Thursday, 28 June 2007

The Rich Dance - Part Three


The Rich Dance is a story told in three episodes, posted serially by me, your meta-contextual host, Cheeseburger Brown. Chapters: 1|2|3

I'm pretty sure M.C. Escher had dreams like this.

Our tale concludes:



3/3

Her name is Name. She arrives in the Context, and her first thought is that she is alive. Her second thought is that she has thoughts. The Universe had ended, but apparently Name has not.

She is cheered by the news.

She is also bewildered: the first thing she is able to recognize about the Context is that it is characterized by a dizzying field of interwoven times. She had imagined that thinking sixty-four dimensionally prepared one for any eventuality, but Name is the first to admit that the Context utterly baffles her. She cannot perceive anything remotely coherent for what feels like a long period, at least as considered with her native notion of the temporal force.

The visceral realization that she truly is not within the Universe anymore hits her hard. She feels ill. She is afraid. Name quails.

Time times. Name is propelled by curiosity. Her fringes in closest contact with the stuff and spaces of the Context begin sending signals to her neurology that make some sense. Her cells react against the turbulence of intersecting disparate kinds of time by reinforcing their connection to local time. Name's flesh buzzes as the specks of gravity wells within her are spun in precise concert, locking every somatic system to a common march of events.

The world around her clarifies.

The Universe hangs before her like a dried up berry. It appears frozen in time. It is crowded on all sides by other berries in various stages of ripeness. Beyond them lie more clusters of berries, growing from the hyper-bifurcated limbs of a one hundred and ninety-six dimensional tree.

Name feels like she might barf. She closes her perceptions, then burns a singularity for comfort. She sings herself a quiet, nervous song.

She has taken heavy damage to her somatic components when crossing over, but her physiology is adapting and healing, patch by patch. Her neurology has automatically transcribed itself into a new medium in order to operate within the Context, and she therefore allows hundreds of millions of years of debugging before even trying to think too hard.

She keeps her perceptions thickly filtered. She communes with the hum of life within herself.

When Name is ready, she opens herself to the Context again. It becomes less terrifying as she acclimatizes. She discovers that by an act of translation through one of the smaller dimensions she can push the global time she sees around her backward or forward.

She moves to and fro experimentally: the cluster of universe berries blossom and shrivel, blossom and shrivel in response, swinging through their respective histories.

Name is delighted and intrigued.

She translates further and watches the birth of the berry bunch: from the tiniest bud, a sudden explosion of a staggering quantity of berries, the majority of which pop or shrivel almost immediately. Among those that go on to ripen and age, the Universe. Her Universe. How she loves it!

She wonders if she dare take a peek inside. The question is an answer, and she surges forward.

There is suddenly a lot of pain. Name shrieks and writhes, then retreats.

After licking her wounds she extends her most homeostatic tendril outward into Context space and studies the way it bends and splits through the bizarre array of inflated spatial dimensions available. Once satisfied with a method for safe passage Name moves cautiously forward.

She comes to rest against the outside of the Universe. The surface is black and largely smooth, and it reacts like a viscous fluid when Name touches it. She sticks a tendril through it and feels the familiar thrum of the Universe's history flowing. It fills her with nostalgia.

She sticks her head through the black skin, and is delighted to see the spongy texture of tight strings of her beloved baryonic matter, shining carelessly with good old fashioned electromagnetism as if tomorrow will never come. Like snowflakes the galaxies tumble, drift and collide.

She is even more delighted to discover that, by translating through the global temporal dimension of the Context, she can scrub back and forth through the Universe's history. She contracts it to the very beginning and watches it bloom and dwindle over and over again. The experience is very emotional for her. For a spell she becomes obsessive -- witnessing everything from the first quasars to the rise of true life to her own spectacular self-explosion across probability space at the very end.

She thinks she looks a bit fat, from the outside.

She communicates with one of her multiplied iterations, and tells herself how to travel to the Context. This intervention causes the portfolio of possibilities to actualize into a version of herself with an inspired escape plan, which she then watches herself execute.

The timelines merge. Her escaped self hops across Context space and then comes to a wounded halt, drifting outside of the convoluted, shrinking skin of the dying Universe.

Name blinks. Her escaped self catches up with her across the weave of times, and they come together.

She finds it all very disorienting. Time is weird.

Name pushes back into the Universe to catch her breath, to take another break from the phantasmagoric storm of dimensions in the Context. She slides across the global temporal frame until the Universe is young and bright again, and once more she falls to watching events unfold.

By far her favourite moments come when the tiny life arises from the weather of planets. They each find their own way up. It's seldom a predictable course. She delights in the way a parasite rises to eclipse and surpass its host to become the Pegasi; she thrills when the dinosaurs fall and the wee mammals shake their world with a flurry of rich dancing that will lead to Humanity; she savours the slow and steady ascent of the Reachers from fungus colonies to intelligent cities...

The Milky Way Galaxy has always had a special place in Name's heart. She cries like a baby every time she rewinds time to watch it deform, spray out and merge with Andromeda. The end of an era.

And the beginning of a new one: from the ashes of that mighty galactic collision rise the clusters of intelligent civilizations who will dance the rich dance -- multiplication with variance, exploring every crag of possibility. They will develop into the co-operative organelles that patch-replicate to become the first cells of true life.

True life! She is the only one. Name misses her mothers and fathers. She misses Know, her final mate. She misses her children, swallowed by the cold at the end of time.

She witnesses the history of her kind, from start to finish, a million million times.

She interferes, but just a little.

She's careful. She just wants to make sure the racial genome contains everything she will need to survive in the Context, when her day comes...

She witnesses her own birth. She's cute as a button, and just ten million miles wide.

In time she comes to terms with the fact that she has become sickened by nostalgia, and that she must now put the Universe behind her. If there's one thing thermodynamics impresses upon one, it's a persistent delusion of time's arrow.

The arrow presses. It compels her to look forward.

Again Name exits the Universe. Not having been mindful of her position in the global temporal dimension, she steps out among a clique of herselves: she sees herself just having left the Universe the first time, and observes versions of herself sticking her head through its black skin. Another version drifts over her, sleeping and healing the wounds of her emergence.

It's getting crowded.

She lets the current move her. She drifts away. The cluster of universe berries contracts in her view until it is indistinguishable from a quadrillion others just like it -- universes upon universes, from horizon to horizon. Hers is just one, like any other...a process of some inscrutable ecosystem larger and more magnificent and more deeply terrifying than anything she has ever conceived.

This is what it's like to be a baby in the world, she reasons: even the humblest aspects of nature are awesome and unfathomable. Shadows can be marvels or monsters when you understanding nothing; raindrops can be bombs.

She has food. Energy isn't rare. A dozen different kinds of potential flow through the dizzying array of inflated spatial dimensions. She could, in theory, drift forever among the berries.

This prospect does not satisfy her, however. With life comes forward momentum. She aches to have a purpose. She is not content to embody the Universe's contribution to existence as a piece of mere flotsam in a mad garden.

No!

...And why should she? For even as she watches she sees that the Context is not a static place. As she veers through a narrow spatial dimension she observes that there are things that crawl and fly through the miasma of times -- there is motion, and there is work.

Beyond one looming hyper-bifurcated limb of the great tree is a spindly, radial being with cilia that spread across six dimensions. It turns in place, arms rippling and smearing through streams of contrasting temporal force. The being fattens and seems fit to explode. In the next moment, it does so -- scattering a cloud of tiny radial specks along every avenue of Context space.

Name knows what she is seeing: reproduction -- multiplication with variation. It is the unmistakable melange of the rich dance.

Life!

Name is not alone. She is not the only thing to have ever escaped a dying universe. Each of them based in their own physics, each of them never the less adaptable enough to survive outside the womb of their native reality. Survive, and perhaps prosper.

Things like ants march in sinewy lines across the hyperbolic contours of the great tree, some of them with the remnants of shriveled universes on their backs. They have found a way of life. Somewhere, perhaps, they have fashioned a hive.

Other things plod or blip across the fields between branches, propelled by temporal flagella or bursts of exotic radiation. Some consume others in the unmistakable rhythm of prey and predator, reclaiming energy from the lowliest harvesters to fuel the pursuit of their next mate.

They are fruitful. They are beautiful. In them the dauntless spirit of the rich dance burns on.

With no science Name cannot guess what kind of living the Context can provide, but she knows the rich dance can discover it. It will explore every niche of this strange existence, and thereby rise to take a place here. One day her descendants might even learn to comprehend the nature of the Context, and to wonder what lies beyond...

Name fissions herself. And then there are two. Their first coupling is unromantic and feels faintly incestuous, but its product is a swarm of younglings as precious and unique as any Name has ever seen. They take their first breaths in Context space. They are native to it. They are the first to be born who will never know the Universe, a place and a time that rapidly comes to seem far away and small to Name.

The Universe was but an egg.

Life goes on. Bouquets of fresh universes burst into existence and wilt, marking global time like the tides. Name loses track of when her Universe actually took place, and no longer has any clue how far she would have to translate to glimpse its history again. There are so many like it she doubts she could distinguish one from the next any longer. She is a creature of the Context, in body and soul.

The children laugh at their parents, and their provincial concepts of time and space. They dash through the Context effortlessly, their sense of its bewildering co-ordinates instinctive. They swim and jump, they para-past and they hypo-future, they sidle carelessly from one spatial perspective to the next. They play.

Name thinks as she watches them cavort: so this is what the Universe was for.

She feels whole.

Her name is Name. She was the last, but has become the first. The first of many.


24 comments:

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear any,

Next up: Phat-so Kim returns to guide us through an eerie mystery in The Extra Cars.

Begins serializing Monday 2 July 2007!

Love,
Cheeseburger Brown

Orick of Toronto said...

wow, great stuff, nice to see a change in your style.

what inspired this?

CodeWright said...

wow, the rich dance was crazy.

bravo.

sheik yerbouti said...

It must be great to write fiction, especially to do it so well; the possibilities are endless.

Yay for the return of Phat-so!

Mark said...

Tell me you didn't get goose bumps, CBB, when you wrote this sentence:

"Shadows can be marvels or monsters when you understand nothing; raindrops can be bombs."

That was cool.

But, I'm ready for that Phat-so Kim story. My brain needs a break. Ouch.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Orick,

What inspired this is a bit of convoluted story, but I think I can boil it down a bit. I'll speak a bit about my beliefs below -- so, if you're the sort of person who likes to imagine they hold the same beliefs as the creators of works they enjoy, you may want to skip it. Some people are sensitive that way.

Myself, I subscribe to Twain: "It is not necessarily best that we should all think alike."

That being said, I am an atheist. The cornerstone of my personal spiritualistity is my faith in the non-existence of a higher power with any hand in shaping our destinies. If the universe is one thing to all people, it's indifferent.

When I started researching the historical Christ for Jesus and the Robot I became more and more interested in what drives evangelicism, and what questions successful targets of evangelicism are answered by the Christian faith.

I consumed several works on the subject, from Dawkins' diatribes against religion to the pitifully produced Kirk Cameron vehicle, Left Behind, concerning the Biblical "end times" coming to pass in our present era.

I had several long and revealing conversations with both practicing Christians and agnostics, as well as my insane (and Godfearing) father-in-law.

The result of all this was a desire to write a story that posited the existence of a super-nature (that is, a level of reality of which our familiar physics are but a derived subset), and put the reader in the mind of an entity capable of operating within that meta-universal frame.

I wanted to describe that meta-universal frame in terms of natural processes -- that is, I wanted the driving force of change to be accumulated/emergent complexity, rather than complexity ordained by a meta-natural designer (a hopelessly anthropomorphic notion, in my opinion).

Basically, I wanted this glimpse of super-nature to be an homage to the power of natural selection rather than divine will. I wanted the main character to be a kind of god atheists could appreciate -- possessed of the powers and abilities they have as a direct consequence of a history of events in the world, rather than because of magic.

As a corollary, I am always interested in trying to convey the wonder of the universe we see around us on its own terms, without invoking too much fantasy. I get sick, sometimes, of religious people thinking that atheism is a spiritual or moral void, and that atheists are impervious to awe.

If there is a context beyond our universe, I have faith that it would be more accurately understood as an ecosystem than as any kind of Ultimate Answer. If there is a super-nature, it's bound to be orders of magnitude more baffling than the already sufficiently baffling physics we presently enjoy.

Like a tadpole first gaining the ability to see over the surface of their home pond, the first thought (if it were capable) is less likely to be "now I know the truth!" and more likely to be along the lines of, "holy shit -- the world is bigger than I ever dreamed!"

I believe the world is bigger than we are capable of dreaming. I hope I managed to convey some fraction of that feeling with this story.

Dear Codewright,

I'm trying to fulfill my self-imposed mandate to mix things up a bit. Sad would be the day that you should consider coming to my blog and then say, "Screw it -- all the stories are the same anyway."

Dear Sheik,

Yes. It's a wonderful place to hide from the world.

Love,
Cheeseburger Brown

sheik yerbouti said...

Dear CBB,

For what it's worth, that was more or less obvious to anyone who's read your accumulated works. Still, it's refreshing to see you state it explicitly, and to use honest words like "faith" to describe the basis of your beliefs.

Crazy people and Kirk Cameron... wow. That's a sure recipe for atheism if I ever heard one. I'd be curious to hear more about the rest of your research, but that probably falls outside the purpose of this venue.

Either way, as someone with no delusions about the disparities between my worldview and yours, I can certainly agree that the realm of existence is limitless and awe-inspiring.

Great writing, as always. Quite a gift you have there, though I suppose you wouldn't call it that.

gl. said...

holy cow, i loved that story. i especially loved how you stayed in name's perspective: i held my breathe at the end of the second part, not wanting it to end as a massive setup for the major story arc. also, i really love it when your protaganists are girls. :)

indeed, atheists are NOT impervious to wonder or ethics. thank you for saying so. awe & wonder don't even need to be scientifically or religiously explained for them to be awesome & wonderful.

Moksha Gren said...

Geez..I step away from the Burgerverse for a little while...and return to see the creation of the Flying Speghetti Monster.

I can't help but think of Frank Tipler's "Physics of Immortality." A scientific discussion of how God can be formed during the final moments of the universe, and having been formed...will have been throughout time. It's full of robots...you'd love it.

James Andrix said...

God called, he wants his imagination back.

Hmmm

Ok, now having read your inspiration post, I think you accomplished what you set out to. Although I didn't register the Context as a spiritual realm at all on my first reading, I did get a sense of 'humanity still matters because there's something out there that still remembers'.

Teddy said...

a pedantic point of curiosity, after the essay on faith (supremely intriguing, btw). At what could be comparably called a cellular level, is Name made up of...civilizations? As I read it, she was the creation of a race or a coalition of races working together. As I read it, actually, similar to the Planets as described in SoS - each a seperate entity and kept so, but all interacting and slowly spreading in a socially evolving method.

TRH

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear gl.,

I'm pleased as punch that you enjoyed this one. As for female protagonists I am working something up with Aglakti (Cherry Nuk-Nuk) in mind, but some of the content has overlap with The Extra Cars so I know it won't be coming up next. That would be too -- um, sequential.

Wonder is an essential vitamin.

Dear Moksha,

Welcome back! But don't knock the spaghetti -- I auditioned a fair shake of more pretentious words before I the only image that really said what I wanted to say. (Mm'mm...mat-ter.)

Thanks for the Frank Tipler tip. Now I have a sticky for it.

Dear Mark,

To tell the whole truth, I wasn't sure I nailed it with that sentence. I was worried about it. Like the spaghetti, I wasn't sure where to draw the line with using familiar images. I mean, it seems like raindrops would be a fairly irrelevant phenomenon to Name -- too tiny, too common. She always is not likely to be familiar with pasta. So, yes -- I did get the willies, but not necessarily in the way you'd imagined.

Dear James,

The point is that the Context is not a spiritual realm, but a physical one. Sure, it has more inflated spatio-temporal dimensions than we're used to, but it operates according to some notion of physics and, in its unique way, progresses through time.

Dear Teddy,

Yes, she is powered by civilizations, but the members of those civilizations aren't quite so loosey-goosey as you and I but rather more organized. That is, the genomes of the tiny life and the genome of the "true life" entity are blended and connected. The members of those civilizations resemble the people we meet in Weird Flotsam more than the people we meet in Night Flight Mike -- people more like Human Executives than Human Beings in many ways.

Love,
Cheeseburger Brown

Simon said...

One is given to understand, at least in this story, that the Everything is much grander than our comprehension could ever possibly envelop. Sort of like the end of Men in Black where there was a galaxy worn around the neck of that cat.

It is a small-minded person indeed who would convince themselves that atheists are impervious to awe, as you said. I have to think about your essay on what art is. And the last line - or one of the last lines - of it is, art is exported awe. One of my favourite lines of yours ever. Also one of the reasons I read here so eagerly.

Moksha Gren said...

I would never dream of knocking the speghetti. I just couldn't help but notice that a devout atheist had written a story about the birth of a God-like creature who happened to have speghetti-like tentecles. I assumed you were making a clever reference to the Flying Speghetti Monster.

Also, since I only recently caught back up on your stories after an absence, I wanted to take a moment and say that your writing just continues to get better all the time.

And thanks again for going through what you do to serve up fresh awe for we thankless masses.

sheik yerbouti said...

Whoa; I totally missed the FSM connection. Thanks moksha for flagging that :)

Since it's been mentioned several times on this page now... WHO is going around saying atheists are impervious to awe (and have no morals)? Do I just not ever meet these people?

mandrill said...

Sheik,
I don't want to start throwing stones but I think you'll find that the ones who go around saying that atheists are impervious to awe are the same ones that say we're all going to burn in hell.

Mr Brown,
Once again you confound my expectations and we end up somwhere totally unexpected. Hats off. If I had voiced my suspicions about where this tale was going in my comment last episode I would have look a right idiot.

Mark said...

sheik, you bring up an interesting question.

Because of my upbringing, I almost feel evil admitting I'm probably an atheist. The word itself carries a negative connotation for me. Isn't that strange? Hard to overcome 20 years of (mis)perception in just 16 years.

I often wonder whether I would have the morals I do if I had not been brought up in church. I don't attend now and don't call myself a Christian nor a member of any other religion. In fact, my fluctuation between agnostic and atheist is less and less (with the tilt in favor of atheism).

I admit to worrying where my son, whom we are not bringing up in church, will get his morals. I guess from us. My wife was not a church goer as a child, and her family certainly isn't religious, but she has admirable morals. In fact, her family is much more loving and selfless than most people I know who are strongly religious (all of whom happen to be Christian).

Sorry to be so longwinded, CBB, but once this subject comes up, it's only going to get deeper.

Sith Snoopy said...

CBB,

First of all, I loved the story where you incorporated Jesus. :) It was very well done. I'm especially impressed considering your beliefs. You were very thoughtful and compassionate in your treatment of the subject. :) I loved that you took the time and effort to do all that research in preparation for the story.

Second of all I loved the Rich Dance. :) It was very beautiful. :)

Third, as someone who believes in Heaven and Hell, I would NEVER say that atheists are incapable of wonder! And I certainly can't say who is going to Heaven and who to Hell... it's not up to me. But I do want as many as possible to make it to Heaven.

Even during the darkest hours when my faith in God had seemed to leave me, I could still stare up at the stars in awe at how absolutely HUGE and BEAUTIFUL the universe is. I'm sure that every human is capable of that feeling of awe, regardless of their religious beliefs, or lack of a belief in a higher power.

Fourth, am I reading this right? I get the impression that at least one of you is equating Kirk Cameron with crazy people. Just because he is trying to tell everyone what he considers the truth, in order to save everyone... that means he's crazy? Granted, in many of your minds, his concept of the truth sounds crazy to you. But it doesn't mean he's crazy... it just means he has a different viewpoint from you guys.

I don't think those of you who are atheists are crazy. I just think we have a difference of opinion.

Oh, and as to Left Behind being pretty pitifully produced, well, yeah. :P I'm betting though that the lack of a big budget hurt them quite a bit.

The book is way better. And the series improves as you read further. But that's probably a big matter of opinion, as my Sister, who is a believer too, thought the series was pretty infantile! To each his own, I guess. ;)

CBB, GREATLY looking forward to your next story, dude!!! :) Thanks for writing. :)

sheik yerbouti said...

Mandrill:

Thanks for taking the time to answer me. I think, though, real people tend to be less one-dimensional.
For example (let me stick my own neck out here): I believe in an infinite, omnipotent God who created us, revealed himself to mankind throughout the ages, and became flesh to pay the ultimate penalty for our sin, but I don't consider people who don't believe this to be less than human.
In fact, I would suggest that your own capacity to feel awe merely indicates that you, like everyone else, have been created in the image of the one who invented beauty.

Mark:

Being honest with yourself isn't evil; on the contrary, it's the only way to live.
Those are some deep questions. We should grab a pint at the Tipp sometime if you're up for it. I'd be curious to hear about how you got from there to here (these stories are usually fascinating to me, though perhaps too long for the CBB comment section).

Snoops:

Hear hear! "Burger Jesus" was admirably and respectfully crafted, if not exactly like the historical Jesus (it's easier to be sympathetic with your character if he doesn't claim divinity).

Also -- I was the one that mentioned Kirk Cameron and crazy people in the same breath, because it seemed like CBB was basing a great deal of his secondhand theology on these sources :) Not that they were the same, and I'm sure KC is very sane and sincere, but let's face it: nobody should expect pop culture to accurately communicate essential religious truths.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

I'd like to clarify a couple of things:

Sheik mentioned, "...I was the one that mentioned Kirk Cameron and crazy people in the same breath, because it seemed like CBB was basing a great deal of his secondhand theology on these sources..."

To be more clear, my education and interest in religion was not kicked off by my research for Jesus and the Robot, nor are my sole or even primary sources "evangelicals and Kirk Cameron" (much as that set, as a phrase, amuses me).

I have been fascinated by religion since adolescence -- perhaps a very natural time to begin seriously questioning the tenets by which one was raised (my four parents are two atheists, a philosophically idiosyncratic agnostic-pantheist and a lax Catholic, though as a kid I only considered the atheists to be credible).

I have read in their entirety The Torah/Bible, The Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, the Daodejing, and Dianetics. I have personally attended services Buddhist and Christian, and have visited temples Sikh, Hindu, and Jewish. I maintain friendships with Jews, Muslims, Christians, Natives, a Hindu, and even one or two (self-described) "Pagans." I like to pick their brains.

I have no grudge against religion. To be candid, I find any belief system -- no matter its tenets -- to be much more interesting than having no coherent belief system at all. Vagueness irritates me in this regard, while specificity impresses me (even if I privately disagree with the conclusions it leads one to or the methods employed).

I don't think it's fair to dismiss Christian Evangelicism as "crazy", even if many of the frontline staff are...emotionally intense or even frenetic, let's say. As a larger movement, evangelicism adapts itself to the questions it believes lost souls need answered in order to join the flock. In other words, evangelicals' vectors of persuasion speak to how borderline Christians feel about the world, about society, and about themselves. Evangelicism is arguably distinct as an element of Christianity in that it is always in precise lockstep with culture -- the strategies morph in a blink to chase a path of optimal conversion. In this light, what evangelicals have to say is very revealing -- perhaps not about theology, but about the nature of people (especially lost ones).

Kirk Cameron and that Aussie drongo he co-hosts with on Christian TV are popular evangelicals whose messsages are designed for the masses. My favourite segment by a long shot is the one where they prove the existence of God using a banana, less because of what is says about the soul but more because what it says about the current state of scientific literacy in the West. If that particular appeal finds traction, it speaks volumes about the perception of history and nature that many people apparently enjoy.

Like Left Behind, it illustrates what questions people need answered more than any particularly interesting bit of theology (which, as represented in the film adaptations at least, is pretty pedestrian).

The film adaptations, by the way, are produced in Canada and so as a Canadian it's hard not to laugh when they pan down on different sites within blocks of each other and claim them to be Israel and England. Particularly amusing is the way Left Behind's version of Chicago and New York both have the same skyline -- Toronto's. Ah, yes: Canadian production values!

As for the question of who suggests atheists are exempt from awe, the answer is: the lion's share of anyone who puts energy into conversion attempts. Growing up atheist I can't tell you the number of times someone has (often with sweet intentions) maligned any aspect of my internal life in a way that would be patently unacceptable were the situation to be reversed due to the legal protections religions enjoy. It's the sort of stuff usually small enough to ignore, but sometimes the cumulative effect can give rise to frustration.

I remember a specific occasion when I was asked (in an utterly non-aggressive, friendly, heartfelt way) by a member of my friend's congregation as we came out of a service together, "So...what's it like to have a meaningless existence?"

He wasn't being rude: he was genuinely curious.

Most anti-secularist arguments hinge on the lack of moral compass and a sadly materialistic inability to perceive the more-than-material magic of nature (sunsets, the brain, symbiotic relationships). There can be great compassion in these lines of argument ("if only you could feel what I feel..."), but also heavy condescention.

Consider, for example, the famous Richard Feynman anecdote in which a friend suggests to him that a scientist cannot appreciate the beauty of a rose as an artist can. I think this is a specific manifestation of a common cultural current -- that an intellectually underpinned understanding is inherently poorer in terms of awe than an emotionally derived understanding. In the (possibly apocryphal) conclusion of the anecdote, Feynman describes himself turning the tables on his friend by suggesting that in fact, au contraire, it is the artist who should be pitied for being limited to understanding the beauty of the rose on just a single level, while the scientist has access to both avenues.

As far as I, personally, am concerned, I'm not nearly as interested in having the interpretation of the cause of a beautiful thing be universally agreed upon as I am in distinguishing between those who found the thing beautiful in the first place and those who were indifferent. That is, I'd much rather be in the company of people who find sunsets to be a moving experience than people who do not feel moved at all. That's being sensitive to the world, and I think that's important. Interpretation of the world's mechanisms is beside the point.

Most folks' favourite Buddha -- the Siddhartha Gotama Buddha -- nailed it, I think, when he suggested that there were a handful of subjects over which debate was moot, including the specific nature of whatever greater context existence may have. Since existing things can only connect directly with other existing things, the realm of non-existence remains utterly unknowable. And what kind of a baffoon would waste breath arguing the unknowable?

I think Sid made a good point there. It should take the wind out of our sails whenever we feel ourselves trying too hard to be persuasive about the big, big questions. At least, it does mine. Getting all verklempt about how somebody else thinks about the unknowable is a waste of energy.

This is why I remain cheerful and open when I answer questions from my religious co-worker suggesting I am secretly, unconsciously depressed because of the depravity of making pseudo-moral decisions purely on the basis of brazen or cloaked self-interest. He calls it "Darwin Disease."

I find his concern very touching.

In high school I had a friend who one day told me he was worried that I would be punished in Hell. Some of my other friends were shocked, and characterized him as a "Jesus freak." Myself, I thought it was sweet that my friend *cared* enough to get over the social discomfort of talking God in an overwhelmingly secular culture. He was genuinely concerned. That's nice, no matter how you shake it.

Now, granted, if you happen to believe that entities outside of materiality have made contact through the membrane of the existence to make revelations to humanity, you're going to feel differently on this issue than Siddhartha and me. You'd be likely to feel that such revelations are just about the most important messages a person can transmit. Far from considering such debates moot, you might consider them essential.

I can appreciate where that comes from, and can absorb the levels of persuasion often associated with such convictions up to a point. Then my Canadian sense of "live and let live" kicks in and I become determined to change to subject rather than grow impatient with a too insistent argument, and be forced to say something potentially upsetting.

Remember what Boaz said in Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan? "Don't truth me, Unk, and I won't truth you." Boaz recognized that clashing two versions of the truth against each other would be to nobody's profit given their circumstances trapped in the caverns of Mercury, as sure an allusion to Plato's Cave as I have ever read.

Yes -- and if I need reminding, I think about last week when my poor little yellow car broke down at the side of a clogged highway during a heat-wave. While I waited for my radiator to cool down, fiddled with the bits, and tried to improvise a duct-tape based solution, four people stopped to offer help. Four people out of the hundreds who passed me that hour. Four people stopped to make sure I had drinking water and a communications device.

Each of those four was a Christian.

Three displayed crucifixes (around the neck or hanging from the rearview mirror), and the fourth blessed my soul as he departed. We had been chatting about how what goes around comes around. He contributed an elastic band to my jury-rigging efforts. Really nice guy.

So whenever I'm feeling intolerant of an evangelical's efforts, I remind myself that the religion gets some good, street-level results. People helping out other people regardless of their stripes or clan is not something to scoff at. It's serious business.

I remember chatting with a Master Corporal in the Canadian Armed Forces over beers and a bonfire one night. He was talking about working in the Former Yugoslavia, and lamenting how tribal tensions -- little nations, little cliques -- threatened to drive apart even the simplest efforts, like forming a parent-teacher association for the school board. Nothing was possible when like only co-operated with like.

"If they didn't already call themselves Christians," the self-described atheist serviceman told me, "I'd say they needed to be saved."

Food for thought.

Meanwhile, I have to finish Chapter 1 of The Extra Cars and get that posted. See you all in the next thread!

Love,
Cheeseburger Brown

sheik yerbouti said...

[CBB tells a beer story]

...proving once again that sometimes atheists have a better handle on the nature of Christ than do we who call ourselves Christians.

Also, thanks for the extra detail (I really wanted to yell "Shouldn't you be finishing our story? Come on, GIVE!"). Forgive me for insinuating that you were foolish enough to form your opinions on the basis of those two things; originally the KC bit was a throwaway remark, but darned if I didn't manage to muddy the waters with it.

Sith Snoopy said...

CBB, Etc.,

I have to say I've often seen more non-Christian people act in a truly Christian fashion, and more self-proclaimed Christians acting deplorably.

Being Christian doesn't mean you've suddenly become perfect, unfortunately, just that you're forgiven and that you should try to be a living example of Christ. [Or rather, that you should let God work on you to change you into that living example, as you're not going to get there on your own power. Heh, which I keep forgetting...]

But people still fall on their faces, and also many people who claim to be Christian aren't really. They talk the talk, but don't necessarily really believe, nor do they walk the walk.

One of my Buddhist friends puts alot of Christians to shame, in my book. He bent over backwards, giving of himself to his community down in Los Angeles. He was a substitute teacher, and also tried to be a cop... not sure how the latter endeavor worked out. I've unfortunately lost contact with him... I hope he's doing well.

My husband has unfortunately been exposed to more "Christians acting badly" than otherwise. :P I've been exposed to both good and bad Christians.

Before you ask, I am NOT an example of a "good Christian". All I feel I can claim is that I'm forgiven. I am certainly NOT a saint. :P I'm definitely a "work in progress", and I often don't make it easy for God to make any improvements on me. :P

The comment your Master Corporal made made me both laugh and lament. It's often so true.

CBB, I'm sorry you've had such strange comments from well-meaning Christians. I do believe that life has more meaning if you have a relationship with God/Christ. But I wouldn't call your life meaningless! I do believe that our lives are better with Christ, even if we don't think our lives are that bad w/o Him. It's just hard to see that sometimes from the non-Christian perspective.

[Although I'm sure a Buddhist, a Jew, or a Muslim, etc., would probably say the same thing: "It's better in my religion that outside it, even if the outsiders can't see that from their perspective."]

It's kindof like living most of your life w/o running water, and then going someplace where you can use a toilet and bathe regularly and not have to cart water from a river every day... you didn't know what you were missing until you got it! I think being a Christian is kindof like that.

Your life doesn't necessarily get easier as a Christian. Matter of fact, it usually gets harder! [Heh, now you have a water bill from the city! ;) ] But the running water makes up for that, and still makes you see that your existence is better now than it was before.

[Although I confess I often forget and find myself carting water again, for no good reason.]

Anyway, CBB, thank you for your very well thought out and conscientious reply. :) Ditto, Sheik. :)

Sorry, guys... I wrote a book again.

Gateway Program said...

CBB said:

"If there is a super-nature, it's bound to be orders of magnitude more baffling than the already sufficiently baffling physics we presently enjoy."

Douglas Adams said:

"There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened."

Matt C said...

Just found this quote on another blog, seemed appropriate for this discussion:

"Many religious believers hold their convictions for reasons which are indeed questionable; a quick appraisal of the reasons for which modern atheists hold theirs shows that they are comparable, and as Hitchins’ style of condemnation suggests, they are just as much the fruits of passion. The faults of religion are not because its adherents are fanatics or obscurantists, but because they are humans."

(Edward Norman, reviewing a book by Christopher Hitchins)

For full disclosure, I am the above poster ("Gateway Program") -- I accidentally posted using the institutional account instead of my own.