Mediating Reality

The brain is one troubling organ. The gateway to both our thinking and our physical experience—as well as our survival—it tends to explain things in terms of narrative. Human consciousness likes a good story. Experiment after experiment has shown that if the brain doesn’t know why you do something it will make up an answer. Consciousness is far from foolproof. Those who rely too heavily on rationalism don’t like to think about such things. Logically, if your brain can fool you then you can’t believe everything evidence seems to verify. Think about that. If you dare.

Psychology has sometimes received a bad rap among the sciences for not having empirical evidence to back up some of its assertions. “Freudian” is now used as much as a slur as it is a sign of the sudden insight that strange things constantly go on inside our heads. BBC Future recently ran a story by Melissa Hogenboom titled, “The woman whose tumour made her religion deadly.” The account regards a woman who came to the hospital with serious self-inflicted wounds. Although hackneyed, the voices in her head told her to do this to herself. Brain scans indicated a tumor at the point in her brain where auditory information and religious belief come together. Paging Dr. Jaynes! Now, I know this is over-simplified. I’ve read enough neurology to know that brain functions can switch from one part of the brain to another and that mapping this kilo-and-a-half universe is one of the the most vexing of scientific enterprises. Still, in this case, the implications were clear: the woman’s self-destructive behavior was connected, in her brain, to religious commands.

Many educated people in this post-Christian world rely staunchly on reason. I don’t disagree that reason is essential. I do wonder, however, what happens when such thinking is forced to confront the fact of the irrational brain. Ever since setting our clocks forward I’ve been awaking in the midst of dreams. My usual sleep cycle hasn’t yet adjusted. I know some pretty strange stuff is going on in my brain when rationality’s taking a snooze. The other day I awoke convinced I was in my boyhood home. Rationality tells me it was razed years ago. Yet this brain with doctoral-level education was convinced it was in another state at another time. And this isn’t the result of a tumor, but normal sleeping brain functioning. It does make one wonder if putting too much faith into rationality isn’t a form of minor neurosis. To find out you have to ask a troubling organ and hope for a rational answer.

Thinking about Feeling

There’s a scene in Shrek where Lord Farquaad tells Princess Fiona “You don’t have to waste good manners on the ogre. It’s not like it has feelings.” That scene came to mind recently as I was pondering how we often use feelings—emotions—to claim superiority over others. During a course on Howard Thurman in seminary, we watched a video where he retold a story that appears in his autobiography With Head and Heart, where a young white girl was sticking an African American with pins because she believed they didn’t have feelings. Although it may be dangerous to attribute motive—let me call it interpretation then—Shrek is a movie about prejudice. Ogres are misunderstood. It’s a parable, if you will. Unfortunately there are people who still believe those not like themselves lack feelings.

This is a particularly disturbing idea for many reasons. Not only does it keep alive the unacceptable social situation where African Americans are shot when unarmed, and frequently in non-criminal situations, it perpetuates the idea that others are different in a way that makes them less than human. We can take this even further since one of the mainstays of science has been to deny feelings to animals, claiming that you need rationality to experience pain. Or at least suffering. Ironically, it’s the “reptilian brain” that provides us with emotions, and rationalists are quick to downplay emotions as a form of thinking. It’s easier just to kill a snake and ask questions later.

We deny others feelings as an excuse to mistreat them. Then we deny that feelings are important at all. Even Mr. Spock got angry once in a while. In a society that regiments an economic system that really benefits only a very few, we daily bask in the midst of this paradox. It’s clear that all it takes to have presidential aspirations threaten reality is money. Spend enough and anyone will believe whatever lies you happen to trumpet. After all, that feeling of superiority that fascism promotes is exactly the way to win a mass following. You’ll have to excuse me if I’m feeling just a bit out of sorts. It’s only a feeling, and it will pass. Unless we pay close attention to our emotions, however, we will never realize justice. We know that Shrek does indeed have feelings. It’s just that we’ve forgotten how to interpret parables.

Think about it.

Think about it.

Simply Beautiful

Simple BeautyThe scientific method has been a boon to humanity. Knowing how to sharpen the rational faculties has demonstrated its benefits time and time again. Sometimes, however, overemphasis on rationality contains hidden costs. Humans are not always rational, and sometimes this is a very good thing. Culturally we’re told that reason trumps emotion and that evolution has somehow led us to this. That’s only part of the story. Marcelo Gleiser’s excellent The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected serves as a wonderful corrective to this one-sided view. Although I’ve been trained in rationalistic thinking, my humanities background lacks the credibility of similar training in the sciences. Gleiser, as a physicist, demands respect. As he notes throughout this book, physics asks the hard questions. The only proper response, he rightly declares, is humility. Arrogance in any human endeavor may make for a good story, but it is bad citizenship on this planet.

I have to confess to being one of those poor souls who really doesn’t care about fishing that Gleiser mentions early on in his book. That doesn’t mean that I don’t agree with his outlook and mature thoughts on the subject. Using fly-fishing as a kind of bait, he draws the reader in to consider some deep and meaningful questions about life. Although he describes fishing literally, he clearly has a metaphorical usage in mind as well. Rare is the scientist who will admit that science can’t answer all questions, and moreover, wouldn’t want it to. Showing the limits of rational thought can feel like taking one’s clothes off in front of a crowd for those wedded to empirical evidence. Applied science clearly works very successfully. That’s not the same as having all the answers. Gleiser beautifully illustrates this, acknowledging that the spiritual has a role to play even among the rigorously trained and actually employed of the intelligentsia. This is a very important book.

Admitting that some things happen for which there is no rational explanation, Gleiser advocates for appreciating the wonder rather than trying to force science into situations where its explanatory power fails. This doesn’t happen often—indeed, rarity is what makes the unexpected so wondrous—but when it does happen we need to, like a fisher, accept it as part of the way the art unfolds. In Gleiser’s terms, not every fishing trip is successful. If you always had success, what would be the point in trying? He ventures into the murky waters of religion a time or two, but this is catch-and-release, not for the kill. The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected is an example that includes itself. Those who read it will learn what this means.

True Fiction

PassionMusesIn this world of rational materialism, people still turn to fiction. Some prefer it in the form of movies, television, or internet, but those of us “old school” like our fiction in print. No matter how we take it, fiction appeals to that part of us that makes us human—our range of emotions. This became clear to me in The Passionate Muse: Exploring Emotion in Stories. As a typical human, I spend a good part of my mental energy trying to make sense of things. Our social existence can be quite confusing and isn’t always rational. If you doubt this, read the headlines. Keith Oatley offers insight into psychology, or mental life in general, with this little book. We read stories because we like to find ourselves caught up in emotions. Successful writers can draw us into the fictional world not with reason, but with feeling. We seek emotional satisfaction and what we can’t do in fact, we can in fiction.

This aspect of human existence also plays into religious texts. Those of us raised to read sacred texts literally lose a lot of what they have to offer. Fact may tell us what to believe, but fiction helps us learn to feel. Thinking, as many cognitive scientists now believe, incorporates both rational and emotional information. Reality, in other words, isn’t purely reasonable. We interpret things. We interpret with our guts as much as with our heads. This combination of different ways of understanding the world—and the society—around us blends into a distinctly human milieu. We can’t reason our way out of emotions. They are who we are.

While teaching full-time I found myself turning to novels to recover from all the research I was doing. Reading only non-fiction (which, I suppose, is what The Passionate Muse might be) can lead to a lopsided view of life. I’ve had colleagues tell me that fiction is for others—non-academics, those who don’t have the weight of the intellectual world upon their shoulders all the time. Interestingly, since I’ve allowed myself to read more fiction I’ve discovered that the wisdom embedded in stories often surpasses that of erudite monographs. Scholarly literature, of course, has its place. Still, it leaves room on the plate for desert as well. Oatley builds his academic study around a fictional story he wrote to show what he wanted to tell. The rational meets the imaginative. I feel more human already.

As Others Think

As analysts step in where angels fear to tread, we have been given expert opinion on why ISIS’s terror in France was counterproductive to its goals. A few voices have chimed in stating that the result of escalation is just what an apocalyptic group hopes for. Rational people, having no idea how a fundamentalist thinks, are scratching their heads. Long I have wondered why universities and other bastians of higher education haven’t sought the advice of experts. No one can understand fundamentalism who hasn’t experienced it personally. Problem is, most people who have experienced it are experiencing it still. Those of us who thought our way out of fundamentalism are passed over repeatedly for university posts, while those better connected (surely not of fundamentalist stock) are handed influential positions from which to scratch their heads. You want to understand fundamentalists? Ask someone who’s been there.

There is nothing rational, in the common parlance, about fundamentalism. It has, however, its own internal logic. If you believe with every mitochondria in your body that the Bible (or any holy book or doctrine) that you were taught is true, and truly believe it, no amount of reason can convince you otherwise. This is (partially) because the ultimate cause of all events is open to question. Science does not address ultimate causes—it can’t. The endlessly creative human mind, however, can rather simply conjure them. If God is the ultimate ultimate cause, and if God said, x, y, or z, then other interpretations are simply wrong. If God has decided an apocalypse is necessary, what use is reason in the face of the impending certainty? Is there no way out?

There is. Some of us have made it. We, no matter our credentials, are not generally well-connected drones of the middle class. Fundamentalism is prized by the poor. Those who have no future on this earth look for another, better world. This is a perspective I understand very well. Our increase in ease of communication and exploding technology with ease of access have only given new tools to those who think in terms of ultimate causes only. You can’t talk a suicide bomber out of action with reason. You need to know the language of belief. We glory in our lack of belief and rationalism. We, however, close our eyes to the fact that the vast majority of people in the world are believers. And we won’t talk to them because they make us uncomfortable. We have written our own recipe for apocalypse.

From NASA's photo library

From NASA’s photo library

Living Undead

Now that autumn is in the air, my thoughts turn to zombies. I’ve read a few monster books lately, and as I pondered the attraction of zombies to the post-modern psyche, I began to wonder if they weren’t becoming, in their own secular way, a religion. Think about it. Zombies, first and foremost, are about resurrection. In a world ruled by rationality and science, we know that resurrection is impossible. What isn’t possible in science may indeed emerge in the world of monsters. The zombie, often not speaking, proclaims a distorted kind of gospel that the end is not really the end. Resurrection is not all that it seems. Zombies are spattered with gore, reminding us that the visceral existence we know as quotidian experience is temporary. Resurrection comes at the loss of a soul. The zombie is the monster of science: the animating principle is no longer spiritual. It’s just physical.

NightoftheLivingDead

Not only do zombies proclaim resurrection, they are the ultimate proselytizers. Their zealous hunger leads them to bite and their biting infects and creates new zombies. Their brainless goal—as they are unthinking consumers—is to convert the entire human world to their point of view. Once the zombies take over completely, there will be nowhere left to go. The way of the undead flesh may be a dead end, but rationality doesn’t always play a role in zealotry. The zombie is all about making more zombies. They are unbelievable, and unbelieving, but they have the making of a mega-religion nonetheless.

As a student of religion, I wonder how belief systems get started. We hold irrational beliefs on any number of things, including our religions. The difference that zombies make is, in real life, nil. And yet we can’t help tuning into the Walking Dead, or watching World War Z. The zombie is the most recognized symbol of the proletariate among the workers of the world—the brainless, soulless drone in the machine. Mega-churches draw in thousands every week for a religion that doesn’t require much intellectual engagement. Keep doing what you’re doing. Think of others once in a while. God really does want you to be rich. And the minions go out and make disciples of all nations. It is a world full of zombies. We see them in our dreams and in our mirrors. And although we think they’re only entertainment, they are oh so much more.

Ghost Rider

GhostsOf all frightening creatures, ghosts are by far the most ubiquitous. Believed in by every civilization ever recorded and throughout the world, not even science has been able to displace them. Lisa Morton’s Ghosts: A Haunted History offers a brief tour through the realm of the dead. With a sense of how ancient the phenomenon is, she also notes time and again how religions have an uneasy but steady relationship with disembodied spirits. After all, religions give us souls that science strives to take away. What makes Morton’s study so interesting is its restlessness. Not focusing on one culture or time period, the reader learns about Asian ghosts as well as the familiar translucent variety favored in the western world. Ghosts are everywhere.

Now that October has invited thoughts of long nights and falling leaves, I often ponder a world without ghosts. If rationalism of the materialistic variety had its way, this would be simply a natural season like any other. No need to be frightened as the sun takes on that quality that suggests some things should not be seen, and the air feels as if anything might happen. Spooky houses are merely wanting maintenance and every creak and rustle can be explained. There are no ghosts in the night and Halloween is only for children. It seems to me, rather, to be the season of belief. It’s more tangible now, the world where unanswered questions dwell. Ghosts, whether in our mind or in this physical world, are part of the ambiance without which autumn isn’t worth having.

Are ghosts real? I can’t say that I have any evidence one way or the other. We all die, and we all wish we didn’t have to. In this world some are lucky enough to make their wishes come true. Might it be that some have found a way to stay when the physical party is over? Religions are uncomfortable with ghosts since they refuse to be contained in any Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory. They simply are. People of every education level and social standing see them and some believe while others explain them away. Without going over to the other side we likely will never be able to prove whether they are really real or not. As Morton amply demonstrates in her thoughtful little book, they will never go away as long as consciousness and death coexist.

Apostle

Apostleposter

I was teaching in a seminary when Robert Duvall’s The Apostle came out. Seeing the favorable reviews, I put it on my wish-list and somehow it never managed to rise to the top. Perhaps it was because I worked at a religious institution 24/7. Seeing a movie about church felt almost superfluous. Many years on now, my wife bought me the DVD (yes, we’re old-fashioned) and we finally sat down to watch it. I realized, as the preaching started, that I didn’t know what to expect. I assumed that Sonny would be a typical Elmer Gantry-type character, cynical and self-centered, but as I kept waiting for the sneering commentary to come, it never did. The movie didn’t valorize Sonny either—he is a flawed preacher who commits murder out of jealousy and flees the state to start a life elsewhere. Landing in rural Louisiana, he begins building a life doing what he does best—preaching. The local people benefit from his presence, so I was waiting for the cracks to appear, but they never did. The movie is amazingly respectful of Holiness, or Pentecostal religion. It left me quite thoughtful.

Having grown up in a non-denominational setting, the scene of the altar call was one that was familiar to me. Fiery sermons were also something I’d seen before. Theological education, of course, causes one to question much of this, which is why many Fundamentalist churches do not hire seminary graduates to be their clergy. Study tends to refine that ability to let go and have emotion become the substance of the service. Recalling my own childhood, steeped in the Bible and fervent fear of Hell, church was primarily an emotional catharsis for me, not an intellectual enterprise. The problem for me was that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. That’s where it often starts to crumble for those who want to understand emotion-driven religion. It doesn’t mix well with rationality.

The Apostle is made all the more powerful for its use of actual Holiness preachers in the movie. When they’re preaching, they’re not acting. They’re preaching on film. Part of the draw, I suppose, for many viewers is that this is a foreign world. Mainstream church services are often subdued, perhaps even dour, by comparison. They are, however, more rationally driven. The substance of any mainstream liturgy derives in some form from Catholicism. Pentecostalism dismisses all of that, retaining the music and the sermon and the Bible. Otherwise, they are practically different species. The storyline of the movie isn’t anything grand. Preacher commits crime, repents, gets caught. Still, there’s an authenticity to it that makes it compelling. No Jim Jones here. No David Koresh. Just a man, in many ways typical, trying to make his way in the world in the only way he knows how. And that can be inspirational.

Pope-ulation

My brother, who art near Philadelphia, recently told me that the City of Brotherly Love began towing cars from the no park zone a week before the Pope’s anticipated arrival. There are those apocalyptic concerns for the commute into New York City this week as well. Papal visits are always big news, but Pope Francis has captured the hearts of many, Catholic, Protestant, and non-Christian alike, because of his obvious and sincere care for people. Mercy, kindness, sympathy, and empathy have long been overlooked in many organized religions, and to have the head of the largest Christian body in the world emphasizing just those things has been a breath of well, spirit. As our world has turned increasingly towards materialism fueled by a rationalism that says this physical world is all there is, a hunger has been growing. People need to be assured that there is some meaning in being people.

Photo credit: Tomaz Silva/ABr

Photo credit: Tomaz Silva/ABr

Theological purity is all fine and good, but it is only, literally academic. We send our clergy to seminaries to teach them to understand the rational part of faith. Many laity may not realize that a Master of Divinity is a three-year degree because it has to allow time for spiritual development. I was unlike most seminarians, having majored in religious studies. Coming into ministry from all areas of life—science, medicine, politics, business—many seminarians aren’t accustomed to taking school time to get in touch with their souls. It is a foreign concept in a world where we’re daily told we have no souls. Pope Francis is a pontiff with a soul. And the world has noticed.

We need those to whom we can look up. We need heroes not only of the action movie variety, but those of more human dimensions as well. Two of the most populous cities in the country are preparing for a kind of epiphany. America has long been a country of laissez faire ethics. Leave it alone and it will all take care of itself. We can all see through that. The northeast coast is bracing for a different kind of hurricane this season. It will mean traffic headaches, for sure, and no doubt many will be chagrined at all the fuss. Still, I have a difficult time seeing this as anything other than a hopeful sign. Perhaps we have a need for religious heroes still, after all.

Religion Fiction

Children brought up in a religious environment, according to a recent BBC story, are more prone to believe in fictional characters. The story, based on research from my alma mater, Boston University, suggests that if children are taught to believe miraculous stories at a young age, they will more likely believe that fictional figures are based in reality too. Undoubtedly this will be seen as yet another brick in Montresor’s wall by those who can find no good in religion. The reasoning will go something like this: believing in no religion is the “neutral” position. If we raise children in a religious context, we are inclining them toward a fictional belief system and making them less likely to reason their way out of it. Therefore, we should raise children secular.

Even in the BBC story there are dissenting voices. Perhaps children who learn about Jesus find Thor a more compelling character. Perhaps they are open to possibilities that logic shuts out. Our brains have two hemispheres for a reason. I often wonder whether it is possible to be fully human while ignoring about half of what evolution gave us to work with. Logic tells me that religious belief serves a survival function. And my creative side still appreciates the possibilities that my Manhattan brain is forced to shut down every day when I punch the clock. If there’s nothing more than work, perhaps believing in fiction serves a valuable function after all. But I suspect this is playing right into the rationalists’ hand. Pass me another brick, will you, Fortunato?

The jury, however, is still out on the nature of reality. Even for materialists. Gods of the gaps tend not to survive very well. The question is actually much larger than that. We don’t know the nature of ultimate reality. We’re not even sure what reality is yet. Can a parent who believes in God, after the experience of growing to maturity in a heartless universe, be blamed for teaching their children the same? No humane parent raises their child purposefully teaching them falsehoods. Yes, some children are damaged by religious upbringings. Some are damaged by materialist upbringings as well. What seems to have shifted, in my humble opinion, is the popular perceptions of religion. What used to be understood as the foundation of a civil society is now challenged as a harmful fantasy that encourages children to grow up into terrorists or non-functioning adults. The belief that we can raise children with no biases, however, is clearly fiction. Until we have the full truth, there should be room for both Gilligan and the Professor on this island. But then again, I was raised to believe in the divine world, so what do I know?

Fact or fiction?

Fact or fiction?

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.

Beyond Science

The nature of reality is not easily parsed. As a society we are still under the spell of rationalism, that wonderful left-brain system that seems to explain everything. Until we break down in tears and don’t know why. Like the proverbial chicken-and-egg, reductionists say it all comes down to electro-chemical reactions in the brain, to which non-reductionists reply “believe that if you want to.” Knowledge and belief, belief and knowledge. The truth is nobody knows. So when I see Heaven on the cover of Newsweek, I can’t resist wondering what’s inside. Dr. Eben Alexander, a Harvard-educated neurosurgeon, has just written a book called Proof of Heaven. In the Newsweek article he explains how during a week-long coma he had the most vivid experience of his life. While his brain was shut down. It might be more accurate to say he had the most vivid experience of his afterlife.

The classic debate for Near Death Experiences—so common they have their own acronym, NDEs—revolves around timing. Reductionists say the thought could have happened very, very quickly, just as the brain was shutting down. We all know how dreams can feel like they last far longer than we’re asleep, and how vivid they are. Those who accept the reality of an afterlife argue that many of the classic symptoms such as seeing your own body from above, or being able to describe in detail what was happening in another room at the time, count as evidence. It is the problem of the occasional phenomenon again. This is something no lab can measure, but it happens just often enough to make you wonder. The shaman might say, along with Inception, that the dream is the reality. That might explain why so much of “real life” is unpleasant.

As comfortable as the belief that reality is solid, material, quantifiable, may be, it does not count for the totality of human experience. Alexander’s heaven may not be the same as mine. Reality may not be one. Maybe Occam was wrong. Reading about shamans over the past couple of weeks, it became clear that some believe humans have more than one soul. (I can hear the reductionists rumbling—one soul is already too many!) Some cultures recognize as many as seven souls in a single individual. These, they suggest, account for the uncanny experiences of human life. Why do some people see ghosts and why are dreams so vivid and how does faith healing work? Reductionism calls them all illusions, tricks of the brain. Until his coma Dr. Alexander would have agreed. Now the newsstands suggest a different paradigm may be emerging. Dare we believe that the truth is out there?

On Monsters

Long-term readers of this blog (both of you – you know who you are!) are aware of my interest in monsters. Constant companions of my childhood, I spent lazy days and sleepless nights both curious and fearful of these imaginary creatures. Like the concept of the holy, they both repel and attract simultaneously. Back in October, when I first heard of Stephen Asma’s book, On Monsters, I knew I would have to read it. I have commented occasionally during the progress of my time spent on the book, but having finished it I stand in a better position to consider the whole.

Not a monsterologist, I have nevertheless been fascinated by the juncture of monsters and religion, a point that Asma repeatedly emphasizes. His book is a masterful treatment of the subject from many angles, working through a roughly chronological treatment of the changing faces of the monstrous. Although monsters first appear with the earliest civilizations, they have persisted even in the strong light of scientific thinking and rationalism. As we comprehend our world, the monsters appear in deeper and darker corners, in the very folds of our throbbing gray matter, in the microbial world that floats invisibly around us, and in the smiling beneficence of technology. At many points in his historical presentation Asma is difficult to read; human brutality and emotional distancing have made for the most horrific of real-life monsters he cites.

Particularly useful in Asma’s treatment of the subject is his contention that monsters still have a place in our society. The word itself retains its usefulness in describing human, all-too-inhuman treatment of others. Unfortunately, the motivation for such treatment can often be traced to bad religious education. We may not be so fearful of the werewolf or the (supernatural) vampire, but we still fear those who treat others without empathy or human concern. Anyone with the parallel interests in religion and its aberrations owe it to her/himself to take a careful look at On Monsters and consider its implications.

A classic monster