NDEs

I love science. Like many young boys, I was probably enticed to science through science fiction. While I didn’t follow science to a career, I used it to study religious texts. Those who’ve never undertaken the challenge of trying to figure out what something written thousands of years ago—on clay!—really says may be surprised to learn just how much science is involved. Nevertheless, as comforting as reductionism may be, something just doesn’t feel right about it. Science is how we explain and understand our world, and it does a spectacular job of it. The problem arises when science becomes what Stephen Jay Gould called a “magisterium.” Magisteria have all the answers. Yes, science explains how matter and energy work and interact, but it has yet to explain satisfactorily what it feels like. Most days I feel like the person I’ve become accustomed to show to the world. That person is very much like every other—being born, eating, breathing, dying. Medical science can explain most of it, but what about the parts it can’t?

I just finished reading Ornella Corazza’s Near-Death Experiences: Exploring the Mind-Body Connection. I remember when the craze about this hit in 1981 with the release of the movie Life After Life. I was fascinated and terrified by it. Since a materialistic view of science dismisses anything that has the residue of spirits or souls, the phenomenon of the resuscitated dead reporting seeing their bodies from above, shooting through tunnels into the light, and sometimes meeting the dead (or God), were explained as last nano-second hallucinations as the brain prepared to shut down or reboot (upon resuscitation). That’s that. The answer, however, didn’t satisfy everyone. What about those cases where the dead person reported, in detail, what happened in other rooms, or things they couldn’t have seen in their own room, had they been conscious? Corazza takes these considerations seriously and tries to understand what may be going on. Obviously, her explorations will not convince a reductionist, but they may give pause to some of us.

What makes her approach so interesting is that Corazza takes into account an alternative way of looking at consciousness. While the facts of science are, by definition, universal, the contexts within which those facts are viewed are not. Having spent considerable time with Japanese scientists exploring consciousness, eastern ideas of the body inform her research. In the western world we have an easy familiarity with the Cartesian dualism of body and soul that does not fit into other worldviews. Corazza takes the interesting step of asking what if we apply an eastern paradigm of the body (one that understands soul as body, and not just in a materialistic sense) and apply it to the question of Near Death Experiences. The results are mind-stretching. I feel as if my consciousness got up from months of laziness and ran a marathon (or at least a 5-K). It’s a bit winded and parts of it are starting to ache a little. No reductionists need worry, however, because in that worldview none of this exists.

Liberating Science

The fact that prominent scientists occasionally take time from their busy schedules to fire off a broadside against religion and religious believers freely bare their fangs at science shows that we need some efforts at reconciliation. I am reminded of schoolyard bullies when specialists in either realm make claims of exclusivity. Religion and science are both here to stay, and they’d better learn to get along. I just finished reading the remarkable little book The Sacred Depths of Nature by biologist Ursula Goodenough. While declaring herself a non-theist, Goodenough, the child of a Methodist minister, preserves a profound respect for the sacred in a concept she calls “religious naturalism.” Her brief book, which a colleague compared to a daily devotional, contains more good sense than all the enraged professionals bellowing at each other from either side of an unbreechable gulf. Uncompromising in her science, Goodenough is not suspicious of the human religious impulse, but embraces it in the expressions of nature. It is an approach I found liberating and amazingly conciliatory. It lacks the territoriality of Stephen Jay Gould’s Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA) and preserves the integrity of the human person in all its complexity.

The day I finished the book the headlines of the paper announced the premature death of Sally Ride, another woman who moved science in the right direction. Ride’s sister is a Presbyterian minister, while Ride herself was a physicist as well as the first American woman in space. Aboard the space shuttle Challenger, she made history also as the youngest American in space. Typical of the imperialist national attitude that unfortunately still reigns supreme, space had been tacitly declared a man’s world. Sally Ride shattered that glass ceiling at 17,500 miles per hour. Even so, change seems to have decelerated once again to far below sub-orbital speed. Religion is partly to blame. A deep component in our culture, religions in the western world have traditionally asserted male superiority. Even those who claim God to be sexless can’t really conceive of a big person without some gender. The day after her death and the headlines had shifted from mourning to astonishment that she was gay.

The loss of Sally Ride is a loss to science, for she was in the heaven formerly occupied by God, showing women the way. I am, however, comforted by the efforts of Ursula Goodenough to keep the dialogue open. Too often, it seems, that conflict is the cost of disagreement. One of the observations of astronauts is that long periods confined with the same small coterie of people lead to inevitable disagreements. The question facing us all—for our planet is not so large after all—is how we will choose to deal with differing worldviews. It was declared that science would eventually bury religion, once reason had taken hold and superstition had run its course. Although the grave was dug, it has never been filled. Maybe we should all read the sensible approach of Goodenough and just be glad that we’ve all had a chance to be here at all. And remember Sally Ride as a fearless explorer, a hero rather than a spectacle.

Scotland’s Cryptic Evangelist

Many years ago it was now, on a Victoria Day bank holiday weekend, my wife and I were on a camping trip with friends in the Scottish highlands. Pitching our tents on the banks of Loch Ness, we joked about the potential danger—after all, Nessie had reputedly attached St. Columba, therefore even the pious had no refuge. Early the next morning, our party still intact, we drove to Urquhart Castle, arriving before it opened. Out on the loch we saw something moving through the water, leaving a wake. It was breaking the surface but was too small to be a boat and it was not a bird. It moved at constant speed until it was out of sight. This was in the days of actual film, and slide processing was “dear” as the Scots say, but I snapped off a photo anyway. The slide is too indistinct to make a diagnosis, but our friends, who had a better camera, came to the conclusion that it was a small boat. After looking at their enlargement, I still have my doubts. I’ve always sat on the fence for the Loch Ness monster. Certainly it seems improbable, but we have only a cursory knowledge of sea creatures and Loch Ness is deep and long and isolated. Is there a Loch Ness monster? Maybe yes and maybe no.

Of course, Nessie has been in the news, as my wife pointed out, backed by the considerable creativity of the creationist camp. Seizing a living dinosaur as the death knell of evolution, Fundamentalist schools in several states are using textbooks that argue Nessie’s existence proves that dinosaurs didn’t evolve and that they still walk (or at least swim) among us. An excellent corrective to this “either evolution or special creation” is Victor Stenger’s book God: The Failed Hypothesis, that I reported on a few weeks back. With apologies to the late Stephen Jay Gould, this tactic puts an entirely new spin on the concept of the hopeful monster theory.

Religion and monsters are thoroughly intermeshed. Often this intermingling comes as the result of revulsion against the unclean or impure aspects of life that monstrosity represents. Numerous analysts have shown that monsters tend to be unholy mixes of elements that religions prefer to keep widely separated—animals that would never have made it onto the ark, yet somehow have arisen since the deluge. Human fear at contamination has an excellent basis in evolution; those who never developed the sense to stay away from the sources of contamination grew sick and died off. Monsters, in this sense, serve as useful reminders for avoiding the “strange fire” that so displeases the Lord. Reading how good Christians are now reaching out the right hand of fellowship to their monstrous brethren, I wonder if a long-held belief is being imperiled. Those who would swim with monsters must be very cautious indeed, for above all things, monsters are notoriously unpredictable.

Third Mile Island

Sitting in the shadow of the cooling towers of Three Mile Island along the banks of the Susquehanna River the night before a friend’s wedding is one of the college memories that remains vividly in my mind. The accident had occurred some six years earlier, but seeing those ominous blinking red lights, no doubt to warn low-flying aircraft of the massive towers, left me with an irrational sense of danger. It will be a sad day when we have nothing left to fear. The next year, the Chernobyl disaster took place. This tragedy has results that are still playing out among the millions exposed to the radiation. Perhaps these events explain why Alan Parson Project’s Ammonia Avenue remains among my favorite albums.

While having my oil changed yesterday, the waiting room television was fixated on the story of the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown, settling it comfortably between Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. With anxiety about the year 2012 running amok, many people are looking for signs. Perhaps the most unfortunate meme the Bible has introduced to the world is the Apocalypse. In origin apocalyptic concepts emerged from the Zoroastrian idea that a dualistic change in ages was coming. Believing this world to be under the baleful influence of Angra Mainyu, a day was eventually going to arrive where all this would be turned around and Ahura Mazda would set things right. Christianity borrowed the idea, shrouded it in secrecy, and began an unhealthy interest in the end of all things.

Fukushima Daiichi may feel like the end of the world, but it is not. In fact, all that we know of our planet shows its great resilience. The late Stephen Jay Gould, in his popular book Bully for Brontosaurus, opined that the earth is not as fragile as is often supposed. He notes in the prologue, “Our planet is not fragile at its own time scale, and we, pitiful latecomers in the last microsecond of our planetary year, are stewards of nothing in the long run.” Not that we should not attempt to protect our environment – we do that to preserve ourselves and other species – but if we should fail, earth will carry on. Our globe is expected to support life for another 500 million years. Instead of following false positives, we might be better off reminding ourselves that Gaia still has a few tricks up her metaphorical sleeves.

One way or another