I was reading Mak’s recent post this morning questioning how Adam and Eve could fear a punishment of death without having known death and it reminded of this interesting passage from Roger Zelazny’s Hugo Award winning book Lord of Light (I strongly recommend it). Also just as a bit of trivia, this book was the source for the fake movie they said they were making to rescue the hostages from Iran in 1979. Anyway these are some words to contemplate.
“Names are not important,” he said. “To speak is to name names, but to speak is not important. A thing happens once that has never happened before. Seeing it, a man looks upon reality. He cannot tell others what he has seen. Others wish to know, however, so they question him saying, ‘What is it like, this thing you have seen?’ So he tries to tell them. Perhaps he has seen the very first fire in the world. He tells them, ‘It is red, like a poppy, but through it dance other colors. It has no form, like water, flowing everywhere. It is warm, like the sun of summer, only warmer. It exists for a time upon a piece of wood, and then the wood is gone, as though it were eaten, leaving behind that which is black and can be sifted like sand. When the wood is gone, it too is gone.’ Therefore, the hearers must think reality is like a poppy, like water, like the sun, like that which eats and excretes. They think it is like to anything that they are told it is like by the man who has known it. But they have not looked upon fire. They cannot really know it. They can only know of it. But fire comes again into the world, many times. More men look upon fire. After a time, fire is as common as grass and clouds and the air they breathe. They see that, while it is like a poppy, it is not a poppy, while it is like water, it is not water, while it is like the sun, it is not the sun, and while it is like that which eats and passes wastes, it is not that which eats and passes wastes, but something different from each of these apart or all of these together. So they look upon this new thing and they make a new word to call it. They call it ‘fire.’
“If they come upon one who still has not seen it and they speak to him of fire, he does not know what they mean. So they, in turn, fall back upon telling him what fire is like. As they do so, they know from their own experience that what they are telling him is not the truth, but only a part of it. They know that this man will never know reality from their words, though all the words in the world are theirs to use. He must look upon the fire, smell of it, warm his hands by it, stare into its heart, or remain forever ignorant. Therefore, ‘fire’ does not matter, ‘earth’ and ‘air’ and ‘water’ do not matter. ‘I’ do not matter. No word matters. But man forgets reality and remembers words. The more words he remembers, the cleverer do his fellows esteem him. He looks upon the great transformations of the world, but he does not see them as they were seen when man looked upon reality for the first time. Their names come to his lips and he smiles as he tastes them, thinking he knows them in the naming. The thing that has never happened before is still happening. It is still a miracle. The great burning blossom squats, flowing, upon the limb of the world, excreting the ash of the world, and being none of these things I have named and at the same time all of them, and this is reality, the Nameless.”
There are a lot of things in this world…perhaps brought about by humans, but nevertheless exist at least as part of our lives. They are important things, things we fight for, things we live for. I’m speaking of things like freedom, justice, love, spirituality, loyalty, equality, truth, and there are probably others that I’m not thinking of right now. These things often give rise to a lot of disagreements in terms of what they mean, they often lack a specific definition, and very much depends on one’s perspective based on the family, culture, society in which we were raised.
All of these things are core to who we are as a species and have the ability to impact our own personal happiness and sense of well-being, as well as how we treat each other and all life in general. All of these things can also be extremely frustrating because of how different we view them. Ever tried to love someone who wasn’t all that impressed with the way you did it? Ever had someone question your loyalty even when you thought your behavior expressed loyalty? Ever fought for some group’s freedom, but have the very same group question the way in which you fight for that freedom or even claim that you weren’t helping but making things worse? Ever believe something was very important to spiritual health only to be told by someone else that it was irrelevant? The truth is that that all of these things are really really complex, regardless of how simple and natural it might feel to you. These things are often very dynamic, leaving us with moral and ethical conflicts over time, sometimes changing our views slowly or rapidly as we experience new things. They are often tied strongly to our emotions and sometimes seem beyond reason, they are just how we feel. It also tends to be not very satisfying to be alone with our perspectives. We seek connection to those who share similar perspectives and points of view. I would say all this is good, and that our perspective should change over time. We should be seriously considering other points of view and striving towards some sort of universal truth about these things even if we never actually reach it in our lifetime. Because if we can nail down these things it is the benefit of all.
However there is another core part of who we are as a species. We don’t like things that are hard to define. We like to organize, we would prefer things to be simple. Simple is less costly, it gives us more time for other things. We spend less time sitting their thinking when we need to make sure we’re safe, getting resources to survive. It’s very evolutionary. When things are actually hard, when they are not quite within our grasp, that’s when the real trap springs. Our need for organization, categorization, and simplicity begins to create rules. It begins to create rituals. Rules and rituals are easy. I’m not saying that we haven’t created some convoluted rules and rituals, but they are easy because we know that when we follow them the conclusion is guaranteed. At least that’s the way we tend to think. They give us the intangible in tangible form. They turn things that are dynamic into the static. It takes things that might take a lifetime to learn into an instant discovery. For those with a penchant for defaulting to authority, it is a Godsend. Literally. And while it might be natural for us to do these things, it is a complete disservice to these lofty ideals and values we live and die for. And maybe it’s not even a bad thing that we try to create a system that fits these things, but when we reduce it to the system alone things usually turn out badly. Love has to be more than just placing a ring on someone’s finger. Justice has to be more than just an immutable punishment for an immutable law. Whenever we think we’ve reached a state of equality or discovered a truth, we must still question and test instead of resting on our laurels.
I think that we have developed a very good “way of knowing” with the scientific method. It is demonstrably the best way of knowing we have so far. It takes very little effort to look around the world and see that the best way is not only not the only way in which people come to know things, and it is often by no means obvious. I mean it’s not to say we don’t start off life as little infants constantly testing and trying to understand our world through observations, but we do often make mistakes in trying to understand the world around us. Mostly related to our tendency to find patterns that done’t exist. Our senses often deceive us because we evolved for life in a small geographic environment, with a small group of people, and that is often what matters the most. As “ways of knowing” get better and more effective, it reveals our fallibility. It tells us we aren’t as smart as we think we are, and that we might not be doing things as well as we could. Even as a scientist, who feels like I know my way of thinking is a more reliable one, it can often not feel like enough in a world with so much suffering and when so many need help quickly. It is not realistic to simply wait for people to come around to a better way of looking at things. As much as I like to philosophize “ways of knowing” we must also remember that such things are not so easily divorced from “ways of feeling”.
History tells us that change comes through slow increments like weathering and erosion and also through suddenness of revolution, yet in both cases forcing it doesn’t necessarily help matters. It’s like life is like a slope of sand which slowly over time, grain by grain is deposited on a slope until we reach some critical mass beyond the angle of repose and the weight of the sand causes a sudden change in the landscape. With no real way to predict which grain of sand will cause it all to shift and give way. It’s like we all have to really try to do better, while at the same time just watch it all happen as if we aren’t even a part of the story.
So what is the answer to seeing eye to eye on these very important values? I don’t know. I think the best we can do is accept that things change, and that nothing is settled. We can still try to create rules, as long as we are not a slave to them. We can try to make things tangible, as long we accept that those rituals are empty without a lifetime of effort. One thing we can say for certain is that life would lose far too much flavor if it all could be settled so easily. We must accept that life is hard in large part because it simply can’t be done alone. And while I might be an idealist thinking that we might someday reach at least some level of harmony among all humanity, I see no harm in striving towards that. What we have to gain, I think, is too great to just give up and say “It can never happen”. As I always say, there is much more in this world that we all have in common than what drives us apart.