Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Why you should watch Star Trek: a letter to my Wife.

Although I am a second generation Star Trek fan (i.e. I grew up watching Star Trek: TNG), I enjoyed the original Star Trek and even most of the later spinoffs. I am also an avid movie fan, and as such could talk for hours about the different themes presented in the many Star Trek movies, both original and TNG.

But the creation of the new Star Trek universe by J.J. Abrams presents a problem for me. Is it a gateway by which new fans will be introduced to the Star Trek I love or is it just an action movie to be enjoyed and forgotten? It is both a celebration of the old and a creation of something new to enjoy and a well balanced combination. But part of me fears that the enjoyment of the new characters and CGI action will distract some from realizing why the old Star Trek is worth celebrating.

After seeing the new Star Trek with my friends I was disturbed to discover they had not seen The Wrath of Kahn. How could you understand the Kobyashi Maru, or the welling of tears you should feel upon hearing the line "You are and always shall be my friend."? How could you really know how well Chris pine grew into the character by the end of the movie if you don't truly know the real James Tiberius Kirk?
How can you truly understand the difference in theory between Kirk's and Spock's solutions to the unwinnable scenario if you hadn't seen Kahn?

I might sound like just another geek to you or the type of person who thinks you have to overanalyze something to enjoy it. But if that's the case then you probably don't understand why Star Trek is so important. Let's see if I can explain:

Great storytelling is measured by personal realization, by what you learn about yourself when watching, reading or hearing the story (not by what you learn about the characters or the storyteller). The stories that describe the dark side of humanity (Heart of Darkness, Lord of the Flies) make us contemplate our own primal urges. The stories that describe the great things we can accomplish even in the face of great obstacles (The Lord of the Rings, The Stand) make us aspire to be better.

Star Trek does both. It envisions a world where we've advanced well beyond war and famine on our home planet, to the point where we can concentrate great effort on exploring the unknown instead of fighting amongst ouselves. At the same time it describes the stories of individuals who face their own obstacles and in the best episodes face their own demons.

Star Trek is hope for a greater tomorrow and recognition that life will always be a personal battle between good and evil. It embraces the amazing potential for discovery of the natural world, the scientific world, and ourselves.

And great storytelling is universal. Even if you don't dream of exploring the stars, you can appreciate the exploration of what it means to be human embodied in the struggles of Data, or the dangers of how much technology should be integrated into our lives as embodied by the fight against the Borg. Of course these are regurgitations of the themes in the stories of Pinocchio and Brave New World. But show me where on TV today you can find these themes explored in the same depth and by actors half as good as Patrick Stewart.

That is why I love Star Trek. It appeals to the philosopher and the scientist. It challenges me to be a better person and to think better of the people around me. Best of all, it reminds me of being a child, and a time when I tried harder to set goals as high as the stars. Those are the types of feelings and dreams that are meant to be shared with your loved ones and that is why you should watch Star Trek with me.

Fishing for Religion: a Skeptic's Journey

Jews, Christians and Muslims all believe in one God. A supreme being that created our world.

Atheists believe that there is no such God or Creator.

And the popular description of Agnostics is that they don't care.

So what do you call a person who refuses to define beliefs based on insufficient evidence but who cares a lot about the questions of creation and faith?

I am not a Protestant, despite my baptism, because I don't believe that a God exists who consciously planned and created the Universe, created people for a purpose, and then bore a human son who was later killed and resurrected. I do believe that many of the teachings of the Protestant and Christian faith are laudable, but I don't think they're the teachings of a divine offspring. In fact I believe this possibility to be unlikely given the lack of evidence to support such an elaborate theory. This means that I am not a Protestant even if I was raised to be one.

In fact I think it is just as unlikely as the theory that there is no God, or purposeful Creator. Although I can't believe in a benevolent being that cares about me personally without evidence I also can't preclude that being's existence without evidence.

The tendency of the universe towards chaos (what newton's second law describes as entropy) is somehow counteracted by all observation in the organization of galaxies, solar systems, planets, and most of all life. My own observations lead me to believe that there must be some force as of yet undiscovered or undefined that counteracts chaos and creates purpose in the world, or at the very least organization. This means that despite that phase in high school I am not an atheist.

Unfortunately, I haven't heard or thought of a theory yet that explains this missing link, the counter-force to chaos, and that stands up to a healthy questioning.

We should also take a closer look at the definition of Agnostic, as well:

1. a person who holds that the existence of the ultimate cause, as God, and the essential nature of things are unknown and unknowable, or that human knowledge is limited to experience.

2. a person who denies or doubts the possibility of ultimate knowledge in some area of study.

Although it doesn't describe someone who doesn't care, both definitions are left lacking in hope. I cannot be an agnostic because, despite the fact that I am skeptical, I do have hope that the truth is knowable. I have hope that despite a belief that human knowledge is limited to experience, our powers of observation are ever increasing and expanding and that the constant reaching for the next horizon continually provides us with a little more of the puzzle.

My spiritual journey, therefore, is one of hopeful skepticism, a journey described in great detail in the works of Carl Sagan. Although many would have called him an atheist I think it more accurate to simply call him a skeptic; a man unafraid to play devil's advocate to the theories of believers, no matter the belief, and apply skeptical scrutiny to the process by which they reach their beliefs.

Although skeptic isn't a pretty label it applies better than the alternatives. I could call myself a Saganist but I'm not sure he would approve.

Regardless of what label or names I am called I am determined to keep caring about what it means to believe in something greater than oneself and to keep searching for an organism or organization worth believing in.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Does Technology Make Our Lives Better?

The Geek Answer: Come on! Of course it does.

The Philosopher Answer: Define "Better", and "Technology", and "Make."... Just kidding.

The reality is that technology makes your life better even if you don't realize the many ways that it does. Even if you're the type of person who believes that focusing on the simple things in life are what make your life better, then consider the following:

Do you enjoy sunsets or sunrises? Well, now you'll get to enjoy more of them. The average life expectancy in 1901 was 49 and by 2000 it was 77. This is due mostly to technology that allowed us to have cleaner (disease free) drinking water, better medicine and safer transportation. That's 10,277 more sunsets.

Do you think food should be simpler and "organic"? Well, you can thank modern transportation for giving you the options. Although food was simplest when raised in your own background on your family farm, the choice was greatly limited and a lack of refrigeration technology meant that for food to last it had to be smoked, pickled or otherwise prepared (most of which have their own health consequences). Transportation and refrigeration technology have given us the ability to choose food options that we wouldn't otherwise have access to.

Not convinced? Still think things used to be better before?

Nostalgia often makes us think of the past through rose-colored glasses. For instance, how many times have you heard people say how their old cars were like "tanks", much stronger than today's "plastic" cars?

Check out this video showing how well the technology of 50 years ago stands up to today's version:

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Top Ten Commandments?

What happened to The Ten Commandments?

Although there are a few versions (depending on how you number them) the basics stay the same. At the Catholic High School I attended we were taught the following ten commandments:

1. You shall not worship any other gods or make yourself a false idol.
2. You shall not use god's name in vain.
3. You shall remember the sabbath and keep it holy.
4. You shall honor your mother and father.
5. You shall not kill.
6. You shall not commit adultery.
7. You shall not steal.
8. You shall not bear false witness.
9. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife.
10. You shall not covet your neighbor's possessions.

There is nothing simpler in the complicated world of religion than the ten commandments. There is no ambiguity (or at least very little) and the list is short enough to remember. It was certainly easier to understand religion when I was a child and I was told these are the ten things you need to know.

I was reminded of these commandments recently because of the overwhelming news coverage of Tiger Woods breaking #6. While the details are sensational and titillating, the news coverage is warranted more by the interest of the general population seeing a star fall from grace, than from any widespread moral outrage. In fact, the newscasters have reminded us multiple times that except for a minor traffic infraction, Mr. Woods has not done anything illegal by cheating on his wife.

Now, I'm not inclined to get on my high horse and preach about his moral wrongs. But I am struck by the odd contrast in our society between the attention warranted by simple personal "moral wrongs" and perceived political "wrongs." Except for the fact that Tiger Woods is rich and famous his adultery would not be news, not even the fact that it was with multiple women. Not that I want the news to cover every adulterer's infidelity, but where is the outrage in our society for the simple sins.

I've seen more news stories than I can count about the obesity of Americans, despite the lack of any commandment about overeating. But I've never seen a news story about how many Americans steal or commit adultery.

Indeed, it is only a matter of time before the news turns back to the debates over whether or not we should have nationalized health care, whether global warming is preventable, or whether the government should legalize gay marriage.

Now, again, I'm not inclined to get on my high horse and argue that everyone should live by the Ten Commandments all the time, but they're certainly a great standard and a simple standard to aspire to. In the spirit of the story that "he without sin should throw the first stone", perhaps we should spend more time in our society worrying about the simple basics of our beliefs (or our religion) before we start preaching to others on more complicated issues.

Put another way: You shall not curse the evils of national health care, oil use, and gay marriage while at the same time failing to clothe the poor or feed the hungry, or aid the sick, or while failing to guard against your own covetous nature.

While I'm not saying these other issues don't merit debate, I am suggesting that we should all start by prioritizing our lives. If you still have time to spend protesting gay marriage or global warming then you obviously have the rest of your life in much better order than I do.

What's my point? Save your outrage for the outrageous, or it loses all meaning.