In Defense of the Illogical

By Jin-yeong Yi 

“Where is reality? Can you show it to me?”

—Heinz von Foerster

Early this year, I wrote in “The Magic of Fiction”

…I find that fiction makes the most sense when I view it as a dream. From this perspective, plotholes, as well as realism and plausibility in general, aren’t exactly of earth-shattering importance. It’s imaginative fiction. It’s a dream, not a documentary. Dreams are often logically inconsistent and are not infrequently downright absurd, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be enjoyable or edifying, or even enlightening and life-changing. Why must fantasy be brought down to the level of reality? Is not the fundamental goal of fiction to convey an experience, which is something that can be appreciated with or without the element of realism?

When it comes to objective reality, probabilities trump possibilities. But when it comes to subjective fantasy, possibilities far and away trump probabilities.

PZ Myers does a rather fine job of illustrating my point with his critical blog post on Man of Steel:

The falling woman trope. It’s everywhere. The poor woman is plummeting to her doom at the terminal velocity of 200 km/hr, and superhero swoops upwards at even greater speed and catches her. This doesn’t work. At that speed, invulnerable super-strong arms are like blunt blades and are going to messily trisect the victim.

Slugfests. In every case, bad guy meets good guy and you know that shortly they’ll start throwing roundhouse blows at each other. This is not how people interact with each other, except when they’re very drunk and stupid. These are supposed to be super-intelligent, powerful beings, and their standard response to any challenge is to punch someone in the nose.

There has to be a witness. This is a corollary to the absence of deaths. A couple of the secondary human characters face the most traumatic event ever — one of them is stuck under a pile of rebar and concrete (don’t worry, they pry her out and she’s completely uninjured!) so they can stand around and gawp as the superclowns rampage all over their city. Titanic forces are shattering whole buildings, but they stand there getting a little dust in their faces, and that’s it. (Emphasis mine) 

It’s understandable that someone so firmly grounded in the hard sciences as Professor Myers is would view fiction in this light. It’s not “right” or “wrong,” but I simply don’t think that the laws that govern the prison of the real need to encroach upon the free lands of the unreal. If the tyranny of logic is absent in the realm of the imagination by default, why must we go out of our way to voluntarily enforce it? I render unto reality the things which are reality’s, but when it comes to fantasy, I embrace the illogical–and the impossible.      

As James Cameron put it, “[T]he beauty of movies is that they don’t have to be logical. They just have to have plausibility.”

I would go a step further and say that the content of movies, and fantasy in general, doesn’t even need to be plausible–just imaginable. If something can be conceived, be imagined, that is enough. For what matters is the experience. 

The Limits of Reality

By Jin-yeong Yi

The Matrix television

“You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.”

—Morpheus, The Matrix

Less than 2 years ago, Richard Dawkins published a book titled The Magic of Reality. It’s a very nice book, with Dr. Dawkins’s trademark prose complemented by Dave McKean’s richly detailed illustrations. At the end of the first chapter, Dr. Dawkins writes:

“[T]he real world, as understood scientifically, has magic of its own – the kind I call poetic magic: an inspiring beauty which is all the more magical because it is real and because we can understand how it works. Next to the true beauty and magic of the real world, supernatural spells and stage tricks seem cheap and tawdry by comparison. The magic of reality is neither supernatural nor a trick, but – quite simply – wonderful. Wonderful, and real. Wonderful because real.”

I agree, I think reality is wonderful–and I think reality is overrated. Shoot me. To the good professor I would say: have a lucid dream and then tell me it wasn’t wonderful. Tell me that meeting Charles Darwin in person and discussing evolution with him for two days straight was boring compared to reading The Origin of Species. Tell me that flying with invisible wings was a dull and uninspiring experience compared to flying on an airplane. Tell me that traveling to the center of the Sun was a cheap and tawdry experience compared to observing it through a filtered telescope. It’s your world we are talking about, not mine, not theirs, not ours–but yours. And it’s wonderful because it’s yours.

There are plenty of things I appreciate about reality. Reality made my standards, reality gives me contrast. If there were no reality, or at least the knowledge of reality, I’m not sure that it would be possible to appreciate fantasy.

H. L. Mencken had a point when he wrote:

“Alone among the animals, [man] is dowered with the capacity to invent imaginary worlds, and he is always making himself unhappy by trying to move into them. Thus he underrates the world in which he actually lives, and so misses most of the fun that is in it. That world, I am convinced, could be materially improved, but even as it stands it is good enough to keep any reasonable man entertained for a lifetime.”

I wish I could be like him, sometimes…sort of.

But to suggest that reality is superior to anything that we can imagine is practically Leibnizian. Reality is a one-size-fits-all world that wasn’t designed for us on even a collective level, let alone on an individual level. In my view, to be able to have dreams but not be able to realize them is not only a waste, but a perverse travesty. What makes for a richer experience, observing and studying the stars, or reaching out and touching them?

I am not content with the magic of reality. I want magic–real magic. As I’ve said before, I respect science and can appreciate the wonders of the natural world it has and continues to reveal, but I do have a longing for more. For all its beauty, the world seems too fixed, too solid, too predictable, too mechanical. I have a deep-seated longing to find a hole within the omnipresent tapestry of unalterable constants, of scientific theories and mathematical equations, a “glitch in the Matrix,” if you will.

One might ask, “Then why acknowledge reality at all? Why don’t you just ignore it and pretend that it isn’t there?” Easier said than done. As Ayn Rand pointed out, “You can avoid reality, but you cannot avoid the consequences of avoiding reality.”

In his critique of arch-materialist Joseph McCabe in Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton proves Rand’s point:

“Mr. McCabe thinks me a slave because I am not allowed to believe in determinism. I think Mr. McCabe a slave because he is not allowed to believe in fairies. But if we examine the two vetoes we shall see that his is really much more of a pure veto than mine. The Christian is quite free to believe that there is a considerable amount of settled order and inevitable development in the universe. But the materialist is not allowed to admit into his spotless machine the slightest speck of spiritualism or miracle. Poor Mr. McCabe is not allowed to retain even the tiniest imp, though it might be hiding in a pimpernel.”

To which a good materialist can only reply, as S. T. Joshi did: “To be sure, it is more ‘restrictive’ to believe that two plus two always equals four rather than that, at various times as my fancy dictates, it equals five or seven or a billion, but what is one to do?”[1] I am not unsympathetic to Chesterton’s wish to believe in fairies and imps and the supernatural in general, but alas, that does not seem to be the universe we live in.

I don’t believe that I hold a grudge against science. If the universe really is as “mathematical and regular” as it looks, science cannot be faulted for that. A person that jumps off the roof of a 100 floor building, convinced that he has wings, will very likely end up as a sorry mess of meat and bone on the ground, regardless of whether or not he acknowledged the law of gravity. Science didn’t invent the law of gravity or any other natural law; it merely discovered and codified them.

Science is all well and good, but when it comes down to it, I’m more concerned about the universe within than the universe without. In other words, the subjective world, as opposed to the objective world. The world where anything and everything is possible, the world where any and every fantasy can be realized.

Joseph McCabe once wrote, “A nation is most gifted with poetic imagery in its adolescence, when the imagination is far more developed than the intellect.”[2] No matter where science and reason take us, may we never lose our capacity to imagine and dream!

[1] God’s Defenders by S. T. Joshi, Chapter 2 (“The Bulldog and the Patrician: G. K. Chesterton and T. S. Eliot”)

[2] “The Truth about the Prophets” by Joseph McCabe

Beyond Heaven and Hell: A Brief Analysis of Meister Eckhart’s 87th Sermon

By Jin-yeong Yi

Drop of water in water

“By meditating on our birth, we can also see that there appears to be a definite time at which our existence began. Before our birth this ‘I’ did not exist. But we realize that cannot be. There can never be a stage in which we did not exist, and this ‘I’ is only a temporary reflection of our infinite existence.
Similarly, by meditating on our death, we can see that it is impossible that there will come a time when when we do not exist. It is only this individual consciousness that will cease to exist, our true ‘I,’ the subject of our consciousness, must always continue to exist.”

—P. J. Mazumdar, The Circle of Fire

“It is child’s talk that a man dies and goes to heaven. We never come nor go. We are where we are. All the souls that have been, are, and will be, are on one geometrical point.”

—Swami Vivekananda

If you’re an atheist, you probably don’t believe in life after death. Medieval Christian theologian Meister Eckhart may convince you otherwise. Here is an excerpt from his 87th sermon:

“Now pay earnest attention to this! I have often said, and eminent authorities say it too, that a man should be so free of all things and all works, both inward and outward, that he may be a proper abode for God where God can work. Now we shall say something else. If it is the case that a man is free of all creatures, of God and of self, and if it is still the case that God finds a place in him to work, then we declare that as long as this is in that man, he is not poor with the strictest poverty…  So we say that a man should be so poor that he neither is nor has any place for God to work in. To preserve a place is to preserve distinction. Therefore I pray to God to make me free of God, for my essential being is above God, taking God as the origin of creatures. For in that essence of God in which God is above being and distinction, there I was myself and knew myself so as to make this man. Therefore I am my own cause according to my essence, which is eternal, and not according to my becoming, which is temporal. Therefore I am unborn, and according to my unborn mode I can never die. According to my unborn mode I have eternally been, am now and shall eternally remain. That which I am by virtue of birth must die and perish, for it is mortal, and so must perish with time. In my birth all things were born, and I was the cause of myself and all things: and if I had so willed it, I would not have been, and all things would not have been. If I were not, God would not be either. I am the cause of God’s being God: if I were not, then God would not be God. But you do not need to know this.

A great master says that his breaking-through is nobler than his emanation, and this is true. When I flowed forth from God, all creatures declared: ‘There is a God’; but this cannot make me blessed, for with this I acknowledge myself as a creature. But in my breaking-through, where I stand free of my own will, of God’s will, of all His works, and of God himself, then I am above all creatures and am neither God nor creature, but I am that which I was and shall remain for evermore. There I shall receive an imprint that will raise me above all the angels. By this imprint I shall gain such wealth that I shall not be content with God inasmuch as he is God, or with all His divine works: for this breaking-through guarantees to me that I and God are one. Then I am what I was, then I neither wax nor wane, for then I am an unmoved cause that moves all things. Here, God finds no place in man, for man by his poverty wins for himself what he has eternally been and shall eternally remain. Here, God is one with the spirit, and that is the strictest poverty one can find.

If anyone cannot understand this sermon, he need not worry. For so long as a man is not equal to this truth, he cannot understand my words, for this is a naked truth which has come direct from the heart of God.”

This text is intrinsically about nothing. I don’t know what Eckhart, who was a highly controversial figure during his time, really intended for it to mean. The following is what it means to me personally:

So we say that a man should be so poor that he neither is nor has any place for God to work in. To preserve a place is to preserve distinction.”

“God” = the universe as a whole. In the same way that a solar prominence is not separate from the Sun, we are fundamentally not distinct from God: we are God; we only need to realize this fact.

“Therefore, I pray to God to make me free of God, for my essential being is above God, taking God as the origin of creatures.”

Notice that Eckhart uses the word “origin” rather than “creator” in referring to God.

“Therefore I am my own cause according to my essence, which is eternal, and not according to my becoming, which is temporal.”

“Essence” = energy. Energy is eternal because, according to the first law of thermodynamics, it cannot be created nor destroyed. “Becoming” = a particular, dynamic configuration of matter, which arises out of energy.

“Therefore I am unborn, and according to my unborn mode I can never die.”

If the universe is eternal, and we are an inextricable part of the universe, then we are eternal.

“That which I am by virtue of birth must die and perish, for it is mortal, and so must perish with time.”

“That which I am by virtue of birth” = a particular, transient collocation of matter.

“When I flowed forth from God, all creatures declared: “There is a God”; but this cannot make me blessed, for with this I acknowledge myself as a creature.”

Once again, notice Eckhart’s unusual wording. He does not say “When I was created by God,” let alone “created by God ex nihilo.”

“But in my breaking-through, where I stand free of my own will, of God’s will, of all His works, and of God himself, then I am above all creatures and am neither God nor creature, but I am that which I was and shall remain for evermore.”

To recognize that the constituent parts we are made of are eternal is to recognize that we have always existed and always will.

“Here, God is one with the spirit, and that is the strictest poverty one can find.”

“Strictest poverty” = absolute purity without any accoutrements, the essence without the externals. In other words, complete identification with what is eternal: the universe, sans personification.

If this is how the real afterlife looks like, well, I suppose one could do a lot worse…

“Oh, if only you knew yourselves! You are souls; you are Gods. If ever I feel like blaspheming, it; is when I call you man.”

—Swami Vivekananda

The Moral Neutrality of Mother Nature

By Jin-yeong Yi

CNN presents some grave news about the Earth’s oceans:

Many marine scientists consider overfishing to be the greatest of these threats. The Census of Marine Life, a decade-long international survey of ocean life completed in 2010, estimated that 90% of the big fish had disappeared from the world’s oceans, victims primarily of overfishing.

Upwards of one million sea turtles were estimated to have been killed as by catch during the period 1990-2008, according to a report published in Conservation Letters in 2010, and many of the species are on the IUCN’s list of threatened species.

The ocean has become 30% more acidic since the start of The Industrial Revolution in the 18th century and is predicted to be 150% more acidic by the end of this century, according to a UNESCO report published last year.


One morning while I was sitting in church, contemplating the dinosaurs, something occurred to me about their fate and the future of humanity: in spite of the fact that they were far better stewards of the Earth than humans will probably ever be, they still became extinct.

It has been noted how the rhetoric of radical environmentalists resembles that of religious apocalypticists, full of threats that the Almighty will sooner or later “judge” and “punish” the human race for its “sins.”

Since dinosaurs didn’t have houses, fences, fast food restaurants, factories, cars, roads, airplanes, nuclear missiles, etc., they were incomparably more environmentally friendly than all radical environmentalists and conservationists combined.

The supreme irony was that, as we all know, they were still mercilessly wiped off the face of the planet. Funny how life works out sometimes, eh? It wasn’t divine judgment, just an unfortunate accident. They didn’t get so much as a “whoops” or a shrug. Their spotless 225 million year environmental record counted for nothing in that they didn’t receive any special reward for it. Their only “reward” was to survive as long as they did.

From PBS:

Hypothesis: Asteroid Impact

Did a collision with a giant asteroid or comet change the shape of life on Earth forever?

It is widely agreed that such an object — 10 kilometers across — struck just off the coast of the Yucatan peninsula 65 million years ago.

According to scientists who maintain that dinosaur extinction came quickly, the impact must have spelled the cataclysmic end.

For months, scientists conclude, dense clouds of dust blocked the sun’s rays, darkening and chilling Earth to deadly levels for most plants and, in turn, many animals. Then, when the dust finally settled, greenhouse gases created by the impact caused temperatures to skyrocket above pre-impact levels.

In just a few years, according to this hypothesis, these frigid and sweltering climatic extremes caused the extinction of not just the dinosaurs, but of up to 70 percent of all plants and animals living at the time.

Nature simply doesn’t give a damn. Never did, never will. And I see little reason to think that it will be any different for Homo sapiens.

Of course, this isn’t an excuse to sit back and continue on in the current direction; it’s merely a reminder that whatever we end up doing, Mother Nature won’t be paying attention; she will be, as always, too busy creating and destroying.

The White Race: The Immortal Blemish of Human History?

By Jin-yeong Yi

In 1967, the late Susan Sontag wrote:

“Mozart, Pascal, Boolean algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Balanchine ballets, et al. don’t redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world. The white race is the cancer of human history.”

She later changed her mind about the last sentence, stating that it was an insult to cancer patients.

I’m not sure if she wasn’t just trolling, but seriously? Seriously? C’mon Ms. Sontag… You did mention some of their more recent contributions, but don’t you think you’re still selling them a bit short?

White art?

Raphael - The School of AthensVincent van Gogh - The Starry Night

White architecture?

ParthenonColosseum

White literature?

BeowulfChaucer as a pilgrim

White mathematics?

Desargues' theoremDifferential calculusIntegral calculus

White philosophy?

SocratesPlatoAristotleDemocritus

White science?

Leonardo da Vinci - Vitruvian ManCharles Darwin - The Descent of ManThomas Edison's original carbon-filament bulb

White religion?

AthenaHeinrich Fueger - Prometheus Brings Fire to MankindApollo

White classical music?

Johann Sebastian BachLudwig van BeethovenJohannes Brahms

White heavy metal?

Really, where exactly would humankind be without the “white race?”

Dreams of an Endless Summer Day

By Jin-yeong Yi

“That Man is the product of causes that had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”

—Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship”

“[T]he human race will disappear. Other races will appear and disappear in turn. The sky will become icy and void, pierced by the feeble light of half-dead stars. Which will also disappear. Everything will disappear. And what human beings do is just as free of sense as the free motion of elementary particles. Good, evil, morality, feelings? Pure ‘Victorian fictions’. Only egotism exists.”

—H. P. Lovecraft

“Death is the law of the universe. In the days when Plato worked out the first rational arguments for immortality, as distinct from mere religious tradition, the claim was not so exorbitant. The stars themselves, the Greeks thought, were immortal. They were small, undying fires set in the firmament. Plants and animals died, of course, but these stars made men familiar with things which never died.

Now we know that the stars—not three thousand of them, as the Greeks thought, but two billion—are born and grow and die just like dogs, except that their life is immeasurably longer. There is a time when each is a shapeless cloud of stardust. There will be a time when the most brilliant star in the heavens will fade from the eyes of whatever mortals there may then be. They are made of the same material as our bodies: of gas and earth and metal. They fall under the great cosmic law that things which come together shall in the end go asunder—shall die.”

—Joseph McCabe, “The Myth of Immortality”

“We are masters of life and death, we rationalists. It has been a fine adventure, this half century of conscious existence, with all its labor and trouble and injustice. Huxley once sincerely replied to Kingsley, who sympathized with him on the death of a child, that they were proud and happy to have had the child just those few years with them. That is the spirit. An hour of sunlight is better than none. To have been born and lived and died is, for the man who knows how to live, a privilege and an opportunity that he might never had had. You have had the joy of seeing your children slowly rise through the phases of blossoming and ripening around you. You have known the fragrance of wine and flowers, the delights of art, the fascination of science, the joy of battle in a good cause…. How can any man have the effrontery to grumble that the feast is not eternal?”

—Joseph McCabe, “The Myth of Immortality”

“On the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it was thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

—The Bible, Genesis 3:19 (King James Version)

“The real trouble with this world of ours is not that it is an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one. The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite. Life is not an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians. It looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is; its exactitude is obvious, but its inexactitude is hidden; its wildness lies in wait.”

—G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

“But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.”

—The Bible, 2 Peter 3:8 (King James Version)

All of us were born terminally ill. Even before we came into existence, we were sentenced to death, and our sentence hangs over our heads every moment of our lives.

I don’t think I’m afraid of death. I think Mark Twain had a point when he said, “I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.” I’m comforted by the fact that, when my time comes, I will be in good company, that is, every single person who came before me.

And yet, as I watch the world crumbling around me in slow motion, I can’t help but feel a profound sense of regret at the thought that nothing, including all that I cherish and see as noble and beautiful, will endure. This feeling is especially strong when I look upon a person who embodies qualities I admire. “If only this sublime creature could live forever!” I sigh ruefully. And the feeling is hardly less strong when I look upon that glorious process of discovery, learning, and growth called life. Existence is painful, but grand. I lament the transience of these things even as I remind myself that when I die, I probably won’t be around to give a damn.

I’ll be frank. I hope that there is an eternal afterlife. To me the notion looks dubious at best and absurd at worst in the light of modern biology, cosmology, and neuroscience, but I am crossing my fingers and wishing upon my lucky stars that when I close my eyes for what is supposed to be the last time I will open them again to find that the book of my life has a sequel. Yes, even though it looks like the odds are stacked sky-high against me.

Some of my fellow skeptics question not only the existence of an eternal afterlife, but its desirability as well. They argue that eternal life would be boring, without shape or form, or without value. “Life is precious precisely because it’s finite,” they reason. It is difficult to argue with that. I can only say that the fact that I exist, that I have consciousness, that I have a pattern and process that I can call my own in the first place, is precious to me simply for being what it is because it might not have been.

As for eternal life being “boring,” well, I think that would depend on each individual, as such adjectives describe our subjective experiences of things rather than the things themselves. And why would eternity have to be boring? Because it’s too long? What if the nature of time in the afterlife is completely different from what we have here? What if the afterlife is a state in which we forget about time entirely?

Of course, while I’m alive, I cannot go beyond mere speculation. The answer will come only when I die, if it ever does. For all I know, that may take many years to happen. But for the time being, allow me to indulge in some fantasy:

It may be that the present world is a lot like a vast, gigantic train station, and that the present life is essentially nothing more than a period during which we humans wait for our trains to arrive at the platform. Generally, each of us gets his or her own private train, because it is rare for people to depart this world at the exact same time. But depart we will. It is only a matter of when. Some people depart after dozens of moons. Others depart before they even get a chance to see what the train station looks like. Either way, everyone is on their way out.

This waiting period is, in the grand context of things, trivially brief, but for many of us humans it is still long enough to build civilizations, wage wars, open businesses, pursue careers, accumulate learning, create works of art, nurture romances, raise families, cultivate friendships, and fret about matters big and small. In the end, however, all of this is simply our way of occupying ourselves while we wait for our respective trains, which will take each of us to someplace better. It wouldn’t do to become too attached to a place that we are supposed to eventually leave anyway. All of our troubles in this train station, no matter how overwhelming, are transient, and will have no lasting ramifications. No matter what happens to us, we won’t miss our train. Viewing things in this light, we can set aside at least some of our fear and our bitterness and think of this brief period as a chance to learn and prepare for the great journey ahead.

Believing that something is true without evidence may be irrational, but hoping that it is true, no matter how improbable it is, is not. And, for my dream of an endless summer day of discovery, freedom, wonder, and joy; I have as much hope as I have doubt.