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Sinning Against Reason | Provoketive Magazine
18 Jan 2013

The Author

Originally from Atlanta, Georgia, the Grand Rapids area has been my home for the past two years. We – my wife and I, moved here as something of an experiment, leaving our life in Eastern Michigan behind in the hope of establishing more meaningful spiritual community on the West side of the state. And if you’re also interested, I have my own blog, Avenues @ timmccollum.com.


Sinning Against Reason

I have a love-hate relationship with Ayn Rand. Its kind of like the song Willie Nelson and Snoop Dogg sing together, “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.” One the one hand, I don’t want to encourage recreational drug use, but on the other, I can’t help but chuckle at the irony of this song sung by two famous recreational drug users. The song draws me in and then I realize that as much as I like the song, smoking dope would not go over very well with my wife. I get the same feeling when I read Ayn Rand. Effort, she says, is something that I must do on my own and not at the cost of another’s loss. She draws me in, and then she explains I should not consider others’ interests because life is about me and my interests. My problem with her ethical theory is that I have to coexist with my wife.

Ayn Rand’s ethical theory is fairly simple: I should only take actions and make decisions by using my natural ability to think rationally. Therefore, I must only act according to my interests, not those of others or those of a group. Rand would not want me to save a stranger from a burning building if it means that I risk loosing my life, or if I have nothing to gain personally by sacrificing myself for a stranger. However, I should save my wife from a burning building because I need her to wash my clothes, bear my children, and cook my dinner (keep in mind Rand is a woman). If an emergency does happen, then I should volunteer to help strangers (after all, you don’t want to look like a total jerk), while not risking my life and not dedicating the rest of my life to help these strangers. To put it another way, people should help other people not because of notions of obligation or duty (like first responders), but because of notions motivated by reason and personal self-interest (like Bernie Madoff). In Ayn Rand’s world every man is a king and every woman is a queen. In her world, brotherly and sisterly love are optional. But in the real world, I am a king because my wife lets me, and to love someone else is to see the face of God.

In 1916 Einstein presented his general theory of relativity. In it he asserted that space is not three-dimensional and time is not a separate entity—space and time are different aspects of the same something—and all measurements involving space and time are not absolute. Einstein’s theory of relativity opened the door for scientist to push the boundaries of human imagination. The deterministic world of solid objects in the Newtonian world view came under fresh scrutiny. There came a sense of an alive universe. Instead of being isolated, everything seemed to connect.

In 1900 Max Planck delivered a paper that rocked the scientific world. His paper displaced the notion that energy comes only in continuous waves with that of bundles of energy. Planck called these bundles of energy “quanta” and was able to show that these bundles could behave both as waves and particles at the same time. The idea that quanta were real was so counter-intuitive that Planck himself could not make this leap of faith. In 1968 scientists smashed electrons into protons and neutrons and discovered “quarks.”  Yet, quarks are never directly observed or found in isolation; only with other particles.

The early explorers warned us that to try to summarize quantum theory is to risk sounding mystical. Einstein was not willing to accept that quarks could travel faster than the speed of light. Yet, towards the end of his life he admitted that it is impossible to get anywhere in quantum theory without sinning against reason. Observing a quark can instantaneously influence the behavior of another distant quark and appear in two places at the same time—even if no physical force connects the two. The evidence for these intuitions of “quantum entanglement” emerged with Bell’s Theorem in the 1960s. This theory is often described in poetic terms, but one that reflects the true nature of the theory: the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in New York City can affect the course of a typhoon off the coast of China. In the quantum worldview nothing makes sense while in isolation. There are no boundaries, and influences can emerge from several sources, many probably unknown to the human mind. Reality is bigger that our ability to perceive and since it grows forever in complexity it will probably always outstretch our imaginations and outwit our intelligence.

Strange, I know, but quantum theory makes more sense to me than Ayn Rand’s ethical theory. Quantum theory says that there is no end to where our imaginations can take us. Rand’s theory says that all there is, is me. Rand says that I can experience joy in life through productive work, human relationships, recreation, art and sex as long as I can control my destiny. Quantum theory says there is something beautiful happening just beyond my reach, just outside the space-time continuum. Rand says that it’s not impossible to know the truth as long as I think rationally. Quantum theory says that I must sin against reason and rationality to get at the truth.

Maybe this is why Jesus never refers to us as sinners. In his day, and much like ours, the religious élite dictated the conventions of rationality and reason. Jesus sinned against these conventions by turning them upside down and delivering us from the belief that we need to be protected from God.  And when I find this kind of wholeness I am balanced and I will flourish, as opposed to either mere conformists or mere rebels who just take sides on everything—with no wisdom at all.

Now this changes everything.


Photo Courtesy of Cea.

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