Episode 16, Homage to Luxenben

THE FOUNDER AND THE TREES

Once the seats in the compact theater-in-the-round were filled, floodlights illuminated a diorama devoted to that historical moment in which the planet was spiritually reborn. Amidst a surround of forest greenery, a tree, some three feet in diameter at its base, rose from the center of the stage to tower above its viewers—its upper branches lost in the hazy confusion of roof framing far above. And on the floor below lay a life-sized, automaton that, as the presentation progressed, artfully pantomimed the actions called for in the narration. Initially its arms were folded against its chest and its faces turned upward. It was histrionically garbed in a white flowing robe tied with a rope sash. The narration, piped through our earphones, began.

 

ANNOUNCER: As related in our Pageant, upon escaping from the hopelessly embroiled meeting with his advisors, the President, whom we now call the Founder, collapses on the forest floor exhausted and dispirited on account of his infuriating meeting with his advisors. When he is insensible, the surrounding trees, aware of his political position as head of the most powerful country on the planet, agree to break their traditional silence in order to converse with him. They appoint Abraham, their oldest member, to act as their spokesman and wake the Founder by dropping an acorn on his forehead.

FOUNDER: Huh? What was that?

ABRAHAM: An acorn, Mr. President. We’re sorry to disturb you, but we must talk.

FOUNDER: Talk?

ABRAHAM: Yes, sir. Normally we just chatter among ourselves when your kind is out of earshot , but now it’s essential that we make ourselves heard.

FOUNDER: What’s essential is that I get some sleep.

ABRAHAM: But perhaps less essential than averting a nuclear war that would be catastrophic to both our species.

FOUNDER: I’ve been over all of that. I’d give anything to stop it but I don’t know how. Nor does anyone else.

ABRAHAM: Anyone else among your own species. That’s the problem, Mr. President. You’ve been relying solely on inside advice. Look where its led to. Think back when hundreds of thousands of you slaved to build huge pyramids so that your god-king could ascend to heaven? What sort of advice did the Pharaoh get from his advisors? Did anyone bother to get confirmation from heaven that the first god-king had indeed arrived safely? Obviously not. They just charged off to build the next pyramid.

FOUNDER: That was a long time ago.

ABRAHAM: True, but things haven’t changed, have they? For centuries, you’ve continued to squander colossal amounts of time and energy on your wars and revolutions; your misdirected attempts at political and economic reforms; your racial, religious, and social conflicts; your construction of useless edifices. It goes on and on. You continue to counsel no one but yourselves and, as a result, your behavior is as bad as ever. You haven’t learned a thing.

FOUNDER: They all seemed like good ideas at the time.

ABRAHAM: Exactly what the ancients thought about their industry—‘at the time.’ One of your current infatuations is with economic growth. All your economic conferences stress it’s essential to your prosperity, isn’t that so?

FOUNDER: Absolutely. We must do everything we can to promote it.

ABRAHAM: But if one walked across the hall to a meeting of your environmentalists, would he not be told that economic development is destroying the environment.

FOUNDER: That’s true. We have to do everything we can to protect it.

ABRAHAM: But your economists and your ecologists can’t both be right, can they? Whose advice should you follow?

FOUNDER: I honestly don’t know. I don’t think anyone does.

ABRAHAM: Let’s try some easier questions. Is it not true that billions of your kind live in wretched, unhealthy conditions—overworked, underfed, uneducated?

FOUNDER: Yes. I’m afraid so.

ABRAHAM: Then that allows only one last question. Does Luxkind know what the hell it’s doing?

FOUNDER: When you put it that way, no.

ABRAHAM: Would you like to know what to do?

FOUNDER: Of course. Why do you think I’m wandering around in the forest like an idiot. All that crap has made my heads spin.

ABRAHAM: Then let us help you. Before you can even begin to build sensible policies, you need a solid intellectual foundation. You have to know what to believe. We know what to believe.

FOUNDER: You do?

ABRAHAM: Obviously. It’s what has enabled us to survive every imaginable threat for millions of years.

FOUNDER: Right! I can see that now. And you’re willing to tell it to us?

ABRAHAM: Actually, we haven’t much choice. That’s why we woke you up.

FOUNDER: Really! That’s the first good news I’ve heard since I assumed office. I knew all along what a lousy track record we’ve had. How could I have been so stu­pid? Outside management is what we need. Thank you, thank you. (so saying he throws his arms around the nearest tree.)

ABRAHAM: That’s not necessary, Mr. President. We’re not doing this out of the goodness of our hearts, you know. We have a strong communal interest in seeing the planet left in one piece.

FOUNDER: (breaking off his embrace) Straight talk. I like that. You won’t object if I indulge in some of the same?

ABRAHAM: Of course not.

FOUNDER: Then before relying on your advice I’d like to get a few reservations off my chest, if you don’t mind. I mean, since…

ABRAHAM: No need to temporize. Fire away, sir.

FOUNDER: I’m not sure I know how to phrase this…uh, can you really look at our situation impartially? No grudge against us? Not that I’d blame you, you understand.

ABRAHAM: You’re talking about your grinding millions of our fellows to shreds in your paper mills? That sort of thing?

FOUNDER: Well, yes.

ABRAHAM: Don’t give it a second thought. It’s every species for itself. We know that. If we could push a button and have all of you processed into fertilizer, we’d do it in a minute. And there wouldn’t be a leaf shed in sympathy, believe me.

FOUNDER: That’s very reassuring, thank you.

ABRAHAM: Good. What’s your next question?

FOUNDER: Please don’t be offended by this—I’m sure you are all exceptionally competent in your field—but I do have concerns about your advice being—how shall I put it—well, provincial.

ABRAHAM: Just spell it out. What you’re trying to say is that we’re disabled. Absolutely immobile. That’s rather obvious, isn’t it? But we’re not at all embarrassed by it. Not in the least. Every species is handicapped one way or another.

FOUNDER: I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…

ABRAHAM: Perfectly all right, Mr. President. You see, we compensate for our inability to go anywhere by being everywhere to begin with. So we’re hardly provincial, are we? Indeed, you’d have a hard time finding a more cosmopolitan community anywhere.

FOUNDER: I hadn’t looked at it that way before. But, yes, I can see your point. And I’m sure that within that community your expertise can’t be questioned. But are you confident it can be transferred across species lines? What I’m asking is, do you have a good enough grasp of our problems?

ABRAHAM: Better than you could ever imagine, sir. Years ago when you began to launch your all-out assault on the environment—our environment, in particular—we initiated a crash program to study your psychological makeup as a first step in determining how best to defend ourselves.

FOUNDER: How in the world…?

ABRAHAM: Very simply, Mr. President. How many cemeteries have you seen that don’t have trees? All it took to get the study underway was a bit of or­ganization: locating a number of well-established clumps, commis­sioning them to conduct a series of ex­ploratory root canals, collecting the findings and…

FOUNDER. You mean…

ABRAHAM: Yes, it was nasty work, no question about it. But science often is at the cutting edge. A number of our investigators were a mite squeamish at first, but they soon recognized that, whenever they procrastinated, the maggots got to your frontal lobes first. That got their juices going, I can tell you.

FOUNDER. Spare me the details.

ABRAHAM: As you wish. Any further questions?

FOUNDER: A last one regarding your compensation. I want you to understand that I don’t mind paying for good advice. Actually I prefer to. Pruning, trimming, you name it.

ABRAHAM: No, thank you. Discouraging you from killing off every life form on the planet will be reward enough, I assure you.

FOUNDER: Positive? An irrigation system wouldn’t be out of the question.

ABRAHAM: That won’t be necessary. The only thing you need give us, Mr. President, is your attention.

FOUNDER: You have it. I’m all ears.

ABRAHAM: Quite. Then let’s get down to business. We gather from your soliloquy that you feel you can no longer cope. That you’re simply overwhelmed by problems.

FOUNDER: Drowning in them is more like it. The economy is in shambles, terrorists are driving us crazy, millions of people live in disgraceful poverty, the environment is going to the dogs, weapons of mass destruction…

ABRAHAM: Yes, yes. As we said, we are quite familiar with your situation. But we view it quite differently. What if we told you that all the issues that you perceive as problems are, in reality, manifestations of a single underlying disorder?

FOUNDER: I’d find that hard to accept.

ABRAHAM: But don’t you also find it hard to accept that your attempts to solve your problems piecemeal fail with predictable regularity? It seems to us you would welcome an overall solution.

FOUNDER: I would. Without question. I just wasn’t prepared for anything so straightforward. Exactly what underlying disorder are you talking about?

ABRAHAM: We’ll get to that shortly. First let us ask you what may sound like an unrelated question. Let’s say a group of newly-arrived immigrants had just qualified for Blueland citizenship and you were asked to address them. How would you express their obligations to their adopted country?

FOUNDER: Simply that they obey the law of the land, learn our language, educate their children, and contribute to the economy by becoming self-sufficient.

ABRAHAM: But you have a free country, don’t you? Why impose any demands? Why not let them make up their own rules? Communicate however they liked. Ignore their children’s’ education. Do whatever they want?

FOUNDER: Because over time that would destroy the integrity of our entire society. We’d have different languages, a mishmash of laws. Self-perpetuating poverty. Why, there’d be a complete breakdown of social order. Before you know it, our entire population would suffer, the immigrants themselves most of all.

ABRAHAM: Sheer chaos, in other words. You see what we’re driving at, of course.

FOUNDER: I can’t say that I do. Blueland has a mature body of law and the means to enforce it on natives and immigrants alike.

ABRAHAM: We weren’t speaking of your laws, Mr. President. Nature’s injunctions are what we have in mind. Don’t you see? You are newly-arrived immigrants into her domain. Yet you don’t give a second thought about barging in here, setting up your own shop, and doing any damn thing you please. You violate nature’s laws, refuse to learn her language, terrorize her inhabitants, and steal her resources. Given such an antisocial record, it’s positively absurd of you to think you are entitled to any degree of comfort and security.

FOUNDER. So either we kowtow to nature by prancing among the daffodils or she kicks us in the butt. Is that it? Frankly, I’m disappointed. But I should have known. That’s precisely the kind of vague, nice-sounding, and altogether meaningless sentiment I should have expected from a stand of Greens. I’m sure you mean well, but we’ve gone down that road. We’ve tried out every back-to-nature movement you can think of and none of them have led anywhere.

ABRAHAM: We’re not talking about the emotional drivel your romanticists have fantasized. We’re talking about nature’s actual laws. The hard and fast rules every species has to observe. The ones you’ve so scrupulously ignored.

FOUNDER: But we’re not, as you say, ‘every species.’ All that talk about infiltrating our craniums led me to believe you understood our special situation. Even a casual study must have shown you that we have the capacity to be self-aware. We can speak, reason, anticipate, predict. I don’t mean to sound boastful, you understand, but find me one other species that can tailor its environment to suit its particular needs, create an advanced culture, domesticate other species, and arrive at a scientific understanding of natural phenomena. I could go on and on but the bottom line is that we’re not mere mechanistic beings tethered to one set of physical conditions. This obeying the rules stuff doesn’t apply to us. We can do our own thing.

ABRAHAM: We agree that you’re the smartest kid on the block, sir, but the point is you are still resident on it. Every one of nature’s life forms can lay claim to some unique adaptation every bit as refined, as awe-inspiring as that brain of yours. The fact is there’s only one animal kingdom and you’re in it. Nature doesn’t grant exemptions. She allows—even insists—that every species does its own thing. But within the law, sir. That’s the critical distinction. It’s the difference between the order you see in our forest and the chaos we see in your cities. The difference between being constructive members of nature’s society and being destructive outsiders. The difference between facing up to the truth of your place on the planet and continuing to live in the bubble of lies you’ve created for yourselves.

Look where doing your own thing has got you. You’ve been sent running into the forest bawling your head off about economic decline, terrorism, and all the rest getting worse every day. It’s like you’ve got this death wish to go down fighting—a grandiose version of suicide by cops. A change is in order, Mr. President..

FOUNDER: What sort of change?

ABRAHAM: We’ve already told you. You must start following the rules.

FOUNDER: But I have no idea what the rules are.

ABRAHAM: That’s exactly why we’re here, Mr. President. Let us take you on an imaginary tour of nature’s kingdom. Allow you to see for yourself how it works and decide if you wish to join it as a constructive member of its society.

FOUNDER: An imaginary interlude in the middle of a conversation whose credibility is much in doubt to begin with? Isn’t that stretching things a bit?

ABRAHAM: We have to take liberties, sir. Time is short. Are you on board?

FOUNDER: Yes, I suppose..

ABRAHAM: Then we’re on our way.

ANNOUNCER: That concludes the first part of our dramatization, ladies and gentlemen. Please proceed to the adjoining theater.

 

“What’s the point of all this bullshit? I don’t get all this nature stuff,” said Neuman rapping me on the shoulder as we filed out. “I thought this stupid place had something to do with religion.”

Although his critique was delivered in a loud stage whisper, the hostile stares of a couple of Fulls within earshot made it clear they had both heard and deeply regretted the relaxation of the rules that allowed us uniheads to invade their sanctuary. I pushed the boy ahead as best I could so as to lose him among the knot of other Semi delegates who were also hurrying along to the next presentation.

The diorama with which we were now presented showed the Founder’s robot again lying on the ground—this time disposed lazily at the foot of the tree, its heads pillowed comfortably atop his folded arms. . Hopefully, the ensuing dialogue would be less confrontational and more instructive than the preceding segment. I had not come to the Shrine simply to be reminded of my lineage.

 

ABRAHAM: Follow me, sir. Note that we’re coming in legally through immigration. None of this barging in business. Normally animals can breeze right through, but we’ll have to declare that brain of yours. There will be some rigmarole to go through, but since you’re just visiting, only the short list will be required.

FOUNDER: List? List of what?

ABRAHAM: Of statements.. Very straightforward. I’ll go down them one-by-one and you tell me whether you agree or not. Only take a minute or two.

FOUNDER: An entrance exam? What’s the point?

ABRAHAM: Simply a precaution to prevent contraband ideologies from entering. A bit paranoid if you ask us, but regulations are regulations.

FOUNDER: All right. Get on with it.

ABRAHAM: The first statement is: money is a store of value.

FOUNDER: Of course. Every grade-schooler knows that.

ABRAHAM: Second: government should dispense charity to the needy.

FOUNDER: Absolutely.

ABRAHAM: Third: representative democracy is the best form of government that can be devised.

FOUNDER: By all means.

ABRAHAM: Fourth: when conflicts between peoples arise, negotiation should be the first step toward settlement.

FOUNDER: Naturally.

ABRAHAM: Fifth: One can believe in God and still be a bona fide citizen in nature’s kingdom.

FOUNDER: I should hope so.

ABRAHAM: Sixth and last: A state religion would impinge upon our freedom by violating the separation of church and state.

FOUNDER: It would indeed.

ABRAHAM: Good. Wasn’t so bad, was it?

FOUNDER: Hardly. I’m surprised they bother with it. The answers to the statements were so self-evident.

ABRAHAM: Right. They were designed that way. Short. Simple. No grey areas that might slow things down. You demonstrated their efficacy perfectly.

FOUNDER: I daresay any other decent Luxander would have responded the same way.

ABRAHAM: No doubt. Exactly what we would expect of a population brought up on precepts diametrically opposed to the ethos here. Your notions couldn’t possibly be allowed into the kingdom. The decontamination squad would have a fit.

FOUNDER: I missed some of the statements?.

ABRAHAM: Every one of them, sir. But don’t take it badly. It’s what we expected.

FOUNDER: Then I won’t be allowed in?

ABRAHAM: No, no. They’re far too liberal to discriminate. We’ll just confiscate your answers for the time being and store them for you in customs. You can pick them up on your way out should you choose.

FOUNDER: Of course, I’ll choose. They touched on my most cherished beliefs.

ABRAHAM: We understand, but one never knows. However, there’s no need to decide now. If the arrangement is satisfactory to you, we can go right in.

FOUNDER: Finally. I had no idea becoming an animal was this much bother.

ABRAHAM: You’ve always been one, sir. It’s making you an honest one that’s creating the difficulty. At any rate, now that you’re in the kingdom, we can get started. Just a matter of getting their pledge of allegiance out of the way. They require it of every entrant, you know. If you’ll be good enough to recite this. (hands Founder a piece of paper)

FOUNDER: (reading) I pledge allegiance to nature’s kingdom and to her system for which it stands.

ABRAHAM: Splendid. It must strike you as just another of their useless formalities, but it does serve as a useful starting point for our orientation. Why do you suppose they’re so insistent upon it?

FOUNDER: I have no idea.

ABRAHAM: We don’t know why nature does what she does or even if the question itself makes any sense. But one assumption we can make, based on the evidence at our disposal, is that one of her motivations is to see that the universe lasts into perpetuity.

FOUNDER: That’s comforting.

ABRAHAM: If so, then the only way for that to happen is for the universe to always remain in a state of dynamic equilibrium. And again the evidence is on our side. Even the big bang didn’t upset things despite all the commotion. Some space stuff lost, some matter gained, but overall the scales never budged, balance was never lost, the equal sign never wavered. And so it has gone on ever since. For every atomic particle that turned positive, another turned negative. Whatever potential energy was lost by a falling leaf was absorbed by the disturbed air currents. And that’s the way things have to continue. Were the tiniest transaction to result in disequilibrium, cracks would appear, dominoes would fall, and the next thing you know the whole shooting match would blow up. Nature, in effect, would be out of a job.

FOUNDER: That would be unfortunate, yes.

ABRAHAM: So to ward off such a catastrophic eventuality she employs a myriad of feedback cycles working ceaselessly 24/7 to correct the slightest deviation from her equilibrium state and preserve her cherished balance.

FOUNDER: That too is comforting, I suppose, but how am I involved in all of this? Preserving the universe is above my pay grade.

ABRAHAM: No, sir. Preserving your part of it is not. That’s what we’re getting at. You can, if you wish, continue your present path of going your own way, poisoning the ground, polluting rivers, fouling the atmosphere, and otherwise making as much of a mess as you please. Nature really doesn’t give a damn. For all we know she’s amused by it all. Her feedback cycles can be counted on to swoop in and repair the damage. However, be warned. They are unfeeling, mechanical forces that will not go about their duties gently. They will give you reason to regret your behavior. You can bet on it.

FOUNDER: That does sound ominous.

ABRAHAM: It should. Far better, from your standpoint—and ours, I might add—were you to mimic nature’s methodology by creating your own feedback cycles to promptly repair whatever damage your inventive citizens inflict.

FOUNDER: What about progress?

ABRAHAM: Nature’s all for it. The more you progress, the happier she is, the more tools she gives you, and so on.

FOUNDER: Really? Our environmentalists warn she’s against it.

ABRAHAM: Not at all. Life forms keep her amused. Perks things up. All sorts of things going off in all sorts of directions. A veritable toy store.

FOUNDER: I would have thought there’s enough going on in the universe to hold her attention.

ABRAHAM: Put yourself in her place. After billions of years, inorganic matter can get to be a bore no matter what it does. Same old winding down, disorganization. Same old, same old.

FOUNDER: I can see that.

ABRAHAM: Progress is all win-win, Mr. President, provided, of course, it’s the right kind. What nature is against is your grabbing onto every cockamamie notion you can dream up and assuming its beneficial. Right now you’re acting like a toddler in front of an opened medicine chest doting on every pretty bottle without once questioning its danger. Real progress is keeping the things that work and plowing under the ones that don’t. The right feedback systems will tell you which is which.

FOUNDER: So we’re back to feedback again.

ABRAHAM: It’s your savior, Mr. President. Feedback systems can monitor your economy, safeguard your politics, supervise your social services, avoid crises, deter conflicts, defeat diseases, and solve all the other problems that so weigh you down.

What you’ll end up with is a vast machine made up of countless synchronous systems each constantly circulating matter and energy. Systems within systems, cycles within cycles, gears within gears within gears. Just as in nature’s kingdom. The cycles would not only benefit you directly, over time they would grow legitimate institutions around them allowing you to eventually dispense with the dysfunctional organizations you have now. In short, feedback has direction. Were you to stop fighting nature and join her endeavors, you would enjoy her good will and come to live harmoniously in her kingdom.

FOUNDER: Let’s say for a moment—it seems wildly improbable, of course—that we really could introduce the kind of feedback measures you’re talking about. How could we be sure they wouldn’t conflict with nature’s?

ABRAHAM: Truth is the common denominator that integrates all of nature’s systems. Look at your scientific community’s experience. At one time it was divided into separate fields each with its own vocabulary and doctrine. But because they were all, at the core, based on the laws of nature, they were able to fuse into a continuum. Provided your feedback systems are legitimate, you need not worry about their meshing with nature’s systems.

FOUNDER: What I don’t understand, then, is why we’re not well on our way out of our quandaries already. We don’t always call it that but practically everything we do has an element of feedback in it. My election as president, for example, resulted from the voters’ dissatisfaction with the previous officeholder. Come the next election, they’ll make a new choice based on the information they’ve acquired since I took office. Our manufacturers decide on production volumes by the feedback they get from the marketplace. Our retailers set their prices based on sales data. I could name you any number of such applications of feedback that we employ every day. Why haven’t they accomplished all the wonders you’ve talked about?

ABRAHAM: Because, Mr. President, what you describe as “elements of feedback” aren’t good enough. They have only a distant relationship to the kind of rigorous, quantitative mechanisms that nature requires of genuine feedback cycles. Your systems were instituted by people—politicians, lawyers, policy wonks, lobbyists—who knew next to nothing about the technical features of genuine feedback mechanisms.

FOUNDER: What makes a feedback system genuine?

ABRAHAM: It has to follow a precise set of rules: quantitative information is collected in one part of the cycle; transferred to another part where the information is analyzed in accordance with previously agreed upon parameters; and, finally, based on the result of that analysis, appropriate action is taken at a third point on the cycle to bring the next batch of information into closer conformity with the desired parameters. Then the entire process is initiated again in a new closed cycle. Needless to add, the entire process must be conducted in an environment in which the accuracy of the input data is unquestioned; its communication is unimpeded; its approval, based on previously agreed parameters, is impartial; its resultant activity effective; and honesty prevails throughout.

FOUNDER: How could I find people who could put together systems like that?

ABRAHAM: They’re under your very noses, sir. The trouble is you can’t imagine them taking an active part in your administration.

FOUNDER: Whom are you talking about?

ABRAHAM: Your authorities on feedback: the scientists, engineers, technologists, systems people who rely on feedback cycles in literally every technical project they undertake—electronics, astronomy, biotechnology, semiconductors, and so on. You can make use of their expertise to introduce genuine feedback into every walk of life.

FOUNDER: In technology measurements result in hard numbers and the strictures you’re talking about apply. But the social sciences present an altogether different story. Statistics in those areas are bound to be muddier. They’re conditional on this or that outside factor. They’re often subjective and always suffused in uncertainty. What could technical people do with that kind of input?

ABRAHAM: It won’t be the first time that scientists have had to deal with imponderables. Centuries ago they faced a confusion of false assumptions, incorrect values, and superstitious beliefs that presented even greater obstacles to progress than do your social sciences today. What it took then was a determination to throw out misconceptions, create new chains of logic, improve apparatus, eliminate extraneous information, redefine variables, and so on. You must apply the same scrutiny of your values today.

FOUNDER: Such as the ones on my entrance exam?

ABRAHAM: Exactly, Mr. President. The more fervently you believe in something the more suspicion it deserves.

FOUNDER: It’s hard to think in those terms.

ABRAHAM: But consider the rewards. Look about you. How can your legislators dare issue laws and regulations without the safeguards that feedback could so easily provide. No wonder your statutes careen through society like cannon balls bouncing wildly about maiming people, crushing companies, and demolishing entire industries. How can you allow your entire economic system to gyrate under the influence of a monetary system that is fundamentally flawed? Your completely artificial national boundaries are a constant source of conflict yet you hang on to them for dear life.

For that matter, everywhere we look in your society we see disasters such as these in the making. In short, you’re in dire need of a massive overhaul. Throw the rascals out. Drag your technical people out of their laboratories. So far they’ve spent their time inventing things like twenty different ways to watch movies. That should prove sufficient for the time being. Put them to work doing important things. And make them keep asking “What would nature do?” every step of the way.

FOUNDER: I admit the prospect does sound exciting. For a minute, you even made it sound remotely possible. But there’s a hitch. A huge one.

ABRAHAM: What’s that, sir?

FOUNDER: The creatures you’re counting on to conduct your revolution. If you expect Luxanders to maintain the kind of environment you say feedback requires—sticklers for accuracy, entirely impartial, openly communicative, and totally honest—I’m afraid you’re hugely overrating us. I’m sorry, Abraham, but you’ve got the wrong species. We may be animals as you say, but we’re not good at it. Natural law doesn’t come to us naturally.

ABRAHAM: We agree, sir, but there’s no call for defeatism. You have a perfectly adequate solution at hand—a mechanism capable of converting your deficient flock into an army of virtuous reformers.

FOUNDER: What mechanism are you talking about?

ABRAHAM: You call it religion, sir.

ANNOUNCER: Please step into the next theater for the conclusion of “The Founder and the Trees.” Thank you for attending.

 

I found the presentation absorbing and, apparently, so did Matty, but the same, obviously, could not be said of our impatient young friend. “Religion! It’s about time,” he snorted. “What I’d like to know is why in the hell we had to wade through all this crap to get there.”

At first I was relieved that no Fulls were close enough to overhear Neuman’s outburst, but, in looking around, I realized that our isolation was not accidental. They had learned to give us a wide berth.

The impatient boy practically pushed us into the next diorama that revealed a Founder, hands in his pockets, leaning comfortably against his tree mentor—this time with pleased looks on his faces.

 

FOUNDER: Religion? After all your talk about the supremacy of natural law, you’re preaching religion? What’s natural about that?

ABRAHAM: The two need not be incompatible. Mind you, we’re not talking about your traditional faiths. What we have in mind is religion with a lower-case-‘r’. The kind you already have hard-wired into your brains.

FOUNDER: Not in my brains.

ABRAHAM: Come now, Mr. President. Admit it. Our investigation showed that the least little contact with some ecclesiastical artifact—hearing the murmurs of prayer, walking into a cathedral, listening to hymnals or an oratorio—stimulates it. Nothing to be ashamed of. It’s in your blood. Your own medical research has confirmed it. You might as well put it to use.

FOUNDER: Doing what?

ABRAHAM: What religion has always done. Defining virtue and requiring its believers to remain committed to it. Religion will enable you to make it through the ruins of your present system and into the gates of nature’s kingdom.

FOUNDER: Religion could do that?

ABRAHAM: The right religion could. Absolutely. It wouldn’t be the first time its rescued Luxkind from a dilemma. We’ve observed your behavior ever since you emerged as a species millions of years ago. From the very beginning, your clan-member ancestors faced not only natural hardships but life-and-death competition from other Luxanoids. Heads were bashed in first and questions asked later. “Might makes right” wasn’t just a slogan; it was a fact of life learned at a mother’s knee. Thus throughout the bulk of your history, the traits you now properly regard as anti-social—brutality, enmity, anger, hatred, cunning, greed, fear, domination, distrust, territoriality—were desirable, not to say, essential, adaptations.

These aggressive traits would have permanently barred the way to communal agrarian settlement, the next stage of your development, had your inventive ancestors not reformulated their superstitious beliefs into a religion that fostered peace. One that enabled them to settle conflicts nonviolently, to be truthful and respectful toward one another, and to accept strangers within their midst. In short, religion accomplished a revolutionary change that made your present civilization possible.

FOUNDER: Couldn’t these advances have happened without religion?

ABRAHAM: No. Every branch of Luxanity our researchers investigated—and there have been hundreds—observed some form of religious practice. Religion was embodied in absolutely every culture of whatever size and in whatever clime, whether isolated or cosmopolitan, whether primitive or sophisticated.

FOUNDER: And there were no irreligious tribes all this time?

ABRAHAM: If so they did not survive to tell the tale. It seems religion was indispensable for survival. Just as it is today, we might add.

FOUNDER: I’ll grant that we could well use some form of moral guidance. But religion seems so outdated. Why not some sort of ethical system?

ABRAHAM: We’re afraid not. The fact is ethics are too thin a reed to lean on. They’re too intellectual and too civilized to effectively combat that emotionally-driven brain of yours. Forging a path to nature’s kingdom will take all of the conviction and stamina that only religion’s fervor can provide—the fire and brimstone, the crashing organ music, and the Missa Solemnis.

Religion has sent entire armies hither and yon. Anointed and deposed kings. Inspired zealots to run down the street flailing their backs with razors. Built cathedrals and torn down temples. Rescued hordes of refugees and provoked genocide. Imposed deprivation and inspired charity. It has turned reputedly rational people into idiot savants capable of reciting any verse in a five-hundred page book and incapable of thinking clearly about anything else. It has demonstrated magnanimity, malice, madness, martyrdom, militarism, mayhem, munificence, masterwork, mercy, and, of course, murder—all in the name of God. And that, mind you, covers only the “Ms.” We could go on with the other twenty-five.

FOUNDER: A mixed track record, in other words.

ABRAHAM: Our point is that it’s a muscular beast. Whether it does good things or bad depends on how it’s trained. Train it to promote absolutism and it will go around smashing everything in which it is in disagreement. But train it to worship nature and derive its tenets from hers—integrity, rationality, and so on—it can furnish the backbone you need to achieve the next stage in your development. It’s done it before. It can do it again.

FOUNDER: You talk as though converting an entire population to a radically different faith is the simplest thing in the world. You honestly think we’re that adaptable?

ABRAHAM: Your previous religious affiliations were certainly fickle enough in the past. There is scarcely anything—animate, inanimate, or impalpable—you haven’t worshipped at one time or another: mountains, bears, astronomical bodies, idols of every shape and description, bulls, snakes, totems, cargo planes, crocodiles, you name it. The only conclusion we can come to is that your religious beliefs are, in effect, a read-only, denominational system in which new input erases the old. Download any set of precepts into it—the earlier the better, of course—and the subject individual will likely remain conditioned for life.

FOUNDER: You underestimate the intensity with which people are devoted to their biblical God.

ABRAHAM: You ought to welcome the competition. Can there be any question but that nature is more experienced, more knowledgeable, and the possessor of greater organizational talent than their present deity? Eleven billion years (that we know of) on the job without missing a day. Administering to everything from quarks too small, and galactic clusters too large, to be even imagined. And seeing to it that they all work together harmoniously. Moreover she’s serene, self-confident, and honest to a fault. Every one of her messages rings as true whether it is delivered at home or whether she is on the road some thousand million light years away—whether she has said it today or two billion years earlier.

Many would find reason to worship nature simply for her beauty. Not just her physical beauty—though there is not one of her creations that is not a delight to the eye—but of the beauty that scientists find in a theory that helps untangle some previous perplexity with particular grace.

To our mind, a spirituality based on an appreciation of nature’s magnificent kingdom is far more inspiring, more exotic, more wondrous than anything their biblical God could ever provide—not to mention his penchant for dissembling, equivocation, vacillation, and divisiveness.

Nature wins on every count. An open and shut case.

FOUNDER: It’s as simple as that? Unplug God, plug in nature, and somehow keep the fervor going?

ABRAHAM: Not just keep it going, strengthen it. With nature on the throne, there would no longer be mixed signals from on high that weaken religious ardor such as the acrimony that inevitably arises when faiths are founded solely on dogma—there being no arbitrary belief that can be proved superior to any other, no myth that cannot be topped by another even more preposterous.

Under your new religion harmony will replace discord. There will be only one authority to turn to for both truth and meaning, for both science and religion—an accommodation between your primitive emotions and modern science. Devotees will be able to pay homage to the same deity seven days a week. One truth, one deity, one commandment. One coherent system any animal would be proud of.

FOUNDER: Are you’re expecting us to pray to nature? It seems hypocritical—not to say, futile—to immerse oneself in ceremonial rites dedicated to an entity one knows to be totally unresponsive.

ABRAHAM: Pray or don’t pray as you see fit. It’s would be no more hypocritical than praying to your biblical God. Do any among your faithful really expect their God to personally intervene in their behalf? We doubt it. They participate in religious observances for the same reason they attend symphonies: it is personally edifying.

FOUNDER: What happens to traditional religious values in all of this. Do they get thrown out along with belief in God? Might we not slip into relativism and go to hell in a hand basket?

ABRAHAM: Not a chance. When you become a part of nature’s world, you automatically inherit the virtues that flow directly from her methodology. By definition, anything that obstructs the reliable operation of feedback principles becomes sinful: violence, dishonesty, authoritarianism, secrecy, disorder, and cynicism. The incentive to partake in a righteous, “well-lived” life would, if anything, be strengthened by knowing that it was in harmony not merely with some arbitrary rules of your own but with nature’s fundamental laws of the realm.

FOUNDER: It strikes me as ironic—maybe, underhanded—that the only way we can enter nature’s kingdom is by distorting primitive instincts that, at one time, prevented us from entering it.

ABRAHAM: Nature allows—no, encourages—species to modify whatever capabilities they have for the purpose of survival. Fins have been turned into legs, knuckles into thumbs, gills into lungs. The only criterion is whether it works or not. Evolution is a dirty game, Mr. President.

FOUNDER: So it seems.

ABRAHAM: Well, sir, if there’s nothing further we can do for you at this time, we’ll bring our visit to an end. It’s time for us to go back to the real world and resume our usual stations. I hope we’re not deluding ourselves in thinking we’ve had some impact on your thinking from here on out.

FOUNDER: You’ve given me a lot to think about. No doubt about it. Who knows? Your advice may make honest animals of us yet.

ABRAHAM: We’re pleased to hear it. One last thing. Do you wish to collect your old ideas on the way out?

FOUNDER: I’d quite forgotten about them. I don’t know why exactly, but somehow I feel as though they’re no longer needed.

ABRAHAM: Quite so. Good night, Mr. President.

FOUNDER: Good night, Abraham. And thank you.

ANNOUNCER: That concludes “The Founder and the Trees,” ladies and gentlemen. Hope you enjoyed it.

 

As soon as the show ended, I hesitatingly turned my attention to Neuman. How, I wondered, could he possibly reconcile his image of the Founder as Judaism’s Number One Advance Man with what he had just heard? I did not have to wait long to find out.

“The lousy bastards. The mother-fucking, lousy bastards.”

I had no idea whom Neuman was referring to and didn’t care. All I wanted was to get the boy and his foul mouth out of the Full’s hearing range. Once we had filed out into the less crowded main hall, Matty risked an expansion of the boy’s views. “What bastards are you talking about, young man?” she snapped.

“Who do you think? The dumb asses who concocted this bullshit. How am I supposed to convert anybody after they’ve listened to this crap?”

“I don’t know, son. That’s something you’ll have to work out for yourself,” the old bird said in as soothing a tone as possible.

“Yeah. Don’t worry. Me and God will think of something,” the boy said determinedly.

I had nothing to contribute to the interchange and so stayed out of it. Besides I was engrossed in my own thoughts. No two ways about it. I now knew what the Luxanders believed. What I did not know was how did these beliefs shape their institutions? I would make it my business to find out.

(Visited 51 times, 1 visits today)

Leave a Comment


one + = four