United, We Divide

I was a teenage Methodist.  Or, I should say, a teenage United Methodist.  My family had moved to a town where there were no Fundamentalist churches.  Indeed, the only Protestant church was the UMC.  Although very aware of religion, I hadn’t studied it deeply at that point—I’ve come to understand a bit better the marketplace of Christianties and how it works in a capitalist society.  The thing is, the more I learned about John Wesley and the Methodist movement, the more I saw how well it aligned with my own thinking and experience.  I became an Episcopalian largely because John Wesley never left that tradition and urged his followers in the same direction.  Of course, the “United” in United Methodism was due to mergers during the ecumenical period when Christians were learning to overlook differences and a strong base remained from which to draw.

The news has come out that the United Methodist Church has decided to split over the issue of homosexuality.  Most major Protestant denominations have made their peace, albeit uneasily, with the issue.  They recognized that while a source of guidance in spiritual matters the Bible’s a little outdated on its scientific understanding.  If God had revealed evolution to good old Moses things might’ve been a bit different.  We now know that homosexuality isn’t a “choice”—it is found in nature, and not rarely.  Homo sapiens (if I’m allowed to use that phrase) have developed in such a way that sexuality is a main preoccupation of religions.  Some animal species are monogamous and in our case many cultures adopted this as conducive to an ordered society.  Then it became codified in some sacred writings.

While homosexuality is mentioned in the Bible, every book of that Bible has a context.  Like it or not, close, serious study of Scripture raises questions you just don’t get if you read only authors who think the same way you do.  It is far easier to do that—who doesn’t like being right?—but thinking seldom gains credibility by never being challenged.  Iron sharpens iron, someone once said.  The emotion behind the issue, I suspect, is driven by a couple of things: fear of that which is different, and the inability to see the Bible as anything but “da rules.”  In those cases where the rules contradict one another you just have to choose.  At least in Christianity.  In Judaism they ended up with the Talmud.  In any case, we’re now seeing the fracturing of society based on party lines.  We could always use a few more choices, I guess, for competition is what spiritual capitalism is all about.

Virtually Religious

“Which god would that be? The one who created you? Or the one who created me?” So asks SID 6.7, the virtual villain of Virtuosity.  I missed this movie when it came out 24 years ago (as did many others, at least to judge by its online scores).  Although prescient for its time it was eclipsed four years later by The Matrix, still one of my favs after all these years.  I finally got around to seeing Virtuosity over the holidays—I tend to allow myself to stay up a little later (although I don’t sleep in any later) to watch some movies.  I found SID’s question intriguing.  In case you’re one of those who hasn’t seen the film, briefly it goes like this: in the future (where they still drive 1990’s model cars) virtual reality is advanced to the point of giving computer-generated avatars sentience.  A rogue hacker has figured out how to make virtual creatures physical and SID gets himself “outside the box.”  He’s a combination of serial killers programmed to train police in the virtual world.  Parker Barnes, one of said police, has to track him down.

The reason the opening quote is so interesting is that it’s an issue we wouldn’t expect a programmer to, well, program.  Computer-generated characters are aware that they’ve been created.  The one who creates is God.  Ancient peoples allowed for non-creator deities as well, but monotheism hangs considerable weight on that hook.  When evolution first came to be known, the threat religion felt was to God the creator.  Specifically to the recipe book called Genesis.  Theistic evolutionists allowed for divinely-driven evolution, but the creator still had to be behind it.  Can any conscious being avoid the question of its origins?  When we’re children we begin to ask our parents that awkward question of where we came from.  Who doesn’t want to know?

Virtuosity plays on a number of themes, including white supremacy and the dangers of AI.  We still have no clear idea of what consciousness is, but it’s pretty obvious that it doesn’t fit easily with a materialistic paradigm.  SID is aware that he’s been simulated.  Would AI therefore have to comprehend that it had been created?  Wouldn’t it wonder about its own origins?  If it’s anything like human intelligence it would soon design myths to explain its own evolution.  It would, if it’s anything like us, invent its own religions.  And that, no matter what programmers might intend, would be both somewhat embarrassing and utterly fascinating.

Back to Normal

The western philosophical tradition is built on the idea that permanence is reality.  From the Greek philosophers on, the idea has been to identify the basic, unchanging building blocks of reality to get at what’s really real.  The eastern philosophical system posits that change is reality.  Permanence is illusion, and that which we think of as unchanging is a deceptive projection of our own minds.  This dichotomy keeps coming back to me when things change and I keep waiting for them to go back to “the old way” or “the usual way.”  Most recently, for example, the shift to or from (I can never remember which) Daylight Saving Time.  This was followed closely by a mandated trip to San Diego, three time zones away, that lasted five days.  While there I met with potential authors later into the evening than I generally stay up on eastern time.  Now that I’m back home I keep waiting for things to go back to the way they were.

My response to all of this is to wonder if maybe I have the wrong philosophical disposition.  Problem is, the entire western world is built on the proposition that permanence is reality.  The things that worry us are, in eastern thinking, part of the constantly changing flux of reality.  While away from the usual constant connectivity of life at home, bills still come electronically.  Websites ask you for passwords that, like eastern thought, are constantly changing.  I play along, even to the point of “buying” property so that it will always be mine.  Right now lots of things are up in the air in the western world—the future of democracy itself is uncertain—and I keep waiting for things to get back to normal.

Part of the problem is that I keep too busy.  It is easier for me to maintain this illusion if I slow down and have time to think it through.  Things change too quickly for that, however.  Using time as a pole star to navigate this constantly heaving sea, I’ve become a little confused about my longitude.  I’m settling back into eastern time at the new hour they tell me that it is, but I feel as though I’ve left lots of things behind.  I’ve had a little time off work over the holiday and there’s a tremendous amount of change awaiting me once I fire the laptop up again.  I want to go back to where I was before I boarded that plane, back before I “gained” an hour.  Back before I had to learn everything you need to know to “buy” a house.  I look to the east and nod.

The God Test

Humans don’t mean to be cruel, I’m pretty sure, when they test animals for intelligence.  We’re a curious lot, perhaps a bit too self-absorbed, but we want to know how other animals are like us.  Of course, we reserve actual thinking for ourselves, given how well we’ve managed to conserve our only environment, but we grant some special spark to our biological kin.  So we devise tests for them.  Since we can’t get beyond human experience, many of these tests are devised for creatures like us.  When animals fail our superiority is reconfirmed.  Then it’s back to the lab.  I’ve got to wonder how it feels to the subject of the experiment (or is it object?).  Some being that has mastered the art of capturing you, perhaps with the aid of alien technology, is trying to get you to understand something that’s only clear from its (the captor’s) viewpoint.  You need to suss out that viewpoint and solve the puzzle in the same way.

This makes me think of many forms of religion.  We’re born to a lower species (human) as the experimental subjects of gods, or a God, who watch(es) to see how we figure things out.  There’s a right answer, of course, but we’re only given hints as to what it is.  We’re given toys to play with—some of them dangerous—and we’re allowed to select clowns and buffoons to lead us.  We can kill off unthinkable numbers of our own kind and the only clue that we’ve succeeded is some tasty treat at the end.  Of course, we have to assume that the intelligence governing this whole farce is much greater than our own.  Doesn’t feel so good, does it?

Holism is the ability to see a continuity in all of nature.  And nature doesn’t just mean this warm globe on which we find ourselves.  It’s vast and mysterious and some parts of it are very cold and others very hot.  There are places we cannot go, and others that seem inevitable, given the choices.  Like the victims of bullies we don’t think about the larger system, but seek to impose our wills on those who see things differently than we do.  Some tote guns while others pack books.  All of us will shoo away insects that buzz too close.  Most of the animals “beneath” us will simply eat them.  Is this all a game?  Or is it some kind of experiment where we have to guess the answer, but with only a fraction of the information required?

Fly Away

Humans can be quite likable, but we have some nasty traits.  One is that we tend to think of ourselves as the only intelligent beings on the planet.  The funny thing about evolution is that it gave us both big brains and opposable thumbs—a winning combination to destroy the planet.  (Just look at Washington, DC and try to disagree.)  Jennifer Ackerman’s The Genius of Birds is poignant in this context.  Page after page of nearly unbelievable displays of intelligence among birds demonstrates that we are hardly alone on the smarts scale.  Birds make and use tools, have better memories than most of us do, and can solve problems that I even have trouble following.  We tend to take birds for granted because they seem to flit everywhere, but the book ends soberly by noting how global warming is driving many species to extinction.

Homo sapiens (I’ll leave out the questionable and redundant second sapiens) like to think we’ve got it all figured out.  We tend to forget that we too evolved for our environment—we adapt well, which has allowed us to change our environment and adapt to it (again, opposable thumbs).  Many scientists therefore conclude that we are the most intelligent beings in existence.  Ironically they make such assertions when it’s clear that other species can perceive things we can’t.  Ackerman’s chapter on migration states what we well know—migrating birds can sense the earth’s magnetic field, something beyond the ability of humans.  We lack the correct organ or bulb or lobe to pick up that signal.  And yet we think we can rule out other forms of intelligence when we don’t even know all the forms of possible sensory input.  We could learn a lot from looking at birds, including a little humility.

The Genius of Birds explores several different kinds of intelligence.  What becomes clear is that birds, like people, have minds.  Like human beings they come on a scale of intellectual ability that doesn’t suggest only one kind is necessary.  For our large brains we can’t seem to get it through our thick skulls that we need biodiversity.  We need other species to fill other niches and our own remarkable ability to thrive has only been because we are part of a tremendous, interconnected net encompassing all of life.  Other species have contributed to our evolution as we clearly do to theirs.  When we end up thinking that we alone are smart and our own prosperity alone matters we are sawing away at the branch on which we sit.  Further up the birds look at us and wonder if we really know what we’re doing.

Permanent Change

Maybe you’ve experienced it too.  The sense of change in a large city like New York is palpable.  Although I don’t commute in much any more, I noticed it when I made daily treks to the city—change is constant.  If the skyline’s forever evolving, on street level things are more than keeping pace.  In the seven years of my daily commuting I saw buildings built and razed in the same location.  Scaffolding is a constant hazard.  Public art pieces are placed and then replaced.  Change.  I was reading about Yijing, better known as I Ching, the other day.  One of the spiritual classics of China, this “Book of Changes” reflects a worldview common in eastern Asia that is quite at odds with that that developed in ancient Greece.  Many Greeks believed permanence was reality, those in China who read the spiritual masters believed that change was reality.  The older I get the more I think the author(s) of Yijing got it right.

I’m not an expert on the religions of southern or eastern Asia, but I have studied the major ones.  To those outside the field of religious studies, it may be surprising that the field is as large as it is.  In the United States alone there are an estimated 40,000 denominations, and that’s just within Christianity.  To be an expert in any one takes years of study.  Add in the many religions of other locations, such as Africa and Asia, and you’ve got more than one lifetime’s worth of work lined up.  A common—the most common, in fact—course in collegiate religion curricula is “World Religions.”  I’ve taught it myself.  The problem is nobody’s an expert in all of them.  Still, I found reading about what used to be called “eastern religions” (with that poisonous cultural bias that the unchanging west is the correct vantage point) full of surprises.

Scientists well into last century liked the idea of a steady-state universe.  Permanence.  When Edwin Hubble noticed other galaxies were moving away from ours (and, by the way, first noticed that there were other galaxies), the Big Bang theory developed to explain this motion.   Change, it turns out, is constant.  It may be slow at times, and at others it’s like the skyline of a major city like New York, shifting several times in a single lifespan.  I’ve read some of the spiritual classics (in translation) and I always come away with a new sense of wonder about the many ways of understanding the world.  And I ponder what it will take to change the attitude that religions aren’t worth studying.

Burger Impossible

On the way home from Ithaca, we’ve learned the hard way to avoid I-80 through the Poconos on a holiday weekend.  Past experience indicates that about 80 percent of the population of New Jersey (to be fair, a percentage of that may be those from New York City) tries to squeeze through the Delaware Water Gap at just about dinner-time the day before work starts again.  There is a longer alternate route, I-476, the turnpike, which you catch north of Scranton and exit in Allentown.  The only issue with this plan is that, unless you want to exit the turnpike to try to find food in rural Pennsylvania, there’s only one travel plaza between our entrance and exit.  It’s a nice enough stopping point, but for a vegan on the road options are limited.  As we pulled in we noticed there was a Burger King.  Would they have the much touted “impossible burger”?

It turns out that they did.  Having last had a whopper well over two decades ago, mouth memory may have faded a bit, but I can honestly say this was like the whopper I remembered.  If you hold the cheese and mayo, you have a vegan version.  This discovery made me strangely happy.  For years at remote locations (and some urban) we’ve stopped when the only other options are meat based and had the BK veggie burger.  It’s not too bad most of the time, but if you want to think you’re eating meat while not contributing to the massive environmental degradation of industrial farming, the impossible burger seems like a reasonable option.  This is one area of technology that I’m glad seems to be catching up with ethics.

I often ponder how much our western point-of-view is based on the Bible.  Our reluctance to include animals in our ethics is another example of how the hard line between species has been applied.  Even scientists are susceptible to worldview bias.  When we realize we’re all part of a continuum of biological relatedness, it’s a lot more difficult to argue for our special place in the divine eye.  At the same time, insisting one’s ethics be applied to all is a form of fascism.  I’m just glad my conscience can be assuaged with some plant-based food options.  After all, I’ve been on the road for a few hours and I’m sitting here happy to be eating at Burger King.  It’s a matter of perspective.