The Atheist In The Cathedral

Posted in Philosophy by Arasmus on August 23, 2010

I find myself feeling awkward, which is a good thing, because it means something new is happening. About two weeks ago I discovered the teachings of an intelligent and sincere Benedictine monk, David Steindl-Rast. The level at which he interprets religious traditions, confirmed a line of thought that I’ve left untended for a while.

As best as one can determine anything through the use of one’s senses, I have observed effects that suggest to me that I have a spiritual component. I would not describe the evidence as absolutely confirming the fact, but more like the evidence suggesting that exercise is good for me. When I think of myself in a spiritual way, when I make decisions taking how it affects my spirit into account, or I engage in a spiritual exercise, whether it is meditation, visiting a place of contemplation, regardless of the religious tradition, or simply walking in a forest, I feel better, much better. When I do not take that sensitivity into account, I feel worse. That’s the phenomenon.

I am quite willing to accept the idea that my reaction is simply a learned response. I am willing to accept that it is merely the internal manifestation of a behavior implicitly prescribed by my culture, i.e. that the image of the Buddha, or a quiet church in the middle of the day, or the silence of a forest, is so commonly thought to induce a sense of peace, that it does – a placebo effect if you will. Assuming that that is true, it is barely relevant. I am going to die soon. This prioritizes the good, once it doesn’t cost too much, over the perfect.

My perspective is that the well-known religions of the world are interwoven with the fallible and corrupting influences of their having, over centuries, become tools with which the powerful control the less organized. And you can see this in every religion. At some point, the spiritual practice leaves the womb and becomes tainted with the political desires of a temporal power. But within each of the world’s religions, there is an awareness of man’s spiritual capacity and how that needs to be managed, and most exciting, how it can be grown. Thus, beneath all the mumbo-jumbo, there is a very useful skill. It is as if all the medical doctors in the world were also religious priests, who, in addition to knowing the workings of the human body, also babbled on about absolute nonsense. Before we rightly throw away all the mumbo-jumbo, I would like to identify and preserve that medical knowledge for future use. Similarly, before throwing out the superficial trappings of commonly practiced religions, I’d like to go into their most refined learnings and ask – what in there is useful? What did they know about how the human animal works? For example, all mystic traditions suggest that a human being can enjoy a higher and more sustainable level of happiness when he ceases to weigh every event in life against his own egotistical desires. When I’ve practiced this idea, I experience an enjoyable peace. So I am going to do it again. Interesting and useful insights like this, that do not require one to believe in six impossibilities before breakfast, can be found in the more universalist writings of mystics within every religious tradition in the world. They represent centuries of work-product by some very intelligent individuals. It is simply ignorant inefficiency to cast-out these notes because of a refusal to apply one’s own intelligence in such a way as to separate the wheat from the chaff.

I started this note by saying that this line of thinking felt awkward, and here is why. I support the New Atheist agenda to spread the light of rationalism into the dark corners of religiously motivated ignorance, whether it be the lunatic-fringe in the American Evangelical Christian tradition or the religiously sanctioned misogyny of fundamentalist Islam. But, as described above, I also believe man has a spiritual component. This is sometimes difficult for my fellow atheists to accept. But even more so, the idea that the great demon of organized religion might have anything of value for a rationalist buried within its hulking mass. As I try to make this point in conversations, perhaps less fluently than I have hopefully managed to do here, I find myself coming away frustrated that secularists are usually as guilty of interpreting religion at the same imbecile level as those they perceive as backward.

There is a great danger in denying the spiritual aspect of man. By doing so we deny him the tools to manage a potentially dangerous desire that those of insincere intent are only too willing to exploit. The primary nefarious actor I have in mind is consumerism, which today offers to feed man’s undiagnosed spiritual needs while starving him at every step. As has been observed by the famous thinkers of the Left, having satisfied our basic needs for food, shelter and a modicum of security and health, corporations in the developed world can now only grow by creating new needs in an already fattened population. They do this largely by targeting man’s unsatisfied spiritual longings with disingenuous offerings of Elysian peace and transcendence beyond the limitations of our individual capabilities. The luxury-goods industry offers the least subtle examples. It promises to transform us, in effect, into gods, if only we buy the most expensive cars, jewelry, cologne, clothes, etc. I see this as the great evil in the society in which I live. It enslaves us, divides us, makes us profoundly unhappy because of what we sacrifice to pay for these baubles, and moves us further away from a more sustainable happiness. And it is not even the fault of corporations, they are merely the drug dealers of a vice we refuse to refuse. But if we do not recognize our spirituality, if we do not entertain it as a variable which must be weighed, we rob ourselves of even the language with which to diagnose our own addiction.

Alas, it has been my experience that the discovery of spiritual treasures cannot be a social exercise. Humans in groups seem incapable of avoiding the wrestle of egos, the insistence on one-upmanship. I am as guilty of this as anyone else. I differ with the words of Jesus – wherever two or three are gathered, the spirit is invariably not among them. Maybe this will change for me someday, I hope it will, but for now it seems impossible to grow uncorrupt flowers of spiritual refinement in a social environment. It seems to me that it can only be done in the private cloister of one’s own mind, in a place beyond words. I think the range of tools found in the mystic traditions of the world’s religions may afford some that are of use. But the process of discovery is a solitary one. All that is common is the need.

A Call For A Reasoned Approach to Food Writing

Posted in Food by Arasmus on August 3, 2010

I’ve been frustrated by food writing for quite some time. In a single sentence, my frustration is that food writers don’t write in such a way that helps their readers to learn.

The internet has been a huge asset to food lovers everywhere and it has continued the trend, started by media outlets such as the Food Network, towards an ever more popular appreciation of food. This in turn has led to an increase in the quality of food and a more widespread understanding of the sociological, political, economic, ethical and cultural environments in which food as a human activity finds context. But the manner in which food writers write leaves a greater potential for growth untapped.

My understanding is, and my own personal experience seems to support this opinion, that the brain learns by adding new information to a structure that it already knows. Imagine then, if you will, a process whereby I take a child, that has lived in cave for all of its short life, outside for a few seconds everyday over several years. I show him the sky at 10AM and say “this is day.” I take them outside at 11PM, point to the darkness and say “this is night.” The process goes on ad infinitum with the child gathering snapshots of varying degrees of light and darkness, and associating them with either day or night. Obviously, the child at some point is going to encounter problematic periods, such as the break of dawn or twilight and it will try its best to categorize these periods as either day or night. This crude example is an attempt to illustrate what I call the “Sampling Approach.” It takes quite a long time and even if the child can remember all of these samples, its learning is still quite rough. By contrast, suppose if I explain to the child the process whereby night becomes day, how the sun rises in the East, makes its way across the sky and finally sets in the West. When the sun is in the sky it is day and when it is not it is night. Armed with this 5 second conversation, the “Reasoned Approach,” the child can leave the cave, look at the sky and not only determine whether it is day or night but also determine based on the sun’s position what time of day it is. It can clearly distinguish the nebulous period of dawn from that of twilight.

Much of food writing follows the Sample Approach. For example, I love sushi. I’ve probably eaten more than my fair share. I’ve read about it, watched hundreds of people on television eat it, but I still have only a vague idea as to what makes for truly excellent tuna. Of course it should be fresh, and the color is important, and I can tell what I think is a better texture. But no one has ever sat me down and said something to the effect that; “when you taste tuna, first look at it closely, you are looking for _[?]__, then when you taste it, better tuna should be more like __[?]___.” Instead I just read and see one food commentator after another saying “that’s awesome tuna” but with no instruction as to what are the tell-tale sensations that denote that quality. Now of course I could go and do a food course. But food writers are already talking to the finest chefs in the world, they eat in the best restaurants – why can’t they ask these chefs what their criteria is for determining high quality sushi, compare it with what other chefs say, and then tell me? (Needless to say, I have a suspicion that the reason this does not happen, is because a lot of people in the food industry are simply faking it. I eat therefore I write). It is in the interest of good chefs to elaborate how they measure quality. I can get bad tuna in lots of places, but if you teach me what good tuna is, and you are one of the few who has it, I’ll visit your restaurant. Leave me in ignorance and I’ll plod to the place around the corner. Bad restaurants live, good restaurants die. I keep on plodding.

I’ve expressed this opinion before and one of the responses I get is that there shouldn’t be an elite that tells people what is good and what is not good food. This completely misses the point and fails to engage my point in the reasonable center in which it is being advocated. I am not proposing that an elite tell people what is good (e.g. “Tuna from the Tasmanian Sea is the best”) but that people be given tools that they can use to measure what is good (e.g. “good tuna should have no smell and a light red luminescence due to the presence of ___ which declines as the tuna ages”). Once I have this structure to work with, I can then eat tuna and decide do I like what others consider to be good tuna? I can begin to tag my experiences eating tuna with useful metadata that helps me to grow in my knowledge and enjoyment of the food I am eating. I can begin to sort restaurants and chefs in an intelligent way. I can begin to refine the rule, interconnect it with other rules (e.g. fresher tuna is better with a more subtle sake) etc.

Now what would be thrilling about the net-effect of a move from the current Sample Approach to what I’m calling the Reasoned Approach is the impact that it would have on our food culture. Imagine if hundreds of thousands of foodies armed with these Reasoned Approaches ignited an ever-improving eco-system of better and better restaurants. Imagine how these reasoned approaches bubbling up to the surface, in a process akin to what we see in the world of open-source software, would create a cultural inheritance that could be added to, day after day, year after year and generation after generation. It would very quickly drive charlatans into the light and recognize and reward the true chefs, the true keepers of the flame of quality, nuance, honesty and integrity. In a traditional culture, these rules are passed from one generation to the next. A few bright-line rules delivered to me squarely in a vineyard during my youth helped me to appreciate wine more than years of watching quaffers on television. Because of the wonderful diversity of our culinary traditions in the United States, in this culture that role of observing, documenting, preserving and communicating falls to the food-writer. The challenge of course is that this will require food writers to do more work. Their writing must move from impressionist stories that feature food to reasoned arguments as to why the steak, tea, wine or stout, at a certain restaurant or bar is on the better end of the spectrum. But this discipline will over time give them an admirable cogency that will benefit them individually as well as the rest of the community.

And so, to the extent that anyone is listening, I’d like food writers to think about this. And more than that I would like them to start adopting a mental process when they begin to write of asking – what tool can I give the reader to help them appreciate better steaks, better cupcakes, better wines, Indian Pale Ales etc. Start your articles, books etc. by stating the standard, and then tell me how this particular experience compares to that standard and why. Feel free to describe two standards, or variations due to geography. But give it structure. I am not (and I feel I may have to repeat this) calling for “thou-shalt-nots” but I am asking for “it’s-often-better-ifs.” Structured in this way, the articles will begin to accumulate over time into a body of work that I think any writer looking back on his life will proudly be able to say – “that’s my contribution, that’s how I tried to help.” The alternative notion, that somehow everyone is remembering an opinion here on a particular set of facts, and another one there on a different set of facts, and another tip from this friend of mine who went to Napa once, is just a delusion. It’s an Emperor’s-Clothes scenario that better minds ought to leave behind. No one is remembering any of that unstructured random information in a useful intelligent way. It’s just not how our brains work. People have busy short lives. Food writers should try to help to make them more enjoyable. The net result will be better food for everyone now, and those to come.