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the ancients believed that the earth was the back of an elephant that stood on a tortoise that swam in a bottomless sea. Of course, what held up the sea was another question. They did not know the answer.

The belief of the ancients was the result of imagination. It was a poetic and beautiful idea. Look at the way we see it today. Is that a dull idea? The world is a spinning ball, and people are held on it on all sides, some of them upside down. And we turn like a spit in front of a great fire. We whirl around the sun. That is more romantic, more exciting. And what holds us? The force of gravitation, which is not only a thing of the earth but is the thing that makes the earth round in the first place, holds the sun together and keeps us running around the sun in our perpetual attempt to stay away. This gravity holds its sway not only on the stars but between the stars; it holds them in the great galaxies for miles and miles in all directions.
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Another really amazing class. The material was very critical of Unitarian Universalism in a really insightful and responsible way, and it really gave me a new sense of depth on the foundations of our institution and on the challenges we face as a community. I’m very new to the UU thing, so I have a bit of a tin ear to the internal monologues common to UU-ers, but I got the sense that there was a sense of skepticism, interest and critical thought among the group tonight–which is pretty much what I think you shoot for in a class like this.

The material for today’s class was:

David E. Bumbaugh – On Being a Born-Again Unitarian Universalist

Anthony David – Torn Between Unitarianism and Universalism

Anthony David – A Unitarian Universalist Creation Myth

Before class started, I started thinking about the material we read before class and drawing up a little mental map for myself about “born-again-ness”, and mostly came up with stuff about devotion and diversity–devotion to making faith and metaphysics a central part of life and diversity in the sense that it is no longer compartmentalized into a small segment of life, but instead covers all aspects of your life.

I started making a list of questions that would go on the “faith form”: who are you, where are you, what were you, what will you become, where will you go, why are you here, etc. I then started thinking about meta-questions. “Is the individualistic paradigm a valid approach to these metaphysical questions?” “Does ‘who am I?’ even makes semantic sense?” “Upon what assumptions are my fundamental questions predicated?”

That was as far as I got, more or less, and then class started.

As an ice-breaker, we paired up and tried to come up with UU signature aspects. I was a little disappointed in myself, I think. I went for the ingathering of the waters, which has deep and personal meaning for me, but it was right there at hand, and I feel like I would have earned more for trying harder.

(The summer after freshman year, when I went to the river and moved rocks and smoked cigarettes with my pant legs rolled up and tried to find a place to fit–it’s worth writing about some time in here, as a lot of my analogues derive from what I learned moving rocks and changing the course of the river.)

The majority of the class was about the “ghosts” that haunt our Unitarian Universalism and the reading on a creation myth started us off–the driving force there being that as a tradition derived from a standing order church continues to feel a compulsion to serve everyone within the sound of its bell.(which, upon further review, is an interesting economic institution. The argument was that the presence of the church was a Public Good, and so in order to solve the freerider problem, taxation was used to support the church…makes economic sense, but violate the principle of separation of church and state)

While the idea of ghosts was by no means intended to be negative, I argued that ghosts are unavoidable in a liberal religious tradition. Insofar as liberal religious traditions take pains not to “throw out the baby with the bathwater,” there will always be aspects of the baby that then become our haunting spectres. We call it a church, and neither a mosque nor a synagogue, despite my atheism, for example. That said, I wouldn’t argue that we should just call it a building… In many cases, these ghosts just complicate things, like baroque ornamentation, or other odd architectural features that merely seemed like a good idea at the time. In some cases, though, they can hold us back.

We talked at length about the idea that Unitarian Universalists favor universality rather than particulars, and that this is both a strength and a weakness. At its best, it belies our belief that there are many paths to truth. At its worst, we end up doing nothing but singing songs about how inclusive we are and taking a Noah’s Ark (two of each)–or Pokemon (gotta catch ’em all!)–approach to building a congregation. Rev. David made the very good point that, for all our inclusiveness, we are neither a terribly large nor an incredibly diverse faith tradition. He also noted that megachurches–not renowned for their inclusivity–are among the most culturally diverse faith organizations.

This got me thinking–why do megachurches work?

One reason: trying to get two of everything doesn’t work. Then each person only has one person like them in the congregation. Try getting 150 of every type of person and suddenly you have a diverse community where everyone feels like they have someone to talk to. So sheer scale can help a lot.

At the same time, I think there is an irony to inclusiveness. By valuing our inclusiveness so much, we effectively become a very exclusive congregation: we only attract people who can stand to be around strangers, people who are themselves personally inclusive. So by trying to include lots of kinds of people, we end up only attracting one kind of person–the inclusive kind. Consequently, we are a pretty exclusive bunch.

Megachurches only attract one kind of person as well–those willing to embrace conformity, within certain bounds. They, too, are an exclusive bunch.

As conformity has historically been favored by evolution, and as a willingness to embrace strangers is sort of a freakish mutation (although one I value greatly), it’s not surprising that megachurches have a larger draw than UU congregations. (I have to say, though, I think UU has a lot more to offer many people than they realize, and at least some of this difference is certainly due by a relative difference in willingness to evangelize.)

We talked about a bunch of other stuff, but as I’ve got a TychoCelcchu CoH shoutcast (don’t ask–it’s dorktacular) burning a hole in my desktop, I’m gonna wrapt this up pretty soon.

So, the last thing on my mind is the idea of questions as ends in themselves. We talked about this briefly in class, but I think about it a lot. We require at least tentative answers to take actions, but without negative capability (or omniscience), we will have trouble drawing a conclusion without certainty, and trouble being okay without a conclusion.

When the nagging need for answers gnaws at us, we have to either embrace doubt (this is especially integral for undecideable propositions, the definition of which I torture into including such questions as “Does God exist?” and “Does free will exist?) or turn to faith. In truth, I think doing both is the best course of action. Without at least a tentative answer, we cannot act. In order to arrive a tentative answer in a morally responsible way, we have to move past doubt to take a leap of faith; that said, in order to arrive at a tentative answer in an intellectually responsible way, we have to remember that we doubt our faith, and thus that the answer can only be tentative. More on this later, for sure.

Another heck of a class.

I just had a few thoughts in the shower this morning and wanted to elaborate on my reinterpretation of the concept of sin. As I interpret sin, the idea of “original sin” and the “fallen state of man” have radically different interpretations, in that they become almost tautological. This is to say that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” is literally equivalent to the statement “Nobody’s perfect.” The denotation is pretty similar (although I don’t believe in the existence of the divine except insofar as it represents an humanly constructed ideal to which we all strive), but the connotation is incredibly different.

In particular, human conscience is fundamentally correct, but limited by our human fallibility. That human fallibility is the source of our essential triumphs, our ability to appreciate our brief existence for its scarcity, and our ability to work together to transcend our individual mortality and fallibility to be better version of ourselves and achieve greater goals than any of us could achieve individually before we shuffle off this mortal coil. By the same token, that fallibility is the source of many of our shortcomings, as we underestimate the risks inherent in future tasks and make bad decisions based on faulty information, and give in to time-inconsistency of preferences, and fall victim to our lacks of sympathy and foresight.

In my view, though, this “sin” should never be a source of shame–for one thing, without sin, we would each be perfect, and there would be nothing of interest. For another thing, and this is the really important one for me, perfection is simply not feasible–it doesn’t exist outside of our concept of the divine; it’s a stylized model, just like perfect competition or a frictionless vacuum. We don’t expect the world to feel guilt or shame for having friction or air–in fact, while a world without friction might make Newtonian mechanics a little easier to understand, it would be a fundamentally (and, since I love the world we live in, tragically) different world than the one we know and love. It’s not even clear what it means–it’s not internally consistent, because the source of friction is the electromagnetic forces that keep solids coherent and thus a projectile wouldn’t just take a purely parabolic arc in a frictionless world, it would also cease to cohere. All of which is why we ended up coming up with physical models that incorporate friction and electromagnetics and why scientists keep searching for better and more coherent models.

By the same token, I think sin functions much better as a descriptive concept–a heuristic device, really–that allows us to think about the negative space between intention and action, and allows us to engage with these ideas in useful ways. It’s tautological in that “sinful” means “less than perfect” which is to say “possible in our universe.” Wherever there is entropy, there is “sin” in this sense, and it becomes the source of all beauty and love, chaos and complexity and change. Without sin, there is no growth, no progress; all is stagnant and fixed.

So to the extent that “sin” is useful as a concept for thinking about human behavior, I like to make use of it, but I’d really like to see it stripped of its associations with shame. I think all human error derives from our very real and beautiful limitations, which we can come to embrace, accept, and occasionally transcend, but which should not be associated with guilt or recrimination.

Tonight’s class was really great–a revelation in a lot of ways. There’s so much to talk about, so this may come out a bit scattered.

I suppose I may as well start at the start and go over what we went over. We broke the ice by discussing our UU moment, and mine goes a little something like this.

I grew up Moravian, and really had a generally very good religious experience growing up. The Moravian motto is “IN ESSENTIALS, UNITY; IN NON-ESSENTIALS, LIBERTY; IN ALL THINGS, LOVE.” which is really a very UU approach to life, although I disagree with the Moravian Church about what, exactly, are essentials. During the confirmation process (I would have been about 13 or so), I had some doubts about the Apostles’ Creed. In retrospect, they seem kind of pedantic, maybe even contrarian, but they were really the start of my personal search for truth, so they are waypoints that are important to me. It was a real struggle, and I worked with my confirmation mentor, who I think was at least a little strained about how to help me through, and the end result was basically the idea that I had to have faith. At the time, I didn’t really know what faith was, but as far as I could tell, it mostly meant I should say the words, pray about it, and trust that things would come together later.

Since then, I have come to disbelieve the theology and cosmology of the Christian church (although a lot of the ethics and traditions remain dear to me) and have become what I call a devout atheist. In the earlier days of my atheism, I maintained some of the fundamental beliefs of Christianity–the dogmatism and the intolerance, for example, both of which I mean in a valueless context. Christianity is dogmatic and intolerant in ways that are, within its structure, quite morally sound, although to me they ring untrue.

When Cheryl and I first started going to the Unitarian church in Baltimore, I really struggled with it. Whenever a Christian or a Wiccan or a Buddhist would talk, and would ascribe any of their feelings to a belief in a divine power, I had to hold my tongue from shouting them down, or from trackng them down afterwards and trying to convince them that they were wrong and blind and if only they’d listen, if only they’d realize, then they’d understand that the way they were looking at things just didn’t make internal sense–it couldn’t be true–and then they’d know what was really true and they’d live freer and better and more moral lives.

Unitarians believe in a free and responsible search for truth, and I had an easy time with the responsible part (in some sense, at least), but a really hard part with the free part.

My UU “moment” came a few months back, when a ministerial candidate, speaking at our church, talked about her sense of the divine in nature, and how it sheltered her and reminded her of her connection to the world, and how that made the world make sense for her. I had become much less pugilistic and contrarian in the intervening several years, but it hadn’t really crystallized until that moment–just how far I’d come. Despite the fact that I felt no personal truth in her belief in a divine force surrounding us all, I felt nothing but joy for her and connection to her. Here was someone who had found a personal truth, a way of looking at the world that made it make sense to her–not only that, but it gave her a belief in the fundamental benevolence of the universe. She had found this faith in a way that was honest and forthright, by following her internal sense of the true and the good, and I was thrilled to hear her story of personal triumph, and her vision of a beautiful and embracing world. And despite the fact that I didn’t believe as she did, I was able to recognize someone who had found joy and hope, a fellow traveler on a similar but different search or path or journey. In that moment, I realize that I got it–I understood and embraced the free and responsible search, and saw what a world that held that tight would look like, with each person focused on being good in the ways that they knew how.

It really was a transformative moment, a long way from duking it out over the Apostles’ Creed, and I couldn’t help but feel an immense affinity for the institution that we support and that supports us on our paths.

After the ice breaker, we talked about the course about what we were going to be learning. We talked a little bit about a liberal faith tradition as distinct from conservative or radical approaches to faith. A liberal faith tradition, as I understand it, is neither one where tradition is treated as the arbiter of all truth, wherein followers are to take the tradition that is handed them and accept it whole-cloth, and where the response to skepticism is explanation followed by an exhortation, or even a command, to exhibit religious discipline by searching their soul, using prayer and meditation to find a way to make peace with a tradition they find exceptionable. Nor is it an approach where all received tradition is treated as the bondage of ill-informed and cruel-intentioned forbears, each more determined than the last to lay the yoke of religion upon the masses, to control them–or as simply bunk, to be tossed out as valueless and misguided, mere epicycles on the spiritual orbits we have come to know as “true truth”.

Instead, a liberal faith tradition is an inherently moderate and contemplative one, where the traditions of the past are received and examined in good conscience. Those ideas which makes sense to our current believers are accepted and modified as needed to remain current. Those ideas which seem reprehensible or unhelpful are considered and modified, if possible, or rejected and repudiated, where to do so strengthens our faith.

The example we discussed in class is that of the idea of “sin.” A conservative approach to sin might rely heavily on scripture, on the language of the time and on the intentions of the writers. It might also rely heavily on historical church doctrine. To the extent that the moral content of sin might appear to be modified by changes in technology or political or social institutions, a conservative approach is wary of allowing changes to be made to the idea of sin.

A radical approach is likely to reject the whole notion of “sin” as a useless social construction of a bygone era, designed to make people feel guilty for behavior that threatened the power structure that existed at the time–an idea best left utterly repudiated, now that modern man knows better.

A liberal approach is more likely to try to make use of sin, if possible, as a way to bridge understanding–certainly the problems we face today can be informed by the wisdom of the past, and so perhaps sin is best thought of as an addiction–as self-destructive behavior that is at the crux of an internal conflict of intention within each person. While we may or may not believe in the concept of separateness from God, each of us might make use of the idea of sin to understand the world better.

The way I think of sin is informed by the use of the Greek word hamartia to denote sin in the New Testament. Hamartia derives its meaning from the idea of “falling short of the mark” and consequently has been used, by analogy, to mean separateness from God.

I view it as falling short of the mark in the sense that the mark might be thought of as the Path or the Tao–which, for the sake of explanation I can characterize this way: The Path consists of the future series of actions taken by an individual if that individual were purely good and omniscient. For Christians, this is essentially “What Would Jesus Do?” For Taoists, it is following the Tao.

I don’t really believe that the idea of “purely good” has any sensical meaning–a point upon which I’ll elaborate at a further date–but for now just run with it. Because human beings are not omniscient, we all inevitably fall short of the mark. This is, in my view, the source of the idea that human beings are essentially flawed, and the belief that “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” In the Christian ethic as I have received it, this has generally come to mean that all people are inherently depraved in some way, and need to reconnect with God in order to be saved from their fallen state.

My liberal interpretation of sin–which seems to me to be a very useful concept indeed–is that we have a moral imperative to set unattainable goals for ourselves–our reach should exceed our grasp–and in so doing, we will inevitably fail to achieve our goals.

When I say this, I mean that we should use our internal conscience to envision worlds we prefer to the current one, worlds we conceive as being more perfect and more moral and more just than the one we live in, and we should strive to make this world more like the ones we envision.

By failing to reach that goal, we learn humility. By striving and succeeded in small measures, we earn pride. This process of pride at our successes and humility at our shortcomings builds character, hones our moral sense and provides us with a sense of empathy–for our fellow human beings who all must necessarily fail–and moral righteousness in our desire for a world of increasing justice and kindness.

It helps us to become less judgmental to see the world this way–we know that everyone must ultimately fail to be their best self in a real and personal way, and are more forgiving for having experienced it. There is an essential separation between making judgments about the acceptability and social permissibility of certain people’s behavior–and the consequent decision about freedom and imprisonment–and judgments about the value and worth of those human beings in a moral sense. By striving and failing we can learn to accept the necessary justice required for maintaining and protecting the rights and freedoms granted by our society while honoring the inherent worth and dignity of every person in a truly and radically compassionate way.

It also helps us to be less judgmental of ourselves. While we learn humility from striving and failing, falling short of the mark, in this sense, is simply a foregone conclusion. It is no reason to feel shame, nor is it an indication of our inherent depravity–all of us are moving steadily toward the target, as best we can. Our inner compasses are sound, but the nature of existence is that each of us is limited by our mortality, and as we are neither omnipotent nor omniscient, we can take pride in our successes without needing to feel shame about our failures. This belief in the concept of sin without requiring the concept of shame makes sin something that we can understand in a more coherent and human fashion.

That’s an example of my application of a liberal approach to faith. There’s lots more where it came from, as I hope to explore further, later on.

We talked about the things we UUs believe in, and the difference between framework beliefs and what I’ll call focus beliefs.

All UUs share framework beliefs, such as the belief in a free and responsible search for meaning or the belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

We don’t all share focus beliefs, such as the belief in the divinity of Jesus, or the belief in the reincarnation of souls–or even the existence of souls. It’s because of this distinction between framework and focus that I can be an atheist and a Unitarian Universalist.

We explored our beliefs further by looking at a column published several weeks ago in the AJC, written by Lorraine Murray. In it, she rejected the idea of a multi-denominational church that allowed members to “pick and choose” what they believed it, claiming that it led to a “wishy-washy” religion, which she called the “Church of Anything Goes.”

Rev. David wrote a letter to the editor in response, which was subsequently published, and he invited us all to read the article and try to articulate a defense of Unitarian Universalism in response. My response, to put it briefly (as it’s late and I should be asleep), is that my faith and the faith of the Unitarian Universalists I know is the least wishy-washy of anyone i have ever met–and certainly Anything Does Not Go. Unlike more conservative faith traditions, each member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation holds only hard-won beliefs, each of them open to question. There are no easy ways out, no “pray about it and it will come to you.” If you’re uncertain about life after death but fear mortality, there’s no one telling you, “Don’t worry, it says so in the Bible, so it must be true.” To claim that one can simply choose to believe–even against the voice of conscience–and then all will be cured seems to me an ultimately untenable approach to religion. Instead, Unitarians believe that each of us has to find  our own truth, and so we are each congregants and theologians both, striving to make sense of the world we live in. It is through the incredible strength of the thick and tightly braided rope of the world’s stock of wisdom and faith traditions that we are able to pull through to a fuller, more serene and substantial faith on the other side. By the same token, you won’t find many UUs who say “yeah, I kind of believe this, but not really, but I just try not to think about it too much.” That was not my experience as a Christian. Each of us is a seeker, with a moral responsibility to search and to support the search of others. To be part of a faith community that acknowledges and embraces the price and promise of that committed search is to be fully spiritually engaged.

I’m looking forward to next week’s class.

Cheryl thought it first, apparently. Violet’s gotten into this habit of sleeping one day and being awake the next. It seems like a pretty nice life, to be honest.

I’ve been reading a lot of online parenting articles and blogs lately–well, a lot for me, at least–and it really seems like there are two competing, self-reinforcing, and (it seems to me) incredibly counterproductive tones. Articles are either:

  • full of panic, uncertainty, regret, self-flagellation and questioning as to whether they can parent at all, let alone well
  • defensively authoritative, occasionally accusatory, forthright mandates on how to raise your children

These are both broad generalizations, so I run the risk of just having conjured this out of thin air–this objection and criticism of my hypothesis is totally valid. If I’m wrong, please convince me that that’s the case. The fact is that these occur to a greater or lesser degree, from the most shrill to the most tender, but I think there is something fundamental at the root of it.

Evidence of this phenomenon:

Can a Lack of Sleep Set Back Your Child's Cognitive Abilities? -- New York Magazine
Bossy McBossypants (I love Catherine Newman's writing, by the way.)
Are Kids Getting Too Much Praise?
Will your Preschooler Need a Tutor? (Seriously.)

It drives me nuts. Before I go on, I should probably establish something. While I think hyperanxious parenting is wrong-headed, neither do I subscribe to the idea that parenting just comes naturally and parents should just chill out and do what occurs to them. Lots of people are stupid or inexperienced or even downright malicious.

Somewhere, though, around the Vietnam era, I think, we lost our collective sense of authority. My guess is that we actually realized how incredibly terrible authority can be in and of itself, when it is incorrect. I am considering the possibility that there was a systematic loss of faith in authority on a social scale.

This is really hard stuff to talk about and think about, by design, almost. It’s complicated and abstract and I think, ultimately, amounts to what feels like and what we may as well consider a fundamental spiritual shift. Religion was way into authority and when the world was religious in a big and serious way, which is to say, when the people who wrote things that got read by others, when the idea-makers were religious, authority was truly a big and serious deal. Feudal lords told their serfs what to do. Parents told their children what to do. Authority stemmed from on high, followed the chain of command all the way down into the right hand of the father and the switch there held was held to be, truly, an instrument of God.

Science takes authority out of the hands of individuals and puts it in the hands of Nature–from the point of view of scientists. It is great and fantastic for this reason. It makes progress more rapid because ideas are pitted against each other and they fight and may win or lose, but ultimately (by which I actually mean “in the limit”) there is no individual who is an authority. It is here where we learned to defer to the wisdom of numbers, and authority over any individual child became more diffuse.

There are, suddenly, if not “right” and “wrong” ways to handle your kids, there are better and worse ways. Malnutrition exists and can be prevented. Your kids should be vaccinated and a hug every now and again decreases the likelihood that they’ll go shoot somebody later–maybe not to zero, but still, we as a society would appreciate it if occasionally, in addition to spanking your kid, you let them know you love them.

One of the difficult aspects of science stems from the fact that human society is necessarily atomistic. While authority in the divine sense may not exist, expertise certainly does. If you want to have your appendix removed or know the difference between a charm and a strange quark or solve a third-order differential equation, you can’t just ask anybody. Well, the beauty of it is that you actually can, and, given enough time, a lot of people will be able to develop the expertise to tell you the answer or provide the service. Which is to say that simply because you do not have expertise does not mean you can’t get it.

Still. It’s pretty costly to get it. You have to observe the same stuff for a long time in order to really get it as well as somebody else gets it. Some people may never get it. And there’s a big fat undecidable proposition required for the whole endeavor: positivism. It’s undecidable because it can never be clear whether anything is true or causal or whether it just looks that way.

The two of these combined, philosophically, I think. Suddenly in the middle of the century, like say post-WWII, there’s a new “priesthood” — very deeply involved in the actual war, like the killing of a lot of people — made of scientists. While these scientists may not claim to be authorities over things they know nothing about, they do claim to have models that describe the world well, which translates poorly into English as knowing the “truth.” There’s a big hole when you try to claim that it’s the “Truth,” which is that one of the founding assumptions is the assumption that the “Truth” is knowable: positivism.

It turns out, for real, that it doesn’t “matter” whether the truth is knowable, if all you want to do is make a really good guess at what will be the consequences when you perform/observe a certain action.

I attribute the most recent part of this to literary critics. Post-structuralism pulled off a hell of a feat of equivocation by hijacking the fact that light travels at the same subjective speed but that time passes at different subjective rates depending on your frame of reference. They used that intuition to stake a claim that the fact that the Universe behaves in a way described by the General Theory of Relativity implies, in some fuzzy way, that the Universe is, generally, relative.

Maybe it seems like none of this stuff is relevant to your parenting or my parenting. I contend that that is not the case. When Barthes declared “The Death of the Author,” how could that not have had an effect on parenting?

It had a heck of an effect on individuals’ senses of identity.

It had a heck of an effect on characters in our stories.

Authority was revealed as a hoax, and with the Vietnam War, it was revealed as a dangerous, irresponsible, and morally bankrupt hoax. American culture was well-suited to accept this belief, I think, being composed primarily of the progeny and products of incorrigible contrarians. So a dash of French philosophy, some depressed post-war writers like Hemingway, Faulkner, and later Saul Bellow, and even later, Don Delillo…

Out of time. It’s Halloween! More on this later.

Pickle, my apologies. I have friends who’ve promised me that they’ll lead you astray so that you don’t inherit my vitriol. You’ll probably hear me vent about this stuff occasionally, but I really only want everyone to get along, to behave like we can all be civil, to talk about this stuff with love in our hearts, humility, and a shared goal of making the best life for everyone and believing what we should.

EDIT:

I had a post here earlier, about my atheism and about the ability of animals to reason. They’re all good thoughts, just not ones that I feel the need to share. It’s all just too contentious, and there’s no real point, as far as I can tell, because I’m railing against a silent wall. As a result, I’m cutting it. If anyone is interested, let me know and I’ll re-post it at some point.

I’d rather take a deep breath and say that I care deeply about goodness and I don’t care if you have religion or don’t: I want for you what you want for yourself. I mean that to you, Pickle, but I mean that to everyone else, too. May we all make it home safely.

Okay, at this point, it may be oft-quoted, but here goes. Kurt Vonnegut wrote:

“Hello, babies. Welcome to earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you have about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of–

God damn it, babies, you’ve got to be kind. ”

And for that, if for nothing else, I argue the man ought to be revered.

I got to thinking: what do I know? Not a lot, perhaps. What do I think? Well, there’s more of that. And so, in the interest of capturing all my bias and all my wonder and all my world, and in the interest of not having to do any more research than I have to, I’d like to write a little bit discursively, claim it’s fact, be wrong where I may and right where I may, and thus and so the cookie crumbles.

So we are people, kiddo, human beings, which is to say that as far as anyone is able to tell, we are descended from the apes, and we are the only creatures on Earth, at least, that have developed paper airplanes and fake vomit and nuclear weapons and knock-knock jokes. Whether all of this has been for good or ill is a point of some contention, although my contention is that it doesn’t matter all that much, because it is what it is, and, as they say life goes on, and so all our determinations of whether it all comes out in the wash or whether we should take a stand has little effect except to maybe guide the torrential flow, incredibly inertial by Earth standards at least (although probably relatively insignificant on a cosmic scale (which is itself the point of much more contention)), and to make marginal improvements here and there. Mostly such commentary only has an impact on whether you’re enjoying the ride, as far as I’m concerned.

And so, I guess, as far as delusions of grandeur are concerned, my advice would be to steer clear. So much has already happened and so much will that if you really want to leverage your impact, your best bet is to try to maximize your enjoyment. A lot of people are likely to misinterpret that, but there are myriad qualifications and caveats: a good rule of thumb is to look kindly on the classical philosophers who said “in all things, moderation,” not because it’s necessarily the best way to live, but because it’s a good way to ensure that your living is not miserable, or short in supply. That way at least you’ll be able to hang around long enough to figure out what might be better. Just an opinion, really, but it seems to have worked out better than the alternative for most people who try it (just ignore the selection effects, please).

So yes, it’s hot and cold, although that varies longitudinally, and it is round and wet and crowded. But most of that you won’t have to deal with terribly, which is to say, true but unhelpful. The roundness is a point of interest; it’s more than academic interest, because given the laws of physics we’ve been able to discern so far, if it were flat, we might not be here, but as far as like say your existential experience, the roundness of it will only really come into play when looking at maps or flying overseas, and even then, it’s kind of a bulge-y roundness, not just a sphericality. It’s interesting, and its interestingness makes it essential, to me at least, in the enjoyment and understanding part of life, but it’s not clearly essential to like your day-to-day life.

The wetness, likewise, unless you’re ever trapped adrift at sea, which is possible but unlikely, is a fortunate detail, because we require a lot of water, we people. Nonetheless, if you live in a city, which most people do, the wetness of the earth is indirectly related to your actual observed regional wetness. Because it’s mostly in the ice caps and oceans, I think. Living in the U.S. is handy for this, because we have a very high amount of fresh water per capita, comparatively speaking.

It is increasingly crowded. This will be experiential for you. At some points it may be quite unpleasant; at other times, it can be reassuring. It leads to scarcity, which in turn leads to economics, which gets your father paid, so to some degree it’s a good thing. Plus more people means more people to enjoy things with, to learn from and to share with. It also means more people to fight, to take your stuff, to bid down wages and bid up prices, and so the direction of the marginal utility change of population increase is indeterminate. It’s quite a debate. [Edit – it seems clear that the population change is good news for you, being one of the new people. That said, once you’re here, you may (and not entirely irrationally, the sanity or lack thereof of the forthcoming example notwithstanding) pull a Tom Tancredo and say “I know I wasn’t here first, but I’m here now, and you can’t come in, you other new people.”]

All that stuff is external to you, though, the hotness, wetness, coldness, crowdedness, and roundness. I mean, you’re a minor cause of some of the crowdedness and you depend on some of the stuff, but the part of me that I think of as being me is less corporeal than that. I don’t believe in a soul; a lot of people do. I think Douglas Hofstadter has some crazy-sounding and interesting ideas about being a “strange loop,” but you can get there yourself or ask me about it later if you want. Mostly the stuff that I think will maximize your lifetime enjoyment are mechanics of being. So, how to be, well.

It’s important to know that life is mostly boring, mostly out of your control, especially in the early days. You also can’t do very much. It’s like the beginning of Dragon Warrior, especially the first one, where you can only fight slimes and you can’t even really afford to buy anything other than the crappiest sword and shield, and you basically march back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and *fight a slime* and back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and *fight a slime* and back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and *run from a Drakee* and back and forth and back and forth and fight a slime and now you can afford to go to the inn and heal yourself.

Which you repeat for 2 hours and then you can go somewhere else and do more or less the same thing, only now you don’t have to run from Drakees, just Wyverns. Which your uncle Luke and I really enjoyed, which I argue makes us really well-suited for life. I’m hoping a combination of genetics and upbringing similarly blesses you with a capacity to endure and even enjoy monotony.

The sooner you can cope with being bored and incapacitated, the sooner life will start to gel for you. It really is sort of a ride, in many senses. I think free will is kind of an illusion, and is often best treated like it both is and isn’t an illusion. I guess the best way to articulate it would be that I think you choose a lot of actions, most of which don’t have much influence on the outcome of things. A few times in your life they will really matter, but most of those times, you don’t know it. And so it wasn’t through purely random chance that I was fortunate enough to meet and marry your mother but I certainly can’t really take any credit. That said, I’m glad I was the sort of person that I was when I did meet her, and that I had some control over.

So that’s probably lesson number two. The one thing you really can hope to have some real impact over in your life is your choices about who you are, internally and, to a lesser degree, externally. This is not to say you can become whatever you want; you just have some say here. People who are open to the things life offers them are usually happier than people who aren’t. People who feel entitled are often disappointed, while people with more moderate expectations are more likely to be pleasantly surprised. There are a lot of different ways to be, and I think the best shots at happiness in life come from trying to be an active participant in who you want to become.

That’s one of the real perks of being a person, I think. When you’re a kid, you’ll feel like the world is really vast, so vast it’s approximable by an infinite area in your internal model. You feel like history has gone on forever and the whole shebang is just really chaotic and incomprehensible, and if you’re lucky, the daunting sense that comes from that won’t be enough to deter you from trying to understand at least a little part of it better. Once you do that, and you follow the string of connections you come to for a while, I think you’ll be surprised (I was), by how much of that seemingly infinite content is meaningless, and how truly finite are the bounds of both human history and the current world. There are only around 200 countries in the world. There are only so many fundamental laws of physics. Most of mathematics is really just implications of a few basic axioms.

Aggregate similar things: this is something people do naturally and do well. It can be dangerous, and there’s a strong bias in favor of acknowledging and celebrating diversity in today’s world; it’s a good bias, don’t get me wrong. For understanding the world, though, the fastest way to make sense of it is to multiply the power of what little insight you may have to make the most use of it. If a bunch of countries are like a bunch of seeds in an apple, then what you know about seeds in an apple might apply to countries. It might not, but with the appropriate humility, you can get a lot out of life this way.

Which brings us to the biggest ones of all for today. There’s more where all this came from, but the mother of all lessons you’ll hear me complain about and drill into you is this: humility is essential, doubt is your friend, confidence comes from being able to admit you’re wrong.

You can’t afford to make big claims if you can’t admit those claims are mistaken. You want to make big claims. It’s how we make sense of the world. It’s one of the few really big and fun games of human existence that gets bigger and more fun as life goes on. It’s good to have been wrong. It’s not as good to be wrong as to have been wrong, but in most of your life you’re going to have to make decisions and garner insights in less-than-ideal circumstances. Getting in the habit of understanding where your intuitions come from, making inferences based on them, and then adjusting them as you find out some were wrong, some were right–that habit will pay off like nobody’s business.

It’s okay not to be certain; you can never actually be certain, so acknowledging that you’re not is basically admitting the obvious. It makes your beliefs more credible, it makes you more capable of dealing with the unknown, it keeps you fresh and it drives other people nuts. It means you can differentiate between things you sense and things you feel and things you’re pretty sure of and things you’d like to believe and things you’d stake money on and things you’d stake a lot of money on. Doubt is your friend; it’s where you come up with better ideas than the ones already out there. It irritates a certain part of your brain that can become the Magic Eye.

You gain confidence when you can shed a bad idea and grasp a new, good one. You become the upper envelope of all ideas you’ve considered. It makes you a better person, a more attractive person, a more likeable person, a more insightful and knowledgeable person. It is a good thing. It’s like giving up headbands when they go out of style, or picking up on a new band if it’s actually really very good, or upgrading to a new version of Firefox. You get rid of the bugs, you add some new features, you’re a faster, stronger version of yourself. A freakin ninja pirate robot.

And so with that ends a brief precis on some tips for life. There’s a lot to know that’s fun, too, so I’ll try to clue you in on some of it. Hasta pronto Pickle!

It was a while ago now, but I just heard “Son of Sam” and felt compelled to write. Elliott Smith was really great, a bringer of beauty to the world. It breaks my heart, really. There’s a part of me that knows that sometimes, people just hurt a lot and feel the need to bow out. Another part of me wonders whether or not tragedy could be averted if we could find a way to prevent people from feeling like square pegs.

I feel like there are strong social norms toward integrity and consistency, strong intrinsic (or potentially learned) desires to feel like the world is an essentially good place, and strong social messages to people to be skeptical and critical.

There isn’t a widely accepted framework, though, that allows all three. As a result, I think most people that seem well-adjusted are either inconsistent, cynical, or naive.

That, in itself, might sound cynical, but it’s not. I think people are essentially good. I think people generally possess integrity, good will, and insight in vast reserves. I feel like the ones who are really serious about it, though–those who are diligent in their search for two of them–almost invariably end up violating the third.

It reminds me of Arrow’s impossibility theorem in some ways. Arrow’s impossibility theorem says, basically, that if you want to take a look at all possible policies, you want to ignore irrelevant policies, and you want to be able to rank policies consistently (a>b, b>c => a>c), and you want to allow no individual in the society to be a dictator, then you can’t do it. Somebody has to be the dictator in order to be complete, consistent and rational. I’m fudging the terms to translate it from math into English, but I think you get the point.

One of the things I love about music is its ability to satisfy consistency, beauty, and insight. The reason art can accomplish what reason so often fails to is, I think, the fact that art strives to be generally universal in its themes but particular in its subject matter. It doesn’t look at all possible policies.

(This is all false analogy, by the way, so it’s not a proof, but hopefully it’s pretty.)

Religion and grand philosophy have often failed to take advantage of this property. I think that’s one of the penetrating powers of science. In theory, at least, science is incredibly humble. As a result, it is incredibly powerful.

The insight is greater than science, though. It’s negative capability. Drop the completeness aspect and you can paint your way back out of the corner. There’s no shame in saying, “I don’t know.” It’s an empirical question, I guess, but I like to think that if we could say, it’s okay to bow out of life if it’s really not your thing–if we could say that, maybe less people would feel the need to bow out. Maybe if loss, poverty, sorrow weren’t so anathema, they wouldn’t compound. In complete sets of philosophy, though, in religion, in particular, there’s no room for random sadness and loss, no room for the inexplicable. All of it has to be God’s will, or none of it can be. I think we can work our way up to a consistent, beautiful, critical world-view that doesn’t need to be universal in order to have its force.

It’s striking to me, the prospect of bringing Pickle up without religion, without belief in God. It’s a different life from mine. I know it’s hard for P’s grandparents. I hope it makes sense to everyone, eventually, although I know it might not. I have faith, though, that the results will speak for themselves. I hope we can help make sense of sorrow as well as joy, though, in a way that integrates it into the beauty of the world, a beauty derived from transience, from the very randomness that makes godlessness seem scary to pretty much everyone, and in a way that looks at sorrow and joy in the complexity with which we actually experience them.

I think we can make sense of joy and sorrow (and love and death and beauty and sex and the origin of everything) by saying that, to be honest, we don’t really know. We’re just living through it like everybody else, and the joy thing is pretty great, and the sorrow thing, not so much, sometimes, but it’s all life, and I think life is good. Let’s talk about it some more and see what we come up with. It’s all about reducing it to a human scale. What we lose in breadth of stroke we gain in explanatory power and internal consistency. To get Integrity, Wonder, and Honesty requires Humility. Descriptive life.