Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Evolution of Zion

       "The City of Enoch"  image courtesy of the artist

The Evolution of Zion
Presented to the Mormon Transhumanist Association annual conference
Provo, UT April 8, 2017

The word Zion comes from the Hebrew צִיּוֹן‎‎ Tsiyyon and refers to the ancient mount where David built the city of Jerusalem and Solomon later built the first temple. It has taken on deeper meanings through thousands of years to mean the Holy Land (Palestine) in its entirety, or a Holy place (in the Kabbalistic tradition, the word refers to the Holy of Holies, the innermost sanctuary of the temple and the source from which all God’s righteousness flows into the material world). In the national hymn of the Jewish state of Israel, Hatikvah or The Hope, can be heard the soulful longing of the exiled Jew for Zion:

As long as in the heart, within,
A Jewish soul still yearns,
And onward, towards the ends of the East
An eye still gazes toward Zion;
Our hope is not yet lost,
The two thousand years hope,
To be a free nation in our land,
The land of Zion and Jerusalem.
‎- Naftali Herz Imber‎, 1878

The above hymn helped to inspire the Zionist movement of the late 1800’s and after the atrocities committed against Jews in Europe during WWII the movement achieved its goal of repatriation in Palestine via the newly formed United Nations. The history of the region since the controversial action of the international community of cutting up Palestine, a strip of arid land already inhabited for centuries by Muslims who had driven out crusading Christians centuries before then, has been marred by much bloodshed and regional instability. Jews, Christians, Muslims, Mormons and the Rastafari movement all reverence the idea of Zion and claim hermeneutical privilege in its true meaning.

For Mormons, the plot thickens to include the mystical figure Enoch who we only snatch glimpses of in the Bible and apocrypha (Gen 5, Heb 11, Sir 44, Jude 14). From these verses we gain little insight except that Enoch, one of the ancient patriarchs, was exceptionally righteous and did not die but was taken into heaven to walk with God, and we learn derivatively that the audiences of both Old and New Testaments were familiar with his story. The story, a long-forgotten text in three parts, was known in fragments to medieval western Christendom and certainly informed Milton’s Paradise Lost, but was wholly rediscovered in Ethiopian script in the late 18th century and translated into English in 1821.

The works are attributed to Enoch, and speak of his ascent into heaven and his receiving the history of creation, including the War in Heaven and fall of the Watchers (a group of archangels who intermarried with humans creating a race of angel-human hybrid giants called the Nephilim), as well as the future history of the world. The work strongly influenced Kabbalistic angelology and likely inspired large portions of the Book of Moses in the Pearl of Great Price writings of Joseph Smith.  In these writings we are told not just about the apotheosis of Enoch but an entire paradisiacal or utopian city which was transfigured, and we are given this beautiful, inspiring passage, “And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.” (Moses 7:18)

To begin to grasp how this verse tapped into the existing utopian zeitgeist of Smith’s audience and inspired generations of Mormon pioneers to cross oceans and plains to build the Kingdom of God on Earth, we will first broadly review the history of Zion-Utopia in scripture, myth and literature, historical experiments (mostly terrible failures), and the Mormon experience. We will then look at how new philosophical ideas, new technologies and transhumanist ethics inform a modern revitalization of this ancient ideal.

Agriculture, Cities and the Fall

How did the City of Enoch come to be without poverty? Did not Jesus say, “the poor you will always have with you...”(Matthew 26:11; Mark 14:7; John 12:8)? Is poverty the default, fallen condition of humankind? Did we exist in a state of original affluence and noble savagery prior to the original sin or transgression of Adam and Eve and the fratricide of Cain? Interestingly the City of Enoch is a dramatic foil, not a reference to the city built by Cain in Genesis 4:17, also called the City of Enoch, after Cain’s son-- the first city to be mentioned in the Bible. It is arguable that the rise of urbanization, made possible by agriculture, was first viewed as evil by the authors of the Bible (think of the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah), who were predominantly pastoralists.

The story of Cain and Abel (the farmer who slew his brother, the shepherd) can be interpreted as the conquest of agricultural peoples over pastoralists or hunter-gatherers.  Such an exegesis is found in the humbling tale Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn, of a gorilla with speech who instructs his human pupil to reinterpret the story of Genesis with the adoption of agriculture as the Fall of mankind from grace. Many contemporary, non-fiction and science-popularization works also exist (1491 by Charles C. Mann; Guns, Germs and Steel and The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond; Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari; Sex at Dawn by Cacilda Jethá and Christopher Ryan; Nonzero by Robert Wright; and The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker) which discuss the rise of agriculture and the disruption or punctuation of prehistoric human hunter-gatherer equilibrium with the environment and within societies.

These works highlight a vigorous, ongoing debate among historians, biologists, sociologists and anthropologists as to whether the human condition was improved or harmed by agriculture and whether its adoption, with multiple, independent discoveries of these technologies, was an inevitability in the cultural evolution of humankind. Extant hunter gatherer groups act as “living fossils” and help us understand how humans lived before the spread of agricultural technologies radically changed our lives and social structures. These technologies have benefited humankind in terms of reproductive success without changing our genetic or biological fitness, but have incurred great costs to women, more “primitive” minority groups and the natural environment. For better or worse, it has been a man’s world for the past 10,000 years since the dawn of agriculture, and more recently a white-man’s world for the past 500 years.

Paradise in Scripture

Many creation myths include idyllic original states that were corrupted by evil and provide a path to reclaim innocence and communion with the divine. Accounts of blessed peacetime in the Bible include the Garden of Eden from Genesis, a brief time of communal peace among the early Christians in Acts chapters 2-4, and the Millennium after the Second Coming and the binding of Satan in Revelations chapters 20-21. In verse 4 of chapter 21 we read, “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” Of note, in similitude of Enoch, Jesus promises his apostle John, who is considered the author of the Revelation, that he will not taste death but will be left on Earth to continue his work. Indeed, the promise of immortality, in the form of transfiguration and resurrection, is inseparably linked to the promise of a New Heaven and New Earth. As the poet said, “Death, thou shalt die! (John Donne, Holy Sonnet X)”

In 3rd and 4th Nephi of the Book of Mormon we are told of the ~200 years of peace and prosperity that followed catastrophic natural disasters and the visitation of Jesus. These chapters tell of a perfect communal society (“and they had all things common among them...” 3 Nephi 26:19; 4 Nephi 1:3) with enough for all, no greed or contention, no social or ideological divisions and summarize by stating, “surely there could not be a happier people among all the people who had been created by the hand of God.” (4 Nephi 1:17) Also prominent in these chapters is the tale of the Three Nephites who, like John, were not to taste death but remain behind to minister. Contemporary accounts of their visitations among the Saints are numerous and form an oral tradition which enriches the scriptural account to believers and is encouraged, or at least tolerated, by church leaders.

Of course, other non-Christian faiths offer messianic and millenarian visions for the future. In Kabbalah there is an imperative to the enlightened Jew to heal and repair the world (Tikkun Olam) as part of the preparation for the promised Messiah.  Buddhists revere bodhisattvas, sages who like the Buddha have attained enlightenment, but like John and the Three Nephites have postponed their ascent to Nirvana in order to help others along the Path. The faithful of Shia Islam believe the “Hidden” Twelfth Imam will return and fill the world with justice and peace.

Paradise in Literature, Philosophy and History

Plato’s Republic, written in the 4th century BCE, lays the framework for a perfect society as imagined by Socrates during a leisurely after-dinner conversation with Athenian nobles. The first known work of its kind in Western literature posits a class of “philosopher-kings” who are raised to rule out of a sense of duty rather than ambition, and multiple supporting castes below them fulfill other necessary functions of the state. Aristotle’s Politics and Poetics, and later St. Augustine’s City of God provided additional ideas about the marriage of literature and law, both secular and holy, to create a better world. The story of King Arthur’s Camelot sought to marry the belief in the divine right of kings with romantic ideals of honor, justice, virtue and limited equality. Dante’s Divine Comedy told of the ascent of a traveller through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, meshing pagan mythology, Christianity and current events together in an epic ballad.

 Sir Thomas Moore’s Utopia,  published in 1516,  inspired by Amerigo Vespucci’s accounts of the New World  and based loosely on the fable of the lost continent of Atlantis, extolled ideals of the Renaissance (humanism and nostalgia for the classical world)  showing them flourishing in his “Good Place.” By resurrecting the ancient longing for an ideal society Moore softly inspired, and continues to inspire, dreamers and innovators alike for the next 500 years.

King Henry the 8th, Moore’s patron-turned-executioner, is credited along with Martin Luther for starting the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation spread across Continental Europe and evolved with new voices like that of John Calvin based in Geneva, which enjoyed an almost Utopian reputation during its Golden Age. In his seminal work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, sociologist Max Weber credited the counter-intuitive drive to righteousness and personal prosperity, born from a desire to prove one’s predestination for Salvation (arguably the core belief of Calvinism) for realizing the potential of capitalism dreamed of by the Florentine Medici. Seeking better fortunes than serfdom, people began moving into cities as a result of the agrarian revolution. Their strong desire to join the swelling middle class (the bourgeoisie)  made wealthy by the rise of mercantilism led to a concentration of cheap labor, making conditions ripe for the industrial revolution.

Upon the heels of the Reformation came the Enlightenment, with an emphasis on reason, individualism and rejection of tradition for its own sake. The first rational explorations of human logic, psychology, the structure and function of society, morality, justice, medicine and the philosophy of science were made during this time in continental Europe by minds such as Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz. English empiricists such as John Locke, Francis Bacon and Sir Isaac Newton later laid the foundations for modern science and fueled growing faith in the power of the human mind to discover the laws of nature. In The Wealth of Nations, the Scottish economist Adam Smith observed that “free” markets with many participants tend to exhibit emergent properties or fairness and self-regulation, as if guided by an “invisible hand,” leading to a widespread adoption of laissez faire economic policies, reinforcing burgeoning individualism and struggles for greater personal liberty. In the same vein and born from the Enlightenment were the writings of Rousseau on the social contract, the explosion of western philosophy and the birth of America with its vision of the founding fathers “to establish a more perfect union.”

American and Mormon Experiments in Utopian Living

In this atmosphere of limitless possibility and westward expansion of Europeans in the New World, emerged the first intentional societies in New England whose express purpose was to find a way to live according to the will of God as they understood it, but others desired to live in freedom and equality without religious dictates. With a near-constant supply of converts (European immigrants fleeing poverty and oppression in the Old World) these utopian movements -- Shakers, Owenites, Fourierists -- dotted the countryside between upstate New York, northern Pennsylvania and Ohio. Other groups in the region, such as the Oneida Community, experimented with different sexual and marital mores, group child rearing and dabbled in selective mating for superior offspring.

Driven west and south by the failed harvest of 1816, the “year without a summer,” the Smith family left their ancestral Vermont for Palmyra New York as economic refugees. Commonly called the “Burned Over District” of the Second Great Awakening, it was a hotbed of religious revivalism and the family of Unitarian and Methodist roots quickly found itself caught up in and divided by allegiances to competing religious sects. We know the official version of the young Joseph Jr.’s scriptural and prayerful search for the truth, his visions and the revelations that became the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price. We have been taught of the founding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, its successful missionary efforts in Europe, and its successive attempts (and failures) to establish a stable, sustainable, self-contained theocracy first in Kirtland, Ohio, then Jackson County, Missouri (explicitly called Zion and the future site of the New Jerusalem in a series of revelations to Smith) and Nauvoo, Illinois.

Along with the practice of polygamy, the consequences of which led to Smith’s violent death, this communal system of living was referred to as the United Order of Enoch, based on the Law of Consecration. The law, contained in a revelation received by Smith during the Kirtland period (D&C 42), instructed the faithful to deed or “consecrate” their property to the church under the direction of the local Bishop, and in turn each member would be given a “stewardship” and was expected to return the excess of their labors to a central storehouse. At first, participation in the system was requisite for membership, but these early communal experiments were unstable and short-lived before the exodus of Mormons to the mountain west.

Under the direction of Smith’s main successor Brigham Young, new voluntary communities were established throughout the Wasatch Front and the frontier.  Notable examples were the Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution (ZCMI); Brigham City, which operated a stock company system, lasted several decades and was financially successful even during large recessions in the 1870’s associated with mining that affected the rest of the state; and Orderville, a puritanical break-away group from  the Mount Carmel community, near Kanab, which took Smith’s vision even further with communal meals, recreation, uniform clothing and living spaces. Where a lack of morale and reluctance to adopt communal values had doomed prior experiments, Orderville had such qualities in spades; however, external pressures of social conformity by the federal government, in the form of the Edmunds Anti-Polygamy Act, and directions to disband from the central church authorities as part of a new effort to reintegrate into mainstream American society are largely blamed for its eventual collapse in the late 1800’s.

The vision of Joseph Smith to establish Zion in the New World was a strong motivator for early converts to the Mormon Church and continues to inspire multigenerational members whose ancestors participated in these experiments (such as my own 4th-great grandfather, Isaac von Wagoner Carling). In the past hundred years since the era of the Order, the Church has refocused its efforts instead on strengthening social connections among members and their individual and family welfare. It has built a robust safety net that provides food and money to the needy funded by fast offerings, a system of hospitals in the Intermountain West and then donated them to a large non-profit. The Church continues to “bring them in” by supporting refugee relocation efforts in Salt Lake City, supporting generous and unique services for the city’s homeless and mentally ill, and encourages a moderate and family-centered approach to immigration reform that makes the Utah brand of Republicanism slightly less xenophobic than the rest of the “red” states.

The draw to Zion still burns and calls many Mormons to dream of the prophesied future when the Kingdom of God will be more than a limited liability or tax-exempt corporation, a series of pro-social policies or a nebulous idea rarely revisited in nostalgic sermons and Seminary or Sunday School lessons. As the 20th century dawned, bringing drastic, unprecedented changes that rival the agricultural revolution, Mormons were stepping back from their vision of a physical, ontologically unique and “peculiar” utopia to join the secular world and witness its attempts to corner the market on societal perfection.

Science and Humanism - New Founts of Faith and Folly

The scientific and industrial revolutions filled people with hope in a humanistic future and spurred the first wide-scale rejection of  gross inequality, leading Karl Marx in 1848 to call, “Workers of the world, Unite!” His materialist view of history and political philosophy of communism would come to rule a third of the world’s population in its heyday. Darwin, inspired by the writings of Malthus On Population, synthesized his theory of evolution by natural selection, which inspired the humanist intelligentsia of his day to look forward to a glorious future when evolution by artificial selection became a tool for mastery of other species, as well as our own. German romanticism and nihilism, together with rising tides of nationalism following the demise of the old order after the first World War and the ill-fated eugenics movement led to the rise of fascism. In the “free world,” social darwinism together with capitalism established the current imperialist and paternalist monoculture which continues to steamroll by globalization and often by coercion after its military and political victories over fascism and communism.

The follies of our pursuit of happiness in the last centuries are numerous and humbling. After the “discovery” of the New World, we were briefly captivated by a fascination and desire to civilize the “savages.” In the face of our insatiable desire for wealth, our tenuous tolerance quickly devolved into our destruction of countless advanced natural experiments in social evolution among Native Americans and their genocidal slaughter, exploitation and imprisonment in reservations. Following this, our brutal enslavement of millions of West Africans for purely economic purposes and post hoc religious and pseudoscience justifications for this. Countless other acts of superiority and imperialism have been (and continue to be) committed by European powers who presumed their degree of cultural and technological evolution was due to some biologically (or divinely) endowed selection.

It is no surprise that modern Westerners have become weary and skeptical of utopian ideologies, preferring instead the counter-genre of dystopias which arose in the early 20th century with classics such as Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984. The German historian-philosopher Eric Voeglin saw the rise of destructive utopian ideologies as cautionary tales of Christian idealism. The atrocities of totalitarianism in Stalin's Russia, Ceausescu’s Romania, Mao’s China, Pott’ Cambodia, Fidel’s Cuba, as well as Pinochet’s Chile, Trujillo’s Dominican Republic and numerous African dictatorships demonstrate the dangers of secular and post-religious utopianism. Such failures are not confined to the West or traditionally Christian societies. The rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the form of the modern state of Iran, the Taliban of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the new incarnation of ISIS demonstrate that religious idealism can be universally powerful and destructive. Why, then, is the draw into such ideologies so strong and convincing, despite their abysmal track records?

The Evolution of Zion

When presented as a list of steps in an evolutionary path, it is tempting to view cultural  and scientific “progress” as an inevitable march; however, by pointing to failures, dead-end branches and extinctions we see a fuller, bushy view of history and cultural evolution. The fact that most of us were born into successful societies should come as no surprise (it is demonstrably obvious) and should not induce any sense of privilege or ethnocentrism. There is no pinnacle of evolution to sit upon, we hairless apes must content ourselves with our branch, but this does not preclude an underlying selective pressure for stability and survival. We may ask, is there an arc to history and if so, does it truly bend toward justice?

Studies of other primates demonstrate that reciprocal altruism, indignation and a sense of “justice” do appear to have a biological basis. These qualities lend themselves to non-zero-sum interactions and support the theory of group selection, which has broader explanatory power than kin selection theory for eusocial behavior among animals who have not sacrificed individual sexual reproduction, in contrast to classic examples of eusocial animals (ants, bees, termites, etc.). The study of biological evolution has yielded clear patterns and its results can be predicted, even manipulated or selected, if key environmental variables are influenceable or controllable. While it may be reductionist to assume that social and technological evolution yield themselves to similar prescience and control, it is possible that the needed advances in our understanding and the tools necessary to monitor and influence these complex systems represent a difference of degree and not of kind (i.e. a “Popperian” vs “Kuhnian” scientific revolution).

If we can even partially design our future consciously, I promote that then we should do so. I personally resonate with the idea that evolution has a prosocial agenda, which can be glimpsed through the lens of increasing non-zero-sum interactions among we conscious and verbal beings as well as  nonverbal conscious beings and the plants and microbes we have selected. I also suspect that trusting in such a belief to bring about a better world naturally (or by an external act of God), is to fall prey to the naturalist fallacy (or fundamentalist fatalism) and complacence to a trajectory that may be leading us instead headlong toward extinction. Evolution, unaided and undefended, will not produce such a paradise with the environmental conditions as they currently are-- radical economic and political reforms are necessary. Without ethically focused technological intervention, we may miss our greatest opportunity to improve the lives of all mankind, ensure our continued survival and evolutionary potential, and protect the wealth of genetic biodiversity which natural evolution has graced this planet with.

Such small evolutionary steps must confer serial selective advantages and should strive to respect universal human rights and needs as described by Maslow and the students of positive psychology, and the rights of nonhuman conscious beings. Changing the way we live will involve new systems of economics based on ecological impact and a strong decentralized authority made possible via the internet. Previous iterations of such ideologies, e.g. libertarian socialism and the Arcology movement of Paulo Soleri, fell prey to scarcity based economic pressures in part because they lacked technologies such as blockchain and access to powerful, mobile sources of energy, water, manufacturing and bio-engineering (high-efficiency solar collectors, fusion reactors, desalination and atmospheric water collectors, self replicating 3-D printers and CRISPR) which are now becoming available and getting cheaper. Proposed examples of small steps in civilization's evolution range tremendously and include seasteading, Masdar City and the recently released plans for the first human settlement on Mars patronized by the UAE, and other longshots such as generational ships (e.g. The Nauvoo) sent to nearby habitable planets and large-scale terraforming projects of the Solar System.

Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” is really an invisible network of supercomputers formed by the collective brains of all participants in the market. With the technological singularity we will have far more than the required computational power that earlier attempts at centralized economic planning needed but lacked. The widespread use of technologies such as blockchain and crypto-currency would shed light on the dark and secret world of wealth and income inequality and be invaluable to a fair taxation system, increasing enfranchisement and power in a democratic fashion. Reducing inequality, in an effort to end poverty, happens in one of two ways, taxation or philanthropy, and the benefits are clear either way (systems with less economic inequality have better objective outcomes). The concept of universal/basic income is currently being pioneered in the Nordic states which have long been successful examples of democratic socialism.

While scarcity for resources, capital, and agents who are willing and able to produce work will never be eliminated, it may be possible for us to move beyond our current understanding of scarcity and practices of rationing and justification for extreme concentrations of wealth while large percentages of our population struggle to meet their basic needs.Improved and ubiquitous resources for education, increased access to contraception and advances in medicine leading to longer, healthier and more productive lives will continue to swell the world's growing middle class and put enormous pressure on the current economic system which is suffering from gentrification and scarcity of resources. Hopefully, new and promising technologies discussed above will come online in time to prevent Malthusian-type population collapse.

We may be able to help prevent such disasters by increasing our understanding of the biology of human empathy and development of atonement technologies (immersive simulations of another’s subjective experience) as a form of education and enlightenment.  Most neuroscientists agree that humans have very limited “free will,” conceding that belief in free will does improve prosocial/moral behavior. Vital to our success in this endeavor is improved understanding of the biology of self-interest, motivation and incentive, and biological enhancement to foster “desire” to do the “right” thing not just those things evolution has programmed us to want. Instead of removing internal conflict altogether, this would likely work more as a catalyst, reducing the starting energy needed to move a reaction in the desired direction. Such enhancements and enlightenment would be highly effective within religious contexts and point to a avenue for future relevance and leadership among those faiths that most readily adopt and adapt to these needed changes. But a word of caution to exclusive "universal" faiths who strive for dominance: the future you envision is unsafe for all, including yourselves. We must reject monolithic cultures and ideals, and instead work for a healthy and diverse global village with interacting players in a non-zero-sum game of infinite complexity as the one, whole and healed mind and body of humanity.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

What will a Doctors Appointment in 2020 look like?

(This is a short story I wrote for my medical school's new medical humanities journal)

I was getting big, scratchin’ 300 pounds, so I thought I should probably lose some weight. I saw an ad for a new doctors’ office in town, so I thought, “What the hell?” I don’t much care for doctors, hadn’t been to one in years besides my cardiologist, but my insurance through work had just kicked in (first time I’d had good coverage in a while) so I figured it couldn’t hurt.

When I walk into the clinic the first thing I notice is the smell.  Smells good, clean, homey.  My eyes adjust to the room, and the next thing I notice is that every single person is holding one of them fancy tablets.  They’re all wearing headphones, mumbling, making smudges on the flat surfaces with rubber tip pens.  I walk up to the window to check in and the nurse (the only person back there behind the glass) hands me one too, with a bracelet that she asks me to slip on my left wrist.

I do, and she explains, “The bracelet will measure your vital signs. Our practice is participating in a pilot program to test new interactive medical software. The tablet is running an app that will guide you through the medical history and personal information gathering process, but should you need any help I’ll be more than happy to assist you!”

I grunt, sit down, and am surprised by how comfy the seat is. Plenty of room, even for my fat ass. I don’t know how to use these gadgets very well, and I worry about making a fool of myself.  I push my thumb in the box, and the app starts up.  It asks me if I’ve got a smartphone, I click yeah.  It tells me to bump my smartphone to the tablet, so I do, and the icon floats from the tablet on to my phone.  The pop-up says , “I have located most of the information I need from your phone.  May I use it?” I click sure and it brings up a form for my personal information, most of it already filled out including my meds, pharmacy, allergies, as well as my name, address, where I work, insurance information, even my picture!  It freaks me out.  I guess I was worried for the wrong reason.  That was too easy! But at least I didn’t have to type it all. So much for privacy.

After I finish with that page a questionnaire comes up.  It asks me to use a gauge to measure how strongly I agree or disagree with the following statements:
• I am healthy (Yeah no)
• I want to be healthy (That’s better)

Next is some legal mumbo jumbo. Usually I just click “accept” but the tablet’s got eye motion trackers, won’t let me scroll unless I read it. Goddamn lawyers.

At the end of that page it asks:
“Would you like to know the results of all the tests that will be run today, or only those that are pertinent to your treatment plan?”
That’s easy. Less is more. What are they gonna do with the rest of it? I wonder.

Now it asks me to fill in the blank:
“A doctor should______”

I cough a little. How the hell should I know?  Isn’t he the one went to school for eight years? it tells me that’s an invalid answer.  No shit.  So I put “Listen.” Not sure where that came from, but it sounds good.  The app does some fireworks, then the tablet goes transparent (just uses the camera I suppose to show the room in front of me), and some arrows point towards the direction of the far wall, where I see a big TV with my first name two spots from the top, and the status bar says I should be in to see the Doc in about fifteen minutes.  Not too shabby for such a stripped down outfit.

The fifteen minutes seem like five, and the nurse calls me back.  She looks too young to have gone to nursing school. She takes the gizmos and says “All your vital signs are normal except your blood pressure, which is high.”
“How high?” I ask.
 “170 over 100,” she says.  She shows me a curve, and I see a line in the red danger zone which marks where mine is.  She asks me how I’m feeling, and if my chest hurts. 
I say, “I’m fine,” a little put off. 

She leads me to the room and says she needs to take some blood, and my heart starts to go bump.  All of a sudden I remember why I avoid doctors.  I curse under my breath, roll up my sleeve and she turns around with a fat pen, giggles, and says, “All I need is a naked fingertip.” She takes my hand and says, “Just a little pinch.” I feel a shock on my finger.  Reminds me of how my grandpa used to check his sugar. She turns away.
“That’s it?” I ask.  She turns back around, nods, says the Doc will be in shortly, and bounces her cute lil’ rear out of there.

I look around the room.  The walls are covered in some kind of plastic that doesn’t reflect the light very well.  There are no jars of supplies on the countertop, no flashlights with old telephone cords hanging on the wall behind me, no flickering fluorescents above, no obvious sign that I’m in a Doc’s office. I notice triangular solar panels in all the corners of the ceiling and another big flat screen on the wall next to me, covered with the same plastic film. I touch it. Reminds me of petting a sting ray at the aquarium as a kid, rough one way, smooth (almost slippery) the other.  The TV wakes up and starts flashing a commercial for hand sanitizer, as if to say, “Get your grubby paws off!” On the counter I notice a box the size of a lunch pail with a rotating holographic display of a naked man, hands at his sides, palms forward. There’s a rhinestone glove hanging on the wall next to it.  Kinky.  Hope I don’t need a rectal!

The screen is flashing some ad for a local gym. “You callin’ me fat?” I say out loud.  The ad is quickly over and changes to one about life insurance. God, the nerve!  A pop-up says, “The Doctor will see you now.” So I straighten up.  The door opens itself and in comes… Not the guy from the commercial.

“Hello, my name is Dr. Patel,” says a very attractive, dark, Asian woman wearing a white coat over a tight fitting pinstripe pantsuit.
“Um, I’m Hal.” I respond.
“Hello Hal!” She shakes my hand.  Her hand is smooth, but she has a firm grip. She takes the seat next to the table where I’m sitting and crosses her knees. Her shoes are worn on the bottom, but still got plenty of rubber left. Made for walking. She’s looking at me. Her eyes are framed by a thick, black coat of mascara to match her jet black hair. She’s stunning. Not good for my heart! 

“I had a chance to read your responses from our questionnaire.  Thanks for filling that out.”
I clear my throat. “Sure.”
“I just have a few more questions before we get started, OK?”
“What does ‘good health’ mean to you?”

I stroke my stubbled chin. Strange question.  And she doesn’t seem to be in any hurry, lets me sit there like an idiot for what seems like forever.

“To… to live to see your grandkids?” I ask with some hesitation.  
“Hum, alright. ‘To live to see your grandkids.’  And what role would you like me to play?”

Again, I’m stumped. Is this a game? What kind of place is this? I thought doctors were supposed to know what their job was.

“Just keep me alive!”
“I can do that,” she says with a smile. “So let’s get to it. What brings you in today?”
I shrug, slap my gut. “Ain’t it obvious? I wanna lose some weight.”
“Alright, you want to lose weight. Let’s write that down.  Computer!”

I reel back as she stands up, her raised voice still ringin’ in my ears.  The flat screen, which had gone the same color as the wall when she walked in, wakes up in a flash of color and graphics. I swallow hard. It takes me a second to get my heartbeat back to normal.   “Please show me Hal’s medical record.” A face appears, a balding older man with a grey goatee, thin white hair and glasses.

“Certainly, Doctor. And hello Hal!” the man says as he turns to me and nods.

“Hal, this is Howard,” says the Shedoc. “Howard is my scribe. He is an artificial intelligence, an AI,  like Siri. He can understand almost any question or command about your medical record, and I’ll be using his program during our visit today. Is that alright?”
I nod, not taking my eyes off the AI. He seems to see me too, and cracks a mischievous little smile. I look away.

“Howard, visit type is preventative health screening, and chief complaint is ‘I want to lose some weight.’” The face fades, and I see my words get typed into a large header at the top of the screen and from yards behind it, in TV land, I see templates rushing up, filling the remaining space. The doctor motions for me to join her in front of the screen, so I slide off the table and take a step closer. She reaches out and brushes two templates aside, they disappear off opposite edges of the screen. Using her pointer finger and thumb on each hand, she expands two rectangles onto the screen. I realize she’s not really touching it, just motioning. Then I remember the solar panels on the ceiling. “They must be motion sensors,” I think to myself.

“This box,” she points to one at the bottom, “will be our clipboard, where we’ll keep information temporarily. This,” points to one on the side “will be our problem list, where we will put your medical concerns that need to be addressed.” She looks me in the eye as she says this, likes she’s not at all impressed with this touch-no-touch big screen TV.

“Howard,” the face comes back, “Please populate the problem list.” The AI turns his face to the other side of the screen, and I see four or five items appear, words I don’t know with numbers after each one. I don’t dare interrupt, but she must have read my mind. “These are codes we use in medicine for billing purposes. This code is for your high blood pressure and this for your obesity.  The others are from past illnesses and surgeries.”

“Mmhmm,” I mumble.  When she said “your obesity” I felt like somebody punched me in the gut. I never thought of myself as obese before. My grandpa, now he was obese! Old man couldn’t get himself off the couch for the last five years of life. That’s not me!

“Howard, please show me Hal’s timeline.”  The templates and boxes fade, and in appears a grid with a thick red line across the screen, dotted randomly by points that grow tentacles with thought bubbles on the ends and fly off in all directions as they rotate slowly around the red line like a rotisserie.

“There are some pretty large gaps here in your record, Hal, from the time you were 12 to 18, and here again from age 21 to 30. What can you tell me about your health during those times?”
I tell her I don’t remember nothin’ from when I was a kid, except for a broken arm at 15, and that my family didn’t have insurance, and I spent my twenties in and out of jail…

“In what state were you incarcerated?” interrupts the AI. His voice squeaks then goes deep, grindy. Startles me.
“Here. Uh, this one.”
“I am searching for your records now.” A pause. “Yes, here they are.” All of a sudden there are so many dots in my twenties that they run together. My lifeline looks more like a rolling pin.
“You saw the doctor often in jail?” It wasn’t really a question.
“Sure. Every week. All there was to do.”
“I understand. In between sentences were you ever hospitalized or had surgery?”  she asks.
I think for a minute.  “Yeah, once in ’09. Car crash. ‘Bout broke my goddamn neck.”
“I have located those records also!” sings the genie in the TV.

She asks me more questions about my sauce and smokes, about the meds I take, and digs out of me that this is the first time I’ve been to see a regular doc in about 5 years.
“All this must seem very strange.” She gestures toward the screen.
“It’s different.” Too different! Things change too fast to keep up with nowadays.

“Thank you, Howard. Please update the problem list. We will now proceed to the physical exam.” The screen returns to the boxes. More red words and numbers. She smiles and motions with her arm for me to have a seat back on the table.  I sit, glance at the clock, and realize I’m tired even though I was only standing for 5 minutes. It wasn’t that exciting.

“Are you alright?” she asks.
“I’m fine,” I say, catching my breath.
“Very well.” She goes on, “To begin, I’d like to ask some general questions about your health in the last week.” She pauses, and I nod for her to go on. She’s standing close to me now. My eyes are at the level of her chest, and I realize I’m staring. It’s hard not to.

“Have you had any fevers, sweats, or chills?”
“Unexpected changes in weight?”
“I wish!”
 She laughs, just once, and then she chokes it back. I don’t mind. In fact I want to hear it again. She puts her hands on my head, and chills run down my neck and chest. It has been so long since somebody touched me. When I open my eyes, I see her pulling out what looks like a phone from her coat pocket. She asks me to look directly ahead and a bright light pierces into my right eye, then my left.

“Have you had any changes in vision?”
“Hum! Now you ask!” Another laugh. When the black dots fade I see two pictures of red, spidery veins on the screen.
“What are those?”
“Your retinas, and they appear normal except for some new vessel growth here around the disk, something we call neovascularization, which is an early sign of diabetes.”  I see the words she just said show up under the images. The last word, diabetes, stands out. That’s what Gramps had. Diabetes. Obesity. He died in his early sixties, a mess: pissing his pants in front of the TV, smellin’ like a dumpster. Had a heart attack. Slumped over, like he slept. The day was half over before we figured it out…

She keeps talking. All I’ve got to say is, “No.” She’s in my ear now. A picture of my greasy ear drum appears on the TV.
“Can you hear this?” A rumbling sound.
“Tell me when you can no longer hear it.” The pitch goes up, gets shrill like a dog whistle, then it’s gone.
 “Alright.” She does the other ear. She takes off the little plastic funnel, and says, “Please open your mouth, stick out your tongue and say ‘Ahh.’” I do much more than that! But this time, she only smiles. Charm is wearin’ off. I glance over at the TV again and notice the words are still churning out. It must be watching her and taking notes.

She asks me to unbutton my shirt. I bite my tongue, and do as she says. She pulls out a small probe, like a lip balm tube, and says “I’m going to place this on your chest to listen to your heart and lungs.” She places it against my chest with her right hand, and stares at the phone in her left.  I hear whooshing—my heartbeat—I see a dance of blue and red on the small screen. She twists the probe, like she’s turning a car key, and then moves it around in all directions like she’s tenderly stabbing me in the heart.  
“Any chest pain? Palpitations? Shortness of breath?”
 “No.” I lie.
She moves to the other side of my chest, haves me breathe in and out through my mouth, all the while twisting and turning the probe this way and that.
“No shortness of breath?”
“Nope.”  Not why I came in.  Next she holds it up to my neck, one side, the next.

“Now I’d like to listen to your abdomen.” I start to lie down, but she stops me. “That won’t be necessary.” She presses the tube into the center of my gut. I suck in. “Try to relax” she says. She moves it up under my ribs on either side. I can’t help but tense up. She eases off. Another round of questions.
“No... No… No…”

“Ok. We’re done with this!” She puts the tube back in her pocket. I exhale. She starts tapping on the phone and talking without looking up. “Not long ago these ‘studies’ [she air quotes] used to be ordered outpatient and would take days, even weeks, to get back to the physician, and when they did eventually get back to us we didn’t know what to do about it most of the time.”

“What changed?”

She smiles, puts her phone away, looks me in the eye and says, “Let me show you.”

She walks over to the box with the naked man on top, puts on the glove, and walks back. Here we go, I think to myself and the bumping starts again. But she turns to the TV instead of askin’ me to bend over. My buttcheeks relax, and I slump with a sigh.

The genie pipes up. “Virtual rendering is complete. Would you like to view the model now?”
“Yes, thank you Howard.” A 3D image of a torso appears. Looks familiar, but at least twice as fat as me.
“Please prepare echogenic visceral cross sections of these regions for the transducer.” She draws a circle with the gloved hand over the model of my upper belly and my heart. The layer of skin becomes transparent, a thick layer of yellow fat, then the muscles and bones fade away and I see the plumbing. I see the same thing floating in the air above the box! She walks back over to it, reaches into the box with the gloved hand, and I see fingertips appear inside the hologram fondling the tubes. Her fingertips!

“What the hell is that thing?!” It comes out like a cough.

“This is a force transducer that converts the ultrasound image obtained during the exam into a model that I can feel using this special glove. Pretty neat, huh?” I’m speechless. I get it, but I don’t at the same time.

“This method allows me to feel the density of your liver, the thickness of your coronary arteries, and the amount of fat around your pancreas without having to cut you open—better for both of us!” She’s not showing off, she’s genuinely giddy. I can tell this is her favorite part of the job. It’s almost cute, but then I remember that those are my guts, and seeing her fingers digging and pinching ‘em gives me the heebie-jeebies.

She turns to me, holds out the glove and says, “Wanna try?” I feel sick, an acid burp bubbles up and burns through my nose.
“No thanks.”
She shrugs. “Howard, please add the following diagnoses to the problem list.” The box with the red words comes back. “AFLD, nodular cirrhosis of the caudate lobe, chronic pancreatitis with fibrosis, metabolic syndrome, and coronary atherosclerosis of the LAD.” The words tumble onto the list, each with a number. It’s all Greek to me.

“I’m sorry for the medical jargon. Basically what I found is evidence of liver dysfunction, inflammation in your pancreas, and hardening of the arteries that keep your heart alive. These are all consistent with your history of alcohol use, a fatty diet, and a family history of diabetes and heart disease.”

Holy Shit! Is she talking about me?

 “Howard, please access Hal’s vitals and blood results and combine his Framingham score with the Seattle heart failure model to compute a 10 year survival curve with a 90% confidence interval.”
“Certainly Doctor… With no improvement in Hal’s health status, the natural course of his disease will most likely end in death in the next ten years; in other words, the probability that Hal will be alive in 10 years with no improvement in his health is approximately 45%. Most likely cause of death is stroke, second most likely cause of death is heart attack.” She turns to me slowly, and asks, “Do you have any questions?”

She doesn’t touch me, but I’m in pain. The words slice through me. I feel numbness replace the ache.
I’m checkin’ out.

My mind is blank. My mouth hangs open. I see nothing.



I heard what he said. It shouldn’t surprise me. I saw the whole thing, saw everything she did. It is me they’re talking about. My body! Right?

The room comes back into focus. I look away from her, to the box of red words, to the list. A death sentence written in a language I can’t even read!

I shouldn’t have come.

“How are you feeling right now… emotionally?” Her voice is quiet. Sounds far away.

“How do I feel?” You just told me I’m gonna die! How do you think I feel?

I see Gramps, before he got sick—strong, laughing, leaning over to give Grams a kiss. I remember the look on her face the day we buried him, the same questioning look she had every day he was sick that seemed to always ask “why.”
That’s not me. I don’t wanna die! There’s got to be a way out. There’s always a way out!

“What can I do? What are my options?”

“You want to change?” She’s not smiling. Her look is challenging, straight in the eyes.

 It’s game time. “Yes.”

“What are you willing to do?”


“Good.” Her lips part and she smiles, big and beautiful. “Howard, please add another 10 minutes to my visit with Hal. He and I would like to discuss a treatment plan to improve his chances of survival.”

“By what factor, Doctor?”

“How about we double it? Bring it up to 90%?” She’s asking me. I jerk my head up and down.  She shouts, “Therapeutic target is 90%!”

“Input received… Accessing decision analysis program Delta Rho… building individualized decision web for Hal… Rendering is complete!”

“Show me the web Howard.” She is standing stiff, moving slowly. She puts the glove back on. She is in another world, in TV land. The status bar at the bottom says COMPLETE and in comes a flashing point, lines shooting out from it in all directions and branching, more points, more branches! The image shrinks to make room on the screen for the new branches. One line veers off to the right, becomes a deep red, then goes out of sight. Another turns yellow, then goes straight up to the top.  The perspective starts to change. I look over at her and see that she is holding her gloved hand out in front of her like a priest during a blessing, and she is slowly extending it straight out.  As she moves, the view changes. A small flick of her finger erases an entire branch, the red one.

We get close enough to one of the points to see that it is labeled, “Immediate intervention: Compatible statin therapy+35% total cholesterol reduction+ moderate exercise+ compatible diet= 65% 10 year survival.” She reaches out and the node lights up a bright green.

“This is our approach, Hal, uh, I mean Howard.” She snaps out of it, turns to me, “Sorry!”

“That’s alright,” I say.

“Well, as you can see these interventions will get you most of the way there; however, we are still pretty far from our goal of 90%. This is where you come in. I’m going to put your resolve to the test.”

“I’m listening.”

“Before we go any further, I need to know how committed you are to making the changes listed here. Howard will build reminders into the calendar on your phone, he will send you a shopping list every week for your diet, and he can negotiate with your insurance company to pay for a gym membership and even reduce your premium if you are following the plan and losing weight. But, if you don’t, your rates will go up, and they will go up twice as fast if you start to gain weight! Do we have a deal?”

“You drive a hard bargain!” Got me where it hurts

“From one to ten, how committed are you to this course of action?” she asks.

“Hum… I’d say an eight.”

“Why eight? Why not nine?” She’s puttin’ on the pressure.

“Well, I’ve tried to do this before, and it always starts off well, but you know how it is… The road to hell…” I look down at my feet, squeamish, embarrassed, but it’s the truth.

“Alright, why an eight instead of a seven?” she asks it in a kinder way, almost like she’s impressed.

“Cause it’s what I want. That’s why I came in here.” For the first time I feel like I can look her in the eye. I’ve laid it all out. I got nothing left to lose. This is me.

“I know you can do it Hal, and I’m going to do all I can to help you succeed.” She lays her hand on my shoulder. I feel emotions breaking to the surface. It’s uncomfortable. I swallow, blink, wipe my nose with the back of my sleeve. “But there’s something else I need you to do—you’ve got to give up the tobacco, for good. Let me show you why.”

She turns again to the wall.  “Howard, what are Hal’s chances of survival if he stops smoking as of today?”

“Including tobacco cessation to decision model… 10 year survival with current parameters is approximately 90%!” She looks right at me. She doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t have to. It’s my call.

“I’ll do it.”

“Good! And what about your wife?”
How did she know about the Mrs.?!

“Er, what about her?”

“Will she support you in this? And by that I mean will she help you with the diet, exercise program, and most importantly will she stop smoking, too?” I hadn’t thought of that.

“I don’t know.” I honestly don’t.

“Let’s ask her, shall we? Howard! Please call Hal’s wife for me, Jane, isn’t it?” She cocks an eyebrow. She’s relentless!

“Connection is secure.”  The PA crackles, I hear my wife’s ring tone.

“Mrs. Watson?”
“Hello, this is Dr. Patel, your husband’s physician.”
“Oh God! Is he alright?”
“Yes, yes. We have just discussed his health and have agreed on a comprehensive treatment plan to make sure you and he get to enjoy your grandkids!” She smiles over at me.
“Oh. That’s… that’s great.”
“But Mrs. Watson, I would like to ask if you are willing to work with Hal and I to make this happen. Can we count on you?”
“What do you mean? Of course I want to help! Why wouldn’t I?”
“Hal is going to start eating better, exercising, and he is going quit smoking. And to be successful, he needs our help with those things—yours and mine. Are you willing to quit smoking as well?”


“I suppose. I mean… Yes. Of course.”
“Wonderful! I will email you the details, and please feel free to write back or call with any questions. We are still accepting patients, and I would be happy to be your physician as well, should you need one.”
“Oh, well, thank you!”
“Goodbye now!”
“Ok, goodbye!”

I laugh out loud! I can’t believe what just happened. Never in my life have I seen somebody with balls that big! And on a woman to boot!

If I wasn’t a married man…

“Well Hal, our time is coming to a close. Before I say goodbye, I just want to quickly summarize our visit today.” She pauses for my nod. “We put together a timeline of your life and medical history, identified your major medical concerns, and seeing the real probability that you would not be around for your grandkids we came up with a plan to improve your chances—double  them—which  includes: 1, adding a medication to your daily regimen to lower your cholesterol; 2, an individualized diet with automated support; 3, an exercise program and financial incentive to lose weight; and 4, immediate tobacco cessation. Are you with me?”

Wow! We did all that? We did, didn't we?

“I’m with you, Doc.”

“Alright, I’d like to see you again in two weeks to follow up on your progress. And in the meantime, I want you to know that I’m here for you if you have questions or concerns. The app on your phone will help you reach me and give you access to everything we discussed today regarding your treatment plan.”


“I’ll see you next time!” She shakes my hand. The door opens itself, and out she goes.

I sit there for another minute, gather my things and step out into the day. I had forgotten what a beautiful day it was! Or maybe, I just didn't notice it before. I reach for my smokes, then stop.

Wait! What did I just agree to? What the hell just happened?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Human Becomings (part 1)

I'm excited to write this post. This is the real reason I study science, I believe in God, I go to school, work, church... the reason I love, the reason I live. This is the "why" that justifies "what" I do. It's a little abstract, and I may be drawing correlations between unrelated things, but to me, it makes sense. It is my schematic connection that makes the world go 'round. I'm talking about my answer to the three questions,"Who am I? Why am I here? What is my destiny?"

As you may have noticed, I am interested in evolution. The reason organic evolution interests me is that it helps answer one of those three questions raised above, "Who am I, or better put, where did I come from?" Of course, I don't think it answers the question entirely, but it's a good start for it explains the origins of my body, an important component of who I am. I believe that my mind, as part of my body, is also the product of evolution. Evolution explains quite well many of the quandaries of human existence and the conflicts, both internal and external, that we experience.

As a missionary I often indulged in "deep" doctrinal conversations and debates with my companions, and these discussions provided my first opportunities to explain, albeit in a very naive and reductionist way, my budding worldview and philosophy of human origins and destiny. My early explanation went something like this:
Pretend this [my hand at eye level] is a ship travelling close to the speed of light. Einstein described a scenario in which a ship could travel "to the future" by exceeding the speed of light, and then halting to allow the light to "catch up to it," where those on board could watch as the events from the time the light barrier was broken to the current/future time would transpire at an accelerated speed, like a "sonic boom" of light...
By this point, my 19 year old friends would often have the same expression as Keanu Reeves' What If meme.
This assumes that superluminal speed is possible, and once achieved, those on board would not simply cease to exist and could return to normal time and space. But what if, once the ship broke that barrier, it was surprised to find another previously unknown dimension full of ships and beings from other times, some very ancient, who had done the same thing? Obviously we would not now know of such a dimension. In essence, it would exist outside the visible/observable universe. (Einstein was very clear that nothing in the universe can travel faster than light, and in the universe there are no privileged frames of reference.) Would this not satisfy many of the demands of godhood? In particular, omnipresence could be possible through a connection of these different ships which broke the barrier at different times to complete a timeline of the universe, connecting very young civilizations to very old ones. And if normal time and space could be re-entered from any of these access points, then causality could be interrupted, and is that not the definition of omnipotence? And if these beings could speak to one another, and compile their shared knowledge, would that not approach a sort of omniscience? And if we allow all these as possible, is it not also possible that this is how God became God, And how we may one day become gods as well? 
After such a conversation, my first companion, Elder "Ike" Carr of Portsmouth NH, reminded me of a scripture unique to Mormonism, found in the Doctrine and Covenants section 131 vs 6-8, a favorite of his father (a chemistry professor), which reads:
"6 It is impossible for a man to be saved in ignorance. 
 7 There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes; 
 8 We cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter."
I did not realize the theological ramifications of this scripture at the time, and did not have the vocabulary to describe its significance, but I have since learned that there is a word for this kind of worldview: metaphysical naturalism.  Opposed to methodological naturalism, which is a common assumption of the scientific method (the supernatural may exist, but it is not observable, and therefore not of interest to science), metaphysical naturalism assumes that the supernatural does not exist at all, and hence the entirety of the universe is explicable by natural causes. It is often associated with the most militant forms of atheism, and never (to my knowledge) associated with religion, with this one exception.

It occurred to me that this was a theological gold mine--a paradigm capable of integrating science and religion. It was this recognition that allowed my mind to explore the realm of science without fear of what I might find, because ultimately it all was one.

That was an exciting time in my life. I saw new horizons of knowledge and possibilities open up to me for the first time. I devoured this new knowledge. Nothing was off limits. I began to read books by authors whose very names were a hiss and byword among other faithful Mormons and conjured up the worst possible descriptions in our vocabulary (atheists, darwinists, intellectuals, liberals!), as well as authors who were not known to me but should have been (Gould, Diamond, Singer, Sagan, Orwell, Wilson).

I read books which I knew would challenge my beliefs, like The Origin of Native Americans: Evidence from Anthropological Genetics. And when the evidence of the Asian ancestry  of Native Americans was laid out clearly, unambiguously in front of me, I accepted that I could no longer believe in the mainstream Mormon narrative of continental geography, a doctrine taught explicitly by Joseph Smith and many of his successors, which taught that the Native Americans of both North and South America were descended from the house of Israel and that the story of how they arrived is contained in the Book of Mormon.

I also began to read books which I knew would help me to strengthen the link between science and religion (Finding Darwin's God and Only a Theory, by Kenneth Miller, Mormon Scientist, memoir of Henry Eyring); however, it soon occurred to me that I was learning a new language, and that my Mormon vernacular was starting to slip away. I could no longer hold "normal" conversations with my Mormon friends about scriptural topics, mostly because these conversations are based on a literal reading of the text as historical fact, and, except in certain circles, there is little room for hermeneutics and critical analysis.

In the fall of 2010, I enrolled in a course called Science and Religion from the division of humanities and philosophy. We began the course by taking assessments of our religious and scientific literacy (not to brag, but I was the only student in the class who passed either of them in any semester the class had been taught...) As a class, we would prepare by reading assigned articles and chapters from Stephen Prothero's Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--and Doesn't, and Michael Ruse's Evolution and Religion: A Dialogue, and then debate with each other. It was one of the most stimulating classes I had in college. Also during this semester, a new lecture/debate series began at ASU led by physicist Lawrence Krauss called Origins. I was able to attend the first event, called the Great Debate: Can Science Tell us Right from Wrong? The panelists included Peter Singer, Sam Harris (of the New Atheists' "Four Horsemen" fame), neurobiologists Steven Pinker and Patricia Churchland, and philosopher Simon Blackburn.

Harris spoke first, and used the opportunity to promote his most recent book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, in which he argues that the is-ought problem attributed to David Hume does not exhaust the reach of naturalism (or science) into the realm of values and morality, historically the domain of ethics and religion. (This is also known as Hume's Guillotine, which is a refutation of the classical naturalist fallacy, essentially arguing that just because something is, that does not imply that it ought to be so.)  Harris argues that "good" is simply that which produces the greatest happiness in the minds of conscious creatures (essentially a teleological/consequentialist/utilitarian argument for the 21st century).

All of the presentations I heard that night impacted me, but I find myself coming back to this one again and again. I took notes of course, and that night shared what I had heard with my wife. She later told me that night was also a pivotal moment in her intellectual development (the beginning of the end, so to speak, for her worldview shaped by the traditional Mormon narrative) as it was for me. 

I had never heard of the term "Transhumanism" at this point, but I was soon to find out that I was,  unknowingly, a firm believer in it. 

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Hope

This year we celebrated our 2nd annual passover meal with my father's side of the family. Shauni and I have been celebrating the festival ever since we were married, but it has been very special to celebrate with family who are Jewish. We had a Haggadah for everyone at the table, and we took turns saying the blessings, re-telling the story of the Exodus, and learning why the timeless themes of the passover are still so applicable to us today.  At the end, we drank a toast (just grape juice for us), faced east toward Israel, and exclaimed, "La Shana H'baha V'Yerushlayim!" (Next Year in Jerusalem!). After the festival, I was reminded of the words of Hatikvah, the Israeli National Anthem and longtime hymn of the Zionist movement which began in the 1800's. The melody of this song has haunted me ever since the third grade, when I first heard it.In English, the hymn reads:

As long as in the heart, within,
A Jewish soul still yearns,
And onward, towards the ends of the east,
An eye still gazes toward

Our Hope is not yet lost,
The hope of two thousand years,
To be a free people in our land,
The land of Zion and

-Naphtali Herz Imber, 1878

You may think it strange--a Mormon family celebrating Passover-- but something about the festival has always resonated with me. You may ask, "Why celebrate a Jewish holiday when you're not Jewish? Isn't the passover feast something that God commanded only the Jews to keep?" In response, I would say that I don't feel an obligation to God to keep the festival, or even an obligation to my ancestors to do so. It is out of love for my Jewish heritage, and love for the family I have recently reunited with, that I feel the desire to celebrate this remarkable holiday, and pass that love on to my children.

I'd like to explore some of the themes of passover, and relate them to recent experiences of mine. I'd also like to juxtapose these themes to those of Zionism, of which the Latter Day Saints have their own peculiar brand.

The first theme that comes to mind is, "Waiting vs. Working for Salvation." By salvation, I don't simply intend the spiritual kind from the Christian vernacular, but the temporal kind that, as slaves in Egypt, the Jews prayed for. These two approaches fueled the "faith vs. works" debate in Christianity that was at the heart of the Protestant reformation; they were hotly debated in the Jewish community after WWII when the partition and Jewish re-patriation of Palestine became a reality, and in my opinion they even appear in politics as an important distinction between the conservative and liberal approaches to governance. I know that last example sounds like a stretch, but allow me to expound.

I'm sure most of my readers are quite familiar with the "faith vs. works" debate, as Mormons are frequently the recipients of criticism from those who believe in salvation by grace alone (and grace by faith), and are also familiar with the defense of works as necessary to demonstrate faith and receive grace. So, I will pass over this issue (no pun intended), and address the next: waiting vs. working in Judaism. In my opinion, this is closely related to the expectation of the coming messiah, which Christians have a parallel in the expectation of the Second Coming.

The First Zionist congress, with Theodore Herzl as president, convened in the late 1800's with the express purpose of finding a new Jewish homeland, and adopted Hatikvah (The Hope) as it's official anthem. However, Palestine was not the first choice of new homelands, because of the political and religious problems involved in mass Jewish immigration there. Instead, Uganda, Canada, and the United States were all discussed as real alternatives, for in the eyes of the Jewish leaders. Anyplace where they could be free from anti-semitism and rule themselves was better than living in a diaspora under the Tsars, Kaisers, and Christian Kings of Europe.

After the Russian pogroms of the late 1800's and early 1900's, the intensity of the Zionist's' efforts increased, as many Jews left Russia for Western Europe and America (including my own ancestors, I believe), while some, a very few, made their way to Palestine to live in Jewish communities supported by Western charities and philanthropists. When the Bolsheviks began the October Revolution in 1917, many Russian Jews, identifying with other Russian serfs, saw the rise of communism as an opportunity to achieve equality with their compatriots, and joined the revolution, becoming major players and supporters of Lenin and the 3rd International (which later became the Comintern). One of those who became prominent inside the revolution was Leon Trotsky, born to a non-religious Jewish family, who was the first Peoples' Commissar, founded the Red Army, and was a trusted advisor to Lenin, nearly succeeding him after his death.

The story of Trotsky is sadly symbolic of all Jews who associated themselves with Soviet communism. Trotsky, and all the Jews in Russia, were eventually demonized as "enemies of the people" by Stalin, driven into hiding or exile with the all-too-real threat of torture in the Lubyanka, and death in the gulags or on the frozen plains of Siberia. In short, things became worse for the Jews under Stalin than they had ever been under the Tsars! Trotsky fled to Mexico, where he called for the organization of a 4th International in opposition to Stalin. He was later assassinated by a NKVD agent in disguise with an ice pick to the head.

The early 1900's were not good years for Jews in Europe, as is well-known. Telling the story of the Holocaust to high school students here in America is a mandate, and that is well! But the less well-known story of the struggles of American Jews around the time of WWII for their European brothers is also worth hearing. A couple of books I highly recommend to those interested would be: The Chosen, by Chaim Potok, and Exodus, by Leon Uris, both American-Jewish authors who witnessed and were personally involved in these events.

Yesterday was the 64th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel (Yom Ha'atzmaut in Hebrew), and with the celebration of a new nation's founding is also a great sadness, because it is likely that without the death of the 6 million it would not have happened.

Happy Birthday Israel!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The City of Joy

Ursula K. Le Guin’s story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas describes a type of paradise that human beings have been striving to create physically or spiritually, since the dawn of history. It is interesting that every society, religion and person has their own concept of “how things ought to be.” Growing up as the daughter of intellectuals in Berkeley, of all places, surrounded by demonstrations of “make love, not war,” idealism and a great mixture of world religions, it is no surprise that the author demonstrates uncanny insight into this generalized utopian vision. Utopia, Zion, Jerusalem or Salem (Omelas backwards, which is identical to “Shalom” in the Hebrew, meaning “Peace”) are all synonyms for paradise, but they are simply the “historical formula” of a primordial “archetype” according to Carl Jung, the Swiss psychologist who theorized the “collective unconscious.” To better understand the intent of this short story, I will critique the symbolism of the story looking for links to the psycho-myth: such as the scapegoat, the inner child, and the unconscious drives of human beings.

First, let’s see examine the inhabitants of Omelas: what they are, and what they are not. The narrator describes the citizens of Omelas as, “Joyous!” “happy,” “mature, intelligent, passionate adults,” and that they are “not simple folk,” “there was no king…did not use swords, or keep slaves [which is a lie].” “They were not barbarians…not dulcet shepherds, noble savages, bland utopians… They were not less complex than us,” defends the narrator. The narrator also informs us that they did without “stock exchange,” “advertisement,” “secret police, and the bomb [referring to the atomic bomb].” Consciously, or not, the narrator has expressed the dream of the libertarian world and the Utopian myth described in the song “Imagine,” by John Lennon: world peace, free love, equality, pure democracy, legalization of drugs, freedom from religion and to be recognized as intellectual, beautiful, just and industrious people. A gilded dream: hollow as a drum, unrealized and unpractical in our world.

The narrator admits that it is difficult to describe them and their society accurately and believably:

“How describe the citizens of Omelas?” “I wish I could describe it better… I wish I could convince you.” She adds, “I fear that Omelas so far strikes some of you as goody-goody… Smiles, bells, parades, horses, bleh.”

The narrator reassures you that if such is the case you are free to elaborate on the scene with anything you wish to make it more desirable and believable: orgies, drugs, anything, with no fear of being “puritanical,” or “goody-goody” or feeling guilty. She asserts: “One thing I know there is none of in Omelas is guilt.” Interestingly enough, guilt is what pushes our frustrated desires back into the unconscious, so, in effect; Omelas is a place where our psychic inhibitions are swept away. It would seem that the citizens of Omelas have found the happy medium: to be totally free, while avoiding injuring others. But it only seems that way, there’s a catch.

In many of the world religions there exists the archetype of “the scapegoat,” or escape-goat, which Biblically was one of two goats who were selected by the High Priest and chosen by chance: one to bear the sin of the people, and the other to be set free (the escape-goat) as a symbol of the Israelites’ absolution before the Lord (Leviticus 16:7-26). Over time, people have inverted the meaning to denote a scapegoat as one who suffers the penalty by proxy, or vicariously, for others. In the Christian religion, it is Jesus, the Son of God, who suffers for the world and rises again. In Islam, a sheep is sacrificed before Allah upon completing the pilgrimage to Mecca. Many forms of human and animal sacrifice exist in mythology: Greek, Roman, Chinese, Norse, and Native American, to name a few. The myth of Omelas is no different; it can’t be or else no-one can believe it: “Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing.”

The image of the child, the retarded, wretched child, is also an archetype. Gollum, the village idiot, the court jester, the whipping boy, is essentially a mirror image of the “inner child” (a phrase coined by psychologist John Bradford) on whom we all take pity: cold, afraid, helpless, imbecile, ripped from its mother’s womb, born in sin and fallen from heaven. The inner child, locked away in the dark cellar of the unconscious, bears the weight and feels the pain of the person. We all have one. So why not displace the weight and the guilt of all onto one? If there can be no clergy, if there is no pain, or war or inequality, there must be something, some symbol of justice to believe in, some tangible evidence that the Universe is balanced. This is the function of the child. The narrator is right—there are very few laws in Omelas, only one really—the child must stay there and suffer. “Now do you [the reader] believe in them? Are they not more credible? But there is one more thing to tell, and this is quite incredible.”

Those who walk away, are those who face their inner child and take responsibility for their existence, as Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, would say: “existential analysis interprets human existence, and indeed being human, ultimately in terms of being responsible." The citizens who choose to stay “know that they, like the child, are not free.” They exhibit the phenomena known as “learned helplessness.” But those who choose to leave accept the need to do all in their power to free themselves. They chose to become “pedants, and sophisticates," rather than live a care-free life of apathy for one who suffers unjustly.

The story is indeed an attempt to bring out “the very arcana and inmost secrets of the Universe," or the collective unconscious, but not under the influence of drooz as the inhabitants of Omelas, but by observation of ourselves: our behavior, our thoughts and our emotions.

Freud observed that the two most powerful drives of man are the primal pursuits of pleasure, and violence, noting that these are the two things human beings are most interested in. The author portrays them both alive and well in this paradoxical city. The inhabitants of Omelas have not transcended them, or their need of the “social contract” (the original government myth theorized by Rousseau) as the reader is led to believe in the beginning of the story. Their society is another “historical formula” of the ancient archetypes. Perhaps it is a prediction or critique of our current society that lives lavishly at the expense of the underdeveloped world, and puts the elderly, the disabled, the homeless and hungry out of sight and out of mind in order to avoid the pain and guilt we feel upon seeing them and having empathy.

The story does not tell us where the ones who walk away are going or what they will do when they get there, only that, “they seem to know…” and that it is, “even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness… I cannot describe it at all…It is possible that it does not exist." I wish she would tell us, and how to get there! But apparently it is something we have not thought of, or dreamed of, or even desired yet and can’t until we, too, chose to walk away.