Is there a God?

A related question is whether or not there is meaning in the universe. Do you believe in a meaningful universe? Is there a purpose in life for us humans? Or, is there Truth in the universe? If there is, and it is possible to thwart that purpose, then there is evil. And if there is evil, and there is also good. And if there is good, and there is a God, though we haven't arrived at the precisely Christian God at this point in our reasoning.

As for pain in the world and whether or not my suffering is proportional to my lack of self-sacrifice, there is a historical sin in the world, for instance, the Holocaust, which reverberates through the entire world. I am complicit in that sin because I sin myself and add to the suffering of others. However Christ, even though he was without sin, suffered terribly and not through his own sin, but through the sins of others. The question then becomes how one deals with that suffering, by creating suffering for others, or responding instead with love, as Christ did. His resurrection, then, proves the supremacy of Love over Evil, Death, and sin. Within the Christian system, of course ;^)

Miracles: if you are already assumed the structure of the world to be systematic and impersonal, effectively choosing an un-souled Universe, then you would assume that all miracles were the result of a heretofore undiscovered principle, like in the quote. The question is whether or not the World produces actions which are meaningful. If the world has intent in any fashion.

If we assume a world where the system is even partially unpredictable and has random elements in it, (like we may discover in quantum mechanics) then it begins to look quite a bit like no system at all. Its randomness a system? Is chaos a system? The question for me is not the fight between rationality and God, but between meaningfulness and meaninglessness. I have nothing invested in either a Newtonian view of matter or a view of God as some sort of monkey wrench in the gears of matter.

Or, if the world is simply the result of dumb causalities. If you choose causality here, I will go for the First Cause argument. So, is that where you go? How do you respond?