Esoteric Dissertations from a One-Track Mind

March 17, 2008

90 Minutes in Heaven: One Atheist’s Perspective

Filed under: books, religion — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 7:55 am

Upon the urging of one commenter, I read “90 Minutes in Heaven.” I managed to do so in one weekend which again makes me wonder why the people over at the New York Times have not taken the time to review it. It certainly isn’t because it takes too long to read.

I could bemoan the tone and numerous logical fallacies, however to concentrate on those would be a tad unfair. The book is not a polemic like “The God Delusion.” In fact, it isn’t really about 90 minutes in heaven either. At its core, it is about solidarity, hope, and coming to terms with a catastrophic life-altering change.

First, I’d like to talk a little bit about Piper’s experience in heaven. It is less than 10% of an approximately 200 page book. This is actually something to be thankful for, because it reads like two children trying to one-up one another. How wonderful was heaven?  More wonderful than the most wonderful thing you can imagine. Lest I be accused of exaggerating, I’ll let some quotes speak for themselves.

Without the slightest doubt, I know heaven is real. It’s more real than anything I’ve ever experienced in my life. I sometimes say, “Think of the worst thing that’s ever happened to you, the best thing that’s ever happened to you, and everything in between; heaven is more real than any of those things. – Longing for Home pg 194

Age expresses time passing, and there is no time there. All of the people I encountered were the same age they had been the last time I had seen them — except that all the ravages of living on earth had vanished. Even though some of their features may not have been considered attractive on earth, in heaven every feature was perfect, beautiful, and wonderful to gaze at. – My Time in Heaven pg 27

Besides heaven being melodious, luminous, brilliant, beautiful, perfect, etc., etc., ad nauseum. Piper provides one minor tweak to the biblical account.

One thing did surprise me: On earth, whenever I thought of heaven, I anticipated that one day I’d see a gate made of pearls, because the Bible refers to the gates of pearl. The gate wasn’t made of pearls, but was pearlescent — perhaps iridescent may be more descriptive. To me, it looked as if someone had spread pearl icing on a cake. The gate glowed and shimmered. – Heavenly Music pg 34

As is typical of these types of descriptions, it exists in a realm where words cease to have any meaning.

As for the miracles, it is hard to see any. Don Piper was declared dead. Piper therefore makes the logical leap that he was dead. No room for mistakes allowed in this declaration, despite a number of other mishaps Piper acknowledges during the course of the book. However, it remains unclear how thoroughly the police officers following behind the inmate driven semi, or the EMTs dispatched actually checked him.

The EMTs pronounced me dead as soon as they arrived at the scene. They stated that I died instantly. According to the report, the collision occurred at 11:45 A.M. The EMTs became so busy working with the others involved, that is was about 1:15 P.M. before they were ready to move me. They checked for a pulse once again. – From Heaven to Earth pg 37

Dick Onerecker was the first one to notice Don Piper was alive, and apparently prayed that Piper be delivered from “unseen injuries.” What this actually means is left open to interpretation, as its definition changes throughout the book. Piper initially interprets it to mean no brain trauma or internal injuries. Doctors confirm in the book that he had no injuries to his brain or organs in his thoracic cavity. By the final chapter, Piper just repeats the brain trauma portion of the deliverance. To me, it appears to be a post-hoc rationalization and moving goal posts. It is also perfectly consistent with his survival. He was never, in fact, clinically dead.

At the heart of the book is Piper’s personal transformation, his battle with depression and ever constant pain. The backdrop is set against not the life he had before, but actually experiencing heaven. It is exactly those twists in the details that make this story, which is a moving story in its own right and something I can definitely empathize with, fall completely tone-deaf and flat as a commentary on the human condition. On page 107 Piper describes his depression vanishing. Poof. Piper describes it as a miracle. I describe it as a contrivance. It is clear Piper’s depression didn’t just vanish. It came back to haunt him, in little everyday reminders of things he was no longer able to do. This is by far the most frustrating aspect of the book.

Piper faced finding what he describes as a “New Normal.” It is breaking down the barriers of expectations, letting people help you, and finding ways of helping other people in solidarity. Letting go of your expectations and dreams of your former life and finding hope and happiness in your new condition. If anything, I would expect Piper to recognize there is no way life is supposed to be. It is about adapting and changing. Disaster can come suddenly and at any moment, but the recovery is gradual and a constant struggle. Through it all, there is a love of other people, your friends and your family, your community, even a few people you wouldn’t expect who help with your personal adjustment and give you strength to go on. Which is why, when Piper describes his depression vanishing like turning off a switch I am saddened. It is an incomplete metamorphosis. It is a reversion to the expectations and attitudes that he had before the accident. As I described this aspect of frustration to my mother, she pondered whether or not Piper was planning on writing a sequel to address this deficiency. I can only hope that is the case.

In the end, I think most readers will find what they are looking for when reading “90 Minutes in Heaven.” As far as near-death experiences [NDE] go, Piper admits his attitudes in the final chapter.

I have no intention of trying to solve this [NDE] debate. I can only relate what happened to me. No matter what researchers may or may not try to tell me, I know I went to heaven. – The Why Questions pg 201

In the same way, some may not believe my account; they may think it was some kind of wish fulfillment during a point of severe trauma. I don’t have to defend my experience.

I know what happened to me. For those of us whose faith is in the reality of heaven, no amount of evidence is necessary. I know what I experienced. – The Why Questions pg 205

As Piper mentions throughout the book, he is not a particularly introspective person and doesn’t particularly focus on what happened, but rather why it happened.

I’ve devoted an immense amount of time to considering why it happened rather than what happened. – The Why Questions pg 201

In the final analysis, “90 Minutes in Heaven” is a moving story that is utterly hamstrung and incomplete by its reliance on religion and irrational belief. On the one hand, the organization of the church enabled a great deal of the story, especially help to a family going through a crisis. It also enables Piper to help other people who are going through similar struggles. He has lived their pain. However, much like Piper’s accident, the book is a mess, but the heart of it survives if you are willing to use your brain.

March 16, 2008

Remarks on Religion by Noam Chomsky

Filed under: culture, religion — Tags: , , , — codesmithy @ 10:48 am

Well, I’m a little more than half-way through “90 Minutes of Heaven.” With some luck, I should be able to finish it tomorrow, although I’m not sure if I’ll be able to write up a post about it by then. There is quite a bit I would like to say.

Chomsky has some remarks on religion to hold one over. I consider myself in more or less the same boat. I particularly agree with Chomsky’s sentiment: “I think irrational belief is a dangerous phenomenon, and I try to consciously avoid irrational belief.”

As a preface, like Chomsky, I do recognize that religion does do some good. The problem I have with it is how it masks the bad. I believe the only way that we are going to make it, as a species, is on a basis of liberty and recognition of individual human dignity. Humility and introspection are keys to recognizing past failures and correcting behaviors. I recognize that religious believers encompass a diverse group of people, but what I often find is a false modesty and a deliberate lack of introspection. If one feels the don’t fall into this group then fine, my criticism doesn’t apply. However, I find such an attitude permeates Piper’s book, and worse yet, he seems unaware of the issue.

For example, let’s take the issue of the seat belt. It is safe to say, if Don Piper hadn’t been wearing his seat belt, he would have died. He admits so himself on page 55 claiming that it was a miracle he was wearing one. Therefore, if it hadn’t been for Ralph Nader, I think it is safe to say Don Piper would not be alive today. The reason the Ford Escort held up to a head-on collision with a semi as well as it did was because of the crash-testing and safety devices Nader advocated. Yes, there were countless people who contributed to saving Don Piper’s life, the doctors who treated him, the engineers who designed the car, the people who built the bridge, among countless others. However, Ralph Nader raised the consciousness of automobile safety, which led to the distinct set of circumstances that helped save Piper’s life. This did not just happen. It was a result of hard work. Nader made great personal sacrifices in this regard and was actively targeted to be personally discredited. It therefore seems superficial to irrationally thank all these imaginary factors without recognizing a few that actually made a tangible difference.

However, Piper seems unable to because his intellectually lazy explanation stops with his decision to put on the seat belt that day, and he believes that was because of God. This is why religion and honest introspection appear to be so antithetical to me. If not in theory, but in practice. I want people to break through this God barrier, look deeper than the superficial explanation and try to gain a deeper understanding of the world that surrounds us. Thus, I’m not trying to attack God or religion, I’m attacking the thinking. In this sense, God is just the word used to defend stubborn ignorance. Religion is just the crutch people use to justify their disinterested and superficial understanding of the world.

March 15, 2008

Credit Crisis: Bear Naked

Filed under: economy, politics — Tags: , , — codesmithy @ 10:15 am

Paul Krugman has a good article titled “Betting the Bank.” He has a succinct description of what the Federal Reserves does and the power that it has.

The Fed’s economic power rests on the fact that it’s the only institution with the right to add to the “monetary base”: pieces of green paper bearing portraits of dead presidents, plus deposits that private banks hold at the Fed and can convert into green paper at will.

He also describes how the Fed will assume risker forms of debt.  Basically, converting bad home loans that are essentially worthless into cash.  It is essentially a $400 billion bailout.

There has been a lot of talk about liquidity.  About financial institutions are basically sound, however they have fallen victim to a run on the bank.  The symptoms are the same, but the disease is different.  Yes, a run on the bank can cause an otherwise sound financial institution to be pushed under because it is in their nature to loan some percentage of the deposits to people who need loans.  If all the depositors come to the bank and demand their money, of course they don’t have the money to give every depositor their due.  The bank loaned it out, and it hasn’t been paid back yet.  This is exactly the type of scenario that the Fed can solve.

However, what we are facing is much different.  The loans were bad.  Many people have taken their money and walked away.  People got a loan for a home they can’t afford and started defaulting on their payments.  In fact, many people are defaulting at the same time.  The assets are not worth the value of loans. The transitive effect of people not fulfilling their obligations have finally reached the financial institutions.

To the degree that the Fed injects liquidity, it just delays the inevitable.  The real money on a loan is made on the interest years in the future.  The differences in actual value and these investments initial perceived value couldn’t be more stark.

The short of it, someone is not going to get paid.  The elites and the politically connected are ensuring that the person not getting paid is you, the taxpayer.  Losses are socialized, profits are privatized.  We are living in a corporate welfare state.  If we don’t allow these banks to fail at at least have some semblance of capitalism and accountability, we are not on the road to serfdom, we are at the destination.

March 14, 2008

90 Minutes Redux

Filed under: books, religion — Tags: — codesmithy @ 9:21 am

I’ve had some exchanges with someone claiming to be from Christianfaqed. They thought that I should read the book before I called for the book be reviewed by the New York Times at the same standard “The God Delusion” was. To demonstrate the fact that I’m not stubbornly ignorant, I agreed to read it and post a review. The limiting factor is my free time, however there is some doubt in my mind as to how accurate some of the online claims are and I think it is best to get those out of my mind for my own edification. “90 Minutes in Heaven” would be one of those books that I have almost no interest in reading ordinarily. However, in this instance, I’m going to treat the book more like a mystery novel and look for clues as to what really happened that day.

Amazon had the first chapter online,  so I got a feeling of what I was getting into. Luckily, the reading should be light. I’m more interested in his description of the accident and the aftermath than Piper’s description of heaven or other irrelevant details. However, if the first chapter was any indication, there should be plenty of mini-mysteries to keep me occupied. Such as this one on page 20:

According to those who were at the scene, the guards called for medical backup from the prison, and they arrived a few minutes later. Someone examined me, found no pulse, and declared that I had been killed instantly.

Who was this someone?  Now, the author seems to indicating that it might have been someone from the medical backup from the prison.  However, that isn’t explicitly stated.  Why not?  I’ll just have to read more to find out if that gets resolved.  It certainly isn’t addressed by the end of the chapter.  I think searching for these clues will be the only thing that will keep it bearable.  But, if I can make it through John Galt speaks, I am sure I can make it through this.

March 13, 2008

Taxi to the Dark Side

Filed under: film, politics — Tags: — codesmithy @ 9:05 am

Again, there are some dubious copyright issues here, so this might get taken down soon. However, google video has “Taxi to the Dark Side,” Alex Gibney’s academy award winning documentary.  The film leaves no doubt who the real criminals are, nor the utter importance to reawaken the humanistic foundations this nation was founded on.  We are deluding ourselves if we believe we can win hearts and minds adopting methods that dehumanize those we perceive as our enemies.  America needs to be about something more than lines on the map.  It needs to be about ideas and human dignity.  A fight that we have been losing recently, and something the people of this country need to restore.

We are better than this.

March 11, 2008

Spitzer Prosecution: Evidence for a Surveillance State?

Filed under: politics — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 8:08 am

Democratic Governor of New York, Eliot Spitzer got caught by a federal wiretap hiring a prostitute.  This has caused Glenn Greenwald to ask: “who cares if Eliot Spitzer hires prostitutes?”

Yes, Spitzer apparently broke the law.  I also believe public officials should be held to high standards.  But, one has to wonder if the fed was actually investigating a crime in this instance, or investigating a person.  These are the exact type of petty and shallow prosecutions with ulterior political motives that one worries about in a surveillance state.  The goal isn’t to make the society safer.  It is to distract the public and embarrass political opponents for political gains.  Vast resources are used to investigate and prosecute petty offenses and in the worst case blackmail officials.

These are the types of prosecutions you get when you give vast and unchecked spying powers to the state.  It isn’t to make us safe from terrorists.  It is to ensure those who are in power, stay in power.  The way they do so is having every piece of dirt you can possibly imagine on everybody, then selective enforce the law while touting the highest of ethical standards.  It should be no surprise that Spitzer is being prosecuted under the anachronistic Mann Act, an act with an infamous history including the prosecution of Jack Johnson.

Should Spitzer resign?  I don’t know.  I don’t really care.  He isn’t the governor of the state that I live in, so my opinion doesn’t count for much anyway.  However, this prosecution should give us some pause on how federal surveillance is actually being used.  It should also be obvious that the purpose of unchecked spying powers isn’t to legitimately track down terrorists.  It is to discover personally embarrassing crimes like this.  Such a wide dragnet is patently illegal, and precisely why the telecoms need immunity.

March 10, 2008

A Review of the Credit Crisis

Filed under: economy — Tags: , , — codesmithy @ 7:04 am

Back in November I wrote this about the credit crisis:

Basically, things aren’t adding up. I honestly don’t think we’ll know how bad things will get until February 2008. However, there still seems to be a lot of potential to go down, and an accurate picture of the situation is still elusive.

Well, February 2008 came and went, so it is worthwhile to look around and see what is going on. According to a recently released Federal Reserve report, revolving credit, made up of credit and charge cards, rose $5.5 billion to $947.4 billion in January. Why is revolving credit important? It is the credit of last resort. We expect those who are coming up a little bit short to use this line of credit to make up the difference between expenditures and income. The $5.5 billion increase represents about .6% of the total and projects a 7% increase for the year. Thankfully, the Federal Reserve has the report online so we can compare it to other years. It doesn’t represent a huge spike, but it seems to represent a continual strain that started around 2006. Given that there were already concerns back in October about consumer debt, can this rate of growth really continue?

U.S. foreclosures are soaring as borrowers give up. The central point of concern is that this isn’t even due to rate resets. People are foreclosing because they could never afford their mortgages in the first place. Many of these are prime borrowers, not sub-prime.

New foreclosures jumped to 0.83 per cent of all home loans in the fourth quarter from 0.54 per cent a year earlier. Late payments rose to a 23-year high, the organization said in a report issued yesterday.

“We’re seeing people give up even before they get to the reset because they couldn’t afford the home in the first place,” said Jay Brinkmann, vice-president of research and economics for the Washington-based trade group.

I wasn’t anticipating the three month lag in the financial data. It looks like it is typically three-four months behind. However, things are not looking like they’ve turned the corner, and people will feel the crunch much sooner than people like me can demonstrably prove it.

This is why it is important to listen to people carefully. Generally, there is good information out there. It just gets drowned out in the blather. Here is Peter Schiff predicting this problem as early as August 2006. Please don’t be turned off by the Ron Paul advertisement. One can agree on the facts about a problem without agreeing on the solution. Just listen to what Schiff says and what Art Laffer says. I think we know who deserves that penny now.

March 9, 2008

90 Minutes with Richard Dawkins

Filed under: books, culture, media, religion — Tags: , , , — codesmithy @ 1:00 pm

Richard Dawkins came to University of California at Berkeley on his University Tour. Unfortunately, I ran into some traffic on the way over, and hence arrived late. Late, as it turned out, just wasn’t going to cut it. The event sold out. There was a book signing afterwards, but having left my hardcover edition at home I didn’t feel like picking up another copy just for Dawkins to sign it. Resigned to my fate, I returned home from the bust.

In the bigger scheme of things, it is no great loss. I had already read “The God Delusion.” I’m already an atheist. I’ve watched quite a few of his presentations online. I highly doubt he would have covered any ground that I was previously unaware of. The draw of going to such events are the questions from the audience, but those tend to be very hit or miss.

Although, it was my personal failure for not arriving early enough, only having seating for 705 people seems to guarantee some people would be left out. If they would have gone with Zellerbach Hall, everyone interested would have been able to attend. I imagine the student group setting up the lecture didn’t do so because of the cost differences, and possibly because they didn’t believe Dawkins would be able to sell out Wheeler Auditorium. If that is the case, Dawkins seems to be a character of unanticipated popularity.

Thus, I always find myself at a little bit of a loss looking at the best sellers list. There are many fine books on the paperback non-fiction best seller list. “The God Delusion” is sitting above Friedman’s “The World is Flat” at 14. However, look at 5 on the list, “90 Minutes in Heaven”? It has been on the list 71 weeks whereas Dawkins’ book has only been on the list for 9.

To my surprise, Amazon recommends buying “90 Minutes in Heaven” with “23 Minutes in Hell” by Bill Wiese, thus exposing a fatal flaw in Amazon’s recommendation system. It should be recommending “Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time” by Michael Shermer, but I digress. Although, I’m still searching for “56 Minutes in Purgatory” so I could rest easy knowing there was a modern version of the Divine Comedy, but so far no luck.

However, the underlying point is here criticism. Dawkins has been criticized a lot, from an absurd caricature on South Park to endless litanies of his shrillness and stridency in advocating atheism. It is telling that the New York Times has not reviewed “90 Minutes in Heaven.” However, Jim Holt plays his role as an enabler for religious belief with an excellent review of “The God Delusion.” I want to say, there is nothing wrong with the review. It is well written. Points are well-argued with context, although I might not agree with all of them. I honestly wish all reviews were done as well as Holt’s of “The God Delusion.”

It is unfortunately the intrinsic state of atheism to be unable to deliver an absolutist knockout blow. The crux of the problem is Descartes’ evil deceiver. We can be confident in our own thinking, but since our perceptions of the world are fallible, it is necessary to admit we could be mistaken about everything else. However, the probability of this being the case is very low. This uncertainty is why many philosophers go reaching to god, just like Descartes did. God provides a way to assert something with absolutes, however introducing god produces as many issues as it answers. It is also true that this abstract, necessary metaphysical god to assert certainty is very different from one that we would associate with any religion. It is at best a metaphysical crutch that allow seemingly sensible people to cram all their superstitious belief into and pretend it is OK. Hence, atheists are caught in a catch-22 with the superstitious enablers who apparently want to run away from Occam’s razor.

Again, the issue isn’t the review. It is what the New York Times chooses not to review. Holt complains of logical sloppiness in Dawkins’ book. How about holding that standard to “90 Minutes in Heaven?” What, one of their reviewers could not find time to read a 208 page book in one of 71 weeks it has been on the best sellers list? It is in the nonfiction section no less. I’ll bet there is more truth in “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien than “90 Minutes in Heaven,” but at least O’Brien had the decency to call his work fiction.

Look at what people are claiming about Piper’s story:

The first is that he was dead for 90 minutes. I don’t know that I’ve heard of anyone being dead for that long and being resuscitated. The second is that if they were, they were in fact helped by a physical or medical technician to be revived. Don Piper was not, he simply came back to life for no apparent reason other than God. The third is that he came out with no internal injuries which given his circumstances was improbable to the extreme. That is why I give him great credibility.

I don’t know if the author of the post actually knows how credibility is supposed to function, and I highly suspect it is a marketing piece but still let’s take the post author at his word and assume he read the book. Piper “came back to life for no apparent reason other than God.” Piper rose from the dead with no help. The man was not breathing, his heart was not pumping, he was dead for 90 minutes and just woke up. We know brain cells die within 5 minutes of not receiving oxygen, and this man survived 90. Piper can help write a book and preach afterwards. How is this not one of the most talked about medical case studies in history?

If Dawkins deserves to be publicly criticized for his “tone [being] smug and the logic occasionally sloppy.” Doesn’t Piper deserve the same? Dawkins isn’t the one claiming to have gone to heaven and to have been raised from the dead by God with no physical earthly help, after all.

March 8, 2008

He Was a Quiet Man

Filed under: film — codesmithy @ 12:08 pm

I watched Frank A. Cappello’s “He Was a Quiet Man.” It stars Christian Slater and Elisha Cuthbert. Christian Slater plays Bob Maconel an introverted, ignored cubicle dweller. Maconel exists in a dead-end job, harassed by younger, yuppie managers. Originally planning to go on a shooting rampage, his life changes dramatically when, coincidently, another office worker, Coleman, goes on one first. Coleman severely wounds Venessa Parks, an unrequited love interest of Maconel’s. While reloading, Coleman expresses his desire to put Parks out of her misery. Maconel kills Coleman using the weapon he was planning to use to go on his shooting rampage. Parks survives, but is paralyzed. Maconel is promoted and treated as a hero.

Parks, unsatisfied with her life prospects, asks Maconel to kill her. Maconel is unable to, but after the attempted assisted suicide Parks discovers she has regained the ability to move some of the fingers in her right hand slightly. Eventually, a bond develops between Maconel and Parks.

“He Was a Quiet Man” is half dark comedy, half drama. It is ultimately a story about being alone. The desire to be noticed and lauded against the fear of being mocked and belittled. The line between lashing out at the world, and a self-loathing angst at the seeming inability to fit in. I haven’t seen another film capture those themes as well as “He Was a Quiet Man.” It isn’t for everyone. But, to those that can relate, it provides a commentary on the human condition one would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere.

Update:

A trailer for the film.

March 7, 2008

Rolling Stone: The Myth of the Surge

Filed under: politics — Tags: — codesmithy @ 9:35 am

Rolling Stone has an insightful article called “The Myth of the Surge.” (h/t crooksandliars)

If we want to look at why the war is costing so much and not achieving the results we expected, the article provides some answers to why that is the case. Quagmire seems a fitting way to describe it.

Hopefully it will give some context to what is really going on when “fifty-three people were killed and 125 were wounded in two bomb attacks Thursday evening in a Baghdad commercial district.” Or when the news story says:

Also Thursday, the U.S. military said a U.S.-backed Iraqi group helped American troops find an “al Qaeda in Iraq torture house and prison.”

A local leader in Sons of Iraq — the name of the Iraqi militia or grass-roots group helping the U.S. and Iraqi militaries — provided intelligence that led troops Wednesday to the facility, located 20 miles south of Baghdad, the military said in a news release.

An American troop commander, was quoted as saying the local leader “wants to clean up the area” since “AQI killed half his family.”

Soldiers found “a house full of materials used by insurgents for torture.”

The U.S. military also said Thursday that coalition troops in Iraq killed four insurgents and detained 26 others in raids Wednesday and Thursday targeting al Qaeda in Iraq.

Know that the story is probably no where near as unambiguous as it is portrayed. We don’t know language. We don’t know the culture. The troops live in their bases, then go out and kill and arrest Iraqis based on information that is at best questionable. The U.S. military is being used to pull off local political power plays on people that latched on extremists because they offered protection and money caused by the power vacuum left in the wake of the invasion.

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