The [not so?] Incredible Journey

March 5th. My night is mostly sleepless, and the sleep I get is mostly restless. I have the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE) from about 9AM to noon, and after that, some furious last-minute packing before a flight literally to the other end of the earth. It'll be Phoenix to Mongolia, pretty much a full day spent in one of various airports or on one of the three flights (Phoenix --> Los Angeles --> Beijing --> Ulaanbaatar) I'll be taking.

The MPRE goes pretty smoothly. It's a little trickier than I'd imagined, but I find the testing site on time, get registered (by a man who bears striking resemblance to Tony Stark), and go through the exam with few problems. Packing is likewise uneventful.

Things get a little more interesting at Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix. The first terminal is the wrong one; I'm on Alaska Airlines, so it's back into the car and over to the Alaska ticketing area. Problem is, Alaska doesn't operate domestic flights; turns out the first terminal was the right one all along. Good thing I arrived early. Baggage check is a cinch, and I breeze through security, hop onto the plane, and have a quite uneventful flight to Los Angeles.

Off the plane in L.A., there's an adorably short Guatemalan fellow, Cheto Guzman, who clearly doesn't speak a word of English and has no idea how to get to his next flight, so I take pity on the poor fellow and spend a little while helping him to his terminal. The layover in the City of Angels is fairly significant, so I grab a burger at the Route 66 Roadhouse, check my email, and do a bit of chatting and text-flirting while I wait for my flight.

This is the fifth time I've been aboard a Boeing 747, and the size still impresses me just as much as the first time -- as does the shaking and quaking the entire aircraft undergoes in its thunderously long takeoff sequence. The Air China flight is reliably boring, with nothing really to note except a truly horrendous in-flight meal that made the whole cabin reek of rotting ginger, and a few pretty lights from isolated northeastern Russian settlements poking out of the darkness below. I sleep for most of the flight. We land in Beijing without incident, in the twilight before dawn.

The layover in Beijing is about eight hours. Luckily, it takes an hour just to get through customs, and I meet a very sweet Mongolian lady, Tseka, who's on my flight as well. We talk about Mongolia and world travel for a while, putter about the airport for a while, and she goes off to get a ceremonial bottle of vodka for her family while I wrestle with the maddening exercise in frustration that is the Great Firewall of China (free airport wireless, but you have to SCAN YOUR PASSPORT into a kiosk to get an access code, and keep a browser window open that tracks your access and such... fuck communism). Giving up on the internet, I marvel at the spotless modern architecture -- and by spotless, I mean that someone immediately rushes into your bathroom stall to clean as soon as you exit -- but also spend some time turning my nose up at the featureless urban ugliness that is everything I can see of Beijing from the airport.

Eventually Tseka comes back and we decide to go get a bite of breakfast. Because I love to see what foreign places do to domestic establishments, we nip into the airport's Pizza Hut. Naturally, the breakfast menu has nothing whatsoever related to pizza or Italian food. I order some eggs, toast, coffee, and bacon, fatally forgetting that Asian nations have zero concept of what "crisp" means when it comes to the latter. Fortunately, the eggs and toast are passable, giving me the gastronomic leeway to pass on the wobbling, pale, blubbery sheet of pork fat on my plate (I dare not dignify it with the term "bacon").

The flight to Mongolia is long, but it's in full daylight, and I thus get a bird's-eye view of the entire journey. Most of it is just brown, flat, formidable Central Asian steppe. The desolation and isolation and inhospitality of the land tightens my chest; there is still true wilderness in our world.

Then up ahead there's a spectacular streak of white against the clay-brown of the steppe. Almost imperceptibly, the land has been sloping upward, and now it stands at an altitude where the frozen north begins to join with the plains. The streak grows slowly larger until it engulfs all the land in a sweep of white, now increasingly dotted here and there by a bright red or green roof of a Mongolian ger (yurt). And then mountains rear up unexpectedly, occasional dark rocks piercing through the pervasive snow-cover like broken bones through skin. We are near Ulaanbaatar.

The city itself shows through as a greasy grey smear against the white landscape, nestled in a valley surrounded by tree-studded mountains. It is a bustling community of well over a million people, but even from the air it's easy to see that it has not yet achieved the homogenization that dulls the landscape of the American metropolis. Colorful roofs and quirky street designs abound. As the airplane drops in altitude, it also becomes apparent that the city has a cracked, blasted, weathered look, almost as though it stepped off the set of a Soviet version of one of the old Star Wars movies.

The landing at Chinggis Khaan International Airport goes smoothly. The airport itself, renovated around 1990, still shows its Communist heritage quite plainly in the industrial realism of its architecture (as indeed does much of Ulaanbaatar itself) and in the grim quasi-Russian-ness of the police in their furry ushanka hats and long trenchcoats. I find my luggage and my driver, Bulga, without incident, and we set off on the 40km drive from the airport to downtown UB.

The cars on the road are packed thicker than bone cells (both car-to-car and in terms of number of passengers per car) and are mostly Japanese and Korean, with an occasional ancient Mercedes here and there. What is immediately apparent is that the Mongolian people have not, as a culture, yet developed a solid concept of right-of-way. Traffic signals (where they are operational) are obeyed, but that's about it; the traffic does not recognize any fixed lanes, any order of stopping for a turn, or any regard for unwary pedestrians. The chaos is, however, at the same time a marvel of spontaneous order, since each car thunders along at will yet I observe not a single traffic accident. The yearly cost of brake maintenance in UB must, however, be truly awe-inspiring.

We eventually arrive at our destination, Khongor Guest House, where I get another distinctive whiff of the highlights of the communist regime. Up two flights of filthy, crumbling stairs, down a hallway with a random pot of tea and cabbage in the middle, and into my room, about the size of a solitary confinement cell with exposed pipes, peeling wallpaper, and a clothesline hung overhead. The Mongolian folks are sweet and friendly; my accommodations are not.

That said, just being in UB for the short couple hours has already been one of the most fascinating experiences of my life. This is a city where trendily-dressed girls in fur coats shuffle down streets lined with crumbling Soviet architecture; where Buddhist lamas run cafés next to Japanese electronics stores; where Western consumerism meets nomadic austerity. It looks like I'm in for an interesting three months.
  • Current Mood
    curious curious

Sonnet for a Valentine's Single

Distance pains; separation brings a thorn
That lingers ere two souls remain apart.
The silent longing, our perdition, borne
In every quiet moment of the heart.

Deny the gulf, and shut that gap with fire;
The absence, for a moment, disappears.
But as mere ash is left when ends the pyre,
Too hasty an embrace leaves only tears.

To be human is to sense that expanse;
But pain is beauty’s brother in the rift;
Haste, in truth, is opponent of romance.
The void is darkness and illumined gift:

Transcendent over all of passion’s burning,
Friendship, laced with touch of august yearning.

(Happy Valentine's Day to all the single ladies -- and gentlemen. Peace.)
  • Current Mood
    creative creative

Adopt a friend

Friends, netizens, countrymen -- lend me your ears! Valentine's Day approaches -- a day associated with love and couples ever since Chaucer hearkened back to the mythical Valentinus in his Canterbury Tales (and arguably in the collective unconscious by Lupercalia before that).

Some folks will say "it's just a holiday." Social construct it may be, but these sorts of yearly symbols can mean more to us and to our fellow humans that we ever reality. And the sad fact is: for the single among us, Valentine's is often a day of misery and loneliness.

That approach of society implicitly rubbing intimacy in the face of those who feel alone just doesn't strike me as a balanced way to commemorate what really ought to be a celebration not just of fuzzy hormones, but of *all* the bonds of affection that glue our social species together and make each one of us so much more than we ever could be individually.

So if you find yourself single on Valentine's Day, go find someone else you know who's single. It doesn't have to be romantic (though obviously there's nothing wrong if it is). Simply adopt a friend for a day. Share with them how much they mean to you. Remind them of the precious life they uniquely contribute to our world. Help them remember that no one is ever truly alone -- that there is always someone who cares enough to listen and sympathize. And make sure to speak in more than words; give 'em a hug and a cuddle too.

In short, whether you're single or not, please make Valentine's Day about love.

I know how many people feel left out and alone on Valentine's, and I'd really like to do my part to increase the warmth in the world just a tiny bit. If you think this is something worth doing, then please consider sharing this with *your* circle of acquaintances.


I Have Overcome the World

Once I wandered far o’er lofty hills, with Paradise my quest,
Fearing aging, changing, dying, disappearing.
But the gilded treasure I had sought, in truth, it dwelt within;
‘Twas my Reaper had the treasure I was seeking.

I chased heaven, in my foolishness, thinking I could there escape
To a place where love and blessing were forever.
Then I touched infinity at last, and it turned all grace to ash;
I was shown that pain and loss alone make treasure.

That moment pried my fingers loose from ancient fantasy;
Yet — and yet! — I could not muster full surrender.
I saw beauty in my perishing, yet mortality cried out,
Hoping ‘gainst all hope for some eternal splendor.

My attachment set, I was caught between the truth of transience
And the the selfish drive to last a little longer.
What is priceless that is endless? but I could not see it then,
For the bitterness of loss, it seemed the stronger.

The shadow in that valley grim, it choked my voice with fear,
And Apollyon’s dread gaze, it set me trembling;
But for love of truth, I faced the demon, finding only then
That the beast was formed alone of my dissembling.

For a fleeting beat, I felt encompassed by the monster’s shriek,
But my own voice was source of all the screaming.
I was blinded by its deadly darts, or so my thoughts had guessed;
But the veil on my eyes was my own dreaming.

Once I took my shaking hands and pulled them from before my gaze,
My mortality, I saw, was not infernal.
“I will live,” I said, “but I will not fear oblivion’s embrace;
To be precious, being must not be eternal.”

O my fellow-trav’ler, hear me well: consider now the night,
How no star could shine without the cloak of darkness.
The dusky mantle of death enables brilliant points of light,
For there is no sweetness without bittersweetness.

We live ash to ash, and dust to dust, but destruction feeds rebirth;
We burn bright, but short, that others might burn after.
Man is born of fiery stellar death, the son of suns long gone,
And our tears today, they seed tomorrow’s laughter.

In the ever-renewed world I’ve found, O, Death! Where is thy sting?
The fear and superstition passes, slain by freedom’s ring!
Now transcendent grace and unity flash from every transient thing,
And the pow’r of death shall have no more dominion.
  • Current Mood
    artistic artistic

Oh, Death

We often think of death as the last and greatest enemy.

What we fail to realize is that we only live, only enjoy our brief flickers of life-light, by the Reaper's hand.

Fellow traveler, you and I are born from the winds and flames of dying stars. We subsist on life that we have destroyed, on a planet with tides and continents and orbits powered by forces which also spell our ultimate doom far in the future. One day, I will cease to exist in order to eventually bring something new into being, just as stars and asteroids and rocks and seas and life have ceased to exist for my own soul's sake. This destiny is not a yoke; this is reality. And this is beauty.

We experience fear of death and aversion to death because we are infirm and limited creatures hiding our eyes from the bittersweet, cosmic embrace of the night. Death, however, is the gatekeeper of being. Everything that is true, beautiful, awe-inspiring, all of it is enabled by the fatal sting of death, and is precious because death will one day reclaim its own.

Death is the price of priceless life. I pay it gladly.
  • Current Mood
    pensive pensive

Mystical Atheism

I am an atheist.

I am also a deeply religious man.

I don't see any conflict between the two; no God doesn't imply no peace, no love, no hope. Nor does it imply any reductionism. There may be no God, but that doesn't mean we live in a cold, disconnected universe; in fact, there are deeper mysteries which I explore now than I even dreamed of as a Christian.

What I am about to set forth is not intended as polemic or evangelism. I'm not aiming to convert or persuade anybody. This is simply my experience, for whatever it might be worth to whichever reader. But first, a little bit of background.

I do not consider atheism to be a faith. It's a single and fairly nondescriptive metaphysical position. I refer to myself as an atheist, but there is much which underlies this position and defines what it means in my particular case. If you say, "I'm a believer," the logical next question is "what kind? What conclusions do you draw about the cosmos, about life?" Likewise, I am an atheist, so the next question should be: "what kind?"

I am a fallibilist, which means that I simply don't believe anything is ever perfect, or that any idea is ever perfectly correct. There is always more to learn, there is always the possibility that we are wrong, and as far as we can tell, nothing can be known with absolute certainty (not even that statement ;)).

I am a humanist, which means that I believe in helping people, in reducing human suffering, in protecting the weak, in educating the ignorant, in exalting the humble.

I am a panpsychist, which means that I believe, based on the irreducibility of my first-person experience, that everything in the cosmos is probably in some sense aware or alive, on every scale from a single atom to the entire universe.

And finally, I am a mystic, which means that I believe in the unity of all things and the consequent necessity to value and love and respect all things, and to be kind to all things. It also means I believe in mysticism, which is simply the idea that humans can dig deep down into themselves with open hearts to achieve remarkable insights to help improve themselves and others. Mysticism also entails awe at the beauty and intricacy of the cosmos, and occasionally, a profound experience of ultimate Unity.

You might call these the basic tenets of my "faith."

I want to call special attention to mysticism, which I don't believe enough atheists value. Mystical experiences are not factual, but as symbols they are very powerful and still reveal profound truths, even if they operate in a parabolic way.

But sometimes they're much more direct. And that's what I'd like to unpack. Let me rewind the clock to my last days as a theist, when I knew I could no longer honesty adhere to Christianity but still retained my wariness and prejudice toward atheism.

You see, atheism in itself may not be faith, but ironically, there *is* a leap of faith involved in reevaluating Christianity with the door to atheism looming before you. You don't know what lies on the other end of the abyss, the valley of the shadow of death. You have to plunge into that abyss because you know it's the right thing to do, but on the other hand, you also see a lot of people on the other side of that chasm are selfish, Nietzschean douchebags, and you wonder if the abyss will gaze into you and make you a monster.

But you know what? The shadow is nothing more than you, covering your own eyes, because you are too afraid of what you might see on the other side. I've been there; I speak from personal experience.

Once you take that step, once you leap into the shadow, once you push through the dark night of the soul... on the other end, with Christianity behind you, lies the Empyrean Heaven. You are transfixed, raptured, forced to your knees in awe as sheer love pours into you from every corner of the cosmos. You realize there is nothing more to fear, there is nothing more to hate; there is only peace that passes understanding.

In short, when I left Christianity, I found me.

This is another irony. I was worried that in gaining a step toward truth I might lose me. It turned out that what I'd thought was me wasn't truly me at all; it was me through the distorted funhouse mirror Christianity had set up, an image that made me believe in hell, in sin, in damnation -- an image that made me complacent in my justice because a time would come when God would dry every tear.

Now I understand that I am on this earth to dry the tears of others. This is terror, and this is grief, and this is peace, and this is unutterable joy.

To use a metaphor I developed while Orthodox, men are mirrors of the divine light, but most men have spent such a long time clogging their mirrors up with dirt and grime that you can't see any brilliance, much less any reflection. Our job as men is to clean those mirrors and shine as stars, radiating unquenchable love toward others.

My unequivocal opinion is that Christianity is grime on the mirror of the soul. You may love the grime and not wish to part with it for whatever reason, but it will diminish your ability to reflect the divine light at the heart of all things. I felt I owed it to the ones I love to shine as brightly as I could, at least for them, so I scraped off the grime of Christianity -- with some trepidation.

But it was literally the best decision I have ever made. "Love casteth out fear."

Now I am a seraph, blazing with radiance and fire and gratitude and hope toward everything that exists. Yet the star that shines within is not my own, nor does it shine because I am perfected; heaven knows I am more aware of my flaws than ever before. The light which shines in the darkness is the brilliance of unquenchable unity, and it can leap forth from the mirror of my heart because I have cleaned the dust from my eyes.

So it is that I am an atheist, and a mystic.

Pax vobiscum.


PS -- The educated reader will notice a lot of references to Christian religious language. This is intentional. Christianity is complex but often beautiful when considered as a work of man; it is abhorrent when considered as the work of God. I see beauty and poetry in the work of man; this does not mean that I think God guides the work of man, nor does it mean that the entire work of man is poetic or noble.
  • Current Mood
    thankful thankful

Yes on 19

I support Proposition 19, and legalization of marijuana in general. There are several reasons why:

  • Marijuana has a wider range of therapeutic applications than legal drugs like alcohol or tobacco, it has low addictive potential (unlike alcohol and tobacco), and it's one of the safest drugs known to man, literally impossible to overdose on, with virtually zero potential to cause cancer, neurological damage, allergic reactions, and so on. There is literally no good reason for such a beneficial plant to be criminalized, and I think unnecessary laws are stupid and harmful, so for this reason alone I'd favor Prop 19.

  • Mexico is being ripped apart right now by drug cartels funded by drug money coming from the United States. Literally over half of the cartel funds come from sales of marijuana. Legalize marijuana, and you literally bankrupt the cartels. I am a Mexican-American resident of the border with dual citizenship. I have family in Mexico and have personally lost close friends to cartel violence (and have also helped file asylum petitions for individuals fleeing the violence). As a humanitarian issue, there is nothing more important in the United States and Mexico than reducing the drug violence that stems from drug prohibition. Further, it's a national security issue: much of the nasty stuff you hear about on the border is cartel-funded, much of the rest is cartel-related, and it is indeed often as dangerous as the media makes it out to be. Again, even if marijuana were a horrible and dangerous drug, I would vote to have it legal and regulated solely on the basis of how many lives it would save from rape, terror, and murder.

  • Our prison populations are overflowing. Much of that overflow consists of nonviolent drug offenders who've done nothing more than using marijuana recreationally, and/or selling marijuana to other recreational users. It is costing taxpayers an arm and a leg to keep a lot of decent people locked up away from their jobs, friends, and families. That's criminal, no pun intended. There is no reason that a guy who smokes marijuana with his buddies on the weekend should be put behind bars for 5-10 years at taxpayer expense. It's madness, and it's inhumane. This to me is a grave human rights issue, even putting aside the burden on the taxpayers.

  • As a social libertarian, I strongly believe that people should have the right to make their own decisions as long as they don't hurt anybody else. I have no problem with a man drinking alcohol in the privacy of his own home, or even getting drunk; that's his business, not mine. If he then goes and beats his wife, though, THEN I have a big problem and he needs to be punished severely. Same goes for marijuana -- as long as users of marijuana aren't hurting anybody, what consenting adults do behind responsibly closed doors is not my affair.

  • The War on Drugs has failed. Depending whether you're looking at state or federal statistics, we are incarcerating three to seven times as many people for drug-related offenses as before the War started. Over 50% of the DEA's budget is devoted to anti-marijuana enforcement. In short, the War on Drugs costs taxpayers billions of dollars and ruins thousands of lives each year -- for what? Marijuana is still profitable. It is still readily available in every major metropolitan area, and also in most smaller cities as well. Rates of marijuana usage among youth are on steady increase despite the best efforts of campaigns like DARE. There is no reason we as American taxpayers should be footing the bill for a massive federal agency that has spent tens of billions and wrecked thousands of lives while giving our society no positive results even by its own standards. The money we're spending on anti-marijuana enforcement at the state and federal level would be much better served either in taxpayer pockets, or else diverted to more serious law enforcement issues, like counter-terrorism.

  • Marijuana is America's number one cash crop. Since I value responsible fiscal policy, I favor legalizing and taxing marijuana in order to have an additional revenue stream in these tough economic times.
    Legalizing marijuana will create a legitimate industry dedicated to its production, distribution, and sale. This expands the economic pie and helps create jobs and economic opportunity, again helpful in these hard times. And remember, marijuana has a variety of commercial applications besides simply as a drug -- you can use the marijuana plant to manufacture everything from plastic to fuel to t-shirts.

  • Finally, having used marijuana in the past, I have a great respect for it not only for its many medical applications, but also as a recreational -- dare I say sacramental? -- experience. In many cases it expands creativity and consciousness, lowers anxiety and stress, and is simply a safe way to make life a little more beautiful and captivating every now and again. In the words of Carl Sagan: "The illegality of cannabis is outrageous, an impediment to full utilization of a drug which helps produce the serenity and insight, sensitivity and fellowship so desperately needed in this increasingly mad and dangerous world."

In short, criminalizing marijuana costs a ton of money, hurts a ton of people, incentivizes global cartel violence, and deprives people of marijuana's medical, recreational, and industrial applications -- while on the flip side, legalization creates jobs, increases tax revenues, cuts the size of government, improves the efficiency of government, renders the cartels impotent, saves lives, and lets people have richer life experiences. Legalization is the biggest no-brainer in the history of mankind.
  • Current Mood
    complacent havin' a good time

Why I'm Not a Nihilist

Thanks to Lindsey Houghton for inspiring this informal account.

Okay, here goes.

I could probably (literally) write a book on why I think it's silly to be a nihilist and an atheist, so I'll limit myself to just a couple of the strongest reasons I reject that view.

Let's first define nihilism as a system that rejects all value. Let's define value as incorporating both concepts of *meaning,* and concepts of *utility.* Now to the analysis.

Before I make any actual arguments, I first want to express puzzlement at the implicit attitude that many theists seem to have about finite things. Many theists seem to express the notion that if something is finite, it is pointless, and argue that atheists should be nihilists because in an atheistic schema all things eventually end on a permanent basis (straw man given cyclic and multiverse models of the universe, but that's a tangent).

Experience, however, tells me that this reasoning is faulty. I have never heard a Christian argue that marriage is pointless just because in heaven the souls "neither marry nor are given in marriage" (Lk. 20:35). I have never seen a Muslim turn down a hike just because it won't go on forever. I have never seen a Jew stop composing just because his music will not be needed in Sh'ol, and so forth. In short, humans instinctively recognize the utility of now and do not demand eternal meaning or utility in order to find value in something finite. I have sympathies with Camus here.

Similarly, the basic error many theists (and most nihilists!) make when analyzing atheism is to suppose that if there is no UNIVERSAL value, that there can then be no LOCAL values (the fallacy of division). This is where I will fundamentally disagree. I don't have to prove that "The Lord of the Rings" is divinely inspired scripture in order to prove that it has meaning, *to me.* I don't have to prove that a new library in town will benefit the Andromeda galaxy in order to prove that it will benefit the citizens of the town.

All meaning is created by someone. A being does not have to be subordinate to a higher purpose in order to have his own meaning and purpose -- otherwise, theists are in trouble, 'cause there would then be no point to GOD'S existence! :P

I fully concede that it is possible to be a consistent atheist and a consistent nihilist. However, based on the above, I am also forced to concede that atheism does not ENTAIL nihilism; if I can consistently construct a coherent local meaning and purpose for myself, then I can consistently accept this meaning and purpose while remaining an atheist. It is perfectly possible to be, for example, a fictionalist, or a Platonist, while remaining an atheist.

So that answers the charge that all consistent atheist are nihilists. Now on to why I reject nihilism.

First, the burden of proof is ridiculously low. By definition, there can be no *reasons* supporting nihilism. Even if nihilism is true, there can be no reason to adopt it; nihilism rejects rationality and coherence. For example, if you value honesty such that it is dispositive in your decisionmaking, you are living according to an ethic of truth and are therefore no longer a nihilist. Nihilism is also definitionally *useless.* There can be no such thing as purposeful or useful nihilism; it ceases to be nihilism at that point.

Therefore, if there is ANY reason -- even just one -- to reject nihilism, OR any reason to adopt a non-nihilistic view, OR any view which has higher utility than nihilism, then it is rationally justified to reject nihilism.

So, first, the big reason to reject nihilism is that, well, it's nihilism. It ultimately consumes itself, as the ultimate form of selfishness. It doesn't give insight; it doesn't help the self or others; it doesn't make you happier; etc. And since with nihilism longer existence has no greater value than shorter existence, true nihilism tends to end in its most consistent manifestation: Suicide. Nietzsche recognized this, and said the only antidote to suicide would be to create your own meaning and purpose -- which is exactly what I've been saying.

My instinctive will to live and my instinctive desire for a worldview that adds something to my existence are, therefore, two very good reasons to reject nihilism -- and since nihilism runs directly counter to these impulses, actualizing these two fundamental aspects of my being is also a good reason to adopt a non-nihilistic framework.

In fact, human nature itself is a good reason to adopt a non-nihilistic framework. What sets us apart neurologically from other forms of life is our extraordinarily powerful ability to perceive meanings and connections in otherwise-isolated noise, or even within larger forms of order. (See, e.g., and for good examples of this principle in action).

This extraordinary pattern-seeking ability is an evolutionary adaptation that developed as a means to enhance the survivability of the human species. What this means, in short, is that humans are built as meaning-making machines (see esp. Dr. Michael Shermer's work on patternicity/agenticity). We crave meaning, and we crave certainty. As communitarian animals, we also have an intuitive moral sense, and we also have an instinctive drive toward pleasurable experiences. Neither of these human drives is fed or satisfactorily accounted for via nihilism.

Thus, any coherent affirmative system -- whether it constructs meaning, seeks happiness, or attempts to promote some definition of virtue -- is superior to nihilism, just from an intuitive human perspective. For starters, I would note emotivism, prescriptivism, utilitarianism, and even Kantian moral realism as moral systems which work quite well and quite consistently without any supernatural beings, serving thus as more attractive options to ethical nihilism. As to broader life philosophies, I would say that at LEAST postmodernism, secular humanism, Epicureanism, Cynicism, Kantianism, naturalistic pantheism, absurdism (with some reservations), social Darwinism (not that I endorse it at ALL), and even some forms of Buddhism, Platonism, and Stoicism are all available to the consistent atheist.

As to how my specific outlook differs... well, I'm broadly a humanist with strong leanings toward naturalistic pantheism (the two views do not inherently contradict). Hopefully I've given a few examples, but for a a look at how I live in a more positive and fleshed-out sense, you can go to my "Answers to Twenty Questions" note on Facebook or else talk with me directly via email/private message. Either way works. :-)
  • Current Mood
    artistic artistic

The Nameless One

It's here.

My long-time followers will be aware that I greatly enjoy the French Canadian classic dish poutine, which is pretty much french fries, gravy, and cheese curds.

A little over a month ago, however, I went to the Marmalade Café for Sunday brunch and had a twist on Eggs Benedict using potato skins instead of English muffins. That got me thinking.

So today I present a variation on a classic. After much hype, I have finally assembled and consumed a prototype of my latest dish, an artery-clogging monster with the working name of "poutine benedict" (although I've advertised it as "Chips Benedict" to a friend and I like the sound of it).

The basic idea is simple. You start with a bed of fries. You add a breakfast meat of your choice (I strongly recommend crispy bacon). Then you throw a couple runny-yolked poached eggs on top, pour some hollandaise sauce over the whole thing, and garnish with whatever else takes your fancy (I decided to keep it simple and garnish only with paprika and parsley -- didn't even add salt to the dish).

The result is excellent, if I say so myself. The idea is to blend a series of textures and savory tastes to make the ultimate comfort food. The fries should be crispy on the outside, creamy on the inside. The bacon should be crunchy to balance the soft wobble of the egg. As for taste, the relatively simple and bland potatoes make an excellent base for absorbing the salty-smoked bacon flavor, the vaguely sulphuric stickiness of runny egg yolk, and the tart tang of hollandaise sauce.

For my trial run, I was harried and had to settle for very run-of-the-mill ingredients. While my taters and my eggs were quality, I used plain old bargain-basement bacon (neither salty nor smoky enough) and powdered hollandaise sauce. I can only imagine how much nicer it would have been with Smithfield bacon and homemade hollandaise.

Anyway, here are the pictures for you visual types. You can click on each image for extra-huge resolution. You can also click directly on the description as well to go straight to the image.


The finished product:


Thus endeth the prototype. Going forward, here are some tips for anybody brave enough to try in it their own kitchen:

-Go hearty on the fries. My impression is that this dish would be fantastic with thick crunchy potato wedges with the potato skin still attached.
-Splurge on the hollandaise. If you can home-make it, do it. If you can't, get the highest-end hollandaise you can afford -- it will make a difference.
-Try brown gravy instead of hollandaise (or even with the hollandaise, sayeth my Italian-chef-trained friend). My personal sense is that gravy might be too heavy and salty for the lightness of the poached eggs, which might necessitate a little tweaking; perhaps Canadian bacon instead of the crunchy kind?
-Try adding cheese curds or freshly grated cheese on top. Aside from the obvious cheddar (I'd recommend a milder cheddar, btw), provolone or smoked Gouda would probably complement this dish quite well.

Go forth and try it, y'all.

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Sources for Christianity

Let's take a man, Mr. X. Let's suppose he was born in about 1900 and died in about 1930, after founding a charitable organization.

There are no references contemporary to Mr. X in the historical record, although we do know he existed. There is no further independent record about Mr. X Everything else that we know about him comes from five texts about him, published by his charitable organization after his death: Text A, Text B, Text C, Text D, and Text E. Their approximate dates of authorship are as follows:

Text A: ~1955
Text B: ~1970
Text C: ~1980-85
Text D: ~1980-85
Text E: ~2000

Unfortunately, all the texts except Text A are anonymous except for their implicit (or explicit) self-identification with Mr. X's organization. The authors of Texts A, B, and C unequivocally did not know Mr. X personally. Nobody knows for sure who wrote Texts D and E, but their authors probably were not personally acquainted with Mr. X, either.

Text A is very short. It's a hasty blurb inside of a much larger book about proper practices at one branch of the organization. The author of Text A says that he got his information about Mr. X from other people who joined the organization before he did (in other words, his information about Mr. X is hearsay).

Nobody knows where the author of Text B got his source(s) for writing about Mr. X, although it's possible the author of B drew on A for a bit of his information. Text B is also relatively short, though it does include more detail.

Now, here's where it gets interesting. Please refer to this chart so you can keep track. Texts C and D are rather longer than Text A, and are pretty unusual in their form of composition. Ninety-seven percent of Text B is reproduced in Texts C and D, almost word for word, passage for passage. All told, Text B accounts for about 42% of Text C, and Text B accounts for about 55% of Text D.

But it gets even more interesting. About one-quarter of Texts C and D (23% and 25%, respectively) clearly shares a common source from which the authors again copied almost verbatim (seeing a pattern here?). Only 35% of C and 20% of D is unique to each respective text.

The authors of Texts C and D don't mention or credit their sources, either -- even Text B -- although Text C assures its reader that he really truly talked with a bunch of people before writing the book. In fact, statistical analysis suggests that Text D slightly predates Text C, and the author of Text C thus drew pretty heavily on Text D.

The author of Text E claims to be an eyewitness to Mr. X's life, but most experts doubt this claim because Text E was written at least two full generations after Mr. X died, and a variety of internal and external evidence suggests that Text E's author was not a contemporary of Mr. X. Text E does not list any sources, but it is probable that the author of Text E had access to Texts B and C and drew on them to a fair but indeterminate degree in composing his own work.

That's all you know about these five texts, how they came to be, and their relationship to Mr. X.

As far as historians can determine and agree, all of the books probably contain at least some accurate information about Mr. X. It is possible that they are either almost entirely accurate, almost entirely inaccurate, or somewhere in between; there's no way to say for sure, and experts disagree widely. With the exception of Text A, which is too short to have checkable details, all the other texts (B, C, D, and E) are confirmed to facially contradict each other, and at Texts B through E also contain at least a few historical errors that can be independently verified.

Based solely on the level of direct testimony vs. hearsay, how much would you say you can know for sure -- or even know to a reasonable certainty -- about Mr. X?

Now suppose that these authors say Mr. X was God in the flesh, and if you don't join his charitable organization, Mr. X will send you to hell.

Would you believe them? Why or why not?

If you hadn't figured it out by now, Mr. X is Jesus, and A, B, C, D, and E are the traditional sources which mention him -- Paul (in First Corinthians), and the Gospels of Mark, Luke, Matthew, and John, respectively. If you knock the 19s and 20s off the dates, every single thing written above is true of the source texts about Jesus; in fact, a recent statistical analysis has demonstrated that Mark is almost certainly the first Gospel, that Matthew drew on Mark and probably a now-lost written source with sayings of Jesus (commonly termed "Q" in Biblical scholarship), and that Luke drew on Mark and probably Matthew in writing (and therefore post-dates Matthew a bit) in addition to (probably) the same "Q" sayings source that Matthew employed. Mark is therefore almost certainly the only document existing today that is possibly an original composition about the life and times of Christ Jesus -- and even Christian tradition admits that the author of Mark was not an eyewitness.

So what conclusions can we draw?

Well, the big conclusion: Literally everything we know about Jesus is pure hearsay. There isn't a single source out there that can reliably be demonstrated as written by someone who knew and observed Jesus personally. As any lawyer will tell you, hearsay is broadly inadmissible in court, specifically because of its unreliability.

To pun unashamedly, this puts a huge dent in the case for Christ. Since what we know about Jesus comes from the Bible, anyone who tells you they KNOW exactly who Jesus was, what he did, and what he wants from your life is saying, in effect: "I heard from a guy, who heard from a guy, [who heard from a guy, yet again, in the cases of Matthew and Luke, at least] that Mr. X is the Son of God."

Is that a solid foundation upon which to base possibly the most important decision of your life?

With that kind of third- or fourth-hand information as the basis for a metaphysical claim -- and purely anecdotal evidence, the lowest type of proof -- I would demand better evidence, better history, before I would change my whole outlook on reality.

What would you do?

Think about it.