The Other I

July 13, 2013

What’s good for the goose…

When I was a graduate student not too far off half a century ago, I remember addressing the question in philosophy asking if the human mind is capable of ever fully understanding the universe and how it works.

The answer is that, although we will never exhaust our potential for learning more, we will never achieve a complete understanding of the world in which we live either.  Our minds are not sufficiently capable of transcending the kind of time and space in which we were created to survive.

This rarely  emerges as an urgent problem for most of us.  Many of us (and I include myself) don’t even understand what it is that we don’t understand.  I don’t really understand, for instance, how negative and positive electrons whirling around the nucleus of an atom produce electricity, which in turn runs all the appliances in my house with a simple switch.   Some people do.  But even physicists have no idea how some of our most basic, even everyday processes work.  Gravity is one example.  Thanks to Newton, scientists can describe gravity mathematically, but even Newton said it was a complete mystery how objects can act on each other over distances of millions of light years.  We still can’t explain it, and the number of events in which this kind of thing occurs has expanded with the evidence leading to quantum physics.  In fact, the more we learn, the longer the list gets of things we can’t fully explain.

Some people explain everything we don’t understand – and a lot that we do – with the concept of “God.”  They conclude that there must be a God, for instance, because there isn’t any other explanation for how the universe came into existence.  What people mean by the term “god,” however, varies.  God for some is a kind of all-powerful dictator whose all-encompassing love seems subject to irrational tirades during which anybody in the way gets punished for displeasing him.  Others have a  more transcendent, even mystical, idea of god, beyond simple anthropomorphic description.  Finally, there are those who decline to use the god explanation at all, and prefer to live with unanswered questions, or even in mystery.

So I Got It Wrong

The interesting thing for me, though, is that our certainty about some of the most important questions in life does not seem to depend on whether we believe in god or not.  I’ve been accused of being on my way to hell for straying from the Path of Righteousness, but I’ve heard non-believers make accusations about the pig-headedness of believers with the same level of intolerance.

I have convictions by which I live, and for which I would fight.  I think, for instance, that it is morally despicable to refuse an abortion to a woman to save her life and who is in the process of a miscarriage which was going to result in any case in the death of the fetus.  Yet that is what happened in Ireland, and members of Parliament who have just voted to change the law so this will not happen again have been accused of a sin so grave that they deserve to burn in eternal hell-fire.

But how do I know that some of my convictions are not as wrong-headed as I think some convictions of others are?  And would it not be as wrong for others to follow my convictions simply because I tell them I am right as it would be for me to follow their convictions because they say I’m destined for hell?

No.  Difficult as it is, we each have to follow our own conscience, and respect others who must do the same.

Even if they do disagree with me.



  1. I liked the post, but struggle with your concluding line… despite agreeing with it.

    At the moment I think I am helping my children to listen to their consciences – so that hopefully they will grow up to have consciences that function!

    The Irish case is shocking – somehow even moreso as the poor couple were not even Catholic and yet were forced to adhere to that law (not that i think Catholics should, necessarily).



    Comment by sanstorm — July 15, 2013 @ 1:02 pm | Reply

    • I wonder why you struggle with my concluding line. Do you mean you struggle with letting people disagree with you? (If so, I wish I could say I don’t know what you mean. But unfortunately, I do!)

      I also think that children must be helped to listen to their consciences. Even if some of the things we teach them that they — and even we — might later think should be changed. I am extremely grateful for a childhood in which I was taught that there are moral principles by which we need to judge ourselves.


      Comment by theotheri — July 18, 2013 @ 8:21 pm | Reply

      • Well, if we, for example find murder and paedophilia abhorrent, but others don’t – how can we “respect others” who think these things are fine? Which then goes back to the Irish lack-of-abortion case – the powers that are find abortion abhorrent and so can’t respect the opinion of the couple involved, so she dies. Then “the public” have trouble with that – and it goes in a loop…


        Comment by sanstorm — July 18, 2013 @ 10:08 pm

      • Ah, now I understand your difficulty. It’s one I’ve struggled with for years. For what it’s worth, here is where I have arrived. I’ll use the example of abortion because it’s the issue which so many families with a Catholic background like mine are so deeply and seemingly irrevocably divided.

        One side, of course, says abortion is murder of a totally innocent human being. Therefore we can’t stand idly by and agree that women should have a free choice on this question depending on their religious convictions. The law must forbid abortion, and those who engage in facilitating it for whatever reason must be punished with the full force of the law in this life, as they will be punished by condemnation to hell in the next.

        The other side’s argruments are more varied but include the argument that a woman should have a free choice over what happens to her own body. The bottom line is that women who have been raped or whose pregnancy is endangering their own lives should be permitted to choose to have an abortion. Others argue that we do not know when a human being as such actually beings to exist. The theologian Thomas Acquinas said that since we don’t know, we must assume that God inserts a soul into the fertilized egg at the very first moment it is penetrated by the sperm. Other theologians argue that an all-loving God would not support the creation of life as a result of rape or incest, and it is preposterous to argue that a free and all-powerful and loving God would support such an act by giving his blessing in this way.

        So must we stand in unyielding opposition to each other?

        What I’m saying is that we each must live by our own convictions but also respect the convictions of others. We need to be aware of the possibility that, however convinced and certain we are, we might be wrong. I don’t mean I think we should therefore just let everybody do what they want – murder, incest, theft, abuse aren’t all right just because you argue that you believe it is. It isn’t even all right if you believe it’s what God is telling you to do, which as the news makes clear on a daily basis, thousands of people (“freedom-fighters,” or “terrorists” depending on whose side you are on) are constantly using this defense to kill hundreds of thousands of innocent people.

        But trying to change others behaviors with force doesn’t work in the long run. In the case of abortion, for instance, it pushes it into the back streets. It polarizes society, but it doesn’t stop abortions.

        I think the only way is to dialogue with respect for those who disagree, no matter how deeply we think they are wrong. I try for myself to replace my anger and disdain for those who disagree with me with a respect coming from the belief that others have reached different conclusions often out of generous, and courageous reasons. It doesn’t mean I think they are right. But I am able to listen in a different way, and my own point of view is less threatening to others as well.

        That’s the ideal, of course. In practice, I admit, it doesn’t always work out that way.

        But it’s what I think we need to strive for.

        What do you think? I’d really like to know.

        (After that, maybe we can even tackle the problem of identifying spam!)

        On Thu, Jul 18, 2013 at 11:08 PM, The Other I


        Comment by Terry Sissons — July 19, 2013 @ 2:51 pm

      • I’m on my third draft of a reply…. working on it…


        Comment by sanstorm — July 20, 2013 @ 6:39 pm

      • Oh, I hope you don’t give up working on it — even if it takes much more time than usual. There aren’t a lot of people who think about issues like this in quite this way, and I’m eager to hear your thoughts. (And you know I take them seriously.) Terry


        Comment by Terry Sissons — July 21, 2013 @ 3:07 pm

      • It’s quite funny. I keep ending up mental cup-de-sacs. I’m sure if we met over a cup of tea I could explain it in five minutes 😉


        Comment by sanstorm — July 21, 2013 @ 4:09 pm

  2. In an essay Robert Louis Stevenson wrote that when we come upon an idea that appeals to us on a deep level (I’m paraphrasing from memory) we run out to meet it. Why we do so has to do, I suspect, with something that I would call preconscious (not opposed to but deeper maybe than what we mean by subconscious). If I’m right, that means some attitudes, moral and otherwise, are axiomatic to us as individuals–hard-wired, as the current metaphor puts it.

    But I admit this is pure speculation on my part, and maybe just a rationale for reproducing a version of that marvelous observation of Stevenson.

    I suspect Jesus glommed on to something similar when he finally realized very few people were going to respond to what he was preaching, and still don’t (Chomsky, btw, is one the latest to do so; he’s forever quoting Jesus and John XXIII these days). “Conversions” are a matter of running out to meet an idea (or narrative), aren’t they? Music we love, any art that we take to immediately. Everything else as well (though not always, of course, some things being an acquired taste). It’s as if we have been waiting for this very thing, whatever it is, to come along, maybe not even conscious we have been waiting at all, and there all of a sudden it is and we jump up and run forth to embrace it like a long-lost love.


    Comment by pianomusicman — July 15, 2013 @ 6:42 pm | Reply

    • Stevenson’s description of our response to ideas as you present it reminds me of the experience of love at first sight. There are some people whom we meet whom somehow we respond to immediately and on a depth that is beyond reason. I am married to someone to whom I responded that way, and despite all the rough and tumble of forty years, that feeling is still there. Art, music, poetry, literature can do something similar.

      On the other hand, neither love at first sight or our deepest commitment to certain ideas that somehow just resonate is not infallible. I committed my life to ideas like that, which I now reject as invalid and which, if they resonate at all, it is with a rather unpleasant screach.

      And that’s the problem, isn’t it? Rather like the problem of conscience.

      What do you think?


      Comment by theotheri — July 16, 2013 @ 8:50 pm | Reply

  3. Hi Terry – I think I left a couple of comments recently on your blog and they never appeared. Could you check your spam for me thanks Feel free to delete this one though 🙂


    Comment by sanstorm — July 18, 2013 @ 7:46 pm | Reply

    • No, I won’t delete it. I want to say thank you instead.


      Comment by theotheri — July 18, 2013 @ 8:14 pm | Reply

      • I’ve just now checked my own box and found three good comments there!


        Comment by sanstorm — July 18, 2013 @ 10:12 pm

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