Friday, January 31, 2014

Agnosticism Revisited

18 months ago I wrote about why I’m not an agnostic.  You can read that here if you want.  In the middle of writing another post a few months ago I accidentally discovered I might be one after all.  This post will be heavy on quibbles and semantics, so apologies in advance.

As discussed in that post from 2012, agnosticism is not just a state of being unsure or confused.  It’s a philosophical position that the question of “does God exist?” can’t be answered one way or the other for a variety of reasons.  One reason would be that the scientific method requires tangible things that can be tested.  God(s) are by most definitions not part of the physical universe, and therefore can’t be tested.  Should God(s) show up and talk, as described in various religious books, that would certainly be something that the scientific method could use.  But they don’t, so they can’t be tested in that manner. 

My agnostic realization is more philosophical than scientific.  When we discuss things in our every day life, most of the time we’re talking about something with which we have real life experience.  We can talk about coffee or sports or sex because we have experience with these things.  With God(s), I’m not sure the language we use is so accurate.  What, for example, is omniscience?  We have a vague idea of what we mean by it, but we don’t have any real life points of data.  An adult knows more than a child, a computer “knows” more than an adult, but none of us has seen or met anyone with knows everything about everything all the time.  Same goes for omnipresence and omnipotence.  We’ve experienced varying degrees strength and presence, but nothing close to what would be defined as being able to do anything, and being able to be everywhere at once.  So when we speak of these things, are we saying anything sensical?

The response to the ontological argument for the existence of God gives us another way to view agnosticism as an appropriate position.  To steal from Anselm, the ontological argument goes like this:

  1. Our understanding of God is a being than which no greater can be conceived.
  2. The idea of God exists in the mind.
  3. A being that exists both in the mind and in reality is greater than a being that exists only in the mind.
  4. If God only exists in the mind, then we can conceive of a greater being—that which exists in reality.
  5. We cannot imagine something that is greater than God.
  6. Therefore, God exists.


There are many reasons the argument doesn’t work (presumably a 50 foot zombie that eats babies would not be made greater by existing in reality instead of just the mind), point number 2 being the most discussed.  Most theists would not claim that they fully comprehend God.  They have rough outlines of what they God is, but not so much knowledge that they’d be comfortable saying they “know” what God is.  This lack of clarity is an example showing agnosticism is how people operate in real life.

Douglas Gasking had an interesting (and mostly sarcastic) critique of the ontological argument, postulating that the more difficult it was for God to create the universe, the greater accomplishment it would be.  The greatest challenge would be to create the universe while not existing.  The universe exists, therefore God does not exist.

Most definitions of God(s) also contain an element of being infinite.  We certainly don’t have a real grasp on what infinite is.  As the old riddle goes, if there’s a library with an infinite number of books, and you take one off the shelf, is it still an infinite number of books?  The existence of the infinite is still a debated topic among philosophers and mathematicians.

So, if we can’t be sure we know what we’re talking about with any of the defining characteristics of God(s), how can we make positive statements such as “God exists” or “God does not exist”? 

For now, even if I accept that I’m an agnostic atheist (agnostics still don’t believe in God(s)), it doesn’t change anything but the label.  But labels are fun, and useful for clarification.

If you had to give yourself a label, what would it be?

Friday, January 24, 2014

Taking Yes For An Answer

When Rob Portman, Republican senator from Ohio, changed course and announced his support for gay marriage after learning that his own son was gay, my initial reaction wasn’t very positive.  “How convenient,” I figured.  “People have been trying to advance the cause of gay rights for decades, and only when it affects you directly are you finally convinced?”  I didn’t think very highly of Portman’s change of heart.  Real character change shouldn’t require the issue being so close to home.

Surprisingly, my gay friends didn’t see it that way.  Having likely seen this change occur in multiple before, usually people they know, it wasn’t news to them that personal experience is often the motivator for changing one’s outlook.  They were happy enough to have the senator’s vote, and weren’t very concerned about the sincerity of his turnaround. 

This week I’ve seen a much more public display of this dynamic on display in the blogosphere.  One of my favorite bloggers, Benjamin Corey, wrote a very nice article apologizing to the LGBT community for his past behavior.  You can read it here.  The comments on his blog are mostly other Christians agreeing that they too had behaved badly, and agreed with the apology. 

One of Ben’s friends at the Friendly Atheist blog shared the article on that site.  The difference in the comments is striking.  In addition to the usual masturbatory comments about how any shift to the left should logically lead to atheism, a number of people attacked Mr. Corey for his apology, accusing him of being too late to the party, and finding multiple ways to be offended.  These people are for me the equivalent of who fundamentalists are for Benjamin Corey - an offensive extreme of an otherwise reasonable conclusion.

If the whole point of advocating for social causes is to change the minds of those we disagree with, why is it so hard for us to take yes for answer when people finally do change their minds?

Monday, January 13, 2014

Adjusting Death - A Memoir, Chapters 1-4

Death is a real bitch.  As an insurance adjuster, my involvement with death on a professional level is less about the existential issues that plague me in the evenings, and more about the nit and grit that accompany sudden death within the home.  Death at work takes it out of its romanticized form and forces you to confront it down to the smallest detail, along with the family members forced to deal with the aftermath.  The following are the stories of the four death claims I’ve had the privilege/misfortune of handling.

Claim 1: The Drunk

In the claims world, when a new claims comes in, the first thing most adjusters do is look at the summary description of what happened.  Shortly into my tenure in the property department of my prior employer, I received a new claim, clicked on the summary description, and read “Cause of Loss: suicide.”  

Insurance policies are pretty specific documents.  They operate in 2 ways.  Either they cover everything unless specifically excluded, or they cover nothing unless specifically stated.  With buildings it’s usually the former, and with personal belongings, usually the latter.  When this claim in, having never handled one like it before, my first thought was “why would someone file a claim for suicide? What’s suicide got to do with property?”  Without reading much further into the details, I picked up the phone, called the number, and asked to speak to Mr. B.  Very politely, the woman who had answered the phone replied, “I’m sorry, my husband committed suicide a few months ago.”  I’d asked to speak to the dead guy.

As Mrs. B. explained why she had filed the claim, it was hard to imagine having had a worse evening than she had that night in December.  Her husband was drunk again, and this time was threatening to kill her.  She locked herself in a bedroom and called the policy.  It wasn’t the first time.  Too drunk to know better, and knowing the police had been called, he stumbled downstairs and out into the front yard, still waving his gun around and yelling.  According to Mrs. B., when the first police lights were visible on the street, her husband walked around to the side of the house, screamed something at the police, then shot himself in the head.

Having had a few months between the suicide and the filing of the claim, Mrs. B was remarkably composed.  By the time she finished her story, I’d forgotten why we were on the phone. Eventually she got to the point. “So, I just got a quote for replacing the piece of siding with the bullet hole in it.  And there’s the clean-up bill of course…”  The clean-up bill.  For his brains.  That had been on the walkway next to her garden.  When the clean-up company came, they figured the most practical thing to do was to use a hose to spray his brains into the dirt, then shovel the dirt out in a wheelbarrow.  Apparently your average wet vac is not designed for such purposes.

My job, as always, was to figure out what I could pay for under the insurance policy.  It turns out, bullet holes are not excluded under the policy.  While damage done on purpose IS excluded, since the widow is the only person benefiting from payment, the claims department decided not to enforce the exclusion.  How nice of them.  Policies also do not cover dirt under any circumstances.  I made my call to clean-up company and asked for a copy of their bill, hopefully without mention of the dirt so I could pay the whole thing.  As death claims go, this would be the easiest.

Claim 2:  The Old Man

Mr. C was tired of his family members calling him all the time.  He was convinced that they only called to see if he was still alive.  He was really old, after all.  So he told them to stop.  A week later, you can guess what happened.  Mr. C died in the most unfortunate of places.  6 weeks after his death, his body was found just inside the front door of his tri-level home.  His family had apparently decided 6 weeks was long enough, and asked a neighbor to check on him.  The neighbor didn’t have to knock on the door to know what happened.  Rotting human is a smell one never forgets.

The front door wasn’t a very convenient place for Mr. C to die.  The human body is not polite as it decomposes, so not only did Mr. C’s corpse stink the place up, his liquids went down the stairs towards the garage, and down the heating duct next to his body.  The heat was set at “old man lived here,” which is not a low temperature.

The guy’s family lived out of town, which made my job easier.  I met the clean-up company in the driveway, where I was cautioned to wear a mask.  I should have listened.  Entering the house, the smell-that-one-never-forgets almost floored me.  If you’ve never had the pleasure, imagine a dead raccoon wrapped in an airtight plastic bag for a week or two, and then imagine you open the bag and stick your face in it really quick.  It’s kind of like that.

Once I’d recovered from the smell, I asked where we should start.  The tech pointed at my feet and said, “well, he died right there.  The anti-microbial spray should be dry by now.”  I looked down to find I was standing on wood sub floor, as the carpet, pad, and underlayment had all been removed in a radius of about 8 feet in each direction.  So too had the carpeted stairs been taken out leading to the garage, and the ducting under the house.  This was the only physical damage to the home.  If only that were the extent of it…

Talking to the tech, I learned that dead body smell isn’t something that goes away with a few open windows.  Most of the time, companies will clean and paint every surface of the house, clean every item in the house, and throw away anything made of paper.  As for the paper, Mr. C’s family told me that they had taken a box of important papers back to Seattle with them after coming down to deal with the funeral arrangements.  “Now that the papers have been here for a few days, our house smells like his house,” his son told me.

Claim 3:  The Son

With claims 1 and 2, my arrival on site happened after the worst of the mess was taken care of.  Not so with claim number three.  Immediately after receiving the claim, I got a call from the homeowner.  “Can you come out here right away?  The clean-up people are here, but I don’t want them to get started until you’ve documented the damage.”

The house wasn’t far from the office, so I got there within half an hour.  The clean-up crew was standing outside in their full body hazmat suits, looking ready for the apocalypse.  The owner took me outside, and explained that his son had shot himself last night, and damaged the carpet.  His son, I learned, was in his 20s, and for reasons unknown to me, had chosen to kill himself at his parents’ house, in his childhood bedroom.  The scene in the bedroom was surreal.  Trophies were still on the shelves, sports pennants were on the wall, and the bed looked like it was made for a 10 year-old.  While the son’s body was gone, the mess he left behind was not.  Someone tried to cover it up with a kid’s blanket, but it didn’t really work.  I quietly measure the dimensions of the room so I’d know how much carpet needed to be replaced, and come back downstairs.  The family seemed to be in shock, so they weren’t very emotional, and seemed to understand the claims process.

A few weeks later, my own shock came when I got the bill for the clean-up.  To take the carpet out of one room and dispose of the biohazard material, the company was charging over $14,000.  I looked at the itemized bill.  $400 per small box of carpet.  $100 per hour for labor.  20% overhead and profit (a charge only owed to general contractor who coordinate sub-contractors).  I called and yelled at someone at the company’s main office, but their lines are well rehearsed.  "Well, you see, brain fluid is clear, so it can't always been seen with the naked eye, so we have to make sure we....blah blah blah."   I had three other companies write my comparable bids for the same work.  The highest was $5k.  None of that mattered.  The company wasn’t backing down, and had mailed their bill to the grieving dad.

Most insurance companies make exceptions in the case of suicide.  Biohazardous materials are specifically excluded from coverage.  So is intentional damage, as mentioned earlier.  But nobody wants to be on the news because they denied some grieving father’s claim, so we cover these things anyway.  If that changes someday, companies like this will be to blame.  I certainly wasn’t going to call the guy and tell him we weren’t going to pay the bill.  I’m sure the clean-up company counts on this.  Shame on them.

Claim 4:  The Realtor

My most recent death claim is also the most interesting.  A local realtor, having been convicted of some kind of mortgage impropriety which resulted in his license being taken away, decided he didn’t want to live anymore.  As a realtor, he had a magic box which gave him access to any listed property with a lockbox on the door.  This realtor scoped out an empty house, then went shopping.

As far as we could tell, the order of events went like this: The realtor parked his BMW in the garage of the empty house and shut the garage door.  He taped a note on the front door of the house that read, “Dead body inside.  Call the police.”  He then went into the bathroom, where he put two tabletop barbecue grills in the bathtub, and filled them both with charcoal.  I found out later that due to current emissions standards, the old trick of running a hose from your exhaust pipe into the car or garage doesn’t work anymore.  The realtor consumed most of a bottle of Jack Daniels, snorted some heroin, lit the grills, and waited for the end.  Two days later, a prospective buyer discovered the note and called the police.  The police contacted the homeowner, who lived in the house next door, unaware that a corpse had been inhabiting his rental property.

There is no moral to these stories.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Christmas Ache

The ache was there again this year.  Settled down beneath the more present and relevant feelings, the ache gnawed, “something is wrong.  something is missing.”

I have unfairly great memories of Christmas as a child.  All my memories of it are in the same house, with the same people.  Each year, at around 6:30, the four of us kids would tip toe downstairs to the living room, where the tree was always lit just dimly enough to cast a glow on all the presents; The presents! Most of them newly placed since the night before.  Eventually mom and dad would saunter down the hall, all of us still in pajamas.  The youngest of us that could read would read the entirety of the Golden Books version of the Christmas story.  When it was over, dad would pick the baby Jesus figure up from above the grandfather clock, and set it in the manger above the fireplace.  One by one  we would take our stockings down from the fireplace, and each of us would watch the other discover what was inside.  We savored the excitement, drawing out each step so that it wouldn’t end any faster than it had to.  After breakfast, which always included an amazing souffle, we nestled back into our couch seats for round after round of gift giving.

Dad was a Christmas master.  Married to my mom, who hated surprises, didn’t get most jokes, and bought her Christmas presents from the lists she insisted her loved ones complete for her, Christmas was dad’s day to go nuts.  There were years we received presents he’d found for us 7 or 8 months earlier; A favorite sweater from the gift shop of a museum we’d visited, a CD of whale sounds because one of us expressed interest in a whale this one time, or the last piece of my mom’s antique book collection.  It took dozens of phone calls to book stores across the country, but he’d found it.

Christmas had the potential to change your adolescent life.  On Christmas, you could go from a kid with no Nintendo, to a Kid With A Nintendo!!!  It’s hard to imagine now, but in the 80s, that was a huge change in one’s quality of life.  On Christmas, your NFL pennant collection might finally get complete.  The final Dairy Queen Blazers glass might be in one of those boxes.

20-25 years later, the strength of emotion that came with anticipating and experiencing Christmas doesn’t exist.  There’s nothing in the adult life that comes close.  But what is it about those feelings that made them so irreplaceable?  Why is it so hard to transition from the receiver to the giver, and try to make memories for my kids the way my parents did for me?  Isn’t that what I’m supposed to do?

My running theory is that as a child, you are repeatedly shown how much you are loved.  It is abundantly clear that your happiness has been thoroughly considered, and deemed worthy of fulfillment. Contrast that with what we do as adults.  We discuss amongst ourselves who we still “have to get something for,” or “which ones you’ve got covered” while “I’ll handle them, them and them.”  And because that’s how we treat others at Christmas, we’re confident that’s how people are thinking about us.  And so we start to wonder how many lists we’re on; for how many people have we reached “Need to get something for them” status?  And it’s not about getting their present.  It’s the hope that at least for a few minutes, somebody thought of us, and our happiness, and found it worthy of fulfillment.

I think the Christmas ache is the loss of childhood.  It’s the realization that nobody loves us like they did when we were young.  That we’re not the center of someone’s universe, not the person someone is staying up late to find that last antique book for.  The things I had as a kid - the family bond, the shared anticipation, the companionship of a personal savior - those things are gone.

But I think the ache has had its last year.  Being able to name it has made it lose its power.  My dad set a great example of how to do it right, and I think I’m up for the challenge.  I tried something new this year - getting presents for a few people that wouldn’t be on my “have to get something for” list.  It helped me understand my dad’s love of Christmas, as the reward for giving the unexpected gift is immediate and lasting.  Next year , having named and rejected the ache, I’ll be ready to set my kids up for their own Christmas ache.