Forgive me for my failures

Deb asked:

If someone is asking you to forgive them for their ‘failures’, is that too non-specific to actually forgive? I would respond that ‘failing’ at something is not something to forgive. I don’t want to ask for specifics but I don’t take forgiveness lightly and only want to extend it when I actually mean it. Your thoughts?

Answer by Gershon Velvel

If this was our rival web site — whose name I will not mention here — you would be treated to a long lecture on the ‘concept’ of forgiveness and its ‘logic’. The problem is, we are dealing with personal relationships, which are not necessarily governed by logic but what one might call dialogic. Dialogic focuses much more on nuance and context, then on the strict and literal meanings of words.

Let me give some examples:

A: “Forgive me for my failures.”
B: “Which failures are you talking about exactly? Your failure to remember my birthday? or your getting drunk and ruining last night’s dinner party? or not winning the contract that was a ‘dead cert’ and was going to pay for our Caribbean holiday? or…”

A.”Forgive me for my failures.”
B. “Do you mean Robert, or Dennis, or Nigel, or Jeffrey, or…?”

A. “Forgive me for my failures.”
B. “Well, I forgive you for being such a failure.”

Lacking further context, one’s judgement must be provisional, but my initial sympathies are with A in the first and third of these exchanges, and with B in the second.

Doesn’t it say in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Forgive us our sins…’? Imagine God saying in reply, ‘Tell me which sins you are talking about and I’ll tell you whether or not I forgive you!’

In the third case, a person who admits to having ‘failed’ on more than one occasion is certainly not admitting to being a ‘failure’. On the contrary, the implication may be that there are a lot of positive and good things to put on the other side of the scale to balance the bad.

If we were being logical, then one could make the point that not all sins/ transgressions are ‘failures’. In order to fail, you have to try. The problem with this is that it is a very human failing to be incapable of ‘trying’ when one needs to, lacking the will or motivation. ‘Try to pull yourself together!’ is not something that it is appropriate to say in many situations where we are tempted to say it. You have to bite your tongue and offer a strong hug instead.

‘Forgive me for my failures’ can be a way of saying that you wanted to be more, but this is the very best you can do. Or it can (as you say) be a way of evading responsibility by retreating into generalities. You can glory in your ‘failures’, be proud that you failed, or experience anguish at the self-knowledge that when the chips are down you have repeatedly failed those who depend on you.

All of these things can be forgiven in the appropriate context. Habitually evading responsibility is an unpleasant character flaw, one that can be difficult for others to address, whether sympathetically or unsympathetically. Whatever they say, you believe in your heart of hearts that ‘it isn’t my fault’. Even that may be forgiveable.

I am not going to spin this out into a long essay. The short answer is that the ‘specifics’ are always relevant. No philosophical pronouncement can decide the question, even when the external facts are known — because the two partners in dialogue know more than just the external facts. They are in a continually adjusting dynamic, each making the best effort they can — or not, as the case may be.

One generality one can offer with confidence is that when breakdown of dialogue does occur, most often both parties believe that they are the one who has been ‘wronged’.

I want to live forever

Dennis asked:

Why is life on Earth so precarious, with old age and death necessary?

As the truths of metaphysics and overcoming of aging is on the human threshold, it looks like that is what humans were designed to do — True?

Answer by Gershon Velvel

Let me make a confession, Dennis. I want to live forever. I really do. And I also want to know the ultimate nature of reality. I mean, really know. And do you know what? In my mind, somehow the two are inextricably linked. If I knew the ultimate nature of reality, I could not die. Death would be impossible. And if I found a way to escape death, now and forever more, I would surely know the ultimate nature of reality.

Actually, that’s not a new idea. That’s what Jesus told his followers. ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life,’ he famously says to Thomas (John 14:6). For many millions of people, the Christian (not only Christian) ‘family story’ IS the ultimate reality, and sincere belief is all you need — to live forever.

And if you are a philosopher, on the track of truth — or so you hope and believe — does that necessarily mean you have to be a sceptic, accept limitation and finitude, Heideggerian ‘being towards death’ and the ultimate nihilation of everyone and everything you have ever cared for?

If that thought makes you depressed, then maybe Plato is more your man. Actually, the Pythagorean idea of reincarnation — the Pythagoreans were one of Plato’s major influences — is not a million miles away from what the contemporary philosopher Daniel Dennett preaches. The self is just a program (a Pythagorean ‘number’ — it could be a Gödel number, get it?). Logic and set theory are eternal, true in all possible worlds. The Dennis-program is eternal. All you need is suitable equipment to ‘upload’ it to and off you go. Again. And again, for ever.

All material structures are finite by their very nature. Nothing can escape the ultimate death of this material universe. But sets and numbers don’t need a ‘universe’, because they form a permanent universe of their own. Your fragile human body will certainly die, but the possibility that YOU will come back is logical, not physical. The ultimate nature of reality is just as Plato said: logical and rational. The eternal Forms. And you — a ‘soul’ — are another entity of a similar kind (‘akin’ to the Forms, as Plato claims in the Phaedo), logically indestructible.

I’m not going to attempt to fill the serious logical gaps in this story, because although you ask whether your idea is ‘true’, I don’t think truth is really the issue. (You weren’t seriously thinking that somehow technology will solve the problem of human finitude, were you?!) This is about what you and I want, deep down. Trying to understand what that is about.

As a matter of empirical fact, or, rather, speculation, it is conceivable that human beings and all life on Earth were designed — say, by a superior multi-dimensional alien race. Why not? Maybe the multi-dimensional aliens didn’t need to ‘evolve’. Make up any story you like. But, obviously, it’s not going to solve any problem if the aliens are, essentially, in the same predicament as we are, dependent on a long chain of contingencies that could alter at any time, leading to their total extinction.

That’s not what we want. That’s just another ‘story’. So all all that’s left is metaphysics. See if you can improve on Plato. So long as you are on the way to a solution, however long that way may be, there is always hope. — Better put that thinking cap on!