Triangulating Cain

January 13th, 2013   by   Andrew

This is a response to Sabio’s conversation on his post “Pre-Adamites“.

I thought this was too long to just leave on his site as a comment. Since it’s his conversation (and I’m not too active on this site these days), I’d prefer any further comments to be written on his site.


Re: The Mark of Cain

Interpretations abound. That’s literature. Genesis stories are particularly difficult because they are so tight and short. You can do anything you want with them. Here’s my fun with it (sorry this is long, but I hope it’s worth it to someone).

The last time you were so mad you yelled at someone, what did your face look like? Cain was so enraged, and so certain about being wronged, he killed his brother to prove he was right.

When you are deeply angry, do people want to look at you? People naturally don’t even want to be around angry people, let alone angry people that are always right. Some angry people feel so certain about how wrong the world is, they have to prove and argue and even willfully, violently demonstrate just how right they are.

Anger disfigures your face.

Let’s look at wikipedia – ” “mark” in Gen. 4:15 is ‘owth, which could mean a sign, an omen, a warning, or a remembrance. In the Torah, the same word is used to describe the stars as signs or omens.”

God (as a character in a story) marks Cain so that no one else will kill him, supposedly. It could also be a prediction – no one’s going to kill Cain, and maybe that’s because Cain is willing to quickly escalate his side of revenge to the point of taking life. He might even go further.

It could also be just a sign to others – don’t do what this guy did; it’ll get us nowhere. And don’t mess with him; it’s not worth it.

In Genesis it doesn’t explicitly say God was thinking about Cain’s best interests, or protecting Cain. He could very well have been thinking about everyone else that would have to deal with this dangerous individual.

When God finds what Cain has done, he first predicts Cain’s fate:

“When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.”

Cain immediately casts himself as the victim in all this. He blames everything else but himself, and fears his vulnerability:

“My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.”

God can’t believe his anthropomorphic ears. Are you kidding me? When you feel wronged, your wrath is not proportionate to what you think has been done against you. Anyone that kills you won’t just equally be killed, which is bad enough. Your line will want to destroy their whole family!

“Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.”

It does not say here the source of the vengeance. It does not say by My anthropomorphic hand. Let’s not put words into God’s anthropomorphic mouth.

Only after this does God “put a mark on Cain so that no one who came upon him would kill him.”

Cain’s anger and (self-)loathing made it almost impossible for anyone to be around him long enough to even want to talk to him, let alone kill him.

They would get the hell away from him as fast as possible. Haven’t you known people like this? Haven’t you avoided people like this?

One of Cain’s descendants is Tubal-Cain, a smith of bronze and iron. Tools. Weapons. Cain’s motivation to hurt others when he doesn’t get his way, and his descendant’s knack for war, create a dangerous cycle of willful and asymmetrical (unequal) revenge.  That leads to society-ending consequences. Even in a semi-nomadic society before legal systems and ‘governing authorities’.

One of Cain’s descendants is Lamech. Lamech tells his wives quite openly:

“I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-seven fold.”

It’s now out of control. Lamech is even more wilful, more vengeful and more dangerous than Cain. Someone slaps him and he wipes out their village!

Some might say God ‘marks’ Cain to stop the cycle of revenge immediately. The forgiveness angle, maybe. I think it’s better to look at this as a prediction. Cain’s attitude and motivation ‘mark’ him. No magic needed.

Cain, supposedly, becomes both city-builder and cast-out wanderer. He just can’t get relationships with work and with other people right. Why’s that?

Well, look back at his sacrifice to God (as a character in a story). Cain puts in a half-ass effort to collect some twigs and berries. And this is to his God, supposedly.

Abel gives the best he had, and he was glad to do it. When measured beside his brother, Cain blames his brother for his own half-ass efforts, and takes out his hurt on his brother. How’s that for a sacrifice, God?

Well, it’s still a pretty bad sacrifice and doesn’t get him anything he really wants.

The signs are in the stars for Cain, supposedly. But he hasn’t set his sights on them. He can only blame them for being so far out of reach. Surprising really, since it’s all written right in the expression on his face.

God, I suck.


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Genesis 4 -

Mark of Cain -

Some ideas from J. Peterson’s discussions of Genesis

- Redemption talk -

- the nature of evil –

The Last Idols of God

June 28th, 2012   by   Andrew

Part of the conclusion to the series God: From Magic to Motivation

I want to use two illustrations in this post that I believe offer a way for God-centred religions to get unstuck and survive the current change in aesthetics, away from a language of magic to a language of personal responsibility. These two stories talk about what I call The Last Idols of God. They are both very old stories.

[Note: this is a fun rant and a personal working-out of ideas. Treat it as such.]

1. Authority

There is Muslim story about a man that found he could not believe in God. He confided in a religious teacher. The religious teacher was not troubled at all by what this man said. Instead, he asked the man about what personally motivated him.

“What is most important to you in this world? What is it that you live for?”

“My nephew!” said the man quickly. “He is so bright and curious. I want nothing evil to happen to him. I want to make sure he has the best life has to offer!”

“Go then and treat your nephew as you would your God,” said the teacher. “Do everything in your power to raise the child well. Be an example to him, and make the world a place that will give him everything he needs to live properly.”

The man went away feeling much better, adopting a new attitude towards his life.

This is my retelling. I have lost the original story (or any supposed ‘authoritative’ one). However, the religious teacher in the story was not in any way bothered by the man’s unbelief. It isn’t a threat to the teacher or to the teacher’s religion. It isn’t really a problem at all.

The religious teacher addresses what motivates the man instead of promoting some kind of magic to believe in. He asks the man to identify and explain the embodiment of his motivations. What he finds is that the man’s personal god, the embodiment of what has implications for his behaviour and attitude, is in someone other than himself, something that requires no magic or complicated belief!

At no point does the religious teacher say to treat the child as authoritative. It isn’t a matter of giving the child what the child wants. Instead, it’s a matter of accepting a responsibility.

Gods need no magic and need no authority.

Our personal motivations can still be important to us, but it is time that we stripped them of all authority over our behaviour. Instead of simply confirming our motivations, or letting them rule, we can be honest with ourselves by openly admitting to them and accepting responsibility for how they make us behave.

2. Agency

The boys are brought up to be in fear of the masks the men wear in their rituals. These are the gods. These are the personifications, the powers, that structure the society. The boy, when he gets to be more than his mother can handle, the men come in with their masks, or whatever their costume is, and they grab the kid. He thinks he’s being taken by the gods. Taken out to the men’s new ground, and he’s beaten up and everything else.

But in New Guinea, there is a wonderful event where the poor kid has to stand up and fight a man with a mask. He’s fighting the god. The man let’s the kid win, takes the mask off, puts it on the kid.

Now the mask is not there defeated, and simply said, “This is just myth.” The mask represents the power that is shaping the society and has shaped you, and now you are a representative of that power.

You’ve broken past the image as fact, and understand the image as metaphor. And you are to represent what the metaphor stands for. ~ Joseph Campbell

This ritual reveals how God (the mask) is a construction. It is not a thing that creates but instead a thing created by us. This does not mean it is not real. It does have implications for behaviour (the boys react two ways after all – with fear and with fight). However, it is not the mask that has agency.

This is a very emotional experience for the child, and a brilliant example of how to incorporate disillusionment into the regular culture of a community. Disillusionment is becoming a common and life-defining experience shared by individuals today. Instead of focusing on ‘confirmations‘, god-centred religions need to celebrate these moments of disillusionment. Otherwise, they will continue to lose followers because of the destruction of trust and attachment involved in these emotional experiences. Kids are going away in fear, fight, flight and disinterest. They are walking away from community involvement in apathy or angst.

From time to time, I’d imagine, the masks that were passed from generation to generation would have to be fixed, altered, or remade. The masks, being constructions and having no magical agency in today’s language, are not immune to revision. They need constant maintenance and updating. I think we’ve reached a point where the masks must either be completely transparent or remade by each generation. This means we must remove agency from the make-up the mask. Our motivations are powerful enough already; the last thing we need to give them is their own power to act.

The mask in the New Guinea ritual does not win, after all. It is the child that wrestles and overcomes fear that wins.


Call to Change

The religious have been duped by bad arguments about what makes a God, or a motivation, worthy of worship. To be worthy of worship, a God does not need to exist at all, in some material sense or rational argument. Existence alone could actually make it unworthy.

Only within the bounds of the human imagination, collectively and individually, can we actually construct a God (a cultural embodiment of the motivations that should rule over us) that is worthy and inspirational. There may still be problems with inconsistency or incoherence, but that is the nature of story. That is part of dealing with the flux of new information available. Life resides in the very act of addressing new information.

Only an unknown, unreal and fictitious god (or gods) can now fit this role. No other god can survive the common experience of disillusionment which god-centred religions must address.

I don’t think this is a terrible or disrespectful way to look at religious commitment. People have dedicated themselves towards making the world a better place through adopting many kinds of stories. Instead of fixating on the inaccuracies of sacred texts, the incoherence of magical aesthetics or the probabilities grounding someone’s beliefs, we can instead focus on the consequences of the beliefs. How does a person’s beliefs, how does a person’s motivations, or how does a person’s God even, make them behave?

The last things we should give to our personal motivations is either some kind of sacred agency or some kind of supreme authority over how we collectively behave. These are the last idols of God (for now…).

The world itself wears no masks. We are the makers of masks. We are the ones that wear the masks.

God-dominated religions, if they wish to survive the continued rationalization and technologization of culture, need to abandon their last idols of God, particularly authority and agency.

What do you think?


Empathy to the Deserving – Sunday Vid, Sort Of…

June 25th, 2012   by   Andrew

Part of the series God: From Magic to Motivation

I’m not going to embed or link to video today. This post is about a video, though.

I want to say something about the bus monitor Karen Klein and what’s happened because of a video made on a school bus. It says something about our empathy, what triggers our empathy, and what doesn’t trigger our empathy.

You might know the story. A grandmotherly bus monitor was singled out by a few thirteen-year boys. She was taunted, made fun of, and brought to tears. It was all captured on video, and put on Youtube.

People reacted.

Outrage. Emotional pain. Feelings of powerlessness.

A man in Canada, after seeing the video, thought this bus monitor deserved a vacation. Who deserves treatment like that anyway? Something should be done to make things right.

From that idea came the initiative to go further. Hey, this is 2012. There is enough of us connected, and emotionally attached to the situation. Certainly we actually can do something about it.

He started collecting donations.

He couldn’t change the fact that the thirteen-year-old boys had done something really stupid. He couldn’t change the torment the bus monitor went through or the public display that she had become. But with some help from other like-minded people, he could change things. He could at least get enough money together to give her the vacation she deserved after having to go through that.

Of the millions of viewers, a small percentage seemed to be willing to participate in his vision. And from those viewers that wanted to do something, contributions have poured in (continue to pour in?). Apparently the guy that set up the vacation account has collected enough to send maybe more than 120 bus monitors on the vacations they may very well deserve (if my math is off, please correct me).

If the job of bus monitor is really about enduring abuse similar to what was on the video, then certainly more than just this one bus monitor deserves a nice vacation. I mean, she can’t be the only one that has gone through this kind of abuse.

Sometimes a vacation break can put things into perspective, remind us of what’s important.

Apparently the boys have been reprimanded. One has written what I think is a sincere apology to her. The others may be following that example by now.

The parents of the boys probably feel terrible. It’s not like they wanted the world to look on their children in this way.

Thirteen-year-old boys can be really annoying. We’ve been trying for thousands upon thousands of years to turn thirteen-year-old boys into non-idiots – functioning, positive members of society. We have made up initiation rites, tribal dances, hunting parties, high school, all in the attempt to get them to smarten up.

They keep finding chances to be idiots.

Maybe it’s part of the hierarchy they find themselves in. If they feel empowered by treating others this way, then why would they even consider behaving any differently? What possible motivation could they have to change, when they seem to be enjoying themselves so much at the time, bringing discomfort to someone else?

Thirteen-year-old boys probably know how it feels to be bullied as well as any one of us.

A lot of internet video is watched alone. Our technological lifestyle has turned us into audiences of one. We are millions strong, all doing the same thing, isolated. the video of Karen Klein never really changes focus. She is almost always in middle of the shot, targeted, isolated. And in our audiences of one, when we see that experience on video, we feel it as much as watch it.

I’m really glad to know we live in a world where people can connect so immediately, and more importantly initiate action to make things right. Even if only a small fraction of all the people that saw the video did actually overcome the bystander effect, at least someone is trying to help someone. Giving Karen a vacation doesn’t solve the problem, but it shows that some people are willing to reach out, put some small effort into changing things.

But before we get too emotional about this, something more has to be said.

I think we need to ask ourselves why some cruelty has to be seen before we react to it.

Karen is one of us that had a bad experience. Her story is only different in that it was shared – it was caught on video and put on display for the world.

If we only react empathetically to the victims we actually see, then we are only really changing the smallest fraction of the victims of the world.

If we’re going to be emotional and rational about this, then we should think about the people we don’t see.

Our lives are becoming more and more public. We take our cues from our heroes. Modern day celebrities bare all for us, and act as examples. Their lives are incredibly public, out there for everyone to watch. We demand to know everything we can about them.

And we now reflect that, in our status updates, facebook timelines, personal youtube channels, and in the number of details we tick into the record about our loved ones, friends and family.

It has been projected that facebook may reach a billion people soon in 2012. Imagine being technically able to ‘friend’ a billion people. That’s a lot of attachment.

I think there may come a point in time when the pain of every victim of our idiocy is going to be on display.

Some of us seem to react to these things more that others, particularly when we’re emotionally triggered. Some of us even share in the struggle of the experience, and want to make things right.

Are we ready to share all of this with the world?


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Aside – I meant to change the background in the image, put the youtube icon there instead. Unfortunately, when it comes to time-management, I’m a life-tard.

Is the Secret to Happiness Anticipation?

June 16th, 2012   by   Andrew

The Optimism Bias - a self-serving bias where a person believes they are at less risk than someone else of having to go through a bad experience.

Or, in other words, we all think we are above the average in almost everything… which could be a statistical problem.

Tali Sharot has done some research and found about 80% of us suffer from the optimism bias. And here’s a tricky thing – You can’t just eliminate or neutralize the optimism bias. Sharot thinks we can learn something from it, and learn something about ourselves too.

Some Notes:

Is the secret to happiness low expectations?

Well, not really. According to Sharot, people with higher expectations tend to feel better regardless of outcomes.

Is Anticipation the key to happiness?

If you think you want something, and if you think you’ll get it three days from now, those three days will be happier than if you get it immediately or wait a long time for it.

The Weekend Effect

People look forward to Friday, even though it is often a workday. But, with Friday comes the anticipation of the weekend. A lot of people like Friday over Sunday. Go figure.

Feelings Affect Subjective Reality, But Also Influence Objective Reality

Stress and anxiety have a direct effect on your health, for example. You change your physical world, your physical body, by what you think about and what you do.

We need to be able to imagine a different reality, and believe we can create that reality.

Otherwise we don’t change things. But at the same time, if we simply leap at things too much, probabilities will very likely catch up to us quickly.


This TED talk put a lot of things into perspective for me. Teen angst, for example, is much more understandable now. If a person is upset about something, but feels there is no way to change it at all, then this can create a horrible, all-consuming trap of emotions.

I think this has something to say about religion and religious belief too. Faith, as in belief in magical beings with supernatural influence, isn’t so aesthetically pleasing anymore. The word “faith” itself can cause an almost allergic reaction in people. However, faith as in the motivation to be optimistic, and to be persistent in pursuing what you want, or the belief that what you want is worth pursuing with all your effort, could have some advantages in this game of life.

This means we have to be all the more responsible for our personal motivations, I think, and to that end, more responsible for our personal gods. (Faith gives power to act rather than faith gives justification for getting your way. And with any power comes responsibility, according to Uncle Ben from Spiderman…)

What do you think?

Do you see some advantages to the optimism bias?

Do you see some dangers?

Do you enjoy (or suffer from) the optimism bias?


Hierarchy in the City – Sunday Vid

June 3rd, 2012   by   Andrew

Part of the series God: From Magic to Motivation

One of the themes of this series has been (or was meant to be) mathematics. Mathematics is a kind of aesthetic. People appreciate it and trust it. In the time he’s given, Joseph Campbell paints a very simple picture of the birth of city culture and the importance of mathematics. Cities seem to be the children of agriculture and trade. It may be debated whether those two are the legitimate parents. The silver-tongued devil of written language may have snuck into the tent when opportunity struck.

Whatever may be the genealogy, when the city priests had time to look up and map the order of the stars, as Campbell suggests, they eventually sorted out predictable and numerical patterns. This was the equivalent of a revolution in mythological consciousness. As Campbell explains, myths changed from being about how to act in exceptional situations to the universal order of things. Instead of overcoming a dragon of chaos, heroes and gods start to construct reality out of the pieces that remained of the vanquished dragon. The story of Marduk is an example of this. One of the first things the hero does as victor is to create a calendar.

Agriculture needs calendars, and calendars need some general understanding of counting and mathematics. Mathematics and numbers also became important in managing large-scale work projects. Cities need walls and roads and monuments. Citizens are attracted to predictable, meaningful structure.

Not every citizen, however, seems to appreciate math in the raw, or math as an aesthetic. They aren’t convinced by it, or compelled by it.

People are inspired by exceptional things. People are inspired by art and story. People are also inspired by really really big and impressive things. People are also inspired by what’s predictable and what’s taken for granted. We have an addiction to the predictable.

Enter the pyramids.

The pyramid is an exceptional shape. If a piece is removed, the shape remains. If part of the structure suffers a collapse, it will fall in the shape of a pyramid. If you deconstruct it, the pyramid remains.

I am reading  “Hierarchy in the Forest”, a book by Christopher Boehm, suggested to me by one of my readers. Early in the book, Boehm writes:

For more than five millennia now, the human trend has been toward hierarchy rather than equality.

I’m still finding out what Boehm thinks this means, but I think hierarchies motivate us in ways that equality can’t. Pyramids and hierarchies have implications in their structure. For example, by rising even one more step, it’s implied that you are better off. The view is better. And the next step is the next goal.

Pyramids pervade our urban lifestyles. The shelves of your grocery store are organized in structured, hierarchical patterns. An ex-employee of mine once gave me the book “The E-Myth”. It simplifies the business world into three kinds of people – technicians, managers and entrepreneurs. The lesson of the book is to adopt a hierarchical framework of responsibilities, so that things are done predictably and done to a set of policies or standards.

Know your role. Measure up. Perform. Step up.

I think we are motivated by predictability and growth more than we ever could be by equality.

The simple brick hasn’t changed much over the last five thousand years. Architecture, however, has changed. We now have things like elevators. Practically anyone can go up to enjoy the city’s skyline.

But you still have to be motivated by the view up there. Someone still has to be motivated to build the tower.

Our calendar today, even after many changes, shows hints of old hierarchies. After Julius Caesar became Emperor of Rome, he named the month of the summer solstice, when the sun becomes most dominant, after himself. Following him, Caesar Augustus revised the calendar and named the next summer month after himself.

These two men became gods regardless of their very mortal natures. Without being conscious of it, we worship them as much as we worship any of our gods (and non-gods) today. Their stories are hidden underneath layers and layers of bricks upon bricks.

Like the calendars and the not-quite-conscious hierarchies that govern our shopping, they are part of our present-day, civilized, urban environment.

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My thoughts are scattered right now. This is to be continued with another post on the middle class, different shapes of pyramids, and trying to dismantle pyramids after they have been erected and institutionalized.


What’s the Argument for Compassion, Anyway?

May 24th, 2012   by   Andrew

Part of the series God: From Magic to Motivation

I’ve been thinking about compassion. I affirmed Karen Armstrong’s international Charter for Compassion. Some people may have criticisms with Armstrong’s approach, saying she’s picking and choosing from religious traditions, ignoring the bad parts and trumping up the good ones as what religion should be all about. I don’t mind that so much. That’s what we do in every field of study – focus on what confirms or gives us what we want; drop the rest. If we want change in the world, then someone has to start somewhere. Armstrong started with the Golden Rule, and with compassion, and with religious traditions.

I see it as a kind of behavioural filter. If her charter acts as one more hoop that people of any and every religious or political stripe have to jump though, then it might at least help expose everyone’s true motivations. We’ll get a better picture of exactly who their gods are.

The charter says nothing about belief or magic. The charter is a declaration of aesthetics, however. It isn’t really an argument for compassion but rather a call to make compassion the prime motivator in people’s lives. We need something in place that will regulate how individuals behave, if we want to have an orderly world economy and a peaceful global community. Life is now international. Armstrong is trying to do something to change religion from within.

This got me thinking. What is the argument for compassion, anyway?

We don’t usually think of compassion as a thing to argue for. We just take it as a good thing. Everyone should be motivated by compassion, right? We assume the world should be run by compassion, even when the material world seems ambivalent about the whole thing.

The more I thought about this, the more I figured there wasn’t a compelling argument for compassion. There are reasons to value compassion, sure, but what is there to actually make you compassionate?

I thought of three things:

1. Emotional Commitment

2. Personal Investment

3. Predictability/Trust

Please add to the list.

This last one seems really important to me. People love predictability. But this means compassion is more a case for predictability than anything else.

The Golden Rule, the foundation of Armstrong’s Charter for Compassion, isn’t actually an argument for compassion. It’s an argument for predictability, even conformity.

Do onto others as you would have them do onto you. Don’t do onto others what you would not have done to you.

Be predictable. Follow the rules I follow. Want the same things the group wants. Be motivated by the same things everyone is motivated by. Do what you would expect of others. Even if you want others to challenge you, a good way to make that happen is to challenge them.

In a sense, the Golden Rule is general enough to work for any group that willingly consents to a group of predictable rules. It doesn’t have to be compassion. Greed could work the same way, if everyone conformed to it. Competitiveness could work the same way, if everyone agreed to it.

Armstrong believes a world motivated by compassion will create a just economy and a robust community.

Would you agree?

I need your help in this. I think I prefer a world motivated by compassion, but I don’t know an air-tight, leak-proof argument for that world.

Is there an argument for compassion that is compelling to you?

What do you think?

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Some sources / neat links:

The soldier image was on David wrote some lyrics on Compassion well worth reading. Please check it out and add your voice.

The website Doing Ethics – a neat, visual explanation of ethics in general terms (the link is geared towards health ethics, but the illustrations are still simple and clear. Here is the home page if you want to check the source, Robert Traer – he’s a process theology type of guy).

Ben Goertzel’s paper on universal ethics – descriptive more than prescriptive. Goertzel (wiki) has done some work with artificial intelligence. He’s fascinated by how the internet is changing things. He sees intelligence as the ability to detect patterns. The universe, according to Goertzel, shows signs of ‘continuous pattern-sympathy’ - as in tending to repeat the repeated, or the repeatable (… yes, redundancy is redundant…)