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Is the Universe Worth It?

May 18th, 2011 No comments

My recently-renewed interest in Roman history led to a philosophical rumination the other day that I think might be worth writing down.

A lot of profoundly horrifying things happen in the world today, but these horrors sometimes seem small in comparison to the kinds of things that used to happen on a regular basis—people being tortured, children being sacrificed to the gods, chattle slaves being worked to death by brutal masters, and so on. Ancient history is littered with gruesome, sickening tales that will keep you up at night if you ever stop to ponder them.

genseric_sacking_rome

Few things are more disturbing to think about than the sacking of ancient cities. Tens of thousands of armed soldiers rampaging through your streets, slaughtering all the men and raping every woman, girl, and young boy they can get their hands on before either enslaving or murdering them as well. It’s almost impossible to really wrap your mind around it and imagine what that must have been like from the perspective of those victims. Imagine being the father watching his wife and daughters raped in front of him as he’s beaten to death. Imagine being the little girl who had no concept of war, violence, or sex and is now suddenly subject to a brutal rape and killing. Imagine being that girl’s mother or brother looking on but powerless to do anything about it, knowing you’ll be next. Imagine the despair of knowing that you are not only about to endure such a painful end but that your entire city is being destroyed, everyone you’ve ever known or cared about is suffering the same fate and everything you or your ancestors have ever accomplished is being wiped away forever.

This is by no means a rare scenario. It’s happened tens of thousands of times in human history throughout the entire world. Hundreds of millions of human lives have ended in such a way.

I find myself contemplating such things, getting absolutely sick about them, and then pausing to ask myself why I’m doing this. Why not just accept that it happened and that I’m lucky to live at a time when this kind of thing doesn’t happen anymore? What use is there in dwelling on it?

And I realize that the reason I’m trying so hard to picture what it must have been like for these people is because I’m asking myself a very deep question—a much broader version of a question I’m always asking regarding only my own life: is it worth it?

We all have moments of great despair when we look at our lives and wonder whether we’d rather have never been born. We weigh all the negative experiences against the positive, the pains against the pleasures, the joys against the horrors, and try to determine whether the whole experience is really worthwhile.

When it comes to my own individual life, there was a time when I didn’t think the good outweighed the bad and I wanted to end it, but many good years filled with many great experiences in the mean-time have completely reversed my assessment. Not that I still don’t have moments when I wish I’d never been born, but if I were to die tomorrow I know I’d feel as though my life had been worth living.

Certainly compared to the lives of most ancient people, I’d have to consider myself extremely privileged. Even as an obscure individual with relatively tight financial constraints on my freedom, I’d have to admit that the quality of my life as compared to most ancients is like the quality of the lives of today’s super-rich as compared to mine. If you could take a simple pleasure/pain ratio of the lives of every human being who has ever lived and put them on a spectrum from most pleasurable to most painful I know mine would certainly be close to the high end.

But when I consider the nasty, brutish, and short lives of the masses throughout history and all of the horrors that so many of them had to endure, I’m not making an assessment of my own life but of human life in general. Given all the misery and suffering wrapped up in human existence, would it be better if humanity had never existed at all?

Most people would dismiss this as a pointless question to ask, but my metaphysical leanings actually render it the most important question of all. I am by no means certain what the basic nature of reality is, but I think there’s a strong possibility that the phenomenon of awareness or consciousness is fundamental to the universe, and that despite the appearance of separateness and individuality everything is actually connected. The implication is that there are not billions of individual conscious minds on Earth but one singular ‘Universal Consciousness’ looking out from behind all eyes simultaneously. Conscious minds are merely the window through which the universe becomes aware of itself.

Every experience you have is an experience the universe is having. As the Universal Consciousness you don’t just live your own life but every other life as well. You have been both the victim and the perpetrator of city-sackings, the rape-victim and the rapist, the murdered and the murderer.

Every thought in your mind is a thought the universe is thinking. When you ponder the universe, it’s the universe reflecting on itself. When I consider the suffering involved in human existence, it’s the universe considering whether humanity is a phenomenon it’s glad to have given rise to or whether it would have preferred that the species had never come into being—whether all of the human lives it’s lived have been worth it or whether it would rather have never lived a single human life at all.

Of course the universe is immense and homo sapiens are likely just one among billions or trillions of similar species, and the laws of physics being the same everywhere it’s likely that most species have similarly violent histories full of pain and suffering as well. So when I try to imagine what the worst of the worst kinds of experiences might be like, it’s actually the universe judging whether or not it’s worth it to exist in the first place.

deepfield

But here I have to stop, because I run into a wall of unanswerable questions. The fact is that not only can I not know what the horrific experiences of the ancients were really like for them, but I also can’t know whether they, when looking back on their whole lives, would consider them worth it in spite of the often-brutal end anyhow. Perhaps the poor raped and murdered girl was happy almost every day of her short life, and only had to endure extreme panic and horror for a few brief minutes at the end. I know that if I had to suffer a violent death I would still probably consider my own life to have been worth it, as the sheer volume of good experiences would certainly outweigh even the most painful experience at the end. Who is to say the same wouldn’t go for victims of torture or city-sackings?

And even if I could actually look at the pleasure/pain ratio of every human being who has ever lived and see clearly that the bad outweighs the good, I’d have no way of knowing that humanity won’t continue its slow moral progress and eventually reach a state of existence in which virtually all suffering is a thing of the past. Perhaps these past few thousand years were just the rough beginning to what will eventually become a multi-million year history of peaceful, enjoyable, worthwhile existence?

Finally, there’s the most important question of all—the question that determines whether or not the universe reflecting on the value of its own existence even matters at all: does the universe have a will?

As individual beings we all seem to have a conscious will of our own. We can make decisions and as long as they don’t violate the basic laws of physics or whatever man-made restraints may apply, we can implement them. But does the Universal Consciousness work the same way? Is there in fact a state of being in which the entire universe can be conscious of its whole eternal self, or can it only awaken through certain structures—brains—that over billions of years slowly evolve the ability to process thought?

To put it simply, can the universe decide not to exist? Most philosophers agree that the most fundamental question is “why is there something rather than nothing?” and many believe that the answer is existential necessity. Non-existence can’t exist. There can be no such thing as nothing. Existence will go on eternally and infinitely, everything that can possibly exist will exist and everything that can ever be experienced will be experienced.

If that is in fact the case, and the universe has no choice but to experience existence in all of its infinite possible forms, it would be akin to saying there is no God, as any truly omnipotent being would have to have the power to not create. If it has no choice but to create and go on creating for all eternity, it would mean pondering the experiences of the ancients for the purpose of judging whether existence is worthwhile is a useless activity after all. It would in fact render all of our activities useless.

I don’t know what’s more depressing—the idea that so many people have had to endure so much suffering throughout history, or the idea that these things only happened because they had to happen and not even God could have stopped them.

At least we know it’s not all bad. There is plenty of joy in the universe to balance out the sorrow, and on our level of existence we are capable of appreciating both—even if on the deepest level both are ultimately pointless.

Parallel Universes

March 5th, 2011 No comments

I haven’t had the will to write about politics these days, but last night I watched an episode of “The Universe” about parallel universes that generated enough thought for a quick philosophical post.

Image from Sciencephoto.com 

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve contemplated the concept of infinity. If existence is infinite, it logically follows that everything that could possibly be, is, at some point in space and time in some universe. For every event with different potential results, there is a universe in which each of those results is the one that occurred. For every decision you could make at any given juncture in your life, there is a universe in which each one of those decisions is the one you made. There’s a universe where you never gave up playing the guitar and you’ve become a huge rock star, a universe in which you had the guts to talk to that girl all those years ago and now you’re happily married, a universe in which you weren’t smart enough to avoid dangerous drugs and now you’ve died, and so on.

This is all highly speculative, of course. In fact, the idea is in a sense offensive to our whole outlook on reality. We like to believe that we are beings with free will and that our lives are a result of the choices we’ve made. But if there are an infinite number of universes in which every possibility is a reality, we are—every one of us—an inevitability. You exist as you currently do in the life situation you’re currently in because of logical necessity, because given an infinite amount of universes there had to be at least one in which you are the way you are.

The episode of “The Universe” that rekindled these thoughts in me surprised me by claiming that cosmologists have recently been conducting experiments that actually support this hypothesis—that quantum mechanics is leading the world’s leading scientists to believe that such a scheme of things is not only possible but perhaps even probable. I couldn’t possibly explain all of the science behind it (and the show itself didn’t go in-depth about the details as like most TV entertainment it tries to appeal to a low common denominator), so as a layman I’ll just have to take Michio Kaku’s word for it.

And what a horrifying possibility it is! To think that everything that can happen does happen is almost too much to bear, as it would mean there’s no reason to care about anything. For every single human being, there are universes in which they die of old age as well as universes in which they tragically die young. All of us die every single day in some universe (and hopefully you’re not in one of those universes today), so why even care about death? Your friend only died in this universe—there are plenty of universes where that friendship is still going strong.

And why bother fighting for a cause? There’s a universe in which Nazism prevailed in spite of the Allies’ best efforts to fight it, a universe in which the United States is still a British colony, a universe in which the Indians are still flourishing in the Americas, and on and on and on. There’s even a universe in which corporations don’t have an obscene amount of power which they use to funnel wealth from the masses of the world to consolidate even more of it. So what if we live in one of the universes in which they do?

There are only three ways to avoid falling into this sort of “cosmic apathy”, the first being what you’re already doing by default: just don’t think about it. There may be an infinite number of universes out there but as long as you maintain your focus on just this one, you won’t have to be bothered by the fact that there may very well be an infinite amount of you’s living vastly better or worse lives than the one you’re living now.

The second way is to just reject the premise of the whole infinity-argument altogether. Isn’t it philosophically possible to have infinite existence without universes repeating themselves? There may be an infinite number of universes, but we could imagine that none of them resemble each other. If the only requirement of infinity is that God go on creating things forever, why couldn’t God just keep creating different things without resorting to creating every possible version of the same things? (I’m only using God in a figurative sense here—there’s no need to posit an intelligent creator at all, just some force whereby potentialities become realities.)

The third way is one I came up with a long time ago but which is extremely difficult to wrap your head around and might just lead to the same problem. We may posit that there really are an infinite number of universes in which every possibility is realized, but if we separate consciousness from those universes we could imagine that only a finite number of those universes are experienced. We’d have to be dualists, asserting that mind and matter are two entirely separate phenomena, and we’d have to imagine that mind exists in a fundamentally different way than matter. Mind would have to have the ability to continuously shift from universe to universe depending on the conscious decisions it makes.

We can imagine it as a line drifting upwards through an endless sea of parallel platelets, each platelet representing one possible universe. With every decision, this line moves from one platelet to just one of the infinite number of platelets representing the next instant in time. This way, there are an infinite number of potential lives that exist for us but we only experience one (or perhaps a few, if we have the option of going back and trying again).

Where this theory runs into some very real conceptual difficulty is when we consider other minds. As our minds influence others, we may draw other lines with us into our chosen universe for awhile, and they may eventually drift away again. If each “soul” (and again I use this term figuratively) chooses its own path through the sea of potential universes and not all potentialities are experienced by each soul, then you could have universes in which you are the only conscious person because no other souls have chosen a path that led them to your universe. You might have chosen to marry that girl, but the soul that was in her when you made that decision might have taken a different path and now you’re married to a mindless zombie that only acts like she would have acted if her soul had chosen that path.

So that idea turns out not to be any more comforting than the idea that everyone experiences everything in every conceivable way. We are still in danger of slipping into cosmic apathy, as we could imagine that those who appear to be suffering might not actually be suffering because no soul would have chosen to be conscious as them.

These disturbing possibilities exist, unfortunately, and there’s currently no way to disprove them. All we can do is hope that the grand scheme of things is not as senseless as it would be if they were true. And if we want to live in a world where our actions do have meaning and the decisions we make actually do matter, we have to treat our lives as though they really are unique, and treat the world as though there’s only one.

Incomprehensible Horror

February 9th, 2011 No comments

I can’t take it anymore. Every time I hear one of these stories it lodges itself in my brain and refuses to let go. Whenever my mind isn’t otherwise occupied it goes straight to the image of the horrific scene as though searching in vain for some kind of new perspective that will alleviate the sick feeling it gives me for reasons I don’t quite understand. What’s it to me anyway? Why does the story of a horrible thing happening to a girl on the other side of the world—a girl I’ve never met and know nothing about—affect me so much? Is there something wrong me? Am I insane, or is the culture that allows such things to happen insane?

It must be insane. How else to describe a culture that puts rape victims to torture? This is something I just don’t understand. I can’t wrap my head around it. I just can’t comprehend how any culture, any human being can tolerate this, let alone think it’s right.

Before going any further I just want to note that this is not a typical blog entry for me. I’m writing this purely out of psychological necessity, to get the thoughts and feelings I’ve been wrestling with for the past two days out of my head and into words, just as I did when writing about Aisha late last year. My only purpose in writing this is to put these feelings into words and post them online so they’re not spinning around in my mind alone. Just knowing that a handful of others might read this will serve greatly to lighten the load.

This past Sunday I stopped by the office of the language school I work for to use the internet there because it’s currently down where I live. I was scanning the headlines at the Huffington Post and one near the bottom caught my eye. It said “Bangladeshi Girl Lashed To Death After Being Raped By Cousin”.

I immediately closed the web browser and left the office, not wanting to hear any of the details, hoping that I could just shut it out of my mind and go about the rest of my day without thinking about it, but the damage was done. For reasons I’ll get to in a moment, this kind of thing disturbs me more deeply than any other thing that happens in the world. From that point on, whenever my mind was not occupied with something else it would immediately go back to that headline, wondering about that girl and the circumstances surrounding her death. What was her name? Who gave her that terrible sentence? Is there any chance whatsoever that he and the man who raped her will ever be put to justice?

Yesterday I gave up trying not to think about it and searched for the story when I was back at the office. It was a link to an article from a newspaper called The Daily Star, and unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately for me) it gave very few details about the incident itself.

The girl’s name was Hena, and she was 14 years old.  After being raped by a 40-year-old relative of hers named Mahbub there was a “fatwa” issued against her at a village arbitration. The local authorities sentenced her to 100 lashes, and she fell unconscious after 80. She was rushed to the hospital but succumbed to her injuries and she died.

Sickening.

The article focused mostly on an order issued by the High Court to the local authorities to explain why they didn’t protect her. Apparently such kinds of “extrajudicial punishment” are illegal in Bangladesh. Confused, I looked up Bangladesh on Wikipedia and was surprised to find that it’s actually a fairly secular, modernized society. This isn’t Somalia or Afghanistan—this kind of thing isn’t supposed to happen there. Yet somehow, some villages still insist on imposing the most brutal interpretation of Shariah law on women.

Hopefully these local officials and the rapist himself will be put to some kind of justice, but no matter what punishment they receive it won’t be nearly harsh enough in my mind. They should all be raped and lashed to death themselves—and even then they would still not have experienced the kind of unimaginable pain and horror that only a young girl would.

This profoundly disturbs me on two levels, and the first is just the idea of the incident itself. Imagining what must have been going through Hena’s mind as she underwent eighty consecutive lashes. Eighty. It’s a wonder and a tragedy that she remained conscious for that long. As I wrote in my Aisha post, whenever I hear about things like this I always try to find an “at least” in the situation. When terrible tragedies befall adults I can think “at least they were old enough to endure it” but there’s usually no “at least” when it comes to children. The only “at least” in this situation is the fact that Hena was not actually sentenced to death (this was supposedly an unintended consequence of the sentence) so she presumably did not have to endure the unspeakable terror of the certainty of impending death. But what else was in her mind at the time? Did she feel that what was happening to her was wrong, or was she also so imbued in the culture of fundamentalist Islam that she actually felt shame—that she deserved this?

That’s the other, deeper level this disturbs me on, and it’s one of the main reasons that stories of so-called “honor killings” upset me more than anything else in the world. I get deeply upset whenever I hear about bad things happening to young girls, probably because growing up I was the kind of boy who was far more comfortable in the company of girls. With only one exception, every best friend I ever had before college was a girl and I remain deeply fond of young girls to this day. I want them all to be safe and happy and loved, and I can’t understand anyone who doesn’t share those feelings. I can understand why others might not feel the same level of compassion towards them as I do, but it just makes no sense at all to me how some people in some cultures can feel no compassion at all.

Isn’t compassion a basic element of human nature? Unless someone suffers from the kind of mental illness that prevents them from experiencing empathy, doesn’t everyone feel a sense of pain when confronted with the pain of others? When we see a suffering child, doesn’t every mentally healthy human being suffer a little at the sight?

So unless these local officials are all sociopaths, I just don’t understand how after hearing about this poor girl getting raped by her 40-year-old cousin they would decide that the girl must be punished. Why don’t their hearts go out to her the same way that mine and those of most other people on the planet do? How twisted does one’s sense of morality have to be to punish the victim, and to order a punishment as unbelievably brutal as 100 lashes?

Seriously—if anyone can offer any insight into the mind-set of these people I’d really like to hear it. Perhaps if I understood it better I’d have an easier time coping with it.

Do they really think it’s the girl’s fault? Do they think that she deliberately tempted her cousin out of some evil desire to be raped by him? Was the 40-year-old cousin just so overwhelmed by the desire she instilled in him that he couldn’t possibly have resisted his urge? If that’s really the case, then these kinds of Muslims must think that all men are incredibly weak and helpless. What about the rest of us who somehow, some way, actually do manage to resist our desires when they are directed towards someone they shouldn’t be? Are we all super-human?

What kind of monster looks at a rape victim and decides that justice can only be served by putting that victim to torture? What kind of twisted creature looks at the rapist and says, “I’m so sorry you had to endure that. She should never have tempted you into taking an action that could taint your soul that way. Don’t worry, we’ll make her suffer until your honor is restored.”

The answer may be clear—the only kind of monster who could do such a thing is one convinced of the infallibility of his religion—but that almost feels too simple. Most religious people, including Muslims, do not think that justice is served by punishing the victim and most feel the same kind of moral outrage I do. But there’s very little doubt that no atheist would draw such a backwards ethical conclusion. Divorced from religious doctrine, an action is usually considered moral insofar as it increases happiness and decreases suffering, and an action is immoral insofar as it causes suffering. The rapist is clearly, obviously the morally condemnable party. It’s so obvious that I can hardly believe I’m spelling it out like this, but apparently there are people in the world (far too many people) who don’t think that way. They abandon all semblance of basic rationality in favor of whatever twisted moral code they were indoctrinated with by their parents or religious leaders.

And in the end, I suppose that’s what troubles me most of all. The fact that natural human compassion can be so easily overridden by religious conviction, and the fact that it is just so horribly common. Did those officials—or any other judges who pass such sentences throughout the Muslim word—feel any sympathy for the girl whatsoever, or were their minds so twisted by religious fervor that they really only looked at her as a wicked sinner deserving of punishment? Did the man who cracked the whip against her back eighty consecutive times even wince as she cried out in pain? Did the people watching feel any compassion at all, or were they so convinced of the rightness of their beliefs that it all seemed entirely appropriate to them?

This kind of thing has got to stop, but I don’t know how to stop it. It’s been going on for centuries and it’s spread throughout the world. There is no clear solution. And in the past I might have even believed that it’s not our place to fix it. After all, it’s not our culture so what right do we have to interfere?

But moral relativism is bullshit in these cases. Certain aspects of certain cultures are just plain wrong, and while we may not share a common nationality or ethnicity, we are all human beings and we have a right to try and change the way our brothers and sisters look at things when it’s clear that they’re looking at them in a severely distorted way that causes unspeakable suffering.

For the longest time I believed that it really wasn’t my place to try and do anything about this. I’m not Muslim. I’m not even female. But if I’m this strongly affected by this issue then perhaps it is my place to try and get involved.

I like to think of humanity as one great collective consciousness, a macrocosm of an individual human mind. Some individuals represent humanity’s conscience with regard to certain issues. Just as one individual might struggle with the morality of eating meat, vegetarians and vegans represent the guilt of humanity as a whole with regard to our treatment of animals. And if my mind harbors some of humanity’s conscience with regard to the problem of honor killings, whatever the psychological reason may be, then perhaps it’s appropriate for me to act on that feeling.

On the other hand, I may actually be too sensitive to this stuff. After searching online for some organizations that fight to stop honor killings I quickly realized that I could never actually join one of them. I’d constantly receive newsletters with the same kind of horrifying headline that provoked this severely negative emotional response in me this week. I can’t just file these stories away in the corner of my mind and not let them affect me. I can’t be happy when I’m constantly thinking about murdered girls. To join one of these groups would be to doom myself to a state of near-permanent depression and despair.

At the very least, I can make donations from time to time. I just gave some money to the International Campaign Against Honor Killings. If anyone who reads this feels even half as strongly about this as I do, hopefully they’ll do the same, and this blog entry will have served a much greater purpose than just making me feel better.

If I could have, I would have gladly traded places with Hena or Aisha or any of the thousands of other girls who are put to death each year for things that are no fault of their own. But from where I am now, this is the best I can do. If writing about this issue inspires anyone to donate to ICAHK or any other anti-honor killing organization and if just one girl’s life is saved as a result, I’ll be able to rest a little easier.

Does Everything Happen for a Reason?

February 5th, 2011 No comments

predestination

It’s one of the oldest philosophical questions in the book, and it’s constantly staring us in the face whether we’re atheists or believers. Is everything that happens the result of a combination of blind chance and free will, or do events unfold according to some predetermined formula written in the laws of nature or in the mind of God? The answer would profoundly affect the way we live in this world, as it touches upon fundamental issues such as whether people are morally responsible for their actions and whether tragic circumstances are unavoidable or if there is a good reason for every bad thing that happens.

A recent piece on the concept karma at the Huffington Post got me thinking about this subject again, and because it’s been awhile since I’ve written a good philosophical musing I thought I’d delve more deeply into the issue. My hope is that I’ll offer some ideas to those who read this that they haven’t considered before, and that I’ll draw in some comments expressing ideas I’ve never thought about either.

As I see it, the idea of predestination can be either religious or scientific. Scientific predestination is a consequence of metaphysical materialism, or the belief that the universe consists solely of forces and particles that operate according to a rigid set of immutable laws. If this is true, then there is no such thing as a free agent because every movement of every atom in the cosmos follows a specific path along a chain of causes and effects from the beginning of time to infinity. You might think that you’re freely choosing to read these words, but in actuality you had no choice. Every neuron that is firing in your brain is a result of previous neural activity stretching all the way back to your birth. Your genetic makeup—itself a product of billions of years of evolution unfolding according to a strict set of chemical laws—combined with the experiences imprinted on your brain throughout your lifetime filled with events that could have only unfolded exactly as they did, all led you to this exact moment in which your eyes are scanning the words on the computer screen in front of you. You had no choice but to read this blog post, just as I had no choice but to write it.

Those with a religious worldview can’t escape this possibility either, whether their beliefs are more closely aligned with Eastern or Western philosophy. The Judeo-Christian religions posit a singular creator of everything, with a divine plan and the property of omniscience. If God is all-knowing it follows that God knows everything that is going to happen to every molecule in the universe from the beginning of time to the end, which brings us right back to strict determinism. The Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism often incorporate the concept of karma, the idea that the universe must always be in balance and that all events serve to maintain that balance. While there is a bit more room for free will in such a scheme (you are free to tilt the universe out of balance and can take as long as you want to tilt it back) there is still a strong element of predestination, particularly when it comes to the luck of your birth. The cards you are dealt at the beginning of your life are a result of how you’ve lived your previous lives.

This kind of soft determinism is actually what most Christians believe as well. Very few people, religious or otherwise, accept strong determinism because to do so would call so much of what we take for granted into question. We all judge other people for their actions, but such judgments become meaningless if we believe that people have no actual choice but to do the things they do. If the universe is set up in such a way that events can only occur exactly as God or the laws of nature have determined them, then the rapist can’t truly be held accountable for his crime because the rape was bound to happen—it was inevitable from the moment of the Big Bang, or from the instant the universe was created.

Unfortunately there is no logical way to disprove strict determinism. The best we can do is make arguments as to why such a scheme of things is improbable. Scientifically, we can base those arguments on the properties of nature’s most basic elements. In particle physics, the locations of things like electrons with respect to the nuclei of atoms can’t be measured with any certainty but can only be expressed in terms of probability, which opens the door for chance to play a major role in the unfolding events of the universe. Furthermore, quantum mechanics seems to indicate that particles behave differently depending on whether or not they are being observed—they exist as particles only when they are being observed and exist merely as waves of probability otherwise—which paves the way for the free will of conscious beings to serve as agents of causality. However, our knowledge of the subatomic world is still severely limited, and it is theoretically possible that with sufficient technology every movement of every particle could one day be predicted with 100% accuracy.

As for the Christian doctrine of pre-destination or the Eastern idea of karma, it is purely by intuition that we tend to accept the softer versions of these forms of determinism. If God created intelligent beings, a Christian could argue, it would be nonsensical of Him not to endow them with free will or their lives would have no value. He may know what each and every one of them is going to choose at every moment, but it is still they who make these choices (whether or not such a proposition is internally inconsistent is a question that has generated endless debate all on its own). But at least when it comes to karma, soft-determinism is practically a given. In a universe where everyone’s lot in life is a result of their decisions in previous lives, it stands to reason that those decisions were made freely. However, we still run into problems when we consider the bad things that happen to people through no fault of their own: if someone says “it was her karma to be raped” that implies that the rapist had no choice in the matter either.

I’d like to turn now from the question of whether everything happens for a reason to the question of whether we ought to believe that everything happens for a reason, and in doing so I will put scientific determinism to the side and focus only on religious interpretations. What separates science from religion is that all propositions are inherently assumed to be fallible. If we accept a strictly scientific worldview we don’t really have to wrestle with the question of free will and determinism, as we must simply accept that our current technology is insufficient to perform the kinds of experiments that answering this question would require. We could conceivably know the answer in the future, but for now the best we can do is assume we are free agents while acknowledging the possibility that we aren’t.

When it comes to religion there is not as much of a willingness to accept “we don’t know” as an answer. The whole appeal of religious systems, in my mind, is precisely to avoid the existential angst of not knowing why we’re here or how we’re supposed to live. The question of whether or not everything happens for a predetermined reason is an absolutely essential element of the question of the meaning of life. How much of what occurs is attributable to God or karma and how much of what happens is a result of our own decisions makes an incredibly significant difference with regard to the meaning of our lives. Are we responsible for almost everything we do, for nothing we do, or merely for how we deal with the situations that God or karma puts us in?

It is helpful to think in terms of concrete examples, and one of the questions to which spiritual determinism has the utmost significance is that of abortion. Most people, whether pro-choice or pro-life, see abortion as a moral evil. The most vociferous opponents of abortion’s legality are motivated by a completely understandable revulsion at the idea of innocent life being terminated without it having any say in the matter. For whatever reason, the idea of terminating a fetus in the early stages of development does not horrify me to the same degree and as such I am staunchly pro-choice, but I do feel just as powerful a revulsion at the idea of the death of children who are old enough to understand and fear death but too young to make peace with it. But whether it’s an unborn baby or a child, we have a case in which the person dying can not be said to have any responsibility in the matter. The same cannot be said for the mother who chooses to abort, or the vile creature who murders a child.

Under strong determinism, neither the mother nor the aborted child has any responsibility for the termination of that life. That life was simply not meant to be and therefore could never have been. I often wonder at the fundamentalist Christians who believe in a divine plan yet speak out so strongly against a woman’s right to choose an abortion. If God is in control of everything, isn’t He responsible for the woman’s choice? She’s not preventing a life that would have otherwise existed from existing—it would have never existed in the first place. Indeed, under strict determinism I could not even condemn a child’s murderer for committing that crime.

It is clearly best for humanity to reject the belief in strong determinism. We must be able to hold people accountable for their actions and punish those who commit wrongdoing, and we must be able to believe that doing so makes a difference. Otherwise we would all just throw up our hands and accept all of the evils of the world, whether they be horrifying crimes or merely the unjust scheme of things in the world whereby the few have so much and the masses have so little. If we accept that this is the only way it can be we must also accept that this is the way it should be, and there are some things we must be able to say should not be.

But is soft determinism any better? If we believe in karma, we may believe that the aborted baby or the murdered child actually deserve that fate due to actions committed in previous lives. If we believe in the Judeo-Christian God we may believe that these individuals were deemed unworthy of living out their lives in full. If we believe in karma we may believe that the privileged few who live lives of luxury at the expense of the poverty-stricken masses have earned this success and that the masses should accept their fate because their souls are not yet worthy of anything better. If we believe in the Judeo-Christian God we may believe that there is an unknowable but just reason for inequality in the world and that any attempts to bridge the divide between ultra-rich and ultra-poor are both unnecessary and futile.

I must admit that there is a strong appeal to the idea of spiritual determinism. If all is as it should be then we are absolved from any responsibility to change it. Nor must we feel moral horror at any terrible action. The pro-life people need not sweat the aborted babies because those babies were supposed to be aborted, and I need not lose sleep over the murdered children because those children were supposed to die. The universe unfolds exactly it must unfold and in no other way, and we are under no obligation to do anything to change it. We can slip into a state of spiritual detachment and live out our entire lives as though merely going along for a ride.

However, it’s easy to see how it would be disastrous if everyone were to think this way. If I want my government to stop dropping bombs on foreign countries and killing children, I have to be able to believe that those children do not deserve to die, that they could have lived if my country had acted otherwise. This greatly increases the feeling of tragedy regarding such events—just as it horrifies the pro-life people to think that all of those babies could have lived rich and fulfilling lives—but it also serves to push us in the direction of putting a stop to them. If we believe that things like war and poverty are not inevitable and that a future of peace and higher standards of living for everyone is possible, it makes the last few millennia more tragic to think these things could have been avoided but drives us that much harder to work towards that future in which they no longer plague us.

We may never know whether events are predetermined from the beginning of time, if we’re responsible for everything we do, or if it’s some combination of both, but in our ignorance we must choose to live our lives under one of these assumptions. I firmly believe that the assumption most likely to take our species in a better direction for all of us is to assume that everything does not happen for a predetermined reason and that we must face the responsibility for everything that happens in the future. It’s a huge responsibility—downright terrifying even—but rather than retreat into lives of spiritual detachment and acceptance of the way things are, I believe we must refuse to accept the current scheme of things and do everything within our power to change it.

 

[If you agree, please consider joining Revolution Earth. Philosophical musings like this are just one of many types of contributions you can make, or you can join the discussion on the current topic of the month: ideal government.]

Revolution Earth: An Open Invitation

December 1st, 2010 No comments

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I believe that we’re living at the most critical time in human history. In the past hundred years our technology has advanced to a point at which we are now capable of wiping out our entire species by rendering the Earth uninhabitable to us. Whether we can use our technology to transform our way of life to one of peace and sustainability or instead fall victim to our own short-sighted self-interests is the central question of our time.

I believe that conscious beings capable of thought and reflection are the most valuable beings in the universe. It is through beings like us that the universe becomes aware of itself.

I believe that life in the universe is rare and intelligent life even rarer. Among the few species who manage to the stage of technological civilization, I believe most of them perish before establishing a sustainable way of life that allows them to advance to a stage of interstellar exploration and colonization. The few that succeed at reaching this stage, because their fates are no longer tied to a single planet or solar system, are privileged to endure in the universe for time-scales many thousands of times longer than we’ve been around.

I believe that in spite of our violent history, humanity has much to offer the universe by the way in which we experience and appreciate it, both in terms of scientific and philosophical inquiry as well as artistic creativity. It would be a profound shame if all of our scientific discoveries and intellectual breakthroughs amount to naught, and all of our art and history lost to extinction, never to be appreciated by anyone again.

I believe that if we do want humanity to survive in the long-term, we each have a responsibility to work towards this goal in whichever way our experiences, skills, and life circumstances allow. This and the next few generations have the enormous burden of determining which path our species goes down.

I believe that the internet is the key to taking the right path, and if we can use this unprecedented technology to bring the various peoples and cultures of the world together under a common vision, we have a chance to transform the global power-structures so that they serve the interests of all of humanity and not just the already-powerful. Consider how radically advances such as the printing press and radio technology altered the global landscape, and consider how short a time the internet has been a force in the world.

I believe that if enough of us begin to use the power the internet gives us to communicate across cultures, share ideas, and enlist others in common causes, we may find ourselves on the cusp of a revolution the likes of which the world has never seen.

My skills and life circumstances have allowed me to create a website designed for this very purpose. An online forum dedicated to facilitating the kinds of important discussions and cross-cultural communication necessary to achieve such a revolution. It is currently nothing more than a forum and a blog, but given enough time and interest I believe it can grow into something much greater.

This is an open invitation to anyone reading to join me in this effort, register at Revolution Earth, and get involved in the discussion. If you are a blogger, consider cross-posting your entries to the site. Almost all topics are relevant, from politics to philosophy to meaningful personal stories. The only thing that doesn’t belong on the site is trivia (though a little levity will always be appreciated).

I welcome your comments, questions, suggestions and feedback. If you don’t like how the site looks or feels now, I’d love to hear how you would improve it.

If you like the idea but don’t feel you have time to contribute, perhaps you know somebody that might? Please invite any and all people you know who share similar thoughts and concerns about the fate of humanity to join the community. Word-of-mouth is the best hope this has to grow.

It may be a long time before our community is large enough to become a force on the world stage, but until that time we can take on smaller issues of local concern. Our members will determine which causes to get involved in, and as we grow the causes will grow broader. As I travel the world I’ll be recruiting as many people from various cultures as I can, and the site will become increasingly more international.

The road from here to Revolution may be a very long one, and we may never reach our destination. But it does absolutely no harm to try.

What If We ARE Alone?

November 29th, 2010 No comments

It’s been awhile since I’ve written a philosophical musing for my blog, and as I’d like to post one to Revolution Earth I might as well do so now. Having recently finished Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and watched the first episode of the Science Channel’s “Through the Wormhole” (entitled “Is There A Creator?”), I’m in the right frame of mind.

Whether we like it or not, there’s just no way to know for certain whether or not God exists. For every argument suggesting the existence of an omnipotent creator of the universe, there’s a perfectly good counter-argument. One could try to reason that if there were no creator, nothing would exist because something can’t come from nothing. But we can’t be sure that simple logic applies to the whole of reality, or even that there can’t be a chain of causality that stretches back infinitely.

Even if we’ve had personal experiences in which we’ve felt that we absolutely know that there’s more to the universe than particles and forces (and I’ve had such experiences), we can never be sure these aren’t a result of some peculiarity of the brain, some evolutionary response to the anxiety that arose once the human mind became capable of contemplating its own death.

What may be the strongest evidence in favor of creation is the fact that our world seems perfectly well-suited for life, such that the slightest change in conditions would have made the evolution of intelligent beings impossible. On the local level, we know that if the earth were just a bit closer or farther away from the sun, its axis tilted just a little more or less, its rotation just slightly slower or faster, we wouldn’t be here. The counter-argument to this is very strong, but it suggests a rather depressing possibility—that we may be alone in the universe.

If the conditions for life to evolve into complex and sentient forms must be so perfect that the chances of it happening are less than one in a billion, that still leaves a slight chance that on at least one world life has developed, and that we happen to live on that world. Naturally, the only place from which a species could evolve to the point of being capable of asking “are we alone?” would be such a planet. It’s by no means a miracle that we exist on a world in which our existence is possible.

If God exists, that would imply that we are almost certainly not alone. It seems absurd that an omnipotent creator would create such a vast universe solely for the sake of one tiny speck of dust which after billions of years would produce beings capable of worshipping it.

Personally, I believe that conditions on earth are not so special that there aren’t millions or perhaps billions of other worlds capable of supporting life in the universe, but because we have yet to find any we must acknowledge the possibility that ours is the only one. The chances of the DNA molecule coming together purely by a chance combination of particles are infinitesimal, let alone that it would happen on a planet situated perfectly enough to allow it to replicate itself for billions of years, but we know it happened at least once. We just don’t know if it’s ever happened elsewhere or if it will ever happen again.

But a far more compelling case for a creator can be made when we look at the universe as a whole. There are a number of cosmological constants, such as the speed of light and the strength of the nuclear forces, that if altered only slightly would result in a universe not only incapable of producing life, but stars and planets as well. It turns out that the values for all of these constants must be identical or nearly identical to what they are in our universe in order to have a universe in which any form of life could exist.

If we assume that there is only one universe, we might then justifiably presume that something which knew exactly which values to assign to these constants designed it and set it into motion. But if we accept the possibility that ours may be only one of an infinite number of universes, we’re left with the same problem as before. We must accept the inevitability of at least one universe in which life as we know it could arise, and it would be no coincidence that we happen to be living in that universe.

Now, I’m not saying that God doesn’t exist. I’d never presume to make such a bold declaration considering how little we know about the universe and the relationship our conscious minds have to it. Nor would I presume to say that we are the only intelligent species in the only universe capable of producing intelligence. In fact that I think that’s extremely unlikely and that there are probably countless intelligent species on countless worlds in countless universes (perhaps even an infinite amount), but considering just how perfect everything had to be in order for us to be here, I think that we can’t ignore the possibility.

And I think that it’s of the utmost importance that we don’t ignore it. It would be enough of a shame if the human race were to snuff itself out after only a few hundred measly trips around the sun since arriving at the understanding that we even are circling the sun, but just imagine what a cosmic tragedy it would be if we are the only existing beings who have ever even come to such an understanding not only in this universe but in the totality of all of existence!

What if the fundamental nature of reality is such that new universes are constantly springing into existence, each with its own different cosmological constants and laws of physics—being springing from non-being out of the sheer necessity of being? What if this has been going on for an eternity with nothing to be consciously aware of it until now—this precise space and time among an infinite number of space-times?

Then it’s almost as though we owe it to the universe and the greater metaverse of universes from which it sprang to stick around for as long as we possibly can. Consciousness is a necessary condition for appreciation, and if we are the only conscious beings who are capable of appreciating the mind-blowingly awe-inspiring phenomenon that is reality, we ought to be doing everything we can to make sure we’re around to appreciate it for as long as we possibly can.

If the human race manages to survive its current stage of technological adolescence and achieve long-term sustainability, we could conceivably pave the way for millions or even billions of future generations who will not only be able to appreciate the universe as we’ve only begun to since the birth of modern science, but whose own capabilities of scientific inquiry and exploration will allow them to appreciate it even more deeply than we can.

I highly doubt that we really are the only beings capable of appreciating the universe, and I believe that given the size and scope of it there must be at least a handful of species who have reached the point we’re approaching, but if we die out that’s still one less species to appreciate it. Each species would undoubtedly appreciate the cosmos in its own unique way, and what a shame if the human way isn’t among them? All that we’ve accomplished in our entire history will have been for naught. Existence will go on unappreciated by human minds, and it will be slightly emptier because of it.

I only wish that more people would entertain such ideas. If enough of us appreciated just how miraculous and unlikely a phenomenon we are, we would be far more likely to do everything in our power to preserve ourselves.

Aisha and Humanity

October 26th, 2010 No comments

I wish I’d never heard her name. From the moment I read about her story two years ago, all I’ve wanted to do is forget it. I initially hated the blogger from whom I first heard about it, wishing he’d made the point he wanted to make without using such a mind-numbingly horrific story to do so. But as the months went by I kept hearing about her, each time confronted with new and increasingly sickening details about the event. I was bound to hear about her at some point, and as long as her story is out there I’ll never be able to forget it. It’s already so firmly entrenched within the neural fibers of my brain that it can never come out—images of the scene as I picture it all-too-frequently flash before my mind with only the slightest hint of an association, dragging me down to depths that can take minutes, hours or even days to recover from.

I last heard the story on a recent podcast of Dan Carlin’s Common Sense, and while that was two nights ago I still find myself looking at the world through darkened lenses because of it. The only thing I can do is to write about it and hope to find some clarity through that.

If anyone reading this doesn’t know the story of Aisha, you might want to consider not reading this and sparing yourself the psychological/emotional torture that I’ve been enduring since the story was sprung upon me without warning. I’m writing this mostly for myself, and for anyone else who might be struggling with the same feelings and for whom a written account of another person’s thoughts might be helpful.

Almost everyone is aware of the practice of “honor killings” in which Muslim women are murdered for adultery. Nearly every week there’s another story in the news about a woman killed by her own family for being with another man. Sometimes no actual adultery is committed—the woman need only be alone in a room with a man who isn’t her husband to earn a death sentence. Occasionally the punishment will be as sickening as mutilation or as horrifying as being buried alive, as some young teenage girls recently were because they dared to flirt with boys their own age.

And yet nothing is worse than what happened to poor Aisha. Her story remains the single most horrifying thing I’ve ever heard. It’s the kind of thing that makes me look at humanity and almost wish that our species had never evolved to the point where we became capable of such things.

Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow was a 13-year-old Somali girl who committed the ‘unforgivable crime’ of being gang-raped by three men and then reporting it to the local authorities in the Kiyasmu region, the al-Shabab militia. Under certain interpretations of Islam, letting oneself be raped is akin to adultery, and the punishment for adultery in Kiyasmu is death by stoning.

On October 27, 2008, Aisha was dragged before a crowd of over 1,000 spectators in a stadium at the southern port of Kiyasmu where she would be buried up to her neck in a hole in the ground while 50 men threw stones at her head until she died. While she was being dragged to her death, she reportedly shouted and pleaded with her executioners “No! I won’t go! Don’t kill me!” No mercy was shown to her.

During the execution, at least a few of the spectators showed some humanity and attempted to save her, but the militia opened fire and killed a boy who was a bystander. The rest of the crowd sat and watched.

At one point they pulled Aisha from the ground and nurses were instructed to determine whether or not she was still alive. They announced that she was, and she was put back in the hole for the stoning to continue. One can only hope that by this point her body was in such a state of shock that she could no longer feel anything. One can only hope.

Every time I hear this story I get the most sickening feeling in my gut, I feel like my insides are burning and that that my brain might tear itself apart in blind rage. I just want to find the al-Shabab militia members who sentenced Aisha to death and the men who stoned her and pummel each of them to death one by one. But that would accomplish nothing. Aisha is dead and no vengeance will bring her back. She had to undergo that experience and it will never be erased.

Part of the reason this disturbs me so much has to do with the way I look at reality. Time is a relative thing, so everything that happens exists permanently. Subjective experience is a part of the universe, so all experiences exist permanently as well. I also think that the nature of consciousness might be universal, in that the same Being—call it God, the Brahmam-Atman, or whatever it may be—is at the centre of the awareness of everyone and everything that is aware. What happens to one of us happens to all of us—we only perceive different events through different minds.

So whenever I hear about a tragedy, I imagine the experience from the point of view of the victims. I can usually find some kind of “at least” in the situation. As in, “at least he was strong enough to face death bravely,” or “at least she was old enough to accept her fate” but with children it’s a different story. The only “at least” I can find when something bad happens to children is “at least they were too young to understand what was happening.”

But Aisha was 13—old enough to understand death but far too young to make peace with it. She was also female—and in a patriarchal culture, no one would have bothered to help her cultivate the qualities of strength and bravery that would have been encouraged in male children.

No, Aisha was as vulnerable a victim as there can be. And to imagine the horror from the perspective of a 13-year-old girl of being buried up to your neck, desperately trying to claw your way out of the ground but unable to move an inch, lying there helpless as heavy stones fly at your face, each new crack in your skull producing an eternity of agony and bringing you one step closer to a death of which you are terrified, the pain and fear too overwhelming to comprehend.

This experience is a part of the universe and it always will be. And that almost makes me wish the universe never existed at all. Better to have eternal nothingness than a single moment such as that…

But what really makes this story so unbearable to me is the setting. This event happened in a stadium of a thousand people, and while at least a few were horrified enough to try and put a stop to it, the majority of spectators must have felt…what?

Were they enjoying it? Did most of them get some sick macabre sort of pleasure out of watching a poor defenseless girl cry out in horror as her life was ripped away from her? Did they actually feel that justice was being served—that this adulteress, despised by Allah, was getting what she deserved?

That’s the thought that keeps me up at night, because that is one of the great unsolvable questions of humanity at this stage in history. Many people would hear this story and blame it on Islam, but the problem goes much deeper than that. The practice of honor killings may have been integrated into some versions of Islam but it almost certainly pre-dates the religion, going all the way back to tribal existence. This is an element of the culture in that part of the world that goes unquestioned by what may be most of the people there, including the women. When asked whether they approve of the practice of honor killings, it might be the case that this cultural tradition is so firmly ingrained in their minds that a majority of them would insist on its moral correctness.

I once considered myself a moral relativist, but not anymore. Just because something is accepted in another culture does not make it right. There is a certain amount of happiness and suffering brought about by every action, and certain actions cause a degree of suffering so great that the scale could never be balanced. Aisha’s death was so horrible that no amount of satisfaction on the part of the executioners or spectators who felt that justice had been served could outweigh it. This is as black-and-white as it comes. No matter what culture or time period you’re talking about, this kind of thing is plain wrong.

And yet, what can any of us do about it? Some suggest that a Western military presence in the region serves this very purpose. If we can bring stable democracies to these areas in which women are given the power to help shape their societies, eventually these practices will end.

But I’m for leaving Iraq and Afghanistan, and whatever I may feel in my heart, I know in my mind that staying would cause more overall harm than good. As much as I would desperately like to change their culture, I consider it the height of arrogance to think ourselves capable of doing so. You can’t change thousands of years of tradition by rolling in with tanks and shooting everything that looks threatening. If centuries of colonialism taught us anything, it’s that more just societies can’t be imposed from above. They can only transform from within.

But how long before the women in these societies awaken enough to question their cultural traditions and feel strong enough to fight against them? How many more innocent girls are to be buried alive or stoned to death before such things are resting firmly in the trash-bin of history where they belong?

The only shred of positive thinking I can muster from Aisha’s story is that it may serve as some kind of wake-up call within the collective human consciousness. I never met this girl. I don’t even have any idea what she looked like. I never knew she existed until she no longer did. But if I can feel such powerful emotions over the manner in which she died, then others can too.

I said that I wished I’d never heard of her, and that may still be true. I didn’t want to have to face the reality that we live in such a world where an event like her death can happen, and that I’m a member of a species that is capable of doing such a thing. But perhaps more people need to be confronted with this reality. More people need to know about Aisha, to lose sleep over her, to picture her crying face sticking up from a hole in the ground whenever a random comment triggers the firing of those neurons.

Only by confronting the horror can we hope to one day be rid of it. It’s either that or wait until the planet rids itself of us. But for Aisha’s sake I have to hope it’s the former. If the human species wipes itself out, at least these kinds of horrors will stop but it will all have been for naught. If we can come together and forge a global society in which the murder of children is not tolerated by anyone, at least such deaths won’t have been in vain. And if there is any truth to the idea of immortal souls, I can only hope that Aisha’s will be able to see what we’ve done and to know that her suffering did not go unnoticed—that the cries she let out as death took her in that stadium did not fall on deaf ears.

One can only hope.

Would You Kill Millions to Save Billions?

October 5th, 2010 No comments

Last night I saw the film Watchmen, which if you haven’t seen I would highly recommend for the ethical questions it raises. The most profound question (which the film brilliantly left open to the audience to consider) came at the end, and it goes right to the heart of what Revolution Earth is all about.

The film is set in an alternate 1985 in which Nixon is still president and the world is on the brink of nuclear annihilation. A group of super-heroes charged with protecting America throughout the century are trying to prevent the catastrophe. Without giving too much away, I’ll say that one of the heroes comes up with a plan to bring the world’s super-powers together against a common enemy and thus avoid a worldwide nuclear holocaust, but this involves destroying New York City and killing millions of innocent people. By the climax of the film, it’s clear that these are the only two options—deliberately killing millions of people to save the human race, or letting it destroy itself.

This is the same question that constitutes the strongest objection (in my opinion) to the ethical theory known as utilitarianism: the right action in any situation is that which will maximize happiness and minimize suffering. By this calculation, killing one innocent person to save many more would be the morally correct thing to do. But how many of us, with a gun pointed at a child’s head, would actually be able to pull the trigger even if we knew that more children would die if we didn’t?

If you were given the responsibility the heroes had at the end of Watchmen, what would you do? Would you kill millions of people in order to save billions?

What makes this a brilliant film in my opinion is that this is not just a mental exercise. It may be a hypothetical question when sensationalized in a film or graphic novel, but humanity might very well have to face this kind of dilemma at some not-too-distant moment in the future. There is little doubt that industrial civilization as it currently exists is choking the planet to death, and there is no doubt that a great many people are so dependent on this system that they would give their lives to defend it. There may come a time when some kind of radical action must be taken in order to save humanity, but those unwilling to take it will force us to either kill them and take matters into our own hands, or let fate take us where it may even if it means total annihilation.

Hopefully we’re a long way off from being confronted with such a decision, but it never hurts to start thinking of the possibility now. So I’m putting the question to all of you: your finger is on the button that will destroy New York City but save the human race. Do you press it?

[Hopefully this topic will generate some interesting discussion at Revolution Earth.  If you haven’t already done so, join now to participate.]

Jerusalem Syndrome

August 13th, 2010 No comments

I recently learned about something called “Jerusalem Syndrome” which I thought was excellently fascinating:

The Jerusalem syndrome is a group of mental phenomena involving the presence of either religiously themed obsessive ideas, delusions or other psychosis-like experiences that are triggered by a visit to the city of Jerusalem. It is not endemic to one single religion or denomination but has affected Jews, Christians and Muslims of many different backgrounds.

The best known, although not the most prevalent, manifestation of the Jerusalem syndrome is the phenomenon whereby a person who seems previously balanced and devoid of any signs of psychopathology becomes psychotic after arriving in Jerusalem. The psychosis is characterised by an intense religious theme and typically resolves to full recovery after a few weeks or after being removed from the area.

So perfectly normal, mentally healthy people go to visit Jerusalem and the next thing you know they’re wandering around the desert claiming to be the Messiah. How awesome is that?

It has to make you wonder—what if this isn’t just a bizarre side-effect of a strong Judeo-Christian-Islamic upbringing brought out when one visits a place they’ve read about and revered since childhood? What if this has nothing to do with a religious background but with the physical location of Jerusalem itself—if there’s something about the geography or the climate of the Middle East that makes people believe they’re the Messiah?

Well then you’d have to speculate that Jesus himself was merely a victim of Jerusalem Syndrome, that he was only deluded into believing himself the Messiah and happened to live during a time period when his fellow Jews were not only superstitious enough to believe him but so frustrated with Roman rule that they genuinely wanted to.

Could it be that Horus and the rest of the so-called “16 Saviors” were merely victims of some kind of psychological disorder that makes one believe that they’re the son of God, born of a virgin, and on a mission to save mankind?

Well, I believe that Jesus and the rest of the not-so-fortunate saviors (those who weren’t lucky enough to have their biographies later adopted by a Roman Emperor and thus become the central figure of one the world’s most enduring religions) probably were in fact suffering from some form of dementia. Just like those who come down with Jerusalem Syndrome, they were raised with stories of God and messianic prophecies, and something triggered a part of their brain that made them believe these stories were about them.

On the other hand, maybe they were all suffering from dementia except Jesus, and he really was born of a virgin and resurrected after death. Funny how God’s plan to redeem humanity borrowed so much from earlier myths…

The American Attitude of Abundance

August 11th, 2010 No comments

I’ve recently discovered an amazingly fantastic podcast called “Hardcore History” with Dan Carlin. Most of the shows are just him giving his information-loaded take on different historical events and time periods, but in some shows he just interviews other historians.

In Show 18 he interviews historian James Burke, who makes a point that I hadn’t considered before but which is well worth repeating.

For most of American history, nobody ever had to worry about things like scarcity of resources. There was so much land, so much space, so much fruit to be plucked from the trees, so many buffalo to be hunted and eaten, so much coal to mine, so much oil to drill, and on and on and on…it’s no question that this led to an attitude of abundance in the American people—the feeling that there was more than enough of everything to go around.

But now most of that space has been filled, that fruit has been plucked, those buffalo hunted, coal mined, oil drilled…we gorged ourselves on the plentiful resources we found and now it’s almost all gone. But the attitude remains.

It will be difficult if not impossible to fundamentally change a way of thinking that has been with us for so many generations, but doing so is absolutely imperative.

The situation in America is just a microcosm for that of the entire world. Civilization has churned along for millennia without ever having to worry about destroying itself or the planet. The awareness that we are capable of destroying ourselves only really took hold in the wake of the invention of the atom bomb, and our focus on broader threats such as climate change, deforestation, water pollution and so on has only really begun to develop over the past couple of decades.

It’s actually a wonder that we’ve already changed our attitudes so much in such a short time. My generation may be the first with the word “sustainability” firmly ingrained in our worldview, and we’ve barely begun to take power. Perhaps when those of us raised with a strong ecological consciousness and sense of the world’s interconnectedness rise to positions of real power in government and corporations, we’ll actually start to see things moving in the right direction.

Unfortunately I think the corporate structure is such that is has no choice but to place profit over sustainability, but who knows? Perhaps instead of wondering why we haven’t collectively come to our senses yet, we should be asking how much longer until we do?