Thursday, 26 June 2014

Free to Go

I was watching a TV crime drama tonight, a rerun of Boston Legal actually, so drama may not be the right word: it’s too full of comedy and romance, but basically drama, and I was struck by a typical dramatic moment, typical for courtroom dramas, I mean.  The jury comes back, declares the defendant Not Guilty, and the judge says, “You are free to go.”

Free to go, yes, but go where?  For days or weeks the defendant has been caught up in this drama, this challenge, this struggle: how much it defines her, how it gives meaning to this segment of her life, and then suddenly the struggle is over, the game is won, and she can go home.

I guess that will be where she goes: home.  But we haven’t even seen her at home; we’ve just seen her at her trial; that’s been her whole life, and now it’s over.  It’s a bit like working, and then retiring.  Or if not as dramatic as that, like finishing some major project and not knowing what to do next.  Where does one go when one is free to go?  Is freedom what we really want?  Maybe we want the opposite of freedom, maybe we want to have to struggle.  What is life without struggle?

I read a letter to the editor earlier today opposing euthanasia as the easy way out and arguing for suffering: suffering is what makes us human, the letter writer argued, and I wasn’t entirely convinced, but maybe …  Suffering may be going too far, but you want a little struggle in your life.  If you play a game, you want to play against someone who could beat you: you try to make sure they can’t, but if you actually know they can’t, where’s the fun in that?  To win without risk is to triumph without glory, as someone once said.

It’s the free to go part that makes me nervous.  After the trial, after the game, what then?  Wandering in a wasteland of freedom, without purpose, without direction …  Let us be bound by something and struggle to be free, and if we get free, let us struggle again.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Partial Truths and Errors

Following up on my last post, I was thinking today about an incident a couple of evenings ago, when my girl-friend came to pick me up on campus.  “I’m in a little roundabout in front of a construction site,” she said.  Oh, that’s the New SUB, I replied, and headed off for it.

It wasn’t the New SUB, though; it was the Alumni Centre (another new construction).  But not to worry, the two new buildings are right beside each other, so it was easy to find her.

I pondered this later.  Error had led me not astray, but to the right place.  A little learning is a dangerous thing, Pope once said, so perhaps a little error is useful?  I’m not sure that’s what he had in mind; I fear he was one of the devotees of System and warned against partial knowledge in the hopes of bringing people to Full Knowledge, Complete Learning, or whatever.

I certainly agree that a little learning can be dangerous.  I once told this to a class of mine and when they asked for an example thought of my situation arriving in a city where traffic was allowed to turn right on a red light.  Having been raised in a city where red meant stop, period, I suddenly was in a state of partial and thus dangerous knowledge.  I needed to learn that in Toronto cars might be turning on me even when I thought I had the right of way.

So I’m all for fuller knowledge (and not being run over), and I know the dangers of thinking you know before you know, but you can never know all; there are always things to learn; one shouldn’t think there will be a time when your knowledge will be complete.  And sometimes a little error can lead you in the right direction.

Friday, 6 June 2014

Skepticism and Belief

I took an interesting course on Greek philosophy this week, with a little Buddhism thrown in as a fillip, and what we learned was that there are all sorts of approaches to happiness (the theme of the course), leading one of the students to ask the instructor, “But which approach to happiness do you follow?”

To which the instructor, a young thirty-something type half the age of most of the students, replied, “Aristotle says that’s the sort of thing you shouldn’t ask a young man.”

(Instructors are so much younger nowadays.)

Another student raised the issue of post-modernism.  She’s taking a course on that too, and learning of its onslaught on absolutes and its claim that everything is relative.  “What can young people believe today if they are bereft of fundamental beliefs?”  (I paraphrase.)

To which the instructor replied that his young students do still seek belief, even if there is no longer a unified foundation like medieval Christianity to rely on.

Which I would agree with.  We seem to be in the midst of developing a new world view, at least in the West or on university campuses in the West: a world view based on environmentalism, science, identity politics, and political correctness.  There are good guys and bad guys, angels and demons, in a way reminiscent of earlier philosophies and religions (more the religions than the philosophies, I’d say).

It’s a development that makes me uneasy, because just as my ancestors didn’t fit with the dominant world view in Christian Europe, so I fear I don’t fit with the believers in climate change and the evils of “white male privilege.”  But more than that, more than not fitting in with the contents of the latest beliefs, I fear I don’t fit in with the culture of belief per se – which might make me sound like a post-modernist, only I don’t believe in them either.  I’m a skeptic perhaps – or perhaps I’m an eclectic.

The upshot of our final discussion was that people today are more eclectic.  Given all the philosophies out there, people pick and choose.  I think this is true too, though it is in opposition to the drive I’ve just outlined, the drive for the one Pure Belief, the true cause.  Perhaps after this period of eclecticism, we will end (though I shouldn’t say “end”) with One Big Belief again, a new anti-religion Religion.

It’s not where I want to go, but it may be where we’re heading.