Saturday, July 24, 2010

Spiritual Appreciation Is an Emergent Property

This post arose from a conversation I had with my wife after we had just seen the terrific new play in New York City, "Freud's Last Session". This two-man play is about a possible encounter between an aging and ill Sigmund Freud, a lifetime hard-core atheist, and C.S. Lewis. Lewis was a former atheist who as a young adult underwent a religious conversion, found Christ, and went on to write books with concealed Christian messages. The most famous of these is the children's book, "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe", in which The Lion is a symbol of Jesus Christ. In the play, Freud and Lewis have a wonderful, spirited exchange about whether God exists, and how we can know the answer.

My wife asked me how I, as an atheist, view the wonderful aspects of life not readily explained by science: the majesty and mystery of our universe, the beauty and force of nature, our aesthetic appreciation of this natural beauty, and of music and art, and our ability as humans to be moral creatures, and to experience love and, yes, even Grace. As I thought about this question, I was reminded of the mind-brain problem addressed by scientists and philosophers who study consciousness: how does the squishy, gray, three-pound human brain, containing c. 100 billion multiply-connected neurons, give rise to the apparently incorporeal qualities of consciousness and ability for intellectual thought and language that are unique to human beings? This is of course one of the two great mysteries of our time (to me, the other great mystery is what the extremely weird but clearly correct physical theory, termed quantum mechanics, really tells us about the structure and function of the universe).

But investigators of consciousness have a very useful concept to describe, in a general way, how mind arises from the brain. In their view, mind/consciousness is an emergent property of the brain; i.e., ethereal mind somehow emerges from the very complex biochemical and physical properties of the brain. So it seems to me that the counter to those who insist that some sort of Higher Power up there has given us all this great stuff, is that development of the Earth with all its beauty, along with biological evolution on the Earth, all proceeded according to strictly scientific principles. And then all that we treasure about human beings, including consciousness, language, morality, the ability to appreciate beauty and to love one another, somehow arise as emergent properties of the qualities and experience of human beings who live individually and collectively upon the Earth.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

We Can't Get Our Paws out of the Sugar Bowl in Afghanistan

My father spent some of his young formative years in the 1930's in India, as a Protestant evangelist. In one his stories to me about that time in his life, my father told me about the simple method Indians used to capture a monkey. They would set out a bowl attached to a chain, containing sugar that is much loved by monkeys. The opening in the top of the bowl was small enough for a monkey to put its hand in, and grab a fistful of sugar. But the hole was too small for the monkey to pull a sugar-filled fist out of the bowl. The monkeys virtually always refused to release the sugar, even though they could easily have removed an empty hand from the sugar bowl, and thus escape.

It seems to me that the US now faces a similar situation in Afghanistan. Our fists are filled with so much history that is hard to release: the very sad deaths and maimings of the many American soldiers who have served so bravely in that country; the long history of our attempts to defeat the Taliban there, most recently through attempts to "win the hearts and minds" of the Afghanistanis; and our national pride that would cause us to lose face in the world if we lost this war as we did the one in Vietnam.

Many Americans seem to be in favor of our ending the war in Afghanistan by adhering to a firm date for removal of our troops. But Obama's deadline for doing this in July 2011 seems to become less firm the closer it comes. Isn't there some way that we could release our fistfuls of unfortunate history in that country, thus opening our hands and allowing us to leave the quagmire that Afghanistan has become ?

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The King Has No Clothes!

Sure, the Pope does wear clothes- plenty of them, including a sweeping robe, scepter, etc. - to proclaim and advertise the dignity and power of his position as the one infallible man (not a woman of course!) on Earth. Particularly impressive and intimidating is his big hat, with its high top pointing the way to the God on high.

But the ever-growing worldwide sex scandals that are unearthing the gangrene growing in the Catholic church have finally revealed one of the main goals of this organization: to perpetuate itself at all costs. It is now clear that long-accepted practices supporting this goal include hiding the moral turpitude of some of the church’s leaders, who either practiced or concealed pedophilia. The leaders implicated in these scandalous practices now include priests, bishops, and even the earthly CEO himself. And at what a terribly sad ancillary cost: sexually sick “shepherds” permitted to continue to prey wolfishly on fresh young innocents.

Perhaps the moral bankruptcy of the Catholic church hierarchy, now revealed for all the world to see, will someday lead to a realization that the king has no clothes in a different sense: that all of the power and glory of organized religion is based ultimately upon the illusory concept of a god up there who rules our lives.