Pragmatic Ideals

It is almost irresistible for humans to believe that we have some special relation to the universe, that human life is not just a more-or-less farcical outcome of a chain of accidents reaching back to the first three minutes, but that we were somehow built in from the beginning.” -Steven Weinberg

“You are here to enable the divine purpose of the universe to unfold. That is how important you are.” -Eckhart Tolle

In their original context they may be more nuanced, but let's take these two quotations as they stand.

The first statement by Weinberg is certainly true to a point. I fully agree that “it is almost irresistible for humans to believe that we have some special relation to the universe." It is at the heart of our pre-critical thinking as we grow up. Wadhawan and Kamal suggest "It is so fundamental to the way pre-scientific people viewed reality that it may be, to a certain extent, ingrained in the way our psyche has evolved, like the need for meaning and the idea of a supernatural God."

What we resist, of course, is the notion that our life is "just a more-or-less farcical outcome of a chain of accidents." It is clear from experience that life is often accidental. A cyclist was killed here a day or so ago. What, other than chance, meant that in a high speed collision six months ago, I was not? Years ago my little sister was thrown from the middle seat in the car during a rollover and escaped with bruising. My classmate, in a similar accident, was killed. Does this mean life is more farcical than less?

I find Tolle's statement, on the face of it, full of hubris. Perhaps he means we have significance despite our apparent insignificance in the enormity of the universe. But what of Neil's death in Year 12, thrown from the car? Was that the divine purpose of the universe?

The farcical, arbitrary nature of life sometimes seems impossible to deny.  Yet also impossible to deny are the beauty and the splendour, the love and the pathos, the thrill of discovery, and the deep satisfaction of achievement.  These are experiences open to us all, including Steven Weinberg.

How do we interpret them, and the farcical and absurd experiences of life?

The extremes of understanding seem to be these: one suggests that matter is all there is. It is the ruling reality.  The other, idealism, suggests that the mind creates all reality. Scratch our personal philosophy hard enough,  and we will come down on one side or the other. Many of us will not have the background or education to do other than read opinions which are very difficult for us to assess and critique.  Self included here!View of Elder Hall from a window

I think the whole question is also likely to be clouded by the deeply ingrained early experiences of our lives.  These questions are so fundamental that I doubt we can really understand the "other paradigm" without being seduced by it. If we are not committed to it, how much can we understand it, ie stand under it? It is not theory. It is the basis of life.

So I sit back and look out my window and wonder. I should do more, I think.  I really ought to educate myself about quantum physics... just a little. Some more study of epistemology would help, too.  Gazing over at the university I wonder how I can fit it all into this little life. I've already studied for years, and travelled up a lot of blind alleys!

Perhaps a little pragmatism is in order. If I sit up, I can also see the street below the ivory towers. It is full of people on foot, in cars, on buses. While I ponder the intricate puzzles of life, I can sit alone up here, or also live down on the ground. What will build community with the people who have come to the church door looking for food this morning? And with the person in deep conversation with the minister in the next office, and the hopeful students flooding across North Terrace for lunch, and those who, all gowned up, graduated this morning?North Terrace and Elder Hall from a window

All sides of the arguments about the nature of reality appeal to "the evidence." Perhaps, since we are especially dealing with the place of people in reality, and their understanding of reality, we should give some extra weight to the social sciences.  I mean the social science of life and compassion. What is its reality?

How much have we thought and dreamed and considered and theorised in the comfort of our own solitude, or our own comfortable social status, and how much have we met the rest of the world?  Perhaps the philosophers and the scientists who would pronounce judgment upon reality should first clean the toilets, and wipe up the vomit, with the Mother Theresas of the world.  So too, should popes and pastors. Especially the pastors of big, rich churches. Priests and mystics ought to undertake some hard lessons in biometry, psychology, brain chemistry, and evolution. I mean not just book learning, but seeing the clinical outworking, and sitting under the practitioners.

At least two things might follow from this.  We might all learn some extra humility and respect for those whose metaphysics differ from our own.  That would harm nobody! We might also gain some perspective. Even in my little experience, questions that have become consuming, and even paralysing, lose some of this power when I am more connected with the perspectives and needs of other people. This seems to be something other than mere distraction, and more like a recalibration of priorities.  At its best it also gives me much common ground with people who have a different metaphysics.


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