Saturday, November 9, 2013

Principles of Virtue

Link to Introduction

1. The Promise of Virtue

1.1. If you live virtuously you will have more freedom and greater happiness, and so will your descendents.

2. The Three Basic Laws of Virtue

2.1. Be mindful of what is right in everything you do.

2.2. Respect, love, protect, and befriend all people, cultures, species, sciences, and religions.

2.3. Remember that perfect knowledge or virtue is impossible for any mortal being. Remain humble before the infinite and the sacred.

3. Family and Social Relations

3.1. Honor your parents. Respect your siblings. Love and care for your children.

3.2. Raising a family leads to a fulfilling life. Families should stay together and support each member.

3.3. If you have the resources to raise a family, you should not put it off.

3.4. Sex is the ultimate expression of a bond between two people. To have sex with someone is to marry them. Marry only one person.

3.5. Avoid pornography, prostitution, unclean fantasies, and adultery. They are addictive and can weaken or destroy a marriage.

3.6. Do not beat your spouse or children.

3.7. Love your children and teach them kindness, rational dialogue, and compromise.

3.8. Teach your children virtue.

3.9. Pass on your knowledge and skills to the next generation.

3.10. When a family member errs, forgive them. Children and teenagers should never be ostracized.

3.11. Honor the talents of your family members and help them  flourish, even if they are different or unusual.

3.12. Help family members when they are in need.

3.13. Love your neighbor as yourself.

3.14. Stay faithful to your friends.

3.15. Do not rob, steal from, trick, attack, or kill another human being.

3.16. Help strangers who are in need.

3.17. Give excess wealth to the poor and needy.

3.18. Keep your contracts.

3.19. Be fair in your dealings. Be just and uphold the law.

3.20. Respect all people and treat them as the same regardless of their wealth, rank, abilities, religion, nationality, race, gender, age, sexual orientation, or other distinguishing category.

3.21. Do not take revenge. Appeal to the law for conviction and punishment.

3.22. Abstain from mind-altering drugs.

3.23. Alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine should be used only in moderation. It is wiser to abstain completely.

4. Heroism and Leadership

4.1. Heroism is the courage to risk your own well-being to help someone in need.

4.2. Be willing to make sacrifices for others.

4.3. Do what is right even if it meets with disapproval.

4.4. Keep the martyrs and heroes of the past in memory.

4.5. Do not take bribes.

4.6. A hero or leader does not seek personal gain, glory, fame, power, or wealth. Instead, you should seek to serve those who look up to you.

4.7. If you do achieve fame, power, or wealth, do not be afraid to sacrifice them – they have no worth in themselves. Use your gifts to serve others.

4.8. Be careful when you oppose corrupt leaders and practices not to become corrupt yourself.

4.9. Leaders should never despise their followers. They should value each one for the abilities or virtues they have.

4.10. Leaders should be humble, not proud.

4.11. Leaders should have powerful desires and creative minds, but they should always show humility, fairness, and generosity.

4.12. Leaders should not be admired for their power, but only for their virtues.

4.13. Leaders should never control, dominate, or manipulate the lives of their followers. They should only utilize their power during those brief times when it is necessary.

4.14. It often takes great courage, heroism, or self-sacrifice to bring a corrupt or immoral leader to justice. All men and women have the duty to oppose tyranny if and when they can.

4.15. Governments and leaders should grant their people the right to seek the truth, express the truth, and live in freedom.

4.16. Governments and leaders should heed the grievances of their subjects and followers.

4.17. War should only be waged in self-defense, and never preemptively.

4.18. A society should seek peace and friendship with neighboring societies, no matter their differences in belief, opinion, ideology, or religion.

4.19. Wealthy societies should always share their riches with poorer societies.

4.20. One society should never dominate or control another, whether militarily, economically, or culturally.

4.21. Each culture should be valued for its uniqueness.

4.22. Leaders and governments should never keep secrets from their followers or subjects.

5.  Simplicity

5.1. Strive for simplicity in thought and action.

5.2. Seek poverty, humility, low rank, obedience, and practical skills.

5.3. Do not take prosperity for granted. Strive to be self-sufficient and ready for hardship.

5.4. Try not to depend on distant or powerful sources for knowledge or wealth. Work with your neighbors instead. Avoid politics and war.

5.5. Prefer barter to money.

5.6. Do not charge interest on loans.

5.7. Do not seek or accumulate wealth or power. Do not depend on wealth or power, but on your own mind and hands.

5.8. Specialize in a trade if you have talent, but do not forget your traditional knowledge and skills.

5.9. The duty of the powerful is to serve. Do not use your station to live in more luxury than others.

5.10. It is better to let things follow their natural course than to seek complicated solutions.

6.  Sincerity, Discipline, and Diligence

6.1. Allow your life to be guided and shaped by the sacred. Strive for what is best and most divine.

6.2. Discipline yourself and your children to do what is right even when doing the right thing is hard, frightening, or time-consuming.

6.3. Be diligent and steadfast in your work and in upholding your values.

6.4. Do not be lazy or careless.

6.5. In uncertain times, seek the divine for guidance. Turn to ancient wisdom when modern knowledge fails.

6.6. Cultivate a set of skills and talents that will make you useful to those around you.

6.7. Welcome criticism of yourself from others and heed their advice.

6.8. Do your share of the work.

6.9. Be honest and never lie.

6.10. Be sincere and earnest in your relations, your work, and your conflicts.

6.11. Make time for recreation. Recreation should be both edifying and enjoyable. It should be active and creative, and not tedious.

6.12. Be straightforward about your intentions. Avoid intrigues and conspiracies. Do not manipulate, control, or trick others.

7. Prayer and Meditation

7.1. Contemplate your life now and then, and how you can live more virtuously and sincerely.

7.2. Read scriptures regularly and contemplate their meaning and how they can be applied to your life.

7.3. Prayer or meditation (they are the same) should be done quietly either alone or with immediate family.

7.4. When you are blessed, pray to thank and to become humble and not proud.

7.5. When you are in distress, pray for comfort and guidance.

7.6. Pray in humility, recognizing that the divine is greater than you.

7.7. Don’t let prayer become a forced or mechanical thing. Pray from your heart.

7.8. Pray for forgiveness of past wrongs.

7.9. Do not ask for worldly things when you pray, but for spiritual strength.

7.10. When you pray the mind should be reverently quiet.

7.11. One should pray to, or meditate on, the highest Good you can conceive (such as God, the Tao, or the Buddha-nature).

Introduction to "Principles of Virtue"

Modern American philosophy is very unusual in how it treats ethics. For over 2000 years, from the time Thales (c. 600 B.C.) to the time of Schopenhauer (1788-1860), Western philosophers were in the habit of developing moral principles and expressing them as clearly as possible. Some examples:

Happiness does not dwell in flocks of cattle or in gold. Happiness, like unhappiness, is a property of the soul [. . .] for perfection of soul corrects the inferiority of the body, but physical strength without intelligence does nothing to improve the mind. Men find happiness neither by means of the body nor through possessions, but through uprightness and wisdom.
--Democritus (c. 460 - c. 370 B.C), who is better known today as one of the first atomists

 [. . .] act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.
--Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who is stating a more technical version of the Golden Rule

The habit of stating explicit moral principles ended with a German-American philosophical movement known as Positivism, which rejected the study of morality as "pseudo-sicence," because they believed it was impossible to do scientific experiments to validate moral principles. Not all modern philosophers are Positivists, but they are still more interested in debating whether the Positivists were correct than actually setting about developing workable moral principles. You've got "Moral Realists" who argue that there are in fact object values out there, "Moral Skeptics" who doubt this, "Moral Relativists" who argue that morals are different for everyone, "Moral Anti-Realists" who argue that morals are simply not real, etc. etc. In this huge long-winded debate (known as "Meta-Ethics"), few philosophers are stopping to actually develop a set of moral principles, and even fewer are bothering to listen to those who do.

In my experience, the most profound sources of moral knowledge are the great religious scriptures of the world, such as the Confucian Analects and the Koran. They examine in detail what it means to be a good person (ethics). By contrast, modern philosophy is concerned with proving whether or not anything is provable in the study of how to be a good person (meta-ethics).

After Moses came down the mountain with the Ten Commandments, he did not then proceed to lay down a logical argument for why they must be correct. Instead, he simply called them the word of God and set about teaching the Hebrews how to live better lives. Even if you doubt that Moses actually spoke to a Deity on that mountain, the fact remains that his Commandments provided the Western world with a powerful set of moral principles that transformed society.

Moses may have had faith that this would happen, but he couldn't have known it scientifically. Not even the most brilliant scientists or historians can predict the future course of civilization. It follows that there is no way to develop a set of moral principles and to be sure they will be successful.

This doesn't mean that there isn't a better ethics out there to be found, just that we have no sure way to find it.

The reason that this is okay is that human culture is prolific. I mentioned that Western philosophers have been fond of writing down principles of ethics for over 2000 years. You've also got a long tradition of Indian gurus, Chinese philosophers, and Buddhist monks who have done the same. There is no shortage of ethical systems out there, and many of them work well. There is no reason to throw up your hands and give up on morality completely. Good grief. We don't give up on music just because we can't find the best song out there.


American philosophers need to start making music again. Back in the fall of 2010, I composed by own ethical tune, which I call Principles of Virtue. It's very short, but it's taken a long time to find the right harmonies. Though I cannot be sure others will find it true, I took the writing of it very seriously. I would jot down 1-3 principles at a time, then sleep on them for a week. If any doubts were raised in my mind concerning a principle, I would rewrite it and sleep on it again, until I found myself waking up with a clear conscience. Then I would write down the next 1-3 principles.

A couple of years before I even wrote them down, these principles transformed my life. I was filled with pride, ambition,envy, and a host of bad habits. But I had finally gotten around to taking 2 years off from my Ph.D. program, and attempting to live on as little money as possible (so I could spend all my time reading and writing) I ended up living a simple monk-like existence. Fortunately, this gave me time to finally read the Bible, the Confucian Analects, the Koran, and the Bhagavad Gita. These are the sources of the principles I would later write down. None of them originated with me.

They transformed my life. These principles gave me focus. I threw away all the psychiatric medication I had been on -- including anti-psychotics for manic-depression and pills for anxiety. I stopped having nightmares, episodes, and panic attacks. I became friendlier. I slept at night. Then I met a wonderful woman, Emily, settled down with her to start a family, and now I have a good job and a nice house. And in fact I get more writing done now than I did when I was a single hermit without a job.

I am not saying that everyone needs to adopt my principles of virtue. I do suggest reading scriptures of some kind. These principles are simply my attempt to distill the most important ethical rules and express them in a modernized way.

I hope you enjoy my song, and I hope it inspires more music in our culture.

Principles of Virtue

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Dogmas of the Intellectual Elite - OR - Be a Locavore of Ideas

It is fashionable these days to shop locally, or at least, to profess the desire to shop locally more often.  That's a good thing.  It's important to help small businesses thrive, and it's important to keep jobs in the U.S., and to save on the ridiculous cost in oil of shipping tomatoes from Mexico.

The large corporations make goods cheaply, either by employing wage-slaves in poor countries, sacrificing quality, or using cheap (often unhealthy) chemicals to produce them.  Then they spend ungodly amounts of money advertising them, programming us to think their simple mixture of corn syrup and carbonation is something magical and refreshing. 

And it works.  They relentlessly drive their local competitors out of business and commit us to their shoddy, flashy product.

The same thing has been going on with ideas.

In the United States, selling an idea to the public has generally required a book, a movie, or a TV show.  To make money, publishing houses and production studios do all the same things that other companies do:  they mass-produce, aiming for sugary, flashy products with irresistible jingles.  These swarms of poor quality ideas go on to destroy local competitors. 

This has given rise to an epidemic of millions of would-be writers, trying desperately to be heard, when only a handful are needed by the corporations to make their money.  I'll admit:  I am one of them.  It's frustrating, because after years of trying to make your voice heard, our mass-culture begins to make you feel like what you have to say isn't new, or doesn't matter, or isn't good enough.

Over the last several decades, mass-media has all but destroyed everything deep and truly philosophical in American culture.  It's given rise to an intellectual elite that believes, without question, its own propaganda (because propaganda and advertisement are actually synonymous, and they are the heart of mass-production). 


The most influential philosopher in ancient Greece was a man of Athens by the name of Socrates.  The favorite pastime of Athens was debate.  For fun they would go to the city square and argue over anything, from politics, to religion, to science.

Socrates became famous not because he had a bunch of flashy arguments and cunning tricks, and not because he knew more than anyone else, but because he was fearless.  He would seek out the most famous lawyer in the city and ask him what made him so good, ask him how he knew so much, about the deepest things he knew, and so on.  His questioning was so thorough and brutal that he made enemies out of most of the powerful men of the city. 

What Socrates had was courage, the courage to doubt.  It was needed at that time because these flashy arguments of power-hungry priests and politicians had come to dominate the city, and it was in decline.  When they killed him for it, they made a martyr out of him, and Western philosophy was born.

Today, America is dominated by an intellectual elite armed with flashy arguments that defend and uphold the wealthy and powerful.  Unfortunately, the same spirit of debate that created Socrates and philosophy is missing in this country.  It was destroyed by the rise of mass media in the 50's and 60's.  For three generations we've been raised on televised propaganda that has washed away our ability to doubt, and -- more importantly -- our courage to act on that doubt.

What's been put in the place of genuine doubt is drama.  For example, you've got the binky of a debate: "Religion vs. Science." As with any sham debate, one side (religion) is wholly "irrational" and the other (science) is wholly "rational."  It never really matters what religion says in this debate, because it is based on a belief in a giant dude with a white beard who performs miracles and sends people who don't believe him to a fiery pit.  Anyone who believes this is obviously crazy, so the audience of the debate forgets everything he says and instead realizes the truth of the dogmas pronounced by the unbiased scientist.  And these are the dogmas that have come to dominate the intellectual elite of this country, because they're simple, catchy, thrilling, and have a happy ending.  These are the preservatives, plastics, petroleum, and pesticides of the American idea factory:

1) Evolution is a selfish, bloody struggle.
2) Now that humans have evolved intelligence, we can use REASON to stop this struggle and overcome evolution.
3) Religion is a scam from the dark and irrational eras of human history, and perpetuates misunderstanding and war.
4) All of human learning but science has been tainted with irrationality and is largely unimportant.
5) Centralized government is essential for putting reason into action.
6) Mass media is useful for spreading a love of reason, and this is a good thing.
7) Physics (especially quantum mechanics and relativity) is profound and exemplifies the power of reason.
8) Religion and tradition can be expelled forever.
9) Cynicism allows us to focus on what's important (unlike religion which obsesses over sex and violence in the media).
10) These dogmas are the unbiased truth.

Once you've accepted these principles, you are primed to absorb whatever mass media chooses to throw your way.   If it's extremely violent and sexual, all the better because it challenges tradition.  If it contradicts your most sacred beliefs that's okay because it is teaching you to reason.  If it is a story without heroes then it is more realistic because evolution is bloody. 

If, on the other hand, it paints a rosy picture of life in America with a happy ending and no real struggles, that's okay too because America has used reason to progress to a sort of utopia.  If the exploitation of the poor in other countries or the use of fossil fuels is brought up at all, it is to develop a protagonist that is a scientist struggling against the irrationality of tradition to save the world.  If the evils of centralized government are brought out it is show how we can fix the system and move on with our mass-consuming lives.

It's less common to read a book or see a movie that shows people building a stronger family and local community.  It's less common to see a  post-apocalyptic movie where the fall of centralized government turns out to be a good thing.  It's less common to see spirituality and rationality getting along.  It's less common to see evil destroyed not by a politician or scientist, but by its own fruits.  It's extremely rare to see a protagonist who isn't cynical, physically beautiful, and professional, but rather principled, self-sufficient, and devoted to his family.

I want to be a locavore of ideas.  I realize I'm still a long way off.  Most of what I watch and read was mass produced by people I hardly know.  That can't be healthy, not when for millions of years our minds have been used to us sitting around the fire, trading stories with people we would die for.

It's hard, because these days families and friends tend to be scattered across the country.  I have a brother in New York, a sister who spends half the year in India, an aunt in Michigan, and uncles in Toronto and Alaska.  My mother is from Denmark, so I have uncles, aunts, cousins, and a grandmother over there.  Part of the reason I moved to Utah was to be closer to family, but I'm several hours from my parents in Cove, aunt in Huntsville, and cousin in Ogden.

Telephones have helped families stay in touch for decades now, but they only allow for clipped conversations, and not for sharing music, writing, or pictures.

But we do have the Internet now, and like most technologies it's a mixed blessing.  I've noticed that 95% of what I receive by email or Facebook are links to something created by someone else.

It's time for this to change.  The best things I've discovered over Facebook have included things like uncle John's play (please ask him about it if you haven't read it!) and Josh Weed's blog (that's Emily's cousin).  My mom has been promoting her writings on the internet, and so has my brother-in-law Nithya Shanti.  Great job guys!  We need much more of this!

If we plug ourselves in to our close friends and family, we make for a tighter community, no matter how spread out.  We need to reject the mass produced trash that we've been raised on, because it encourages us to be passive consumers and tells us that anything we create on our own will be "unprofessional," "unmarketable," or "unscientific."  We've been programmed to believe that if it doesn't have spectacular special effects it's not worth our time.  But it's time that we start doing the same thing we're trying with locally-grown food and hand-made products.  We need to search out things to read and learn from people close to us, and we need to create our own ideas.  We need to rebuild stronger, smaller networks of knowledge and values, the sort that have been damaged by the rise of mass culture.  The more localized our beliefs become, the healthier and more diverse American culture as a whole will be, and the more fulfilled and satisfied we will feel with our ideas, because we will once again know that each of us has a say, that each of us has an audience.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Why Fantasy is Dying

Recently I picked up the Eye of the World at the local library -- this is the first novel, published in 1990, of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series.  It's 688 pages, which is about average for a contemporary fantasy epic.  I've had it for weeks now and can't make it past page 20.  This isn't unusual for me when it comes to fantasy these days.  The same thing happened with Guy Gavriel Kay's Under Heaven.  I think George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones is the last fantasy novel I've completed, and I thought it was terrible.

It's a weird feeling, realizing that I'm not an active fantasy fan anymore.  What happened?

The purpose of story-telling is to experience without experiencing.  The picture that comes to my mind is our hunter-gatherer ancestors sitting around the fire, learning better ways to avoid a tiger without actually having to try them, because Urg the daredevil is also a master story teller.

It's not much harder to imagine the origin of myth.  Why expect that the most effective way to teach something is to tell a true story?  Maybe Urg is telling us what he should have done to get away more safely.  Or maybe he's imperfectly remembering a helpful story is grandfather told him.  Not all religions can be completely factually true, but all the different stories they use ultimately teach the same universal moral truths.  Aesop's fables feature  talking animals, but they've survived for thousands of years because they're not only helpful but concise and easy to remember.

We should not be surprised that humans, who have been telling stories for maybe 100,000 years, have developed an inborn taste for good stories.  All of fiction is developed, at least in part, to satisfy this taste.

And it makes sense for taste to vary and also have certain constants, like anything else inherited.

Really old stories have a magic about them, probably because stories without that magic die away.  What makes really old stories interesting is that literal truth tends to be scant, especially if they were passed down orally for a while, as with folk tales, myths, and medieval romances.  These old stories are distinctive in just these ways:  (1) they have a strange, unearthly beauty, and (2) tend not to make literal sense.  Certain readers and writers have developed a taste for such mythic stories, and an entire literary genre has arisen in an attempt to emulate it -- fantasy.  If you look at the earliest fantasy authors in the Western tradition, such as Novalis, William Morris, George MacDonald, or even later ones like J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, they were all inspired by medieval literature, especially medieval romances -- Arthur, etc. -- which originated as folk tales.

Most of these authors have had a moral purpose in mind with their work, attempting to illustrate with allegory certain values they thought important.  Others, like Lewis Carrol, were looking primarily to entertain, but for such books to be interesting they've generally had to be really weird, and yet comprehensible at the same time, serving the useful function of stretching people's imaginations. 

I wonder if modern fantasy has lost sight of this original purpose, merely spinning attractive or scandalous tales for their own sake.

Martin is a good example of this.  His work is unrelentingly cynical.  In an attempt to portray, I guess, how dark the dark ages were (or could be?), Martin has created a fantasy where unbridled violence and evil tyrants continually dominate.  His world is supposedly based on the history of England's War of the Roses (1455-1485), the same period dwelt on in Shakespeare's tragedies.  But I think Shakespeare's plays, despite having their own elements of fantasy, provide a more accurate portrayal of how tyrants tended to fall in those times.  Martin's work is sensationalist, bloody, and glories in how brutally evil men can murder those who stand up for what is right.  Shakespeare's work acknowledges the existence of evil but shows how it tends toward self-destruction. 

It is fashionable these days to criticize morally satisfying endings, whether tragic or happy, as being "unrealistic."  The view implicit here is absurd, even applied to the Middle Ages.  (For a second to this opinion, see this article by Daniel Abraham.) Continual rule by tyrannical kings and nobles, without any victory for justice, would have led to a collapse of all government.  Today, we may not consider medieval law to be particularly just, but that is no excuse for pretending that there was no law, nor any capable defenders of that law at the time.

The sort of dialectic I've just gone through will strike many modern critics as old-fashioned, focusing on dry moral or political issues.  The point of the Game of Thrones series, they would like to tell me, is that it parodies (mercilessly!) the unjustness of patriarchal hierarchies (see for example, the New Yorker review of the HBO series.).  Women, bastards, and cripples were unfairly treated in the middle ages, and in Martin's series we see just how badly treated they were (or might have been in another world?) and fantasize about how they might take revenge for it in the goriest way possible.

I don't buy it.  A satire is supposed to be funny, or better: unbearably painful.  The last thing you're supposed to want to do with a satire is make it into a several-season TV show that sensationalizes all the sorts of behaviors you were supposed to be criticizing.  If you did the same with Voltaire's *Candide* it would be outright obscene.  If Martin's series is satire it's a poor, overwrought, obscure one.  As Daniel Abraham points out, Martin fares best when judged by the standards of the horror genre, but even then does not hold up well.

Perhaps it was naive of me to expect better from Guy Gavriel Kay, who is as popular these days among critics as Martin is among the general reading public.  To his credit, he is less gory and a little more historically faithful than Martin, and he writes about non-Western fantasy civilizations such as Kitai, which is based on ancient China (Kay is Canadian).  Also to his credit, I made it almost 60 pages in, pulled in by his elegant and poetic prose.  The story opens with a self-exiled prince, living as a hermit, burying the dead from a long-ago battle to put their souls at rest.  I loved this potrait, at first. 

Then the poor ghosts started wailing audibly, their ghostly forms floating visibly like transparent Caspers.  Come on.  And then the sexy assassin female warriors showed up and there were kung fu sword fights and countless prostitutes referred to as "courtesans with perfumed hair" and I said forget it.

Kay's got a less violent style than Martin.  He's got very poetic prose, I'll give you that, and some intriguing political intrigue inspired by true historical events. But none of this is the point of fantasy.

So what is the points of fantasy?

Let's get back to the fundamentals.  It's a kind of storytelling; it should edify us.  It expands our minds as teenagers, refines our sense of ethics as adults.  What gives it potency is that it is unhindered by scientific facts, letting us explore new imaginary worlds without having to work out all the mathematical details.  I'm not sure you can get much more specific than this -- our brains are incredibly complex, so I'm sure much of what literature does for us is subconscious and varied.

The fantasy series that has influenced me most is Lord of the Rings.  I'm sure it has something do with how detailed and rich its world is, how it shows normal people making extraordinary choices, how it is permeated with a love of the Good and the Beautiful.  Uncovering all the subconscious reasons for its importance for me and others would be an entire project in itself.

The most common critique I hear of Lord of the Rings is that it shows a sharp and comforting division between good and evil.  (See Moorcock's famous essay, "Epic Pooh".).  This objection is fairly easy to answer if you've actually read the series (e.g. "Knocking some stuffing out of Moorcock".) ).  Suffice it to list a few characters that display characteristics of both good and evil:  Gollum, Saruman, Boromir, Faramir, most of the riders of Rohan, the entire race of elves (who remain largely neutral during the war), the dwarves (who hate the elves as a race), and everyone who is ever bribed or seduced by Lord Sauron.  That's almost everybody.

I won't deny that there is something weird about the way the two sides of the War of the Rings are lined up.  Sauron's side is obviously evil and includes many grotesque monsters.  Gandalf's side is obviously good and his allies are usually beautiful.  But if you think about it, WWII wasn't a heck of a lot different.  Sure, we were allied with Stalin, but doesn't Aragorn recruit an entire army of cursed undead to help him out? 

Enough of this.  I haven't even gotten to science fiction yet, which is my primary interest.  But I'm sick-and-tired-enough of all of these poor modern attempts to imitate or outdo Tolkien to present my own desiderata for good fantasy.  If you know of anything recent that satisfies these requirements, let me know, because I'd love to read it:

(1) As with anything you write, have something to say.  I think every writer should spend several years thinking about the meaning life and the nature of human values before writing a single word.  The number one thing that destroys literature is the writer who writes to shock people, to make money, to become famous, or simply to become a writer.  If you don't have a better reason for writing fantasy, you will only help make the genre (and our entire culture) shallower.

(2) Fantasy must transport you somewhere completely new.  All creatures and magic should either come directly from mythology or be original with the author.  Elves and dwarves are great, but they're Tolkien.  Vampires and zombies should be abolished.  The point is to experience something strange enough to border on the mystical, not to feel like you're watching a cartoon or playing Dungeons and Dragons.  George MacDonald, the originator of the genre, is the exemplar here.  His fantasy novels were spiritual meditations on the meaning of life.  Mystical is always more powerful than magical.

(3) Hold yourself to the same standards that any other literary writer does.  MacDonald wrote 51 books and only 7 of those were fantasy and only 2 of these fantasy novels were for adults.  Don't depend on having an original idea -- actually take the time to hone your craft and become a good writer.  Having good ideas is not enough.  You've got to be able to express them clearly, or they'll die on the page, even if you've written a bestseller.  And it's the ideas that are important, not the sale.

(4) Make it beautiful.  Fantasy doesn't have truth to rely on, so it must rely on goodness and beauty instead.  By shirking realism, fantasy allows itself to explore ethics and aesthetics in more depth than any other kind fiction.  If you're not making use of this freedom to create something beautiful and good, you're missing the point.

(5) Everything I've said here holds equally well for magical realism, soft science fiction, and horror.

That's it.  If a book breaks with scientific fact at all, it must be beautiful, well-crafted, creatively new, and possess purpose and meaning.

If you find such a book, tell me.  If you can imagine such a book, write it.  Meanwhile I've got better things to do than read an 8,000-page series of meaning-whitewashed epic violence.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Space Travel vs. Perceval, Knight of the Grail

If you've spoken to me recently, you might know that I've been writing daily now for a couple of years, mostly science fiction novels and short stories.  This month, I'd like to explain why I've become so interested in science fiction.

All too often, I'll be talking to someone about space travel or overpopulation and that someone will conclude:

"And that's why we need to start colonizing space, because you know, it's just getting too crowded down here."

I love science fiction, and I think it's important, but this is a great example of where it confuses people.

Okay, so what you're trying to tell me is, we can't afford to feed these 75 million new people every year, but maybe we can afford to dress each one in a million-dollar space suit, strap them to a giant billion-dollar missile, and send them to eke out their existence on a planet where you can't grow food unless you've built yourself a air-proof, radiation-blocking biodome?  If that's your plan, I've got a better idea:  Antarctica is cheaper to get to, more hospitable, and easier to farm than any alien world we know how to get to.

To be fair, most science fiction starts with the premise that humans are restless creatures who need adventure, and that's why we will bother to  develop faster-than-light travel, and why our politicians will fork over the trillions necessary to terraform Mars.  Because it would be fun, or maybe profitable.

But the most compelling science fiction starts from a very different sort of mood, a deep-seated doubt or worry about the future of humankind.  This kind of science fiction includes 1984, Brave New World, Samuel Butler's "The Machine Stops," and countless other "dystopian" works.  Such science fiction is not called science fiction at all -- not when it's good -- but rather "literature," since it is the sort of thing your teachers and professors like to make you read.

To give you an idea, in case you somehow avoided reading any of these, George Orwell's 1984 (published in 1948) is based on the premise that the governments of the world have become so bloated and powerful that they have installed cameras in every room of your home and continually monitor each citizen for "thoughtcrime," which is when you've got the inkling that something might be wrong with the government.  Citizens are encouraged to use "doublethink," which refers to the practice of believing what is not true, such as that you are a free citizen of a just country.  To give away the ending, the protagonist attempts to avoid these cameras on occasion to live a secret life where he can think as he pleases but is eventually captured, tortured, and brainwashed until he has recovered the ability to doublethink.

It's compelling because it reminds us of how governments sometimes seem to work.

To be honest, I don't find 1984 to be any more realistic than Star Trek, though it might be more edifying.  Total surveillence is no more possible than travelling faster than light.  The former implies a government as large as its population, and the latter implies time travel.

Thanks to science fiction most Americans picture our future as a happy one in space.  I guess it's a credit to the optimism of our society that Star Trek has had a bigger influence on our vision of the future than 1984


But are we going to settle space or not?  Is it even plausible?  What's going to be the end result of overpopulation?  Will the American government eventually collapse into a 1984-ish dictatorship, like most powerful empires before it?

These are all important questions, questions that I've worried about myself since high school.  In fact -- and here's why my interest in science fiction has grown -- in worrying about them I've been compelled to imagine my own histories of the future, histories that in the last few years I've tried to express as fictional stories.

Back in 2008 I took a two-year leave of absence from my Ph.D. program.  I had gotten a little tired of being told what to think about and read, and I needed some freedom to develop my ideas.  The central worry for me was our society's notion of progress.

I came to feel that progress must be a myth.  (A few reasons for this can be found in last month's post, and still more reasons in my 2011 posts.)  There are countless factors that continually act to wear a society down:  loss of tradition, genetic decay, pollution, resource depletion.  I began trying to imagine what our society would look like when these forces had finally caused it to collapse.

Around the same time I had been reading some "medieval romances" that is, tales written down centuries ago about King Arthur and his knights (I can't say I'm a big fan of anything Arthurian written post-1500 A.D.), and I came across the story of Perceval, as written down by the French poet Chr├ętien de Troyes in the late 12th century. 

De Troyes's Perceval has been an obsession of mine now for five years -- I own it in three translations as well as the original French.

The story of Perceval is something primal.  I discovered it at just the right time, when I was thinking about how evolutionary forces work on a collapsing society.  Part of the reason societies collapse is that since survival is no longer a problem in them, random cultural and biological change starts to take over.  Governments become corrupt and no longer do what they're supposed to.  University professors stop worrying about truth and start caring about fame.  All of the notions of civility, chivalry, and ethics that were forged in the previous Dark Ages are lost to entropy.  If you compare (for example) the early Roman society with the late, you will see exactly these kinds of decay.

It occurred to me that what happens during the so-called Dark Ages is that without any empire or government to take care of them, people are basically left to fend for themselves.  There are no soldiers to put down bandits; you've got to make your own sword and get them yourself.  And thus knighthood and chivalry -- that is, feudalism -- is born.

(If you think any of this irrelevent or special to European society, just remember tha the middle east has been, several times, the most civilized part of the world but is, currently, composed of feudal tribes and monarchies.  Such cycles are ongoing in most parts of the world.)

In this frame of mind I read Perceval, the story of a ferocious backwoods Welsh boy who was ignorant but pure of heart.  Here you've got post-collapse Roman territory, everyone's illiterate, everyone's a bandit, there's no sense of decency or shame . . . somehow, somewhere, someone's got to set example of what it means to be a hero.  Because heroes are what drive evolution -- they fight for the survival of themselves and others.  They fight to put a stop to fighting and death, and societies that follow their example begin back on the path towards being civilized.  Call it memetic evolution if you wish, and that's surely at least half the story, but don't forget that almost every feudal society (medieval Europe, tribal Arabs, etc.) has a very strong notion of "bloodline."  I would be surprised if this did not have an evolutionary origin -- the noble bloodlines are usually considered to be those which show truth, honesty, courage, and charity. 

In case you're thinking I'm making this up, here's a quote from a book written by an anthropologist who was Arabian herself and lived among the feudal/tribal Bedouin in the Egyptian desert.  It's the first sentence in Chapter 3: "Honor and the Virtues of Autonomy."

"Blood," the central concept in the definition of both Bedouin cultural identity and individual identity is . . . seen as closely tied to moral nature.  (Veiled Sentiments, Lila Abu-Lughod, 1986, p. 78.)

She goes on to describe Bedouin morality as consisting of autonomy, strength, self-control, chastity, honesty, and modesty.

This is where the notion of nobility comes from, I would argue.  People start consciously breeding good people together to get more good people.  In some societies it leads to an equilibrium state, as with the centuries-old Bedouin.  In Europe it was probably taken too far, leading to inbreeding and often times worse vices than before (Versailles, for example?).

But let's ask the question of how all of this starts from a chaotic post-collapse society.  Okay, so you've got Perceval, the idiot backwoods boy who's strong and good in a fight, but knows nothing of manners or honor.  As de Troyes's tale begins, Perceval callously abandons his widowed, impoverished mother to find adventure, forces himself on another man's lover (he only manages to kiss her since he knows nothing else about sex), insults the knights at Arthur's court, but manages to impress when he kills the thieving Red Knight by throwing a spear through his eye.  He was your prototypical post-apocalyptic barbarian.

By trial and error, the boy had to learn what honor was.  He had to discover himself (because society has collapsed!) why it's important to respect both men and women, why you shouldn't start every sentence with "my mother says," and how much there is to gain by protecting the weak.  By the end of the poem (which was actually unfinished) it is revealed that only Perceval's heart was pure enough to behold the Holy Grail.  The Holy Grail, which caught the blood of the dying Christ, is a symbol, I take it, of exactly the sort of virtue of blood that is rare in the so-called Dark Ages and which Chretien de Troyes, consciously or unconsciously, saw as the source of the high-middle-age chivalry that had resulted in his age, several centuries after the supposed King Arther reigned, who perhaps was nothing more than a beautiful "meme" that helped spread these notions of virtue that had been lost after Rome collapsed.

When all of this struck my imagination, back in 2008, I experienced a sudden desire, stronger than any creative urge that had hit me before, to write a post-apocalyptic story based on the Perceval myth.  Instead of armored knights on horseback, I'd have knights inside of huge, spider-like, semi-intelligent warmachines, which I've come to call in my stories "steeds."

Kind of an absurd idea, I realize, but that's how my future history started, more or less, and most of my stories have developed in an outward spiral from this central hero, a Perceval who lived 5200's A.D. in the wildmachine jungle between the Rockies and the Luganian Sea that had flooded what is currently central California.

To be continued, next month.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

What is Ecology?

A few years back, John Travolta gave a lecture on global warming. Infamously, when he was done he jumped aboard his private jet and flew home, generating more greenhouse gasses in the next few hours than most people do in a year.

That pretty much sums up the difference between environmentalism and ecology.

Environmentalism is a political ideology. It is used to get people to buy things and to cast votes. John Travolta was being an environmentalist.

Ecology is the study of cause and effect among living things and the environment. The way I told the story, John Travolta does not appear to be an ecologist.

In reality, John Travolta is not a complete idiot. He attempted to justify himself: "I'm probably not the best candidate to ask about global warming because I fly jets. . . . I use them as a business tool though, as others do. I think it's part of this industry – otherwise I couldn't be here doing this and I wouldn't be here now." His point is valid. You can’t travel the world talking about global warming without generating more emissions than average, unless you’re willing to spend the intervening months in transit on a sailboat. Al Gore’s got his private jets too.


People in our society make very bad ecologists. Our schools and universities train us to think mechanically, to break things down into smaller pieces like atoms and molecules and understand them that way. But in ecology you want to know how organisms interact with each other and the environment. Ecology is about relationships, connections. In ecology you don't ask "What is it made out of?" but "What is it connected to?" It forces you to think bigger, but in our society, from Kindergarten on up, we are trained to be narrow-minded.


Here’s another ecological paradox for you. Quinoa is a grain-like crop grown in Bolivia that’s become super popular in the U.S. because it's a more land-efficient source of protein than meat, and people have begun touting it as as way to ease world hunger and lift Bolivia out of poverty. But here’s the paradox: quinoa’s popularity in the U.S. has driven the prices up-- causing starvation among many Bolivians who can no longer afford it. Meanwhile, the quinoa craze has resulted in huge monocultures that are depleting the soils of Bolivia more rapidly than before.


Neither the Travolta-Gore paradox nor the quinoa paradox are isolated or special. Our lives are saturated with ecological quandaries. The most organic food is the most expensive, and hence the most resource-intensive. In Western countries we use about six times more resources than our fair share, and yet we consider ourselves more educated, liberal, and environmentally conscious than the rest of the world.


I recently ran across a New York Times article that argued that it wasn’t so bad what we were doing to the Bolivians because switching to a vegan diet will cause enough good effects to counterbalance the bad. The author pointed out that the grain we feed our cows is enough to feed 9 billion people.

Here we have a more impressive attempt to think ecologically. We’re no longer looking at the immediate effects – we’re trying a little harder to see the big picture.

But let’s follow this sort of reasoning out to its ultimate logical conclusion. Everything we use in the West-- not just food-- is incredibly resource intensive. Even if we all switched to a vegan diet our civilization would use several times its share of resources. Third world living is actually the most sustainable in the long run, because it is significantly more efficient. In fact, this is why we import so many cheap goods from the rest of the world-- they’re good at making them cheap. The problem is, importing goods on planes and trains and trucks and ships ends up nullifying the ecological advantages to third world efficiency.

There is only one perfect solution to this problem. The United States must give away its wealth and become a third world country. If we were a third world country, it would reduce global pollution rates by 20-25%. If Europe and Japan also went third world, it would cut down on pollution rates by more than 50% worldwide.

Only as a third world country could we live in balance with the environment. They have it right; we have it wrong.


All right, what I am trying to say? If this is all true why I am still driving my car to work every day and buying food from Target? Why have I not moved to Bolivia to become a farmer yet? For the same reason that you haven't -- because both you and I are better ecologists than we thought we were.  Our entire way of life is connected. We drive cars and shop for consumer items for a reason. Oil is one of the foundations for our society, as is factory production, pesticides and herbicides, and imported goods from Bolivia. If you removed these foundations our civilization would collapse, and our culture would die.

My wife and I went through a phase of this Paleo Diet thing. It's based on science: the human body is best adapted to those foods that our cavemen ancestors ate, which includes grass-fed meat and organic vegetables and nothing else. We ate this way for a month, it felt great, and our grocery bills almost quadrupled. Very few people in this country can afford to eat a healthy, natural diet. But the fact that we eat factory-made foods is what makes us so wealthy as a country. When you have to grow all your own food, they call you Third World and ship you Cheerios to help you out.


The problem about talking about Global Warming or World Hunger or Peak Oil or such things is that you narrow the debate down to a single issue, and anytime you've got a single issue it seems like, man, if only we did such-and-such the problem would be solved. But the thing is, the world is changing, fast, because there's more people than ever using more energy and building more machines than ever. That's the source of all these problems. We're building all these factories and using more and more energy to do more things.

There’s an excellent book called “The Little Green Handbook” that was published by Ron Nielson ten years ago that nicely summarizes the consequences of all the many things we are doing. ("Ecology," as Frank Herbert once put it, "is the study of consequences.") Here’s the ones I find the most important:

-The world is losing about 1-2% of its arable land every year. That’ll be about a 50% decrease between 2000 and 2050.
-If all crops were grown so as not to deplete the soil, our planet could support only one billion people with the standard of living of the United States.
-Most countries are experiencing an increase in inequality between rich and poor.
-The gap in manufacturing value between industrialized and undeveloped countries is increasing by about $1 trillion every year.
-Organized crime is the fastest growing industry in the world.
-In Russia crime organizations control about 65% of the GDP.
-Between 1945 and 2003, the total number of armed conflicts in the world doubled.
-The fraction of people who live in developed countries will decrease by 50% by 2050.

It's hard to read these numbers and not wonder if civilization is indeed collapsing. Personally, I've given up on the idea that Western civilization will find a way to last more than maybe another 100 years. We shouldn't feel inadequate over this: over the last 10,000 years, there have been thousands of civilizations, and most of them have lasted for less than 100 years total. It's true that we've got more technology and science than any civilization before us, but when you think about it this is really the source of the problem.


Ecology is the key idea here. Everything is connected in a web of relations. There's no magic bullet that will fix the environment because every time we do something new, it has a dozen unforeseen effects.

But that's okay. It's the way the ecosystems of the world have worked for billions of years. During the early stages of life, every major innovation caused mass extinctions and a new start. When plants evolved photosynthesis, for example, oxygen poisoned the atmosphere and killed off 99% of life. Later, this oxygen became the basis for respiration in animals. What was originally a pollutant is now what we breathe.

We need to get over this idea that we can somehow fix the earth, design an entire world ecology and do such a good job of it that nothing is wasted, everything is recycled, and there is no pollution and no shortages. It's nonsense. No human being on earth is smart enough to map out all the connections on the planet in such a way to solve all environmental problems. We're going to have to bumble forward, adapt and evolve the best we can, as any other organism does.

There is a new kind of agriculture called permaculture, whose goal is not to grow crops but to build miniature ecosystems that produce more usable food with less intervention from humans. It's experimental -- you put things together and see how they grow. Some weeds you leave because you realize that they are helping by attracting a certain insect. Instead of breaking connections you build more connections, the goal being that you won't have to leave the land fallow because it will replenish the nutrients on its own. There's been many promising results -- Google "permaculture" and you'll see what I mean. Sepp Holzer is one permaculturalist you might look up, famous for growing things like oranges way up in the Alps.

My dream is to get a piece of land and experiment myself. Of course, to get land you need money, and to get money you need a job. That's why right now I'm working a nine-to-five job, driving a gasoline car to work, and shopping at Target.

Reboot: Where Have I Been?

It's been two years, which is too long. But I have some excuses: I was unemployed, then I was employed and trying to write novels, then I was teaching junior high science. In the meantime I've found a better job and decided that I still need a philosophical outlet, so here it is.

Quick summary. I quit the History and Philosophy of Science Ph.D. program in the spring of 2011 for reasons explained in previous posts. Our first child, a boy, was born by C-section June 10, 2011, and immediately my wife took him back to Utah and I went to Lancaster PA to teach college logic to gifted 7-10th graders for six weeks. I had been worried about being able to teach them how logic relates to values, but Plato came to the rescue (it always pays to fall back on the classics) and with Socrates as a role model the course was a spectacular success, my section won the Proof Golf tournament, and for the first time in my summer-nerd-camp career I received near-perfect evaluations from both students and parents. It was great, a fun group of kids.

Then I was unemployed for eight months, living with my wife and son in my generous and patient father-in-law's basement. That was fall of 2011, the job market was very bad, and I had basically no work experience outside of academia.

Between November and July 2012 I worked at iTOK as a Technical Representative -- giving phone support to people with malfunctioning computers and no warranty. We fixed everything from viruses to printers, it was relatively good pay, and my wife and I moved into a two-bedroom apartment with a landlord that shovels the sidewalk every time it snows: a rare and precious breed. During this time I wrote half the second draft of one science fiction novel and half the first draft of another.

In July 2012 my wienie of a doctor let me convince him I was developing carpal tunnel syndrome, and when he started talking about surgery I quit my job to find something less computer-intensive. I was hired on as science teacher and had an experience described here:

Last month I quit to start a job as a Junior Unix Software Developer for WorkflowOne. I love the job, it's great pay, and now I have time to write again. And then on April 1, a girl, our second child, was born naturally, VBAC, face-first, viking style. She is adorable.

In the past few months I've thrown myself into science fiction writing, finishing over half a dozen short stories, submitting a few, but so far rejected each time. We're getting there.

Here's my plan, we'll see if it works out. Every month I write one short science fiction story, and one long blog post. 

For the past couple of years everything has come back to a single idea for me: ecology. Ecology is what is wrong with the idea of progress, ecology is the discipline that tells us why our civilization is collapsing, and ecology is our light and guide as we look for a new way to live in the next couple of centuries. Now that we've caught up on where I've been, let's talk more about what I've been thinking (next post).