Story of Your Life

In principle, people could live and act for an end without attempting to fit their lives into the structure of a particular narrative, apart from the general narrative of acting for an end. In practice, however, people feel a need to understand their lives in terms of much more concrete narratives, in other words as though a person’s life were a kind of story.

This happens first of all with some kind of overarching narrative regarding human life in general, and perhaps the rest of the universe as well. Thus for example we saw Eric Reitan argue that people have a need to believe that apparently random destructive events in their lives have a deeper meaning.

Second, people conceive of their lives as a particular story, one in which they are the protagonist, and to a certain degree the narrator as well.

This conception is correct to some degree, but incorrect if it is taken to an extreme. You are in a certain way the main character of your “story,” insofar as your knowledge is naturally centered on yourself, just as a story tends to follow the thought and action of its main character. Likewise, you are in a certain way the narrator, insofar as you make choices about the course of your life. Still, your control is incomplete, because you are not the first cause, and because although you can make your own choices, many other circumstances and events are outside your power.

Darwin Catholic, discussing the nature of plot in stories, remarks:

And yet not just any journey will do. The sense in which plot is an artificial product of what an author does, it that an author has the duty of focusing the events in the story down to just those which somehow relate to the journey which is the plot. This can be tightly focused or loosely focused. In a spy thriller, the purpose of every scene may be to put all the pieces of the puzzle together. Some pieces which originally seem to be off, unrelated to the others, will as we proceed prove to be part of the same cohesive image being revealed as other pieces of the puzzle are put together.

But in what we often call a “character driven” or “theme driven” novel instead of a tightly plotted novel, the importance of relevancy is still there. Even if the arc of a novel is “the events which happened in this character’s life”, for the novel to actually be gripping the author must subtly impost a filter whereby we not really seeing all the events. We see only the events which tie in to a thematic note or progression through which we see the character’s life. If, at the end of the novel, the reader looks back and says, “Why did you include that section? It seemed like it was going somewhere but it never resolved.” Then the author has failed to plot well.

In our real lives we have many of these dead ends, things which build up and seem important and then just trail off. A good novelist subtly prunes away these, leaving only what forms a coherent structure, and it’s that structure which is the plot. Fail to do that and you have only an amorphous mess of writing, however craftsman-like.

This suggests a second, perhaps somewhat unconscious, way in which we are the narrator of our story. Elsewhere I pointed out that we do not actually remember much of our lives. It is possible that we naturally prune away, by forgetting them, the “dead ends,” namely seemingly random events that lead nowhere, because they do not fit well into the plot of our lives.

Whether or not this kind of pruning occurs, however, we certainly do attempt to fit our lives into particular structures. So for example young men and women sometimes think of their lives as though it were a romance novel, which ends with marriage and “they lived happily ever after.” Since of course life goes on after marriage, once they are actually married, they quickly realize that the story must be of a somewhat different nature. Nonetheless, it is still possible to suppose that the previous part of their lives had the specific structure or plot of a story leading up to marriage. But suppose someone has a troubled marriage that ultimately leads to a divorce. This person may have significant difficulty understanding their life. They will still desire to understand it as a kind of story, but the previous interpretation no longer works. It feels rather like a Harry Potter story that ends “with Harry Potter being tortured to death and the Dursley family dancing on his grave.” In such a case, people will tend to go back and rewrite the story from the beginning, not in the sense of changing the events, which is impossible (although selective memory may help here, as noted above), but by composing a new plot. Thus for example the new plot may involve the marriage as a learning experience, rather than as the goal of life.

 

Sola Me and Claiming Personal Infallibility

At his blog, P. Edmund Waldstein and myself have a discussion about this post about myself and his account of the certainty of faith, an account that I consider to be a variety of the doctrine of sola me.

In that discussion we consider various details of his position, as well as the teaching of the Church and of St. Thomas. Here, let me step out for a moment and consider the matter more generally.

It is evident that everything that he says could be reformulated and believed by the members of any religion whatsoever, in order to justify the claim that they should never change their religion, no matter how much evidence is brought against it. Thus, instead of,

But nor is such certitude based on an entirely incommunicable interior witness of the Spirit. Certainly it is impossible without such illumination, but what such illumination enables is an encounter with Christ, as a witness who is both external and internal.

a Muslim might say,

But nor is such certitude based on an entirely incommunicable interior witness of Allah. Certainly it is impossible without such illumination, but what such illumination enables is an encounter with Mohammed, as a witness who is both external and internal.

P. Edmund could argue against particular claims of the Muslim, and the Muslim could argue against P. Edmund’s particular claims. But neither would be listening seriously to the other, because each would assert, “It would be unserious in me to approach arguments based on natural evidence as though they could ever disprove the overwhelmingly powerful evidence of the [Catholic / Islamic] Faith.”

Regardless of details, each is claiming to be personally infallible in discerning the truth about religion.

It is possible to lock yourself into a box intellectually that you cannot escape from in any reasonable way. Descartes does this for example with his hypothesis of the Evil Demon. Logically, according to this hypothesis, he should suppose that he might be wrong about the fact that it is necessary to exist in order to think or to doubt things. Without accepting any premises, it is of course impossible to arrive at any conclusions. In a similar way, if someone believes himself infallible on some topic, logically there is no way for him to correct his errors in regard to that topic.

In practice in such cases it is possible to escape from the box, since belief is voluntary. The Cartesian may simply choose to stop doubting, and the believer may simply choose to accept the fact that he is not personally infallible. But there is no logical process of reasoning that could validly lead to these choices.

People construct theological bomb shelters for themselves in various ways. Fr. Brian Harrison does this by asserting a form of young earth creationism, and simply ignoring all the evidence opposed to this. Likewise, asserting that you are personally infallible in discerning the true religion is another way to construct such a shelter. But hear the words of St. Augustine:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking non-sense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although “they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.”

As Darwin Catholic points out, someone who argues that “either evolution is false or Christianity is false” does not make Christianity more credible, but less. In a similar way, someone who argues that their religion requires that they believe themselves personally infallible, is essentially saying, “Either my religion is false or I am personally infallible.” This does not make their religion more credible, but less, to whatever degree that one thinks they are right about the requirement.

(After some consideration, I will be posting at least on Sundays during February and March.)

Painful Dilemma

Philip Gosse, speaking of the apparent discrepancy between Scripture and geology, in a text quoted in the previous post, calls this a painful dilemma:

Here is a dilemma. A most painful one to the reverent mind! And many reverent minds have laboured hard and long to escape from it. It is unfair and dishonest to class our men of science with the infidel and atheist. They did not rejoice in the dilemma; they saw it at first dimly, and hoped to avoid it.

Earlier we looked at Darwin Catholic’s response to the position of Fr. Brian Harrison. However, in a part of his post that we did not cite at the time, he makes what he considers to be his most important point, at least in a certain way:

My third point of disagreement with Fr. Harrison is in some ways the most urgent, and the reason that I have written such a long commentary on his piece. In his “moonie” parable, Fr. Harrison suggests that there are two honest approaches to dealing with the discoveries of science in relation to Genesis: either insist that science is a fraud and that it is wrong to assert that the world is ancient or that humanity (in the biological sense) evolved from lower life forms, or reject the bible as false and Christianity as a fraud. The “bombshelter” route that his intellectuals and theologians in the parable dream up (with the “invisible water”) he sees as inherently dishonest and dangerous.

This is all very well for Fr. Harrison, who apparently is satisfied in his own mind that the findings of modern astronomy, geology and paleontology are indeed a fraud. However, he binds up a heavy and dangerous burden for others to carry. Either they must assert that much of modern science is a fraud (Fr. Harrison even holds out hope that the bible is right that the earth is stationary at the center of the universe while the sun and all the stars orbit it once each day, though he does not fully commit himself to that view) or one must abandon Christianity as false.

This is the biggest reason I find myself drawn back into the evolution debate again and again. It’s not so much that I have a fanatical devotion to evolution or to the aspects of modern astronomy and geology that suggest and ancient universe (though I do consider these explanations provided by science to be the best theories to explain the evidence we have at this time) but rather that many who have an antipathy towards these areas of science (as Fr. Harrison clearly does) feel it necessary to build up the threat to Christianity and make the argument: Either evolution is false or Christianity is false. Now you believe that Christianity is true, so surely you must reject evolution, right?

Given that the Church has said repeatedly that there is no inherent contradiction between the findings of modern science and our beliefs, it seems wrong to me (indeed, wicked) to risk destroying the faith of others by insisting that one must reject either evolution or the Church. I do not say that given the choice Fr. Harrison proposes I would reject Christianity — because I do not accept that this is a legitimate set of alternatives to propose. But I do consider the choice set up to be dangerous and unhelpful.

Darwin Catholic speaks of the same dilemma discussed by Philip Gosse. Gosse attempts to resolve it with his distinction between “prochronic” and “diachronic” events, but as we have seen, his attempt fails. Fr. Harrison attempts to resolve it by saying that science is simply wrong, but this is quite unreasonable. Darwin Catholic’s own response is to say that Scripture does not mean what it was thought to mean, and this is a reasonable position, for reasons given when we considered that response.

Gosse, speaking of the interpretation of the text, makes this statement, already quoted in the previous post:

I am not assuming here that the Inspired Word has been rightly read; I merely say that the plain straightforward meaning, the meaning that lies manifestly on the face of the passages in question, is in opposition with the conclusions which geologists have formed, as to the antiquity and the genesis of the globe on which we live.

Perhaps the simple, superficial sense of the Word is not the correct one; but it is at least that which its readers, learned and unlearned, had been generally content with before; and which would, I suppose, scarcely have been questioned, but for what appeared the exigencies of geological facts.

This is also one of Fr. Harrison’s main concerns, and the reason that he says that if Genesis is not given a literal and historical interpretation, we are giving it an “invisible genre.”

It is true that most Christians believed that Genesis was such a literal account. Philip Gosse and Fr. Harrison are right about this. Despite this, however, there was already evidence that Genesis was not such an account, evidence noted in my post on the genre of Genesis 2-3. In a similar way, there was evidence for the theory of evolution long before it was proposed.

People often make mistakes, and people often fail to notice evidence for things which they do not currently believe. There is nothing particularly strange about this. But there is a particular reason why Fr. Harrison is concerned about this, a reason why he is determined to say, “Those Christians were right all along.” The reason is that if your theory predicts something, and the prediction fails to come to pass, this is evidence against your theory. And in precisely this way, Christians “predicted” that the earth would turn out to be young, and their prediction did not come to pass, since the earth turned out to be ancient. This is evidence against Christianity.

Christians surely did make such a prediction, as is evident for example in this text from Lactantius:

Plato and many others of the philosophers, since they were ignorant of the origin of all things, and of that primal period at which the world was made, said that many thousands of ages had passed since this beautiful arrangement of the world was completed; and in this they perhaps followed the Chaldeans, who, as Cicero has related in his first book respecting divination, foolishly say that they possess comprised in their memorials four hundred and seventy thousand years; in which matter, because they thought that they could not be convicted, they believed that they were at liberty to speak falsely. But we, whom the Holy Scriptures instruct to the knowledge of the truth, know the beginning and the end of the world, respecting which we will now speak in the end of our work, since we have explained respecting the beginning in the second book. Therefore let the philosophers, who enumerate thousands of ages from the beginning of the world, know that the six thousandth year is not yet completed, and that when this number is completed the consummation must take place, and the condition of human affairs be remodelled for the better, the proof of which must first be related, that the matter itself may be plain. God completed the world and this admirable work of nature in the space of six days, as is contained in the secrets of Holy Scripture, and consecrated the seventh day, on which He had rested from His works. But this is the Sabbath-day, which in the language of the Hebrews received its name from the number, whence the seventh is the legitimate and complete number. For there are seven days, by the revolutions of which in order the circles of years are made up; and there are seven stars which do not set, and seven luminaries which are called planets, whose differing and unequal movements are believed to cause the varieties of circumstances and times.

Fr. Harrison does not wish to accept the fact that there is evidence against Christianity, and he supposes that he can avoid this consequence by saying that the prediction did come to pass, because the earth is in fact young (according to him). In reality, of course, even if he were right, this would not exclude the existence of evidence against Christianity. The fact that scientists came to the conclusion that the earth was ancient would remain evidence for that, even if ultimately the scientists turned out to be wrong. But Fr. Harrison would feel much better about that situation.

In reality, the earth is ancient, and this is indeed evidence that Christianity is false. But it is also evidence that for the claim that Christianity is true, but Genesis is not a historical account. And the latter claim, namely that Genesis is not a historical account, is also supported by independent evidence, as we have already seen.