Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Walking Contradictions

imagine you've traveled back in time and you're face to face with a medieval Christian serf. you're able to communicate with him through some form or another (hey, worked in Timeline, it can work in your imagination too!). after the usual chit chat about the weather you ask him about his goals in life. how was he bettering his lot in life? what impact was he making on his children? what type of world did he want to leave for his kids?

all of these questions would be met with a blank face.

the Christian view of history which dominated Europe at this time percieved life as just preparation for the next. The greek concept of Cycles were abandoned but one aspect was retained, mainly that history is a decaying process. History has a distinct beginning, middle and end. Creation, redemption, and last judgment. many still have this view.

this is the Pauline, Augustinian view of the world. It also embraces the idea of Entropy. there is no room for the individual, just duties and obligations, not freedoms and rights, that defined life in the larger community.

in 1750, Jacque Turgot walked into his class room in Sorbonne. He rejected both the cycles of the Greeks and the concept of continued degradation of Christianity. He argued that history proceeds in a straight line and that each succeeding stage of history represents an advance over the preceding one. this is our prevailing view, largely, of history. and in the Enlightenment, we have the advance of the individual over and against the group as the sole unit of society.

but now we have a problem. our mindset is that the world is getting better and yet our theology and even some of our science is medieval. Just think of Genesis and biology and physcis for a second. our theology states that the world has fallen and will only get worse until Christ comes again. Biology states that every living thing will one day die and Physics that order breaks down into chaos. these are vast oversimplifications but you get the gist.

so what if our theology and science were brought up to meet our mindset? is it possible?

i think it is. what if Genesis was viewed as more of a 'maturing' like i've discussed in the past in a few posts like this one and this one too. So we can affirm Turgot but note that he didn't have it all right either... he didn't deal with entropy. So while the individual dies, the group lives on. and maybe the group will one day desolve into nothing as well, but maybe not.

i'm now suggesting that despite entropy and the fact that every one has a 100% mortality rate, maybe there is one thing in the universe that doesn't exhibit entropy, namely life. i wrote about this idea in this post from October.

why am i thinking all of this?

well i was discussing on another blog with my new friend Sabio, when it hit me. we as humans aren't really harnassing the power of mythos. the Modernist mindset is througly set on factual truth and operates on the assumption that "knowledge is certain, objective and good," followed by the belief that knowledge is "accessible to the human mind." Because knowledge is assumed to be good, rational, objective, and dispassionate, science is viewed as the savior that will rescue humanity from the ills of society as well as its vulnerability to nature. The future is, therefore, viewed as optimistic, things getting better thanks to our buddy Turgot. The Modern mind considered as suspect views that would "curtail autonomy" and individual freedom and those that seem to be based on some external authority other than reason and scientific [factual] experience.

But as science failed to cure all the ills of society and to free us of our vulnerability to nature and as societies the world over did not get better and better, empirical thought and individual autonomy began to slip as the formula for fulfillment. And by the 1970's, certainly—though the seeds of deconstruction were sprouting long before what was to be labeled "postmodern" would begin to disassemble the formula approach—a new view would begin to emerge.

In real life experience Modern individualism, autonomy and personal freedom had too often produced isolation, loneliness, estrangement, and the disintegration of community. we need a new model. one that harnesses the power of myth, community, and yet avoids the static labels and need for control that Modernists have yet doesn't fall into the superstitious rituals of our pre-modern Medieval peasant fore-bears. we still look for the gifts of the individual but in terms of the larger community. the individual is still the sole unit of society yet is placed in context and the connections are viewed as vital, not holding back or curtailing autonomy.

we become a people of covenant and autonomy.

what would that community look like?

is it possible?


societyvs said...

"the individual is still the sole unit of society yet is placed in context and the connections are viewed as vital, not holding back or curtailing autonomy" (Luke)

It would look like community again - where we are individuals but also share with one another.

This is a very deep arguement - almost too deep to serve the common critquer on theology and modernism.

I get what you are saying about 'truth' and it's formulation - some from fact and some from mythos. I agree with your concept to be honest. If everything we will ever know needs to be backed up solely by facts - we lose a lot of what we think and know about the world.

Anglican Gurl said...

WOW! I would love to be in one of your Bible studies! I agree with what you're saying and with what societyvs has said: " If everything we will ever know needs to be backed up solely by facts - we lose a lot of what we think and know about the world."

Whatever you call that, post-modern, emerging, Luke Theology, whatever; consider me on board!

Ian said...

Luke, thanks for pointing me to this post.

I seem to play the modernist throwback a lot when I'm talking to you, which isn't my favorite role, but I had to comment on a couple of things.

1. Entropy. Like 'quantum' is a term that is used in so many random ways literarily that it has no meaning. Life doesn't buck the trend of entropy at all, quite the opposite.

2. "But as science failed to cure all the ills of society and to free us of our vulnerability to nature". This is one of those black and white statements that is pretty ludicrous coming from a rich white guy.

I think you're saying we need a new model...

To a point I agree. But the problem with models is that there a tiny minority of the possible models correspond with reality. And me continuing to be a rich white guy depends to a large extent on the model we choose corresponding to reality. I'm therefore pretty passionate that we make damn sure we don't start adopting the same kinds of modes of thinking that put Europe into neutral for 1500 years.

An example: when I was a theology undergrad we had a discussion section about gender theology. The tutor was making all sorts of pronouncements on the 'meaning' of gender. Some good, most a bit odd. It became pretty clear that the tutor had no idea about the biological mechanics of the sexes, and seemed to have no desire to know (damn science stuff isn't important, this is the *meaning* of gender), even though lots of what he was saying was just plain biologically impossible.

I left really disappointed. I understood that he would be forever condemned by his ignorance to not understand whether he was being profound or banal.

Science for the humanities should be like the grammar of the language. It might tell you very little about what you want to know, but unless you master it and really understand it, you'll be forever making up stuff (like Life being non-entropic :) and unable to really get anywhere.

Luke said...

Hey Ian,

thanks for visiting the site!

now i think modernism has it's place and i still operate in the model much of the time. but i also recognize, as you well state, the limits of the system/model that i use at any given time. maybe i'm just playing up a pomo sensibility on Sabio's site ;-)

as for entropy not meaning anything, i disagree. i'm reading a book right now called "Entropy" by Jeremy Rifkin. granted this book was written in 1980 and doesn't have all the theories about the universe yet...namely that the main source of the book's argument is about the impending "heat death" when all energy is spread too thin and the universe is a vacuum. but i still think, due to my biology background that life as a meta-narrative seems to be resilent. we've been through a few epochs and at least three cycles of major flora and fuana (echinoderms to tetrapods, tetrapods to dinosaurs, rise of the mammals as a super-short overview). despite large catastrophes, life still continues.

humanity's days are numbered. the question is how long? and what will come next? plus with multi-verse theory, life will continue some where. or we could use the "rubber band" theory (my verbage) where the universe expands and then constricts and thus causes another big-bang.

a great story i really enjoy is Isaac Asimov's "The Last Question." http://www.multivax.com/last_question.html

anywho.. i would love to hear more on your perspective. i don't think i've made it up, and i'm open to your comments on this and the other post that was specifically about the concept of non-entropic life.

Ian said...

Luke, Isn't it funny how we find ourselves arguing positions that are a minority part of our view as if they were central. In my offline life I know more ardent scientists, so I find myself arguing the pomo corner more...

Entropy has a bunch of equivalent definitions, but it can be thought of as the decrease in energy capable of doing work. (Spreading heat too thin is a good way to put it - if you have a large heat differential, you can do work, smaller: nope).

Does life buck the trend of entropy?

The rate of increase in entropy is probabilistic. If you calculate the entropy of the Sun (which is almost exclusively the system that we're part off) with and without life on earth you'll see that life is a tiny effect totally lost within the range of random variation.

When it comes to entropy, life is part of the noise, not part of the signal.

Now if you think about Entropy as being 'decent into chaos' (which scientifically it is, but only in a particular technical sense), then it obviously has huge literary and psychological force. And one can talk about humanity fighting this and life being a counter example. But one is not really saying anything about the nature of the universe then. One is trying to write back a psychological reinterpretation into a non-psychological concept.

It is unfortunate that some physicists have decided to trade on their cache by promoting this kind of confusion in popular writings. It is notable that they don't do so in their publications.