Riverboat philosophizing

I went to a wedding in Chicago. One of the pre-wedding events was a cruise along the Chicago River with an architecture expert as guide. Halfway through the cruise, my baby started screaming. (Perhaps she took offense at the guide's aesthetics.) I took her downstairs to the bar to calm her down, and there ran into my friend the groom himself, with his baby. Our two daughters commenced applying their mouths to every available surface, and the two of us started talking. My friend is a philosopher, and I am a philosophizer, so we get along well.

One of the questions we were talking about was this: What does it mean to hope, to have a certain sort of confidence that everything will work out all right? More specifically, there are two parts of this question we were ruminating on.

What does it mean to say "everything will work out all right"? Clearly the meaning of the phrase depends on the context, but in general, there are two sorts of things we could mean: a general sense that the world will not suffer major cataclysm or disorientation, and a narrower confidence that one's immediate interests (life, liberty, maybe property) will be preserved. Let's take a prominent worry these days, that terrorists may mount another major attack in New York sometime during, say, the next twenty-five years. (Insert appropriate "God forbid" here.) If I say, "The terrorists will attack," and you say, "Everything will work out all right," you could mean either (a) the general fabric of society will not collapse (e.g., the terrorists will not win; martial law will not reign on the streets of Manhattan; our copies of The Cat in the Hat in Yiddish will not be carried off by looters); or (b) one's friends and family will not be killed or maimed.

In less extreme circumstances, I think, one tends to mean (b) -- that is, the narrower result will be a positive one, suitably modified to the worry at hand. For example, take my dissertation. (Please!) When your Host's wife says, "Everything will work out all right," she does not mean that I will find professional satisfaction in some other field even if, say, my committee doubles over in laughter at my defense and uses my thesis as a wrapper for fish-and-chips. She means that I will finish, and my career will properly progress. But as the stakes are raised and more serious worries are confronted, our definition of "all right" needs to be recalibrated.

So let's consider again the case of a terrorist attack. The attack will happen, in all probability, and people will die. (Again, God forbid.) Is it morally proper to hope in such a situation? Our intuition is yes, because such large-scale confidence (called bitokhn in the Jewish tradition; see below) is something most people have, if only because it'd be impossible to get through the day without it. But how can we hope if we know that someone (though not necessarily us) will suffer? How can we legitimately say "everything will be all right"?

Roughly speaking, if we consider the possible realization of our worst worries, we need to ask whether the resultant world is predominantly "all right" or not. If our worst worries are realized and the world that results is somehow "all right," how does this square with our intuitive definitions of "rightness"? (This might be connected to a larger question. Given our intuitive sense that the world is not an awful place, how do we understand the frequency of suffering? [This is also a theological question, of course, but since the question is interesting whether or not God is involved, I'm not going to talk about Him here. I'm sure He'll understand.]) If the resultant world is not "all right," how can we justify the hope that most of us manage to sustain?

There are Jewish correlatives to most of these problems. (I like what Baraita had to say recently on the subject of Hebrew and Aramaic terms in one's blog, so I'm going to use the English equivalents.) According to the Talmud, after death (it's not entirely clear to me when), one will be asked a series of questions about the conduct of one's life. One of them is "Have you hoped [or: Did you hope] for salvation?" (What's meant here is something like the Messianic age, although, of course, the commentaries differ.) There are other often-cited phrases: "This too is for the good," and "Everything that God does He does for the good." The Jewish approach matters not because the afterlife, or the world to come, or God's goodness, elides the question of evil, but because that question is important whether or not we believe in God, and for the same reasons -- namely, the possibility that our worst fears may come to pass, which might undermine our hope.

(Just to put your mind at ease, we did not talk about these things at the wedding. We drank wine and sang; some of us danced. I don't dance, but it was fun to watch.)

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