Monthly Archives: November 2013

Chaos Theory

The last several centuries have seen the rise of a perverse vision of morality. Going by various aliases this modern moral concept tells us that moral terms refer to something other than good and evil. Instead, the adherents of this viewpoint would ask us to believe that good and evil are mere descriptions, applicable to fashion choices as much as acts of benevolence or depravity. But the modern viewpoint is a lie. Descriptions have no power. They cannot motivate us to do anything. Of course, one suspects that the agenda driving our modern metamorphosis aims at a world where morality is not motivating. With moral focus dimmed, people can be motivated by those things which bring them pleasure and worldly profit. However, the agenda merely trades upon the normalizing effect of objective morality. We could not live as we do by following the path of moral relativism in real life.
Without objective moral terms, chaos would ensue. We do not have chaos, because moral terms refer to real things. Consider the alternative. If good and bad only operate within local frames of reference, we have a cascade of conflicting claims. Sometimes an act is good, sometimes bad. Sometimes an arrangement between individuals is evil, sometimes it is not. We cannot know which is which on the face of it. The authority of moral adjectives saves us from this fate. We need that authority to explain ourselves, and without it, we haven’t the motive power and clarity demanded by the moral challenges we face.
For example, walking among us is a small class of persons without remorse. They have no aversion to murder, and so require a reason outside themselves to condemn killing other people for any reason at all. Without objective moral terms, we have little to tell the psychopath. We can waffle about relationships and ties that bind, hoping to lash the psychopath to us with weak logic referring to dependencies. But what’s to stop him from replying in our own terms, like a serial-killing Popeye, “I am what I am and that’s right for me.”?
With objective moral terms at our disposal, we may respond with authority. “Murder is evil,” we may say, “and evil must be opposed.” A good moral concept is not just explanatory. A good moral concept tells us that we ought to do something, not just why we should think something is preferable. A good moral concept is solid, not riddled with re-words to the point of hollowness.
The moral troubles of the world require something with heft. Consider an even more difficult problem than individuals prone to violence: organized violence. Sadly, war is a fact of life. Our morality must confront it with an obligation powerful enough to justify such a monstrous activity . We can’t reasonably bomb the citizens of Dresden or Hiroshima and say to them or ourselves, “It is inconsistent with your identity as a human being that your group destroy other humans – the very source of that identity. Therefore you must die.”
We must provide a proper justification. We must say, “You have proven yourselves a proper medium for the perpetuation of evil. That is what we are bombing. Your deaths are regrettable, but that’s the best we can do and we are obligated to do our best when it comes to opposing evil.”
We cannot escape the reality of our moral terms, nor should we try. They are bound to catch us, because they do carry the obligations which we see at work in a just war. Nothing demonstrates our situation in that regard better than the way we deal with animals which kill humans.
If a bear kills a child, we execute the bear. We don’t kill the bear for any qualities relative to its bearishness, i.e. being a carnivore, needing to fatten up for hibernation, having an instinct to protect its young. We don’t care about the bear’s reasons; we care about the act. It has destroyed something invaluable. It has shown itself a creature with evil in its nature, and so must die. We are not angry at the bear. This is not revenge. This is justice.
Objective moral entities will finally allow no re-words at all. No relative merits, relations, revenge or reconsideration apply. Nor does scale. Absolutes do not mind scale. Evil is evil, and must be expurgated. What differentiates big evils from little ones is the ease with which they may be expurgated, not the strength of their demand on us.
The analysis at hand extends even to the smallest evils. Every year, 11,000 invaluable human lives are lost to infection with the bacterium Staphylococcus Aureus. We execute these tiny monsters with antibiotics. For the microbes which succumb, that’s the end of it, they have proven themselves minor evils and our obligation has been concomitant. But some do not succumb. Some of the bacteria are resistant to our antibiotics. In the case of the resistant bacteria, our duties are more complicated.
The bacteria in question, the resistant and the susceptible, live in people’s noses. The carriers of these bacteria are therefore complicit in the mediation of the evil which Staph. Aureus perpetrates. We may start by treating the carriers’ complicity as a minor evil and employ appropriate methods. We inform the carriers of their status and offer them the chance to eradicate the evil in their noses. History tells us that some of them will be unsuccessful. In those cases, a greater evil confronts us. The bacteria are persistent because they are resistant and so are better able to kill. As accomplices, we may treat the sub-group of carriers more leniently, though we are obligated to deal with the associated evil. These people have the choice of exile or suicide. These options neatly close the circle of obligation, but that’s not the important thing. What matters is that we have answered to our obligation. We have successfully solved the moral calculus and maximized human thriving. We can answer the carriers as we can answer the citizens of Dresden or Hiroshima. Your excision is regrettable, but that’s the best we can do, and we are obliged to do our best when it comes to opposing evil.

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Autumn is a season for reflection. The humors slow. We are reminded of mortality, as the life around us shuts down. The maudlin huddle under blankets and hide from the change. Happy fatalists jump in the leaves and ignore it. We shouldn’t contrive a situation where certainty is ours and we wait for the change with eyes shut tight. We ought to be thinking about life instead of death, but not in the fatalists’ way. Out in the cold, in crevices and under bark, tiny creatures illustrate a better way as they face the real crux, the exposure.
As the nights cool, substances like the stored reserves of hibernating animals accumulate in the tissues of certain insects. But rather than providing energy through a long sleep, these substances will embalm their creator. If the rate of transition allows, water in the animal’s body will become an amorphous solid, a glassy ice. Glass spares all the containing structures in the body from lacerating crystals which destroy cell membranes and organs when the other form of ice takes hold. We are familiar with this process because, with less reflection than the insects, we bring the dilemma of a frozen state to our own, furry kinsmen. Motivated at once by fatalistic optimism (in the method) and insecurity (in the act itself), people have taken advantage of vitrification to postpone the development of human and animal embryos in anticipation of more favorable conditions.
In every case, resuscitation is not guaranteed. Some of the vitrified wild animals are clearly doomed. They don’t have enough of the embalming substances in their cells, or have too much water on board. Some are victims of circumstance, as the rate and depth of temperature change affects survival, all else being equal. The insects can’t bank on their potential. For all they know, when the frost takes them, they are dead. That’s all we know too. We freeze many embryos because we can’t know what’s going to happen to any one of them, only what tends to happen to a population. Life is like that. It is fuzzy on the edges, where things like viruses, self-replicating proteins, frozen beetles, and frozen embryos lie in wait to rob us of our reassuring, formal picture.
Worse, when the frozen, the ones that do survive, come back to life, it is through a completely generic influence. Heat does it. The atoms in a particular space vibrate a little faster and the bug resumes its life. The embryo begins to grow again, and barring any further mishaps, becomes a lamb or a human infant, depending on what came before it. The potentials of the process, like those of the form, fade into the landscape. Odds don’t mean much for the frozen individuals. The relationship of the odds to the individual demonstrates that the forms and processes of life aren’t special. We can’t have precious life and its illusion of prescience to hide beneath. We want it instinctively though, because it protects us from the vista tugging at our tails. Nor does the landscape recede if we write it off to fate. If we look down from our preoccupations, we see the individuals poised on vertiginous points of space and time. The location is special, but not cozy. It’s a spot of massive focus and alien potential. The view down is disturbing, but it is more accurate, and more immense than our mythology or our philosophy, if we can take it in.

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Can I Have a Sunday School Lesson?

So, the weather crapped out and I’m sick besides. It’s a day indoors reading and training, mostly to avoid housework. This page is usually like a journal and sketch pad for me, and I don’t usually invite comment. But today is one for latent curiosities and nostalgia.
Most of my Sunday school lessons were pretty didactic. Only after I left religion did I realize anything else was possible. Even the world with God was weirder than I had ever been lead to believe. I’d like to ask some of the questions of any believers or non-believers out in the cyberether, the weird questions, that my Sunday school teachers never broached.
I’m interested in hearing what people think about these things, and how much. I don’t really expect to respond, so please just lay it out. That said, I’m not interested in appeals to authority. Not to denigrate those who answer any questions about God with “because scripture says so”, that is just a different issue, and one less interesting to me.
Without further preamble: Is it “like” anything to be God? That is to say, does god have any subjective experience, or any experience at all? If so, how does that work?
Does God have intentionality? Does he think about things and if so, how does that work?
Lastly, does God wish to be worshipped, and if so then how and why? Again, please show your work.
Obviously, the questions are related and may not require separate responses. Thanks in advance for any and all replies.

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Success Is Just Another Word for Something Left to Lose

Sixty degrees was the forecast high temperature for the next day. Standing in the Hyalite parking area, we felt some bitterness at having squandered our forty degree day. A bit of information would be our only solace. We had just come down from having a look at the route, Zack Attack. There are some things in climbing for which I would risk serious injury or death. I could now declare: Zack Attack was not one of them. That’s all our best weather day would yield, and it was a brand of success, I suppose.
In our defense, it was very hard to judge the nature or condition of the first pitch from the road. So, first thing in the morning, we labored up the valley wall, bypassing the unformed steps of easy ice which would have made the approach entertaining in itself. When we arrived at the base of the climb, we saw that the reports of “all ice” were outdated. Several warm days had cleared the first short corner of its climbable adornment. The naked corner wasn’t much to look at – a collection of blocks and frozen turf. Except it wasn’t frozen. As I climbed up to have a look, my ice tools cut into the clumps of grass with light pressure from my wrists. Some of the blocks shifted ever so slightly under the crampon points.
As I looked up the route, the only obvious gear placements appeared to involve similar sets of blocks and flakes. The climbing didn’t look desperate, but the protection was illusory at best. In short, it was uninspiring. Besides, others were waiting by that time.
A team had come up to stand in line while I was scoping out the first pitch. Their persistence despite our priority and the look in the eye of the younger one made my decision even easier. I climbed down. Back on the snow platform, I let the guy with the look know what I’d seen. I knew he wouldn’t heed my assessment; this route obviously meant something to him. We watched the other for a bit before heading down.
He moved up to the first cam placement behind a flake, plugged in the gear and moved on, fifteen, then twenty feet to the next, similar opportunity. Eventually he found something which looked like it might hold a fall, just ten feet below the crux. He paused to think about his situation for several minutes and we took our leave. I knew what was coming and I didn’t want to stay and watch.
Like Lot’s wife though, we were compelled to look back as we picked our way down the slope, and he moved ten, then twenty feet above his last good protection. He was driven right by the difficulties of the route onto ground which the guidebook describes as “sporty”, shorthand for unprotectable. Now at least thirty feet out, he stood for an hour in one spot, searching for gear or another way forward. Finally accepting the fact that the nature of his situation was plain climb or die, he made the moves left and up, achieving easier ground atop the crumbly slabs.
For my part, I’m glad he made it and I didn’t. He has a story to tell now, and a good one. It will be the kind of story I was recalling as I frowned up at the blocks and dirty slabs from the start of the route, and I’ve enough of them, thank you.

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Being and Waspishness

In the Fall, our crags are swarming with wasps. Their source is a mystery. It is rare to see wasp nests in the cracks and pockets in the limestone, and when found, the nests are no bigger than a newborn’s clenched fist. The volume of the Fall swarms doesn’t comport with the numbers seen over the Summer. The wasps in Fall also differ in quality from the busy, irritable creatures encountered in Summer. The Autumn wasps are less likely to sting, but they are also harder to shoo away. When threatened, they flare their wings and wave their antennae.
A bunker mentality seems to have taken hold of them, perhaps as a consequence of excessive introspection, depression even. In flight, they behave with no less aimlessness than when clinging to the stone. They waft from perch to perch in short hops, always staying within a few feet of the crag, extending the arc of their flight only if they encounter another intransigent insect where they would land. They are not hunting, and do not appear to engage in courtship or any other purposeful behavior in the course of their days.
To the climbers who persist at the crags through the cooling season, the wasps look a feckless lot. Some observers go so far as to advocate swatting the insects on principle, as the wasps have lost their purpose and are simply waiting to die. Why let them suffer?

The Grand Auger, who sacrificed the swine and read omens in the sacrifice, came dressed in his long dark robes to the pig pen and spoke to the pigs as follows: “Here is my counsel to you. Do not complain about having to die. Set your objections aside, please. Realize that I shall now feed you on choice grain for three months. I myself will have to observe strict discipline for ten days and fast for three. Then I will lay out grass mats and offer your hams and shoulders upon delicately carved platters with great ceremony. What more do you want?”
Then, reflecting, he considered the question from the pigs’ point of view: “Of course, I suppose you would prefer to be fed with ordinary coarse feed and be left alone in your pen.”
But again, seeing it once more from his own viewpoint, he replied: “No, definitely there is a nobler kind of existence! To live in honors, to receive the best treatment, to ride in a carriage with fine clothes, even though at any moment one may be disgraced and executed, that is the noble, though uncertain destiny that I have chosen for myself.”
So he decided against the pigs’ point of view and adopted his own point of view, both for himself and for the pigs also.
How fortunate, those swine, whose existence was thus ennobled by one who was at once an officer of the state and a minister of religion.
– Zhuang Zi as translated by Thomas Merton

The same sentiment applies to the wasps. Trivially, some of the wasps which a climber sees in Fall are foundresses of next Spring’s colonies. No one would question their having a meaningful existence, in wasp terms. They represent the sisters passed, of the colony that bore them and back down the line. When we say ‘meaning’ in regard to a creature’s existence, we imply just such a representation on the creature’s part. After all, meanings don’t have meanings, symbols do. When we speak of purpose in the same context, we refer to the relationship between the representation and the meaning behind it, with the purpose of the representation being to signify the meaning.
Next Spring’s founding females have a purpose: to represent their colonies of origin and so on, in the genes they express, the ova they carry, and the smells they remember. The colony is gone but the intention of the colony remains, represented by the heiress.
People are no different. We represent our backgrounds and their intentions. We try to live up to our potential, what we are born with and what we acquire by learning. For us, as for the wasps, this representation is always in the present, pulling at the intention groping behind it. The colony’s heiress begins her own take on her mother’s colony. Her ownership changes the intention a bit. Her smell is a little bit different. Depending on what confronts her in the Spring, she may recruit the help of her fellow survivors to start her nest or usurp another’s. No matter, the next generation will recall a different ideal in its turn. We too, will try to live up to the tales of the deeds of our ancestors (by blood or tradition), rather than the deeds themselves, and the tales of the tales and so on.
But where does all this leave the true left-overs, the workers who will soon die in the cold? For them, the colony is lost forever. They represent the end. No one could blame the human observer for imagining these insects as little Macbeths, with their petulant defense of limestone cubby-holes and their swarming a soliloquy pleading for release from the futile farce which their lives have become, maybe which their lives have been from the start.
Still, they fly. They utilize the behaviors passed to them as social insects in their new context. They sting if pressed. They taste the air for familiar scents. They seek the light and shade with the progression of heat through the day. For their part, they signify the heritage of social insects as much as the females who will survive the Winter. If they have lost anything by losing the meaning and purpose of their role in the nest, it wasn’t much.
All representations work this way and the losses associated with any loss of significance are no more than the losses a cipher suffers in moving from one equation to another. When we pose the question, “Why should we let them suffer?”, the wasps might answer us like little Mallorys rather than little Macbeths: “Because I’m here.” That is exactly what they are saying when they wave their antennae at an approaching hand.

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