Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Problem of Pain: Introduction - Part 2

Lewis continues:

In what follows it must be understood that I am not primarily arguing the truth of Christianity but describing its origin - a task, in my view, necessary if we are to put the problem of pain in its right setting.

This is the first place, I think, that Lewis slips from his focus. He has stopped thinking about pain, and started thinking about suffering. We don't know if death is painful, or even if birth is. Newborns can't speak and well, the dead have stopped talking. We can certainly see and know that the process leading up to death is often painful - except in those rare instances where doctors tell us that death was instantaneous. I would suggest that both birth and death might elicit exactly the same expression - if possible - "OH?!"

In my story, the transition of Christ from the cross into death is rather abrupt. He is in pain, and then not. A short time later, Christ realizes he is alone, without the Father. It is a loss, a pain that is felt as the pain he felt on the Cross. On the Cross, Christ suffers. The physical pain is certainly one issue, but He yells on the Cross - not about the physical pain, but "My God, My God, why has thou forsaken me!?" It is the absence of God that causes Christ to cry out.

Lewis wants to equate pain with suffering. It is understandable, we do it all the time. However, pain, the physical result of hurt, is part of life. There is no need to explain it, answer it. The physical world functions in a way that living things often get in the way and get hurt in the process. If you step on a sharp rock in bare feet, you are not likely to look at God and ask why it had to happen. Lewis wants to talk about suffering but is stuck on pain. For Lewis, the problem with pain is that it exists. I can not imagine a universe of birth and death that could exist without it. Suffering may be a different matter.

Lewis wants to take us to a specific location, the root of good. He needs to take us there because without good, there is no bad. No evil. But getting from the foundation of humanity to good requires a few slights of hand.

In all developed religion we find three strands or elements, and in Christianity one more. The first of these is what Professor Otto calls the experience of the Numinous.

This experience, this awe, is excited by the Numinous.

What is certain is that now, at any rate, the numinous experience exists and that if we start from ourselves we can trace it a long way back.

Getting to the Numinous is an early human process of fear. We fear what we do not know, that fear turns to dread of things we fear in anticipation, and finally in awe, we feel something that goes beyond fear or dread, it is...small. Lewis calls it a profound disturbance. I, like many others, observe that if God did not exist, mankind would create him. Lewis does just this. It is a esponse to an awareness of the world and our place in it. Or, our apparent or perceived place in it.

Numinous comes from "why". Why did this person die and not that person? Why did the rains that always come, fail. In the absence of knowledge, an unseen force must be at work. The unexplainable becomes the Numinous - death by lion, explainable; death by lightning, not...hell, lightning is not explainable! But our ability to ask the question provokes the question. A gazelle does not ask why a lion takes it's herdmate.

We want justice, balance, fairness. We want events to having meaning. It seems that "life happens" is not enough for most people...despite the t-shirt sayings to the contrary. There are events that have results we don't like. We call these events bad. There are events that have results we like. We call these events good.

God is the creation of good. We like good. We want more good. Events that produce good will be repeated. Events that produce bad will be avoided. When similar events fail to produce good, or worse yet, produce bad, some kind of explanation is necessary. The Numinous gains currency. It might have takenmilenia, but over time, the Numinous would have grown.

We do not know how far back in human history this feeling goes. The earliest men almost certainly believed in things which would excite the feeling in us if we believed in them, and it seems therefore probable that numinous awe is as old as humanity itself. But our main concern is not with its dates. The important thing is that somehow or other it has come into existence, and is widespread, and does not disappear from the mind with the growth of knowledge and civilisation.

Lewis either lacks the knowledge or purposefully ignores it. First, Judaism is not the first monotheistic religion. Christianity is not the first religion based on a virgin birth and a resurrection. And atheism is growing. Religion goes farther back that our major religions might like to acknowledge. Knowledge is replacing the awe factor.

Now this awe is not the result of an inference from the visible universe. There is no possibility of arguing from mere danger to the uncanny, still less to the fully Numinous.

Just saying so does not make it so. I can easily argue that such a process is likely, even probable. Lewis can not imagine that it is possible to get to God from everyday experience UNLESS something inherent in us allows us to make a jump from fear to awe.

You may say that is seems to you very natural that early man, being surrounded by real dangers, and therefore frightened, should invent the uncanny and the Numinous. In a sense it is, but let us understand what we mean. You feel it to be natural because, sharing human nature with your remote ancestors, you can imagine yourself reacting to perilous solitudes in the same way; and this reaction is indeed 'natural' in the sense of being in accord with human nature. But it is not in the least 'natural' in the sense that the idea of the uncanny or the Numinous is already contained in the idea of the dangerous, or that nay perception of danger or any dislike of the woulds and death which may entail could give the slightest conception of ghostly dread or numinous awe to an intelligence which did not already understand them. When man passes from physical fear to dread and awe, he makes a sheer jump, and apprehends something which could never be given, as danger is, by the physical facts and logical deductions from them.

Lewis acknowledges that as we are products of our ancestry, we are likely to share a natural affinity, a natural kinship, with those that came well before us. To say we understand early humans because as humans we can understand is the circular logic being stuck within the system causes. Lewis gives the bias a glancing blow. But he can not see the flaw in his logic. How did early humans deal with the GOOD things that happened for no apparent reason? If anything, he knows early humans were smart. One of them more than likely equated a random good with a random bad and coming from the same unknowable place.

Maybe I am being too hopeful. Maybe those early people took the good random events and just accepted them without question. Maybe they only were concerned with the bad random events. I don't think so. It seems to me that human nature is more interested in making good events repeat than in working to prevent bad events from happening. How else can you explain addictions?

Establishing that early humanity, inherent in our creation, had a predisposition to make a jump from bad events to the awe of the Numinous seems to ignore a good portion of what we know about early societies and human nature. Humans want good things to happen. Good was/is defined as having good shelter, good food and hopefully, good company. Bad was not having those things. If random chance exceeded the intellectual grasp of early humans, some unseen force was at work. Over 30 or 40,000 years, it is likely that entire systems of behavior grew around the occasional, repeatable, random event. Such as fire from the sky preceding cold, wet weather.

The Problem of Pain: Introduction - Part 1

My friend pointed out that knowing the goal is part of understanding the process and how the result is perceived. I would add that if the knowledge or the perception you start with is flawed, even good goals and plans are likely to fail.

Lewis starts out:
Look at the universe we live in. By far the greatest part of it consists of empty space, completely dark and unimaginably cold. The bodies which move in this space are so few and so small in comparison with the space itself that even if every one them were known to be crowded as full as it could hold with perfectly happy creatures, it would still be difficult to believe that life and happiness were more than a by-product to the power that made the universe. As it is however, the scientists think it likely that very few of the suns of space - perhaps none of them except our own - have any planets: and in our own system it is improbable that any planet except the Earth sustains life.

There are two issues here. First is that Lewis is unaware that his own body is mostly empty space. The volume of space between the electrons and nucleus of each atom that makes up his body exceeds the actual volume of the particles themselves by many orders of magnitude. I doubt he would find himself lacking in substance despite the obvious volume of nothingness he is composed of. Ok, maybe a little tongue in cheek, but the second issue is more important - that there are few planets such that we may be the only one. He wrote Problem of Pain around 1940. Even then, the number of stars in the heavens numbered in the trillions was known. Although direct evidence of planets would take another 30-40 years, the idea that in the millions (probably billions) of galaxies, and the hundreds of millions (billions) of stars in each could be devoid of planets is so outlandish as to border on stupid. But, Lewis is a writer, and may have no real interest in the science of our universe, so I might forgive him such a position. But the problem is that such an opinion helps to form the foundation of what Lewis considers further.

The race is doomed. Every race that comes into being in any part of the universe is doomed; for the universe, they tell us, is running down, and will sometime be a uniform infinity of homogeneous matter at a low temperature. All
stories will come to nothing: all life will turn out in the end to have been a transitory and senseless contortion upon the idiotic face of infinite matter. If you ask me to believe that this is the work of a benevolent and omnipotent spirit, I reply that all the evidence points in the opposite direction. Either there is no spirit behind the universe, or else a spirit indifferent to good and evil, or else an evil spirit.

Lewis looks at the unknowable vastness of empty space, the futility of all endeavor as evidence that God can't exist, or if He did, that He was a evil spirit. It is a position the Children of the Sixties can relate to: why are we here? What is my purpose? Lewis answers not for himself, but for all living things: life is futile. A waste of effort. We are all doomed, and all our flailing about is for naught for it will all be nothing in the end. He leaves this line of thought there, but I consider one further point of bias. It may be inherent in most species, it is certainly prevalent in humans: what has been in the past, will be in the future. We are conditioned by the fact that yesterday the sun rose, and set, and today it rose so therefore it must set again. However, our recorded experience is limited - a couple thousand years on one planet, in one galaxy, in the face of billions of years of universe life - any suggestion that ANY part of our experience constitutes "normal" in the larger scheme of things is without merit.

There was one question which I never dreamed of raising. I never noticed that the very strength and facility of the pessimists' case at once poses us a problem. If the universe is so bad, or even half so bad, how on earth did human beings ever come to attribute it to the activity of a wise and good Creaters. Men are fools, perhaps; but hardly so foolish as that.

It appears that the Problem Lewis has is not with pain, or suffering, but with death. If everything ends, then what value did it have in existing? And in his mind, death is evil. Of course, there is no life without death, it is a consequence unavoidable. Even Christ died. However, God is eternal. Having no death, is God alive? (That is just a side thought!) Actually, Lewis avoids this line of thought for the more interesting idea of what is good.

For some reason, never addressed, Lewis considers God good but that is at odds with his perception that the Universe is evil. He wants to explore how man reached this conclusion.

At all times, then, an inference from the course of events in this world to the goodness and wisdom of the Creater would have been equally preposterous; and it was never made.

His point is that experience and knowledge could not have led us to the position that God was good. He omits the obvious that all our experience and knowledge could not have led us to the position that God existed at all. He doesn't want to go there, or doesn't consider the possibility.

I will admit I am average writer at best, but the following is very strange even to me:

To prehistoric man the neighbouring forest must have been infinite enough, and the utterly alient and infest which we have to fetch from the thought of cosmic rays and cooling suns, came snuffing and howling nightly to his very doors. Certainly at all periods the pain and waste of human life was equally obvious. Our own religion begins among the Jews, a people squeezed between great warlike empires, continually defeated and led captive, familiar as Poland or Armenia with the tragic story of the conquered. It is mere nonsense to put pain among the discoveries of science. Lay down this book and reflect for five minutes on the fact that all the great religions were first preached, and long practised, in a world without chloroform.

Emphasis mine. Where did that statement come from? Did he have an entire thought erased from the draft, leaving the highlighted line adrift?

To Lewis, the study of pain is not to be left to science. It is the perview of religion. Pain can not be measured or even described. It is in the same category as beauty. Subject to the same limitations as any other subjective topic, one person's pain is another person's pleasure. Therefore, it must be put into the context of perception rather than a field of study. Pain is not about what is happening to you, but how you feel about it.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Problem of Pain, Preface

I am in a discussion with a dear friend about my story (39 Hours) He recommended to me a book by C.S. Lewis called The Problem of Pain. He said my story reminded him of the book.

Thursday I had a chance to pick it up while at a book store. Almost immediately, I wanted to answer/rebutt/comment on points raised by Lewis. But, I didn't own the book, didn't have a pen and had nothing to write with! Yesterday, I bought the book so I could work it!

There is a ton of material there, but it is important to set the situation up. The Problem Lewis is addressing is suffering. In a world created by a loving God, why is there suffering - specifically, pain? How could a loving God allow pain, allow his beloved creations feel pain, suffer? Lewis does ask his readers to note that his is just a layman, no particular training or education worthy of addressing this issue other than as his own opinion. Consider me such a layperson responding to his attempt.

Also on Thursday, after having read 70-80 pages of the book at the bookstore, I was commenting on it to a friend who happened to be there also. I said I disagreed with the characterization that pain is inherent in the world and was rightly called on it. I didn't have a good answer then, but have since at least begun to have one.

I want to distingush between pain and hurt. Not so easily done as we tend to use them interchangeably. In general use, pain is what we feel, hurt is something that happens to someone. I don't care for that too much. I have always said that pain is the bodys way of saying stop doing that. Let me offer an experiment you can try at home. You need a friend you can trust for this!

Have them pinch you on the arm. OUCH! Right? Ok, after about 30 seconds, the pain will begin to fade, have them slap you on the other arm. HEY! Quick, does the pinch still hurt? Bet you forgot it for a second. Last part: have them pinch you but not let go....have them hold it firmly until it actually starts to go numb a little. Now have them let go. Did you notice the pain got worse after they let go?

The first pinch was hurt. The slap was hurt. The held pinch was pain. Pain hurts, then as long as it goes on, we begin to become numb to it, til it is released and then it flares again, despite the source being gone. Hurt happens, pain persists.

Hurt is inherent in life. Things happen. Pain however is not inherent. It is the result of something that can be moderated, even eliminated or prevented. I am going to come back to this, but pain is always the result of choice.