Sunday, September 5, 2010

Early thoughts

I have a rather clear memory of what might have been the first time I realised that I was capable of thinking. We were having a lunch with my family in the annex of our house, where we used to roast meat on Sundays. The conversation came to the subject of the existence of God, and whether it was possible to prove it or not. I said that I considered that such a proof was not even desirable since since according to Saint Paul's Apocalypse God would come back on Earth at the end of time if we managed by earthly considerations to prove that He's here, then that would be the end of time. My parents' and sister's reaction was that of surprise that such ideas could circulate in my head. This made me aware that a thought had been created within me that had not been introduced there from the outside.

Some years (?) later I came across Saint Anselme of Canterbury's "ontological argument" for the existence of God. Roughly, it resorted to the reductio ad absurdum and said that given that the Perfect Being must have all positive qualities, if He didn't exist, He would lack one of those qualities, namely the quality of existing. I imagined a refutation of it, which went as follows. If the existence of God could be proven, then we humans would have no choice but to believe in Him -- in which case He would also lack a quality, the generosity of letting His creatures decide freely if they want to believe in Him or not.

Beyond the naive scholasticism of those early thoughts, something in their spirit is still very much akin to what turns me on nowadays.

Had I pushed my reflections a bit further, I would have realised that I was dealing with an absurd absurdity. By the same type of reasoning it has to be true that God does exist but it must also be impossible for us to prove it. How can this be? And then of course it's Godel's incompleteness theorem that comes to mind. (Godel who btw wrote down an ontological proof of his own using modal logic, which he kept secret until he thought his last days had arrived...)

PS: Those memories came back to me today while I was playing with the following thought:
"The meaning of life is to search for the meaning of life."
I like it because of its circularity and because it's contradictory in the sense that it implies that were we to actually find the meaning of life it would be gone. In fact it's also contradictory in the sense that it undermines its own content: it gives you the meaning so why search for it? The entire substance of the sentence is sucked in by the word "search", which then operates just like a minus sign in an equation. One could for example symbolise it abstractly as

\[ \infty - \infty = 0.\]

I fancy writing it in repetitive style as well:
" The meaning of life
is to search for the meaning of life
is to search for the meaning of life
is to search for the meaning of life."
Just like that.

PPS: the etymology of the word "search" is agreeable since, along with chercher in French and cercare in Italian, it comes from the Latin word circus, the circle. :) Should we push the perversity yet another step further and replace it by the word "research"?