By lex, on April 18th, 2007
Scene: Dinner table, chez Lex
Principal players: Your humble scribe, his eldest daughter
Chorus: CINCHouse, Our Youngest
Eldest Daughter: Stop stressing about it dad, there’s nothing to be done.
YHS: I’m not stressing, kiddo, but it’s an awful, incomprehensible thing.
ED: It had to happen.
YHS: What do you mean, it had to happen?
ED: It was meant to be.
YHS: (Unpleasantly surprised) You mean it was “fated”?
ED: That’s right, it was fated.
YHS: (Frowning slightly) Do you believe in fate?
ED: Yes – I believe everything happens for a reason.
YHS: That’s not fate, that’s causality. (Brief discussion of causality ensues.)
ED: Then I believe in fate.
YHS: Do you mean fate as a kind of predestination, that every act and thought and result we have is pre-ordained? Or something recognizable only in retrospect?
ED: The first.
YHS: Why would you believe that? It runs counter to our culture’s intellectual tradition, apart from a certain Calvinist strain of thought – an exceptional strain that only goes to prove the overall rule. What about free will?
ED: You mean that thing about staring into the abyss?
YHS: No, that’s Nietzsche, although you’re close. I’m talking about your God-given freedom to choose. Or if you prefer a non-religious argument, Sartre’s point about freedom being the defining characteristic of a being-for-itself.
ED: Not following you.
YHS: If you lay a two-by-four across the carpet and walk from end to end you will do so without trembling and without falling. Lay the same two-by-four across a chasm and you will shake with fear at the edge of the precipice. The two-by-four is the same, unchanging (and, by its own volition at least, unchangeable) “being-in-itself”, but your consciousness – the “being-for-itself” – is aware of its freedom.
When you stand at the edge of the precipice you are not afraid that you might fall. You are afraid that you might jump. A part of you wants to jump, to see how it feels, to feel the wind in your hair, to see the rocks coming up. The rest of you is aware of that ever-present desire to self-destruct – this is the source of your fear.
To be a conscious being is to be free. The awareness of that freedom – and the conflicting intrusion of physical reality and events – leads to what Sartre called “nausea.”
ED: What about those university students? What freedom did they have?
YHS: Which is precisely why this whole thing is so disturbing: Their free will – their defining characteristic as conscious human beings – was unnaturally and terminally imposed upon by the free will actions of another. It’s monstrous.
ED: I still believe that it happened because it had to.
YHS: (Hiding an element of exasperation) Look – one of the things I admire least about a certain strain of middle eastern thought is its “inshallah” fatalism. It is a recipe for passive inaction in the face of the supposedly inevitable. It forgives everything, or if it does not, excuses it. (Pauses, awaiting a reaction.)
If we have no free will, what do we make of the concept of sin?
ED: I don’t believe in sin.
YHS: You don’t believe in sin?
ED: I think it’s just a way to guilt people out, stop them from doing fun things.
YHS: Let’s put aside the sins of the flesh for now (although I’d like to get back to that later), and Old Testament proscriptions against shellfish. What did the New Testament say was the sum of all the law and the prophets?
ED: (Eyes rolling, recites) “Love your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself.”
YHS: So take that out of the religious context and put it into a personal and communitarian frame. To love God is to follow in his ways, or – put another way – to ourselves become more nearly perfect, the best we can be. And from the community perspective, are not those societies, and those who live within them, better off for having certain rules of behavior? Penalties for stealing, lying, etc?
ED: Yes, yes – I get all that. I just don’t believe that God is up there keeping score, waiting to cast bad people into Hell.
(A brief discussion on the existence and ontology of “Hell” ensues. Rivers of fire and imps with pitchforks are quickly discounted; the alternate theory proposed that hell is an eternal absence from the presence of God. Questions are posed about whether such absence – conceded arguendo – is conscious or not. It is postulated that it is probably not if we accept the theory of a loving God – a necessary predicate for the existence not just of Hell but also of Heaven. Why then concern ourselves for a loss we are not conscious of? A lost potentiality is still a loss, even if we ourselves are unaware of it. Lips are pursed all around. The discussion is shelved as ultimately unknowable in this life.)
YHS: Well if you don’t believe in sin, do you believe in evil? How about what Hitler did?
ED: Well, yes, I believe in evil, and I’m not forgiving what Hitler did or making any excuse for it. But he didn’t think he was being evil, no one thinks of themselves as being evil.
Our Youngest: Right, it’s all relative to what each person thinks. (Departs for the bathroom.)
YHS: Hmm. But doesn’t it matter that the rest of us, seeing evil, recognize it as such? Can not those of us who are bound together in community declare something which hurts us all individually and collectively as objectively evil, regardless of the point of view of anti-social psychopaths? And do not those personal actions which take us away from our more perfect selves: abuse of alcohol, illegal drugs, promiscuity – do not those also form a kind of sin, or evil? If not against the nature God has given to us, then at least to ourselves?
ED: You guys drink, you seem to enjoy it.
YHS: (For everything there is a time, meh.) There is a difference between responsible adult use and any and all abuse. We try very hard to be aware of our limits and to be responsible. (Side discussion ensues on the dangers of alcoholism, health risks to other behaviors, dementias, etc.)
ED: I’m not trying to change your mind, I’m just telling you what I think.
YHS: Neither am I. We’re just having a discussion. Something to think about.
ED: Fine (thinking, “Parents!”).
YHS: Fine (thinking, “Teenagers!”).
CINCHouse: More shrimp?
ED, YHS: (Together) Yes, please!