Friday, August 10, 2012

The Rot: Part II

This post is part of a series that started last week 8/3/2012
Picture this:
You’re driving along a local interstate singing along with the radio and drumming on the steering wheel. Out of nowhere a red sports car cuts dangerously close in front of you while applying its brakes in a reckless attempt to make the exit ramp you yourself were about to pass. You stomp on your own brakes and find yourself swerving a little bit, heart racing, before you regain control of your car.
“(Insert expletive of choice here) !!! What’s that idiot think he’s doing!?! Does he want to get us all killed with a stupid stunt like that? Why didn’t he get over a ½ mile ago?” you fume angrily. But what is the underlying cause of your anger? Isn’t it that this idiot did something reckless that he obviously should not have done; something that put other people in danger? Isn’t it that he didn’t act the way any thinking person should act? How do you know, however, that the way you think he should have acted, really is the way he should have acted? You didn’t know that he just realized that his passenger, his wife, is having a severe stroke, and that the exit he got off on happened to be the exit for a hospital located just off the highway.
The rot that sits festering in the heart of humanity is complex. I don’t think it can be summed up in a single word like pride, lust, or gluttony. To start discussing it, however, I would start with an aspect of humanity that magnifies its effects: no one ever knows that they’re wrong.
Have you ever thought about that? It’s true; no one ever knows that they’re wrong. If Alan holds opinion A, he does so because he believes that he is right in holding opinion A. The process of changing his opinion begins with being convinced of the truth of a different opinion, opinion B. It is only in light of opinion B that Alan realizes that opinion A is incorrect. In other words, he has already switched camps before he has the conscious recognition that opinion A was wrong. At no point in this changing of opinions does Alan ever hold an opinion that he believes to be wrong; by the time he realizes that opinion A is incorrect, he is already a believer in opinion B. This is important because it means that no one ever realizes that they are wrong, they can only ever realize that they were wrong.
Of course, once I realize that I will always believe that all of my opinions are correct, I must also realize that some of my opinions are undoubtedly incorrect. But if I hold some incorrect opinions but believe that all my opinions are correct, then how am I to know which opinions are correct and which are incorrect? I can’t. So not only do I not know everything, but even knowing that I don’t know everything, I have no way of knowing what I don’t know. If I never realize that I’m wrong, then how am I to know where I am wrong? This basic human finitude is not evil, but it makes humanity dangerous. We all, undoubtedly, hold some incorrect beliefs, but there is no way of knowing which beliefs are incorrect; and this sets us up for doing the wrong thing at the wrong time with unfortunate consequences.
Now, although we are prone to doing the wrong thing at the wrong time because of incorrect assumptions and opinions, the flip side can be just as bad. We will never know all we need to know to be confident in the decisions we make, but if we wait too long and fail to act when action is needed, then this can produce consequences that are just as bad.  Imagine that you’re driving down the interstate and you see a bad accident as it occurs. There’s a car that hits the median, flips several times and finally comes to rest upside-down. You stop as quickly as you can, get out and run up to the driver’s side window and see the driver, unconscious and hanging by his seat belt. You also see that there is smoke coming out of the engine and realize that something is on fire. There is gas leaking onto the asphalt and you don’t have access to a cell phone. Do you act, or do you wait for more qualified responders to come? If you act, there is a good chance that you will do the wrong thing; for instance, if the driver’s neck is broken, then moving the neck at all can cause paralysis or death. There is also a chance that if you do nothing and wait for the police that the gas could catch fire and burn the driver alive. What do you do?
This is an extreme example but it illustrates the conundrum that we face every day. Do we act or do we hesitate? It is not ever possible to have all the data necessary for any decision we make, and no way to be confident that we’re making the right decision, yet we are still required to make the choice: act or no? Because of our finitude we are doomed to make wrong decisions; and even when we make the right choices, we are bound to make them in the wrong way, for the wrong reasons, or to the wrong extent. And every time we make a wrong decision, we are making mistakes and causing problems, and these problems cause pain for those around us. Therefore, we are doomed to cause pain and suffering for ourselves and those around us through our ignorance and arrogance. You see, the problem is not simply that we make some mistakes, it's that no one can stop making mistakes. There is no escape.
This basic human finitude is not the rot, but it makes the rot all the more dangerous. It concentrates evil and makes its effects more problematic just like a magnifying glass concentrates sunlight. Now, I realize that this is all very depressing, but stay with me, it gets better. Next week, I’ll talk more about the nature of evil, the nature of the kingdoms of heaven and of hell, and how our own addiction to progress plays into our inescapable doom. So, it gets better, not next week, but soon.

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