"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Things Always Happen For A Reason–Or Do They?

“Things always happen for a reason” is an article of faith for the religious.  God has a master plan for the universe, earth, and for each one of us; and each event in our lives is not without His presence. Whether cancer or winning the lottery, events do not happen randomly.  If they did, the world would be a chaotic place with no meaning, no purpose.

Non-believers say this is hogwash.  Richard Dawkins articulated the atheist point of view when he said that the universe exhibits “precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”

He was echoing Nietzsche who observed in Beyond Good and Evil that In a meaningless, random universe the only validation of individual human life is the expression of will.

“Meaning and morality of One's life come from within oneself. Healthy, strong individuals seek self expansion by experimenting and by living dangerously. Life consists of an infinite number of possibilities and the healthy person explores as many of them as possible. Religions that teach pity, self-contempt, humility, self-restraint and guilt are incorrect. The good life is ever changing, challenging, devoid of regret, intense, creative and risky.”

In the chapter of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, The Devil – Ivan’s Nightmare, the Devil says:

Oh, blind race of men who have no understanding! As soon as men have all of them denied God—and I believe that period, analogous with geological periods, will come to pass—the old conception of the universe will fall of itself without cannibalism, and, what’s more, the old morality, and everything will begin anew. Men will unite to take from life all it can give, but only for joy and happiness in the present world. Man will be lifted up with a spirit of divine Titanic pride and the man-god will appear. From hour to hour extending his conquest of nature infinitely by his will and his science, man will feel such lofty joy from hour to hour in doing it that it will make up for all his old dreams of the joys of heaven.

In War and Peace, Tolstoy reflects on the millions of random events – some great, some infinitesimally small – that contribute to any contemporary action.  Napoleon may have thought that he and he alone was responsible for the prosecution of the war against Russia, but he was deceived:

Just as in the clock the result of the complex action of innumerable wheels and pulleys is merely the slow and regular movement of the hand marking the time, so the result of all the complex human activities of these 160,000 Russian and French - of all their passions, hopes, regrets, humiliations, sufferings, outbursts of pride, fear and enthusiasm - was only the loss of the battle of Austerlitz, the battle of the three Emperors, as it was called; that is to say, a slow movement of the hand on the dial of human history.

Shakespeare had the same nihilistic view of history. As critic Jan Kott has observed:

Emanating from the features of individual kings and usurpers in Shakespeare's History plays, there gradually emerges the image of history itself. The image of the Grand Mechanism. Every successive chapter, every great Shakespearean act is merely a repetition:

The flattering index of a direful pageant,
One heav'd a-high to be hurl'd down below . . . --- Richard III, 4.4.85-6

It is this image of history, repeated many times by Shakespeare, that forces itself on us in a most powerful manner. Feudal history is like a great staircase on which there treads a constant procession of kings. Every step upwards is marked by murder, perfidy, treachery. Every step upwards is marked by murder, perfidy, treachery. Every step brings the throne nearer. Another step and the crown will fall. One will soon be able to snatch it . . . .
From the highest step there is only a leap into the abyss. The monarchs change. But all of them -- good and bad, brave and cowardly, vile and noble, naive and cynical -- tread on the steps that are always the same. . . . .

Paul Bloom and Konika Banerjee, writing in the New York Times (10.18.14) summarize recent research that tries to explain why so many people in the face of these compelling arguments against a divine master plan still believe that ‘things happen for a reason’.

This tendency to see meaning in life events seems to reflect a more general aspect of human nature: our powerful drive to reason in psychological terms, to make sense of events and situations by appealing to goals, desires and intentions.

This conclusion seems rather limited given an even more powerful force of human nature – to find shelter in meaning.  No one wants to be Lear’s ‘bare, forked animal’ alone in an indifferent universe.  Religion and faith in a higher being that is good, welcoming, and just lets people sleep well at night.  If a tree limb falls onto the roof and kills Grandmother Wilhelmina sleeping in the upstairs bedrooms, it was God’s will.  We can mourn her, miss her, and grieve for her; but up to a point. God must have had a reason to take her, and we can never question His judgment.  Taken objectively – that is without the framework of a grand design or a nihilist philosophy – the world certainly seems to be a frightening, dangerous, and extremely perilous place.

Shakespeare understood and accepted the circular, repetitive, and meaningless course of history, and was by no means debilitated by it. The palace coups, wars, plots, murders, thievery, aggression, and political intrigue that characterized the reign of every king from John to Henry VIII was simply the backdrop for unique and compelling expressions of human will. We are attracted to Iago, Macbeth, Richard III, Dionyza, Tamora, Goneril, Regan, and many other villains because they defied conventional morality.

Tolstoy’s Napoleon is a compelling figure not because he had any real responsibility for his actions at Borodino, Austerlitz, or Moscow; but because of his strategic brilliance, his arrogance, his tragic flaws, and his oversized personality.  A meaningless world does not mean it must be populated by uninteresting characters.

All of Tolstoy’s principal characters in War and Peace struggle with meaning and purpose – as Tolstoy himself did (A Confession) – but end up like Ivan Ilyich (The Death of Ivan Ilyich) who ponders life, death and dying, and at the last moment says, “So that’s it!  What joy!  Death is finished.  It is no more”.  Levin, a major character in Anna Karenina like Tolstoy’s other characters struggles with meaning.  How ironic, he says, that man was created with wit, intelligence, insight, and humor and within a few short years lies in the cold, hard, clay of the steppes. He has the final lines of the novel in which he comes to a conclusion.  Life may be meaningless if one looks at it from afar; but we all live on two planes, and my personal resolution will come from doing good.

Tolstoy himself in A Confession is very much like Levin. Tolstoy spent many years grappling with the idea of faith, and after many decades of scientific inquiry, philosophical study, and rational dialogue with no answers, simply gave up.  Billions of men before him throughout history have had faith; and millions around him still do.  Who am I do question that conclusion?

The reason why we search for meaning is far more profound than what the authors of the Times article suggest - that the search for meaning has only a practical, immediate, almost mechanistic dimension:

The drive [for meaning] serves us well when we think about the actions of other people, who actually possess these psychological states, because it helps us figure out why people behave as they do and to respond appropriately.

Most of us search for meaning one way or another.  Most of us conclude that there is a God in the heavens above, and He causes things to happen according to his Master Plan. Far fewer of us believe that there is no God and understand that randomness is no different from diving planning.  For alien from Alpha Centauri, coming to earth with unbiased eyes events simply happen.  Period. It is we who ascribe meaning or randomness to everything.

Atheists are in many ways no different from the faithful.  Both believe that things happen for a reason, only atheists believe that the reason itself is meaningless. There is plenty of solace, however, in that belief.  It is an ironic article of faith.

Hindus don’t even bother with the meaning argument at all.  The world is maya, illusion, figments of a universe created by Brahma but which will be destroyed by Siva, then recreated by Vishnu.  Each successive universe will be different but the same. Only by rejecting not only the idea of meaning but the whole illusionary world itself can anyone hope to achieve spiritual enlightenment.

The authors have offered a teeny-weeny bit of insight into the issue of meaning; but their conclusions are obvious and expected.  We all grapple with the meaning of life and come to conclusions about it sooner rather than later.  The answers, however, do not come from the psychological empathy that they suggest, nor from God.  They come from even a cursory look at history. Tolstoy was right – the past is no more than a a series of random billiard balls banging and clacking together.  The trick is not to find meaning in what is essentially meaningless, but to have fun while it’s your turn at the table.

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