27 February 2015

Farewell, old friend

My introduction to Leonard Nimoy was Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, probably spun from a TV-to-VHS cassette recording like we did back in the 80s. More recently, he was brilliantly sinister in Fringe, which I thought to be one of the best science fiction shows on television in quite some time. Recently I made my way through all of the various Star Trek series, including the remastered original series which I found to be surprisingly contemporary and well-written. In interviews he exhibited an unassuming warmth that belied his tremendous success and influence and, while obviously I didn't know him personally, I hear that friendliness was simply part of his character. He was, of course, most famously known for his long and illustrious acting career, particularly for portraying Spock; but he was also a poet, a musician, and a photographer.

I read a few days ago that he'd been hospitalized, and I knew he suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder. But even though he was 83, the thought that we might lose such an iconic and beloved public figure never really crossed my mind. It's easy to take for granted how fleeting life is, and just how vulnerable we really are.

With the news of his death today, I thought of his last line in the 2009 reboot of Star Trek, in which his on-screen words seemed to reflect an off-screen passing of the torch to a new generation of explorers:

Since my customary farewell would appear oddly self-serving, I shall simply say... good luck.

What color is that damn dress? No color at all.

Tonight the internet's been ablaze with an image of this hideous dress:

The thing is, people are having a difficult time agreeing on what color the dress is. I don't know why some people perceive the dress differently — I initially saw it as white and gold, while my wife insisted it was blue and black. The actual color of the dress, apparently, is blue and brown.

Notwithstanding this rather odd optical artifact, this is a good reminder of the fact that color doesn't actually exist. Well, at least if by 'exist' you mean something like 'a property that inheres in objects'. Color is the result of interactions between wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum, the cones in our eyes, and the neural circuitry of the brain.

What color we perceive something to be depends on a myriad of factors: the ambient lighting, what colors are adjacent to each other, and even our prior knowledge of color relationships. There are big philosophical implications here. If I say, "the grass is green", from the perspective of cognitive science it is a true statement because we have color concepts in our minds and those concepts play a crucial role in how we represent the world. But from the perspective of neuroscience, there is no "green" in the grass, nor is there "green" in your brain. A statement at the neural level is contradicting a statement at the cognitive level. The school of philosophical thought that views these two perspectives as complimentary and equally valid is called noneliminative physicalism.

Add to this the fact that we see colors differently in different situations, that culture and gender play a role in our color perception, and that some people can even perceive far more colors than most of us, and it's easy to see that color is not just something out there, as we generally imagine it to be, but an emergent phenomena of mind that results from a complex interplay between our embodied brains and the world around us.

23 February 2015

A cosmically significant demise

In a longtime favorite book of mine, Religion Explained, anthropologist Pascal Boyer argues that contrary to the shoot-from-the-hip explanation, religion hasn't given us an afterlife just to ease our anxieties about death. The idea that our mortality is unbearable or that religion provides salvation is culturally specific, not a general characteristic of either humans or religion [p.21]. The popular jab from non-believers that a hereafter provides some kind of disingenuous comfort to credulous fools is a wanting explanation for two reasons — one, because a comforting fantasy is well enough, but it must have some air of plausibility for believers to act upon it; and two, because in order to be comforted by the idea of salvation in the hereafter, one must first become convinced that there is something to be saved from.

Anxiety about death is certainly a real human phenomenon. Boyer mentions studies in which participants are asked to read passages from stories or articles which highlight the inevitability of death; they are then asked a series of unrelated questions on topics such as social justice or ethnic stereotypes [p.205]. Their reactions are compared to participants who read stories or articles that did not mention mortality, and researchers find that those who read 'mortality-salient' prose were much harsher in their judgments than those who did not. Thought of our mortality seems to trigger deep anxieties that may express themselves in reactionary behaviors. Yet it appears that this is still an insufficient explanation for belief in an afterlife, because we're wired by evolution not to survive at all costs, but to pass on our genes. In environments in which an organism must frequently choose between surviving without passing on its genes and dying but passing on its genes, the latter scenario generally wins out [p.183].

The idea that people are judged in death is also a cultural idiosyncrasy. In many cultures, dead people simply become spirits, and exist in some vaguely defined plane that loosely intersects with the mortal coil in that people can communicate with their ancestors and that these ancestral spirits, though invisible, can still move about the Earth. This change of state is seen not as a reward or punishment for moral behavior, but as the natural course of existence. Religious funeral rituals the world over are characterized by an emphasis on a transition from this life to some other one, using metaphors of journeys and new beginnings, but tend to be rather vague about the destination itself [p.211].

We tend to take for granted the culturally ingrained idea, pervasive in Western monotheism, that our existence here is not merely transient but is also cosmically insignificant in comparison to the grandeur that awaits us in the hereafter. What we do in this life, so our culture tells us, is only significant to the degree that it prepares us for something lasting and deeper, something in which our more fundamental ethereal form escapes our damaged flesh and its carnal trappings and realizes its purest form. This is by no means a ubiquitous cultural idea, and we should resist the temptation to hastily cast such idiosyncratic memes onto the wide umbrella of religion itself.

Theologians delight in speculating about death and opining about our cosmic insignificance, but few people engage in or care about speculative theology. And if we examine such speculative theology more closely, we can see that even the theologians are less concerned with cosmic significant and more fixated on the dissociative nature of death. We know that people die, but we still think about them and can experience emotions intertwined with their memories. And while we may be able to conceive of death as an eternal silent darkness, we can't conceive of simple nothingness, precisely because there's nothing to conceive. It's difficult for us to imagine a true finality to our existence.

When Western theologians claim that our lives only have meaning if they have some eternal, cosmic significance, I don't believe them. And by that I don't mean simply that I disagree with their perspective, but I think they don't really believe that themselves. I sincerely doubt that even the most pretentious academic theologian believes that their first kiss, time spent with their children, or listening to their favorite piece of music or poetry is only meaningful if they have an ethereal soul that continues in some ineffable immortal existence after their bodily demise; the precise nature of disembodied immortality and the sublime happiness of such fleeting moments are, in our day to day experience, radically disconnected thoughts. Rather, I think what they are really concerned with is being forgotten. Death carries with it something difficult for us to accept; as Christopher Hitchens deadpanned in his memoir shortly before he died in 2012, it's not that the party is ending — it's that the party is still going, but you're being asked to leave [1]. Worse, death is a reminder of our aloneness; it's a path we must take ourselves, and we've no choice but to leave behind the people and experiences we cherish.

But there's more. I don't think we are concerned with being remembered in a broad sense, but being forgotten by those close to us. Writing for This American Life, Ira Glass challenges readers to remember ten people from the 15th Century [2]. Chances are that unless you are a historian, you can't. And frankly, I doubt many of us would care whether we're remembered in 600 years. Even if we are remembered for great deeds or creative works, those things cannot capture who we are. Sure, most people know that Isaac Newton discovered the laws of motion. But what was he like? He was, most assuredly, as complex and unique as any of us, hardly able to have the entirety of his personhood summarized in his scientific achievements.

When I say that what theologians fear is being forgotten, I mean it in a much more personal way. We want to feel as though the things we do matter to other people. We humans are much more concerned with the relationships have with our own in-groups than with nebulous approval of distant peoples. A father wants to pass on his values and wisdom so that his children may lead better lives; a soldier sacrifices his own life so that his fellow countrymen may be able to live in peace. The father does not concern himself with the effects of his values on people in the year 2754 any more than the solider concerns himself with bringing peace to the distant tribal cultures. We want to be valued by our own kin and peers, not by distant people whom we've never met.

I think it's important to recognize not only that most people are not concerned with speculative theology, but that the theologian's religion isn't the people's religion. That is, the way religious beliefs play out in day to day scenarios is divorced from the pretenses of academia. People are generally not preoccupied with grand existential dilemmas, but with how supernatural causes intersect with their own lives. To that end, few people care about the precise nature of an afterlife, what exactly a disembodied mind is, what eternity might be like, or other such esoteric musings. Rather, people talk about reuniting with deceased loved ones (and sometimes pets), reliving their favorite experiences, or being relieved of suffering and regret. In other words, there's an immediacy to people's perspective of the afterlife that isn't captured by academic theology. We don't generally hear people say that they're looking forward to Heaven so they can meet humans who lived as primitive hunter-gatherers, or that they're looking forward to hearing what kinds of music aliens listen to. They're concerned with the continuity and relevance of their own experiences interpersonal relationships.

Notice, too, that theological musings on the cosmic significance of life are inevitably intertwined with moral philosophy. Theologians' concern is that in divorcing ourselves from cosmic meaning, we lose moral accountability for our everyday actions. What is disguised as an existential rumination is really a concern with how people behave in the here and now. I suspect most academic theologians would readily concede that moral norms are not just arbitrary behaviors designed as a test to determine whether we're worthy of Heaven, but that values like love thy neighbor as yourself are there to help us live more fulfilling, happy lives.

The truth is, we aren't as concerned with grand cosmic significance as we might be led to believe. We want to be loved, valued, and accepted by those closest to us, to share in life's sublime experiences, and to guide others toward the things we feel make life richer and more rewarding. Whether our lives leave any lasting legacies or lead us into a perfect hereafter are the kind of concerns that don't preoccupy us or affect our behavior. And once we realize where the substance of our concern really lies, we can accept our fleeting existence for what it is and do our best to make the most of it.

13 February 2015

Life is beautiful: A fond farewell (updated: just kidding)

Update: as of March 2016, I've decided to return to Blogger. You'll see selected posts written on my relatively short-lived SquareSpace site imported here; otherwise, the break from here was much-needed, but it's good to be back!


As the new year has started, I've had to think hard about what is most important to me in my life. More clients at work has meant less time at home, and less time to divide between my passions. Far and away my greatest passion is guitar, and I've resolved this year to spend much more time practicing regularly. Of course my wife comes first and foremost, and quality time with her must take priority over... well, everything.

I thought last year that I'd continue The A-Unicornist on a semi-regular basis. I even still have some material drafted that's very close to being finished. But after some reflection, I've realized that The A-Unicornist simply is no longer representative of this chapter in my life. I've little interest in answering religious apologetics (been there, done that) or attempting to articulate ideas that are expressed more eloquently by others. This blog has been instrumental in helping me think critically about a great many topics, and I've enjoyed the challenges to my views from those across all spectra of religious and political views. Nonetheless, there are some simple truths that compel me to move on: I'm happy with who I am, I love my life, and I have nothing to prove to anyone else.

I was thinking the other day, quite randomly, about the utter vastness of our universe. It's filled with a hundred billion galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of stars. Here we are, in an infinitesimal spec of time and space, with only a short time to savor our fortunate existence. It's not often we stop to think just how amazing it is that we're here, such a fortunate turn of evolution and a triumph over life on the brink of extinction.

We humans can be quite arrogant, and think it was all put here for us — that we're special snowflakes, imbued with a divine purpose greater than what we make for ourselves. But while there is great grandeur and beauty in the universe, there is also great emptiness, suffering, and death. Acknowledge this reality ought to make us recognize our privileges — to live in comfort, to have the luxury of pondering life's great mysteries, to enjoy music and art and poetry, to revel in the awesomeness of nature, to spend time close to our loved ones.

As I start this new chapter in my life, I'm reminded that I have so much to cherish. I'm fortunate to live a truly happy and simple life. Because our time is short, we must choose carefully what is most important to us. For me, it's my wife, my family and friends, our pets, my music, my health, and of course steak (my only true religion). It's hard to imagine myself leaving writing behind for good, but this blog and the dialogue that flows from it is no longer the right outlet for me.

So, dear readers, I bid you a fond farewell. I won't disappear from the internet or anything; I'm sure I'll pop up in Disqus threads from time to time, and my list of bookmarked blogs remains unchanged. I'll continue to post on the Facebook page for this blog, in part by digging into the archives. And if and when I get around to finishing any of the umpteen books I've drafted, I'll promote them here and possibly even sell them directly. Thank you for reading, for being a part of such a memorable chapter in my life, and for both challenging me and supporting me. I apologize for the unfinished work, but hey — just go read Philosophy in the Flesh, Where Mathematics Comes From, and Metaphors We Live By (all by Lakoff) and you'll know exactly what was on my mind anyway.

"The truth may be puzzling. It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counterintuitive. It may contradict deeply held prejudices. It may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what's true." — Carl Sagan