Ellis Island

A few years back we made a trip to Ellis Island. This is a common field trip here in New Jersey, although none of my immediate family passed through this portal. The most recent immigrants in my own heritage seem to have arrived by the early 1800s. In any case, Ellis Island is an impressive location. Now a museum, you can wander through the rooms and get an idea of what newcomers faced after a long and trying ocean voyage. What struck me the most was that large numbers of people were turned away for mental problems. I suspect mental illness of one sort or another is unnervingly common among human beings, and our current frenetic pace of life probably only exacerbates the situation. Still, I wonder if we really have a clear grasp on what is “normal.”

As humans become more adept at understanding their own brains, a need for more precise definitions asserts itself. A friend recently sent me an article suggesting “Neurologists Have Identified Brain Lesions That Could Be Linked to Religious Fundamentalism” on Science Alert. The article my Mike McRae ultimately doesn’t suggest that brain damage is the answer to Fundamentalism, but the story reminded me of an unscientific observation by one of my seminary professors decades ago. Harrell Beck once said something along the lines of Fundamentalism isn’t a theological position, it’s a psychological problem. Indeed, those who fall into the literalist camp have a preternatural urge to see things in black and white. Rules that can’t be violated, even if it means your deity’s an angry old God. With literally Hell to pay if you’re wrong, the right course of action is strikingly clear. Only life’s seldom so simple.

We study our brains but we don’t have a baseline for normal. I can’t believe that waking before dawn to catch a bus to work a job that pays less than a successful high school degree in other states is a good bet by anybody’s standard measure of normalcy. Those who read probing biographies find that even our brightest and best have quirks they didn’t wear in public. Surely the physicians on Ellis Island had some guidelines in mind when they were turning away those who didn’t measure up to the standard of what an ideal American mentality should be. Although Ellis Island shut its doors over half a century ago, it’s clear that even if we kept some unstable candidates out, we’ve done a stellar job of growing our own. And that can be taken as truth by faith alone.

Mind the Gap

HistoryOfMindThere’s something on my mind. I guess that’s the normal state of a conscious being. William H. Calvin’s A Brief History of the Mind might clarify that a bit. Although I have trouble accepting Calvin’s belief that mind is the same as brain, he does allow, in this wonderful little book, for a somewhat more expansive view. Subtitled From Apes to Intellect and Beyond, the story is more than just a survey of archaeological finds and their physiological counterparts. This is a story. It is a story of how we developed minds. Calvin approaches the topic with the realization that others will have different stories, and that future discoveries (some of which may have already been made in the decade since the book was written) may change it a bit. The book ranges from the quasi-technical (at least from the perspective of sitting on a bus) to the amusing, but always keeping in sight of the fact that this is of human interest.

Particularly compelling is Calvin’s consideration that we may have, at least from our modern perspective, gotten ahead of ourselves a time or two. In discussing the migration of hominids from Africa, he makes the brilliant point that perhaps we weren’t quite ready for that adjustment at that time. We seem to have perhaps driven other hominids to extinction. Our technology might have been outracing our conceptual knowledge of how to handle it. When he returns to this theme later in the story, the results are even a little frightening. We do sometimes get to the point where we can do things that we shouldn’t do. Before our minds have realized the full implications. Atomic bombs, anyone?

Unlike many scientists who believe in materialism, Calvin does not ridicule religion. He notes that it can be taken too literally, but does not suggest we are fools for believing. In fact, he discusses a couple of sects that have turned dangerous over time. He shows how they acted logically, following their thought process in an orderly, if clearly wrong, direction. Some would use this as a cudgel to bash religion in general. Instead, Calvin seems to suggest that we might learn from all of this. Minds, while impressive, are not perfect. Logic can have its flaws. We can, despite the tragedy, learn valuable things about how the mind works. This is an open-ended story; the future of mind is being constantly disclosed. If there is a future for us, we can perhaps prepare a bit better by understanding what’s on our minds.

Do You Mind?

TheScienceDelusionSeems a lot of people are deluded these days. I know I am. Still, every great once in a while I read a book that helps me cope with the morass of everyday life in a way so profound that I feel elated. At least until I get to work. One of those books I cannot commend highly enough. Curtis White’s The Science Delusion: Asking the Big Questions in a Culture of Easy Answers is epiphanic. Not your typical (generally faith-based) objection to the New Atheist phenomenon, White asks more fundamental, and indeed, logical, questions. And he’s incredibly fun to read. Starting with the conundrum that often goes unspoken, White demonstrates that even the scientists among the New Atheists ascribe to immaterial value judgments without thinking through the implications. Having jettisoned religion, philosophy—the whole of the humanities, in general, as pointless, non-empirical window-dressing, even the greatest lights still claim their tenets. As White illustrates, stars cannot be beautiful without a concept of beauty. Beauty cannot be quantified, and is therefore beyond the empirical method. One could say it’s in the eye of the beholder, but science is uncomfortable with metaphors as well.

Materialism, often in league with politics and power-mongers, fails to account for much of human experience. The real danger, as White demonstrates, is when society simply accepts it because it comes from a white lab-coat. White, along with most of non-materialists, is not anti-science. Science clearly describes, in a pretty close approximation, the physical world we know. At least in the New Atheist camp, however, it doesn’t stop there. The take-no-survivors attitude causes problems because it is hoisted on its own petard of logic. The mind that is attempting to puzzle out science is immaterial. Mind does not equal brain. The cause and the result are easily confused. Flush with neuroscience’s success of describing the brain, we assume that science can also explain things as inexplicable as the nature of light, quantum mechanics, black holes, or the Tea Party.

White is not shy of talking about the elephant in the room. Consciousness is not a material phenomenon. If you are reading this, you know what I’m talking about. We are self-aware creatures. So seem to be some other primates, cetaceans, and corvids. If our minds could be quantified a lot of psychologist’s couches would be empty. Chemicals may affect the working of our brains and influence the performance of our minds, but when they wear off, it is still yourself staring back from the mirror the morning after. Those of us who spend our lives pursuing the humanities generally don’t try to take over science. It is very good at what it does. The world as we experience it—even the use of the word “experience” itself—is, however, more than physical. Even the New Atheists dream, and hope, and love. No matter what they may say, there is an inherent beauty in that.


Now in a dentist office near you!

Sitting in the dentist’s office may not be the best place to be reading about pain. Nevertheless, as I was anticipating my fillings (worn enamel at this stage, not cavities) I picked up the June edition of Discover magazine and noticed a story on the brain. Since pain and brain rhyme, I took it as a kind of omen. I actually subscribed to Discover for many years as a teenager, but with the vicissitudes of the job market as an adult, and the perpetual lack of storage space in apartments, I have let my magazine subscriptions lapse. The article, which I did not have time to finish, suggested that neurologists are on the cusp of being able to pin down whence chronic pain is experienced in the brain. If a chemical inhibitor can be found for this specific region it will be like turning off a light switch. There will be no more pain (rather like John’s vision of the New Jerusalem).

As I was called back to the dentist’s chair to the accompaniment of the whine of a dental drill, I reflected on the loss of pain. Being the sensitive sort, and probably more empathetic to others than may be healthy, I never wish pain on anyone. Life is difficult as it is, and even those who wish me harm do not deserve suffering. Nevertheless, I wonder if we could thrive in a world without pain. This is all the more relevant with the growing whispers among the AI community that brains can be simulated by computers. If they are programmed not to experience pain (as seems only sensible) then what becomes of humanity when pain is abolished? Some of us identify with the pains of mental agony even if the physical does not directly impinge on our lives. It is what makes us human. When I see another person in pain, my immediate reaction is to want to help. Being a religionist, however, my options are often limited in this regard.

After a very painful termination a few years ago, I had to give in to anti-depressants for a while. The very idea depressed me. My life, including its full array of mental anguish, defined who I was. Take that away, and what was left? Funny thing was, those in the church who initiated this particular pain showed no empathy whatsoever in the face of it. I weaned myself of the medication after a few years and occasionally the pain returns—particularly acutely when yet another religious employer let me go—but it is part, a very deep part, of the human experience. Could we thrive in a world without adversity? We are often at our best when we are helping each other. That to me seems to be what true religion is all about.

Leggo my Ego!

Last week on my way to an interview, as I was merging onto the interstate, a state trooper in the center lane let out a whoop on his siren and broadcast on his speaker, “the left lane is for passing — got that?” Naturally I assumed the broadcast was directed toward me; I was in the right lane and the trooper was moving considerably slower than the posted limit. Should I pass him on the right or slow down? Now I was apparently joining a highway drama already in progress (status quo for New Jersey) and after a few intense heart-thumping minutes I realized that the cynical lawman was likely addressing a slower driver in the left lane. All of this is to introduce the problematic mindset of egocentrism.

The human brain, we are informed, is the most complex thing in the universe. It is also our gateway to all experience, knowledge, revelation, insight, and inspiration. We are limited in all our ventures by the tangible limits of our biological brains. Everything we associate with religion is mediated and filtered by our brains. As my friend and seminary professor K. Marvin Bruce likes to say, “consciousness is as much a curse as a blessing.” Our brains can be traps as well as explosive openings into new worlds. Everything begins and ends with the humble ego.

I was recently reminded of this while looking at the latest round of Hubble Space Telescope images released from NASA. We consciously know the universe is incomprehensibly large, the number of stars way beyond human imagination. And yet, on this smallish planet racing around a medium-sized sun somewhere in the outer banks of the universe, people have always thought the gods were concerned with them. The earliest cultures believed that humans were created in the service of the gods. We live, we wonder, we die. As long as the gods are pleased, the world continues much as it always has. In their eyes the stars that far outnumber the human population were gods. Their universe was more divine than profane. Yet even in our galaxy-filled universe, our brains can’t help but believe that somehow we’re in the very middle of it all.

Where's Wiggins? Not even on the map!

Where's Wiggins? Not even on the map!