29 October 2011

Questions and answers

Posted by Callan

One of the 300 or so blogs that I read is by Dr. William Hooke, a senior policy fellow at the American Meteorological Society. I met Bill half a year ago, when I came to a joint AGU/AMS social media training session at the request of my keepers at the American Geophysical Union. I shared the stage that day with Jason Samenow of Capital Weather Gang, and Bill Hooke was in the audience listening to us. My talk was about the benefits of blogging. Bill had already been blogging for half a year, and so he was naturally interested in the material that I was presenting. Accordingly, he introduced himself afterwards, and I’ve been following his ~daily musings (mainly about climate policy) ever since at Living on the Real World.

Today, Bill wrote a post entitled “Environmental scientists as Christians.” In it, he describes his own Christianity and how there is only a little overlap between “Church Bill” and “Work Bill.” My long-time readers will know that I do not subscribe to any religious ideology. I find religion superfluous to the reality that I find around me on a daily basis: it’s what a philosopher would call “philosophical naturalism” (as opposed to science, which operates under “methodological naturalism,” which doesn’t necessarily preclude the possibility of supernatural beings; it just can’t detect them). So it really struck to me to read Bill’s ruminations on that topic. This is a gentleman and a scholar, and he apparently has given a lot of thought to these issues.

In the post, he “quotes” (paraphrasing from memory) the evangelical preacher Billy Graham, who says

There are four reasons we need Jesus… four questions we can’t answer without Him.

1. Does my life matter? Is it possible for my life to have meaning?

2. How can I handle my loneliness, the loneliness I feel even in a crowd, or even (or perhaps especially) when with people who are close to me?

3. How can I bear my crushing burden of guilt? And by that I don’t mean as measured by some external standard such as the Ten Commandments, but rather my own judgment of myself…that I have fallen short of my potential.

4. What happens to me after I die?

For Bill, these are the questions that drive him forward spiritually. Bill suggests that

It’s also possible to live life shoving these questions, or questions similar to these, aside. But that seems somehow wrongheaded. To do so takes us to Socrates’ “unexamined life that isn’t worth living.”

However, I would say that I’m doing just fine answering these questions, sans Jesus or any other deity. I’m not shoving them aside, and I don’t consider my approach to be wrongheaded. I’ve examined my life, and found that it makes plenty of sense without any superfluous supernatural creators/supervisors/interveners. My life is fulfilling, fun, and meaningful – and God isn’t any part of it beyond an annoyance when other people push their religious ideas on me.

I would answer Billy Graham’s four ‘essential’ questions as follows:

1. Does my life matter? Is it possible for my life to have meaning? Two ways of attacking this one. Let’s start with; Yes, my life matters. I do things, they have repercussions. Actions are worth taking, and worth taking well. My life matters to the people I interact with, and to non-sentient beings in Nature, with whom I interact, and upon whose behalf I advocate. On the other hand, No, my life doesn’t matter. In the grand scheme of things (life, the universe, and everything), human stories don’t matter at all, beyond perhaps whatever lasting effects they impart to the Earth. In my examination of my life, in the context of natural history, I find that individual human stories don’t amount to much when stacked against the epic saga of our planet’s long history. Long ago, my new-found appreciation for the age of the Earth released me from the stress of achieving a certain grade on college examinations. One could probably arrive at the same conclusion after a few hours of staring up into the starry skies. The universe is big, and we are tiny. We don’t matter to the Orion Nebula, to the galaxies in the Hubble Deep Field. Human civilization’s greatest achievements and most horrific tragedies are matters of no importance to the Sun, the Moon, the rocks beneath our feet.  The only group to whom humans mean anything are other humans. There is no “meaning” to life beyond what you make of it. So I concluded: make something of it, but don’t stress out too much about it. Enjoy the ride.

2. How can I handle my loneliness, the loneliness I feel even in a crowd, or even (or perhaps especially) when with people who are close to me? Each of us is ultimately alone in our own minds, and there are limits to any intimacy we develop with any person or group of people. So what? I deal with it. As far as I’m concerned, intimacy is good, love is good, friendship is good, but so is being a stranger in a crowd, so is being an independent mind in one’s own family. I kind of like the fact that at the end of the day, or the end of life, my journey is my own. That “loneliness” is part of being human, just as we are all subject to gravity’s pull, all made out of watery cells, all capable of thought to greater or lesser depths. If you let it get to you for a little while, then you’re feeling philosophical. If you let it get to you for a long while, you’re depressed. We’ve got to either accept this condition as the nature of our situation, or else seek psychotherapy.

3. How can I bear my crushing burden of guilt? And by that I don’t mean as measured by some external standard such as the Ten Commandments, but rather my own judgment of myself…that I have fallen short of my potential. Again, this seems like the sort of question that applies more to some folks than others. I don’t feel a crushing burden of guilt. I feel like I’m doing pretty well at achieving my potential. My students seem to value the teaching, my wife values my love, my friends value my friendship, my readers value my writing. I’m making lots of good things happen. I don’t feel like I have any reason to be guilty. Could I be doing more for positive effect? Sure: but I also want to reserve some of my energy for fun, enrichment, relaxation, and personal fulfillment (following the advice of Cactus Ed). So it strikes me as a bit odd that the “crushing burden of guilt” is put forward a question we ‘need’ Jesus to answer. I reckon, if you’re guilty about committing an immoral act, turn yourself in or atone for it. If you’re feeling a general sense of guilt, independent of any moral decisions you have made, then I feel less able to dispense advice, other than “see a psychologist.” If you haven’t done anything wrong, then you shouldn’t feel guilty. Get over it.

4. What happens to me after I die? Easiest one to answer of the whole lot: That’s it. Your body commences rotting. You’re dead, and that’s the end of it. Bummer, eh? The lesson I take from that is “live your life to the fullest while you’re alive and able to live it.” I’m about halfway through my (projected) lifespan, and I value every day as a chance to learn, help, interact, contemplate, and create. All without any need of Jesus, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or Allah, or Yahweh, or Baal, or Apollo, or Tinkerbell.

I have a lot of respect for Bill Hooke, and I hope this blog post doesn’t serve as any sort of offense to the man. But it seems to me that my life is perfectly complete without any deity, much less the particular one he prefers. Everyone’s got their own issues, and it sounds like some of the teachings of Christianity gel well with Dr. Hooke’s particular cocktail of perspectives and needs. To each their own, I reckon. It just all seems so unnecessary to me — but I’m limited by my own individual cocktail of perspectives and needs. I find it hard to imagine what would make a really smart person like Bill Hooke embrace a supernatural meaning-giver, loneliness-reliever, guilt-assuager, and promiser of life after death. I find it fundamentally weird. And by no means is it just Bill Hooke who perplexes me on this issue: I’ve got friends and family, colleagues and heroes, who’ve adopted a similar stance. There are a lot of them – so it’s not uncommon, but it’s still really strange (to me).

How would you answer his questions, readers?