Tag Archives: Philosophy

A Library of Babel

I’m going to make an educated guess.

What education qualifies you to make this guess, you ask? Well, I don’t really know, but let me have my fun.

I sure don’t want to presume anything about you, but I’d guess that you – like me – have sometimes wondered, “What’s the point? Why am I here? And what am I supposed to do about it?”

Not a bad guess, right?

We’re not going to crack that case today. It’s my personal conviction that those most certain that they’ve solved the riddle of existence are those farthest from the truth – if there is one. I’m what is usually called an agnostic. I’m also very much a skeptic – in Christian tradition, I relate most closely with Thomas. Show me the holes in your hands and I’ll hear you out.

My specific strain of agnosticism, by the way, is labelled agnostic theism: I live in the presence of a God I believe in, but consider my belief essentially impossible to prove. I’m a Thomas who loves his God, but doesn’t expect to meet his Savior. Instead, I seek to know God in the details of experience on a daily basis, and also through exposing myself to a wide variety of stimuli. Over the years, I’ve taken a share of both pleasure and pain; I have found knowledge and comfort in the concrete world around me.

There was a time when I sought God in the Christian faith. It was the faith I was raised in, and came naturally. I hold no grudge, today – but neither do I trust the answers I found there. In my mind, every human system is fallible. I don’t hold any of them in contempt for being so. I simply can’t walk that way, myself.

I know, I know – it’s not a human system, say the Christian, the Muslim, the Hindu; the fundamental truth lies in the conveyed word of God, or gods. I say: every written tradition, or story passed on through generations, is the work of man. The only God I know is written in the wind, the earth, and the hearts of the people I love. This God may even have something to tell me through the good and evil that man does – but God is not written on a page, nor defined by the wagging of a tongue.

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Imagine with me, for a moment, what our world would be like if it were one vast library. And not just our planet, but the entire universe. Imagine a library larger than our universe.

It would take all the space we know to exist – and more – to contain the library described by Jorge Luis Borges in his 1941 short story The Library of Babel. He writes about a library where people are born and live out their days – a library filled with 410-page books. The books contain every possible variation of 25 characters that could take place in their pages, and no two books are the same. The possibilities are endless.

I’ve been fascinated with the story since I first read it about five years ago. I’ve gathered a few things from it that are illustrative of the search for meaning in life.

(1) Much of what we experience in life is without greater meaning. I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason, or that my actions will resound down the corridors of time. I believe that life is meant to be lived for the time it lasts, and that I ought to be pursuing the fullest experience possible. When I die, do I transcend? Will we find one another in the afterlife? Do I become spirit, or am I given a new body and a fresh go of it here on Earth? I don’t know and, frankly, I don’t intend to find out for a while yet. In the meantime, I only want to seek happiness for myself and my loved ones.

(2) There is meaning in the details. Sometimes, I encounter something or someone that becomes very special to me. It’s not every day, but once in a while I find something that I want to hold on to. It’s my conviction that these special moments, places, things and people are worth nurturing – they have meaning and value in and of themselves. My idea of a life full of meaning and purpose is in the pursuit of my innermost goals, and in the promotion of life and love and wellbeing. I don’t need to look for a greater significance when I can find glory in the smile of a child.

(3) I construct my own destiny. All of us must pass on from this life eventually. Because I don’t know what lies on the other side of death, my destiny is all in the present. My fate engulfs me from moment to moment. I choose to build a path of meaning and significance within my own framework every day, and look for opportunities to enrich my experience with family, friends, work, and recreation. I try to honor the Golden Rule in any way I can: to do for those around me what I would have them do for me. I’m far from being a flawless example of the idea, but I know what I’m aiming for.

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With Kierkegaard, I feel that to embrace without doubt is credulity, not faith. Faith is the belief in something that I know cannot be seen, touched, or proven – it is a deliberate choice to trust in the power of forces beyond my comprehension.

Do I believe myself king of my world? Certainly not. So who’s in charge? I don’t know – but I seek God’s hand in my life from day to day. And while I do that, I never forget that I’ve got two hands of my own.

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Like Tears in Rain

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time… to die.

Such are the last words of Roy Batty, lead antagonist in the film Blade Runner. They always make my spine tingle. Maybe I am imagining myself in black empty space, seeing the c-beams glittering beneath me. Maybe it’s the romance of a forsaken creature, a Frankenstein’s monster superior to its own maker.

Maybe it’s the struggle for freedom, a fight that ultimately ends in Batty’s death, and Deckard’s redemption. On that consideration, hear Rick Roderick:

I will call to your mind a scene from Blade Runner, where before the replicant dies, he slams his hand on a nail (and many of you may not know this), but when Batty does that in the film, it’s a reference to an action that Sartre has a character perform in “Roads to Freedom”. In “Roads to Freedom”, the Sartre character slams his hand onto a nail to prove that he is free. Because he chose to do it. It hurt like hell, but he chose it. I put my hand on that nail, and that shows I am free, because just as a calculus of deterministic pleasure I would never have done it. It’s a philosophical demonstration… a painful and stupid one in my opinion… but by the time we get to Blade Runner, the replicant slams his hand onto a nail just to feel anything. Just to feel anything.

When the attempt for immortality finally falls through, man must settle for memory; in Batty’s case, he chooses to leave what is left of himself pass into the hands of his enemy- his best bet in his hope of being remembered. In a sense, he chooses to live on through Deckard.

Would you want to live forever? Many people believe they will, in a spiritual sense. Do you have a belief in that respect? If not, how do you deal with the reality of death?

I am currently struggling with the sense that my grandparents- my boys’ great-grandparents- are coming to the close of their days. They may have five, ten- maybe fifteen- years remaining. But as life comes to its dusk, the odds stack higher and higher against us. How much longer, I ask myself, do I have these two wonderful old folks to share with my new family?

They meant so much to me, growing up. But you see, their legacy will continue in us. This is what Batty wanted. This is what he chose to do, exercising his ability to will: when I die, on day, I want to have chosen just the same; to have chosen, throughout my life, to draw my loved ones close and give them a legacy worth passing on.

Hear, now, Anthony Pate:

In contrast to Deckard is Roy Batty, the leader of the renegade replicants and Deckard’s doppelganger. Both men suffer the same pains – lack of knowledge and security about the natures of their identity and existence, the soul-deadening toll of their labors, their dissatisfaction with their circumstances and their subsequent inability to reconcile themselves to and master their reality. But unlike Deckard, Batty refuses to languish in inertia and depression because of the circumstances of his reality. Batty aims to do something – whatever he can – about it. Like Deckard, Batty is a murderer too. But unlike the murders Deckard commits for his job, which reflect his jaded dissociation and institutionalized impersonality, Batty’s murders are raw and impulsive, emotional and purposeful. They are also, in Batty’s mind, righteous.

A major symbolic element in Blade Runner is the eye: its reoccurrence throughout the film tends to indicate perceptions in general; and, more specifically, self-perception. Remember Jung’s Persona, the mask we develop as a representation of the Self- a representation that is so intimate that even we believe it to be ourselves? Blade Runner asks the question: what is it to be human- and what is an imitation? Does the difference between the two really matter?

To me, it does. I know that to some extent I am formed by the world I have developed in- the peers, situations and reactions around me have greatly influenced who I am now. I also believe that to a large extent I am capable of creating myself, of shaping myself into whoever I want to be. Does any of this make me false? I thought so, once. Now I accept it as fact.

I am a mixture of my environment, my upbringing, and my own devices. I may also be, at some level, programmed from birth. I don’t really understand how all these elements interact. There must be a healthy balance somewhere, a fine line where I can see myself as acceptable before God, so to speak: a whole and good person, redeemed in the process of refinement that experience provides.

It is my inclination to believe also that only once we have begun to accept ourselves as we are, beneath the mask, are we able to gauge with any accuracy the legacy that we are producing. I am Dan Parrington, stepfather, husband, son, grandson. I am Dan Parrington, straight-A student, dropout, reader, writer. I am also Dan Parrington, sometimes fearful, often in my own world, always sensitive to the needs and opinions of those around me.

A lifespan is what it is. I hope I can use mine wisely. I hope I can leave something good for those left behind. I fear the time when my predecessors’ mantles fall onto my shoulders, but I also intend to be ready. What about you?


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