The room smelt of death and decay. Blood stains from long ago still draped across the walls. There was little respite against the coldness of the Northern Chinese weather. A single roomed abode with a intentionally placed cooking pit within the center. Against one wall leaned a bed of olden bark and filthy blankets. Some shelves were mounted on the second wall for baijou, jarred vegetables, some prepared and encased noodles and other odds and ends. A large bag of rice rested below that. On the third wall rested a rotting bookcase with seemingly contradictory philosophies wedged between makeshift bookends of trimmed log. There was also a dresser, seemingly made of the same shoddy materials as the rest of the furniture. Finally, the fourth wall contained the door, leading to the outside.
It was into this nightmarish vision of squalor that Jason found himself on a fretfully cold January afternoon. It seemed only a moment ago that he had plugged his nose while walking past the shabbily built shack that served as this domicile's only restroom.
"How can someone live under these conditions?" he had whispered to himself, in English.
The man who had answered his knock was not Chinese. His pale face, however was difficult to differentiate under decades of facial hair. He spoke Chinese at first, not because he was incapable of speaking English, but because habit had dictated his actions for the last many years.
"Sorry," he responded when Jason had spoken the only phrase he knew in Mandarin which loosely meant "I hear, not understand."
"It has been quite some time since I've spoken English," he added after his apology.
This man of meager means had once had an English name and lived in the Western world. Now, however, he was Qing Feng, meaning "Light Wind" and symbolic of a high minded person. Centuries ago, the ruling class named all their servants Qing Feng, and it was perhaps for this reason that Qing Feng had ultimately chosen the name. Jason felt more than a little uneasy in the presence of Qing Feng but requested to enter the house, against his better judgment.
"I know why you are here," Qing Feng began, almost as soon as Jason had entered and found rest on a simple stool, resting against the wall with the bookcase. "I don't receive as many visitors as I used to, but when I do, I know immediately why."
Jason sighed, understanding that his appearance at the door was most unwelcome. Starting on such hostile terms was what he had hoped most to avoid. Qing Feng sat on the edge of the centered fire pit, facing Jason. He smiled politely, making no effort to hide the annoyance in his eyes.
"Then shall I cut to the chase?" Jason inquired, returning the smile and making an effort to mask the discomfort he felt at being an enemy before the proceedings had even commenced.
"Every publisher on the planet has approached you in this very spot to write another book."
Jason pulled out a copy of Inadequacies. Qing Feng's face didn't waver, as if he had expected Jason to pull out his first and only book. Jason held it in his hands, turning it over and over, seemingly nervous.
"Which publisher are you?"
At this, Jason's smile broadened a bit. Qing Feng noticed the change in Jason's demeanor but still reacted not a whit. Even as Jason spoke confidently, "I'm not from a publisher", Qing Feng remained steadfast in his polite smile and annoyance.
"Are you hungry? Can I make you some dumplings or perhaps a bowl of noodles?"
Jason suddenly became aware that the outside was darkening. He checked his watch and was surprised to find that it was in fact after five in the evening. His stomach also growled a bit at that moment. Qing Feng stood up and commenced preparing a pot and some water. He hung the pot over the fire by a bar hanging over the pit. He lit the fire with matches (perhaps the most modern technology in the entire one room hovel), before setting back on the edge of the pit and facing Jason.
"What newspaper do you work for?"
Jason smiled again. "Not a reporter."
Jason shook his head, adamantly.
For the first time, Qing Feng's smile faded. He sighed, turned away and stoked the fire. Turning back, his face showed only the annoyance that had previously been centrally located to his eyes alone.
"I thought you were going to cut to the chase."
"I'm a writer."
"Ah," Qing Feng muttered, smiling again. "Should have been my fourth guess."
Jason nodded. "But I doubt I'm here for the reason you think I am."
Qing Feng stood and made his way around to the shelf where the noodles rested. He unwrapped the packaging over the pot and allowed a large clump to drop into the pot. Some water spilled over and sizzled on the wood below. Then he wrapped the noodles back up, replaced them on the shelf and grabbed one of the jars of vegetables. He tossed a handful into the pot before setting those back in their placement. He then sprinkled random spices from the same shelf into the soup.
"I'm glad to hear that you haven't spent so much money and effort for simple hero worship."
Having said this, Qing Feng laughed to himself, as if having had no occasion to do so for years. He returned to his seat, occasionally looking over his shoulder at the progress of his la mein.
"I'm here to discuss your book with you. I studied it in great depth and found several flaws in some of your most praised theories."
Interest piqued, Qing Feng leaned forward. His piercing blue eyes bore into the brown of Jason's. Briefly, Jason feared that he had overstepped his bounds. Then realizing that regret or not, he had already begun the conversation and could not backpedal now, he continued.
"You discuss the systematic way in which psychology replaced spiritual fiction with scientific fiction. I particularly enjoyed the idea that psychology has no more to do with actuality than the acts of the Holy Spirit. Whether receiving the words of God or experiencing Schizophrenia, neither theory can be objectively proven through neural mapping. Specifically this quote: 'If there is but one thing we know less about than God and heaven, it is the workings of our own minds.'"
Qing Feng leaned back, as if beginning to lose interest. Jason realized that this opening had come off as exactly what Qing Feng had feared; hero worship. He chose to change tactics.
"However, within this chapter you discuss the problem of Pavlov's conditioning very little. Pavlov has proven conclusively that both animals and humans can be easily conditioned through positive and negative reinforcement."
"I don't see the problem with that."
"This evidence bridges the gap between humanity and animal kind. Many of the 'psychological illness' described in the DSM were first observed in animals through natural or artificial conditioning. To state that psychology has less empirical evidence toward its objectivity than world religions would be to ignore hundreds of thousands of documented cases discovered in animals. That's like stating that there's as much evidence that women burned at the stake were witches as there is that they were simply early feminists or perhaps scapegoats."
"Conditioning has been proven in animals and hypothesized in humans as well, but even Freud, as cocky and arrogant as he was, felt uncomfortable claiming that anything he had observed held true one hundred percent of the time. Conditioning does not 'bridge the gap', as you say. It is only a parallel correlation, like our need to breathe or eat being a parallel to what is necessary for all life to exist."
Jason thought for a moment. Choosing to move the conversation in a different direction, he opened the book to one of the later chapters.
"Okay, let's focus on your take on Hinduism and reincarnation. You claim that science has made its life work to prove that humanity has no soul. This, I agree with. But you go further to state that science has proven nothing but in the process made reincarnation impossible. You go on to explain that either human beings and animals are the same, in that we are both run by computerized brains with instincts. In the case of animals, these instincts are generally quite simple and only complicate as far as is necessary to maintain symbiosis. You use the lemming as an example. Lemming populations continue to spike, so their instincts have given them a complicated and unnatural directive to commit suicide, in order to hold the ecosystem in balance. This is what science would have us believe. If this is true, reincarnation's slavery to karma makes it impossible in a reality where no animal, regardless of the size of its brain is really responsible for its actions.
"The other choice is that humans do in fact have a soul. This is counter to the scientific argument of evolutionary traits. But if it is true, reincarnation is still impossible. A human being may be responsible for his actions, if his body and mind function in a different way than animals. However, in Hinduism, his actions may land him into a lower body, such as that of an animal. Once in this body, he would have no more control of his karma, as animals do run fully on instinct. It would make little sense that all animals are currently reincarnated animals, and no grouping of animals have been observed to behave differently than others in that group. Thus, a human soul in an animal form would behave on the same instincts as that of an animal without a human essence."
Qing Feng scooped helpings of noodles and water into two bowls and placed one in front of Jason. Jason took it graciously and meekly sipped. Realizing that the "la mein" was quite tasty, he took greedier slurps.
"So, what is your issue with my theory of reincarnation?"
Jason finished another slurp before placing the bowl at his feet and the spoon leaning along the outer ring. Qing Feng used a pair of chopsticks to pull large clumps of noodles and vegetables into his mouth.
"If scientific theories claiming that humanity has no differing biological factor from all other animals, other than a larger computerized brain is correct, then yes your hypothesis holds true. If science is incorrect, you've erred in assuming that animals still have the biological instinct believed to be true through science's theory. What if humans and animals both have a soul and the ability to make choices. Even if instinct can be proven, what if both humans and animals can act against their own instincts? Humans and animals have both been documented in rare cases acting in ways that contradict their own instincts of self-preservation."
Jason slurped his soup again. Qing Feng held the chopsticks pointing toward Jason as he responded, "What if, what if. Granted, if all animals have a soul, then reincarnation could exist. However, karma still creates a problem. How is an ant to act differently to appease karma when its life is digging tunnels and gathering food? By working harder than other ants? Is effort in a task universally recognized by Hinduism as the act of higher enlightenment? What about the spider or snake, whose life work consists solely of capturing and devouring other animals. As humans, we can choose to eat plants or animals, but neither snakes nor spiders have that choice. They must digest as their physiology deems necessary. The actions of a spider cannot be considered enlightenment by the stringent rules of karma."
Jason frowned. "What of Buddhism? They believe in reincarnation that is solely human form to human form. Is that not possible?"
"I thought you read my book, cover to cover. Did you not finish this very chapter you've opened to? I discuss the impossibility of Buddhist reincarnation as well as the errors within the idea of the Eight Fold Path."
"Why even write a book condemning the inadequacies of everyone's beliefs when you don't suggest an alternative?"
"It seems that tearing down the beliefs of others is much easier than building one of your own. If I did that, someone like me would come along and show the world just how full of shit I was."
"But everyone believes something. Don't you believe in anything?"
"If I could find an objective truth, I would have written a second book. Look about you. A simple life, containing only that which I will need to survive save these religious books on the shelf, all differing, all contradictory. A pot and fire pit. An outdoor squatter. I live as a caveman, because critically acclaimed book or no, I don't have any more answers about our reality than my ancient brethren. They lived by survival and by fire. I do the same."
Qing Feng picked up Jason's dish, adding it on top of his own. He dipped a rag into a small bowl of water, all set on one side of the fire-pit and swabbed it around both dishes, dropping the remnants into the fire. Finally, the dishes had some semblance of clean and were replaced on the wall with the shelves. He turned back around and stared at Jason across the fire.
"If you promise to leave, I'll tell you what I think I've discovered about reality, religion, all of it."
Jason stood and nodded. Qing Feng made his way to the door and opened it. He gestured for Jason to go through it. There, they stood for a moment in silence, staring at each other. Finally, Qing Feng pursed his lips.
"The truth is that nobody knows. Nobody has ever known. And..."
He paused, fingers on the edge of the door.
"Perhaps we never will."
The door slammed shut.