Monday, December 31, 2007

Half empty, half full

I was halfway into a profound thought while seated at my computer recently when I noticed my water glass. Hey, it’s half-full, as exactly as I can tell just looking at it! Now there’s a metaphor that’s been beaten to death. Before everyone had experience with transparent drinking glasses, there was a saying about half a loaf being better than none. I’m sure there’s a series of sayings on this point in various languages going back nearly to when humans first spoke about their possessions, sometime after our ancestors first appreciated that having more is better. Was that even before we had brains? Is there anything that is more of a no-brainer than that having some is better than having none, even if we want more? But where do we go from there? Do we ration what we have? Is only a new supply of resources going to make the situation better?

The thing is that while I do indeed tend to focus on the water or other things I have rather than what I no longer have, it’s not as though there are only two ways to see this. The truth about how I look at my water glass when half the water is left is more complicated than that it is half full. I see my water. Half of this last round I poured is gone. Half remains. When that’s gone, I’ll pour some more. As long as I know there’s more water coming after this, it’s not much of a challenge emotionally or intellectually. A third, three quarters, overflowing, the overall reality remains the same.

If the glass of water or its metaphorical equivalent were the last glass of water that ever would exist, I’d much more likely be a half-empty kind of guy. Like many metaphors, the circumstances of what’s really under discussion are important.

“Do I have enough?” is not a simple question, whether one is discussing physical needs, emotional needs, or spiritual needs. It’s not a simple dichotomy of whether it’s best to look to what one has or to what one no longer has. Aren’t both possible, with other possibilities as well? Yet human nature tries to make everything a dichotomy.

On spiritual topics, I’m forever writing about the atheist vs. traditionalist dichotomy, in my case rejecting both. Within theism, there’s the rigid, conservative vs. the experimental, liberal dichotomy. I firmly belong to the latter school, but that’s not the whole story. People get stuck on such things, on some simple identity, either for ourselves or for the world around us.

There are always many possibilities, not just two. Yet there is always one reality. God is whoever and whatever God is, as is anything else. The things I need form a set that is a single reality, though it’s a different set of what I need to survive vs. what I need to be happy. How I look at my wants is not the most important part of that.

Yet people talk about that last part, because we have this very visual and understandable metaphor of whether a glass is half empty or half full. Right now my water glass is both. Later today I will refill it the same way regardless of how I label it now. It’s not a big deal. Nor is it a big deal for many other things in my life where I might wonder if I have enough, material things or more abstract qualities to my life.

But thinking of all the possibilities, that I think is a big deal. I look at those who seem needy spiritually, and I think that’s what they’re missing the most. It’s not so much what they wish they still had, such as youth, wealth, family, companions, or a place that felt more like home. It’s not so much focusing on what they have now, as if God has to have given them what they need as far as theology, customs and materials. Otherwise they might need to rethink whether they know anything about God. Who wants to do that?

I think what’s missing is not appreciating the possibilities for becoming content. They are many, though for any one of us, they may boil down to just one possibility, one we may already have in our possession or not. Many possibilities, one reality, it’s not a simple dichotomy. It’s not that feeling empty is bad while full is good, or the opposite. It’s not that the beliefs I have are good, while everything else is bad. There’s more to it than that.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Dead faith walking

“If anybody wants to believe that they are the descendents of a primate, they are certainly welcome to do it. I don’t know how far they will march that back, but I believe all of us in this room are the unique creations of a God who knows us and loves us and who created us for His own purpose.” – Mike Huckabee, New Hampshire Republican debate, June 5, 2007

With Mike Huckabee getting a lot of air time recently, both pro and con, I was curious to look back at some of his videos. So I came across this quote from 6 months ago. The first thing that hit me was the idea that beliefs are based on what we want to believe. Is that just us fools who disagree with Rev. Huckabee, or would the right reverend say everyone believes what they want to believe?

I don’t believe what I want to believe. I want to believe that the Chargers will win the Super Bowl and the Padres the World Series. I want to believe that I’ll meet a beautiful woman 20 years younger than I am who for some reason is utterly devoted to me. I want to believe ice cream has no calories. Instead I believe just the opposite. My experiences have taught me to expect other than what I might want. That’s part of growing up.

There’s evidence that we are descended from primates in comparative anatomy and physiology. I wonder if some even thought of that before the 19th century. It’s so obvious. Then in the 20th century there’s so much biochemistry that connects not just some species, but all of life, at least DNA-based life, so much that education will teach you the truth is much more profound than that we are descended from primates. All of life is made up of cousins of varying distance. Even an animal and a plant are cousins. They weren’t separate creations. Just look at all the data.

Now with fossils that aren’t just an isolated skeleton here and there, but part of a mountain of data to document the 4+ billion year history of the Earth, and molecular clocks that are amazingly consistent at putting together who our ancestors are, for the last 50,000 years or 50 million years, one can be a lot more detailed than saying we’re descended from primates. It’s not some whim. It’s not even mere hypothesis. Either Rev. Huckabee doesn’t know that or dismisses such knowledge. Either way he is deluded that people believe this because they want to believe it.

I learned evolution in school, with a lot of supporting data. It made sense to me. Since then I’ve heard a lot of arguments against evolution. There’s always a flaw in them. I didn’t find those flaws because I wanted the argument to be flawed. I scrutinize any new information skeptically, whether it’s a report of a new experiment or some comment on an old one. I learned that from role models in science and other analytical pursuits. People make mistakes. Sometimes they’re honest mistakes. Sometimes they’re stupid mistakes. Sometimes they’re just engaging in rhetoric and never have done the work to examine all human experience that relates to their topic. It’s good to recognize this.

I suspect that when Genesis was written thousands of years ago, it was the best any human being could do at the time at imagining where the world, life, and his people came from. I suspect when other Bible verses were written, such as God knitting us together in our mother’s womb, there was no data to suggest otherwise. It wasn’t known we had DNA that knitted us together, with no additional supernatural action needed. A lot wasn’t known.

It’s known now. It’s known so well that I can only imagine Mike Huckabee being filled with contempt for such knowledge when he said that believing we are descended from primates comes from wanting to believe that, completely the opposite from when he says that people are welcome to such beliefs. People have such difficulty labeling emotions in their rhetoric designed to make them look good. So they lie a lot.

It’s not that my fellow liberal Christians do much better on this point. Many accept evolution because science says so or for the same reasons that science says so, yet they still want the same Creator God who loves every bit of His creation and has a purpose for each little bit.

Almost 20 years ago I decided to ask God about such things. I’m satisfied with the direction and other answers that approach has gotten me. It’s impossible to recreate a course like that for someone else. Most people come to their beliefs differently than I have. But just believing what they want? I don’t see people doing that, no matter how many people in our culture belittle the beliefs of others that way.

Yet any public figure will likely get away with claiming beliefs are chosen by want and that God’s purpose is in every bit of existence, every open wound, every desperate mind, everyone who is crushed by the world instead of being loved by anyone. I don’t believe that such claims will be accepted forever. God tells me each year will pass without a Rapture. Science tells me that the details of our molecular heritage will become so detailed that it will require no thought at all to see that our creation required neither an omnipotent God nor an accident, but a physical process that Rev. Huckabee doesn’t realize is a third possibility besides his metaphysical dichotomy.

God is whoever and whatever God is. So is the world. So is life. So am I and everyone else. If people don’t consider fully the possibility that they’re wrong, if they only consider straw man arguments as the alternative to their beliefs, what is the chance that their beliefs happen to be the one possibility that is reality? I wouldn’t bet on it. Exploring that takes me farther from tradition every year, farther from atheism, too.

Many people are ducking the conflict between how science shows God does not micromanage the world and how that means God must be different than tradition sees God. Is God Creator at all? What is your definition for God? I’ve written about mine before. I don’t see people doing that. I see people always talking about the Creator, whether theist or atheist. Such talk has a limited future. I suspect someone will still be talking like Rev. Huckabee in 100 years, but not 500 years. It’s a pity so many will waste their time on this in the meantime. Mike Huckabee is just a dead faith walking.

I don’t welcome Mike Huckabee spouting simplicities and fantasies in a public forum. I think people would be better served by a well-informed critique of the contradictions in his beliefs, as well as where he is just ignorant. But there’s very little I can do about that, nor can God. Ask Him. Think about it. Look into it. Ask Him again. It works for me. I don’t know why that doesn’t work for everyone. I know it doesn’t. That it doesn’t is one reason for a dead faith, one that claims that the Bible is all there is to faith. Time will tell. In the meantime I could write for days about why I believe very little of real faith comes from the Bible. I wanted to believe something a lot simpler, whether something as simple as what Mike Huckabee believes or even as simple as what atheists believe. It turns out I can’t believe either one. Reality is more complicated. You do have to want reality instead of fantasy, a reality where God is whoever and whatever God is, whether just inside my head or beyond physical reality in a grander way than any human being has imagined. But to do that you have to be pretty flexible about who your Daddy is, not just limiting yourself to who you want Him and/or Her to be.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Some problems from having a human brain

What single emotion has the greatest representation in our cerebral cortex? I believe the answer is fear. I base that on studies of epileptic foci in patients who have an emotional aura to their seizures, whether those seizures stay as simple partial seizures or progress to a more complex or generalized seizure. I learned about those studies over 20 years ago as I went through Elsevier’s multi-volume Handbook of Clinical Neurology preparing for my board exams, which I was happy to pass. In reading since then I haven’t anything as specific in neuroimaging studies, so I believe this old knowledge remains valid.

Fear is also the most common emotional aura for seizures, though if you count confusion as an emotion, you’ll see more confusion among seizure patients post-ictally than fear pre-ictally. Confusion suggests a wide area of dysfunction, though. Fear doesn’t. Many small areas of either temporal lobe can produce fear. The area that does this overlaps with a part of the temporal lobe that produces a pleasant sensation, “contentment” being the best word for it, I think. Fear extends more anteriorly. Contentment extends more posteriorly, with a lot of overlap. Still there is this duality that makes sense with the basic function of our limbic system being whether we should approach or avoid something in our environment.

Our amygdala is wired up to get our attention if there is a behaviorally significant stimulus among our sensations, but it doesn’t determine the specific reason for such attention. Whether a stimulus is something to eat, something to mate with, something to otherwise make mine or something to run away from requires much more of our brain to determine. The fear vs. contentment coming out of our temporal lobes relates to this.

Not all emotions are so localizable. Perhaps fear and contentment are this localized because they are so sensory. Emotions that are more about what action to take as well as some sensation, like anger, are less likely to correspond to a small area of cortex and less likely to be the aura of a seizure.

Still the above knowledge is so much more than the pitiful knowledge we have of the neuroanatomy and neurophysiology of desires, will, imagination, and such. What do we do when we try to think of something, whether imaginary or remembered? It’s hard to say. There’s a lot of neuroscience about how the hippocampus helps to make memories, but what is the physical basis of how we experience long-term memory, including not recalling something when we try, yet it comes to us hours or days later without effort? Anyone can speculate about such things, but actual neuroscience about such aspects of our mind is scarce.

Yet we understand that we are biased. We are biased by emotions. We are biased by having taking shortcuts to thinking that are natural for us to take. We oversimplify, whether by dividing everything into two absolute qualities or by assuming that some simple model we have for a process inside us or out in the world is in fact that simple. We believe the words we use to label an event more than the many possibilities for that event that actually exist. We overgeneralize. We see the faults of others much better than we see faults on our side. We overvalue our own experiences and own beliefs compared to the possibility that others have seen something better than we have.

I understand the difficulty of being emotional. It creates new problems. It stops productive discussion of some issue in order to deal with the emotion. I’ve had occasions to want to be an emotionless automaton. Yet I think the biggest problem with human intelligence isn’t emotions. It’s these cognitive distortions where we think we know much more than we do. We all know when our emotions are tugging at our sleeves, making it hard to be rational. But we don’t know when our thoughts are even more human in their bias than our emotions. Most people speak and write as if they know what they say, yet most people I listen to and read don’t know. It’s not usually because they’re just missing some data. It’s because they’re human, and human beings can be way off in their beliefs.

It’s not just that we’re emotional. It’s not just that we have cognitive distortions. Human beings are often childish, irresponsible in their actions, irresponsible in their beliefs. People cling to their groups, no matter how bad their group might be at thinking. I have a hard time thinking of any strife today where this group bias isn’t a big factor in the strife. People’s desires do indeed conflict over how we should live. Some value selfishness more than others. But the strife over such conflict isn’t just about different desires. Biased beliefs don’t let people even get to the real conflict. The strife winds up being about beliefs, sometimes irrational on both sides.

What is the future course of such human strife? I don’t know. There are many ways that shortcomings of the human brain can be improved. Maybe we’ll be replaced by thinking machines, hopefully more benevolently than in the Matrix or Terminator movies. Maybe we’ll be improved by merging with technology, like the Borg from the later Star Trek stories. Maybe genetic engineering will improve our brains.

I don’t know if any of those are at all likely, but I know how science has helped me with these problems. My emotions sometimes make me want to take shortcuts in how I think of things. I might be willing to jump to conclusions so I can DO SOMETHING. But science has given me many examples of why it’s best to consider all possibilities. When you read about one idea being replaced by another in physics, biology or social science, it makes you consider the possibility of any first idea being wrong.

Cognitive distortions pop up easily, but examples from science have taught me how often something is a spectrum, not black and white, how often a dispute is like whether light is a wave or a particle. The right answer is both, at all times. It’s only human shortcomings that keep anyone from that understanding, even today.

Partisanship pops up even among scientists, yet watching even scientists argue for their side instead of being detached in their analysis doesn’t make me want to be partisans like them. It makes me want to be even more detached, an even better scientist. That’s where the truth is.

Maybe science isn’t enough for most people. Maybe my loyalty to the scientific way of thinking is overdone. Maybe it’s one of those three other solutions to human bias that will dominate our future. Either one of these four possibilities will take over the future or people will decide they’d rather live in strife, a fifth possibility.

I feel like making odds. Maybe I’ll get over that. After all, there’s always another possibility.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

If Satan can't be redeemed, what hope is there for anyone?

ABC Family finished a triology last weekend entitled Fallen. I didn't see it when it was a movie last year about a boy who is nephalim, the product of sex between an angel and a woman, the sort of unnatural activity that the Bible says provoked God to cause Noah's flood. But they replayed that along with two new two-hour episodes to take the story to its apparent conclusion. So in six hours I could watch the whole story. Then they replayed each part of that at least once, so I could watch a confusing section yet again.

Our hero in Fallen is not just any nephalim, but the most special one possible, the son of Lucifer and a woman Lucifer claimed to love, even though the plot of this story has all mothers of such children dying in childbirth, and the angels know that, so they know they are murdering women by having sex with them. Such nice boys.

So nephalim in this story are all orphans. Then on top of that they are hunted down by rather dim-witted and uncaring angels called "powers", different from what the Bible means by "powers", who believe their duty to the Creator is to kill all these nephalim and some number of innocents in their immediate vicinity.

Nephalim that can survive to the age of 18 are magically delivered from a transitional state of headaches and other distress into having supernatural powers like flying, throwing fire, and being able to make a sword or two of "angel fire" appear at will. Our hero has an additional talent. Lucifer spread an apparently accurate prophecy that this boy is the Redeemer to fallen angels. If fallen angels come to him sincerely wishing to return to heaven, this boy can lay his hands on them and redeem them, causing them fleetingly to resume the appearance of an angel and then either return to heaven or be distintegrated in a flash, an ambiguity that never is clarified.

Such a redemption is all Lucifer seems to want from his son. The script makes this difficult. Lucifer is deceptive in meeting his son, giving the impression that he is just another fallen angel at first. If there is honor among theives, isn't there genuine love among the malevolent? There isn't according to this script. Still our hero is about to redeem Lucifer even though he now fully understands that this is Lucifer, but is stopped by visions of so much evil when he puts his hands on Lucifer, images of war and the like. I'm sorry, Dad, you've just been too darn bad for me to redeem you.

Lucifer doesn't take this passively. Now he resorts to intimidation, which breaks down into both Lucifer and our hero bringing forth their swords of angel fire to do battle. A routine cinematic conflict ensues with our hero pushing Lucifer off a cliff back to the depths of hell. Happy ending.

Somewhere along the line in a story like this I wonder about the way authors take such traditional characters, ones that are only in our culture because of Christianity and change their story into something that isn't Christian at all. Jesus is mentioned briefly in Fallen, but apparently both Jesus and the Father are off on some other planet, and these angels are deciding their own fate much as humans do naturally. There isn't an outright denial of God here, but God has no role to play.

I forget about this point as I watch, knowing there's bound to be another father/son battle coming, as with Star Wars, wondering how that will play out here. Isn't it strange that in the somewhat secular Star Wars, there was redemption for the evil father at the end, but not in Fallen, which is supposedly out of a tradition that emphasizes forgiveness?

Of course in Star Wars, there was no redemption for the epitome of evil, the Emperor, though maybe a quick death is something of a redemption compared to other possibilities. Is that the issue in Fallen? If the epitome of evil is redeemed, does that make evil meaningless?

No, it means evil is temporary, which is very different from meaningless. Suffering is temporary, but it is horrible, much more horrible than people will acknowledge, because then they would be obliged to do something about it. For a very long time, humanity has wanted suffering to be the result of what people deserve. Much of the Old Testament is based on such a belief. Arguments against redemption are bound to make this point, whether it's arguing against redeeming Lucifer, a pedophile, a mass murderer, or a corrupt politician or other leader. They must be punished!

Why must they? Is the only reason people have for being good a matter of avoiding punishment? I'm sure that's true as a matter of fact for many people. It's hard for us to say why anyone is Christian, but surely many Christians accept faith out of fear of the consequences of not accepting faith. Some on the internet have even said to me directly that unless my faith is to avoid hell, my faith is meaningless, as if they know anything about that.

But what does God say? The God of the Bible says that He wants mercy, not the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament. You would think it wouldn't be hard for people to take a step beyond that and understand that God also wants love in general, not worship or any of these other artificialities that we make supposedly to honor Him. But that's hard for people. It's hard for people to understand just how much of what's traditional, anyone's tradition, is wrong.

God tells me there never was a being named Satan. Isrealites imagined an adversary to them among God's angels, whom they also imagined. With time both a backstory and stories set in the future grew, making Satan into God's greatest angel named Lucifer, the one associated with such a fundamental element as light. Who else could commit a greater sin of pride than the greatest angel?

Can the greatest sinner be redeemed? Not if sin continues, or sin would have no consequences. But if sin continues, who are any of us to escape it?

Redemption is a tricky business. I finally decided that the ambiguity regarding the redemption of the fallen angels in Fallen is a good thing. Do they really go back to heaven, or is their redemption in fact just a quick death? Who knows? Human beings face the same dilemma. Is there really an afterlife that will be a good place for us or is the best we can hope for a long, productive life with an easy death, as much of the Old Testament suggests? One can have faith about such things, but which is true faith, and which is false faith? Such uncertainty drove me to God. People can say anything they want about how their way is superior to my way. I know there's no way to know that, unless something beyond me knows and tells me.

How does that knowledge beyond me feel about redemption? How about redeeming the epitome of evil? My understanding is that if there is any redemption, it cannot be only for those who need it a little. It must be for everyone, the only requirement being that people accept the redemption. Surely the Satan of myth would be smart enough to be first in line for such a redemption. Well the idea of needing to redeem everyone doesn't preclude requiring someone like the mythical Satan to be last in line, and not cause trouble while waiting. The myths surely would make Lucifer capable of that. Yet stories of good and evil don't make evil so smart. It makes evil too evil to be smart. That's one reason evil needs redemption.

To forgive or not to forgive. The God of my understanding is not completely one-sided on this point. When everything is said and done, if He feels the need to inflict vengeance on a small set of evildoers, He will do exactly that. Maybe there will be enough love that such vengeance won't be needed. Maybe there won't be. It's hard to predict. God is flexible and can go either way.

Yet if anyone is subject to vengeance in the end, there can be redemption in that person's surrender, maybe redemption that requires some amends to be made, but still some redemption. If the worst offender is not eligible for such redemption, then how can redemption exist at all? How can the volume of one's sins matter? If God's capacity for forgiveness is so limited, who says it will be enough to extend to you? You can say the Bible says so or anything else. You're just trusting in that. You don't know.

God tells me He is optimistic. The worst evils in our world can be redeemed, but will they surrender? It's hard to say. If they're smart, they'll surrender. Then what is there for the worst evils who are too dumb to surrender? Won't God have sympathy for those who are more ignorant than evil? We'll see. Don't count on knowing the answer to that one.

However the mythological Lucifer is portrayed, he is not dumb, or the author has just changed his character. If he's not dumb, then he must know how to be redeemed and will act accordingly. I'd hope redemption is so easy that Lucifer has already managed to be redeemed. God tells me the only reason he hasn't is that Lucifer doesn't exist. But the idea exists. Somewhere among the men hated by our culture is the greatest evil who ever lived. I don't see a principle by which I can be redeemed and that greatest evil can't be. Maybe I cling to God enough to realize my redemption while someone with no interest in God wastes his, but redemption was available to us both. That's how I see it.

I wasn't expecting Fallen to think it through like that. In Fallen, the bad guys lose, and the good guys win, even the good guys who aren't all that good. We forgive them because they're good guys, just as we don't forgive the bad guys because they're bad guys. That's human nature. If human nature is all there is, there is no redemption. Those who hate who I am will always hate me. Those who love me can overlook my shortcomings, if I don't make them too obvious. That's not redemption. That just staying in character.

The God who came when I prayed, "God help me!" wasn't like that. Our relationship has changed. We both have changed. I have been redeemed from my confusion, from my having no Lord but myself, maybe much more than that. I understand Him in ways I didn't once. If the God who came to me was a bad guy, then He has been redeemed, because He is now a good guy. Either way He is significantly different from the traditional God. He is whoever and whatever God is, not what someone who doesn't know says He is, a concept I wish more people could use as a starting point for God.

There is redemption. I don't know exactly how it works. Willingness is important. How can I know more than Lucifer knows about this? I didn't think that as I watched Lucifer fall back into hell in Fallen, but it didn't take me long to think that. I ask God such things. I'm happy how that's turned out. There's a lot of redemption in life, even enough for Satan, if there were such a person. Maybe even people who insist on being left out of that redemption are not left out. I wouldn't count on that, though.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

A natural/cultural/spiritual transition

One of the most profound changes of our time, if not the most profound change is how we see nature. I understand someone 200 years ago thinking that nature is so complex, God simply created it all in His wisdom, even someone with the best education available. 200 years from now it may be hard for anyone to imagine seeing nature that way, when all the mechanisms of nature are so obvious and known to incredible detail. We are in between.

I've listened to so much fighting over creationism and evolution, and it's nothing more than a natural response to such a big transition. It's a clash of worldviews, not psychoses, but understandable views, even if anyone with a decent education knows that the creationist view is obsolete. I think it's important that there is an additional view that though God is understood to be not the Creator as He once was, He is still Helper, but I get tired of saying things that no one hears.

People know what they know and are ignorant and arrogant about the rest. That nature continues even as knowledge expands. I wonder how long it will take before we transition our way past that into something new? Science is good for that, for teaching us what we know well and what we don't, yet so many scientists don't seem to distinguish between what they know from science and their opinions about other things that are no better than anyone else's. It will take more than science for people to admit what they don't know. Will it be culture that teaches us that, maybe even something spiritual?

There is a garbage pile of ideas for things that can't be answered by science, such as how we should live our lives, what our minds know beyond our senses. Someday people in general may be able to see that, as opposed to now when both atheists and Bible-believing Christians insist they're right with very little understanding of where they're wrong . I hope that the transition about the nature of ideas goes better than this one about the nature of our bodies has. I suppose the odds are against that.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

The mustard on the face dream

I watched Christopher Hitchens this morning on CSPAN2. He’s angry at religion. He’s sick of people who want to teach his children creationism, among other grievances. So many people have their own plans to reshape our culture into their own vision of perfection. Such plans conflict, don’t they?

I gave up watching during their time for questions. There was one man in the audience who started yelling when it was his turn at the microphone. He didn’t like what Christopher Hitchens said. At least he waited his turn. Both Christopher Hitchens and a security guard encouraged him to leave. It could have been worse. Fortunately our culture has some standards of behavior, regardless of whether it’s the law or embarrassment that’s more important for policing them.

Instead of watching something else, I closed my eyes and started having dream-like symbolic images, as I often do. One was especially memorable because there was all this bright yellow. It started as a face, not necessarily my face, not necessarily someone else’s face, but a universal face. Then a plastic mustard container appears and something off screen squeezes it forcefully on the man’s face. Hmmm, the revenge of culture that everyone is trying to change? It will leave us like a man who has to be told at the end of a meal that he has mustard on his face? I’m sure some would think of a sexual analogy, but no, it wasn’t like that.

It was memorable enough that I thought about how the mustard was squirted on this man’s face. I recognize that pattern. It’s how I squirt mustard on a slice of bread for a sandwich, in an S-pattern, but with wiggling so that it covers enough of the bread. I don’t have to get a knife out to make it perfectly smooth. It wouldn’t be right if somehow I could put peanut butter on bread that unevenly. That I’d have to smooth out, but mustard? That pattern’s fine for mustard. So squirt and go.

I like the freedom of that. I have enough perfectionism in me that I could imagine getting a knife and making the mustard even all the way across the bread, but I save that for other things. I like that I don’t have to do that with mustard. There really is a lot of freedom in our culture if you think about it, especially in comparison to the past

What about the face? Well, it’s more personal than someone’s feet. A face has one’s eyes, out of which we could see this world in a much more functional way, if our society was big on that. Instead there are all these fantasies about getting rid of religion or making everyone a Christian or Republican or Democrat. It’s not that I like diversity so much. I just think there’s one reality and many people are delusional about what that reality is, especially those who get up in public and insist that they know all these other people are delusional. That people have delusions is reality as well. They are human nature. People overvalue their opinions. They don’t know how much they don’t know. They have simplistic visions of how the world could be better. They pretend cultural evolution is merely a matter of people deciding what they want. That’s not what I see cultural institutions doing over generations. To some degree they have lives of their own.

People see themselves as in charge of their future. I see something greater than we are using us for the bread in a sandwich. What is that thing? Is it God? Is it more natural forces that have shaped us through both biology and culture? I’m not sure, but I am glad to see we use the same technique with mustard. Having things in common allow for some bonding.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Taking a break from time

I had a dream where many things happened in a series of public places. A funny thing was that everytime I looked at a clock it was about the same time, always a little before 1PM. One clock said it was 12:59, almost time to go back to work. Then I'd go somewhere else, and the clock said it was 12:55. Then the next clock had moved forward again, but only by a couple of minutes.

Maybe I've been watching Heroes on TV too much, wishing I could stop time like Hiro Nakomura. Then again, dreams are simply different from reality. Maybe whatever scripts my dreams had all this ground to cover in the setting of a lunch break that I don't have any more as a volunteer. So the only way to fit it all together was to have time be unrealistic. Not a problem for a dream.

Actually I don't think being unrealistic is difficult for any of us to be in real life, too. It's just that in real life the clocks keep time moving, unless they're broken. If we don't give up on external reality teaching us, we can't get too lost in fantasy. Still it's amazing how beliefs can defend people against reality being contrary to those beliefs. I'm sure that reality wins in the end.

So for me stopping time is only for my dreams or a show with really good character development. As a military tactic around Jericho? No, I don't think so. Such a thing happens in dreams and fantasy, not reality.

(For anyone interested in a long fantasy about how NASA confirmed the lost day of Joshua, and a thorough discussion debunking it, that's here:

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Fixing blame

One of the strange features of our society is how much people value personal responsibility, yet then spend much time blaming others for falling short of the standards of those doing the blaming. That’s not leaving responsibility to the other person, is it? No, it’s saying my standard of behavior should be everyone’s standard. It’s saying someone should be responsible for behaving as I would, not responsible according to their own understanding.

“They made me do it.” It’s easy to say, “No, you could have done something else,” if you have no sense of how those other choices would have affected that person. Was it just self-indulgence? Was it just narcissism? Or was it surrendering to something greater than he was? Most people who label Cho Seung-Hui as simply evil or something else contemptuous have no idea of the conflict within him, no idea what it was like to walk in his shoes.

I think a suitable afterlife would be for judgmental people to experience life from the perspective of those they judged. It’s probably too much trouble or beyond the power of whoever and whatever God really is, but that’s what’s missing from all these judgments one comes across in the media, blogs or real life, on all sorts of issues. Opinions are so often more about ignorance than anything else.

Monday, April 16, 2007

If only everyone carried guns

Michelle Malkin and the guys at Fox News wasted little time to cluck that if students at Virginia Tech carried concealed weapons, “this tragedy could have been avoided”. Really?

Oh ye who would say anything to support your bias. Have you no memories? Have you no ability to explore your thoughts just a little? Let’s see, what state has the greatest reputation for carrying guns? I would say Texas, though I might be wrong. Immediately after thinking that, I remembered a little incident in 1966 at the University of Texas, an incident that used to be the record for killing people at a school, until today.

The Wikipedia article on Charles Whitman gives many details.

Concealed weapons do not prevent mass murder. They merely require a shift in tactics by the man determined to commit murder/suicide. These are not impulse killings. These are a premeditated expression of rage where the killer will do whatever he needs to do in order to feel some power before going out while he’s ahead. All of you creeps who never listened to him will get yours, directly or symbolically. I bet if Charles Whitman had a higher death toll in mind to exorcise his demons, he could have met that goal. You don’t have to be a genius to plan for concealed weapons if people have them. You do have to be willing to die, but that’s the idea.

Guns make people more efficient killers. More guns don’t change that. They just require a different plan to maximize one’s killing spree.

Actually not everyone does it

I watched The McLaughlin Group yesterday. Pat Buchanan and Tony Blankley were defending Don Imus by attacking others. I forget whom they attacked vs. other attacks I’ve heard on this subject, but there have been at least these people whose bad behavior supposedly mitigates Imus’ guilt:

--- black rappers who use harsh words for black women and others
--- others in the media and blogosphere who are racist and sexist
--- David Brock, who is CEO of Media Matters, which first publicized Imus’ description of the Rutgers players, since in his book Blinded by the Right, Brock admitted lying not only when he was a conservative, but even when he was a student, so who is he to talk about someone else?

This came up a lot the last time Ann Coulter was in the news, how people defend their own by attacking the other side as being just as bad. Interestingly that last time with Ann Coulter also demonstrated that sometimes people criticize their own as well. I don’t expect that’s a trend.

One problem with the “everyone does it” defense is where do you go from there? Should we take all the bad people out and shoot them? Why not? How about a lesser, but uniform sanction against such bad behavior? Of course people using this defense aren’t interested in any such logical action based on their rhetoric, extreme or not. They’re just using words to defend their own and to set up some future attack on an opponent. It’s not morality. It’s just rhetoric for the sake of power.

There is a world beyond the fantasies of rhetoric. There is a surprisingly large amount of good behavior out there as opposed to those who spend a lifetime engaging in oneupsmanship by attacking their opponents while puffing up themselves and those like-minded. Does the anonymity of being behind a microphone or keyboard promote that? Is it the freedom to be as nasty as someone wants to be in that anonymity that is the biggest factor? Maybe other things are more important, such as the fantasy that anyone will make much of a difference behind that microphone or keyboard and the ego involved in that.

The morality of anyone speaks for itself. It’s complicated how one chooses to respond, but I can’t believe that many people mistake the immorality of the media and blogosphere for something good. Hatred, indifference and falseness are always evil and immoral. It may be a necessary evil, useful for flushing out a greater hatred, indifference and falseness, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time that this is as things should be.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

It's been fun

Both the media and the blogosphere are so strange. For some of that they are each strange in their own way. There was a lot of criticism of Markos Moulitsas this week when he essentially said “big deal” to vile threats against blogger Kathy Sierra, as part of his dismissal of a code of conduct for the internet. Judging from so many similar dismissals, some bloggers see it as essential that they use the f-word and the worst sexual putdowns they can imagine as well as posting fake photos showing violence to their enemies. Somehow this is not yet an issue with which the mainstream media struggles. They have strayed some from the fairness doctrine and from past standards of obscenity, but no one there seems to think the f-word is necessary to explore any controversy.

In some ways, though, the problems with the media and blogs are exactly the same. Partisanship guides almost everything. It’s not just liberals vs. conservatives, but many subgroups, too, for politics, religion, and other issues about life. There’s no exploring for common ground, little exploring for facts.

What is the morality of all these words? There was no morality that was going to fire Don Imus simply for what he said. If Media Matters hadn’t pointed out his racism, sexism and stupidity, would anyone have cared? It was when public outrage bled through to advertisers pulling their commercials that Don Imus was fired. So some say the public is overly moral, as if the lack of morality among the media is to be preferred. It doesn’t seem that way to me. I suppose it’s arguable. The public may not be that consistent in its morality. But one thing that’s for sure, there’s very little morality in all the partisanship that fuels both the media and the blogs. There’s demagoguery about morality, in service of partisanship, but little real morality.

Both the media and blogs keep fighting a war of words on topics where any unbiased, complete exploration of the subject leads to a simple conclusion. These things really shouldn’t be arguable from a factual point of view, but people pretend to argue facts when really they’re starting with some partisan fantasy. Only false premises cause anyone to deny certain truths.

Abortion is sometimes a good thing. Homosexuality is a natural trait. Evolution is a fact, both biological evolution and cultural evolution. Global warming is a fact. I understand that many disagree with those statements, but it’s only bias that leads anyone to disagree, unless they’re nitpicking about some more perfect way to say them. Fine, be perfect, but that doesn’t change facts. Neither does a public opinion poll. Neither do arguments that go on and on, saying the same false thing from the same false premises. What a waste.

Yet so much of the media and blogs are such a waste, and it’s not just because religious conservatives and political conservatives live in their fantasies. Some media insist that there are two sides to every issue, no matter where they have to dredge up “experts” for one side. Other media like Fox News just go with the fantasies as being some oppressed minority, even majority. Meanwhile blogs on any side go on and on, as if not repeating their arguments again and again with a contemptuous tone toward the other side means something awful will happen. Sometimes it’s apparent what the greater agenda is, such as those who defend that evolution is a fact and also insist that all religion is evil. There are plenty of resources to convince anyone with an open mind that the former is true. The latter is its own fantasy piggybacking on the fact of the former. Everyone is prone to fantasies, not just conservatives.

God is a more difficult topic. I understand that. Good people can have various views about it. Bertrand Russell was a good person. That atheism made sense to him didn’t change that. Gandhi was a good person. Some Christians are good people from any part of the spectrum of Christianity. Other Christians are judgmental ideologues who seem never to have considered that someone else’s way might be God’s way. I don’t just mean conservatives.

God is whoever and whatever God is, not what people say God is. I like that as a place to start about God, but so many people insist their own beliefs are all that matter, unless they are ridiculing those with other beliefs or demonizing them. Both the media and the blogs cater to such people. Why? It’s so repetitive.

I’m at the point of becoming repetitive. I find myself more and more referring to things I’ve already written here. I think I have in fact written everything that’s important for me to write. Unfortunately the search feature here is not the best as just the most recent page related to a search seems to pop up, not all of them. Still anyone who wants to read what I think will find it here.

I firmly believe in what I wrote on April 10, that the way to deal with sociopaths is to turn away from them. That doesn’t apply to patients or clients who are sociopaths and come to me for help. I’ll help anyone. But in my private life I only want to be with people who know what love is. I wouldn’t think it would be that hard to know what love is with so many examples of love in literature and real life, albeit together with many examples of hatred, indifference, and falseness. To know that God is love is hard. But not to know love at all? People have to choose that, I think, and I think some choose that in part by paying a lot of attention to the media and blogs. No, there’s little love here, lots of words, little love.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

The hero's journey

I enjoyed watching Joseph Campbell’s series on PBS in the eighties, The Power of Myth. There was an egalitarian quality to his idea that many people are heroes, that many people undergo transformation in their lives, which by itself is heroic. At that level of heroism, every child who grows up and every adult who has raised a child or overcome the adversity of illness or failure follows a hero’s journey. More often Campbell used “hero” to mean someone who had encountered something new in his or her journey, leading to a transformation that was unique in its details, though likely similar to the transformation of other heroes. Following this, most heroes return to their people to share their experience, like honey bees telling their sisters where to go for pollen, though Campbell mentioned the possibility of a hero never returning from his or her journey, instead staying in the bliss of their transformation as a yogi.

I don’t remember other possibilities discussed during the TV series, but I looked at the book The Powers of Myth, which is a transcript of Campbell’s conversations with Bill Moyers. There is in fact some brief dialog about another possibility, that a hero’s people cannot absorb what he or she would teach them. This might lead to some secondary teacher bringing back the hero’s experience at a later date when the people are ready for it, if that experience has been preserved. Then again, the whole thing might be forgotten. Then who would know about it? God might, but then the God of my understanding is limited in remembering.

Classical myths involve heroes traveling somewhere physically. As much as I’ve traveled in my life, everywhere I’ve gone physically has been thoroughly explored already. There are plenty of maps, pictures, and histories that could explain those places better than I can. The places I’ve gone where no one has gone before are intellectual, emotional, and spiritual. Some of those surprised me. Those are hard to explain. It’s easy to explain what doesn’t surprise anyone, but even some relatively common experiences are so hard to explain to the uninitiated, such as how beneficial Al-Anon is to someone with an alcoholic spouse or that it’s not that children are so loving, but how they draw out love we their parents didn’t know we had.

Even for those things the spiritual aspects of them are harder to get across than the biology of it. So what else is there to do but be grateful for our individual knowledge and use that in our own lives? There’s no living on a mountain top when one’s never left the physically ordinary life.

In science, old ideas regularly find new life. By about one hundred years ago several scholars had suggested that the continents on either side of the Atlantic resembled each other in shape, geology, and fossils. But geology was not ready for the idea of continental drift then. Few geologists could take seriously the idea that continents could be plowing through the dense rock of the sea floor to take up new positions. Then after World War II the crucial data was found. It wasn’t just the continents that move. Magnetometers showed a very clear pattern that the sea floors were spreading apart from mid-ocean ridges. Plate tectonics now made sense when continental drift alone hadn’t. It wasn’t rocks plowing through other rocks. It was convection in the layers of the Earth, like convection of any fluid with a crust on top.

This is what experimentalists have done many times, provided a missing piece that makes obvious what was debatable before. The discovery of cosmic background radiation in the sixties made the Big Bang obvious. Some combination of Earth history, fossils, comparative anatomy, population genetics, and molecular genetics makes evolution obvious today. Those who venerate the Bible still resist, but there’s even more evidence for evolution coming from the genetics revolution. That evolution is a fact is irresistible in the long run.

There are many heroes in science, but there’s only a particular type of knowledge that they can provide. Science tells me the facts of my world and to some extent facts about my body and my mind. There’s still that matter of how do I live. What’s most important in life? It’s not whatever feels good, or I’d be eating pizza right now instead of writing this. Does the one who lives the longest win? Does the one who lives the healthiest life win? Does the one who lives the most productive life win, be that wealth, intellectual production, or some social measure? Is it one’s peak production that matters or an entire life?

That’s how we analytical types approach the question of how we should live. What exactly does “should” mean? Heroes apart from science are not good at being so explicit. How much did they do that was their doing anyway? Are we all pawns of biology, culture, and spirituality?

From Joseph Campbell’s perspective, those questions aren’t so important. Every hero’s journey is much like another’s. All religions are true, even if the only way to make that so is to make them all metaphorical. So every founder of a religion is a hero, unveiling some metaphorical corner of the truth by wandering away from the convention of his or her time, overcoming obstacles because the only other choice is to turn back, and finally coming to see whatever is new and fulfilling in that journey, in a way that is not new to everyone, but to who this individual is and the culture from which this individual comes. To Campbell being a hero is as easy as falling out of a boat and hitting water. There are some preconditions to such an event, but they’re easily met.

It’s different for someone who believes as I do that all religions are false, including atheism. Founders of religion aren’t heroes to me. They each made their own house of cards in terms of beliefs, rituals, organizations, and leaders. The hero to me is the one who sees that and doesn’t do the same. Atheists who insist that theirs is not a religion, but just going their own way don’t qualify as such a hero from what I see. If atheism is not a religion, why is it so many atheists spend so much time working on ideas that support atheism, on places in the real world and in the blogosphere where people support each other in their atheism, and to promote leaders for atheists to follow?

Being a hero is not just about falling out of our boat of conventional wisdom and hitting water. People who climb back into the boat either with stories about how wonderful the water is or what a delusion the water is are just doing what people do, telling stories they like with little understanding of the reality involved. It certainly would be heroic for someone to fall out of the boat and walk on the water or leap to the far shore. That’s what some of these dripping wet prophets say can happen. I don’t believe them. The totality of such stories doesn’t make sense to me. I’d find the story of someone who fell out of the boat and realized he or she could swim more believable.

Now whose story is that? I haven’t found that to be anyone’s story. I admire stories of people being devoted to ending poverty or some other such service. Yet as much as I admire Mother Teresa’s story of serving the needy, she was always as devoted to Catholicism as to the poor. People are forever hanging on to some part of conventional wisdom from inside the boat as well as whatever they learn from the water.

I try to tell my own story of the water. It’s not a simple story. Sometimes the water is cold. Sometimes the water is warm. Sometimes it’s scary. Sometimes it’s comforting. The God whom I’ve met in the water is not the same God as those in the boat say He is. The God I know has limits, limits that explain why the world isn’t better than it is and why I haven’t heard the voice of God coming through so many religious leaders who claim to speak for Him. The place to start with the real God is to understand that God is whoever and whatever God is, not what people say He is. People don’t like that. They prefer to say God is just so or nothing real at all. They’d rather do that than learn how to swim.

God is not a hero. He/She just is. I am not a hero. It was circumstances more than it was my choice to go into the water, and while I did decide to let go of the side of the boat, it was the obvious choice at that point. After that one just has to endure, and whether one endures passively or aggressively is so much trial and error more than anything heroic. I wish there were a hero’s wisdom to guide me, but I’ve looked at all the candidates. They all have baggage left from having grown up in the boat. Paul wrote about the Spirit living in him and he in the Spirit, but he was stuck seeing the world through the artificial duality of clean and unclean. Jesus presumably had the same problem. I’ve been amazed at how easily God cuts through my confusion to give me a clear direction through prayer at times, but it’s always less than perfect, despite how many claim that God must be perfect.

If any of us makes it to the far shore, will we still see the boat? Will we care? Will it be, “I made it. They’ll have to figure it out for themselves.”? Is anything of religion truly coming back to us from heroes? Is anything of God a hero returning to help us? God tells me no, that’s not who He is. He is helpful, but not because He used to be one of us.

We can say we’re all heroes just for surviving childhood and whatever transformations we’ve had since, but has anyone been the ultimate hero? Anyone is free to follow whoever they think is the ultimate hero, but what if there isn’t one? What if there is only help for me to make the most of my life, not an example to follow? And that “most of my life” may be something that few see as an honor, such as helping the needy. Whether I follow the ultimate hero or a God who would make me as much a hero as He can, I follow. I would tell that to my culture more than I already have, but I’m quite sure everyone in my culture is up to their neck in ideas as it is.

Is life about being a hero, or is it just about enduring? If there’s a hero to tell us that, his or her voice doesn’t stand out well. I suspect both God and any hero would have that be different, yet that’s not enough. Maybe that’s the first step of the hero’s journey, toward optimism or away from it, towards there being somewhere to go or not. Then eventually report back. Maybe people will be ready to listen. Maybe they’ll prefer not to know or will be as sure as geologists once were that continents don’t go tearing through sea floors. Can we get partial credit on that last one?

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Sociopaths are everywhere

I was following links today and came across a claim by atheist Brent Rasmussen that altruism is ultimately just what some people do to feed their self-worth. I’ve encountered similar cynicism before. One can search Google with “altruism” and various other words. It’s easy to find others making a similar claim, though never with data in my experience, despite the large numbers of people who help others in need. Instead it’s always an argument based on the meaning of “selfish” to the person making the argument. I’ve written before about my high school teacher who did that many years ago.

The answer to this is not that hard to understand. People can indeed choose to be selfless. Whatever selfishness there is in making a choice doesn’t make the whole behavior selfish. The only way to deny that is to engage in black and white thinking. Maybe that’s hard for high school students to see through, but adults who do it strike me as trying to excuse their sociopathy, from my high school teacher on. That’s not because they like black and white thinking. It’s what they’re doing in denying the concept of altruism in the first place, being subversive, justifying their own selfishness as the only thing that’s real.

Of course not everyone is so honest about their sociopathy. Conservatives make many excuses why it’s OK to neglect the needy. They say the needy should help themselves. They make up simplicities about how the homeless are mostly mentally ill who choose to be homeless as they choose not to take their pills or how anyone can get a job if they just choose to. Those Bible-believing Christians who therefore should be following Matthew 25: 31-46 find that their God instead wants them to evangelize, fight against abortion or work on themselves personally. There are lots of excuses not to help the needy. My fellow liberals often find some excuses, too.

But not the people I know who help the needy. How many would I say are volunteers this way for the sake of their ego? There are none that I can tell. Yet sociopaths argue otherwise. Brent Rasmussen insisted I must be a liar for claiming there is such a thing as altruism that is an expression of love, not selfishness. There is something in me that wants to feel sorry for people who know so little of love that they claim everything in life is selfish. Yet there is something else, the anger I often feel on behalf of my clients for their suffering and on behalf of myself that just to talk about something basic like love in this world is so difficult. Some people really don’t know love exists. Some people don’t know there is a God who is love. Some people who think there is a God have no idea what love is, just rules, power, and inexplicable mystery.

There is love. There is more to life than just selfishness. I embrace that through God, but if someone can find the same thing in a different way, as Bertrand Russell did for one, I would think that’s a step in the right direction. To say no, there is only ego and selfishness, those are fighting words. That’s the enemy. That’s hatred, indifference and falseness all wrapped into one, the things that make life difficult for all of us.

I feel anger at such hurtful things, but they are too big for me. They may even be too big for God. Maybe the only reasonable way for any of us is to turn our backs on such ignorance and arrogance and embrace love and truth where it exists, not where it is absent. Everyone dies eventually. Love may die, too, or it may survive those who deny it, whether that’s complete denial or trivializing love as being something no different than chocolate. Either way I find it better to live with love than with sociopaths. Sociopaths are everywhere, but not everyone is a sociopath. Thank God.

Monday, April 09, 2007

A simple dream

I was speaking to one of my daughters yesterday so naturally I had a dream as if I had roommates again as she does. In my dream one of them hadn't been paying the cable TV bill. The amount owed on the bill I saw was so large I had trouble telling if it was 5 figures or 6 figures. Yet in the dream I was perfectly accepting that this was possible. Hmm, that's too much for me to pay. I wonder how high the bill will go when no one pays it.

I remember feeling some fear about this in the dream, but as I've learned from my needy clients, if some situation is impossible, you just have to turn your thoughts to something that is possible. At least I remembered that much in my dream, even if I didn't remember my actual life or that the cable TV company shuts off service long before the bill even reaches a thousand dollars.

Dreams fascinate me. Some people pretend they understand them so well, whether they see them as messages from the unconsciousness or something even more mystical. Yet they're just guessing. Neuroscience understands the brainstem mechanisms for REM sleep somewhat, but what generates the content for dreams is such a mystery. Dreams are so mysterious scientifically some trivialize them as if they are merely dumping data from the previous day. My dreams aren't that trivial.

Dreams are so different from wakefulness. Dream-like images are incredibly detailed, like waking sensations, instead of the flashes I get from memory or willful imagination I engage in while awake. I regularly get dream-like images while awake, not often enough from my perspective, as they are almost always interesting associations to something I'm doing, as that image of a fairy tale I mentioned in that last post. Why is that so infrequent? If it's my unconscious trying to tell me something, why doesn't it just tell me, in images if it has no words? Why doesn't it tell me everything it knows in one straight story? Maybe it doesn't know that much, but it is creative.

And somehow I'm not the same person in my dreams. I accept whatever I see. Not so when I wake. On awakening my brain quickly figures out that there's no way a cable TV bill ever could get that high. Besides I pay the cable bill in real life, and it's not due for another 2 weeks in reality. There is no threat as there was in my dream. Dumb, naive dreamer. Why so dumb and creative at the same time?

I don't know, but that way of thinking is in me, and I'm sure it's in a lot of people, some while awake. Someday science will understand. For my lifetime I'd settle for people understanding just how much no one understands, but that's something like a cable TV bill of $100,000. It's beyond me to do anything about.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Transient global amnesia as an experiment in consciousness

Mostly here I refer to the consciousness that neuroscience studies, sometimes called phenomenal consciousness. Toward the end I get to implications about consciousness in the sense of something beyond our biology. As I was writing this my mind was mostly on memories I have. A different sort of image popped up in my mind several times. I dismissed it each time until I realized what name I would put to it. This was not a fleeting image as a memory is, but a dream-like image, one that is startlingly clear and detailed, more so than any actual memory, even one from earlier today. It was a book cover with a drawing on it where a few people were in a medieval scene, something worthy of either The Arabian Nights or Grimm’s Fairy Tales. It was a new creation from somewhere within me or outside of me, a mimicry of book covers I have seen, but not a memory. It was exactly the same each time until I gave it words, “This is a fairy tale?” It didn’t come back after that. What I am saying here isn’t a fairy tale. It relates my professional experience. Is the concept of consciousness a fairy tale? Which part? Who says so? I have more on that later.

On my last day as a first-year neurology resident in 1982 I had to get up early to see a woman of around 60 years old in the ER. Even earlier that morning she had awoken her husband, saying she had chest pain and needed an ambulance. Shortly after he made the necessary call, she asked him what he was talking about. She didn’t have chest pain. She didn’t need an ambulance. I’m sure this latter conversation repeated many times before I made my way to see her.

When I saw her she had as dense an anterograde amnesia as one will ever see. Amnesia is nothing like it’s portrayed in the movies. Some psychiatric patients may deny knowing who they are as a dissociative symptom, but that’s never a neurological condition. With the brain, our vulnerable memories are the ones we’re making now and next most vulnerable the ones from the recent past, ones lost in the retrograde part of an amnesia. Many things can interfere with making new memories, what’s called anterograde amnesia. It’s unusual though to have a profound dysfunction of memory without any other impairment neurologically, which is what transient global amnesia is.

Everyone with this condition acts the same way, the way this woman did. When the impairment in making new memories is total, the patient will engage in conversation that recycles about every 5 minutes. The patient might say he or she just woke up, as this woman did repeatedly. Then they’ll ask what’s going on, where they are. The conversation follows a rational course. Then 5 minutes later it starts all over again as the patient has forgotten everything and believes again he or she has just awoken, because that’s what it seems like to them. Their motivations and strategies in asking questions are about the same as they were the time before, so there is a striking similarity to how the patient proceeds on each “awakening”. Fortunately this rarely lasts more than an hour or two until the patient is starting to make some memories again. Usually people have complete recovery within 24 hours. Early on though, it’s like the movie Groundhog Day, only it’s every 5 minutes instead of 24 hours that things start again, and I’m the one who remembers, not the patient.

Traditionally such a patient is said to have normal consciousness, but this only means that someone looks awake and normal. One difficulty with studying consciousness is that we do take an all or nothing approach to the meaning of that word. We are either conscious or unconscious ordinarily. We do allow a state of drowsiness when this is about the difference between being conscious and asleep, but then we speak of drowsiness as a special state of consciousness where one has not quite become fully conscious. If instead one is looking for states that are between conscious and unconscious, transient global amnesia is one, an altered state of consciousness.

It’s curious that we don’t take such patients at their word that they continuously must have just awoken because everything before just now is dark to them. Of course I saw that this person wasn’t asleep 5 minutes ago, so officially we go with that. But imagine what it’s like for the person who has no memory of the last few hours, none at all. No wonder they all talk alike, searching for a handle on how they suddenly wound up with me. Any other handle is completely different from their long-term memories of how such a present can happen. Many have seen someone suddenly materialize somewhere on Star Trek, but no one thinks of that. People go to what they know personally. We remember waking up from sleep many times, but not being transported ourselves, so we go with what we know for an explanation.

When people have permanent anterograde amnesia of this magnitude, which rarely happens from trauma or some radical epilepsy surgery once done in the past, they aren’t quite so obvious. We do have a second unconscious memory that helps us feel more comfortable without the conscious images to tell us what we’ve been doing recently. The well-studied amnesiac H.M. whose memory stopped in 1956 due to surgery was able to locate things around his house that were new since the surgery, such as where the knives and forks were in his kitchen, without remembering anything explicit about why he could do that. That is unconscious memory, similarly to motor memory of how we walk, talk, or use a tool with no thought of how, once we’ve practiced enough to know how.

Still such patients will write in journals about how it feels they just woke up or became conscious for the first time, as Susan Blackmore describes in her book Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction. Blackmore comments on a number of neurological syndromes that profoundly affect perception, mentioning each time that no spiritual or supernatural consciousness manages to rescue the brain from the affects of injury. So isn’t the brain all there is when it comes to what a mind is?

Most of those syndromes are about the consciousness that’s left when a brain injury takes away half the world from consciousness or one of our senses in one way, but not another. What’s left is consciousness, albeit on a different stage. What maintains it?

Mainstream neuroscience says that what maintains consciousness is something trivial. We have all these modules, perhaps 30 places where a visual map of the outside world exists in a portion of our brain, some for seeing color, some for seeing movement, some for detecting objects. Then there are modules for other senses, both senses that map the world around us and senses that map our bodies. Then there are cognitive areas, some that contain everything we know in terms of verbal symbols, in the speech areas of the left hemisphere, some that are non-verbal associations, including who I am and who and what is close to me, even essential to me. There are memories involving all these things to give us a context for the present. Cobble all those things together and boom (to mimic John Madden), we’re conscious. That’s the mainline theory of consciousness as an emergent property, a trivial expression of everything else we know to be real.

Memory may be the last piece in that puzzle. Most people have the experience that their conscious memories don’t begin until around age 3. We learn before that age, but it’s not through the event-based memory that we can replay in our minds, not what we think of as memory ordinarily. It’s through unconscious memory that we first learn anything. Then we change, unfortunately at a time when no child is able to appreciate the change, much less describe going through it. Is it a coincidence that this is the age when we see children as going from those who say, “No,” to those who say, “Why”?

Age 3 corresponds to when the hippocampus becomes fully myelinated, when it is fully mature. All neuroscientists think these two things go together. The hippocampus is the oldest mammalian structure in our cerebral cortex. It is vital to making new memories. This patient I describe turned out to be one bit of evidence for that as a research PET scanner was available that morning, so while we waited for her to recover, we did the first PET scan ever done during an episode of transient global amnesia. It showed decreased metabolism in the medial temporal lobes bilaterally, where the hippocampus is. Others would point to other evidence, but this evidence I can remember directly, through these fleeting images we have of the past called conscious memory, through which I can remember a few pieces of one day in 1982 as if they were happening now, even if most days in 1982 have left me no such memories. It may be the closest to time travel we ever get.

Our limbic system built up from these, as emotions attached to memories, as relationships between people and things in the world and me, something vital to mammals for mother-child relationships, often more than that. Toward the end of all this evolution came our symbolic abilities, so that we could not only express ourselves in words, but abstract words, even words that make no sense.

What is all this? Is the hippocampus the seat of consciousness? Mainstream neuroscience doesn’t talk that way, having been burned when Descartes said the pineal gland was the seat of the soul. The mainstream view is that memory is just one more module to consciousness, so patients with transient global amnesia are seen as fully conscious, but lacking the memory making module. The patients just don’t remember their consciousness from one moment to the next, while an observer does. At least the observer remembers from moment to moment that the patients looked conscious and rational.

Furthermore, children before age 3 seem conscious, and the maturity of the hippocampus at age 3 isn’t the final development in our consciousness. Our ability for abstract thought isn’t complete until our teens. So isn’t the hippocampus just another actor in the play?

Children before the age of 3 may not have the ability to replay entire scenes in their head or maybe what scenes they do have all fade until the hippocampus is mature. Somehow they look like they maintain a stream of consciousness without that, though not as well as an adult does with an adult’s will, desires, language, all these things that fill our mind.

For things like will and desire we have no clear anatomy as we do for conscious memory. Experiments have been done during brain surgery with awake patients where electrical signals in the brain related to a patient’s intent to push a button to change a slide projector, as instructed, are used to change the slide projector electronically before the patient can do that manually. The patients reported that what happened was that they were going to push the button, but the slide projector changed itself first. It was their will that this happened, but unless that will goes through what we’re used to as our voluntary muscles, we don’t recognize it. Scientists aren’t much better at recognizing what we do by will.

Our memories give us our models of what we think and do. Patients with transient global amnesia have a concept of self. At any moment they see a scene that makes sense to them except for how they got there. They know what objects are outside of them and what objects are them, like their hands. Memory in the sense of that sort of knowledge is intact. They have some remote memory because they used to have a functioning hippocampus, but they are making no new memories, none. So the last few hours are a blank. They must have just awoken. Only observers know they haven’t. They weren’t asleep. 5 minutes ago they were just as they are now. It’s just that some writer has been failing to move the plot along, and the patient doesn’t realize that.

Normally many things move our consciousness along. The outside world moves along at its normal pace. We keep up in terms of perception, memory, and planning what we’re going to do about what goes on around us. We may even develop our own plans out of something within us, our will and desires. Somewhere they enter our consciousness as well and turn into wordy thoughts or images of what we desire or why we are so determined.

Neuroscience soon may do better at following all that through neuroimaging than it has before now. But what there is now is the link between the hippocampus and memory, something that happened in mammals before any other expansion of cerebral cortex. It is a strange plan to the brain. There are sensory areas in the midbrain and the thalamus. In birds these are the most important areas for vision and hearing, not so in us. In us everything in cerebral cortex recreates sensory and motor areas that already exist in the brainstem, apart from new abilities like language. Why? Is it so these areas can be conscious in being linked up to the hippocampus? Is it so our consciousness can be seamless, apart from things such as how the world looks behind my head? Many of us in neuroscience equate cerebral cortex with conscious brain. That’s not quite true as many things happen in cortex that are not conscious, but nothing to my knowledge outside of cortex can be conscious. An entire section of the brain had to be built for us to be conscious, and that started with the hippocampus, with an ability to replay scenes from the past, the present being the most detailed scene we can have played. We see it as it happens, but only through our consciousness built for memories.

Consciousness could be what our brain had to create to make memories as well as it does, to create a virtual reality where we pick out useful or emotionally significant pieces to be stored as memory. Without that our minds in their current state just spin their wheels, confabulating as best they can to explain why we don’t have explicit memories of how we got here – we just woke up, yeah that makes sense. It doesn’t if the condition goes on. If the condition goes on, people learn just to accept the absence of new memories, except when they’re freely writing in a journal. When the absence is fresh, people do what we do easily with the memories we already have. They ask where their mind went. I must have been asleep.

We know so little about the details of making memories. Something is known about the electricity and chemicals involved in a normally functioning hippocampus, how there are long-term changes in the hippocampus which seem to relate to a new memory starting. Then this new memory is transferred to be stored diffusely in the cerebral cortex. At some point a memory is so mature in the rest of the brain that it will persist despite the hippocampus losing function. How long does this take? One can investigate how far back a retrograde amnesia goes in a patient with a brain injury or stroke that isn’t quite as restricted as transient global amnesia, but is close. One can test such subjects on historical events. Compared to controls, subjects perform poorly on events weeks or months before they developed amnesia. Yet for events 25 years in the past, the groups perform equally. How far back does the deficit preceding the amnesia go? According to studies by Larry Squire of UCSD, the two groups differ as far back as 15 years into the past. 15 years?!

That means the hippocampus is helping to support our memories for up to 15 years. After that they are finally permanent, some of them becoming more permanent all that time. Imagine that. My mental processes that I think of as being in the present are reaching back 15 years to provide an immediate context for me, in addition to the context that I call the distant past. Without that immediate context, I can only imagine that I just awoke. That is my only experience like this. I awake each morning, and I remember the things around me. I remember who I am. Even if I awoke in strange surroundings, things would be behaving in familiar way. Gravity would be obvious. If there were no gravity, that would be a big clue – I’ve awoken on a spaceship! I’d know that from video of astronauts I remember that video along with however that association is stored cognitively. My joining them would be something to remember, if I could.

Such elements would fill whatever this consciousness is I have, and if my hippocampus isn’t working, I’ll think exactly the same thing 5 minutes later, instead of being able to build on my recent memories as I usually do. All other memories and associations were formed when my hippocampus was working, long enough ago that they have become permanent, capable of filling my waking mind even when my hippocampus has shut down.

How does that happen? Good question. 36 years ago Karl Pribram likened such recall of memories to a hologram. If a stimulus matched a little of the memory, the brain is wired to reproduce the rest of it, having been rewired because of what the hippocampus does when the memory is formed. That continues to be how neuroscientists think a memory becomes permanent.

None of this would happen without a hippocampus. There would be unconscious memory and learning, as happens in all species, but it may be that only mammals are conscious because only mammals have this system that keeps stimuli reverberating within our brain to become this seamless ongoing virtual reality that our brain makes, and we live in. In that consciousness we have will instead of merely reacting to everything. In that consciousness we have desires that we can choose to embrace or deny depending on how we feel about the consequences of either one. It is a different world to be conscious, a world we try to re-enter if our hippocampus shuts down, just as we re-enter it from sleep, but without a functioning hippocampus this doesn’t work. We just keep waking up, waking up, and waking up, using our permanent memories to orient us and tell us what to say and do. It’s not enough for us to be ourselves.

I don’t know that there is a formal theory in neuroscience that consciousness exists so we can make better memories. Susan Blackmore argues in her books that the concept of consciousness is a delusion, which seems silly to me, a denial of the unknown more than anything. More mainstream would be to say that consciousness is just the sum of its parts. I don’t know that this will change until scientists can fully explore all those parts and say, “You know, there is something else.”

Will they have to do that in this century, in the next century, sometime? Will those who see consciousness as primary and the brain as trivial have to admit that the brain is not trivial? I myself have wondered if our mind might control the brain the way our brain control the spinal cord. An injury to the spinal cord prevents the brain from expressing itself through the corresponding limbs. Does an injury to the brain prevent the mind from expressing itself through the half of the world that no longer exists for the brain or through language that no longer exists? Is that so strange a perspective?

Of course the big dividing line is whether my consciousness extends beyond my brain or receives input from beyond my brain. I am forced to conclude that it might because of my spiritual experiences, though I’ll never have proof that these experiences are beyond my brain’s capacity to teach me or entertain me. It just seems too much to be entirely natural to me.

Consider the image I described at the beginning, a symbol for “fairy tale”. Who said that? It wasn’t a verbal part of me, or it wouldn’t have been an image. It could have been some dissenting part of me I keep locked up in some dungeon of my consciousness, but I don’t have any sense this was a dissent. I wasn’t starting to tell a fairy tale. Yet there are certainly fairly tales told about consciousness. I think Susan Blackmore is telling a fairy tale in calling the concept of consciousness delusional. I think those who say the brain is irrelevant are telling a fairy tale. From wherever that image came from I feel satisfaction at saying that, both of those, just as the image no longer needed to repeat once I realized what it was saying. I’m used to this, some Other sharing my mind. She says She is not just a different part of me. I’ve gotten used to trusting Her.

I know that I pray to God. I know that I get direction, strength, hope, and comfort from doing that, but I don’t know exactly where that comes from. Is it from inside me or outside? Some say they know. Their words don’t read to me as though they know. How far out does consciousness reach? However far it is, I am constantly surprised at how things come to me beyond mechanisms I know. People confabulate to fill in what they don’t know, as those with transient global amnesia do their best to explain the state they find themselves in. In fact one would have to be a neurologist to have transient global amnesia and guess that is the case from the inside. And then what? I would still make that guess again five minutes later if it were me. Knowledge isn’t everything. There is something more. I’ve lived as if that something is helpful. I believe it is, and I don’t find any way to cram all of that helpfulness into me.

So call it God, Spirit, whatever you want, there is something more than me in this.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

The ambiguity of "deserve"

Since October 2003 non-religious-right evangelical Christian Fred Clark has been writing semi-regularly on his blog slacktivist about the Left Behind novel by Timothy LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. So far I’ve read all of Clark’s pages written during 2003 and since the beginning of 2006. Clark mostly writes about a specific page or two, humorously and perceptively wondering why this book was so badly written in a style that talks about action instead of portraying action, with all the characters speaking the way the authors speak, is utterly unrealistic about human behavior, and pushes a theology that is so much about, “we know the truth, and you don’t,” without much justification for such pride. It’s engaging reading, Clark’s words that is. It may be a much more enjoyable way to read Left Behind just through Clark’s quoting and discussion of it. I’m sure I’ll get to 2004 and 2005 eventually. Currently Clark is up to page 258 in this book that amazon tells me has 352 pages. I wonder if Clark is on a pace to write more pages than the book has, but not so curious for me to count them.

Gee, if the plan is to go through all 12 books on this blog, Fred may need a replacement at some point.

Clark obviously knows theology, something he demonstrates in pointing out the flaws of the authors' brand of dispensationalism. At one point Clark used a standard description of salvation by God’s grace. He said Christians don’t deserve salvation. It all comes from God, as traditional Christianity says it does. God is everything. We are nothing. Jesus did everything to save us on the cross. We can add nothing. There was a time I just accepted that. Now I doubt any absolute like this. There is so much about traditional religion that is black and white thinking, something loved by human nature, but rarely an accurate depiction of anything.

Why didn’t God prevent this suffering or that? Because He can’t or He would have. Why not? Well it’s a long discussion that begins with God being whoever and whatever God is, not the perfection we want Him to be. Instead of what seem like obvious answers to me, tradition finds excuses to make God perfect despite appearances to the contrary, rationales for why any unsettling issue is part of the great plan that God knows and we can’t. Right.

I’ve lost count of how many ways such traditionalism unravels, unless one is committed to believe the best apologetics can do. One way is in considering this idea that grace is 100% God. The basic idea is understandable. I can’t earn God’s love. Well, that makes sense. How is it love if I have to earn it? Yet only a small change in the verb makes that so different. Do I have to allow God to love me? A Calvinist would say no, but must people would make the analogy to interhuman love where of course one can reject love or accept love. A parent may always love a child despite being rejected, but the power of that love changes if it’s rejected.

What’s more my dictionary’s definition of “deserve” is to be worthy, which is in turn defined as valuable or useful. Who decides that? If God loves an octopus, doesn’t that mean there’s something about that octopus that is worth God’s love?

There are so many points in theology where a word is used as a symbol that is more restricted than the word’s general meaning. We don’t deserve God’s love in the sense that we’ve done anything to earn that love, but we do deserve God’s love in some sense as God’s love for us proves. Otherwise God loves every rock and every bit of vapor in the universe, and theology is very far off the truth of God’s love.

Do you love me for who I am or for what I’ve done? I understand answering that as just the former, but to say the answer is neither is a very different thing. And what’s so wrong about saying, “Both”? It’s not like I can take back what I’ve done. Love grounded in what I’ve done doesn’t have to be conditional on it.

I helped people in my career and now in my volunteer work. Did I love all of my patients and clients? In some sense yes, but that was sometimes a very distant love that let me care for all of them, even when I didn’t like who they were and felt nothing positive about anything they had done except having come to me for help. My caring for them was more about me than them, but even then it wasn’t entirely about me. If these people were hamsters, I wouldn’t have done much for them.

One can say that God’s love is so much more than that, deity that He is. How? It must matter that people are human beings, not squirrels, not that rats with puffy tails aren’t cute, but our brains let us conceive of God and come to Him, even if everyone misunderstands that. I can’t imagine that God’s love is any different than what came through me as a professional, except that this is a minimum for what God’s love is. Why shouldn’t God’s love be more for those who do what pleases Him?

OK, so God is like a parent who doesn’t play favorites. He loves the prodigal son the same as the son who has stayed with Him, and God’s joy at the return of the prodigal confirms that instead of being a slight to the son who stayed, except in the inferior mind of that son. I understand this as a parent. I don’t allow favoritism exceeding say 20% toward one daughter than the other, not always the same one. They can each play me for more love if they want, for a greater expression of the love that is theirs whether they ask for it or not, but it all works out close enough to even.

Yet I never would say my daughters don’t deserve my love. Who they are to me deserves my love, even if they don’t understand that. I made them. Perhaps God doesn’t say that about us biologically, but He still may have made us spiritually, becoming the first element in the love between God and us, building on our need for love that perhaps biological evolution gives us. That’s more complicated than the Creator Father, but many things are more complicated than ancient simplicities.

I have a history of love with my daughters, much of which I’m sure they don’t remember, including those times when they were merely dependent on me, not capable of any selflessness in that, even though people often call just childish dependency love. My daughters brought out my love for them not because their looking toward me was loving, but because it was so needy, and they were who they were to me. That made them deserve my love.

So many people who recognize our not deserving God’s love as proper theology act and speak otherwise. The authors of Left Behind do that. Fred Clark comments on this a lot, how the heroes of Left Behind focus on their own selfish desire to be saved, then force a few others of their choosing to be saved. Not only do the authors believe one is saved by surrendering to some magic words and magic beliefs, the whole concept of the book is about those who deserved the Rapture vs. those who didn’t, and those who will be on board for the next bus to heaven vs. those who won’t. Meanwhile Jesus of the gospels taught that salvation was about giving up everything and following Him.

I wish theologians would allow that we deserve God’s love, or He wouldn’t love us. We can’t earn God’s love. We can’t force Him to love us. But we are not such scum to God that He will not love us, even those of us who come as close as they can to that. Still we have to be open to God’s love as any human being has to be open to be loved by another human being. And we can work at our relationship with God, to find love within us for Him, to deepen what we get from God, to increase the expression of love between us both ways.

I don’t know if it’s missing out on that process of building up love that is most responsible for people failing to live their lives to end poverty and/or live their lives to end strife. Whatever it is, something tells evangelicals that it doesn’t matter what they do, except when it does. The authors of Left Behind see accepting God’s grace as a one-time deal, and those who get in on the first phase get a better deal. Do they deserve that better deal? Their words would say no, but everything else would say yes, we believed the right way when you didn’t.

I admit it. In coming to believe that God is whoever and whatever God is, I believe that my beliefs are superior to anyone who has settled on one specific theology, a theology that is merely one possibility out of countless possibilities. But people with such a theology believe they are right, because God Himself revealed their theology to someone, because someone who thought through their theology was so enlightened, or because reason shows their theology or anti-theology to be flawless or at least the best bet. I’ve explored all the major theologies. They are artificial and not to be trusted. So I think the superior way is not to trust them.

Does that make me more deserving of God? Yes and no. In coming to God directly for help with what is true, I find I get more attention from God, deservedly so. But am I doing something anyone else can’t? Not to my knowledge, I’m not. And if God were not inclined to love me, could I demand that He love me? No, I have no sense that I deserve God’s love in that sense. There’s no getting around that “deserve” is an ambiguous word.

Theologies are ambiguous, in part because they use words like “deserve”. God is ambiguous. I suppose neither can be helped. What can be helped is deciding where I am and who I am in this fog, only it didn’t work well for me to do that on my own. I needed help. I prayed for help, as I was taught to do. I got help. Then I did better. That’s not so ambiguous.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Getting nature exactly backwards

In his work Optica, Euclid developed Plato’s ideas about vision into a mathematical model. That model is useful to understanding perspective despite that its understanding of vision is exactly backwards. Both Plato and Euclid believed that vision comes from something leaving our eyes and perceiving objects out in the world.

I think of this sometimes when I’m out looking at some scene in nature. It seems more natural to think that I am reaching out to see my surroundings. My focus of attention seems to bring some things into more detail. It seems that I’m actively looking while the scene is passive.

Yet at this point in the scientific revolution there is no question that what is actually happening is that photons are flying at me from everything I see, from the smallest leaf on a tree to the smallest detail on a distant mountain. No only that, but there are many more photons I don’t see, all the ones that are flying around in different directions from the one very narrow range of directions that will enter my eye. As long as the sun is above the horizon, these photons keep this up. It doesn’t matter whether someone is looking or not. It’s interesting that people ponder whether a tree falling makes a sound if no one is listening, but not whether the sky is blue is no one is looking. Do we think vision is more real?

Besides how wrong our instinct is about how we see, thinking about this reminds me how much there is I’m not seeing. Forget about all those parts of the EM spectrum I can’t detect, from radio waves to x-rays. Just in the visible part of the spectrum, there are so many photons bouncing off the distant mountains that make them just as bright in every other direction as well as mine. If I could see all of them, the mountains would be much brighter, and in 3-D, too. But I only see the light I’m used to, the mountains I’m used to, not what they really are, despite my bias that my everyday perception of them is what they really are.

Just in those paragraphs there are connections to getting other things backwards. It’s actually the horizon that moves up, not the sun that moves down. Then there’s the issue that Plato thought there was an ideal reality for which the world of our senses is merely shadows. Despite Plato’s low expectations for this world, science has found an order to our world that many find stunning in its simplicity and comprehensiveness, one that is indeed perfect or nearly so, at least for those things we understand such as our molecular makeup and how electromagnetism is involved in that.

Some understanding doesn’t suffer from getting vision backwards or thinking the sun orbits the Earth. The rules of perspective don’t depend on which way sightlines are going. The tides are as predictable whether one understand the true relationship of the Earth, moon, and sun or not. But when it comes to looking for a fundamental reality, is that in this world or in some other place where Platonic ideals reside?

What is the true nature of those mountains I see everyday? Those who still believe Plato would have that true nature be in some perfect world, a world I think only intellect could love, except it does conveniently support the idea that there is a perfect God in contrast to our imperfect world. That idea continues to be part of many Christian theologies as it has been from the beginning.

In recent centuries, though, science has been demonstrating something. Modern optics lets anyone realize the above understanding that a mountain is lit up in many directions and how that relates to its 3-D structure and reflectivity of its surface. Satellites provide perspectives beyond anything I imagined standing on the ground. Geology shows not only the rocks that make up the mountain and erosion patterns, but now can show the mountain’s place in a much larger story of plate tectonics, how it is that ocean sediments can become the highest peaks in the world.

Plato can’t compete with that. And there are so many places in life where science now has built up an understanding far beyond what ancient people knew, such as with the biochemical and physiological basis of life and death. There is no need for Platonic ideals in understanding that.

Still some people hold out for Plato and tradition. My greatest wish for the intellectual discussions about this would be for people to seriously consider the possibility that Plato had the fundamental idea of a perfect world beyond our imperfect Earth exactly backwards. People have their own reasons for wanting God to be perfect and unchanging, more than just conservative Christians. What about the other possibilities?

What if the physical world is perfectly real, and the spiritual world adapts to that, whether that’s a more traditional God having only real materials and real human beings to work with, not some idealized “essence” of them, or a Spirit that is much less controlling than the traditional God, but is also quite used to dealing with the physical reality that is, not some master plan.

Did God really change from a tribal warlord to a more universal agent of love? Those who follow Plato must say no. God has always been perfect. We just see different sides to Him in different contexts. Again that’s not just conservative Christians saying that. I myself suspect that change is more about the people involved putting so much of themselves into their images of God than a change in God, but who knows? Maybe it isn’t all a communication problem between us imperfect humans and a perfect God. Maybe God has learned a great deal from watching us, and has changed His agenda.

Unfortunately there’s no science to open anyone’s minds when it comes to whoever and whatever God is. Some put God into the same universe we’re in, in everyone and everything. I don’t experience God that way. I think atheist scientists have it right when they say they find no need for God to understand our world and our life. Maybe even consciousness actually will be understood someday in a purely material way.

But I’ve experienced God, and He didn’t seem physical. He seemed both mental and beyond anything I could dream up, different from what I would have dreamed up if it had been truly up to me. Whatever explains that, it’s a real experience, though one I find easier to understand as the spiritual side of reality than the physical side that is my brain. That’s always where I start in thinking about God, from the God I’ve experienced. So many people start at the other end, from some Platonic ideal, wherever that resides. I think that’s exactly backwards. There’s precedence for that being the case.