philosophy

Step 1: Face Reality

I think that’s at the core of everything I care about. You have to face reality.

I wrote this a few years ago, back when I was Past Ben.1

I am getting honestly kind of scared about how unusual a stance this seems to be these days. It strikes me as fairly self-evident. Things are a certain way. Also, that means they are not any other way. Like it or not.

I have one new fear as I read this, and one old fear.

One of the most desperate driving impulses in my life is to discover and respond to how things actually are. I can’t stand the idea of intentional self-deception, and I have only an uneasy truce with the fact that lots of truth is currently out of my reach. It is a hard, bracing, knife-edged lifestyle, and absolutely gushing with life and power. I know I have pockets of inaccuracy and self-deception in me – lots of them, I’m pretty sure – but they only last as long as they can stay out of my scopes.

The reason I share this is because it’s the groundwork for any conversation you’ll ever have with me. If you can’t agree that reality is a certain way (and therefore not any other way) and that we must find and face reality as it is, I’m happy to serve you however I’m called to, but our serious conversations are not going to get very far. Conversely, if you agree with me on that, I’ll love every moment we spend talking, even if we’re at each others’ throats in hard debate.

Prove me wrong, anytime, on anything. Open invitation. Don’t take my word for stuff. If you can convince me that I’m wrong, I’ll change my mind and thank you for it. I can’t understand any other way of living.

Here comes the part that sparks the old fear, followed by the part that sparks the new.

This gets particularly interesting because I’m a devoted follower of Jesus. I follow him because I’m convinced he’s real and everything he said is right. My allegiance is to the truth and to Jesus, not to “being a Christian” or anything else. If you seek the truth, I don’t care where you’re starting from or where you currently stand. Let’s talk. And if you’re not willing to face the truth, I don’t care if you’re a Christian or what. Be careful how seriously you engage with me, because I’m committed to bringing everything into the light.

The old fear is one that, I suspect, is akin to the fear of coming out. Among many people I deeply respect, believing in a real God (much less a living Jesus) is at best a little eccentric, at worst self-delusional and maybe even dangerous. Highly unscientific, at the very least. One of those people. And I really, really care about people knowing that I’m capable of intellectual rigor and I’m not a superstitious freak or a kneejerk bigot. Shallow, I know, but I care.

The thing I want you to understand is that I believe in God as a result of my synthesis of how I’ve seen the world working. My faith is not (intentionally) escapist or superstitious. I didn’t decide to believe in God. It’s just that, as far as I can tell, God is real, and I’ve had to decide how I’m going to respond to that.

Often this complicates my life rather than making it easier. But based on my experience, not believing in God would be kind of like not believing in electromagnetic force. It may be a little tricky to explain, sure, and I’m open to new data, but I’m pretty sure that, whether clumsily or accurately, we’re describing a real thing.

But there’s another side to it, too. Pretty much all of the actual Christians I know in real life are super cool, but outside my really cool church and my deep and deeply understanding friends, and even sometimes with them, I’m scared to admit how deeply I think about and question things about God and Christianity and spiritual things, and what strange and complicated conclusions (or theories) I arrive at.

Or sometimes it’s just hard to explain my ideas.

But in any case, I worry that people might not like what I’m really thinking about things. Sometimes my ideas are a little unorthodox (in the strict sense, diverging from accepted beliefs). Often it’s just really hard to tell whether they’re orthodox or not because I’m not asking the standard questions to start with, much less getting the standard answers. And that makes people uncomfortable, or makes them wonder if I’m really reliably Christian.2

To you who are worried, I want to reassure you that I am deeply devoted to Jesus, and I plan to walk with him for the rest of my life and beyond. I’d go so far as to say I’m in love with him. You know, not in a weird way, except how could it possibly not be weird? He’s invisible and 2,000 years old and/or eternal and has been through death and out the other side!

I want to shout this to the world in two ways. To you who don’t know this yet: Jesus is incredible! He’s invisible and etc. and yet so cool and lovely! Ask him to show you if he’s real, then pay attention to what you know deep down is what you really need to do next—Unplug for a minute? Reconcile with somebody? Write faster?—and follow that. Then repeat. Recipe for adventure.

And to you who believe in Jesus: This is freaking weird! You’re so weird! You believe in invisible people! You think you’re going to be alive ten thousand years from now! And I do too! We’re so weird! Let’s not act like we have it buttoned up, like this is all some tidy, comforting lens that finally makes sense of everything.

As for the new fear? It’s sparked by that last line:

Be careful how seriously you engage with me, because I’m committed to bringing everything into the light.

I’m really scared that’s less true now than it was when I wrote it. I’m scared I’m getting comfortable and middle-aged and cocooned into my sense of my own smartness and rightness in how I see the world. So I’ll end with an old invitation that still holds. Seriously.

Prove me wrong, anytime, on anything. Open invitation. Don’t take my word for stuff. If you can convince me that I’m wrong, I’ll change my mind and thank you for it. I can’t understand any other way of living.

Cheers!

—Ben

PS – To those who actually read this far, thank you for bearing with me. I know it’s a huge departure from what I’ve been posting so far, but it had to come out sooner or later. It was a really scary post to write, and I’m grateful to know that there are people like you who will hear me out even when I’m complicated and long-winded and not necessarily making sense yet. But then, what are friends for, right?


1 Or was I? Maybe back then I was Normal Ben and now I was Past Ben back then. Am having been. Was have—Hmm. No, maybe now I’m Future—wait, now I was going to being Future Ben? Maybe there’s just two Normal Bens. Well, infinite Normal Bens. Or rather, would I—we?—be quantized? Maybe I am having been a spectrum of increasingly future Bens. Ben. Increasingly future Ben. Except there’s less and less Future Ben as you travel along the continuum. So I’m a continuum of increasingly past Ben. Or Bens, if we’re quantized. Sorry, if I’m quantized. Sorry, what was the question?

2 This is part of why I like writing stories, by the way. I can explore the uncomfortable questions and oddball answers freely, and if people get nervous about it, well, come on. It’s just a story. What harm can stories do, right? Heh heh. Riiight.

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What Counts as Magic?

The more I think about it, the more I’m having trouble defining ‘magic’ in the context of fictional worlds. You could say it’s performing unpredictable, incomprehensible, or impossible acts, but the most satisfying fictional magic has a system behind it, sometimes a whole science. It’s not inexplicable or arbitrary, though it may be difficult.

But engineering is difficult. If you have a world where a small class of people can, through their arcane arts, create a pile of stones that hold each other up in midair over a rushing river, such that people and even whole cartloads can pass over them dry as a bone, is that magic? No. It’s a bridge.

At least, I don’t think that counts as magic.

Let’s get a couple red herrings out of the way early on:

  • Illusions don’t count; if it’s just a clever use of curtains and trap doors, that’s not magic for our purposes.
  • I think we can also exclude the purely arbitrary; call it chaos. If it’s fundamentally, inherently inexplicable (not just obscure or difficult), it’s more tautological than magical. A whale appeared because a whale appeared. Poof.

Ok, I’ve been trying, but I can’t seem to get away from Clarke’s Third Law here. The tricky one is technology. Broadly speaking, we could define a technology as something that systematically harnesses natural forces in order to carry out a process with greater power and/or efficiency. That’s off the top of my head, but I think it’s a decent start.

So why is a laser gun technology and a staff of lightning magic? They’re both tools that use knowable (if obscure) systems to harness natural forces to accomplish something with more power or efficiency.

It’s not about a visible causal chain, chanting spells instead of yanking a lever. Plenty of technology uses invisible, mysterious forces. Like a radio. Or an airplane.

It’s not about complexity, or simplicity, or incomprehensibility, or difficulty. It’s not that science is systematic and magic is fuzzy; some of the best magic systems ever written are the most rigorously systematic. (Why else are schools or universities of magic such a common trope?)

It’s not that science is more egalitarian than magic; you could (and many stories do) have a technological or scientific elite working as a secretive ruling class. It doesn’t make them magicians; in fact it’s often a running tension that the ignorant populace thinks they’re sorcerers even though they’re not.

And what about the fuzzy boundary? Is teleportation magic or sci-fi technology? What if you call it apparition? Is alchemy science or magic? (Or both? Neither?) Is Asimov’s Second Foundation advanced technology or rudimentary magic?

But if there’s no clear difference, why are the categories so persistent? Even if we can’t pin down the definitions, most of us can easily categorize a list of tools or actions into magical or non-magical. Fireball. Dynamite. Resurrecting Aslan. Destroying Alderaan. Summoning demons. Warp drive.

Easy, right?

The closest I’ve come to making sense of it is that magic involves crossing a boundary between worlds. Depending on the story this could mean drawing on metaphysical energies, crossing into a fae/interplanar/supernatural realm, seeking divine power, or whatever.

Next project, of course, is to define ‘worlds’ more rigorously in this sense of it, but it seems that as long as something is explicable entirely in terms of one world, it’s scientific/technological (or natural), but when it involves crossing boundaries, it’s magical.

What do you guys think? Leave me a comment and let me know.

Cheers!

—Ben