July 23, 2017

If You Had a Ring of Invisibility

The work we do today is both nothing and everything. Today’s sorrows are tomorrow's successes. Personally, I really dislike it when other folks tell me things like that. But, that’s mostly because I’m really bad at remembering it. It’s really difficult to imagine a frustration that’s going on right this very now as something that might be awesome tomorrow, or a great effort today that seems never-ending and might end up amounting to something tomorrow. As someone who’s spent an inordinate amount of time in school for the degrees he has to show for it, I totally understand, and damn near wrote the book on it. As I struggle with temporality myself though, maybe I can open the concept up to someone else along the way.

A previous article I wrote went into the concept of unpredictability in the universe, since it’s seemingly infinite in not only its size, but its machinations. So, now I’ll focus on another facet of temporal causality and “providence,” which is motivation. Someone once asked me, in regard to studying theology and such, if I ever discovered somehow that there was nothing more to the universe than physical reality—no spiritual dimension, no God, etc. At first, I didn’t know how to answer that, and I still don’t entirely, since there’s literally no possible way to disprove spiritual realities completely (which is also why science and theology shouldn’t combat one another). Science can’t prove or disprove spirituality and religion any more than religion can prove or disprove science (sorry creationists, even as a biblical scholar I can’t get behind young earth theories*).

I wouldn’t ask a geologist how to treat constipation.
The point is that while the universe has dimensions and layers to it that no one yet understands, we can’t go around affirming with empirical certainty this or that thing while using one science to study the object of another, e.g., I wouldn’t ask a geologist how to treat constipation, I’ll leave that to the poop-ologists. So, the question was this: What would you do if you found out that whatever spiritual, religious, or metaphysical beliefs you held so near and dear to your heart were in fact false? Would you change our lifestyle? Would you change how you behaved or how you treated others? The late, great philosopher Socrates and/or Plato used to talk about this in the form of a story about the Ring of Gyges.

The Ring of Gyges was an ancient Greek myth—a magical ring that could turn its wearer invisible at will (nope, Tolkien wasn’t the first to dream that idea up). So, the Ring of Gyges presents a hypothetical moral dilemma. If you could physically get away with anything you wanted to, would you live your life differently? The old legend tells of what we might expect from a moral tale—the guy with the ring, a lowly shepherd suddenly realizing he could get away with anything, killed the king, seduced his wife, and took the throne for himself. Clearly, the only thing stopping him from adultery and murder was getting caught.

What would you do if there was no heaven or hell?
If you’re a spiritual person, it probably makes you ask yourself what you would do if there was no heaven or hell (in the western traditions) or if there is no reincarnation, etc. (in the eastern religions). If you’re not, you might just wonder how this would affect your behavior in terms of the law and societal limitations. Either way, it’s a revealing thought experiment for yourself to see where your motivations lie and what you really care about. If you’re doing whatever it is that you do in life just for the goal at the end of the road, then maybe that motivation should be considered if, say, someone just gave you that goal tomorrow and you didn’t need to work for it. No, I’m not talking about your day job that you do just to pay the bills. We all do that sort of stuff.

I’m talking about the real meat of life. They say the journey is the destination. While that turn of phrase may be particularly hard to swallow for anyone who’s taken the long, excruciating drive across west Texas to get anywhere that isn’t west Texas, it holds up as a general rule. Would you do a charitable act if no one ever knew you did it? Would you help your relative if you knew they would never thank you, or even be aware that they should? Would you drop a few bucks in that donation tray if the person passing it around would still give you a dirty look either way? If given the opportunity to steal a crisp hundred bill someone dropped right in front of you, would you do it if you knew that it had no bearing on your ticket to heaven or hell?

I always said, you can really tell a person’s morality and motivations in certain circumstances. For example, if an atheist helps you move in the summer time, you know for sure that person is pretty awesome to the core, and likely for the right reasons. Coming from someone who’s ridden both sides of the atheist/theist line, helped a lot of folks move in south Louisiana summer heat, and been helped by lots of folks in the same situation, I feel like I’m a bit of an expert on that particular topic. Inversely, I had a disappointing conversation once with a Christian who told me that he did certain things, not because there were good reasons for doing so, but “because the Church taught it as such.” While that degree of faith and conviction is commendable, the moral quality of deeds done just because an institution teaches it (regardless of what it may be), is somewhat lacking, to say the least.

Good is only truly good if it’s done for its own sake.
Good is only truly good if it’s done for its own sake. A person who helps you move in the sweltering heat of summer with nothing to gain (neither physically nor spiritually) has truly done you a kindness. Question your motivations at all times, not just for their moral quality but also for their quality of life. Why are you going to school? Why do you have certain hobbies, or hang with the people you do, or go the places you go? Are you doing the right thing for the wrong reason, the wrong thing for the right reason, or any other combination?

I realize I’ve dodged the question from the first, but not really. Another late, great philosopher by the name of Aristotle put it this way when he described what virtue is. There are three qualities to virtue: knowing what’s good, doing what’s good, and enjoying it. For most of us, the first one is easy, the second one is doable, and the third is the hardest. But, to do anything with real virtue, you have to know what you’re doing, do it with intention, and do it for its own sake. And, remember, the journey is the destination and regardless of what you believe, you never really know what’s at the end of the road.

* For more information, see fossils.