Can'tibration: What do you mean, you can't?

Dinner at an all-you-can-eat restaurant last week reminded me how fundamentally ambiguous the word can is. Its meaning falls between “want to” and “can endure without dying,” just as, conversely, the word need falls somewhere between “want” and “will die without.” Imagine an all-you-can-eat restaurant with a reverse bouncer, a big galoot who won’t let you go until you've stuffed the last non-fatal morsel down your gullet.

Our sliding-scale “can” is the frequent focus of comedy: The hapless friend says, “I can’t possibly drive you guys to Mexico,” and in the next scene he’s driving them. The wannabe spy says, “I absolutely can’t tell you the secret.” The interrogator brandishes a gun and can’t suddenly becomes can.

I bring this up because one framing of the science vs. religion debate is stuck on the question of how much reality people can tolerate. The answer depends on which can we’re talking about. The poet Czeslaw Milosz contributes this proposition:

If there is no God,
Not everything is permitted to man.
He is still his brother's keeper
And he is not permitted to sadden his brother
By saying there is no God.

You can’t sadden your brother who can’t stand the thought that there is no god.  In isolation this poem seems to say it all, which is why it warrants a counter-proposition:

If there is no God,
Not everything is permitted to man.
He is still his brother’s keeper
And he is not permitted to sadden his brother
By hurting people in the name of God.

You can’t fight on behalf of god because your brother can’t stand being hurt.

If there is no god, one problem is this business about “not permitted.” By whom? The deeply religious would tell you to find God, or you won’t be permitted to go to heaven. You’ll be doomed to an eternity in hell. Increasingly, the scientific would tell you to face reality and abandon fantasies about God, or we all won’t be permitted to survive. The combination of religious parochialism and WMDs is ultimately fatal. You’ll doom humanity to hell. 

And there is no God to tell you which “not permitted’ prevails. There’s only the law. And the law covers only the consequences of beliefs. Suicide bombing for God is illegal. But to believe in a God that encourages suicide bombing or foreign wars is permitted and even sometimes encouraged.

From an objective perspective, religion is not performing well these days. From an empathetic perspective, one can’t help but feel cruel for being critical of religion. Sure, there’s the god of the scientific gaps—the god employed to fill in the gaps in our understanding of how things work. And sure, that god is shrinking as science explains more and more. But there’s also the god of the optimism gaps—the god employed to maintain optimism in the face of ruthless discouragement.  It seems callous not to permit this god to people who are suffering, people who in effect say, “I can’t live without God. I need God.”

And you try to figure out which kind of can and need these are.  Are they even trying?  Can the people who have come to need God get over him if it were necessary to survival?

We can’t stand something until we discover something else that we can’t stand even more. Some of us discover such a something else earlier than others of us. Nonbelievers are the most likely to notice that faith’s worse than death before the true believers do.

I once had the opportunity to put it point-blank to a group of religious people. I was giving the closing presentation of a science and religion conference on the origins of purpose. Loyal Rue, a philosopher of science and religion, had argued in his opening speech that science may end up concluding that “purpose is real, but has no ultimate purpose,” meaning that your various hopes and aspirations do make a real difference in the universe, but they aren’t differences the universe hopes and aspires to make. God doesn’t endorse or dis-endorse your goals. God doesn’t give you your god-given purposes.

In my closing presentation I asked for a show of hands: If you found out that purpose was purposeless—that this was true by your own standards of evidence—how many of you would be devastated? How many could adjust to the news and stick with your purposes anyway? In a room of 300, only one or two raised their hands that they couldn’t stand it; they would be devastated. Granted, the audience was mostly Unitarian. I don’t think I would have gotten the same response with fundamentalists. 

But maybe it depends on circumstances.  Maybe even fundamentalists facing some of our new big bouncer galoots—these new man-made acts of god—could adjust.

He says, “I just can’t,” and you think,
“Well, maybe we’re just out of sync
with how we define
the word can’t, and that’s fine.
I’ll recalibrate mine in a wink.”


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