Grow a garden, light a flame

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” - Genesis 2:15-17

It might surprise people who know me now to realise that I was raised in a pretty religious household. As a good Catholic, I went to church every Sunday, prayed daily, confessed my sins, memorised the commandments, and even spent several years as an altar server.

I’m not sure how much I ever actively believed in God, but I definitely lost any vestiges of that belief when I took it on myself to actually read the bible as a teenager. From Job to Noah to Lot to Abraham to Revelations, I read over and over, chapter and verse, about a God who said He was love and life but acted like hatred and death. I read about a God who called Himself the light and the truth but behaved as though it was He who was the Prince of Darkness and the Father of Lies.

I agonised over Genesis. To me it told the story of a rigged game, a game rigged by God himself. God put Adam and Eve in the garden and told them not to eat the apple of knowledge, though knowledge was the one thing that would have enabled them to understand the trap they were in. He made them the kinds of beings who would be tempted by the apple and then placed the apple there to tempt them. He made them what they were. Then He blamed them for being what they were, punished them for being what they were, cast them out of the garden for being what they were, and said they deserved all of this because of what they were.

The resonances were obvious to me. I was a teenager in a conservative, rural, religious community who was beginning to realise that not only was I attracted to the wrong gender, I was the wrong gender (not that I had the words for it then). I was told I was a girl and that this meant I should not dream of anything more than getting married. It was made clear to me1 that if I were moral then it was belief rather than thought that mattered, that science and critical thought were “liberal” and wrong, that my role in life was to be the helpmeet to a future husband.

God made me the way I was, then put me in a world that condemned me and punished me for being that way. Just as He did to Adam and Eve, He was forcing me to play a rigged game while saying it would be my fault when I inevitably lost it.

I recognised, though, one very important thing: God might rig the game but He could not remove my power of choice. He might determine the consequences but He could not stop me from being an agent in my own world. In this case, I had two options I could see. I could do as God and the world I was in seemed to be asking: I could accept the game, accept the box they wanted to put me in, accept that I was intrinsically sinful. I could dedicate my life to trying to be somebody other than myself and trying to win the unwinnable. Or I could break out of the box, refuse my role, and defy God. Walk away and play my own game, whatever the cost. The price might be high, but I could still choose.

I chose. I walked away from God, from my small town, from religion, from everything in the world I knew. I could not bear to imagine that God was that cruel. I stopped believing in God because it was better to think that He did not exist at all than to think He could be so evil as to set me up for a life like that.

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. - Martin Luther King, Jr

This all makes me sound braver than I was, but truth be told, I didn’t really have a choice. I could not be other than who I am, and I spent much of the first few decades of my life feeling like my soul was slowly dying. It wasn’t just gender or sexuality; I knew in my heart that no part of me was the person that my religion and my community told me I should have been. Their God could not be my truth; I couldn’t have played His game even if I tried.

But I did still yearn for a larger purpose and a reason to the universe. I found that in science and nature. Then as now, I calmed my emotions and assuaged my anxieties through learning. Math, science, logic: they are the closest I can come to touching the order of the cosmos, to feeling like we are all part of something greater.

It went beyond science and into art, into beauty, into morality. The order of the natural world and the evidence of history made me think that the arc of the moral universe does bend toward justice. I wanted to be a part of that bend, and I saw science and truth as the way to do that. I chose my career, as a scientist, as an educator, in part with that goal in mind.

I am reminded of my father’s garden. We lived in the desert, so the garden was a labour of love. It was a constant battle to eke some life and beauty out of the wind and the dust. We didn’t have much money, which meant that building it was a slow and Sisyphean task – a bag of potting soil one month, a new rock wall built one laborious stone at a time, plants scavenged from cuttings and guarded assiduously against the insects and the pests.

As a child I didn’t fully recognise how much work it took. I only knew that I loved the result. I didn’t see the poverty or the stress. I saw the irises when they’d bloom in the spring and the Indian paintbrushes along the sides and our small patch of grass that grew out of the clay, and I thought our yard was the loveliest thing I had ever seen.

There was order, there was nature, there was beauty, and we didn’t need God to have it. It was there in the world; it was there in us.

Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch! Moloch the loveless! Mental Moloch! Moloch the heavy judger of men! - Allen Ginsberg

This faith in truth and order and reason lasted me for much of my adult life, but the last few years have seen a slow erosion of that faith. I began to recognise what I should have realised from the beginning: God is much more powerful than we are. If God rigs the game, you might want to walk away from it, but you can’t. Even if you think you’ve left it, you haven’t. You will still end up losing.

This is evident everywhere. There might be pockets of order and life right now, but the second law of thermodynamics means that the ultimate end is disorder and death. Indeed, order and life on the small scale only exists because it speeds entropy on the large scale. Even as we think we’re escaping the trap, we’re only tightening the snares.

It’s not just physics. Moloch wins in social and evolutionary systems as well. I fear that cooperation and coordination are unstable local attractors within a larger global system in which the selfish outcompete the unselfish. I worry that the moral arc of the universe does not bend toward justice: justice blooms in isolated pockets, borne out of lots of hard work, and every tiny gain must be constantly fought for lest it be lost again. Hatred, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia: not only haven’t they gone away, they are resurging all over the globe. So are fascism and authoritarianism. Hunger and poverty are rising. Our ecological systems are close to crisis. Even the scientific system that I’m proud to be a part of too often promotes the loudest voices and the luckiest players rather than the best work or the most deserving minds.

The coronavirus has laid bare the cracks in our world. Millions of people refuse to believe that such a large and obvious threat exists, sometimes even as it kills them. Many of the powerful have used it to further entrench their power. The rich have gotten richer and the poor have gotten far poorer. The damage done – to a generation of children and young adults, to the physical health of so many, to the mental health of so many more – is incalculable, and still growing.

In my scientific life, I study how we learn from each other. The human mind is an amazing and beautiful thing, as are the information systems we create. But they are also terrible; they also spread the darkness further and faster than ever. The very propensities that make us well-adapted learners mean we easily fall for falsehoods. In a terrible Catch-22, the trust that drives our society makes us vulnerable to manipulation, but removing that trust destroys our society as well. The properties that make information systems efficient and powerful also make them exploitable. We’re in another rigged game, a rigged informational game this time, and I increasingly suspect that those of us who try to illuminate this darkness are lighting candles in a hurricane.

A few weeks ago I looked up my childhood home on the internet. The lovely garden was no more. It wasn’t just overgrown with weeds; it was gone entirely. The only thing left was the rock walls, now ragged and broken. The rest was just the dust and clay of the desert. Barren, without even the corpses of plants as a reminder of what once was there.

It’s fractally true, from the global to the personal. So many rigged games, so many situations where it is impossible to triumph, where nevertheless the losers are blamed for their loss. In so many ways in these past few years I have felt like a rabbit in a snare. My hope for better made me struggle more, but the struggle only served to deepen the pain. The hunter still got his prey. God won the game; the darkness took over. The garden lost to the desert.

Even in the situations where that hasn’t happened yet, it will.

It matters not how strait the gate / How charged with punishment the scroll / I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul. - William Ernest Henley

This is what I’ve been wrestling with. The last two years, for me, have been marked by a profound loss of hope and faith and optimism. I learned that hope was an illusion that only served to make the pain hurt a thousand times more. Far better, I began to think, to just put your head down and trudge through each Sisyphean day, one step at a time, a victim of fate. You do your best because what else is there to do? But whatever you do, don't hope. Hope is dangerous. Hope just brings more pain.

… And yet.

And yet.

Above all else, we are still beings with the capacity to choose. Though the game may be rigged, we always have a choice in how we play and what our goal in the game is.

Other truths remain as well. There is still so much goodness, so much light, so much reason and so much beauty. Goodness, too, is fractal, found everywhere from the small hugs of my children to the large sunrises of the morning.

I came out as transgender this year to an outpouring of love and support that still brings tears to my eyes when I stop to think of it. I’ve always loved teaching, but this year was extra special; as the pandemic raged, my students and I somehow impossibly built a world around a ridiculous tale of bunnies and statistics and it carried us all through. Even as the Molochian forces of cowardly politicians and a corrupt media fought against us, somehow the strong leadership and amazing people in my home state fought coronavirus to a standstill and triumphed over it. Despite the attempted coup by a narcissistic toddler, America’s institutions (and so many brave people) have held the line, at least for now. The year has been marked by horror but also by so much bravery: from the healthcare workers who turn up day by day, to the parents who juggle children and jobs, to the scientists who found a vaccine, to the young people who have sacrificed much of their freedom so that older ones may be safer.

My children spent most of the year in lockdown, away from their school and peers with only family for company. Yet, impossibly, they have emerged as best friends, obsessed with Calvin and Hobbes and wizards and Minecraft, constantly drawing and reading and thinking, offering a selfless love that saves me every day. I felt at times like I was losing my mind from being unable to leave the house, yet I stayed connected with my colleagues and friends, who remind me often of how lucky I am to be able to do what I do. I made new friends at home, too, of the parrots who come to visit me nearly every day. I see all too clearly the many flaws in academia and science, but I also see current and former students making their way and being amazing in all the directions they have gone, and gain so much hope from that.

My father’s garden is gone now, but my memories of it remain. What it meant to me then can never be taken away.

I am still, fundamentally, a person who can choose. I might not be able to choose my world but I can choose what I want to do with it. I refuse to give that up. There are many forces larger than me in the world, but that doesn't mean I must become a victim of them. I am no victim and I refuse to go quietly into the boxes the world tries to force me into.

So this is what I think now. I was wrong when I was a teenager and thought I could refuse to play God’s game. God is God; the game cannot be avoided. We will all lose eventually. But I was also righter than I realised. The only sensible path is still to defy Him. Not because that’s how to win, but because that’s how to live.

Let me put it another way. The purpose is not to win the game. We can’t win it; it’s rigged. The purpose is to make it worth playing even though it is rigged. Even if we can’t win the global game, we damn well can triumph in the local one. We can make our world, right now, so much better than it would otherwise be.

Life counters entropy even as it speeds it; so too we can counter Moloch by building our own order, our own reason, our own beauty. Kicked out of Eden, we can build our own garden. It will be destroyed in the end, but before that it might turn into an oasis. It might seed other gardens. It might last hundreds or thousands of years. And during that time, it will mean the world to everyone who sees it.

You want it darker, God? Well, fuck you. The darkness will win eventually, it’s true. But in the meantime, I’m going to light as many flames as I can.

  1. I want to be clear that these messages did not come from my parents, nor from a few teachers and mentors that I still remember fondly. The messages were the water in which I swam, the world in which I lived - but they weren’t the entire world, and I’m very thankful that they were not. ↩︎

Andrew Perfors
Associate Professor

I seek to understand how people reason and think, both on their own and in groups.