Thursday, January 26, 2012

Dare I Press The Button?

There was a course at my university called "Contemporary Metaphysics", which was probably the second best class I ever took. In it, we spent a few months discussing just one scenario: Imagine it's the future, and the capability exists for a new body identical to your own to be created on a planet light years away, and for your complete brain state to be transferred (bit by bit, to make a computer metaphor) into it. The net effect would be that you walk into a transporter on Earth, press a button, and in an instant your consciousness is transferred between the planets, your old body is liquefied, and your suddenly find yourself in another world. Would you press the button?

The mechanical/computer metaphor for the human body/brain works pretty well for me all things considered. The entire observable range of human behavior could in principle be replicated in a sufficiently advanced machine. Even complex concepts like the appreciation of art can be explained as programmatic response to visual and auditory stimuli.

The only thing that this model doesn't cover is consciousness, because we still can't really describe what "consciousness" is. If I am simply a machine too complicated for me to understand, why am I conscious at all? What does a consciousness accomplish? Is it "a soul", or something else entirely? At that point, metaphysical (usually religious) beliefs have to take over.

Dare I?
I've had great difficulty making sense of the Christian concept of an immortal individual soul my whole life. Too many logical questions arise for me to accept it completely. How many souls are there? Has the number of souls increased or decreased over time? Do animals have souls? What happens to my soul when I die? Does it just get planted into a new baby? Does it sit in limbo until a new baby is conceived? What would happen to our souls if the planet blew up, everybody died and there were no more babies ever? Not to say that the soul theory is incorrect, but I'm personally not satisfied by it. Claiming that it's "a mystery" that only God can understand is a cop out, especially if you aren't sure God exists at all.

The Buddhist model of metaphysics makes much more intuitive sense to me. It's difficult to describe in a few sentences, but think of it this way. "I" am made up of a mind-boggling number of little bits, including both physical bits and immaterial bits. The physical bits can be conceived of as cells or atoms, while the immaterial bits include my thoughts, perceptions, personalities, ideas, etc. From the instant "I" am born to the instant "I" die, I am constantly gaining and losing cells. It could be argued that physically, "I" am an entirely different person when I die than when I am born.

If you extend this analogy to the immaterial bits of "me", from the instant I am born I constantly gain new knowledge, form new opinions, discard old beliefs, change my personality, form attachments to things and people, etc. Again, one could argue that "I" am an entirely different person when I die than when I am born. What makes me "me", then? The Buddha posited that "I" am an illusion. That the sum total of the universe's bits is one big stew of stuff that is just there. The life that flows through "me" flows through everything. When I am born, a bunch of bits coalesce into what resembles a person. When I die, none of those bits are extinguished. Everything in the universe is in a constant state of flux. The central charge The Buddha left us with was to think about that for a good long while until it makes sense.

Tyler - one of the sweetest
dogs I have ever known
This is indeed a strange thing for Westerners to think of, because it's entirely different from the concepts we've largely been brought up with. To me, however, it makes sense. My personal life goal is to engage in discourse and experiences with as many people as possible, so that part of me (my ideas) will pass on to someone else.

My father was very close to his dog Tyler, who passed away fairly young.   Once my father told me he feels that Tyler is still "with" him, although he can't explain it. I entirely believe that his dog is with him, because Tyler had a great effect on my father in life, and lives on in him after death. Indeed, he never really died.

So back to the issue at hand: I wouldn't just press the button for grins... unless it was really red and shiny.  I would not hesitate to press it if I had good reason (i.e. better job opportunities, long distance romance, or I want to see the universe). I don't fear death because I don't think there's anything to fear. All the same, I don't want to die because life is fun, and I don't want to leave important things unfinished. Life, like physical matter, can neither be created nor destroyed. Only enjoyed.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Mix Tape Number 1: Hint, it's awesome

The following three songs are rocking my world tonight. If you don't think they are all amazing, then you can just... comment. In fact, comment anyway. I live on comments. It's like blood to a vampire.

Ke$ha - Party At A Rich Dude's House
I think the fact that this song is a true story involving puking in Paris Hilton's closet makes it even more metal.

The Mars Volta - Son Et Lumiere / Inertiatic ESP
One of the best opening salvos of any album in my collection. Hail The Volta.

Warbringer - Total War
Thrash isn't back. It never went away. TOTAL WAR!!!!!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Ranty Blog Post: Now with PONIES!

I grew up in a fairly secular environment, where many people went to church, but most did it out of habit rather than any serious desire to do so.  I had a lot of friends of the Punk or Metal persuasion who had a strong distrust of all religious thought.  Honestly, it troubled me when they would blame religion for all of society's ills, as though we all would learn to love each other if we stopped talking about God.  I was uncomfortable with this idea because I have a very strong interest in theology and the spiritual.  The big questions kept me up at night, which is why I thought about them a lot. 

I would often tell my friends that religion has done a lot for me.  While I don't go to a regular worship service these days (not a lot of Quaker Buddhists around, y'know), I think a lot about religious matters and I've worked hard to come up with a spiritual framework that works for me.  I find the descriptor "spiritual but not religious" to be a bit pompous, and I believe that religious ritual and regular worship services have done a lot for billions of people throughout history.

I was raised Presbyterian, but by parents who weren't especially attached to that belief system.  My church gave me a sense of community that I greatly appreciated.  I still carry a keychain that I was given at my confirmation, despite not considering myself a Christian today, because I fondly remember that day.  It says something to the effect of "The Lord God is with you wherever you go".

As a child I always had questions about things I was taught in Sunday school that made no sense to me, and as I got older I began to seriously question these beliefs.  I kept the beliefs I liked, shed those I didn't, and eventually ended up somewhere quite different.  I understand that some people don't like to think too hard about religion, and that's fine with me.  Non-religious people can have entirely fulfilling lives.  But if your religious beliefs ARE important to you, I feel that you should take a long hard look at them.

At the top of my Blogger page there's a link that says "Next Blog", which seems to link to a random blog every time you click it.  As I shuffle through my fellow writers about every fourth site is overwhemingly Christian in focus.  They seem to demonstrate a particularly American approach to Christianity that makes me quite uncomfortable.  Most entries crow on and on about feeling the presence of God in your life, and how God loves us all, and I'm so glad I'm saved and touchy feely hoodlydoo.  At the same time, nobody ever seems to examine the stranger elements of Christian theology.  When theology is discussed on these pages, it boils down to this:

Q: Someone has a suggestion for me that seems to contradict what I read in the bible.  What should I do?

A: Deny that suggestion immediately.  THE BOOK IS TRUTH! PRAISE GOD!

Now if you're going to wrap yourself up in the snuggly blanket of "God loves me and everything will work out", good for you.  I'm not going to comment on your blog about the theological chip on my shoulder and rain on your parade.  The problem is when people become openly hostile to the very notion that other people may promote different beliefs.  If you feel so secure in the TRUTH of your beliefs that you need to shout down others, why are you so frightened to ask the tough questions of yourself?

I don't treat my religious beliefs any differently from my political stances or ethical principles.  They are conclusions that I've reached, and I subject them to the same scrutiny.  I question my beliefs constantly, refine them as needed, and feel more confident as a result.  I wouldn't dare say that those beliefs are TRUE, and to do so smacks of unbelievable arrogance.

People living in a deluded mind-haze wouldn't bother me if so many of them weren't arguing that we need to base our national policies on what their thousand year old book says.  Actually, that's the funny thing about American Christianity, it isn't really about what The Bible says.  It's about what their particular sect told them The Bible implies.  If we did actually try to live as The Bible commanded we'd have to confront the fact that it blatantly contradicts itself, and frequently commands absurdities.  Never mind the fact that it's been revised and translated and rearranged so many times... but I repeat myself.

In American law there is a recognition that legislation may conflict with some Americans' religious beliefs.  For example, if a law outlaws discrimination against homosexuals, it would hold businesses accountable if they fired employees for being gay.  However, churches that condemn homosexuality would be legally allowed to fire an employee (pastor, deacon, etc) for coming out of the closet.  They are allowed to do this because the First Amendment reigns supreme and prevents the law from impacting their religious practice.  Would the Boy Scouts be allowed to fire troop leaders who come out as gay?  An interesting question.  Do they qualify for religious protection?

What worries me about the religion loophole is that it provides a safe haven for people who possess harmful beliefs.  Now I'm not going to argue that churches should be told who they can or can't hire or fire.  A law to that effect would be unjust.  It does make me uncomfortable when people argue that they can do whatever they want as long as they couch it in religious terms.  I believe the following principles to be true:

1) No just law will prevent a person from living their own life the way they want to live it provided that their choices don't negatively affect other people.

2) No sensible religion will mandate actions that have any negative effect on the lives of people not affiliated with that religion.

I like to think that these principles make sense when applied in the modern world:

-If your religion requires the outlawing of other faiths, or a restriction on their practice, then your religion is not sensible and you should change it.

- If your religion commands you to not use contraception, then don't.  No problem there.  If your religion demands a law preventing people outside your faith from using contraception, then your religion is not sensible and you should change it.

- If your religion prohibits you from receiving a blood transfusion, then fine.  If your religion demands that your severely ill child not be given a life-saving blood transfusion, then bollocks to you.  Another person cannot ethically be refused a life saving treatment because of YOUR religious beliefs.  Your religion is not sensible, and you should change it.

What's that, Derpy Dash?  Persecute
the non-believers?
Basically, if someone asks you why you feel compelled to do something that's totally crazy pants, saying "God told me to and that's the only justification I need" makes you legally insane as far as I'm concerned.  When the Invisible Rainbow Unicorn whispers in my ear to set fire to public places, I have the good sense not to listen, because I don't like burning people.  What is so terrifying to people about challenging a thing that they decided to believe?

Perhaps you can see my difficulty in maintaining an open mind about Christians that I meet.  There are many degrees of Christian, just as there are many degrees of every faith.  When I visit someone's house and see JESUS plastered all over their wall, I am instantly afraid.  But I keep my thoughts to myself.  I smile politely.  I get to know that person, and frequently find them to be open-minded, interesting people.  I try, I really do.  With all the crazy people in the world, it's very difficult.