Open Enquiries from a Featured Theist

In my first ever blog post, almost a year and a half ago, I declared my sentiment that the debate on the existence of God is ultimately meaningless.  Since that fateful day, I have posted articles about philosophy, science, psychology, history, mythology, as well as random thoughts and just some utter bullshit.  Inevitably though, I am time and time again roped into the same religious debates that I denounced with that first post.  In these debates, I have argued from both sides of the fence, playing Devil’s and God’s advocate depending on the context, all while stealthily avoiding affiliating myself with any one denomination.  Throughout the course of these discussions, the rare times I’ve had to directly address the question, I’ve described myself as an omnist, a deist, an agnostic apologist, and an aimless wanderer between all beliefs (and no belief).  But, despite all my efforts to avoid it, I have recently been labelled by a wonderful alliance of atheist bloggers on their compendium, Enquiries on Atheism, as a ‘Featured Theist.’  Now don’t get me wrong, I am both honored and flattered to be featured on this collaboration, and I want to send my sincere thanks to whoever is responsible for making the decision (even if it’s just a random computer algorithm).  But it does draft me onto the losing team of a competition of which I’m growing more and more wearisome.  Through all my debates for and against the values and hypocrisies of religion, the one consistency has been inconsistency, specifically, the inconsistency of beliefs among those of the same nomenclature.  Even within a specific denomination of a specific religion, you’re not likely to find any two people who share all of the exact same beliefs, moral, philosophical, or otherwise.  For example, two Christians who attend the same church and both declare Christ as their Lord and savior may have completely different views about the importance of the factual validity of the bible.  Likewise, two atheists may be variably certain about the nature of objective reality.  It’s these and similar discrepancies that have led me to avoid declaring any affiliation myself.  Nonetheless, we humans need to categorize our world in order to understand it, and so people with vastly different beliefs may end up being labelled, by themselves and others, with the same assumption-laden label, which further sparks the debate based on nothing more than each person’s own presumptions about that label.

But while I’m being cast, I might as well play the role, for the show must go on.  And I’d like to take the opportunity to explore the varying beliefs within one of these sticky labels.  Atheists are notorious for avoiding declaring any of their own beliefs by exploiting the loophole that atheism is a lack of belief.  But as atheism is merely a lack of belief in gods, as opposed to nihilism, I’m not gonna let the writers over at EoA wriggle out of the witness stand so easily.  So I do have some enquiries, which I’ll list here and also shoot over to them, that should, if they choose to answer, help clarify what beliefs atheist do not lack. These questions are open to all who want to answer though, and if you don’t mind disclosing your preferred label, it may help to exemplify my point even further.

1. Do you believe in the finality of objective reality, despite that our only source of knowledge about that reality is subjective experience. In other words, do you believe that the physical universe is all that exists?

2. Do you believe that logic, and thereby science, is inherent to reality, or do we project it onto reality.  Is logic the language of nature, or is it simply our method of understanding it?

3. Do you believe that our logic, and thereby our science, can or will someday explain the entirety of reality. Can the true nature of reality be known?

4. Do you believe consciousness exists in this reality? Is it merely a by-product of brain function? Is it contained somewhere in the brain?

5. Do you believe in the possibility that consciousness can continue to exist after death?

I’ll stop there for now, as these are the questions I’m mainly interested in.  Hopefully from here we can foster a discussion that explores each others’ worldviews.  Until then, have at it!

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B.I.T. (Beta Test) Part 1: Memory

This is an excerpt from an attempt to expand an idea I started with this short story.  I’d love as much feedback as possible.  Enjoy!

I think I was part of the last generation that didn’t grow up with BIT. I mean it was around, but nobody really understood how to use it. It wasn’t everywhere like it is now. I’ve seen kids with chips that couldn’t have been older than 10. That’s just crazy. You don’t even know how to use your brain yet. But I guess it’s just progress. I mean I’m glad I have my chip. I think that BIT is probably mankind’s greatest achievement, but I’m glad I had my brain to myself for as long as I did.  Take nostalgia for example.  With post-chip memory it’ll be a thing of the past.  All those little annoyances of an experience that fade away as you get older, they’ll be there in vivid detail, so no nostalgia bias.

See, one of the first mainstream chip features was memory upgrades.  Problem was everyone did them differently.  The first ones all tried basic SDB, sensory data backup, which is basically just recording the standard sense-data to the cloud.  But then to recall the memory, you had to redirect the neural pathway from the hippocampal formation to the memory database in the cloud, which everyone soon found out was a bad idea.  With kids it was ok, their brains are still pretty plastic and open to rewiring.  But in adults, this is one of the strongest neural pathways in the brain.  So strong it would actually override the chip’s rewiring, which consumers saw as paying for shit that didn’t work.  So then they tried storing the sense-data in the hippocampus, but that got tricky too, because the brain already stores the memories itself, so they had to find a way to attach the sense-data to the memory the brain created.  Problem is, the way memory works, the brain only really stores the information from the memory that it feels is important.  Over time, the more you recall the event, the information you use from it once you recall it, that’s what the brain reinforces.  So if you don’t use all the sense-data stored for the memory – and who does? – the brain naturally dismisses it.  Which, again, just comes off as faulty programming.  So then someone said, ‘Well why are we trying to store information where the brain stores memories? Why don’t we just store it where the brain naturally stores information?’  Which, yeah, it’s obvious once you know it, but just no one had thought of it yet. So what we did was send the sense data to the parahippocampal cortices, which is where the brain stores semantic memory (facts, information, data), then all it took was strengthening the neural connection between the parahippocampal cortices and the hippocampus itself, where information is stored and where the memory is stored, which already existed. Just fire a few hundred neurons through it at the startup and the brain automatically reinforces it. Then it stays strong from there because it’s actually useful information to have when recalling memories.

So what resulted was two different sets of memories, pre-chip and post-chip, though technically it should be pre- and post-SDB, but no one says that.  The pre-chip memories are still vague and fuzzy like natural, but the post-chip ones are fully-detailed, vivid.  You can almost relive the moment in a weird way.  What’s really weird is when you recall your pre-chip memories, the recollection gets stored by the SDB processors, so you have a post-chip memory of recalling a pre-chip memory. This really made people realize how faulty pre-chip memory was, because they could look at every time they recalled the memory and see that it changed each time.  And the post-chip hippocampus tries to assimilate all of these different details into one memory, but it can’t.  They’re too different, and they contradict each other.

Anyway, the younger you get the chip, the less of those memories you have.  And kids are getting the chip younger and younger.  Pretty soon they’ll just be putting it in babies and no one will even remember what natural memories were like.  I’m just glad I was born when I was.  I like my pre-chip memories.  Somehow they feel more real, even though they’re actually less accurate.  I think there’s something kind of special about that process.  Maybe it’s just the thought of it being extinct that makes it feel that way, but I don’t know.  Maybe we’re supposed to forget certain things.  Maybe the past is supposed to look different every time you remember it.  I mean, our brains could have adapted to keep memories exactly as they happened, but it didn’t.  I’m not saying there’s a reason, like intelligent design or anything like that, I’m just saying the brain saw some reason to do it this way.  But I guess we know better than our brains now, don’t we?

Rand Rants Part 2: Ignoring the Obvious

Ayn Rand

You’d think it’d be obvious that, when creating a ‘new philosophy,’ that you’d have to provide some argument against the obvious and inherent alternative to your philosophy.  Especially when that alternative is 300 years old and a widely held as a philosophical standard.  But when touting their completely unprecedented philosophy they call Objectivism, Rand and Peikof don’t even address the obvious opposition to this philosophy, Subjectivism.  From the Wikipedia page:

“Subjectivism is the philosophical tenet that “our own mental activity is the only unquestionable fact of our experience”.[1] The success of this position is historically attributed to Descartes and his methodic doubt.”

Along with basically inventing graphs, Descartes laid the groundwork for modern philosophy, basing his technique on methodic doubt, something Rand and Peikof seem to have been born without.  He called into question every knowledge claim that he could think of, and ultimately determined that he could only know for certain that he exists, because he can doubt these claims.  Hence his famous line, “I think, therefore I am.”  Every other facet of his existence and perception was subject to some degree of doubt, and so cannot be said to be wholly true.  Yet Rand and Peikof claim, without providing any argument against his reasoning, that reality exists objectively, independent of consciousness.

Along with completely ignoring, while at the same time opposing, Descartes’ subjectivism, Rand and Peikof completely ignore subjective experience as part of their logical equations.  Their attempt to prove the axiom of existence, through the character of John Galt in Atlas Shrugged, goes something like this:

“If nothing exists, there can be no consciousness: a consciousness with nothing to be conscious of is a contradiction in terms. A consciousness conscious of nothing but itself is a contradiction in terms: before it could identify itself as consciousness, it had to be conscious of something. If that which you claim to perceive does not exist, what you possess is not consciousness.”

Sound logic yes?  But the something of which you must be conscious is not objective reality.  Descartes is quite clear that the only thing of which he is conscious is his own thoughts.  What we are aware of is the experience of our senses, i.e. subjective experience.  Whether or not the data gathered from our senses corresponds to objects that exist independently, is something that Descartes showed as clearly dubious.  We know that we cannot always trust our senses, and we also know that what we actually experience is our brains’ interpretation of that data, not the data itself.  But Rand and Peikof need not doubt these things, because they simply know them.  They are axioms, and hence unquestionable.  Even though the father of modern philosophy saw fit to question them, according to Rand, we don’t need to at all.

Rand Rants Part 1: Objecting to Objectivism

There’s a debate going on on Dan O’Brian’s blog The Search for Truth about Ayn Rand’s Objectivism.  I had never read much by or about Ayn Rand, but this debate sparked my interest, mainly because I had no idea that she dabbled in pure philosophy.  And by dabble, I mean she dips her toes in just enough to get wet and then says she went swimming.  The more I read of her ‘philosophy,’ the more I want to bring her back from the dead just to slap her across the face.  Yet for some reason, I can’t stop reading it; it’s like picking at a scab.  It’s frustrated me so much that I’ve come back from a short hiatus just to write a series of posts strictly dedicated to deconstructing every facet of her flawed ‘logic.’  I’m not sure how many I’ll write, depending on how soon this rage wares off, but hopefully it will be more than just this one.  If these posts seem a bit unorganized and ranting, I apologize, but that’s just the kind of thing someone like her does to my ADD-addled brain.  It’s hard to even pick a place to begin with her, but I suppose it’s best to start at the foundation of her self-proclaimed ‘new philosophy.’

When introducing her philosophy, Rand audaciously claims that it is unprecedented and entirely of her own conjuring, which should be a huge red flag to anyone interested in philosophy.  She also claims that it is a philosophy based entirely on reason, and that reasoning is the only way a person makes sense of the world, so it seems odd that she doesn’t even consider that another person could reasonably come to the same conclusions she has, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  Rand calls her entirely new and revolutionary philosophy ‘Objectivism,’ opting against ‘Randism’ as Mike Wallace suggests in his 1959 interview with her (though it wouldn’t be out of character for her).  Objectivism is based on three propositions that Rand claims are ‘axioms.’  This an extremely convenient way to start a philosophical discussion, because an axiom, by definition, cannot be called into question.  By claiming these propositions are axioms, besides kicking logic squarely in the scrotum, Rand evades the very line of questioning that would unravel her entire philosophy.  Let’s take a look at each of these ‘axioms’ in depth, and see if they are in fact unquestionable.

The first axiom is the axiom of existence.  The simplest explanation of this axiom that Rand provides is “Existence exists.”  This is a bafflingly muddled and ultimately meaningless statement for several reasons.  If Rand means existence as ‘the state of existing,’ then the statement is definitively untrue.  ‘Existence’ by definition does not have the attributes of itself, i.e. can’t exist or not exist.  If we start to argue for or against the existence of existence, then we end up in a grammatical conundrum of endless meaninglessness, so let’s hop off that train right now.  Rand clarifies this axiom in The Objectivist Newsletter (1962) by stating, “Reality exists as an objective absolute – facts are facts, independent of man’s feelings, wishes, hopes, or fears.”  This seems to be Rand’s attempt to completely disregard the entire branch of philosophy known as metaphysics.  The objective existence of reality may be one of the oldest questions of philosophy, and one that has yet to be definitively answered, except by Rand’s own volition.  To claim this proposition to be true beyond question is to completely undermine the works of Aristotle, DesCartes, Kant, Russell, and of course, our boy Wittgenstein, just to name a few.  The second part of the statement just shows more of Rand’s ignorance, as well as her tendency to generalize all opposition to her theory as superstition.  If she were a real philosopher, that statement might have gone something like ‘facts are the case independent of consciousness,’ which is just untrue.  Facts do not exist in objective reality.  A fact is something understood by a mind.  The fact that a cup is blue is not a physical object.  The cup is a physical object, blue is a certain wavelength of light, but the blueness of the cup is something understood by a conscious observer.  Leonard Peikoff, a Rand acolyte who is much more well-versed in philosophy than herself, clarifies even further, stating, “If nothing exists, there can be no consciousness: a consciousness with nothing to be conscious of is a contradiction in terms.”  This is logically true, but it does not prove the objective existence of reality.  If I hallucinate an object, then I am conscious of something that doesn’t exist.  You could argue that the object exists as a construct of my consciousness, and so exists in reality, but this is not the ‘objectively absolute’ reality that Rand claims exists.

The second axiom is that of consciousness.  It’s at this point that anyone who’s read even a little bit of philosophy would throw their hands up in frustration.  These first two axioms combined completely contradict Cartesian Dualism, arguably the most widely-held philosophy of mind, without directly addressing it or providing any kind of argument against it.  Once again, Rand states these as axioms to avoid any such discussion, and fails to see that in an objectively absolute reality, consciousness cannot exist.  Rand also claims that existence has primacy over consciousness, that consciousness conforms to existence.  Again, providing no evidence or reasoning, she and her lackey Peikoff claim this as axiomatic, and that any philosophy that claims the primacy of consciousness is mystical, superstitious mumbo jumbo, despite the overwhelming evidence that consciousness does in fact directly affect reality.

The final axiom is the law of identity.  This is a law of logic set down by Aristotle, and may be the only actual axiom of the three.  The law of identity is that “A is A,” that a thing is itself.  This is foundational for defining logic and is hardly new to philosophy, though Rand and her devil’s advocate Peikoff claim that “You have never grasped the meaning of his statement. I am here to complete it: Existence is Identity, Consciousness is Identification.”  And the audacity continues.  With not even a morsel of respect for any thinker since Aristotle, Peikoff claims, based on Rand’s teachings, that no one has fully understood this basic and not-at-all-hard-to-understand principle of logic.  They use this axiom to neatly tie together all three into an absurd and unfounded statement that defines their entire philosophy, and which, according to them, is not subject to debate.

Stay tuned for more ranting about this non-philosophic philosophy and its self-obsessed and deluded founder. 🙂

The Recycled Universe and a Defense of Ancient Wisdom

I don’t know why it’s still so surprising to me that proponents of ‘logic’ and ‘reason’ can often be as unreasonable as the fundamentalists they demonize.  I suppose it’s a natural reaction to the ignorance of reason from, say, Creationists, that they’d be met with equal ignorance from advocates of ‘reason.’  I guess they figure they should fight fire with fire, but stooping to their level is as bad as losing in my book.  Any true lover of wisdom must accept the universal knowledge that we cannot truly know anything.  The multitudes of people who view scientific theory as the last word on any question about the universe tend to ignore this fact, even if they do know it, as soon as they get involved in a heated argument.  They completely disregard the maleable and ever-changing nature of science and its theories, and propose that the latest commonly accepted theory is fact.

Take for example the Big Bang Theory (not the TV show).  If someone in this day and age tried to argue that the big bang theory is wrong, they would surely be met with disdain and condescension from these scientific fundamentalists.  If they proposed that, according to Hindu texts, the universe is recycled, created and destroyed in a cyclical process for eternity, they would almost certainly be labelled a fundamentalist and a religious kook.  Their accusers would probably ignore the fact that the recycled universe theory has been around almost as long as the big bang theory, and was even entertained by Albert Einstein.  They probably wouldn’t even consider the recent research which has concluded that a recycled universe is much more likely to create the inflation necessary to the big bang model.  Even if they accepted that the cyclic model is possible, they would still insist that the Hindu scriptures can hold no useful insight into the matter, since they are not based on scientific research.  They would see no significance in the fact that a roughly 4,000 year old text proposes a theory that may soon replace the currently accepted one, and they certainly wouldn’t admit that the scripture has any more relevance in the argument despite its being theoretically verified.

Please understand that this is in no way an argument against atheism, or a call to convert to Hinduism and worship Brahma.  This is simply a plea for everyone on either side to calm down, listen to the wisdom of their ancestors as well as contemporary experts, and consider all possibilities in any matter, especially the most important ones.

Where Is My Mind?

 

As scientific research exponentially expands and progresses its reach and grasp, the role of the philosopher has become somewhat marginalized.  In ancient times, it seemed almost a prerequisite for scientists to also take part in philosophy, hence the greats like Aristotle and Pythagoras.  But now, as science becomes much more complicated and all-enveloping, the scientists of today hardly have time to sit back and process the information they are discovering.  As the scientists spend long nights crunching numbers, it has become the role of the philosopher to put the information that science discovers into context for the laymans, those of us unwilling or unable to do the number-crunching.

One long-standing problem of philosophy is that of consciousness.  Since the dawn of philosophy, thinkers have tried to find the right place to put consciousness in our logical picture of the world, and have had nothing but trouble doing so.  The majority of our logical reasoning is about the material world, which appears to behave more or less by logical principles.  But when it comes to placing consciousness, philosophers have more often than not steered away from materialism and placed consciousness in the realm of the metaphysical.  But as logical people have continuously done away with the metaphysical, we have tried harder and harder to pull our consciousnesses out of that realm and into our logical picture of the world, but still to no avail.  The philosopher most often cited when it comes to these matters is DesCartes, who championed the concept of dualism.  Cartesian dualism asserts that the only thing we can know exists is our own consciousness, yet that consciousness cannot be said to exist in the physical world.  So we are left with both the empirical view that nothing but our consciousness exists, and the materialist view that our consciousness doesn’t exist.  But dualism is a hard pill to swallow for many.  It flies in the face of our need for everything to fit into a logical picture.  This has caused many people to dismiss consciousness as a by-product of brain function, the end result of data analysis.

Enter neuroscience: a complex and quickly-growing branch of biochemistry that attempts to map the events that occur in our brain under certain circumstances.  The more we map out the processes of the brain, the more advocates of a metaphysical mind have had to strip down the definition of consciousness.  Things like memories, emotions, and even some abstract thinking have now fallen under the category of what can be explained through materialistic neuroscience, causing advocates of the physical consciousness to theorize that one day all of consciousness will be defined by physical processes of the brain.  This becomes the fulcrum of the debate, the materialists claiming that just because we haven’t found a physical explanation for consciousness yet, doesn’t mean that one doesn’t exist, and the metaphysicalists(?) stating that the true definition of consciousness evades physical science.

One contemporary philosopher who has championed this debate is David Chalmers.  Chalmers has done a fantastic job of defining where we can draw the line between the physical and metaphysical consciousness.  He has dubbed these two categories as the ‘easy problem’ and the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness.  According to Chalmers, the easy problem of consciousness describes the entire process of data analysis, while the hard problem has to do with subjective experience.  While materialists claim that subjective experience is the end result of data analysis, Chalmers believes there is a fundamental difference.  This difference is something he calls ‘qualia.’  Qualia is the subjective experience of sense-data.  For example, as your eyes take in a certain wavelength of light, your brain processes that wavelength (perhaps incorrectly as discussed in the Limits of Language post) as the color red.  But the physical data of the wavelength has no correlation to your definition of ‘red’ in your mind.  One simple thought experiment to better grasp this concept is to imagine a person whose color spectrum is somehow switched.  This person would see red as violet, and vice versa, and, similar to the negative of a photograph, all the other colors would follow suit.  Now this person would grow up learning to call what we define as red ‘violet’ and so on.  There would be no way to tell that this person’s color spectrum is switched, because there is no way to observe his subjective experience.

While Chalmers has given us a terrific vocabulary to discuss this debate, I think there is an easier method to understanding the difference between our brains and our minds, and that is the struggle between the two.  We humans have always and eternally waged a battle with our brains.  We know full well that our brain can play tricks on us.  Our data analysis processes can lead us to false information, yet we can be fully aware of it.  For example, when we watch a magician or look at an optical illusion, we are willingly participating in a presentation of the fallacy of our minds.  We are fully conscious of the fact that our data analysis is feeding us false information.  We’ve entered into a reciprocal process of data analysis where we let our sense-data deceive us, yet use the knowledge of the deception of our sense-data to put the illusion into its proper context, so that we don’t think the magician is some kind of demon.  This knowledge of the fallacies of our brain functions permeates the rest of our lives as well.  As psychological theories have entered the common vocabulary, the contemporary person may be well aware of his or her own psychological idiosyncrasies, and behave accordingly.  The common phrase, ‘the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem,’ is a perfect example.  The knowledge of a fallacy of the mind, and the definition of it as such, allows our consciousness to take that knowledge into account when making a decision, and choose whether or not to act on that fallacy, or rise above it.  For example, if we recognize the times we let our emotions govern our decisions, then the next time it happens we can choose to ignore our emotions and govern ourselves according to our reasoning.

Now none of this unequivocally proves the metaphysical mind, but it is a rather interesting notion that we can be ‘conscious’ of the fallacies of our data-analysis processes.  The question begged here is whether or not this is simply another level of data analysis, or if the knowledge of these fallacies is evidence of a transcendent consciousness.

More Modern Myths

In my latest post about History Channel’s Ancient Aliens, and the ancient alien theory in general, I posited that the correlation between aliens and gods presented in the show is only proof that the two myths serve the same mythological function in two vastly separate time periods.  As a follow up, I wanted to present a few more modernizations of mythological figures that I’ve noticed.  Some are specific characters/figures, while some are broader archetypes that have changed throughout history.  I’ll start off with some fun easy ones, then get into the deeper stuff, so enjoy!

G-men as Angels/Demons

 

I briefly mentioned this mythological figure in the previous post, but I thought it warranted some elaboration.  The G-Man is interesting because these people actually exist, as we all know they do, yet they are shrouded in mystery.  And for the most part, we allow them to be.  This may be in part because we know they are working for our own security, or maybe we simply accept that there isn’t much we can do about it.  Nonetheless, the figure has taken on a mythic function in fiction and society.  The ‘Men In Black,’ (not the movie, as they are the protagonists and thus serve a entirely different function) represent agents of a higher power whose influence is as expansive as its purpose is mysterious.  They have no will or identity of their own.  Much like the the demons or angels of ancient tales, they are seen as extensions of the agency they represent, be it Heaven or Hell, good or evil, or just order and chaos.  They appear on the scene, serve their function, and disappear just as quickly.  Now certain angels and demons have, throughout their literary history, taken on other identities, personalities, and other functions of their own.  There is certainly a difference between the representation of a demon in possession or exorcism stories and the function of the G-men, though you could correlate ‘hypnotized’ or ‘brainwashed’ victims of these agencies to the possessed, but that correlation is a bit murkier.  For our purposes, we are focusing on the initial role of these figures in early myths.

The Spaceship as The Ark

     

This is a pretty obvious one.  If you’ve seen movies like Wall-E or Titan A.E., you’ve probably made the connection yourself, and the producers make no attempt to hide the correlation.  It is interesting, however, due to the universality of the deluge myth, both in ancient times and today.  Of course, today, you’d have a hard time selling that the entire earth would flood, and that we could survive and continue our race on a giant boat.  But change boat to spaceship and  flood to meteor or some other global disaster, and voila! another retelling of probably one of the most widely-told stories in history.  The most important aspect of the myth, though, is the one that has not changed.  The idea that after a global disaster, mankind must have a way to continue itself.  Another interesting aspect of this morphing myth is the span of time between the two tellings.  The deluge myths from ancient times were mostly said to have happened in ancient times to the audience then, meaning the story would be doubly ancient to us.  Antiquity’s antiquity.  And these new retellings of the myth take place in a future vastly beyond our own.  Much like the ancient alien theory, this is evidence of our strange self-reflexive time in history, where our most ancient stories are morphing into our most futuristic ones.

A.I. as the Golem (or Frankenstein)

  

The golem is a far lesser known figure than the others mentioned here, but you may recognize his successor, Frankenstein’s monster.  I chose the golem over Frankenstein because of his folktale roots, though he is also much more recent than the other figures in this article as well.  If you haven’t heard of the golem, he is a creature from Jewish folklore who is created by someone close to God (traditionally a rabbi), and in their pursuit to be like God, attempts to mimic His creation of man with the creation of a golem.  Because man does not have the same powers as God, the golem comes out a little less human than we’d prefer.  He has no soul, no free will, and no sense of morality.  In the most famous story of the golem, from Medieval Prague, the rabbi creates the golem to protect the city, but the golem, basically blazing the trail for Frankenstein’s monster, instead goes on a murderous rampage and has to be destroyed.  It’s a simple cautionary tale about the dangers of man’s reach exceeding his grasp, a theme that you could link back to the much older biblical story of the Tower of Babel, though it was God who destroyed the tower, so it doesn’t have that self-destructive element that we all love.

If you haven’t made the connection by now, let me spell it out for you.  The most recent incarnation of the golem story, which most people only go so far back as Frankenstein for its roots, is the figure of the A.I. computer or robot.  Whether it’s the HAL 9000 computer from Arthur C Clarke and Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, or the machines from the popular Terminator or The Matrix franchises, these self-aware or simply malfunctioning gizmos have become a staple of sci-fi plots.  And while they may seem new to the scene, and one might assume that they are unique to our time period because of the advent of computers, the basic idea behind them goes back to the golem: creating an intelligent being that ends up destroying us.

So now we’re getting into the deeper stuff.  Not only because of the subject matter of these new ‘mythological figures,’ but because of the broader and more abstract archetypes that they now fill.  Keep in mind here that I am referring to how these characters fit into our mythos.  I do not intend to make any political or sociological comments on these acts or their perpetrators, so I hope that no one takes them that way.

Serial Killer as Chthonic Beast

    

If you don’t know the term ‘chthonic,’ or can’t pronounce it, it refers to something tied to the earth, usually in a negative way.  The connotation in mythology and psychology refers to the chaotic primal nature of people or creatures.  The term ‘chthonic beast’ in mythology refers to any of a multitude of creatures from ancient stories who are usually defeated by a culture hero, signifying man’s conquering of nature to give way to civilization.  This concept has seen somewhat of a reversal in recent history, reflected in the transcendental and existential movements, which propose a return to the values of nature to correct the injustices of modern society.  What these thinkers overlook is that this peaceful, tranquil return to nature is only possible because of our past conquering of it, but that’s another topic for another time.  Some chthonic beasts include the Sphinx conquered by Oedipus, the Minotaur conquered by Theseus, and Leviathan conquered by God, as mentioned in the Old Testament.  While these figures still appear as beasts today, as can be seen with movies like Jaws or Jurassic Park (Spielberg was into chthonics apparently) and still serve the same function, I believe a new chthonic beast has appeared on the scene and is unique to our time.

Serial killers have fascinated the populace for a couple centuries now.  Not that there weren’t serial killers before, it’s just they were usually called Kings or Emperors.  But ever since Jack the Ripper, we’ve been at once terrified and excited by serial killers.  It’s impossible for us sane and decent human beings to imagine the mind of a person who could commit these acts, so we label them psychopaths, humans born without the capacity for empathy or moral decency.  And it is the chthonic nature of a psychopath to kill.  This is what terrifies us about them.  The chthonic beast is meant to remind us that our idea of civilization is an illusion that we all buy into.  That at any time that illusion can be shattered by the will of one person, and the serial killer is that person.  Their depiction in film is a testament to this.  The ‘slasher’ film always seems to start with a tranquil neighborhood, or a peaceful weekend getaway, or some other representation of the safety of modern society.  Yet as soon as the killer arrives on the scene, the society turns into a chaotic playground where it’s every man or screaming teenage girl for him-or-her-self.  In this new world, the chthonic beast is king.

Terrorist as Trickster

   

The trickster is another mythological archetype that spans all cultures and civilizations.  From the Norse god Loki to the Native American raven, the trickster is a character who doesn’t play by the rules.  He sets his own moral compass, or simply lacks one, and tends to give the finger to anyone making any laws or setting themselves on a pedestal.  The trickster is usually morally ambiguous, not an agent for good, but not wholly evil.  If he doesn’t have his own interests in mind, he does what he does simply to piss people off.  Yet the trickster is not just good for fucking shit up.  In most stories of fire being given to man, a symbol of the advent of technology, it is the trickster who steals it from the gods or just somewhere he wasn’t supposed to be.  He didn’t do what he did for the betterment of man, but man benefitted from his act nonetheless.  He is an indifferent mover and shaker with his middle finger in the air smoking a cigarette as he blazes through your town in his Camaro with the muffler removed.  But he takes another form in our modern society: that of the terrorist.

Terrorism is a serious issue for most of the world right now, so it’s not unusual that terrorists would take a place in our mythos.  You might think that the terrorist would hold a similar place as the serial killer, being a force of chaos that disrupts our idea of civilization, but the terrorist is more like the trickster in that he usually has a motive behind his acts, even if it is just to cause a fuss.  For the purposes of this post, I am not simply talking about senseless acts of violence, but the broader spectrum of terrorism, especially including cyber-terrorism.  The way in which the terrorist reflects the trickster is that mankind can sometimes benefit from terrorism as well.  The ‘cyber-terrorist’ group known as ‘anonymous’ has made this connection themselves, choosing the character ‘V’ from V for Vendetta as the face of their anonymity.  By doing so, they are associating themselves with terrorism for the benefit of mankind, just as V executed in his graphic novels and film.  Cyber-terrorist Julian Assange is another example of this, and even Ted Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber, believed he was committing his acts for the betterment of man as well.

*Special Case: The Joker*

  

In the most recent Batman franchise, the character of the Joker made a glorious comeback into the modern mythos.  Heath Ledger’s legendary performance inspired a new vision of the Joker that is possibly more terrifying than the last.  In the movie, in true Jonathan Nolan style, the character explains his entire purpose within the context of the story.  He states that he is an ‘agent of chaos’ whose only motivation is to upset the established order.  With his speech, he teeters on the fine line between the chthonic beast and the trickster character, but seems to weigh heavy on the chthonic side.  This revamp of the character inspired many critics to equate him to the shark in Jaws and other monstrous villains, since he lacks a back-story necessary of a human character.  However, it seems obvious that the original intention of the Joker was meant to be a modern version of the trickster character.  The name ‘The Joker’ even seems to be a play on the term ‘The Trickster.’  The original version of the character had a back-story, and often set innocent victims up to play cruel and maniacal games for their lives or the lives of others.  Though it would be tough to argue that anything the character does benefits mankind, it is easily seen that he does have a motive, and therefore is better equated to the trickster.

So there you have it!  Granted there are probably many more modernizations of ancient myths and mythological figures, but I don’t have the time or attention span to get into all of them.  If you can think of any, please feel free to share them below!

Planet Eden

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The old legends say we came from a planet.  I’m serious.  That somehow one planet produced us on its own, totally randomly. Seems pretty ridiculous to me. The most complex thing I’ve ever seen a planet produce is a chemical storm. But that’s what they say. Supposedly this magical planet somehow had more than just a handful of elements, it had hundreds. And all those random chemicals magically came together to create a perfect biome just for us.  It’s absurd. This planet somehow produced its own reaction turbines that took in our carbon dioxide and converted it to oxygen. And they were supposedly all over the place. I mean, this stuff is laughable. On top of that, it could magically produce nutrients out of its crust. And there were little beings like us, only not as smart, whose bodies were made of nutrients and we would kill them and eat them.  For real, this is in the archives. This magical planet produced everything we needed, we didn’t have to go from planet to planet gathering resources to convert to nutrients.  Everything was laid right at our feet. Seriously, people actually believe this shit. I guess I get it. It’s nice to imagine a place like that. Makes you feel special.

It’s bullshit though.  I mean, just look at the evidence.  We’re an extremely complex organization of about 100 elements, put together in just the right way, and programmed to reproduce.  We were obviously made on purpose by someone or something.  And they probably didn’t get it right, so they just jettisoned us out.  An experiment gone wrong.  How else do you explain it?  We bicker and argue and believe stupid stories.  We have to scrounge around space for the elements we need to keep us alive.  We can’t self-sustain, so they just discarded us.  At least that makes the most sense to me.  Seems way more probable than a magical planet out in some distant galaxy.  But they’re right, I don’t know for sure.  I just go where the evidence leads instead of blindly believing some old superstition.

But we got too greedy, the legends say. We used up all the resources there, so we had to leave. But someday it’ll revive itself, this magical planet out there, and we can return and live with everything at our feet again. It’s just false hope is what it is. People want to believe in some utopia, past or present or both. It’s bullshit. People need to wake up.  Whatever. I guess it doesn’t hurt anybody if they want to believe it.  They just want to feel like there’s some purpose behind all of this.  Otherwise they’d just jettison themselves, which I wouldn’t mind to be honest.  That’s mean to say.  They’re not hurting anyone, they’re just annoying.  It’s a nice thought though.  I guess I can’t blame them.  It’d be great if I was wrong, if one day we found it.  I’d be the first to apologize.  I hope I am wrong.  I hope one day we can just stay on one planet that provides everything for us.  Planet Eden.  Sounds like a nice place.

My Best Friend Is Dead

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My best friend killed himself seven years ago. I asked him about it last week. He said he couldn’t even remember doing it anymore. I think his mind is starting to go. He said he can hardly even remember being alive. He can’t remember what it was like, who he was. “It’s like it was a dream,” he says, “an illusion of identity,” whatever the fuck that means. He doesn’t make much sense when he talks now.

He doesn’t talk much though. He likes listening to me talk. I don’t know why. It can’t be that interesting, me just telling him about my life. I mean, he ended his for a reason, so how could he be interested in mine? It makes me feel better though. He never seems to mind. It’s hard to tell. He always just sort of stares off, a million miles away. Not that he wasn’t like that before he died. He was always off somewhere in his own mind. It sort of makes sense what he did.

It took me forever to even convince him to get a chip installed. He said he didn’t like the idea of something tapping into his brain. He always had these moral objections to shit, like an old man. He would say the world was moving forward too fast, and that he wished he could just go the other direction. He came around to everything eventually though. Once he found out he could write his own programs, he was hooked.

The field was the first program we wrote together. It was just sort of to get our feet wet, get used to the programming. It was nothing but a big open field with a huge oak tree in the middle. There were trees lining the outside of the field, but you could never reach them, no matter how much you walked. We set it up on a private server online, so we could go there to hang out without actually going anywhere. It was just a space to practice in, but he really loved it there. He said it was peaceful, unspoiled. When I moved on to writing games and simulations, he kept working on the field. Adding little details like the bark on the tree and the texture of the grass. I didn’t understand the obsession then, but I think he was preparing it. Making it a space he could spend forever in.

“Forever’s not as long as you think it is,” he said last week. I was trying to ask him if it was his plan all along. To spend forever in this field. I can never get a straight answer out of him. “It’s sort of like one moment just got stretched out. That’s all forever is.” I said I didn’t get it. He said, “The past and the future are just delusions. The past only exists because you remember it, and the future only exists because you can imagine it. They’re only in your mind. Without them, all there is is right now.”

“Maybe in here,” I said. “In the real world, the past and the future are very real.” The words sounded mean coming out. I looked to see if he had taken it that way, but he was just stoic, like always, which just made me more frustrated. I wish he would have been offended. At least that would mean there’s some human part of him left. But he just shrugged, said ‘Maybe,’ and kept staring off at the unreachable trees in the distance.

The first time I saw him after he did it, I didn’t even know he was dead. He wasn’t answering his phone, so I just plugged into the field program, hoping I would find him there. I saw him walking around, blank-faced, staring at the artificial sky. He was surprised to see me, but he didn’t mention why. I asked if he wanted to do anything but he said, “I think I’ll just stay here. You should go do something though.” I thought he was just in a weird mood, so I left him alone.

As soon as I came out my mom told me what had happened. They found him locked in the garage with the car running. I didn’t believe her at first, so I went to his house. They were bringing his covered body out on a gurney. His parents were hysterical. I stole up to his room and shook the mouse attached to his computer. The screen blinked on and I saw the sync window was open. He had had it on a timer, giving himself enough time to prepare.

I went back in and found him. I think he knew as soon as he saw my face. I asked him if he was dead. He said he wasn’t sure. He didn’t feel dead. He made me promise not to tell anyone. He said he wanted to be dead, he didn’t want his family trying to come visit him or anything. He said he didn’t think I would show up, but I’m not sure I believe him. Part of me thinks he did it on purpose, like he wanted me to stick around. I didn’t ask him why he did it. I feel like I should have, but I don’t know, it just didn’t seem relevant at the time.

For the first few years afterwards he was the same. I would get home from school and plug in and spend hours talking to him. About my life, asking him what it was like being dead. He had a lot to say at first. He said it didn’t really feel that different, except that he felt more free every day. “Like a huge weight was on my shoulders when I was alive and it gets lighter and lighter every day that I’m not.” He used the word ‘enlightened’ a lot. I didn’t really understand, but he seemed happy, so I didn’t ask questions.

I kept working on the program, improving it. I would ask him if he wanted anything in particular. He would decline for the most part. He would say, “I’m dead. Dead people don’t get indulgences.” Sometimes I would convince him to let me try to make him pot or alcohol. He said it sort of worked. I kept improving it. I think I learned most of what I know about programming from trying to make shit for him. Eventually I tried to make him a girl. The first few were a little scary, just big tits and blank faces. I finally made one that was attractive and functional, and we had some fun with her. But he said it drove him crazy having her around all the time. She was empty. Not a real person. Eventually he stopped letting me make things. He would say “This wasn’t the point. I’m supposed to be dead.” I never knew what to say when he said shit like that. I stopped trying to understand why he did it. Maybe cause I was afraid it would make sense.

He said he doesn’t remember why he did it. He said he hardly remembers being alive. He dug his fingers into the grass and said, “I feel like I’ve always been here. Like I was here for a long time before I was born, and now I’m back. And my life was just a bad dream.”

I tried to ignore the fact that he thought it was a ‘bad’ dream. “But that’s not true,” I told him. “We built this place while you were alive. You couldn’t have been here before.”

“Maybe,” he said. “Maybe we didn’t build it. Maybe it was always here, and we just discovered it. Or it revealed itself to us.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.  We wrote the code.  Without the code, there’s no field.”

“The code’s just a combination of a fixed number of letters and symbols. There’s only so many possible combinations you can make, so the possibility always existed. It was just waiting for someone to find it.”

I didn’t want to argue with him anymore. It was pointless. I’m supposed to feel better when I come and talk to him, but I just felt more confused than before. And his stupid fucking blank stare just made it worse. Just an off day, I thought. Try again tomorrow.

He asked me about college when I was there. I’d tell him about the parties, the drugs, the sex. I could detect a little bit of jealousy in him the first couple years. I almost thought I had him regretting his decision. But by the time I was getting ready to graduate… I don’t know. It’s not like he lost interest. He would still ask me about it, but it was sort of like he was just doing what he thought he should. He would sit and listen, always with that far off stare. It got harder and harder to understand him. He spoke in generalities, like some Buddhist monk. I’m not sure I understood it all, but it made me feel better. He helped me through a lot. I guess it sort of became routine, like a meditation or yoga or something. I ended up needing him, when I thought it was the other way around.

I graduated and got a job writing virtual reality games. The industry was just taking off at the time, and I had more skill than most. People were doing a lot of innovative stuff. Virtual physics simulations and genetic programming. He liked hearing about that. He was always better than me at programming. He had a passion for it that I could never understand. He could have been great. Eventually someone asked the question. I don’t know when I first heard it. Maybe the news or something. But pretty soon everyone was talking about it. What would happen if your body died while you were plugged in? No one’s had the balls to try it and find out. Except him.

I’ve kept my promise though. I’ve kept my mouth shut. I don’t know what I would tell them if I could. Is he real? He seemed real at first, but now I don’t know. He’s not really himself anymore. He says he realizes that he was never himself, but that he was all selves, tricked into thinking he was one self. He says that’s what all people are. “One soul trapped in a billion bodies.” That’s what he said the last time I talked to him. He said, “Never forget that. It’s the most important thing you can know.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him I didn’t know what the fuck he was talking about. Maybe someday I will.

The next day, when I went in, I couldn’t find him. I stayed in for about three hours, waiting for him to show up, but he never did. I can’t imagine where he went. Logically, it doesn’t make any fucking sense. Maybe he’s still in there somewhere, wandering around in those trees I can never reach. It’s been a week now, and still no sign of him. I’ve been going in every day, just in case. I’m starting to think he was never there at all, that maybe I was just imagining him all these years. I guess I’ll never really know.

I hope he comes back one day. I hope someday I can understand all those things he said to me. Maybe I’ll see him when I die. I’m not really sure how all that works. Is he in heaven now? Did he finally actually die? I hope so. Either way, it’s going to be hard living without him. I’ve gotten so used to it. Maybe I should still go in, just sit in there and talk. Maybe he can still hear me. Probably not, though. But it would make me feel better, which is all he ever wanted anyway.