Monday, 27 August 2012

Embattled and Far from Home

I’m feeling a bit embattled today. Everywhere I look I hear and read people to whom a materialist world view is self-evidently the only plausible one. Their arguments are compelling and I feel out-gunned. Of course, the person who wins an argument isn’t necessarily (or even normally?) right: they could just be a better arguer. But it still has a wearying effect.

(It’s probably worth mentioning at this point that one of my weaknesses (strengths?) is that of being easily convinced by anyone who is confident in their own position. Thus I will spend time in the company of a believing friend of mine whose intellectual horsepower appears to exceed my own and feel my reposts crumbling to dust, then meet an atheist friend and find exactly the same thing happening. I end up thinking how similar the two people are, and how different from me. And yes, I am one of those people who (briefly) believed it when I was told that the word ‘gullible’ had been removed from the dictionary…)

Mind you, it’s not surprising that I’m feeling a bit vulnerable at the moment. I’ve been overworking for months (last week 46 hours for a 35 hour contract) and it’s now a bank holiday Monday and I’m alone, so there is plenty of scope for an unhealthy reactionary ennui (i.e. I’ve kind of flopped). Also, a much anticipated trip to Egypt, due to begin in about 2 weeks time, looks like being cancelled due to a new advisory from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Both my parents are rather unwell. I have a tiresome chesty cough. And I am dissatisfied with my last post, which ran out steam before the end.

I’m tempted to grasp hold and cling to my faith as a person in the sea would grasp a log (or a frightened child a teddy-bear) but I try not to. Apart from anything else it’s undignified. I try to let the waves carry me, to accept the apparent bleakness and let it lead me into wisdom.

But, to all you atheists and materialists out there, I ask you to remember one thing. Yes, for believers faith is a comfort (sometimes: other times it’s a colossal inconvenience). We live believing things for which there is no scientific evidence. But be careful. There is no scientific evidence for free will, nor for our sense of time as progressing from past to future. Yet you live as though there were and your heart believes that there is. In fact if you tried to act as though there weren’t I suspect you’d end up as a psychopath.

On a broader level, we generally believe that what we do matters, in the infinitesimally short and tiny flickers we call our lives. But in the grand scheme of things, cosmologically speaking, it’s hard to see why. Yet to believe that what you do doesn’t matter is generally a clear indication that your mentally unwell.

In other words, I contend that no-one really thinks as rationally as they purport to.

But back to me.

Comparing grumpinesses with the rector at church yesterday (he was the one who had arranged the trip to Egypt) he pointed out that Egypt has an odd place in Judao-Christian thought. It is the place God’s people try to escape from, it is a place of exile, like Babylon, far from home, a place of suffering, exclusion, and barrenness. Yet the Israelites time in Egypt was a very necessary part of their experience. Their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land was, arguably, what came to define them. I’m an exile, far from home. At the moment I feel far from home. But maybe I should welcome this…

Saturday, 4 August 2012


(This is the post I was going to make  on 14th July but then didn’t, because I diverted myself into issues of honesty [link]. These thoughts were prompted by an experience about a month ago: fortunately, though, it’s rained quite often since to remind me about the experience)

(Hence, though, my use of the Historic Present…)

I am sitting, alone, in my conservatory, and it is raining. Heavily. Water throws itself against the windows and pours onto the roof. It dances on the patio outside, each drop appearing to leap up from the ground before falling again. The door is open so I can clearly hear the rain hissing as it lands, and feel the freshness in the air (while my doormat gradually gets wetter and wetter and a dribble of water grows towards me).

Sometimes the storm appears to ease a little, but sometimes it increases, abruptly, in intensity, like a child having a tantrum who suddenly puts their whole being into their screaming, like a heavy metal fan turning the volume to ten, or a driver finding a clear road ahead and putting their foot to the floor. It’s full-throated, exultant…

Except that it’s not, of course. It’s just rain. Water droplets, accumulated from water vapour suspended in the atmosphere, falling when they are too heavy to stay up. The  variations in intensity are simply due to complex and chaotic, but explicable, local circumstances.

Even today, knowing what we do, it’s hard – impossible? – not to anthroporphize a rain storm. We can’t help it. How much more so would people in the pre-scientific era attribute personality and emotions to the weather. How could they not infer the existence of a rain god?

This train of thought is clearly a troubling one for theists like me, for obvious reasons. It’s not hard to see how humanity could start attributing personhood and power to the weather, to the sun, to the seasons, etc, and end up with the monotheistic belief systems we know and, er, sometimes love today.

Troubling, but not, hopefully, surprising. Any believer in possession of a reasonably serviceable brain who hasn’t considered such things is plainly only paddling on the edge of the sea of intellectual rigour.

But wait a moment: where does this stop?

I attribute emotions and personality to the people I meet: I sort of me-morphize them. Obviously neither I nor anyone else could function if we didn’t do this. But doing this is based on an assumption; that people are basically the same as me. It’s a reasonable assumption (especially if one takes into account what astronomers refer to as ‘the principal of mediocrity’ which says that what is local to me is likely to be true elsewhere as I’m unlikely to be unusual). But it is an assumption.

And what about myself? I attribute emotions, personality to myself. I believe that I make decisions that effect what happens next. I believe that there is, objectively, something called me. Obvious. Well, maybe. Certainly we all think like this (I presume?). But it’s hard to see where these things come from in a deterministic universe.

Note: I am not saying that because the concept of personhood is a mystery that rejection of the theism is illogical: that would be silly (I think). I’m simply saying that the rainstorm set off some very unsettling thoughts…