I've fallen behind on my commitment to post weekly because I didn't plan ahead, and this weekend I was occupied with a friend who traveled a bit of distance for my birthday and stayed for a couple of days. And then I was just really, really, tired, and I still am but I'm getting this post out of the way so I don't keep falling behind.
In part I'm tired because for weeks I haven't slept well even by my standards. I think I have a lot of anxiety and trauma building up that I don't consciously feel much, but that bubbles closer to the surface as I approach the threshold between consciousness and other stuff. One recent morning, after waking up hours earlier than I wanted to and failing to get back to sleep, I dreamed while still awake, as I do more often than normal people probably do. I was partially lucid. When I found myself high above the Earth, I quickly decided that I was just floating in orbit and wouldn't fall because falling is my biggest fear in the world. So I was floating in orbit, and then the view zoomed out to show more of the galaxy, and of course almost immediately I was invisible, and I - real life I, not dream I - almost burst into tears at how much I don't matter. So apparently that's an anxiety I have bottled up ever since I read Carl Sagan's book Cosmos. His books really mess me up, but he seems like such a decent guy, I can't get mad at him.
Then, too, on Sunday night I went up Logan Canyon with this friend and a few other friends. We were going to camp up there, but we just did a campfire and ate stuff and drank stuff until almost 12:30 before we all chickened out and came home. I suffered a lot for making those memories, but I guess it was worth it because toward the end the moon vanished behind the mountain and we could see a backdrop of magic sparkly stuff behind the larger stars. Just to make conversation, I taught the others that it's called the Milky Way because it came out of the goddess Hera's breast. And just to make conversation, I asked the others if it made them feel insignificant. One friend said no, actually the opposite, because he feels like it was all made for him. I jokingly called him a narcissist. I thought of the love I felt for these friends and the camaraderie I was enjoying with them that night, and I thought what a shame it will be if that all vanishes forever when we die because our existence and our human connections are really just an insignificant and temporary accident.
AI is making a lot of people feel insignificant too. If you're like me, you're really tired of hearing the word "ChatGPT" over and over and over again. A guy at the local Unitarian Universalist church gave a presentation on it on Sunday morning, talking about its positives and negatives and spiritual implications, and I finally saw it operating in real time as he made it rewrite the story of the three little pigs with the wolf converting to Unitarian Universalism, then rewriting it again in the style of Roald Dahl and then in the style of Shel Silverstein. And then he made it produce photorealistic images of Joe Biden as a karate master. Naturally, as one who hopes to someday make a living by writing, I'm a little concerned that AI will make my talents unnecessary and condemn me to the kind of menial factory job that robots should be doing. People say not to worry about it because AI isn't that good. Well, maybe it isn't yet, but it will improve. That's how technology works. Its current skill level would have been unfathomable five years ago, and its skill level five years from now is all but guaranteed to be exponentially greater. I tried out some AI stuff myself over the last couple days, and they were just free websites that wouldn't write very long stories, but still I was amazed at the coherence and detail that emerged from my prompts.
AI is artificial intelligence. It's dependent on input from humans with human brains. It can't actually think. It isn't actually conscious. That's an illusion. But might it someday be real? Is it possible to create truly conscious machines? David Bentley Hart, is his philosophy book, says no. He points out that there's a huge difference between how computers work and how brains work, and metaphors about the brain as a computer really obfuscate that fact, and he claims that brains are too complex and that subjective consciousness can't be replicated just by replicating their physical processes because there's an insuperable qualitative difference between those things. Indeed, I just read in the news that a neuroscientist lost a 25-year bet with a philosopher about whether by this year scientists would have figured out how neurons produce consciousness. They haven't. But if somehow they ever do, and then AI replicates it, we're all screwed in a lot of ways. Fittingly, this was today's GoComics Calvin and Hobbes rerun.
In The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, David Bentley Hart argues that there's an insuperable quantitative gap between the the physical material of the human brain and the subjective personal experience of consciousness; in other words, one cannot produce the other on its own. This isn't a "God of the gaps" argument. It's not about what materialism can't explain yet but about an intrinsic limitation of materialism. He insists that no matter how much we learn about someone's brain structure and activity, we will never be able to replicate for ourselves what it's like to be them. He goes into a lot more depth with this argument than I can. He also rejects, for good reason, the scientifically unsupported belief that bodies require spirits inside of them in order to be alive at all. If I understand and remember correctly, he asserts that consciousness flows from God in the same way that existence itself flows from God.
Writing in Psychology Today this week, in an article that was recommended to me by the almighty algorithms because I read some articles on that website about near-death experiences, Steve Taylor makes a similar argument and includes an analogy that blew my mind: "It may be that the human brain does not actually produce consciousness but transmits it. Like a radio, the brain may 'pick up' fundamental consciousness from the space around us and transmit it to us, so that we become individually conscious." To me this makes perfect sense in principle. It explains why the brain's machinery is necessary in the first place, and even why its makeup strongly influences our thoughts and feelings, despite not being the ultimate source of consciousness. And it's so simple. You don't need a book of philosophy to understand it.
It does raise further questions, though. As Taylor points out, the materialist view "also means that there cannot be an afterlife, since human consciousness cannot outlive the brain that produces it" (although I heard a Christian pastor who doesn't believe in the body/spirit dualism explain that God could recreate our personalities and identities in the resurrection exactly as they were, and argue with a skeptic about whether these new people would really still be us). But if the brain just receives and interprets a piece of a big mass of consciousness, do we just get absorbed back into that when we die? I guess becoming part of God, or one with the Force or whatever, would be nice, but I also like being me and don't want to give that up altogether. And if we all become unified into one consciousness at the end, then any love we have for each other ultimately becomes love for ourself, and that just seems a lot less special.
Taylor raises another interesting point: "Until the 19th century, almost every culture in human history took for granted that the essence of human identity was non-physical and would survive the death of the body." It's interesting because it may or may mean anything. It's entirely possible for almost every culture in human history to be wrong about something, and maybe this kind of belief is just coping mechanism for the horrors of mortality. But maybe it's an instinctive understanding that most of us have because it's true and our consciousnesses have advanced far enough to grasp it. David Bentley Hart talks about how we know or at least have reasonable grounds to assume many things that we can't prove scientifically - mathematics, for example. This could be one of those things. It's a real shame that the only way to confirm it for sure is to die.
Tomorrow is Juneteenth. Last year when it became a federal holiday I witnessed a lot of complaining from Utah Republicans who are determined to be horrible people and wrong about everything, but I haven't seen any yet this year. I guess they grew the hell up and got over it. Now if only they could do the same for everything else. We also just had Summerfest, the local arts festival here in Logan, over the last three days. I always go and don't buy any art because it's expensive but then I rationalize buying the expensive food because it's part of the experience. I went alone the first two days and then I went with a friend the last day, and she didn't buy much, but she talked to several of the booth owners and took their business cards, which I guess is the equivalent of clicking "like" on a Facebook fundraiser instead of donating to it. Then last night, because I'm still on the email list for the Mormon Environmental Stewardship Alliance, I attended a screening of "Stewart Udall and the Politics of Beauty" over Zoom. He was a phenomenal guy and the world needs more like him right now to tackle its environmental and social problems. It's funny, though, how Mormonism still claims him and takes credit for his accomplishments even though he stopped practicing it in his twenties, in large part because it was so socially backwards even by 1947 standards.
A couple of evangelical missionaries came by while I was lounging in the yard the other day. After I figured out that they weren't a charity asking for money, I was glad to talk to them for a few minutes. They came all the way from Florida to share their message out of love and I hope people don't give them a hard time for it. The core of that message, unsurprisingly, is on the sufficiency of Jesus' grace, which by implication contrasts with the more works-based salvation of Mormonism. "Those who trust only in the perfect work of Jesus," says the flyer they gave me, "Are enough in God's sight right now, Are forgiven of all their sins right now, Are perfect in Christ right now, Will live with Heavenly Father forever." Personally, though I know Mormonism's emphasis on righteousness and self-improvement is toxic for a lot of people, I always kind of liked it. I think people should have to do something to earn salvation so that Putin doesn't get into heaven by converting right before he's executed for war crimes. I don't agree with the claim that "Nobody is good." I'm not perfect, maybe I'm not even great, but I am objectively light-years better than someone like Putin. Most of my intentions and motivations are good even when the execution falls short. And I don't think most evangelicals believe that you should just give up and not even try to be good since Jesus took care of everything.
They asked why I left Mormonism, and I kept my answer deliberately vague. Policies, political actions, historical problems. I didn't want to make things awkward by saying I left because of how it treats women and gay people, because their church probably isn't much better in that regard. I didn't want to get into any arguments so I didn't ask questions when they invited me to ask questions. I did mention, because I didn't want them to try too hard to convert me to their particular denomination, that I'm hesitant to commit to any belief system because I no longer believe spiritual feelings are an indicator of truth. They agreed and said that's why they just use the Bible. I didn't press the issue of how they know the Bible is true without a spiritual witness. They probably would have said something about how reliable the manuscripts are. I remember from past Mormon/evangelical debates that the latter often claim the Bible has been proven true by secular evidence, which of course it hasn't, but someone who's already committed to believing it's true can certainly find secular evidence to fit that paradigm. (It also depends on what you mean by "true." No serious scholar could say with a straight face that it's inerrant, consistent, or univocal, but that doesn't mean you can't believe in it in some more nuanced sense.)
As it happens, right before they showed up I'd been reading about George Harrison's death. He was Hindu, and a quote he loved from the Bhagavad Gita was included in the liner notes of his final posthumous release: "There never was a time when you or I did not exist. Nor will there be any future when we shall cease to be." It's such a beautiful thought. If I had wanted to get into an argument, I would have asked if he's burning in hell right now for picking the wrong religion. Mormonism, for all its faults, answers that question with an emphatic no, but I doubt these missionaries could have done the same. I did discuss this issue with an evangelical at Gospel Peace Church last year. His reasoning was that all of us deserve to burn in hell, so God is being generous and graceful by saving any of us. I think that reasoning falls apart without the premortal existence that Mormonism and, as indicated in George Harrison's beloved quote, Hinduism both teach. If God brought the entirety of me into existence from scratch in this world, then a. I didn't ask to be created in the first place and b. it's entirely his fault I'm not perfect, and therefore he has no right whatsoever to condemn me to hell. Furthermore, why doesn't he show himself to the world and tell everyone to accept Jesus, thus saving virtually all of us instead of a lucky few? In Mormonism, he requires faith because we've forgotten about the premortal existence and we're being tested to see what we'll do. In evangelicalism, I see no such justification.
I don't know how to have faith anymore in any case. The stuff they said about Jesus was beautiful, but that doesn't make it true. How can I know if it is? There's certainly not much secular evidence that the historical Jesus was born for me, lived perfectly for me, died for me, rose for me, intercedes for me, and will return for me. (In fact, the disappointments of two thousand years of Christians who believed he was returning in their lifetimes have made that last point very implausible in my book.) I used to believe spiritual feelings could fill in the gaps where secular evidence failed. Now I don't. People in religions that are incompatible with Christianity get the same feelings. And these missionaries agreed with me on that. So what else is there? I could choose to believe just because I want to, but I could just as well do that for anything. I really want to believe George Harrison's Bhagavad Gita quote, but being beautiful doesn't make it true either, and I really don't want to believe in the reincarnation cycle so that would make me kind of a hypocrite. I suppose I only have myself to blame for not asking these questions when I had the chance. I did take a look at the website on the flyer: beyeperfect.org/forus
With this being June, of course the Mormon bigots on Twitter - and of course other bigots on other social media platforms, but I don't see them as much - have grown even louder about their desire for a world where LGBTQ people don't exist. This kind of backlash is to be expected, since conservatives did the same thing after the civil rights movement and the feminist movement. Those of us who believe in social progress just need to brace ourselves, ride it out, and wait for most of them to die off. This one got more attention than she deserved because her husband or father made the mistake of wearing a Flight of the Conchords shirt, and half of Flight of the Conchords noticed.
Mormons actually have a long history of bullying marginalized groups (black people, women) and then crying about religious persecution when they get called out on it. But yes, the hypocrisy this time around is particularly gross. Especially because, contrary to the church's current retcon that monogamy is the Lord's standard and polygamy is a rare exception, Brigham Young and George Q. Cannon consistently taught that polygamy was the true heavenly order of marriage and monogamy was an unnatural aberration that made civilizations collapse. Kind of like gay marriage is supposed to do.
The people she's addressing neither claim nor have any obligation to be loving, tolerant, or inclusive toward hateful, intolerant, and exclusive ideologies. Racists could make the same complaint - oh wait, they do. And quoting a gay musician who's married to another man was an odd choice. And in case anyone is confused about the purity of April's intentions behind hanging a document in her yard that she knows nobody is going to stop and read, she helpfully spelled it out.
Here, not for the first time, is my take. If you don't want to celebrate Pride Month, don't. If you don't want to put a rainbow flag in your yard, don't. But don't play stupid and pretend you don't understand why it's a thing. It blows my mind to see middle-aged people acting like they can't remember how LGBTQ people have been treated within their lifetimes, and why LGBTQ people don't just quietly live their lives like straight people do, and why LGBTQ people make such a big deal out of their sexuality or gender identity. If they hadn't been marginalized for centuries, Pride Month wouldn't be a thing. But they were and it is, and people who never lifted a finger to defend them against bullying or harassment or discrimination (or obviously never would have if given the chance) need to shut the hell up about how they've opted to deal with those things on their own.
These bigots think they're speaking for God. I know they aren't. Their version of god is a small-minded, petty creep who conveniently happens to be prejudiced against the same people they are, even though he supposedly created those people and doesn't make mistakes. And their church is going to die if it doesn't change, because most people under forty have no desire to be like April Wilde Despain or to worship alongside people like Aprile Wilde Despain.
Ariana Rees probably doesn't remember me, unless I really weirded her out, but I used to message her on Facebook with questions about dating because she wrote articles for LDS Living or some such magazines with titles like "Just Because You're Single Doesn't Mean Something is Wrong with You," and bless her heart, she responded. Because she has pronouns in her bio, I knew she was either out of the church or didn't really believe in all of it, and this confirmation of that fact brought me joy. I'm sure Monster Cock's response did little to make her reconsider that decision. It sure validated mine a thousand times over. You put up with their shit? Really? Really?
In other uplifting news, Ukraine is going to launch its counteroffensive any day now, and given its performance relative to Russia's performance so far, I'm very optimistic that Putin's death is nigh. And I've finished my first full week of not being a substitute teacher anymore and I'm never going to do that again, even if I can't find another job. I'll starve first. Maybe that's not uplifting news, but having principles and sticking to them is important. Theoretically, with all this free time, I can think of better things to write about than bigots on Twitter. I do hope to transition to writing about their church a lot less often. I've been out for a year now. I've heard that most people need a year of deconstructing for every decade they spent in it, so that would be one more for me. And I can't even imagine where my beliefs will be in a year, if I haven't starved by then, so that'll continue to be a terrible and wonderful adventure.
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About the Author
C. Randall Nicholson is a white cisgender Christian male, so you can hate him without guilt, but he's also autistic and asexual, so you can't, unless you're an anti-vaxxer, in which case the feeling is mutual. This blog is where he periodically rants about life, the universe, and/or everything.