Saturday, July 22, 2006

Once upon a time...

Once, while I was involved in some courtyard evangelism and apologetics in college, I began talking with a Hindu. He was a convert, a pale-faced junior who had the fabled "zeal of a convert." He was tired of listening to the apologist we (my campus ministry, InterVarsity) had asked to come evangelize. He decided to try turning the tables. Specifically, he wanted to refute the Christian notion of the contingency and created finitude of the human soul (as a consequence of the Hindu belief that souls are eternal and eternally inseparable from Brahmin, All-That-Truly-Is). Raising his finger into the air (I kid you not), he presented his argument like so:

Imagine a time you won't exist in the future. Try to imagine ceasing to be.

He waited for this to sink in. The apologist, Cliff Knechtle, said he could do so easily. The pale-faced Hindu would have none of it.

"No, you can only conceive of being able to imagine your non-existence. You can't actually imagine not existing. You can imagine yourself dying, yeah, but that's just another event that you witness from an eternal perspective as your eternal self."

"So what's your point?" Cliff asked.

"So, that means your existence is axiomatic; you are eternal. So, God could have never "created" your soul."

Palpable was his desire for a few awed sighs to rise from the crowd. But, instead, after a few volleys of "Yes, I can," "No, you can't", Cliff moved on to other issues and other interlocutors.

But I decided to drift over to the pale-faced Hindu.

"I heard your argument for the eternal existence of souls," I said.

"Yeah," he answered.

"Well, can I approach it from a different angle?" I asked.

He knew I was a Christian, so he answered a little defensively, "Okay, what do you mean?"

"Well, you say my inability to imagine not-existing proves I've always existed, right?"

"Right. You simply know you're eternal, otherwise you could imagine not existing," he insisted.

"Well, perhaps," I replied. "But isn't it problematic that I can't really, vividly, frame-by-frame imagine my perpetual existence?" I asked.

He seemed as resistant as ever. "Don't molest my pet argument," his increasingly sunburned face warned.

"I mean, if I am eternal, and therefore exist timelessly in an eternal 'Now', then why can't I conceive of all such 'points' of existence as vividly as I experience each immediate, present moment?" I asked, genuinely curious to hear his reply.

He didn't offer any more cogent reply than his usual insistence that you really, honestly cannot imagine ceasing to be, even if it's with a fuzzy lens. I decided to move away from that tedious approach.

"Okay, anyway," I continued, "what about my inability to imagine myself existing for all time prior to my birth?"

"Huh?" he sniffed.

"Well, I mean, if I'm eternal, and if always 'seeing myself' in the future proves that, why can't I see myself always in the past?"

"No-- what do you mean?" he sniffed again.

"Well, I can easily imagine a world prior to my being, so doesn't that go against the idea that I've always existed?"

"No," he retorted, "no, it just means you can only imagine events from your birth onward."

"But I simply know I didn't exist in 1865 Gainesville, Florida," I replied in 2003 Gainesville, Florida. "From my perspective, which seems to be the key for you in all this, the two states of affairs -- Gainesville and then and now -- are simply, almost by definition, distinct by virtue of my birth having happened or not. One is a world with me in and the other is a world without me in it," I continued.

"Yes, but..." he tried to interject.

"And even if I 'witness' my past non-existence from the standpoint of my supposedly eternal 'now' existence, still my range of conscious, immediate witnessing only extends from now till the future."

"But if you can imagine a world before your birth, it just shows you were eternal then, too, just because you were 'there' to witness the past," he answered.

"No, it doesn't," I said, "since the whole point of your argument is that I, being eternal, can have personal, 'immediate' experience of hypothetical events in the future -- since I'm eternally 'there' to witness them."

"Right," he added, brightening a little.

"But for things prior to my birth," I went on, "and especially for total areas of amnesia about my childhood, I simply have no way of inserting myself into a world I never existed in. I can imagine doing so, yes, but only from this present point of view -- not as a hovering eternal ghost of msyelf-past," I tried to conclude. now."

He was getting irritated. "No, but you can still see yourself 'over' those past events! You can put yourself in them in your imagination because you existed eternally! Don't you get it?"

"No," I answered, "I simply see myself at this point reflecting on imaginary past conditions. The experience is not of the past, but of myself right now imagining the past. The appearance that we 'go on' eternally in the future is just because we imagine the future must be pretty much like now. I may imagine myself enduring psychically into the perpetual future, but there's no way I can go backwards the same way, since every 'experience' I have of the pre-me past is actually just an experience of life right now as I imagine the past. So, my eternal awareness of the past is really just an awareness of the present. I may be eternal in the future," I conceded, "which is actually just a Christian belief, but I can't experience the past eternally."

"Man, you don't get my point," he retorted.

"No, I guess I don't," I admitted. We parted ways; until now, when I dredged him up from memory lane.

I didn't bring it up then, but one other approach I would have liked to take with him is that of my imagined perpetual self. Assuming I really can't imagine myself not-being in the future, what does it mean that I also cannot imagine myself being different then? Why can I only imagine myself having the (facial, bodily or "mental") appearance that I have now? Try as I might, the self I imagine enduring eternally always has the face I have right now, gotif and all; otherwise all I see is just photo cutouts tied to my head. This being the case, does it mean my eternal self always has the appearance I have right now? How could this be, though, since I can imagine myself in the past with different appearances (in the mirror, in pictures, etc.), and since my past eternal self is presumably identical to my future eternal self?

Just thought I'd air that out.

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