Saturday, December 5, 2015

My Novels and Projects: A Progress Update

At the end of this post I have a list of my four main projects and how far I’ve gotten on them. But for those who are interested I will first give an explanation of how I’ve managed to become a part-time writer.

Over the past two years I’ve been working on two novels, a non-fiction philosophy book, and a computer game. These are all huge projects. Someone once compared writing a novel to swimming across an ocean. This description is certainly accurate. That I’ve made any significant progress on these projects is due to support from both my wife and my employer. Every morning I get up at 5:30 a.m. and write until 8:30 a.m., including weekends and most holidays. The makes me effectively a half-time writer, as I’ve been for about a year now. Getting to this point was not easy.

When I first quit grad school and returned to Utah with my wife and son, I had the desire to write but I knew finding employment was my first priority. In early 2012, after landing a steady job in tech support, the idea struck me that perhaps the main function of sleep was to conserve calories, and that if I ate an additional meal in the morning I could get by with five hours of sleep, and win three hours of writing time between 5:00 am and 8:00 am.

My hypothesis was probably incorrect. Over the course of the next several months I made tremendous progress on my second novel (Poisons the River Anigrus – unpublished), but exhausted myself physically and mentally and ended up quitting my job because of wrist problems. The next nine months I spent as a middle school science teacher, which left almost no time for writing. Finally, in spring of 2013, I was hired on as a programmer with a normal 40 hour work week. I knew that sleep was essential, and I didn’t want to sacrifice too much time with my wife or kids, so I limited my writing to 1.5 hours every morning. It was during this period that I made most of my progress on First King of Montana.

The reason I focused all my energy on my post-apocalyptic novel was that I felt it had the best chance of making it big so I could become a full-time writer. This way of thinking depended entirely on a faith that my ideas were good enough that if I just applied myself wholeheartedly, a career in professional writing would automatically open up and provide plenty of cash.

This faith was gradually worn down to a faint hope. I was writing science-fiction. The bestselling science-fiction novel of all time was Dune. Frank Herbert had spent ten years writing it and was rejected by dozens of publishers before being picked up by a small motorcycle magazine that could have easily botched it. He was lucky enough to win the Hugo right away, but it still took ten years of spectacular international sales before he could quit his job and write full time. More recently, Orson Scott Card’s novel Ender’s Game has been a bestseller and an award winner, but Card warned in his how-to-write books that science fiction writers can never expect to quit their day jobs. The average money a person makes per novel is about $3000-5000.

I already felt that I was sacrificing some of my deeper philosophical themes to write First King, and after a year (I don’t know why it took this long) it finally struck me that I was going about the whole thing backwards. Realistically, writing a novel was by far the worst and most risky way one could go about achieving financial independence! And why did I want financial independence in the first place? So that I would have more time to write. The basic illusion underneath all of this was that writing a novel was a good way to make more money in less time. But the opposite is the truth.

What I actually needed was to reduce my daytime work-hours so I could increase my writing hours. With this clearly in mind as the goal, I was liberated to consider endless possibilities. Whatever career paid the most per hour, that needed to be my new direction.

With some research I found that software development was already one of the best fields to be in. Freelance developers could often work just half the year. So I started looking into starting my own business.

Oddly enough, no sooner had I started looking than I spotted an opportunity and pounced. A friend from college had helped start an stock-trading company that needed good computer programmers. He told me, “For 26-weeks out of the year we need someone to monitor our systems and—”

“Perfect!” I said.

“—the rest of the year we would need you do full-time software development.”

“Sorry, I guess I’m not interested then.”

But we kept talking. He kept offering me more money but I kept telling him that I only cared about time. I told him to half his proposed salary and half the proposed hours and he would have a deal. He agreed and managed to convince the other partners in the company that this would work.

So I incorporated myself, registering a one-man LLC, and was suddenly an actual free-lancer. I would be on-call for two weeks, working 60 hours a week, and then off-duty for two weeks, during which I wrote 40 hours a week. The one downside to this was that by the end of each pair of weeks I would be either burned out with work or burned out with writing.

Eight months later my last employer called and told me they needed me back. I refused to listen unless they agreed to a reduced-hour schedule. Again and again I had to tell them I wasn’t interested in more money, only more time. So we made a deal and now I’m back with my original company, and I have a better schedule: 32 hours a week of work and 20 hours of writing.

I tell this story because I think that it’s important for writers—and anyone with personal goals—to know that it is possible to push back against corporations for the most valuable resource that people seem to have forgotten about: time. We keep sacrificing our time for more money when we don’t really need more stuff, but more solitude, more togetherness, and more creativity. Solitude, togetherness, and creativity don’t need money, they need time.

Let me share a glimpse the fruit of the leisure I’ve fought for:

Project I: Wisdom’s Thousand Jilted Lovers

Description: A philosophical novel. Half the chapters are semi-autobiographical, based on the story I told in the first few dozen posts of this blog. Interleaved with these are chapters I’m calling “vignettes” short stories based on the lives of scientists, philosophers, poets, and mystics. The theme of the novel is overweening love of wisdom and the tragic alienation it engenders. Along the way I develop my own philosophy of value and evolution.

Work done so far: (1) first draft outline complete, (2) first draft manuscript complete, (3) second draft outline complete, (4) second draft manuscript 20% complete.

Progress to Final Completion: 53%


Project II: The First King of Montana

Description: A post-apocalyptic novel. Washington D.C. has been destroyed in a war of independence waged by Mexico allied with rebels in the Southwest. Jack, a marine returning to Montana in defeat, finds his state in the grips of tyranny and anarchy. He is forced to confront a dysfunctional democracy and unite a fragmented populace made up of Amish, Mayans, white-supremacists, and assorted nihilist thugs—and give them something to believe in now that comfort is a distant memory.

Work done so far: (1) first draft outline complete, (2) first draft manuscript 30% complete, (3) second draft outline 60% complete.

Progress to Final Completion: 45%


Project III: The Cultivation of Wisdom

Description: A non-fiction philosophy book. I am trying to follow in the footsteps of Aristotle and lay out a full system of philosophy. My current outline calls for the following chapters: “Cosmology,” “Philosophy,” “Logic,” “Physics,” “Systems,” “Evolution,” “Ecology,” “Civilization,” “Mysticism,” “Metaphysics,” “Story and Myth,” “Religion and Value.”

Work done so far: (1) 5-page outline complete, (2) 50-page outline complete, (3) first draft “Introduction” complete, (4) first draft “Cosmology” complete, (5) first draft “Philosophy” complete, (6) first draft “Logic” in progress.

Progress to Final Completion: 25%


Project IV: The Eldar and the Fallen

Description: An ecological-sandbox, fantasy computer game. The idea is to have a persistent world with about 1000 characters split into several tribes. Fantasy elements like magic and magical artifacts will also be included. The characters can fall in love, have children, forage, farm, wage war, and enter political relationships. Ten thousand animals and a million plants will also have the basic functions of eating, reproduction, and death. Ecological balance is essential to the game. When a tribe or hero becomes too powerful, it throws the ecology out of balance. The idea is to help your tribe survive and not succumb to the destructive seductions of power.

Work done so far: I’ve successfully generated a world, including trees, grass, rocks, and water, that to have your character walk across takes about 2.5 hours. I use pseudo-randoms seed to store the unique local landscapes, so that the entire world doesn’t have to be represented in computer memory at once. A few variables (climate, vegetation) suffice to keep track of what can change off screen.

Progress to Final Completion: 18%


It has been fulfilling to finally sit down and plan out these projects, and to carry them so far. Without a looming sense of urgency to “make it big” I can focus on quality. I really don’t care if any of these projects become bestsellers. What I do care about is writing something that is truly inspiring and can stand the test of time.

Working on a single project too long, I’ve found, can be unhealthy. So my fallow time has fallow time so to speak—I let myself spend half my mornings meditating, thinking, reading, writing blog posts, or writing short stories for fun. Next week I will post one of the fruits of this—some ideas for a university of the future.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Sage

A Parable

He went to the mountains to get away from the talkers, the screamers whose recorded voices chattered continuously and everywhere as from the sky. Did they know everything about living well, as they claimed? Were they all-seeing or merely all-seen? With these question in his heart he went into the mountains away from the giant faces hovering above the city.

In the quietness in the valley among the snowy peaks he silently waged war in his mind and his heart. Old books were his companions. He read the Eight Ancient Sages: Chuang Tzu, Lao Tzu, Confucius, Plato, Aristotle, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Matthew. When he was done reading he sat and thought for a very long time. He returned to the city years later, light of step and enlightened.

He saw the world with new eyes.

The giant faces of the city were simply fame-seekers and money-seekers. Everything they said and did was filled with hooks to gain themselves followers and money. Nothing was pure of the poison of ambition. People had too long forgotten what a sage was. And he cried to the charlatans,

Every word uttered with a thought of reward is worthless. If the temptation is too great, seek rather poverty and humility than fame, and your example will shine for ages.”

They ignored him, for their lies had infected even their own hearts so that they believed that fame and money were the only ways of spreading truth.

Do you believe that you see what is true? If you do, live that truth. Hold to the quiet center of your knowledge and do not waver. Perhaps once you found a little truth, and your followers called you enlightened, and in the lust kindled by praise and for praise your little truth fled and your heart forgot. You did not hold to your quiet center.”

But he was a man from the mountains and his words were bitter, and none of the teachers listened for long, and went on with their chattering and yelling.

Who will teach these teachers?” he asked himself. “My voice is too weak for the task, and I don’t like to scream from the sky as they do.” And he left them.

Ignoring the big faces he began to notice all the advocates. Some advocated tradition, some advocated progress. Most advocates argued and fought bitterly all day, on the steps of the city hall and in the darkest corner of the poorest tavern. They argued and fought without hope of ultimately victory, though they all dreamed of fixing the world.

You put your hope in government,” he told the advocates in the tavern. “But when has your government ever hoped? When will you stop trying to govern the government and start trying to govern yourselves?”

That’s exactly what we want to do!” they protested. “That’s why we need to change the government!”

You want to change the government because you believe you are smarter than the government. But if you are smarter than the government why do you need a government? If the government believes you are not having enough children it will tax the childless. If the government believes you are too stupid they will pay people to educate you. But all of this shows the government’s stupidity because some need more children and some need less. Some need more education and some need less. Why don’t you decide for yourself?”

Are you saying we need no government?” they said. “We already have a name for that. It is called anarchy.”

No, I am saying you need wisdom and self-knowledge. Anarchy is your name for the opposite, for stupidity. I am not an anarchist but a sage.”

They nodded but their eyes revealed their thoughts: You will never overthrow they government, it doesn’t matter if you are an anarchist or a sage.

The sage stood and raised his voice and preached to the tavern: “The true rebel has a soul and everything he does is for his soul. The true rebel gives all he has to his children and his animals and his plants and his friends.”

But none listened. They glanced at him but turned back to the windows to see the chattering faces in the sky.

He said: “You have hungry hearts that do not give. Your hungry hearts eat too much and rip everything to shreds. Your hearts are so hungry they pay blood for sand until they are empty tattered sacks filled with sand and no blood. Sand is too heavy to pump. And that is why your souls are dead.”

Some of them enjoyed his poetry and listened for a time. And word spread through the city of a great poet who traveled from tavern to tavern and from great hall to great hall preaching the death of the soul. And the book-makers came to the sage and offered him wagons of gold to write his poetry in books and have his poetry told by the chatterers in the sky. They said his name would be on the lips of every educated man and woman and he would live in a mansion with a hundred servants. He would never have to worry again and all day and night he could write his beautiful poetry.

He told these book-makers that they were soulless devils. The book-makers clapped him on the back and smiled with pleasure. They gave him an automobile and a house on the beach with a hundred reams of paper and promised him women. He waited for the book-makers to drive away satisfied and he wandered down the beach to a sea-side town. He gave the keys of his new mansion to a beggar. A woman passing by marveled and took photographs. He turned to her and said,

Here is what it means to have a giving heart. A giving heart asks for nothing. If a giving heart has only three pearls in the world, it tosses them before swine. If you give what is most valuable freely, you buy your soul from God.”

By giving your house away you win your soul?” she said.

No, by giving you my honest words.” And he wandered from town to town until he found a place where none recognized him. By this time he had very long hair and a long beard and he was very hungry.

He found an orchard where masked men were spraying poison on an orchard.

Stop this!” he told them. “You use masks because you do not want to be with your trees and your animals. If you spend your days with your trees and animals and love them with presence, that presence will grow and your gardens will overflow with life. You will not need poison.” They smiled vacantly at this advice and offered him fruit of every variety. He ignored the gnawing in his belly and wandered away without eating.

He came upon a great mystery, a vast roofless hall with velvet carpets and a throne, and upon the throne a small boy with a crown. People came from far away to see this child and hail his genius and hear him speak. The child did not meet anyone’s eyes but only stared at the moon. He preached to the crowd saying, “Stop learning and start creating.” And before their eyes he numbered the craters on the dark side of the moon and told them the number of galaxies in the universe. And he told them a lengthy story about a naked princess from Venus and a blood-thirsty warrior from Mars.

I must be in a dream, he thought. The boy started screaming, an inhuman wail as from a beast. His mother quickly pulled a piece of meat out of her purse and tossed it before him. He pounced and gnawed it like a beast and was calm.

The sage gathered his courage and pressed through the suffocating crowd to the throne. The mother blocked his way and said, “You cannot understand that boy’s mind. He is a world-genius of the first rank!” He took her purse and dumped out the bits of meat and trampled them underfoot. The boy began his wail. The sage gripped his staff firmly and gave him a blow on the rear. The boy’s wail grew louder. He struck him again. The boy’s wail grew so loud and bestial that the crowd dispersed and the mother collapsed in shock. “Silence!” commanded the sage. After the third blow the boy fell to silent weeping.

Send this boy to work in the gardens and tend the animals and build sheds!” But the mother did not know what these things were and only wept. Neither her nor her son would budge from their throne. The crowd returned and called the sage an enemy of children and exiled him.

Better that you execute me,” said the sage, “because that would show genuine love. If love never overflows into anger it is not love.”

Peace and not violence is care,” they said.

You do not care. Do you not care what your children will become? Do you not care what your village will become?” But they would hear no more and he moved on.

He wandered from town to town, hungry almost to the point of starvation. He was very thin and ragged. In one big city he sat on a bench as the sun set. A guardian of the city told him that no homeless people could sit there after dark.

Nature is my home,” said the sage.

This isn’t nature. It’s the city. Do you have a job?”

I’m a sage.”

The sages meet over there.” He pointed to a tower four hundred stories high.

Inside there were ten billion books. On the first floor, hundreds of people were arguing loudly.

He grabbed the shoulder of a woman. “What are you arguing about?”

Dr. Jones has argued that Dr. Smith’s views are intolerant. Dr. Smith is protesting that he is merely telling the truth and giving no interpretation. What do you believe is more important, truth or tolerance?”

I believe that goodness is better than importance. The sages of old didn’t worry about being tolerant or right or important, only about being virtuous and good. You need to end this silly argument and leave this tower and live with virtue.”

But we haven’t yet decided who is right,” she said.

Will you ever decide?”

She laughed. “I don’t know.” She went back to arguing, and the sage went to the second floor of the tower.

There he found men and women sitting around a table drafting a very thick book.

What is your book about?” he asked them.

A man spoke: “We are drafting a philosophy on the question of whether it should be legal for a dog to marry a cat, or a mouse a bluejay, or a hawk an elephant. Where should we draw the line?”

A woman said, “Or should there even be a line!”

And the people broke down into argument and he saw that they had only completed the first page of the book and most was crossed out.

Fools!” yelled the sage. They all looked at him. “Your countrymen are starving, both for food and for wisdom. Your institutions are on the brink of collapse. All is affluent vice. Can you not write a book about this?”

But books have already been written about those things.” And they pointed to all the millions of volumes on the shelves.

If you had read them and understood them,” replied the sage, “you would not be here.”

They stared blankly. “We don’t have time, we’re behind on our book. The book-makers need this finished.”

Growling with rage he went on to the third floor. It was as crowded as the first, but even louder, because everyone was screaming angrily. The sage swung his staff and tripped someone and knelt on his chest.

What do you want?” said the man, who looked more afraid now than angry.

The sage leaned down so his voice could be heard. “Why are you all so angry?”

I’m angry because ... because ...”


Promise not to hit me again.”

I promise,” said the sage.

I’m angry because people who believe in God are violent. They cause the suffering in this world. They need to be reasonable and tolerant.”

You thought I would hit you because you thought I believe in God. But you are wrong. I do not believe in what you would call ‘God,’ though I do believe in the divine. And I do not believe that tolerance is more important than the divine.” And he wanted to strike the man for his stupidity but he had promised that he would not. “And what about everyone else? Why are they angry?”

Some believe that disbelievers in God have caused all the problems, and that we need to start believing in the Bible again.”

The Bible?” said the sage and he began swinging his staff this way and that, knocking people down until finally they were all looking at him. “I’ve been told,” he shouted, “that someone here has read the Bible!”

They all stared at this skinny long-bearded Moses and shook their heads. “No more than a few pages,” said one man. The rest remained silent.

Idiots!” he said. “You are so lustful to prove the Bible true or false that you do not read it!” And he left the tower and wandered far from the city and its false sages.

On a distant mountaintop he found people living in tents and gazing at the sky. “We believe in your teachings, Sage!” they said. They gave him food and he accepted it because these people loved nature and grew wholesome food. “This world is a failure,” said these sky-gazers. “We wait for the extraterrestrials to land and take us to a better place!” The sage was filled with wonder and curiosity and asked them many questions about their space-faring friends. For three days and nights they spoke to him of outer space and its aliens. At the end of the third day he asked them, “Have these extraterrestrials taught you the meanings of wisdom?” And they began to describe the structure of reality. According to the aliens it is layered like the Tower of Sages in the city, and you start at the first level and as you learn more and more you move to the higher levels, to better and better planets.

And what is the final level of enlightenment like?” he asked the sky gazers.

We do not know. But perhaps you can ask our neighbors in that grove of trees. They are known as the silent and they have found perfect inner peace.”

He entered the grove and found people of every age and race sitting quietly in the perfect pose of the lotus.

I hear you have wisdom!” said the sage.

One man opened one eye, and closed it.

I hear you have wisdom!”

All remained perfectly still.

He struck the man with his staff. His eyes opened wide.

I hear you have wisdom!”

Perfect wisdom is perfect stillness,” said the man, cowering. “Please join us in our enlightenment or leave us alone!”

Enlightened? Shall I call you the enlightened? No! I shall call you The Dumb, because you do not use God’s gift of speech that makes us humans and not animals!”

And the silent opened their eyes at this.

Come, I am about to tell you what enlightenment is, and I will only say it once.” And the silent followed the sage out of the grove and onto the mountaintop with the sky gazers.

Sky gazers! Look no more at the sublime empty heavens, but gaze down on your beautiful world!” And as he said this the sun rose and the gazers looked down into the valleys. “See the green living things? See the animals and humans in joy and sorrow, life and death, sickness and strength? See the prophets and philosophers, conquerors and saints, lovers and warriors, whores and nuns? Everything is beautiful, even what is ugly. Everything is horrible, even what is gorgeous. This is your world. Go unto it. Give up your tireless watching and tireless ideas. They will be endless. Why do you wish to go to another world? Will you not just sit on its mountaintop and watch the sky once more? You don’t even know what highest wisdom you seek!”

He turned to the silent. “Are you not on this world to be on this world? Be here and grow your gardens and trees, and animals and children. You have learned peace through silence. Be the peacemakers and teach all to live in peace and harmony. But I give you this riddle: War breeds Peace. You are the warriors of peace and you must fight your fight or lose what God you have found in your groves and on your mountaintops. Did I not descend from my mountaintop? If I had not descended, would I not have shirked my divine purpose? What use is learning if you cannot teach? End your silence!”

And as the sun rose, the sage beheld a nearby mountaintop, filled with more gazers, but these were the valley gazers and they were looking down on the world. The sage said to himself: “Perhaps those have found wisdom like mine and can satisfy my need for friendship.” So he climbed the other mountain.

On the other peak he found a mystery. All the valley gazers were old, and there were no children among them. “Where have your children gone?” he asked the valley gazers. “Have they abandoned you in your senile weakness?”

No no,” they laughed. “We have never had any children.”

No children!” said the sage, and he stood agape. “Do your bodies not have the God-given lust for procreation, evolved over countless aeons of life?”

Well, some of us do and some of us don’t. But we forgo procreation only by choice. See the blood and death in the valleys below! Most children don’t make it in this hard world. There are too many people, and many people have more than their share of children. The only responsible thing to do is to bring no more life into this world of terror, where even the smallest and most innocent can meet a grotesque fate!”

The sage sat with the valley gazers for many days in deep thought. He knew they were wrong but he did not know how to explain himself. The days stretched to weeks, and the weeks to months as he lived with these valley gazers. How can you explain what is good in the death of children?

Finally, after two years of gazing with them he spoke. “The name Valley Gazer is too mild for you. I was mistaken because you seemed meek and natural. You shall now be called Despairers and Wailers! For all you do your whole lives is wail for the horror of the world. You stand and gaze at the masses multiplying and striving and starving, but you refuse to play your part in the epic of life. You produce no children and no convictions, because you are afraid of failure. You know that most children and convictions and faiths will die. But do we not all die? What can we make that can last for a thousand years, let alone five million years? What difference does it make if I die the day after birth or a hundred years after birth? One day has an equal part of eternity as a century. A single blade of grass has an equal share of infinity as a universe. In this way children are gods too and have the responsibilities of gods. Do you call this earth a great war? Then be a warrior. Only by accepting its horror can you find peace. Defying the horror you will ever remain a Despairer and Wailer. Go and have as many children as you can bear, and you will be blessed with many descendents and much life and love and death and beauty! God and evolution bid you go!” And a few of them listened and descended with the sage back into the valleys.

And many of the sky gazers and the silent and the valley gazers followed him down the mountain. He turned to them and said, “Let me leave you all with these words, lest you return to the mountains again. What good is your center and good intent if it evaporates in non-action? How shall future generations enlighten if the enlightened desire them not? No, I say desire future generations and suffering multitudes, and let them forge holy courage and virtue in suffering.”

And the sage went on by himself and walked among the error-checkers, who were checking the Histories and the Numbers line-by-line for errors. They had become old and gray but their pile of books grew ever higher because the book-makers were ever proliferate. The sage passed these machine-people silently and ran into a crowd of laughing onlookers, wearing glasses and dressed in the most fashionable clothes. They were laughing at the error-checkers and saying to one another, “We are more clever! By far!”

How are you more clever?” asked the sage.

What matters but doubt and evidence? Isn’t that the whole of reason? Why not use reason to fix the whole world, and not just our books?”

But if you do not have time to fix all your books how can you hope to fix the world?” asked the sage. Their foolishness made him weary and gave him a heavy heart.

On the contrary,” they said with confidence. And they stood tall and pointed to their automobiles and airplanes and computers and cellphones.

You fix the world thus?” cried the sage. “Such things move people and ideas to and fro! They do not fix them!”

Our Reason made the doctors too, and the doctors’ science.”

The sage laughed and said, “But can your doctors fix our broken spirits?”

Our doctors of psychology can.” So the sage went to the offices of the psychologists.

Masses of well-dressed people, bedecked in jewels and fat on constant feasting were crowded at the doors of the psychologists, jostling to get in and offering bigger and bigger jewels for the privilege. With them they brought spoiled children that cried and cried. The sage climbed in through a window to see what was going on.

He came upon a circle of people seated in chairs, crying. Only one man in the circle was not crying, and he took notes on a clipboard. After listening to them wail for several hours the psychologist finally spoke. All stopped their tears to see and listen.

Stop believing that there is anything wrong with you, and you will be cured,” he said. “Go to your job and earn your money and you will be okay.”

What about my poor child!” said a woman. “She is too small to stop believing so easily!”

Give her these drugs,” said the psychologist. “And she will be silent for the teachers who will teach her how to behave in a job some day.”

With great anger the sage jumped into the circle and grabbed the bottle of pills. “What is this you are giving your children!” he demanded.

It will repair the chemical balance of their brains,” said the psychologist. “The mind is merely a machine, you know.”

Merely? That cannot be! If it is a machine, what person designed it?”

This drug helps you move from your bed to your school or job, where you can do your counting and reading, and then it lets you feel peaceful at night so you can sleep.”

No! This is a monstrous practice, my friends. The purpose of your mind-machine is to be a soul. Your job is to strive to feed and teach children, and to raise animals and plants and give harmony to all of nature and to all people. You are making yourselves into machines so that you can build more machines and create wealth and luxuries to weaken our bodies and destroy our souls. You work your so-called jobs simply to get money and make more men, women, and children into machines!”

With a fiery heart he entered the child-prisons called schools and saw the practice of the toilers called teachers. All day they gave their students candy and praises for being quiet and sitting still. Some teachers yelled too, and all teachers taught this strange group meditation. And sometimes they forced the children to calculate and read so they could contribute in their jobs some day. A rare few teachers had souls and the fire of their souls entered their students, kindling life-sparks. As to bright flowers in the parched wasteland, these sparks were in each child’s mind, of stark beauty. But most toiler-teachers had no time to teach about becoming souls, only machines. The word “soul” had been banned from the schools long ago when it was seen that the nation needed worker-machines and not soul-people, and the teachers who taught it were ridiculed and made to carry heavy burdens. Yet it was these heavy-burdened toilers who were most cheerful.

In the evening the children went home and watched colorful pictures and rhythmic sounds to put their minds to sleep and prevent the flowering of their souls. They would go to sleep to their pictures and sounds and wake up the next morning and repeat. At school when they weren’t being told to be quiet they were talking loudly about the pictures and sounds. They also talked about who the most popular children were and how good their clothes were and how funny the jokes were they learned from the moving pictures. Sometimes the children would ask the teachers about the meaning of this mysterious word “soul” but the teachers were too exhausted to listen and had too many lessons to teach. So the children decided amongst themselves that having a soul was the same as being popular. And they showered the unpopular children with insults and robbed them of any hope of ever having a soul.

The sage followed a brother and sister home and scolded their parents at the door. “How could you sacrifice your children to that machine? There was a time when education meant growing your children’s souls and giving them values and manners, and having them read the ancient sages.”

What’s a sage?” asked the father.

Have you read the Bible? Have you read Plato?”

No,” said the mother. “We thought those were outdated.”

By what? Your empty schools and superficial textbooks? Your bankrupt psychology? Here, please read them.” He took a volume of Plato and his Bible and handed them to the parents.

Oh,” they laughed weakly. “We don’t have time to read those. We didn’t know you were one of those missionaries.” The slammed the door in his face. And the sage sat on their steps and wept for these poor children long into the night. In the morning the parents called social services and he was taken to the soup kitchen.

He saw very proud men and women serving food to the poor. He was hungry because he was far from his farm and had found little that was suitable to eat. This food was no different. It all came from cans and on the cans were labels of explanation. It was made by huge machines that destroyed the soil and destroyed all plants and animals except a single crop for acres and acres. Reading this explanation on the label he threw his food on the ground and turned to the poor and hungry who were eating and cried, “Cast away this food! It is better that we all starve than to live on the mechanization of life, the making-machine of all that is green or nimble! For every mouth we feed here we destroy a million generations of flourishing and suffering and soul-building and soul-breeding. These are the elements of life and its meaning, not merely stuffing our faces like swine.”

But if these people do not eat,” said a server, “they will die. They are starving and gaunt, can’t you see? You say let them die rather than feed them bad food. We say that would be a meaningless death, to die simply because one is poor.”

The sage knew this was his most difficult doctrine, the rarest and most tooth-breaking of pearls, and he grew silent. None waited for his response. All went on eating. It was likely that they would trample this pearl underfoot, and turn and gore him.

Nevertheless, he stood upon a table and gave them this parable:

Once there was a powerful and lustful sultan with forty-thousand wives. Many supplicants came and groveled and cried: ‘Oh Great One, in your wisdom you have married every woman in the city. We honor your greatness, but humbly beg of you to have pity, for your subjects are starved for affection and lonely, and cannot live good lives without the company of women.’ And the sultan replied, ‘I am not deaf to your suffering. Every man in the city may come to the palace once a week and sleep with the Royal Wife of his choosing.’ And the men of the city rejoiced and this became the new custom.

Ye wretches! Do you not see that the men of the city are as guilty as the sultan? Do you not see that his wives are sorely abused? When you plow a piece of land and destroy its abundance, you are as the sultan ravaging a new wife. The hungry are like the men of the city who cannot find a wife. When beggars complain of their hunger, they should be sent to cultivate their land, but Behold! there is no good land left, for the sultans of the world rape it with their machines. Indeed, when you cultivate a piece of land you marry it and you should love it and treat it as an equal. The land and its abundance is part of nature, and it is a commandment to worship nature, for it is the face of God.

Do you not see that by eating this food you are as guilty as the man who sleeps with a wife of the sultan? It matters not that you have permission from the sultan! Do you have permission from the wife? Does nature give you permission to abuse her so?” And he overturned the tables one by one and spilled the soup. They called the guardians and he fled into the alleyways of the city and was very hungry. He had not eaten for several weeks. There was no fat on his body and he knew he was close to death.

He leaned against the hard brick wall and wondered: Was he mad? But the psychologists had defined madness as being non-machine. So it was good to be mad in this country. Was there no country where he could belong? Could he live with the peasants in faraway Bolivia? But he was not Bolivian and did not belong there. He belonged here and was raised here. Should he go to his mountain again? But he had no wife and no legacy to leave, even from the mountain. He would go to die. Should he find a wife? But brides needed men with machine-jobs. That was the first requirement in this land. And he was not a machine and he loved his soul. So he would starve here, alone and sane. And for amusement he took a pile of napkins and a stray pencil and wrote down his thoughts and threw them to the wind. His thoughts were angry but his heart was calm. He cried into the empty alley, “Only that which is given freely and without expectation of return has any life.” He thought he would die there with no reward for the pearls he had cast. He was content.

Some Christians found him and took him to their beautiful farm and fed him wholesome food. They understood some things about animals and plants. They remembered how to work with their hands and educate their own children.

You are building something that might last here!” said the sage with admiration.

The Christians were proud and thanked him for the compliment, but told him that all was not well. “Our children learn many things and become much wiser than other children, because they don’t go to the machine-schools. And though they have great success and go on to be great men and women, most lose God and become atheists and abandon farming and child-rearing. But what else can we do? You believe in God and the Bible: maybe you can help us. Our children make great progress in the Word of God but maybe we can teach them a better way. Come and see the little ones.”

He went with them to see their smallest children. The three-year-olds prayed seventy times a day and memorized an entire book of the Bible every week. A two-year-old approached him and said, “See our beautiful gardens that God made. I love God so much! And I love the Bible. Jesus will save me. I have him in my heart!”

The sage turned to the parents and said, “Your little ones do not know what they are saying. You’ve made God part of their grammar. It is nothing more than a word and piece of information to them. What is the infinite to someone who cannot count to three? What is the forgiveness of Jesus to someone who cannot sin? What is the beauty of the world to someone whose world is a nursery? One teaches like this: animals, gardens, tools, words, songs, music, stories, poetry, mathematics, science, philosophy, religion, Jesus, God. You are teaching your children backwards! No wonder you people are called backwards even by the idiotic city folk. Your children will never be able to doubt God this way, and without doubt how can they have faith? And if there is no genuine faith, how can they go on to teach future generations the meaning of God?”

The parents stared at him blankly. They too had been raised in blind faith and were subject to the pan-generational curse of the trivialization and idolization of God. Those who fell by the wayside were cursing God because they didn’t know whom they cursed.

But the Christians did not expel the sage, and they asked him for more wisdom. He told them:

You must begin by demanding of yourself that you forget all and renounce all -- even unto atheism -- learn all and remember all, suffer all and challenge all, die in every way you can die and strive in every way you can strive: all for the sake of the most sacred of the sacred, the most divine of that divinity that is beyond explanation and full comprehension. Such divinity will make you the quietest and most radical, the broadest-minded and most judgmental, most guilty and most angry. And only when your soul has been thus broken can it live and grow into a soul.

Break your soul and break the souls of your children and give them everything of yourself and of the ancients. If a passion for the wisdom of the ancients is also kindled in their hearts your children and your children’s children will became holy sage-kings.”

And the Christians heard this and marveled and a woman among them fell in love with the sage and they married and moved to his mountain home. There was a great feast and celebration and they founded a village on their mountain. Over the centuries it produced many great sages before it fell into forgetfulness and famine. For a time it lived on only in song and poetry, yet long after all had forgotten what money was and schools, what psychologists were and Christians, and what the one hundred schools of wisdom were the village had produced, the sagacity of the village passed into the spirit of humanity and made it richer and strengthened the spirit of nature in the world, if only by a blade of grass.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

An Eco-Fantasy Game

This month I've been so intensely into my computer sandbox/simulation game project that I haven't thought much about my next blog post. So let's talk about the game I'm working on.

The game I'm working on, tentatively titled "The Eldar and the Fallen."
I don't know, I might make the characters less cartoony than the one you see here.

The project is actually years old. It's hard to say when it started. When I was six we got a Nintendo and I remember asking Uncle John, a computer programmer, how video games were made so that you could do so many different things in them. At the age of seven my brother and I started a video game design notebook with drawings of enemies, controller layouts, and level designs. We continued to "design" games pretty much until I went to college, though by that time a lot of our creative energy went into board games and role-playing games like D&D, since we could actually playtest what we designed.

I didn't learn any actual programming until my junior year at Caltech. When I did it was a revelation. There was this adjunct lecturer from JPL who was into "artificial life," that is, designing computer programs capable of evolution. He held a bunch of popular undergraduate courses where you could do experiments with his "domesticated computer viruses."

Designing computer programs that evolve is actually laughably easy. In terms of programming all you need is a program that copies itself with random mutations. At first they tried compiling their evolutionary programs in "machine code," that is, the basic hardware language that all computers use. But when they ran the code it evolved out of control.

A mutation is nothing but a copy mistake. When your DNA replicates, sometimes there are errors, and when these are passed on to your children it might give them new traits that were never seen before. Because mutations are random, most are harmful. But some are beneficial, and these provide raw material for evolution by natural selection.

In the first artificial life experiments they ran, most of these mutations would corrupt the code and the program would be unable to replicate, and some other program would overwrite it with its own offspring. But other mutations were very beneficial. For example, they might introduce a shortcut so that a program could self-replicate a little faster. Or they might introduce some trick for getting more attention from the CPU. And this is exactly what happened. The programs got really really short and fast, and found more and more tricks for exploiting the hardware. Eventually they got so good at self-replicating they broke free and corrupted the system's registers, and the hardware was ruined.

Desert, plains and forest. Still needs trees and more natural, curved boundaries.
After that their experiments with artificial life were more careful. They gave their living programs a "virtual CPU" to fight over. You might Google 'Tierra' and 'Avida' if you're more curious about how these programs work. Tierra was especially interesting because it managed to evolve its own ecology, complete with producers and consumers, and a balance between the two. As I got deeper into the theory of evolution, it turned out that computer simulations were indispensable for doing certain evolutionary and ecological experiments. Over the past ten years I've written several of my own simulations for exploring the nature of Group Selection, which I've discussed in previous posts. Basically, Group Selection is what allows traits like "kindness," "charity," and "self-sacrifice" to evolve. Many biologists have argued that it must be rare because evolution appears to be "selfish." But to the question of how rare group selection might be in nature, my simulations have given me the answer "not rare at all." The conditions for it, I've learned, are extremely general.

Biologists like to say that kindness evolves from "kin selection" -- that is, we are kind to our family because they are carrying our genes and thus we are really "selfishly" promoting our own genetic material. But if you think more carefully about this reasoning you can see it doesn't make sense. To see this logically let's take a silly fictional example. Say there was a gene for kindness that you transplanted from humans to frogs and it still worked. Might seem impossible, but let's assume it for the sake of argument. By the theory of "kin selection" we would then care as much for these frogs as for our own relatives.

"But wait," you say, "our own relatives would still carry many more of the same genes, so shouldn't we still be nicer to them?" Maybe, but that's irrelevant to how evolution actually works. Our hypothetical gene for kindness would spread by promoting itself wherever it might be found. It doesn't matter if you help a frog or a human, if they have the gene for kindness they too will go on helping other frogs and humans.

Humans and frogs share most of the same DNA anyway, so the entire discussion is absurd. What really matters is helpfulness itself. You should help all organism no matter how closely related they are to you, and this behavior is supported by group evolution. To prove this to myself I wrote a simulation where organisms were split into a number of different "species." I divided each species into "nice," "species-centric," and "mean." Nice organisms would help each other reproduce when they were next to each other--whatever the species. Species-centric organisms would only help their own species. Mean organisms were competitive and would harm everyone.

Eventually what happened was that the "nice" organisms banded together against the "species-centric" and "mean" organisms. The coalitions of several species working together did the best.  It was after running these simulations that I became fully convinced that ecological-level natural selection is the most powerful.


This rocky cliffs along this randomly-generated coastline turned out rather nice.

Evolutionary programming is seductive because it seems like you can get creativity for free. Since learning about artificial life in college I have spent countless hours daydreaming about designing my own form of artificial life that could evolve with endless creativity, so you could watch diverse new species and ecosystems emerge. About a year ago I had an idea for doing something kind of like this. 

The first thing you realize is that you have to simplify. Even the simplest bacteria is too complicated to be simulated completely on a computer, let alone an entire ecosystem. The idea is imitate nature, to represent it artistically, not to rival it. So the question was: what is essential to ecological evolution?

I wanted it to be open, free to evolve in any direction. So I began to design a kind of language, similar to DNA and to the self-replicating code of Avida and Tierra.  The language would include things like, "compare this gene to that gene" or "move this gene from position X to position Y." Just as you can build complex computer programs out of simply instructions, I hoped my organisms could evolve complex, interesting behavior over time.

I never did finish writing this program. I think it became too abstract. Even if my organisms did become complex, it would be in a way that I could hardly appreciate. Avida and Tierra tend to evolve very dense, efficient, hard-to-read code, code that a human programmer would never write and would hate to maintain. Human DNA is the same -- most of it is still to tangled up for researchers to grasp. Evolution works this way too -- it doesn't have an audience in mind. It's like when you enter a "disorganized" mechanic's shop. The mechanic knows exactly where everything is and thus his mess is extremely efficient. But it would be a waste of time to try to learn his system because it evolved for this particular man and how he thinks. It would be more efficient to simply develop your own system.

Some more pretty cliffs on the coast.

So I returned to fiction writing and blog-post writing. I wondered if truly interesting artificial evolution was a pipe dream. Even if you got it to work it wouldn't really be interesting, just an evolving mess with its own set of problems that have nothing to do with yours. Sort of made me think of pessimistic extra-terrestrial contact movies like Solaris or Contact. Even if we did meet a totally different life-form out there, maybe it would be too different to be really interesting or relatable.

But over the past couple of months this train of thought collided violently with another.

For years I've been trying to write "ecological" science fiction. I wanted to write something where the future wasn't some endless progress toward a more and more trivial way of life. Nor an endless war between empires over power and money. Rather, I wanted to re-envision history as a evolutionary story about ecological balance. Every empire collapses. Every trivial way of life self-destructs. Maybe we could build Utopia but it would never last. Why?  It is in the nature of evolution, ecology, and life itself. Progress is an illusion. The only things that last are value, virtue, truth, and beauty.

I want to teach people to think ecologically with my stories. I want them to understand that life is a balance of suffering and joy, creation and destruction. I want to express the importance of what is real, genuine, and creative over what is superficial, entertaining, and complacent.

Even my best stories are still failing to do that. If I write a story with a lot of ecology and not enough character development people lose interest. If a I write a story with a lot of ecology and fantastic character development people praise it up and down for the characters but never notice the ecology.

The problem is, a story is just a representation. You can write a super complex series of novels about how this empire collapses and out of the chaos a new sense of duty and virtue evolves, but something similar has already been done so many times that your readers and critics will only notice the cliches. They will probably miss the subtle, essential things that it is really about.

Ecology is about consequences, as the author of Dune, Frank Herbert, was fond of pointing out. So maybe the medium I'm looking is one where the reader is forced to make decisions and face the consequences.

Eventually all this dark green area will be forest. I'm going for a lush, pixellated look. Still working on getting it right.

There is a medium like this out there. It's one of the newest and most successful media there are. It's the only art form I spent more time with as a kid than novels or movies.

Fortunately for me, I've been a professional computer programmer now for over two years. In about a month I've written a program capable of:

1) Animating a little cartoon-elf who can walk north, east, south, west, and diagonally, and bump into objects.

2) Generating a world map with mountains, seas, plains, forests, and deserts. I've successfully generated a map large enough that it would take you over 2 hours to walk from one side to the other, and several hundred hours to explore the whole thing.

3) Generating some detail in the local terrain. My strategy is to provide each local map with a random seed that will psuedo-randomly generate a unique local terrain. This way I've succeeding in having a world with over a billion shrubs, and over a million unique local landscapes that will be the same when you come back, without storing more than few megabytes of data total. This is currently in progress.  You'll notice in the screenshots a lot of straight lines and flat areas. I'm going to be making the boundaries between terrains look more curved, blotchy, and natural, and adding trees, hills, etc.
A randomly-generated world map. Black is water.

My goals for the program in the coming months/years are:

* Have populations of herbivores in place that will live in ecological balance with the vegetation.
* Have populations of predators to eat the herbivores
* Have populations of elves that can fall in love, marry, have children, garden, forage, and hunt
* Have in place a few rare "magical" plant species and animals (like unicorns & fairies) that are also part of the ecology.
* Give some elves the capability of exploiting the land by mining or tilling, and give them the capability of banding together into empires that conquer land and throw it out of ecological balance
* Set this all up in such way that you have an entertaining game somewhere between a sim (like Sim City or the Sims), a sandbox (like Minecraft), and an real-time-strategy game (like Age of Empires) where the challenge is to preserve your tribe of nature-loving elves against the onslaught of an expanding empire. Maybe you could call it "eco-fantasy." I want there to be enough freedom that you could join the empire if you wanted, or try out some of its magic and technology, or become an independent raider or conqueror -- and see where it lands you.  I'd like there to be real danger of permanent death for characters (it's just a game anyway!) where the challenge is to stay alive and save others' lives.  Where it's also possible to befriend the enemy, or to run away and start again in the hills during the dark times. I'd like the game to function as a sort of story-engine, where there can be romance, mulit-generational conflict, and tensions between the goals of individual characters and the tribal or imperial society. 

I have ideas for implementing all of the things I just described, but the nature of the beast is to run into unexpected complications along the way. I'll be forced to simplify, abandon certain objectives, and maybe introduce new sub-objectives. But enough progress has already been made in modern computer games that I am optimistic, and extremely excited.  It's pretty much all I think about these days ...

More updates to come. And hopefully a continuation of some of the philosophical trains of thoughts in my last post, if and when I can ever pull myself away from this game project for a bit.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

How Our Lives Became a Sci-Fi Cliché – AND – Why Progress is a Pipe Dream


A certain online science fiction magazine used to have a list of "Stories We've Seen Too Often." One of them read:

"The future is utopian and is considered by some or many to be perfect, but perfection turns out to be boring and stagnant and soul-deadening; it turns out that only through imperfection, pain, misery, and nature can life actually be good."

I can see how this might be viewed as cliché. But there is something eerily sweeping here, as if the editors had completely lost patience with the idea of questioning Utopia or progress. Is it not interesting that they receive so many stories of just this sort? Isn't it maybe a little disturbing too?

In the New York Times there was an article recently called "Why Not Utopia?" which considered the increasing automation of the workforce (due to computers, mostly) and how this is causing inequality and putting people out of work. The proposed solution was to embrace a utopian socialist society of perfect equality and let the robots do the work for us. The author failed to mention the fact that automation depends on fossil fuels and other nonrenewable resources. He dismissed global warming as a "scientific" problem. He said nothing about soil depletion, mine depletion, or the staggering loss of biodiversity directly and indirectly caused by the industries that allow for this automation to happen. Nor does he mention that most of the economic inequality that needs to be addressed is between nations and not within the U.S. Since we use at least 5 times our share of resources I guess we'd have to give up 80% of our wealth. Why not Utopia? I don't know, give away 80% of your belongings and income and we'll talk.

People like to say (or at least imply) that human ingenuity can solve all such problems eventually. I don't think it can. Life is essentially a set of evolved responses to problems. No problems, no life. But even if I'm wrong about this, it still seems like a weird, eery idea.

Let's say you had a future like this. Robots do all the work for us. They grow our food and repair themselves and build more robots. Humans, for lack of anything better to do, spend their days in virtual reality experiencing whatever they want to. Does this sound good? Bad? Personally I find it sort of terrifying. When I imagine the end point of progress, as people seem to define it, this is what I see. I don't see how it would be avoidable if progress were continuous. Things get more and more convenient until they are maximally convenient and nobody has to do anything.

The idea has always baffled me. I once wrote a science fiction short story based on it, where robots take over not through violence or intelligence but through human laziness. The result is a new ecosystem of animal-like robots that take care of the bodies of the VR-addicted humans, until the humans, who forget to breed at all, simply die out of old age.

It's never been accepted for publication, but that's all right. I understand that I wasn't the first to think of such an idea. But that doesn't mean it's somehow irrelevant.

I find the idea of Utopia terrifying not because it's at all plausible, but because it's considered a legitimate goal of human life by so many intellectuals. It's not uncommon among scientists and in the sci-fi community to imagine a future where all humans are uploaded into VR and there you have it. A large part of the success of the Matrix movies, I think, was that they tapped into a collective uncomfortableness with the prophecy. A similar idea is Ray Kurzweil's Singularity. He argues that once computers have become more complex than humans ... SOMETHING! What exactly we can't know because our brains are too simple compared with what's coming. The idea is absurd: a tablespoon of healthy soil already contains more complexity in bacteria than the entire human brain. The Singularity has already happened and is still happening, and it used to be called Nature.

Nature used to be considered a good thing. It was mysterious, romantic, full of danger, and rich with life. In contemporary literature you see this mystique portrayed occasionally, but rarely well. Fantasy literature uses a nature aesthetic most often, but even this is derided as old-fashioned and reactionary by the most influential genre authors today. Michael Moorcock called Tolkien's work "strongly anti-urban" as if this undermined its relevance. He said the books sold because "people have been yearning for an ideal rural world," as if something were wrong with this. It reminds me of philosophy papers on environmentalism proposing that nature might have intrinsic value that ought to be respected. Since when did this idea become something controversial to be proven? When did we decide that yearning for a more natural rural life was unhealthy?

Our civilization is unsustainable, and massively so. Our cities are unsustainable. A return to a more rural life is therefore inevitable.

It's madness to yearn for robots and VR, rather than forests and farmwork. It's environmental shortsightedness to teach our children to value human-crowded convenience over gardens and free-ranging animals.

Another story the science fiction editors had seen to much of was one where:

"In the future, all learning is soulless and electronic, until a kid is exposed to ancient wisdom in the form of a book."

This is an apt summary of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, which itself is an apt prophesy of everything that has gone wrong over the past century. That these editors consider it a moot point to harp on shows another very eery sort of complacency.

Part of the soullessness of modern learning is that we use textbooks, not classics. Since we see modern philosophy as more progressed, we do not read ancient wisdom, though ancient wisdom is time tested and more reliably useful in day-to-day life, and less provisional than modern studies and hypotheses.

Ancient wisdom is what we're missing. It's what we've lost. In losing it we have made ourselves madly focused on giddy techno-utopian dreams. Too many are preaching against nature and tradition, and therefore against sustainability and ecology. Michael Moorcock attacked Tolkien like this:

"Since the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, at least, people have been yearning for an ideal rural world they believe to have vanished - yearning for a mythical state of innocence ... as heartily as the Israelites yearned for the Garden of Eden. This refusal to face or derive any pleasure from the realities of urban industrial life, this longing to possess, again, the infant's eye view of the countryside, is a fundamental theme in popular English literature."

But this brings me hope, not despair. If science fiction magazines receive "too many" stories about the bleakness of industrial life and the importance of ancient wisdom, that's a sign that they've lost touch with their audience. (That they often receive more submissions than subscriptions might also clue them in.) If people want novels about the country and about nature, this is not a sign of backwardness but of farsightedness amidst an unsustainable civilization.



Our taste for old books has been ruined by the notion of progress, by the idea that newer is better. We assume that newer is smarter and more humane, that ancient thinkers were old fashioned, irrational, unscientific, and tied to dogma, religion, and supersitition, and that therefore what they said was tainted and any of us can do better without trying.

I think this attitude is worse than unfair. It is pernicious, nonconstructive, and breeds a funny kind of ignorance. We think we know where we're going but we don't even know where we've been. We don't realize that our schemes for progress are already centuries old, millennia old even, and that this idea that newer is better has self-destructed repeatedly since the dawn of civilization.

We neglect to read Immanuel Kant's philosophy because it was Christian. Yet Isaac Newton, the founder of physics, was not only Christian but an alchemist and a mystic. Aristotle believed in a final cause. Einstein was a theist.

Darwin, it is true, began to lose his faith as he developed his theory. He wrote,

"I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine."

Is it any less damnable to let rot every book written by a theist, or by an aristocrat, or by a conservative, a liberal, a Marxist, or a Pagan?

A friend of mine once dismissed Tolkien because there weren't enough female characters in his books. It is certain that Tolkien could have been better about portraying women, but it strikes me as harsh to dismiss every other good idea or beautiful vision he might have had for this single weakness, however annoying.

Another intelligent person I know has questioned the value of the Greek philosophers in light of the fact that they owned slaves. This should doubtless give us pause when weighing their writings. Nothing can excuse their owning slaves, even if slavery was a universal practice in ancient Greece. But I must ask whether it means anything that out of thousands of philosophical books written in ancient Greek, these few by Plato and Aristotle—who rarely mentioned slavery in their books—were copied and recopied thousands of times by hand, through dark ages, by monks and scribes whose superiors might have preferred they copy Bibles or Korans instead, in books that cost a fortune to make (think new car rather than cheap paperback) that would nevertheless decay over just a few generations, at best, and were in ancient, unspoken languages? Today we can pay $3.50 on Amazon for a high quality English translation, or even get an old translation on Kindle for free, but I guess we're too progressed to read it and don't have the time anyway.

Thomas Jefferson owned slaves as well. Should this throw any doubt on the veracity of his phrase: "All men are created equal," or should we torch our tainted Constitution? Perhaps we should torch all contemporary American books too, given our dependence on wage-slaves in Mexico and overseas.

This idea that we are so progressed has muddled our thinking. Is there any making sense of a notion of progress that conjures such callous illusions? Maybe. I think we need to do everything we can to shake our dependence on foreign labor and stop the exploitation of poor countries. It is one reason I try to buy locally. If this is a kind of progress, then I whole-heartedly endorse it.

The fact of the matter is, I don't believe progress is happening. I don't think our civilization is moving forward at all. Someone recently asked me if I thought Western civilization was winning. I said of course not, but I didn't give much of an explanation. Here's my explanation:

You ask whether Western civilization is "winning." To make sense of this we must measure "winningness" in terms of energy, money, power, complexity or some other quantitative measure. But looking at success in terms of quantity is ultimately absurd. If having a larger population is better, then the best organisms are microbes. If having greater concentrations of energy is better, then we should all want to collapse into a black hole. If power or control is the most important then we are forced to the conclusion that Stalin was the greatest man who ever lived. If you mean complexity then a teaspoon of soil with its millions of species of bacteria is many orders of magnitude "better" than all of human technology combined.

You might say something like, "No what I mean is that Western Civilization has the highest culture, in terms of science, philosophy, and art." But the success of our science is measured in terms of technology, which lands us back in the quantitative fallacy. The success of our philosophy is usually explained in terms of science. It's true that we've produced a lot of art, but whether it is genuinely better than that produced in other cultures or in previous ages begs the question of what "better" really means, and we're back to square one.

So no, there is no meaningful notion of "winning" that applies to Western civilization.

But can we define progress? I want to say no, because I want to be rid of the notion of progress so we can talk about old books and the human story.

Let's humor the idea for a minute, so we can truly refute it and leave it behind. To progress, I suppose, means to become better. Fortunately for me, in order to define "better" you will have to define "good," and the question of what is ultimately good has remained an open problem in philosophy since it began. Different religions, for example, have different notions of good. The U.S. considers itself to me one of the more progressed nations, but Islam considers it one of the most retrograde. When conservatives say that family values are being eroded in America, they are claiming regress. When liberals say that ecosystems are being degraded, they are also claiming regress. But both Christians and social liberals have a tendency to say that America leads the world in human rights. There are countless axes of "goodness" along which to measure progress or regress.

I enjoy G.K. Chesterton's view on the matter:
One of the ablest agnostics of the age once asked me whether I thought mankind grew better or grew worse or remained the same. He was confident that the alternative covered all possibilities. He did not see that it only covered patterns and not pictures; processes and not stories. I asked him whether he thought that Mr. Smith of G— got better or worse or remained exactly the same between the age of thirty and forty. It then seemed to dawn on him that it would rather depend on Mr. Smith; and how he chose to go on. It had never occurred to him that it might depend on how mankind chose to go on; and that its course was not a straight line or upward or downward curve, but a track like that of a man across a valley, going where he liked and stopping where he chose, going into a church or falling drunk in a ditch. The life of man is a story; an adventure story ...
... and not a line graph.

The most common view among intellectuals, because it most evokes feelings of compassion and indignation to injustice, is that progress is the increasing satisfaction of every human's material needs—food, clothing, health, and shelter. A thousand schemes for progress have been proposed along these lines, starting with the Marquis de Condorcet and Karl Marx, and continuing today in the writings of Amartya Sen and Jeffery Sachs.

Pollution and resource depletion are huge obstacles to this sort of progress. We like to assume that renewable energy, sustainable farming, and recycling all our waste might be attained in the next few decades. There are a few countries that have succeeded in one or more of these goals. Denmark is largely wind powered now, much of Ireland uses sustainable permaculture, and Sweden recycles nearly all of its garbage. But all of these countries are in the top 20 wealthiest nations. The biggest polluters and ecosystem destroyers are actually the poorest countries struggling the hardest to keep up. This creates a very deep conflict of interest: is it more important to help these countries industrialize or to help them become ecologically sound? Only the second option is sustainable in the long run, but it is very expensive and will lead to more starvation in the short run.

But let's pass over these serious questions and say all the environmental problems are solved. Say we've developed some sustainable system of farming and industry that's cheap enough for everyone. The next hurdle for Utopia to overcome is population growth.

Though population growth has slowed, it is still happening at an exponential rate. And it's happening faster in certain countries and among certain ethnicities. That means that these faster growing peoples, usually bound by religion or nationality, will be ever more numerous. For example, though Amish and Mennonite communities are a small minority in North America, at current rates of growth they will be in the majority within 200 years. The same goes for Muslims in Europe. I'm not uttering this as a warning, because I don't see the population "problem" as a problem but a fact of life. Are we going to form a world government and legislate family size? It's unrealistic. I also believe it would be wrong.

For the sake of argument, let's say we've leaped this hurdle to Utopia as well. We've developed a sustainable system of agriculture and industry and instated a world government capable of enforcing a strict two-child-per-family policy. I don't think it's anywhere near doable but I know some people disagree. So let's consider.

The next issue you're going to face is genetic decay. Humans are organisms, and all organisms are built according to the code in their DNA. DNA is a really long molecule composed of four submolecules called "nucleotides," represented by the letters A, G, T, and C. We've all got a DNA sequence that determines our physical traits, something like this: AGCTGCTCTAGTGACCCAG...

When scientists first sequenced this molecule it kind of looked like gibberish, but over the last few decades we've started decoding its language, which codes for proteins—the components, motors, and machines of the human body. It's a very precise language, molded by billions of years of natural selection.

How does natural selection work, exactly? We all know it's survival of the fittest, but how did the fittest get so fit? DNA changes randomly as it is passed from parent to child. This can happen in numerous ways. As the mother's DNA combines with the father's DNA, you can get new combinations that weren't there before. DNA molecules can also be modified by stray chemicals or radiation from space. Sometimes the molecule in charge of copying the DNA malfunctions and copies it wrong. This happens less than once in a million times, but you have several million nucleotides in your DNA so it normally happens a few times per generation.

Mutation is random. It acts on DNA like noise, creating little random changes that usually damage its function. Once in while, no more than 30% of the time, it actually changes the DNA in way that is not worse but only different. This is why every human (and every dog) is different—we're the results of different combinations of mutations. Some rare combinations of mutations result in an organism that produces more offspring. "Natural selection" is what biologists call this process. Over time DNA types that produce the most offspring become more common in a population.

Let's look at the theoretical limit of Utopia where every family is limited absolutely to two children. What will happen? There will be no natural selection. In order for a couple's genes to spread through the population, they must have more than two. If they don't their genes will be as common as before. There might be four grandchildren but they will include 50% genes from different couples, so their commonality will stay the same. Meanwhile, mutations are building up every generation from cosmic rays. There is no species on earth that has survived in the long term without any natural selection (i.e. with two offspring per couple). In most cases six or more is the norm, and this is even true for most traditional human societies.

Why is our culture so abnormal in this respect, averaging less than two? Humans are unique organisms because they have two systems of inheritance of equal importance: genes and culture. From this point of view it is just as important to pass on your genes as to pass on your ideas. And people do, in fact, behave this way. Religious people love making conversions, smart people love to sell their books, and scientists want more people to think scientifically. Modern Western culture, in fact, puts much more stress on spreading ideas than spreading genes. This way of doing things has its intellectual advantages but is certainly not sustainable. There are already a number of subcultures in America that do have larger families, including Amish, Mennonites, Rabbinical Jews, Mormons, Catholics, Mayans, and many Baptists. Over then next few centuries these populations will gradually come to predominate in this country. This is nothing new—it's a big reason why conservative Christians have predominated in Europe since Roman times.

But let's come back to our fantasy of eliminating poverty by developing sustainable agriculture and industry and enforcing a birth rate to two per family worldwide—a tall order, right? But it's getting taller. What about the build-up of mutations we discussed? Mutations are a kind of noise, a kind of randomization, and so you'd get more and more people who want different things and do things differently. There would be more genetic ailments and physical limitations. As a fear of what might be happening in our society, this is irrelevant and hearkens back to fascism. If people mutate and no longer can or will support our nation it doesn't matter—better to let it collapse and go back to a more natural way of life than try to control people's personal choices. But as for our spotless theoretical Utopia of sustainability and population control, it is fatal. Unless, of course, you use something like genetic engineering.

If you think I'm about to endorse genetic engineering you've been reading too hastily and with too much seriousness. Genetic engineering of humans would be a monstrous thing to undertake. Romance, love, and sex have been the beautiful, natural way of selecting genes for millions of years. It would be scientific idiocy to end this. The term "idiot" comes from the Greek and originally meant someone who was stuck to a single idea. If you are so stuck to the idea of Utopia that you feel the need to regulate the sex life of every individual on the planet, you are being, in a word, evil. Are we so in love with technology that we would literally make it the eternal bride of every human on earth? I hope not. In any case we probably don't have the money or the biotechnology for it. It's hard enough feeding everyone let alone genetically engineering billions of new people.

So where does this leave us? I say forget Utopia already. The idea was insane to begin with. Toss progress. Scratch it. It was a fad, a short-lived cult, a brainstorm of a culture drunk on fossil fuels. You will never completely eliminate hunger and disease from the world. It's just part of the way life is. It's not our job to engineer-out all the pain (and thus also all the danger and adventure) of human life.

Here's my question. It's the reason I'm writing this post, and why I'm writing this blog to begin with. Hell, it's the reason I first became interested in philosophy: What is the point of life without progress?

Here's my answer, if I must with extreme brevity. It is living your own life to the best of your ability. To live in the most romantic and adventurous and heroic and compassionate way possible. That's all. It's not saving the world. You can't save the world. It's not creating a world government that redistributes all the wealth and feeds all the poor. No such creation would last and in the past such schemes (read: Stalin, Third Reich) have done more harm than good. It's better to fix yourself first. Then when you've got your own life in order, help your family members. Help your close friends. Help your local community. I guarantee you will be more fulfilled than if you throw yourself heart and soul into Utopian idealism, as so tragically many young people have done over the past 150 years, to the detriment of their minds, spirits, and souls.

So there's my argument against progress. At one point I was going to make it a book, I guess because it seemed big to me. But now I don't think I want it to be big. I want it to be little. I want it to be a hurdle anyone can jump. Because what is really important lies on the other side of the veil of the illusion of progress. Ancient wisdom. A connection with the past. A connection with nature and the earth. Value in gardening and fishing and farming and quiet nights trading stories on the porch. Value in old books. I am an evangelist for old books. I'm an apologist for ancient wisdom. The experiment of reevaluating our values isn't working. We should refresh our values. We need new old values. We need to jog our memory for what it was really like to value hard work, nature, and simplicity.

I've shared this argument against progress with a lot of people. I suppose I haven't always been very eloquent about it. Some have only heard my list of horrible problems and gotten the impression that I myself am a Utopian idealist. Others get the impression I hate technology or think we should all become Amish. All of this misses the point. The point is that each individual is free to pursue their own idea of the sacred. We should not value civilization and comfort over freedom and nature and wisdom. All the problems I've listed above (population growth, DNA mutation, world government) should be forgotten, not tackled harder.

Those progressives who still disagree with me have a tendency to listen to the end, skirt the veil, balk, and pull back because they see that one of the implications of what I'm saying is that our civilization will collapse. This is indeed part of what I'm saying. Give it at least another 10 years, maybe 210. I don't know. But it's happened to ten thousand civilizations before ours and it will happen to ten thousand civilizations after. It won't be fatal to what matters. Whatever books and music and culture and belief systems survive the next 1000 years will be the cream of the crop, because they will be what got people through the most formidable of all adventures: an apocalypse.

Next time:
-Why we need philosophy now more than ever
-Rediscovering basic common sense by reading the classics