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.

Who Made Whom, Now?

John Lennon has great currency, in part, because he is a martyr. Music has moved on since the ‘60s and ‘70s, but aging Boomers still like to quote him, especially his song “Imagine.” In an article written for the Los Angeles Times, reprinted in the local Sunday newspaper, J. Anderson Thomson and Clare Aukofer cite “Imagine” as the statement of what a world “that makes sense” looks like. I applaud their idealism. Citing psychological and sociological work that has been done over the past decade in the attempt to unravel “homo religiosus” they entitle their article “God didn’t make man: man made gods.” Much of the evidence they cite has been discussed elsewhere on this blog, but the overarching issue—whether this explains human religious behavior or not—remains open. In other words, if evolution provided us with religion, it must have some survival benefit and humans are not easily going to dismiss it.

Admittedly, the evidence for human conceptions of God arising from the need for close connections in community is pretty convincing. Nevertheless, the issue of whether there is a God or not will never be answered by empirical observation. As I tell my students, belief is not based on empirical observation. We do not yet know why people believe, and even if we find the right node, neuron cluster, or sensory stimuli, there will always be those who insist that the hardware is sparked into action by the unseen Other outside the system. It is the classic chicken or egg debate, taking place in that henhouse in the sky. The problem is that God is more like the rooster in that scenario.

The human brain is an endless source of fascination. Science has given us a sense of wonder about our own on-board computer, but it has not managed to capture the sine qua non of the totality of the experience of owning one. Scientists also read, go to shows, make love and eat fine meals for the enjoyment of it all. But as Cipher says in The Matrix, “I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize? Ignorance is bliss.” Our perception of the world as a stable, unmoving center of existence is an illusion. Science has revealed an even stranger reality involving equations that used to haunt my nightmares. Should God ultimately be reduced to formulae, true believers will find another entity to name as the divine. “Imagine… no religion too”? As long as humans are humans such a world remains pure imagination.


First Byte

The scientific study of religion poses dangers to the native environment. It doesn’t take a specialist to realize that different people respond to different religious stimuli; some like smells and bells and others prefer the stripped-down Puritanical style. Even beyond that some people get their religious thrills from nature, others from meditation, and some from controlled substances. In a story on CNN late last week, it was revealed that some Apple users find worshipping their favored brand a religious experience. A study by British neurologists discovered that the same areas of the brain are stimulated by both thoughts of the deity and Apple gadgets. MRIs have been utilized for many years now to study where the brain “lights up” during intense spiritual states. It seems we now have proof that God is a Mac user.

While some would cite this story as an example of idolatry, others would interpret the results in a more technological way. Our brains resemble motherboards, in some sense. Even Stephen Hawking’s famous interview of last week had the genius saying that human brains are just like computers. (I must confess to siding with Stuart Kauffman (Reinventing the Sacred) on this one—the brain does seem to be more than the sum of its parts.) If our brains are computers, then the Mac question is a literal no-brainer. Having worked in offices where every PC tries to be a Mac knock-off (wake up, folks! Windows is a Mac emulation environment) I too can sense a superior being behind that Apple with Eve’s first byte removed.

Should we attempt to explore where religious impulses originate? As intimated by Newberg, D’Aquili, and Rause (Why God Won’t Go Away), if we are able to find the God centers in our gray-matter and stimulate them electronically, we may trigger religious rapture on demand. How does this artificial stimulation differ from the religious experience brought on by years of meditating, praying, or fasting? Or Apple products? Our brains are complex and only imperfectly understood. Religions have been around long enough for us to get a grip on their origins. Billions of believers worldwide, however, would prefer that other people keep their hands off their Apples.

Original thin?


Back in the summer of 2009, I chose the name of this blog on a whim. Relatives had been encouraging me to provide a platform for podcasts and the occasional post and asked me what I would call such a blog. The pun of sects and violence initially drew some good humored interest, but there was a serious subtext beneath the choice. Nature has now published an article declaring that violence and sex are related. (Sects and violence is a no-brainer; just look at the newspaper.) The connection has been established satisfactorily only in the brains of mice so far, but what is the real difference between mice and men?

Yes, men. The studies focus on the male brain, that organ that continues to confound those of us who daily try to use one. Certain circuits in the mouse hypothalamus trigger either a violent or loving response when stimulated certain ways. Aggression is almost an automatic response. My mind tied this in with the Singularity article in last week’s Time. As we race forward with technological mergers between artificial intelligence and the human machine, do we really understand what that brain is that we are attempting to emulate electronically? Biology, according to many theorists, does not bow to the rules of reductionism. What happens when the violence of natural circuits (fight or flight) kick in with titanium feet?

I commented on a friend’s post when he cited the Singularity article in Time. Others responded to my remarks suggesting I did not take the reality of this seriously enough. Those who are familiar with Sects and Violence in the Ancient World will have no such questions. The minds that have given us both gods and guns are machines that can not be replicated precisely. Their function is to keep a degenerating biological mass alive. Electronic brains with replaceable parts (think Wall-e) have no such concerns. The missing limb syndrome is a very human response that is well recognized by those who understand the human psyche. And that psyche, it seems, is ready to fight as long as it is properly stimulated.

A boy's eye-view of the world

Explaining Religion

Religion Explained, by Pascal Boyer, is one of those books that I wish had been written earlier and I had read earlier. Like several of my recent reading projects, this book was suggested to me by my cyber-friend Sabio Lantz’s blog. In the course of a very busy semester, it took several months to read, but Religion Explained is an astounding book that raises the ultimate issue: whence religion? Among the many revelations in this monograph – based on solid anthropological and sociological data, as well as neuroscience – is that religion has multiple origins. As Boyer demonstrates repeatedly throughout his book, religion arises from several mental processes symbiotically supporting assumptions that, taken alone, would often fail to survive in the meme pool.

Summarizing Boyer’s work would require a book in itself, but a few of his points struck me as particularly apt to today’s struggle between religion and society. At one point (140) Boyer demonstrates that doctrine is not nearly as important to religions as most specialists assert. In fact, most regular adherents to a religion misunderstand the doctrine to which they give lip service. After having spent too many years in a doctrinally ossified seminary, reading Boyer’s analysis was like liberation at this juncture. As Boyer points out later (282) Christian doctrine emerged in the conflicted environment of revolutionary movements with differing ideas as to what a messiah was. Only after the situation became too complex did one group decide that councils were necessary to decide what they in fact believed. Not really an inspiring story for those who wish to claim absolute certitude about their belief structure! Boyer also draws from other religions around the world to support his case.

Having stated that, Boyer does not attempt to destroy religion, but to explain it. The very premise itself will obviously strike many as blasphemous, but religion, like all human practices, can be studied with a scientific outlook. Accessing anthropological studies and neurological analyses, and the battery of tools provided by decades of psychological and sociological research, Boyer’s portrait is lifelike and believable. Religion developed as an amalgamation of human survival strategies that synchronized into a relatively consistent system that helped to explain a confusing world. If I had read Religion Explained when I was in college, my lifelong religionist enterprise might have turned out rather differently.

Theory of Everything

Over the weekend my wife pointed out an interesting story on MSNBC pointing out that superstitious beliefs are becoming more common. While reason may dictate that as it becomes more obvious that reason explains everything the supernatural will fade from the human explanatory repertoire. Instead, scientists are using reason to explain why this does not appear to be happening. Many neuroscientists suggest that something in the brain predisposes us to believe, while other scientists suggest it may be in the DNA. For whatever reason, we are inclined to believe in outside agency.

The article is an introduction to the book Paranormal America by Christopher Bader and Carson Mencken. I’ve read some of Bader’s work before and it is admirable for its balance. He tends not to judge the phenomena but raises the question why people believe what is, frankly, often unbelievable. What stands out in such discussions is that religion is often classed separately from the “paranormal.” Paranormal is generally anything outside the accepted bounds of science. Supernatural, apparently, is anything that makes blatant claims to be outside the reach of science. With recriminations frequently flying both directions, I suggest maybe a reworking of definitions might be in order. Science, by definition, can explain all phenomena that exist. Supernatural, by definition, cannot be quantified. Too many mutually exclusive truths.

For many decades many scientists have been seeking a grand unified theory, something that explains everything. This they hope to do without recourse to the supernatural. When they arrive at this theory or formula, predictably, those who believe God is bigger than all this will claim that God is simply outside the system. Perhaps the net needs to be widened. We know that we humans do not possess the keenness of senses that our animal friends have. Various creatures see, heard, smell, taste and touch with such exquisite sensitivity that we can only be jealous. Some can sense magnetic fields, while some flowers follow the sun without the benefit of any eyes. We, in our presumption, think we see and measure all that is to be seen and measured. Hamlet would disagree. I can’t wait to read Bader and Mencken’s book, but I’m inclined to think that even when a grand unified theory arises there will still be room for philosophers, and maybe even theologians.

Be Careful Little Hands

“Time is always against us,” Morpheus informs Neo in The Matrix. Of course, this is a paradigm for life spinning out of control, an allegory of having been taken over by forces against which there is no defense. It surprises no one that as time continues its inexorable march there will be generations that see the same phenomenon in very different ways. In last week’s Time, Nancy Gibbs’ essay addresses the differences between the millennial generation and those of us who are, well, not to put too fine a point on it, older. Her observation on their religious sensitivities is worth noting: “millennials” are just as religious but less conventional, with 1 in 4 having no religious affiliation. They nevertheless remain a deeply spiritual bunch.

Neurologists continue to study the “hardwired” aspect of religious belief, finding that human brains possess a genuine need to believe in something. Why not god? It is, after all, our cultural matrix. As I read this I reflected on ancient religion. Often students ask me what ancients believed. We don’t really know. Religion as a belief system only arises when monotheism emerges: if only one religion is correct, then it is possible to believe in the wrong one. There is no empirical way to test religious claims (yet) and so modern people equate religions with belief systems.

Ancient folk were much more practical. Religion was a matter of praxis, not belief. If you did what your local gods demanded, you’d get along for another day. Modern people peer deeply into the divine realm and make long-term plans based on the assurance of correct belief. Neither method, however, ultimately works. The millennial generation may be on the right track back to that old time religion. According to Gibbs what they’ve lost is faith “in the institutions that claim to speak for [God].” The idea of an all-powerful guy out there purposefully keeping us guessing while refusing to demonstrate the truth plainly for all to see is strangely outmoded. Religion becomes a matter of correct practice, as the old children’s song goes, “Be careful little hands, what you do – for the father up above is looking down in love, be careful little hands, what you do.” Millennials may rightfully wonder who this “father” is, but there is no question that there is someone out there watching what they do. Or else our own neurons conspire against us. The more we learn about the nature of religion, the less we know.