Monday, December 20, 2004

religion is a runaway engine of violence

There is a good essay on faith in the Boston Globe (reprinted in Common Dreams): God's Clock. In it, James Carroll, notices that we use clocks to keep time, but time runs on despite our attempts to keep it. After outlining contemporary incidence of religious conflict, he says, "Such ferocity of human arguments over God, whether in affirmation or denial, reflects a terrible forgetfulness. Religion is to God what the clock is to time. Religion participates in the mystery of what it represents but does not embody that mystery. Not even Christianity, with its self-understanding as a religion of the incarnate Word, does more than enshrine that Word in symbol and sacrament. Indeed, "Word" is the clue, since all religion, however infinite the object of its worship, remains bound by the finitude of language -- and language always falls short of its purpose. That truth applies to religion and science both. Words are to what they aim to express as the clock is to time. That is why silence, too, is a mode of worship. And it is why, also, the language of science always leaves room for what is not known."

Now this business of clocks resonates. The Chronicle of Higher Education recently ran a much-noticed essay by Palle Yourgrau (Gödel and Einstein: Friendship and Relativity) which strikes a claim that the great Einstein "by defining time in terms of its measurement with clocks, set a limit to time itself."

Digression: Give the opening paragraph of Yourgrau's essay a moment's scan: "In the summer of 1942, while German U-boats roamed in wolf packs off the coast of Maine, residents in the small coastal town of Blue Hill were alarmed by the sight of a solitary figure, hands clasped behind his back, hunched over like a comma with his eyes fixed on the ground, making his way along the shore in a seemingly endless midnight stroll. Those who encountered the man were struck by his deep scowl and thick German accent. Speculation mounted that he was a German spy giving secret signals to enemy warships. The dark stranger, however, was no German spy. He was Kurt Gödel, the greatest logician of all time, a beacon in the intellectual landscape of the last thousand years, and the prey he sought was not American ships bound for Britain but rather the so-called continuum hypothesis, a conjecture made by the mathematician Georg Cantor about the number of points on a line."

This anecdote repeats a brief account of Gödel in Blue Hill given by somtime Earlham philospher, Peter Suber, himself a resident of nearby Brooksville. In striking prose, Suber recounts the summer visit of Gödel and his wife, how "he walked at night with his hands behind his back, leaning forward, looking down," working out his continuum thesis; and how "Throughout the summer Louise Frederick [his innkeeper] received agitated telephone calls from people of the town. Who was this scowling man with a thick German accent walking alone at night along the shore? Many thought Gödel was a German spy, trying to signal ships and submarines in the bay." Given pendulous attention being given to a recurrence of plagiarism these days, one would think that Yourgrau would hesitate to chime in on Suber's account without acknowledgement or quotation.
End of digression.

So, to wind up this little meditation: James Carroll says "Religion is to God what the clock is to time. Religion participates in the mystery of what it represents but does not embody that mystery." For me, it's Henri Berson's concept of the "perpetual present" which best expresses how "time" in this sense embodies Carroll's mystery. To help get things ticking for you, if you're inclined to explore Bergon's thought processes on this subject, here's a longish set of quotes from the man himself.

Says Bergson:
The indivisible continuity of change is precisely what constitutes true duration. I cannot here enter into the detailed examination of a question I have dealt with elsewhere. I shall confine myself therefore to saying, in reply to those for whom this "real duration" is some thing inexpressible and mysterious, that it is the clearest thing in the world: real duration is what we have always called time, but time perceived as indivisible. That time implies succession I do not deny. But that succession is first presented to our consciousness, like the distinction of a "before" and "after" set side by side, is what I cannot admit. When we listen to a melody we have the purest impression of succession we could possibly have -- an impression as far removed as possible from that of simultaneity -- and yet it is the very continuity of the melody and the impossibility of breaking it up which makes that impression upon us. If we cut it up into distinct notes, into so many "befores" and "afters," we are bringing spatial images into it and impregnating the succession with simultaneity: in space, and only in space, is there a clear-cut distinction of parts external to one another. I recognize moreover that it is in spatialized time that we ordinarily place ourselves. We have no interest in listening to the uninterrupted humming of life's depths. Any yet, that is where real duration is. Thanks to it, the more or less lengthy changes we witness within us and in the external world take place in a single identical time.....
     We are inclined to think of our past as inexistent... for us the present alone exists by itself....
     Let us reflect for a moment on this "present" which alone is considered to have existence. What precisely is the present? If it is a question of the present instant -- I mean, of a mathematical instant which would be to time what the mathematical point is to the line -- it is clear that such an instant is a pure abstraction, an aspect of the mind; it cannot have real existence. You could never create time out of such instants any more than you could make a line out of mathematical points. ...
     The distinction we make between our present and past is therefore, if not arbitrary, at least relative to the extent of the field which our attention to life can embrace. The "present" occupies exactly as much space as this effort. ... In a word, our present falls back into the past when we cease to attribute to it an immediate interest. ...
     An attention to life, sufficiently powerful and sufficiently separated from all practical interest, would thus include in an undivided present the entire past history of the conscious person -- not as instantaneity, not like a cluster of simultaneous parts, but as something continually present which would also be something continually moving: such, I repeat, is the melody which one perceives as indivisible, and which constitutes, from one end to the other -- if we wish to extend the meaning of the word -- a perpetual present, although this perpetuity has nothing in common with immutability, or this indivisibility with instantaneity. What we have is a present which endures.
Quoted from The Creative Mind; An Introduction to Metaphysics, by Henri Bergson (Citadel, NY; 1992) pp 149-152. This is a reprint of a lecture he gave at Oxford University in 1911. I don't find a web site with a version in English. Here's a link to one in French: You might also look at Bergson's Creative Evolution which treats the same subject. (I think it's what Bergson is referring to when he says he has dealt with the question of duration elsewhere.)

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