The Journey series
As I began this week’s article, I recognized A pattern I follow: write, post, reflect, and regret. I imagine this pattern torments many writers, but, to quote Pilate, “What I have written, I have written.” My examination of relationships, in retrospect, should have begun with this article, not that one.
The first step in exploring our universe is to recognize that one thing is not another. We start with physical objects, setting spatial boundaries. We intuit when what we are sensing forms a whole which extends from here to there and not beyond. We compare, creating sets and subsets; this is similar to these ones but different from those ones. We break things down into components and build them up into composites.
We recognize intrinsic associations between objects and then we learn to form arbitrary bonds. We create symbols; this sound or image represents that. We teach others to use the same set of symbols and language is born. We are able to transfer thoughts from our mind to another’s mind.
This only works reliably, however, when both parties adhere to the same convention and use it honestly. Unsolvable conflicts arise, at times, when people actually agree about the concept but have slightly different definitions for words they use. Since I’m exploring relationships, I’ll use marriage as my example. Here are two definitions of marriage.
1) A life-long commitment between one man and one woman which provides a stable environment
in which to bare, care for, and nurture children and is, therefore, worthy of social recognition and
2) An agreement that provides social recognition and legal protection for the parties involved.
By the first definition, marriage derives a benefit which accrues to society; by the second, society bestows a benefit on the union. These different ideas require unique symbols if a rational discussion is to be held. When marriage is assigned to the first definition and then claimed also for the second, the utility of the word marriage is destroyed for debate on the concept marriage. There is so much debate these days on what marriage is that we are distracted from the more important issue of why marriage is.
We can’t know anything in isolation. We must relate one thing to another in order to understand it. We find enough uniqueness to establish an identity and compare similarities and differences with other objects to establish a class. We search for patterns, relationships that recur. These patterns often fall naturally into hierarchies, from microscopic; atoms, elements, and compounds; to universal; galaxies, stars, and planets. I will use hierarchies to begin the quest I promised last week. When, why, and to what degree should one of God’s creations impact another?
When my sons were young, one of my favourite ways to keep them entertained on a long journey was to play ‘I spy with my little eye.’ My sons soon learned to begin with our one exception from the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer rule: “Is it animal, vegetable, or mineral?” This turns out to also be an excellent place for us to begin our journey.
Minerals are the lowest level of this hierarchy. They simply stay put as they are until they come in contact with something else that moves it or reacts with it. Next come vegetables, plants. They have life but they do not roam about of their own power. They absorb minerals and light, they grow and bear seeds, eventually they die and decay. Then we find animals. They grow and reproduce. The eat minerals, plants, and other animals. They are free to rove.
There are also hierarchies to be found within animals. I spent several years with chronic pain for which I was prescribed a massive dose of pain killers. During that time I spent many hours watching the fish in my aquarium. I felt more on par with them than with people. I started with a loach, two catfish and a few guppies. Soon I had many guppies. My sons soon tired of the guppies and decided they’d like an angel fish. The clerk at the pet shop told us angel fish prefer company so we bought three. Things went swimmingly until, as the angel fish grew in size, I began to notice a decline in the guppy population. Here was a hierarchy among fish at work.
I was horrified one day to see a brutal attack on my favourite guppy. I tried scolding my angel fish to no avail. Eventually I put them in quarantine while my guppy population recovered. Immediately upon their release, my captives resumed assaulting their smaller tank-mates. Try what I might; the angel fish never relented of their hunt. I didn’t learn much during my drug-addled state, but I did learn that no amount of training or punishment prevents mature angel fish from eating guppies. There’s no should and shouldn’t between fish, there is only bigger and dinner.
After recovering from my condition and discarding the pain-killers I thought about my effort to train those angel fish and discovered another hierarchy. Dogs and rats can be trained. Dolphins and whales can be trained. Their training involves reward and punishment; Power-Point presentations won’t work. Apes can be trained through pictures. Some have even been taught sign language, but they don’t write text books. Man is, somehow, much different.
I also considered migration; birds, whales, caribou, and monarch butterflies. Their journeys are amazing, yet none of these creatures pack suitcases; nor do logon to Expedia or Travelocity and book reservations. Man, again, is on a whole other level. Why? How?
Man learns not only from direct experience but also from recorded experiences of others. Man is aware that things are and he is aware that things need not be. Man remembers his past and imagines his future. This allows him to choose; it gives him free will. He anticipates possible outcomes by recalling past results and then weighs risks and expectations against desires. This is the level where should and shouldn’t are born. It is unique to man. This places him atop the hierarchy of all known things in the universe. But the great honour of being able to choose his future also bestows on man a great responsibility.
Last week I wrote, “All people are created with equal dignity. God creates each and every human as and when they were born because they are exactly who His universe needs at the time. What right does any human have to question God’s judgement?” Why only humans? Why not extend dignity to all things in the universe? Short answer? We should.
What is dignity? The Oxford Dictionary defines dignity as “the state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect.” According to the same source, honor is “adherence to what is right or to a conventional standard of conduct” and respect is “a feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements.”
How, then, do we show honor or respect to a rock, for example? We honor a rock when we allow it to stay where it is and we don’t expect it to up and fly away. We respect a rock when we remove our toes from its trajectory as it falls to the ground. We also respect a rock when we polish it to reveal its pleasing pattern of hues and place it atop a stack of papers so the papers don’t up and fly away in a stiff breeze.
“Is it honorable to polish a rock?” one might ask. “It doesn’t seem to be part of a rock’s ‘conventional standard of conduct’ to be shiny. That is something that enhances a particular attribute of the rock for our benefit; not the rock’s.”
I suggest that to honor something is to credit it for what it is whilst to respect it is to credit it for its potential. We have not changed the rock’s essence by polishing it, it is still a rock. Polishing it merely realized its potential for greater beauty. Nothing can reach its potential without change.
“I see,” you say, “but what of grinding the rock up to extract its gold? Now you have destroyed the rock. Where once there were many rocks, now there is a hill of tailings and another of slag for the sake of a vault filled with gold.”
There’s the rub. Our universe is not static and change involves interaction. Inevitably, some things suffer to benefit others. Some of this is essential, some optional, and some frivolous. Some disruption is voluntary and some not. How much and for what purpose should one part of God’s creation impact another part? I will begin that examination next week.
Last week I summarized Thomas Aquinas’ argument that there can be only one God. A necessary step was showing that God has no restrictions.
He’s not restricted by time, He is eternal. This does not mean simply that He lasts for all time. He exists also before time and after time. He’s not restricted to experiencing time sequentially and uni-directionally as we are. He has no past, present, and future. He just is.
He isn’t restricted by space, He’s ubiquitous. He doesn’t fill space exclusively as matter does, He coexists with matter. He’s not physical, He’s spiritual. He isn’t restricted in power, knowledge, intelligence, wisdom, or anything. He’s omnipotent.
What can we glean from this?
Firstly, God has no need of anything. He is complete in Himself and nothing adds or subtracts from Him. He creates everything solely for the good of His creation. Since we perceive existence as good we can say God wills everything into existence for the good of itself with no benefit to Himself. This we call pure love.
Secondly, God does as He wills. He can’t be forced or coerced into doing one thing rather than another, or at one time rather than another. Everything in the universe exists as it does when it does because God can’t conceive anything better for that time and place in this universe.
That’s the basis of our claim that all people are created with equal dignity. God creates each and every human as and when they were born because they are exactly who His universe needs at the time. What right does any human have to question God’s judgement?
In contrast, an atheistic, naturalistic society based purely on the theory of natural selection would, to be consistent, have to accept competition between unequal beings as proper. Weaker beings could only survive in order to increase the advantage of their superiors.
It's a common error for authors to believe that what they've written clearly expresses what they're thinking. That's one reason editors are so valuable to us. I'm fortunate that my eldest son is a good writer and editor. Unfortunately the combination of my procrastination and his busy schedule doesn’t lend itself to lengthy rewrites.
Last week, with my deadline fast approaching, I lassoed him on his way out the door. We quickly resolved all grammatical issues but he pointed out I hadn’t shown there is only one Creator. Mark would not return before my posting deadline and I didn’t want to publish any such explanation without edit so I promised to resolve that issue this week. Since my son had that concern about my blog, I knew others would as well. Not wanting to disappoint my readers, I simply appended my promise. I put it down in writing and published it! I promised to reduce 23 centuries of thought to one blog post. What was I thinking?
Here goes. Until Abraham, most people held many gods. The Abrahamic faiths; Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; know there is one God by divine revelation. This may be the prime example of an appeal to authority. Can we prove there is not a conclave of Gods who coauthored the universe?
Aristotle, who lived from 385 to 323 BC, was the first person recorded to profess an “unmoved mover”. Over 1500 years later Thomas Aquinas reasoned that any “uncaused cause”, as he rephrased it, must have the power to exist purely through itself, being without relying on anything else. No portion or aspect could require a cause without rendering the totality caused. He further argued that that which exists purely through itself could also have no restrictions. Any restriction is ultimately a cause to exist in a way that is not restricted.
Finally we arrive at the “uncaused cause” being one, singular. If there were more than one there would be at least one identifiable trait that's present in one and not in the others. That would restrict one particular “uncaused cause” to having that trait and the others to not having it. Since there can be no restrictions, there can be only one “uncaused cause”, therefore only one God.
Peter T Elliott