10 May 2011


'Hope springs eternal.'

Truer words were never spoken of the inner workings of the Human Mind.

Polite fictions get us through the day.

'I'm still attracted to my spouse.'
'I enjoy my job.'
'I love all my children equally.'
'I'm special.'

We tell polite fictions to our children.

'With hard work, you can be anything you want to be.'
'You'll find true love.  There's someone for everyone.'
'When you die, you... go to a nice place.'

And so forth.

John Calvin was not a man given to polite fictions:

When we attribute foreknowledge to God, we mean that all things have ever been, and perpetually remain, before His eyes, so that to His knowledge nothing is future or past, but all things are present. […]  And this foreknowledge extends to the whole world and to all the creatures.
Predestination we call the eternal decree of God, by which He hath determined in Himself what He would have to become of every individual of mankind. For they are not all created with a similar destiny; but eternal life is foreordained for some, and eternal damnation for others.

Since the beginning, Christian theologians have been arguing over it.  Free will or predestination?  Do we choose our actions, or are we just pawns on a Great Chessboard, bandied about by the hand of Another?

And Christians aren't the only ones.  Many religions born in India have been forced to think about the same question.  (Some have gone so far as to pin Cambodians' passive submission to the horrors of the Khmer Rouge on their fatalistic Buddhist beliefs.)

Predestination has even wormed its way into science.   Atomism was already old news when Darwin published his masterwork in 1859, and ever since scientists have been chasing down a biological basis to every trait under the sun, from to religious belief to alcoholism to left-handedness.  The 'ghost in the machine' was perhaps never there at all.  It was all machine, no ghost. 

'Hope is a waking dream.' 

But without hope, I cannot get out of bed in the morning.

If you tell me my group is biologically determined to be unintelligent, or violent, or bad future planners, then you've robbed me of my hope.  I don't get up.  I lay there glued in place, staring at the ceiling, weighing the possibility of throwing myself out the window.

I can't be just my genes.  I've got to have a choice.  Don't I?

'Where there's life, there's hope.'

The Calvinist doctrine of 'predestination' has wracked believers' souls for centuries, and continues to do so to this day.  The idea that God has marked out each one of us for eternal joy or eternal torture has driven people to depression, madness and even suicide.

And at the end of the day, is it really any different from 'biological determinism'?  The notion that your every act, every gesture, every desire, is already fated?  Decided, as it were, by the composition of your genes?  Every person is destined to Heaven or to Hell--isn't that just saying that some of us are destined to fruitful, happy lives, and some of us destined to sorrow? 

By our DNA?

Hell or Heaven is, in fact, nothing but our biological destiny?

Either way, it's hopeless.

'True hope is swift, and flies with swallow's wings;
Kings it makes gods, and meaner creatures kings.'

At some point, most parents stop telling their children a fat jolly elf in a red fur-trimmed suit leaves them gifts on the carpet once a year.  Why do they stop?

Why did they start in the first place?

I've long suspected there's a little smug joy in that 'Junior, there's no Santa Claus' speech.  Just a touch.  A perverse pleasure in bursting that bubble, of bringing the blissfully innocent into the clubhouse of the knowing.  The knowing and miserable.  But maybe that's Dad's joy more than Mom's.

Today we tell  each other so many polite fictions and Santa Claus stories that we've forgotten what truth looks like.  It was not always so, but somehow Dad's stern buck-up remonstrances have given way to Mom's soothing just-so stories.  On a planetary scale.

   'Everyone's got something equally important to contribute.'
   'With a little effort, you can be anything you want.'
   'Keep trying, you'll be functioning at first-word level soon!'

Mom loves all her children, and is sure they'll go on to do great things, even the little ne'er-do-well who just can't seem to keep up with the others.  And don't try to tell her any differently.

'He that lives upon hope will die fasting.' 
                                                                                                        --Benjamin Franklin

I don't want to be told my group can't cut it on our own.  Don't try to convince me; it'll kill my hope.  How do you expect me to get out of bed in the morning?

How indeed.

If there were a way to reconcile predestination and hope, presumably it would have been found by now.   It has not.  HBD is a fundamentally hopeless idea.   

One is thus presented a choice:  

Do I believe what I know to be true, even though it robs me of my hope?

Or do I continue to tell myself polite fictions, because that's the only way to get through another day on Planet Earth?

No one can answer that question for anyone else.  Don't tell me there's no Santa Claus.  Don't do it.

Not until I'm ready to hear it.

I beg you.

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