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magic and puzzles

An atheist friend of mine sent me an email recently that I've been trying to formulate a reply to and have not been having success making it coherent and, well, not totally conceited. The message was a forward of something that he'd sent to a mutual acquaintance who's a conservative. It was in response to a response from a video against teaching intelligent design in science class. I don't know what prompted the exchange or what the reply to the video was, but my friend seemed to be trying to explain his perspective on life, I guess. He admits it's not intellectually rigorous. He sent it to me, and a couple other acquaintances, he says, in the interest of understanding. Two of the people that were CC'd sent their replies to everyone.

If this sounds confusing it should. I've been thinking about the material in the email for days and not been having a lot of success trying to formulate a reply. And now that these other replies have been shared with all, I feel more pressure to come up with a reply that is diplomatic enough to share with everyone. The other replies seemed to focus on aspects that I wasn't thinking of at all, and both replies ended up sharing quotations that inspired them. There is no way I would go this route, and that makes me even more hesitant to use the reply all feature.

Then, to top everything off, I tried to explain some of the things I was thinking about to my mother--never really a good idea--and she complained that religion and magic are not the same thing. Clearly, she was missing the fact that where she sees different things, I see things that are closely related.

I'm going to try to get my thoughts in order by replying to various points here, because just thinking about various approaches isn't helping. Here goes.

Not only is life hard and uncertain, but the cacaphony of messages we get every day makes it even harder to listen to the still voice inside, the one we must rely on to make it in this world.

Most of the messages we get are the shell of something, rather than the thing itself - notice that the news seems to take a perverse pleasure in describing a small aspect of something, thereby destroying any hope of our understanding.

For example, an article might say "children in Gaza rushed to hospital low on medical supplies." And lets assume the statement is true. No mention is made of why those children were critically injured, and worse, the readers don't even know they are missing it. They are not educated about the larger issue of Israel trying to survive, what is a just war, why freedom is essential, etc. Ayn Rand calls this context dropping, and it makes it impossible to make moral choices without context. Relativists actually take pleasure in hamstringing our ability to make good decisions. I believe relativists, marxists, and skeptics, are invested in telling us the world is too complicated for our little minds, and that we should leave the big decisions to "our betters".

In addition to the spew of meaningless chaos, we have our own human fears, anxieties, and baggage. No wonder many people on this globe will give up their rights for security. I am reminded of my favorite American, Ben Franklin, who said "People willing to trade their freedom for temporary security deserve neither and will lose both."

I get really scared. I don't know if I will be able to fix all my health, mental, and current state issues, to survive and have the kind of life I feel is worth living. This is my anxiety.

We have an uneasiness when our happiness or security is dependent on others. After all, what if those others go away? Wives divorce husbands, children renounce their parents, or worse, parents have the audacity to die on their children, and leave them to fend for themselves.

So we all yearn for certainties. And, we want to have some control that those certainties, those supports, remain with us.

Here, we are left with 2 major options, which in practice are not mutually exclusive - God and Reason. They are similar in that they are eternal, and the comfort they give us is under our control (we can practice rationality, and we can accept and learn to understand Christ, in fellowship).

You know I am working the reason path, although I see the transcendent, the wondrous, the numinous all around us - in my friendships, in the face of a baby, or a great work of art.

One of the ways I attain this feeling of spiritual support, is when I am able to take 2 of life's puzzle pieces, out of the thousands, and find that they fit together.

Working with 2 ideas that don't fit together is as frustrating as trying to force 2 incorrect puzzle pieces to fit together - you are either going to break them, or they will fall apart as soon as you set them down. It is a confidence destroyer.

There is a joy when you are able to find 2 pieces that fit seamlessly, and I don't mean from randomly trying various pieces together, but specifically when the power of your mind makes it happen. For example, you look and see "there is a blue corner on this piece" and you note another piece that has a blue corner, and low and behold, they fit.

Every time I manage to do this, it increase my confidence that I can manage to make my way in this world over the noise.

That was all I was trying to do with the Ken Miller video, sharing a collage of puzzle pieces that fit together, at least for me. I thought it was elegant and beautiful.

As I mature, I am trying to look more carefully at my motivations. For example, I don't wish to convince anyone of anything simply because it reduces my anxiety to have them think as I do (regardless of the truth). Rather, I am looking to their needs, which particular puzzle pieces are of the most significance to them, which part of the puzzle they are either able, willing, or wanting to work on, and restrict my sharing to just those things.

Of course, we can never know for sure what will be appealing to others. If a subject is unappealing, because it does not fit with the puzzle you are building, that is more than ok, it is actually an act of friendship and caring for me to find topics that DO resonate with you.

You know, I am teaching my self something just by writing this to you. It has clarified my thinking.

I am going to a Catholic Men's Fellowship..., with my buddy "Christian Ray". He is a good guy I met through business networking. Ray is a DEVOUT Catholic.

He discussed with me the analogy of the jews, wandering in the desert for 40 years --- "They lived, they died, they were depressed, uncertain, they fought with each other, they smelled bad". And he says it is analogous to life, which has all those features too, and it is our job, as members of the tribe, to help each other get to the promised land, to survive the desert. He also points out that when you want to judge someone harshly, to remember that we are all struggling, and there is no joy in judging someone when we realize they are just stuck in the sand, like we are.

I have 2 very complex sub-puzzles in my hands, Unconditional Love, and Rational Self Interest, and I am turning them over and over, and I have faith I will find out how they fit together.


I don't know quite how to begin a response to this, so I'm first going to address points in a sort of linear fashion and hope that it leads me to a larger point; there is one I want to make, I'm just not sure how to say it right now.

You said: Relativists actually take pleasure in hamstringing our ability to make good decisions. I believe relativists, marxists, and skeptics, are invested in telling us the world is too complicated for our little minds, and that we should leave the big decisions to "our betters".

I want to make clear what is meant by relativist. I am accused of being a relativist on one side, and of being an absolutist from the other. If by relativist you mean that I think that it is okay to steal in certain cases, perhaps when I am dying of starvation and my stealing will not cause someone else to starve, well, then yes, I'm guilty of being a relativist. If by relativist you mean that I think that every culture is of equal value and just as close to the "Truth", or just as close to "Right" as every other culture, well, then no, I'm nothing of the sort. I think that some cultures are better than others. I would never think for an instant that a culture who does not value the lives of women, or gays or atheists, would be the same as one who does. For that reason, I think that, for example, Islamic culture is decidedly further from "Truth" and "Right" than is ours. Ours is hardly perfect, but is still morally and factually better. I believe in some real "Truth" that we can only hope to approximate, but which is real and should be strived for. So which kind of relativist are we talking about here? I assume the latter.

I also don't know quite what to make of this slam against skeptics. I know of "skeptics" who are rationalists, and who use good logic and facts, and are skeptical of things that just don't hold logical water. They call themselves skeptics, and generally, I think you'd probably like them. On the other hand, I know of people who call themselves "skeptics" who I think have gone off the deep end of skepticism. They are skeptical of everything, including things for which there really are adequate facts with which to make a reasonably solid conclusion. I've had debates with some global warming skeptics who, even after I spelled out detail after detail of how facts support other facts, and tried to answer specific objections, these "skeptics" just simply rejected any ability to form a scientific hypothesis about the topic because it was too complicated, or had too many "estimates" in it or whatever. Excuse after excuse to be "skeptical". The conclusion to reject the topic had already been drawn, and everything began more "proof" that proved their preconceived notions. Given the arguments I had with you about global warming, I am forced to wonder which group of "skeptics" you are vilifying here.

I certainly don't suggest that you leave the decision to your betters. But when there is a question to be asked, about which I need more information, I seek it out. I can't know everything, but I learn what I can. I don't accept climate change theories to be "true" simply because scientists say so. I accept them to be true because of what I understand about science and the facts, and they lead me to the same conclusion, because I looked them up. I am actually quite uncomfortable simply listening to what my betters tell me. This current economic crisis being a case in point. I am extremely frustrated by the lack of information available. And it seems that short of getting a graduate degree in economics, I can't even get access to the information. I am forced to compromise. Listen to the experts, see who has their ducks in a row, who seems to be closest to the facts as I know them, and listen most closely to them. But not accepting blindly, but always challenging, always skeptical, and always looking for flaws in their argument. There has to be a clear balance between the fact that experts actually do know more than I do about a particular topic, but also being challenging, and testing their claims. Too much of the former leaves you to be a patsy for the quacks. Too much of the latter and you will trust nothing but your own preconceptions. The connection to facts and good logic are needed to find that balance.

You said: I get really scared. I don't know if I will be able to fix all my health, mental, and current state issues, to survive and have the kind of life I feel is worth living. This is my anxiety.

I don't "worry" about things like my physical or mental health, or other issues like that. These things are things I am concerned about, because both are hardly optimal, but they are matters I am working on. Like Edison, I keep trying. And even failure teaches me something about them. Some things I have control over, and these I work to improve. Some things I don't, and these I try to work around as best I can. But they don't cause me anxiety, at least not directly. What causes me "anxiety", if anything does, is having to do it all alone. There are days when I feel rather like the walking wounded, and it's on those days when my "individuality", shall we say, feels most acute and most unwelcome. It is in those moments when I recognize it as the weakness that it is. You know that feeling when you are home alone and sick, and need to get up and make your own chicken soup? And now do that everyday, knowing that no one will ever be there, and you will always have to make your own soup, and if you break your leg, you have to drive yourself to the hospital. Bad days are like that. As you can see, I have a kind of love-hate relationship with solitude. I like act as though it is a strength, and it can be, but when something goes wrong, the flipside is revealed. And I find it to be a kind of viscious circle. There are some things that I struggle with that I can only make dents on by myself, but to really resolve, they require some "other". Others have friends. I need to find the funds to hire a personal trainer, or for a psychologist to fill those needs. For many people, this is what makes religion so seductive. They don't have the practice I do walking alone, and succumb at the first sign of solitude. But this also leads me to advocate for the secular substitutes that keep people from exchanging this need to be around people for what I consider to be nonsense and magic. I refuse to accept the nonsense and magic, or more to the point, I simply can't, because I realize how much more harmful it is to everything else I do and think. And so I am left here. I accept it. I don't have a choice if I wish to remain true to myself, and my sense of Truth.

You said: Here, we are left with 2 major options, which in practice are not mutually exclusive - God and Reason. They are similar in that they are eternal, and the comfort they give us is under our control (we can practice rationality, and we can accept and learn to understand Christ, in fellowship).

That last bit is extremely confusing. I also don't know that it's true that God and Reason are not mututally exclusive. There are views of god that are less unreasonable than others. But believing in something to be true for which there is not only no evidence, but which is internally inconsistent, and which mutually contradictory with other similar views of god... this is not reasonable. If you are on such a path--and Catholicism certainly is--you are not on the path of Reason, only a kind of pseudo-reason that doesn't challenge the fundamental unreasonableness of church dogma. In effect, everyone else is held up to a higher standard than they are themselves. And it ignores the fact that Reason gives us real control, as much as we can possibly acquire, and religion gives us only the illusion of control. Is the illusion comfortable? Sure. But it is still a lie.

But let us say for a moment that both are extremes for which some people choose an uncomfortable middle. I am walking far on the edge of Reason. I seek to embrace it entirely. Reason does not lie to me. When done properly, it will tell me what it knows, what it doesn't know, and what is somewhere in between. Reason lays the world out as it is, and holds nothing back. Walking the path of god, on the opposite extreme, likes to pretend that everything is certain, everything is known. Just ask a priest. He has an answer for everything except for god's motives. But "God did it", or "God is testing you" are not real answers.

You said: You know I am working the reason path, although I see the transcendent, the wondrous, the numinous all around us - in my friendships, in the face of a baby, or a great work of art.

One of the ways I attain this feeling of spiritual support, is when I am able to take 2 of life's puzzle pieces, out of the thousands, and find that they fit together.


This whole section is something to which I can entirely agree. Understanding to joy. And it is especially amazing after struggling with something for a while, mired in confusing, and then having that light bulb go on, and see everything fall into place. To use your analogy, to watch not just those two pieces fit together, but suddenly seeing the precise connection between a dozen other pieces as well suddenly form a recognizable shape. I've had this happen a couple of times, and it's indescribable.

But again, extending your analogy, I am a contrarian, and I see things that don't fit before I see things that do. And since I was raised Catholic, I was raised with a view of the puzzle already in place. But I saw contradiction and confusion everywhere. I looked at those puzzle pieces, which everyone around me said fit together just so, and they didn't look like they fit to me. They were the same shape, but the wrong colour. Or they were the right colour, sorta, but they shapes had clearly been forced together and made to fit. The overall picture didn't look like anything. Pretty colours, but no meaning. I could not bear to look at it, and bit by bit, I kept removing pieces trying to make sense of it. And when I was done trying to make sense of things, there wasn't any god left in the picture.

As I was considering this analogy, something occurred to me. If the world is a puzzle, then when we are born, we are handed this bag pieces and asked to make sense of it as we go through our lives. Our parents and teachers show us how to connect the pieces in various ways, and with subjects like evolution, they are often at odds with each other. To religious people, the puzzle pieces are just a bag of colourful tiles. They impose some kind of "order" on them, but their notion of order, and their sense of the world is the same: it is fundamentally incomprehensible. The world is too complicated to really make sense of, so anything goes. But those of us who value the power of reason, are willing to be patient and find pieces that really fit, and adopt strategies that will let us fit still more pieces together... and we see the world as something that can be made sense of, and so when confronted with something that doesn't make sense, we wrestle with it intellectually for a while, confident that if it can be reasoned out, we will reason it out. And when it fails to yield to logic, the schema is rejected in favour of something more apparently useful. This is not to say the religion never gets anything at all right, but those things that are not born out have to go.

As I have said before, I think there really is an underlying "Truth" to the world. The way things really are. A real picture under all those puzzle pieces, if you like. What I am concerned with is getting closer to that truth. I recognize that it is totally possible I have erred along the way, and I welcome corrections to the picture I am forming. So my journey is not about proving myself right and others wrong... though, of course, I think I'm more right than other people in the absence of good evidence to the contrary. But what I am interested in is sharing what I've learned with others. Perhaps this is something of a missionary zeal I picked up from my Catholic background, though I really doubt it. And again, I hardly go around telling people how right I am and instisting that they can't ask me questions. I analyze my views and my motives constantly. I am a contrarian, as I said before, even with my own views. Adding new information constantly forces me to check for consistency with other things I already think I know. I view it as caring to find things to convince others of my view of "Truth", not to support my position through numbers, but rather because I really believe it to be true. What kind of a person would I be if I allowed those I cared about to live a lie? A lie that could ultimately lead them away from the "Truth". I expect debate, but I expect the dialogue to improve both our views of the puzzle: to clarify my thinking and catch any mistakes I may have made, and to bring those I care about nearer to a true, and thus more useful and more beautiful, view of the world. I want to help.

You said: I am going to a Catholic Men's Fellowship..., with my buddy "Christian Ray". He is a good guy I met through business networking. Ray is a DEVOUT Catholic.

Why would you do this?

You said: I have 2 very complex sub-puzzles in my hands, Unconditional Love, and Rational Self Interest, and I am turning them over and over, and I have faith I will find out how they fit together.

I prefer the concept of Enlightened Self-Interest myself. I see Unconditional Love as unrealistic, and Rational Self-Interest to be, well, frankly short-sighted. I find that Enlightened Self-Interest (an enlightenment term from the time of the Revolution), combines rationalism with concern for others quite well. For instance, being altruistic seems to be an act of selflessness or an act of self-hatred, depending on your view. But a society with altruistic behaviour is a better society to live in than one in which there is none. We are not paid back directly for such behaviour, but we are indirectly. When we are the ones in need of the receiving end of such behaviour, it is available to us. Probably not the person that we were good to when times were good for us, but the behaviour is part of a pool of good behaviour that we can tap into when we need it. It is very much a statistical argument. It is a matter of looking long-term, because statistics only work in the long term. And the central aim of Enlightened Self-Interest, at least my understanding of it, is to balance the needs of the individual with the needs of society by discussing how benefits to the society at large can be seen as fundamentally selfish acts... and thus, make them more appealing. This was a very different way of promoting "good" behaviour than threatening hellfire or simply appealing to the virtue of suffering. At least, this is how these apparently conflicting interests fit together for me.

Yeah, that was long. Three hours later, I give up.
Read at your own peril, I guess.

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