Rethinking God’s Finger

 

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                                                    nasa black hole

Some  interesting things are going on out at the peripheries of the so-called sciences, the so-called humanities, and the so-called arts.  I say so-called because I think the distinctions, in many ways, lack a difference.  At least, that’s the way “they” should be conceptualized because considering them as separate creates an intellectual silo mentality, and a silo mentality restricts creativity.

 

Science is the process by which we seek a verifiable vision of the universe.  The humanities seek to understand humankind which, of course, is a part of the universe  – arising from the same creative force; presumably governed by the same set of laws.  And the arts  are individuals’ attempts to articulate a vision of some part of the universe. (By “universe” I mean the totality of reality – feelings, concepts, and abstractions as well as nuts, bolts and table legs.)  Art succeeds to the extent that it mirrors  the vision of the universe held by others.  As currently practiced, the methods used by the arts, the sciences and the humanities are different.  That is a large part of the problem.  But whether one  is walking, horseback riding, or sailing to Byzantium, the basic event is the same. One is questing Byzantium, whatever the mode of transportation.

 

But out at the edges the distinctions blur.  From the antiquities onward important geniuses have straddled disciplines.  One look at Da Vinci’s notebooks makes clear his identity as both artist and scientist.  Michelangelo was as much anatomist as sculptor.  And consider Herbert Melville and his masterpiece of whale biology and grand allegory.    

 

Lately, I’ve come across some fascinating modern examples of such hybrid vigor in the works of contemporary polymaths.   Missa Charles Darwin is a recent composition by Gregory Brown, written in liturgical polyphony and structured in the form of a traditional mass.   Music has long been a mainstay of religion – soaring melodies reverberating in the grand architecture of cathedrals, calls to prayer sung from minarets, gospel choirs – lyrics  relating ancient stories or prayers.  The text of Brown’s Missa, however, is mostly quotations from the writings of Charles Darwin. And the notes of the music actually follow the base sequences of segments of the DNA of one of Darwin’s finches! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s3IsKOXjcbk The result harmonizes magnificently with that part of us yearning for spirituality.   Such use of music to underscore the awesomeness and wonder of Darwin’s idea – to “religiousize it” if you will – succeeds so brilliantly that the comments following one of its performances on Youtube include a barrage of hate and fury from the religious right as heated as the conflict between the Sunnis and the Shiites. Despite this vitriol, however the music critic of the San Diego Story writes, after hearing the piece, “I have heard a surfeit of contemporary sacred music, and no composer has impressed me more than Gregory Brown. A smart publishing house should toss him a hefty retainer and sign him up to a very long contract.
And there are similar things happening on the other side of the supposed art/science divide.  A group of molecular biologists at Harvard, recognizing the beauty and complexity of their field, have collaborated with some very talented visual artists and animators to create a stunning video of the dynamic chemistry of a cell.  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/10/science/watch-proteins-do-the-jitterbug.html?hpw&rref=science&_r=0  The work is funded by a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and, perhaps to satisfy the “scientific” bent of that granting agency, its stated purpose is pedagogical. There is no doubt in my mind, however, that it could hold its own very nicely against many of the installations at the New York Museum of Modern Art.  Clearly it merits matching funds from the National Endowment For the Arts, bringing to life for the non-scientist  the wonder and awesomeness of  the inner workings of……well….. life.  Equally awe-inspiring is an animated reconstruction of an event at the other end of the size spectrum – a spectacular star/black hole encounter. http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap151028.html Given the right frame of mind, NASA artists’ visualization of this event – usually “explained” in terms of the mind-bending language of quantum mechanics – rivals the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel for its power-driven beauty.  Not only that, but it has the advantage of being evidence-based!

And the scientific/literary interface is  yielding up some inspiring treasures as well.   Several years ago Alan Lightman – PhD. in Physics from Cal Tech and subsequently assistant professor of astronomy at Harvard – wrote Einstein’s Dreams a novel which became a runner-up for the 1994 L.L. Winship/PEN New England award.   Each chapter in this delightful little book features time behaving according to a set of laws different from the ones with which we are familiar.  As well as creating some thoroughly fascinating challenges for its lovable characters, the book manages  to imbue the reader with a much deeper grasp of the nature of this elusive entity.  

More recently, E.O. Wilson, after a distinguished career as a myrmecologist and evolutionary biologist, offered up a novel which made it to  number 35 on the NYTimes hardcover bestseller list.  Barbara Kingsolver, reviewing Anthill for the Times Book Section http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/11/books/review/Kingsolver-t.html wrote: “Scientists hardly ever write novels. Fabricating imaginary people is not the domain of the scientific method, to put it mildly. Constructing a plot, lacing it with clues to lead the reader to a well-prepared conclusion, is heretical business for those trained to unprejudiced observation. But any who take the leap may use their worldliness to good advantage, smuggling gems of empirical knowledge across the literary border to create fiction with unusually rewarding heft.”   Yes, “smuggling gems” across disciplinary borders – we need more of that.

We need more of this merging of silos.  Not just “interdisciplinary” work but broadened truth-seeking, rather than narrowed. More synthesis, less reductionism.  More Renaissance minds, less specialization.   More Da Vinci and his notebooks  – defining him as neither an artist or a scientist.

The greatest stories ever told in Western civilization are Genesis,  Exodus, the biography of Christ and the Quran.  These artistic, humanistic efforts were, like modern day science, an attempt to explain the universe and humanity as they were thought of at the time. As great stories, they have had phenomenal staying power but they are rooted in an understanding of the world which is literally millennia out of date.  And the greatest music ever written echoes these stories in one form or another.

But reality as we have come to understand it since these great stories were originally told has the potential for even greater stories, the potential to inspire even greater respect for the Great Power that set it all in motion.  And there’s another dimension. Given how much we now know that we couldn’t begin to have imagined back when those first great stories were told, it makes considerable sense, as we look forward into the future, to forsake the hubris of certitude and realize that there is a great deal more miraculous stuff still out there beyond the horizon of our current knowledge.

Just imagine Moses living today instead of 3500 years ago and now being the privileged recipient of the story of earth’s creation. A modern Moses would be well-aware of the overwhelming evidence that the earth is four and a half billion years old, would have already studied the fossil record of humankind, and already seen the remarkable images of the universe posted on NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day website.  Talk about miracles!  Those stories are so much richer than the deus ex machina trope of Genesis.  In the hands of an E.L.Doctorow, James Michener or some other equally talented writer perhaps the Gideon Society would even begin leaving copies of the new version of Genesis in motel rooms!  And even that story will no doubt merit rewriting within a matter of decades.

 

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Give Me That New Age Religion

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Reverend Billy preaching the Gospel in the Church of Stop Shopping

Every once in a while, a well-scrubbed pair of young people in dark suits exit their car in front of my house and head for the door, Bibles tucked under arms, cheerful smiles radiating from their innocent faces.  It’s a signal for me to be really quiet and pretend there is no one home.

The media are abuzz these days with polling data showing a longstanding decline in American religiosity.  Nearly every Christian sect as well as religious Judaism has been steadily losing adherents for years while poll categories of “no religious affiliation,” atheist, agnostic and “undeclared” are growing.  What is going on?

Surely the well-publicized miseries wrought by religious fanaticism are a big factor.   The pedophilic scandals of the Catholic Church and the widely publicized peccadillos of a few charismatic Christian evangelicals have also no doubt played a role, but I suspect that a large part of the problem (if one can call it that) goes deeper.

Mainstream religions, it seems to me, share two main features: a good story and socially useful dogma.  In Judaism the story involves the creation of Earth and mankind, the downstream tribulations of a semitic tribe and the evolution of the tribe’s special personal relationship with God, a collective loyalty to whom is a prerequisite for successful warfare with other tribes. Christianity builds on this story with a mystical virgin birth, a life centered around love and forgiveness, a martyred death and a miraculous resurrection bundled together with promises of a blissful hereafter.

The dogma of Judaism involves behavioral edicts particularly well adapted to a nomadic desert people emerging from the fog of prehistory.  A clear set of basic behavioral laws (which, perhaps for mnemonic purposes, just happen to fit on the fingers of two hands) set out ways to minimize intratribal conflict and promote tribal cohesion:  don’t take your neighbor’s stuff,  leave your neighbor’s wife alone, etc.  The dogma of Christianity, coming later to lubricate emerging urban life with more far-reaching behavioral guidance, adds generosity, charity and forgiveness to the basics of the Big Ten.

The overlooked backdrop of both of these grand pragmatic codes of conduct is the fact that they developed during eras when mankind was essentially irrelevant to the successful ongoing function of the Edenic home planet.  Yes, organized agriculture had spread beyond the fertile crescent by the Common Era but the harnessing of millennia of solar power stored in fossil beds and the extraction of vast amounts of raw materials had not yet resulted in the agricultural domination of most of the earth’s arable land and the rearrangement of its geography and atmospheric balance.  And the onslaught of a sixth extinction was still far in the future as what are now considered the world’s major religions were establishing themselves in the minds of man.

The stories which breathed life into those codes of conduct reflected reality as it was perceived at the time:  asses and goats, tents and spears, slings and arrows, shepherds and stables, slayings with swords, crucifixions and duplicity, deserts and lots of wilderness – you could even see the stars in the night sky back then! They were magnificent stories and functioned exceedingly well as vehicles for the dogmas needed for human society, as it was structured at the time, to thrive.  Twenty-one centuries later, however, as the Hubble telescope brings us images of the edge of the cosmos, electron microscopes make visible things at the molecular level and magnetic resonance imaging lets us introspect in ways not dreamt of even a few decades ago, reality, as we now can appreciate it, has quite suddenly become orders of magnitude richer.  At the same time, and perhaps for similar reasons, our species has become orders of magnitude more powerful.  As part of the same process by which our societal structures have made it possible for our clever brains to figure out how to get things done, we find ourselves to be quite literally Masters of the Earth.  Suddenly the fate of the very space we inhabit is in our hands.   It is time for religion to catch up.  We need new stories and new dogmas.

I am not a big fan of David Brooks.  Perhaps it’s because, like me, he considers himself an authority on all things profound and important, and we usually come down on opposite sides of issues.  Nevertheless, a few days ago he and I seemed to inhabit the same page.

Brooks was talking about spirituality and referencing a book by Columbia University Professor of Psychology and Education Lisa Miller called The Spiritual Child.  Miller discusses evidence showing that spirituality is in part genetic and that the higher power that defines this sense may take the form of God, nature, spirit, or less well-defined universalism.(italics mine) Brooks faults Miller for her failure to “……pay sufficient attention to the many secular, this-world ways people find to organize their lives”  – by which I think he means different religions, philosophies and ideologies – but he ends up admitting that  “…..it does seem true that most children are born with a natural sense of the spiritual…… They have a natural sense of the oneness of creation. If they find a dead squirrel on the playground, they understand there is something sacred there, and they will most likely give it a respectful burial……”  I think Brooks is right on there, and I would take it one step further.

Back when those old time religions were evolving, they capitalized upon this instinctive awareness of a larger power to help organize human society and minimize threats to its integrity while couching the dogma in stories suited to the perceived realities of the times.  Today, since our understanding of reality is leagues greater than it was then, they have lost their punch. Mundane miracles like Red Sea waters parting (for which there are several very plausible physical explanations) or virgin births (some birds and bees do it after all) inspire less awe.  One need only watch James Gorman’s NYTimes Science Take videos or check out the molecular animations  on XVIVO to sample the high level miraculousness of our modern worldview.  So our current, enormously enriched reality requires new stories, but that’s not all.

That enhanced understanding has resulted in our species now having incredibly more power.    So much power, in fact, that our physical world has been transformed from the day when those old stories and dogmas originated.  God above now looking down at Earth from His seat in the heavens sees the urban centers of His planet ablaze in electric light at night and during the day watches its glaciers shrink, its rainforests transformed into plantations and its rivers redirected – all of this with precious little thought given to where this is leading by all but a few of those flawed folk he created in His image.

But thank God for those few voices crying in the wilderness and calling our attention to where it does seem to be leading, namely a hostile environment with drastically changed climate, flooded coastlines and a flora and fauna impoverished by overexploitation and habitat destruction.  Not a pretty picture, I would say, and one begging for new religious dogma to set things straight  and new stories added to the old ones to empower the dogma.

The dogma part is easy.  How about adding ten more commandments to the previous ones?

  1. Thou shalt not squander thy natural resources – leave what remains of the coal and oil in the ground, develop renewables, turn off unneeded lights, do not let thy parked car idle, conserve water, etc.
  2. Thou shalt honor the earth which, after all, sustains you – even though it is difficult to notice when your meat and vegetables are lined up neatly on supermarket shelves.
  3. Respect every living creature and recognize that it requires a suitable habitat and probably plays a role in the balance of nature and can offer you benefits about which you are completely ignorant.
  4. Do not flush pills or other toxic stuff down the toilet – remember that it eventually ends up in our rivers and oceans.
  5. Lobby hard to give the Environmental Protection Agency more power.
  6. Demand proper enforcement of the Endangered Species Act and work to strengthen it.
  7. Recycle.
  8. Limit family size.
  9. Eat less meat and fish.
  10. Do unto the rest of the earth as you would do to your own back yard.

The stories needed are, well, another story. We’ve got some of the parts, but there’s more work to be done.  The romantic poets – Coleridge, Wordsworth and Whitman in particular – gave us some ideas and a vocabulary.  Henry David Thoreau set the scene with Walden. Aldo Leopold added some lyrical prose with A Sand County Almanac.  Rachel Carlson opened more eyes with A Silent Spring and The Sea Around Us.  Edward Abbey jazzed things up a bit with The Monkey Wrench Gang and Desert Solitaire.   Al Gore wrote a Book of Revelation with An Inconvenient Truth.  And the likes of John McPhee, Bill McKibben, Carl Safina, E.O. Wilson and many many other fine writers labor away today, hoping that the pen is mightier than the oil rig and adding their contributions to the canon.  My sense is, however, that these separate chapters and verses now need a larger than life hero or heroine – a Moses, a Jesus, a Buddha, a Mohammad – in short, I guess, a Messiah or a Gaia preaching biophilia or even Reverend Billy and his Church of Stop Shopping – to breath life into the stories, galvanize the believers and send the disciples out to convert the masses.

No small task, really, but a much needed one and the time may be about right.  Now, when that gas-sipping hybrid pulls up in front of my house and a couple of young people wearing old backpacks and hand-me-down blue jeans head for my door with copies of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything under their arms, I plan to put some water on the wood stove for tea, break out the granola bars and invite them in to hear what they have to say.

Is Lightman in the Dark about Nature?

It’s distressing when you come across something written by one of your literary heroes and find you disagree with them entirely.  That happened to me the other day when I came across a piece by Alan Lightman in the May 2, 2014 New York Times called Our Lonely Home in Nature.

Lightman is a distinguished physicist  – and the first person to receive a professorship in both the sciences and the humanities at MIT. You may know him from a wonderful little book of his called Einstein‘s Dreams.   It became an international best seller back in the early ‘90’s and in it,  each chapter has time behaving in a different way.  Sometimes it moves at different rates for different people.  Sometimes it moves forward in fits and starts.  Sometimes it flows backwards.  You get the idea.  It is a wonderful book.

Early on in his NYTimes essay, Lightman and I are on the same page. For all of recorded history, he says, humankind has had a conflicted view of nature.  In ancient times, we made awesome and frightening gods of the natural elements.  But, “Aren’t we a part of nature, born in nature, sustained by the food brought forth by nature, warmed by the natural sun?  Don’t we have a deep spiritual connection with the wind and the water and the land that Emerson and Wordsworth so lovingly described, that Turner and Constable painted in scenes of serenity and grandeur?…….In the other direction, nature is constantly given human qualities.”

If he had left it at that, he would still be one of my heroes, but he spoiled it all in the last few paragraphs.  Just because he and his wife have a close call while sailing during a storm, he goes way out on the wrong limb. “We are fooling ourselves”, he writes. “Nature is neither friend nor foe, neither malevolent nor benevolent.  Nature is purposeless.”

To this I would respond, “Lightman doesn’t know what he’s talking about “ but I say this not in a way to put the distinguished professor down or make him out to be any less brilliant than he certainly is.  It’s not really his fault.  As I have argued in an earlier post ( “Nature” Doesn’t Do the Job), the fault lies with our language.

Lightman’s close call at sea was with the “nature” of natural selection.  Enough bad judgements about being out on the ocean in uncertain weather and that “nature” will gradually rejigger the genes involved in our species’ ability to asses risk.  But the thing which drew him out on the ocean in the first place had something to do with the elation he says he experienced:  the “nature” of vistas, mountains, soaring trees, birdsong.  And there are so many others.

Lightman says later on,  “We may find nature beautiful or terrible, but those feelings are human constructions. Such utter and complete mindlessness is hard for us to accept.”   How’s that again?  Our human constructions are mindless?  Or does our mind, being part of nature, make nature mindful?

I feel like I’m jogging on a Möbius strip.  And maybe that’s not a bad analogy. Maybe being on one side of the choice (Nature = Randomness) and being on the other side (Nature = Mindfuness) are really the same thing.  To stretch things a bit further let’s treat that as an algebra problem:  Randomness = Nature = Mindfulness.  Or…..Randomness = Mindfulness!  Wow!  That’s beginning to sound like another one of my previous posts ( Random:Thoughts).  But if you’re not mathematically inclined perhaps there’s another way of thinking about it.  If you accept your own thoughts as real and mindful and you accept that you are a small subpart of the natural universe then there you are.  There are at least sparks of mindfulness in nature.

Personally, I think those sparks are just part of a much larger conflagration. In fact if I try to let go of the idea that my species is the central entity of the cosmos (an idea which has led us astray more than once in the past) I start imagining my mindfulness as a temporarily detached bit of a much larger source of enlightenment.

But I’m straying from my story.  Eventually Lightman does redeem himself and I have to give him a lot of credit for where his essay ends up – even though I don’t like how he gets there.  For Lightman’s final point is that since “nature” is not about to look out in any special way for us humans and the things we value, we jolly well better look after ourselves.  And that means taking care of the planet we depend on for everything.