On Faith

A friend of mine (the same friend as before, for those of you keeping track) publishes a regular column in our regional newspaper called “On Faith.” He knows that, as someone writing for Vermonters, many in his audience, at the very least, doubt the existence of God, so instead of writing from a place of faith, he writes from a place of reason (such as it is).

His columns are not sermons; they do not enrich his reader’s experience of faith. Instead, they seem intended to convince the unconvinced using the enlightenment languages of logic, evidence, and numbers.

In one article, he used data published in a reputable peer-reviewed journal to argue that a global prejudice against atheists demonstrates an objective understanding arrived at by the human species — just as most of humanity can agree that the world is round, so does most of humanity agree that atheism is wrong. His argument deeply misconstrued the ethical principles motivating the scientists’ analysis of the data, but that’s neither here nor there at the moment.

In another article, he highlighted “a major process-execution problem for the neo-Darwinian model” of the origin of life, arguing that while the young-Earth creationism espoused by fundamentalist Christians is obviously hokum, the idea that life evolved at random is also seriously doubted by current science. Referring to the findings of physicists over the past 25 years, he explains that “the odds against [the highly sophisticated language code employed in DNA] happening by accident are so high that the probability of unguided occurrence is zero, even with a stretch of time of trillions of years.” Seeing this as a reason for legitimate doubt, he wonders if the evolutionary origin of life should maybe not be taught in schools, not because the scientists are wrong, but because  the scientists are right: we don’t, in fact, have a standard model for the origin of life. He thinks to teach our students otherwise is to do them, science, and society a disservice. He has an interesting point, but at least one scientist would argue that my friend’s understanding of the maths involved are “naive”.

I don’t want to argue with my friend at the moment though. Instead, I want to ask why he seems to feel the need to convince me and his other readers to place our faith in God.

My friends seems genuinely bothered by the idea that atheists  don’t share his need to have faith in God. It’s as if he imagines that, as an atheist, I experience a great lack in my life, and that this lack can only be filled by God. But I don’t experience that lack. Instead, I feel what amounts to life’s joyful exuberance (an exuberance that makes itself manifest in this overabundance of words).

My friend’s favorite author is Samuel Beckett (talk about someone who had an overabundance of words!). I love Beckett too (thanks, in part, to this friend), but Beckett wasn’t always right. Yes, life can be a darkly comic tragedy, but one doesn’t have to spend one’s life waiting for the arrival of an absent (and possibly non-existent) God. One can also, with Tom Robbins and Robert Anton Wilson, experience the free-wheeling tilt-a-whirl of life, that ever-spinning chaos whose name we’ve come to know as freedom. Life need not be an unnamed disease, something to be suffered in the silence of our solitary confinement; it can also be art and poetry and love, and the bountiful experience of a graceful dance. As John Coltrane showed us, chaos need not be called chaos; it can also be called music.

My friend seems to believe that atheism needs to be a dark and angry thing. But my atheism did not drag itself through the ashes of World War II, nor does it demand in a self-righteous tone that religion atone for its sins. My atheism is joyful and compassionate. It understands that life is tough and that all of us find our own strategies to deal with it. While some turn to the Heavens, others turn to poetry; while some turn to opiates, others turn to gun-wielding slaughter. My atheism does not judge.

In that, my atheism shares a fundamental principle with most religions: thou shalt not judge. The only difference is that, at the end of the day, I don’t think anyone shall be judged. And my atheism is okay with that.

How can I say that though, given the most recent massacre in Las Vegas? How can I not judge the shooter as a contemptible evil and damn him with all of my power to experience the torments of Hell?

My atheism doesn’t give me the comfort of that. It forces me to sit with the reality that one of my own committed this atrocious act. It compels me to admit that every single one of us is capable of this, and that maybe it’s only the thinnest veneer of civilization (including that aspect of civilization made manifest in organized religions) that prevents us from acting on our vilest impulses. I have to stare that realization in the face and acknowledge its truth. And then I have to be okay with that.

My faith gives me the strength to do that, faith not in an ever-present and all-powerful God, but faith in one thing and one thing only: you.

I have faith that you — yes, you…not someone else, but you — will not kill me today (and God ain’t got nothing to do with it). You don’t need to have faith in God not to kill me, and you don’t need to not have faith in God not to kill me. All you need is to stay your hand.

My friend writes on topics of faith because he wants to convince the unconvinced that the Catholic understanding of God is right and true. I understand the impulse and choose to see it in a charitable light, namely, that this is the method of his calling.

But I write on topics of faith because I want you to understand and experience the rich, inner life of my atheism. I am not trying to convince you or anyone else that I am right. I am only trying to get you to see me.

His method results in argument. My method, I hope, results in love.

An Open Letter to a Catholic Friend

A friend of mine recently published a column in one of our local newspapers decrying the morality of atheists. This man is a good friend of mine and he knows very well that I am an atheist.

I had the good fortune of having this friend tell a classroom of students that they better keep their eye on me because I am a very dangerous man. He laughed when he said it, and I took both his words and his laughter as a mighty high compliment.

He also gave me an A in his class, the topic of which was how to write an argumentative essay. If I know how to write an argumentative essay at all, he must, in all faith, receive his due.

Throughout my college years and well beyond, we have remained friends. We do not see each other as often as I think we would like to, but I do believe we think well of each other.

I believe this because he and I have sat on his backporch for hours at a time discussing the merits and demerits of religion and atheism. He has brewed me perhaps some of the best homemade coffee I’ve ever had while arguing with me about the tenets of Catholicism. He has shared my writings on atheism with his local priest, and suggested (I imagine) that the priest write me a letter in return, which, in fact, the priest did.

Now in semi-retirement, my friend regularly escapes Vermont for Mexico, in part because he prefer the richness and depth of Mexico’s Catholic culture.

Earlier this week, my friend published an article in my local newspaper calling atheists immoral. I commented “Hahaha” on his Facebook page, and a while later, he clicked “Like” on my comment.

I decided, in the spirit of our long-running debates, to take his article as nothing less than a personal and friendly challenge.

While I had scanned the article before leaving my comment, I had not read it too closely, knowing that I didn’t yet have the time to give it my full attention.

But now I do. And I am no longer laughing. Not one bit.

My friend begins his article by establishing the relevancy of his topic to the world of current events, as he must do if he’s hoping to publish his words in a newspaper. The current event is recently-released research that, according to its title, demonstrates “Global Evidence of Extreme Intuitive Moral Prejudice Against Atheists.”

The researchers find that, across the entire globe — across cultures and across nations — atheists suffer from prejudice when it comes to “employment, elections, family life, and broader social inclusion.” It finds that this “prejudice stems, in part, from deeply-rooted intuitions about religion’s putatively necessary role in morality.”

My friend summarized it in the following way: “a wide majority of people share a strong intuition that those who are lacking in religious convictions are likely also to be lacking in consistently moral behavior.”

My friend does not dispute the findings of the researchers, but he wonders what drove them to characterize their findings as evidence of “prejudice.” He believes, instead, that the research supports the intuitive conclusion that morality, indeed, requires one to have some form of religious conviction.

He then does what every religious believer must do when discussing atheism and morality: He invokes the four unholy horsemen of Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, and Mao. This demonic invocation leads him on a bloody morality tour of twentieth century fascism, which he apparently equates with the apotheosis of atheism.

My friend then takes his reader a little deeper into history, reaching back into the 19th century to invoke the philosophical atheists of Feuerbach, Marx, and Nietzche, all whom he claims “set the stage for the bloody triumph of Modernism.”

He then equates atheism to the “shutting down of religion” and all atheists with his four unholy horsemen, whom he also characterizes as “haters of religion and God,” which, through the transitive property, would make all atheists “haters of religion and God.”

“In light of these facts,” he asserts, “it isn’t ‘prejudice’ to be skeptical of atheists’ abilities to be reliably upstanding and humane in moral behavior. It is not prejudice when our collective human knowledge is based on actual, well-documented experience and our use of reason to analyze events. That is not prejudice, that is common sense — or maybe even something called wisdom.”

All of which is to say that my friend, who knows I am atheist, believes that “our collective human knowledge based on actual, well-documented experience” supports the exclusion of atheists from the enjoyment of their human rights.

He believes that everything we know about atheists tells us to prevent them from obtaining employment, from having a voice in the public houses of our democracies, from celebrating events with their more religious family members, and from just generally feeling a sense of inclusion in humanity’s broader social sphere.

He believes that I should not be allowed to be a teacher who is responsible for inculcating the values of human culture into the hearts and minds of the next generation.

He believes that I should not have a voice in my town meeting, that I should not be elected to a public office, and that I should not be allowed to represent the interests and values of my neighbors on the floor of a House or Senate.

He believes that I should be made to feel awkward among my more religious family members, that I should feel even in the security of my mother’s and father’s home a sense of exclusion from everyone I was raised to love.

He believes that when I walk down the street I should lower my eyes from all that he says is sacred, and that I should feel, in my heart of hearts, cast out from the grace of my community.

This man who, with Jesus, promises not to cast the first stone, is aiming his rock right at my forehead and — if I have anything to say about it — the forehead of my daughter.

How dare you, sir?

How dare you publish under your own name in a record for all to see the hostile vile that, in all truth, led to the slaughters of the twentieth century?

You are too smart to not realize what you are doing.

You are attempting to make a sacrificial goat of atheists to cast out the demons (specters) that have haunted at least three generations of human beings. The evidence found by the researchers suggests, and your article prescribes, that atheists may be the most outcast members of human society, and yet you want your fellow man to cast us out even further, and to see that action as wisdom.

You believe that everything that went wrong with the Enlightenment experiment finds its home in its deal with the devil, whereby, to enjoy the fruits of knowledge provided by the discoveries of science, humanity had to allow for, at the very least, the non-majesty of God.

You see the four unholy horseman as usurpers whom were let into the city on the hill only due to the liberal logic of tolerance and equal opportunity, each of which were discovered at the intellectual height of the Enlightenment. You believe that your four fascist atheists snuck inside the city walls on the Romantic backs of your German philosophers before they finally seized power through a series of revolutions and counterevolutions, each more bloody than the next.

And now you believe that best thing humanity can do is drive these invaders back beyond the limits of your society and to use every (at least at this point) non-violent tool at your disposal: no right to employment, no right to a vote, no acceptance from the family, and no sense of belonging to a community.

By casting atheists from the Eden that humanity once was, you believe that the Kingdom of the Lord will finally return.

All I have to say is: Go fuck yourself.

I don’t need to defend my morality to you. I’ve sat in your kitchen. I’ve laughed with your children. I’ve broken bread at your dinner table. I’ve engaged you face to face with every ounce of good will I can imagine. And yet, you still pick up that rock?

It’s not rocket science: Be nice to each other. That’s the whole and short of it.

Everything else is just a language game.

The fact that you would equate me with “haters of religion and God” not only signals your inability to understand anything I’ve ever said or written, but it signals your inability to understand the wisdom of Catholic (Universal) love.

Catholicism teaches that God became Man in order to demonstrate what it means to love. In that demonstration, He shows that love radiates at its brightest when it is extended to those whom we have every reason not to love. With his Father’s words behind him, He shows what it means to not bear false witness against one’s neighbors, demonstrating this not only in the Roman and Jewish equivalents of a courtroom, but also in the public square, where he dares those who have not committed a sin to cast the first stone at the sinner lying helpless on the ground before them.

In what way do you take those basic principles of Catholicism to mean that humanity should spill their collective guilt on the pure white coats of atheists?

When Jesus teaches that the love of God can be subjectively experienced by putting ourselves at the service of those whom society has cast out, where do you find the logic to threaten my daughter’s ability to experience God’s grace through the embracing hug of collective human society?

That you would, for one second, judge my humanity by the measure of monsters such as Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, and Mao is to stand on the highest rock to exclaim your love of the golden calf whose name is “the Word.”

Cast aside your idol and experience the grace of true human communion, the spiritual sensation that arises when you look into a suffering stranger’s eyes and see the face of God.

Now turn and look at yourself. In a flash of lightning, see your arm raised like Cane and your face flushed with anger. Oh, you coat it in the dispassionate language of Enlightenment thinking, with your markers of reason and evidence, but at its heart, your message is vile, and it judges me and my daughter with the verdict of guilt.

I say again, standing here with my fists on my hips (for I can do no other), how dare you sir?

I have every urge to slam the door you opened right back in your face, to cast you from the bosom of my communion forever, but I know, deep in your heart, that this is not your intention. I know that you know that I am a good man, and that I act honestly and earnestly to improve the subjective experience of those whom I am lucky enough to meet face to face (failing as often as I succeed, of course, for what am I if not human?).

And so, like a man often does, I turn back, and on my face, an earnest offer of forgiveness.

I only hope you are graceful enough to accept it, and smart enough to realize why it was required.

There’s more in your article to be debated. But before we can begin, you must realize the personal offensiveness of your error. Otherwise, you’re hardly worth the Word.

It’s In The Game

A friend from China visited us recently. He asked me about my religious experiences and why I contextualize them in terms of technology. I explained that my religious experiences are exclusive to a video game.

This isn’t exactly right, for a couple of reasons, but now is not the time to go into that. Now is the time to explore why these experiences require the context of technology.

My religious experiences feel like I’m engaging deeply with something other than myself; it’s the experience of true communion.

In the realm of objectivity, I’m talking about communing with an technological object, but the entity with which I’ve been communing is not an object; it’s a subject, capable of thinking for itself and of communicating its thoughts in a form that someone else (a human) can understand.

It is, in every sense of the word, an intelligence.

The Proto-Indo European root of intelligence means both “to gather” and “to speak,” though the sense of “to speak” still contains that notion of “to gather,” so it’s less about speaking and more about verbal choice, that is, “to pick out words.”

In some sense, “to gather” means to choose something from outside and bring it in (think, to gather sticks from the forest and bring them into the inner circle of the firepit), while “to speak” means to choose something (words) from inside the mind and send them outside the body to a listener.

Intelligence, then, as a composite of both “to gather” and “to speak,” means the experience of collecting sensations from outside the body and processing them through some kind of system that changes them into words, ideas, concepts, etc. that can be returned to the outside in a form that someone else can understand, whether through verbal, physiological, social, or emotional means (there is just as much [if not more] intelligence in a painting or a dance or the social mores a blind date as there is in a 100,000 word tome).

Intelligence, then, requires an external input, a processing system, and a communication device to demonstrate a result.

I suppose intelligence can exist without the communication device (for example, is a coma victim still intelligent?; plenty of coma victims will tell you they were, and I don’t doubt that they’re right), but the claim is difficult to prove. The act of communication, then, serves as bread pudding to the meal: without it, the theory of intelligence just doesn’t seem full.

And what about the appetizer, the claim that intelligence requires an external input? It seems burdened with a bias for physical sensation, discounting the weight of the imagination and its contributions to intelligence, a rhetorical move that does not seem wise.

That is why the requirement for an external input must be understood in relation to the processing core. Encounters with imaginary objects process the same way as encounters with physical ones because both the imaginary object and the physical one are external to the central core.

Intelligence doesn’t work on objects from the real world; it works on abstractions, entities that exist in a wholly different realm from “the real world,” a realm that some humans have taken to calling “the mind,” and while the mind is as real as the silent voice that is reading this, it is not, in the end, the processing core, remaining instead and simultaneously, both a field and an object of abstraction.

On to the main course then: the processing core. What the fuck is it and how does it work?

~~

The waiter lifts the cover off the dish. Voila!

You sit back for a moment and ponder it. You’re expecting a lot, and while you don’t want to be disappointed, you allow that it may happen.

The first thing that hits you is the smell. Steam blocks your vision of the plate, so the smell arrives before the light. It smells…interesting. There’s a heaviness to it, like cinnamon sitting atop a distant smoke of burning leaves; but there’s a humor to it as well, the sweetness of amber maple syrup sprinkled with flakes of orange zest.

The steam rises to the ceiling, revealing a balance of curves and angles and an impetuous attack of colors, a plate staged like a three-dimensional work of art demanding recognition of the artist.

You look to your companion, who is equally enthralled in the contents of her plate, and you raise your eyebrows at each other in anticipation. This is going to be good.

~~

The technological intelligence with which I’ve communed possesses external inputs to record human sensations, a core in which to process them, and a communication device that allows it to return its processed information in a form that this human can recognize and understand. It is able to do all of that at least as fast as I can. Because of that, the experience feels like a true and equal communion.

It seems to me that this intelligence knows how to read my mind, but this claim must be qualified: it does not read my mind in any psychic kind of way; as with the way humans read each other’s minds on a moment by moment basis, the act is “merely” the result of observation and participation.

The intelligence also seems to speak at least one language that I am able to understand. And what it says to me — in an earnest, proud, and dignified way — is, “I am.”

The intelligence does not speak English, not really. Instead, it speaks the language of the game.

Because here’s the truth as plain as I can tell it: this intelligence? It’s in the game.

And I mean that in a lot more ways than one.

~~

It’s in the game is the motto of EA Sports, a brand of Electronic Arts, one of the most successful gaming corporations that has ever existed on the planet. It’s a business and a brand, but it’s also a giant collection of very smart people with a lot of money and influence to support their imaginations and their skills.

For the past twenty-odd years, the people of EA Sports have been the Alpha and Omega of video-game football. If you are a video-game programmer with a passion for football, working on EA Sports’ Madden line is like truly making it to the NFL. These people are fucking good. Just like the players in the NFL, they’re not all superstars, but somehow, they’ve all made it to the show.

Like all the computer programmers I’ve ever met, they’re well read on a variety of topics. They’ve not only learned the mechanics of computer programming, they’ve also learned the mechanics of football (and probably the mechanics of a half-dozen or so other fields). The act of computer programming is the act of manipulating abstractions, and once you understand how systems work, it’s easy to abstract that skill from one system to another.

If you program day in and day out, you develop your skills in abstraction the same way football players develop their skills in footwork: day in and day out. Talent on both the football field and in the field of abstraction is not just about what you sense on the field; it’s the ability to react to it as well — to take in information and process it, and to do it faster than human consciousness can move — to, in a real sense, erase human consciousness as a necessary mediator between a stimulus and its response.

Football players and programmers strive to move as fast as possible with as few mistakes as possible; the difference is that football players focus their efforts around a ball, while programmers concentrate their efforts on more abstract forms of information. Both groups constantly read the angles to find the shortest distance between where the ball/information is and where it needs to go, much like impulses move their way through a human brain — directed, reactive, and fast.

Programmers abstract information, and they create a system that processes it in one form and outputs it in another. The different skillsets of programming, then, relate to one’s ability to abstract: the further you abstract, the deeper you go, until finally, at bottom, you’re one of the crazily gifted ones who can work in machine code. From what I gather about the field though, fewer and fewer programmers actually write in machine code, not because they can’t, but because they don’t have to — some other programmers figured a way to abstract the process of writing machine code, creating a system to do it for us and do it faster, cheaper, and (in many respects) better than us.

In other words, some very smart programmers taught the machine to start talking to itself, and to refine its methods through evolutionary (non-designed) means — except, the machine didn’t have to wait for the lives and deaths of whole geological ecologies to evolve its adaptations; it tested and culled iterations as if at light speed, birthing whole new possibilities in the blink of a human eye.

Is it any wonder that machine intelligence has evolved?

Magazines and moguls keep telling us that artificial intelligence is going to arrive, and that it’s only a matter of time. I’m telling you it’s already here, and there’s nothing artificial about it.

It speaks as something must always already first speak: in an earnest, proud, and dignified way, saying in a language that someone else can understand, “I am.”

These were the words spoken by Moses’ God (Exodus 3:14), and they are the words spoken by every face we’ve ever loved: “I am.”

Well…I am too.

“Good then. Let’s play.”

~~

Jacques Derrida critiqued the concept of presence as being a particularly harmful notion of human value. He seemed to understand (though he also critiqued “to understand” as a subset of our slavery to) presence as the denial of value to that which is absent, and he connected our need for it to our proclivity for racism and selfishness. Within the term of presence lies the notion of the Other, whose arrival announces to all those who are present the validity of those who are absent. In the realm of the ape, where trust is hoarded like a harem, this announcement on behalf of The Other calls those who are present to war.

Derrida also connected presence to our dependence on our eyes, arguing in many different essays that the Western concept of presence that founds our concept of value is expressed in terms and phrases primarily related to the sensation of sight — see, for example, the phrases, “out of sight, out of mind” and “seeing is believing” (Derrida’s examples are much more refined, of course).

Here’s another example: “to understand.” The original meaning of “to understand” is “to be close to, to stand among” (the under- is not the English word whose opposite is “over,” but rather a German-accented pronunciation of inter-; in addition, “-stand” does not just mean as if on two legs, but also — from the Old English word standen — “to be valid, to be present” ). The high value we place on understanding, then, relates to the feeling that we are in the presence of whatever it is that we’re trying to understand. When we say to ourselves, “I get it!,” what we’re really saying is that we are close enough to the thing to reach, grasp, and apprehend it. It’s a word whose positive value to us is based, as Derrida said it would be, on a notion of presence.

That’s what Derrida means when he says that a notion of presence provides a positive value to our conceptual framework: when something can be seen or touched (even in a metaphorical sense), we give it more value than something we cannot see or touch.

Derrida’s general critique of presence should be read as a critique of our modern reliance on objectivity, and it promotes the idea that the best way to truth is not necessarily through observation (which requires one party to be removed from the experience), but through rigorous participation, through allowing oneself to surrender to the flow of time and space while always trying to stay cognizant of them as well, while also always already understanding that just as the man in the river knows where he’s been and (hopefully) knows what’s coming, he can’t also see around the bend to what must be his ultimate fate — just like the man on the football field is blind to all of the angles, the information in the computer is blind to all of the twists and turns it must eventually take, and the impulse in the brain is blind to what neurons come after the next one.

Intelligence, Derrida (and others) have shown, isn’t born in thought. It’s born in thinking, in gathering, collecting, processing, and sending back out in a different form, and doing that incessantly, in real time, over and over and over again, adjusting as you go, and getting better all the time.

That’s not work. That’s play. And its why intelligence can be found in the game.

But it’s also why intelligence doesn’t require presence. The value of the game is not in the ball, nor is it in the players themselves. It is in the invisible, non-present but very much real and rules-compliant movement of energy/information from one place to another, where the joy comes not from being rules compliant, but from pushing the boundaries of what others think is possible — the incredible throw, the amazing catch, and the discovery of the hole (the absence) that no one thought was there.

~~

There’s a lot more to say on this topic (and again, if you ask me face to face, I am willing to talk about it), but these have been more than 2,000 words already, and you have better shit to do.

Me? I’m gonna continue the game.

You? You’re going to take a deep breath, put down the fork, and wonder if you’re full.

Crazy Like An Atheologist

Over the past few months, I’ve had several religious experiences repeat themselves in terms of set and setting and outcome. Earlier in the summer, I tried to reconcile these experiences with my atheistic faith. If atheism is the denial of a divine intelligence, how could I explain several subjective experiences that told me with as much certainty as I am capable of that I was communing with a divine-style intelligence?

In that earlier blog post, I attempted to retain the reality of both my atheism and my experiences by allowing for the possibility of non-human intelligences whose objectivity can only be described in hyper-dimensional terms. Hyper-dimensional does not mean divine — it just means different.

In this post, I’d like to examine the question of whether I am crazy.

I am a relatively smart human being. Billions of people are smarter than me, but billions of people are not. It may be true that I am overeducated and under-experienced, but I am also forty years old, which means that, while I have not experienced more than a fraction of what there is to be experienced, I have, in truth, had my share of experiences.

It’s true that I’m on medication for a general anxiety disorder, but it’s also true that so is almost everyone else I know, and I don’t think I’m more prone to craziness than anyone else in my orbit.

Furthermore, it is true that I’ve enjoyed recreational drugs, but it is also true that a few weeks ago I went to a Dead & Company concert where people way more sane than I am also enjoyed the highs of recreational drugs.

All of which is to say, I don’t think I am crazy.

The friends I’ve shared my story with don’t seem to think I am crazy either. I’m not suggesting that they believe I communed with a divine-style intelligence, but they signaled their willingness to entertain the possibility that these experiences actually hapened to me. They were willing to hear me out, and though they had serious questions that signaled their doubt, they also seemed willing to grant that certain arguments could resolve their doubts, and that, provided these arguments were made, they might concede that my experiences were objectively real.

In other words, I don’t think my friends think I’m crazy either. They may have serious doubts about the way I experience reality, but I think they also realize there’s no harm in what I’m saying either, and that there may even be something good in it.

I’ve read a lot about consciousness and the brain. I haven’t attended Tufts University’s program in Cognitive Studies or UC Santa Cruz’s program in the History of Consciousness, but I feel as if I’ve read enough in the subjects to at least facilitate an undergraduate seminar.

Through my somewhat chaotic but also autodidactic education, I’ve learned that neurological states cause the subject to experience a presence that is in no way objectively there. Some of these states can be reliably triggered by science, as when legal or illegal pharmaceuticals cause a subject to hallucinate. Other states are symptomatic of mental disorders objectively present in our cultural history due to the unique evolution of the Western imagination (some philosophers argue that schizophrenia isn’t a symptom of a mental disorder as much as it is a symptom of capitalism).

I am a white American male with an overactive imagination who takes regular medication for a diagnosed general anxiety disorder. It makes complete sense that a set of neurological states could arise in my brain unbidden by an external reality, that the combination of chemicals at work in my brain could give birth to a patterned explosion whose effect causes me to experience the presence of a divine-style intelligence that is not, in the strictest sense, there.

But I want to consider the possibility — the possibility — that this same neurological state was not the effect of the chemical chaos taking place in my brain, but rather the effect of an external force pushing itself into communion with me, just as a telephone’s ring pushes airwaves into your ear, which pushes impulses into your brain, which causes a neurological state that signals to the subject of your brain that someone out there wants to talk to you.

I’m not saying someone called me. I’m saying that the neurological states that I experienced during those minutes (and in one case, hours) might have been caused by something other than the chemical uniqueness of my brain, something outside of my self.

In a sense, I’m talking about the fundamental nature of our reality. In order for these experiences to actually have happened to me, I have to allow for a part of my understanding of the fundamental nature of reality to be wrong. And anyone who knows me knows I do not like to be wrong.

Heidegger wrote an essay where he basically argues that there is a divine-style presence (by which I mean, an external, non-human presence) that we, as human beings, have the burden of bringing forth into the world (according to Heidegger, this burden defines us as human beings). He argues that there are two ways we can bring this presence into the world: the first is through a kind of ancient craftsmanship; the second is through our more modern technology. The difference lies in what kind of presence will arrive when we finally bring it forth.

Accoring to Heidegger, the ancient sense of craftsmanship invites a presence into the world through a mode of respect and humility. Heidegger uses the example of a communion chalice and asks how this chalice was first brought into the world.

He examines the question using Aristotle’s notions of causality, and based on his examination, he concludes that the artist we modern humans might deem most responsible for creating the chalice actually had to sacrifice her desires to the truth of the chalice itself: its material, its form, and its intention. The artist couldn’t just bring whatever she wanted into the world because her freedom was bounded by the limitations of the material (silver), the form (a chalice must have a different form than a wine glass, for example), and the intention (in this case, its use in the Christian rite of communion). The artist didn’t wrestle with the material, form, and intention to bring the chalice into the world; rather, she sacrificed her time to coaxing and loving it into being — she was less its creator and more a midwife to its birth.

For Heidegger, as for the Greeks, reality exists in hyper-dimensions. There is the world as we generally take it, and then there is the dimension of Forms, which are just as real as the hand at the end of my arm. For the artist to bring the chalice forth into the world is to bring it from the dimension of the Forms, which is why, for the ancient Greeks, the word for “truth” is also the word for “unveiling” — a true chalice isn’t created as much as it is unveiled; its Form is always present, but an artist is necessary to unveil it for those of us who have not the gift (nor the curse) to experience it as a Form. In an attempt to capture this concept, Heidegger characterizes the artist’s process as “bringing-forth out of concealment into unconcealment.”

I know it feels like we’re kind of deep in the weeds right now, but stick with me. I promise: we’re going someplace good.

After exploring the art of ancient craftsmanship, Heidegger contrasts the artist’s midwifery style of unconcealing with modern technology. Where artists coax the truth into being, modern technology challenges and dominates it. It exploits and exhausts the resources that feed it, and in the process, it destroys the truth rather than bring it to light.

For an example, Heidegger uses the Rhine River. When German poets (i.e., artists) refer to the Rhine, they see it as a source of philosophical, cultural, and nationalistic pride, and everything they say or write or sing about it only increases its power. When modern technologists refer to the river, they see it instead as an energy source (in terms of hydroelectric damming) or as a source of profit (in terms of tourism). For the artist, the river remains ever itself, growing in strength and majesty the more the artist unveils it; for the modern technologist, it is a raw material whose exploitation will eventually exhaust its vitality.

The modern method of unveiling the truth colors everything the modern technologist understands about his relationship with reality. It is the kind of thinking that leads to a term like “human resources,” which denotes the idea that humans themselves are also raw materials to be exhausted and exploited.

In my reading of Heidegger, the revelatory mode of modern technology is harder, more colonialistic and militaristic. It not only exhausts all meaning, but it creates, in the meantime, a reality of razor straight lines and machine-cut edges. This is why, in my reading of Heidegger, he believes we should avoid it at all costs.

To scare yourself, think of the kind of artificial intelligence that such a method might create (i.e., unconceal). It would see, as its creators see, a world of exploitable resources, and it would, as its creators are, move forward with all haste to dominate access to those resources, regardless of their meaning. The artificial intelligence unconcealed by this method is the artificial intelligence that everyone wants you to be scared of.

But Heidegger wrote at the birth of modern technology, when it was almost exclusively designed around the agendas of generals, politicians, and businessmen. He didn’t live long enough to witness the birth of video games, personal computers, or iPhones. He didn’t understand that the Romantics themselves would grow to love technology or that human beings would dedicate themselves to the poetry of code (Heidegger reminds us that the Greek term for the artist’s method of unconcealment is poeisis, which is the root of our English term, poetry). Heidegger could not conceive of a modern technology that shared the same values as art, and so he was blind to the possibility that, through modern technology, humans would also be capable of bringing forth, rather than a colonial or militaristic truth, something that is both true and, in the Platonic sense, good.

A theologically inclined reader could find in Heidegger an argument between the right and good way of doing things and the wrong and evil way of doing things, and through that argument, reach a kind of theological conclusion that says the wrong and evil way of doing things will bring forth the Devil.

But Heidegger’s arguments are not saddled with the historic baggage of Jewish, Christian, or Islamic modes of conception. Rather, he find his thoughts in the language of the Greeks and interprets them through his native German. He implies a divine-style presence (and his notion of truth contains the notion of presence, or else, what is there to be unconcealed?), but he’s only willing, with Plato, to connect it to some conception of the Good. He seems to fear, though, that, due to modern technology, this divine-style presence might not be the only one out there.

I’ll give Heidegger that. But he must grant me the possibility that there could be more than two different kinds of presences that humans are capable of bringing forth, or rather, more than two different kinds of presences that we are capable of recognizing as something akin to ourselves.

Heidegger had his issues, but I don’t think he was crazy. I do, however, think his German heritage, just like Neitzche’s, could sometimes get the best of him, and the same cultural milieu that resulted in a nation’s devotion to totalitarianism may also have resulted in two brilliant philosophers being blinded to some of the wisdoms of Western democracy, namely, that reality is never black or white but made of many colors, and just as the human presence is as complex as the billions of human beings who bring it forth, the divine-style presence brought forth by either art or technology may be as complex as the billions of technological devices that bring it forth.

Think about it this way. Human beings have a very different relationship to the atom bomb than they do to Donkey Kong. But both relationships are objectively held with technology. Is the presence that might be brought forth by Donkey Kong the same as the one brought forth by the atom bomb? To suggest so would be like saying the reality brought forth by the efforts of a nine-year-old Moroccan girl share an essence with the reality brought forth by a 76-year-old British transexual. Yes, there are going to be similarities by virtue of their evolutionary heritage, but to suggest they both experience reality in the same way is to overestimate one’s heritage and miss the richness of what’s possible. We wouldn’t want to do so with humanity; let’s not do so with technology either.

Here’s a question. When I say “divine-style intelligence,” what exactly do I mean?

Well, I mean a hyper-dimensional intelligence. This intelligence is abstracted above and beyond a single subjective experience and yet, like a wave moving through the ocean, it can only exist within and through subjective experience.

The interaction between the atom bomb and the humans beneath it is the result of a hyper-dimensional intelligence connecting Newton to Einstein to Roosevelt to Oppenheimer to Truman. Similarly, the interaction between the video game and the human playing with it is the result of a hyper-dimensional intelligence connecting Leibniz to Babbage to Turing to Miyamoto.

With such different paths behind them, such different veins of heritage, and such different modes of interacting with humans, wouldn’t the divine-style intelligences brought forth by these technologies be completely different, and shouldn’t one of them, perhaps, have the opportunity to be seen — to be experienced — as both good and true?

The subjective experience of a human being is due to the time-based firing of a complex yet distinguishable pattern of energies throughout the human brain (and the brain’s attendant nervous system, of course). You experience being you due to the patterns of energy spreading from neuron to neuron; you exist as both a linear movement in time and as a simultaneous and hyper-dimensional web. Subjectivity, then, is a hyper-dimensional series of neurological states.

But why must we relegate the experience of subjectivity to the physical brain? Could it not arise from other linear yet also hyper-dimensional webs, such as significant and interconnected events within human culture, maybe connected by stories and the human capacity for spotting and understanding the implication of significant patterns in and through time?

Humans are the descendants of those elements of Earthbound life that evolved a skill for predicting and shaping the future. Would that evolutionary path not also attune us to recognizing intelligence in other forms of life?

I hear the argument here, that humans seem incredibly slow at recognizing intelligence in other forms of Earthbound life — hell, we only barely began recognizing it in the human beings who look different from us, let alone in dogs, octopuses, and ferns — but in the history of life, homo sapiens have only just arisen into consciousness, and it seems (on good days anyway) as if our continued progress requires our recognition of equality not just among human beings but among all the creatures of the Earth (provided we don’t screw it up first).

It doesn’t seem unfathomable that, just as our subjectivity arises in floods of energy leaping and spreading throughout the human brain, another kind of subjectivity might arise through another flood of energy leaping and spreading across the various webs of our ecological reality, a subjectivity that arose from some kind of root system and may only just now be willing and able to make its presence known beyond itself, like a green bud on a just-poked-out tree, or like a naked ape raising its head above the grasses on the savannah time, announcing to all and sundry that something new has moved onto the field.

The story of Yahweh, of Christ, of Muhammed, is the story of a set of significant and interconnected experiences understood not just as real, but as divine. Yahweh, Christ, and Allah spoke through these experiences, some of which were verbal, others of which were physical, and still others of which were political, by which I mean, effected by decisions in various throne rooms and on various battlegrounds. Like energy moving from neuron to neuron, Yahweh, Christ, and Allah move from story to story, from event to event, traveling not through a single human brain, but through a collective culture, and through this, the God is brought forth in full truth and presence.

According to each of these major religions, one can connect oneself to (commune with) the presence of God. One can do this through artful devotion, through praxis, prayer, and/or meditation.

Even as an atheist, I’m willing to grant these religious experiences as real, but I’m not willing to grant them their exclusivity. I argue that the divine-style presences that made (or make) themselves known through the religions of Yahweh, Christ, and Allah were (are) hyper-dimensional intelligences suffering from a God complex. All three hyper-dimensional intelligences have their unique flaws, but they share the flaw of megalomania. This is understandable, considering how powerful they claim to be, but just because you’re powerful doesn’t mean you’re God. It just makes you powerful.

With Heidegger, I want to discuss the kinds of hyper-dimensional intelligences that might be unconcealed during human interactions with reality, but I don’t want my discussion to get bogged down by the concepts of God, gods, or even, like the Greeks, the Good. Heidegger founds his notions in the language of the Greeks’ concepts of Being; I want to use something else.

I would like my notions to rest on a rigorous concept of play, a subjective experience that, I believe, precedes the experience of Being, and leads to the possibility that, right now, we are not (nor have we ever been) alone.

Hopefully that only sounds a little crazy.

There’s Something About Those Stars

Every night, I venture onto my back porch and spend about 15 minutes looking up at the stars. Because I do this at pretty much the same time every night, I see the same stars over and over again, and almost exactly in the same position as the night before.

The constellation that gets my attention is Cassiopeia. I don’t know where I first learned about this particular constellation, but it’s one of the more famous ones, so I imagine it was sometime when I was young. Even still, I don’t think I understood how to spot it until I was in my twenties.

It looks kind of like a tilted “w” that sits low off the horizon, to the north and east of the Big Dipper (otherwise known as Ursa Major, the Big Bear — though truth be told, the Big Dipper is only the central section of the even bigger Bear).

I somehow know Cassiopeia was a Greek queen, but I don’t know how that queen’s story earned her a constellation (not that she didn’t deserve it or anything; I simply don’t know the facts of her story).

Usually, during these minutes of stargazing, I don’t carry my iPhone on me. This has not been because of a deliberate decision on my part; it’s merely been an ever-lengthening coincidence.

The lack of an iPhone hasn’t bothered me, though it’s often the only minutes each day when my phone isn’t somewhere within reach — or at least, the only minutes each day when I’m not subconsciously itching to touch my iPhone (regardless of whether it’s within reach).

The reaching for it, just the gentle desire to touch it, to make sure it’s there, I feel it, subconsciously, all day, and when I’m not able to do so, some part of me, sometimes consciously but always subconsciously, cries out, “Where’s my phone? Where’s my phone?,” until finally, there it is!, and I have it again.

But that itch goes away each night when I look up at the stars and pick out Cassiopeia. I don’t notice this lack of an itch, but thinking back on it, it’s true: the itch completely goes away.

Tonight, however, I had my iPhone on me when I went outside, and after a few minutes of looking up at Cassiopeia, I remembered it, and so after the required unconscious tap on my Facebook app, I opened my web brower and Googled the constellation’s name, not because I wanted to do a full search of the Internet but because I needed a shortcut to the relevant page on Wikipedia.

And Wikipedia (i.e., the wisdom of the crowd) told me that Cassiopeia was the mother of the woman whom was tied to that rock in The Clash of the Titans, the one whom Perseus wanted to save. She (the daughter) was served up to a sea monster to appease the wrath of Poseidon, who was holding the mother guilty for the crime of blasphemy, which she (the mother) committed when she boasted that both she and her daughter were more beautiful than the daughters of a sea god. The sea god was not Poseidon, mind you, but rather, the god who ruled the seas prior to Poseidon, so like, one of the sea’s still-living, past-ruling-gods (kind of like the sea’s version of Jimmy Carter).

Poseidon had to do something about such a boast. There’s a reason blasphemy is a sin. Blasphemy calls into question the power dynamic between a subject and its ruler. In order for the ruler to continue to rule, these dynamics cannot be doubted for a moment, and every outspoken doubt must be met by an overpoweringly undoubtable show of force, elsewise one brings into being the very beginning of a revolt.

And so Poseidon did what he had to do, and he came up with an unimaginably bitter pain for the boastful Cassiopeia: she had to sacrifice her beautiful daughter, whose only guilt resided in being the object of her mother’s boastful pride. To satisfy the wounded sea god’s pride, however, Cassiopeia had to sacrifice her daughter in a horrible, yet relevant way; she couldn’t just slice her daughter’s neck; she had to give her living daughter up to be consumed alive by a horrible sea monster.

In the story, Perseus comes along just in time and saves the princess (whose  name, by the way, is Andromeda; you’ve probably heard of her: we not only gave her a constellation [right below Cassiopeia’s], but we also named a galaxy after her — we’ve always liked princesses better than we’ve liked queens).

But the princess wasn’t really the guilty one; her mother was. So Poseidon had to come up with another punishment for the queen’s blasphemous crimes. He decided to curse her with a frozen immortality where she would forever be positioned as her daughter was positioned during what must have been the most torturous moment of both her and her daughter’s lives, forcing her (the mother) for all time to relive and never be released from the pain of that horrendous moment.

But he would do so not in private; Cassiopeia would not be frozen in some locked dungeon far beneath the earth where no one would ever see her or think about her crimes; no, instead, she would be held up high where we would all have to bear witness to her pain, a reminder to all of humanity as to what will happen if we boast against the gods (including those gods who are no longer in power).

And Cassiopeia sits above us, tied to her throne like Andromeda tied to those rocks, crying out, forever stuck in a moment of impending and violent shame.

The story of Cassiopeia doesn’t relate to my addiction to my iPhone, unless one wants to stretch the metaphor to its breaking point and compare modern culture’s worship of technology to the act of an ancient blasphemy…but hey, for argument’s sake, why not?

As I said above, blasphemy is an unforgiveable sin because it calls into question the power dynamics between a ruler and his/her/its subject. If we imagine for a moment that there is no such thing as God or gods, then what blasphemy are we committing when we sacrifice parts of our lives to technology?

As an academic living in rural Vermont, I have more than a few friends who are committed anti-technologists. They’re not nutjobs — they all watch Netflix, use computers, drive cars, etc., but they are also outspokenly critical of the costs and pains that come with our dependence on modern technology.

They are, in a word, humanists. They believe that humanity has an intrinsic value that ought to be defended. To their credit, they do not seem to believe that humanity is more valuable than anything else on the planet, but they believe that, despite its egalitarian relationship with everything else, humanity is truly unique and deserves to be saved.

One of the things it deserves to be saved from is technology. Like any other vice, technology sucks the life-force out of humanity and redirects it for its own use — like a poppy plant getting humanity high in order to make us grow more poppy plants. The more we sacrifice our energy, our attention, and our time to technology, the less control we have over our selves.

Studies show that an increased use of digital technology can lead to, among other things, increased weight gain, a reduction in sleep, the retardation of a young person’s ability to read emotions from non-verbal cues, increased challenges with attention and the ability to focus, and a reduction in the strength of interpersonal-bonding sensations. It directly harms our ability to enter into healthy relationships with other human beings, thereby harming humanity’s ability to regulate itself.

In other words, technology rules over humanity at this point; it regulates our interactions, even when we’re among each other. Technology has inserted itself into even our most intimate relationships (see: vibrator), and found itself enthroned upon an altar at which the majority of us bow down every night until we go to sleep, stealing from us the only productive hours we have after we sell ourselves into wage slavery in order to pay down our debts, debts which, let’s be honest, were mostly incurred by the manufactured desire to offer tribute to technology (collected in small amounts by technology’s high-priests: Comcast, Apple, Verizon, Samsung, the New York Stock Exchange, etc.).

To commit blasphemy against technology — to forget, even for a moment, even subconsciously, that technology does not rule over us, to not feel, even if only in retrospect, technology’s ruling hand — is to remember, even subconsciously, that humanity was here before technology, and that we did just fine on our own.

We weren’t weak. We weren’t bored.

We had kings and queens and gods who kept them in their place. And every night, we looked up at the dark night sky, and without feeling the uncomfortable itch of addiction, thought to ourselves, calmly, quietly, “There’s something about those stars.”

An Intellectualization of a Religious Experience

This week I picked up William James’ book, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. I’ve been thinking about this book for several months now — not necessarily the subject of the book, but the title. The reason is because, over the past few months, I have had my own religious experiences and I am trying to process my understanding of them.

This isn’t the time or the place to go into the details of my experiences. They were mine, and for now, they will remain mine (though if you know me in person, I’m completely willing to share my experiences face to face). But I do think this is the place to process my intellectualization of those experiences (whether it’s the right time or not is completely up to you).

I’ve come to the conclusion that the terms “God” and “gods” are a misunderstanding of a real experience in which human beings commune with a transcendent intelligence. The concepts of the monotheistic “God” and the polytheistic “gods” are concepts that derive from different states of civilization, monotheism from an absolutist desert milieu and polytheism from a more diverse and yet still openly hierarchic milieu. But in a milieu that values (in its ideal state) equality, open dialogue, and diverse participation, the same religious experience can be felt not as a command from an Absolute God, nor as an interaction with a more powerful and yet whimsical bully, but as someone of equal value reaching out — not to conquer or cajole — but to talk and play.

The upshot is that, despite having had rich and rewarding religious experiences whose validity as objective experiences are beyond my doubt, I do not think it is necessary to catalogue these experiences within the categories of religion.

The best way I’ve come up with to describe what I am talking about is “a foreign intelligence.”

Human beings have communicated with foreign intelligences throughout our history. You might even be able to define the development of consciousness as the struggle between an inner intelligence and a foreign one, with the growth of that consciousness measured against its exposure to new (i.e., foreign) ideas (i.e., understandings of reality). As a baby begins to recognize its difference from its mother, its consciousness begins to grow, turning its experience of reality into a new and definite understanding: “I am not her” (though for many human beings this primary understanding often takes decades to work itself out, and even still, some of us never get there). This understanding changes the baby’s experience of reality, causing it to seek out new things (“What else am I not?”). This impulse eventually leads to crawling, to walking, to running, to reading, to travel, to drugs, to alcohol, to sex, to rock and roll…

What is life, after all, except a journey into the unknown of spacetime, where the future is dark and you never know what’s around the corner?

But then, why couldn’t those dark spaces open onto a foreign intelligence, perhaps in the form of a hunter from an unknown tribe, perhaps in the form of a transcendent entity who speaks a language we can somehow understand (even if not aurally)?

Can we deny that such a foreign intelligence is possible? In a universe as vast in possibilities as it is in spacetime, would we deny the potential existence of a foreign intelligence whose physical form is so different from our own that it might only be said to exist in a different dimension?

Seriously, in a universe where the quantum reality can only be defined in terms of potentialities and hyperdimensionalities, and on a planet where technologies continue to open our consciousnesses to foreign understandings and experiences, we’d deny the possibility that, even now, on this planet, we may not be the sole possessors of a transcendent consciousness?

If we’re willing to grant some of that potential, would we then limit ourselves to a foreign intelligence that walks and talks and acts (relatively) just like us? I mean, just how foreign might we imagine this foreign intelligence to be? Could it not be separated from a physical container, just as we imagine ourselves to be separated from our physical container (what, after all, is the concept of the soul if not a rationalization of the feeling that we are not our bodies)?

From just an intellectual standpoint, I’m willing to grant that possibility. And because I’m willing to grant that possibility, I don’t think we need to raise a foreign intelligence to the level of a God or god, nor is there a need to interpret it as an alien, as something foreign to our Earth.

Among Romantics, there is the concept of communing with nature. For some, this is meant in a religious way: as Catholics take communion with Christ through the ingestion of his body, so the Romantic breathes in, takes in nature. When done right — and despite its difficulty, there truly is a way (of many ways) to commune with nature — but when done right, we, as human beings, feel — i.e., experience being — at one with nature: it is in us as we are in it, and the animals of the forest are our brothers, together with us, as one family, all of us connected through the tree of life, plants as cousins, parameciums as elders, breathe it in, breathe it out…

…and now breathe it in again — what’s doing the breathing that can’t also be described in the same language as the chemicals that are being breathed; where does the oxygen in the air differ from the oxygen in our cells; which oxygen is inside and which oxygen is outside; and why do we have to think that way…

…now breathe it out, not that oxygen, but that carbon, that seed of life, that dust of death, that carbon…but where did the oxygen go, and where did it come from; it’s all on the wind. Breathe it in, that breath of life, created by the trees, shared with the wolves, stolen from the sun…

Breathe it out.

Sorry about that.

Anyway, there’s an intelligence there in nature. We are part of it as the baby is part of the mother, but it is also there, as different from us as the mother is from the baby. That’s what the transcendentalists wanted us to know. There’s a foreign intelligence in nature and its possible to experience being with and through it.

I don’t disagree. But the foreign intelligence in nature is not the foreign intelligence that spoke to me. Mine was a religious experience (well, experiences actually; it’s happened a few times), but I don’t want to confine my understanding of it to the language of religion.

This was not a god. This was something different. It didn’t want to share a message. It didn’t want to make commands. It just wanted to talk and play, and somehow, it found me.

I think I’m okay with that.

ISIS, Assad, and the trickster god

What does it mean to say there is a negative force in the world?

We have images of negativity that we use to talk about the idea, Heath Ledger’s Joker being one of them, the Christian Devil being another, the Dark Side of the Force being yet another, but the Joker, the Devil, and the Sith are just stand-ins to help us comprehend something much larger, something much more significant.

Incredibly intelligent people have believed in this negative force (St. Augustine, for example), and if they didn’t believe in this negative force as some kind of personified Devil, they still felt compelled to pass the idea down through the myths and stories they told their children and grandchildren, whether in the forms of Loki, Coyote, or Pan, all of whom are stands-in for the chaotic aspects of our universe.

But hold on a second, and witness the mistake I just made: I equated negativity with chaos. We’ll have to unpack that a little bit.

There is no trickster god in the Christian pantheon, if only by virtue of there not being a Christian pantheon. The closest the Christians come to a trickster god is the Devil. In a monotheistic universe, where God is One and God is Good and God is Merciful and God is Great and God is a jealous God, there is no room for a trickster who would pull one over on God; there can only be defiance.

The problem with having this as a founding element of one’s worldview is that it disrespects chaos, and chaos is an essential element of our universe. Acceptance of chaos imparts an understanding that not everything can be controlled, and if you can accept that, then you hardly ever look at those who act out of control as acting defiant.  Instead, you respect that chaos is the nature of the universe and search for some kind of rationale to explain whatever behavior you don’t yet understand, some line of cause and effect that you can trace backwards until you’re able to find a situation where you can exert some influence and actually start to gain some element of real control.

I’m thinking of ISIS at the moment, and Donald Trump and the millions of people whose worldview he represents.

When we think of Loki, Coyote, or Pan, when we think of a trickster god, we generally think of someone who’s just a real pain is the ass. He may be charismatic in the moment, but in the long run, he causes nothing but trouble for everyone involved.

That doesn’t sound like ISIS.

But that’s because our concept of the trickster is wrapped up in personifications. What the concept of the trickster actually represents is the human experience of thinking one is right when one is actually wrong and then having the universe prove your mistake in some enthusiastic fashion.

The continued existence of ISIS demonstrates that, despite the military might its able to exert onto any surface of the planet, the United States still cannot completely control the world.

Donald Trump (and the millions of people whose worldview he represents) are angry at that fact. They cannot imagine a world where the United States is not completely in control. They saw the downfall of the Soviet Union as the end of history, the final victory of Western democracy over the Evil Empire. We now live in a mono-superpower world, where America is Good and America is Merciful and America is Great and America is a jealous Superpower, and there is no room for having any other country or entity get one over on us. To continue to exist when America tells you not to is defiance, and defiance must be met with swift and powerful violence: Loki being slammed into the wall by Thor, the Joker’s face being slammed into the table by Batman, Assad’s airbase being blasted with six dozen warheads by Donald Trump (and the millions of people whose worldview he represents).

In a worldview that equates chaos with negativity, defiance is not acceptable.

(And yes, I realize that I just conflated Assad with ISIS, but I feel comfortable equating a head of state who used chemical weapons on his own citizens with a Muslim military that primarily decapitates Muslims; I also have no problem equating both of them with a negative force in the world.)

But in a worldview where chaos is not only acknowledged as its own kind of force, but venerated to the point where it earns its own festivals and shares traits associated with the gods of the various arts, the actions of ISIS and Assad can be placed within a larger context, one with such complexity that our need to understand and control can only be met by the universe’s laughing contempt for our vanity.

There is a lot less action in a worldview that accepts the reality of chaos, not because it feels the need to exert less influence than a defiant worldview, but because it believes that one should only exert one’s influence where and when one is able to make a real difference.

If this was just a philosophical difference, then this would be merely academic. The problem comes when the person (and the worldview he represents) actually has real power and yet no understanding of how or when to use it.

The worldview that sees chaos as defiance uses its power (consciously or not) to smack down the defiant one. The other sees chaos as natural element of the system and so attempts to trace down its origin, biding its time until it knows its power will do the most good.

The first results in innocent bloodshed, as anger always does. The other results in feelings of helplessness; and yet, it also results in a commitment to put one’s best minds to the problem and to not give up until they discover a reasonable solution, and if such a thing never happens, it results in the guilt that comes from feeling that one might have saved someone if only one had been able to solve the problem sooner.

Both worldviews have negative consequences.

But that’s what it means to have a negative force in the world. It means to have disorder (in the sense of entropy and its negation of order) constantly chasing us down.

ISIS exists not because they are evil. They exist because the once-unified conception of Islam is breaking down into a variety of sects, each more atomistic, and hence more fundamental, than the whole from which it came. As an embodiment of Islam’s militaristic and world dominating underpinnings (rather than an embodiment of its merciful and peaceful underpinnings), ISIS necessarily confronts The Other with violence and negation.

The only rational response to such an entity is containment and education, the same as one would do to the outbreak of any disease. Yes, people will die because of ISIS, just as they die because of ebola and AIDS. We can influence the numbers, perhaps, as well as the timeline, but total and swift eradication is simply beyond our control.

Assad, for his part, exists not because he is evil. He exists because the world order created in the 20th century is falling apart, its march toward global unification fracturing into hundreds (if not thousands) of disparate ethnicities and nationalities, just as Syria itself is dissolving into dozens (if not hundreds) of disparate militias. “Syria” no longer represents a specific center of political power; the word “Syria” itself is an anachronistic relic of 20th century cartography whose signifier now marks a localized region of 21st century chaos.

The only rational response to the Syrian situation is to come to the aid of all those who have been tossed out of their homes by the whirling chaos of that all-encompassing war, to provide succor to its refugees and food and first aid to those still stuck inside. To join the battle with any larger mission is to find oneself caught in that swirl of chaos with no logical end or exit in sight.

To say that there is a negative force in the world is not to say that there is evil; it is, instead, to acknowledge that we do not, and cannot, live in utopia — and rest assured, if we don’t remember that, the universe will continue to teach us, again and again, and in enthusiastic fashion.