A Scene to Share

13843867_sI have been very busy, very broke, and a little depressed lately, which is why this blog has been a bit neglected.

Unfortunately, this week is only a little better. So in order to post something, here’s a scene from my current work in progress, Refuge Volume Two: The Ingathering. (You can find links to Refuge Volume One: The Order Master on the sidebar to the right.)

The main character in this scene is Claire Chang, who suffers from a magical mimic of bipolar affective disorder (also known as manic-depressive disorder). It’s a magical mimic of the disease because it’s caused by Claire’s astonishing and undeveloped magical talent rather than the genetic and brain-chemistry problems that normally result in bipolar disorder. The symptoms are the same, though. In this scene, Claire is sinking into a depressive phase, and I tried to capture the sense of that particularly in the early narrative where she’s struggling to do something as simple as take a shower.

I will get back into the swing of blogging hopefully at some point in the near future. Meanwhile:


Claire woke up after a while. She wasn’t sure how long. She was even less sure why it was important, but she rose mechanically and checked a clock, discovering that it was eight o’clock, which meant she had slept either four hours or sixteen. She supposed four was the more likely, although sixteen was not altogether impossible.

The basement room where she had slept had windows and through them she could see that it was dark. Evening, then, and she had slept four hours. That was good. On the other hand, she still felt lethargic. That was bad. It could be due to her injury or her depression, but in either case it meant something was wrong.

The basement had a bathroom, so she relieved herself and washed her face. Washing her face was a good sign. She even fished a hairbrush from her purse and brushed her hair. Examining her face in the mirror, she saw little to admire. Her Asian features, which some might have found appealing, seemed to her listless and devoid of expression. Claire got plenty of attention from boys and men, especially when she wasn’t depressed, so she supposed she was pretty enough. At least, reason said that had to be true. She couldn’t see it herself, though. She shrugged. It really didn’t matter. She wasn’t interested in Richard that way, or any of his friends, either. Anyway Richard was married. Actually, at the moment she found the whole idea rather pointless.

She considered fixing her makeup but decided it wasn’t worth the effort. Then she considered taking a shower. Was that worth doing? Her hair really did feel pretty greasy. She ran her hand along the shower door handle and thought about it for a while. Finally she pushed herself into pulling her borrowed shirt off over her head and opening the shower door. Now she was already half-naked and would have to exert some effort before she could go upstairs, no matter what she decided. That thought motivated her enough to slip off her pants and her underwear. Now she was completely naked except for her bandages, if those counted. Should she take a shower with those on? They were supposed to be waterproof, Richard said, so it was all right, she supposed. Anyway they could be changed if necessary.

Shower or get dressed again? The idea of getting dressed again seemed absurd; it would mean that the effort of taking her clothes off was all wasted. All right then, shower it was. She stepped in, closed the door, and started the water. Brr! It was cold! But then it warmed up and felt all right. It didn’t feel particularly good, because she was already down enough that nothing did, but it didn’t feel bad, either.

Bright blue sparks shot up and down her arms. They tinted the water a shade of blue. Claire was used to that. The sparks didn’t hurt. She wasn’t sure what they were, and she thought she was seeing them with second sight rather than her eyes. Nobody else had ever seen them. They tended to come on during a depressive episode, although not always.

Richard thought her magic was connected with her mental illness. He might be right. He had been the one to give her some simple, basic lessons four years ago, after they had met when she went by herself during a lucid phase to pick up a prescription. Before she began meditating, doing breathing exercises, and using her second sight, her sickness had been worse. She had even been hospitalized twice.

Maybe it was like the pressure in an abscess. Her magic, bottled up inside her, pushed at her brain and wanted to get out. According to Richard, that was what caused her mood swings and hallucinations. If she learned more about it and gave it ways to come out, the pressure would drop and her symptoms should go away, or at least get better. That’s if Richard was right. Claire wasn’t totally convinced about that.

The sparks were kind of pretty to look at, too.

She found some shampoo, not her brand but it would work, wet her hair and lathered up, rinsed, scrubbed her body with a washcloth and soap, rinsed again, turned off the water, got out, toweled off, and put her clothes back on. Excellent. She was clean. That was an achievement.

She trudged up the stairs. Each step took an effort of will. Her legs and feet felt heavy. That wasn’t just the depression, either, because her side hurt with each step as well. Maybe Richard was right and she needed a day or two to recover before they hit the road. That thought almost sent her back downstairs, but by then she was already near the top, so she trudged on.

The lights were on upstairs. Someone was cooking or something had already been cooked. It smelled like chicken soup, or maybe roast chicken. Chicken, anyway. Claire thought about eating, although she wasn’t really hungry.

She heard two men talking and headed for the voices, which were just the other side of the door in front of her. The stairs opened onto a laundry room and the door of the laundry opened onto a dining room where two of her rescuers sat at a table with bowls of chicken soup and bread. One of them, a blond man probably in his thirties with beard stubble, turned to her and smiled. “Welcome to our hideaway,” he said. “I’m Jack. This is Peter. And I know already that you’re Claire.” He held out a great big hand. After a moment’s hesitation Claire took it and shook it.

“Hi,” she said.

“Hi,” said Peter with a wave. He was black, short, and stocky, maybe in his early forties by the slight tint of silver in his hair. Both men were dressed in casual clothes, jeans or corduroys and work shirts. “There’s plenty of soup if you want some.”

Claire nodded. She stepped around the table and into the kitchen. Bowls were set out and a big pot of soup sat on the stove with a ladle hooked over the edge. Claire told herself she really ought to eat something. She ladled soup into a bowl, found a spoon, and made her way to the table where she joined the men.

“Is Richard around?”

“No,” Jack said. “He and the other brothers are making sure our families get here all right.”

“Oh, yeah. Because he thinks the Droon are going to attack your houses.”


“Do you think they will?”

Jack shrugged.

“They never have before,” said Peter, “but they’ve never had much reason to, either. This is different.”

“Just because you stopped them from killing me?”

“We also killed three of them doing it,” Jack said.

“They don’t worry about getting killed the way most people do,” Peter said. “That’s because they reincarnate, you see. When they die, it’s only temporary.”

“But killing three of them at once while stopping what they were trying to do, that they might have a problem with,” Jack said.

“Anyway, better safe than sorry,” said Peter. “That’s why we’re here and bringing our families here, those of us that have them.”

Claire tasted the soup. It was pretty good, not too greasy and full of rice as well as chicken meat and vegetables. She didn’t feel hungry, but told herself that her injury needed food, and made herself eat.

“So how long have you guys been part of this — what did Richard call it?”

“The Scourge of God,” said Jack. “Ten years for me.”

“Only one and a half for me,” said Peter.

“We had a revolution just before Peter joined us.”

“A revolution?” Claire said.

“Yes. It started when Mike Cambridge, the Order Master, invoked the Pact of War and got information from a Droon. Did Richard tell you about that?”


“This Droon told Mike that the Droon are aliens, not devils from Hell, which is what the Scourge of God used to believe.”

“And some still do,” said Peter.

“Some people never learn. The Droon also told Mike about the Andol. Mike went looking for them and found one of them. He went off with her — with Amanda Johnson, that is — and fell in love with her.”

“Which is kind of kinky if you think about it,” Peter said. “I mean, she’s an alien.”

“Cute, though.”

“Tentacle sex.”

“What?” Claire looked from one man to the other, frowning.

“He’s kidding,” Jack said. “The Andol don’t have tentacles. Anyway, Mike passed on what he’d learned to the Chapter Masters.”

“And then all hell broke loose,” said Peter.

“Why was that?” said Claire.

“You have to understand that the Scourge of God was a very conservative, very devout Christian order,” said Jack. “What Mike told them was bothersome because he wanted to make alliance with the Andol. A lot of the Chapter Masters considered the Andol to be another kind of demon. They thought allying with them would corrupt the order away from its Christianity into some kind of New Age thing.”

“Which is pretty much true,” said Peter.

“I’m still Christian,” said Jack.

“You think you are. I think you are, too. Ask Jim Anderson and you might get a different opinion.”

Jack waved his hand. “Jim Anderson can go soak his head.”

“Who’s —”

“Jim Anderson is the Order Master of the hard line chapters of the Scourge, the ones that stick mostly to the old ways,” said Jack. “Anyway, Christians have been fighting over who is really Christian for centuries and we all lose when we do. Catholics against Protestants, both against the Orthodox, and then you have the Coptics, the Quakers, the Gnostics, the Mormons — it’s obvious God doesn’t want us to be unified, or we would be, so there’s no point in worrying about it. As far as I’m concerned, anyone who says he’s a Christian and tries to follow Christ’s teaching is a Christian, whether or not I agree with him about anything else. We can disagree with each other. Jesus never said different.”

“I see.”

Jack smiled a lopsided smile. “I guess it sounds like how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, doesn’t it? I feel the same way. It’s what you have in your heart that counts, not what’s on your lips. But anyway, I was going to tell you about the revolution in the order. It started when Mike sent all the Chapter Masters a run-down on what he’d found out. Five of the Chapter Masters had a meeting and called a Council of Chapter Masters. The Council was supposed to consider the new information that Mike had found, but some of the Chapter Masters wanted to impeach him and execute him for heresy. It takes a whole Council to do that, you see. And it takes a two-thirds majority, too. So they called the Council to meet in New York. Mike went there to explain what he’d found in more detail. I don’t know all of what went down, but they did impeach him. But then somehow the Droon found out where the Council was being held, and they attacked it and killed almost all of the Chapter Masters.”


“Yes, it was a mess. Mike got away. Our Chapter Master didn’t. The Droon killed him. When we got word of that, we had an election and Richard became the new Chapter Master.”

“He and Jack are the only ones left who were in the order at that time,” said Peter.

“What happened to the others?” Claire said.

“After Richard became Chapter Master, the Andol found him and talked him into allying with them. When the rest of us found out, everyone but me turned on the Chapter Master — on Richard, that is — and tried to kill him.”

“You’re kidding!”

“I wish. They weren’t supposed to do that. They should have reported him and gotten the Order Master and three Chapter Masters to authorize the killing. Those were the old rules, but it was a chaotic time.”

“Even those rules aren’t in force anymore,” said Peter.

“No, that’s true, we don’t kill people as much as before. Only in self-defense or defense of others, like we killed those three Droon to protect you. But anyway, even by the old rules they shouldn’t have done that, but they did.”

“What happened?” said Claire.

“We won. They lost. Andol training helped a lot.”

“In other words,” said Peter, “they’re dead. That left some vacancies in the chapter and Bill and Tom and I filled them.”

Claire made herself eat some more soup. A few minutes later the front door opened and several people came in. Richard was one of them. The two other members of his chapter, Bill and Tom, were with him. Two women, a boy, and a girl completed the party. One woman and the boy ran to Peter, who jumped out of his chair to embrace them both. The other woman and the girl were connected to one of the other guys, Claire decided, not to Jack.

“Where’s Linda?” she said.

“I don’t know,” said Richard. “She wasn’t home and I can’t reach her by phone. I’m worried.”

At that moment, Richard’s cell phone rang. “Maybe that’s —” he began, but then stopped. He answered the phone. “Hello?” He swallowed. “What do you want? I see. I’ll call you back. Do anything to her, anything at all, and you’re all dead. I swear it. No, it won’t. I’ll call you. Give me half an hour. Very well.” He hung up the phone and sighed.

“What is it?” Claire said.

“The Droon have Linda.”

A minute of frozen silence, and then Jack said, “Who was that?”

“Jennifer Olson.” He looked at Claire and said, “She’s the Droon administrator for the Pacific Northwest.” He closed his eyes. “Dear God.”

“What do they want?” said one of the other men, Tom or Bill.

“I know what they want,” said Claire. “They want me.”

Richard nodded. “That’s right.”

Copyright: _ig0rzh_ / 123RF Stock Photo

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Thoughts on the Amazon-Hachette Dispute

Others have commented succinctly on the inadequately-known details of the dispute between Hachette and Amazon over a new contract to sell the publisher’s books online by the retail giant. But there’s one thing that has seldom been mentioned, and that is what I believe to be Hachette’s (and other publishers’) real problem with Amazon.

My thought is that the real dispute isn’t over what discounts Amazon wants to offer on the publishers’ books, or who controls the pricing, or how much Amazon will charge the publishers for preferred marketing. All of these are important issues to be disputed, but this sort of thing arises between publishers and booksellers all the time, and doesn’t result in the kind of high-profile dustup we’re seeing in the media today. If it weren’t for a completely different issue that makes publishers regard Amazon as The Enemy (albeit also a necessity of their economic survival), these arguments might (and probably would) still be taking place, but we wouldn’t hear about them. Amazon and Hachette would resolve them quietly and there would be no battling author open letters or media storms of protest.

What I believe Amazon’s great sin to be, the thing that sends Hachette and other publishers into a frenzy of opposition, is self-publishing.

Ebook pricing disputes threaten to shave off some profits from one side or the other. But self-publishing threatens the big publishers with extinction.

The problem lies in the way that publishing houses, especially the Big 5, operate or historically have operated. The publishers have, in the past, held control over distribution of books. Authors who wanted a chance to sell their books sought a publisher to publish them because there was no other choice. Publishers could dictate terms to all but the biggest and most successful and popular authors, because they had the authors over a barrel. Sign the contract or fade into obscurity — that was the choice.

To a somewhat lesser extent, the publishers could exercise similar dominance over consumers. They were the only source of books, and readers had to pay what the publishers charged or do without.

Self-publishing with print on demand and ebooks has changed that, and although Amazon isn’t the only company offering that service to authors, it’s by far the biggest, and the main reason why self-published books have become a significant and growing part of the book market.

The reality in today’s literary world is that publishing houses are unnecessary, and none more so than the Big 5. Smaller publishers often deliver a genuine service to writers in exchange for a cut of the proceeds, but the Big 5 act like entitled mandarins or Medieval chartered monopolies, so entrenched in the attitude arising from the choke-hold on distribution that they used to hold that they cannot innovate or adapt, nor can they humble themselves to offer authors genuine value for what they ask.

When readers can buy excellent, well-reviewed books for a fraction of the price the big publishers ask, the publishers lose readers. When authors can enjoy superb distribution of their self-published titles, and retain complete artistic control and a high share of royalties, publishers lose writers. And without readers or writers, they will cease to exist. Because they have always been middlemen, not producers.

More than any other company in the world, Amazon is responsible for this change in circumstances.

Publishers regard Amazon as the enemy for this reason. It’s not because it’s the biggest book retailer in the world. That’s the reason given, but it’s disingenuous in my opinion.

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Puritans and Neo-Puritans

24252623_sIn the discussion on my last post, I used a term, “neo-Puritanism,” that provoked some confusion. To try to address that, I’m going to write something on the original Puritans, who they were, what they believed, and what happened as a result, and how those I’m calling “neo-Puritan” merit the term even though they’re often not Christian, nor anti-sexual killjoys.

That’s how we tend to think of the Puritans today, and there’s some truth to it, but it doesn’t do justice to the movement, which was far more complex and interesting than that. It’s also common to think of the Puritans as conservative, and that they most certainly were not. They were quite progressive, in fact, even radical in many cases.

Puritanism strictly speaking was a movement within English Protestant Christianity in the 17th century. Properly so called, only these English people should be considered Puritans, although there were comparable movements happening on the continent at the same time. Puritanism was a continuation of the Reformation impulse that had disrupted European Christianity a century earlier. It was deeply Christian, but not in an orthodox way (the Puritans challenged the orthodoxy of the time). It was highly moralistic and sought to perfect human behavior, or come as close to that as possible. And it was strongly egalitarian, rejecting the privileges and pretenses of the titled nobility and asserting that all were equal in the sight of God.

Puritanism had an immense impact on the history of both England and America. In England, the movement led to political opposition to the rule of King Charles I and in support of Parliament, to the English Civil War, and to the temporary overthrow of the monarchy and Charles’ deposition and execution. In America, a small subset of the Puritans who had removed themselves from the ongoing political struggles in the home country built a religious experiment in what is now New England, founding settlements that would seek to create a perfect Christian society, and would powerfully influence the course of American history up to and through the drive for independence and the movement to abolish slavery.

It’s important to understand that the Puritans were a far remove from today’s right-wing fundamentalist and evangelical Christians who, on the surface, seem to share some of their specific religious beliefs. In today’s terms, we would say that their impulses came from the left, not the right. They were quite scholarly people as well, believing strongly in education, and their views of Christian morality were the antithesis of narrow-minded. They were indeed anti-sexual by modern standards, but that was only a part of their moral convictions. They condemned greed, oppression, wanton violence, and the inequalities and injustices built into English society much more fiercely than they condemned sexual misbehavior.

I find it easy to feel sympathetic towards the Puritans, even though I’m not Christian and disagree with many of the particulars of Puritan belief. I understand the impulse to perfect society, to correct its inequities and create institutions that reflect sound morality and a spirit of love and benevolence. I understand the value of equality. If the Puritans could take a look at today’s society, they would surely condemn the greed and arrogance of our modern capitalists at least as strongly as they condemned the British noble class. (They’d also be horrified at the open sexuality of today’s Europe and America, but never mind that.) Many of the spiritual sentiments expressed in posts on this blog from time to time would find a nodding acceptance among the Puritans, especially the rejection of religious authority and the assertion that each person must find the truth for himself or herself, in personal experience of the All. They would put that in different language than I do, but it would come down to the same thing.

On a spiritual and religious level, Puritanism should be seen, in my opinion, as a net positive. But as a political movement, it was an abject failure, until some of its impulses were taken up by other, more secular approaches to politics. In England, the overthrow of Charles I led not to a republic but to a dictatorship under Oliver Cromwell, who ruled like a king but called himself the Lord Protector. After Cromwell’s death, the monarchy was restored under Charles II, and except for the death and destruction the movement might as well never have happened at all. It did, however, establish certain ideas about equality and universal representation in English politics which would resurface later with more lasting effect, and Charles I was also the last English monarch to make an attempt at absolutist rule. His fate cautioned all of his successors.

In America, the New England colonies morphed over a few generations from experiments in religious perfection into ordinary societies with commerce, industry, and all of the normal human failings of the time. New England merchants were important factors in the slave trade, something Puritans would, and their spiritual descendants did, condemn ferociously.

Eventually, movements in both countries took up some of the values of the Puritans and made them workable. Today’s English monarchy has been stripped of almost all its power, remaining a figurehead and a tourist attraction, while the British nobility has seen its privileges disappear over the years. In America, the most famous phrase in the Declaration of Independence is surely “all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” a decidedly Puritan idea even though Jefferson took most of his thinking from the Enlightenment.

But the only way that these movements could succeed was by removing the goals from the impulse to religious perfection of human behavior that defined the Puritan movement. When the goal was to eradicate sin, the movement could not succeed. When it became something more definable and secular, it did.

And that brings me round to those I’m referring to as “neo-Puritans.” Neo-Puritans share with the original Puritans not their Christianity (necessarily) and certainly not the anti-sexuality that we sometimes mistakenly call “Puritanism,” but their impulse to perfect human behavior and to suppress and eliminate sin — as neo-Puritans understand “sin,” which may sometimes differ from the way the original Puritans thought of it. Neo-Puritans today may be environmentalists, feminists, or economic egalitarians. They see the behavior of human beings, particularly the wealthy and powerful, towards nature or towards one another, as worthy of condemnation. As with the original Puritans, we must acknowledge that they have a point. But the political failure of the Puritan movement should caution us against trying to translate that religious, spiritual, and moral impulse into politics, except with strong secular filters.

The perfection of human character is a spiritual goal and should be approached with spiritual means: individual, not collective; self-directed, not imposed from without; and something each individual and each generation must gain anew. Politics must assume, if it is to be successful, an imperfect human character, and create policies that work in spite of this. We may achieve a sustainable economy, or equal rights between genders, or a living income for all. But we will not achieve through politics (and nature won’t do it for us, either) an end to the desire to consume, or to misogyny, or to greed.

Copyright: ra2studio / 123RF Stock Photo

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On Optimism In Fiction

10034764_sIn fantasy, and perhaps even more so in science fiction, there’s been a tendency in the recent past to make the vision as dark and dismal as possible, viewing the future and the possibilities inherent in the human condition with dour pessimism and a belief that nothing ever improves. Depictions of a future society in which any of our current problems are solved, in which people live more egalitarian lives, in which corporate interests don’t dominate and control all functions of government, in which we have a sustainable society with respect to the natural world or one in which war has been abolished, are seen in many quarters as naïve, utopian, and unrealistic.

What’s actually unrealistic, though, is the belief that the problems we have today won’t be solved, and that we’ll still be facing them hundreds of years from now. That isn’t realism. It’s a failure of the imagination and also reflects a very poor understanding of history.

Hundreds of years ago, whole economies in the richest and most powerful of nations were founded on slavery. Today, slavery still exists but only in poor and backward countries and on the fringes and margins of the economy, such as in the sex trade. Workers in mainstream industries today are coerced by subtler means and much better rewarded for their work than slaves ever were.

Hundreds of years ago, the government was not only influenced by the rich and powerful, but actually restricted by law to those who were born into privileged families and held titles of nobility. Today, that isn’t true even in countries where titles of nobility still exist.

Hundreds of years ago, women were regarded as the property of men, either of their husbands or, if unmarried, of their male relatives or in some cases of religious institutions such as convents, which were part of organized religious structures that were run by men (even if the convents themselves were often run by women). Today, while we still have a ways to go to achieve true gender equality, that attitude is no longer accepted and mainstream.

Hundreds of years ago, war was not only constant but regarded as normal, noble, heroic, and necessary to build national character and the strength and dedication of each new generation of youth. In fact, that attitude persisted until a mere hundred years ago. (It was the First World War that put an end to it.)

A person from the world of a few hundred years ago, magically transported by a wizard’s spell or a time machine to today’s world and looking around, would on first impression think he had entered Heaven. No constant war? No grasping nobility? Enough to eat even for the poorest people? Men can’t rape their wives with impunity? Why, this is a perfect world!

Of course, on closer acquaintance he would discover that problems still exist. They’re just different problems than the ones he was used to. But because we are always focused on the problems we have before us, the idea that those problems might some day be solved seems utopian. It’s what we hope for, or cynically fear to hope. And yet nothing is more likely than that they will someday be solved. And so do depict a future world in fiction where such problems persist isn’t realistic, but just the opposite.

That’s particularly true of the two problems that threaten the survival of civilization today. One of these is war. The other is unsustainable exploitation of the environment. It’s not unrealistic to say that these problems may not be solved. But it is completely unrealistic to depict a future society in which they still confront us. If they are not solved, our civilization will cease to exist. Therefore, any future society will either be one in which they are solved — or it will not exist. And that in turn means that a fictional portrayal of a more advanced society than our own, either human or non-human, must be a peaceful and ecologically sustainable one, not because the future will turn us virtuous (although in fact it may), but because any civilization that survives to become substantially more advanced than ours is one that has solved these problems.

Which brings me to my own Refuge series, which I characterize as both fantasy and science fiction, and which includes two fictional alien species, the Andol and the Droon, who destroyed each other in an interstellar war and some of whom have reincarnated on Earth as human beings. In some ways these are personified good and evil creatures. The Andol are egalitarian, benevolent (if often ruthless and manipulative), and have attitudes that are socially and culturally more advanced than any but the most enlightened of human beings. The Droon are just the opposite: elitist, thoroughly nasty (they like to subject their inferiors to years of torture just for fun and games), and bent on reducing humanity to a race of slaves and pain toys. Some might see both races (I suspect: especially the Andol) as unrealistic. I contend otherwise. It all comes down to the fact that those two problems, war and environmental stress, must be solved for an advanced civilization to survive. But there is more than one way for a society to reach that point. There are in fact at least two. One of the Andol describes this as follows:

A mature intelligent species has a unified planetary government, doesn’t fight wars anymore, and has a sustainable relationship with nature. It’s in no danger of destroying itself either in war or by exhausting the planet’s resources. That puts it in a position to explore the nearby stars, especially since it usually discovers faster than light travel about the same time. . . .

But you lay those things out in front of most people, and they’ll think ‘utopia.’ That’s not always true. The Droon prove it. They had a unified government, didn’t fight wars anymore, and had a sustainable relationship with nature, and yet they also had a master class that turned all the rest of their people into slaves. That’s one way a species can mature. The master class imposed harsh rule, stamped out all the Droon warlike tendencies, and forced their society to go green . . .

We had a global economy, planetary government was set up to regulate it, and then a democratic movement took it over. We came to our senses collectively. It meant we were a lot less polarized than the Droon. We had no master class in the end, but we could have gone the same way as the Droon, if the democracy movement had failed.

There might also be other ways besides these two. But the point here is that depicting a future (or alien) society in either of these modes isn’t unrealistic at all, but shows two ways in which a society can survive to become advanced.

The only thing that is quite unrealistic is depicting a future (or alien) society that is exactly like our own in its fundamentals. We can be absolutely confident that that, at least, will not happen.

Copyright: annmei / 123RF Stock Photo


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The Universe

13613038_sSpirituality is legitimately concerned with two things. One of them is consciousness, the subject of last week’s post. The other is the universe, the subject of this week’s post. (Note that there are many things that religions often concern themselves with, such as morality, that are not either of these. I’m not suggesting that religious people, or spiritual people, shouldn’t be concerned with morality, which is a universal human concern, but I do suggest that it isn’t a spiritual topic, and not something on which a religious organization can speak with legitimate authority. More on this in a bit.)

“The universe” is shorthand for “everything,” and so in a way all topics are spiritual topics. But that which is everything is nothing in particular, and when you get down to the pieces and parts, to items which are included in the All but no more so than anything else, another approach rather than spirituality becomes appropriate, sometimes science, sometimes moral judgment, sometimes philosophy, and sometimes art, depending on the nature of the question. God is a metaphor for the universe (which is itself a metaphor, both of them representing the unknowable), and so when I say the proper subjects of spirituality are consciousness and the universe, I mean the same as saying that the proper subjects of spirituality are the soul and God, just a bit less poetically and a bit closer to being a literal statement.

Now, some might suppose that the universe is properly in the domain of science rather than spirituality, but it’s not. That may need some clarification, because everything that is in the domain of science is a part of the universe, a subset or subroutine of the cosmos. The proper domain of science encompasses all questions of fact regarding observable phenomena. Consciousness is outside the domain of science because it isn’t observable and therefore scientific method, which depends on observation, can’t be used to address it. The same is true of the universe. It’s not true, however, of any of the parts and subroutines of the universe which we can observe, and so all questions of fact about those parts and subroutines are scientific questions. But the universe as a whole can’t be observed.

The Ineffable Cosmos

Why can’t the universe be observed? Because of the nature of observation, which always involves an interaction between two entities. One of these is the observer, and the other is the phenomenon under observation. The two must be separate for observation to take place, and the observer must occupy a vantage point at a remove from the phenomenon and observes it from that vantage point.

But when we are talking about the universe as a whole, any possible observer is a part of the universe and so is any vantage point from which it might theoretically be observed, and so this means that, at best, an observer is observing not the universe as a whole but the universe minus himself and minus his vantage point. The very act of observing the universe (or thinking about it for that matter) distorts the reality and prevents getting a clear picture, in a manner analogous to the observer effect in quantum mechanics.

One might ask in response, why not make observations of the parts and put this piecemeal understanding together to make a coherent picture of the whole? But there are several reasons why this won’t work. To begin with, when we speak of the universe as a whole we must extend that description through time as well as space. A picture of the universe as it is at any moment is only a slice of the whole, which encompasses the past and future as well as the present. Much of the future is unpredictable due to the indeterminate nature of many natural processes, even if we had complete knowledge, which of course we don’t. Secondly, there are problems with trying to make a composite picture out of parts, in the form of emergent properties that can’t be predicted from the components. A good example is the structure of a tree, which cannot be predicted from an understanding of the organic molecules from which it is composed. The final reason is that even if we could create a composite picture from an understanding of the parts, there would be no way to test this composite picture for accuracy. When we are dealing with a part of the whole, it’s always possible to make observations of the larger entity in order to confirm whether the picture derived from its components is accurate, but with the universe we can’t do that. Any such picture is therefore unfalsifiable and scientifically meaningless.

 How Can We Approach It, Then?

The problem with observation when it comes to the universe is that it is a detached method. The goal is to render the self unimportant, so that one’s observations can be confirmed by another, equally detached observer. In contrast to this detached approach which is appropriate to science, both art and moral judgment offer immersive approaches in which a person plunges in rather than detaching. Immersive approaches to knowledge don’t give us propositions of fact that may be tested, but other kinds of statements (“ought” statements from moral judgment, meaning statements from art) that can’t be objectively confirmed (being meaningless in this sense), but can be personally confirmed or denied, each person individually.

Spirituality is also an immersive approach. To understand the universe, one does not detach and observe it. Rather, the goal is to merge with the universe and become one with it, at which point one discovers that this unity had always existed and had merely been forgotten in the grip of the illusion of individual consciousness.

As with other fruits of immersive knowledge methods, this is not a proposition that can be falsified. It does not advance scientific understanding or our objective map of the world. It does, however, present a guideline for personal discovery, and may be confirmed individually and subjectively, each person for himself or herself. Also, it’s important to emphasize that without making that journey, words describing these insights convey no understanding. The journey is the destination in this case, and what is learned on it cannot be conveyed to another in words.

Having made this discovery, we find that we have not so much discovered something new, as changed the meaning of everything else that we thought we knew. It’s the same world afterward, but transformed nonetheless. The same music plays, but at a higher octave. The same light shines, but it’s orders of magnitude brighter. And from that moment on, the challenge is to remember these insights. It’s like clouds before the sun, getting thinner all the time, with the moments of illumination coming more and more frequently.

All religion, to the extent it’s legitimate at all, points in that direction. Everything else about them is a deception, a diversion, or a guardian at the gate.

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7524765_sOne of the pithiest statements to come out of any religion is “Atman = Braham,” a Hindu idea which states that the individual soul (Atman) is the same as the universal consciousness (Brahman). In one statement, this gives us the two entities which are the subject matter of spirituality: consciousness and the cosmos. The soul and God. I and Thou. That which experiences, and that which is experienced. These are the two poles of reality, between which everything happens that happens.

A related concept that has helped me to understand what consciousness is and why it cannot be approached as a scientific problem in the usual way is the difference between first person and third person as perspectives. A process in the world or in the imagination can be described in either of these ways (or sometimes in the second person). For example, an emotion in my mind can be described in the third person, as a state or certain activities in my brain, or in terms of my behavior (laughter, tears, etc.). It can also be described in the first person. I felt sad. I felt happy.

An emotion is a conscious process in that the person feeling it is aware of it, but it isn’t consciousness. Neither is a thought or an imagining or a sensation. These are the contents of consciousness: that which is experienced. Consciousness is that which experiences, and it may not be a “thing” as such, but a perspective on all things: specifically, the first-person perspective. Consciousness is subjective experience in the first person.

 Epistemic and Metaphysical Primacy

In philosophy, epistemology is the study of how we know what we know. Arguably, it’s the most basic of all philosophical schools, because how we know ultimately determines what we can say about what is. Metaphysics is the philosophical study of ultimate reality: what the nature of the world and ourselves is.

There’s a conflict or tension between the two when it comes to consciousness and the first-person versus the third-person world. Epistemically, the first person is primary. Everything we know, we know because we experience the world subjectively in the first person. Our concept of objective reality, which is to say, of reality in the third person, is built by reasoning inductively from multiple subjective first-person perceptions. But we tend instinctively and as a practical matter to regard this constructed third-person world as “real.” Certainly it rewards us for treating it seriously, and its regularities as independent of what we think, want, or hope.

Materialism is a philosophical position that regards the objective world in the third person as metaphysically primary even though it is epistemically derivative and secondary. Taken to its logical conclusion, this would imply that consciousness — subjective experience in the first person — can be explained in terms of some process observed in the third person.

The problem there is that we cannot observe consciousness in the third person. We can only experience it in the first person. We assume its existence in other people (because otherwise we become antisocial and a little crazy), but this assumption is reasonable only because we spend our whole lives in the first person and project onto beings similar to ourselves in some ways this primary, fundamental characteristic of experiencing the world in the first person just as we do ourselves. (Or as I do, and as I assume you do, because I don’t want to become antisocial and a little crazy.) In the third person world, we see no sign of consciousness and wouldn’t even know what to look for as such a sign.

All of the causation that we observe in the objective third-person world is third-person to third-person. That is to say, we observe a process in the third person, and it produces some effect that is also observed in the third person. Getting from that to a first-person perspective is logically nonsensical. Not only can no evidence be shown for such a process, but it isn’t even possible to coherently describe it. This is true of nothing else in the world whatsoever. Even with a lack of any good information, our primitive ancestors were able to come up with some kind of coherent (even if often factually wrong) explanation for the third-person phenomena around them. Explaining sunrise and sunset as the God Apollo driving his fiery chariot across the heavens is quite wrong in terms of facts, but it’s coherent and makes sense, and the same is true of the more involved and complex and data-rich Ptolemaic cosmology, or that of Copernicus which was almost right. The ancients didn’t know why the sun rose and set, but they were still able to come up with a coherent idea. There is no similarly coherent idea that allows us to travel logically from the third to the first person.

The Materialist Dilemma

This puts materialism in a difficult position. It’s a tenable philosophical position as long as we stay a reasonable distance from consciousness, the epistemic center. While we’re studying nonliving physical and chemical processes, it presents no difficulties at all (that we can see — although in fact, these must also be incomplete). When we move to studying life, we begin to encounter greater uncertainty precisely because many living things are conscious, or we assume so, but even so all of the observable processes of life in the third person can be accounted for without leaving the bounds of materialism. The only problem is that life has something about it that isn’t observable in the third person: consciousness. As long as we forget about consciousness and concentrate on other things, measurable and observable things, we’re fine, although even then, there’s a nagging sense that we’re missing something important. And indeed we are.

Move into the arena of psychology and the materialist dilemma becomes more acute and obvious. Here, we are very close to consciousness itself, and the failure to come to grips with that subject is hard to ignore. Psychology does present plenty of questions that are strictly third-person and can be approached from a materialist perspective, so it’s not as if psychologists have no puzzles to occupy them, but it’s highly counterintuitive to suppose that the whole of the human mind can be explained in terms of behavior and neurological processes, when these leave unexplained the very thing that most of us think of when we hear the word “mind”: conscious experience.

In the end, we are forced to conclude that materialism, however useful it may be for many practical purposes, is incorrect. The material world, which is epistemically secondary, is metaphysically secondary as well. It does not exist independent of consciousness. It is, in fact, an interaction between consciousness and the mysterious, unknowable world-in-itself. Conscious experience is real. Everything else is a construct of the mind that may help us to understand the regularities in what we experience, but is not, itself, reality.

 The Problem and the Solution

The problem is that consciousness itself, the epistemic core of our world, that which experiences, cannot be observed in the third person. It is experience in the first person, and that means it can be understood only in the first person. It’s impossible to understand consciousness from an attitude of objective detachment, such as is appropriate for science. You can’t stand back and look at consciousness. You must plunge in and be it. The only approach that works is immersive, not detached.

On the other hand, a form of detachment does allow consciousness to be separated from all of the materials we are conscious of, and with which we tend to (falsely) identify: thoughts, feelings, sensation, imagination, memory, personality — all of the psychic planetary bodies that orbit consciousness closely and confuse us as to who and what we really are. Doing this is a spiritual technique, a meditative technique. And that is why I say that consciousness is half of the subject matter of spirituality.

The other half will be the subject of next weeks blog entry.

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The End of “Religions” (More Thoughts)

11450442_sIn my last post on this subject, I presented a passage from my novel in progress where two characters were talking about it. The subject merits a bit more — I won’t say serious, because I take my fiction very seriously — but real-world and scholarly treatment.

Is there any evidence that the change I’m predicting here, the end of discrete religions and the transformation of religious thought into a marketplace of ideas like other areas of discourse and opinion, is happening? Yes, there is.

The Pew Research Center conducted a poll of religious affiliation worldwide and in the United States and found a lot of movement. Some of the interesting findings involve how many Americans change the religion in which they were raised. People who were raised Catholic, for example, drop out of the Church enough that some ten percent of the U.S. population is “former Catholic.” The Church has maintained its numbers and shows a stable percentage of the population as members only because of the disproportionate number of immigrants who are Catholic (due of course to the fact that such a large percentage of immigrants to the U.S. come from Latin America). The Catholic Church in the United States is becoming more Hispanic as time goes by. Other churches have shown similar patterns of change.

The biggest growth category is the “unaffiliated,” those who don’t subscribe to any particular religion. What’s more, this category shows a clear generational shift. The overall unaffiliated roster is 16.1% of the U.S. population, but among those 18-29 it is one in four. Lest we think that this means people are abandoning religion and becoming atheists, though, it should be noted that only 25% of the unaffiliated say that they are atheist or agnostic, representing a total of 4% of the population. The rest are religious believers, but don’t identify with any particular religious tradition.

Also of interest is the non-dogmatic approach of most people even among those who do label themselves as belonging to a particular religion. A majority of believers in every single religion surveyed (except for Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses) say that “many religions can lead to eternal life” and that “there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of my religion.” The percentages are smaller for Evangelicals and Muslims than for Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, and mainline Protestants, as one might expect, but a majority of Evangelicals and Muslims (57% and 56%, respectively) affirm religious pluralism. (The overall percentage among the affiliated was 70. One would, of course, expect this number to approach 100% among the unaffiliated.) This is, of course, not in accord with the official teachings of Evangelical Christianity (although it is with Islam, or may be depending on the interpretation of the word “many”), showing that a lot of people who belong to Evangelical churches have ideas not entirely in agreement with those official teachings.

What is happening here? I believe there are two factors involved. One of them is religious freedom and the fact that the United States has no established religion and the Constitution forbids both this and the infringement of religious liberty. But that factor goes back to 1789, and builds on British concepts of free religion that are even older, so it’s nothing new. What is new is the Internet. Religious believers today are confronted with a vast storm of religious ideas and discourse. If one is curious about the teachings of Islam or Buddhism or Hinduism, information is only a Google search away. It’s much more difficult, if not impossible, to think of other religions in stereotypes; one must be highly motivated to do so (the human mind can believe almost anything in the grip of powerful emotions).

What Makes a Person Religious?

Before going into this, I should clarify that I am using the word “religious” here in a slightly different way than Pew does. I’m not talking about belonging to a religious organization or attending services regularly. I’m talking about beliefs and attitudes affirming a spiritual connection to the cosmos, or to a metaphor or personalization for the cosmos such as God or gods. This encompasses non-traditional as well as traditional religious belief and practice.

With that out of the way, why does a person believe and practice religion? I believe it’s one or both of two things: spiritual experience and religious indoctrination. The first of those must be present to at least a small degree, but in some cases the second may be the more important, and when it comes to belief that one particular religion is superior to others, the second is always more important as a cause.

What happens when the indoctrination becomes less effective, when a person is easily exposed to diverse beliefs and arguments against the teachings of his “home faith”? At the extreme, if the effect of indoctrination is reduced to nothing, only religious experience will motivate the person to spiritual belief and practice. What happens then depends on how strong the impact of spiritual experience is on the person. If it is very strong, as it is for me, then the person will remain (or become, as I did — I was raised in an atheist household) deeply spiritual or religious, but eschew orthodoxy of any kind. Such a person will either belong to a religious organization for social reasons rather than those of doctrinal agreement, or else be one of the unaffiliated religious.

If the effect of religious or spiritual experience is weaker, the person may drop most religious belief and practice, either becoming atheist or agnostic, or acknowledging the possible (or even probable) existence of some vaguely-understood higher power, but without having it be important in their lives.

What Makes a Person Atheist?

Again, I should clarify that by “atheist” in this context, I mean someone who rejects spirituality in his or her own life and does not believe in the existence of any higher power, whether personalized or otherwise. This would exclude the Buddha and myself. He did not, and I do not, believe in the ultimate existence of a personal God, and so by a looser definition either of us could be considered an atheist, but he was deeply spiritual, as am I, so I will not use that label for myself in this context.

Here again, I believe there are two factors involved. One of those is lack of spiritual experience, or very weak and infrequent spiritual experience that is not compelling. The other is a negative reaction to the teachings of one or more religions, particularly the more authoritarian versions. Both of these factors must be present to some degree in order for a person to definitely affirm the non-existence of God or gods and the invalidity of spiritual approaches to life. The first alone is enough for a person to be irreligious in practice and to have spiritual activity be unimportant in his life, but not enough to draw a conclusion of that kind. The aggressive, belligerent so-called “New Atheists” in particular are reacting to the abuses committed by organized religion throughout history and the brow-beating and political activity, offensive to those who value liberty and pluralism, of some of them today.

What happens as the Internet increases the spread and interaction of religious ideas and the power of religious doctrine wanes? Initially, those who have always been angry about that power will probably smell the blood in the water and be encouraged to become more vocal and active, as we have seen, but eventually the waning of religious authority makes such views seem increasingly silly, and a backlash is provoked as part of the ongoing dialogue, and we already see that happening. Eventually, atheism in this sense of dismissing all spirituality will become as passé as religious authority itself.

What Makes a Person a Fanatic?

What about the increase in recent decades in religious extremism, most visibly Christian and Muslim but arising in other religious contexts as well? This is, I believe, a reaction to the new environment in which religious orthodoxy is seriously threatened. It’s instinctive, when the core of one’s identity is under siege, to circle the wagons and lash out at perceived enemies, and a certain percentage (a small one, thankfully) of believers will take physical action along those lines, while a great many more will organize politically and attempt to influence the tide of time through government action. As the power of religious organizations and orthodoxy fades, we should for a while see a great deal of this sort of thing, but like the New Atheism it will eventually fade away. The future is a free marketplace of religious ideas with most or all people being unaffiliated, and there is no way to forestall that future except by undermining civilization itself.

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