Tuesday, January 3, 2017

It's Not Real



- Happy New Year.
- Well...
- You're supposed to say "Happy New Year" back.
- And then what? We all have a Happy New Year?
- Then you didn't celebrate?
- I think maybe I did. My New Year well-wisher previous to you was the mother of the nine year old boy I've been tutoring in English. When she concluded her well-wishes, "See you in the New Year," the boy objected I was so old I'd probably die before then and he wouldn't have to take more hated reading lessons from me. During the lesson he'd made of point of telling me I was poor, dirty, living in "some shack" somewhere.
- I hope they pay you?
- They do.
- But not enough for you to take care of yourself. Hard to believe you couldn't take better care if you wanted to. Your other student, the beauty from Uzbekistan, delivered the same message to you, and, you told me, you answered that this life you were leading wasn't real. What do you take as real then?
- She asked the same question.
- Your answer?
- Real, among other things, was this, conversation, thinking things out. To continue. The day of celebration finds me, about an hour before the arrival of the New Year, walking with my bike past the old residential hotel I used to stay at.
- In the days when you were real?
- Correct. I felt comfortable there. I saw in the office window the girl who was friendly with me and I went in to talk. At the hour of twelve she went home with her mother and sister visiting with her, while I stayed put in the guest kitchen to drink coffee and read philosophy on my computer for hours, just like in the old days.
- Ok, You won't wish me a happy new year, so make me happy and imagine me with you there in the guest kitchen in the last minutes of the waning old year, and we're talking philosophy. Tell me about this sense of your life being unreal. Is it not just a fancy way to avoid facing the embarrassing state you allowed yourself to get in?
- What I was reading was a newly published essay, entitled, A Scientific Theology? A Programmatic Account of the Problems and Prospects for Confessional and Scientific Theology.* A young Oxford theologian argues that religion can be studied as science is studied: that its subject was of similar reality, its way of investigation of similar validity, and its conclusions not inconsistent with those of science.
- Can he do all that?
- He gives it a good try. I think it is admirable that theologians of our times try to answer the objections of science on its own ground, in its own terms, not with their own religious vocabulary. He argues that God as object of study is no more metaphysical, or unexplained, than the assumption nature can be described with mathematical laws; that the procedures of religious inquiry have for centuries involved systematic doubt about the possibility of understanding god, similar to the institutionalized questioning of science; that some doctrines of religion, such as the historical truth of the world's creation in six days, are inconsistent with accepted scientific observation, but there is a long tradition of metaphoric interpretation of factual statements.
- I'm not convinced.
- Do you know why?
- Why?
- Before reading this article I was looking into systems theory, which turns out has its beginning with Alexander Bogdanov,** the little known in the West, Russian colleague in revolution of Vladimir Lenin. He's credited with beginning the search for a way to include not just the science of nature in theoretical understanding but also social life, psychological life, and the arts. He set himself the task of finding the theory of theories, of what made a theory what it was. He believed he had found what he was looking for, his theory of theories, in the life process, which involves reproduction, metabolism, and the constant righting of imbalance caused by the action of the surrounding world, exploratory novel action that brought novel response, leading to the emergence of new habits some better adapted to survival in the world. The idea was that similar behavior of reproduction, metabolism, exploratory adaptation should be in the new society he was helping to create in Russia, be the foundation of all applicable theories: its politics, its arts and its psychology. But from his time on system theorists have not had much luck in this, no more in fact than you and me have with seeing how god can be an object of study like science.
- And the reason, you don't have to tell me, is that we can't prod god and get new absolutely unanticipated results which will lead us to new unanticipated theories like happens in the sciences of nature. Prodding societies...do you know what it reminds me of?
- What?
- Your favorite reference, Plato's "Republic". In its imagined society the action of each person draws a harmonious response from every other, but the place itself is unchanging, and not somewhere anyone in his right mind would want to live because every action is controlled.
- The Russian's sociology, studying man made rules and laws, can't fulfill the function that nature does in the theory of theories. The same is true of the theologian's god: different ways of constructing harmonies with him can be imagined, but prod him as we will we're never going to get anything really new out of him, whatever definition we give him to start with. We learn to pronounce the name god when we're too young to question what we're doing, like we learn unconsciously to repeat Happy New Year, and in the unknowing performance of these rituals we seem to be encountering a world without limit.
- God is not real, and your life faulty with respect to care for yourself is not real, because it can't bear the weight of theory, it doesn't involve metabolism, adaptation, emergence of new stasis, reproduction. Is that your meaning?
- Yes. The other kid I teach, a seventeen year old in high school, showed me for critique his essay on the idea of self-reliance in Whitman and Emerson. I suggested to him as an exercise to try to, rather than compare them to each other, see what he himself thought on the subject by comparing his initial ideas to what he found in the two authors. If I was writing the essay, I said, I'd start out observing that in the time of those authors lived few Americans were not self-employed. Now the situation is the reverse, few Americans are self-employed, and it may be that the exhortation to think for yourself and defy the demand to conformity of society which could have a reasonable chance of being listened to then, does not now. It may be that, not self-reliance is the requirement of our time but defiance, fighting back.
- So then, I take from all this: Don't make a religion out of self-reliance, it is not the real world. Don't expect a slave subject to continual indoctrination to be self-reliant. There's nothing real in such expectation. The theory that we are obligated to be self-reliant at all times is not borne out by the truth. Similarly, there's no truth in the theory that requires of us respectability at all times. Protect your own health for your own sake if you can. Self-reliance and taking care of yourself are good things. They aren't true theories about the world, they are unliving unresponsive man made things, but when you don't have them little boys and beautiful women express their disdain for you and that cannot be good. Ok. Listen. In the eyes of children and pampered beautiful women you may be an old man the world is stamping its dirt on, but I'm kind of your student, too, and I wish you a New Year where you can have coffee and a quiet kitchen and philosophy to read and not pay such a high price for it. You don't answer? You don't want to wish me something like the same? It's not real enough for you?
- Happy New Year.

Further Reading:
Dozing Off
Consciousness (For Sale)
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