The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Monday, April 14, 2014
Spirituality ...

There’s been a bit of buzz recently in the “pop-intellgensia” press about Barbara Ehrenreich’s latest book “Living With A Wild God”. Ms. Ehrenreich (author of several policy-oriented works including the well-received “Nickeled and Dimed” about the modern American economy’s exploitation of lower-income service workers) decided to write a “looking back on my past” account of the strong and memorable spiritual experiences that she had as a teenager and young adult.

I assume that she was not using any mind altering recreational substances at the time, which would make such experiences entirely uninteresting, given that a lot of young people were having similar chemically-induced episodes at the time (i.e. the late 1960s). And her experiences in and of themselves weren’t all that extraordinary; similar things have been happening to people since the dawn of recorded history. You can read an interesting analysis of such experiences in William James’s classic “Varieties of Religious Experience”, written in 1902; see especially lectures 9 and 16. James quotes a Vendantic yogi’s description of such states as “superconsciousness”, a fairly apt summary of what Ms. Ehrenreich seems to have experienced.

What makes Ms. Ehrenreich’s reflections more noteworthy is her ongoing lifetime commitment to atheism and positivistic rationalism. Ms. Ehrenreich trained in her youth as a scientist, receiving a doctorate in cellular immunology. Following in the footsteps of her parents, Ms. Ehrenreich committed herself to the idea that humans can guide their own fates without need for any divine guidance; like her parents, she came to believe in the power of human reason, as manifested through critical thinking and scholarly accumulation of empirically verified knowledge. And in her book, she sticks by her guns. Unlike the people described in James’s lecture 9, she refuses to have a conversion experience. She will not fall pray to “belief”; she “would like to put the whole idea of faith and belief away; let’s find things out”.

So why write a book about phenomenon that already has a scientific explanation or two? And why are so many of the media sources that cater to intelligent Americans (such as NPR, Huffington Post and Slate) taking note of a work (even being haunted by it?) that on its surface is little more than a elderly fellow-intellectual re-considering a diary kept in youth regarding some imagined “heightened states of presence”? The author’s diary was written before she could know that such experiences were only artifacts of certain chemical and electrical states within the brain and body. It was written back in the dark ages before she could ponder modern neuroscience and its study of dynamic interactive systems and their chaotic behavior, before she could have known that such experiences can easily be reproduced by researchers using appropriate amounts of trans-cranial magnetic induction along side the temple of their subjects. There are quite a few different papers and reports on how such intense mental experiences, which many believers consider to be “spiritually awakening”, can be explained and even reproduced through combinations of scientifically controlled brain conditions. What’s the big deal, especially for a scientist?

Admittedly, I have not yet read the whole book. I’m making my observations here based on what I have read from reviewers, published excerpts, and author interviews. But it still seems just a little strange for someone committed to scientific rationality to make such a drawn-out effort to review her life and come to grips with what she should by all rights simply dismiss as a bit of “early mind-state instability”, a temporary insanity from her youth (and who doesn’t have bouts of temporary insanity in that bubbly, giddy stage of life?).

Most of the reviews thus far have made similar effort to defend Ms. Ehrenreich from the religionists and believers. Perhaps, as Slate says, she is searching for “transcendence”, but surely not God!! She hasn’t given in to what all the the unsophisticated “churchies” are trying to sell!!! they repeatedly protest. But I wonder if they doth protest too much.

What does all the buzz about this book boil down to? Here’s my take: the “enlightened intelligensia” of the modern world (America, Europe, Eastern Asia) have gotten rid of God. They have largely fulfilled their dream of building a community of non-believers, a community dedicated solely to human observation and critical reason. Sure, they will still allow that humans are entitled to their feelings; but if any problems arise from this, we have our psychologists and neuroscientists (and the pharmaceutical industry as well) to efficiently resolve the conflicts.

The new intelligensia and their followers are finally hitting back, finally preaching to the unwashed masses, i.e. the many especially out in the heartland who still entertain superstitious notions and customs regarding “higher powers”. And perhaps the “brights” as they tried to call themselves (that name didn’t really catch on) are making inroads in this regard. The percentage of Americans who no longer believe in God (or at least who are unsure about it) is said to be rising in recent years.

And yet, at the same time this new atheist intelligensia is starting to miss God (you could substitute “Him” or “Her” here based on your prejudices; but whatever God’s reality might be would be well beyond our biological reproduction concerns). Ms. Ehrelreich and others like her are starting to wonder if it is OK to talk about “transcendence” and “human longings” without immediately dismissing their feelings via psychoanalytic and neuroscientific facts and reasoning. They are wondering if it might be OK to dabble in Buddhism or other Eastern mystical traditions, so long as the more supernatural aspects of these traditions such as karma, reincarnation, and evil spirits have been “westernized” for handling (akin to pelletized manure). It is interesting that Ms. Ehrelreich is an aging Baby Boomer. I realize that most atheists stick by their guns right to the death-bed (RIP Christopher Hitchens), but I can’t help but wonder what is going on deep inside Ms. Ehrelreich’s head. I can’t help but wonder if Augustine’s “hound of heaven” is still at work, in some mysterious way here.

As I have said before, I consider myself to be part of a Baby Boom intellegensia (or at least a follower thereof) that venerates the great traditions spawned by the Western Enlightenment. I pride myself on being a person devoted to critical reason, a person who appreciates scientific method, a person who wants to see the evidence (and evaluate just how good that evidence is, especially in terms of “reproducability” with regard to natural phenomenon). I have no time for a young earth, miracles, near-death experiences, creationism, saint intercessions, or even a Jesus Christ the Savior (and let’s not even get started on some of that Islamic stuff).

And yet . . . science in all its cosmological grandeur, with its chaotic inflation fields and multiverses and hyperdimensions and scads of M-theory superstring paradigms to fit any imaginable universe, has not logically eliminated the possibility of God. According to its own rules, science still cannot rule out God. Science cannot tell us just what it is about consciousness that inspires us to think about God; science does not even know what consciousness is, despite burgeoning understanding on how it works. Having all the pieces is not adding up to knowing what the whole is all about.

And thus, I embrace what I call a “hopeful quantum agnosticism”. I respect the school of reason, and admit that neither I, nor human society in general, can “know” whether God exists in the way that we know that the moon exists. I won’t try to fudge the word “know” here; let’s leave “knowing” solely within the realm of reason. And yet I know that science, as it probes further into the realms of the huge (the cosmos) and the tiny (the quantum world), increasingly finds that this un-fudged concept of “knowing” becomes less and less applicable and appropriate.   It seems to me that quantum uncertainty is inherent to existence.  If so, then is it so surprising that our species still exhibits a deep-down need for there to be a God, and yet cannot rationally prove the point one way or the other? (There’s another new book out on that, “Why Science Does Not Disprove God” by mathematician Amir Aczel.) 

If there is a God, then that God has kept us in an epistemological superposition, a “both/and” state which simultaneously includes knowing and not knowing (similar to the observer in the Shrodenger’s cat thought experiment). Could that make any sense in the grandest sense of things? I defer to a Zen koan where the master comments: “not knowing is most intimate”. Perhaps a known God would be mostly ignored by us; only in the quantum uncertainty of not knowing, could God maintain our attention, maintain an intimacy with us, such as we are in this temporal, impermanent realm.

(And a quantum God helps to resolve the “Him” versus “Her” dilemma; as with waves and particles, a quantum God is in a superposition of both states at once!)

Many scientists and atheistic philosophers tell us that all talk of “God” and “meaning” and “purpose” are meaningless and unnecessary in the rational world that they have made possible. And yet, those like Ms. Ehrelreich seem yet to need something more.  Some non-rational but increasingly perceived need is not being satisfied by the Utopia of Western Enlightenment.  As Mark Twain might have said, rumors of God’s death have been greatly exaggerated.  Have a great Passover and Holy Week!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:39 pm      

  1. Jim, I couldn’t agree with you more on you conclusions regarding this post, so I can’t say I have too much to comment. It seems to me that scientists have put all their eggs in one basket – not a smart idea in any regard.

    It never seems “smart” to me to consider one’s own tho’ts the end all and be all of whatever the topic might be. It seems that the scientists have done just that – decided that they know all there is to know. It seems to me that somehow or other they never catch on to the idea that they may be “creating” things themselves as they go along. But then again, if they got that idea, think of how their egos would swell! Swelling egos on the part of scientists seems to be bad enough already.

    As to the percentage of Americans who no longer believe in God: I find myself wondering if they are confusing not believing in religion with not believing in God. I sometimes wonder about those who answer polls or questionnaires or give their opinions on topics. I say, see Jimmy Kimmel’s “Lie Witness News” for a hoot on people’s opinions.

    I also find it strange that extremely intelligent people actually “wonder if it’s OK to dabble in” (fill in the blank here). Why on earth would intelligent people, as long as they are doing no harm to others or nothing illegal, need someone else’s approval to “dabble” in some tho’t that might not be “scientific”? Why need someone else’s approval to wonder about anything? Seems very unscientific to me. As I said before, seems like all the eggs are in one basket.

    When one gets into some of the thinking about God, there are really some “far out” ideas that would make the scientists look like beginners in the thinking department. I think here of Teilhard de Chardin; then there are some of the thinkers working on early (first and second century) concepts of the “new religion” of Jesus. These two topics of thought are at the extreme opposite of each other; nevertheless, those who are the leaders in these areas have some concepts that scientists are losing out on when they accept only science as the answer to anything they may ponder.

    Then too, I find myself thinking of the science of the past. How is it that scientists today are so sure they are so 100% right when scientist of the past were also so sure they were right, yet could not have been more wrong in so many areas? I find myself wondering if 100 years, 200 years, 500 years from now, will those who live then speak of science today as, “Well, that’s when ‘they’ believed . . . “(fill in the blank here) and laugh condescendingly. One could put in so many different things, such as: When “they” didn’t know anything about dark matter. When they cured cancer by *almost* killing the person (as in bone marrow transplants and chemotherapies) to ‘save’ the person”. When “they” tho’t it impossible to go beyond the speed of light.

    These are things firmly believed in by science now; yet, so did science firmly believe at one time in humors of the body, in bleeding a person just when that was the 100% wrong thing to do, when they believed in a flat earth. There was also a time scientists could not conceive of bacteria, to say nothing of viruses. Putting all one’s eggs in one basket . . . not smart, I say.

    It would seem to me that scientists who ponder the universe(s) that may or may not exist would be the first to realize that putting all one’s eggs in one basket is a risky business. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — April 15, 2014 @ 6:52 pm

  2. Jim, Another tho’t on a slightly different topic, but I can’t resist: The other day I saw a picture a wildlife photographer took. It was of a baby owl watching the photographer. All I could think of was the idea that the observer changes the observed. And I wondered: Who was changing who? Was the baby owl changing the photographer? Or was the photographer changing the baby owl?

    Yes, I know that scientists would say, well, you have to get down to things so small they can’t be observed except by where they have been.

    Yet, I find myself wondering. If the idea works in one area, why would it not work in another area? Why would not the photographer change the baby owl? And why would not the owl change the photographer? I’d be willing to admit the change in both may be miniscule; but why would the change still not “be” there and influence both in some way? MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — April 15, 2014 @ 6:59 pm

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