Friday, November 11, 2011

Agora: Thumbs Up

Will, the scruffy barista, continues to tidy up the bar. Occasionally he picks up his cup of tea and takes a sip.

The matter compiler sits innocently at the end of the bar, a few feet from Beth, Vincent and John. Its "completed" indicator, a bright green thumbs-up symbol, glows cheerfully.


Paul Martin said...

John Cates, looking expectantly from the green indicator light to Will:

"Excuse me, Will – I think maybe my second coffee’s about ready? And speaking of coffee…

“You know, I always thought Muammar Gaddafi should have tried re-branding himself instead of going out the way he did. Coffee would have been perfect for him.

“I mean, he had the money, the name and the personae. You can imagine the camera zooming in on his face as he raises a cup, and then the voiceover:”

‘Gaddafi-brand coffee. So smooth, so mellow, it absolutely dictates a smile…’

Matthew said...

Will chuckles.

"Sounds delicious," he says. He pours John a second cup.

Paul Martin said...

John Cates:

"Thanks, but really, I don’t know enough about that kind of gadget – is it like on Star Trek? The transporter?"

Matthew said...

"More like the ... what was it called ... replicator?" Will says.

"You know, 'tea, earl grey, hot?' Like that."

crystal said...

Beth nods.

"Yes, the replicator - it made meat that wasn't meat, and all those chocolate sundaes for Counselor Troi" :)

Bath's smile fades.

"I wrote a short story once about a havingness machine that could make almost anything if you fed it enough blood - kind of dark."

Bud said...

Buddha-No-Buddha (“Bud”)sits down in the seat vacated by Vincent.

"The universe is a non-havingness machine."

Matthew said...

"Yipes," Will says to Beth. "Creepy. I kind of like it."

Will raises a hand to greet Bud as he takes a seat at the bar.

"How'sit going?" he asks. "A non-havingness machine, mm? That sounds interesting too. Care to elaborate?"

Paul Martin said...

John Cates, to Crystal:

"Kind of like the bible..."

crystal said...

Beth asks Will for another coffee and turns to Cates.

"Do you mean the bible is like a non-havingness machine, or that, like a havingness machine, if you give it enough blood, it can produce anuthing?"

Paul Martin said...

John Cates to Crystal, accientally spilling half his coffee on the countertop:

"I mean the bible gives folks a God that's a havingness machine. The right sort of blood sacrifice and we get what we want.

"There's enough spilled blood in life so you want to think it has a reason, you know?"

crystal said...

"The universe does seem like a non-havingness machine. I guess religions and philosophies are basically manuels for how to deal with that - how to finesse the system. The bible doesn't seem much worse in this regard than others."

Beth looks for Will, "Speaking of finessing the system, is there any more coffee?"

Matthew said...

"Sorry," Will says. "Fresh out."

He clears his throat.

"Joking," he says. "Another with nutmeg?"

Will busies himself refilling Beth's cup.

"See, it seems very natural to me that if you consciously recognize the universe as being a machine intent on keeping you from getting what you want, you'd deal with it by making a system that addresses desire and critiques the wanting."

"But what about all the other decoration that comes along with most of those religions and philosophies? What's it for?"

Paul Martin said...

John Cates finishes mopping up his half-spilled coffee with some napkins and then turns to Will and Beth:

"Seems to me that with religion, people have pretty much turned the whole thing into a celebration of neediness and how our needs get met and worshipping – in humility – the One who fills our needs. No?"

Paul Martin said...

John Cates, a little uncomfortably in the silence:

“I mean, the assumption of religion is that…”

He bends to retrieve the spoon which one elbow just sent clattering to the floor…

“I mean…

“I mean, religion assumes we need things to be more the way we think we’d like them to be. And people feel they need this badly, even desperately, you know?

“It looks a lot like ‘someone moved our cheese’ – if I’ve got the book title correct?

“And as soon as you start to see stuff as cheese, any sort of stuff, then you think about how your piece of cheese really could be bigger – especially since you can see that other people got bigger pieces.

“So you get these real cheese cravings. I’m sure we all have them. You sort of fixate on your share of cheese.

“At that point a lot of us decide that it really does make sense that a Cheese Maker must exist who’s gonna come along and finally distribute the stuff correctly.

“Do you serve breakfast here? I think I could go for an omelet.”

crystal said...

Beth nods, "Yes, nutmeg, thanks."

"John, I think there is indeed cheese. You might say, like an existentialist, that there are no intrinsic values, but in a practical sense, we live as if there are real goods - food, shelter, health, relationships. We vote for the existence and worth of cheese with our lives every day. We should ask for cheese from God, if that's what we want and if we think he has some control over cheese production and distribution .... I hate asceticism." :)

Beth then turns back to Will. "The other stuff that comes along with religion and philosophy? Can you elaborate?"

Paul Martin said...

John Cates, to Crystal:

There’s no denying cheese in all its forms, desire for cheese, and putting values on cheeses. I’d imagine that ascetics like and value the cheese of asceticism, even if most of us prefer cheese with more calories.

Personally, it’s when I’ve identified with my desire for cheese that I’ve been contorted by it – puffed up or all bent out of shape, so to speak – depending on whether my desire was fulfilled or thwarted.

crystal said...

Beth responds to John, "I don't understand not identifying with one's desires."

"I can understand being able to take or leaves something ... I sort of want pizza for dinner but if there's only a bagel, I can live with that."

"But if I felt that way about everything in life, I'd feel like I wasn't really alive. It's scary to really desire something strongly because it hurts so much it the desire isn't realized, but I'd rather get hurt than go through life not caring that much about anything."

Paul Martin said...

John to Beth:

By not identifying with your desires – not so closely, not so squarely – I definitely don’t mean a “take it or leave it” attitude. It’s more like you see yourself as just another person among people and not so… special.

You care about the things that you most value at least as much as ever. What fades are the aspects of hurt and frustration that go along with YOU not having things go the way that YOU had always wanted them to go. Then that kind of emoting doesn’t taste like the cheese-flavored popcorn that it used to taste like.

Before there’d always been plenty of that around, and it had been cheap and easy to get. But now it starts to taste like nothing - or like nothing with a little bit of artificial flavoring.

crystal said...

Beth smiles.

"We've had this argument many times over the years and newither of us has changed our opinion. I guess we never will."

Matthew said...

Will shaves the nutmeg over Beth's coffee and hands it over. He chuckles.

"Sorry, John," he says. "If you really want an omelet you'll have to get it from the MC."

"But Beth, what you're saying might be what I'm talking about." Will scratches his head. "If the universe is entirely inflexible, then all religion can do is help people cope with that inflexibility. But if it is somewhat malleable, or -- wildly improbable -- very flexible, then maybe religion shows how to change it for the better. Maybe that would be point of the 'other stuff' I mentioned, the doctrines beyond abandoning desire."

"Of course, there seem to be other systems whose purpose is making the universe malleable ... technology based on science, for example." Will shrugs.

"But let's get back to what you and John are going at," he says. "I've never been satisfied that the two of you really disagree."

"In the Christian religion, there's this concept of 'dying to self,' right? Which seems to include releasing your own sense of self and own wants to want the things that God wants. Of not taking yourself so seriously or holding yourself so tightly, maybe. Is that fair?"

crystal said...

Beth thanks Will for the coffee and nods.

"Yes, the dying to self - is that kenosis?"

"There's only allowing yourself to want what you think God wants you to want, then there's wanting what you want no matter what, and finally, I think there's a way of looking at things that says what you want and what God wants for you are the same thing and that your desires are like breadcrumbs meant to lead you along the path to God."

"I like that last way of looking at things. There's a method of proceeding .... consolation = going in the right firection. But sorry, don't mean to preach Jesuit spirituality :)"

"I do like to think we can affect the universe, change it somehow, that religion isn't just a coping mechanism, but a way to let us co-create."

Paul Martin said...

John Cates --

To Will:

I don’t see an argument either. If there’s a form of spirituality that’s nothing but a coping mechanism and that leads you not to care about life, action or creativity anymore, then I would think anyone would see it as off track.

As far as changing the world goes, abandoning desire - in the sense I’m trying to talk about, i.e., letting go of egoistic attachments – helps with that. I think, for example, of MLK’s refrain in his speech the night before he was gunned down.

“There are advantages to a long life,” he said, alluding to the danger he was in, and further stated, “I may not get there with you…” but kept adding:

“I’m not worried anymore.”

He wasn’t worried because he had faith and a sense of identity that went beyond his egoistic attachments – even his attachment to his life.

To Beth:

What’s your idea of the gist of the consolation concept?

crystal said...

Beth says,

"Consolation ... Ignatius thought that if people made the right choices, they would feel an increase of faith, love and hope - doing the right thing would make people feel good. So when you have some things to choose from, the one you really want to do, the one that makes you feel happy and that you desire, will usually be the right one to do."

"There's a 'but' though. He thought that people who were 'bad' would feel good about making bad choices, so you have to figure out if you're good or bad first, though he tended to think most people were good."

Matthew said...

"Hrm," Will muses. "Maybe you disagree more than I thought. John seems to say our desires are our own, and we should not take them
(or ourselves) so seriously. Beth seems to say our desires are God's, and we should follow them even if doing so causes us some pain."

"But I'm not willing to give up just yet," Will says. "Can we look at motivation for a minute?"

"John, why should we approach life in the way you suggest? Same question for you, Beth."

Paul Martin said...

John Cates:

I think your question’s really interesting, but first I’d have to point out some common ground – or if this isn’t common ground, then I wouldn’t know how to proceed any further.

It seems to me that any moral outlook sees the need to let go of or reduce some of our desires. Maybe you could call these desires that are grossly egoistical. Acting on them does clear harm.

The Ten Commandments, for example, could be described in such terms, or the warnings about the love of mammon eclipsing love of God.

Right, Beth?

crystal said...

Beth sips her coffee and answers Will ...

"Why approach life the way Ignatius thought we should? I guess what I especially like about his idea that desires come from God is that it seems positive. So often religion is all about the supposed nastiness of human nature. I can't help thinking asceticism is really built on two things: self-loathing and the need to control. If we are bad and what we want is bad, but we control ourselves and our bad wants, we maybe can also control life and make it less painful."

"But if we were made basically good, and God wants us to flourish, it doesn't seem incoherent to me that what makes us happy will generally be good too. Of course, Ignatius wants people to "discern" all their choices, and he hopes they end up wanting what God wants too, but for him at the end of the day (I think) what we really want and what God wants are pretty much the same thing. "

"It's kind of medieval when you get into the details. I don't know if Ignatius is right, I don't know if his view is true or not, of course, but I do like his idea because it is hopeful, it sees the world and us as good, and it trusts our feelings. If you're interested, I wrote a past post about this here."

crystal said...

Beth turns to John, repeating what he's said ....

"Any moral outlook sees the need to let go of or reduce some of our desires."

"I think what you're thinking about are bad things like wanting to kill someone. I guess Ignatius would think that the real desire isn't actually to kill someone but something else (unless the person was really bad) - like you're in love and the person you love loves someone else, so you want to kill that someone else. But really, your deesire is to be loved, and that's not a bad thing to want, though it may not be accomplishable."

"Yes, people want to do bad things, but I think that most basic desires are good and that the ones that are bad are often just twisted examples of good desires. People that get actual joy from hurting others or who have no feeling at all about hurting others are, I think, in some way demented, but the average eprson who wants to do something bad maybe really wants something else that is a good but can't get it."

"Or so I think sometimes :)"

Paul Martin said...

John to Will and Beth:

One thought before I go out for an omelet and think more about what Beth just said:

I think labels pose some communication difficulties. “Asceticism,” for example, and also calling desires and people “good” and “bad” – these aren’t terms I use in my own thinking about this stuff.

It might help to cut down on labels where that’s possible? So instead of going back and forth about asceticism and what it means when I haven’t noticed anyone advocating asceticism, we could stick to talking about affirming desire vs. letting it go. Of course other labels, like good and bad, will probably end up needing to be discussed since they’re really common words that are hard to avoid.

The problem I see with unnecessary labels is they risk mischaracterizing each others positions. Terms like “asceticism” or, say, “humanism” or “secularism,” carry lots of connotations as well as denotations. You end up having to pick the concept apart into its constituent elements and say, “Well yeah, I did mean this, sort of, but not really this and that…”

So I think it facilitates things to stick when possible to discussing primary ideas instead of using concepts that package a whole bunch of constituent parts together and can lead us down all kind of paths that might not be what anyone’s really trying to talk about - ?

Paul Martin said...

John Cates aka Paul Martin to Will and Beth:

OK, substantively… I can’t make a clear distinction between good people and bad people and then go on to affirm that under every apparently bad desire that a good person has there’s always or almost always a good desire. I don’t find thinking this way necessary to having a positive and hopeful view of life.

And personally, if I want to consider myself a good person, if forces me to do some rationalization around those desires I’ve experienced that were the most harmful and most potentially harmful.

For me the distinction that seems real and important is between desire that’s harmful and desire that plays a constructive role in our lives. And this doesn’t correspond to a simple listing of good vs. bad desires.

There are considerations of how often or how much we experience a given desire; what happens inside us when we experience it; and what happens if we act on it.

A simplistic but striking example: there’s nothing wrong with wanting a clean, fluffy bath towel. But if you’ve collected several hundred of them, it’s called hoarding behavior and is associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

So to address Will’s question, I think anyone who’s doing even reasonably well mentally already plays a role in moderating their own desires. How much or what kind of desire-moderating is helpful? That strikes me as something that most of us are the best experts on in our own cases and situations.

Matthew said...

"Yeah, Beth," Will ventures, "I also like that it's positive. But like John says, it seems kind of ... esoteric ... among religious sensibilities."

Will disappears into the closet behind the bar, and returns bearing coffee beans, which he proceeds to grind.

"So I guess I'm wrong, and you really do disagree. But at least it's an interesting and substantive disagreement!" Will grins.

Cheese omelet said...

At Will’s remark, John gazes reflectively into his empty coffee cup.

“I realize,” he says almost inaudibly, “that you said earlier you don’t serve omelets here…


John leaps over the counter and grabs Will by the collar, throwing him against a wall.


The only weapon at hand is a pencil and he threatens Will loudly:

“I challenge you to a pencil fight!”

Will is unresponsive. John sinks to his knees pulling at his own hair and weeping.

“All I asked for from life when I got up this morning was a good cheese omelet with coffee,” he sniffles. “Why is that too much to ask?”

But nobody is answering John’s questions in a timely manner. He gets up looking dejected, walks back around the end of the counter, and goes to the opposite wall.

“I want a cheese omelet,” he says at roughly four-second intervals, banging his head against the wall.

Matthew said...

Will smirks.

"And God wants you to have one," he says, pointing at the matter compiler at the end of the counter.

John "Cheese Omelet" Cates said...

John, looking dazed and confused, makes his way back to his seat. To Will:

“Well – that would be great. I guess. And if you really mean it. But I mean… I don’t always feel like a cheese omelet, only sometimes you forget yourself and you get those hankerings. We all do, I would think…

“But on the omelet – do you mean God wants me to have a cheese omelet or a Cheese Omelet?”

Just then there’s a commotion at the doorway. Will, John and Beth turn to look and there enters…

Carl the Cleric said...

Carl enters excitedly holding up a white wafer and a cup of wine…

“I hear you’ve got a matter compiler in here? A real one…?”

Matthew said...

"Yeah, it's an older model," Will says, "But eventually it gets the job done."

Suddenly, he remembers the glowing green light.

"Crap," Will says, "Who knows what's in there or how long it's been sitting?"

He bustles around to the front of the bar, opens the door to the MC, and pulls out the thing that's inside.

It appears to be a seed, about the size of an acorn, but smoother and longer, tapering to a point. Colors wash across its surface, like the hues of a soap bubble.

"Strange," Will says, holding it up to the light. "I wonder who ordered this."

He places the seed on the bar where the others can get a look at it, then gestures to the open MC.

"All yours," he says to Carl.

Carl the Cleric said...

Carl Cleric, an aging baby boomer, looks at the iridescent object suspiciously. “Like wow – so psychedelic…” he thinks to himself.

“Listen,” he says to Will, “I was never one of those hippie-types. I just hope you’re not one of those post modern hippie imitators? ‘Free love,’ ‘free thinking,’ ‘medicinal’ weed – not my groove, man.”

“Besides,” he continues, “The kingdom comes from the smallest of seeds, and not a big psychedelic one.”

“And clerically speaking, the main thing is that seeds aren’t being emphasized – not for like the past two thousand years. Who wants to wait on a seed? Plus you have to worry about if anything might happen to it – a bad frost or something. Maybe global warming could hurt it.”

“The Kingdom comes through these.” He ceremoniously sets the wafer and wine down on the counter near the matter compiler. “FYI, that’s been the Institutional Emphasis.”

“But the thing is, I’m not one of your techno gen-x-ers, either. I don’t know exactly how your matter compiler works, especially with theology.” He glances down at the bread and wine.

“But I’ve got my hopes. These things have been transubstantiated. What we’ve got here is the second person of the Trinity – well, technically I suppose it would have to be the two halves of the second person...”

crystal said...

Beth grabs the seed, pops it in her mouth, and sallows it down with the last of her coffee. ...

"Forget about the seed, I'm still trying to figure out how the subject of toewl-hoarding got into our discussion."

"I used the term 'bad person' not because I want to label people but because it's easier than saying 'a morally neutral agent who most of the time commits acts that would be considered ciunter-productive to the common good'."

"And I'm not sure about the worth of separating a person's moral orientation from their actions."

Beth stops talking and a strange look comes over her face ...


Buddha-No-Buddha said...

“Bud,” a rather enigmatic figure, from the end of the bar:

“Indeed, by her own words did she ‘sallow’ the iridescent seed. Pale and wan, that burp was her exhalation of the breath of desire, which had sapped her vital energy; now she shall be freed.”

Matthew said...

Will blanches, looking nervously from Beth to Bud and back again. In a world of expanding nanotechnology, eating something mysterious from a matter compiler isn't entirely wise.

But Beth exhibits no immediate ill effects, other than perhaps a bit of gas, so Will relaxes.

"Carl, right?" he asks.

"It's basically a standard MC. You use the touch menu to scroll through images of the thing you want it to make. Then it pulls the molecular components it needs through the matter feed -- " Will indicates a tube exiting the wall behind the bar and snaking around to plug into the back of the gray box. " -- and assembles them into the thing."

"I think one of our employees has hacked this MC a little," he clears his throat, "So you can run some custom programs and assemble things that aren't on the list, but you still can't build just anything. If you start pulling a bunch of unexpected stuff, say, cesium, the feed will shut off completely."

Paul Martin said...

Carl Cleric pauses, considering. Meanwhile John Cates interjects:

“I still think I just want a good cheese omelet or at least a Cheese Omelet at the end of the day – or I suppose the end of days. Or else maybe I’d be willing to risk one of those pills – Beth – how are you feeling?

“Or maybe I could have both? A cheese omelet and a pill? The pill could be like the vitamin if it really helps with vital energy like Buddy said? Or is there some reason the two can’t go together?”

Carl the Cleric said...

Carl Cleric to Will:

I suppose you can call me “Carl” if you must, though frankly I’d prefer Most Reverend Reverend, or Father, or Expert on Things Unseen, or He of the Cloth and Collar who Specializes in God and isn’t Just Another Person – something along those lines.

So anyway… I came from all the way across town after blessing these things and hearing about your gadget. Because according to our doctrine of transubstantiation, what we’ve got here is the body and blood of Christ.

Can we put them in your machine and induce the Second Coming or not? People have been waiting for two thousand years. It seems like this must be the reason God gave us a matter compiler.

Hmm – but… Professor… if you don’t mind my calling you that, because I’m starting to think earth is a little like Gilligan’s Island and we’ve all been trying to find a way off – should we mix up the wine and wafer first? Otherwise I think Jesus could get here in pretty bad shape…

Matthew said...

Will scratches his head, eying the wafer and wine dubiously.

"Well, um, Reverend Carl, I don't think he'd fit in that little box. Unless you don't mind him being very small?"

Carl the Cleric said...

Carl the Cleric:

Folks like him small. It's very convenient.

crystal said...

Beth makes a sound reminicent of a cat coughing up a hairball and the magic acorn pops out of her mouth and onto the bar.

"Ahem. Sorry."

To hide her embarrassment, she begins to natter on about the history of teleportation and matter compilers.

"I was reading about the early quatum experiments by IBM - thye had despaired of ever transporting whole objects - thank goodness for the Einstein-Podosky-Rosen effect."

Matthew said...

Back on the counter, the seed scintillates happily. Will sweeps it up with a napkin and plops it into a mug full of hot, soapy water.

"And since teleporting entire objects required too much energy to be practical," Will says to Carl, "the feed system merely transfers raw materials, which get assembled molecule by molecule in the matter compiler."

Will pulls the seed from the soapy water, dries it with a towel, and casts about for a proper container. Finding a terra-cotta ashtray, he puts the seed into it and sets the ashtray on the bar.

"I don't know if you'll be able to pull the organic materials you need to assemble a ... um ... little person, Reverend Carl, but if you've got the credit, you're free to try."

crystal said...

"If you could sucessfully assemble a person of any size, would they have a soul?" Beth wonders.

Carl the Cleric said...

"Throw caution to the winds! It’s worth a try."

To Will:

"Here then, you can put the wine and wafer inside your gadget, I’m a technophobe…"

Matthew said...

"I guess it depends on whether you're a materialist," Will says to Beth.

He gathers the wine and wafer from Carl, puts them into the MC, then punches several buttons to initiate a "mix and duplicate" routine.

The machine whirrs quietly and sets about its task. Eventually it quiets, and the green thumbs-up light glows.

"There you go, Rev," Will says, turning back to his work at the sink. "Let's see what you got."

Paul Martin said...

Carl Cleric opens the door to the MC and it emits a high pitched screech of indignation:

“Where the hell are my clothes?” yells little Jesus. “Who took my clothes? Do you think I meant the freakin’ flowers of the field thing literally?!”

Matthew said...

Will jumps at the tiny voice.

"You have got to be kidding me ..."

[next scene: Just a Little Talk with Jesus]