The Game Master God (GMG): Does the Moral Law of the Universe Apply to Video Games?

One of the things I love (which to my knowledge I’ve never talked about on this blog) is video games. I don’t know if it’s the escapism of them or what, but I’ve loved them ever since I first saw my dad play Doom when I was about four years old. Since then I’ve always played games in some form or other, whether it was playing Donkey Kong Land on Gameboy Pocket, to the various instalments of Grand Theft Auto, to the magnificent World of Warcraft. There’s something about dropping out of your everyday world and jumping into a new persona in another universe.

I was playing the latest Assassin’s Creed, an open-world historical fiction game, the latest of which being set in Ancient Egypt (an awesome game that thoroughly satisfies my childhood love for Egypt civilisation, by the way), when the thought popped into my head of moral culpability when playing video games. You play as a Medjay (someone who was meant to protect people in Ancient Egypt) and I was riding a chariot through Alexandria and kept (somewhat) accidentally running over civilians. A message continued to pop up saying that a Medjay isn’t meant to harm innocents.

It made me wonder. Does karma, divine justice, whatever you want to call the moral law of the universe apply to video games too?

When I play games, I quite like to drop who I normally am, and assume a persona of malevolence. For example, I do some nasty things in Grand Theft Auto that I don’t really want to mention here! But there doesn’t seem to really be any consequences for running over countless people on Santa Monica beach (unless you count the inbuilt function of police, who let you off really easily with all of your weapons!). I guess, because you’re only harming simulated programs with no consciousness, there’s no harm, no foul (even though they sometimes look frighteningly realistic).

So with this in mind, I’ve concluded that virtually all single player games, it appears, has no consequences for your behaviour unless it’s programmed to have a moral dimension like the Fable series.

Multiplayer games, however, seem like quite a different ballpark. It is shocking how often I receive my due ends if I’ve behaved either virtuously or maliciously towards other people. And just like karma or divine justice in real life, it may not be immediate but can happen when you least expect it.

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I can think of no better example than from my long years playing World of Warcraft (WoW). In this MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role playing game). For those who don’t know, in WoW there are two factions, Alliance and Horde, who are continuously fighting a war against each other. In this game, you level up a character, meaning it gets stronger and stronger the more you play – level 1 being the lowest, and 110 the highest (currently). When you have a high level and if you want to, you can go hunting (or ganking, as we like to call it)  low level players. And I’ll tell you, it’s a lot of fun, even though it’s very ruthless to the person on the other side of the world who’s just trying to progress in the game. But sooner or later, divine retribution will strike, because you’ll want to level up a new character of your own, and someone will come along and kill you, again and again and again, just for fun. Karma is a bitch.

A more immediate example of karma in full play is when you behave improperly against people on your own team. Years ago, I recruited at least twenty people to go kill a dragon. When you kills things in this game, there is a chance you might receive some stuff from them, but it has to be divided up among players (some might get a nice new sword, others will get nothing). The dragon I wanted to kill gives you a smaller dragon to ride on (don’t question the logic) if you defeat it. And I wanted it – really bad. So with this group of twenty or so people, we killed the dragon, but instead of everyone getting a fair chance of winning the rideable dragon (resolved by a random number roll between 1 and 100), I took the dragon for myself and ran away. I lied and cheated to get my way, nefariously laughing until I was reported and banned from the game for several days, my pretty new rideable dragon being confiscated from me.

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My old character

But the times when I’ve been good, maybe help someone on a quest or save them from some kind of monster, I’ve later been rewarded with good fortune. I remember once I’d spent an hour or so assisting a relatively new player with quests and the general ropes of the game. Later on that day, I had an incredibly lucky streak winning a lot of matches in battlegrounds (a game mode where two teams of players fight against each other to achieve a particular goal). It could be just a coincidence or it could be the moral workings of the universe having a hand in the little things of our everyday existence.

My friend and I eventually even created an name for this apparent video game bringer of justice: GMG – the Game Master God. And we’d invoke its name every time a moral judgement appeared to be lain out before us. If we were assholes (pardon my French) to other people, we would more often than not pay later. But if we were good, then we might get those shiny new boots we’d always wanted. We prayed out loud to the GMG to bless us in our pursuits. All of this was mainly applied to WoW, but other games seem to follow a similar moral code not too different from the one we had discovered.

One thing that I’ve noticed is that this Divine Video Game Moral Law only appears to apply to within whichever video game you’re playing at that time. What I do in WoW doesn’t seem to apply to the next game I play. And even more thankfully, the GMG seems to at least distinguish between video games and real life! Killing someone in the world of Azeroth doesn’t quite justify being severely punished when I’ve left it. So for that, I praise the glorious GMG!

 

Images taken from:

https://www.mmorpg.com/world-of-warcraft/news/nost-team-makes-good-on-threat-to-release-the-server-code-1000042012

 

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Our Love Sprouted in the Land of China

My fiancée and I met in China and that’s where our love story sprouted and blossomed. International love in a historical land seems too romantic to ever go wrong. But cultural differences and stereotypical Chinese morality have seriously given us a piece of their mind.

China is such a proud country that there are nationalists everywhere. And I often get the worst comment from those who are the combination of hardcore nationalists and big-time sexists: I am a national betrayer who is about to become a white baby shooting machine.

Another typical judgement is usually from middle aged Chinese ladies. They have a magic power of using their penetrating stare to tell you what a slut you are by holding a white pink hand in public. David is just not Chinese enough, and you know no man is ever better than a Chinese man.

These things have never bothered me from any level and I simply treated them with a smirk. And I guess I wouldn’t even think of writing this blog if it weren’t because of the hardship we have to go through from my parents (mainly my mum).

I grew up in a rather conservative Chinese family, being taught nothing is more important than a good grade at school and 姑娘家的名声 in society. 姑娘家的名声 literally means lady’s reputation and socially represents a stereotypical female image of being innocent, untouched, and decent.

Well…….

I did a pretty darn good job concerning their first expectation, I might even went a bit too far by pushing my medical career all the way over the country border and equator.

However, being an outside-of-the-box type of girl, I have never maintained a good lady’s reputation as expected. My mouth opens bigger than a hippo when I laugh, I have never learnt any instrument to develop an elegant temperament, and most unforgivably I had a couple of publicly known relationships with different guys, which would totally score an “oh my holy god” comment from traditional Chinese seniors.

But guess what, it got even worse.

As our relationship progressed, I finally shook off my cowardice and introduced David to my parents. I have to admit, the first dinner could have been better. Mum was in complete blind denial and Dad was in a great worry about her little sweet daughter being snatched by this random bearded white guy.

And, by the day I moved in with this exotic visitor to China, my already halfway dying shaky reputation had finally smashed into billions of pieces on to the hard ground.

It took my fiancée and I numerous gastric ulcer developing awkward dinners, psychologically challenging conversations and even a few mental breakdowns to push my mum all the way from a state of total denial to a very blurred line between tolerance and acceptance. She still raises her eyebrows whenever the name of David pops up, but to her David is no longer that white guy who tries to blend into other cultures to fetch their women. Another silver line is that Dad has finally stood on our side and joined the “support Davy and Jilly” group.

Till this day, we have made a massive improvement in building a supportive surrounding. Mum helped us financially a great amount for our future, dad would constantly ask about David’s well being, and he is finally being welcomed to my family as my partner.

Looking forward, there’s a wedding and lifetime of joy awaiting.

Looking back, We are so grateful to my parents, cause despite their harshness, it’s also their love and their great effort to change their 40 decades long perspective and look at us from a fresh angle out from their previous narrow mind.

A Few Confessions: My Failings on the Mystical Journey

In the vast world of the internet, most of us tend to have one thing in common when we present ourselves to the world. We cultivate an image of ourselves that is almost entirely positive. We present to the world a caricature of a more truthful perception of ourselves, leaving only stuff that tell others that we are happy, leading exciting lives, and generally have everything figured out.

Although I’m not a regular on Facebook except on rare occasions to talk to friends, I’m still guilty of this on the other forms of digital communication I use. On Instagram, I only ever post pictures of the cool, interesting places I’ve been too, giving the impression that I’m always on an adventure, never doing things considered mundane. On my blog, I write about things that are for the most part intellectually stimulating, discussing the deeper issues of life, especially in regards to religion and spirituality. It may give the impression that all I do is ponder the meaning of it all, and have life firmly worked out.

And we don’t just project this perfect image of ourselves onto the internet, we do it in real life too, putting on the invisible masks that hide a more authentic version of ourselves.

We rarely bring up our shortcomings, our fears, our failures, instead preferring the glossy ideal image – and it’s understandable. Whether we’re aware of it or not, we’re all vulnerable deep inside, easily prone to suffering, and given the countless forms of social media out there, opening ourselves up can bring a lot of harm.

But today, I’ve done something I’m not particularly proud of, and it’s set me in a mood to be more open about my faults. I’ve noticed that WordPress is a little bit different than other forms of communication on the internet. People seem to be more honest. There are so many blogs I’ve read where people have simply been so raw and real, discussing their greatest insecurities, issues and faults. It’s inspiring, so I’m going to write about it.

I do not consider myself a mystic. I feel as though that title should be given to you rather than declaring it yourself, even though the mystical experience is truly personal. But with that being said, I am deeply interested in pursuing a life that cultivates the mystical side of humanity – that desire to become one with Ultimate Reality (God, Brahman, Tao, the universe, etc.). And across all mystical traditions, whether Christian, Buddhist, Islamic or the like, there is one common means – through the dying of self, so that the infinite Self (God) can manifest within you. One needs to work on the aspects of their small individual self that constricts them, weakens them, makes them separate from creation, from God. Harmful traits such as excessive selfishness, anger, greed, harmful pride – really just the vices that are present in virtually every religion that has a moralistic grounding. So I basically attempt to reduce these things in my life, and on the whole, I feel it has been slowly working and it’s making me a better person as a result.

But I fail.

I fail a lot. And earlier today is the most recent example of this. I won’t go into detail because it’s quite a private issue. Just before I was meant to do something incredibly meaningful for Jill, my fiancee, I backed out of it, upsetting her. I had lots of excuses for why I didn’t want to do it, but it basically came down to cowardice on my part (fuelled by social anxiety and insecurities) and a shortsightedness and failure in not recognising how important it was for her. A selfish urge for self-preservation and avoidance of discomfort overcame an opportunity to advance further on the path of not just the divine, but as a human being. If you read this, Jill, I’m sorry for my weakness.

I had the idea of this particular post pop into my mind several weeks ago, for reasons that I can’t remember why, but I know I was angry for some reason. I used to have a bit of a nasty anger problem, I still do sometimes, but over the years, through things like pursuing a spiritual path and meditation, I’ve learnt to control it a lot better. But it still slips through from time to time, especially in more stressful periods. Luckily, my anger never manifested in physical violence, just very harsh words or utter silence. This time around, I think Jill may have triggered it, but it definitely wasn’t her fault at all. But I still responded by lashing out at her, saying some harmful things, upsetting her (over the phone I think it was) and almost immediately after, I regretted the action. I can’t bear the thought of upsetting her, and it always sobers me afterwards. There is a role for anger, it isn’t entirely negative, but it shouldn’t be used irrationally against those who you love.

Another fault I find myself in, is having moments of judgemental superiority and pride over someone – morally, intellectually, or spiritually – which sometimes falls into hypocrisy. For example, I see someone act improperly in everyday life like not giving up a seat for an elderly lady on the bus, and in my mind, I will often condemn them as a selfish, unaware person. Or perhaps I’ve read or watched someone say something a bit ridiculous and have this moment where I think to myself how wrong they are, and how much smarter I am. Quite immature, I know. Or spiritually, I notice someone else on a similar path as I am, but think how about how much “godlier” I am to them, simply because they said something I found “unspiritual”. I put myself on a pedestal, judging those around me, without considering how lucky I am to have been born in such a privileged position; or not knowing the context for why this person said or did this or that, without any empathy or realisation that I may do the same. I’ve read in a book by a Tibetan Buddhist that the “holier than thou” attitude is the biggest obstacle towards genuine spiritual growth – his whole book is about it really. And I see why. Even though I do try and correct it, I often fail miserably at this.

I have to make a few more confessions, and this one is difficult, given it will be read by fellow spiritually oriented writers, among others. Writing is my passion in life. It is the one productive thing for society that I love more than anything else. I, like many others, feel as though I have something useful to say in this world. I want to spread the ideas of mysticism and the value of religion to as many people as possible, hoping that they can have better lives as a result and so that we don’t lose something that has been a part of humanity since humanity pretty much began. But I do have ulterior motives. I would like to make a bit of money out of it one day, so that I can live comfortably, travel and dedicate my life more earnestly to writing. And having a sound reputation with it would be nice too. Doing this kind of work for money (and to a degree, fame) always appears superficial,  disingenuous, and definitely (considering the subject matter I write on) counter-productive towards a religious, spiritual, mystical life. For admitting this, I hope those who enjoy my blog don’t think less of me.

The last thing I wanted to admit before wrapping up this longer-than-expected post is that I don’t always speak my truth, I don’t stand up for my beliefs. I often avoid conflict and discomfort at any cost, a cowardly instinct of mine. It was listening to Jordan Peterson (check him out if you haven’t) and reading his work that made me acutely aware of this. I’ll never bring up my beliefs in a group of people, even close friends. Or even if friends (who are almost all atheists) start attacking religion or have a view that is simply misguided, I will more often than not keep quiet, even though it may lead to a fruitful discussion. Speaking my truth is one thing I want to work on, since not doing so is linked to fear. I’m getting better, but there’s a long way to go. It’s important because it makes me worry how I’d act under more serious circumstances, perhaps when other’s lives are involved. Also, not speaking up for my self is like I’m betraying myself, or worse, betraying God.

We’re all human, we fail, we have some deeply entrenched faults inside of us. I’m trying to correct mine and forgive myself. Maybe one day I will, but it’ll be a lifelong journey nevertheless. The way of the mystics is an eternal path to tread, so of course it will be difficult.

 

Are Borders Arbitrary? Nationally, Bodily, Spiritually

This is probably one of the least spiritually-centered topics I’ve written about so far (though I’m still going to drop some in towards the end!). Perhaps it may also be one of the more controversial ones, since it is tied to immigration and traditional culture, some of the most heavily debated and contentious issues in contemporary Western society. But the other night the topic came into my head just before I drifted off to sleep, maybe as a result of planning a visit to a point in China where you can see Russia and North Korea at the same time (alas these plans fell through).

So let’s jump into my perspectives on national borders with a little bit on other types too.

My views have shifted back and forth over the years when it comes to this issue. In my late teens, when I was still an atheist, I played around with ideas of nationalism and thought that boundaries between cultures were fundamentally important. Moreover, throughout university, where I majored in international relations, I was particularly drawn to a theory called realism. This theory focuses on the sovereignty of the nation-state and sees hard power (military and economic) as the rule of the day in global relations. Borders, as a result, were very important, helping bring a semblance of stability to this chaotic world.

As I gradually became more spiritual and bit a more God-focused, my perception of borders started to flip around a bit. I started to see them as completely pointless, utterly grounded in our collective imagination and not reflective of reality as it is. I saw national boundaries as nothing more but lines drawn on a map by rulers decades or even centuries ago.

It also drove me a little crazy that one could go to another country hundreds of years ago by just walking there (an over-simplification), but now without a passport and visa you can’t do anything!

I thought that borders prevented – if not out-rightly prohibited – unity amongst peoples. They divide us into groups, often creating an us-vs-them mentality. And in the past and continuing to this day it has facilitated nationalism of the most violent kind. Borders are the by-product of our mind’s obsession with dividing and categorising things and perhaps is one of the most significant examples of our failure to recognise the ultimate oneness of all. Birds, animals, trees don’t listen to borders. I was convinced that we should strive to eliminate borders to greater reflect nature and the unity of the cosmos under God.

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But, I could’ve just been a little naive.

I used to think that from a mystical perspective and its emphasis on oneness, there shouldn’t be borders. But I’ve since come to embrace the idea that recognising oneness in diversity is more appropriate than trying to bring about a oneness by sacrificing difference. We are ultimately one, but that doesn’t mean we’re all the same.

Borders serve a purpose, they unite people in their own way through common culture and traditions. The infinite diversity of our different societies and cultures is something that is beautiful and should be cherished. So much wisdom, so much art comes from so many distinct cultures that it would be tragic to see some of these disappear if we become increasingly globalised, borders disintegrate and a more homogeneous culture comes to dominate. So in a sense, borders protect that diversity to a degree by limiting the assault coming in from other peoples. The small kingdom of Bhutan is a fantastic example of this. The so-called arbitrary boundaries between nations, for the most part (with the arguable exception of certain countries in the Middle East and Africa, as well as immigrant nations like Australia and the USA) is based on the history, culture, language and religion of quite distinct people. National boundaries help to maintain the unique beauty among different countries.

Because humanity isn’t always as benign as we often like to think we are, borders can be protective. Maybe one day, we won’t need them, but currently we do. Too open borders can lead to more chaos both from those who enter and those who live there. Terrorist attacks are an example of this chaos, but so are the nativist retaliations against innocent immigrants. Excessively open borders can allow other harmful endeavors to flourish like human and drug trafficking.

Yet having a border that is too constricting is just as detrimental as being too open. Cultures and society will stagnate, decline and suffer without some interaction and exchange with the outside world (North Korea, late Qing dynasty China). It often stifles innovation, and cultural traits that are harmful may continue without meaningful engagement and different perspectives crossing the boundaries. To borrow an idea from Jordan Peterson, too open will lead to too much chaos, too closed will lead to too much order and stagnation. So there needs to be a balance and flexibility between the two positions – an approach that allows any culture to adapt to whatever circumstances it finds itself in, which may necessitate sometimes greater openness and other times to be more closed-off.

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Perhaps comparing a country to our own bodies is apt. Our bodies, which are just as complex as any country or culture, are kept together by borders, most noticeably our skin. But skin is porous, it allows information and other things to flow in. But it’s not so open that our organs will just spill out and collapse all over the place. Moreover, a strong immune system acts like a border in some senses, helping protect the body from intruders. It tries to remove unwelcome illnesses, making sure the internal is not damaged. Yet a functioning immune system doesn’t attack things that are beneficial for the body.

Individual people can’t just close themselves off to external forces, in an effort to prevent anything harmful from entering their body. The internal gets weakened, and a whole range of allergies may emerge and a greater susceptibility to sickness inevitably occurs (just think of some overprotective parents who have rather physically weak children). But that doesn’t mean you should just go eat rotten meat or have a dip in radioactive waste, overexposure is just as bad as underexposure. The balance between the two is yet again required.

Even in on one’s spiritual and mystical path, where unity with God and the universe is considered the paramount goal, one can’t just be completely open to everything in their search for oneness. On the surface, it sounds like the correct way to go, as you apparently become “bigger” than yourself. But some ideas, characters, and behaviours are certainly antithetical to the spiritual journey. Restraint is often needed when you take the path towards the divine. Leading the life of a hyper open-minded “spiritual” hedonist, even though you may initially experience more and more things, will often lead to distractions from the path and perhaps take you down the path of hollowness, addiction and purposelessness – ultimately, leading one away from the path to self-realisation and instead leading one down the path of delusion.

But the problems with the opposite are just as true. On the spiritual journey, you can’t just blindly follow dogma and rigid rituals, obeying someone who you may think is enlightened (including yourself). This will lead to a mindlessness, where the symbols that the dogma and rituals represent get mistaken for God itself, allowing people to be stuck in place without any further progress. The “enlightened” leader may just be a money hungry cultist who simply takes advantage of you, yet you still may be willing to defend him when he’s caught. The path to God is lifelong and difficult with no quick-easy solutions, so becoming too shut-in, uncritical, and closed-off to other approaches can be just as detrimental as being too open.

Again, as on the societal and physical level, a balanced approach is necessary. One where you work on attempting to realise the oneness of God in all things, but also be wary that there are pitfalls on that path – like doing things you might mistake as progress by being more and more open, or how you understand ultimate Truth might get you bogged down in rigid dogma and blind certainty. Spiritual borders that bring balance to one’s being – bringing in the good, shutting out the harmful – is necessary. And the same goes for sound national and bodily borders too.

So it seems that a flexible balance for it all is key.

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Images taken from:

http://www.durrenajaf.com/muslim-culture.php

https://www.thoughtco.com/balance-design-principle-3470048

Happy Girl on a Bicycle

My fiancée (David) proposed to me in his parents’ house. Silly me, who couldn’t wake up in the morning to the fabulous sunrise by the beach, missed out on the most romantic/cliche arranged proposal in the world. Instead, Mr. Grumpy, who failed to shake up his drooling “Sleeping Beauty”, drove himself to the beach at 5 in the morning, took amazing sunrise pictures, and showed them to his Ms. Drooling in their bedroom with one knee down. Since then I have been living a magic life with a half-priced engagement ring on my left hand and a hippy spiritual fiancée on my right side. And we will live happily ever after.

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But life isn’t a fairytale. Not until an unpleasant conversation with a colleague of mine who condescendingly scorned the price and the splints of my ring, had I realized how “socially unacceptable” it was to put “half-priced” and “engagement ring” together. However, to a person like me who often behaves outside the box (according to others), I felt nothing but enormous bliss for having a life partner who shares the same values towards material goods. Personally, I feel so lucky to have found such a gorgeous ring at such a reasonable price which bears witness to the love between me and my fiancée.

This could have been one unfortunate experience of mine, if I hadn’t had any similar situations happen in my life. After I announced my relationship with my partner to my friends one and a half years ago, questions that were popping out like popcorn have always been “how thick is his wallet?” rather than “how in sync  are our personalities?”

Does it make me happy to have a fiancée who earns twice the average wage? YES.

Will it change my attitude towards him if he loses his job? NO (unless he loses his job by beating up his students.)

There’s a saying in China which makes me sad every time hearing it. 宁可坐在奔驰车上哭,不愿坐在自行车上笑。 It means that I would rather cry in a Mercedes than be happy on a bicycle.

Maybe I am being old fashioned, but being a happy girl on my fiancée’s bicycle is a sweeter choice, plus it’s way more environmentally friendly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Announcement of an Additional Author, My Fiance!

Hi all!

I’m happy to announce that soon my fiance will be writing posts for my blog here and there. Because she wants to practice her English writing abilities, I thought it would be a good idea for her to use my blog to develop her skills. It’ll be good for her to have others that aren’t me read what she writes (given my in-built biases).

She’ll probably be writing somewhat different topics to what’s on this blog, probably stories about our relationship and her perspectives on life, and maybe even some medical stuff, since she’s a doctor. It’ll be nice to get a fresh breath of air on this page though, and something different.

Feel free to correct her on any mistakes she has, or ways she can improve her writing abilities. But don’t be too harsh! (Although given that virtually everyone I’ve met so far has been lovely on WordPress, so I’m not that worried).

So welcome to my fiance, Jie Song, or you can call her Jill!

Photos from My Visit to the Harbin Snow and Ice Festival (Something Different)

The other day, I had an awesome trip to the Harbin Snow and Ice Festival in the frozen northeastern province of Heilongjiang in China. It is certainly the tourist highlight of the city and a truly incredible sight to behold if you’re willing to brave negative twenty-five degrees celsius. So because I’m incredibly busy at the moment, I thought I’d share some pictures of my experience there.

First, I’ll begin with some overall shots of the festival. Some of the ice walls and towering structures can be seen:

 

Next, here are some images of individual ice buildings, a bit closer up. Some temple and church replicas as well as everything in between!

 

Despite there being a separate festival for snow sculptures, there were still many to behold. (The below are based on a super popular video game in China).

And there was even an active Buddhist temple made of snow!

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One of the most incredible sights were the ice sculptures, the ones below depicting an astronaut, a breaching whale, wolves hunting a deer, and hummingbirds.

 

Arriving rather late, we wanted to make the most of our time, staying until the lights were switched off.

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Hope you enjoyed the photos, let me know what you thought!

Just A Little Bit Exaggerated: A Short Look on the “Clash” Between Science and Religion

For most people who haven’t spent much time reading into the subject, there has always seemed to be a perpetual clash between the rigid, closed-minded and oppressive institution of religion, and the open-minded, enlightened, rational figures in the pursuit of science. Particularly in the West, the Church always got in the way of “truth” when it conflicted with their dogma and control over society. Indeed, even though this idea of an inevitable clash seems to have lost some traction in recent years as more nuanced perspectives have arisen, it still maintains a considerable hold on the minds of many in the general public, and particularly for those who are actively involved (in that I mean the militant atheists and their counterparts on the opposite side, the literalists of the Bible and other religions).

It’s a clash, which to me (obvious if you read the title of the blog post) is a little bit exaggerated. Undoubtedly, there have been conflicts between these two spheres of human endeavour in the past that continue till this day. But there appears to be an almost mythical narrative of hostility which has been pushed by those with a particular agenda that has taken hold of popular consciousness. Both extremes of the debate seem to be fond of perpetuating this misperception. Many hardcore atheists want to push their idea systems in any way that will undermine opposing viewpoints. Meanwhile a number of fundamentalist, literalist Christians will deny and ignore anything that conflicts with their preconceived notions on how the Bible should be understood. But despite the narratives by invested parties on the extremes, the truth is a bit more complex (as always!) where a lot more compatibility between these two pursuits of truth is more present than initially expected.

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One of the most dominant narratives of our history is that of Christianity and its suppression of the sciences. We often tend to look at history in a way that suggests that the period of antiquity, when the Ancient Romans and Greeks were ascendant, was this time of rationality and scientific endeavour, a golden age of humanity. But when Christianity came along, all this goes away as the Church managed to strangle away all innovation and suppresses thought entirely. This was the narrative advocated by the Enlightenment thinker Edward Gibbon, and it stuck pretty well, despite being largely dismissed by historian these days. Not only does this narrative ignore the terminal decline the empire was already in when Christianity became dominant, it ignores all the social, economic and political factors that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire. Europe became chaotic, disconnected, having nothing to fill the gaping void that the empire once filled which gave order to most of the continent. Of course there’s going to be some rough times in these circumstances irregardless of whether Christianity rose. There simply wasn’t the stability or infrastructure for science to flourish for hundreds of years.

It should be obvious by it seems when there’s stability, there is progress. What we see in the Middle East, after the first few Islamic Caliphates are firmly established becoming one of the world’s dominant empires, is an absolute flourishing of scientific endeavour. Despite being an entire civilisation centred around Islam, contrary to the “clash hypothesis” there were advances in just about every field of enquiry – physics, mathematics, geometry, astronomy, chemistry, and biology. It’s fascinating to think that there were even modern precursors to evolutionary theory and natural selection written during this period by figures such as al-Jahiz and Ibn Khaldun, the latter writing: “the animal kingdom was developed, its species multiplied, and in the gradual process of Creation, it ended in man arising from the world of the monkeys.

This attitude towards science was not hindered by religion, but was actually even influenced by the Qur’an itself, which has numerous verses beckoning Muslims to further their knowledge and to study the natural world. The general attitude among Islamic scientists during this period was that understanding nature and the universe was in itself a form of studying God and was way to know Him better. It’s a shame that there was a decline in scientific output in Islamic civilisation after the sixteenth century where a new fundamentalism and literal interpretation of the Quranic texts emerged and continue to this day.

Nevertheless, when modern science began to emerge in the West, it was influenced partly by translated texts from Islamic sources. And the same attitude was adopted by many early scientists in the West, often devout monks, as their Islamic counterparts. Many Christians saw that God has revealed himself through two means, the Bible and the natural world. Galileo, whose life is often touted as an example of the suppressive nature of the Catholic Church, himself believed that God had given humanity senses, reason and intellect in order to attain knowledge of Him through them, and stated that “the laws of nature are written by the hand of God in the language of mathematics”.

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It is arguable that the belief in a creator who was rational, as held by the Abrahamic religions, is what gave many scientists the mental framework to pursue science in the first place. Though of course this is highly debatable whether this belief was originally needed, it is interesting nonetheless. Early scientists assumed, based on their belief in a lawgiving rational God, that the natural universe had to be rested on foundational laws that gave the cosmos structure, order and intelligibility. Some of the most significant scientists in history many of whom were Christian, were therefore influenced and inspired by their theological beliefs, rather than having to escape the metaphorical shackles of those beliefs before they could truly pursue science (as is the common perception). To quote C.S. Lewis, “men became scientific because they expected law in nature and they expected law in nature because they expected a lawgiver”.

Being a general overview, I only want to mention that two of the most heavily cited examples of the “clash” thesis are largely exaggerated and misleading. The Galileo affair has been hugely misrepresented, and although there was a reluctance by the Church to accept his heliocentric findings, it was much more about politics, power and even a personal feud between Galileo and the pope than it was about science. There were many religious intellectuals that supported Galileo, and it was also quite a sensitive time for the Roman Church, especially because it was during the Protestant Reformation when it was losing its traditional authority. Scientists who espoused the traditional view of the world were just as likely to denounce Galileo as the clergy. Yet despite all this, the Catholic Church’s response was unjustifiably a bit heavy handed.

The other example that’s been used to promote the “clash” thesis is the infamous debate between T.H. Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce in the early days after Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution shook the world of science. It has been presented as the first public instance of the rational scientific man absolutely destroying the narrow, dogmatic mind of a clergyman relating to the evolution debate. However, Wilberforce (the bishop) was actually quite a respectable scientist who more represented the scientific establishment than the church itself. Apparently, he didn’t even do too bad in the debate at all! It wasn’t like all scientists immediately hailed Darwin’s theory, just as much opposition came from the them as the religious establishment. Most noteworthy was that the debate was between scientists, not religious folk against scientists.

So with so much historical evidence that science and religion aren’t necessarily in a perpetual war against one another, why does there seem to be a clash? Well there is, but instead of a clash between science and religion, the real debate is a clash between two philosophical world views, naturalism and theism. One sees the universe to be all that is, and one that sees something supernatural beyond it. But the former has so often pushed a narrative that conflates its philosophy with science itself, rather than it being an interpretation of scientific evidence. The fact that there has always been eminent scientists across the world who have been devout Christians, Muslims, Hindus and the like attests to this. All scientists would be atheists if there was a fundamental clash between science and religion, but that’s simply not the case.

A Spiritual Interpretation of “The Truman Show”

The other night, I watched with my fiancee an (nowadays) old classic movie, The Truman Show, released in 1998 and starring Jim Carrey at perhaps the peak time of his career in cinema. For those of you who have never seen or heard of it, it centres around a man, Truman Burbank, whose entire life has been recorded on live TV since before the moment of his birth. He lives in the artificially created town of Seahaven, which in reality is situated within a giant dome situated in Los Angeles.

Even though this analysis may be twenty years too late, I’m going to write it anyway! A quick plot summary is forthcoming, so spoilers ahead for those who don’t want anything ruined.

The plot basically follows Truman’s gradual realisation that his entire world is an illusion. As the movie progresses, he finds more and more strange happenings around him, which triggers him to start questioning his life, the people around him and even reality itself. This gradually sends Truman on a spiral that leads him to the threshold of madness, but eventually, he discovers the truth of things – that he is the star of the world’s most popular television show. In the end, he is given the choice by the creator of the show, a man named Christof, to continue his life in a state of comfort and security, or face the great unknown of a life unrestricted by the limitations of living on a giant TV production stage.

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The film makes you question your own reality to an extent. While lying on the couch, both my partner and I exchanged looks and asked one another whether we were actors in each other’s TV shows – only for both of us to state that we wouldn’t say so even if we were. You know, in order to maintain the authenticity of the show. The movie poses the common philosophical question, “is our reality actually real?”, getting us to ask ourselves if we are the centre of an elaborate television program – or some form of artificial reality. Not too dissimilar in concept to its contemporary The Matrix. Both of the movies are modern takes on that rather old premises posed by Plato with his Allegory of the Cave, Descartes’ Evil Demon and more recently Hilary Putnam’s brain in a vat. All get us to question the nature of our reality and whether we can truly believe what we see.

Thinking about this whilst watching the film led me to go a little further and interpret it on a more spiritual level, an understanding of the movie that somewhat correlates with the journeys of mystics and other followers on the pathways to the divine. Now, before I divulge any further, I should say the movie definitely isn’t an exact allegory of an archetypical seeker, I just saw some similarities here and there throughout. Moreover, I haven’t really checked the internet for similar understandings, so I hope I’m not unintentionally copying someone else!

Why I think the movie reflects the spiritual journey in some ways, is because I found it similar to not only parts of my own story but also quite like the ones I’ve read and heard about. The film begins with a man just living a normal life, fitting in perfectly, without much of a care in the world. He is happy pursuing the things that are socially normal to pursue, enjoying the pleasures we normally enjoy, like getting a stable job, having a house, a car, nice things, having kids and the like. But then, several events trigger a radical change in the way he sees the world. Something seems odd, not in line with how “normal” reality is meant to be. They’re blatantly obvious in The Truman Show, but they can be a bit more subtle and difficult to perceive in the real world. From my own experience, it was a little less dramatic, instead, I read books that led me to question the world around me. Many social norms that were generally seen as the correct way to do things suddenly appeared so unreal to me, even ridiculous. A couple of examples come to mind: simple things that go unquestioned like putting a knife and fork together when you’ve finished a meal, to big things like the value of money. Generally, many on a spiritual path question the reality of entirely social constructs, many of which only have meaning insofar as people give it.

Truman, having done this, begins to be treated strangely by those around him, like his friends and family (even though they are aware of the truth). He does socially unconventional things and goes a little bit wild as the falseness of the world becomes more apparent and he increasingly questions what reality is. He becomes more focused on pursuing his passion in life – travelling and exploring – despite the scepticism and ridicule of those around him. Similarly, one on the spiritual path may begin to do things that are considered odd by the general public. They do things a little out of the ordinary, care less about pursuing conventional goals in life, do more risky things. More time is devoted to cultivating oneself and pursuing one’s passions, rather than developing a public image and gaining material wealth. The ecstatic mannerisms of Sufis like Rumi is reminiscent of some of this.

Dark Night of the Soul

But Truman’s journey isn’t without trials and suffering, and this is shown towards the end of the movie where he sets off on a small sailing boat and braves stormy seas (manufactured by the television producers to stop him) in order to reach the truth of all things. He comes close to death, but is finally liberated as he reaches the edge of the dome and the thunderstorm ends. This reminded me of the dark night of the soul, the spiritual crisis many have reported, particularly within Christianity, on their journey towards union with God. The psychological, emotional, and sometimes physical turmoil one can go through before they come face to face with ultimate reality. In Vedantist thought, the stormy seas could represent the last efforts of the individual self before it is dissolved into the supreme unlimited Self – the atman coming to the realisation that it is one with brahman. Questioning everything that led you on this journey, if your choices were wrong, a waste of time. Does God even exist? The great despair of the heart and mind. The stormy seas reflects the last ditch efforts of the self obsessed mind or whatever force that prevents the seeker from uniting with the divine. But  the night is always darkest before the dawn.

In the final scene of the movie, Truman and Kristof are in conversation, where he exposes the truth to Truman at long last. Kristof isn’t really God in the movie, even though he is the creator of the show. He is too much of a hindrance for Truman seeing the reality of things. Rather, Kristof is the humanised symbol of the illusion that prevents us from seeing the divine. He is the symbol of maya, that which veils ultimate reality. He represents our normal everyday senses and our limited mind that prevents us from unveiling the true nature of things, keeping us locked into everyday normality and everyday perception. In these last moments, Kristof represents the choice our mind makes along the journey – we can ultimately go back to the way things are, abandon our journey. Maybe we’ve learnt some things along the way, but really we prefer to just choose the easy, safe and comfortable path. Or we choose the great unknown, embrace whatever is to come and merge with reality as it truly is, just as Truman does.

So to finish things up, please let me know what you think of this interpretation of the movie. Or tell me what you think of the film and how you understood it. There are many more interpretations to be made – it has lots of layers and angles to approach it from – which to me is what makes a great piece of cinema, or for that matter, any piece of art.

 

 

Images taken from:

https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/10/truman-show-tv-series_n_5124946.html

https://partiallyexaminedlife.com/2015/05/12/plato-and-the-god-of-the-gaps

https://www.psychedelicadventure.net/2015/06/dark-night-of-soul.html

A Grasshopper in Guangzhou

Hopping amongst the long blades of grass, carefree with nothing to bother or concern him in his simple yet fulfilling life, he stopped briefly to enjoy a nice meal of fresh, moist vegetation to nourish his body and soul. He didn’t know exactly where he was, but that didn’t matter. He was never fully aware of his surroundings, of himself or even what he was doing, yet nevertheless he was intensely alive.

This is because our grasshopper friend goes only off pure instinct, living in a timeless moment, unaware of a past or future, with no dreams or ambitions, regrets or longings, except for some faint memories and a vague desire to keep on surviving. He really just had a pure sense of living in the most simple of ways – eat, rest, hop, eat, rest, hop and perhaps mate. If it wasn’t for his entire lack of genuine self-awareness of his own existence, which the giants that walk around him seem to have, he would be living a life not too far off that of the mystics of the Tao and other ancient followers of the wisdom traditions. Living purely in the eternal present, intimately connected to the way things are, possessed by the divine essence of things and unconsciously allowing it to flow through his entire self. Simply being a part of all things without any effort whatsoever.

The day of his latest bouncing endeavour, however, was a little bit different. Unaware to him, it would take him on a journey beyond comprehension to a strange, unknown land, far away from all that he may or may not have once called home. He found himself, somehow (he couldn’t quite remember) in one of the great dwellings of the giants. He figured out he was in one because he couldn’t see the great blue dome above him and there was no grass to hop, eat and rest in. He had trouble gripping the surface of the smooth ground he found himself on, slipping and sliding as he tried to find a way back to his normal universe. But he found himself, instead, jumping into a large box like thing, the contents of which were nice and soft, the feeling of them vaguely similar to the soft plantation and dirt that he usually has as his abode.

Suddenly, a giant emerged, stomping and crashing into the room, yelling in an unintelligible tongue to another of its kind far away. He didn’t want it to see him, so he nestled himself deeply into his soft surroundings. But this was a mistake as the giant reached over to the box, pulling it on itself, closing it. Our grasshopper friend heard a metallic scraping all around him, the enormous box having been sealed tight, creating a darkness that completely consumed everything around.

It felt like an eternity in the black nothingness. He didn’t know when he was sleeping or waking, all was dark. Shaking, thumping, rattling, twisting and turning, crashing and thudding. The roars of a thousand birds, shrieking. The world seemed to go into the sky, like in the times when he flies from one patch of grass to another, but this lasted long and was far bumpier. Eventually, the sensation he was feeling, seemed as though he had returned to the ground. More of the shaking and crashing, but eventually it all stopped, and shortly thereafter, the box once again opened and a blinding light shone through, illuminating his universe.

He was in a different shelter of the giants, and it seemed smaller, at least compared to his former experience with the habitats of these strange creatures. There was an abrupt grumble, perhaps one of exclamation that came from the feeding hole of the giant. The two orbs at the top of it’s body seemed to look directly down at our grasshopper friend, and its arm reached down towards him. His instincts clicked in, despite an eternity in the dark void, and he jumped away, out of the box. Hopping and bouncing frantically away, trying to find grass but to no avail. He didn’t know why he had to escape, didn’t know the consequences of landing in the clutches of these giants. He just knew he couldn’t allow himself to be trapped. An instinct, forged from time immemorial that prevented him from allowing his existence as he knew it to cease – an eternal memory contained within his body, passed down from his forebears. But it was all in vain, our grasshopper friend was trapped, he couldn’t flee the grip of the giants and it snatched him up within the palm of one of its hands.

He was again in the darkness, but an incomplete one with slithers of light slipping through the long fingers of the giant. He tried to hop through these gaps, but they were two small. Then he realised, there was not one, but two giants in this new shelter, and he heard the two of them discussing something, perhaps it was his fate? Soon he was dropped into a strange container, a thin bag that was completely transparent. He could see the world around him, but couldn’t leave the prison that he was placed in, having to lay flat, given that there wasn’t too much space. But his life didn’t end. Strangely enough, the giants did him no harm. Instead, they took him with them.

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Soon, they had left the giants’ shelter, but it was a much stranger world outside. He could see the dome once again, covered in the white and grey bubbling blanket that appears from time to time, blocking out the empty blue and the shining yellow sphere which travels across it. But there was no vast swathes of grass and trees, nothing normal. Rather, the shelter created by the giants appeared to extend into the outside world, everything was black, and grey, and colours that differed from the browns and greens of the world he was used to. Great towering monoliths reaching into the sky were all around him. There were beasts that looked created, not by nature, but by the giants, which would consume them, before moving around and spitting them out. Instead of legs, they had round things that allowed it to move. But after some time, he did occasionally see the greens of plants, and a few trees, as well as some brown dirt, but there was never much of it. An instinct arose to go there, but there was nothing he could do.

The giants walked with our grasshopper friend in this strange, alien world for quite some time, and he saw many, many more giants. Countless giants, all doing whatever it is they do. Perhaps, it was mainly just eating, walking, resting, and sometimes mating too, just like him. Eventually, the two giants stopped right next to the biggest patch of grass, bushes and trees that he’d seen so far. It was incredible, beautiful and far enough away from all of the grey structures of the giants and their mechanical beasts. The two giants talked amongst themselves, and then all of a sudden, our grasshopper friend was emptied from his see-through prison. A moment of hesitation struck him, and he leapt onto the arm of the giant. Having gained a semblance of trust for the being who was essentially in control of his fate. But the giant softly brushed him off, placing him on a nearby shrub, uttered something in the strange tongue of theirs, and the two walked off together.

Our grasshopper friend adapted immediately once again to his surroundings. Hopping and jumping and bouncing, eating a new cuisine of grass that tasted a little bit strange.  He could rest once again, but he was alone. Yet this didn’t matter to him. He just continued to go on with the flow of his life with no thought or worry about it, living out the rest of his days, maybe long, maybe short, he didn’t really know.

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