News of the World

There’s a subreddit called “Uplifting News” that annoys me. It’s supposed to be an escape from the humdrum litany of murders, wars, etc. that is the news cycle; “There are still good, honest, compassionate people in this world and this is a place to share their stories,” says its description.

Have some headlines from the front page on July 4, 2014:

9 yo forgoes presents for his birthday, asks for dogs to be saved from kill shelters instead

Starbucks Praises Barista Who Defended Breastfeeding Mom

16-year-old with 3 college degrees gets perfect SAT score

US Navy gets its first four-star female admiral

Okay, I get it. Great things are happening to some people, and other people are doing great things. It’s not uplifting, though, because it doesn’t deal with the source of the sadness. I doubt anyone rational listening to the evening news ever thought, “Wow, everyone on planet earth is either suffering or causing others to suffer.” In fact, the suffering is newsworthy precisely because it’s different and new, a bright light illuminating the grey, benign mediocrity in which, thank G-d, most of us get to live.

I am downcast (assuming, for a moment, that I’m not a masochist looking for misery) because good news happens to exist, and in an ideal world, good news must exist.

Great things only exist in some ways and from some perspectives. The nine-year-old is kind, but not necessarily all dogs should be saved from kill shelters, and one wonders if forgoing one’s own gifts at such an age is even healthy and what his motivations are. Starbucks praised behavior that is controversial and whose righteousness is up for debate; the sixteen-year-old’s smarts are good only for him until put to some altruistic use; people are happy that the navy has four-star admirals, and happy that it has a female one, but generally not both. If the news meets some arbitrary standard or perspective, it inspires us. It can just as easily not meet that standard, leaving us just as cynical as before.

Suppose you’ve never seen or heard of a triangle, and I show you some examples of all different sizes, angles, colors, and materials. The more examples you see, the more you’re certain that triangles have three sides. But you can’t know for sure. Perhaps what I’m showing you are atypical triangles, a particular subset that happen to all have three sides, but the next triangle in the series will have four sides. It is only when you decide from the beginning that “all shapes I’ll see that have three sides I’ll call triangles” that a triangle must, by definition, have three sides. Without this a priori determination, the most you can ever say is “all triangles I have seen have three sides.” This is much what science says about all physical realities, even incredibly consistent ones like gravity, e.g. “all unsupported objects I’ve seen around here fall toward the earth, and not away from it.” This is consistent enough to be relied upon, but never makes the leap to becoming a must, a Truth (perhaps all we are experiencing is an incredibly long run in a random process, like getting a hundred heads in a row when flipping a coin, especially since we’re prone to underestimating how common long runs are). It seems the world is not a good place because we see good things happen. If you look up “news” in the dictionary, the definition doesn’t say “good.”

By the way, it’s not that some bad news ruins whatever good we find. Even if all headlines were uplifting headlines, I suspect we wouldn’t be happy, for the reason that all human attempts at utopia end in disaster and our representations of a peaceful, happy world (e.g. Disney World) come off as sort of creepy. You don’t get mugged in the street in the Disney world, but you do feel trapped, because you have a potential for selfishness and evil, a potential unmoved by bright colors that festers under the watchful eyes of park security, enforcers of an inhuman order.

No, until it must be good, it isn’t. Until we must be righteous, we aren’t. The next piece of news could always be bad, and if it isn’t, we might feel driven to make it so. Just as one who says a triangle has four sides is a madman, so must be he who says there is evil in the world. We don’t just need more good things to happen; we need to see everything differently.

Tanya, over two hundred years old, says we need to be happy. Or, more accurately, that depression is evil, and one ought to embrace its alternatives, joy and something called merirus (lit. bitterness). Depression is lethargy, whereas joy and bitterness are mirror images, positive and negative energy fueling improvement with hope or regret.

The author’s descendent and successor says that merirus is not for our generation, and that we must focus only on joy and the positive. It’s not, G-d forbid, that Tanya’s advice is less true now; we have changed. When men were men, contrition was sobering and drove one to the right path. Today, remorse is more likely to build and build until it drowns us in fear and self-absorption.

The Rebbe could have stopped there, and left us with another uplifting headline – Jewish Leader: “Life To Be Lived Focusing On Positive Future” – and the departure from merirus would based on non-uplifting technicality, i.e. we happen to be weaker than previous generations; another piece of surface-level good news generated at random.

But the Rebbe doesn’t stop at the first reason. In the system by which the seven millennia of human existence correspond to the spiritual rhythms of the seven-day week, we live in Friday afternoon, a time to prepare for the cosmic Shabbos, the coming of Moshiach; traditionally, the time for stock-taking and regret is Thursday night, as far into the week as possible without interrupting Friday’s royal preparations. Since we live after Thursday, so close to the time of redemption, we ought to prepare for the future, to taste of it by living joyously in the present. Because when that day comes, the world will express only G-dliness, true perfection, and death will be swallowed up forever.

In other words, the Rebbe defines the triangle from the get-go. What is a world? A perfect place, a place without evil. That is the Truth, as absolute as the infinite G-d it reflects. And since our knowledge of G-d and His plan allows us this a priori definition of reality, the uplifting news can actually serve its purpose; every three-sided triangle aligns with what we know to be true.

The headlines of /r/UpliftingNews are not random breaks in a fierce story; they are the true intention of the Storyteller finally coming through to his audience because they must, because that is the point of all His trillions of words. The child’s altruism, the company’s praise, the teen’s brilliance, and the navy’s appointment pierce the illusion of randomness and technicality: in the world’s perfect state, people will be selfless, empathetic, and brilliant; femininity, with its greater inherent spirituality, will supplant masculinity as the main mode of existence.

All these things were recorded as the true definition of our world thousands of years ago. Pick up a holy book, and read all about it.

Image from Flickr. CC BY 2.0

Deus Ex Machina

Statements, in general, are dangerous. A statement claims and at once denies; if the sky is blue it cannot be green. When the statement in question is susceptible to disproof, yet is essential to a worldview that would not survive its falsification, only a brave man or a foolish one would dare to speak. The dinosaur issue, for example, is arguably non-essential to Judaism. The Torah has an opinion on the matter (as with all matters) but the age of the world and the conditions of its existence in the distant past are not central tenets of our religion; on the contrary, there are many orthodox Jews who for whatever reason do not see a contradiction between Torah’s six-day creation and science’s billions-of-years formation. Equally as harmless are a priori axiomatic assertions, such as G-d’s existence; there is (practically) no way to put the lie to it and thus those of us who otherwise just eat popcorn and watch reruns of The Office may proclaim it loudly and without fear. The purpose of mankind, on the other hand, is a different pot of cholent. Torah, and (as we’ll see) specifically Chassidic teachings, takes a gamble and decrees why we’re here. Is it right, even in unfamiliar times?

On the agenda: Humans make gods in their image. It’s all over fiction, from Suarez’s Daemon novels to popular TV shows like Person of Interest. A genius billionaire creates a computer/software that can see/manipulate/do anything, and it proceeds to see/manipulate/do just that. The implications are terrifying; Suarez’s intelligent program adapts itself to news stories it reads on the Internet, runs weapon factories, and enslaves humans by force. To gain loyalty it reads brainwaves with MRIs, detects the basest desires of its followers, and provides them. In PoI, the machine predicts crimes before they take place, has access to every security camera in the world, and communicates through a Delphi-style avatar named Root who openly worships “her” as a deity.

While our stories scout over the horizon, computing power continues to grow next door. Moore’s law says that computer processing speed doubles roughly every year; the Singularity, a kind of technopocalypse when artificial intelligence will exceed human intelligence, may only be fifteen to thirty years away. It may also not happen at all; it’s hard to take any predictions of futuristic radical upheavals too seriously while I still don’t have my jetpack. Interesting nevertheless is Ray Kurzweil’s characterization of that future time as a move away from the biological and toward the spiritual as the mind is uploaded from the confines of the body.

Now the problem: If in fifty years’ time humanity is no longer the dominant life form on this planet and we exist only as pawns of superintelligent Google bots, what will remain of our central role in the creation, of our unique ability to carry out G-d’s will? It is clear that, say, a caterpillar cannot fulfill G-d’s commandments, since it is an unintelligent creature that cannot understand those commands and desires as they have been expressed to humans. They aren’t smart enough for free will. Is it possible that in the near future there will be robots smarter than any human? Why have Jews if a robot can learn the entire Torah in an instant with an infallible memory, weigh the different sides of a halachic question using fuzzy logic, be bothered by the plight of the Jewish poor, and write novel, extensively annotated responsa on the topic?

In case this is all too abstract or ridiculous, consider that in a way we already suffer from this existential threat all the time. You arrive at a new job and a coworker is…perfect. He can do everything you can do and everything your friends can do, and he’s happier doing it. You know that he must have terrible taste in music and crippling self-absorption and dead people in his basement but it turns out he has deep original insight into your favorite band, feeds the hungry in his spare time, and built an indoor waterfall in his basement with his bare hands during breaks from cooking chicken soup for his ailing aunt whom he supports singlehandedly. It can make you wonder what, if anything, you bring to the world other than your oh-so-special brand of mediocrity.

Torah gives several reasons why we’re here. The answers vary in content and their effect on the human experience. One source it says the world is here that He may be known. Another says the world exists to actualize His potential, for a potential is incomplete without expression. A third place says G-d created heaven and earth so that he may eventually express himself fully in the reality furthest removed from his truth, and Chassidus champions this answer over all others, for reasons simple to any student of Kabbalah.

Our world is not the only one G-d created. There are spiritual realities, populated by spiritual beings. There are an infinite number of angels (Chassidus recognizes this as a logical contradiction that only omnipotence could tolerate), for example, spiritual beings who exist only to serve their Creator, conduits for an ever-falling cascade of G-dly energy. Since there are other worlds, and assuming that G-d does nothing without purpose (a safe assumption only because that’s what He himself tells us through his Torah), it stands to reason that humans exist because we can do something that, say, angels, cannot. If the purpose of creation is that G-d may be known, there is no reason for a human to exist; we cannot know Him like the lowest angel knows him and certainly not as he is known in Atzilus, highest of spiritual creations. It also seems odd that with all that infinite spirituality up there the expression of His potential should be in the physical, philosophically low, as if until Einstein teaches second grade math he is not a genius.

No, G-d likes mediocrity.

In other words: If you think G-d created anything for the reason I create a bowl of cereal & milk, i.e. it adds something to His life, you’re living in delusion. There is no “adding” to G-d. It’s in his job description. He is absolute, everything else is conditional. He is real, and everything else is pathetically fake. He doesn’t need; (unless he chooses to, in which case) He wants. What does He want? Something new. To Him, everything is Him; he wants “not Him.” He creates the material, stuff so dumb its existence at face value demands no explanation or antecedent, stuff that takes up space and therefore exists on technicality. Then, he creates the impossible, little reproductions of himself that operate autonomously, which would be impossible for any spiritual being aware that to fight the divine will is to commit suicide. What if, He wonders, these little things actually chose to be G-dly even though they didn’t have to? Who ever heard of such a thing?

Our excellence doesn’t make us interesting. Our choices in the face of adversity make us interesting. And human adversity is miraculously fine-tuned: constant, enough to hurt, generally not too much to destroy. Personal adversity is the same, a divine constant, tailor-made for the individual and his abilities. “According to the camel is the load.”

No matter how stupid we feel compared to the guy at work or the computer on our desk, we are created with our own challenges and limitations and our own part of this “not Him” to fix. We can’t know anyone else’s challenges. We don’t have to be supermen; we don’t have to be the best. We only have to be the best us.

I’ll take my jetpack now.

Image of BRAAAIIIINS from Flickr. CC BY 2.0.