The Reboot

It lied to me.  My computer.  Don’t get me wrong; I know all about trying to save face.  I also know my laptop pretty well by now.  It was running slow, taking lots of time to think over fairly simple requests.  A lull in my frantic mental activity led to the opportunity for me to initiate a reboot.  When it winked open its electronic eye my screen told me it had restarted to install an update.  Untrue.  I had told it to restart.  I gave the shutdown order to help with the obvious sluggishness that suggested to this Luddite brain of mine that my silicon friend was working on an update.  There’s no arguing with it, however.  In its mechanical mind, it decide to do the restart itself.  I was merely a bystander.

Technology and I argue often.  Like JC says, though, authority always wins.  I should know my place by now.  I’ve read enough about neuroscience (with thanks to those who write for a general audience) to know that this is incredibly human behavior.  We are creatures of story, and if our brains can’t figure out why we’ve done something they will make up an answer.  We have trouble believing that we just don’t know.  I suppose that will always be a difference between artificial intelligence and the real thing.  Our way of thinking is often pseudo-rational.  We evolved to get by but machines have been designed intelligently.  That often makes me wonder about the “intelligent design” crowd—they admit evolution, but with God driving it.  Why’d our brains, in such circumstances, evolve the capacity for story instead of for fact?

As my regular readers know, I enjoy fiction.  Fiction is the epitome of the story-crafting art.  Some analysts suggest our entire mental process involves construing the story of ourselves.  Those who articulate it well are rewarded with the sobriquet of “author.”  The rest of us, however, aren’t exactly amateurs either.  Our brains are making up reasons for what we do, even when we do irrational things (perhaps like reading this blog sometimes).  Stories give our lives a sense of continuity, of history.  What originally developed as a way of remembering important facts—good food sources, places to avoid because predators lurk there—became histories.  Stories.  And when the facts don’t align, we interpolate.  It seems that my laptop was doing the same thing.  Perhaps it’s time to reboot.

Evangelical Angst

Unless you know what it’s like to face life with no real prospects beyond making it to Heaven when you die, you can’t understand evangelical angst. That last phrase might seem odd to you. Aren’t evangelicals uber-smiley, happy people angry over the way society’s going? Yes and no. Many of them were raised (or converted into) a faith that holds out no hope for this world and that constantly reinforces the idea that what we like is bad. Having grown up in that world, I knew what it was like to be hoodwinked by an evangelist. I can’t remember the guy’s name, but he was famous. He came to my small town and packed a local Methodist Church. During his rambling, long sermon, he had us afraid for Hell burning under our feet. Grateful that we’d just managed to avoid it, he announced there would be three collections that night: the first was your normal tithe. The second time the plates came around you were to empty your pockets and purses of all change. The third time, you were to contribute to his private jet. If you gave over a thousand dollars your name would be inscribed on a plaque inside.

Almost as if nothing has changed in the decades since then, a Washington Post story expresses amazement that evangelist Jesse Duplantis is asking his followers for a fourth private jet. Uncomprehending, the world doesn’t show much curiosity as to why otherwise intelligent people would give to what is so obviously a scam. Or why such people would vote for Trump. The academic world doesn’t understand evangelical angst. As I sat in that audience that night, a poor kid from a poverty-level family, I fervently wished I had more money to give. Until he asked for his plane. My young doubts crept in, for I had more angst than most other evangelicals I knew. Was this really the Gospel?

Later I saw him on television. His personal mansion had literal streets of gold. Jesus, he said, wanted us to get ready for Heaven right here on earth. Did this turn his followers against him? Decidedly not. In fact, he may have believed it himself. You see, neuroscientists have learned that our brains have the evolved capacity to hold and dismiss reason simultaneously, for strong emotional stimuli. Sex, for example, or music. Or religion. These can motivate people beyond the realm of logic, and they often do. Evangelical angst says you’re not buying a scam artist a jet to spread the Gospel, it says your trying to avoid Hell. Rational or not. And that, it seems to me, is more than adequate ground for evangelical angst.

Gods and Rods

DramaGiftedChildThe human mind is an unsolved mystery. Oh, we know a lot about the brain, and advances in neuroscience have been startlingly swift. The mind, which is not the same as the brain, still eludes us. I took enough psychology courses in college that I could’ve declared it a minor, but being a minor I didn’t know enough to do so. Like many people from what used to be called broken homes, I wondered what made me think and act the way I did. I still do. Psychology shed some light on that, and although antipathy towards one’s parents has become a bad joke among those who belittle the science of the mind, there can be little doubt that there are patterns. Our youngest days, although we can’t remember them, make us who we become. I know my youngest days were difficult. I know they are with me still. I can’t remember them, but there are witnesses.

One of my readers suggested The Drama of the Gifted Child, by Alice Miller, to me. I was hesitant at first since I’m not gifted. My career has taught me that, if nothing else. Gifts are valuable, right? But the subtitle won me over: The Search for the True Self. Life has been that indeed. Miller, who is deceased, argued in this little book that unless the damage done early in life is recognized and mourned, it will lead to depression. This isn’t easy reading. It’s so easy to damage a child. Although most of us pretend differently, there are an awful lot of our species walking around with very deep, but invisible, scars. Just when I’m ready to dismiss the thesis, Miller provides examples. Examples in which I recognize something I wish wasn’t there. Consciousness can be a curse as much as a blessing. We don’t know where it comes from, or even what it is. It can drive you crazy, though.

Religion often prescribes child-rearing techniques. Many of us have the Bible to blame for being spanked as children. Larger, powerful adults violating the weak and controllable. Just because they can. Psychologically this is wickedness. I’ve read memoirs of children spanked excessively because the religion of the parents recommended it. Those who read Miller carefully will see that her case is well made. Perhaps one will dispute the conclusions, but the facts are there. Our childhood is necessary for our adulthood. And things that are impossible to see cause us to do things we don’t understand. Any religion that suggests beating a child is the path of righteousness has its directions utterly confused.

Dream Time

DreamingLike most people, I seldom remember my dreams. When I do, or when only the powerful feeling remains, I know that they are very emotional events. Something is always going on, and my attention is riveted. I recently read J. Allan Hobson’s Dreaming: An Introduction to the Science of Sleep. It must be intimidating, I have to note right away, for a neuroscientist to write a book. Our understanding is changing so rapidly that even academic treatments become a kind of ephemera. Published over a decade ago, it shows its age. Even I’m aware that changes in brain science have occurred and perceptions have changed somewhat since then. What struck me most, however, is Hobson’s absolute confidence that mind is a function of the brain, and that dreams are merely the madness we experience when we sleep. The madness I don’t mind so much. The materialism, however, I think is largely wrong.

Consciousness remains a great unknown. There is disagreement around whether it is emergent—coming from the brain, or receptive—perceived by the brain. Or perhaps something completely different. One of the greatest human foibles is to claim that we understand anything completely. I’ve always been amazed—knowing that the world involves much more than just sight, sound, scent, taste, and touch—that some scientists are so quick to write off complex experience as “merely” activity in the brain. Some animals, for example, seem to perceive magnetic fields. Others use navigation devices we simply don’t comprehend. They may experience senses we don’t even have. And yet, we happily claim that we’ve gotten this one nailed down. Dreams are only activities in the brain when we sleep.

Only? How can any dreamer say that this is only chemical reaction in our heads? The experience of dreaming is, implicitly, so much more than just random thoughts. Hobson does a good job describing how dreams are a form of madness, a psychosis when the reasoning part of our brains are inhibited. Fair enough, but who can experience madness and think it completely material? Our minds are more complex, it seems to me, than we give them credit for being. Hobson begins the book by noting that dreams used to be within the purview of religion. Since has now claimed them. We have an entire universe in our skulls, and yet we insist that although we don’t understand it, we can be certain that it is nothing but material. My dreams continue to suggest a different reality.

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.

Brains and Selves

TellTaleBrainThe Tell-Tale Brain is an ambitious, yet humble attempt to find the self. V. S. Ramachandran is a neuroscientist with considerable psychology experience who is well equipped to take on, as the subtitle puts it, A Neuroscientist ‘s Quest for What Makes Us Human. The book will take you to some very strange places. And although he’s a scientist, Ramachandran keeps an admirably open mind. Right at the start he notes that he sees no reason for using “merely”s and “only”s when discussing brains and their realities. In fact, he knows that scientists aren’t qualified to answer the question of whether there is a god. Having grown up Hindu, he used to pray to many gods. A true scientist has no need to belittle beliefs. Belief, as Ramachandran demonstrates, is far more complex than most pundits would suggest. This is based on his close study of the brain and those to whom it has been less than kind.

Already in the first several pages it becomes clear that Ramachandran finds religion a useful trope. It illustrates something we all know. That doesn’t mean he (or you) has (have) to accept it, but we all recognize it. Studying how the brain works, in this book, means looking at patients with various disorders, most of which have tongue-twisting names, that are inherently fascinating. Phantom limbs, people who see the colors of numbers or feel the emotions of fabrics, or who can’t recognize their own mothers—all of these things really happen in the brains of intelligent people. For them these are reality. For Ramachandran, they can frequently be chased down to a neurological cause. And sometimes people even really think they’re God. One of the treasures of this book is to experience the non-normativity of western culture. The use of Indian art and religion as illustrations of what humans believe is refreshing.

Anyone who fears the loss of self take warning; we may not be who we think we are. Brain studies show that, in certain circumstances, brains can contain more than one self. Memories can be fabricated and the continuity that we call our life stories may well contain a healthy dose of fiction. Experiments on brains can change who we think we are. Descartes would, perhaps, go insane. Ramachandran doesn’t claim to have figured out the self, or consciousness. He may have ruled out some options, though. At the end of the book, however, he reintroduces the concept with which he started: science and religion. Quoting Darwin he shows that the main mind behind evolutionary theory refused to make an absolute declaration about the divine. Humility, it seems, may be just as effective in making converts as a Bible in hand. And to figure that out will take some brain power.

Forest of the Subconscious

The mind is not the brain. This isn’t mystical mumbo-jumbo (although there’s nothing wrong with mystical mumbo-jumbo either). We’ve been bombarded with the message that we are meat machines for many years now. Those who have studied physics and plumbed its depths often tell us that if we had all the bits of information involved, we could figure out anything. Our minds are our brains and it is merely electro-chemical signals that form a kind of operating system for this biological computer. The idea that we have a separate mind, we are told, is an illusion. Interestingly, studies of the subconscious mind raise significant questions regarding this interpretation. The subconscious, it is generally acknowledged, was discovered by Sigmund Freud. Prior to Freud many people did things and didn’t know why. Now we know, despite debates about the details, that we have to consider the subconscious mind as well as the more familiar conscious one.

I’ve been on a Through the Wormhole kick lately. Since we don’t have television, I have to watch the episodes after they air, but at least I have the option of doing this when I have some time. I recently watched the subconscious episode. The truly amazing takeaway from this was that our minds often, daily, in fact, operate on a level that we know nothing about. There are ways of tapping into the subconscious mind—meditating, as I mentioned earlier this week, is one way. Others are more scientific. Stimulating areas of the brain with small amounts of electricity can enhance abilities that we never knew we had. In fact, we might even be able to enact a Matrix-like download of information. I think I may have swallowed the blue pill after all.

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Call it a gut-level reaction, but I have always had a strong resistance to the idea that we are mere automatons. Consciousness, which, increasingly we’re discovering, involves a dose of subconsciousness, doesn’t feel at all like a we’re programmed. Theologically, I always objected to the strange notion of predestination. It made no sense, theologically, or experientially. One very wise professor once told our class, “If you want to test this, tell your spouse that you’ve got her or him completely figured out. They will do something you don’t expect.” Our minds are perhaps the most miraculous parts of human beings. The concept that we are merely following the pre-determined laws of physics makes no sense unless we believe in a literal Hell that we’ve made of this world. Are we programmed to self-destruct? I believe not. Whether in my conscious mind or in the true mind that lies underneath it.

God on the Brain

HowGodChangesBrainThose of us with scientifically oriented minds, but with affinity for the less quantifiable aspects of life, tend toward academic study of the humanities. It is not unusual for someone with a background in the hard sciences to dismiss such “softer” fields as less rigorous at best, or, at worst, a sheer waste of time. Many people in the humanities cower under this cloud of being considered somehow inferior for not being able to put numbers to everything. I suspect that’s why I find neuroscience so fascinating. While still teaching at Nashotah House, I would prompt students to think that whatever decisions they made about ancient texts, those decisions were mediated, in a very real way, by their brains. We don’t understand brains completely, but I’m amazed at what we have discovered so far. Years ago I read the book, Why God Won’t Go Away. It was an eye-opening study of what brain mapping reveals during states of religious inspiration, or at least, intense meditation or prayer. We can, to an extent, see inside someone’s head while they are communing with the other.

I recently became aware of the new book by Andrew Newberg (lead author on Why God Won’t Go Away) and Mark Robert Waldman, How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist. I was a bit nervous at first, since I couldn’t recall how reductionistic Newberg was in his initial book on the subject. Neuroscientists sometimes perceive the world as being, in a sense, as all in our heads. I was pleased to see that Newberg and Waldman recognize that the “God question” is an open one. They address it right up front. I was drawn to the book because of one of their conclusions that had leaked into the footnote of something else I’d been reading: the brain changes as soon as it is introduced to the concept of God. Brain wiring is continually changing, but the takeaway here is that as soon as we introduce our children to the God concept, their brains will not unlearn it. It stays with us for life. Changing concepts about God is therefore quite difficult. Few even try.

This book, however, doesn’t see this as necessarily negative. In fact, the authors challenge the horsemen of atheism in that all studies seem to indicate that religion is actually good for you. Particularly meditation. In a world that is increasingly run on stress (just ask any business-person) this is an important reminder that prayer, or meditation, can actually heal some of the brain damage caused by life in a stressful environment. The nice thing about this is that the empirical evidence seems to be pretty strong. Our brains seem to be telling us to relax, step back, and not take all of this so seriously. Those are layman’s terms, of course, filtered through my brain. Even reading this book made me feel much more relaxed. It reminded me why, for much of my life, monastic living has seemed so very appealing. Instead, I live in the secular world with its many rewards and stresses. If I learned anything from this wonderful little book, I will be spending a bit more quiet time each day, and won’t be feeling guilty about it at all.

Science v. Evil

Can we eliminate evil? More than a question of metaphysics, this is also the title of an episode of the third season of Through the Wormhole. I’ve noted before that this particular season has been delving more profoundly into areas once reserved for religious thought. Evil is perhaps the most religious of topics, as distinguishing good from evil is at the heart of many religious traditions. Fast forward from the founding of your favorite religion to today. In order to answer the question of whether or not we can eliminate evil, we turn to neuroscience rather than any sacred book. Looking at brain scans, the scientists of Through the Wormhole have isolated areas that indicate who might be a sociopath—a convenient measure of evil—and also who might be less empathetic than whom. Perhaps drugs could be developed to inhibit sociopathic behavior and tendencies. As always, these episodes leave me somewhat distressed.

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Losing my long-term position in higher education “without cause” threw me into mental turmoil. Never one to use medications for a long term, I was shattered when my doctor suggested anti-depressants. Would this chemical, designed to “correct” my brain chemistry change who I was? The morning the treatment began, I hesitated to take the first pill, staring long at it and wondering if the person I’d been would be lost forever. I hated being on the prescription. Worse, it was a medication that you couldn’t simply stop. The drop in anti-depressants could bring me dangerously low. Although my employment situation hasn’t radically improved since then, I eventually weaned myself from the prescription. Looking back now, I see that time as an interlude in who I was, depression and all. Mine was, thankfully, a mild case. It has, nevertheless, left me wondering about the nature of evil.

Extremely empathetic, I have never had sociopathic tendencies. I care for insects and amphibians, as well as my fellow humans. I react to the emotions of others. Yet, like all people, I suspect, I know that I’ve got my own personal evils with which to struggle. I wonder if it is a matter of degree. Religions often suggest that the solution to evil is repentance and taking the decision to live a new life. What if one’s brain, however, prevents that? Would the administration of a drug amount to a kind of salvation? And what of those theologies based on concepts of human depravity—can neuroscience prove them wrong? When the moral questions are raised, the physical solutions offer answers. Can we ever reconcile belief and biology? The jury may never come back with a verdict on that one.

Scientific Voices

BarmaidsBrainScience requires translation. Even very intelligent people in other fields of study have trouble understanding what scientists have been saying. That’s why science writers are so important. They can distill the heady knowledge that empirical method produces into a palatable tipple for the laity. Jay Ingram’s The Barmaid’s Brain is one such digestible report. As the subtitle (And Other Strange Tales from Science) indicates, this book is about the weird world of science’s often hidden charms. We all pretty much know that quantum mechanics has turned conventional wisdom on its head. We also know (courtesy of the media) that science and religion fight like cats and dogs. What we don’t see is that scientists often disagree on how to interpret data, particularly on the weird end of things. Ingram tells many such interesting tales from nature, psychology, and technology.

The essays in the book are loosely grouped into areas with some common theme. The psychology story that struck me as being particularly appropriate for this blog was the one about Joan of Arc. Joan, as most of us learned from history, was a prodigy. Illiterate, female, and poor, she nevertheless displayed a military genius that led her to the head of a French army trying to hold off the advances of the English. When turned over to the enemy she was treated as a witch, tried for heresy, and burned at the stake. Later she became a saint. The reason that she’s in a book of science essays is that Ingram wonders what exactly was going on when she heard voices and saw visions. Neuroscientists have devised ways of peering into the brain during religious experiences, and psychologists have constructed theories of why otherwise sane people hear voices. Joan doesn’t fit into the category that used to be called schizophrenia, nor does she appear to have been in any way insane. She was religious and her religion spoke to her.

When I was growing up, it wasn’t unusual for scientists to be believers. Nothing was wrong with believing in a god and studying the physical world. Indeed, the idea went back to Isaac Newton and other scientists of the first generation of the Enlightenment. Implications eventually led to the utter absence of deity from the world. People such as Joan were understood as sadly misled by a religion that could not be distinguished from magic. Yet Joan, as Ingram well knows, would hardly be a household name without her visions and her faith. At the end of the analysis, Joan rises from the couch still a mystery. An enigma to science, and suspect to many religious. She was, it seems to me, quintessentially human. We are all, it seems, whether saints or scientists, subject to what empirical evidence will allow us to believe. Most of the time, anyway.

Brain Dead

I’ve been thinking about brains (is there any more existential thing to do?). Reading a book this week about the mind (see Thursday’s post) probably has something to do with it. And also having finished a book on zombies maybe contributes as well. You see, I find it strange when scientists assume that we can figure out all the answers with our limited brains. Although we are endlessly fascinated by them, neuroscientists have long noted that they do have weaknesses—they (brains) are easily fooled, and, for those who find no room for the mysterious in the universe, we’ve made up gods to keep us company. We know that relative brain size—relative to body mass, that is—is a large factor in intelligence, but we seem not to imagine the possibility of larger brains than those we carry around. I suppose it’s not without reason that alien brains are disproportionately larger than our own, according to the standard image of the “grays.” We don’t like to think there’s something smarter than us hanging around. It’s a frightening thought.

Screen Shot 2015-05-02 at 5.35.48 AMOn the more earthy side, brains have been the usual fare for zombies in one sub-division of the zombie movie neighborhood. George Romero gave us flesh eating as a paradigm, but eventually zombies settled on brains. This was on my mind as I finished the epic Strangers in the Land that Stant Litore kindly sent me in Kindle form. I’d read What Our Eyes Have Witnessed on my own, and the author wanted me to read more. Litore’s zombies are more in the canonical Romero sector—they eat flesh and their bite conveys zombiehood. Strangers in the Land takes its base story from the book of Judges. Only Deborah becomes a zombie slayer. Brains aren’t eaten here, but they must be destroyed for a zombie to—what? Redie? Full of colorfully drawn characters, the story rambles through the countryside of ancient Israel, plagued with zombies. It is the brain that keeps a zombie going.

While I have to stand by my recurring assessment that the zombie is a hard sell in novelistic form (here goes my mind again! Reading a book gives your brain too much time to focus on the utter impossibility of bodies missing organs or vital tissue to move, or “live,” even with a brain) Litore is onto an interesting idea here. Looking at it metaphorically (as surely he intends it) helps. Perhaps I just miss the lumbering revenants of Return of the Living Dead calling out “Brains! Brains!” The Bible, however, is endlessly open to reinterpretation. What Our Eyes Have Witnessed was post-biblical. This current installment moves us into the realm of reception history. I’ve been researching reception history and the undead for a few months now. I have some conclusions to share in an academic paper a few months down the road, but for the time being, I’m still trying to figure out brains. Or maybe I’m just out of my mind.

Scientific Belief

AtlanticThe human brain is a marvelous thing. Neuroscientists find all kinds of surprises as they probe the gray matter in our heads. One of those findings is that we don’t always believe what we say we do. Some time ago I read Matthew Hutson’s Seven Laws of Magical Thinking. Scientists didn’t like the book too much since it caught them with their empirical pants down. Really, there’s no shame in that. We are at the mercy of our own minds. In this month’s Atlantic magazine, Hutson has a brief piece entitled “The Science of Superstition.” In the space of just over two columns he runs down the evidence that even those who claim materialism is the answer to all life’s mysteries, even those scientists can’t escape superstition. Friday the thirteenth, a couple of weeks back, I walked under a ladder on my way to work. What happened? I had to go to work. Is that bad luck? I suspect it’s a matter of opinion. I’m the first to admit, however, that I did have fleeting reservations.

Study after study, as cited by Hutson, shows that physiological measures indicate anxiety when those who don’t believe in God say bad things about him/her. We all attribute cause to natural events, even those steeped in the hard sciences. Thinking about death reveals subconscious beliefs about God. It’s the way we’re hardwired. Hutson himself, if I recall correctly, doesn’t really attribute much credence to the supernatural. This is all a matter of what our material brains believe. Interestingly, we are evolved to be open to religious ideas. Many choose to believe, despite our brains, that we are evolutionarily deceived. Screwed by natural selection, as it were.

Far more interesting, in my deluded opinion, is that we don’t really choose what to believe. At least not at first blush. Our brains tell us to believe in the invisible causation that just doesn’t fit in a material world. To get beyond that takes some effort. It does give one pause, however, to consider that blind evolution has puckishly kept all this in the mix. Does evolution have a sense of humor? Perhaps we are all taking all of this far too seriously. Or maybe, just maybe, our brains are smarter than we think.

Seeing I

One of my few Twitter followers (stawiggins) suggested that I watch Dr. Ken Hayworth on YouTube. Specifically, Part 3: If we can build a brain, what is the future of I?, hosted by Galactic Public Archives. It is well worth 9 minutes of your time. Trying to figure out consciousness has been a major preoccupation of mine for some years. I don’t have the tools of neuroscience, but I do have over half a century of coming to know this “I” that constantly seems to wake up in this same body and experience all its woes and occasional joys. Hayworth suggests that the self is a model projected by our brains to help us make decisions and to plan for the future. In a fascinating thought experiment, he notes that if a duplicate self were made, we (or I) should not object to being executed since there is an exact copy now. Hayworth notes, however, that any individual will object because we are “designed” to think this way about ourselves. Designed, I wonder, by whom? I suspect Hayworth means evolution designed us that way, but evolution is non-teleological, and, I suspect, not really reificatory. Evolution is merely a process.

Perhaps the horns here are only those of a semantic dilemma, but I feel not. Hayworth goes on to discuss how instinct works to continue this illusion of self. I’ve never found instinct a very believable concept. We use it when we want to deny consciousness to animals and very young children. Since they can’t have a concept of “I” they have to have “instinct” to preserve themselves. Logically, to me, this seems to be fudging. What is instinct? Is it really any different than admitting at some micro-level, animals have consciousness? To me it seems that consciousness is one of those “turtles all the way down” kinds of propositions. To be alive is to be conscious at some level. Be careful how far down you dig here.

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Hayworth then goes on to what sounds like an almost biblical conclusion. Ethics insists that humans are part of a whole. (A very diseased whole, as the imbalance in society forces us to conclude, but a whole nevertheless.) To kill one is to violate the consciousness of the whole. This concept seems sound, and I would suggest that it might benefit from expansion. Why stop at the human level? We are animals. Animals are conscious. Here we are back at the turtles again. Perhaps we have expended too much energy trying to parse self from soul from mind from consciousness. Perhaps we are all part of a large collective consciousness. If so, we got some very sick units near the top. Any organic being that insists only one percent needs to be kept in perpetual plutocratic indigence while billions of others wonder how long they will survive at this payscale in this economy, or, more realistically, act as slaves to that one percent, is a sick beast indeed. If consciousness is collective, we could all use a massive shrink.

Growing Up

WakingUpI am in two minds about Sam Harris’s Waking Up. Literally. I haven’t read Harris since The End of Faith, and I have to admit that I found Waking Up to be a very engaging book. I can’t agree with everything Harris writes—that’s an occupational hazard of acquiring advanced degrees—but to have a scientist, an atheist no less, praise spirituality felt incredibly genuine. Spiritual experiences happen. I’ve had a few doozies over the years. I’ve also read a number of scientists who tell me they’re all an illusion. Harris admits that consciousness is a mystery. His use of “mind” instead of “brain” won me over from the beginning. I discovered that the atheist can also be a seeker. Dogmatism, of whatever stripe, is the enemy.

Harris has considerable experience meditating. This is no activity for posers or wimps. It is, despite minimal physical demands, hard work. Throughout the book we get the sense that Buddhism is among the least objectionable religions, when divested of its myths. I do wonder, however, if demythologized Christianity was ever given a fair chance. From my own experience, some of the selflessness advocated by Harris can be found in taking aspects of Christianity seriously. I understand, I think, Harris’s objections to religion. It can, and does, lead to horrors both obvious and subtle. Yet, every once in a perhaps great while, it does offer redemption. Meditation, for example, has its roots in religious practice. It is this that Harris calls spirituality. And it is good.

A Guide to Spirituality without Religion is an apt subtitle for this brutally honest and open book. Harris’s knowledge as a neuroscientist endows his ideas with great authority. He opines, and he is not alone, that meditation demonstrates that “I” is only an illusion. This loss of self will haunt me for some time. For decades I is all I seem to have. Still, I am pleased to find an open-minded scientist on this same path I tread. Raised to be both spiritual and religious set the trajectory of my otherwise logic-driven life. You can’t go back and change all that, but you can grow up. To read of Harris’s spiritual experiences in the geography of great spiritual masters as well as in the laboratory instill in this reader a profound hope. Whether or not this reader is merely an illusion. There may be morning after this long night, after all.

Real Life

WiredForStoryThe brain, it seems to me, holds all of the cards. After all, what we call “reality” is actually a perception of what’s “really” there mediated by our brains. Philosophers and scientists have long warned us that direct participation with the universe is a figment of the, um, brain. This kind of thinking may have led me to trouble in certain jobs I’ve held, but there is no escaping it, unless we posit that there is another thinking center in the body. If there is, it must be invisible. As a dabbler in the literary arts, I couldn’t therefore pass up Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story. The premise spawns one of those “aha” moments so large that you wonder why nobody had tripped upon it before: brain science can reveal what makes a good story. For example, were I smarter, I would’ve begun with that wonderfully witty story told by Uncle Frank that kept us engrossed as kids, and left us roaring with leonine laughter. Only I don’t have an Uncle Frank, and the stories I grew up with were of the written species.

Cron, however, reminds us of a very important point: if it weren’t for feeling, thought would not be possible. This isn’t telling tales out of school. Even the most Spock-like rationalists know it’s true: emotions are essential to the thought process. Even the most proficient of thinkers can be stopped by the vague, “I don’t feel like—” (fill in the blank). To think well, we must feel that we can. When we greet someone we don’t lead with “how are you thinking?” but with “how are you feeling?” (often apocopated to “how are you?”). We interpret our world through a combination of reason and emotion. Both are necessary for survival. Think about it: does the world really make sense?

In writing, emotion plays an essential role. We lay aside the story that makes us feel nothing. Reductionistic materialists often espouse that getting down to the smallest piece of the smallest particle will eventually explain it all. The more spiritually inclined will ask them how it makes them feel. Emotion is the under-appreciated of these twins. While great ideas may come through in a novel (I can’t help but mention Moby Dick again), it is the feeling of the protagonist—the spiritual (call it what you will) struggle—that draws us in and keeps us reading. It may be secular or religious, but the realm of emotion reminds us that to be human is to feel. And if by chance you’re still reading this, I have a feeling that you might agree.