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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

TOLSTOY: The Death of Ivan Ilych (Science, Job and Socrates)

Is it really true that no two snowflakes are exactly alike?  Scientists tell us that "Some things in Nature are exactly alike.  For example, our understanding of elementary particles indicates that all electrons are exactly, precisely the same.  This is one of the cornerstones of quantum physics, and if you think for a bit you will see that this is a profound statement."  That’s all very well but what do snowflakes and quantum physics have to do with the death of Ivan Ilych?  

Science can answer the simple questions: are any two snowflakes exactly alike?  No.  Electrons can be exactly alike but not snowflakes.  But if we ask another simple question: what happens after we die?  Science can’t help us there.  Why not?  It’s not a scientific question.  In fact, when Ivan Ilych was dying science wasn’t much help to him.  When he knew he was dying Ivan “wept on account of his helplessness, his terrible loneliness, the cruelty of man, the cruelty of God, and the absence of God.”  What answers can science give for these problems?  Ivan was asking things like "Why hast Thou done all this? Why hast Thou brought me here? Why, why dost Thou torment me so terribly?"  These are very human questions, even though "…He did not expect an answer and yet wept because there was no answer and could be none.”  What Ivan means is there are no scientific answers to these questions.  But men have been asking these questions long before science, long before Ivan Ilych came along.  They just didn’t look to science for answers.

When Ivan says "Go on! Strike me! But what is it for? What have I done to Thee? What is it for?" he’s asking the same question Job asked in the murky ages of the past.  Why am I hurting?  What have I done to deserve this?  Job was talking directly to God and God gave Job a direct answer.  The problems of helplessness, loneliness, and cruelty are problems science can’t solve.  Maybe there is no solution.  God’s answer to Job wasn’t really a solution.  God’s answer came in the form of questions directed right back at Job: where were you when I made the world?  Basically God asks Job: who are you to question me?  You’re in over your head.  That answer isn’t good enough for most people.  But it was good enough for Job.  His whole life was based on unshakeable faith in God.  Even though he couldn’t understand what was going on, Job never wavered in his belief that God is good and everything happens for a reason.  This is the kind of faith that most people, including Ivan, don’t have.  Job has much to teach Ivan about faith.

Science turns to nature for answers; religion turns to faith; but philosophy turns to reason.  Reason was the brand of philosophy practiced by Socrates.  When Ivan calms down and thinks rationally about dying “he grew quiet and… became all attention.  It was as though he were listening not to an audible voice but to the voice of his soul, to the current of thoughts arising within him.”  God spoke to Job out of a whirlwind but Socrates (and Ivan) have to listen for the small, still voice of reason.  This is where the voice of reason begins, by asking: what is it you want?  This is also where philosophy begins.  Ivan is just an amateur so his answer is the answer of an amateur philosopher: “I want to live and not to suffer.”  A more seasoned philosopher like Socrates would point out that mushrooms are alive.  And they don’t suffer.  Of course that’s not what Ivan wants.  He wants to go on living as he was living before.  Really?  And what was that like?  The voice inside the mind asks probing questions; the kind of questions Socrates asked.  He would ask why snowflakes never suffer; they just melt away and don’t ask questions.  But Ivan is a man.  He would ask Ivan how a man should live.  Men turn to science, religion, or philosophy for answers.  Men turn to quantum physics, or Job, or Socrates.  Snowflakes just turn into water.  If you think about it for a bit you will see that this is a profound statement.
-- Ron Perry


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