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.

No Explanation

How do you explain that? Everything, I mean. The need to understand “life, the universe, and everything” is as old as our species, and perhaps even older than that. Up until modernity when the limits of physical explanations were reached, gods filled the gaps. Can Science Explain Religion: The Cognitive Science Debate, by James W. Jones, is not an easy book. It demands mental rigor on the part of the reader. It is also a very important book. Mainly addressing the religion debunkers—those who famously declare religion to be pointless and perhaps even evil—the book asks logically, step by step, whether their assertions are rational. Since Jones is, as I once was, a professor of religion, the reader will be forgiven for second-guessing him. Jones makes a very strong case not for the truth of religion, but for its rationality, not its believability.

Beginning with the basics, Jones considers explaining explaining. In other words, can religion be explained scientifically, and if it can what does that logically prove? You need to follow him pretty closely here, but it is worth the journey. Science, as a human enterprise, has its limits. Jones doesn’t disparage science—far from it—just its misuse. The mad passion for a single explanation for everything has led to reductionist thinking. It’s not uncommon for the debunkers to claim everything is physical. Nothing exists that science can’t explain. Jones demonstrates the logical flaws in this approach. Not apologetically, but rationally. Physicalism, like its ancestor logical positivism, runs into serious problems when it comes to explaining much of life. Especially consciousness.

Consciousness remains one of the great mysteries of existence. Nobody knows what it is or where it comes from. Jones isn’t appealing to the “God of the gaps” here, but he is simply taking his own experience as a clinical psychophysiologist and bringing it into the conversation. Mind is not easily explained as a byproduct of matter. The term that has been used in recent years is that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon. Something that is greater than the sum of its individual parts. Jones doesn’t declare science can’t explain this, but rather that when science addresses the question clearly and logically a plurality emerges. One single answer may not be enough to cover it all. I’ve posted many times on this blog about the misuse of Occam’s Razor. Jones here provides a sustained, and rational discussion of questions that have never been answered adequately. Religion doesn’t challenge science, but together they may have more explanatory power than either has separately. Any book that can establish that qualifies as very important.

Unseen Worlds

howaboutdemonsA few weeks ago I wrote about re-watching The Exorcism of Emily Rose. In anticipation of the inauguration I was in the midst of a spate of possession movies. I watched several others, including The Rite and The Possession. This got me thinking I should read Felicitas D. Goodman’s book How About Demons? Possession and Exorcism in the Modern World. Goodman was an anthropologist who’d done fieldwork among groups that practiced possession—keep in mind that many religions believe in good spirits as well as evil ones. Her book is one of the few that takes the larger picture seriously. Many writers simply dismiss the “demon haunted world” as naive and superstitious, but Goodman makes the point that possession is a real phenomenon and we don’t know the cause of it. Indeed, it’s impossible to say with certainty what the agency is because spiritual causes can’t be studied empirically. That said, science deeply informs her analysis.

I’ve observed people speaking in tongues before. It’s an uncanny experience. No matter what you decide the origin might be, it’s strange and not a little unsettling. It’s related to possession, as Goodman shows. So is multiple personality syndrome. Unlike most scientists, however, she doesn’t make the unwarranted leap that since these are all related they’re all the same. Speaking in tongues is usually considered a good thing while demonic possession is not. Interestingly, recordings of glossolalia—speaking in tongues—show the same pattern globally. This indicates that whatever it is, it originates biologically from human brains in a mostly predictable way. Many world religions allow for possession by good spirits or gods and alternate states of consciousness are accessible by learning how to reach them. Anyone can do it, but some have the gift of doing so easily. Those who do overlap with the pool of the possessed.

As the White House shows, we like simple answers. Possession, however, is a complex phenomenon. Throughout, Goodman refuses to equate it simply with the physical manifestations that have been observed and recorded. She was a true scientist. Reductionism is related to our love of simple explanations. I wanted to read How About Demons? because it contains one of the few serious academic studies of the case of Anneliese Michel, the young woman on whom The Exorcism of Emily Rose is based. I was expecting, since this is an academic treatment, that the cause would be nailed down simply and efficiently. I was pleasantly surprised when it wasn’t. Well before the movie Goodman interviewed those involved in the case and wrote an entire book on it. Although she clearly believed in science to explain our world, as this book demonstrates, she didn’t give it more explanatory power than it actually has. In a complex world we need as many subtle minds as we can get.

Things Unseen

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

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

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

Human, Nature

Wild EarthSomeone recently told me that a city blocks a certain vibration that people draw from contact with the earth. I know that vibration often sets off “new age” alarms, but this person was rational, scientific, and had grown up in New York City. I grew up in a town on the edge of the woods. We didn’t live on concrete. In fact, the floor of our shack was so thin in some places that you could see the actual soil underneath. Even our driveway was gravel. Although it was a dysfunctional family, I felt more connected to my planet back then. Wild Earth, Wild Soul: A Manual for Ecstatic Culture, by Bill Pfeiffer, is just what it says. It’s a manual for how to get back in touch with nature. Basing his ideas on those of indigenous cultures world-wide, with a healthy dose of shamanism, he explores the vibrations of the earth. I had, at times, to force myself to listen. He’s right about so much that I stayed with the narrative to the end.

Civilization comes with a price tag. A very high price tag. The rates have been set by a small group of “progressives” who operate with the idea—mistaken—that all nature is a machine. Physics, they claim, and chemistry, show that all of life is mathematical. Nothing in the universe doesn’t add up. But biology, as Pfeiffer repeatedly shows, often doesn’t. The mistake is as fundamental as it is reductionistic. Life isn’t quantifiable. Biology messes up the nice, neat system we’ve invented. Indigenous peoples, while not idealized, lived in much better harmony with the land, not over-exploiting. It was a sustainable existence. What “civilized” people wanted was more. More of everything. A surplus, in fact. Without that surplus there is no business, right? Capitalize on that!

We’ve lost touch with nature. Our “leaders” want to exploit it. Mine it, refine it, and make it “useful.” When’s the last time I looked at a tree just to appreciate it as nature? Civilization can’t envision a tree without an axe. If it grew it can be improved. Even our food has to be genetically modified because obviously nature can’t make a profit on its own. No, Wild Earth, Wild Soul hasn’t made the impact on the world it might have. I’d never have found it if it weren’t for a used book sale. That doesn’t mean, however, that it isn’t right. We need to dismantle. We are not electronic devices, as much as the internet tells you otherwise. I knew that as a child. And as my feet ache from walking over acres of concrete on my way to “work” I know it’s true. There are indeed good vibrations out there, but here they’re too deep under my feet to feel.

Who Loves You?

DarwinLovesYouWonder is too easily lost in a reductionistic world. Even when we get to the level of quantum mechanics we’re told, “it’s just physics.” How depressing. Such ideas seem to have been in the mind of George Levine as he wrote Darwin Loves You: Natural Selection and the Re-Enchantment of the World. Don’t get me wrong, Levine does not back away from the secular starkness of biology. What he does, however, is ask whether or not evolution by natural selection shouldn’t create a kind of secular enchantment. Almost from page one Levine has to address religion, the tyrannosaurus in the room. Religion, for all its shortcomings, has provided people with a sense of purpose, even enchantment, from days long before any temples or priests existed. The materialist response of “buck up, there’s nothing more than biology going on here,” has proved to be of little consolation to the vast majority of people on the planet. One of the reasons, and I speak only for myself here, is that it just doesn’t feel true.

Truth is a slippery concept. In origin the word seems to derive from something like “to have good faith.” In terms of factuality it also has the meaning of conforming to reality. Reality, however, is equally perilous when it comes to authoritative definitions. Reality means nothing if it is not perceived. Perception may actually bring something to the table, if particle physics are to be believed. Empirical method is pragmatic—I believe that every time I grudgingly climb aboard an airplane, or turn on a computer. At the same time I sense that there may be more to it than that. No matter how much science I read, that perception simply won’t go away. The professors of materialism have learned to quash that still, small voice. The hollow feeling with which it leaves me, however, may be significant.

Evolution and religion are inextricably interwoven. Religion, although poorly defined, has to do with finding meaning in a world that is often harsh and cruel. No doubt such feelings evolved, and some of our animal kin may share them with us. When molecules break down into atoms, they generally lose the characteristics of the molecule. We now know that we can keep breaking even the invisible apart until we’re left with only theory as to what might be below. This may be true. At the same time, the wonder with which we might stand before a cyclotron or a little robot rolling around the surface of Mars, the question of truth emerges like a rock that wasn’t there just a few days before. A gnawing sense that we don’t have the full picture. A sense that no matter how far we tear apart, the total will always be far more than the sum of parts. Levine is right; evolution can induce wonder. And truth, at its very heart, is a matter of faith.

Material Goods

Few ideas are as insidious as the reductionistic materialism touted by some of the New Atheists. Atheism and materialism need not walk down the same garden path, but the idea that we are determined by the thoughtless playing out of particle physics can only be achieved by sweeping the vast majority of human experience off the table to attempt a sterile analysis that applies, it seems, only in a vacuum. I often ponder this dilemma since those who think through the implications seriously soon find themselves locked out of the room. Materialists want nothing to do with those who challenge a system that is a little too neat, while ardent believers in religion have trouble letting go of what are obviously the mythological underpinnings of belief structures. The rest of us, trying to be intellectually honest, know that strange things happen and that materialism’s strong arm is powerless to uphold a system that is simplistic.

Indeed, scientists have moved away from utility as the sole criterion for explaining the universe. Beauty, or elegance, is frequently considered to be key to a Grand Unified Theory. It may be a gut-level reaction, but it speaks to something deeply human; we need to make sense of our world. We can do that, however, only if we’re willing to be honest. I’m not sure we can be honest without acknowledging that our minds range far beyond the sum of all the electro-chemical activity within an individual brain. If they didn’t, religion, for one, just couldn’t survive. Beauty, as a qualifier, is said to be in the eye of the beholder. Philosophers, however, maintain that aesthetics, the study of beauty, constitutes a branch of philosophy that requires hard thinking and specialized training. Beauty is a driving force for many aspects of life. Otherwise we wouldn’t hire architects to design since buildings on university campuses. A pile of bricks sufficiently mortared will do.

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The issue is trenchant because a generation is growing up with this idea firmly in place. Scientific studies, if scientists are to be believed, demonstrate that a strict materialism erodes empathy, the sense that what others experience matters. The logical conclusion to a reductionistic world is a kind of cold solipsism where the only spark of consciousness that matters is the one that takes place inside this head. All the rest are just formulas and equations. And yet, don’t even materialists enjoy a good novel, movie, or fine meal? The world is a complex place, and we haven’t even taken the first adult steps to begin exploring the rest of the universe with the five basic senses we acknowledge. Even down here, however, there is much that reductionistic materialism can’t explain. I wouldn’t stick a god in that gap, but a dose of humble wonder, I suggest, wouldn’t hurt.