Spritzophrenia

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Posts Tagged ‘problem of pain’

Optimism Doesn’t Work. Voltaire’s Candide.

Posted by spritzophrenia on December 26, 2012

Christmas is a low stress affair in my family. We don’t give gifts to adults any more, so the frantic “What-on-earth-do-I-get-X?” is removed from the holiday. One of the few gifts I did receive is a new translation of Voltaire’s satire Candide, subtitled “Optimism” (published in 1761). I’ve never read it, and it turns out to be very enjoyable and full of surprises.

For example, Candide is a young man. I’d always assumed the hero(ine) was a woman. The name equates to “white”, and by implication, “innocent”. Candide is indeed somewhat of an innocent, being convinced that his tutor Proffessor Panglosse is the greatest philosopher in the world, and that Panglosse has proven beyond doubt that this world is “the best of all possible worlds”. I first came across the idea of the best of all possible worlds when I was studying the problem of evil, and it appears this kind of thing was being promoted in Voltaire’s day – perhaps by Leibniz? More on this below.

Another surprise for me, is that Voltaire’s real name was Francois-Marie Arouet. He published under 178 pseudonyms during his life, but Voltaire was his preferred name, an anagram of “AROVET LI,” the Latinized spelling of his surname, Arouet, and the initial letters of “le jeune” (“the younger”). The adoption of the name “Voltaire” following his incarceration at the Bastille is seen by many to mark Voltaire’s formal separation from his family name and his past. The name also conveys connotations of speed and daring, and you can refer to Wikipedia for the rest.

existence

Also surprising is how enjoyable Candide is, if an adventure that features rape, hideous floggings, disease and numerous disasters can be enjoyed. In parts it reminded me very much of Monty Python.

From the translators introduction:”The word optimism, first used in print in 1737, represents a philosophical position, a claim that in spite of errors and appearances God’s creation is as good as it could be.”

God, being perfect, can only create perfect things. Ergo, this world must be perfect. In Candide, the entire book is a series of misfortunes which poke fun at this idea. I once read something by evangelical philosopher Norman Geisler, who said this world is clearly not the best of all possible worlds. However, he claims, this world is the best WAY to the best world. In other words, he believes that the sufferings and misfortunes of this world are permissible (or perhaps necessary) in order to achieve the best world. Putting it another way, the horrors of this lifetime do have either some purpose (eg, *some* suffering may improve one’s character) or some necessity (eg God cannot make a consistent physical world without allowing the possibility of drowning or falling). Geisler lists a number of explanations for evil and emphasises that each one only covers *some* aspect of suffering; there is no single catch-all explanation that explains everything. However, Geisler believes that taken together, these explanations make suffering and evil understandable.

In similar vein, I picked up Timothy Keller’s The Reason for God again. For some reason, my mother now owns it. It is a good, popular exposition of the reasonableness of belief in God, specifically the Christian one. But I found his chapter on the problem of evil somewhat dissatisfying. I suppose in this world we should never become comfortable with disaster, suffering and failure and a book that makes us feel comfortable would probably be missing something. Keller is absolutely right, in my view, that the problem of evil is not proof that a good and loving God cannot exist. Where the argument from evil comes undone is that we are finite beings without full knowledge: We cannot KNOW all of God’s reasons for why things happen, therefore evil does not prove that God cannot be. Emphasis on the word “prove” there. However, while Keller is not twee, I think more acknowledgement of how shit this world can be, and sympathy for those affected by it, would improve his book. His chapter defending the church’s mistakes suffers a similar lack – he almost breezes over some of the horrors and banalities of Christianity. I think his defense is reasonable, but a little more humility would make me love him. Ah well, these books are never perfect and the appropriate bits should be added to one’s personal worldview rather than treating the whole as some kind of Bible.

Which leads me to my sister’s cancer.

I think I blogged about it over a year ago when we first discovered it. Briefly, it was pretty serious liver/colon cancer, at the point where she might not have long to live. She went through chemo and it looked successful – Hallelujah. Then the tumors came back and she had more surgery. This may have been successful (test results in the new year will tell us something), but has resulted in very painful adhesions. So she is gaunt, in regular pain, and may only have a year or two to live.

I’ve been thinking about optimism and pessimism. Since the days of Voltaire, optimism has altered in meaning and entered the common lexicon. I don’t think either pessimism or optimism can be proved. One can look at the world and see violence, disease, crime and war. This is Voltaire’s story of Candide. Or one can see beauty, charity, nurture and success. Both perspectives are true, and I think the philosophical position that can sum them up will be extremely nuanced. That’s probably why the Christian story (if it’s true) comes to us as a story, rather than a philosophy. Stories tend to be better for nuance than philosophy.

What can help is a perspective. Some of us like to claim we are “realistic”. Is this possible? Whether true or not, it’s more fun to be optimistic, but at times pessimism seems hard to deny.

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Carbon Based Lifeforms | Photosynthesis

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Posted in agnostic, hardship, personal, Philosophy | Tagged: , , , | 7 Comments »

Grinning to Death

Posted by spritzophrenia on October 21, 2010

“Think and grow rich”. “If you can dream it, you can achieve it”. “Your thoughts create your reality.” Sound familiar? Perhaps you’ve seen “The Secret”. I was interested to hear Barbara Ehrenreich had published a book on the negative side of positive thinking but didn’t realise it started with her experience of breast cancer. Here’s an excerpt from Smile or Die.

I wanted to link to a friend’s blog reviewing Ehrenreich’s book, but can’t find the article. Message me if it’s you, huh? [Edit: Found it! Linked in the comments]

I did find this perceptive review by Eliza, a Lupus sufferer. A short sample:

My disdain for the Positive Thinking movement only grew as I began to become disabled about four years ago. I cannot even count how many people lectured me about the merits of “thinking positively” once I began to suffer sometimes-debilitating pain. …

rainbow

continued…

Constantly lectured about how I should learn to see my chronic pain and fatigue as “positive developments” that “teach me to be more loving of humanity,” I call bullshit. And I was thrilled when I learned that Barbara Ehrenreich had written a new book on the subject.

On the whole, I would say that this is a highly flawed book that is nevertheless worth reading. …

She effectively draws on her scientific background to expose the pseudo-scientific claims (usually drawn from quantum physics and psychology) that are often quoted in order to add a scientific veneer to what is primarily an ideological movement.

This article notes

While Ehrenreich seems to harbor no ill will toward Christianity, some of her harshest critique is directed at positive thinking’s inroads into American churches. She indicts the usual suspects—Joel Osteen, Robert H. Schuller, Norman Vincent Peale—but she also includes much of the megachurch movement. Like other critics, the author believes the pressures of church growth have caused many pastors to adopt principles from the world of business and commerce at the expense of Christian distinctiveness.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been in christian meetings with razamatazz and hyped-up motivational speakers, thank g0d. I don’t like the way positive thinking has crept into spiritualities that have emphasised humility and even poverty in the past. Somehow it just seems fake to me.

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How does this stuff make you feel? What place do you think positive thinking should have in our lives?

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The Streets | Positive

Posted in agnostic, personal development, Sociology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments »

Welcome to the Fall

Posted by spritzophrenia on October 7, 2010

Part 5 of a series starting here

I find it highly ironic that I choose to explore pain and suffering, and then come down with a severe cold, the crippling return of an old back injury, and a descent into depression. When I cough, I have to grip the wall, or fall over with muscle spasms. If there is a Being who Knows out there, perhaps she is laughing. How has this affected my own spirituality? I guess I’ll first say, “What spirituality?” I’m an agnostic, and always will be.

Does agnostic spirituality require a constant to-and-fro along the path of unbelief? Climbing up and down the ladder to heaven, closer and then further away? I haven’t updated you on my own journey for a while; my life, study and praxis moves much faster than I can write about it here.

Briefly, I think— for now— that some kind of g0d might exist, following my reading of various theist philosophers. I can “feel something there” when I pray or read mystical literature. Weird, I could never do that before. Is that just the “religion” part of the brain, starved for company?

Strangely, the constant pain in my lower back doesn’t convince me that g0d cannot be there. Perhaps if it continues for many more weeks it may grind down the teeth of my belief. I came to the intellectual position some years ago that the problem of evil is not a “proof” against God. It only means we cannot know g0d’s purposes.

I’m quite cheerful, the sun is shining, and my mind’s distortions of reality are receding. The cold is gone, but the back-ache remains, making it difficult to sit or lie for long. I’m typing this standing up.

Laughing Jesus

As a head-person who has an ambivalent relationship with body and emotions, can I find some meaning or meditative quality in my pain? Mostly it just takes away my focus, removes my ability to think clearly, makes me tired and removes me from the higher life. I’ve read some pretty inspiring stuff by those who live with crippling circumstance. But for me? Nope. It’s just pain. Guess I’m not a guru, huh?

Pain is everyday for some people. There is a challenge in day-to-day spirituality: The life of work, paying bills, struggling to manage kids, exhaustion, arriving too late for the start of the movie. The idol of the mundane says, “This is nothing, this is ordinary. Don’t read anything special into this.”

Do you read anything special into the mundane parts of your life?

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Ministry | Welcome to the Fall

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Posted in agnostic, spirituality | Tagged: , , , , , , | 8 Comments »

Will You Take The Pain I Give To You?

Posted by spritzophrenia on October 4, 2010

Yesterday we looked at pain in Genesis, and discussed the Christian idea of the distortion of the world, the breaking-down which theologians call “the Fall”. Remember, I’m agnostic, but I’m wearing my Christian hat today.

Matthew Fox is one modern heretic who focuses on Original Blessing rather than original sin, as do Jewish theologies, but I see this as the other side of the paradox. Humanity, and all of nature are full of good, as well as broken-ness. We can hold this alongside the belief that pain came into the world very early on.

“Fall” has a nice Autumnal feel about it don’t you think? The leaves are no longer green, they retain their structure but are beginning to die.

Literalists claim there was no death before the fall. Conceptually, it’s rather hard to see how Eden could have been anything like the forests of today without leaves dying and rotting to provide mulch and minerals, to give one small example.

leaves

Can theistic evolution cope with the pain inherent in an evolutionary view?

The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.

~ Richard Dawkins, “God’s Utility Function,” published in Scientific American (November, 1995) p. 85, via Iain at Phrenic Philosophy)

Does Dawkins paint his story rather too thickly? My suggestion at this point is to hope that perhaps less “conscious” beings than humans don’t truly “suffer”, in the way that we do? A purely materialist universe, as Dawkins says, is pitiless, indifferent and cruel.

The problem of pain and evil is not an easy one for theists either. It’s something I’ve pondered for many years, even as an agnostic. Philosophy is not a static field and I understand, contrary to popular belief, that the weight of argument is in theists’ favour at present. Check out contributions by Swinburne, Plantinga, contributors to God and the Philosophers and others. Ergo the problem of evil is not a proof against God, it’s at best a probability. More on this another time.

However, when considering the horrors of suffering, the recent floods in Pakistan for example, I always keep in mind two approaches: One can cope with suffering via the intellectual path or the emotional path. (Most likely a mixture of the two.) Even if I present a watertight case defeating the argument from evil, this won’t satisfy someone whose friends have recently died of disease, or remain permanently disabled. Knowing the arguments didn’t satisfy me, after all, when I merely experienced betrayal and a broken heart some years ago. It was this which caused me to walk away from God.

If we know the intellectual reasons I believe this may help, in the big picture. However, when in pain, we don’t want sophistry, we want comfort and strength. On that note I recommend Philip Yancey’s modern classic Where Is God When It Hurts?. It’s a profound book and I rate it highly.

Buddhism takes the reality of suffering as one of its foundational starting points. Alternately, I believe if there is some kind of pure Being there, who knows us intimately, then this g0d somehow shares in our suffering, and the suffering in nature.

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What Do You Think?

How do you think about suffering and spirituality? Does a higher power disgust you, or help you when you think about these things? This is part three of a series, starting with part one.

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Pleasure constricts us
That is the way
Empty perversion
Crippled by fate
(I believe in pain! In disease, cruelty and infidelity.)
Front Line Assembly | Final Impact, Bio-Mechanic

Posted in agnostic, atheism, Biology, Christianity, Emergent, ethics, god, Judaism | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments »

There Is No Pain, You Are Receding

Posted by spritzophrenia on October 1, 2010

This is not a post about going bald. It’s part two of a short series on suffering and spirituality. Here I mention a common Christian “literalist” objection to theistic evolution:

Doesn’t Genesis teach there was no pain and suffering until the fall, and therefore evolution cannot have been the mechanism?

Christians, Jews and to a lesser extent Muslims, all take their origin story from Genesis. At a particular point in the tale the human race is flourishing and then everything goes wrong. Humans make Promethean choices that separate them from God, and like all choices there are consequences, much like choosing to jump from a cliff. Christians call this “the fall”.

If you’re not familiar, here’s the whole passage. Among other things, in verse 16,

To the woman God said,
I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing;
with pain you will give birth to children.
Your desire will be for your husband,
and he will rule over you.

~ Gen 3:16

woman, man, pain

In a literal interpretation— the approach anti-evolutionists normally favour— this clearly implies pain before the fall. Note the phrase “greatly increase”. In other words, there was pain before the human representatives made their choice, it just wasn’t so bad. On a literal interpretation, pain was around even in Eden.

And that’s really the only point I want to make today.

By the way, according to Galileo Goes to Jail, and Other Myths about Science and Religion from my public library, the church did NOT oppose anesthesia in childbirth based on passages like these. I also noticed that male domination (the husband ruling over the woman) only came in AFTER the fall. Take that, “women must submit to men” theology. Gee, maybe literalist interpretations of the Torah aren’t so bad after all? (Noting my post suggesting this whole section, like much of early Genesis, appears to be poetic in form, and reading those sections ‘literally’ is probably a mistake.)

There are some people who rather enjoy a bit of pain (see below).
More on the problem of pain tomorrow 🙂
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What Do You Think?

Depeche Mode sing Strange Love:
I give in, to sin…
Will you take the pain… I give to you?
Pain, will you return it?

Also check out the great
Pain and Suffering remix (Replicant tribute)

Anyone like to guess the where the title of today’s post comes from? 😉
How do you think about physical pain and the meaning of life?

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Posted in agnostic, Christianity, god, hardship, Judaism, Meaning of Life | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments »

Blessed Are The Sick (Your Voice)

Posted by spritzophrenia on September 30, 2010

Welcome to the first in an occasional series where I specifically seek your feedback. I want to learn, you can guide my thoughts in ways I haven’t considered. Please respond in the comments and tell me what you think, even if it’s “I don’t know”.

[Edit: A good friend told me she wants to comment, but is “not a philosopher or theologian”. That tells me I’ve pitched this too high- I’m sorry. As with all comments here, I don’t expect you to be profound. I’m just happy to hear from you, even if it’s “Hi, what a crappy post. You suck, but I can’t think of anything to say.”

So if you like, just read the first bit and skip the rest.]

Today, I’m sick. Nothing serious, but our topic will lead into a short series about pain, suffering and spirituality; surely a challenge for any path. (Here’s number two in the series.) Atheists have it easy of course, they can just say, “The world sucks, it proves there’s no benevolence in the universe, and that’s all there is to it”. Or do you atheists have something more to offer when we suffer?

What does sickness tell you– if anything– about the transcendent world? How does it affect you: Your meditation, your prayer life, your practice? What is the meaning of life for those who cannot function at the same level as others?

To get your thoughts going, read on. Or just ignore, and go straight to the comments.

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hospital

Ideas

Consider Mental illness,

What we call schizophrenic is, as Joseph Campbell has discussed, called (positively) visionary or mystical in shamanic cultures, hence is valued, not feared or sedated with chemicals.

Shamanic illnesses are no different or ‘special’ than the illnesses of ‘normal’ people. Disease all comes from the same source, shamanic or not. Shamanic healers don’t piece by piece heal, they heal as a whole.

~from mental illness and spirituality

I’m mentally disabled myself, I’ve struggled with depression at times for most of my adult life. Or consider the last time you were laid under by a severe cold:

Psalm 41:3-4
The LORD will sustain him on his sick-bed and restore him from his bed of illness.
I said, O LORD, have mercy on me; heal me, for I have sinned against you.

What can we learn about the meaning of life from permanent disability?

The criteria of transcendence and transfiguration also apply to the spiritual development of disabled people, in each case relative to the characteristics of the body which is disabled, transcended, and transfigured. This enables us to conceive of a multiplicity of known and lived human worlds.

This has two advantages. First, the plurality of the human worlds enables us to construct a spirituality of disability which is not based upon a theory of deficiency. As long as disabilities are mainly understood as lacking something, their intrinsic character will be overlooked, and they will be understood as mere exclusions from the big world.

~ from A Spirituality of Disability


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Please Respond

What is the meaning of life for those who cannot function at the same level as others? Do you know someone who’s suffered from chronic illness? Where is g0d in all of this?

Please leave your feedback in the comments. This is YOUR chance to share 🙂

Morbid Angel | Blessed Are The Sick

Posted in agnostic, Emergent, god, hardship, spirituality, Your Voice | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 33 Comments »