Family reunions, although generally nice events, often bring me into contact with religion. Since I’ve been around 14 years old, it’s been obvious to me that none of the approximately 8000 gods humanity has invented actually exist. The god delusion is still very prevalent amongst my relatives, though. At my grandma’s 80th birthday party, I was especially surprised by the way the prayers my uncle spoke, deprive believers of agency and responsibility. Let me review two prayers in more detail, to clarify what I mean.
The Forces of Good
First, a very common prayer from Germany:
1 The forces of good are wonderfully surrounding,
2 so we await confidently whatever comes our way,
3 God’s with us from dawn to the slumber of evening,
4 and certainly at the break of each new day.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (translated from the German original)
Line 1, aside from being obviously false, also gives the believer the impression that there is someone good looking out for them. It removes responsibility from the believer, especially with line 2 following. Believers can just sit at home and watch TV, awaiting confidently whatever comes, because the forces of good will deal with all problems. That’s so wrong, it hurts. No, the forces of good won’t deal with all problems. Every person has to do the best they can in order to make living on this planet work out. We can’t sit back and wait for imaginary good forces to do our bidding.
Unfortunately, the prayer takes a turn for the worse in lines 3 and 4. These lines make sure the believer understands that they will be surveilled all the time, every day. The fact that believers are already used to the state of total surveillance makes them much more easily content with the total surveillance of the state. Which is a direction many states are heading in. Believers, like all people, need to resist that, not revel in it!
The Lord is my Shepherd
To show this is not a unique example, here’s another well-known prayer:
1 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: He leadeth me beside the still waters.
3 He restoreth my soul: He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name's sake.
4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me.
Psalm 23 (1—4), The Bible
Similar to “The Forces of Good”, lines 1 and 2 paint a picture of a good shepherd caring for the believers. Believers don’t need to do anything by themselves, everything will be provided for. I think this also instills a sense of entitlement in believers. They’re told everything will be provided, but in reality, it isn’t. So they might complain why they aren’t given what was promised, instead of providing it themselves.
In line 3, we find a nice example why conflicts beween religions are so common: the path of righteousness sounds to me—from a perspective of the enlightenment—to be a path where the believer can’t be wrong. In reality, however, admitting (or even assuming) that we’re wrong and then looking for reasons why we’re wrong, is often a great path towards enlightening discoveries.
With it’s conclusion in line 4, the prayer takes even more things away from the believer. This time, it’s fear. Especially in dark valleys, fear is a useful instinct. I admit that in a metaphorical sense, modern dark valleys (e. g. problems at work) might not be served by this instinct. But we shouldn’t walk through the valley trusting in an imaginary friend, we should walk through it with real friends or real skills, trusting in those instead. The surveillance theme in this line is also not helpful, but I repeat myself.
Prayers—ritualistic phrases that are often repeated—aren’t a bad idea in general. But the examples I know, two of which I’ve discussed, all degrade the believer from enlightened human to powerless worshipper. Such a waste! Christians could have used these opportunities to highlight mindsets that are beneficial for personal development. They could instill skepticism instead of obedience, freedom instead of surveillance or responsibility instead of passivity. Wouldn’t that be great‽
Since I dislike setting unrealistic goals for the next year, I’ll set realistic goals for the rest of my life instead. My wife started with her three goals, but I was quickly convinced it’s a great idea to define this kind of life goals. They are meant as reminders, as to not forget them in the daily work-life treadmill.
Control my Body
Through training in the Dojo, my outdoor adventures and lots of introspection, I want to explore the operating parameters of myself (also know as my body). Self-control and self-knowledge have always been important to me, but I can’t let up. Physical skills quickly fade away when they are not practiced. Improving control over my wandering mind as well as improving my movement intelligence will always be challenges that accompany me.
Understand the Forest
I enjoy being in the forests so immensely, I identify as a woodwalker. This enjoyment is also rooted in a basic understanding of the forest ecosystem and the relationships between different plants, animals and other life forms. My goal is to deepen this knowledge to a point where I know all the common or important actors in the ecosystem so well that I can truly feel at home in the forest, because I also understand how I can fit in for a while.
Know the Sky
From the forest, my gaze goes up into the stars. I’m deeply fascinated by the fact that we’re all made of stardust. Understanding our place in the cosmos means knowing what’s going on above and around our planet. While I managed to aggregate some basic celestial understanding, my goal is to keep up to date this very current field of research in a way that allows me to grasp the enormity of what’s happening, which in turn will keep me humble.
My relationships to other people take many different forms and purposes. I want them to have one thing in common: through association with me, I want people to grow, to become better people. That’s a tough one, because the action required of me is different for each person I interact with. I’m starting by growing myself, of course, but extending rapidly to my (future) children, friends, colleagues and many more. To grow others, that’s my highest goal—above the sky, even.
A great king, his dominion spanning most of Persia, had everything.
His kingdom flourished, he had wise councellors, his wife being the most brilliant of them. And yet he suffered from varying moods, feeling elated and overjoyed on one day, depressed and thoughtful on the next. In both moods, he would make poor decisions. This was slowly becoming a danger to the kingdom.
He had heard of the wisest of wise men, at the boundary of his kingdom. So he sent for him, for he might find an answer to the king’s sole problem. When the wise man arrived, the king challenged him to find a solution.
The wise man was uncertain at first. In the following months, he discovered many ideas, but none would help the king. Then he tried meditating. In a silent mountain retreat, he pondered the problem in solitude. More months went by. Then, after the king had almost given up hope, the wise man reemerged. He bore a ring, that he presented to the king. The ring was of simple craft with no ornamentation. Only an inscription traced across the surface:
Even this will pass.
I read this story as a child and reproduced it from memory. It’s said to be originally from the koran, but I couldn’t find it there. What I love about it is how true it holds. Even this will pass. The science of happiness supports that statement: humans tend to adjust their happiness level. Lottery winners aren’t any happier one year later. Survivors of devastating accidents aren’t any less happy one year after the event. We adjust. That’s what we do.
As I wrote before, a philosophical zombie is a person who looks and acts exactly like a normal person, except they aren’t conscious.
Let me inverse that idea: let’s say a zombie is someone who behaves as if everyone else is non-conscious. Which is a behaviour I encounter way too often. It’s sometimes hard for us to accept that we’re not players of a video game within a virtual society of non-conscious entities.
Drive a few kilometers on any German autobahn, and you’ll find plenty of zombies, people who don’t realize that everyone else also has conscious experience. These zombies behave recklessly and carelessly. They deny other people’s realities, other peoples conscious experience.
By degrading other people like that, they’re really degrading themselves—to the level of a zombie.
There are many things I don’t know. Including what will happen tomorrow. Some things I do know. Including what happens after I die. Spoiler alert: my loved ones will grieve.
There are people who want to make me believe they know the future with certainty. Politicians who make grand plans. Religious zealots who preach heaven or hell. That’s all bullshit.
We can’t act with a limited imagination of the future. We need to base our actions in facts about right now and allow for multiple possible futures. Yes, that’s hard. Admitting you don’t know what’s going to happen is hard. But planning for exactly one possible future and being wrong—that’s much harder!
It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about personal decisions, project management or even laws: they all benefit from a realistic understanding of the involved uncertainty. And everyone who preaches certainty is at least wrong about their own fallibility. We need to be much more skeptical with those people.
That places us in the difficult position of living with uncertainty. My mind doesn’t feel right in the presence of uncertainty, like there’s an open loop in my head. So I try to figure out the future as it happens and react accordingly. I make decisions, but will adjust them if and when the world changes.
Why don’t we make all decisions like this? For example in politics: we institute a law, but regularly check if it’s still compatible with reality. By admitting uncertainty, we can create something that better fits reality—because we’ll frequently check. And that’s something the preachers of certainty often forget to do.
I’d like to thank Iain M. Banks for the “Culture” series because it is the best utopia I’ve ever contemplated.
I’d like to thank Cixin Liu for the “Remembrance of Earth’s Past” trilogy because it gave me a totally new perspective on a wide variety of topics.
I’d like to thank Ann Leckie for the “Imperial Radch” trilogy because it portraits the most empathetic AI imaginable.
I’d like to thank Daniel Suarez for the “Daemon” series because it juxtaposes utopia and dystopia so perfectly.
I’d like to thank Dennis E. Taylor for the “Bobiverse” series because it’s hilarious and thought-provoking at the same time, like all good comedy.
I’d like to thank Neal Stephenson for “Snow Crash” because it blurs the line between reality and virtuality so convincingly.
These books extended my mind immensely. They help me think about a different and better tomorrow. They also let me escape into amazing new worlds and take a break from reality now and then.
Here are my suggestions:
- Any elected official can never be reelected or get another job. The state will cover them, until they die. Once an official is elected, all their finances are public forever, and if they don’t like that, they can’t become elected. The only incentive for officials should be to do the best they can for their electorate.
- Use the voting system that leads to an outcome that represents the elecorate’s wishes best. None of the systems currently in use does that—but there are some great options.
- Make the act of voting a slow thinking process. Design the ballot in a way to make voters pause and think rationally. If that means voting gets more complicated, so be it. It’s worth it.
- Science the shit out of politics. Every law is, in it’s essence, an experiment. By instituting it, we intend to improve our condition. So each law should come with an evaluation plan, alternatives to also try and an expiration date (if it was a good experiment, it can be extended easily). We could also think about geographically limiting the impact of each new law until it proves it’s having the intended effect.
- On a larger scale, each country can be seen as an experiment as well, with the science of history as their evaluation. People should be able to vote with their feet and move to where they are represented best. Successful experiments can be replicated by other countries to achieve the best possible outcome for everyone.
Can you learn a martial art by reading a book? As much as I’d like to believe that: no, you can’t. The only way to learn it is to deliberately condition your body so it memorises the right moves.
And that’s the fact I find so interesting about the martial ways: it’s not the conscious mind that you’re trying to condition, it’s the unconscious body that learns how to fight.
Other skills, like programming, are learned almost exclusively with the conscious mind. You can learn much about programming from a book, and the rest from exchanging ideas with other programmers, and of course from the act of trying to code.
When learning something new, always ask yourself: am I training my body or my mind? Your approach will be completely different.
If you're training the mind, try to make connections to other domains of knowledge, gather information and exchange ideas with others.
If you're training the body, get down to business and put in the hours on the training ground. Have a trainer look at your movements and improve them gradually.