Thursday, March 10, 2005

Sand Between Toes

A Poem

this park
here I played, unobtrusive

swinging between
with sand caught between my
at days end.

now it is cocktails at
and the freeway's hard scale;

and the park is on the car
little swings and slides

a tiny sand box;

and the trees, holding
in my seat, safely
as the car

twirls like a candy ribbon ---

and my mom holds me in her branches
“You almost fell off the swing, silly boy!”

I will keep the sand
that sticks between my toes in a
close to the ignition.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005


I was born and raised in a Catholic family on an island containing two parishes. I attended a church that was a block away from my house, and went to school there for twelve years -- 1969 to 1981.

As a first grader, the grammar school was staffed by the black-habited nuns of the Sisters of Notre Dame. I experienced a classic Catholic education, replete with uniforms, mild corporal punishment, long sessions of cursive writing practice, religious training, Latin, and lots and lots of grammar. In order of importance, the big three subjects were religion, grammar and math. I was horrible at math.

My childhood had a God who was loving but sternly provided the structure of religious regimen -- attending mass, observing holy days, and mirroring Christ's life through faith. I felt safe with God as a grammar school child, but became disillusioned with Church bureaucracy in my late teenage years.

Beyond the shores of our conservative little island, the 60s and 70s raged like a wildfire. We all could see it. Radical secularists on the other side were burning the scriptures of my church, among other things. The heat from that fire soon melted the black habits off the backs of the sisters, where for a few years they donned laymen's polyester dresses and pants, in less and less muted colors. A few years later, the nuns themselves melted away altogether in that fire. Their convent was converted to a study hall. I always wondered where Sister Mary Wilfred and Sister Dorothy went. Mysterious, their lot.

As a generalization, secularists rely on rationality as humanity's salvation. Some just put up with people of religious faith as inherently irrational, while they see themselves progressing by adhering to an analytical and reasoned philosophy that trumps faith. Rationalism largely liberated the West from clergical tyranny, displacing dogmatic faith with empiricism. Rationalism is the soil of the Enlightenment from which sagacious men devised the individual freedoms of the Constitution. The ideal of secular rationalism is fairness, balance and clarity; impartial scientific facts liberate humanity from the oppression of regressive religious notions.

As a generalization, people of monotheistic faith profess that humanity is dependent upon God's love, in order to be whole; they seek and believe His truth. It is impossible to be absolutely rational, since we are fallible. God's perfection is love -- we are lost without it. Where the rationalists offer clarity of facts, God's love offers strength and clarity of purpose. Dr. William Sloane Coffin said that faith is being seized by love: "Faith is not belief without proof, but is trust without reservation." It may be that faith is simply unbounded optimism.

What I find interesting about this age is how the lines of rationalism and faith have crisscrossed and diverged.

This essay was sparked by a three-part piece on the 'Secular Orthodoxy' called The Enemy Within. The author, Baron Bodissey, hopes for a modern, post-scriptural syncretistic revelation that would spark a new faith to bridge today's spiritual adversaries:
But suppose, just suppose, a new revelation could somehow come into the world, the world as it exists now at the dawn of the 21st century. Imagine a revelation that could speak to the whole of interconnected humanity, one that could withstand the scrutiny of modern science. What form would this awakening take?
The idea of a post-scriptural revelation is arguably in the works, the fruit of rational science itself. Posthumanists posit that something more intelligent than man can be built out of ones and zeroes, or possibly the quaternary code of DNA's nucleotides -- A, G, C and T -- or a combination of those, plus something else yet to be explored and developed. The resulting artificial or enhanced intelligence would theoretically accelerate past human abilities of comprehension, rendering the future moot because it would be utterly unpredictable -- called the Singularity.

are people who are augmented by technology in some way -- it could be an artificial limb, or enhanced intelligence -- the evolution of whom will lead to a post-human era. Transhumanists espouse melding technology and humans, as a ramp to a post-human future.

Transhumanists and 'Singularians' are the unexpected children of rationalism and our culture's nurturing of science and technology. Their vision of post-humanity seems startlingly possible if we extrapolate today's technological innovations into the future. The very nature of the Singularity they anticipate will effectively represent humanity's end, at least as we currently exist. Some hope that they might live forever by uploading their minds to an extracorporeal host; or perhaps become part of a greater intelligence. Some others have faith that the Singularity, though it will supplant humanity's intellectual primacy, will not be our end, but rather our salvation, and rebirth. Many others think it's all impossible futurist nonsense.

It's possible to see the defined edges of a coming Singularity, based on the obvious acceleration of technology in today's world. While we presently fend off the anti-rational orthodoxy of fascist Muslims who chafe at the Western world, our own spiritual and biological evolution might eventually put us in their shoes. It could be that in a Singularity-apparent world, we'll all become Jihadists marauding for the Orthodoxy of Self -- fighting for who we are, rather than what we might become.

A Singularity or ramp to it via transhumanism will pull generations apart, to say the least. If my daughter grafts a third arm onto her body and grows extra gray matter as a way to create music that would be beyond Mozart's comprehension -- much less my own -- then I'll know I'm a lowly, soon-to-be-extinct Orthodox Human. And just maybe I'll be mad and resentful about it, and scared -- maybe I will become one of the radicals with spears dancing around civilization's fire. Because if that happens to my daughter, civilization will most certainly have unexpectedly cleaved.

Bloggers and Open Source Creative Commonists should be modest about their achievments. Our early pottering with robust networks zipping between speedy CPUs will not merely be the harbinger of better, more accurate news blogs, interesting content, social change, or excellent software. As a phenomenon, Commonism will likely be another stepping stone that briefly carries our weight as the next stone appears out of the fog, yet to be seen. Blogging, texting, podcasting and file-sharing our way to revolutionary flash mobs is only the comprehensible fallout from our morphing technosphere, hampered by today's technological limits. There's a long way to go with this stuff. The real meat on the bone isn't even in our heads right now, and may not even be for our inferior heads to comprehend.

What Singularians and Posthumanists rarely talk about is where love fits into their view of improving man and/or intelligence. Could a spiritual singularity be in the offing? Singularity has a near infinite acceleration of capability -- but need it be limited to knowledge and technology? Might its true measure be in terms of infinite love and hate -- good and evil? And which way might that card fall? Not for us to say, if it comes to pass. We're just Cro-Magnon men. Or ants.

I admit that I'm unsure of the religion thing, the democracy thing, the statist thing, the rationalist thing, the get-rid-of-tyrants-and-the-world-will-be-free thing, and the singularian-trans-post-human thing, given evolution's curve, and where we are headed. Very bright people tell me I'm supposed to accept that rational science conceives of the Multiverse -- a universe composed of all possible universes -- and on top of that, technology could throw us towards the Singularity. I'm supposed to accept that rearranging our own genetic As, Gs, Cs and Ts with ones and zeroes is rational, unlike The Second Coming or reuniting with my deceased grandmother in Christ's Heaven. Science seems to be racing to a place where reality is highly speculative and completely irrational.

It's ironic that science -- the rational pursuit of what is knowable -- might lead to the Singularity, which is utterly unknowable, much in the same as understanding God is. What's the difference between a Christian and a Posthumanist? Maybe just that one is looking up at the heavens waiting for the Second Coming, while the other is looking at his workbench and tech blogs attempting to build it.

Posthumanism or the Singularity may yet be just another totalizing religion obsessed to improving fallible me through conversion, or by my death, with no in-between. And it has the force of commercial industry behind it. It keeps me invested in GenenTech to get me to retirement.

The harsh laser beam of improvement has long been refining our tools; now we face the prospect that, in order to progress and move forward, the error-correction beam is now focused on us. Better hands to play better Schubert on piano; Better feet for better Olympic runners; Better minds imagining better things -- presumably.

I don't know if my love could be better. As we step into the unknowable world, let's at least admit we have no idea what we're stumbling into. And that it means goodbye to all that we are now. If we're in foreign lands defending our way of life and the freedom of the human spirit, those ideals would mean more if I could tell you where we are headed on the free side of the planet. I certainly don't want to go back to Medina; but the opposite direction I hurl towards -- that takes me to where, exactly?

The early plagues brought about by the coming Singularity might be the torrents of cell phones with data-bits and voice-bytes washing over our streets and through our homes. It might be the silence of New Yorkers on the subways, uncharacteristically muted by their iPods. Or the strange, cryptic messages posing as advertising that fills my email box like foam. Though disparate, these storms will probably coalesce into one giant Red Spot that overtakes the Earth. How we will remain human, how we will keep the faith, how we will patrol our undulating borders is beyond my comprehension.

For me, the enduring faith of my Christian origins is that God is love. That's what the nuns taught me. All that we have built -- the incremental improvements, the tall buildings, Photoshop, Wal-Mart -- all of this stuff is nothing. My faith is no more strange or naïve than anyone else's; God loves me for who I am. Not for how I might be improved. Thank you, Sister Rita Margaret.

It may be my hallowed remembrances of love that sustain me the most: Those childhood days when I got up in the early morning darkness to be an altar boy at 6:30 mass -- lighting the candles in the darkened church while the pipe organist practiced Bach, and the nuns filed in; Eating kippered sardines on rye with my grandmother, teaching her to play blackjack after school; The moment I met my wife, and knowing that's who she'd be; Driving our newborn daughter home from the hospital at 35 miles an hour on the freeway, and coming home to her new grandma on our porch in a bright, white apron; The summer crickets that lull me to sleep on warm August evenings, with the fan humming low...

The fire that melted away the Sisters of Notre Dame is hotter than ever. How I miss them so. Their orthodoxy was only one link on the chain of faith; each link seems to have its melting point in the face of evolution's flames. I can only hope that my simple faith can endure the fires to come.