Prompted by a discussion with a friend about the preponderance of phallocentric religions.We were trying to think of counterexamples!
Winter is coming. Here in Indiana, we’ll drop to a mere nine hours of sun. I’ve set a lightbox on my desk. SAD lamps might be placebos, but when you’re dealing with brain states, a placebo you believe in is as good as any other cure!
For a long, long time – from a few million until about a hundred thousand years ago – our ancestors mostly lived near the equator. For them, changing seasons didn’t mean dramatic shifts in sunlight, but rather cycles of rainfall, plant growth, and animal migrations.
After the last ice age, though, Homo sapiens spread across the globe. Some ventured far from the equator, settling in the northernmost reaches of Eurasia, Greenland, and North America, as well as the southern tip of South America.
Among these people – inhabitants of extreme latitudes around the world – the winter solstice was likely the scariest day each year.
After the equinox, each day had been shorter than the last. The sun arced ever lower through the sky. Even at high noon, the low sun gave so little warmth. The source of all life on Earth, and it seemed to be dying!
Around the world, all our ancestors were careful observers of nature. Wherever they lived, they learned the rhythms of their homeland: when each plant would bloom, when large herds of animals might trundle over the horizon.
The ancient people of the far north had seen the sun seem to vanish before. Each year, the sun had dropped low in the sky for winter. The days had grown short. Then spring had come, the sun rose high, the days grew long again.
That’s what their grandparents had seen, what their parents had seen, what they’d seen happen before. But no one knew yet why it happened, so they couldn’t be certain that it would happen again. Perhaps this year, on the day after the winter solstice, they’d wake to a gut-wrenching nightmare: sunrise coming later than it had the day before. Perhaps this would be the year that the sun sank and sank, dipping beneath the horizon to never rise again.
And so they threw a festival. That’s often the way of it: we celebrate to stave off fear. Among people at extreme latitudes, the solstice often became a day of worship. A day to praise the most high, imploring the light to come back.
Long after, as Christianity traveled north – the solstice hadn’t been as important in Jerusalem since the sun’s seasonal movements seem less threatening near the equator – their lord’s birth migrated to coincide with the winter solstice. The new converts were already celebrating on this day; Christianity gave them something else to celebrate.
At Stonehenge, the sun rises between the rocks on the winter solstice. Like the birth of Jesus, the solstice was a celebration of (re-)birth.
The previous year’s sun was dying. Sinking from the sky! The winter sunset wanes from the axis of the monument.
On the morning after, a new sun will be born, ready to grow and gain vigor through the year.
The new sun’s first moments – its first rays at sunrise – emerge from between the legs of the monument. A celebration of motherhood, the assembled stones abstractly depict a circle of women: here the legs, the pelvis, the origin of us all.
Like Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde – “The Origin of the World” – at Stonehenge they celebrated the beauty that could birth a sun.
This is part of a series of essays prepared to discuss in jail.
Our bodies are chaos engines.
In our nearby environment, we produce order. We form new memories. We build things. We might have sex and create new life. From chaos, structure.
As we create local order, though, we radiate disorder into the universe.
The laws of physics work equally well whether time is moving forward or backward. The only reason we experience time as flowing forward is that the universe is progressing from order into chaos.
In the beginning, everything was homogeneous. The same stuff was present everywhere. Now, some regions of the universe are different from others. One location contains our star; another location, our planet. Each of our bodies is very different from the space around us.
This current arrangement is more disorderly than the early universe, but less so than what our universe will one day become. Life is only possible during this intermediate time, when we are able to eat structure and excrete chaos.
Sunlight shines on our planet – a steady stream of high-energy photons all pointed in the same direction. Sunshine is orderly. But then plants eat sunshine and carbon dioxide to grow. Animals eat the plants. As we live, we radiate heat – low-energy photons that spill from our bodies in all directions.
The planet Earth, with all its life, acts like one big chaos engine. We absorb photons from the sun, lower their energy, increase their number, and scatter them.
We’ll continue until we can’t.
Our universe is mostly filled with empty space.
But empty space does not stay empty. Einstein’s famous equation, E equals M C squared, describes the chance that stuff will suddenly pop into existence. This happens whenever a region of space gathers too much energy.
Empty space typically has a “vacuum energy” of one billionth of a joule per cubic meter. An empty void the size of our planet would have about as much energy as a teaspoon of sugar. Which doesn’t seem like much. But even a billionth of a joule is thousands of times higher than the energy needed to summon electrons into being.
And there are times when a particular patch of vacuum has even more energy than that.
According to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, time and energy can’t be defined simultaneously. Precision in time causes energy to spread – the energy becomes both lower and higher than you expected.
In practice, the vacuum energy of a particular region of space will seem to waver. Energy is blurry, shimmering over time.
There are moments when even the smallest spaces have more than enough energy to create new particles.
Objects usually appear in pairs: a particle and its anti-particle. Anti-matter is exactly like regular matter except that each particle has an opposite charge. In our world, protons are positive and electrons are negative, but an anti-proton is negative and an anti-electron is positive.
If a particle and its anti-particle find each other, they explode.
When pairs of particles appear, they suck up energy. Vacuum energy is stored inside them. Then the particles waffle through space until they find and destroy each other. Energy is returned to the void.
This constant exchange is like the universe breathing. Inhale: the universe dims, a particle and anti-particle appear. Exhale: they explode.
Our universe is expanding. Not only are stars and galaxies flying away from each other in space, but also empty space itself is growing. The larger a patch of nothingness, the faster it will grow. In a stroke of blandness, astronomers named the force powering this growth “dark energy.”
Long ago, our universe grew even faster than it does today. Within each small fraction of a second, our universe doubled in size. Tiny regions of space careened apart billions of times faster than the speed of light.
This sudden growth was extremely improbable. For this process to begin, the energy of a small space had to be very, very large. But the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle claims that – if we wait long enough – energy can take on any possible value. Before the big bang, our universe had a nearly infinite time to wait.
After that blip, our universe expanded so quickly because the vacuum of space was perched temporarily in a high-energy “metastable” state. Technically balanced, but warily. Like a pencil standing on its tip. Left alone, it might stay there forever, but the smallest breath of air would cause this pencil to teeter and fall.
Similarly, a tiny nudge caused our universe to tumble back to its expected energy. A truly stable vacuum. The world we know today was born – still growing, but slowly.
During the time of rapid expansion, empty vacuum had so much energy that particles stampeded into existence. The world churned with particles, all so hot that they zipped through space at nearly the speed of light.
For some inexplicable reason, for every billion pairs of matter and anti-matter, one extra particle of matter appeared. When matter and anti-matter began to find each other and explode, this billionth extra bit remained.
This small surplus formed all of stars in the sky. The planets. Ourselves.
Meditation is like blinking. You close your eyes, time passes, then you open your eyes again. Meditation is like a blink where more time passes.
But more is different.
Our early universe was filled with the smallest possible particles. Quarks, electrons, and photons. Because their energy was so high, they moved too fast to join together. Their brilliant glow filled the sky, obscuring our view of anything that had happened before.
As our universe expanded, it cooled. Particles slowed down. Three quarks and an electron can join to form an atom of hydrogen. Two hydrogen atoms can join to form hydrogen gas. And as you combine more and more particles together, your creations can be very different from a hot glowing gas. You can form molecules, cells, animals, societies.
When a cloud of gas is big enough, its own gravity can pull everything inward. The cloud becomes more and more dense until nuclear fusion begins, releasing energy just like a nuclear bomb. These explosions keep the cloud from shrinking further.
The cloud has become a star.
Nuclear fusion occurs because atoms in the center of the cloud are squooshed too close together. They merge: a few small atoms become one big atom. If you compared their weights – four hydrogens at the start, one helium at the finish – you’d find that a tiny speck of matter had disappeared. And so, according to E equals M C squared, it released a blinding burst of energy.
The largest hydrogen bomb detonated on Earth was 50 megatons – the Kuz’kina Mat tested in Russia in October, 1961. It produced a mushroom cloud ten times the height of Mount Everest. This test explosion destroyed houses hundreds of miles away.
Every second, our sun produces twenty billion times more energy than this largest Earth-side blast.
Eventually, our sun will run out of fuel. Our sun shines because it turns hydrogen into helium, but it is too light to compress helium into any heavier atoms. Our sun has burned for about four billion years, and it will probably survive for another five billion more. Then the steady inferno of nuclear explosions will end.
When a star exhausts its fuel, gravity finally overcomes the resistance of the internal explosions. The star shrinks. It might crumple into nothingness, becoming a black hole. Or it might go supernova – recoiling like a compressed spring that slips from your hand – and scatter its heavy atoms across the universe.
Planets are formed from the stray viscera of early stars.
Our universe began with only hydrogen gas. Every type of heavier atom – carbon, oxygen, iron, plutonium – was made by nuclear explosions inside the early stars.
When a condensing cloud contains both hydrogen gas and particulates of heavy atoms, the heavy atoms create clumps that sweep through the cloud far from its center. Satellites, orbiting the star. Planets.
Nothing more complicated than atoms can form inside stars. It’s too hot – the belly of our sun is over twenty million degrees. Molecules would be instantly torn apart. But planets – even broiling, meteor-bombarded planets – are peaceful places compared to stars.
Molecules are long chains of atoms. Like atoms, molecules are made from combinations of quarks and electrons. The material is the same – but there’s more of it.
More is different.
Some atoms have an effect on our bodies. If you inhale high concentrations of oxygen – an atom with eight protons – you’ll feel euphoric and dizzy. If you drink water laced with lithium – an atom with three protons – your brain might become more stable.
But the physiological effects of atoms are crude compared to molecules. String fifty-three atoms together in just the right shape – a combination of two oxygens, twenty-one carbons, and thirty hydrogens – and you’ll have tetrahydrocannibol. String forty-nine atoms together in just the right shape – one oxygen, three nitrogens, twenty carbons, and twenty-five hydrogens – and you’ll have lysergic acid diethylamide.
The effects of these molecules are very different from the effects of their constituent parts. You’d never predict what THC feels like after inhaling a mix of oxygen, carbon, and hydrogen gas.
An amino acid is comparable in scale to THC or LSD, but our bodies aren’t really made of amino acids. We’re built from proteins – anywhere from a few dozen to tens of thousands of amino acids linked together. Proteins are so large that they fold into complex three-dimensional shapes. THC has its effect because some proteins in your brain are shaped like catcher’s mitts, and the cannibinoid nestles snuggly in the pocket of the glove.
Molecules the size of proteins can make copies of themselves. The first life-like molecules on Earth were long strands of ribonucleic acid – RNA. A strand of RNA can replicate as it floats through water. RNA acts as a catalyst – it speeds up the reactions that form other molecules, including more RNA.
Eventually, some strands of RNA isolated themselves inside bubbles of soap. Then the RNA could horde – when a particular sequence of RNA catalyzed reactions, no other RNA would benefit from the molecules it made. The earliest cells were bubbles that could make more bubbles.
Cells can swim. They eat. They live and die. Even single-celled bacteria have sex: they glom together, build small channels linking their insides to each other, and swap DNA.
But with more cells, you can make creatures like us.
Consciousness is an emergent property. With a sufficient number of neuron cells connected to each other, a brain is able to think and plan and feel. In humans, 90 billion neuron cells direct the movements of a 30-trillion-cell meat machine.
Humans are such dexterous clever creatures that we were able to discover the origin of our universe. We’ve dissected ourselves so thoroughly that we’ve seen the workings of cells, molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles.
But a single human animal, in isolation, never could have learned that much.
Individual humans are clever, but to form a culture complex enough to study particle physics, you need more humans. Grouped together, we are qualitatively different. The wooden technologies of Robinson Crusoe, trapped on a desert island, bear little resemblance to the vaulted core of a particle accelerator.
English writing uses just 26 letters, but these can be combined to form several hundred thousand different words, and these can be combined to form an infinite number of different ideas.
More is different. The alphabet alone couldn’t give anyone insight into the story of your life.
Meditation is like a blink where more time passes, but the effect is very different.
Many religions praise the value of meditation, especially in their origin stories. Before Jesus began his ministry, he meditated for 40 days in the Judaean Desert – his mind’s eye saw all the world’s kingdoms prostrate before him, but he rejected that power in order to spread a philosophy of love and charity.
Before Buddha began his ministry, he meditated for 49 days beneath the Bodhi tree – he saw a path unfurl, a journey that would let travelers escape our world’s cycle of suffering.
Before Odin began his ministry, he meditated for 9 days while hanging from a branch of Yggdrasil, the world tree – Odin felt that he died, was reborn, and could see the secret language of the universe shimmering beneath him.
The god Shiva meditated in graveyards, smearing himself with crematory ash.
At its extreme, meditation is purportedly psychedelic. Meditation can induce brain states that are indistinguishable from LSD trips when visualized by MRI. Meditation isolates the brain from its surroundings, and isolation can trigger hallucination.
Researchers have found that meditation can boost our moods, attentiveness, cognitive flexibility, and creativity. Our brains are plastic – changeable. We can alter the way we experience the world. Many of our thoughts are the result of habit. Meditation helps us change those habits. Any condition that is rooted in our brain – like depression, insomnia, chronic pain, or addiction – can be helped with meditation.
To meditate, we have to sit, close our eyes, and attempt not to think. This is strikingly difficult. Our brains want to be engaged. After a few minutes, most people experience a nagging sense that we’re wasting time.
But meditation gives our minds a chance to re-organize. To structure ourselves. And structure is the property that allows more of something to become different. Squirrels don’t form complex societies – a population of a hundred squirrels will behave similarly to a population of a million or a billion. Humans form complex webs of social interactions – as our numbers grew through history, societies changed in dramatic ways.
Before there was structure, our entire universe was a hot soup of quarks and electrons, screaming through the sky. Here on Earth, these same particles can be organized into rocks, or chemicals, or squirrels, or us. How we compose ourselves is everything.
The easiest form of meditation uses mantras – this is sometimes called “transcendental meditation” by self-appointed gurus who charge people thousands of dollars to participate in retreats. Each attendee is given a “personalized” mantra, a short word or phrase to intone silently with every breath. The instructors dole mantras based on a chart, and each is Sanskrit. They’re meaningless syllables to anyone who doesn’t speak the language.
Any two-syllable word or phrase should work equally well, but you’re best off carving something uplifting into your brain. “Make peace” or “all one” sound trite but are probably more beneficial than “more hate.” The Sanskrit phrase “sat nam” is a popular choice, which translates as “truth name” or more colloquially as “to know the true nature of things.”
The particular mantra you choose matters less than the habit – whichever phrase you choose, you should use it for every practice. Because meditation involves sitting motionless for longer than we’re typically accustomed, most people begin by briefly stretching. Then sit comfortably. Close your eyes. As you breathe in, silently think the first syllable of your chosen phrase. As you breathe out, think the second.
Repeating a mantra helps to crowd out other thoughts, as well as distractions from your environment. Your mind might wander – if you catch yourself, just try to get back to repeating your chosen phrase. No one does it perfectly, but practice makes better. When a meditation instructor’s students worried that their practice wasn’t good enough, he told them that “even on a shallow dive, you still get wet.”
In a quiet space, you might take a breath every three to six seconds. In a noisy room, you might need to breathe every second, thinking the mantra faster to block out external sound. The phrase is a tool to temporarily isolate your mind from the world.
Most scientific studies recommend you meditate for twenty minutes at a time, once or twice a day, each and every day. It’s not easy to carve out this much time from our daily routines. Still, some is better than nothing. Glance at a clock before you close your eyes, and again after you open them. Eventually, your mind will begin to recognize the passage of time. After a few weeks of practice, your body might adopt the approximate rhythm of twenty minutes.
Although meditation often feels pointless during the first week of practice, there’s a difference between dabbling and a habit. Routine meditation leads to benefits that a single experience won’t.
When we attended my grandmother’s memorial service, my children sat in the front pew. They flanked my mother and mostly succeeded in sitting quietly, despite having just ridden for two hours in the car. We were proud.
The service was held inside the Presbyterian church where my grandmother worked for twenty-five years. Large stained glass windows poured colorful light into the room. The walls were adorned with Christmas decorations.
“It’s so beautiful,” said our five-year-old.
The minister was wearing a white robe with gold trim. Before he began to describe my grandmother’s complicated hair and meticulous proofreading, he told stories about Jesus. “We must welcome the Lord into our heart,” he said from the pulpit.
“Myrtle has joined Him there,” he said.
Our younger child – three-and-a-half – turned and asked, quite loudly and clear as a bell, “Which sky ghost do these people believe in?”
Driving home from the ceremony, the song “Heaven’s Only Wishful” by MorMor came on the radio.
“Heaven is the name of the sky ghost kingdom in Christianity. That religion isn’t always kind toward women – there were thirteen apostles, but one was a woman and the people who wrote the Bible left her out – so there isn’t a queen in the stories about Heaven. There’s a prince, the kid, Jesus, and there’s a king, the father, usually just called God, or Yahweh, and there’s a grandfather figure, the Holy Ghost.”
“And maybe you’ve seen in books … like in Mr. Putter and Tabby, whenever Mr. Putter really likes something he says it’s ‘heavenly.’ Which means the cake or whatever is so good that you could serve it in the sky ghost kingdom. Even Jesus would think it was delicious.”
“His grandfather is a ghost?” exclaimed our youngest.
“When your father said ‘grandfather figure,’ maybe he misspoke,” my spouse said. “When people feel moved, when they see or hear something really beautiful, sometimes they say they’ve been visited by the Holy Ghost.”
I clarified. “But that’s how people think about their grandparents – and great-grandparents, and great-greats – in a lot of religions that include ancestor worship. Do you remember in Moana when her grandmother comes to visit her?”
Of course they remembered. Our kids love Moana. When they’re sick, they listen to the Moana soundtrack. Twice a year – to celebrate special events like the winter solstice or the end of school – they watch the movie on my tiny laptop computer screen.
“Her grandmother came and sang to her. But her grandmother had died. She wasn’t reallythere. They drew it that way because they wanted to show you how it felt. It was as though her grandmother had come to her, and that gave her the courage to do a really hard thing, to take back the heart all by herself.”
“Take it to Te Kā, the lava monster!”
“Yes, the lava monster. But the difference is that in cultures like Moana’s – and Daoism in China, some Native American religions here – the ghost or spirit who visits is your ancestor. Someone personal. Family. The story in Christianity is that everyone shares the same dead grandfather figure, the Holy Ghost.”
“I would want you to visit me, Mama,” said our older kid. Which I believe was meant sweetly, like I want you instead of the Holy Ghost, and not I want you instead of my pedantic parent.
“Yeah,” agreed our younger. “I’d want Mama. And Te Kā!”
Ah, yes. From lava monsters do we draw our strength. I’ve clearly taught my children well.
beginning of Genesis, God said, Let there be light: and there was
In her magisterial new novel The Raven Tower, Ann Leckie continues with this simple premise: a god is an entity whose words are true.
might say, “The sky is green.” Well,
personally I remember it being blue, but I am not a god. Within the world of The Raven Tower,
after the god announces that the sky is green, the sky will become
green. If the god is sufficiently
powerful, that is. If the god is too
weak, then the sky will stay blue, which means the statement is not true, which
means that the thing who said “The sky is green” is not a god. It was a god, sure, but now it’s dead.
And so the deities learn to be very cautious with their language, enumerating cases and provisions with the precision of a contemporary lawyer drafting contractual agreements (like the many “individual arbitration” agreements that you’ve no doubt assented to, which allow corporations to strip away your legal rights as a citizen of this country. But, hey, I’m not trying to judge – I have signed those lousy documents, too. It’s difficult to navigate the modern world without stumbling across them).
careless sentence could doom a god.
But if a god were sufficiently powerful, it could say anything, trusting that its words would reshape the fabric of the universe. And so the gods yearn to become stronger — for their own safety in addition to all the other reasons that people seek power.
In The Raven Tower, the only way for gods to gain strength is through human faith. When a human prays or conducts a ritual sacrifice, a deity grows stronger. But human attention is finite (which is true in our own world, too, as demonstrated so painfully by our attention-sapping telephones and our attention-monopolizing president).
And so, like pre-monopoly corporations vying for market share, the gods battle. By conquering vast kingdoms, a dominant god could receive the prayers of more people, allowing it to grow even stronger … and so be able to speak more freely, inured from the risk that it will not have enough power to make its statements true.
haven’t yet read The Raven Tower, you should. The theological underpinnings are brilliant,
the characters compelling, and the plot so craftily constructed that both my
spouse and I stayed awake much, much too late while reading it.
Raven Tower, only human faith feeds gods.
The rest of the natural world is both treated with reverence – after all,
that bird, or rock, or snake might be a god – and yet also objectified. There is little difference between a bird and
a rock, either of which might provide a fitting receptacle for a god but
neither of which can consciously pray to empower a god.
our own world hosts several species that communicate in ways that resemble
human language, in The Raven Tower the boundary between human and
non-human is absolute. Within The
Raven Tower, this distinction feels totally sensible – after all, that
entire world was conjured through Ann Leckie’s assiduous use of human language.
people mistakenly believe that they are living in that fantasy world.
In the recent philosophical treatise Thinking and Being, for example, Irad Kimhi attempts to describe what is special about thought, particularly thoughts expressed in a metaphorical language like English, German, or Greek. (Kimhi neglects mathematical languages, which is at times unfortunate. I’ve written previously about how hard it is to translate certain concepts from mathematics into metaphorical languages like we speak with, and Kimhi fills many pages attempting to precisely articulate the concept of “compliments” from set theory, which you could probably understand within moments by glancing at a Wikipedia page.)
does use English assiduously, but I’m dubious that a metaphorical language was
the optimal tool for the task he set himself.
And his approach was further undermined by flawed assumptions. Kimhi begins with a “Law of Contradiction,”
in which he asserts, following Aristotle, that it is impossible for a thing
simultaneously to be and not to be, and that no one can simultaneously
believe a thing to be and not to be.
these assumptions seemed reasonable during the time of Aristotle, but we now
know that they are false.
research findings in quantum mechanics have shown that it is possible
for a thing simultaneously to be and not to be.
An electron can have both up spin and down spin at the same moment, even
though these two spin states are mutually exclusive (the states are “absolute
compliments” in the terminology of set theory).
This seemingly contradictory state of both being and not being is what
allows quantum computing to solve certain types of problems much faster than
a rebuttal for the psychological formulation, we have the case of free
will. Our brains, which generate
consciousness, are composed of ordinary matter.
Ordinary matter evolves through time according to a set of known,
predictable rules. If the matter
composing your brain was non-destructively scanned at sufficient resolution,
your future behavior could be predicted.
Accurate prediction would demonstrate that you do not have free will.
it feels impossible not to believe in the existence of free will. After all, we make decisions. I perceive myself to be choosing the words
that I type.
sincerely, simultaneously believe that humans both do and do not
have free will. And I assume that most
other scientists who have pondered this question hold the same pair of
seemingly contradictory beliefs.
of Contradiction” is not a great assumption to begin with. Kimhi also objectifies nearly all conscious
life upon our planet:
consciousness of one’s thinking must involve the identification of its
syncategorematic difference, and hence is essentially tied up with the use of
thinker is also a determinable being.
This book presents us with the task of trying to understand our being,
the being of human beings, as that of determinable thinkers.
Raven Tower is a fantasy novel. Within that world, it was reasonable that
there would be a sharp border separating humans from all other animals. There are also warring gods, magical spells,
and sacred objects like a spear that never misses or an amulet that makes
Kimhi purports to be writing about our world.
In Mama’s Last Hug, biologist Frans de Waal discusses many more instances of human thinkers brazenly touting their uniqueness. If I jabbed a sharp piece of metal through your cheek, it would hurt. But many humans claimed that this wouldn’t hurt a fish.
will bleed. And writhe. Its body will produce stress hormones. But humans claimed that the fish was not
actually in pain.
They were wrong.
consensus view is now that fish do feel pain.
may well ask why it has taken so long to reach this conclusion, but a parallel
case is even more baffling. For the
longest time, science felt the same about human babies. Infants were considered sub-human organisms
that produced “random sounds,” smiles simply as a result of “gas,” and couldn’t
scientists conducted torturous experiments on human infants with needle pricks,
hot and cold water, and head restraints, to make the point that they feel
nothing. The babies’ reactions were
considered emotion-free reflexes. As a
result, doctors routinely hurt infants (such as during circumcision or invasive
surgery) without the benefit of pain-killing anesthesia. They only gave them curare, a muscle
relaxant, which conveniently kept the infants from resisting what was being
done to them.
the 1980s did medical procedures change, when it was revealed that babies have
a full-blown pain response with grimacing and crying. Today we read about these experiments with
disbelief. One wonders if their pain
response couldn’t have been noticed earlier!
skepticism about pain applies not just to animals, therefore, but to any
organism that fails to talk. It is as if
science pays attention to feelings only if they come with an explicit verbal
statement, such as “I felt a sharp pain when you did that!” The importance we attach to language is just
ridiculous. It has given us more than a
century of agnosticism with regard to wordless pain and consciousness.
From this lecture, I also
learned that I was probably circumcised without anesthesia as a newborn. Luckily, I don’t remember this procedure, but
some people do. Chamberlain describes
several such patients, and, with my own kids, I too have been surprised by how
commonly they’ve remembered and asked about things that happened before they
had learned to talk.
didn’t subject them to any elective surgical procedures, anesthesia or no.
world, even creatures that don’t speak with metaphorical language have
Leckie does include a bridge between the world of The Raven Tower and
our own. Although language does not
re-shape reality, words can create empathy.
We validate other lives as meaningful when we listen to their stories.
narrator of The Raven Tower chooses to speak in the second person to a
character in the book, a man who was born with a body that did not match his
mind. Although human thinkers have not
always recognized this truth, he too has a story worth sharing.
In fantasy novels, trees walk upon their roots and battle with their limbs. That makes sense to me. If I think about two trees interacting, I consider the branches; the taller tree shades the other, limiting its competitor’s growth.
But my perspective is upside down. Trees are standing on the sky, reaching for one another through the earth. They listen underground. They communicate down there, passing messages to one another, or even meals.
their branches grope for sunlight in the unconscious way that my kids’s feet
seek warmth like homing missiles while they sleep. I try to roll over only to find somebody’s
toes wedged under my back.
year, trees inch their feet toward the sun.
And their engaging social lives are hidden from me, buried
underground. My reflexive perspective gives
me an inverted image of a tree’s world.
not alone in this misunderstanding.
hold our heads high as we walk across the ground. A major source of tension in human evolution
was arranging our skeletons in such a way that we could walk upright without
too many women dying in childbirth – our posture constrains the shape of the
Although some species do exhibit dramatically different body morphs between males and females, it’s more common for evolutionary changes in one sex to diffusely alter the other. Club-winged manakins have bones that are more dense than other birds, which makes them worse at flying. All club-winged manakins fly poorly, male and female, even though only the males use their dense bones to produce mate-luring music. Or consider the orgasms and nipples of Homo sapiens, which fulfill important biological purposes in one sex, and serve as a vestigial source of fun for the other.
prehistoric times, men and women probably hunted together. The evidence is especially compelling for
human populations like the Neanderthal in southern Europe, who lived in such
small groups that they would be unable to kill large prey without help from everyone
in the group. But even if prehistoric
men had hunted alone, their upright stance and endurance running would have
introduced an evolutionary pressure constricting the width of a human pelvis.
ancestors first descended from the trees to scavenge meat from lions’
kills. Eventually, they began to
hunt. Their strategy was to exhaust and
bewilder their prey, hoping to use the local geography to assist in each
kill. Mammoths were more likely to fall
to their deaths than be slain by hurled spears; mounds of butchered bones
accumulated at the base of particularly useful cliffs.
caloric density of cooked meat allowed our brains to expand … but the embrace
of hunting also caused more women to die in childbirth.
tragically, our upright posture distorts our understanding of the trees that
once harbored our communities. After
all, we live in our heads. It seemed
sensible to us that the most interesting life of a tree would transpire in its
biology doesn’t force us to view the world a certain way, but it
dictates which perspectives are easiest to take.
Because our brains are story-generating organs, human cultures invariably see time as flowing uniformly in a single direction. But for subatomic particles, time appears to be symmetrical; the Feynman diagram of an interaction would appear perfectly plausible progressing either forward or backward.
universe’s progression toward greater entropy, i.e. randomness, seems to
introduce a directionality for time’s arrow.
But there’s no a priori reason to expect a world to progress
toward higher entropy. This
directionality seems to exist only because our particular universe happened to
be in an unstable, low entropy state shortly after the Big Bang.
say most physicists. From my
perspective, I’m content assuming that the past is fixed but the future is
mutable. If I didn’t believe in that
asymmetry – whether it’s real or not – I’d probably lapse into despair.
again, even if we accept that time is flowing, our perspective alters how we
feel about that change.
flow of time progress or decline?
tree’s branches its hands or its feet?
Indian mythology, time is cyclical, but within each cycle it flows toward
corruption. Time passes and the world
grows worse. Currently we are trapped
within a Kali Age, the worst possible world, knowing that all the great heroes
have passed. We are just biding our time
before the world can be destroyed and made good again.
the sunder, time will once again cause that new world’s gleam to fade. Nothing can stave off the encroach of rot.
Judaism, the ancient sages lived longer than we do, and knew more, too. At one point in time, a pair of humans were good:
before long, we disobeyed the whims of God and were exiled from paradise.
Book of Shem, David Kishik writes that
original means to linger by the origin and insist on it. The task is to avoid the progression toward a
future or an end, and to stop the narrative before it develops any
further. In this sense, and in this
sense only, the origin is a worthwhile goal.
Hence in Hebrew forward (kadima) is related to what is ancient (kadum),
just as backward (achora) is linked to what is last (acharon).
humans want to reclaim the imagined glories of the past.
America great again, perhaps.
personally think that many recent technological developments in our world are
bad. We’ve designed distracting,
addicting telephones, and we’re putting them into the hands of children. Our brains evolved to be extremely plastic,
which let our species adapt to a wide variety of circumstances … but this
neural plasticity allows exposure to fabulous, drug-like devices to
dramatically alter our brains, probably for the worse.
we’ve designed distracting, addicting advertising platforms – these siphon huge
amounts of money away from productive industries, and the perverse economic
incentives we’ve constructed allow these companies, alongside equally-unhelpful
investment banks, to lure many of the most clever college graduates to their
But I’m certainly no Luddite, pining for a purer past. The world was a terrible place for so many people. Although I appreciate the thesis that Yuval Noah Harari presents in Sapiens– that the invention of agriculture made people’s lives worse than when all humans were hunters and gatherers – I see those grim millennia as akin to the hump in a chemical reaction, a transition that must be traversed in order to reach the desired products.
generations, most people scraped out a miserable existence by subsistence
farming. Their lives were worse than
their ancestors’. But we, now,
can feed so many people so easily that we could make our world into a paradise.
not doing it, but we could.
At least we’re making baby steps toward a society in which people aren’t punished for their genetic background, or gender, or religious beliefs. I mean, even in the United States we still treat women shabbily; across the country, racist police departments beleaguer Black citizens; atheists and Muslims are eyed with distrust.
used to be worse.
And, sure, even if we were the best of stewards, our planet would eventually be doomed. Even if we don’t exhaust the resources here on Earth, the sun will run out of energy and bloat to engulf our world in a ball of fire. Maybe that’s fine. Death is a part of my life; perhaps I should look upon extinction as a natural part of humanity’s journey through time.
so cool to image people someday spreading amongst the stars. I dream about the future. And hope against hope – despite overpopulation,
climate change, and all – that my children will find a better world than the
one I’ve been living in.
perspective, time will let us make the world better.
it surely won’t happen on its own. We
will have to work to make it better. The
work might not be that hard. Just live
the way you would if the world were already the place it ought to be.
Kishik begins his lovely theological meditation The Book of Shem by
pondering the inverted grammar that opens Genesis. Instead of a typical subject verb direct
object construction, the first sentence of the original Hebrew text is
arranged adverb verb subject direct object.
Kishik, “This is an odd grammatical construction, not only in English
(compare ‘Yesterday walked Joseph’) but also in Hebrew.” Odd, although not totally outlandish.
questions whether the grammar was actually strange, however. What if the book of Genesis opens with a
perfectly normal sentence that is intended to convey a bizarre idea,
instead. The first word, which everyone
presumes to be an adverb, might instead refer to a power above even Yahweh
himself (“Bereshit” in Hebrew, commonly rendered as “In the beginning” in
have something like:
created (a) god, the heavens and the earth.
It seems implausible that Kishik, or anyone, would consider this translation to be what the original authors of Genesis intended. Even if the translation itself were more plausible, this interpretation is divorced from the actual religious practices that treat Genesis as a foundational text. Religions use the book, but no religion is defined by a text alone.
seem bizarre for InTheBeginning, the mysterious pre-civilized force, to be
mentioned only once, at the moment when he creates our Lord. But Kishik pursues this idea through an
entire arc of environmentally-conscious speculation. If InTheBeginning created Yahweh, then
Yahweh’s formidable jealousy becomes comprehensible. We can understand why Yahweh might
compulsively, almost tic-ishly, appraise the quality of his own creations: … and
God saw that it was good.
begins by misinterpreting Genesis, but this allows him to make interesting
discoveries along the way. He concludes
that, just as InTheBeginning was a pre-human, pre-lingual force able to create
God, there must be a symmetrical post-human, post-textual void for the world to
return to. Although God made a covenant (Genesis
9:11) promising not to destroy the planet, He does not possess total control.
not kill us. But he may not be able to
save us. We humans might destroy this
we’re well on our way.
raised in a mostly secular household, and I’m still wary of mysticism (despite
my own belief in free will). I’m quite
obviously an outsider to every religious tradition. But religions shape the way most humans
approach the world, so it behooves all people, myself included, to learn and
think deeply about them.
outsiders must occasionally appropriate the right to critique these texts.
important to understand their standard interpretations. But, even from the perspective of an
outsider, a lot of nuance can be revealed through assiduous misinterpretation.
The Book of Shem, although obviously nonstandard, is an enlightening,
standard interpretation, Jesus was sacrificed so that God would forgive us
humans. This is a very traditional myth,
with variants told by many human cultures across the globe. Wrathful deities must be appeased through the
intentional, unwarranted sacrifice of something good.
In The Iliad, the Acheans praise Zeus by slitting the throats of a whole row of young men kneeling in the sand. Abraham bound his son on the mountaintop; the boy survived that day, but a lot of the story’s power comes from the original audience knowing that this sort of sacrifice was common. They would have realized how close Abraham came to plunging down the knife. There are numerous stories about the need to murder beautiful virgins to appease volcanoes, or to ensure good harvests, or to bring back rain.
though Jesus’s sacrifice makes sense within the framework of traditional
mythology, it seems jarring within the context of Christianity, which purports
to worship a kind, merciful god.
Christianity, it actually makes more sense for God to incarnate himself and
suffer greatly so that we humans would forgive Him. He created this world, and this world causes
us to hurt. Until He feels some of the
hurt that He has subjected us to, his apologies would seem insincere.
hopelessness – God subjected Job to these in order to win a bet. He subjects nearly all humans to these travails
as a matter of universal design. He needs
to know the cost that we pay.
hanging from the cross, He could look to Job and say, I understand how you
might have felt.
not what the original authors wanted the Bible to convey. But we’d have a better world if it were.
soon learned that being inside a jail – even as a visitor, there to read poetry
for ninety minutes and then leave – was miserable. But he kept going for an entire year. The people in jail are suffering on behalf of
all U.S. citizens – which meant, on his behalf – so he needed to suffer
students were once encouraged to ingest many different medications, so that
they would understand what the compounds they’d prescribe felt like.
author(s) of the Ramayana intended for Rama to be the greatest possible
man. Within their philosophical
framework, Rama is unambiguously good.
The story is a triumph of the hero.
helpful to look at the myth with modern eyes and willfully misinterpret
it. When we read the story now, Rama
seems flawed because his world was flawed.
end of Rama’s saga his path is blocked by the ocean. His wife is held captive on an island
kingdom; Rama feels helpless, trapped on the shore. And so he threatens violence against the very
launching a powerful assault, I shall with my arrows dry up the ocean together
with its fish and sea monsters and its masses of conch and oyster shells.
lord of the ocean, abode of sea monsters, thinks that, because I am endowed
with forbearance, I am weak. To hell
with forbearance for people like this!
bow and my arrows, which are like venomous serpents, for now in my fury I shall
convulse the imperturbable ocean.
passage was translated collaboratively by Robert Goldman, Sally Sutherland
Goldman, & Barend Nooten. And it is
troubling to see Rama, the ideal man, threaten physical violence to ensure that
the world conforms to his desires.
Goldman and Goldman include the following footnote:
episode, in its rendition by Tulsi Das, is the setting for his famous verse
about how certain things and creatures, including sudras and women, only
perform when beaten. This verse has been
the subject of critique and controversy among members of the women’s movement
and Dalit advocacy groups in contemporary India.
castigate Rama for his words, we are clearly misinterpreting the text. Rama is good within the text, because this
behavior was good within his world. A
man, head of the household, was allowed to beat his wife or servants if they
did not meet his expectations.
Most people would find it difficult to read Rudyard Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden” with a straight face now. But, in another revealing misinterpretation, proponents of the Dravidar Kazhagam movement have found parallels between the Ramayana itself and a Kipling-esque tale of colonial conquest and oppression. In the Ramayana, light-skinned north Indians execute a south Indian king, subjugate the local populace, and install their own ruler. (I’ve written about this interpretation previously, here.)
itself, along with the oppressions of the caste system, seems to have reached
south India in this way. The original
conquest probably occurred around the time that the Ramayana was
composed, although the spread of Hinduism was not yet complete even many
centuries of years later, when Kipling’s British white men arrived to make
matters even worse.
When I asked my mother and my uncle about our ancestors, they
started with their grandparents’ generation, the earliest one they’d known.
Their grandfather and grandmother were born in the late 1800s in the
Khammam district, within what later became the state of Andhra Pradesh, where
they lived as part of a nomadic clan.
Their clan did not practice agriculture.
They subsisted on fruits, on roots, on honey, on whatever they could
catch or snare. They were not
Hindus. They worshiped their own tribal
goddesses and had little to do with society outside the forest where they
When the British cleared the forests for teak plantations, my
great-grandparents’ clan was driven out onto the plains, where the civilized
people, the settled ones, the ones who owned land and knew how to cultivate it
– in a word, the Hindus – lived. The
little clan, wandering outside the forest, found a great lake and settled
around it. There was no sign of human
life for miles and miles. They took up
farming. The land around the lake was
fertile and gave them more than they needed.
They called their new settlement Sankarapadu, after one of their gods.
But soon the civilized people took notice of them. They were discovered by an agent of the local
zamindar – the great landlord appointed by the British to collect revenue in
that area – who saw the rice growing in their fields and levied taxes, keeping
the bulk of what he extracted for himself.
But that was not enough for this agent. He and his family and his caste people moved
nearby and set about stealing the land by force and by cunning. They loaned the clansmen trivial sums at
usurious rates to buy small necessities such as salt, seeds, or new clothes for
a wedding. Unable to pay off these
debts, the villagers gave up their land acre by acre. My ancestors, who had cleared and settled the
area, were reduced to working on their old fields as laborers.
This is what has happened to tribal peoples in India who try to
settle down and cultivate land since time immemorial. It still happens to this day. What set Sankarapadu apart was that the
Hindus who usurped all the fields around it did not settle there
themselves. That’s because the village
is surrounded by fetid swamps filled with poisonous snakes, scorpions, and
thick swarms of mosquitoes. The
landlords settled on safe and elevated ground several miles away in a village
In the forest, my great-grandfather’s clan had had no caste. But in Hindu society everyone is assigned a
place in the caste system. Certain
castes traditionally own land, and others have to work for those who do. For those who must work, the caste you are
born into determines the kind of work you do.
There are priestly castes, carpenter castes, potter castes, barber
castes. The more impure a caste’s
traditional occupation in terms of ritual law, the lower its status.
people of Sankarapadu entered Hindu society with no caste of their own and the
most impure occupation of all, that of landless laborers, there was no question
where their place would be: at the bottom, as despised outcastes. Outcastes are also called untouchables
because they are supposed to be so ritually unclean that the slightest contact
with them will defile even low-caste Hindus.
Untouchables cannot share meals with others, much less intermarry with
them, and are made to live apart from the rest of the village in a segregated
colony on its outskirts. Sankarapadu
became the untouchable colony of Polukonda, albeit an unusually remote on.
The Ramayana was not meant to be a story of oppression. But this misinterpretation has value, because it helps us understand the widespread biases of the author’s world — biases that persist to this day and still cause horrific suffering and violence.
critique will invariably lead us to misinterpret religious texts. That shouldn’t stop us. I’m curious to know what the old stories
would mean if the world were as good as it could be.
Achilles briefly reaped fame and glory, then died in battle. But people continued to speak of his feats with reverence. In the underworld, he was as a god.
Yet Achilles would have
traded everything – lived in squalor as a peasant farmer instead of fighting
alongside kings – if it meant he could still be alive.
“No winning words about
death to me, shining Odysseus!
By god, I’d rather slave
on earth for another man –
some dirt-poor tenant
farmer who scrapes to keep alive –
then rule down here over
all the breathless dead.”
(translated by Robert
The mythologies of ancient
Greece offered no opportunity for resurrection.
As best I can recall, only one person almost managed to live again, and
only because she’d charmed the world’s greatest musician.
Most other religions
postulate that the dead could return.
This seems to be a widespread belief because it gives people hope. It’s easier to face death – our own or the
passing of loved ones – if we think that we could be reborn.
Even contemporary physicists speculate on the possibility of rebirth. Our minds are patterns. If the number of possible patterns is bounded, perhaps because physical space is granular … and if the universe is infinitely large, with an infinite quantity of matter to arrange and rearrange … and if time itself is boundless … then something very much like you will come back. Eventually.
The most probable form of resurrection is as a “Boltzmann brain,” a hypothetical structure in which the random fluctuations of a gaseous cloud temporarily recreates the connectivity as your current mind, including every memory and every perception that you seem to possess right now. Sure, you think you’ve lived here on Earth for years, which would seem to indicate that you’re not just a gaseous floating brain … but there’s no reason why the brain couldn’t blink into existence full of false memories. Your entire past might be a momentarily delusion. Even your present perceptions – everything that you’re experiencing right now, the sights and sounds and feeling of existence – exist within your mind and so could be recreated within a floating cloud.
Indeed, the physicists who
believe our universe to be infinite and eternal think that there would be many
times more “Boltzman brains” than living humans, and so you now are more
likely to be a floating mind than an extant creature. Again and again, they believe, you’ll exist
between the stars.
This speculation seems no
different from any other form of religious belief. Rebirth is rebirth, whether you think that
the pattern that makes you will arise again as an animal, an angel, or a
disembodied spirit in the sky …
But we, as individuals,
are unlikely to return.
More often, it’s religions themselves that are resurrected. They slip away; we strive to bring them back. Like Daoism, Wicca, or Odinism. From Ian Johnson’s recent essay, “In Search of the True Dao,”
Louis Komjathy, a scholar
who diligently seeks authentic Daoism, searches for masters who can initiate
him into a lineage, even though Daoist lineages have been largely destroyed by
the upheavals of the twentieth century.
There is no direct transmission of the ancient wisdom; instead it is a
recreation of a lost past.
At one time, the predominant religion in England was that of the druids and witches. Roman soldiers, who were hoping to conquer the world, reported that these druids were rotten people, bloodthirsty and fond of human sacrifice. Of course, similar slanders have been levied against outsiders throughout human history – Protestant Christians accused Catholics of human sacrifice, Muslims accused Christians of polytheism, Europeans accused Jews of all manner of imaginary ills, and even today many Americans believe Islam to be an inherently violent religion. I don’t think the Roman reports about those evil druids are very credible.
Pagans managed to repel
the Roman invaders. But then, years
later, Christianity spread throughout Europe, displacing the old faiths.
Similarly, the Norse myths we know today were recorded several generations after the populace had converted to Christianity. Poets were worried that no one would be able to read the ancient literature that had inspired them, because Icelandic poets described everything obliquely. For instance, you weren’t supposed to write the word “beer” in a poem; instead, you’d say something like “Odin’s gift,” since there was a myth in which Odin brought a special beer to share with the other gods, or you’d say “the eagle’s gift,” since Odin had changed shape to become an eagle in that story, or “Thor’s challenge,” since there was another myth in which Thor thought he was drinking beer but was actually slurping up the ocean.
And, yes, “Thor’s
challenge” could also mean “ocean.” The
old poems strike me as standoffish – instead of inviting listeners to share an experience,
the poets were challenging people to understand. Poetry not as a gift, but an obtuse riddle
intended to demonstrate how clever the poet is.
(Actually, some contemporary American poetry is like that too, and I
think it’s silly.)
When I read the Norse myths, I can’t help but think that the Christian scribes’ prejudices seeped into the stories. These scribes’ version of Christianity denigrated women – and most of the Norse myths about female heroes were coincidentally lost.
Her prowess had never been
questioned until we learned that she had two X chromosomes.
And so, although we still
have a story explaining that Thor’s greatest battle occurred while he was
wearing a dress, other tales of feminine triumph (which are referenced throughout
the cannon) were left out.
But, even if we still had
the full set of stories, we wouldn’t really understand the viking
religion. With a copy of the Bible, you
wouldn’t really understand Christianity; a copy of the Torah wouldn’t let you
suddenly understand Judaism. In practice,
these religions seek kindness and community, but the underlying texts are
violent and petty. Yahweh felt slighted
and decided to murder millions in a flood.
You’d have a pretty skewed vision of Christianity if that’s how you
thought believers were supposed to behave.
As Anthony Appiah explains in The Lies that Bind, the traditions and practices of a religion are often more important than the foundational documents describing the creed. In practice, the Jewish people of my home town don’t believe that sinners should be drowned in a flood, but rather welcome the lost into interfaith shelters, sharing warm clothes and a meal.
But when violent white supremacists decided to resurrect Odinism based off the preserved Norse myths, they created a strikingly unpleasant religion. They do not know any of the traditions. Instead, they base their beliefs on a handful of stories about the gods’ violent battles against giants, others about a human’s cursed wedding and betrayal.
A deep undercurrent of misogyny courses through much of the world’s mythology. In the Mahabharata (the Indian epic that includes the Bhagavad Gita), the hero’s wife is gambled away by her husband as just another possession after he’d lost his jewels, money, and chariot. She is forced to strip in the middle of the casino; happily, divine intervention provides her with endless layers of garments.
In the Ramayana, the hero’s wife is banished by her husband because her misery in exile is preferable to the townsfolk’s malicious rumors. She’d been kidnapped, so the townsfolk assumed she’d been raped and was therefore tarnished.
In Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey, a woman asks a visiting bard to sing something else when he launches into a description of the calamitous escapade that whisked away her husband. But the woman’s son intervenes:
There is something faintly ridiculous about this wet-behind-the-ears lad shutting up the savvy, middle-aged Penelope. But it is a nice demonstration that right where written evidence for Western culture starts, women’s voices are not being heard in the public sphere. More than that, as Homer has it, an integral part of growing up, as a man, is learning to take control of public utterance and to silence the female of the species.
Belief in women’s inferiority is a long and disheartening part of each [Abrahamic] tradition’s story. For almost all of Jewish history, no woman could become a rabbi. For almost all of Christian history, no woman could become a priest. For almost all of Muslim history, no woman could become a prophet (though scores of men did) or an imam (thousands of men did).
Call in two men as witnesses. If two men are not there, then call one man and two women out of those you approve as witnesses, so that if one of the two women should forget the other can remind her. Let the witnesses not refuse when they are summoned.
Clearly, this is derogatory toward women. But the phrase “if one of the women should forget, the other can remind her” made me think about why disrespectful attitudes toward women were rampant in so many cultures.
I think that, in the society where the Qur’an was composed, women would be more likely to forget the details of a contract. But the problem isn’t biological – I would argue that attentive parents of young children are more forgetful than other people. The parent’s gender is irrelevant here. My own memory was always excellent – during college I was often enrolled in time and a half the standard number of courses, never took notes, and received almost all A’s – but when I’m taking care of my kids, it’s a miracle if I can hold a complex thought in mind for more than a few seconds.
People talk to me, I half-listen while also answering my kids’ questions, doling out snacks, saying no, no book now, wait till we get home, and then my conversation with the grown-up will end and I’ll realize that I have no idea what we just talked about.
Hopefully it wasn’t important.
Parenting obliterates my short-term memory, even though I have it easy. I rarely worry about other parents intentionally poisoning my children, for instance. In The Anthropology of Childhood, David Lancy discusses
… the prevalence of discord within families – especially those that practice polygyny. [Polygyny is one man marrying several women, as was practiced by the people who composed the Qur’an.] This atmosphere can be poisonous for children – literally.
It was widely assumed that co-wives often fatally poisoned each other’s children. I witnessed special dance rituals intended by husbands to deter this behavior. Co-wife aggression is documented in … court cases with confessions and convictions for poisoning … sorcery might have a measurable demographic impact – [given] the extraordinarily high mortality of males compared with females. Males are said to be the preferred targets because daughters marry out of patrilineage whereas sons remain to compete for land. Even if women do not poison each other’s children, widespread hostility of the mother’s co-wife must be a source of stress.
Even when we don’t have to ward off sorcery or murder, parents of young children have shorter attention spans than other people. A kid is often grabbing my leg, or tugging on my hand, or yelling fthhhaaaddda until I turn to look and watch him bellyflop onto a cardboard box.
Once my two children grow up, I should regain my memory. But during most of human evolution, mortality rates were so high that families always had small children. And, unfortunately, our species often established misogynistic patriarchies that believed women alone should do all the work of parenting.
There are a few species, like penguins, in which males and females contribute almost equally to the task of caring for young. But it’s more common for a single parent to get stuck doing most of the work. According to game theory, this makes sense – as soon as one party has put in a little bit more effort than the other, that party has more to lose, and so the other has an increased incentive to shirk. Drawn out over many generations, this can produce creatures like us primates, in which males are often shabby parents.
This is bad for children (in an aside, Lancy writes “I’m tempted to argue that any society with conspicuous gender parity is likely to be a paradise for children.”), bad for women, and bad for men. Inequality hurts everyone – men in patriarchies get to skimp on parental contribution, but they have to live in a less happy, less productive world.
It’s reasonable for the Qur’an to imply that women are less attentive and less able to understand the intricacies of contracts, given that their husbands weren’t helping with the kids. Caring for young children can be like a straitjacket on the brain.
… if what we mean by “human nature” is the Homo sapiens physique, and the “fundamental pattern … [of] social organization” which apparently prevailed when that physique first took shape, then human nature involves the females in a strange bind:
Like the male, she is equipped with a large brain, competent hands, and upright posture. She belongs to an intelligent, playful, exploratory species, inhabiting an expanding environment which it makes for itself and then adapts to. She is the only female, so far as we know, capable of thinking up and bringing about a world wider than the one she sees around her (and her subversive tendency to keep trying to use this capacity is recorded, resentfully, in Eve and Pandora myths).
She thus seems, of all females, the one least fitted to live in a world narrower than the one she sees around her. And yet, for reasons inherent in her evolutionary history, she has been, of all females, the one most fated to do so. Her young are born less mature than those of related mammals; they require more physical care for a relatively longer time; they have much more to learn before they can function without adult supervision.
It hurts to have talents that the world won’t let you use. What good is a massive brain when your kid is just yelling for more Cheerios?
Maybe I’m not doing a good job of selling the idea that “you should pitch in and help with the children” to any potential new fathers out there. It really does make a wreckage of your brain – but I’ve heard that this is temporary, and I’ve met plenty of parents of older children who seem perfectly un-addled.
And it doesn’t have to be fun to be worth doing.
Experiences during early development have ramifications for somebody’s wellbeing. As children grow, they’ll forget narrative details from almost everything that happened during their first few years – but this time establishes the emotional pallet that colors the rest of their life.
It’s strange. After all, most of the work of parenting is just doling out cereal, or answering questions about what life would be like if we stayed at the playground forever, or trying to guess how many different types of birds are chirping during the walk to school. And yet a parent’s attitudes while doing those small things help shape a person.
When most older people look back on their lives, they’ll tell you that their happiest and most rewarding moments were spent interacting with their families. By caring for your children when they’re young, you help determine the sort of person who’ll be in your family. If you’re lucky enough to be so wealthy that you’ll still have food and shelter, parenting decisions matter more for future happiness than a few years’ salary.
The costs are high. But equality, happiness, and establishing a culture of respect should matter to men as well as women.
The best way to show that you value something is to pitch in and do it.
I was named after the doctor who delivered me, a friend of my father’s from medical school.
Dr. Curtis is a gynecologist who has written several popular books about pregnancy. When a woman asked for a tubal ligation after her tenth delivery (two of her children had died in infancy, but by then she was raising eight, ranging in age from a high school sophomore to her newborn), he performed the surgery.
This woman’s husband had given his grudging permission before she came in, but he later decided that irreversible sterilization must be against the will of God. He began to harass Dr. Curtis. He convinced his wife that she had done an evil thing. The couple became so distraught that the hospital forgave their medical bills, hoping to stave off litigation.
This angry man never did bring a lawsuit against Dr. Curtis or the hospital. Instead, he convinced his wife to give him back his guns – she’d hidden them as his rants became increasingly vitriolic. But she caved.
Fully armed, he drove to the hospital, planted enough dynamite to level half a block, and stormed inside to find the doctor. Dr. Curtis noticed him, called the police, and left. The angry man took hostages – nurses, mothers with infants, pregnant women – whom he threatened at gunpoint as he searched the hospital.
One of these hostages – a recently-hired nurse – saw an opportunity to wrest his gun away. She pulled the shotgun from his hands and ran. He pulled out another gun and shot her in the back, killing her.
Three hours into the crisis, one woman delivered her baby – the newborn began life as a hostage. Fifteen hours into the crisis, the police had found the dynamite and began to negotiate. The angry man wanted the police to escort his wife and Dr. Curtis into the hospital, so that he could murder Dr. Curtis in front of her.
The police declined this offer.
Eighteen hours into the crisis, the angry man surrendered. He was taken to jail and charged with murder – the nurse he’d shot in the back – amidst other crimes. He took a plea for thirty-five years because the prosecutors said they’d seek the death penalty.
In jail, he extolled the other inmates with his virtues. He was better than them, he said. His plan was righteous.
The other inmates beat the shit out of him. Repeatedly. It seems they had a difference of opinion as to who was better than whom.
The angry man tried repeatedly to escape. He was transferred from state to state – he’d be transferred after altercations with fellow inmates, botched escapes, and suicide attempts. During one of the botched escapes, he fell from a fence and broke both his legs.
His lawyers recommended an appeal – he was not in his right mind when he pled guilty, they said. That much I agree with, I suppose. I’m not sure he was ever in his right mind. But I think it’s likely he would have attempted murder again if he was released.
Shortly before his appeal hearing, he succeeded in breaking his own neck with a sheet tied to the wall with shoelaces. (Inmates at Bloomington’s jail wear lace-less orange crocks. Less risk of suicide that way … although there have still been several in the past few years. Jail is a miserable place to be.)
It’s not clear to me how a tubal ligation could be against God’s will but suicide was fine. Maybe the angry man knew that his logic was faulty. His defense attorney said that “One of his biggest regrets is that they didn’t kill him at Alta View Hospital.” Just like the members of ISIS, Christian terrorists would rather lose their lives in action.
This country has a long history of Christian terrorism. Numerous seemingly respectable people support the murder of doctors who enable women’s right to choose when to have children. In Danny Davis’s The Phinehas Priesthood: violent vanguard of the Christian Identity movement, he writes that:
Many Christians will be surprised to discover that similar beliefs and moral values are present in the Identity worldview. In some denominations, the only initial difference will appear when the idea of a biological Israelite heritage to present day European Anglo-Saxons is seen.
These terrorists believe that human life begins when a sperm cell fuses with an egg to form a zygote with a full compliment of chromosomes. Given this belief, they think that abortion is murder – especially later in a pregnancy, when the developing fetus begins to look like a miniature human. Because a gynecologist might perform several abortions each day, they believe that God would want them to murder the doctor.
(Human life does not begin at conception. A large number of zygotes – probably between fifteen and twenty percent, but possibly higher since women do not always realize that they ever were pregnant – will self-abort due to chromosomal abnormalities. Also, although most miscarriages are caused by blameless genetic problems, the rate of miscarriage is higher in women who are overweight. Why do Christian terrorists not target McDonald’s? Their food probably terminates more pregnancies than any gynecologist.)
Davis also writes that:
In his book, Mix My Blood with the Blood of the Unborn, Paul Hill details his public defense of anti-abortion shooters Michael Griffin and Shelley Shannon. Shortly after Griffin’s attack Hill penned a very articulate letter “describing such murders as ‘justifiable homicide.’ ” In the same letter he gave his Biblical reasons against abortion and explained the need for “Phineas actions” to protect the unborn.
Christian theology has a long tradition of defending awful behavior that supposedly fulfills the will of God. In Fear and Trembling, nineteenth century philosopher Soren Kierkegaard writes (translated by Walter Lowrie):
It is now my intention to draw out from the story of Abraham the dialectical consequences inherent in it, expressing them in the form of problemata, in order to see what a tremendous paradox faith is, a paradox which is capable of transforming a murder into a holy act well-pleasing to God, a paradox which gives Isaac back to Abraham, which no thought can master, because faith begins precisely there where thinking leaves off.
Fear and Trembling has the beginnings of a lovely work of philosophy. I have always enjoyed Kierkegaard’s description of the sort of person he considers second best in the world, the knight of infinite resignation. This sort of person, according to Kierkegaard, accepts that our efforts are guaranteed to be fruitless – Camus would later argue that this is true of all of us, since we are all guaranteed to die, and eventually humans will go extinct, the universe will become a frozen void, and all trace of our existence will have dissolved into an entropic nothing – but doesn’t stop striving even when though failure is inevitable.
[The knight of infinite resignation] does not give up his [doomed] love, not for all the glory of the world. He is no fool. First he makes sure that this really is the content of his life, and his soul is too healthy and too proud to squander the least thing upon an inebriation. He is not cowardly, he is not afraid of letting love creep into his most secret, his most hidden thoughts, to let it twine in innumerable coils about every ligament of his consciousness – if the love becomes an unhappy love, he will never be able to tear himself loose from it.
That’s great, Kierkegaard! But then why would you also write that “The paradox of faith is this, that the individual is higher than the universal”? Abraham does not need your defense. Whatever he believed God to have said, stabbing your son is wrong.
According to the King James translation of the Bible,
Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood.
And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.
Because Abraham believed it was God’s will, he was ready to murder. And so set Kierkegaard off on his convoluted reasonings, arguing that when the faithful believe themselves to be fulfilling the will of God, their vile actions should be seen as righteous.
At least the story of Abraham ends with the man refraining from murder. Not so the story of Phinehas, patron saint of violent white supremacists. In this story, God was angry because the Israelites were marrying foreigners, which might lead them to eventually abandon their religious traditions. Rather than let them drift away, God figured he should smite his chosen people. But Phinehas patched things up with God by murdering.
Again from the King James translation:
And, behold, one of the children of Israel came and brought unto his brethren a Midianitish woman in the sight of Moses, and in the sight of all the congregation of the children of Israel, who were weeping before the door of the tabernacle of the congregation.
And when Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose up from among the congregation, and took a javelin in his hand;
And he went after the man of Israel into the tent, and thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman through her belly. So the plague was stayed from the children of Israel.
And those that died in the plague were twenty and four thousand.
And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, hath turned my wrath away from the children of Israel, while he was zealous for my sake among them, that I consumed not the children of Israel in my jealousy.
Wherefore say, Behold, I give unto him my covenant of peace:
And he shall have it, and his seed after him, even the covenant of an everlasting priesthood; because he was zealous for his God, and made an atonement for the children of Israel.
In the United States, Christian terrorists have referenced the story of Phinehas to justify murder. In Matthias Gardell’s Gods of the Blood: The Pagan Revival and White Separatism, he writes that:
In 1990, hardcore Identity ideologue Richard Kelly Hoskins suggested that individual zealots could atone for Israel’s transgressions by assassinating homosexuals, interracial couples, and prostitutes. Hoskins believed such zealots belonged to an underground tradition of racial purists, the Phineas Priesthood, and traced its history into antiquity.
After all, most of the Bible does depict Yahweh as a bloodthirsty god. Yahweh himself murders a lot of people. He was initially worshiped with animal sacrifice. And he has a chilling disregard for the lives of women and children – in the story of Job, for instance, his wife and children are killed, but all is made right again when Job receives a new, better wife and new, better children. These people are simply possessions, and only Job’s suffering has moral weight.
My new favorite computer game begins each round as a real-time strategy game like Starcraft. You command your little empire to build temples and offer up various sorts of psalms – will you praise your deity’s ever-gathering hands, its watchful vigilance, its fiery vengeance?
After you feel that you’ve done enough to celebrate your deity, you can command your priests to summon it – at which point the gameplay switches to a third-person adventure mode vaguely reminiscent of the old arcade classic Rampage. You must attempt to destroy opposing civilizations with your deity … but there’s a twist. The attributes of your deity reflect the way it was prayed to. With too much emphasis on its “ever-gathering hands,” your god’s hands become massive. Those unwieldy appendages drag behind you as you walk, plowing deep furrows into the ground.
In this phase of the game, the controls can seem laggy and loose. It turns out that this is intentional; as in the game Octodad, an inability to control your creation is an essential part of the game. Certain types of prayer might make your deity more powerful but also more difficult to manage.
Presumably you’d avoid this sort of self-destructive excess – like praising wrath to the extent that your god destroys your own kingdom promptly after being summoned – but opposing players can infiltrate your civilization with heretics, and the way they pray will affect your god as well.
Arturo Perez-Reverte’s The Club Dumas ends with the idea that “everyone gets the devil he deserves.” This is the underlying concept of the game, but for gods instead of demons.
First Coming includes elements of both real-time strategy and arcade smash-em-up. And the idea of human prayer sculpting physically-manifest deities is intriguing. I’d go so far as to argue that it’s the greatestgame, flawed only in that it doesn’t live up to the Ontological Argument for the existence of God.
We live in a culture that reveres vengeance. The majority of the U.S. worships a deity who was praised for his violence.
Sometime around 600 BCE, a kingdom that worshiped a local deity called Yahweh was conquered by Nebuchadnezzer, whose people worshiped the storm god Marduk. After the surrender, many of the conquered people were deported to Babylon, where they would help make that city the most splendid in the world.
But some of the conquered Hebrews were allowed to remain in Jerusalem, where they still worshiped Yahweh in traditional ways – mostly by ritually killing animals – until they attempted to regain their independence. Then the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzer sent an army to circle the city. The people began to starve. The uprising was crushed.
The Hebrew leader was captured. He was held, struggling, a soldier on either side restraining his arms. One by one the Babylonian conquerors brought Zedekiah’s children. The leader surely screamed, begging to die. The soldiers gripped his arms more tightly. And (2 Kings 25) they slew the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes, and put out the eyes of Zedekiah. Those murders were his last sights, lingering in his blinded mind. His sons bodies spilling blood from their slit necks into the dust.
Many more of the remaining Hebrews were then deported to Babylon, to slave for the greatness of that city. They carted stones to build monuments to Marduk. This god’s temples soared into the sky, one some seven stories high.
And the Hebrews saw the ceremonies held to celebrate Marduk. On the fourth day of the New Year’s festival, priests read from a sacred text, the Enuma Elish, describing the origin of the world. The old gods had sex; they were murdered by their children; the flesh of their bodies was used to construct heaven and earth. Other sacred texts included the Atrahasis – which describes the flood that nearly destroyed humanity when we became too noisy and disturbed the gods’ rest – and Gilgamesh– which celebrates fraternal love.
In The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, Stephen Greenblat writes that “These works feature gods – a whole pantheon of them – but Yahweh is nowhere among them, let alone their lord and master.”
The Hebrew people were crushed, their god so insignificant that he appeared in none of the victors’ stories. And so the Hebrews fought back … with words. They wrote a sacred text of their own, one in which Yahweh reigned supreme and the Babylonian tales were mockingly tweaked. The glorious temples gave rise to “The Tower of Babel,” symbol of mankind’s unwarranted arrogance. In the Hebrew flood story, humans were killed because the city people – and none were more urbane than the Babylonians – were corrupt. Sex did not mark the origin of the world, but rather began after the fall.
And they sang psalms to a deity patiently waiting to enact murderous revenge:
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion
We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
… and, in answer of their own question, the conquered people begin to sing …
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.
If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.
Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Raze it, raze it, even to the foundation thereof.
O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hath served us.
Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.
After the siege, Hebrew sons were murdered, daughters were raped, those of able body were made slaves. They asked of their god revenge. They prayed to a lord who would kill, and abet their killing, to restore their kingdom.
And … several millennia later … our philosophical traditions are rooted in their prayers. Our nation is embroiled in retributive wars. Our punitive prisons are overflowing, with those unfortunate enough to land inside often made worse by their time there.
Yahweh was praised for his patient pursuit of vengeance. And we celebrate those qualities – in school, especially, we praise those able to dispassionately sit for hours, ingesting knowledge. Those with difficulty sitting still, we drug.
Indeed, many cultures have told myths with ADHD heros. In the Apache myth of the origin of fire, Fox joined a flock of geese in flight … but then forgot the rules for staying in the air. But that was okay – it was only after he tumbled to earth that he had a chance to steal fire from a tribe of fireflies and bring it to mankind.
In many Polynesian myths of the origin of fire, it was brought by Maui … whose impulsiveness would almost surely lead to an ADHD diagnosis in the contemporary United States. Each time he received a gift of fire from his ancestor in the underworld – she was pulling off burning finger- or toe-nails and giving them to him – he intentionally quenched them in a nearby stream, just to see what she’d do next. His curiosity was nearly the death of him. Irked, she lit the world on fire.
In the Norse pantheon, Loki sometimes plans … but more often pursues whatever rebellious notion pops into his head. The mutant children he sired will destroy the world. His penchant for vicious barroom taunting (and impromptu murder) angered all other gods and led to his repeated exile from their kingdom.
“And the ADHD – you’re impulsive, can’t sit still in the classroom. That’s your battlefield reflexes. In a real fight, they’d keep you alive. As for the attention problems, that’s because you see too much, Percy, not too little. Your senses are better than a regular mortal’s. Of course the teachers want you medicated. Most of them are monsters. They don’t want you seeing them for what they are.”