Friday, April 27, 2007

Do It Yourself Deity & the problem of suffering.

Sri gurubhyo namaha.

I have got a few mails from readers wondering why my 'free' posts are being replaced by the commentary on the Thirumandiram. Actually, nothing has been replaced - just that the continuity of the Thirumandiram has been directing its own flow by directing my thoughts! If it will be of help, let it be known that I have also been thinking of putting up a couple of posts in the 'free' mode in the last while. So, no better time than now then!

A while back when I was in India with a few friends at a coffee shop, the conversation was dominated by lofty philosophical and theosophical discussions. As always, the latte and the Gold Flake (kings) persuaded us to believe we were in the process of setting right some major 'soul' bricks! A friend then mentioned a website where you could test the consistency and the cohesion (if any) of one's philosophical/religious make up. Sort of 'spiritual quotient' test! It was supposed to be a test designed to check how 'deeply' thought out your conception of God and the universe etc was. I should have known that it was a 'trick' quiz - but, being the gullible creature that I am, I envisaged this mega spiritual test and was looking forward to checking out how deeply thought out my conceptions of God were. I wont spoil the test for you (in case you decide to take it another time), so I will not go into anymore detail of it here than relevant and I will also not give out the web link for the test until the end of this post!

Anyway, I duly visited the site when I had some time on my hands- making sure that the callings of the world would not be heard for at least another hour. It was a test after all that supposedly goes very deep into the workings of my belief system! I need not have bothered to be so prepared. Regardless of the fact that the entire test was geared to be intellectually and logically clever and that it was meant to confuse you more than show you anything of relevance, it did still bring up a few points that sowed the seeds for this post and probably more to follow in a similar vein.
The first part of the test is something called (very American) the Do It Yourself Deity! First of all it sets out to find out '' What is God?'' (that is my conception of what God is supposed to mean) and in order to do that, I am given a set of answers, the multiple choice type. The list is of a set of attributes and I am supposed to select one or two or as many of them that I feel are attributes which describe my conception/belief of what God is. I give below the list of attributes as listed in the site and I imagine that you can figure out that I ticked each of the boxes as all these qualities can be attributed to my conception of what God is.

Omnipotent (all-powerful, able to do anything)
Omnibenevolent (all-loving)
Omniscient (all-knowing)
The Creator (of all that exists)
The Sustainer (if God ceased to exist, so would everything else)
Perfectly Free
Eternally Existing (will go on and on and on...)
A Personal God (a being with whom one can have a personal relationship).

Now lets go to the interesting part. The 'metaphysical engineers' then test my answer(s) to see if my conception of God is consistent with itself and if it is consistent with the universe we live in. The score then is given out from 0 to 1, where 1 means that my conception of God is consistent with itself and the external universe and 0 means that it is totally inconsistent to the 'real' world and to itself. My score was 0.2 - sorry, its not called the score but Plausibility Quotient, excuse me! Then the 'metaphysical engineers' give me the break up and show me the reasons why my conception is hardly plausible. This they do step by step, point by point; analysing logically why such attributes are not consistent with the universe we live in. And since I cannot discuss the reasons why the arguments don't make much sense (the metaphysical engineers are beyond the reach of a mere mortal) there on the site, I shall use this post to rant about them.

To make this more fair and neutral, I will present both sides of the argument - theirs and mine. The first part (in italics) is just cut and pasted from the site, the bits that follow (in regular font) are my replies to the former. So, here we go

The problem of suffering
Your God is omnipotent (all-powerful, able to do anything), omnibenevolent (all-loving) and omniscient (all-knowing).
The metaphysical engineers have found it hard to model this God in a universe like our own. The problem is this: our universe contains vast amounts of suffering, much of which seems either entirely unnecessary or unnecessarily severe. Although some of this is the result of human action, and thus may be seen as an inevitable consequence of human free will, much is not. Plagues, floods and famines are not all the result of human action. Even the idea that human free will explains the existence of much suffering is hard to accept, since God, if all-powerful, could surely limit our capacity to harm others or suffer at their hands (after all, there are many other limits on what we are able to do).
So why is there all this suffering? If God cannot prevent it, it would seem she is not all-powerful. If God doesn't want to stop it, it would seem she is not all-loving. If God doesn't know about it, she can't be all-knowing.
The metaphysical engineers are continuing to study theodicies, which are attempts to resolve this difficulty, known as the problem of evil.

Now the above argument is interesting enough if you look at it logically and I can see how it might appeal to a lot of people. After all, I have heard plenty of such talk over plenty of cups of latte in plenty different places. But to be honest, I don't think it makes any sense (even logically) and it certainly doesn't make any sense at all if you happen to know a little bit about the universe we live in and the secrets behind its operation. Let me show you how - The 'metaphysical engineers' see that the universe we live has a lot of suffering and they believe that more often than not this much suffering is either unnecessary or too harsh. In reply I would say, where is the suffering? Who suffers? And what happens as a result of all these floods and famines and the people that supposedly 'die' or 'suffer' as a result of them? Countless have been the mystics who assert that nothing in effect happens here. Its all an illusion, like a dream. Just like you would not expect to move into the palace you built in your dream last night, (upon waking), there seems to be nothing left when I 'wake up'. The impressions of everything I thought 'happened' to me, simply vanish. The soul (atman) is ever the same. Nothing happens to it and nothing is gained or lost. Did not Krishna ask Arjuna the same thing in the midst of the Kurukshetra battlefield? If this 'high' and transcendental aspect does not make sense or appeal to you as the truth, lets just look at it in a more physical way.

If we imagine that God cannot be all powerful because He/She cant stop all this suffering or that God cannot be all loving if He/she doesn't want to end this suffering, it is a very childish reasoning. To illustrate this, I will use the example of a child growing up. We all know that in the process of growing up the bones will have to stretch (growth spurts), the teeth have to cut through the gums and make an appearance, etc. This is a painful process and any parent who has gone through sleepless nights with a screaming child in their arms will attest that. I love my children, more than myself. So would it be right for me to say, why should they suffer so much with the tooth cutting through, lets just put an end to it and do something that will make sure those teeth never come through? Some kind of chemical perhaps that would just burn the gum and make sure there will never be a tooth there poking its tiny pearly white head through? What then will I do about the various periods in their early life where their bones will have to stretch? God, that would be painful for my darling - why don't I just throw the child in some amino acid? That way I can make sure that there is no possibility of growth: preserved forever, no stretching bones, nothing of the sort! But I don't do that (and nor does any other parent for that matter). Why? Because I know that its part of natural growing up and that even though the child in my arms now is screaming as if the world was coming to end and is in terrible pain, in a couple of days the tooth would cut through and everything would be back to normal. The child would certainly be better able to deal with life in this world with that tooth (that caused him so much grief) than without it. And me? I would be over the moon, showing off his/her smiling face to every passer by on the street. Am I making sense?

I imagine that is how God feels about the suffering in the world. In fact I should say, the 'perception' of suffering in this world. Coming now to the all powerful aspect of God - I don't think that the wish or ability to interfere is a reflection of power or the lack of it. The supreme token or proof of the 'all loving' aspect of God is the thing called Free Will. If He/She did not give all creatures in this universe the gift of free will, the attribute of 'all loving ness' will become faulty - as then the element of bias will come in. God does not judge (deciding that such and such a thing is suffering or bad and has to stop or that such and such a thing is good and hence should continue etc), He/She merely IS. We perceive suffering in this world just as one perceives a snake in a rope (by not seeing it clearly for what it is). But in reality it is but rope (not a snake), so God does not come swooping down from heaven (or where ever the metaphysical engineers think He resides) at the first instance of suffering in this world. Like the snake moults and sheds its skin at the end of each cycle, so do we at different stages of life. The ultimate objective of this body mind complex which we call ourselves, is for it to realise its innate oneness to the Absolute - and the innumerable events that occur and the situations we find ourselves in have nothing more substantial (and real) in them than the imaginary snake in the rope. I think it takes great strength and power to 'not exercise' an influence on the free flow of things than the power that is needed to try and control things. But that is beyond the point as God is a state of being which is beyond the perception of duality (as this or that, me and him, pain and pleasure, etc). The world of such bias is but the domain of Man.

To the view that God can surely (if all powerful) do something to limit our capacity to harm others or suffer at their hands - I can only refer the wise reader to something called Conscience. Conscience is an invaluable tool that helps to limit our capacity to harm others and thus suffer at their hands. There are plenty other tools too for that, like the framework called Dharma (natural law) in which the playing field is set, and the principle of karma or cause and effect. Detailed discussion of that though for another day.

To successfully (and meaningfully) discuss or debate God, we would need to be armed with a bit more than just logic and trick answers. We need intuition, meditation, insight among many other qualities. More importantly, we need to know a bit more about ourselves and that we are more than just the body. A bit of awareness of the 'real' nature of this universe will also not be amiss! That is the bit about suffering (I can go on for days in this vein, but that will only bore you to death now that you have got the gist of what I am saying) done for now. I will try and discuss the next point, which is the problem of loving too much (God, really?!) in another post. In the meantime though, you might want to visit the battlefield of God yourself and check out the Do It Yourself Deity - if you so desire. You can do that by going here .


Kanna said...

Interesting way to spend some spare time, but preordained to cause an impasse in dialog - as is the case with any discussion with an atheist or "rationalist". One of the fundamental premises I go by is that the rationally explicable daily world that we live in cannot serve as the grammar for defining the language of the (for lack of a better word) supernatural. Not just in terms of plain phsical and scientific inconsistencies, but in things even more fundamental. For instance, that contradictions need to be resolved and that there is mutual exclusivity in states of simultaneous being. Once there is an ability in oneself to not apply known systems of rationale, then again the dialog would stop, because there can be no explanations or there need not be any. I suppose this could pass for a very crass definition of Bhakthi? I can now almost see how infinite the power of Bhakthi could be :) As human beings we are constantly awed by anything - however small - that allows us to break free from known limitations - whether it is story telling or cinema or virtual reality or simulated environments or pharmacological aids or just plain day dreaming - Bhakthi is basically the big Kahuna here - go forth and be free in it - totally and completely, free.

mooligai sidhan said...

@ Kanna,
Indeed it is true that one has to necessarily break free from the need to apply known systems of rationale when dealing with matters so subtle.However, the Tarka sastra (or the science that deals with the laws etc to be used in debate)lays down certain or many conditions through which an arguement can be postulated or refuted - for example, it includes inference as another category of proof. Though even then at a certain point we reach a space where each arguement and counter arguement can proceed ad infinitum serving no purpose.
Bhakti is another kettle of fish altogether. I imagine there are only a blessed few in whom the intensity of bhakti is naturally so strong that they need no proof/convincing or anything else to inspire it. But most of the time, the bhakti or love/devotion to god (dess) is not so instinctual or intuitive - the majority need 'scientific'/'logical' rationale to decide whether to believe in god or not. When bhakti is born in the heart of one, he/she becomes a devotee and such a person is perfectly capable then of avoiding anyone or any system in the middle (that is between them and god)to interpret their own connection to god.
It is the vira or the brave warrior type of person who is able to experiment with breaking known limitations (be it through techniques and discipline or through pharmacological substances)and transcend them successfully. The pashu or the cattle type of person needs those limitations (not only in themselves but they project those limitations on the external world too)and expects the world to be explainable as being within those limitations too.Thats why we have all the religious/ideological clashes.
If only bhakti was more abundant.....

Kanna said...

Enlightening response, as ever :) Would love to see a blog post now on Tarka Sastra - might come in real handy in the many theological debates that one gets uncontrollably drawn into! While pondering the post and the discussion around it, it just occurred to me that there is so much Bhakti of science all around us :) In most of these debates, one encounters an alternative view point that is almost always rooted in unquestioned belief in logic, rationale and science. I am suddenly finding a beautiful irony here :)

mooligai sidhan said...

@ Kanna
Your wish is my command! Indeed it would be good to do a post on the basics of tarka sastra:that way we can also establish a common ground for debates. And importantly, it will come in very handy during many a coffee table 'intergalactic' theological debate!
Though most people base their arguments on the premise of science and logic, I find that more often than not, they have not really thought it through to any great degree. Beyond the fourth or fifth round of arguement and counter arguement there is nothing more to be gained: just like we mentioned before an impasse in dialogue. I would call that more parroting logic and rationale than really 'bhakti' of science - as bhakti probably has nothing at all to do with the head. Rather it might be percieved to be the dissolution of the head in the heart or soul or whereever else 'love' stems from.
Post on tarka to follow now to extend this thread further!