Neither Black nor White; Vanilla Instead

I am regularly reminded that there has to be more to it.  It happened again just recently at a relative’s memorial service.    The minister, in an insightful eulogy,  highlighted the deceased’s positive attributes and deftly skirted the negatives with quirky humane anecdotes.  Then she got to the part about being welcomed into the Kingdom of Heaven by the hand of God.  That’s where  I got lost.

Where do those religious images get their power?   How can so many otherwise reasonable people swallow these ancient myths?  Given our species’ proclivity to cook up bunkum, isn’t there a strong case  that, millennia ago, in the smoky murk of their tents, village elders invented these tales to pacify their tribes just as we have invented Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny to brighten the lives of our kids, and maybe even, as a side effect, encourage them to  “be good.”  In spite of this,  the most ardently religious among us have taken on the modern scientific community – offering up intelligent design to replace Darwinian evolution.  Sadly, that has so infuriated some scientists that they are now making equally hard-to-believe claims.

Most outspoken among them has been Richard Dawkins.  He responds to the intelligent designers in his book River Out of Eden:  “In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. ”  Then, in The God Delusion, he takes the gloves off:   “The only watchmaker is the blind forces of physics.”   So now the hand of a personal, all-seeing god has been replaced by blind physics?

Don’t get me wrong.  Physics has explained a lot.  It has given us lasers, computers, and atomic energy.  But can it ever explain self awareness, or love, or fear or the infinitude of other ideas and emotions which are much more palpably part of my reality than, say, electrons.    Dawkins, it seems to me, has made a leap of faith as audacious as that of the minister.  I imagine that, if asked, he would say that these obvious realities have not YET been explained by the forces of physics, but that they soon will be. Well, good luck.

Once upon a time, sages knew that the cosmos rotated around the earth.  Then Copernicus, Galileo and Newton set the record straight, explaining the way the laws of physics explained how the solar system worked.  And now our modern sages say the laws of physics, as they know them, explain EVERYTHING.

Of course this claim, which seems to deny the reality of the very house we live in, gets the religious community pretty animated.  And, indeed, there is blood in the water and the intelligent designers smell it.   They sense the wound in the argument.  They perceive a lack of face validity. And they enthusiastically send their legions into the battle for hearts and minds to knock on doors, run for school board and petition their legislatures with an even more cockeyed weltanschauung.

Like civilians caught in a crossfire between warring radicals, this leaves us common folk running for cover.  Faced with a choice between equally unsatisfactory alternatives most of us enter denial and  go about our lives as though there is no need to think about the big picture.  But underneath it all, we know the big picture is pretty important for our peace of mind.  And even though it is tempting to think about this stuff as an either or situation, I think that the truth may well lie elsewhere.

I’m no philosopher and I am certainly no physicist but some writings by NYU Professor of Philosophy Thomas Nagel in his book Mind and Cosmos, and other recent ideas put forward by some respected physicists in an article in Scientific American suggest alternatives to those conventional wisdoms and they do so coming from very different disciplinary directions.  The philosopher’s ideas appeared in a NYTimes Opinionator piece of August 18, 2013 where he argues convincingly that self awareness and the ability to reason are just as “real” as a chair.  He further makes a strong case that an understanding of these things is simply not accessible to the physical sciences.  At about the same time in the August 2013 issue of Scientific American, Meinard Kuhlman reviews the ideas of several physicists who, addressing the incompatibility of quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity, argue that the basic elements of reality are not particles and energy but ……….relationships and qualities!

Perhaps we’re getting somewhere.  Or at least we may be on a path out of the two intellectual deserts in one of which we and the rest of the cosmos are a meaningless accident while in the other we are the plaything of a bearded old gent who, like Santa Claus, takes us on his knee and promises to give us what we ask for if we’re good.

I don’t pretend to know where the path ends, or if it ends at all.  But I am tempted to believe that along the way a story emerges that takes into account the 95% of mass in the universe that those brainy scientists tell us is “dark matter”, makes clear to common mortals how Schroedinger’s cat in a box can be both alive and dead at the same time, acknowledges the fact that the feelings I have towards those I love are as real as the chair I’m sitting on and proves, unequivocally, that Descartes was right when he said “I think, therefore I am.”  And so, by the way, are you!

7 thoughts on “Neither Black nor White; Vanilla Instead

  1. Wow! Lovely writing! A profoundly well written blog about the profound! Truly the most reasonable and well laid out assessment I have ever read on what is doubtlessly humanity’s most difficult topic. “The smoky murk of their tents” – and I simply love your hypnotic combo of powerful ideas and poetic language 🙂

  2. When I started reading this my first thought was ‘This is way too deep for my brain’. Not one to give up, I realized your comments were often my thoughts. I have long believed much of the old testament was written as an instruction as to explain things to the populace. Most were un-educated and limited understanding capabilities. It was mostly written as stories, that they would understand – considering their superstitions. Sadly now-a-days people try to study them to death, instead of accepting them as stories. I haven’t read all your blog yet, I intend to- the title is perfect for it.

    • Dawn –
      If it sounds “too deep” for your brain it is poorly written and needs work. But the fact that at least some of it connected to your thoughts is heartening. And I agree with you that overanalysis of stories can lead to all sorts of confusion.

  3. Yes, there may be a way out of the conflict between science and religion: don’t regard it as a duality.

    I view the cosmos from a scientific rather than a religious perspective. But just as our minds are both rational and emotional, perhaps science does not offer a complete explanation for the human experience. My scientist son once told me that science is merely one paradigm for forming a worldview.

    In reading Donald Worster’s thoughtful book, The Wealth of Nature, I developed the thought that a conservationist’s concern for the natural world is philosophically based on the concepts of ethics and aesthetics.

    It’s the aesthetic part that interests me. Many times I have had an aesthetic experience in the out-of-doors that transcends beauty and moves on to spirituality and beyond. Aldo Leopold certainly experienced it when he looked into the eyes of a dying wolf. Music does the same thing (even if it is man-made!). But what causes an aesthetic or spiritual sense? In these examples, it’s the mind reacting to visual or audial wavelengths. It is not inherent in the natural world. I don’t think that makes any difference to me. It’s what I experience that counts here.

    Wonder is a large part of it. Just how do all of those microwaves move about without interfering with one another? And what about what was going on in the universe a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the big bang? And the frothy millions of universes we will never experience? Well, that’s all a different subject, but I do think that awe is an aspect of beauty. It probably will never be explained by science.

    These thoughts lead to another subject: religious naturalism. It is a concept developed by Ursula Goodenough in her book, The Sacred Depths of Nature. The concept has been explicated by several other writers. I particularly enjoyed Nature is Enough, by Loyal Rue.

    I do not mean to advocate religious naturalism. I haven’t though enough about it. I do mean to provoke a response from your readers. Is it really valid to think about nature in religious terms?

    Jon Halverson

    • Yes. And here’s another perspective. Could trying to locate the aesthetic/spiritual “thing” as residing EITHER in the natural world OR within what you experience be misleading – akin to making a duality out of science and religion. Might the “thing” not be some combination or relationship between the two? It is easy to forget that we ourselves – especially our human natures – are themselves part of that natural world.

      And as for the validity of thinking about nature in religious terms, isn’t that where it all began – Thor wielding his hammer to produce thunder, Neptune commanding the sea, the Mayan jaguar god controlling fire etc. Seems perfectly appropriate to me to consider the impossible-to-adequately describe feelings one gets from hearing Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, seeing the Grand Tetons reflected in Jackson Lake or even wondering at the power of a hurricane as awe-inspiringly “religious”.

      Thanks for the post! And I’ve put Worster, Goodenough and Rue on my To Be Read list.

    • And here is a much more articulate description of the religious dimension of the natural world. An excerpt from William Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey in which the poet describes his feelings on returning to a rural landscape.

      …………..These beauteous forms,
      Through a long absence, have not been to me
      As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
      But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
      Of towns and cities,
      I have owed to them In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
      Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
      And passing even into my purer mind,
      With tranquil restoration:—feelings too
      Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
      As have no slight or trivial influence
      On that best portion of a good man’s life,
      His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
      Of kindness and of love.
      Nor less, I trust,
      To them I may have owed another gift,
      Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
      In which the burthen of the mystery,
      In which the heavy and the weary weight
      Of all this unintelligible world,
      Is lightened:—that serene and blessed mood,
      In which the affections gently lead us on,—
      Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
      And even the motion of our human blood
      Almost suspended, we are laid asleep In body, and become a living soul:
      While with an eye made quiet by the power
      Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
      We see into the life of things………

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