I grew up in a vaguely theist family. We never went to church, except occasionally to the churches of others. Growing up in New York, I was exposed heavily to Judaism and Catholicism. After moving to Sarasota, Florida around 11, I was exposed to some Protestant sects. Sometimes, when I was very young, I asked why we didn’t go to church, and my mother always said, “God is in your heart, not in a house.” Which I suppose is the kind of thing you tell a kid, but I still think it’s a dumb thing to say.
Now, a lot of people here know what my brain is like. For those who don’t, my brain is highly unusual. Some might say freaky. I can’t really tell, because it’s mine, and it seems perfectly ordinary to me. However, I can infer this from how people sometimes react. Sometimes I am incredibly wrong in exactly what I infer, but I’m as sure as I am of anything that some inference is valid.
After I moved to Florida (I had already hit puberty), I inferred some things from the way people, especially those of the female persuasion, treated me. Those things I inferred were hideously wrong, but I was not to begin to understand that until 15 years after graduation. In any event, they set up in me the conditions ripe for a conversion to highly moralistic Christianity, which is what happened. I fell, and I fell hard. This lasted me through High School and about half of college and a marriage based on something like desperation.
I was also attracted to that “plate of shrimp” stuff about how the Mayans invented television and all that crap. That, however, was not entirely my fault. It was the 1970s, and it was all the rage. In school, we were subjected to the Propellor Beanies of the Gods nonsense and had a field trip to see a woman who claimed to be able to communicate psychically with pets. In the words of Frank Zappa, Pheeeeuw!
What I think kept me from being destroyed altogether consisted of two things.
First of all, it is a peculiarity of my brain that with respect to everything of the mind, including intellectual pursuits, I am either completely clueless and incompetent or an expert. This has nothing to do with intelligence. Intelligence affects the rate at which someone can work through the process, and I’ve been extremely slow and retarded about a lot of things that almost everyone finds easy and accessible. It’s just that the whole range of the average seems excluded to me. I can bang my head on a problem, sometimes for decades, without making any apparent progress at all, and then it all just falls into place. Many people report this experience, but for me it is overwhelmingly dominant. This has caused extreme unhappiness in my life, not simply with respect to the way other people treat me, but to the way I have viewed myself. Employers and potential employers either fail to understand me completely or think I’m the best thing since sliced peanut butter. This has resulted in long periods of unemployment and desperate poverty punctuated by fantastic and fascinating jobs.
It does come in handy, however. I think it is one of the reasons for my long-standing love affair with mathematics, where every problem is either impossible or trivial.
Another is that, due to my technical background and scientific bent, I had a healthy distrust of authority. Richard Feynman writes about this. My first exposure to Feynman was when my father gave me a copy of Surely, You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman and wrote in the overleaf “This reminds me a lot of you.” He also once became angry with me when I said, “I’m just a kid, what to I know?” I was nine years old and was hooking up vacuum tubes to power supplies to see what they would do. He told me never, ever to think that. He was a jerk in many other ways (especially once I surpassed him in knowledge and intelligence), but this was good for me. Many years later, in something like despair, he told me that I was physically and intellectually superior to him. I therefore know why he tried to destroy me and once said “I should have worn a condom,” but it does not make it any easier.
So, when I read the Bible, I really read the Bible. When I came across Bible study groups, and they all tried to tell me this and that and nodded simultaneously, I had an annoying tendency to laugh. I did see the Bible as a complete and coherent hole, and I now have the terminology to describe that in one sentence: The God of the Bible has borderline personality disorder. I was like 15 at the time and pretty messed up in the head, so I actually empathized with the god-character.
Specific events that got me away from Christianity and theism are as follows. I saw Cosmos, and it hit me on the same emotional level that Christianity had, but for good this time. I was exposed to a peripatetic preacher by the name of Brother Jed with his wife Sister Cindy, and they seemed to me ridiculous. This was the heyday of televangelism, with Jim Bakker and cronies running rampant. Pat Robertson had a specifically anti-Cosmos episode, and I saw it as unutterably stupid.
The final straw related to the fact that I previously had some expectation of a creator God. I did not reject evolution (fortunately, I had a great teacher in High School who taught good classes and sometimes called them Sex and Gambling), but I was familiar with thermodynamics and information theory, and I thought that the rate of information increase to produce a human being was too large to be accounted for without at least occasional tweaking by a Creator. I had probably been influenced by 2001, the whole point of which is much the same, and I was able to find justifications in the Torah.
That annoying curiosity got the better of me. I had just learned about computational analysis, and I thought it was way cool. So I made some assumptions and modeled the process of evolution on a gross level by a field of non-deterministic Universal Turing Machines. This is similar to the way people, including myself, have tried to tackle the Continuum Hypothesis (where it fails is that the aleph-1 counting part of the proof manifestly overcounts numbers in C, and it turns out not to be possible to count the number of numbers it overcounts, if that makes sense or even if it doesn’t). However, as a broad approximation, it works just fine. What I found was that evolving something like a human in about that number of generations only requires a reasonable and even unimpressive change in information, easily within the range of random fluctuation.
So that was pretty much it. It wasn’t a happy time, as my marriage was falling apart, and I was to face a two-year period during which I thought that no woman would ever touch me again, but my brain was telling me something, and I could not ignore it.
Anyway, the theism went away. The next couple of decades involved a stint as a research scientist, the Skeptical Inquirer, Lake Hypatia, some groups who actually payed me to speak (!), a masterwork called SciAn, some limited fame, some bad experiences with women, some not-so-bad but still not-so-good experiences with women, a long-standing program to overcome my crippling shyness, watching an institute I loved self-disintegrate, retraining for a new career that didn’t work, a second marriage that didn’t work, the death of my father, friendship with almost everyone here who is a friend, breast cancer of my mother for whom I cared when I was unemployed, eventual moves for work, much more unemployment, pancreatitis and a cholycystectomy, a sort of snapping of my mind that eliminated my mood swings but made me numb for a couple of years, and so on and so forth. All of which brings us to about two and one-half years ago, when things really came together for me.
I know this will come as a surprise and shock to some of you, but I have changed my beliefs dramatically. In terms of all particulars, however, I haven’t changed a thing. I still don’t believe in a god or gods. I still have little patience with paranormal junk. I don’t believe in the supernatural, and I don’t even know what people mean by “spiritual,” though as a famous Rabbi once said, it seems to be something for the sexually frustrated.
What has happened is that I learned how to be happy. I stopped, inasmuch as I found it possible at the time, listening to what other people thought, though “listening” isn’t exactly the right word. I pay attention, but I don’t buy it, and I always see more important truths behind the statements. I started paying more and more attention to the entire universe and to what I feel in my bones.
Things have been happening which I can feel, to the point where I don’t even have time to recover from them. It’s getting so common it seems unlimited. I do not know what to call this, so I will call it “mojo.” I do not know what it is, or why it happens. Other people have tried. There’s the concept of synchronicity of Jung and Pauli. There is paranormal junk. There are, I think, all the religions of the world. I’m not going to believe in any of them, nor am I going to say more than what I am reasonably sure of. I’m a good little skeptic, and I am very sensitive to confirmation bias, the sheep/goat effect, and all those other things that make it difficult to understand the universe. As Newton said, I frame no hypotheses.
I am not going to try to communicate this. I don’t think I can, and I certainly don’t have much of an idea of how to go about it. There is no vocabulary for it even if I had a good understanding, which I do not.
I can, however, say what I think at the present time. I could always be wrong, and it is always subject to change.
I think it has a lot to do with sex, or rather the concept mythically described as Eros, a place where the distinction between sex, love, life, health, joy, beauty, and happiness becomes meaningless.
I think a lot of people get this stuff in flashes, and then they sober up or go home to their families and make up stupid religions so that they can go to sleep at night.
I think it has something to do with the fact that sex has been an essential component of the evolution of multicellular organisms, including us. It may be a sine qua non as it has the ability to couple conscious choice with evolution. It may not be the only way in the universe, but it is what we are.
What we are is, everything else put aside, the part of the universe that appreciates and enjoys the universe. Alone amongst all the life we know of, we can look back into the farthest reaches of time and space and to the fundaments of reality. We’re not completely there, and we may never get there, but the point is that we can go through the process. If there be others in the universe who can do the same thing, then they be in the same boat.
I think that the universe really is very different from what we mostly perceive by the classical means of organizing sensory information. When people learn how to juggle and ride a unicycle at the same time, they throw the balls in the direction of travel, expecting to catch up. It doesn’t work. This is a fairly trivial example of how our expectations are not particularly good at modeling reality. I don’t know what the right model is.
I think I’ve seen something like this happen to other people before, most recently and notably science fiction writers Greg Bear and Philip K. Dick. They seem always to become religious nutters or grind their gears without oil. I hope that I’m not that dumb, but I have no way of telling. It doesn’t seem to last more than a couple of months in other people. With me, it’s been going on at an exponentially increasing rate for more than two years.
Physically as well as metaphorically, the top is down, the Scissor Sisters are playing, and I’m burning the blood of the Earth. I don’t know where I’m going; eventually to my death, I suppose, but isn’t that always the case? In the mean time, perhaps I’ll see some new scenery. No fear, no need, no shame, no guilt, no worries. What else is there? Madness, perhaps? Been there; done that. Got the T-shirt, showed off my tits in it, left it to mildew on the front porch. Sometimes it rains or the engine overheats, and ozone and glycol tang wrinkle my nose. That’s part of it, too, and it’s all good.