Science of the Immaterial

One of the truly frustrating things for the honestly curious is a lack of good resources. Specifically here I’m talking about ghosts. More generally, about the supernatural. “Don’t worry,” laugh the reductionists, “there’s no such thing.” But some of us are seriously curious. Those who are willing to admit candidly the events of life will eventually confess to things they can’t explain. People have been seeing ghosts since at least the Stone Age, and yet finding a serious, non-dismissive approach to the topic can be annoyingly difficult. Curious about the background to the film The Conjuring, I wanted some kind of objective treatment to the Perron family haunting. One of the girls involved has written a three-volume treatment, but that will take some time to get through. So I turned to the investigators, Ed and Lorraine Warren.

The Warrens were (Lorraine is still alive) some of the world’s first ghost hunters. Self-taught and deeply religious, they referred to themselves as demonologists. Lay Catholics, they couldn’t perform exorcisms, but they could assist in them. Apart from the Perrons, they investigated Amityville, the haunted doll Annabelle, and the Snedeker house, and many other famous cases. A guilty pleasure read, Ghost Hunters, written by Robert David Chase, along with the Warrens, thumbs through several of the investigations. When all is read and done, however, people who claim to know better accuse the hauntings of hoaxing and since there is no arbiter, the curious are left with that unsatisfying state of “he said, she said,” but no real answers. Ghost Hunters contains a potpourri of cases, mostly of demonic possession. Nothing about the Perron family, though.

No doubt much of the hoopla around reality television ghost hunting is clever marketing and nothing more. Even the acclaimed Ghost Hunters were caught gaming the system a little on their Halloween specials. That doesn’t stop people from seeing ghosts, however. Some academics have attempted to address the issue and soon find themselves in untenured positions (so much for freedom of speech) or mocked by their more “serious” colleagues. What ever happened to old fashioned curiosity? Materialism isn’t the only show in town, is it? We need treatments of the subject that move beyond the anecdotal. It’s difficult to get a ghost into the machine, apparently. Science hasn’t figured out a way to study the immaterial yet. Until it does, those who want to know the truth will be left relying on those who make a living by addressing questions even empiricists fear to ask.

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.

All There Is To Know

I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude but I just had to laugh. A friend sent me an article from Science Alert titled “A Physicist Just Explained Why the Large Hadron Collider Disproves the Existence of Ghosts.” Intrigued, I read, “there’s no room in the Standard Model of Physics for a substance or medium that can carry on our information after death, and yet go undetected in the Large Hadron Collider.” One of the reasons, I believe, science has trouble among hoi polloi is such arrogant statements as this. I don’t know about ghosts, and for a very good reason. There is no experimental way to test for that which doesn’t exist in the material world. The LHC may tell us all we can know about the world that we perceive (although I doubt it) but it can’t tell us about that for which there is no measure (e.g., consciousness). I don’t mean to get all complex here, but let’s stop and think about this for a moment.

What we know of the universe is what we can perceive and extrapolate from that perception by reason. We, however, don’t perceive everything. Our five senses evolved for one purpose and one purpose only—to survive in this particular environment. That’s a trait, hate to admit it as much as we might, that we share with other animals. It helps to be able to see, hear, touch, taste, and smell things clearly. These traits give us valuable information about the world around us—is that plant poisonous? Is this heat going to kill me? Should I avoid approaching that large, angry-looking bear? Things like that. What our senses don’t tell us is the aspects we didn’t evolve to perceive. We understand everything about nothing. Put another way there is nothing that we understand completely. Entire books can be written about the concept of zero and that’s just an abstract. We only experience a small piece of this universe.

That’s the problem with being in the backwater of the galaxy. I grew up in a backwater so I know what I’m talking about. Things might be different if we lived near the galactic hub, where beings with different senses may well exist. We know, for example, that even on our planet some animals perceive magnetic fields. Who knows what kinds of abilities might have evolved on worlds that posed different challenges to survival than our own? Who are we to say that here in our basement on earth we have a machine that can uncover every possible permutation of anything in the known universe? I don’t know about ghosts, but, I suspect, they’re laughing too.

Hoping for Light

Although the stores have been playing Christmas music for some weeks now, it is technically Advent. I think we could all use a little Advent as days grow shorter and dark nights increase their influence over our lives. As a nation we’ve been brutalized by a minority candidate and this has become a bleak December that Poe would certainly have understood. The spinning mind occasionally falls upon George W. Bush who somehow has begun to look normal. The president who told us when America was under attack we should shop. After all, that’s what people do in December, right? We buy things to make ourselves feel better. It sure is dark outside most of the time. Advent is all about candles and light and hope.

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One of the more endearing aspects of human beings is our ability to see the positive amid negativity. Darkness is the natural state of the universe. Stars are tiny points of light in an endless cold and dark universe. Most of what’s out there has no light beyond those willing to burn bright enough for others to see. We, however, see the light of daytime as normative, slumbering away the hours of darkness. We thrive in light and the light has to be augmented by candles as we struggle against the natural darkness that would, if it could, encompass the universe. Darkness, despite its emptiness, is endlessly hungry. Advent reminds us that we must be light if we want anyone to see in the growing nighttime.

We miss this important dynamic if we leap straight from Halloween to Christmas, pausing briefly for Thanksgiving. The church has made its fair share of mistakes, but Advent wasn’t one of them. Experts tell us Jesus wan’t born in December. Christmas isn’t really a physical birthday. It’s an ancient rite concerned with the return of light to darkened skies. A fervent appeal for our colorful lights and candles to encourage the light that we know, we believe, is out there to return to us. Scientists tell us that it’s just that the earth lolls at 23 degrees on its axis and all of this is just a balancing act. That may be so. I’ve never been off the earth to check. Down here on the ground, however, the days come only reluctantly and the nights linger longer and longer. And we can choose to see darkness as our natural state, or we can ignite a candle to encourage the light to return.

Things Unseen

The reductionistic mind doesn’t care for mystery. Unlike a lover, the unknown is a problem to be solved so that the march of nice, neat solutions may continue to march on, unabated. Fear of fuzzy thinking leads to a coldness that those of us experiencing life find not a little unsettling. Take the cougar, for example. Right now I’m in one of the few habitats of the grizzly bear in the lower 48. It is also home to mountain lions (pumas, panthers, ghosts of the Rockies). Just a week before I came here a local website posted a rare photo of a cougar caught unawares. These creatures are seldom seen, and are officially extinct for most of the country east of the Mississippi. That doesn’t stop them from existing, however. Reports from my native Pennsylvania continue to be filed. I saw tracks when I was a child, but never saw an actual cat. A friend in West Virginia had seen one shortly before we visited that state some years back. Even New Jersey still gets the occasional sighting. Officially these are misidentifications.

I recently read a couple of books that addressed the beast of Dartmoor, in the United Kingdom. Dartmoor is a wild and remote area and for many years an uncomfortable story has circulated about an unknown creature that haunts the moors. The story is older than Sherlock Holmes as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had the detective face the hound of the Baskervilles in that region. Those unhappy with the unknown have sought a rational explanation and now some are claiming that escaped cougars are the basis for the tale. A zoo owner even declares that some of his escaped in the 1980s, causing the stories to arise. The fact that the beast had been part of folklore for over a century already at that point suggests that this may be a little too little a little too late. It’s better than mystery anyway.

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My minimal experience on Dartmoor didn’t lend itself to seeing folkloristic beasts. Even my somewhat extended time in this wilderness hasn’t led to a cougar or grizzly sighting. The mysterious gains its reputation by rarity. The thrill of seeing a relatively common moose is akin to theophanic. I know it’s just a big deer. It’s more than just a big deer. Wonder is an essential part of the human condition. Without it we become as soulless as the mechanistic universe some so desperately want to explain neatly, according to the rules. Cougars escape. Cougars escape detection. What else might we be missing in a universe we’ve only just begun to explore.

Grasping for Meaning

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How often we’re told—and writers on biblical topics are especially guilty of this—the meaning of a story. Despite what materialists say, we are meaning-seeking creatures. We want to know why. When we read a story we want to know what it means. I occasionally dabble in the pool of fiction. Many times I read the emerging story and wonder what it means. Sometimes the meaning changes over time. Sometimes it means many things at once. Recently I read someone explicating the meaning of the story of Noah. The meaning? No, a meaning. That little article makes all the difference. Definite or indefinite, we need constantly to remind ourselves that stories bear meanings. Plural. They mean nothing otherwise.

Those of us who spend a lot of time with sacred texts see that it suggests something specific to us. Those who manage to gain followers start their own religions. The problem comes when one meaning is fixed to a text. I often saw this growing up as a Fundamentalist. I also saw it frequently at Nashotah House. This verse means this. Nothing other. Any interpretation outside this particular one is heresy. Heresy is, of course, punishable by death. Lest you think this is just the idle musing of an underemployed biblical scholar I must remind you that wars have been fought over such things. People have died. All for someone’s mistaking an indefinite article for a definite. There are those who say certain canons of the Mass must not exclude the definite article or otherwise all you’re getting is a very cheap and meager lunch out of the deal. For this you put on your best clothes?

We read stories for entertainment, but if they mean nothing they are quickly forgotten. Dreamtime stories, as David Abram reminds us, may lack plot but they have place. They take us to a place where we aren’t physically present. Or if we are physically present, we need to be taken there in mind as well as body. They give life meaning. Ironically, as a culture, fewer and fewer people find meaning in their work. Living for the weekend, they find their sense of fulfillment by what they do when not on the clock. And some of that time has traditionally been demanded by those who offer worship experiences. After all, weekends were their idea in the first place. There may be some meaning in that. If there is it is only one meaning among many. And even while attending, it is best to keep an eye or ear open for something other than the meaning which the ordained may insist is the only true one.

Vitruvian Savior

If memory serves, I was still in seminary when “Piss Christ” was first unveiled. As photographic art, I can’t say when the shutter snapped, but I seem to recall animated discussion over it and since seminary animated discussion has been at a premium, so I think I’d remember something like that. In any case, the artwork still has the power to shock and enrage as the world teeter-totters in its love-hate relationship with religion. Some people seem surprised when other people respond somewhat pointedly to what they perceive as affronts to their beliefs. The thing about beliefs is, well, people believe them. In this day of electro-chemical signals between synapses it may be hard to attribute any substance to belief. Still, if someone makes that claim, insult their mother and see what happens. Beliefs, by their nature, are sacred.

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I was reminded of this when my wife pointed out to me a story about Dartboard Jesus. If you’re not a Rutgers University person (as I no longer am), it takes only a little imagination to visualize this artwork. Conjure a dartboard in your mind. Then picture a crucifix superimposed on it with darts instead of nails. Red darts, if that helps. You’ve got it. The official name of the piece is “Vitruvian Man,” but the public outcry was enough to have the piece removed from public display. I taught (strictly as an adjunct, no complications, please) at Rutgers for four years. People sometimes expressed surprise that multiple sections of Intro to “Old” and New Testaments filled up every semester. I wonder if the university ever takes measure of its students’ beliefs. I had Seventh-Day Adventists in my courses. I had Jains, Muslims, and Hindus. I had Atheists and, God help us, Episcopalians. One thing all these people had in common was belief. Not beliefs, but more singular: belief.

No one in the world intentionally believes falsely. Indeed, should Oxford Dictionaries be trusted, belief is “Something one accepts as true or real.” By definition, it seems, beliefs are believed. Artists serve a valuable function in expressing ideas that words struggle to articulate. There is more going on when your crucifix is juxtaposed to a glass of urine or a dartboard than you might otherwise imagine. It says something about belief. In some cultures such heresy is punishable by death. It isn’t so much a matter, I would suggest, of freedom of expression as it is a matter of advocacy. Artists are teachers and even teachers sometimes don’t consider how their lessons will be taken. Respecting belief, perhaps, is something electro-chemical signals leaping tall synapses in a single bound simply don’t understand.