Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Believe me

Beliefs do not have to have consequences. I do not believe I exist, and yet here I am. I believe that the thoughts that impel me are nothing more than the echoes of stones in a well, the shadows of a material world that spins without my playing any part in it. But here I am.

I believe that a god's being omniscient precludes free will. Although perhaps he could refuse to know. His being omniscient precludes free will because if he created you, and knows the outcome of everything you do, how can he be said to have allowed you the will to do it? He knew that the way he created you would lead to the outcomes it leads to. How could he not? Or does the god use a method of creation that allows him not to know the final form of the things he creates? Perhaps he creates by emanation. But does that mean he must be part of the world?

I wonder whether I could believe in any of the gods people believe in. I could not believe in a personal god who is at the same time all-powerful. Why would that god bother with this small corner of his creation? Why would he care about the things you do in such a personal, unforgiving way, when he knows all about you, and knows what you can and can't avoid?

If he wanted us to be sinless, why not create us sinless?

I know there are answers but I don't believe them. I don't think it would have any consequence to my life to believe in it. So why bother?

I could believe in a personal god of limited power but it's not all that inspiring. The Christian god began as exactly that: a tribal god. It's quite clear from the Old Testament that two traditions (at least two) clash: one is of a tribal god of the Jews, who vies with other gods for supremacy -- rather like the Greek gods, living their parallel lives that intersect with humans' only for sport; the other is of a transcendental, unknowable god. The clash is interesting because "fundamentalists" tend to worship the former but endow it with the powers of the latter. It's not easy to be sure which Jesus believed he was the son of.

I believe there is an external reality. However, if the world were purely mental, it would, I think, look and feel the same. I only know the world through the impression it makes on my brain (and by extension, my mind) and it would make the same impression, I think, whether it was real or imagined.

I believe that you exist. Would it make a difference if I didn't? Yes, I think it would. That is a belief that does have a consequence. But I can't help feeling that solipsism is vanity writ large. It may be true that our own existence is the only thing we can be sure of (but of course I don't believe even that that is something you can be sure of) but that doesn't make everything else not exist. That's a recurring mistake in philosophy. Countless thinkers have lined up to "prove" that because you cannot know a thing, it cannot exist. It rarely occurs to them that they cannot know whether it exists and cannot know whether it does not exist just the same. The converse, Anselm's proof of God's existence relies on it, is simply absurd. Things do not exist just because we can conceive them. Although it's an interesting question how come we are able to imagine what does not exist.

But I do not believe that you exist. I do not believe you are a self. You are just shadows on the wall. No, you don't feel like it.

I wonder whether dogs have minds. What I mean is, do they reflect themselves onto a screen, as we do? I'm not suggesting that they would have a mind like ours (we can only imagine minds like ours because we are incapable of representing in a mind like ours what another mind would be like -- always everything must be refracted through the lens of our own minds -- on this subject though I particularly like Zhuangzi: "Zhuangzi and Huizi were strolling along the dam of the Hao Waterfall when Zhuangzi said, "See how the minnows come out and dart around where they please! That's what fish really enjoy!"
Huizi said, "You're not a fish — how do you know what fish enjoy?"
Zhuangzi said, "You're not I, so how do you know I don't know what fish enjoy?"
Huizi said, "I'm not you, so I certainly don't know what you know. On the other hand, you're certainly not a fish — so that still proves you don't know what fish enjoy!"
Zhuangzi said, "Let's go back to your original question, please. You asked me how I know what fish enjoy — so you already knew I knew it when you asked the question. I know it by standing here beside the Hao."")

But what would a dog use a mind for? Perhaps dogs ask the same of us.

I believe that we cannot live alone. That also has consequences. I believe we never have been able to. Not only do I believe that we cannot live without support in material terms, but also I believe that we wither if we do not have people to care for us. Care can be a very broad thing. But I think we do better if we have more of it, or at least if we feel we have more of it. I believe that seeking power, honour and respect is seeking caring. Powermongers are nothing more than mummy's boys who want someone to love them. I think women are less inclined to chase it because they are more inclined to seek affirmation of caring in other ways (in particular, they demand to be shown signs of it).

That belief also has a consequence. It makes me a believer in society, in community, even though I think that they often lack, even where we have made societies and communities. But people's motivations are complex.

I believe in love. I cannot help it. I believe we are stranded in a cold, hard life, unable to understand any of it, willing to cling to anything that looks like home. I think we want our busy brains to stop reflecting themselves onto the screens of our minds, and let us be, walking as automata in a world of peace. And yet.