Sunday, February 22, 2015

What's behind the sky? Part III.

In this long post (about 8 typed pages) I finally get down to business.         
It is divided into two parts: (1) God and not God; and (2) Behind the           
sky. Part 1 is a prelude to Part 2, in that many people (although               
probably a minority of the readers of this blog) believe it is God              
behind the sky, and I wanted to explain why I am not one of them. In            
part 2 I offer some meditations on life and death and what it's all             
about (more than the hokey-pokey, I suspect). Needless to say, I don't          
have any answers. And I hasten to add another disclaimer: If at times I         
say ``we should do this'' or ``we should be like that'', I certainly            
don't claim that I myself have succeeded in the doing or the being.             
Often I've failed miserably. But I keep trying.                                 
Part I: God and not God.                                                        
According to common useage of the term, I would undoubtedly be                  
considered an atheist. I reject this label, however, because at best it is      
loaded with invalid assumptions, and at worst conceals a dishonest              
agenda. The common useage is that an atheist is one who asserts                 
``God does not exist'', this being one of three possible alternatives:          
1. Theist: God exists.                                                          
2. Atheist: God does not exist.                                                 
3. Agnostic: God may or may not exist; we don't (yet) have enough               
evidence to decide the question.                                                
I don't agree with any of these assertions. The hidden assumption is            
that the statements ``God exists'' and ``God does not exist'' have a            
definite meaning, which is clearly a prerequisite for deciding between          
them. But they do not. What is meant by ``God''? A ``Supreme Being''?
 Well then, what is a ``Supreme Being''? One can unwind the definition of        
``God'' ad infinitum, yet only a sequence of tautologies will result.           
Thus even the agnostic's assertion is meaningless, as no definition of          
``God'' has been given that is, even in principle, amenable to empirical        
evidence. The question was hotly debated at a recent meeting of the             
North Kirkland Philosophical Society, with visiting scholars Abigail            
Mitchell and Oliver Henderson in attendance. It ended in a stand-off. I won't   
argue the point further here, but for a good approximation to my own            
view see A.J.  Ayer's ``Language, Truth and Logic'' (mentioned in               
earlier post), under the headings ``Impossibility of demonstrating the          
existence of a transcendent god...or even proving it probable...saying          
this does not make us atheists or agnostics in the usual sense''.               
Unfortunately, religious people often use the term ``atheist''                  
dishonestly, with a hidden agenda. They are not so much concerned with          
the existence of God as with the existence of their particular             
  God, who invariably comes equipped a heavy load of additional                
baggage. Theodore Roosevelt, for example, once referred to Thomas Paine         
as ``that filthy little atheist''. The epithet is evidently a reaction          
to  The Age of Reason, in which Paine subjected the                        
bible-as-Holy-Scripture to the withering criticism it so obviously              
deserves. Rejecting the nauseating anti-morality of the Old Testament           
(putting homosexuals and non-virgin brides to death, Jehovah's incessant        
exhortations to genocide, etc. etc.) does not make one an atheist.              
Rejecting the absurd mythology of the New Testament---the virgin birth,         
the resurrection, etc.---does not make one an atheist. Of course, if one        
insists on defining ``atheist'' in this prejudiced way, then I am indeed        
one, and proud to say it.                                                       
Another example: Some years ago a column by fundamentalist writer Cal           
Thomas was published on the editorial page of the Seattle P.I. The topic        
was the evolution-creation ``debate'', and included this zinger:                
``Without God, what hope is there for any of us?'' This non-sequitur            
reveals either deliberate dishonesty or monumental stupidity. There is          
absolutely no conflict between evolution and the idea of God; the two           
are perfectly, one-hundred percent compatible. What offends Thomas has          
nothing to do with God per se; his problem is that that evolution
 contradicts the particular brand of random, irrational nonsense that he         
has chosen to believe in, based on a ``literal'' interpretation of the          
bible. I put ``literal'' in quotes because, as I have argued at length          
elsewhere, a literal interpretation is not even logically possible, to say      
nothing of the absurd consequences of such a reading.                           
Alas, there is nothing new under the sun. In 1615 Galileo wrote a letter        
to the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, entitled ``Concerning the Use of               
Biblical Quotations in Matters of Science'' and dealing with exactly the        
same issue in the context of Copernicus' theory, pushing it as far as           
one could in those days without getting burned at the stake. I highly           
recommend Galileo's masterful, surprisingly modern analysis; you can            
find it in ``Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo'', a collection of             
writings translated by Stillman Drake. The depressing reality is that           
four hundred years later we are still dealing with the same stubborn            
ignorance that so exasperated Galileo. (Incidentally, returning to Cal          
Thomas, the P.I. later went out of business. I can only assume this was         
God's punishment for publishing such drivel.)                                   
To sum up, then, I contend that the question ``Does God exist?'' is not         
a meaningful question, and I will consider it no further. In contrast, the      
statement ``I believe in God'' DOES have meaning.  But it has nothing to        
do with the existence or non-existence of God; it simply expresses an           
emotional state experienced by the speaker. Here the term ``emotional           
state'' is not intended pejoratively; the key point is to be honest             
about it and admit that this ``belief'' has absolutely nothing to do            
with empirical evidence or any physical reality. On the other hand, if          
the assertion is ``I believe in the God of the Christian bible, that            
Jesus was born of a virgin, turned water into wine, died on the cross           
and was resurrected, etc.'' then we are moving beyond the emotional             
state into alleged matters of fact. In this case I can say definitely           
and non-emotionally that I do not believe in the Christian God.                 
Incidentally, I'm picking on Judeo-Christianity only because it is              
probably the religion(s) most familiar to readers of this blog. I would         
have similar things, and worse, to say about Islam.  As to the                  
Mormons--well, they are too easy a target and I will refrain.

Setting aside whether the tenets of a particular religion are true in           
any factual sense, there remains the well-known fact that religion has          
numerous practical applications. For example, it has proved singularly          
useful as a way of inducing young men to sacrifice their lives in               
pointless wars, or more precisely wars whose point is to increase the           
wealth and power of those pulling the strings behind the scenes, and            
above all as a justification for male dominance over women. In fact it          
is very clear that one of the main purposes of the                              
Judeo-Christian-Islamic religions has always been to provide a phony            
authority for male supremacy, and I suspect this is true in many other          
world religions as well.  But it is also true that religion has inspired        
some people to do great and good and amazing things. And that                   
religion---faith, belief in God---has been a great comfort to many in           
times of suffering.                                                             
I think of Wendy's cousin Scott, for example.  As I understand it from          
the funeral service, he became a Christian at some point after                  
developing multiple sclerosis.  Now, multiple sclerosis is a terrible           
disease. If his newfound Christian faith helped him deal with it, that          
is a very good thing indeed. A familiar song/hymn (whose title I forget)        
was played at the service; it has the refrain ``He walks with me and He         
talks with me, I know I am never alone''. I was struck by this because          
it displays so clearly that the role of Jesus is that of an imaginary           
friend. But if this imaginary friend helped Scott, that too is a very           
good thing indeed.                                                              
My amazing mother recently self-published a beautiful little book of her        
own poetry. She had an older sister who died at the age of 12, the child        
referred to in the following poem entitled ``Belief''.                          
If there were a heaven,                                                         
would I face life's end                                                         
with equanimity,         

 believing I would see again                                                     
those I loved and who loved me?                                                 
As my mother lay dying,                                                         
she called to the child                                                         
who died years ago.                                                             
Then it seemed that she saw her;                                                
I doubt it was so.                                                              
What comfort to believe in a heaven somewhere.                                  
But although I have tried,                                                      
it's a faith I can't share.                                                     
And yet--for my mother--                                                        
I would hold fast                                                               
to believing she found                                                          
her lost child at last.                                                         
I can't, and wouldn't, argue with that. The fact is that so far in my           
life I have not experienced any significant hardship or suffering. Even the     
cancer is insignificant in that respect, at least so far. If I were put         
to the test, who knows?--I too might seek comfort in some version of            
God, or an imaginary friend (although that would assume that my real            
friends, who have been so wonderful, were somehow out of the picture).          
But ``belief under duress'' does not really prove anything, beyond
suggesting the practical utility of faith. In the amazing Summer of the         
Freedom Rides (the definitive movie of that summer has yet to be made),         
many of those enlisted in the cause were religious, and many were not.          
According to one engrossing account that I read, the religious folks            
were gratified to see even the non-religious types praying as racist            
thugs with chains and gasoline cans surrounded their bus. Hell, I'd be          
praying too under those circumstances. Similar remarks apply to                 
``deathbed conversions'', in which a non-believer declares faith in God,        
Jesus, etc. at the last minute. I have always found it puzzling that            
such events are reported triumphantly by the True Believers, since a            
deathbed conversion is the ultimate in conversion through fear, and as          
such is meaningless. Thomas Paine had assorted Christians hovering about        
as he lay dying, hoping for such a conversion or at least a repudiation         
of ``The Age of Reason''.  They were disappointed, however, and                 
succeeded only in annoying the great man in his final hours.  (On a             
lighter note: when I was a little kid scrambling up rocks in Joshua Tree        
National Monument, I'd get into predicaments where I was scared to climb        
down.  I'd pray thusly: ``Please God, let me get down from here and I'll        
never do this again.''  But within five minutes of making it safely to          
the ground, my new thought was ``that wasn't so bad'', and off I'd go           
In any event, what I will never understand and never accept is a faith          
in ``God'' that has as a prerequisite checking one's brain at the door.         
Around age 19-20 I tried out a very liberal Presbyterian church in San          
Diego that Mom, Ken and Victoria were more seriously involved in. One           
thing I noticed immediately was that its charismatic Pastor was key and         
perhaps indispensable to the success and popularity it enjoyed. This is         
a common phenomenon. I also met a lot of great people, mostly through           
the youth group. But before long I felt too much like a total hypocrite,        
mouthing the words to hymns about Jesus that I didn't believe and often         
found quite ludicrous. Indeed much of what is found in the gospels (and         
yes, there's some good stuff there) is so completely ridiculous that I          
am constantly amazed that otherwise rational people can read it without         
bursting out laughing, let alone take it as the ``word of God''.  One           
amusing example pointed out by Thomas Paine (you know, that filthy              
little atheist) is Matthew 27 verses 45-54, in which quite remarkable
 events occurred after Jesus took his last breath on the cross: The earth         
shook, the rocks split, and ``many bodies of the saints who had              
fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the          
tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.'' Paine notes the         
curious fact that none of the other gospels even mention this                   
astonishing event, and goes on to wonder: ``...whether they came out            
naked, all in natural buff, he-saints and she-saints; or whether they           
came fully dressed...whether they went to their former habitations and          
reclaimed their wives, their husbands, and their property, and how they         
were received...whether they remained on earth, and followed their              
former occupation of preaching and working; or whether they died again,         
or went back to their graves alive and buried themselves.'' To read             
passages such as the Matthew citation in a bible-study group and keep a         
straight face would have been impossible for me, and my brief                   
experiment with Christianity came to an end.                                    
Part II: Behind the sky.                                                        
To begin with the Big Question, what happens after death?                       
Comforting though it may be to believe in some kind of heaven (or hell,         
if you get your kicks out of scaring children), why don't we just admit         
it: We have no idea what happens. ABSOLUTELY NO CLUE. Based on what we          
can actually observe, the most likely possibility would be that nothing         
happens; it is the end of our existence and that's that. But the fact           
remains that really we haven't the slightest idea. My question is this:         
Why are humans so frightened by the ``end of existence'' hypothesis?            
It has been said that humankind suffered three major blows to its ego in        
the last few centuries: Copernicus' discovery that the earth revolves           
around the sun; Darwin's discovery of (and proposed explanation for)            
evolution; Freud's theory of the subconscious. That last and much lesser        
item is there only because it was Freud who said it; evidently his own ego          
was in top condition. In any event, why anyone's ego should be                  
threatened by Copernicus or Darwin is a complete mystery to me. So what         
if we're not the center of the universe in the childish literal sense of the term?
To date we don't know of a single other planet that          
supports the glorious variety of life we have here, or indeed any life          
at all, and if feeling special is so important we ought to be more than         
satisfied by that. As to evolution, one of the most brilliant                   
discoveries in the history of science, one can hardly improve on the            
famous closing sentence of ``The origin of species''.                           
``There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers,              
having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that,         
whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of            
gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and            
most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.''                             
Against this we have William Jennings Bryan at the 1925 Scopes trial,           
decrying evolution because it ``puts man in a circle with lions and             
tigers and everything bad''. (You can shake your head and laugh at this,        
but it's hard to keep laughing when you consider that millions and              
millions of people in this country still think the same way.) Far from          
threatening my ego, Darwin's ``endless forms most beautiful and most            
wonderful'' are an inspiration to me. When a strong wind is blowing             
across the lake, the eagles come out to take advantage of the easy        
soaring. And it occurs to me, as I admire how effortlessly they stay            
aloft: that eagle and I probably have a common ancestor. What could be          
more awesome than that?                                                         
Although belief in an afterlife is understandable, as a way to cope with        
loss, it can also be another manifestation of human conceit. Other              
life-forms just die, but not us! We're special; we alone get to go to           
heaven (although I've heard that special dispensations are available for        
pets). Setting ourselves apart from other living things is wrong, and           
is even, I believe, the source of much of our unhappiness. Another of my        
mother's poems--short and deceptively simple--describes a large red bull        
standing shoulder-deep in water (seen somewhere in New England, I               
think). What I love about it is the final line: ``Just one living thing         
among others, and quite content to have it so.'' We would do well to 
 follow his example.                                                             
At any rate, taking a deep breath and fully cognizant of A.J. Ayer's            
warning about mystics and their visions, I will now attempt, with some          
trepidation, to explain my own view of life and death and our place in          
the big cosmic scheme of things.                                                
First of all, I hasten to acknowledge that my take on the matter is, for        
the most part, hardly original, and that it represents nothing more than        
my own personal attempt to process the unknown and the unknowable. But          
without God, and without fear. In a nutshell, albeit a very unflattering        
one, my view could be summarized with a trite phrase such as ``we are           
all one with the universe, blah, blah, blah''. Trite though it may look         
in print, however, there is much to be said for such an assertion. We           
humans are but one small part of a universe so vast (to us) in both             
space and time that we can't even begin to comprehend the whole---yet we        
ARE part of it, and that is the key. All living things die. In most of          
the observable universe, there are no living things at all. We should be        
happy, gloriously happy, for our time on earth, and content to know that        
when we die nothing has changed; we have simply returned to the place we        
were born. There is little point in asking WHY we are here, and even            
less in complaining about our fate and the finiteness of life.                  
I would put it into a poem, if I were a poet, but instead will quote a          
beautiful poem from (gasp!) the bible.  From the Book of Job, of course,        
in the translation by Stephen Mitchell (no relation). After a lot of            
ranting and complaining and a long argument with his friends, Job is            
finally answered by the ``Voice from the Whirlwind''.                           
Where were you when I planned the earth?                                        
Tell me, if you are so wise.                                                    
Do you know who took its dimensions,                                            
measuring its length with a cord?    What were its pillars built on?                                                 
Who laid down its cornerstone,                                                  
while the morning stars burst out singing                                       
and the angels shouted for joy!                                                 
The voice continues in this vein, giving a lengthy resume of its                
marvelous creations, until finally Job concedes:                                     
I had heard of you with my ears,                                                
but now my eyes have seen you.                                                  
Therefore I will be quiet,                                                      
comforted that I am dust.                                                       
For most readers of the bible, and certainly for the primary author of          
Job, the ``Voice from the Whirlwind'' is God. I don't think of it that          
way, and find the above passages beautiful and profound for other               
reasons. The Voice reminds us that we have no clue as to why we are             
here, where we are going, and what happens when we die; all of this is          
beyond our understanding and we have to accept it--comforted that we            
are dust: that is, comforted by the knowledge that in our short stay on         
a minor planet in an out of the way corner of the universe, we have             
played our part of the great mysterious Whole, and we will remain a part of     
it after we die. At the same time, and I love this part, ``the morning stars    
burst out singing and the angels shouted for joy!'' In fact I first came        
across this passage in the writings of John Muir (and ignorantly assumed        
it was written by him). At the time he was describing his solitary
 wanderings in the High Sierra, and as a kindred spirit I recognized             
immediately the feeling of joy, of reveling in the beauty of the                
mountains, that he was trying to convey. We weren't there when the earth        
was planned, and we don't know where we'll be tomorrow. But we are here         
NOW, and it's a beautiful world.                                                
We spend a lot of time thinking about, and perhaps even agonizing about,        
what happens after we die. But what if instead we go backward in time,          
to before we were born?  Think of it: Homo sapiens has existed for about        
half a million years, and earlier versions of ``humans'' go back another        
two million or so. And in all that time you didn't exist! Indeed, as it         
is hard to imagine how time could have a beginning, one can even                
speculate that before you were born you were non-existent for an                
INFINITE period of time.  Think of all the things you missed! Does it           
make you sad? I doubt it (although it would have been really, really            
cool to see the dinosaurs, from a safe distance). Perhaps we will miss          
another infinity after we die, but why is this any different? It's true         
that if I die within the next few years (whether from cancer, a heart           
attack or being run over by a herd of pygmy hippopotami) I will miss            
seeing my grandchildren grow up. If I die within twenty years I would           
probably miss meeting any great-grandchildren, and so on. It would be           
wonderful to meet my great-grandchildren, of course, and I have every            
hope of doing so. But one can't have everything. I have already missed          
meeting my great-grandparents---not to mention Experience Mitchell, our         
ancestor who arrived in America in 1628. For that matter, it would have         
been fascinating to chat with Galileo, or Archimedes. My point is that          
we are granted but one short interval in the great continuum of time,           
and if our existence simply comes to an end after death, it is no more to be    
feared than our non-existence before birth. The important thing is the          
here and now, the moment. We have each other, we live in a beautiful            
world, and we should make the most of it.                                       
One of the serendipitous side-benefits of my study of Italian is that I         
discovered the writing of the late journalist Tiziano Terzani. Born to a
poor family in Florence in 1938, he was fortunate to have a teacher who         
recognized his talent and urged his family to do whatever it took to send          
him to a good school. He eventually landed a lifelong job as a reporter         
for Der Spiegel, which gave him virtually unlimited freedom to choose           
his own path and own stories. Terzani and his family lived for many             
years in Southeast Asia, where Terzani reported firsthand on the fall of        
Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge, the Vietnam war and the fall of Saigon.          
He was one of the first foreign reporters allowed into China after the          
cultural revolution, taking his family with him and even putting his            
children into the communist schools, just for the experience. After             
several years he was arrested, subjected to a month of ``re-education''         
and then expelled from the country. The first book (of many) by Terzani         
that I read I chose almost randomly, mainly because of its intriguing           
cover photo of Terzani with white beard and white clothes, communing            
with an elephant, and even more intriguing title: ``La fine e` il mio           
inizio''; ``The end is my beginning''. It turned out that this was his          
last book, actually an extended interview conducted by his son, written         
when he was dying of stomach cancer (he died in 2004, at 66). His               
previous book ``Un altro giro di giostra'' (``Another turn on the               
merry-go-round''), which I read second, recounts his attempts to cure           
his cancer by whatever means possible, from conventional treatments at          
the Sloan-Kettering Institute in New York, to more exotic (at least to          
some of us) Asian and even ``new-Age'' alternatives.  He had been for many      
years a student of various Asian philosophies, particularly those of            
Indian origin. But by the time of ``The end is my beginning'', it was           
clear to everyone, including Terzani himself, that his days were                
numbered and there was nothing more to be done.                                 
I read these books several years ago, long before I knew I had cancer. I        
found them inspiring then, and even more inspiring now. The following           
brief excerpts (translated by me) give some of the idea.                        
``Why does dying make us so afraid? It's something everyone does!               
Millions and millions and millions of people, the Assyrians, the                
Hottentots, all have passed on. And when it's our turn, ah! We are              
     But why? Everyone's done it.                                                    
If you think about it, and this is a nice observation that many have            
made, the earth on which we live is a big cemetery. A great, immense            
cemetery full of all that has been. If we were to dig, we would find            
bones everywhere, by now reduced to dust, the remains of life. Can you          
imagine the millions and millions and millions of beings who have died          
on this earth? They're all there! We are constantly walking on an               
enormous cemetery...over it flowers grow, the ants and the elephants            
run. [He laughs.]                                                               
If you see it this way and return to become a part of all this, perhaps         
what remains of you is that indivisible life, that force, that                  
intelligence that you can put a beard on and call it God, but it is             
something that our mind doesn't succeed in understanding and that               
perhaps is the great mind that holds all together.                              
So I'm going to this appointment---because that's the way I think of it         
and wouldn't want to miss it---because it's as though I were already            
dressed for a party, with a light heart and a certain almost                    
journalistic curiosity.''                                                       
Moving on from the past to the future, it's interesting to think about          
the distant future--the very, very distant future. Not only will those          
of us alive today die; our children and their children and their                
children's children and so on for thousands of generations (if we don't         
destroy the planet first). Eventually, though, the sun will run out of          
fuel and all life on earth will vanish. Does anyone worry about this? In        
the movie ``Annie Hall'', as a young boy the Woody Allen character              
refuses to do his homework because he's heard that in a billion years           
the sun will die. In reality no one gives a second thought to a billion         
years from now, or a million, or even a thousand. Not a serious thought         
anyway. We don't mourn our descendants who will pass away in the year           
3015 any more than we mourn for our ancestors who died in 1015. Viewed          
from a distance, death seems more natural and less tragic.

It helps to take a broader view in space as well as time. If we imagine         
pulling away farther and farther from planet Earth (I love the way this         
was done in the movie ``Contact''), in a short time the Earth is just a         
bright dot circling around the sun, and before long the sun is just another     
tiny, distant star, while the solar system can't be seen at all. Moving         
still farther away, our entire galaxy is reduced to a point, one galaxy among   
millions. Far from making us feel small and insignificant, it should            
inspire wonder and awe and make us happy to be alive, privileged to be a        
part of it even if only for a moment.                                           
Well, I've been rambling on too long. To sum up, I don't ``believe in           
God''. As the French mathematician-physicist Pierre-Simon Laplace once          
said to Napoleon (although the story may well be apocryphal), ``I have          
no need of that hypothesis''. All that I know is that we occupy one tiny        
point in space-time, in a vast and glorious universe of which we are a          
part, that we have each other, and we should make the most of it. In the        
here and now, in this moment. It's a beautiful world.                           


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