Thinking about Thinking

I’ve been thinking about thinking quite a bit.  My lifelong fascination with religion is part of this, of course.  So when someone pointed out Bridget Alex’s article “The Human Brain Evolved to Believe in Gods” in Discover, I had to ponder it.  The idea, here supported by science, is that people evolved survival traits that lent themselves to religious belief.  That religious thinking was a byproduct that eventually took on a life of its own.  Evolution works by giving a reproductive advantage to one trait over another—which is how we get so many types of dogs (and maybe gods)—and those that disposed people to be religious did just that.  Elaborate religions evolved from these basic traits.  Alex suggest there are three: seeing patterns, inferring intention, and learning by imitation.

While there’s a lot of sense here, the reductionism doesn’t ring true.  The need to explain away religion also seems uniquely human.  Ironically, the idea that we are somehow special compared to other animals derives from a biblical worldview from which science has difficulty divorcing itself.  One of the greatest ironies of the science versus religion debate is that scientific thinking (in the west) developed within a worldview formed by Christianity.  Many of the implications of that development linger, such as the supposition that animals can’t have consciousness, or “souls.”  We watch a chimpanzee in an experiment and deduct points when they don’t do things the way a human would.  We thus confirm the biblical view in the name of science and go home happy.

Photo credit: Afrika Expeditionary Force, via Wikimedia Commons

I have no doubt that people evolved to be religious.  There are certainly survival benefits to it, not least group building and shared purpose.  I do wonder that science doesn’t address the elephant in the room—that we have limited receptors for perceiving specific stimuli, such as light and sound, but that there are other phenomena we don’t perceive.  We build instruments to measure things like x-rays and neutrinos and magnetism, but we don’t sense them directly.  How can we possibly know what we might be missing?  I suspect the real problem is we don’t want to admit willfulness into any other part of the universe.  Humans alone possess it.  Some scientists even argue that our own sense of will is an illusion.  It’s not difficult to believe that we evolved to be religious.  It’s also not difficult to believe that we pick up hints of forces that have yet to be named.  An open mind, it seems, might lead to great rewards.


Higher Learning?

I was reading, as one does, about a mental institution.  In the last century they were often called, rather insensitively, “lunatic asylums.”  The neurodiverse were often shunted away so that the rest of society could get on with business as usual (as if that’s sane).  There were any number of reasons sought for such individuals thinking differently.  The source I was reading had a short list and I was surprised to see on it, “over study of religion.”  It really said nothing more about it but it left me wondering.   First of all, it brought Acts 26.24 to mind: “Paul, thou art beside thyself; much learning doth make thee mad!”  Religion, from the very start, it seems, had the reputation of driving people insane.

Image credit: Published by W. H. Parrish Publishing Company (Chicago), public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As someone who’s spent well over half a century thinking about religion, reading about religion, and analyzing religion, I can see Festus might’ve had a point.  This way much madness lies.  I don’t think religion evolved to be thought about.  It was largely a fear reaction to being, in reality, rather helpless in a world full of predators and other natural dangers.  Although we’ve managed to wipe out most of our large predators, we’re still under the weather, as it were.  We can’t control it, and what messing around we’ve done through global warming has made it less hospitable to our species and several others.  And also the small predators, those that evolve quickly, such as Covid-19, are now the real challenge.  Facing fear was the real evolutionary advantage of religion.

Being story-telling creatures, we made narratives about our belief systems.  Then we started taking those stories literally.  Believing too seriously, we used those stories as a basis for hating and killing those with different stories.  We still do.  Can anyone deny Festus’ accusation?  I’m sure religious mania has, historically, led to some institutionalizations.  It was kind of a trope in the seventies, for example, that too much Bible-reading could lead to criminal behavior.  It’s not difficult to see why those trying to classify what might make an individual off balance might look to religion as an explanation.  Nationally, and very publicly, we can see strident examples of this promotion of irrational ideas on a daily basis.  Many of the large mental institutions have been closed down and many of the neurodiverse have been turned out to the streets.  Ironically, it is often the religious who try to care for them.  Understanding religion, it seems to me, might be a great public good.


Behind Science

Science and religion have been sparring partners for a few centuries now, and I believe this is a generational conflict.  The child, science, arguing with the parent, religion.  You see, religion is all about worldview.  As secular as secular scientists declare themselves to be, their worldview was likely formed by their religious heritage.  Religion can’t be teased out of culture.  Here in the western world modern science was born in a fully Christianized cultural landscape.  That’s not to say that Judaism and Islam didn’t contribute, but European culture was based on some basic Christian ideals.  Creatio ex nihilo, for one—creation out of nothing.  Another aspect is that Occam’s razor accounts for the world we see.  This was a philosophical concept born of the Christian worldview.  And the list could go on and on.

Scientists, focusing on their specializations, generally don’t sit back to think about the origins of their basic cultural presuppositions.  Many of them came directly from their religion.  Ever since college I’ve tended to think back to presuppositions, and question them.  How do we know we know?  Epistemology is as useful as it is disturbing.  And if we discover that the basis for what we know was locked into a worldview we can no longer accept, what does that say about the underpinning method?  Our science is based on the idea that the world is rational because a benevolent deity wouldn’t make it absurd.  Would he?  And why are we still referring to the deity as a male?  Indeed, we still think of him as a human.

It’s difficult to get beyond our basic cultural propositions.  Religions such a Buddhism promote the idea that change is the only constant, yet the science in countries of the east is borrowed from the concepts of the west and its monotheistic sub-structure.  We tend to think that if humans can’t sense it, and quantify it, it doesn’t exist.  So it is that many scientists become atheists, but without perhaps questioning the cultural presuppositions that have led to the scientific outlook in the first place.  Some will go as far as saying philosophy is a waste of time when philosophy is the framework of all rational thinking.  And that’s not to forget that there’s emotional thinking as well.  The big picture is complicated by philosophers writing in lingo that the rest of us can’t understand.  And even they have presuppositions.  Maybe it’s time for me to go back to school and examine them again.


Religious Dinosaurs

Dippy is, apparently, a common name for pet diplodocuses.  The statue of a diplodocus outside the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh is fondly known as “Dippy,” as is the fossilized remains of one such dinosaur from London’s Natural History Museum.  The London Dippy is on tour, or at least has been.  I learned about the fact that Dippy was in Norwich Cathedral just a day or so after the exhibit closed (I wouldn’t have been able to make it in any case; I mean I haven’t been able to get to the Pittsburgh Dippy and I live in the same state).  There are still plenty of photos on the cathedral’s website.  It’s a striking juxtaposition.  A massive stone building constructed to a medieval conception of God and one of the best examples of evolution, far older than the church on several orders of magnitude, peacefully coexisting.

John Bell Hatcher, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

American evangelicalism has a much harder time accepting science.  I’ve been writing about change recently.  One of the changes in western thinking has been to move from the “I told you so” of clerics to the “I can show you evidence” of scientists.  Those who like others to tell them what to think have a difficult time letting go of medieval notions of the world—that it’s flat, and young, and about to end, as if God has a very limited imagination.  We now know that the world has been here far longer than one interpretation of the Bible posits, but that doesn’t make it any easier to have a conversation about it.  Many religions want to claim knowledge that can’t be questioned.  And yet, dinosaurs and cathedrals seem to mix well.

The assumption that those who think differently are evil, or are inspired by evil, is one of the most insidious children of monotheism.  With one God comes the idea of only one way to understand that deity and all other interpretations come from that divinity’s arch-enemy.  It’s a view of the world that struggles with change.  Historians, even those of us who focus on the history of religions, tend to take a long view. It’s possible to trace the development of ideas that have lead to the strange juxtapositions of our modern world.  Apologists so convinced of their interpretation of Genesis that they think the Bible wouldn’t have found dinosaurs worth remarking about, for example, and then cramming them on the ark.  Others, it seems, welcome dinosaurs into cathedrals.  Which is a better way to be humble before God?


Who Ya Gonna Call?

The haunting season is nearly upon us.  Apart from the usual fun of ghost stories, those of us with appreciation of science wonder about whether there’s any hope of confirming some of these tales.  Benjamin Radford’s Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits is a handy guidebook for those who don’t wish to be gullible.  Radford demonstrates just why much of popular ghost hunting reality television really isn’t scientific at all.  Knowing how science works, Radford is unusual in that he’s open to the possibility of ghosts.  He points out, however, that from the point of view of science there’s a conundrum—there is no consensus on what a ghost actually is.  Different readers and experimenters and experiencers have different ideas about them—everything from the spirits of the dead to “recordings” made by the environment to demons to time-travelers.  Radford’s quite right that to test an hypothesis you need to agree on what you’re testing for.

Ghost hunting groups, as he points out, are actually gathering evidence hoping to prove the existence of ghosts (whatever they are).  Evidence gathering isn’t the same as science, however.  If you’ve ever watched any of these shows you’ll likely enjoy Radford’s take-down of their flawed methodology.  Wandering an unfamiliar location at night with the lights off and gadgets in hand, they go here and there, possibly contaminating each others’ “evidence.”  Their theories behind why ghosts do this or that—make cold spots, turn lights on and off, make white noise into EVPs, or electronic voice phenomena—don’t match the science of basic ideas of ambient temperature, wiring, and audio pareidolia.  These things are well understood, but you have to read about them to apply them. 

The larger question, however, remains.  If ghosts exist, and if they choose (if they have will) not to cooperate, how can we learn about them?  Radford makes the valid point that coming in for one night with lots of equipment and little knowledge of what we might term “the deep history of a location” stands very little chance of achieving results.  It may be fun, and entertaining, and it may catch a legitimate anomaly or two, but it doesn’t, can’t scientifically prove the existence of ghosts.  We still seem to be stuck with the materialism that only measures the physical.  This fact may indeed fuel skeptics to suggest it’s “only this and nothing more.”  But science isn’t the only way we know the world.  It’s a pleasure to read a book from an investigator of this topic who has his head on straight.


Shifting the Narrative

Wide ranging.  That’s a phrase that comes to mind to describe Vine Deloria Jr.’s book God Is Red: A Native View of Religion.  Another phrase is very important.  I know this book has been available for several years and it’s been on my reading list for many of those.  What is it about?  Some books are just difficult to summarize, but the basic answer is that it’s an American Indian view of how Christianity has distorted the world.  An accomplished academic, student of law, and activist, Deloria knew of what he wrote.  His book explains articulately the view of Christianity from the outside and what a religion that reverences the earth really looks like.  What makes the book so fascinating is that Deloria had theological training and could engage with the Christian worldview over a considerable range of topics.

Controlling the narrative is of primary importance and the fact is white men have controlled the narrative and normalized one view of history, science, and our place in the universe.  First nations peoples had, and some still have, a radically different outlook.  Deloria makes the crucial point that even our science developed out of our religion.  That science, in turn, supports the worldview that created it.  It is possible to look at things differently.  In fact, for much of human history those alternate views were predominant.  The triumphalist view of Christianity claims it’s successful because it’s right.  A native view takes a longer view, saying “we’ll see.”

Very concerned about the state of the planet brought on by the Christian/capitalist partnership, Deloria advocated for not only Indian rights, but environmental protection s well.  Not only is the environment central to Indian spirituality, the concept of sacred spaces is very real.  Many of us not raised with indigenous points of view have experienced this as well.  Some places are special to us.  We hesitate, because of that very science created by the Christian worldview and its view of God, to call such spaces objectively sacred.  Even the “objectively” part is determined by a Christian perspective.  Deloria ends up by asking whether this form of religion has improved the state of the world.  There’s no doubt that some of Christianity’s achievements have lessened human suffering.  It is also true that science has achieved great things.  If I understand correctly, Deloria isn’t disputing this.  His point of view is much more essential.  Is this the only way to live on this planet?  From the indigenous point of view, which is far more important that we want to admit, the question is—is this the only way to see it?


Growing in Intent

Balance has become a desideratum.  Ours is an age of extremism.  Black and white instead of shades of gray.  One of the unnecessary polarizations is that between science and religion.  Part of the problem, it seems to me, is the labels we insist on using.  Science is shorthand for evidence-based research—it is a way of understanding the physical world.  It doesn’t necessarily discount a spiritual world but its methods can’t engage that world, if it exists.  Religion is a poorly defined word, often one of those “you know it when you see it” kinds of phenomena.  Often it is characterized by blind adherence, but that isn’t necessarily what religion is either.  To me, balance between the two is an authentic way to engage the world and other human beings.

Take plants, for instance.  And take consciousness.  While consciousness isn’t always associated with religion, it is one of those things that falls out of the ability of science to measure or quantify.  We don’t really know what it is, but we know we have it.  We know some animals have it, but rather arrogantly assert it is only the “higher” animals, as if we comprehend the hierarchy of nature in its entirety.  We dismiss the idea of plant consciousness.  For many years I’ve been pondering intent.  Without it no life would be possible from sperm germinating egg to heliotropes following the sun.  There’s some kind of intent there.  Will.  Recently The Guardian ran an article about scientifically measured intent in bean plants.  Although many have been left scratching their heads, or pods,  over it, to me it makes perfect sense.

I planted an apple seed a few months back.  It finally sprouted in late December.  I carefully watered it, and put it by a south window to get sunlight.  It grew quickly for a few days and then began to wilt.  I watched helplessly as it gave up the will to live.  I’m no botanist, but I suspected it was the coldness of being set on a windowsill.  (Ours isn’t the best insulated house.)  December had been mild, and it sprouted.  January took a sudden shift to chill, and I realized that new plants outdoors wouldn’t sprout in winter.  The seed had germinated, but the plant had no will to survive in temperatures chillier than its genes told it that might be safe.  I’m not a scientist, but I observed this scenario carefully.  Is it possible that french bean plants show intent?  I think it would be more difficult to explain if they did not.


Ghost Stories

Those of us who confess to watching horror are fond of noting that the Christmas season has long been associated with ghost stories.  Charles Dickens wasn’t the first to make use of the trope and certainly won’t be the last.  After reading about elevated horror movies, I decided to watch A Ghost Story (David Lowery, 2017).  Many wouldn’t classify the film as horror at all.  It is quiet, slow paced, and has no gore.  It is nevertheless a haunting film.  I suspect its poignancy comes from a situation we can all imagine and which many people face in life—being left alone after the death of a loved one.  The idea that the dead never really leave us can be both comforting and unnerving at the same time.  The film plays to those strengths.

The premise of the film is simple: the ghost of one of a couple finds his way home and tries to reconnect with his widow.  He ends up staying there until, many owners later, the house is demolished and a high-rise is built in its place.  It’s essentially a story from the point-of-view of the ghost.  There isn’t too much dialogue included, but one significant monologue comes when a party is being held.  One of the party goers, or perhaps the current owner of the house, explains that because of what we know of physics everything on our planet will eventually be destroyed.  His beer-fueled lament is that whatever we do is therefore in vain.  He brings God into the discussion.  The ghost listens intently, but seems to disagree with his conclusions.  For someone like me the introduction of religion into the story is a Venus fly-trap, since religion and horror can’t seem to keep away from each other.

Death is a dilemma, a point that I made in a recent Horror Homeroom article on Pet Sematary.  Horror, like religion demands that we confront it.  Science can only offer cold comfort regarding the cessation of life.  Religion (and horror) open the dialog into the unknown, the realm into which mere human instruments cannot reach.  Sad and reflective, A Ghost Story hits on an essential question in the nexus of religion and science.  If a spiritual world exists, there may be some survival even of the earth’s eventual heat death.  As time passes, the titular ghost continues to learn.  Life is a learning experience, and although many modern forms of religion join in the cultural denial of death, horror is always ready to remind us that confronting it may be the wisest course of action.  Ask the ghost.  He knows.


Conflict Management

Conflict has come to dominate the twenty-first century in an unhealthy way.  No longer do religions, political parties, or even scholars of different disciplines want to try to see it from somebody else’s point of view.  Such “I’m rightism” is distressing, given that the greatest minds in history always left some room for doubt.  Einstein tried not to say too much about God, but his occasional references left some space for admitting he just didn’t know.  He was following closely in the footsteps of Sir Isaac Newton, who, ironically and iconically stands as one of the founding fathers of empiricism.  I say “ironically” because his real driving interests, as became clear only after his death, were religious.  With the science and religion conflict paradigm, it took a long time for many to admit that Isaac Newton was fascinated by religion.

A story in The Guardian recently noted that Newton’s unpublished notes on pyramidology have gone on auction.  These papers are even further indications of just how much religion mattered in the mind of the man who gave us a clockmaker God who wound up the universe and left it to run according to scientific principles.  My wish isn’t to cast any aspersions on Newton.  No, quite the opposite.  I wonder if we mightn’t use his wide-ranging interests to raise a relevant question: why do we see religion unworthy of attention while science, because it can be “proven,” is all we really need?  Especially since scientifically-based hypotheses about the origins of religion tell us that human beings need it.

Admittedly Newton was just as human as the rest of us.  Perhaps far more intelligent than most, but still human.  The humanities are the part of the human curriculum that has been under duress for many years at “universities.”  As business interests and money have taken on larger and larger roles in how schools conceptualize themselves, the humanities—which don’t make money—are undervalued and cut.  Capitalism takes no prisoners.  Education that has bought into that paradigm is bound to overlook certain facts.  Newton’s “arcane” interests were well hidden for a couple of centuries because who wants to think of the great rationalist as beholden to such a paltry thing as religion?  We’d rather keep our eyes firmly closed.  A conflict paradigm seems the better way to eradicate this troubling, so very human, aspect of even geniuses.  As long as there’s money to be made conflict will be the reigning model. 


What Smells

One of the stories I recently read had a character commenting on the smell of a place.  Although humans can’t rival many other mammals and some birds for sense of scent, smell is a keen reminder of location.  It is also one of the more personal aspects of the senses.  We get nervous when people start talking about smells.  We all know, however, that places have their own fragrances.  Home smells a certain way.  You always notice it going home from college, where the dorms have their own smell.  When I was visiting campuses as part of my editorial expectations, I returned to Boston University School of Theology.  Apart from the main corridor of 745 Commonwealth avenue appearing smaller than I remembered, the smell was so familiar as to be overpowering.  I hadn’t been there for at least a couple of decades, but my brain remembered it well.

I trust science.  I also think science can’t explain everything, particularly in the life of emotions.  One of the natural limitations of science is the data with which we have to work.  We have limited input.  I remember in chemistry class in high school we worked with chemicals that replicated scents.  The particular ethyls used to reproduce fruit scents were similar only by suggestion.  I remember thinking the banana combination only smelled like bananas because it was suggested to me that it did.  Smell is a complex world, and we know many animals do it better than we do.  Dogs, bears, even mice, know more of the world through their noses.  I suspect Fido knows home primarily by its smellscape.  We, the “masters” tend to miss a lot.  And that makes me wonder what science might be missing by our limited sense of smell.

If there is a supernatural world, I wonder what it might smell like.  We’ve all known someone whose dog wouldn’t go into a certain room, or who reacted to something we couldn’t see.  Perhaps Fido couldn’t see anything that we couldn’t but could smell it.  I often think that when dogs are tested humans try to understand their visual acuity because that’s how we experience our world.  Dogs, however, experience their world through scent.  We could stand to learn quite a lot about this planet we inhabit if we could somehow access the smells that we simply lack the capacity to reach and analyze.  We are only beginning to scratch the surface.


Just the Beginning

It occurs to me that my post on Sunday may have been a touch cryptic.  (I can be naughty at times.)  Horror Homeroom was good enough to publish a piece I’d written about the movie Midsommar, a film that got its hooks into me earlier this year.  Here’s the link in case you’d like to read it (it’s free): http://www.horrorhomeroom.com/midsommar-and-cross-quarter-day-horror/.  It’s not an article using the Bible and horror as in yesterday’s post, but rather it is an exploration of the broader relationship between horror and religion.  The origin of religion has long been a fascination, and the more I look into the connection with what makes us afraid, the more I find in common.  But why midsummer when summer’s only just beginning?

Ancient peoples in temperate zones, according to the records they left behind, carefully observed the change of seasons.  Without a tilted, spinning globe as a model the science of the time (which was likely their religion) suggested that the heavenly bodies were migratory.  If you use raw observation that’s what seems to be the case.  Now that I sit in the same office every day with a south and a west window, it becomes very clear how the sun shifts over the course of the year.  In the winter it seems to be on a journey far to the south.  Religions of such science would want to know, of course, when it would start coming back.  The years were divided into segments—we still recognize four of them in our seasons although, in truth, they are merely gradual changes that take place in the weather as the earth’s tilt moves our hemisphere toward or away from the sun.

Midsummer was a northern European festival to celebrate the longest day.  Whether this is the start of summer or the middle of summer is merely a matter of interpretation.  The film Midsommar plays on the disorienting long span of daylight in northern Sweden.  Without the dark to guide us, sleep and the regular rhythms of daily life can become difficult.  When the people believe the old religion, well, let your imagination run wild.  Horror films often lurk in these transitional times of the year.  We tend to associate them with Halloween, but there’s enough to be afraid of right now.  Not all horror has religious components, of course.  Nevertheless it has been there from the beginning, from when van Helsing pulled out a crucifix to frighten off Dracula.  And it continues, in perhaps more sophisticated ways, even in the broad daylight.


Bunny or No?

Since we’re in the midst of a smaller holiday season (capitalistic societies can only get away with one major holiday season because the workers must work) many people are wondering whether they should go to church for Easter tomorrow.  I’ll confess I woke up from a nightmare this morning where I accidentally forgot about COVID-19 and went to church.  I stepped inside and the building was full.  I tried to find an empty pew to socially distance myself from all but the Divine, and there was no room.  I felt infected as others started to cough around me.  In real life I’d just read from the World Health Organization’s situation report (number 80, located here, in case you want to see) that we’ve just reached day 100 since WHO received its first notification of this new disease.  The report has guidance for those who feel compelled to gather for religious services.  It makes for very interesting reading.

WHO, like certain political parties, knows that people will listen to their religious leaders rather than reason.  (And still our universities cut positions in their religion departments since, apparently, it is best not to know about such things.)  Recognizing that a secular, science-based organization simply can’t compete, WHO urges religious leaders to spread the word about evidence-based responses to the outbreak.  Don’t gather large Easter-day crowds (they also mention Passover and Ramadan), but, interestingly, do keep the services going.  WHO recognizes the psychological (you can’t say “spiritual”) value of religious belief.  It gives people hope and comfort.  It keeps them going in difficult times.  Call it mental health, but the World Health Organization has wellbeing right there in its title.

Photo credit: ItsLassieTime, via Wikimedia Commons

Ironically, the same day I saw an email from the other acronym in my life, SBL (the Society of Biblical Literature).  They were releasing their annual report showing the dismal job market figures for the discipline over the last year.  These jobs are fading and although WHO recognizes billions of people are motivated by religion our smartest institutions are shifting their money away from understanding it.  The COVID-19 outbreak puts us in this strange place where disjunctures become focal points.  If you look at a field of uniform gray long enough you’ll stop seeing anything at all.  You need contrast for vision to work.  WHO recognizes that religious observance constitutes a major challenge for the effort to keep people isolated.  Universities now in isolation, continue to see no reason to study this.  I’m waiting to awake from this nightmare.


The God Test

Humans don’t mean to be cruel, I’m pretty sure, when they test animals for intelligence.  We’re a curious lot, perhaps a bit too self-absorbed, but we want to know how other animals are like us.  Of course, we reserve actual thinking for ourselves, given how well we’ve managed to conserve our only environment, but we grant some special spark to our biological kin.  So we devise tests for them.  Since we can’t get beyond human experience, many of these tests are devised for creatures like us.  When animals fail our superiority is reconfirmed.  Then it’s back to the lab.  I’ve got to wonder how it feels to the subject of the experiment (or is it object?).  Some being that has mastered the art of capturing you, perhaps with the aid of alien technology, is trying to get you to understand something that’s only clear from its (the captor’s) viewpoint.  You need to suss out that viewpoint and solve the puzzle in the same way.

This makes me think of many forms of religion.  We’re born to a lower species (human) as the experimental subjects of gods, or a God, who watch(es) to see how we figure things out.  There’s a right answer, of course, but we’re only given hints as to what it is.  We’re given toys to play with—some of them dangerous—and we’re allowed to select clowns and buffoons to lead us.  We can kill off unthinkable numbers of our own kind and the only clue that we’ve succeeded is some tasty treat at the end.  Of course, we have to assume that the intelligence governing this whole farce is much greater than our own.  Doesn’t feel so good, does it?

Holism is the ability to see a continuity in all of nature.  And nature doesn’t just mean this warm globe on which we find ourselves.  It’s vast and mysterious and some parts of it are very cold and others very hot.  There are places we cannot go, and others that seem inevitable, given the choices.  Like the victims of bullies we don’t think about the larger system, but seek to impose our wills on those who see things differently than we do.  Some tote guns while others pack books.  All of us will shoo away insects that buzz too close.  Most of the animals “beneath” us will simply eat them.  Is this all a game?  Or is it some kind of experiment where we have to guess the answer, but with only a fraction of the information required?


Flipping

The mind-blowing book I mentioned last week is here unveiled.  I discovered Jeffrey Kripal’s work years ago, and have subsequently had a few conversations with him.  The Flip: Epiphanies of Mind and the Future of Knowledge is a challenging and necessary book.  In a way that only full-time academics can, Kripal examines the large picture.  When I say “large” I mean cosmic in scale.  He does so through the lens of the humanities and, especially, religious studies.  If anybody’s going to make religious studies cool, it is he.  The world is full of weird things.  If we’re honest most of us will admit to having had strange things happen to us.  Often we’ll filter them out or explain them away, but at other times we will stop, scratch our heads, and wonder what just went on.

The Flip is not a book of such anecdotes (and I, along with the author, am willing to take anecdotes seriously).  There is some strange stuff in here, but there is also a lot of science.  Historically the humanities, as understood by ancient Romans, included what we would call sciences.  Humanities, in other words, were attempts at understanding the world.  Today religious studies is among the humanities while science is separated out into STEM.  Kripal takes science seriously.  In fact, much of what he discusses here is the application of quantum physics to the macroscopic.  (I’m probably not explaining this well, but then, I guess you’ll have to read the book!)  In other words, science and the humanities need to come together again.  It’s not either/or, but both/and.

Holding out a hand across the aisle is uncomfortable.  Religion has done a great deal to disgrace itself of late, and it’s no wonder respectable folk want to keep their distance.  To understand what we are, however, requires a willingness to admit that humans are both deeply intellectually curious and deeply religiously inclined.  We can be both.  In fact, it is unlikely we can be any other way.  Anomalous occurrences aren’t generally welcome in religious studies any more than they are in the sciences.  That doesn’t stop strange stuff from happening.  This little book of big ideas uses that disjunction to lead the reader into spaces where the future might faintly be discerned.  Wide-ranging and provocative, this book needs to be read.  It is a strange world where two different approaches to knowledge so often decline to speak to one another.  Here they do, and their conversation is mind-blowing.


Plumbing Depths

This past week we had a plumber here for a day.  Our house has been owned by a succession of DIY weekend warriors who had more confidence than ability when it came to things like electric and water (which, I’ve learned, you want to keep apart).  Somehow our home inspector failed to spot these costly fixes, and I try to think of them all as investments—a concept foreign to a guy with my background of living paycheck to paycheck.  In any case, all this plumbing has me thinking deep thoughts about water.  And depth.  Things are seldom what they seem—there’s more below the surface, and those who struggle with the depths often come up with sayings we call profound.  And they often express them in poetic form because, when you get deep enough, words themselves break down.

I often consider this in the context of science.  Physicists break things down into formulas.  There’s a certain uniformity, they tell us, until you reach the quantum level, then the rules change.  I sometimes see this as an analogy with the staid nature of scientific prose versus the depth of good poetry.  Or even, dare I suggest it, profound fiction.  These sometimes explain our world better than the accepted facts of mundane existence, such as water always seeking the lowest point.  There comes a profundity, however, at which down becomes up.  The behavior of water, which we want in our houses but only in controlled locations, is somehow indicative of this.  “Deep calls unto deep” as one ancient source says.  And the plumber walks away with a good chunk of your cash.

Learning about science in school, I was always taught that good science is elegant—there should be beauty in a theory that explains the world.  I’ve often wondered how this fits in with a reality that is often messy—chaotic even.  Ancient peoples from the area that produced our Bible believed water to be chaotic.  It had to be controlled by the gods.  It is vital for life, we need it and yet it wreaks havoc on dry land as those who experience hurricanes know all too well.  The world into which I was born was one of indoor plumbing.  Once water gets in, as our leaky roof attests, it introduces chaos in a place we want to stay dry.  When water won’t behave like we want it to, however, we no longer call on the gods.  We call a plumber and pay our offering with profound reverence.

Young Dr. Wiggins contemplates chaos