Monday, March 14, 2011

David Brooks & atheism

David Brooks on things spiritual--March 11
I’m intrigued by a trend in our society that no one else has noted. Stories about religion losing ground flourish in the media, but has anyone else noticed a concurrent rise of interest in things spiritual? Religious and moral disagreements—often called “social issues”—as well as deeper questions concerning spiritual reality also fill the media.

Ironically, one signal of the rising interest in spirituality is louder sounds coming from atheists. How so? I’ll repeat what I’ve said often—atheists become atheists BECAUSE their spiritual integrity is offended by the flaws, foolishness, and outright corruption in religions. Atheists today force spiritual discourse past religions, past specific, narrow beliefs to a more inclusive, more eclectic, generic and secular spirituality.

The latest development exciting me is a new book, The Social Animal, by David Brooks. No one better typifies the American secular and intellectual culture that is emotionally distant from religions and spirituality. In fact, Brooks gets a laugh by repeating his wife’s comment that David writing about emotion is like Gandhi writing about gluttony. He calls Washington, D.C., his home and main target of comment, “the most emotionally avoidant city in America.”

On the PBS Newshour, Brooks said,
We have a very shallow view of human nature in the policy world. We're really good at talking about material things, really bad at talking about emotions, really good at stuff we can count, really bad at the deeper stuff that actually drives behavior. . . .

Emotion is the basis of reason. We really have to trust our emotions, which are much smarter than our reason in some ways. . . . [We make decisions] on the basis of things we're not even aware of. . . .
The unconscious, not a common subject in policy disputes, figures prominently when Brooks talks about his book, for which he studied child development, sociology, neuroscience, and philosophy. He called it a “pretense” that we make decisions on the basis of what we rationally and logically think is right.
Interviewer Jeffrey Brown interjected,
But that means . . . going with your gut. It means some part of your unconscious is actually working real hard.
Brooks agreed and advised,
You have got to give your unconscious mind time to process. So, think about it. Study it. And then distract yourself. Take a nap. Go to sleep. Think about it the next day. And then go with your gut.
He also learned the value of relationships, of community, of the need to be understood by others. If the focus on relating doesn’t sound spiritual enough, how about this:
Our explanation of why we live the way we do is all on the surface. . . . It was part of my idea to go down, down, down to look at moral and spiritual creativity, the deepest issues.
Newsweek wrote that the word “deep” comes up a lot when Brooks talks about his book. Moving from surface and material concerns to “deeper stuff,” valuing human connections and feelings, mining the wisdom of the unconscious—all are ingredients in a recipe for spiritual renewal.

During the 1990s, I read a psychic prediction that the 21st century would focus on spiritual concerns. We are seeing the beginning of that.

**** A good comment came in on the previous post, one that disagrees with me. I intend to answer it later. I call it "good" because it gets at the heart of the "religion v. science" debate and exemplifies the reason I like to debate with atheists—they can think.
If secular guru David Brooks ever shared the beliefs of scientific materialists, he certainly changed his mind.

Answer to Atheist--March 14
I am always delighted when a thoughtful atheist engages me, as Will did in the comment to "Scientific materialism" below. This is the part I find significant:
. . . the scientific method can be the only judge of what is likely to be true or false and to claim that something is true that cannot be scrutinized by the scientific method is opens the door to all kinds of silliness.
First, we need to consider the difference between facts and truth. Scientists have proficiency in the realm of facts, but not in spiritual truth. We consult science for factual knowledge, but for wisdom we turn to spiritual seers, religious or non-religious, some of whom might be scientist/philosophers.

Knowledge belongs in the realm of scientists; wisdom belongs in the realm of spirit. It’s true that good is better than evil, but a scientist would have a hard time proving it. It’s true that literature awarded the Nobel prize has surpassing quality, but a scientist would have a hard time proving it. Truth, goodness, and beauty cannot be proven by science but certainly manifest in physical reality.
Abundant evidence of spiritual reality exists in plain sight in outer reality—the effects of thoughts and emotions, spiritual values, myths, dream memories, and paranormal phenomena. In their interpretation of these phenomena, scientific materialists express a belief I find preposterous—that material stuff generates spiritual reality.

Not only do these phenomena in the physical world show that spiritual reality exists, they demonstrate its autonomy. I have looked for but never found a credible explanation by materialists of precognitive dreams, of astonishing psychic accuracy (conveniently denied by skeptics), of scientists and other thinkers suddenly granted the answer to a question when they stop thinking intellectually, of writers and artists who depend on a “muse,” and of people nudged to an act that averts disaster.
A recent example of the last is the story of a woman getting into an elevator, then, because of a sudden thought, stepping back out before it left. The elevator cable broke, fell many stories to the ground, and killed all in it. What instigated the sudden thought that propelled her out of the elevator? Not the nerves and synapses in her brain. They merely manifested the thought generated by some spiritual agent. In these incidents, inner mind knows more than outer brain capacity.

Will believes that only the scientific method can judge what is true. The problem has been that spiritual reality did not easily lend itself to the scientific scrutiny that Will respects. When scientists try to measure paranormal phenomena, the results have been mixed because the intention of the skeptical scientist mixes with the intention of the believer. There was no way to avoid letting the consciousness of the skeptical scientist contaminate the result of the experiment. Until quantum physics emerged.

Quantum physics clearly demonstrates the agency of consciousness as the primary moving force, and consciousness is a spiritual element, not a material one. In each quantum experiment, the intention or decision of the scientist determines whether a particle or a wave will present. Our intentions, thoughts, beliefs, perceptions, decisions—our consciousness—create reality; they decide what form physical stuff will take. We don’t recognize this fact for two reasons: 1) because we are not aware of our INNER perceptions and beliefs (the unconscious), and 2) because our individual perceptions are mixed with those of everyone else.

As I grow older, I increase my recognition of and reliance on the Inner power of many names. It’s available to all.
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Reply to atheists, March 19.
In the signed comments below, those by Will and Darren, I find ideas worth considering and agree with most of what they say. As I see it, we disagree on this fundamental point: I say spiritual reality generates material reality and they would say (correct me if I’m wrong) that material or physical reality generates spiritual reality.

Will, your last point, however, confuses me. We agree that spiritual qualities dwell within the individual and culture, but why did you say it doesn’t diminish us? Of course, it doesn’t diminish us; I believe it ennobles us, it’s the divinity in us.
Let me guess. Do you perhaps object to my “reliance on the Inner Power”? This may be another point of disagreement between us. I believe that the greater part of us, accessed through our unconscious, exists beyond our everyday thinking “I” or “you,” what is called the ego. It comes to our aid in the examples I give of “inner mind” knowing more than outer brain. I call it divine but it is not a god. I don’t believe in a divinity that's merely an individual great spirit separate from us; I believe in Divinity in all.

Darren, my dictionary gives this second definition for fact: “something having real, demonstrable evidence.” That corresponds to my use of it—something physically demonstrable or, to use Will’s phrase, what can be “scrutinized by the scientific method.” As a third definition of myth I find this: “a fictitious story, person, or thing.” And this corresponds to “myth” as used in our popular culture—a worthless lie.

But religious myths (the first definition in dictionaries) are perfectly honorable, despite their lack of factual content. God the Father and Son are mythical images, not facts. God is not a male individual who gave birth to another male individual without any female input. In the realm of facts, this literal belief is ridiculous, but as Christian mythology, it nurtured the Western world for two thousand years by assuring people of the truth that divine assistance always stands ready to guide us. Facts belong to science. The spiritual values of truth, beauty, and goodness are best expressed in imagery—metaphor, symbol, myth, and so on.

To sum up, fact and truth are not always synonymous. Regarding subjectivity, yes, it judges truth, beauty, and goodness in highly individual ways, but I respect the subjective in ways you apparently do not. The subject is too complicated, however, for me to tackle here.

Unsigned comments from “Cat’s Staff” contain negative, reactive emotion, which suggests that I could not have a conversation with the author. In God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky I present a more thorough case, with sources, for my interpretation of quantum physics, but a hostile attitude will render it unacceptable in any case.

With atheist friends I have conversations in which we express strong and opposing convictions. I think I could have such a fruitful conversation with Will or Darren.

Cat’s staff commented (March 20),
@Jeanette: "...but as Christian mythology, it nurtured the Western world for two thousand years by assuring people of the truth that divine assistance always stands ready to guide us."

It guided us right into the dark ages for most of those two thousand years. How did it act any differently than any other mythology? It wasn't until the renesainse and the idea of empiricism came along that reason was able to save us from the 'nurturing'.

@Jeanette: "I think I could have such a fruitful conversation with Will or Darren. Good luck Will and Darren."

The fact that I'm psudoanonymous doesn't change the fact that you are the one making the claim that needs to be defended. I'm not making any claims from a position of authority (my identity doesn't matter if you don't need to verify my authority on a claim I'm making). It's up to you to show that your claims don't contradict the current understanding of quantum mechanics (and everything else we know about how the Universe works). If you could do that it wouldn't matter who you were, you could be compleatly anonymous. The evidence would stand on it's own...that's the beuaty of science.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Scientific materialism

February 20, 2011
I read—well, I stopped reading and moved to skimming and then quit altogether—reading a book that purports to be the Catholic answer to atheists. It’s not.
The authors claim that atheism enables sociopathic behavior and warn that “a significant number of people” who deny the existence of God could “do terrible damage to society.” As proof they list totalitarian atheist regimes under Hitler (said to be “Godless”), Stalin, Mao Tse-tung, Pol Pot, and others. Their exaggerated charges resemble Christopher Hitchens' charges against religion in God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Such alarmist, one-sided observations inevitably distort reality.
My greatest disappointment is the authors’ inability to transcend the traditional, primitive concept of Divinity—an individual with a humanlike mind and will. Their routine references to “Him” reduce Infinite Intelligence to human dimensions, and they assume that all atheists deny ALL spiritual reality because they reject this deity that Christians pray to. I wonder what they would do with Shug’s,
Whenever you try to pray and man plop himself on the other end of it, tell him to get lost.
Trapped in the mindset formed by our liturgies, they play into atheism’s strongest suit—its scorn for the anthropomorphic god modeled on pagan gods popular during our religion’s infancy.

The authors do manage some great passages by quoting atheists with extreme materialistic positions—I call them physicalists. Paul Churchland, for example, believes, "We are creatures of matter." In Churchland's and others' statements we see physicalists assuming that there is "no you apart from your body." (I want readers to know that not all atheists have these extreme views.)

The most determined deniers of spiritual reality would have us believe that our desires, intentions, beliefs, pain, even our entire consciousness, is delusional and that only material realities—nerves, electrochemical reactions, etc.—exist. This is where atheistic materialism absolutely fails—it cannot explain our thoughts, beliefs, memories, and intentions. It cannot explain our YOU or I, the person behind our material existence.

Common sense tells us that our minds are more than the product of chemical reactions in our brains and our decisions are not determined by physical processes. I heard a much better answer to the follies of atheistic materialism last fall in a presentation by Dr. Vincent Smiles at the College of St. Benedict. This will be the subject of my next post.
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March 1
In a Friday Forum at the College of St. Benedict, Dr. Vincent Smiles examined the position of scientific materialists that God is an illusion manufactured by human brains. Here are samples of their thought.
Edward Wilson, a biologist, in his book On Human Nature:
If humankind evolved by Darwinian natural selection, [then] genetic chance and environmental necessity, not God, made the species. … I believe that the human mind is constructed. . . [as] a purely biological instrument . .
Loyal Rue, a philosopher of religion, suggests that the belief in life having value and purpose is a “noble lie,” although we hope most people continue to act on that belief.
The universe is blind and aimless; it has no value in and of itself
. . . The universe is dead and devoid of meaning . . . The universe just is.
The famous atheist Richard Dawkins writes that the universe,
has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.
Smiles observed that books advocating these views “are amazingly popular.” Wisely he added,
I suspect that anger and frustration at religion may well be a driving force behind this popularity.
Conceding that the anger over religious wrongdoing is understandable, he rejected the “purely materialist view of reality” that some atheists are promoting and termed it “their mythology.”
What then about our most quintessential human qualities—the desire for truth, the capacity for discovery and transcendence, moral purpose, artistic creativity and so on—why do we not take these qualities also as clues to understanding the universe?
Indeed. Smiles referred to Keith Ward, a Christian philosopher who observes that materialism ignores the entire sphere of value, purpose, and consciousness. Surely they exist, as scientific materialists admit. Perhaps because they exist outside the sphere of natural science, materialists fail to appreciate their proper value and origin.

More next time. I confess I’m distressed because my main site, that containing my information on God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky, suddenly disappeared, one of many challenges for me this past week.

March 5
As you can see if you click God Is Not 3 Guys, it’s up again, thanks to my trusted tech helper, Peter. Some images need work yet, but the information is all there. WHEW!
“Humbling” really fits in the case of technology vs. Jeanette. One way I keep a positive attitude toward technology is to remember the surmise of a scientist/philosopher that information technology is the brain of our planetary organism, the Earth.

But not its mind, which brings me back to scientific materialists. I stand in the middle between them and religious traditionalists, agreeing partially with both sides and disagreeing with both. Now it’s the materialists getting my arguments as I continue relaying the presentation by Vincent Smiles (scroll to previous post).

Michael Polanyi (1891-1976) was a chemist turned philosopher who researched the “art of knowing” (epistemology). He was a practicing scientist in Hungary when Stalinist Russia repudiated all things religious or spiritual to extol “scientific certainty.” But Polanyi noted that its “mechanical conception” of humans allowed “no place for science itself” and led to hundreds of millions being killed. The true scientist, faithful to science, cannot ignore religious and spiritual phenomena. Fleeing anti-Semitism in Europe, Polanyi landed in England, where he developed a theory that answers the scientific materialism he lived under.

He was convinced that human knowing, in its very structure, demonstrates the reality of spiritual values and meaning. He observed that we learn through what he called “indwelling”—trusting the modeling and informing of other persons, whether parents, teachers, mentors, community, or whole tradition. Not even the greatest geniuses function without relying on inherited skills and knowledge, on authority and tradition.

And it all happens through interpersonal relationships. Try learning anything without other persons. If we think long enough about any learning, we’ll find the human persons behind the transmission. The more personal, deeper, and closer the personal relationships, the more we learn. This indicates that mind is more than brain, more than chemistry or bits of matter flying about. Mind includes feeling, as all teachers know well. Try telling an elementary teacher that minds are just machines.

Consider the values of truth, goodness, and beauty. It’s hard to express why or how they transcend physical matter; we just know that they do; we know they are spiritual values. It’s beyond my mental power to figure out how a materialist can seriously believe that truth, goodness, and beauty are only the accidental products of material stuff. Thoughts and feelings with spiritual import vastly surpass in value the physical mechanism of brains.

I know that determined materialists will not be convinced by my argument and will continue to deny the existence of spiritual reality. To me it looks like their determination arises from emotional needs, perhaps in reaction to religious corruption and foolishness, which also disgust me, as anyone familiar with my writings can see. Their indignation, while justifiable, does not justify denial of what plainly exists—spiritual reality.