The assemblage of shadows

I recently got into a disheartening debate with a young woman, a fellow intern at RFE/RL, about religion. My heart sank so much because, at no older than eighteen years old, she already has a rigid, cynical, and contradictory view of the world. On the one hand, this life is all there is, and it should be sufficient — all kinds of metaphysical talk about God, the soul, afterlives, and so on, is only unprovable distracting claptrap. On the other hand, this life is also insufficient — human beings are evil, civilization is a moral failure, and the empirical, measurable universe is a cold, indifferent wasteland.

I tried to explain my point of view: human beings aren’t evil, they’re stumbling in the dark, and civilization is only a moral failure if we hold it to an impossible and abstract standard. Evil exists, yes, but, ironically, it’s not always so evil. We never know the true fruits of actions. For example, had the Khmer Rouge never brutalized Cambodia, I would never have known my first love, and had Socrates not suffered injustice, Plato might never have written his dialogues and Aristotle his meditations, and who knows how art and science would have fared without them?

As to the universe being a cold, indifferent wasteland, one might be surprised to discover the contrary. Astronomers often remark about the miracleness of our planet — so much has had to go right, from the position of the moon to the placidity of our immediate cosmic neighborhood — that sometimes it seems the universe is actually conspiring on our behalf.  But even if the universe is indeed a blind machine, then, as Nietzsche thought,  could it not be the mission of intelligent species (ours and perhaps others) to inject moral and aesthetic order into this mechanistic order?

Finally, turning to her Sartrian argument against metaphysics, this seemed to be at the core of her logic: essentially, either there is God, and therefore no freedom and value in life, or there is no God, and therefore this life is all that we have — and yet, precisely because it is transient, it is also naggingly empty. I struggled to find the words for my response at the time, but alas, they come to me only now.

For me, belief in God does not desiccate this life, but the opposite, belief enriches it, even overloads it with value. When the prophets speak about the deficiency of our present material existence compared to what waits beyond death, I believe it is because this life, in its essence, is already stupendous and wonderful — in its barbarity, its beauty, its simplicity, and its complexity. How much more stupendous and wonderful, then, is the universe if there is life beyond life and universe beyond universe!

If we could grasp this compounded wonder continually and clearly, it would put us in a very different frame of mind with regards to our present material existence. We might finally comprehend Gandhi’s advise to “renounce and enjoy,” and we might treat this life, this physical universe, each other, much differently, much better, than we do now. We might have more detachment, more compassion, more commitment, and more joy.

At the moment, instead, we cling to shadows. I choose that metaphor on purpose: shadows are real, for example, occupying space, and they are dynamic, shifting and changing, at times menacing, at times like old friends, and hence in and of themselves have a certain intrinsic sublimity. Yet, they can only ever be two-dimensional. You cannot embrace and love a shadow. That is because they actually evidence fuller, three-dimensional bodies, and also beyond these bodies, of a distant, burning source of light and life.

The metaphor has wide applicability. Think of the physical body as the shadow and the soul as the fuller being. As Kant labored to prove, when we value someone,we really value their fuller being. In his words, the phenomenal is only the gateway to the nouminal: we know the fuller being through its shadow, which is why we work so hard to legislate due respect for it, although even then it is still ultimately the sacrosanctness of the fuller being that we are striving to honor and cherish.

Also, think of our total being — body and soul — as a shadow vis-à-vis the source of illumination — God. Indeed, think of the entire material universe in this way. It doesn’t cheapen ourselves or the cosmos to think in these terms; to the contrary, it reveals that we are actually the children of light, as well as its would-be suitors, naked and trembling in desire and fear:

O assemblage of shadows! Stand ashamed before My beauty, My might, My sovereignty and My grandeur. Turn your gaze unto the countenance of your Lord, the Unconstrained, so that you may find Me crying out among you with holy and cherished melodies. (Baha’u’llah, Lawh-i Nasir, tr. Buck).

Finally, the space between the shadow and the body, by the way, as well as between the body and the light, is also awash in photons and other invisible entities and constituent elements of reality. To begin with, this is an argument against rigid, experiential empiricism, which tries to uphold the merely measurable as the standard of reality. Anyone who knows real science knows that quantum physics has burst to pieces such a standard. There are far more meaningful empirical measures than what what our five senses immediately hold before us.

And secondly, it puts us in a further proper frame of mind in terms of our actual place in such an abundant cosmos. My acquaintance roared against how religion hubristically attempts to place humanity at the center of existence. She got the form of the argument right but its essence wrong: we are indeed just one part of a vast manifold, and by no means it center or most important element, but that is not an argument for our insignificance nor for the manifold being nothing more than human fancy.

To conclude, my acquaintance kept reiterating how she didn’t want to “argue” with me,when all I was trying to do was discuss. Discussion, of course, requires questions, and I think I was asking some very difficult questions, although I was trying to do it gently and honestly. In the end, she would have none of it.The way in which she was already so mentally closed broke my heart.

So, I suppose, this blog isn’t so much an attempt to convince her, as much as I’m taking the experience as an opportunity to elucidate my own viewpoint. In the end, I refuse to believe that existence must be a zero-sum game, a world of only light or only darkness. I want there to be shadows, because they are so much more tantalizing and interesting.

Advertisements

5 Replies to “The assemblage of shadows”

  1. “O FLEETING SHADOW! Pass beyond the baser stages of doubt and rise to the exalted heights of certainty. Open the eye of truth, that thou mayest behold the veilless Beauty and exclaim: Hallowed be the Lord, the most excellent of all creators!” Baha’ullah

    Thanks and Blessings, Martijn

  2. she must be a very nice girl, to be able to awaken so much frustration in you…

    and about the shadows. you do have a point, on a more meta psychical plane. you know my view on this universe is closer to the girls than to yours, but i’m confident i’m more open minded than she is (or really not as nice:p).

    c ya

    1. Hi Hendrik,

      Thanks for the comment. I always felt that your view, although mechanistic, was definitely very spiritual. Your machine has a purpose, even if it is just to be, but that’s besides the point, because we needn’t really know its purpose to find our own peace of mind within it.

      For you, it comes as a relief that ultimately, by the logic of this machine, everyone has a role to play and everything will work out as it should. The girl to whom I’m referring to in this post seemed to have the opposite view: she doesn’t find it as a relief. For her, the machine is blind and probably broken, and yet somehow also simultaneously indifferent and hostile.

  3. Having read this post, I feel compelled to respond. Your logic is flawed in some places and, in others, you simply fail to adhere to the logic you set forth.

    You write:

    “We never know the true fruits of actions. For example, had the Khmer Rouge never brutalized Cambodia, I would never have known my first love, and had Socrates not suffered injustice, Plato might never have written his dialogues and Aristotle his meditations, and who knows how art and science would have fared without them?”

    Your examples diametrically oppose your thesis sentence as you claim to “know the true fruits” of two specific actions. The Khmer Rouge brutalized Cambodia, therefore you knew your first love. Socrates suffered injustices, therefore Plato pens his dialogues and Aristotle his meditations, therefore art and science are forever changed.

    By the logic of your thesis sentence, your conclusion should be: While the Khmer Rouge’s brutality may have led to a set of circumstances that increased the possibility that you would, in the future, meet your love, that regime’s actions did not directly drive your love into your waiting arms. You may very well have met her had the Khmer Rouge never existed at all. There is no possible way of knowing.

    Again, based on your thesis sentence, the oppression of Socrates as an inspirational event for two of the greatest philosophers to ever live and their effect on the arts and sciences may not necessarily be interlinked. If we “never know the fruits of actions” how can we know that the arts and sciences would not have been affected in some other – maybe better – way had Socrates never been oppressed?

    And, concluding that because some good thing happened after some horrible act does make that horrible act any less evil, it simply means that corresponding circumstances after an event were not as evil as that event. It’s kind of a logical cul de sac.

    You write:

    “As to the universe being a cold, indifferent wasteland, one might be surprised to discover the contrary. Astronomers often remark about the miracleness of our planet —so much has had to go right , from the position of the moon to the placidity of our immediate cosmic neighborhood — that sometimes it seems the universe is actually conspiring on our behalf.”

    Seeing as though we do not know what comprises 75% of the universe (choosing the term “dark energy/matter” as a scientific placation whilst holding our breath for the discovery of the Higgs boson), I think the possibility that the universe is a cold, indifferent wasteland holds true if for no other reason than a lack of information to the contrary. I agree, Earth appears to be an anomaly, but there is no evidence that space ends, and for all the technological advances of the last 200 years, we still really don’t know much about our universe. The Watchmaker Theory holds true only in the absence of further evidence. You’d be hard-pressed to find an honest astronomer who thinks otherwise.

    And, nothing she said is in contrast to your call to “inject moral and aesthetic order into this mechanistic order?” Yours is a statement of intent and desire, hers was a statement of personal observation. The fact that you were talking about such things together necessarily means you agree on this existential point.

    The next few paragraphs are simply your personal beliefs and an explanation of how those beliefs inform your view of the world. They’re yours and that’s fine. I will say, though, that there plenty of people who are not practitioners of any faith who are compassionate, committed and joyful. It is possible to enjoy these fruits of life sans a deity or fully developed worldview committed to existential thought.

    You say:

    “Anyone who knows real science knows that quantum physics has burst to pieces such a standard. There are far more meaningful empirical measures than what what our five senses immediately hold before us.”

    Quantum and particle physics have done nothing of the sort. Necessarily, examples of randomness at the molecular level are being measured and observed (or “empirically experienced”), this is why they are called quantum and particle physics and not “small things: do they move?” Even at the smallest level, the particles being observed (by humans with senses) are comprised of matter that exists in our universe. Not knowing something today does not make that knowledge unattainable tomorrow. It seems close-minded to say that quantum physics has blown a hole in anything. It’s a relatively new field of study, with new discoveries every day. This dove-tails nicely with your Nietzsche-ian desire to adhere to the “mission of intelligent species (ours and perhaps others) to inject moral and aesthetic order into this mechanistic order.”

    In many respects, your thinking sounds just as “rigid” with your outright dismissal of her arguments.

    1. Thank you for the comment. I’ll endeavor to reply systematically and succinctly.

      First and most importantly, I feel your reply is very exact, which would be good in another context, but not here. My reason: although in my remarks I do employ logic, the remarks are not intended to aspire to the very rigorous and tightly-knit logic to which you subject them. The logic, such as it might even be called that, is hyperbolic. That’s because at root, my remarks are of the heart, not of thought. Were I attempting to make a more rigorous philosophical statement, then my logic would indeed need to be more precise.

      To be clear, you and I could indeed debate whether there is, as you say, a “necessary interlink” between terrible event x and positive event y, and whether this interlink, if it exists, abridges its evil. If we did have this debate, you would find that, in fact, my sense of “necessary” is more of the transformative type: God as Ironist, the Master Story-Teller, who can convert evil into good, tragedy into beauty. My sense of “necessary” is also tinged with the universal experience of when we look back upon the course of our lives and of history, we feel often that things worked out the way they should, and no other way could have been. At root, then, my approach to this topic is a religious and emotional one.

      As to whether science actually conforms to my interpretation, you raise a lot of points. I would offer that the facts stand apart as much from your interpretation as from mine: whether there is a Watchmaker or not is empirically unprovable either way, at least with present scientific and religious capacities. You feel there is none; I feel there is one. Nevertheless, I do believe that at the higher levels of cosmology and theoretical physics, the line between science and metaphysics, and hence, religion, does at least blur (https://schwartztronica.wordpress.com/2010/06/09/brothers-on-the-same-path/). That is not to say that science and metaphysics or religion are the same activity — to the contrary.

      Is my own thinking rigid? Of course, I’m biased in this regard. I know my own personal, inner evolution, and I certainly have my own expectations of what I consider to represent a flexible point of view or not. I think it’s clear that my impression of the girl mentioned in this post is precisely that, an impression. My suspicion is that she wants a black and white world, for reasons known only to her but which I surmise have to do with stark moral disappointments in the human condition. Obviously, biography would play a role in that, too, but I’m not privy to the details of her life.

      Feel free to poke around my blog and leave comments as you see fit. Obviously, you’re a very precise mind, so it would be nice to have a reader like you to point out things with which you agree and disagree.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s