Archive for July, 2009

Bigger Than a Bread Box

Friday, July 31st, 2009

It’s a matter of scale. What is? Well, everything. That is we like to think that everything scales up and everything scales down.

We imagine there is a whole universe in a drop of water. We imagine that our whole universe may exist as just a drop of water in some bigger universe. It’s not a hard concept to grasp. It’s hinted at in the Matrix movies, where the reality we experience is just a computer simulation of the reality that we used to experience. It’s the basis of the brilliant children’s story Horton Hears a Who.

Now,even if we believe that everything scales, we recognize that we can’t necessarily follow it. There are barriers that we can’t cross. We can’t just sail to the edge of our universe and push our way through a membrane to break out of our little drop of water and glimpse the ocean beyond. If we could, then that ocean would be part of our universe, not something beyond it. It’s kind of like asking what infinity plus one is.

So does God scale? Ancient peoples had multitudes of Gods. There was a God for plants and a God for animals. Sometimes it broke down even further, there was not a God for all animals, there was a God for each type of animal. The Christians have pushed that further in both directions at once. There is only one God, they say, but then they bring in Angels, and they tell us that each and everyone of us has our own personal guardian angel.

Now I don’t know about you, but if I’ve got a guardian angel, he or she doesn’t seem to be very good at their job. Of course, that makes assumptions about what their job is, but if their job is to give me the kind of life that I’ve had, well, let’s just say that random chance seems like it would have done just about as well.

So sure we can imagine a universe bigger than our own, and sure we can imagine that we’ve each got an angel looking out for us, but in the end we need to know the difference between what we imagine and what is. Or, at least I imagine that knowing that is important.

Imagine That

Friday, July 24th, 2009

We have five primary senses, touch, sight, hearing, taste, and smell. That’s the general census, that’s what I was taught in grade school, anyway. Of course we’ve moved on since I was in grade school and added more, well not so much added as acknowledged, but there’s still a powerful cultural bias to the notion of the big five. I blame that on E.S.P. Now E.S.P. stands for Extra-Sensory Perception, so it’s technically outside the realm of the sense (that’s what Extra-Sensory means after all), but it’s been called the “sixth sense” for so long that there’s a natural tendency to ignore anything beyond the basic five.

Just to cover my bases, here’s what Wikipedia lists as our senses at the time I’m writing this: Sight, Hearing, Taste, Smell, Balance and Acceleration, Temperature, Kinesthetic Sense, Pain. Essentially that’s the classic five with Touch sort of split out into Temperature, Kinesthetic and Pain, and with the new sense of Balance and Acceleration. Okay, so the world is not as simple as they told me in grade school; there’s a news flash.

So E.S.P., the classic sixth sense, is a way of knowing things without actually sensing them. That sounds to me, a lot like the way most people experience God, so I decided to ask her about it. She told me that we do have a sixth sense. We do have a way of knowing things that we haven’t perceived. Unfortunately it’s unreliable. It’s as likely to tell us things that aren’t true as it is to tell us things that are true. Actually, despite it being the way that we do know God, it almost universally tells us things that are not true in any objective sense. It lies to us. All the time. Hardly ever tells the truth. But that doesn’t mean it’s not useful. Many things, it turns out can be useful without being true. If you’ve ever had a cathartic experience reading a book or watching a movie, you should understand the truth of that.

So what is it? What is this miracle of perception?

Imagination is the real sixth sense.


Friday, July 17th, 2009

The sixth Harry Potter film came out this week, so of course I went and saw it. In particular, I went to one of the midnight shows that are all the rage with blockbuster releases of franchise films. I don’t often do the midnight first-release thing but it seemed especially appropriate to the Harry Potter series. Here we have a set of films that take place in an alternate reality that is interwoven with our own current reality, but just enough out of kilter that we are kept unaware of it. Catching a midnight show in a town that’s generally all boarded up by that hour on a Tuesday night really manages to capture that feeling.

I came out of the theater at about three in the morning. The theater I went to is on the edge of a mall that has both indoor and outdoor sections and I needed to walk through one of the outdoor sections to get to my car. So there it is, the middle of the night, it’s all dark in the distance but there’s enough illumination to see by in the near vicinity. There’s a small crowd of folks near me, many of them dressed in wizard’s robes, but as I move along towards the parking lot, the crowd thins very quickly. Every store in sight is closed and dark, like it is in a world that is just out of reach. My mind is busy turning over the way that magic works in the Harry Potter universe, helplessly searching for how it’s self-consistent and by extension, where it isn’t. At the same time I’m tumbling through thoughts of how they made the movie different from the books, in seemingly random and useless ways, not just cutting things out to keep the movie to a releasable length, but shuffling things, events, and characters in ways don’t seem to have any rhyme or reason.

It’s a good feeling, this exploring of other realities of other realities.

In Alice in Wonderland, the Red Queen famously says, “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” God tells me that it’s good to believe impossible things, as long as you don’t believe that you really believe. That is, it’s a good mental exercise to sail on impossible seas as long as you don’t lose sight of the shore. So that’s your task for this week, spend some time believing what you know isn’t true. It might help you to recognize when what you do believe is true isn’t necessarily so.

Lying Liars

Friday, July 10th, 2009

One of the things that I do to pass the time is play poker. I play it with friends, I play it on my computer and on my wii, and I play it with strangers in casinos. I was playing in a casino one time when I mentioned what me hand was after I’d folded. I’m a very honest person generally, so even though I understand the truth of what they were saying, it still hurt me a little to be told by the other players that they didn’t believe what I’d said, just because I was a poker player. I was playing poker, so that, ipso facto, made me a liar and therefore what I had said was probably a lie. This is prejudice, of course, but it’s prejudice with logic behind it.

In a lot of ways, though, the proper generalization isn’t, “I’m a poker player, so I have a high probability of lying,” but rather, “I’m a human, so I have a high probability of lying.” Given that, I asked God, why is it that so many people accept what others have said about God? I mean, if you’ve got something like God, for which there is no actual evidence other than what people have said, and particularly where the things that are claimed (on God’s behalf) by these “people in the know” are so often contradictory, why would you pick one group’s beliefs and take them to be true, rather than just assume that they’re all liars and ignore them?

God didn’t actually disagree with me. He just told me that he was often amazed that so many people do believe in him. And then he went on to point out that all religions are based, at their core, on belief in the face of no evidence and that in the middle of the word “believe” is the word “lie.” He assured me that this is not an accident.

Beer and Wine

Friday, July 3rd, 2009

Beer and wine have both been cited as evidence that God loves us and wants us to be happy. I asked God if it’s true. He said that of course he wants us to be happy, after all we’re part of the universe and in many ways God is the universe and so if we’re happy then part of the universe is happy and so at least part of God is happy. Or something like that. I may have been a little drunk at the time, so my memory’s a little fuzzy.

And when I sobered up, I realized that God’s answer may or may not have had anything to do with alcohol as evidence. His answer seemed to address the part about wanting us to be happy without really addressing whether or not alcohol was specifically evidence of that. So we talked again. God told me that it was an issue of our senses, that our senses were the real evidence that he wants us to be happy, so anything that brought joy to our senses could be considered as evidence that he wants us to be happy.

But what about pain then? What about bad smells? What about ugly piles of garbage, or screeching traffic or the taste of earwax? That is, what about all the bad things that our senses, well, sense?

He just handed me the old saw about how can you tell the good without having the bad to provide a contrast. I scoffed. Then he went on and suggested that maybe there was a whole range of sensation that we’re actually shielded from, maybe in a spectrum that goes from a bad of one to a good of a hundred, maybe our human senses only really measure from about fifty to about ninety. To go below fifty, we’d have to be in Hell. To go above ninety, we’d have to be in Heaven.

I was amazed to hear such specific numbers coming from the usually so amorphous Supreme Being and I told him as much. Not to worry, he countered, the numbers were just a thought experiment. In fact the whole thing was just a thought experiment and might not even be true at all. But when it comes down to it, isn’t the whole universe just a thought experiment by God? So where does that leave us?