Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Misc. Aside V: Acts of Desperation

“The overwhelming astonishment, the queerest structure we know about so far in the whole universe, the greatest of all cosmological scientific puzzles, confounding all our efforts to comprehend it, is the Earth.” Lewis Thomas

In addition to being the most sublime miracle in the universe, Earth (or Gaia, as she is sometimes known) is also the only home we will ever know. Likewise for millions of other species, most of which are now in decline because the humans, still laboring under the delusion of Dominion, have determined that they have no worth. In reality, we, like they, are but one miraculous leaf on the ever evolving tree of life. But we have been tragically seduced by power, now manifest in the power of the machines, and we have become addicted to the extravagant levels of energy demanded by the machines. This addiction to power and to machines has blinded us to what ‘fossil fuels’ really are. They are the bodies of plants who, after performing the miracle of photosynthesis, were buried, millions upon millions of generations turning sunshine and water and CO2 into ever increasing levels of oxygen, enough to allow some Earthlings to learn to fly, and others to think and love and dance.

When we became addicted to the machines and their power (a mere moment ago, in the life of Gaia) we forgot our mother, and tore at her very bowels, and when the oil no longer burst forth from the ground, we attacked her with increasingly desperate acts of violence; blowing up living mountaintops and dumping the rubble into living valleys in order to scrape out the coal. Fracturing the very crust of the earth to free the tiny bubbles of gas we found trapped there. Drilling sideways a mile below the surface of the Gulf, with disastrous impacts we have all witnessed, and in many cases suffered.

And now we confront the rapacious bulldozing of boreal forest in Canada to get at sand saturated by oil, which must be cooked with gas, so that the oil can be pumped (using fossil fuels) through 1,700 miles of steel pipe (forged and welded with fossil fuels) to a refinery where more fossil fuel will be used to refine a product to power other machines, which, like all the machines in this chain of destruction, will put the carbon captured and stored by a million generations of plants back into the atmosphere.

The ice is melting, Texas is burning, the climate is changing. We can find another way, we can make a better world. Choose Life.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Miscellaneous aside IV: Reflections on Einstein's comment: "Science without religion is lame, Religion without science is blind.”

The meaning of the second half of this famous quote is fairly obvious; science is not infrequently compared to light (e.g., Carl Sagan’s "Science as a Candle in the Dark”), dispelling ignorance and illuminating a more accurate vision of Reality (what's actually going on in the universe). Which is to suggest that Einstein considered any belief system/religion which rejected the findings and conclusions of scientific investigation a pointless lurch in the darkness of delusion.

The first half of this quote is a little more enigmatic. It is well known that Einstein had little patience for anachronistic belief systems (he was born to Jewish parents and did have a religious phase when he was 11, but by the time he was 13 he had been exposed to enough science to refuse his own Bar Mitzvah). In the same letter in which he wrote "Science without religion is lame…." he also wrote "The word ‘God’ is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this.” What then could he have meant by "science without religion is lame"? In what way does science need religion?

Words like “injured”, “impaired”, “ineffectual”, and “inept”, are found in most definitions of “lame”. How could a lack of religion have a debilitating effects on science? Clearly Einstein was talking about a different kind of religion. Although we use the word “religion” primarily to describe organized (and usually hierarchical) belief systems, the etymology of the word reveals that it is a combination of the Latin word ligare (to connect) and the prefix re (i.e. re-ligare, meaning “to reconnect”). Perhaps Einstein was alluding to the possibility that science itself has an inherent religious aspect, that science is itself a profoundly important mode of “reconnecting” our consciousness (and therefore our being) to what’s actually going on in the universe, and that scientific reconnection to the source of our existence at both a cosmological (the big bang) and a biological (evolution) level has spiritual significance.

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.” Einstein

Although religion is not mentioned in the last quote, the superlative value Einstein places on the experience of ‘awe’ and ‘wonder’ invoked by the Great Mystery (i.e., why is there something rather than nothing, and why does that something unfold energy into matter into life into mind into wonder?) sounds very much like the experience of ‘reconnecting’ to the source of Being; a ‘religious experience’ (found in many traditions, including Christianity) that beckons us to experience ‘now’ (the only moment which actually exists) with a mind clarified and open, empty of dogma and judgment, drifting on the silent water as the starry night turns above us. Science is knowing that the earth moves, Religion is feeling it.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Miscellaneous Aside III. Confessions and Revelations I: God is Love…..

“Paul was the first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus.” Thomas Jefferson

I was raised in the Southern Baptist Church, the bastion of Protestant fundamentalism prior to the “Charismatic/Full Gospel” schisms of the 1970s. In spite of the lingering vestiges of their historical racism, they were genuinely decent people who in no way intended to delude or indoctrinate, they taught me nothing that they themselves did not hold to be reality; I never had any doubt that they were genuinely concerned for my "eternal soul". And in spite of the pagan leanings of an early life filled with well used opportunities to explore nature, I never seriously question what they taught me, even during my education as a scientist. It was not until I became a father, and understood the unconditional love of a parent for his children, that my indoctrination was shattered. Jesus talked about this unconditional sort of love, he once described God by telling the following story about a father:

A man had two sons. The younger son told his father, “I want my share of your estate now before you die.” So his father agreed to divide his wealth between his sons. A few days later this younger son packed all his belongings and moved to a distant land, and there he wasted all his money in wild living. About the time his money ran out, a great famine swept over the land, and he began to starve. He persuaded a local farmer to hire him, and the man sent him into his fields to feed the pigs. The young man became so hungry that even the pods he was feeding the pigs looked good to him. But no one gave him anything. When he finally came to his senses, he said to himself, “At home even the hired servants have food enough to spare, and here I am dying of hunger! I will go home to my father and say, ‘Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please take me on as a hired servant.’” So he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him. His son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son.” But his father said to the servants, “Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him. Get a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet. And kill the calf we have been fattening. We must celebrate with a feast, for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.” So the party began. Meanwhile, the older son was in the fields working. When he returned home, he heard music and dancing in the house, and he asked one of the servants what was going on. “Your brother is back,” he was told, “and your father has killed the fattened calf. We are celebrating because of his safe return.” The older brother was angry and wouldn’t go in. His father came out and begged him, but he replied, “All these years I’ve slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends. Yet when this son of yours comes back after squandering your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the fattened calf!” His father said to him, “Look, dear son, you have always stayed by me, and everything I have is yours. We had to celebrate this happy day. For your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost, but now he is found!”

When I became a father this story, this revelation, awakened me from my dogmatic slumber. The idea that God finds us so loathsome that Jesus must be sacrificed in order that He not have to torture us in hellfire forever is the teaching of Paul, not Jesus. Please don't think less of me for believing that God is Love.

"But the Jews, looking around them, saw always an Oriental despot, and so, looking over the world at-large, thought there must be a despot overall, and the consequence was they conceived one of the most immoral Gods ever imagined." Alfred North Whitehead

Friday, July 15, 2011

Miscellaneous Aside II. The Unintended Consequences of Assuming that a Free People will also have Free Minds

Thomas Jefferson, who once wrote, “Almighty God has created the mind free!” also coined the phrase, “A wall of separation between Church and State." This ‘wall’, established as law in the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution, was a radical departure from the prevailing European tradition of officially endorsed and enforced versions of Christianity. What Jefferson, Franklin, Payne, Madison, and others could not have foreseen were the consequences of essentially creating an “ideological free market” where religious entrepreneurs and various salesmen of the sacred could thrive. In the several centuries that followed our Nation's founding, egoists and charlatans gifted with the power of oratory (and no mean insight into the human condition) have filled that vacuum with a greater diversity of religious innovations, hocus-pocus, denominations, sects, and thought-control than any other nation in human history. In that same period of time, the religions of Western Europe have dimmed and largely faded into insignificance, having lost the power to persuade modern people to believe in things which could never be proven, and can no longer be defended.

An instructive parallel can be found in the failure of the former Soviet economy when compared to the economic boom of American capitalism during the 20th century. As any good capitalists can tell you, a controlled economy suppresses initiative, entrepreneurship, and creativity. Likewise, a controlled religious thought system. Having no competition, the established churches of Europe not only failed to enthuse, but went so far as to actively suppressed new and inspiring ideas, as well as their creators (i.e. heretics), frequently "on pain of death." Conversely, the ideological free market created by the wall of separation between church and state in America selected for orators and thinkers capable of capturing the minds of the simple as well as their pocketbooks. From Mormonism to Scientology, any well formulated nonsense which somehow resonated with the psychic yearnings of the gullible became a movement, to the profit of its creator.

An inevitable outcome of any widely embraced thought system (rational or irrational) is the indoctrination of future generations which inescapably follows. For better or worse, any idea implanted by parents during the early stages of a child’s development will put down roots which can only be modified or extracted with sustained, deliberate effort. When indoctrinated beliefs happen to be attached to the status of an individuals ‘eternal soul’ in the ‘next life’, successful modification (if possible at all) will likely be cathartic.

As religious belief/faith diminished in importance in the European mind, ideas which were antithetical to an emerging scientific understanding of the world had lost their power to sustain indefensible irrational beliefs. Not so in America. The hocus-pocus wrought by generations of charlatans (culminating in the modern Televangelist) have breed an arrogant irrationality which now scoffs at the possibility of climate change while extolling the virtues of trickle-down economics. That this arrogant irrationality has been organized into a political force does not bode well for our collective ability to chart a sustainable course into the future we will have to share.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Miscellaneous Aside I: Thoughts on Sharing (i.e. The Redistribution of Wealth)

Other apes still share, especially our closest relatives, chimps and bonabos. Back when humans still lived as part of nature (i.e., hunter/gatherers) it remained the most viable mode of human survival, the only strategy that made sense; the tribe combed its territory as a group, when someone found a tree full of ripe fruit, there was a party. Recall that the most American of holidays, Thanksgiving, is entirely a celebration of the generosity of native people (hunter/gatherers) who shared what they had with the starving white settlers who would later steal their land.

Jefferson understood the need to share, advocating both a progressive tax structure and the redistribution of land. And for a brief period near the end of the Civil War, there was a short-lived experiment in redistribution when human beings who had been treated as property themselves (i.e., former slaves) were given 40 acres and a mule to provide for their families.

Perhaps the greatest recognition of the need for sharing in a civilization was realized by Jewish brilliance; the Jews understood that some people were greedier than others and some of the greedy ones were sharp enough to amass great wealth at the expense of the rest of the community. So every 49 years there was a year of Jubilee, where not only land was redistributed back to families who had lost it over the previous 49 years, but all debts were also forgiven and all slaves freed; everyone started over with a clean slate and on equal footing.

Given that there are now more than 7,000,000,000 humans drawing their existence from 1 fragile planet (which has a finite and limited carrying capacity), the sanctification of greed and the vilification of sharing are a sure recipe for destroying the only life support system which we (and millions of species of fellow earthlings) will ever know. Granted, sharing can be taken too far; there once was a Jewish heretic who, for instance, told his followers: "If a man asks for your shirt, give him your coat also…” but even if we've given up on "WWJD?" surely we could at least behave as generously as those terrible communists suggested: "From each according to ability, to each according to need".

Keep up the Good World........

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Preamble II: What Science Is (and why it matters)

Human consciousness confronts the mysteries of reality with two general sorts of questions: the ‘How?’ questions, and the ‘Why?’ questions. Both ‘How?’ and 'Why?’ questions can and should be debated, but it must be understood that the ‘How?’ questions (e.g., "How does the solar system work? Is the Earth the center of the universe or does it orbit the Sun?” and, “How did our species come to be? Are we related to monkeys?”) can and should be addressed almost exclusively by the scientific method, and when a consensus of investigators arrives at a model (paradigm) which best captures all (or at least the great majority) of the "facts" revealed by experimentation, and is not obviously contradicted by any of the established facts, then the "theory" (the Heliocentric Model of the Solar System, the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection) becomes accepted, and can only be challenged by additional "facts" revealed by scientific investigation.

An accepted paradigm can never, however, be challenged by mythologies, fables, or legends passed down from antiquity, unless these explanations are also rigorously scrutinized by science, and are able to withstand the same level of testing as other facts. Therefore (for example) the creation story contained in the first chapter of the Bible (Genesis 1) has essentially been rendered obsolete as a "how" explanation of human existence. To admit it as a relevant idea in scientific literacy and education is rationally indefensible, and ultimately dangerous and destructive.

The contemplation of the great mystery, the "Why?" question (Why is there something rather than nothing and why does that something evolve into beings which can think and feel and wonder 'Why?') is properly within the realm of religion. The story of ‘The Fall’ contained in Genesis 2, for example, is a profound myth regarding the emergence of human self-consciousness, and its psychological implications/interpretations continue to be examined and debated by scholars. "Good" religion is a celebration of the experience of the mystery of existence which is resonant with reality as revealed by science, “Bad” (or counterproductive) religion is characterized by dogmas which are contradicted by science but nonetheless embraced as "truth" by the believer. "Faith" defined as “belief without evidence” or even “belief contrary to evidence” becomes a profound stumbling block to rational, discursive attempts to resolve the problems which collectively confront us.

Footnote: It is probably no coincidence that the percentage of Americans who are unconcerned about Climate Change is almost exactly the same percentage as those Americans who do not fully accept the Theory of Evolution (60% in both cases, by far the highest among developed nations). The political ramifications of such a widespread failure of rational thought on our collective ability to deal with planetary crisis of non-sustainability will be explored in future blogs.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Preamble I: Reflections on the Cave......

(for those not acquainted with Plato's Allegory of the Cave, here's a nice cartoon: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d2afuTvUzBQ)

"Nature and Nature's Laws lay hid in Night
God said, Let Newton be! and all was Light."
-- Alexander Pope.

It is not coincidental that we use the term Enlightenment to speak of both spiritually clarified beings (Jesus, Buddha, Socrates) and the period of human history when it began to be understood that human beings possessed (at least to some degree) the power/ability to qualitatively improve their existence…….

Reflections on Plato’s ‘Allegory of the Cave’
The cave is the universe as comprehended by the mind, the darkness ignorance, and the fire reason and science. But the cave of perceived reality (like the universe it attempts to grasp) is without walls. The darkness (ignorance) is the space where science and reason have shed no light, and at that shadow’s edge (just beyond the illuminated) is the veil of mystery, which only enlarges as the expanding light grows, for there are no walls in this infinite mystery, the "walls" of the cave exist only in our minds………

“This vein presumption of understanding everything can have no other basis than never understanding anything. For anyone who had experienced just once the perfect understanding of one single thing, and had truly tasted how knowledge is accomplished would recognize that infinity of other truths of which he understands nothing." Galileo

The enlightened ones exist in the space where the ever-expanding light dances with the ever-expanding mystery (the Mystery abides), those who would reject science and reason remain trapped in the cave; by continually dousing the flame of their own reason with irrational dogma, the ‘truths’ revealed by science remain ungraspable, and existence is explained by delusion……. these then, the irrational dogmas substituted for science and reason are the chains, that keep the self-imprisoned from increasing the light…….

“More Light, more Light” Goethe’s dying words