The Hub of All Worlds

There is this crazy theory that’s been rolling around in my head for quite some time. It’s the idea that, given enough time and space, all fictions are non-fiction. Take your favorite book or movie, The Lord of the Rings, Harry PotterStar Wars. Somewhere, at some point in time, these things must have happened. I know I know, call the men with the white jackets, but hear me out for a sec.

hub-space

A growing number of astrophysicists have been arguing in favor of the multiverse theory, which states that there may be more than one universe, and in all likelihood, an infinite number of them. Neil deGrasse Tyson has stated that every time humanity thought there was only one of something, one Earth, one solar system, one galaxy, we were wrong. So why stop at one universe? The multiverse theory helps to explain a number of astronomical enigmas, including the origin of the Big Bang, the identities of dark matter and dark energy, and the inexplicably rapid expansion of space. One needs only ask, if our universe banged into existence, from where did it originate, if not some nether region beyond itself? If it is expanding, like a balloon, what space is it expanding into, if not some outer-outer space? What is perhaps still more interesting, if there is in fact more than one universe, astrophysicists argue, it is very well possible that each of these are governed by physical laws different from our own. If the gravitational constant deviated to the slightest degree during the early formation of the cosmos, stars may not have formed, and without stars you cannot have planets, or life. Life may be unique not just to our planet but to our universe as well. But if the multiverse has no boundaries, there would have to exist an infinite number of universes containing life, and in every conceivable form. Consider the limitless ways in which subatomic particles can come together, and the possible arrangement of atoms that follow, and the DNA strands constituent of those atoms. If these quantities are infinite—and only if they are infinite—some random Big Bang would create the right conditions for some random planet to randomly form Westeros from Game of Thrones, and the myriad details those books contain. Not only that, but we would also have a Westeros where things are slightly skewed, where Ned Stark doesn’t get beheaded, even one where everyone lives happily ever after. There would exist so many possible Westeroses, that finding the one you are look for would be as impossible as finding any Westeros, and by impossible, I mean it would take you an infinite number of years. This is the problem with the number infinity. It’s a difficult concept to grasp, even for mathematicians, and it makes for some profound if not absurd proofs. There are several other problems with this theory as well:

 

  1. There may NOT be a multiverse at all. According to Lawrence Krauss’ A Universe from Nothing, one universe is all we need, and everything about the Big Bang and its consequent expansion can be explained by our current understanding of physics.
  2. If the multiverse does exist, it may not be infinite.
  3. The only number that can mathematically affect infinity is infinity itself. So all the kids at the playground one-upping you with, “infinity +1” are wrong in thinking their number is bigger. Infinity +1 = Infinity. Infinity -1 = Infinity. Heck, Infinity minus a googolplex is still Infinity. I bring this up only because, in the previous paragraph, I made the assumption that where time and space are infinite, variation is not. Imagine I left you alone with a certain number of LEGO blocks, and I gave you until forever to arrange those blocks any way you wanted. Eventually, every car, house or boat you could possibly make, you would. However, if I were to give you an infinite number of LEGOs, you could not arrange them in every way possible, no matter how long you tried, as these two infinities would cancel each other out. Infinity – Infinity = 0. Now, replace LEGO blocks with atoms, and you get the same result. Given a limitless number of ways a universe could exist, we might never, ever produce Westeros.

 

Now let’s assume, for the sake of this thought experiment, that a multiverse definitely exists, time and space are indeed infinite, but there are just so many ways atoms can be ordered. Given these statements, we still run into the problem of infinity itself, because, as stated before, even if there is a Westeros somewhere, or a Middle Earth or a Hogwarts, we most likely could never, ever find it. Even after a million years of technological and biological evolution, having built starships to make the Enterprise look like a wheelbarrow, we still would never be able to find our favorite fictional world out there, though we might be able to prove, mathematically at least, that those worlds exist.

In his short story, The Library of Babel, Argentinian Sci-Fi author Jorge Borges imagines an infinitely-sized library, containing not just every book ever written, but every book that could ever be written. The people perusing the library seek to find books containing a record of their own lives, but given the nature of large numbers, they never do.

library

The Library of Babel

From a pragmatic standpoint, such metaphysical-mathematical musings are a waste of time. If we can never know, why bother? We could make the same case for a much more plausible scenario. At this very moment, as you are reading this, some alien being is reading a near identical theory, in a thriving civilization on the opposite side of the universe, some 13 billion light years away. Even if we could freeze ourselves in a starship, to travel for that length of time, the alien civilization would certainly fizzle out by the time we got there. In fact, after 13 billion years, entropy would eliminate all trace of any such civilization having ever existed. Its star could go supernova and the gases surrounding it could reform into a new star and a new system before our arrival. If that weren’t enough, after 13 billion years, the rate of the expanding universe will exceed the speed of light, so even if we were to travel as fast as any particle can go, we would still never, ever meet our alien neighbors on the opposite side of our universe, or even find evidence of their existence. They would be as elusive to us as non-fictional Westeros. William James, founder of pragmatism, would likely argue that, if no evidence can ever be presented of something being true, it is equivalently untrue.

Not so fast, William James, because here is where art comes in, to exceed the limits of math and science and philosophy. For while we may never be able to literally travel to our favorite fictional worlds, we can get there instantaneously, using the vessel that is the human mind. This is what we do whenever we think. Or use our imaginations to create worlds. Authors, painters, video game developers, and the like, are all in effect explorers, and the space in which they explore is that of probability (in Sci-Fi) and possibility (via fantasy). Now it may appear that I have made a kind of logical fallacy, an argument from semantics. Fiction is something we consider to be untrue, because we can’t ever really know if it’s untrue, or, in other words, we believe something is false only because we can’t know whether it’s true. For a writer, however, this need not be a matter of contention. Writers do not seek absolutes, after all, but uncertainties, and to some extent, falsehoods. By entertaining metaphorical realities, we give fodder to those seeking literal realities. And even then, what exists solely in the mind possesses its own inherent value. At the very least, this thought experiment can help us rethink and reassess the purpose of creativity, and how it can play a larger role in the big questions posed by science and philosophy.

The realm of possibility and probability, where fiction and non-fiction dance around one another, is a place I like to call The Hub of All Worlds. It is an imaginary center, similar to Cosmos’ spaceship of the imagination, from which we can traverse the multiverse. And, while the theory that everything is true, given sufficient time and space, may not have any real-world applications, it makes for good storytelling.

What is Free Will?

Let me preface this post by admitting that I have a deep admiration and respect for philosopher Sam Harris. I listen to his podcast weekly, highly recommend his books, The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, and Islam and the Future of Tolerance, and I agree with most of what he has to say regarding religion and Islamic-inspired terrorism. But when Harris asserts an idea I don’t agree with, with a certainty unbecoming of Socrates, I find myself itching to debate him, and here I would like to tackle his assertion that there is no such thing as free will.

Most modern-day philosophers, Daniel Dennet and Sam Harris among them, agree that free will does not exist. That we have any choice in what we do from day to day, in how we shape our lives, is merely an illusion. According to Harris, if you decide to eat a ham sandwich for lunch, it’s not really you making that decision. There are all kinds of neurons firing in your brain, conspiring without forethought, to impress upon your consciousness the belief that, “I want a ham sandwich.” In reality, your body settled on two slices of bread with ham, Swiss and mayo before you could even realize it. Take something less innocuous, like murder, for instance. Harris states that becoming a murderer is really beyond your control. It is determined by countless little factors like brain chemistry, parenting, and a history of violence. He is quick to point out, however, that while the freedom to murder does not exist, we are equally bound by whether or not to excuse it. Society and nature dictate that we act to discourage murder from happening. In that we are in full agreement.

Now the problem I have with the issue of free will is twofold. Firstly, there is tapestry theory, which states that the whole cannot be defined by the sum of its parts. Van Gogh’s Starry, Starry Night ceases to be a painting of stars once separated into its constituent drops of paint, nor does the essence of the painting reside anywhere within those droplets. In like fashion, when it comes to free will, I do not limit my focus to neurons in the brain. By extension, a human being is greatly more than the contents of his body. So while the neurons in my brain are telling me to eat a ham sandwich, I would ask, how did those neurons get that way? More than likely, my digestive system sent subtle suggestive signals up into my head. Perhaps there is even some deficiency in my blood a ham sandwich might help to remedy. Furthering that, how could I know to want a ham sandwich if I never learned what a sandwich is, or what ham is? So memory plays a role. Then again, I cannot possibly remember something that does not exist. No doubt, space and time are equally determining factors regarding free will, which brings us back to murder. My wanting a ham sandwich, just like the guy wanting to kill his wife, is determined by countless factors that go back to the beginning of Time. Heck, without the Big Bang, I also could never want a ham sandwich.

But all this begs the question: what the heck is free will? In simplest terms, according to the OED, free will |ˌfrē ˈwil| is

noun

the power of acting without the constraint of necessity or fate; the ability to act at one’s own discretion.

I would ask Sam Harris to imagine what it would be like if free will did exist. What would that look like? Is it even possible? I say not. Why? Because when philosophers talk about free will, what they really mean to say is cause and effect. Never mind humanity. Can a universe exist without cause and effect? I, for one, cannot imagine there being one. Our universe is one of physical laws, with one thing acting upon another thing ad infinitum. When we talk about wanting a ham sandwich, yes, the neurons are firing in the direction of ham + bread + mayo, but those neurons are further composed of atoms, and those atoms act according to the strong and nuclear forces that bind them. We’re all just things being acted upon by other things. Arguing against this is a moot point. Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku seems to have understood this when he said, in a discussion on StarTalk Radio, that free will most definitely can exist, because of quantum theory. Subatomic particles are not bound by cause and effect. Quarks blip in and out of existence for no apparent reason, and move in undeterminable patterns, in what is better known as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. What Kaku understands is that the argument over free will is an argument over physical laws, but in the subatomic realm, these laws start to breakdown.

Sandwich

a ham sandwich

Now I am not about to use the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle to argue against Sam Harris. That’s a bit of a stretch. But I do feel we need to better define our terms when we argue philosophy, and not fall into the trap of semantics. In some sense, I agree with Harris. We cannot make decisions irrespective of causality. But this isn’t how the free will debate is worded. When you vehemently argue that people’s lives are preprogrammed, that any decision they make is illusory, that we are all in a sense slaves, this causes the mind to protest. I am not suggesting, however, that Harris make his philosophy more palatable, but rather, that in using terms like freedom and illusion, his argument makes false implications. You cannot claim to be a slave when freedom not only doesn’t exist, but cannot exist. You cannot claim something is an illusion where there is no reality. There is no difference, in this case, between wanting a ham sandwich and believing that I want a ham sandwich. The person who thinks himself as free is free.

And now I really want a ham sandwich.

It Could Happen Here: A Review of The Man in the High Castle

I’ve already been a victim of hate speech. This wasn’t your normal troll variety flaming. This guy got eerily personal, digging deep into my life to attack my lifestyle, my beliefs, my career, and most disturbingly, the person I chose to marry. Sadly, he concluded I should leave the country. People like him have never understood what America is and what it stands for. But to understand America, you have to look no further than its founding document, The Declaration of Independence:

 

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

 

You won’t find “white Protestant Christian” mentioned anywhere in our founding document, but you will see it in Jefferson Davis’ traitorous Articles of the Confederacy. Our constitution specifically states that ALL MEN are created equal, and that they have a right to Life, Liberty, and Happiness. This is what it means to be an American. This is our founding ideal. If these ideals are threatened or abolished, if people of color or those of differing religions are cowed by an institution of fear, then the U.S.A. ceases to be. We won’t need to leave America because America will have left us. Honestly, it amazes me how these trumps claim to be patriots. These same folk insisted our first black president must be a Muslim terrorist dictator, born in Kenya. They want to kick us out to make America what it isn’t. To them I say, Go back to Germany!

In The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick imagines the allies losing to the axis powers during World War II. In this sobering alternate history, America is no more. The land is still there, as are its people, but its founding principles have been abolished. Nazism is law and the ideals of aryan superiority. Jews are forced to change their names, to better hide their identities, and blacks, Indians and handicapped people veer close to extinction, and it’s all due to the ramblings of a paranoid, narcissistic strongman.

Now I didn’t plan to be sitting here writing this review as this nightmarish scenario edges closer to reality. But life can have a sense of irony. In all honesty, I picked up The Man in the High Castle because of the Amazon show, and because Philip K. Dick is among the greats of the Sci-Fi genre. His novels adapted to screen include Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (Bladerunner), We Can Remember It For You Wholesale (Total Recall), Super Toys Last All Summer Long (A.I.), and The Minority Report. Bad titles aside, Dick is known for his mind-bending concepts, deeply couched in philosophy. In Bladerunner and A.I., he challenges our notions of consciousness and sentience, and our ethical intuitions with regards to synthetic life. In The Minority Report, he imagines a totalitarian world where a prescient police force can stop and punish a crime before it happens. Stop and frisk? But The Man in the High Castle deals not with some far flung future, but post-America circa the 1960s.

It isn’t difficult to imagine this happening, and it can be argued that, by the slightest tweak of events, our world might appear totally alien to us. Consider what would have happened had the German scientists behind the V2 rocket made the atomic bomb? A single nuke, dropped on New York City, and we might all be shouting, “Sieg Heil!”

Looking at the story of the human race, you come to see repeating patterns and the same foolish mistakes being made again and again. The Roman Republic collapsed due, in part, to xenophobia. Julius Caesar was charged with protecting against northern incursions, acting preemptively and genocidally in the name of Rome. Shortly after his military campaign, he declared himself emperor, but was assassinated, stabbed by sixty senators on the senate floor. The political factions dividing the Republic went to war, and when the dust settled, democracy was no more. A similar thing happened in Germany after the first Great War. Hitler was elected chancellor, owing to his impassioned rhetoric regarding German exceptionalism and a pure Arian race. He was viewed as an outsider and a strong man, someone who spoke his mind and could get things done. He blamed all of the nation’s problems on immigrants, particularly the Jews, but those with disabilities as well. It is impossible to talk about these events and not think of Trump. To a student of history, the parallels are all too clear, too frightening. This is why a book like The Man in the High Castle matters.

Alternate histories show us a startling picture of what could have been, shaking us out of our complacency, helping us to recognize the invaluable lessons of the past, lessons we too quickly forget. Dick offers a startling reminder of a world we fought so hard and sacrificed so much to escape, a world where every man, woman and child are judged not by their character, but by their race and nationality. The picture he paints is often haunting. There is no cooperation in his Nazi world. No NATO. World leaders show courtesy to one another so far as they prepare for the next war. In this hellish setting, the only remaining powers are Japan and Germany, with America divided between them. Nuclear devastation is a forgone conclusion, because the Nazis do not want peace, only to conquer, to prove their superiority. Humanity be damned.

All that being said, it’s unfortunate The Man in the High Castle isn’t a better book. Philip K Dick is a rare genius, but his genius too often gets the better of him. His book diverges into wild philosophical tangents that have little bearing on the plot. While his characters run the gamut from an antiques salesman to a Nazi undercover assassin to a Japanese diplomat, they all lose themselves in thought. Dick has a lot to say about the human condition, the nature of suffering, the psychology of cruelty and the politics of race. It’s far too much to condense, and it’s an admirable literary endeavor. I, for one, look for meaning in every story, but here the story seems to take a back seat to whatever meaning the author is trying to convey. Given the subject matter, it’s a shame he couldn’t have been more focused. He only hints at the axis victory and how it played out, and we learn just as little about the bomb dropped on Washington or the global genocides perpetuated by the Third Reich. Dick does, however, give considerable detail regarding the manufacture and selling of antiques.

As I neared the final pages, I anticipated some great reveal, something akin to Life of Pi. In a meta-fictional twist, The Man in the High Castle involves a fictional account of the allies winning the war. A lot of mystery surrounds this book, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, and its author, but the payoff just left me confused and wanting more.

I have a need to understand how the very worst of things can happen, and whether they can ever truly happen here in America. So I picked up Philip Roth’s 2004 novel, The Plot Against America, wherein a Nazi ascends to the White House. Look for that review soon!

The Death of Truth

This is something I have been thinking about for quite some time now. I originally planned to write a (more lengthy) post about this, and I probably will someday, but after this past election, wherein Americans voted for a Fascist, I felt compelled to express my concerns.

It is a dangerous time for civilization when truth no longer matters, when the difference between fact and fiction becomes a matter of political preference, when science can be challenged by ideology. Truth matters. Facts matter. With climate change, the destruction of the environment, the mass extinction of species, Islamic terrorism, and nuclear proliferation, facts matter now more than ever. We are living in a unique time in history, a time when we have the power to destroy all life on Earth, including our own. We are caught in a race between ignorance and knowledge, and a growing anti-intellectualism that threatens our very existence. Without truth, we cannot make the  necessary decisions to steer clear of the apocalypse. This is not hyperbole. This is not some sandwich-board doomsday prophesying that has yet to come to pass. No. We are witnessing the results of our ignorance on a daily basis.

When we elect, as leader of the free world, someone who rejects the findings of science, who does not understand the dangers of nuclear war, who appoints a climate change denier as head of the EPA, and another who denies evolution as secretary of education, when we accept these things, we reject reality. And how did we get to this point? It happened when journalism became entertainment, when history and science textbooks gave way to political subjectivity, when the Internet became a haven for those seeking refuge from reality and a confirmation of their biases. This has happened before. It happened in Athens and in Rome; it happened to the Aztecs and the Islamic Empire. No civilization has ever endured the loss of truth. Ours won’t either.

DMT and D&D

I’ve been sitting on this post for years. Part of me really didn’t want to write it. And as a non-drug user, I felt unqualified. But the story has been nagging at me, ever since a friend told me about his DMT experience.

Now, I don’t do drugs. Never have. I grew up in the 80’s, with the “Just Say No” campaign, and the message really hit home. Except I took it to the extreme. I avoid anything that might artificially affect my brain in any way. So I abstain from alcohol, and I mean, ZERO alcohol. Haven’t had a sip of Bud Lite in my life. Nothing. Zilch. (OK, maybe whatever’s in Nyquil). My brother spent most of my teenage life trying to convince me otherwise, that I’d never find friends who don’t drink, or end up with a wife who doesn’t drink. Well, jokes on him, because my closest friend doesn’t drink and neither do our wives! By extension, to think that I could ever be pressured into pot or crack cocaine was hilarious. I was beyond peer pressure. Then again, I never felt any real pressure to do drugs. Sure, a few people asked me, but I said “No thanks” and that was it. It got to the point where I often wondered how anyone could end up an addict. Weren’t they forced to watch the same anti-drug videos I did? Now I know better, that drug-use is more often a symptom of depression or trauma or anxiety. But it’s not like I didn’t have opportunities. Working in a restaurant, you’re pretty much surrounded by users. If you’re in your mid-thirties and scrubbing dishes for minimum wage, chances are you made some bad decisions in life, or you just really, really like washing dishes. But here’s the odd thing: a lot of people over the years, including some crack heads, assumed I was an addict. One time, after taking a break outside, an employee asked me, “How was it?” I hadn’t had a hit. But, I am slowly starting to realize, I may have been doing drugs all my life without knowing it.

dmt1

Truth be told, we can’t escape drugs no matter how hard we try. A “drug” is a general term for chemicals, and we’re pretty much made of chemicals. It’s in everything we eat and drink. If you enjoy chocolate, caffeine, or the high that comes from exercise and sex, you’re enjoying the drug-like endorphins produced in your brain. And this brings me to DMT. If you don’t know what that is, I suggest you read up on it. The stories are amazing. It’s a hallucinogenic, but far, far more powerful than LSD. One LSD user described his DMT experience as somewhat terrifying, and you would be too, if you’re action figures started talking to you and dancing on your desk. A close friend told me the same thing. To paraphrase, “You don’t realize you’re hallucinating. There’s zero difference between what you know is real and what you are experiencing. Sight, sound, smell … it’s all there, utterly convincing.” And it’s not just seeing some funny things bouncing into your living room. Far from it. When you take a DMT trip, you’re entering another universe. You meet sentient beings, commonly referred to as “machine elves,” and there’s a great sense of time dilation. So what takes only a few minutes in reality might feel like days or weeks by the DMT-clock. OK, Nick, you may be thinking, this guy was probably pulling your leg. So I did my homework, and everything I read confirmed my friend’s story. In his book, Waking Up: A Guide To Spirituality Without Religion, neuroscientist Sam Harris posits that many religious experiences, including visions of life-after death, can be attributed to hallucinogens. The “light at the end of the tunnel,” is just a symptom. Now, this might not make much sense, considering how little the drug is known. Where did Abraham or Moses or Buddha get a hit of this stuff? But here’s the thing: DMT is naturally produced in the brain. The chemical has been associated with dreaming and imagination. When we die, DMT is released from your brain in a torrent, offering powerful, convincing manifestations of the after-life. Eben Alexander, neurosurgeon and author of Proof of Heaven, converted to Christianity after being pronounced brain-dead for “a week.” His description of Heaven sounds a lot like an episode of My Little Pony, with lots of colors, flowers and enormous butterflies. But, as Sam Harris points out, Eben’s experience closely mirrors those of DMT users.

I will admit, for a few days after hearing this story, I entertained the idea that maybe—just maybe—DMT acted as a gateway into another world. I truly wanted to believe. Who wouldn’t? Then again, the notion of other dimensions lurking beside our own can get pretty freaky. So I asked my buddy, “Is it real?” No, he didn’t think so. As a philosophy major, logic prevailed. Sadly, all evidence points to the fact that we only have one life to live. Unless you’re a fundamentalist, you know this is it. And it’s precisely because of this realization, I believe, people are drawn to imaginative endeavors. It’s our only escape from this mundane, everyday existence. Even if you’re the Dos Equis man, you’re going to want to step into someone else’s shoes, live someone else’s life. Why else do we spend so much time and money on movies, TV shows, books and video games? While there may not be an after-life, we can choose multiple lives within this one, and DMT, or some chemical like it, makes it all possible. After talking to my drug-venturing friend, we both came to the conclusion that the brain is far more powerful than either of us could imagine.

I am not a scientist, and even if I were, I think a lot more research needs to go into creativity and imagination and into how the firing of neurons activates those functions in our brains, but I know from experience how real the mind can make things seem. As a child, I managed to convince myself of some pretty impossible things. I could, at times, see and hear things I knew I’d just made up. It got me to worrying, for some years, whether I was on the verge of schizophrenia. My dreams have always been particularly vivid. I sometimes wake, feeling like I just watched a movie’s worth of content, enough to write a novel. Users of DMT report similar experiences, living lifetimes in the span of minutes, but the information quickly vanishes from memory, just as my dreams fade before I can get to pen and paper.

12642605_973496816031101_7424082251459916552_n

This brings me back to books and the imagination. For much of my life, I have understood the technological drive to make things look and feel real. CGI effects, in movies and in video games, work to push reality away, to give the player the sense of really “being there.” I love what Lucas did with Star Wars, and what Jackson did with Lord of the Rings, and Skyrim just looks amazing on PS3. And still, we keep pushing the boundaries, desperate to throw more pixels on the screen to hide the fact that they are just pixels. By the end of this year, we will have affordable VR headsets to further the illusion. And yet, given the opportunity, I’d go with a tabletop game, like D&D, every time. Some people only see the pen and the paper. It never becomes real for them, and in their case, who’d want to sit around a table for eight straight hours rolling dice? But for me, D&D feels more real because my brain makes it real. The brain is, after all, a vastly more powerful computer system. The trick is learning how to activate it, how to bring it to its full potential. Am I suggesting taking a hit of DMT before a game? Hell no. That would be terrifying. But I do think we can learn to exercise that part of our brains—the part that makes the magic—through meditation, as Sam Harris suggests, or by simply turning off our screens and the endless everyday distractions tugging at our senses.

demogorgon

Demogorgon

 

In the Netflix original, Stranger Things, a girl with psychic powers is put into a sensory deprivation tank to focus her abilities. I believe this illustrates something we can all do, to hone the untapped resources of our own minds. Interestingly enough, the show references D&D and a monster called Demogorgon. When I was twelve, I was pretty sure Demogorgon was lurking in my bedroom. That never happened to me playing Diablo or Resident Evil. That’s the power of imagination. Nothing can match it.  It’s why I play, why I read, and why I write.

 

 

 

The Giver

Lois Lowry’s dystopian novel was awarded the John Newberry Medal for outstanding children’s literature, though I found it too uneventful and dark for my 11 year old daughter, even after we agreed to add it to our summer family reading list.

The Giver reminded me of other dystopian books, like A Brave New World1984, and The Hunger Games, but mostly of Kazuo Ishiguro’s superb heart-wrencher, Never Let Me Go. Unlike The Hunger Games, it starts off slowly and uneventfully. All of the dialogue is stilted and unnatural, and there is quite a bit of exposition, which made me think the writing was amateurish. It is also quite dry, but that simplicity makes it easy to read. In fact, I got through about 120 pages in a day. This is the only aspect that is apt for kids.

At first, Lowry’s community comes across as a kind of utopia, devoid of violence, hunger, or suffering of any kind, though I was immediately struck by something being not-quite-right, which becomes increasingly unnerving the further you get into it. I couldn’t help but feel I’d rather be dropped anywhere else, the maze in the Maze Runner, or even Harrenhal. By the halfway mark, I genuinely hated the world of The Giver, and what at first looked like a flaw in Lowry’s writing, you come to understand is intentional. The people talk unnaturally because they are anything but natural.

While it’s hard to criticize a book that keeps your eyes glued to the page, I often found myself asking why. How does it manage to grip me, when all of the characters, including Jonas, the protagonist, are flat and uninteresting? The setting is unimaginative, even for a dystopian novel, and very little happens. Lowry does, however, tackle some deep philosophical and sociological issues, though what, exactly, she is trying to convey is hard to determine. Much of The Giver deals with issues of individuality and freedom and security, and the interplay between them. Is it better, for instance, to surrender emotions like love, if you could also rid the world of hate? Is it worth giving up choice, where we go to school, who we marry, what we choose to do for a career, if we can end poverty and hunger and war? It’s pretty heady stuff, and a bit too much, I feel, for younger readers, but not quite as impactful as A Brave New World. There are moments when Lowry tugs at the heartstrings, but I was never so moved as I was by Never Let Me Go, which dealt with many of the same subjects, but in a subtler and more poignant way.

Hills? Snow? Colors? Music? Abortion? Check out the podcast below, where my wife and I delve deep into these topics (with spoilers!) in The Giver.

 

Guns vs. Nudity: What is Truly Offensive?

Again I feel compelled to alienate potential readers with my stance on gun control. Both my brother and my best friend are card carrying members of the NRA, and yet I feel morally obligated to champion this cause, and the view held by more than half of all Americans. We are morally obligated to make it harder for criminals and terrorists to obtain guns. We are morally obligated to shut down the gun show / online store loophole. And we must ban semi-automatic weapons, and oversized magazine clips which can serve no purpose but for the zombie apocalypse. We should also be encouraging, not prohibiting, organizations like the CDC to do the proper research with regards to gun safety. If the NRA is truly confident in its position, why not allow a third party to prove it?

I happened to be vacationing with my family in Orlando when the terrible shooting that claimed 49 lives took place. Of course, with a wife and two kids, I was nowhere near any gay bars, but it’s frightening just the same, because in the theme park capital of the world, crowds are always plentiful and security is often lax. With millions of impatient visitors eager to jump on the latest rollercoaster, and parks eager to accommodate those visitors, we go through the motions of what can only be described as ‘security theater.’ Someone determined to get beyond the underpaid staff poking around your backpack is going to succeed. Even if security were to be beefed up, there are enough potential victims waiting in line to make the recent shooting seem tame by comparison.

Here’s the sad truth: this is going to happen again. It’s only a matter of time. And when it does, the same rhetoric will get bandied back and forth. What we are not seeing is change, change to help lessen these occurrences, or, when they are likely to happen, change to ensure less people suffer.

Every time a mass shooting takes place, gun advocates refer to their talking points, framing the conversation as to divert from gun legislation. It can’t be the guns. Blame anything and everything but the guns. After Newtown, the NRA insisted mental health was the core issue. If we could rein in every troubled teen, they argued, we could solve the problem of gun violence. This, of course, seems a more reasonable position to a gun lover: legislating people instead of things. But the massacre in Orlando had everything to do with religion and homophobia. Had we listened to the NRA and focused our efforts on the mentally ill, we’d still be mourning the loss of 49 innocent people. Now Donald Trump proposes we lay the blame on Muslims. Again, we are presented with the solution of regulating people rather than things, which is somehow constitutional, whereas gun control remains a violation of civil liberties. So lock up anyone with a history of mental disorder, lock up anyone who is Muslim, and lock up anyone who doesn’t like gays. This might work, until another shooting happens under a different motive. Perhaps a fundamentalist pro-lifer will gun down an abortion clinic. Eventually, we will run out of scape goats, and our capacity to lay blame on people with grievances, because reasons for mass murder might as well be infinite. And when all is said and done, when hundreds, maybe thousands more are killed, we will be left with the problem of guns.

I distinctly recall my first visit to Barnes & Nobles, circa 20 years ago. The magazine section was extensive. Of particular interest to me was N Magazine, which featured naturism, but after two weeks the publication was pulled from the shelves. But what remains to this day are High Times and Guns & Ammo, because apparently, nudity is more offensive than drugs or killing.

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Advocates like to paint the gun debate in terms of freedom vs. tyranny, but this is not the reality. Absolute freedom is an American myth. Historically, what people can and cannot do has always been curtailed by common sense restrictions. You cannot legally drink and drive a car because it’s dangerous. You cannot smoke at a gas station or use your cell phone on an airplane for the same reasons. We all abide by these rules without a qualm, but when it comes to guns, we are beholden to the notion that freedom trumps safety. Why? It boils down to one simple word: MONEY. There is a lot of money to be made in the sale of bullets and pistols and semi-automatic rifles, and this money pays for lobby groups like the NRA, who pay off our politicians. Innocent civilians are dying for profit.

I can think of no other, more personal decision than what I choose to wear, if anything at all. Last time I checked, no one has ever been killed by the sight of a nipple or a penis. And if you really think about it, a penis is a kind of reverse-gun, creating life instead of taking it away, but should I decide to visit even a remote part of the beach in nothing but my skin, I’d get arrested, and possibly be put on the Sex Offender Registry List, to forever be associated with rapists and child molesters. If, on the other hand, I were to show up at a Starbucks armed to the teeth, I’d be heralded, by about half of all Americans, as a patriot. Again this begs the question of why. Why is the sight of the human body, something that has never harmed anyone, deemed illegal and offensive, while owning a device that exists for no other purpose but to kill regarded an inalienable right? I have no doubt aliens would find this dichotomy, between what is “modest” and what constitutes “freedom” utterly absurd, which is perhaps why they have yet to visit us. But again, I have the answer: there is no money to be made in public nudity. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Imagine how much revenue the clothing industry will lose when people realize the uselessness of bathing suits?

Open Carry March on March 12, 2014

This is legal.

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This is not.

 

 

 

 

 

 

If we truly wish to lessen the frequency of mass shootings, not to stop, mind you, but to lessen, we need the political will to pass new safety legislation. The will must come from the people. Celebrities like Seth McFarlane, Samantha Bee, and Stephen Colbert have all come out for sensible legislation. Even Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly admitted “you can’t have a bazooka.” It’s only a matter of time before we’ll look back at this gruesome era of gun violence and wonder how we could have waited so long. How many more needless deaths before common sense prevails?


 

Now before you start sending me your comments, consider that I’ve read all of the arguments, and have fully addressed them here in an earlier post: One Dead Child is One Too Many

 

 

 

 

 

The Destructive Power of Ego

You don’t have to be a writer to recognize the destructive power of ego, but it helps. Ego has torn my family apart. I have one brother and two sisters. We were born into the restaurant business my father started forty years ago, but when we got together to form a franchise, which could have netted us millions, all we did was fight. I nearly threw a punch at my brother over a Xerox machine. My father’s pizza-chain dreams were dashed, and aside from major holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, my siblings and I never talk. We run our own restaurants separately, the way we feel they should be run, and if I come up with some great new recipe, my brother will be sure to ignore it, no matter how big a seller.

I admit it. I am as guilty of egocentrism as the rest of my family. There was a time, before 2004 to be precise, when I thought myself a literary genius. Becoming a successful author, I believed, was inevitable. Then I self-published my first book and my ego took a nose dive. After a number of ho-hum book reviews, my huge head popped like a balloon, and I was forced to reevaluate myself for the first time. Hey, maybe I’m not as smart as I thought. Maybe I’ll have to work a lot harder to achieve my dreams. To this day, I struggle with ego like a Buddhist monk. The trick isn’t to think of yourself as worthless, but to transcend the very idea of self itself. But every now and then, after I impress myself with an especially good chapter, my ego begins to swell, and it brings nothing but heartache.

Sadly, I have known too many people with similar epiphanies who simply quit. The truth is often too great to bear, it would seem, like crossing the Second Oracle in The Never Ending Story. During my fan-fiction days, the problem of ego was recurring. Writers would submit to my site, fiction that was both grammatically and narratively atrocious, but I could not offer a shred of advice without them getting devastated to the point of giving up. I consider myself lucky not to have been born with the internet, because if I were, I am certain I would have been one of these people. My lonely, modem-less Commodore Amiga provided me with a comforting delusion, a delusion that kept me writing well into my college days.

But the catalyst for this post has nothing to do with restaurants or fiction, and everything to do with artists. I have a long and arduous relationship with art. In my elementary years, writing and drawing went hand-in-hand. I always thought of my stories in terms of pictures, and continued to do so until high school, when I learned I pretty much sucked at drawing. Here, again, ego got in the way of doing what I loved. Still, the visual medium remains important to me. If I could not write, I would like to have been an artist. A collection of books by the likes of Frazetta, Vallejo and Royo sits on my shelf, including Spectrum: The Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art, all of which serves as inspiration. Sometimes, a single image can spawn an entire story. This is why I spend thousands commissioning pieces for Aenya. I say it’s for ‘promotional reasons,’ but this is largely untrue. It’s mostly for the love of art. But here is where I run into the ugly problem of ego, because the only people I know with egos as big as writers are artists.

For the past 17 years, since 1999, I have worked with dozens of talented people. My best friend, who lives in Athens, Greece, and who came to the U.S. to study graphic design, refuses to work with me. This is someone who bemoans the fact that he can’t afford a cup of coffee. I’ve offered him hundreds of dollars to help me promote Aenya, enough to visit Starbucks for a year, but he won’t do it. Why? I can’t say for sure, though we did work on a project once, and disagreed—ONCE—over the perspective of a sketch. After that, we never talked again. Now, it’s quite possible I am an unbearable jerk. No, scratch that, I am most definitely an unbearable jerk, but when you’re broke and someone is offering you good money to do what you love, what the hell does it matter? If someone were asking to print my story somewhere, I’d be jumping for joy, not for the money, but for getting my name out there.

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Here’s an even more absurd anecdote. For the cover of my first book, The Dark Age of Enya, I paid an artist $500. From what I could tell from his portfolio, he was quite talented, and his style seemed to match my own. He promised me the illustration in a month. The timing was important too, because I needed to send a cover to an editor, who was going to feature the book in a magazine. When do you think it was done? Two months? Three, maybe? Nope . . . it was finished after a year. A YEAR! But you know what, I procrastinate a lot myself, so this did not upset me too much. What was infuriating, is that after all that time, I didn’t even get what I wanted. I had asked him for a girl (Thelana) on a unicorn, with a large moon in the background. I never got the background, because, as he later told me, he just couldn’t figure it out. What’s worse, the moon he painted on the back flap was entirely the wrong color, even after I repeatedly told him the color it should be. But here’s the kicker, he was working with oils for the first time, and couldn’t get the girl’s leg right. It was just a smear on the canvas. After waiting six months and paying him $250, he flat out refused to fix it, and became angry when I suggested he try something easier than oil paint. It was a long, agonizing ordeal, but I did end up giving him the $500, even though I missed the deadline for the magazine and had to fix the coloring of the moons myself in Photoshop.

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You might think this kind of story is an anomaly, but it isn’t. It happens, in fact, most of the time. I worked with someone who decided, halfway into the project, that he didn’t want to do a background. I offered him extra, just so that my character didn’t look like she was floating in space, but he just didn’t feel like it. When I mentioned that he needed to have a better work ethic, he became furious and never spoke to me again. Again, I ended up doing my own background in Photoshop. Another artist made Thelana’s boobs too big. When I asked for a reduction, explaining that she had a gymnast’s build, he said, “I don’t do changes,” and collected $200. I ended up with a picture that, to this day, I absolutely loathe. I call her “Balloon Breasts Katniss.” Most recently, someone sent me a final, fully-colored image before I could approve of even a single sketch. “If you can’t use it,” he said, “you can just pay me half.” Getting him to make even the most minor revision became a huge hassle. This was especially frustrating, for I had made it clear how I wanted to brainstorm ideas. All he cared for, it seemed, was getting paid immediately, as the majority of our discussions involved money. He got his $250, as promised, but he lost the chance to foster a future working relationship with me.

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Balloon Breasts Katniss

I understand that people work to get paid. I understand that nobody can live off “recognition” alone. But by the same token, recognition is necessary if one hopes to someday quit their day job. Writing is really no different than painting in this regard. It’s a lot of hard work, something you pour your heart and soul into, not to mention a lifetime of practice. But unlike those in the visual medium, writers tend to get paid even less, and are almost universally neglected. And still we work tirelessly, sometimes for decades, without earning a dime, in the insane hope that someday our efforts will pay off. Yes, we have tender egos too, but we get critiqued in the most harsh ways imaginable, by every Tom, Dick and Harry who thinks he can crap out a novel. So, when a writer seeks to collaborate with an artist, he knows what artists go through, because he’s been there, and most likely he’s had it worse. For someone like me, who is continuously learning, who is endlessly revising and improving, it is patently absurd to hear someone say, “I don’t do changes. Fix it yourself.” I fight to suppress my ego, so that I am not afraid to make changes, and I listen to my readers’ advice, even when I know they know nothing about writing.

My intent here is not to badmouth anyone, which is why I have not been naming names. But many of these artists have quit, and they all had the same things in common: huge egos and a poor work ethic. My Greek friend told me one day, quite pointedly, “I am not an artist anymore.” And, as far as I can tell, the guy who did my original cover dropped off the map. On the other side of the coin, I have been fortunate to have known some wonderfully productive individuals, who gave me more than I asked for, because they cared enough to excel. Their heads were never so big to assume they always get it right the first time. Alexey Lipatov is one such person. I am often so impressed with Mr. Lipatov’s work, I will pay him more $ than we agree upon. Julia Bax is another. I loved working with her, because she always gave me 110%. Today, not surprisingly, Julia has made a name for herself as a comic book illustrator. These are enormously talented people, but their success has less to do with talent, and more to do with attitude. Whatever the profession, whether in a restaurant, at the keyboard, or in front of a canvas, successful people set their egos aside to do their best work.

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Julia Bax

Be sure to check out Alexey Lipatov’s gallery here.

Tapestry Theory, Sam Harris, and Defining the Self

Who am I? Well, as far as I know, my name is Nick Alimonos. I am a father, a husband, and a writer. Admittedly, on occasion, I also sell pizza. But do these qualities define me? If you take them away, do I become someone else? Or do I have a soul, a deeper part of me, some immaterial and eternal essence living behind my eyes, somewhere in my body? In other words, what defines the “self” and does it even exist? This fundamental question has puzzled mankind since time immemorial. It has been the subject of debate within religious, philosophical, and scientific circles.

Philosophy has been hijacked, or perhaps “won-over” is a more accurate term, by the materialists. Thanks to advances in science, and new technologies that enable us to peer into the world at the subatomic level, it is commonly accepted that physical matter is all there is. But the problem remains of how to make sense of this new information. As always, there is a danger of “leaps of logic,” even when based on evidence. I recently came across an interesting YouTube video, part of a series called the Asimov Debates, hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, where he and other astrophysicists were discussing the birth of the universe “from nothing.” Lawrence Krauss, author of A Universe from Nothing, was on the panel, and he was arguing in favor of truly empty space, or absolute “nothing,” from which came the Big Bang. The other physicists, however, were not so convinced. “What about subatomic particles in a vacuum?” “What about gravity waves?” “What about the fabric of time-space itself?” Nope, said Krauss, those do not count. As a student of philosophy, I found this exchange utterly baffling. It’s not as if these scientists didn’t all have access to the same data. But the debate had nothing to do with well defined concepts, like the size and shape of the Earth, and everything to do with vague ideas like “nothingness.” Without realizing it, these astrophysicists had stumbled into the realm of philosophy, where evidence has less currency, and people like Krauss are left making silly statements hearkening to the days of Descartes, Kant and Heidegger. I personally think (in my very unprofessional opinion) that it would be more accurate to say, “absolute nothing does not exist.” But the nature of the universe isn’t what this post is about. Instead, I wish to address a different kind of nothing.

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In his book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, Sam Harris posits “there is no such thing as the self.” What you call “I” or “me” is simply an illusion. Now, it is no surprise that Harris has spent a great many years abroad studying and meditating with mystics and yogis, and was once a practicing Buddhist. Most of his ideas regarding the self originate from the Far East. He even admits, offhandedly, that his wife teaches meditation to children. So, right from the start, there is evidence of bias. Though he often cites scientific research, it is usually taken out of context, things done by other scientists in other fields, and is typically anecdotal. As far as I can tell, Harris is never hindered by the rigors of experimentation. There is no double-blind testing, no chance for contrasting evidence to emerge. He continuously states how, through meditation, his beliefs become self-evident (like finding the blind spot of your eye), but how does this experience differ from Christian scientist and head of the Human Genome Project, Francis Collins, who claims to have found God in a frozen waterfall? Waking Up feels a lot like a Buddhist-apologetic. From the very beginning, I had problems with his methodology. Science does not formulate a theory, then go in search of evidence to support it. This is how Intelligent Design got started. But while I’d never put Harris in a camp with Creationists (he’s much too smart for that), it’s tempting to do so, when one considers that the premise of his book was first imagined five centuries before Christ. 

Sam Harris offers numerous fact based statements to support his argument, but every time he does so, I am reminded of Krauss and the semantic problem of “nothing.” Harris writes, and I paraphrase: there is nothing in the brain where anything like a soul could be located; the brain can be split in half, and each half will then become its own identity; there are people who, due to some damage of the brain, are convinced one of their limbs does not belong to them; everything we do or do not do is based on a chemical reaction (again, in the brain) and these chemical reactions happen before we are consciously aware of them. All of these examples, you’ll notice, involve the brain, which is no surprise, considering that Harris is a neuroscientist. But again, I feel this makes for a biased viewpoint, and a narrow one at that. None of this convinces me that “I” is an illusion. Are you convinced? Even a little? Well, Harris argues this is difficult to realize, at first, that you may need years of meditation, and careful instruction by a learned teacher. Does this sound familiar? Scientology makes a very similar claim. If you “study” anything long enough, you can be made to “realize” it. This is what is called confirmation bias, and Harris has written whole books on the subject, so I am stupefied by his inability to “know thyself.”

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Imagine your best friend comes to your house and says to you, “Hey, I do not believe you own a car. In fact, your belief in your car is simply an illusion.” To that, you might say, “You must be crazy! Look! Just look in my driveway. My Volkswagen Beetle is sitting right there.” But then, your friend retorts, “Ah, but you’ve never looked closely, have you?” at which point he proceeds to take your car apart, piece by piece, removing the engine, the tires, the doors, everything. After working all night, every single component is laid out in front of you. It no longer resembles a car in any way. Now, looking smugly, your friend remarks, “Where is your car? You see, there is no car. There was never any car.” At this point, you’d probably want to punch him. But this is what happens in science. Interestingly, philosophers have been tackling this same problem of identity for thousands of years. In the first century, Plutarch conceived of a thought experiment, The Ship of Theseus, where each plank of a ship is removed and replaced, one by one. The same is done for the sails, the oars, the tiller, and every other part, until nothing of the original ship remains. At what point, Plutarch asks, does the ship become new?

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The Large Hadron Collider, Switzerland

It is, perhaps, the nature of scientific inquiry to dissect things, and sometimes to destroy things, to better understand how they work. The Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, arguably the largest scientific experiment in history, works by smashing atoms together at nearly the speed of light, breaking them into their constituent parts. This has given us great new insights into how the world works, like the discovery of the Higgs boson particle, which is responsible for giving things mass. Problems arise, however, when scientists cannot see the forest from the trees, or the forest from the leaves. There is always a risk of misinterpreting the world at the macro-scale, and failing to assign proper meaning to the data. Case in point: particle physicists claim, “almost all matter is empty space.” This is in reference to the distances (at the quantum level) between individual atoms, and the gap within the atom between the nucleus and its electron, which is (comparatively) great. But calling an iron skillet “mostly empty space” is meaningless, because everyday experience tells us skillets are heavy, and that we cannot pass our hands through them. Now, if we could shrink like Ant-Man, and look between the atoms, things might appear differently. Essentially, what is “empty” at the quantum level is “not so empty” at the macro-level. When I consider my brain, I do not think of it at the level of the neuron. I know there is no single location where I am defined, or where my soul resides. There isn’t a lobe marked, “Nick Alimonos.” But this isn’t to say that I do not have a self. To get a true understanding of what something is, you have to look at the whole picture. This is what I call Tapestry Theory.

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Consider this: you are visiting a museum and come across Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry, Starry Night. Right away, you recognize a picture of the night sky. However, looking much more closely, what at first seemed like a starry night becomes swirls of blues and violets and yellows. In fact, the closer you look, the less you are able to identify what you are seeing. If you are someone like Sam Harris, you might wonder where the painting went, or ask whether there was any painting to begin with. There is no marker in the pigment, or in the texture of the canvas, that defines the painting, or what it might look like at the macro-level. If we were to break it apart into its constituent atoms, scientists could study each atom under a microscope, using the most advanced computers, and never, ever complete the entire picture. Starry, Starry Night can only exist when looked at as a whole. Harris might call this an illusion, and in a way, it is. But it’s an illusion that is real.

Taking this macro-level approach, how do I define myself? Am I the entirety of my brain? No. I have always hated sports, because I have never been athletic. Put me in the body of Michael Jordan, however, and I might find basketball a little more enjoyable, even if I lacked his lifetime of experience. Does identity, then, equal brain + body? Again, no. Using my sports analogy, I might have found basketball more enjoyable had my teammates not been able to run circles around me. Even still, we need to move further out if we are to get a real sense of who we are as individuals. We have to consider not only the parts that make up our bodies, not only the people we interact with, but the environment we live in and the time and space we move through. All of these things together define us.

As a neuroscientist, it is only fitting that Sam Harris look to the brain to understand identity. I, on the other hand, write fiction. When I think upon matters of identity, I think about characters. What defines a character? For me, it has everything to do with their place in a story. In my novel, Ages of Aenya, Xandr is born in the mountains of Ilmarinen, is mentored by QuasiI, and at fourteen is forced from his home to wander the swamps, before being called to Hedonia, where he meets the woman he loves, Thelana. These events make up Xandr’s life, and consequently, his character. In the same way, who we are depends on where we have lived, what we have done, and the people who play supporting roles in our story. Without these outside factors, identity could not exist.

Imagine this (albeit horrible) scenario: a scientist culls stem cells from a zygote to produce an infant brain. But this brain is entirely isolated, left in a jar with only fluids to keep it functioning. Utterly divorced from stimuli, the brain does not process sound, sight, smell, or sensory input of any kind. While both human and alive, such an organ could not become aware of itself, and would thus have no concept of self. Sam Harris gives a similar but contrasting example, of someone with “soap opera amnesia”—who remembers nothing of who he is. Despite his absence of memory, the amnesiac still has a sense of self. He still says, “I do not remember anything.” But Harris stops there, telling only half the story. If you were to say to this man, “Well, if you don’t remember who you are, it doesn’t matter; self is an illusion anyway,” the amnesiac would likely get very annoyed. He would have a strong desire to learn who he used to be, knowing that more than likely, he had a life (a story), perhaps a wife and kids who are missing him. In other words, he would be seeking his sense of self. If self were an illusion, why would he bother?

While it is true that our sense of self can be transitory (we are rarely the same people we were a decade, a year, or even a day ago) this fact does not invalidate our identities. For one thing, our past selves continue to exist in space-time. Whoever you become later in life does not change the fact of your childhood, and your childhood continues to affect your identity, whether you can remember it or not. Even someone who has suffered from a stroke, who loses all memory of their past (I knew someone like this) is still defined by their past, because of the interactions they’ve had with other people and with their environment. My aunt, Tessia, is in the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease, and no longer remembers who she is. But this does not mean she ceases to be Tessia. The life she lived still happened, and her family (like my Mom) continues to recognize her.

For Sam Harris, rejecting the self also means rejecting any possibility of a soul. In his mind, there is no eternal, immutable inner-substance that makes us what we are, or which persists beyond death. So far, we are in agreement. Nothing in the universe is permanent. But it is a leap in logic to suggest that impermanence and mutability necessitate illusion. If this were the case, everything would be illusion. The self, like matter, can even be transformed from one form into another, but that still doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Consider the Twilight Zone scenario. Imagine that one day, you wake up on a rice farm in China. A strange woman calls you by a name you do not recognize, and two kids you’ve never seen start jumping excitedly onto your bed. As the days go by, you slowly come to realize that the woman is your wife, and that her kids believe you are their father. For weeks, you might try to convince them otherwise, but everywhere you go, people take you for a Chinese rice farmer. Even when you look into the mirror, you see a face you do not recognize. Given no option to return to your previous life, you would eventually accept your new identity. You might even be convinced that you were crazy to have believed differently. A student of Sam Harris might read this story and say aha! this proves identity is an illusion, but it doesn’t. It only demonstrates how social and environmental interactions define who we are. Changing these aspects of our lives, however, does not make identity any less substantial than changing your clothes makes your laundry insubstantial. Perhaps what Harris means by identity and illusion, and what I take it to mean, greatly differ. Typically speaking, an illusion is a trick, something false, not to be trusted. And to say that the self is false is to greatly diminish it.

lord-buddha-18a

Neil deGrasse Tyson once wrote, “Science is true whether you believe in it or not.” This is one of my favorite quotes, as it beautifully illustrates the core quality of science. Barring new evidence, accepted scientific theories are irrefutable. In religion, people murder each other, sometimes for millennia, over interpretation of scripture. But no genuine scientist can deny the Heliocentric model of the Solar System, or the basics of evolution. Sam Harris’ theories in Waking Up, by comparison, more closely resemble pseudoscience, metaphysics, philosophy and religion (take your pick). While data can be cited to support his claims, particularly regarding meditation and its effect on the brain, the data is selective, and does not take into account other religious practices, like prayer, which has also been shown to have a positive influence. At any rate, there may never be a way to prove, definitively, whether the self is an illusion or something more, as these terms themselves are indefinite.

Comparing meditation to religious ritual is not necessarily a bad thing, however, and if we had to choose from religions, Buddhism is the one I’d go with. Like the Buddha, Sam Harris wants to save mankind from suffering, by helping us to realize the illusory aspect of the self. Without self, we can overcome the selfishness that stands in the way of compassion. Now, I am a strong advocate of compassion. I find that this is what we are most lacking in the world, but I do not believe we need to surrender our sense of self to do it, and even if we could, I do not imagine Western culture could ever be made to accept it. Europeans and Americans have long celebrated individuality. As someone of Greek descent, I have taken to heart the philosophy of Socrates, who said, “An unexamined life is not worth living,” so that, rather than abolish thought, I try to be more thoughtful and sincere about my life. The solution to suffering, I believe, is not an outright rejection of the self, but an understanding that what we define as “self” is inseparable from the world and the people in it.

 

Thelana: Feminist Icon?

Thelana: The Nude Heroine

I can already hear the detractors, the angry feminists calling me out as a sexist. Their argument, I imagine, will go something like this,

Thelana is the lead heroine in Nick Alimonos’ fantasy epic, “Ages of Aenya,” and she has everything we love to see in a female character: strength, intelligence, and she can dish out punishment good as her male companion. She even passes the Bechdel test! So why am I up in arms about Thelana? Well, when it comes to hyper-sexualizing women, this author’s hit rock bottom. We’re not talking chainmail bikinis or skintight tights here either, because with this super hero, there is no costume. You read that right. She is utterly, unapologetically, naked. If “Aenya” was some kind of erotica, I might give it a pass. But no, this is serious fantasy, straight out of Westeros and Middle Earth. So, as a woman reader, I am left scratching my head, wanting to scream, ‘Put some clothes on for god’s sake!’ The author even has the audacity to call himself a feminist. He defends himself by pointing out, “Hey, look, the guy is naked too!” But this critic isn’t fooled. Thelana exists to tickle the author’s fancy and titillate male (immature) readers.

—Angryfeminist.com

While I have yet to find an angry mob outside my office door, I suspect, as Thelana grows in popularity, that it’s only a matter of time. The thing is, feminists have a lot to be angry about. We still live in a largely male dominated society. We have yet to see a female president (go Hillary!), and if we’re lucky, we might finally have a woman featured on paper currency, the $10 bill. But women have made huge strides toward equality in this country. Most Americans agree that a woman deserves to vote, to decide what they can do with their bodies, and to get paid the same rate for the same amount of work. Modern sexism is much more subtle, and in raising two daughters, I see it all the time. The hero in any video game/book/TV show/movie is almost always male. When the woman does take center stage, they are more often treated as eye candy. The message this sends is clear: 1) Women are of lesser importance  and  2) A woman’s most important attribute is beauty.

To contrast this message, I tell my kids what I would if I had boys, “#1 thing in life is knowledge and compassion.” Being a father to two awesome girls, fairness and equality matter a lot to me. I want them to grow up feeling invincible, like they could go to Mars if they wanted. I direct them to strong heroines like Lisa Simpson and Hermione Granger. When it comes to my own writing, I am always conscious of inequality, as I would hate to contribute to the problem. Unfortunately, Thelana draws out the sexists like roadkill attracting flies. Most guys never bother to look beyond her bare skin, to read the accompanying story that defines her character. On DeviantArt, illustrations of Thelana are lost amid countless soft core images, most of which are devoid of any life or personality. All this can be remedied by simply giving her something to wear, leather armor perhaps, or the bare minimum loin cloth, but here I part ways with many feminists, because we should never define a woman by the clothes she is wearing or not wearing; and more to the point, we should not make women responsible for the way men treat them.

A girl in a mini-skirt is not “asking for it,” and she certainly isn’t looking to be raped. This centuries’ old taboo, regarding females and clothing, goes hand in hand with sexism, and absolves men of any wrong-doing. False modesty and shame is imposed upon women by the world’s worst sex offenders, from Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan. Nudity, in and of itself, is neither pro nor anti women. A nude portrait can be liberating and empowering, or it can be humiliating and degrading. Like sexual consent, choice is everything. A woman stripped of her clothes is a victim. A stripper who loves what she does is not. Either way, it is the men typically calling the shots, the men who produce porn, watch porn, and, paradoxically, create the society in which women who engage in it are ostracized. If you’re a woman, it’s a no-win situation. Women learn from an early age to kowtow to men’s desires, but that it is taboo to express their own.

This double standard extends to how male and female heroes are regarded by some feminists (Cracked.com/Upworthy). Superman and Batman, in their skin-tight outfits and with their perfectly chiseled features, represent the male ideal, but Wonder Woman in her bikini bottom is “objectified.” Even Namor and Conan, who wear even less, are never regarded as examples of equal treatment. Why? Because male superheroes are a projection of a male reader’s identity, everything men wish they could look like, or so the argument goes. But there are a number of problems with this theory. Firstly, it supposes that a majority of Superman fans are envying his appearance, but as a reader of the comic since childhood, such a thing never once crossed my mind. Sure, he’s nice to look at, but what appeals to me most, and what I think appeals to just about every boy, are his powers. And really, who doesn’t wish they could fly? Secondly, this argument assumes that women do not have similar projection fantasies, that female readers never picture themselves with the goddess-like physique of Wonder Woman or Power Girl. Of course, given how my daughters love to dress up, and adding to that the plethora of supermodels splashed all over magazines like Cosmopolitan and Vogue, I think it is more common for a girl to look at other girls for this very reason. Lastly, this theory implies that women do not enjoy sex, or looking at male bodies, or that they have no interest in expressing their own sexuality. Not surprisingly, it is typically the male feminist making these assertions.

hugh jackman nude X-Men Days of Future Past

Wolverine: Objectified or just manly man?

In 1972, writer Samual Delany changed Wonder Woman into a more “modest” outfit, which he believed to be the feminist thing to do. That was, until women’s rights pioneer Gloria Steinem got involved, stating how much she hated that the traditional costume was taken away. Wonder Woman has long stood for female empowerment. We should not suggest that she cannot, or should not, expose her thighs, or that by doing so she is somehow diminished. We would never call Tarzan a whore for wearing only a loincloth, or say that James Bond is objectifying himself for exuding male sexuality. Male heroes are curiously exempt from any such moral judgments. While it is true that men enjoy looking at women, it is also true that, sometimes, women enjoy it when men are looking at them. Why else do women purchase sexy outfits? Mini-skirts? Thong bikinis? (OK, sometimes, it just feels good to be loose). But if women never wanted to draw attention to themselves, they would voluntarily don burqas, and yet it is always the men forcing them to do so. Female sexuality has long intimidated the male gender. Throughout history, and in many parts of the world today, patriarchal societies have worked to repress it. In Egypt and across Subsaharan Africa, vaginal mutilation is commonly practiced, to diminish desire and enjoyment of sex. But to deny a woman’s sexuality, whether physically or socially, is to deny her personhood.

More clothes = more empowering?

What matters in feminism is choice and who is doing the choosing. I am not suggesting that women should be nude, or sexy, only that the women who make that choice, and believe me there are those that do (they’re called nudists!), need not be objectified or labeled. Thelana may be naked, but it is only because she chooses to be so, refusing to be repressed, or defined by others. When, in Ages of Aenya, some jailers mistake her lack of apparel for vulnerability, it does not end well for them. By breaking with traditions of false modesty, in choosing to forgo the trappings that clothing represents, Thelana empowers herself, and it is a power that can never be stripped away, humiliated, or degraded.