Sunday, April 18, 2010

Responsible Religion

Thomas Merton.  New Seeds of Contemplation.  2nd edition (originally published in 1961).  New York: Abbey of Gethsemane, 2007. ISBN 081120099X.

(8) What is the purpose of religion?  In my experience, religion is a tool that individuals and communities use to tame human appetites.  Merton addresses this aspect of religion:
It should be accepted as a most elementary human and moral truth that no man can live a fully sane and decent life unless he is able to say 'no' on occasion to his natural bodily appetites.  No man who simply eats and drinks whenever he feels like eating and drinking, who smokes whenever he feels the urge to light a cigarette, who gratifies his curiosity and sensuality whenever they are stimulated, can consider himself a free person [an individual with integrity].  He has renounced his spiritual freedom and become the servant of bodily impulse.  Therefore his mind and his will are not fully his own.  They are under the power of his appetites.  And through the medium of his appetites, they are under the control of those who gratify his appetites.  Just because he can buy one brand of whiskey rather than another, this man deludes himself that he is making a choice; but the fact is that he is a devout servant of a tyrannical ritual.  He must reverently buy the bottle, take it home, unwrap it, pour it out for his friends, watch TV, 'feel good,' talk his silly uninhibited head off, get angry, shout, fight, and go to bed in disgust with himself and the world.  This becomes a kind of religious compulsion without which he cannot convince himself that he is really alive, really 'fulfilling his personality.'  He is not 'sinning' but simply makes an ass of himself, deluding himself that he is real when his compulsions have reduced him to a shadow of a genuine person.  In general, it can be said that no contemplative life is possible without ascetic self-discipline.  One must learn to survive without the habit-forming luxuries which get such a hold on men today (85-86).  
Religion aims to create an interface through which the community warns the individual about the dangers of going wherever his unguided fancy may take him (or her).  When it succeeds, it provides healthy (or at least innocuous) alternatives to the insane rituals we create spontaneously for ourselves.  When it fails, it magnifies the bad effects of ridiculous ritualism (which is endemic in all human life), fostering mass delusion. 

(9)  As Merton says elsewhere:
Where men live huddled together without true communication, there seems to be greater sharing, and a more genuine communion.  But this is not communion, only immersion in the general meaninglessness of countless slogans and cliches repeated over and over again so that in the end one listens without hearing and responds without thinking.  The constant din of empty words and machine noises, the endless booming of loudspeakers end by making true communication and true communion almost impossible.  Each individual in the mass is insulated by thick layers of insensibility.  He doesn't care, he doesn't hear, he doesn't think.  He does not act, he is pushed.  He does not talk, he produces conventional noises.  He does not think, he secretes cliches...Here the sin is not in the conviction that one is not like other men, but in the belief that being like them is sufficient to cover every other sin.  The complacency of the individual who admires his own excellence is bad enough, but it is more respectable than the complacency of the man who has no self-esteem because he has not even a superficial self which he can esteem.  He is not a person, not an individual, only an atom.  This atomized existence is sometimes praised as humility or self-sacrifice, sometimes it is called obedience, sometimes it is devotion to the dialectic of class war.  It produces a kind of peace which is not peace, but only an escape from an immediately urgent sense of conflict.  It is the peace not of love but of anesthesia.  It is the peace not of self-realization and self-dedication, but of flight into irresponsibility (55-56).
As with the individual, so with the crowd: nothing really good comes from just going through the motions.  Maybe the rain came because our ancestors danced this way and not that way--maybe our ancestors avoided moral problems by living this way and not that way--but how are we to sort the really useful kernel of the ritual from the (infinitely more abundant) cultural chaff?  How do we know that ethical behavior is guaranteed by chanting certain mantras (and not others), reading certain books (and not others), marrying certain people (and not others), obeying certain people (and not others), et cetera ad infinitum?  Until we think critically about how our religious behavior affects communal and individual moral integrity from an objective perspective (one that we can understand and apply as individuals, without outsourcing the thinking to someone else), our worship is no more rational or effective than that of a cargo cult.  Religion, to be useful, must be thoughtful, self-critical, and tailored to the foster the unstructured development of the responsible individual.

(10) All the foregoing militates strongly against the idea that there is something useful to be gained from theorizing about absolute truth from an imagined universal perspective.  If there is such truth, the process of human development effaces it so effectively that it might as well not exist, covering it up with crazy rituals that have little or no connection to it (and may impede responsible ethical conduct as much as they foster it).  Practical religion is always a question of balancing imponderables, making decisions without full understanding:
A man who is not stripped and poor and naked within his own soul will unconsciously tend to do the works he has to do for his own sake rather than for the glory of God.  He will be virtuous not because he loves God's will but because he wants to admire his own virtues [which he may or may not be in a position to judge]...Be content that you are not yet a saint, even though you realize that the only thing worth living for is sanctity.  Then you will be satisfied to let God lead you to sanctity by paths that you cannot understand.  You will travel in darkness and you will not longer be concerned with yourself and no longer compare yourself with other men.  Those who have gone by that way have finally found out that sanctity is in everything and that God is all around them.  Having given up all desire to compete with other men [in the mission field, at the university, before the congregation, on Wall Street] they suddenly wake up and find that the joy of God is everywhere, and they are able to exult in the virtues and goodness of others more than ever they could have done in their own.  They are so dazzled by the reflection of God in the souls of the men they live with that they no longer have any power to condemn anything they see in another.  Even in the greatest sinners they can see virtues and goodness that no one else can find.  As for themselves, if they still consider themselves, they no longer dare to compare themselves with others.  The idea has now become unthinkable.  But it is no longer a source of suffering and lamentation: they have finally reached the point where they can take their own insignificance for granted.  They are no longer interested in their external selves (58-60).
So the truly holy man (or woman) is not encumbered by some specious "mantle of leadership" that obliges him (or her) to tell lies or condemn others harshly for their ethical mistakes (whatever standard we use to determine these).  This to me is the essence of Christianity, the point that Christ is getting at when he tells the religious leaders of his own time (who were deeply committed to their own importance as the only legitimate representatives of God): "Verily I say unto you, That the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you" (Matt. 21:31).  I understand Christ to mean that the point of religion is not maintaining some outward form of piety (the kind that has to be justified by lies and threats because it cannot withstand rational inquiry), but fostering an inner integrity (something that all are equally capable of achieving, and that each must find for him or herself).  It is my belief that this integrity flourishes best in the complete absence of tyrannical moral authority.  So I am open to free and frank discussion with my fellow-travelers on the road to enlightenment (or salvation, or whatever), but when they tell me I must submit to their superior light and knowledge or be damned, I respectfully refuse to cede to them the character that I construct only for God (or whatever we happen to call the mystery of life that lies in and around us).  Responsible religion depends upon thoughtful dialogue, which can only exist when both parties to the conversation have equal authority to construct their own beliefs (including access to the information from which those beliefs are constructed).  The fact that leaders of the LDS church have been willing to ignore this fact (as I perceive it) for the past 200 years is very disturbing to me.  From my perspective, they are either (1) evil masterminds who take delight in bilking their gullible fellowman, or--what is more likely from the facts--(2) poor saps like the rest of us who happen to have inherited a broken (or malformed) cultural paradigm that they perpetuate for lack of anything better.  But enough ranting for the present: I do not want to make too great a show of my own unholy urge to condemn others.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Religious Integrity and the Church

Thomas Merton.  New Seeds of Contemplation.  2nd edition (originally published in 1961).  New York: Abbey of Gethsemane, 2007. ISBN 081120099X.

(4) The theme of individual freedom and integrity is one that Merton comes back to repeatedly.  Here is one passage that really struck me: 
We are free beings and sons of God.  This means to say that we should not passively exist, but actively participate in His creative freedom, in our own lives, and in the lives of others, by choosing the truth.  To put it better, we are even called to share with God the work of creating the truth of our identity.  We can evade this responsibility by playing with masks, and this pleases us because it can appear at times to be a free and creative way of living.  It is quite easy, it seems to please everyone.  But in the long run the cost and the sorrow come very high.  To work out our own identity with God, which the Bible calls 'working out our salvation,' is a labor that requires sacrifice and anguish, risk and many tears.  It demands close attention to reality at every moment, and great fidelity to God as He reveals Himself, in the mystery of each new situation.  We do not know clearly beforehand what the result of this work will be...The seeds that are planted in my liberty at every moment, by God's will, are the seeds of my own identity, my own reality, my own happiness, my own sanctity.  To refuse them is to refuse everything; it is the refusal of my own existence and being: of my identity, of my very self (32-33).
I have spent a fair amount of time "playing with masks" as a closet doubter in the LDS church.  I went through the motions of orthodox belief, even as my view of reality made it impossible for me to believe honestly.  I felt isolated and alienated at church, where I could not share my problems with anyone for fear of arousing anger, frustration, and increased alienation (not to mention the possibility that others might take my revelation as a catalyst to radically destabilize their own lives: I did not want to bring anyone's life crashing down by revealing that much of what is taught at church is patently "untrue").  But I needed to express my spirituality positively.  I needed a place where I could share my thoughts and feelings freely, knowing that others would respond affirmatively and constructively (instead of telling me to shut up and get back in line, reading scriptures and attending endless meetings where we are spoon fed pat answers).  I felt my spirit dying at church (from lack of positive nurture), and so I ended up fleeing to other places in search of spiritual refreshment.  It felt so good to take off the mask and be honest for a change (proving that I can still believe in the concept of a resurrection after all, even if I mean something different by it than the old bodily resuscitation).

(5) Another telling passage speaks about the pointless meeting (reminding me of my mission):
We have said that the solitude that is important to a contemplative is, above all, an interior and spiritual thing.  We have admitted that it is possible to live in deep and peaceful interior solitude even in the midst of the world and its confusion.  But this truth is sometimes abused in religion.  There are men dedicated to God whose lives are full of restlessness and who have no real desire to be alone.  They admit that exterior solitude is good, in theory, but they insist that it is far better to preserve interior solitude while living in the midst of others.  In practice, their lives are devoured by activities and strangled by attachments.  Interior solitude is impossible for them.  They fear it.  They do everything they can to escape it.  What is worse, they try to draw everyone into activities as senseless and devouring as their own.  They are great promoters of useless work.  They love to organize meetings and banquets and conferences and lectures.  They print circulars, write letters, talk for hours on the telephone in order that they may gather a hundred people together in a large room where they will all fill the air with smoke and make a great deal of noise and roar at one another and clap their hands and stagger home at last patting one another on the back with the assurance that they have all done great things to spread the Kingdom of God (83).
Reading these words, I am taken back to zone conference (where sugar replaced the smoke: the mission is a great place to pick up "clean" vices).  I am also reminded of other experiences (such as the first priesthood session of General Conference that I attended without my wife) where I found myself asking, "Why do we need to have this meeting?  What are we accomplishing?" and being dissatisfied with the answer.  The church is certainly not the only organization that persists through pointless meetings (as the faculty at my university will attest), and not all meetings can be avoided, as long as I am trying to be a part of society in any useful capacity.  Nevertheless, reading Merton confirmed me in my desire to avoid a useless meeting whenever possible, and made me even more skeptical of the alleged benefits of such meetings (increased "spirituality" at church; magic improvements in "efficient educational delivery" at college: too often it all boils down to a lot of hot air whose import is at best insubstantial, at worst an impediment to real learning and growth).

(6) The problem with meetings is not that they exist per se.  They have a disturbing tendency to substitute relatively ineffectual learning methods (in the form of passive listening and empty rhetorical posturing) for effective ones (practicing empathy with another person, undefended by artificial codes of conduct that narrowly prescribe action: it is easy to be "charitable" when this involves nothing more than sitting quietly or uttering platitudes at a podium; if we want to strengthen our charity, however, we should seek out situations that test it a little more).  So the church (whether LDS or Catholic) becomes something of a paradox:
Human traditions all tend toward stagnation and decay.  They try to perpetuate things that cannot be perpetuated [e.g. naive myths about the nature of reality].  They cling to objects and values which time destroys without mercy [e.g. human infallibility, institutionalized celibacy, polygamy, racist and sexist doctrines of supremacy].  They are bound up with a contingent and material order of things--customs, fashions, styles, and attitudes--which inevitably change and give way to something else.  The presence of a strong element of human conservatism in the Church should not obscure the fact that Christian tradition [which for me includes Mormonism], supernatural in its source, is something absolutely opposed to human traditionalism (142).
So the Church (as Merton calls it), in order to avoid becoming just another human organization, must foster life of a kind that does not occur elsewhere--a life that takes what is good from the tradition of the past and adapts it in revolutionary fashion to the challenges of the present.  It must be open to losing some things its members like, and embracing some things they hate. 

(7) Ideally, the Church provides social space in which the individual saint can build his own integrity and simultaneously improve that of his neighbor:
Very few men are sanctified in isolation.  Very few become perfect in absolute solitude.  Living with other people and learning to lose ourselves in the understanding of their weakness and deficiencies can help us to become true contemplatives...Even the courageous acceptance of interior trials in utter solitude cannot altogether compensate for the work of purification accomplished in us by patience and humility in loving other men and sympathizing with their most unreasonable needs and demands (191).
How can I achieve this ideal of iron sharpening iron when I cannot even speak my concerns about righteousness without being removed from the community as an apostate?  How can dialogue exist when one side of the conversation has no voice?  The moment I express doubt in anything spoken from the pulpit by an imposing man in a business suit, the community (including some close friends) assumes I have no integrity and tells me to repent or go away.  Contrary to what I have heard others say, I have no desire to impose my beliefs (or the lack thereof) on the imposing man in the suit or those who elect to hang on every word he utters.  I am perfectly willing to put up with the nonsense of others.  Why can they not put up with mine?  Does Christ make us all brothers and sisters of equal worth to the community, or does he just give some of us a convenient excuse to lord it over the rest of us?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Sacred Mystery

Thomas Merton.  New Seeds of Contemplation.  2nd edition (originally published in 1961).  New York: Abbey of Gethsemane, 2007. ISBN 081120099X.

This book was a real treat to read, providing the kind of "spiritual nourishment" that I used to find in scripture before my Mormon worldview collapsed.  Taken as a whole, the book seems random and resistant to facile analysis; the author himself characterizes it as "a volume of more or less disconnected thoughts" (xix).  Nonetheless, I found it a very rich exploration of the unknown (and unknowable) God I had met before in the work of Thomas Merton.  Rather than attempt to cover the whole thing in this brief review, I will quote a few passages that speak to me and summarize why I think they are important.

(1) The following is one of the best attempts I know of to express what I mean (and have always meant) when talking about "spiritual experiences":
Contemplation is the highest expression of man's intellectual and spiritual life.  It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive.  It is spiritual wonder.  It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being.  It is gratitude for life, for awareness, and for being.  It is a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent and infinitely abundant Source.  It knows the Source, obscurely, inexplicably, but with a certitude that goes beyond reason and beyond simple faith...It is a more profound depth of faith, a knowledge too deep to be grasped in images, in words or even in clear concepts.  It can be suggested by words, by symbols, but in the very moment of trying to indicate what it knows the contemplative mind takes back what it has said, and denies what it has affirmed.  For in contemplation we know by "unknowing."  Or, better, we know beyond all knowing or "unknowing" (1-2).
This kind of "obscure knowledge" (which is really an awareness more than any kind of certainty) is still available to me, and I continue to cultivate it as I can.  Unfortunately, I am increasingly uncomfortable speaking about it openly in the LDS church, which seems afraid of it (and reacts to it officially with anger, condemnation, or lack of understanding).  The only rhetoric of belief welcome at fast and testimony meetings is a kind of absolute certainty which I have outgrown (inasmuch as it is founded on experiences I have not had as reported by people I can no longer find any compelling reason to trust).

(2) Elsewhere, Merton captures how the kind of obscure knowledge he embraces presupposes and demands skepticism and openness to reform:
Let no one hope to find in contemplation an escape from conflict, from anguish or from doubt.  On the contrary, the deep, inexpressible certitude of the contemplative experience awakens a tragic anguish and opens many questions in the depths of the heart like wounds that cannot stop bleeding.  For every gain in certitude there is a corresponding growth of superficial "doubt."  This doubt is by no means opposed to genuine faith, but it mercilessly examines and questions the spurious "faith" of everyday life, the human faith which is nothing but the passive acceptance of conventional opinion.  This false "faith" which is what we often live by and which we even come to confuse with our "religion" is subjected to inexorable questioning.  This torment is a kind of trial by fire in which we are compelled, by the very light of invisible truth which has reached us in the dark ray of contemplation, to examine, to doubt and finally to reject all the prejudices and conventions that we have hitherto accepted as if they were dogmas...What a holocaust takes place in this steady burning to ashes of old worn-out words, cliches, slogans, rationalizations!  The worst of it is that even apparently holy conceptions are consumed along with all the rest.  It is a terrible breaking and burning of idols, a purification of the sanctuary, so that no graven thing may occupy the place that God has commanded to left empty: the center, the existential altar which simply "is" (12-13). 
This captures exactly how I have felt over the last few years, as my "obscure knowledge" of God has eroded and destroyed my testimony of the restored gospel (as taught by the LDS church).  My desire has consistently been to eradicate my prejudice, to break my passion, and to exist at last as a freer man.  Under pretense of helping me fulfill this desire, the church has taken hold of my passion and prejudice and tried to make them permanent instruments with which to control me in life (and perhaps beyond): they want to establish themselves (and their image of God) on that altar where I am determined (with Merton) to put nothing.

(3) Why nothing?  Again, Merton has a thought-provoking answer:
In the end the contemplative suffers the anguish of realizing that he no longer knows what God is.  He may or may not mercifully realize that, after all, this is a great gain, because "God is not a what," not a "thing."  That is precisely one of the essential characteristics of the contemplative experience.  It sees that there is no "what" that can be called God.  There is "no such thing" as God because God is neither a "what" nor a "thing" but a pure "Who."  He is the "Thou" before whom our inmost "I" springs into awareness.  He is the I Am before whom with our own most personal and inalienable voice we echo "I am" (13).
So "god" is a term we use to mark reality as a whole: it is necessarily larger than any description anyone tries to make of it.  To define something that is by definition indefinite is to lose touch with the reality after which one is reaching.  Instead of leading to knowledge of God (who is infinite), such misguided efforts merely create an idol, a finite imitation that is now almost completely unconnected to the reality it affects to describe.  I think the LDS portrait of divinity, when conceived dogmatically, is such an idol.  It is wrong to say that the Mormon myth of the divine is demonstrably more "true" than the Catholic, or the Jewish, or the Islamic, or the Hindu, or the Buddhist, or the ancient Greek.  Instead of being "truer,"  it is just different, with a unique set of strengths and weaknesses.  Until this is acknowledged, it is impossible to really learn from other faith traditions: what can the man who knows everything (or at least, everything really important) learn?

Since I have more passages to put up and this post is already long, I will end here for the present, saving the rest for a future post or posts.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Society of Fools

Karl R. Popper.  The Open Society and Its Enemies.  2 vols.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1962.  ISBN 0691019681.

My first encounter with Karl Popper occurred in a college class dedicated to Greek political thought, where the teacher noted that "Popper's approach to Plato is just wrong."  I was intrigued (in addition to being a little contrarian), and so when Nassim Taleb mentioned Popper with approval, I was ready to dig into The Open Society.  I was not disappointed.

Popper and Taleb have the same problem with "experts" who pretend to possess absolute truth when in fact they have no idea what they are talking about.  But where Taleb (in the two books I already discussed briefly) focuses on this phenomenon as it appears in modern economics and philosophy, Popper spends a good deal of time stuck in antiquity, arguing against Plato (particularly the arguments presented in the Republic and the Laws).  Against Plato's arguments (1) that there are eternal forms of goodness (and other abstract virtues) whose perfection can be channeled by adept philosophers, and (2) that said philosophers should make decisions binding on the rest of society, Popper shows that theorizing the existence of such forms and trying to implement them forcibly leads to totalitarianism (creating what he calls "the closed society," a social group defined by the absolute submission of subordinates to leaders).  The ideal blueprints of this society appear in Plato as Kallipolis (Republic) and Magnesia (Laws), each of which is controlled by a select group of absolute rulers (philosopher-kings in Kallipolis; the nocturnal council in Magnesia).  Historical attempts to realize this ideal begin with a bunch of failed Greek tyrannies, and include the fascist and communist regimes of the last century (whose tactics and philosophies, particularly that of Hegel, Popper treats with disdain).

A major problem with the closed society arises from the fact that it is built on a lie ("the lordly lie" in Popper's translation of Plato's Greek on page 414b/c in the Republic), a mythology whose purpose is not to make the citizens more aware or more capable of dealing with their own problems, but to make them obedient slaves.  This lie perpetuates a viewpoint from which the absolute rulers of the closed society appear all-knowing and beneficent.  It emphasizes the weakness of the lower castes (who lack the "knowledge" necessary to make wise decisions about futurity) and the strength of the upper castes (who through their access to eternal forms are supposed to have an answer for everything).  Those who accept this lie live happily under the absolute rulers' administration, convinced that they have surrendered their ability to solve social problems to rulers more qualified than they are.  In Plato's dream world, this situation continues on unruffled ad infinitum.  In real life, it collapses when the society is hit by an unexpected catastrophe (Taleb's black swan), something the "experts" do not see (until after the fact) because they are only human after all, subject to the same biases and stupidities as the rest of us.

Where does that leave us?  Instead of Plato's closed society, Popper proposes another model, which he bases on the portrait of classical Athens that the Greek historian Thucydides puts in the mouth of the Athenian statesman Pericles (see History of the Peloponnesian War 2.35-46).  The society described by Pericles and Popper is "open" to new ideas: visions of truth that debunk or reconstruct what others have seen or see in the phenomena around them.  It is also "open" to new leadership: people do not have to suffer the same dumb leadership year after year.  They can pick a new (stupid) leader!  Instead of coming up with myths to justify sticking with the status quo until the black swan hits and we all go "boom!" the open society looks for propositions that can be falsified ("all swans are white;" "modern economic theory works"), and organizes itself to make use of these until they prove false.  Rather than explore knowledge, this society aims to expose ignorance (which it assumes to be endemic everywhere).

Personally, I prefer the open society to the closed.  As an idiot among idiots, I want the right to protest loudly when others are stupid and the right to be corrected when I am the dumb one.  No specious "mantle of leadership" should come between my stupid brain and cold hard facts out there in the real world.  No illusion of "absolute truth" (guaranteed to be non-falsifiable) should lull me into fake security while the outside world is preparing another black swan.  If at any moment any one of us is liable to torpedo the ship and destroy society, at least give all of us the choice of recognizing and publicizing other options!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

A World of Signs

Yuri M. Lotman.  Universe of the Mind: A Semiotic Theory of Culture.  Translated by Ann Shukman.  Introduced by Umberto Eco.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.  ISBN 025321405X.

Jakob von Uexkull.  "The Theory of Meaning."  Semiotica 42 (1982): 25-87.  ISSN 0037-1998.

During my last year of coursework in graduate school, I decided to take an accelerated course in Russian language.  In addition to providing an introduction to Russian language and culture, the course incorporated some general references to semiotic theory (named from the Greek word sema, meaning "sign"), which intrigued me greatly.  In answer to my inquiries, the instructor provided a wealth of material, including Lotman's book and a reprint of von Uexkull's work.  Both were a revelation to me, helping me to systematize and streamline my understanding of the world to a greater extent than I had imagined possible.

I grew up studying first one thing, then another.  When I was nine years old, I was determined to be a paleontologist, and eagerly devoured books by authors like Gregory S. Paul and Robert Bakker.  Then, a year or two later, I became enamored of history; eventually this led me all the way through Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  Meanwhile, I read the Standard Works of the LDS church, starting with the Book of Mormon and getting through the Doctrine and Covenants, Pearl of Great Price, and all of the King James Bible (several times).  As a university student, I wandered from religious studies into classics (Greek and Latin antiquity), where I eventually took an undergraduate degree and (in a fit of naivete) went to graduate school.  Until I encountered semiotics, I had no way of consciously (or convincingly) relating the individual fields of inquiry whose fruit I had tasted: each was something of an island unto itself, connected to the rest by artificial intellectual bridges that needed only a little introspection to dismantle.  The insularity of my "knowledge" of each field made me largely an abject pupil to "experts" whose "knowledge" was similarly insular, superior to mine only in that it was much more detailed.  Negotiating this early period in my intellectual development required a lot of faith in teachers, then, and a high tolerance for cognitive dissonance, since my teachers did not always agree where their relatively narrow fields converged.  Semiotics gave me the tools I needed to understand what unites all the various fields of human inquiry.

From Lotman, I learned that all human culture is composed of signs (or signals).  These take the form of images, gestures, words, numbers, texts, equations, and artifacts.  In some contexts, the information content of these signals is relatively fixed: written law and common usage converge to make the meaning of red "stop" signs on American roads pretty clear, and pretty similar to all cultured people.  In other contexts, however, the information content of signals is fundamentally unfixed.  When used by the Spanish band Estopa (to give one example), the red "stop" sign means much more than just "stop."  You could write volumes trying to explain its significance as a musical or political symbol without exhausting its capacity to generate new meaning every time you or someone else looks at it.  Systems of signs work like individual signs: the farther removed they get from very specific contexts, and the more information they attempt to convey, the more capacity to generate unexpected (and unpredictable) meaning they acquire.  So attempts to definitively fix the meaning of a complex literary text (like the US Constitution) inevitably fail.  This is because terms like "interstate commerce" are too unspecific to be read the same way by all readers.  So all human culture entails a necessary burden of ambiguity: the signs we use to communicate with one another inevitably say more or less than we mean, because we cannot control meaning.  It escapes us, no matter how much institutional power we may bring to bear upon it.  So it becomes impossible to conceive of an absolute truth accessible to the community in definite form.  If it can be thought, it cannot be spoken or shared in any medium.  Instead, we spend our time sharing signs whose information content varies infinitely over time as contexts come and go, evolving and and devolving with an ebb and flow that escapes our power to predict or control definitively.

Von Uexkull takes a semiotic approach to biology, interpreting all life as the interchange of signals (in the form of chemical and physical reactions embodying the transmission of information).  A very simple example of his approach is the tick.  Imagine a field full of bright flowers and tall grass on a warm summer's day: the sun shines, the wind blows, birds and bees flit to and fro.  But the tick perceives none of this.  Instead, it feels the presence of mammals approaching and receding in whiffs of butyric acid carried by the wind.  Eventually, one whiff approaches near enough to stimulate a move, and the tick's perception shifts to notice thick, mammalian hair under and around it.  Moving through the hair, the tick looks for a specific temperature unique to the skin-surface temperature of warm-blooded mammals.  When it finds this temperature, it inserts its snout and begins feeding.  Like the tick, all living organisms are bundles of sense-organs oriented towards stimuli in their unique environments; each conceives (and constructs) the world as its organs permit.  This new (and beautiful) way of looking at the universe left me with a great dilemma.  What becomes of absolute truth, even as an idea, when the tick has one view of life and I have another so radically different?  Why should my view be any more true (in any way) than the tick's?  Why is my viewpoint worth more than the tick's?  I can find no answer to these questions that does not come from myself, no answer that comes from some source of information independent of me and the tick.  Lotman made all men equal in my eyes as imperfect (the semiotic term is "asymmetrical") interpreters of signs; von Uexkull used a similar methodology to make all life equal.

One result of my encounter with Lotman and von Uexkull is that I have lost the ability to take seriously the idea that an anthropomorphic god might be the absolute ruler of earth.  In practice, the word "god" is a sign whose information content is completely unfixed: we use it to mark the unknown source of life that none of us is really, definitively sure about.  If we are going to mark that uncertainty with a constructed persona, should not our persona be large enough to encompass all life (not just the human)?  At issue here is our human orientation towards the world.  Do we want to see the world as a definite thing that we control (through the great man-in-the-sky who has set us up as lords of creation), or as an indefinite community in which we have a significant interest (not necessarily a controlling one, since we do not see all the factors incorporated into its existence)?  I tried for several years to live with the first perspective, but in my personal experience it has never mapped onto reality: god the man never appeared to me.  So I am thrust back on the latter, which is truer to my own experience and the science of semiotics: the word "god" marks a fundamentally indefinite mystery.  Attempts to curb or control its opacity are just as futile as your high-school English teacher's efforts to eradicate the split infinitive.