Saturday, November 8, 2008

NOMA Applause

I am often drawn to the intersection of spiritual belief and scientific empiricism (religion belongs to another category altogether and is probably best discussed by social scientists, psychologists and neurobiologists). Earlier today I posted a short clip of Neil Degrasse Tyson explaining that science educators had to take into account their intended audience's state of mind (see the post just below this one—very much worth watching in its entirety), and the exchange between Tyson and Richard Dawkins made me think of Stephen Jay Gould's theory of Nonoverlapping Magisteria (abbreviated "NOMA" by both its adherents and detractors).

Gould's argument, briefly, is that religion and science are spheres of human inquiry that are not in conflict because they address different phenomena and different concerns. I think that position is naive: science and religion are regularly in conflict, especially in the sphere of public policy. From Texas school boards trying to jam creationism into science curricula, to Islamic fundamentalists blowing up girls' schools in Pakistan, there is no shortage of people trying to ensure that their particular religious belief is reflected in government policy.

We'll never know, but Gould may have been groping toward a state of mind familiar (in teaching, if not in practice) to adherents of Zen Buddhism: attainment of enlightenment through the non-rational. In his essay on NOMA, Gould admits "I cannot, through ignorance, speak of Eastern religions..." which is a shame, because I think in Zen he might have found both intellectual and emotional appeal. A Zen fixture in popular culture is the question, "What is the sound of one hand clapping," a phrase drawn from a Japanese kōan. The point of a kōan is not to arrive at a logical answer, or at any answer whatsoever, but by pondering it to force the mind from its rational dualism. NOMA aside, many people who give thought to issues of spirituality and science believe either science is right or spirituality is right; they can't both be right.

I know what you're thinking: he's going to say "What if both are right?"

Nope. I'm going to say "What does right mean?" We are, some of us, very focused on winning the debate, without really understanding what winning means. I don't refer here to politics, nor public policy here: winning and losing have clear and consequential meaning in those arenas—see Dover v. Kitzmiller. (And in that vein, I have no truck with the Templeton Prize or its winners: despite its posture of reconciliation with reason and scientific inquiry, the organization is just another partisan in the culture wars; the whole point of the prize is "affirming life's spiritual dimension.")

I think it's more important, and likely more productive, to ask what it means to the individual, inside his or her own head, for one view or the other to prevail? Does it mean losing a part of ourselves? Maybe. Or to phrase it differently, maybe clinging to the either/or of spirituality versus empiricism keeps us from reaching our genius.

In 1936, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Crack Up that "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." Fitzgerald may have put the cart before the horse. It's possible that one develops a first-rate intelligence (if we take intelligence in the broadest sense) by attempting to hold conflicting ideas in mind at the same time. If not enlightenment, it is possible that a deeper level of understanding may come from sidestepping the question of being right, concentrating instead on just being.

Point, Tyson

A clip of Neil Degrasse Tyson explaining his approach to science education, in contrast to Richard Dawkins' approach. Well thought out and well said, I think.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Kitten X Awarded Tenure

In a milestone action for Feline Americans, Kitten X has been awarded tenure through an unusually expeditious and evenhanded process at FSP.

We urge our reader to write to FSP in support of this faculty appointment.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Unseen World

Today's New York Times has an excellent piece online about schlieren photography. Two images by Gary Settles at Penn State caught my eye. The top image shows an AK-47 firing high velocity (supersonic) ammunition; the bottom image shows a revolver firing subsonic ammunition.

Comparing the left sides of the two images, you can clearly see that the revolver bullet has not outpaced the expanding sphere of sound from the weapon firing, whereas the rifle bullet is already outside the sphere.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Schoolyard Theology

Here's an Iowa pastor talking to god the way a mob legbreaker talks to a mark: "You let that other god win, this could look very bad for you..."

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Religulous, Superfluous

I saw Bill Maher's documentary, Religulous, and while I was amused, I wasn't enlightened. It's easy to make fun of a lot of religious beliefs (Maher seemed to have a particular thing for the talking snake of Genesis), but there wasn't a lot of information in the film that I hadn't heard before.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the film was the comparison of the stories in the Christian Bible with its Egyptian, Hindu and other precursors (apparently virgin births and martyred prophets who return from the dead were thick on the ground in the pre-Christian era).

As to the rest, it could be summed up thus: religion isn’t just ridiculous, it’s bad, and unless humans get over our religious infatuations, we’re going to exterminate ourselves. Religulous is a refreshing debate opener in a time when obligatory deference to religious sensibilities is the rule, but it’s too simplistic and, finally, too focused on getting a laugh from the other bad boys in the back of the classroom.

Of course Maher comes from standup comedy (it shows), and humor is a very effective way of undercutting the solemn power of established religion. It’s also, pardon the pun, preaching to the choir. There are two things strikingly wrong about the film: it doesn’t take seriously the sense of connectedness and empathy that the mystical experience can confer upon practitioners; and it treats religion as a monolithic entity.

Absent from the film are discussions of Zen Buddhism, Yoga in the Hindu tradition (as opposed to Americanized version popular among the entitled class), and other contemplative disciplines that seek to unite practitioners with the transcendent. The very human desire to reconnect with the sense of peace and wholeness one gets from, say, watching the sun rise over the ocean, strikes me as not only sympathetic, but admirable.

Religion isn’t all one thing. It offers the mystical experience; a bonding experience with one’s neighbors, tribe and country; solace against the pain of loss and the fear of death; a way of establishing and enforcing social norms so that large numbers of people can peacefully coexist within their communities; and a place to find meaning in life, among many things. It is also, and I think primarily, a byproduct of large, complicated brains.

The most interesting question that Maher never asks is, “What is it about the architecture of the human brain that predisposes people to religious belief?” (He does sideswipe the question in a too-brief and rather shallow segment with neuroscientist Andrew Newberg in Grand Central Station.) That may be the metaquestion that eventually unlocks the stranglehold that punitive, rule-bound religions have on humans across the globe. But it’s hard to play complex scientific data for laughs, so what we’re left with are intellectual spitballs from the back of the class.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Let the Scurrilation Begin

If you're stupid enough, venial enough, angry enough, then no pretext is too slim to demonize your opponents.

On Tuesday, June 3, when Barack Obama clinched the Democratic nomination for president in St. Paul, Minnesota, he and his wife exchanged a fist bump (and the more conventional hug and kiss) on national television.

Much has been made of "the fist bump heard 'round the world," as the Washington Post called it. Underreported, but plain to see in the stills and video, is Michelle Obama's sly, spouse-to-spouse grin when they bump fists. It was human and endearing and I think spoke volumes about their relationship. It could all be acting, of course: this is politics we're talking about, but it would be a relief to have a good actor in the White House after eight years of Walker, Texas Ranger reruns.

On June 6 (the 64th anniversary of the allied invasion of Nazi Europe, if anyone cares), Fox Barking Blonde E.D. Hill spoke these immortal words (emphasis mine): "A fist bump? A pound? A terrorist fist jab? ... We'll show you some interesting body communication and find out what it really says."

In the ensuing "conversation," Hill never does unpack what she meant by "terrorist fist jab," but of course she didn't have to. The message was clear as a dog whistle to the White Pride xenophobes and droolers that make up the Fox base: Them folks ain't like us.

Never mind that you would have to live in a Siberian salt mine beneath a radioactive lake to have never seen a fist bump before--they are ubiquitous in professional sports, one obvious example to which even the inbred degenerates who make up the Fox News viewership would have been exposed--what I find more disturbing is the readiness, the eagerness, of the Nativists to go to the worst possible label (in their cramped, febrile imaginations) for an unfamiliar behavior: "Terrorist."

This is what it's going to be like all the way to November: a public race to the bottom among all the race baiters, ideologues and microcephalic onanists. If Obama is "postracial," the campaign against him will certainly not be so. The possibility that the United States might elect its first black president a mere 146 years after the slaves were freed fills the bitter, the stunted and the entitled with an existential fury. They will not go gentle into that good night, but will rage against the dying of the white supremacy.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Nature Bats Last

If neurotics build castles in the air, and psychotics live in them, then theologians are the general contractors.

This comes to mind because it's an election year, and the obligatory piety is thick on the ground. The Republicans are of course the most egregious offenders, but the Democrats also bend a knee to religious sensibilities. You can hardly fault them: blaming politicians for sucking up to religious voters is like shaving your head and getting angry because your reflection in the mirror is bald. We get the politicians we deserve.

I wonder about religion. And wonder is exactly the right word. There has been a spate of backlash books lately (and belatedly), bemoaning the hyperprominence of religion in the public sphere, and the deference religious sensibilities are afforded in public discourse. The books are necessarily angry, coming as they do in reaction to religious advocates of punitive, rule-bound deities whose lack of empathy is their signature trait.

I believe many of the same things that Dawkins and Harris and Hitchens believe; I'm just not angry about it.
Rather than an atheist, you could say I'm an empiricist. Religion fills me with wonder, albeit not the kind its adherents claim to feel. Whenever I hear or read of someone referred to as a "respected theologian," I'm struck by how odd it is that we grant intellectual credit to someone whose life work begins with an invisible, omnipotent, omniscient and all-loving being (except when he's not). Of course most of what theologians study are the writings of other theologians, along with forays into adjacent fields like philosophy, history and anthropology. Not a lot of primary sources in the god business. By comparison literary criticism is as cut and dried as mechanical engineering.

I think the big mistake is in trying to take what is essentially a mystical experience and turn it into an academic specialty. That isn't scholarship: it's taxidermy. Those flashes we get—moments of genius, inspiration, sudden windows of clarity and understanding—are vital and alive, but when we try to turn them into an academic discipline, or worse, a rulebook, we turn the experience into an occasion for pity or ridicule, or both.

It's not the mystical experience we should disavow, but the parasitic superstructure that inevitably gets erected around the experience. Generally speaking, the more someone knows about the scripture the less they know about holiness; the more they are intent upon the letter of the law, the less they cleave to its spirit. It turns out that the "rules" people derive from their brushes with the Universal have a way of poisoning that experience, rather than transmitting it to others.

There are good things, healthy things, that come from mystical experience: the profound sense of connectedness and compassion we have for others, and there is something to be said for the sense that there is something larger than ourselves in the universe, a sense glancingly captured in Christ's teachings on humility.

In the end, I think the Zen masters had it right: if you see Buddha on the road, kill him. We don't learn from anyone else's enlightenment. At best, all we can learn from a wise master is how to find our own enlightenment. Unfortunately, there are plenty of foolish masters out there for whom we've accorded a reflexive and undeserved deference. Rather than see the lightning for ourselves, we're supposed to gape reverently at the grubby, hand-me-down Polaroids passed around by pitchmen too blind to appreciate the real thing.