Trimmed to Size

I am in the third stage of down-sizing my living space, preparatory to relocation from a 1200 square-foot apartment with attached garage to a 700 square-foot space. Considering the expense of a storage unit, I have steeled myself to discard or donate everything except the bedroom set and my tech tools. I began the final purge and boxing up for the move last night, and stuff that had survived the first two cuts is now either piled up in the garage pending a trip down to Good Will, or sitting in the dumpster.

Strangely, the two collections represent very different aspects of my life.

The primary impetus for down-sizing is that my sons are off to college. I’ve held back their child-hood memorabilia, most of it stored under my bed, which is were it will be again after the move. The rest of me as a father is destined for Good Will, including the power tools that I used in fixing up the house their mother now lives in, the racks that stored their backpacking gear, and the last of the storage bins that held their craft supplies.

In the dumpster lies the record of my intellectual life, starting with the journals I wrote in college that marked the beginning of my attempts to understand the power of love and why it was so hard to transmit it. Also from that era are the remnants of the comic book collection that I accumulated up to the date of my marriage at thirty-five. More significant are the last of the evidence of my investment in Diagrammatic Programming, the systems analysis technology developed by my father who passed away just before New Years.

The furniture and appliances are no loss. But these things hurt somehow.

From the comic collection I did hold back my run of The Puma Blues. It’s been sitting on a wire rack for three months, but made it to my bed last night. My elbow began aching around 9:30, so I decided to turn in. Instead, I ended up propped up by my pillows, trying to decipher the faded scratches of the hand-lettered dialog, while a voice in the back of my head keep on observing “This was the only thing in your comic collection worth keeping.”

Puma Blues, which ran only 24 issues, charts the experience of Gavin, a young man confronted on all sides with the futility of the struggle against death. It was created by two Canadians with deep environmental sensitivities. The artwork lovingly captures the natural world, with a moodiness that sometimes makes it difficult to discern the minutiae of artificial existence.

Set at the turn of the millennia, the ecological context of Gavin’s life is terrifying: global warming, acidification, ozone depletion and nuclear terrorism have brought the natural world to the point of collapse. Strangely, in seeking refuge from hopelessness, Gavin finds himself posted at a nature preserve, monitoring the pH of a lake that is being limed to allow the fish to survive, and thus to support the rest of the ecosystem. But with too much free time on his hands, Gavin is brought to confront a more direct experience of mortality, in the form of videos made by his deceased father that consider darkly the larger question of humanity’s relationship to eternity.

The storyline offers two promises for healing, promises that I regret were barely formulated before the series was dropped. The first is the assertion by Gavin’s father that “rebellion is the beginning of faith.” In the backdrop of Gavin’s life, the rebellion is evident in his rootless refusal to engage society, and it is indeed that rebellion that allows him the opportunity to engage his father’s voice. But from my writings here, it might be gleaned that I believe that the whole of religious experience is a rebellion against our Darwinian programming. In both cases, rebellion manifests as a pig-headed refusal to participate in systems that create death.

This parallel will be offensive to lovers of nature, but I stand by it: while it is fashionable to believe that humanity has disrupted a natural balance, that is only true on the human time-scale. Looking at ecology even on the time-frame of tens of thousands of years, and we see a constant rising and falling of species and ecosystems. There is no stability, and the instability brought by death was the agency of our evolution.

Gavin resists faith, however, even though the second promise for healing is nothing less than an absolute miracle. Symbolically, it reflects the hope of life itself, a hope that it will find some way to outgrow the disasters that humanity is visiting upon it. Along with his environmental monitoring duties, Gavin is occasionally ordered to seek out and “transmute” aerial manta rays. Physiologically, there is no concession in the artwork to biological necessity. The rays sport gills, and flutter their wings gracefully as though under water. But they fly through the air none-the-less. Obviously, the only explanation for their survival is access to some other form of energy, a form that is not channeled by the normal metabolic means.

This is the promise that I offered my sons all through their childhood. While I try not to show it, it hurts now to hear them enthuse about terraforming Mars (to which I think: “Really – invest all that energy so we can move there and screw it up?”) or spread nanoscale sensors all over the Earth (“Disrupting the digestion of the insects and worms just as our plastic refuse does that of the birds and fish?”). I do understand, of course: they must survive in a culture that abases itself before its technological avatars, because they offer the promise of complete control of the world through the use of digital technology.

But the problem, as I see it, is in seeking control.

Here’s an experience: I was working at a climate change modelling institute in 2004, back when the fossil fuel industry really began to push back against the scientific community. The ozone layer was a serious concern: the CFCs used for foam production and refrigeration catalyzed the breakdown of ozone, thereby allowing cancer-causing ultraviolet radiation through the atmosphere. While replacements had been found, the chlorine atoms at fault would remain in the atmosphere for decades.

As a physicist, I was mulling one day over the thought that neutrinos from the sun could catalyze electron emission from a neutron in the chlorine nucleus, transforming it into argon, which is chemically inert. Thinking more and more deeply about this, I visualized the neutrino field being emited from the sun, and then honed my attention on the thin shell of the atmosphere. I felt other minds joining mine, and then a frission of energy.

A few weeks later, one of the climate modelers came by after church to say: “We were pretty worried about the ozone layer, but it seems like it wasn’t such a big problem after all.”

And so I find myself a little disjointed today, juxtaposing my promise of hope against the paranoia of Gavin’s father, whose faith manifests as belief in UFOs and the hope that some higher species is standing in the wings to engineer our salvation. Neither my sons nor the authors of Puma Blues seemed ready to proclaim that we are the intervention. We are the tool by which God conquers Darwinian violence.

We just need our rebellion against death to mature into a surrender to love.

Evolving Dementia

My mother spent most of her life supporting families dealing with cancer, but now Alzheimer’s is becoming a comparable epidemic. In 2012, estimates held that nearly 5.4 million Americans had the disease in some stage. The neurological characteristics of the disease include formation of protein plaques in the cranial fluid, which start to develop as much as thirty years before the onset of dementia. In the final stages of the disease, proteins in the neurons themselves begin to tangle, killing the cells and leading inexorably to loss of muscle control and death.

My mother had recorded a Nova special on the efforts of drug companies to develop treatment for the disease. The resources dedicated to the research are impressive – the special focused on three companies running drug trials costing up to $1 billion. The treatments attempt to mobilize the immune system to harvest and break down the proteins that form plaques. Early treatments caused dangerous swelling of the brain. The current generation of treatments avoid that side-effect, but while the special heralded that breakthroughs were possible, to the scientist, the justification for that hope appears incomplete.

The researchers do not hope to reverse the progress of the disease, but hold forth the possibility that treatments may slow the formation of plaques. This hope is inspired by three-year studies that demonstrated that early-stage patients showed 30% less cognitive degradation than observed in patients that did not receive the drug. But Alzheimer’s evolves over decades, and we have no way of knowing whether long-term treatment won’t result in complications that rival the disease itself. Nor, without expensive radiographic imaging of everyone’s brain around the age of thirty, do we have any way of knowing currently who requires the treatment.

Obviously, if we understood why the plaques form in the first place, we might be able to prevent the disease entirely. Given the expense of the research, however, it is obvious that some commercial profit must be generated to keep the work alive. As with diabetes and cancer, long-term drug treatments will generate that revenue.

But can it ever lead us to a cause?

One of the criteria for canonization is proof of a miracle. In the case of Pope John Paul II, one of those demonstrations was the miraculous healing of a nun with Parkinson’s disease, another degenerative nerve condition. Scientists hold that such demonstrations are simple fraud or chance correlation with spontaneous recovery. But if we take spirituality seriously, we might expect that the development of human intellect would create stresses in our physiology that it was never designed to sustain.

As I understand our intellect, the brain is an interface to the world of ideas. In sharing ideas, we build power in them. This power is not held by any one individual, but held in what Jung called humanity’s “collective unconscious.” No other creature had ever created this kind of repository, and so we would not have inherited from our animal predecessors any mechanisms that would protect our brain from direct exposure to such energies.

Consider, then, what might happen if we taught our children that thinking occurs in the brain. Every intense intellectual exercise would intuitively manifest as an attempt to take control of ideas, to force them into the interior of our brains where we can manipulate them most directly. But each thinker that wrestles with ideas struggles against the intentions of other thinkers, creating dissonance and stress in the tissues of the brain. Might this not result in damage to that delicate organ, an organ that never evolved to deal with such strain?

In my own case, when I began to take charge of my mind back in 2002, I had to struggle against corrupt residents. The strain expressed itself physically in my brain as pressure, sensations of heat, and in the most extreme occasion, sounds of the cranial bone cracking. The events that most frightened me, however, involved a sensation of burning in the nerves along my ribs that I found similar to the symptoms of shingles in its early stages. When I realized this, I turned inwards, considering the structure of my mind, and traced the problem to an over-heated section of my brain in the back of my skull. Realizing that my mind was passing energy through tissues not designed to process it, I tried to shift the flow outwards, into the soul that blooms all around me. I felt of shifting of spiritual structures, and over the next few days, the symptoms disappeared.

My belief, therefore, is that even if we figure out how to stave off the onset of Alzheimer’s using drug therapy, our medical science, with its focus on proteins and genomes, will never touch the root cause of our evolving epidemic of dementia. Our subconscious struggle for the control of ideas will simply intensify, and manifest in other forms of disease. No, it is the idea that the brain is the mind that is at fault. Only when we begin teaching people how to manage the part of their mind that resides in the soul will we be able to prevent dementia.

Evolution of Love

I have signed up for the Zacharias Trust’s e-pulse feed, produced by the Oxford Center for Christian Apologetics. The foremost member of that community is John Lennox, who has engaged Richard Dawkins and other militant atheists in debate on whether evolution disproves the Bible.

The conflict arises from the way that Genesis describes creation as occurring in six “days.” The term is vague, and long prior to Darwin we had Christian scholars cautioning that it shouldn’t be taken literally. But without any science to help interpret the book, the tendency was to take the common translation as cause to celebrate the glory and power of the Creator.

In the New Testament, that glory and power is manifested in a different way – it is through Jesus’s parables that explain that no matter how big a mess we make of things, it doesn’t affect God. He is going to love us anyways. Even more, when we turn our will and intelligence to caring for the world we live in, great power comes to us – power that is inaccessible through any other means. Power that gave Jesus authority even over death.

I met a family whose daughter studied with Lennox, and they shared his perception that the people he debates have a deep hunger for the love that God brings. They have just convinced themselves that the evil done by men proves that God doesn’t exist. In their quest to support their conviction, they use the conflict between the translation of Genesis and the fossil record to argue that the whole of the Bible should be discarded.

The apologists use a number of techniques to try to defend their faith. One is intelligent design – the idea that we can use evolution to prove the existence of God by demonstrating the infinitesimal probability that evolution could merge single-celled organisms into something as complex as a human being. Others shut their eyes and insist that if evolution is advanced as proof against God, then evolution must be wrong. And a final group insists that we should just stop arguing about it, and prove God’s existence through the works of our love.

But what of this: what if there was no contradiction? What if God prepared the way for reconciliation between naïve faith and sophisticated scientific understanding by writing evolution into the Bible long before it was formulated by Darwin? Would that not be a magnificent demonstration of his power and love for us?

For this is what I read. Genesis records that light allowed photosynthetic organisms to escape the dark depths of the ocean. From there they migrated from salt waters below to fresh waters above. Next they learned to survive outside of water, becoming plants that spread across the face of the earth. Then sight arose, resolving the light into the sun and the moon, and supporting seasonal migration. After the extinction of the dinosaurs, the fish and birds dominated the earth until the rise of the mammals. And finally we have man, whose flexible brain liberated life from the Darwinian struggle, to the point today that we can design simple creatures ourselves.

Evolution does not contradict the Bible; rather the elaboration of Darwin’s theory has substantiated the Bible. The Bible contains the history revealed by paleontology written thousands of years before science gave us the tools to interpret the fossil record.

So Christians, take heart: there is absolutely nothing to apologize for.

And let’s just put the argument aside and get around to the business of applying our intelligence to the restoration of the planet that God provided to sustain us on our journey to understanding.

Imagine a World Without Imagination

Jerry Coyne, author of Why Evolution is True, has joined the cawing voices of academic atheists with the publication of his new book Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible. I haven’t read the book, and don’t see any reason to support the author’s rise to bestseller stardom. The supporting reviews on the book’s brag sheet are enough for me. Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker all celebrate the book as another sledgehammer blow against the project that has occupied humanity’s greatest thinkers for millennia: how to get people to work together for the common good.

Is science a catalyst in that regard? I didn’t see that in evidence at the Skeptics Conference last year. In a panel discussion with an advocate for CERN and an advocate for advancement of space exploration, Leonard Krauss responded with “That’s just a stupid idea” to the latter’s appeal for money to clear the space junk that threatens our low-earth-orbit satellites.  Krauss’s statement came without technical analysis – it was a baldly political statement meant to ensure that the community represented by Krauss kept its stranglehold on the money that flows through CERN.

And then we have the double-edged sword of global climate research and toxicology studies. We cannot consider as a statistical anomaly the trifecta among the technical communities that advised the tobacco, fossil fuel and chemicals industries. Drawing upon the science of economics, they invested their resources for the benefit of their shareholders. Each of them, confronted with irrefutable scientific evidence of harm to the public, chose to invest in contrarian science and secrecy to secure their access to profitable markets.

Obviously, the contention that science in of itself disproves faith is supportable only if we discard the long history of spiritual experience. Fundamental physics has no explanation for that history, and as it has become clear that there is no explanation for spirituality in current theory, the position of rejection has hardened because to accept the need to explain spirituality is to cast into doubt the entire body of particle physics.

But the men listed in my introduction are not physicists, they are evolutionary biologists. They have waged a long war against scriptural literalists, and appear eager to crucify religion for the prejudices of its ugliest zealots. That zealotry arose in an era that lacked the evidence of the fossil record, and so had no means for explaining the obscure record of the Bible except to assert the power of the Almighty. With the fossil record, however, the story of Genesis is readily interpreted as the occupation of ecosystems by living things. Even more, the trumpets of Revelation are clearly correlated with the billion-year history of mass extinctions that occurred along the way.

Of course, how could the writers of the Bible have known all that without the benefit of modern paleontology? The program of destruction pursued by Coyne and his cronies would be completely undermined by that consideration.

What they would be left with is to pursue a proof, such as I have outlined here, that love is the most powerful force in the universe. This is the conclusion reached by all the great religious avatars, not-with-standing the hateful rhetoric of the zealots. What is really wrong with attempting to prove that conclusion?

Surely not something more wrong than lacking the imagination to believe that it is possible.

Don’t Blame Love

In the final chapter of Love Works, the feminine personality of life, irritated by the disorder generated by the masculine personality of intellect, grabs him by the short hairs, prompting him to observe:

Choice is a bitch. Let’s hope the kids do better next time. Now, will you let go? (How does she make it hurt so much?)

It’s undeniable that the spread of life across the earth has been driven by primitive urges.

Life’s procreative greed causes ecosystems to become saturated, stunting evolutionary opportunity. The great extinction episodes of paleohistory terminated biological dead-ends, and were all followed by eras in which life took off in new directions.

Conversely, the ability to use tools requires a large brain and flexible digits, both of which limit the growth of organic armor (which traps heat) and organic weapons (which must be anchored to large bones). Thus creatures of intellect such as humans are biologically vulnerable, and so spread only when they can produce tools that overcome the weapons and armor of other animals.

Once those tools were available, however, fear and greed drove us to consume natural resources without restraint, bringing the globe today to the point of ecological collapse. Deflecting the force of these natural tendencies is the challenge we have laid at love’s door.

In the history of religion, that struggle began with the worship of the two polar opposites of procreation and death. With the rise of the hydrological civilizations, an intellectual class of priests began to envision gods with subtle ethical character. But it was really only about 3000 years ago (and only among the intellectual elite) that humanity dared to suppose the gods should be devoted to us, rather than the other way around.

Monotheism is the culmination of this process, and led eventually to the declaration that God is love. This is common to all of the great religions.

But is it to our advantage? Given that we have free will, why should we feel constrained to draw only upon love when we face challenges? When our treasurer embezzles the retirement fund, do we just shrug our shoulders? Or do we get a noose? And when the hanging is done, can’t we justify the act with the assertiong that we are loving our spouse, children and/or co-workers?

The retort to this logic is that if you had really cared about your treasurer and paid attention to her psychological well-being, you would have seen the trouble long before it manifested. But, damn, that seems like a lot of work, and didn’t we pay them to do the right thing? So we keep the noose handy, and that means that the old deities of death get in through the back door of our religions. They stay alive there, and as ecological collapse sweeps across the globe, they will appear once again to grow in power.

But, fundamentally, they are the disease. Sexual indulgence and fear of death are what drove us to exploit the natural world. That love did not have a magic wand to drive them away is not its fault. So we need to stop blaming monotheistic religions for our refusal to hew to the dictates of love. Rather, we need to double down, even as fear sweeps over us, and invest in the love that creates the strength to resist the urge to exploit the world around us.

On Poverty and Riches

Just taking the long view (I mean – the long, long, long view), I consider the time-scale of the cosmos and the saga of biological evolution and we have the precious experience of living in this 10,000 year period in which our intelligence and the natural resources stored up from the past are available for us to do really deep work on our personalities. Simply to be alive in this time is such an incredible gift – to be able to play at being a creator, each in our own limited way.

Even if only to be able to plant a field, or tend a herd, or write a blog. Even if only to be the voice that reminds “There are still problems to be solved” in a way that motivates others to seek for solutions. Not to place fault, but to exhort greatness in others – to guide them into the only form of self-creation that opens to God.

Yes, the window is closing, as it was prophesied in Revelation. No, it’s not the fault of any single individual, and if we collectively had been more considerate of the forms of life that occupied the planet before us, maybe it wouldn’t be so traumatic. But that’s not under my control, so the question I constantly confront myself with is: what am I doing with my opportunity? Am I offering my creative capacities in the service of Life, or do I expect Life to serve me? Because when I finally lose my grip on this body, it is Life and Love that awaits to embrace me with the eternal embrace, if only I know how to receive it.

Looking Ahead

It’s such a beautiful experience, moving through a crowd of gentle people, and then getting hooked on life, stretching out a hand and feeling the pulse of the Amazon, caressing the Andes and then making the leap from Tierra del Fuego to Cape Hope, gently cupping the Congo and pausing before merging into the thrum of Ethiopia. Stuck there, I reached across with the other hand and felt the rainforests of Southeast Asia, roamed over the Russian tundra, and then slowly squeezing inward around the pustule that is the Middle East, soaking it with the healing energy of life and love.

And later she said, hesitantly “It seems that it’s going to get worse.”

“I’m afraid that is what I see, too.”

With the air of one surrendering innocence, she hazarded “But it’s not going to affect people like us.”

I had to look away, trying to find a formulation that did not take air out of the joy she was sharing with me. “Well, in order to bring healing, we have to make a diagnosis. That means getting close enough to feel their pain.”

It’s the last hurrah of selfishness. It knows it, and so figures there’s nothing to lose.

As Matt Maher promises in “Hold Us Together”:

It’s waiting for you knocking at your door
In the moment of truth when your heart hits the floor

And you’re on your knees

And love will hold us together
Make us a shelter to weather the storm
And I’ll be my brother’s keeper
So the whole world will know that we’re not alone