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   So now the hand of a personal, all-seeing god has been replaced by blind physics?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!

Advertisements

Thoughts on Catching a Fish

In a reflective moment I asked a close friend why we so loved to hunt and fish. “It’s just anachronistic,” he said, as though that explained it.

Both of us relish our time out of doors – away from cement, asphalt, glass and steel – and especially those priceless moments of intimacy with a fellow creature not of the human race.  The partridge bursting from brush beneath our feet.  The hare zigzagging away at full speed.   And not just during hunting or fishing seasons. The school of bluefish brushing our legs as we swim in the surf also thrills.

He’d rather row the boat while I cast, provided I hand him the rod every other time a fish is hooked.  Once on the line, we are connected to that other being, that beautiful product of evolution, or design – whatever.  And the connection is as intangible as it is material.

The fish has beaten the odds – floating as a defenseless egg on a hostile sea, schooling as a fingerling, evading sharks and gillnets for years in adulthood. It has plumbed dark depths, migrated in response to mysterious forces, felt the draw of mates.  It has a will, to survive.  We feel it directly in each jump and run. We too have a will,  however redundant or anachronistic, to bring it home to feed ourselves and our families in a way so much richer, at least to us, than the finest meal at the finest four star.  And in so doing the fish becomes us, at least in a materialistic sense.  The fact that its will does not brings us face to face with the Great Mystery, though our perhaps-wiser forebears thought it did.

Bringing home a piece of plastic-wrapped chicken from the supermarket has none of that.  Eating it, we sustain ourselves with a nearly synthetic product of our civilized economy.  Hens bred with breasts so huge that their legs give out, raised in warehouses with manufactured food delivered by conveyor, mass slaughtered with Henry Ford stainless technology, quick chilled, aseptically wrapped, transported, presented with Madison Avenue-designed aesthetic.  Is that what we become?

Let me gut my fish barehanded on a rock and toss its roe to the hungering gulls, knowing that in doing so I have sacrificed some of the next generation of bass.  Let me keep fresh in my mind the will that fueled its jumps and runs, and wonder if that spirit is now no more or has instead returned to some larger source from which it was simply borrowed or shared.  Let me ask if my own will may not come from and eventually return to a similar source or maybe the same.  Meanwhile, all those ineffable drives and desires and even thoughts are translated into concrete action by the sparkling synaptic machinery laid out by our DNA.

Anachronistic, yes, but there’s more to it than that.