No Explanation

How do you explain that? Everything, I mean. The need to understand “life, the universe, and everything” is as old as our species, and perhaps even older than that. Up until modernity when the limits of physical explanations were reached, gods filled the gaps. Can Science Explain Religion: The Cognitive Science Debate, by James W. Jones, is not an easy book. It demands mental rigor on the part of the reader. It is also a very important book. Mainly addressing the religion debunkers—those who famously declare religion to be pointless and perhaps even evil—the book asks logically, step by step, whether their assertions are rational. Since Jones is, as I once was, a professor of religion, the reader will be forgiven for second-guessing him. Jones makes a very strong case not for the truth of religion, but for its rationality, not its believability.

Beginning with the basics, Jones considers explaining explaining. In other words, can religion be explained scientifically, and if it can what does that logically prove? You need to follow him pretty closely here, but it is worth the journey. Science, as a human enterprise, has its limits. Jones doesn’t disparage science—far from it—just its misuse. The mad passion for a single explanation for everything has led to reductionist thinking. It’s not uncommon for the debunkers to claim everything is physical. Nothing exists that science can’t explain. Jones demonstrates the logical flaws in this approach. Not apologetically, but rationally. Physicalism, like its ancestor logical positivism, runs into serious problems when it comes to explaining much of life. Especially consciousness.

Consciousness remains one of the great mysteries of existence. Nobody knows what it is or where it comes from. Jones isn’t appealing to the “God of the gaps” here, but he is simply taking his own experience as a clinical psychophysiologist and bringing it into the conversation. Mind is not easily explained as a byproduct of matter. The term that has been used in recent years is that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon. Something that is greater than the sum of its individual parts. Jones doesn’t declare science can’t explain this, but rather that when science addresses the question clearly and logically a plurality emerges. One single answer may not be enough to cover it all. I’ve posted many times on this blog about the misuse of Occam’s Razor. Jones here provides a sustained, and rational discussion of questions that have never been answered adequately. Religion doesn’t challenge science, but together they may have more explanatory power than either has separately. Any book that can establish that qualifies as very important.

Scaping By

Failure is a part of life. We don’t like stories about failure, however, unless the protagonist goes out with a memorable bang. So it is that when we fail we start looking for a scapegoat. Now it’s a little too early to tell if Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter can be considered a failure. According to a story on Friendly Atheist, “Ken Ham is Now Blaming Atheists for the Economic Failures of Ark Encounter,” the ark may be loaded with dinosaurs, but not money. People need their myths, yes, but myths that take themselves too seriously often fail to convince. Atheists, even the friendly variety, have always been convenient scapegoats. I wonder how many scapegoat species are in the Ark Encounter.

I don’t know about you, but I’m curious about the Ark Encounter. I don’t want to go because I don’t want them to have any of my money. As I’ve told academic friends who visit—I just can’t see contributing to their cause. Although the Right seems to implode when it reaches power (there are far too many selfish people in the Party, and selfishness leads to easy splintering) one thing that it has is money. Think about it, the extremely wealthy are on their side. If I was given a free pass I might find it worth my while to wend my way back down to Kentucky. Who doesn’t like a spectacle? And I would like to see how they represent scapegoats in their dioramas. Besides, with sea levels rising from “fictional” global warming it might not be a bad idea to get a few tips on how to build an ark, no matter what you believe.

You only fail when you fail to try. That was a phrase a friend used to repeat to me before disappearing from my life. A friend from college once told me that I had to stop admitting my failures if I wanted to move ahead in life. There is a danger in easy appearances of success, however. Failure can be a very noble teacher. There are mornings when I’m walking across Manhattan, passing the homeless in their blankets on the street, and I realize that I would not be where I am were it not for failures. I could hide them, but if I haven’t learned from them they’ll only burst out of the closet again when it gets too full. Is Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter a failure? It’s far too early to tell. One thing we know for sure, however, is that scapegoats will never be an endangered species even if there’s a world-wide flood.

James Tissot,Agnus-Dei: The Scapegoat (Brooklyn Museum via Wikimedia Commons)

Gilded Age

What relevance could the Gilgamesh Epic possible hold for contemporary people? Well, one of my colleagues has said that every book is now about Trump. While I resist such thinking, he has a point. Even in reading David Damrosch’s The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh it’s hard to avoid making comparisons. The famous epic is about a bully king who is eventually humbled by the gods. That should make the contemporary association clear enough. Damrosch’s book, however, is actually about how one of the world’s classics—if not the first classic—was lost to the human race and rediscovered only in the nineteenth century. The cast of characters involved in finding the text is colorful and tragic, rather like the epic itself.

Hormuzd Rassam, associate of some of the largest names in Assyriology, was a native Iraqi whose role in the recovery of antiquity was overlooked in his lifetime. Although Rassam did much of the actual finding he was unfortunate enough not to have been born English. While Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson and Sir Austen Henry Layard, and even the irrepressible George Smith, gleaned fame over the rediscovery of the glories of ancient Iraq, the very model of a modern Middle Easterner simply didn’t receive his fair share. Rassam wrote books that were essentially ignored. The moving tale of his treatment makes this already gripping story poignant. The Epic, however, not only became world famous—it forced scholars to reevaluate how to interpret the Bible. Although not the earliest flood story, already in the mid-1800s it was recognized that the flood myth in Gilgamesh had more than just a passing influence on grand old Noah.

One of the stories behind the preservation of Gilgamesh is that of Ashurbanipal, the Assyrian emperor. Ashurbanipal believed that to be a world leader one had to be well read. He was the most powerful man in the world in his time. The idea of government is useless without the corrective of history. That doesn’t mean people should only look backward, but those who refuse to look back at all are doomed to make mistakes that go all the way back to the Bronze Age and before. In fact, Stone Age mistakes can (as we are living to see) be repeated even in a nuclear age. That’s part of the charm of Gilgamesh. Reading the classics serves a higher purpose than might be obvious at first.

Ammonia Avenue

It’s 7:00 p.m. I’m still sitting on a bus, in unmoving traffic a mere three miles from home. I stepped out of my front door over 13 hours ago and I have only another hour before retiring to start it all over again tomorrow. My phone’s down to a charge level that the effort of getting a non-wifi connection will only drain it completely. I have no idea why I’m being rerouted. Later I’ll learn that we’ve been instructed to shelter in place because of a N-Aminoethylpiperazine spill. Better living through chemicals. I’m sheltering in place, all right. This bus is my ark.

There’s much about this complex world that I don’t understand. I readily admit that I don’t know much. One thing I do know is that I live my life trying not to impact others negatively. I’m reminded of this every time someone blows a cloud of smoke into my path, plays their music so loud that even they can’t really hear it, or spills Aminoethylpiperazine all over the place. I don’t haul corrosive chemicals (beyond what may be trapped in my gray matter) through anybody’s hometown. I think of that scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind—a dangerous chemical spill. Evacuate Devil’s Tower. There’s nothing to see here, folks. It strikes me that this is a larger ethical issue. The right to use, and potentially destroy, somebody else’s space. If you inhale Aminoethylpiperazine fumes, it can be fatal. It may take longer, but the same is true of second-hand smoke. The things that go beyond our own personal self-abuse into the realm of harming others. Somebody call an ethicist!

Commuting isn’t really a lifestyle choice. There may be a few stalwarts on this bus that really enjoy it, but from hearing the weary conversation of the regulars somehow I doubt it. We’ve been rerouted to New York City for our jobs. Our free time is consigned to an aluminum lozenge on wheels. Sometimes it actually moves. Have you ever tried to read a book when the head of the snoring guy next to you keeps falling into your lap? I think about those animals on the ark. Life is more than eating and breathing. You’ve got to have some space to move about. Even when I wake up I’m not in the same position as when I went to sleep. Of course, ethics demands I look at it from the other’s point of view. Someone needed a truckload of Aminoethylpiperazine, and they’re disappointed that it never arrived. Just don’t breathe too deeply. This flood can’t last forever.

Making Prophets

I first read 1984 around its eponymous date. The context is informative. I was a student at Grove City College, a conservative, Reagan-esque school of strong free-market inclinations. Being a first-generation college student I knew nothing of choosing a school, and since my upbringing was Fundamentalist, and since Grove City was a place I’d been many times, it seemed the natural choice. As my four years there wore one, my conservatism became effaced before what should be the effect of higher education. I was reading and learning new things—ideas that in the pre-internet days were simply inaccessible to someone from a small town which had no library, no bookstore, and, to be honest, no charm. How was someone supposed to learn in those circumstances? Largely it came down to high school (for those who finished) in a nearby town, and television. George Orwell saw the potential of the latter far too clearly.

It was in this great conservative bastion that I read 1984—I don’t even remember what course it was for. I do remember vividly the discussion of the Appendix on Newspeak—that it was a danger, a very real danger, to engineer language to prevent free thought. That was conservatism in the literal era of 1984. When that year passed we breathed a collective sigh of relief that Orwell’s prophecy hadn’t happened. Maybe Orwell wasn’t a prophet after all. The thing about prophecy, however, is that it unfolds slowly. Trump may have caught the world by surprise, but the evidence is there that the Orwellian groundwork was being consciously laid from the time of the Clinton Administration onward. Those who seemed to think Ingsoc was onto something good began working in local politics—the level of school boards and state elections, to build a strong conservative bloc. How many states have Republican governors? Go ahead and look it up, I’ll wait.

Progressives blithely moved ahead, making real ethical strides. One problem that they’ve always had, however, is believing that Evil is real. It’s an outmoded idea, fit for Medievalist thinking only. There are, however, very real racial supremacists out there. And avowed, unrepentant sexists. They feel that the great white way has been slighted and they are itching for revenge. Don’t believe me? Turn on the news. This is not your father’s Republican Party. In 1984 the Republicans were warning us about 1984. By the next decade they were actively emulating it. Orwell died paranoid and the world was relieved as his prophecy was harmlessly classified as fiction.

A Kind of Contact

I find myself in Ithaca, New York. Places have a resonance with people, and this is one of those places I feel like I belong. The feeling may not be mutual, but that makes it no less real. At least on my part. Dominated by the presence of Cornell University, this town of waterfalls and free spirits represents everything I value. Education, creativity, and an easy familiarity with nature all have a place here. And Carl Sagan. No doubt astrophysics is far more sexy than religious studies. I didn’t watch Cosmos when it aired, but I knew of Sagan as its driving force. Before being daunted by the math, I had considered astronomy as a career; Denied tenure at Harvard, Sagan came to be associated with Cornell, to Ithaca’s enduring benefit. His house above Ithaca Falls is still pointed out by the locals.

Star status for academics, so I’m informed, is a mixed blessing. Accusations of being a popularizer are flung somewhat liberally at those who know how to explain things to non-specialists. Part of the ivory tower mystique is to remain inaccessible and impenetrable. Teaching, at the same time, is expected to open lost worlds to the curious. Sagan, like Bill Nye—another Cornell star—wasn’t afraid to take his knowledge to the streets. And such receptive streets there are in Ithaca. It’s a place a child of the sixties can feel at home. Looking for fossils in the many gorges, I’m reminded that the old and new are not so different in a universe billions of years old.

The sense of place, while scientifically dubious, is nevertheless real. Part of my ancestral heritage lies in upstate New York. My grandfather, while not a college man, took a couple of courses at what was then Cornell College to launch his teaching career. Following in grand-dad’s footsteps, my own teaching career (which, however, never included Cornell) didn’t last long. Yet somehow we both ended up passing through Ithaca. People on the street. Waiting to be enlightened by stars that shine brighter than my own. Life is a series of places. All, it turns out, are temporary. Rod Serling once said, ”Everyone has to have a hometown, Binghamton’s mine.” He left the nearby town, but he has remained there ever since. Places are that way. I’m in Ithaca right now, but the stark reality of New Jersey awaits at the end of the day.

Remember Ronnie?

Listening to Comrade Trump, I wonder what it is the GOP really wants. My doublethink may be fuddled a bit, but I’m old enough to remember a guy called Ronald Reagan—champion and darling of the Republicans, some of whom say he was the greatest president ever—who stood firmly against Russia and its designs on this country. Now there is clear evidence that, no matter what the Comrade-in-Chief personally did, his inner circle has been dancing with Putin and they’re more than just a little tipsy. And the GOP stands up and cheers. I don’t know about you, but those who voted for Trump have to be wondering where they laid their Russian dictionaries about now. The Red Scare has come to town and Ronnie’s rolling in his presidential tomb.

The utter stupidity of not seeing when you’re being played astounds me. Look, I’m not the most worldly guy—I taught Bible for goodness sake!—but even I can see when a senator’s smirk says “sucker!” Where were the Trump supporters in the 1980s when we were against everything the Russians were doing, and that’s when they had Gorbachov leading them out of communism? It’s enough to make an old believer in common sense like yours truly crawl into a bottle of vodka and never come back out. Of course, in my days at Nashotah House some in the Episcopal Church were having their own fling with Russian Orthodoxy. Even to the point that the refectory was ordered to serve borscht. I personally didn’t see the charm in it.

I’m not the greatest nationalist alive. Borders, which are artificial, cause far more problems than they solve. You might call me a communist, since that’s in vogue these days. Nevertheless, if we wanted another country to decide our fate for us, I wouldn’t have chosen Russia. My personal choice? Vatican. As the smallest nation in the world they seem to have the best leader on offer. Pope Francis at least has a serious concern for the poor and needy at heart. There are those, after all, who argue that JFK, our only Catholic president, was even better than Reagan, as hard to believe as that might be. There seemed to be a little kerfuffle about missiles in Cuba, I seem to recall, but let’s let bygones be bygones. We live in a world of Newspeak and tweets. And if I didn’t know better, I’d say this borscht tastes a bit off to me.