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July 31 2009

'Not Very Christian Of Me': The Escapist Faith of a Lost Shepherd in Firefly. If you want to refresh your memory about Shepherd Book, it'd do no harm to read this academic paper (PDF reader required). For my money, it's the definitive look at Ron Glass' character.

More info about the paper and the conference where it was presented can be found here.

There's definitely a lot of good stuff there. But I always interpreted Book as being quite brave in his change of direction in life. After all, he persists (awkwardly to be sure, and also ineffectually to some degree) in his efforts to be a shepherd even though it's obvious he's not very confident. He's left what was comfortable and turned to a life of challenge.

In that same sense, his returning to the world to "walk it a spell" could be interpreted as a kind of backsliding, or it could be seen as an attempt by the man to reconcile both worlds in which he's lived. At the end of the pilot, we see Book dismayed at his attempt to reconcile what he thinks is right and wrong with the world as it exists. His realization that in the real world, rules are gray, not black and white.

That's what I've always assumed Book's character to be about. What happens with principle when it runs headlong into the real world. A contrast with Mal, who seems to have done the precise opposite: run from faith into lawlessness. They each have their own codes of conduct which cause an endless amount of conflict for them, both emotionally and relationally with the crew.

Ah, but I could go on forever...
As a (British) evangelical I always kinda struggled with Shepherd Book. Whenever his faith was brought up, it made me remember he was supposed to be some sort of evangelical type Christian, which made me think that Joss Whedon's hasn't go any good friends who are evangelical Christians, because he makes him a sympathetic character by making him less evangelical, not by making him an evangelical guy you quite like. Two things on that; one, it means that Shepherd Book isn't going to be easy to interpret as a character, because he's wired wrong, he couldn't really exist in real life. Two, if Joss wants any evangelical close friends, I'm up for the job.
I enjoyed that paper immensely, though I didn't always agree with it. I also disagree with Sparticus' assertion that Book couldn't exist in real life. I've actually known a couple of people that had what I perceive as his fragmented view of self, faith and the complex relationship between the two.
Oh you can fragment faith and self, and I see the point of his dichotomy me with Mal. Mal gives up religion and takes up lawlessness, Book gives up lawlessness and takes up religion, yet they both can't hold the two together, but I'm not sure if Book as a character actually looks like a person experiencing those tensions. Instead of being in turmoil or trying to badly reconcile them he just comes across a bit zen and Buddhist, his character would work much more sensibly if you made him into a Buddhist monk and removed the occasional lines to the bible (though you would miss "I've got heathens aplenty right here" which is my favourite and most quoted line of the thing). He doesn't watch like an evangelical or even fundamentalist Christian wrestling through living in the tension between his faith and the world.
That was a great read. I'm not sure I fully come down on the side of the conclusion. I've always felt the same way that ern put it - "What happens with principle when it runs headlong into the real world..." and I think Book was comfortable with that. He did seem to have a struggle with what he was or what he had done - maybe not fully having faith in the forgiveness of sin that comes with a conversion to Christianity - but that's one of the struggles - to me anyway- of the Christian life - moving on and not living in regret of the wrongs of your past. Bottom line though - I love these characters and I love reading well thought out opinions like this one!
Well,Sparticus, wouldn't that be because, as the article states, he's about having a belief to cling to rather than having a faith he lives through? Book isn't an evangelical in your sense, which is why he doesn't "watch" like one; he's a man in hiding. Whether Joss thinks he's a typical evangelical isn't clear at all from the series. We don't meet any others, so there's no way of comparing and contrasting.

ETA: Needless to say, but I will anyway, I think the article is pretty much spot-on.

[ edited by shambleau on 2009-07-31 16:45 ]

[ edited by shambleau on 2009-07-31 16:48 ]
I like the article. I also find it interesting that in most of the reactions from evangelical Christians, the assumption is that the faith will not change. That what being "Christian" is today, which is put forward as if there are not dozens of versions in our own time, will be the same hundreds of years from now. Yet if we look hundreds of years in the past, religious attitudes have changed. There are groups and sects who have waxed and waned, have begun and who have died out. The christian religion itself has gone through so many changes in customs, attitudes and beliefs and have splintered into so many groups who disagree to varying amounts that I find it hard to accept generalizations that such a person as Book could not exist. One thing I realized long ago, if it involves human behavior, it can probably happen.
Huh.

Well, I have more than a few problems with this paper. I don't find it to be "spot on." It reminds me of the first paper I ever wrote back in high school where I tried too hard to make my "evidence" fit my thesis.

One of my problems is that, the authors IMO, convey an imperfect understanding of what it means to have taken holy orders. Since this is one of the backbones of their "escapist interpretation," I think that's a pretty glaring problem.

1. There are monks who are cloistered (don't really leave the monastery) and there are friars who, although attached to a house, find their work in the world. That doesn't mean though that a friar won't take sabbaticals to retreat and replenish for periods of time at their mother house, however. Unless of course, you're an Anglican monk. Anglican monks tend to mix the two types of lives a little more thoroughly. I take exception to the idea that just because Book had been in the monastery for a bit that he was "running away." A cloistered monk would not be traveling the world in his religious garb, therefore I assume Book to be a friar who was not "running away" form an order either. Unless he was neither, had never taken holy orders, and was merely residing at the monastery for a time. Which they sometimes do.

2. All orders are not "preaching" orders. Which doesn't mean to say that if the opportunity were to present itself he might take advantage of it. That doesn't have to be the primary task of his order, assuming he has one. He calls himself "Shepard," an indication that he has been ordained as a priest. Which all monks and friars are not. Although they can be. "Preacher" is an address given to him by the others. I always figured that living in the outer planets, those would be the type of religious figures the crew would have been used to and they just called him that by default.

In other thoughts:

I don't have a problem seeing Book as a Christian, but I always thought he was rather "pan." If it was Joss's intention for him to be all fundamentalist-y... he failed miserably.

Except for that strange bit in the pilot where Book seemed upset and surprised by the world he was experiencing (which given his background seems highly unlikely), I pretty much found him to be a practical man, willing to see what was in front of him and just trying to interpret what he saw. The idea that a Shepard would be innocent and naive, is laughable in my experience. There is almost NO ONE who is as familiar with the vast variety of humanity's sins like a Religious, especially one who is not cloistered.

That is not to say that Book didn't have a hard time reconciling his various lives. Who doesn't? And his do seem to have more extreme differences than most. Although... to go from working for a top-down government structure to living under a religious rule isn't that big of a step. It's just a question of who you answer to and who determines your paradigm that changes.

One point the authors did bring up that I found interesting, was the idea that Joss deals with themes of redemption. Which when you think about it, is pretty odd for an avowed atheist. I'm not entirely convinced that they are correct, however. (Must go ponder.)

(Crap that got long. Ah well.)
I liked it. I like the basic take on Book's faith, and his inability to cope with the problems of the real world when it didn't stay consistent with his simpler worldview as dictated by the bible; and particularly the fact that he's unwilling to accept his own flaws, and runs from them. ("Not very Christian of me"--even in the end.) I like too the observation that Book is most confident when he is dispensing practical, military-style advice, and not when he is talking about the Bible, although I thought some of that just had to do with the fact that the advice there was more, shall we say, practical: the Bible gives an appropriate code of behaviour, but doesn't help locate where Niska took Mal.

I think it's true to a degree that the author tried a bit too hard to fit everything to his thesis; he somewhat skims over many of Book's genuine displays of bravery, and downplays the fact that gentle good humour actually can be a powerful religious weapon; I think that his threat of hellfire to Mal over Saffron was very well played, and any fan of Joss' work should know that just because something is a joke doesn't mean it's not serious. And the author neglects the fact that Book does genuinely care for his friends in religious ways; he prays for Tracey ("I don't know the boy's denomination, but..."), sits by Kaylee's bedside, shows concern about the people on the ship in "Bushwhacked," and so on. It's true that not all of these have to do with faith per se, and I agree, generally, that Book's ties with his faith are very ambiguous--but the author undersells him. And, for that matter, I feel that he undersells Ron Glass too: saying that Glass' suggesting that Book is a conscience for the ship is just his vaguely repeating something he's heard is a bit of a leap. It's not impossible, but there is evidence of Book acting in a moral way, and helping people out, so why assume that Glass wasn't capable of observing this himself?

I was also disappointed by a few spelling and grammar errors (e.g. "cannon" instead of "canon," "it's" instead of "its"--plus there's the misuse of the word "crescendo" to mean "climax," which I suppose everybody does). It sounds nitpicky but, especially in an academic paper, it takes me out of the reading.
I *do* have a problem with this talk of Book as a "fundamentalist." He's very clearly not one. Is he a serious Christian? Yes. But he doesn't have any of the real marks of a fundamentalist, in particular the kind of evangelical zeal that would not allow himself to be on the same ship as a Buddhist. From the moment Book decides to stay on the ship, he's very clearly *not* a fundamentalist. Book doesn't even try to convert his shipmates.

In that sense, Book is more like a traditional evangelical: tolerant to be sociable, but still sticking to his traditional moral beliefs. His attitude toward Inara, for instance, is pure evangelical: he doesn't approve, but he's not a moral scold about it because ... that would be rude.

So, yeah, Joss probably doesn't really know any fundamentalists. But I think I understand what Joss meant by the comment.

I think the bravery I'm talking about in Book's choice is the fact that he's even attempting to reconcile his life under two forms of law: the alliance and the bible. Both lives were, I'm sure, quite comfortable in their own ways. But his new life is obviously not easy, and he finds himself drawing on both of his past lives to make sense of it.

It's certainly true to a point that Book has been running from things, but I get the sense that by the time he's on Serenity, he's figured that out for himself.

Oh, and BreathesStory is quite right about Holy Orders. The paper didn't quite grasp the rather broad rules under which people take orders. Especially Anglican varieties, which is what I thought of as a default for Book, since he's obviously not Catholic, and yet wears a collar. I tend to think of him as a kind of Wesleyan, pre-break off from the Anglicans. A strict moralist, but still high-church to some degree. You know, circuit rider stuff, even. Old west, itinerant preachers armed with shotguns in the wilderness. That fits Book (and the Firefly universe) quite well. When I first saw Book, that's exactly what I imagined.

[ edited by ern on 2009-07-31 17:35 ]
I've written about this before, and in other contexts.

I've read before that Joss has described himself as an 'avowed atheist,' whom ironically and apparently paradoxically has attended schools with foundational religious charters, whose stories have a clear moralist' rather than ethicist' underpinning, and whose stories are well disguised religious parables.

Joss is not preaching to the choir, but rather is speaking to young people whom would otherwise avoid straight forward religious stories and teachings.

It reminds me of the great Spanish monarchist' Salvador Dali, whom upon the occasion of Pablo Picasso's death, said;

"Picasso was a Spaniard!" "So am I."

"Picasso was a GENIUS!" "So am I."

"Picasso was COMMUNIST!" "Nor am I."
I had thought that if the series had gone on we would have found out that Book came aboard Serenity to protect River, perhaps on his own or engaged by the a resistence movement that helped Simon free River. I mean, what's the coincidence factor of Simon and River boarding the same ship as Book, who has this "bad" secret past? (I was hoping for an episode or two featuring members of the resistence movement, too.) I thought that Book's being a shepherd was at least in part a cover.

These authors' thoughts are most interesting. Especially about how Book uses lots of humor when refering to his calling and the bible, and what it means about him. And I'm trying hard to not reject their views simply because I don't want to believe what they're saying about Book. But like so much of Joss' works, Book's dialog can be interpreted many ways.
The apparent paradoxicality of Jossí interest in religious matters is not terribly hard to reconcile looking at it as an atheist. For one, the awesome religious frameworks do become simultaneously a problem and a source for inspiration. Being atheist doesnít free you from some of the human concerns that religions have quite a head start exploring, so looking at what has been done from the outside isnít necessarily a waste of time.

I couldnít find much wrong with the article even if it didnít make me sympathise with Book anymore than I did before. I actually find Book to be the only part of the crew of Serenity that frightens me more than Mal.
That moment when River read his thoughts in Objects in Space was one of the most shocking moments on the show.
Yeah, those religions do have some really good stories. In fact, since Story arises/arose from the desire to make sense of the world--their stories are pretty hard to ignore as that is the function of religion.
I love this thread. More thoughts as they come.

"That moment when River read his thoughts in Objects in Space was one of the most shocking moments on the show." - I denied they were Book's thoughts for a bit, figuring that she just invented some of them that much I wanted to not agree with them. That whole read the mind thing does screw with me a bit.
...to make sense of the world--their stories are pretty hard to ignore as that is the function of religion. ...

That's the function of people i'd say and many religions have great stories partly because they've had time to refine them. Where Joss' stuff intersects religion it's mainly because a) if you're from the West then your entire life, atheist or not, has been informed by Judeo-Christian teachings and ideas, especially if you write about demons and creatures that have always had a religious component and b) most of what religious people consider to be religious ideas are actually just metaphysical ideas that are at the core of being human (but which, at least until recently, have mainly been addressed under the umbrella of religion).

In general I find the tone a bit brusque, high-handed and dismissive of other ideas (maybe that's to be expected in these sorts of papers) but there're some interesting points in there, even if, by and large I disagree with most of it.

Just to be clear BTW, the "fundamentalist Christian" quote is of Ron Glass relating something Joss said to him so we don't know the exact wording or context (the way it's presented in the paper is slightly misleading in that regard IMO) - it could well be that was the original intention and this changed after Ron became involved or just over time.

I agree though, if Joss intended Book to come across as a fundamentalist then he failed utterly, before now it'd never occurred to me that he might be (in fact, i've always seen Book as an atheist's view of a "good" Christian i.e. faithful but not dogmatic, spiritual but also practical, serious but not over-earnest etc. Above all, moderate).

And to me he wasn't running from anything, he was "testing" himself and his relatively new-found faith against the real world. The "wrong ship" thing always came across to me as someone feeling like they'd bitten off more than they can chew, like he wanted to ease himself back into the morally complex world rather than leap feet first.

I also think "preacher" is a function of those around him and not much to do with Book. Everyone expected him to be preachy (when in fact, he wasn't), that was the box they had in their minds, ready for him to fill. "Shepherd", which he called himself IIRC, has a (literal) pastoral implication, less formal than preaching, more about caring for and helping your fellow humans than delivering proscriptive rules for living (he doesn't preach at Inara for instance, he brings her dinner).
I'll admit I didn't really understand Book's thoughts in Objects in Space. Definitely different from what he normally presents, so I just took it to mean he's not what he seems.
I think he may have stubbed his toe just before River reads him.
What Saje saidTM.

Well, I sure wouldn't want an outside light shown on all of my fleeting selfish/mean spirited/perverted ;-)/cowardly/etc. thoughts. The brain is a confusing place. I've always thought telepathy would be a terrible curse. I've never had any doubts that some part of Book thought that about River. But an individual thought does not determine a person. Even in fiction. Now, three such thoughts...
Somehow I got the idea that that might be something from Book's past. Either River is seeing something from his past, or Book has parts of his past that he carries around very close to his conscious thoughts and can't get rid of. I did not really apply it to being a thought about anyone on the ship because it just did not seem to make much sense in that context.
An interesting paper. I've always thought of Book as a "seeker", someone looking for A Truth To Follow (with a flavor of having an abandoned Truth in his past), while (in contrast) Mal seems to have renounced the idea that there's a Truth to be followed, and like a Taoist sage, acts effortlessly from innermost being, rather than from discussion, thought, rule, or belief. To misquote Baba Ram Das, "Do Here Now".
In fairness, that's a misquote of a lot of people ;-).

I dunno, we'd need to see more of Mal before Serenity Valley but I get the feeling that he was always someone that acted instinctively, as he saw fit and without thinking about it too much beforehand. It's just that before Serenity Valley he thought he was acting towards some higher purpose (not sure how that fits with Taoism, how compatible volition is with the Way is something i've puzzled over).
I didn't think any of River's reads in the opening of that episode were about River - I don't feel she was even physically present when she was getting them, since there were no reactions to her up until she held the 'twig'. Simon's was the most directly about her, but his conversation with Kaylee reminded him of his past and made him nostalgic for it, bringing up his deeply buried resentment of River for taking him away. Jayne I just saw as still struggling with his guilt over Ariel, Book as thinking of something of his past, and Mal and Inara as intently focused on each other (as were Wash and Zoe, obviously). I really liked that Kaylee alone didn't have a deeper, troubled/troubling layer, and I think that that's why she and River got along so well, and that it's why the episode ended with what it did.
I don't think I'd compare Mal to a Taoist sage acting effortlessly from his "inner most being." I don't think he's even aware of his "inner most being." I think you have to have spent quite some time in self-reflection--which I think he avoids like the plague.

I think Mal is bitter and angry and mostly re-acting as opposed to choosing. In fact, I would say that he strives mightily to avoid choosing--because then he would have to take a stance about caring for something/someone. And he doesn't voluntarily revisit those feelings. When he does choose however... he's breathtaking in his scope and those are the times we love him for.
I was referring to Ram Das's "Be Here Now", not the modern advertising slogan.
Book's read in the episode sounded to me like some kind of interrogation or tough guy talk from his past (why he would be thinking about that at that moment or why River would somehow pick up on that memory, who knows, but then I find myself thinking of things completely unrelated to my current activities/state of mind, I think everyone has those out-of-left-field moments). But we may never know (or we may--if Joss gives whoever's writing the Book comic book mini-series some creator-approved content to weave in).
I think we also may be refining the definition of a fundamentalist Christian down to an extremely specific and easy to dislike archetype. In a sense, I do find Book fundamentalist. We do not ever receive evidence to the contrary that he is morally ambiguous in what he currently believes himself. Even the thoughts River overhears, it is unclear if we are hearing his ego, his superego, or his past. His ambiguous statements come in attempts to bridge the gaps with others and to relate to those who may not share his beliefs. By avoiding direct arguments, he seems to flirt with the idea of a religious conversation without resorting to outright demanding it. His message seems to always be, "I'm here if YOU want to talk." In short, he is the type of fundamentalist that people don't talk about because they aren't obnoxious.

The problem is we now identify the modern evangelical as someone who wants to talk TO YOU. This is really painting all evangelicals with a televangelist brush and in essence making them as black and white as the morality they're supposedly espousing.

I know a few priests, and so far the only thing they've had in common is that they're sociable and will talk about it if you want to. I think this (much like a well thought out atheist) comes from their own understanding of both human nature and a reasoned understanding of their own beliefs. They don't need to make you believe something, because if you don't want to... you won't.

This is the biggest flaw I see in the article's interpretation of Book. The requirement that evangelical/fundamentalist goals mean that the evangelical is required to give advice when it's not appropriate, preach to those when its counter-productive, and remain humorless about everything biblical. In essence, he needs to be the worst salesman in the world.

Now the truth may be that Book is so psychologically damaged that he should not in good conscious attempt to council others, but that's another topic entirely. And since Firefly wrapped so quickly, we'll never really know the answer to that question.

[ edited by azzers on 2009-08-01 06:35 ]
We do not ever receive evidence to the contrary that he is morally ambiguous in what he currently believes himself.

What about the Bible being famously fuzzy on the subject of kneecaps ? Though thinking about it, I guess that's actually consistent with a literal reading of the Bible.

And as the series progresses he seems fine being on a ship with a murderer, a mercenary and a prostitute (all of whom are also thieves), seems even to like them. Wouldn't he have to consider them evil people by his own standards (if his standards were strictly those of the Bible) ? So wouldn't he be duty bound to try to stop them ?
Wouldn't he have to consider them evil people by his own standards (if his standards were strictly those of the Bible) ? So wouldn't he be duty bound to try to stop them ?


Well, I guess that would all depend on how much he leaned toward the Old Testament versus the New Testament. Strictly speaking, as a Christian of any denomination, the guidelines of the New Testament are supposed to replace the guidelines of the Old... but for some reason a lot of Fundamentalists seem to forget that teaching. (There's the "Good Samaritan," that whole pesky turn the other cheek thing, Jesus saving the woman being stoned...In fact I'm pretty sure that forgiveness is a big part of the NT message. ;-)) If book IS a Fundamentalist. Which I doubt.

I don't recall Jesus ever trying to save anyone who wasn't ready to be saved. But then I have had only two hours of sleep and the little grey cells are not at their best right now. (Insomnia SUCKS!) It's also been a while since I read the Bible I must admit, so I could be erring badly.

And of course, there is no "strictly" anything in regards to the Bible. But who could expect anything else from a document assembled from texts written over fifteen hundred years by numerous authors in more than a half dozen literary genres? (historical narrative, prophecy, law, gospel, letters, etc.)
Not to mention several different languages. Yeah, I totally agree there's no "strictly" regarding the Bible, that's why the idea of Biblical inerrancy is intellectually inconsistent and also why I kind of struggle with the idea of a fundamentalist that agrees the Old Testament guidelines are entirely superceded by the New (in my own - admittedly limited - experience with fundamentalists i've never met one that believes that). How does that square with inerrancy ?

Quite right though, JC was well into the whole forgiveness thing, helping others etc. I think he and Book would've got along just fine.
Re: inerrancy

So recently I heard someone talk about the survival instinct in terms of maps. It goes something like this:

A person creates a map (story) of their world in order to make sense of it based on some amount of received information, which they then use to navigate through the chaos. After a while though, the map stops working as well as before due to new info. (After all, it's been working fine up until now and there are so many other things going on that it's kinda nice to have defaults for some things.)

1. The first thing that happens is denial sets in. "I'm not lost. I'm right here." Press on using the map regardless. "It'll work. I'll make it work."

2. Blind panic ensues when the world can no longer be found on the map and the lost-ee keeps going. " If I just keep going in the same direction something will turn up and the world will conform to my map again."

3. Some kind of injury or exhaustion sets in so the lost-ee stops and searches for something in the new information that will fit the map.

4. There is a marked degree of rational and emotional deterioration until everything comes to a standstill and it becomes impossible for any decisions or actions to take place.

5. The lost-ee becomes resigned. There are no other options. A new mental map must be made. The lost-ee turns inward to find and define them self instead of trying to figure out where they are. And the new map grows outward from this reconnection with their essential self.

Or something like that. This was actually from a speaker who was talking about businesses/corporations but it seems to apply very well to people too of course. I think it's not a bad representation of Book's journey myself.

And as far as the rabid inerrancy goes? Well, that denial is a bitch. Defend the map at all cost because "I'm NOT lost. Everything fits. I'll MAKE it fit. My understanding of self will DIE if it does not fit!" Yup. A bitch.
I quite like that, not saying it's the best way to draw a map but I think it's pretty close to what people actually do and fits Book quite well.

The problem with it is, to get a good map out of listening to your essential self you a) need an essential self to begin with and b) have to assume your essential self is a good guide to reality. Neither of which is necessarily true IMO (though as I understand it in e.g. Taoism your "essential self" is the one most in tune with the Way and therefore by definition must correspond well with reality).
Well, I don't think an essential self could be a guide to reality. I think it IS reality. A sort of "When you strip away all the enculturation, all the reacting, what's left is the essential self." Maybe some would define it as a soul. I would say that there is no separation between the essential self and The Way so there's nothing to be in tune with--it just is. I like the verb "being" as a definition. It's not a place, it's a state.

I also think everyone's got one. I just don't think most people are in touch with it, looking for it, or even aware that it exists. It's that "When you take everything away, what are you left with?" thing. (Am I repeating myself? Language is slippery.)

Edit: Oops. I'm a bit fuzzy here. ;-) I didn't mean "place," I meant to say: It's not really a thing, it's a state.

[ edited by BreathesStory on 2009-08-01 13:02 ]
You're doing pretty well for 2 hours sleep I reckon ;).

Yeah, that's my point. You need to assume you have an essential self to begin with in order for it to be in tune with reality. Or just be reality or however you want to view it. And even if you have one you then have to assume that in-tuneness or being-ness (or you can define reality to be "that which your essential self is in tune with" but that's obviously pretty circular reasoning).

I don't for instance, to me it's meaningless to talk about a self that's never been involved in any culture, never reacted to the world around them, never in other words, been touched or changed by the external world. There is no "you" without your memories, experiences, biochemistry etc. all interacting together, every second of all of our inner states is the product of all the previous seconds. Your "soul" isn't what's left when all that's gone, it is "all that" IMO and I find that astonishing, even, in a non-religious sense, miraculous.

The "What's left ?" ... "Me" exchange from Buffy is a nice line, it's very heroic, a great "Yess !" moment for we the viewers. It's also not true in reality IMO, or at best simplistic (the "Me" that's left is, after all, the product of Buffy's upbringing and experiences just as much as the "Me" that was there before Angelus supposedly stripped everything away).
Hmm. So, who is doing the looking at the memories, experiences, etc.? By this I mean: when I say "I remember"--who is remembering? That "I" is what I would term the essential self. And I don't think it has anything to do with me growing up female, in late 20th century middle America, etc..

Heh. Wasn't even thinking of Buffy.

Do you really mean meaningless? As in: "It is of no use" to you and doesn't progress your understanding? (Interestingly, the OED defines both meaning and useful as "having purpose." I don't think of them quite the same way myself..but I bow to the mighty tome.) I guess meaningless then, would be the same as pointless--but given how much this interest this subject draws I don't see how that can possibly be the case.

We've ended up where this always ends up, haven't we? Feeling a bit like we're just going around in a circle. Crap. How frustrating. (Now where's that damn map?) It just always feels as if there is something...more to all this somehow. Something that I am missing...or at least doing a crap job of explaining. Even to myself.
Yeah, I thought we might really have solved it this time. Damn ! ;)

Do you really mean meaningless? As in: "It is of no use" to you and doesn't progress your understanding?

Not exactly. I mean it's more like asking "What if 1 wasn't equal to 1 ?" - we can ask the question and it can even lead to worthwhile new questions but ultimately, "oneness" is the sine qua non of being 1. Put it this way, i've never met a self yet that hadn't had experiences and so we've no reason to suppose a self that hasn't is even possible - by definition you can't ask an entity that's unaffected by the external world what it's like to be an entity that's unaffected by the external world.

On the other hand there's a lot of evidence that what a person experiences can change them, sometimes fundamentally and that who we are depends on our brains and what happens to them (just ask Phineas Gage ;) so to me that makes sense (there's also, to me, a lot of evidence that our internal state isn't always a reliable indicator of reality e.g. i'm wrong a lot ;).

As to the 'I' in "I remember", well where consciousness is concerned that's the $64,000 question. Is it a product of all the different "mental modules", sort of the space where they meet ? Is it even real or just an illusion of the brain working ? Not sure myself (where volition's concerned for instance, there's some evidence for the latter). What I am fairly sure of is, it's not a fully formed "little you", some sort of homunculus sitting inside your memories and experiences and genes etc. and yet somehow apart from them all because where would such a thing come from ? Either you have an infinite regress (homunculi within homunculi within ... etc.) or supernatural intervention, neither of which make much sense to me.
Okay, I have more thoughts--but no time right now to reduce them to coherency. Must go do errands. More later.

Quick question though, would you say you subscribe to a sort of mechanistic view of consciousness/personality then?

Yeah, I don't see people running around as matryoshka dolls either. ; )
Well, "mechanistic" means different things to different people. I think consciousness and personality arise from natural processes in the physical universe in the same way that trees grow from seeds or clouds form from water droplets (maybe the 'I' in 'I remember' is something like a rainbow i.e. what happens when light and atmospheric water meet under the right circumstances ?). Minds come from brains, they're not from an essentially different "plane" of existence, and like our brains (and the rest of our bodies for that matter), were formed over millions of years as we evolved from ape-like ancestors.

If that's "mechanistic" then yep ;).
maybe the 'I' in 'I remember' is something like a rainbow i.e. what happens when light and atmospheric water meet under the right circumstances

I love this. (Or, you know, "I" love this.)
Ok, sorry I posted last night and went to bed and when I finally got back the discussion had gone much farther so I missed all of it.

Good thoughts. Breathes pretty much made my direct response for me. Like everything else in this discussion, it's pretty much about how 6 billion essential selves choose to define the terms. And unfortunately they all do it slightly differently.
So...thoughts:

1. All this has me setting my Pratchett aside and digging through the basement, looking for my copy of "The Physics of Consciousness: The Quantum Mind and the Meaning of Life,"which I realize would be really good to reference right about now... Unfortunately, it's been too long and I don't trust myself to be accurate--physics/science not being my daily domain. If this conversation goes on long enough though, I'll get it skimmed. It's a great book.

2. Uh huh. That's pretty much what I meant by mechanistic. Thanks for clarifying.

3. "Minds come from brains, they're not from an essentially different "plane" of existence..."

True. But what I find interesting IS that plane of existence. There's that still-mysterious quantum level where there seems to be no separate entity and everything affects everything else--indicating that we may be at an essential level, one mind. Which has nothing to do with "your memories, experiences, biochemistry etc."

4. ...to me it's meaningless to talk about a self that's never been involved in any culture, never reacted to the world around them, never in other words, been touched or changed by the external world. There is no "you" without your memories, experiences, biochemistry etc. all interacting together, every second of all of our inner states is the product of all the previous seconds.

This got me wondering if one of the reasons all this is so hard to talk about/grasp is because, based on your above assumption, "I" is relative and particular. And here in The Black we never talk about this stuff except in the the vaguest of universalities and have the devil of a time even agreeing on their definitions. It's "IT" land. And people, possessing consciousness, are not "IT(s)." I mean, if my inner state is a product of all of my personal "stuff" and I never get personal... Can "We" really have a conversation that's going to go anywhere?

5. I guess this stuff is why Dollhouse is so very interesting on a deep level. I wonder what Book, (remember Book?) would have to say about all this?
Yeah, I think it may be difficult to talk about in anything but generalities because it addresses a fundamental schism in the way people consider the world IMO. Some of us look inside ourselves and decide that when we experience feelings of oneness or cosmic unity that actually indicates that all things are one and some of us (even though we may have had similar experiences) are distrustful of our internal state accurately indicating anything (cos as I say, mine at least is often wrong ;).

I mean, if my inner state is a product of all of my personal "stuff" and I never get personal...

I think this confuses the experience of existing with the fact of existence. We've all seen optical illusions that confuse our brains. After you're explicitly told it's an optical illusion does it stop confusing your brain ? No, right ? Experiences don't always need to mesh with easily provable facts (e.g. you can measure the lines with a ruler) so when we're talking about very hard to prove facts, they really don't need to mesh. In many ways it's astounding that they mesh as well as they generally do (due to, IMO, us being intimately entwined with the physical universe).

It could well be that we're just not "built" to understand our own consciousness, that deciding what's a Tiger and what isn't or who slept with Penny from the basket weaving tribe or remembering where the juiciest Mangoes grow just isn't good "training" for working out where the "I" comes from.

There's that still-mysterious quantum level where there seems to be no separate entity and everything affects everything else--indicating that we may be at an essential level, one mind. Which has nothing to do with "your memories, experiences, biochemistry etc."

Hmm, is that from that book you mention ? Which aspect of quantum physics is it which you think indicates there're no separate entities (quantum entanglement i'd imagine, it tends to crop up a lot in these sorts of conversations - partly cos it's so damn weird ;) ?

But OK, for the discussion's sake let's say there are no separate entities and everything affects everything else - how then can you have an "essential self" that's separate from (and unaffected by) your experiences ? This "quantum level" isn't distinct from the non-quantum level where I keep my "stuff", all the "levels" interact.
I'm getting wordy now and the ponderings are just taking longer and longer to clarify.

By "personal" I was talking (in a very round about way) about (ironically) "plain-speaking" and paradigms. I don't know you (any of you) and so I tip-toe around a bit trying to be respectful of who I think I am addressing, while never forgetting that all this is taking place on a site of over 7,000 members and an unknown potential audience. It's obvious from past discussions here, that there are differing degrees of understanding, and I think that sometimes the most intriguing conversations suffer from people not being/feeling able to bring their backgrounds into the discussion. Hence some of the circling.

And then there's the paradigm issue. Some people are aware of at least a few of the paradigms out of which they operate. But if they're not, and I am unable to realize another's paradigms, then how do we really have a conversation? One of my paradigms that is pertinent to the current conversation, is that I believe in the ultimate ability of my brain to make sense of all this. Maybe you have another example other than the optical illusion one. I would say that your brain is NOT confused by the illusion--only the part that processes information from your eyes is confused. That isn't your whole brain. You've got the part that has learned empirically about what is happening. You've got the part that perhaps delights in the dichotomy between what you are experiencing and what you know to be true about that experience. You've got another part that is perhaps annoyed on some level that your eyes can be tricked. Plus a few others. I don't think the event of "you" experiencing the illusion can be summed up with "my brain is often wrong." But maybe you meant something else by that? Some other examples? I do think the brain cannot in the end, be talked of as a totality, when discussing things of this nature.

Oh, I thought of another question. Do you regard "Western Science" (by which I mean a reductionist approach that does not accept the participation of the subject in the experiment) as the only valid approach to answering the "whatever-the-hell-it-is" we are talking about? Because there is a very long standing "Eastern Tradition" that explores the Self with the self and assumes that one can preform a reproducible experiment and discuss it with someone else. Of course you have to accept the existence of the Self first and I'm under the impression that you don't. Or putting it in a different way: you don't differentiate between the two. Did I understand you correctly? My understood concept of the "essential self" identifies it with the Self.

I think that one comes to have evidence for this Self through "eastern" methods. Something similar to this came up back in February in that "Spiritual Atheism" thread before I bailed due to life trauma. I said:
I think a lot of free will is definitely an illusion. Free will occurs only if one is aware enough of one's own thoughts and motivations. To attain all-around free will involves a lot of observing, questioning, seeing, and accepting of all the crap that goes on inside. Some of it ugly. Lots of navel gazing. Lots of work.

And then it involves CHOICE. The big scary. To accept free will is to accept the existence of the vast number of choices we make at every moment and the responsibility for them. Even the default ones. This rarely happens from what I've seen.


I know I was talking about free will, but I think I managed to sum up in there my understanding of this eastern method (aka meditation) pretty well. But maybe you don't see meditation as a valid experiment with valid outcomes. In which case we will definitely be talking somewhat at cross purposes... because I do. It's part of my current paradigm.

I don't think that the experience of existence IS separate from the fact of it. This is that "observer effects the outcome" thing. Ultimately I don't believe that the two are separate. (Another one of my paradigms. At least as of right now. ; ))

Is this from the book I mentioned? Umm. Maybe? Like I said, it's been a while. And my brain? It is unaccountably uninterested in remembering the evidence/details of where my opinions come from. It's like: "Oh. That is so cool! I never thought about it like that! That means... fill-in-the-blank! *pause* Okay, next." I guess I'm really only interested ultimately, in the implications of ideas--after I've been convinced that there is something worthwhile to take into account. The "what-exactly" that backs up the ideas at that point ceases to be important. (You want me to remember where that came from?! Pff. Puh-lease, that's what books are for. It used to drive my father mad. ; ) Give us a few to skim. (It could be in one of the other books I have on the subject.) But, I wasn't thinking of quantum entanglement precisely--although SO cool! In the end, I'm more interested in how everything impacts my understanding of the world and therefore informs my decisions and creative output (i.e. stories, poems, artwork), so the details of where it came from get kinda fuzzy.

...there are no separate entities and everything affects everything else - how then can you have an "essential self" that's separate from (and unaffected by) your experiences ? This "quantum level" isn't distinct from the non-quantum level where I keep my "stuff", all the "levels" interact.

Okay, I don't want to confuse "separate entities" with "differentiation." In regards to your above question I accept both of those things as being true at the same time. I didn't think I had to choose. Just because all things on the quantum level are probabilities, doesn't mean that the table my computer is on doesn't actual exist. And science is just a map anyway. It isn't reality.

Well, could we have picked a more awkward topic to converse upon accross time and electrons? This took forever. Good thing it's Sunday.
Is it really that complicated? The ďwestern sciencesĒ is studying this actively and so far nothing points to the consciousness being anything more than the feed-back loop between a set of mental faculties. I donít wish to be rude but I so fail to understand why you would go asking ancient Chinese monks for the answer when the scientific method has such a stupendously better track record answering just about anything. And apologies for interrupting this interesting discussion, Iíll shut up now.
Those guys know Kung-Fu you know, I wouldn't get on their bad side ;).

But maybe you don't see meditation as a valid experiment with valid outcomes.

It depends on what you're after. If you're looking for understanding of what it feels like to be you then I have no issue with it, that's the experience of existing I mentioned and I bet meditation is very helpful there. If you're looking to understand the world then no, I don't.

I don't even really see what sort of hypothesis meditation would let you test, what kind of falsifiable predictions you could make that meditation might prove or disprove (these are characteristics of valid experiments). Can you give me any examples ?

It is unaccountably uninterested in remembering the evidence/details of where my opinions come from.

OK. My own take is that opinions are pretty easy to have and so opinions that can be justified with evidence or some sort of rational argument are worth more.

I would say that your brain is NOT confused by the illusion--only the part that processes information from your eyes is confused. That isn't your whole brain. You've got the part that has learned empirically about what is happening.

OK, say no-one tells you it's an illusion - since your brain knows the world through its senses and the part of your brain that's confused is precisely the part that senses the world, how do these other parts know it's an illusion ? Or are you saying they "just know" somehow ?

Just because all things on the quantum level are probabilities, doesn't mean that the table my computer is on doesn't actual exist. And science is just a map anyway. It isn't reality.

Ahha *light bulb* ;), OK, so this "essential self" is just random quantum events ? I thought you meant something that has thoughts and continuity (which, as you imply, couldn't exist on an entirely probabilistic level - you need things to collapse, like into a table or a brain for the really juicy stuff to start happening). So like a sort of "cosmic background hum" ? Hmm, maybe. I dunno that i'd describe it as any kind of "self" (essential or otherwise ;) if it can't think but it's basically just like a sort of quantum foam which I don't have any issue with.

And quite right, science is a map, not reality (actually, it's more like instructions on how to walk - it doesn't know where it's going, it just knows how to get there ;).
Those guys know Kung-Fu you know

Shit, didnít think of that :)

I think you both know full well that understanding equals reduction, and while I truly have enjoyed the exchange so far I wanted to interject that what you are doing is not in the service of understanding. What you are doing is something else.

ETA: Hm, that sounded a lot more argumentative when I reread it this morning. I mainly meant that there are complications happening here. And now I remember an old professor who said that you often have to make things more complicated before you can make them simple.

[ edited by hence on 2009-08-03 09:27 ]
There's Chinese monks now? No worries. Book can probably whoop 'em. After all, it's his thread. Kinda. Sorta. Well, it was!

And hey, anyone with a thought feel free to jump in. If it were private, we'd be Skyping or something. We're trying to solve the mystery of life, the universe, and everything here. It's possible that it might require more than two brains.

My idea of meditation is this: a person goes somewhere quiet and comfortably sits for some length of time and tries to watch their thoughts. That's it. The idea is to not sit there and have thoughts, but rather just to watch them as they pop up and let them go on their way instead of letting them suck you in. (Just to be clear for anyone interested.) I'm not sure what ancient Chinese monks have to do with anything I've said.

I've got no problem with the scientific method. Very useful tool. The interesting thing about the scientific method though, is that it doesn't tell you what to study. It can't study anything that hasn't been imagined or experienced beforehand. And sometimes it can't even do that because the instruments haven't yet been invented or a good enough experiment hasn't yet been designed. For instance, the EPR experiment took around fifty years from conception to actual physical experiments.

Yep. Opinions are very easy to have. And opinions with facts to back them up are definitely more convincing. (I always read the source bibligraphy before I bother with a new book.) I do initially form my opinions based on facts--it's just that my brain doesn't bother to remember what the initial details were a lot of the time. I mean, an opinion is just a basis to act upon. Where it came from ceases to be important unless someone else is interested. And most people are not. This kind of discourse (where having those kind of details at the tip of my brain would be damn useful) is rare in my life. I was just trying to explain why I couldn't be more specific off the top of my head without rereading some stuff. I'm sorry if that makes it frustrating to be on the listening end of my opinions. ; )

Science is still in it's infancy when it comes to studying brains. It's taken even longer for it to become interested in studying the states that meditators attempt to describe. Language is a very fuzzy thing. Especially when trying to describe a personal experience or feeling. In this case, because there are no specific words dedicated to this "thing," the experiencers tend to use words/metaphors like "at one" and "essential self." Which probably does sound crazy to anyone who hasn't experienced it. But many thousands of people have and do. And now researchers are beginning to figure out at least how to tell that something different is going on in a meditating brain. They have brain scans and such where they've measured electrical impulses among other things, and can tell that long term meditators have different brains than other people. They've got no idea what it means, but they've started looking. This doesn't mean of course, that they're measuring the thing that the experiencers have described. It could take an instrument, measuring something that has not yet been conceived. They'll figure it out. I have "faith" in Science.

It all comes down to this: I say I have experienced/felt this thing I call an "essential Self" which in my opinion (and many thousands of others) is distinct from my normal understanding of self. (No, not really "quantum foam.") You haven't. If you think of these altered states as just "new age-y crap," then fair enough. But if you're wondering, "What are they talking about? Is there something valuable there? Are they touching something else?" Or just, "Hey, am I missing out on something?" Go and try it. Experiment on yourself. There's enough interesting research out there to indicate that something is going on. I don't think it can be reduced to "My brain is being tricked." Let your fingers go Googling--or you know, archaically page through pieces of dead trees in a Greekish temple.

And if you come up with better words to describe it, let me know. ; )

OK, say no-one tells you it's an illusion - since your brain knows the world through its senses and the part of your brain that's confused is precisely the part that senses the world, how do these other parts know it's an illusion ? Or are you saying they "just know" somehow ?

Maybe. I think that when people fall back on "you just know" that what they are truly saying is: "I don't understand how my brain works." Why do some people have absolutely NO sense of direction? I don't think they've decided yet whether people sense the magnetic fields of the earth like homing pigeons have been postulated to do. I do know that I generally know which way to turn in unfamiliar territory and others often don't. Why? How? *shrugs* "I just know" seems to cover it. It's kinda wishy-washy--but that doesn't change the fact that it's true.

(A good book about what is going on in one's head is Understanding Our Mind by Thicht Naht Hanh. It's not just about Buddhism. It's kinda psychological. BTW, I'm not a Buddhist. If you want to know about the Eightfold Path or the Four Nobel Truths, you'll have to find someone else. I've just been toe dipping because it's such a different perspective and I like how it makes me question my current world view. I guess that would be bringing in a Vietnamese monk. ; ))

Have you done any reading on sensory deprivation? That could be pertinent to the current conversation. I haven't yet. It's on my very, very long list. (Life is waay too short.)

Hey, we need a brain dude. Anyone out there into brains? (Zombies need not apply.)

"understanding = reduction." *?* Er... Adam?

(Again with the long!)
The interesting thing about the scientific method though, is that it doesn't tell you what to study. It can't study anything that hasn't been imagined or experienced beforehand ... For instance, the EPR experiment took around fifty years from conception to actual physical experiments.

I don't think that's really the interesting thing about the scientific method personally but it's fair comment, the "scientific method" is "just" a process for finding out facts about the world, it's the world itself that tells you what to study (by being there). That's not entirely right about the EPR paradox though - it was conceived in 1935 as a philosophical objection to quantum physics not an experiment, it wasn't until 1964 with John Bell and his famous (in some circles ;) inequality that we even knew for sure it could be tested experimentally i.e. that it was a scientifically meaningful question in the first place (don't confuse a scientific question with a question asked by scientists, they're not always the same thing. Scientists can be as biased or stubborn or wedded to their opinions as anyone else, they're just lucky enough to have a system that's purpose built to - eventually, usually ;) - determine when that's the case). The first experiment took place 8 years later (in 1972) with various repeat results and refinements since, as technology progressed.

Not really sure what the point your making is though (I mean, clearly meditation can't "study" anything that hasn't been experienced or imagined either since it is an experience). Questions are proposed in science all the time, some of them have taken longer than (to be charitable) 37 years to answer by experiment but what of it ? The body of human knowledge largely expands incrementally, so it goes.

... the experiencers tend to use words/metaphors like "at one" and "essential self." Which probably does sound crazy to anyone who hasn't experienced it.

It doesn't sound crazy to me, it sounds like people describing an experience they had. What's a bit closer to crazy is them then saying "I had this experience but it's also really true" ... "Why ?" ... "Because it felt really true" since that literally is sometimes how mental illness manifests itself.

I haven't meditated seriously (though it's something i'll give a proper chance at some point) but I have been in "altered states" (including FWIW, a profound feeling of connectedness and what i'd describe as oneness with the universe which at the time, though shortlived, felt as true as anything else i've ever known) and those experiences are definitely real because I definitely had them. But all they prove about the state of reality is that i'd taken drugs.

Meditation may seem more natural because you can do it yourself but as you say, it's a different brain state to that of most people most of the time, in the same way that being on drugs is different or being drunk or feeling religious awe is different or epilepsy or schizophrenia or even just having been trained to think in a certain way is different. My experiences have taught me that the conclusions I come to when i'm in an altered state aren't always to be trusted and can even be dangerously out of sync with reality, yours apparently haven't.

Maybe. I think that when people fall back on "you just know" that what they are truly saying is: "I don't understand how my brain works."

I'm sure that's sometimes true. But "I just know" can also mean "I have absolutely no reason to believe this but I do anyway" and your approach doesn't really help us tell the difference.

Anyway, I think hence kind of has a point (however it was expressed) in that we both pretty much know where we each stand and we're both starting to talk in circles and using the same terms to mean different things (for instance to me an entirely probabilistic self is impossible just because of what randomness means) so we're maybe becoming a bit too self-indulgent (just look at the length of these things ! ;). If anyone else wants to open it out then by all means leap in, if not i'm happy to leave it there (or you can post again and we'll leave it, i'm not trying to get the last word or anything, just thought it would be impolite not to respond ;).

Good discussion though Breathestory, thanks (I particularly liked the map thing, that was new to me ;).
Thanks to everyone for all the great comments about the paper. It's been such a pleasure reading them and seeing what kinds of thoughts and ideas have come out of the conversation. I would never have thought there'd be a time when our work would spawn a discussion regarding "quantum levels" of self. Fascinating stuff.

I'm sure there's another paper or two in there for whoever is up for it!
think hence kind of has a point (however it was expressed)

Yeah, I feel kindaí bad about that. This was an interesting discussion and what I contributed was little more than an attempt to pour water on the whole thing. But please understand that it can get a bit frustrating when you sympathise strongly with science and youíre awed by what it, in my tangential case the AC field, has produced so far.

This isnít really the place for science proselytizing, I realise that, but more the nice and mellow philosophical discussion you were rocking. Perhaps, though, there is a little space for saying that this whole issue is moving out of the realms of philosophy and religion, and into science. Saje was saying this, and an order of magnitude more eloquenty than I could, but since he was taking the scenic route I couldnít help butting in :)
Yeah, good discussion. Fun. I think of myself as having a strong working hypothesis that I like to take pokes at and see what new territory there is to explore. It doesn't happen nearly often enough.

It's inspired me to drag out the old physics books. As if I needed more books in the queue! But I guess you use it or lose it, right?

Another time, another thread... Thanks. ; )

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