Citizen Kane: Fictional Biopic Masterpiece

Citizen-Kane_Poster

Citizen Kane is a movie that I’ve heard about for many years. It left an impact in the pop culture consciousness that resonated down the decades. Watching the film, I can see the influential nature of its story of great success accompanied by a tragic flaw leading to gradual ruin. One of the ways I measure the importance of an earlier work is how much it has been referenced or parodied in later works.

simpsons_citizen_kane_homage

slow_clap_citizen_kaneShia

The Film

The first shot of the film, a series of fences, can be seen as symbolizing the extreme privateness of Kane; the ominous gate representing the emotional gate that none ever breached, as we discover. The lighting was especially notable, as use of contrast. The shot of the table with Thatcher’s diary was especially beautiful. The film makes use of a “grainy film” effect during the newsreel at the beginning to show public events from Kane’s past. I found this technique very interesting, since I had long assumed it was used much later.

CKane2

The film starts at the end, deflating the drama of Kane’s death. Instead, Welles uses that as the jumping off point for the real dramatic story, the quest to understand the great man. The meeting of the journalists after the newsreel and the scene at the end when they meet again and declare defeat serve as bookends to the apparent story of the film. The other story being told is of the rise and fall of a media titan that mirrors William Randolph Hearst.

We see Kane having no interest in any of his holdings save the newspaper. His motivation for the newspaper over other things seems to be that as a newspaperman, he can communicate to the masses. In doing so, he finds he has the ability to capture the attention of people everywhere and mold public opinion. He also finds that he can use this influence to wreck his enemies. There is a relevant quote from the documentary where Hearst explained why he didn’t go into the movie business because in the newspapers you could really destroy someone. In view of this quote, it is ironic that Welles used the medium of film to attack Hearst.

shadows

Kane, meanwhile, becomes the champion of the common man, exposing the seedy underbelly of business and politics. His turn as a politician is Trump’s personality and showmanship with Bernie Sanders’ platform. Later, when he loses the race, we gain some insight into why he does what he does. Jed confronts him about his approval seeking, or love seeking behavior. This desire for love and affection from everyone is the core of Charles Foster Kane and is part of the meaning of “Rosebud”. More about this later.

The story of Kane the newspaperman has the feel of a Behind The Music episode: an early rise to prominence, unprecedented success, call him a game changer, etc., then a tragic overreach that leads to his eventual downfall.

The film is also a detective story, as the story follows the reporter as he attempts to solve the mystery of Kane’s final words. The way the reporter’s scenes are shot brings the audience in, putting Thompson in the foreground off to the side and making the audience take the place of Thompson. The result is a more interactive experience.

As Thompson tries and fails to solve the mystery, the audience is treated to the answer Thompson was looking for all the time in that final shot with the sled burning in the incinerator.  It could be said, however, that the real answer was rather obvious when one considers Kane’s story. He is torn away from his parents as a boy, and thrust into his fortune. The psychological trauma of such an event cannot be overstated. By “Rosebud”, Kane of course is referring not just to the sled, but to the lost childhood that was taken from him. In the end, the man who could have anything he wanted only wanted the thing he once had and could not have.

citizen-kane-rosebud-895f1

The Story Behind The Film

Seeing the documentary, The Battle Over Citizen Kane, casts the family separation aspect of Kane’s story in a new light; this is Welles the boy genius, thrust into fame at an early age and robbed of his childhood. I am reminded of Macaulay Culkin, Lindsey Lohan, Dana Plato, and a host of other people who achieved early stardom and fell to a degree due to the pressures of fame. 

More than anyone else, the story of Charles Foster Kane reminds me of Michael Jackson. The parallels are almost creepy. Youth stolen, massive fame and fortune, making headlines everywhere, eccentricities galore, a massive estate epitomizing excess, a fall from grace followed by a slow descent into obscurity and madness, an end shrouded in mystery. The mystery surrounding Jackson’s death, the suspicion of foul play, however unfounded it may have been, mirrors the mystery of Kane’s last words. In both cases, the truth may be forever lost to those seeking it. The Michael Jackson story, along with any extreme high achiever, teaches the lesson that such high achievement comes at a cost. Welles knew this lesson very well.

In the documentary, I noticed that Orson tended towards selfish, self destructive behavior. This both helped and hurt Welles the artist as it made him work incredibly hard and demand everything from his performers while also wreaking havoc on his personal life.

The real life story of Welles being hated by Hearst and Hollywood and his movie being disregarded because of what amount to personal reasons is a shame, but Welles is not entirely without blame. His seeming arrogance and his choice to go after Hearst in this film play a part. The vindication that came when the film that caused so much hate turned out to be a masterpiece was too little too late for Welles. By that time he’d already been in decline for over a decade. One wonders, if Citizen Kane received a more fair assessment upon its original release, would Orson Welles have been able to top it? Or would it be a sophomore slump? We will never know.

Blind Perception: Into Darkness

I blindfolded myself one Sunday morning, and spent 6 hours in darkness. During that time, I did many activities around my house that were interesting and enjoyable in new ways. My son was a big help, getting things for me and spotting things that I didn’t think of. He also walked me around the neighborhood, a really fun experience. The questions that I want to address are about ultimate reality, mind body dualism and consciousness.

20160224_233858

“Blind Sandwich”, a sketch of the tuna sandwich that I made while blindfolded.

Ultimate Reality and The Cave

When I close my eyes, the world doesn’t go away. All the things that were there before are more or less there still. I can know that they’re there because I can reach out and touch the things. I can hear them if they make sound that I can hear, and so on. In other words, I have other sources of information that can tell me about the world. There are many things in my sighted life that I do simply by feel, without looking. Typing this sentence is easy once I place my fingers on the home row keys. In fact, keyboards have bumps on the F and J keys to help people find the home row without looking, so the whole process is independent of sight. One rather funny thing about being without sight is that I move much slower and think that everything is much closer than it is. Here’s an example. The couch is about two regular steps away from the nearest wall. In feeling my way to the couch for the first time, I took no less than five blind feeling steps, most of the way convinced that I missed the couch completely and was about to run into something with sharp corners. None of the dimensions of the couch, the wall, or the floor of my house changed appreciably when I put on the blindfold, so why did it seem so much further? My estimation of how fast and how far I am going is way off, it seems. Of course, later on in the experiment I felt more confident in my movements and found myself doing this less.

I can see things now. Or I think I can see things now. What I understand from science is that I’m actually seeing photons bouncing off of the objects rather than the objects themselves. If that’s true, then am I experiencing anything? I mean, how close is my experience of a thing or a person if I am merely seeing them, if sight is only light interacting with objects and being captured by my eye? The same could be said for any of the senses. If there is an ultimate reality that is beyond what we can access with our senses, how can we access it when senses are literally the only ways for information to come in?

These questions about reality as experienced via the senses are likely unsolvable and mostly just something to think about, but I am reminded of another question about ultimate reality. According to Plato’s allegory of the cave, there is a reality that we are seeing and experiencing and thinking that this is it. Really that is just shadows dancing in smoke on the cave walls. Through some kind of awakening process we are meant to discover the illusory nature of the cave and choose to step into the light and live in the real world. This sounds wonderful and is certainly something to strive for if we are to have fulfilling lives. There is a problem, however. In the metaphor, one either is or isn’t free. It’s binary. In real life, the process of waking up is better seen as a continuum. How can one know when they have truly stepped out of the cave and seen the sun? How can someone know that they have gone from merely waking up to being awake? To really know the answer would require some access to ultimate reality, which, as I determined above, is not possible. So the waking up process must be continual. There will never be a point where one can say, “there, I’ve woken up now, everything will be clear to me from now on.” The process of cultivating awareness leads to more awareness and it becomes a positive feedback loop, albeit a neverending one.

Mind Body Dualism

Towards the end of my sojourn into darkness, I went for a walk around my complex. I had my 12 year old son to guide me. During the trip, there was a bit of disconnect between which way I thought I was going and which way I was going and I required several corrections by my son. Still I had an idea in my head about where I was, and I tried to keep up by asking him to give me a running commentary on where we were, did we pass the mailbox, etc. By the end of the walk, I got to a point where I didn’t really know where I was. This sensing matching or not matching reality got me thinking about mind body dualism. It seems that my mind, the thing trying to calculate how far I had gone and whatnot was not just involved in the movement, that it was part of it, inseparable. In reaching and feeling for things, I found myself bent over, even scouring the floor with my hands “looking” for a slipper. My mind was reaching out with every sense organ that it could, somewhat desperately in those moments, with a feeling like a novice swimmer coming up to catch a breath.

After the walk, my son’s friend came over and he asked if he could go outside. Feeling very confident in my blind abilities, I told him to go. I decided to practice yoga. I did some sun salutations. I had a difficult time balancing and at one point, it felt difficult to breathe. I almost tore off my blindfold so that I could breathe better, even though the mask was not restricting my breathing at all.

Penn Jillette, reflecting on being on The Celebrity Apprentice in a Big Think video, said that willpower was this tangible, finite resource that he felt being strained every minute on camera. He said that by having to filter everything during filming, other areas which people exercise willpower to overcome were free to take over. Chocolate? Sure, I’ll eat all of it. Another glass of wine? Just leave the bottle. It’s as though all the willpower is used up in one area and there was none left over to guard against this other thing. This thought occurred to me, of finite willpower being stretched too far from one challenge leaving it powerless to overcome a different urge, in this case that momentary desire to remove the blindfold.

In these experiences, I cannot get around how the physical state of my body directly affects my mental and emotional state. This fact forces me to reject mind body dualism.

Consciousness

If “mind” is the result of the physical brain/body and nothing more, then that must address my views on consciousness as well. The view of panpsychism, where consciousness is a state exhibited by matter arranged in a certain way, makes sense to me. I see it as a continuum that allows for, shall we say, differently evolved nervous systems to have a kind of consciousness. Flies have hundreds of thousands of brain cells, for example, but I doubt that anyone would argue that the experience of being a fly is anything like the consciousness we experience.

I also found the view of Daniel Dennett on this topic to be interesting; the Hard Problem is a fiction because the phenomenon of experience is an illusion. At least that’s my brief synopsis of his position, click the link for his TED talk on it. I think this phenomenon, the “what it’s like to be me” is just the sum of the inputs to the brain being processed, moment to moment. We string them together and invent stories to go with them and create feedback loops and obey the inputs in the way that we are programmed to do. It follows that I don’t think Free Will is a thing either, but that’s another story.

To answer Chalmers’ thought experiment: What would it be like to have a human automaton? I say the question is flawed for the reasons I mention above. It’s a kind of sum-greater-than-parts kind of thing, the feeling of Being.

This view, I will admit, leaves a great deal unanswered. The feeling of being stared at and the plant mind reading are both phenomena that appear well supported, but not explained as of yet. I am keeping an open mind with regard to Remote Viewing, but so far it hasn’t convinced me. It seems to have a good amount of confirmation bias and vague, very charitable interpretation. Also, the fact that proponents say that skilled practitioners are correct with “greater than chance” frequency raises a yellow flag. How should one go about calculating the odds of something like this? I am still open to learn more about this, I have videos in my Youtube queue and everything. These things are exciting as it means that there are more questions in the world, and I’ve long felt that questions are better than answers. There is much more to these phenomena and it will be interesting to see what can be discovered.

I’m listening to an audiobook by David Brooks right now, called The Social Animal. I’ve only just started it, but so far it follows a couple as they meet, date, fall in love, get married, and have a child. It tells this story by way of subconscious or unconscious emotional reactions and a little evolutionary background on this. There’s also a section about how emotions help with decision making, “coloring” certain choices a certain way to push us toward one choice and away from another. There is a case study mentioned at this part. A man suffered a brain injury that made him unable to feel emotions in the same way as people normally do. This, the doctor believed, made him unable to make decisions competently, an observation also based on his long string of poor life decisions.

Some time ago, I listened to the audiobook of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. It’s a book about thinking and the processes involved in that. It’s a fascinating book. It talks about an art appraiser having a “hunch” that a piece was fake a split second after seeing it that turned out to be true, though it was a very good fake and fooled several others. There were many other cases discussed in the book, but this one served as a jumping off for a discussion of intuition and how people can just “know” something without having any idea how to articulate how they know. The unexplained phenomena above remind me of this book and this part in particular.

In Closing

I don’t have all the answers. I can hardly claim to have any answers if I’m being honest. Being blind gave me some extra hardships, but it also opened me up to finding new ways to solve problems and use my spatial memory more. I decided to do a sketch, which I never do, and I rather enjoyed doing it.

The Waterboy and Ken Miller: Compartmentalization or No?

In my son’s continuing education of comedy movies from when I was younger, I watched The Waterboy with him. I had long relegated it to the “Adam Sandler after his prime” era of movies when I noticed one day that there seemed to be a great deal of love for the movie among people I worked with. This love is expressed most often by referencing or quoting the movie at appropriate times.

h20

There are a ton of not-great movies that somehow have massive quoteability: Joe Dirt is probably the top of that list, since it is a steaming pile of a film, yet people (yours truly included) will quote that movie ad nauseam under marginally acceptable circumstances. Zoolander is another one. Bad movie, love to hear it quoted. Dodgeball, Old School, Wedding Crashers and certain Will Ferrell movies (Talledega Nights, Anchorman, Step Brothers) fit this category as well, but they are too recent in my book; we just got over quoting these movies when they were “new”, and it will be another 5 or 6 years before we start quoting them again out of nostalgia.

Somehow, without my notice or approval, people have started quoting Adam Sandler’s less funny late 90s/ early 00s movies such as The Waterboy, Little Nicky, Big Daddy, Mr. Deeds, et cetera, et fucking cetera. As I said before, I have long regarded these as inferior product, mostly because I know the greatness that Sandler has been able to achieve in Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore. I didn’t really get it until I realized what was happening: their fondness of those movies is a function of their initial experiences with those movies, just as my love of Sandler’s early works is a reflection of my experience of watching them as a fifteen year old. It is a side effect of working with younger people I suppose. Nothing wrong with a good Little Nicky quote if the situation fits, however I may question your taste in movies, and rightly so.

Anyway, The Waterboy. Was watching it with my son and noticed something that didn’t make sense. Bobby Boucher knows science when it comes to water purification, but thinks that alligators are ornery because “they got all them teeth but no toothbrush.” He knows almost nothing else of modern science, but we see him boiling water to kill germs, displaying a knowledge of germ theory completely out of sync with his lifestyle. The movie explains this by saying Boucher’s father died because of dehydration or impurities in his water supply, inspiring young Bobby to learn everything he could about hydration technology and water purification. This makes enough sense in the context of the movie, but after thinking about it for much longer than anyone should, I can’t help but wonder why it is that Boucher can know so little of the rest of the world, and so much comparatively about water, and doesn’t it ever lead to moments of cognitive dissonance?

Compartmentalization

The answer is a concept known as compartmentalization. This is where people think differently about different things. One standard applies for one topic, but a different standard applies for something else.

150px-Finding_Darwin's_God_cover

The first time I heard about this concept was in reference to Dr. Ken Miller. He’s an evolutionary biologist who is also a devout Christian. He was a key expert witness in the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial which outlawed teaching Creationism in schools and further defined Intelligent Design as a form of Creationism. In his book, Finding Darwin’s GodDr. Miller explains how his faith and his understanding of science are not in conflict. Far from it, Miller claims that his understanding of science and his faith complement one another. Here’s the blurb from the site that I think sums up the book:

To creationists, an acceptance of evolution cannot coexist with belief in a created world. Not only are the creationists wrong, argues a professor of biology who is also a Christian, they deny the possibility of human beings created free to choose right from wrong. Darwin’s theories, he says, can actually deepen our belief in a Creator.

To make his case, Miller spends the first several chapters explaining why evolution is true. Having read books by Coyne and Dawkins on the same subject, I was really impressed to see the variety of citations that can be made. This should be very instructive to people who doubt evolution. If there were only one experiment that keeps being cited that refuted a certain Creationist or Intelligent Design claim, you might see that as kind of a weak refutation. The fact is that there are tons and tons of papers and studies that not only refute general claims, but specifically address details of arguments against evolution.

In his arguments, Miller takes on Creationist claims first, then devotes a chapter to Intelligent Design. He goes after ID theorist Michael Behe specifically, which is fitting since Behe was sort of Miller’s opposite number in the Kitzmiller trial.

In the final chapter Miller outlines his position on faith and science, the central point of the book. I was impressed with the sincerity and the thoughtfulness of his position here. While I remain an atheist, I appreciate Miller’s approach. If there were more believers with his take on it, I would be just fine with that.

I recommend this book to anyone who is a fan of science, or grappling with the whole religion v. science thing. If you are a Creationist, Intelligent Design fan, or you believe in Teach The Controversy, this book will educate you and give you something to think about. The way Miller explains his faith should be very instructive to those who feel that their faith forbids them to accept evolution.

If there’s one criticism I could level at Dr. Miller’s work, it’s that it seems like a long build up to The Thing The Book Is About. If maybe the tagline of the book mentioned that it was also, in a big way, about the truth of evolution and debunking of Creationist and Intelligent Design arguments, it might be a little better. It may be the scenic route, but an enjoyable journey nonetheless.

What Was I Saying? Oh Yeah, Compartmentalization

In the end, I don’t think Dr. Miller is a legitimate example of compartmentalization. Many science advocates feel strongly that guys like Miller – that is, serious scientists that have religious beliefs – must compartmentalize to make sense of the world. After reading Finding Darwin’s God, I have to say I don’t think that’s the way it is. However, based on what we can know about Bobby Boucher, he makes an excellent example of compartmentalization.

City Lights: The First Romantic Comedy

City Lights

As a fan of cinema, the exploration of early films and the works of early stars like Chaplin are instructive. Seeing familiar jokes and gags done in perhaps their original form enhances my appreciation for later films, and it shows the influence of these works. City Lights is no exception.

Sights and Sounds

Many funny scenes depend on the camera angle for maximum effect. The scene early in the film with the sidewalk elevator narrowly missing the Tramp several times as he examines a piece of “artwork” is a good early example of this. The shot, which shows the Tramp almost stepping into the hole several times while not noticing, is shot from in front of the Tramp, letting the audience in on the secret while showing that he has no idea what’s going on.

The fact that Chaplin scored this film, as well as write, direct, and act in, shows that he was very talented in different ways. It also shows a bit of a control freak at work. It seems that he had such a particular idea about what the film needed to look and sound like, that he could only rely on his own talents to put it together correctly. The result seems to have been remembered fairly as a work of genius, but it could have easily been a disaster with only one creative force making all the decisions.

The Jokes

city-lights-2

There are tons of brilliant physical jokes found in this film. The sequence at the very beginning with the statue unveiling shows the immense comic talent of Chaplin the performer, especially the part where his trousers are caught on the sword and the National Anthem starts playing, and he has to scramble to keep from losing his footing, struggling in a very funny way. There are many gags that I’ve seen before in later works, such as in the scene by the water where the Millionaire is trying to help the Tramp out of the water and inadvertently pulls him in. That scene showcases the comic timing that Chaplin and his costar had; it’s amazing to see how well executed the sequence is, much of it on one take. Perhaps the most amazing scene in terms of slapstick comedy is to be found at the restaurant/ club when the Tramp and the Millionaire go out, both visibly inebriated. Chaplin’s slippery staggering across the dance floor, ending at the table, is nothing short of spectacular in terms of choreography and execution. Scenes like this showcase Chaplin’s meticulous attention to detail, and the result is riveting. One director told me that the most fascinating thing to watch is precision. Chaplin and his costars show this in many scenes, but the restaurant/ club sequence really shines as a work of many parts moving with incredible precision.

city-lights-cigar2

My favorite joke of the whole movie is when the Tramp is driving around in the Millionaire’s car, looking for a smoke, and he sees a rich man toss a butt on the sidewalk and pulls over, only to meet another tramp trying to pick it up, whom he shoves away to take the smoke for himself. The joke worked on many levels: first there’s the physical, slapstick humor of pushing a guy out of the way to pick up a cigar. From the perspective of each character, there’s another layer of humor. The Tramp desperately wants a smoke and is willing to do anything to get it. He carefully follows the rich man until he drops the cigar on the sidewalk. How dare that other homeless fellow try to grab what he’s earned? Consider it from the perspective of that other homeless fellow; he’s just bumming along, sees a good sized butt discarded on the sidewalk, and figures this must be my lucky day, only to be shoved away rudely by a guy in a tuxedo and a nice car! How does he dare? This is an intricate piece of social commentary that has deeper meaning given Chaplin’s origins as a poor person.

The Characters and Their Meaning

The Millionaire seems to have serious issues that are dealt with somewhat lightly; the first time we see him, he’s about to kill himself. He also has what may be called “drunken recall” as he only seems to recognize the Tramp when he’s drunk. Could this character be subtle commentary from Chaplin about rich people who view others, particularly the poor, as disposable props, while they are ultimately trapped in a superficial life devoid of meaning, leading to destructive behavior such as excessive drinking?

The audience sympathizes with the Tramp while still having a laugh at his foibles. He succeeds in being a funny character that we care about. We see this develop in the affection he has for the Blind Girl and the flower that she gives him. He goes to extremes just to help her out, including shoveling droppings and stepping into the ring to get clobbered. In the end, he gives all the money to her, even as he’s bound for jail; we are touched by his sacrifice. The character balances the two extremes; being a prat-falling fool on one side and being a love struck hero on the other. Both sides are larger than life, and show Chaplin’s vision of the city as a place of cosmic coincidences, some tragic, others comic, which ultimately lead to a Happy Ending for those that deserve it, namely the Tramp and the Blind Girl.

virginia-cherril

In the city where everyone is indifferent or outright hates the Tramp, the one who shows kindness with no expectation of reciprocity is the Blind Girl. Her blindness is not just her lack of vision, her generosity towards the Tramp shows that she is blind to the social station that one occupies or whether they can afford to buy her flowers, although she does think the Tramp is a rich man. She is the only one who sees the Tramp for his real human value, especially at the end when she realizes who he really is.

The title, City Lights, can refer to her experience with the Tramp, in that, thanks to his help, the “lights” can come on and she can see. It could also refer to the Blind Girl herself; in a city full of people who disdain the Tramp, she is the one who causes his countenance to “light up” with joy.

In the end, we can see City Lights as commentary on people. People show their value not through what they can buy, but what they are willing to do for those others with no thought of getting anything in return. Chaplin’s poor childhood certainly shows its influence in this film and in the Tramp character in general. The fantasy – that someone out there will love me for me regardless of my wealth – is one that everyone can understand and appreciate, and it is communicated in a careful, artful way, which is why this film is so highly regarded.

Apparently, I Don’t Exist: Another Intellectually Dishonest Apologetic

My friend declared the other day that atheists don’t exist. I was kind of flabbergasted by this news. Here I was, thinking that I was existing, but it looks like, ever since a couple years ago when I decided that I officially didn’t believe in god, I wasn’t. After I got over the very real existential crisis this statement wrought in me, I wondered what he meant by that, since it could be a couple different things. He could be 1) abandoning reason altogether and casting his lot with the Presuppositionalists, who say that everyone knows that the god of the Bible exists; or 2) defining atheism to mean gnostic atheism, or having absolute knowledge that no gods exist. Turns out it was this one.

There are two main questions being asked here that my friend is conflating. One is, “do you believe in a god or gods?” and the other is, “can we know for sure whether or not a god or gods exist?” Here is a helpful illustration:

Epistemology

For me this comes down to epistemology, or how we know what we know. I only want to believe things that are demonstrably true. Religious claims such as, “There is a god.” don’t have any demonstration to support them.

You should be able to test any claim so that there are clearly defined, measurable circumstances that indicate that a claim is false. This quality is also called being falsifiable. Evolution is extremely well supported because there are clearly defined conditions that would show it to be false (e.g. rabbits in the Pre-Cambrian as J.B.S. Haldane once said) and those conditions have never been met in the century and a half and then some following Darwin’s The Origin of Species. On the other hand, Creationism doesn’t work as since there are no defined conditions that could show it to be false.

For example, I know as well as one can know anything that our planet rotates approximately every 24 hours. I also know that this planet orbits the star we call the sun, and it takes about 365.25 days to do so. I can support these claims with measurable, testable, falsifiable data.

Biblical Claims: What Do We Know?

I know that there are some ancient writings where a man named Jesus worked miracles, was crucified, and rose from the dead. I know that there are many people that believe that those things happened, and that Jesus died for them. The most that any non-biblical text ever says about this is that there were people who believed that these things happened. All of the non-biblical texts are from at least a hundred years after the crucifixion.

The above is just a nugget of the information that is available about the truth of the claims of Christianity. I have seen many Youtube videos and lectures on this, and read about it. I am but a layman when it comes to ancient writings. There’s a crapload of information out there. I recommend interacting with media from both sides.

However, if you are an expert, like my friend that I mentioned above, your faith-based opinion on the Jesus story doesn’t sell me as long as it is, at bottom, based on faith. By faith I mean belief in something without evidence, like the Jesus story. Even if the most miraculous and arguably most important event of the Gospels, the resurrection, can be shown to be true, it doesn’t mean that Jesus is the son of god, or god, or anything else.

Think about it. According to the books of the Bible, Jesus is the third person to get resurrected. Why is this one the one that must be the son of god? These are questions that you are allowed to ask.

Atheists Don’t Exist

To come back to the topic, my friend says that because I can’t know everything, I can’t make the positive claim that no gods exist. I will concede that I don’t have absolute knowledge. It would be foolish for me to claim to know something that cannot be known. Somehow, he is able to know that his god is the one true god, the creator of the universe. This reminds me of Josh Feuerstein’s $100K challenge. For those that don’t want to click the DoNotLink link, the video has the red-ballcapped one offering $100K to any atheist who can provide proof that god doesn’t exist. It is but one float in the endless parade of stupid social media that he is responsible for.

This challenge contains a presupposition that is glaring. You are correct in pointing out that I can’t have absolute knowledge. You fail to recognize, however, that that applies to everyone, yourself included. To say otherwise, that is, to say that you can have absolute knowledge that your god exists while atheists and every non-Christian person can’t is a case of special pleading.

Atheismwonka

You Don’t Get To Say What I Am

The thing that really irks me about my friend’s argument is that he is trying to tell me what I am. He says, “you can’t be atheist. You can be agnostic, but to be atheist is not possible.” This would be like me telling him, “you can’t be Christian. You can be Jewish, but Christianity is just an offshoot of Judaism and not its own thing.” You may really not agree with slap bass, or Korean cooking, or libertarianism, but that doesn’t mean you can tell people who identify with those musical, culinary, or political schools of thought that those things don’t exist. In many ways this apologetic is even worse than #atheismisbelief because it attempts to rob people of their identity. I am an atheist because I have not seen evidence that can only be explained by a divine creator. I am an atheist because I have seen explanations for myriad things in nature that did not require a god. I don’t believe in any gods, therefore I am an atheist. It’s not the whole of my identity, it’s not even a positive belief. They don’t need a word for people who don’t golf, but somehow we live in a world where we need to have a word for people who don’t believe in gods. Atheism is just one conclusion that I have come to after reviewing the available information and applying critical thinking to it. It can be revised if new information comes to light. People like my friend are contributing to the negative attitude people have toward atheists. Atheists are a misunderstood and maligned group and I would like to see that change. In the meantime, don’t tell me who I am.

 

A Bowl Filled To The Brim With Fresh Milk

I was cooking a Christmas dinner of a whole roast chicken with mashed potatoes and kale. I had cooked the chicken for 45 minutes on one side, then flipped it and set the timer for an hour. During that first 45, I did the mise en place for the other dishes; cut veggies, washed the kale, and peeled and cubed the potatoes. After I turned the chicken, I took a shower, putting on relaxing atmospheric music.

The shower was an intermission. You know that feeling when you’re looking at something that you’ve seen before, but this time, for whatever reason, you see it anew? The smell of the chicken, with that lovely herb butter under her skin, greeted me at the top of the stairs. I padded slowly down, holding my new laptop more and more carefully as the darkness, due to a lack of lighting in that corner, increased. For a dark second I thought how awful it would be to fall down the stairs and crush this wonderful gadget, ruining my brand new toy with desire for constant gratification. For that moment I saw myself at my most indulgent, the greedy little fucker that asks for more ice cream than he can eat, uncaring as to whether anyone else gets any. Stepping down the stairs felt like the subtle transition from regular gameplay to cutscene. I put the laptop, still bleating gentle music to focus to, on the TV tray.

I started the burners, and added oil to the saute pan. The level of caffeine in my bloodstream was that sweet spot about a half hour past the peak. All at once, but by degrees, I felt content. A deep and profound happiness emanated from inside me. The music, peaceful. The chicken, radiating warmth and comfort. Cooking is satisfying work, but this is another level of bliss I was feeling. There are some things that may have contributed to this feeling:

My family and I had had a quiet Christmas at home. At the risk of sounding materialistic, we got a lot of cool stuff. Skyping with my parents. My son made homemade books for his mom and grandma, and they both really liked them.

I have a couple days off work, and while it might be a pain in the ass, there are challenges ahead that I am kind of looking forward to. In the meantime, the break is welcome.

Last night I watched the movie Particle Fever, about the Large Hadron Collider and specifically about the Higgs Boson discovery. I had heard of CERN, and I certainly remember reading about the Higgs particle. The level of cooperation among scientists all over the world is breathtaking.

My perception is that I am alive and conscious, that I live in the developed world, that I have relative good health and a steady job, that I have people around me who love me, that I have a son. Moreover, I perceive that I am sharing a planet with people who understand the universe in ways thought to be forever locked behind the veil of mystery, and who continue to ask questions. Who knows what they will find or how it will impact our lives. Further, we lucky humans who occupy this sliver of time have orders of magnitude more access to more information than any previous generation. Access to information is the most important thing that humans have been deprived of for millenia, but they are no longer deprived. Where will we be when the generation of people who were born with Internet access reach 40?

The music, the smells, the realizations described above, all were crystallized for me in one centering moment. One sublime, never-get-it-back moment of gratitude and bliss. Happy, but not giddy. It was more content, like I knew the sound of one hand clapping. I enjoyed it for what it was, then continued cooking.

Later I thought about what was going on right then. Was I experiencing “the Christmas spirit”? Had “God” spoken to me? Had I unintentionally spoken to God? Can you even do that? It was a powerful experience that touched me in a most subtle way. I did not cry out, I was not knocked down, I was not even silently moved to tears.

As a skeptic, I believe that the chemical and emotional explanation makes sense. It certainly doesn’t explain everything, I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to figure myself out. However, positing that this flash of oneness with the universe was the result of interaction with a deity begs many more questions. Do other people get these moments? If so, when? Do they happen when there aren’t wonderful smells and peaceful sounds and comforting activities around creating what amounts to statistical noise? I practice mindfulness meditation, but I haven’t regularly practiced in a while. Meditation, in my humble opinion, isn’t purposed to “give” you these peaceful grateful feelings, but those feelings being more accessible is a happy benefit. The benefits of meditation are supported by research.

Suppose there is a Creator. Something that can create everything should be able to speak to us such that we completely understand it, so that there’s no confusion. It might be impossible for communication to go from us to Him in any meaningful way, as “His ways are not our ways”, etc.

Maybe I should completely understand it. Maybe I’m grasping at straws because I don’t want to face the God that I know exists because I’m a mad-at-God atheist and I’ll come up with any explanation to avoid it. Maybe. But I don’t think that’s the case. As an isolated case, this God explanation probably feels good, especially to believers. But what happens when you apply the same deity to other situations? This is how you test an idea, by seeing if it flies in other situations than the one you started with. Take Euthyphro Dilemma for example. The more questions you ask, the more elaborate explanations have to become to keep up the God explanation. As to my above explanation, I am allowed to say “I don’t know” to questions that are beyond my understanding of consciousness.

I didn’t intend to go on an atheistic rant here, so let me dial it back a bit. As an agnostic, I maintain that it can’t be known whether there is a God or not. So there could be a deity that intervenes from time to time in human affairs. The interventions, however, appear to be nearly indistinguishable from events that occur naturally. What is one to make of that?

The Laughable Argument by Eli Soriano and #atheismisbelief

I recently discovered Eli Soriano’s blog about atheism when I noticed that #atheismisbelief was trending on Twitter. I tweeted about it, but I feel that I need more than 140 characters to explain. In this post I want to address some of Mr. Soriano’s points and rebut them as I see fit.

Title: The Laughable Belief System Atheism Is

There are a few things wrong with this title alone. First, atheism is not a belief system. Religions, particularly those that posit a deity, make a claim. Atheists do not accept those claims. The classification of a person’s religious preference as “atheist” is like someone calling herself an avid non-stamp collector, a person whose favorite hair color is Bald and who prefers the television channel Off. Atheism is the null hypothesis, the default position that one starts from.

From the very beginning, Brother Soriano gets this wrong. This is a person whose opinions are poorly formed. He is relying on a straw man version of atheism to argue against. This is not a description of atheism that I imagine many atheists would agree with.

What If The Title Were: The Laughable Philosophy of Islam?

If Brother Eli were criticising Islam for example, saying that Islam is not a belief system because it is based on cultural traditions rather than revealed truth from a deity. He is not saying that, and neither am I, but if he or someone like him were saying such things, Muslims and non Muslims alike would be up in arms about Islam being disrespected, Soriano is spreading ignorance about Islam, he is using his media presence to spread a message of ignorance and hate against Islam. The charge of Islamophobia would likely be leveled at him, racism even.

Because he is attacking Atheism, the least trusted group in America, no one bats an eye.

More Than Mere Disagreement

This shouldn’t be a thing. The views expressed by brother Soriano do not have a place in the discourse. But he has a readership that numbers in the thousands. The people who read him and accept his arguments without question go around parroting his ignorant hatred of nonbelievers.

When you see someone who has been indoctrinated into Young Earth Creationism, they have deflections for any rational argument in favor of science. For one who is really dug in, they won’t budge from their position no matter how many books you suggest, no matter how many videos you recommend, no matter what facts you can quote them. I don’t want to make this about creationism, but I’m drawing a comparison here. People who read and are taken in by Soriano’s writing, which is probably echoed by their faith leaders, perhaps those same faith leaders recommend Brother Soriano’s work, reinforcing the nonsense. Hey you should read this guy who says the same shit that I do, making my message look more credible. It isn’t just about saying things that are wrong and ignorant. The real crime that Brother Eli Soriano commits in his media is that he is teaching ignorance. Soriano is engaging in and encouraging in-group/out-group behavior, which goes against nearly everything humans have bee striving for since the Enlightenment.

Painfully Badly Written

I would go on, but there is no need. Mr. Soriano is not interested in persuading people to his point of view. Like most other works of apologetics, it is there to reinforce people who are already bought into his fundamentalist Christian, anti-atheist viewpoint.