A Principle Bigger Than Us All

I’ve spent the past two years writing on this blog (often not well) hoping to find some answers and hoping that maybe others would find some truth in my truth. I’ve had some pretty crazy experiences lately that have made me realize just how contracted my life has been. In these twenty four years I’ve been given the privilege of seeing and living many different kinds of lives. I’ve been the athlete. I’ve been the jock. I’ve been the ladies man. I’ve been the rock-star. I’ve been the ‘genius’. I’ve been the inspiration. I’ve been the loser. I’ve been friendless. I’ve been despised. I’ve been stupid. I’ve been the cripple and the burden. I’ve lived with hundreds of friends, and an in-tact family, and I’ve lived with zero friends and no family.

There’s this Becket quote that I like: there’s man all over for you, blaming on his shoes the fault of his feet. We always try to look for some meaning in the madness; some purpose. It’s an inherently human thing to do. We all at one point think that there is some great purpose for us;  that we’re some integral part of this grand design. We all hop we’re that special, and that’s one of those hopes that’s truly difficult to break away from, and incredibly hard to lose.

When I think about my purpose, and how ‘important’ I must be, I think about the disabled children abandoned because their parents didn’t want them; something that’s less frequent now, but incredibly common in the past. What about the kids and adults right now starving to death. What about the people slain for no reason but to satiate some sick sadistic warlord or sociopaths desires? When I think about these people I find it very difficult to see the great meaning in their lives. And I find it even more difficult to justify my desire to find one in my own.

I don’t know exactly what the future holds for me, but like everyone else I have a fairly general idea of the direction I’m headed in. I know that I’m going to have surgery on my spine to treat my Syrinx. I know that I’m going to remain disabled. I know that things are going to remain hard. When I think of my future I am stressed, but it’s not the surgery or the disability that make me feel stressed, it’s the lack of support and connection with others. And it’s the knowledge that the family I do have left aren’t going to make the world a much better place.

Recently my brother moved out, leaving me and my dog alone in this apartment. It’s made me really feel worthless, and really question the belief I used to have that I could find purpose and meaning. It was the hope that my brother would see my world and it would make him a better person that gave me purpose (I know that if I were magically cured right now I would go on to do wonderful things; the stuff that used to stress me out and prevent me from fulfilling my potential (the insecurity, the money-stress) pales in comparison to the stress of not being able to walk, or work, or really live. And so I thought perhaps it was logical to conclude that since he’s healthy, he could take that truth and completely transform his life; he could do the good things he is capable of doing). But now I  don’t know. It’s the actions that people make and the things that people believe and do that determine if the world is just and good. People make the meaning and purpose, not fate, not the ‘gods’, and certainly not ourselves. A person may be able to will themselves to greatness, but how you define greatness and the metrics you use to measure it might reveal that the greatest thing is to be good, not rich, or envied, or feared. Take the Kennedy family. Many revere them, and are inspired by them. But many people don’t know about Rose Kennedy. They had her lobotomized, and then institutionalized for life. She was very rarely visited. She was alone, to suffer and live out her existence; a causality for the greatness of others. And for what? Did the Kennedy’s change the world forever? Or was their greatness just as fleeting as the law student who passes his Bar, or my brother who gets the raise he’s been working towards.

The things we desire so much in this world are fleeting. I wanted nothing more than a nice car and fame when I was a kid. I pictured myself loved and wealthy. I am so far removed from that future I once longed for. If you had told my 14 year old self that in ten years I’d be disabled, in chronic pain, completely abandoned and alone, with too many scars to count, you would have crippled me. But I’m glad in some weird way that this has happened to me. It’s given me the privilege of seeing what it means to truly have a meaningful life. I am able to bear being sick and disabled and having such an uncertain future. I can find the good in those things and they are experiences and lives that I can use to paint a broader narrative with. It’s the lack of social connection. The lack of love and that opportunity to make someone better than yourself that comes with being in a family that makes me feel like nothing matters and I can’t possibly move on.

If my life has some purpose perhaps it’s to share that one small truth: being good (moral and virtuous – loyal, empathetic, temperant, prudent, just) and investing your future in others is the thing we need most in this life, and the thing we cannot live without. We can survive, and often thrive, without painlessness, without mobility, and without health. We cannot survive for very long (and we cannot really, truly thrive) without the meaning and the purpose relationships and connection to and with good people provides. It sucks going through hard things alone. But it sucks infinitely more going through them needlessly. Like Rose Kennedy, I don’t have to go through this stuff. It’s not actually going through it that stings the most (like I said before, humans are incredibly resilient), it’s the reason why I have to go through it that does. And that reason is the reason why people feel like the world is a harsh place filled with meaningless suffering. For me, that reason is that my brothers don’t understand that being good and moral means being there for others. It means just supporting them and loving them; calling them when they’re ill, trying to help them, and trying to learn from them. So that they can feel better, so that I can feel better, yes, but also so that anyone could feel better. It’s the principle that matters, not my particular happiness. It’s that my brothers don’t grasp that principle that makes me feel like my life is pointless and thus that life is pointless (their lives included, especially). I want to be happy, but I want them to want me to be happy more. Not just for me, but because it’s the right thing. I want them to get that one point. That being strong means going through hard things but remaining good. That the glory we can achieve in this life and the purpose we can find in some grand picture of some complex design cannot matter if there are people who are left in our wake starving, dying, and being killed. We can’t prescribe universal rights unless everyone has access to them. The world is harsh and life is often very difficult and unforgiving, but if people are good, and get that one main principle (being moral, and virtuous and supporting and learning from others) than even the most apparently meaningless fate can be transformed into the most meaningful one.

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Fear, ‘The Unknown’, and Disability: why I think militant atheism sucks.

I’ll admit I used to be a staunch supporter of Richard Dawkins’ particular style of militant atheism. Like many people, I read the God Delusion, and the Selfish Gene, and if I’m being totally transparent, I bought every bigoted, elite word offered. After chewing on the gristle of Dawkins doctrine,  I upgraded to Sam Harris, and found the same whitewashed arguments presented with less elegance.

I would watch hours of debates featuring Hitchens or Krauss, Dawkins or Harris. But eventually (thankfully) the spell wore off and I became aware of a new troubling set of questions .

I’m not religious. I am probably an atheist (I don’t like the term, but it best describes my worldview, in respect to the divine). But I don’t think it’s justified, or logical, or defensible to say that religion is useless and everyone who believes its many forms is denying their rational mind and ultimately hurting the species (“in certain situations it’s tolerable”, but even still the subtext reads “here lies an idiot”.)

It took losing everything for me to lose that arrogance. It took losing a family that was never there for me, losing my mobility, my health, my friends, my entire world. It took extreme suffering for me to see how absolutely childish and absurd these Atheists are. They have a philosophy by the elite for the elite. They’ve never known the kind of pain that strips you down and leaves you in existential terror. I’m not trying to subtly reduce theology to ‘fear-driven fantasy-creation’. In fact, those simple, incomplete arguments are precisely what I’m trying to say is wrong.

Being disabled has afforded me some fantastic opportunities to look behind all the smoke and mirrors. But those are insights that are not rightfully guaranteed to all who suffer disability. I’ve had a unique life, and thus some unique insights presented themselves to me. What we are all (the disabled) guaranteed to experience/ learn is humility. Being disabled is a humbling experience. Imagine everyday being told by society that you’re pitiful –  if not actually outright, then through social isolation, exclusion, and non-verbal gestures and cues (which show more pity and disdain than someone screaming ‘you’re worthless’ ever could). The corollary of this is that we feel no real authority to tell you that you should believe the ideology and doctrines that we believe.

As I see it, ( as broken as I am) telling someone they can’t believe in God because doing so makes them intellectually weak and shameful is probably one of the most common and morally reprehensible things these great Atheists -‘on the vanguard of humanism‘- do. And unfortunately, their  attitude has seeded and created a culture around shaming anyone who doesn’t only accept hard science (it’s like we’ve gone back in time three hundred or so years).

Religion doesn’t shun the disabled or the sick. Fundamentally, liberation theology affirms the lives of the disadvantaged. Religion gives people hope and safety and lets them feel self-worth. These people often live the hardest lives. And it frustrates me almost as much as it saddens me that these great Atheists not only get away with hurting (in their own words, far from mine) ‘the disadvantaged’, but they feel such fundamental moral authority from start to finish – no matter how many casualties.

These Atheists, who deny the authority of art and music and philosophy because ‘hard science’ knows all. I’m a science major, as well as a philosophy major. My great-uncle revolutionized film and founded Kodak. I get the practical value and the historical legacy of science, but these Atheist scientists have created a new religion. One that tells you how to think, shames you for being different, and says anything which isn’t science is a unique curiosity at best, and a useless waste of time at worst. It isn’t the class of belief that makes them religious, it is the approach: that substantiating their method means everything else is wrong ( even things which they know little about but deny because of personal bias (like the creationist denying evolution who thinks not being able to sexually reproduce with monkeys disproves evolution). Most importantly though, they brazenly trivialize the only thing powerful enough to imbue hope and meaning in the lives of people truly suffering (often the disabled – specifically the chronically ill).

As a chronically ill, disabled person, I do not feel like the culture of science is serving my needs. I am more grateful than I can express to medicine, medical advances, and the scientists who are working to cure my disease, and many others like it. But if this new movement towards a science centered society is for the betterment of society, you would think that it should first help those people who feel most left behind. Being really sick, and suffering to an extreme degree, for a long period of time, allows you to deconstruct what you thought were ‘the truths of life’. When you lose everything that usually brings you joy, and when you are separated from culture and society long enough to lose those conventions too, you quickly learn what matters most by what fundamentally helps you the most. Religion in itself doesn’t help me personally, but the freedom to be religious, without persecution (from other religious people who may have a different take, or from atheists) does; valuing human dignity more than thought tokens and belief systems. Relationships, love, and moral duty make me feel more safe and more happy than the joys of getting drunk, partying, eating junk food or even the rigors of scientific research ever, ever could. Those things don’t help me: getting drunk, partying, eating junk food, researching and experimentation, don’t make me feel better. Knowing that everyone is equal, by virtue of our shared existence, knowing that to be smart means to be humble does make me feel better.

I have a very Nietzschean view of suffering, so I personally don’t think that being in pain is inherently bad. What I do think is intolerable wrong, if not ‘the opposite of good’ as well, is telling people what to think and why. Lawrence Krauss never studied philosophy, and yet he claims to know that Philosophy doesn’t really help anyone and isn’t all that necessary. How can someone not know something, yet know that it’s not helpful or important? How can someone so inherently ignorant, as all humans (past and present) are, with omniscience tell us that although the seas ahead are unknown, this is the direction we obviously have travel. And how can he, a man who knows relatively little about the raw experience of substantial persistent suffering, know what’s best for me without consulting people like me?

The rhetorical overtones are obvious: he can’t. But this is the way these men operate. The claim often lauded by atheists is that theism is a belief system requiring faith in place of actual evidence. Of all the unknowns, knowing what a person thinks and knows is the atomic clock to unknown. The empirical evidence, the facts science produces, are only part of what informs  what a person thinks and knows. The sweeping evidence-objection generally appears to them as though it is consistently accurate – it produces predictive results. The inaccuracies, however, are created when that data is interpreted; which is often on the fly, with limited attention, and rarely in an emotionless atmosphere. Religion is more than fear-driven fantasy-creation; the fear-driven part is only a part of its origin. Without sparking a new divergent conversation about the history of theology, it’s enough to say that the value of religion, as I see it (as an atheist), is in the expression of the values we all should stand for – and which most do. Respecting someone’s beliefs not because you agree with the evidence or theory, but because you respect a persons rights and freedoms, and you recognize the complexity of their experience as an unknown variable.

Neo-Atheists like Dawkins and Krauss are as ignorant as we all are. Yet unlike most of us, they have this overwhelming sense of power, given to them by a culture which defies science and anyone who studies it. That subjective experience of power deludes them into thinking they’re wholly qualified for leadership, and they shape the public consciousness to match their ideologies all the way to the top.

Sorry if this rant was a little disconnected. I’ve just been really struggling with making sense of these feelings for a while. And I thought perhaps my disabled compatriots would get what I’m trying to say most.

Are you afraid of being afraid?

The property which causes that sudden feeling of dread when confronted with a painful or stressful situation is anticipation. We are very symbolic beings. Our neocortex alone dedicates millions upon millions of neurons to the task of recognizing patterns; and almost double that number are redundancy neurons which are tasked with recognizing patterns of patterns. When we experience a stressful or painful event, our minds work to symbolize that event, and encode context specific patterns. Any stimulus involved in that event is further associated into that symbolism. As a result, we don’t just experience one stressful and fearful event. We experience thousands of different versions of that very same event. Over time, we begin to consciously recognize this confluence: dread sets in.

We match up this event consciously with representative standards in order to solve the pressing problem stress is meant to create: can we overcome, or do we have to adapt? As a result, if the event (which is now more of a state) in question becomes a stable state of existence, and that state is grossly disproportionate to societal standards, we begin to mourn.

The initial assessment and span of time required to encode and regulate redundancies and consciously digest all the necessary information just simply must be endured. Yes it’s going to suck and it most definately will have a negative impact on your quality of life. All things being equal, I would hope that this wouldn’t happen to anyone. But all things aren’t equal, and so this stuff does happen, and it happens at an alarming rate – for some, at such an alarming rate they cannot find the ability to cope and instead take their lives. You cannot change the fact that it does happen, and you should not change the fact that you become familiar with it. Most people will catastrophize and admit defeat; they believe they are destined for a life of misery and pain. But the only way they can really ‘know’ what misery and pain entail is by matching what they’re experiencing with generic standards. They mourn based upon the difference between the two.

Let’s say it was the norm for a people of a certain society to be blind. In our world, we view blindness as a disability, but in this particular society, it is the norm. If a sighted person became blind in our society, but was informed of another society where it was the norm, is it possible his coping skills would improve? You can obviously make the claim that objectively having sight is better than not having sight, always. Healthy people living in our world with no visual disabilities are absolutely happy and content. Why? Well, because as far as they know, they are at the apex of what we call the ‘generic standards’. Lets imagine some time in the distant future we gain the ability to communicate telepathically, to see and think on a quantum level, and never die. A person living now at the height of his health is relatively satisfied. Lets further suggest even that this person knows he will probably live forever (life extension therapies are available which will ensure his foreseeable lifespan). We can all probably agree this is an ideal scenario and probably accurately guess at this persons sense of well-being. Lets take this person and place them in the future. In the future, remember, people can think telepathically, have incredibly advanced IQ’s, never die, have none of the pratfalls of human biology, and can think at a quantum level. Would that man be happy living there, and then? I doubt it. I think he would be as miserable as the man living in our world without eyesight, or the woman who cannot move anything below the waist.

What I’m playing at is an existential interpretation of illness and disability, rather than a cultural and societal one based upon norms and averages. When we are ill and afraid our minds conjure horribly unbearable emotions and force us into the darkest corners of the most depressing scenarios. The causes of these phenomena are varied and impossibly complex. But for once that complexity does not hint at a mindless fatalism. We think in averages and problem solve with patterns. We are symbolic and allegorical creatures with a knack for intuition and emotional reasoning, but we kind of stink at calculating the cold hard facts. We label realists as unemotional robots (a title I have been affably given, many times…) and praise idealists with their deep insight. The answer isn’t a ‘balance of the two’ – which seems to have become the catch-all category for people who don’t really want to think too hard about the problem. Offering a banal ying-yang response to a complex question fundamentally presupposes that the two poles in question are the only two poles… and further that they are also the correct poles. That’s not always the case, and particularly in this situation it is definitely not the case. In this situation, dealing with fear and with expectations and mourning, the answer comes in the form of a question: why is standard upon which your fears are based the only possibly and necessary situation? Is it really the only possible state of existence? Is it possible things could have evolved differently? Is it possible we could experience pain way differently than we currently do? And death? And why does the thought of death ‘objectively qualify’ feelings of absolute terror – possibly the most aversive feeling in the world. The answer is that it one hundred percent does not. Death is the zenith of symbolic thought. We have absolutely no clue, subjectively, what death entails. And so since we don’t have even a marginally accurate redundancy for death, our patterns will be based solely upon weak metaphor and general symbolism. When we think of death thoughts like darkness and night-time and space, and cold come to mind, accompanied by feelings like ‘where’s mommy’ and ‘someone save me’.

Death is further qualified by the notion that it is inherently bad. But how is it? If it weren’t for death, there would literally be no new life, or any life at all. You are hear reading this only because trillions of ‘things’ died so that you could be here, at this particular moment of terrestrial time. There’s a certain feeling of endowed responsibility and pride in that thought, isn’t there? Further, what is greater in our universe, life or non-life? Non-living things, to be sure. There are more atoms and molecules and mass collections of ‘stuff’ out there than there are complex life forms. There is also more ‘darkness’ than there is ‘light’ – which is another great example of our weak symbolism and metaphor. Darkness is not inherently scary. That being said, place the bravest man in a dark room with loud haunting, staccatto noises and he will surely experience fear.

The point is simple: you qualify your feelings of fear by searching for standards with which to compare your situation to. The problem is in the limited number of standards we can come up with and find, and the definition of standards itself. Human emotion plays us and convinces us that the proof is in the feeling. Next time you’re feeling afraid, think of how that situation may be not a bad situation, or may be a different situation. If you can think of a way in which the painful or stresful situation, in some possible thought experiment, could be good, or at least not as bad, than I assure you your fear will lose a tremendous amount of its potency.

At the end of the day, death is still bad and pain still sucks. We will all face those two things at one point in our lives or another. You do not have to give in to them and they are not the only states of existence out there. You have a choice to change the way you experience them, existentially and phenomenologically  by altering the way you go about thinking about them. Unfortunately society and religion have come together to define what good states of existence are and what negative states of existence are. To Christians, having a healthy body is good, and having an unhealthy one is bad – and usually implies some evil or past transgression. Let me tell you right now that that is fucking bull-shit. It’s a consequence of poor thought and an irrational attachment to cultural tradition. The standards society forces on us can have an unconscious  and profound effect on how you cope with just shitty situations. If you are courageous and strong, and you can bear out the initial stages, you will find a way to adapt. If you think about what I have written for a little bit each time you are faced with a shitty situation, you’ll find yourself adapting to different patterns and experiencing a higher level of peace and satisfaction.

Religious pomposity and scientific falsifiability: a brief overview

As an introduction to a series of blogs I am currently writing, I hope to achieve two things here: (1) spell out the problem as I see it, and highlight concepts which will be the topic of a future blog in this blog series – in which the subject will be explained in far greater detail. Most importantly, though, (2) to show how all of these concepts come together in the greater problem which we have all encountered in each of our lives, today. That is, the problem of science vs nonscience, or pseudoscience. The problems associated with religions, and the problems, generally, people seem programmed to have. So all I ask of you is to you bear with me; although I may appear to be fumbling around with some messy, disparately connected stuff, it will only get better! 

Religious pomposity is an arrogance like no other. The long arc of religious influence still controls some of the most important decisions facing our world today – or at least demonstrates tremendous influence. Religion has been around since time immemorial, and as a result, it is ingrained into our lives, and our very way of thinking. You can receive degrees in religion, careers in religious studies or pastorship. Mere affiliation with a particular religion in many areas of the world determines whether you live or you die. Although the religious (specifically Christians) try very hard to demonstrate ways in which religion and science converge towards a shared goal, or are at least not at intellectual war, religion is best contrasted with science. Science in its most basic form is a way of gaining knowledge and information about causality. Religion in its most basic form is an answer to many of the biggest causal questions we humans seek to answer.

As humans, we have an innate predilection to anthropomorphize, and to hierarchically abstract things. As a result of that reflex, science is spoken of as if it were a living, breathing organism; an entity (what will science teach us; science does not have all the answers). Well, it isn’t. It is a method. A method employed by inquisitive and intelligent people who require a way of understanding the world that they live in, and life itself. A thousand years ago this was called ‘philosophy’. In ancient Greece, philosophers saw unlimited intellectual jurisdiction. The impulse which established philosophy, through philosophy,  established religion. At the time, positing a god, or gods, made logical sense. Philosophers sought the truth, and proposed some theories which then caught on. But the tools they used to do this had not yet been refined by time.

Religion is an addictive substance, powerfully coercive and endlessly harmful. For the sake of brevity, let’s just say it stuck. Philosophy, however, continued to expand and grow. Eventually birthing science, and a much more sophisticated tool-set – which itself has continued to grow (and as long as there are rational, intelligent minds at work, will continue to do so). The most important quality of any rational inquiry is conviction and falsifiability; if a new theory grows out of, and overtakes an older one, follow the new theory. Don’t reject it simply because you’ve grown very attached to the older one.

And that’s precisely where we find the conflict between religion and science. Philosophy as a vector for truth, had a major part in the creation of religion. Religion posits an explanation; a qualitative explanation for the major existential and metaphysical questions facing us today. Science has proven many religious claims completely and undeniably false (claims such as the world is only six thousand years old, or that dinosaurs never existed, or that God created two men and women six thousand years ago, or that a man seeking refuge from a world-wide flood  built an ark in the Mediterranean loaded with every animal on earth which wiped out the entire human race, which he repopulated). The truths religions did hold onto were roughly carved, using ancient hardware; science is strip mining. Religion once occupied a continent, now it finds itself adrift, clinging to a life-raft built of denial and tautology.

Remember, science is a discipline defined by the urge to discover and uncover truth. When you discover a theory of everything (TOE), a theory which explains every problem and answers every question, you don’t really need to keep looking (at least for the average person). Religions propose a TOE, and so feel like they have somehow weaned themselves off the vein of truth. As a result, any new fact or novel information which disproves some religious principle is not taken seriously.

There are many subsystems within the genus ‘science’; mathematics, biology, chemistry, physics, physiology, psychology etc… So too are there many specialized practical professions which derive meaning from information gained through science; business, economics, education, politics etc… If we want to run with this ‘living entity’ metaphor, than truth is the air science breathes, objectivity the lungs, and experimentation and falsifiability are science’s leukocytes; its immune system.

Much like an athletes talent grows with practice, the scientific method is constantly evolving. We do not define truth as this abstract entity; truth ad infinitum. For scientists, true means that which, as of yet, cannot be proven false. Truth is relentlessly and rigorously put to the test.

Science only exists because we have not yet found every missing piece to every puzzle. If there’s one truth which has stood the test of time, though, it’s this: do not fit facts to suit theories, fit theories to suit facts. Changing facts and picking and choosing truths to suit the respective theory is by definition an unscientific process. On the academic and professional landscape, this is precisely where religion stands alone. Science makes the claim that truth is not totally relative, it is quantitative; that there is some answer out there. And the only way to study that is through a process of falsifiability, experimentation and observation. In science, personal preference and ignorance do not count as valid vectors of intellectual inquiry.

overview_scientific_method2

In the scientific community, an uneducated teenager cannot lecture a biologists on signal transduction with authority. In science, personal preference loses total power in the face of cold-hard fact. That’s because science has something called ‘the scientific method’; a system in which subjectivity loses out to factual objectivity, always. Religion has no such system to speak of. Sure there are catechisms and doctrine; theologians working tirelessly through the hand of god. But the amount of free, unclaimed territory on the religions plane is a vast, ever-expanding veld of personal preference and blissful ignorance. If a scientist wants a theory to be taken seriously, he has to prove its falsifiability.

Merely showing that you can logically falsify your theory is not enough to make waves in the scientific community. Sometimes in order to prove your theory, you must overturn hundreds of years of landmark work done by some of the most brilliant minds in history. You have to completely give yourself to your studies. You become as much a part of your theory as your theory becomes a part of your discipline. And this is ultimately the big problem I have with religion. Every Christian (I’m going to pick on Christians in particular because I was raised and educated in the christian school system) has a set of beliefs which they each hold to be ultimately true – humility is not a strong suit. And each and every christian has a rightful claim to do just that. The other day I was talking with a friend. We came upon the topic of illness. He suffers from bi-polar disorder (type 1), and I have a genetic disease. We were talking about  friendship, and my place in our group of friends. For a while now I have noticed that we have all drifted; or at least that I have drifted from them. They don’t really make an effort to spend time with me, or talk with me. And I’ve noticed how cold and distant they have become; like they don’t really like me that much anymore. I told my friend I think a lot of it has to do with being ill. He says that everyone thinks I’m just too negative, and they just cannot understand why I don’t come out with them as much anymore. I told him about my disease, and he reassured me that I have no reason to be insecure,  that I should have just tell them all. My friends are members of the dutch reformed christian community. A particular virulent strain of Christianity which prides itself in its bigotry, racism, misogyny  homophobia and emphasis on the importance of manual labor. I have two gay brothers, my father is disabled – as am I, to a degree – and I am unable to work at all for the time being. I posed this question to him: I said, imagine if your bi-polar disorder weren’t so well managed, and you were having attacks of mania and depression on a very regular basis. So much so that It affected your ability to work. to have a family and to maintain regular relationships like you used to. Now, do you think that everyone would jump to spend time with you? Or do you think they would slip away and slowly drift? Now imagine watching that happen and then trying to talk to everyone about how sorry your life is, and about how hard your troubles are? It may be important to share these things with your friends, but it may be nearly impossible to do so if your friends drift away before you get the chance’. Now here’s his reply: he told me that the only reason his illness was managed so well was because of God. That he prayed to god and asked forgiveness for his sins and in return god rewarded him with a manageable illness…

I replied with some trite banal stuff about ‘if god were true, don’t you think it would make more sense if some people suffered on earth to gain insight and wisdom for the afterlife’. He responded with some of the most childish, religious bull-shit I have ever heard. Only, to him, that stuff about Jesus dying, that veggie tales level epistemology was the holy grail. I offered my opinion, and he told me flat out ‘No, that’s ur beliefs. I hope one day you can come to believe mine’…

Frustrated doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt. I forgot about this aspect of Christianity. I have been sheltered from this crazy shit for a little over a year. And honestly, if you read back in my blogs, I began questioning the purpose and ethics of militant atheism. I thought ‘why not just let Christians believe what they want; they aren’t hurting anyone’… definitely see the flaw in that thinking now.

My point is this: there seem to be no rules Christians have to follow when it comes to making factual claims. Everything’s up for grabs because they know if they’re questioned, they have the ultimate inductive proposition to back them up: ‘God’s mysterious and he spoke to me’… or something along the lines of that (I was inspired by the holy spirit; we can’t know God’s plan now, but we will one day’).

In the coming blogs I’d like to show precisely what’s wrong with this approach to truth, and this line of thinking. I will explain some of the key concepts in the philosophy of science and how that applies to the thinking, specifically, of my religious friend, and of religion generally. Hopefully by the end of it I will have armed myself, and those of you who choose to read, with both and understanding and a defense against the crazy lunacy that is a radical Christian apologetic and religion in general.

A Big Fat Lie

Functionally, a lie has no inherent power; as if the mere utterance of a falsehood were capable of shaking the very foundations upon which we build our lives. No, quite the opposite. A lie has power only insofar as we engage it; we play into the lie, become a part of it.

The same is true of the many qualia of existence. Take fear, for example. What is fear? Does it exists in-and-of itself, inherently? No. Surely, though, there do exist object complements related to the active presence of metaphorically ‘fear-filled’ things. The words we use to describe things are only semantic place-holders. They are visual and auditory representations of phenomena in this world, used to aid understanding and communication. Is it not probable, or at least possible, that the object and subject complements we have adopted to modify written and spoken language has embellished the true nature of these fear-causing things; of fear itself?

‘Tanner was punched’ by itself, is not too frightening. It doesn’t teem with the qualities of a sadistic machination, or of unbridled passion. Tanner could have been punched in the leg, or in the arm. He could have been punched by his girlfriend, in a playful manner. ‘Tanner was punched hard’ is slightly more disconcerting. You get my point.

The descriptive, oftentimes florid language used to recount events does not necessarily match up 1:1 with actual phenomenological entities and states of existence in reality. A ‘hard’ punch is easily distinguishable from a soft playful one, existentially. But is that fact a fact of necessity? That is, is that just the way our universe is? Is it possible things could have come about in another way? Or even just a slightly different way; change in degree, not type. If that is the case, than our understanding of the various phenomena in our lives as intractable truths is more a matter of opinion than of universal objectiveness.

Fear is, in many ways, a lie. A lie is not some completely foreign concept or idea; it’s just an inaccuracy. Either representing something which could be, but isn’t, and representing an impossibility of some sort. Fear quite often is like the first lie; informing us of something which could happen, but doesn’t. We are the active party there. Fear can often become so distorted that it represents an impossibility.

What I’m getting at can be summed up in a quick procession of statements concerning the nature of… well, reality (at least a small branch of reality). Firstly, fear does not exist inherently. If one day all the consequences of feeling fear were ablated, fear would disappear. Secondly, and proceeding from, fear (much like a lie) only gains power if we engage it. Much like we cannot remove all the liars and all of the lies in our lives, we cannot remove all the fear, and all the fear-causing-stimuli. All we can do is refrain from engaging them, thereby taking away their power. We will hear a liar, and hear the lies (and it will be a test of our wisdom to determine when a lie is being told), but we do not have to become part of the lie. Likewise, we will feel fear, and observe and understand fear (and it will be a test of our wisdom to determine when we should listen to fear, and when we should tune fear out), but we do not have to become a part of the fear.

Life at present seems to be a war fought between people and fear. All the psychological and emotional maladies which plague our conscious minds in some way stem from fear. And they all stem from the ultimate fear: the fear of death. We can learn to live happy lives coping with that fear; however, it’s my hope this modality is on its way out. I share the  same conviction as many great thinkers (Ray Kurzweil, Dawkins, Feynman, Goertzel, Krauss etc…) that one day in the not too distant future (maybe only a century or two from now), humans will be rid of this conventional model of existence. Instead, we will trade this mortal life in for an immortal form of existence. A life where the words ‘human’ and ‘computer’ are functionally indistinguishable. Where by reverse engineering and wide-spread cross-disciplinary collaboration we are able to overcome our limitations. We will seem to be, in many, many ways, like gods; but to an earthworm, doesn’t a chimpanzee seem a god? When we merge with machine, will we finally understand the difference between ‘feeling’ a punch to the arm, experiencing it, and simply thinking about the sentence ‘a punch to the arm’, and  imagining it? Is fear just one big lie?

Fight or Flight

It seems to me that we suffer under the illusion that panic and anxiety enhance our problem solving in times of crisis and duress. Like that gripping, tight feeling of panic when your confronted by a potvaliant bare-knuckle brawler you accidentally eyed at the bar, who now wants to knock the living shit out of you, or when you’ve fallen ill. Or the moment you realize accidentally did send that text to that person you didn’t want to send that text to. We are deluded in believing that giving in to that feeling of fear helps us; but it’s easy. And fuck me if in that moment our bodies sure don’t make a good case for it. But it’s not.

Lets take a pragmatic approach: fear is important. Fight or flight is important. Not giving in to the psychological manifestations of panic, the prolonged shadow of fear, is something everyone has to learn how to do; that is, everyone who wants a happy life. If you die tomorrow, and you spent the last year worried straight, especially when you didn’t have cause to always worry, you’ll feel like you never had the chance to live. Listen to fear. Flee when necessary and fight when possible. But never give in to panic. Don’t spend all of your days worrying and afraid. listen to what your body is telling you, respond, but don’t for a second believe that your body knows exactly what its doing. Life is nothing if not imperfect.

All worldviews agree: fear is a manifestation of weakness and a vestige of our past. I’m not religious. I believe in the order of science; I believe in cartesian doubt. I believe in classical theory and romantic theory. I believe what I think is believable.

Evolution paints a grim picture of existence, depending how you look on it; in this instance, it sheds light exactly where we can’t see.

We also live under the delusion that right now, this point of history, is super important. I’d wager everyone ever believed the exact same thing. Conscious beings place themselves, their time, at the center of the universe. Why? Because we are the center of our universe. Sure we can consider a priori knowledge, but its a posteriori that has the greatest influence over how we act an behave, what we choose to believe, and what we choose not to.

We think that we are the culmination of billions of years of natural selection and evolution. And in a way we are. But fuck me if it ends here. Were just one small dot on a giant non-linear graph. We will evolve further. Millions of years from now, who knows what we’ll be. Or even if we will be.

You may be wondering how that at all helps us with fear; I just told you that your not that important, and that most of what you believe is horse-shit – encouraging stuff… really. This information carries with it the weight of a promise. A promise that so long as things do stay alive, they will tend towards positive progression; they will get better.

Our response to fear is a conditioned response and a programmed response. We have been given the gift of consciousness. That’s the meaning of life, the beauty of it all. That’s why we think that our lives, right now, as your reading this, are of some grand plot – things are going to end with me…. We an change our lot in life. We can be the force of natural selection. Sure there are limitations to what we can do, but so long as we are conscious and capable of rational inquiry, we can surely change our selves – who we are.

the only thing lately that imbues me with a deep sense of confidence is this very fact: that our ‘calling’ is to self-evolve. To take humanity from the weak fucking subordinate position it currently resides in, and elevate that to the tip of the fucking world. That’s what Nietzsche was all about too. Everyone thought he was a weak crazy man, and Christian crackpots love saying he was a deluded schizoid, but he knew exactly who he was, and what he had to do.

Our natural response to fear is to panic. To curl up. Why? Because we associate whatever is causing the fear with its potential negative consequence; the harm it will cause us. Fear is like a phone call or a fax; fear is only a mediator. It is not real. Fear tells us that harm is coming. It’s aversive because it must warn us not to engage. Panic is the opposite; it is non-engagement. So when we panic, we think that we have separated ourselves from the conflict. Panic is also just a mediator. It’s also potent because it has to get our attention. Fight or flight. And this is the psychology of it; the romantic interpretation. Lets look at the classical interpretation.

Take a grazing zebra, for example. Say the Zebra catches a stalking predator in its periphery; the stress response is activated. In order to escape from the predator, the zebras body has to expend intense muscular effort and energy. The sympathetic nervous system activates to provide for these needs (panic). In response to a novel stimuli perceived to be dangerous, the locus coeruleus releases  catocholamine hormones (epinephrine norepinephrine) to fuel the immediate physical reactions, the often violent muscular action.

Fear is complicated and dense; our understanding of all its underpinnings and extensions and interactions will come only with time. In the meantime we have to deal with the problem at hand. If we want to have an enjoyable life, we have to be courageous. It will be hard, and it will take extreme effort; it will be the very hardest thing you ever have to do. But with a little wisdom, a little time and a lot of balls, we can look death in the face and say fuck you; we can turn stress, into eustress. And take any negative situation and turn it into a challenge.

It’s trite and slightly banal, but why wouldn’t you want to try? Why would anyone want to live their lives curled up in a ball, fearful of whatever comes their way? No one does. They just think there’s no way out; their lot is cast and that’s it – there’s nothing left to do. Wrong, as long as you’re still conscious, you can still fight. And I’d rather die fighting to live, than die in a confused panicky stupor… which is where we are all headed if we don’t man-up. This is the key. Listen to the panic; let it say its peace, and tell you what’s the matter, but don’t let it set up camp. Kick it out. Take all that stress and transform it into eustress. Your body is still telling you something is wrong, you’re not going around delusionally believing everythings perfectly fine and kicking all bad thoughts out, you’re just subtracting panic; you’re taking away the aversive feelings. Those are great for the savannah – but were not living on the savannah. Lets replace panic and the subjective feeling we call ‘fear’ with eustress. Lets face fear and stress with a smile and a shit-ton of determination. Everyone is going to die. Lets do it fucking epically!

Disability Claims: the mental toll of proving your own failures.

For the past two years I have been unable to hold down full-time – or even part-time – employment due to a progressing, chronic medical condition.

I am disabled. 

Last year I officially switched my major to ‘pre-med’. I was determined that despite my progressing disability, I could still find a productive way to give back to society; nail down a vocation that would both utilize my goals and by stimulating my intellect, help me to constantly form new ones. I was looking for a short-cut around my own physical limitations. I was looking for a way to avoid a particular type of conversation.

Half an hour into the first Chemistry lab of the year I knew something had to change. That night after I returned home from a grueling 15 hour day at school I found myself in an all too familiar situation.

Everything has to change. 

My performance that semester ebbed with every single twist and turn; my body was totally unreliable and equally unpredictable. Biology labs were particularly hard on my neck, which had over the summer become increasingly painful and unstable. Even though I was suffering extreme chronic pain, fatigue, depression and frustration, I ended the semester with a B and two A’s – I had to drop two courses and missed about twenty hours of Lab time.

However, the real tribulation wasn’t the physical pain I felt, and the personal frustration that comes with failing to meet the standards you set for yourself (standards which you use to define your self worth). The problems started piling up when unanswered questions were given answers; my hand was forced.

In a vain attempt to sever the emotional ties, the decathat, I began to shrink away form social interaction, adumbrate of what would become a long period of loneliness, fear, and derision.

It was bad enough that my friends and family didn’t believe me, and bad enough that society and my school didn’t believe me, but it was being tasked with revisiting my own failures and limitations that made life seem briefly unbearable; I was forced to show people examples of my own short-comings and failures. I had to show them why I was unable to perform at one hundred percent. That process is at the same time the most familiar, and the greatest threat to a disabled persons sense of well-being.

I remember one night in the summer, after getting in a fight with my mom I rode my bike down to a park a few blocks from my house; I needed some fresh air. Along the way I made a de-tour, stopping at a grocery store; I hadn’t any idea what I wanted to buy, I just knew that I had to get something. It was as if I was subconsciously stocking up supplies in preparation for a big storm.

I ended up back at the park a little while later. While I was sitting there, an open knife in my hand, completely determined to end my own life, a man slowly walked by me. This particular park isn’t much of a park, but more like a small open field; there is a play structure and tennis court, but they are tucked away at one end, leaving a vast open veld which makes up most of the ‘park’ itself. I watched as this guy somberly trudged through the grass. I imagined what he was thinking, burdened by his stupor and loll. I pictured where he was going, who he was and where he was from. I wondered if he was a potvaliant character, ready to strike at any moments notice. He looked a little haggard and worn-out; he was dressed a little alternatively, bearing the unmistakable signs of someone who really enjoys ‘metal’ music. I imagined he was poor and unsuccessful. I thought his family probably deserted him because he never amounted to much, and so after a night of binge drinking and regret, he was making his way back to his mold-infested, one-bedroom basement apartment. That the greatest thing he had accomplished in his long, drawn-out life, was probably something most people would be eager to hide; or at least they wouldn’t lead a job interview saying ‘well, I own the entire ‘Between the Buried and Me’ discography, and I’ve been to every Atreyu concert.

Anyways,  to make a long story short, my mom pulled up in our van. I cried and told her about the guy I saw and how afraid I was of becoming someone like him; an unsuccessful loaf who can’t hold a job and lives in poverty.

At that moment in my life I was so enamored by this ‘ideal of success’. An incongruous standard of life, impossibly hard to define. I didn’t know much, but I did know that I didn’t want to be like that man I saw walking through the park. I knew that at all costs, I had to be successful.

As a disabled young adult, I can tell you that the picture the media paints about fairness and equality is an illusion. T.V. shows like Glee and Degrassi portray a utopian world where even though there are obstacles in life, in the end everyone gets what they want. The leading roles are played by stunningly beautiful actors and actresses. These are shows were even the ugly and downtrodden house some ineffable quality of character, or else some hidden yet profound talent or skill.

Our world is nothing if not complicated.

I think most people want to believe that life is governed by some principle of fairness; in the end good triumphs over evil, and the shy guy gets the girl. The only way our world can be fair is if we make it fair; no one is going to do it for us.

We are forgotten. 

This fall I finally made the choice to apply for Disability. Although I knew I would probably only receive  eight hundred and fifty dollars a month, I would have all of my prescription medications paid for (except for a minimal two dollar co-pay, a co-pay most pharmacies wave). This was a big incentive for me since over the summer I had to add three new (and very expensive) medications to my pharmaceutical arsenal. I treated it as ‘supplementary income’; I distanced myself from it.

Again I was faced with the embarrassing and demeaning task of proving that I am an incapable, inferior human; remembering all the while that at the end of the tunnel isn’t actually a bright, white light, but a tribunal that 50% of the time denies new applicants first applications… and their subsequent initial appeal. Not only do I have to prove I am disabled in more ways than one, the more ways which I can prove, the more likely the provincial government will be to approve my claim. In a sense, I am asked to reduce myself to my absolute worst qualities; the worst case scenario becomes the only scenario… depressing?

To be perfectly honest, I didn’t really think too much about it at first. I had the end-goal in sight: an income and health coverage – approval. The small stuff that happened to occur in the interim didn’t concern me too greatly. I tend to be phlegmatic.

It seemed that only during the immediate affronts to my worth as a human being was I extremely uncomfortable in my own skin. I tend to quickly forget things that are bothersome or cause great emotional distress; who has the time and the faculties to absorb and evaluate every attack on one’s sense of self-worth?

Only now, after having ‘completed’ my first semester back at school (where I only registered for one course) am I thinking back on the way I was treated with a more analytical eye.

Over the course of the last year I have suffered bouts of extreme elation, and extreme depression. I have fought and lost, and fought and won battles against my own body; my own disease – the former of which being the greater of the two. I have had to mentally digest the reality that I can no longer take my dog for a walk that lasts longer than five minutes, or stand on my feet for longer than ten.

I have had to re-learn how to live. 

Having to define myself by all the negative aspects of being disabled completely unravels all the hard work that has gone into proving to myself that I am not a useless failure; that the meaning and value to life is not found in what a person can do, but who a person is… by what being ‘human’ means, collectively. The only thing worse than having to prove to others that you are disabled, is having to do so for a group of people who don’t know you from Adam. The inculculation eventually wins over.

Picture asking a paralyzed man to fill out this questionaire:

Check Yes or No  for any of the following: 

  1. Can you climb a mountain?
  2. Can you run a marathon?
  3. Can you climb a flight of stairs?
  4. Can you do fifty jumping jacks?
  5. Can you do thirty squats?
  6. Can you win a potato sack race?

Funny yet sadistic.

Our society requires that its disabled continually prove that they are disabled. Our society forces its disabled to literally define themselves in terms of their disability; a definition, mind you, based  completely on stereotypes and stigma, and butressed by  A definition which is in no way exemplary of the many types of disability. But if any able bodied person hears a disabled person leading a conversation by stating what they cant do, they accuse them of ruminating and giving up.

Our western culture has a profound stigma and distrust towards the disabled. This impulse extends to all minority groups: homeless, racial minorities, economic minorities. Some believe it stems from our imperialist and colonialist western culture. Others say that fear drives our judgemental attitude towards the disabled, or the homeless, or the poor; we are so afraid of becoming likewise that we need to distance ourselves. Even if doing so requires profound moral deprivation.

We need to be far-sighted. 

Nietzsche said that our society will crumble around us unless we abandon our traditional approach to morality; a fear based morality will only serve to hold us back. To the able bodied, the rich and the white Protestants, such notions are not only provocative but downright socialist. I’m by no means a communist, a political theorist, an anarchist or a conspiracy theorist. I am a disabled young adult capable of maintaining a cohesive string of thoughts, imbued with a deep sense of responsibility to pursue a solution to the biggest problem facing my sense of self-worth.

That problem is long and complicated and adumbrative; the solution must therefore be even more so. I’m not interested in the social and political implications, or the economic and religious ones either. I don’t care about the reasons or causes of others behavior towards me; no matter how valid. The only thing I care about can be found right here, right now; I’ll let the more qualified, sedulous, and more skilled put all the pieces together.

In essence, I’m a reporter; coming live to you from the front-lines. And although I’ve lost the ‘joie de vivre’, and the aplomb that were once staples of my personal character, what I have to say is no less important: when we demand from our disabled constant reification, we undermine the very core of their sense of self-worth. What we are telling them is that we don’t believe them, that they are a drain, and most importantly, that we are better than them. By using a black-and-white white which pits disabled and abled against one another, our government constantly reinforces an entirely incomplete definition of disability;  presented as the ana of all things ‘medically decrepid’.  It reinforces the idea which lingers in the back of every disabled persons mind; that voice in the back of your head that tells you ‘you’re not good enough’. The irony is that the very system which is supposed to determine whether someone is ‘disabled’ reinforces the very problem that they are supposed to fix. The narrative they paint is at the same time one of extreme inequality and one of extreme immiscibility.

Now, although I admit that I don’t know the solution; I have a few ideas and, more importantly, a few hopes. But they don’t know that there’s a problem. And the most insiduous threat to knowledge is the illusion of knowledge.