Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: God (page 1 of 2)

Does the Sound of the Crash Exist?

There is a very famous philosophical puzzle which asks:

“When a tree falls in a lonely forest, and no animal is near by to hear it, does it make a sound?”

Charles Riborg Mann & George Ransom Twiss.

I had always assumed that this puzzling question was asked by the philosopher George Berkeley. However, on closer examination, while this issue does relate closely to his philosophy, it was actually posed in this form by Charles Riborg Mann and George Ransom Twiss.

For some people this question is no puzzle – the answer is obvious. For instance, I once watched the TV programme QI where Stephen Fry expressed his shock and disbelief at the notion that the crash of the falling tree made no sound. While the show’s producer tried to explain the puzzle to him he was outraged at what appeared to him to be nonsense: “Of course there’s a sound!”

In fact, as philosophical puzzles go this one is fairly straightforward, and can almost be treated as a question of science. For instance Scientific American answered the puzzle like this:

“Sound is vibration, transmitted to our senses through the mechanism of the ear, and recognized as sound only at our nerve centers. The falling of the tree or any other disturbance will produce vibration of the air. If there be no ears to hear, there will be no sound.”

Scientific American

This seems to me obviously correct: the crash makes no sound when there’s nobody to hear it. But the anger and disbelief of Fry touches on a deeper question: “What is really real?”

Some philosopher’s, like Berkeley, insist that what is really real is the sound of the crash. We know, better than we know anything, what we experience – colours, sounds, sensations – these experiences are what make up reality and they assures us by their very vitality that they are real. This kind of perspective is sometimes called idealism – because it locates ultimate reality in those mental experiences that provide us with our sense of reality. However, as the poet Knox observes, idealism also seems ‘ exceedingly odd’:

There once was a man who said ‘God
Must think it exceedingly odd
If he finds that this tree
Continues to be
When there’s no one about in the Quad.’

Knox’s poem reflects the conflict between idealism and our common-sense. We may concede that the sound cannot be heard. We may even recognise that all the sensory properties we associate with the tree (its colour, its texture etc.) must rely on a sensing being who can sense those properties. But we still want to say “Ah, but behind all that, there must be the real tree the thing we actually do sense.” We want to insist that there is a reality to the tree that persists even when there is nobody there to sense it.

However this is so odd isn’t it? We are now insisting on a reality which we can only know indirectly through our senses, and yet which is quite distinct from those senses. The real tree is divorced from the sound of the tree crashing, from the feel of the bark on my fingers, from the green leaves and brown trunk. The properties of the tree that that we actually experience (what John Locke called the secondary qualities) seem to be just the results of our interaction with that deeper reality (the primary qualities) of the underlying tree. So from this more materialist perspective, the real tree is the very tree we don’t directly experience, it is the tree that we imagine to exist and which ’causes’ our experience of the tree.

So, is the real tree the tree we actually experience or is it the tree we imagine to exist and which we believe causes our actual experience of the tree?

Things get even stranger as science gets to work in trying to describe what that real tree is actually made of. I can’t keep up with the latest versions of atomic theory, so just deploy the tools of O-Level Physics, we are told that the tree is made up of biological substances, which can then be described as complex chemical substances, which can then be described as molecules and atoms, which can then be described as tiny elementary particles or forms of energy, and then there is the vast void which contains them. Under scientific analysis the real tree becomes phantasmagorical.

Is the real tree the tree we actually experience or is it the complex reality that science tries to describe to us in terms of its ever-changing models?

We are pulled both ways. We know the tree is there – because we can see it and touch it. Yet somehow these sensory experiences are not the real tree itself – they are merely signs given to us, expressing a complex reality which we imagine to lie behind our experiences.

So which is real: the sound of the tree crashing which we experience directly or the molecules and atoms which we are told exist and which we use to explain why we see the colour brown?

Today materialism is our dogma. There is less room to question whether we really know what exists. Characters like Stephen Fry would laugh to scorn those who wonder whether matter really exists, or who imagine we have souls, spirits or minds. Fry’s materialism is our modern orthodoxy and all the great thinkers of the past are the heretics. Yet it seems to me that this common and everyday materialism is unsustainable. It wants to have its cake and it wants to eat it too: We assert the ultimate reality of things that we do not experience on the basis of signs that lack the very reality we assert. It is like giving someone food, but then claiming that the ultimate reality is the cookery book that describes how the food was cooked.

Berkeley and other idealist, like my old philosophy professor Timothy Sprigge, believed there was a different way of thinking about reality. It is possible to imagine that our experiences themselves are real, if we recognise that God is the organising principle of reality. As this anonymous poet puts it:

Dear Sir, Your astonishment’s odd:
I am always about in the Quad.
And that’s why the tree
Will continue to be
Since observed by Yours faithfully, God.

I am no master of metaphysics and I am not trying to judge between idealism and materialism, or any other metaphysical theory, but I think it a shame that modern thought has become so diminished that people cannot even see the paradoxical strangeness of the human experience of reality.

The Soul in Dialogue with Time

Let us suppose that each of one us has been given a gift, a soul. This soul is unique to us, and we cannot be parted from it.

We might imagine that soul turning to Time and saying:

“I know Someone mightier than you. You cannot hold me, you cannot change me, I am eternal.”

We might also imagine Time’s response:

“That is true soul, I am not your master, I do not define you. But only through me can you find yourself. You live in me and if you disregard me you diminish yourself and you disrespect your True Master.”

See also:

“Quid tam tuum quam tu, quid tam non tuum quam tu” (Augustine) – What is so much yours as yourself, and what is so little yours as yourself? The most individual element in us – the only thing that belongs to us in the last analysis – our own “I” , is at the same time the least individual element of all, for it is precisely our “I” that we have neither from ourselves or for ourselves.

Benedict XVI citing St Augustine

Why is Pride the Greatest Sin?

Solzhenitsyn says “Pride grows in the human heart like lard on a pig.”

Dante places Pride at the foot of Mount Purgatory and imagines how it might take hundreds of years for us to pay its price. First we must wander along this first cornice – bowed down by the weight of a giant boulder carried on on our back.

But why is Pride the first and most dangerous sin? In what sense is it particularly dangerous? After all we can use the word Pride in a very positive way. I remember as a very small child being told off by my parents ‘Don’t be so proud, Simon!’ And I remember thinking to myself ‘Why shouldn’t I be proud? Isn’t pride a good thing?’ We imagine a proud knight in shining armour. We imagine a happy child beaming with pride at their achievement.

What is the key to unlocking the problem of Pride?

Perhaps it is to do with how we love ourselves. A proper love of ourself is necessary. It is not that we should love others instead of ourselves, it as we should love them as ourselves. Implicit in this is the assumption that love is real love – a real care and concern for the best interests of the person.

In this sense, good self-love – proper Pride in oneself – also assumes humility and a desire for change, improvement and making the best of ourselves. To not take care of our own needs, to not develop ourselves, is a moral failing. This is not about ‘just loving ourselves for the way we are’ rather it is about challenging ourselves to be the best that we can be – in the knowledge of our own needs and weaknesses.

But if this kind of self-love is not the problem then what is?

Part of this problem may be that in loving ourselves we struggle to avoid (a) thinking ourselves better than other people and (b) better than God. We seem unable to simply get on with doing the best we can. Instead we put ourselves at the centre of things. We lose sight of the value and gifts of other people and we lose sight of our place in God’s kingdom. Perhaps all our other failings and sins are rooted in this first sin – we put ourselves at the centre of things.

I love this piece of Jewish wisdom which captures the paradox of Pride most beautifully:

Just before he died, the Baal Shem told his disciples that the one among them who would teach them how to overcome pride would be his successor. The problem was put to each of them; the Maggid happened to be called first. His answer: Since pride is one of God’s attributes, man cannot uproot it entirely, all at once; it must be fought every day and at every moment. This reply was so favourably received, no one else was questioned.

From Souls on Fire by Elie Wiesel

Or to quote Anna Akhmatova:

Just save me from pride
The rest I can manage.

Love Needs Reality

Love needs reality. What is more terrible than the discovery that through a bodily appearance we have been loving an imaginary being. It is much more terrible than death, for death does not prevent the beloved from having lived.

That is the punishment for having fed love on imagination.

Simone Weil from Gravity and Grace

A similar thought is found in Roger Scruton’s study, Sexual Desire, where he observes that erotic love must be attached to a particular person. An exact copy of the person will not replace that person for the lover. We really love a person – an irreplaceable soul – not a thing that can be copied and replaced.

This same thread of thought is also found in Martin Buber’s profound mediation on the human condition I and Thou. Buber explores the dichotomy between these two approaches to the world:

The world is twofold for man in accordance with his twofold attitude.
The attitude of man is twofold in accordance with the two basic words he can speak.
The basic words are not single words but word pairs.
One basic world is the word pair I-You.
The other basic word is the word pair I-It; but this basic word is not changed when He or She takes the place of It.
Thus the I of man is also twofold.
For the I of the basic word I-You is different from that in the basic word I-It.

 From Martin Buber’s I and Thou

Buber does not deny that sometimes we do treat other people as ‘Its’ [or as Kant would put it – as means rather than ends] but Buber argues that our ability to see the ‘You’ in another person is essential to our moral nature. Without this ability to engage in a real I-You dialogue, to see in the other a reality which is equal to, or greater than, our own, then we become an empty vessel.

But we do lose touch with the reality of You. (A reality which is at its most profound and mysterious in our relationship with God – where any possibility of experiencing an ‘It’ is missing).

A profound choice lies before us. The grave possibility of human existence is that we lose touch with the personhood that is essential to love, and essential to our own sanity. We can simply feed on others, losing sight of the inherent dignity of the human person, and in the process we lose the grounds for our own moral dignity.

What we love truly is real. But we can corrupt love not just by failing to love, but by loving what is empty, what is unreal. At our worst we are tempted to love evils, shadows, fantasies and idols. But even when we love people, things or ideals we can still lose sight of their reality.

People turn into relationships; things become our possessions, and ideals are just values. And so our imagination obscures reality.

It is not God, love, personhood or the soul that are imaginary. These are the real things. Rather it is our imagination which can hollow out reality and replace it with things that are more convenient to the self – things that are much easier for us to face, to consume or live up to.

We are offered wine; but we can choose to drink only water.

There is Humility in Us

We do not have to acquire humility. There is humility in us – only we humiliate ourselves before false gods.

 Simone Weil from Gravity and Grace

How well this point is put. We worship what we lower ourselves to obtain:

  • Money – doing a job we dislike, but which pays well.
  • Power – pandering to our political bosses, even when they ask us to do things that are dishonest.
  • Fame – drinking in the successes and failures of celebrities, even when we know its all empty.

We are creatures who pride ourselves on our autonomy, our creativity and our many gifts. We resent the thought that all those gifts are simply gifts from God and that they can only be respected by being returned to God in service.

Life is a Gift

The Wise Men will unlearn your name.
Above your head no star will flame.
One weary sound will be the same –
the hoarse roar of the gale.
The shadows fall from your tired eyes
as your loan bedside candle dies,
for here the calendar breeds nights
till stores of candles fail.

What prompts the melancholy key?
A long familiar melody.
It sounds again. So let it be.
Let it sound from this night.
Let it sound in my hour of death –
as gratefulness of eyes and lips
for that which sometimes makes us lift
our gaze to the far sky.

You glare in silence at the wall.
Your stocking gapes: no gifts at all.
It’s clear you are now too old
to trust in good Saint Nick;
that it’s too late for miracles.
– But suddenly, lifting your eyes
to heaven’s light, you realise:
your life is a sheer gift.

1 January 1965 by Joseph Brodsky

I love this poem. I am sure most of us have felt the way he describes.

The epiphany at the end of the poem is tough. He realises that life is a gift, not just despite the pain, misery, fear and loneliness – but because of it. The gift of ‘sheer life’ is distinct from the many joys of life – and it is a gift we can lose sight of when we are full up with things – when we are happy, busy and in company.

When we reach ’empty’ – we may finally realise that there is something else – something that should be filled – sheer life itself.

God does not give us the right to exist – life is sheer gift.

What will we do with this knowledge?

The Paradoxical Commandments

People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered.
Love them anyway.

If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.
Do good anyway.

If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies.
Succeed anyway.

The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.
Do good anyway.

Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.
Be honest and frank anyway.

The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds.
Think big anyway.

People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs.
Fight for a few underdogs anyway.

What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.
Build anyway.

People really need help but may attack you if you do help them.
Help people anyway.

Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth.
Give the world the best you have anyway.

[© Copyright Kent M. Keith 1968, renewed 2001]

I came across these words in the brilliant song “Anyway” by Maggie and Suzzy Roche – although they don’t credit the author who (with a little investigation) turns out to be Dr Keith M Keith. I find them inspiring and helpful – especially on those days when you are feeling a little ‘misunderstood’ or hurt.

The song “Anyway” does not use the words of all of the Paradoxical Commandments – but it contains an additional and lovely final verse:

You see, in the final analysis,
it is between you and God;
It was never between you and them anyway

Having Fun or Doing Our Duty

But of course you are quite right if you mean that giving up fun for no reason except that you think it’s “good” to give it up is all nonsense. Don’t the ordinary old rules about telling the truth and doing as you would be done by tell one pretty well which kind of fun one may have and which not? But provided the thing is in itself right, the more one likes it and the less one has to “try to be good”, the better. A perfect man would never act from a sense of duty; he’d always want the right thing more than the wrong one. Duty is only a substitute for love (of God and of other people), like a crutch, which is a substitute for a leg. Most of us need the crutch at times; but its idiotic to use the crutch when our own legs (our own loves, tastes, habits etc.) can do the journey on their own.

C S Lewis from Letters to Children

This same thought, although expressed with none of the same clarity, is found in Kant:

We have now to elucidate the concept of a will estimable in itself and good apart from any further end. This concept, which is already present in a sound natural understanding and requires not so much to be taught as merely to be clarified, always holds the highest place in estimating the total worth of our actions and constitutes the condition of all the rest. We will therefore take up the concept of duty, which includes that of a good will, exposed however, to certain subjective limitations and obstacles. These so far from hiding a good will or disguising it, rather bring it out by contrast and make it shine forth more brightly.

Immanuel Kant from the Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals

This thought is important to any sound understanding of ethics and theology. Doing right is not the same as acting from a sense of duty. The motive to act rightly is only necessary when doing right isn’t what we want to do. This makes deontological ethics – the view that there are real and fundamental duties that humans must obey – much less prissy and much more human. Sometimes we can be doing right just by having fun. Sometimes.

It is also important because it helps explain the connection between God as Law Giver and God as Lover. It is the same God, the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New. The Law is Love, but experienced as obligation. Both Will us to be the best we can be: Love and Discipline.

We are lucky if our circumstances and our nature mean that doing the right thing is fun – but sadly this is often not the case.

The Atheist and God

The atheist is much closer to God than the agnostic.

In Christ’s words “My God, My God – why hast thou forsaken me” we sense the passion and grief that comes from Man’s separation from God. The atheist strives both to maintain this separation, while railing against all those who claim it can be overcome. Their faith in emptiness itself (Nihilism) or their assertion that they have the right assert their own meaning (Existentialism) is a comprehensible – if confused – act of faith.

They know something more is required – and they refuse to be fobbed off with second-hand goods. They sense, as Weil puts it:

“God can only be present in creation under the form of absence.”

A Poem is a Letter to God

A poem is a letter to God. Its meaning does not need to be clear to the poet or to the reader, for it is clear to God. It is more an act of homage – a sacrifice – literally – a ‘making holy’.

As the reader we enjoy its mystery, just as we enjoy participation in ceremony – feeling part of something bigger than us. Only the fool would expect to fully drain the poem of its meaning – leaving themselves with only an empty shell – the merely literal.

After writing this I came across this similar thought by Joseph Brodsky:

“…after all, any art is essentially prayer. Any art is directed to the ear of the Almighty. Herein, actually, lies the essence of art. That’s for certain. A poem, if it’s not a prayer, then it’s at least put in motion by the same mechanism as prayer.”

From Solomon Volkov’s Conversations with Joseph Brodsky

What does ‘God’ mean?

The rav asked a disciple who had entered his room: “Moshe, what do we mean when we say ‘God’?” The disciple was silent. The rav asked him a second and third time. Then he said: “Why are you silent?”

“Because I do not know.”

“Do you think I know?” said the rav. “But I must say it, for it is so, and therefore I must say it: He is definately there, and except for him nothing is definitely there – and this is He.”

Martin Buber from The Tales of the Hasidim

Wittgenstein – following Kant – provoked a great deal of philosophical musings on the nature of theological language. He seemed to suggest, not that it was false, but that somehow its meaning could not be treated as equivalent to everyday talk of tables, teachers or tragedies.

It can be seen that Hasidic thinkers had already covered the same ground. However they were more aware that truth itself is one of those categories that is hard to pin down. I may be confidently using a term like ‘table’ and you may assuredly understand me. But we can be less sure about the real and ultimate truth of our assertions. Often the price certainty of certainty is a kind of emptiness.

The Rabbi understood the truth of God’s existence without being confident he understood the meaning of the term God – this is as it should be when our language tries to grasp that which is by its nature greater than us. The price of meaningfulness is certainty.

Making the Story True

“Pride” she [Isak Dinesen] once wrote in her notebook, “is faith in the idea that God had, when he made us. A proud man is conscious of the idea, and aspires to realise it.”

…she did write some tales about what must have been for her the obvious lesson of her youthful follies, namely, about the “sin” of making a story come true, of interfering with life according to a preconceived pattern, instead of waiting patiently for the story to emerge, of repeating in imagination as distinguished from creating a fiction and then trying to live up to it.

Hannah Arendt on Isak Dinesen

Pride is the first sin and yet it seems such a natural and unavoidable part of being human and of having some notion of our own purpose, destiny or value. In the Greek tradition pride is something proper – often it almost seems to be the point of everything – think of Ajax on the beach. But in the Jewish and Christian tradition pride is always problematic.

Elie Wiesel tells this Hasidic tale:

Just before he died, the Baal Shem told his disciples that the one among them who would teach them how to overcome pride would be his successor. The problem was put to each of them; the Maggid happened to be called first. His answer: Since pride is one of God’s attributes, man cannot uproot it entirely, all at once; it must be fought every day and at every moment. This reply was so favourably received, no one else was questioned.

I love this thought. It seems to truly capture what is necessary in pride, and yet, it properly puts pride in its place.

Part of what it takes to ‘fight pride every day and at every moment’ is also to be found in the idea of ‘letting the story emerge…’. The vanity of pride is not found so much in the fact that we value ourselves but in that we pretend to know what to value in ourselves – how to define the pattern of our own life. This is real vanity. Stories are not projects – they evolve and they are changed by the world and its contingencies.

We must live our lives with imagination. We must tell and listen to the stories. We are looking for meaning. But we must not force the story to come true or feel defeated when the story takes an unexpected turn. This is why proper pride is an act of faith, not knowledge; we must have faith in our value – but not pretend to know what that value actually is.

The Problem of Giving

We do not quite forgive the giver. The hands that feeds us is in some danger of being bitten. 

Ralph Waldo Emerson on Gifts

The problem of giving is profound and double-edged. If we are the recipient of a gift there is a danger that we see our own need as a weakness (which it is not) and this then erodes our sense of our own value. If we are the giver then the danger is that we view our gift as some subtraction from ourselves (which it is not) and that we feel a pride and superiority to which we are not entitled.

One approach to this problem is to deny the reality of property (the property as theft argument). But this leaves us all poorer – or all subject to whatever power is in the business of organising property (the state, the market or the gangster).

A better approach is to welcome the concept of property and the notion of property rights but to recognise that property rights are not absolute. Property rights must be balanced with other social rights in order to ensure that everyone has the right to enough – even if some have more and some have less.

Paradoxically the healthiest perspective is to recognise that everything is a gift – not from other human beings – but from God. Humility before God takes nothing away from the soul.

Mr Pye and Do-Goodery

Mervyn Peake’s novel Mr Pye is a wonderful fable on the perils of do-goodery. Bringing boundless wisdom and benevolence to the island of Sark he ends up, much to his own disgust, turning into a winged angel.

What is at the root of his strange fall is his own pride, his determination to not just be good – but to look good.

Several symptoms of his prideful benevolence shine though the pages of the novel:

Unlike Christ, Mr Pye never asks the person he is about to help whether he really wants his assistance. 

Power is never questioned. Confident in his own benevolence and greater wisdom he treats people as puppets – at times quite literally. 

God becomes the “Great Pal” – always smiling, always present. Only in his final reconciliation with God does he experience any fear and trembling.

Do-goodery is not good. Goodness follows the path of justice: it is always respectful, humble and mindful that any good that is done never really came from the self anyway.

Do Not Harvest to the Edges – Biblical Social Justice Theory

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien.
I am the Lord your God.

Do not steal.
Do not lie.
Do not deceive one another.
Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God.
I am the Lord.

Do not defraud your neighbour or rob him.
Do not hold back the wages of a hired man overnight.
Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling-block in front of the blind, but fear your God.
I am the Lord.

Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favouritism to the great, but judge your neighbour fairly.
Do not go about spreading slander among your people.
Do not do anything that endagers your neighbour’s life.
I am the Lord.

Do not hate your brother in your heart.
Rebuke your neighbour frankly so that you will not share in his guilt.
Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbour as yourself.
I am the Lord.

Keep my decrees.

Leviticus: 19:9-8

This ancient account of social justice theory is not just interesting because it demonstrates how our awareness of the demands of social justice has a very long history. It also shows that about social justice in the past was often more sophisticated – even if it is framed in terms of an agricultural economy – than our thinking today. Notice in particular:

  1. The priority of making sure the most needy are provided for, but also the way in which this maintains the dignity and the autonomy of the poor – who do not need to beg or receive patronage.
  2. The importance of fair dealing and the imperative to not exploit those who work for you by delaying payments.
  3. The need to create an environment of dignity and respect for all – especially for those who can easily be taken advantage of.

These observations are all reinforced by the fear of God – his knowledge of all your actions and all your intentions. There is complete awareness that enlightened self-interest is not sufficient to protect those who might be  exploited by the more powerful. The constant refrain – “I am the Lord” – puts everyone in their place, reminds everyone that the power or status in this world is illusory – it justifies nothing and entitles us to no special treatment.

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