Rational Religion

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The Paradox of Paradox


One of the basic definitions of paradox is something which exists in defiance of its own rules.


The rules say this can't be, but we just specified that it is.


Obviously somebody is lying.  Either the rules aren't absolute or our statement is false. (Or nonsense, which is another way to say the same thing. At any rate, It do not obtain.)


But there are hierarchies of paradox.  Some of them come with the Definition of Humanity or the Laws of the Universe.  Those are pretty profound.


Still, not every paradox is significant.   Most of them are just paradoxes.


Paradoxes being so difficult to live with, it is always surprising how common they are.  Most of them are ignorably trivial, resulting from casual intellectual exercises or common grammatical errors. 


Although it is vanishingly difficult to contemplate a paradox, we casually state them every day, by accident.  A lot of the rest of them we make up on purpose to flummox ourselves.


Note the paucity of Zeno's infamous paradox:  It’s rather more complicated than it is usually presented, but it is a classic example of self-befuddlement.


A person running a race at a constant speed will cover one-half the distance to the finish line in the time t/2.  He will subsequently cover one-half the remaining distance in t/4, one half the rest of the distance in t/8, and so on infinitum.  It is easily apparent,” by trying to sum the never-ending fractions, that the runner -- without slowing his pace -- can never actually reach the finish line.


I find it amazing that generations of philosophers and mathematicians have wasted time and brain cells puzzling over this chestnut!   Runners in the real world do not run to a finish line. They run through it (even should they do their best to stop, as in indoor track meets).  Their race cannot be measured as the sum of infinitesimals; only by elapsed time spent between the boundaries of an established course.      The question is simply an intellectual exercise, designed to fail.  It isn't even a very good paradox.


There is some good evidence that Zeno, by the way, was playing.  He may have constructed his paradox as a goof on a whole school of philosophers who tended to value theoretical muggles like this over the simple realities easily revealed by observation.


Satire or no, Zeno’s Paradox doesn’t seem to have any sensible applications until we get into quantum physics, where weirdness is the order of the day and paradox the dominant environment.


But paradox is also one of the tried tools of the orthodox metaphysicist. 


"Look at this thorny problem," they say, "all convoluted and knotted back upon itself!  It makes your head hurt just to look at it, and there is no hope of sorting it out.  But it is there!  It must have a solution, albeit on a different plane or in another dimension.  Therefore the supernatural must be real!"




Not all the arcane formulations of human intelligence are legitimate questions.  And a lot of the legitimate ones probably don't have answers; at least none we have time to codify before entropy separates all the atoms in the universe beyond the limits of intellectual communication. 


All the time-wasting and obfuscation arises from a fundamental limitation of our central nervous system.  We can't stand not knowing; especially the answers to such fundamental questions as why we are here and where we are going after we no longer are.


The notion that we may simply cease to be is beyond most central nervous systems.  It is a crippling flaw which leads to a good deal of nonsense and a lot of antisocial behavior.


Most of these intellectual puzzles are trivial.  They are just games.


I am not much of a game player. 


I have never been interested in learning more than the rudiments of chess.  The fact that the computer is the greatest invitation to game-playing ever introduced into society at large is to me an irrelevance.


(Like just about anyone with a computer, I waste a lot of time on games, but my innate impatience keeps me from anything too complicated to be completed in more than three or four minutes.  Nothing involving a lot of thinking.  Thinking isn't easy and I don't have the resources to waste it on games.)


I am not against game-playing.  It is wonderful intellectual exercise.  It can help us understand the real world through modeling and simulations.  But if one does nothing but play ever more intricate games, one has become diverted from life.


Many great thinkers have understood this.  Herman Hesse's "Magister Ludi" is about a society in which "the best and the brightest" are devoted to a game which has in effect become their religion, their politics, their economics; everything.


The story is a parable of how seductively easy it is to become wholly involved in a life which operates according to a made-up set of rules; complex and challenging rules, to be sure, but still invented out of whole cloth and with only peripheral relevance to anything that matters. 


It is a parable, then, of all human civilizations and their systems of belief.


It’s probably of revealing significance that I have never actually read most of “Magister Ludi.”  Once I realized what it was about, the very long and intricate cataloging of it began to bore me.    Since the novel was available to me only in translation, I could not even become intrigued by Hesse's use of his language.


I expect I have missed a lot of great stuff by being easily bored.  I have also avoided wasting a hell of a lot of time.


Many [especially] Eastern religions are extremely complex, even contradictory, especially at the "entry level" where most believers stay. 


Hinduism has thousands of gods: in effect, one for almost every family.  It is so confusing for a mind raised in monotheism that most Westerners refuse to contemplate (let alone try to understand) it.  The best analogy, perhaps, would be to say the Hindi all have more or less personal, but named and traditional, openings into the realm of formal metaphysics. 


Catholic Christians do approximately the same thing by believing in patron saints, and praying to different saints to effect different desired results.  The Catholics, at least in the backs of their minds, understand that they are really praying to a unitary god, but offering the prayer through a specific divine agent somehow gives it more validity; more chance of being "divinely noticed" perhaps, or of being presented in a better light by one already sanctified.


Of course, in the world of everyday belief, it is easy to get stuck at that entry level.  God, itself, is a rather large concept, somewhat more complex than the average mind would like to contemplate every day.  The family god or the patron saint is much more immediate and easier to relate to on a personal basis.  If the prayer happens to be answered, the emotional connection to this lowest-echelon deity is strengthened.  If it is not answered, the supplicant can wonder what he or she has done to offend this agent, and move to correct the offense.


One is thus spared the concept of having displeased the Holy of Holies; the Master of the Universe.  Which could be pretty scary.


This, of course, is a key intellectual difference between monotheism and polytheism.   The monotheist postulates a direct, one-to-one relationship with his god.  God, therefore, must be all-knowing and all-seeing and inclined to take the time and effort to deal with the Believer as an individual.


True, many monotheistic religions modify this concept by putting a layer or two of priests and saints between the believer and the actual deity, but the notion is similar.  After the priests intercede, God makes individual interventions.


In the Eastern religions, theological sophistication tends to strip away layer upon layer of lesser deities and to peripheralize the importance of common rituals.    In Hindu philosophy, when the last mysteries are stripped away, the religious scholar is left with the simplest possible concepts of truth, beauty and the universe as a whole.  It is as though the seeking process had reduced all the noise in the environment to a single, pure sound-sight-all-encompassing sensory experience. 


In short you get to Buddha; the expression on that face.


I first began to “understand” this complexity-to-simplicity evolution of Hindu religiosity upon seeing "A Passage to India," the Broadway dramatization of E. M. Forster's classic novel.  


One of the many "dramatic moments" which stays in my mind from my lifelong experience in the theatre is the visual/aural image of a celebrated older actress (Perhaps Gladys Cooper??  It was 1962 and I no longer remember her name) describing the central philosophical premise of the play. 


Briefly, the story is an account of a supposed rape or molestation of an English woman by a Hindi minor government official; which alleged act took place in some "holy caves".   


There is a lot of doubt that the attack occurred, despite the prevailing prejudices of the British Empire at the time; or at least that it occurred as charged.   An older woman who was present on the same cave-exploring expedition is rather unwillingly called to testify.  It is her description of the caves and their unsettling effect upon the Western psyche which makes it plausible that the whole incident was the result of European confusion and disorientation.


She said she, herself, could not stay long in the caves because of the echoEvery sound, from a child's laughter, to a shout of anger, to a gunshot, was so reverberated and processed by the labyrinthine depths of the cave that it came back as identically the same sound, at the same pitch:  a sort of soft, rolling, hollow  "Boom!"


Because she was a very good actress, I still hear, in my mind, her "Boom!"


And for the first time I saw what Forster's story tries to tell about Oriental philosophy and Western inability to grasp its subtleties.


All the complexity-reduced-to-profundity of Eastern religious seeking is rolled up in that unitary  "Boom."   And as I recall, the Hindi in the story regarded the caves as holy, but they did not exactly, themselves, know why. 


Except that they were not as spooked by it as the Europeans, they really didn't understand it, either. 


Forster did; or thought he did.  Hence, the story. 


The catch is, you can't just jump to the unifying profundity, even by realizing from the start that it exists.  You have to go through the stages of elimination to prepare your nervous system for the ultimate experience.  (Most of the Hindi in the story hadn't done that much homework, yet, so they were mystified; even as they knew the caves were somehow profound.)


It's a great and noble concept.


If that's the way you want to spend your life.


It may be personally rewarding, but in relation to the rest of human society, about all it does is keep you busy and out of the way.  For a positive spin, it keeps one more superior intellect from screwing with other people's heads.


(On a ridiculously more simplistic level, the desire for an intercessor in dealing with the world can be directly credited for the current overweening popularity of Television psychics. 


Just being on TV gives these (not always conscious) fakes a cachet; an authority; which serves the purposes of thousands [millions!] of not-very-deep-thinking persons for whom anybody or anything even slightly above their own plane of existence can serve as a beacon of encouragement.  Obviously these people NEED a lot of encouragement, so any they can get is probably going to help them.  Nevertheless, TV psychics sorely try my commitment to "Whatever gets you through the day."   They remind me that most of the stuff that gets you through the day is only slightly removed from a waste of time and energy; some of it is corrosive.  Consider heroin.)


[But what ABOUT all those "psychic friends" and other scams we see on television?   They seem to know all these things about us that they would have no "physical" way of learning.  Some of their "insights" are so right-on that they are scary.


"Some," of course, is the operative word.  Most of what these people come up with is either full of elliptical syntax or just plain wrong.  Since our brains are wired to pick out the few nuggets which apply to us, and ignore the rest, which doesn't, we tend to give these charlatans a lot higher score than they deserve. 


(Experiment: try having a friend read a long, difficult paragraph which includes a lot of names she or he has never seen before.  Then ask your friend to recall, accurately, as many of the names as possible.  After a while, if your friend has the patience,  try the same thing again, including the subject's own name, or yours, in the text.  Do this a few times and you will begin to see a definite pattern.)


And what the psychics get right?  That comes from knowing the odds on human universals and being able to "read" their subjects, psychologically and emotionally.  Notice that any good psychic engages the subject in conversation, teasing out information that the subject really never intended to give.]