morality

The Egg

The great moral leaders throughout time have sought a narrative that could drive humanity one step closer to compassion and connectedness — one step further from the divisiveness and pain that comes from focusing too much on ourselves. What follows is one of the most profound short stories I’ve ever read. It contains parts of a philosophy that I’ve tried to adopt, and one that I hope you will also consider if you haven’t already.

I’m copying this story in full from http://www.galactanet.com/oneoff/theegg_mod.html.

The Egg

By: Andy Weir (author of the book that led to the recent movie blockbuster, “The Martian”)

 *****************

You were on your way home when you died.

It was a car accident. Nothing particularly remarkable, but fatal nonetheless. You left behind a wife and two children. It was a painless death. The EMTs tried their best to save you, but to no avail. Your body was so utterly shattered you were better off, trust me.

And that’s when you met me.

“What… what happened?” You asked. “Where am I?”

“You died,” I said, matter-of-factly. No point in mincing words.

“There was a… a truck and it was skidding…”

“Yup,” I said.

“I… I died?”

“Yup. But don’t feel bad about it. Everyone dies,” I said.

You looked around. There was nothingness. Just you and me. “What is this place?” You asked. “Is this the afterlife?”

“More or less,” I said.

“Are you god?” You asked.

“Yup,” I replied. “I’m God.”

“My kids… my wife,” you said.

“What about them?”

“Will they be all right?”

“That’s what I like to see,” I said. “You just died and your main concern is for your family. That’s good stuff right there.”

You looked at me with fascination. To you, I didn’t look like God. I just looked like some man. Or possibly a woman. Some vague authority figure, maybe. More of a grammar school teacher than the almighty.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “They’ll be fine. Your kids will remember you as perfect in every way. They didn’t have time to grow contempt for you. Your wife will cry on the outside, but will be secretly relieved. To be fair, your marriage was falling apart. If it’s any consolation, she’ll feel very guilty for feeling relieved.”

“Oh,” you said. “So what happens now? Do I go to heaven or hell or something?”

“Neither,” I said. “You’ll be reincarnated.”

“Ah,” you said. “So the Hindus were right,”

“All religions are right in their own way,” I said. “Walk with me.”

You followed along as we strode through the void. “Where are we going?”

“Nowhere in particular,” I said. “It’s just nice to walk while we talk.”

“So what’s the point, then?” You asked. “When I get reborn, I’ll just be a blank slate, right? A baby. So all my experiences and everything I did in this life won’t matter.”

“Not so!” I said. “You have within you all the knowledge and experiences of all your past lives. You just don’t remember them right now.”

I stopped walking and took you by the shoulders. “Your soul is more magnificent, beautiful, and gigantic than you can possibly imagine. A human mind can only contain a tiny fraction of what you are. It’s like sticking your finger in a glass of water to see if it’s hot or cold. You put a tiny part of yourself into the vessel, and when you bring it back out, you’ve gained all the experiences it had.

“You’ve been in a human for the last 48 years, so you haven’t stretched out yet and felt the rest of your immense consciousness. If we hung out here for long enough, you’d start remembering everything. But there’s no point to doing that between each life.”

“How many times have I been reincarnated, then?”

“Oh lots. Lots and lots. An in to lots of different lives.” I said. “This time around, you’ll be a Chinese peasant girl in 540 AD.”

“Wait, what?” You stammered. “You’re sending me back in time?”

“Well, I guess technically. Time, as you know it, only exists in your universe. Things are different where I come from.”

“Where you come from?” You said.

“Oh sure,” I explained “I come from somewhere. Somewhere else. And there are others like me. I know you’ll want to know what it’s like there, but honestly you wouldn’t understand.”

“Oh,” you said, a little let down. “But wait. If I get reincarnated to other places in time, I could have interacted with myself at some point.”

“Sure. Happens all the time. And with both lives only aware of their own lifespan you don’t even know it’s happening.”

“So what’s the point of it all?”

“Seriously?” I asked. “Seriously? You’re asking me for the meaning of life? Isn’t that a little stereotypical?”

“Well it’s a reasonable question,” you persisted.

I looked you in the eye. “The meaning of life, the reason I made this whole universe, is for you to mature.”

“You mean mankind? You want us to mature?”

“No, just you. I made this whole universe for you. With each new life you grow and mature and become a larger and greater intellect.”

“Just me? What about everyone else?”

“There is no one else,” I said. “In this universe, there’s just you and me.”

You stared blankly at me. “But all the people on earth…”

“All you. Different incarnations of you.”

“Wait. I’m everyone!?”

“Now you’re getting it,” I said, with a congratulatory slap on the back.

“I’m every human being who ever lived?”

“Or who will ever live, yes.”

“I’m Abraham Lincoln?”

“And you’re John Wilkes Booth, too,” I added.

“I’m Hitler?” You said, appalled.

“And you’re the millions he killed.”

“I’m Jesus?”

“And you’re everyone who followed him.”

You fell silent.

“Every time you victimized someone,” I said, “you were victimizing yourself. Every act of kindness you’ve done, you’ve done to yourself. Every happy and sad moment ever experienced by any human was, or will be, experienced by you.”

You thought for a long time.

“Why?” You asked me. “Why do all this?”

“Because someday, you will become like me. Because that’s what you are. You’re one of my kind. You’re my child.”

“Whoa,” you said, incredulous. “You mean I’m a god?”

“No. Not yet. You’re a fetus. You’re still growing. Once you’ve lived every human life throughout all time, you will have grown enough to be born.”

“So the whole universe,” you said, “it’s just…”

“An egg.” I answered. “Now it’s time for you to move on to your next life.”

And I sent you on your way.

 *****************

That’s where the story ends, but there are several adaptations which you can watch on YouTube. Here’s one…

I may not be able to convince myself enough in the veracity of the Bible to use its lessons as the central foundation for morality, but I can take the good where I find it. While there’s no evidence that Andy Weir’s short story is true (we probably aren’t collectively a budding God and we probably aren’t reincarnations of each other), I find great moral wisdom in its central message. It harmonizes with my belief that there’s no justification for being certain that we would be any different from our enemies if we were born as they were.

If we could believe that our neighbors literally might be, in some real sense, ourselves (and they could because we could have been born as them) — that would help us struggle against those naturally selfish tendencies to forcefully promote our desires and opinions over theirs. It would make the call to “love our neighbors as ourselves” both more obvious to secularists and more attainable for everyone. Collectively, such a fast-track to genuinely caring about our friends and our enemies would change the world.

Every person you can think of is a person, like you are. We share hopes, joys, fears and pains. If you could master the art of seeing your interlocutors as literally yourself (with the exception of a few circumstances outside of your control), would your words change? Mine often would.

Gentleness and respect,
—Russell

Learning in Conversation

Der_kleine_Kinderfreund_T11_img05

Dear Howie, Russell & Friends,

As Russell and I approach our first anniversary of blogging and second anniversary of friendship, I’ve been reflective.  I tend to be that way before milestones of all types.  As a runner and hiker, the milestone analogy has always resonated with me.  It also fits well with my realistic expectation that I’ll be dead in less than 50 years.  Where am I?  Where have I been?  Where to next?

The reading, writing, and breakfasts of the last two years have been invigorating.  I’m learning again.  I felt that way when I read both of your responses to my comments on Romans 3: 1-4.  I wrote this doozy of a sentence:

I think that my faith in my own love of people, justice and mercy would be shaken as my intellect finds non-theistic normative reasons less convincing.

This was in response to Howie’s question:

I’m curious: if tomorrow all scientist, theologians, and philosophers got together and came to a 100% consensus that there are no gods would you then stop loving people, justice, and mercy?

Russell wisely replied this (to me):

Can you clarify this sentence a bit? I think I’m misreading it.

I’ll work backwards.  Russell, you are not misreading, I am miswriting.  I know better (only because I keep failing) than to use big words obscurely rather than smaller words well-joined.  Here’s a replay of my sentence with better communication (more words, but less dense):

If I did not have God as a reason for my morality, I acknowledge that I would still be moral.  My reasons include strong and positive personal experiences with very moral very skeptical people (you first among them).  But, if God as the basis of my morality went away I would be less sure of myself.  I would not understand why I wanted to be good when there is a stronger impulse in me to do the wrong thing.  It may be (as I have often suspected) that my nature is more corrupt than yours.  Genes and experience have made me less kind, gentle, and forgiving.  So I may be that person who needs religion more to civilize me.

Back to Howie.  He replied:

When I was a Christian I chose to follow the Jesus I thought still existed because I believed that he represented what is truly good. I was drawn in by some of the beautiful sayings in the sermon on the mount. I wasn’t following because I thought he was the most powerful one with the keys to afterlife so I better listen to whatever he says no matter what he asks, even if it goes against my moral sense. This seems to be the theme of the Abraham/Isaac story, as well as the genocidal conquests in the old testament and those things go against my own moral sense.

Then Howie referred me to thoughts he had about morality.  I read for an hour and the time was well spent. I especially appreciate the referral to a clean article on the concept of infinite regress.  Russell has mentioned coherentism before and I didn’t take the time to learn that it was a possible solution to the problem of infinite regress (constant asking of “why?”, like a child).

Like Howie, I find this topic important.  Do I claim that the moral law is imprinted on our spirits by Creator God?  Do I allow that he did so with the behavioral aspects of human evolution?  Do I consider “these truths to be self evident”?  Did Plato get it right?  I do claim the first assertion, yet my reasons are not yet sufficient to reply to honest questions.  One thing I’m appreciating about this process is that I need more humility and patience.  I need to listen well.  I honestly find this more interesting than my current car listening adventure of why entropy validates the arrow of time and makes macroscopic closed timelike curves unlikely [insert wry grin].

This place is safe for respectful argument.  This place is safe for conversation.  I’m one of the most ignorant people here and I’m excited about learning!

Do you have skeptical or believing friends who exemplify morality to you?  I would answer:  Russell.  Why do you think they are that way?

Pascal

–1:16

photo credit:  Der kleine Kinderfreund by Anonymous Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Der_kleine_Kinderfreund_T11_img05.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Der_kleine_Kinderfreund_T11_img05.jpg