self or no self–that is a question

I learned a new word this week: autonoetic.  It means something like the ability to place one’s self in the scene or narrative or situation as part of episodic memory, i.e., memory for one’s own life experiences.  Research shows that we can remember our autobiography through two perspectives, 1stperson (we see the experience through our own eyes) or 3rd  (we see the ourselves in the experience like a movie).  Seems important.

One of the pleasures of reading widely is coming to understand different approaches to the same phenomena, and learning this word has brought some of these issues to the front of my mind.  In my thinking here and in my book (forthcoming someday) I consider that what we call the self arises from two basic mental functions.  The first is a sense of agency—we do and we know that it is us doing; the second is our sense of autobiographical experience, what Endel Tulving called episodic memory (as distinct from semantic and procedural memories).  So I guess that one’s self is some integrated, amalgamated hodgepodge of those, and a human hodgepodge is one that grows out of social connection into an identity, i.e., a self that operates through its social roles.

I read a book a good while ago now by the great Antonio Damasio, Self Comes to Mind, in which he self-corrects his own previous thinking; to wit, he had thought that the neuropsychological construct of a self was not needed or justified but as he studied the brain some more, he came to understand that we did have a self.  It is a good book and he knows brain science as few in the world do.  Now more recently I read what is described as a landmark book, The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experienceby Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch, wherein they endeavor to bring together the twin strands of cognitive psychology and Buddhism.  Their basis for doing so is the challenge that what we call the self is quite illusionary.  They state this claim explicitly:  “all of the reflective traditions in human history—philosophy, science, psychoanalysis, religion, meditation—have challenged the naïve sense of self.  No tradition has ever claimed to discover an independent, fixed, or unitary self”

They go on to quote David Hume:  “For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure.  I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never observe anything but the perception.”  Varela, Thompson and Rosch maintain that this “insight directly contradicts our ongoing sense of self,” and that this comports with the long and thoughtful tradition in Buddhism that the self is an illusion.  This is also consistent with some Hindu traditions, e.g., the Yoga Sutra attributed to Patanjali from around the second century BCE.  The realization through meditation and other practices that one’s self is an illusion would seem a step towards enlightenment.

Alas, I am going to walk on another path for a moment, postponing my meditative quest for enlightenment a short while.   I learned my new word, ‘autonoetic,’ reading a 2011 article by Robyn Fivush, “The Development of Autobiographical Memory.”  In an excellent, well thought out paper, Dr. Fivush lays out the conceptual prerequisites for autobiographical memory and its importance to our human sort of mind.  The first prerequisite is autonoesis, the subjective sense of self who experiences events and the second is the personal narrative of action that includes the thoughts and feelings while experiencing these events.  Now you can shift perspective and call this self an illusion, but I think that even such an illusion is still a biological function.  Fivush thinks autobiographical memory is “uniquely human” and that I doubt. Remember, if you will, my post from 4/8/16, “de Waal Admits Tickling Chimpanzees”, on Frans Van der Waal’s observation of a bonobo who inadvertently bit off the finger of a favorite handler and who quite clearly expressed his dismay for doing so, even some years later when the handler returned from another job to visit, that same bonobo tried to see the injured hand and seemed to re-experience the distress over its actions. Fivush also says autobiographical memory depends upon one’s social-cultural group and cites research showing the influence of maternal reminiscing style on how we create a “story of how one’s self became who one is”.

So autobiographical memory as developing from autonoesis and narrative coherence seems a pretty solid notion.  Let me wander a bit further here and consider some of its implications in dreaming, Dissociative Identity Disorder, dementia and novelists.  Of course I will end with a reference to Susanne Langer and return to the question of self or no self.

So, we form our episodic memories incidentally for the most part and that means when we recall them later, we reconstruct the episode according to current circumstances and purpose.  We often dream some of these memories elicited from episodic memory, the information transformed into dream material.  I think many dreams include a sense of self, an autonoetic perspective.  Of course some dreams derive from the self’s current state, like when I dream of water sloshing over the road or the gunwales of my boat and wake up to a very full bladder. My point here is that while maybe in dreams your self is not imaged from a 3rdperson perspective (though I believe some few dream this way a good deal), your autonoesis is still operating.

My dissertation research was with a person with what is now called Dissociative Identity Disorder.  At that time the diagnosis of Multiple Personality Disorder was gaining validity. For example, research showed different somatic, e.g., autonomic, responses for different personalities.  Alters (alternate identity or personality) manifest in various ways, e.g., some know about others, some don’t, some know about the soma’s entire life, some remember only fractured episodes, etc.  So each alter has some autonoesis operating in a selective manner.  A person with dissociative identity disorder actually does seem able to look inside and find a self (actually more than one, the contrast perhaps making the apprehension possible) contrary to Hume’s assertion. My dissertation showed that one person’s child alter did indeed use childlike language and that as she grew up as a part of therapy to help the different alters integrate back into one, her language advanced along developmental lines.

I have written in the past about people with dementia and how resilient their musical memories are (see post 8/27/14).  Therapy using ipods with playlists of songs from their youth helps them remember more clearly.  They remember the music and often they can remember other episodes, other people and even sometimes, who they themselves are.  Think about autonoesis here.  The remembered music is a kind of abstracted episode or retained through an important emotional connection; they may not remember who they are but they remember the tune, often tinged with personal experience.  They remember other stories and people, e.g., even their children sometimes, as a direct function of autonoesis.  And they may remember their own identity, the “I” in autonoesis.  If unfamiliar, check out an incredible documentary about Glen Campbell who suffered from severe dementia in his last years but continued to perform even though he could remember little of his life, had difficulty remembering his children, hardly knew his own name, but he could still play the guitar (procedural memory) and sing the songs (semantic memory, I guess) with emotion.

Consider as well how novelists seem to be able to use autonoesis to create characters. Good writers say that characters, once formed, can take on a life of their own and even contribute to the creation of the story.  This is maybe not autonoesis involving episodic autobiographical memory but rather is drawing upon semantic memory and imaginative construction in an autonoetic manner.  Still, reading Catcher in the Ryeor David Copperfieldor Notes from the Underground, which all start with first person narratives, you know that one large part of the novelist’s skill is using autonoesis to create character and story.

Regular readers here know that Susanne Langer posited that art, i.e., presentational symbols, is created from the artist’s experience.  The art symbol conveys import abstracted from the person’s life that is too complex to be rendered in the linear discursive symbolic expression of language.  Art, even novels that use words, conveys this import through some complex, abstracted form of myriad elements, whether these are visual, auditory, movement, verbal, constructive, etc.  Given that, I think any artist must use their autonoetic sense to wander the landscape of their life and map out that essential terrain that will represent the inspired apprehension of some features of vital experience.  The artist’s self would seem, then, an essential tool of their craft.

Maybe, as Varela, Thompson and Rosch assert along with David Hume and deep Buddhist traditions, the self is an illusion.  I am sure that at one level the self is a construct that facilitates awareness and analysis of one’s being in context.  I am curious, though, about a mystic sense wherein we find the discrimination between subjective and objective lacking, e.g., we are one with the world, and find that the self is an illusion of our engagement in samsara.  After reading The Embodied MindI have delved into some Eastern texts, e.g., The Yoga Sutra among others, and begun listening to a Great Courses lecture series by Dr. Grant Hardy, “The Great Minds of the Eastern Intellectual Tradition”.  (A great series, by the bye—his knowledge and enthusiasm are delightful).  Our Western intellectual tradition is a good one. One of humanity’s virtues is that we have more than one good intellectual tradition and I am finding, like many other Westerners before me, that the Eastern tradition is both very different and very valuable in what it offers both in knowledge and wisdom.  So, let us travel on to new roads and learn more about our humanity.

My creed: the fruit of our biological roots

Today, July 15, 2018, we humans have come just so far in our understanding of ourselves and our world, and I think this fact deserves an updated spiritual creed.  I offer this:

My Spiritual Creed

I keep a simple faith.

I believe in the presence of spirit.

I follow an ethic of knowledge.

I grow with a knowledge of ethics.

I seek the deep aesthetic inherent in life and mind.

I refer you to the past 3 posts for an exegesis of these sentences.  And now we resume our regular, irregularly scheduled secular programming.  Travel on.

Creed part 3

Continuing from last post, the last statement.

I seek the deep aesthetic inherent in life and mind.  

         I came to this final statement recently as I worked on finishing my book (now begins the tedium of preparing for publication), but I know that I have sought something like this since mid-adolescence in some inchoate incipient manner.  This developed into a steady intellectual curiosity in college when I read Cassirer and Langer, so that in both bouts of graduate school and out in the professional world I have always listened, read and learned with this in mind.  I came to this idea once I had retired from my day jobs of serving children and families through teaching, speech and language therapy and clinical psychology; now farming infuses my philosophy, and though I have less time and energy during the growing seasons for reading and writing than I might like, winter is a joyful scholarly season, a special time for seeking the deep aesthetic.

Regular readers know I lean on Aquinas via James Joyce for the basic formula:  a beautiful form has integrity of wholeness, coherence of its elements, and luminosity of . . . .  Well, that is the critical question, I think: what is this luminosity?  Aquinas thought it supernatural and sourced from god.  Ho-hum.  Joyce, I think, struggled to go much beyond his Jesuit education and orthodoxy, but he still managed to focus on what the artist instills in his work, what the audience manages to find there, and the fine, sublime beauty of true and deep art that creates a stasis, i.e., a moment of epiphany and insight, as opposed to an emotionally evocative dynamism such as propaganda or pornography involve. The old humbug, Harold Bloom, in one of his last books, The Daemon Knows:  Literary Greatness and the American Sublime, refers to beauty, i.e., luminosity, as the sublime, an expression of the artist’s daemon, which from my perspective begs the question.

Art comes in two forms.  The first is what Ellen Dissayanke calls ‘making special’—the artist creates an artifact or decoration that is an expression by the self of the self.  This art form is akin to a bird’s plumage or song or dance in that it serves as an individual expression of some unique facet of identity.  The second is more akin to what Joyce and more rigorously Langer conceived of as art—the artist creates an art form that is an expression by the self of the self’s experience.  It expresses some import not about the artistic individual but about that individual’s vital experience.  This is Langer’s idea of a presentational symbol that renders the artistic import intuitively through the self’s vision and voice; it is a complex form composed from otherwise meaningless elements into a coherent and unified form that carries its import to its audience, i.e., it shines with its aesthetic luminosity.

Both of these art forms are a manifestation of the deep aesthetic inherent in life and mind as are, indeed, many of the other dynamic aspects we find as we seek to understand what is happening here on Gaia.  Monod gives a careful and detailed exposition of how gene regulation and protein synthesis is carried out through chains of biochemical reactions dependent solely upon thefitbetween the shape of one stereospecific molecule complex and its substrate; if the molecule fits, an energetic reaction carries forward the vital processes, i.e., it shines.  If it does not fit, the molecules lie inert and the process is stymied.  This sort of operational feature operates in genetic replication, e.g., the double helix unzips and only reconstitutes through fitting specific amino acids into the proper place and sequence, as well in the molecular chemistry involved in the cellular machinery.  While we may not think of this as an aesthetic, Monod was quite sensitive to the beauty of these operations, and as cited above, understood that the marvelous complexity, integrity, and endurance of life in this regard fully justified his assertion that this is the true nature of spirit’s presence within us.

So I argue here that one prime property of life that emerges at different levels of biological organization is this special fitness, i.e., an aesthetic, of components interacting in an energetic chain that once engaged, pressures life forward; once this property stops its operation at this basic level, life stops. Further, the reason I now include my seeking to understand this in my creed is that this pressure forward of vitality engenders and guides our sense of future experience.  It is how we feel the immanent future and its possibilities. Some examples come to mind.

Consider first listening to music, the art genre Langer says renders its import in a virtual form of complex and many layered time.  When we listen we form expectations about what notes may come next.  This is especially true when we are familiar with the music but also when the music is novel.  Some notes feel right while others feel wrong, this according to some fitness standards that are culturally shaped to some degree.  Stravinsky’s Rites of Springviolated those expectations and energetic riots ensued, but a new aesthetic was engendered.  Some modern music seems atonal or in some way not musical to old fashioned tastes and it is hard to feel the flow forward.  When the composer is working on a piece, what has come before gives him or her a feel for what could and should come next. Again, some notes feel right, others don’t, and so the composition continues until the composer feels it should end, i.e., the form is complete.  And some endings also violate expectations.  A similar example is language and syntax.  Discursive forms are different than presentational ones but still what comes before determines what can come next and fit into the syntactic frame or structure.

I understand that the deep aesthetic inherent in life and mind operates, then, on multiple levels in our experiential passage through time and that is what I seek in reflection and meditation.  Indeed, it engenders our sense of some future possibility as it comes to fruition in the present moment.  I think our sentience and consciousness follows along this operation, or better, along this path or way, like when our hippocampus processes what is old and what is new information or we form expectations for what will happen next. Our intellect is filled with such things going on mentally.  In this respect, then, life and mind are like water running downhill—downward in the stream of time where the past determines where we run next, i.e., what is ‘downhill’ in a negentropic energetic sense.  Our deep aesthetic, then, is seen in our vital and mental sense of life’s ‘gravity’; each life draws a next experience as its past experience warps what can come next in a fitting way.  Monod says each life abides by the law of entropy even while seeming to break it like Maxwell’s Demon.  Each life is a negentropic energy pool downhill from the rest of the universe. Like Maxwell’s Demon that mysteriously decreases entropy and increases information (negentropy), each of Dawkins’ replicators, as he conceptualized them in his book, The Selfish Gene, is also a daemon of this sort that, like art, operates to contravene the 2ndlaw of thermodynamics for its lifespan.  That is the source of the deep aesthetic I seek.

Much more could be said, but I will keep it this simple right now and travel on to the next post simply stating this creed.

Part 2: Creed

Continuing from last post:

I follow an ethic of knowledge.

         Jacques Monod followed his scientific quest for understanding life and ourselves with enough rigor to see that science offers virtually no guidance as to values because its prime assumption of objectivity sees what is statistically possible, i.e., chance, and what any statistical result entails as then necessary. In other words in its objectivist stance so necessary for and inherent in scientifically based knowledge, science provides no ethical mandates except one and that is to study and understand, i.e., an ethic of knowledge.  This prime directive seems and is quite straightforward:  establish empirically validated factual knowledge, develop theories with enough coherence to ‘explain’ those facts, and ascertain the limits such facts and theories meet as we extend them in practice.  William James in his wonderful book, The Varieties of Religious Experience,followed such an ethic of knowledge.  He sought to understand the human religious experience up until the point of death, admitting that the mystery of what happens thereafter must endure somewhere beyond the realm of objective knowledge. Like Iris Dement in her simple and delightful song, “Let the Mystery Be”.

Another example of such a limit is our effort to understand ‘evil’.  Simon Baron-Cohen addresses this in his book, The Science of Evil,as he seeks to understand the origins of cruelty not as a spiritual failure but as a failure of our biological nature as empathic, altruistic social creatures.  One example he uses is Hitler and Nazi Germany, which certainly qualifies as evil, and one can say so deeply so that we can justifiably say some spiritual animus took over some humans back then, and continues to do so today.  But Dr. Baron-Cohen rejects the notion of spiritual evil as an explanatory construct and instead looks at how a scientific effort could lead to a deeper understanding and perhaps better efforts to contravene the rise to power of such an animus.  (Oops, it seems to be rising again in this country and in Europe). The phenomenon of Hitler’s Nazi movement might have seen itself as mystic in origin but in the prosaic light of day, Baron-Cohen has much to say about how such cruelty developed.  In this he echoed many who lived through those times, including Jacques Monod and Albert Camus.

Back in the recent USA some have called the individuals who perpetrate mass shootings ‘evil’.  The young men who killed worshippers at the Charleston Church and students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School did not rise from the spiritual realm to murder. When I worked as a clinical psychologist, I saw many young men who could have become such murderers and I came to understand some of the genetics, family circumstances, idiosyncratic events that influenced their development one way or the other, the cultural streams that they followed as enabling, and the failures of different social systems that then failed to help them and protect others.  The resurgence of public demonstrations of racist ideology, e.g., Nazis and fascists, their visibility a measure of the validation they feel coming from our President and others, and the rise in hate crimes of all sorts are, again, quite evil, but we can and should study and understand how this is happening.  Our congress failed to follow an ethic of knowledge when it denied funding a few years back to any scientific endeavor to study empirically (you know, like gathering data and analyzing for deeper understanding) gun violence.  Evidently some thought that studying such ‘evil’ would violate 2ndamendment rights (and cut into gun manufacturers’ profits and so reduce funding for the NRA).  So I follow an ethic of knowledge and work to understand the complexities of modern life.

I grow with a knowledge of ethics.

I take this from Monod as well.  Yes, science may only give us one ethical rule to follow, but it covers most domains. Values and ethical mandates that humans have attributed to god(s) are here understood to be sociobiological phenomena arising from our evolution.  Several other thinkers are relevant here.  First, the existentialists and their partner in the absurd, Albert Camus, assign the responsibility for our values and actions back on us.  Yes, many claim to follow some religious precepts here and there, but these in our current analysis are man-made.  Yes, their origins may be lost in the mists of time; all these precepts are ancient and our biological roots run deep and back aways. Our sociobiological evolution sets up historical trends and traditions from which we can escape only through an ethic of knowledge and the consequence knowledge of ethics.

Second, Michael Tomasello has written an eminently plain-spoken and sensible book on this issue, The Natural History of Human Morality, in which he examines our sociobiological heritage to understand our evolutionarily inherent proclivities, e.g., we are cooperative, empathic and follow the Golden Rule, as these operate under the cultural overlay that all too often institutionalizes tribal good us vs. bad them, inequitable resource allocation, and social governance favoring a few elite, be they inheritors of special status, wealth and power or those who usurp democratic ideals through religious demagoguery and/or secular power and aggression.  Tomasello follows an ethic of knowledge that helps us with a knowledge of ethics.  So does Thomas Piketty in Capital in the 21stCentury, a marvelous compendium of data keenly analyzed that demonstrates how wealth has been socially ordained to be inequitably distributed in modern societies.

Finally I want to mention Jonathan Haidt who examined our political differences in his book, The Righteous Mind.  Following the understanding developed by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky about the severe and nearly invisible limits of our rational considerations, Dr. Haidt uses the metaphor of an elephant and its rider, the rider being our conscious processing and the elephant the enormous sub-conscious processing of which we have little to no consciousness.  He quite correctly, I think, says that we form most of our political (and other ones as well) opinions subliminally, automatically and without much conscious reflection, i.e., the elephant, and then we rationalize the basis for those opinions after the fact, i.e., the rider.  Here the elephant goes where it wants to go and the rider explains how he was in charge the whole time.

We have so much science and medicine these days that supports such a view of our mighty intellect as an oftentimes foolish facade.  In addition to the understanding given us by Kahneman and Tversky of how we use errant heuristics, we also have mental phenomena documented by scientist-practitioners like the great late Oliver Sacks.  Yes, there was a man who calmly and rationally thought his wife was a hat, and there are people who argue that their paralyzed arm belongs to the doctor or who argue that a healthy limb needs to be amputated and split-brain patients who try to smoke a cigarette with their right hand while their left hand smacks it away and they talk on rationally while ignoring what is happening.  These examples are akin to the passionate conspiracy theories all too many find ‘rational’.

Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow,posits a System 1 (fast) very prone to error and System 2 (slow) where errors are monitored, corrected, and a rational accurate process can ensue.  Jonathan Haidt thinks something like that operates in our political thinking and discourse.  This brings me back to this precept,

I grow with a knowledge of ethics.

This not so much about knowing more stuff as about understanding how to interact with people more respectfully and compassionately while deliberating conjoint actions to solve social dilemmas.  I have found this to be a life-long lesson.  More recently I have focused on acknowledging others’ narratives, e.g., racial, gender, religious, etc.  more clearly and leaving myself and my preconceptions out of it.

One of my interests in understanding our humanity is how we can differ so much in our understanding.  I am thinking here of our political divisions but also, and perhaps more importantly, about our self-righteous prejudices, fanaticisms and conspiracy theories. Mexicans are good people.  Females deserve equal and full rights.  Human mutilation and torture cannot be justified. Violence in the name of god serves only the dark side of human intelligence.  How can ‘rational’ humans think otherwise?  How can people forsake their reality orientation and empathy in order to be as ignorant as they want to be and mistreat others to gain selfish advantage? More to the point, what is my ethical guidance for treating with them? Other than setting a contrasting limit, I don’t yet know.  I watch my wife and marvel at her ability to engage another in terms of their narrative even as she respectfully disagrees with them.  I am not there yet, but I do know I will not abandon my ethic of knowledge and I want to grow in my knowledge of ethics.  That said, I have one more precept coming up in the next post.

 

Part 1: an old man finds his creed finally

Many years ago my then wife announced apropos of nothing at dinner with my parents that I was an atheist.  I was the most surprised person at the table because I had never applied that label to myself, always holding that to define beliefs by what you didn’t believe was a bit spurious.  I was reluctant to use agnostic even though that came closer to reality because I thought, again, it said nothing of what I did believe and expressing my ignorance seemed obviously redundant.  My parents were not surprised, having known I had ‘left’ the church a long time before but they did take this occasion to debate whether my baptism at age 9 would still get me into heaven.  Their answer seemed to be no, I was condemned to hell.  They did not think to ask what I did believe, which was just as well because my beliefs at that point were still entirely inchoate.

Over the intervening years I have pondered and developed some sort of belief that I might could hold.  My now wife Betty has helped with her rich humanity, my pursuit of poetry and art through Langer has helped with the conceptualization, and more recently I re-read Monod’s Chance and Necessity.  Better late than never, I now think I have developed a creed that renders my spiritual beliefs with some adequacy.  I call it my creed but actually it is only an incipient one because I think a creed by definition is shared by others.  Oh well, I never claimed to be orthodox about anything, so I will now go over my creed giving an exegesis line by line before writing it down as I recite it in my daily meditation.

I keep a simple faith.

I have always believed in KISS: keep it simple, stupid.  This derives in part from an agnostic tendency, i.e., the thought that in the last analysis we do not know anything about what lies in the mystic beyond, as I have come to term the domain we apprehend of (or make up the sense of) what used to be termed supernatural, because, as should be clear to regular readers, I hold everything in every domain to be natural.  This also comes from my reading Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, one of the earliest and still one of the highest expressions of mysticism.  Consider the 14thchapter:

Look at it: nothing to see.

Call it colorless.

Listen to it: nothing to hear.

Call it soundless.

Reach for it: nothing to hold.

Call it intangible.

Triply undifferentiated

It merges into oneness,

Not bright above,

Not dark below.

Never, oh, never,

Can it be named.

It reverts, it returns

To unbeing.

Call it the form of the unformed,

The image of no image.

Call it unthinkable thought.

Face it: no face.

Follow it: no end.

Holding fast to the old Way,

We can live in the present.

Mindful of the ancient beginnings,

We hold the thread of the Tao.

What lies beyond our ken is important (we should appreciate our ignorance more fully); it is ancient, enduring, and except for this book of Lao Tzu’s, nearly impossible to characterize through our intellect. When I keep a simple faith, I admit my ignorance of greater things while acknowledging my sense of something beyond and so maintain a boundary to my knowledge, to what I really know.  As Lao Tzu says in #71:

To know without knowing is best.

Not knowing without knowing it is sick.

To be sick of sickness

Is the only cure.

The wise aren’t sick.

They are sick of sickness,

So they are well.

I, too, at least, am sick of sickness.  And, as I see it, even thinking about the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin, much less debating or fighting over it, is stupid (and sick), and as I said in my last post, I avoid the land of Stupid as best I can.

I believe in the presence of spirit.

I have long had some apprehension of the mystical beyond; beginning in my boyhood, expanding in my late teens and early 20s, and steadying in its course as I studied symbolization and aesthetics (thank you, Susanne Langer), I sensed the presence of spirit.  My wife Betty helped me to see this gift whole, a necessity for filling in the blanks. I think of spirit (not to get too complicated here, remember, KISS) in various guises: the Tao (the Way) of course, but also, following Einstein, who said he believed in god if it was Spinoza’s god.  Spinoza in the 16thcentury developed a remarkable understanding of the universe as a lawful, regular and integrated entity; in its processes lie the sweep of fate.  Good thing he kept this under wraps because the religious authorities at the time claimed to know how many angels danced on that pinhead and burnt people alive for disagreeing with them.  I also think of spirit in a somewhat animistic sense (still keeping it all natural) in what Amerindians referred to as mother earth, not our property to do with as we please but to carry out our responsibility as stewards; of course I now think of this as Gaia, the planet earth infused with life glowing blue and green in our region of the cosmos.

With my re-reading of Monod, however, I came to a more definitive understanding of spirit.  A famous Catholic of his day, Francois Mauriac, said of Monod’s definition of spirit that it “is far more incredible than what we Christians believe”.   This is what is so incredible:  Monod considered that we have a duality within us, a physical body and brain that operates mechanically according to physical laws and a mental consciousness seemingly(I echo Monod by saying ‘supposedly’) independent of such mechanics.  His and others’ objective analysis shows this to be an illusion,

“But it is so well within, so deeply rooted in our being, that nothing could be vainer than to hope to dissipate it in the immediate awareness of our subjectivity, or to learn to live emotionally or morally without it.  And besides, why should we have to?  What doubt can there be of the presence of spirit within us?  To give up the illusion that sees in it an immaterial ‘substance’ is not to deny the existence of the soul, but on the contrary to begin to recognize the complexity, the richness, the unfathomable profundity of the genetic and cultural heritage and of the personal experience, conscious or otherwise, which together constitute this being of ours: the unique and irrefutable witness to itself.”

So yes, I believe in the presence of spirit and must acknowledge that this spirit as conceived as Monod did is so incredible that ‘belief’ is a more appropriate word than ‘know’.

I wrote these first two precepts of my creed to use in a poem (I might post it someday soon) around 1995.  The next two I developed from reading Monod’s Chance and Necessity, but travel on for awhile before the next post.

Let’s go beyond stale and dismal science vs religion juxtaposition

I have been feeling a wee bit cranky recently.  It probably has something to do with changing weather patterns that make this old man work extra hard to manage the farm and with the ongoing realization that the intelligence of the American people either has always been low and the mask has recently slipped off (again, I hear H. L. Mencken say) or it has devolved down to a level hitherto unseen in human history (probably with the aid of electronic media and machine intelligence). I listened to our president and his advisers a few days ago and I said to my wife, “I have heard farts that sounded more intelligent, though few have stunk like that”.  I try to avoid any visit to the Land of Stupid; now I see all too many go there as tourists, some on extended vacations.  Our leadership looks to have emigrated and taken up residence there full-time.

Anyway I had recently been feeling better.  The weather improved and I turned off the TV, and then I read a NYT Stone (their philosophical forum) article (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/03/opinion/why-we-need-religion.html.) about religion and feelings, and boom, back came my crankiness when I read this:  “My claim is that religion can provide direct access to this emotional life in ways that science does not.”  My primal scream at that point was that we do not access emotions, we feel them and that science and religion are so different in their inception, in the consequent institutions, and in their management of knowledge, ignorance, and consensual activities that comparing them for their ‘management’ of emotions is a false comparison (see posts 4/4/17,9/28/17).

After a bit I realized that my crankiness had led me to perhaps overreact negatively to this essay, so I read it again more carefully.  I still do not like it because I am quite tired of reading variants of the science-religion topic when so few of them seem to lead anywhere new.  Mr. Asma uses some of the same old tropes to make the case that religion helps us manage our emotions while science does not (of course he does not mention anti-depressants, etc.).  He presents an anecdote showing how a woman’s religion helped her cope with the despair she felt from the brutal murder of a son. He argues in short that religion is primarily therapeutic and the most powerful cultural analgesic we have for the painful vicissitudes of life, and that the atheists who “dismiss religion on the grounds of some puritanical moral judgment about the weakness of the devotee” fall short of the mark.  More on that in a moment.

Mr. Asma shows great command of the obvious in some generalizations that are so muddled that they have left any truth behind.  One is that emotions are from the old “operating system” (regular readers know I find such hard wire metaphors cringe worthy) in the limbic system while rationality (I guess he means science in this regard—he does not seem to differentiate here) comes from the “more recently evolved neocortex.” Going further he says that, “Religion irritates the rational brain because it trades in magical thinking and no proof, but it nourishes the emotional brain because it calms fears, answers to yearnings and strengthens feelings of loyalty”.  Now here is one of my major criticisms.  It should not be a news flash that religion being a cultural and symbolic activity is also associated with neocortical functioning. Religion can facilitate emotional balance; indeed most cultural activities contribute to balance in one way or another, as does walking your dog, listening to music, grooming a fellow chimp, stretching, sleeping, watching a sunset, good food, sex, friends, etc.  (Mr. Asma does have the grace to admit that religion can disrupt emotional and cognitive processes.  Reverting to my initial outrage at his idea of religion accessing emotions, my first image was of an ISIS recruit ‘accessing’ his murderous rage through religious belief).  This means that religion is as much a part of the rational brain as is science.

Science and rationality are not synonymous; science is a method for ensuring our rationally conceived ideas match reality as best we can at this time (See my posts on 1/7/17).  Rationality is the humdrum everyday thinking that we carry on and it is notoriously unreliable, ergo the need for empirical validation.  We have known for a long time that our rational processes are unreliable, at least since Freud showed the influence of unconscious processes and more recently with the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman (see Micheal Lewis’s The Undoing Projector Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow) showing how our brains, even highly educated brains, use heuristics that are quite fallible.  And I would think Mr. Asma might be interested in Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind that demonstrates how we rationalize and justify our political and religious beliefs after we intuitively decide what to believe.  I do not want to go further now into how cortical and subcortical systems interact to contribute to emotional processes and intellectual ferment, but they do, and Mr. Asma’s reification of their differences is, at this time in our scientific understanding, deplorable.

My other major complaint is his characterization of atheists and their (or anyone’s for that matter) rejection of religion.  To repeat from above, Mr. Asma says atheists “dismiss religion on the grounds of some puritanical moral judgment about the weakness of the devotee”. I have read Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, E. O. Wilson, and my favorite, Christopher Hitchens, and I cannot recall them talking about the moral weakness of  devotees.  Hypocrites, certainly.  Superstitious, yes.  Taking false comfort, ok.  Chris Hitchens in his book, God is Not Great, assesses that the destruction waged in the name of god exceeds the good religion does.  Further, religious people do not behave better despite their claim to moral authority.  I find particularly onerous religious attempts to obfuscate science, e.g., design and anti-vaccination biases, and to impose their morality on others, e.g., women as second class citizens or worse, as male property, or condemning those of racial or gender differences.

I live on a farm in the country.  Religion is strong here mostly, I think, because the dispersed population needs a sense of community as they depend upon each other.  And yes, religion does help people cope.  I found it laughable, though, when Mr. Asma says that Bill Nye or Neil deGrasse Tyson dropping by to discuss the physiology of suffering would not be helpful in consoling victims, thereby presupposing that true consolation rests solely with the religious.  I am sure Mr. Nye or Mr. Tyson would be a good friend to help someone get through hard times.  They are good, sensitive and intelligent humans.  And science?  Understanding Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s 5 stages of grieving has helped many people cope with terminal illness and loss.

Probably the thing that upset me about this essay even more than Mr. Asma’s trivialities, distortions, and misappropriations, was that he adds nothing to this rather stale and dismal juxtaposition between science and religion (see post 2/4/14).  My context is this:  Religion, or rather spiritual beliefs, has contributed to human culture (see post 7/8/17: a positivist genesis myth) for at least 100,000 years if you go by archeological evidence of burial practices.  Spiritual beliefs have evolved over the eons since then and religious institutions have proliferated with a fecundity of gods.  Humans have always had a reality orientation and some leaning towards empirical studies.  Ancient astronomers were quite knowledgeable, as were farmers and metal workers. Science as a rigorous system of knowledge was born in magical alchemy and grew into a mature epistemology with the Enlightenment and now with even more rigor with the development of positivism and modern mathematics, e.g., Boolean logic, statistics.

Here is my point:  Religion is a part of our cultural evolution; if it disappears that will be a result of further cultural evolution.  If it stays, same thing.  In either case it will not be because of our willful intellectual manipulation of ourselves nor of our society.   Our task, as I see it, is to further our cultural development through the fermentation and distillation (wonder why I used that metaphor?) of our understanding. Atheists, too often defined by a negative, are at their best when they proffer something positive and religion is at its best when it offers a meaningful way forward through the knowledge of our time.  I hear some ask who does this?  The current Dalai Lama is a wonderful example of this.  As I have written about before (and will do so again next post), Jacques Monod carried this forward (see post 3/25/17).  In his own way because of the integrity of his intellect I think Chris Hitchens did as well (see post on natural noumenal 4/13/17).  I am talking here about the dialectic between mysticism and positivism, neither complete in and of itself, the dialectic providing the means to move forward (see posts 2/4/16 & 11/15/15).

To recapitulate:  I have been in a sour mood.  When I read an essay purporting to provide balance in the debate between science and religion, I reacted quite negatively.  Recovering my own emotional balance I considered the essay in more detail and found that while my mood contributed to the intensity of my initial appraisal, my reaction was authentic, reasonable and accurate.  And I felt my feelings and thought my thoughts with my whole brain, cortical and subcortical, without needing religion to ‘access’ them.  Travel on.

Autism, religion and the frame of discourse

In his book Neurotribes Steve Silberman details the divergent views of the two pioneers who early on recognized autism as a syndrome.  Briefly, Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger saw autism as an outlier on the spectrum of normalcy and believed that some of its traits/talents, e.g., focus on patterns, mental obsessiveness, contribute to many achievements in art and science.  American Leo Kanner saw autism as strictly pathological that resulted from deficient parenting by a cold mother.  I have posted before about my disdain for Kanner’s approach (see review of Neurotribes9/13/15).

I bring this up to emphasize that how we frame a topic determines to some large extent how we go on to think about it, e.g., normal or pathological, multi-factorial genesis or blame the mother.  I go back to Bourdieu’s conceptualization of the doxa, i.e., the entire realm of discourse, its accepted partition into an orthodox domain, and the rest is heterodox.  Historically religious authorities have treated heterodox thinkers harshly. Science is better but even scientific orthodoxy can limit what heterodoxical views and work can be admitted into the realm of discourse.  Remember Naomi Oreskes‘ work showing how American geologists regarded European Alfred Wegener’s theory of plate tectonics as crackpot (he was not a trained geologist, oh, the horror) only to be proved wrong and Wegener prescient. Also remember that behaviorism in its heyday greatly constrained research into mental phenomena, you know like thoughts and feelings.  Thankfully great scientists like Karl Pribram, A.R. Luria, L.S. Vygotsky, J. Piaget and Noam Chomsky evicted behavioral theory from the house of orthodoxy.

Now I read a curious chapter in The Encultured Brainon autism and religion that asks a heterodoxical (to me at least) question about how people with autism view god and religion.  I had never considered (surprisingly in retrospect) that autists may think of god differently because they think of the world and people differently, but it makes sense, sort of.  How to frame this investigation?  Rachel Brezis studied this question through a neuroanthropological approach.  Evidently J. Bering had proposed earlier “that our ability to infer others’ thoughts and intentions (theory of mind) served as the evolutionary basis for our automatic search for meaning and agency behind events in the world (existential theory of mind).”  Further, given that autists have different/diluted theory of mind, they would have trouble forming a personal and lively relationship with god and discerning the deity’s presence in the world.

Long story short, Brezis research casts doubt on that presupposition.  Studied more systematically autists showed quite robust religious beliefs similar to non-autists.  She thought that maybe the deficit lay in autists’ self knowledge, not knowledge of others.  The frame here is important.  I have not read the background material, e.g., Bering’s hypothesis that our theory of mind, i.e., what I call EC or Empathy Central, influences our relationship with a god that controls the universe, but from Brezis’ summary, this effort seems based upon a Christian, even an evangelical, frame.  Ask a Buddhist or a Hindu or a Taoist or even Spinoza about their personal relationship with a deity and most likely they will stare at you as they wonder just how answer such a primitive question. Brezis did part of her research with Jewish youth who certainly showed that they had inculcated their tradition in forming their beliefs but in my admittedly few conversations with Jewish people, I cannot remember any of them espousing a personal relationship with Yahweh; they are fully engaged with their tradition but this relates more to the Torah, ritual and community than the Baptist tradition I was raised in where personal acceptance of Jesus, etc., was a requirement for membership.

Empathy Central involves social understanding and social skills through empathic feelings and kinesic communication.  How this develops in each of us greatly influences our personality and interpersonal functioning.  This stems from a deep and old biological root and I find our notions of god(s) rather historically irrelevant to this.  Remember the Atargatis (see a post on 11/10/14).  This was a goddess of fertility in the Middle East also around the time of Jesus that even had a coin minted in her name.  To become a priest, the novitiates (all males) worked themselves into a frenzied state of mind, ran through the streets naked with a knife, cutting themselves to be bloody, and at the right moment, castrate themselves. They then chose a house to throw their genitals in the door and that family was required to give the newly minted priest female clothes.  (I have always assumed they chose families whose ladies were fashionable dressers). Now I am not sure what kind of relationship they had with Atargatis but I myself would not call it a ‘personal’ one despite the intimate sacrificial gift.

Our modern notion of god, especially in cultures where scientific and technological advancements have been incorporated, must be quite different from the pagan and animistic religions of the past, including those later polytheistic ones and I have to wonder about the early days of any monotheistic beliefs, not to mention the Buddhist and Hindu beliefs of 2500 years ago.  My point is that “a personal relationship with god” based upon a person’s functioning Empathy Central is not really an adequate frame for discussion.  Humans have evolved a powerful EC; our capacity for empathy and intimacy is in the rarefied zone but it is still closely tied to our mammalian heritage and operates with kinesic information focused on the present, specious as it is, and its higher level integrations are about our real relationships.  What this frame of EC lacks is the understanding that spiritual beliefs and religious institutions are evolutionarily more recent and are based primarily upon our symbolic capabilities and their transformation of our intellectual abilities much more than our EC.

Spiritual beliefs, from which religious institutions emerged with all the features of any other human institution, derive, I think, from a deep aesthetic inherent in life and mind and this aesthetic in a spiritual domain operates on a symbolic level.  It is an aesthetic that enables us to find patterns, to complete incomplete patterns, to imagine patterns that are nowhere apparent, and to apprehend somehow where a pattern should be but isn’t.  This last one is key because it presages our sense of the mystic beyond and the universe, large and small, beyond our phenomenal apprehension or science’s ken.  Further, the deep aesthetic includes our sensitivity to the fitness of a pattern internally and in context and, here is the crux of the matter, to the energy or beauty or luminosity of that pattern. (Remember the 3 aspects of an aesthetic: integrity of parts fitting together, unity of the whole, and luminosity of the form as composed by the artist and then beheld by the audience).

This is quite a different frame from seeing spiritual beliefs as reflecting our ‘personal relationship’ to a god.  High functioning autists of the sort assayed in this study are generally keenly sensitive to patterns in all their aesthetic grandeur, even though they may not rhapsodize on their beauty as some of us (like me) might, and even as their engagement in the empathic side of relationships is a little thin.

Let me end by suggesting another frame. Jacques Monod attributed humans’ proclivity to religion and spiritual beliefs to 1) our discomfort in apprehending our solitude in the grand scheme of the universe and within our own subjective isolated domain, and 2) our insatiable appetite for final certainty. People of all sorts vary in their anxiety about being alone and in their need to know for certain (even when it is wrong, like conspiracy theories).  Maybe someone could study these psychological variables and their relationship to religiosity.  If I were younger, I would consider it, but I am not, so I take my approach from Monod’s colleague, Albert Camus, and say, “Yes, we are alone, so what?  That just makes it all the more important to abide by the golden rule, to treasure your loved ones, listen to the music, and cherish our lovely Gaia carrying us around in space.  And yes, there is no certainty, get over it and get along with what you have to do to mitigate exigencies and exploit chance.”  This, I think, follows from Monod’s postulate of an ethic of knowledge and its corollary that we grow with a knowledge of ethics.

I will reiterate that that The Encultured Brainis a positively provocative book and add that at least in some respects it carries a fault common to many recent books and intellectual traditions in its failure to recognize the importance of symbolization as a basic concept.  Up until the 1980s or so, we had a strong tradition of considering symbols as basic to our mind’s functioning, from C. S. Pierce through Ernst Cassirer to Susanne Langer, and then for some reason associated, I think, with the developing power of machine intelligence and the incredible understanding brought about by genomic science including molecular biology, we forgot in our rush to advance.  Travel on, I hope, to a place where symbols and their remarkable functional complexity are remembered.  No need to hurry.