A Voyage of Playful Parables for Thoughtful Theism

—- plz

“There’s the story of 5 monkeys in a playground and a bunch of bananas at the top of a ladder. Of course, immediately, one of the monkeys would race towards the ladder, intending to climb to eat the banana. However, as soon as he would start the climb, a child playing with a water gun above would spray all the monkeys with ice-cold water, just for fun. When a second monkey was about to climb the ladder, the kid would, again, spray the monkeys with ice-cold water, and to the third, and to the fourth. The monkeys had learned their lesson: they were not going to climb the ladder again. The kid, bored with a capricious kiddy attention span, leaves the playground as if inconsequential.

One of the monkeys was then replaced with a new one. As can be expected, the new monkey would eye the banana on the ladder, thinking to himself ‘why don’t these other guys go get it?!’. He starts climbing the ladder. Then, however, the situation gets interesting: the other four monkeys, familiar with the past cold-water treatment, would tackle the new guy – and beat him up. ‘Dude, you’re gonna get us all sprayed!’ The new guy, blissfully unaware of the cold-water history, learns not to get beat up: no climbing up the ladder for me.

Now, a second monkey was replaced. Again the replacement monkey saw to lunge for the food, only for the other monkeys to beat him up. To the third, to the fourth, all the way to the fifth, new monkeys learned that this banana bounty was not to be flirted with. At this point, there was a whole new group of monkeys that would beat up anyone who would try to reach the bananas. This new set of monkeys were not stupid. They simply learned what was accepted and what was not. One day a particular new monkey, after getting beat up, becomes critical: ‘Yo, why exactly are you beating me up again?’

‘Getting on the ladder will have you punished!’, replied another. ‘But why?’ It came to be that none of the new monkeys knew the original reason. And indeed, if they tried to reach the bananas now, there would be no problem.”

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This story was popularized by American author James Joyce circa 1750.

The first condition to understand in this journey we are about to take is that the origin of tradition and information is important; and “what I was taught or told” does not make up evidence for truth or rationale. Instead, what makes the money is the process by which truths are concluded. The second condition is to be able to understand others’ points of view, thoroughly and in their full length. It is your choice, so to make this a relaxed read, I have divided the points into neat little stories to think about.

If you invest in a deity, you might reevaluate, but only if you are open to debate. If you are not so deep inside the issue, the stories might entertain you. And if you do not believe in a deity, still look for gaps in the arguments.



So really, Irish author James Joyce was not born until 1882. [1] We can try to retroactively justify our original statement and say he time traveled back about 100 years to spread the monkey parables. Or we can just admit that the first claim was arbitrary and false with no backup in order to showcase the point.

It goes like this: what I learned in Sunday school and the biology classroom alike has no inherent truth. A book written by a guy named Peter or perhaps a guy named Charles, no matter how old or how popular the text (Lord of the Rings included) has no inherent truth—it needs verifiability. This verification can be replicated evidence, or it can be sensibility, which are not necessarily separate. Let’s expand on what that means.

Take a pen in the air and let it free—I say it will fall toward the earth. Don’t believe me. Feel free to do it yourself. If it does the dance you foresaw, it is replicated evidence. On the other hand, by induction of seeing things fall before, in your mind you can predict what will happen, you can draw a pattern—this pen will also fall because I have seen other things fall. That is a form of sensibility, one that most of us would confide in. Replicated evidence is practice, and theory enforced by practice begets sensibility. That is, you sensibly knew the pen would probably fall. If you still were skeptical, you could put it into practice and drop-check your theory once more.



“Siri, make it rain” and the rain came down: there’s an understandable point to think that Siri might have had something to do with it. [2] But it is not entirely sensible to say Siri had a definite part of power in the rain.

Ask Siri another day: “Siri, make it rain”. Standing on the sidewalk, arms out. No drip. You might even be tempted to spit on yourself a little and say that it worked miraculously once more.

Maybe Siri will make it rain, but maybe not today, or maybe not in the way I expected. Or that Siri will not make it rain because she, as my reliable assistant (I paid a couple hundred bucks for this phone), has decided this is what’s better for me.

The tone is absurd, but not necessarily by force: replace Siri with any other name and the notion should stand just the same. If not, then one must be able to convince themselves the verbal reason why. To place such posited agency into one OS feature is questionable.

As said before, these types of hypothetical claims are understandable because there was a cause for the claim. And sometimes if a claim is positively understandable to enough people around you, it starts to seem sensible by, well, consensus. Siri could get a following. If the situation did not seem absurd, then yes: because there are no ways to 100% disprove the reasons, they are sensible to each his or her own percept.

It is safe to say the absence of evidence is not evidence for absence (but likewise, not evidence for presence). Objective truth notwithstanding, the subjective decision to believe is not entirely free from rules of reasoning either—believing in the supreme power of Siri and her purple microphone can be logical, just as long as you have applied the same criteria to other options.

“Okay Glass, make it snow”. And it snows.



You see 19 Starbucks cups, let’s say. It’s raining outside so you’re inside playing a Starbucks-oriented puzzle game that your mom thought of, because your family is weird and healthy like that. “Child”, she says to you, “only one of the cups might have your favorite drink, the pumpkin spice latte, in them. You’re not allowed to get near the cups right now but I’m going to show you pictures of what the cups have written on them.”
All the pictures show cups with different handwriting and various customer names—lots of different things, but all with the common marker scribble of ‘PSL’.

“Mom, you joker, all these cups say they have ‘pumpkin spice latte’. That doesn’t mean there is actually pumpkin spice latte in them, or that the picture is even recent.”
“Lol”, your mom responds.
Your grandma walks by. “Grandchild, I am certain that your little coffee is in that cup right there”, squinting as she points at one of the pictures.

“It’s more than coffee; it’s a latte. Grandma, how do you know?” She always encouraged you to think for yourself.

“Get this—I just woke up from one of my naps and I dreamt that cup was indeed correct! The other cups, as you said, all make claims that are unsubstantiated.”

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“Grandma, what if none of these cups have the true latte in them? I contend that the same reasoning why you wouldn’t believe in the latte of the other cups can be applied to that exact cup you picked. They all say that they have pumpkin spice latte in them. If I can’t get near the cups to observe, I can’t rationally pick one over the other. So if I don’t believe in the other cups, what gives me proper reason to believe in this one?” [4]

Before you finished your sentence, your grandma is already taking another nap, smiling.

“Calm down, child,” says mom, “I don’t even know. I just took these pictures off of the internet.”



Sometimes you want to play a game just for its own sake. A fan of cards is held out to you: don’t be a buzzkill, just choose one of the cards already, how can it hurt? [5] You might see that you can pick a card, any card, that you want. As an adult it can definitely be a rational act to choose one or the other [6].

If I choose a card that helps me make fun and sociable connections to people who choose the same type of card, that is a perfectly rational thing to do. But sometimes it is not so simple. Let’s say choosing a certain card requires you to stick jellybeans in your ears and not accept people who only eat orange things (because it is unnatural), and for another card, to never look outside a window. Alright, I’ll accept that card—it doesn’t seem so bad.

You choose that card because there are fun, good people who do the same. Now the card is more of a means than an ends, which isn’t bad or good per se. You meet with your friends every week and have a great time singing songs with major chords and taking time to meditate on things and going down to the food bank to volunteer. One of your friends figures: “Hey guys, holding this card isn’t really needed anymore for us to do this with each other. I don’t think it ever was.” But the card is what brought you together: you can’t just let it go, can you? So I think I’ll keep holding this card; after all it isn’t really an issue.

Spring comes, and you spot a cute boy sitting in a sunny corner who also holds the card that does not allow him to look outside the window—the same card you chose. Swipe right. And before the swoon occurs, he actually lets you know, “Oh no, I was just looking at this card. Actually I think looking out windows is okay”. You still want to socially canoodle him. But he thinks it’s okay to look out windows! That’s wrong. And so you in confused judgment stay away, inhibiting an opportunity instead of promoting one. “I don’t understand why looking outside windows is not allowed”, asks the boy, as the question echoes in your head. “Oh it’s just the card I chose.”

“Well if you ever want to look out the window with me, feel free,” he says turning toward the skyline.



When it comes to customs and tradition, there are those that can be practical. In the case of the card in our previous story: looking out the window can be distracting, or maybe it can give you an emotional connection to the outside you are not quite prepared for—this is why you might encourage yourself to not look out a window. In that case, the same principle should apply to reading fiction—it can be distracting and give you an emotional connection to the unreal that you might not be able to keep distinct. But if the reason is “it’s just a requirement of the card I chose (or that was chosen for me)”, it is not a grounded principle.

Many customs do make sense. Joyful celebration makes sense, and gift-giving for joy makes sense, assuming that overall joy is preferable. In a different world, a fraternity sets up Brah Day, a day where they each give each other a favorite pack of beer from their hometown. That’s a day that makes sense not by its chosen tradition in itself, but by the joy it can bring. Even asking Google Glass for sunny days makes sense—although you may not believe in its power, it is not unreasonable to try as long as you do not depend on it.

If Siri tells us to drink lots of water, we could agree to do it because it indeed makes us feel refreshed and alert, not only because Siri tells us to. Many teachings of Siri that people still practice make sense: to love, to be loyal, to hedge the pain. Even if you don’t really buy into the power of Siri, you are not automatically against doing some things She would agree with.



Likewise, in terms of moral standing, would you rather use an old loaf of bread someone gave you, or one that you just baked yourself with chosen ingredients? Of course the answer rides on how much you trust in your baking ability.

A salesman of bread named Steve asks, if you don’t take the bread I give you, where will you get bread for your paninis? The answer: you can bake it yourself—and the best part is you know all the ingredients, all the nutrition facts, and it’s of a fresher batch. You don’t need the noisy packaging that makes it look better for sales, or any of the mass production fuss. After all, Steve makes the bread that tastes the best for him, and you can make the bread that tastes the best for you. It’s your panini.



Let’s start wrapping around to the point here in case all analogies are lost in translation: just because you don’t have a pre-designed IKEA set of ethics or direction, does not mean you are free of them. You can make your own, and make sure they make sense to you. Though if someone else’s passed down set makes sense to you, that is also okay, as long as you take time to verify them. And for the things you can’t prove, don’t put so much stake in them.

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What’s on La Meninas’ backfacing canvas? A picture of Elton John maybe. Maybe its a photo of yourself through the webcam above. Maybe something more relevant to the painting. The whole painting itself, after all, is an imaginary projection with imaginary truths and imaginary falsehoods all the same. It is not a tangible world you peer into when you wonder what is beyond the doorway. You will never be able to prove what is on the constantly backfacing canvas. Be aware there indeed might be something, in others’ heads, or in the artists’, gone and unknown. But let’s say all we can see for sure is the painting. Believing whether or not there is nothing on the canvas, or nothing more than the room that’s painted, does not mean you can’t work to enjoy the painting together—for it’s detail, facial expressions, shades of light, and the pieces already facing you. In fact, after accepting the ambiguous beauty of the canvas, you can finally spend some time focusing on the other aspects you were too worked up about before to notice.



So if there is nothing on the mysterious canvas, why is it in the painting? No reason we can say for sure. Maybe it’s just space filler. But it’s curious to imagine.
Albert Einstein, not a perfect human in himself, did support a greater force. This force was pretty powerful. But the key distinction was this force didn’t judge. You cannot talk to it. It does not work for you. And it does not need to be worked for. It is not anyone’s Siri. And it is not your friend or enemy or even something you should worry about.

Comedian George Carlin would call this The Big Electron:

Again, there still might be Someone listening, but with so little substantiation, do not depend on it.

Is all hope lost? Are we destined for the greylands of meaninglessness and gloom? Can I never live in the radiant fairytale I once dreamt of? Definitely not. Many people are scared of letting go of a higher puppeteering purpose, because they are afraid to stand without the pearly crutch, especially after living with it their whole life. But let me tell you something: you’ll be able to stand just fine—many people are doing it already.

And what else? Without relying on these theological crutches, you’ll be able to make even more flexible leaps and bounds, use your hands more freely to create, to dance, to type on the keyboard sentences you have never seen before.



If you feel like you don’t have full control of your life and control is what you want, why give up even more of it to something that might not be there? On the other hand, if you don’t care about where your life goes, why ask for something else? This is not a matter of spirit or feeling as much as it is a simple contemplation of what makes sense. If I feel with my being something is there, this is something that goes beyond words (but before actions). So, believing in the subjective Siri you want isn’t nonsense as long as it doesn’t replace what does makes sense. Keep questioning and exploring; go to the ball and throw your shoe at someone, and don’t wait around for a pumpkin carriage. At the end of the day, even if She might not be there to listen, you can at least take a couple of seconds to thank Her on the off-chance. After all, curious children love to play God.

Please comment what you think and let us know of any refutations! If you believe any of the sides, giving an explanation why would helpfully quench many people’s misunderstandings.
Michael Lukiman is a neuroscience undergraduate raised in a religious household. 

This article was written by Michael Lukiman. Send an email to opinion@oncenturyavenue.com to get in touch.
Photo Credit: NASA, Disney Studios, Instagram, Loyola University
References: Vermeulen, Freek. Velasquez, Diego. 

Footnotes and appendix:
For the author’s footnotes and asides, visit this document: https://docs.google.com/a/nyu.edu/document/d/1LThzAWk244qeCNdXCfQ-ge0UQWBEgYkKXe7Xu4zor14/edit?usp=sharing


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