Friday, November 30, 2007

Just being there is enough

In a diary entry for "M.", near the end of his too-short life, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote some words that evoke the Stevens poem I posted yesterday.
I cannot have enough of the hours of silence when nothing happens. When the clouds go by. When the trees say nothing. When the birds sing. I am completely addicted to the realization that just being there is enough.
I have sometimes referred to myself in these postings as a "Catholic agnostic." Merton was what I would call an "agnostic Catholic." He was not hung up on giving a name or human characteristics to God. The natural world was for him the primary revelation. He listened. He felt a presence in his heart, an awareness of the ineffable Mystery that permeates creation. It was this that drew him to the mystical tradition of Christianity, especially to the Celtic tradition of creation spirituality that I wrote about in Climbing Brandon. It was this that attracted him to Zen.

Merton remained within the Church. Why he continued to identify with an institution so radically misaligned to everything he felt sacred is a bit of a mystery to me. The Church is triumphalistic; he was ecumenical. The Church is misogynistic; he embraced the feminine divine. The Church is a trader in miracles; for him, all that existed was miraculous. The Church is defined by an eschatological notion of redemption; he saw our task as redeeming the here and now.

Certainly, Merton's commitment to his monastic vows -- and to Cistercian silence and solitude, work and prayer -- took precedence over the formalities of creed. Blessedly, his life and work released creative and transforming energies within the Church. His decision to stay may turn out to have been the most important work of his life.

Perhaps my training as a scientist compelled my leaving. I too wanted to walk the clean and airy shore between knowledge and mystery, but could not bear to drag along all that institutional baggage of prescientific miracles and philosophical dualism. I too wanted to listen to the primary revelation of nature, but could not hear in the cacophony of theological mumbo-jumbo. I too wanted to celebrate the holiness of the here and now, within the tradition into which I was born, but could not find a liturgy that was not locked in neolithic magic. I know many Catholics who look past these things to the essential core of mystery, and I am one with them in spirit, but I cannot bring myself to ignore the commonly accepted meaning of words.

For Merton, "Catholic" took precedence over "agnostic." For me, it is the other way round.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The intensest rendezvous

The meditations of the past three days recapitulate my encounter with Wallace Stevens forty years ago. Almost all of my thinking and writing since that time have been shaped by those three characteristics of truth: it must be abstract, it must change, it must give pleasure. It is an ecumenical notion of truth, cautious, tentative, devoid of arrogance, roomy enough to make a place for science, art and spirituality. It served me well.

Now, in bloggy retirement, it is another of Stevens' poems that says what I would hope to convey here in these posts, written in the quiet of dawn, spouse still asleep, children grown and gone, coffee at my elbow, in silence and solitude.
Final Soliloquy Of The Interior Paramour
Wallace Stevens

Light the first light of evening, as in a room
In which we rest and, for small reason, think
The world imagined is the ultimate good.

This is, therefore, the intensest rendezvous.
It is in that thought that we collect ourselves,
Out of all the indifferences, into one thing:

Within a single thing, a single shawl
Wrapped tightly round us, since we are poor, a warmth,
A light, a power, the miraculous influence.

Here, now, we forget each other and ourselves.
We feel the obscurity of an order, a whole,
A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous.

Within its vital boundary, in the mind.
We say God and the imagination are one...
How high that highest candle lights the dark.

Out of this same light, out of the central mind,
We make a dwelling in the evening air,
In which being there together is enough.
(In yesterday's comments, naturalist mentioned some work of my daughter on mountain uplift and climate change. Black Dome Press has just reissued an updated and spiffed up new edition of the book Maureen and I wrote together, Written in Stone: A Geological History of the Northeastern United States. Needless to say, it is Maureen who gives the book its scientific authority, and it was she who did the revising.)

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Part 3 -- It must give pleasure

The gods had no great love of humankind. Adam and Eve had -- what? a day? a week? a fortnight? -- in the Garden before they were dumped into a world of woe. Henceforth they must earn their bread by the sweat of their brow. Pandora opened her pretty gift box from father Zeus and you know what toil and sickness that brought among us. This world of ours was the valley of the shadow of death, the vale of tears. But never mind, sweet pleasure awaited us in the afterlife. Well, some of us anyway.

The new supreme fiction must give pleasure here and now, or such as we can make or discover for ourselves. Certainly, through the application of science and technology we have alleviated some of the woes that popped out of Pandora's box, thumbing our noses at father Zeus. Those of us who are fortunate to live within the new dispensation can expend the sweat of our brows on projects of our own choosing. More important is the permission the new fiction gives us to enjoy the world as we find it:
As when the sun comes rising, when the sea
Clears deeply, when the moon hangs on the wall
Of heaven-haven. These are not things transformed.
Yet we are shaken by them as if they were.
Our task, as difficult as it is, is not to suffer in silence awaiting a problematic Blessedness, but to expend our creativity and energy to make the crooked straight and the rough places plain. The place we live is what we love; it is neither heaven nor hell. It is here -- just here, in this world, just now -- that "love's characters come face to face."

It is of course a fiction to say the world is good. The world is neither good nor bad, except in as much as we make it so. Our challenge is to find the real, to make a happy marriage with this our only Earth. The supreme fiction, when we have made it, will celebrate the light that burns in the heart of every cell, in the hummingbird at the vine, and in distant galaxies that turn on inhuman axes.
...To discover an order as of
A season, to discover summer and know it,

To discover winter and know it well, to find,
Not to impose, not to have reasoned at all,
Out of nothing to have come on major weather,

It is possible, possible, possible...
We can do all that angels can.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Part 2 -- It must change

The oldest human dream is of constancy. In the iffiness of their lives our ancestors longed for a changeless paradise, where ripe fruit never falls and streets are paved with imperishable gold. That constant otherworld they placed in the heavens, above the orb of the Moon, where crystalline spheres turned endlessly at the beck of angels. This was the dream of immortality. Universal, apparently, among the peoples of the Earth,

The corollaries of immortality were massive tombs and temples, hereditary kingships, infallible popes, Truth with a capital T -- the reassurances of permanency.

But nature is not so enamored of fixity.
Two things of opposite natures seem to depend
On one another, as a man depends
On a woman, day on night, the imagined

On the real. This is the origin of change.
Winter and spring, cold copulars, embrace
And forth the particulars of rapture come.
The new paradigm is evolution. Whatever our new supreme fiction will be, it must be inconstant. Death is the engine of complexification and diversity. Without death, there is no natural selection. As the microbiologist Ursula Goodenough says: "It was the invention of death, the invention of germ/soma dichotomy, that made possible the existence of our brains." Inconstancy is the rejuvenation of the universe, the architect of our loves and raptures.

The "immutable" celestial spheres, we have discovered, roil with change. Stars live and die, and in their dying seed the universe with the elements of life. Our telescopes record their comings and goings in images of breathtaking beauty. The loss of immortality is the price we pay to have our minds engage with the universe of the galaxies and the DNA, the grand unfolding of the river out of Eden. Ripe fruit falls; we savor it, the juices dribble down our chins.
...The freshness of transformation is
The freshness of the world. It is our own,
It is ourselves, the freshness of ourselves...
This too will be part of the supreme fiction. Write it down.

(Tomorrow -- It must give pleasure.)

Monday, November 26, 2007

Part 1 -- It must be abstract

Wallace Stevens is a poet one either loves or hates. As a poet, he is not among my favorites. As a poet-thinker, he was an important influence on the evolution of my own thinking.

What follows is a three part meditation on his poem Notes Toward A Supreme Fiction, corresponding to the three parts of the poem itself. As usual, Stevens' take is witty and whimsical, cryptic, almost opaque. He speaks, however, to a central philosophical issue of our time.

He begins with an assumption few moderns will dispute. The gods are dead. Amun-Ra, Zeus, Jehovah, God, Allah: As Stevens says in the peom, these were names "for something that never could be named." With the demise of the gods went the age-old distinction between natural and supernatural. "The death of one god is the death of all." We are left on our own, natural conscious beings in a natural world.

But our very consciousness demands a narrative, a supreme fiction that makes sense of the world, that affirms a meaning to our lives, that dignifies our personal oblivion. That is the central task of our time, suggests Stevens. The world within our consciousness is an invented world. What we require is an invented world that begins in the thing itself, the world perceived with a minimum of projected self.
There is a project for the sun. The sun
Must bear no name, gold flourisher, but be
In the difficulty of what it is to be.
But of course it is impossible to know the thing itself. To speak at all is to let consciousness intrude. Science and poetry are necessarily metaphorical. And every metaphor can poison our search for truth by standing in for truth itself.

So, yes, our supreme fiction must be abstract, a mere intimation of the thing itself, a shadow on a wall. In the past, we made nature in our own image, made it conform to our desire. Now we must make ourselves in the image of nature.
From this the poem springs: that we live in a place
That is not our own and, much more, not ourselves.
The clouds, the lake, the moon and sun are our teachers. So too are our sensuous, sensual bodies. We observe the world with a searching eye, not taking ourselves too seriously, knowing that we are a little ridiculous, "the man/ In that old coat, those sagging pantaloons." We wait, we watch, for gifts of grace, those moments of awakening when we are more than awake. The scientist, the poet, the mystic too -- striving to abstract a work of illumination from a world that is ultimately beyond our grasp and oblivious to our strivings, make, to confect
The final elegance, not to console
Nor sanctify, but plainly to propound.
(Tomorrow -- It must change.)

Sunday, November 25, 2007

You ain't seen nuthin' YET

Such a mischievous little word. See this week's Musing.

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination. Is that word OK, Anne? An illuminated manuscript.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The end is where we start from

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
These lines from T. S. Eliot's Little Gidding might be a suitable epigraph for this blog. The postings here -- these morning musings -- are a recapitulation of a lifetime of exploring, which has taken me in a great wide circle, for the body knows what it knows and keeps us on an elastic tether.

All those journeys! Seventy times around the Sun. Twenty-five-thousands spins on the Earth's axis. Two billion heart beats. Forty years back and forth along the Path. A hundred times up and down the Holy Mountain. Poking and prying. Turning over stones. Stripping bark. Rolling back the eye of the observatory dome. All those hours in the library stacks. And I am back where I started, a skinny Catholic boy from Tennessee who loved to play in the woods.

We are what we are. But without the ceaseless exploration we don't know what we are, or who we are, or where we are. And even then, after those billions of miles and heartbeats, we have only a hint of what is this place we call home.

Friday, November 23, 2007

World views and ecology

Buddhist cosmology expresses solid links between the heavens, Earth, and humankind. No part of the triad can be considered in the absence of the others. Between the macrocosm of the universe and the microcosm of the human body, Buddhist philosophy posits correspondences that serve to integrate men and women into the greater world.

Native American wisdom, too, celebrates a dense web of connections that bind humans into a fabric of creation. Each plant and animal has a place in a scheme of things that can bear no gap or absence. Each is part of a Great Spirit who speaks through earth, air, fire and water, binding and consolidating.

Both traditions place great emphasis on cosmic unity and harmony.

Conservationists within the Western tradition generally embrace these Eastern and Native American ideas with enthusiasm, for they seem to offer a view of wholeness that is essential if we are to save the planetary environment from disintegration.

We sometimes forget that Buddhist philosophy did not save the Chinese from occasionally inflicting terrible cruelties upon each other and their neighbors, and that Native Americans existed in an almost constant state of warfare with each other before the coming of Europeans.

All of us -- Eastern, Western, Native American -- would appear to participate equally in the virtues and vices of the human condition. It is technology that has generally determined who wreaked the greater havoc on the human and nonhuman environment, not any intrinsic degree of virtue or vice.

But surely cosmologies based on wholeness will reinforce good behavior? Yes, but let's not forget that 500 years ago Western Europe embraced a cosmology similar to those of Buddhists and Native Americans. In the late-medieval European world picture, a “great chain of being” linked all creatures from God’s throne to the dregs of earth. Every creature had a proper place in the chain. Between the macrocosm and the microcosm there were many correspondences: between the seven planets, for example, and the seven holes in the human head. Earth, air, fire, water, heat, cold, dry, moist: all must be in balance, in both the big and little worlds, if the cosmos is to function properly.

"Take but degree away, untune that string, and hark, what discord follows," wrote Shakespeare.

Of course, the late-medieval European world view didn't stop Europeans from killing each other, or from lopping off the heads of Saracens with abandon. Nor did it stop the Black Death from periodically ravaging the population. What finally stopped the Black Death, and what gave rise to what little peace and tolerance we are presently able to muster, was not the great chain of being, but the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment.

Out of the scientific world view is today emerging something that might be called the ecological world view. It is not human-centered, but it does embed humankind in an unfolding tapestry of more-than-human meaning. Like the world views of Buddhists, Native Americans, and late-medieval Europeans, it offers a vision of cosmic harmony grounded in the evolutionary structure of the universe.

Can we have it both ways -- the Great Spirit and the world machine? Whatever the future brings, it won't be a re-creation of the past. We can learn from the wisdoms of earlier world cultures, but scientific knowledge of ecological systems, along with the universal Golden Rule, would seem to be our best guide to a harmonious future.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Saying grace

(This is a repeat of my Thanksgiving post last year, with a reprise of Anne's Thanksgiving art.)

I thank you God for this most amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and for the blue dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural, which is infinite, which is yes.
There was a time as a teenager when I thought e. e. cummings was, like, uh, you know, a terrific poet. My taste today runs more to the likes of Howard Nemerov, but -- what the heck -- let's drag out old Edward Estlin for our Thanksgiving prayer.

Can one be thankful for trees and sky if there is not a someone to be thankful to?

Maybe not a someone, but certainly a something. Here, now, around this table with the fat crispy bird and cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes. Call it the Big M, for Mystery.

You don't hear much about gratitude from the sociobiologists or evolutionary psychologists. They have proposed an evolutionary basis for violence, altruism, religion, language, ethics, sexiness, and so on. Why not gratitude? Do children have to be taught to say thank you? Or do those words come naturally to our lips, as I suspect they came to Edward Estlin's lips one especially fine blue day. There are times when one simply feels an overwhelming gratitude that seems to well up from some primitive part of the brain, some overflowing pool of unarticulated appreciation. It may be that people invented the gods at least partly to have someone to be thankful to. That is to say, gratitude may not be a response to God so much as God is a response to gratitude.

So, thank you, God, for this most amazing day.

Thank you for those who read and comment here. I wish I could invite them all in from the porch to join us around the table.

Thank you for sister Anne, on her western mesa, for her weekly illuminations (click to enlarge). And for all artists and poets.

Thank you for son Tom, who makes Science Musings work.

Thank you for Pelagius, John Scotus Eriugena, Meister Eckhart, Joan of Arc, Giordano Bruno, Galileo Galilee, Charles Darwin, Teilhard de Chardin, Rachel Carson, and all the other heretics over the ages who have challenged accepted dogma.

Thank you for the residue theorem of complex variable analysis.

Thank you for that C-major fortissimo chord in Haydn's Creation Oratorio and all that it represents.

That is to say, thank you for quarks. And for galaxies.

And for the heart-thumping, head-spinning choreography of the double helix.

And -- speaking of DNA -- thank you for our four spectacular children and their spouses and children who join us at table or in spirit today.


Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The web of being

Ah, yes, the divine Dante. Even in his lifetime he was recognized as the prince of poets. His great work, the Divine Comedy, seemed to his contemporaries almost miraculous, a judgment that endures to this day. Here was a poet of consummate talent who embraced in his verses the grand sweep of the physical and spiritual universes and all of human history.

Dante's world was one of incessant violence. Throughout his lifetime his native city of Florence was racked by strife between Guelphs, supporters of the Papacy, and Ghibellines, allies of the Holy Roman Emperor. The Guelphs were themselves acrimoniously divided into White Guelphs and Black Guelphs. Add into the mix assorted war lords and ambitious princes and it was pretty much unending conflict. If you weren't struck down on the battlefield, there was always burning at the stake or decapitation for real or imagined offenses. Nevertheless, Dante lived to the fairly ripe old age of fifty-six, although most of that time in exile.

He died of natural causes, not long after finishing the Paradiso. Struck low (apparently) by a mosquito.

Yes, a mosquito. Not a lion, the king of the beasts, or an eagle, the prince of birds. And, no, not even a mosquito, but an invisible parasite of mosquitoes and humans called Plasmodium falciparum.

In 1321, returning to Ravenna from Venice, Dante crossed malarial marshes, where he seems to have contracted the disease then blamed on bad air (mala-aria), the bite that binds. A creature from far, far down on the Great Chain of Being reached up into the highest rung of mortal existence and dragged the greatest poet of his time down into the dust.

There is no more Great Chain of Being in Italy. No more malarial marshes either.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The scattered leaves of all the universe

Dante Alighieri, the inestimable Florentine poet, carried in his head and gave expression in verse to pretty much the entire universe known to his 13th-century European contemporaries. From the dregs of the Earth to the highest heaven he journeyed in his imagination. His was a universe made expressly for humans, and nothing was in it that was not part of the human drama of sin and salvation. When at last he has ascended through the Great Chain of Being, he looks upon the Godhead itself.
And within its depths, I saw ingathered,
bound by love in a single volume,
the scattered leaves of all the universe.
Dante encompassed in his poetry what his contemporary Thomas Aquinas sought to do in reasoned prose: present to human understanding all that exists. They looked upon the universe from a privileged position, as unique creatures who joined material and spiritual forms, what the poet John Donne later called "elements and an angelic sprite."

How neat, how glorious!

Today we look out onto an altogether different universe, from an altogether different and more humble perspective. No human mind can possibly hold or give expression to the grandeur of the cosmos revealed, say, by the Hubble Deep Field Photograph, a cosmos of at least 100 billion galaxies. Our place within this universe seems altogether ordinary, and what exists elsewhere within those possible infinities of space and time no one can tell. And because no one can tell us with the clarity of a Dante or Aquinas just why we are special, we cling to a 13th-century worldview even as the cosmological basis of that worldview has been blasted to smithereens.

Aquinas's work has been subsumed by science. Where is the Dante of today who will connect the human drama to the new cosmos of the galaxies? Where is the poet who will help us see the universe of the galaxies in a grain of sand? The cosmos of the Divine Comedy, from the center of the planet Earth to the sphere of the fixed stars, the primum mobile, and beyond, is now -- we know -- itself as a grain of sand in a universe of ungraspable immensity and possibility.

But maybe Dante sensed this himself. In the final lines of the Paradiso, as he gazes into the glorious light of Infinity, he admits his inability to grasp or express what he sees. It is almost as if he were peering into the universe of the galaxies, awed, humble and silent. The Paradiso ends, like the Inferno and Purgatorio, with the word stelle;
But at last my will and my desire --
like a wheel moving evenly -- were revolving
from the love that moves the sun and all the stars.
(Click to enlarge image. On the left is a Hubble photograph of the nebula around supergiant star V838 Monocerotis. On the right is a Gustav Dore illustration for Dante's Paradiso.)

Monday, November 19, 2007

The varieties of religious experience

We are all shaped by our early experience. In matters of religion, especially, we like to think that as adults we have arrived objectively at "the truth," but the vast majority of us end up affirming the faith into which we were born. Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and all the rest hold with equal conviction their natal religion as the one true path to God. Even an old agnostic like me was surely nudged to my present position by influences over which I had little control. Recognizing this sobering fact should cause us to show rather more ecumenical tolerance and humility than has been the norm.

I am a Catholic agnostic.

The quintessential religious experience of my youth was kneeling alone in a church lit only by the red glow of the sanctuary light, reciting rote prayers and feeling guilty for my mostly imagined sins. Or serving Mass. Introibo ad altare dei, I mumbled, knowing it meant "I will go into the altar of God," but having little sense of a divine presence. As for the rest of the Latin prayers I rendered from memory, they might as well have been the Swahili alphabet. But the rites and rituals had a solemn dignity about them. I loved holding the canopy over the Blessed Sacrament as the priest processed around the church at Benediction, all of us singing the Tantum ergo in magnificent voice. And if that didn't stir up a sense of divinity, there was always the soul-stirring Dies irae of the Requiem Mass. There seemed to be something grandly medieval about it all, as indeed there was. I loved it. Still do.

But, hey, this was Chattanooga, Tennessee, in the late-40s and 50s, and there were other religious experiences on offer. I had a Baptist girlfriend who took me to a BIg Tent revival meeting. We sat on rickety chairs in a back row where I harbored the forlorn hope of hanky-panky. She got carried away with the general pandemonium, leaping to her feet and clapping and praising Jesus while I sat there mooning over her cute little bottom. For weeks afterward she was born-again virtuous while I lined up for Confession to declare a seriously underestimated number of "impure thoughts."

And how could I forget the snake handlers. I sometimes spent summer weekends at a friend's family cottage in Mentone, Alabama. One night we went to a snake-handler church in the shadow of Sand Mountain. First we hung out behind the church where a couple of grizzled rednecks tended a big box full of copperheads, which they were happy to take out -- carefully -- and show us. Later we sat in a back pew while the sweaty preacher took the serpents into his hands, men on the right, women on the left, all in a state of apparent transport. Those of the congregants who felt sufficiently possessed of the Holy Spirit passed around the venomous reptiles. If we took away a subconscious lesson from that night it was that one person's religion is another person's madness.

But none of that sank in then. I had to go though some madness of my own as I tried on a conscious, elective Catholicism for the first time. I put pebbles in my shoes and sand in my bed, and lived the sort of confused muddle of asceticism and carnality that characterized the stuff I was reading, such as Georges Bernanos' Diary of a Country Priest, or watching, such as Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc. It was madness, yes, but at the time it seemed a divine madness, and even now lingers as a sweet melancholy.

In the end I made my peace with science. What appealed to me about the scientific way of knowing was its emphasis on achieving an empirically-based consensus that reaches across cultures, religions and politics. That is to say, I trust the global scientific consensus more than I trust the accidents of my birth and upbringing. No longer did I worry about parsing miracles: Do I believe in heaven, but not purgatory? Do I believe in purgatory, but not limbo? Do I believe in the resurrection of Jesus, but not the assumption of Mary? Do I believe that the Virgin appeared to Bernadette, but not in the image of Jesus on the damp church wall in Brooklyn? Do I believe in praying for rain in drought-ridden Georgia, but not in picking up copperheads? Every religious person parses miracles, and ends up somewhere along the spectrum between agnosticism and fundamentalism. As for me, it was accept the whole ball of supernatural wax or none.

So I chose none. I rely on non-miraculous natural science as the most reliable guide to "what is." But I bear the welcome marks of a Catholicism that goes deeper than Creed and miracles. An abiding awareness of Mystery. A regard for the sacramental tradition. An attachment to sacred history, art and music. A respect for liturgy grounded in the diurnal and annual solar cycles, and in earth, air, fire, water, bread, wine, incense, chrism and wax. Prayer of the heart, as Merton calls it: attentiveness and silence. A nostalgia for the journey of the soul through the dark night. And, of course, the thing that every Catholic carries like the sign of Baptism -- the delicious, heart-wrenching, unshakable equation of sex and sin.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Of sainted mayhem

Our dear old Path made yesterday's Wall Street Journal. As for the beautiful church of Sainte-Chapelle in yesterday's post, see this week's Musing.

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday pic.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Into the void

Meanwhile, in booming Beijing, the Rem Koolhaas-designed headquarters building for Chinese state television (CCTV) is nearing completion. The two leaning towers are ready to be connected at the top by the crazily cantilevered upper stories. Can it be done?

This is a building that could not have been attempted even a decade ago. A little sunlight, a little chill, and the gap between the towers shrinks or expands. Only Koolhaus and the Chinese would have dared such a far-out scheme for the second-largest office building in the world.

But what's new? My favorite building in the world, Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, must have been judged in its time a lunatic design: A shell of glorious glass, held together by impossibly slender ribs of mortared stone. It was built in the 13th century, and except for some rather nasty vandalism during the French Revolution it has defied the ages.

Sainte-Chapelle stands as a magnificent monument to the Age of Faith; it was meant to house Christ's crown of thorns and other sacred relics. What does the CCTV tower stand for? Chinese over-arching ambition, of course. But it is really a monument to the Age of Computers. I think it is fair to say that no architecture company in the world could have gathered enough purely human intelligence to assure the feasibility of the plan. No one is going to spend $800 million on faith alone.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Pulling the plug

One of the advantages of belonging to the confraternity of nature writers is meeting folks who are better than me at living the values I espouse. It's a steadying influence, and helps keep me on -- or near to -- the straight and narrow.

One of those people is Robert Michael Pyle, bearded sage and butterfly man, author of wonderful books on nature, and columnist for Orion magazine.

His column is called The Tangled Bank, which comes of course from the final paragraph of Darwin's Origin of Species.
It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us....There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
Bob gives gentle voice to the grandeur.

His most recent column tells of his decision to cut the electronic cord that connects him to the world. That means no TV, no mobile phone, no e-mail, no home connection to the internet. He writes: "I already weep over all the indoor hours when I could actually be out, combing the moss for waterbears or contemplating where people get the time to read blogs, for gods' sake -- is it at the complete expense of books?" Yikes, Bob, can you really go cold turkey? "Maybe so," he writes. "We'll see..."

I live without TV for most of the year. I don't use a mobile phone. But no internet! How could I write from my special places without access to the electronic universe of information? What would I do each morning with my thoughts if I didn't have my blog?

OK, the answer is obvious. Keep a private journal like I used to. Write my books in solitude and send them out into the world as paper emissaries from the organic world of water bears and moss. I made fun here yesterday of the students who spend their day with a cell phone to their ear. Why then do I feel the need for the instant gratification of e-mail?

Well, never mind. I read Bob Pyle and I resolve to spend an extra half hour walking home this afternoon. But my fingers itch too much for the laptop keys to pull the plug and follow Bob onto the tangled bank. Can he pull it off? We'll see. Good luck, friend.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Plugged in

In last Sunday's Doonesbury, Zipper is sitting in a college lecture hall, like the other students, with his open laptop, ostensibly taking notes. But of course he is checking his e-mail. When he is called on by the teacher, he stalls for time while he Googles the answer to her question. Then back to the e-mail.

According to former colleagues still in the classroom, it is increasingly common for students to be occupied with text-messaging and computer chat during class time. While the prof is deconstructing a Shakespearean sonnet, the student is in MySpace. Then her phone rings.

So it has come to this. Put away the toys while in class? Hey, dude, I'm paying $45,000 a year to be here, I can do what I want with my time.

Sigh. Looks like I got out just in time. Of course technology can be a fabulous tool for learning; I use it every day, and lord knows I've staked out my own little corner of the internet. Columbia University journalism professor Samuel Freedman calls it the divide between "those who want to use technology to grow smarter from those who want to use it to get dumber."

I have visited this subject before. In just two years our obsession with technology has moved to a new level of self-absorption. As the classrooms empty out between classes, every student is chatting on a cell. What la-la-land they are visiting I have no idea. If they spent as much time on Jane Austen, or the Magna Carta, or the Second Law of Thermodynamics as they do on IM and Facebook they might get something worthwhile for their $45,000.

And now, on Wednesday's Salon, Garrison Keillor of all people sings the praises of staying connected. "God bless cellphones," he extols. Surely he was being ironic. When everyone in Lake Wobegon is walking around with phones to their ears, I know it's time to check out.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

In search of the soul

A new book is trying to do for neurology what Michael Behe's Darwin's Black Box did for biology -- bring supernaturalism to the science of the brain.

Well, wait, we'll hold judgment on the science. I've been digging around in the book and I've yet to find any science that justifies the book's thesis.

The book is The Spiritual Brain by the Canadian neurologist Mario Beauregard and the anti-Darwin blogger Denyse O'Leary. The subtitle: A Neurologist's Case for the Existence of the Soul. And yes, the authors mean to show exactly that -- your mind is more than your brain, and can and will exist independently of your material self.

That minds are more than brains, no one disputes. That minds can exist independently of brains -- well, that's another matter.

I will hesitantly admit that I am initially skeptical of any book whose author feels it necessary to put Ph.D. after his name on the jacket -- not something you'd see from the likes of Francis Collins or Richard Dawkins, two fine scientists on opposite sides of the science/faith debates. Nor does it help that the co-author of this purportedly scientific treatise is a feisty, avowedly Christian, anti-Darwin blogger.

Still, I put my prejudices aside and hoped to see some interesting science. But where? The first chapters are fairly traditional broadsides in the sci/faith wars. Fine, no problem with that. But scientific proof for the existence of an immaterial soul? I don't think so.

When we finally get to the "science," it's pretty much the same old stuff that has been hauled out a hundred times -- the psi effect (telepathy, etc.), near death experiences, the placebo effect -- and, as far as I can see, nothing new is added. These are subjects worthy of study, but I've yet to see any data here or elsewhere to suggest that a supernatural explanation is required, or that psi effects even exist.

What is new is Beauregard's work with nuns from a cloistered Carmelite convent, research funded by the John Templeton Foundation. Beauregard and his colleague Vincent Paquette did brain scans on nuns in prayer and contemplation. These experiences manifested themselves in brain regions involved in a variety of functions, "such as self-consciousness, emotion, body representation, visual and motor imagery, and spiritual perception." Which seems to me about what you'd expect if the organic brain is the seat of the soul.

The bottom line, on page 276: "Do our findings prove that mystics contact a power outside themselves? No, because there is no way to prove or disprove that from one side only." Which is exactly correct. But then the authors go on to say: "What we can do, however, is determine the patterns that are consistent with certain types of experiences. Thus we can rule out some explanations, because, for example, a complex pattern is not consistent with a simple explanation." By "simple explanation" the authors presumably mean "naturalistic." Beauregard is the first neurologist I've come across who thinks the human brain is "simple."

Or try this: "When the nuns were recalling autobiographical memories, the brain activity was different from that of the mystical state." What a surprise! And this is taken as evidence for the existence of God and immaterial souls.

And so it goes. It would have been better for both Beauregard and the good nuns to have let the data speak for itself, rather that presenting it to the world wrapped in a "post-Darwin" polemic that proves nothing one way or the other and cheapens the mystical experience and faith of these dedicated women.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


I was visiting Technorati and came across a blog that used a quote from me as an epigraph: "Description is revelation. Seeing is praise."

Surely this is wrong, I thought. It should be the other way around. Seeing is revelation; description is praise.

But no, I went to the source -- Honey From Stone -- and there it is, just as the blogger had it. What could I have been thinking?

Revelation comes from outside. We need only be disposed to see -- objectively and without prejudice (insofar as that is possible) -- to be gifted with insights into the mystery of creation. To attend to what we see is prayer. To describe what we see is praise.

And so it is these November mornings as I stop to praise the milkweed. More than praise; I give the stems a good shake and send the seed tufts flying. I doubt if the folks in the nearby community gardens appreciate me spreading weeds, but I'm thinking of the ever-diminishing population of monarch butterflies, whose larvae feed only on this plant.

Once, many years ago, when my first two kids were not much more than toddlers, I brought home heaps of ripe milkweed pods on their stems, and two big air blowers from the physics lab. We had a back bedroom that was used for nothing but storage. I cleared it out and moved in the blowers and stereo speakers. The kids stripped down to their undies and frolicked in the room with milkweed stems in each hand, shaking up an air-blasted snowstorm of tufts while Handel's Hallelujah Chorus boomed on the stereo. I wonder if they remember?

I will praise with the tongues of angels. I will sound the lyre.

Monday, November 12, 2007


It was midsummer last year that I began to suspect I had Lyme disease. Listless, achy, loss of appetite. Eventually, a blood test confirmed the infection, and a three-week course of antibiotics supposedly cured it. But for several months, my blood stream swarmed with Lyme spirochetes, twisty bacteria squirming throughout my body.

Ponder for a moment the tiny bugs and microorganisms that live in us and on us.

They are everywhere: eyes, ears, teeth, gums, between the toes, in the groins. They harbor by the millions in the grasslands of the skin, the forests of the scalp, the damp Congos of the armpits.

Most densely of all, they thrive in the caverns of the digestive tract; in the lower part of the large intestine there are commonly 100 billion bacteria per gram of excrement.

They are the cause of body odor, bad breath and intestinal gas. They make our scalp and eyebrows itch. When their populations get wildly out of control they cause maladies such as yeast infections and thrush. But mostly they are harmless, and sometimes beneficial. Biologists call some of them commensal, which means in its Latin root, "eating at the same table."

Here's a neat imaginative exercise: Imagine that every one of your trillions of body cells, that is, the cells that are undeniably you, which bear your DNA, were to instantaneously vanish. There would remain (until it dispersed) a ghostly version of yourself, etched in space by your bugs -- your hair, eyebrows, ears and nostrils, fingers and toes, internal cavities -- and, maybe, if like me last summer, and maybe still, you were infected with Lyme pathogens, the entire web of your circulatory system would be outlined by a myriad of propellering bacteria, screwing through the air, wondering where their host had suddenly gone.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Seeking the high places

Have you read recently that Neanderthals may have been fair-skinned redheads? The evidence: molecular DNA in 50,000 year-old bones. If that doesn't curl your hair, nothing will. See this week's Musing.

Another of Anne's "Art Lessons." Click to enlarge.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

A reality utterly inscrutable

The penultimate paragraph of Jeremy Campbell's The Many Faces of God: Science's 400-Year Quest for Images of the Divine:
In the early days of Darwinism, the nineteenth-century scholar Herbert Spencer wrote that religions tend to harbor a secret fear that everything may some day be explained, which suggests they are hiding a residual doubt as to whether God as an Incomprehensible Cause is really as incomprehensible as they supposed. What they must face up to, Spencer said, is that it is only in the assertion of a reality utterly inscrutable that religion can be reconciled with science. "A permanent peace between science and religion," he said, "will be reached when science becomes fully convinced that its explanations are proximate and relative, while religion becomes fully convinced that the mystery it contemplates is ultimate and absolute.
Which pretty much summarizes what I have been urging in books and blog.

As Campbell notes, the first of Spencer's two conditions has arguably been met. As we enter the 21st century, I don't know any scientist or philosopher of science who does not admit that scientific knowledge is partial, tentative and subject to change. There is no theory of science so thoroughly entrenched that it would not be overthrown if the evidence demanded it or if a more economical theory came along.

But we are no closer to meeting the second condition than we were in Spencer's time. Indeed, it could be argued that God as Ultimate Mystery is in full retreat. Billions of people right across the planet claim to know God's mind, or claim a personal relationship with the presumed creator of the universe. The God of many churches, mosques and temples is not Ultimate and Absolute Mystery -- to which all of us might reasonably bend our knee in adoration -- but a cross between an avuncular Bill Gates and Michelangelo's po-faced Moses, a God who turns his ear to the congregant's every prayer and asks nothing in return but a generous tithe, or perhaps blowing oneself up in a crowded marketplace.

Ironically, it is from science that we learn the extent of our ignorance -- and just how incomprehensible is the Incomprehensible Cause that has from the dawn of human consciousness been an enduring source of religious feeling.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Adorned with all the riches of the earth

You had need of me in order to grow; and I was waiting for you in order to be made holy.
I have written often here of Teilhard de Chardin, Jesuit priest, mystic, anthropologist, and an intellectual hero of my youth. I am no longer as taken with his Christocentric theology, but I still stand in awe of what he was trying to do -- to drag the Church kicking and screaming into the 20th century. For his trouble he was silenced and exiled, protesting in a letter, "If only Rome would start to doubt herself at last, a little!"

His greatest legacy, it seems to me, was his attempt to redeem matter from the contempt in which it was held by official theology, which -- caught up in an unnatural philosophical dualism -- placed matter over and against the divine. Matter/spirit, natural/supernatural, body/soul: Has ever a philosophical concept led to such strife and mischief?

Near the end of his life, Teilhard wrote: "How is it possible that I am so incapable of passing on to others...the vision of the marvelous unity in which I find myself immersed?"

One of the most moving of Teilhard's essays is "The Spiritual Power of Matter" in The Hymn of the Universe. Those who denigrate science for its supposed commitment to "Godless materialism" -- and they are many -- could do well to read these allegorical pages, in which Teilhard envisions the evolving universe of matter lit up from within by a redeeming power that is not be be separated from its corporeal embodiment. It is matter -- for Teilhard, divine matter -- who speaks the line with which I began this post.

When Teilhard spoke the words of consecration, "This is my body," he was not invoking a magical transubstantiation, but rather acknowledging liturgically "the beauty of spirit as it rises up adorned with all the riches of the earth." We are flesh and blood, through and through, in our most profound essence, says Teilhard; without matter we do not exist. And, he adds, it is our responsibility as religious creatures to make matter holy.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

A rich life

I have been dipping into The Richness of Life: The Essential Stephen Jay Gould, last year's anthology of Gould's writing, edited by Steven Rose. I have read much of what is here before, most notably in Natural History magazine, to which Gould contributed an unbroken string of 300 essays. His stand-alone books, too, I never failed to read. Gould could not put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, without saying something interesting.

I never met the man, but he occasionally responded to my Boston Globe columns, usually positively, once to chide. He challenged me to stick it out until he achieved his own milepost. I reached 1000 weekly columns at about the same time as he hit 300 five-times longer (and ten times smarter) monthly essays in Natural History. The Richness of Life is an apt title for his selected writings; Gould's life was very rich indeed. I was honored when he provided a very gracious blurb for my book Skeptics and True Believers.

Browsing this new collection, one gets the feeling that the scope of his interests and energy were almost miraculous. He was a champion, of course, of the contingency of evolution. Rewind the tape of life and play it again and it is extremely unlikely that anything like ourselves would emerge, he contended; there is nothing inherently progressive about evolution. Maybe so, maybe not -- the issue is debated by biologists -- but we are fortunate that chance -- or whatever -- threw a Stephen Jay upon our shore.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The imperfect is our paradise

I think I might have mentioned that I am clearing out the office I have been residing in at the college since my retirement. I discover that after a more than 30 years as a science writer I have nearly as many books of poetry as of science, including a shelf of volumes signed by poet friends.

I don't write often about poetry, but it informs my thinking about science, and creates a rich conceptual landscape in which scientific ideas can travel. In the current issue of Poetry, Hungarian-born British poet George Szirtes says this of poetry:
Poetry is useless as evidence. As far as I know, no poem has ever been adduced as evidence in court. The truths the poem deals with are not evidentiary truths. Truths they are, and deep truths at that, but they are not in the form of falsifiable statements such as science or law demands. They do not lead back to the real life outside the poem: their truths refer to the real life inside the poem.
So much of our present tension between science and religion derives from confusing the evidentiary value of poetry with the evidentiary value of science. It is not that we are faced with two contradictory realities, but -- as it were -- with two reflections of the same reality, one in the mirror of the heart, the other in the mirror of the mind. One doesn't take a poem apart on the lab bench. And one doesn't send one's lover the Second Law of Thermodynamics as a valentine.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Non-overlapping magisteria?

It was one hundred years ago this fall that Pope Pius X issued the encyclical Pascendi dominici gregis condemning the heresy known as Modernism.

Towards the end of the 19th century, forward-looking Catholic theologians and philosophers sought to reformulate Catholic belief in ways that were consistent with empirical learning, undoing a long tension between science and faith that stretched back to Galileo -- and beyond. This loose-knit movement was formally aborted with the 1907 encyclical, which rendered serious discussion -- within Catholicism -- of the intrinsic conflict of empirical and faith-based cosmologies mute throughout the 20th century. The general drift of the document can be stated as follows: God has revealed through Holy Scriptures and Apostolic Tradition everything that is necessary to know about God and his relationship to humankind, and men and women must put aside their doubts and humbly accept the immutable truths of faith.

In the section called Faith and Science, the encyclical says: the first place it is to be held that the object of [science] is quite extraneous to and separate from the object of [faith]. For faith occupies itself solely with something which science declares to be unknowable for is entirely concerned with the reality of phenomena, into which faith does not enter at all; faith on the contrary concerns itself with the divine reality which is entirely unknown to science....Hence should it be further asked whether Christ has wrought real miracles, and made real prophecies, whether He rose truly from the dead and ascended into heaven, the answer of agnostic science will be in the negative and the answer of faith in the affirmative -- yet there will not be, on that account, any conflict between them. For it will be denied by the philosopher as philosopher, speaking to philosophers and considering Christ only in His historical reality; and it will be affirmed by the speaker, speaking to believers and considering the life of Christ as lived again by the faith and in the faith.
And there you have it. Miracles occur or they don't. Jesus rose from the dead or he didn't. He was born of a virgin or he wasn't. The human soul is immortal or it isn't. Two realities. No conflict.

"Curiosity by itself, if not prudently regulated, suffices to account for all errors," says the document flatly. And so with a blunt fist, the Church sought to crush the very thing that makes us most majestically human: our questing intelligence, our ongoing search for a single reliable reality, which for want of a better word we can call -- temporarily, hesitantly -- truth.

Today, many Catholics have gone where the Modernists wanted to take us. For some of us, this has meant leaving home. Others remain in communion and work for change from within. All of us retain a deep affection for a sacramental tradition that stripped of an archaic philosophical dualism offers a satisfying avenue for community, spirituality, celebration, and praise.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Step by Step

In late October and early November, New England's best views are underfoot. Summer's monotone of green and winter's monotone of brown draw briefly aside to reveal an oriental carpet of yellows, oranges and reds. The eyes go down, and notice what has been there all along, a deep, luxurious, unexplored wilderness of earth.

On the last page of his autobiography, Naturalist, E. O. Wilson concedes that the untrod wilderness of the popular imagination no longer exists. The New Guinea Highlands and the Antarctic ice cap have become tourist destinations. Most of the larger species of life -- birds, mammals and trees -- have been observed and described. But the vast majority of the planet's organisms are still uncatalogued. They live down there below the soles of my sandals, microbes in their uncounted numbers, waiting to do the work of transformation, devouring one season, preparing another. "They are objects of potentially endless study and admiration," writes Wilson, "if we are willing to sweep our vision down from the world lined by the horizon to include the world an arm's length away." A leg's length away, he should have said.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

The boy in the marsh

The famous human ancestor Lucy is now on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science in Texas, where she is drawing thousands of viewers each weekend. Many paleoanthropologists were dismayed at the removal of these precious fossils from their home in Ethiopia. Now another fossil ancestor is about to travel. See this week's Musing.

Anne is busy working on special projects for the next month or so. I will re-post pics from her Art Lesson series. Click to enlarge.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

The unmysterious mystery

It was an unusually personal story to be featured on the cover of Nature: A father's desparate search through his daughter's DNA.

Four years ago, Hugh Rienhoff's third child, a daughter, was born with a rare and as yet undiagnosed genetic disease. Most serious among the symptoms is an inability to develop muscle mass and tone. Rienhoff was been trained as a clinical geneticist, although he had pretty much left that career behind him. Now he has set out on a quest to discover just where among his daughter's tens of thousands of genes is the new mutation or inherited quirk that prevents her normal development. He even bought gene amplification equipment for his own home. If he can figure out what the problem is, he reasons, an effective treatment might be found.

I won't tell the story, which is both poignant and brave. But this quote from Rienhoff struck me: "I think the most important thing that people take away from this is that the process is not mysterious."

Well, it depends, I suppose, on what you mean by "mysterious." If we live in a causal universe, where nothing happens by chance or by divine intervention, where the laws of nature are orderly and potentially discoverable, where those adorable, searching eyes of Rienhoff's daughter are as much a product of a four-letter chemical code as are the other symptoms of her disease, then, no, the symptoms of the girl's disease are not mysterious -- and that is what drives Rienhoff in his quest for answers.

But in fact we do appear to live in a causal universe, where nothing happens by chance or by divine intervention, where the laws of causal efficacy are orderly and potentially discoverable, where those adorable, searching eyes of Rienhoff's daughter are as much a product of a four-letter chemical code as are the other symptoms of her disease, and where love can be the most powerful driving force of all, and that, friends, yes, that is deeply mysterious -- and an authentic source of religious feeling.

Friday, November 02, 2007


Walking home yesterday, I startled a heron at the Plank Bridge. I have written about an identical experience, in the last chapter of Skeptics and True Believers:

One morning not long ago, I walked to college through meadows made misty by the heat of the rising sun. As I rounded a stand of trees and stepped onto the footbridge over Queset Brook, I startled a great blue heron that stood not ten feet away. The heron startled me. It heaved into the air with bedsheet wings -- push, push -- I could feel the whoosh of air. Neck crooked, pennant head-feathers flying, legs dangling behind like loosened mooring lines. The size of it -- our biggest bird! The fierce eye. The pterodactylian beak. The effect was prehistoric, like a scene from a movie -- Dinosaur Island or Jurassic Park. I stood on the footbridge and applauded.

I'm no ornithologist, but I know certain things about herons that anyone might know, things accumulated by generations of ornithologists working patiently in the field, and by zoologists, anatomists, paleontologists, DNA experts and aeronautical engineers. I know things that have been compiled in popular books by nature writers and field-guide authors. I know, for example, about the bird's feeding and mating habits, its voice and call, its relationship to the European heron and the Japanese crane. I know that the heron, like all birds, is a close relative of dinosaurs, and that feathered birds first flapped their wings in Jurassic times. There is nothing esoteric about any of this knowledge, nothing that requires special training in science. It can be found in places like the National Geographic magazine, the Audubon Society's magazine, the science pages of the newspaper, or television nature shows. In the best of all worlds, it would be taught in the schools from an early age. It would be part of every child's intellectual inheritance, like nursery rhymes and fairy tales. Reliable knowledge, public knowledge, knowledge that enhances experience and increases wonder.

Everything I knew about herons was subsumed in that epiphanic moment when the bird lifted into the air, trailing its toes in the black water of the brook. The heron was feathered by knowledge. Its six-foot wings spanned continents; their beats marked eons of geologic time. In every cell of the bird's great body, coiled strands of DNA performed a dervish dance that can only be imagined in the mind's eye -- spinning, unraveling, copying themselves -- the kinetic miracle of life. In earlier times, myths and totemic religion would have provided the bird with a context, a human meaning. But the ancient myths and totemic religions no longer command our belief. Today, only scientific knowledge can weave the heron into a tapestry of larger meaning. For better or worse, science is the defining public knowledge of our time.

And what knowledge it is! Grander and more God-struck than our ancestors' anthropomorphic and self-idolatrous myths. A story of sublime dimension. Tentative, evolving and not always comfortable, carrying us in our imaginations to the furthest reaches of space and time, but hedged about with death and oblivion. Scientific knowledge enlivens our every experience and tunes us into the deepest mysteries of creation, the hidden rhythms of a world that evades our limited senses. Science cannot nor should not be a religion, but it can be the basis for the religious experience: astonishment, experiential union, adoration, praise. And so it was with the heron. I stood on the footbridge and gaped as the dinosaurian relict pounded the air, seeing deeply into a world not altogether my own, totally skeptical, completely astonished.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

The butterfly and the bow: The biology of desire

Yesterday we saw Bernini's Teresa in religious and sexual rapture. Here's another take on the relation between religion and sex, Jacques-Louis David's Cupid and Psyche, of which I was reminded by the grin on the face of Bernini's angel. Click the pic to enlarge.

The story, briefly: Psyche, the mortal daughter of a king, was so ravishingly beautiful that even the goddess Venus was madly jealous and sent her son Cupid to make Psyche fall in love with the ugliest man she could find. But Cupid himself fell in love with Psyche and wafted her to his palace, where they slept in darkness every night so that she would not discover his identity. The painting shows Cupid leaving at dawn while his lover still slept. But one morning Psyche woke first and lit a lamp to see who it was that she had been wedded to. She was stunned to discover a handsome god. In her excitement, a drop of hot oil fell from the lamp onto Cupid's shoulder, waking him. He fled home to mother. Ultimately, after some misadventures, the lovers were united, and Psyche was raised to the status of an immortal god.

Psyche is the Greek conception of soul or self. It is the thing that makes each of us who we are as individuals. What exactly psyche is has been hotly debated since the time of the Greeks at least. In the Christian West, the soul has been imagined to be an immaterial and immortal essence that can (and will) exist independently of the material body. This dualistic notion of self has been dismissed my modern science. There is no evidence that any perceptible aspect of self can exist independently of the physical body, although the details of psyche remain elusive. (For example, can some aspect of the self be considered informational, and as such able to be embodied in other material forms.)

The Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche suggests that it is love that makes a self immortal -- an insight that rests well with the modern conception of soul. Sexual attraction is certainly built into our biology. Unraveling the biological and cultural bases of romantic love is still on the psychologists' agenda. Meanwhile we see it on Cupid's face as he leaves the lovers' bed, a smug male adolescent smirk, that post-coital glint of pride that comes with the possession of beauty, torn somewhere between romantic love and lust, not quite able to separate the genitals from the heart, or, for that matter, the imperatives of the body from the religious desire for self-transcendence.