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The maples, wicks of autumn, go to cinder from the top down, the blaze on most trees past its prime, now mostly scattered at our feet. The plant kingdom burns brightly as it plunges into wintry darkness. A plunge into some outcome or another awaits us tomorrow, too. We can estimate what it might be – and we should. But as Ricochet Member @rodin reminds us, “none of us will ever know (or at least [not] for a long long time) whether the way we cast our ballot was better than the alternative.”
All this fall, I’ve had an unknown greater than the outcome of this election hanging over my head – or at least greater to me. One reason it’s greater is that I’m more responsible for it. However I vote, whatever I say, the outcome of this election is largely out of my hands. This other thing, though, is very much in my hands, or it’s supposed to be, and so the moral weight I bear for its unknown nature is far greater than the weight I bear for my vote.
Briefly, it’s a Thing That Gets Better on Prednisone, prednisone being a powerful anti-inflammatory steroid, medically miraculous for short-term use, but too dangerous for long-term use unless clear diagnosis warrants it. The Thing may be a congenital connective tissue disorder which was simply never caught. Or, it may not be. If it is, then the signs have been present for years, just overlooked, with much lost by not catching it earlier. If it isn’t, who knows? Unluckily for me, fresh disagreement on possible causes of the suspected disorder appears to have suddenly prompted several specialists to stop taking new patients: my GP and I arrived at this suspicion just in time get caught up in the chaotic reshuffling of medical knowledge that must periodically happen in order for medicine to advance, but which sure can seem like retrogression to those caught up in it. Somehow, I’m not surprised that I of all people should be rewarded for tardiness in this particular way.
Medical mysteries, at least when you’re one of them, are by their nature self-absorbing. Unpleasantly so, I find. In an age when so many of these mysteries can be solved, claiming an unsolved one for yourself sounds like weak sauce. Wimpiness. A lame excuse. And yet it’s there. Ignoring it for prolonged periods has not helped. Stoicism and optimism have not helped. Knowing what to do might help. But perhaps I will never know. Even in this day and age.
I have observed that devotees of philosophy and devotees of science frequently clash over notions of chance and chaos. To those of us whose background is scientific, philosophy types’ insistence that chance and chaos cannot be explained in mathematical language can seem… odd. And counterproductive. Because clearly, they can be! Our philosophy can only become poorer, not richer, if it ignores what mathematics really can do. Even so, there remains an absurdity to life, a morally “irrational surd”, as DB Hart puts it. If it is this absurdity that philosophers mean when they speak of “chance”, of “primordial chaos”, then perhaps I can finally agree with them on where they’re coming from:
In the beginning, when God created heaven and earth, there was darkness on the face of the deep, a sea upon whose face the Spirit of God had to move. That sea is the primordial chaos, Tiamat, the Leviathan. Surely, a God who created everything created the sea as well – He didn’t just find it there. There’s no room for a literal primordial chaos in the story of a God who created All. But even the godly cannot banish the absurd from their lives. Nor can the mathematically literate. Perhaps philosophers object to the scientific doctrines of chance and chaos because those doctrines might seem to render Tiamat, that vengeful goddess, meaningful, rational in a moral sense, not-absurd. Perhaps philosophers worry that the achievements of applied mathematics could be mistaken for a moral claim to have removed her – to have removed Unstory, absurdity – from human life. But obviously math has not! Votaries of these glittering mathematical doctrines may even have good reason to find life more absurd than ever.
So to @titustechera and perhaps to other assorted Ricochet philosophers, I concede, in case it was once in doubt:
Tiamat – that absurd goddess whom the ancient seers and poets called the sea, the sea which shall be no more when the first heaven and the first earth are passed away, and what remains before the throne is that other sea, like unto fire and glass, of uncreated light – is not a goddess meaningfully tamed by scientific notions of chance and chaos, notions which dance on her surface like light reflects off the water that rejects it. That science cannot banish the absurd from life is by no means a rejection of the insights science offers, or their power. Merely a rejection of comforting thoughts that “everything happens for a reason” in a manner knowable to the human mind, whether science or the revelation of faith is used to rationalize them.
Indeed, probability itself is the science of figuring out what we can infer knowing that we don’t know all the reasons. That cannot be a thought that sits comfortably with everyone, especially those who know how utterly arts like medicine and psephology depend on probability.
The human calling might be to sing beyond the genius of the sea, beyond the genius of the great and unblinking eye of utter ocean watching something other than our wars. But only a God, in apocalyptic re-creation, could rid us of that sea. I may be feeling seasick right now for largely personal reasons, facing personal absurdities that dwarf the absurdity of this election year precisely because I’m more responsible for them than I am for the election. For others, I suspect the seasickness is more electoral – being sick of trying to sing beyond the genius of something so… unknowable… “none of us will ever know (or at least [not] for a long long time) whether the way we cast our ballot was better than the alternative.” We give our best-informed guess – we should give our best-informed guess. It can be morally revolting to know that’s not the same as certainty.
Wednesday morning, I predict Tiamat will still be with us. Hopefully, a great deal will be settled by then, but even this election is not apocalyptic. Tiamat glitters. She reflects the light of reason because she rejects it. The sea that is luminous of itself awaits another age.Published in