The presumption that we can understand the universe seems to be the single most absurd belief that human beings have formulated. Part of the problem with the question seems to hinge on how the word “understand” is interpreted. For the purposes of this article I will be using the word in a similar way that Robert Heinlein uses the word “grok” in his book Stranger in a Strange Land. To grok something is to comprehend something with all of one’s being. I can understand that human beings have 10 fingers, but I grok what it means to have and be able to use those fingers myself. They are a part of me and I know them to be incontrovertibly true. I understand my fingers in a pre-verbal, visceral way that can’t and doesn’t need to be explained. When someone watches a game of basketball they may understand that the goal is to put the ball in the hoop or that they have to dribble when moving or the fact that there are two sets of five different players on the court, etc. If you asked a person who knew this whether they understand the game, they would probably say “yes”. However, they certainly do not grok the game in its fullness. They do not know what its like to make an impossible shot or look up at an official for a brief second with the anticipation of a charge or blocking foul or to dive on the floor for a loose ball or any of the millions of possible experiences that could exist in a basketball game. They may hear the words but they don’t feel the music.
This problem of “understanding” relates to how our culture and many others tend to interpret the EVERYTHING. Often, humans are given two choices as if they reflected the only possible paths to groking the EVERYTHING in its fullness. We get a choice of science/reason/rational thinking or faith/spirituality/belief. I find neither of these answers to be helpful. Science has brought us many creations and understandings over the years. Scientists have given language to experiences like gravity. This language has allowed us to change how we perceive life. Without these understandings, many of the wonderful things that exist in our world (everything from flight to the internet) would not exist. Reason has brought us to heights never dreamed of by our forefathers. It has also brought us terrors never before imagined (germ warfare, nuclear annihilation). For my purposes, neither of these points is relevant to the question. Science has brought us to a place where we never believed we could be and the power of its creation has made us think that its potential for discovery is as infinite. I believe that science has limits. Heinlein gets the limits of science perfectly when Valentine Michael Smith (the protagonist in Stranger in a Strange Land) asks “How can you grok a desert by counting its grains of sand?” Science can create marvelous tools to manage parts of the physical world, but to grok it in its fullness there seems to be a need for something more. The explanation that love or joy or sorrow are nothing more than a few synapses firing in different directions seems woefully inadequate to explain us, let alone the interplay of billions of sentient creatures. There must be more.
But is that “something more” a belief in something beyond our understanding (a higher power?). Many people believe that God is an all-powerful; omniscient being that controls the universe. But if God is all-powerful and omniscient how could flawed, miniscule beings ever expect to understand anything about this God? How can we possibly grok something that is admittedly beyond our understanding? The idea itself seems bizarre. People often chalk up experiences to being “part of God’s great plan”. But, if we don’t completely understand what God’s plan for us is how can we possibly understand that an action is part of the plan? Why do those of faith assume that there is a greater reason for the things they do not understand? Maybe there is and maybe they are right but how would they know? We are given a scant few highly conflicting religious texts. Can it really be assumed that everything a person needs to know about the universe can be summed up in the Bible or another religious text? Many people believe this. I think the mistake in this is to assume that this thing can be understood using a book. One book, millions of books, cannot sum the EVERYTHING up. It is still greater than the whole of human knowledge, let alone the contents of one book. Belief often seems to function as a great off switch in the mind. We see something so beautiful or horrible or absurd that the mind says “Uncle!” and we give ourselves over to a belief that there must be some meaning to it that we are missing. But, how do we know that anything actually has a meaning? We can hope, we can wish, we can pray, but we can never know. We just chalk it up to an act of God or the workings of spirits that we can never conclusively prove to anyone including ourselves.
What troubles me about faith is not its deferment to a higher power but its willingness to concede truths to those who have come before or us or to books written before our time. Sometimes I wonder if the worship of God is merely the worship of the past. Maybe we are just harkening back to an illusory time where a more pious people than ourselves who knew more than us were able to connect with some great force in the sky and reveal its truths. Some religious folks look back to Moses or Jesus or Mohammad or a cast of many other characters and assume that they knew enough not only to understand their world but also to understand ours. I have a hard time believing that any person can possibly understand the world they are thrust into. The thought that a person who walked the earth 2000 years ago can not only understand his world but also understand mine seems highly unlikely. What if they are right? It doesn’t really matter because I can NEVER know for certain.
The “central” question faced by human beings is not spiritual or scientific but epistemological. How can we ever really know what we know or that we even know it? We are given limited and barbaric tools, our senses, in which to meet the world. These senses are easily fooled and can be manipulated by inside or outside forces. Yet I can’t even say for certain that anything is an illusion. If I spent a hundred lifetimes, I don’t know if I could grok in fullness the experiences that take place in one moment in one American town. And yet, somehow, humans feel it possible to understand the wholeness of everything. Science and religion fail to give the correct answer because they are asking the wrong question. The question is often posed as “How can we understand the universe?” (….and we get to choose between spirit and reason or some hybrid of both). The question should be “Can we understand the universe?” I simply don’t know that we are capable of this understanding. If we are capable of this feat of comprehension I don’t know that we can ever, for certain, know that we are capable of it. How would we know? What is our point of reference? How would we ever no for sure that our beliefs are not based on illusions or misinterpretations? We don’t know for certain and, yet, so many of our institutions, be they religious or secular, function on the belief that we know for certain how things are going to work out if we take certain actions or do things a special way. This belief pervades our churches, our hospitals, our schools and our homes. Our value judgments, our morality and our understandings are constantly shaded with the haughty taint of false understanding. Really, we know next to nothing. Maybe the only thing it is possible for us to completely understand about the universe is that we don’t understand the universe.
Lately, I have found myself more and more interested in the Christian idea of hell. Maybe it’s the awful chill of winter. Maybe I’ve been listening to a bit too much black metal. I’m not quite clear what has put me on this mental course, but I have spent a good amount of time thinking about what it would actually be like to be in hell. I don’t even really believe that hell exists. I am not completely against the idea, but I accept that I have no way of possibly proving its existence or non-existence to myself, so I just figure I’ll find out after I die. That is not the part that really interests me. What I want to know is what, assuming that hell is real, would torment a human for eternity.
In the Book of Matthew, we are warned to “be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” To be honest, I find this quote a bit odd. This implies that we take our body with us to hell. If this is true, one must wonder what that thing in the casket back there on earth is. Is that a wax replica of us at the funeral while the real body goes to hell? Is your body snatched out of the coffin and sent to hell the minute you enter the ground? (But then, what happens if they dig you up?) Does God duplicate our body and send that one to hell while the real one is on earth? Is the body I am currently in an illusion and my real body somewhere in the ethers waiting for judgment? In that case, can I blame the illusion body for the sins committed on earth? After all, the earth body did the things I am getting sent to hell for. As the eloquent, renowned philosopher Silkk The Shocker once said, “It ain’t my fault!!!”
If it is just your soul in hell, that opens up another can of worms. I can specifically tell you that the conditions of hell would be awful on my body, but I can’t predict what extreme heat would do to my soul. No part of the Bible mentions the soul having nerves, so why should we expect that it would feel pain in the way the body does? If it is physical, it is capable of feeling physical pain, but I have not often heard the soul described as a physical thing. It is usually thought to be a spiritual entity independent of the flesh. Most descriptions of the soul are of the ghost in the machine variety, where the soul is a non-physical being that steers our body around then hops out when the body is no longer sentient.
In order to move forward with this line of questioning, I’ll pick the most likely scenario, which is that the soul just recreates your body once you get to hell. There is no reference to this happening in the Bible, but this explanation gets my body in hell, which for the purposes of this argument, is where I want it. Then, we run into another problem. Revelation says that you shall be tormented “forever and ever”. If hell is supposed to be eternal, how can the body and soul be destroyed? I mean, once you are destroyed isn’t that it for you? If the torment of hell is supposed to be eternal, how can it be that you are destroyed? Revelation refers to hell as “a second death“, but what happens after the second time you die. Do you continue to go to new hell after new hell? Do you die and wake up again?
Let’s assume that my body and soul are now in hell which is described in the book of Revelation as being “the lake of fire and brimstone”. I think that would be really terrible…for a while. The thought of an extended amount of time in extreme heat is an awful thought. 20, 30 years would be gruesomely terrible. 100, 200 years would be worse. But, after some point, wouldn’t I just get used to it? I mean, the thought of eternal fire is terrible, but eternity is a long time. My immediate reaction would be a period of unbridled misery. But, after a while, wouldn’t I forget what normal earth temperature felt like and become hardened to the torrid warmth? After a period of time, wouldn’t I get used to the pain? I don’t think this would happen right away, but we are talking about eternity here! Even if time is different between hell and earth, there has to be some point where a person accepts their surroundings, no matter how miserable. To understand this phenomenon, imagine a thought experiment where from the age of 15 to the age of 100 a person named Bob was awakened by a right hook to the face thrown by Mike Tyson. Day after day, Bob is waylaid by a vicious shot the skull from the former champ. The first 10 or 20 years of this would be awful, but after some period of time wouldn’t Bob simply adjust and accept the beating as the way things are supposed to be. Bob would be able to brace himself and would build up a tolerance to this sort of abuse. Any brief survey of history would lead one to believe that humans have the miraculous ability to adjust to nearly any set of awful circumstances.
Another problem with hell as it’s currently constituted is that going to hell actually removes one of the most dreadful aspects of being alive…. death. In hell, one doesn’t really seem to have a rational reason to fear death. The terror that humans feel from never knowing for certain what the afterlife is has been removed. Dying in hell would be a relief to many who are stuck there. Endless, painless silence would seem to be a good deal better than eternal torture.
There are some basic structural problems with the idea of hell that I cannot quite reconcile. I’d like to believe that whole thing is just an idea created by humans to scare people into doing good, but maybe that is not true. However, if it is real, you have to question its effectiveness. I really have to wonder if it is the most efficient possible use of a sinner’s afterlife.