Friday, November 05, 2004

Salvation and Illusion

Dennis Mangan counterresponds by e-mail:

Bill, I'm glad you found the letter stimulating and pleased that you wrote such a thorough response to it. What follows will be part response, a little more of my own, and part devil's advocate ( a judicious expression given the topic).

BV said: Let me put it another way. Suppose I knew with certainty that I am just a complex physical system slated for utter annihilation in a few years. Then I would put my affairs in order, walk out into the desert, and blow my brains out. For if that is all we are, then life is "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." Why put up with it? Why be made a fool of?

DM now says: As a philosopher I imagine you suppose, and I do at least, that certainty can only be obtained in a few matters of mathematics and logic. So the certainty which causes one to blow one's brains out is not attainable. More to the point, I think that countless people have lived in the belief that there is no personal immortality, and have lived fully satisfactory and reasonably happy lives.

BV: I think you need to add: 'to them.' Their lives were subjectively satisfactory, satisfactory to them. My suggestion is that, objectively, such people live in illusion, just as your suggestion (see below) is that people who run away to monasteries are objectively living in illusion regardless of how subjectively satisfying their monastic lives might be to them. Your subjective point does not refute my objective one.

Let me try an analogy. Mafioso Paul Castellano had a great life (it seemed to him) until John Gotti whacked him out. (I'm basing this claim on an interview with him.) He had it all: fine threads, women, respect, the whole shot. He thought he was living the good life, and would have thought of people like you and me as chumps. But you and I will agree that Castellano wasted his life: he had no idea what life's all about. It's certainly not about fine threads, the respect of punks, etc. He missed out on 'higher values' and 'higher satisfactions.' The life of the mind beats fine threads any day. Similarly, a high-minded atheist and immortality-denier could seem to himself to be leading the good life, but be living in illusion, objectively speaking, inasmuch as he is blind to the possibility of a higher life, a life that is partially accessible here and now.

Perhaps the people who do not believe in personal survival of death think that what they accomplish will live on after them either in books, or in works of art, or in cyberspace, or in progeny, or in the coming classless society, or the coming society in which there will be no war and everyone gets along just like Rodney King recommends. I would argue that those are miserable substitutes for what they really want. Thy are giving up the quest and 'settling' on something finite, something that cannot ultimately satisfy them.

Let me try another analogy. You love classical music. Suppose some idiot listens to rap and thinks that it is the ne plus ultra of music. We say: He is objectively deluded, 'doesn't know any better,' etc. But the idiot is perfectly satisfied by it

DM: To perhaps oversimplify, the Greeks thought that the shades in Hades lived a life which was worthless when compared to this life. The type of salvation (and that is a term we will need to discuss) of which you speak, as well as the anguish that goes with its absence, seems predicated very much on notions of personal individuality which, at least in some cultures, do not exist. Therefore I question whether there is such a stark choice as salvation / no salvation. Most people do believe that animals are "complex physical system[s] slated for annihilation in a few years", yet, is a cat being made a fool of? No, it just is. Of course we, but not the cat, have the ability to understand our situation, but that does not seem to me to point to the need or possibility for salvation.

BV: Our desire points to a satisfaction that cannot be attained here below. The desire is infinite while all worldly satisfactions are finite. If the existence of this desire is just a fluke, then there is a sense in which we are being played for fools. Part of what I am saying is that someone who thinks he can be satisfied by the finite is living in illusion, is self-deceived at a very deep level.

No doubt you will say that the existence of a desire does not prove the existence of that which would satisfy the desire. But this is not so clear. A man dying of thirst in a desert needs water. His particular need does not entail the existence of water available to him. But it is arguable that the desire/need for water in general does prove the existence of water. For how could there be a need for water if there never existed any? This is not the place to articulate rigorously the argument from desire, but I think it can be done.

Now you are a Schopenhauer man, and you also know something about Buddhism. Isn't it their message that life is a mistake? Life is suffering, and the root of suffering is desire. The solution for both is to stop desiring/willing. This is tantamount to saying that life plays us for a fool.

It is interesting that for both suicide is no solution. Killing the body does not kill the inner kernel of will/desire that is the root of our suffering. That can be extirpated only noetically, by a sort of insight, not by a brute physical act. You see the difference with Christianity. The point is not to live on but to become nothing; but it is not so easy. It takes extreme mental and ascetic discipline over many lives to become nothing!

BV said earlier: Your problem is that if there is no salvation, then one who has spent his time "working it out with diligence" will have wasted his time. It is a very real problem. Did the talented Thomas Merton throw his life away by entering the Trappist monastery at Gethsemane, Kentucky?

DM: Yes. Given that he attached himself to a very particular "solution" to the problem of salvation, one which at best is highly doubtful, and that he staked his life on it, foregoing many other pleasures, opportunities, challenges, and so on, I think the answer must be yes.

BV: You mean this objectively, not subjectively. On your view, Merton threw his life away since, objectively, there is no God and no afterlife, and so one who renounces the world by entering a strict Trappist monastery is in flight from the only reality there is. The problem, of course, is that you do not know, but merely believe, that there is no God and no afterlife. You seem to be in a position of doxastic parity with him. He could say, with an equal show of plausibility, that you are throwing your life away by being an atheist and immortality-denier.

DM: He and other monastic types I believe admirable for many other reasons, not least having the courage of their convictions, and may lead supremely happy and fulfilled lives, but if what I am arguing is true, then objectively they have "thrown their lives away".

BV said earlier: If you have had no religious or mystical experiences of any kind ever, then it would be reasonable for you to dismiss the salvation quest as escapist buncombe. But if you had no experiences whatsoever, then why did you embark on that quest in the first place?

DM: As you know, I had a religious (Catholic) education, so the idea was implanted strongly in me while young. Furthermore, the vast majority of people in Western history, and most people now, did and do believe that God and an afterlife exist. Atheism has only become a proposition unharmful to one's health in the past couple hundred years, with Schopenhauer being possibly the first "great" philosopher to openly proclaim atheism. So the very idea of salvation is in the air we breathe. One needn't have personal experiences or glimpses of them to want to embark on the quest. That's not to say I did or do not have them. I have a strong religious sense; indeed I believe a stronger one than most ordinary Christians, because that is what got me into the metaphysical pass I'm in. I kept looking for answers, unlike the majority of Christians who spend an hour in church on Sundays and nod in agreement with the pastor/priest/minister and then go home until the same time next week.

BV: I doubt that your religious sense can be a product of your upbringing for the simple reason that many with the same upbringing slough of their early religious training with nary a trace. You have an innate receptivity to it, but coupled with a strong skeptical bent that operates against it.

DM: I will leave off for now with a question: what could it possibly mean when the Tathagata on his deathbead said: "Work out your salvation with diligence!" Was he himself "saved"? How so? What could it matter?

BV: Gotama had finally seen through the illusion of samsara and had come to the realization, the saving insight, that it was his last incarnation, his last go-round on the wheel of becoming. He was at the point of extinguishing his individual desire/will. To work out one's salvation with diligence is to work toward that same saving insight in one's own case. He was saved in the sense that he was saved from further phenomenal entanglements. Its a negative notion of salvation: moksha, release; nibbana, blowing out of the life-flame. What could it matter? It matters in the same way any kind of relief matters. But this is the Ultimate Relief, the relief from the root of all suffering, which is the will to live, the will to individuality within the phenomenal world.

I look forward to the next round.