The Other I

October 14, 2017

Uncertainty is scary

Filed under: Just Stuff,Questions beyond Science — theotheri @ 8:26 pm

In his comment of one of the blogs I read regularly, the author says:

“I do not believe there is a One True and Only Infallible anything – and I’m including all organized, semi-organized and disorganized religions, voodoo cults, talk show hosts, diet plans and scientific theories. (I’m hoping I’m wrong about diet plans, but evidence hasn’t been encouraging so far).”

I was amazed.  Not because I don’t agree because I do.  But because it seems to me to be a view held by so few people.   I know many people who have given up religious belief, and others who simply dismiss scientific findings like evolution or climate change because they do not mesh with their values.  But religious believers whom I know don’t usually appreciate that “faith”, by definition, means that it is beyond proof.  And scientific followers often think that facts are proven by evidence beyond dispute.  But a study of the short history of science demonstrates that absolute “facts” supported at one time by science are no longer considered valid.  Newton, for instance, thought that the entire universe ran like a huge totally determined mechanical clock, and that theoretically, at least, it is possible to know not only what has happened in the past but what is already determined to happen in the future.  As little as a century and half ago, eminent scientists thought planet earth was less than 4,000 years old.  They now think it is closer to 6 billion years old.

I used to think that people didn’t understand this reality of our inescapable human uncertainty because they were not intelligent or educated enough.  I don’t think that anymore.  Of course what ideas any of us have are in part dependent on the opportunities our culture might expose us to.  But as I look at both myself and others, I think the ability to live in what I call mystery, but which might simply be called uncertainty, is determined more by one’s psychology.

Living in mystery or ultimate uncertainty doesn’t mean one doesn’t live by principle or values.  But it does mean that I need to understand that I might be wrong.  Especially I might be wrong in the way I am applying my values.  An inability to tolerate dissent or disagreement is often a dead give away that I haven’t achieved that understanding.  Even something that at first seems as simple as Love is subject to huge diversity in our beliefs in what it means.  Should we beat the devil out of our children when they tell a lie or steal something, for instance?  Or explain why telling the truth and respecting other people’s property is important?  Is it immoral to save the life of the mother if it means losing the life of the unborn baby?  What about war?  Is there such a thing as a just war?   And of course there is the consolation offered by many religious faiths that death is not the end of life, but instead teaches that we each will continue to live “in the next world,” and that our separation from loved ones is only temporary.

Actually, this might sound like a fairly academic discussion.  But it’s not.  If I’m sure I am right, I am more willing to force others to behave by what I believe are my unassailable moral positions.   Throughout the late middle ages, the Roman Catholic Church felt justified in burning heretics to death,  for centuries all western Christian persuasions justified slavery and racism as the will of God.  Christians have engaged in centuries of warfare with other Christians with whom they disagreed, and today ISIS and other radical groups believe they have a God-given right to kill anyone who disagrees with them.

The world is convulsed with discrimination.  Perhaps it has always been, but with population growth, globalization, increasingly destructive weaponry, and climate change, these attitudes of intolerance are becoming increasingly dangerous to the very survival of our species.  In some ways, I think our biggest danger lies in our inability so often to live in the uncertainty and mystery intrinsic to the limitations of human consciousness.



May 16, 2016

Am I a mystic?

Filed under: Just Stuff,Questions beyond Science — theotheri @ 8:40 pm

I’ve never thought I was a mystic.  Well, not counting that time when I was about seven when a friend told me she thought she was developing the stigmata — marks of nails on one’s hands and feet in identification with the crucified Jesus.  But when no similar marks appeared in my own hands, I decided not to take matters into my own hands (excuse the pun), and decided it was not going to be my path to sainthood.

Many years later as a psychologist, I wondered in passing if many manifestations of “mysticism” weren’t really a form of neurosis or even psychosis.

But more recently I’ve been reflecting on my own experiences almost of euphoria in response to music and also of some studies of nature like quantum physics or animal consciousness.  My responses aren’t irrational, but they are somehow beyond reason, accompanied by this sheer sense of awe and joy in the presence of such almost-infinite beauty.

Then a couple of days ago I stumbled on a website discussing how quantum mechanics, mysticism, and vendata-yoga are influencing western thought today, and I began to ask myself what actually a mystic is.  How do they know something that us ordinary folk do not comprehend?  And how does one tell the difference between a mystic and someone who simply claims to know the Truth by some path which the rest of us have not attained?

So I went to the font of all knowledge in this second millennium and Googled “What is a mystic?”

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, is of the opinion that “mysticism is popularly known as becoming one with God or the Absolute, but may refer to any kind of ecstasy or altered state of consciousness which is given a religious or spiritual meaning.”   Maybe one needs simply to get a hold of the right drugs then, and interpret it as a spiritual experience.

Another website offered to help clarify my inquiry, with a set of ten telltale sign of a mystic.

Here are the signs and my thoughts about whether I qualify:

You value experiences above all else.  That means you trust your own experience above doctrine and laws and abstract principles.  Personally, I don’t trust anything, doctrine, laws, abstract principles, or my personal experience absolutely.  I think about them, I listen.  Some things make more sense than others and I use them as guidelines.  But I can’t say I value my experience above all else.

You question existence.  You constantly ask why we are all here, and have a natural curiosity about the physical and spiritual world.  I used to think the answer to this question was “God,” until I realized the concept of  “God” is unfathomable to the human mind.  Although I have a driving, almost endless curiosity about the physical world, including curiosity about consciousness which seems evident in all living things, I prefer to accept that I live in mystery to which I do not have the answers and do not believe I ever will.

You are comfortable with uncertainty.  Yes!  In fact, I am hugely uncomfortable with certainty – about almost everything.  I don’t trust absolute answers about anything from anybody no matter who they are.  Hmm, does that make me mystical?

You value intuition.   I value intuition, but I don’t trust it without testing it out.  My intuition is sometimes a leap into the light.  It is also sometimes dead wrong.

You are uncomfortable with spiritual hierarchies.  Mystics do not believe there is only one correct way.  No, neither do I.  We are each unique.  At least in this universe.

You have your own set of rules, looking beyond what may be socially accepted or mandated by leaders or society.  I’m not by nature a rebel and I don’t particularly enjoy the experience of being socially awkward or insensitive.  But from a very young age I’ve always wanted to do things for myself and make my own decisions.

You value internal growth.  If this means, do I value it more than money or fame or public success, yes.  This strikes me more as a sign of maturity than mysticism, though.

You believe you are a conduit for power, not the source.  The answer for myself depends on what one means by “source.”  I’m inclined to think there is an intrinsic evolution in the universe, but I’m not inclined to believe it was created by some external power many people would call “God.

You believe love is the source of life.  Again, I might quibble with the use of the word “source.”  But love does seem to me to be the essence of the creative force in the universe.

You don’t know everything.  Agree.  But I’m pretty sure I haven’t discovered this because I’m a mystic.   I discovered it because I still have so many unanswered questions.

Well, I don’t seem to be a truly qualified mystic.   I’m also not convinced mysticism is intrinsically some higher way of knowing.  But I do think it might be a legitimate way of knowing.  The psychologist Carl Jung believed that we humans tend to favor reason or intuition during the first part of our lives, and somewhere around middle age begin to switch to whichever mode has been less dominant in our youth.  I suspect that mysticism is an intuitive approach applied to questions that are beyond the scope of science.  It is not always right, but it isn’t necessarily neurotic either.  It’s a legitimate way of trying to explore the question of existence and its meaning.

February 27, 2016

However it’s said…

Filed under: Just Stuff,Questions beyond Science — theotheri @ 3:53 pm


“Three things in human life are important:

the first is to be kind;

the second is to be kind;

and the third is to be kind.”

— Henry James

However you say it, whether it’s the Golden Rule, or St. Paul’s Greatest of These, it’s love that turns out to be what matters in the end, isn’t it?

Henry James, the writer, died 100 years ago tomorrow.  His work is still vibrant, and in coming months, museums, libraries, and universities are exploring his legacy in conferences across America and Europe.  

November 20, 2015

Are we doomed without religion?

In yesterday’s post I described some recent research suggesting the possibility that religion might paradoxically result in our being not more but less generous towards those less fortunate than we.

Following on from that somewhat surprising outcome, I wonder if children who are raised without being taught any particular religious ideology might actually be naturally more altruistic.

One of the surprising findings in science in the last 50 years or so is the extent of altruism that seems apparent in other species.  We’ve seen examples of dolphins saving humans from attack by killer sharks, for instance, a lion protecting a baby rhino, a bear sharing his dish of food with a hungry cat that entered its cage in the zoo.  There are thousands of examples.  If you have a pet dog or cat or bird, you may yourself have benefited from this kind of altruism.

Where does this altruism come from?  In non-humans, it obviously does not originate in religious belief.  Some theories argue that all species, individuals will sacrifice their own lives in order to protect those who share our genes.  It is, they say, basically a selfish response, in that I am really trying to maintain my own genes in the lives of future generations.  But this theory breaks down when we are dealing with altruism toward those who do not share our genes, who are not even of the same species.

Is altruism, then, a result of evolution in all living creatures?  Do we all have the potential to care about other life, not simply our own or those closest to us?

If so, might we then find greater altruism among those who are taught to understand and care about all life – without the additions of threats and rewards?

Religions typically exhort us to love others in order to gain an eternal reward and avoid eternal punishment.  But if altruism is a natural response, then it is diminished by suggesting that caring about all other life is not intrinsically fulfilling in itself,  as if we need to be bribed to love others.

We don’t need to bribe our children to enjoy playing with their train sets or i-pads, their toy dolls or pet animals.  We don’t need to bribe them to do any of the million things they enjoy.

Why do we assume that caring about the life around us isn’t something we do naturally?

Actually, we probably often do that because, although we are capable of selfless love, we are also capable of incredible cruelty, of sadism, or even taking enjoyment in making others suffer.

But since religion does not seem to eliminate those negative impulses, and often even seems to encourage and justify them, perhaps we should explore whether religion actually does more harm than good.

Could we survive without religion?  could we survive without the certainty religious belief offers so many?

As I look around the world today, I don’t see the answer.  I don’t know if or when religion make things better or worse.  Religion does not do a lot for me these days.  I prefer to live in the mystery of a universe which constantly astonishes, exults and sometimes frightens me but which I know ultimately is beyond complete human understanding.  Yet I know people who are more generous and courageous than I have ever been who are deeply religious.

I don’t know.  I would be interested to know what you think.

August 24, 2015

my mystery

Filed under: Questions beyond Science — theotheri @ 3:45 pm

Recently I have been repeatedly overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of human beings.  It’s not an intellectual thing.  It’s just a speechless delight.

Sometimes it’s when I’m watching a game of soccer and I see the beauty and energy of a young man running across the field.  I felt it when I read about the courage and skill and determination of the three Americans who attacked the terrorist on the train in France last week.  Sometimes I watch a child in the supermarket and feel it.  Today I was introduced to Josh Goban – whom I’d never heard of.  But as I watched the video, it came over me again.

If somebody tried to tell me perhaps ten years ago they felt this way, I suspect I would have felt an impatient irritation at such sentimentality.  And I can’t explain it myself.  Even now, I doubt if I were actually talking to anyone reading this post, I would dare to try to express what would probably sound like claptrap.  Maybe it’s a gift that only comes to super-rational people like me with getting old.

But despite everything, despite the terrible horrors we are inflicting on each other and on this amazing world in which we live, despite the fact that we are all going to die and move into we know not what, I think the privilege of being part of this amazing incredible mysterious beauty makes living my life a treasure beyond measure.

I can no other answer make

but thanks, and thanks,

and ever thanks.

Shakespeare – Twelfth Night

July 25, 2015

My existential conundrum

Filed under: Just Stuff,Questions beyond Science — theotheri @ 4:09 pm

I don’t remember ever having this thought in my life.  But I was sitting at my desk today and felt a huge desire to stop worrying about the world.  I even want to stop knowing about it and understanding it.  What good, I wonder, does it do me or anybody else for me to understand the problem of the Greek bailout and the faulty foundation of the euro?  or the problem of the Kurds in Turkey and Syria? or the Ukraine conflict? or the economic problems for Scotland if it became independent? or racism, or religious intolerance, or the problem to democracy of the U.S. Supreme Court giving corporations the right to pour unlimited money into political lobbying?  And then there’s Africa, and the entire middle east, and Latin America, and China, and Russia, and climate change, and the rate at which humans are responsible for the extinction of other species.

I will stop.  Probably half the readers of this post have given up reading already.

It seems obvious that the first step to solving any of these problems is to know about them.  But as I look around, I’m not sure that’s happening.  So many of the solutions being offered by both the left and the right seem ill-thought out but at the same time cursed with the kind of righteous certainty that only ignorance can support.

When our problems become too overwhelming, do we as a species resort to this kind of simplistic reasoning we see so often disguised as religious and/or political principles?  or barring that, the temptation with which I am struggling, a self-imposed indifference, a refusal to worry or get involved?

 Is “Digital” the Real Sixth Sense?  

I have always felt at home with globalization made possible by the digital world.  Terrifyingly so, perhaps.

Because I’m beginning to feel overwhelmed by it.



March 13, 2015

The vista of uncertainty

Filed under: Just Stuff,Questions beyond Science — theotheri @ 9:49 pm

Before I was rudely interrupted by a crashing computer, I was preparing a post exploring how we know what we think we know.  Many people in the modern world think that the only way we can know anything is through reason and some form of what today we call science.  I have a huge respect for science.  I am a scientist.  Science has been an incalculable contribution to my understanding of the world, and has, at times, willed me with awe.

But valuable as science is, I am under no illusion that it is a potential source of infallible truth or certainty.  Scientific “facts” are not absolute, and are changing far more often than most people realize.  Facts must constantly be verified with evidence.  And then re-verified and re-verified in an unending process.  When we learn something new or take a different perspective, we often change our minds. Things which we assumed to be absolutely beyond question are no longer accepted.  Science, in other words, is our best guess based on the evidence we have before us at any given time.  But its conclusions are never beyond the possibility of doubt.

If logical reasoning or science can’t give us certainty even about this world here and now,  can we answer questions which are beyond the scope of science with any certainty at all?  questions like what happens after we die?  what is the purpose of life?  is warfare ever morally justifiable?  does my husband love me?  what career should I choose?  is there a God?  does prayer ever change what happens? should I have a child?  should I get a divorce?

Again, for some people the answer to these questions lies in religious faith.  Within this perspective, answers to these and many other questions are revealed to us by God.  These answers cannot be verified by proof, and are therefore beyond question.  Doubt therefore, for many believers, is a form of sin, because it is seen to be questioning God’s revelation.  In this sense, faith can give us absolute certainty.

When the same faith is adopted by the whole culture we live it, it is often highly convincing and supportive.  But the problem with faith becomes apparent when we come in contact with others whose faith leads them to different conclusions about what God has revealed.  Our globalized world today is awash with violence justified by millions of people who believe that their faith is the only valid revelation from God, and that anyone who disagrees with them is wrong.  Some of these people believe they have a God-given mandate to wipe the earth clean of anyone who disagrees with them.  Given such disagreements, it is obvious that somebody’s faith must be wrong however certain the individual may be that they are right.

So what about intuition?  Can we intuit some realities by some other method, through some other medium than scientific reasoning or blind faith?   Can I learn something from Beethoven’s Fifth?  Or the expression on the face of a child?  Can a poem teach me something I could never learn in church?  or from a scientific study?  Is that inexplicable sense of awe one achieves after hiking to the mountain top a valid insight into a reality that cannot be expressed adequately in mathematical equations or religious dogma?  Can I learn something holding my newborn child in my arms that I could not learn in any other way?

I am willing to live by – and even die for – some of the insights I have learned through intuition.  I would stake my life on the certainty that my husband loves me.  I live every day with the conviction that existence is good, that all life is worthy of respect, that although I do not understand it,  “the universe is unfolding as it should”.  But like acts of faith, these intuitive certainties are not necessarily universal.  I might be willing to live by them, but other people have reached intuitive conclusions, sometimes in the context of deeply profound experiences, with which I do not agree.  So on some level, I know I might be wrong.  My knowledge at the very least is seriously incomplete.

So is uncertainly the inescapable human condition?  Can we never know anything for certain?

My own guess is that the answer is both yes and no.

Personally, I deeply distrust absolute certainty.  I prefer to live in mystery.  But I have come to appreciate that for some people, certainty is a source of strength.  I am not as dismissive of religious faith, for instance, as I used to be.  Religious belief is not always stunting, it does not always constrict the world, or limit concern to those one might consider “one of us.”  Even those who interpret  the metaphors of revelation literally sometimes gain great strength and wisdom from them.  I remember my own mother facing her death at the age of 48 and leaving behind 10 children, the youngest of whom was 6 years old.  Expecting to be standing before the gates of heaven and telling St. Peter that she had accepted and loved all the children God sent to her gave her the strength and peace she needed to accept her death with great generosity.

To this day, I am not confidant I could do what she did.




December 28, 2014

My suggestion for heaven

Filed under: Intriguing Science,Just Stuff,Questions beyond Science — theotheri @ 9:37 pm

My musician sister sent me the Colbert farewell YouTube video.  It was removed from the internet by Viacom who owns the copyright, so attached here in Vera Lynn’s rendition that gave hope to so many during WWII.

I have heard the Vera Lynn version many times and understood why it meant so much to so many.  But this post is about my unexpected response to the Colbert version.

First of all, let me assure any doubters that I personally do not believe in heaven as most people understand the term.  And if I did, I would not be motivated to try to get there.  Sitting around in a perfect world, with no problems ever to solve, with no one in need of an extra act of thoughtfulness, with no creativity because everything is already perfect sounds excruciatingly boring.

But as I watched the Colbert video, I suspended my unknowing, and began to wonder if, in some mysterious way that I cannot fathom, we will, indeed “meet again” in a next life.  What would that be like?

I imagined sitting around a fire, when our two dogs burst into the room, barking in wild enthusiasm as they recognized us.  And then Mom and Dad and my sister Mary who died almost twenty years ago joined us.  We each had a glass of wine and began to exchange stories.  And I asked them all the questions about what they thought about this and that, questions I couldn’t ask after they’d died.  And then four more dear friends came, and we continued to talk late into the night.

Of course, I would want them all eventually to leave.  Except the dogs.  I mean, sitting around the fire with a glass of wine forever would get to be pretty boring too.  I need sleep.  And besides, I don’t have a very high tolerance for alcohol.

So I don’t think I’ve figured out the great mystery of life and the universe in which it is evolving after all.  The scenarios offered by various religions are inadequate metaphors at best.  Some super-mathematical scientists suggest that there are an infinite number of universes in which life repeats itself in every possible version.  And another scientist has just seriously suggested that when the Big Bang happened, Time began to run both forward and backward in two different parallel universes.  Maybe we are in the universe where time is running backward and will eventually run into the universe where time is running forward.  I confess it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

The best I can hope for is that when we die we become part of some kind of transcendent consciousness.  And I say that only because I haven’t the faintest idea of what that means either.

I think I’ll just listen to the Vera Lynn YouTube again and be grateful for the mystery of life that has been given to me right now.


December 10, 2014

Oh my dear America, what has happened to us?

Filed under: Just Stuff,Questions beyond Science — theotheri @ 5:13 pm

I am feeling today rather like a woman who after 50 years of marriage, has just discovered that her husband has never been faithful to her.  She might have known that he was a womanizer, even occasionally had a one-night stand or passing affair.  But now she finds out that he has a family in three different ports.  Or is wanted for extortion and murder or war crimes in another country.

I have just read as much of the report on the CIA torture of terrorist suspects as I can bear.  And I am almost vomiting.

My America!  have you ever been what I thought you were?  The very foundations of this country began with the ethnic cleansing of 80-90% of the American Indians who had been here for hundreds of years.   Today, the treaty violations continue.  How many of us have ever equated this with the ethnic cleansing in other places in the world which we hold in such abhorrence?  Or ever thought that perhaps, we like other countries, have re-written our history to eliminate this shameful guilt?

And then there were the African slaves, brought in like cattle on the ships.  They might have been technically freed by Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation, but even the Christian churches continued to assure the white man that they were inferior to us white folk.   So they still could not drink at the same water fountains, use the same rest rooms, sit in the front of the bus, eat in “white” restaurants or stay in the same hotels.

Two days ago I listened to a newscast and read a report which has just been published that shocked me to the core.  The ghettos in which, even today, Blacks are crowded, is a result of federal law requiring that housing be segregated.  Ghettos then were not and are not today the result of White prejudice or of Black poverty.  Initially, it was the law of the country that appropriated land for Whites Only which was highly preferable.  It was not zoned, as Black residential areas were, for polluting factories and where houses of prostitution were tolerated.  Nor were mortgages granted to Blacks by the banks.  This law was not found to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court until 1955.  By that time, Whites had amassed significant wealth in the real estate they owned.  That pattern has continued, and today, the great difference between average Black & White wealth in America is a result of the value of the homes they own.  Generations of Blacks have been disenfranchised because of these discriminatory laws.  I think we need a new kind of affirmative action to right this injustice.

And now we have George W Bush, a former president of these United States, and Dick Cheney, his defense secretary, saying that the CIA torture of terrorist suspects was justified and that those torturers are true patriots.  What Cheney objects to is the publication of the reports.  “The transparency and honesty found in this report represent a gross violation of our nation’s values,” he says.  “As long as I have air to breathe, I will do everything in my power to wipe out the scourge of torture reports from the face of the Earth.”  As far as I have seen, he has not objected to the torture.    It’s that it is being published.  The sheer hypocrisy of it.

I know that we are a country that loves guns.  I know we are a country that thinks we are the best because we have the biggest bombs.  I knew we went to war in Iraq over oil, not over the weapons of mass destruction that some politicians knew were not there even before the war began.

But I didn’t realize how often and deeply we really really don’t mean what we say.  Do we really believe in the rule of law?  Are we really committed to freedom for all?

Oh America, my America.  Who are we after all?  Are we going to say NO! WE WON’T HAVE IT?    When we reach the tipping point, which way will we tip in the end?

PS:  I have just read a blog post covering the Rothstein’s research on the disenfranchisement of Blacks from the property market from which so many of us middle class whites have profited so richly.  The author, like me, didn’t know it was happening, but on looking back, now sees events in quite a different perspective.  It’s an easy read – and worth it.  Hands up!  Why We All Can’t Breathe

November 19, 2014

The liberation of being wrong

Filed under: Questions beyond Science — theotheri @ 4:20 pm

I’ve often wondered why we humans seem to have the most uncompromising convictions about things for which the evidence is the least resilient.  There’s nothing, of course, about which we might not be wrong.  We could even discover one day that the world is flat after all and that we have been interpreting what we think we observe in the wrong way.  I don’t, actually, expect to live to see that day.  There is way too much evidence, too many experiences by too many scientists and non-scientists to seriously consider that a flat world is just as likely as a round one.

But the things about which we seem to be most often intolerant are those convictions that are not broadly shared and for which the evidence is not universally convincing.  People who disagree with us in relation to religious and political convictions seem to be the two areas where there is the most fire without light.  I doubt there is a person reading this post (or writing, it for that matter) who cannot identify people — sometimes even family members — with whom we cannot have open discussion and disagreement on a question of religion or politics without at least half the people in the conversation feeling furiously frustrated and angry.

Last night I turned this seemingly distressing fact on its head.  I was watching a BBC documentary on the history of dance.  In England, a mere 400 years ago, dancing was seen by some Christians as the work of the devil.  Even dancing that did not involve touching one’s partner was seen as the first step on the road to hell.  Books were written venting on this terrible sin, assuring anyone who even contemplated dancing and did not repent was damned for eternity.

Today, there are very few people in the Western world who hold views like this.  But there are people who hold views which I personally think are just as outrageous.  Today we have deep divisions about sex, about God, about capitalism, about the limits of freedom.  In some cultures, women cannot show their face in public, cannot drive cars, are not permitted to learn to read and write.  Many of these views, in my own and other cultures, seem to my mind, to be preposterous.

But I find myself wondering what beliefs I have that may seem just as preposterous to future generations?  I worry about climate change, about our species’ continued attempts to solve our conflicts through use of physical force, about the world running out of resources to sustain our galloping population growth, which has just surpassed 7 billion.  More egocentrically, I also worry about some of the stupid, selfish, ignorant, immature things I have said and done sometimes many decades ago, and cringe in humiliation.

But all of these worries, both great and embarrassingly egocentric, are based on my convictions that are by no means indisputable.  I doubt anybody shares anything like the depths of my personal concern for my own virtue.  Not a single person, I am sure, cringes with the regret and mortification I sometimes feel at the fool I think I have on occasion made of myself.  Certainly I am wrong to think I am that important.

Or rather, I would say, I am wrong to think I am important in the way I sometimes think I am.

I’m a human being.  That is fantastic!  How lucky I am!  For all the limitations of being human, each one of us is a unique, astonishing, beautiful creature.  We all make mistakes.  We’re all incomplete.  We all make fools of ourselves in one way or other on occasion.  That doesn’t change the reality.  We are each simply incredible.  We are each simply wonderful.

Now if I can only convince myself that climate change, or our tendency to kill those who threaten us, are not going to lead to our self-extinction as a species, I have managed to make a virtue out of convincing myself that I might occasionally be wrong.  Even about those very important things about which I am absolutely positive.

Dance anyone?



August 5, 2014

We will remember…

Filed under: Questions beyond Science,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 3:56 pm

It was 100 years yesterday that World War I began.  There were remembrance ceremonies in Britain, Belgium, and France that I found moved me almost to tears.  It was the first war in which weapons – tanks, aircraft, submarines, machine guns and mustard gas – produced en masse by the industrial revolution were used to kill  an average of 10,000 fellow human beings every single day for four continuous years.  By the end of the war, 8 million troops and 6.5 million civilians were dead.

Yesterday government representatives, military, and relatives of the dead gathered together in ceremonies of reconciliation.  “We will remember” was promised again and again.

Perhaps it is because of the current massacres in Gaza right now, but somehow, to me, “we will remember” isn’t enough.  We will remember those who died for our liberty.  We will remember those who died so young that we might live in security.  We will remember the brave.  We will remember the wives who lost their husbands, the children who grew up without their fathers, or brothers.

But I only heard one person say “we must learn.”  It’s not enough to be grateful for those who sacrificed their lives.  Those deaths were too terrible and too many.  We desperately need to learn better ways of resolving our differences, even of finding justice, than by killing on the mass scale that modern warfare makes possible.  The determination to negotiate must be our goal.  We must honor those who can find peace for their peoples through listening and giving and compromise.  Today we need them even more than we need those willing to lay down their lives.

We will remember.  We will feel sorrow.  We will honor those who were lost.  We will be appalled by the tens of thousands of graves spread throughout Europe.

But will we learn?



July 10, 2014

The peace of the incomprehensible

A friend sent me a reference to a series of books by Ilia Delio, which he said seemed to echo some of my ideas and which he thought I might like to read.  So I checked Delio out on Amazon and saw that the introductory quote in one of her books was Einstein’s “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.”

No.  I am among that group of scientists, including Stephen Hawking who believes that we will never reduce the universe to the totally comprehensible – that there is an infinity which we will never exhaust.

I find a deep and profound peace in that acceptance.  I don’t have all the answers;   I never will.  I live surrounded by mystery.  Somehow I am immensely comfortable here.  That knowledge and that peace is probably the single most important contribution to my coming to terms with my childhood socialization as a Roman Catholic.  There were several other significant steps as well.

One was the realization that the concept of matter as totally inert had been exploded with Einstein’s equation  e=mc2 – the equation that demonstrated that energy and matter are two forms of the same thing.  We know now that matter is not a passive blob sitting there until something else pushes it along.  Matter is a seething mass of movement and energy at its very core.

Why is this so exciting?  Well, for me, it brought the problem of the emergence of consciousness into the scientific world.  Even today, in my opinion, the single most important unresolved question for science is the fact that we have no idea how the brain produces something as seemingly immaterial as consciousness.  Consciousness in all of life is totally dependent on a functioning body.  Today through MRI scans, we are even learning some of the minute pathways in the brain that are activated by various kinds of consciousness.  But we do not have a theory about how this conversion takes place.   It is a parallel problem to the one we had when we used to think, less than two centuries ago, that matter and energy were two completely different things.  I do not have the answer to what many philosophers call “the mind-body problem” but I am convinced now that the answer lies in the natural world.

In other words, we do not have to have recourse to Plato’s “spiritual” world which Christianity eventually adopted as “heaven” and “hell,” populated by spiritual beings including God, the angels, and the souls of those who have died before us.  I remember the almost ecstatic feeling I had when I realized that I was already home in this universe.  I am not living in exile.  For all its pain and trouble and difficulties, I am already where I belong.   And whatever happens after death, I will not be spirited away into some another plain, to some ethereal heaven or fire of hell.  However it will happen, what I am will continue to evolve as part of this natural universe.

Another giant step in my coming to terms with Roman Catholicism was the discovery that the original meaning of “faith” as understood by the Hebrews and the early Christians did not reflect adherence to a strict set of doctrines, but is more accurately translated as “faithfulness.”  “Faithfulness” does not require that every one in the community always agree, or always accept the same doctrines.  This switch to belonging to the community based on faith as unquestioning acceptance of universal dogmas did not occur in the Christian church until the 4th century.  Until then, the  essence of the Christian message was that “the greatest of these is love,” that “we are no longer Jew nor Gentile, slave or free, male or female;  we are all one.”  In other words, we are all — all — in this together.  All of us in the human family.

Refusing to reduce faithfulness and universal love of all humanity to a set of doctrinal and liturgical rituals might diminish the power of religious leaders.  It certainly destroys the “one of us” attitude of so many religions, and the claims of any single religious tradition that it is the “one and only true church.”   Roman Catholicism with its proclivity today for excommunicating dissidents and its insistence on papal infallibility is benign compared to its torture and execution of those who refused to accept church authority for over a millennium until papal power was finally separated from the secular authority of the state.  But this commitment to literally killing those who disagree with us is still rife in the world today.  Turn on the news tonight and look at what is going on in Iraq, in Syria, in South Sudan, even in the United States where some fundamentalists are trying to change the law to match their own religious beliefs.  In this war-torn, trigger-happy world, we badly need to understand the original Christian message that we are all one.
One doesn’t  have to be a Christian to understand that.  Unfortunately, the converse is also true:  one can think of oneself as a Christian and not understand it.


April 30, 2014

What makes us equal?

Equality is one of those soft fuzzy words, like love, that almost everybody says is a good idea.  Politicians, philosophers, theologians, and most people in everyday life think it’s a great idea, even an important principle.

Pope Francis in recent weeks has said that building equality is quite possibly the biggest challenge of the modern world.  Thomas Piketty, an economist at the Paris School of Economics has just published a book on capitalism in the 21st century, presenting powerful data that the growing disparities between the rich and the poor in countries from America and Britain to emerging economies risks fueling significant social unrest, democratic deficits and even revolution.

But if we look beneath the surface, what different people mean by equality is so different that they sometimes seem to be completely opposite concepts masquerading behind the same word.  Is it based, as the U.S. Constitution suggests, on “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”?   or the Golden Rule in which everyone deserves to be treated as we ourselves would wish to be treated?  or the religious exhortation to “love one another”?  These are principles which many of us support.  But our universal agreement about what they mean breaks down almost immediately after we try to apply them.

The difficulty, as I see it, is that equality tends to become reduced solely to economic issues, which in turn become inextricably mixed with our human diversity.  It would be great if we could just give everybody the same amount of money, period.  But apart from the fact that nobody would put up with it, at the end of the day, some people would still  manage to have more money at the end of the week than others.  So the essence of our equality cannot be economic.

Just as important as equality to our happiness and survival is our diversity, our vastly different abilities and talents.  We are all different.  And we need to be different.  We need others who are different from us to be complete ourselves.  We can’t each grow our own food, make our own clothes, build our own shelter.  We can’t even have offspring without the cooperation of a member of our opposite sex.  Our great diversity is one of the greatest attributes of the human species, and why we have been able to accomplish so much.  Some people are great athletes, some are skilled mathematicians, others musicians.  Some people have great social sensitivity and a capacity for insight and kindness, others are unusually creative, have exceptional language abilities, or engineering or spatial abilities.  Some people have a dogged determination that keeps them going in the face of great adversity, others  have acute sensory abilities.  There are great leaders, great facilitators, great doctors, great financial analysts, great teachers.  The list is endless, and we each can benefit from almost every one of them.

The problem is that diversity gets confused with equality.  In thousands of very important ways we are not equal, and instead of rejoicing in our combined strengths and gifts, we often are resentful.  Diversity in relation to religious beliefs and cultural practices and in relation to material wealth seem to me to be the areas where we have the most trouble accepting diversity.  If you are “one of us,” it might be more tolerable for you to have more than I do.

But if you speak a different language, practice a different religion, or have a different colour skin, resentments often swell to a determination to stamp out your gift.  Besides war, there are many social practices and laws which work quietly to eliminate diversity on the grounds that it’s “not fair.”  Or that acknowledging one kind of gift will make others feel inferior.  We ignore or even denigrate many great contributions in place of superficial accomplishments like “celebrity.”

Clearly we can’t reduce equality to economics.  And yet there is a bottom line.  There are basic things which every individual in any society needs to flourish, and we can’t assure that basic equality with monetary handouts.  I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what those basic needs are.  And also asking to what extent society has an obligation to do everything possible to give every individual a chance to fulfill their potential.

I’m not so naive as to think I can come up with the definitive answers.  I’d be competing with Socrates, Buddha, Jesus, Marx, and the founding fathers of more than one country, and too many others to name.  But it’s what I’m thinking about these days, so it’s what I plan to blog about for the next couple of posts.




July 20, 2013

Health care: two alternatives

In his exploration of democratic alternatives to some of our American institutions which seem to have gone array, Gar Alperovitz discusses health care.  In the United States, we have mostly either paid for health insurance or  pay up front when we need treatment.  Up to a point, Medicare and Medicaid helps those who have paid social security, but hundreds of thousands of Americans are deprived of medical treatments they need because they cannot afford it.  Obama Care was meant to plug this gigantic hole, making it possible for all Americans who need medical care to get it, whatever their financial state.  It has run into fierce opposition, been rejected outright by some states, and even taken to the Supreme Court on the grounds that it is unconstitutional.

Alperovitz recommends setting up a health system run not by private insurance companies and hospitals but a system by and for the people.  The National Health Service (or NHS for short) here in Britain is closer to the kind of system he describes.  The NHS was set up after World War II in a country rejecting the injustices of a system which allowed thousands of working class people to die for their country, but which did not provide health care even for families of those who had died for democracy if they could not afford it – as many many could not.   Today, it is a system at which treatment is free at the point of need to anyone.  It is paid for out of general taxes.

I have seen the NHS, for better and worse, close up for more than 20 years.  I have received, I believe, some of the best treatment available in the world here, and I have seen dedicated medical treatment go far beyond their defined duties to care for the sick.  I have also seen first hand examples of prejudice, particularly against the elderly, that are terrifying.  I saw a 90-year-old man dying of cancer in a wheel chair left outside a hospital door in the middle of winter.  I have seen arrogance and indifference on the part of medical staff, and now a major report has  identified 14 hospitals in the UK where the death rate is far higher than average, and in part almost certainly due to medical errors, carelessness, and sheer lack of concern even for the dignity, let alone suffering, of patients.

These latter are the kind of stories that turn many Americans away from “socialized medicine.”

But should we be so ready to dismiss the British system or other similar systems in Europe?

I’m not so sure we should.  First of all, the British are immensely proud of the NHS.

I have seen enough in America to know that injustices and disregard for patients occur in our medical system that are as grave as anything that has been uncovered here.  The difference is that here in Britain, failure to protect  the health care system can bring governments down just as surely as a failure to protect the economy.  The outrage at the state of some of the UK hospitals is huge, and the government as well as opposition parties are putting unprecedented effort into improving the system.  There is little doubt in my mind that some of the gravest deficiencies here will be effectively addressed.

Cost, too, is a major factor.  Americans’ life expectancy is lower than it is here and throughout most of Europe, although our medical expenditures are about twice as high.  That is in large part because the US system is private and run as a business to make money.

It seems clear to me that no system, as a system, is going to eliminate prejudice or disregard supported by the culture at large.  But when they are exposed in a socialized system of health care, there is apt to be outrage.

In America, too often I fear the response is the one we are seeing to Obama Care — that it is people’s own fault if they do not have the insurance required to pay for the medical care they need, and that the rest of us should not have to pay our taxes to take care of them.  To the extent that is true, I suspect socialized medicine would not work in America.  When scandals are uncovered, too many of us may very well respond by saying that it’s not the system, but the fault of the patient who should have been paying for his or her own treatment in the first place instead of relying on the state.

So which system, given the choice, would I prefer to live with?  If money is no object, one can get some of the best care in the world in the United States.  As long as I can afford adequate health insurance, the American system can meet my needs.  But what if I can no longer afford to keep paying insurance?

And what about those who, often through no fault of their own, do not have adequate insurance, or who cannot get insurance at all because companies label them as not potentially cost-effective?  I don’t really feel comfortable reaching the conclusion that “I’m okay, jack.  I’m sorry I can’t  help you as well. But that’s life.  It’s tough, and we get what we pay for.  You’ll just have to take care of yourself.  ”

For all its limitations, I think the British system is better.

July 13, 2013

What’s good for the goose…

When I was a graduate student not too far off half a century ago, I remember addressing the question in philosophy asking if the human mind is capable of ever fully understanding the universe and how it works.

The answer is that, although we will never exhaust our potential for learning more, we will never achieve a complete understanding of the world in which we live either.  Our minds are not sufficiently capable of transcending the kind of time and space in which we were created to survive.

This rarely  emerges as an urgent problem for most of us.  Many of us (and I include myself) don’t even understand what it is that we don’t understand.  I don’t really understand, for instance, how negative and positive electrons whirling around the nucleus of an atom produce electricity, which in turn runs all the appliances in my house with a simple switch.   Some people do.  But even physicists have no idea how some of our most basic, even everyday processes work.  Gravity is one example.  Thanks to Newton, scientists can describe gravity mathematically, but even Newton said it was a complete mystery how objects can act on each other over distances of millions of light years.  We still can’t explain it, and the number of events in which this kind of thing occurs has expanded with the evidence leading to quantum physics.  In fact, the more we learn, the longer the list gets of things we can’t fully explain.

Some people explain everything we don’t understand – and a lot that we do – with the concept of “God.”  They conclude that there must be a God, for instance, because there isn’t any other explanation for how the universe came into existence.  What people mean by the term “god,” however, varies.  God for some is a kind of all-powerful dictator whose all-encompassing love seems subject to irrational tirades during which anybody in the way gets punished for displeasing him.  Others have a  more transcendent, even mystical, idea of god, beyond simple anthropomorphic description.  Finally, there are those who decline to use the god explanation at all, and prefer to live with unanswered questions, or even in mystery.

So I Got It Wrong

The interesting thing for me, though, is that our certainty about some of the most important questions in life does not seem to depend on whether we believe in god or not.  I’ve been accused of being on my way to hell for straying from the Path of Righteousness, but I’ve heard non-believers make accusations about the pig-headedness of believers with the same level of intolerance.

I have convictions by which I live, and for which I would fight.  I think, for instance, that it is morally despicable to refuse an abortion to a woman to save her life and who is in the process of a miscarriage which was going to result in any case in the death of the fetus.  Yet that is what happened in Ireland, and members of Parliament who have just voted to change the law so this will not happen again have been accused of a sin so grave that they deserve to burn in eternal hell-fire.

But how do I know that some of my convictions are not as wrong-headed as I think some convictions of others are?  And would it not be as wrong for others to follow my convictions simply because I tell them I am right as it would be for me to follow their convictions because they say I’m destined for hell?

No.  Difficult as it is, we each have to follow our own conscience, and respect others who must do the same.

Even if they do disagree with me.

March 29, 2013

Thought for the Day

Filed under: Just Stuff,Questions beyond Science — theotheri @ 4:42 pm



The wife of President Calvin Coolidge once asked her husband after he’d come home from attending church services what the sermon had been about.

“Sin,” he replied.

“What about sin?” his wife asked.

“He’s against it,” replied the president.

January 24, 2013

A gift of life?

Filed under: Intriguing Science,Questions beyond Science — theotheri @ 9:51 pm

I was aghast to read yesterday that a professor at Harvard’s Medical School is seeking a woman to carry the embryo of a Neanderthal baby.  George Church believes he can reconstruct the DNA of the Neanderthals, and is seeking a surrogate mother for our extinct human relative.

I am not aghast for religious reasons.  I am aghast because I think this reflects a terrifying lack of sensitivity and respect for life.  This is a human child Church wants to bring into life.  It is not a member of Homo Sapiens, but our cousin Homo Neanderthalis.  Folklore represents Neanderthal man rather like a club-wielding thug with limited intelligence.

But archaeology is rendering this characterization as a chauvinist assumption of Homo sapiens rather than the reality.  Neanderthalis was a species that buried its dead, made musical instruments, and we are now know interbred in some places with our own species.  Either they copied our tools or we copied theirs- probably both.  We were cousins.  Although we like to point out that the brain of Homo sapiens is bigger than any body else’s, Neanderthal’s brain was larger.  There isn’t a lot of evidence that he died out because he wasn’t intelligent enough.

So as a scientific experiment, geneticists are going to try to bring a child of this species to live on our planet.  Are there any plans for rearing this human child?  Any concerns about its potential isolation?  Will it be treated like a laboratory animal subject to experiments and tests all its life?  Will it be granted human rights?  And what about the “mother”?  Having born the child in her womb for presumably nine months, will she then pass it over to – to whom?  its presumed owners?

And what might be the benefits if such an experiment were to succeed?  Presumably Church believes he will earn a place in history, if not in infamy.  But apart from personal gain, are there great scientific benefits that might arise from this endeavour?  My own imagination fails to identify potential gains sufficient to justify the attempt.

I hope George Church fails comprehensively and utterly.

Unfortunately, if Church doesn’t do it, that doesn’t mean somebody else won’t.



December 27, 2012

Not Porque but Por Qua

Filed under: Questions beyond Science — theotheri @ 4:50 pm

In the face of tragedies, we so often ask Why?  How can this seemingly inexplicable loss fit into any meaningful plan?

One of the most heroic and constructive answers to this question I’ve ever heard came from a Spanish mother who had lost her son.  Once I was over the shock, she said, I decided not to ask myself “Porque?” but “Por qua?”  She stopped asking why – as if somebody else were in charge – and started to ask instead “what for?”  What, she asked, could she do with this loss, how could she make something good come of it.

On Christmas Eve this year, Michael Moore wrote a letter that gives me hope that perhaps America is beginning to ask that question after the Newtown massacre.

Moore’s view is that the National Rifle Association is slowly self-destructing with its call for guns in every school in the country.  Nonetheless, he says, “These gun massacres aren’t going to end any time soon.”

Yes, we need strong gun laws, we need a ban on automatic and semi-automatic weapons and magazine clips that hold more than 7 bullets.  We need better background checks and better mental health services.  Yes, it would help.  It is virtually impossible to buy a handgun in New York City and the result is the number of murders per year has gone from 2,200 to under 400.  But America’s problem with violence is too deep to be controlled simply by tightening our gun laws.

It would not have stopped the Newtown massacres, just as it would not have stopped thousands of other gun killings that take place every year in America with guns legally owned by people who are not mentally unstable.

The problem is America’s love affair with violence.  There is no other country in the world with a murder rate approaching ours.  Even in those countries where more than 50% of households have guns.


Moore points out that we are a nation founded on genocide and built on the backs of slaves. We slaughtered 600,000 of each other in a civil war. We “tamed the Wild West with a six-shooter.”  Even today we rape and beat and kill our women at a staggering rate: every three hours a woman is murdered in the USA ; every three minutes a woman is raped in the USA; and every 15 seconds a woman is beaten in the USA.  And we are a country that invades countries who didn’t attack us. We’re currently using drones in a half-dozen countries, often killing civilians.  We, along with North Korea, Saudi Arabia, China, Iran still have a death penalty.  And without compassion, we put up with the death of tens of thousands of Americans  each year because they are uninsured.

After Newtown, though, Moore thinks people really do want change.  Meaningful change.  Not just sympathy and flowers, and feeling sorry about it but ultimately carrying on as usual.  But we’ve got to change something more than our gun laws.  Moore suggests we have to change ourselves in fundamental ways.

We need to change the fear that convinces us that we need guns to protect ourselves from each other.  We don’t buy guns to protect ourselves from invading armies.  We buy guns to kill each other.  Unfortunately, racism and ethnic prejudice rather than the facts determines who it is that we fear is going to mug or burglarize us.

And we  need to change our transformation of American independence into what has become a ME society.  Instead of being our brother’s keeper, we have started to tell people unable to get a job, the homeless, the woman who has been raped, children who are hungry or abused that this is America:  you are not my problem – solve your own problems for yourself.  We need to become a real society again, not just a huge group of separate individuals.  We need to care about what happens to our brothers and sisters.

Because, writes Moore, ” it all sooner or later becomes our problem, doesn’t it?  Take away too many safety nets and everyone starts to feel the impact. Do you want to live in that kind of society, one where you will then have a legitimate reason to be in fear?”

Moore’s original letter is on his website.


December 24, 2012

Wishes for the New Season’s Beginnings

Filed under: Just Stuff,Questions beyond Science — theotheri @ 4:42 pm

The winter solstice was celebrated for thousands of years before this time of the year became the time when Christmas was celebrated.  As it did with so many pagan rituals, the Roman church adapted the solstice celebrations and incorporated them within its own rituals.

Mid-winter is almost certainly not when Jesus was literally born, since Roman census were always taken during the warmer months when travel was possible.  But church officials understood that the winter solstice was a celebration of new hope, a new beginning as the sun once again was returning to warm the people and grow food in the fields.  It was a brilliant feast with which to celebrate the new hope, the new beginning symbolized by the birth of the Saviour.

Today this time of year is celebrated by peoples and religions world-wide.  In some ways, we all recognize that we are at a new beginning.  The Mayan calendar, which was hyped as a prediction of the end of the world, was never understood by the Mayans as the end of the world in the apocalyptic sense.  This solstice marks the end of a long cycle, and the beginning of a new one.

I personally gather more inspiration from a contemplation and celebration of the solstice than I do of a contemporary commercialized Christmas.  To me, the solstice is an almost infinite manifestation of the mystery in which we live – the cycle of life and death, of beginnings and ends, of hope and struggle which is manifest in absolutely everything we see around us.

Perhaps the Mayan prediction is right that we are truly entering into a new cycle on earth – perhaps one shaped by climate change, by the rhythms of evolution, by violence, or alternatively by our capacity for love and creativity.  None of us today may live long enough to know.

But today we do celebrate the birth of new hope, or a new beginning.

However dark the night may seem on occasion, may the sun shine on you and those you love in this new season.

August 2, 2012

Absolutely right!

I grew up in a family in which there was never a suggestion that there is an irreconcilable conflict between religion and science.  My views of both science and religion have matured over the years, but I am still of the opinion that apparent conflicts between these two approaches are based on a profound misunderstanding of science, religion, or both.

One of the most widespread misunderstandings, I think, is in relation to the certainty of science.  Many people think that scientific facts are absolute, that they are permanently and unquestionably certain.  They aren’t.  Even such “facts” that earth is round and revolves around the sun are not unassailable.

I’m not suggesting here that I’m not convinced of these particular facts.  I do rather think the world is round and goes around the sun.  But what I am saying is that, as Kant pointed out, we are always limited by the perspectives of  the time and space in which we live, as well as of the abilities of the human mind to process what we observe.  From another perspective – perhaps from the perspective of a different universe or with a different sensory abilities than we humans possess – the world may look completely different.

Indeed, even Newton’s theory of gravity has undergone grave changes since he first formulated it.  We now know that the universe does not operate like a huge machine, and that Newton’s calculations apply to what happens on our planet earth,  but the further away we get from earth, the less accurate they are.   Without adjustments directed by Einstein’s theory of relativity, our rockets that landed on the moon would have missed its target and might even now still be spiral ling into outer space.

Many “facts” require less extreme contortions or effort to develop human perspectives which could bring them into doubt.  As a simple example, for instance, many major illnesses such as schizophrenia, manic depression, cancer, and heart disease run in families.  Isn’t it obvious, therefore, as many thought, that they are genetic?

Well, no.  Language runs in families, but it’s not genetic.  Occupations tend to run in families but they are not genetic.  To discover just how much any correlation like this is due to genetic factors, to environmental conditions, or most often to an interaction between the two is subject to extraordinarily complex research and subsequent supposition.

Besides our facts which frequently change as scientific theories change, there are also many important, even extremely significant, questions which science simply cannot address, let alone answer.  One obvious example among many is what happens after we die?  We may make assumptions, but we don’t know.  And we can’t use the scientific method to find out.

So if one wants certainty, if one cannot live without absolute answers, science is not the place to go.

But unfortunately neither is religion.

About which more in my next post.

March 10, 2012

About the birds and the bees

I was watching the bees buzzing around our lavender bush this morning and I felt as if I’d gotten some clue about a problem that’s been nagging at me ever since I realized that, for whatever reason, I am not going to save the world after all.

I keep looking around at all the suffering and all the problems in the world, especially innocent suffering – like starving or abused children, or people bombed out of their homes or lives destroyed by natural or man-made events.  And of course, our global media makes it all so much more immediate.  I hear about the train crash in Poland that kills 30 people the morning it happens.  We practically can watch the bombs being dropped in Syria, and the children and mothers starving in the Sudan.

And I feel torn by guilt that I’m not doing anything to stop any of this.  Even worse, I often deliberately ignore it because I find the anguish so draining that it debilitates me.

As I was watching the bees, I was thinking how important they are to human life.  If they don’t pollinate the plants that feed our animals and feed us, we will starve.  We are absolutely dependent on them.  I doubt very much that the bees are aware of their importance in sustaining our lives.  Their task is to live as bees.  It is not their task to do all the other things we also need in order to survive.

I’m not supposed to save the world.  I’m a single limited human being in an enterprise is as gigantic next to me as the whole earth is next to that single busy bee.  What I am supposed to do is live a full loving human life to the best of my ability.

So I will try not to pass up the opportunities that come my way to be kind, to share what gifts and talents I may have.  It’s hubris to think I can do more than my small human life permits.

I am much more like a bee than like a god.

And I’ll be much happier and much less neurotic if I remember that.

January 1, 2012

Reverie for 2012

Filed under: Just Stuff,Questions beyond Science,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 3:17 pm

This is the day of the year in which tradition suggests we look back and look forward, that we make our resolutions to live better lives, and wish all those we love a healthy, prosperous New Year.

Here is my 2012 version.

2011 was the year of the Arab spring,  and of economic polarization and political paralysis in both America and Europe.  It was a year for freedom and for trenchant stubbornness.

It was the year that has left us facing another year with the potential for greater global economic devastation than the world has faced for at least 80 years.  That, in turn, increases the chances for violence and abuse,  both domestic and international.  We face the potential for the emergence of an even more virulent H1N1 virus epidemic, for civil wars, for food, water, and energy shortages.  We face the possibility of bank collapse and another credit crunch we have no idea how to moderate.

It looks like a scary year to me.

But life is scary.  Life is filled with challenges,  some beyond our abilities to cope with, some that bring out some of the best human ingenuity and human generosity has ever produced.

So on this day I am returning to my mantra:

Faith, Hope, and Love, these three:

The greatest of these is Love. 

But the most courageous of these is Hope.

November 1, 2011

Occupying thoughts

Filed under: Questions beyond Science,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 8:51 pm

We are here on earth to do good for others. What the others are here for, I don’t know. 

W. H. Auden

October 31, 2011


Filed under: Just Stuff,Questions beyond Science — theotheri @ 4:36 pm

According to the eulogy delivered at his memorial by his sister,  Steve Jobs on his deathbed looked at his sister, then at his children, then at his wife.  And then staring into the distance, his the last words before he died were “Wow! Wow! Wow!”

There are those who are convinced that he was seeing into the world beyond life.  I hope that may be so, although I myself think this conclusion still belongs in the realm of belief, not of proof.

But  Wow! does express my feelings about this incredible universe in which we live and have our being, and in which all that I am made of will exist for as long as the universe survives – which I expect to be into eternity.

In fact, I could not think of a better way to put it.

And if a triple Wow! are my last words, I believe that I would die in peace and joy.


October 18, 2011

Did something really go wrong?,

Following my post yesterday, Sanstorm commented that,”yes, the whole caboodle is fallen.”   Although this view that something has gone terribly wrong with the world is one that I grew up with, I was taken aback by Sanstorm’s conclusion.

For her, nature’s predatory behaviors confirm that indeed, there was a terrible Fall.  I look at the natural world, including its predatory behaviors, and conclude just the opposite.


Yes, if we judge all behavior in terms of our moral codes,  animals, including humans, are often immoral, greedy, selfish, thieving reprobates.

But what if, instead, we look at the universe as evolving, if we look at everything that happens in the universe as a thrust toward greater life?  Then our apparently selfish behaviors are a manifestation of that thrust toward greater life which most of us recognize in ourselves.  We are born with this drive to live, to stay alive, to be more.

This drive toward greater life isn’t just manifest in our apparently self-serving, however.  It is also manifest in the altruistic behaviors, the sharing, the putting oneself in danger or even sacrificing ones own life for the sake of others.   Animal studies confirm what I suspect many societies have understood for thousands of years – that although other animals hunt and kill other organisms in order to survive, they also engage in a heartening array of altruistic and surprisingly intelligent behaviors.

The mistake of sociobiology is not to suggest that all our genes are “selfish” in the sense we seek to preserve and expand our own genetic heritage.  The mistake is not to recognize that caring for others, even those not of our own species, even for those things which are not manifestly alive (like the environment), is also part of this thust for life.

So we look at the universe and we have a choice.  We may decide that something has gone terribly wrong.  Christian theology opts for this choice – we are all sinners living in a material world which is not our true spiritual home and from which we must strive to free ourselves.  Or we can conclude that we are part of a great ongoing evolution of life which has continued for millions of years.

Depending on which explanation one opts for, one will conclude either  that our theory is wrong or that creation itself is intrinsically badly messed up.

Given the fallacy of human reasoning, I’m much more inclined to think that it is our understanding of the universe that is wrong rather than the universe which is running amuck.

I think the essence of morality is to choose life.  Sometimes we make terrible mistakes so that what we think is a choice for life is a choice for death.  Sometimes these choices are so catastrophic that we look back on them with horror, and we can see no explanation for them save that they are sinful.

And yet we know that there are times when the truly moral choice is to lie, or steal, or even kill.  Societies tell us that these things are wrong and under normal circumstances life will be better served by truth, by care, by mutual respect.  But not always.

So I look at that penguin “stealing” stones from his neighbour’s nest, and it gives me hope.

It gives me hope that the drive, the thirst for life pervades the universe.  And even when things seem to go horribly wrong, it may be our lack of vision that is the limitation.

It might not be that the whole of creation has somehow become screwed up.

As someone wiser than I put it, the universe is unfolding as it should.


June 30, 2011

How do I know what I know?

How do we know what we know, and how sure can we be that what we think we know is right?

I’ve been asking this question since I first realized as a graduate student how many great minds have grappled with this most obvious of questions.

The reason it remains such a critical question is because the unfortunate fact is that being absolutely sure, beyond the shadow of any possible doubt that I am right, is no a guarantee that I’m not wrong.

I’ve been thinking recently about the fundamental areas where I have changed my mind during my life.  Obviously, there are questions of faith.  For the first two and a half decades of my life, I believed in the reality of heaven and hell, and that I was destined for one or the other for eternity.  Since then many more of the pillars of belief have fallen.

I have changed my mind about scientific conclusions when new research suggests that the original conclusions were wrong.  I’ve also changed my mind when I realized I misunderstood the original evidence in the first place.  Perhaps most importantly, I’ve changed my mind about other people’s motives.  There have been times when I have been certain about why someone behaved in a certain way.  And sometimes I have been distressingly wrong.

I do have a few convictions about which I am certain enough to live by.  I consider many of these an act of faith – that is beyond empirical proof.  Simply to be alive is one of these values.  Even to be is a value, so that whatever exists has an intrinsic value.  To be part of the mysterious evolution of this universe is a value.  To live with integrity and respect for myself and for everything and everyone else in the universe is a value.  To love and care for those who are in my life is a value.

Why?  Where does this unprovable certainty come from?  And could it be wrong?  Of course.

My own values could be as wrong as those who have been willing to kill and to die in order to eradicate others who do not agree with their most fundamental values.  Usually they take the form of religious beliefs but not always.  Scientists are sometimes arrogantly certain about facts that science cannot guarantee.  So to be wrong about my own convictions is both possible and terrifying  –  I might be wrong about the most important  decisions in my life.

Martin Luther said that doubt is an essential component of faith.  I know what he meant.  It seems to me that honesty requires that I entertain the possibility of doubt about whatever it is that I think I know.

Possibly especially about those things about which I think I am most certain.

May 4, 2011

In revenge for dancing

Filed under: Questions beyond Science — theotheri @ 4:32 pm

An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.

Mahatma Gandhi

There is apparently an email going around supposedly carrying a photo of Bin Laden’s corpse.  What the email actually is delivering is a virus.

Is the virus an act meant to achieve justice or retaliation?  It increasingly seems to me that the difference between justice and revenge is in the eye of the beholder.  It depends on whether one is on the receiving end.

I don’t say that if my husband, brother, son, lover, daughter, sister, mother or father had died in the 9/11 attacks, I would not be rejoicing.  But although I might not be capable of it, I still think that the greater act is not one of rejoicing at what one considers just retribution.  I do not think we are wise enough to judge with such profound insight as to have the right to exact the death of another.  That power, I think, belongs to God or, if you prefer, to fate.

There is justification, I think, to kill in self-defense.  That is different from killing in retribution, to exact justice, because we know with certainty that someone deserves it.

Whether killing Bin Laden makes us safer is debatable.  Perhaps as a martyr he is now an even more potent symbol.  But still, it may be a legitimate argument that security demanded his death.  Justice isn’t.

May 1, 2011

Big Bang or Big Bust

Product Details

The last book I’ve published was The Big Bang to Now:  A Time Line.  It is available new on Amazon for $16.99.

Okay, so much for the ad.  What absolutely astonished me was the discovery that this treasure is available, if you prefer, “used – like new” for a mere $62.85 plus $3.99 shipping.

Are people mad?  Why would any one pay almost $67 for a used (presumably unsigned) copy of a book one can get for about $17 brand new?

I’d even be willing to sign it for anyone who wanted it.

April 17, 2011

Isn’t this enough?

Filed under: Just Stuff,Questions beyond Science,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 8:31 pm

A friend sent me to this YouTube.  I almost didn’t watch it because I usually prefer the written to the spoken word.  But I watched it — all 10 minutes and 7 seconds.

It was worth it for the line “Isn’t this enough?”

Yes, it’s enough.  It’s enough for me.  It’s inexhaustible.

March 31, 2011

The problem of evil: Revisited for the umpteenth time

I was six years old when I first formulated the problem of evil for myself.  Why, I asked my father, if God didn’t want us to commit sins and if he could do anything he wanted to, didn’t he just make us so that we didn’t want to sin in the first place?

My formulations have become more sophisticated in the six decades since then, but in some form or other, it’s a question I can’t leave alone.

I tried atheism as a solution for a short time.  That solved the problem of god but it doesn’t solve the problem of suffering.

For a rather an embarrassingly longer time, I tried sainthood.  I would become a saint and in the process transform the world.  Mother Teresa may have failed.  Even Jesus had not succeeded in eliminating suffering.  But I had some vague notion that I could transform the world.

The next option, using my brain rather than virtue, fell upon similar barren ground.  Being rather well-educated, you might think that even a casual acquaintance of the destruction resulting from world-reformers in the 20th century would have kept me from even starting down the path of utopia creation.

But somehow I kept feeling responsible for the world’s suffering, with a nagging sense of guilt that somehow I wasn’t doing enough.  Here I was – and still am – living in relative comfort and safety.  How can this be fair?

It’s not fair, of course.  I don’t deserve, I have not earned, the good fortune which has graced my life.

And I still do not know why there is so much suffering in the world.  I no longer feel totally responsible for it, but I would like to understand it.

Buddha said that sin is not a positive evil, but is, rather incompleteness.   It is an indicator that we have not yet arrived, that we are still a work in progress.  It’s an idea that resonates with me.

And if I have any tenants of what might be called faith left, it is that existence is good.  To be alive is intrinsically valuable.

Exactly how suffering fits into this I’m not sure.  Except that somehow I believe that it is a creative part of the unfolding of the universe.

This is, I accept, an act of faith.  I can look at my own life and see in retrospect that what I thought was the worst possible thing that could happen was perhaps the best.  But there is much suffering that I cannot imagine being creative.  I find it impossible to look sanguinely as some suffering and blithely sing along with Mary Poppins that it will all be wonderful in the end.

So it’s an act of faith.  Or rather an act of hope.  I trust in the universe as it is.  I trust that what looks so terribly wrong from my small perspective and that I personally cannot fix will, in the end,  lead to greater good.

Having said that, if I live long enough, I am sure to visit this question umpteen more times.

March 21, 2011

After the End, then what happens?

Filed under: Questions beyond Science — theotheri @ 3:26 pm

The BBC is currently showing a fabulous TV series entitled The Wonders of the Universe with a young buck called Professor Brian Cox.   Given the topic, I think he should be at least middle-aged and mildly overweight, but he looks about 22 and his enthusiasm isn’t about motorcycles or fast cars but about the Haldron collider and black dwarf stars.

Once I was able overcome the feeling that I was being taught by an adolescent, I began to take in what Cox was saying.

“Life,” he said “is the way through which the Universe understands itself.”  Well, to tell the truth, I’m not really sure what that means.  But it sounds sort of poetic and meaningful, and I thought  it was something I might file away to give meaning to my occasional experiences I label “transcendent.”

Then Cox began to describe what he thinks will be the end game for our Universe in several trillion years or so.  All the stars will burn out, and even the black dwarfs will collapse.  Eventually there will be nothing, not even a single atom.

Nothing left at all but black holes and radiation.

Well, so much for transcendence.  I think science is wonderful.  It has changed the way I look at almost everything.  It has helped make me happier, less anxious, and I think less neurotic.  It has taught me how to dance.

But it does stop a little short of promising eternal life as we know it, doesn’t it?

But less one misunderstand,  science doesn’t think the End of the Universe is the End of Everything.

March 16, 2011

A longing for black and white

Filed under: Questions beyond Science — theotheri @ 4:22 pm

I remember as a young adolescent hearing the story about the mother of two young boys who were being trucked away by the Nazis.  “Please!,” she begged, “don’t take them!”  “All right,” the soldier at the back of the truck replied, “you can choose one.”

Simply remembering this story still has the capacity to seer.

It was when I first learned that sometimes there are no right and wrong answers.  They are all wrong.

What is happening in Japan right now is tragic.  But it does not pose a moral dilemma for me.  But what is happening in Libya does.

Should we impose a no-fly zone?  should we put boots on the ground?  if so, under what conditions?  And if Gaddafi does bomb the opposition into oblivion, what should we do?  should we keep buying Libyan oil, for instance?  can we impose sanctions?  should we?

If we don’t buy Libya’s oil, who will suffer?  I suspect the Chinese will buy the oil.  If it forces up the price of oil, who will get rich?  Gaddafi and his people.  Who will suffer?  those people too poor to afford to heat their homes and drive their cars.  Who will go hungry?  Not Gaddafi.  Probably the rebels and anybody remotely associated with them.

And yet if we impose a no-fly zone, will we get embroiled in Africa and the Middle East even further?  Haven’t we already demonstrated amply enough that we cannot march into countries like Iraq and Afghanistan and impose peace, let alone support a functioning democratic and accountable government?

We will make a choice.  We must make a choice one way or other.  Even to do nothing is to choose.

But I think the choice is black and white only for those who cannot see the tortuous, complex reality as it truly is.  “Choose one,” feels like the offer from hell.

March 1, 2011

Morality in the hands of government

I said in my post yesterday that I certainly would not want to hand over the power to dictate moral decisions to governments.  For thousands of years governments have hijacked God and tried to use religion to stay in power.

The struggle, unfortunately, continues even in America.  The South Dakota legislature are considering a bill that would legalize the killing of abortion doctors on the grounds that these doctors are endangering the lives of innocent victims.  The legislation proposes to change the definition of murder in the case of someone murdering a doctor who performs abortion.  Instead of calling it murder, killing abortion doctors would be categorized as justifiable homicide.

At least we have a Constitution and a Supreme Court.  I agree it is by no means a fail-safe way of keeping religion and state separate.  But it’s a lot better than nothing.

February 28, 2011

Is equality secular or religious?

The High Court in London today ruled that a couple who taught their children that homosexuality was wrong could not be approved to adopt a child.  They ruled that the couple were unfit as potential adoptive parents on the grounds that it is against the law to discriminate against homosexuals.

The couple are Pentecostal Christians who believe that homosexuality is a sin and argued that discrimination against them on the grounds of their religious beliefs violated their rights to religious freedom.

What is so ground-breaking about this court ruling is that it ruled that secular laws of equality take precedence over religious laws, and that discrimination could not be justified on the basis of religious freedom.

Personally, I am loudly cheering the court’s decision.

But I do now find myself wrestling with a philosophical question about the source of moral values.  I’m not of the view that if people don’t believe in some kind of God they have no reason to be good.

But I have not yet answered to my own satisfaction the question of where I think moral and ethical values should be rooted.  I wouldn’t trust a group of elected legislators in any country I know with the task of making laws that simply suit their private moral views.

I need to do more thinking and reading about this.  Where do my moral values come from and why am I so convinced it is right to respect creation and all that entails?

February 23, 2011

The challenge of civilizations’ survival

I started asking the question after reading Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee:  The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal some years ago.  The question of just how often climate change has contributed to the collapse of civilizations continues to lurk in my consciousness.

It isn’t an easy a question to answer, mostly because it often isn’t climate change that leads to the collapse of civilizations but its accumulated effects.  Civilizations that are not destroyed by volcanic eruptions or earth quakes most often have collapsed as a result of  disease and tribal warfare arising from insufficient supplies of water and food, which may be exacerbated or even caused by climate change, but also have other causes.

There is, however, a frequent pattern of civilization collapse appearing as far as 7,000 years ago.  Civilizations prosper, populations increase dramatically, cities emerge with highly sophisticated systems of trade and specialized roles.   And then the climate changes.  Most often the most debilitating changes seem to have been extreme drought.  Mayan cities were abandoned  in the 9th century after 200 years of drought.  So did the Mesopotamian civilization three and a half thousand years ago, and Egypt collapsed following severe drought in 2300 BC.

But flooding and extreme cold also result from climate change.  The story about Noah’s and his arc is about flooding.  An ice age ended the Viking dominance in Greenland in 13-1400 AD.

The list goes on.

The question for the human population today is just how devastating the climate change we are currently facing might be.  In this last year flooding has displaced millions of people and destroyed crops from Pakistan,  Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Brazil, and Australia.  Drought has possibly destroyed so much of China’s grain this season that it may be driven to importing it for the first time, and the encroaching desert underlies many of Africa’s wars.

The human population has doubled in less than fifty years, and continues to grow, though at a slower pace.  Last month, scientists with the United Nations warned that in less than 20 years the world would have insufficient food and water unless we begin to take action now.  It’s impossible to imagine this won’t lead to increased war, disease, starvation, displacements, and immense suffering.

Will we survive?  Will we destroy Earth’s ability to sustain us?  Will we simply starve?

The pessimistic answer always somehow sounds like the braver, wiser response.  Optimism so often seems to spring from ignorance or simply naive fear of facing the awful impending reality.

But personally, I think we will survive.  Along with the greed and selfishness and arrogant stupidity that plagues our species, I see also incredible ingenuity, bravery, and creativity.  I see  love and determination.  I think we have a willingness to cooperate and share on a global scale.

It is a challenge.  It is a great challenge.  In fact, it is a very very great challenge, and we won’t achieve it easily.  The cost, in the best scenario, will be great.

But I am hopeful that the end of Homo sapiens is not yet in sight.

February 22, 2011

Among the Great and the Good

Filed under: Political thoughts,Questions beyond Science — theotheri @ 9:21 pm

When I was young, I was planning on being great.  I mean world-changing great.

I have given that fantasy up bit by bit over the years as waves of self-knowledge have swept over me.  I  also give it up in small steps when I walk through ancient churches here and stop by at the tombs of the Great and the Good.   Most often Greatness seems to fade into anonymity.

But yesterday I read about Gene Sharp.  Today he is an emeritus professor of political science in Boston, and the author of  From Dictatorship to Democracy, a handbook of 198 non-violent “weapons” to unseat dictators.  It has been translated into 30 languages and the influence of his techniques have been felt across Eastern Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East.  In Russia book stores selling it have mysteriously burned down and the publishers run out of business.

Gene Sharp book

Today it is a handbook for protesters in Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, and Tunisia.

Not many people know the name Gene Sharp, though he has paid the price for living by his principles.  And maybe a century from now, even fewer people will recognize his influence.

But that does not matter.  What matters is that it is hard to think that the world is not a better place for his living in it.

January 21, 2011

Poetry and science: a personal manifesto

I have just had an energetic exchange about poetry and science with someone whom I think believes I put too much faith in science and not enough in poetry.

I am aghast.

I have spent so much of my professional life droning on that science is not a source of absolute certainty, that scientific facts are relative and that these facts can and often do change.  I also have argued – even here on this blog – that science is not all-encompassing.  Very few of the most important decisions in our lives can be subject to a verifiable scientific analysis.  And even if they could, they would not yield certainty.

I fall in love, for instance, and believe with passionate conviction that I will be happy with this person for the rest of my life.  My parents do not agree and strongly counsel against my marrying this person.  Whom should I trust?  myself or my parents?  Could I subject this decision to science?

Well, no.  Science might be able to tell me the odds of such a marriage lasting for my life time.  But science cannot study two unique individuals and predict more than the odds of our staying together.  I might want to consider those odds, but it is impossible for science to tell me whether I would be among the majority or minority of possible outcomes.  It is simply impossible for science to control all the variables that would determine the outcome and give me an absolute answer.

And we can multiply these situations.  Should I take this job?  should I have another child?  should I buy this property?  should I paint my bedroom wall another colour?  There is no end to the questions science cannot answer for us.

I must – and do – trust my intuition, my sense of truth, of beauty, of love, for right.  I “discern,” if you will, what others will do, what I think will happen if I make one or another choice.  I rely on poetry (albeit, often enlightened by science) to choose what I will live for, what I hope I would be willing to die for.

But discernment isn’t necessarily right any more than science.  Poetry can dazzle me with its magic.  Music can send me  marching off to war to kill my fellow human.   Poetry in the widest sense can be blindingly wrong.

So neither poetry nor science are sources of absolute certainty.  There are two things, however, that I value in science with passion.

The first is the astounding universe science is constantly unfolding.  I read about the world revealed by quantum mechanics and it creates for me the same wordless astonishment and wonder that Mozart’s concerti give me.  Or W.H.Auden’s poetry.  Or last night’s spectacular sunset.

The second thing I revere about science is that by definition it is never finished.  It never draws a double line and says “we know this without a shadow of a doubt and it will never change.  It is an eternal truth.”  My scientific conclusions are never given the absolute unquestioning acceptance of unchanging dogma by other scientists.  The door is always open to think again.  One can’t just come up with another idea, of course, and claim with convincing charisma that it is better than the old idea.  Science insists that one submit one’s convictions to empirical tests and to the scrutiny of the scientific community.

No, science is not my religion.  Science is not my poetry.  But science is a wonderful teacher and a strict task master.

In the long run science never lets you forget that you might be wrong.  Poetry doesn’t do that.  Mozart doesn’t either.

Enough.  I’m now going to listen to Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos.  I think they are one of the most beautiful things on this earth.

January 19, 2011

Googling for God

Out of idle curiosity, I went to the Google search engine and looked for “what is god?”  Google found 372 million answers.

Valuable as I find Google for learning many things, this might not be the best method for finding enlightenment.  By the bottom of the first page, Google was suggesting God knows you have a right to refuse Obamacare might be of interest.

Okay, this is my nonsense for the day.  Tomorrow it’s back to the serious angst.

December 22, 2010

Degrees of certainty

Filed under: Just Stuff,Questions beyond Science — theotheri @ 4:43 pm

Readers of this blog probably haven’t missed the fact that I spend a lot of energy questioning a lot of things other people take for granted.

It started in childhood.  We sat around the dinner table more often than not anguishing about The Great Moral and Existential Questions of Life.   And I was not yet out of single digits in the years I possessed when I remember Dad saying “You aren’t right just because you want to be right.  Even saints are sometimes wrong.”

So at any early age, I learned to question almost everything.

But now I’m asking about our certainties.  There are no absolute certainties.  That I am convinced of from philosophers.  And there are no absolute facts.  That I know from science.

But there are different levels of certainties, and different kinds of certainties, and those are what interest me.

There are the certainties that come from science and mathematics.  I’m pretty sure the earth is round and that it revolves around the sun.  There seems to be an overwhelming amount of convincing evidence to support this.  But science has sometimes come up with the most revolutionary ideas.  Gravity isn’t exactly what Newton said it was;  time slows down when we go faster, particles on the quantum level seem to go in and out of existence.

So it is not beyond the realm of possibility that even these simple facts about our solar system might one day be called into question.  In the meantime, I’m willing to live my life on the assumption that they are certainties I can rely on.

Then there are certainties based on my memories of things I have personally experienced.  I know we have a blue car because I have seen it.  I know I have four sisters and five brothers because I lived with them.  I know my telephone number and what I had for dinner.  Nobody’s memory, though, is totally infallible.  Sometimes we mix memories up, sometimes we remember things that didn’t actually happen, sometimes we remember dreams but think they are real.

I trust what I remember most of the time, but don’t trust its certainty quite as much as I trust my certainty that the earth is round.  When Peter and I have incompatible memories of the same event, I’m rarely sure that I am right and he is wrong.

The real conundrums over certainty for me, though, are in relation to things I would say I “believe.”  Why and how am I so certain that my husband loves me?  or that Beethoven and Mozart are great musicians, or Shakespeare a literary giant and Picasso a great artist?  Why am I so certain that the holocaust was wrong, or that truth and falsehood are not equally acceptable?

The decisions that I have made and continue to make in my life are much more influenced by certainties like these than is my certainty that the earth goes around the sun.  And so why I believe them seems important to me.

Initially, of course, I was taught a lot of these things.  But not all of them, and many of the things I was taught I no longer believe.  So there is some deeper foundation to my certainties like these than merely what other people say.

Somehow it’s related to my direct experience.  I listen to Mozart and I know.  I read Shakespeare, I see Picasso’s work and I know.  I know the choices my husband has made in relation to me, and I know.

But I’m still not sure how I know.  And although I might stake my life on some of these beliefs, I could still be wrong.

I’m sure philosophers have thought about this on a deeper level than I can.  But I’m not a philosopher.  I feel as if I can ask the questions philosophers ask.  I just can’t answer them.

But then, of course, I think the risk of uncertainty in the rightness of the decisions we make and conclusions we reach is inescapable.  There is absolutely no way around the risk of possibly being wrong.

So if a philosopher did come up with some answer that made anything absolutely certain, I’d be absolutely certain he was wrong.

October 23, 2010

When then was now

Filed under: Just Stuff,Questions beyond Science,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 2:39 pm

I’ve spent the last week away trawling around in the past on several fronts.

First is the saga of the house we live in.  It is not more than half a century old but it seems to have gone through at least 3 major reconstructions.  I think it began as a 3 bedroom, 1 bathroom bungalow on a single floor.  Now there is a permanent line down the middle of the roof, the living room ceiling and across the living room floor where the outside support wall was knocked down and the room extended.  What is now a closet used to be a back entrance, and I think the present bathroom was a utility room.

I’ve been promising to tile the floor of what is now the family bathroom for months and this week I finally pulled up the carpet.  I expected to hit the concrete base but there were several layers of earlier living I had to get through before getting there.  Beneath the carpet was an underlay which was at least generation older.  Below that were the vinyl tiles, and below that a coat of paint.  The toilet is now situated where I think there used to be an outside entrance but which is now a wall backing onto the sun room.

Along with my personal excavations, I have been helping my brother organize the data going back for 13 generations of our family genealogy.   He has now just discovered that a book he bought through German e-bay is signed by our great great grandfather who died in 1875.  He had no idea that the book had ever been in his hands and bought it only with the hope of learning more about the village where some of our ancestors lived.

I’m now submitting a few relevant pages to Google Translate.  I think my brother’s 2 years of college German might be a better alternative. Google Translate noted of one of our ancestors “…that he had been a long illness exhausted by semen and hardly been worn by bone.”  If he was exhausted by semen, I wonder about his exhausted wife.

And I have also just finished reading Primack and Abrams’ The View from the Center of the Universe which delves into our pre-history beginning with the Big Bang.  It was a marvellous read.  I knew this before, but isn’t it astonishing to reflect on the fact that every particle of which you and I are made is billions of years old and has been banging around the universe trillions of miles away from here, burning up in the guts of stars’ nuclear furnaces, and contributing to the life forms of what be thousands of different life forms before stopping here.

With that profound thought, I return to the apple pie waiting to be removed from the oven. 

October 6, 2010

The hubris of worrying too much

Filed under: Intriguing Science,Questions beyond Science — theotheri @ 8:16 pm

I think sometimes I have failed to learn the difference between knowing about the problems of the world and taking total responsibility for them.

Certainly it is a form of high self-conceit to think that I need to anguish over the solution to every single injustice, every single stupidity, every single fallacy, every single instance of suffering, every single social or political failure I read about.

And if it is a conceit, then the workings of the entire world are not only not my responsibility, but to worry about them as if they were my responsibility can hardly be a fulfilling way to live.

Besides that, I don’t know what the world needs.  I doubt it needs perfection.  Stephen Hawking points out that if the particles emitted with the Big Bang had been in perfect alignment, nothing would have ever happened.

Imperfection is the engine that keeps the entire universe running.

I’m beginning to think there is a grain of sanity in isolating oneself from the continuous onslaught of the outside world, made so much noisier these days by our access to global media.

Okay, that’s my thought for the day.  I’m off to watch the evening news.

October 5, 2010

Balloons, dandelions, and our gods

Walking in our local park this morning, I noticed that the dandelions are still flowering with abandon.  And I remembered that dandelions were one of my earliest introductions to the unyielding realities of life.

I used to pick bunches of dandelions on the farm where I grew up and bring them into my mother.  She always thanked me generously and put them in a vase of water.  But it didn’t take me long to notice that dandelions wilt very fast.  Within hours, they were drooping miserable specimens.  There was nothing that could be done to revive them nor could my mother even offer any advice from her vast store of wisdom about how to keep them alive in the future.

Dandelions simply don’t last.

I remember one of my brothers being crushed by a similar experience when he discovered that Dad could not mend a burst balloon.   It was that moment of truth when one discovers that ones Dad is not quite up to the standard of almighty perfection which we had taken for granted.  It wasn’t that he wouldn’t fix it.  He couldn’t.

Like dandelions, when balloons burst, they are dead forever.

I’ve been reading a book sent by a friend From the Center of the Universe that is discussing the great loss we have experienced with the loss of our creation stories which tells us how we got here and – more importantly – what we are doing here.  Every culture we know about has had a creation story, and it inevitably tells the people in that culture what life is about, what it means, and why they are especially and uniquely important.

Today, it isn’t just Christians who have lost their creation story.  The combination of  science and globalization has changed everybody’s story from one that forms the foundation of our very identities to one that is no longer valid in the same way.  It has moved from being a story of unquestioned truth accepted by everyone to being interesting anthropological data.

I think loosing our creation stories is for a culture a lot like learning that burst balloons can’t be mended or that dandelions don’t last.  But the loss is so much greater.  Which is why, I think, fundamentalism is on the rise throughout the world.

The Tea Party in America thinks it is threatened by the loss of what it means to be an American.  We have parallel fears throughout the Muslim and Jewish worlds.  It’s happening in India and China and South America.  The entire 20th century is marked by its appearance in Germany with the rise of Nazism.

Many individuals can live without a creation story and an accompanying cosmology that gives existence its meaning.

But I wonder if whole societies can endure for very long without them.   Will fundamentalism win out simply because we as a species cannot bear to accept that balloons break and dandelions wilt?

Or will we succeed in constructing a new cosmology based on the creation story science is now putting  before us?

September 7, 2010

The fine line between brilliant and kooky

When it’s not in my field of psychology, I often find it difficult to know whether a scientist sounds off the wall because his/her thinking is so far brilliant, so far ahead of mine that I can barely grasp it or because s/he is simply kooky.

Which is why I’ve been wondering lately about the concept of emergence.  I’d begun to get a little suspicious about it, and I wanted to know if it belonged in the same category as Intelligent Design or if it was a legitimate concept within the mainstream.  Kauffman in his book Reinventing the Sacred argues that emergent phenomenon cannot be predicted using the scientific method and equates emergence with creativity.

Data supporting the failure of science to predict emergent phenomena is quite solid and broadly accepted.  I first began to wonder, though, when Kauffman’s suggested that we might equate this emergence or intrinsic creativity with the Sacred.  Even with God.    I knew that was a step too far for me, but scientists are always going beyond the limits of the proven.  If they didn’t, we’d never have any hypotheses, no break through theories.  So that is fine.

I really started to question, though, when  I discovered that many writers are using the concept of emergence as that elusive question which so many believers are looking for, that question to which the only possible answer is God.

So although I know it’s hardly a return to the original sources, I asked Wikipedia about emergence.

Art by Holly Werner

It is, indeed, a highly respectable idea that goes back at least as far as Aristotle, and does indeed describe phenomena from physics to psychology that are greater or different than the simply sum of its parts.   At the moment it seems to be an aspect of mystery in the universe which is attracting particular attention.

Some people want to find God in the universe.  Some people don’t.  I’m in the Don’t group.   For me adding God doesn’t elevate the universe but downgrades it.  I remember as a young teenager saying that I didn’t want someone to love me because I was made “in the image and likeness of God.”  I wanted them to love me because they loved me.

And now I sort of feel that way about the universe too.  It’s fantastic.  It’s incredible.  It constantly brings me to a state of stunned awe.

I’m sure it isn’t true for everybody, but for me, adding God flattens everything, it reduces it.  Almost as if there nothing particularly impressive to notice about the universe in its own right.

I can see where Plato was coming from with his world of perfect forms and I understand how the Church transformed that to a supernatural world presiding over this one.  But I can see why Buddha never added God to his world view.

I’m opting for belonging 100% in this universe.

That’s awesome enough.

September 4, 2010

“We don’t know” vs “It’s nothing but”

It would be interesting to know if Stephen Hawking’s new book, Grand Design but not Grand Designer, has caused as big a stir on the American media as it has here.  It isn’t quite another Galileo moment, but it has the same ring.

What Hawking is saying is that we do not need to posit a Creator for the universe, that we know the laws of physics now well enough to understand how the universe may have spontaneously emerged out of nothing.  I don’t claim to understand this, but I am sure that Hawking, one of the pre-eminent physicists in the world today, knows that he is talking about.   In other words, he is talking physics, not theology.

But Hawking is knocking down one of the great “We don’t knows” used to buttress the existence of God for almost half a millennium.  If we don’t need a Creator to understand how we got here, what rationale do we have left for believing there is a God?

Personally, I have long felt that substituting “God” instead of “I don’t know” for any question to which we don’t have the answers was always going to be faith on very shaky grounds.  Scientists have been answering our “I don’t knows” for centuries — how the stars stay in the heavens, how the eye works, how the great diversity of life occurred, why volcanoes erupt and earthquakes crack open the face of the earth.  And now this blow:  how the universe started.

The stubborn, unyielding, rejection of science on the grounds that it can’t be so because the Bible says so is not terribly new, but it does seem to be activated by fresh virulence and irrationality.  Yet, it seems to me, the direction is irrevocable:  believing in God because we have no explanation for an event convinces fewer and fewer people.

Though you might not think so listening to many of the theologians being interviewed over here.  Few seem to have a concept of God that can withstand the possibility that the universe is the result of the application of natural laws rather than of supernatural intent.

But if I have no patience with the backward kind of thinking that says “this can’t be true because there is a God,” I equally have little patience for the “It’s nothing but” proclamations of absolute reductionism.

The great majority of people in the world today have neither the opportunity nor ability to analyze the scientific or philosophical issue related to these questions.  But I do think people often reject science because they think the scientific attitude requires  a “It’s nothing but”  conclusion.

And so when someone of Hawking’s stature says that we have no need for a Divine Creator to explain the existence of the universe, what they hear is that life has no meaning, that love and generosity have no value, that their lives, their families, theirwork, have no purpose.  It is a message of despair that many people think must follow from a universe without a Divine Creator.

I disagree.  I trust my own sense that my life, that all of life, has intrinsic value.  I happen to think that it is we who must create meaning, rather than a God presiding above from a supernatural throne.

But I do think I have some appreciation of the whiff of despair that science like that of Hawking can create in those who have been taught that it is only God who gives us meaning.

But I don’t think it is Hawking that is the problem.  Or science.

August 13, 2010

A philosophical appreciation of water

Filed under: Just Stuff,Questions beyond Science — theotheri @ 2:29 pm

My plan was to write (yet) another post on reductionism, a topic which, as my number of posts on the subject indicate, fascinates me.

But alas.  A water pipe in our utility room has sprung a pernicious leak.  It seemed to be only a very small drip, and I thought I could fix it in ten minutes or so with self-amalgamating tape marketed for just this purpose.

It is now obvious to me that I have, all my life, underestimated the wilfulness of water.  A small leak it may be, but it is mighty nonetheless.

And it’s sneaky.  I plug it at one point, and somehow it finds another way out.  We’ve been doing battle all afternoon, and so far I’m afraid the water is winning.

The next time I call someone a “drink of water,” I will mean he has an unbreakable will, a determination to survive, and an endless capacity to adapt to new conditions.  I only hope he is on my side.

Unlike my water leak.

July 19, 2010

The beginnings of reductionism

The beginnings of reductionism which many believe to be the bedrock of science can be traced back Galileo.  The traditional belief is that Galileo got in trouble with church authorities because, following Copernicus, he argued that the earth revolved around the sun, not the other way around.

But that isn’t really the core of what was so threatening about Galileo.  He was called to Rome, threatened with the rack, and ultimately confined for the rest of his life to house arrest for a different reason.  Galileo believed that physical evidence and his observations of heavenly bodies seen through his telescope provided a more accurate account of the how the natural world worked than did revelation and the teachings of the church.

The belief that natural law is not subordinate to interference of supernatural or higher powers is one of the revolutionary foundation stones of scientific thought.

When Newton’s theory of gravity explained why apples fall from trees but stars don’t fall from the sky, the faith in the study of these natural laws in their own right provided a confidence in science and its methodology that was unprecedented.  With its powerful mathematical base,  Newton’s theory could tell where stars and planets had been in the past, but also predict where they would be for thousands of years to come.

Science became unequivocably committed to explanations of the universe based on natural laws.

Galileo and Newton and indeed most scientists continued to believe in God and most often to accept church teachings.  God created the universe and the laws under which it is was governed, but then did not interfere with their impersonal operation.  Mankind might still be held accountable on the day of final judgement and sentenced to eternal heaven or hell,  but the rain today did not come because we prayed for it.  Nor was the earthquake a punishment for our sinfulness.

This insistence that science seeks to explain the universe only through the discovery of natural laws has changed the very metaphysics of Western thought  and the role of religion in society.

But the specific assumptions of reductionism include more than a commitment to the exploration of natural law in its own right.  An examination of these further assumptions will be the topic of the next post on the topic.

July 14, 2010

Disagreements of how

Filed under: Just Stuff,Questions beyond Science — theotheri @ 9:29 pm

In the United States today, the distance separating the rich and poor is comparable to that of China.

My guess is that almost everyone in this fractious beloved country of ours would agree that this is a scandal – that this reflects something that has gone terribly wrong.  It is not that there should not be differences in wealth among us – happiness and fulfilment cannot be either assured or measured in monetary terms.

But that in a country as wealthy as ours, it should not be that there are thousands of men, women, and children who are homeless, who do not have adequate nutrition and education and medical care.  Who do not belong anywhere.

What we disagree about is the potential solution.

It looks to me as if our disagreements are so profound and so deeply felt that we too often sabotage attempts to make things better.

History suggests either that is going to undermine us completely, or a phoenix will arise out of the ashes.

I wish I could add something a little less obvious and a little more helpful.

June 14, 2010

My little list of “don’t knows”

Filed under: Just Stuff,Questions beyond Science — theotheri @ 8:32 pm

The older I get, the more things  there seem to be that I simply can’t explain.  I don’t mean things that other smarter people can explain.  Like string theory or nano-technology.  Or even how this box of cables and wires I’m currently typing on can communicate actual ideas around the world.  I mean things that contradict common sense.  No, more than that:  they contract the very fabric of reality that I and almost every other sane person lives in most of the time.

Lately  I’ve been pondering lately a small but elite list of things that have happened to me or to other people whom I consider eminently sane.  They are things that, if they happened as they were experienced, make no sense at all.

For example:

  • When I was teaching at Montclair University, I went to the same gas station for almost 15 years.  Then one day, I stopped for gas and the pumps had been torn up.  I mentioned this to a friend as a passing inconvenience, but  filled up at a different station without too much further thought.  Several months later, I had reason to pass the old station and there is was, open and dispensing gas just as before.  I was shocked and I drove in to ask if the station had been sold.  Not yet, the attendant said, but the pumps are going to be taken out next week.  I asked if they’d been taken out and put back in within the last couple of months.  No, he said.  I was so flabbergasted I checked with my friend and asked if I’d told him about the Exxon station that had closed earlier.  Yes, he said, a couple of month ago.
  • During the 4 years that my husband and I had dogs in Spain, we would often hear them flop down on the tile floor downstairs when they adjusted their positions.  We continued to hear the sound after the first dog died.  Two years later, Dugo, the second dog, also died.  Several days after he died, I mentioned to Peter that I thought I could still hear Dugo flopping down on the floor at night.  He said in some surprise that he did too.  It stopped after about a week.
  • A good friend of mine who was an identical twin woke up one morning and told her friends at the breakfast table that she’d dreamed her twin was paralyzed and couldn’t get out of bed.  The twin was living in Chile at the time.  Several hours later a phone call came through that the twin in Chile had been diagnosed with polio.

There are another 3 or 4 similar incidents on my list.  They happened either to me or to people who are not religiously inclined.  None of them seem prone to hysteria or an over-active imagination, none believe they have super-natural powers or that they were observing some kind of miracle.  In fact, they all tend to be pretty hard-nosed scientific types and are emphatically not superstitious.

Sigmund Freud was a hard-nosed reductionist and believed that even memories firmly repressed in the unconscious would some day be found to have an identifiable physical reality.   He said he had observed several inexplicable things which seemed to suggest that telepathy sometimes occurs.  “I don’t know,” was all he said.

And that’s what I do with my little list.  The standard psychological explanations just don’t seem valid in some of these situations, although, of course they might be.

But I just don’t know.

My suspicion is that these strange things happen more often than we realize.  Mostly we either forget them, or the religiously-inclined may explain them as acts of divine intervention or visitations, even sometimes as miracles.

I prefer to leave them in my “I just don’t know” list.

June 10, 2010

I’d like to talk to Kant

Filed under: Questions beyond Science — theotheri @ 9:00 pm

Immanuel Kant was one of the great philosophers and a major influence in the 19th century.  I am not a philosopher and am not even a neophyte in relation to Kant’s thinking.

But I am familiar with two of his significant ideas.  In the first, he argued that our moral principles were instinctive.  That is, we all recognize the Categorical Imperative without needing to be taught that doing unto others as we would have them do unto us is the essence of morality.

Secondly, he argued that we cannot be absolutely certain about those things which we cannot experience directly.  He argued that greater  certainty could be reached by studying what we can observe, and thus gave a great boost to the study of science in the Victorian era.  Whether he meant to or not, this thinking  also seems to have resulted in a loss of faith for many in religious dogma.

I wonder if Kant were alive today how his thought would have developed in relation to these two issues in the light of modern experience.  More practically, I suppose I should ask what the great philosophers of science today are thinking about them.

In relation to the Categorical Imperative, we know now that what we call altruistic behavior, a willingness to care for the young and vulnerable, and to give priority to the well-being of the group instead of individual well-being are common throughout the animal world.  Certainly the roots of morality seem to reach much deeper and much wider than we thought even a century ago.  Whether Kant would still use the word “instinctive,” to describe a fundamental grasp of morality, I’m not sure.  But I think his thinking would not need any radical change in the face of modern evolutionary discoveries.

But on the second principle, I’m not so sure.  Kant died before the great scientific revolutions brought about by quantum mechanics and relativity.  It wasn’t immediately evident, but what has gradually become apparent since the beginning of the 20th century is that science is not nearly as certain as we once thought.

Science is not truth, but rather a collection of theories which we espouse because at any given time they seem to be the best explanations and most useful tools to solve the problems and answer the questions with which at any given time society is most concerned.

Science is immensely useful and, unlike religious dogma, openly committed to the need to test and validate its theories.

But Absolute Certainty or Truth it is not.

I wonder what Kant would say.

Though come to think of it, perhaps he did say something about it.  I might have to start reading philosophy again.

But probably not.  At heart, I suspect I’m too pragmatic to stick it out.

June 9, 2010

New life in a petri dish

Filed under: Questions beyond Science — theotheri @ 8:24 pm

About two weeks ago scientists made a mind-boggling announcement:

From its component chemicals, they have created a new living, self-sustaining organism.

I am not surprised that it is possible and that it has happened in my life time.  But that does not preclude my being awe-struck.

I think it is an event that in its potential import outstrips the splitting of the atom.  The scientists are trying to pretend that the implications are not almost incomprehensible, saying only that the potential for good is immense.

Yes, of course it is.  We may be able to generate bacteria that can reduce much of our self-created pollution of the environment.  We may be able to cure many diseases that are currently untreatable.  We may be able to solve our energy and food and clean water shortages.

But to the extent that we figure out how to do these things, we will also, per force, learn how to poison the environment, we will be able to develop deadlier weapons of war than anything we have conceived of so far, we will have the tools for spreading terror that may be unstoppable.

And then there is the inevitable danger of accidents.  Organisms can escape or mutate and spread beyond our control.

It can’t happen?

No, a nuclear accident like Chernobyl couldn’t happen either.

Neither could the oil “spill” in the Gulf of Mexico that may still be spewing not 5,00o barrels of oil a day but 100,000, and may make not only the Gulf a dead zone, but may spread up the US east coast and into the open seas.

So it’s marvellous, and it’s scary that we can now create new forms of life in the laboratory.

Yet in one way, things really aren’t so different from the way they have always been.  Only the nature of the danger changes, not the fact of danger.  I grew up in a generation that build nuclear bunkers in their back yards.  For millenia, people have lived in dread of starvation, of plagues and disease, natural disasters and climate change.

I wish I had something wiser to say about it than that.  But I don’t.

I’ll just keep hoping that our generosity and our ingenuity outstrips the stupidity of our mistakes, and a fear of our enemies that could destroy us all.

May 13, 2010

A preposterous possibility?

There is a problem posed by quantum physics called entanglement.  The problem is that quantum particles sometimes seem to link in such a way that a change in one particle instantaneously affects its partner particle, even if the two particles are separated by millions of miles.

How can this be?  Nobody knows including the great geniuses of physics.  But all the observations made by scientists seem to come up with this seemingly-impossible fact.

Here are the hypotheses recently summarized in an article in the May 2010 edition of Scientific American of the various solutions offered to this extraordinary puzzle:

1.  The properties of quantum particles are not real:  they only exist in our perception of them.  That implies that nothing is real outside our own perceptions.  This is a problem because the assumption that the objective world actually exists outside our minds is a basic assumption of science.  Not to mention a basic assumption made by most of us during our saner moments.

2.  The scientists studying this problem do not have free will, but are predetermined by some unknown forces to study only those aspects of the problem that suggest these baffling results.  This alternative is no more palatable than the first, since it means that what we observe is determined not by us or by the nature of things but by some, again unknown, force, that controls what we do and what we observe.

3.  The third alternative is that some particles travel faster than the speed of light – at least ten million times faster than the speed of light.  This also violates a fundamental scientific principle underlying our understanding of the universe.

So none of the possibilities seem hugely convincing.

Now I know this is simple-minded of me, but it does seem to me that there is a 4th possibility.  I realize it is almost unthinkable and scientists may rather concede free will rather than consider this preposterous alternative.

But don’t you think there is at least a distant chance  that the observations of scientists are distorted?  Trapped here on Earth as we are, is it not possible that our observations are circumscribed by the nature of our senses and the limits of space and time within which we exist?

I think the problem just might be our limited perspectives.

But I guess that’s why I call this blog The Other I.

I think there is always another point of view that can change everything.

May 8, 2010

Which end is up?

Filed under: Questions beyond Science,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 4:00 pm

I read an analysis yesterday of a recent exposition of Intelligent Design (ID) – the theory that argues that the scientific evidence suggests that the universe must have been designed by some higher intelligence.

This analysis, like most others I have read, reaches the conclusion that ID is based on faulty scientific reasoning.  I didn’t need convincing, but I did begin to reflect on the root of my own almost gut-level disquiet with ID.

I was raised in a Catholic family where an unusually high level of intellectual discourse often took place around the dinner table.  I was able to discuss the Thomistic proofs for the existence of God by the time I was twelve.  By the time I was fourteen, I was even able to make a stab at refuting the arguments in opposition to the Thomistic view.  So I know first hand a lot about how much of religious analysis proceeds.

Thomistic thinking (its roots go back even to Greek thought)  is rational, but it is not necessarily scientific.   One important distinction between Thomistic and scientific thought is related to the way the problem is initially presented.  There are two main possibilities:  one can begin with a proposition and present arguments in favour of that particular conclusion.  Or one can look at the evidence and try to find the best conclusion or  explanation based on what one observes.  Broadly speaking, the first may be rational without being scientific, while the latter more accurately represents the thrust of scientific reasoning.

For example, if I go for a job interview, I present all the arguments I can muster to the interviewing board about why I am the best person for the job.  In other words, I present arguments for a conclusion I have already reached and want to persuade them to reach.  I do not present evidence about why I might not be any good at the job at all or why one of the other candidates might be better than I am.

The interviewing board, on the other hand, will look at all the evidence presented by all the candidates, and try to decide which candidate the evidence suggests would do the job best.

In other words, the candidate begins with the conclusion and presents evidence supporting only that outcome while the board begins by examining the evidence in order to reach a conclusion.

I feel that proponents of Intelligent Design do the former.  They are looking for evidence that there must be some force (frequently identified as God) that designed or created the universe.  And so they look only at evidence that supports this conclusion.  They do not look at evidence that does not support their position or that might even contradict it.

There is obviously a place for both kinds of reasoning in human thought.  But I think it’s a good idea to recognize which of the two one is utilizing at any given time.  Getting them mixed up risks missing a lot of the evidence that might change my mind.

Intelligent Design theorists argue that they are do not take the position they do because they believe in God.  If anything, they would say they believe in God because the science suggests that there must be some Intelligent Designer.

But I don’t think so.

I have a respect for believers who have the courage to remember that belief in God is a question of faith.  I think we all, as a matter of fact, have to make a stand and make decisions which cannot be validated by scientific evidence.  And we all must take the risk that those decisions could turn out to be faulty.  Maybe even horribly faulty.

But believers who try to hijack science to support their position do not, the way I see it, have the courage of their convictions.  I also think that if science suggests that my concept of God doesn’t fit in, one should consider whether it is ones concept of God that is faulty or limited rather than the science.

After all, Christianity finally came to terms with the fact that it does seem to be the earth that revolves around the sun and not the other way around.

May 7, 2010

Resigning from running the world

Well, the election here in Britain has resulted in a humdinger of a hung parliament.  Britain has had hung parliaments before, but never before in the face of such a huge budget deficit and fiscal crisis.  The markets are wobbling, but if the Tories (Conservatives) can’t reach an agreement with the Liberal Democrats before markets open on Monday, pandamonium could break out.

Meanwhile, TruthOut, which I read with a due sense of outraged seriousness, continues to send me their daily updates about the dire state of everything.  Today their leads concerned the control of America’s mass media by the right wing, Arizona’s racist immigration law, the Time Square bomb, regulatory failure of the big banks, the Gulf oil spill, and the prediction that oil production will peak in 2014.

It’s a good thing I no longer feel responsible for the world.

Because even in the midst of everything that seems to me so wrong, so out of kilter, so cruel or stupid or unjust, I find an amazing joy, a great fulfilment, in just being here.

I wouldn’t have thought understanding something so simple would have taken me so long to learn.

But now I am going back to see what I can make of this jumble that seems to have resulted from the election here last night.

April 29, 2010

Coming home

I have been reflecting in recent weeks on the path I have taken from my childhood belief in heaven and hell to where I am now.

By the time I was a teenager, I had outgrown the holy card version of heaven in which I knelt on a lower cloud surrounded by angels and saints in adoration of the King of kings.  I understood by then that heaven had to be a more sophisticated place than the one I was capable of understanding at the age of five.

By the time I was in my late twenties and early thirties, I’d given up most of the dogmas intrinsic to Roman Catholic doctrine.   I had consigned anthropomorphic concepts of god to the same category of childhood as my first heaven.  God, it seemed to me, was immanent in this world, and we were in part responsible for what the world became.  Our destiny, and the destiny of everything we touched was not inviolable, controlled exclusively by some divine plan that we were charged with somehow discovering and executing on pain of eternal damnation.  We were more responsible for what happened than that.

During those years, my view of life after death rested on the hope, which I sometimes thought of as an intuition, that in some way life did not end with death.   My reasons for taking this position, vague and undefined as it necessarily was, depended on two things.  One was the sheer flatness of accepting that there is nothing more than a recycling of molecules in a random process of birth, life and death and round again.

I rejected – and still reject – this expectation.  My sense – increased rather than decreased by my studies of science – is that there is a directed dynamic in the universe.  It is, at this point in time, beyond our complete understanding, and perhaps the process is and will be forever.  It seems to me to be a profound mystery, but not one which is therefore “above nature.”

But where do we fit into this process?  Are we no more than a packet of passive molecules put together for a short while to operate as humans and then return to dust?

I think not.  I have somehow never been able to accept the dust-to-dust hypothesis in its dreary completeness.   The reason I have long reasoned that life simply does not completely evaporate with death into molecular inertness is what in philosophy and psychology is often called “the mind-body problem.”

Put simply, the unanswered question posed by the mind-body problem is how something material – like the apparently electro-mechanical processes of the chemistry that control the brain – give rise to a completely immaterial experience like consciousness.  In recent times, neuroscientists have made great strides in identifying relationships between various psychological states and processes and corresponding brain activity.

While on the one hand this increasingly convinces me that the nature of our intelligence and our consciousness cannot be separated from the physical selves we and all living things are, on the other, we still haven’t the faintest scientific idea how the brain produces something as ephemeral, as non-physical, as thought.  Neuroscientific research simply ignores the existence of this question.

So for many years I have simply lived with the view that since consciousness does exist, there seemed to me two possibilities.  One is that consciousness – or mind – is a separate entity from body.  This possibility is vaguely related for me to believing in a soul or a spiritual world.  I have long suspected that it is a semi-secularized version of the Christian supernatural world elaborated from Plato’s world of perfect forms.  That does not necessarily make it invalid.  It is possible that these ideas which at such a young age influenced the very structures, the foundations of my world, were not wrong.  But I have not been convinced.

Increasingly I have favoured a second alternative.  That is that both mind and body are natural realities but that we do not yet understand how they are aspects of the same thing.  We did not understand until Einstein how matter and energy are aspects of the same thing, and simply lived with an unresolved dualism and the scientific and philosophical questions that dualism generated.  It seemed to me that someday scientists and philosophers would also come to understand how mind and body were two aspects of the same thing.  Not by reducing mind to a mere excitation of molecules, but by somehow preserving the nature of mind as I actually experienced it.  Not as something blindly mechanical over which my sense of control was an illusion, but as the dynamic drive which it seemed to me to be.

How this might possibly be conceived I had no idea, and thought it unlikely that I would have even a glimmer in my lifetime of how this might be possible.

But I have increasingly over the years begun to feel that this natural world is the only world.  I have increasingly edged toward making it my home.  This is not only where I am, but where I am always going to be.  When I die, I am not going to be – I do not want to be –  swept into a supernatural world where somehow I’m supposed to really belong.

No, I belong here.  In some form or other, my being will be here for eternity.

This universe no longer seems to me to be the flat reductionist place I used to think.  The mysteries suggested by science are more jaw-dropping, more incredible, more exhilarating, more challenging, than any religious vision I have ever imagined.  Whether it is imbued with a sense of what some call “the sacred,” I don’t know.  Any word that reminds me of the world “God” and its anthropomorphic distortions makes me very nervous.  But I do not see why, even as a hard-headed scientists, words describing the universe as potentially infinite, as eternal, as dynamic, even as profound, are not appropriate.

And now I even have a glimmer of idea of how the mind-problem might be resolved.  Not by positing a supernatural world, but with a different understanding about the nature of the very energy/matter out of which the universe is made.

But more on that in another post.  Even these thoughts, such as they are,  probably need further clarification and I will review and quite possibly re-write this post tomorrow.

For now, it’s not sufficient that I’ve come home.  I need more mundanely to go to bed.

April 23, 2010

What in heavens name I’m talking about

As I’ve been trying to identify the fundamental assumptions differentiating science and religion, it has become obvious that, although science represents a more or less a coherent acceptance of the nature of the universe and the methodologies by which we explore it, religion is almost limitlessly diverse.

Some religions teach that there is one god, some believe in many, Buddhism has no god at all.  For some, god is immanent, for others transcendent, some gods are scandalously like us.  Some religions assume there is a supernatural world and an after life, others don’t.  Some religious views are diametrically opposed to science, others argue that science is a telescope that gives us a vision of a deeper reality.  For some, salvation lies in acceptance of specific doctrines of faith, for others it lies not in what we think but in what we do.

So I guess the moral of this story is that if I’m going to keep talking about religion, I’d better be clear about just what religion I’m talking about.

April 22, 2010

Does science do poetry?

I find the world as it is revealed by science one of the incredible, awe-inspiring, gob-smacking visions I have ever experienced.  I’m not special in this regard:  millions of others, scientists and non-scientists alike, do too.

I love science, I think like a scientist, and I find the scientific endeavour exciting and challenging without limits.  I get a lot of inspiration from it, and it has been a major influence in my understanding of reality and what I’m doing here on planet Earth.

But the methodology of science, by and large, the nitty-gritty of every day research, is pretty down to earth.  Although scientists may be poets, science isn’t poetry.  The methods of science do not use symbols and myth, allegories and parables.  In fact, science involves specifying in precise, clear, one-dimensional terms the variables it is using and the results it finds.

And so I wonder if this characteristic of the scientific method is one of the contributing factors in the spread of fundamentalist religious thinking.  Until the last five hundred years, the Judeo-Christian religions recognized the value of mythos, of fables, and symbols.  The scriptures were understood by saints and scholars alike to be filled with truth communicated through them.

Today, however, fundamentalist religions insist that the scriptures can only be interpreted literally, that God does not speak in symbols, has no poetic intent.

My question is the extent to which this might be the result of religious thinkers attempting to emulate science.

Scientists, of course, would be appalled at being so misunderstood.  And it was never their intent to eliminate symbolic thought from its role in human understanding.  Religious fundamentalists no doubt would be equally appalled by this blasphemous suggestion.

But I wonder.

April 19, 2010

A testable possibility

In my post yesterday I suggested one of the issues frequently – though not always necessarily – dividing science and religion was the disagreement over the existence of a supernatural world whose inhabitants may intervene directly in the operations of the natural world.*

But there is a second assumption dividing scientific thought and religious belief which seems to me to be even more fundamental.  Not only does science accept only explanations which reflect natural processes and events, those explanations – that is theories – must be testable.

We’ve already seen that scientific proof is not absolute.  There is always the possibility that even the strongest, most broadly accepted theory, will be overthrown by new observations and new theories that explain what we observe more simply or with fewer contradictions.

Nonetheless, to be a workable scientific theory taken seriously by the scientific community, it must be testable.  That is, it must make predictions which scientists can then test.  The more predictions are validated, the stronger a theory becomes.  They are, essentially, the “proof” of the theory.

If a theory cannot be tested or if its predictions fail, it is not accepted as scientifically valid.

Religious beliefs, on the other hand, are based on faith, which by its very definition, cannot be tested the way a scientific theory must be.  Religious doctrine may make a lot of sense, may explain much of what we experience about the world and what we hope for the future.  But it is accepted for reasons that are beyond proof.

To many people, this sounds like an open and shut case demonstrating the superiority of science.

But I’m not so sure.

I personally cannot argue for the infallibility of any particular religious belief.  But I have difficulty accepting the scientific method and reason as the only valid roads to understanding.  Why?

First of all, because there seem to be so many important things about which we must decide in life which are either in theory or in practice not subject to scientific or even full-scale rational scrutiny.  And some of these decisions are terribly important.  Like:  “will we be happy if I marry this person?”,  “what career path will I find fulfilling?”,  “will this investment make a profit?”  Admittedly, science can sometimes shed light on these questions, but it cannot answer them if only because in practice I cannot set up the required scientific observations.

And there are other questions which are simply beyond scientific testability.  Like “does my life have a purpose?” or “why does a child or a flower or even a frog deserve respect?”

Are the answers we give to questions sheer guess work?  or can we intuit some things, can we at least orient ourselves in the right direction?  Has, perhaps, evolution given us some wisdom to which we have access but which we do not fully understand about ourselves?  are even our scientific hypotheses based initially on intuitions which have a better chance of being validated than would mere guesswork?

And if we do possess some capacity for intuition, how do we use it? through poetry?  through music or literature?  from others? in our scientific endeavours?

If yes, how do we recognize it? can we validate these intuitions outside science in any way?  How do we distinguish between superstition and valid intuition? between wishful thinking and insight?  between fear-laden bigotry and a sixth sense that we might trust?

Given my background, I tend to approach these questions as a psychologist first, rather than in terms of theology or philosophy where I am a neophyte.

From that perspective, at this point, I don’t fully trust the announced intuitions of any one who seems to have a need for absolute certainty, who cannot consider the possibility that they might be wrong.  This is as true of scientific as religious thought.  I think it is an inescapable condition of being human that we must live with some level of uncertainty.  The decisions we make will always entail some risk that we are wrong.  That’s life.

But I also look for some coherence.  I can’t adopt a philosophy of life that broadly contradicts the assumptions and observations of modern science.  So I do not believe that the world was created in seven days some four thousand years ago, I don’t think homosexuality is intrinsically wrong or even immature, I’m open to the possibility that polygamy is a viable structure for some cultures, I don’t think any of us have a mission from God to either convert all non-believers or eliminate them from the face of the earth.

I do, on the other hand, have a sense of responsibility for earth and every one and everything in it, mainly because I can’t see any other alternative.

* There is a fuller and possibly more accurate exploration of the relationship between philosophy and religion by the author of the comment made in relation to my post yesterday.

April 18, 2010

A perfect world

I said in my last post that the idea there is another “super natural” world more perfect than the one we live in is one that often divides the scientific and religious world.  But the idea of a super-natural world is not necessarily religious wishful thinking.  And it did not begin that way.

We can trace the idea of a super-natural world to Plato and the Greeks to the fourth century BC.  The question Plato was trying to answer was how we know what know.  How, for instance, he asked, do we have an idea of perfection – perfect circles, perfect triangles, perfect flowers, perfect apples – when in our world none of these things are ever absolutely perfect?

Because we can think about these perfect things, Plato reasoned, they must exist.  Since they don’t exist in this world, they must exist in some “super” world, some place where perfect forms are real.  Plato’s supernatural world had nothing to do with God or religion.  In fact, Greek gods were far from perfect.  They lied, stole, and engaged in bullying just like ordinary people only better and bigger.

Moreover, this idea that because we can think of something it must therefore exist is a belief that some great thinkers still hold.  Some of today’s greatest mathematical thinkers, for instance, believe that the world of numbers is real, that they exist in a perfectly logical universe of their own, and that if we can think of these numbers, then they must exist.

So how did the idea of a super-natural world become so unacceptable to science?

The idea of a supernatural world which the Greek science of the day believed explained human understanding was not a world that early Christians necessarily believed in.  For many, the natural world was the only world and their God was immanent in this world.

But by the fourth or fifth centuries, Christian theology had adopted Plato’s supernatural world and populated it not with perfect numbers and shapes and objects but with God and the angels and saints.  And then a parallel Hell was populated with Satan and everyone who was not perfect enough for the perfect world generally thought of as Heaven.

When modern science emerged some 600 years ago, scientists did not reject the idea of heaven and hell, just as many scientists today do not.  But what scientists did say and say universally to this day is that science looks for explanations that reflect natural processes.  As scientists, they reject explanations in which natural events are seen as the result of the intervention of supernatural powers, whether those powers are seen as benevolent or as meant to punish humanity for its sinfulness.

So for the scientists, it was not a miracle that saved my life, nor are earthquakes and plagues and volcanic eruptions turned on by supernatural powers because we humans have sinned.

Millions of people today believe in this spiritual supernatural world.  I am not among them.  I think we must take responsibility for the world as best we can as we understand it.  It would be nice to think that however uncaring or self-absorbed we may be, that ultimately there is a Great Plan which will make it all come out right and we will live happily ever after.

But I can’t see any evidence that this is so.  Although that is hardly conclusive.  All sorts of things exist of which I don’t have the slightest intimation, and or evidence.

And so although I don’t believe myself that there is another super-natural world, I don’t think the idea is always as Luddite or stubbornly ignorant as some have suggested.

April 16, 2010

Different starting gates

All of us make assumptions in our thinking that often seem so obvious and reasonable that we are not even aware that they are completely beyond proof.

In the Western world, we assume, for instance, that the world of objects we experience when we are awake exists independently of our experience of them.  And we assume that other people who are not blind or deaf or in some other way suffering from sensory incapacity can experience them too.  So I believe the desk at which I am sitting is a real desk and if you were here, you would see it too.

But how do I know that for sure?  how do I know that this desk is not simply a figment of my imagination?  how do I know that what I think of my memory of my entire day isn’t a dream?  Occasionally, what I have thought was real has turned out to be a dream, and when I wake up I sometimes as not sure whether I dreamed something or actually experienced it when I was awake.

Actually, there is no way I can prove beyond doubt that the world outside my mind is objectively real.  But since most of the time, everybody else seems to behave as if they are experiencing the same world I am, and since everybody else seems to believe without question that that world is objectively real, so do I.  As does almost everybody else everywhere in the world most of the time.

But most of the time isn’t all the time, and occasionally there are personal disagreements.  Sometimes these disagreements are even between entire cultures.

When our consciousness is altered through illness, drugs, lack of sleep, stress, or because of the very nature of our brains, or because the society within which we live interprets experiences in a particular way, we sometimes do not agree about what is real.

For instance, hallucinations are terrifyingly real for someone seeing it.  Voices have directed people to comment acts as irrational as murder, suicide, and impossible feats like floating or flying unaided.  Similarly, peoples from some cultures today believe that their dreams reflect visits from real people.  I remember one of my foreign students who could not get his mind around a Freudian interpretation of dreams because he did not believe, as we do in the west, that dreams are sole creations  of the dreamer.  For him, the people in his dreams really were talking to him.  They were real, even those who had died.

If we start out with different basic assumptions about what is objectively real and what is not, we are going to have a great deal of trouble understanding each other until we recognize that we are each starting from a different place.

As I said, most of us most of the time accept the objective existence of the world.

But there are other, equally important assumptions, about which we are not so generally agreed.  And some of the most divisive, if often unrecognized, differences in our starting assumptions are between science and various religious views.

Is there, for instance, a supernatural world which has both the power and the desire to directly influence what happens in this natural world?

Before you start spluttering that the answer is obvious, pause a moment.  Neither position might be quite as ridiculous as you might first think.

Or perhaps more accurately I should say that although I have made up my own mind about the question, people who disagree with me no longer seem to me to be quite so obviously wrong-headed as I once thought.

Why this is so will be the subject of my next post.  Unless the volcanic ash currently emanating from for the volcanic eruption in Iceland does more than simply ground every single commercial flight in Britain and halt flights throughout all of Europe.  All of which is happening now.

Unless, of course, all this is a figment of my imagination.

April 9, 2010

Addendum on Truth

Filed under: Questions beyond Science,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 7:52 pm

Science cannot arrive at an ultimate truth.  Science searches for understanding, not for Truth.

Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Astrophysicist

Burnell’s understanding of religion – she is a life-long Quaker -is similar.  She believes we need to continue to explore our understanding of god (or whatever term you prefer) all our lives – not to arrive at a static and unchanging ultimatum.

So we never ever finally get to some place where we know it all.  Never.

I think that means the process never ends.

Three cheers!

April 7, 2010

How certain is scientific fact?

Filed under: Questions beyond Science,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 12:53 pm

This is the second part of the Question Beyond Science exploring how certain we can be about what we think we know.  Yesterday’s post discussed certainty and religious belief.  This post asks whether science can provide us with absolute certainty.  Again, your feedback is warmly welcomed.

How the Scientific Method Works

The scientific method is in many ways a highly disciplined application of the kind of reasoning processes humans use all the time.

First, we experience something – we see the sun come up in the morning, for instance, and set every evening.  In a scientific study, this is what is called “data.”

Then we ask what it means, we try to explain it.  How it is, for instance, that the sun comes up every morning and sets every evening?  In science the explanation is the “theory.”

But science adds several qualifications to these steps.  The first is replication of the data.  Scientists agree that data must be subject to being checked by other scientists.  So scientists study only objects and events that other scientists can also observe if they choose.  Whatever a scientist studies, from the stars to how people behave, the basic requirement is that other scientists can also observe and analyze it.

This is to rule out errors or fraud or even hallucinations or dreams that are mistaken for something objectively real.

The second qualification of science is in relation to theory.  Science neither accepts nor denies the existence of a supernatural world.  It does, however, look for explanations solely within the operations of the natural world.  So even if a scientist believes in God, it would not be an acceptable scientific theory to hypothesize, for instance, that the sun is under the control of a god who takes the sun away at night and brings it back every morning.

It is because science insists on data which is observable and theories which are rooted in the laws of the natural universe, that its theories can be tested.

How Theory becomes Fact

A scientific theory is first developed as an explanation for something we observe.  It is then tested by examining its predictions.  The more predictions made by a theory which are correct, the stronger a theory becomes.  Each correct prediction contributes to its proof.

For tens of thousands of years, human beings looked at the data and concluded, quite reasonably, that the world was flat.  Very few people questioned what seemed to be obvious to almost anybody who had ever walked on it.  But about 500 years ago, Copernicus suggested not only that the world was shaped like a huge ball but that it was twirling around in space and at the same time whirling around the sun.  This was a whole new explanation which at first sounded preposterous.

How did we all become convinced not only that it wasn’t preposterous but was actually fact, was, in other words, true?  We became convinced because the theory predicted and explained so many other things that it began to make sense.

This new theory explained how it was that the sun seemed to set at night and come back again on the other side of the sky in the morning.  It explained the changing positions of the stars.  It explained why the seasons regularly changed from winter to summer and back again.  It explained how ships sailed around the world and got back home without ever turning around.  It explained so many things that people now say it’s not “just a theory,” but a “proven fact.”

By a similar process, Newton’s theory of gravity, Mendel’s laws of heredity, and Darwin’s theory of evolution have become “fact.”

But scientific facts, no matter how much proof backs them up, never become absolutely certain.  They may be accepted by most people for a very long time under most conditions, but scientific facts are never beyond question.


How Can a Fact that is Proved be Disproved?

Facts are disproved when the theory that explains the fact is no longer accepted.  The “fact” that the world was flat was disproved when the theory that earth was round was accepted.  The “fact” that the sun went around the world was disproved when the theory that the earth went around the sun explained things better and so was accepted by scientists and by most people.

Newton’s theory of gravity that said the universe worked like a gigantic clock is no longer accepted as fact since scientists have shown that the force of gravity isn’t strong enough to hold the world together.  The “facts” that parallel lines never meet, that a mile is always the same length, and a minute lasts just as long no matter where you are have been disproved by Einstein’s theories of relativity.

Many of these disproven facts still work quite well in our small world where we still walk on what seems to be a flat world, where the sun still comes up and goes down each day, where a mile is always 5280 feet long, and a minute always 60 seconds.

But they are not absolute facts because time and space a relative. So they aren’t certain no matter what.  No matter what the “fact,” there is always the possibility that another theory will convince us that what we thought was indisputable is not certain after all.

So although science has taught us a lot about the universe, science always deals in various levels of uncertainty.  Some levels of certainty are very high.  But it is not absolute.

What do you think?

Are there some things about which you think you can be absolutely certain?  Why or why not?

Is your certainty about scientific fact and religious belief different?

Copyright © T. Herman Sissons, Ph.D.

April 6, 2010

Certainty: religious belief and scientific fact

Filed under: Questions beyond Science — theotheri @ 2:52 pm

The following is part one of the third of twelve Questions Beyond Science.  It’s a draft for the next edition of The Big Bang to Now, and any feedback, positive or negative, will be taken most seriously.  And gratefully.

How Certain Can We Be?

We all need a certain amount of predictability in our lives to survive.  Without a regular source of oxygen, food, water, and shelter we would perish.  Likewise, we need to know there are people we can count on, to care for us and be there when we need them.

As we grow older we often start asking about other things we want to be sure about too.  What happens to us when we die?  Who can we believe?  What is the difference between a belief and an opinion? between a scientific theory and a fact?  What can we know for certain and what is just a good guess?

For thousands of years, some of the greatest of human thinkers have asked how we know what we think we know.  This is not a trivial question that can be easily answered in a few short pages.  There is one issue, however, outstanding in today’s world.

That question is whether certain knowledge can be gained through either religion or science.

Certainty and Religious Belief

The answers to some of our most significant questions have been given answers by different religions.  Religion addresses questions about values, about how we should behave, about sin and punishment and forgiveness, about redemption and what happens after we die.

Religion also often offers answers to questions about the natural world.  There have been religious answers to questions about how the universe began, why there is suffering in the world, why we get sick and die, why natural disasters like tsunamis and earthquakes happen.  Religions such as Christianity and Islam also teach that there are other worlds beside the one we live in and to which we go after death.

Are Religious Teachings Infallible?

Millions of people believe the teachings of their religion are infallibly true.  Sacred books such as scripture or the Koran are sacred sources of truth because they are seen as direct revelations from God and that the only road to salvation is through unquestioning adherence to the teachings of their holy books and religious leaders.  The faith of some believers is so certain that they have given their lives for it.

Not everyone, however, believes that religious teachings are necessarily true.  How is it that some people are certain about their religious beliefs while others are unconvinced?

Religious doctrine is based on faith.  That means that by definition it is not subject to the kind of empirical proof or disproof we ordinarily look for outside the world of religion.  Faith is based on what an individual believes is revelation, truths make known directly by God to those he chooses.  Many people are born into a faith and accept the beliefs they are taught as children for the rest of their lives.  Others have what they call an enlightenment or conversion, often an intense experience in which they believe God has spoken to them directly and whose invitation to belief they have accepted.

The Advantages and Disadvantages of Religious Certainty

There are often great advantages religious belief and absolute certainty.  Religious beliefs have supported people who have dedicated their lives to the good of others.  People risk their lives for their values, are even willing to die rather than betray them.

Common religious values also help to create a cohesive society of shared principles and common goals.  This bonding of the community created by religion is so great that some people – including some who are not believers themselves – fear that without common religious values, society will disintegrate into fractured individuals who care about nothing but their own pleasure.

But this very advantage is sometimes religion’s greatest liability.  How does one determine who is right when people are absolutely certain about contradictory beliefs?  For thousands of years and to this very day, people have claimed the right to kill “unbelievers” and “infidels” whose only crime is to espouse a different set of beliefs.

It was in an attempt to reduce this carnage after centuries of murderous civil wars in Europe that the idea of separating the power of the state and that of the church took hold and was established in various forms of government called democracy.  At the same time, people began to separate certainty based on scientific evidence from certainty based on religious faith.

Can science, then, provide absolute certainty, at least in those areas in which there are established, proven scientifically verified facts?  Unfortunately not.

Copyright © T. Herman Sissons, Ph.D.

The possibility of achieving absolute certainty using the scientific method will be discussed in the next post.

February 28, 2010

More worries about Plato’s left hand

Filed under: Just Stuff,Political thoughts,Questions beyond Science — theotheri @ 9:15 pm

I’m not really worried about whether Plato was left-handed.  But I’m worried about the influence of people who see the world in the way Plato seems to have seen it.  Because it is a view of reality that still exercises immense influence in the modern world.

I am not thinking, at this point, about Plato’s super-natural perfect world which has been hijacked by Christian theology and populated with spirits.   I don’t believe in the existence of that world, but my concerns tonight are for the influence in modern thinking of what I think is a form of brilliant semi-autistic thinking.

In particular, I am thinking of a small group of people, of whom I suspect Plato was one, who are highly gifted mathematicians and often musicians, but who, at the same time, are severely handicapped in their ability to understand less numerical concepts.   As a result, they are often extremely shy, uncomfortable in social situations, unable to intuit what appears to us as the most obvious feelings of others.  They are sometimes surprisingly concrete in their interpretations of what they hear, and so don’t understand poetry at all and misinterpret symbolic thought as literal.

Plato himself thought that poetry should have no place in society, and instead told poets that they should say “what they really mean.”

I remembered that yesterday when I heard a leading scientist here publicly argue for saving money in our schools by teaching only science and math on the grounds that literature and the arts were a waste of time we could not afford in this time of austerity.

It is an argument that has been running through the philosophy of science and through what are considered the “softer” sciences like psychology, sociology, and political science for more than a century.

Fundamentally, the argument has been whether everything that counts can be counted, and whether what can’t be counted should be included at all in a valid scientific analysis.

The recent financial crisis is a dramatic illustration of this debate applied to real-world systems.  Chastened economists have been looking at the rubble of the economic system they thought had tamed financial risk with sophisticated mathematical formulae powered by prodigious computer technology.  One economist even wrote a history of risk entitled “Against the Gods” in which he argued that financial risk had been permanently reduced by derivatives, securitization, CDOs, and the whole panoply of complex configurations that only a few could understand.

Financial analysts, traders, regulators, or bankers who argued that there was something else that needed to be taken into account besides what was included in these quantitative analyses were dismissed as old fogeys.  They were shelved and dismissed while for ten years a new form of credit risk dazzled and blinded financiers.

Not every gifted mathematician shares a blind spot for interpersonal, symbolic, poetic, and social reality.  Research suggests that those who are truly incapable of understanding these things lack what neuroscientists call “mirror neurons.”  It’s a syndrome that exists on a gradient, so one may be extremely a-social, belonging to a group labelled autistic.  But lesser versions appear as Asperger’s syndrome, or merely as shyness or social awkwardness.

I’m thinking about these people because when they are brilliant, even geniuses, it is not obvious that there is a whole half of reality to which they have no direct access.  Rather the way a color blind-person has no immediate experience of the difference between green and red.

I’m also personally concerned.  Because this syndrome runs in our family.  And although I am right-handed, I have recognized for many years that I have what you might call a “left-handed brain.”  I’m good at math and music, and with some instinctive wisdom, I became a cognitive psychologist, and went into university teaching, rather than becoming a psychotherapist.

What I worry about is just how big a blind spot I have when it comes to understanding other people.  Do I unknowingly miss the obvious?  Do I run rough-shod over the feelings of others?  Am I more sensitive to their effects on me rather than mine on them?

I know no one can really tell me the answer.  But simply entertaining it as a serious possibility has greatly increased my tolerance for other people who seem to me to so callously dismiss the feelings of others or to judge them with such arrogant ignorance.

I mean, maybe I do too.

February 22, 2010

Did God create the universe?

Filed under: Questions beyond Science,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 2:46 pm

A reader has just made me realize that, despite my intentions, I had not posted my first Question Beyond Science here asking whether God had created the universe.  My next treatise is at least two weeks away, and possibly twice that.  So if you are not among those who enjoy this kind of amateur musing, do not despair.  And thank you for listening.  Despite my conviction that these questions have no absolute final answers, I continue to turn them over.  And over.

Where did the world come from?  Different civilizations, cultures and religions have all told creation stories as humans have tried to answer this age-old question.

Today the question most often asked is whether, however the story is told, there is a supernatural, superhuman intelligence most people call God who created the universe.

There are many different ways to answer this question.  For instance:

Yes, there must be a God who created the universe

Many people believe in God because we are here.  However far back one pushes the chain of events, there is always the question:  What or who caused that first event to happen?  How did the universe come into existence in the first place?  Even if you say “the big bang.” that doesn’t answer the question “what caused the big bang?”.   If there was a Big Bang, was it God who made it happen that way?  Many people believe it must have been.

Aristotle said that events have causes, an idea that seems quite logical to most of us.   Believers say that if you carry this idea to its logical conclusion, it seems obvious that there must be a First Cause.  For believers, that First Cause is God.

This doesn’t seem to be illogical.  In fact, it seems quite rational.  Why then, are there so many equally rational people who are not convinced that there is a God?

To say we don’t know the answer doesn’t prove there is a God

For non-believers, “we can’t think of any other explanation besides God” isn’t the same thing as saying “there must be a God.”  It would be better, they think, to say instead that we don’t know the answers to all our questions.  Perhaps, they say, it is the universe itself, not God, which is an infinitely unfolding mystery and has always existed.

Volcanoes and tsunamis, the rising and setting sun, the complexity of the human eye or a lucky escape from an accident have all been used as proof that there must be a God.  But today these events seem perfectly natural, and can be explained without resorting to explanations involving miracles or supernatural powers.

If everyone had been satisfied with “god” as the answer to everything we don’t understand, they say, we would not have electricity in our houses, or cars on our roads.  We wouldn’t even know that Earth revolves around the sun once a year. They worry that making God responsible for everything that happens is an excuse for not taking responsibility for ourselves.

What do you think?

Is it God or the universe itself which is infinite, beyond our present human understanding, an ineffable mystery?

Does the idea of God interfere with our being responsible for what we do?  Does it interfere with our exploring and learning more about the world in which we live?

Or as we learn more about the universe, its beauty and complexity, can we learn more about how to care for it and about a God who made it?

Copyright © T. Herman Sissons, Ph.D.

February 21, 2010

Why can’t science answer our God question?

People who believe in God and those who don’t often find each other incomprehensible.  Even worse, they often think the worst of each other.  At best, believers fear for the salvation of the unbelievers, while non-believers often suspect believers of superstition and fear.

Why can’t science answer this question for us?  Why can’t science answer our questions about God?

How Science Works

Science works fundamentally by setting up a hypothesis and asking if there is observable, verifiable, repeatable evidence that the hypothesis must be wrong.  It’s the principle of falsifiability based on what is called “the rejection of the null hypothesis.”

For instance, a drug company wants to know if a particular medicine it wants to market will have undesirable side effects.  To test whether headache might be a side effect, the null hypothesis is “this medicine will not cause headaches.”  It gives the medicine to a selection of volunteers, and if it is followed by headaches, the company rejects the null hypothesis, and agrees to publish a warning that a side effect of the medicine may be headache.  If nobody gets headaches, the company can only say “we have found no evidence that it causes headaches.”  It is still possible that, once a medicine is on the market, some people might get a headache after taking it.  If this is reliably confirmed, it is evidence that does indeed result in the rejection of the null hypothesis which was that the drug has no known side effects

What Proof Could Science Look For?

In relation to God, then, the scientist would ask “is there anything we might observe which would enable us to reject the null hypothesis – that is to say “we have proof that the conclusion that there isn’t a God cannot possibly be right”?

The problem is that there isn’t.  All scientists agree, there is nothing that any of us could observe that would prove that there can’t possibly be a God.  The second problem, though, is that this doesn’t prove that there must be a God either.  What some see as proof of God’s existence, others see as natural occurrences which science can or will some day be able to explain as a natural phenomenon.  For instance:

  • – When the Russians first put an astronaut into space, they announced that they had not found God and that this was proof that God did not exist.
  • – But of course, it wasn’t proof.  Not finding God might be because one hadn’t looked in the right places.  Or perhaps because we do not have the ability to “see” God even when God is there.
  • Some people reason that the universe exists at all is evidence that there must be a First Cause, which could be called God.
  • But other people reason that perhaps the universe has always existed and there is no proof that there is a First Cause at all.
  • Some people say that evil and suffering in the world is why they don’t believe in God.
  • But other people look at the same evil and suffering and say it is God’s punishment for our sinfulness, or that a greater good will come from the suffering, even if we don’t understand how.
  • Some people believe in God because of some good fortune like being rescued in an earthquake or hurricane or some other disaster.  Some people have been converted after being cured of a grave illness or observing something that seems to be miraculous.
  • But other people look at these as natural phenomenon rather than acts of God.

Science and the God Question

That is why the question of God is not a question that can be ever be answered by applying the scientific method.  The problem with testing the hypothesis “There is no God” is that there are no conditions we might observe which would prove that there must be a God, or that there cannot be.

There are many scientists who believe in God and who are committed believers.  But there are no scientists who can say that they believe in God because they have proved this  through an application of the scientific method.  Ultimately belief in God is a decision to go beyond what can be proved scientifically, to go beyond the evidence.

Whatever word one may use, the question of God is not a question science can answer for us.

Belief, however is not necessarily a question of ignoring what we experience.  Many scientists and non-scientists alike intuit a wonder in the world, a mystery, something many experience as transcendent, that some call God, others call Sacred, others simply That-Which-Cannot-Be-Named, or the Unknown.

Some people experience it through poetry or music, in mathematics, in quantum mechanics, in the apparent infinity of space.  Others experience it in a relationship, in the look on a child’s face, in an act of kindness or undeserved loyalty.  Some people have sensed it on the peak of a mountain or an ocean shore, some after a great gift, others after a great loss.

What do you think?

Is there any experience that has or would convince you  that there must be a being you might call God?  or are there experiences that might intimate the presence of something transcendent or beyond our total human grasp?

Alternatively is there anything that would convince you that God could not possibly exist?

Would that evidence convince everyone that no other scientifically viable conclusion is possible?

Are there experiences which are beyond science which answer these questions for you?

Copyright © T. Herman Sissons, Ph.D.

This is the second in my Questions Beyond Science series.  (I’m planning on doing 12 questions – one for each chapter of my book, for those who may be wondering if this is going to go on forever.)  As usual, I would read any comments with great interest.

February 11, 2010

What do you think?

Filed under: Questions beyond Science,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 3:53 pm

I have just begun to publish on my other blog The Big Bang to Now, a series I’m calling Questions Beyond Science.  They are Think About issues that developed from feedback to the first edition of my book on all of time.

The questions in general are not themselves scientific but are questions that people tend to ask in a world as science-oriented as the one we live in —  questions like Did God create the universe?  Are there different kinds of truth?  Is there a supernatural world controlling the natural universe?

I am looking for feedback from people with many different perspectives and beliefs.  This is not a poll to try to find out how many people take which position or an attempt to convince people that one answer is right and the others wrong.  What I would like to know, above all, is whether my presentations of the different sides of the questions seem fair and clear and respectful to people from many different points of view.

So often, it seems to me, we can’t listen to each other because our discussion is marred with sarcasm, distortion, and a lack of respect for someone who sees the world differently.  As regular readers of this blog will know, I have views on most of these questions.  And there are times and places where sarcasm, distortion, or a lack of due respect are refreshingly funny and insightful, and positively valuable.

But there are other times when it is important to be able to listen without bias to views with which we may utterly disagree.   And I know how hard this can be.  Despite my commitment to respecting others, there are some views that make me so angry that I find it close to impossible to enter into a dialogue about them.

But if you are interested in these kinds of questions and if you have any thoughts on any of the posts, I would be very very glad to hear them.

The first Question Beyond Science is Did God create the Universe? You can see it on the blog The Big Bang to Now post for February 11, 2010, and some earlier comments on the post for the preceding day.

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