Thursday, March 09, 2006

Of God and Operating Systems: Is It All A Matter of Personal Opinion?

I am a Computer OS addict. That is, as an incredulous friend once said as he watched me install yet another flavor of Linux onto an old machine salvaged from a yard sale, “Trott, you’ve never met an operating system you didn’t like.”

Well, actually I don’t like Microsoft Windows – any variety of it – much. But I do like just about anything else. And I suppose why I don’t like “winduhs” has much to do with Bill Gates, the god of that particular universe. I much prefer the extreme opposite scenario, a more or less “godless” universe such as that of Linux, where the users are also programmers and the official source code is open to anyone with a good idea to contribute.

But this isn’t an anti-Microsoft riff. Frankly, I’m more self-analytical here, as I often am about deeper issues relating to my understanding of “best,” “good,” and “bad.”

I pondered this recently when brought face to face with the sad reality of OS/2 Warp’s having been abandoned by IBM, the company behind it, as of December 2006. I own a copy of Warp 4. And frankly, my installations of OS/2 Warp 4 were simply fun. I liked the vibe of the desktop, its minimalist, muscular, un-Microsoft feel. And I liked the way it integrated 16-bit Microsoft applications while also offering many native 32 bit OS/2 apps. I also liked the fact – very esoteric, this one – that I could install the open-source “X-window” system on top of OS/2 and run many X-window applications.

But when I say I “liked” OS/2 vs. “not liking” MS Windows, what do I mean?

First, I am asserting on one level nothing more than my own preferences. That is, there need be no “truth claims” accompanying my admiration of the OS/2 operating system. But why, then, do I find myself getting crusty about it when a Windows fan starts in about the hip Windows XP features, or how Microsoft Outlook 2003 filters spam so well? No, down deep I want to believe that my choice of operating systems is better than their choice. So I have my own narratives about Bill Gates being the Antichrist and Microsoft being virusware you pay for. (Of course, just because they’re a highly biased narrative doesn’t mean they’re not true!)

Second, my admiration of OS/2 may be at least in part (as it is with Linux) associated with the path less traveled, the rugged loner’s alternative way, the OS being an extension of who I imagine myself to be – one apart from the common herd. Sigh… if that is all that fuels my OS/2 and Linux fixations, well, Madison Avenue milks that secret heart dream of every person for all it is worth. And using Linux vs. Windows to do my emailing or writing with is hardly going to stop global warming or rescue AIDS-infected children.

Third, my admiration of OS/2 may be simply an historical accident. That is, I started using it right at the time that MS-Windows was at its “suckiest,” so to speak, and before Linux had emerged. Could this be compared to my “accidentally” becoming a Christian simply because I grew up in a sort of vaguely Christian nation? Or, perhaps a better analogy, could it be akin to the fact that I love the song “American Woman” by the Guess Who mainly because it was one of the first rock songs my then newly-teenaged ears heard? I still remember laying there in my bed, my brother across the room in his, and both of us jamming to the album. If it hadn’t been the Guess Who, but instead some other band, I likely wouldn’t resonate now to either the G. W. or “American Woman.” But it was, and I do. Obviously, Madison Avenue knows that “branding” us with a product from the earliest age is highly important; just seeing an old OS/2 ad makes me warm and fuzzy inside.

Forgive me for being obtuse about fairly simple matters. But this whole business of why we “like” (or even “love”) certain things, places, or persons is highly mysterious – Madison Avenue notwithstanding.

Some things, like Operating Systems, matter less than I’d like to think they do. Truth is, I usually run Microsoft Windows… because I have to in order to run other applications that are written only for that OS. And I get my work done. Not as pleasantly. Not as happily. And maybe with a sneaking, even paranoid, suspicion that Big Brother owns my desktop and is probably snooping via the very networking software I paid for. But I get my work done.

Other things, like what I think about God, can matter greatly. Unfortunately, God can be like an OS. That is, I have my opinion.

Credit Gabriel Marcel for some of what follows, since he was the one who best articulated the difference between opinion and belief for me (see his Creative Fidelity and the chapter “From Opinion to Faith”). In fact, let me quote him right off the bat:

“…the memory of this inner crisis has not left me—in particular, the awareness of the unbridgeable gulf between opinion and faith… [I]t seems clear to me that certain developments in contemporary thought exhibit a tendency to confuse belief with opinion. To someone who does not share my belief, it in fact tends to appear as an opinion; through a commonly known optical illusion, I myself tend to consider it from the point of view of the other person, hence to treat it in turn as an opinion. Thus a strange, disturbing dualism is established within me; to the extent that I in fact live my belief, it is in no way an opinion; to the extent that I describe it to myself, I espouse the point of view of the person who represents it to his mind but does not live it; it then becomes external to me—and, to that degree, I cease to understand myself.”

Now note, Marcel is not saying that a belief is the same as truth. But he is saying that what I believe about something is different than having an opinion about that same thing. So, for instance, I could state that OS/2 is a better Operating System than Windows. But if I use Windows, almost exclusively, my alleged “belief” about OS/2 is revealed as mere opinion rather than belief. To prove at least some belief, I would have to make space on my hard drive(s) for OS/2, install it, and use it. Only the latter would make me an OS/2 user rather than a Windows user. There is also the possibility that I could do what is called “dual booting,” and have both Windows and OS/2 (or even Windows, OS/2, and Linux!) on my hard drive, each in their own “logical” partition and available to me as a choice when I restart the machine… this sort of double-mindedness is perhaps a form of half-belief, or even unbelief in the entire “there’s a best or worst OS” project, a sort of pragmatic approach used by the OS skeptic who wants to cover all bases. This is reminiscent, say, of the barber who tells his evangelistic customer, “There’s two things we never discuss here: politics and religion.” The barber is, in the negative sense, disinterested in opinion or belief. The parallel would be a religionist who says, “Basically, all religions teach the same things.” As G. K. Chesterton, or perhaps C. S. Lewis, said somewhere, “The person who believes everything believes nothing at all.”

But the strongly opinionated OS/2 fan who nonetheless uses Windows most of the time might do well to take note of Marcel’s observation regarding opinion: “Opinion tends to behave like an autonomous organism which admits into itself whatever is able to strengthen it and which avoids whatever threatens to weaken it.” Marcel then goes to wonderful lengths to show just how – my word – vacuous most opinion really is, how little rooted in any sort of solidity or reality.

For instance, the skeptic might say to the OS/2 lover, “Do you realize that Microsoft worked with IBM to design OS/2? The company you’re vilifying is the same company that basically designed much of the OS/2 system you tout!” The true OS/2 lover’s eyes glaze over as he quickly moves the conversation to some other ground.

But Marcel is after something in his discussion of faith vs. opinion. What he is after, as an existentialist, is the “I” of belief vs. the non-I of opinion. What do I mean by that? Marcel sees belief as being about experience – the “I” encountering a “thou” or even a “Thou.” Opinion is not an encounter, but rather an assertion. “I maintain that Jesus rose from the dead.” Or, in our discussion, “I maintain that OS/2 is a better OS than Windows.”

Marcel can’t be blamed for what I’m doing here, by the way… neither, for that matter, can Bill Gates or IBM.

If I believe in OS/2, I speak from my experience of it and in it and using it. And, as Marcel notes, even then we may discover our belief has been vain. Again, belief is not truth, but it is at least authentically coming from a human being vs. opinion which is usually badly digested and unsupported drivel merely repeated from one person to the next. And even when opinion is apparently better formed, there is the unsettling vibration of it being externalized. It is an “it,” a “conviction,” an editorial.

Marcel takes this to a human level. And for a moment, let me also leave our Operating Systems behind. One of the most universal moments of belief vs. opinion is when someone believes someone else is worthy of being loved, or at least trusted. But when that individual breaks trust, or violates our bond of love, what then? Belief is proven to have been misplaced; we have to reconsider the investment of ourselves (yes, our “I”).

IBM settled with Microsoft in a lawsuit involving OS/2 and the messy breakup between the two companies over that venture. As soon as this was done, IBM (in June of 2005) announced that OS/2 support would be discontinued as of December 2006. So, in the end, it turns out our faith – our belief in OS/2 as the superior OS – may have been misplaced. It may be time to convert. Downloading SuSE Linux (or FreeBSD) may be another option to place our faith in. But after all… it is only an Operating System.

I find myself thinking again of God and OS/2… pondering my appreciation for both, my “opinion” that both are good. Yet, I must confess that though my appreciation for OS/2 is real, I do not have faith in it, or even much of an opinion in favor of it any longer. It has not as much betrayed me itself as has been betrayed by its maker. And despite some efforts by earnest users and fans, it appears very doubtful that IBM will release the code for OS/2 into the public domain, “open source” community.

What of my faith in God? Can He remain my personal Operating System, or rather Operating Anti-System, confounding all systems with his own nature which is Love?

It all depends, I suppose, on whether or not my “belief” is merely opinion or coming from within myself, my “I,” my own experience and acts. One thing is certain. He has always been faithful, his “I” evident as what is from the subjective reality which I inhabit.

As Marcel says:

“However strange it may seem to our minds, it is possible for there to be an unconditional love of creature for creature—a gift which will not be revoked. Whatever may occur, whatever disappointment experience inflicts upon our hypotheses, our cherished hopes, this love will remain constant, this credit intact. Perhaps it is on data of this sort that the philosopher should first base his meditations when he tries to reflect on the absolute; for the most part these data are hardly ever taken into account. Examples like these, however, involve an anomaly which somehow seems to be suspended in a reality frequently unperceived by those every souls in which it blossoms…”

Nor does Marcel stop there, but finishes the thought:

“The other boundary-case is this: love is faith itself, an invincible assurance based on Being itself. It is here and here alone that we reach not only an unconditioned fact but a rational unconditional as well; namely that of the absolute Thou, that which is expressed in the Fiat voluntas tua [Thy will be done] of the Lord’s Prayer.”

I do not think, nor did Marcel, that such ideas would “convince” people to embrace the Christian OS, er, faith. Convincing, after all, is more about opinions than personal investment into belief and action. As to whether, like a computer Operating System, belief in Christ is merely a matter of personal taste, I would answer in both an affirmative and negative sense.

Yes, it is a matter of personal choice. In fact, each moment of life is a choice, a decision waiting to be made. Will I make the non-decision, that is, to remain in the place where opinion (and thus my own personal lassitude and passivity) remain the prime wall against true movement? Will I rather make the decision against, to deny God (or even all/any gods)? Whatever I decide, or decide by not deciding (which is the same thing), it is indeed a matter of personal choice. But it is not an opinion.

No, it is not a matter of personal choice that doesn’t really matter. At least, in the same way that all Operating Systems on a computer will (more or less) let me do the same or similar things, and allow me to arrive at more or less the same place. Analogy does break down, usually sooner rather than later. “Good” applied to an operating system refers to something relative, whether or not we like to think so. “Good” applied to justice, love, empathy, being humane, and so on, is not a referent to something relative but something fixed, something there is all but universal agreement on.

Yet that said, we still have one problem. It is only an opinion. In order to make of “goodness” something more than an opinion, my “I” must BE good, or (more properly) exist within goodness, and goodness within it. Acts of goodness must emanate from it, from myself. And finally, as Kierkegaard, Marcel, St. Paul and many others ably show, goodness as we know it to be is not something found within my heart by default. God comes first, with his goodness in tow, to from within me become the un-Operating System which is agape love.

Or such is my opinion… dear God, give me faith.


A few links for OS/2-related stuff:

* A free download of a "live" CD from Serenity Software (I'm trying to talk them into sending me a review copy--I haven't given up completely on OS/2 yet!)
* The monster OS/2 freeware/shareware site, Hobbes.
* The OS/2 World site, for news and links.

A few links re Gabriel Marcel:

* The Gabriel Marcel Society (Info on Marcel's philosophy, music, plays, and more)
* A short biography
* Marcel plays on videotape (and CD, I think) at a few bucks a pop.

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