Tag Archives: philosophy

A Journey Through Seven Circles (On Chaos and Providence)

In my dream, I was transported to what seemed to be a chamber of fire, where all that was or is or will be formed a seething mass of sheer potentiality.

A voice intoned,

This is the sum total of Reality.

“But not for long,” I said, and at that moment, sensed a sudden expansion of Time and Space. Being came to grips with Nothingness and Existence conquered Oblivion—just barely.

In this universe, there is a Law—that chaos reigns. 

“And yet there also seems to exist a force for greater Order…”

***

Now, I was transported to a world of particles combining and recombining, a whole universe of generation, destruction, and change.

Again, a voice intoned,

This is the sum total of Reality.

“But not for long,” I said, and at that moment, sensed light bursting forth for the first time and illuminating the nothingness enveloping us, though no eyes existed in this universe to interpret the shine.

The Law is unchanging—chaos reigns.

 “And yet there also seems to exist a force for greater Order…”

***

Now I was transported to a world of great spheres of light blazing in the firmament before vanishing altogether or exploding in holy fire. Some of these suns were orbited by humbler spheres of solid and liquid and gas.

This is the sum total of Reality.

“But not for long,” I said, and at that moment, sensed a being that sensed me in turn, and then many millions of them, dancing and evolving with such rapidity that it boggled the mind.

The Law is unchanging—chaos reigns.

 “And yet there also seems to exist a force for greater Order…”

***

Now I was transported to a world of monsters—savage beasts feasting on each other’s flesh by land and sea, a kingdom of dragons but no chivalry.

This is the sum total of Reality.

“But not for long,” I said, and at that moment, sensed the monsters shrieking in agony before giving way to human beings.

The Law is unchanging—chaos reigns.

“And yet there also seems to exist a force for greater Order…”

***

Now, I was transported to a world of emperors and slaves shadowed by great colonnades wrought by the hands of the un-free.

This is the sum total of Reality.

“But not for long,” I said, and at that moment, sensed humankind developing a conscience, and Technology beginning to ward off Death.

The Law is unchanging—chaos reigns.

“And yet there also seems to exist a force for greater Order…”

***

Now, I was transported to my own city, a world of electricity and silicon and steel.

This is the sum total of Reality.

I sighed.

The Law is unchanging—chaos reigns.

“And yet there has always existed a force for greater Order…”

***

Then, at last, I was delivered to a final city—a world of robots and simulations governed by unadulterated imagination.

Now, this is the sum total of Reality. And in this seventh circle of Imagination and Reality united as One, I ask you, has the Law ever changed?

“It was and is and always will be unchanging,” I said. “There exists a force for chaos, and a force of a different kind too.”

In my hands, another seal on the scroll burst open without warning.

Then, I woke up.

August 7, 2011

Next Entry August 14, 2011


The Red Horseman’s Complaint (On Atheism)

Before I could say another word, the pale horseman barked at the red: “You’re no one to set conditions. If only I had my turn back again, there’s no question of what I’d do. I’d throw a stone at you myself and finish you off—as it was, I wasn’t sure enough about your guilt to execute you. But now you say that God is dead, which proves that everything you swore about believing in the Sacred Law was a lie. You began this game for no reason when you cast a rock at this innocent girl.”

***

Black Horseman

It’s a bit late for that realization! Why should I have suffered because I was persuaded by the white horseman’s reasoning from the start?

Pale Horseman

You have to forgive me for stoning you—every move is painful in this game. I loved the red horseman too much to kill him, though now I see what a hypocrite he is.

Red Horseman

You’ve misunderstood me entirely.

I acted completely righteously in this game. I followed the Sacred Law to the letter. Now, I’m about to be killed because my enemies are conspiring against me.  According to the white horseman here, logic is to be our guide rather than dogma. Well, if this is the result, then I curse God, and say that it’s preposterous to believe in Him.

In the first place, God can’t be omnipotent. Could He create a rock He couldn’t lift? Could He make pi a rational number?

In the second place, God can’t be benevolent. This universe is too evil for words. Why should the agony of this world be experienced by anyone? Why should the innocent suffer?

Finally, God’s nature can’t be singular. Everyone worships God in different ways, and people go to war self-righteously and die like martyrs for opposite beliefs. We’ve no way of determining what’s true or false, since the questions that matter come down to faith and intuition. There are no absolute values. Religion serves social ends–it’s all a great lie.

I always assumed that God couldn’t be described logically—that the limits of human language itself put constraints on our ability to find words for Him. The Law was the Law–I didn’t dare to question it. But if logic is to rule the day, then I’ll die an atheist. The world is probably as it seems. It’s a random, Godless place, and no one will prove otherwise, because sad though it is, you all know that I’m right. Now, let the white horseman stone me, and let him accept the consequences. I couldn’t care less.

May 8, 2011

Next entry May 15, 2011


The Red Horseman’s Plea (On Suicide)

The crowd began to disperse in all directions, and almost immediately, the lamb was lost in the throng. But as if nothing else mattered but the game of stones, the red horseman turned toward the woman and hissed,

“The white horseman thinks he’s being clever by championing your rights, but consider this. If you survive this game, I know for a fact that you’re fated to experience one of the most excruciating roles in the history of world history. Avoid this undeserved fate, and end the game for yourself now. Were you in love? Then you’ve been abandoned by your lover, and have learned that the world is a cruel place. Were you raped? Then why should you be cursed by the role of mother, or live with bitter memories that can’t be erased? Why would you choose to live in a world in which no one would love you, and your own mother would turn you out? Your era is random, and vicious, and awful, and there’ll be no end to your worries if you survive.”

The pale horseman immediately broke forward and said,

“Now that he’s spoken as he did, there’s no doubt in my mind that you must kill the red horseman. In this terrible game, you can at least self-righteously defend yourself with confidence. Consider this; if you let this villain survive, there is every indication that he’d kill you on the next turn. Even if you would end your own life, to allow him to survive to kill another woman like you would be wrong if you believe yourself an innocent victim. And besides, it would be criminal to kill the black horseman who defended you, or to throw a stone against me, who did nothing to harm you explicitly.”

“Disgusting sophistry, “ said the red horseman to the pale. “Even if the girl doesn’t kill herself, stoning you, the pale faced horseman, would be a better choice than touching me. At least then she wouldn’t be committing a murder, and the pain in this game would be evenly distributed among several participants. That’s rational too, isn’t it?”

The pale horseman turned to me,

“You wouldn’t let this woman touch me, would you, when I just spared you a rock in the face? Clearly the red horseman must be stopped, now, before he sheds more innocent blood.”

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” I said, “But I can’t quite get over the anthropomorphic lamb skull who just talked to me. Am I dreaming?”

“Well, how would you know you’re in a dream, if you’re in a dream?”

I’d forgotten the usual answers to the question—that writing doesn’t remain constant on a page in a dream, and that it’s difficult to turn electric lights on and off. But nothing was on hand to inspire the thought, I suppose. Instead, I said,

“You’re right. I can’t be sure of anything but my own existence…”

“Listen to me,” said the pale horseman. “Never mind philosophy for the moment. All that matters is, you must kill the red horseman. It’s the only just move if you believe the girl is an innocent victim. You wouldn’t let this child hurt herself, or me, would you?”

“You did throw a stone at the black horseman who defended her against the red horseman.”

“That’s between me and the black horseman.”

“Well, ultimately, it’s out of my hands. I gave my vote to this woman, here, and am bound by her decision.”

“You’re a fine actor,” said the pale faced horseman. “But remember this—should you throw a rock at me on this turn, in this woman’s name or otherwise, I will never forget the injury, and as far as I’d be concerned, death would be too good for you. Should you spare me, on the other hand, I will never forget your perfect justice. Act righteously, and carefully.”

***

The Child

What should I do? The Roman Lucretia stabbed herself to preserve her honor after the king’s son raped her. Even if she were innocent, she didn’t want to live as an example for unchaste women to cite when they didn’t end their lives after they were caught red-handed…

White Horseman

But weren’t the nuns who chose not to kill themselves after rape by the invading barbarians even better examples than Lucretia? This whole idea of women as damaged property in the aftermath of rape is too cruel for words, and is a reflection of sexist and old fashioned mindsets. If you were raped, you’d be innocent of adultery. And even if this child were conceived in passion out of wedlock, would even the wickedest judge insist that its mother deserved to be stoned before it was even delivered? The red horseman is a very dangerous man and must be stopped. In your heart, you know this is true, even though your decision is excruciating.

The Child

I’m afraid of killing him! I’d rather stone the pale faced horseman, who hurt my champion the black, and avoid killing anyone.

White Horseman

But then you’ll be signing my death warrant. Consider that the red faced horseman will kill his black faced counterpart on the next turn. The pale faced horseman will then stone me in self-righteous revenge for this throw. Then, I’ll be forced to retaliate against the pale, killing him, leaving the red horseman with the final move, to kill me, and then you, and others like you too. There’s only one thing to do—the fact that self-defense is righteous in a game like this makes your choice all the clearer. Do you know it yet?

The Child

To stone myself?

White Horseman

I’m afraid not…

***

The red faced horseman licked his lips.

“Well, well,” he said. “I can see the way the wind is blowing. But let me say this to you, now. You’re overturning this woman’s will and warping her mind with your strange logic. I won’t let you escape responsibility for what you’re about to do. Is this my reward for being a righteous player?” He clenched his fists. “Today’s events have convinced me that God is dead. Atheism is most rational. Convince me otherwise, and I won’t begrudge you my death in this game. Otherwise, let it be on your head, Doctor Kimel.”

“Now there’s a challenge,” I said, stepping forward.

May 1, 2011

Next Entry May 8, 2011


The White Horseman’s Move (The Right Decision)

White Horseman

Tonight on this Easter Sunday, I will be succinct. I give my vote to the poor, defenseless, pregnant woman here who had a rock thrown in her face and is being threatened with death for the “crime” of being raped. Madam, I will stone whom you tell me to stone. At this moment, I am ashamed of this world. It’s too evil for words.

***

Red Horseman

That’s cheating!

Black Horseman

No it’s not. Even if the woman doesn’t technically receive a stone by the terms of this ancient game, the White Horseman can still simply ask her advice and do her will. It’s unprecedented.

Anthropomorphic Lamb Skull

Doctor Kimel, I presume!

***

Now, a roar erupted from the crowd. The severed head of a black lamb, all that remained of their feast, had actually come back to life and begun to talk.

In my hands, the second seal on the scroll broke.

April 24, 2011

Next Chapter May 1, 2011


To Stone a Stoner Who Stoned A Stoner? The Pale Horseman’s Quandary (A Logic Puzzle)

The pale horseman began to wring his arms for what felt like an entire Friday. As he stood speechless with the rock clenched in his right hand, my eyes turned toward the crowd. Surprisingly, they were no longer paying especial attention to the stoning. Some sort of meat and wine were being served on silver platters by men in robes. Soon, everyone was in on the feast—all except the three horsemen, the woman, and I.

Now, sensing intuitively that it was gauche to hold a picnic at a stoning, and since I was beginning to grow bored staring at a barbecue to which I wasn’t invited, I decided to address the pale horseman directly in an effort to keep the game moving.

***

White Horseman

It seems you have a difficult decision to make, my friend. I know what I would do in your shoes, but let’s see your move.

Pale Horseman

This thought experiment is like a game of chess from hell. There must be a rational choice whom to stone, but I’m cursed for having to make the choice at all, since whatever I do, I’ll be acting immorally from certain perspectives. I suppose the best I can do is try to decide whom it would be least immoral to stone.  But on top of this, I have to remember—if I stone someone for a second time, that person dies; so, in this rite, throwing a second stone is a more serious decision than throwing a first, which horribly complicates this great question.

You told me once before, Doctor Kimel, that anything which maximizes happiness through the channels of agency and learning should be valued over that which maximizes unhappiness through the channels of exploitation and ignorance. But how can I use this standard to make a decision in a case like this?

White Horseman 

I’ll give you a clue. Try thinking about your potential victims one by one…

Pale Horseman

There’s the horror of this game; I see no clear choice. But, let’s consider the scenario, and perhaps I’ll realize the correct answer.

The Woman: 1 hit (if I stone her again, she will die)

The Red Horseman: 1 hit (if I stone him again, he will die)

The Black Horseman: 0 hits (if I stone him, he will suffer)

The White Horseman: 0 hits (if I stone him, he will suffer)

White Horseman 

I would think twice before stoning me…

Pale Horseman

All that I can do is consider every choice.

The Woman: 1 hit (if I stone her again, she will die)

Many people believe in our sacred book and condemn adultery as an immoral act. But you’ve convinced me that we must appeal to reason rather than assertions that our Scripture is God’s Truth with a capital T, since all cultures believe that they’re correct when intuitions are concerned, but reason is universal. At the point that the woman might have been raped, and at the point that the law mistakenly assumes a rape in the city is unlikely, and at the point that premarital sex might not be a sin in the first place, there is not enough evidence to throw a second stone and kill this woman. I can’t bring myself to choose her—happiness would be destroyed with no clear proof of any benefits or justice.

The Red Horseman: 1 hit (if I stone him again, he will die)

The red horseman claimed he took a leap of faith and believed that he was acting morally when he threw the first stone at the woman. Now, even at the point that the woman might have been innocent, he’d be rational to throw a stone at her insofar as he was compelled to do so by his understanding of God’s will, since the woman’s trouble took place in the city, and the Law is the Law. Now, perhaps the Leap of Faith was insincere, but I have no way of accessing his inner truth. Perhaps he was too stupid to understand your arguments about appealing to logic when constructing a universal morality rather than asserting a singe book is intrinsically holy—but generally, we find those people who are stupid or ignorant to be less morally culpable than those who are wise and know the consequences of what they’re doing. I confess, perhaps he was too hasty when he made his decision. Perhaps he even deserved the black horseman’s rock in his face. But I can’t bring myself to kill him, at least, not yet.

The Black Horseman: 0 hits (if I stone him, he will suffer)

Now, stoning either you or The black horseman would provide a benefit insofar as I wouldn’t be required to kill anyone; after all, this would be either of your first hit with a stone, so I’d simply injure one of you. I realize the black horseman DID cause pain to the red horseman, who might deserve revenge on him. But I have to remember, he was required to throw a stone by the rules of this ritual—the black horseman was his most rational choice, since the red horseman caused pain to the woman, and there is evidence that he was either hasty, ignorant, or fanatical. He acted rationally…and he deserves  no pain. So I don’t know what to do.

White Horseman

I’ll give you a clue. Consider this–my turn is next, and I also must stone someone by the rules of this game.

Pale Horseman

Praise God! Now I understand. I mustn’t dare to stone you. Not only have you caused pain to no one, but YOU ARE NEXT TO THROW. If I threw my rock at you, you would be justified in throwing it back at me. Rationally, I can’t let this happen. And so, my choice is clear…

***

The pale horseman closed his eyes and threw his rock at the black horseman. “Injustice!” the black horseman cried as he fell to the ground bleeding and spitting.

All were deathly silent as I, the white horseman, prepared to make my move …

April 22-April 23

Next Chapter April 24


To Stone a Stoner? The Black Horseman’s Judgment (Against Absolute Moral Relativism)

Now the black horseman stepped forward. Both of his hands were so tightly clenched that I couldn’t guess in which one he gripped the rock. For a moment, I felt as if I’d failed the defendant, and had nothing left to say.

The red horseman goaded on the black, and shrieked,

“Remember, according to the law, you must stone someone. Striking first is the price of our royalty. ‘We three horsemen shall cast the first stones…’ ”

“You mean four horsemen,” I corrected him, “And I should know, because I was one of you when I first rode out of the city alongside this woman, and I’m one of you now too.”

“Are you sure you know what you mean?”

The truth was, I did not know. I’d yet to realize that I was even in a dream and had forgotten the content of my first adventure. But the words had dramatic resonance, somehow. Undeterred, I continued:

“Do you deny that according to a famous authority, you need four witnesses in cases of adultery, and not three?”

“Well, do you agree the girl is pregnant?” hissed the red horseman.

“Yes.”

“And that she’s unmarried?”

“I suppose so.”

“And don’t you agree that there’s no hard evidence that rape took place?”

“I wasn’t there. I don’t have access to the evidence.”

“Answer plainly. It happened in the city, and not in the countryside. Witnesses would have heard her screams.”

“I have no proof but her word.”

“Well, then you’ve just testified against the girl. If there’s no evidence it was rape, and she’s unmarried, we must defer to stoning her for adultery.” The red horseman turned to his wiry haired colleague on the black horse and said, “End this quickly, to be humane. The poor child is suffering, and should be put out of her misery. ‘We three horsemen without sin shall cast the first stones…’ ”

“The idea that any one of you is without sin is laughable!” I said to the red horsemen. “You just threw a rock in that innocent child’s face.”

“Bad logic, Doctor Kimel,” said the black horseman. “Sometimes, great leaders must inflict punishment on others, even if we’re imperfect. Otherwise, crimes would go uncorrected.”

“Doctor Who?”

“Don’t be modest. Haven’t we met somewhere before? But that’s immaterial for today. Now, try to save this girl again, because one more stone will end the game for her, and then nothing will stop the crowd from its purpose.”

“You say that you must throw a stone? You have no other choice?”

“Those are the rules—we four horsemen must stone someone one at a time, now that the ritual’s begun. A single hit is painful, and two are lethal.”

“Then stone the Red Horseman!” I cried, inspired.

***

Black Horseman

Why should I throw my rock at him? He defeated you in the game of True or False! I heard every word of the exchange. You said that the existence of other sacred laws in other parts of the world proves that no one holds the monopoly on truth. But this is a foolish argument, because even if an entire host of foul and deceitful doctrines exist on Earth, force of numbers doesn’t necessarily render any one of them morally right or in line with true wisdom. So, the only question left is…do we have reason to believe that our own sacred law is morally just? Well, you admitted that the most we can know of moral truth is what ultimately falls in line with our habits and intuitions. But then, you conceded that our intuitions differ in the same way that our cultures differ. Well then, if intuitions are the guides, I’ll follow mine, and not yours, and stone the girl. We may not love the law, or we may find it gruesome, but our job as blameless men is to follow it.

White Horseman

You’re a worthy adversary, to be sure, but hear me out. Think back on my argument about the existence of many sacred books. The red horseman completely misunderstood my intention in bringing up that example. And he didn’t let me reach the end of my argument. I wanted to say—at the point at which our intuitions differ, none of us can be sure that his or her Bible is the correct one. It seems like all we can do is make choices based on our culture and intuitions. But we can also appeal to reason, which is as universal in every human society as the existence of love and pain. Now, the only proof of the law’s morality that the red horseman gave was the mere existence of the law in his sacred book. But then, he began to fall prey to circular reasoning—the law is a just law simply because it exists.  The book is sacred in all ways because he says it’s so, even though worshippers of demons could say the same things about their own sacred books. Why believe one over the other?

So the red horseman committed a gross injustice by assuming that the mere existence of a law is sufficient reason to have confidence in its justice. I could just as easily say, “First born children should be sacrificed to Baal—it is the law!” But it’s a bad law, and civil disobedience would be in order. Moreover, I can prove to you that it’s a bad law with appeals not to intuition and culture, but to logic and reason, which like science, transcend all national boundaries and are at home wherever honest men exist; and honest men, I think, are those who have the courage to subject their most treasured beliefs to scientific scrutiny.

Black Horseman

I’ll concede the point that the mere existence of a law doesn’t necessarily make it just. But on what basis can you prove to me that the law is unjust? Remember, as a rational being, on the chance that God wrote the sacred law, I’d probably better follow it unless I have good reason to think there’s something fundamentally and obviously wrong with it.

White Horseman

Certain value systems transcend time and space, as I said. All human beings are conscious animals capable of feeling pain, and their minds are rational to some degree or another. Every society is composed of humans with these attributes. So, every culture creates a value system rooted, fundamentally, in the benefits of collective cooperation between such animals—strategies to share conscious experiences, learn from each other, and avoid pain as much as possible. The infliction of unwanted pain against innocent people is always immoral;the less it’s done, the better. And the amelioration of unwanted pain is always moral; the more it’s done, the better. This is true in any culture, though there are often tragic trade-offs involving excruciating means and ambiguous ends. But fundamentally, the elimination of pain accompanied by ever increasing access to freedom, knowledge, and interesting experiences constitutes happiness, the greatest human end.

From a human perspective, because all humans are alike in certain specific ways, it is possible to make moral judgments that transcend time and space from the perspective of rational human values. Customs that ensure the most freedom and knowledge and interesting experiences at the cost of the least pain and exploitation and ignorance are preferable, for many reasons, to customs which ensure the least happiness and knowledge and freedom for the sake of the most exploitation, ignorance, monotony, and misery. From this foundation, we can begin to construct a universal morality grounded in what is common to every individual insofar as he or she is human. This is true with or without recourse to belief in God.

Cultural relativism is a good reason to believe your Bible might be in need of editing, but not a good reason to lose faith in all values.

Black Horseman

You’ve given me powerful reason to believe that my sacred law should be subject to rational scrutiny. But isn’t this particular law just? Isn’t it true that a woman raped in the city would have screamed, and it would have been heard?

White Horseman

The law is absurd! It breaks my heart to think that women lose their lives to this kind of logic. First, what if no one was around when it happened and she did scream? A city makes it more likely that others would be around than a rape in the countryside, but it’s not definitive proof  that no struggle took place. Perhaps the man might have bound her mouth. Or, he could have threatened to kill her if she screamed, or harm her loved ones. Any just voice would admit that such a woman is a victim, not a criminal! Shame on this world.

And then, the very fact that premarital sex is a crime at all seems misguided, since marriage before an understanding of sexual compatibility might lead to great unhappiness. Really, the idea that women should never have sex outside of marriage in general is nothing but the product of restrictive discourse propping up patriarchal structures at the expense of human autonomy. The young deserve a chance to know themselves, and the married deserve the chance to escape unloving partners and find happiness with new people.To make matters worse, the practice of public stoning instills negative feelings toward women in general and violent misogynistic impulses in the crowd at large, only perpetuating the cycle of violence and ignorance. This is a brutal custom, and a barbaric one.

Finally, consider this. Your own sacred law would protect women raped in the countryside, proving that it values their lives and implicitly recognizes that when their guilt as “adulteresses” is ambiguous, they should live. The law tried to be clever by assuming that a city would necessitate screams and many witnesses, but this is not necessarily the case, and certainly not enough evidence to convict the girl. So, throw your stone at the red horseman if you must throw it at someone. He committed an injustice, and should be punished.

Black Horseman

Sir, you’ve convinced me.

White Horseman

I… what? Did I really?

Black Horseman

Your logic is sound. I know now that it’s possible for aspects of even the greatest books from all cultures to become outdated. If we have the opportunity to maximize happiness through freedom and education, we should defer to that standard, which, as you’ve shown, is inherently cross-cultural; if a law creates misery and limits freedom and is the result of ignorant logic, then civil disobedience is in order.  This is true whether I believe in God, or whether I base my moral systems on what it means to be a human.

Now, as for my vote…I must be perfectly just. I won’t stone the girl, because you’ve convinced me that she doesn’t deserve to die. I won’t stone you or the pale horseman, because you’ve educated me and spoken the truth, and my friend over there is completely uninvolved in the story so far. Throwing a random stone into the crowd would be bizarre and unfair. So at the point he acted hastily and without wisdom when it came to this woman’s life…my choice is clear.

***

Without another word, he threw his stone at the red horseman. The man fell from his horse, but immediately stood up, enraged, his face vermilion, and his mustache engorged with sand and blood. I realized, then, that one more hit would kill him just as surely as it would kill the girl. The crowd’s temper was undecided, but would turn on him in a pinch.

So now the score was one to one. The pale face horseman came forward, knowing that life and death were hidden in his grip.

April 21, 2011

Next Chapter April 22, 2011


To Stone for Adultery? The Red Horseman’s Judgment (On Biblical Obligations)

I opened my eyes and gasped for breath. I felt no control over my limbs and was temporarily bewildered by what looked like indistinct spheres of light hovering over my bedroom door. So this is what it was like to experience sleep paralysis, I thought; I’d read about it once in school. Entombed beneath my sheets, I closed my eyes and tried to resurrect the narrative of the broken dream as best I could. Eventually, my consciousness succumbed to sleep, but this time, I didn’t realize that I was in a dream—not at first.

Now, I found myself seated on a white charger, alone. I wore a gold sash and a flowing, ivory toga, a detail that I appreciated thanks to my education in classical history.  I held a bow in my right hand rather like a slingshot. Branches of laurel crowned my head. My left hand clenched a scroll. On it were seven waxen seals inscribed with the images of stars. One of the seals was broken. Then I noticed that I was wearing glowing slippers the color of heated bronze, some image conjured up from vague childhood memories of The Wizard of Oz, perhaps, or the original version of Snow White.

Blocking my path, I saw a congregation of 21 onlookers in long robes hovering around the gate of the great city. Three were dressed in red, and three by turn in orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. I guessed the worst when I noticed jagged rocks clenched in their hands. Toward the front of the crowd, the red, black, and pale horsemen were burying the girl to her waist in a pit of gravel and binding her hands.

“What’s all this about?” I asked the first stranger I met in the crowd.

“That child is about to be stoned to death,” answered the man.

“But why?”

“Our Sacred Law says, if a woman claims she’s raped in the countryside, she should be found innocent of adultery. But if she’s raped in the city, she should be put to death. Those three horsemen are about to cast the first stones. Two square hits, and it will all be over for her.”

“How perfectly awful.”

“That just shows you’re a naïve reader of scripture,” said a crone through her nose. “There’s actually great wisdom behind that rule. After all, you’d hear a woman’s screams of protest in a city, but not in the countryside.  So, it follows that in the case of an alleged rape in the city, there were no screams, and that the woman didn’t really try to protest. Does the logic make sense to you now?”

“Preposterous,” I said. “This is a very great evil. I don’t care that this sort of punishment was common once upon a time, or that some horribly misguided people still do it now. It’s wrong, in all places and at all times.”

“Explain yourself,” thundered the old woman, and the crowd, instead of attending to the stoning, began to turn its attention toward me. “How can a law written in our Sacred Scripture be wrong? It’s the word of God, like it or not. You’ll never win this debate.”

“Oh, won’t I?” I laughed. Then, riding to the front of the crowd, I called upon the three pied horsemen.

“Don’t lay a finger on this girl,” I said.

The red horseman stepped forward and began to address me in a thunderous voice.

 ***

Red Horseman

You may be a stranger here, but let me be clear about this country’s Laws. According to our Sacred Law, a woman in this condition must be stoned to death.

White Horseman

But your Sacred Law might not be sacred at all. There’s nothing to rationally prove that it represents divinely inspired truth. It might simply be an invention of imaginative human authors limited by the worldviews of the times and places in which they were raised. In fact, the existence of other sacred books that pious people follow in other parts of the world suggests that you don’t hold the monopoly on truth. So, you can’t be sure God wants you to kill this girl, and should err on the side of caution, since you know unwanted pain to be a great evil.

Red Horseman

I’m not persuaded by your sophist’s tricks. I was born into this society, for whatever reason, and I’ve made a leap of faith; I’ve decided that the Sacred Law represents God’s perfect wisdom in the clearest possible form that it can take in this world. Our Sacred Book is more than the product of human hands.  And as for other supposedly sacred books in the world, this set of divine laws makes the most sense to me. There’s synergy between my intuitions and its dictates. The other books are wrong. This one is right. I feel it, deeply.

White Horseman

Memories molded on the stage of culture shape your intuitions, and you mistake the relative for the absolute. Consider this. Everyone’s intuitions are shaped by culture and memories and habit, so every sacred book seems to be moral to the people who were brought up on it. How can you prove to other people that their sacred laws are wrong and that yours are right? If it’s only a matter of faith rather than reason, why would people from a different culture believe in your God? Their intuitions would be different from yours. And to make matters worse, your sacred law even sometimes contradicts itself, like on the question of whether future generations inherit the sins of their ancestors or not. All of this suggests that Bibles should be treasured as moral guides, but not deified as perfect and literal representations of God’s will. The only really persuasive Sacred Law is that of science–true everywhere, and provable to everyone.

Red Horseman

The scripture is perfect and is never contradictory! Learned priests understand the full context of the writings and can explain away all your supposed contradictions. For example, certain language might be used symbolically, since a perfectly divine text has rich layers of internal allusions.

White Horseman

Then how do you know the injunction to stone this woman isn’t just a symbol or a metaphor? Why take this particular law literally, when you ignore so many others? And anyway, your logic is circular. For example, I can make the claim that Winnie the Pooh is divinely inspired, and I can begin to use it as a moral code. Can I persuasively justify my reasoning by saying—”I’ve taken a Leap of Faith, and since Winnie the Pooh is perfectly perfect in every way as a moral guide,  whatever I do on the suggestion of the book is justified”? And can I silence voices of dissent by saying “any contradictions in the book only seem like contradictions, but really aren’t, because it’s perfectly perfect?”

Red Horseman

You’re a contemptible debater. You would say, a man who killed his own mother mustn’t be morally judged. After all, some savage tribe somewhere on a mountaintop might howl at the wind and celebrate matricide. There’d be a difference of opinion on the issue—and so, you’d argue, nothing is impermissible! All we can do is take our moral bearings from the best traditions of the past, and follow the Sacred Law to the letter, whether we like it or not. So, the girl must be stoned. The Law against adultery is an important one. This isn’t a trivial affair. I realize that this girl’s life is at stake.

White Horseman

I think that you, sir, are the contemptible one. Let’s speak realistically here. In ancient times, before the rise of modern science, early humans turned to stories to explain how the world around them functioned. Great moral and legal narratives like the Bible tried to inculcate just and moral behavior among ancient people. Here and there, traditions diverged, but most religions spoke to the belief in order in the universe, and the importance of humility before God. Today, I think that people should embrace the commonalities of different faiths and see them as inspirations to better understand art and science and the law; they shouldn’t use religion as an excuse to murder other people, as you are. When it comes to the ethics of killing a woman who is a victim of rape, human knowledge has evolved in such a way that we can universally recognize this as a cruel and despicable act… Value Scripture for its timeless messages, but not its outdated biases.

Red Horseman

And who’s to decide what’s a timeless message, and what’s outdated, or cruel, or despicable? You? First you said that every moral code was relative. And then, you have the audacity to impose a moral code yourself, saying that it would be categorically wrong to stone this woman. Why is your word better than Scripture? Is it thanks to your intuitions and social upbringing? Then you’ve fallen into the same trap you say I have. My intuitions differ from yours, as did my upbringing. So, here’s my vote when it comes to our first debate on this, my birthday. My two brothers can decide the matter for themselves.

***

The crowd was absolutely silent. The red horseman produced a rock from his robe and heaved it with all his might at the woman’s face. He shattered her two front teeth and unleashed rivulets of blood down her chin and neck. Her torso lurched forward in her place of burial. Her eyes revealed that one more hit would do the trick.

April 20, 2011

Next Chapter April 21, 2011