Thursday, May 31, 2012

An Argument From Particularity

About three hours ago I was finishing up my closing shift, which at that moment involved me running a broom over the floor of the store, when I had a tiny thought pop up that seemed to clarify another largely unspoken impression that I had been carrying for some time. Initially I figured I would write down a brief outline of the idea, and then file it away in my list of trains of thought to follow when I had more time and clarity of though. But, now as I am preparing to go to bed, I find that I don't really feel like reading tonight, and instead I want to see if this idea goes anywhere.

I call this idea the Argument from Particularity. Off the bat let me make it clear this is an imperfect argument, in the sense that one of its premises is unable to be proven or disproven, and consequently the entire argument belongs to that realm of things that could be true but must be disregarded because its truth is equally likely as its falsehood. For that reason, I submit this as a kind of imaginative philosophy - philosophical fiction you could call it - that may bring fleeting comfort, irritation, intrigue, or interest if it is successful. My argument runs as follows:

It has been said that this world appears very much the way we should expect the world to be if there were no God.

However, the world operates according to very particular rules. First according to what we call the rules of logic, which we typically hold to apply absolutely. Secondly to those particular laws which we discover through empirical observation - what we call scientific law.

Given our ability to create artificial worlds - whether using the age-old method of literature or the new method that involves computer technology - we see that creating involves the creation of new rules. In a book, for example, we can imagine a plot being woven wherein it becomes a rule that all immoral people must suffer or a plot wherein all selfish and creative people emerge successful in their endeavors. Such rules do not exist in our world, but our stories are created by implementing more rules than those that exist in real life.

Or, as a better illustration, imagine a man sitting down at a brand new computer, intending to play a game on it. The computer, however, has no video game for him to play. In that moment, there is nothing but possibility, hindered only by the rules that govern the player's own world (the game can't involve anything that would involve violating the law of non-contradiction, for example). The player, because no game has yet been made, could end up playing a mystery game, a simulator, a first-person shooter, an RPG, or even some sort of innovative game that has not yet been attempted. The protagonist, since he has no appearance, could have any appearance. The villain likewise. The game mechanics are hindered only by the limitations of the hardware and the rules of the real world. But, once the player creates a game for himself, or once he downloads a game to play, all these possibilities disappear. Particularity sets in, the protagonist looks like this, the game is played like this, the environment looks like this. The transition from possibility to actuality is accomplished through limits and rules.

Because our own world operates only because so many rules have been implemented (such as it being impossible for a spot in the visual field to be both blue and green at the same time in the same way; or, like the speed of light being 299,792,458 meters per second) it is unlikely that our world is the ultimate reality. Given the way that artificial worlds are brought about by an increase in rules, it follows that the ultimate reality would either be ruleless or have some bare minimum number of rules.

Consequently, it is likely that our universe is artificial, as it certainly contains so many particular rules that certainly exceed any bare minimum number of rules.

Problems With this Argument

The last part of the argument, the conclusion, contains the unverifiable claim that our universe contains so many rules that we certainly exceed any bare minimum number of rules. After all, we do not know what the bare minimum number of rules might look like. It might look remarkably like our own world.

However, at the very least, it seems that it should at least be possible for a world to exist without the limitations of space and time. And for that reason, at least, it should be possible for a more ruleless world to exist, one that could be responsible for the creation of the space and time limitations of our own world.

The truly critical problem with the argument is that we do not know for sure if it is always the case that creation is the act of laying down limitations. We know that this is the case in our world - literature is always the acceptance of one possible plot as opposed to all others, photography is always the choice of one angle and one set of settings and one subject and background as opposed to any others - but it does not necessarily mean that this would apply outside of our world. Nor does it necessarily mean that everything with a limit is necessarily created. All created things are limited, but not all limited things are necessarily created.

The Value of the Argument

If there is a value in the argument, and I imagine it would need a lot of polish first, it is that it articulates that feeling one gets that the world is very arbitrary and particular and very much like a work of art. It seems that were we without a director, the world would be much more chaotic. Instead, whatever chaos there is that exists, exists within a strict web of order and structure. This structure, however, seems arbitrary. And we do not expect chance to obey arbitrary laws, only essential immutable laws. It causes one to imagine a lawgiver, an artist, a God who articulated the structure of the world.

The argument, I do not believe, actually makes the existence of God one bit more likely. But maybe it puts into words a feeling that one sometimes gets. And if so, then I say that it is valuable.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Reviewing the Underground

Another review posted on LibraryThing

Notes from Underground is a distinctly Russian novel, it deals with a Russian character facing a Russian problem. I did not notice this my first time reading it, however, because the Underground Man's spite and resentment transcends his particular Russian situation and can be applied to anyone who is out of step with his culture and times. It should be noted, though, that the particular problem that the Underground Man faces is that his view of life is derived from European romantic literature – which of course is literature and not real life. A distinctly Russian problem in that he is trying to lead a Russian life according to the fantasies and emotions of Western European authors (perhaps a modern day analog would be American teenagers who lead their lives with values and fantasies they get from Japanese anime – although somehow that feels insulting to the Underground Man and to European romanticism). He cannot be the man he wishes to be or lead the life he wishes to live because both cannot be found in the real world, certainly not the practical Russian society he rails against.

In the first half of the book, the Underground Man rails against both himself and his times. He rails against modern science and the effect that determinism has on free will. He rails against utopianism and the idea that reason and science will one day build a “crystal palace.” He rails against himself for being “too conscious” which leads to a kind of paralysis and both praises and condemns the men of action who, while less aware than him, are productive and able to attain their ends in the world. He is indeed a spiteful man who realizes (or at least perceives) that there is no way to get society and reality to work the way he wants it to, but refusing to reconcile himself to that fact, preferring instead to be spiteful. It is tempting to judge the first half of the book as a work of philosophy, which it is to an extent except that it is a fictional work of philosophy, it exists to give insight into the Underground Man's character not to genuinely critique anything (of course, that's my conclusion. Make your own).

In the second half of the book – Apropos of the Wet Snow – the man tries unsuccessfully to live real life according to the rules of romantic fiction. He imagines an epic confrontation between himself and a soldier who has disrespected him, he imagines a duel to the death with an old classmate of his to defend his honor, and he imagines himself saving the soul of a diamond-in-the-rough prostitute. All tropes of romantic literature, and all ending in failure when the Underground Man tries to live them out in real life – particularly his attempts to save the prostitute's soul when she instead becomes the one to help him, leading him to become spiteful toward her. He has grand visions and grand dreams for his life, but he can't get anyone else to play along with him. They go about their lives in a practical way, and he is just left being ridiculous and, at best, a minor irritant.

Even though the particulars of the man's situation are Russian, the feelings and attitudes the man has belong to humanity in general. The essential feeling the book deals with is that spite one feels when one knows that things will not go their way, but they refuse to get on board with the rest of society. It's self-destructive, it's senseless, but there's something (I say) noble in preferring to be oneself and miserable than to allow oneself to adopt the prevailing hopes and values in hopes of being united with everyone else. Surely everyone has felt it at one time or another, and for that reason I say that this book has universal appeal. It is also a short read, which lends itself easily to contemplation, re-reading, dissection, and enjoyment. Highly recommended to anyone and everyone.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Surprised by Joy Briefly Revisited

A review for C. S. Lewis's Surprised by Joy, written on LibraryThing.

It's been quite a few years since I read this book, and I now have a far different worldview than I did when I read it, but this book continues to interest me as I continue to be interested in the possibility of and nature of religious experiences. It is no longer fresh in my mind what he wrote and, considering I read it back in High School, there was much that he discussed that probably meant nothing to me then that would mean something to me now. But that's why I'm writing this review with it as a distant memory, I want to talk about what was in the book that stuck with me.

There exists a feeling that comes upon people at some times. I do not know if it comes to all people – though I have no reason for supposing that it is available to some men and not others, barring the possibility that it has to be prompted by certain environmental factors that some people may not be exposed to – what is important is that the feeling exists. In my opinion, the discussion of this feeling, which Lewis calls “joy” is the greatest contribution this book makes. If you are a Christian, this book is valuable as a discussion of some part of human nature that cries out for another world. If you are an atheist, this book is valuable as an example of some peculiarity of human psychology that leads people to search for God.

“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.” (A quote from Mere Christianity, which I imagine was a reference to the desire that Lewis came to call “joy”)

You will get plenty of discussion about the rampant homosexuality in the school Lewis was sent to (which was largely a result of Lewis's own overly-sexual and overly-suspicious view of his peers. His older brother was baffled by his portrayal of their school), you will get information about Lewis's time with Kirkpatrick where he began to put on intellectual muscle from a very logical, literal, and precise teacher, you will read about him enduring time as a soldier in World War I, him attaining a prestigious teaching post, and plenty about his love for mythology – especially Norse mythology. You won't find many logical proofs about what led him to Christianity. You won't get a list of facts that Lewis took into account to determine that Christianity was more likely than otherwise. The book would be worse if he included them, as they would detract from the main contribution the book makes: the personal and subjective account of what led a reasonable and intelligent man to place his faith in Christ, and his account of an experience of longing and desire called Joy.

If you put aside the pretenses of commitment to facts and evidence that both sides posture with, you will get an glimpse of what can really move an intelligent man to faith – whether or not you consider a move to faith to be an improvement. Or, perhaps just as likely, you yourself may have felt what Lewis called Joy: a bittersweet longing and desire, in which case this book will give you an opportunity to read how he reacted to that experience. Or maybe you think Lewis is just a ridiculous man, well, he certainly won't change your mind here, but you might find some opportunities to laugh at him if that's how you get your kicks. If religious experiences and conversion stories interest you, or if you are interested in Lewis in general, I highly recommend the book. If your main interest is apologetics, I advise skipping this one.

[As a general caution, I would recommend reading this book as events that happened in C. S. Lewis's life – as Jack would want you to believe them. This book was nicknamed “Suppressed by Jack” among those intimate with the details of Lewis's life. That's not to say it is not valuable, merely that it should not be taken as true, at least as far as it concerns Lewis's account of his external circumstances. If you want his biography, you can look up George Sayer's book Jack. This book is more valuable for insight into Lewis's internal development.]

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

What Step Have I Taken Deux

When you do finally have some area that you are advancing in, some activity that you devote part of your day to that advances you toward your goals, you find that you are able to say "alright, you have done well for the day. Relax. Enjoy yourself."

My head is throbbing, but at least I am at peace with myself for the moment.