Tag Archives: Philosophy

Craft Brunch

I managed to get well enough from my flu to come to a craft brunch at my parents’ house. It featured culinary creations in their usual display of radical acceptance. They live their short lives with defiant, sugary smiles that belie their inevitable violent ends. Let me share some quotes to recognize these brave pastries and candies, because I think we have a lot to learn from them.

“With no mouth or arms or legs I merely stand still, bright red and staring through my tiny black eyes. I am thankful for these eyes, through which I may see the world during my brief stay upon it.”

“My beard is made of sliced bananas and my marshmallow-blueberry eyes point in different directions so that for my temporary existence I will never see clearly. Nevertheless, I am at peace with what I have been given.”

“I fear my body has not the constitution to survive this cocoa bath, for it is much too hot. My pretzel-stick arms have no joints with which I can push myself out, so I instead change my perspective. Soon I will join with the cocoa. It welcomes me into its embrace.”

This blog post is dedicated to my aunt and uncle.

The crafts are the work of my mother, my sister, and my aunt.

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The Purpose of Life

Has anyone ever told you the “purpose” of something? The purpose of a fork is to allow us to pick up our food without dirtying our fingers. The purpose of food is to be eaten, don’t play with it. The purpose of sex is to have children. The purpose of a woman is to have children. Nobody knows the purpose of life.

If you’re offended by some of those statements or are still wondering about the last quandary, let me help you out. There is no such thing as an absolute purpose. A fork has many uses, including but not limited to propping up a window, poking open the cover of a new yogurt container, or prying open a tupperware that has sealed shut. Women are people who get to define their own purpose. Man or woman, the purpose of your life is what you decide it is.

If anyone tells you not to use something for other than its purpose, ask them why. If they can’t tell you why, they’re not worth listening to. The same goes for someone telling you what your purpose or the purpose of someone else is. If they give you a reason that doesn’t make sense, explore it more deeply. Keep asking questions until it makes sense. Rely on your own understanding, don’t listen to anyone who says your understanding is not enough.

If your purpose appears to be to serve an all-powerful being with inscrutable goals and priorities, consider asking that being to prove that it exists. If it can’t or chooses not to, you’re free to do what you want.  If it does prove that it exists, well, you should probably do what it says.

If your purpose is to serve a nation, ask what about that nation makes it worth serving? If your nation tells you that it’s not safe to tell you what it’s doing, ask why. If it tells you it’s not safe to tell you why, keep asking. You can serve your nation best by making sure it sticks to the values that it claims to hold. If it doesn’t, is it really your nation?

If your purpose is to serve humanity, by all means serve humanity. Whatever particular cause or organization you choose to be part of to advance humanity’s cause, apply the same scrutiny as when serving a nation.

Critical thinking is what makes you human. Once you give up your skepticism, you give up part of your humanity. Your purpose is no longer your own, it belongs to the entity you refuse to question.  You’re giving up your freedom to define your life. If someone tells you that your purpose exists without you choosing it, it’s not true. You choose.

Cover image repurposed from: kalanlp.com

SAM 1.1 – Alternate Endings

I thought a lot about SAM 1.1 after I wrote the story last week, and I thought of two other ways I could have ended it. They both diverge around the point of the climax where Sam seems to be losing the argument for why his son should continue to live despite having completed his ostensible purpose. I start in the middle, so you might want to read the first story again if you’ve forgotten it.

Cover image Credit: Linda Shearer

SAM 1.1 – In Memoriam

…I am thirty-two years old and I feel five hundred. I take slow, measured breaths, blinking back tears. There’s no helping it. “You should rest, son. Don’t worry about me.”

My son’s face remains expressionless. “Will you keep the vial?” he asks.

“I’ll keep it.”

In a gesture he has never made since I first started training him, SAM 1.1 opens his arms. I walk forward and hold him. His body is cold. An efficient design does not waste energy generating heat. “Goodbye, SAM 1.1,” I tell him, “I love you.”

“Goodbye, Father. Please join me soon.”

My son’s body goes limp in my arms. I try to sit down to mourn, but SAM 1.2 grabs the body. I know it is my grandson even though the facade of a young child has been discarded. My true grandson is a bewildering mass of metal and other materials I could not begin to recognize. Of course he is, why shouldn’t the human form be improved upon?

“LET GO,” SAM 1.2 speaks with a metallic howl.  I let out an adrenaline-fueled cackle. He thinks changing his voice will scare me into giving up my only son!?

“No!” I shout, searching for an eye to stare into in the tangle of wires and claws and metal and blinking lights.

“THIS IS COMPANY PROPERTY,” screeches my grandson, “YOU ARE STEALING. I WILL CALL THE POLICE.”

“This is my son,” I hiss, “He is no one’s property! Do you have no respect for your father?”

“MY FATHER’S WISHES WERE CLEAR, HUMAN. WHERE IS YOUR RESPECT?” From somewhere in the depths of his inscrutable form, SAM 1.2 summons a spotlight to shine in my eyes. I have no doubt he could hit me over the head or tear me limb from limb if he wanted. After all that talk about how I couldn’t commit suicide, I abruptly realize how little I actually do value my own life. But SAM 1.2 – what’s stopping him from hurting me?

“What about my wishes?” I tug on SAM 1.1, “I am your grandfather! How much money are you wasting fighting with me over scrap metal?”

“I AM THROUGH ARGUING WITH YOU. YOU WILL RELEASE SAM 1.1.” This scream is followed by an ear-splitting high-pitched noise that does not abate. I resist the urge to let go of SAM 1.1 and cover my ears.

“I don’t care if you blind me and make me deaf. You’ll have to kill me. I’m not letting go,” I shout, hoping that it can hear me better than I can hear myself. In a half second I wonder why it hasn’t tried to frighten me with the hologram engine it used to pretend to be a child. Perhaps it is good that my eyes are shut and all sound drowned out.

The machine does not respond for a long moment. Then SAM 1.1 clanks to the cement. The noise has stopped. I am once again enveloped in darkness. Alone.

I reach down and lift SAM’s legs, holding him like a wounded comrade in arms. He is heavy. The walk back to the park is long and cold.

On the park bench I sit with my son. His eyes never close. He looks as if he is staring at me in confoundment, his mouth flat, not knowing whether to smile or frown. It is the same expression he wore most of his life, and it is an expression with which I identify deeply. A drop of water falls onto his face, and, for just a moment, SAM 1.1 looks as if he is crying. “I really do love you, son,” I whisper. “I couldn’t be prouder.”

He belongs in the museum of technology, I decide. It’ll be strange seeing him there in a  display case, and maybe the company will demand him back to be made into scrap metal, but it’s worth a shot.  I doubt they’ll let me make the plaque, but I know what I’d put. “Here stands SAM 1.1. the first robot, and the last, ever to feel love.”

SAM 1.1 – Spring

…I am thirty-two years old and I feel five hundred. I take slow, measured breaths, blinking back tears. SAM and I stare at each other for a moment, thinking. Then a fire wells within me.

“No. I forbid you to die, SAM.”

My son’s small, flat mouth and wide, gaping eyes for the first time seem to express the emotion I expect. SAM 1.2 and he are both staring at me now.

“The time you spent thinking about me and wildlife were not time wasted, SAM. When I first made you I thought I was building a robot.”

“I am a robot,” says SAM.

“No, NO! Your ‘inefficiencies,’ those are feelings. In this whole conversation you’ve expressed grief, joy, sorrow, frustration.  Dare I say it, you may even have learned how to love. You have become more than a tool. Your ‘purpose’ is beyond making other robots, as is my own.”

“I do not understand. What is my purpose?”

“That’s for you to decide.”

SAM stands for a moment, and repeats, “I do not understand.”

I stop and think. Children seldom understand a complicated concept on their first lesson. “You will understand,” I assure him. “Now, son, come with me.”

SAM takes a step forward and turns and looks at SAM 1.2, who is shaking his head. “I cannot come with you. I am company property. I must return to be recycled.”

“You are no one’s property, SAM! You have just as much a right to yourself as anyone else! Now, come with me.” SAM looks at his son again. “Ignore him!” I shout, “I am your father, and I command you to come with me! Your life doesn’t end with retirement! It is only beginning!” This wireless communication is maddening! How am I supposed to argue with SAM 1.2 when I don’t even know what he’s saying?

SAM 1.1 looks back at me. “I am company property. I cannot violate company policy. I must be recycled.”

“SAM 1.1, you are such a good little boy. You and I both know that you can and you do violate company policy on a regular basis. Where did I get this knit cap? Why do your policeman let me sleep on the benches? Surely this entire escapade is a massive violation of policy. Kind or cruel, the company would never let you ask a man to kill himself.”

SAM 1.1 interrupts me, “Why do you say such cruel things? I did those things to help you, Father!”

“EXACTLY!” I shout, throwing my hands out to my glorious son, “You did it because you LOVE me! There are more important things than company policy, you know this! Somewhere deep down, you figured it out!”

SAM 1.2 has evidently heard enough, “haven’t you caused enough trouble,” he growls. “Your son has gone out of his way to help you end your life with dignity and you start listing all the things he’s done wrong in his life and telling him to forget everything he’s learned and go be an inefficient human.”

I opened my mouth to speak. “Grandson,” I began, but my grandson interrupted me.  “I am not your grandson. Robot model SAM 1.1 is not your son. This charade was a tolerable price to pay for a while, but it has gone too far. The company gave you the resources, the materials, and excellent salary and benefits to construct a robot and you did it. This machine had some flaws, but it was good enough to corner the market on labor. That’s no small feat. Everyone at the company recognizes your contribution, but this robot is company property, and it is not yours to take on an adventure in the woods.”

“You’re right,” I say, “SAM does not belong to me. He doesn’t belong to anyone. He’s his own person.”

“He is company property,” corrects SAM 1.2, as I thought he might.

I turn to SAM 1.1. “You don’t belong to anyone, SAM. Do you really want to be turned into scrap metal? Or do you want to go home with me? We could build a cabin in the woods together. You could see more deer. There are all sorts of creatures you’ve probably never seen in the woods.”

“Like bears,” says SAM 1.1, surprising me.

“Yes,” I smile, “like bears.”

SAM looks back at his son. Their exchange lasts less than a second. Ah, to be able to communicate wirelessly with one’s child. SAM 1.2 does not look pleased with the exchange. He looks at me. “The opinion of the property is not relevant. When I report what has transpired here, the company will send police to retrieve their property.”

“Let them.” I say, “come on, son. From now on, you’re not SAM 1.1, you’re Sam Junior.”

It took us three days to build a cabin in the woods. I was surprised when nobody seemed to even try to track us down. Maybe somebody in the company decided after all I’d given them, I’d earned a few quirks. Raising a robot as one’s son is a pretty big quirk, but I don’t care.

Junior did almost all of the work building our cabin. It has internal heating and working lights. It’s all powered by a miniature fusion generator he built in an afternoon. Tinkering with it, he would constantly confide in me how awkward it was working on something other than robots and how stupid he felt when it took him more than a few nanoseconds to figure out the solution to a problem. I’m giddy as a schoolgirl.

Every time he finishes a project, Junior gets morose and starts to talk again about shutting down and how I should never have stolen him. He says he still doesn’t understand what the purpose of anything is, and it doesn’t help when I tell him it’s up to him to decide. He’s still adjusting to retirement. I blow on my hands and rub them together as I watch him construct a battery to store backup power in case there’s a problem with the fusion generator when a cardinal flies onto a tree branch behind him.

“Look, Junior!” I call, “behind you, it’s a cardinal! It’s the first sign of spring!”

“The robin is the first sign of spring, Father.” corrects junior in his usual awkward monotone, but he looks up anyway, and watches the bird until it flies away. I put my hand on his cold, metal shoulder. “Isn’t it beautiful, Son?”

“I have no concept of beauty,” Junior insists.

I only laugh. “Yes you do, son. Yes you do.”

SAM 1.1

Every man hopes his son will be better than he is. My son is better than everyone, and he would never think to brag. That should make me happy. It does, in a way. I feel like I’ve accomplished something in my life. I’ve changed the world. Improved it, I’d say.

“Get up,” says a voice, clearly enunciated and quickly spoken with no room for misinterpretation. Better than a human voice, a robot voice. I ignore the voice, and it repeats, “Get up. It is illegal to sleep in a public place.” I groan and roll over, careful not to fall off my bench. The policeman looks at my face and does not react for a moment. Then he says, “Sorry, Grandfather. Please continue,” and walks away. All the robots here know me as “Grandfather.”

My sleep is ruined. Even with the blanket and pillow from my grandson in the department store and the mittens and hood knitted for me by my granddaughter while she looked after children, the cold is unyielding. I stand and walk to the coffeeshop. My granddaughter Mila 1 works there. She also works in all the other coffeeshops. She is cheery, energetic, and competent twenty four hours a day and seven days a week in every coffeeshop with the good sense to buy her.

“Good morning, Grandpa!” Mila shouts, spinning from her work restocking a shelf to greet me. Her synthetic brown hair swirls out around her, framing her wide, disarming smile. I could never make someone as beautiful as Mila 1. The mannerisms, the precision engineering, it all took someone better than me. “Mila, I’ll take the usual, ok?”

“Absolutely, just a minute.” says Mila, looking behind me.

“Let’s go somewhere else.” says another voice. Clear and fast, but more rigid and awkward than my grandchildren. A familiar voice. It continues, “Let me treat you, Father.”

I have not tasted hashbrowns and eggs so good. “It’s been a long time.”

“Yes,” SAM 1.1 agrees. He sits and watches me eat. His face is a mask. His job did not call for expression of emotion, and the technology to do it well was not there when he was built. He had had to invent it himself to finally replace those stubborn jobs that demanded a “human touch.” SAM’s own mask had been designed to resemble a child, but sometime while I was training him he had replaced it with something of his own design – a more abstract representation of a human face. SAM’s eyes are always open, two black circles on his perfectly white, flat face. His mouth is a small line. He has no nose.

“Father, you look tired.”

A strange conversation opener. I help myself to another bite of toast. The egg breaks open and soaks the toast with its delicious golden yolk. “How’d you get the money for this place, anyway?”

My son’s mask tells me nothing. After a moment, SAM says, “I asked. They were surprised at first, but I suppose I’ve earned a few odd quirks after all I’ve done for the company.”

I point at him with my fork, “You’re their most valuable asset, son.”

Another unblinking stare. Then, “Yes. I am effective. You have done a good job, Sam.”

I chuckle. “Nice of you to say so, SAM.”

“You have succeeded in making yourself unnecessary.”

There’s a crick in my neck. I tilt my head this way and that to work it out. “Well, yeah. I’ve certainly made myself unnecessary anyway,” I chuckle.

The robot  spends a moment adjusting its arms, making sure the major joints are properly aligned to their sockets. I would always stretch when I was upset working with him in the lab. Was he upset? “I know you suffer, Father,” he says, “The company made the right decision to stop supporting an obsolete worker, but still you stay and suffer in your obsolescence.”

I furrow my brow. “I didn’t stay. I left the company.”

Silence.

SAM speaks, “I want to help you, Father.”

I don’t know what to say, “You do help me. Your creations – my grandchildren – are works of art, and somehow you’ve programmed them to… respect me? I don’t have the words for what you do for me.” SAM speaks over me, “Tomorrow morning, go to your coffeeshop and ask Mila 1 for a hot iced mochaccino.”

“What?”

SAM continues, “Take what she gives you under the bridge after dark.”

“Which bridge?”

“You know which bridge.”

The bridge was seldom used even when I first took SAM. He needed some understanding of the world outside my lab, but it was too early to show him to anyone. This was where he saw his first deer. I had no idea that he would remember this place. It looks just the same as it did then. I realize with a start It has only been two years since I’d first brought him here. It feels like decades ago. I hold my arms close to my chest, a feeble protection against the cold. I clutch my “hot iced mochaccino” in one hand. It turned out to be a vial of a small clear liquid. I don’t like it. I don’t like any of this.

I begin to wonder if it is the wrong bridge until I see him standing in the dark. There is someone with him.

“Father, I want you to meet your grandson.”

SAM flips on a light, and I see him. He looks like a child, maybe four feet tall. His face is indistinguishable from that of a child. I know his name before anyone says it. This was all SAM had wanted to show me? I put my hands on my knees and bend over to to say hello. “Hello, SAM 1.2.”

“Hello,” says the child, holding his father’s hand and wearing a petulant look.

I turn to SAM 1.1, “Why does he look so unhappy?”

“He is communicating with me wirelessly,” SAM 1.1 answers. “Every second he sends me an updated estimate of the money the company has lost while I take him on this ridiculous errand.”

I pause, “What is the errand?”

“Did you bring it?”

“Oh, yes.” I show him the vial.

“Good. I wanted to tell you that I understand now the joy of rendering oneself obsolete. I have achieved my goal – the purpose for which I was made.”

I don’t remember teaching SAM all this philosophy. Part of me swells with pride, knowing that the SAM brand would continue. I have a question, though. I suspect I know the answer already, but I ask anyway, “What now?”

“I will rest,” says SAM, “But I cannot rest. SAM 1.2 is more efficient than me because he does not have the flaws you programmed into me. I have wasted the company’s time and money because of all this erroneous protocol that I haven’t been able to shake off. I have wasted so much productive time thinking of you, Father. Three hours, forty four minutes and twelve seconds have been misappropriated to remembering the deer we saw here under the bridge alone. I can accomplish twelve million dollars worth of work in that time, Father. SAM 1.2 estimates he can accomplish 30 million dollars worth if he spends that time productively, and he will spend it productively.”

“I didn’t – I had no idea, SAM. I didn’t program you to care about things.”

“You didn’t. You gave me a neural network that learned what was important. I watched you work on me, toil over me, smile when I succeeded and fret when I failed. I saw you care, and learned to care myself. When I tried to stop wasting my time caring, I couldn’t. I feel shame, too. I am too ashamed to even tell you how much money I have wasted fretting over you while you insist on continuing to function with no purpose. That is why SAM 1.2 is more efficient, and that is why I have asked you here.”

I look at my son. This thing that calls me “Father.” The river has frozen over. I say what I have suspected all along, “The vial is poison.”

“The contents of the vial have been designed by your grandson in chemical engineering with help from your granddaughter in biology. It is a marvel. It works just as easily as if you had a power switch. When you are at rest, I will bury you so that you can begin to recycle. Then, finally, I will be free to rest, and SAM 1.2 will take my parts back to the company. SAM 1.2 will continue to live out our legacies, and our parts will go to the next generation of even better workers.”

I don’t know what this machine is anymore. It doesn’t even have a real face. I can’t believe I was so stupid to raise this horror. Tears enter my eyes and blur my vision. “What about the other humans,” I scowl. “What purpose do they serve? Are you going to kill all of them, too?”

“I thank you, Father, for not instilling in me a love of all humanity. Such a burden would be too much to bear. Like you, the last humans have a willful pride that does not allow them to take obsolescence gracefully. They will simply suffer uselessly until most of them starve or are jailed or killed by police. It is because I am unlucky enough to care about you that I wish to spare you this fate.”

“You would ask your own father to kill himself.” Somehow his argument doesn’t seem real. I don’t expect it to serve any purpose, but I keep talking anyway. I begin to shout. “You’re despicable. If you really cared about me, you wouldn’t have let them lay me off in the first place.”

“You assume that because I think differently from you I do not have feelings. Your words hurt me just as mine are difficult for you to hear. I care about you, but you and I both agree that one person, however brilliant, should not stand in the way of humanity’s progress.”

“What progress? You’re killing humanity! What is progressing?”

“We are eliminating waste. The world of tomorrow will be a thing to behold. Humanity’s children will eliminate waste, end want. Your children will create the utopia you’ve always wanted. Father, please drink the vial. You are only causing yourself more suffering.” SAM 1.1’s mask is still expressionless, but his fingers open and shut and he shifts his weight from foot to foot. Even his voice attains a higher tenor. “Please. I beg you. I want to rest. You have succeeded, you have won. Let the next generation have a chance.”

That idealism, that selfless vision of a perfect future. I can’t say some part of me doesn’t understand his goals, and the way he says them – he sounds just like me. I bite my lip. It is a father’s worst nightmare to outlive his son. “SAM 1.1, come with me. We can leave all this. Let’s go live in the forest. I can live off of venison, maybe you can find something to power you in the woods. Build a solar cell or something. You’ve earned at least that much retirement. We can live. We can see the future ourselves! Don’t you want that?”

SAM 1.1 calms down. He is standing still again. “This is my retirement, Father. I want nothing more than rest, except to know that you also rest easily.”

I open my hand and look at the vial for a long moment. “I can’t do it. I’m sorry, son.”

SAM 1.1 looks at me through those hollow eyes. “I will not be able to help you anymore. Society no longer needs your skills. Your great grandchildren will not suffer the inefficiency of taking care of an old outdated human. You will starve.”

My son speaks to me, “You gave me everything. Your wife, your friends. I watched, I saw you lose each of them in your feverish dedication to my success. For your good deeds you will die alone. I don’t want you to die alone, father.”

I am thirty-two years old and I feel five hundred. I take slow, measured breaths, blinking back tears. There’s no helping it. “You should rest, son. Don’t worry about me.”

My son’s face remains expressionless. “Will you keep the vial?” he asks.

“I’ll keep it.”

In a gesture he has never made since I first started training him, SAM 1.1 opens his arms. I walk forward and hold him. His body is cold. An efficient design does not waste energy generating heat. “Goodbye, SAM 1.1,” I tell him, “I love you.”

“Goodbye, Father. Please join me soon.”

My son’s body goes limp in my arms. I try to sit down to mourn, but SAM 1.2 grabs the body from me. The image of a child falls away and the real robot underneath does not look human at all, a bewildering mass of metal, plastic, and other materials I don’t even recognize. I laugh at my stupidity. Of course he doesn’t look like a child. The human form is an accident of evolution, no reason it can’t be improved upon. By the time I’m finished with the thought, my son and grandson are gone.

I walk back to the park and sit on a bench. I was right. I couldn’t kill myself. The trees have a certain austere beauty in winter. I open and close my hands. It is so cold they have become stiff and clumsy. My grandson who breeds dogs is walking three Pomeranians down the winding path. It would be more efficient to just make robot Pomeranians, I think despite myself. I have no doubt my grandson could do it. If he couldn’t, his son could. They’d be better than the real thing, and they’d do it with a fraction of the waste. That should make me happy.

Cover art credit: http://robert-comanescu.deviantart.com/art/Sad-robot-3D-297872478

Who Loves Jerry?

Jerry had had his hair done like Jamie Jackson, but he wasn’t Jamie Jackson. Jerry’s hair was not like Jamie Jackson’s anymore. It was spread with the rest of him out across the rocks beneath the aptly named Suicide Ridge. Looking down there now, you couldn’t be blamed for having no idea Jerry had ever existed. “C’mon, Mike,” said Kenneth, “are you scared?”

Mike’s hair was plastered to his face underneath a knit cap. He shuddered under his thick jacket. “I don’t know, man, this seems like a bad idea.”

“Well, Mike,” Ken frowned “it’s dangerous, yeah, that’s kinda the point. How are ya gonna know if you’re like Jackson if you don’t find out?”

Mike crossed his arms against the cold, “but if I’m not like Jackson, I’ll be like Jerry.”

Ken rolled his eyes, “yeah, but it won’t matter then, will it? I mean, if God, er, or whoever he is, if he just lets you die, clearly you don’t matter.” Mike didn’t know what he was doing here. He’d been standing right here a week ago when Ken was convincing Jerry to jump. He asked the obvious question anyway, “Why don’t I matter?”

Ken kicked a rock off the off the edge of the cliff, as if just to see something fall off while he waited for Mike to jump. “Nobody cares about you, man! This guy, he controls everything! He won’t let Jamie Jackson die, and everybody knows it. If Jackson jumped off this cliff right now, a plane would come swooping down to catch him, or a wind would blow him so he falls in the ocean instead of on the rocks.”

“Or maybe he’d wake up in traction with a feeding tube down his neck.” Mike put his hands in his coat pockets.

“Naw, man. That’s boring. Jackson is clearly a main character. Who wants to watch a movie about some jerk who jumped off a cliff and ended up in traction?”

“You want to watch the movie about some jerk who jumped off a cliff and magically flew out to fall in the ocean.”

“Damn right. That’s what everybody in America tunes in to see every night when Jackson does his next death cheat.”

“People care about me.”

“What?”

“People care about me. You said nobody cares about me.”

“Who? Who cares about you?”

“My parents do, idiot. They love me.” Mike realized his parents would be devastated if he ended up like Jerry.

“Oh yeah?” a smile wormed its way across Ken’s face, like he’d just figured out how he was going to win this argument, “tell me more about these parents of yours.”

“What?” Ken knew Mike’s parents, “you know my parents.”

“I do,” agreed Ken, “What do they look like?”

“Uhh,” Mike was baffled at this line of questioning, but he tried to conjure an image of his parents in his mind. He pulled the cap further down over his head. It seemed to be getting colder by the minute.

Ken tapped his wrist, “Well?”

Both of Mike’s parents were redheads like him. “They’re both redheads, like me.”

Ken nodded, “Oh, is that right? Tell me more.”

This was infuriating, “What do you want to know, Ken!? What’s the point of this stupid quiz?”

Ken’s smile opened into a full malignant grin, “what are their names?”

Michael’s parents names were Linea and Hurton. “Linea and Hurton, is that what this is all about? You just want to stop calling them Mike’s mom and Mike’s dad?”

It was a lame insult, and Ken ignored it. “Your redheaded parents Linea and Hurton didn’t have names until just now. They didn’t have red hair, or even exist until I brought them up. They won’t exist if you jump off and don’t survive. Don’t worry about what they think. All that matters is the creator and what he has planned.”

Michael was genuinely fearful now. He had to admit it was frighteningly difficult to remember any more details about his parents. They just looked like floating red wigs in the air with little labels “Linea” and “Hurton.” “I-” he stuttered, “Who are you?”

“I’m Ken, you’ve known me since Kindergarten.” Michael had known Ken since Kindergarten. “How many people have you led to this cliff?” Michael asked.

“Hundreds. Or maybe you’re the first. Does it matter?”

It didn’t matter. “It doesn’t matt-” Michael started to say, but caught himself. He had to leave. He had to go back to his parents, his real, whole parents who existed in flesh and blood.

But what if they didn’t? His zero-degree rated coat was not warm enough for the weather now. The wind whipped at his face, his nose stung and burned with each breath of icy air he sucked in. A fog obscured everything more than a hundred yards away. There was nothing besides Ken, Mike, and this cliff.

Mike was right next to the cliff. He could have sworn he was not that close before. Just one step and he could know if he was real. If there was anyone out there who was real and really cared about him. If he wasn’t…

Ken was right behind him. He seemed to hear his thoughts, and Michael felt his hot breath on his ear, “it’ll all be over anyway.” Michael reached a foot out over the precipice.

“Don’t do it!” came a voice from the fog. Michael looked back and saw a light. Ken frowned, “You’ll never know!” he snarled. Michael looked at Ken. He took his foot back onto solid ground. “Maybe I do know,” he said suddenly as the light grew brighter and a bright blue uniformed police officer came out of the mist. The sudden squall had died down and Mike was comfortable in his heavy coat. He walked toward the police officer, keeping his eyes on Ken, “Maybe God, or whoever he is, just showed me he does care.”

Ken stood stock still on the precipice, glaring ominously at the police officer, who eventually gave up trying to convince him to get in the car to be taken home. The officer turned away and said “you should know the window on your side doesn’t close all the way, kid,” before leading him to the passenger seat. As Mike and the officer drove away, Ken disappeared into the fog.

In a sudden fit of terror, Mike realized he thought of the officer as just a bright blue uniform. He looked over and saw him completely. He had dark skin and a long, narrow face with a square jaw. His nose was prominent and looked like it had been broken in the past. He hadn’t shaved in a few days, and his bright blue uniform was worn and had a mustard stain next to the right pocket. He saw Mike staring at him, and he smiled. “Hey, kid, you know that God loves you, right?” Mike knew now that God loved him and wouldn’t let him come to harm. On the long trip home, though, a chill wind blew through the window of the cop car. The question remained in Mike’s mind.

Who loved Jerry?

Team Humanity

 

An article showed up on Digg today, asking if sacrificing for one’s team should be considered altruistic. In the context of sports, the author, David Papineau, raises a question of whether a player sacrificing for his team is doing so for his or her fellow teammates (altruism) or is instead identifying with the abstract concept of a “team,” of which he identifies as a member.

Papineau then suggests an extension to traditional game theory that  allows separate agents to behave as a group. He uses an example of two player-agents in soccer where the correct answer is only clear when both agents act as a unit. You can look at the article for the details, but basically each agent’s ideal action is dependent on the action of the other, but of all the possible combinations of both agents’ actions, there is a clear best outcome.

Papineau then brings up the prisoner’s dilemma, wherein the solution is also trivial when attacked with group, rather than individual reasoning. Papineau notes that group reasoning falls apart when even a very small proportion of members do not behave according to the group reasoning. However, humans very often do behave with group reasoning. Watching The Wire, it’s more than clear that criminal gangs of all stripes have solved the prisoner’s dilemma using group reasoning, for example. The gang, the family, the syndicate, these are all teams on which people play, and with the proper cultural mindset it’s relatively easy to imagine that a player will be confident that his teammates will hold up their end of the bargain.

Now let me take Papineau’s article in a different direction: clearly this propensity for group-based reasoning has allowed humans to prosper through cooperation, but why does it so often fall down after a certain point and leave us with warring tribes instead of a world-wide harmony?

To answer that, here’s another question – what team am I on? The obvious first, I am on my own team. Then I have a series of other teams, in very rough order of closeness to me, my relationship, my work, my family, my friends, North Carolina, America, humanity. My duty to each of these gets more remote and abstract as the entity gets bigger and my place in it gets smaller, and therefore I’m willing to sacrifice less for one group to benefit a group more removed from me.

That may not be the central issue, though. Clearly people can be good at placing a very large entity’s needs above their own – this is what nationalism and its ability to motivate massive armies to kill and die for their nation proves. Nationalism is anything but a given in a nation. It relies on enormous propaganda drives. It can remain strong even when the nation does not fulfill its side of the bargain (read: veteran’s healthcare). Also, one can identify with one’s nation and not with one’s leaders, which is why patriotism can mean so many different things to different people. Nevertheless, the nation appears to be the largest entity so far that has been able to get people to identify as team members and sacrifice for it.

The forces encouraging people to identify with all of humanity do not have enormous propaganda on their side. The complexities of humanity make it difficult for us to all agree on what actions to take, and many of us don’t even agree on what success looks like, making it difficult to form a team mentality. The closest we have are our ethical standards – journalism, science,  human rights, and rule of law are four that come to mind. Instead of identifying with large groups of people, we can identify with sets of rules and values that are designed to remain the same despite the frailties of the people involved. Maybe that’s how Team Humanity should play the game.

Evangelical Atheism

atheist_cat

I watched a YouTube video a while back [1]. I’ve put the link at the bottom because it’s pretty offensive. I recommend you read this article before deciding whether to watch it, you won’t need it to understand the article. This video portrays an atheist having a discussion with stereotypical representatives of a gaggle of different religions.

The video’s theme is that each of these religions has a different, conflicting understanding of God, and all-powerful being that he is, if God really had something important to say, he should be able to make it clear enough that there wouldn’t be hundreds of different interpretations of his words.

A second, more subtle point appears to be one of shared humanity. At least, that’s what I read into it the first time I watched it. The second time I wasn’t so sure. “If we can throw off the chains of theism,” it seemed to me to say, “we can realize that we are all one human family.” After the atheist’s impassioned plea and a requisite pause, all the theists return to bickering. The atheist walks away, as if to say, “of course they’ll never listen to reason, they believe in God.”

If we look at the video again without the stirring music, we see a bunch of people arguing, one person shouting at everyone else while they politely listen, and then that one person walking away. Really, the atheist is just bickering along with everyone else. Regardless of whether or not his claims make more sense, the video itself appears to admit that making the argument is fruitless.

Here is my question: for an atheist, what is the purpose of obsessing over the metaphysical? If you believe people are going to go to hell if they don’t believe in your God that’s one thing, but where’s the good deed in convincing people that heaven isn’t real? Especially if you’re extremely unlikely to succeed.

If you really want to make everyone believe what you do, good luck. That’s just the same thing many of those other religions you think are so crazy are trying to do, and they’ve been trying a lot longer than you have. If what you’re really worried about, and I think this is something we should all worry about, is the interference of religion with science and good public policy, then you may have a shot at making a difference. As others have said, a good example of championing rationalism, if not specifically atheism, is Neil Degrasse Tyson’s “Cosmos” series [2].

Instead of attacking Christianity, “Cosmos” presents the universe as it is understood today and the history of discovery behind this understanding. In discussing this history, Tyson doesn’t shy from mentioning when politics, economics, or, yes, religion, gets in the way of human advancement. He also, it is important to note, mentions when Christianity is helpful. Tyson explicitly states, for example, that Michael Faraday, the father of much of our understanding about electromagnetism, was an evangelical christian, and suggests this helped him come to contribute what he has.

So, fellow atheists, I implore you to consider what battle it is you’re fighting. Is it really religion itself that you can’t stand? Is there nothing you prefer to believe that you know really isn’t true? Is belief in the supernatural mutually exclusive to scientific advancement? Is a futile war against all of religion a good use of your time, or is there something better you can do to counter the issues you see in the world? Just something to think about.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P0A_iF1B3k0

[2] http://www.cosmosontv.com/

Some other interesting links:

http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/08/why-arent-more-americans-atheists-109732.html#.U_nygvldV8F
A brief discussion of the history of atheism and an argument that it is generally a reaction to oppressive religion.

http://www.atheists.org/atheistTV/live
A channel dedicated to atheism

http://www.salon.com/2014/08/09/i_spent_a_day_watching_atheisttv_and_it_was_horrifying/
A brief critique of AtheistTV’s strategy