This Morning

This morning I understand why people talk about God.

Not why they believe in a god; that is, I think, an entirely personal choice, based on individual feelings, and it’s a choice I haven’t made and feelings I haven’t felt.

But I think I see why people use God in arguments, why they rely on God as an explanation, why they write books and sermons and songs that describe God as the answer. It’s because doing so is comforting. I don’t think it’s easy, because relying on God as the answer means you have to accept some stupid and disturbing answers — like killing is bad unless God does it, war is hell unless it is a holy war in God’s name, the suffering of innocents helps others to recognize the horror of sin — that’s a lot to swallow right there, and you need a whole lot of soul butter to get it down.

Okay, I only said that last  metaphor so I could use the phrase “soul butter.” One of my absolute favorite phrases. Mark Twain. So good. Really, though, it takes a lot of faith to accept those answers, and faith is generally hard to maintain. So I don’t think that God as an answer is easy. But I do think it’s comforting.

The world is large. It is large, and it is inevitable: things happen that are terrible, and they keep happening, and will always keep happening, because even if we conquer the world, the universe is larger still. Disease and disaster and death, disappointment and despair and devastation. And the worst part of all of this is that the world is not only large, but it comes into our small lives and crushes us and those around us intently, intensely, instantly. It would be one thing if the profound absurdity that is the U.S. government affected only those in Washington, only those who wanted to be movers and shakers; I could sit here in my living room, with my dogs beside me and my wife sleeping in the next room, and write my tiny blogs for my few dozen readers (if that), and work with my teacher-friends at my little school teaching literature to my young students, and everything would be fine. But it’s not like that: the government in Washington has a direct and substantial impact on me personally, on my wife, on my friends, on my students. Hell, it has an impact on my dogs: it has an impact on my literature. I keep seeing references to our current political situation in things I read; last night I was re-reading The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan, one of my absolute favorite fantasy epics, and I got to the chapter about  Aridhol, the city that had been great, one of the allied nations that fought back the tide of evil, until they grew too desperate, and a man came who whispered poison in the ear of the king, and the city grew dark and evil, paranoid and cold and harsh, until the people turned in on themselves and destroyed themselves out of fear and anger and mistrust, and now the city was Shadar Logoth, Where the Shadow Waits, and the evil is palpable and visible and able to kill anyone who comes inside its borders; and if that isn’t precisely what is happening in this country, right now, then I’m a devout Christian  and a Republican.

The world is large, and because it is large, the things that happen are beyond our control: we can’t stop the world from turning, I can’t stop famine and cancer and drug addiction and rape and death. But those things affect me and those around me directly, all the time. Even when I am insulated from the worst suffering because I am a white middle-class American. Famine, along with other terrible travails in Central America, makes people come to this country; the government cracks down, and one of my students loses his mother because she is deported. Another of my students, one of the smartest kids at the school, can’t get his visa for a month because he needs to be extremely vetted. Cancer and drug addiction are in my family. Rape culture and the violence in our society means that people cannot be vulnerable, they must be on guard at all times — and even then we are not safe from violation, from degradation. And death? How do we deal with death?

How do I tell my wife that things will be all right? How do I tell my students that their lives won’t be devastated by circumstances beyond their control? How do I tell myself those things?

That’s why it must be comforting to be able to say, in all of those difficulties: “God.” God is the answer. God is the reason, and God has a plan. It doesn’t change those terrible things, but it means you at least don’t have to think about them. God is a replacement for thinking, and though that clearly isn’t a good thing, it does sound relaxing, particularly when all the thinking in the world isn’t going to change the fact that we’re all going to die, and we’re not going to die at the same time, and that means all of us will be devastated by loss, one by one, until we are lost ourselves.

And wouldn’t it be nice to think that there is another place where we all get to go hang out together, forever, where everything is nice and nothing is inevitable because nothing changes.

Yes. I understand.

You know what, though? I still don’t wish I believed.

This Morning

This morning I’m thinking about sadness.

I woke up feeling blue. Not too sad, really; it’s Saturday, which is lovely, and though I had a long and difficult week, there were some excellent moments with friends, with writing, with my wife and our pets. But I was down; melancholy. I slogged around the house for a half an hour while the coffee cooked, and then I took my dogs for a long, slow walk. (Though they wanted to go for a long, fast walk, with many sudden stops for sniffies. I wouldn’t let ’em. Misery loves company. [Actually, I let  them have their sniffies. We just didn’t walk that fast. They didn’t seem to mind too much.])

While I was walking, I was thinking. Why do we get sad? I’m an atheist, so anything to do with metaphysics or God’s will or sin isn’t a good enough answer for me. I know the Buddhist answer is that suffering is a consequence of desire; I get that for anger, or grief, and certainly envy or jealousy; but melancholy? I don’t think I was desiring anything this morning other than not being sad — and being sad because I wish I wasn’t sad seems like much too cruel a cosmic Catch-22 to be reasonable. I suppose there could be an argument that the particular melancholy this morning was the result of an unfocused desire, that I wish my life was different in some ways and so when I woke up into the same life, as a steadily aging public school teacher who still hasn’t achieved success as a writer, it made me sad. Maybe so, but I wasn’t really thinking about any of those things; I was just — blue.

What about modern science and pyschology? As far as I know (And that bummed me out, too, because I realized that even though I don’t know what role sadness plays in our psyche or our evolution, somebody out there does; so this whole chain  of thought isn’t because I’m deep, it’s because I’m ignorant. I feel like that is pretty much always true: that any question I have, someone out there knows the answer, and if I just took the time to look, I’d learn the truth. Sometimes that makes me hopeful, and sometimes it makes me hopeless.) the model of emotions is that they are nothing but chemical reactions, hormones released in the brain and limbic system in response to stimuli. I think as well that the idea is that all aspects of human existence evolved as the result of some kind of survival pressure, because in some way it gives us an advantage. Anger makes us strong and aggressive; love helps us pair-bond for mutual cooperation and procreation; fear is a warning of danger. Even when those emotions are not targeted in an evolutionarily advantageous way, like when we get angry at video games, or fall in love with our cars, or when we’re afraid of moths (Don’t look at me like that: they are Satan’s butterflies.)

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Know what that is? That’s a moth DRINKING TEARS FROM A BIRD’S EYE. Fucking tell me they’re harmless. Bullshit.

But what evolutionary advantage does sadness give us? How does being blue help me to find food or evade predators on the savannah?

It’s possible that sadness is a misdirected emotional cue. Like modern food and eating habits make us fat because our bodies are geared towards craving sugar, salt, and fat, as all three of those have definite survival advantages if you’re living out on the savannah: sugar gives you quick energy to run away from lions, fat contains vitamins and gives long term energy storage, salt helps us BECAUSE ELECTROLYTES ARE WHAT A BODY CRAVES. It’s just that food today can be manufactured with so much fat, salt, and sugar, where foragers or hunter-gatherers on the savannah had a much harder time collecting them, that our reward system, geared  to give strong rewards for tiny amounts gained after strenuous work, overrewards us for just sitting around and horking down Cheez-Its. It’s a misdirected survival mechanism, because we didn’t evolve with 2019 in mind.

But sadness, I would argue, doesn’t always have a trigger. (As I’m writing this, though, I’m getting more and more tired, and curling up with a blanket and going back to sleep sounds absolutely wonderful, so suddenly I’m wondering if melancholy is simply a signal to slow down and have a snooze. Maybe so. I’m still going to finish my point.) Even when it does, when you see someone hurt, or hear about suffering and despair in the world, how does it help me to deal with that if I feel depressed because of it? What possible adaptive value could being in a funk present?

So there I am, walking my dogs, dragging my feet and hanging my head, and thinking about the value of sadness, and what it could possibly be good for. What could sadness do for us. What power does sadness have. Power. And then I thought: imagine if someone gained power from being sad. Like Samson and his hair, but with angst. Imagine if the Hulk  got stronger when he was sad, instead of when he was angry. Imagine if someone had to make themselves sad in order to be strong, and the sadder they got, the stronger they were. Imagine if someone was a sorceror, say, and instead of sacrificing a virgin to Baal, they had to break their favorite childhood toy, or watch a hurt animal try to walk.

Hmmm. Just imagine.

And just like that, I came up with an idea for a book  I’d like to try to write. I still need to flesh it out, work on the characters and build the world, and come up with a plot and all; but I really love the concept. Which  I came up with because I was feeling down.

So that, I think, is the value of sadness. It does help us to slow down and take it easy, too, because when we’re sad I think we don’t want to do anything but curl up and sleep, and particularly in our overworked overstressed world, that is very important and very, very good for us. But mainly, I think that sadness, by the simple fact that we generally don’t like it, makes us want to do something to change the way we feel. This is the same argument I make with my students about learning: they need to feel uncomfortable, they need to feel like they’re missing something, in order for them to learn; if they are perfectly content, then their brains don’t seek out a solution to the problem, because there’s no problem. So the brain just closes its eyes and takes a nap, so to speak, if the person is too comfortable. It’s when we are uncomfortable that the brain seeks out a new equilibrium, by observing and processing what is around ; that is how we learn best.

Maybe sadness does the same. Maybe sadness is an inspiration, a impetus, to get off our butts and do something to take the sadness away.

Or else it’s my brain and body telling me I really need to nap. I’m going to go lie down, now. And maybe think about my new idea.

Book Review: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy

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The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

by Arundhati Roy

 

God damn Arundhati Roy.

God damn her and her beautiful books, which are so impossibly sad and so incredibly beautiful.

I have always thought, because I teach it to my AP students, that The God of Small Things ends with the most beautiful romantic scene I think I’ve ever read because Roy wanted to end the book on a happy note, that she wrote it intentionally out of chronological order specifically so that she could end it with hope, with the two lovers planning to meet again the next day, even though we know they won’t, or if they meet the next day, then they don’t meet the day after that, or ever again.

Now that I am reading The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (I am not finished with it, so I’ll need to stop writing this in a moment and go back to my sorrows), in which she has done nearly the same bloody thing, putting an exquisite lovely romantic scene near the end of a brutally heart-wrenching book, I think I may have to stop believing in the optimistic explanation of the incongruous, unchronological way Roy writes these books. I’m not sure yet, because this isn’t the very last chapter, so maybe other things will happen – and there actually is some hope in the novel that there will be some happiness, a fair number of good characters who could create a safe space to live and laugh in; but in God of Small Things two of the four good characters died and one ended up insane, leaving the fourth utterly alone, so… – but I am familiar enough with this feeling to know that Roy might have made the same play. This book is also out of chronological order, and since it is my first time reading it, that makes it difficult to follow, so there are parts I don’t remember well and maybe I should, to understand; which means maybe I don’t understand. I have to go read more.

But now I’m wondering: what if she put the happiest, most love-full part at the end of The God of Small Things because that makes it impossible to enjoy, since we’ve just been through 25 chapters of sorrows? What if she does it that way because she wants us to read the joyful part and think, “Well, this would be lovely, if my heart wasn’t already shattered into a million pieces by everything else I just read.”? And what if that is the point, because it makes the joyful part into a sad part, knowing that we can’t enjoy the joy because of the sorrows we’ve been through – which makes the sorrows even sadder?

Pardon me. Have to go finish the book. I just had to write down this theory when it hit me.

One hour and twenty minutes later –

All right. Okay. I was wrong: this book does actually have a happy ending. Of course it isn’t that simple, it isn’t all happy; there is death everywhere in the book, and it isn’t good death, not valuable, honorable, restful death. But the book is as much about those who live as it is about those who die, and the deaths make the life more precious, not the other way around.

So: to be clear. This book is about India and the war in Kashmir. At the end of the book, a character reads these words in a notebook: “How do you tell a shattered story? By slowly becoming everybody. No: by slowly becoming everything.”

That’s the book.

It has much of the same beauty that Roy put into The God of Small Things. The writing is, as always, brilliant: essentially beyond my capacity to even grasp, let alone describe. The book has a dense history of India, a complex exploration of the relationship between the present and the past, once again worked out through complicated family relationships and through appalling violence. The caste system is, as I suspect it always is, an indispensable element of the conflicts, though they are largely religious in nature: Muslim versus Hindu versus Sikh versus Christian. There is a terribly intricate narrative structure, with multiple interwoven plots and point of view characters, with no particular adherence to a timeline. There is another character that bears much resemblance to Roy herself, the child of a Syrian Christian woman from the state of Kerala, who studies architecture but does not become an architect, who is beautiful and strange and difficult. There is a beautiful romance, a number of broken romances, and an enormous, unbearable weight of violence and suffering and sorrow and alienation.

But there’s a lot in this book that wasn’t in the first book. The scope is wider: there are more characters, there are more conflicts, there are more settings. There is much more violence, and more villains who carry it out. And there is a lot more happiness at the end, a lot more peace, a lot more closure.

I don’t know if I recommend this book. I will need to read it again, and probably write a lot in the margins. But I feel much the same about this book as I felt about The God of Small Things after I had read it only once without writing anything in it, which was, I thought I should read it again; once I had, it became one of my all-time favorite works of literature. I suspect this one may follow the same path. So in the meantime, in-between time, this is a beautiful and difficult book, and if that’s your thing, I highly recommend it.

Book Review: Zealot

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

by Reza Aslan

I have rarely encountered a more appropriate title on a book. This book is exactly what the title says it is: it is the life and the times of the historical figure of Jesus, who, according to the information provided, was essentially a zealot.

Two immediate points that have to be raised: the man is not the Christ, and though the Bible is the primary source of information along with the other apocrypha, Aslan never tries to talk about the risen Son of God as though that was the actual person. As a historian and religious scholar, Aslan considers the religious version of Jesus to be a matter of faith unrelated to the person who actually lived 2000 years ago in what is now Israel; the Gospels and the New Testament, Aslan explains in great detail, were all written by people who had had no contact at all with the historical figure of Jesus son of Joseph, and most of the New Testament was written by (or at least in the name of) an educated, Roman, Greek-speaking Jew who had no interest in the poor illiterate Jewish preacher from Galilee – St. Paul preferred the perfect embodiment of God that is now so familiar to modern Christians. The second point is that “zealot” is a word that meant something very specific in Jesus’s time, and the term applies quite well to Jesus himself; whether the modern meaning of the word would also apply is a different matter.

The basic idea is this: Jesus son of Mary and Joseph was a Nazarene. Right? Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews? Wasn’t that what the Romans wrote on the plaque over his head when they crucified him? So Nazareth is a tiny village in Galilee in northern Israel, where, like almost all of what came to be called Palestine by the Romans, the people lived in mud huts, with their livestock taking up one of the two rooms, spoke Aramaic, could not read or write, and believed that the Temple in Jerusalem was the place where God’s presence existed on Earth, but could only be approached by the High Priest. Jesus was not born in a manger in the barn outside a crowded inn in Bethlehem; his family would have had no reason to travel to Bethlehem, and certainly no Asian kings popped by with gold and frankincense and myrrh to worship at his side. So Jesus was an illiterate dirt-poor laborer – probably not even specifically a carpenter, since wood was an expensive building material that nobody in Nazareth would have been able to afford – whose mother was certainly not a virgin, who had brothers and sisters, and who lived his life under the oppressive control of the Roman empire. That life ended somewhere around 30 C.E. (Because Jesus was probably born around 4 BCE, a factoid that emblemizes absolutely all of the doublethink necessary to accept the Church’s version of this: the man was born four years before the first “year of Our Lord.”) when he was crucified for trying to incite a rebellion against the Roman control of Palestine, and against the corrupt high priests of the Temple. That’s the story told in this book.

Aslan says, and he’s right, that the historical Jesus is worth learning about. It’s a much less grandiose story; take away all of the I-am-the-son-of-THE-LORD-YOUR-GOD stuff, and Jesus had very small and comparatively humble intentions: he wanted to free Israel from the Romans, and (probably) rule the Jews as their king on Earth, the descendant (spiritually if not literally – but maybe literally) of King David, the founder of the nation. But that was plenty of ambition to be going on with, considering the fate of every other would-be messiah and king of the Jews under the Roman occupation. That fate is one of the linchpins of Aslan’s understanding of Jesus, because unlike Jesus himself, there is plenty of historical information about the Romans and crucifixion. He discards all of the standard arguments about Jesus’s trial and Crucifixion, and takes it down to what makes the most sense: the plaque over Jesus’s head was the Roman statement of his crime, not sarcastic, not ironic, but exact. The man wanted to be King of the Jews; he made a splash by gathering a large following, parading into Jerusalem exactly in the manner of an Earthly king, and then busting into the Temple and stirring up shit. The man who would later be turned into the “Prince of Peace” actually wanted the Romans, and the corrupt priests of the Temple, killed: he wanted God to smite them with a curse. (That’s the “zealot” part. The Jews believed that, if one had sufficient zeal for the lord, that God would aid them directly in winning their wars and destroying their enemies. Jesus wanted that, too. He wanted to be a warrior for God and Israel.) This is the rabble-rouser who told his disciples to make sure they brought swords to the Garden of Gethsemane, and if they didn’t have one, to sell their coats and buy two swords. He then got caught, and he got executed; that’s the end of the story – apart from what happened to his legend as it got re-created by his followers and adherents. I’d bet that one of the toughest pieces of this book to read, for a devoted believer in the literal Bible, is when Aslan lists the several would-be messiahs who were all trying to overthrow Roman control of Palestine around the same time: in that list, Jesus is one of the smaller and less impressive ones. Though really, if he was exactly what Aslan says he was, then Jesus of Nazareth had far more faith, courage, and conviction than I can imagine; I have more respect for this patriotic Jewish preacher than I do for the Christ. (I am, of course, an atheist and emphatically not Christian.)

I thought it was fascinating. This book is an outstanding piece of popular historical scholarship. Aslan gives extensive notes that show all sides of the issue, including the work of theologians who disagree entirely with the premise of this book; it is easy to read, clearly explained to a modern person like myself with no fundamental grounding at all in the history or the Bible; at the end, I’m pretty well convinced that he’s right, and I feel like I could sit down and explain the whole thing to someone else. I think that’s the best recommendation I can give.

Truth

It seems to me there are three ways to come at this essay about the different kinds of truth. The first and most obvious – to me, at least – is to quote the diabolical Sideshow Bob from The Simpsons, who, when on the witness stand and told that the court wants the truth, scoffs, “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth! No truth-handler you! Bah, I deride your truth-handling abilities!”

The second (and only slightly less amusing) is to make reference to the classic Dwight Schrute meme where Dwight points out the problem with a statement – here, if I may indulge in a visual, is one of my favorites:

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But I believe I will select the introductory quote about truth that is nearest to my own heart: Dan Rather, the former anchor for the CBS Evening News, said, “The dream begins with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called ‘truth.’”

I would like to poke you with a sharp stick called ‘Truth.’

This would seem, at first, a fruitless enterprise. After all, truth is truth; how can there be kinds of truth? But in fact there are, simply because we are flawed creatures, we humans; we cannot know everything, and so we cannot know absolutes: there may be circumstances and conditions under which anything we think to be true may in fact not be. Therefore there are at least two levels of truth: truth we can know, and truth we cannot because it is absolute and thus requires omniscience. Or more simply, truth we can know and truth we cannot know, but which is nonetheless truth. The key here is to accept that knowing truth changes its truth-value, which is the concept I hope to prove in this essay; the upper limit is truth which requires omniscience to know, but there are degrees leading up to that limit, and recognizable categories, which I will attempt to explicate.

By the way: because I wrote out that Sideshow Bob quote, now my word processor wants to autocomplete “truth” into “truth-hand” every time I write it. This is both wonderful and annoying.

Like truth.

Let us begin with a basic understanding of truth. Truth is perhaps best defined through defining its opposite, falsehood; I would argue that there are essentially two kinds of falsehood, which are one, untruths, and two, lies. Untruths are things – ideas, statements, assumptions – that are not truth because when one attempts to verify them objectively, one finds reality does not match the untruth. If I were to believe it is raining outside because I am in a room with no windows, I can look out through the door and discover whether my belief is true, or untrue: if it is raining then the belief is true, and if it is not raining, then the belief is untrue. This is the first point in arguing that knowing truth changes the truth-value: because the belief that “It is raining outside” is objectively true somewhere, presumably at every possible instant that one could believe it – especially if one broadens the concept of “rain” to include liquid precipitation on other planets and celestial bodies. So sure, it is always raining SOMEWHERE – but unless it is raining where I personally can verify it through my senses, then it doesn’t really matter to the truth-value of my belief; if I were to step outside into a sunny afternoon and say “It’s raining,” someone’s response would likely be

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The second kind of falsehood is a lie: this is when the truth, objectively verifiable through the senses, is known, and an idea is put forward that is known to be counter to that truth. This is when I am in a room with windows, looking out at the sun, and I say, “It is raining.” The advantage for our purpose here is that it doesn’t matter which kind of falsehood it is, the truth is always the same: objectively verifiable through the senses.

But there is a difficulty there. Because there are truths that we have discovered, truths that we know, that are not verifiable through the senses, that are not objective. A strict prescriptivist of truth would argue that these truths are therefore not true, because only objectively verifiable facts can be true. To those people I say: talk to Heisenberg. (And this is funny, because it’s mostly science-y people who would say that, and Heisenberg is about as science-y as you can get. Take that, science!) The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle tells us that when a particle has two complementary properties, such as position and momentum, we cannot know both properties at the same time. If we know precisely where the particle is at a given moment, then we have frozen that particle in time, which means at that instant, to us, it has no momentum: picture it as a snapshot of the particle, showing us where it is, but in that snapshot, it is not moving. Alternatively, we could know the particle’s momentum, its velocity and direction; but we can only measure that by tracking its movement – which means that, over the time period when we re tracking its movement, we cannot say precisely where it was: only give a range, somewhere between Point A and Point B.

The real point is, that particle has both momentum and position, and both of those properties have objective truth, both are definite, verifiable facts – but we can only know one at a time. Knowing one makes it impossible to know the other, but it doesn’t change its truthiness.

Therefore we must add a word to our definition of truth: truth is an idea that is potentially objectively verifiable through the senses. If we had world enough and time, we could verify it; therefore it is true. But I hope we can all see that a truth that is objectively verifiable through the senses has more impact, more weight – more gravity, let us say – than a truth that is only potentially verifiable. If I suspect that the rain falling outside my room is in fact acidic, but I don’t have the instruments to test, then I may want to respond as if it were acidic, and act to protect my plants, let us say; but in the process I will undeniably encounter the verifiable truth of the rain itself: I will get wet. I am more likely to respond to the fact of wetness than to the theory of acid; that truth, then, has more weight, more potential to change my thoughts and actions. That truth has more gravity.

As I was saying, then, the lowest level of truth is one that is only potentially verifiable, but cannot be objectively verified. In fact there is one level of truth lower than that, based on knowledge – or rather, on ignorance; because if knowing a fact gives it more weight, then not knowing gives less. So the lowest kind of truth is truth we don’t know. It’s true, but for us, it is meaningless; because of our ignorance, this is equivalent to the absolute truths we can’t know. In either case, we can’t act on it, or change our thought process or paradigm because of it; it has no impact on us. For us, it might as well not be true, and so it has only the barest sliver of truth. That bottom level is the fact of rain outside a room with no windows and no doors. Or whether or not the worm currently crawling through the earth beneath me is depressed. I don’t know, and so cannot act on it. That’s the lowest kind of truth—and I apologize for using an underground worm’s depression as an example; I really didn’t think about the pun there.

As for truth that could be verifiable but can’t be objectively verified, let’s use as an example the infinite nature of the universe. Is the universe infinite? No idea. We’ll never know. In theory one could find a mathematical proof of it, if we could find the existence of the multiverse and the mechanism whereby new universes are created, but we can’t ever know it for sure. The only thing this kind of truth can do for us is give us a headache: it feels like we could know, but we can’t actually know. This kind of truth is a tease. At best a Zen koan.

Just above that level is an idea that I think is true, but I don’t know why I think it’s true. This kind of truth has the potential of being objectively verifiable, but I as the knower don’t know how to do that, and therefore could never verify it. This is where most racist ideas live. Why do racists think white skin is better than brown skin? They don’t know, but they think it’s true. There are quite a number of outright lies at this level, because people might be able to figure out how to verify their beliefs, but they don’t want to, because the truth will likely be the opposite of what they believe it is. That, in my opinion, is a lie: when I say it’s raining outside, but I refuse to open the door and look because I think it is probably sunny – but I won’t admit that.

The next level up is something that I am sure is true, and that I have evidence for, but which is not clearly objectively verifiable based on my evidence. This is where superstitions are found: Michael Jordan believed that his lucky shorts were one of the reasons for his success, and he wore them for every game he played. He won six NBA championships and three MVP awards wearing those shorts; so there is some evidence that the shorts were lucky. Just not verifiable evidence, because “luck” can’t be tested for – but just like (Okay, not just like) the uncertainty principle, if we were to create a laboratory experiment to confirm that the shorts were not lucky, the element of luck in the form of blind chance or influences on the experiment that we could not control would ruin the results: if we had Michael Jordan play half the time with his lucky shorts and half the time with “control shorts” (Which makes him sound like he has bladder control issues, which is just sad), that doesn’t mean we can make his teammates play the same in both games, or his opponents play the same, or even control all the other factors that go into Michael Jordan playing well or poorly. We can’t prove the shorts are or are not lucky, but there’s objective evidence in the form of success that says they are. And that’s why luck still exists as a concept, and why Jordan wore the same pair of shorts every game for almost fifteen years.

Oh – he did wash them, by the way. After every game.

The next level is one I don’t want to include, but I have to because of the parameters I have set forth. If someone knowing a thing makes it more true than something that nobody knows, then if a lot of people know a thing, it has to be more true than if only one person knows it. Because a known fact has more weight, more gravity, and that is an element of the fact’s truth-value. So the next level up is a thing that is known, with evidence but without objective verification (but still potentially objectively verifiable – have I broken your brains yet?), by a lot of people. I hate this because I don’t want to say that the popularity of an idea has any bearing on its truth, but in fact, if we want to include a truth’s potential to change someone’s mind or behavior – and I do, because otherwise there is no point to speaking about truth at all – then I have to make this a separate and higher level, because something that a lot of people believe to be true has a much greater chance of changing their behavior. This is something like this statement: Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server makes her a poorer candidate for president (Meaning she would have been a worse president than someone otherwise identical but who didn’t use a private email server; the statement that the private email server made her less likely to win is objectively verifiable truth, because: well, look.). A lot of people believed that Clinton’s private email server made her less trustworthy, and therefore a bad candidate for the Presidency. And because a lot of people believed it, with evidence (Because that’s an untrustworthy act) but not objectively verified (Because she never became president and so we can’t see how untrustworthy she would have been in the Oval Office), it had more weight: it had more impact. It changed enough votes that it, along with other factors, changed the outcome of the election. That truth had more value, more gravity, because more people thought it was true.

Are we having fun yet?

The next level is something that is true not because it is objectively verified but because it cannot be disproven. This is sort of an offshoot from the last level, because there isn’t objective verification, but there is somewhat more weight to these ideas because there is an argument to be made for them, that nobody can disprove the idea, that makes it more likely that people will accept it as truth, which increases the truth-value or gravity of the idea. (Don’t worry: we’re almost at the top. Almost at simple truth. But not quite.) This is the level where God lives. The existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, non-material personal deity is impossible to disprove: there is no observation I can make that would prove that God doesn’t exist. According to science, this makes the god-hypothesis false, because it is unfalsifiable; but I’m not talking about science, I’m talking about impact on humans through the intersection of objective reality and knowledge. There are quite a few people who know God’s existence is real, and since God cannot be disproven, that gives the idea more weight than Michael Jordan’s lucky shorts. (You have to be an atheist to make that statement with a straight face. Okay, I was smiling a little when I wrote it.) It moves the truth of religion to a higher level, how’s that? Not objectively proven, but not objectively disproven, either.

But now, at last, after ignorance and belief and faith and falsifiability and religion and – Lord help us – even sports, we come to the simplest level, and nearly the top. This is where we find: the truth. Simple truth. Facts, with known evidence, which are objectively verifiable: I can look out my door and see that it is or is not raining, and I can actually test it to make sure that it is rain. I can step outside, and I will get wet. Truth. Simple truth.

Of course, even this level isn’t that simple, because the evidence of our senses is, sadly, not necessarily reflective of objective reality; all my senses could verify that it is in fact raining, but I could be mad, or in the Matrix. But that moves us over into the question of absolute truth, and since I can’t know absolute truth, it doesn’t matter to me: absolute truth is actually down at that bottom level, truth I don’t know. (There’s no way out of Descartes’ labyrinth here, by the way. In the Matrix, it is possible to know that the Matrix is not real – but then, the second movie shows us that there is another level of truth, that Neo is the sixth version of the One, and the other characters did not know that truth; and then past that there is another level – because the character Neo, like the character of the Architect who makes him, who made the Matrix, don’t know that they’re actually in a fictional movie. The only truth we can ever know is what our senses tell us. Period. Cogito ergo sum.) We take our reality as just that, as reality, and that is all we know, and all we need to know. That is truth.

One level left: that is the important truth. The weighty truth, the truth that is both objectively verified and also able to change thoughts and actions of humans; the kind of truth that makes a paradigm shift, that combines both science and popularity, and therefore moves mountains and changes continents. Proven facts that also have gravity. This is, for example, the truth that every living thing dies.

The truth that love conquers all.

The truth that money makes the world go ’round.

The truth that man’s inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn.

The truth that art is humanity’s highest calling.

The truth that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

The truth that evolution through natural selection is sufficient to explain all complexity in the biosphere.

The truth that we’ll never know how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

My last truth is this: we can handle the truth. We can. We do.

Just not enough.

Spring Break Book Review #7 (The last one): Deus Irae

Image result for deus irae

Deus Irae

by Philip K. Dick and Roger Zelazny

What the hell did I just read?

I haven’t read a lot of Philip K. Dick; I’ve read almost everything by Zelazny. Dick was, according to everything that I’ve heard, a unique visionary when it came to science fiction: his ideas have become some of the most famous in sci-fi, among them the books that inspired the movies Total Recall, Minority Report, and Blade Runner; he was not, however, all that great a wordsmith. (He did win prestigious awards, so maybe this is not a fair description.) I would somewhat agree with this assessment based on this book, but of course the issue is clouded by the fact that it’s a collaboration. Zelazny was one of my favorite wordsmiths, and also had some fascinating ideas; but where is the line drawn in this book?

I dunno; so I suppose I can’t come to any definite judgments here. So let’s just talk about this book on its own merits, shall we?

This is a post-apocalyptic novel; the world has been destroyed by war, by the use not only of nuclear weapons, but also far more destructive devices, nerve gas, global killers that worked by changing the atmosphere and permanently altering the climate (You know, like we’re doing now, voluntarily. It’s saying something that truth not only resembles fiction, but that it also resembles science fiction. Even worse: it resembles the science fiction of Philip K. Dick. Who also wrote The Man in the High Castle, the alternate history novel about Nazis conquering the US during World War II. Just sayin’.). In the wake of this devastation you have both bizarre mutant lifeforms struggling to survive among the ruins, which still includes several artifacts of the pre-war era, and also the rise of a new religion, struggling to survive among the ruins of Christianity, several artifacts of which still exist. And though the book is somewhat about the mutants and war and survival, it’s really much more about religion. And about art.

The main character is a man named, unfortunately, Tibor McMasters, which is something I wouldn’t do to a character I hated, let alone my protagonist; but Dick and Zelazny also made this guy into an “inc,” an incomplete, because he lacks arms and legs. He is nonetheless, with the help of a mechanized cart that has extendible arms and gripping pincers, an artist. He is hired by the new religion, the Servants of Wrath, to paint a church mural depicting their God, the Deus Irae, in his human form: Carleton Lufteufel, the man who pushed the button, pulled the trigger, who started the war that destroyed everything. The Servants of Wrath see him as the manifestation of a god who is essentially evil, but evil for a potentially good purpose: by making humans suffer, the God of Wrath purifies them so that they can move up into a better existence after they escape this incarnation through the blessed relief of death. As a post-apocalyptic religious cult, it makes a whole lot of sense.

The book, unfortunately, does not. I mean, it does: Tibor goes on a quest to find the actual Carleton Lufteufel, hoping to see the man’s real face before he paints his likeness, and this quest goes through difficulties and revelations like the classic hero’s journey; they lift an element out of the Ring Cycle, when Sigurd drinks the blood of the dragon Fafnir and learns to understand the language of the birds; the same thing happens to Tibor, though it may be only a vision granted him by the God of Wrath – who may or may not be real. It’s impossible to say what is reality and what is vision and what is a lie: there seem to be miracles, but there are also some pretty funny absurdist jokes – there’s a race of sentient speaking dung beetles who worship a VW bug as their god; there’s an ancient pre-war automated mechanic that takes one character’s bicycle, turns it first into three tricycles, and then when asked to return the original bike, instead makes it rain pogo sticks. So are we to take the Deus Irae seriously? Or is that just a joke? Got me. There are some fairly straight but extremely unflattering depictions of Christianity, mainly through the Christian priest, who is a complete ass; but the priest of the Servants of Wrath is also an ass. Tibor’s a pretty good guy, and so is his opposite figure, a Christian named Pete Sands (Tibor is ostensibly a member of the SOW church, but he considers converting to Christianity – but is basically rejected by the Christian priest-ass), but these two don’t help us determine which way we should go in terms of religion, whether God is good, but perhaps too rigid in his rules; or if God is evil, but with perhaps good intentions in the end. It is possible that the point is that all religion rests on perception: both Pete and Tibor have religious visions, and maybe those give us real insights into faith and morality; but there is a critical lie that happens at the end of the book, which is never detected: and so maybe it means that all religion is a lie.

I really don’t know. I really don’t know what I just read. I enjoyed parts of it, was deeply confused by other parts, and annoyed more than once, by the setting, and by the characters, and even by the writing. Though I think I may know why: there is a point in the book when Tibor waxes poetic about the Impressionists and the quality of light they sought to capture, which he says is morning light that changes the way everything looks until it burns off around 11am; he mocks Rembrandt, who never painted in the morning light and so is unbelievably easy to imitate (sayeth Tibor), because his figures all have nothing but shadows in their eyes, because all the figures look at nothing, have nothing to see. See, the thing is, I love Rembrandt’s work, and am underwhelmed by the Impressionists; I don’t really think anyone has the skill to re-create Rembrandt, though sure, maybe it’s easier to try, and maybe people can even come close. But I think it would be a whole shitload easier to mix up some bright colors and slap them on a canvas so that they are shaped vaguely like water lilies. And I think a lot of people have been able to do that, and get famous for it, because I don’t know that there is really anything special to see in most Impressionist paintings – it just has a reputation for being something above and beyond what is actually on the canvas, and people are able to bluff their way into that same reputation. (I’m going to throw out the name Willem DeKoonig, though that’s largely an inside joke. And he wasn’t an Impressionist anyway, so I’m off topic.) Anyway: the point is that there seems to be something of a divide between people who paint what they see, and people who try to capture something unseeable. (And maybe some of them succeed. I don’t mean to denigrate the entire Impressionist movement. Or all of the authors I’m about to mention.) I would put Rembrandt in the first category, and the Impressionists in the second. And I think the same division is possible with writers: some try to describe the world exactly as it is, and some try to capture an intangible, unknowable element, try to craft their language in such a way that it creates a second impression, of a different reality, one that is wholly spiritual or intellectual, detached from the words, detached from the sensory impressions. I would put, say, Stephen King or John Steinbeck into the first category, and James Joyce and T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound into the second.

I think Philip K. Dick would have wanted to be in the second category. And I absolutely, without doubt, would rather be in the first. I want nothing more than to be able to write like Stephen King or John Steinbeck, or Mark Twain, or even J.R.R. Tolkien, who was able to describe an entire fantastic world in humble, realistic prose, which is what makes his works so long-lasting and influential, because he started with the line “In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit.” I think that, like Rembrandt, the realism captured in the work of these sorts of authors is deceptively difficult to achieve, and wonderful when it is done right. I kinda think the great effects achieved in the works of Impressionists, and authors who write like the Modernists and their detachment from reality, or like the Post-Modernists and their detachment from meaning, are really just, well, bullshit.

So maybe Philip K. Dick should belong to those science fiction fans who also love James Joyce. And since I can’t stand James Joyce, you all can have them both.

Gun Is God

I saw this on Facebook today. And my immediate reaction was to attack: Well but that isn’t the same thing at all — people have an inherent right to freedom of religion, which is codified in (though not granted by) the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights. And religion isn’t used to kill people. And pssh — Iowa. Come on. Like anything intelligent ever came out of Iowa.

Then I immediately thought: but the right to bear arms is also in the Bill of Rights. Even if I think it shouldn’t be. The Second Amendment does represent a natural right, the right of self-defense. Even if I think there are better ways to go about defending one’s self.

And as for religion: seriously, Dusty? It isn’t used to kill people? Even apart from the indisputable facts that have led to the prejudice represented here (more on the prejudice later), namely the sheer number of Islamic terrorists and war-mongers of the last — what, sixty years? — religion is behind most of the wars of human history, or has at least been used as the justification for them, as well as countless atrocities — the Inquisition, the witch-burnings, the Holocaust, the pogroms, chattel slavery, colonialism — Jesus, do I need to go on?

Absurd of me even to take up this argument, if this is all I have.

But that third one — that’s kind of right. Tom Arnold is from Iowa. So is Michele Bachmann. And Steve King, of course  (The moronic Congressman, not the author.). Ashton Kutcher. Charles Osborne, the guy with the world record for the longest lasting case of hiccups. Sure, there are a couple of scientists and mathematicians on the list of Iowans, several astronauts, and a few authors I like — Bill Bryson, especially — but you don’t get away from Michele Bachmann that easily. Not even with the Ringling Brothers.

So what does this mean? I’ve been arguing against guns for years and years now, and here I find myself stymied. Does it mean I should be changing my stance on gun control? Have I been unfairly critical of gun owners? Has this meme changed my argument? DID IOWA JUST WIN THE GUN FIGHT?!?

Well, no. It didn’t. The problem with this argument is that it equates religion and gun ownership, claiming that a prejudice against one is as morally and intellectually bankrupt as a prejudice against the other. This much is true: prejudice is always morally and intellectually bankrupt. It is also always instinctive for humans because we evolved to be hunter-gatherers and our minds are evolved to discover patterns, so we see them everywhere, and frequently use them as a basis for action and reaction; when we eat  the red berries and they are tasty, then the next time we see red berries, we assume they’ll be tasty. And sometimes they are tasty, and the prejudice is therefore efficient; and sometimes they are toxic and we die, and the prejudice is inefficient. Evolution argues that it is more frequently efficient than inefficient when used as a survival strategy — but that has no bearing whatsoever on the value of prejudice in society. There, the value is almost always outweighed by the costs.

But that doesn’t mean either that gun ownership is equivalent to religion, nor that the argument against gun ownership is equivalent to the argument against Muslims.

First: religion and gun ownership. Sure, both are personal rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Both are defended fanatically on the Fox network. Both are, theoretically, under attack by liberals with an agenda — and neither actually are. And yes, both often catch the blame for atrocities carried out by terrorists.

But religion, however it may have been used in the past, whatever people may think of it, is not a weapon intended to do harm. The goal of religion is truth, and subsequent salvation. The question of relative harm as it is created by religious tenets, as in, “If I allow you to die unshriven, you will burn in Hell forever; therefore I should torture you until you confess your heresy and renounce your beliefs– and then you’ll go to Heaven!” is certainly a troubling one, as religion here grants people a moral justification for doing harm; but that is an application of a specific religious principle, carried out by the person — it is not the intention of the religion as an entity.  Christianity was not founded in order to justify torture or slavery or war. I won’t say that those things are a misuse, as that implies that the actual intended purpose is a correct and proper usage of the religion, and as an atheist I don’t accept that; but I think there can be no argument that religion was not and never has been created intentionally to do harm.

Firearms, on the other hand, were invented, produced, and evolved over time intentionally and specifically to harm others. They exist for that reason. The possession of firearms is considered a right, both a natural right and a right in the Constitution, because of that reason; people may own firearms simply for amusement, but that is not why they feel a right to own them — if so, we’d all have the right to a Playstation 4, and I would currently be suing Sony. We have the right to bear arms because arms are the most effective way to harm others so that those others cannot harm us: the ability of firearms to do harm A)rapidly to multiple targets, B) from a distance that keeps the bearer safe from retaliation, and C) without physical strength, dexterity, or training, is unmatched in the world of weapons. This is why people use the Second Amendment to protect guns, rather than, say, swords and spears and personally owned stealth bombers. It is a disingenuous argument to claim that any weapon could be used to kill another person — and therefore the government can’t take away my gun. There is a reason why guns are the focus of the argument: because they are the most effective and efficient killing machine on the planet. The millions — billions? — who have been shot since the invention of firearms show this.

So we should not make analogies between religion and firearms, not even in criticizing anti-religious prejudice with anti-firearm prejudice. And let me just add: why would you want to do that? When I used to debate online against guns, I was frequently dismissed as a hoplophobe, one who suffers from a morbid and irrational fear of guns; the classic, er, “argument” that goes “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people” is based on the same objective understanding of firearms as inanimate objects, incapable of independent action, and therefore the incorrect focus for the fear felt by those who promote gun control. But this emotionless, objective, apparently logical stance is lost if one makes the comparison between gun owners and devotees of a religion; now those who own firearms are — true believers. Members of the faith. Followers of their prophet/messiahs, Smith and Wesson and Remington and Colt. This is not an opening which gun rights advocates want to give us hoplophobes.

But the real problem with this meme? It’s a meme.  The concept of the meme was created by Richard Dawkins, the British evolutionary biologist; Dawkins described the meme as the modern version of genes, now that mankind survives through social adaptation to environmental pressure, rather than biological adaptation. That is, rather than better genes propagating more than worse genes through reproduction and natural selection, we make adjustments for “bad” genes through our society: we take care of people who can’t survive on their own; we use medicine to give those with “bad” genes a full life; we create niches for those with differing strengths, so both the man with the strong back and the man with the strong mind can survive and thrive. The ideas that create those situations, the belief that family members should take care of those who cannot take care of themselves, for instance, are spread through our culture, and help that culture survive, along with the people who spread it. Our modern human culture is our survival strategy: we live and reproduce because our culture protects us far more than our bodies do.  Because of that, although we are continuously evolving as a species, today, our genes do not change very much; rather, our memes do.

The purpose of a meme, like the purpose of a gene, is not to create the perfect being, or the perfect argument: it is to reproduce. That means it has the qualities that will make it most likely to spread and multiply, not necessarily the best qualities. Blonde hair and blue eyes do not make someone a better human being — but if they make that person more likely to reproduce and spread those genes, then those genes will survive and thrive. Watch Idiocracy: there’s a meme, a reproducible bit of culture, that shows why neither genes nor memes need to be the best to be the most successful. It shows, in fact, how memes are become more powerful than genes in human evolution: successful memes actually make people’s genes worse, and the people themselves less biologically adapted to survive.

So this:

is not the best thought, not the best argument, but it is likely to be reproduced and propagated; therefore, it is a successful meme.

What internet memes do — what the meme that started this blog did — is oversimplify, because on the internet, simplicity is king. That’s why so many memes are crude line drawings, or this sort of simple joke. They use the same photos again and again, and the same font, and the same sentence structures and joke patterns because those things have been selected, have proven successful in the past, have been propagated and reproduced.

And all of that’s fine. Memes are jokes, and plenty of them are funny — this one cracks me up:

And this one is not only funny but true:

But none of the things that make these successful memes make them good thoughts or good arguments. Just — good at grabbing people’s attention so they click “Share.”

So for that, this meme

is successful, because it has an interesting enough idea, formulated in an eye-catching way — with a picture that is both relatable and idealized, because that guy looks ordinary and also badass; and using the all-caps font with red for a highlight; short words, simple sentences, rhetorical question — and so it was shared. And it is also successful in that it provokes thought: it took me some time to work my way through the meme’s rhetorical question and come to my answer. Time spent thinking is always good.

The answer is: no. It is not time the 80 million gun owners in America get the same treatment. First because gun ownership is not a religion, and the analogy doesn’t work. Second because although there is a right to self-defense, it should not be realized through firearms, which are unnecessarily deadly even when used to protect one’s self. The Second Amendment is wrong: arms should be regulated, for the safety of all, because private gun ownership creates as much danger as it eliminates, and generally more; the presence of weapons creates a feeling of safety far more often than it creates actual safety, and yet those weapons are most often used to do more harm than could be done without them. We could certainly get into a debate about personal liberty versus safety — so long as nobody quotes the Benjamin Franklin meme. Which oversimplifies and relies entirely on the persuasive power of the author’s name.

Lastly, the answer is No because, simply put, gun owners have never been treated the way that Muslims have. Yes, massacres that have been carried out with firearms have led to calls for gun control — but thanks to the Second Amendment, they have never led to even the beginning of a discussion of banning guns. Armed police and military are expected and appreciated. The only gun law that was passed using a mass shooting as impetus, the Brady Bill’s ban on assault weapons, was allowed to expire, because gun owners and manufacturers made it pointless. We can still buy extended clips like Jared Lee Loughner used in Tucson when he shot Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others — without reloading — and we can still buy weapons online as James Holmes did before he shot 82 people in Aurora. People speak out against guns, as they do against Muslims (And let me note the prejudice inherent within the meme itself, when it claims that every terrorist attack is related to Islam — only days after Dylann Roof killed nine people in a church in South Carolina. With a gun given to him for a birthday present, and therefore requiring no background check. He could also have done what Adam Lanza did, and used his parents’ guns.), but no laws ever pass, no action is ever taken. No innocent gun owners are beaten in the streets as happened after 9/11; no gun owners are unfairly targeted in airport searches; nothing has been done that is analogous to the Bible Belt states’ bans on Sharia law. No Baptist preachers are burning Guns & Ammo.

We have not yet invaded Austria to eliminate the Glock company.

 

In summation, all I have to say to this meme is this: