Thursday, July 14, 2005

Books and Free Will

I have been reading (a rough translation of) The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard lately. Here are some passages that peeked my interest; they focus on the ideas of free will and more specifically, the gathering of knowledge.

“All knowledge has something captivating about it; but on the other hand it changes the state of soul of the one who has it” (Kierkegaard, ed. Rohde, trans. Anderson 1960:100).

“For a thinker there cannot exist any anguish more horrible than having to live on in tension while detail upon detail is being accumulated, and all the time it looks as if the idea, the conclusion, would come the next time. If the physicist does not feel this anguish he cannot be a thinker. That is the terrible tantalus-torment of the intellectual! A thinker feels as if he is in Hell as long as he has not reached that certainty of the spirit...” (ibid pg97).

These two quotes, the editor decided to place under the heading of Natural Science (aka. physics). Kierkegaard argues against the folly of perusing natural science, because the knowledge it provides does not allow for the certainty of spirit. “This certainty of the spirit,” Kierkegaard says, “the most humble of all, the most offensive to the vain the only true certainty” (ibid). Kierkegaard talks about how faith in God provides more certainty of spirit than any answers that natural sciences could come up with.

I think that it has something to do with his creative punctuation, but Kierkegaard’s writings possess such depth of tone, that I can instantly discriminate between sarcasm and admiration.

I know these quotes are not directly related to free will, but it is mentioned in this section. Kierkegaard touches briefly on the idea that natural science, more specifically the branches we call biology and behaviourism, would remove all possibility of an individual’s freedom of will and render it down to nothing more than an illusion. Kierkegaard would have none of that seeing as his faith in God is strong, and God has given mankind freedom of choice (free will).

Today, I finished reading After Goodlake’s, by Terence Young. Mr Young taught me English Lit in high school. When I heard him reading from his new book on the radio a couple of months back, it was a bit like a time machine. The man is brilliant at teaching. He made Shakespeare come alive, almost as if the Bard could take possession of a person’s body every time a person read from a page. I did badly in the class, I think, but I loved it. I bought the book a couple of weeks later when I saw it sitting on the shelf in a bookstore I hadn’t intended to enter. I enjoyed the book a lot. The story takes place here, in Victoria, with a back drop the same as what I see everyday. Now, I feel weird leaving my house. I have all these other memories juxtaposed on top of my own. I see a building that I have never gone in myself, but am certain that it will be just like in this book. It is like I have transplanted the memories of others into my mind. It’s a bit, off-putting, but also, comforting and a little less lonely somehow.

A passage from the book that struck me as odd and has stuck with me throughout the day comes from right near the end. “Most, though, did not even register the delicatessen’s demise. Or, if they did, it wasn’t until much later, in the way that some people will not immediately recognize the theft of something familiar from their home – a wooden chair recruited only for Christmas dinners, for example, or a squat, serviceable pitcher – a thing that in its familiarity becomes almost invisible, and might as well not exist at all” (Young2004:654). Now, I can’t quite pin down what it is in this that catches my eye. At first I object strongly to something not needing to exist, as if by these words, it threatens my own very nature. At the same time, I think, how true. After that, things just start going to mud pies in my brain and I loose track of the words on the page. I have noticed that people do make the invisible familiar; like the expression my mother often accused me of doing, “taking her for granted.” I am very attentive of the familiar. Maybe because I am afraid that the day I “take something for granted,” will be the day I loose something vital to my style of life.

I am grateful to have known both Terence Young and his wife Patricia Young. They are both people who have a strong influence in my life, if only by being there briefly when I was young and impressionable. I wonder if they still live in town. Do they still have that wooden house where they can see the cherry trees blossom each march? Do they still teach? A lot of what I know of Terence Young shows through in his writing, especially in his style, and in the way he describes his characters ability to project their mind away from the here and now. This is a ability that isn't as common in the general population as one might hope. I wonder if any of the events in the story are a reflection of his life.

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