Writing Deeply (Part II)

Green Stone TowerContinuing with last week’s post, this one explores the fact that I can’t write purely escapist fiction a bit further, this time in the context of the second series I began (and unlike The Star Mages, haven’t finished yet), A Tale of Two Worlds.

In original planning, which will hopefully happen one of these days, Tale will have four volumes: The Green Stone TowerGoddess-BornThe People of the Sea, and Light and Shadow. Only the first two of these are written and published, so I can really only talk about them here.

As I noted last week, these stories aren’t for everyone — but then, no story is. If you like fiction that explores deep philosophical, spiritual, and political themes, then you may like mine. If not, you almost certainly won’t. Not that I don’t have (I hope) engaging characters and lots of action, but if you find you want to skip over the passages where people are talking about complicated subjects in order to get to that other stuff, maybe it’s not for you.

A Tale of Two Worlds

Here’s a run-down on the world and plot of The Green Stone Tower and Goddess-Born before going into the heady stuff.

These books are other-world fantasy rather than contemporary fantasy. They’re set, as the series title suggests, in two worlds, which are unimaginatively called the Old World and the New World by the denizens of the latter, and just “the world” and Faerie by those of the former. Humanity evolved on the Old World. During the long ages of prehistory, a few human beings (seven men and three women) had such powerful magic running through them that, in a death-rebirth apotheosis, they became deities. These Old Gods were worshiped in prehistoric times, but their worship and also the practice of magic are forbidden by law in the Old World societies where the story takes place, as The Green Stone Tower begins.

The youngest of the Old Gods is Malatant of Shadow, God of Evil. He achieved his divinity at the time when humanity was poised to discover agriculture and begin settling in cities. He’s a very important character in the series, and it was his plan that led to the separation of the two worlds. The gods wanted to help other human beings, and ultimately all of humanity, achieve divine status, but it was slow going. They spread their own genes among humans, but even when two deities mated the result was never a god or goddess (although usually a powerful sorcerer). Malatant came up with the idea of separating the mages from the rest of humanity so they could evolve more quickly, concentrated in their own society. To achieve this, he cunningly led the unmagical to hate, fear, and condemn the magical, and the latter were forced to flee for their lives. The gods led them away from the Old World to the New by means of the Green Stone Towers, which provided a link between the two and remained after the mages were gone. In the New World, the mages built a highly magical society, became immortal, and their descendants are today called the Faerie Folk by the humans of the Old World.

There are still mages in the Old World practicing in secret, and one of the main characters, Johnny Silverbell, is one of them. The story in the first book involves his transformation into a deity, along with that of Illowan, his Faerie lover. Along the way, there’s Johnny’s encounter with street thugs who try to castrate him, a trial for the crime of magic, seduction of Illowan by Malatant, some ambiguous prophecy, a bit of combat, some flashy sorcery, and a lot of mind-warping looks under the hood of reality.

Here’s a scene from Johnny’s preparation by Illowara of the Mysteries (one of the Old Gods) to make his transition to divinity:

Johnny sat on a chair like a throne in the middle of a big, dimly-lit room. Around him revolved spheres that provided the room’s only illumination. They spun slowly about with him at the center, as if he was the sun and they were planets. As he watched one of them, he saw that it contained an image of himself and Illowan making love in the clearing by the Green Stone Tower near Watercourse. He turned his attention to another sphere and watched himself studying magic with Master Seedcorn. Another showed Johnny playing Richard Silverbell’s ambertone and singing. Each of the spheres, of which there were an enormous number, displayed a scene from Johnny’s memory.

Illowara appeared at a great distance, perhaps the far end of the room, lit by the moonlight she always carried with her, and approached slowly. “These are more than your memories, Johnny. They are you – they are who you are, for your sense of self is all a thing of memory. It is an illusion. What you think you are is not what you really are. That is the Mystery that will be revealed to you now.”

The goddess approached one of the spheres closest to her and furthest from Johnny. It showed his sister Karen, age eight, popping a pillowcase over the head of Johnny, age six, and laughing as he stumbled about and began to cry. “You won’t miss this one much, I think,” Illowara said. She touched the sphere and its light went out. As it disappeared, Johnny frowned, thinking back on all the times Karen had picked on him when they were children, or rather trying to think back on them, for the memories had disappeared, all of them. He knew that Karen had been a monstrous tease when they were children, intellectually as if he had read of this fact and memorized it, but he could call no image to mind of any such event.

Johnny could not help it: he cried out in dismay. Illowara smiled, and if Johnny could still have remembered such things he might have noted the similarity to his big sister’s smile when she had pulled some especially clever and evil trick on him. She advanced to another distant sphere, this one showing Richard Silverbell frowning and expressing disapproval of everything in the house – its cleanliness, the behavior of the children, his wife’s choice of wine, everything. Illowara touched the sphere, it, too, went dark, and Johnny found that he could not remember the man who provided for his childhood and whom he had thought of as his father until recently. One sphere after another the Goddess touched.

One sphere after another ceased to be and took

Johnny’s memories with them. He lost all memory of his sisters, his mother, the life he had lived in Watercourse, his studies in school and of magic. His loves, Shavana and Annie and even Illowan, disappeared. His trial for witchcraft was forgotten. His passage of the Green Stone Tower lived no more in memory. His captivity by the Darklings and his rescue by the Rangers, and all his time in the world of Faerie and the Bright Place ceased to be. He no longer knew the name of the woman who moved among the spheres and worked such ruin on his mind. He had forgotten how to work magic, how to play the ambertone, how to ride a horse, how to read and write and do calculations, every skill he had ever acquired.

Finally she stood quite close to him and only three spheres remained. The one on the left showed Johnny engaged in conversation. The one on the right showed his face, up close, passing through one vivid emotion after another – love, fear, anger, puzzlement, joy, sadness, and so on. The one in the middle showed Johnny’s body, naked and apparently sleeping. “As they are for everyone, these three things are at the core of your self-perception,” the woman said. She indicated the sphere on Johnny’s left without touching it. “This is your ability to speak, your knowledge of language.” Her hand hovered over the sphere on Johnny’s right. “This is your emotional core, your feelings and the way you react to various situations.” Finally she nodded at the sphere in the center. “And this is your body itself, composed of your senses. If these last three memories are stripped away, what will be left? Whatever remains, that is the true self.”

Goddess-Born continues with the story of Johnny’s son Malcolm and Illowan’s daughter Sonia, and of the democratic revolution that sweeps over the Kingdom of Grandlock where Johnny was born and where both Malcolm and Sonia reside. A major part is played in that story by Lasatha, the Goddess of Wisdom, whose Book of Wisdom informs the nobly-born democracy advocate Anne Fircone as she attempts to overthrow the monarchy through her witty writing. The story in Goddess-Born includes a nefarious renegade priestess of Malatant, a love story between the two main characters, a last-minute rescue from the gallows, a battle against wolves, a war, a revolution, magical assassinations, and the banishing of a greater demon, but woven through all of that action are ideas like this:

A leader is chosen by the people who follow him, whether they know it or not. The leader must meet the approval of those who follow, or they will follow another instead.

For the leader to be among the wise, therefore, it is first necessary that a measure of wisdom be found in the people. The leader is elevated by the people’s choice, or upon elevation by another factor is at least maintained in power by the people’s tolerance. The people’s tolerance varies according to their wisdom, and their wisdom varies with the times.

At their most foolish, which is to say at their most frightened, the people follow a tyrant. In this, they surrender the power that should be theirs into the hands of another. If they are lucky, he proves to be a visionary who does great good. If they are unlucky (and this is much more common and likely), their lives become a nightmare for a time.

In their normal state, neither very foolish nor very wise, the people follow a venal leader, but keep him tightly bound with the restraints of law and of their own suspicion. Such a leader can do little good, but dares do little harm, and if he should dare, the law and the people restrain him.

If the people should become wise, they would follow a wise leader. But no generation has ever been wise.

And this:

“You are not going about this the right way, Madame Foresight,” she said. “Wisdom is not something that can be conveyed by words alone. Words can only be understood by those who are already wise, as you are, and a person may gain the wisdom to understand them only through painful experience.”

Anne sighed. “Painful experience is coming, I can see it. But I hoped to find another way, an easier way – or at least a way less costly in blood.”

“I know. Unfortunately, the price of wisdom is what it is. It cannot be negotiated, because the price and the learning are one. To lower the cost is to weaken the lesson.”

One of these days I’ll get around to writing the other two books of this series, which deal with the deceptive nature of good and evil, among other things. Along with lots of sea creatures, impossible odds of combat, and venomous jungle monsters. Should be fun — and as always, thoughtful.

Next week: Refuge.

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Writing Deeply (Part I)

The Star MagesThis post and the next three are about how I write fiction.

Nobody who writes fiction writes it for everyone. That’s a fact. If you try to write for everyone, you end up writing for no one, or at least not for anyone who will particularly care. It’s better to be yourself. It’s better to drive away people who can’t get into what you’re saying, because that’s the only way you’ll say something strong enough to pull in those who can. I firmly believe that.

In some ways, I write stories the way I write this blog. I’m not saying that they’re philosophical essays, because I try to present realistic, engaging characters and strong plot lines, and hope I succeed in doing that. But there’s always the deeper message wound into the narrative and dialogue. That’s just how I roll. I write stories that (I hope) make people think. Whether you would like them depends on whether you like that kind of thing. Not everyone does, and there’s a place for stories that are just escape, especially in the fantasy genre. But I don’t write them. If that’s what you’re looking for, you should probably not waste your time on my fiction. (I suppose it’s possible that could be the case even if you read this blog. Reading fiction and reading nonfiction aren’t the same experience.)

If you do like stories that make you think, that’s different. In that case, I would encourage you to check out my books at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Smashwords. Links to some of them are on the sidebar.

For the rest of this post, I’m going to describe what I’m talking about in the context of the first of my three-going-on-four fantasy series (only one of which is actually finished). (The series, that is. Individual novels are finished.) Over the next three weeks I’ll do the same for the other three series.

The Star Mages

This represents my first foray into publishing. The Stairway to Nowhere, volume one of the series, was published in 2010. As far as voice and style, I think I’ve gotten better, so these are somewhat rawer and cruder than my later efforts.

The Star Mages is contemporary to near-future fantasy, built around three sentient talismans, the Star, the Crystal, and the Sword. Each of these gives its adepts awesome magical powers and makes them immortal. Each has its own agenda.

The series involves a number of plot lines, including star-crossed lovers in Stairway, rebellion and magico-political plots in volume two, The Child of Paradox, and an all-out no-holds-barred wizard war in volume three, The Golden Game. Through all of this, themes reflecting on human motivation (power versus love), trust and deceit, and the nature of reality through multiple layers of illusion, all play out.

The Star itself is a case in point. At the beginning of the series, there seems to be an irreducible conflict between the Star and the Crystal. The Star (called that because its physical form is a meteorite with gold and precious-stone embellishments) is noble, altruistic, and idealistic. It (or “she” as the Star Mages all call the Star in the end) wants to create a utopia and the Star Mages are bending fate to make that happen, under the Star’s guidance. The Crystal is amoral, vicious, and ruthless, and its adepts are only interested in self-aggrandizement and power. But it turns out that the Star was responsible for the Crystal’s creation, and the Crystal’s inner spirit is actually the dark side of the Star itself. The Star is using the Crystal to push the world in a direction it might not be willing to go otherwise. There’s a layer of reality under the apparent conflict between the Star and the Crystal, and another layer under that layer, and so on. Where is the real truth? It’s not easy for the Star Mages to find. Perhaps they never do find it.

A lot of the story, especially in volume two, involves the question of whether the Star can be trusted. Meanwhile, there’s plenty of play on the power-versus-love theme. The conflict between the Star and Crystal, and between the Star and Sword later on, also occurs within each individual.

“What did I just see?”

“One side of yourself,” the Librarian said. “It is currently obscured and suppressed, but is pushing its way into the light. At this juncture, you have the option of bringing it into dominance, if you choose to do so.”

I grimaced. “I don’t,” I said.

“Excuse me,” said the Librarian, “I don’t believe I was clear. You have the option, but the decision cannot be made at this moment. You cannot bring that side fully into play without the aid of the Sword, which you cannot gain until you have cleared the Stairway to Nowhere. Your final decision will be made shortly before you undertake that task. Between now and then, you will explore the darker side of yourself.”

I shook my head. “I don’t need to do that. I know it’s not something I want to let out without a keeper.”

He smiled sadly. “You have already begun. That’s why you left the Star. It’s why you left Dolphin. The reason you thought you left them was only a mask. The real reason is so that you can know yourself fully. Only then will you be in a position to choose: the Star or the Sword. Love or Power.”

“I know which one I’d choose.”

“You have already turned your back on love, Falcon.”

I frowned. He had a point.

“It is Power, not Love that insists on respect and trust. You left Dolphin because she denied you power. She did not deny you love. But that was not a final decision, either. There is a sharp division between the sides of you. The Sword has won a round, but only a round. Its victory means that you will explore your inner shadow and it will have a chance to make its case. It does not mean the Sword’s victory is assured. It may be that in the end you will return to the Star.”

“I don’t want to return to the Star. I don’t want to join the Sword, either. I am sick of the whole game.”

He shook his head. “The option of rejecting both is not before you, Falcon. Sick of the game? There is only one game, the Golden Game, and you are a crucial player. You cannot leave the Game, because you are always in it no matter what you do, and in the end you will choose. The Star or the Sword, Love or Power. It is not possible to reject both.”

There’s plenty of action in The Star Mages, but it also includes many passages like this one where the themes are explored deeply. Its how I write, and the only way I know how. Whether that’s any given person’s cup of tea is, of course, up to them.

Next week: A Tale of Two Worlds

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Maturation (Part II)

unfoldIn the last post, I discussed our move from the paradigm of agrarian civilization to something else that I call the advanced paradigm or mature paradigm. It’s a transition that’s not finished yet. It began in Europe in the 15th century or thereabouts, and over the centuries since then we have seen monarchies replaced with democratic republics, feudal economies replaced with capitalist economies that evolved into capitalist-socialist blends, patriarchy morphing into gender egalitarianism, and established, state-supported religion dropping out of the picture, replaced by a spiritual marketplace of ideas.

As with the change that occurred thousands of years ago when our ancestors settled into farming communities that grew into cities and the first civilizations, this one is driven by technology. All of our social institutions, political and economic arrangements, religious beliefs, and collective mores adapt to our material circumstances, and as technology progresses, those circumstances change. All of our ways of doing things change to accommodate them.

I could write huge amounts (and have before) on the political, cultural, economic, and global relations aspects of this transition, but in keeping with the theme of this blog, I’m going to talk here about the spiritual and religious aspects. I’ll note in passing only that science fiction writers who depict a future society with advanced technology like faster than light travel, artificial intelligence, and human genetic engineering, but one substantially the same as our own in terms of politics, economics, and other social institutions, are confused. Star Trek got it right. Firefly got it wrong.

That said, on to the changes that have occurred and are occurring in religion.

The first change to manifest was the breaking up of monolithic religious authority. This change began in western Europe, so the authority involved was the Roman Catholic Church, which had become an effective religious monarchy after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. (The lack of an Emperor is the reason why the western half of the old Imperial Church has a Pope, while the eastern half, called the Eastern Orthodox Church, does not. The Imperial Church featured the Roman Emperor as titular head of the religion. In the West, the Emperor was gone, so the Pope replaced him. In the East, he remained in power until the 15th century, when Constantinople fell to the Turks, hence, there is no Eastern Orthodox Pope. Once again, institutions follow material circumstances.)

The invention responsible for the splintering of the Catholic Church was the printing press. (That same invention would later drive democratic movements that overthrew kings or reduced them to figureheads.) Printing with movable type was introduced in Europe in the 1450s. Over the following century, printing reduced the cost of books, which made learning to read worth doing for the non-wealthy, and this led to widespread literacy on a scale that hadn’t been seen in a very long time.

Reading leads to thinking and questioning, and ordinary Christians in Europe wanted to read the scriptures for themselves and began to question the claims of the Church authorities. Against this background of growing religious dissent and dissatisfaction, Martin Luther’s famous protest against Church corruption sparked a conflagration. At the end of the firestorm, Europe was no longer a religious monolith, but had become a more diverse community spiritually (although still almost entirely Christian).

This led to other changes, particularly when a community had contending versions of Christianity, so that no one version was clearly dominant. This occurred increasingly in England, Germany, France, and other areas of Europe, and their colonies in the New World as well. At the same time, movements for increased popular representation and democracy in politics took shape, and this also influenced religious discourse. So did horror at the religious wars and persecutions that swept Europe in the wake of the Reformation. In consequence, the ideas of religious toleration and pluralism emerged, leading by way of the Enlightenment to the separation of church and state and religious freedom.

This takes us to about the beginning of the 19th century, so the transition to that point took roughly 350 years. With the separation of church and state, the political changes impacting religion were essentially complete, but changes to religion itself have continued past that point.

The technological changes that continue to impact religious thought include further improvements in communication technology (telegraph, radio, television, communications satellites, the Internet), and technologies with economic impacts (the steam engine, railroads, factory production methods, the airplane, modern agricultural methods and machinery, medicine, computers). The first has rendered the isolation that formerly allowed doctrinal purity impossible. The second has led to the obsolescence of many traditional moral concepts, particularly those that accommodated and regulated slavery and other forms of servitude, as well as sexual mores and gender roles that served the purpose of maximizing birthrates (a purpose that has now become self-destructive). In addition, the increasing dominance of science and the scientific method over the way that we establish facts about observable phenomena has rendered literal interpretations of scriptural stories such as the creation myth highly dubious. (It’s fair to note here that theologians did not, in pre-scientific days, generally advocate a literal interpretation of these myths. That’s a modern phenomenon and part of the reaction against these changes in religion.)

Today, all of the so-called “great” religions are under siege. Spirituality itself is universal and constant, but the religious doctrines and practices that clothe it are not. With the power of government removed (in the advanced world anyway), or guaranteeing peaceful discourse, the challenges to religious orthodoxy are ideas rather than guns. (Unfortunately, the religiously orthodox have been known to resort to guns as a defense against ideas.)

The challenging ideas come from three sources primarily:

The challenge from science goes beyond knowledge that calls literal interpretations of myth into question. A bigger and more fundamental challenge is posed by scientific method, and by what might be called meta-elements of scientific method. Scientific method per se isn’t applicable to spirituality, as science deals strictly with propositional knowledge and spirituality is non-propositional, but there are some accompanying attitudes and approaches that are transferrable. The most important of these meta-elements is the idea that all knowledge is tentative and gained through experience (or, in science itself, observation). Transferring this to religion means that no religious idea is permanent, but merely the best we can do at any point in time, and that the ultimate authority is our own spiritual experience, not revelation. It means the end of God’s law inscribed on stone tablets. It means that there can never be a Seal of the Prophets. It means the loss of authority for scripture.

Other religions also present a challenge to orthodoxy. That’s nothing new in itself, but the scale on which this is occurring is unprecedented and results from improved communication technology. It’s no longer the case that religious believers live in isolated communities and rarely, if ever, communicate with someone who believes differently than they do. In Christian communities in the West, ideas from Islam, from Buddhism and Hinduism, and from Neopaganism and New Age philosophy are influencing the evolution of Christian thinking. From the perspective of a Medieval Christian authority, all Christians today are heterodox and becoming more so all the time. The same thing is happening in other religions, too.

Finally, modernity itself challenges religious teachings that were established in the agrarian age. Traditional sexual morality doesn’t work well in a world that needs to reduce fertility rates rather than maximizing them, and in which declining violence and reduced need for hard manual labor make traditional gender roles increasingly absurd. The universe as we increasingly see it, vast almost beyond comprehension and with our little planet making up a tiny and insignificant part of it, carries its own weight of sublime and divine mystery and wonder, but is not really compatible with agrarian age concepts of man’s role in God’s world.

All of these pressures are causing religion to morph and change. It’s questionable whether any of the old great religions still exists in its original form, especially in the advanced nations. None shall endure. We will always have religion, but it will not — it cannot — remain unchanged.

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Maturation

9809020_sI’m working on two novels these days. One of them is A Sip of Fear, the first story in the new series The Illuminated which I described in the last post. The other is The Rapier, volume three of Refuge. Since Refuge, unlike most of my work, is science fiction as well as fantasy, I’m able to do more in the way of incorporating speculation about where we’re going as a species and a civilization. The two alien races incarnate as human beings give me a good platform for this, as both of them lived in advanced, high-tech societies before they blew each other to bits.

One passage in The Rapier has Amanda Johnson, the Andol leader, visiting with Deirdre Kane, leader of the Humanity Faction that’s struggling to keep the human race independent of both alien races. The third person in the meeting is Terrence Franklin, the only human being to have the Refuge spell that lets the Andol and Droon reincarnate after each death with all their memories intact. Terrence got his spell from a Droon in the fourteenth century, shortly after the aliens arrived. Here’s how that conversation goes:

“Do you mind if I grill you on a couple of things? To get a second opinion after Deirdre’s.”

“Not at all. I have nothing to hide.”

“Hmm,” said Deirdre, “that’s a switch.”

“Be nice,” said Terrence, looking sideways at Deirdre.

“Well, she has a point,” said Amanda. “Actually, I have quite a few things to hide, but the reason the Andol are here and what we want aren’t among them. The answers are simple. We’re here because our home world was destroyed and our species is extinct. We sought a refuge by magic. We found one. Now we’re trying to survive here and help humanity achieve its potential.”

“See, Amanda, it’s that second part that bothers me,” said Deirdre. “We’d like to achieve our potential without meddling by aliens — you or the Droon.”

“I understand,” said Amanda. “Really, I do understand. You’re in a very different place now than you would have been if we hadn’t come. But sooner or later, Deirdre, you would have faced the decision you face now. As far as we know, there are only three possible ways to go.” She held up a finger. “You can mature as the Andol did.” A second finger. “You can mature as the Droon did.” A third. “Or you can destroy yourselves. Most intelligent species take the third path.”

Deirdre shook her head. “How many intelligent species did you find out there in space?”

“Including extinct ones, about fifty or so.”

“How many that weren’t extinct?”

“Ourselves, the Droon, and the four species the Droon had enslaved.”

“And the slaves never matured because they never got the chance, right?”

Amanda sipped her tea. “Right. But —”

“So you know of two mature species, you and the Droon. And from that you decide there are only two ways to get there?”

“What third way could there be?”

“Amanda,” said Terrence, “what do you mean by ‘mature’?”

“A mature civilization,” Amanda said, “has a sustainable society. It has abolished war by establishing a global government, and it’s gone green, as you would put it — no danger of self-destruction either by war or by exhausting resources or poisoning the biosphere.”

“Hmm. So that’s it? Global government and environmentalism?”

“Essentially, yes, but there are many changes to culture involved with both of those — in one direction or the other.” She paused. “There’s a lot of resistance to those changes from people who fear modernity and want to cling to old ways of doing things. Some of them want to make money without considering other people, let alone the biosphere. Some cling to old religious traditions or to nationalism. Maturation involves getting past that resistance, and there are two ways that can happen. Either people come to their senses and change their ways, or an enlightened elite takes complete control and makes them do it. The first is the Andol path. The second is the path of the Droon. Can you think of any other way?”

Deirdre never answers Amanda’s question, because Emily comes into the room ready to advance the plot. But it’s a good question nonetheless.

I’ve long believed that human society is in a transition as profound as the one that took our ancestors from foraging and hunting to farming, leading to classical civilization in all its glories and horrors. That deceptively simple change created a completely new paradigm of society, with formal government, organized religion, class structure, patriarchy, and slavery, none of which had existed (except in embryonic form) when humans lived in small hunter-gatherer bands. Since roughly the sixteenth century, we’ve been moving away from this civilized way of life, what I call the Classical Civilized Paradigm, into something radically different that I call the Advanced Civilized Paradigm. It might also be called the Mature Civilized Paradigm. The transition to the Classical Civilized Paradigm flowed from an ability that humans gained which they hadn’t had before: the ability to control their food supply so as to produce a food abundance and allow population growth. It also flowed from the inherent limitations of this ability: that it took a lot of work, and that it required settling in one place.

Formal government and organized religion were needed as systems of social control because the increased number of people living close together created frictions. Class structure flowed from the increase of wealth, along with the need for lots of work to generate the food supply, which also resulted in slavery. The possibility of population growth created a necessity of population growth in competition with other societies, and that led to patriarchy, because women who control their own fertility tend to have fewer children. And that’s why we see this pattern developing universally throughout all agrarian civilizations, including ones that had no contact with each other, in both the old world and the new.

The transition to the Advanced (or Mature) Civilized Paradigm is also being driven by new abilities. We can produce wealth with little or no work. We can communicate with each other instantly over huge distances. And there are two darker abilities we’ve gained, the ability to destroy our civilization in war, and the ability to undermine the natural support base of human life. From this flow two things, a possibility and a necessity.

We can, finally, have an egalitarian society in terms of wealth and political power, and a genuinely democratic government.

We must end our propensity to kill each other on a massive scale and to behave irresponsibly towards the biosphere.

The first of these has driven all of the political and social movements of the past centuries towards equality in terms of gender, race, religion, and other characteristics that have divided us in the past. It has driven the movements for democracy and for socialism, for the abolition of slavery, and generally all of the goals and efforts labeled “progressive” in political discourse, with the exceptions of the anti-war movement and environmentalism, which instead are driven by the second one, the “must.”

As Amanda noted, maturation meets plenty of resistance from people who are uncomfortable with these changes to society, and some of the strongest resistance comes from traditional religion. All of the so-called “great” religions of the world emerged during the period when we lived under the Classical Civilized Paradigm. While all religions have an ultimate, timeless source in spiritual experience, all of them represent an interface between that experience and ordinary life, and the nature of ordinary life has changed radically since the Buddha meditated under the tree, or Jesus was crucified, or the Prophet Muhammad fled to Medina. Many of the views and attitudes and moral precepts taught by these traditional religions have therefore become obsolete.

I’ll go into the ramifications in more depth in the next post, coming soon.

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The Illuminated: A New Fantasy Series in The Making

14342905_sThis post is to discuss ahead of time a new fantasy series of mine, the first book of which is about one-third complete. The book is called A Sip of Fear, and I’ll talk a bit about it later in this post. The series is called The IlluminatedIt’s closer to a classic urban fantasy than anything I’ve written before. It’s a bit darker than I usually write (although still far from “dark fiction” — there are heroes, there’s genuine optimism, and although the moral questions can be complex there’s moral clarity). The first book has a theme of death and its part in life. Back to that in a moment.

The Illuminated is contemporary fantasy. A Sip of Fear is set in Seattle, where I lived for 18 years, and it’s likely that most of the future volumes will be, too. (Although I’m not completely sure of that at this point. Sip is told in the first person from the perspective of Gordon, who lives there. I haven’t decided if he’ll be the central character of the whole series, or if I’ll tell the stories of other Illuminated in future volumes instead.)

The world of The Illuminated is our world, with one fantasy addition, the Illuminated mages. The Illuminated are real-world occult magic users who have bonded to familiar spirits called Luminous. Each Luminous gives his or her Illuminated (a Luminous can have more than one) a certain set of fantasy magical powers. What that means is that each Illuminated is a real-world magic user with normal real-world magical powers (telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, fateshaping, etc.) and one power, or a related group of powers, that is more fantastic.

Each Luminous also expects some service from his or her Illuminated in exchange for the powers. This is the Illuminated’s Purpose: what he or she feels compelled to do in service to the Luminous. The bond with the Luminous creates subtle changes in the personality of the Illuminated. This can make for interesting and difficult personal interactions. Finally, each Illuminated can talk to his or her Luminous and has that relationship going on as well.

So far, the story has introduced the following Illuminated:

Gordon Greenbough. Gordon is the viewpoint character. He’s a bio-mage. His Luminous, Ela-Tu, gives him powers over life and living things. He can heal injuries or illnesses, coax flowers to bloom and fruit to ripen, improve the taste of food, make incredible sex happen, and generally do good things for life. He can also reverse these abilities and cause harm by magic, and cause plants to move, bind animals in roots or vines, and so on. His Luminous expects him to heal those around him, humans, animals, and plants. More problematically, she also expects Gordon to make a healing connection to others through sex — with anyone he’s even mildly interested in. This makes it difficult for Gordon to maintain a lasting relationship, and his tense interaction with his ex-girlfriend Erica is part of his character revelation.

Rose Tillith. Rose is Gordon’s current girlfriend. She’s a mentat, blessed with powers of intellect by her Luminous, Kakoth. Gordon describes her as “a cuter Sherlock Holmes minus the cocaine.” Rose’s powers are more subtle than those of some other Illuminated, but she’s almost impossible to fool. She’s the one who figures out that Shadow is real, and pinpoints Shadow’s identity. Her icy rationality lets her accept Gordon’s philandering as part of who he is as a bio-mage and has allowed their relationship to last.

Erica Jenner. Erica is Gordon’s ex. She’s a frost mage, commonly known as the Ice Woman, who has a simple power: the ability to suck heat from an object (or person). Her Luminous is mostly concerned with the danger of fire, and Erica puts out fires whenever she can, usually beating the fire department to the scene. Despite her Illuminated nature, Erica has a fiery temper and is no one to cross — something Gordon found out the hard way.

Marcus Jones. Marcus, the owner and manager of the Green Woman bar (a local Illuminated hangout), is a tinker mage. His Luminous inspires him to invent magically-powered devices that shouldn’t work, but do. His basement is a big laboratory with chemistry, mechanics, and electronics sections as well as a table devoted to putting the final magical touches on his devices. Marcus is well liked and gregarious. He invents a device that can detect Shadow’s presence, among others.

Jenny Carrow. Jenny is a mind mage, capable of controlling the minds of others to inspire loyalty, or any other emotion she wants. Her powers, fortunately, don’t work as well on Illuminated.

Frank Nguyen. Frank is an animal handler. His powers are like Jenny’s, but applied to animals.

Doug Walker. Doug is a shape-shifter. A werewolf, simply enough.

Sarah Cole. Sarah is new in town. She calls herself a “glamor mage,” with mind-control powers from her Luminous that mostly involve illusion. She’s very smart and very beautiful and looking for a tryst with Gordon, which, of course, she’s likely to get, creating complications for everyone. Rose thinks there’s something odd about Sarah, some connection between her and Shadow, but isn’t sure what yet.

Shadow was a scary legend among the Illuminated until Rose proved he’s real. Shadow is undead, an Illuminated bonded to Apophet, the spirit of Death, who had to die to achieve the bond. He’s the basis for all the vampire stories and legends. He is rumored to be at least a thousand years old. His powers are a devastating mix of superhuman strength and speed, illusion, mind control, and a fatal touch. He drinks blood or drains life-essence — the stories conflict. Shadow’s purpose is a matter of speculation, but what the Illuminated in Seattle know is that he comes to a town, stays a while, and kills one — just one — Illuminated, and then moves on to the next location where he does the same thing.

This time, in Seattle, he’s coming for Gordon.

A Sip of Fear should be finished and published in 2015, hopefully some time around June or July. I’ll keep you updated in future posts. The art above is what I’m considering for cover art.

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The Epistemology of Consciousness

13613038_sThis post is going to encompass some things that I have never had much success in communicating to other people. And yet, I’m convinced that it is a form of propositional knowledge, and can be communicated. It’s just hard, and I’ve never found the magic words yet. Here’s another try. I’m going to explain why consciousness — by which I mean, the ability to experience reality subjectively, in the first person — must be cosmic and universal, not individual, and on the way, why the mechanistic materialist conception of consciousness as a function of the brain has to be wrong.

I’m going to do so relying on epistemology. Epistemology is the philosophical study of how we can know what we know. It’s also involved in the limits of what can be known, and that’s where the key lies. I’ll explain shortly, after a brief defensive detour, to head off an argument based on a fallacy that this vaguely resembles but is not.

Why This Isn’t an Argument From Ignorance

Argument from ignorance is a logical fallacy that says, in one form or another, “We don’t know that A is not true, therefore A is true.” The reason why this is a logical fallacy should be obvious. That we don’t know if a proposition is not true is not in itself evidence that it is true (it’s merely lack of sufficient evidence that it isn’t). In casual debate, accusations of this fallacy are often tossed into arenas where they don’t belong, whenever anyone asserts anything based on a lack of knowledge. Here are some examples of arguments that include the idea of ignorance but are NOT arguments from ignorance.

The argument TO ignorance. When someone claims to know something, demonstrating that they don’t is not an argument from ignorance. It’s an argument TO ignorance: pointing out that ignorance exists where someone thought it didn’t.

The argument that ignorance is permanent. This is a little more complicated, and it’s more or less where I’m going in this post. Ignorance may be of two kinds. We may not know something because we have inadequate data. For example, we don’t know if there is life on other planets or not. There’s no reason why we can’t find such life, though, if it’s out there, so eventually we may remedy our ignorance and know that life does exist on other planets.

The other kind of ignorance is based on the limitations of perception and cognition, or on the nature of what is observed, about which we are asking the wrong questions. For example, we don’t know the exact position and momentum of a photon in motion. This ignorance, unlike our ignorance about life on other planets, can’t be remedied. No matter how good our equipment gets or how complete our data sets, we will never know the exact position and momentum of a moving photon.

We can actually draw a conclusion from this and from certain experimental evidence that a moving photon doesn’t have an exact position and momentum. The universe exists as we observe it and experience it, and when we are inherently and forever unable to observe something, directly or indirectly, or to experience it subjectively, then as far as we’re concerned it doesn’t exist. The reason we can’t answer the question, “what is the precise position and momentum of a moving photon?” is because, given the nature of photons, it’s the wrong question.

This isn’t the logical fallacy “argument from ignorance,” either. In short, whenever it is logically valid and appropriate to draw a certain conclusion from ignorance, then it isn’t fallacious to do so.

Consciousness and Other Parts of the Mind

When I talk about “consciousness,” I mean the ability to experience reality subjectively, from within, in the first person. That and nothing else. We call this a “mental” ability, and there are other abilities that we put into the same category and tag with the same name. These include the ability to use language, to reason, to feel emotion, to remember, to observe, and to decide. It’s normal and common to lump all of these together as functions of a single entity that we call the “mind,” but they are separate functions and may not be functions of the same thing. That’s particularly true of the inherently subjective functions, the ability to feel emotion and consciousness itself.

The other mental functions named above are all objective functions that can be described in the third person. Now, all of them can also be experienced in the first person, so there’s a connection with consciousness and some cross-over. But we can observe someone talking or writing or responding to spoken or written words, and describe his or her behavior, and that is a third-person account of language use. We can do the same thing with regard to reason, memory, and even observation and emotion. All of these can be described in terms of brain activity and/or overt behavior, and they can also be described in a subjective sense of personally doing or experiencing something.

Consciousness, however can only be described subjectively. There is no behavior or brain function that we can point to, and say, “that is someone experiencing something subjectively, in the first person.” Moreover, all of the first-person descriptions of mental functions that can be described in the third person, become first-person when consciousness is added into the picture. We can imagine and describe language use or perception or emotion (though we prefer the word “affect” in that case) or reasoning or any other similar ability done by a philosophical zombie, but we can never imagine a p-zombie being subjectively aware — that’s a logical contradiction.

What we should take from this is that consciousness is one thing, and all other mental functions something else, distinct from consciousness. All mental functions can be conceived as happening with or without subjective experience also happening. And further, this means that the concept of the “mind” is somewhat misleading. There is no single thing that could be properly called a “mind.” Rather, there are various mental functions which may in specific cases be associated with an individual, and these can be grouped in terms of their nature, but not as parts of a single coherent entity.

Things Closely Tied to Consciousness

There are at least three parts to consciousness as (apparently — more on this below) manifested by a person. These are:

  • The experience of reality in the first person (consciousness itself).
  • The ability to remember experience of reality in the first person (subjective memory).
  • The ability to report experience of reality in the first person (self-reference).

Note that this last does not require actual consciousness, unless we specify that the report must be true. In that case, consciousness itself is a prerequisite of subjective memory, and subjective memory is a prerequisite of (truthful) self-reference. But there is no logical reason why consciousness itself can’t happen without subjective memory or self-reference, and this is an important point that I’ll come back to in a moment.

Regarding whether self-reference is truthful, let’s note that there is no way to tell objectively. In order to do that, we would need some objective way to determine whether consciousness itself is present and active, so that we could tell whether the person claiming to be subjectively aware is telling the truth or not. As there is no way to do this, we can never affirm that someone else is engaging in truthful self-reference. and most psychology and neuropsychology experiments accept people’s subjective self-reference at face value — which is fine for most purposes, but does not allow any claims about where consciousness is coming from.

When someone posits a particular brain function as the source of consciousness, this is exactly the problem that arises. There is no way to objectively verify that anyone is conscious, and so there is no way to show that it is present as a function of some part of the brain, and not present otherwise. We may be able to show that certain parts of the brain are crucial to subjective memory or to self-reference, but we can never show this about consciousness itself.

Remember the discussion above about the position and momentum of the photon. When we cannot answer a question, ever and in principle, it means we’re asking the wrong question. The fact that we cannot observe consciousness itself or verify its existence means that consciousness itself isn’t there to be observed — it’s not a part of the material universe.

Another important point here is that, since we recognize that consciousness itself and subjective memory are distinct, it’s possible to have consciousness where we don’t have subjective memory. This means that many of the things we call “unconscious” — actions performed without attention, or deep sleep — may instead be conscious, but not remembered.

The Inarticulate Problem

It’s common to believe that consciousness arises from the brain (psychic materialism). Most people who don’t subscribe to some form of dualism think that. But no one has ever been able to articulate exactly how that might happen.

To state the problem in perfect clarity, consciousness itself is inherently first-person, while all observed functions of the brain (and of all other things) are third-person. All causal models take the form of a third-person cause (or causes) producing a third-person effect. There is no articulate way to get from any set of events observed in the third person to subjective experience by any causal mechanism that makes sense and doesn’t amount to verbal magic-wand waving.

Note that this has nothing to do with proof or evidence. It’s a step back from that. In order to have, or even to look for, evidence of a proposition, we first have to have a coherent proposition so that we know what to look for. We don’t in this case. The statement “consciousness arises from the brain” is grammatically sound, but logical nonsense, because “consciousness” isn’t a thing that can be observed. It’s a statement without any meaning.

Note also that, to refute me on this, it’s not necessary to have the right answer as to how consciousness can arise from the brain. Certainly it isn’t necessary to have an answer that can be proven, or for which there is sound and solid evidence. All that’s necessary is to have any answer that makes any sense at all, because what I’m saying here is that no such conception is possible.

So far, no one I’ve discussed this with has been able to come up with one.

If it’s not even possible to articulate an idea so that it becomes a coherent proposition, then we may dismiss it as inarticulate fluff. (Unless it’s non-propositional truth, and that’s not the case here.)

What Is It, Then?

Given that we can never observe consciousness, and therefore that it is not part of the material world, we are left with two possible ideas explaining it.

  1. Consciousness arises from some discrete and individual source outside the material world. This is dualism: the treatment of consciousness as inhabiting or emerging from some other reality, something non-material. In this conception, it’s the soul that is conscious, while the brain is what the soul is consious of.
  2. Consciousness is all of the material world — or a function of all of it — rather than any discrete part of it. This is panpsychism: the treatment of consciousness as an inherent function of reality itself, and brain functions creating subjective memory and self-reference as articulating or reflecting the consciousness of the universe. In this conception, individual consciousness is an illusion, while in dualism it is not.

Can we see reason to choose one or the other of these? I think so, although it’s not quite as cut and dried as what leads me to reject psychic materialism.

First of all, dualism is untidy and inelegant. If the individual soul is what is conscious, where does it come from? What happens to it after the body dies? These aren’t new questions, of course, but they are ones that have never had satisfactory answers. Also, how far down the line of biological complexity do we find souls? Do grasshoppers have souls? Trees? In the latter case, is there a soul for an individual tree, for an individual tree cell, or for a forest?

Panpsychism sidesteps all of this complexity and untidiness. Consciousness is an inherent property of reality, and therefore everything experiences consciousness itself (although not necessarily subjective memory). Asking what happens to the individual soul after death is asking the wrong question: there is no individual soul, and consciousness remains what it always was, a property of all creation. Sure, trees are conscious, as are individual tree cells, as are forests. So is everything. (It’s unlikely that trees have subjective memory, though.)

The second problem with dualism is that it ignores the ways in which we can show that the individual sense of self is an illusion in other ways than subjective experience. The illusory nature of the self is dealt with in Buddhism and in the philosophy of Spinoza, of Hume, and others. It’s supported by a rising amount of evidence from psychology. If the individual self is illusory, then it doesn’t make a lot of sense to posit an individual soul to account for it.

Panpsychism has implications about life after death that are radically different from both the simple extinction posited by psychic materialism and any religious conception of individual post-mortem survival (survival in another reality, or reincarnation). I may return for some discussion of this later, but for now, enough.

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Religion and Violence in a Rapidly-Changing World

bookReligious violence is in the news these days with the attack by al-Qaeda operatives that murdered cartoonists in Paris, allegedly because of cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad. The brutality of the Islamic State continues unabated, the Taliban commits atrocities against women, and less-extreme Muslims all over the world look on all this with dread and concern. Violent Islam is in the news, but other religions aren’t far behind. In several African countries, Christians engage in literal witch hunts, while American Christian extremists continue to engage in violence against gay people and providers of reproductive health services. Even some Buddhists are getting into the act, terrorizing Muslims in Sri Lanka.

Where is all of this violence coming from? It’s not central to the teachings of any of the religions claimed by those who do the vile deeds. Not that either Christianity or Islam is any stranger to violence historically, of course, but attempts to blame the viciousness on (for example) teachings appearing in the Quran or the Hadith amount to special pleading, and ignore the fact that violence is quite rare among followers of Jesus or of Muhammad, as in fact it’s rare among people in general.

On the whole, the level of religious violence in the world is declining. This makes it stand out all the more when it happens. Christianity’s past is soaked with blood: the torture and murder of heretics, the slaughter of Jews, pagans, and Muslims, the Crusades, religious wars between Catholics and Protestants. Yet today, Christians for the most part seem to have risen above the brutality of the past. Or have they? In the West, in Europe and North America, yes, with the occasional religious-right exception. But today, Christianity is increasingly a religion of the Southern Hemisphere, especially Latin America. Religious conflict and persecution continue in a Christian context, emerging with the greatest ferocity in majority-Christian developing countries.

At the same time, Muslims living in the West increasingly adopt Western values, including many things we reflexively think are in conflict with Islam (it’s not actually that clear-cut): feminism and gay rights, for example, and secular government in general. Educated Muslims living in advanced societies tend to look upon Islamic terrorists with horror, partly because their behavior comes from no version of Islam they want anything to do with, and partly because they know how easily that kind of thing can provoke a backlash threatening the lives and livelihoods of Muslims everywhere in the West. (Which may actually be the terrorists’ intent.)

Where Does it Come From?

If one wishes to nitpick scripture, it’s pretty clear that the actions of Muslim and Christian terrorists violate injunctions in the Quran and/or words of Jesus or the Apostles in the New Testament. The Quran clearly enjoins Muslims to be at peace with unbelievers who are willing to live in peace with Muslims, and to fight only in defense against the attacks of infidels. The Jesus of the Gospels frequently exhorted his disciples to mercy, compassion, and forgiveness, and similar advice comes from the Apostles in their letters.

This kind of argument convinces no one who is determined to engage in violence, unfortunately. Passages in scripture that condemn certain kinds of behavior or belief or people are enough to justify the violence in their eyes, and they fudge over passages leaving the punishment up to God.

Nitpicking scripture may make the co-religionists of the violent feel a bit better, but it does nothing to help us understand why the violence is happening. The terrorists and other violent folk are clearly acting in accordance with their own understanding of their religions, so saying that they are not acting in accord with “real Islam” or “real Christianity” serves no practical purpose.

At the same time, it also doesn’t do much good to pander to bigotry. Condemning Islam as a religion of violence, when most Muslims aren’t violent, doesn’t make a lot of sense, and it makes even less sense to condemn all religious belief because some people commit violence in the name of theirs. There’s a clear distinction to be drawn between religious people who commit acts of violence and those who don’t. Any explanation or understanding that fails to recognize that distinction is lacking in nuance.

But on the other hand, some of the facile arguments advanced that attribute all religious violence to some convenient secular resentment, e.g. against Western imperialism, also sound facile and are much too glib. When violent people say they are committing their violence for religious reasons, we should recognize that that is indeed part of their motivation. But what does it mean exactly? Why do these particular people find themselves inclined to commit terrorist acts, when most of their co-religionists not only don’t join in, but condemn the violence?

How Religion is Changing

At root, religion is an attempt to give intellectual clothing to spiritual experience. As I noted in the last post, spiritual experience gives us an understanding that is non-propositional — it can’t be literally expressed in words or symbols — and so all religious ideas regarding the nature of the sacred are metaphors and myths. One of the questions emerging from spirituality is, “How does this impact the way we should live?” Hence the religious involvement in questions of morality, social justice, and human relations generally.

But such questions don’t involve spirituality alone. Moral questions are always asked in a material context: they are questions of what we should do, given a set of circumstances and possible actions. As those circumstances and the possible actions we can take change, moral values become outdated and either wrong or irrelevant. When the pace of change is glacial, as it was throughout the agrarian age, religions can make claims to timelessness. But today, change is rapid. Moral values have had to adapt. Many things that were once acceptable are now condemned, and other things that were once condemned are now acceptable.

Believers in the timelessness of the old agrarian age religions are often uncomfortable with these changes, and that leads, at the apex of fanaticism, to religiously-motivated violence in an attempt to force a stop to the decline in the old ways. But among those who don’t engage in violence, other sorts of circle-the-wagons behavior emerge, including political activism aimed at shoring up the decaying structure of old dogmas and commandments through legal and governmental, rather than private force.

It Will Pass

This trend is not the future. It’s a last-ditch attempt to preserve the past, and it will fail. Things look frightening at the moment, but these movements exist at all only because our religious consciousness is in transition, and that’s a good thing. As the transition continues, the attempt to stop it will crest and decline, and with it the violence and terrorism we’re currently seeing.

If I’m right about this, the peak should be either on us already, or soon to come. The religions of the future, which will include new ones, transformed versions of the old ones, and increasing numbers of people who, although spiritual and in a sense religious, don’t identify with any one tradition to the exclusion of all others. We will come to see the ugly things going on today as no more than growing pains.

 

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