Disease Divine?

I suspect many religious people are wondering where God is amid the current pandemic.   Theodicy (explaining the suffering of the innocent while defending the goodness of the Divine) has always been the bête noire of monotheistic belief systems.  (Polytheism has the advantage of always being able to blame another god.)   People have been pointing articles out to me that show the religious implications of a crisis.  I’m not at all surprised by the irrationality of the subjects.  The first article was an opinion piece in the New York Times.  It makes a good case that the religious right paved the way for the COVID-19 contagion in the United States.  The religious right is anti-science because they (wrongly) believe the Bible is a science book.  Even a small dose of seminary could cure that ill.  Katherine Stewart nevertheless makes a strong argument that the survivors of all of this will know whom to blame.  Science denial is not the same as authentic religion.

From NASA’s photo library

The other news stories that arise are of evangelical leaders defying government bans or guidance, even when delivered by messiah Trump, to large gatherings.  One of the main reasons for this is that said messiah kept saying the coronavirus was nothing to worry about.  Only when re-election seemed unlikely with all the uneducated dead did he finally start issuing warnings to avoid such idiotic congregating.  In the midst of it all, Jerry Falwell Junior (why did all these evangelists have to propagate?) decided to reopen Liberty University.  No doubt confident that God will keep them from any harm, the university officials decided it would be good to gather students from all over the country and put them together in dorms again.  If you’ve ever lived in a dorm I’m sure you can see why the decision is anything but wise.

It’s sad that evangelicalism has decided to pander to the uneducated.  You can believe in Jesus (many mainstream Christians do) without parking your rationality in the farthest parking spot from the door.  Many of us, huddled in our houses, not having seen other living people for days, are trying to isolate this thing and drive it to extinction.  Meanwhile, those who trust their own version of the supernatural are doing whatever they can to ensure the virus continues to spread.  Why?  They have long been taught that science isn’t real.  Never mind that their cell phones work and they get the news of open dorms through the internet, the science behind it all is bunk.  An entire executive branch administration that doesn’t believe in science is as sure a road to apocalypse as any.

Occam’s Disposable Razor

Since new books are kind of rare right now, I’m reading through some of those I’ve collected but haven’t actually read.  One is Near-Death Experiences: Understanding Visions of the Afterlife, by John Martin Fischer and Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin.  I bought the book because the topic, as addressed by a university press book, is interesting.  Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin approach the subject as philosophers.  Their main focus is on the widely accessible and successful books by Eben Alexander and Todd Burpo.  Also the somewhat less well known efforts of Jeffrey Long and Pim van Lommel.  (Instead of taking up blog space with all these titles, just email me if you’re curious, or read my Goodreads post.)  Applying standard scientific methods to spiritual experiences isn’t easy, and Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin are clear that they aren’t trying to take the value out of Near-Death Experiences (NDEs), but rather they are challenging how these authors try to make them authentic.

Philosophers parse words finely.  The authors show that “real” is not the same thing as “authentic” and demonstrate how some of the more spectacular NDEs can possibly be explained by science.  Those who’d temporarily died might’ve caught onto things that happened just before or just after brain activity ceased or restarted, for example, and then misremembered them.  As a still-living guy who can’t remember where he left his wallet half the time, misremembering is an authentic reality.  Still, I couldn’t help but wonder.  Science and religion ask different questions.  One of the mainstays of scientific method is Occam’s Razor—the solution that requires the least mental gymnastics to explain something is the most likely to be true.  Many times this razor is flashed in the face of those trying to make a religious case for something.

Ironically, the authors here dismiss Occam’s Razor.  They state that sometimes the more complicated solution is the right one.  I happen to agree with them on this, but it proved a real distraction in reading the book.  Many scientists use the exact opposite argument against spiritual things.  It also struck me that a book so brief (less than 200 pages) would necessarily struggle to explain a complex phenomenon convincingly.  Trade books, such as those by Alexander and Burpo, aren’t meant to be held up to the stiff standards of peer review.  They are meant for selling lots of copies.  Their authors aren’t philosophers.  It’s almost a mismatch in categories.  Some academic presses are now publishing on NDEs and asking plenty of questions about them.  It’s no surprise that philosophers favoring physicalism would do the same.  It seems a little hairy, however, to do so with Occam left firmly in the shaving kit.

Making Frankenstein

Some days ago I mentioned reading a book about Frankenstein.  This was Making the Monster: The Science behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, by Kathryn Harkup.  I’ve read several books like this, many of them written about on this blog (search “Frankenstein”—there is a search box out there!), about the context of Frankenstein.  The base story is all the more compelling for having been written by a teenager who’d eloped with a married man who would eclipse her literarily.  Mary Shelley never got rich off Frankenstein, but it is one of the best known novels of the nineteenth century.  It had an impact during the author’s lifetime and has continued to have one these centuries later.  Harkup, however, is a scientist.  Her specific interest, apart from being a female writer herself, is in the science of the story.

Arranged thematically, Making the Monster covers several of the developments which would’ve been “in the air” at the time.  Mary and Percy Shelley both read science also, and knew many of these things.  There was the question of reanimating the dead that coincided with the early dissections of humans that made the modern study of anatomy possible.  There were medical breakthroughs—some of the more difficult parts of this book to read—and there were experiments with electricity.  There were cases of children raised in the wild that had been found and their subsequent stories documented.  There was evolution (in the form known to Charles Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus), there was revolution.  It was a time with so much happening that Frankenstein became a cathartic outpouring of the human soul amid the science that both Shelleys atheistically accepted.

Much of this book is fascinating, even after reading other similar accounts to the background of the novel.  What really brought it all together for me, however, was reading through the chronology at the end.  It takes me several days to read books.  What with the monster of daily work I often forget some of what I’ve read along the way from introduction to conclusion.  Having a chronology at the end reminded me of just how much information is packed in between these covers.  The narrative covers about a century (longer, if you include the alchemists), and shows how Mary was using fiction to address some very real science.  Harkup never loses track of Mary Shelley’s personal experience, however.  Estranged from her father, constantly on the move, widowed fairly young, losing several children, treated poorly by aristocratic in-laws, hers was a story of perseverance and ultimately influencing the western canon.  It shows that science and art can assist one another to make us all more human.  And the monsters left behind endure.

Running with Scissors

I suspect that, like many, I’ve come to see the coronavirus as an indictment of political foolishness.  Electing unqualified officials feels like all fun and games until a crisis emerges and the leadership has no idea what to do.  The Trump administration announced itself as anti-science and began breaking down the carefully built institutions that made our way of life possible.  His fans cheered.  Now they’re huddled in their bunkers with their stockpiled Purelle and toilet paper and Fox News on 24/7.  It’s a good thing that a stable genius is in charge.  He’s trying to get Germany to move production of the most promising vaccine to the land of his anti-vaccers, something Germany’s reluctant to do because 45 has a reputation internationally.  It seems he’s made America infectious again.

As those of us with brain stems try to find some way to comfort those we know and love, we keep coming back to the fact that this kind of pandemic is new in the internet-linked world.  No matter what you try to do right now you have to assess whether it involves meeting other people, potentially infected, and whether it’s worth the risk.  I had to go to a grocery store and Target over the weekend.  I’ve never seen so many empty shelves before.  This is what panic looks like.  The difference is that even W., who will never be considered among the smartest of presidents, recognized that institutions are there for a reason.  America’s greatness grew slowly by building on what’d gone before.  Tearing everything down in a narcissistic tantrum and claiming all we need to do is adore our autocrat, we now see how great this country has become.  Greatly afraid, that is.

Coronavirus closed schools more effectively than Betsy DeVos.  Businesses are reeling as the businessman president fumbles with facts and figures he can’t understand and can’t admit that science is real because, well, global warming and all that.  Internationally people are looking for solid leadership and finding that the autocrats they’ve elected have no idea what to do.  Self-aggrandizement is no basis for leadership.  The Republican senate had their chance just two months ago, but they were banking on their personal bank accounts, it seems.  Even in the face of this crisis Mitch McConnell persists on insisting it’a all a game.  As a child raised in a Republican home I was taught never to run with scissors.  But then, I had all my vaccines.  Mad dictator’s disease hadn’t yet been released upon the world.

Data Driven

People just aren’t good at thinking things through.  Consider all the data on data.  Everything is data-driven these days, as if there’s no such thing as human spirit.  We do data all day at work and wonder why we having trouble making ourselves get out of bed in the morning.  If we had enough data I bet we could come up with a metric for arousing the soporific before the sun rises.  You could get the precisely correct amount of sleep.  Awake to precision-measured caffeine.  And get back to your data for another eight-plus hours.  There—feeling productive?

I miss the humanities.  There was a time when someone who didn’t give a fig about data could make a decent living pondering what it is to be human.  Even birds and bees know how to count.  Can’t we ratchet it up a bit?  Use our vast imaginations to come up with meaningful employment?  How you gonna measure that?  Some things just can’t be quantified.  How much joy is enough?  Too much?  Precisely how long is any coastline?  Even if we could measure it down to the nanometer, could that capture how it feels to sit on the rocky shore and feel the waves breaking against the cliff beneath you?  Even data has its limits.  Those who want to make a living without it will be sucked into its black hole nevertheless.  No light escapes.  Only numbers.

Companies like Amazon collect data.  Search engines like Google collect data.  All of those autosuggests?  They’re based on past searches.  I’m surprised just how wrong Amazon and Google are about me.  I was only searching dogs because I was curious about what kind the neighbor has, not because I plan to get one.

A wise man once said to a class full of wide-eyed neophytes, “If you want to get a surprise in your marriage just go home and tell your spouse you know everything about them.”  There’s no better way, he intimated, to get a completely unpredictable reaction.  Is that slap, or kiss, or knee to the groin driven by data?  Where’s the passion in that?  No matter whether you prefer Spock or Data, human motivation is emotional.  There are those who actually enjoy looking at data all day.  Dreaming about numbers and their hegemony over the workplace.  Others of us grew up with the classics and we have romanticism deep within our souls.  We nod our heads at Blake’s “dark satanic mills” and start to look for a coastline upon which to sit.  Perched upon this rock with the crashing waves, I suspect, I’ll be better able to think things through. 

Future Warming

It’s a good thing global warming is a myth, but somebody forgot to tell the hyacinths and lilies in my backyard.  February in Pennsylvania is not when you expect to see spring flowers.  Now I’m fully aware that unseasonal warm snaps and cold spells aren’t an indication of the global climate; they’re far too localized.  One thing I’ve learned in my several decades of life is that heat takes time to transfer.  If you’ve ever had to wait for a pan of water to boil when you’re hungry, you know that to be true.  On cold morning’s my coffee’s ice coffee before I finish the mug, but it does take time for that transition to happen as the cup empties.  With something so inconceivably large as the atmosphere, it takes time.  As our hemispheres take turns pointing at the sun and warming up, the air tries to reach equilibrium and so the weather goes.

Scientists are now talking about, once we get the deniers out of the White House, what long-term remediation plans we have to make.  We’ve already set in motion extreme weather events.  We’ve had decades of warning, but those who control the money just can’t bear to let any of it go.  It’s a safer bet to wreck the planet.  You can just cash in your insurance money and buy a new one.  That’s the way it works, isn’t it?  So I’m standing outside in my shirtsleeves in February staring at April flowers who think winter’s over already.  I don’t know what to say to them.

You can’t drive a car without a license, nor can you practice law or medicine.  To be a world leader you don’t even have to be literate.  I often imagine what the future survivors will say.  They’ll likely be there, since people have a way of getting by.  They may wonder if we knew this was coming.  Of course, the internet won’t be up and running then, and who knows what’ll happen to electronic information when there’s no power left to keep the servers going.  In any case, my perhaps futile answer to their imagined question is yes.  We did see this coming.  Some of tried every legitimate tool in the box called “democracy” (you’ll need a dictionary for that one) to introduce sanity into the discussion, but bluster wins over hard thinking every time.  I cup my hands around the tender, if resilient leaves.  They’re only doing as nature directs.  If only our species could pay such attention to what the planet is saying.

The Tube

I’m sitting in a medical facility waiting room.  I’m not afraid of dying, but medical stuff terrifies me.  To calm me down, inane daytime television is on.  I may be one of the very few who brings a book to such places, but I can’t read with the insipid chatter going on.  This time, since I’m waiting for someone else, I brought my laptop.  Nevertheless, I can’t help but think of Ray Bradbury at times like this.  Many people think Fahrenheit 451 is about burning books.  Bradbury did write about burning books in his short stories, and it does happen in Fahrenheit 451, but that’s not what the book is about.  In interviews he said that he intended, as is pretty obvious from a straightforward reading of the text, to warn about the invasive nature of television.  It was, metaphorically, burning books.

Waiting rooms always bring that to mind.  Not only that, but it’s Valentine’s Day and all the talk shows are going on about how it’s “the day of love” (every day should be).  It’s not a day off work; I had to cash in a sick day to be here.  The word “holiday” keeps cropping up on the television, to which I have my back. Ever since leaving Nashotah House I haven’t watched television.  On our recent move to Pennsylvania our cable company didn’t offer a non-television option.  It was unthinkable.  We pay for something we don’t use.  Burning books.  I don’t have time for television.  I see shows that have proven their worth via DVD well after they’re off the air.  And that only when I can read or write no more in a day.  I guess I’m a Bradbury disciple.

Like any disciple, I have changed certain teachings of my leader.  Bradburyism is a religion objecting to ubiquitous television.  At the same time, I grew up watching the tube, and to this day I’ll stop just about anything to watch DVDs of The Twilight Zone.  Rod Serling, however, selected stories and teleplays that were well written.  This was a literate show.  Besides, my daily life often feels like the Twilight Zone.  Like Valentine’s Day in a waiting room.  The book beside me remains unopened.  It’s the same when I take the car to the garage, or go in for an oil change.  You can’t escape it, even though everyone else is paying attention to their phones.  How long until we learn to switch off?  Of course, medical waiting rooms are the places where I may need brainless distraction the most.

Photo credit: Smithsonian Institution