Monday, February 28, 2011

Skinner's pigeons

Britain's Royal Society, established in 1660, was the first formal scientific association. It's early membership included such luminaries as Robert Hooke, Christopher Wren, Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton. They took as their motto Nullius in verba, which can be translated roughly as "Take no one's word for it."

And thus ended, in that gathering at least, a millennium-and-a-half of a European intellectual tradition based on quoting authorities as proofs of arguments. It always helped, of course, to have Aristotle on your side. Or Augustine. Or Aquinas. Or best yet, the divinely inspired scriptures. No matter which side of an argument you were on, you lined up your authorities like soldiers on a battlefield.

Citation of authority. A way of knowing that advanced human knowledge not one whit. Always looking backwards. Never ahead.

And along comes "Nullius in verba."

A new way of knowing. The only arbiter of truth is the interrogation of nature. The experiment. Data that does not come tagged with some illuminary's name. Data that can be reproduced by believers and skeptics alike.

And what happened when the new way of knowing was applied to miracles? They vanished. It turns out that there is not a shred of non-anecdotal, reproducible evidence for the miraculous, no supposed manifestations of divine intervention that cannot be explained within the natural order. I believe it might have been Francis Bacon who said that it is a common human attribute to mistake coincidence for causality.

And there, I quoted an authority, and a smart one at that. But the fact that Bacon (or whoever) said it carries no weight unless what he said matches our experimentally controlled observations of human behavior.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Blue pond

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

A Saturday reprise

In the introduction to a book of photographs of the medieval Cistercian monastery at Le Thoronnet, France, Francois Cali connects the hours of monastic prayer with medieval songs and poems about the quest for the Holy Grail. In his conception, each of the canonical hours had symbolic meaning:

Matins, the adventure of fear.
Lauds, the adventure of the Sun-Christ
Prime, the adventure of the Rule, or of order in general
Terce, the adventure of the Word
Sext, the adventure of the absolute
None, the adventure of God's death
Vespers, the adventure of the marvelous
Compline, the adventure of the dark night

Thus, each day was an arc of prayer from darkness into light and into darkness again, each day a repetition of the great human adventure, the quest for meaning, for the Grail as symbol of that meaning, for God.

What a marvelous conception. The focus is on the quest, not the thing searched for. The seeking, not the sought. We live, of course, in a different time and the categories of medieval theology are strange to us. Those of us who embrace the scientific way of knowing are properly suspicious of claims for the supernatural or miraculous. But because we understand that scientific knowledge is tentative and partial, we welcome too the insights of the poets, artists and -- yes -- contemplatives who illuminate the ineffable. String theory may be a holy grail of sorts for string theorists, but science is not the thing that consumes our thoughts in the darkest of the morning hours. We wait for light, for order. We ascend with the Sun to the bright zenith of the day, knowing too well that we will soon weary of the light. We wait -- always expectantly -- for the rare glimpse of the marvelous, for the peace of the dark night.

The quest is as relevant for the secular humanist as for the traditionally religious, perhaps more so, because we are less likely to assume we have attained the Truth, less likely to objectify the thing seen only through a glass darkly, the Deus Absconditus of the mystics. We choose instead to live our lives in the endlessly regenerative cycles of the day and year and human life that were the archetypes of monastic prayer.

(This post originally appeared in October 2006.)

Friday, February 25, 2011

What has been so long composed

We have a sea horizon to the east. The sun comes up like a blaze of molten gold, a river of gold that flows across the sea to the surf at my feet. First a sliver, then a blister, then a bubble floating free.

We arrived on this tropic isle in mid-December when the sun was at its southernmost extremity. Day by day it has been creeping northward, each sunrise edging, it seems, our way. The planet leans into its curve, tilting its northern hemisphere toward its star, grazing on the solar warmth. On Sunday, March 20, the sun will rise due east, there, just there, beyond my coffee cup. The equinox. Time to return to New England, "at the end of winter when afternoons return."

Clear water in a brilliant bowl,
Pink and white carnations. The light
In the room more like a snowy air,
Reflecting snow. A newly-fallen snow
At the end of winter when afternoons return.
Pink and white carnations - one desires
So much more than that. The day itself
Is simplified: a bowl of white,
Cold, a cold porcelain, low and round,
With nothing more than the carnations there.

Say even that this complete simplicity
Stripped one of all one's torments, concealed
The evilly compounded, vital I
And made it fresh in a world of white,
A world of clear water, brilliant-edged,
Still one would want more, one would need more,
More than a world of white and snowy scents.

There would still remain the never-resting mind,
So that one would want to escape, come back
To what had been so long composed.
The imperfect is our paradise.
Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.
Say, yes, that even in this complete simplicity, this sunrise, this coffee cup, this sky of violet and molten gold, there is still this longing for the college library, those endless shelves of books, those journals, those flawed words and stubborn sounds. The never-resting mind. The imperfect paradise, that twenty-three-and-a-half degree tilt, that random whirl in the pre-solar nebula, the Earth spinning on its way atilt like a drunken sailor. Want more, need more. More than a world of violet and molten gold.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well...

"Good morning," said the little prince.

"Good morning," said the merchant.

This was a merchant who sold pills that had been invented to quench thirst. You need only swallow one pill a week, and you would feel no need of anything to drink.

"Why are you selling those?" asked the little prince.

"Because they save a tremendous amount of time," said the merchant. "Computations have been made by experts. With these pills, you save fifty-three minutes in every week."

"And what do I do with those fifty-three minutes?"

"Anything you like..."

"As for me," said the little prince to himself, "if I had fifty-three minutes to spend as I liked, I should walk at my leisure toward a spring of fresh water."
I've always liked this short chapter (entire above) from Antoine de Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince. It nicely captures the spirit of the book: You don't have to go frantically gallivanting all over the place looking for satisfaction; the greatest miracles are as close as your own front porch.

And speaking of miracles on the front porch, how about this morning glory plant of my spouse. A tiny seed placed in a pot. A seed with all the information necessary to send this plant four feet up its pole, twining, as always, with a right-hand screw, and popping out a flower every day or two, the design of each leaf and blossom implicit in the seed.

All of that is miracle enough, but here's what occupied my mind for fifty-three minutes this morning. This plant has the slenderest vine of any morning glory I have ever seen. Hardly thicker than sewing thread. And all those molecules needed to make a leaf or blossom are pumped up out of the pot through that thread, four feet into the air. Pumped up and pieced together. A leaf. A blossom. And not just any leaf or blossom, but a morning glory leaf and blossom. And not just any morning glory, but a Star of Yalta morning glory.

OK, OK. Big deal. It's happening all around us. An ant. An osprey. A human baby. What's so remarkable about a morning glory? Well, nothing really. Which is why we go through life oblivious of the miracles that confront us on every side. We are so immersed in the astonishing we don't take the time to be astonished.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


That old curmudgeon H. L. Mencken wrote: "The most common of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind."

Admitting that no one -- including this writer -- is immune to self-delusion, still it is hard for anyone who respects empirical evidence to argue with Mencken.

Half of Americans believe in ghosts. Almost seventy percent believe in angels. More people believe in astrology than express interest in astronomy. Almost anything paranormal -- ESP, UFOs, channeling, etc. -- is deemed more interesting than science. Not to mention the eighty-three percent who believe in a God who hears and answers prayers.

Why so much belief in a total absence of non-anecdotal evidence?

Back in the 1940s, the behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner did a famous experiment with pigeons that he thought had some relevance to human credulity. He put birds in the kind of cages used for training animals by reinforcement -- peck a bar, get some birdseed, that sort of thing. Except in this new experiment, the feed was provided at regular intervals regardless of what the pigeons did.

And guess what? The pigeons fell into certain behaviors all by themselves -- nodding or turning or pecking for food -- although their behaviors had nothing to do with the reward being offered. Skinner wrote: "A few accidental connections between a ritual and favorable consequences suffice to set up and maintain the behavior in spite of many unreinforced instances...The experiment might be said to demonstrate a sort of superstition. The bird behaves as if there were a causal relation between its behavior and the presentation of food, although such a relation is lacking."

"There are many analogies to human behavior," said Skinner. He was not the first to comment on the human propensity to mistake coincidence for causality.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


The current issue of the journal Science is devoted to data -- its collection and analysis. In many fields -- astronomy, elementary particle physics, genomics, climatology, and others -- the automated collection of data is outstripping the ability of scientists to search the data for meaning. Too many numbers, not enough time. Even pattern-finding computer algorithms barely make a dent in the accumulating mass of digitally archived information. As Daniel Boorstin writes: "Before the age of the mechanized observer, there was a tendency for meaning to outrun data. The modern tendency is quite the contrary, as we see data outrun meaning."

It seems to me that we are on the threshold of a new kind of science -- wikiscience.

Professionally trained scientists will continue as now, designing the instrumentation to automatically amass data from telescopes, particle accelerators, genome sequencers, etc., and will have first looks at the data. The data will be archived -- massively -- on the internet and available to the public. Tech geeks, teenage prodigies, unconventionally-trained geniuses, and amateurs of all stripes can mess around to their heart's content. Open house. Free-for-all.

Of course, it's already happening to some extent, but just wait until it really takes off. And don't be surprised if some really good science comes out of the blue -- a revolutionary idea from an 18-year-old whiz-kid in the back-of-the-beyond of China, say.

Terabytes of data, waiting to be explored.

Monday, February 21, 2011

In the cave

I have mentioned here before the ospreys that patrol our beach -- or "fish hawks," as they call them here -- generally in the afternoon at about the time I take my long walk to the palm point. Magnificent birds with broad wings that glide seemingly effortlessly on the wind.

And here's the thing: As often as not I am startled by a bird's shadow before I see the bird itself.

That wide-winged shadow, sweeping across the white sand, sometimes across me. That flicker of chill as the osprey blocks the sun.

And generally when it happens I think of Plato's allegory of the cave. Prisoners in a cave are constrained to look only at a blank wall. Somewhere behind them there is a fire, and people come and go in front of the fire, casting shadows on the wall. The shadows are the only reality the prisoners know. They have no idea of the flesh-and-blood people behind them or the blazing fire.

The prisoners know only what presents itself to their senses.

Forget for the moment Plato's point, which has to do with the duty of the philosopher to enlighten the benighted. There is a humbling moral to the story for all of us: We can only know what our senses -- directly or indirectly -- can perceive.

Who, a century ago, could have imagined the universe of the galaxies, or the marvelous dance of the DNA in every cell of our bodies? By cleverly extending our senses -- limited as they are -- with technological enhancements a whole new universe has opened up to us. Who can imagine what we might know a century from now? Plato's "real" world is like a shadow compared to the universe we inhabit today. Our own universe may be a shadow of a reality vastly more wonderful than anything we have so far dreamed.

Never mind. We live in the world we have. Even the osprey's shadow is magnificent in its own way. I am privileged to lift my eyes and see the feathered bird. And I have an intuition that there is more -- much more -- yet to see.

Sunday, February 20, 2011


Click, and then again if you wish, to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Grazing on history -- a Saturday reprise

Back in the late 50s and early 60s, when I was a graduate student in physics at UCLA and Notre Dame, all of us graduate students, in every field, who imagined ourselves to be aspiring academic intellectuals, at some point made ourselves aware of the "big books."

I'm thinking of those magisterial, multi-volume surveys of human history, such as Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough, Lynn Thorndike's History of Magic and Experimental Science, Joseph Campbell's The Masks of God, Joseph Needham's Science and Civilization in China, Will and Ariel Durant's The Story of Civilization, or Arnold Toynbee's A Study of History.

We didn't necessarily read these things cover to cover to cover to cover to cover to cover; we had no time for that. But we made ourselves aware of their contents. These books were the foundation upon which we would build our intellectual lives.

A necessary foundation. Every intellectual life begins with the realization that accidents of birth are poor criteria for truth. In my case, it was awakening to the fact that being born into a Southern American, white, middle-class, Roosevelt Democrat, Roman Catholic family didn't mean that the rest of the world was Southern, American, white, middle-class, Democrat or Catholic. Having delved the "big books," it was apparent that some healthy skepticism was in order.

Which does not mean, of course, that we threw off completely the traditions into which we were born (which is impossible, in any case), but at least we learned to see the epistemological equivalence of other traditions, avoid dogmatism, and seek consensus where we could find it.

The last time I was in Chattanooga (to bury my mother) I was sitting in a cafe next to a young woman who attended a local Bible college. She had her textbooks spread out on her table, from several fields of study, including biology, all of them Christian themed -- the American equivalent of the madrasah schools of Islam.

As I write these words, I am sitting in the College Commons of a Roman Catholic college to which I have given most of my adult life. All of us who work and teach here -- Catholics and non-Catholics alike -- value the best in the Catholic tradition, and freely examine that tradition in the light of modern learning. Textbooks across the curriculum are the same as those used in the great secular institutions of learning, and our faculty is the best we can acquire regardless of faith tradition. The college actively recruits students from other nationalities, races and cultures, not to proselytize or convert, but to broaden the horizons of our mostly white, middle-class, American, Roman Catholic student population. The first priority of the college is to teach our students to think. All of which leads to some lively discussion about what is or should be the mission of a nominally Catholic college,

Meanwhile, I don't know if anyone reads the "big books" anymore. Perhaps in the age of let's-pop-off-to-Thailand international travel and the internet, students are not so likely to be as parochial as we were in the 1950s. On the other hand, a bit of the "big books" spirit couldn't hurt the Bible colleges of middle America or the madrasahs of Pakistan.

(This post originally appeared in April 2007.)

Friday, February 18, 2011

Defining moment

It would be interesting to know who was the first to use the term "religious naturalism." I picked it up from Ursula Goodenough, but its pedigree predates her lovely book The Sacred Depths of Nature. In any case, it seems an apt term for describing the faith position articulated on this blog and in my books.

Let's pick it apart.

Naturalism is first of all a rejection of philosophical and theological dualism. Western civilization, especially, has been in thrall to a binary understanding of reality: natural/supernatural, body/soul, matter/spirit. Naturalism abjures the need for separate categories. The naturalist's reality is the world that presents itself -- directly or indirectly -- to the senses, a lawful world of matter and energy. The most reliable way so far devised to know that world relies on reproducible quantitative, empirical evidence in search of consensus. It is a way of knowing that, in so far as possible, is independent of cultural vernaculars -- politics, religion, ethnicity, gender, etc. Pure reason can pose questions and suggest answers, but the gold standard of science is exact, reproducible observation.

This is not to say that the world as we understand it today is the totality of reality. A hundred years from now our understanding may be vastly different than now. But still, what we come to know will be mediated through empirical observation. It will be "natural."

And what is "religious" naturalism?

The religious naturalist is fully aware of the tentative, evolving state of knowledge and has a deep sense of the fullness of what we do not know. This awareness of ineluctable mystery evokes emotions of awe, wonder, praise, gratitude -- responses that have traditionally been associated with religion and no doubt spring from the same evolutionary roots.

The religious naturalist is always seeking to expand the circle of reliable empirical knowledge -- and therefore opportunities to encounter mystery -- but the human drama is central, central because the knower is central. As Goodenough writes: "Being at home with our natural selves is the prelude to ecology, both environmental and cultural, and there are many ways to see human beings as noble and distinctive even as we are inexorably part of the whole."

Thursday, February 17, 2011

This is the land of the lizards

Anoles and geckos. As short as a few inches. As long as a foot. Black, green, brown. Stripes down the back. Flares of iridescence. Or ghostly wan.

When they get in the house, we let them be. They scurry on the walls and ceilings, keeping their distance. Eating ants and mosquitoes. Sooner or later they find their way out again.

Mostly we watch them on the terrace railing or porch steps. Preening in the sun. Doing pushups. Heads bobbing. Dewlaps flapping to establish territory or attract mates.

On the small cays north of here are colonies of rock iguanas -- "Bahamian dragons" -- two or three feet long. Same family as our wee anoles. Can do without the dragons. Love the anoles.

In the very first chapter of Carlos Eire's Waiting for Snow in Havana, he has this to say about lizards:
They knew exactly what they were and always would be. Nothing changed for them. Nothing would ever change. The world belonged to them whole, free of vice and virtue. They scurried up and down the walls of the patio, and along its brightly colored floor tiles. They lounged on tree branches, sunned themselves on rocks. They clung to the ceilings inside our house, waiting for bugs to eat. They never fell in love, or sinned, or suffered broken hearts. They knew nothing of betrayal or humiliation…They worried not about curses, or proofs of God's existence, or nakedness…Perhaps I envied them. Their place on earth was more secure than ours. We would lose our place, our world. They are still basking in the sun. Same way. Day in, day out.
Well, we know where this story is going. And if you want creatures to contrast with the joy and anguish and exhilaration and guilt and pride and embarrassment that comes with self-awareness (yes, this is a book of lost innocence, of being cast out of the garden), then the anoles and geckos are your candidates. What an equanimity of spirit! Or what looks like equanimity.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Science as a candle in the dark

Oh, there is evil afoot the world, yes. And it is prominently on display in Carlos Eire's memoir , Waiting for Snow in Havana, my current reading. Minor evil, like ten-year-old Carlos and his young pals blowing up lizards with firecrackers. And major evil, like the gratuitous humiliations and tortures practiced by Batista's secret police and, subsequently, by Castro's goons and militias. And evil misconceived as good, as when John and Bobby Kennedy sent 1500 Cubans on the ill-planned Bay of Pigs invasion, letting them be slaughtered on a swamp-bound beach without the promised air cover.

Oh, yes, there is evil in the world.

Call it, if you want, original sin. Certainly a propensity towards violence, particularly by males, seems to have been part of the original human genetic bequest. Altruism, too. The good angel on the right shoulder and the bad angel on the left, whispering their encouragements. The eternal struggle we inherit from the four-billion-year dynamic of natural selection.

Eire's teachers, as did mine, personified evil. Satan. Lucifer. The Angel of Darkness. Abroad in the world with all his works and pomps, his imps and incubi and succubi and unclean spirits. Us against them.

Perfectly natural, of course. Animism appears to be the default human explanation of the world. Certainly it is for children, who instinctively draw faces on flowers and the sun, and (as per Piaget) ascribe human awareness to clouds and trees. True, also, of every people in every place, who in pre-scientific times, gave human qualities to rocks and pools, thunder storms and mountains. Good spirits roamed the world, and bad. Gods and devils proliferated. Carl Sagan's "demon-haunted world."

Perhaps the greatest discovery of empirical science is this: The emergent human concepts of good and evil, love and justice, self-respect and guilt, are part of a continuum of developing awareness that links us to all of earthly creation. Projections of ourselves onto the non-human world is natural but illusory. The dryads and naiads are a fiction. So too is Zeus and all his retinue. So too is Satan.

Which is not to say that evil isn't personified. We all manifest it to one degree or another as part of our human nature. And, blessedly, most of us, most of the time, align our wills with the angel on the right shoulder.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Bye, bye, blackbird

After my Confession app post yesterday, I went back to reading Carlos Eire's Waiting for Snow in Havanna, a memoir of his early youth in pre-Castro Cuba. And perhaps because of the post I took particular notice as his grade school teacher -- an R.C. Christian Brother -- explained the meaning of eternity:
And what did forever mean?

"Ah Carlos, good question. Infinity is beyond comprehension. The best we can do is employ images to convey a sense of infinity. You want to know what 'forever' means in terms of hell and the suffering that awaits us there? Well, answer this question first: if all of the oceans on earth were to be filled with sand, and a bird were to remove one tiny grain of sand every million years, how long would it take for all of the sand to be removed?"

We gave all sorts of answers, but all of them were wrong.

"All right, you want to know the right answer? The right answer is this: ridding the earth of all that sand, grain by grain, in one-million-year increments would take only a fraction of the time one would spend in hell. The whole process would be only an infinitesimally insignificant fraction of the eternity that is hell. So small a fraction as not to count at all. Almost the same as zero. Eternity has no end."

And just one sin could take you there. Just one.
I am fourteen years older than Eire, and grew up in a different country, but I recall hearing the same explanation of eternity from one of my teachers. It must have been one of the standard stories that were drilled into young brains worldwide by Roman Catholic educators. Just one mortal sin -- touching oneself maybe -- and if you were suddenly struck by lightning before having an opportunity to confess or mumble an Act of Contrition, then you suffered horrible torments forever and ever. No end.

Who dreamed this stuff up? You read it in Joyce too, and all the way back to the Middle Ages. And we were supposed to love this God unconditionally, this ogre who would send little boys to the eternally licking flames for one expression of a natural urge, an urge presumably put there by the Creator himself.

Don't tell me that "no one really believed all that stuff." We believed it and more that was equally absurd, and most people in the world still do. The burden of the supernatural.

How much more beautiful a view of life that unfolds within the natural order. How much more beautiful an impetus to goodness that comes from the realization (perhaps partly innate) that our own interests and those of our loved ones are best served by doing unto others as you would have them do unto you -- not forgetting the warm feeling of satisfaction that inevitably follows a gratuitous good deed.

Monday, February 14, 2011

There's an app for that

I read recently (was it here in Comments?) that there is now an iPhone app to help Catholics prepare for the sacrament of Confession (or what we used to call Confession; I think it's now called Reconciliation). A digitally assisted Examination of Conscience.

The last time I went into the dark box and confessed my sins (as a teenager), we didn't need an app. We just made it up. So many instances of disobeying our parents, so many lies, so many times being mean to our sibs, trying to decide on an appropriate number that would not make us sound like either hardened sinners or goodie-goodies. This was by way of preparing for the big ones. Impure thoughts. Touching oneself.

No one explained why private thoughts and secluded touches added to the sum total of evil in the world, but it loomed large in our imaginations. Which didn't help in sorting out the single biggest problem in a human life -- how to mesh sex and romance. Maybe we could have used an app for that.

Anyhow, it's Valentine's Day, and somehow, against all the odds, I am still happily in love with my bride of 50+ years, and still grappling with the primeval conundrum.

And speaking of grappling, here's an example of a species that has solved (in its own inarticulate way) the problem.

The male damselfly's genital opening is near the tip of his tail. His penis, however, is just behind the legs. So before he mates, he must transfer sperm from the tip of the tail to the penis up front. Now he grasps the female behind her head with the tip of his tail. She curls her abdomen around and under until she brings her genital organ -- at the tip of her tail -- to his penis. And now their bodies are engaged, with all the trappings of romance, in a heart-shaped valentine, one of nature's more engagingly semiotic acts of copulation.

(Thanks to Charmaine K. for the photo. And if you don't already own a copy of Valentine, now's the day to order.)

Sunday, February 13, 2011

A Valentine...

...from Anne. Click to enlarge.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Be mine, Valentine

As a Valentine's treat, go here for a Saturday reprise.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Boyish sports

A mile down the beach the sand gives way to rocky shore. Or at least it used to. This year the sand has filled in to such an extent that at low tide one can walk right past the low rocky cliff. On one side, elaborately sculptured limestone, full of caves and cavities, snails and chitons clinging in their indentations. On the other, the transparent sea with iridescent trumpet fish corralling small silver prey. Crabs scurry in the lick and ebb of the tide.

And walking there I (almost) feel ten or twelve years old again, bug-eyed and enthralled, young Wordsworth in Cumbria:
Ye Presences of Nature in the sky
And on the earth! Ye Visions of the hills!
And Souls of lonely places! can I think
A vulgar hope was yours when ye employed
Such ministry, when ye, through many a year
Haunting me thus among my boyish sports,
On caves and trees, upon the woods and hills,
Impressed, upon all forms, the characters
Of danger or desire; and thus did make
The surface of the universal earth,
With triumph and delight, with hope and fear,
Work like a sea?
How does one recapture that innocence, that blank slate of delight, washed over by tides of danger and desire, swept away by the inarticulate sea? That haunted sense of seeing everything for the first time -- old enough to know that what one is seeing is important, but not so old that one feels the need to impress one's own designs upon the world?

Impossible, I suppose. Impossible to turn off the processing brain, that irresistible eagerness to make something -- a blog post maybe -- out of what might just be let be.

You can't go home again. Art has its imperatives.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

A morning prayer

"Days pass and years vanish, and we sleep-/walk blind/ among miracles."

A line from a poem of Alan Shapiro, the invocational poem to his volume Tantalus In Love.

Invocation. A prayer opening a religious service.

The years pass. Indeed. Seventy-four years. How much, I wonder, have I missed. Sleepwalking. Blind.

"Love, fill our eyes/ all up with seeing."

How many days, hours, minutes pass when I do not see? Do not see that every jot and tittle of creation is crying out to be seen, is begging notice. Attention, said Malebranche, is the highest form of prayer.

"Make us see/ no matter where/ we gaze that the bush burns/ unconsumed."

We should be on our knees. In the grass. At the seashore. In adoration of the ant that crawls just now -- just now! -- across my desk. On our knees. Singing hosannas.

Make us see. Peel the scales of ordinariness from my eyes. Let me see that nothing is ordinary. That everything burns.

"How filled with awe// this place is, and we did not know it."

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Endless forms most wonderful

Is there anything new under the sun? Well, here's a creature that took me by surprise. Picked up on the beach. At first glance it would seem to be some sort of crawling animal, clinging to a branch of sea whip coral with eight little legs. From the underside that's exactly what it looks like. (Click to enlarge.)

But no. This is all shell, including the "legs." What then?

Get out Paul Humann's beautiful and exhaustive guide to Reef Creatures, and I soon zero in on frond oysters. A trip to the internet confirms the identification.

A bivalve mollusk. The soft creature and one valve long departed.

This particular species extends its shelly ribs to grasp and hold -- not so tightly I might add -- its supporting stalk of coral.

I wouldn't even dream to grasp the subtle biochemical expression of genes that causes those growing horny protuberances to curl and clutch.

Who would have thunk it? Is there no end of nature's ingenuity?

A nod and a bow to Darwin:
It is interesting to contemplate a tangled 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 upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling 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.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011


In Stacy Schiff's best-selling life of Cleopatra, she has this to say about the Egyptian goddess Isis:
In an age of general longing, she ranked as the greatest deity of the day. She enjoyed nearly unlimited powers: Isis invented the alphabet (both Egyptian and Greek), separated earth from sky, set the sun and the moon on their way. Fiercely but compassionately, she plucked order from chaos. She was tender and comforting, also the mistress of war, thunderbolts, the sea. She cured the sick and raised the dead. She presided over love affairs, invented marriage, regulated pregnancies, inspired the love that binds children to parents, smiled on domestic life. She dispensed mercy, salvation, redemption. She is the consummate earth mother, also -- like most mothers -- something of a canny, omnicompetent, behind-the-scenes magician.
Oh, those ancient Egyptians and their silly, superstitious gods.

Wait a minute. Isis sounds pretty much like the god I was raised to believe in, although my god was a father rather than a mother. Still, everything else was pretty much the same. There he is, on the ceiling of the Sistene Chapel, reaching out to give Adam the spark of life, having finished setting the sun and moon on their courses, ready to dispense mercy, salvation, redemption.

Yep, there's pretty much only one thing that separates the ancient Egyptian goddess from my god (besides gender), and that is that she was their god and mine was mine.

One person's superstition is another person's true belief.

The word "superstition" comes from the Latin verb superstare, "to stand upon or over." It is about the best word we have for looking down our noses on those who believe something other than what we believe ourselves.

Voltaire, wrote this about superstition: "A Frenchman traveling in Italy finds almost everything superstitious, and is hardly wrong. The archbishop of Canterbury claims that the archbishop of Paris is superstitious; the Presbyterians levy the same reproach against his Grace of Canterbury, and are in their turn called superstitious by the Quakers, who are the most superstitious of men in the eyes of other Christians."

I have in the course of my life come to believe that the personal Christian god of my youth is no less superstitious than the goddess of the Egyptians, and that a skeptical, science-based agnosticism is the unsuperstitious way to go. But then -- as per Voltaire -- I would, wouldn't I?

Monday, February 07, 2011

When God is gone…

In Stacy Schiff's biography of Cleopatra, I came across this epigraph from Euripides: "Man's most valuable trait is a judicious sense of what not to believe."

I have no idea which of Euripides' plays the quote is from, but it strikes me as a suitable source for reflection.

Credulity is the default state of a human life. Children are born to believe, to accept as true what they are told by adults. An innate credulity has survival value in a dangerous world. If a grown-up says "There are crocodiles in the river," it is probably best to stay out of the water.

Skepticism, on the other hand, must be learned.

I was late in realizing that I didn't have to believe the received "truth." My best teacher was a somewhat older Panamanian secular Jew I went to graduate school with at UCLA. We took our brown-bag lunches together in the university's botanical garden, and spent the hour talking about physics, religion, and the "meaning of life."

Moises was the first person I had encountered after sixteen years of Catholic education who mentioned the word "skepticism." "Why do you believe that?" he would ask, and often I had no answer except that it was what my family and teachers told me was true. The idea that I might actually examine the basis for my beliefs was a rather new concept. In matters of religion, like almost everyone else in the world, I had embraced uncritically the faith story into which I was born.

And thus began my search for "a judicious sense of what not to believe." When later, as a teacher, I wrote a little column for each issue of the college newspaper, I called it Under a Skeptical Star, from a line of the Scots poet/scholar William MacNeile Dixon: "If there be a skeptical star I was born under it, yet I have lived all my days in complete astonishment."

A liberating sense of what not to believe opened the door to a vastly more interesting world whose diverse and astonishing riches I continue to explore to this day.

Sunday, February 06, 2011


A doll from Anne. Click, and then again, to enlarge.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

...of elements and an angelic sprite -- a reprise

My spouse and I have been watching a six-part BBC dramatization of the Pre-Raphaelite art movement (Desperate Romantics), in which Dante Gabriel Rossetti figures prominently. Let me use as a Saturday reprise an earlier post from July 2007 on one of Rossetti's works.

A few words about Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Ecce Ancilla Domini ("Behold the handmaid of the Lord"), painted in 1850. (Click - and again - to enlarge.)

The theme, the Annunciation, was a common one (scroll down for gallery) in Late Medieval and Renaissance art. Rossetti has adopted many of the conventions of that time, but given them a new interpretation.

In the earlier paintings, Mary is generally portrayed as a mature woman, up and about, dressed for the business of the day in red and blue. She is slightly abashed by the words of the angel, but usually appears as if she were expecting the message and accepts her fate with equanimity.

Rossetti's virgin is a young girl, perhaps just woken from sleep, in her night clothes of virginal white. The traditional red is seen here as an embroidery hanging on a folded embroidery frame (we have seen it before in an earlier Rossetti work, The Girlhood of Mary). A blue screen is in the background, and a blue sky. The lilies, the white dove, and the just extinguished candle (here a wall sconce) are all Medieval and Renaissance conventions.

But something new is going on here.

The angel Gabriel is a slightly androgynous young man, wingless, naked beneath his simple gown. He hovers just above the floor on fiery feet. The stem of the lilies points to Mary's womb. Here are the usual three blossoms, representing, presumably, the Trinity, but one of them is still in bud.

Mary is -- well, you tell me. She seems to be looking at something -- a hint of angelic tumescence? -- that Gabriel's turned posture does not allow us to see. She is aroused, embarrassed, fearful. She doesn't seem to have a clue that she is being invited to be the mother of God.

We are a long way here from the Age of Faith. We are witnessing a very modern drama, one that has less to do with the salvation of the world that working out the tangled scripts of Gabriel Rossetti's -- and our -- psychosexuality. If we want to understand the painting, it is not to the theology that we must turn, but to evolutionary psychology.

In her big fruitcake of a book, Sexual Personae, Camille Paglia has a lot to say about Rossetti's Pre-Raphaelite "decadence" (although, curiously, she does not mention this early painting). She does mention the influence on Rossetti of "Italian Catholicism's vestigial paganism," and I think here she is close to the mark. In its sacramental colors and symbols, its frank sensuality, and its mythic interpretation of dreams, Rossetti's Annunciation -- this very Catholic painting -- takes us away from the supernatural drama of sin and salvation and back to the forest groves and caves where our neural circuitry acquired its primal wiring.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Words and meaning

The other day I said that a religious naturalist "can sing a Te Deum as robustly as anyone." Let me add to a personal qualification.

Of course, religious naturalists, like anyone else, can listen to sacred music with profound appreciation and delight. Bach's Saint Matthew Passion, Handel's Messiah and Mozart's Requeim are among the greatest glories of Western civilization. I could listen to Gregorian chant all day, and I have no qualms about joining in and singing Christmas carols.

But I must confess that when I have occasion to be present at a religious service, I feel a qualm at lifting my voice robustly. I would enjoy taking communion, say, with my Roman Catholic friends and colleagues, as a symbolic meal of companionship, and I'm sure my friend Father R. K., if he were officiating, would not hesitate to hand me the host, though he knows full well I could not recite the Creed with any degree of sincerity. His understanding of the sacramental nature of bread and wine is probably not so different from mine, but I would still feel something of a fraud walking up to the altar with believers. The Creed, after all, is part of the liturgy, and picking and choosing in matters of religion has always seemed to me a dicey proposition.

Maybe I'm just unnecessarily scrupulous.

The religious naturalist Ursula Goodenough tells us in her book The Sacred Depths of Nature that she has no problem being part of a religious congregation and participating fully in the rites, this in spite of the fact that she has no truck with the supernatural. She admits to being enthralled by the beauty and solemnity and power of traditional liturgies. She writes: "The words in the traditional texts may sound different to us than they did to their authors, but they continue to resonate with our religious selves. We know what they are intended to mean."

In his book Consilience, the naturalist E. O. Wilson writes: "Great ceremonies summon the history of a people in solemn remembrance…Sacred symbols infiltrate the very bones of culture. They will take centuries to replace, if ever…It would be a sorry day if we abandoned our venerated sacral traditions…Recognize that when introits and invocations prickle the skin we are in the presence of poetry, and the soul of the tribe, something that will outlive the particularities of sectarian belief, and perhaps belief in God itself."

I have the greatest admiration for Goodenough and Wilson, and wish I could join in, especially with my Catholic colleagues in the celebration of Mass and rites of passage. But I find myself sitting in the back pews of the church, silent. The words of the traditional liturgy come awkwardly to my lips. I want the words to mean what they meant to the people who formulated them, and not what I want them to mean. This, I know, may be a failure of imagination on my part, but -- as my Irish neighbors say -- there you have it.

Thursday, February 03, 2011


Google just goes on offering us more and more of the world (the universe, really!) free of charge. Their latest is the Art Project that lets us examine in exquisite detail famous paintings from the world's great museums.

For example, since I first saw it in the flesh, I've long been fascinated by the scientific instruments on display in Hans Holbein the Younger's The Ambassadors, an enigmatic work at the National Galley in London, painted in 1533. I spent an hour last evening studying the objects arrayed between the two distinguished gentlemen.

Above, a close up of the terrestrial sphere (there is also a celestial sphere). Europe is front and center (click to enlarge). We can just glimpse the newly discovered lands across the Atlantic. Africa has been circumnavigated. The north polar region is still terra incognito.

Even in Europe, geographic details are inexactly represented. The polar circle, tropics and equator are rendered in red. The prime meridian is still -- as with Eratosthenes -- just off the Gates of Hercules (Strait of Gibraltar). Also in red is the Line of Demarcation, established by the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, dividing new lands of Spain from those of Portugal.

The globe indicates a reasonably accurate estimation of the size of the Earth. From the Cape Verde islands to the Nile is shown as just over 60 degrees of longitude, not too far off the actual distance.

In general, the part of the world known with some degree of accuracy is illuminated; the rest is in shadow.

From my earliest memories, there was a terrestrial globe in the house I grew up in, with all that British Empire pink and the analemma out there in the empty Pacific. I can't recall if we had a globe in the house as my kids were growing up (Tom?), but lord knows we had enough maps and atlases, including a relief map of the world that covered one whole wall of the dining room.

I invite you to go to the link above and zoom in on the celestial globe. Check out the graduations on the brass rings, in a detail that would hardly be available even in the National Gallery.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011


Today is Groundhog Day, or Candlemas.

In Pennsylvania, Punxsutawney Phil will or will not see his shadow when he emerges from his burrow. If he does, Pennsylvanians are in for six more weeks of winter. If it doesn't, they can put away the snow shovels. From here, on this tropical isle, it looks like the Northeast of the U.S. is getting battered by yet another snowstorm.

Candlemas is a cross-quarter day, halfway between the solstice and the equinox (approximately), known in the ancient Celtic calendar as Imbolc. In the Christian calendar, it celebrates the "purification" of the Blessed Virgin after giving birth, and the presentation of the Christ child in the temple. For me it means another gorgeous sunrise and the halfway mark of my sojourn on the island.

Like the pagans of yore, my life is keyed to the Sun. My transitions from place to place are synchronized with the Sun's peregrinations, escaping the need for artificial heat in winter and artificial AC in the summer. I chase the Sun south in the winter, and run away north in the summer.

The Christian calendar, like the calendars of other religions, approximates the ancient solar feasts, even though few people notice anymore what the Sun is actually doing in the sky. Christmas and Easter prominently recall a solstice and equinox. We celebrate the second cross-quarter day as May Day. ("Oh Mary we crown thee with blossoms today…") The third cross-quarter day, which falls on or about August 7th, was remembered in the Christian calendar as Lammas, or "loaf-mass," a harvest feast, but it has vanished from our attention (as have harvests). The fourth cross-quarter day is prominently with us as Halloween and All Saints.

I believe I have mentioned here before that In the Catholic liturgical calendar the parts of the year between the day after the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6 and the day before Ash Wednesday, and between the day after Pentecost and the day before Advent, rather more than half the year altogether, are known as Ordinary Time. The sunrise this morning was anything but ordinary. Each morning I watch as the rising solar disk edges its way northward along the low ridge of Stocking Island, ten miles away to the southeast, presided over by blazing Venus and red Antares. I have replaced the liturgical calendar with Guy Ottewell's Astronomical Calendar. In the latter, there is no such thing as "ordinary" time. Every day offers some sort of celestial grace.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

In the valley of love and delight

Are reverence and gratitude virtues worth cultivating?

Reverence is the response of humility, humility in the face of a natural world whose depth and breath far exceeds our capacity to know, now and perhaps forever.

Some folks cannot consider the natural world without imagining a humanlike creator. This is apparently a completely natural response. Piaget showed us that anthropomorphism and artificialism are the default explanations of the child. They have certainly been the way most humans have explained the world since time immemorial. And so it has been common to direct one's reverence away from the creation to an anthropomorphic creator -- in effect, reverencing a projection of ourselves.

The religious naturalist considers this a mistake. It means replacing humility in the face of the entirety with humility in the face of a part. Granted, there is ample mystery in a human self to excite awe and reverence, but a human self (or its projection as a divine person) is a fragment of the whole of creation. Whatever is the referent of the religious naturalist's reverence, it is inexpressible as some ensemble of human attributes.

The religious naturalist can sing a Te Deum as robustly as anyone, and can be awed by the ceiling of the Sistene Chapel, but the ultimate expression of her humility is expressed in a reverent silence.

And gratitude? Does gratitude require a giver? Yes, I suppose it does. But the giver need not be known, and certainly need not be a person, divine or otherwise. Life is a gift. Beauty is a gift. Love is a gift. The universe as we find it, in all of its majesty and mystery, is the religious naturalist's gift, and her response is gratitude.
'Tis the gift to be simple,
'tis the gift to be free,
'tis the gift to come down
where we ought to be,
and when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained
to bow and to bend we shan't be ashamed,
to turn, turn, will be our delight
till by turning, turning we come round right.