Bill Moyers interviewed Joseph Campbell in a famous series on PBS. I’ve listened to these interviews again and again, and I’ve quoted them many times in this blog. While Campbell’s philosophy was the point of the program, I also got to know a bit about Bill Moyers via these interviews. He’s a religious person, but isn’t afraid to explore his vision of God. I respect that, at least a little.

I recently caught Moyers interview with Neil de Grasse Tyson. Tyson does a great job. Frankly, I wish he’d been able to capture some of this improvised energy in his version of Cosmos. Tyson is at his best when he’s teaching – not reading from a script, but actively teaching another human being, as he is here with Moyers. And Tyson is a great teacher.

moyers tyson

But that’s not what I want to write about here.

In the second part of the interview, I think Tyson misses an opportunity.

Moyers – “But do you have any sympathy for people who seem to feel, only feel safe in the vastness of the universe you describe in your show if they can infer a personal God who makes it more hospitable to them, cares for them?”

Tyson – “In this, what we tell ourselves is a free country, which means you should have freedom of thought, I don’t care what you think. I just don’t. Go think whatever you want. Go ahead. Think that there’s one God, two Gods, ten Gods, or no Gods. That is what it means to live in a free country. The problem arises is if you have a religious philosophy that is not based on objective realities that you then want to put in a science classroom. Then I’m going to stand there and say, “No, I’m not going to allow you in the science classroom.” I’m not telling you what to think, I’m just telling you in the science class, “You’re not doing science. This is not science. Keep it out.” That’s where I, that’s when I stand up. Otherwise, go ahead. I’m not telling you how to think.”

Of course. Certainly we want no thought police. Think what you want. But thoughts have consequences. As Robin Williams’ character says in Dead Poets’ Society, “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”

Here’s an idea: We’re not safe. A religion that makes us feel safe is dangerous.

The universe is a dangerous place. Worlds collide. Planets are wiped out. Disasters, both natural and human-made, can and do happen. Problems are inevitable. But, as David Deutsch says again and again, problems are soluble. The next disaster is already out there, coming our way, and the only thing between us and that disaster is our knowledge. Not God. Not some cosmic safety net. Not even a security blanket. We, and we alone, can protect us from the very real dangers that are out there.

We need more knowledge. We need to understand the universe better, so that we can control it better. Otherwise it will, without a doubt, kill us. It isn’t pleasant. It isn’t uplifting. But it is crucial information.

That’s what I wish Tyson had said.

 

 

I love Shakespeare.

I’ve been having a great time reading and watching plays, reading and listening to Yale professor Harold Bloom’s book Shakespeare, the Invention of the Human, and reading Isaac Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare.

Reading Asimov’s chapter on Hamlet last night, I came across the passage in which Hamlet compares Polonius, father of Ophelia, to Jephthah, a character in the Old Testament Book of Judges. How had I missed this story before?

If you’ve followed my writing, you know how I feel about the much more famous story of Abraham and Isaac. The story of Jephthah is in many ways even more horrible, and sheds new, horrible light on Abraham. Jephthah goes off to war, promising that if God grants him victory he will sacrifice to God the first thing he sees upon returning home. Any fan of Greek tragedy knows what will happen next; Jephthah indeed is victorious, and who should greet him upon his return but his only child, a daughter who remains unnamed. I’ll call her Pam.

Pam dances out the door to greet her father, but remembering his vow to God Jephthah instantly rips his clothes in agony. Seriously, whom did he expect would greet him at his door? A goat? The neighbor’s kid?

Jepthahs Daughter-640px

Pam, being the dutiful daughter, quickly learns of her father’s rash vow, and tells him he must keep it. She asks for two months to go off into the mountains to “mourn her virginity.”

Um, OK. I’d be using that two months to find myself a new place to live. But that’s not the O.T. way. Pam returns and Jephthah does what he promised to do. So long Pam.

Upon reading this story I instantly went to the apologists’ web sites. Surely there must be some other explanation. Why would God have made such a big deal about outlawing child sacrifice only to have it practiced here? Sure enough, the apologists were on the job. Parsing language and finding double meanings in words (and really means or and so on), they’ve decided that Jephthah didn’t sacrifice Pam. Instead, he simply forced her into a convent for the rest of her life – hence the “mourning her virginity” bit.

Well, OK. Though the Jewish interpretation is the straightforward one – Jephthah killed his daughter – and the Christian interpretation was the same for over a thousand years, sometime in the Middle Ages someone decided to start whitewashing the event. OK, fine. I’ll give it to you. If you really, really insist, Jephthah didn’t kill his daughter. Instead, he forced her to give up any sort of life she might have wanted. Later in the chapter, it is stated that the women of the area mourn for Pam’s lost liberty four times a year. That doesn’t sound like someone who lived a happy, well-adjusted life. What’s lost in the whitewashing of this story is that even the sanitized, sacrifice-free version is a terrible, terrible story of someone who, through no fault of her own, had her life destroyed by someone who was supposed to love and protect her. Way to go, God.

Once again, we see two contrasting views of life. In one, we are free agents. We make our own choices. We find our own truth. In another, we’re playthings of a capricious and bloodthirsty deity who cares more for rules and regulations than individuals. The story is one of obedience over free expression. Isn’t Pam wonderful to give up all Earthly pleasures just for the sake of fulfilling her father’s poorly thought-out vow? Isn’t it great of Jephthah, who later would be celebrated as a man of integrity, to live up to his promise to God, no matter the cost to anyone else? In the same way that Abraham passed his God test by proving his own spinelessness, Jephthah passed by demonstrating that nothing and no one matters in the face of a meaningless promise to an invisible sky-daddy.

We humans can do better than this.

Shakespeare, of course, turned the story on its head, showing Ophelia utterly destroyed by the three men in her life who mattered to her – her father Polonius, her brother Laertes, and of course Hamlet himself. While in the O.T. the story is some sort of triumph of servile obedience, in Hamlet the story is the saddest of tragedies, in which the only decent character in the play is reduced to a lifeless corpse over which a dumber-than-rocks brother and a self-absorbed ex-lover can shout at one another.

ophelia's funeral

I love Shakespeare.

I was in college when I first saw Robin Williams’ Dead Poets’ Society. I was struggling with my future. Did I really want to become a teacher? Why would someone who so hated high school willingly return – not just for four years, but for life? What was a teacher, anyway?

John Keating awoke something deep inside me. “When you read don’t just consider what the author thinks. Consider what you think.” I knew immediately what kind of a teacher I wanted to be.

Later I discovered John Dewey. Lev Vygotsky. Jean Piaget. Teaching would never again be about the passive transmission of knowledge. Teaching would forever after be about creation, discovery, significance. It wouldn’t always be easy. It wouldn’t often fit into the standard curriculum. But it would be what mattered. It would be what they would remember.

Not filling a bucket, but lighting a candle. Inspiration – the power that comes not from following an algorithm, but instead finding your own way, making your own discoveries, coming to your own understanding. Building castles in your mind.

We lost Robin Williams today. John Keating was not Robin Williams. He was a character in a movie. But he made a difference to me. I will miss him.

“Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”

dead-poets-society-reelgood

 

 

 

I’ve posted in a few places that I consider myself to be both an atheist and an anti-theist. I think that deserves an explanation.

By atheist I mean I am aware of no evidence for the supernatural, neither a god nor fairies nor magic spells. In fact, it is my sneaking suspicion that the supernatural by definition cannot exist. The mere fact of existence simply means what we think of as natural is incomplete and in need of revision. If, for instance, fairies were demonstrated to be real, that wouldn’t make them supernatural. We’d simply need to expand our laws of nature to admit fairies. I’m not holding my breath, though.

Note that atheism as I’m defining it doesn’t say “there is no God.” It simply says that if evidence for a being fitting the description were to one day show up, we’d need to redefine our notion of the natural world to take such a being into account.

Arthur C. Clarke said any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. I actually disagree. I think, when confronted with so-called “magic”, we humans would investigate it and find out how the magic works, making it part of our understanding of the world.

Not only, then, is there no evidence. There in a sense can be no evidence. This sort of atheism is, frankly, kind of boring.

Much more interesting is anti-theism. In doing some digging, I’ve found lots of negative reaction to this word. For instance, people compare it to anti-Semitism, which carries connotations of hatred toward particular people.

I want to re-define anti-theism and anti-theist for my own purposes. So first let me state what anti-theism is not. My anti-theism does not involve a wish to impose a non-religious mindset on others by fiat. Freedom of thought is perhaps the greatest freedom of all; I would not (even if I could) make religion (or anything else) a thought-crime.

I would also not restrict the practice of religion (except as it infringes on the rights of others – your belief in your god should not keep me from buying wine on Sundays).

Finally, my anti-theism does not mean wiping religion from history. We need to understand ourselves, where we come from and how we got here. Understanding the way religions have molded and shaped societies, for good and ill, is a part of that learning. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel is a masterpiece, even if it is a portrait of two beings who never existed.

the-creation-of-adam

What I do mean is this. While I see no evidence for God (that’s my atheism), even if I did, I would not worship such a being. It’s almost a shame that the God of the Bible doesn’t seem to be there, because I believe to oppose such a bully would be a worthy way to spend one’s life.

And while I don’t ever want to impose thoughts on others, I do believe that if through gentle persuasive argument I could convince others to become anti-theists (maybe even more than atheists), I could help make the world a little better.

Not that most people who believe in God are immoral; quite the contrary. I think, though, that their morality comes from someplace deeper than their belief in God. Consider that a much greater percentage of people believed in God in the Middle Ages, yet we as a society are far more moral today.

I do think, though, that belief in God keeps some otherwise very good people from making a few obvious leaps. Gay marriage is a clear example. Stem cell research is another. Pressure on our friends in Israel to stop taking land that isn’t theirs and blowing up children when their parents complain is a third.

So here’s my effort at gentle persuasion. Suppose we discovered that the stories of the Old Testament were true. Abraham really was commanded to slaughter Isaac, then was stopped at the last moment and richly rewarded for his blind obedience. The Angel of Death really did, on God’s orders, kill all of Egypt’s first-born. God really did mess with Job, really did confound language at Babel, really did all the other horrible things attributed to Him in the Bible.

Now imagine we discovered the “God” of all these stories to be a space alien using advanced technology (Clarke’s “magic”) to control and manipulate us. How would we feel about such an alien?

I think we’d not only judge this alien to be an immoral psychopath, we’d see this false god as a threat to humanity’s very survival. We’d fight back.

Now, if this is so, what changes when we imagine God to lie outside the laws of nature? If the concept of a powerful space alien somehow manipulating and killing us raises our ire, then why shouldn’t a powerful but supernatural God do the same?

When faced with a bully, aren’t we better off standing up for ourselves? Even if, later on, we discover the bully’s not really there at all?

Now that I no longer work at COSI, I suppose there’s nothing stopping me making this story public.

For as long as I can remember, the wearing and displaying of crucifixes has bothered me. Whatever your feelings about the historicity of religions, make no mistake: crucifixion was real, as was a horrible method of not just killing someone but delivering a tortuous, humiliating public death (and is the origin of our word excruciating).

I always wondered what people would think if some group began wearing electric chairs or guillotines as ornament.

In the mid-90’s, in perhaps my second year as the first floor volunteer coordinator at COSI, I convinced the powers-that-be that we needed an area-specific award for volunteers who had gone above and beyond the call of duty. I suggested calling it the Hypatia award, explaining only that Hypatia had been a female scientist who had given her life to science. The PCness of an award named for a woman was irresistible, and the Hypatia Award was born.

Of course, those of you who know the story of Hypatia know what i left out.

Carl Sagan’s Cosmos had an enormous influence on me, and I always remembered his story of Hypatia:

 

Whether the details of Hypatia’s story are historically accurate, and there is controversy about that, it is certainly a lovely story, and Sagan told it with a passion and intensity that burned into my 12-year-old brain.

A decade and a half later, I still remembered the story. I was allowed to select the symbol for the Hypatia Award, and I of course chose a seashell, the symbol of Hypatia’s martyrdom at the hands of Saint Cyril’s murderous mob.

seashell

The funny thing was, the Hypatia Award became wildly popular with COSI volunteers. They prized it, and worked hard to impress me and the rest of the team in order to earn it. The recipients wore their seashells proudly on their hour ribbons. Eventually, the other areas at COSI adopted similar awards for their volunteers.

It always gave me great pleasure (yes, I admit it) to see volunteers, some of them homeschoolers from rather fundamentalist religious backgrounds, proudly sporting this symbol of Hypatia’s martyrdom. Of course I generally kept this part of the story to myself. Until now.

I know, I know, I’m a terrible person, tricking people into wearing a pagan crucifix. I feel bad about it every day.

tee hee

You never know what you’ll find here.

I’m a fan of revisionist stories. Paradise Lost isn’t supposed to be one (probably), but Milton created such a winning character in Satan that you almost can’t help yourself. Grendel is a brilliant book telling the Beowulf legend from the monster’s point of view. While I detested Wicked the novel, the Broadway play is fun, and if you’re not moved by “Defying Gravity” then I don’t know what’s wrong with you.

defying gravity

I would love to understand the history of these revisionist stories. I remember fondly the Fractured Fairy Tales segments of Rocky and Bulwinkle. Sesame Street often did this, too, with Kermit the Frog winning the race with the Tortoise and the Hare in one segment, and the princess turning into a sexy lady frog after kissing Kermit in another. So the genre has been around for at least a little while. Are there earlier examples?

My younger daughter Caroline and I just saw Maleficent, Disney’s latest updating of one of their more traditional fairy tales. I loved it. Lots of critics didn’t. Too bad for them.

In this version of Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent is a fairy with amazing, body-length wings with which she soars through the skies of the fairy world like a falcon. Stefan is a human boy who falls in love with her. When Stefan learns that touching any iron causes fairies unbearable pain, he throws away an iron ring on his finger. This act of kindness moves Maleficent’s heart, and they kiss. Maleficent believes it is true love.

But Stefan is weak and greedy, and is pulled into a power struggle for the throne. To become the next king, Stefan must betray Maleficent. When it comes, the betrayal is powerful – though this is a Disney movie, meant for families, the allusion to rape is palpable. Though Stefan can’t bring himself to kill Maleficent, what he takes from her leaves her shattered and incomplete. Her grief leaps from the screen. it’s almost worse than death.

Maleficent’s revenge is to curse the new king’s infant daughter, Aurora. But in fact it’s clear that the curse isn’t what does the true damage to Stefan – rather it’s the public humiliation Maleficent forces upon the king that drives him over the edge. He dedicates himself to destroying Maleficent and her fairy world.

Just as in the original, Maleficent curses Aurora to prick her finger on her 16th birthday, causing Aurora to fall into a death-like sleep that will last forever. To further punish Stefan, Maleficent puts one condition on the curse – it can be broken only by the kiss of true love. Based on her experience with Stefan, Maleficent believes that such love doesn’t exist.

Stefan exiles Aurora into hiding – one gets the distinct feeling this is less for the infant girl’s protection than to clear the way for his own obsessive revenge. Maleficent – perhaps still feeling something for the young boy who stole her heart – keeps a close watch over the child she has cursed. Anyone who has ever loved a child will appreciate what comes next.

maleficent aurora

I won’t give away any more. While the ending is perhaps no surprise, it is quite satisfying and, like Disney’s recent movie Frozen, turns the traditional Fairy Tale gender power structure on its head. About time, too.

Anyway, I’m writing about Maleficent not so much as a movie review as a segue into a more general subject. Why is it now in our history that revisionist fiction has become so popular? I suggest it’s another result of the Flynn effect described by Steven Pinker in Better Angels of Our Nature. We as a society are smarter now than we’ve ever been in our history. Simple tales of good and evil no longer work for us. We want to see things from multiple points of view. We want to understand the motivations of both heroes and villains, and we want to judge these motivations for ourselves. Most of all, we want and expect to make choices that make sense to us, and damned be the author who forces her own choices on her audience.

We want to participate in stories, not just have them force-fed to us again and again. How do we participate? By changing the rules of engagement. By taking a fresh look at old assumptions. By recreating the characters anew. We demand and expect to play a creative, thoughtful, active role in storytelling.

grendel

Shakespeare is one arena into which revisionism treads only with the greatest of difficulty. The words are sacrosanct. And yet the most interesting parts of most Shakespeare performances are those unique interpretations of the stage directions, the casting, even the pauses within the unchanging text (see my thoughts on Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth, for instance). Why? Because we want to discover our own unique meanings in these ancient stories. We want them to matter to us.

The difference between Shakespeare’s contemporary audience and ourselves is not primarily a difference in genes – the timespan separating us from our Elizabethan pregenitors is too short for much genetic evolution. No, the difference is essentially cultural. We are more moral than audiences of Shakespeare’s time. (When was the last time you went to a cat burning?) We are less violent, as well, with a homicide rate far below Shakespeare’s and still falling. We are far more exposed to science, to technology, to logic, even to great literature. And, as Flynn’s studies of IQ scores clearly show, we are better able to reason.

You may or may not enjoy Maleficent. You may or may not be a fan of Broadway musicals like Wicked. You may or may not even see the value in re-examining stories like the Garden of Eden or Abraham and Isaac with a more modern, even revisionist, eye. But, less because of your genes than because of the culture in which you are immersed, you are better equipped than any of the myriad humans who came before you to take a fresh look at the literature, the root metaphors, the formative mythology, and the social assumptions of our culture – and to make them ever better. What a great time to be alive!

“When you’re in love, you want to tell the world” – Carl Sagan

It’s time to write about science.

I did a Google search for the phrase “loveliest science story” and found no hits. This astounded me. If Carl Sagan was right, and I believe he was, then we write about science because we love its intricacies, its hidden connections, its poetry. What I’m about to tell you may not be the loveliest science story ever told, but at least now Google will have something to return.

Something less than one million years ago, while our human ancestors in Africa were only just beginning to raise their curious faces to the sky in wonder, a female green sea turtle, heavy with eggs, was blown off course by a prodigious storm. She washed up, quite by accident, on a dark, deserted, volcanic beach, lost and disoriented. Even so, a deep instinct stirred within her. The turtle crawled up the gentle slope of the beach, the ocean waves lapping at her domed shell and powerful flippers. She grunted and strained with the effort of moving her heavy body through the sand. Up until this moment, virtually her entire life she had been buoyed by ocean water in a world without weight. Finally, as she passed the high tide mark, the turtle chose a spot.

green

Those same flippers, which had demonstrated such power and fortitude in propelling the turtle up the beach, now became supple and delicate digging tools. The turtle deftly moved those flippers in and out of the sand to build a perfect nest, centered by a compacted, pear-shaped egg chamber just large enough to hold her clutch of around one hundred eggs. Soon those eggs came, soft and white, about the size and shape of ping pong balls. They passed from her body and into the nest, one after another, building slow layers below the sand.

As she worked, the mother turtle’s eyes filedl with salty tears. Her salt glands, hard at work protecting her from the salt of the sea, on the beach served a second purpose, keeping the turtle’s eyes clear of the stinging, abrasive sand that flew all around her as she worked. Covering her nest with that same sand, the sand that was once her own surrogate mother and now will cradle the babies she herself will never see, the mother turtle finally crawled back down the beach and disappeared into the surf, into the ocean of space and time that forever separates us from her.

turtle grass

Return to today. Off the coast of Brazil, on the shallow coastal banks covered in the green ocean grass that turtles so love to munch, a female green turtle pauses from her feeding. She swims upward the short distance to the surface, pokes her head above the warm, blue-green water, and takes a deep, filling breath. A scent in the air, the angle of the Sun, the taste of the water, all these things tell her that the time has come for her to return to the beach of her birth. It is time to return to Ascension.

For this turtle is a far-distant descendant of our million-year-old mother; her genes were among those ensconced in those ping-pong-sized eggs on a deserted beach so many generations ago. Like all members of her species, this female feels an inescapable urge to return to her home, to build her own nest, to perform her part in the powerful play to come. She begins swimming east.

Now flash back to four and a half billion years ago. Our planet is a hellish world, partially-molten rocks tortured by radioactive decay and pummeled by hurtling projectiles from the detritus of the newly-formed Solar System. The planet is so hot that solids cannot crystallize; the elements within the remain free to move and migrate, buffeted by chemistry and their own inherent mass. These heavy elements had all been born in the inner turmoil of enormous, dying stars and blown into this galactic backwater by explosions that had lit up the entire galaxy. Now they are about to play a role in a still more amazing story.

hadean

The iron and nickel, the most common of the truly dense elements, slowly sink into the young planet’s interior. There, spinning with their own internal motion, stirred by the internal heat of collapse and radioactive decay, ripped and rubbed into positive and negative electrical regions, over long stretches of time in processes that are still but poorly understood, our planet’s core forms a magnetic field that saturates our world to the surface and beyond.

A magnetic field is an extraordinary thing. The result of moving electric charge, it is in fact a manifestation of just how fast, and just how small, the atomic world can be. Any two charged particles feel either an attraction or a repulsion for one another. But when those charged particles move, an additional force arises – a force that comes directly out of Einstein’s special relativity. Electric charges moving relative to one another change time, change space, and result in a “new” force that shows up in our everyday world as magnetism. Every time you hang a note on the refrigerator with a magnet, you are making use of Special Relativity!

turtle magnet

But magnets aren’t useful only on refrigerators. They also give creatures like sea turtles a sense that we humans lack. Lying within the head of our female green sea turtle are a few tiny flakes of magnetite, elemental iron in which the charged particles are aligned with one another, and with the ancient magnetic field of the Earth. This built-in compass will help our female turtle make one of the most amazing migrations in the animal world.

Ascension island lies in the center of the Atlantic Ocean, almost 1500 miles east of the Brazilian coast. It bubbled up just over a million years ago from the Mid-Ocean Ridge, the seam along the Earth’s crust where new ocean floor, and the occasional island, are born. Ascension’s very existence, at just over a million years still one of the youngest spots on Earth, shows how dynamic, how energetic, our planet remains even after four and a half billion years. Radioactive decay continues to keep our planet hot, active, churning just below a deceptively placid surface. We humans and turtles live on a young, vibrant, ever-changing world.

Ascension Island Location

Using the cues of ocean currents, the Earth’s invisible magnetic field, and perhaps other clues we still don’t understand, both male and female green sea turtles make their yearly trek from their Brazilian feeding grounds to this tiny spot of land amid miles and miles of empty ocean. Once there, far from any food source or familiar landscape, they mate. The females, who make this trip perhaps once every three or four years, but build five or six nests with each journey, then repeat the drama played out by their distant ancestor, that first mother turtle, heavy with eggs, who crawled up this lonely beach to found a new green sea turtle society.

Blanketed under the nurturing sand, the young turtles grow and change. Everything the turtles need is provided for them within the egg – everything but the air that slowly passes back and forth through the thin, porous, but tough eggshell. As long as the nest remains dry and covered in sand, in about 8 weeks the babies will cut their way out of their shells with a special “tooth” (no turtles have true teeth – this projection is quickly reabsorbed after the babies hatch). For a few days the turtles gather under the sand; then, through some signal known only to the babies, the turtles break from the nest as a group in an event called a “boil.” Down the beach the babies go, doing their best to avoid divebombing gulls and ghost crabs waiting in ambuscade. Finally they reach the surf and the ocean that will be their home.

green-turtle-hatchlings-emerging (1)

Many more dangers await; predatory fish, flipper-slashing sharks, and human fishing lines and nets all take their toll. Perhaps one in a thousand will survive to adulthood. The babies that survive the initial onslaught make their way to a unique ecosystem in the center of the North Atlantic Gyre, just north of Ascension.

There the young turtles hide in the seaweed of the Sargasso Sea, eating the tiny crabs and fish they find there. They grow. They learn. They begin to feel the tug of the western Atlantic. When they are large enough, these same turtles will leave their open ocean home and head for the coast of Brazil. There they find acres and acres of shallow water, the perfect environment for turtle grass, that green carpet that covers the ocean floor off Brazil’s north and east coasts. Here the greens take up their adult vegetarian lifestyle, essentially harvesting sunlight from the shallow ocean floor. Living and eating side-by-side with other Atlantic green turtles, these Ascension turtles remain a distinct population by breeding only in the waters surrounding their home island.

And then, when the time is right, these marvels of evolution feel the tug once more and begin their trek to faraway Ascension. It is an island that marks the time, formed by a restless Earth that through its interal churnings creates and maintains that very magnetic field by which the turtles accomplish their astounding migration.

OK, if you read my last post you maybe think I’m insane. Maybe you thought so anyhow. But consider . . .

My radio really did turn on all by itself. That’s not all that surprising, even though it’s never done that before. It has, on many occasions recently, switched from Aux to broadcast right in the middle of a great audiobook passage, causing me to, well, not be kind to my native tongue. So clearly there’s some electrical trouble a-brewing in my onboard communications system.

So here’s my question: what if that had happened at a different moment? What if, instead of gooey, cheesy, pepperoni-ey ;) pizza, there was an ad for Jesus? (What, Jesus doesn’t buy radio ads? Doesn’t he believe in free markets?) Or a Billy Graham crusade? (What, he’s retired? Well, his son’s still at it, right?) Or some such thing? Would I have been shaken to my core?

I’d like to think not. I’d like to believe that I’d stick to my ideals. Supernatural explanations are always bad explanations. It has nothing to do with odds. It has to do with the nature of explanation. Unlikely things have to happen sometimes – otherwise they wouldn’t be unlikely, they’d be impossible.

Something caused my radio to turn on. That something certainly has a physics explanation – most likely a pretty boring one. The easiest person for me to fool is myself.

So play on, 97.1 The Fan. Anybody else hungry for pizza?

 

I’d like to tell you about what you might call a mystical experience.

Tonight I was driving on the freeway to get Chinese takeout for dinner. I was in a philosophical sort of mood, so instead of listening to an audiobook, as I usually to, I was talking to myself. The topic was the following: Is it a logical truism that the supernatural cannot exist?

(Like ya do)

The argument, which isn’t crucial for the story, briefly is this. If something exists, it is real. Therefore it has properties (at least the property of existence) that can be characterized. This makes it part of the natural world, and therefore not supernatural. Maybe I’ll write more about this later, but back to the story.

These thoughts got me thinking about God. It seemed to me that the way to think about God was not in the abstract, but inductively, in a practical way. In the same way we can know there is no technological civilization on Venus, we can equally know that there are many gods that do not exist. The sorts of gods, for instance, that suddenly appear before us and say, “I’m God. Worship me.”

Unless, I thought to myself, I’m so blinded by my unbelief that such gods are all around and I just don’t notice them.

The moment I had this thought, my car went over a bump on the freeway. Suddenly my radio turned on all by itself.

What was on the radio?

 

Are you ready for this, all you unbelievers? It was . . .

 

donatos

 

a Donato’s commercial!

Mine eyes hath been openéd.

All hail pepperoni and cheese!

 

OK. Maybe it was a near-misstical experience.

Oh, oh. Didya see what I did there?

On my recent flight to Florida I took a break from reading Moby-Dick and switched to my favorite Hemingway book, The Old Man and the Sea. Maybe it was because I was on my way to the warm, sunny Gulf of Mexico, but after Melville’s overblown descriptions of the deep, dark sea and the deep, dark creatures that dwell within it, Hemingway’s terse yet elegant description of the waters of the Gulf stream were a joy, flowing through my mind like those very waters I approached. I read non-stop during the flight and finished the book (ok, it’s pretty short) just before we landed.

I think there’s a lot to be learned in comparing these two books – not an accident, I think, as Hemingway wrote to a publisher that Melville was one author he was still trying to beat. Did he? Hmmm . . .

Santiago is the eponymous Old Man (I’ve always wanted to use the word eponymous), an aging fisherman who has struck a run of bad luck – 84 days without a fish. His luck has been so bad that he’s lost his helper and his student, a boy named Manolin. Manolin’s father insists the boy join another boat, and so he does so, though he still takes care of the old man each morning and each evening. Once the boats sail, there is nothing Manolin can do to help the old man. For over a month Santiago has gone out alone, with only his oars, his sail, his meager fishing gear – and a lifetime of experience.

Today, a lovely day on a lovely warm ocean in the month of September (“The month when the great fish come – anyone can be a fisherman in May”), Santiago’s luck changes. He hooks a great fish – not just any fish, but the largest marlin the old man has ever seen. If only he had the boy, Santiago could bring this great fish in and change everything. But Santiago doesn’t have the boy. He has only himself.

old man and the sea

Santiago is a romantic:

“Fish,” he said, “I love you and respect you very much. But I will kill you dead before this day ends.”

But he’s also a realist:

“He is a great fish and I must convince him, he thought. I must never let him learn his strength nor what he could do if he made his run. If I were him I would put in everything now and go until something broke. But, thank God, they are not as intelligent as we who kill them; although they are more noble and more able.”

To me this passage carries all the weight and all the difference between The Old Man and the Sea, which I love, and Moby-Dick, which still haunts me. Santiago does what he does out of love of life, love of the sea and his part in it, love of the act of living. He realizes that the fish is neither good nor evil – the fish merely is. The fish’s strength comes with no malice, no evil intelligence, no conspiracy with the fates. The fish simply is. Nature simply is. Nature is indifferent to our suffering – and in the end, that in some sense makes nature even scarier, and makes our struggle that much sweeter. We bring meaning into this world. We depend on ourselves, our will, our intelligence, our ability to think through our pain, to overcome our adversity, to remain resolute in the face of defeat. We willingly take on the struggle that the indifferent universe poses. We choose.

By contrast, Ahab wants vengeance – vengeance on an animal that was only trying to defend itself. I’m still torn on the issue of how Melville characterizes Moby Dick. I believe, I think this is true, that Moby Dick is made a monster in the secondhand tales and hearsay, but in the actual flesh (remember we don’t meet the whale in person until the final three chapters of this long and complex book), Moby Dick seems like an animal – clever, yes, but hardly malicious, and graceful, like Santiago’s fish – until finally (out of, I believe, desperation to end the persecution) Moby Dick crushes himself against the Pequod, both sinking the boat and almost certainly killing himself.

If this is really Melville’s opinion of the whale, then Ahab is sadly deranged, and in an interesting way the mirror opposite of Santiago. Ahab sees evil intent where only indifference lies. Ahab, who comes so close to self-realization, self-actualization, self-choice, falls back on the ideas of fate and destiny, God and prophesy, and we as mere pawns in a game whose outcome is already decided. Melville refuses to choose. I simply can’t come to grips with this failure. It haunts me.

Santiago seems at first glance to fail nearly as completely as Ahab. Yes, Santiago does finally kill his fish (hope I didn’t give anything away there), but then the fish is devoured by sharks on the way back home. Santiago ends his journey with nothing but a skeleton, a boatful of ruined gear, and an old and devastated body. But Santiago has won. The boy, Manolin, upon spotting the great skeleton, upon seeing Santiago’s wrecked boat, upon finding the old man exhausted and starved, makes a choice. He will stay with the old man. He will fish with the old man. The old man will teach Manolin all he knows: about fishing; about life; about the struggle against indifferent nature, the struggle to know and test and experience our own selves. And what more could any of us ask for?

Santiago, a great fan of “the baseball” asks Manolin to “think of the great DiMaggio”. I say, think of the great Santiago.

My first book, called The Turtle and the Universe, was published by Prometheus Books in July 2008. You can read about it by clicking on the link above.
My second book, Atoms and Eve, is available as an e-book at Barnes and Noble. Click the link above. You can download the free nook e-reader by clicking the link below.
September 2014
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A blog by Stephen Whitt

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