A dinner conversation
I tried, half-seriously and without much success, to convince a mathematician I was seated next to at a dinner-lecture last night to attempt a book on the "mathematics of predestination". The conversation inevitably wandered to the subject of free will, and I remarked that whether it existed or not, all human beings were faced with at least the simulation of choice. If we can do nothing else in life, we can bet. There is, for example, Pascal's Wager. "The Wager posits that it is a better 'bet' to believe that God exists than not to believe, because the expected value of believing (which Pascal assessed as infinite) is always greater than the expected value of not believing." And we might as well bet because, I argued, one of life's jokes was whether or not we believed in God; and whether or not we were inclined to take up Pascal's Wager, circumstances inevitably force us into situations where we have to stake everything for an unknown payoff.
Consider, I said, the case of the Jerusalem security guard who chose to stop a suicide bomber from entering the supermarket he was watching in 2002. "Jerusalem's SuperSol supermarket was filled with last-minute shoppers stocking up for the Jewish Sabbath when the suicide bomber struck. ... One man, who arrived just after the explosion, described what he saw in an interview with Israel Radio. ... 'I understood that the guard did not let the terrorist in, and they were blown up together,' he said." How do you understand this tradeoff? It's an absurdity. What job could require a man to give up his life for a minimum wage? Yet the human condition often requires us to risk everything for the sake of ordinary things and people. In practice we are forced to behave as if everything depended on our choice. "We step out of the boat," I remarked to the mathematician, "in the midst of the storm just as if we were called out of it, and we don't know why we do it."
Today Jules Crittenden talks about how "an Iraqi man saved the lives of four U.S. Soldiers and eight civilians when he intercepted a suicide bomber during a Concerned Citizens meeting in the little town of al-Arafia.
“I was about 12 feet away when the bomber came around the corner,” said Staff Sgt. Sean Kane, of Los Altos, Calif., acting platoon sergeant of Troop B, 3-1 Cav. “I was about to engage when he jumped in front of us and intercepted the bomber as he ran toward us. As he pushed him away, the bomb went off.”
The citizen’s actions saved the lives of four U.S. Soldiers and eight civilians. Kane felt the loss personally because he had met and interacted with his rescuer many times before the incident. ...
“He could have run behind us or away from us, but he made the decision to sacrifice himself to protect everyone. Having talked with his father, I was told that even if he would have known the outcome before hand, he wouldn’t have acted differently.”
And like the Israeli security guard, it is hard to rationally reproduce any calculus in which this Iraqi man should risk so much for little. Yet both did it. Without knowing anything more, my guess is that if we could ask either why they took the bullet, neither would cite money, duty or country. I think both would answer that they did it for the oddest of reasons: that they did it for their friends. They did it for love.
On different days the moment came to each of them when they were forced to make a wager about the meaning of their lives; to answer in one moment the question to which all men are condemned by their freedom. They had to decide what life is all about; to set their few tomorrows against an uncertain call which they briefly strained to hear. Did they make the right choice? Who knows. But as Thornton Wilder once observed, there is nothing insane about hoping that life has meaning since you have to live it anyway.
Either we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan. Some say that we shall never know and that to the gods we are like the flies that the boys kill on a summer day, and some say, on the contrary, that the very sparrows do not lose a feather that has not been brushed away by the finger of God ...
But soon we shall die ... and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.