Tuesday, August 24, 2010

An Important Question

Well, since I took an algebra qual yesterday, I was going to be a jerk and ask some strange algebra question, to get back at all the people who ask, "Math, what do you study in math anyway?" But they probably don't read this anyway. If you are interested, feel free to find the Galois group of x^4-5 over the rationals.

Anyway, then I had a friend ask for a question. I doubt he wants to spend his afternoon researching abstract algebra to the point that he can answer this question, so I must provide a better question.

A while ago I was reading a book, called Looking For Alaska, wherein the characters were asked to write an essay for their religious class. The subject of the essay, as best I can recall as it was a library book I have since returned, was for them to give what they think is the most important question about our human experience and how the religions of Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam attempt to answer this question.

In thinking about this topic, I decided that the most important question I could come up with is, "What is important?" We are allotted limited time upon this earth and knowing what is important is essential to prioritizing that time and avoiding regrets. I have a fairly good idea how Christianity and Islam answer this question, so I am more interested in how you would answer the question.

For those of us who may be stuck in teacher training, I'm making this Tuesday a real time-killing doozy, multiple hard questions for your consideration. Listed starting with the ones I'm most interested in hearing your answers. What do you think is important to prioritize in life? What are important questions about our existence for us to consider, and why? If you come up with another question, how do religions attempt to answer it? How do religions attempt to answer what is important (emphasis on Buddhism, since I have no idea how they would answer it, but I'd like to hear your thoughts on Christianity and Islam if you want to share them? And finally, if G is a p-group, why does G necessarily have a non-trivial, abelian, factor group?

Ha, ok, I couldn't help myself. That last one is a question from the qual I couldn't answer, so if you can please explain. Spell checker not knowing abelian is a word loses Chrome some of my respect. If you think about these questions I would be interested in hearing your thoughts!


Kenny said...

Jason and I solved the math problem, so you are off the hook.

Frank said...

Thanks for the question, Kenny. I really needed it during the meeting today; however, I am now at home and feel obligated to answer it seeing that you were so kind in getting a few out there today. Oh, if it was only 10 hours ago.

What do you think is important to prioritize in life?
OK, so I'm a Christian so that colors my answer. Jesus says to love God first and our fellow man next, and if Christians would honestly do that, rather than judging every little thing, I think this world would be a different place.

What are important questions about our existence for us to consider, and why?
#1 and the most important is "why are we here?" If a person can answer that question, then he/she will have a purpose in life, and when that purpose is known, a more full and rich life can be lived. Far too many people live life without a purpose and that is sad.

If you come up with another question, how do religions attempt to answer it?
It depends on the religion, I suppose. Most major religions teach that one can get to know God by doing good works and by doing these good works, God is revealed and the person knows his purpose. Christianity, however, teaches that humans can never be good enough to know God and that a Savior is needed to bring us to God. By coming to this Savior, we thus know our purpose. I think the number one reason why I have chosen to embrace the Christian faith is that despite the amazing, wonderful acts of all sorts of people of all sorts of faiths and even non-faith, there is just too much evil in the world, and the only thing that makes sense to me about this evil presence is that sin has come to the planet and twisted humanity quite grossly, thus the need for the Savior.

How do religions attempt to answer what is important (emphasis on Buddhism, since I have no idea how they would answer it, but I'd like to hear your thoughts on Christianity and Islam if you want to share them?
Both are monotheistic and both share many of the same prophets, such as Abraham and Jesus. The dividing line, of course, is that Islam views Jesus as a prophet and Christians view him as God. As stated above, Islam teaches that good works can get a person to God, while Christians teach that only Jesus's sacrificial death on our behalf can bring us to God.

And finally, if G is a p-group, why does G necessarily have a non-trivial, abelian, factor group?
Kenny, I earned a "C" in undergrad abstract algebra, and that "C" was a gift to me by a prof who knew that I was at my limit with math, so my answer has got to be, "no clue".

Greene-Teacher said...

An interesting question, Kenny. One that I frequently ask myself. I come at this from a rather different perspective, and I'm not entirely sure I have an answer, but your post inspired me to at least muse and I thought you might enjoy hearing my musing aloud (if for no other reason than to know that your post is being read).

Perspective 1: Atheist (at least my own brand of atheism)
Having been raised in a religious (Mormon) family, this question was answered for me like many other Christians and just as Frank posted--to love God and our fellow man, to serve others, to return to live with God in heaven. Since leaving the church this answer has been less fulfilling to me, given that the only part I can still believe in is the bit about serving others. I do believe that a primary obligation of humanity is the continuation of our species and it would seem that helping others would be a particularly excellent way of ensuring our success overall. I suppose though that leads me to my second perspective.

Perspective 2: Public School Teacher (in one of the districts renowned on a national level for being completely dysfunctional)
As a teacher I find that I am often left with the responsibility of helping children find their purpose or "calling" in life. I help them set and achieve goals and attempt to inspire them to be better people. Given my complete lack of authority on the subject, this seems odd to me. Of course, it would be better if parents took this responsibility more seriously, but it remains that I am expected by the state to instill a sense of knowledge and directions in the lives of my young pupils. At the very least that I will instill some minor sense of patriotism and loyalty (as evidenced by, among other things, the kindergarten reading unit entitled "Red, White, and Blue."

The answer?
I'm not sure there is an answer. I think it's entirely reasonable for us to desire a conveniently packaged script for life, one that outlines our purpose and ways to achieve said objective. However, there really isn't one. Sure, there are lots of self-help guides (e.g. 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, or whatever) and there are hundreds of people who would tell you what's important in life if you gave them the opportunity. I think that part of the purpose we give to our own lives is finding purpose. Finding happiness. For some people maybe that means helping others. For others, maybe it means something else. I don't think the purpose is something that's the same for everyone though.

You might enjoy this--I heard it on NPR the other day.


Kenny said...

Sorry my question did not make it up early enough Frank, I shall try to be earlier this week, just in case you have more training. On a side note, perhaps this internet interaction will force me to use your first name... "Why are we here?" is another doozy worth considering.

I do appreciate comments, not only because they make me feel the post was read, which justifies the effort of writing it, but also for the added perspectives. I find my thought stagnate when left to their own devices, and input or challenges from different or opposing points of view prompts my own thinking to grow and mature.

I can definitely understand feeling as though you have a different answer to the question based on what "hat" you happen to be wearing. This happens to me a lot when thinking philosophically.

In regards to this, as well as many others, subject, religiously I believe the Bible does provide an answer, but I am unsure if humans can ever understand it, and if we cannot, caw we truly say that there is an answer? Philosophically I think that there is inherent value in considering the question, whether or not you already believe you know the answer, and also regardless of whether you come to a conclusive answer.

Since the discussion, at this points, consists entirely of teachers, I hope this analogy will have some traction. Suppose one is working on a math question, and the answer happens to be in the back of the book. Although we might be able to look it up, and suddenly know what the answer "is," we will not understand it. If we think about the question, whether or not we arrive at the right answer, we will likely gain more mathematical knowledge that we would if we simply looked the answer up. However, the best understanding comes if we can think about the question until we come to an answer, then have the ability to check that answer and refine our reasoning and examine where we went astray.

An advantage of this last line of reasoning is that it provides a failsafe against the occasional misprint in the back of the book. Personally, I hope that once we die we get handed a solutions manual.

Karen said...

Perhaps the significance of one person on the planet will be to teach Chrome's spelling checker that "abelian" is SO a word.

Regarding Mr. Stallons' (Frank???!)comment, perhaps it is also important to prioritize seeking truth and understanding. I think a lot of judgment comes from people who think that they are loving others by "trying to keep them from sinning." Why? Because I've been there and done that. From my understanding, and from observing the results of that type of action, I think that people probably don't understand what it means to love God and love others. I agree that if we really prioritized love, we'd really see change.