Category Archives: Science

Heavenly Questions

A lot can happen when you’re in a coma. Or nothing at all. I haven’t read Kevin and Alex Malarkey’s account of the latter’s trip to Heaven during a coma, and it looks like I never shall. A story by Kyle Swenson in The Washington Post explains how Alex Malarkey, now that he is no longer a minor, is suing Tyndale House over the publication of his Near Death Experience (NDE), penned by his father. The story, according to the Post, was a fabrication. Alex awoke from his coma recalling nothing, but Kevin knew a good thing when he saw it and wrote an account of the young boy going to Heaven. Alex says it never happened. The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven is now being pulled and pulped as a hoax.

NDEs are real (even if one didn’t happen in this case), but what they actually are is a matter of debate. The mainstream interpretation is that they are the last gasps of consciousness before a brain dies, temporarily. These often comforting thoughts can be quite similar in very different contexts and sometimes include the formerly deceased knowing details that they couldn’t possibly have witnessed in real life. Scientists willing to buck convention explore these episodes less with the intention of proving Heaven is true than with probing the idea that souls are real. That consciousness somehow continues. That life may, after all, be eternal. Since there are no scientific apparatus in the afterlife, there’s no way to measure or quantify such events. This leads most scientists to conclude that these are merely dying thoughts, or, as in the Malarkey case, hoaxes.

Ever since Raymond Moody’s Life after Life, confessional publishers—particularly of the evangelical brand—have promoted such stories. Religion and science, while not necessarily the cats and dogs they’re presented as being, don’t often coalesce around a common nucleus. Part of the problem is that spiritual events are beyond the reach of the scientific method since no laboratory conditions exist to test them. A number of scientists and medical doctors attest the reality of NDEs, but these occur in human consciousness—a realm of which we know little. Religious publishers know a good story when they see one since the doubts cast by science have to be regularly dispelled. The problem is the money such stories attracts also allures those seeking the fiduciary comforts of this material world. In this case, it seems, if you didn’t have the experience yourself you could capitalize on someone who did. Or didn’t. Those eager for proof are always willing to buy and sell the story.

Ouch! Ouch!

The cold and flu season seems to have had an extended life this year, what with snow still falling in April and yet another week of cooler weather in the forecast. Although there’s no cure for the common cold, we do have the ability to prevent many maladies with a vaccine. Under eight years of Republican governance, New Jersey had become quite friendly to those who don’t want their kids vaccinated, despite being the most densely populated state in the union. The reason many objectors give? “It’s against my religion.” There was a massive outcry recently when a bill was approved that requires religious objectors to state what their religion is and what exact tenet of that religion vaccination actually violates. The statements of those opposed show that religion was largely being used as an excuse by those who didn’t want their children inoculated. Confirmation class has a purpose after all.

Social responsibility, of course, reaches beyond the home. In fact, it begins as soon as we open the door. Add to that the fact that most people can’t describe the basic beliefs of their own religion accurately and you have a real case for contagion. When you sign up to join a religion—what a capitalistic idea!—you generally go through training classes to let you know what you’re publicly proclaiming you believe. Given that religion deals with everlasting consequences, you might think most people would pay close attention, embedding the facts deeply. That, however, often isn’t the case. Beliefs are handed down like family heirlooms, or are gleaned from watching television (usually Fox). One’s religion is useful for making excuses, but people hate to be challenged on this point.

In the right’s continuing war on social responsibility, they’ve been pumping the media full of anti-vaccine fear. Vaccines, they’ll aver, use human embryos. Any other other form of conspiracy theory can be used to turn hoi polloi against them. Our society was built into what it is by as many people as possible agreeing that when it comes to the good of all, individual prejudices sometimes have to be overlooked. It’s natural enough for parents to be concerned for the wellbeing of their children. It’s sadly ironic when their “religion” tells them that the most basic protections are somehow evil. Who can help but to think of Abraham holding the knife above a bound Isaac on the altar? That is, if they happen to be of a certain religion, and if they paid attention during their version of confirmation class.

Scientists, Unplugged

Feeling inferior is common among religionists. When cultures list their brightest and best, scientists often top the list and those who specialize in religion are nowhere to be found. This situation gives the lie to the fact that many scientists think about, and are influenced by, religion. That became clear to me in reading Stefan Klein’s We Are All Stardust. Not Klein’s best-known book, this is a collection of interviews with well-known scientists, unplugged. There are many big names in here, such as Richard Dawkins and Jane Goodall, as well as some less familiar on a household level. Klein, himself a Ph.D.-holder in physics, asks them somewhat unconventional questions, with the goal of bringing a more human face to scientists.

When asked directly, scientists admit to thinking quite a bit about religion. Of those interviewed, several are hostile to it while others accept some tenets of one faith system or another. Most of them indicate that either religion or morality plays an important role in society, if not in science itself. The sad part is almost none of them seem to realize that the study of religion can be (and among the university-trained, generally is) scientific. In academia, religious studies is often vaguely tossed in with the humanities, while others would suggest it fits under social sciences—as a sub-discipline of anthropology, for example. Few understand the field, in part because many specialists enter it for initially religious reasons, somehow tainting it.

While I enjoyed the book quite a lot—it was a quick read with plenty of profound ideas—it also had a disturbing undercurrent. The explanation that many of the interviewees gave for why they went into science was “curiosity.” The implication was that those who can’t stop asking questions, and have intelligence, go into science. Again, this feature is true of most academic fields, if they’re understood. Greatly tempted to go into science myself, I simply didn’t have the mathematical faculties to do it. While I took advanced math in high school I wouldn’t have gotten through without my younger brother explaining everything to me. My real concerns lay along the line of ultimates. Learning about Hell at a young age, it made the most sense to me—very curious and scientifically inclined—to avoid going there. To do so, the proper target of my science should be religion. While many scientists in We Are All Stardust are friendly to philosophy, religion is considered a far less worthy subject by not a few. True, religion often behaves badly in public. It doesn’t bring the money into universities that megachurches reap. But unplugged even scientists still think about it.

Easter Monday

This year has been a comedy of liturgical errors. Ash Wednesday fell on Valentines Day and Easter on April Fools. Notwithstanding the clash of sacred and secular, the ironies seem to grow each day. I arise early to write. Even on weekends. Before the time to head out for any religious service, I’m sitting at my keyboard, letting my thoughts have their free-range time before penning them back up again for either being with other people or beginning the long work week. On my way to work, I frequently pass Holy Innocents. A Roman Catholic church on West 37th Street, it stands out among the more commercial ventures on either side. Yesterday, Easter morning, I decided to google it. I’ve always been curious about churches, and I’ve never been inside this one.

Google gave me a map of Midtown Manhattan, along with a statement of when this business would be open. “Easter might affect these hours” it helpfully noted in orange letters. An orange-letter day! Easter might affect these hours. Those who champion Artificial Intelligence may need to come up with a way of having “that talk” with their computers. How could any intelligence unaware of the deep-seated human need for the transcendent understand the difference between a church and a business? (Okay, I can hear the more cynical saying there is no difference, but you know what I mean!) How would any algorithm know that Easter is the holiest day of the Christian year and that, at least for some churches, yes, they will be open for business?

Some parishes, we must explain in 0s and 1s, begin this service at midnight on the cusp between the last and first days of the week. Others will gather sleepy-eyed parishioners on top of a hill, out in nature, to watch the sun rise. Still others will eschew any holiday and treat it like any other Sunday. The reasons for these stances are nuanced and not easily understood even by human beings. Our robot overlords, let us hope, are programmed to understand this peculiarity of our species. We relish the thought of Easter, at least in this hemisphere, as telling us that winter is indeed over. Although snow may still settle on the crocuses, it will not last. Days are longer than nights now, as they must, of a mathematical certainty, be after the Vernal Equinox. We are entering the light phase of the year. So much hope and anticipation are wrapped up in this brightly colored, pastel holiday that we have trouble explaining it rationally. Today, of course, everything is open for business today. Except a few churches, as Google may fail to let you know.

Personifying Evil

Biographies seldom cover millennia. Even if one were to try to uncover all the scant facts on old Methuselah at 969 years, it would still fall short of four digits. So Peter Stanford’s The Devil: A Biography takes the long view. Even with that lengthy perspective, there’s little that might be known about the prince of darkness. Even with a role in the Good Book his appearances are few and details are lacking. What Stanford does, of course, is outline, more or less, the history of Satan. This is no easy task since few ancient sources focus on trying to provide explanations for exactly who this might be.

As with most books by non-academics (and I don’t mean to sound snobbish here) there are some overstatements. Some of the details aren’t so finely parsed. It’s the big picture the author’s after and he does quite well when it comes to the modern era. Not only is there enormously more material from which to choose, there is also a great deal of literature and even headlines available to harvest. All writers that I’ve encountered on the subject make the point of demonstrating that news of what’s happening in the modern world suggests either the Devil exists or that something (or things) is doing a great job parodying such a character. When seeing evil in the highest reaches of the government it’s not so hard to believe.

The thing about the Devil is that he almost died out. In the nineteenth century when the explanatory value of science was firmly kicking in, and industrialization was making our live both easier and harder, the dark lord went underground. Humans seemed capable of making and claiming their own evil, and even the professionals—the clergy and formal religionists—had admitted Satan was most likely a metaphor gone wild. The birth of Fundamentalism, a movement that became prominent only in the 1920s, necessarily resurrected the Devil. The Bible does mention Lucifer, so he had to be real. Since that day he’s learned a lot. Protean to the extreme, he bears many guises. No longer beholden to a demonic tail, cloven hooves, or a pointy beard, he most often appears clean shaven and wearing expensive business suits. Borrowing a phrase from the Good Book, it’s by his fruits that we know him. Stanford’s biography shows its age a little, but when you’re covering a couple thousand years of speculation, being outdated is only a venial sin.

Mediating Reality

The brain is one troubling organ. The gateway to both our thinking and our physical experience—as well as our survival—it tends to explain things in terms of narrative. Human consciousness likes a good story. Experiment after experiment has shown that if the brain doesn’t know why you do something it will make up an answer. Consciousness is far from foolproof. Those who rely too heavily on rationalism don’t like to think about such things. Logically, if your brain can fool you then you can’t believe everything evidence seems to verify. Think about that. If you dare.

Psychology has sometimes received a bad rap among the sciences for not having empirical evidence to back up some of its assertions. “Freudian” is now used as much as a slur as it is a sign of the sudden insight that strange things constantly go on inside our heads. BBC Future recently ran a story by Melissa Hogenboom titled, “The woman whose tumour made her religion deadly.” The account regards a woman who came to the hospital with serious self-inflicted wounds. Although hackneyed, the voices in her head told her to do this to herself. Brain scans indicated a tumor at the point in her brain where auditory information and religious belief come together. Paging Dr. Jaynes! Now, I know this is over-simplified. I’ve read enough neurology to know that brain functions can switch from one part of the brain to another and that mapping this kilo-and-a-half universe is one of the the most vexing of scientific enterprises. Still, in this case, the implications were clear: the woman’s self-destructive behavior was connected, in her brain, to religious commands.

Many educated people in this post-Christian world rely staunchly on reason. I don’t disagree that reason is essential. I do wonder, however, what happens when such thinking is forced to confront the fact of the irrational brain. Ever since setting our clocks forward I’ve been awaking in the midst of dreams. My usual sleep cycle hasn’t yet adjusted. I know some pretty strange stuff is going on in my brain when rationality’s taking a snooze. The other day I awoke convinced I was in my boyhood home. Rationality tells me it was razed years ago. Yet this brain with doctoral-level education was convinced it was in another state at another time. And this isn’t the result of a tumor, but normal sleeping brain functioning. It does make one wonder if putting too much faith into rationality isn’t a form of minor neurosis. To find out you have to ask a troubling organ and hope for a rational answer.

Sky Mercies

While in a used bookstore recently, I was going over the science titles. I like to read accessible science since I often find it approaches religious ideas in secular terms. Once in a while even the terms of these disparate disciplines coalesce. I spied a volume on the top shelf titled The Mercy of the Sky. The spine showed a purplish cloud-bank, and the very concept set me wondering. We’d just been through a bomb cyclone the day before with wind bellowing through our apartment. Many trees were down and power was out for several people I’d overheard talking that day. I stared at the spine, thinking perhaps this would be a good follow-up to Weathering the Psalms, but as I already had books in my hands, and since I’m not the tallest guy around, it seemed beyond my reach. Of course, after I left I thought more about it.

The previous day’s nor’easter had revived that sense of a storm as divine anger. Strong winds, my wife commented, are generally disturbing. They make it difficult to sleep. It’s hard to feel secure when the heavens are anything but merciful. Although the wind is easily forgotten, it’s among the most easily anthropomorphized of natural phenomena. And it’s ubiquitous. Everything on the surface of the earth is subject to it. Indeed, the atmosphere is larger than the planet itself. Is it any wonder that God has always been conceptualized as in the sky? The quality of the mercy of the sky, we might say, is strained.

Danger comes from the earth below us, the world around us, and the realm above. Like our ancient ancestors staring wonderingly into the sky, it is the last of these that’s most to be feared. The wind can’t been seen, but it can be felt. It cuts us with icy chills, drenches us with dismal rain, even flings us violently about when its anger compresses it into a tight whirl. We can’t control it. Unlike other predators it requires neither sleep to refresh nor light to see. Its rage is blind and it takes no human goodness or evil into account. After a great windstorm, the calm indeed feels like a mercy. Elijah on Mount Sinai stood before a mighty wind, tearing the land apart. It was the still, small voice, however, that captures his imagination. There’s a calm before the storm, but it is the stillness in its wake that most feels like the mercy of the sky.