Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

The Thinker

Going to the dogs

It was a brief moment today. I was driving to work through a residential neighborhood. As I often do on Tuesdays, I had to wend my way past the trash truck. I give these guys a brake and wait for them to say it’s okay to pass them. Today though the guys on the trash truck were oblivious to me. They were petting a dog.

One of the homeowners had her dog on a leash and was doing walkies along the sidewalk. This dog, like most dogs, is a friendly dog, as was evident by its wagging tail. I didn’t quite catch the breed, but it was smaller than most, and black. The guys hauling the trash, unsurprisingly I am sorry to say, were also black. There were two in the back and one in the cab. The two in the back normally gather trashcans from both sides of the street at once, and the guy in the cab drives.

Today though the crew had gone to the dogs, er, dog. Both of them had stopped the hauling and were petting the dog that was happily making their acquaintance and straining at his leash as if he wanted to sit on their nonexistent laps. The lady at the other end of the leash was laughing. The guys on the street were laughing as they petted the dog. The guy in the cab smiled through his side view mirror at the encounter. I pulled around them cautiously and made my way to work, smiling as well.

That one dog provided a lot of happiness. Moreover, like most dogs, this was a colorblind dog, both physically and metaphorically. Dogs, bless them, have no sense of social class. One friendly human is as good as another to them. Black face, white face, brown face, red face – it just doesn’t matter to them. All that matters is their sense of you and how you relate to them. Everyone in this encounter appeared to be a dog lover, at least for that moment. No one cared if a minute or two of productivity was lost. There was a friendly dog that wanted some attention and was glad to give some attention. At least until that encounter ended, social class simply did not matter. The dog had brought together people who would probably never talk to each other otherwise.

In the gospels we learn that Jesus was a man from Galilee, he was definitely human and that he was also a holy man who many believe was God in human form. Jesus of course spent some years in Galilee and Judea preaching about love and inclusiveness. It’s hard to know where Jesus was in the social class of Judea at the time. If he was truly a carpenter’s son, he could probably be considered middle class for those generally impoverished times. For a while he developed quite a following, at least according to the Gospels, but he also developed enemies. The priests in the temple did not like him because he was so different and because people called him a rabbi. The Romans put him to death. And it appears he drew the scorn of many because he hung out with losers like Mary Magdalene, a common prostitute in the eyes of many, as well as lepers, the homeless and general miscreants. Our understanding of Jesus is of course imperfect. We have only the legend of Jesus, as there is no scrap of evidence that he actually lived, and the original gospels have long ago returned to dust. But Jesus as he is depicted certainly believed in transcending class, and in universal love, and in recognizing our common humanity.

Jesus, in other words, was a man who had gone to the dogs. It would not have surprised me if his family had a dog. For if you have to learn about love and have no other guide, in most cases you can get it courtesy of the family or neighborhood mutt.

I am a cat person more than a dog person, simply because my wife introduced me to cats and I had no pets to speak of growing up except for a family parakeet. I have spent enough time though with dogs to know they are fundamentally different than cats. Cats are Republicans. They want to know what’s in it for them and it’s almost always me first. In general, they will only return affection when they first get some. They may rub at your heels for attention, but their attention tends to be fleeting. If you ignore them for a few weeks, you will probably lose any affection they had for you.

Dogs, on the other hand, are Democrats. Certainly not all dogs are friendly, and many will be affectionate only with their master. But once you have earned their trust, and it usually takes nothing more than a chew toy, snack or just a scritch of their heads, you are part of their tribe. It may be fleeting or it may be permanent. Dogs are all about finding joy in life and in getting in touch with the feelings of creatures around them. Class means nothing to them. Most of the time they will radiate love, particularly with their owner, but often with anyone in their locality. If you don’t look happy they will sense this and come over to you, and darn well try to make you happy. It’s their nature.

Christians are still waiting for the second coming of Christ. Many believe he will descend from heaven through the clouds, with his radiance pouring down across the earth. Then the saved will be saved and the damned will be damned. As for me, today’s encounter makes me think that Christ has already returned. In fact, he’s been here for a long time and you can find him nearby. Just seek out your family or neighborhood dog. Feel their love, feel their radiance, feel the cares of the world recede when you are with them or, as I saw today, see class barriers momentarily disappear. If you want to be more Christ-like, perhaps you could just imitate your mutt more. Be friendly, be open, be loving by nature and if you sense someone is hurting go over and say you want to help them feel better.

We should all go to the dogs.

 
The Thinker

God says the darndest things

I’m not much of a believer in a deity, at least not the kind of deity that most people pray to. I believe in the abstract deity, one wholly indifferent to my personal sufferings, maybe because it has bigger fish to fry. If you are the praying type, you sort of assume God is listening when you pray, and that’s God with a capital G, the big one, not some intercessor like an angel or Sylvia Browne. God is, after all, omnipotent so, sure, God can listen to billions of people’s prayers at once, sort through all of it and channel back some sort of catharsis to all those prayees. God does it without working up a sweat.

God rarely replies back personally when you pray, although God apparently spoke directly to Moses and mostly some very ancient Old Testament dudes. It would be nice if God spoke in words but the best you can hope for is some feelings that can maybe will help direct your life through the nebulous and often painful reality that it is. If you like messages direct from God with no ambiguity, you will be happy to know that God does Twitter.

It turns out that God, or rather @TheTweetOfGod, is a compelling reason to use Twitter. On a typical day God has a half dozen or so tweets of enlightenment for us sinners to absorb, but they may primarily stimulate your laugh reflex. God’s tweets are also sometimes quite insightful, or actually point to a larger thought. If the Bible could be funny and sarcastic maybe it would be like following @TheTweetOfGod.

Sadly, there is evidence that this Twitter God may not be that God because God is supposed to be all spiritual and not materialistic. But this God apparently mostly uses an iPhone, but sometimes tweets come just from the web. But hey, if you are God then by inference you are omnipotent, so you can conjure up an iPhone, tweet with it and broadcast your omniscient message. Or maybe God has a Swiss bank account to pay for his iPhone; I am sure his credit is good. But, no, there is strong circumstantial evidence that God is really David Javerbaum, who apparently has been writing material for Jon Stewart for a very long time. If Javerbaum is the second coming of Christ, be prepared to laugh. Or to do a second take:

If ignorance is bliss, why is the world so unhappy?

A lot of what God says actually makes a lot of sense, if you ponder it for a while.

Am I pro-life? Yes, but if you’re familiar with My work you know I’m not exactly anti-death, either.

But God does can have something of an attitude:

I am watching you read this. And I know your inmost thoughts about it. And I control your life. And I love you. #notcreepythough

God also has 730,000-some followers, and rising. This is a peculiar way to spread enlightenment, but if so consider me a devout follower.

Reading is fundamental but misreading is fundamentalism.

God can even be self-deprecating:

Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. I’m omnipotent. Do the math.

God can give us some insight into dying:

Your life flashes before your eyes right before you die. It takes an average of 70-80 years.

God, of course is white. Whites are the master race, right? And of course, God is a he because men were created before women — it’s in the Bible, just look it up! Which gives chase to thoughts about God’s anatomy. Doubtless he is blessed way beyond all mortal men with his equipment between his thighs. No wonder women swoon in his presence. And God has a recent book out, The Last Testament, apparently dictated to apostle David Javerbaum. I wonder what God does with the royalties? What can you give God that he doesn’t already have or can instantly conjure up? Maybe his real gift is humanity. For it is our weirdness and unpredictability that God seems to find endlessly amusing. It keeps him entertained for an eternity. You got to admit that we give him plenty of good source material:

The problem with government of the people, by the people and for the people is the people.

To err is human, to refuse to acknowledge it even more so.

To conclude: just do what Jesus would do. Especially on Mothers Day:

What would Jesus do? Today, take Mary out to Olive Garden.

 
The Thinker

Capitalism’s minuses

This just in: former TV conservative crybaby Glenn Beck is going Galt, John Galt, that is. Galt is the central character in Ayn Rand’s seminal novel “Atlas Shrugged”. Through Galt, Rand fully articulated her philosophy of Objectivism, which emphasizes the virtue of compete, unfettered Laissez-faire capitalism. It is capitalism freed from the burdens of tariffs, subsidies, monopolies and annoying government agencies like the Federal Trade Commission. Beck wants to build “Independence, USA” where its citizens can go completely Galt all the time. No taxes ever. Anyhow, it’s not necessarily cheap to Go Galt. Beck estimates he needs about two billion dollars to create Independence, USA. Presumably to construct his capitalist utopia he won’t invite a bunch of capitalists to create the machinery he will need on site. But anyhow when it’s all done, the citizens of Independence, USA will be a completely self-enclosed market. People will make stuff that other citizens will buy. Perhaps they will have their own currency. It’s unclear what governmental mechanisms they will have, if any. Laissez-faire capitalism is not exactly the same thing as no government, but presumably it would be a very austere government, far more austere than the State of Florida after several years of Rick Scott as Governor. That’s pretty damned austere.

Also presumably the city will operate more like its own country, since it won’t want anything to do with state and federal laws. There will be no annoying consumer protection laws and no warranties expressed or implied on anything sold. If your next door neighbor wants to turn his house into a smelter and spew out dangerous carcinogens in your general direction, well, more power to him. You are, of course, free to buy your own anti-pollution devices (presumably made only in Independence) to encase your house so you don’t have to breathe the pollution coming from next door. I don’t know if they will have a sheriff in Independence, but maybe not. So perhaps you can express your displeasure the old fashioned way, and load up your semiautomatic assault rifle and empty it into your neighbor’s house. He, of course, is free to wear only bulletproof clothing and encase his house in steel to deter assaults. You, of course, are free to up the ante, buy yourself a bazooka and wreak your unhappiness that way. Presumably since all residents share the same values about capitalism, there will be only brotherly love and no onerous taxes.

My guess is Independence, USA will never get built, but who knows? Beck can use more income to finance his vision, but the Koch brothers have plenty of it and might put up the two billion dollars. If it gets built, Independence, USA will doubtless become the center of capitalism worldwide. It will become the ultimate enterprise zone.

A friend of mine commutes regularly to China for her small business. She reports that contrary to reports that China is a communist country, it is already a lot like Independence, USA only they have gone nationwide. The truth is that China has pretty much ditched communism and is now a capitalist utopia. The state and the Communist Party pretty much exist to ensure capitalism remains free and unfettered. Freed of archaic concepts like religion, China has become a money-grubbing entrepreneurial heaven. She reports that the acquisition of wealth is pretty much the only thing on the mind of the Chinese. They get together to compare how fancy their Rolex watches are.

One thing she has noticed in particular is that the Chinese (or at least the Chinese businessmen she works with) don’t understand ethics. You might as well try to explain nuclear physics to them. They just don’t get why anyone would want to do anything ethical. They will happily do everything possible, legal or illegal, to allow a competitor to fail and for themselves to prosper without even a tiny qualm. This is hardly news. Even we self-absorbed Americans have read press reports about how copyright law is meaningless within China. DVDs and software are pirated, copied and sold for whatever they can get for them. Famous brand names are cheaply imitated and passed off as branded items. The idea of sales territories seems to not exist. Her company supposedly has sales territories within China where only one distributor is supposed to distribute her product, but of course these territories are widely ignored by their various sales agents.

While lots of people are getting richer in China, there have been a few undesirable effects. For example, there is the rampant air pollution in major cities. Lately it’s been so bad that no one in Beijing goes outdoors without wearing a facemask. So I am betting if Independence, USA ever gets built it will devolve quickly into a place that looks a lot like Beijing. It’s not a hard inference to make since this is pretty much how it has gone everywhere since the start of the Industrial Revolution, at least until government said “Enough!” Capitalism is all about making money and increasing your personal standard of living. The cost is borne by those not skilled, agile or moneyed enough to make the transition. Capitalism without regulation also ensures the land will get raped. This should not be news but just in case you don’t get it, maybe it’s time to reread Dr. Seuss’s “The Lorax”. I’m guessing Brother Beck hasn’t.

While there are undeniable virtues to capitalism, there are many ugly sides as well. Perhaps its ugliest side is that it strips us of our humanity and appreciation of the connections between each other. In China, dog-eat-dog capitalism means you cannot expect a consistent set of rules because the government will be largely hands off. There is also no religion to speak of, so there is nothing to ground you, and no set of moral standards to use to measure your behavior. There is no reason to care at all about your neighbor, or your community, or your neighbor’s future, unless you can profit from them. It’s all about me, not about we.

Capitalism is simply an amoral system to help facilitate the acquisition of wealth that has the benefit of allowing for the broad distribution of goods and services at reasonably low prices. If there is one thing it is not, it is not a philosophy of living. Here is where Ayn Rand, John Galt and Glenn Beck fall off their moral railings. They don’t get this. Ayn Rand constructed a whole philosophy of life around capitalism, as if it were the shiny city on the hill that Ronald Reagan envisioned. (Independence, USA is literally that city, in Beck’s eyes.) In their eyes, capitalism has become a church, and its cathedral is the inside of a bank vault. They assume that capitalism had a meaning greater than what it is: a meta-meaning. It does not. The consequences of unchecked capitalism though are easy enough to see: the collapse of our moral fiber, the heightening of self-interest over shared interest and the natural tendency to rape the land of resources and the people of their connectedness. It destroys trust and integrity and makes ethics obsolete. It dehumanizes us and turns us from people into profit centers.

There was a time in my living memory where you went to work for a company for life. A company was an extended family. You were a valued worker and were nurtured. You were cared for and your earned loyalty was given back in the form of intimate concern about the company and meeting its goals. Money was put aside into a pension fund so that you could live comfortably in old age. It was paternalistic. Companies reflected the values of the society in which they thrived. Over time, companies changed their values from human-centered to profit-centered. Pensions died. You became a worker, not a strategic asset. Your pension became a 401(k). You became mere a cog in a bigger wheel. You became disposable, something to be used and thrown out when no longer needed.

Sorry Brothers Beck, Galt and Sister Rand. Capitalism is not a utopia. It has its virtues and it has its weaknesses, but unrestrained it will suck the soul out of the society it exists within. It will either use you up as cheap labor or it will crush you spiritually as you acquire wealth. You will have become a slave to profit, loss and wealth and bereft of the values that connect us and enrich us.

 
The Thinker

Adrift in the Sea of Relativity

There is lot of twittering among the denizens at DailyKOS over Republicans and their recent convention. Particularly humorous for us was not Mitt Romney, who comes across as a generally decent but vacillating and contradictory buffoon, but his vice presidential pick Paul Ryan. What makes Ryan particularly interesting to us progressives is his ability to hold two completely contradictory notions in his head and pledge fealty to both.

This is hardly news among Republicans, but in Ryan’s case the choice is so stark that it is hard for us Democrats to not feel glee at the resulting contrast. Paul Ryan is simultaneously a big believer in Ayn Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism and claims to be a devout Catholic. Anybody with even a surface knowledge of both Objectivism and Catholicism has to ask: WTF?

Long time readers of this blog may remember my little treatise on the ridiculousness of Objectivism. I too was briefly under its spell. Fortunately, I sobered up pretty quick once I realized it was both crazy and unworkable. Yet Objectivism stuck to Ryan like superglue, but of course being conservative and a Catholic he couldn’t just stop going to mass and confessing his devotion to the Catholic faith. And yet Ryan is the same person whose budget plan passed the House in 2011 and consisted chiefly of the cutting the poor off at their kneecaps (well, actually more like the waist) while lavishing tax cuts on the rich.

Wags on DailyKos wondered how a true Objectivist like Ryan could run for office in the first place: politicians are supposed to address issues for the benefit of their constituents, but a real Objectivist would only take an action if it was solely in his selfish interest. Moreover, Ayn Rand was an atheist. The Catholic bishops, hardly examples of shining virtue, quickly cut Ryan down to size, reiterating, among other things, that Catholics must care about the poor and work for social justice. Ryan, of course, remains tone deaf to the church’s criticisms and calls the controversy a mere “difference of opinion”.

Everyone seems to have pillars of truth that they anchor their lives around. In Ryan’s case they are weirdly self-contradictory. Be it Objectivism, or Catholicism, the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths or secular treatises like Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, there is comfort to be had in going with an off the shelf solution. Many, many years back I opined on what it might be like if we all built our own personal philosophy, perhaps by pulling pieces from elsewhere. That appears to be Ryan’s approach. Something about Objectivism he found very appealing, but there must be some nugget of Catholicism that he found appealing as well. Apparently it wasn’t the social justice part. Maybe it was the no divorce ever part. Whatever. Glue them together and with whatever bastardized shape emerges label it “my truth”.

And why not? Because in the end, we all end up dead. So you might as well grab onto some philosophy or religion to get through life. Your life will likely be too short for your tastes anyhow, and you probably don’t want to spend most of it wallowing in an existential angst. We may be compulsively driven toward faith, for the same way we are driven to eat and sleep. We need some faith, even if it is not a religious faith like Communism, to make sense out of a life that would otherwise appear pointless, random and very chaotic.

We get occasional reminders that we keep barking up the wrong trees. Harold Camping’s revelation that the world would end on May 21, 2011 proved incorrect, but at least for a while it got him some attention. When he does pass his fallacious prediction will at least warrant him a real obituary, rather than a death notice. The world will not end this fall when the Mayan calendar resets itself either. One of the reasons I am a Unitarian Universalist is that we don’t profess to a creed and thus we never suffer the shame of looking ridiculous like Harold Camping. If we have a creed, it is that our creed is changeable depending on what science discovers. However, Unitarians are weird. We are like people who never want to get off the roller coaster. Most people prefer the solid feel of terra firma under their feet.

The evidence is overwhelming that our lives are accidental rather than a part of some grand design. In that sense, life really is like riding a roller coaster. So you might as well enjoy your random ride through life for the time that you have. If you get the opportunity to enjoy it, consider yourself fortunate. However, be aware that you probably have this chance only because your parents invested time and money in you, and shepherded you through many obstacles so that you could thrive in the jungle called life. For those of us fortunate to be in the canopy, the view is nice, but down on the jungle floor life is hell. Most people on this planet live lives that, if not in hell, are deep in purgatory. When your life is mostly hell, faith anchored in an afterlife has a lot of appeal, which probably explains why faiths have been so overwhelmingly popular. That religion is diminishing in places like Europe suggests a critical mass there has truly achieved enlightenment. So perhaps their time on earth will be decent overall, but we all share the same fate: death.

What do the faithless like me do? Do we live each day like Hugh Hefner? Do we attempt to alleviate suffering even though such efforts are microscopic in the grand suffering going on around us? Should we feel no sanctions against murder, or fleecing our neighbors, or chasing our neighbors’ wives? Is there a point to anything we do when we die and everything else dies as well, and when a thousand years from now we can infer with great confidence that our lives and times will be wholly forgotten?

For me, despite being over fifty, this reality is still pretty scary. Some part of me still longs for the certainty by which the faithful anchor, or seem to anchor their lives. There are no real guideposts for people like me, only our own confused and flawed consciences. We keep trying to do the best for ourselves and those we live with. We are adrift in a Sea of Relativity, and we know it. We also know why so many of those around us, like the Paul Ryans of the world, prefer the delusion of certainty to the uncomfortable angst of being awake.

 
The Thinker

God is a verb

Those of us who believe in God tend to think of God as a noun. As you may recall from elementary school, a noun is a person, place or thing. God is probably not a person, unless you count Jesus Christ. Nor is God a place, except heaven is assumed to be some physical or ethereal space where God’s presence is overwhelming, sort of God’s home, you might say. Calling God a thing sounds sort of churlish since by definition there can be nothing grandeur or more magnificent than God. Given our poor definition, if we have to define God as a noun, saying God is a thing will have to do.

A sentence is made up of many parts of speech. God cannot be an adjective because adjectives modify nouns. Adverbs modify verbs or adjectives, and since God cannot be an adjective it cannot be an adverb. You can look through all the parts of a sentence and using God for anything other than a noun mostly doesn’t work. God can be part of a word and be something else. Goddamn, for instance, is an adjective and sometimes an adverb. There is only one other part of a sentence where God could work: God could be a verb.

For many of you, you are wondering what the heck I am talking about. A verb expresses action, state or a relationship between things. Dictionary.com defines a verb as:

Any member of a class of words that are formally distinguished in many languages, as in English by taking the past ending in -ed, that function as the main elements of predicates, that typically express action, state, or a relation between two things, and that (when inflected) may be inflected for tense, aspect, voice, mood, and to show agreement with their subject or object.

When you think about it though, using God as a verb makes a lot of sense. Granted it is hard to use God as a verb in a sentence, but what is fundamental about our notion of God is the notion of being in a relationship with God. If there were nothing else sentient in the universe, would God exist? Who can say, since no one would be around to detect the presence of God, but for sure it would not matter. God though only has meaning in the context of a relationship. Many of us seek to find God, and those who believe they have found God then try to understand God. This leads to a lot of confusion, however, because so many people have different interpretations of what God wants from us.

Yet if God is understood as the relationship between people, places and things, i.e. God is a verb, then clarity can emerge. This notion of God though will trouble most of us because we tend to see God as something external, all powerful, all good and unique, i.e. a noun. Saying God is a verb simply suggests it is what holds us in relationship to everything else. In this sense, we are literally part of the mind of God. In this sense, God becomes neither good nor bad, but simply is the relationship between all things, physical and spiritual. God in some sense is energy, or whatever forces exist, whether simple or complex, that hold us together in communion. This notion of God answers the riddle: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, did it make a sound? If God is a verb then the answer is yes. The tree falling in the forest impacts in some measure all of creation because God as a verb posits as an article of faith that everything really is interconnected with everything else. So yes, it made a sound, even if we did not hear it personally.

You will get no argument from scientists and not from quantum mechanics scientists in particular. Certainly no scientist will argue that every action is deterministic. Things are deterministic at the macro level. We know with confidence that our planet will be subsumed into the Red Giant that our sun will become someday, because we understand physics well enough. We also understand physics well enough to know that at the subatomic level outcomes can only be expressed in terms of probability, not certainty. Scientists have yet to find evidence of any phenomenon that can exist independently of anything else. A hurricane, for instance, requires heat and lots of water, so it is in relationship with its environment. Everything is in relation with something else, and the evidence is that every action affects everything else in the universe as well, not instantly, but over long periods of time.

Perhaps expressing a reverence for the relationship between all things is worship, and the relationship itself is God. Perhaps God is not a destination, but experiencing God is simply a matter of tuning into the relationship between all things, seen and unseen. God may feel most God-like when we feel a sense of awe from our interconnectedness. I feel it regularly. I felt it last year when I was traipsing around South Dakota’s Black Hills. I could feel it in the life of the soil at my feet and hear it in the brisk wind whistling through the pine trees. I felt it on Friday at a rest stop between Richmond, Virginia and my home in Northern Virginia when I stepped out of my car into stifling hundred plus degree heat. I feel it when the cat is on my lap, and is purring and looking at me with its adoring eyes. I felt it on Friday when I saw a broke, pregnant and homeless woman with a cardboard sign on the streets of Richmond and I felt a pang of remorse by driving by her without giving her a dollar or helping her to a homeless shelter. I feel it in the life cycle in particular, and my experiences of my encroaching mortality. I felt it when as an infant I was nuzzled up to my mother and drank milk from her breasts.

Perhaps God is simply what is. Perhaps our religious struggle is simply to come to terms with and accept what is, and to magnify and glorify the connections between all things. There are many ways to do it, but the principle method is to practice love as much as you can. This is because love certainly is a verb, and has god-like powers.

Perhaps we just need to accept the truth that God is love, and nothing more than that. Love is about enhancing the connection between all things so we are in greater harmony and understanding with each other. It works for me.

 
The Thinker

God as a gecko

Looking for God but having a hard time finding him? Most people claim to know where he (sometimes she, occasionally it) lives and what you must do to know God. They will be glad to lead you to their local church, temple or place of worship so you can find God too. Others will be glad to give you their holy book of choice, whether it a Quran, Bible or Torah and say that you can find God by pondering the words therein.

None of these approaches will render a tangible God. Rather you will find that you need an intercessor or intercessors of various sorts. The intercessor may be Jesus, or Mohammad, or Buddha (although Buddha did not believe in a deity in the classical sense) or a televangelist. You are invited to try to find God through them.

The problem with this approach is that unless you are consumed with an unquestioning faith, you can never be quite sure the God you believe in is the genuine thing. Recognizing this paradox, a number of people have decided they don’t believe in God at all. Christopher Hitchens is a prominent atheist who is inconveniently dying of stage-four esophageal cancer, the same cancer that killed his father. Curiously, his imminent demise has certain people (principally dyed in the wool Christians) busy praying for Hitchens. Specifically, they are praying that before Hitchens passes into the great unknown he finds God and especially for him to accept Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. (For some peculiar reason, the chance to know God can occur only during life, not in the thereafter.) Hitchens, as you can imagine, is not too happy with these religious people. He has the weird idea that he should be allowed to die in peace and respected for his convictions, rather than listen to a torrent of well meaning religious folks convinced they know the truth and passionately praying for his quick conversion.

Clearly there are no lack of folks that due to their passionate religious beliefs would like to introduce you to their idea of God. However, suppose you want to find God independently. Where could God be hiding? Why is your sight so veiled?

It could be that God is not who you think he or she should be. Humans have anthropomorphic tendencies. If this word does not ring a bell, it means we like to endow on things human qualities. For example, I treat my cat Arthur much like I would like to be treated myself. I talk to him (in English, not in meows), pet him and hug him when he is on my lap. Arthur’s way of communicating with me is to treat me like a fellow cat. Basically, he would prefer to lick me with his sandpaper tongue. For most of us humans, we expect God to have human-like characteristics. That’s why, arguably, intercessors are required to understand God. Could any human have found the Christian God without Jesus? It seems unlikely. The same is true with Muhammad. How were we supposed to know there is but one god and his name is Allah if Muhammad had not told us so? Were we supposed to read it in tealeaves?

It may be, as I believe, that God is indifferent to us as individuals because we are part of an immensely complex universe unfolding according to his plan. In my opinion, if God exists, it is as futile for us to try to understand him as it is for an ant to try to understand calculus. (Understanding nature, however, is a different matter.) We are all trapped within the boundaries of a finite life, our limited senses and intelligence, our culture and our biosphere. By definition, God must be greater than these finite boundaries but those boundaries frame our level of understanding. Some claim that certain practices, like meditation, allow momentary escapes from these constraints. Others claim that certain practices, like prayer, allow us to hear answers from the Almighty.

It could be that God simply does not speak to us at all. Does this mean that God does not exist? If you see God only in the terms prescribed by the major religions, then maybe not. This version of God is authoritarian, and personally vested in human affairs and cares uniquely about you. In other words, this type of God is anthropomorphic. Yet, God could just as easily be remote and hidden. In fact, God could be nothing more than this tableau we are in called The Universe. God may be just the universe and to the extent that we understand the Universe, we understand God.

Or perhaps God is hidden in plain sight. Like a gecko that blends into the brick façade on our house, maybe he is there but we have to look very hard to see him. That’s sort of what I believe. This was brought home again to me last week when I traipsed through the Black Hills of South Dakota. From the grandeur of the stars at night (normally unseen because of our light pollution), to the beauty of Sylvan Lake late on a sunny autumn afternoon, to the light whispering of the winds racing through the pine forests of the Black Hills, to the largely barren lands of Custer State Park where the buffalo roamed, it was hard to escape the feeling of being surrounded, if not by God, then by the sacred. It was like God was pouring out his essence. All I had to do was choose to feel God’s majesty.

Arguably, humans have learned to survive through wearing blinders. Our lives tend to be rigorously prioritized, because if we don’t put first things first, we may not survive. When you live your life this way, it is easy to tune things out. You may find though that if you can move the importance of survival to some corner of your brain, and feel the presence of nature and the now, that you will experience something far larger than yourself. If you ask me, that is God whispering in our ears.

I feel this God. For me God is not personal, but instead God is the entity that simply is and fills up all time and space. It does not speak to me directly, but reveals its majesty through nature and my senses. It has no special message directed at me, but God speaks nonetheless. God speaks in the splendor of creation in all its manifestations, a work of immense complexity and beauty. This God is found in between things and in moments of time when I choose to be aware of its majesty. It is worthy of awe and worship, although it has no particular message to me other than, “Behold, this universe!”

I believe that God is neither a journey nor a destination, but is always around us. Perhaps in order to find God rather than rifle through our holy books, we should put them down, take a long walk, and revel in God’s presence.

 
The Thinker

Death – much ado about nothing?

There is nothing like a long three-week convalescence to focus your mind on the impermanence of all things. Our bodies are infinitely complex biological machines. They work with freaky regularity and excellence until one day when, of course, they do not. In my case, it stopped on January 14th when I had tarsal tunnel surgery on my right foot and nerve release surgery on the right leg.

For the first week, I spent a lot of time hobbling from place to place either in crutches or gingerly on my right leg, wrapped in multiple layers of cotton and ace bandages. Since then, the crutches have been unnecessary. I walk where I need to go slowly but mostly stay indoors. The layers of cotton surrounding my leg and foot are gone. They were replaced with two layers of ace bandages on the foot, and now just a single layer. As I end this convalescence, my final accommodations are to keep an ace bandage on the foot and not to drive.

Thanks to the charity of friends and family, I have been fortunate enough to get to the office twice. Mostly I work from my dining room table using my employer provided laptop computer. Getting through our firewall at work remotely now means inserting my smart card into a USB smart card reader and authenticating myself using a PIN, although it hardly seems any more secure than using an ID and password. Conference calls are also more restful. I can hold the receiver in one hand while lying on the couch. Dagwood Bumstead would love working from home. Yet, despite its creature comforts, I still prefer the familiarity of the office.

As regular readers know, it is my belief that I have a soul, there likely is an afterlife of some sort and I am probably stuck in some circle of life, death and rebirth. Billions would probably agree with me. Millions would not. The latter believe that life is a highly improbable cosmic accident and the consequence of billions of years of evolution. When death arrives, all the lights go out. My friend Wendy, as well as one of my brothers, are in this group. For those of us who find life worth living, nonexistence is a depressing thought. However, because of my surgery, I am thinking maybe death (or non-existence) is not such a big deal. Maybe it means nothing at all. Instead, maybe we may choose to give it a status far larger than it deserves.

Life and death are interwoven into the universe whether we like it or not. As the Buddhists and others have long asserted, the only constant in the universe is change, so you might as well accept it. There are larger forces at work that can be lumped into one world: reality. Time is real, or is at least an aspect of living that cannot be denied. Even stars are born, age and die. Sometimes when they die, they throw their detritus out into the universe in the form of more complex matter. We are all literally the product of this star stuff. Moreover, we are destined to return to star stuff. Some part of our matter and energy was once in a star somewhere. Our matter and energy will once again be part of a star someday. In that sense, we are immortal and have been since the universe was created.

We have all already traversed the universe. Should mankind make it to another solar system someday, we will simply be retracing our inorganic roots. We are not just tied to our planet and solar system; we are tied to the universe. If some day we warp around space like they do in Star Trek, we are not exploring strange new worlds, we are returning home.

During my surgery, I was under general anesthesia for about two hours. Clearly, I did not die in those two hours. Whatever anesthesia I was given had the property of shutting down my consciousness for those two hours (or gave me the inability to recall any of it). I remember being on the surgical table and then, just as in death, the lights went out. Two hours later I was in another room, I was awake and the lights went on. During those two hours, I assume I was alive, but I might as well have been dead. Those two hours of non-existence, which might be more accurately described as an inability to remember anything or to act in any manner whatsoever, perhaps prove a point made by my atheist friends and siblings: death really does not matter.

While fear of death seems to be a human characteristic, perhaps it is all wasted energy. Not that it is easy to do, but perhaps we would all be much happier if we spent our time alive concentrating on living and forgetting all about death. After all, you cannot change the fabric of the universe or its rules. We are all caught in this incredibly complex space-time matrix. If being unconscious during my surgery is any guide, death, which for us humans seems to equate to non-consciousness, really does not matter.

Being infirmed of course matters, as I discovered. Dying matters as well as it is a progressively worse state of being infirmed. In either case, you are losing your tether to your known reality. Our species takes comfort in the known, safe and predictable. In my case, I missed the comfortable ritual of driving to and from the office, and inhabiting an office with a nice view of the Shenandoah Mountains five floors up. Working from home with one foot propped up was convenient and facilitated my recovery, but was awkward and different. Hobbling around in crutches for a week was also difficult, inconvenient and at times painful. It is understandable that I would have some petty grievances over my convalescence. However, when it ends on Friday, I should be back to better health than I was before the surgery. I hope that my life will become more comfortable and less painful.

I take some comfort in this expectation. I also take some comfort in the experience of being unconscious during my surgery, because the universe is also teaching me a lesson: neither my lack of consciousness during surgery nor death in itself are worth worrying about. Hopefully I will fully absorb these lessons and live my remaining life to its fullest in the time ahead of me.

 
The Thinker

Fathers are necessary

Polls indicate that a majority of Americans believe the word “marriage” should be reserved for a legal covenant between two people of opposite sexes only. Curiously, polls also show a majority of Americans are comfortable with two same sex partners having all the privileges of marriage as long as they don’t call it marriage. What is the difference anyhow?

As best I can figure out, same sex couples figure the difference is like having “separate but equal” schools for blacks and whites. Calling a legal relationship a different name when it is the same in every other way but the sex of the participants in their eyes suggests that their relationship is not as worthy of sanction as those between two people of opposite sexes. It’s like getting a silver medal when you earned the gold. For many heterosexuals, I think what really makes “marriage” a special word is that traditional marriages come with the potential of parenthood and this is special enough to make the distinction unique.

Not any more, obviously. My wife is a friend of a lesbian couple and one of the wives is pregnant. Naturally, she did not invite a male to have intercourse with her; a willing donor provided semen, which she obtained from her local sperm bank. Most kids get only one mother. This one will have two, which is twice as much of a blessing, I guess. What is noticeably absent though is the father. Does the absence of a father deprive the child of something important? For that matter, does the absence of a mother also deprive the child of something important? Do two mothers equal one mother and one father? Do two fathers equal one mother and one father?

These were questions I didn’t know I was struggling with until last night. After our traditional Thanksgiving Dinner featuring a potpourri of friends and family, the topic of two same sex parents came up. At our table were many of my wife’s friends from the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. I was washing dishes and minding my own business but listening to their conversation. As it turns out, I am perfectly okay with gay marriage. I think any two people of legal age who want to get married should have the privilege. They can have “I’m married” stamped on their foreheads if they want to and I would have no problem calling them Mrs. and Mrs. Jones or Mr. And Mr. Smith. Where I have some hesitation is when it comes to two people of the same sex raising their own children together. Is it a good or a bad idea?

Before I knew it, I had joined the conversation and stated an opinion that for me seemed almost right wing. Since the topic was in the context of two women, I said I thought the presence of a strong father figure was important for raising a healthy child. The same is true with a mother, of course. As proof, I pointed to the District of Columbia where black fathers living at home are almost an extinct species. Single mothers are raising the vast majority of black children in D.C., sometimes with the assistance of their grandmothers because the fathers long ago abandoned the mother. In D.C., a black child is lucky to see his real father on occasion, and even luckier if he is actually providing child support. Many of these youth have no idea who their father is, or if they do, their only memory of him is a distant one.

What is the impact of being nurtured without a strong father figure? Arguably, at least in D.C., it is devastating. How many of these youths who are currently doing drugs and getting involved in gangs would be doing so if they had a father in the household? It is hard to say for sure because I doubt there is much clinical research. I do think it is reasonable to assume that the incidence would be much lower.

I have not had the privilege of having a son, but I do have a daughter. I do know there are plenty of studies that suggest the presence of a strong father figure is a critical factor among those girls who grow into leadership roles as adults. I am not entirely sure how much of my daughter was shaped by my presence and nurturing these last twenty years, but it must be a large amount. How could it not? How would my daughter be different if my wife had been a lesbian instead, had been in a gay marriage, had been artificially inseminated and raised her with her loving partner of the same sex? Would something important be missing from my daughter as a result? Perhaps I overvalue my role as a father, but my guts says yes: a good father is necessary in raising happy and healthy children of any gender, as just as it is important for a child to also have a nurturing mother.

Obviously there are many bad marriages out there. There is no guarantee when two people get married and have babies that they will have the right stuff to raise their children into healthy, sane and productive adults. My suspicion is that children raised in dysfunctional marriages are probably healthier without that stress. With roughly half of marriages dissolving, one would have to assume the odds for children in traditional marriages are at best 50/50. Many, many factors influence children throughout childhood and adolescence, but it would seem obvious that parents are their primary influences. The health of the marital relationship should correlate closely to the likelihood of raising mentally healthy and fully functional children. That seems to be true on my block, where I spent the last sixteen years. The adult children who are now doing best tend to be from families with strong and nurturing parents. The struggling children seem to be from those that were rife with marital discord.

Like it or not, children will inculcate behavior modeled by their parents. My question: is there is something critical about having parents of the opposite sex to raising healthy children? Today, gay and lesbian couples no longer have to feel like parenting is off limits to them. What we do not really understand yet is what the long-term effects of children being raised by same sex couples will be. A correlation is made harder because there are so many bad traditional marriages out there too. It appears that even though I have some concerns that children raised by same sex couples may be missing something important (although I am not entirely sure what it is) it is happening nonetheless, and social scientists over the coming decades will have an opportunity to study its effects.

It could be that a child is raised by two people of the same sex will do just fine if both are positive and nurturing influences in their lives. They may grow up to be more tolerant people than they otherwise would be, which sounds like a good thing. Sons though may need to observe and pick up crucial male bonding behaviors from their fathers. It may be that the absence of this factor makes them less functional in society compared with others raised in traditional marriages. The problem is less acute for girls, since the number of men in gay marriages raising girls is much smaller.

I do know that in the District of Columbia, we seem to be raising an angry and dysfunctional generation of young men and women. There may be many factors causing this horrendous outcome, and poverty is certainly one factor, but the lack of strong and healthy male authority figures in these households is obvious. The problems in these communities were not nearly as bad when there were more intact marriages among African Americans. To me it seems reasonable to infer that if this can happen among African Americans, it can happen within any ethnic community.

The example in D.C. suggests to me that when it comes to parenting, we should proceed with caution. Our children should not necessarily become victims of a vast social experiment because newly liberated gay and lesbian couples also want to raise their own biological children. We do not fully understand the nature of nurturing, but I strongly suspect is not solely a feminine or a masculine thing. The masculine element exhibited in the role of a father seems to also be critical, for both boys and girls.

The cry to save the word “marriage” may at its root be nothing more than an inchoate feeling among many of us that we are playing with dynamite. The lessons in D.C. and many inner city communities ought to be red flags for us to think through the consequences of our actions before plunging headlong into them.

 
The Thinker

I believe consciousness is eternal

Over the years, I have sporadically tried to explain my theology or lack thereof. It has resulted in arguably weird posts like this one. Last night I tried again at the occasion of another monthly meeting of my covenant group. The topic of the month was big questions. We started with one that will usually draw a different answer from every one of my fellow Unitarian Universalists: Do you believe in God?

My bet is that most Americans can answer that easily. Ninety percent or so will say yes and the other 10% will say no. Many of the ninety percent though will put asterisks next to their answer. The whole question though is very hard to answer because you first have to ask: what kind of God are you asking about? Paternal? Maternal? Non-sex specific? Singular or polytheistic? One that listens and responds to your prayers or one that is absent? A God that cares about you in particular? Or a very removed God who has hosts of angels, archangels, sub-archangels and other intercessors that handle prayers from relatively meaningless people like me?

My forebrain may be too developed because I could not give a definitive answer. I remain sort of the agnostic I decided I was some thirty plus years ago. I neither believe nor disbelieve in the paternalistic God that I was introduced to by my Catholic parents. I can say that I never particularly felt the personal presence of God. For me, attempts at prayer are like radio waves; they bounce off the clouds and come back to me. When the Magic 8-Ball replies, to the extent it replies at all, it says “Reply hazy, try again.” I do feel spiritual at times, for example, when nature reveals itself in all its majesty. The experience is very mystical when it happens, but doesn’t feel like God is tapping me on the shoulder saying, “See, here’s all the proof you need that I exist.”

No doubt to some I am being unforgivably ambivalent, but I have developed a certain comfort in my murkiness. I know many people feel the presence of God and I think that’s fine. I don’t mean to say they are deluding themselves, but at the same time I cannot take their testimony with whole cloth when it is not my experience nor the experience of millions of others, including Mother Teresa. I take some comfort in physics, which is slowly peeling away God’s mask.

I suspect God’s existence or non-existence is just one of these questions that is impossible to satisfactorily answer. I do not think there is any definitive answer because we can only perceive what we can experience through our very limited senses. Moreover, our lives are relatively short.

I have read enough about quantum physics to feel strongly about a few things. What I believe is eternal is consciousness: mine and yours. I think consciousness is eternal and like energy itself cannot be created or destroyed. So I very much believe in the soul. I see my soul much like a driver and my body like a car. My body’s brain is like a steering wheel, accelerator and brake pedal. I use them to move my body through life. At some point in the future the car will refuse to start. At that point my body dies. However, my soul, the driver, is still around. Perhaps at that point I exit the car and look around the car lot. I pick out another car and use it (the new body) to continue to experience the universe.

This is really not as crazy as it sounds. String theory may be a theory, but it is a very well developed theory with lots of sound empirical evidence. What science does teach us is that energy is never destroyed. It is merely transformed. If string theory is correct then we also know that everything is irrevocably connected to everything else. Buddha understood this 2500 years ago. It also essentially means that individuality is an illusion.

So who or what are we then? I think what we are is a singularity: a point in space-time (or perhaps more accurately, a time-series in space-time) where an infinite matrix of superstrings intersect and it is different from some other point. So you might say we are both individuals and we are all part of the same thing. What is unique about living is that it provides the illusionary experience of individuality. We may prefer this illusion, similar to the way that some people prefer chocolate.

To the extent that I can formulate a belief in God, it is just the suspicion that I am not separate from God, but intrinsically a part of God and God is a part of me. It’s not a question about being separated from God. How can I be separate from something I am already a part of? I am irretrievably part of everything and plugged into the universe as are you.

I am consciousness. You might say I am a thought racing around the mind of God. Each of us is a thought of this larger collective being. A thought is both permanent and transient. We may only think a particular thought in one moment, but the thought is stored in collective memory. It is always retained. That thought is my consciousness and is what I call the eternal me.

Where we came from, I don’t know. I don’t see the point in speculating. As Bertrand Russell once pointed out, if everything is caused by something else, then something caused God, which begs the question and points to the fallacy in the argument. Consciousness exists because I experience it. I think it continues after death and I choose to call this eternal part of me my soul. I suspect I live multiple lives and inside this consciousness I call myself time simply does not matter. It does not matter how many lives I have experienced or will experience. However, I do think that it is this experience that feeds the consciousness. Perhaps over many lives we do grow in understanding and maturity.

I believe in consciousness because I feel it and ultimately I can only trust what I feel. I can look at science like string theory to support parts of my beliefs, but I also recognize that because the universe is immensely complex so our understanding of reality is going to be poor at best too. If “I think, therefore I am” then “I feel there is an immortal part of me, therefore it exists” is also valid. At this point in my life, it not only feels right, but it need be no more complex than this.

 
The Thinker

On the movable walkway called life

As you may have noticed, one consequence of being born is that you eventually must die. It may seem unfair, but that’s just the way it is. We are all prisoners in our own unique time stream. We step onto our time stream (we assume) at birth, although some part of it begins at conception.

Yes, our life is undoubtedly a time stream. It is like one of those very long movable walkways that you find in large airports that carry you inside or between concourses. Its speed is constant. During the time you stand on the walkway, you stay in one place while things move around you. Eventually the walkway ends and the journey stops. We get off the walkway when we die but while we are on the walkway, we are its prisoner.

Unlike the movable walkway, we are not entirely sure how we got on it in the first place. The walkway behind us is quickly shrouded in mist and the walkway ahead, except for the first couple of feet, remains a dense fog. However, we can look to our left and our right and enjoy our limited view.

Unlike walkways in airports, this walkway is very wide. In fact, we cannot see either of its sides. Yet we know we are on the walkway because things are happening all around us. Suns rise and set. Seasons pass and return. Things that looked shiny and new last year lose their luster this year and in a dozen years are often dysfunctional or obsolete. Trying to find the edges of the walkway is as futile as trying to sail off the edge of the world. Space and time curve all around us. We cannot see the curve but we sense it is there. We feel its truth: that we are a singularity in a matrix called space-time. Ephemeral things, some alive and some not surround us. They are often beautiful. At its best life resembles a magnificent kaleidoscope. We often feel like we are sitting in a theater and our life is unfolding on the screen.

It is natural to wonder what happens when the movie that is our life ends. Are there credits? Were we really its producer and director, or just the unknowing actors? These may be impenetrable questions, but sages and common people have pondered them for time immemorial. The atheist believes that when our movie comes to and end, the lights go out and we are simply nothingness. The theist believes there is a producer. Some believe there is a producer and director. The producer is called God. The Christians call the director Jesus. The Muslims call him Muhammad. The Hindus believe there are many producers and directors and they often slip between their roles. Some of these directors coach us more than they coach others. The Buddhists think that like the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz, when you pull back the curtain you find another human like yourself (perhaps yourself) at the control directing the special effects. The agnostic doesn’t know if there are producers or directors. He does not exclude them but has a hard time trusting what he cannot see. The humanists are unconcerned about how we got on the walkway or where it will end, but is only concerned about the state of the walkway right now and how we can all live more happily in the present

In general, the longer you stay on the walkway the more you feel the past fade. You see the collection of things you have surrounded yourself with disintegrate before your eyes. You watch people, many of them loved ones, mysteriously drop off the walkway altogether, particularly as they age. The more you witness these events, the more certain you become that your walkway will end for you too at some murky time in the future. A relative handful finds the walkway very annoying. They take their own lives, figuring wherever they end up, if anywhere, is less painful than the present.

How should you spend your time while you remain on the walkway? This too is a topic of great concern for the people on the walkway. Some people are much more concerned about the next walkway. They advise that we should spend much of our time on this walkway preparing the next one. For theists there are generally two walkways that occur after death: one toward heaven, glory and salvation and the other toward hell and misery. To the Buddhist, our walkways sort of cycle backs on itself. They are confident that after death we are quickly deposited into another walkway. While our memories of our last life will be erased, we will carry our personalities and predispositions into the next life. Nirvana is the act of getting off the time stream altogether. Meditation and living simply are the keys. Enlightenment is the goal. You reach nirvana when you have achieved full enlightenment. Then they assert the carousel finally stops, you can dismount, exit and see what, if anything, is real.

Sometime in my early 20s, I remember being profoundly shaken that I was aging. Before entering adulthood, old age was so far enough away that it was abstract and hence nothing to worry about. Grabbing the reins of adulthood made me feel that life was in reality fleeting. Now in my 50s, I still feel the steady passage of the years. It feels like I am at the bow of a ship heading into the wind. The wind tears across my face but the infinite sea ahead is as mysterious and impenetrable as ever.

Strangely at age 52, while I remain leery of death, it no longer seems as fearful while at the same time it feels more tangible. I now accept that I am born to die and that’s just the way it is. It is natural to be inquisitive about dying and death, but to be obsessive about it the way I was in my twenties now seems a great waste of my life’s energies. Whatever movie I am in, it is not a bad movie and it gets more engrossing as the years pass.

Today, it feels more natural to be in the moment than to peer into an impenetrable far future. I see progress in myself and in my life. Some part of me longs for the immortal feeling of youth again, but some other part of me is also glad it is in my far past. I am more comfortable, more ordered and find more meaning now than I did thirty or forty years in my past. I feel grounded, but not rooted. My feelings will probably continue to change as I age, but right now, I accept life for what it is. I accept that it must end and feel that embracing the present is the healthiest thing for me. The movable walkway is my home, so I had better enjoy it and take care of it as best my limited skills will allow.

 

Switch to our mobile site