Thursday, January 6, 2011

Riding dinosaurs (and other things we lost in the fall)

Ever heard of the Problem of Evil? It's a philosophical argument against the existence of God which goes like this (although there are a lot of variations):

(1) If God is perfect and good, and he created this world, then this world should be perfect and good.
(2) The world is not perfect and good; therefore,
(3) Either there is no God, or he is not perfect and good.

An art critic might make the same observation about a painting; Picasso would not paint a black velvet Dick Cheney. In the same way, some think a good God would not have created this Earth. They can imagine a better world where innocent children don't suffer, where enemies are justly smote, or where the poor dinosaurs still roamed and we could ride them around on saddles:

Child riding saddled triceratops at the Creation Museum in Kentucky

Jesus riding apatosaurus (demurely sidesaddle)

That would be a kick-ass world, wouldn't it? Not to burst this awesome religio-biological dream, but I have to point out that the scale of Jesus is all off (see graphic below):

Either the artist sees Jesus as 20 feet tall, or he has a preference for riding baby apatosauri.

Also, I like that Jesus is holding his left arm out, either to balance or to perform some miracle or other. He was, after all, fully human AND fully divine.

And, he's holding some kind of lizard in his lap lovingly.

And is that snow on the ground?

In any case, the important thing is that in a perfect world, we'd be joyfully saddling up massive lizards without fear of disease, growing old, or telemarketers and living happily ever after.

But obviously, this is only a dream. We get sick, suffer, and die. And that's because of the problem of evil.

Theists argue, in response, that the world is perfect, except for the flaws in it, created by man. It is the blight of sin, brought into this world by man, that is the source of all evil. If we weren't such douches, we'd be riding extinct animals right now.

While I appreciate both sides of this discussion, I have a hard time imagining another world in which suffering does not occur. It's not that I don't long for a perfect world, like everyone else; it's that I have tried and failed to put myself in this world.

Imagining a world without evil is as difficult as imagining a world without matter or energy. A story, with beginning, middle and end, is impossible in such a world, which is why "...and they all lived happily ever after" is a fine way to end a fairy tale, since it implies a departure from this world and entrance into another, unfathomable one.

Our conscious lives are the stories we tell ourselves, and these always involve the presence of evil, suffering, a viscious climb or two, or at least a visit to the DMV. Evil makes us human; otherwise, we're vegetables or we're dead.

Think about Lord of the Rings, a tale about nine variously sized humanoids facing variously sized evil things, all to merely throw something away. Here's what the ending would look like in a world without the problem of evil:

Evil makes the story. Without it, we wouldn't have had to bother with all the orcs, the weepy little hobbits and so on. No fires of Mordor.

This is a better world, but what the hell do you talk about in it? Another day of perfect temperatures and everyone's kind and never lies.

Darwin's observation about natural selection was not just an observation about biology; it is also an observation about the problem of evil. The theory of natural selection finds evidence that struggle and change define life, that we are made from and for struggle. Our belief in God and love being "Creation's final law," says Tennyson, contradicts "Nature, red in tooth and claw."

On the one hand we have theistic man who finds salvation in a loving God, and on the other hand we find Darwinian man who exists through struggle against a unfeeling universe. This is the conflict of hope and experience.

The irony here is that surviving the struggles of life requires stories (if not belief in) a universe that cares. The harder the life, the more value of stories. It's no coincidence that the harshest place on Earth, Africa, is also the most prolific place of story telling.

In sports, and particularly in cycling, it is the stories we tell each other that make the riding beautiful. They make sense of the suffering--not just the harsh breathing, the burning legs and lungs, but the lost loved ones, the workplace drudgery, our past sins, and the crushing reality of our frailty and mortality, and bring us redemption (or at least a better FTP).

Ah, this is all earnest and serious, and I'm afraid the three people who sometimes come here have probably not made it this far. I've taken a long time to say something very simple: your story matters. Hearing it helps the rest of us overcome evil (or mere flabbiness). So tell it.


Brian said...

You need some motivation or something?

The Jerkbeast said...

Perhaps the artist envisioned powers similar to Apache Chief?


Also, fairly sure that the small reptile is in fact Acanthostega, one of the first vertebrate animals to have recognizable limbs.

Calvini said...

@Brian, yep, but nothing that wouldn't be remedied with a Mobtown performance of Phillip Glass. That minimalist stuff is fantastic.

@Jerkbeast...either you're a paleantologist or you have really bright kids. Either way, wow.