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.

Whatever Happened to Whimsy?

American Gothic is one of my favorite paintings. I’ve never seen the original, and I know of no other paintings that Grant Wood produced, although I’m sure there are some. The mood in what has been called “the most famous American painting” is unsettled. There’s something not quite right here. When one of my authors wanted to use the image on a book cover, it led to quite a bit of serious discussion. I was a bit surprised by the negative impressions—not of the painting, but of its use on a serious academic book. The discussion seemed to turn on money rather than on wit and whimsy. I confess to being a dreamer, and I admit that the aspects of life that truly inspire me are never financial. When I crave wealth it is so that I might free up some time for creativity. That’s not the way business works.

Sometimes I feel a stranger in my own country. The unquestioned triumph of unbridled capitalism means that you can go from city to city to city and not really be able to tell much of a difference. If you want to buy a bit of tubing or a piece of wood, it’s Home Depot or Lowe’s for you. Office supplies—Office Max or Staples are your only choices. If you want to buy intelligent books, well, you’re just plumb out of luck unless you go to Amazon. The big financial corporations have won. Just admit it. Every time I visit my hometown I come away depressed at all the vacant stores and lost hopes of the small businesses that offered something just a little different. Something to tickle my fancy. Something to tempt me to wonder. Something with a tinge of American Gothic.

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The messages we receive from every angle echo Madonna’s hit song, “Material Girl.” Only this includes all genders. Reductionistic materialism tells us that we’re just proteins walking. Mind is an illusion. Soul is a myth. I work a job where the money I’m paid is transferred electronically and if I want to see some of it in paper form I face a robotic ATM rather than a human face. I went to the mall last night and wept. Call it a mid-life crisis if you will. Say nostalgia has no place in a forward-looking society. I just want a few more options besides the plastic, the smart-chipped, and the sterile. The world needs more whimsy. Maybe that’s why I insisted on American Gothic on the cover of the first book I put under contract.

Paging Dr. Asimov

Who remembers Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots? Plastic “robots” in the boxing ring trying to knock each other’s block’s off was a form of entertainment for kids of the ‘60s before such things as humanoid robots actually existed. So when Boston University’s alumni magazine had an article about dancing robots, I had to see what was up. As regular readers will know, I’ve been exploring some of the problems with reductionism lately. This idea, that humans and animals are just fleshy machines, breaks down when we try to design robots that can do some of the most basic of human activities. Sometimes we dance and we don’t know why. Apart from Wall-e’s dance with Eve, robots have trouble getting the concept. Graduate student John Baillieul notes that this isn’t about “some high school guy who had trouble getting a date, so you get a robot. The ultimate goal is to understand human reaction to gestures and how machines may react to gestures.” Having actually been a high school guy who never even got to the prom, I’m wondering how depressed our robots get when the fem-bots all look the other way.

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The reductionistic outlook suggests that we can eventually program robots to respond as humans would, responding fluidly to situations, allowing them to over-ride their “instinct,” which, the article implies, equals programming. We have no idea what instinct is. It is something all biological creatures have, from the heliotrope following the sun to the human dancing her heart out. Do we want machines to replicate our most intimate emotions? Even our most reliable chip-driven devices sometimes freeze up or rebel. My car has recently got the idea in its mechanistic brain that the right-hand side rearview mirror should be rotated as far to the right as possible. We bicker about this all the time when I get in to drive. Well, machines know best. They, after all, are the shape of the future.

So programming robots so that they can react in real time to non-verbal cues, like all sentient beings do, is a desideratum of our mechanistic Weltanschauung. Notes Rich Barlow, the article’s author, “bats, for example, camouflage their motions so that they can sneak up on insect prey, a fake-out familiar to anyone who’s tried to swat a pesky fly.” My question is who is the pesky fly in this robot-human scenario? Who acts irrationally and unpredictably? Isn’t our instinct to smash the fly a result of our annoyance at it landing, yet again, on our sandwich with its dirty feet? And what is that stupid dance that it does when it’s all over our food? Reductionism must, by definition, reduce instinct to the level of a kind of genetic programming. Even this aging blogger, however, knows what it is to dance without knowing why. He also knows what it feels like when your date goes home with somebody else, something to which he’s not convinced that we want robots calculating an “instinctual” response.

God, Particle, Reduce

Reductionism is beguiling because of the exalted status it gives to the human intellect. It is presumed that rational thought can explain everything. Still, reason sometimes leads to paradoxes—we’ve all heard the (admittedly theistic) one asking if God can create a rock so heavy s/he can’t lift it. Given the premise, two strands of logic conflict. A similar sort of phenomenon, it appears, accompanies quantum physics. In a story from last year on Big Questions Online (a website supported by the Templeton Foundation), Stephen M. Barr submitted a piece entitled “Does Quantum Physics Make it Easier to Believe in God?” The article requires some concentration, but the basic premise is simple enough to explain: quantum physics does not sit well with reductionism. There seems to be will in nature. It may not be God in the machine; it may not even be a machine at all.

I have always been fascinated by science, and I am not one to castigate it. Its string of successes stretches all the way from atoms and their explosive tendencies to the moon and Mars and beyond. At the same time, most of us have experienced something that “should work,” in which no fault can be discovered. Reductionism would declare the fault is indeed there, just undetected. If, however, at the sub-atomic level, particles sometimes act uncannily, don’t those effects climb the ladder into the visible world in some way? Logic would seem to demand it. The problem with putting will into the equation is that will can’t be quantified. There have been many documented cases of an instance of superhuman strength coursing through a person when they have to rescue a loved one. We raise our eyebrows, mumble about adrenaline and pretend that will hasn’t affected nature in this reductionistic, strictly material world.

Denigrating human brain power is not something I undertake lightly. Logic works most of the time. A thinking creature who has evolved to be a thinking creature, however, must realize that its own intellect is limited. Simply because we are limited doesn‘t mean we shouldn’t strive to improve, but it does mean that ex cathedra statements, whether from pontiffs or physicists, should be suspect. One would be hard-pressed to label Einstein a believer. Yet even he made the occasional remark that left the door open for, well, maybe not God, but maybe not reductionism either. I was once told, and I believe it to be true, that you can tell a truly educated person not by how much he or she claims to know, but rather by how much she or he claims not to know. It may not seem logical, but down there among the particles of the quantum world, I suspect those willful quarks agree.

Erwinrossen's image of atoms, the sight eyes can't see

Erwinrossen’s image of atoms, the sight eyes can’t see

Dog-gone Belief

A recent book I read, I can’t remember precisely which one, suggested that one reason the average citizen has trouble with science is the fault of evolution. We evolved, at least some of us have, to rely on common sense. We trust appearances to intimate reality, and act accordingly. The problem is that science, almost in principio, informs us that things do not operate according to common sense, but according to laws that are inscrutable to most of us and involving math way beyond our limited ability. Even with a calculator. For example, the earth is spinning really, really fast and hurtling around the sun so quickly that I think I’m going to be sick. Really? Common sense tells me that I’m stationary, and my inner ear only gives me true peace when that is the case. QED, as my high school pre-calc teacher used to say. But it’s not the truth. We are spinning and jetting through space.

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An article in Time magazine recently brought this disconnect home on a very poignant level. “The Mystery of Animal Grief,” by Jeffrey Kluger, explores the animal grieving process. Many species have been observed to react to the death of one of there own very much like humans do. Physical attitudes of bowed heads, actions that signal depression, and even rudimentary burials are all documented among animals. Some scientists disagree: reductionism declares that this is all appearance (like common sense), and if the professor on Gilligan’s Island taught us anything beyond building with coconuts and bamboo, it is that there is a rational explanation for everything. Animals grieving? It takes a human to do that. Well, actually, it takes a human to declare with such certainty that our animal cousins can’t feel like we do. Although our only current pet is a hermit crab—and perhaps many uninvited spiders—I grew up with dogs, cats, guinea pigs, and assorted other creatures. They express real affection. If they didn’t, I can’t think people would keep them.

I wondered, as I read Kluger’s article, when religion was going to come into the discussion. It wasn’t a long wait. Religion, he notes, is a human mechanism for coping with the finality of death. Dead is dead, after all. Animals can’t be religious, so they can’t experience the emotions we do. Or so science would mostly declare. I struggle with reality on a daily basis. My experience has taught me that things are not often what they seem, but sometimes my path lies in a direction diametrically opposed to that of Dr. Heisenberg. We are animals. Animals are part of our family. I’ve experienced people who show no emotion when their close associates are suffering. I’ve also experienced a dog that would cuddle up next to me and lick my face when I was sad, an encouraging look in his canine eyes. Animals are smart and empathetic. They have some understanding of death—it’s just common sense. I write this as I’m hurtling through space at 660,000 m.p.h. while spinning at a thousand miles an hour. If my reasoning seems suspect to you, consider the circumstances.

Intelligence, Evolved

intelligenceinnatureAnyone who has looked into the eyes of a cat or dog can have little doubt that they think. What exactly they think is, of course, a matter of conjecture. I had been meaning to read Jeremy Narby’s Intelligence in Nature for a few years now. We are taught at a young age to eschew anthropomorphism—although our eschewers don’t use that word—as the childish way of perceiving the world. Animals don’t think because that’s reserved for people. We sit in the finest spots in the poshest corners of the animal kingdom and the sign says “No Dogs Allowed.” I never really outgrew this child-like belief because the minimal scientific evidence I’ve been able to infer supports the idea that like us, other animals think. Narby, an anthropologist, agrees. At least to a point. I don’t wish to make claims for Dr. Narby that he wouldn’t support, but he provides fascinating empirical evidence, “down” to the level of amebas and plants, that indicates intentionality. Nature is alive with thought.

As an anthropologist, Narby begins his consideration with the insights of shamans. Although scientists rarely countenance shamans, they are among the earliest of human religious specialists and they have long promoted the idea that humans are fully integrated into nature. We are not separate and above. From our brains to our bones, we are one with the natural world. If we think, should not animals think? Interestingly, this idea brings Narby into some of the same territory as Thomas Nagel; intelligence may be a cumulative process. Our brains’ ability to think may be the result of collecting together the thought processes of our fellow creatures to a point where our thinking becomes abstract. We’re told that dolphins and whales don’t think like us—they don’t build cities, do they? Maybe it’s because they didn’t evolve opposable thumbs. Maybe it’s because they’re smarter than we are.

There are, it seems, many thinkers on the outside of the hallowed confines of hard science that are chipping away at the strict materialist edifice. There can be no serious question that the empirical method explains much of what we experience in the universe. It has always amazed me, however, that we assume that humans are able to find the outer limits of existence with our limited senses. We know animals can see, hear, smell, taste, and maybe even feel in ways beyond our capabilities. Who’s to say that there isn’t other input well beyond our limited senses that we use to survive in this environment? After all, we didn’t evolve to know everything—we evolved to be able to thrive in our ecosystems. For that you don’t need all the answers—just enough to get by. If you doubt my reasoning here, I suggest you ask your dog or cat.

Mind Your Cosmos

MindandCosmosSomething on your mind? How often do we bother to think clearly about our minds? One of the most dispiriting concepts ever invented is the idea that even our minds are merely part of a reductionistic, mechanistic universe. All those beautiful, frightening, sublime, and mundane thoughts are just noise, clutter. An inevitable side-effect of all that electro-chemical activity in the gray matter. Nothing more. It is an idea to which it is very difficult to warm. Philosopher Thomas Nagel, however, doesn’t use a soft approach to the concept of mind in his Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. This is not an easy read, but it rewards the reader well.

Some, I suspect, will accuse Nagel of being a closet creationist, but he addresses that concern up front. Nagel is an atheist, but he recognizes that the creationists have raised some valid points about the explanatory value of a materialistic, reductionistic view of the universe. Nagel, like all careful thinkers, realizes that the fact of evolution is not to be disputed. The mechanism driving mutations, however, is open to some speculation. I’ve read many books that suggest we are but (in a more than angst-ridden Kansas) dust in the wind. Particles and reactions and nothing more. That love you feel when your heart is thumping wildly over that special someone? Mere chemistry. And not the kind that implies a transcendent state. Just lab-coat chemistry. I read Nagel because this kind of reductionism just doesn’t fit reality as I’ve experienced it. I’m no physicist, but I’m all I’ve got. And my reason tells me that there’s something more too it.

Nagel approaches the issue by examining the origins of mind. Whence does consciousness emerge? Using precise, carefully selected reasoning, he demonstrates that there is a chance that consciousness is inherent in this universe we inhabit. Just as bodies are built of cells, and cells are built of proteins built of molecules built of atoms, the mind could be constructed of components as well. I can’t replicate Nagel’s elegance of expression, but his suggestion that we may be part of a universe beginning to awake is as much poetry as it is logic. And that, more than anything else, is a reflection on the complexity of being human. We are meaning-seeking creatures. Being told that we’re mechanistic automatons is like slamming a door in a two-year old’s face. If I am merely particles and tiny jolts of electricity, I’m going to take the particles that make Nagel’s book with me as I try to reconcile myself to a universe where nothing is really what it seems.

Flying None?

RoughGuidesWhile reading about a saint or two recently, I once again came across the concept of levitation. Long dismissed as overly gullible piety of superstitious pre-moderns, the practice has been relegated to the scratched and damaged basement of religious thought. Or so it would seem. While examining a World Religions textbook at work, I came across a picture of a young person in meditation who was, to all appearances, levitating. The caption simply noted that levitation is a component of some religious practitioners’ discipline and then quietly moved on. No scare quotes or allegedlys to be seen. The publisher of the text was one of the major textbook moguls. Curious, I found a reference to The Rough Guide to Unexplained Phenomena by Bob Rickard and John Michell. This intriguing book, in its second edition, bears the Penguin imprimatur, and therefore should be taken seriously. While I am certain that any number of skeptical readers will declare me hopelessly naive, I found the book full of interesting anomalies, and many of them, as I’ve noted several times on this blog, tied the paranormal to religion.

While I can’t accept everything I read in The Rough Guide, there remain, even after healthy doubt, a number of weird things that persist in our reductionistic world. Strange phenomena do not necessarily validate religion, of course, and many of those “revelations” people claim must be simple pareidolia. These are entertaining, no doubt, but hardly newsworthy. It is rather those phenomena that refuse to play by the rules that raise questions about our demon-haunted world. If even just a handful, or even one of the cases of levitation actually occurred, it would mean some serious rethinking concerning the nature of gravity. Do saints levitate? I’m no saint, so perhaps it’s best not to ask me. If one lies about it, then s/he is hardly a saint.

As uncomfortable as the unexplained may make us, these reports do serve as a reminder that our scientific worldview is, in many ways, still in its infancy. A few years back, sitting in on the lecture of a friend concerning the science of the Mesopotamians, it was clear that rational thought has very early origins in human civilization. At the same time, the Mesopotamians had plenty of room for gods and the supernatural in their worldview as well. Here in our electronic twenty-first century, it might seem that reason will see us through just about any crisis. Even a glance at the headlines reveals we’re not there yet. Some will blame the religious, the “superstitious,” the irrational for our problems. Meanwhile far from the eyes of scientists and authorities of secular power, maybe, just maybe, a religious practitioner may be hovering a few inches off the ground.

On Dasher, On Dancer

CaputoOnReligion It’s a little embarrassing to admit that after having pondered religion for all of my life, I still have no clear idea what it is. In my case pondering includes three degrees in the study of religion and almost two decades in teaching it. I still read books that introduce religion, hoping to catch some distilled essence that I might label the core of the phenomena that go by the name. Some least common denominator. But that’s not how life works. Even the most basic of things can be complex, so I recently turned to John D. Caputo’s On Religion to find out what a philosopher thinks it might be. From the start this little book is jarring. Caputo, while staunchly refusing to tip his hand, defines the religious as those who love God. Or god. Or not really god, but something that might be as impersonal as the Force. Of course, love is as slippery a term as “God,” so Caputo suggests that it is caring for more than one’s own self. If many of our religious politicians and televangelists could get even that far perhaps we’d be closer to the religious idea of heaven itself. Then when Caputo turned philosophical, he started to lose me a little.

The big problem, and one of which Caputo is well aware, is that loving God is a western religious ideal. There are those who claim that some “Eastern religions,” such as Buddhism, Taoism, and that of Confucius’ followers, are actually philosophies and not religions. But if we’re trying to define religion, excluding a very large portion of the world’s belief structures seems to tilt the balance a bit dangerously westward. Come to think about it, the idea that all people have to have some kind of religion is a western conceit as well. Who are we to define the terms of another’s existence? That, it seems to me, is one of the problems of reductionism. Assuming that all people accept the premise that an empirical system can explain everything will not rid the world of religious martyrs. So what is to be done?

Caputo has thought about this as well. He concludes his short manifesto with a chapter entitled “On Religion—Without Religion.” Here the true root of the problem is exposed—religions that claim they alone can be true. For Caputo’s purposes western religions work best here because the three major monotheistic faiths share so much in common. Put crassly, the real question is where does the line of final revelation end. Is it Moses? Jesus? Mohammad? We could go on—Joseph Smith? Raël? Philosophically, at least, Caputo suggests that all religions could co-exist if they were willing to admit that they are all right. It boggles the reductionist mind. How can they all be right? How can they not be? After all, despite the millennia spent on the topic, we still don’t know what religion is.