What If I Didn’t Come Back From The Dead?

by James Wallace Harris, 9/3/22

Last Monday I had hernia surgery and was under general anesthesia for over two hours. Being anesthetized is maybe the closest thing to being dead. Our conscious self is turned off so completely that it feels like we’re gone for good.

Interestingly, my book club book this month is Being You by Anil Seth and he introduces the study of consciousness with the discussion of general anesthesia. This was the fifth time I was put under so beforehand I was contemplating being gone. And I kept asking myself: “What if I don’t come back?” I thought it was philosophical fun to imagine nonexistence.

Mostly I thought about people I would miss but if I didn’t exist I wouldn’t feel anything. I think of death being like how things felt before I was born. I feel the only existence we know is this one. But my atheist beliefs could be wrong. I wondered how it would feel if I came to, but in another existence. I’ve always hoped if that happened I would be given all the answers to my questions about this existence.

My hunch is this existence is our only one. That reality is filled with many infinities but infinite existence isn’t one of them. Mostly I thought if I wasn’t coming back I should do a lot of paperwork before I might die to help Susan out. But I didn’t do that for two reasons. First, I assumed I was coming back. Second, because I’m lazy.

Still, it felt very weird and fascinating trying to imagine not existing.

Before my surgery, I had a long talk with my surgeon and he agreed to do everything I wanted. I was worried about two things. I was afraid lying on the surgical table for hours would inflame my spinal stenosis. I worried that I couldn’t hold my pee for that length of time because of my overactive bladder. I told him of these fears weeks before the surgery. He said he would try to arrange my back on the table like I needed and would give me a catheter but I would have to wear it for a few days at home. So I practiced lying flat each day before the surgery. Then on the day of the surgery, I told him to not worry about positioning me for my back but do whatever was best for his work. I also asked for the catheter to be removed before I came to and if I couldn’t pee on my own in recovery they could put it back in.

He seemed glad I practiced lying flat and agreed to my method with the catheter. This made me very happy and cleared all my worries. My surgeon then said he wanted to pray for me. I said sure. I’m not the kind of atheist that’s against religion or religious rituals. I am actually grateful for any prayers I receive.

I was impressed by the length of his prayer. He carefully went over all my problems and concerns and then covered all his goals in great detail while asking God for help. It was reassuring on several levels. First, it let me know how closely he listened to me, and second, it carefully laid out his working plans. But it fits in with my contemplations on nonexistence. And his prayer set the right mood for the occasion.

I felt that we each used a different language for understanding our shared existence. I use the word Reality for what he calls God. He believes in a personal relationship with God whereas I think I’m interacting with infinity and randomness. What he calls God’s will I call the unfolding of evolving randomness. Prayer assumes we can ask for blessings. I assume I will get what will be but I’m on one long lucky anti-entropic run of fabulous luck. The big difference is my surgeon believes there’s an existence after this one and I think death is oblivion. I’ve always been exceedingly grateful for this existence.

Well, I did come back. I’m writing this on my iPhone with one finger. The surgery went very well but it was more involved than my surgeon expected. I had no back pain after the surgery. And for 24 hours my back felt limber and young. Even after the drugs wore off it hasn’t been bad at all. And I peed right away when they rolled me back to my room after recovery. And in the days since I haven’t had much pain. I did without drugs except for a couple Tylenol and later, a couple of ibuprofen. However, I am suffering from a swollen scrotum which is typical of this operation and why I’m not sitting at the computer.

I’m quite glad to be back but I’ve learned that God’s will or reality wasn’t finished with me regarding this surgery. We never get what we picture, and my surgeon’s prayer didn’t cover post surgical complications. I thought going under inspired a lot of philosophical musings, but it turns out dealing with an expanding scrotum, generates even more existential thoughts.

One side effect of this experience is to feel sorry for women and their boobs. I imagine my affliction feels somewhat like getting a breast implant. My package is so much bigger it’s freaking me out. Having a sensitive globular appendage is not convenient. It gets in the way, making sitting and walking weird. So I imagine having two would be more than twice as inconvenient. And the size of my burden is still smaller that what most women have to deal with. I now regret every time I ever wished a woman had bigger breasts.

Yes, I came back, but to something I never imagined. But then, the future has always been what I never imagined.

If there is a God and he/she/they willed these big balls on me then I hope it’s God’s sense of humor and not punishment. So I will close with a prayer: “Dear God, please make my scrotum normal again. And if you intended a philosophical lesson help me learn it quickly. Amen.”

JWH

REWATCHING: Strange Cargo (1940) and Papillon (1973)

by James Wallace Harris, 3/9/21

Movies often appear to teach us about history, unfortunately, we tend to remember their lies rather than their facts. Why do we prefer movie history over scholarly history? Why do we love glamourize characterizations of real people with fudged biographies? Yet, don’t we also relish that statement “Based on a true story” when the film starts rolling? Are believable lies more entertaining than historical facts? The easy answer is most moviegoers couldn’t care less about real history, they just want to react emotionally to a good story.

Until today, my only source of knowledge about the penal colonies in French Guiana came from fiction. In popular culture the French penal system in Guiana is remembered as Devil’s Island, but from Wikipedia I learned the penal colony of Cayenne was based on three islands off French Guiana and three locations on the mainland. The actual Devil’s Island only held about a dozen prisoners at any time, and maybe no more than 50 over its history according to one source. The Wikipedia entry was far more fascinating than anything I learned from watching any of the films about Devil’s Island I’ve seen.

The evolution of the French prison system would take many books to explain why France created the horrors of its Gulag in the New World. These terrors are painted with impressionistic cliches in movies because what moviegoers want is the thrills of prison escapes. The actual history of injustice is of little interest to mass audiences. Whereas the reasons why an enlightened nation would kill tens of thousands of its citizens with brutal torture should interest us far more than why a few men make an exciting escape.

My knowledge, like most people’s comes from a handful of books and movies. The most famous of which is the 1973 film Papillon based on the 1969 autobiography of Henri Charrière of the same title. Charrière claimed his book was 75% true, but researchers over the years have found more and more evidence to suggest it was mostly fiction, if not all. However, just the merest whiffs of the fading myths from Devil’s Island is enough to inspire writers and screenwriters, while they ignore volumes of meaty history. Aren’t we accepting the smell of the cooking over the meal?

I first watched Papillon as a movie rental in the late 1970s or early 1980s on VHS tape on a TV with a 25″ screen. I was in my late twenties. I regretted then not having caught it at the movies when it came out in 1973 because it was cinematically beautiful. It was also tremendously exciting. I liked both Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman performances. I had also loved Steve McQueen in The Great Escape (1963), one of the most exciting movies of my childhood. With both films I read the book based on them immediately after seeing the movie. Both films were about escaping prison. At the time I wondered if Steve McQueen had been typecast as a great escape artist. Papillon, like The Great Escape, impressed me by what the men endured in prison, and the efforts they made to escape. Looking back I realized that in the sixties when watching The Great Escape I wanted to escape my childhood, and fifteen years later when I saw Papillon I wanted to escape my job.

When I watched Papillon this week I wasn’t really interested in the Steve McQueen character at all, but sympathized with Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman). At 69 I realize there are no escapes from life, but it must be endured to the end. The final scenes with Dega working his gardens and tending his pigs on Devil’s Island was something I could completely understand and relate. I do admit that visually the recreations of the prisons and Devil’s Island in Papillon look very much like the photos I’ve seen of the real places. The film and film locations are stunningly beautiful, and feel historical.

This time while watching Papillon I wondered about why the prison existed, why the cruelty, why the extreme inhumanity? How could they keep men in solitary for five years. How could any human survive that? I wanted to know the reality and history of this penal system. This time I knew the film was a caricature sketch based on a complex lie Henri Charrière sold the world based on his hyper realistic life experiences. Movies goers were only getting a few parts per billion of the real facts.

The first time I watched Strange Cargo (1940) was probably in the 1990s on Turner Classic Movies. It made an odd impression on me, but then Strange Cargo was an odd film for its time, an MGM’s take spirituality. The story is about Verne (Clark Gable) who escapes from the French penal system in Guiana with Julie (Joan Crawford), Moll (Albert Dekker) and other hardened criminals along with a strange Christlike figure named Cambreau (Ian Hunter). Cambreau is both mystical and supernatural.

These escapees weren’t on Devil’s Island, but one of the larger prison islands that had a civilian population – which is how a woman is included in party. Like in Papillon, the goal is to acquire a boat via bribery and make for the mainland. Both stories involve treacherous travel through a jungle and then an arduous sea voyage with minor characters dying along the way. In Strange Cargo, Cambreau helps each character who dies with a spiritual awakening. Both Verne and Julie resist Cambreau powers until they very end of the story by being hard independent individuals.

The first time I watch Strange Cargo I was more caught up with the escape story, and felt the mystical side of the tale to be a bit sappy. I was happily married, and worked in a university library. I liked my job and the people I worked with, but still I felt trapped by having to put in my 9-to-5 hours. Again, the theme of escape was the overriding motif that moved the story along.

Decades later, retired and freed from my sentence of work, I am much closer to death, and the mystical angle of Strange Cargo was far more appealing to me this time, even though I’m an atheist. And this time around I was far more sympathetic to M’sieu Pig (Peter Lorre), a pathetic creature so desperate for Julie to love him. Pig is a snitch, small and ugly, completely loathsome to Julie no matter how nice or helpful he is to her. Pig is the only character that Cambreau can’t help.

Strange Cargo doesn’t try to us teach history, and I think it’s a more successful because of it. Yet, Strange Cargo does preach another kind of truth, which I don’t believe, yet admired. Some of the greatest spiritual works of history have come from souls enduring prison and finding enlightenment. Strange Cargo is almost surreal in its black and white beauty.

Papillon gives us a story of survival, but Strange Cargo is about transcendence. Both are classic inspirations for stories, but like I said, when I was young I wanted escape, but at this end of my life I’m more interested in transcendence. As an atheist, I believe transcendence is only found on this side of death, and I could read that in Strange Cargo better than Papillon even though it was simplistic and heavy handed. However, this time I thought the spiritual thread of Strange Cargo was artistic, and moving.

Further Reading:

JWH

Creating My Atheistic Prayer

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, December 14, 2018

For almost a year, I’ve had an item “Define my health goals in a daily prayer” left undone on my ToDoist list. I believe my original intent was to write a statement I’d recite every morning in meditation. I pictured it helping me stick to the habits that would make me healthier.

The trouble is atheists don’t believe in prayers, although, I try not to be a typical atheist. I want to keep an open mind about recycling concepts from religion that might have some scientific validity. Plus, I admire a handful of religious words like prayer, soul, grace, redemption, spiritual, that I want to refashion for atheists.

Praying does provide several problems for atheists. First, prayers generally appeal to a superior being for help. We don’t believe in such beings. Second, praying assumes there’s a telepathic phone system networking all beings in the universe. Well, we don’t believe in telepathy either. Finally, people who pray often want miracles, and atheists reject them too.

So, I’ve got to assume atheist prayers are thoughts directed at my unconscious mind or verbal affirmations I want my subconscious to overhear. That assumes my unconscious mind has the ability to hear my prayers, understand English, and could influence my behavior, but probably just in tiny ways.

Most people who pray attempt to change reality. They are rejecting what is. When my friends tell me about their health problems, they want me to help initiate a cure. Basically, I’m wishing them to get well. Does that really do any good? There’s no reason to believe thoughts from one person can affect another. What I’m wondering if our own wishes can change our behavior?

Physically being with another person when they’re sick and talking has been shown to help people, and even believing people are praying for you might help, but there’s no evidence that thoughts travel beyond our physical self.

The thing about atheists is we want to believe in things that exist and work. The whole point of skepticism is to get away from delusional thinking. That means I must find a real reason for praying if I’m going to embrace the concept.

I need a working hypothesis to test. There’s growing scientific evidence that meditation does affect us. To what degree is not known. What if praying is like meditation, in that it has a subtle effect on our health and psychology? What if it’s like the power of positive thinking? Of course, the power of prayer will be limited. No miracles. People with cancer pray like crazy, but does it affect cancer cells? What works with cancer is modern medicine.

There are prayers of acceptance, where we wish we can cope with what’s given to us. I’ve always considered the Serenity Prayer to be one of the wisest of all prayers:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

If we removed the word “God” from this prayer, it would be suitable for atheists. But what could we substitute for the word “God” in this prayer? Aren’t we just talking to ourselves? But which part? Isn’t the conscious mind hoping for cooperation from the rest of our being for disciplined? Aren’t we really trying to reinforce a mental habit so we can change our lives?

I could say, “Jim, grant me the serenity …” because I am talking to myself. But, I think Jim is just a label for my conscious self. I’m really addressing my whole self. I’m seeking to integrate my conscious mind with my unconscious mind to discipline my biological urges. But what’s a good name for my whole self? For now, I shall open my prayer with, “To my whole self, grant me the serenity …”

When people pray the serenity prayer they must know they aren’t accepting the things they cannot change, and lack the courage to change the things they can, and don’t know the difference between the two. If they had those abilities, would they even be praying? So, what are they really praying for? The discipline to be different.

Most people can’t make decisions and stick with them. Look at New Year’s Resolutions. Aren’t we praying to our unconscious minds to stick with the decisions the conscious mind is making? Aren’t we begging our body to adapt to what we’ve learned at a conscious level?  Aren’t we praying to our reptilian and mammalian brains to follow the learning of the neocortex?

I need to edit and add a few lines to the serenity prayer. But I also need to think about other people too. To me, The Golden Rule is about the best guideline for that. I need to work in, “Do unto others what you would have them do to you.” But I want to update it some to include all life and the environment.

Here’s my working prayer for now. I suppose it will evolve over time, but I think it’s enough to finally close out my ToDoist item.

To my whole self,
grant me the ability to accept what I can’t change,
the discipline to change what I can,
the wisdom to know the difference,
the scientific knowledge to know what’s real,
the skepticism to know what’s not,
the empathy to respect all life,
and the generosity to help others.

JWH

Aren’t Republicans the True Disciples of Darwin?

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, October 12, 2018

I’m beginning to see my liberal hopes for social justice are naïve and conservatives are survivalists acting on animal instinct and not theology.

In “Notes from the Fifth Year” from We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates, he describes why he does not believe in cosmic justice or God. As a kid, Coates got beat up and learned he could only rely on himself for help. He saw that in society too. Our hunger for justice is the desire to be protected, but Darwinian laws of red tooth and claw overrule theology and legal systems. As a liberal, I want society to be just and protective, but I’m realizing that counters my own atheistic and scientific beliefs. What I find ironic is Republicans who claim to be Christian, a belief in cosmic justice, want laws and government that affirm Darwin. That I, an atheist, an avowed disciple of Darwin, really want a Christian society. It’s it hilarious when Christians act evolutionary and atheists yearn for grace?

I thought “Notes from the Fifth Year” both brilliant and depressing. It reminds me of a film I saw on the internet of a big green snake coming out of a woodpecker’s hole while the woodpecker frantically fights to pull the snake out to save its nest. I knew people were on the ground filming and watching this struggle. I wanted the woodpecker to win. It kept pecking the snake, and the snake would grab it by the wing, and the bird would struggle free, fly away, but then immediately return to attack the snake again. Its only hope was itself. I wanted the bird to win. I wanted the people on the ground to find a way to pull the snake down. But like Coates, I realized there is no help for the woodpecker except its own efforts to survive.

More and more I see Republicans as survivalists fighting with all their might to save their way of life. They don’t want to pay taxes to help other people because they want that money to protect themselves. They don’t want laws to help other people, only laws that to protect themselves. They’re against minorities, immigrants, and poor people because they threatened their survival. They offer no alternative to Obamacare because they believe in the survival of the fittest. They don’t really disbelieve climate change but deny the expense of global warming because it threatens their pocketbooks. They’d rather have dollars in their paychecks than a clean environment or a just and equal society.

The Republicans are the snake in the tree, not the valiant woodpecker because they are strong and can take what they want. Coates is right, we live in an atheist reality where the powerful prevail. And the strong won’t help the weak. It’s against their nature.

I find it hard to believe Republicans claim to be Christians. They don’t believe in the fishes and the loaves. They don’t believe in turning the other cheek. They don’t believe loving thy neighbor. They don’t believe the meek shall inherit the Earth. But they’re positive camels can go through the eyes of needles.

I now assume Republicans are Darwinians on Earth but Christians after death. They believe in easy Christianity, where merely saying “I believe in Jesus” is a ticket to heaven. But what happens if Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship is right, and true Christianity is far more expensive?

I’m an atheist that wants humans to create a society that overcomes the laws of Darwin. Even though I’m not a Christian, I felt Jesus wanted to create a heaven on Earth where everyone is treated equally and just. Am I naïve and the Republicans realistic? Conservatives believe the City of God lies beyond death, whereas liberals want humanism to construct it on Earth.

We can now see that Republicans have given up any pretense of ethics. With them, the end justifies the means, and their means are Darwinian, not Christian. Back in the early days of the Environmental movement, the idea of Lifeboat Earth emerged. It’s a great analogy. There’re always people in lifeboats who feel they deserve the rations than the others, and that the weak should be put off the boat. That’s very Darwinian. Aren’t Republicans acting like the ruthless in a lifeboat?

JWH

Should I Abandon My Bible Study?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, November 6, 2017

I’m an atheist, so I don’t study the Bible in the same way as people of faith. I have two goals for Bible study. First, I consider Christianity, or any religion for that matter, like a language. To talk to Christians requires understanding their language. The Bible is an integral part of western civilization, and to understand our history requires understanding the Bible. This is still akin to learning a language. The details of history are often idiomatically based on biblical references.

The Bible

The second reason why I study the Bible is to understand how information is transmitted over space and time. Think of my interest like the game of telephone kids play – also known as “Chinese whispers.” Jesus said many things two thousand years ago, and now we hear what he said repeated through thousands of distortions. Is there any way to backtrack and try to filter out two millennia of noise?

I’ve always felt both approaches to this kind of Bible study are practical and intellectually rewarding. However, I’m beginning to fear both goals are pointless. I’m starting to doubt I can ever communicate with a religious person, nor can we ever know what Jesus actually said. One proof of my doubt is all the faithful firmly believe they actually know what Jesus said even though they each have a unique interpretation. In my reading of the gospels, I would say it’s impossible to follow the teachings of Jesus and own a gun or pursue wealth, but millions of Christians would vehemently disagree. Where’s the truth?

This issue came up today when I saw How Jesus Became God by Bart D. Ehrman was on sale from Amazon in November for $1.99 for the Kindle version. I thought about buying and rereading that book. Ehrman is my favorite teacher for explaining how Christian memes evolved over time, and consider this book the best explanation how Christians believe Jesus, a man, is now God. My personal assumption from studying the Bible is Jesus never claimed to be God but was made God by his followers. Ehrman backs this up with historical analysis. I feel these six books by Bart D. Ehrman are the best explanation I’ve found that removes the distortion of playing telephone with Jesus’ original sayings 2000 years ago.

Ehrman’s approach is to study Jesus as history, not theology. Each book takes a different tack in solving a historical puzzle. I believe many of the problems we face in society today are caused by irrational beliefs about Jesus. However, I’m not sure Ehrman’s results can ever be used to logical dispel such beliefs when talking to a person of faith.

Fantasyland by Kurt Andersen has convinced me that irrational thinking is so entrenched in American society that logical discourse will never work. In fact, Andersen makes a good case that two-thirds of Americans embrace a “believing makes truth” philosophy.  They feel rational thinking is out to get them, that scientific knowledge is oppressive, and freedom is being allowed to believe what they want.

Thus, why I wonder if it’s even worthwhile to continue my Bible study.

Because there are billions of interpretations of who Jesus was and what he said it’s impossible to ever know what he actually said and meant. This allows believers to believe anything they want and still claim they are following his teachings. The only logical way I can think of disproving their belief logic is to analyze the words of Jesus by doing what the theologians of the Jesus Seminar did. This was a group of Bible scholars who voted on probable accuracy of every saying we have of Jesus (the ones printed in red in some Bibles). They color-coded the results to statistically reveal which sayings the historical Jesus might have said, with red being the most likely. This is a wisdom of crowds approach.

Thus, if you take just the red, and maybe the pink quotes from The Five Gospels, we might assume that’s what the historical Jesus taught. The trouble is, the results do not match what most people believe today. And since believers believe belief trumps everything, this logical approach will be no proof to them.

I’m wondering if I shouldn’t tune out all discussion of religion completely. Don’t try to understand or explain it. Just write religion off as complete irrational thinking. I was hoping the scientific and faithful could meet halfway, but after reading Fantasyland I’ve given up on that idea.

When I read science or technical books I feel I’m living in a rational reality. I have hope for the future. When I read books written by true believers I feel despair. Their irrational thoughts convince me society is crashing.

JWH

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