Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Knowing What You're Dumb At

You may not be this kind of dumb, but I am. I don't think most people are as dumb as me in this sense, actually. What I'm talking about isn't generally thought of as a kind of stupidity; but it is. It's a sort of numbness of consciousness; a true failure to pick up some of the world's more important frequencies. What happens is, I get blinded by clever little ideas. I'll get fixated on some interesting intellectual problem, and it swells in my consciousness until it doesn't let other things through. The result is a kind of blindness to other kinds of thoughts and feelings. It's a double-blindness, too, because I don't even realize how blind I am. I don't have a sense that I'm missing anything, any more than a colorblind person sees which colors he can't see. His slightly washed-out world is what he sees as normal. What else is there to see?

Occasionally, though, something will shrink all my intellectual musings down to a more appropriate size, and my perceptions come unclogged for a little bit. The camera lens gets cleaned. I land, like Dorothy in Oz, and realize it's all been black and white until just now. It's a new world. Who knew there were this many colors?

Times like that are when I realize how most of my waking hours are filled with this kind of stupidity. It happens when I get around my friends or family, or maybe out into nature, and forget to do all that nit-picky philosophizing. That's when I realize how dumb I am most of the time. That's when I see that I haven't truly been noticing the wonder of the world, or how great my loved ones are, or how much I truly do love them in ways I don't even grasp most of the time. Whatever books smarts I might have, I'm feeling foolish.

I'm not speaking metaphorically here. I really do think this is a kind of stupidity. Here's an analogy. Imagine you've never quite grasped math (this is easy for me, because that's another kind of stupidity I'm prone to.) Math seems opaque and slightly terrifying. But then, the White Rabbit appears. He pulls a pill from his vest and tells you to swallow it. Suddenly, math makes sense. You just SEE how prime numbers work, or how to solve a polynomial. You even see a new beauty in math, which you never knew was there before. A whole new world has come into focus.

That's exactly what it's like for me when I ditch all this cogitating and really see things, or more to the point really feel things. And not just things, but people. I connect with them then. Oftentimes I don't. I'm not a people person. Never have been. But these times are when I truly see the people in my life and think: My God! It's all so precious. So fleeting. Why am I so stupid so much of the time?

Even when it's happening, though, I know I can't stay in such a hypersensitive state forever. I know I might even be embarrassed by the things I wrote or said in that state when I'm no longer in it. (I'm mildly embarrassed now by some of the lines above, and I have to make myself leave them in.) There's probably a good reason we live more of our lives in prose than poetry.

But at the same time, I know I'm also experiencing something real--more real, probably, than the things that occupy me most of the time. It is a species of of truth you see in that state, and it's every bit as true as the claim that 2 + 2 = 4.

The Romans used to say in vino veritas: in wine there is truth. That could just mean people are more likely to say what's on their mind when they're in their cups, and that's surely accurate, but I think it can also mean something deeper. I think the Romans realized wine is one thing that can shift your perspective and make you open to a different kind of truth, which you normally perceive only dimly. Wine doesn't just make you speak the truth; it can make you see the truth. Of course, alcohol is only one route, and not one you want to take often. But there are others. You can read something great, or go lose yourself in a movie, or hear a great piece of music, or stay up too late with your friends---there are many paths to the same peak, as the saying goes.

The view from up there is stunning, but you know it won't last. You know you'll have to start back down again. You know you'll wake up tomorrow and be stupid again. You couldn't really live up there anyway, could you? That daytime self will assert itself in the morning, and scoff at the freewheeling self of the wee hours and high places. But it's not as smart as it thinks it is.

Each state is good for things the other isn't, but that workaday self is, in a very real sense, stupid. It's blind and numb to a lot of what matters in life. That's true in my case, anyway, and I think it is for most others, too, if perhaps to a lesser extent. Somebody once said, "Half of being smart is knowing what you're dumb at." I'm always thinking and reading, and trying to be as smart as I can be in a purely intellectual sense. But paradoxically, that very activity also makes me dumb in other ways, and I don't realize it until something knocks me out of that normal, cerebral way of looking at things. That's when I see what I need to learn if I want to be truly intelligent. That's when I see what I'm dumb at.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Skipping the Big Kablooie

The image trembles, distorts, then fades into crackling static. A figure appears on the screen. On all the screens. He speaks.


Um, that's what I'm supposed to say, right?

This how it's done in your movies, anyway. The aliens interrupt TV broadcasts all around the world. People in bars stop talking and stare at the screen...Hey! You're really doing it! Cool! Hi!

First of all, I'm not actually George Takei. This is just an avatar. Takei is the man, but he can't make himself appear on every TV screen in the world at the same time. But I am an alien! I'm actually something called DQLF...a Distributed Quantum Life Form. I don't have a body, exactly. I'm sort of spread out across the whole universe. Imagine if the internet were conscious, but instead of existing across millions of computers, it existed across billions of galaxies. That's me--a sort of distributed consciousness, held together across spacetime by a quantum process your scientists don't yet understand.

I can't explain exactly how it works. First, your minds only work in three dimensions, not eleven, and second, I'm afraid you might use the equations it to blow up your whole damn planet.

That's what I'm here to talk to you about, actually. You see, I've been around. I'm pretty old, by your standards. I had my last birthday around the time your ancestors were coming down from the trees. I turned nine! Nine billion, I mean. Man, what a party...I'm still a little hungover. Anyway, I've been around a while. I've seen how things tend to go down in this universe (and several others) and to be honest, I've started to get a little depressed.

When you've watched intelligent life evolve on a few million planets, you discover it's pretty predictable. It seems so promising at first. You watch some clever creature develop a real culture. They make tools and start using complex languages. Fascinating mythologies begin to unfold. Art and music appear in some form, as well as philosophy and literature. A rudimentary technology develops. They figure out their planet isn't flat, and the next thing you know, they're mapping out the periodic table, scratching their heads over quantum mechanics, and realizing just what an astounding universe they've found themselves in. You think, "Hey, they're about to really figure some stuff out!"

And right about then...KABLOOIE! They blow themselves to smithereens.

They don't always take the whole planet with them. The smaller cataclysms are just another mass extinction, like an asteroid impact or mega-volcano. Every living planet goes through a few of those, and life usually bounces back in a few million years. Sometimes, though, there's not even a planet left. Some of these creatures go out with a bang like you wouldn't believe. One species over in the Virgo Cluster actually imploded themselves. Nothing there but a black hole now. It's a sort of cosmic superfund site now.

It's a pity, really, because intelligent life is rare in the universe. It happens, but not as much as you might think. Most planets are gorgeous to look at, but they're stone cold dead.

This isn't surprising, if you think about it. Consider the statistics. Spiral galaxies like yours contain a few hundred billion stars, and most of them have a handful of planets along for the ride. That adds up to trillions of planets per galaxy, but most of them are totally uninhabitable. They're too cold, too hot, too radioactive... too deadly, in one way or another. Only a few billion in each galaxy are reasonably hospitable--at least to things that evolve there and adapt to their conditions.

But on most of them, nothing will. Even on those habitable planets, the origin of life is a million-to-one chance. It's less likely than a royal flush in a game of Texas Hold'em. But that means it still happens several thousand times in a galaxy the size of the Milky Way.

Still, most living planets are pretty boring. They're basically giant petri dishes with nothing more complex than a slime mold. That's how Earth was for a couple billion years, and believe me, I didn't hang around to watch.

But then...every once in a get two royal flushes in the same game! You'll find a planet with some truly complex, interesting life. That's when things get fun to watch! Just look at life on this planet; at all the diversity you have here. I mean, you've got fish with both eyes on the same side of their heads! You there in Baltimore--you're eating one right now. Did you ever stop to think what an amazing creature that flounder was? You guys are so fascinated by aliens, but your own planet is full of life that's totally alien to most of you--photosynthetic sea slugs, trees with exploding fruit, bacteria that live on chemicals at the bottom of the ocean. And then there's all those freaky hairless apes with bulbous craniums--even I've never seen anything quite like that. And this is just one little planet, and not one that's going to win best in show.

What I'm saying is, when complex ecosystems appear on a planet,'s just glorious. I can watch those for eons. Of course, it's hardly ever a peaceful process. I've found that evolution works more or less the same way across the universe. Resources are always limited, so there's competition. Living things evolve by doing whatever it takes to survive and reproduce. That means they fight and eat each other a lot. Even the ones that can make their own food out of air and starlight (like the plants here on earth) fight for it. They struggle to grow taller, poison each other, strangle each other--some forests are like slow motion bar fights. And so it goes, on up through the food chain. It's not that nature is immoral. It's just amoral. Nature just does whatever works.

And here's what a lot of people don't get about evolution. You often hear people say animals act for the "good of the species." Wrong. That's not how evolution works. There's just about as much strife within species as between them. Sometimes more. You might get some cooperation among individuals if they're related, or if they can't survive any other way. Or occasionally, you get cooperation among very intelligent creatures.

But that's rare. The emergence of truly intelligent life with a complex culture is like three royal flushes in the same card game. The odds against it are astronomical. But you know what else is astronomical? The universe! I mean, that's where the word comes from, right? So, your average big galaxy will generally have a handful of complex cultures developing at any given time. Just a few of them, scattered among a hundred billion stars.

And you know what that means? It means you humans are, in fact, pretty special. You're not the only brainy species that's ever evolved, and you're damn sure not the most sophisticated, but like every other one in the universe, you're unique.

Unique, but predictable. Like most similar species, you're quarrelsome. You're tribal, in the negative sense of the term. Small-minded, and yet...astoundingly egotistical! As soon as you got the least bit of self-awareness, you decided the universe revolves around you. Remember that Fishbone album, Give a Monkey a Brain and He'll Swear He's the Center of the Universe? You don't listen to Fishbone? OK, never mind. What I'm saying is, you humans get the idea that whole damn universe is about you--maybe even about your own little ethnic sub-group. Most of you actually still believe this! Do you realize how BIG it is out there? It would be totally hilarious--even endearing, like a toddler who says he's the president--if the results weren't usually tragic. But they are. Because you're not toddlers, and those aren't popguns you're playing with.

I've seen it a million times. A single species will develop hundreds of different cultures and languages. It's a new kind of evolution--faster and more subtle than biological evolution. The variety is amazing and beautiful, but for some reason, the species it happens to have trouble handling it. All too often, it makes them think of members of the other cultures as lesser beings. As outsiders. Enemies. You know how so many tribes here on earth have a name for themselves that means something like The Real Humans? It's the same story across the whole universe. It's amazing, really. Every little tribe of Zorks calls themselves "The Real Zorks" in a thousand different Zork languages. Same with the Blapfooms, the !Squamboozicks, the Yuck'Stapyws, you name it. You're all just alike that way!

Like I said, it would be funny if it weren't so tragic. You get different cultures pouring most of their new-found intellect into finding new ways to kill each other. After a few thousand generations of this, when you finally learn to write and start compiling your histories, what do you write about? Wars! Art, literature, philosophy, science--all those things are infinitely more noble than war, but you give them so much less attention. What's up with that?

What I'm saying is, all though the universe, rare and clever species like you develop your weapons faster than your wisdom. You focus on competition more than cooperation, and hate more than love. You do get sages who tell you to love thy neighbor and follow the Golden Rule. You get people like Gandhi, who say extremely sensible things like, "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind." You hang pictures of those people on your walls, but all too few of you really follow them.

Sadly, science is what gets you in the end. You could have used it to expand your horizons and understand your place in the universe. And some of you do. But others don't want understanding. They don't want to expand their minds. They just want to expand their arsenals and help their own little nation, or more often, themselves. Why do you keep making those types your leaders? Can't you see what this sort of thing leads to? Each little tribe or nation keeps thinking it's God's favorite, while their weapons keep getting more deadly. Eventually, they'll learn to make nuclear missiles, or synthetic viruses, or nanobot assassins, or some other such horror. That's when the countdown begins, usually. I've started turning my head and plugging my ears (well, metaphorically speaking) as soon as the first mega-weapon is invented.

But you know what? Every once in a while, something wonderful happens. I'll cringe and brace myself, but the big kablooie never comes. Every once in a while, an intelligent, culturally-sophisticated species will squeak past that dangerous period when their weapons are bigger than their minds. They'll realize what a tiny planet they live on, and that everything on it is basically in the same boat--not just every tribe and nation, but every species. They learn to cooperate...not perfectly, of course, but well enough not to destroy each other or the planet they live on. That may not sound like a big achievement, but it is. Just look at you. You've figured out how to land space probes on planets millions of miles away, but you haven't figured out how to stop going to war. You wouldn't think not doing something would be the harder of those two things, but apparently it is.

But still, what I'm saying is, there's hope. I mean, your situation is totally dangerous, but it's far from hopeless. Across the universe, intelligent species who make it past this gauntlet are uncommon, but not unheard of. It's not like drawing another royal flush. It's more like a full house. It doesn't happen in every hand, but it happens often enough, and in this game it's OK to stack the deck. Please--stack the deck!

It's worth a shot, folks. Once a civilization gets past that gauntlet, that's when things really start to get fun. Take it from me. I came from one of those civilizations. I remember the nasty little wars we fought way back in the day. I remember the species we drove to extinction. But somehow, we got past it. And you wouldn't believe what happened next. We went on to discover things, to see things, even to become things, that you literally can't imagine. At least, you can't imagine them yet.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

When Metaphors Fly Under the Radar

You know how sometimes when you're reading, you'll come upon a word or phrase you've seen all your life, and see it in a whole new light? All the sudden, you really see it, as if you had just learned it for the first time. I do this all the time. I'll see the word "rooster" and think, "Oh...they're called that because they roost." When I moved to Louisiana, where people often have real, hinged shutters for their windows in case of hurricanes, I realized shutters are named for what they do--they shut.

A while back, did this with the word "past", as in, "That's all in the past." The word is a noun here, but this time it looked more verb-y to me. I realized "past" sounds like "passed", and started wondering if that's actually where it came from. Turns out it does, at least according to this amazing amateur etymological dictionary.  Before the late 1500's, people said an event from a previous time was "passed", and they eventually compressed it into "past". The newer word is generally used as a noun, so we don't recognize the sense of motion conveyed by "passed". Looking at the word's history reveals that it's based on a metaphor, which treats the passage of time as something physically moving by us. Time past is time passed.

In fact, this metaphor is so common, it's hard to see it as a metaphor at all. We say things like, "That's all behind us now" without ever realizing that we're speaking metaphorically. But we are--what's in the past isn't really behind us in a spatial sense, any more than people in higher tax brackets are physically above us. But time is a tough thing to think about, so it's a handy shortcut to think of it in terms of space or motion; as something that moves through space. Even when we think of the past as a noun, we're still thinking in spatial metaphors. We imagine the past as being like a place, even though though it really isn't in any simple sense (yes, Einstein showed that space and time are two sides of the same coin, but that's not exactly intuitive to most of us.)

So, we think of time as something moving by us or as a place.  That's two spatial metaphors for time, and there are probably a bunch more. Why do our minds work this way? Why do they use spatial analogies to make sense of more subtle abstract concepts? It makes sense if we consider that way back when brains first evolved, they weren't used for abstract thinking. They were for helping animals move around in space. A fish's brain, for example, is mostly for coordinating its senses with its movements, so it can swim around, find food, and avoid predators. Brains were originally very much about the physical world. So, it's no surprise that when some animals started thinking abstractly, they used the framework already in place for navigating through space. In the case of humans, we started thinking of time as being analogous to space.

We think of other abstract things in spatial terms, too. Good is up, and bad is down, even though good things aren't necessarily above bad thing. "That guy is the lowest of the low," we say, even if he's 6'5". Status is also seen in terms of up and down. We say a colleague "rose" in the corporation, even if--spatially speaking--they merely moved sideways down the hall. We speak of people falling from grace, lifting themselves out of poverty, and being part of the upper crust. The metaphor is so natural, it's hard to even realize it is a metaphor. It's even hard to avoid using spatial terms. Try saying that someone has high status without using a spatial word like "high".

Of course, we think with other metaphors besides spatial ones. In addition to thinking of goodness in terms of "up" (her reputation was above reproach), we also think of goodness in terms of cleanliness (her reputation was spotless). Conversely, bad is not just down, it's also dirty. A swindle is a dirty trick as well as a lowdown thing to do.  Anger is heat, or internal pressure: "She's boiling mad."  A test can be "hard" even if the questions are printed on silk, and a rock-solid bodybuilder can be "soft" on his children.  It goes on and on. Once you start noticing this sort of thing, you see it everywhere. Proofreading this post just now, I noticed that I had used the word "hard" for "difficult" twice in the previous paragraph. I was unconsciously using metaphors to talk about how we use unconsciously use metaphors!

Language is full of metaphors (even though language is not bucket-shaped, and can't literally be full of anything.) And it's not just the clever new metaphors that poets try to come up with, but old, fossilized ones that no longer strike our fancy. When I say I'm looking forward to getting a new computer, nobody says, "What an interesting way to put it!"  Maybe they reacted that way the first time someone said it, but I doubt it.  The "time = motion or path through space" metaphor is probably wired into our brains.  But language is full of other metaphors that probably did seem clever at one point, and go unnoticed now. The first time someone said "She's very bright", instead of "She's very intelligent", it may have seemed like a catchy turn of phrase. After a while, the new metaphor (luminosity = intelligence) turned into a standard, alternate meaning of the word "bright".

This is one way the meaning of words evolves. Think about the words "past" and "passed" again. Pass came from the Latin word passus, meaning "step" (this is also where the word "pace" comes from).  In Old French, it came to mean "walk", and in medieval English it came to mean "move by."  That's what it still means in modern English, but it can also mean other, more abstract things.  Today, if we say we passed an exam, we probably just mean we didn't fail it. We can say it without thinking in terms of moving past the exam to other things, but that's where the usage came from, and realizing it gives us a brief glimpse of the way our ancestors conceptualized the word.

Looking at language and thought this way is fascinating to me because it adds so much depth (another spatial metaphor). This viewpoint lets you look under the surface, to see the cogs and gears underlying our words and thoughts. Plus, there's always that pleasure of finding connections. I never though about "past", "pass", and "pace" as being related until just a few days ago, but the discovery was rewarding, and my view of how English speakers think and speak will always be just a little richer for it. Well...richer in a metaphorical sense, anyway.


A couple of good reads about this stuff:

Body of Thought: How Trivial Sensations Can Influence Reasoning, Social Judgment and Perception

Stephen Pinker, The Stuff of Thought

Monday, July 14, 2014

Stepping Away

This is the last post I'm writing about religion for a while. I've sworn it off for the next two months, minimum. I'm not going to mention religion on Facebook for two months either. I need to step back. I've been too mouthy, commenting when I probably should have just bit my tongue. I need to give my religious friends a break, and I need to give myself a break. I feel my attitudes hardening. I feel skepticism taking a turn toward bitterness. Not toward religion in general, or toward Christianity, or any other religious tradition, but toward fundamentalism--fundamentalism in any religion. Toward the idea--held with so much certainty by so many--that all we need to do to fix the world is follow every letter of one old, pre-scientific set of writings or another.

Of all the issues in the world, I don't fully understand why fundamentalism bothers me most of all. I think a big part of it right now is that my two best friends in town are a lesbian couple, and I see what they have to deal with from fundamentalist Christians. They have high school friends who won't associate with them now, who tell them how they're sinning in the sight of the Lord. They love each other as much as any couple I know, but they can't even hold hands or kiss in public without getting dirty looks. They tell me they've always been attracted to women, and never had any choice in their sexual orientation, and I believe them. Who would know better than them, and besides, did I have a choice? But the fundamentalists think they know better. It's just a lifestyle, they say. A choice, and the wrong one. It makes me sad and angry. It's getting very hard to forgive the people who are denouncing them for who they are.

Or maybe my problem with fundamentalism is my view of science and nature. I see science as telling an amazing, beautiful story of the evolution of the universe--of nature, in the largest, grandest sense of the word. I even spent several years trying to write a book about it (unsuccessfully), and made an educational poster and website about it (somewhat more successfully). It's all based on mainstream science and hard evidence; on data painstakingly collected by scientists over centuries. As for me, I've spent way too much of my life reading way too many books, trying to teach myself how this stuff works. I've forgone things like marriage and children because I'd rather try to figure out what's true and how it might fit together. I'm not an especially hard worker, but I've worked hard on this. I'm no brilliant scholar, but I've done my best to understand how science and nature work.

But there are many who think it's all baloney. Who? Once again, fundamentalist Christians. Why? Because one single book, written by ancient people who thought the Earth was flat, tells a different story--a story featuring a talking snake, a man made from clay, and a woman made from his rib. It is a grand story, to be sure--one of the taproot myths of our culture--but it's based on tradition, not evidence or data. Yes, it claims the universe is millions of times younger than science says, and yes, you would have to abandon most of modern science to believe it literally, but people still want to teach it in science class. In public schools. Whether the students are Christians or not. Because government, as well as science, should be based on that one book, too. And everybody should be a Christian, anyway, because if they're not they're going to hell.

So. Some of my dearest friends are sinners, science is mostly wrong, and the universe is not remotely as grand as I thought. Not only that, but because of something my distant ancestors did (the clay man and the rib woman), God decreed that I was born deserving to be roasted in hell for all eternity. But he loves me! Of course, I can avoid all that, if I agree not to to think for myself and draw my own conclusions; but to accept on faith that his son died for my sins. As the tone of this paragraph might suggest, it's enough to make me a little bitter.

Anyway, it was last night when I realized I need step back last night, while reading about...religion. My interests go in cycles. I'll read everything I can find about one topic for a month or two, and then lose interest and move on to something else. Last month it was geology. This month it's been religion: philosophy of religion, textual analysis of the Bible, the history of Christianity and its ideas of God, and so on. But I got tired of dry and scholarly works, and had picked up a book called The Book of God. It's a novelization of the Bible, published by Zondervan--an evangelical Christian publisher. Which isn't the kind of thing I normally read, but it was written by Walter Wangerin, a well-regarded author who won a National Book Award for the fantasy The Book of the Dun Cow. So I gave it a shot.

It's pretty good, at least so far. I recommend it if you want to acquaint or reacquaint yourself with the the stories of the Bible, which (whatever you believe) are a major cultural foundation of the western world. I have read the Bible, but as usual, I had forgotten too much of it, so I wanted to reactivate some of those memories without tackling the whole thing again.

I was enjoying it, too. I mean, parts of it disturbed me--God asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham's unquestioning willingness to do so, God killing the firstborn children of Egypt (were they to blame for Pharaoh's stubbornness?), Moses butchering those who had worshiped the golden calf--but I was glad I was reading it. It is one of the world's great epics, after all.

But then the Israelites got to Jericho. Jericho is one of the oldest settlements in the world. People have been settling near its desert springs for the last 11,000 years--almost back to the end of the ice age. When the Israelites got there, led by Joshua, they destroyed it. Utterly. As Joshua 6:15-21 tells the story:
15 On the seventh day they rose early, at dawn, and marched around the city in the same manner seven times. It was only on that day that they marched around the city seven times. 16 And at the seventh time, when the priests had blown the trumpets, Joshua said to the people, “Shout! For the Lord has given you the city. 17 The city and all that is in it shall be devoted to the Lord for destruction. Only Rahab the prostitute and all who are with her in her house shall live because she hid the messengers we sent. 18 As for you, keep away from the things devoted to destruction, so as not to covet and take any of the devoted things and make the camp of Israel an object for destruction, bringing trouble upon it. 19 But all silver and gold, and vessels of bronze and iron, are sacred to the Lord; they shall go into the treasury of the Lord.” 20 So the people shouted, and the trumpets were blown. As soon as the people heard the sound of the trumpets, they raised a great shout, and the wall fell down flat; so the people charged straight ahead into the city and captured it. 21 Then they devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys. [Italics added]
Then Joshua cursed anybody who ever tried to rebuild the city.

His curse didn't take. Jericho was rebuilt, and is still there to this day. In fact, there's no archaeological evidence that Joshua's destruction of Jericho ever happened. Most historians think it didn't. I find that rather comforting, but still, it's a truly brutal story. One of the world's oldest cities destroyed, and its population--human and animal--slaughtered, by an invading army aided by of a violent God who prefers one ethnic group over another.

I had just started this book, and already multitudes of men, women, and children had been killed. And not by the book's villains, but by God and his chosen people. I had to take a break. So I got on my computer, and stumbled across the poem The Summer Day, by Mary Oliver. I don't want to post the whole thing here without permission, but click and give it a read, if you would. I'll wait.

I don't exactly know what the word "spirituality" means for most people, but that poem captures what it means for me. It isn't dogmatic or violent. It's gentle, observant, questioning, and reverent. She doesn't claim to have all the answers. She doesn't declare who made the world, or what prayer should be, or what happens after we die. She asks. She wonders. You wouldn't want to live your whole life according to that poem, probably (though I almost have) but there's a lot of wisdom there.

Anyway, after the brutality of the story of Jericho, the poem soothed me. The juxtaposition sent me into one of those mellow, thoughtful, half-melancholy/half-sublime states we all need ever so often. But it wasn't that late yet, so I went back to reading The Book of God.

I should have waited a while. After the battle of Jericho, Joshua's armies lost their nerve and were routed by the armies of Ai. God told Joshua he had taken their nerve because Israel had sinned against him. One of them had taken loot from Jericho. It was Achan, a man who Wangerin had made a sympathetic character. And so, according to Joshua 7:
24 Then Joshua and all Israel with him took Achan son of Zerah, with the silver, the mantle, and the bar of gold, with his sons and daughters, with his oxen, donkeys, and sheep, and his tent and all that he had; and they brought them up to the Valley of Achor. 25 Joshua said, “Why did you bring trouble on us? The Lord is bringing trouble on you today.” And all Israel stoned him to death; they burned them with fire, cast stones on them, 26 and raised over him a great heap of stones that remains to this day. Then the Lord turned from his burning anger.
That was enough for me. I turned off my Kindle and went to bed, depressed. That's the God I should worship? That's the God of love I'm always hearing about? I mean, I can see how that's the same God who decreed I would go to hell for the sins of my ancestors if I don't think the way he tells me too. But I'm just not seeing much love in all this. Am I crazy? Am I missing something obvious that others can easily see? Am I the bad guy for saying that these are terrible things this God is doing? I know some people who will say so. And I will never, ever understand.

I know the majority of religious people, including most fundamentalists, are basically good at heart. They are mostly trying to do the right thing, based on their understanding of what the right thing is. I know many of them are better people than me--kinder, more selfless people than me, often as a direct result of their religion (but based on books other than Joshua, I suspect). Some of them are far smarter and more learned than me. But I cannot and will not worship Joshua's God. I can't even believe such a God exists (though perhaps a grander and more universal one does). I'm convinced that if people insist on following those old writings about that violent, tribal God, we will never rise above our violent, tribal past, or see beyond the small, pre-scientific universe of our ancestors. We have to step away from fundamentalism, before it ruins us. And I have to step away from thinking about it, at least for a while, before it drives me crazy.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Perks of Demon-Free Living

Martin Shongauer, St. Anthony Possessed by Demons
At the library where I work, there's a certain kind of patron who comes in and says, "Can you tell me where to find books on...(and here there's a dramatic, vaguely defiant pause)...the OCCULT?" They usually seem a little let down that I don't gasp, give them a dirty look, tell them Jesus loves them, or something. I just smile and say, "Sure, right back here."

These dramatic dabblers in the dark arts seem to want to be shocking or scary. They would dissappointed to hear that a different s-word pops into my mind when I hear talk about the occult: silly. As far as I'm concerned, they might as well be asking for books about training unicorns. They're reading about things that don't exist. If they go home and draw up a pentagram and burn some candles or something, they might freak themselves or their parents out, but outside of their own mind, precisely nothing will happen.

I've never seen any convincing evidence that dark supernatural forces (or any other supernatural forces) actually exist. I believe the world works according to regular natural laws. Nature doesn't care what kind of incantations you mutter. It doesn't alter its laws because you go digging up mandrakes at midnight or wear a hood and chant. That's not the kind of world we live in. Its levers are physical and psychological, not supernatural.

People often say they feel sorry for me when I express disbelief in the supernatural. I do see why they feel that way. If they fervently believe in the more positive aspects of traditional ideas of the supernatural--that prayer can cure illness, or that we go to heaven after we die, or that Jesus is still alive and loves us--those ideas would give them enormous comfort, and they would feel sorry for someone who didn't believe they were true.*

But there's a flip side to this equation. Yes, it can be depressing not to believe in the sunnier side of the supernatural, but it's also pretty nice not to believe in its dark side. It's nice not to believe in malevolent ghosts and demons. It's nice not to worry about bad omens. I once walked through an old cemetary next to my house in Baton Rouge, and saw two black cats mating on top of an above-ground tomb. I thought, "Wow. I'm glad I'm not superstitious, because if I were I would go straight home and lock the door." People throughout history have been paralyzed with real fear by such sights. I can just laugh it off. A common belief around the world is that sorcerers can make your penis retract into your body. This is something that truly terrifies some people to this day. Some Europeans believed it in the Middle Ages. In the Malleus Mallificarum, the notorious manual for witch hunters, we find this remarkable passage: "And what, then, is to be thought of those witches who in this way sometimes collect male organs in great numbers, as many as twenty or thirty members together, and put them in a bird’s nest, or shut them up in a box, where they move themselves like living members, and eat oats and corn." I'm really happy not to lose sleep over this happening to me.

Of course, I don't want to suggest that most Christians who feel sorry for me are superstitious in these archaic ways. Most of them aren't (though many still are, especially in other countries). But they do commonly believe things I'm very glad to think aren't true. Once I had a job as a day camp leader for kids at a resort community in Arkansas. We were doing some kind of craft, and one of the kids surprised me by mentioning how they had talked about demons in Sunday school. I was thinking, "Demons? Seriously? In Sunday school?" when the lady leading the craft activity surprised me even more by saying, "Well, that's great. I think demons are one of the most important things Christians need to learn about."

Many of the Christians I know would disagree, but such beliefs aren't that uncommon. Roughly half of Americans believe in demon possession, and the Catholic Church still has official rites of exorcism. Justice Antonin Scalia, one of the most powerful men in the country, got irritated with a reporter recently who expressed surprise that he believed in the devil:
You’re looking at me as though I’m weird. My God! Are you so out of touch with most of America, most of which believes in the Devil? I mean, Jesus Christ believed in the Devil! It’s in the Gospels! You travel in circles that are so, so removed from mainstream America that you are appalled that anybody would believe in the Devil! Most of mankind has believed in the Devil, for all of history. Many more intelligent people than you or me have believed in the Devil.
I don't know how the reporter was looking at him, but he is right that most Americans (fifty-something percent, depending on the survey) believe in the devil. Anyone surprised by that figure really is out of touch.

But even if 100% of the people throughout history had believed it, that wouldn't make it true. Personally, I do not believe in the devil, and I really like it that way. Believing there is a super-powerful, evil genius bent on destroying the human race--that does come with certain worries. It's also quite nice not believing in hell. If you're a traditional Christian believer in hell, who thinks that anyone who doesn't accept Jesus as savior goes there, that means you believe that most of the people who have ever existed are currently languishing in hell. Billions and billions of people, suffering eternal torment, right this minute. I am thrilled to think that isn't true.

But don't get me wrong. It's not that I don't believe it because it makes me happy not to. I can't very well say, "You can't just believe heaven exists because it would be upsetting to think it didn't," and then turn around and commit the same fallacy (the consequentialist fallacy) with hell. No, the reason I don't believe in these things is that I've never seen any good evidence that they exist. I've never seen anything to indicate that the world's workings are based on the action of dark forces or entities that somehow exist outside of natural law. There are always simpler, naturalistic explanations that don't require us to postulate complex supernatural entities.  I certainly can't prove such entities don't exist, of course. But that's not where the burden of proof lies. If you're saying, for example, that hell exists, but you can't find it with a telescope, seismograph, or any other scientific instrument, then I think the burden of proof is on you, not me.

Evil itself, however, does exist. History is full of evil, awful deeds, and I have met evil, awful people (though not many.) But that doesn't mean evil is some sort of active supernatural force or entity. Evil, I think, can be explained naturalistically. While nature itself is not evil, it is callous and amoral. Nature doesn't stop and think, "No, if Vesuvius erupted again, that would just be too tragic. Better not." What happens in nature just happens. As for human evil, I think you can account for that with evolution. Evolution is based on competition for scarce resources. That means organisms--even members of the same species--are in a sense programmed to struggle with each other over those resources, often in very nasty ways. (That doesn't mean it's right, by the way. If we can transcend those nasty tendencies, great.) Given the way evolution works, it's no surprise that people are prone to being horrible to each other. We evolved in a rough, callous world.

But evolution isn't the only source of evil deeds. One major cause of human evil, I'm convinced, is believing in things that aren't true...believing, for example, that mentally ill people are possessed by demons, or that women have been especially prone to sin ever since that incident in the Garden of Eden. Oddly enough, then, dark supernatural forces can be destructive, even if they don't exist in the physical world. They can be destructive simply because people believe in them, and act accordingly. In that case, it's not just the believer who is made unhappy by them. The misery gets exported.

Think of all the people who have died horrible deaths because others thought they were witches or sorcerers. They weren't, and they died for no reason. Even if a few of them really believed they were witches, they were wrong. They weren't really able to call forth dark forces and cast malevolent spells (except through a kind of placebo effect, which really can hurt people--but once again, only people who believe in it.)

Here in the United States, we think this kind of thing is confined to past ages. It's true that its less common in western culture than it used to be, but it still happens. Mentally disturbed people are still sometimes subjected to exorcisms when they should be getting psychiatric treatment. As recently as the 1970's, the exorcism case that inspired the movie The Exorcism of Emily Rose resulted in the death of a mentally ill girl through starvation and neglect. Even today, people in places like central Africa and Papua New Guinea are regularly killed as witches. Saudi Arabia officially executes suspected sorcerers. In some parts of Africa, albinos are killed by witch doctors who think their body parts can help them work powerful spells. This happens today; in a time when we've eradicated smallpox and landed a car on Mars. What the hell?

If evil supernatural forces don't exist, and the occult only has power to the extent that people believe in it, these are terrible tragedies. Even in more sophisticated regions, if there is no hell, no demons, no devil, it's a tragedy that people are still terrified by these things. It's a tragedy that children are still told they might go to hell and meet those demons if they don't believe certain things. It's a tragedy that they are being told what to believe, not based on evidence, but based on the consequences of disbelief. That's always seemed like a form of existential blackmail to me; with a memetic logic exactly like that of a chain letter. Believe and pass it on, and good things will happen. Don't believe, and you're in big trouble. Chain letters can spread and multiply for years because of that logic. Maybe hell is just one big chain letter?

There are plenty of real sources of evil and suffering in this world. Why add a bunch of made-up ones on top of them? Even if people in countries like the United States aren't quite as terrorized by imagined forces of darkness as we used to be, the tendency is still there, and we could easily retreat toward the dark ages. As usual, Carl Sagan expressed this worry much better than I can, so I'll leave my ending to him:
I worry that, especially as the Millennium edges nearer, pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before? Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us - then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls. 
The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.

Anneliese Michel (exorcism victim)

YouGov Survey on Belief in the Devil and Demonic Possession

The Demon-Haunted World / Carl Sagan

The Persecution of Witches, 21st Century Style

Koro (fear of penis retraction) 

*New Age sorts have also said they feel sorry for me, but more because they think I live in a humdrum, mechanistic world devoid of wonder. I don't. I'm constantly bowled over by the world's wonders--it's just that I don't think something has to be unexplained to be wondrous. As Terry Pratchett once said, "It doesn't stop being magic just because you know how it works."