Poppins Fresh

The holiday season often means doing things out of the ordinary.  Despite writing books that deal with movies, I can’t afford to see them in theaters often, but we went as a family to see Mary Poppins Returns.  A few things about that: I grew up never having seen Mary Poppins (I first encountered it in college).  The new movie is neither a remake nor a sequel proper.  It follows the same basic pattern as the original but with new songs and animations, and all of it based on a somewhat darker premise—the death of the mother (which allows Jane and Michael, as adults to both be back in their childhood home) has led to financial straights that threaten to leave the Banks family homeless.  The bank has turned cruelly capitalistic and wants as many foreclosures as possible.  Sinister stuff.

The reason I mention the movie here, however, is a premise that it shares with Hook: children can see things that adults can’t.  Or more precisely, that adults learn not to see.  Some investigators of unusual phenomena suggest that as we grow we’re taught not to believe what we see if it’s impossible.  I’m in no position to assess the validity of such an assertion, being an adult, but it does give me pause for wonder.  We regularly shut out the vast majority of stimuli we experience; our brains are not capable of taking in every little detail all the time.  Instead, we’ve evolved to pay attention to that which is threatening or rewarding to our survival, and we tend to ignore many of the mundane feelings, sights, sounds, and smells that are constantly around us.  Perhaps we do shut out what we’re taught is impossible.  Mary Poppins Returns says it outright. 

In many ways this is behind the materialism we’re spoon-fed daily.  The only reality, we’re told, is that which can be measured and quantified with scientific instruments.  Any apparent reality beyond that is simply illusion.  We all know, however, that our experience of life doesn’t feel that way at all.  There seems to be no counter-argument, however, since we have no empirical evidence to offer.  Experience, we’re told, is unreliable.  Perhaps we’re not too old to learn a few things from the movies.  Mary Poppins Returns won’t likely become the cultural sensation that its forebear was, nevertheless it contains a message that may be worth preserving.  Childhood may hold the keys to understanding reality.

Reasonable Religion

Part of the pushback against religion, it seems to me, is based on the fear that there might be something rational to it after all.  Sorry to get all philosophical on you on a Saturday morning, but the idea has been bothering me all week.  You see, reductionist thinking has already concluded that religion is “emotion” and science is “reason,” and only the latter has any validity.  When’s the last time you met somebody and asked “How are you thinking?” instead of “How are you feeling?”  Neurologists are finding that reason and emotion can’t be divided with a scalpel; indeed, healthy thinking involves both, not reason alone.  Funnily, this is a natural conclusion of evolution—we evolved to survive in this environment—our brains developed rational faculties to enhance emotional response, not to replace it.

I know this is abstruse; go ahead and get a cup of coffee if you need it.  What if emotion participates in reality?  How can emotion be measured outside of individual experience?  We experience it all the time without thinking about it.  From the earliest of human times we’ve had religion in the mix, in some form.  Perhaps we are evolving out of it, but perhaps neurology is telling us that there’s something to it after all.  Something immeasurable.  Chaos theory can be quite uncomfortable in that regard—every coastline is infinite, if you get down to nano-divisions.  When you measure something do you use the top of the line on the ruler or the bottom?  Or do you try to eyeball the middle?  And how do you do it with Heisenberg standing behind you saying there’s always uncertainty in every measurement?

Absolute reality is beyond the grasp of creatures evolved to survive in a specific environment.  Religion, in some form, has always been there to help us cope.  Yes, many religions mistake their mythology for fact—a very human thing to do—but that doesn’t mean that emotion has nothing to do with rational thought.  It seems that instead of warring constantly maybe science and religion should sit down at the table and talk.  Both would have to agree on the basic ground rule that both are evolved ways of coping with an uncertain environment.  And both would have to, no matter how grudgingly, admit that the other has something to bring to that table.  Rationality and emotion are entangled in brains whose functions are simple survival.  Pitting one against the other is counterproductive, even on a Saturday morning.

Organic Experience

Holy Horror, it looks like, has been delayed until January.  That doesn’t mean that I have to wait to find some relief in the escape to film.  Over the weekend my wife surprised me by being willing to watch The Exorcist with me.  As we settled in to see it, a few things occurred to me—watching horror with someone else isn’t nearly as frightening as watching it alone.  I know this from experience, and it seems that it has something to do with the willing suspension of disbelief.  It’s harder to do when someone is with you.  Left to one’s own devices, it’s possible to believe what you’re watching, even if intellectually you know that it is merely a movie.  That tells us something about the way brains are wired.

I object to the word “wired,” really.  As organic beings, we are not computers.  What invented consciousness would watch a scary movie for pleasure?  What is the rationale for it?  It was a gray and rainy Saturday evening in late October.  In human experience that may be all that it takes.  Seeing orange and black in the stores sets a mood that computers, I strongly suspect, simply can’t feel.  They lack the human experience of childhood trick-or-treating, or throwing on another layer as the days grow chillier, or watching the leaves turn and slowly drift down from weary trees.  No, these aren’t wired experiences—they’re very organic ones, and often those that mean something even to adults as the seasons wend their way through the calendar.

The author waiting for proofs is rather like an expectant parent.  Well, that analogy’s not quite right either, but you get the point.  I know the book is coming.  It was accepted and submitted long ago.  The publication process, however, is more complex than most people might assume.  In fact, in the publishing industry it is often the main role of the editorial assistant to assure that manuscripts make it through all of the necessary hoops to move from finished manuscript to printed book.  Johannes Gutenberg likely had a simpler process worked out, although, in the early days of book-buying you could purchase the pages and have them bound by your choice of bindery.  Now cover and content are glued or stitched together in what one hopes is a seamless way.  Still, that stitching can’t help but to recall Frankenstein’s monster.  It is, however, another gray, rainy day in October.  It’s just a shame my computer can’t share the experience with me.

What Democrats Don’t Understand

Human evolution (while it still legally exists) tells us a considerable amount about belief. Brain science (while we still have it) has long indicated that our noggins evolved to help us survive, not “to figure out” the world. Along its long and torturous path to modernity, the human brain has developed the ability to believe what it knows not to be true. This doesn’t just apply to the study of religions, but, in reality, primarily to psychology. Patients with split brains have shown a mastery of rationalization that should make any Republican jealous. So far the Dems are with me. What Democrats don’t understand is that you can’t change beliefs with reason. I grew up a Fundamentalist. That past still continually haunts me. What brought me out of it wasn’t thinking. It was experiencing. Specifically, experiencing in the course of education.

Recent polls show that well over 50 percent of Republicans believe Trump won the popular vote as well as the electoral vote. You could show this 50 percent as many statistics as you like and you won’t be able to convince them. Belief doesn’t work that way. In my experience, higher education (typically characterized as liberal) doesn’t really care about understanding belief. They hire professors recommended by establishment friends, very much like cabinet posts are now being filled. They still believe if you talk at someone long enough with reason, they will change their minds. I can’t change that belief of theirs—I have an idea how belief functions. We’ve all seen how the system works. Not every 1930s German was a Nazi.

In other words, it is very easy to believe a lie is the truth. In the words of Jim Steinman, “everything’s a lie and that’s a fact.” Education may help you spot the contradiction there, but it won’t help you unbelieve it. The truth is power can’t be taken, it must be given. If people do not believe what the media tells them, it isn’t true. As someone who’s spend a half-century trying to figure this out, I’m always amazed that my own party can’t see what’s so obvious to a reformed Fundamentalist. Until the day comes when avowed rationalists admit that emotions matter just as much as orthodox reason we will all be at a loss to explain how otherwise intelligent people will insist that what they know to be lies are indeed the truth.

Source: Lbeaumont based on image by Mila / Brocken Inaglory, Wikimedia Commons

Source: Lbeaumont based on image by Mila / Brocken Inaglory, Wikimedia Commons

Musical Mind

BrainOnMusicMusic is perhaps the most natural of human arts.  We are all, as Daniel J. Levitin says, expert listeners from an early age.  This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession is a fascinating study of neuroscience and music.  I began exploring this connection about a decade ago when studies on religion and neuroscience were only just beginning to appear.  Music, although closely related to religion in many ways, does not bear the stigma of “belief” and although music programs are often tragically cut from school budgets, we all value music because not to do so makes us less-than-human.  Levitin shows clearly how music accompanies the most important parts of our lives and how it forms and develops the brain.
 
Music is somewhat easier to define than religion.  Those who decry the humanities, I suggest, should be locked away with no access to music for a few years to see if they change their tune.  I suspect they would.  We need music, and music’s impact on the brain is an analog to that of religion.  More studies of religion and the brain have begun to appear, and one gets the sense that materialists are a little bit angry and disappointed that religion hasn’t disappeared the way that it was predicted to have done by now.  That’s because being human is more than being molecules and chemical reactions. It involves what we call the humanities.
 
Our brains are our gateways to all of human experience.  They are complex in ways that computer designers emulate, but there’s a messy something about biology that straightforward mechanics seems to have trouble replicating.  Our brains are part of one large, organic whole that encompasses life on this little planet.  While studying the brain to understand it is indeed a good idea, calling it a meat computer is not.  While software may be coded to compose music, of one thing we can be sure. Computers can’t enjoy music.  It takes a brain to appreciate music, and the brain that appreciates music is mere synaptic connections away from seeing why religion is still important.

God’s Wormhole

Can God and science mix? I suppose that the third season of Through the Wormhole would be the place to look. The entire season has a distinctly metaphysical feel to it, so it is no surprise that the final episode is entitled “Did We Invent God?” It’s also no surprise that, like the other metaphysical issues explored, no resolution is really offered. Interviewing psychologists and neurologists, the show attempts to parse how scientists might address the question of God’s reality. God, of course, being immaterial, is normally understood not to be a subject discerned by science. So instead of putting God under the microscope, human perceptions of God will have to do. Everything from theory of mind to magical beliefs are probed to find hints of whence this strange idea of God might have come. The answer: we don’t know.

The more I pondered this, the more the same result reflected on science itself. When I was growing up I thought science was the truth. If science “proved” something, there was no arguing the point. I have come to realize, however, that science must be falsifiable to be science. That means it is potentially wrong. Not that it goes as far as Creationists take it to say that something is “only a theory,” but rather that science is the best explanation that we have at the moment. Future discoveries could falsify what we now know and the science textbooks would have to be rewritten. The difference here with religion is that most belief systems do not admit of this possibility. The truth has already been revealed, and there is no adding to or taking from it. God is not falsifiable. As stated above, God is not subject to science.

I don’t expect these observations of mind to change anybody’s ideas of the world. I do hope, however, that they make clear that science and metaphysics find themselves in similar situations. Both strive to know the truth. Neither can know if they’ve arrived. Both can believe it. The final episode of the season raises this point starkly. People are hardwired to believe. What they believe in is open to many possibilities, but believe they will. From my earliest days I have taken belief very seriously. What I have believed has changed over the decades, but at each step along the way I believed it was the truth at that time. I don’t know the truth. Nobody does. We all, whether scientist or religious, believe that we have found it. At the moment.

Image credit: CorvinZahn, Wikimedia Commons

Image credit: CorvinZahn, Wikimedia Commons

The Power of Magic Again

7laws Magic is everywhere. It may not be real (or it just might). There’s no doubt that Matthew Hutson believes the supernatural has nothing to do with it. The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking is a provocative book in that regard. An atheist who argues that we shouldn’t discourage magical thinking because it is so darned human, Hutson is a rare kind of treasure indeed. The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking begins by pointing out that we can’t psychologically accept what is really real. Reality always eludes us. Our brains are hardwired to accept what Hutson calls magic (including what I call religion). Those who enjoy provocation can take some satisfaction in knowing that either side can add another layer to the shell: physics explains everything, but maybe magic is responsible for making the universe conform to the laws of physics. And so it goes.

Although I enjoyed Hutson’s book–and he’s clearly a gifted writer—I couldn’t help but wonder at a very deep parity between the determinism he believes is really real and the magical view that is implied by such self-help manifestos as The Secret—the things that happen to you are meant to happen. I know, I know—Hutson’s point is that there’s no agency involved in determinism, but my point is that the end result is still the same. You end up where you are. I’m not so sure. Determinism has always left me cold. But since I’m no God I guess I can’t change that, yet I wonder if there might not be something outside this closed system after all. No one can peek and tell.

Neurology may tell us more than we want to know about the mechanics of the brain, but consciousness is reality. Science may some day lay its cold hands on consciousness, but it will always be someone else peering into my head wondering what I’m thinking. I’d have it no other way. I was strangely cheered to note that Hutson ends his whimsical study with a “stab at a secular spirituality” (a good stab, that is—not the malicious kind). I’m sure that many materialists will find such an a gesture as pandering to the masses. I think Hutson is sincere, however. Even the über-rationalists, as he points out in the book, slip into magical thinking and metaphors. It is the human condition. Those who watch Star Trek (original series, please!) know that the most tormented crew member of the Enterprise is Mr. Spock. The rationalist who can’t connect with emotion is a soul in torment. Even if that soul is a myth. The rest of the crew, I am certain, believes in the power of magic.