Editorial: Creationism = Idolatry?

by Carl Strang

This is an extension of the Winter Campfire series of several years ago.

This is an extension of the Winter Campfire series of several years ago.

I debated whether or not to finish this post’s title with the question mark, but this is after all a blog about inquiry, so I went with that punctuation. This also is a blog about science, but as I have ventured into the relationship between science and spirituality in the Winter Campfire series, it seems appropriate to comment on creationism.

This is not a general comment on all manifestations of creationism, however. Hopi creationism, for example, comes out of a tradition apart from Western science. Here I am focused on creationism as expressed by certain conservative Christian sects.

The problem I have with this creationism is an inherent ironic tension within it. The defining claim is that the Universe is a created thing, and though creationists sometimes are coy in their language, it is clear enough that their creator is a traditional, bearded-male-in-the-sky, supernatural God who stands separate from this creation. So, let’s take all that as a given and see where it leads us. If the Universe indeed was created by such an entity, it also must be regarded as a text written by that entity. Many early natural scientists in fact took it as part of their mission to read this text through their scientific work so that science for them illuminated the workings of God. Science has become secularized, but that does not change the fact that if the Universe indeed was created, its scientific study is a reading of it as a text, and a religious person could say that it is a direct reading of the text as written by the Universe’s creator.

So, why does this represent such a problem to the creationists? We seem to have a disagreement between texts. On the one hand we have a text written, as the creationists would say, by God, and read by the scientists. This God’s text clearly includes evolution as a major theme. On the other hand we have the Bible. One might argue that the Bible was divinely inspired, but if so then we have to acknowledge that it was filtered through imperfect, error-prone human minds. Furthermore, the Bible also is a political document, its contents the result of a biased debate and compromise on which of the many candidate books and texts to include, and which to leave out. In other words, its edited table of contents is the product of still more imperfect human influence.

So when the direct reading of a text written by God is rejected in favor of a text written by man, I cannot see how one can regard Christian creationism as anything other than idolatry, with a book taking the place of the golden calf of the Mosaic story.

This should not be taken as a devaluation of the Bible. That book is a significant body of history, legend, and metaphor, written by ancient Middle Easterners for whom poetry and layered meanings were primary. Read through that lens, the Bible can be an enriching guidebook. It is an error to think that it, any more than the traditional stories of any culture, can be regarded as a work of western scientific nonfiction.

 

Literature Review: Brain Function

by Carl Strang

Some of these notes pertain to the Winter Campfire series of a few years ago.

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Alexander, David M., et al. 2013. Traveling waves and trial averaging: The nature of single-trial and averaged brain responses in large-scale cortical signals. NeuroImage 73: 95 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2013.01.016 They find that brain function is better understood as wave activity that involves the entire organ, rather than separate bits of the brain specializing in separate activities. The wave is modified as different specific actions take place, and the focus of each modification may involve certain anatomical areas, but functionally these are not properly understood as isolated from one another.

Gross, J., et al. 2013. Speech rhythms and multiplexed oscillatory sensory coding in the human brain. PLoS Biol 11(12): e1001752. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001752 Brain cortical cells fire in patterns that produce brain waves of different frequencies (slowest delta waves, slow theta waves and fast gamma waves). Spoken sentences also are made up of components that change at different rates (slowest prosody, such as intonation and other meaning conveying elements; slow syllable utterance; and fast phoneme production, the individual sounds that make up speech). This study found a correlation between the two that allows parallel processing of different speech components. The slower, meaning conveying components of speech are entrained with slower brain waves in the right hemisphere, while the faster phonemes are in synch with gamma waves in the left hemisphere. When speech is interrupted then resumes, the waves re-align with the new rhythm.

Healy, Kevin, et al. 2013. Metabolic rate and body size are linked with perception of temporal information. Animal Behaviour, DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2013.06.018 Different animal species perceive time at different rates that vary according to the pace of their lives and other needs. Fast-moving animals with high metabolic rates, like birds, collect more information per unit time than we do, for instance. From the ScienceDaily article describing the study: “This time perception ability can be shown to vary across all animals, using a phenomenon called the critical flicker fusion frequency. The phenomenon, based on the maximum speed of flashes of light an individual can see before the light source is perceived as constant, is the principle behind the illusion of non-flashing television, computer and cinema screens. This is also the reason pet dogs see flickering televisions, as their eyes have a refresh rate higher than the screen of the TV.”

Xie, Lulu, et al. 2013. Sleep drives metabolite clearance from the adult brain. Science 342: 373-377. A study of mice revealed that brain tissues shrink and a significant increase of cerebrospinal fluid takes place around them during sleep, suggesting that a function of sleep is to flush out accumulated metabolites.

Gabel, Harrison W., and Michael E. Greenberg. 2013. The maturing brain methylome. Science 341:626-627. This is a review-interpretive article outlining the significance of a study published on-line by Science of the developing brain and its function. During development, neurons (but not other kinds of cells) in different parts of the brain acquire different patterns of methylation, epigenetic changes through chemical attachments that suppress the expression of certain genes. This appears to control patterns of synapse development, and thus is fundamental to brain function. Upon maturation, this methylation levels off.

Sound Ideas: Hot Fudge

by Carl Strang

Fermilab, for a long time the world’s top place for particle physics studies (and continuing to do ground-breaking work) is less than 2 miles from my house. Riding my bike through there in summer, I find several things going through my head: the singing insects I am hearing, the research that goes on there, a zillion neutrinos…  Today’s song came out of contemplations of science and spirituality (one product, the Winter Campfire series in this blog). I hope you enjoy it.

Hot fudge sundae

Hot fudge sundae

Hot Fudge by Carl Strang copyright © 2003

Thanks to physics we all know that matter’s mostly empty space.

If an atom were to grow to fill a ten-floor building’s place,

Its nucleus would still be smaller than a grain of salt right in its center and

Electrons whizzing all around would each be like a speck of dust.

Nothing solid to be found in all that atom’s outer crust.

I don’t want this to scare or cause you fear. There are advantages that you should hear:

Oh, hot fudge sundaes are mostly empty space. Hot fudge sundaes you can eat without disgrace.

Are calories imaginary? Mark this in bold face: hot fudge sundaes are mostly empty space.

Both air guitars and real guitars are hardly even there, you know.

This concept’s getting so bizarre it’s hard to see where it will go.

Reality becomes unreal when we think we know, then take a look again.

Our clothing’s really nothing, too, and so we’re naked by and large.

But, then again, both me and you have bodies made of electric charges.

This is not a reason to despair. Remember as you seize your silverware:

Oh, hot fudge sundaes are mostly empty space. Hot fudge sundaes you can eat without disgrace.

Are calories imaginary? Mark this in bold face: hot fudge sundaes are mostly empty space.

Now Albert Einstein was the man who gave us relativity

(The general and special plans for time and space activity).

But few have realized that there could be an “extra-special” relativity

Which says that hot fudge sundaes tend to act in such a way

That all their matter will unbend, unfold expand and splay.

How inconvenient! I must take back my words about my favorite ice cream snack.

Though hot fudge sundaes are mostly empty space, so are we, too, it’s a catch we can’t replace.

It’s back to guilty pleasure, but what a dream to chase! Hot fudge sundaes are mostly empty space.

Air hot fudge sundae

Air hot fudge sundae

Literature Review: Winter Campfire

by Carl Strang

The Winter Campfire was my first winter series in this blog. In it I reviewed ideas pertaining to science and spirituality. Today’s post looks at relevant scientific papers from the past year. Sadly, none address the main question I was left with in the end: does time, as an independent entity, exist apart from our subjective experience of it? If not (or if so, given general relativity), how do we accommodate this in our understanding of reality?

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Morag I. Scrimgeour, et al. The WiggleZ Dark Energy Survey: the transition to large-scale cosmic homogeneity. Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 2012; 425 (1): 116 DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2966.2012.21402.x

From a ScienceDaily article describing a mapping study. At the largest scale, matter in the universe is uniformly distributed, which supports the standard model of cosmology based on Einstein’s equations.

Robert Nemiroff, Ryan Connolly, Justin Holmes, Alexander Kostinski. Bounds on Spectral Dispersion from Fermi-Detected Gamma Ray Bursts. Physical Review Letters, 2012; 108 (23) DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.108.231103

From ScienceDaily. The near-simultaneous arrival of 3 gamma ray photons at a space telescope, photons which had traveled 7 billion light years without distortion, supports a smooth space-time structure rather than one composed of tiny, Planck-length units which would have interfered with the rays’ similarly tiny wavelengths. (Loop quantum gravity, the leading contender to string theory or M-theory, thus suffers a blow with this result).

J-D. Bancal, S. Pironio, A. Acín, Y-C. Liang, V. Scarani, N. Gisin. Quantum non-locality based on finite-speed causal influences leads to superluminal signalling. Nature Physics, 2012; DOI: 10.1038/NPHYS2460

From ScienceDaily. They are proposing a test, involving 4 entangled particles, which may be feasible in the future and which may determine whether entanglement (described by Einstein as “spooky action at a distance”) happens through faster-than-light connection or communication among the particles (which would violate general relativity, and thus seems less likely, but might open the door to faster-than-light applications) or whether it happens by connections outside normal spacetime (which would imply a hidden connectedness of everything in the universe). The other possibility, that entanglement is the result of connections established beforehand, has been ruled out by other experiments.

Van J. Wedeen, Douglas L. Rosene, Ruopeng Wang, Guangping Dai, Farzad Mortazavi, Patric Hagmann, Jon H. Kaas, and Wen-Yih I. Tseng. The Geometric Structure of the Brain Fiber Pathways. Science, 30 March 2012: 1628-1634 DOI: 10.1126/science.1215280

They used a new technique to map the spatial relationships of nerve fibers in the brain, and found a basic pattern of fibers crossing at right angles in 3 dimensions, the whole curved topologically as the brain curves. They did similar analyses of 4 nonhuman primate brains and found considerable homology among the 5 species. This basic framework provides understanding of how embryological development coupled with evolution has been able to produce increasingly complex brains with relatively simple adjustments.

University of Chicago Medical Center (2012, October 1). Homolog of mammalian neocortex found in bird brain. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 1, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2012/10/121001151953.htm

They describe a study published in the National Academy of Sciences that shows how the avian analog to the mammalian neocortex is clustered nuclei within a structure called the dorsal ventricular ridge. The same cells that layer to form the neocortex develop into these nuclei in birds. The neural pathways from the two different anatomical structures previously were known to be similar. The different arrangement makes possible an anatomical division of labor or specialization for different higher brain functions in birds.

Carissa L. Philippi, Justin S. Feinstein, Sahib S. Khalsa, Antonio Damasio, Daniel Tranel, Gregory Landini, Kenneth Williford, David Rudrauf. Preserved Self-Awareness following Extensive Bilateral Brain Damage to the Insula, Anterior Cingulate, and Medial Prefrontal Cortices. PLoS ONE, 2012; 7 (8): e38413 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0038413

As described in a ScienceDaily article. A patient with damage to these brain areas, thought from past research to be the seat of self-awareness, passes every test for that capacity, seeming normal except for a loss of some memory formation ability. This demonstrates that self-awareness is more diffuse, involving a much larger part of the brain.

E.G. Milán, O. Iborra, M. Hochel, M.A. Rodríguez Artacho, L.C. Delgado-Pastor, E. Salazar, A. González-Hernández. Auras in mysticism and synaesthesia: A comparison. Consciousness and Cognition, 2012; 21 (1): 258 DOI: 10.1016/j.concog.2011.11.010

They found at least one instance of a person who could “see auras” in other people, who also has synesthesia in which his brain has associations between areas that normally are separate, particularly the face-recognition and color processing areas, as well as touch-mirror synesthesia, in which a person experiences the touch or pain sensations of another person the synesthete is observing.

William R. Rice, Urban Friberg, and Sergey Gavrilets. Homosexuality as a Consequence of Epigenetically Canalized Sexual Development. The Quarterly Review of Biology, 2012; 87 (4)

As described in ScienceDaily. Though there have been indications that homosexuality has a heritability component and thus is gene-caused or at least gene-influenced, efforts to find specific genes have failed. This modeling study describes the likely cause as an epigenetic fault. There are controls on gene expression which provide protections from the effects of opposite-sex hormones during development. These epigenetic controls normally are not passed on, but when they accidentally are passed on, from fathers to daughters or mothers to sons, they can produce effects including same-sex orientation. Note: sexual orientation was not addressed in the Winter Campfire series, but I decided to include this study here in part because this study is important and deserves wider attention, and in part because sexuality is a part of our experience as human beings, an important aspect of our nature, and so it is at least obliquely connected to The Wave Dreaming.

Winter Campfire: Ahtila’s “The House”

by Carl Strang

A recurring theme in the juxtaposition of science and spirituality is our subjective perception of the world “out there.” As I have discussed several times in the Winter Campfire series, there are problems posed by the limitations of our sensory perception, central nervous system function, theories of relativity and quantum theory that simply do not allow us to get away with regarding reality in the simple-minded way that everyday experience tempts us to do. In particular, I keep coming back to the little-appreciated fact that time is not what it seems to be. We regard time as an independent framework through which we move. This seems to work quite well for us. But the universe has demonstrated to us, through the work of Einstein and those who have come after him, that this is an illusion. In wrestling with this paradox I have been interested in what perceptual pathologies may reveal about the way we have come to our “normal” way of understanding reality. Earlier I reviewed the work of William Gooddy in this regard. Today I want to discuss a remarkable film.

I encountered this film last week during my annual trip to The Art Institute of Chicago. It was so gripping that I viewed it three times. It is titled Talo (The House), by Finnish artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila. In an on-line search I found comments on its emotional content and imagery, but what struck me were its insights into how psychosis pathology may inform our understanding of how our ancestors evolved a mechanism for ordering space-time. Ahtila studied references and interviewed people who have experienced psychosis as she did background research for this film.

The film begins with a young woman, Elisa, driving up to her house, parking the car, walking through the garden and into the house. As she goes, she describes her routine in matter-of-fact language (we hear her speaking in Finnish, but there are English subtitles). Her opening sentence is, “I have a house.”

The first sign that something is wrong is one of the three projected screens suddenly showing the car driving itself, quickly moving back and forth, in and out of its parking space with the loud sound of the motor as it does so. Elisa is shown standing, looking through the window. She comments that she sees the car parked outside, but loses sight of it when she takes a sideways step so the car is blocked by the curtain. She says that the car’s sound separates from it and comes inside the house. She can’t keep sounds out, and through them she is in many places at once. They bring outside elements into the house, and we see the car in miniature driving behind her on the wall. A cow is shown on the TV, and then it is walking through the house. A man and dog are outside, then the dog is walking past her as she sits in the house. She is jumping backward and forward through time (this film is one of a series, and I am guessing that this man’s identity was made clear in an earlier chapter). She says, “My garden is coming into my living room.” She is losing her boundaries. Through all of this, however, she is describing these impressions in a matter of fact manner, showing emotion only briefly at one point when she says she is getting confused. She never appears crazy, despite the bizarre experiences she is having.

She begins to address her difficulties, sewing curtains which she hangs on the windows to block her view of the outside. She does this to two windows, and though this was not addressed in the film or in any commentary I have seen, I connect those windows to the two eyes. The house then becomes a metaphor for the woman, and the woman for her point of view, the self that is experiencing time and space. With the windows/eyes closed, she has some control, some ability to keep outside things apart from the house. As she goes to hang one of the curtains she walks with difficulty. I thought that she was rocking as though she were on one of the boats she hears, but one commentary suggested that she has put weights on her feet so as to stay grounded. In the most remarkable special-effects scene, Elisa glides through the forest toward the house, her body parallel to the ground and she touches the tree branches as she goes. She reaches the house, and pulls herself back down to the ground.

Toward the end of the 15-minute film she summarizes her perception of reality: “The ship on the horizon is the same as all other ships…Things that occur no longer shed light on the past…Everything is simultaneously here, now, being…Nothing happens before or after. There are no causes.” She imagines people coming inside her, controlling her movements. This was an impressive depiction of a pathology in which someone’s “normal” perception of time separated from space has broken down. It demonstrates how our ability to order things and events by our separation of space and time also allows us to define our own boundaries, to have separate subjective points of view. The film left me with questions: Does space-time order the mind, or is it the reverse? Who is closer to experiencing space-time as it really is, the healthy person or the psychotic?

Note: I was fortunate to catch this film just before it is to be taken down on November 25. It is owned by the museum, and will be shown again someday, but not for a while.

Winter Campfire Update

by Carl Strang

In November I will begin a new weekly winter series, on lessons from travels that reflect on local natural history. Today’s post updates the first winter series, from two years ago. Called the Winter Campfire, that series offered ideas on science and spirituality. Today’s notes come from the past year’s scientific literature relevant to the Winter Campfire material. In that series I touched upon quantum and relativistic physics, sensory physiology, and brain development and function. The following notes add some information in those areas.

Nicholas J Hudson. Musical beauty and information compression: complex to the ear but simple to the mind? BMC Research Notes, 2011; 4: 9 Abstract excerpts: “The entire life-long sensory data stream of a human is enormous. The adaptive solution to this problem of scale is information compression, thought to have evolved to better handle, interpret and store sensory data. In modern humans highly sophisticated information compression is clearly manifest in philosophical, mathematical and scientific insights. For example, the Laws of Physics explain apparently complex observations with simple rules. Deep cognitive insights are reported as intrinsically satisfying, implying that at some point in evolution, the practice of successful information compression became linked to the physiological reward system. I hypothesise that the establishment of this “compression and pleasure” connection paved the way for musical appreciation, which subsequently became free (perhaps even inevitable) to emerge once audio compression had become intrinsically pleasurable in its own right…I hypothesise that enduring musical masterpieces will possess an interesting objective property: despite apparent complexity, they will also exhibit high compressibility.”

According to an interview in an associated ScienceDaily article, Hudson has found that while random noise compresses only to 86% its original size in computer programs, present-day popular music commonly compresses to 60%, and Beethoven’s third symphony, in contrast, compresses to 40% despite its apparent complexity. The relevance of all of this to the Winter Campfire material is the recognition that our experience is created from the bits of sensory information our brains receive. We need to hold lightly to the assumption that reality is as we seem to perceive it.

Costas A Anastassiou, Rodrigo Perin, Henry Markram, Christof Koch. Ephaptic coupling of cortical neurons. Nature Neuroscience, 2011; 14 (2): 217 DOI: 10.1038/nn.2727   They have found evidence supporting the idea that, in addition to synaptic transmission, brain cell activity forms many overlapping electrical fields whose patterns can provide for communication. Furthermore, such fields may be subject to influence from external electrical field stimuli. The term “ephaptic coupling” in the title refers to communication among neurons through the field rather than through synapses. These fields are especially strong in the memory-forming hippocampus and in the neocortex, where long-term memory is stored. The relevance to the Winter Campfire essay is the connection to the holographic model of brain function.

J. J. Hudson, D. M. Kara, I. J. Smallman, B. E. Sauer, M. R. Tarbutt, E. A. Hinds. Improved measurement of the shape of the electron. Nature, 2011; 473 (7348): 493 DOI: 10.1038/nature10104    The electron is a sphere so perfect that, if it were the size of the solar system, the difference from perfection would be within the width of a human hair. This was determined by failing to find wobble in a molecule that would have been present if there had been asymmetry in electrons. The goal is to seek out possible differences between electrons and positrons that might explain why antimatter vanished and a residue of matter was left in the early universe. This expands upon the nature of matter and energy, addressed in an early chapter in the Winter Campfire series.

Tomohiro Ishizu, Semir Zeki. Toward A Brain-Based Theory of Beauty. PLoS ONE, 2011; 6 (7): e21852 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0021852    From an account in ScienceDaily. They found that a particular region of the brain, the medial orbito-frontal region of the cortex, becomes active when a person experiences beauty, both from visual art and from music. The medial orbito-frontal region is part of the reward/pleasure center. Experiences of sights which subjects identified as ugly did not produce activity in any particular brain region. As expected, activity in visual regions also increased when the beautiful stimuli were visual, and in auditory regions when sounds were provided. In addition, visual beauty produced activity in the caudate nucleus in the center of the brain, in proportion to how beautiful the subject found the object. That brain area has been associated with romantic love in other studies, and thus suggests a connection with such love and beauty. I find myself focusing on the results that point to the subjective nature of beauty. I hold to my statement that one potential Way of spiritual development is to expand the range of what one regards as beautiful.

Winter Campfire 27

by Carl Strang

Last winter I posted a weekly series of chapters in a long essay about science and spirituality. I have been doing a little more reading and thinking in that area since then, and so before beginning this winter’s new series (a review of the prehistoric life and geology of northeast Illinois), I want to bring the last series up to date. This is the second and final new post in that series.

New Questions

In the previous post in this series I updated my thinking about the physiological nature of consciousness, its composition and its evolution. Other questions about physical reality arise from relativity theory. As I outlined last winter, relativity theory implies that all of space-time exists all at once, somehow, including us and our winding paths through it.

Gooddy points out that we navigate through space-time in our everyday lives. In that sense it is unremarkable. On the other hand when we, as people seeking to understand, create abstract notions of space-time, generalized and apart from our direct experience of it, we find this leads to conceptual challenges. If all of space-time exists all at once, how do we understand processes in that context? Processes such as evolution and consciousness seem to ratchet their way through space-time, frame by frame. How did this all come about, and do we truly have a part to play in shaping our own paths? If the future already exists, do our decisions really matter, or are we only deceiving ourselves? These are hard but important questions for which no one really has an answer. Foolishly, perhaps, I want answers and so put some effort into seeing how far I can go in getting ideas that feel right and give me guidance in living (and living with) my life.

For me, in my present understanding, I choose to think of time and space as building outward together from the singularity of the Big Bang. As far as I know, relativity allows for such a view. Once a local bit of space-time was/is built, it is eternal. In a sense we may be frozen in each eternal moment. However, each space-time moment has/had an origin, and in that origin I choose to believe that I, a space-time agent, had a creative role in determining the shape of what followed, through my choices and in my interactions within the holomovement or other components of the Universe. It all comes back to living each moment with the understanding that it counts for something, and our decisions matter because they produce the eternal shape of the Universe. And I find this conclusion satisfying because it seems to hold whether I come from a spiritual or a materialist starting point.

That said, we can function in our everyday lives as if time is real, just as we can act as though objects are solid and the space around us is as our senses inform us. It is only when we dive deep that we find such assumptions challenged and in need of deeper understanding. So, the seeking continues.

Winter Campfire 26

by Carl Strang

Last winter I posted a weekly series of chapters in a long essay about science and spirituality. I have been doing a little more reading and thinking in that area since then, and so before beginning this winter’s new series (a review of the prehistoric life and geology of northeast Illinois), I want to bring the last series up to date with two additional posts.

The Evolution of Consciousness

The main scientific questions left suspended at the end of that series revolved around the nature of consciousness and the meaning of process (a time-dependent concept) in a relativistic Universe. By “consciousness” here I am referring to a limited sense of that word, i.e., the experience of the specious present. Here again I am borrowing from Lockwood’s review of physiological studies. Our experience of the present moment is a roughly half-second span of time (the specious present) in which we take in sensory impressions, have access to memories of the past and can imagine or plan our future actions. That half-second is composed of 15-20 frames, each around 30 milliseconds long. As each new frame comes into our perception, one drops off the back. Our sense of the passage of time is the result of a given frame passing its way from front to back through the specious present.

My starting point for the next step in this study was the following question. Shouldn’t there be disorders that help us to understand the mechanism by which consciousness spans time and isolates it? The inspiration for this possibility comes from developmental biology. Mutations that cause bizarre physical features in fruit flies, for instance an extra leg in place of an antenna, provide the opportunity for the geneticist to understand how the fly’s body is produced from the genetic instructions within its starting cell, the fertilized egg. Examination of such processes from an evolutionary standpoint provides insights into evolutionary processes and history (the powerful new science of evo-devo). By analogy, then, it seemed to me that neurological disorders might cast light on the physiology of consciousness. This led me to the book Time and the Nervous System, by British neurologist William Gooddy.

Gooddy points out that all of our experience is produced by our nervous system. I discussed this myself early in the Winter Campfire series when I focused on what sensory impressions really are. Gooddy expands this notion to all of experience, including time. Abstractions such as a separate world of three-dimensional space through which we move in time are constructs. We create that world. In fact we live our everyday lives as navigators of space-time.

I was especially interested in what Gooddy had to say about time-related disorders. Here’s an extended quote:

“An example may be provided from patients with Parkinson’s Disease in which (because of loss of brain cells) there is a marked stiffness, with slowing of voluntary movements, usually associated with some degree of tremor. The observer notes how ‘slowed down’ the patient is, with even simple tasks taking such a long while that it may be quicker to offer help. But if the normal observer suggests that, ‘everything is very much slowed down’, and, ‘the time must go very slowly for you’, the patient will say, ‘It is just the opposite. My own movements are much slower than they used to be but they often still seem normal unless I see how long they take by looking at a clock. The clock on the wall of the ward seems to be going exceptionally fast, not slow, probably because I now can get much less done by clock time than I used to’.”

Gooddy lists and describes eight categories of space-time-related disorders. These include loss of memory, loss of an ability to plan or project oneself into the future, the scrambling of sequences, and loss of the ability to navigate in space, as well as changes in the rate at which time passes subjectively as described in the previous paragraph.

These evidences seem to break our experience of time and consciousness into three parts: memory, the specious present, and imagination or the projection of oneself and one’s actions into the future. Amnesia removes the past from experience. A person who has lost both the past and the ability to imagine the future is living entirely in the present moment. While living in the moment by choice is an important aspect and goal of spiritual experience, people stuck in that state no longer can take care of themselves. Lacking memory, the benefit they gain from living in the moment is limited.

Given that these three elements can vary, more or less independently of one another, as a biologist my next question is: how did evolution arrive at the common pattern? What determines the number of frames and their duration in the specious present? Why not expand to, say, an hour’s worth, either by lengthening the frames or by increasing the number of them held in mind at once?

Those questions lead to the following thought experiment. I imagine early life, when animals first were acquiring the ability to move. Movement itself would allow an animal to go to food rather than passively waiting for it to drift by as in the previously dominant filter-feeding mode. The ability to move also made it possible for early animals to escape an approaching hazard. Such a hazard would have to be perceived to be avoided, and such perception would require the animal to possess an early form of the specious present so that the hazard’s speed and trajectory could be assessed. The selective advantage accruing from all the little mutational steps along the way would, over time, produce this result. Falling objects or approaching predators perhaps would require a fast reaction that would be impeded if too many frames were being processed by consciousness or if the frames were too long in duration. The big push would have been the evolution of predation, which would bring hazards more frequently than would accidents. As prey evolved the ability to evade, predators would have to keep pace by increasing the speed of passage of their own specious present. The length of the specious present, in this thought experiment, is limited by the animal’s ability to process information. The frames would have to be short to allow an effective assessment and response. The number of frames couldn’t be too many or their analysis would slow down the response time detrimentally.

Lockwood discusses athletes’ flow (the sense that events have slowed down; this also happens in times of physical danger and crisis) as perhaps being a reduction in the number of frames in the specious present, allowing faster processing but experienced as a slowing of time. This supports some limitation in the nervous system’s processing ability being the major constraint on the length of the specious present.

Returning to the evolution of consciousness, I can see how memory would be an advantageous addition, allowing the animal to take advantage of experience. Projection into the future allows for the avoidance of hazards. All of this implies that any animal that displays these capacities has to be regarded as possessing consciousness. An important caveat is that instinct could substitute for memory and future projection in some cases.

This discussion hasn’t had much to say about spirituality. Mystical experience is part of the input we can receive. Our consciousness and memory can take in and store such experience, but how it comes to us remains unresolved.

That is where my question about time-and-space pathologies has taken me. I’ll need one more post in this series, for now, to recast some remaining questions.

Winter Campfire 25

by Carl Strang

Winter is a time when we slow down and become introspective. Sitting and staring into the fire, we ponder the big questions. If you have been following this blog, you know that the focus here is science, science that can be done simply in outdoor settings. But we are more than scientists, and science has well defined limitations that need to be understood by everyone who does science or studies its findings. This winter I am using one post per week to develop my own viewpoint and biases, in particular sharing my take on the relationship between science and spirituality. In part this defines for me what these two realms of human experience are all about, and also develops the separate methods used for inquiry in each realm. I plan to place this paragraph in front of each entry in this series, so that those who are interested only in natural history or in scientific practice can skip these posts.

A Footnote on Death

This essay developed for years before it occurred to me to include a consideration of death. What is the meaning of death in an eternal timeless universe that nevertheless, from our perspective, seems to be marching along in time? Our experience in the physical world, our sense of self, our consciousness, can be accounted for as a construct of our physical, social-primate brains. It’s hard to see how consciousness could be separate from that physical hardware, but I have not abandoned the possibility that consciousness is spiritual and the brain simply is a physical manifestation of that consciousness. Nevertheless, I have to consider the possibility that consciousness is limited to the span, in space-time, of our human life.

Relativity, whether in terms of block-space-time or Barbour’s model, opens the possibility that our lives are eternal. Without independent time there is no death, just each Now moment (and the string of Nows or frames of the specious present comprising a life) sitting in eternity. Simply being this life eternally thus replaces the concept of death, which does not in fact exist. This scenario, limiting us to this life, underlines the notion that we create our own heaven or hell. The insights of early 2009, described in the previous section, included the perspective that death is “down periscope,” the conclusion of our individual role as one of Spirit’s peepholes. The final moment of a life is a fusion with the singular moment of Eternity. It has no end. The whole of our physical life is our permanent (eternal) anchor in the physical world.

Our common, time-based view of consciousness, drawn from everyday experience, is analogous to a fuse burning, “lit” only at one point at a time and progressing sequentially along the bits of that fuse. However, relativistic physics seems to imply that this fuse, the world-tube, is eternally lit throughout, from one end to the other. We are, in a sense, always experiencing every moment of our lives all at once. The latter image of an eternally burning fuse reminds me of the present-tense lines that begin the famous William Blake poem: “Tiger, tiger, burning bright / In the forest of the night, / What immortal hand or eye / Could frame thy fearful symmetry? / In what distant deeps or skies / Burnt the fire of thine eyes? / On what wings dare he aspire? What the hand dare seize the fire? / …” In trying to grasp this consequence of relativity, my best interpretation is that each of the bazillion instants along the time axis of my world-tube always is “lit.” In any one of them, the wonderful mechanism of my consciousness is embracing a short span of that time. In that instant I have access to records, in memory, of my past experience. In that instant I believe I have the capability of making a decision that will shape my world-tube’s future course. Otherwise, in that instant I have no connection to the future segments of my world-tube, except for the possibility, mentioned earlier, that proximity to one of them in the folds of space-time allows me to access my future emotional state. Otherwise, my sense of the passage of time, of my apparent burning sequentially along its fuse, is an illusion if relativity is valid as it seems to be.

When I consider my own story’s future end, it seems to me that the worst case scenario is that death is final and consciousness vanishes. In that case it is not different from going to sleep, except that there are no dreams and there will be no waking. Yet I relish the release to sleep at the end of each day. Why should I really think differently about death? But continuing the interpretation in the previous paragraph, relativity would say that death (as an experience) is an illusion. There simply is a final moment of life, and if we take the common reports of “near-death experiences” as accurate, that final moment may be a wonderful one.

Understanding death would require some ultimate understanding of the self. Here I feel the need to consider what appears to be the holographic nature of things. How is that holographic self bounded? Do “I” contain or reflect within me all things, places and times at once, or is it only all places and things in that moment of time? The latter seems too contrived (given space-time), so I’m inclined to the former. The deer blood drop “travel” experience is relevant here, though it would fit either version. Another corollary of the holographic model is the reverse view: that “I” am reflected or contained within all things, places and times.

Reincarnation is possible, I suppose, and therefore so is the possibility that there is only one person, bouncing from life to life, back and forth through “time,” but even those ideas imply sequence, therefore a threadline if not a timeline. Reincarnation seems tiresome, and not necessarily something I want. I think it more likely, however, that in death the spiritual component of my self would expand, merging with a universal timeless spiritual awareness (down periscope), leaving behind my life in the physical universe to be preserved eternally in block-space-time or Barbour’s Nows or the equivalent. There are a lot of other possibilities. But in any case I think back to an intuition I held with certainty as a child: that were I to die, something would go on, and somehow I would participate in it.

But now, having focused some attention on the topic, I have to say that concern about death and afterlife, if any, are distractions. Such a concern is a focus on the future rather than the present moment. There are adequate benefits, in awareness, etc., in staying in the moment, which is real, creating the best moments we can to compose our lives, and taking the steps toward Oneness.

Here’s a relevant quote from A Course in Miracles: “…now is the closest approximation of eternity that this world offers. It is in the reality of ‘now,’ without past or future, that the beginning of the appreciation of eternity lies.”

Rumi: “As essence turns to ocean, / the particles glisten. / Watch how in this candleflame instant / blaze all the moments you have lived.”

And this concludes the Winter Campfire series.

Winter Campfire 24

by Carl Strang

Winter is a time when we slow down and become introspective. Sitting and staring into the fire, we ponder the big questions. If you have been following this blog, you know that the focus here is science, science that can be done simply in outdoor settings. But we are more than scientists, and science has well defined limitations that need to be understood by everyone who does science or studies its findings. This winter I am using one post per week to develop my own viewpoint and biases, in particular sharing my take on the relationship between science and spirituality. In part this defines for me what these two realms of human experience are all about, and also develops the separate methods used for inquiry in each realm. I plan to place this paragraph in front of each entry in this series, so that those who are interested only in natural history or in scientific practice can skip these posts.

Spiritual Inquiry

The essay I have been sharing this winter originally was a conceptual piece, but a true Dreaming in the Aboriginal sense is more comprehensive than that. It includes aspects of spiritual practice or religion. My approach begins with advanced awareness techniques, as described earlier. For many years seeing purely was something I could achieve for moments at a time, but didn’t attempt to sustain. This was in contrast to wide-angle vision and listening, which I had made continuous except when distracted by moments of stress. Then, on February 5 of 2009, I was playing with imagining the location of my center of consciousness in different places. It was as though “I” was a tiny person within my body, moving to sit in different places. I found a profound difference in results when practicing awareness from a viewpoint in the center of my chest. Suddenly, maintaining pure sensory perception on a continuous basis was possible, and it was easier to see people and even artifacts purely. For a while I tried to make this practice full time, but then I found that abstract thinking, logic, calculating, and working with words could not be done very effectively from the center of the chest. I had to return to the head to do such things. It seems that this chest-centered viewpoint is best regarded as a form of ongoing meditation, and that doing it as much as possible may be a necessary step toward the goal of Oneness, but it cannot be full time, at least for me.

The most difficult aspect of this technique is not so much maintaining the Seeing Purely state, but rather staying in the present moment and focusing on my surroundings without retreat into my thoughts and dwelling on past or future. Someone with a more externally focused personality type (sensu Meyers-Briggs) might find it easier.

New conceptual insights and interpretations also emerged from this new, expanded awareness practice. For instance, Benjamin Hoff, in The Tao of Pooh, translates the concept of P’u as “the Uncarved Block.” In his words, “So from ‘tree in a thicket’ or ‘wood not cut’ comes the meaning of ‘things in their natural state’ — what is generally represented in English versions of Taoist writing as the ‘uncarved block.’” I suspect that this may in fact be a reference to the experience of Seeing Purely a deciduous tree or a group of them in winter. The easiest things to see purely on a continuous basis are the masses of trees and bushes. One senses the vitality of all those reaching branches and twigs. If I’m right in this, it’s a mistake to replace this with the static image of a chunk of wood.

The next step came during a walk at Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve on February 16, 2009. Having established the Uncarved Block/Seeing Purely meditation, I increased my focus on the surroundings, diminishing the ego and shutting out internal music and other self-conversation. This allowed an increase in the scope of what I was absorbing. Furthermore, I found that the sounds of my own footsteps were no longer connected to me exclusively. I was hearing them, but no longer recognizing them as mine. I had become a part of the whole, with my body now only a small part of me, and those footsteps, the sounds of them, were as removed from me as the trees I was viewing or, rather, all were equally a part of me. It was a sound of something moving within the whole. I was a center for receiving information, reflecting sensory impressions of all, indiscriminately. This I recognize as a baby step toward Stalking Wolf’s ability, described by Tom Brown (The Vision, pp. 56-58), to detect what had happened with two rabbit traps set several miles away. The Lipan Apache elder explained his correct narration of what happened at those traps, as it happened, by saying, “If a rabbit moved upon your back, could you not feel it?”

Another outcome of the Waterfall Glen experience was the realization that the closest way to God is inside, not through some intervening medium, because there is no such thing. We think there is because we live our daily lives at the separate-whitecap level. Rather, connecting to God and to the whole of Spirit is possible only through our direct spiritual connection within ourselves. If we are each at the center of the Universe there is no “up” (physically speaking). Therefore the closest way to God is within (spiritually speaking). I had the sensation of being a viewpoint of God when I allowed my ego to diminish while growing the heart center. The body is a peephole for Spirit into the physical world. That heart center became revealed as the extension of God into me. I had forgotten that there is no separation. I am part of God, and the best connection to that is through that center. So the next stage appears to be growing that sense of connection while diminishing the ego: how far can that be taken, and how long can it be held?

In a significant moment a few weeks after the Waterfall Glen experience, I became aware that I had developed an image of what was in the center of my chest as being contained, confined in a bounded space the shape of a medicinal capsule, but larger, the size of my fist or a little larger, but fronting something much greater. Shortly after I realized that I was holding that image, it became transformed during a prayer. The containment dissolved away, and since then when I have looked to that place the replacing image is not bounded. Sometimes it is like a star. It has energy, feels like a connection, but is generally quiescent. It seems to have the potential to be warmth, or light that could be a dull red or blindingly bright white, or to be my end of an umbilicus to Spirit like a communicating connection, or even to vanish and become a hole or even the Void. Alternatively, sometimes I have held the image of my chest filled with variously colored flowers. At such times, I am supersensitive to color in my surroundings. I have felt that for now, I am just to get used to the change. Perhaps at some point I will feel directed to work with it and try to bring out some of these qualities further. I sense that this is my true center.

I also have sought a more appropriate way to understand prayer and meditation (speaking and listening), including gut feeling, intuition, and experiences of love and beauty. How is communication possible in the physical world? We have media of communication appropriate to the physical world, possible because here we are indeed provisional separate entities. Communication with one another spiritually is trickier, because it has to take place through the timeless medium of undifferentiated Spirit. Again it is accomplished in the same form as prayer and meditation, coming in the form of visual metaphor, intuition, etc. In regarding other entities, nonhuman as well as human, Namaste is key. Prayer is attending and maintaining one’s consciousness of connection to that network of ties, that projection of the Universe inside the self.

I now define prayer as the process of reaching through our God-connected, spiritual selves to express gratitude for what has been, to find calm certainty about the good that we are, and to seek inspiration and guidance for future direction. Such direction comes through the various forms of intuition, resonating with emotional and intellectual certainty.

The idea of seeking oneness is a worthwhile goal, expanding on the notion of self that goes beyond the individual person to the entire universe, exploring that connection. So, what kinds of eternal moments do I want to co-create in my experience, thoughts and actions? Through them, what kind of universe do I want to co-create? This kind of thinking is what leads to an emphasis on healing among spiritual people. It points away from anger, fear and other emotional qualities based on overemphasis on the separate individual. Fear also focuses on the future and past rather than the present eternal moment.

It’s incorrect to go too far in either direction, the ascetic denial of physical experience or ignoring the call from our spiritual side, because in this life we may have our only opportunity to do either. It seems wrong to deny our existence in the physical world, and also to ignore the broader metaphysical part of our selves. Balance. The common factor in both is love.

Rumi encourages us to “submit to a daily practice. Your loyalty to that is a ring on the door. Keep knocking, and the joy inside will eventually open a window and look out to see who’s there.” Also, fake it until you make it: “God accepts counterfeit money as though it were real!” Even negative feelings can be helpful: “This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival! A joy, a depression, a meanness…Welcome and attend them all!…Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.”

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