Paul P. Mealing

Check out my book, ELVENE. Available as e-book and as paperback (print on demand, POD). 2 Reviews: here. Also this promotional Q&A on-line.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

On the subject of good and evil and God

I wrote a lengthy dissertation on the subject of evil, very early on in this blog (Evil, Oct.07) and I don’t intend to repeat myself here.

This post has arisen as the result of something I wrote on Stephen Law’s blog, in response to a paper that Stephen has written (that is an academic paper, not just a blog post). To put it into context, Stephen’s paper addresses what is known in classical philosophy as the ‘problem of evil’, or how can one reconcile an omniscient, ultimately beneficial and inherently good god, with the evil and suffering we witness everyday in the physical world. It therefore specifically addresses the biblical god who is represented by the three main monotheistic religions.

Stephen’s thesis, in a nutshell, is that, based on the evidence, an evil god makes more sense than a good god. I’m not going to address Stephen’s argument directly, and I’m not an academic. My response is quite literally my own take on the subject that has been evoked by reading Stephen’s paper, and I neither critique nor analyse his arguments.

My argument, in a nutshell, is that God can represent either good or evil, because it’s dependent on the person who perceives God. As I’ve said previously (many times, in fact) the only evidence we have of God is in someone’s mind, not out there. The point is that people project their own beliefs and prejudices onto this God. So God with capital ‘G’, as opposed to god with small ‘g’, is the God that an individual finds within themselves. God with small ‘g’ is an intellectual construct that could represent the ‘Creator’ or a reference to one of many religious texts – I make this distinction, because one is experienced internally and the other is simply contemplated intellectually. Obviously, I think the Creator-God is an intellectual construct, not to be confused with the ‘feeling’ people express of their God. Not everyone makes this distinction.

Below is an edited version of my comment on Stephen’s blog.

I feel this all comes back to consciousness or sentient beings. Without consciousness there would be no good and evil, and no God either. God is a projection who can represent good or evil, depending on the beholder. Evil is invariably a perversion, because the person who commits evil (like genocide, for example) can always justify it as being for the ‘greater good’.

People who attribute natural disasters to God or Divine forces are especially prone to a perverted view of God. They perversely attribute natural disasters to human activity because God is ‘not happy’. We live in a lottery universe, and whilst we owe our very existence to super novae, another super nova could just as easily wipe us all out in a blink, depending on its proximity.

God, at his or her best, represents the sense of connection we have to all of humanity, and, by extension, nature. Whether that sense be judgmental and exclusive, or compassionate and inclusive, depends on the individual, and the God one believes in simply reflects that. Even atheists sense this connection, though they don’t personify it or conceptualise it like theists do. At the end of the day, what matters is how one perceives and treats their fellows, not whether they are theists or atheists; the latter being a consequence of the former (for theists), not the other way round.

Evil is an intrinsic attribute of human nature, but its origins are evolutionary, not mythical or Divine (I expound upon this in detail in my post on Evil). God is a projection of the ideal self, and therefore encompasses all that is good and bad in all of us.

That is the end of my (edited) comment on Stephen’s blog. My point is that the ‘problem of evil’, as it is formulated in classical philosophy, leads to a very narrow discussion concerning a hypothetical entity, when the problem really exists within the human mind.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Existentialism in a movie

Up in the Air, the latest George Clooney film, is only the third movie I’ve reviewed on this blog, and the only common thread they share is that they all deal with philosophical issues, albeit in completely different ways with totally different themes.

Man on Wire was a documentary about a truly extraordinary, eccentric and uniquely talented human being. It’s hard to imagine we will ever see another Philippe Petit – certainly what he did was a once-in-a-lifetime event.

Watchmen was a fantasy comic-book movie that captured an entire era, specifically the cold war, and consequently brought to the screen the contradictions that many of us, on the outside at least, find in the American psyche.

Up in the Air is an existentialist movie for our time, and, even though it is marketed as a romantic-comedy, anyone expecting it to be a typical feel-good movie that promotes happily-ever-after scenarios will be disappointed. It is uplifting, I believe, but not in the way many people will expect. It has had good reviews, at least in this country, and deservedly so in my opinion.

Firstly, I cannot over-emphasise how well-written this movie is. When I ran a writing course, I told my students that good writing is transparent. Even in a novel, I contend that no one notices good writing, they only notice bad writing. The reader should be so engaged in the story and the characters, that the writing becomes a transparent medium.

Well, in a movie the writing is even more transparent, because it comes out of the mouths of actors or is seen through the direction of the director. To give an example, there is a scene in this movie where two different people get two different reactions from the same person in the same scenario. This scene could easily have appeared contrived and unconvincing, but it was completely believable, because all the characters were so well written. But, as far as the audience is concerned, all credit goes to the actors, and that’s what I mean when I say the writing is transparent.

Now, I know that, according to the internet, part of this movie is unscripted and they used real people (non-actors) who had been laid off, but their participation is seamless. And, paradoxically, it’s the script-writing that allows this to happen invisibly.

Personally, I felt some resonances with this movie, because, when I was in America in 2001/2, I was living the same type of life as the protagonist (George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham): living in hotels and flying or driving around the country. No, I wasn’t a high-flying executive or a hatchet-man; just an ordinary bloke working in a foreign country, so I had no home so to speak. I also wrote half a novel during that period, which, in retrospect, I find quite incredible, as I now struggle to write at all, even though I live alone and no longer hold a full time job. I digress and indulge – two unpardonable sins – so let me get back to my theme.

The movie opens with a montage of people being sacked (fired) with a voice-over of Clooney explaining his job. This cuts to the core of the movie for me: what do we live for? For many people their job defines them – it is their identity, in their own eyes and the eyes of their society. So cutting off someone’s job is like cutting off their life – it’s humiliating at the very least, suicidally depressing at worst and life-changing at best.

The movie doesn’t explore these various scenarios, just hints at them, but that’s all it needs to do. A story puts you in the picture - makes you empathise - otherwise it doesn’t work as a story. So sitting in the cinema, we all identify with these people, feel their pain, their humiliation, their sense of betrayal and their sense of failure. It’s done very succinctly – the movie doesn’t dwell on the consequences – it hits us where it hurts then leave us to contemplate. Just how important is your job to you? Is it just a meal ticket or does it define who you are?

In another sub-plot or 2 or 3, the movie explores relationships and family. So in one film all the existential questions concerning 21st Century living are asked. Getting married, having kids, bringing up the next generation – is that what it’s all about? There’s no definitive answer; the question is left hanging because it’s entirely up to the individual.

Recently (last month) Stephen Law tackled the Meaning of Life question from a humanist perspective. Basically he was defending the position against those who claim that there is no meaning to life without religion, specifically, without God. God doesn’t get a mention in this movie, but that’s not surprising; God rarely gets a mention in the best of fiction. In a recent post of my own (Jesus’ Philosophy) I reviewed Don Cupitt’s book on that very topic, and Cupitt makes the observation that it was the introduction of the novel that brought humanist morality into ordinary discourse. And he’s right: one rarely finds a story where God provides the answer to a moral dilemma – the characters are left to work it out for themselves, and we would be hugely disappointed if that wasn’t the case.

In one scene in the movie, Bingham tells a teary-eyed middle-aged man that he can finally follow the dream he gave up in his youth of becoming a pastry chef or something similar. Existential psychology, if not existential philosophy, emphasises the importance of authenticity – it’s what all artists strive for - it’s about being honest to one’s self. How many of us fail to follow the dream and instead follow the path of least resistance, which is to do what is expected of us by our family, our church, our society or our spouse.

For most of us, finding meaning in our life has very little to do with God, even those of us who believe in a god, because it’s something internal not external. Viktor Frankl, in his autobiographical book about Auschwitz (Man's Search for Meaning), contends that there are 3 ways we find meaning in our life: through a project, through a relationship and through adversity. This movie, with no detour to a war zone or prison camp, hints at all three. Yet it’s in the context of relationships that the real questions are asked.

On Stephen’s blog, another blogger wrote a response which was drenched in cynicism – effectively saying that anyone seeking meaning, in a metaphysical sense, is delusional. And that Stephen’s criteria about what constitutes a ‘meaningful’ life was purely subjective. I challenged this guy by saying: ‘I don’t believe you’; everyone seeks meaning in their life, through their work or their art or their relationships, but, in particular, through relationships.

At the end of one’s life, I would suggest that one would judge it on how many lives one touched and how meaningfully they touched them; all other criteria would pale by comparison. To quote one of my favourite quotes from Eastern antiquity: If you want to judge the true worth of a person, observe the effects they have on other people’s lives.