The universe through a straw

National Public Radio has been running a series called This I Believe. The series gives ordinary people like you and I the opportunity to tell the world what we believe and why. The series is always insightful and worth your time. Even if you cannot agree with the person’s beliefs, you should be moved by the passion and eloquence by which participants express their beliefs. Since the producers receive thousands of entries, they unfortunately cannot broadcast but a tiny fraction of them. However, there is a This I Believe web site where you can contribute your essay. Perhaps this one will end up there too.

Frequent readers of Occam’s Razor will have little doubt about what I believe. Like all of us, I have many beliefs. I may spend the rest of my life trying to put them all down here on this website. Unlike many of my contemporaries, I do not often say I am certain that my beliefs are accurate. They simply represent the perspective of me: a 49-year-old white middle class man living here in the United States. My beliefs are undoubtedly formed by my life experiences. Since your life was on a different path, I should not be surprised that you would have different beliefs. However, it has only been in the last few years that I have found the time and the energy to organize my thoughts. Here they exist online for your amusement, castigation, insight, or dismissal.

Last night in my covenant group, we discussed our “isms”. Simply saying what your “isms” are gives insight into your own beliefs. To help us out, many of us turned to Beliefnet. On the site is an online survey you can take if you are having a hard time categorizing your beliefs. Since we are a small group of Unitarian Universalists, not one of us was surprised to find out we were categorized highest as UUs. In fact, the survey showed me as 100% Unitarian Universalist, but also 98% Quaker. Perhaps I should not be surprised that I have a brother who is a Quaker.

For many, labeling their beliefs is simple. For me, it is hard to put a label on what I believe. The label probably does not exist. I can say I am a Unitarian Univeralist, but this really does not say what I believe. After all, you can be a UU and believe anything you want. There is no creed you have to profess in order to be a UU. I can say that I subscribe to agnosticism, but that does not say much about my beliefs either. It simply asserts that I cannot find a rational basis to either believe or not believe in God. In some ways, I feel the call of Buddhism. I have acknowledged before that I think karma is a real and natural force. Yet I maintain some skepticism that we go through a series of lives, and each life is an attempt to address our karmic issues from previous lives. Perhaps I align most closely to natural pantheism. Wikipedia says it is “a form of pantheism that holds that the universe, although unconscious and non-sentient as a whole, is a meaningful focus for mystical fulfillment.” However, I am not quite so certain that I can wholly dismiss the notion that some external or omnipresent God did not set our universe in motion. I do believe that our universe is an amazing place.

As human beings trying to understand the universe, I believe we have some serious limitations. First, we are temporal. This gives us perhaps a biased perspective. Our natural fear of death I think drives many of our beliefs, since most seem to offer tailored solutions that address our fear of nonexistence. Since we experience existence through time, we naturally assume time exists for everything. However, arguably time only exists for organisms of sufficient complexity. For example, the physicist Brian Greene asserts that at the subatomic level, time ceases to exist.

Since we are also limited by our senses, it can be excruciatingly hard to relate to things that we cannot directly perceive. We can infer that radio waves exist, even though we know we will never touch, taste or feel a radio wave. We can make similar observations about the limitations of our other senses. For example, there are sounds we cannot perceive but other animals can.

What I infer from all this is that we perceive the universe at best through a gauzy curtain. I believe what we see approximates the universe’s actual complexity. Perhaps you read recent news reports about the indirect proof for the existence of dark matter in the universe. Here again is something that physicists tell us simply must exist in the universe, but which we cannot examine. I think that my analogy that our view of the universe is through a gauzy curtain is too expansive. I believe we see the universe through a straw.

A therapist I am seeing tells me that humans tune out most of the experience that surrounds them. Perhaps there is so much of it that it is impossible for our brains to process all of it. Like a horse with blinders, to survive we focus on what is straight ahead of us. Perhaps this is because we have learned through experience that straight ahead is where it is easiest to make sense of the world. At best, we are only dimly aware of the consequences that our behavior has on not just our intimates, but on everyone who we meet.

If we spent our life looking at the same small part of the sky through a straw, we would clearly not have a very good understanding of our universe. All we could do is describe what we see through the straw. It would be hard to infer the meaning of the things we saw. If a cloud obscured our vision, we could not necessarily infer the entity we call a cloud. We would likely need a wider perspective to detect the cloud. We might pick up some clues. If a bird passed through our line of vision enough times then we might be able to infer the existence of birds, although the concept of flight may be beyond our comprehension. Similarly, it would be hard to imagine trees, or houses, or the ground, or computers, or time, or perhaps even death.

So if I am a natural pantheist, it is because I believe that the universe is far more complex, far more amazing and far richer than what I can comprehend, simply because I am bounded by a finite life and limited senses. Philosophers and scientists must do the best they can by seeing the universe through a straw. However studying the edges of the straw, which is what physicists, philosophers and the devout spend much of their lives doing, likely gives them a very jaundiced and probably inaccurate perspective of the universe as it actually is. Even if we could see all aspects of the universe as it actually is, it is unlikely our brains could comprehend its full complexity and manifestation.

It may be that instead of seeing the universe through a straw, we are seeing it through a drainage pipe. In other words, perhaps we perceive more of the complexity of the universe than I assume. There is no way to know for sure, however. Since there is no way to know, that is where I personally draw the boundaries of my faith.

I do my best not to infer too much about the truth of our universe because I assume my perspective is severely constrained. However, I could just as easily be wrong. It can be fun to speculate on whether God exists, and if it exists whether it is a personal or an absent God. Nevertheless, I believe that when we do so we are really arguing about what we see on the edges of the straw. We are using that very limited field of observation to infer much more about the universe than we should. Perhaps that is why I often feel the need to surrender to the mysticism of it all. It is why the Pantheistic Church, if there were one, would probably call me more than Unitarian Universalism. As much as I try, I do not really understand our universe, but I am still in awe of it and under its spell. However, I sense, what the character Ellie Arroway in the movie Contact (and by inference, the late Carl Sagan, who wrote the book) said:

I … had an experience… I can’t prove it, I can’t even explain it, but everything that I know as a human being, everything that I am tells me that it was real! I was given something wonderful, something that changed me forever… A vision of the universe, that tells us, undeniably, how tiny, and insignificant and how… rare, and precious we all are! A vision that tells us that we belong to something that is greater then ourselves, that we are not, that none of us are alone! I wish… I… could share that… I wish, that everybody, if only for one… moment, could feel… that awe, and humility, and hope.

The chickens are still coming home to roost

Lost in their euphoria over their victory on November 2nd Republicans are likely missing the bigger picture. Systemic problems don’t go away just because an election is won. Bad policy wreaks bad results that can’t be swept under a rug. By reelecting Bush, Americans have put the onus back on Bush and Republicans to fix problems that they created.

The most visible problem will be the quagmire in Iraq. We can expect a new application of American force in insurgent strongholds like Fallujah in the near future. But I don’t believe the fundamental situation in Iraq will change. I bet in November 2008 the situation in Iraq will be about the same or worse than it is now. The Iraq conflict requires new thinking yet the Administration has no plans on changing course. The fight against insurgents in Iraq is still being fought with 20th century methods. With insurgents refusing to wear uniforms it becomes impossible to tell friend from foe. Insurgents can slip out of places like Fallujah by masquerading as civilians fleeing for their lives. We can kill whatever insurgents choose to stay and fight. But these tactics won’t make much of a difference. As soon as the civilians are let back into these cities the insurgents can trickle in unnoticed, pick up their rifles, reopen their secret stashes of mortars and other explosives and go at us again. As I’ve stated before Iraq is an unwinnable war. Kerry would have been no more successful at ending it to our satisfaction that Bush will have. For some of us Iraq sure looks like the 21st century’s version of Vietnam. Four more years should convince even the most die hard skeptic.

Energy will cost more in the next four years. We may see periods where prices drop below $2 a gallon for gasoline but in general the days of cheap energy are behind us due to emerging economies in India, China and Indonesia. Barring a worldwide recession demand will increase. And petroleum supplies will not improve very much. As a result prices will rise or stay high. The waves of higher energy costs will continue to be felt throughout the economy. While it may not drive us back into recession the higher energy costs will continue to put a damper on growth. Our nation must find better ways to cope with rising energy prices. There is little in the Bush Administration’s approach that suggests they have much of a clue on how to really solve the energy problem. Even tapping oil that may exist in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would only increase our supply of oil by a tiny amount. We need to find new technologies for a post oil era. But the Bushies still think the future will allow us to drive our SUVs at dollar a gallon prices.

The Bush Administration talks about reducing the deficit in half during the next four years. That’s all it is likely to be. The most likely scenario: deficits will continue to increase over their current levels. Neither the Republican controlled Congress nor the Bush Administration has demonstrated any fiscal discipline. There is already talk of more tax cuts. In addition Bush has a plan to allow younger workers to invest part of their social security withholdings in stocks and bonds. However this diversion of cash from the social security system simply exacerbates the deficit since the government is currently borrowing from the social security trust fund.

Of course this assumes that people and institutions continue to be willing to loan the U.S. government money. In August a Treasury bill sale attracted no international investors. While this may be a fluke it is worrisome if it recurs periodically. If foreign institutions are unwilling to lend our government money then interest rates for government bonds will have to go up. If they go up too high we’ll be perceived as a “junk bond” country and the flow of foreign capital might stop. But if government bonds need higher interest rates in order to attract investors then the private sector will have to match the rate increases to attract the capital it needs. If government and private industry cannot attract foreign capital then growth is likely to falter or stop.

Health care costs are likely to continue to outpace inflation. More Americans will be uninsured. Drug prices will continue to go through the roof. As usual the Bushies “solution” doesn’t really solve the problem. Their solution is medical savings accounts (MSAs). It fails the common sense test. Most Americans are already living beyond their means. Each year Americans put more debt on their credit cards. Americans simply don’t have money to squirrel away into MSAs. Try to imagine a middle class family earning $40,000 a year putting away thousands of dollars into these accounts. How likely is that? Instead this family will be trying to make their mortgage payments and keep up with the increases in energy costs. In addition even with MSAs people still need health insurance; only the very rich can afford to self insure. MSAs are a utopian Republican idea, not a serious solution to the health care problem.

Hopefully sometime in the next four years the economy will finally perk up enough so that all those who lost their jobs in the Bush recession will have found new ones. But currently wage increases are not keeping pace with inflation. Also there are millions of workers who have been outsourced (like my wife) or downsized. They are making a fraction of what they made before. Bush was the first president since Herbert Hoover to lose jobs in his first term in office. Between spiraling deficits, the war in Iraq, potential terrorist attacks inside the United States and possibly higher interest rates the sustained recovery creating tens of millions of new jobs such as we saw under Bill Clinton are unlikely.

I am a big believer in karma. I think it exists on the macro level too. As much as I don’t like the idea of another four years of Bush and Republican domination of Congress unless both show leadership hitherto undemonstrated it will be impossible to dodge accountability during the next four years. The silver lining to Kerry’s defeat is that Kerry cannot be held accountable for the Bush and Republican screw-ups. Given Bush’s mess Kerry would have likely been a one-term president anyhow. Trying to fix their massive problems in the next four years would defeat anyone. The Republicans have made their bed. Let them have their brief moments of gloating. My sense is that they have created problems beyond their control.

On Karma

I’ve been thinking a lot about karma lately. Karma is basically “as you do unto others, so shall be done unto you.” In short it asserts that there is no free lunch. If you go around messing up other people’s lives, yours will get messed up in equal measure. Many of us would agree that this principle is often true, but is it always true? And is there a time limit to karma? Clearly if you believe, as most people in the West assert, that we live only one life then when you die you may not have gotten back in equal measure all that you did to someone else. In this instance karma may not always be handed back in equal measure. Karma though is more often associated with the assertion that we have souls that go through multiple lifetimes, and we bring our karma with us from one lifetime to the next.

Like most humans I’ve done a lot of foolish and negative stuff that has generated a lot of bad karma. When I think back on some of it, I feel embarrassed that I was capable of such juvenile stuff. But while most of it occurred when I was a juvenile, I carried a lot of anger and resentment with me into adulthood.

I have come to believe in karma because in my experience it is just simply true. Lately though I’ve come to believe it applies just not to all people, but to human systems too, as well as any system that has any recognizable form of intelligence. One of the reasons I am opposed to war with Iraq is because it generates a lot of negative karma. Sure our intentions are honorable but in the process of trying to save people from tyranny we are killing a whole lot of them, and getting millions of others pissed off at us. If we as a nation assert that we know best and have the right to interfere preemptively in the lives of other people and countries then we are due to get our comeuppance. Maybe it will be more suicide bombers. Maybe it will skip a generation or two. I would like to think that it would happen only to those who supported this ill-advised war, but I’m not that naive. Working as I do in Washington DC I feel I am likely to be a victim at some point. Some dirty bomb won’t discriminate me because I attended peace vigils and put antiwar bumper stickers on my car.

I find trying to create good karma all the time a challenging task, because it is often at odds with my basic nature. For example I am not always in a pleasant mood and I often want to snarl at the person wishing me a happy day. I often feel insincere when I fake a smile, but it seems better to do that then unleash my real feelings. I wonder if it is possible to generate positive karma and always be true to you. Perhaps that is something I will learn in the second half of my life.

And there are times when I feel like “Hey, I’ve generated a lot of bad karma in my life, but haven’t I made up for it yet?” I often feel that way about my wife, who I love dearly, but who has many life challenges. Staying positive and supportive of her through long years of yo yo medical and psychological challenges is very hard. I know it’s no cakewalk for her either, since she has to deal with the effects first hand. For my wife these problems seem to increase with age, and that means I have to continue to rise to these occasions in more challenging ways. Haven’t we both had enough? Can’t the gods of fate say, “Twenty years of struggling with this stuff is enough. Go enjoy the rest of your lives.” It doesn’t look like that is going to happen.

If we have all lived many lives then perhaps I am getting my comeuppance for abusive or thoughtless behavior I created in previous lives. If so I must have been one hell of a bastard. I hope by the end of this life all is forgiven and in the next one life can be more serene.

At somewhere past the half way point of my life it is abundantly clear to me that one life is not nearly enough to attain understanding and wisdom. Although it is hard for me to grasp abstract notions like having a soul when modern medical instruments can’t detect it, perhaps the existence of a soul can be reasonably inferred. I can infer karma because I find it just happens. If it is clear to me that one life is not enough to work through all my bad karma then perhaps I can infer the existence of my soul through many lives.

As I suggested in an earlier entry, we are all in Purgatory. While I don’t necessarily subscribe to that notion, I do now believe in karma as a fundamental building block of my faith, such as it is. For me karma has now become self evident, the same way I learned not to touch a hot stove. Whether by design or whether by reaction I believe it also plays out on a macro level. As a society we simply must learn strategies to live in peace with each other. From my perspective violence is never the solution. No matter how painful it seems we must find nonviolent ways to resolve our problems, or we will continue to live through them over and over again.