Can I Defrag My Brain?

Conventional wisdom says we only use ten percent of our brains.  Well, that’s been debunked by scientists in various ways.  There are plenty of articles on the net that explain why this meme is an urban legend.  We don’t have a lot of extra capacity idling under the hood, especially as we get older.  At sixty-two I feel my brain is so chock full of facts that to learn a new phone number requires forgetting another number.  It’s like my brain is a computer hard drive at 99.9% usage.  I need to delete files to make room.  With computer hardware we can defrag ours drives, putting all the fragmented files into continuous order, thus speeding up access to our data, freeing up space, and even discovering bad sectors.

Is it possible to defrag our wetware too?

I need to speed up access to my stored thoughts, fix links to lost facts, delete old memories to have space to learn new things, and make my old brain run more efficiently.  Is that possible?  I’m not sure if our wetware uses linked lists, but it sure does feel like it.  It seems like I recall information by association to related information.  And nowadays I often can’t remember particular tidbits of data because my links are broken.  What I need is to defrag my mind.

This little TED film is very enlightening.  It explains why multitasking is wasteful, and why I can’t think when I’m tired and hungry.  If I’m theorizing I can defrag my brain, I’ll have take energy use into consideration.  This DNews flick below shoots down the ten percent idea too, but it does claim we could do more with our brains if we worked harder.  I’m thinking I need to work more efficiently with the remaining capacity I have, especially since my mental abilities are obviously in decline, and I can’t add new capacity.  I’m not being a defeatist, but accepting the reality that aging involves decay.  I really wished I did have an auxiliary memory though.

One thing that really helps me defrag my brain is blogging.  Struggling to put my thoughts into a coherent essay is almost exactly like taking widely disperse file fragments on a hard drive and putting them in one continuous file.  Not only does writing help me organize my thoughts, but making them coalesce into a unified structure seems to delete smaller thoughts from my brain.  I have no idea if this is true or not, but it feels that way.  Each time I write a good essay I feel like I’ve deleted a bunch of aborted drafts and stacks of 3×5 cards.

Many scientists have describe dreaming as a way the brain cleans up each day’s experiences and throws out the unneeded memories.  This sounds like a kind of defragging of files too.  Often during the day when I’m too tired to write, I’ll take a nap and when I wake up my brain is clear again.  I think partly this is recharging the brain, like recharging a battery, and partly sleep must clean out chemical waste that clogs my neural pathways, but it also feels like my unconscious mind has been processing my thoughts too, like organizing paper files into folders for my conscious mind, because when I wake up my thoughts feel more orderly.

The first film takes exception with multitasking, and I think they’re right.  I find that my brain feels more efficient if I try to do fewer things.  Now that I’m retired I my brain seems freed up to think about new things.  I worry about less crap now, which makes me think the old adage, “Use or lose it” is a kind of mental defragging tool.  Want to erase memories?  Avoid thinking, worrying and studying a subject.

One of my life-long models of behavior comes from the  1950 science fiction film Destination Moon.  When making their initial lunar landing, our fictional astronauts use too much fuel, so they don’t have enough rocket juice to return to Earth.  The solution is to jettison as much mass as possible from the spaceship so the fuel they do have is enough to make it back home.  Many self-help books promote the idea that if you want to succeed with your ambitions its best to have only one goal.  I never could do that, and I’ve never been great at anything in my life.  Now that I’m old I realize the same principle applies to coping with aging.  The older I get, the more I realize I’ve got less fuel to get me through the day.  The key to fighting this problem is to jettison tasks that don’t matter so I have to fuel to to do what matters most.

But I’m learning to do things that the astronauts in Destination Moon didn’t know how to do – make more fuel.  Eating better, exercising, and sleep either give me more fuel, or makes my old brain run more efficiently so I can do more with less.  I’m still on a downward spiral towards an eventual heat death of my universe, but every little bit of order I gather now seems to fight personal entropy.

One thing I’m learning lately is being a news addict is counter productive.  More news means less news remembered.  I love reading the “news” on the internet about all kinds of subjects, watching news shows and documentaries on television, and reading as many books as I can, but I’m discovering it’s better to take in fewer stories and concentrate more on one idea at a time.  This is very hard to do, because so much is going on in the world and it feels like I’m missing out if I don’t pay attention to everything.  Not watching the NBC Nightly News feels like I missed out on what went on around the world that day.  But you know what?  I’ve watched thousands of episodes of the nightly news and I can’t remember 99.9999% of what I’ve seen.  I record the news on my computer’s DVR, and I’m learning to skip through certain kinds of stories.  This has a defragging effect on my brain.  Eventually I might stop watching the news altogether, but right now I can’t break that habit.

I’m finding it more satisfying to read a whole bunch about one interesting topic than learn a little about a hundred different of subjects.   I think either way I’m going to forget most everything I learn, but it’s more satisfying to gorge on one subject than graze on a thousand.  And maybe, just maybe, I’ll retain a little more of that one subject. 

This is analogous to a computer’s CPUs and multitasking.  Our brain’s main loop can time slice many subprograms, but the more we have going, the slower our brain runs.  Having fewer interests and worries speeds up processing on the functions we do keep running.

I don’t know if it’s scientifically possible to defrag my brain, but I sure am trying.

JWH – 7/9/14

How Jesus Became God by Bart D. Ehrman

There once was a guy named Jesus.  He sounded like a pretty cool guy if you believed some of the savings he was supposed to have said.  Then his followers made him into God, and people became more interested in what was said about him, rather than what he said.  That’s too bad.  Bart D. Ehrman, has written a book that explains how Jesus became God after he died, and then became God while he was alive, and then became God before he was born, and then became God before any of us were born.  Ehrman’s book could have also been called When Jesus Became God, and to a very minor degree, it could have been called Why Jesus Became God.

I would have entitled it, Too Bad Jesus Became God.

How Jesus Became God

How Jesus Became God is a history book.  It’s not about theology, but many readers will find it undermines their beliefs.  To be fair, Ehrman bends over backwards, constantly explaining how and why he’s writing history, wanting to avoiding any theological implications.  We’ll never know the theological truth in this life, but we can get ever closer to the historical truth.  By summarizing how the followers of Jesus changed their opinions about the man they worshipped in the decades and early centuries after his death, we don’t learn anything new about Jesus, but a whole lot about the history of Christianity.  Because Jesus left no primary sources about what he believed, we can never know anything about the man, all we can know is what other people thought about him long after he died.

I’m afraid when the faithful read this book they will bring their beliefs to the reading and that will distort what Ehrman has to say.  Ehrman  stands outside of Christian faith and ask the question:  How did Jesus become God?  He is a historian, so he makes no assumption whether Jesus is actually God or not, but analyzes what we know about early Christians to decide how they made Jesus into a God.  Ehrman uses textual analysis to date each idea about Jesus that emerged after his death, and to pick through the paltry facts like a CSI detective hoping to find additional clues.  Ehrman tries to answer two main questions.  First, did Jesus think of himself as God or divine?  Second, studying the writings of Paul, the four Gospels, and Acts, Ehrman asks, when did his believers think Jesus became God – at his resurrection, his Baptism, his conception, or from the beginning of all time?

Bart D. Ehrman introduces his book at Huffington Post.  It’s a good summary to read if you’re thinking about buying the book.  He opens with:

Jesus was a lower-class preacher from Galilee, who, in good apocalyptic fashion, proclaimed that the end of history as he knew it was going to come to a crashing end, within his own generation. God was soon to intervene in the course of worldly affairs to overthrow the forces of evil and set up a utopian kingdom on earth. And he would be the king.

It didn’t happen. Instead of being involved with the destruction of God’s enemies, Jesus was unceremoniously crushed by them: arrested, tried, humiliated, tortured, and publicly executed.  And yet, remarkably, soon afterwards his followers began to say that — despite all evidence to the contrary — Jesus really was the messiah sent from God. More than that, he was actually a divine being, not a mere human. And not just any divine being. He was the Creator of the universe. After long debates among themselves they decided that he was not secondary to the one God of Israel, the Lord God Almighty himself. On the contrary, he was fully equal with God; he had always existed for eternity with God; he was of the same essence as God; he was a member of the Trinity.

How did that happen? How did we get from a Jewish apocalyptic preacher — who ended up on the wrong side of the law and was crucified for his efforts — to the Creator of all things and All-powerful Lord? How did Jesus become God?

To Christians, Jesus is God, but to historians, Jesus is no different from any human in history.  Ehrman is studying the theologians and not the theology.  If you are willing to take How Jesus Became God as a purely history book it’s quite fascinating and illuminating about the early development of Western civilization.  If you are a believer, this book could be painful because it treats Christianity no different from pagan mythology that also existed in the first centuries of the common era.

I hope this won’t be insulting to Christians, but most of the ones I know aren’t very intellectual about their theology.  Most, just want to believe in God, an afterlife, heaven, and the promise they will meet their dead kin and friends again.  How that happens is inconsequential to them.  That’s why modern Christianity is based on faith and belief.  Reading How Jesus Became God will show there is a complex history of theology to how belief in believing evolved.  Ehrman makes an excellent case that while Jesus was alive, and even just after he died, Christians believed you had to do good deeds to get into heaven, and that Jesus did not think of himself as divine.  It took decades, centuries even, to evolve the theology that Jesus was Christ who existed since the beginning of time as God and believing in him will earn you eternal life in heaven.

This book is about how the followers of Jesus went from thinking of Jesus as a human being to thinking of him as the Trinity.  Ehrman documents this from what we know from history.  Unfortunately, most of what we know comes from The New Testament, Apocrypha writings, and Gnostic texts.  Ehrman’s history is really close textual readings because we have few outside sources about these events.  Christians might appreciate Ehrman’s careful delineations between the writings of Paul, the four Gospels, and Acts.  What it comes down to is Paul, and the writers of the four gospels had different ideas on when Jesus became God – resurrection, Baptism, conception or the beginning of time.  Then the early church fathers argued over these concepts for centuries.

That might seem like meaningless quibbling to most believers, but it does explain why the four Gospels differ.  The Gospel of Mark doesn’t include the story of the virgin birth, but that’s because it suggests that Jesus became divine at the resurrection.  The writers of Matthew and Luke seem to imply Jesus became divine at Baptism or conception.  To have Jesus become divine at conception you need the virgin birth tale.  The author of John recreates the ontology of Genesis to put Jesus as God back at the beginning of time.

Now I’m an atheist, but I find all of this fascinating.  And I might have a different take on Ehrman’s book, but since I’m not widely read in Christian history, I don’t know how common my questions are.  Jesus and his disciples were lower class folk, who were probably illiterate and spoke Aramaic and Hebrew.  The writers of the Gospels were educated, literate, and spoke and wrote Greek.  I’m wondering if they knew about Greek philosophy and if their theology is a mixture of Hebrew mythology, stories about Jesus, and Greek philosophy.  Is The New Testament a cold front of religion meeting the warm front of philosophy?

By the way, we’re leaving Ehrman and moving into my own ideas.  I’m into science, but science wasn’t invented yet.  At the time of evolution of The New Testament people had very few tools to understand reality.  The first, and oldest tool is religion.  Religion basically says “God did it” to any question about the mystery of reality.  Why is there thunder?  It’s a god.  How did the universe start?  God created it.  In terms of understanding the truth, religion offers no validity or real answers.  It’s all speculation and wild ideas.

Then came philosophy.  Philosophy assumes humans can figure out how things work.  Philosophy starts observing reality for clues, but all too often it comes up with bizarre theories for answers, and eventually these are contrived into elaborate beliefs.  Because philosophy uses logic and rhetoric, it gives the impression that it’s intellectually superior to religion, even though most of its answers about reality are hardly better than religion.  However, logic is sexy, so believers prefer philosophical answers over the dictates of religion, which is basically, “God did it.”  Paul is the Plato of Christianity, and Jesus is his Socrates.  And the guy who wrote The Gospel of John is out there, way out there, both mystical and philosophical, like one of the Pythagoreans.

From my perspective, Paul is the real creator of Christianity, but he lost control of his religion to the later writers of The New Testament.  What Ehrman’s book does is try to chronicle how these later writers change the scope of Christian theology.  Even more fascinating is the Gnostic gospels, which appear to try to take Christianity in even stranger directions.  What became Orthodox Christianity in the first four centuries of the common era is what worked best at selling a belief that took hold of the Western world for the next sixteen centuries.

Modern day believers of Christianity believe because they hear a few ideas in childhood that are so powerful it overwhelms all their thinking.  What Ehrman’s book attempts to do is explain how these memes got created.  Many other writers of Christian history attempt to do this too, but Ehrman seems to be particularly good at it, with clear writing, sensible logic and a humble attitude.  Ehrman has written a series of books that reflect a lifetime of careful research that explain how and why The New Testament was written.  He’s very knowledgeable about The Old Testament, but The New Testament is his specialty, his life’s work.

Most Christians aren’t interested in an intellectual history of their faith.  Their religion gives them a wonderful sense of community, beliefs that comfort them in life, and faith that assures them they won’t die, so they know they will meet their departed loved ones in the next life.  However, there are Christians, especially evangelicals and fundamentalists who are profoundly interested in the intellectually validity of their beliefs and will go to extremes to validate their faith.  Ehrman’s book will cause these people problems.  This gets back to my point about philosophy.  Philosophy appears to reveal the truth, but it doesn’t.  Science is the only system we’ve invented yet that reveals consistencies in reality that we can accept as being true.  What we’re experiencing now is the cold front of philosophy banging into the warm front of science.

What Ehrman brings to the table is history, a discipline that is far more consistent than philosophy, but still not science.  The fundamental faithful are strong adherents of philosophy, which includes rhetoric and logic.  They are confident these tools reveal the truth of reality.  But science is showing them that their philosophy is a very poor tool for understanding the truth of this reality.

What Ehrman has accidently taught me is fundamentalists love philosophy because The New Testament is a product of philosophy, and not religion.  The Old Testament was pure religion.  The New Testament is a hybrid of religion and philosophy, with the later writers of The New Testament being the most philosophical.

And it’s not that philosophy can’t be a useful tool, but it’s only useful if it incorporates the rigors of science.  Science depends on logic, and to a degree rhetoric, but is actually about consistency of observations.   Science, for the most part, can’t be used to verify theology, because most theology involves the metaphysical, which can’t be observed, tested, and is not falsifiable.

Christianity met up with Greek philosophy again when it kicked the Muslims out of Spain.  But that’s not part of Ehrman’s book.  I’ve always thought that was Christianity’s first encounter with Greek philosophy, but now I’m thinking different.  The New Testament writers were the first influence of Greek philosophers on Christianity, they just didn’t mention their educational background.

It would be fantastic to have a time machine and track down the real Jesus and give him a copy of The New Testament and How Jesus Became God.  I get the feeling he’d probably read them and say, “Hey, these stories are about a guy with my name,” and never notice they were about him.

I’m am reminded of stuff I’ve read by Karen Armstrong and Robert Wright, especially in A History of God and The Evolution of God.  The God of The Bible has gone though quite a lot of changes himself.  He’s a combination of several gods that slowly evolved over a very long period of time.  Each time one people would conquer another people, their gods would merge, or one would supplant the other.  To me, Jesus became God because Christianity supplanted older religions and had to incorporate or bury older deities, creeds, traditions, etc.  Jesus essentially becomes the new God that usurps the Jewish God of The Old Testament, in the same way Yahweh supplanted earlier gods like El, Asherah and Baal.

The early Christians had to do this to succeed and thrive, and boy did they thrive.  But it sure is sad that they lost Jesus along the way.  It would be interesting to compare the revisionists techniques in the Quran and The Book of Mormon to see how they try to supplant Christian theology.

I wish Jesus had written down his ideas like Plato.  To me, humans are interesting, gods are not.

JWH – 7/8/14

Could You Love A Robotic Puppy?

If you could buy a robotic puppy that was indistinguishable from a real puppy except that it didn’t eat, drink and go to the bathroom, would it be as satisfying as having a real puppy?  This is probably theoretically, because I don’t know if they could ever invent a robot puppy that smelled like a real puppy, but let’s imagine they could.  One that felt, smelled, sounded and looked just like a real puppy.  I’m assuming people don’t taste their pups, but roboticists could add that feature too if needed.  If this imaginary puppy was a bundle of energy, friskiness, that squirmed and played, licked and nuzzled, just like a real little doggie, would you want one?

pugs-00305

Recently I read that a growing statistical segment of young women are choosing to buy small dogs rather than have babies.  Small dogs and puppies trigger our gotta-love-the-baby response, so many people find puppies a good substitute to love.  What if what we liked about puppies is having this baby love button pushed, and what if a robotic puppy pushed the button equal to a real puppy?  If a robot puppy triggered your need to love something cute, and it felt like it loved you unconditionally, like the way we want dogs and small children to love us, would it fulfill your needs so you no longer needed a real baby or real puppy?

Recently in Great Britain they conducted a survey asking people if they’d have sex with a robot.  Imagine being able to buy an android that looked exactly like the movie star you find most sexually attractive.  Would you bother dating if such a robot took care of all your emotional, sexual and conversational needs?

The Japanese are working on robots to be caretakers for the elderly.  If you were old, and living alone and your children didn’t visit much, or not at all, and you couldn’t get out much, would you find a robot good company?

pugs-00517

In all these cases I have to ask:  What is real?  If we can trick our brain so we satisfy its need for cuteness, receiving and giving love, sex and companionship, will we feel it’s real enough?  I’ve been thinking about getting a puppy, but when I think about how many times I’m going to have to watch it poop & pee, or take it for a walk, I tell myself I’m crazy.  But on the other hand, I’d feel that if it didn’t poop & pee that I’d be missing out on the real experience.

There’s a vast difference between current robotic puppies and real pups.

But what if a robot puppy was as cute and cuddly, warm and fuzzy, wiggly and smelly, as a real puppy, would my brain not urge me to pick it up and play with it?  What if it was an intelligent as a dog, could learn, and was as self-aware as a dog?  Would it be easier to love a robot if we thought the robot could feel our love?

Little children will play with dolls and stuffed toys for hours as substitutes for babies and animals.  Adults will read books, watch television shows and movies, and play video games that simulate reality no better than current robotic dogs.  Drug addicts will seek out their drug of choice to replicate sensations, moods, emotions and feelings they can’t find in real life.   Many people eat junk food rather than real food. We’re already quite used to fooling ourselves. 

Obviously, we’re creatures with urges, appetites, impulses and desires that can be fooled by substitutes for what evolution originally programmed us to seek out.  And what explains our desire for work that has no relationship with nature.  Why will some people spend hours doing mathematics?  In other words, we have created new, novel, and unnatural forms of stimulus to occupy our brains.

I write this essay to contemplate why I desire certain inputs and stimulus for my brain.  If you love puppies, have you ever wondered why?

pugs-00574

JWH – 6/30/14

Do You Dream About Dinosaur Attacks?

I hope this doesn’t reveal some sort of deep embarrassing Freudian complex, but my whole sleep last night was filled with dinosaur dreams.  Ever since I was about five years old I’ve had occasionally  dreams about dinosaurs.  They aren’t real common, but they happen now and then, and they vary in details.  Last night’s dreams was somewhat typical.  I’ll be with a bunch of other people, at home, school, work, outside in a city location, on a crosswalk, etc., and suddenly a dinosaur or dinosaurs would show up and everyone panics.

dinosaur 

In the dream we all know the way to avoid being eaten is to be lie down, don’t move and be quiet.  But there’s always someone nearby that keeps blabbing or moving around that draws attention to the dinosaurs causing me to fear for my safety and makes me very annoyed at the noise maker.   For some reason the dinosaurs won’t notice us if we don’t move or make noise.  I never get eaten myself, or the people I know, but I’m always afraid some dumbass is going to get me, or us, killed.  I’m always annoyed in these dreams that other people are not freezing and shutting up.

The funny thing is I had these dreams all night long.  Even after I got up and went to pee, and went back to sleep.  Even very early in the morning when I was waking up over and over again, every time wondering if I should get up.  Each time I fell back asleep I had another dinosaur dream.  It was one scene after another, with different groups of people, in different locations, and in each scene there was a dinosaur attack.  One scene involved my sister, and another my wife Susan, but it was always strangers causing trouble.  I don’t think I ever saw a dinosaur eat someone, but I knew they were in the distance, so the panic to hide was strong.  These dreams last night weren’t quite nightmares, but they did involved a kind of anxiety. 

If dreams are sorting through the days events and filing long term memories, what did I do yesterday to deserve dinosaurs dreams last night?  And do other people have dinosaur dreams?  I hope these dreams don’t indicate some kind of weird psychological disorder.

When I was young, I guess around five, I had my first dinosaur dream.  I lived out in the country in South Carolina in a old two-story house.  My family didn’t use the second story, but my three-year-old sister and I would go up there to play, but it was creepy.  I would dream about those upstairs rooms as if they were evil.  That was one of my earliest reoccurring dreams, along with dreams of flying.  But it was during this time that I had my first dinosaur dream.  I, and other people were working in this huge gravel pit, and we were slaves to dinosaurs, and had to stand in dinosaur shit as we worked.  Later on, when I saw The Flintstones, the pit we worked in reminded me of this show.  But this dreams was three or four years before The Flintstones appeared in 1960.

I’ve always wondered when I first learned about dinosaurs.  My oldest memories of dinosaurs are from these dreams, but how did I learn about dinosaurs to dream about them?  I remember as a kid, after I started having these dreams, of playing with plastic dinosaurs, and learning their names.  Me and my little buddies liked to collect and trade these plastic dinosaurs, and we seem to know all about them.  I don’t remember being taught about dinosaurs in school, or even reading about them.  I’ve always assumed knowledge about dinosaurs is imprinted in little boys’ brains, like some kind of ancestral memory.

I’ve written about dinosaur dreams before, back in 2008.  I had completely forgotten I had written this, and the dream I described.  The dream back then was somewhat different, a more science fictional version, because people were protected from the dinosaurs by force fields.

Does dreaming about dinosaurs mean anything?  At Dream Moods, which has a page explaining animal symbols in dreams, it says this about dinosaurs:

To see a dinosaur in your dream symbolizes an outdated attitude. You may need to discard your old ways of thinking and habits.

To dream that you are being chased by a dinosaur, indicates your fears of no longer being needed or useful. Alternatively, being chased by a dinosaur, may reflect old issues that are still coming back to haunt you.

I wonder if I have a problem with outdated attitudes?  But this commentary seems no more scientific than astrology.  I am not the only person troubled with dinosaur dreams as reflected in the Yahoo Answers column.  It’s odd, but a couple of people who replied copied the statement I quote above, and it’s repeated on other web sites.  Just shows how bullshit spreads across the internet.  At least at the Dream Dictionary they had something a bit deeper, but still on the woo-woo side.  It reassures me that other people have dinosaur dreams, so I ain’t the only crazy one here.  In fact, there are many dream interpretation sites that cover dinosaurs in dreams, and many people posting about dreaming of dinosaurs.  At Jurassic World they even have a page collecting dinosaur dreams.

Are dreams even symbolic?  I have no idea.  It seems my dreams are saying something very big will destroy me if I stand out, and that other people are constantly being destroyed for making themselves known.  Hunkering down and being quiet sounds rather cowardly to me in waking life.  When I was young and had nightmares I used to kill anything that tried to hurt me.  The violence of my dreams was disturbing because it was like the violence of modern video games, but these dreams were decades before such games were invented.

I can’t think of anything I did or experienced yesterday that would trigger dreams about avoiding death, or large issues.  I had a nice quiet day of reading books and listening to music, and then last night my friend Anne came over for dinner and we watched Empire Falls, an old HBO mini-series based on the Richard Russo book.  Empire Falls is about a man with a repressed past that never speaks his mind.  I did identify with Miles Roby, the Ed Harris character, because I hold things in to avoid emotional conflicts.  Are the dinosaurs of my dreams potential emotional conflicts?  At least this theory works with the dreams because the way to be safe in the dream is to be quiet and avoid attention.  Also, the people who get eaten by dinosaurs are the loud people who won’t shut up.

This is embarrassing, because now I am revealing something.

I guess I’ve got to wait for the dinosaurs to show up.

JWH – 6/29/14

Why We Can’t Know Jesus

It’s almost a certainty that anything you think you know about Jesus is wrong because what you know has gone through two thousand years of constant reinterpretation with additional imagined added facts through suppositions and speculation.  And if by chance you held just one right fact, it would be impossible to know which one it was because there are almost an infinity of possible imagined facts about Jesus to confuse you.

I’ve read a lot of books about Jesus over the years, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s impossible for us to know the truth about what Jesus was like.  Absolutely impossible.  Every book I’ve read gave the author’s imagined interpretation of what Jesus was like based on all the books they had read, each of which was also an interpretation.  Since Jesus left no writings on his own, and all the gospels were written long after the fact, by people who got their information from hand-me-down sources, we have no foundation of verifiable knowledge to work with.  In fact, each of the four gospels are different, written at different times, with new interpretations and added material.

All this is obvious, and I should have concluded it decades ago, but the nature of Bible study makes it fun to try to figure out the truth.  Everyone wants to solve the puzzle and is only too eager to add their interpretation with new speculated possibilities.  Just look at how many early Christian sects there were, and how much the Catholic Church has changed over time, and how many differ protestant denominations there are, with their own splinter groups.  Every church has a different view of Jesus, and so does every human being.  There are billions of different  Jesuses – will the real one please stand up.  It reminds me of that old short story by Arthur C. Clarke, “The Nine Billion Names of God.”

rabbi-jesus

All this became more obvious to me when I was reading Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography by Bruce Chilton.  Now, I’m an atheist, so you might be wondering why I’m reading a book about Jesus.  The origins of Christianity is a minor interest of mine, as a study of history, like how some people study classical Greece for a hobby.  I was intrigued by Rabbi Jesus because the book claimed to have a deep understanding of Judaism of the times, and to use current anthropological knowledge about the time period Jesus lived, to create a biography that jived with the Gospels.  Here’s a quote from Craig L. Blomberg in his review of the book:

There are strengths to Chilton’s work to be sure. Prompted by his editors he has eschewed formal, detailed footnoting for brief references to key literature for each chapter and has written in highly readable, even gripping prose. His descriptions of the customs and geography of Israel bring the stories of Jesus alive as few other writers have done. His portrayal of the probable thoughts, motives and behavior of such characters as Caiaphas and Pilate is more vivid and compelling than any I have read. Over and over again, one senses that one is seeing the Jewish milieu of Jesus more clearly and accurately than in countless other “lives” that have been produced over the centuries. But when one asks what Chilton actually claims Jesus to have said and done, in what sequence, for what reasons and by what power, most of the answers are at best speculative, without the kind of defense and documentation to make one convinced of them. At worst, they simply seem baseless. In a classic understatement, Chilton recognizes in his foreword that he “will doubtless make both Jews and Christians apprehensive” with his portrait of Christ (p. xxi).

Chilton is able to paint a very vivid picture of Jesus with lots of links to related established knowledge, yet in the end it’s all speculation even though the book is very convincing.  If you haven’t read very widely with similar books, this book would be very persuasive in making you think you knew Jesus better.

zealot

Another recent controversial biography is Zealot:  The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan.  Aslan is a scholar who takes another approach to finding the truth about Jesus.  That’s the game here.  Use all the available knowledge you can to paint a supposedly accurate portrait of Jesus.  But just read what Wikipedia said about the book:

Dale Martin writes in The New York Times that although Aslan is not a scholar of ancient Christianity and does not present “innovative or original scholarship”, the book is entertaining and “a serious presentation of one plausible portrait of the life of Jesus of Nazareth”. He faults Aslan for presenting early Christianity as being simply divided into a Hellenistic, Pauline form on the one hand, and a Jewish, Jamesian form on the other. Martin says that this repeats 19th-century German scholarship which now is mostly rejected. He also says that recent scholarship has dismissed Aslan’s view that it would be implausible that any man like Jesus in his time and place would be unmarried, or could be presented as a “divine messiah”. Despite these faults, Martin praises Zealot for maintaining good pacing, simple explanations for complicated issues, and notes for checking sources.[6]

Elizabeth Castelli, writing in The Nation, finds that Aslan largely ignores the findings in textual studies of the New Testament, and relies too heavily on a selection of texts, like Josephus, taking them more or less at face value (which no scholar of the period would do). Near her dismissive conclusion, she writes: “Zealot is a cultural production of its particular historical moment—a remix of existing scholarship, sampled and reframed to make a culturally relevant intervention in the early twenty-first-century world where religion, violence and politics overlap in complex ways. In this sense, the book is simply one more example in a long line of efforts by theologians, historians and other interested cultural workers.”[7]

The summary of these two reviewers shows that speculation about Jesus is a kind of academic game to scholars, but to religious people, knowing who Jesus was is very serious.  These two books give us two different Jesuses.  Both are from scholars claiming to work with the latest knowledge about the past.  Both books seem to present reasonable results.  If you read a hundred scholarly books about Jesus and they all invent a different Jesus, who is right?  Do you just average the 100 and assume Jesus was something like all of them?  Or assume he was like none of them?  If it was possible to extrapolate what Jesus was like from current knowledge don’t you think most of those 100 books would produce a standard Jesus?

Most of the faithful ignore modern books and just study The New Testament.  But if you study New Testament scholars like Bart D. Ehrman and his latest books you’ll only feel doubtful about what is actually supposed to be the word of God.

How Jesus Became God

I’m quite a fan of Ehrman having read Jesus, Interrupted, Misquoting Jesus, and Forged, and was about to buy and read How Jesus Became God, when I stopped to think about what I’m writing here in this essay.  Why read another book about Jesus?  Well, this one promises to be a history of the history of Jesus, so it’s not quite the same, but I’m now asking myself should I give up even studying the history of this whole era.  To me studying the early centuries of Christianity is like studying how half the world went insane believing a massive fantasy about a guy they can’t even know, but think they know through the lies they believe are the truth.  It’s like driving past the largest car wreck ever and trying not to look.

One reason I keep reading books about Bible history is I’m trying to completely exorcise Christianity from my brain.  Forced early exposure to Christianity caused mind-washing at the lowest levels of my brain and I’m trying to deprogram myself.  Every time I read another Ehrman book I delete a few more lines of old code running in my head.

I keep wondering when is humanity going to be free of the evils of religious fantasies?  Then I hear about the Sunni-Shiite conflict in Iraq and realize probably never.  Many atheists hope by studying religion they can explain it’s illogical nature to its believers.  But would any amount of facts convert Iraqis away from their war?  Would any number of lectures convert evangelicals to science?

I’m starting to feel that completely ignoring religion is my best course.  I’ve sufficiently deprogrammed myself that I’m now free of such thinking.  And I don’t feel obligated to deprogram others—I think that’s something you must do for yourself.  Wouldn’t I be better off mentally, and more productive if I studied other areas of history?  I think society has a sense of guilt about knowing all history, or a sense of obligation.  But how much history do we really need?  Wouldn’t I be better off studying the history of science and mathematics?

I think I’m over trying to figure out who Jesus was for whatever reason.  It’s all speculation.  Jesus is impossible to know.  If only they could invent a time machine to go back and filmed his life, then we’d have the answer, but that ain’t going to happen.

JWH – 6/25/14

The Many Robert Heinleins We Remember

When I was twelve and other kids were getting religion, I got science fiction.  Robert A. Heinlein was the prophet of my faith—the Jesus that explained reality.  I was a geeky kid who moved around a lot because my father was in the Air Force.  Because my dad always worked extra jobs and I didn’t see him much, Heinlein and science fiction became the father figure guiding my adolescence.  Now that I’m older I can say using fiction as my Bible is no more practical than using holy books.  Substituting  outer space for heaven, and aliens for superior beings is just as crazy as seeking life after death.

I just finished reading the second volume of Heinlein’s authorized biography, Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century: Volume 2 The Man Who Learned Better | 1948-1988 by William H. Patterson, Jr.   Imagine, if you will, getting to read an authorized biography of Jesus based on his diaries—you’re going to want to read it, but it might reveal that your prophet lived a much more mundane life than revealed in his parables and gospels.

Heinlein

William H. Patterson gets to chronicle Robert A. Heinlein’s life by the details Heinlein left behind in file cabinets.  Sadly, Mr. Patterson died April 22nd this year, just before the publication of the second, and last volume of his biography on Heinlein.  Patterson was born a month before I arrived on Earth in November of 1951, and in a way that explains a lot, because I identified with his passion to know Heinlein.  For science fiction fans of a certain generation, Heinlein was a very influential writer.  Growing up I always hungered to know more about Heinlein, and wished that I had met him.  After reading this large, two-part biography, I realize it was probably well that I never got to meet my prophet face to face, or even correspond with him.  Heinlein was overwhelmed by his followers, and he really didn’t need another sappy fan bugging him, plus I probably would have pissed him off with my politics and beliefs.

Heinlein never wanted his fans to pry into his life, and this authorize biography reflects his wishes, and that of Heinlein’s widow Virginia Heinlein.  Patterson was given complete access to Heinlein’s papers and got to know Ginny Heinlein who died in 2003, and who was Heinlein’s pit bull protector in life and death.  Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century is an excellent defense of Heinlein and a summary of his life through his papers, but not the kind of intimate biography that fans crave, especially if you were a true believer.

heinleinbios

I believe William H. Patterson was completely sympathetic to Heinlein’s wishes for the most part, until the very end in Appendix 2, volume 2, “The Good Stuff” where he quotes letters from a woman that had known Heinlein during his breakup with his second wife.  I’m positive that Heinlein and Ginny would have hated this addendum, but it’s about as close as readers are going to get to an uncensored view of Heinlein in this biography.  And even then, the letters only have a few lines that hint that Heinlein had faults.

I liked Patterson, and his work, and I understand the constraints he worked under.  His biography of Heinlein provided a huge amount of details about Heinlein for me.  I subscribed to the Heinlein Journal when Patterson was publishing it, and I always envied him his access to Heinlein history.  I’d have loved to have gone through Heinlein’s papers, but luckily Patterson did all the work for me and put them into a very readable summary.  I’m very sorry that Patterson didn’t interview more people who knew Heinlein.  There’s a few, but not many.  I got the feeling that Virginia Heinlein told Patterson much of the glue that holds the facts together.  I would have loved to have heard other people’s opinions, but I assume that wasn’t allowed.  We’ll have to wait for Heinlein’s next biographer for that.

Heinlein and his books have always inflamed people’s opinions, and Patterson deals with many of the famous brawls in his book.  He carefully presents Heinlein as the rational man, while not giving other people their chance to have their say.  Patterson tries to resolve much of the criticism Heinlein has received over the decades, but there’s one problem.  If Heinlein was right, and rational, why did he get into so many personal battle of words?  The two volumes of biography end up being a long lists of incidents where Heinlein butted heads with other people.  As a blogger I know it’s very easy to get into arguments over nothing, but Heinlein seemed to take everything very personal.  Evidently he was an emotional man, because the book often mentions his anger, and that he often cried over romantic and heroic incidents.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading these two books, but I was also disappointed.  I wanted more information about Heinlein writing his books.  Patterson provides a lot of publishing information, but little about the content.  Usually when he did, it was about how Heinlein got the idea for each book.  Evidently Heinlein didn’t leave much in his papers about thinking his way through plots and character development, or what they meant to him later.

I wished the Patterson had included an Appendix 3, one where he interviewed Alexei Panshin.  Panshin was the fan I wanted to be.  He wrote the first book on Heinlein, Heinlein in Dimension, which Heinlein hated—not because he read it and disliked it, but because he hated Panshin and didn’t want Panshin to write about his life or work.  Heinlein and his close followers have always closed ranks in their hatred of Panshin.  I always thought Heinlein in Dimension was a love letter to Heinlein.  When USENET News came out, the alt.fan.heinlein carried on the grudge match decades later.  Panshin is mentioned several times in volume 2, angering Heinlein several times over a period of years, and it was obvious that Bob and Ginny hated to even hear the name Panshin mentioned.  Which is sad, because Rite of Passage, Panshin’s Nebula Award winning novel is as close to reading another Heinlein juvenile as I’ve ever read.  I thought Panshin deserved to be heard from in this biography, but I guess Patterson felt that Heinlein did everything to keep Panshin out of his life while he was alive, he wouldn’t want him intruding into his authorized biography after he died.

But this brouhaha explains a whole lot.  Heinlein was loved by millions, but Heinlein didn’t always love his fans.  Nor did he think the science fiction community understood his books.  The biography suggest that Heinlein tried to separate himself from the genre during the last decades of his life, and resented always being known as a science fiction writer.  Heinlein wanted to be remembered like Mark Twain, just an American writer.  I doubt that will ever happen.  Patterson works hard to promote Heinlein as a significant figure in the 20th century, but he wasn’t.

Heinlein’s books are still shelved in the science fiction section, and Philip K. Dick’s books were the first to be collected into volumes of The Library of America.  When Heinlein finally made it into the LOA, it was with one of his lessor known titles, Double Star, as one of nine science fiction books that the Library of America collected into two volumes to remember 1950s science fiction.  I’m not sure Heinlein is going to be remembered outside his hardcore science fiction fans like me.  Volume 2 came out June 3rd, nineteen days ago and it’s only #7,313 on Amazon’s Best Sellers Rank.

I often write about Heinlein at Auxiliary Memory but those posts get very few hits.  I guess the way I will remember Heinlein is not by trying to get to know the man, but by rereading the Heinlein books I love.  What’s interesting is the number of Heinlein books I keep rereading has dwindled over the last fifty years.  I find it fascinating when encountering other Heinlein fans that we all have such different favorites.  There are Heinlein books I hate that others love.  Whoever Heinlein was, and what his books meant, it’s very hard to figure out.

And do you want to know what’s hilariously ironic?  Heinlein in Dimension by Alexei Panshin, published in 1966, still gives me the best biography of Heinlein I’ve ever read.  The Heinlein I loved was reflected in the stories, and not the one who walked the Earth.  Heinlein hated Panshin with a passion, yet Panshin’s summary of his work up until The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is exactly how I knew Heinlein in my youth.  Patterson’s biography chronicled the writer, the man who married three times, often got sick, worried over bills, fought with his editors and publishers, had feuds with his fans, gave money to needy writers, built houses of his own design, but completely missed the magic of the books.  Heinlein in Dimension summarizes the stories and novels in a way that rekindles memories of the sense-of-wonder Heinlein I discovered at age twelve.

Heinlein and his true fans hated that Panshin pointed out there were clunky places in Heinlein’s stories.  The trouble is, if you’re a prophet and you and your followers think you can do no wrong, then I can’t trust you.  Heinlein would have been a much better human if he had just endured Panshin as an over zealot young fan, read his book and said “Thanks kid, good job.  You found all the holes in my stories, now go write you own books that don’t make those mistakes” and then just forgot about Panshin.  Panshin was Heinlein’s St. Paul, and all Panshin got for his love was a kick in the balls by his master.  Man, that must have hurt.

If you go to Google and search for reviews of Patterson’s biography of Heinlein, you’re going to read a lot of varied responses.  Heinlein was an elephant to all us blind folk feeling him up.  None of us ever see that he’s an elephant, but we all chronicle, sometimes in great detail, what we did discover from our fondling a small section of his hard hide.  Unfortunately, there are many Heinlein haters who only got to finger his asshole.  There was much about Heinlein I didn’t like, especially in the later books, but I saw no reason to vilify the man.  Like most of us, Heinlein did the best he could, and his best was often far better than most, but occasionally he made some fuck-ups, like we all do.  Too many in our society judge people only by their mistakes.

The complexity of Heinlein in my memories is vast.  We all need to deprogram ourselves of the religions that infected us in our youth, and Patterson’s biography helped me clean out years of clutter in my head.  Ultimately, we Heinlein fans each will remember a few books we loved, and eventually, the literary world at large will decide if any of his books are worth remembering at all.  I don’t think Heinlein, Patterson, I, or any of his other fans, knew, or know which Heinlein books will become classics in one hundred or two hundred years.  But I find it fascinating to imagine humans hundreds of years from now seeing the 20th century through Heinlein’s eyes.

have-space-suit---will-travel

Ultimately, I have to say that Heinlein convinced me that heaven is colonies on the Moon and Mars.  That’s the promised redemption of his religion.  The emergence of private space programs is the real legacy of Heinlein’s prophecy.  I don’t know if anything else matters.

Other Takes On Valume Two

JWH – 6/23/14

Consuming Inspiration 2

The internet is about sharing, and I find much on the internet that is inspirational.  We’re seven billion souls sharing the planet and the internet lets easily communicate what inspires us in a kind of mass journalism—making us all reporters.  We don’t create the content, but pass it on.  I guess that makes us all a kind of a wire service.  I’m retired, and I spend a lot of time alone, and most days are routine, one is like the next, but what makes my day distinctive, are these inspirational news stories, the documentaries I watch, and the books I read.  A documentary a day keeps the psychiatrist away.

I need air, water and food to stay alive, but I think it’s inspirational stories that really make me feel alive.  Now, one man’s inspirational story can be another person’s depressing tale.  I find inspiration in people overcoming adversity, or someone inventing something very clever, or even an economist coming up with a fascinating statistical chart.  Here are some more examples.

Tattoos That Go Beyond Art

I’ve never really liked tattoos, especially on women.  I guess that’s showing my age.  But I came across this story at The New York Times about a tattoo artist Vinnie Myers who has given up his artistic work to create 3D nipple tattoos on women who’ve undergone mastectomies and breast reconstruction.   Caitlin Kiernan wrote and filmed her transformation in  “A Tattoo That Completes a New Breast.”

At one point in the film Myers said he wanted to give up doing nipples all the time so he could return to inking art again, but then his sister got breast cancer, and he stopped worrying about going back to art to become a healer full-time.  Now his daughter wants to learn this new trade that is part artist and part healthcare provider.  Be sure and read the comments, they are very inspiring too.

Inequality in America

Most people when they talk about inequality in America think about helping poor people, but strangely it’s really about helping the middle class, and even expand the economy to make more rich people.  A thriving middle class is what drives our economy.  That helps both poor and rich alike.  But for decades the American middle class has shrunk as all the wealth has moved to a very few people.  We all share one giant pie, however that pie can grow, but it only grows if the middle class thrives.  Look at this video:

Robert Reich, Clinton’s former Secretary of Labor came out with a film last year about this problem, Inequality for All.  It’s available from many sources, including Netflix streaming.  Here’s the trailer.

The film describes the problem, but does not really go into the details of solving it.  Reich appears with Bill Moyers and they discus some solutions.  Watch this video below if you have the time, but definitely rent or buy the documentary Inequality for All because not only is it educational, informative, inspirational, it’s also very entertaining.  Robert Reich is a very charming guy.

Most people are turned off by economics, but that’s a shame.  The numbers are so mind blowing.  For instance, during the economic recover of 2009-2012 the top 1% of the wealthiest Americans took home 95% of the economic gains made during those years.  What that means is most Americans got poorer, while a damn few got much richer.  Do you ever wonder why the rich are against taxes, social security, Medicare, Obamacare, K-12 education, etc.?  Those are big pools of money that they haven’t gotten yet.

You might not be concerned about inequality of wealth in America because you believe it’s about poor people.  Well, except for the very rich, everyone is much poorer than they used to be, and getting poorer, including you.  It’s like the frog in the pot of boiling water.  We just don’t know how warm it is.  Reich points out we’ve hidden from this problem by two family incomes, working longer hours and having more jobs, and by going into debt.  For many people, options to adjust to declining income have run out.  If you play that Wealth Inequality in American animation above you’ll understand why.

Black and White, And Dead All Over

The newspaper was the answer to the old riddle, “What’s black and white and red all over?”  Well, newspapers are no longer read all over.  I didn’t worry too much about this change in society until I watched Black & White and Dead All Over.  What these writers reminded me of that I didn’t know, was corruption in society has always been checked by investigative newspaper reporting.  The trouble is investigative reporting is very expensive, and as newspaper began to loose money publishers often cut those reporters first.  Every town needs a paper that watches over local politics and business, but that’s disappearing.  Hundreds of papers have gone under in the last decade.  One of the big differences between the United States and the rest of the world is we have much less corruption.  I’d hate to see that change.  We still have lots of investigative reporting at the national level and a handful of big cities from the few remaining big papers, and from television news programs, and even documentary makers, but ever shrinking coverage everywhere else.

I caught this on PBS but it appears you’ll have to buy a copy for now to see it.  It is free with Amazon Prime, and just $3.99 on YouTube.

This film made me feel bad for not subscribing to my local paper, but I feel it’s a waste of natural resources to print newspapers, especially when I read so little of each one.  The film did profile ProPublica – an non-profit service that claims it is “Journalism in the Public Interest.”  They syndicate their stories to papers to defray the cost of investigative reporting.  What we all need to do is find out who does the investigative reporting where we live and support them.

If you subscribe to Netflix streaming, keep an eye on their documentaries.  They have zillions.  After Breaking Bad finished I’ve hungered for another intense TV show to watch every night, but I haven’t found one.  However, documentaries are filling the void, and some of them are as intensely good as watching the adventures of Walter White.

JWH – 6/19/14

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