Friday, October 31, 2008

Mortal soul 10 -- The great silence

If there is one word that should not be uttered, it is the name of -- no, I will not say it. Any name diminishes. In the face of whatever it is that is most mysterious, most holy, we are properly silent. It is appropriate, I think, to praise the creation, to make a joyful noise of thanksgiving for the sensate world. But praising the Creator is another thing altogether. When we make a big racket on His behalf we are more than likely addressing an idol in our own image. What was it that Pico Iyer said? "Silence is the tribute that we pay to holiness; we slip off words when we enter a sacred place, just as we slip off shoes." The God of the mystics whispers sweet nothings, as lover's do.

In a diary entry for "M.", near the end of his too-short life, Thomas Merton wrote: "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." The natural world was for Merton 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. It was this that attracted him to Zen.

There come now and then, perhaps more frequently in late life than previously, those moments of being (as Virginia Woolf called them) when creation grabs us by the shoulders and gives us such a shake that it rattles our teeth, when love for the world simply knocks us flat. At those moments everything we have learned about the world -- the invaluable and reliable knowledge of science -- seems a pale intimation of what is. In Virginia Woolf's novel The Waves, the elderly Bernard says: "How tired I am of stories, how tired I am of phrases that come down beautifully with all their feet on the ground! Also, how I distrust neat designs of life that are drawn upon half sheets of notepaper. I begin to long for some little language such as lovers use, broken words, inarticulate words, like the shuffling of feet on the pavement."

In moments of soul-stirring epiphany, it is reassuring to feel beneath our feet a floor of reliable knowledge, the safe and sure edifice of empirical learning so painstakingly constructed by the likes of Aristarchus, Galileo, Darwin and Schrodinger. But at the same time we are humbled by our ignorance, and more ready than ever to say "I don't know," to enter at last the great silence. Erwin Chargaff, who contributed mightily to our understanding of DNA, wrote: "It is the sense of mystery that, in my opinion, drives the true scientist; the same blind force, blindly seeing, deafly hearing, unconsciously remembering, that drives the larva into the butterfly. If the scientist has not experienced, at least a few times in his life, this cold shudder down his spine, this confrontation with an immense invisible face whose breath moves him to tears, he is not a scientist."

The whole thrust of the mystical tradition, the whole thrust of science, is toward the great silence -- an awareness of our ignorance and a willingness to say "I don't know." A lifetime of learning brings one at last to the face of mystery. We live in a universe of more than 100 billion galaxies. Perhaps the number of galaxies is infinite. And the universe is silent. Achingly, terrifyingly silent. Or, rather, the universe speaks a little language such as lovers use, broken words, inarticulate words, like the shuffling of feet on the pavement.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Mortal soul 9 -- Words no man can utter

The novelist Virginia Woolf once wrote about "moments of being," elusive incidents of attentiveness and insight when we are lifted out of the "gray wool" of everyday life and permitted to feel an intense connection with the world beyond our selves. These are the same illuminations the poet Sylvia Plath wrote about in her poem Black Rook in Rainy Weather that come now and then unbidden, "thus hallowing an interval/ Otherwise inconsequent/ By bestowing largesse, honor,/ One might say love." We treasure these moments of illumination, and seek to increase their prevalence in our lives. How? A word that comes to mind is -- mindfulness.

How do we make our lives more mindful? The experience of a Virginia Woolf or a Sylvia Plath does not offer much guidance; their particular sensitivity was related to an untypical state of mind that led, finally, to despair. Nor is the Eastern experience of mindfulness of much use to me, a child of Roman Catholicism and Western science. I sought my spiritual enlightenment, such as it is, closer to home, in the Western monastic tradition, and the works of the great medieval mystics, such as John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich and Meister Eckhart. But even as a young man chasing after an unknown God I knew that nature -- the Thing Itself -- would be an important part of any spirituality I might discover or construct. In this regard -- and seemingly paradoxically, since science and spirituality are often seen as poles apart -- my science education offered valuable lessons.

A good science education teaches one how to pay attention, how to see what is there to be seen rather than what we want or expect to see -- homage to the Thing Itself. Each of us walks through the world in a gray wool of preconceptions and predjudices, some perhaps genetically disposed, others imbibed from family, teachers and friends. The beginning of a mindful life, it seems to me, is to make one's self transparent to the world beyond the self -- and for this a scientific education is useful training.

Like the poet and artist, the scientist wants the greater mystery of things revealed more clearly than the eye can see. And so, as spiritual pilgrims, scientists and artists together, we trek like Sylvia Plath "stubborn though this season of fatigue," trying to keep ourselves open to the illuminations that now and then prick the carapace of preconception, seeking as best we can to "patch together a content of sorts" -- the Thing Itself seen more clearly than the eye can see.

"Perhaps we are here only to say: House, Bridge, Fountain, Gate," says the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. He continues: "But to say them...oh, to say them more intensely than the Things themselves ever dreamed of being." So let us begin our approach to mystery, to the unspeakable, to the words no man can utter, with reliable knowledge of the world. Let us begin with the consensus knowledge of science. Then, having honored as best we can the Thing Itself, houses will float up from their foundations, bridges will leap into the air like birds, fountains will gush hallelujahs. And the gates of our senses will fling themselves open to the unspeakable and unspoken mystery of the world.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Mortal soul 8 -- The dark night

I first read Soren Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling at about the same age as Kierkegaard was when he wrote it -- thirty. The young philosopher was wrestling with his dark demons, including the death of his father, a sternly religious man who demanded absolute obedience from his son. He was torn between the opposing demands of faith and reason, certainity and doubt. In the opening pages of the book, he takes us with Abraham and Isaac on that terrible journey to Mount Moriah where God puts Abraham to a terrifying test of his faith.

What gives meaning to a life? Kierkegaard opted for belief. He wrote:
If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the foundation of all there lay only a wildly seething power which writhing with obscure passions produced everything that is great and everything that is insignificant, if a bottomless void never satiated lay hidden beneath all -- what then would life be but despair?
This is the fear that caused Abraham to raise the knife over his beloved son. This is the valley of shadow that drove Kierkegaard to choose heaven over earth, the unseen over the seen. This is the dread of a mindless oblivion that causes so many to choose faith over reason, certainity over doubt.

In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard says that "faith begins where thinking leaves off." At the same age, Kierkegaard's almost exact contemporary, another solitary philosopher with a fierce moral sensitivity, Henry David Thoreau, wrote in his journal:
I have just heard the flicker among the oaks on the hillside ushering in a new dynasty...Eternity could not begin with more security and momentousness than the spring. The summer's eternity is reestablished by this note. All sights and sounds are seen and heard both in time and eternity. And when the eternity of any sight or sound strikes the eye or ear, they are intoxicated with delight.
Some of us live our lives with our attention fixed on the hereafter. Others listen for the flicker's note in the distant oaks. No less than traditional theists, religious naturalists need to believe that we are not poised above a bottomless void. If we are lucky, we understand that love and loyalty are blessings that well up out of the dark night in mysterious ways. We feel no need to make the terrible journey to Mount Moriah when every element of creation, great and small, here and now, is filled with redeeming grace.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Mortal soul 7 -- The avid pursuer

In his autobiography, Speak Memory, the novelist and lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov writes of the joys of butterfly collecting: "The highest enjoyment of when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone. A thrill of gratitude..." The possibility of learning more and more about butterflies -- those tiny truths -- drew Nabokov, the avid pursuer, ever deeper into the world of the senses, through layer upon layer of concrete details, receding into inexhaustible mystery. This, it has always seemed to me, is the proper trajectory of a life: from the concrete to the ineffable, from the particular to the universal. The opposite trajectory is fraught with idolatry and self-deception. Begin with answers, as many of us do, and the commonplace becomes shallow, shabby, and uninteresting. But begin with a mourning cloak butterfly resurrected from its winter sleep, flagging its magnificent wings of purple velvet trimmed with gold, and maybe -- just maybe -- one might catch an intimation of the Mystery that shines in the face of creation.

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life," wrote Thoreau famously in Walden. The trick, of course, is knowing what is essential. What was essential for Thoreau -- the pond, the bean patch, the sounds of night -- might not be essential for, say, the ballerina, or the contemplative monk, or the doctor in Darfur. It is what Thoreau said next that unites us all, the medieval mystic and the hermit of Walden: "I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms."

To live deliberately. The word has at its root the Latin libra, a balance or scales, as in the zodiacal sign. A scientific instrument. To weigh, to measure, to trust only what can be reliably, reproducibly, quantitatively discerned by the senses. To shave close. To cut away the phantasmagoria of superstition that has accumulated culturally over millennia, and to find those things that have a universal empirical basis, the things that bind me in a respectful unity with those who have been born into different cultures and traditions. Drive life into a corner and reduce it to its lowest terms, said Thoreau. Sights, sounds, tastes, smells, touches. Food, clothing, shelter. Sex. The need to give and receive love. Altruism. Curiosity. Awareness of mystery. Awareness of how little we really know and understand.

The avid pursuit, the universal human pursuit, the pursuit that impassioned the medieval mystics and that impassions the scientific skeptic too, is the quest for what critic Edmund Gosse called "all the tender, indulgent affections, all the genial play of life, all the exquisite pleasures and soft resignations of the body, all that enlarges and calms the soul."

Monday, October 27, 2008

Mortal soul 6 -- The still small voice

There is a power in nature, restless and terrible -- storm, wildfire, earthquake, tidal wave. There is a delicacy too, to which we attend with a more perceptive eye and ear -- the woolly bear caterpillar in the grass, the red-tailed hawk circling high and silent above the meadow, the six-dotted shadow of the water strider on the bottom of the pond. I think of lines from a poem of Grace Schulman, a poem called In Place of Belief:

...I would eavesdrop, spy,
and keep watch on the chance, however slight,
that the unseen might dazzle into sight.

Listening. Watching. Waiting admidst the clamor of strident certainity for the still small voice. Waiting for the unseen to dazzle into sight. Karl Popper, the eminent philosopher of science, once wrote, "It is imperative that we give up the idea of ultimate sources of knowledge, and admit that all knowledge is human; that it is mixed with our errors, our prejudices, our dreams, and our hopes; that all we can do is to grope for truth even though it is beyond our reach." Reaching. Groping. Evavesdroping. Four centuries after Galileo, the world is still beset by those who claim access to ultimate sources of knowledge -- divine revelation through tradition, holy books, or prophets. If there is a fundamental way to divide people in the world today it is into those who know and those who grope.

In the southern hemisphere summer of 1848, at age twenty-three, Thomas Huxley was sailing Australian waters as Assistant Surgeon on HMS Rattlesnake. He was head-over-heels in love with a remarkable young women he had met Down Under, and drifting into the skepticism about matters of religion he would later dub "agnosticism." Other than young Henrietta "Nettie" Heathorn, the main thing on his mind was jellyfish, of which he had netted hundreds. As the ship sailed up the Australian coast he worked at sorting out the relationships between his many specimens, and between the jellyfish and other marine organisms. Huxley's biographer Adrian Desmond writes: "Nettie, a sensible girl who liked Schiller and penned love poems, must have asked 'Why jellyfish?' And he must have led her self-importantly from these pulsing 'nastinesses' to the great problem of existence, contrasting the tiny truths of creation with the great sandcastle sophistries for which men were willing to die. The tiny truths were real bricks which would build a palatial foundation to Truth. They were stanzas of Nature's great poem; and only by reciting the ultimate sonnet could we gain a rational set of mores and a real meaning to life."

The tiny truths of creation! Huxley was convinced that we have something to learn about the creation and ourselves by studying the lowliest blobs of protoplasm afloat in the sea. The great truths, if they are to be found, will be discovered in the Book of Nature, as a patient accumulation of individually minute observations. For Huxley, the only knowledge worth having was secular, not theological, and "was not to be delegated by episcopal patrons, but seized by plebeian hands." His jellyfish represented common knowledge -- groping, partial, tentative -- the still small voice, by and for the common man.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The quiet between the hoots

We have a beautiful new translation of Rainer Maria Rilke's The Book of Hours by Susan Ranson. A few lines: "...Do you not see/ that here is my soul, and that it stands close/ before you, in a gown woven of silence." In keeping with the spirit of the current series of summarizing posts, see this week's Musing.

A trick and a treat from Anne. Click to enlarge.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Mortal soul 5 -- The restless heart

In Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke writes: "We should try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue." To which I would add, let us trust the gifts that nature has given us -- curiosity, attention, reason -- and if our personal lives are destined for oblivion, then know that we have made of ordinary things something grander and more enduring. We are the transformers. We are bestowers of praise. "Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them," Rilke advises the restless young poet, echoing the great Catholic mystics: "And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer."

Is it enough? In the long history of humanity, no hope has been so enduring as personal immortality. At every time and in every place men and women have assumed they will live forever. It is our solace, our balm for the restless heart. Even Neanderthals, it seems, placed flowers in the graves of their dead, presumably to grace the afterlife.

But the lesson of modern biology is clear: Death is final. Do we lapse then into morbidity? Do we rage, rage against the dying of the light? We have art. We have science. Even a rhyme can thumb its nose at death, says Seamus Heaney. We can each of us try to live our lives as poetry, to add to the world an element of graciousness that is not strictly necessary, to leave behind a spoor of rhymes that marks our passage on the Earth.

Yes, the spirit is flesh, but the spirit is more than flesh. The spirit is flesh in interaction with a universe of almost unimaginable grandeur and complexity. The windows of the flesh are thrown open to the world. The spirit is a wind of awareness, a pool stirred by angels.

Some part of the spirit will linger after the flesh is gone, as memories in other flesh, as words, music, science, rhymes -- as a world nudged slightly in its pell-mell course towards good or bad. But the self is mortal: This is the existential fact that agitates the restless heart. "We are biological and our souls cannot fly free," writes Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson, summarizing what science has taught us about ourselves. He adds: "This is the essential first hypothesis for any consideration of the human condition."

Friday, October 24, 2008

Mortal soul 4 -- The heavens proclaim

Four centuries ago, Francis Bacon said that what a person would like to be true, he preferentially believes. Is there a way to truth that escapes the constraints of personal preference? Can we know the world as it is and not as we wish it to be? Perhaps not. Certainly there is no such thing as Truth with a capital T, final and absolute. But Bacon was instrumental in inventing a way to reliable truth with a lower case t -- tentative, partial, evolving truth. It is called the scientific way of knowing, and it follows simple rules:

1. Rely on reproducible quantitative observations that can be shared by believer and skeptic alike.

2. Do not assume more when less will do.

3. Do not invoke the supernatural when a natural explanation will suffice.

4. Be willing to say "I don't know."

5. And, especially, be ready to admit "I was wrong."

I can't offer an ironclad proof that the scientific way of knowing is more reliable than tradition, prophets, or holy books. I can only refer you the modern world -- technology, medicine, voyages to other worlds. The proof of the pudding...

The 13.7-billion-year story of creation as we currently understand it leaves me more breathless with awe than any of the anthropomorophic fairy tales I learned as a child. It is the God of this grander creation -- who is not a person, who is not this and is not that, whose name we cannot speak and whose nature we do not know -- that we glimpse in the poetic language of the mystics, such as these words of Teilhard de Chardin: "Radiant Word, blazing Power, you who mold the manifold so as to breath your life into it; I pray you, lay on us your hands -- powerful, considerate, omnipresent, those hands which do not (like our human hands) touch now here, now there, but which plunge into the depths and the totality, present and past, of things so as to reach us simultaneously through all that is most immense and most inward within us and around us." Who will deny the depth and richness of a universe that is most immense and most inward within us and around us?

What do the heavens proclaim? We are an accidental and perhaps commonplace part of a universe that is vast beyond our comprehension, certainly now and perhaps forever. The ancients had it backwards: Our story is part of the universe's story, rather than the other way around. It is a measure of our coming of age as a species that we are able to accept this natural revelation, and gaze courageously into the cosmos of the myriad galaxies rather than remaining fixated on our own navels. Finding ourselves in a universe without a center, we are challenged to make our own center, by loving the place we are in and every creature in it.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Mortal Soul 3 -- Knowing in part, darkly

The mystics were a different breed from the theologians. They emphasized negative theology, the via negativa -- God is not this, God is not that. By and large, they rejected all metaphors for God, including the personal metaphor so dear to orthodox theologians. The God of the mystics is the intuited mystery that is implicit in the creation, the mystery that becomes ever more manifest the more we know about reality -- what Nicholas of Cusa called "learned ignorance." Of God, all negations are true, said Cusa, and all affirmations are inadequate: "Sacred ignorance has taught us that God is ineffable."

The God of the mystics is the Deus absconditus, the absconded God, of whom every metaphor is inadequate, including, of course, the metaphor "whom." The language of the mystics is poetry, not theology; it springs from the sense that there is more to reality than meets the eye, more than we can immediately -- perhaps ever -- know by scientific investigation. We know today vastly more about the universe than did the great spiritual thinkers of an earlier time, and our language of celebration is correspondingly different, but we can learn from them the dimensions of our ignorance, and praise with them the intuited mystery for which even the word God is a diminishment.

The religious naturalist accepts the intuition of mystery as part of what it means to be human, but refuses to put a name to it, or especially a human characteristic -- personhood, love, justice, anger, or artifice. In this, we are not so different from the medieval mystics. John of the Cross never failed to emphasize the hiddenness -- the unknowability -- of God:

Where have you hidden away,
lover, and left me grieving, care on care?
...imploring the empty air.
No sign for me to mark,
no other light, no guide
except for my heart --
the fire, the fire inside.

Or Meister Eckhart: "That which one says is God, he is not; that which one does not say, he is more truly that."

Most contemporary scientists and the mystics agree: We are profoundly ignorant of the Incomprehensible Cause that has from the dawn of human consciousness been an enduring source of religious feeling. We are stalkers, instruments of the hunt, in Annie Dillard's phrase. Something is going on and we want to be part of it. What exactly is going on remains deep beyond our knowing, now, and perhaps forever. We stalk, we seek, for glimmers of the absolute by paying attention to the natural world as it is, the only reliable revelation.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Mortal soul 2 -- The eros of the intellect

Within the Roman Catholic mystical tradition, to which I gave an earnest part of my young life, sex and spirituality are so intimately bound up together that it is sometimes difficult to know where one begins and the other leaves off. Early in his book The Devils of Loudun, Aldous Huxley writes: "Sex mingles easily with religion, and their blending has one of those slightly repulsive and yet exquisite and poignant flavors, which startle the palate like a revelation -- of what? That, precisely, is the question."

The language of religious mysticism in all faith traditions borrows generously from the language of sex. In Christian tradition, the soul is the "bride" of Christ and asks for nothing more than to be "ravished," "annihilated," and "assimilated" into the beloved. Huxley suggests that behind sexual and religious fervor, in both men and women, is a desire for escape from self and sublimation in the other. A longing for the other is no doubt deep in our genetic makeup. Sex is the driving engine of virtually all macroscopic life on Earth, irresistibly powerful in all species other than our own. Is it inconceivable that romantic and even mystical love have their origin in a biological imperative? Some men and women willingly forego sexual congress, and that sublimated yearning often emerges as a longing for union with a transcendent reality, a personal God perhaps. And so we have the language of the bride and the bridegroom, John of the Cross's beloved "whose gentle fingers clung about my neck," or Teresa of Avila's angel who plunged his dart into her heart: "The sweetness of this intense pain is so extreme, there is no wanting it to end, and the soul isn't satisfied with anything less than God."

The catalog of merged sexuality and religious feeling is too extensive to need recounting. We are spiritual and we are sensual. We cherish stability and we long for adventure. We are preoccupied with self and we seek self-transcendence. These tensions are no doubt part of our biological natures, and from them has sprung some of the world's most sublime poetry and art, including, of course, the writings of many of the mystics collected in H. A. Reinhold's The Soul Afire.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Mortal soul

Coming of age in the Catholic Church of the 1950s and early 1960s was like living in a haunted house, a place inhabited by supernatural powers and spirits of which one had only the vaguest perception. I have previously recounted here the things I was reading as a young man, such as Georges Bernanos' Diary of a Country Priest or Leon Bloy's The Woman Who Was Poor, or watching, such as Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc. One book from that time that is still on my bookshelves is an anthology edited by the Jesuit priest H. A. Reinhold, The Soul Afire: Revelations of the Mystics. For a while, under the influence of that book, I read deeply in he works of Meister Eckhart, Julian of Norwich, John of the Cross, Theresa of Avilla, and many others of the Catholic mystical tradition.

I have long since put the supernaturalism behind me, but I still live in a haunted house of sorts -- a universe whose every particular evinces an unknown and perhaps unknowable animating force that is worthy of attention and celebration. What then of the mystics? They were people of their time, and we cannot expect of them a modern scientific sensitivity. Do they have anything useful to say to us?

From them I learned a few things that go beyond creed, culture or historical circumstance. An abiding awareness of mystery. An attachment to sacred history, art and music. A respect for liturgies grounded in the diurnal and annual solar cycles, and in earth, air, fire, water, bread, wine, incense, chrism and wax. The sacredness of the sensual. The journey of the soul through the dark night. All of this runs through Reinhold's anthology.

Over the next ten days, I will explore the relevance of traditional mysticism to the life of a 21st-century scientific agnostic. I will argue that the writings of the mystics give voice to universal human longings and intuitions that survive translation from the language of medieval theology into something more consistent with scientific agnosticism. You will not find in what follows any nod to supernaturalism or miracles. To the great questions of existence -- why is there something rather than nothing? what is the source of order in the universe? -- I answer with the agnostic's "I don't know." But even within the natural order there is ample stimulus for emotions of wonderment, awe and respectful silence that characterized the great Catholic mystics from Meister Eckhart to Teilhard de Chardin.

So bear with me. Much of what I will have to say will be familiar to long time readers of this blog; I will reprise and revise some of what I have written over the past few years in the hope of making clear that 21st-century naturalists can be "souls afire." For the titles of my posts, I will borrow section headings from Reinhold's book:

The eros of the intellect

Knowing in part, darkly

The heavens proclaim

The restless heart

The still small voice

The avid pursuer

The dark night

Words no man can utter

The great silence

The loving gaze

Monday, October 20, 2008

Going and coming

Anyone who was raised a Roman Catholic, especially in my generation or earlier, will be familiar with the image on the left, Bartolome Murillo's La Inmaculada de Soult, painted in 1678, now in the Prado in Madrid (click to enlarge). What we have here is the immaculately conceived Virgin being assumed body and soul into heaven. The doctrine of the Assumption was formally declared an infallible dogma of the Church by Pius X II in 1950. This means that to be a faithful Catholic one has to believe that the atoms of Mary's body are not part of the dust of the Earth, but somewhere else. It is a charming story, especially if the sinless virgin's departure was attended by a bevy of cherubs as depicted by Murillo.

Then, sometime in high school, I came across the image on the right, La Naissance de Venus by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, painted by 1879. It was of course familiar -- the same languorous pose, the same assembly of cherubs, the crescent moon replaced by the scallop -- but, oh my goodness, something very different is going on, something that was rather more engaging for an adolescent boy.

In the one case, a mortal woman is going off to become a goddess of sorts. In the other case, a goddess is arriving among mortals. Two lovely stories, two lovely women, one modestly wrapped for eternity, the other nakedly personifying earthly beauty. The biggest difference was that I was required to believe the first story literally true under pain of sin; the second I could accept as poetic without risking my soul to hell fire.

I'm not trying to be smug or dismissive. It was dealing with real contrasts like this that eventually led me into agnosticism. The choice was between a fallen nature only redeemed in a supernatural hereafter, and a nature that is -- or can be -- intrinsically beautiful, redeemed by human love. I'm not sure how my Catholic friends in academia resolve the conflict. Most, I would guess, doubt the literal doctrine of the Assumption, picking and choosing their miracles. I am rather more inclined to embrace both images -- left and right -- for what they are -- delightful stories from a less scientifically informed time, chapters in the long human struggle to make sense of the world.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Out of nowhere

If our current understanding is correct, the universe began 13.7 billion years ago in an explosion from an infinitely dense, infinitely hot seed of energy. The explosion didn't happen somewhere; it happened everywhere. Space and time came into being with the Big Bang. Big Bang? What a prosaic name for so all-encompassing an event! See this week's Musing.

And, as always, blessings on Anne for sharing with us her weekly illumination. Click, and click again, to enlarge.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Another act for the Circus McGurkus?

Surprises in nature? Let's say you are a microscopic fungus growing on dung -- cow pats, say. To propagate your species you must have your spores ingested by other cows, and thus into other cow pats. But most grazing animals won't feed near their excrement. So you gotta distribute your spores at some distance from your pat. Relying on a breeze might do it, but why not evolve your own spore disperser -- a powerful squirt gun.

That's just what fungi of the species Pilobolus kleinii have done. Go here to see high-speed flicks of the fun -- microscopic fungi squirting their spores a distance of two meters at speeds of 25 meters per second, the fastest flights in nature. The movies were made by mycologist Nik Money and colleagues.

This way! Step right in! Ladies and gents!
My Side Show starts here in the first of my tents
With the Fungal Cannonball, Pilobolus Kleinii,
Who as everyone knows is smaller than teenie
And faster than lightning. Just look at him zoop!
As he flings himself far from his patty of poop.

Friday, October 17, 2008

If I Ran the Circus

A news brief from a recent issue of Nature (October 9):
Of the animals that understand other species' vocalizations, almost all are social creatures with complex calls of their own. But ecologists have identified an eavesdropper that is neither social nor particularly vocal: the dik-dik.

Daniel Blumstein and his colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles, suspected that Gunther's dik-dik (Madoqua guentheri), a heavily predated miniature antelope, could benefit from eavesdropping. To find out whether it does, the researchers played alarm calls of the white-bellied go-away bird (Corythaixoides leucogaster) and non-alarmist calls from the slate-coloured boubou (Laniarius funebris) to a group of dik-diks at the Mpala Research Centre in Laikaipia, Kenya.

The dik-diks in the study decreased their foraging and increased their head-turning only in response to the alarm calls.
"In all the whole town, the most wonderful spot
Is behind Sneelock's Store in the big vacant lot.
It's just the right spot for my wonderful plans,"
Said young Morris McGurk, "...if I clean up the cans.
I will put up the tents for my fantastic circus.
I think I will call it the Circus McGurkus.
I'll hoist up the curtains! The crowds will crowd in!
And my Circus McGurkus will promptly begin
With the loudest TA-TA that you ever have heard
As I welcome the white-bellied go-away bird.
What! Oh, where is he? Out chasing a hen?
The go-away bird has absconded again!
Never mind! Step right in! You don't want to be late
To yoo-hoo the boubou, the color of slate.
But where is our boubou? No cause for alarm.
He's not an alarmist, that's part of his charm.
And here! on Stage One! from Laikaipia!
The one who invented onomatopoeia,
The unsocial dik-dik whose voice is the same
As his simple, soft-spoken, antelopean name.
Oh dear, now our dik-dik has startled again,
Just as our show is about to begin.
He stands on the threshold turning his head.
The go-away bird always fills him with dread.
Ei! Ei! What a circus! My Circus McGurkus!
My headlining showstoppers all want to shirk us.
But Nature is full of zooific surprises.
You'd never see half if you had forty eyses!"

(With apologies to Dr. Seuss's If I Ran the Circus.)

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The God between the gaps

A further comment on Kenneth Miller's Finding Darwin's God.

The first six chapters of the book are a ringing defense of evolution against creationists and advocates of intelligent design. Then Miller turn to the business of making space in an evolutionary universe for the Christian God -- a personal, nonmaterial being who acts in the creation. And the first thing he does is invoke quantum indeterminacy to give God some wiggle room to jigger the course of history without violating the laws of nature. Later, discussing the Big Bang, Miller suggests that "science has confirmed, in remarkable detail, the distinctive beginning that theology has always required."

To be fair, Miller admits that Big Bang cosmology neither confirms nor refutes the action of God in creating the universe. But finding theological consolation in the Uncertainty Principle or Big Bang strikes me as a risky game. What will we understand about the world a century from now? Will we find that our best theoretical cosmology requires an eternally oscillating universe? Will we at last discover the deterministic "hidden variables" that Einstein thought might lay behind the apparent indeterminacy of the quantum world? Who knows. Surely, if we have learned anything in science, it is that all scientific theories are tentative, and almost certainly subject to amendment. Looking for support of Eternal Verities in the evolving theories of science is a shaky proposition at best.

Invoking quantum indeterminacy or the Big Bang in a theological discussion is a flip-side version of the God of the Gaps, which Miller rightly dismisses in his early chapters. And what's the point? If science has given one great gift to the world -- greater than the wonders of technology, greater than modern medicine, greater than flights to the moon and planets -- it has given us permission to say "I don't know." What is consciousness? I don't know. What started the Big Bang? I don't know. How did life begin? I don't know.


The universe as we find it may be the primary revelation -- as some theologians from Meister Eckhart to Thomas Berry have maintained. If so, the God revealed by the 21st-century edition of the Book of Nature is certainly grander and more mysterious than the prescientific, personal, miracle-working, revelation-whispering deity of Abraham or Jesus or Mohammed.

(When God Is Gone has its first review in the current Library Journal. Scroll down.)

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

One person's miracle is another person's...

I've finally got around to perusing Kenneth Miller's Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution. Miller is a first-rate biologist at Brown University and an able spokesperson in the battle to keep creationism and intelligent design out of the public school science curriculum. He is also a practicing Catholic. My admiration for Miller is such that I hesitate to take issue with him, but let me gently ask him the same question I previously asked the theologian John Haught, another Catholic and ardent evolutionist whom I admire. Both men have written books that are well worth reading, no matter what is your stance on matters of science and faith.

Miller rightly, in my opinion, takes issue with intelligent design, the notion that God intervenes in the world to direct evolution along paths that no natural process could contrive. Of course, science cannot prove that God did not at times in the past nudge evolution in a certain direction. But there is no reason to assume that he did so, and no compelling evidence that any aspect of life -- the flagellum of a bacterium, the human eye -- cannot be accounted for by variation and natural selection. "No miracles need apply" is the proper sign to hang on the door of science.

So far, cheers for Miller.

But what about this passage from the book:
Finally, any traditional believer must agree that God is able to influence the thoughts and actions of individual human beings. We pray for strength, we pray for patience, and we pray for understanding. Prayer is an element of faith, and bound within it is the conviction that God can affect us and those we pray for in positive ways.
Miller follows (and precedes) these remarks with some qualifications I was not able to follow, but I take it he believes in the efficacy of prayer. One can say about petitionary prayer what one says about intelligent design. Science cannot prove that God doesn't act in subtle ways in response to prayer. But there is zero non-anecdotal evidence that he does so. If we are going to refuse advocates of intelligent design their miracles, why do we insist on retaining our own?

If Miller's faith allows for God's interventions in response to prayer (perhaps by taking advantage of quantum indeterminacy to jigger macroscopic events) -- or to allow a virgin to conceive a son, or for that son to rise from the dead -- then why disallow a divine role in intelligent design? Once we let some miracles in the door, there is no consistent way to exclude others.

Miller suggests it is the integrity of science he wants to protect from miracles, and religious faith is something else altogether. But miracles either happen in the world or they do not, and anything that happens in the world is fair game for scientific investigation (this is presumably why the Catholic Church invokes the assistance of scientists to vet claims of miraculous cures attributed to candidates for sainthood). And keep this in mind: Science is not just a list of tentative assertions about the world. It is a way of knowing that has Ockham's Razor as a foundational principle. Why honor that way of knowing six days a week, and set it aside on Sunday?

Miller is correct when he says that science cannot explain everything, and that therefore belief in the personal, miracle-working God of Christianity is possible. Well, yes. But if we are true to the scientific way of knowing, the consistent response to what has not yet been explained is "I don't know."

(More tomorrow.)

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Sniffing out the creation

I have mentioned here before that I have no sense of smell. Born that way. Taste, yes -- sweet, sour, salty and bitter -- but not a whiff of odor. I can tell if there is sugar in the coffee, but can't tell unsugared coffee from hot water.

Apparently, there are about 10,000 different odors that humans can detect and remember. Ten thousand! Linda Buck and Richard Axel won the 2004 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for discovering a family of more than 1000 genes -- three percent of of our genetic inheritance -- that code for the same number of different olfactory receptors. I quote just a few sentences from the Nobel committee's press release:
When an odorant receptor is activated by an odorous substance, an electric signal is triggered in the olfactory receptor cell and sent to the brain via nerve processes. Each odorant receptor first activates a G protein, to which it is coupled. The G protein in turn stimulates the formation of cAMP (cyclic AMP). This messenger molecule activates ion channels, which are opened and the cell is activated. Axel and Buck showed that the large family of odorant receptors belongs to the G protein-coupled receptors (GPCR). All the odorant receptors are related proteins but differ in certain details, explaining why they are triggered by different odorous molecules. Each receptor consists of a chain of amino acids that is anchored into the cell membrane and traverses it seven times. The chain creates a binding pocket where the odorant can attach. When that happens, the shape of the receptor protein is altered, leading to G protein activation.
I'm not exactly sure what all this means, but it's from this elaborate molecular commerce and electrochemical signaling that we construct a world of smell.

The schematic above is also from the Nobel press release. Look at all those greedy little "hands" on the olfactory receptor cells reaching out to grab whatever volatile compounds come wafting by. Presumably, my nose is grabbing too, but somewhere between the receptors and the brain my circuits are kaput. Sometimes I try to image what smell is like. But of course I can't. What we don't experience, we can't imagine.

Which is why so much of our thinking is metaphorical. The solar system is a clockwork. Electrons are little billiard balls, or waterlike waves. The bacterial flagellum is a propeller. The cosmos is created and sustained by a person. And so we weave a universe out of what we know.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Origin of the Milky Way

Perhaps the greatest watershed in human history is that between the eras of animism and naturalism. The former explains the world in terms of human agency, and invests every part of nature with humanlike spirits. The latter looks for explanations evoking impersonal laws of nature that explain not only Sun, Moon, stars, plants and animals, but ultimately humans too.

It is easy enough to account for animism. What is more natural than to see ourselves in nonhuman nature? Piaget and his successors have demonstrated that the default explanations of children are animistic.

Naturalism had its origin in astronomy -- the search for mathematical models of celestial motions that could be used for calendrical and astrological purposes -- and in technology.

We can trace the roots of naturalism back to the Greeks and perhaps beyond, with special reference to the astronomers and mathematicians of Alexandria. Although animism no longer plays a role in our explanations of the heavens or the Earth, it is still very much with us. Advocates of intelligent design are doing their best to reestablish an animistic foothold in science.

Where shall we draw the line between the two eras? The year 1600 might be as good a time as any.

I have reproduced above a painting by the Italian artist Tintoretto, completed between 1575 and 1580, called The Origin of the Milky Way, a late homage to animistic thinking (click to enlarge). Tintoretto gives expression to a classical myth. Jupiter has fathered a son, Hercules, by a mortal woman. Hoping to immortalize the infant, he places the boy on the divine Juno's breast. Jealously, she pushes Hercules away, and her milk spills into the sky.

Only a few decades later, in the winter of 1609-1610, Galileo turned his new telescope on the sky. In The Starry Messenger, he reports his discoveries, including: "I have observed the nature and the material of the Milky Way. With the aid of the telescope this has been scrutinized so directly and with such ocular certainty that all the disputes which have vexed philosophers through so many ages have been resolved, and we are at last freed from wordy debates about it. The galaxy is, in fact, nothing but a congeries of innumerable stars grouped together in clusters. Upon whatever part of it the telescope is directed, a vast crowd of stars is immediately presented to view. Many of them are rather large and quite bright, while the number of smaller ones is beyond calculation."

I need not recount the successes of naturalism. The fact that most of us have lived beyond our 20s is just one confirmation of the effectiveness of naturalist thinking. Yet many people want to eat their naturalist cake and have their animism too. They still imagine their current version of Jupiter intruding his actions into the world.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Columbus Day

When I'm sitting on our island in the Bahamas looking out to sea, I often fantasize seeing the sails of Columbus' ships appear on the horizon. See this week's Musing.

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

What is life?

I have been a cheerleader for Stuart Kauffman since I read Origins of Order: Self-Organization and Selection in Evolution back in the early 90s. Something is going on in biological systems that reductionist science cannot account for, said Kauffman. In 1996, I wrote:
Kauffman thinks laws of self-organization lie at the heart of nature. If we can discover these laws, he says, we will understand how our bodies developed from a single fertilized egg, and how our species emerged over billions of years from prebiotic chemicals. He is a long way from finding the laws he is looking for, but the results achieved so far hint at a directionality and inevitability to evolution that may not be fully accounted for by Darwinian natural selection.
In Investigations (2000), Kauffman wrote: "[T]he biosphere, it seems, in its persistent evolution, is doing something literally incalculable, nonalgorithmic, and outside our capacity to predict, not due to quantum uncertainty alone, nor deterministic chaos alone, but for a different, equally, or more profound reason: Emergence and persistent creativity in the physical universe is real." We know a lot about life, he says -- molecular machinery, metabolic pathways, means of membrane biosynthesis, and so on -- but what makes a cell alive remains deeply mysterious. Kauffman wants to find laws that account for self-organization of novelty.

Well, yes. It is easy to agree with Kauffman that there may be more afoot in the world than we currently understand. But so far, Kauffman and other champions of "laws of emergence" have not come up with anything particularly useful. Sometimes Kauffman's speculations sound like a kind of pervasive, built-in "intelligent design" -- a stealth supernaturalism, or at best a resurgent vitalism. He talks a lot about "autonomous agents," then looks for laws to account for their autonomy, which seems a curiously oxymoronic program. Fifteen years after Origins of Order, natural selection remains far and away the most productive way of accounting for biological diversity. I'm still rooting for Kauffman, but so far, emergence is just a code word to cover our ignorance.

Friday, October 10, 2008

On winged feet

Last week we were treated to some stunning photographs of the surface of Mercury beamed back by the Messenger spacecraft, which will be the first craft to go into orbit around Mercury (as opposed to a flyby) in March 2011.

Messenger was launched in August, 2004. Go here to see an animation of Messenger's journey, with its many gravitation-assist flybys of Earth, Venus and Mercury. Scroll down a bit and click to enlarge.

What a thing it is that such a roller-coaster trajectory could be planned in advance! But the animation makes it look easier than it is.

Imagine the Sun is a basketball on the goal line of a football field. The Earth would be a grain of sand on the 26 yard line. Venus is another sand grain on the 19 yard line. And Mercury is a salt grain on the 8 yard line. Now put all three planets in orbit about the Sun with different periods. And Messenger? Messenger would be lost in the smallest crater visible on the photograph above, which shows an area about the size of Massachusetts.

We've become a bit jaded by space travel. Every now and then it's good to be reminded of just what an extraordinary thing it is that human imagination can reach out and touch the surface of the other planets.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Again, Caravaggio's The Rest On the Flight Into Egypt

Our first impression as we enter the scene is silence. The stillness and the silence. The angel's bow is poised over the violin strings. His fingers find the frets. Listen! The breath of the sleeping infant, the tump-tump-tump of Joseph's heart, the scratch of the donkey's hoof against the stones, the breeze that stirs the oak, the purling water in the pond. We wait, expectant, for the first redemptive note of the violin.

"All profound things and emotions of things are preceded and attended by Silence," wrote Herman Melville. He believed that silence is the only voice of God.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Intimations of mortality

Earlier this year I had a few things to say about this painting by the young Caravaggio, The Rest On the Flight Into Egypt (click to enlarge). I was so enchanted by the work that I made it my desktop, and I have been looking at it ever since -- or at least those parts of it that peek around my open windows.

Let me say a few more words about it now.

Caravaggio was born in Milan, in 1571, the same year as Johannes Kepler, and seven years after the birth of Shakespeare and Galileo. To the casual student of history, it was the year of the epochal Battle of Lepanto, a naval affair in the Gulf of Corinth in which a fleet of the papal league defeated the Ottoman Turks, helping to ensure the ascendancy of Christian Europe. In northern Europe, Catholics and Protestants butchered each other with abandon. Milan was devastated by plague in 1576. Modern science was struggling to be born.

If you know Caravaggio's work, you will recognize two common themes: Homoerotic depictions of boys and young men, and scenes of violence -- crucifixions, martyrdoms, and beheadings. The artist was a tempestuous man in tempestuous times, but in The Rest On the Flight Into Egypt we have something very different from the rest of his work, a scene suffused with such tenderness that it belies the age, painted in Rome when Caravaggio was 23 years old (or thereabouts), only a few years before Giordano Bruno went up in flames in the Campo de' Fiori.

Not least among the unique aspects of this painting is its careful attention to nature. We recognize oak, laurel, wheat, even the "turkey tail" fungus on the trunk of the oak. To the right of Mary, a watery Edenic scene lit by the soft light of day's end, with not a hint of human habitation -- Caravaggio's only landscape.

Peaceful, yes, but only superficially. There are really two paintings here, separated by the body of the angel. I observed in my previous post how the black wings and flowing white cloth of the angel are a yin/yang, surely not intended by Caravaggio, but familiar nonetheless. At the right, the yin -- feminine, gentle, soft, wet, conserving. On the left, the yang -- masculine, hard, dry, fraught with tension. Look at the ground near the feet: green plants where Mary sits, stony earth near Joseph. Mary and her infant are a typical Renaissance madonna and child; they are almost incidental to the painting, except as a counterpoint to the male drama on the left. Let them sleep, the artist seems to say. They are the still point at the center of the world.

Poor Joseph. Many years older than his pretty young wife. Not the father of her child, perhaps not even allowed to share her bed, but taking responsibility for their care and safety. As Mary sleeps, he stays awake to hold the music book for an unexpected visitor. The music is a motet in C major by the Flemish composer Noel Baulduin, published in 1519. The text is from the Song of Songs, that most erotic of scriptures. What is the angel doing here? A heavenly messenger bringing solace and repose? Not likely. Is he Joseph's fantasy? Why the Song of Songs? Joseph gazes into the angel's face, his expression one of weary resignation. The boy is beautiful. He faces Joseph fully naked. His thick red curls fall across his forehead. He flew into the scene on his pigeon wings with his music book and violin. He will fly out.

What is he thinking, this improbable intruder? He is concentrating on his music. He knows what's going on; his feet give the story away. His innocence is as pure as the white of his gown; his intentions are as black as his wings.

And Joseph? What is he thinking? I was once this young. I was once this beautiful. My flesh was once this smooth and firm. I too once dreamed of apples, pomegranates, cedar and myrrh. Look at the old man's feet; they caress each other as if in mutual consolation. What though the radiance which was once so bright/ Be now for ever taken from my sight,/ Though nothing can bring back the hour/ Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

That cottage of darkness

Theresa asked those of us who count ourselves agnostic to comment on Julian Barnes' new book Nothing To Be Frightened Of, reviewed by Garrison Keillor in last Sunday's New York Times Book Review. Barnes, a professed agnostic, writes about his obsessive preoccupation with death at age sixty-two. Apparently (according to Keillor) it is a rather gloomy book, redeemed by affectionate family reminiscences.

Since I have not read the book, I cannot comment on it, but I think what Theresa wants from us is testimony as to how agnostics deal with the prospect of personal oblivion.

Death is the great black bear that looms in everyone's path. In my experience, believers and unbelievers face death with about equal equanimity or disquiet. I would guess it has more to do with temperament than belief. Barnes would appear to have a particularly morbid cast of mind. I'm ten years older than Barnes and the black bear doesn't keep me awake at night.

What is the message Barnes takes from science? Our brains are lumps of meat and the soul is merely "a story the brain tells itself." There is no evidence of a self, nothing in a grim material landscape that offers hope.

This, I would submit, is an unnecessarily morose telling of the scientific story. It is certainly true that science sees no evidence of a self that can exist independently of our physical bodies. But what a thing is the physically-embedded self! It begins as a fertilized egg that carries within it four billion years of ancestral experience. It grows into a teeming organism of ten trillion cells, contrived of stardust, protected by an immune system finely attuned to tell self from non-self. It accumulates memories of a lifetime of experience. A self is dynamic, always changing, seeking, striving. And death? Personal mortality is the price we pay to exist at all as unique, complex, multicelled, sexually active, thoughtful individuals. Death is life's necessary partner; together they are endlessly creative.

A self is like a fruit on the tree of life. Without fruit the tree must die. Each of our selves leaves the world different than we found it. It is a unique characteristic of a human self to decide what makes the world a better place. The nudge we give to the good is our truest immortality.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Into the sunrise

My walk to college in the aftermath of our recent rains was graced by a particularly soft sunrise. The Path wends across meadows toward the rising sun, and I felt rather like the figure in George Inness's Sunrise (1887). Certainly the sky was filled with that same liquidy light, like molten gold. As his life progressed, Inness's work drifted from conventional landscapes toward something more abstract, soft-edged, impressionistic (although he railed against the "Impressionists"). I suppose it happens to all of us as we age; boundaries and definitions that were important to us when we were younger begin to blur, and it is not so much the distinctions between things that concerns us as a growing sense of what all things have in common. This does not, I trust, represent a failure of reductionism, but rather a recognition of that method's limitations. If reductionism was all, then there would be no need for poetry or art. Inness's late work (as represented by the painting here) is all the more powerful because of his earlier analytical precision. Of his stylistic evolution, he said: "The poetic quality is not obtained by eschewing any truths of fact or of Nature...Poetry is the vision of reality."

Sunday, October 05, 2008

The sounds of autumn

The tunk-tunk of acorns on the pavement. The crunch of acorns under foot. Can any sounds be more typical of the season? See this week's Musing.

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Born blue?

Every time Sarah Palin winked during the debate the other evening, signals from my sensory cortex were relayed to the thalamus and ultimately to the brain stem, resulting in heightened noradrenergic activity in the locus ceruleus. Acetylcholine, acting primarily through my amygdala, but also through the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, stimulated release of epinephrine, which in turn led to activation of the sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system.

I'm not making this up. Except for the personal pronouns, I quote verbatim from an article in the September 19 issue of Science, "Political Attitudes Vary With Physiological Traits," by Oxley, et. al., a gathering of political scientists and psychologists who studied the physiological responses -- eye blinks and skin conductance -- to sudden noises and threatening visual images of a group of forty-six Nebraskan adults with strong political views. The subjects who displayed higher startle reflexes to threatening stimuli also tended to favor school prayer, Biblical truth, defense spending, capital punishment, patriotism and the Iraq war, and oppose gun control, foreign aid, gay marriage, and so on. Subjects who were less sensitive to threatening stimuli tended toward the opposite end of the political spectrum.

Say the researchers:
Our data reveal a correlation between physiological responses to threat and political attitudes but do not permit firm conclusions concerning the specific causal processes at work. Particular physiological responses to threat could cause the adoption of certain political attitudes, or the holding of particular political attitudes could cause people to respond in a certain physiological way to environmental threats, but neither of these seems probable. More likely is that physiological responses to generic threats and political attitudes on policies related to protecting the social order may both derive from a common source. Parents could both socialize their children to hold certain political attitudes and condition them to respond in a certain way to threatening stimuli, but conditioning involuntary reflex responses takes immediate and sustained reinforcement and punishment, and it is unlikely that this conditioning varies systematically across political beliefs.
The implication is that genetically-determined physiological traits -- involuntary reflexes to perceived threats -- correlate with political postures.

I'm not sure how this jibes with red-state/blue-state politics, nor am I convinced that forty-six Nebraskans who would walk into a laboratory to have their blinks and sweat measured qualify as a meaningful sample of political opinion. But I wouldn't be at all surprised if we are born with liberal or conservative predispositions.

Fer sure, every time Palin winked, my eyes twitched and my skin conductance shot up, a response to a perceived threat that -- according to the study -- should put me at the conservative end of the political spectrum.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Night vision

Some time ago, a fellow named Paul Bogard got in touch and asked if he could include a chapter from An Intimate Look At the Night Sky in an anthology to be published by the University of Nevada Press called Let There Be Night: Testimony On Behalf of the Dark. Sure, I said. It's all yours.

The book has just arrived on my doorstep, and a sweet little book it is. I'm pleased to see contributions by friends and acquaintances: Kathleen Dean Moore, Chris Cokinos, Bob Pyle, John Tallmadge, Scott Sanders. Our confraternity of nature writers cares about the dark.

Bogard's epigraph for the book is from Henry Beston's classic The Outermost House:
Our fantastic civilization has fallen out of touch with many aspects of nature, and with none more completely than the night...With lights and ever more lights, we drive the holiness and beauty of the night back to the forests and the sea.
Bogard imagines these essays as "testimony," perhaps before committees of state legislatures or city councils contemplating regulations to limit or modify outdoor lighting. I am grateful for any testimony on behalf of the dark night sky, and appreciative of hard work by the many dark-sky campaigners who have achieved occasional successes, but I am not optimistic about the long haul. One only saves what one loves, and it's hard to find anyone these days who loves the night sky -- present company excluded.

My wife and I went to the island of Exuma a dozen years ago to enjoy the stars in a place of inky darkness. We named our place Starlight House, eschewed outdoor lighting, and prevented the Bahamas Electricity Corporation from putting up a "street light" at the end of our drive. On moonless nights we could see the zodiacal light. On almost any old night the Double Cluster in Perseus, the Beehive in Cancer, and the Andromeda Nebula were visible to the naked eye. We lay on our terrace and fell upwards into a universe of breathtaking "holiness and beauty."

Then, to our dark little island came the Four Seasons Resort and multimillion-dollar condos, with their floodlit palm trees and swimming pools lit all night whether anyone is using them or not. These folks are not being perverse. It would probably not occur to them to look up at the stars. Am I being unfair? Perhaps. But when one prefers floodlit palms to the Milky Way there's not much hope of saving the dark.

Thank you, Paul, for this gathering of testimony. Let's hope it helps.

Thursday, October 02, 2008


They're everywhere, in unprecedented numbers. In my son's suburban yard. In my small yard in the middle of the village. Along the Path. On the Stonehill campus. Never seen anything like it. Invasion of the body snatchers.

Budding up from the moist earth like gremlins, like graverobbers. shouldering aside grit and grass and stone. Jack-o-lantern orange, flecked with white flesh. Heaving, rising, spreading their caps, standing erect on firm white stalks. Sullen. Lascivious. Forbidden fruits. Who knows upon what soil they fed/ Their hungry thirsty roots?

They've been there all along, of course, in their subterranean bowers, insinuating their invisible mycelia into the soil. Four days of rain and it's witching time, twitching time. A dull itch becomes a thought, gathers, firms, insists. Touch me, taste me. Fly poison, toad attractor, devil's hat, Satan's spawn.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Digging up the garden

A few more thoughts about Michael Novak's No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers.

We all start in darkness, says Novak. How, then, does he end up in the light of belief? Revelation? But surely revelation assumes what it is meant to prove. We have no reason to takes the Judeo-Christian scriptures as God's word unless we already assume that God exists. Is it by reason then? By Novak's own argument (see yesterday), it must be reason devoid of evidence.

So why believe? "The trouble is that atheism is a leap in the dark, says Novak. "No person can possibly prove a negative or know enough to be certain that there is no God." But of course, there is no need to prove a negative. The burden of proof is on those who claim a positive, such as the existence of a personal God who acts in the creation and communicates his will. As for knowing enough to be certain that there is no God, well, it's Russell's teapot all over again. I don't know enough to be sure that there isn't a treasure buried in my back garden, but if I started digging without a shred of evidence my family and neighbors would think me insane.

Surely, then, agnosticism is a more modest stance? Not so, says Novak:
[E]very day women and men have to step into the arena of action...They cannot go on making decisions as if God does not exist without having effectively made a pivotal decision against God...They will act in a way cognizant of God's will and respectful of it, as one would act in the presence of a friend. Or else they will act in a way that violates God's will. In the latter case, they act as if there is no God, or at least as if there is no way of knowing what God wills. One can, in short, pretend to think as an agnostic, but the pressures of actually choosing how to act oblige one to declare one's relationship to God. In action, there are no agnostics."
What this means, I haven't a clue. I count myself an agnostic, and part of being an agnostic is not presuming to know God's will. I act all day long without giving a thought to whether or not I'm conforming to the will of the presumed creator of 100 billion galaxies. Which may be why I'm content to live a quiet life in loving repose with family and friends, listening to the whisper of conscience, and leave the grand (and sometimes violent) gestures to those who know what God wants them to do.

Novak's new book is a welcome plea for civil discourse in matters of faith, but once the believer has stepped out of the darkness into the certainty of knowing God's will, there's not much in common to talk about.