Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Heart of Reality

I would like to articulate an experience I had that was so powerful that it has had more influence on my worldview than all the books I’ve ever read.  Perhaps it was the closest I will ever get to a genuine religious experience.  First the context, and then the experience.

Relatively speaking, my first seven weeks in the Mayo Clinic in early 2012 for leukemia were not overly unpleasant.  I nearly always had my mother or my wife there, friends visited, and importantly for this story, nurses visited frequently in my room to say hi and to chat.  At that time, I was able to leave my door open, thus giving me a psychological connection to a world outside of my room.  The open door also facilitated casual conversation with nurses and staff as they passed by.  Outside of immediate family and friends, the staff at the hospital eventually became an essential part of my social life, as they do for most long-term residents.

Then I finally got a notorious bacterial infection known as “Clostridium difficile,” which occurs commonly in hospitals.  Immediately, the nurses closed my door and kept it closed.  They could not enter the room without donning a yellow coverall with blue gloves.  I called it the “Big Bird” outfit.  The closed door was traumatic for me, and the Big Bird routine ended the casual conversations.  Then I had a horrifying question, so I asked the doctors.  They confirmed my fears—protocol demanded that the closed door and Big Bird outfits be a permanent feature of my stay from this point on, no matter what happens.

With this essential piece of my social life suddenly stolen from me, I entered a depression.  Shortly thereafter I had the room all to myself over a Saturday and Sunday.  The doctors didn’t visit over weekends, and the nurses were no longer visiting like they once did.  I was so overwhelmed by loneliness and thoughts about my potential death that I spent the whole weekend sobbing.

On Sunday afternoon, a nurse came into my room with Big Bird on, and we chatted for about ten minutes.  It was a great relief.  I said, “Oh, I’m talking your ear off.  You have work to do!  So, what will it be?  Are we doing a blood draw or something?”

And then she said two sentences that have changed my life.

She said, “I don’t have anything to do.  I just came in here to see you.”

I immediately collapsed into a full-body sob as I surrendered to what had just happened.  She started to cry and hugged me and just let me go and go.

When I reflect on that experience, here is how I can try to express it.  No other language can capture the power of it than to say that, in hearing her words, I had seen the face of God.  All of the suffering, pain, misery, and horrors of life shattered in this brilliance that had been unleashed upon me.  It is as if she had uncovered the divine spark within her that, like the singularity that preceded the Big Bang, expanded to create universes.

The experience abides.  Every time that I replay it in my mind, I have to control my emotions.  I saw the beating heart of reality in the kind words of a nurse, and reality is absolutely beautiful.

So now I know—I matter.  You matter.  This life has a significance so awesome that even a sideways glance at its radiance would make anyone blind.

And this is why nothing about my condition really bothers me much anymore.  Every one of us has the potential to give a gift like this to somebody.  And it can be as easy as “I just came in here to see you.”

Sunday, December 22, 2013

An Atheist's Vision

I never had Ayer’s experience while fighting leukemia, although I wish I had.  The description of his experience moves me deeply because I am quite convinced that it corresponds to what I think is true:  First, there is a Supreme Intelligence (God) at the core of existence itself; and second, (I suspect that) there are other exalted intelligences, which I would call Gods and Goddesses (yeah, I know I’m in trouble here with some, but oh, well).

The second proposition strikes me as a hypothesis that would help to explain the multiplicity of religions as well as the diversity of religious experiences in the world, although I wish not to slide into the intellectual incoherence of claiming that “all religions are saying the same thing.”  That claim cannot be true, because different religions affirm mutually contradictory things, and contradictions cannot be true.

The first proposition explains the unity of it all—the consistency of the laws of nature, the universally binding moral absolutes that obligate us to behave in certain ways and not in others, the need for an ultimate explanation instead of a group of them without any unifying principle.

I have adopted the belief in the Divine for a wide variety of reasons, one of which is that I have come to the conclusion that metaphysical views that attempt to explain the mind solely in terms of unconscious matter are just not believable.  I am convinced that there are other existing things that are not at all physical, including numbers, propositions, laws (physical, logical, and moral), and minds.  I think that there is something fundamental and irreducible about consciousness itself, and that if anything would serve as a metaphysical ultimate, a supreme consciousness is a very good candidate, and is a better one than matter.

Because there are many (perhaps infinite) things that are not material in nature, we cannot say that because only matter exists, God cannot.

If we wish to dismiss the Supreme-Being hypothesis, it would have to be for other reasons.  Perhaps we could say that God does not exist because science cannot prove it.  But science cannot prove a lot of things that are nevertheless true; for example, it can never prove that it is always wrong to murder children solely for one’s own personal enjoyment.

I think the only atheistic argument that retains weight is the classic argument that a perfect being would not permit the suffering that we see in this life.  I wrote my dissertation (“Divine Abandonment and the Evidential Argument from Evil,” 2004) on this topic and have come to this conclusion:  If there really is a Supreme Being, it is not at all unreasonable to suppose that He would have reasons beyond our limited understanding for permitting the kinds of things that we see.  However, I don’t think that this response ends all rational concern here, and I do believe that the argument from evil does give us evidence that there is no Supreme Being.  I believe, however, that this evidence is not conclusive and is outweighed by other considerations.  I think that the evil in the world ought to keep a person from being smug about God’s existence, but I don’t think that he is intellectually required to abandon the belief.

And there is also my personal experience.  It is a story that has been told a million times with insignificant variations.  I have had a profound alteration in my perception of my life and my actions.  Everything feels so much more significant.  Everything is infused with a meaning that I deeply feel transcends the world.  The attitudes of the adolescent can no longer suffice and must be abandoned.  Wisdom must be accepted from any source, and foolishness rejected.

I have experienced a liberation so profound that, even though my lifespan has been significantly shortened, I would never trade the liberation for the extra years.  The liberation is the knowledge that the needs of my soul can never be satisfied by my possessions, my successes, or even my body itself.  Freedom from dependence on this ephemeral world, and the re-orientation toward the mysteries of the other, is a source of true bliss.

But I never became a fundamentalist or anything like that.  This is either/or thinking, to my mind.  The idea is that you must disbelieve everything or believe everything.  Well, I believe a lot of stuff, and I don’t believe a lot of stuff, and that’s how it is.

So I say that you do not and never will have absolute proof that you are just an accident and that life has no meaning.  This does not prove that the opposite is the case (that would be the Argument from Ignorance fallacy), but it calls to mind an important question:  Why live your life as if it has no meaning when you are not intellectually obligated to do so?  I refuse to live this way. 

Thank you, Death, because I have found you an intimidating, yet loving, teacher.

So let the wonder of Ayer’s experience feed your soul!

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Nazis vs. Communists

I have been studying a lot of Soviet ideology stuff lately, and so I bought a book about Bolshevism by a German named Heinrich Härtle.  It is a reprint from the University of California Libraries, and I bought it because it was one of the few German-language books I could find on the subject.  Having no idea of the contents, I took a small risk on a very inexpensive book.

Well, after reading a fair amount of the book, I started getting a strange vibe about it.  After what seemed to be a competent explanation of certain Bolshevik and Marxist beliefs followed by fairly decent criticisms, he would go on to say things like, “This is typical of Jewish intellectuals.”  It seemed as if the author was a bit obsessed with race.  I looked at the publication date—1944.  No way!  This book was written by a straight-up Nazi during WWII!

I did some research on the author and it turns out that he was one of the most important intellectual Nazi ideologues.  He was member #60,398 of the Nazi Party.   In 1928 he joined the Sturmabteilung (Brownshirts), and in 1942 he became a Sturmbannführer in the SA (equivalent to a Major).  He played an important role in linking Nietzsche ideologically to National Socialism.

It is fascinating to witness this ideological war between the Nazis and the Communists.  Both had one thing in common:  They both saw people first and foremost as members of groups rather than as individuals.  For the Communists, it was all about in which of the warring classes one found oneself.  For the Nazis, it was all about one’s racial identity.

Härtle berates the Marxists for thinking that class identity can produce a true culture.  Only racial identity can produce a true culture.

A couple of choice quotations that I have selected:

This one I think has a ring of truth to it:  “Since ‘Bolschevism’ doesn’t always sound sufficiently scientific, they increasingly adopted the very learned-appearing name of ‘Dialectical Materialism.’  In the USSR, this name is supposed to play the role that the scholastic philosophy—Thomism—plays in the theology of the churches.  Dialectical Materialism became the theology of Marxism, the ruling fundamental concept of research as well as teaching, of the university as well as the academy, of the institutes and the libraries.”

But then things get serious:  “Marx displays the following entirely typical Jewish traits:  First, the instinct toward economic activity; second, a parasitic-plagiaristic foundation; and third, the destructive and annihilating effect on non-Jewish people.”

Further:  “Only the racial investigation solves the final riddles of this unholy development [Marxism].  […]  Jewish is the parasitic exploitation of the intellectual achievement of others, and Jewish is the intellectual misrepresentation of original discoveries.”

“When we briefly confront, in the following, the main thesis of his [Marx’s] theory, it is not in order to refute Marx ‘scientifically,’ which presupposes to take him scientifically seriously, but rather to characterize him as a Jewish intellect.”

And it goes on.  National Socialism vs. Communism!

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Appeal of Communism

Why was Soviet communism so popular among the elites in the West, in spite of its dismal record of ruined economies and murdered masses?  J. M. Bochenski argued that it was precisely its dogmatism and confidence in opposition to the relativism and skepticism of the West that attracted many disillusioned Westerners to its creed.  It also made appeal to a heroic ethic, in which good inevitably triumphs over evil.  These appeals are clearly illustrated in the following passage (that I have attempted to translate as accurately as possible) from Grundlagen des Marxismus-Leninismus from 1960, which was a German translation used in East Germany of the official book published by the Soviet Union, the purpose of which was to lay out the fundamental ideas of Marxism-Leninism.  This passage comes from the Introduction:

“While faith in Man and the destiny of civilization lies in a hopeless crisis in the bourgeois ideology of the West, the Marxist-Leninist worldview awakens in us the passion to engage in a noble battle for high social ideals.

Everyone who adopts this worldview will not only be deeply convinced that the cause of the workers is just, but also that the victory of socialism across the entire world is historically necessary.  Armed with the worldview of Marxism-Leninism, you become strong, politically steadfast, and principled.  You win an unshakeable conviction that gives you the strength to overcome any challenge.

Millions of people across the globe have already drawn the high ideals for their behavior, as well as the necessary energy for their realization, from the inexhaustible well of Marxism-Leninism.

Is it worthy for a modern, thinking person to live without a progressive worldview, or to content himself with the beggar’s soup of inferior pseudo-worldviews?

It is decidedly better to strive for a mastery of the fundamentals of the Marxist-Leninist worldview so that you may develop intellectually and emerge victorious in the battle against the imperialist enemies of humanity.”

The original German:

“Während in der bürgerlichen Ideologie des Westens der Glaube an den Menschen und an das Geschick der Zivilisation in einer hoffnungslosen Krise liegt, weckt die marxistisch-leninistische Weltanschauung in den Menschen das Streben nach edlem Kampf für hohe soziale Ideale.

Jeder, der sich diese Weltanschauung zu eigen macht, wird nicht nur zutiefst davon überzeugt, daβ die Sache der Arbeiter gerecht ist, sondern auch davon, daβ der Sieg des Sozialismus in der ganzen Welt historisch notwendig ist.  Mit der Weltanschauung des Marxismus-Leninismus ausgerüstet, wird der Mensch stark, politisch standhaft und prinzipienfest.  Er erwirbt eine unerschütterliche Überzeugung, die ihm die Kraft verleiht, jegliche Prüfungen zu bestehen.

Millionen Menschen auf dem Erdball haben bereits aus dem unerschöpflichen Quell des Marxismus-Leninismus die hohen Ideale ihres Handelns und die für deren Verwirklichung notwendige Energie geschöpft.

Ist es eines modernen, denkenden Menschen würdig, ohne fortschrittliche Weltanschauung zu leben oder sich mit den geistigen Bettelsuppen minderwertiger Pseudoweltanschauungen zu begnügen?

Es ist entschieden besser, sich um die Aneignung der Grundlagen der marxistisch-leninistischen Weltanschauung zu mühen, um geistig zu wachsen und die imperialistischen Menschheitsfeinde im Kampf zu besiegen.”

Friday, August 16, 2013

Ride Before You Die!

Ever since I survived leukemia, I've been droppin' the hammer on these freaking motorcycles, smoking pipes, lettin' 'er rip, rip-rock flashin', and eating all kinds of whatever. A close brush with mortality can be so liberating in so many ways. Is riding this bike gonna kill a righteous bro? Eating this, drinking that, and smoking this going to give me cancer? Been there, done that, loser! My date with destiny is fixed, and I've never felt better. Fists in the wind, my friend! Don't you know? We must ride before we die!