Sunday, December 04, 2005

Coffee, Tea, Philosophy?

So my mom and I have been going back and forth over some philosophical things — this is a particular danger when one or both of us partakes of red wine, for some reason. Anyway, she is a woman of deep faith — deeper, really, than I ever had any idea about while I was growing up. It pervades every aspect of her being, and it is so strong (what you gamers out there know of as “true faith”) because when she was growing up, she questioned everything about the religion that was presented to her, read the Bible on her own, and found true peace within herself as a Christian. It is something to be admired, and I did much the same sort of soul-searching myself, although for me it was easier because I didn’t have Southern Baptist doctrine being thrown at me like the proverbial stones they used to chuck at heathens in the way-back days. Nor did I, it turns out, wind up coming to the same sorts of conclusions she did. This presents her with a constant, nagging vexation, as though somehow she failed in her duty to God (not, you understand, to any church but to the almighty himself) in loosing upon the world a child who does not share her faith. When that faith is true, you see, it is Truth in your eyes. Really. Understand what that means? Having a kid who rejects it is like having raised some nutcase who walks around not believing in the Holocaust or something — only much worse because in your heart you also believe that said lack of belief pretty much means this soul who is pretty dang important to you may well end up being taken to task for it in the afterlife. That’s gotta’ be rough.

But I gotta’ go with my own conscience, of course, just like anyone else, and this she well knows and respects. These conversations of ours are not preaching sessions for her; they are periodic exchanges of ideas. And so it goes. We talk about such things, and she asks a lot of questions that force me to try and explain my own thoughts about theology, philosophy, and suchlike. It’s not a bad thing, either. In fact, it’s a very good thing for me (and I hope for her) because it forces me to clarify said ideas in my own brain. Recently, in doing so, I got one of those powerful notions that hit you sometime... You know, a “Eureka!” moment. I love those. They are like a sudden instant-message direct from God, or whatever short-hand name you like to use when referring to The Divine. If you’re at all interested in it, read the rest of this very long post. Or you can ignore my theology and move on. I ain’t one for preaching — don’t do it, don’t like people who do — but this is just so dang neato an idea I figured it was worth sharing in a philosophical treatise sorta’ way...

Here’s the thing: I don’t believe in God as some separate entity that goes around creating things and making rules and playing dice with the Universe or what have you. This is where our fundamental difference lies, we discovered in talking the other night. Because she really does believe in it that way (only without the dice, I’m pretty sure). That’s the basic Christian thing, and in fact it is basic to a lot of religions. There’s God (or gods) over there, mixing up chemicals and things and making planets and people and life and time and stuff. And here we are, all the things what it made (for whatever reason) and supposed to follow its rules according to how they’ve been passed down to us by people who ought to know — ‘cuz they were divinely inspired, or whatever.

But divine inspiration, apparently, doesn’t happen anymore. My ideas cannot have come direct from the Source because... well, I guess ‘cuz I ain’t as special as all those dudes with the Biblical names and such. OK. That’s the other side of the argument, and I’m not going to get into it here because you’ve seen it a million times in a million different ways. What I can talk about is what’s been going on in my brain lately.

Science and religion are separate paths toward the same goal: that being an understanding of the Universe we live in, how it works and why, etc. These two paths are parallel at best — meaning they go in the same direction but shall never intersect. This is why you cannot teach religious ideas in science class. It’s like asking a math instructor to pause during discussion of the Pythagorean theorum to mention some interesting details about democracy’s origins in ancient Greece. It’s like discussing color theory in choir or the US government’s failure to abide by its treaties with various native American tribes in computer science class. These things are out of place.

Think I’m full of it? Just ask a purveyor of the so-called “Intelligent Design theory” what he thinks about forcing churches to add scientific explanations of planetology and the origins of life into their sermons. You know, give them equal time and serious consideration without snickering or allowing the congregation to plug their ears and go “la-la-la” while you do it. It’ll never happen. Why? Because they know these things are different, but they don’t care. They’re just afraid of questions. They’re afraid of answering the questions of a kid who comes home from school and says, “Hey, dad, do you think God’s pushing the buttons when less adaptable species go extinct?”

That’s because the basis of religion is faith, and the basis of science is skepticism. These are two mutually opposable concepts. Faith says, “I believe in the unprovable because I feel it to be true.” (False faith, by the way, says, “I believe in the unprovable because I read it in this book, which someone who claims to know such things told me is the word of god.”)
Skepticism (otherwise known as the scientific method) says, “That’s an interesting phenomenon I am observing over there! Y’know, I think what’s causing that is so-and-so. Hmm, an intriguing hypothesis. Before I suggest it to the world, I better do everything I can think of to disprove it — before everyone else can do so and make me look like an idiot! So I’ll think of every way I can that I might be wrong, or that this thing won’t work. Test, test, test... Gee, they all failed. I believe my hypothesis is now a theory worthy of sharing!” followed by a bunch of learned people who have devoted their lives to the very subject you’re addressing looking at your theory and saying, “Ah, baloney! You didn’t think of blah-de-blah, now, did you?” and testing it for themselves just to show you up. After enough of them have done so, and lots of evidence piles up in your favor, your theory is treated as factual. But that’s not the end. See, down the road other people may learn stuff that proves you wrong. And suddenly you’re Ptolemy and they’re Copernicus, and things move on.

Meanwhile, of course, the faithful are saying something along the lines of, “You’re all full of it, for my religion teaches such-and-such and that is the end of the question.” or “See, I knew it all long!” or if they’re really clever, “By this metaphorical route, I can fit your facts into the metaphor of my belief without betraying my faith.” In faith, there’s not a lot of room for revision as things go along. Thus have people been taken to task, excommunicated, and worse for suggesting theories that contradict established church doctrine (you name the church, they’ve probably got a beef with something). Over the long term, of course, religions do revise their positions, but only when top guys who claim to have a direct line to god say it’s OK. The pope, for example, or some Islamic cleric.

See how these things are mutually exclusive? What most often masquerades as faith does not allow questioning. True faith, however, does; its answers simply cannot be proved or disproved. They are a personal matter. Science/skepticism not only allows questioning, it makes it a requirement. And it eschews all that cannot be proved/disproved by empirical means — even if those be simply mathematical models. Math doesn’t lie. And we have to trust all analytical methods at our disposal until they are proven untrustworthy. Just to be sure, most often, we test things by more than one method.

For example, when someone says, “Evolution is just a theory; it hasn’t been proven,” they’re simply showing off their ignorance of what science is. Natural selection is an accepted theory because in the century or so since Darwin first put it forth, no one has managed to disprove it. Until someone can point out, not some exceptional case where a less well-adapted species has managed to beat out a more fit one, but a better way to explain the overall descent of species taking everything into account that’s been learned since then, we gotta’ go with Chuck. You don’t discount the overall theory because, for example, one study got screwy results. That’s called human error. We have the vast amounts of data supporting evolution as an explanation for why species come and go to outweigh and thus cancel out any single experiment’s mistake.

Can a thousand monkeys be wrong? Of course they can. But if they’re long-lived monkeys that read, reason, go to college, apply themselves, ask questions, experiment, do math, communicate and learn from each other, and build upon the work of monkeys decades and centuries before them... well, the chances of their being wrong about some observable phenomenon are a lot less than if you just asked one or two of them what they thought about it.

That’s where religious ideas come from, of course. Ultimately, if you go back far enough, one guy was sitting there contemplating his navel and thought, “All of this has got to mean something, our living and dying I mean, and I just got a pretty cool idea what that might be.” This is true whether you think the guy just made shit up or was somehow inspired by the finger of God thumping him upside the head. No matter whether the voice in his head is his alone, some schizophrenic braincramp, or divine inspiration, the fact is someone sat down and wrote these things out... or went out in his village and told other people, who liked what he had to say... or picked up a stick and started dancing around the fire in such an entertaining and mystical manner that his tribemates decided he must be a truly special guy indeed.

Maybe early on, those folks sat around talking about stuff and changed their ideas through collaboration. In fact, I’ll bet they did. Genesis was only committed to papyrus after it had been the subject of oral history for quite some time. People told stories. They had to be both entertaining and easy to understand if you wanted people to not only listen to you and believe but also remember and pass them along. I won’t get much deeper into this. If you want to, go read Joseph Campbell. Eventually, what happens is that one dude’s idea became doctrine, and a bunch of other people hooked their wagons to it, and eventually it became so important to so many people that it was set in stone. Very often, what followed was increasing power, which inevitably led to corruption, such that if the original guy were to come back later on he might well be appalled at what it had become.

So now we return to my own “Eureka!” moment. Remember how I said that science and religion are parallel roads that never cross? Well, my own version of the religious road happens to run very nearby to the science road. It’s about one leap of faith away from it, I’d say. And here’s what that leap of faith is:

The Universe, see, wasn’t created by a god, but rather it is God, or that which we would recognize as such. Where did it come from? It created itself. “Er... come again?” you say. “Ain’t that answer just a little too convenient?” Not at all, says I. Check this out. What we imagine to be the end of the Universe (big crunch, cold fizzle, whatever you like) will in fact be the moment of its creation. That is, ultimately, its purpose: to reach the point where it can, indeed, create itself.

If you want this to make sense, you have to understand, really understand, the true meaning of the word Universe as I’m using it here. Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” is just as accurate; I just happen to prefer the Roman version over the Greek. (It’s entirely an aesthetic thing.) It means, as he said, “all that is, all that ever was, and all that ever will be.” Check this out: I’m including time itself there. And I’m not limiting God to the same defined, linear reality we mere mortals must be content with. If you want to think of your deity as all-powerful, why should time be anything but a force it can manipulate? Ultimately, see, the Universe will reach a state of ultimate consciousness and true understanding of itself that it can quite easily reach back in time and cause its own beginning. This is a certainty because it has already happened. It’s only a matter of working toward the goal that you know for sure you can attain.

That wasn’t my “Eureka!” moment. I already had that bubbling around in my head all along. My first such moment in life, in fact, occurred about 10 years ago. My husband was fighting cancer at the time, so I was consumed by the spiritual battle that entailed on my side as well as struggling with the concept of true mortality. Vicariously, you could say, I looked Death in the eye. And lying in bed one night, trying to clear my head enough to go to sleep, I got the mental/emotional equivalent of the clouds parting and sunlight shining through upon me. Suddenly I knew the meaning of life. I wasn’t looking for it at the time, though it had been a subject of interest or many years. But there it was, as clear as if the words were written in shiny gold letters scrolling through the air over my head: “The purpose of life is to experience it.” Wow. Almost immediately thereafter I was struck with the realization that knowing the meaning was only halfway there: understanding and living it was something else.

Here I am, 10 years later, and I now know why. Because “experiencing life” is a way simplified term for what it really means. And if you take it the wrong direction, you could really end up in a bad place. Does it mean go out there and try to experience every activity and sensation you can dream up, good or bad, no matter the consequences? Of course not. Like any religious talk, you can’t just take it literally and you can’t take it out of context and interpret it any way you see fit. You gotta’ question, see? And find out what it really means. Like that eastern philosophy stuff.

I’ve spent 10 years figuring out the context of that revelation. And I think I’ve got it. We’re here, I mean we’re self-aware and intelligent and spiritual beings inhabiting physical bodies in this particular place and time, as part of Universe... part of God, you see? In fact, we’re pretty clever so that makes us teeny little pieces of the mind of God. The consciousness of the Universe fragmented into a zillion pieces, all spread throughout it to experience it up-close and personal, to look and feel and smell and taste and hear it all toward that ultimate purpose of true understanding.

By we, I don’t mean people who believe like me (‘cuz as far as I know, there’s only the one of me) and I don’t mean Americans or women or anything so provincial... I don’t simply mean humans, and I don’t even mean all Earthlings. I mean all beings, anywhere in the vast Universe that is and was and will be, with minds to contemplate such things as themselves. Possibly even all creatures with sensory apparati, for that matter. That’s the mark of the soul, yes? Spirits like to inhabit bodies that can really experience their surroundings, not just respond to them: things with eyes and suchlike.

One characteristic of Life, probably a major defining characteristic in fact, is its tendency to assemble itself into more and more complex forms. This may well derive from its basis on carbon, the divine element, which so readily forms chemical bonds with other atoms to make up more and more complex molecules. So the legacy of carbon-based life (and I argue that all life will be carbon-based) is this weird entropic tendency toward change and complication. If the purpose of life was simply to multiply and metabolize, then it could well have been happy to stop evolving at the archaeic or bacterial level. But no. Single-celled organisms found safety (and other things) in numbers and ganged together, creating so-called eukaryotic lifeforms such as slime molds and blue-green algae. They went all over the place photosynthesizing and building weird structures on the seashore, and that was something to be proud of. But it wasn’t enough. Responding to stimuli and changing environmental conditions over billions of years took Life in amazing directions, some of them long and involved and others cut short. Complexity increased: from single- to multicelluar organisms, from algae to plants, asexual to sexual reproduction, mullosks to crustaceans to insects, fish to amphibians to reptiles to mammals and birds... Up to this point, our own species is arguably the most complex yet. We may not have the most chromosomes, but we very clearly have the most fabulous neurosystems in the history of planet Earth. And that’s nothing to sneeze at.

But wait. Recently some scientists have coined and applied a new word for an entirely new form of life that’s right here in our midst: the superorganism, which I contend could be the next logical step in complexity for life on Earth. Check this out: certain insects (e.g., ants and bees) live in large groups, without which any given individual cannot survive for long. It has been hypothesized (and is now, of course, the object of a growing number of studies) that these groups thus fall under the definition of organisms in and of themselves, as much so as any multicellular lifeform can be. These are third-level organisms, whereas heretofore we have only been aware of one- and two-level lifeforms. You could say they are multi-multicellular.

Take your average beehive. The queen and her drones make up its reproductive system. The soldiers who stand guard at the hive entrances to battle intruders are pretty clearly the hive’s immune system. And the workers represent its digestive tract and all other supporting functions. Individual members of a given caste do possess a certain amount of autonomy separate from the others. But they act together in performing a given function. They communicate with each other, too. We’ve all seen that cute little dance the scouts do, shaking their butts and so forth to indicate upon their return to the hive exactly how far and in which direction others can fly to find a particular patch of clover.

Did you know your cells are communicating with each other all the time, too? Instead of a dance, they use molecules (usually proteins) as messages. Changes in their environment make some release particular “signaling” factors, which float around like emails on the Internet until they are taken up and bound by receptors on the surface of other cells. That’s kind of like broadcasting a message to the airwaves — eventually your transmittor’s signal is likely to be picked up by someone else’s reciever, and voila. Communication. Cells respond to messages in ways that are often much more complex than bees responding to each other’s body language. They make necessary proteins (e.g., antibodies) or step up their metabolism or a bunch of other things, any one of which involves a surprisingly complicated (there’s that word again) chain of molecular events.

Now take all that complexity and wrap it up in an exoskeleton, and you’ve got... say... an ant. You wanna’ make it more complicated? Make that ant just as dependent on a bunch of other ants as its own individual cells are on each other. Now they can build an ant-hill, farm aphids, all kinds of neat things. Superorganisms can do much cooler and more difficult things than single organisms can manage on their own. Look at the fun those carbon atoms are having now!

So it occurred to me, as I thought about superorganisms in bed the other night (What is it about lying perfectly still in a dark and quiet room that allows you to come up with these things? I bet your average Indian guru could explain that one. Just ask him about “meditation.”) that the very same criteria are probably met when you examine the characteristics of cities. Or indeed, any human communities: from tribal units to villages, cities to states to nations... Is Denver really nothing more than a giant ant-hill? Or, gosh, maybe each larger community is really a collection of superorganisms doing even more amazing things than the smaller ones that make them up...

I know, for some of you that seems somehow demeaning — perhaps somehow taking away from your own personal individuality in favor of the State as some socialistic beast — or maybe even oversimplifying the concept of community in and of itself. But it isn’t either of those. On the contrary, it merely attempts to describe the jaw-droppingly fabulous complexity of such things in terms of what they really are. Your individuality is undeniable: you are a discrete entity set off from the outside world by the boundary of your skin, just as an ant is defined by the boundary of its exoskeleton. If we accept that a single human being is at the very least one of the most complex creatures ever evolved on our world, then we get out our old SAT tests and analogize...

Ant is to Ant-Hill as I am to the City of Eugene

Wow, gee, how cool is that? This City of Eugene thing must be utterly amazing! And there’s a higher superorganism (called USA) that makes it look like an ant. Dang...

Look, I’m getting somewhere with this, OK? We’re talking about complexity, and we’re doing analogies for a reason. Just ride it like a trail horse. Sit back and relax. Try to enjoy the view. And stay with the guide. It was certainly worth it for me; it’s gotta’ be worth it for someone else...

Let’s stop here for a moment and revisit something. Like a scientist working on a hypothesis, I’m imagining you saying, “You can’t compare a city to an ant-hill. You just... can’t. I mean, they’re ants. They don’t have movie theaters or history museums or libraries or email accounts. They don’t think.” See me pointing my finger rather meaningfully at that last sentence? Point, point. Precisely, says I. They don’t think. And we do. So does not our city-superorganism differ from their ant-hill superorganism merely in its amount of complexity, that being based on the fact that its constituents are way more complex to begin with? If you think of it that way, really, the only difference is a matter of degree. Yes, it’s a huge degree. Exponential, even.

And thus do we arrive at our first major stop on my particular journey to enlightenment. In examining the miraculous chemical phenomenon known as life, we have arrived at a level of unbelievable complexity. Zillions of molecules zipping around doing zillions of things, spiritual entities (there’s my leap of faith again) inhabiting discrete collections of them by which to see hear smell touch taste the results, and linear time allowing for cause and effect and history and planning to make the whole thing really take off. This is really something. And our Earth is home to millions of superorganisms. So when I say the next thing, we should be better equipped to comprehend its full meaning.

Earth is to the Universe as an atom is to Earth

The word “complexity” does not begin to describe the exponent we’ve reached by this point. Hundreds of Earths could fit inside Jupiter; hundreds of Jupiters could fit inside our Sun; hundreds of Suns could fit inside the star Betelgeuse; hundreds of Betelgeuses could fit inside the Horsehead Nebula... There are thousands of such nebulae fitting in between the 100,000 or so stars that make up our galaxy. Some of those stars may well have planets with lifeforms and histories of their own.
There are millions of galaxies that we can see from our vantage point in the Universe. Even if each one has only one Earth in it, there are millions of them out there, each playing host to millions of complex superorganisms just like City of Eugene. The apparently empty space we all inhabit is, for all intents and purposes, infinite. Within it exist the largest and most complex structures we can possibly attempt to wrap our minds around: filaments made of thousands of galaxies, all loosely grouped in irregular numbers. If you map these filaments on a computer, the resulting picture looks disturbingly like the structures we know of as neural networks.

This is just the stuff we can detect with our telescopes that “see” in infrared, visible light, radio waves, gamma rays, and so forth. Certain mathematical models (pretty simple ones, in fact, based on the apparent mass of the Universe and the speed at which things seem to be flying apart) suggest that some 90% of what’s out there may be as yet undetectable. Add that into the mix of complexity that started with a few carbon atoms (which, of course, are not the simplest of atoms by any means, nor are atoms themselves the simplest structures yet elucidated), and you begin to understand what is truly meant by the word Universe.

When we look outward, time in a sense behaves oddly. The further away something is, the longer ago it is. We see a galaxy a million lightyears away how it looked a million years ago, not now. We cannot see it as it looks now — unless we wait another million years. Something even weirder happens when we look inward. Forget time. You start trying to figure out what’s going on inside an atom, then reality itself goes on the blink. The word complexity ceases to even apply, things have become so ridiculously complicated that we can only express them in esoteric mathematical terms full of bizarre symbols and variables and constants with lengthy histories of their own. Some of our fellow humans — for fun, let’s call them the physics caste — are trying really hard to figure this stuff out. But even those who devote their entire lives to the task can only elucidate little bits of sense about it.

Now, that’s God. To speak of such a thing as a mere father, holy trinity, collection of magical beings living on a mountain, or giant space-swimming turtle is (from my point of view) an insult. I think most of the religions of our world short-shift The Divine in a big way. To even suggest that we could possibly understand the desires and motivations of such a being, have a conversation with it, or be its chosen people... Well, it’s hard for me to express how ridiculous that seems when I take into consideration all that it is. It’s like one of my liver cells trying to contemplate the reason I might need to pour myself a scotch-and-soda on Friday night — only exponentially more impossible.

So when I say that, get ready for it, as infinitessimal parts of the Universe we are all of us at most the equivalent of neurons in the mind of God, I am neither elevating nor diminishing our importance. We are essential, we perform a vital function, and we are all in it together. We are also equal in our humble nature. And we don’t need to be told what our function is; like our own cells, we perform it because it is the only thing we can do. This is not a lack of free will or a total submission to Fate. Free will is part of our function. (What you are doing is what you are supposed to be doing, no matter what. Any consequences that follow are just as necessary. We’ll get into this later.)

Certain rather annoying NewAgers have made an utterly stupid leap of faulty logic that goes like this: “I am part of God, we are all God, therefore I am God.” I can’t for the life of me understand what kind of arrogant sophomoric mind can possibly reach that conclusion. It’s like saying, “My gallbladder is part of me, therefore it is me and I am my gallbladder.” Your first week of logic class, if anyone bothered to study such a thing anymore, would teach you how stupid this is.

(Yes, a devoted biochemist might just be able to make an exact copy of you from one of your skin cells. But it is the rare clonee, I think, who would then accept the pronouncement that said copy is as much him as he is himself. Thus would it be entitled to write checks on the man’s bank account, sleep with his wife, and quit his job for him all in legally binding ways. Not gonna’ happen. Why? Because we instinctively understand our own selfhood. Heck, your dog understands it, so should you!)

The NewAgers then use that drivel to justify wandering around the world doing whatever they feel like doing without a thought for consequence or anything else. They call it “freeing.” I call it intellectualization of a childish existence. Oh yeah, and bullshit. This is my treatise, so I get to be in charge here and kick them all out. You only get to stay by admitting how stupid the pseudo-conclusion is.

Those of you who are still here may consider yourselves congratulated. Remember when I was talking about superorganisms? OK, well, the Universe is obviously the ultimate one. If we’re each a single cell in that vast and divine being, then groups of us would clearly form the equivalent of organs. (Note: Yes, I realize the metaphor does not strictly apply. If you mapped all this to scale, even the Earth itself is not big enough to be considered a cell, nor our Solar System an organ as simple as a lymph node. But I think I’ve already made it clear enough that the Universe is no more a slave to time and space than you are a slave to the set of religious doctrine first presented to you as a child.)

Collectives, then, are capable of doing cooler and more complicated things than are individuals. Thus do Nobel Prize winners “stand on the shoulders of giants,” and thus did it take the committment of an entire nation and the dedicated work of many of its citizens to put the first men on the Moon. As amazing as are the atomic bomb and the pyramids of Egypt, just imagine how amazing is the complex spiritual conceptualization formed by the combined searching and interactions of the entire human race since the first of us stood upright in Africa a million years ago. All of that maybe just the equivalent of God deciding what to have for breakfast.

Yes, it seems like a Mobius strip of words to say that the Universe (i.e., God) created (i.e., will create) itself. But we’re not talking about some easily conceived notion of a kindly father spirit who makes things with his hands and in all of Creation chose to tell the truth only to a few ragtag shepherds hanging out in the deserts between Europe and Asia a few thousand years ago. We’re talking about God: omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent. The people who first used those words to describe what they conceived of as God had no idea what they were really getting themselves into.

And no, we haven’t gotten to my “Eureka!” moment yet. But here it comes. You see, when I got into this in talking with my mom, in the midst of being offended by my apparent insinuation that her own deeply held beliefs must be nothing more than quaintly silly superstitions, she asked me a very important and pretty complicated question: “But what about Evil? and consequences for your actions? If you have no rules to follow, then aren’t you simply justifying a way you can do whatever your like with no remorse?”

First, I found her notion of insult somewhat amusing, by the way, since it completely ignores the direct implication of her own faith that everything I’m saying on this subject amounts to the ravings of a deluded and self-important egomaniac. Not to mention that the millions of believers of Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. all across the Earth also must be poor misguided superstitious fools. The only way we of different faiths can coexist without violence, it seems, is to agree to disagree. And, if we are easily offended, avoid talking about religion at all on the off chance that someone you otherwise like might imply that they are quite certain you either are going to hell or can expect to come back in the next life as a wart-hog. If you dwell on it, it can really color your dealings with that person, I guess. In that respect, I would contend that my own faith is at least one of the most tolerant ever devised, for I think whatever you believe is what you are supposed to believe in order to serve your purpose, whatever it is since it cannot be devined by creatures such as us.

And that brings us back to Evil. What is it? As my mom put it, do I then respect the follower of Satanism who believes he must commit an infant to bloody sacrifice under the full moon as simply fulfilling his purpose and thus undeserving of punishment?

Well, to be honest, I hadn’t put a lot of thought into the concept of Evil at that point. And my gut instinct was to go back to the collective/organ thing: i.e., whatever is bad for the community is bad and thus can be punished by the community as an entity. Thus we have laws and so forth.

But she’s clever (where do you think I got it? heh). And she says, “What if the laws of a particular community happen to allow for something evil? Does that make it OK?” I consider the Aztecs and their blood sacrifices. And I frown. I don’t like the idea of some opposing force of Evil that seeks to counteract God’s will. It’s far too simple, too much like us and our own experience to apply to the Universe as a whole. The “War Between Good and Evil” is too easy of an answer. And in my gut I do not believe that there is one main bad guy out there who’s just as powerful as or more powerful than God but somehow confined by rules that make him work through us, or whatever. It just doesn’t make sense to me. And I go by Einstein’s credo that “Truth is elegant.”

The right answer will feel right every time. That’s evidence of our connection to something bigger and better than ourselves.
And that’s when it hits me. If the Universe is the ultimate superorganism, then that organism may well be capable of illness. Evil. Is. A. Sickness. That’s why we instinctively know it when we see it — because, like our own cells, we are programmed to recognize illness and reject it. Some of us become ill — like the white blood cells in a leukemia patient — and may or may not recognize it for what it is. But the rest of us, those who are still healthy, we can see it. And we can stop it one way or another. Especially if we work together.

Which takes me back to that night in 1995, lying next to a man who was battling for his life against a thing the size of a three-egg omelet, which had wrapped itself around his trachea and superior vena cava in an apparently concerted effort to strangle him to death. For Chris, defeating it was a task to be accomplished just like any job — which suggests, perhaps, that he’s more naturally in tune with our nature as functioning parts of God than I am. For me, it was Evil that must be destroyed. I did everything I could for Chris himself, meanwhile directing all the spiritual energy of my hatred and ill-will against that thing as hard and as constantly as I could. That was the best I could do. Together, with the help of some amazing doctors, we killed it before it could kill him.

See, I don’t think hatred is any more intrinsically evil than guns are. Both are weapons, both have their uses. But both are more often misused than not. Those who do evil deserve to be hated. This includes those who point their hatred — or their guns — in the wrong direction. How do you know what’s the right direction? Listen, and the Universe will tell you. These are things you cannot read in a book, cannot be taught by anyone — especially those who claim to be wise teachers. I will not attempt to tell you anything but the simplest Truth: If you tune in, then your intrinsic connection to The Divine will be apparent.

This is what makes you feel bad when you think or do something wrong, and it’s what makes you feel good when you do the right thing. It’s as natural as breathing. You will be happiest when you are doing what you should be doing — whatever is your purpose as part of the Whole. That’s kinda’ how you can figure out what that purpose is. But, you might ask (as certain people have already), what about people who are mean or lazy or suchlike? Are they fulfilling their purpose? Well, maybe. We’re about as equipped to understand the true needs of the Universe as my dog is to understand the current War in Iraq — only less so by a quadrillionfold. Some people may be accomplishing something we cannot perceive, maybe even something of which they are unaware themselves. Many of them may be ill — in the “evil” sense of the word, that is. I don’t mean mentally ill so just give them a pill. I mean spiritually ill. And seldom can such illnesses be cured by the actions of another person. Persons, however...

Well, back to that whole complexity issue. Check this out: If we think of our communities (whatever form they may take, from nation and city-state to fan club and family unit) as the spiritual equivalent of tissues/organs in the entity that is Divine, then they are by nature imbued with certain powers that individuals do not possess. A termite alone cannot build a termite mound; it takes thousands of them. A single person is incapable of curing the ill that is represented by, for example, a serial killer. It takes a community of people to find the bastard and catch him and bring him to justice. Make him pay. “Vengeance is mine,” sayeth the Collective. If we left it up to the Lord, after all, we wouldn’t have to take any responsibility... and the entire justice system would be a pointless waste of time/money/lives/etc.

Sometimes a person may become the instrument of that cure: e.g., executioners and that guy who murdered Jeffrey Dahmer in prison. (Obviously, they may not necessarily be perfectly good people, either. How many stories have we heard of “bad cops” and police brutality?) This most often happens on the slighter scale, though. A guy goes around breaking hearts and falls in love, only to get cheated on. A self-important rich man who really believes that “He who dies with the most toys wins.” ends up alone and heartbroken. Or someone on a self-destructive downward spiral meets just the right someone else and recognizes him/her for what he/she can mean, thus finding a way out and a reason to go on to something better. Or circumstances alone may lead to justice. These things do happen — the Wiccans call it the Rule of Three (whatever bad you do will come back to you threefold). And the Hindus call it karma. But of course, there are some people who, to all appearances, manage to get away with being rat-bastards all their lives with seemingly no consequences. It may well be their purpose — a purpose we cannot hope to understand — or their illness may be uncurable.

Your cells have a built-in suicidal mechanism called apoptosis. If one of several types of things goes wrong, it will initiate a signaling cascade of messenger molecules that cause things to happen leading to the eventual death of the cell. Genetic mutation is a common trigger, it happens more easily and more often than most people realize. Senescence is a similar mechanism by which cells kick the bucket when they are no longer needed alive (e.g., the dead skin cells that mark the physical boundary of what makes you an individual) or they’ve been cut off from what they need to survive. What we know of as the worst sicknesses — e.g., cancer, autoimmune disorders — are cases where, for whatever reasons, natural disease-fighting mechanisms — apoptosis and the immune system, respectively — don’t function correctly. In most cases, we’re still not sure what the reasons are.

This leads me to another spiritual analogy, which should finally explain why this whole second bit of enlightenment has had nearly as big an impact as the first one did. In your body, things can go wrong. These are things that have nothing to do with your free will. Chris made no conscious choice that said, “I’d like to build myself a whole new organ in my chest, one whose sole purpose is to kill me. Yeah, that sounds pretty cool.” Nor can you toss off a “Well, some unconscious choices he made led to the cancer.” No. His body is imperfect, and it screwed up. Something went wrong.

That can happen to any life-form. You could even say it happens to inorganic systems, which do give away their simplicity by being much more predictable. Illness is, in a way, imperfection. Evil is when things are out of whack. And here comes the ultimate heresy... The Universe is imperfect. Knowing what you know at this point about my beliefs, you realize that I’m about to type some words that in times past (who knows, maybe even in the near future) would have gotten me hauled away: God is, therefore, imperfect. Omniscient, probably. Omnipotent, verly likely. Omnipresent, most certainly. But perfect, nope. My theology as I’ve laid it out does not allow for Divine perfection.

“But wait! Isn’t that part of the whole definition of what we mean by God?”

It’s what Christians and Muslims and Hebrews mean when they say God or Allah or Yahweh. Perfection is as inherent to their concept of god as is “goodness.” But for many other peoples in the history of our world, gods were far from perfect. The Greeks, Romans, and Norse believed in very human gods who just had some nifty magic tricks up their sleeves. Followers of Shinto believe their own ancestors somehow become divine (I’m a little rusty on that one, it’s been a while since I read anything about it). Certainly the Japanese tradition imbues their emperor with a divine nature similar to the pharaohs of ancient Egypt. Hinduism fragments god into a bunch of pieces, none of which is as great as the whole — but I'm not sure even they include perfection in that. And Buddhists don’t really have a god, as far as I know.

So I’m not really as “out there” as it may at first seem. How could the Universe be perfect if it’s made up of imperfect things, after all? You are a small part of it, yourself, and you are not perfect. So even if your own imperfections were all that there were, they’d still be there. And as you know our own human society, such as it has become on planet Earth by now, is absolutely rife with imperfection. I’ll guarantee you that when we come across other ones out there, they’ll be messed up too. Even the ones who have been around longer than we have (evolved past petty border disputes perhaps or gotten rid of their appendices entirely) will be far from perfect. And as fellow parts of the Whole, they’ll be contributing their own brands of spiritual illness to the mix.

Evil seems to be as inevitable as goodness. And maybe goodness is merely another word for proper functionality. Ick, that sounds terrible. But I mean, what is best for the Whole is what’s right. Just like when someone gets severe frostbite and has to get some toes chopped off. (A fun question to ask is how much of yourself could you cut off before you weren’t you anymore... This is especially fun when you’re talking to one of those people who insists that by saying we are part of the Whole we automatically mean we are the Whole. Throw a cushion from your couch across the room; if in being part of the couch it is the couch, are there now two couches in the room? Or has the one become larger because it covers more area? Whee, I just love logic.)

Now, don’t think that I’m saying anyone has the right to say what’s good for the whole, and thus implement it. This philosophy cannot empower any tyrant to tell us he’s got a direct line to the Divine and can thus tell us all people with blond hair must die for the good of us all. Lots of us will feel the wrongness of such action. The details and reasoning of this overall goodness I speak of are known only to the Universe itself, as it figures itself out over the eons. Its decisions are final, and we haven’t a hope of contradicting them. In that sense, the Universe (that is, God, right?) knows best. It ain’t perfect, but its largeness does outweigh those imperfections. Evil is, in the end, but a spiritual parasite of the Divine. It cannot win.
(How cool is that?)

It is quite possible, however, that we ourselves will not be around to see where this is all going. Our species may be a gangrenous toe. Or we may yet heal ourselves and move on, contributing to the Universe’s knowledge of itself, understanding more and more our own bits of it as time goes on, evolving and growing and changing as we see and experience more of this great Vastness we’re part of... and everything will be right in the end.

But then, it’ll all be right with or without us. Because it already has been. The loop is eternal, extending beyond the concepts of time and space themselves, and we are privileged to be part of it. If we play our cards right, maybe we’ll end up being a big part of it. We weren’t created to be God’s super-special creatures destined for dominion over all we survey. We have to earn that.

And thus the struggle. Each of us tries to do the right thing, it’ll reflect on up the chain to the collectives we form, make them function correctly for the good of all, make everyone happy and contribute to the Universe’s understanding of itself, and there you go. Every time we fail, we drag everyone else down just a little bit, so we keep on trying. Because if you’re capable of imagining a better world, then you’re obliged to work toward it. If you can conceive of a better you, then you’re obliged to try and become that. If you remember a dream and wonder what it meant, it meant something. If you see a great blue heron fly over you on a walk in the wetlands, and you sense meaning in its appearance, then the truth is there to be revealed to you. These things are part of our purpose in life, part of our meaning for existence as spiritual beings in physical bodies. We wouldn’t have them if we weren’t meant to use them.

I’m not asking you to be good and strive for more because you’ll go to heaven or come back as a rich man. I’m not asking you because you’ll otherwise go to hell or come back as a dung beetle. I’m not asking you because it’ll make you happier in life; this is no cure-all for sadness or magic pathway to avoid trouble in your life. It’s because the Universe needs you. You’re as important as anyone else — otherwise you wouldn’t be here. Without you, without whatever it is you can conceive of for yourself, the Whole is diminished. You can either be part of the something great, the greatest thing ever in the history of time and space, or you can be a symptom that must be cured.

Evil is a sickness. It can be overcome. It will be overcome. Just how that happens in the end is up to all of us.

4 comments:

Roy said...

If we are part of God, God is not perfect because we are not. God simply IS. "As it was in the beginning..." I once tried to explain magic under the idea that God was infinite. Infinite presence, power, and knowledge. Okay, not necessarily knowledge, since do we know where the atoms in our left foot were 300 years ago? Premise: infinite power was used to create the Universe(s). and there are finite portions of the Universe. But the smallest possible portion of true infinity is still infinity. So if infinte power was used to make a pebble, where's the rest of it? I ramble horrendously, but I'm glad to hear you're still thinking.

Loreen said...

Wow. Heavy. And well put together.

I started a story once, with aliens who respected humanity only as one, or several, loose collective mind. Everything we consider culture, knowlage system, entertainent and politics, they thought of as the workings of a hive-mind.

They started comunticating with us by creating weird telivision programs: sitcoms and documentarys. After a while they started publishing books.

That story still need a plot...

Kim said...

I believe I need to be Wholist #2 - send me a membership card please - because you've explained so much of what, as you know, I've believed for years.

I knew I was somehow blessed to NOT be brought up in a religious home, and I've always thought of organized religion as "not right, nice stories, but not right". I never thought there was something as simple as a God (or God representative) guiding our every move like little pawns. That was too easy - a convenient excuse for people who don't want to take responsibilitiy for their own lives an actions. Say 10 Hail Marys and you'll still go to Heaven - yeah, whatever. A cursory read of early European history will explain how organized religion was created as a form of control.

I have a lot of respect for people who leave to question their religion and return to it for whatever reasons - you and I both know someone who did just this (aside from your mom) because these are people who gave it critical thought. It's hard for me with people who never question....but then again, that reflects back to our Purpose in the Universe.

Hmmmmm....definetly something to be thought about.

Part2 said...

Wow, this was big. I mean you said it was big and I was like “I bet it’s pretty big”, but this was really big. That said. I have actually had very similar feelings about spirituality. One thing I have trouble getting past is this: I accept the law of special relativity, there for I accept that space and time are dependent upon one another, I accept that “in the beginning” there was “one” and that one blew up creating this, but… If I accept the “One” part and the “Time” part than that means that all of this, including future events have already happened and also have not happened. Ouch, it hurts every time I think about it. Coincidentally, apoptosis gives me a really good argument for my position in our earlier conversation and it’s fun to say.

You should use LJ. It is cooler, by my estimation, and I can add you as a friend and see when you have updated your blog. :)

Shane
http://www.livejournal.com/users/pith_stop/