Thursday, January 27, 2011

Jungle

    This is the first of what I hope will be many short stories I'll have time to put up on here. This is a very rough draft, having only been read over once, but I believe it is error-free enough to be readable. Any feedback would certainly be appreciated, and would help turn it into a more polished piece. Right now, it's greatest fault is that there are certain complications in the lives of the characters that seem unnecessary for this piece, but it is intended to be part of a series with recurring characters, where these complications will get fleshed out. I would still like it to stand on its own, however. And of course;

     This story is purely fictional. Any resemblance to persons real or imagined is entirely coincidental.

Jungle

            Joe tossed the strap of his shoulder bag over the back of the chair, his body hitting next like a deflated basketball dribbled on the street, the impact forcing the air out of his puffed cheeks with a pssshhh. He brought his head around to catch the eye of the tiny, punky bar-girl, who was already on her way over. Maker’s and a pint, hun? I gotcha. You guys rocked tonight.
            Thanks, Joe said, you guys did to. We got killed back there. How was it out here?
            It wasn’t bad out here in the bar, but they had a crazy night, punky said, gesturing to the two girls sitting across the table from him, then heading back behind the bar to fetch his shift drinks.
            Yeah, you guys have a tough night? Joe asked, leaning forward so he didn’t have to shout over the just-too-loud lounge music.
            Gemma, a pretty girl with almond eyes and a flattering jet-black bob stopped spinning her martini glass to smirk at him, What, me having to put the same ticket in three times didn’t give it away?
            That was my fault, the other, Kendra, spoke up, her smile shy at its own beauty. Her wavy blond hair fell in front of her eyes when she laughed at herself, before she brushed it back over one shoulder. When table six…
            Oh no, girl, that wasn’t your fault, Gemma intoned, patting her hand. You were amazing tonight, really.
            Kendra smiled across at Joe, and Gemma looked between them.
            Where do you wanna go tonight? Gemma asked mischievously, turning to Joe.
            Thanks, Joe said, to the punky bar-girl, who was already scooting away. The Maker’s was up and down in one fluid motion, and he ran the other hand over his shaved head while he shook the heat of the drink into his gut. Sounds like you have a plan?
            Wellll, Abby was going to go down to Jungle. Her friend Scott is on the bar tonight and said we could get in free.
            Where the fuck is that? Joe asked, before gulping at his beer.
            I think it’s that place just down on Pike, right? Kendra asked, Where they were having that foam party a few weeks ago?
            That’s the one, Gemma confirmed, taking a sip and peering at Joe over the rim.
            Christ, Joe said, finishing his beer. What’s tonight?
            It’s Thursday, Gemma said, shaking her head in resignation, So I can go with Abby tonight, and you can wait until Saturday to see me…
            Joe tried not to make eye-contact with Kendra. I’ll walk you down, he said, standing up, giving in and looking at Kendra, who was smiling at him. Have a good night, he said, squeezing her shoulder.
            She waited a moment, then put her hand on his and looked up, You too.

            Down the street, the bar crowds trading one door for another, and Gemma on her cell, Yeah, yeah, sweetie, we’re on our way, be there in a few. Yeah, bye-bye. Snap. So you gonna dance with me tonight? she smiled, slipping her arm into Joe’s.
            Who says I’m coming? I said I’d walk you down.
            Please. You haven’t seen me since last Saturday. You’re not gonna go a whole week.
            Joe looked at her, then ahead. There’s Abby.
            Gemma slipped her arm out to extend it with the other one- unnecessarily early to hug Abby, which was even more awkward when they were engaged, since Abby with her spiky red hair towered over Gemma. After an exchange of Hey girl, they turned and walked entwined towards the front of the queue under the sprawling, purple awning hanging over a door through which a beat came with such force that it was surprising the walls contained it otherwise.
            The girls approached the largest of six Samoan bouncers, who appeared to be in charge, while Joe watched from the curb, Sam Jackson running through his head, I wouldn’t go so far as to call the brother fat. He’s got a weight problem. What’s the brother gonna do? He’s Samoan.
            The Samoan turned to another and nodded his head into the club, and the other lifted a stretch of velvet and went inside. Gemma turned and walked to Joe, head bent down, trying to judge from her own vantage point how she would look from another. Abby told them to go talk to Scott. He’s gonna get us in. C’mon.
            No thanks. I told you I’d walk you down. If you’re all set, I’ll head home.
            Seriously? You gonna leave two beautiful ladies to dance all by themselves? She just broke up with Matt, you know…
            Well, you two should have a great time, then.
            She put her arms around his waist. I’ll make it worth your while… and I miss you, she added, pouting her lips and putting her dark brown eyes to potent use.
            He sighed. Fine. Jesus.
            Thank you, she said, standing on her toes to deliver a flawless kiss, then withdrawing a moment before he was ready.
            Abby was at the door with Scott, waving them in. They headed towards the entrance, till the Samoan put his dinner plate hand on Joe’s chest. Twenty, he grunted.
            The cover’s ten! Gemma pointed to the chalkboard behind him.
            Twenty, he grunted again. Joe looked for the Samoan’s eyes behind his sunglasses. No thanks, he said. He turned to Gemma, I’ll see you at work tomorrow.
            Wait, wait, I’ll pay for you.
            Nah, I’m good. Later. He started down the street.
            Jesus christ, hold on! Joe stopped and turned reluctantly. Abby and Scott were talking to the bouncer and pointing at Joe. The Samoan shrugged almost imperceptibly and Gemma waved Joe back to them. Scott talked to him, Gemma said.
            Joe glared at her, then inclined his head and gestured with an upturned palm and they moved inside, against the pulse of the music, the lights and the smoke.

            Inside, the singularity of Joe’s male whiteness made apparent the reason behind the extortionary cover. There were quite a few white women, an equal number of asian and black women, but the men were almost exclusively black and asian and in clearly segregated posses. Joe took the place in quickly, ignoring the feeling that the music had screeched to a stop when he’d walked in. The place was cavernous, with a second floor balcony circling the entire dance floor, and wide, curving stairs leading up to it. Equally difficult to miss were the circular cages at equal intervals about halfway up the wall.
            You want a drink? Gemma at his elbow asked.
            Nah, I’m good, he said, dumping his bag into a tall chair at a nearby table.
            She raised her eyebrow at him.
            I’m good, he repeated. You gonna dance? he asked, gesturing with his chin out to the floor.
            That’s the idea. I imagine you won’t.
            Do I ever?
            She shook her head. Your loss, she said, taking Abby’s hand, who had just returned with martinis for her and Gemma, and leading her onto the dance floor. He didn’t watch them long enough to see them make it onto the floor. He took another look around, and behind him, then sat back and pulled his bag onto his lap. He flipped it open and pulled out a soft-cover gray book as thick as a brick on its side, pulled his bookmark out, stuffed it in a later page, and tried to find the best angle to make out the text in the intermittent light.
            The pulse of the music did not mix well with the author’s, and he found that even his usually extraordinary powers of concentration were strained. He persisted. And he found himself offering this as a price for far less, for a first kiss in fact, because he had met with resistance or, on the contrary, because there had been no resistance. In love it often happens that gratitude, the desire to give pleasure, make us generous beyond the limits of what hope and self-interest had foreseen. But then the realization of this offer was hindered by conflicting circumstances... He looked up to see Gemma enthusiastically abrading her backside against Abby’s lap, while reaching up and sliding her hands around the back of Abby’s neck.
            He looked around again. Bright lights hung on the wall behind several of the larger booths, shrouding the occupants in the glare of staring directly into them as one approached. He held his gaze on one until his eyes adjusted, till he could make up half a dozen women giggling around a central male in dark glasses with his arms spread-eagled on the back of the booth. He stared back at Joe, then brought his right arm down and extending his first two fingers, turned his hand sideways, kill-shot style, aimed at Joe, pulled the trigger and let the slow recoil emphasize his point.
            Joe stared back for the count of four, went back to his book. The dozen words of the current song were being jack-hammered into his head by the even smaller number of notes that accompanied them, which made giving a shit about the tribulations of 19th century French aristocracy harder than usual. Whiskey would help, but that would be admitting defeat. He pressed on. … at a point when as a rule it had more or less become a matter of indifference to the Duke, whose actions, like everyone else’s, were more often dictated by previous actions than by the original motive which had ceased to exist… Gemma slid her arm around his waist, You’re sitting here reading fucking Proust? Did you see us dancing?
            No.
            Hmm… too bad. It was hot. Two girls, all alone out there… She took a pull of her martini, then slinked back onto the floor, throwing him a final smirk over her shoulder. He watched her go this time, her small, lithe frame carried in a way that drew stares far more endowed women envied. He rolled his eyes and shook his head.
Another mistress was in the offing. No doubt the love which M. de Guermantes had borne each of them in succession would begin one day to make itself felt anew: in the first place this love, in dying, bequeathed them to the household like beautiful marble statues…
A blur passed before his table and he snapped up to see a gorgeously determined blond slicing her way through the thumping bodies, with a bag over her shoulder and several more equally determined, and gorgeous, girls trailing. They cut through to a small door beyond the end of the bar, flung it open and disappeared.
            He reached into his pocket and pulled out his cell. He knew better than to text Kendra, especially since her husband was supposed to be home tonight, but he decided to allow himself one: Hi.
            It was only a few seconds before it vibrated: How’s it going? : )
            I’m the only white guy here. You?
            Ouch. Paul is out still. Our night. Just reading, listening to music. Glad you texted.
            I’m sorry.
            Me too. Should go. Bye.
            He had felt a surge in the crowd’s energy, and looking up, he saw that the determination of the blond and her friends was eliciting it. Each had taken position in one of the cages suspended over the crowd and was dancing years off her life. The DJ and the crowd responded with an ancestral ferocity.
The descent was rapid and total. Joe watched as women backed themselves into their partners, grabbed their hands and placed them on their own exposed stomachs, where they lingered for only a moment before sliding upwards. The few men on the floor who still had shirts on remedied this. He tried hard not to look for Gemma, but he didn’t see her anyway.
Several of the enormous bouncers were now moving through the crowd with large canisters attached to small hoses. They took up positions below several of the caged women and began soaking what little clothing they had on with soda water. The floor roared, and the bouncers, finally smiling, turned and began soaking the crowd, starting with the ladies who presented themselves first.
Joe watched the blond twenty feet above him as she ripped the front of her white cut-off t-shirt in half, till only the wetness and its stretch against her breasts kept it on. She flung her head down, then tossed her hair back in a single motion that would have been gentler in a highway crash. Her pale, taut flesh absorbed and reflected the sporadic light, obscuring all else. She demanded to be desired, completely and utterly, and every part of him obliged her.
He watched her robotically precise routine, perfectly aligned with the roaring music, through three cycles before he saw Gemma making her way out of the floor towards him. Gave up on Proust? Found something more interesting to set your eyes on? she asked when her head was on his shoulder and she had his perspective.
Yeah. I guess. I’m taking off.
Perfect. Me too.
What about Abby?
Oh, I was dancing with this guy till he noticed my wedding ring, then he suddenly got really interested in her. I was gonna tell him that my boyfriend was sitting over there, but I didn’t think that would help my chances.
Probably not. He gestured for her to lead the way.
She smiled up and him and strode to the door.
As they passed into the cool night, the music fell off him like a shroud. He smiled, stopped and turned to the Samoan, still at the door, You have a great night, sir. A very good night.
The Samoan turned his sunglass gaze unto Joe, and ran it up and down him. Hmph, he grunted, and turning back to his statuesque position, let out a tiny, almost silent chuckle.
Joe arched his back till it cracked, then turned to Gemma, Well, have a good night.
What do you mean?
I mean good night. I’ve got to get some sleep. I worked thirteen hours today. Twelve tomorrow.
I’m drunk and turned on and you’re going to bed.
Yeah, unfortunately, I’m neither of those anymore. Wake Chris up. He’ll be happy to have you like that... though he'll be shocked, I never send you back to him like that.
She started to say something, stopped, and dug in her purse for her cell. Good night, she said, already walking back up the street, flipping through her messages.
See you tomorrow, he called after her.
He thought she reached up to wave over her shoulder, but she was putting her phone to her ear.
He began the slow walk home, passing out of the emptying crowds of the bar neighborhood, down a quiet avenue of store fronts, then turned downhill to cut through a reservoir. At the upper end of the small pond, he stopped where the lights of the city were blocked by trees silent and still below the stars. He put his hands on his head, craned it back, and sighed.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Chicken Stock

From one of the all-time greatest films, Apocalypse Now (though only the extended Redux):

WILLARD: How come they call you that? 
CHEF: Call me what, sir? 
WILLARD: Chef -- is that 'cause you like mangoes an' stuff? 
CHEF: No, sir -- I'm a real chef, sir -- I'm a sauciere -- 
WILLARD: A sauciere ? 
CHEF: Yes, sir -- See, I come from New Orleans -- I was raised to be a sauciere.. a great sauciere. We specialize in sauces. Has to be a mango tree here somewhere...I was supposed to go to Paris. Then my physical came up. Hell I joined the Navy. Someone told me Navy had better food. Cook school -- that did it. WILLARD: Oh yeah, how? 
CHEF: They lined us all up in front of a hundred yards of prime rib -magnificent meat, beautifully marbled.. Then they started throwing it in these big cauldrons, all of it -- boiling. I looked in, an' it was turning gray. I couldn't f&%$ing believe that one. 

      In the traditional French brigade culinary system, the sauciere is the most respected of the skilled positions, because it is the arguably most important, and it is also the most difficult. For people who don't know much about professional cooking (though food TV is changing this) the reason food at a good restaurant and food at home are so different, besides the simple things, the proper use of salt, not over-cooking the bleep out of everything, etc. the biggest difference is that at a restaurant, they bother to add sauce to the dish. Think about it. If you are like most people, the only sauce you add to a dish comes in a glass jar labeled "Marinara" or it is gravy at the holidays. Sauces are the element that elevate a dish from the ordinary to the memorable. However, if you are like most people, you are a long way from making anything that even remotely resembles a decent sauce. One of the major reasons for this is that you first need to learn how to make stock.

      Many restaurants use veal stock for many of their dishes, but veal bones are rather hard for the home chef to get his or her hands on, so we will just be discussing poultry stocks. Poultry stocks come in two varieties, blond and brunette. (It is vitally important to remember that food is supposed to be sexy, and if you are not regularly eating sexy food, your life is far less enjoyable. In fact, once you know what you are doing, food is much better than sex, because it so much less likely to disappoint.) But, like real life blonds and brunettes, the differences are relatively minor, though there certainly is a time and a place for both.

How to Make Chicken Stock

Ingredients
3-4 whole chicken carcasses- you can also use, duck, turkey, Cornish hen, whatever (I'll discuss below where to get these.)
3-4 medium/ large onions
3-4 carrots
2-3 stalks of celery
1-2 medium tomatoes
1/2 a head of garlic
2 Tbls Whole Black Peppercorns
Either- A small bunch of Parsley, Chives, Thyme
Or- 1 Tbls each of the above, if dried
2-3 Bay Leaves
Red or White wine, depending on which stock you are making.

(You can also save any other veggie scraps you have lying around, but it has to be the kind of things you'd put in a stew- mushrooms, leeks, fennel, hearty greens like kale, etc. But never peppers, fruit of any kind, broccoli, or anything like that.)

Equipment- Tallish stock pot, colander or wire mesh strainer (preferred), a ladle, a second fairly large pot and freezable pint-sized or similar containers.
Steps
     I find the best way to get chicken carcasses, for the home chef, is to switch to buying whole chickens to roast instead of wasting money buying breasts or other parts. It is cheaper, tastier, more useful, and less processed. Roast your chicken for dinner early in the week, and then use the leftovers for pasta, nachos, soup, pizza, chicken salad, whatever, but when the meat is all gone, wrap the already roasted carcass in a plastic bag and toss it (with the neck, which you also roasted) into the freezer. You can also save all the bones from plates, since you are going to boil them again. When you have saved 3-4 birds you are ready to make enough stock that it should last you until you have 3-4 more birds saved up again, even if you use it regularly, like I do.

      So the decision now is whether you prefer blond or brunette. I know, never an easy choice. (No, Tamara, people don't always choose blonds.) Blond is better for soups and pasta sauces, and brunette is better for making steak sauce, gravies and braising. Both can be used for either, so don't worry too much. Brunette is a little harder, but after the first few steps they are essentially the same thing. I will explain how to make brunette, with notes where they differ.

      Put the frozen birds in a stock pot that will allow them to be covered with at least an inch of cold water. (If you somehow have raw carcasses, you should probably roast them to a golden brown ahead of time, like 375 for a couple hours.) Turn that on to high, until it boils, then turn down to a simmer.

     Meanwhile, rough chop the mire poix (this is the fancy term for onions, carrots and celery). (Skip the rest of this step if you are making blond stock.) Put the onions in a heavy saute pan or skillet with a little olive oil (or canola) and turn them up to high, stirring, until they start to brown, then turn them down a little, to med-low, and let them brown while you get everything else ready. It is imperative that they don't burn because that charring will spoil the flavor of the entire stock. If they do start to get a little dark, you can add a splash of water, but once you do this, they will never really brown the same way again. Once they are as brown as you dare to get them, add the tomatoes, and add enough red wine to cover them, and let this cook down until it is at least 2/3 less volume than you started with, and there are tight, small bubbles all over the surface. Again, it is better to err on the side of caution here, since burning this will ruin everything.

      Now, the stock will need to simmer for 3-4 hours, but you only need to add the veggies with an hour to go, but it isn't the end of the world if you don't wait, and just add them when they are ready. At this point, if you are making brunette stock, add the onions from the pan and the remainder of the ingredients. If you making blond, add the onions raw, with 1-2 cups of white wine straight to the stock pot, and all the rest of the ingredients. Let the stock simmer for 3-4 hours total, but never let the water get  significantly below the level of the birds, if it does, add a little more cold water.

      Strain the stock through the colander or mesh strainer (this can take two people if you don't know what you are doing) into the other pot, or a large bowl or something if you don't have another pot (you'll have to scrub the original pot then put the liquid back in.) You can now toss, or compost (the veggies anyway) the guts of the stock, or feed the veggies to the dog (I used to know a dishwasher who ate this stuff, but there is little nutritional value left in it.)

      Put the liquid back on the stove, a little off-center of the burner towards you, and turn it up to high. This is the important part. When the stock starts to boil, you will notice a film of grease and even bubbles, like at a dirty waterfall, collecting on the cooler side of the pot, hopefully near you. With the ladle pointing straight up and down, put the bowl of it near the yuck, and tilting it just slightly in that direction, slowly push the lip of the bowl below the surface. The goal is to fill the ladle with the yuck so you can get rid of it (have a bowl nearby) while taking as little of the stock with you as possible. It takes a little while to get this down, but it makes a big difference in the clarity and flavor of the stock. Frustratingly though, the more you do this, the more seems to appear.

      Reduce the stock to about 1/2 to 1/3 of its original volume (you want to reduce brunette more, since you will need it thicker if you intend to make steak sauce or gravy). Shut it off and let it cool, and then pour into your freezeable containers. You can then keep one in the fridge (it will be good for 4-5 days) or you can do what I do, which is pull it from the freezer when I need it, run the container under hot water, and the put the frozen stock-cube right into whatever I am making, letting the right amount melt off, then putting the rest of the cube back in the freezer.

      That's it. You've made chicken stock. It is really pretty easy. As for what to do with it, well hopefully you have a recipe (kidding- I'll put some up eventually). But what you have here is a far superior product to anything you will buy in the store.

Pascal was a Sissy

     I had intended to get away from the philosophical discussions of religion and faith, but I had several conversations yesterday with people who have been reading the blog which has led me to understand that there is more interest in this than I had gauged. So we tread ahead.

      I began this blog with a very strong commitment to the power of doubt, to the notion that true intellectual honesty can only be had by regularly holding one's own dear beliefs and perceptions up to criticism, both internal and external. Then I spent the next dozen or so posts making a pretty impassioned case for a particular world-view. So the question is; do I hold myself to the same standards? Do I regularly check my convictions against the facts? Well, the short answer is, I try to, but like anyone else, I think what I think because I think it is right. (Amazingly, some people have trouble with that. They say, "You always think you're right!" Well, of course I do, don't you? I mean, do you consciously hold beliefs that you think are false?)

       But do I ever stop and wonder: What if I'm wrong about this whole god thing, and I'm doomed to eternal torment for my lack of faith? Honestly, the thought does cross my mind from time to time, but I tend to dismiss it pretty quickly, though with what I feel are good reasons, which I intend to elucidate here. Another response to this dilemma was given by French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal; and is known as Pascal's Wager. In short, he argued that even if one lacked faith, one should live as if one did, because one had nothing to lose and everything to gain. While this was historically significant, as it was one of the first attempts to justify religious faith from a rational perspective, I think that while the argument behind it has some small degree of merit, the motivation is essentially one of fear, which I do not believe is a compelling reason to alter one's convictions. In other words, as the title suggests, I think Pascal was a wuss.

      My other posts have argued for a faith-free existence, primarily from a naturalistic perspective. But to someone of deep religious conviction, things like evolution, carbon-dating, the scientific explanation for the origin of the universe, the lack of any kind of evidence for a soul, etc. mean very little. The bible contains the truth and that's it, no more questions to ask. So what I want to do here is discuss what I see as the very significant theological and logical failings of the christian narrative, and how even if they were true, I find good cause to reject them.

     So let us start there, with an assumption that the entire christian narrative is true. I am going to focus here on the three most significant parts of that story, original sin, christ's sacrifice on the cross, and the judgment and resurrection. I think each piece of this narrative not only fails to give us a compelling reason to accept the accompanying faith, they each give us cause to reject it outright. So... In the beginning...
Original Sin

       The theological basis of christianity is that Eve's taking of the apple from the tree of knowledge left us all in a permanently fallen state that could only be redeemed through christ's sacrifice, which allows us all to be resurrected at the final judgment and granted eternal life, if we simply believe in him. But there is, what I feel, a significant fault in the logic of the narrative of the original sin. It takes kind of a round-about discussion to get there, but it becomes pretty apparent when viewed this way.

     Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden for the sin of disobedience. God told them never to taste of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, because it would make them more like him (he's a pretty jealous guy, remember.) There is already here a blatant foolishness which we are going to set aside, but should be noted; if he really didn't want them to eat it, WHY DID HE PUT IT THERE? Why make creatures who you know are weak, expose them to temptation, which being all-knowing you know they are going to succumb to, and then be angry and disappointed when they do? This is like leaving a rasher of bacon on the floor near your dog's water dish and going out for the day. No matter how much that dog loves you, no matter how much he knows he is not supposed to, he is going to eat it. If you come home and start kicking him, whose fault is it really?

      But that isn't even the most ridiculous part. The whole point of the story is that before eating of the Tree, Adam and Eve were in a state of pure innocence, and didn't know the difference between right and wrong. So when Eve transgresses (after being tempted by the most powerful and cunning creature in existence, beside god himself, which is yet another reason not to take it out on them for only being as weak as he decided to make them, but even this isn't relevant here) she was disobeying, which god sees as wrong, but she couldn't really have known that even disobedience was wrong since she didn't know the difference between right and wrong yet! So, what we really have here is a god who makes his creation weak, doesn't give them the faculty to do as he wishes, puts the ultimate temptation in front of them, lets them be seduced by the ultimate tempter, then gets furious with them for succumbing, takes away their innocence and eternal life, and that of all of their descendants. Really? And we are supposed to worship this guy? Of course, "god works in mysterious" and this was all part of his plan to show his infinite love through the sacrifice of his son, but really? Was the soap opera necessary? This is like a kidnapper who then tries to win the affection of his victim by showering them with gifts. How about you just don't screw with them in the first place? Wouldn't that be easier?

      This narrative also ignores the inherent injustice of god's love and mercy being withheld from all the intervening generations who lived before christ, or in a part of the world where is message hadn't reached yet. He gave some revelation to a particular nomadic tribe, but this wasn't universal, since it only applied to the descendants of Abraham. But this is also an unnecessary diversion, so let's continue our project by accepting the explanation that this was necessary so he could demonstrate his infinite love through his (though really someone else's) sacrifice. Let's move on to jesus.

 Christ's "Ultimate" Sacrifice

     The most significant moment in the christian narrative is that god came down to earth, but as his son, and sacrificed himself by dying on the cross to atone for all of our sins, and for Eve and Adam's original sin. For this we are supposed to be eternally grateful. Now again, we are ignoring the fact that an all-powerful, all-knowing and supposedly all-loving god put us, his creations, in this predicament in the first place, since it certainly could have been averted by a being of his stature (I know, I know, he was testing us). However, I still think that even at this point, the narrative descends into foolishness. 

      Let's take the most extreme version of the Passion, the one so lovingly portrayed by that Jew-baiting  prick Mel Gibson in his torture-porn version, The Passion of the Christ. Let's assume jesus was beaten, tortured, mutilated, whipped, and spat upon. He was given a crown of thorns, a spear in the side, and nailed to a cross. And he put up with all this, even though he didn't have to, for the sake of the eternal souls of all humankind.

      Now, the Romans crucified thousands of people, but let's just take one as a foil for jesus. Let us consider the case of Spartacus (which is an excellent series available on Netflix, if you can cope with the utterly gratuitous sex and violence- the first episode of the second season was available last night, and picked up right where the other left off, though really, it is not for the faint of heart). Historical accounts vary, and it is uncertain if Spartacus himself was crucified, but it matters not, since thousands of his men were, but we don't know their names, so let's just stick with Spartacus. Spartacus was a gladiator who escaped from his master, along with many other gladiator slaves and started a rebellion against the Romans. After winning several key battles, and holding the Romans off for several years, they were defeated, and 6,000 former slaves were crucified. Now, while we can't claim that these men were tortured in precisely the same way as jesus, we can assume that they were treated pretty brutally by the Romans once they were defeated, and ultimately they met the exact same fate; death on a cross. And for what? For trying to free themselves and their companions from the oppression of slavery and to be able to return home to their wives and children. No one worships these men.

      The point is that while what jesus is supposed to have done was noble, it is by no means unique or special or even particularly magnanimous, given the circumstances. If someone told you that the eternal souls of all mankind would be doomed to eternal torment if you didn't suffer the same abuse that he did, wouldn't you go through with it? What if it was just one soul, say of a spouse or child? Wouldn't you? What if we weren't even talking about eternity, just their lives? Since the dawn of time, the noblest among us have given their own lives to preserve that of a loved one. No one builds churches to them. On top of that, being god and knowing that he could end the suffering at anytime, actually makes it even easier to bear. Pinching yourself hurts less than someone else pinching you, because you know you control it.

       So while jesus' sacrifice was noble, it wasn't anything that I don't think most of the rest of us wouldn't have done, given the circumstances. It was less noble than thousands, millions, of other sacrificial deaths, where much less was at stake. I mean if god came to me today and said, "We need another sacrifice." I'd say "Okay, but this time, this one is for everyone, not just the ones who believe in me, because really, why do I need that?" Wouldn't you?

The Final Judgment

       So the point of this whole soap opera is so that god can grant us eternal life, which he really, really wants to do, no really he does, he's just making it really complicated so that, so that... well, he does, but all this other stuff had to happen first. Anyway, we've had original sin, and we've had christ's sacrifice and now, if we accept that, and believe that jesus is the way the truth and the life, we are granted eternal life.

      The key here is the concept of eternal. Most people fail to truly appreciate the scope of this concept, and with good reason, since infinities are really hard things to wrap one's brain around. So what the christian narrative would have us accept is that in the space of our mortal lifetimes, which may last 100 years, or may last ten years, or ten minutes, we need to make a decision, based purely on faith in things unseen, not on any evidence, that will determine if we receive bliss or torment for all time. Let's just look at the ratio here. What happens when you put (let's be generous) 100 years in the numerator and infinity in the denominator? You get zero, because when you divide by infinity, no matter what you are dividing it into, you get zero. The span of our lifetimes, even the longest, compared to infinity, is mathematically zero. If you were to compare the blink of an eye to your own lifetime, that in itself is infinitely longer, relatively speaking, than our mortal lifetimes are compared to eternity. Imagine if someone told you had literally the blink of an eye to make the most significant decision of your lifetime in, and there was no going back, and the consequences were the most dire you could imagine. We could imagine someone with a gun to your head, who is going to shoot you  at the end of the day (but you can  do whatever you want for the next 24 hours) if you don't accept that he is Superman (you have no evidence that he is) this instant, in an eyeblink, but if you do accept it, and he lets you live, you must follow him in utter servility for the rest of your life. This isn't a perfect correlation, but it is close enough, because it allows us to see this for what it is, simple extortion. But even the mob usually gives you a fairer shake than this. But Pascal, and countless others, choose the life of servility.

      Pascal was a Sissy

      So even those of us who are fairly firm in our conviction that the christian god doesn't exist face this dilemma; What if we are wrong and gambling our eternal bliss or torment on it? Well, if this narrative is true, that god created us as we are, tempted by knowledge, designed to seek evidence for what we believe, (we all want to see the big miracle, that would settle it), and we are in a fallen state because our first ancestors succumbed to a temptation he planted in front of them and designed them to be susceptible to, didn't give them the tools to realize disobedience was wrong until it was too late, let them fail when he could have prevented it, then punished them and all of us for it, sent his son to clean up the mess he created by  committing a sacrifice which many, many lesser beings have committed with less at stake than he had, then expected us to be grateful for this and accept it without, even despite the evidence, in the blink of an eye, or be condemned for all eternity to the most horrific tortures imaginable, then no, I'll take the bullet at the end of the day, thank you very much. If this is what our existence is, merely a drawn out soap opera for the whims of a capricious, illogical and cruel deity, then sorry, I'm not playing. If he created us as play things merely to see which ones of us fail to make a leap of faith that he designed us to struggle with, then no, I don't want to worship him, I want to punch him in the mouth. I would fight him right here, right now, for being both so stupid and cruel, and for subjecting those I love to such a pointless and arbitrary game.

      But I don't think that I would really have to fight him, which is the whole point. The christian narrative, when examined closely, is so patently ridiculous, so obviously the construction of petty mortal minds, that if there is a god who created this universe, this story is grave insult to the very idea of him. And this is why, no, I don't fear hell, because it is inconceivable to me that any deity would have a poorer sense of justice than I, or any reasonable person, does. If there is a god who created this universe, I think he is well, well beyond our pathetic attempts to placate him. If he isn't, he isn't worthy of worship anyway.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Thanks

     I don't intend to do a lot of personal reflection on here, but I'm going to break that rule here.

     I wanted to take a post to say thanks to everyone who has taken the time to read through the blog as it has gotten up and running. I'm glad to be able to put stuff up that at least a small number of people are interested in reading. This started as an experiment, and so far, I have been encouraged to continue.

     I recognize that much of what I have to say may seem like a fairly hostile attack on some things that many people I know hold dear. Intellectually, yes, I would be disingenuous if I were to claim otherwise. But I do want to make very clear that nothing I write about is personal in any way. Outside of my wife, my oldest friend and my brother, to varying degrees, pretty much everyone else I know could find reason to feel put off by some things I might write. That is never the intention- merely to explain some things about the world the way I see it, and hopefully generate some honest discussion and reflection.

     I wanted to say a particular thanks to Joel, Andrew, Aidan, Amy, Tam and Chip, who have taken the time to read and comment, whether on the blog or in other communication. As with anything I write, I owe Brian a huge thanks for his always helpful critical insights, whether it is here or on the rough drafts of the novel. Of course, Jen gets the biggest thanks for trying her best to keep up with the reading and for keeping Charlie off me when I am trying to write.

      Looking ahead, I would really appreciate any feedback anyone has to offer. People seem to appreciate recipes, so I will definitely keep those coming. I've also got an idea kicking around for a series of short stories, which I intend to get started on as soon as I post this. When the novel gets a little more sorted out (it is in need of some major overhaul at the moment) I will try and post some excerpts. I'll also probably continue on my one-man crusade to put an end to religious-and-similar faiths, but that's just my own issue.

     So once again, thanks to anyone who has bothered to read what I'm bothering to write.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Ethics, Part Five: The Individual Imperative

     My goal here, in this final post on the question of ethics in a world without magic or revelation, will be to define what I see as the ethical imperatives of living in the universe that we live in, one which is a product of that lovely cocktail of chance and natural law; a universe without an intelligent force, outside ourselves, to guide our lives. I regard the ethical maxim I defined in the previous two posts: Allow the greatest freedom to all, as the most sensible, and kindest, way we can treat others. This doesn't always mean allowing those we care about (or don't) to pursue paths of self-destruction, etc., but this will require more elaboration than I have room for here. However, I think that our unique role as agents, as choice-making beings, requires us, as much as we can be required to do anything, to equip ourselves with the best information available, perhaps not as an inescapable metaphysical or divine imperative, but as the surest way to realize the fullness of our brief existence.

      There are two famous quotations that I think succinctly state what I will be trying to say in the rest of this post.

“Better to be Socrates dissatisfied, than a fool satisfied.” -J.S. Mill

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” -Socrates

    This is, ultimately, the reason I believe religion, and faiths of all kind, as well as any final-answer, ultimate-truth ideologies, are ethically unsound, because they put an end to examination, an end to inquiry. As I have said before, children are born scientists- the very first interrogative they master is “Why?” It is only when irresponsible adults fill their heads with the same cheap, easy answers they were given as children that the next generation learns the regrettable habit of accepting some things as just "being the way they are," or something we can't know, since "god works in mysterious ways." One of the truly flabbergasting aspects of religious faith is that perhaps the closest thing religion has ever produced to a miracle is the statistic-defying impossibility of the overwhelming majority of believers “miraculously” all being born into the “one true religion,” especially when it happens to be a particularly exclusive little sect. And so people are born, raised, mature and die, relying on essentially the same answers they were given when they were six, and asked, “Who am I?” “Why am I here?” “What happens when I die?”

      Of course, some people convert from one faith to another, or from a traditional religious dogma to some hipper, new-age pseudo-spirituality that usually involves a ramshackle mix of some highly-misunderstood eastern philosophy, yoga, holistic medicine, guilt-assuaging environmentalism and over-indulged postmodernism. I don't have a problem with some of these per se, but when we abandon the critical faculty necessary to judge their actual ability to describe, alter and predict the real world, we have really just swapped an old faith for a new one. Many of these newer dogmas are as knee-jerk resistant to the prodding of actual, objective inquiry as their religious predecessors, because at some level, the practitioners know that the system would never stand up when push came to shove. But both types of faith share the same incriminating quality of accepting the easy, you-can-go-back-to-watching-American-Karaoke answers, rather than doing the admittedly hard work of learning about the ones that actually reflect reality to some degree.

     We all desire, even if we lack the courage of our convictions, to lead an interesting life. This is evident in the movies we go see, the books we read, the games we play. I grew up watching Star Wars and Star Trek, playing Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons and Dragons, reading King Arthur and Dune, playing Zelda and Metroid, and now I have just moved on to Half-Life and Dragon Age. I get it. We all want to be involved in some kind of cosmic struggle between good and evil, or at the very least, the more timid of us, want to leave some room in the world for ghosts, mystical energies- an element of spirituality that science and reason can't get their supposedly cold, unfeeling hands on.

     There are two responses to this. The first is the voice of that ageless child-scientist, “Why?” What comfort can really be had in a lie? Why resist exposing one's dearest beliefs to rigorous, objective scrutiny simply out of fear they might prove less than true? Is the schizophrenic who believes she is an angel of light from another plane of existence, here to bring peace and happiness to the world, really better off than the confused and disoriented woman in the hospital gown making her first steps towards recovery and sanity? Could you ever go back to believing in Santa Claus, just to make December magical again? Some are willing to play the fool; I, for one, simply cannot.

     The second, and better, answer is this: The actual, real universe we live in is infinitely more fascinating than anything our early, Why?-asking ancestors, could have ever conceived. Our species arose from self-replicating molecules in a primordial ooze to occupy an unprecedented place on this planet; beings who could ponder that very origin, the origins of the universe itself, the very fabric of reality. Beings in whom consciousness arises from nothing more, and nothing less, than the inexplicably complex interactions of trillions of neurons. This consciousness composed The Ninth and Voodoo Child, King Lear and Caddyshack, Ulysses and The Satyricon. It allows us to learn and love, conjecture and reject, wonder and discover. How can we be threatened by understanding where it truly came from?

     And what this consciousness and its application towards objective inquiry are discovering is astonishing beyond compare. We live in a universe that quite probably sprang, spontaneously through the laws of quantum mechanics, from the fabric of another universe entirely separate from our own, that itself likely sprang from the fabric of another, and so on, ad infinitum. (Apologies for Wikipedia links, but you can't get full SciAm articles without a subscription, and the ones here are accurate enough to give the gist of what I am saying.)The universe we occupy is 13 billion years old and 20 billion light-years across. We exist in four dimensions, three of space and one of time, but these may only be the four we can see, there may be as many as ten, or twenty-six, curled up within our own, though almost undetectably small. Or it may be that they exist all around us, but we can't traverse them, like caterpillars stuck negotiating the two-dimensional surface of a leaf, unable to reach the trunk of the tree. And the fourth dimension, time, which defines the limits of our existence, may very well be only an illusion, brought about only by the fact of the existence of conscious beings, but ultimately speaking, no different than any other dimension. At the very least, we know that time, and space, are relative to the velocity of the observer and both veer towards infinity within the event horizon of a black hole.

     Within this space-time where matter and energy are the same thing (E=mc2), all sorts of weirdness persists. An overwhelming percentage of the space of all objects is comprised of the emptiness within atoms themselves, yet a glass of water sits at rest on a table every time. Cats can be both alive and dead. Light, the ultimate medium of information, and the ultimate arbiter of its limits, is both a particle and a wave, simultaneously. Measuring the velocity or position of an electron on one side of the universe can instantaneously effect the velocity or position of its entangled partner, clear on the other side. You can never know, exactly, both a particles position and momentum at precisely the same time. Time and space both have absolute limits at the lower end, where they simply can't be divided any further in any meaningful way.

     And in the midst of all this is us, our consciousness, is able to wonder, explore and attempt to explain it all. Isn't all that more interesting than Casper?

     Ultimately though, I find it incomprehensible that anyone could live their life in wanton ignorance of the majesty and wonder our actual, real universe possesses. Our ancestors asked these same questions, and answered them the best they could, given the tools they had available to them at the time. The narratives they crafted, of gods and goddesses, magic and miracles, spirits and afterlives, are the valiant attempts of a species emerging into consciousness to answer questions that it was the first to ponder. Some of these narratives are poignant, insightful, instructive and convey the yearning of our species for more than may be our lot. There is a certain romance to this. However, at the task of providing answers that actually correspond with the facts on the ground, they fail.

     Yet this shouldn't dishearten us; our ancestors asked questions that a chimpanzee or a jellyfish or a triceratops never could, and for millenia, we bumbled along in our ignorance, making do with best-guesses and superstition. We need not any longer. We are all fortunate enough to live in an era where some of those answers, or at least hints of them, are within our grasp. Why should we shrink from the moment? We have both a privilege and, I would argue, an imperative, to be active participants in the historical generations that are discovering the actual answers to the questions that every member of our species has asked, in some capacity, since we grew up on a dry savanna hundreds of thousands of years ago.

Why?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Ethics, Part Four: The Ethics of Freedom

     Author's Note: I only know of three people who actually read this blog on a regular basis, and they just so happen to be the three people I am closest to in my life. I also know that they are, at least to some degree, interested in my philosophical ramblings. If you are someone who is reading this but doesn't give a crap about what I have to say about ethics, etc., know that I am trying to grind through it and get back to other things, but at the same time, much of what I do have to say about the world can't be understood without understanding the underlying ideological basis.

     To return to the topic at hand, what are the greater implications of an ethics based on freedom? As we saw in the last post, the essential basis of making ethical decisions are two (I would argue) irrefutable facts:
1. We make better decisions when we have more accurate information.
2. No one has any legitimate claim to authority or superiority over anyone else.

Which led us to the ethical maxim: Allow the greatest amount of freedom to all.

     This implies that knowingly violating either of the first two principles essentially amounts to making an unethical decision. This includes making decisions based on a presumption of authority or superiority over others, as well as making decisions based on information that one knows is inaccurate, or pretends is accurate, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. I will deal with political systems that use fictitious premises to justify their illegitimate authority in a later post, but here I want to focus on ethical questions that arise on the level of the individual or small group. On this level, religious faith is one of the greatest culprits used to justify illegitimate claims. Pretending that one has access to "truths" that one cannot possibly have access to, and holding on to these "truths" despite overwhelming, objective, rational and natural evidence that they are not in fact "truths" at all, but ancient superstitions and myths, and then using these truths to decide how to treat others is unethical. Faith, since it is by definition accepting something despite evidence to the contrary, and since evidence is the criteria we use to determine truths we can all agree upon, is always a matter of personal choice, and thus it can never be used to legitimately make decisions that affect other people. Outside of the realm of personal conviction, religion is itself unethical.

    So let's look at some examples of things which are inherently unethical, because they are based on the  false presumptions that either one has access to privileged information, or because one has authority over another's decisions. (We are only talking here about adults; children are a special case, and will be discussed in a later post.)

Things which are unethical:
1. Telling someone who they can have sex with, 
2. Making violations of this a capital crime, which they are working on in Uganda with the (quiet) financial support of American evangelical mega-churches.
3. Telling little girls they can't learn how to read and splashing acid on their faces when they do.
4. Forcing women to wear potato sacks and cover their entire bodies (against their will).
5. Telling people who they can marry.
6. Teaching children that "intelligent design" is as legitimate a theory as evolution.
7. Telling people that they can't draw cartoons depicting whatever the hell they want.
8. Killing people because someone else drew cartoons.
9. Killing people for "blasphemy" against an ancient tribal warlord.
10. Telling someone they can't live somewhere because they weren't born into the right tribe.
11. Pretending that a man who covered up the systemic rape of children deserves to be remembered as a saint.
12. Not allowing your child to go to high school or college because the bible is the only thing they need to learn.
13. Not allowing your sick or dying child with a curable disease to receive medical treatment because you'd rather pray instead.

     Let's face it, most of these are obvious to anyone with a brain. However, the world has dug itself into an ideological hole. The multiculturalism tolerance of the liberal academics has been preaching for decades that, "We shouldn't judge someone else's culture or religion." The religious fanatics of all faiths, in many countries, including ours, have cynically adopted this as a shield to protect their oppressions and tyrannies from outside scrutiny. It's time for this to stop. It's time for reasonable people to stop pretending that it is okay for the (ridiculous) personal convictions of individuals stuck in the Middle Ages to determine how the rest of us live our lives. We all have the freedom to believe whatever we want to believe, no matter how ridiculous. What we don't have the freedom to do is impose that belief on anyone else, in even the smallest way.

Ethics, Part Three: Good Without God

     Again, the purpose of this series on ethics is to answer the commonly raised charge against naturalistic, non-theistic world views: "Without god as a moral compass, can people be truly good?" Besides the very obvious fact that the history of religion is the history of murder, torture, rape, ethnic cleansing, terror, crusades, genocide, inquisitions and witch-burnings, we have also shown, even at their ideological foundation, no one religion has shown humankind any better a way of living than have any of dozens of other ideologies, many of which did not need appeal to a magical revelation to come to the same conclusions about ethical living.

     What we have seen is that religions justify their ethical systems in one of two ways. One, by codifying a system of laws (some patently absurd) and saying, "Follow these because god says so. Don't ask why, you pathetic squelch of a mere mortal." Because a loving god sees no need for you to know why you're abstaining  from eating some very nutritious and delicious foods, or why you have to utter certain prayers in a language you don't understand facing a certain direction at certain times of the day. Or, two, by appealing to humankind's natural altruism, by reducing the central moral imperatives of the faith or ideology to something similar to the Golden Rule, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

     The appeal to humankind's natural altruism has a certain amount of legitimacy, because it derives itself from a social-decision-making feature that evolution programmed into us, and many thinkers of the ancient and modern world understood this (even if they didn't know where it came from). However, I find that it's root subjective formulation still presents certain problems. The entire guiding premise of how you should "do unto others" is based on how "you would have them do unto you." For many of the big questions of morality, this isn't a problem; I won't kill you, steal from you, maim you or rape you because I don't want you to do the same thing to me. (However, we have seen stories of people who want to be executed, warning prison officials that they would kill again if their request was denied, having it denied, then murdering their cell-mate. Do unto others.) But for many of the ethical decisions people actually deal with on a regular basis, what people want can be quite different. If my wife will forgive me for using us as an example; when I first wake up, I prefer at least an hour of silence to drink my coffee, read the news, and just be. My wife wants to chat. So she tries, and she gets grunts in reply, and next thing you know, we're on each others nerves, and it isn't even nine o'clock. I'm doing unto her as I would have done unto me- I'm leaving her the heck alone. She is doing unto me as she would have done unto her- she is engaging  me in pleasant conversation. This may sound like a trivial example, but these issues of how we treat one another are precisely the ethical issues that most people have to deal with on a daily basis. A more serious example would be something like physician-assisted suicide, where the family is resisting the ill-person's last request to be allowed to die in peace.

      So the question is, is there a way to formulate an ethical system, without god, without trying to proscribe everything in law ahead of time, and without recourse to something as subjective as what "you would have done unto you?" I'm going to try to do that here, although I will admit ahead of time, these thoughts are something I threw together in 45 minutes while at the gym the other day, so I can't promise it is airtight, but I do think it does a sufficient job of proving my point. (My good friend Brian is working out a much more thorough system in a book he is currently writing, which I have had the distinct pleasure of helping him edit, and you can get glimpses of it on his blog.)

      Much of philosophy is a joke because it resorts to fictitious "first principles" ("I think therefore I am" etc.) about the universe and human existence and reasons from there without ever stopping to check in with the real world. I will do my best to avoid that here. However, everything has to start somewhere, but instead of resorting to metaphysical first principles, I will try to define the first principle of ethics, since that is what we are trying to do here. I should also note, that without recourse to god or some other universal fulcrum, some words like "good and evil," "right and wrong," don't carry the same meaning that they did in ages past, but it is difficult to avoid using them occasionally since our lexicon has no other terms to replace them.

Good Without God

1. What is ethics? Ethics is the system we use to make decisions about what we should and shouldn't do when interacting with other people.

Breaking this down:
2.1. What do we know about making decisions? Making decisions requires information, and the more, and more accurate, information one has, the better one will be able to make those decisions.
2.2. What do we know about interacting with other people? If nothing else, that no person has any natural, legitimate claim of authority or superiority over any other. (Where would it come from?)
2.3. Therefore, making a decision based on the false presumption that one has a legitimate authority over another is based on inaccurate information, and is an unethical decision.

Rephrasing:
3.1. Unethical decisions are those that deny someone their natural freedom to make their own choices.
3.2. Ethical decisions are those that allow someone their natural freedom to make their own choices. 

This also applies to oneself:
4.1. You are ethically entitled to make your own decisions, since no one else has any legitimate claim of authority over you.
4.2. Since no one can claim an intrinsic superiority over anyone else, everyone's freedom should be weighed equally, including your own.

Since freedom is now the gauge of what is ethical and unethical, we can say:
5.1. Decisions which increase overall freedom are ethical.
5.2. Decisions which decrease overall freedom are unethical.

As an ethical maxim:
6. Allow the greatest amount of freedom to all.

     As I will try to show below, in practice, this is not all that different than many of the other ethical systems we have discussed, at least with regards to the "big" issues of ethics. However, I believe it rests on a firmer foundation than others because, as I argued above, what "you would have done unto you," is subjective, as is the classic utilitarian principle, "The greatest good for the greatest number," since what is "good" subsequently requires all sorts of rules and qualifications. Freedom is relatively straightforward, as far as these murky ethical issues go. What people do with that freedom is their business, except where it interferes with the freedom of others.

     Let's take a look at how freedom can be used to define what is ethical and unethical, starting with the usual "big" issues, and then see how it can apply to the day-to-day stuff, like not getting on your spouses nerves.

Murder: this pretty much denies someone all of their future freedom, and is obviously unethical.
Rape: This denies someone the freedom to decide with whom they have intercourse.
Theft or destruction of property: This denies someone the freedom to possess material things of their own (however, private property laws are a matter of social living, and will be looked at in a later post).
Assault: denies someone the freedom to decide whether or not they want their nose broken.

     In other words, were really talking about the same thing, but instead of grounding what is right and wrong based on "because god said so," or "because it isn't 'good,'" we're simply basing it on the fact that no one really has any legitimate right to tell anyone else what to do. Of course, when we decide to enter a social-contract situation, like we all live under, we grant others some of this authority over the rest of us in order to prevent individuals from taking away more of our freedom than, hopefully, the people we decide to put in charge of us. Exactly how much of this freedom can ethically be taken away by institutions will be the subject of one of the next two posts. 

     The example I gave earlier, regarding the differences people can have in "as you would have them do unto you," we can see a clearer answer for resolving the situation when appealing to freedom. I want to be left alone in the morning, my wife wants to chat. In my recognition that she has a legitimate right to want to chat, and in her recognition that I have a legitimate right to be left alone, we still have not made any ground, since both our claims carry equal weight. However, the recognition of the legitimacy of the others desires is in itself a first step, and it is this piece that is so often left out of other ethical systems that are based on anything less flexible than freedom. When we recognize that our own desire isn't superior to the others desire in any way, we can recognize that we must find a way to reach some kind of compromise.

     Ethics is messy. There is no one right answer to every question, all the time. Killing is bad, unless that person is threatening the lives of innocent others. Stealing is bad, unless you steal a loaf of bread because you are starving to death. However, recognizing that we have no authority to make decisions for anyone else is a useful guide for guaranteeing everyone their one natural right, freedom.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Ethics, Part Two: The Golden Rule

     The central question of this series is not whether or not the moral guidelines of the world's faiths do an adequate job of guiding a well-lived life, but whether or not any one of them offers the Best and Only Way to Live. We saw in the previous post that the books of moses are fraught with complications and contradictions. This stems from the fact that although some of the ten commandments are useful guides for social living, they are directly countered by many of the other words and deeds of the same man who delivered them. This certainly calls into question their validity, since no one else was up on Mt. Sinai with moses, his character is an essential aspect of whether or not we should take seriously his claim that he was handed by god the Best and Only Way to Live. If I was a Caananite woman, whose husband had been slaughtered in battle defending home and family, whose son had just been put to the sword, and the last thing I learned before I myself was executed was that my virgin daughter would be reserved as loot by my Isrealite conquerors, all at Moses' command, I would have serious doubts about the validity of any ethical system this villain championed. No amount of rabbinical back-flips and loop-de-loops can justify the actions of that man, who certainly deserves to go down as one of the greatest criminals and villains of all time. Mohamed would certainly fair no better, but I have neither the time nor the patience to get into that here. The fact that it many countries of the world I would be murdered, and my killer vindicated, for daring to utter those words, is only further proof of the statement itself.

     But let us move on. Of course, christians look on judaic law with a bit of a smirk, all those silly rules and regulations, all that weird hair and food. Who needs the Law, when you have jesus? (Although, as we showed last post, jesus didn't absolve christians of "one letter of the Law, one stroke of the pen.") Jesus of nazareth actually offered surprisingly little in the way of moral guidance, instead devoting much of his time to warning his followers about the imminent coming of the son of man, who they would certainly see in their lifetimes (Mathew 9:1- whoops!). Most of his preaching was devoted to reminding people to follow him, at any cost, whether by plucking out your own eye if it offends you (Mathew 5:29), or by abandoning one's own parents if necessary (Mathew 10:37).  Of course, this becomes moral imperative only if he is indeed the son of god, but lacking any evidence whatsoever, accepting that is a matter of choice, but not something the rest of us can use as an ethical guideline. He rails quite a bit against the rich. (Mark 10:25) And he instructs his followers not to judge (Mathew 7:1) and lets us know who is "blessed" (Mathew 5). Most of the gospels is just a repetition of these few ideas, which all pretty  much boil down to the golden rule.

     As for the rest of the new testament, it's all pretty much hogwash. If the son of god comes down from on high to open his mouth, that pretty much takes precedence over anything anyone else says. It seems odd that god would send his only begotten son to deliver his message, which really only took up one book of the bible (they just wrote it four times, sometimes contradicting themselves quite blatantly, such as with jesus' mortal parentage), but then, within a generation of his death, would need to recruit a vicious templar like paul to finish saying everything else jesus left out, and fill up the other couple dozen books of the new testament. So I'm ignoring paul, since the words of the son of god certainly carry far more weight, and trump anything paul says. Unfortunately, this is not true for practicing christians, since most of today's christianity is pauline, and is where most of the very un-christ-like practices and  beliefs come from.

     Again though, the reason succeeding christianities have leaned so heavily on paul is the dearth of  specific moral guidance that jesus himself offers, and the whole point of faith for most people is to have all your questions answered ahead of time, without needing to do much thinking on your own. But philosophically speaking, the simplicity of the teaching's of jesus of nazareth is an improvement, because as the previous post shows (as does any sensible look at law-based faiths such as judaism and islam), the more complicated the law, the more likely one is to run into contradictions and loopholes. Most christians are subconsciously aware of this fact, and are proud of the fact that jesus of nazareth's teachings can be reduced to one ethical imperative, "So in everything, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets." (Mathew 7:12) (The contradiction here with the Sermon on the Mount, where he says "not the smallest letter of the law, not the least stroke of a pen," will be set aside, is fairly obvious, since you can't not set aside any part of the law and simultaneously summarize it into something that absolves people of massive swaths of the law, but that isn't terribly important here anyway.) 

     Unfortunately for christian pride, this isn't a terribly original formulation. Philosophers and religious leaders had been saying this for millenia. 

     In the Hindu Mahabharata, around 2,000 BCE (so 2,000 years before jesus was born) "One should never do that to another which one regards as injurious to one's own self. This is, in brief, the rule of dharma. Other behavior is due to selfish desires."  

     The central tenet of Jainism (the guys with the brooms, so they don't step on insects), which is much more demanding than any other ethical code, "Just as sorrow or pain is not desirable to you, so it is to all which breathe exist, live or have any essence of life. To you and all, it undesirable, and painful and repugnant." 

     Confucius, around 500 BCE, "What you do not want done to yourself, do not do unto others." 

     The Buddha, also around 500 BCE, "One who, while himself seeking happiness, oppress with violence others who desire happiness, will not attain happiness hereafter. (Dhammapada 10)

     Aristotle, around 350 BCE, "We should behave to our friends as we would wish our friends to behave to us."

     In the Talmud, the Rabbi Hillel taught, "What is hateful to thee, do not do unto another."

     The Tao Te Chings also around 500 BCE, teaches, "The sage has no interest of his own, but takes the interests of the people of his own. He is kind to the kind; but he is also kind to the unkind: for Virtue is kind. He is faithful to the faithful; he is also faithful to the unfaithful: for Virtue is faithful." (Tao Te Ching, v. 49)

     Many scholars insist there is no Golden Rule in Islam, where it is commanded to treat all muslims as brothers, but killing infidels is a minor offense. Mohamed did say, "That which ye want for yourself, seek for mankind," though not in the Qu'ran. There is a similarity here to judaism, where it is written in Leviticus 19:18, "Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." This historical precedent of limiting respect and non-violence to only members of your tribe or faith is one of the most obvious explanations for the intractable problems in Palestine today.

     What can we make of this? Well for one, no particular faith or creed has sole claim to the so-called Golden Rule. It seems to be a pretty universal truth, which anyone who spent more than two minutes thinking about it could formulate for themselves. Every parent in the world has used it to instruct their child, "Well, would you like it if your sister hit you?" If it is this universal, where does it come from? Since many of the thinkers listed above made no claim to divine revelation, and were able to get to the same place without it, it is safe to say that unverified claims of divine origin aside, the Golden Rule is simply part of being human.

     It's called altruism, and evolutionary scientists and psychologists are learning more and more that it is simply part of our genetic programming as social creatures. This might be a good time to take a short aside and briefly discuss evolution's role in understanding psychology and morality. Evolution put us here. (If you are still somehow on the fence about this, any book on the subject by the inestimable Richard Dawkins should dispel any lingering questions you have.) If evolution put us here, using any other tool to understand ourselves is really pretty ridiculous. It is like going to your barber shop, finding out that the customer in the other chair is an automobile engineer and asking, "So how do these new fangled hybrids work?" but directing the question at the barber. Many in the social science fields, such as sociology and psychology, are perfectly willing to accept that evolution put us here, but they also somehow believe that it left its most complicated creation, the most complicated thing in the known universe, the human brain, completely blank, for culture to fill in. That in the millions of years that evolution was driving the complexity and size of the human brain ever upwards, it was somehow not impacting its inner workings at all, like a child inflating a balloon. This is clearly, patently, absurd. Of course, evolution made us social creatures, and human culture is a powerful and fascinating thing, and our brains are designed to absorb it. But thinking that culture is the only factor is simply, downright dumb.

     So evolution made us altruistic, and many thinkers from 2,000 years before jesus of nazareth to 2,000 years after him, figured out this rather simple and obvious fact. Altruism is often criticized for only working on the, "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" principle. They claim that religion teaches us to be kind out of the goodness of our hearts. But is that really true? Read the bible or listen to any sermon or homily. It is pretty clear that the reason one ought to be good is for the reward of eternal life in a blissful heaven. So how is this any better? All I want is my back scratched too; you are demanding eternity. Altruism isn't less "good" than religious morality; in fact, it is more magnanimous.

     So, once again, we have an ethical system, that although it contains some useful suggestions, can really in no way make any claim to being the Best and Only Way to Live a good life. Many thinkers have constructed their own ethical codes, and most without recourse to divine revelation. I will attempt to show, in the next post, how this can be done, in a rather simple and sensible fashion.