Ronin of the Spirit

Because reality is beautiful.

God, what a meal.

A cynic, a compassionate atheist, a pragmatic Christian, and a fundamentalist Christian, all received an invitation to God’s banquet.  The cynic got there first, wanting the satisfaction of proving its non-existence before anyone else did.  He was disappointed to find a beautiful table set for four and full of all sorts of beautifully presented and delicious looking foods.

The pragmatic Christian, worried about propriety, figured that being too early might be a form of disobedience, but also worried that being late might have dire consequences, arrived merely respectfully early.

The compassionate atheist, fascinated and curious, arrived exactly on time.

The fundamentalist, breathless, arrived ten minutes late.  He had spent the ten minutes interpreting the various possible meanings of the statement “You are cordially invited by God to a banquet” before departing.

“Well,” said the Christian, “Isn’t everything so beautiful!”

“Its lovely,” agreed the atheist

“But what does it mean?” asked the fundamentalist.

“I see nothing!” spat the cynic.

The atheist grabbed a helping of mashed potatoes with a silver spoon, and looked around to see if anyone wanted more.

The Christian looked longingly at the mashed potatoes.  They looked delicious, but should he eat them?

“I see no mashed potatoes!” spat the cynic.

The fundamentalist gasped, “What are you doing?”

“I was invited to a lovely banquet which began at seven o’clock,” began the atheist. “The time is now seven oh two.  I am serving the mashed potatoes.”

“But who are you to serve the mashed potatoes of God?” asked the fundamentalist.

The pragmatic smiled. He had prayed about it and know knew they were to eat the potatoes. “We’re the guests of God, of course we can eat them,” he drawled, holding up his crystal plate.  The atheist dutifully spooned some on, still looking around for more takers.

“I find no pattern of mashed potatoes in Scripture,” the fundamentalist said suspiciously.

“I see no mashed potatoes,” the cynic insisted.

“What do you mean you see no mashed potatoes, they’re right in front of you,” said the atheist surprised.

“Ha!” cackled the cynic, “I thought you’d never ask.  God is an illusion, this is the banquet of God.  There is no God, therefore, there are no mashed potatoes.”  He leaned back triumphantly in his overstuffed and comfortable dinning chair.

The pragmatic Christian and fundamentalist, scandalized together, cried out “That’s blasphemy!”

Atheist, simply shook his head, and took another bit of roast duck.  “Whatever, Cynic.”

“I knew your free thinking would destroy in the end, Atheist.  You share these simpletons’ disillusion,” Cynic sighed happily.

“Cynic, I have always been more concerned with truth than with not believing in God.  I observe that I am in a magnificently appointed room full of delicious food.  To deny the existence of the veritably of the real merely to fit an existing theory is the antithesis of science,” Atheist paused, ” As such it is your department, and not mine.”

“Are you saying that you believe this is not some sort of illusion?  You fool! I’ll blacklist you!  I’ll end you.  You’ll never publish again!”

Athiest smiled warmly. “I’ve no doubt you could Cynic, you’ve alway held more public support than I in social affairs. Still, all the more reason to enjoy this now, while its in front of me.”  Atheist held some green beans out to Pragmatic and Fundamentalist Christian.

“Thank you, kindly” said Pragmatic.

“I’ll take nothing from your fated hands!” cried the fundamentalist. “Your kind are a cancer on this earth!  You have stolen the Holy food of God and you don’t even believe in him!”

Cynic’s bitter eyes picked up at the mention of cancer.  “Yes!  A cancer, thats what man is!  A festering carbuncle on the buttocks of the earth!”

“Oh, I agree, Cynic, I agree,” gushed the fundamentalist. “Man is filth. A disgusting aberration not worthy of this table of God.”

“I see no table,” growled Cynic.

“Nor do I, Cynic.  My mind could never comprehend the beauty of God.  He would never present my filthy sinning carcass with such splender.  This must all be an illusion created by my own mental filth,” said Fundamentalist piously.

“We are all filthy vandals,” Cynic conceded.

Pragmatic Christian had been listening with growing concern to this speech. “Uh, Fundamentalist, we are brothers, so I hate to correct you in front of our enemies, but what you are saying is wrong.  Man sins, yes, but he was created in the image of God. He is full of incomprehensible value and worth as a result.”

Fundamentalist laughed, a single explosive sound. “Ha! You and I brothers?  I share no parentage with you and your secular humanist plop.  The intrinsic, incomprehensible value of man?  The Bible says all men have fallen short of the glory of God. Fallen short, Pragmatic.  Who can comprehend the ways of God?  Clearly, this room is trap of Satan, a trap of pride and vain glory.  Man and all his work are worthless!”

“Worthless!” agreed Cynic.

“Come Cynic, let us leave this illusion of joy and return the true reality of suffering and pain.”

Cynic rose stiffly, offering his arm for Fundamentalist.

Tears welled in Pragmatic Christian’s eyes, “But brother, you haven’t even touched the food given to us by our Father!”

“For twenty minutes I have sat here, and God has not feed me one bite!” said Fundamentalist primly. “Unlike some people, thought I may starve, I will not presume upon God.”

“But,” began Pragmatic, “You cannot sit at a table God has layed in front of you and told you to go to and talk of starving.”

Fundamentalist smiled condescendingly. “Oh, Pragmatic, who are we to presume to take matters into our own hands? God will build what he wishes.  When we try to do God’s work for him, can’t you see we are usurping Him?”

Pragmatic sputtered, “But its right in front of you and He put it there for you to take!” to Fundamentalist’s back as he walked toward the door arm in arm with Cynic.

An awkward silence descended on the banquet hall.

“So,” said Pragmatic Christian.

“So,” agreed Compassionate Atheist.

“I’ve never really talked to an atheist before,” said Christian.

“I don’t often talk to pragmatic Christians either,” said Athiest.

Pragmatic cleared his throat, “I’m a little afraid of you, to be honest.”

“Yup, me too,” said Atheist around a bite of pheasant.

Pragmatic Christian was delighted.  “I am afraid you will corrupt my mind with your evil atheist ways, are you afraid that I will convert you to Christianity?”

Compassionate Atheist smiled gently before answering.  “Well, no.  I’m afraid of other things.”

“Like what,” asked Christian wide eyed.

“Oh,” began Atheist, “say, an Inquisition.”

“Oh, is that all,” laughed Christian. “We don’t do that anymore.”

Atheist nodded.  “Why is that Christian?  If God is the same today, tomorrow, and forever, why is it that you don’t do that anymore?”

“Well, because God never asked for that!  That was evil men who merely used the power of the Church for evil!” said Christian confidently.

“Ah,” intoned Atheist, “and what will keep that from happening again?”

“Well, that would never happen today!  My Christian leaders are working hard to seize political power so they make sure bad things like abortion and homosexual sex don’t happen.  I am sure they could prevent an Inqisition too when they run this country,” he said helpfully.

Atheist choked a bit on his merlot. “Uh, um..mmmm. Uh, Christian, why did the Inquisition happen again?”

Christian leaned back into the velvet chair, ready to tell a story, “Well you see the Church left its position of spiritual power and, pursuing a ends-justifies-the-means school of thinking, seized political power.  This power was used for good at first, but gradually, the level of power the Church had began to attract evil men who eventually…” he trailed off, his face a mask of betrayal and shock.

“You seduced me, Atheist, you used your evil demonic power to make me think evil of the Church!” Christian yelped. “At least I am not responsible for the Nazi’s!”

“I never knew the Nazis” said Atheist quietly.

“You lie, Atheist, you lie like your father the devil!” shouted Christian.

Atheist sighed.  This had happened before.  He mentally counted to ten and then back down. “Christian, Hitler claimed he would bring back traditional family values.  He was supported by Christians, and often used Biblical points of view to justify his position.”

Christian, realizing he was standing, sat back down. “Well, I’ve heard that before, but Hitler did so many un-Christian things, that I sort of forgot it. I’ve never understood how people who loved Jesus could support something so horrible.”

“Well, it has a lot to do with those two characters who just left, ” said athiest with a wry face. “A skeptic, which most Atheists are, would have investigated Hitler’s claims. It takes Cynic and Fundamentalist to manage a genocide.”

“Yeah, I thought you and Cynic were best buddies, but he seems to really hate you,” said Pragmatic Christian, side stepping the second half of the comment.

“Its all about skeptisim, Christian.  I believe in asking why, and trusting what I see over what somebody tells me.  Cynicism are often mistaken for being skeptics like me, but we have less in common than you and Fundamentalist.”

“Really?” said Christian, “I thought all you godless heathens were alike. Uh.. no offense.”

“Not at all.  Cynicism is about being mentally lazy, assuming that conventional wisdom is true.  Skepticism checks everything to make sure it is as true as it can be.  It looks at all the options and chooses the most likely one.  Skepticism never says that God isn’t real, only that he doesn’t seem very likely within the limited parameters that we can test,” said Athiest.

Christian looked puzzled. “But how does that make Fundamentalist and Cynic alike.  Cynic hates God, hates anything religious, anything spiritual, honestly, even hates anything beautiful.  Fundamentalist is convinced in the beauty and power of God. How come they get along so well?”

Athiest smiled. “Cynic believes that he can figure out anything by consulting what people all ready think.  He only uses the powers of his mind to look at established wisdom.  Fundamentalist believes that he can figure out anything by consulting what people think about his Holy text.  He only used the powers of his mind to look at established wisdom.  The only difference between Cynic and Fundamentalist is where they draw their inspiration.”

“I often thought something like that,” admitted Christian. “Fundamentalist is so concerned with what what has been said about the Scriptures, he often gets distracted from the message, arguing about dispensations and translations.  Neither one really thinks about what makes things true or investigates things.”

Now it was Atheists turn to look surprised.  “I didn’t know that you were that interested in asking why or investigating things, Christian.  I guess I sort of assumed that you were like Fundamentalist.”

Christian grinned.  “Well, you can’t interpret scripture without asking why.  The Bible is a very large book and a skilled charlatan can make it say anything.  We always have to check what scripture says against other scripture to make sure it all fits.  When someone says they have some new doctrine you can’t say ‘Ok’, no sir!  Paul compliments a group called the Bereans for being, as you call it ‘skeptical’.  In my church we call that ‘Being Berean’ and its a good thing.”

Atheist and Christian shared the last piece of pie.  Christian privately thought he had won a great victory for the cause of Christ with Atheist.  Atheist, in turn, found it delightfully ironic that the best Christians were the most skeptical ones. When the last morsel of pie was done, Christian turned to Atheist.

“Compassionate Atheist, what do you think of this banquet we have had.  Do you still not believe in God?”

“I don’t know, Christian.” He said. “I see a beautiful meal, but I never saw anyone make it.”

“But someone had to make this all!”

“Well,” Atheist said “I admit the mousse was divine, but I can’t say that God made this because with the test methods I have, the most reasonable explanation would not be God.”

Christian looked pained.”But if not God, who made all this beauty?”

“I don’t know Christian.  But I can agree with you that it is beautiful,” said Atheist.

“How? What is the source of beauty if not God?” cried Pragmatic Christian.

“I don’t know Christian, but I will enjoy finding out.  The joy of my life to understand mysteries,” said Atheist solemnly.

Christian looked shocked.  “But that is the joy of my life, to discover the mysteries of God. Surely, Atheist, it cannot be your joy to discover the mysteries of his Creation?”

Atheist chuckled, “Why not Pragmatic Christian?  Did you assume since I have never met your God that I saw all the world as a empty gray?  I love life.  I love to explore.  I found your statements about the intrinsic value of man deeply moving.  We agree on so much.”

Christian spoke quietly “I guess I did assume that about you.  Do you really see the world as thing of great of beauty to be explored?”

“I do,” said Atheist.

Then you are doing the work of God.  To bad you will burn in hell, dear friend, thought Pragmatic Christian.

“Well, I wish you luck, Atheist.  I hope we meet again,” he said aloud.

And I hope your “being Berean” delivers you from this madness before Fundamentalist seduces you or kills you, or Cynicism comes calling on the heals of disillusionment.  You’re much too valuable to lose, dear friend, thought Atheist.

“I’m sure we will, we have so much more to talk about.” said Athiest aloud.

July 8, 2008 Posted by | Paranormal, Religion, skepticism, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

I talk to the physical manifestation of the conceptualization of my wife (and get advice about asking her for advice)

One of my favorite concepts about the human mind is the idea of the human mind as an operating system for the brain, just as Linux is the operating system of the computer that I am writing this on.

This concept is a whole mental toolkit, with fascinating rabbit trails relating to almost any issue of the mind and brain. Mental problems, for instance, could be caused by single component hardware failure (traumatic brain injury), system wide hardware failure (biochemical imbalance), operating system failure (neurosis), or application failure (disorders that have limited “system wide” problems, but effect certain tasks deeply, such as phobias.)

Within the framework of popular computing, avatar has different meanings depending on context. The word is borrowed from Hindu, where it means the physical incarnation of a deity. In online forums, an avatar can be something as simple as a picture. This picture represents the user in someway. In 3D online games the avatar is the player’s body in the game’s universe (metaverse). Both of these qualities represent the avatar as a representation of user within the system.

However, unique to advertising, an avatar is a program which interacts with people. Often, avatars in the context of advertising are called bots. If you would like to talk to one, Ikea has famous avatar named Anna. In the first 2 cases, the avatar was a user of the system. Anna, however, is the system, or at least a part of it. So an avatar becomes any human faced set of code, regardless of whether the input and output functions of said code are controlled by a human mind, or a mechanical one.

Today, I was lying in bed after my wife had gotten up. I was not quite asleep, but neither was I fully awake, which, often as not, results in a unique dream state. (I should mention before I explain all this, that I am an extremely lucid dreamer. I often interact with people in my dreams with both me and the person I am dreaming about understanding that I am dreaming. This one was a little weird even for me, though.) I was simultaneously dreaming of speaking with Becky and hearing her real, non-dream voice from downstairs. I found this disconcerting and asked my dream wife what was going on.

Oh,” replied dream Becky, “I’m an avatar of Becky. The real Becky is downstairs. I represent every thing that you know about Becky, accessible through a normal conversational interface.”

So,” I asked “Technically you are me, in the sense that you are my memories of Becky?”

She frowned. “Yes, technically, I am you, or at least of you, but it’s best if you think of me as Becky, because if you think of me as you, then I cease to be an incarnation of everything you know about Becky and just become the form of Becky. I can’t provide you with her unique perspectives. I become a projection of yourself into Becky’s form, rather than Becky’s form projected onto your understanding of her identity.”

I get it,” I said “By having you as an avatar of Becky, it gives me a second way to access Becky’s mind when I need her perspective and she’s not available.”

Right,” said dream Becky “Of course, I can’t give you her real perspective. It’s not telepathy or anything. If she’s available, by all means ask her, but if you are deployed to forward base or something, you can ask me.”

I thought about this for bit. “But if you are the sum of everything I know about Becky, then I already have access to all the information that makes you. To access you, I need to be in a dream state, whereas to access your constituent data I only need to concentrate for a moment when fully awake.”

Well, first of all, I can provide you the information in a much more intuitive, conversational manner, “ she said. “Further, since a dream state is more relaxed, I can often give you more accurate information. If you deeply desire to do something that you need to ask Becky about, that desire will cause distress. When you access her/my data intellectually, your mind will color how you conceptualize Becky to bias the resulting conclusions to cause less distress. By taking the time to be relaxed enough to be in a dream state you get marginally less data mined information. Thirdly, I offer a unique service if you are mourning.”

What’s that?” I asked surprised.

She explained, “If something happens to real world Becky that makes her totally unaccessible, ie death or coma, I can provide a way for you to interact with her. In the coma example, I can provide you with the parenting advice you need to raise your daughter without Becky. When you hear of a deceased spouse visiting someone in a dream thats an avatar like me.”

So what you are saying,” I began, “is that anyone I know well, exists in two states. The real world state and the pretend state?”

She responded, “Pretend isn’t quite right. When you play Star Wars Battlefront you aren’t really a Storm Trooper. There is no reality in which you are a Storm Trooper, but the ones and zeros of the Star Wars Battlefront game are as real as you are. While I am not strictly speaking, real, the biochemical interactions that create and define me are real and objectively verifiable.”

And continued, “More correctly, all human beings react both with real people and with their avatars in their respective minds. When you and real Becky fight about something it is often because one of you does not meet the other’s expectations. I said one thing, Becky said another. You are angry because the real me outside your mind did not respond the same way as the real me in your mind.”

I was dumb founded. “So this explains why humans believe in an immortal soul even though there has never been any evidence of it? If something happened to real world Becky, I would still run into you from time to time. To the non-skeptical this would imply a visit from the afterlife.”

Exactly, “ she smiled. “It actually explains a whole a whole slew of paranormal phenomenon: ghosts, doppelgängers, messages from the afterlife, etc. And might even offer insight into mental illness. What do you think would happen if your own avatar was based off of a false concept of self?”

I thought about it. I really had no idea, though I agreed it was a fascinating question and worthy of further thought. “I don’t have any idea, Becky.”

Avatar Becky smiled coyly. “Then, I can’t either, silly. Time to get up.”

I woke up, and went downstairs to tell Becky how smart she/I is/am.

June 30, 2008 Posted by | Paranormal, Religion, Self discovery, skepticism, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

A confession

Its so much easier to define yourself by what you hate rather than what you love. Hate reveals almost nothing about the man who does the hating. A man may hate for many reasons, but he will only love because his heart moves him to do so. When you are honest with people about what you love you are honest at the most core level, you reveal your identity. I talk about what I hate so much specifically to avoid revealing my identity.

This is because I have something to hide. I grew up in the Fundamentalist Christian movement and came of age among radical charismatics. My friends and my memories are all made up of these people who are passionately religious, despite the fact they share opposite sides of the Christian path. I have betrayed them all to chase one thing.

That one thing is this: it is more important to me to know the truth than to belong to a group of people who claim they have it. Truth is more important to me than any person, group, or judgment. I decided to understand God by understanding martyrdom. I don’t really understand God, but I do have a handle on believing something so much that it was worth your very life. Truth is that which conforms to reality. Truth, I have decided is worth my life.

If this sounds beautiful, it can be. It is often very lonely. Truth, to me, is bigger and better than Faith. In fact, I hate faith. Faith is not an acceptable way to understand the world, it is merely a bridge to fill the gaps between what you know and what you don’t know. So that is my dirty secret…

I don’t believe anymore.

I still know what Christianity claims, I just don’t have faith in Christianity to represent God to me, or anyone else. To those who I have hurt by my pussyfooting around and talking about what I hate (blind faith) instead of what I love (searching out truth) I’m sorry. Its just hard to be open with people you care about. Only people you really love have the capacity to hurt you. I haven’t been open about this because I didn’t want to deal with the flak which will result. The statement “I don’t believe anymore” will make people who have previously claimed to love me suddenly reject me. People who have trusted my perspective for years will suddenly and ironically distrust the destination my perspective has taken me to.

For that cause I have hidden my disbelief for about 6 months to a year now. I could explain in detail exactly what I mean by “I don’t believe anymore.” Obviously, I still believe in some things. But I am not going to explain which right now. A precious few of my friends will read it and say, “If that is part of the road you have to walk, walk it well, and I will still be your friend.” Most however will chose one thing they want to know if I believe. They will ask. I will say yes or no, and they will decide if they are going to pray for me or weep helplessly depending on the question they ask.

I will say this about my love. I love truth. I love the search for truth. I love these things more than I love my own life.

March 13, 2008 Posted by | Religion, skepticism, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments