The verifiable universe
I moved Madrone out of Seattle recently, and it felt like a rescue operation. "Argo" style. Save the hostages. In the early morning calm we (me, the cat, the boat) snuck out of Shilshole, and in common with all sensible plans, we went north.
Now Madrone sits at her mooring just offshore, and everything is where it belongs. I’m chopping wood, the cat is hunting birds. Nothing confuses me, everything I encounter here in the islands is familiar. If I see a plane landing, I know who it is. If I see a boat going by I know where it is headed. I can glance at the water and tell if it is high or low, and which way the tide is going. If for some reason I forgot what it was like yesterday at this time because probably I already know without looking. When I talk with my neighbors, none of the language confuses me. I suspect that the same is true in reverse and when I speak to a neighbor my words create the intended thoughts in their head.
Which is a remarkable achievement. Some of us are old, some are young. Some social butterflies, some hermits. But our environment is so constrained that the remaining variables are manageable. When someone ignores my hello, I don’t assume things like “they hate me” or “they are having a stroke and have lost the gift of speech” but instead I know that they haven’t spoken to anyone for days and are out practice. They know when I say something what kind of person is saying it. They recall what I said when I saw them last. They know it is happy hour, and they know that I am intoxicated, and so my outrageous statement that might seem out of character is actually part of high spirits. They know that my tremendous insult is a sign of endearment.
Some of them might hear “YANNI”, others “LAUREL”, but we are experiencing the world with as much simpatico as can be expected anywhere on earth.
That will soon all change, as I move out of my comfortable backwater and across half of the world to Amman, Jordan.
For one thing, just consider the physical aspects of the change: When I visit the southeast of the US I often notice a change in my digestion. A big change. And probably because of the timezone and also because of a vacation I end up becoming a night owl. On the west coast I am a solid morning person. This isn't a small matter, this means I am a wholly different person when I am in Georgia:
What will happen to my body in Amman? What will my mood be like? Will I be an early riser in GMT+3? After having eaten that food? Drank that water? Touched people and surfaces populated with a whole new biome? While on a trip to Germany recently I found myself totally unconcerned with what time it was, if I would be on time for an appointment, and even if I would get fed in a reasonable way. These are things that I am very very uptight about when at home. We know we are subject to our bodies, we know the words "hangry" and "PMS". But what of the Texas Tower shooter and the tumor that made him do it?
We ignore that our bodies are our minds because we wish we were constant beings, that we had a soul, that we survive death. But we don't even survive missing breakfast. "We" may not even be an individual consciousness but instead many, all imagining they have singular control. Our minds change under magnetic influence to the point where we can no longer do math, remember things, etc. And our moods are easily manipulated by drugs, by a surplus or deficit of needed chemicals. Consider the phenomena under the medical description "neglect". With neglect, for example, you see the food on one side of your plate, you feel hunger, but though you need the food you do not eat the food. Because of your body. Because you are your body. Good luck remaining a meaningful concept when that body rots.
The idea of an afterlife is central to Christianity, but not to other religions. Which takes me to the next aspect to Amman that I expect to challenge my ability to understand and be understood: knowing the menu. Here we might expect "Fries or salad". And in other spheres "Democrat or Republican". "Baseball, Football, or Hockey". "Atheism or Christianity". But few menus drawn from the real world are finite. We just want them to be so we don't go crazy with the possibilities. If you define yourself as other with regard to one group, and suddenly there are 10 groups, who are you? I'm the kind of guy who prefers French wine to Californian, a row boat to a power boat. What do I do in a place with few choices of wine, and no water?
Supposedly there are more than 4000 religions practiced in the world today. I know from my experience in Catholic school that Christians feel like they are very different from Jews and Muslims. But considering those other thousands, it might be more convenient to think of Judaism, Christianity and Islam all as one religion. "Many sons had father Abraham". I know the believers each feel they have chosen correctly but the choice like so many things is mostly about where they were born. If you instead imagine choosing fairly among all the religions, starting from scratch and pretending you were born and raised in a bunker away from all culture, how would you choose? Even if there were only two religions to choose from, in the absence of any external criteria that could be used to evaluate them, which one would you choose?
Having split the vote, as it were, amongst 4000 variations, perhaps the winning candidate should be "try to find a way to escape your body’s limitations by advancing the study of the world using whatever the best current strategy is?". That best strategy is science, a method of finding the truth when we can't trust our senses (opinions formed without rational basis while hungry might be reversed once the thinker is well fed, etc). If we were to find a better method than science, that method would be adopted as science. So there is no need to worry about 4000 sciences forming. But if instead we make the nature of the world subject to a popularity contest, with different groups trying to outnumber each other through evangelism or violent coercion, maybe the best we've got is that Adam and Eve hired a contractor to build the Dome of the Rock or something?
I hope we can do better than that.
I grew up reading the Dune series, a science fiction fever dream about the middle east, fight for control of oil, how religions form, and so on. Oh, and an important theme is awareness of the world and how mental training can give you a more accurate perception of it. The books had a huge influence on my life. I understand that Frank Herbert lived in coastal Oregon when he wrote it, but later moved to Port Townsend, WA. Anyway, in the book the hero’s family must leave behind an idyllic water world to move to a foreign planet that looks in artists depictions almost exactly like Jordan’s Wadi Rum.
It feels a bit magical to me… the way that forces beyond my control have led me to make this jump from water world to desert, just like Paul Atriedes in Dune. More so because I am making the jump from a few miles north of the home of Dune’s author. It’s a good, fun feeling. Like before maybe I would always be doing reasonable things like taking out the trash and earning a salary and shopping for groceries and so on, but now I can imagine myself the hero of a science fiction story.
I’ve had these magic thoughts before, even going so far as to imagine that the universe is a plot device being written to entertain or test me. Like when the story of Reality Winner broke. I mean come on. Reality Winner leaks secrets? Come on.
One time a friend and I ran out of gas just north of Crater Lake in early Spring. The snow banks on either side of the road were 20 feet deep. This was the mid 90s, before cell phones, and our lives were likely in danger. I coasted to a stop after using fumes to go up a hill and gravity to roll another half mile or so, and our car rolled to a stop right behind the only other car we’d seen that day, a nice older fellow parked on the shoulder in a Jeep truck with a can of fuel he let us use up (for free? It’s been so long I lose the details). How could that not be God’s doing? And if God is looking out for me... Yipee! Because now I don’t even need to be careful plus how awesome must I be? I mean, if there is a God it sure as hell puts people who believe in God through the ringer. God gives believers spinal meningitis but it gives me free gas!
So I get why it is preferable to pick one of the 4000 religions and run with it. I bet it feels awesome. But the real lesson of that Crater Lake trip is fill up on gas, know where you are going, and bring extra clothes and food when in remote regions. If I didn't learn that lesson and instead just thanked God, I'd be dead by now. My magical imaginings could take the Dune metaphor to mean that once in the middle east I should use a ton of drugs, develop a new religion, and use my powers to bring the western world to its knees.
...I mean that could be fun, but the best possible outcome of that path would be jail for me and some harm to others. Aren’t you glad I don’t give in to magical thinking? Don’t you wish everyone didn’t?