Saturday, August 17, 2013

I most definitely dream in color

(The following is an e-mail I wrote to myself last October which apparently describes in great detail a bizarre dream I had. I found it a fascinating read, perhaps worth sharing, although I warn that as a dream, it really has no point.)

It is about 5:30 in the morning.

I have had less than one hour of sleep.

I don't care; I'm done. I can't take anymore nightmares. Every night, I struggle for hours to go to sleep, only to wake up repeatedly full of terror from what I cannot remember.

We (and I don't know who "we" refers to) are living in a house that we've lived in for some time, but we've been considering moving. Packing has been a long, difficult process as it always seems to be, yet somehow, it is excruciatingly worse than I could have imagined. Even though I am living with my family (and is it my wife and children? Or am I the child, living with my parents?), I sleep in a room with three other roommates, two of which spend all their time playing tricks on each other in an ever-escalating manner that seems to have neither limit nor logic. This very evening, the two of them had been talking about something that only they thought was funny, sitting on the edge of their shared bed (there are only two beds in the room, and not much else, as the room is too small to fit anything of consequence in addition to these matched items of furniture, and our personal belongings stuffed underneath) when one of them jostles the other and spills his beer, which he'd been drinking out of a pint glass. Angry, yet laughing, the roommate with the spilled beer tries to punch his friend in the arm, but he leaps quickly out of reach, and runs toward the door, necessitated by equal parts room size/layout and desire for swiftness to run over the top of my bed (on which I am sitting, sifting through a large pile of broken electronic devices attempting in vain to find any that have the slightest bit of function, thus implying my need to pack them). As he reaches the doorway, he turns back and mockingly points, laughing; so roommate with the spilled beer throws his pint glass towards his adversary in the doorway, who ducks as with a loud smash of glass against wood, half the room is showered with beer and shards of broken glass. Both pause for a moment, shocked but still gleefully smirking as they survey the damage, then run from the room, switching the light off behind them and leaving me in the dark, surrounded by broken glass and corroded plastic and metal. My mother sticks her head through a hole in the wall I'd not noticed before and informs me disapprovingly that a friend of mine that had dropped by is sitting on the floor of the master bathroom reading through a stack of pornographic magazines instead of helping clean the kitchen, as she thought he had come over to do. Somehow this is my fault, as is the one thing that makes me glad to be sitting in darkness: the third roommate, the one with whom I share a bed, is not present though she is supposed to be. At least the darkness conceals this one thing that I know will only make things worse. I know I've expressed in the past my disapproval of my roommate's activities, not in small part due to my understanding that for some reason it's my responsibility to keep her out of trouble. As it happens, our house is somehow situated right next to the border between the U.S.A. and the People's Republic of China, to which my roommate nightly sneaks through the bedroom window to illegally visit. She's smuggling weapons into the country and trying to convince them to invade, which is odd since they have repeatedly told her they have no interest in military conquest of the West, and would she please just leave them alone?

As my mother leaves, I begrudgingly turn to the task of trying to clean up the glass shards (which I cannot see clearly, but glisten in the moonlight through the open window) without the aid of anything useful like a broom. I'm left to simply pick them up with my bare hands and pile them by the foot of my bed, all the while finding--like one does while on a sandy beach on a windy day--that while it's annoying enough to have glass shards irritating my bare hands, it's not nearly so annoying as continually noticing that somehow my mouth has filled with a not-insignificant amount of glass as well, which seems to diminish in no way as I repeatedly spit mouthfuls onto the pile on the floor. I grow more and more frustrated at the task, until my mother calls me to help her move some furniture in the living room. I stand up and walk barefoot through the glass to the living room.

In the living room a number of people, only some of whom I know, are sitting around talking while watching what's happening on the top of a large wooden table in the middle of the room. The table is covered with several mounds of a gelatinous substance which one might think to be a dessert but for the foul, not-at-all-fruit-like smell it emits and a bubbling noise it makes as though it were a freshly-opened carbonated beverage. I ask what the hell is going on, and my mother shrugs, telling me it was a school project and she didn't realize that the recipe she used would yield so much and she doesn't know how she's going to package it all up to take away but in the meantime could I help her move the table since it's oozing onto the carpet and we'd like to get at least some of the cleaning deposit back. So I grab one end of the table and we start to carry it away, when to my surprise one of the people in the room I vaguely know as a friend of my mother's reaches out and pinches my ass and winks at me. I barely have time to register that the moment feels like something out of a cheesy TV sitcom before I complete what somehow feels like a cliché by reacting with a jump and dropping the table, which of course flips over and dumps its contents all over the floor.

Oddly enough, this is somehow not my fault--even though my mother did not witness my getting pinched--and instead of rebuking me or making me clean it up, my mother leaves to find the vacuum cleaner and charges me with watching that the house pets don't get into the stuff. This is not a difficult task, as our older dog is outside playing with the kids, and the puppy we'd just adopted earlier in the week is far too fascinated with some of the remains of dinner that were left on the kitchen floor: the hide and most of the bones of a buffalo I'd killed that afternoon and brought home to barbecue. A cousin of mine who happens to be among those in the room comments that the sight of the puppy trying to rip a chunk of raw meat off the carcass is grossing him out. I assure him that however gross it may appear, there's nothing unsanitary about it as the meat is rather fresh; in fact, I note to him that I myself had cut a chunk of rib meat off to eat while I was carrying the carcass home, and it was quite tasty. I do comment that we really ought to get it out to the garbage before it attracts any pests, and just then I

I don't know what it is, but it's clearly alive. When I first spot it, it's vaguely snake-shaped, but it quickly recoils at the sound of my voice and in doing so morphs its shape into something more like a jellyfish; not that I would have mistaken it for either of those creatures, as its color is sort of lime green, and spotted. I get down on my hands and knees to look under the counter where it has disappeared from sight and am amazed at what I see there. Whatever kind of creature it is, it isn't alone, as there appears to be three or four more under there, and I say three or four because it's hard to concentrate on counting when I've just happened upon a scene that might as well be a rain forest on the surface of an alien world. Under the edge of the counter, I see from this angle that the lower portions of our kitchen are host all manner of flora and fauna, but mostly an array of bright-colored fungi in a plethora of shapes and sizes. None of it is any life form that I can identify. Something clicks in my mind.

I recall that in the years that we have lived here, we seemed to have a problem with leaks in the kitchen plumbing every few months, but the landlord never seemed to be able to fix it, or for that matter, figure out where the leak was coming from. Each time he'd reassure us that it didn't matter anyway, since there was no carpet in the kitchen to be effected, and wherever the leak might be coming from, at least utilities were included in the rent, so it was really his problem, and he wasn't worried about it. Surely all that moisture and warmth has simply made a perfect environment for all sorts of living things under our kitchen sink, and this is the eventual disgusting result. I hunt through kitchen drawers until I find a flashlight and duck back under the sink to get a better look. In the back of the space under the sink, there is a gap in the concrete wall that I'd seen before in many of our moments of plumbing distress, but now, shining a flashlight into the gap, I see that rather than damp floor behind the wall, there seems to be a deep puddle of standing water that stretches into the darkness past the flashlight beam at this angle. So I crouch down even lower and try to peer in deeper. I can't comprehend what I see. I stand up and leave the kitchen, running down the hallway to the back of the house.

Near the master bedroom, there is a bit of a nook set off from the hallway that we've been using as a sort of a study, and another glimmer of memory is coming to me. I violently shove the computer desk aside, exposing the wall behind it, where there is a doorway with no knob, just a rust-encrusted keyhole. When we had moved in, the landlord was dismissive of the door, assuring us that it merely led to a narrow crawlspace that allowed access to venting for the original furnace which no longer works, and besides, he has no idea where the key is. He had suggested we set up the room as we had, with a large piece of furniture covering the door so as to just forget it was there. I crouch down and lunge forward, slamming into the door with my shoulder. It doesn't budge. I kneel before the door and stare intensely at the keyhole, bringing my arm back and pummeling the edge of the door with repeated punches, noting within the dream's only brief moment of genuine pleasure that flakes of rust and paint are falling with each blow, and the door is beginning to shudder. After less than a minute of focused attack, a crack appears beside the lock. I reposition myself and, giving a hard kick to the center of the door, hear it give with a satisfying crunch. The door swings open, and I see exactly what I feared I would.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Answers in Genesis

I had a friend many years ago who was an atheist. That in itself is not particularly notable, as atheism is fairly common these days, and I'm sure I have many atheist or agnostic friends. What was really notable about this guy was that unlike a lot of atheists I seem to meet on the Internet, he was pretty tolerant toward theists. In particular, I once heard him make what I thought was a pretty insightful statement: that all of the major religions of the world have enough internal logical consistency to believe in them, or else they probably wouldn't exist. I think he was right.

Anyway, I felt pretty bad writing this particular post, not because of the bare fact that I wrote it, but because it seems somewhat unfair that I waited so long to write it. To some extent I do pride myself on being open-minded and fair towards all religious views, but occasionally, I realize that I've developed a bit of a blind spot when it comes to my own partiality with respect to certain religious attitudes. Shortly after writing my recent post about Orson Scott Card, for instance, I realized that if I ever got around to reading the Book of Mormon, I'd really have to be far more generous towards it than I probably would have intended to be under normal circumstances. Anyway, while I don't currently have any plans to read the Book of Mormon, I still on a regular basis write about atheism (and yes, while atheism is not a religion, it's a religious view), and a few weeks ago I had an interesting epiphany about atheism that I really should have put into writing. Well, I can console myself that few atheists are reading my blog, and probably even fewer really care.

In a certain way, it was odd that it was only just last month that I'd come to the realization that I did, since it's largely due to Richard Dawkins' book The Selfish Gene, which I read some time in the late '80s. Who knows why it would take me more than a quarter-century to put this together? I really ought to go back and read the book again.

Something that has always bothered me about Dawkins is the way he has over time morphed into a sort of crusader for atheism. Surely, the guy is a great thinker and a giant in the world of biology, but why does that make him an expert on (the non-existence of) God? To a great extent, even though I think I've come to a deeper understanding of why his studies in biology might shed some light on theological issues, I still question what purely physical biology has to tell us about spiritual matters, but no matter (no pun intended).

This is the thing, though; I've made a big deal both on my blog and in more casual conversation that I think it's a shame that many scientists can't seem to accept the possibility of the supernatural. That's certainly not to say that the supernatural has a part to play in science; it absolutely does not, by definition. My only thought was that while studying the purely natural, a person might lose sight of the possibility that there was more to our existence than that. And I consider myself a skeptic; I don't place a great deal of faith in the supernatural myself, despite being a theist. I believe there is a God, and there is a spiritual aspect of our lives, but for the most part we can live as though it were not there. What got me feeling guilty as I prepared to write this today is that I realized I was being guilty of doing the exact same thing as I was criticizing others of doing, but in reverse.

What if the parts of our existence I considered to be purely in the realm of the spiritual could actually be under the influence of purely material forces? Why not?

If the study of science blinds one to the spiritual, certainly the study of religion could blind one to the natural. There is something that I'd always felt to be lacking in atheism, but maybe it was because I'd unknowingly set the terms of the argument unfairly. The thing that atheism lacks (in my previous view) is answers. There are certain questions that it is human nature to ask, and atheism either can't seem to answer these questions, or claims that they have no answer. These questions are things like, "What is the meaning of life?" or "Is there a higher power over us?" or "What happens to our consciousness after we die?" I mean, maybe there is no real answer to these questions, but it seems so unsatisfying.

But what if I (along with others, no doubt) was insisting on spiritual answers because I assumed that these were, by their very nature, spiritual questions? What if there was a need to keep an open mind about materialism in the same way that I always felt one should keep an open mind about spiritual things? If you open up these questions to be answered in a materialistic fashion, didn't Dawkins really answer them?

In The Selfish Gene, Dawkins had a revolutionary idea with respect to biology, genetics, and evolution. (Bear with me, it's been, as I said, about a quarter-century since I read this.) It's funny, because it's one of those things that, to me at least, seems almost obvious once you point it out and explain the principle. There's a lot of misunderstanding about evolution. Does it happen to individuals or groups? Does it happen all the time, or is it a gradual process? Is it a process that has a directed plan of some sort, or is it random? Whatever the answers to these, Dawkins suggests that the real driving force behind evolution is in fact the very genes of living creatures themselves. Genes, for lack of a better verb, "want" to propagate. All biological processes on both the micro and macro level can trace back their base driving force to this fact. It's logical and inevitable on some level: as natural selection posits survival of the fittest organisms, so Dawkins' model suggests survival of the fittest genes. If a gene codes for a behavior or a characteristic in an organism that makes it more fit, then surely that gene itself could be considered fit.

But what does this mean philosophically, or even theologically? "What is the meaning of life?" Why, it's all about obeying our genes, isn't it? This is weird, since on some level this is a sort of "Well, duh," thing. If you understand that what we are and what we do is the product of our genes both on an individual level, and as a species or even an ecosystem, then doing what our genes tell us to do isn't even a choice, it's just what we are. Our genetic code is, in the end, the "higher power over us" in a very substantial way that arguably trumps anything else that might stand in its stead. Especially if you have a materialistic world-view.

Of course, maybe as a theist I still need to stress that this does leave many of those questions unanswered. There's no clue given here to the nature of a possible afterlife, certainly, but of course there may be no answer. There also is no clear indication as to what sort of moral system one should follow, but maybe morality is a separate realm from these sorts of questions. Does admitting these as potentially valid answers to great philosophical questions mean I'm advocating for atheism? Of course not, I'm still a Christian. Maybe I'm just suggesting that which is already obvious to atheists: that atheistic viewpoints have enough internal logical consistency to believe in them, or else they probably wouldn't exist. Am I right?