Monday, 23 July 2012

Atheism Goes Pantheist

People often ask where the line between technology and magic lies. Let's stretch this just a little further: Where is the line between atheism and cosmic humanism/pantheism?

If atheism is defined solely as the lack of belief in a personal God, that is, in a God-being, then there's nothing confusing. But atheism usually entails so much more than that. Typically atheists also rule out anything "supernatural" as an extension of their no-god belief. Spirits, psychics, prayer, miracles, etc. are all rejected out-of-hand. On occasion you may meet atheists who believe in ghosts or positive energies or something like that, but so far as I can gather, they're abnormal, and will probably be considered weirdos and not true atheists by anti-supernatural atheists. Only science reigns supreme.

But then we hit the quantum realm, and suddenly science is positing some really strange supernatural ideas. Not supernatural in the sense of "we can't explain this, therefore, God" but in the sense of "this seems to function kind of like religion has always supposed". Like psychic phenomena and vibes. Like prayer, multiple dimensions and reverse causality. Little, if not nothing, is proven, and in some cases these ideas and theories are relegated to the realm of fringe pseudo-science, but many of them are gaining ground and moving in from the fringes.

Technically, an atheist shouldn't have any trouble with the idea of these phenomena since they're being described as science, not magic. And yet, I wouldn't be surprised if most atheists scoff at these ideas without even checking to see how credible the research might be. Why? Because science or not, accepting these ideas would be like saying the primitive superstitious people may have been right about some things.

On the other hand, if they don't scoff at them, and believe that the research is credible, then they start sounding less like atheists and more like pantheists or cosmic humanists. I guess the issue here is could an atheist believe in a Star Wars-type Force without engaging in doublethink?

If, and it is a large if, the supposed science behind these theories is demonstrated to be mostly correct, then it'll be one of those really weird paradoxical cases where two completely opposing points of view amount to basically the same thing.

So, is there a line between atheism and pantheism? Or are they the same, differing only in the angle with which a person views the world? How strangely relativistic.

Calvin seems to have forgotten that atheists generally love math...

Calvin: You know, I don't think math is a science. I think it's a religion.
Hobbes: A religion?
Calvin: Yeah. All these equations are like miracles. You take two numbers and when you add them, they magically become one new number! No one can say how it happens. You either believe it or you don't. This whole book is full of things that have to be accepted on faith! It's a religion!
Hobbes: And in the public schools no less. Call a lawyer.
Calvin: As a math atheist, I should be excused from this.

ETA: As an aside, now having done two seconds of research, it appears that Richard Dawkins states that pantheism is just "sexed-up atheism". I wonder if he would be able to swallow a revelation of a capital F "Force", or if he's just referring to a respect for all nature.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

To Be a Bug or Not to Be a Bug

If you woke up one morning to find yourself changed in your bed into a monstrous, bug-like vermin, what would be your primary concern?

I just read Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis. If you haven't guessed, it's about this guy that wakes up one morning to discover that he's transmogrified into a giant bug. Although the story is not a feel-good one, I found Gregor's initial reaction to his change kind of funny.

*Beware the spoilers*

His initial reaction and biggest concern is to worry about getting to work on time. Now, I think you should be able to agree with me that this is a completely unreasonable fear. Granted, Gregor may have had a strict, verging on slave-driver, boss, but even evil movie villains consider transmogrification a legitimate reason to stay home from work.

Take Yzma from The Emperor's New Groove, for example. When her goon is turned into a cow and, as a result, asks to go home, she agrees that he may leave, despite being caught in the middle of a chase. She then offers to let his coworkers, who have also been turned into various creatures, follow suit.

Apparently Gregor Samsa never had the chance to see this movie.

Now, Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes seems intrigued by the idea of turning into a bug (I wonder if he read Kafka's story), and he goes so far as to make "bug" one of the four options on his transmogrifier. In his own words, "Just think! With the push of a button, you could be a 500-storey gastropod - a slug, the size of the Chrysler building!" Hobbes replies, "Gosh, how can I refuse?"

However, while Calvin does at one point turn his duplicates into worms, he never attempts to turn himself into a bug, opting instead for a tiger. This decision was probably a good choice. As stated before, things don't turn out too well for Gregor. While it initially looks like his sister, at least, will eventually get used to and accept his being a giant vermin, she ends up suggesting to the rest of their family that they "get rid of" him. His father throws fruit at him, which permanently maims him. His mother shrieks and nearly faints every time she sees him. And then Gregor basically says, "hang it all, they're right, this sucks for everyone" and dies.

In real life, I would probably not treat most shape-shifters very well, either. Not because I don't enjoy talking to animals, but because I would be terrified that every animal crossing my path is either a voyeuristic creep or a spy for some organization out to get me. Not everyone has this paranoia. In Space 1999, the other characters always treat Maya like Maya, despite whatever poorly-suited-for-the-situation creature she's decided to turn into. When somebody is trying to kill her and she turns into a caterpillar for the occasion, Tony tries his hardest to save her. But would he have been that generous if there were no foreseeable future wherein the caterpillar turns back into humanoid Maya again?

The Metamorphosis is all about isolation, and what it does to a person. Even though Gregor is still Gregor on the inside, if not on the outside, he becomes more bestial and brutish in his thinking as the story goes on, or at least less civilized and decent. While the literal giant vermin picture makes everything more curious and even oddly funny, it makes you ponder who we treat as non-literal giant vermin, and who else we would treat as vermin with just a change or two in the situation.

It's short, easy to read, and good food for thought.

Possibly my favourite (understated) lines in the book:

"At the moment he was lying on the carpet, and no one knowing his condition could seriously have expected him to let the manager in."

"He was eager to find out what the others [in his family], who were now so anxious to see him, would say at the sight of him. If they were shocked, then Gregor had no further responsibility [to go to work] and could be calm. But if they took everything calmly, then he, too, had no reason to get excited and could, if he hurried, actually be at the station by eight o'clock."

Friday, 6 July 2012

Puke Fest

Camp last summer was awesome. Camp this summer was ridiculous.

This last week, the other summer interns from my church and I, our boss, and our team of underlings were carted off to lead the children's program at a family camp. To protect the camp's identity, I will give the camp the name of "Riva's Hedge".

On the first evening, there wasn't enough food and we were hungry. On the second day someone smashed a dodgeball into my face and broke the nose piece off my glasses. On the third day it was Canada Day. There were over two-hundred elementary aged kids (preschool kids and babies count as extra) and a botched sign-out job which overwhelmed me so much I cried. Then the fireworks were canceled.

But then evening fell. And I fell onto my bunk, bushed. I had the most awful dream in recent memory that involved a green-clown-faced terrorist group called "Outrage" that blew up the church and killed everyone inside (but not me - I hid in a closet). I woke up from my dream and felt sick. At first I thought I felt sick because the chief terrorist in my dream happened to be someone I knew. But then I fell asleep and woke up again around five in the morning, and I realized I felt like throwing up. After some debate over the merits of hanging my head over a half-full trash can versus waiting for an indeterminate period of time in a semi-unfamiliar bathroom, I got up and went into the bathroom. I began to debate the merits of standing dignified at the sink or hanging out over the toilet, but I threw up before either option was a clear winner and so ended up just using the sink because it was closer.

As I was standing there, looking mournfully at my supper, my co-leader, Arielle, appeared as a silhouette in the bathroom door. 

"Bucket?" she said, offering me a large blue mixing bowl.

"I just threw up," I informed her, thinking to clarify the situation.

"I know," she said. "I've already thrown up four times."

So I took the bucket.

The next morning I took my bucket and shuffled out into the hall. Arielle was camped out on the common room couch with a blue bucket all her own. I slogged down the stairs and she wordlessly lifted up her sleeping bag so I could join her.

By now, people were beginning to congregate. "My sister is getting sick in the bathroom," said Lauren. It turned out Lauren's mom was sick, too. Eventually they joined us on the couches. All the healthy people hung around, as well, presumably because we were the most interesting thing going on at the moment.

"So, what's the etiquette to this puke party?" I felt obligated to ask. "Does anyone mind if we just barf or are we supposed to try to make it to the bathroom every time?"

"Just barf here," said Arielle, "then clean out the bucket."

So I barfed into my bucket again, for which my little bro's good friend Matthias decided to provide a running commentary. I was otherwise engaged, so I missed most of it, but definitely caught, "Hey, it sounds more like she's burping..."

When I finished, I took my bucket of slop away to clean. I passed my boss on the way. "May I have the morning off?" I asked.

"Yes," she said.

And so the healthy people trooped off to do camp things with kids while the four of us were lumps on couches. We didn't do much. Mostly we just laid there. Occasionally we swapped notes about things like how many times we had puked and whether it burned or not. Olivia and I agreed that we salivate just before we vomit. Arielle warned us to not let it come up through our noses like she had.

Adam, the son-in-law of our boss, eventually woke up and waved to us from the floor above. "Having a party?" he said.

"Yeah, we're a really rousing group," replied Arielle. I punched my fist in the air.

"We brought, like, thirteen different medicines with us to camp because our kids are sick," said Adam, "but not one of them is for nausea."

So we were left to fight off our illness with naught but our will power and white blood cells. After a while, some of the healthy people came back to check on us. "Hey," said Matthias, "Has anyone else barfed since I left?" We all pointed to Olivia.

"Sorry you missed it?" I asked.

"Kinda," he admitted.

But eventually, despite the fact that misery loves company, the four of us stumbled back into our rooms. Hordes of people were about to flow through the room for workshops and we agreed that we'd rather not be the centerpiece of the area at that time. So I flopped onto my bed, fell asleep, and woke up in the afternoon, feeling somewhat better. So did Arielle. Olivia and her mom not so much.

My roommates were super sweet about bringing me crackers. They informed me that a lot of kids had been sick, also, so the numbers had diminished enough to be manageable, even with multiple downed leaders. The current rumour was food poisoning, but no one really knew what was going on.

By the next day, there were enough new cases that food poisoning was ruled out and whispers began to surface of the Norwalk virus that had swept through the camp several years ago. But I was back up and ready to work - slowly. And carefully... if I had time to take naps throughout the day. But I was up.

And it was a pretty good day. It was the salvation message day, so it kind of had to go well. And we played hide-and-go-seek in our lodge.

But then we went to bed. My arms and legs were twitchy from insufficient use over the past two days, so I wasn't sleeping well to begin with. But then I heard a very distinctive sound coming from my co-leader roommate's part of the room. I snapped to attention.

"Oh, don't worry," said Deanna, when her heaving paused momentarily. "I have a bucket." Then she resumed throwing up.

"I didn't know you weren't feeling well," I said when she was finished.

"I wasn't feeling well after supper," Deanna admitted, "but I didn't expect it to come to this. I'm sorry. That's a really terrible thing to wake up to."

I turned on the light so she wouldn't trip and spill the bucket on her way to the bathroom. She left, washed it out, and came back in.

"Well, let's hope just once does it for you."

"Yes," she agreed with a giggle. "I feel better now."

She got into bed and we turned off the lights. Twenty minutes later, we heard someone else puking across the hall. Deanna thought it sounded like our boss. I thought it sounded like Arielle again. We both got up. It was Arielle's sister, Hannah.

"Oh, dear," I muttered.

"You don't have to stay out," Deanna said, leaning against the rail with her bucket. "I've got about two minutes until it all comes out again."

I went back to bed. Deanna barfed. She cleaned the bucket. She barfed again. She cleaned the bucket. And then she barfed. I faded in and out of consciousness, but even in my half-aware state, I started to get concerned.

"How many times have you thrown up?" I eventually inquired.

"I lost count after eight," Deanna replied. "But I'm drinking lots of water."

In the morning, Deanna wasn't in the room. She was on the couch in the common room. So was Hannah. "Your first puke party looked like so much fun that we were jealous and wanted our own," they quipped.

"Is anyone else down?" I asked Mikayla.

"Nobody else is throwing up," she replied, "But Lauren and Caleb don't feel well."

Meanwhile, two of our volunteers had left following the weekend, because that was all they had signed up for. Our boss had originally brought two of her daughters and their families along, but they had been sick with something else to begin with. After four of them got sick with what we had, too, they also left. Two of them had been helping us with the kids stuff. But no matter - the camp had been providing us with five staff helpers to supplement our own crew. Only three of them were ever too sick to work. Our boss herself wasn't sick with what we had, but she had definitely caught whatever it was that her grandkids had come with. The camp director himself was down. And the last of our four co-leader interns, Heidi, wasn't sick, but feeling a bit blah. Only Matthias was still standing, having never gotten sick, and was entirely too energetic and cheery.

"I don't really get sick," he said to me. "Well, I sneezed six times in a row this morning. Does that count?"

I almost wanted him to get sick. Almost. Just to make him seem like a normal person.

"Caleb, are you coming with us, or do you need to stay here and be sick?" we asked.

"I'm coming. I can't play tackle games, but I can come," he said.

"Lauren, are you coming with us, or do you need to stay here and be sick?" we asked.

"I'm ok," she said. "It takes a lot to make me throw up."

"Are you absolutely sure? You don't look so good," we double-checked. She was pale and grey and curled into a ball on the couch. She rarely opened her dry eyes and was wearing a borrowed sweater, but still hugged herself for warmth. When she tried to walk, she looked like a zombie.

"Yeah," she said, adamantly. "I'm fine."

We were so desperate for help we let her come.

At the staff meeting, Caleb leaned in to our boss. "I need to go back to the lodge," he said. So I drove him back down to the lodge.

Happily for us, the lone family in the entire camp that I happened to know personally knew the situation we were in. Both parents had been quite sick and gotten better already. Their twin girl had been sick and gotten better. Their twin boy was going strong. Their youngest son was writhing and groaning in his sleep and grey as can be, but insisting that he was was 100%. They volunteered their junior-high twins to help us out in the morning program. I told Arielle.

"Hallelujah!" she sang, operatic style. And the camp managed to locate one healthy staffer to sit in for the others who were down. By this point, so many people had left camp that we were able to manage the dwindling number of kids.

In the afternoon, Caleb showed up again. And Justin, that is Lauren and Olivia's brother, traded places with him. He went down hard. Meanwhile, Mikayla, our last standing, perky and healthy female helper went home. We got word the next day that she had gotten sick after leaving.

We finished the day, went down to the lodge and I won a game of Texas Hold 'Em.

The next morning, Justin was still down and we got word that the male twin of our spur-of-the-moment volunteers was also down.

But we finished the camp!!! We did the last program, bleached the entire lodge, the activity centre where we had done the programs and every single toy the kids had touched including all the balls from the ball pit and each individual piece of lego. Then we drove home through a hail storm, I washed all my laundry, showered, gave my sister a belated birthday gift and went to bed.

All said and done, over seventy people got sick at camp. We had fifteen people on our team and two of them - Heidi and Matthias - managed to escape unscathed. And maybe Daniela, but she left after just the third day. Over a hundred people left early. We still don't know exactly what it was. Apparently it wasn't as awful as Norwalk, but it was some kind of flu and it was bad enough.

Yet, to look on the other side of things, our boss said we had the best team she can remember having. There wasn't a hint of drama, we supported each other naturally and worked together really well. We were pretty much all strong kid wranglers, and once the group size came down from gigantimeganormous, we realized the kids were pretty cute. We also had some pretty good God conversations with them. The fireworks had to be canceled, but the weather was fine when we really needed it to be. The health inspector had been impressed and said that people were getting sick despite the proper precautions. And we drove through a pretty double rainbow on the way home.

It was a successful family camp. It was a catastrophic family camp.

Brayden, showing me his mosquito bites: "I'm like candy to them, but I want to be like vomit."

Update: Daniela says she got sick the day after she left, which means only Heidi and Matthias made it out alive. Heidi's pretty sure she got the virus, but fought it and won before she fell ill. Only Matthias never did battle.