Murphy’s Law has an irritating habit of striking when we least desire it. You’re desperate to get home and you get all reds, or miss your train by a quirk of fate. You’re in a tearing hurry and drop your toast buttered side down on the carpet. Or in my case, you relaunch the blog and find that, the next day, your computer has ceased to function.
Of course, we noticing things that go awry is nothing new. Since the dawn of man, things have gone for and against us in varying degrees. We do like things going for us, but when things go against us, how often do we say “This always happens,” when in point of fact it doesn’t? How often do we look at something bad occurring and wonder why nothing good ever happens? The answer is simple: good things do happen to us. We just don’t notice them, and we hardly ever have.
But good things are not particularly my concern here. Nor too, specifically bad things, though bad things are more illustrative of my point. My point is more along the ideas of coincidence and conspiracy. Coincidence is the occurrence of two or more events, in close proximity in time, that occur by simple chance. For example, a coincidence would be you running into a friend on the way to university, or work, or the pub without there being any contact between you and said friend. Conspiracy is a series of actions willed by a group of conspirators for the purpose of bringing about a result, usually of a nefarious nature. A benevolent example of this would be the throwing of a surprise birthday party – everyone is in on the conspiracy except the one who is being surprised, namely the birthday boy (or girl).
As with all things, one can never rule out either conspiracy or coincidence. In the case of my computer, my graphics card decided it preferred death to continued service. There are three possible explanations that present themselves to my Catholic mind:
- Pure and simple coincidence: the graphics card is now about five years old. These things do have a limited lifespan, and my card just reached the end of its span.
- A conspiracy of diabolical spirits (more popularly known as fallen angels, or devils), permitted by the Divine, to test my patience and fortitude through the malfunction of my computer’s graphics card.
- A conspiracy of the Divine Will and its servants (the Heavenly Host and the Church Triumphant) to bring about conditions favourable to my progression on the road of salvation.
Three possibilities, two of which are conspiracies, and none of which I can declare the absolute and utter truth.
You see, the precise cause of this malfunction does not really matter to me. The specific causes and players are by their nature unknown to me. The only thing that matters is what I do now with my broken computer. You see, it could only be option one. But it could be two, or even all three. Frankly, my computer has been something of a plague on my life, exacerbating my spiritual form of Asperger’s syndrome (Ooo! Shiny!). Thus this occurrence has been rather providential in providing me some breathing space to push my life a bit further along. I must therefore hold that none of these options are exclusive of the other two, and therefore, cannot eliminate any causes from conspiracy or coincidence, either in timing or in intent.
Now, I know this talk of angels and devils has something of an appearance of madness to it, but let me consider then the alternate views that are espoused. I know some of these views – I used to hold them, and to some extent still do.
The first of the two alternate views is the one that I held. Namely, I did not acknowledge Divine Will or diabolic influence, and so I eventually developed two options when whatever computer I was on malfunctioned:
- Mere coincidence,
- The computer itself had some form of sentience and was thus liable to be truculent unless dominated.
It is well to note that the second option is what leads to the phenomenon of percussive maintenance. As we shout and strike at disobedient children, and so we do the same to the computer. We strike it and shout at it as though it were sentient, even when it isn’t even turned on, as though we might cow it into doing our bidding.
In short, we acknowledge a ghost in the shell without acknowledging the ghost, and thus those who hold this view, regardless of their actual religious belief (or lack thereof), may be roughly termed Pagans. Many people hold this view because they have given it little to no thought at all. I did not come to view angels and devils and the Divine as active until I started to learn about my faith and how the material and spiritual creations interact. In fact, largely, this is indicative of the reality of a spiritual creation beyond the experience of our five senses, as largely this view arises by instinct unexamined by intellect. Instinct only arises where there is some reality to respond to. If there were no spiritual realm, we would therefore have no cause to anthropomorphise our computers (or to make gods of the weather, for a more ancient example).
This view is most likely the view most people today hold. But there are also two more options, more purely material. I refer, in this case, to the Conspiracy Theorists and what I call the Coincidentalists.
Both Conspiracy Theorists and Coincidentalists would present two options once again for the malfunction of the computer:
- Pure coincidence
- Malevolent conspiracy for world domination and conquest of which the person whose computer has malfunctioned is aware and who is in danger of being silenced by the malevolent conspirators who have sabotaged said person’s computer.
It is worth noting that those who view things in purely material terms can be almost perfectly split between Coincidentalists and Conspiracy Theorists. For the Coincidentalists, everything is coincidence, random chance, pleasant or unpleasant, not to be dwelt upon but merely accepted in resigned powerlessness. For the Conspiracy theorists, the simple occurrence of a computer malfunction acts as proof of the conspiracy’s reality. No innocent explanation of the occurrence will do because, if you’re in on the conspiracy, you would say that, wouldn’t you?
And that is why Chesterton is so refreshingly lucid in Orthodoxy, by declaring these people to be the true madmen. Their madness is not a loss of reason, but rather a loss of everything but reason. All sense of perspective and knowledge of human nature is ignored in favour of a self-centred worldview in which the theorist becomes the hero of some international best-selling thriller novel along the lines of The Da Vinci Code (which I am still yet to read. The Divine Comedy doth beckon first!). They prefer a worldview so material, so reasonable, so logical, so realistic, that it can only be described as unrealistic fictional, for alas the world is not reasonable, or particularly logical by the everyday sense of the term. It is a mistake committed also by the Coincidentalist to just as sad an end, though the mistake itself occurs at a lesser degree.
Take, for instance, any field of physics with “quantum” in the field title. It is bound to be at times illogical and unreasonable. Empty space is abuzz with imaginary particles that exist without existing. Science herself screams that the universe conforms to a logic and reason that does not correspond to our own everyday concepts of these words. Science demands order, and there is order in the universe, for by its nature, without order, there could only be nothingness. But that order, as scientists have come to find over the last century, is one that does not conform to any logic that we could have easily devised or expected. Though this is far truer of physics and mathematics than it is of chemistry and biology, even biology itself must admit that the logic of evolutionary theory and the origins of life baffle our forms and methods of logic.
I will not accord to God what science may yet discover about the origins of life. Coincidence and Divine will are, as I have said earlier, non-exclusive possibilities, and I will not know the full truth of the matter unless and until I am with Him who made me. It should be interesting to know the process, for it would be and undoubtedly beautiful thing to know. But we should certainly accept that logic and reason as we know it in our everyday lives does not so well apply to the universe at large.
But my ultimate point here is not what the particular options are insofar as computers and the malfunctions are concerned. Though I am a Catholic and was once in ignorance of spiritual realities, in neither case did the actual possible causes of my computer difficulties and malfunctions cause me any great angst or loss of time. In short, I, consciously or unconsciously, acknowledged the influence of the Divine and diabolical in my computer in some way, but never allowed it to subtract from my life (or at least, not very much). Either way, it was a healthy view to take, and whether your view is Catholic or Pagan, so long as it is one of these, it is still quite healthy as you take neither a denial nor too great an interest in such influences diabolic.
No, the unhealthy views are those of the materialists, the Conspiracy Theorists and the Coincidentalists. The Coincidentalists close their minds and thus close themselves, shutting up the fullness of their own life and retreating behind a wall of solitude. They are deserving of pity, for they ultimately accept only despair in the face of random chance or predestination, neither of which they can see themselves opposing. It leads one ultimately to a nihilism and a view of pointlessness to existence.
But the Conspiracy Theorist has by far the least healthy view on these matters. They simultaneously deny the spiritual reality of the diabolic (or the ghost in the shell; however one phrases the view, the underlying concept is ultimately still the same), while at the same time taking far too great an interest in the effects of these same spirits in the disconnected and disparate actions of people whom the conspiracy theorists accuse of being conspirators in their narrative. Truly, C.S. Lewis was right to say that the devils are pleased by either error (of disbelief in their existence, or too great an interest in them) but I doubt even Lewis could have foreseen that the materialist would someday find some way to commit both errors at the same time.
Ultimately, the fruits of these perceptions are the true test of their healthiness for us. Those of us who acknowledge some spiritual reality that impinges on and influences our own material reality, however unconsciously such a view is held, are those who are well adjusted people, often quite sociable: ourselves; our families; our neighbours; our friends. Whether Catholic or Pagan, it matters not; it is more natural for us to live with an acknowledgement of the spiritual realm than it is to live without. To deny the spiritual creation in materialist reduction, one is left unfulfilled or paranoid, completely overthrown in the intellect regardless of one’s final position, which leads to despair and withdrawal. Humanity is made for communion. I should expect even an atheist to concur. And from that, we can see that the fruits of the materialists are far poorer than those of even the most unconscious of the pagans.