(I’ve been searching for a simple statement that gets to the point of this blog site; maybe this is it. Most of you will think it far fetched, yet there is a Logic to it and it stretches way back into Philosophic Tradition. Complete with Garden Photos and a Poem at the end. A revision of the earlier post of the same title—but up-graded! Try it on for size, Please!)
In the spring and summer, each morning I take my cup of coffee and walk about our backyard garden. I carefully inspect its progress from the previous day: new shoots have appeared, old flowers fading, a weed to be pulled, new blooms opening and admired. Various birds fly by and others are calling. I stop and consider the weather, very pleasing, but other times not. Too cool, or too wet, we are often in need of a few sunny days. In either case, my plants soldier-on and I consider what I should do to improve this beautiful place, our garden, Our Backyard Sanctuary.
It is not a “strictly physical” place, not simply particles and chemical reactions and the qualities that those kinds of things directly exhibit. This garden of my wife’s and mine is a human artifact, a place ofbeauty with carefully selected plants, well considered placements, precisely cut borders and gently curved walkways. It is a chosen mixture of both sun and shade, privacy and open sky; a fairly complete composition,though always shifting.
It is a place of life.Plants exhibit the most marvelous design.Crocus poke up their heads in spring first, with their delicate little flowers. Then come the Daffodil with their yellow trumpeting flower, and then Tulip with its gracious cup, marked interior, and array of color. In the shade, the Ostrich Ferns are unraveling their fronds, rolling them open to the light. The JapanesePainted Ferns exhibit on each leaf detailed shades of green slowly verging onto blacks. In front of our long row of Hosta, my wife plants her border of Impatiens, an annual that flowers through the summer and produces best in shade. The Empress Wu Hosta is our crowning jewel. Sitting back beneath our cottonless (male) Cottonwood tree, the Empress crowns at over three feet into the air and spreads more than eight feet in diameter. She is a tremendous mound of foliage with each highly ridged bright green leaf running 18 to 20 inches long and a foot wide. All her bio-mass bursting forth each spring from below the ground and fully in place by mid June. By August, she has finished with her rather insignificant flowering (to the gardener) and by fall is ready to be cut back to do it all over the next year.
(The Tidy Packages: Daffodil, perennial Poppy, Columbine [Aquilegia] and Columbine, and finally Hosta. All photos by GWW from The Sanctuary)
Each plant is a tidy package. It circles about itself in its own little cycle. The perennials above — the crocus, daffodils, tulips, ferns and hosta — all have a prolonged cycle lasting many years, but go through a distinct annual cycle, also. The annual above — the Impatiens — completes its life cycle in a single season, but ends that cycle with a group of seeds, which are the Reproductionof “its form“— its tidy package — into the future. It is as if part of it — its Information — never dies!
Basically, fundamentally, essentially, a plant and its environment are a cooperative, self-enhancing effort. It is not that they — the plant and its environment — always “get it together” or always “keep it together”; they do not. There are “bad” seasons and difficult “spells”; but “at their core”, The Good MUST Out Weigh The Bad. That much is inherent in the idea of Natural Design.
Designs are real in nature; every design, if it exists, is Good at something, is Functional, isbetterthan a vast number of alternatives, but maybe not quite as good as some Possibilitiesthat we can vaguely imagine. This is the core of The Nature Religion Connection: If a lack of coordination and cooperation (Dis-Function, Chaos) were the predominant “tone” of the world, then complex entities like “plants” would not exist, nor would we! “The Living World” is fundamentally Good, at least from the point of view of Mother Nature.
And what of our own? So, let us Reflect. From our point of view, this world can be Like Our Backyard Sanctuary, if held in proper Respect. If nurtured. If understood. If thoughtfully criticized and accepted. If loved—-a reflection of us, and us of it.
To Reproduceis a distinctly living feature. To Metabolize is to be so open to ‘your’ environment; large parts of it are essential to ‘your’ continuation. As if in a Religious Gesture,You stretch forth into them, but not into some others; those seem completely irrelevant. Light, water, carbon dioxide and soil with minerals, all are open to the plant in a cooperative and informative way: They are essential parts of it; they are components of the plant’s Design. They AreIt! Its FORMATION extending out-ward. It is, what we call, the In-Formation of the Universe!
And To Growis to be alive, and that takes Time. A flowering plant only eventually flowers. An animal only eventually becomes sexually mature, and a human only eventually becomes emotionally and intellectually responsible. Life pulls together diversity into the unity of its form, and Time is essential to life:It does not exist in an instant.To Be Sensitiveis the means by which living things distinguish this In-Formation from the noise; it’s Self from Others. Life is these unique qualities.
(Crocus in the Snow and in the Sun. Photos by GWW)
A star, a volcano, a galaxy, an atom, our solar system, the various chemical elements do none of these: No reproduction, no metabolism, no growth, no sensitivity. A star may swell and then collapse, as it runs out of (‘eats’) its fuel and ‘dies’. A volcano can grow larger and even blow or become dormant. An atom may bond. Our solar system certainly cycles. But none of these have all the characteristics of life, nor in as regular or systematic a way as do a living kind, and especially a person.
THE BACKYARD SANCTUARYNo god is needed; My wife and I will do.
We split and weed, and plant seed.
We trim and choose, and rule our tiny spot,
but not --- like one such other.
Mother Nature framed this scene,
and with her choices will be Queen.
But at least, I see my debt
and live to fill her offer.It is a special place, our world;
The world of life and persons.
It is our Response and Ability,
to keep it such and More.
And pass it to our future kind,
for ashes soon we be.
For after all, we are but 'food'
in this Great Chain of Being.
Of what shall come hereafter,
we made a contribution,
All photos by GWW from the garden of Sheri and Greg. Zinnia, an annual to the right and middle–with yellow swallow tail.
A little controversy has been stirred up by a N.Y. Times columnistthat I have long followed — David Brooks. I tend to like this guy; he is Big Hearted in spite of being a Conservative, of sorts. He is all about ‘restoring relationship’ and ‘mending the social fabric,’ my paraphrases of his positions. He tends to think that in the past (somewhere and some time) ‘we connected’ with each other and ‘nature’ better than we do now. We have “broken communities”, now; he has written.
That’s cool and suggestive; and he tends to take a psychological approach to such matters, where I a philosophical approach. He ends his recent and controversial article by writing, “On the other side of justice, we reach the beloved community and multiethnic family of humankind. This vision has a destination, and thus walks not in bitterness but in hope.”
But in this recent article (link above), he falls back on his religious belief, obviously. I knew he was Christian, that was evident at points in his columns. But it seemed a more generous and newer sort of spiritual nature, as if you could see him really getting into “Jesus Christ, Superstar.” Its a Left Wing Christianity, if you will, and this article was motivated by his interview with Esau McCaulley, a Professor of The New Testament (?) at Wheaton College and a member of The Times editorial staff (pictured above).
The article is pretty sappy with very religious language such as, “There is a relentless effort to rebuild relationship because God is relentless in pursuit of us“(my emphasis). But it made several interesting points, I believe; and this in contrast to much of the ire it aroused. In The Times (online), it received nearly 900 comments along with reactions from other media sources such as Professor J. Coyne (biology!) on his blog site.
Coyne called it another case of “religion coddling” by The Times, and as one of America’s most outspoken atheists, he had little to say for it except, of course, he too wants social justice. Other comments equally derided its religious stance as vacuous. A commentator from Shaker Heights, Ohio (up north by Cleveland), one Alexander Kelly, pounded home the frequently heard contention that the universe is without meaning; “no grand plan” exists for it. “It is absurd.” It contains “no teleology” and that is, in fact, liberating because it allows us each “to make our own meanings” for it! (Now that is a jumble of confusions as profound as any religious view, as I soon will soon demonstrate.)
My post will take a middle ground. No remotely literal interpretation of the Divinity of Jesus, or anyone or anything else, is acceptable in this day and age. Yet, religion and spirituality of many forms still exist and have done so since the beginning of The Evolution of Human Culture. Religion is not simply stupidity and fraud. To make sense of our world in a way that has the greatest benefit now and in the future, Religion should be understood as a “Natural Phenomena” (see Dan Dennett’s, Breaking The Spell). Religion arose naturally and functioned in some ways to our benefit.
Religion, in the guise of “folk religion”, was a harbor for ritual and story-telling.; an accomplice in the formation of the original self-conscious human groups and in the basic discovery (or invention) of language and custom. I will go no further in telling this general story here, but will return shortly to some of the ideas I found interesting in Brooks.
Hey, It’s All Meaningless
But first allow me to return to some of the criticisms of religion and specifically that old bugbear “the universe is meaningless!” Of course, when people say this, they do not literally mean it. In their lives, and here on Earth, they find many things highly meaningful! Our above commentator cried, “all is absurd”, “there is no teleology”; yet, his very comments had meaning and the very statement he wrote had a purpose to serve and a goal to achieve: a Teleology. I assume he felt his statement was also successful in that, and therefore we can add, I believe, thatValue exists along with Meaning in this not so absurd universe, after all.
What people mean when they say “there is no meaning”, is they have an Abstract Picture of Things in their Mind: long ago No Thing In The Universe found its situation meaningful. Well, of course, we would agree, and our commentator describes this situation long ago as ‘just billions of subatomic particles’ smashing and melding around into each other.
My point is twofold. First, this very Picture of Things is itself meaningful but for something that is, as if, sitting outside it, and viewing it from afar. Maybe nothing inside the picture experiences meaning (not those atoms, for sure), but we do and our commentator does. He finds this picture very significant, very meaningful, but from afar. As if he were God, looking down on It All, and All of it At Once. Or as if he were the Ideal Super Physicist,him or herself with total physical knowledge of All and of All At Once. So, for even this perspective, Meaning does exists, just not for any Real Thing In The Picture, only for some idealized thing and from outside that picture of everything as nothing but atoms and chemistry. This Picture of Things does Not succeed in getting rid of meaning. Meaning is real, but this Picture just puts it in a very awkward position.
Second, our commentator does not believe that Real Things can eventually develop, or occur only sometimes and only in some places. To be Real is to be Universally Present in All Places and at All Times, he believes! I do not know who made this rule (actually it was some faction in ancient Greek philosophy), but many believers in the Oppressive Significance of physics and chemistry take it as Gospel today. So, The Universe is absurd on these grounds, they believe; because meaning was not in it at the start, or in it everywhere. This is not a very useful, beneficial or coherent picture of ourselves and our situation especially to carry into the future. New Things can happen, including Meaning and Life and Language and other more complex realities. And New Things will continue to happen, maybe even some really good ones.
“Sin” is something Wrong that is more than just “a Problem”
Brooks and McCaulley advocate the use of the idea of “sin” to understand and heal some of our most profound social and personal ills. Many commentators were repulsed by this suggestion, but here is the sense I make of it. Killing someone in a fit of anger because of an act committed by them that offended you, is not a good thing. But it is not at the same ‘level’ as the almost arbitrary acts of mass murder that we now frequently face. Telling a lie occasionally is not a great thing to do, but lying all the time and doing so as The President of the U.S. and thus contributing to a massive and growing divide and distrust within the nation, is at a new level of malfeasance. And it is not simply a matter of size, number or frequency of these wrongs.
It is about gravity. There are some acts that shake, or strike at, the foundations of our human solidarity. They endanger the togetherness that functions to make us persons and componentsin larger-scale, language-using, highly interconnected society. These are “sins” because this fundamental violation strikes at the roots of our way of life. If these acts became more prevalent culture would crumble and we, we all, would return to nature as only animals (not the Culture possessing animals we are now.) That would be a loss of level, a decline in complexity.
The further value of this concept of “sin” (or of something similar; the young Karl Marx wrote of “Alienation” from our “true being”) is that in response to sin, “forgiveness” is most appropriate and effective, says Christianity according to McCaulley and Brooks. Recriminations, retribution and punishment are not what is ultimately sought, but Healing, Re-unification, and Conversion are. The sinner will accept their error and return ‘to the fold’ , so to speak.
Interestingly, in contemporary philosophy there are some similar contentions based on the analysis of modern Moral Language and in Ethics. Here, the point of punishment and recrimination is not merely retribution but the reformation of the perpetrator and their recognition of their former waywardness. As if a person in a state of hysteria is then slapped in the face, regains their composure, and then says “Thanks, I needed that.”
(Lot and his wife fleeing the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, painting by John Martin 1852 [left]. A different “Don’t Look Back!” command [right], but this time given by Hades to Orpheus: ‘If you look back, Eurydice will be condemned to the underworld forever.’ Well, Orpheis did look back but Hades still let Eurydice out every spring and summer. I guess Hades is a softer touch than Yahweh, as far as gods go. Painting by Edward Poynter, Orpheus and Eurydice, 1862.)
Brooks and McCaulley contend that the Life of Jesus is exemplar of this forgiveness, modesty, love. After all, remember that McCaulley is professor of The New Testament, not the Old(where sin is dealt with very harshly by Yahweh). This is “the ethic of self-emptying love—neither revile the reviler nor allow him to stay in his sin,” Brooks writes laying it on very thick. Forgiveness and conversion avoid social justice becoming “as if group-versus-group power struggles are an eternal fact of human existence… (and) we all have to armor up for an endless war.”
But It Is Not God’s Love!
I do like that. Let us avoid a war of group against group fighting for priveleges and for the scraps of production, especially if that is to occur in the name of “Social Justice”. I, also, agree there is something ‘deep’ that tends to hold persons to persons; that is an obligation or a need not easily denied; that is a kind of ‘hidden connection’ yet maybe right before our eyes. But, that Reality is more a sociological, psychological and philosophical Truth, than a theological one. And to miss it, or violate it, is more than just your average mistake, more than to simply mess up: It is kind of “sinful”. It is a real basic violation of yourself and others.
Two of the earliest depictions of Jesus in existence.
(Known as “Bust of Jesus”, left, a mural on the wall of the catacomb Commodilla in Rome, painted in the late 300s. Right, painted on a wooden board around 600 C.E., “Christ Pantocrator”. Pantocrator is Greek, meaning “He who has authority over everything.” This painting is preserved in a monetary in Egypt, one of the oldest monasteries in the world. Both show Jesus with a beard, and this portrayal is thought to be a successor of the earliest versions that portrayed Jesus younger, beardless and with short tunic –more in the Roman style, and somewhat like an Orpheus figure as pictured earlier in post– for which there are few examples.)
Some of you undoubtedly find the idea of Eating a Boar’s Head quite boorish. Sorry to return to such a gruesome topic (see post below), but I woke this morning wondering why cut off the earsand boil them separatelyonly to reattach them later? (Gee, does my Mind wander!)
Well, upon a few moments of Reflection (and this site is Big on The Ontological Significance of Self-Reflection) , I realized the obvious answer. If you stuff your pig’s head with sausage and such, and then sew it up in a bag and boil it forNine Hours, those poor little ears are going to take a beating! Why, they would seriously diminish, even disintegrate, I would imagine. And then what would you have? A boring boar, one without its perky ears, more bovine than boar, a pig significantly lacking in swine-like character! That would not then be the kind of beast to march into your feast accompanied by a trumpet fanfare!
So, yes, detach the ears; boil them separately and gently, and lovingly reattach later with skewers. By all means!
On the Issue of Odin as Santa
On that issue, one further piece of information, also. During Jolnir’s Yuletide nightly rides, his “Wild Hunts”, he was said to have ridden an eight-legged horse, named Sleipnir, in Old Norse meaning “slippy” or “the slipper”. In several Sagas, dating back to the thirteenth century or before, Odin rides Slippy into and out of “Hel”. I guess we could say, he gave it the slip. Hel is the name of place, and the creature that resides over the place, where the dead reside. It is related to the Old and Modern English word “Hell”. It was written that three cocks would crow from Hel and this would initiate the events of Ragnarok, a great battle and end of the world in which Odin and other gods would die and the earth be submerged in water! Well, in Norse Mythology at least.
But I digress! The point about the eight-legged horse is that some contend it was Clement Moore, in his The Night Before Christmas, that replaced old many-legged Slippy with a team of reindeer.
Looking for All the Connections, here at the naturereligionconnection.org.
MERRY XMAS and a HAPPY and Covid-Free NEW YEAR! No more Trump also!!!
Do you “Believe in God?” Well, of course you do. It is almost impolite to say otherwise. But I mean, Do you “believe that God really exists?”, or better, answer yes/no to “Does God exist?” Does this second form of the question change anything?
Recently I decided to reread Dan Dennett’s, Breaking The Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Dennett is a philosopher and “Theorist extordinaire.” In many different topic areas, he does not simple review the literature and speculate, he puts forth research proposals. That is what he is doing here for religion and he uses the phrase quoted in this title. He is laying out a wide-ranging theory of religion that he hopes will be empirically investigated. It involves aspects of cognitive psychology, sociology, linguistic behavior, archeology, anthropology and even economic history. On my first reading (2007 or so), I did not adequately appreciate that this book is Applied Philosophy!
Dennett contends there is an important distinction in the above two questions. The first mostly speaks to Your Beliefs, Your State of Mind. Yes, many of us do have a Belief in a god or even gods. But when you are asked, “Does God exist?”, this sharpens the issue a bit. It suggests “Where does God exist?” or “How does God exist?” or “What is God,” and “Can you point him out?” It suggests that maybe we are wrong to think in terms of “Him” and not Her or It.
Orthodox Jews do not even speak a name for ‘god’, or write one; that would be too concrete, too much making “GD” like an ordinary thing. Muslims do not picture Allah, or even Mohammed; best to leave visual imagery of God to the beautiful arabesques that adorn their mosques. In fact, Dennett points out that today in many religions it is standard doctrine not to ask for, or expect, a lot of good specific answers on the character, nature, location and qualities of god or gods. Whenever very specific and invasive queries come up, the doctrine of mystery is invoked. God is infinite and incomprehensible, and therefore, by definition, ‘hard to pin down.’
The earlier human gods were much more specific and concrete in their looks and actions, than our current ones. They lived in specific places like atop Mt. Olympus or like the Norse god, Odin, in an enormous and majestic ceremonial hall called Valhalla. They looked like real things or combinations of things, a human body with a falcon head, for example. Even the god of the Old Testament became angry, jealous, and intervened in human affairs often, turning people into pillars of salt or strolling in the Garden of Eden. Consider the seven plagues cast upon Egypt forcing Pharaoh to “let my people go!”, all very concrete and accredited behaviors and events.
But with the triumph of Monotheism and more modern times, gods have become more abstract, more withdrawn from the world, and with this has come the problem of How, Where and even Whymust God actually exist?
Belief in Belief
For some ‘believers’, any specific affiliation with a designated religion has been dropped, and a stripped-down sense of “Spirituality” is all that remains. For them, god need not even be “God” but now just a satisfying sense of “a higher power”with virtually no clarification or specificity.
For other ‘believers,’ it is now most important that they, and you and I, just Believe In Believing In God irrespective of whether he, she or it actually exists. It is more a social thing, than a real out-there-in-reality-somewhere kind of thing. It’s part of being good in company. You say, “Yes, I’m Catholic or Episcopalian…” and you wake up every Sunday morning and go to church. You see some acquaintances there and chat. When in distress you say a quiet prayer or two. You try to insure that your children believe the same as you. And that’s about the whole religion thing, for you.
In Dennett’s book, the above is described by some theorists as “a low investment”, “less intense” religious experience. The question of God’s actual existence tends to not come up. This mild form of belief is itself enough, and great doubt is generally not an issue. Other religions may exist and other people may believe differently but that is not an affront to you and your low intensity belief.
Going “High Investment”
But there is another way to deal with the modern problem of the actual existence of your god and you belief in him, her or it. That is to go “high intensity” and “high investment.” If you invest all your savings in one particular stock, that stock — whether it eventually succeeds or fails — is very valuable to you. Participation in a cult or sect is much the same. High investment in time, energy, commitment and even money makes your belief in that group very valuable to you. Any wavering in that belief is a crisis,; it puts in jeopardy all the previous effort.
So in groups like these, belief maintenance is a huge endeavor. A favorite device is “us against them.” “Circle the wagons’, we are under siege; they are all out to get us” is the mentality. Christian Fundamentalists and Evangelicals use this tactic. In an upcoming post I will discuss a sermon delivered by the pastor of a fast rising Columbus area “mega-church.” “As people who follow Jesus…who follow the biblical view of life…(Mathew tells us) ‘You will be hated not just by someone, but by everyone’,” Pastor Chad Fisher tells his congregation.
Fundamentalist Muslims have made great use of the claim that “western powers” seek to destroy Islam. Considering the history of imperialism there is some truth to it, though Islam’s very conservative doctrinal and sociological structure has also led to much tension with a modernized world.
Finally, one of the other strategies to overcome the modern loss of specificity and intensity in religious experience is the return to (or maintenance of) a very specific religious symbol. To conservative Christians The Bible and its Jesus are literally, and in all its detail, taken as true and existent. Other forms of Christianity with varied beliefs are then simply wrong, mistaken, as are non-Christian religions to an even greater extent. Islam, too, uses the teachings of Mohammed and the Koran in this manor.
This is “a higher intensity” and “higher investment” religion. Not only have these believers placed themselves in opposition to other religions but also to other cultural forces and institutions that they see as a threat. Conservative Muslims contend much in Western Culture is evil and a threat to their way of life. Conservative Christians have objected to the aspects of science they see in conflict with the Bible: geology, evolutionary biology and even cosmological astronomy. Liberal Government has been one of their foes because of its support for tolerance of diversity in sexual orientation, support for some aspects of women’s rights, and the insistence on a stricter division between church and state on various issues.
Much the same can be said for more radical forms of Islam. In each case, the “value” of these religious experiences is high. Much time, energy, social status and even money is, and can be, invested in the maintenance of these tension-filled beliefs for you and your fellow congregants. These are some of the ways that vivid and strong belief is created. When other cultural forces are then also challenged, the ground is cleared for not only strong belief but the assertion of the existence of that god.
It is Intense, but Is it ‘True’?
What is curious about this analysis of religion is the question of its “Truth” is forestalled. When Religion is treated as a Natural Phenomenon, the mechanisms for its appearance and maintenance will be sought and it becomes less clear how an evaluation of its truth will occur and what it will be. It is natural. Religion starts to serve more of a function for people and for their society. The question may start to shift from its “truth” to how well religion does at its job. Is its job to “find” a “God” that exists independently of us? Is its job to create and maintain some different relationship between people that includes the universe beyond them?
My Wonderful and Long Gone Grandmother
Somewhere around the year of 1975, I came from college and dropped in on my family who were visiting my mother’s mother and her side of the family in Pittsburg Pennsylvania. I was decked out with my long hair pulled into a pony tale, wearing worn jeans with a fringe added at the bottom, and maybe even a tie-dyed tee shirt (if not I might as well have been, for that was the whole point, l guess). In those days I was determined to speak honestly and clearly to all people about my opinions, sometimes whether I was asked or not.
My mom’s mom, Grandma Surenda, was the matriarch of the family. Her husband had died many years earlier when I was only 5 or so. He was an administrator with The U.S. Steel Corp., the largest steel company in the largest steel producing city in the world. He left them fairly well off.
She owned a large brown brick, perfectly rectangular, three story home, on a corner lot where two hills met. One formed a long flat stretch that was Middletown Rd while the other hill pushed on higher just beyond the intersection that ended with Grandma’s house. Four roads came together there, three of them were inclined—two down, one up. Pittsburg is a city of hills. I remember laying in bed in that house as a child, listening to the city busses and large dump trucks roaring their engines, working to climb those hills. Trucks were always hauling something around Pittsburg, in those days.
In that house lived five adults for much of my childhood. Uncle Richard was a short round man who never married and worked at a large factory making industrial equipment. Aunt Thelma was my mother’s sister and lived in the large attic bedroom with her husband Bill. They owned three small dry cleaning shops that Uncle Bill operated, while Aunt Thelma did the books by day for a textile wholesaler and by night for the cleaning shops. They often had piles and piles of coins laying about that we would help them count. They never had children of their own, but when we visited they would adopt the whole crew of their nieces and nephews and take us nightly for ice cream, snow cones and to the amusement park with all the kids riding in the back of the dry cleaning delivery truck.
Of course, Grandma Surenda lived there but so did her mother, Great Grandmother Spirko! In her late 80’s and then early 90’s, she was actually the first on the matrilineal side to come to the US from Slovakia. I later learned that she told a story of how the Hungarian army arrived in Slovakia (in the mid 1800’s, I believe) and forced many changes including speaking and writing in Magyar only, not Slovak. Eventually she left as a teenager for America, as did many other Slovaks. When I was seven or eight, I remember her always sitting in her arm chair by the the large expanse of windows in the dining room taking in the sun. She was always dressed in a long almost ankle-length black dress, black stockings, white blouse, and black sweater mostly buttoned. It was the manner of dress for women in the old country. As I search my memory, I don’t remember her ever talking to me, simply sitting.
My Grandmother Surenda, eventually—later in her life after Grandma Spirko died, went to Catholic Church every morning for mass. In fact, she was the first there and was in charge of opening the doors even before the priest walked over from the rectory. To do this, she walked. She was in her seventies and walked about a quarter of a mile straight down the first level of the two hills that met at her house and straight back up when mass was over. The church sat at the bottom of that hill.
Grandma was a short lady but tough and very determined. She was generous, always helping her extended family financially in any time of need. I always remember her either cooking or doing laundry, though she did have her soap operas she followed and she loved local Big Time Wrestling. She would yell at the television as Handsome Johnny Barron (“a bad guy”) would pull an object from his trunks and poke it into Bo Bo Brazil’s eye (“a good guy”). Handsome Johnny would never get caught by the referee, and he always wore a net over his slicked-back silver hair when not in the rink. Grandma, by contrast, always wore a house dress with stockings and those prototypical old lady shoes that tied and yet had a short thick two inch (?) heal. That road down to the church and back had no sidewalk. It was two lanes with a narrow gravel berm on each side. She walked it five days a week in those shoes, on Sunday Uncle Richard drove her and often slept in the car while she attended.
Thelma and Bill, and most of the family, were very religious, also. When Christmas time approached out came a large Manger Setting that was placed in the yard at its most prominent corner. As a child we would frequently visit, making the five hour drive from Ohio, and I will always remember arriving in Grandma’s neighborhood from the very top of the second hill. Night had fallen as we drove, so as we drove down the hill suddenly Grandma’s house and its glistening manger scene would come into view. It sent a shiver through us all.
That setting was large. The stable itself was six feet tall (2m) and over ten feet (3-4m) long and made of wood. Some of the paper mache figures stood as tall as four feet (150 cm). There were several sheep and a shepherd boy, and an angel or two. There were The Three Magi, one kneeling, who supposedly “followed the star of Bethlehem” to join the birth, along with a camel a meter tall. Joseph, the ‘father’ of Jesus (scare quoted for several reasons), stood in the middle, and Mary, the virgin mother knelt. In the very middle, of course, was The Manger, the feeding trough that served supposedly as His bed; it was actually filled with straw and in it The Baby Jesus — The Son of God, God Become Man — depicted very much as the figurine at the head of this story. Straw was strewn across the ground and the scene was lit by three or four ground-mounted spot lights and a “star” lit at the apex of the stable. It was quite a crowd and quite a scene.
I believe that when my Grandmother thought of God and Jesus, it was in that form, as a baby, an infant. In her dinning room corner, year round, was also a plaster statue of the infant Jesus, standing and looking very knowing and mature for a two-year old. They dressed it in finely made garments and changed them several times a year. The child had a real diamond ring on a finger extended skyward. To my Grandmother, that was a very real God and one she believed in with all her might.
That was the house, the family and the situation I walked into those many years ago as a young man. One of our great family traditions was to gather many, many, family members around a very large dining room table for huge dinners. The centerpiece was often homemade chicken soup loaded with chicken, carrots, celery and onions. Served on the side, and indispensable, were homemade chicken liver dumplings. All the kids followed Uncle Bill’s lead and added ketchup to sweeten the soup. Almost twenty relatives could be in attendance on a Saturday night dinner such as that.
But it was Not on one of those huge evenings back in 1975, but a smaller lunch, that the topic came up and I broke the news. “I no longer believe in god,” I said. Maybe it was my mother that quickly tried to intervene and soften the blow and qualify my statement. I do not remember many of the specifics, but somehow I was led to say it. There was a pause, then Grandma burst into tears and rushed from the room. She hurried down the stairs, crying, into the basement from which arose a wail that was heard by all. “My heart is breaking,” she cried out. I looked at everyone, everyone looked at me. I slowly walked down into that basement intent on trying to console that dear old lady.
I do not remember what I actually said, nor much of the outcome. I believe I told her things would be OK, that I was a good person and that was what was most important. I may have tried to diminish the certainty of my disbelief; I just wanted that beautiful old lady to stop crying. She eventually did, and I hugged her. The topic was not brought up again. The family visit went on, though somewhat awkwardly.
“High Intensity Belief”
As I thought about this story and began writing it, I discovered a surprising fact. I had always thought that this adamant belief in Jesus as an infant was personal and idiosyncratic to my Grandmother. It was not. The Slovaks and the Czechs have a Catholic tradition going back to the 17th century based upon what they call The Infant Jesus of Prague. It is a 19-inch (48cm) wooden statue with wax coating and a silver-coated base. It is currently housed at The Church of Our Lady Victorious in Prague.
The statue has received various Papal sanctions establishing its sacred status and is particularly venerated at Christmas and on the first Sunday of May when it is carried through the streets. Numerous miraculous events are attributed to it, including the rescue of Prague from the invading Swedish army in 1639.
Little did I know what I was getting into in 1975! I was attempting to diminish a high intensity, highly invested, very specific, long held religious experience and tradition. It was far different than the mild “belief in belief” or the vague but comforting affiliation to “a higher power.”
(Nope! Love is not all ya need when connecting the universe, but it is suggestive of a good answer. Short post. It suggests a basic contrast that helps ‘fill in’ our world from the deficit suggested by the ‘Causes cause everything view.” That view that Science is all, pejoratively known as Scientism, is not advocated here. So if it’s not “All we need is Love!”; it’s more like all we need is Causes And Information! And love is a kind of informing, so good enough.
I would like to thank Rom for his frequent comments on NatieRel, without them I would not have come to such a concise and clear –I hope– statement of our metaphysical situation. This is a response to his criticism of some of my positions as can be seen on his blog: rom’s corner, the “Monism” post, but it has been slightly modified upon rereading and publishing here..)
Below is my response to his comment that I do not appreciate that the things of our everyday world — us, horses, houses,— are the whole things that are made of parts which are sub-atomic objects. This is a confusion of levels, I say. To Rom, wholes are caused by their subatomic parts. I say, first and foremost, us and horses and houses have parts like “hearts” and “legs” and “foundations” that are their parts in their Design. Only in an extended sense are their parts atoms or quantum waves. Here is my reply:
“I’m glad to see you (Rom) are allowing for different levels of things. So much is obvious. The issue is how to connect them. How do they interact? Your hunch “causation” is not a big enough idea to do it sufficiently, I believe.
And this is not your problem alone. Science ‘wants’ to understand everything as causes and that is why Compatiblist philosopher’s argue science is a “one-sided” point of view. In the world as only particles of physics and reactions of chemistry, a “viewer” that ‘sees’ different levels does not exist, only particles and reactions exist. A “viewer” of added levels is a mind, and can be compatible with science objects but also importantly different!”
“But for biology, psychology and sociology, this lack of viewer And Agent ——because Having a Point of View IS Agency, Rom (got ya! Don’t I?) —- starts to debilitate their ‘science’. That is why they are the ‘soft’ sciences. In psychology that is where Behaviorism came from, to toughen it up, to diminish the role of subjectivity. Yet, behaviorism has been largely dismissed as an insufficient overall psychological approach, especially by most psychologists. Agency forces itself on these disciplines, at least to a larger degree.”
“Philosophy has traditionally picked up the ball, to get to this other side of things. I have come to realize recently, and in part thanks to our correspondence, that a good way to frame it —the other side to causation—- is Information! Our world, especially, but the universe, also, with its other life Forms, is both connected by causes and by information. Anything with a Point of View and thus Agency is not only being caused but also being Informed! Agents are designed things, and they have made something particular out of the generalized universe of physics and chemistry!”
“So, the complex things of the world are designed and, therefore, are informed. Physicist S. Carroll, in his philosophy of Poetic Nationalism, says the relationship of higher level realities to the baseline physics reality is “usefulness”. The higher levels make use of it for their purposes. Philosopher D.Dennett, argues “Information is design that is worth (the designed object’s –gww) getting.” Info is worth going after, because it functions to support and enhance the designs that exist all around us and in us too! Whole things are Associated with their lower level ‘components’, like atoms; but they Emerge from them, and they and their Designs are not caused by them. From the p. of v. of physics, all these Particular Shapes and Forms and Designs are blurred out, indistinguishable, amid the one big form, the universe! But as we exist, we look out and see directly that which is pertinent to us; it is Our In-Formation in that biggest of allshow.
“So, Rom, the universe is both caused and informed, probably each at the same time. Your “causes only” view, does it have anything to say about Info other than it’s just causes by a different (confused) name? Right now, I think the most fruitful way to understand what we are doings, is notcause each other to believe anew, but inform each other to do so.”
“Thank you, Rom, for the fruitful dialogue!
Yours truly, GregWW”
Today, as I write this, my brother-in-law way across this country in Oregon (some 2,500 miles from central Ohio) is having surgery on his heart. Doctors do this kind of thing regularly, but still! I’m thinking of him and my sister and wishing I would have called her more often. “But what’s a poor boy to do?” as Mick has sung (“with the same old rock’n roll band…”). I’m way over here in Ohio, and always working on this darn blog.
My other sister, Marty, who drew the logo for NatieRel, she started talking last night — not coincidentally — about how to say “The Hail Mary”. She hadn’t done it in ages and forgot its words. Both of us being rather thoroughly Catholicized in our youth, she asked me. No problem. It is the words by which the Angel Gabriel addressed Mary when informing her she would be “the mother of God.” The Annunciation. In fact, a Blessed Virgin Mary, or the BVM as she is sometimes humorously and sacrilegiously referred to.
Hail, Mary! Full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among woman, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Amen.
I used to be able to crank those out, ten at a time, but now I cannot bring myself to do a single one.
Yet, I feel the need to do something; to express something, to help, from way over here in Ohio.
I came across this poem a number of years ago. It is about Prayer and kind of a prayer itself: The Divine Image by William Blake, written in about 1789.
Before you read it, I must warn you that in the second stanza pronounce “DEAR” with an accent to be like DARE, then it will rhyme with “care”. In stanza three, pronounce “DRESS” with an accent to be like ‘drace’ so that it rhymes with “FACE”. To excuse the last stanza, I think we need to realize that in 1800, much of the world was alien and mysterious to Europeans. Jewish people were always ostracized in Europe and thought of with great bias, similar to what they thought of “heathens” and “Turks”. But note, here, all the above are in possession of “the human form divine”.
Importantly, God and Humans are equated through the mediation of Four Virtues:Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love, says Blake. These virtues are as much human as divine. Humans acting in accord with these virtues, as much as ‘God’, arethe thing we pray to when in “Distress”, says the great poet.
The Divine Image
BY WILLIAM BLAKE
To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
All pray in their distress:
And to these virtues
Return their thankfulness.
For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is God, our father dear.
And Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is Man, his child and care.
For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face,
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.
Then every man, of every clime,
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine,
Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.
And all must love the human form,
In heathen, Turk, or Jew,
Where Mercy, Pity, Peace dwell
There God is dwelling too.
Nice poem! Deep. When I am in distress, I have developed a little routine where I start with my thumb at the tip of my forefinger and say “To Mercy”, then to the tip of the next finger and say “To Pity“, then…”To Peace”, and finally at my little finger, “To Love.” The next round is simpler: “To Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love” moving through my fingers. Silly of me, to like that finger part, I think of it like closing a circuit: Letting the “Positive Energy” flow.
Energy flowing here at the naturereligionconnection!
HANG TOUGH, BRO. WE ARE THINKING OF YOU ! You too, sis! Love ya.
P.S. By the time I published this and then revised it and published it again (with a fair amount of stuff in between), I had received word that the surgery was about over and was going very well!
Nika was Nika, and now she is no more. Her materials no longer carry on that pattern of organization so familiar and generally loved by my wife and myself. What is left of that dear dog sits in a tin container atop a bookshelf with family photos. What is left, also, is in our memory and habits.
All living things exhibit “need”,”effort” and “satisfaction”, contended American philosopher John Dewey in 1929. Dewey was one of the prominent members of a philosophic movement called “Pragmatism”. They sought to rehabilitate philosophic Idealism by expressing its insights in naturalistic terms. Today, Idealism represents the belief that the wholeness of a thing is as real and significant as the pieces that compose it, in some contexts.
In that sense, a living thing is a whole whose activity expresses itself in its own characteristic environment: first, in its most immediate and ‘intimate’ environment — its own parts; its body and consciousness (as that variously applies); second, in its more ‘external’ environment where its needs, efforts and satisfactions play out. Living things have this distinctive relation of “inside” and “out” as recognized by Dewey: “a living organism and its life processes involve a world or nature temporarily and spatially ‘external’ to itself but ‘internal’ to its functions.” The web of a spider, the pond built by a beaver, the house of a person are its external ‘organs’, and their bodies are their most immediate ‘environment’.
This unity of inside and out makes a living thing “an equilibrium pattern”, Dewey wrote. This particular pattern or organization must maintain itself through “restoration” and “recovery” in “a complex integrated course or history.” In words more plain, a living thing must “keep this shit together” as long as it can.
Nika was such a history. A mass of molecules, constantly varying, that was nonetheless her, nonetheless that same sweet dog. That history, that continuity, is worth recounting. That is this post: Our life with Nika.
Nika had obvious satisfactions. Upon the appearance of a friendly face her entire body burst into reaction. Ears perked, the back half of her body swung side to side in sync with her wagging tail. At that person’s feet, she would throw herself to the ground and roll, still wiggling, to expose her stomach. With very little doubt, her behavior was always interpreted as “friendly”, “happy”, “affectionate”.
Frequently, she could not contain herself, especially early in her life. Her molecules seemed to explode with enthusiasm. In the house, she would charge from room to room, repeatedly, with great speed and agility, over top of couches, under tables.
Nika was Nika, indeed; but she was also a beagle of a smaller variety. Close to the ground, she weighted a mere 17 lbs. In the backyard, when a fit of enthusiasm overtook her, she broke into full gallop. Nose extended, low to the ground, legs fully outstretched, she barely slowed when taking a corner. She ran a circle-eight, cutting through garden and galloping over deck again and again. We called it “the bullet run”. Exhilarated by her own abilities, she did so appear.
Nika had needs, as do all living creatures. Nika needed to smell. Guided by her nose, often she did not get far. Many things were worthy of a sniff to Nika. My wife often despaired of walking her because she was interested in exercise but Nika in smelling life’s daisies.
That keen nose got her into many situations, often bad. Detecting the odor of the many hands that handled currency, she was led into my wife’s purse and my wallet. On several occasions she pulled out bills. Pieces of $5’s, $1’s and even a $20 once, were found on the floor or embedded in stinking piles in the backyard.
One winter holiday, my wife left accessible a bag of holiday-decorated, foil wrapped, chocolate Kisses. Nika’s nose soon found them. She consumed them foil and all. This resulted in the most decorative turds I have ever seen. Sparkling with reds and blues and green, they adorned the yard.
Yes, Nika needed to eat. “Beagles are bagels,” a vet once told us; yet, Nika never gained
weight in spite of her constant desire. A ‘chow hound’, she was: She ate raw carrots and broccoli and certainly cooked. Cantaloupe was a favorite and watermelon too. Salad with dressing was nice, but so was ice. Dirty socks (and underwear) left accessible were shredded and chewed. Kitchen Handi Wipes that were used were several times chewed and they came out her end not much more abused.
She had her needs and like all living creatures was willing to put in the effort to fulfill them.
We did indulge her. In waiting for a plate to lick clean, Nika was never impatient. She
sat several feet away and stared and waited, stared and waited. Seldom did she have anything better to do; staring, waiting for a plate to lick, that was Nika.
But a rabbit or squirrel was a horse of a different color. When the word “rabbit” or “squirrel” was said with enthusiasm, Nika leaped to her feet, ears up, and looking about. Constantly she rushed from the house or deck and through the yard in chase. Never once did she catch one, and never did her efforts decline —- until late in life. Every time the squirrel reached a tree, or the rabbit a hole in the fence. The point was in the chase.
As Nika grew into adulthood, one of the most important factors in her environment changed. I desired to see her in action. After all, by nature and breeding beagles are rabbit hounds. I began looking for opportunities while on walks in our suburban neighborhood to let go of her leash, allowing her in safe and somewhat confined situations to chase her prey.
And so she would dash and howl. “OooOooOooo”, she howled, not barked, until the rabbit escaped and I regained the leash. Once, a rabbit avoided the safety of yards and fences and raced (leaped) straight down the sidewalk of a cul de sac. Nika followed at full speed and full voice, “OooOooOoooo”. A neighbor came to the door thinking a dog had been hit. “No, just chasing a rabbit.”
A Pattern of Activity No Longer Restored
Nika came to our house at the age of three from a relative who could no longer keep her. She was with us for ten years. As she grew old, like me, she lost much of her hair; her body became misshapen and she lost her swiftness and grace. Her need to eliminate waste became more frequent, sporadic and prone to accident; again, like me.
She had a persistent cough and lost most of the use of her hind legs.
When we decided “to put her down”, it was a fairly easy decision. We feared leaving her at home alone when, as teachers, we returned to work in the fall. We set up an appointment at OSU Veterinary Hospital and they did their job with great respect.
When the day arrived, we loaded Nika into the car. They let us in a special door at the hospital and walked us to a special room, really more like a waiting room than an exam room. As we walked down the hall to that room, I set Nika on the floor and she walked between us slowly, somewhat sideways, and with no awareness of what awaited. In the room a pad was placed on a couch and Nika on the pad. We sat next to her and held her as a large dose of anesthesia was administered. She soon slept. In minutes she stopped breathing. Later, my wife recalled how she looked at Nika, when we were walking down that hospital hall, and realized Nika was no longer the dog she was. And yet, Nika was still Nika, a pattern of activity that will never be forgotten.
It’s Easter Sunday morning and did you hear? “He has risen!” And how about this one? Maybe you haven’t heard it.
Three guys die and its Easter. They are all atheists and good people, humanist types.
Much to their surprise they find themselves standing atthe Pearly Gates with St. Peter, who says to them,
“I would really like to get you guys in here. You’ve lived good lives, been kind to people…
but to get you in you need to know something about Jesus, and since its Easter tell me about that.”
He turns to the first guy who says, “I got nuttin’.” Peter turns and presses a button, “Eehhnntt”, down he goes!
Pete turns to the second guy and says, “Come on, I’d really like to get you in! Easter and Jesus!”
The guy looks puzzled and says, “Uhhhhh, chocolate rabbits, colored eggs, uhhhh…” “Eehhnntt,” down he goes! The third guy says, “Wait a minute, I think I got this. Jesus was this guy who lived back with the Romans and he went around trying to do good things, miracles and stuff, and he attracted a following but got in trouble with the authorities who put him to death around Easter time.” St. Pete, excitedly, “Yes, yes, tell me more!
“Well, his followers,” the guy says proudly, “took Jesus’ body and placed it in a cave, a big hole and rolled a rock in front of it, and in a couple of days Jesus wakes up and comes out of his hole,. And then …. how does it go? If he sees his shadow, its….” “Eeehhhnnnttt !”
(This is the Second Post for this new blog, naturereligionconnection.org. Thank you for your curiosity concerning this curious topic. What are the boundaries between Nature and Religion? Can traditional religion offer us anything of value in our world of science? Here some opening arguments are considered in this debate. Please comment, your thoughts are appreciated! GregWW)
I almost stumbled into a theological debate the other day. It was prevented by my not frequently used sense of tact. At a family gathering, a young in-law was commenting on his course in theology and surprisingly, he said he liked it! As an incoming freshman at the catholic University of Dayton (Ohio), it is a required course. He liked the logic of it and its abstract thoughtfulness, he said.
An older in-law chimed in saying that he too took that course many decades previously. He is a graduate of U.D. and slightly religious, but mostly he is a very practical man; a successful business owner and a person not inclined to obtuse thought of any form. Yet, one idea from the course stuck with him, he said: “that in the beginning there was nothing, and now there is something; God was necessary to get something out of nothing.”
I declined to respond to that particular idea. I was under strict orders (from the wife) to keep things light; so instead, I remarked that other theological arguments were of interest too, like the argument for God from design, or even the “ontological proof,” and that is where the discussion pretty much ended.
And there is something of interest in some of these ‘proofs.’ The argument from design,
for example, contends that all the fancy, complex interconnections in the world around us (including us) is evidence of a supremely capable designer, God. That contention is akin to the “something from nothing” argument. How do you get all the marvels of today from, if not exactly nothing, then from the interaction of only heat, chemicals, and gravity, for example? It seems to many people an insufferable gap—a metaphysical leap—between non-life and life, insensate matter and consciousness, a universe of only atoms and a universe of goodness and evil, beauty and the abhorrent.
“The vast majority of life is gravity and electromagnetism pushing around electrons and nuclei” contends the physicist Sean Carroll in his widely read The Big Picture, On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. In this post, we will try to provide an answer to that ‘smaller’ part of life that seems to be a bit more than Carroll’s four components from above.
The Traditional Answer
The traditional answer to these conundrums is to impose some magic: A divinity must intervene. A grand creator is necessary. Some ‘breath’ (the Greek noumena) must be added to the “dust.” Some ‘spark’ must be applied; a spark like a common earthly spark—in some ways—but much more potent because of its immaterial character. You need to add some ‘spirit’ to matter; some supreme intelligence must be at work, it is said.
Concerning “something from nothing,” the answer I could have given my theistic relative is this: “You have painted yourself into an intellectual corner. In common experience and scientific research, we never discover the predecessor of a thing to be nothing, or the working components of a thing to be nonexistent (no insides!). Yet this is how you have framed your problem—‘how from nothing, something?’ It is little wonder that you need to go fishing and come up with an equally baffling idea for an answer: God.”
“In reality what we always find is a series of things leading to another thing or originating in another thing. In a larger thing, we always find smaller parts. So, in general, it’s processes inside of processes inside of processes; cyclesinside of cycles; parts made of parts; all the way ‘down’ (smaller) and all the way ‘out’ (larger). This, and not theism, is the most reasonable philosophical belief for today,” I could have concluded.
That is a satisfying answer, certainly suitable for any free-wheeling family get-together discussion; but in our current context—here at the Nature Religion Connection-–it needs an addendum for a more complete understanding.
When the processes in processes and the cycles on top of cycles come together in a new way and create a new thing, new qualities and abilities emerge in that object. “ ‘Emergent’: important word that,” says biology theorist, Richard Dawkins. In other words, where did these qualities and abilities in this new thing come from? Is their appearance some deep mystery that needs more than a physical explanation to understand? Is it a ‘leap’ as unlikely as “getting blood from a turnip,” as the old saying puts it?
Getting More From Less
No, it is not a metaphysical leap, but it is getting more from less. Though we cannot get something from nothing, Evolution* can get more from, well, less. And, in this sense, we do need a special explanatory principle. Evolutionary Theory is how we explain the origin and existence of complexity; it is how we explain “Climbing Mount Improbable,” says Dawkins. “The basic Darwinian motif” is “in the beginning there was some relatively unstructured and unsophisticated raw material; mutations of one sort or another occurred; and out of this emerged something novel,” contends the philosopher and cognitive scientist, Daniel Dennett. This novel thing that is produced will be more structured; it will be the outcome of a more sophisticated organization, a more designed “raw material.” That is how to get more from less, enhance the design!
The so-called ‘leap’ in ability and character that appear in the new object may be as humble as the combination of two gases to get a liquid-–two hydrogen atom and one oxygen to get a water molecule. This ‘leap’ from gas to liquid does not shock us, though maybe it should considering it is a precursor of more startling things to come. For example, it seems that the proper combination of six chemicals can create life! To add insult to injury for those confounded by this possibility, for around $100 you can buy materials containing five of these chemicals (in their proper proportions) at your local hardware store and obtain the sixth by distilling urine!
Of course, all the ‘magic’ is in the recipe—how can you put these six elements together to allow them to live? It’s like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein! Various biochemists around the world are working at this very moment to do this, and, though they have made some significant advances, to date they have failed. To some people this leaves the door open: ‘there are gaps unbridgeable by science between not only non-life and life but also matter and consciousness, and caused events and free will,’ they protest. It is not hard to have some sympathy for this view, as an account in American Indian lore puts it: “on what particular day, long ago, did the mud sit up?”
There are No Gaps
Dennett, has two suggestions to help us with the appearance of such “leaps.” One, he argues that in reality there are no drastic gaps ; and two, we need to update our imagination and intuition if we feel there is.
First, he says, what lies between non-life and life, matter and conscious, et al, is a very long series of gradual changes, slight adjustments, incremental installments that create slightly more complex things, slightly more capable molecules, states and creatures. Billions of years of such tiny attempts form the evolutionary road to where we are today. This “gradualism” is a key component in Evolution and in the logic of any Holistic philosophy. Dennett carries this principal of gradualism to its logical end when he argues that, in reality, no exact line can be drawn between life and non-life, insensate things and conscious things, caused events and freely chosen actions! In Nature, boundaries are always fuzzy and gradual. Life shades off into non-life and freely chosen actions eek out some “elbow room” amid Nature as a causal matrix.
For example, viruses occupy a gray zone, neither alive nor dead. Viruses both reproduce and are incapable of
reproducing on their own. We can, in a sense, appropriately call them ‘bugs’—as in ‘flu bug’— yet we know they do not eat (metabolize). They are sort of alive, as are early stage fetuses and brain-dead patients.
Sensitivity and consciousness is another example of gradualism. In our everyday world, we think of a continuum of creatureswho possess greater and lesser degrees of ‘mindfulness.’An ant is like a little person, in some ways. It is full of intentions, scurrying about with jobs to do, goals to accomplish. Many of us even feel a twinge of regret if we step on one: ‘Oh, it must have felt pain.’ But we acknowledge that the ant is not a full-blown consciousness nor a full-blown person, and we kill hundreds of them with insecticide if they take up shop in our kitchen.
A plant is even less sensitive than the ant, with no consciousness at all; but the family dog, it ranks way up there, fully conscious (?), loyal, nearly a person. This continuum of growing consciousness, abilities and even ‘person-ality’ is what Dennett calls “a deep fact, the kind you build a theory on.” This fact reflects the history of the evolutionary appearance of abilities and creatures. In western culture, our awareness of these resemblances has been prevalent since, at least, the middle ages. There is “a great chain of being.”
In medieval philosophy and lore, this “great chain” started with God at the top and ran down to angels, humans, animals, plants and finally inanimate objects. It was thought to be the manifestation of god-like abilities in the world (in more modern terms, ‘mindfulness’, consciousness and value). Their chain included the social order, the prejudices and political ideology of the feudal society in Europe. It is curious to note, in the depiction at left, many of the particular rankings but especially that of actor—below a beggar and just above a thief!
This “Great Chain” is a “top-down” model of creation, says Dennett, and was one of the mainstay arguments against Evolution: ‘Only Absolute Wisdom could create lesser wisdoms and abilities. From Absolute Ignorance (inanimate matter) no creation occurs.’ None the less, the chain exhibits an awareness of gradualism and the family of relations that we find so prevalent in our experience of Nature and explained aptly only by the fact of Evolution. Today, the most reasonable way to understand this Great Chain is as biology’s Tree of Life. Gradualism is a hallmark of Nature.
Second, Dennett contends, if you are still prone to feel or think there are unbridgeable (metaphysical) gaps, then you need to expand your imagination and modernize your intuitions.A “bottom-up” vision of creation is readily available in fields beyond that of evolutionary biology. For example, machines can, now, think! They can write music, play chess and search and solve puzzles—a fact first proven as far back as World War II. Even one hundred years ago, the impulse to feel ‘startling gaps’ was understandable, but science, technology and speculative thought (art, science fiction in novels and movies, and much of modern philosophy) no longer make these ‘gaps’ obvious: They are no longer ‘common sense.’
Modern technology rivals the traditional “miracles of God” with organ replacement, artificial insemination, cloning, human flight, the fission and fusion of atoms and near instantaneous communication around our planet and even beyond. We have already revised many of our traditional intuitions and Dennett is a leader in that campaign. For example, he persuasively contends that we, humans, are very fancy, evolved machines; and someday very fancy, human-designed machines (robots) may be considered persons, though not human persons. These, all, are “intuition shakers” and “imagination stretchers” and they facilitate what was once considered merely a shameful, godless fantasy: bottom-up creativity.
That Larger Something
So, we don’t need to get something from nothing. Instead, we have been very fortunate to get much from what seems relatively little. It took a lot of time (billions of years), a lot of effort (the subtle design adjustments of Evolution in generation after generation), and lots of research (the unrelenting trial and error of Natural Selection). In addition, it took some luck. The virtuoso was Mother Nature, not God, but now, even we—Her Children—have become significantly creative.
We, humans, are now in position to believe, with good reason, that in this part of the universe efforts have been underway to build a creation of vast significance: our biosphere. It is a living sculpture. Hopefully, we will continue to play a part that will not only assist in the survival of this work of art, but also promote its enhancement. After all, we are not only indebted to it; we are embedded in it!
*I have chosen to continue the tradition of capitalizing the “g” of God in this piece, but in an effort to mitigate this deference I will also capitalize the words—Nature, Mother Nature, Evolution, Holism. These terms describe what I take to be the real phenomena behind the apparition, God.
(INTRODUCTION: This is the initial post for this blog, “naturereligionconnection.org”. This post has a long and personally significant history. It initially appeared as a letter to the editor in the Columbus Dispatch in late 2007. I was gratified by the response. That Sunday morning the phone rang several times, early, and I ignored them, cursing “those damn telemarketers.” After several more calls I finally answered to find a lady asking it I was the author of this morning’s letter. She went on to explain how moved she was, literally, saying she shouted, “Yes!” at one point while reading, and leaped up from the couch. The following week I received a half dozen letters expressing appreciation for my effort. A Sunday School teacher wrote that he intended to use it with his teen-age group to provoke discussion. One scrawled and rambling letter explained how I was going to Hell. This current post is a slightly revised version of that original, letter.)
Sometimes in presidential races, religion becomes a topic. That was the case in 2008 and especially in the Iowa caucus. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romneyspoke passionately about his religious beliefs because they were apparently adversely affecting some Iowans. The editor of our local Columbus newspaper interviewed E. Gordon Gee, President of The Ohio State University (Columbus Dispatch 12/2/2007) who hopes we can “restore civility and thoughtfulness to politics.”
The first obstacle cited, by Gee, to this “more civilized political discourse” was religious prejudice and ignorance. Gee is a Mormon, as is his friend Romney. He said it was “hogwash” to think that Romney would govern differently, or that he, Gee, would administer a university differently because of their religious belief.
Here at NatureReligionConnection, we believe that, but also that there is more to say. We think it is ‘hogwash’ that there is so little civil and thoughtful discourse about religion. Politics aside, the Christmas season was then in full swing and that, too, made it an excellent time to ask: how is it that so many of us hold so many different, so many contradictory, so many fanciful religious opinions? If Gee and Romney want thoughtful political discourse then let us start a thoughtful discourse about religion to accompany it.
For example, Mormons believe that in the year 1823 in Palmyra, New York, (not exactly a ‘mecca’ of religious activity!) an angel named Moroni helped Joseph Smith obtain buried golden tablets that were written in an ancient language about an ancient people that once lived there. Mormon, the author of the plates, was a prophet and historian for these people, the Nephites, who had come from Jerusalem to the New World in 600 B.C. by boat.
In the New World, the Nephites created a great civilization, eventually destroyed but not before Jesus Christ came to them soon after his resurrection and personally ministered to them. Joseph Smith used special stones (the Urim and Thummim) that came with the plates and allowed him to translate them into the Book of Mormon, the sole source of this ‘history.’ After the translation, the angel Moroni took the tablets back for safekeeping, but not before they were shown to 11 witnesses (see the front of the Book of Mormon for their testimony). Mormons believe that the Nephites are the ancestors of Native American Indians.
That’s a unique twist on Christianity, and—for good reasons—most of us don’t believe it, unless you were born in Utah.
Another belief that most Americans don’t hold: In the year 610 A.D. Muhammad was fasting and praying in a cave outside of Mecca, now Saudi Arabia. He wished his people to possess a book like the Jews and Christians and finally on this occasion, after days of prayer and abstinence, the Angel Gabriel appeared and ordered him to “recite.” He could not, so the angel took him in something like a bear hug and held Muhammad till breathless and again ordered him to “recite.” But nothing came forth.
Finally, after releasing him from a third embrace, Muhammad, gasping for breath, found the opening words of the Quran tumbling from his mouth. Muslims don’t believe that Christianity is wrong but simply that it is incomplete, that the Quran completes the teachings about God.
We don’t believe that story either, certainly not in any literal sense, but one billion people from North Africa through the Middle East and deep into Asia do, and many of them now live in the United States and Europe.
In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful: All Praise is due to Allah, Lord of the Universe.
“The Opening” of the Quran, Surah Al-Fatih
Finally, a story that many Americans subscribe to. It’s a familiar story and one that profoundly moves us especially during the holiday season. We won’t repeat it in detail; it too involves angels, ancient events, a special book, ascension into heaven, a pregnancy without sex, and a god who was also a man. Of course, this story is just as hard to believe.
Many Americans do believe, it’s our story, but of course intimate familiarity is the primary criterion for belief in any religion. If you were born and raised into it, you believe it.
But it is more than intimate familiarity that is at work, it is also the feelings of connection, metaphysical insight and deeper purposes engendered by religious beliefs that is cited by believers as evidence of truthfulness. All serious Mormons, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, etc. feel the validity of their faith; and since this feeling is had by all it is no proof to any for their specific stories.
It’s time to say what we believe. Here at The Connection, we believe that ethics and morality are real things but are degraded by supernatural explanations. We believe that the “faith” of religious believers is really their intuition of their actual involvement in something that is larger than themselves, that is the source of meaning, and that is of immense value.
A small but significant discourse is underway centered around courageous biologists and other theorists, who seek to gain our assent through reason and evidence that is accessible to all regardless of place of birth and socialization. Traditional religion can be replaced, and interestingly it is the science of biology that is leading the way. The design of the natural world, always the best argument for the existence of God, is being understood by evolutionary theory to be “That Large Thing” mentioned above.
It is the Tree of Life, and we humans are incorporated in the inner relations of this Biosphere. As physician and medical researcher, Lewis Thomas wrote, “the earth is a loosely formed, spherical organism.” So, it is with scientific justification that we can, with affection, admiration and even awe, look to our planet and gain inspiration. It is Mother Earth, of which we are a part: Our planet is a massive and irreplaceable piece of living art.
If this scientific discourse can continue and expand, and if each of us have the courage to examine our own basic beliefs, we, here at the naturereligionconnection, believe that traditional religion can be replaced by more rational and uniform ideals. Mother Nature’s human creatures will then have a sounder basis for civility and thoughtfulness in our political relations.