Cave Monsters

A story in Discover back in December discusses cave drawings from Indonesia.  Dating back almost 40,000 years before the creation of the world, these cave paintings represent the oldest yet discovered.  The interesting thing about such cave art is the representation of figures—both human and animal—that are instantly recognizable.  Scientists studying the art are able to identify likely species, but, as John Morehead pointed out on his Theofantastique Facebook post, there are also fantastical beasts.  We might call them monsters.  It’s interesting to see how scientific writers shift from their awe at life-like illustration to a nearly palpable embarrassment when the creatures become mythical.  Indeed, the article itself suggests such figures point to a very early sense of either fiction or spirituality.  The monstrous and religion have long trod parallel paths and we are only now beginning to explore the implications.

Monsters are beings over which we have no control.  They don’t abide by human rules and often the only recourse against them is religious.  When monsters come knocking, it’s often wise to drop to your knees.  Or at least reach for your crucifix.  Many rationalists like to claim that human civilization developed without religion.  The discoveries at sites such as Göbekli Tepe gainsay that assessment, indicating that humans first gathered for religious reasons and agriculture and all the rest followed from that.  Perhaps they came together for fear of monsters?  That’s only a guess, but I recall the defensive tower of Jericho.  The archaeologist lecturing us as we stood by this neolithic structure asked “What were they afraid of?”  He never answered that question.

Bringing monsters into the discussion isn’t an attempt to make light of these significant discoveries.  Rather, we need to learn to appreciate the fact that monsters are serious business.  Religion, whether or not literally true, is important.  Civilization has been running the opposite direction for some time now.  When surveys emerge demonstrating that the vast majority of the world’s population is still religious, analysts frown.  It does make me wonder, however, if nature itself programs us this way.  To other sentient creatures who experience us as predators, humans must look monstrous.  We come in a variety of colors and textures (clothing), we smell of deodorant, shampoo, soap, aftershave, or none of the above.  We emit strange sounds (our music).  Are we not the monsters of the natural world?  And should animals develop religion, would we not be one of the causes?  It’s just a guess, but I need to sit in my cave and think about it for a while.

Mission Impossible

You can always tell Jehovah’s Witnesses by their tracts.  When I heard a tap, tap, tap on my front door the other day I was handed a flier and a cheery invitation to an important celebration (Easter).  The circumlocution used for the holiday made we wonder so I flipped over the tract and saw the familiar JW on the bottom.  I always treat religion at my door with respect because, well, you never know.  It’s this latter bit—the uncertainty—that has always given me pause when it comes to missionaries, domestic or imported.  Missionaries by definition believe their particular spin on religion is the only correct one, otherwise there’s no reason to convert others.  This is often the highest hurdle over which globalism must leap—the willingness to admit one might be wrong.

I could be wrong about this, but I have always considered the willingness to admit you might be incorrect as a sign of spiritual maturity.  I also know from my youth that that kind of uncertainty can drive you crazy.  We want to know we’re right!  But then, who doesn’t?  Those of us who think globalization is a good thing have failed to take into account just how difficult it is for many people to admit possible error.  For the vast, vast majority of human history we were separated from one another by natural boundaries.  Travel for leisure did not exist.  Within a local group beliefs would likely be fairly uniform.  Then you encounter others who might say, well, you’re wrong.  That’s seldom a welcome prospect.

More than air travel, the internet has shown us, as we connect, just how diverse a species we really are.  What about that missionary at my door?  For religions indoctrinated into one doctrine this can’t be easy.  I’ve had conversations with Jehovah’s Witnesses before.  There’s no convincing them they might be wrong.  Missionaries come with the assurance they’re saving you.  Rare is the proselytizer who’s there possibly to learn the truth.  As I think about it, after decades of attending church how many times has anyone wanted to have an in-depth conversation about belief?  Outside confirmation class, that is.  And even there, when most are either teenagers or older specialists in some secular business, discussing deep issues seems to make others uncomfortable.  When the missionaries come, I want the conversation to go both ways.  I’ve spent half a century thinking about these things, after all.  When there’s a tap, tap, tapping at my door, I wonder what tracks will be left behind.

Simply Beautiful

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

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

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

Kidnapped by Religion

The title is, unfortunately, not mine. My wife sent me a story on NPR entitled “Humility Is Embedded In Doing Science, But What About Spirituality?” by Barbara J. King. The piece is largely an interview with physicist Marcelo Gleiser about his new book, The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected. Of course, now it’s on my reading list. The interview treads the well-worn path of science versus religion. Science is presented as humble (which I don’t doubt, when in the right hands—or the right minds, rather) while religion is arrogant, claiming to know everything. Gleiser states that spirituality has been “kidnapped by religion” but still has a place in the life of a scientist. I wish there were more of them like Gleiser.

Now, I have to admit my data are limited. I read science books—I have since I was a teenager—but with a layman’s eye. My scientist dreams were dashed against the unyielding rocks of complex mathematics, something evolution cruelly withheld from my gray matter. I wouldn’t have survived high school pre-calc without my younger brother’s help. I’ve nevertheless read the pre-chewed, partly-digested science regurgitated for the formulaically challenged, and find myself, like Glieser, awed at the wonder of it all. Still, I also find many scientists—at least those with the loudest voices—claiming that what they’ve discovered is all there is. There is only matter, and we with our three-pound brains have figured it all out, by the gods, without the gods! We know all that can possibly be known will conform to the system our brains have developed, and there are no gods out there and no spirits in here and that pang you’re feeling in your gut is merely physiological, not spiritual.

I haven’t read The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected, but I have found many scientists walking the same trail I’m on. We are those who are seeking the truth, and who don’t assume the answers. Religion need not be arrogant. At its best, it’s not far from science. As a species, we have developed rationality extremely well (even if we fail to use it). Much of biological existence, however, is emotion, or feeling. That we sometimes leave behind. It participates in reality as much as rationality does. I’m reminded of this every time I hear someone in the business world refer to “soft” skills. What mere humans bring to this rationalistic business of making money. We’re just the squishy stuff that CEOs can’t live without because wealth mean nothing if you can’t compare it to someone else’s. Humility? I agree, Dr. Gleiser, we must maintain a sense of wonder. For those of you who say we’re just a number waiting to be quantified, I would humbly ask for 42, if it’s not already taken.

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Psychics Anonymous

New York is a city that is fascinated with itself. To me it’s kind of like rooting for a professional sports team. The members of the team come from all over the place. As Jerry Seinfeld once said, “You’re rooting for the jerseys,” or something to that effect. So it was that I found a piece in News Watch so interesting. “New York City: Psychic Capital of the World?” the headline ran. New York has to be first in this too? I’ve noticed on my daily walks through Midtown Manhattan that many psychics hang out the shingle proffering their wares. In my half decade of commuting into the city, I’ve only ever seen one person take up such an offer by pushing through the door. Nevertheless, I have been impressed by the sheer number of psychics that advertise in New York.

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I’m not one to rule out psi without giving it a fair hearing. Much knowledge is lost, I fear, by the ridicule factor. How many times have you thought about someone for the first time in years and then they called you? We all experience significant coincidences from time to time. Princeton and Duke Universities even set up, once upon a time, laboratories to test such things. What really interests me here, though, is that those who advertise are doing it as a business venture. Something of value changes hands for a chance at some insider knowledge. For legal purposes the psychics have to declare their wares for entertainment only—they go where no empirical evidence dares follow. Lawyers live for such ambiguity. Even so, some of the most influential people in the world of politics have relied on psychics. Some police departments do as well, very quietly.

News Watch says that psychic consultation is the closest some New Yorkers get to spiritual. If so, I’m glad they exist in such profusion. Our world has many shortages: fresh water, adequate food, and, for the tastes of some, fossil fuels. Perhaps the most dangerous shortage of all is the recognition that we are spiritual beings. Call it emotion, call it irrationality, call it feeling—our non-physical selves are what we care most deeply about. When we greet someone after an illness or surgery, we don’t ask “How do you think,” but rather “How do you feel?” We can give it many names, but the existence of our psyches is what keeps us sane and healthy. New York City is just like anywhere else, in that regard. It is a very human city.

Seekers

We live not far from an upscale mall. This mall, although over 30 miles from Manhattan, has its own bus line dedicated to it by New Jersey Transit. There is a route that runs throughout the day from the City to this mall and back. My readers know I’m hardly an uptown type. Nevertheless, an occasional trip to the mall can be a learning experience. On a cold weekend where outdoor activities felt unnecessarily ascetic we went to stroll around to see what was new. In the midst of the usual stores I never visit, there was one that had the temporary feel of an exploratory venture in high rent retail. It was, for lack of an appropriate adjective, a “New Age” store, featuring figurines from eastern religions, incense, dragons, and the aesthetic of the hippie mystique. Wandering about, I couldn’t help but notice how much of the merchandise, in one way or another, was religious in orientation.

Those of us from the western hemisphere find the quotidian aspects of Hinduism and Buddhism exotic. Otherworldly, even. In our sterile offices, we dare not burn incense. Fabrics this colorful are not worn to work. It was as if the only place true color exists is in that mystical world that religions acknowledge, but businesses deny. Yes, it was a Saturday, but nevertheless the number of patrons surprised me. The town in which the mall sits is quite affluent. We live far enough from the City that some very serious money resides at no great distance. Patrons tend to have enough, and considerable surplus. And here they are, in a store selling that is undifferentiated spirituality. A stand of silver jewelry was explicitly marked Wicca. There were even Christian figurines among the crystals.

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People, even (or perhaps especially) the wealthy, desire more than the dollar can bring. We’re authoritatively told that we are meat computers. Mere automatons to the forces of physics. Our human experience tells us otherwise. We are meaning-seeking creatures. There are people who will willingly sit for three hours on a bus just to reach this mall. Whether it is a hippie-friendly shop, or the latest fashion trends that draw them here, they have this in common: they’re seeking something. I glance around and spy a mirror. I came here looking for a place out of the cold, but I have discovered an unexpected insight. If we make our own, or purchase it prefabricated, we venture to our secular cathedrals to find a kind of salvation.

Growing Up

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

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

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