Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Earth As a Reference Point: A Tribute to Earth Day

Is this shuttle pointing up or down?

The case could be made for either but the argument wouldn't ultimately revolve around the question as much as it would around the choice of reference point. If a person uses himself as a reference point, the answer would depend on how he turned the picture. But if the earth in the back ground is the reference point, no matter how the picture is turned, the answer would have to be "up".

With this in mind, consider the meaning of the word morality, and the fact that, for the most part, there seems to be a willingness for Americans to agree that the country is growing worse morally. A May 2008 poll had this to say:
  • A follow-up question asks Americans whether moral values are getting better or getting worse, and yields an equally negative answer. Only 11% of Americans perceive that values are improving, while 81% say things are getting worse.
The problem however is not about morality as much as it is about the reference point from which we measure it. As a nation we have for some time drawn our answers to the questions of right and wrong from the moral capital left to us by previous generations. This capital can most easily be seen in the form of the traditions and institutions that we inherited. But as that capital erodes we find ourselves asking questions about right and wrong that cannot be answered for lack of a reference point. Right for one person is wrong for another. AIG bonuses are right for those who receive them, but wrong for others who at the same time complain of having the morality of others imposed on them. Like the picture above, it all depends on the perspective of the person looking at the morality. We live in a culture of people, and an increasing number of churches, who readily accept this kind of morality, all the while complaining about the state of morality.  How confusing!

Since today is earth day, for an analogy let the earth represent God and let up represent right, and down represent wrong. In the photograph above you can see God (symbolized by the earth) at a distance, but still relatively near in the back ground. With up and down representing right and wrong, moral questions can still be answered, but with increased difficulty, while it becomes easier to make the case that up is down and vice versa.

But what about this picture?

I've rotated the picture so that "the picture" depicts the shuttle pointing down. With the earth still representing God, the closer we get to Him the more difficult it is for us to be fooled and disoriented. Conversely, the further we get from Him the more difficult it is to have any orientation at all. Now imagine the same ship in deep space. Up would become subject to the vessle itself. There could be no agrgument at all about the orientation of the ship for there would be no objecive point of reference .

This is the position left to us by the influential 18th century philosopher, Immanuel Kant. He did not deny the existence of God as much as he simply asserted that we can't "know" empirically about Him or his will for us. Issues of morality were thus to be left to reason and the conscious. In other words we are to judge right and wrong according to our vessel, which is the same way that we would judge up and down in deep space. As the seeds of his words began to bear fruit last century we intuitively realized that things were not well. We began to rely more heavily on social conventions than on truth. At the same time, as we expelled God and prayer from the very institutions that we charged with training up our children, divorce and suicide began to sky-rocket along with children being born out of wed-lock. Family destroying phenomenon like Drugs, promiscuity and pornography became a prominent fixture in our entertainment and personal lives. As the capital of old traditions and institutions was exhausted, homosexual marriage began knocking on the front door as heterosexual marriage was making its way out the back. As polygamy, pedophilia, and who knows what else, looms on the horizon we intuitively know that something is amiss, but we can't seem to collectively put a finger on the problem; or better yet, to point it in a definitive direction. We are disoriented.

Disorientation is a term familiar to pilots. It describes a pilot inside of a cloud, and due to instrument failure, or lack of training, he is unable to distinguish up from down. As he first enters the cloud he is OK. His senses are relying on memory. But the longer he remains without an objective reference point from the earth's horizon, the less he is able to depend on his own senses. In time he exhausts the capital with which he entered the cloud and his demise can only be prevented by regaining his orientation through some objective means of reference before his craft is either destroyed by excessive "g" loading or he impacts the ground.

The folollowing is a recording of a pilot who became disoriented after inadvertently flying into clouds. His airplane had instruments that were telling him what he needed to know, he needed only trust them.  But his "feelings" were stronger causing him not to trust his instruments which were the only access to the reality of up and down beyond the fog.

May God have mercy on us.


Susan said...

I really liked you analogy of the pilot in a cloud. And knowing you speak from experience made it even more interesting to me.

Our point of reference must be the Word of God and the fact God is the same yesterday, today and forever. Praise God He is!!! My prayer is that I keep "seeing" and "hearing" Him in all things.

P.S. Enjoy the camping trip.

Nancy said...

WOW, Dan...excellent! It's wonderful to know that with God as our reference point, we have an instrument panel that will never fail (His Word) and when or if we can no longer "read" it or become disoriented...the Holy Spirit steps in and we fly on with the auto-pilot's assurance we will always make home with a perfect landing...

Mary Lee said...

If our reference point is skewed, then so are we! I've read about pilots and disorientation...that would be a frightening thing!

Jon said...

Good post, as usual. I believe the theologian's name is Kant, however.

Dan said...

Thanks Jon. :-?