DIALOGUE BETWEEN TWO ANCIENT PROFESSORS
Walter D. Pierce and Charles E. Gray
Professors emeritus, Illinois State University
December 2013/January 2014
Initial comments by Walter
In musing over my thoughts I have come to the conclusion that the general direction in which I have been going has been gone over many times by others, with no quality conclusion(s).
Briefly, if one believes that time is infinite, and the Universe is really an Infiniverse, then the microsecond that Earth and man have existed must have been, and will be duplicated, an infinite number of times.
Further, the three dimensional reality in which man exists (primarily depending on sight, sound and the other senses) is a very small fraction of the dimensions that exist without man’s ability to “sense” them. The possibility that there are an infinite number of dimensions must be considered.
So the myriad of science fiction contains not only hundreds of highly possible scenarios, but is sorely inhibited by man’s inability to visually construct other viable species because they can only reflect what man knows, mainly images reflective of man himself.
In thinking about such questions, man’s nature compels him to view his moments of life as having a purpose. When he cannot determine the answers to the unanswerable, he invents a creator, a God, that has caused his existence and has a purpose that will be revealed sometime in the future, or an afterlife. This is necessary for the majority of humans because without such a hope, life has an emptiness about it.
For some, thoughts such as these bring conclusions that deny the need for moral development. What difference does being “good” or “bad” make in the tiny pin point we are in relation to the Infiniverse?
But the notion that all matter is energy and all energy is matter and it simply changes form in an infinite number of ways in an infinite amount of time in an infinite amount of space, and that man is just one of an infinite number of forms or by products in these changes, is a possible valid conclusion.
If so, then the question of man’s purpose is meaningless.
Response by Charles
You have, in only a few sentences, summarized what might be termed the Perennial Dilemma of modern humankind. Over the years this “dilemma” has been variously debated, denied and soundly obfuscated. I would maintain that there is an urgent need for clarification, non-ideological dialogue and ultimately viable solutions/conclusions.
Thus, I am in essential agreement with your description of the dilemma facing the modern world. However, I wish to take a somewhat different tact on what you have said and/or inferred about the topic of purpose or more specifically, man’s purpose in life.
The only thing in our part of the Infiniverse that might be considered purposeful is the evolutionary process of species survival. What has taken place over eons of time has the appearance of purpose, but since we have difficulty deciding exactly who or what is the instigator and driving force behind the process, it doesn’t seem to fit our paradigm for purposeful action.
It is important to realize that the concept purpose is nothing more or less than a human construct. Since we tend to reject randomness in human affairs, we use the concept to help explain individual and group human behavior. We think of ourselves and others as having intentions and goals and engaging in actions to attain what has been predetermined.
Although the idea of purpose may be useful in human communication, it is NOT a concept that can be applied to the workings of the Infiniverse. When referring to the essence or nature of the Infiniverse, a number of philosophical and theological systems use terms such as IS or IS-NESS. What IS, IS –and there is no known basis for assigning purpose or intention to it.
All of this is not as bleak and pointless as it may first appear. We humans are sentient (conscious) beings; we are aware of ourselves (and others) and can make choices about our lives. Such beings leave a legacy, much of which is unavoidable, but each person also has the OPPORTUNITY to make choices that will help shape his or her legacy. Hence, I prefer to focus on the idea of human opportunity, rather than the concept of purpose in human affairs.
It is important for me to be clear about what I mean by the term LEGACY. A human legacy is a knowledge-based concept which consists of three parts, as follows:
1) That which is passed on through DNA (if a choice is made to have offspring)
2) The merging of the body with the elements from which it came (prior to birth)
3) The influence on others through writings, personal contacts and behavior
In each instance there are opportunities for making choices. Whether to have children? How to have the body merge with the elements? How to influence others? Of course, some people will maintain that shaping their Legacy is their purpose, so if someone is comfortable with that, so be it.
At this point, you might agree that concern about the shaping of human legacies is well and good, but what about the quality of legacies? Do we want to encourage and promote certain kinds of legacies and discourage other kinds? The answer has always been yes! Even the earliest known human societies developed moral/ethical codes of conduct that contributed to an orderly and somewhat compassionate way of life.
The essence of the universal moral/ethical code that developed over human history was first enunciated by Confucius (551-479 BCE) in the form “Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you”. Since that time it has been expanded on and rephrased in many languages, religions and philosophies.
In our own time, psychologist Abraham Maslow supplemented the Confucian golden rule by suggesting that human beings should strive for the greatest degree of self-actualization –for themselves and for others. (Harper 1954)
And more recently, religious scholar Karen Armstrong maintains that “the principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves.” (Knopf 2010)
The golden rule combined with self-actualization and compassion can serve as the guiding principles for the development and shaping of human legacies. And perhaps there is hope that humankind is moving in this direction. There are some encouraging signs.
The black man who ended racial apartheid in South Africa is now honored throughout the world
The Church that once sponsored the inquisition has chosen a compassionate Pope.
The nation that once practiced black slavery now has a black president
We are living in the most peaceful era of human existence and violence has declined (Steven Pinker, Viking 2011)
A famous poet once said “hope springs eternal”, but wise sages have added the caveat that “the devil is in the details”. So be it!
Addendum by Walter
Yes, the “Perennial Dilemma” has been under scrutiny for as long as man has attempted to find his purpose. So the “need” has been around a long time. But whether “viable solutions” are possible is moot. The possibility of an infinite search with no final conclusion must be considered.
As you point out, the most basic instinct of man (or any species) is survival. When man evolved (blundered?) into a species with the ability to use his brain in a logical way rather than a “reactive/instinctive way,” he also developed the ability to frame the “purpose” question. When the question was asked (and could not—and perhaps will never be answered) man invented deities—thousands of them. As the “reproductive/survivor” brain became more and more assured of survival the “philosophical questioning” brain became more and more introspective. As this phenomenon has occurred historically, the “difficulty” among the “philosophic brains” may have become deciding whether or not to embrace a “driving force.” Of course, in most social situations the “average” man is given little choice. The circumstances of his environment will dictate what he must believe in order to “fit” (survive socially) in that environment.
Some may think of themselves as having intentions and goals that are “predetermined,” but it seems more logical that the notion of free will without “predetermination’’ is a distinct possibility. If free will is the most viable option, then man must make choices that are often based on “purpose.” Yes, the concept of purpose is a human construct, but without a reason for existence that is above self-indulgence, man struggles with self-doubt. Hence, the easiest avenue for peace is deity acceptance.
The concept of just “IS” is an important point. Even though man uses “purpose” as a driving force and reason for his existence, the Infiniverse has no “known” basis for assigning purpose to itself. It just “IS.” One may concluded logically, then, that man, being a part of the Infiniverse, just “IS,” and exists without intention.
And here is the rub. The fact that man has freewill, that man is sentient, the fact that man is aware of the fact that he is at the top of the food chain in brain power, that he can assist himself and others in positive moves to provide himself and others with an improved psychological and physical environment (and this is “good”), that he can leave a “legacy” that insures the planet is “better off” than it was before he lived, that his aura will live as long as Earth itself exists, must suffice to meet his purpose needs. The Infiniverse, having always been in existence, always in existence, always going to be in existence, and infinitely large, give man’s role as potential “self-improver” the appearance of an irrelevancy.
You have done a superior job in the last part of your response by quickly pointing out a series of historical attempts to leave a positive legacy, and some evidence of gradual human improvements. It is not hard to conclude that this is all man can do to answer the unanswerable question of why he exists.