Finity

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Last updated: 21 September 2004 26 June 2004


This essay describes my religion, Finity.

Finity is an unusual religion in that it does not use the concept of infinity, hence the name. It does not preach the existence of beings of unlimited power and wisdom, or immortality of the soul, or transcendence, or divine mysteries beyond understanding.

Finity is based on my subjective observations of the experience of having a soul and on objective observation of how people behave. You may confirm or refute all of my conclusions through introspection and observation.

All religions require faith to be of benefit, and Finity is no exception. Faith is belief in your religion, and is brought about by introspection. Faith is not unreasoning, unreasoning "faith" is no faith at all -- a charade that brings no comfort. You do not get to decide what you believe. Though you may fool others, you can never completely fool yourself. You can only establish faith by proving to yourself that your religion is consistent with your experience of having a soul. This requires brutal self-honesty.

Souls are made of moments

You exist.

Did you exist a moment ago? Will you still exist a moment from now?

You have memories of having existed before this instant, so it's likely that you did exist in the past, and therefore it's likely you will continue to exist in the future.

  Clear winter morning,
  Soon i must remember
  Who i am.

        ...           * ...


But are you exactly the same person now as you were in the past? Will you be exactly the same person in the future?

No. You've experienced things now which you hadn't in the past which have changed you. You will undoubtedly experience things in the future that change you further. You are not immutable.

Your consciousness is made of a series of moments, one after the other. Calling this sequence of moments "you" is just a convenient way to group a set of events that have similar properties. I believe it is wrong to consider the soul an indivisible object, a thing that is continuous through time.

Each conscious moment is like a haiku. A haiku is just a few words strung together, it contains a finite amount of information, yet when you read a haiku you know that the writer experiences consciousness as you do. Similarly there is nothing infinite about consciousness. A single moment of sensation, or a single step of thought, is a finite thing.

You're having a conscious moment now, and now, and now, and now.

   ... * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * ... 


Does time always pass at the same rate?

No. Sometimes time flies by, at other times at creeps. This might be explained by the momentary experiences of consciousness being spread out or bunched closely.

  Rolling fields,
  Sun crawls across the sky,
  Lazy summer day.

   ... *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   ...

  
  Graceful ballet of physics,
  The car in front
  Braked too suddenly. 

   ... *********************************** ... 


Is the sequence an unbroken sequence?

No. Each time you are given a general anaesthetic, or are rendered unconscious, or even fall into dreamless sleep, is a gap in the sequence. A space of time in which "you" did not exist, in which your body had no consciousness.

   ... * * * *       * * * * *     * * * * ... 


Does the sequence have a start, an earliest moment of awareness?

Yes.

                                 * * * * * ... 


Does the sequence have an end?

Yes. When people die they stop being animated, they permanently stop showing signs of having a soul. Given that your soul can vanish temporarily, we must suppose it can vanish permanently. Some day you will die. Your sequence has an end. You are not immortal. No judgment after you die, no eternal happiness, no eternal torment, no reincarnation. You are finite. This here is all there is.

   ... * * * * * * 


It's more than a little terrifying.

Yet, if this is all there is, then this moment is real. It has value of itself. It is no mere prelude to future glory. Such meaning as you derive from each moment of your life is real and immutable. I find this reassuring.

Life after death is a flimsy idea, it lacks supporting evidence. Immortality is a wearying concept if one is doomed to forever strive for perfection. A finite life, however, has a certain elegance. An unfolding of consequences with a definite conclusion.


         * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 


Questions

"Why am I here?"

Asking this question isn't useful. You are here. What are you going to do about it?


"What should I do?"

This question is misleading. Ultimately what you do is up to you. You will do what you will do.


"What will I do?"

Bingo.

What you call "free will" is your capacity to surprise yourself. The experience of free will results from imperfect self knowledge (perfect self knowledge is probably impossible). In retrospect, you will be able to reflect on your decisions and work out your reasons for making them, or conclude that they were simply random.

What will you do?

If you consider the soul to be a thing that exists through time, it's natural to suppose that it will seek to look after itself, that what people do is try to maximize their own future happiness. Yet people frequently do not act solely for their own benefit. People frequently perform great acts of self sacrifice. This needs explaining.

If consciousness is momentary, a simpler theory is that you will try to create as many happy moments in the future as possible while minimizing moments of suffering. This fits better with people performing acts of altruism. But why do people often favour the welfare of their family or friends or nation or race or species over that of others?

You are more certain that people you know well have a soul. You have observed them for longer, in a variety of situations, and noted that their behaviour is similar to your own. From this you may induce that they too probably experience consciousness. This is no mere feat of reasoning, it's a gut level sensation that the person is real. You empathize. You feel their joy and you feel their pain as if it were your own.

Perhaps people you do not know are not conscious. If this were the case it would be a waste of effort to help them. Also, not knowing the specifics of what they need, you don't necessarily know how to help them. Thus you favour the welfare of people you know.


Buddhism teaches that every person has, at some time, been your mother. While not literally true, the sentiment has merit. Available evidence suggests that every person has a soul. So every person can be considered holy, every person is worthy of respect. It's an attitude worth developing.

Fast and slow

I noted earlier that your subjective experience of time can be fast or slow. This speed, besides distorting your sense of time, causes qualitative change in the nature of your consciousness.

When you go fast you think quickly, but your thoughts are narrowly focused. When you go slow you think slow, but your thoughts are less focused and you will be able to see things you would miss if going fast. This is why, for example, you often have ideas just before going to sleep or just after waking.

It's worth taking a moment every so often to note the nature of your thoughts and how fast you are thinking. The extent to which how fast you think changes what you think can be startling.

For any given situation there is an optimal speed: a speed where one thinks slow enough to see non-obvious solutions, yet fast enough to cope with the course of events. This speed is not top speed.


Excess speed can lead to tragedy. If you never slow down you can become obsessed with a single narrow way to solve problems, your fast but narrow mind never seeing the alternatives. It can seem logical to commit violence or murder to force others to comply with your solution. When it becomes clear that the single way you know of solving problems is failing, suicide can seem the only option. Such obsession can be infective, people can provoke each other to greater and greater mental speed. In the worst cases speed infects whole countries.

Our society has an obsession with speed. Everything must be faster, faster, faster. Work fast, play fast. In thinking fast we miss things. We get trapped in bad patterns. At speed, even trivial problems can appear to have no solution, no matter how hard you look at them. The result is an epidemic of pessimism, defensiveness, catastrophising, mental illness, chronic anxiety, stress, suicide. People trapped in narrow joyless ugly selfish lives.


Therefore:

Be aware of your mental speed.

Observe how your speed alters your style of thinking and decision making.

Be aware of the effect your speed has on other people.

Develop the ability to regulate your speed.

Make sure time in your day is set aside to go slow.

Forgive

From C.S. Lewis's essay "On Forgiveness":

Real forgiveness means looking steadily at the sin, the sin that is left over without any excuse, after all allowances have been made, and seeing it in all its horror, dirt, meanness and malice, and nevertheless being wholly reconciled to the man who has done it.

This is a rather good idea, I think, and worth appropriating. The key word here, from the point of view of Finity, is "steadily". When a bad thing has happened one often goes fast trying to correct it. However the past is immutable, the bad as well as the good, and nothing we do now can set it right. If we go fast for too long, our reaction is likely to be out of all proportion to what needs doing. Therefore, there must come a point (and often best sooner rather than later) where we look upon the past steadily, slowly, accept it and move on.

There is no concept of evil in Finity. The bad things that people do are mistakes, resulting either from inadequately developed empathy or from errors of reasoning. Sin does not require punishment, and punishment is impossible anyway -- the moment that "sinned" is ever receding into the past. Instead we should look for why people make mistakes, and either teach them a better line or reasoning or provide opportunities for them to enhance their empathy. (If neither of these is possible, we might as a last resort do something to prevent them from further bad acts.)

Where we see that we ourselves have made a mistake, we should state clearly and slowly (if only to ourselves) the essence of this mistake, so that we do not repeat it. Similarly, if another person is able to state clearly the way in which they have made bad choices, and if they are sincere in this statement, that is enough (note: this is always sufficient but not always necessary). Once a person perceives that they have made an error, they will seek to correct it.

Faith in other moments

When praying to God, people ask that He guide them so that they may be better people. Prayer is a quiet moment where you lay out how you fit into the big picture and open yourself to divine guidance. Prayer is the act of placing yourself in God's hands.

To devout people, God is not simply the Creator, He is a constant presence in everyday life. Faith in God brings relief from worry. If you can trust that God will guide you and others, you need not try to solve all the world's problems. You can do your bit, confident that God will guide others to do theirs.


What if there's no God?


Prayer is a quiet moment where you lay out how you fit into the big picture. The essence of prayer is slowing and therefore broadening your mind.

All people have the same goal, to create happiness and minimize suffering. This is your goal, and will continue to be your goal in the future -- your future self and all other people are working towards the same goal as you are. You need only do your bit, confident that other people, and yourself in the future, will do theirs.

Have faith in other conscious moments, consider each one holy.






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