Monday, May 27, 2013

Memorial Day Thoughts

It is Memorial Day, that day when we allow our thoughts to wander back in time to consider those who have given their lives to secure our freedom.  Memorial Day always makes me wonder why we continue to be such a terminally stupid species. Why can we not learn that killing others to achieve what we want is almost always a really bad idea.  And when we institutionalize the killing and create killing machines, man or machine, we will almost always move away from God, if indeed any such creature as God exists.
This holiday above all the others brings me back to the several pieces I have written on being, and not-being.  So, if any readers are out there, please forgive me for reprising this theme.  In the pieces below, I allow my mind to wander through the thicket of my thoughts on existence.

The Night for which there is no morning
Listening to the NPR report about the young teenager who blew himself up in Afghanistan made me beyond sad. The Taliban, that corrupt and disgusting bunch who lurk in the shadows of real life, immediately claimed responsibility. Something to do with trying to kill CIA agents. Their motive is always the same. They wish to kill foreign “infidels”. Mainly, they always want to kill someone else. And each and every time, they manage to convince some poor lost soul, often someone quite young, to kill himself while also killing others. It is said that they promise martyrdom, and a place in heaven, hopefully with the ubiquitous 71 virgins. What ever do they promise the young women who kill themselves? And I note, it is never an official of the Taliban who blows himself up in a marketplace, but rather some young innocent who has been corrupted into thinking that something exists once life on earth ceases.
I keep wondering. What if they knew . . . really knew . . . all of them . . . that actually, nothing exists beyond the grave. That, should you choose to end your life—in whatever form—you simply cease to exist. You will not be reborn. You will not enter the kingdom of heaven, or hell. You will not get your 71 virgins. You will not meet God. You will instead, simply cease to exist and you will never again know anything. You are as a light bulb that burns out.
I wonder. Suppose they knew that. Would they still choose to end their lives? Or would the Taliban monsters who now rule the lives of these innocents suddenly lose their power to recruit suicide bombers? Would they then have to do their own dirty work?
This promise, ever present in most religions is a fraud, the biggest fraud ever perpetrated on humankind. Maybe someone should tell them. When it’s over, it’s really over. You will feel no pain to be sure, because you will never again feel anything.
They will enter that night, for which there is no morning.
Maybe it’s time they knew.

The Zen of Nothingness

It must be a Zen thing. How to think about . . . nothing.  No really. Try thinking about . . . nothing. I think we can’t do it. The best you can do is to think about thinking about nothing.
 
But imagine for a second that Jesus Christ, Mohamed, Buddha and Krishna were all real, but just, well, guys. You know, dudes who were born, grew up, said a lot of interesting things, hung out with some other interesting dudes, and then, at some stage, died, that is, ceased to exist. And that was it. They didn’t rise to heaven, or wherever it is a Buddha or Mohamed might go (into the energy ether, I suppose). No, they simply ceased functioning and their earthly shells gradually deteriorated, like everyone else.

And the reason? Well, one possibility would be that, there is nothing that follows life. And that’s why you might want to imagine/think about nothing. Because, some day, that just might happen. That is, you’re alive at one second, and not the next. And you don’t wake up in a bus that is carrying you to heaven, along with a bunch of other passengers. Neither do you emerge into a fairy land in which all of your close friends and family are awaiting your arrival. Instead, your mind simply ceases to function. It all goes blank—dark I suppose, except that dark always implies light somewhere. Instead, there is . . . nothing. And you don’t know it. Because you are no longer here, there, or anywhere. What would that be like? Well, I imagine it wouldn’t be “like” anything.  

Suppose, just suppose that it’s true. Nothing follows being. See, that’s what I have trouble conceiving. That nothing thing.

And, I imagine, that was one of several reasons that early people, dudes mainly, invented God and heaven and all that fairy tale stuff. People couldn’t look around them, see all of the world’s wonders and imagine that there wasn’t some big guy somewhere who invented all that stuff. And like everything else that develops slowly over a long time, the fairy tale just kept getting larger and more elaborate over that very long time. Then someone invented writing and guys began writing down what they had been told by other guys. And guys in different parts of the world invented different versions of this fairy tale, much as plants and animals emerge differently over very long time periods in different parts of the world. If plants become very complicated as they develop over eons, surely the fairy tale would become very complicated.  

Now, the fairy tale was invented for more than one reason surely. First and foremost is this notion that we can’t really grasp this concept of living one second and not living the next. I mean, we know it happens, because we see it routinely. But what we don’t see is the possible reality that nothing follows something. We needed to invent a continuum of somethings that follow the dying bit. But, the more clever dudes who were writing this all down, or maybe the ones who were dictating the tale, began thinking that they might become relatively more influential with this crowd of dummies if they could pretend to knowledge that they didn’t have, I.e., the knowledge of what happens after the dying thing.

Because if they have some special knowledge, then the dummies—ordinary folks like you and me—might go to them for advice. And soon, people would be lined up at the door, asking questions. And the more questions the smart dude answered, the more elaborate would become his “understanding” of the fairy tale. And he would continue elaborating the fairy tale, until it spilled over into multiple chapters and then the chapters into “books”.  

Soon, the dude would begin dressing differently, so that he would be recognized whenever he left his house. And the ordinary folks might begin deferring to him, clearing a path, bowing.

Thus beginneth the lesson about priests.  

And think for a moment, how elaborate that tale could become over, say a thousand years. And how the fairy tale would become multiple fairy tales, depending on where you live. So, a fairy tale in India might include stories about the different strata of people, and how some types of people are better than other types of people.  

But the biggie in all these tales would be what happens after the dying thing. Each culture would invent something different, including that oldie but goodie-- the return to a new life thing that Hindu’s prefer. I have never really understood the appeal of that one, if you never realize you are in a subsequent life. I mean, wouldn’t it have been better to portray a follow-on life as a state of being in which you get smarter?  

I can sort of “get” the afterlife thing in which you join with your family and your buddies, and sit around on clouds playing harps and flapping your angelic wings once in a while. But I have always wondered about the crowds. Do you get your own cloud space? And can you actually converse with your great, great grandfolks, or, better yet, with dudes like John Kennedy, or Napoleon? And does everyone speak English up there?? And what about all the cockroaches?

I really wonder about the 71 virgin thing. Some dude gets killed defending the regime and then, when he arrives in heaven, he is given 71 virgin playthings? So, what did they do to deserve that fate??
 
See, lots of questions. 

So, for me, the fairy tale is about as plausible as Santa hiding away in some really cold North Pole location, with his factory manned by elves, making toys to be delivered by sleigh to good boys and girls. Yeah, right . . .

Which brings me right back to square one—the nothing thing. As much as I really, really hate the idea, it seems the most plausible outcome. One second, you’re a living, sentient being. The next your mind is gone. And even “gone” is misleading, because it implies a journey. No, what I think happens is that we simply cease to function and we aren’t anywhere. And we don’t know it, because there is no mind any longer.  

So, what does nothing mean? Unless of course, it means nothing. 

But even if we could derive some understanding of this nothing thing, what would it mean, were everyone on earth to awaken tomorrow morning and decide that sometime in their future, they would enter this state of nothing and cease to exist, sort of like a light bulb burning out? Would they act nicer to other people, or would they all turn into schmucks like Mitt Romney, deciding that, since nothing follows, I have to get it all here and now, and nobody better get in my way? Is that what might happen? Would guys still strap dynamite vests on and go out to blow themselves and others to oblivion? What’s the payoff to doing that? Better, perhaps, to have another cup of wine and dream about a better tomorrow. Would guys with rifles and bayonets still charge the hill to kill other guys, knowing that they might well get killed--cease to exist-- in the process?  

I rather imagine that a lot of things might change, perhaps the biggest being one’s willingness to die for God and Country. I had enough trouble with that one even before the nothing thing entered my brain. But now, I cannot even imagine what would cause someone to join the marines, or the infantry, knowing that you might be told to “win Gallipoli” for the Gipper. I guess being a flyer, or a navy guy might still look ok, since you have all that hardware between you and the presumed bad guys.

But, I wonder, in the absence of any belief in the hereafter, or any belief in the Big Guy up in the sky, or the Big Guy’s prophets, would there be any point to “Alternate Belief Systems” wars? I mean, what would we fight about then? I guess we could still decide to fight to give Mitt a larger share of the pie than he already has, but guys with a limited lifespan and nothing to follow, might just tire of trying to make Mitt even richer than he already is. So greed would work as a warrior theme, only if the guys charging that hill were guaranteed a share of the larger pie that might follow, say their own oil well in Iraq.

Now, I think that everyone would not suddenly turn nice and act reasonable, or even civil. Some people are genetically programmed to act stupidly, or recklessly. I suppose they would continue acting that way. But still, there probably wouldn’t be any more of them than we have now, arguably fewer I imagine.

Well, this all requires some more imagining, you know, since thinking about nothing is so damned difficult. We’ll return another day. Perhaps a nice nap would be good . . .

So endeth the first lesson about Nothingness. 

Creativity

I was sitting the other day by our pond, our little garden retreat. I was watching first a skink scamper about looking for food. Then a little butterfly came by, also hungry. And it set me to thinking about God, evolution and “intelligent design.” And I thought, suppose the believers got it partly right . . . that there is a God and that God actually creates everything. And then I pondered that thought further. It seems to me that there is a serious bifurcation going on here. I mean, so many things are just so beautiful that it would be nice to think some supreme being invented them. But what, I thought about all the other things, not quite so beautiful. If God created this charming little butterfly, then who created Rush Limbaugh? Surely not the same God. Not possible.
So, then I thought, hmmm . . . maybe, just maybe there is more than one God. It’s always seemed to me that, rather than a kindly old guy with a white beard, God must surely be a woman. A guy couldn’t possibly create a butterfly. But a gal God surely could and would. So, maybe there’s a guy and a gal up somewhere creating and observing.
So, the gal God creates, as I say, the butterfly. And the guy God then, not to be outdone, creates a T-Rex, just because he can, and he’s a guy after all.
So, then the gal God turns her attention to flowers, creating say, the rose. So, the guy God, trying to be helpful, adds thorns to her creation. So, they go like that, tit for tat for a long while, meanwhile filling up the Earth with their creations, sort of like we fill up first our houses, then our basements.
So, then, in a fit of creativity, our gal creates a lovely young thing, more or less in her own image.
And the guy God then, not to be outdone, creates someone in his own image, sort of, and it turns out to be a bozo—say Atilla the Hun, or maybe Rush Limbaugh. I figure he just wasn’t paying attention.
And then she creates music, filling the Earth with gorgeous sounds. She begins of course, with the sound of birds, and wind whistling through the trees. He counters with thunder. Finally, in a feast of creativity, she creates Mozart and allows him to fill the lands with beautiful, man-created music.
It takes our guy a while to consider this new creation. Finally, he says, “By George, I have it . . . I’ll give them Hip-Hop.”
And she giggled.
And a thoughtful reader commented:
"I copped his flow

It’s deep bro
Two gods—awright!
One fly dime, one baad dude
But his bitch with rap
Whassup with that?"

and then I wrote . . .

Evolution & Intelligent Design

I am a great believer in evolution and in science generally. The notion that some bearded guy somewhere waggles his finger and causes things & critters to magically appear seems just too wacko for my mind to comprehend. But lately, I have begun to wonder.

I just read an article recently confirming the theory about the disappearance of the dinosaurs a few years back. The prevailing theory was that a giant asteroid hit the planet, causing a huge cloud of dust to rise above the earth blotting out the sun, which in turn produced a long lasting winter. That long-lasting winter virtually eliminated the ability of dinosaurs and other critters to find food and so, they gradually died out. That theory was under some challenge from alternative theories—a series of massive volcanic eruptions in central India, a string of asteroids, perhaps all of the above at about the same time—65 million years ago.

So what? Well, lately I’ve begun thinking about what I’ve started calling The Great Dumbing Down of America. As our school systems continue to churn out fewer graduates than we might expect – 35-40% drop out rates seem ok with the American public (Obama disagrees, but he’s only one guy)—the failure-to-graduate set continues to produce babies. And around the world, we have the Catholic Church continuing to demonstrate its ineptitude as a moral force by refusing to promote family planning techniques, and other cultures more or less following the same course of producing too many kids, I begin to wonder about evolution.

What’s my question? Well, I wonder about the relative evolutionary advantage to the species (us) of the dumber people out-producing the (relatively) smarter people. Eventually, the smarter people would become endangered, and could well shrink in numbers even more.

And since a dominant characteristic of the dumber people is that they tend to arm themselves heavily, and they seem to like violence as a dispute resolution mechanism, they could begin to threaten the existence of the planet as a whole. How could that happen? Well, think an even dumber version of George Bush (I know, it’s hard, but use your imagination). And think of that person’s control over our massive collection of nuclear weapons. And then, project a bit and consider that scientists have concluded that a massive exchange of nuclear explosions could trigger what they like to call a nuclear winter. That’s what the dinosaurs experienced, and then they disappeared.

So what does this have to do with evolution vs “intelligent design”? Well, suppose we are all here because of a decision made a few years ago (some would say 6000) by a creator. Maybe the creator gets bored periodically and decides to play around and see what happens. So, maybe she decided a few years ago to create dinosaurs just to see what they could provide in the way of entertainment. The dinosaurs lasted a while and filled virtually every niche available. And then, the creator got tired of watching these critters lumber around the earth and began considering alternative play toys. But, first things first. The creator had to eliminate those big old critters and so, she tossed a few asteroids at our earth, just to see what would happen (well, actually she knows everything, so I suppose there wasn’t a big mystery there). So the big winter sets in and the big old guys started dropping like flies so to speak. It took a while, but hey, she’s got time.

So, then, after the big guys vanished, she created a different set of toys—people. These would be a lot smaller, but would have fairly large brains for their size. So, arguably, they might be capable of providing a richer entertainment base.

And sure enough, the little guys with the (relatively) large brains began to fill up the earth also, and for a while they were great fun to watch. But then she noticed something. As they matured and they began filling their brains with stuff—knowledge—they began doing a lot of really dumb things—like starting wars that killed off a bunch of their own kind. And while wars are a source of considerable entertainment, with the flash-bang and shock and awe stuff, maybe she was tiring of these toys also. Enter the dumbing down the population thing.

As the population dumbs down, the toys begin to create greater and greater ways to destroy themselves. And then, one day someone emerges as The Leader, who decides it would be nifty to just blow up everyone who disagrees with him and others of his ilk. So, he gets his other dumbed-down followers around him and announces his plan. They all start cheering, while drooling at the prospect. So, The Great Leader executes his plan and nuclear winter follows and all the toys begin disappearing until none are left.

And then the earth is quiet for a while, until grasses and trees and termites reappear. And then the creator decides to just rest for a spell, while she ponders the next generation of toys—maybe butterflies
??? 
 

and then I wrote . . .
 


I stood outside on our porch one morning, just the other day. I often come out early, as the sun is rising, just to look. As I stood there, I began thinking; someday this will all be gone. I will no longer stand here looking out at the sky and the trees, and the houses with their residents just beginning to awaken. It will all be gone.

Then I corrected myself.

No, one day, it will remain, and only the image in my brain will be gone. But if there is no image in my brain, does it actually exist, this thing I now see? It’s the old, “if a tree falls in the forest and there is no one to hear it, does the tree actually fall? Perhaps, if I am no longer here, then nothing exists.

So then, what are we all doing here? Are we all simply sitting around, waiting for Godot?
I think of the expression about people who, “are simply taking up space.” That is, they aren’t doing anything useful, but what is useful anyway? Is useful getting up in the morning, strapping on a vest filled with dynamite, driving to some crowded marketplace, and then detonating the vest?

Is useful deciding to feed a hungry child?
 

Is useful, then, a relative term, meaning, in the final analysis, exactly nothing?
In a million years, would being useful matter?

We fuss about such terminally stupid things, like whether two people of the same gender should be allowed to marry, while ignoring the fact that half of the “correctly married” will eventually divorce one another, some after great stress, and even violence. But of what consequence are such things anyway? Will the earth cease to rotate if we do one thing and not another?

Did it matter that Adolph Hitler decided to kill six million people simply because they were Jews, or Gypsies, or some other condition he deemed un-Germanic?
Well, it turns out that it did matter, but only briefly, and only to the people he killed, and the people who loved the people he killed. In a million years, Hitler will be as though he never existed. He’s the tree that fell in the forest while no one was around to see it or hear it fall. And the people he killed will also be as though they never existed.

What matters then is the moment . . . now. And the only moment that matters is that which I perceive.
 
And if I act, always act, so as to create beauty, then for those brief moments that I exist, I may fulfill the only possible purpose for which I exist. And if I understand that beauty exists in many forms—a work of art surely, but also the smile of a child, the caress of a loved one, the rising of the sun, or its setting, the low whirring of a hummingbird’s wings as it caresses your path. These matter, even if only for the briefest moments.

For those moments, I truly exist.. .
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