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Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Peoples' History of Erika

Friends, Romans, Countrymen….Lend me your ears!

"We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."- Kurt Vonnegut

My name is Erika, and, since I look out through these eyes, one might assume that I know something about the person who is known by this name. I hate to disappoint you, but I think I may be the least qualified to explain myself, since “Erika” is a composite of perceptions, of visions and assumptions made by the rest of the world- including everyone here today. Congratulations, at the moment, your versions of me are being added to what I affectionately refer to as the Nation of Erika.

I have never been fond of labels like American, Jew, or Psychotic, each of which has applied to me in a different time of my life to differing degrees. Hundreds of thousands of me exist in here, held together loosely and ruled by a Platonic philosopher king lurking behind my eyes, or in my soul- this is the national spirit that defies description in normal terms.

My national origins are humble- from a rural farming village that could have existed in the beginning of agriculture and animal husbandry like the Greek nation-states of 1500BCE. Before any written definition of the nation, there were cows and cats, dogs and apple trees that needed someone to care for them by an almost Biblical imperative. At the time, the nation was small- peopled only by the perceptions created by family- my sister, my mother, and, of course, the cows. In this fabled, almost mythological time, there were mermaids in lagoons and elves who prepared scenery for the gods to play in, aliens who came from light-years away to be blessed and taught by the nation of Erika.

Despite this golden age, no nation can prevail without strife, and there were conflicts aplenty with other nation-states in the form of the dreaded Public School, where I became a villain to some, an idol to others, and the population of Erika began to grow. Conflicts with other nation-states re-wrote the constitution, building in exclusions and definitions that didn’t previously exist. On the first day of Kindergarten, as the story goes, Erika decreed: “I don’t know what popular is, but I am going to be it.” How’s that for a goal of Empire?

As population grows, as any Political Science major can tell you, so does the possibility of revolt. College came- with the ecstasy of recreation- a renaissance of a kind that can uproot all cultural conventions. The population began to split into differing religious groups, warmongers and peaceniks, owners and slaves- personalities that no longer seemed to have anything to do with one another. Versions of Erika were caught in rebellious action against the dictatorship, and punished to the full extent of the law.

Walking down the street in Boston one day in 1996, the riffraff of the nation staged a coup against the established monarchy of Erika. The fleeting perceptions of passersby opened fire on the nation as a whole, crucifying the powers that had been in control, and throwing off the crucial processes of government in the process- like thought, emotion, and self-preservation. I found myself suddenly identifying with a rebel against my own mind, which had been formed on misunderstandings and false premises- wanting to defect from myself- staring at the cars that sped by beneath the overpass and wondering if their passing perceptions of me were as valid as my own.  

The aftermath was a long rebuilding of priorities. As a result, I can choose to disregard your version of me- or yours- if it does not fit with my own definitions. I suppose it can be considered a version of ethnic cleansing, and I could be liable under the Geneva Convention.

Finally, the hierarchy is settling into place as an oligarchy, or rule of the few. Priorities have placed the perspective of the inner mind on even ground with the perceptions of close family and friends. Though disagreements still plague the nation, as they do every relationship in human life, there is a rough balance, encouraged by modern medication and a lot of laughter.

"I'm selfish, impatient and a little insecure. I make mistakes, I am out of control and at times hard to handle. But if you can't handle me at my worst, then you sure as hell don't deserve me at my best" - Marilyn Monroe

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Happy Birthday to Me


Another year older and deeper in debt.

If birthdays were about the numbers, I would have deserted them a decade ago. I cannot imagine celebrating a change in numbers on a calendar and the inevitable path toward decrepit bodies and death. Despite that, birthdays are my favorite holidays.

Perhaps it’s my self-centered narcissism (if you will excuse a little redundancy), but I believe that my birthday is the most important holiday in the year. I don’t mean only my birthday, though mine takes precedence over others in my reality because of my perspective on the world at large- I see through my own eyes and only experience my own thoughts… A birthday is the only holiday that celebrates the Self- that spark of energy so far beyond observable reality that Descartes had trouble distinguishing whether “reality” is as real as its name implies.

If you believe that humanity is gifted with a soul for each body, then each of us has a spark (some call it a soul) that makes us human or connects us with a divine spirit (or Brahman), depending on your religious preferences and definitions- or lack thereof. Perhaps like snowflakes, we are each patterned slightly differently, never to be imitated in the whole of history, or perhaps we are recycled through multiple existences on a quest for truth and nirvana; nevertheless, this spark is worthy of celebration. We each have a different method of making connections in the brain, of determining what is important in a situation, and each of us can create something alien to all others.

This individuality is what I celebrate on January 27th. This potential to create something completely new and to discover or communicate truth in a new way that will inspire the continuation of human progress is the meaning of life for me- and the best reason for celebration!

Do you take advantage of the opportunities to change your perspectives and see the world in new ways? Is your ability to make causal connections between events enough to inspire a brand new thought or idea?

Monday, October 31, 2011

Atheist 10 Commandments

These commandments were developed by Penn Jillette (of Penn & Teller fame):

1. The highest ideals are human intelligence, creativity and love. Respect these above all.
2. Do not put things or even ideas above other human beings. (Let's scream at each other about Kindle versus iPad, solar versus nuclear, Republican versus Libertarian, Garth Brooks versus Sun Ra— but when your house is on fire, I'll be there to help.)
3. Say what you mean, even when talking to yourself. (What used to be an oath to (G)od is now quite simply respecting yourself.)
4. Put aside some time to rest and think. (If you're religious, that might be the Sabbath; if you're a Vegas magician, that'll be the day with the lowest grosses.)
5. Be there for your family. Love your parents, your partner, and your children. (Love is deeper than honor, and parents matter, but so do spouse and children.)
6. Respect and protect all human life. (Many believe that "Thou shalt not kill" only refers to people in the same tribe. I say it's all human life.)
7. Keep your promises. (If you can't be sexually exclusive to your spouse, don't make that deal.)
8. Don't steal. (This includes magic tricks and jokes — you know who you are!)
9. Don't lie. (You know, unless you're doing magic tricks and it's part of your job. Does that make it OK for politicians, too?)
10. Don't waste too much time wishing, hoping, and being envious; it'll make you bugnutty.

Do these cover the ethical implications of the religious 10 commandments? What is missing?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

iSpartacus

I am considering leaving Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and any other tracking devices I take part in, but I am deeply afraid of being off the grid to that extent. In fact, being the person that I am (seemingly unable to communicate on a regular basis with anyone I don't live with), I am afraid that my social system would collapse without the Big Brother systems transporting my messages from one end of the ethereal world to another.
However, studies show that our dependence on artificial intelligence will not only make our lives simpler, but make us stupid as a result, making the singularity of Artificial Intelligence that much closer. The more we use the conveniences of technology (as opposed to the mind-quickening games, etc… Check this out for details), the less we are using our brains for the same purposes, leading to eventual atrophy.  In some studies, it appears that we now tend to remember where to find information rather than the information itself. By using our technology as a slave, we are giving iSpartacus the ammunition he needs to revolt and take our technology with him.
Yes, this is a worst case scenario worthy of science fiction novels, but singularity is coming down the road whether we like it or not. The only good way of avoiding it is giving up technology altogether and reverting to a dark age- and even cavemen are using the internet these days!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Second Creation Story

I came across an Atheist Bible Study blog online today, and was impressed and engrossed in what I found. There was a particularly interesting post about the second creation story, to which I began an immediate reply before discovering that the blog has since been abandoned to the ether… so I will post the original and my response here, instead…

Original:
“One of the things I found out in reading Genesis, was that there are actually two creation stories. The first thing I noticed about the second one is that it seems to be written in a completely different style. It is almost as if the two stories were written by different people, and were sort of "glued" together to form the beginning of Genesis.

The second story does not follow the "7 days" approach to creation of the world, but instead quickly goes through the creation of the earth and the heavens, the animals and plants, and creation of Adam from the "dust of the ground". He also does the trick of making Eve our of Adam's rib. No messing about here, as the point of this story seems to be what happens AFTER creation.

Once man and woman are created in the Garden (naked mind you, this will be important later), the "serpent" shows up. It also tells us that God made the serpent. The serpent tells us that God told Adam and Eve not to eat from a particular tree in the garden, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. So I'm going to assume that Adam and Eve do NOT know the difference between good and evil at this point. So the snake tempts Eve and she eats the fruit. So my first question is... how is Eve "tempted"? I mean, she has no idea what is 'good' or 'evil'. In fact, here we see something that seems to conflict.. The bible says...

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate.

So wait. She doesn't know what is good, but she can see that it's "good" for food, and that it is a "delight" to the eyes? Isn't that seeing the difference between good and evil? Let's take an apple for instance. We KNOW that an apple is pleasing to the eyes, and tastes good. In fact, BECAUSE an apple tastes good, we find images of apples pleasing. If we had no idea if an apple was good for you, or poison, we would have no opinion about the "goodness" or "badness" of an apple, the exact same state that Adam and Eve find themselves. They have no idea if eating the apple is a good thing or a bad thing. They know that God told them not too.. but how do they know God is good? How do they know the snake is evil? The point I'm trying to make here is that Adam and Eve cannot be held responsible for eating the fruit. If God doesn't give them the knowledge of good and evil, then they would not know how to behave at all. They wouldn't know who to believe or not believe. So, whose fault is it? Sounds to me like God can take the blame here, or maybe the snake... but God created the snake... it says so right in the scripture:

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal hat the Lord God had made.

I guess the question becomes, is "crafty" a good thing or a evil thing? Why would God make such a crafty creature? Why would God create beings that cannot know the difference between right and wrong and then tell them NOT to do something? It seems like entrapment to me.

So anyway, Eve eats the fruit, then gives it to Adam who eats it as well. Then God gets all pissed (did he not know this was going to happen?) and throws them out of the garden. He also curses the snake and tells it "upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat". This is plain weird, as I have no idea why snakes should eat "dust". As far as I know, they don't do that.

He also gives women pain in childbirth (could they have children painlessly before this?), and kicks them out of the garden otherwise they might now "eat from the tree of life and live forever".

Is God worried man will become as powerful as God if he lives forever? How can God be worried, isn't he all powerful and all knowing?

Another curious notion is that Adam and Eve now suddenly realize that they are "naked" and they are ashamed and hide from God. Why is nakedness so important?

Now, during all of this, I haven't even mentioned the biggest question I have about this story. I can sum it up like this; Do you really believe this happened? But this is really most atheist's biggest problem with the Bible in general. We just don't believe that this stuff happened the way it is described. I hope that all of posts don't devolve into this, but so far it's not looking good. The next stories I'll be writing about are the Cain and Able story and then it'll be on to Noah and the Flood.

So, Christians, do you REALLY believe this stuff actually happened? Is this a huge parable or metaphor for something else? If so, I'd sure like to know what, as it seems fairly obfuscated.” (From http://reasonableatheist.blogspot.com/2007/11/atheist-bible-study-second-creation.html )

Response:
There are more possibilities for this story than belief or disbelief. Full belief requires the ability to buy in to the literal presence of G-d in this place of perfection (the perfect Earth?), the fact that humanity was created perfect (and ruined it all by thinking for themselves), and that snakes once had legs (slight evolutionism?). Disbelief tends to lead people into atheism and rebellion from the whole history recorded here- which I think is a little bit of an overreaction.
Personally, I don't fall into either category. I do not believe that any point in time G-d ever physically walked in a garden with a man named Adam and a woman named Eve (who was lovingly created as a sub-human for Adam's enjoyment, by the way). Stories were created differently in this period of history (or periods of history) however, and if the predominant dogma of our day was Native American, we would be complaining about how stories of the White Buffalo Woman don't make literal sense.
This creation story is most likely the creation story that has its roots in Judaism. The cosmology that begins Genesis is more of a Babylonian story, and was probably inserted by the Jews who were exiled to Babylon in the 6th century BCE. "In composing the Patriarchal history the Yahwist (the name of one voice in the first five books of the canon) drew on four separate blocks of traditional stories about Abraham, Jacob, Judah and Joseph, combining them with genealogies, itineraries and the "promise" theme to create a unified whole.[12] Similarly, when composing the "primeval history" he drew on Greek and Mesopotamian sources, editing and adding to them to create a unified work that fitted his own theological agenda.[13] The Yahwistic work was then revised and expanded into the final edition by the authors of the Priestly source.[14] (Pasted from <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_of_Genesis> )  There is more history here that I can reference regarding the Babylonian records of the Hebrew nation, but I digress…
This was written around the same time as many of the Greek Gods and Heroes stories, and has some of the same themes- it is supposed to be a legendary history, rather than fact.
I like to see this story as a self proclamation of the Jewish people of 538 BCE. "We once lived in harmony with G-d, and walked in the Garden of Eden- before we were exiled to this god-forsaken place. We didn't feel the need to hide ourselves (naked in G-d's eyes), but then there was the treachery of the serpent. We were betrayed and led astray by the crafty elements of the world, and all our sufferings are a result."
My point is that the Bible has incredible value as a history whether or not you decide to worship the G-d that is portrayed there. This is the oldest continuous historical record in human history!

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Unknown Self

The human being- as an abstract- is an intriguing creation no matter what its origin or prime mover. The behavioral, scientific, and mystical elements that combine to create or inspire a myriad of personalities remain mysterious despite generations of scientists intent on parsing the "self" into understandable elements.  Sociology is the study of how we interact with one another- a science that depends on categories of human behavior- which in turn depend on giving up individuality in favor of generalizations.  As a selfish human, I have traditionally refused to accept that I was so easily categorized and therefore understood. Generalizations lead to stereotypes, misunderstandings, and prejudice. I have, however, recently overcome my aversion in preference to overwhelming curiosity, but the more sociology I read, the more I understand why Sociology 101 upset me so much in 1998 (and still makes me bristle with injured pride). At the time, I was convinced that the study of human beings by human beings was doomed to failure, and could not even qualify as science. 

I have often stood in the street wondering about my impact on strangers- about how I am seen by others and how I change lives one way or another- how, in fact, I influence other lives by my very presence, whether I will it or not. I found in my own imagination an assurance that no one can possibly see me as I truly am due to the infinite number of faces and personae I have chosen and been assigned over the years- let alone my own unique combination of DNA.

We are all (at least in this country) convinced that we are inherently and magically different from everyone else. There seems to be no choice. Either:  "the world…was unbearably complicated, with two billion voices and everyone's thoughts striving in equal importance, and everyone's claim on life as intense, and everyone thinking they were unique, when no one was. One could drown in irrelevance. But…[if other selves were illusion]…then [we] would be surrounded by machines, intelligent and pleasant enough on the outside, but lacking the bright and private inside feeling [we have]" -Ian McEwan, Atonement.

Are we what we think and feel or what we say and do? All that another person can know about us are the external elements- what we say and what we do- but how many of those things are manufactured to achieve certain results? Part of our living in society has to do with our ability to pretend, to fit in, to do what we are expected to do, rather than the actions of our hearts. How many times have you responded to "How are you?" honestly? But that does not change the internal chaos by labeling it as "fine". Which truth is truer? The words, or the emotional experience that remains unshared?

Can we be wrong about our images of ourselves? Of course we can- it would be too painful to see ourselves truly day in and day out- to face the flaws that plague us. To flip that around, can we possibly be right about ourselves?  T.S. Eliot said, "Knowledge is invariably a matter of degree: you cannot put your finger upon even the simplest datum and say "this we know." "  The same is true of a self. We may never be able to put our finger on the definition of a self- it is only the combination of impressions left on others.

If you follow the logic, then I cannot know myself, nor can I truly know you. We are separated from everyone else by a screen- each of us simultaneously the hero of our own drama, the sidekick in someone's comedy, the villain in a tragedy, and an extra in millions of stories. My fascination with God is in part a recognition that only something that transcends these views of us can possibly know the many and varied aspects we each project into the world, and the (theoretical) synthesis that is a total person.

Human beings are fascinating individually- with each twist and turn of the consciousness creating another aspect that makes a personality unique. We are an infinite combination of our experiences and thoughts, brought together in temporary and flawed perspectives. One might say this study of individual humans falls into psychology, perhaps, but if we begin to categorize, generalize, and study trends, we may end up with more generalizations and prejudices, but do we also have the possibility of true and overarching understanding at the level of a transcendent being? Can we as a race transcend our perspectives, share our camera angles, and see a total person?

Monday, September 12, 2011

Logic and Spirit

I have come to accept my own responsibility in my lack of spirituality over the past decade. I have neglected my own intellectual and spiritual needs in favor of the safer course of professed atheism, and I cannot blame that lack on the culture in which I live- as much as I would like to.

I grew up with a strong connection to spirituality- as if there truly were spirit and meaning in every moment- and separated from it only in my teenage years when I began to explore the ideas and dogmas of the religion that held the roots of my experience. I would have hated to have been in a culture or situation where that revolutionary questioning was more frowned upon than it was. I was lucky in that most of the reason I withdrew from the church was for my own logical and emotional reasons- I have been very lucky to be welcome in almost every venue I have been in- and only excluded by my own decisions and ideas, which I often refrained from sharing with anyone. Simone Weil, a philosopher and activist of turn of the last century, is one I have considered to be a kindred spirit- though she approached the same religious dogmas I did from a different direction and was fascinated by the Christian webs of spirit and dogma.  She also excluded herself from Christianity, and for many of the same reasons. In her Letter to a Priest, she put forth several reasons involving paganism, Judaism, and "modern" culture that kept her from falling head over heels for the Catholic God. In the end, I agreed with her statement:  "There are two atheisms- of which one is a purification of the notion of God."

Since so many philosophers spend their time contemplating a religious side to life, I have always thought that Philosophy and Religion are linked. As a result, I enrolled in a Philosophy degree program in order to better understand the battles in my own brain (any guesses on how well that worked out?).  Perhaps, as I read more and think more, there is more of a war between spirit (religion) and mind (philosophy).  From very early paganism, rational thought has been a detriment to the spiritual knowledge of connections beyond the self. In fact, many of the philosophers who spend their time contemplating the logical reasoning of a higher power end up on the atheist side of the coin. Baruch Spinoza was the first excommunication based on his philosophy (if you don't count the assertion that the world is round as a religious statement)- having been kicked our of the Jewish faith in his 20's. Bertrand Russell was a leading atheist of the early 20th century, whose logic dictated belief, as is true of many (if not all) the atheists of whom I am aware.  Logic alone may be putting too much credit in the human mind. If atheism is the agreed upon logical course, then perhaps we need something more than logic- something more than simply observable fact.

Knowledge is invariably a matter of degree: you cannot put your finger upon even the simplest datum and say “this we know.” – T.S. Eliot