fuzzy ruminations from Liberal Street Fighter
I read that Arthur C. Clarke quote many years ago, in a childhood enthralled by what Harlan Ellison convinced me to call speculative fiction. Books, movies, comic books — the possibilities of science seemed endless. OMNI magazine and Scientific American and sections of the Encyclopedia were my church. Wanting to touch that “magic”, that enlightenment’s stepchild of alchemy, was what led me to take so many science and math classes, to declare a physics major as an undergrad. As I learned more, I found the nuts-and-bolts nature of the sciences to be a bit of a disappointment. It was too hard to see the magic. I have a mind and psyche ill-suited for the single-minded pursuit of narrowly focused questions. I added a second major in philosophy, but that field too requires a rigor that my restlessness has a hard time maintaining.
This childhood fascination continues, though, and it serves me well when I can’t stare into the black rays of the dark sun that is politics anymore, and I find my interest in science, in “magic”, provides a welcome break from real disasters and clueless Democrats and venal Republicans.
I am thinking about these questions anew today after flitting about on the ‘net this morning between work, after reading an interesting profile of David Cronenberg in the New York Times and a review of ‘The Universe in a Single Atom’: Reason and Faith also in the New York Times.
Cronenberg is quoted in the profile:
“But I don’t really think of anything as inappropriate. What’s boring, what’s depressing, is if they only send you horror films. Or, in fact, they think you’ll like something, and it turns out to be, let’s say, ‘Constantine’ – devil stuff, demon stuff. I don’t do demons. I’m an atheist, and so I have a philosophical problem with demonology and supporting the mythology of Satan, which involves God and heaven and hell and all that stuff. I’m not just a nonbeliever, I’m an antibeliever – I think it’s a destructive philosophy. But the people who send this material out, all they know is that you’ve done some stuff that they think is supernatural, which is actually not something I do either. I was asked to do ‘Dark Water,’ and it was a nice script, but the reason I didn’t want to do it was the ghost thing. The movie posits that ghosts do exist. That suggests that there is some kind of afterlife. I’m philosophically opposed to that view. On the other hand, I can say, for example, that I am haunted by my parents. And I can hear their voices in my head. To explore that kind of haunting – that I can do. That’s interesting to me.”
I agree with Mr. Cronenberg, to a large part, except I LOVE stories of demons and ghosts and gods and doomed champions. I often have a hard time watching some of his more challenging movies because there is NO remove between his characters’ human physicality, and the brutal truth that we are all just fragile bags of fluid. I prefer the poetry, the metaphors of myth, religion and superstition. Unlike believers, I think of those remnants of old human belief systems as comforting, as a lens for us to reflect on ourselves.
Magic, alchemy, kabala, science: all depend on the proper use of language, with words carefully chosen and placed to produce a given response or understanding. I think that is the reason it’s called “casting a spell”, but I’m too lazy to look up the etymology.
Ghost, demon, angel and god(s) are words to descibe a manifestation of grief, or fear, or hope, or our own self-defeating anger or disgust or uplifting joy. Six Feet Under used their metaphoric ghosts very effectively, as the dead character’s words and observations changed depending on the living characters mental states, inner conflicts. I find them helpful, where Cronenberg has perhaps a stronger stomach than me, better able to look right at the dangerous truths of human life. His movies, however, funnel that unvarnished view into a kind of magic, and we’re all better for it.
The Dalai Lama’s views, as presented in the book review, are a welcome change from the know-nothing blather we hear out of religious “leaders” in the loudest parts of the American Taliban:
this book offers something wiser: a compassionate and clearheaded account by a religious leader who not only respects science but, for the most part, embraces it. “If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims,” he writes. No one who wants to understand the world “can ignore the basic insights of theories as key as evolution, relativity and quantum mechanics.”
How refreshing. I am, of course, at least a little aware of some of the history of Buddhist sects that could be quite brutal to other beliefs, other people, but the Dalai Lama was impressed at a young age by science and technology and has tried hard to promote scientific understanding of “mystical” experiences like Buddhist meditation.
Once installed in Lhasa, the new Dalai Lama happened upon another of his forerunner’s possessions, a collapsible brass telescope. When he focused it one evening on what Tibetans call “the rabbit on the moon,” he saw that it consisted of shadows cast by craters. Although he knew nothing yet about astronomy, he inferred that the moon, like the earth, must be lighted by the sun. He had experienced the thrill of discovery.
Before long he was dismantling and repairing clocks and watches and tinkering with car engines and an old movie projector. As he grew older and traveled the world, he was as keen to meet with scientists and philosophers – David Bohm, Carl von Weizsäcker, Karl Popper – as with religious and political leaders. More recently his “Mind and Life” conferences have brought physicists, cosmologists, biologists and psychologists to Dharamsala, India, where he now lives in exile from the Chinese occupation of Tibet. He and his guests discuss things like the neuroscientific basis of Buddhist meditation and the similarities between Eastern concepts like the “philosophy of emptiness” and modern field theory. In “The Universe in a Single Atom” he tells how he walked the mountains around his home trying to persuade hermits to contribute to scientific understanding by meditating with electrodes on their heads.
But when it comes to questions about life and its origins, this would-be man of science begins to waver. Though he professes to accept evolutionary theory, he recoils at one of its most basic tenets: that the mutations that provide the raw material for natural selection occur at random. Look deeply enough, he suggests, and the randomness will turn out to be complexity in disguise – “hidden causality,” the Buddha’s smile. There you have it, Eastern religion’s version of intelligent design. He also opposes physical explanations for consciousness, invoking instead the existence of some kind of irreducible mind stuff, an idea rejected long ago by mainstream science. Some members of the Society for Neuroscience are understandably uneasy that he has been invited to give a lecture at their annual meeting this November. In a petition, they protested that his topic, the science of meditation, is known for “hyperbolic claims, limited research and compromised scientific rigor.”
I don’t hold that against His Holiness, because I recognize that need for the metaphor, for the mystery. The universe is so vast, and the divide that separates “here” from “after” is daunting. The peculiar mobius-strip that we call “consciousness” or “self” resists measurement, at least so far. I’ve dealt with it by sticking to stories, to myth and fiction and light-and-dark images on various screens. I have decided that what comes after is behind an asymptote that the curve of my life can’t touch until I reach the null point of death. Cronenberg throws his examinations of life up for all of us to see, perhaps to help us all face our limitations, our mortality. Perhaps just for himself. The Dalai Lama tries to tie the comforting metaphors of his faith with the modern world of science, of techonolgy, to show us that we can live whole lives.
I’m glad for both of their efforts, and only wish that these kinds of explorations were more welcome in our increasingly benighted society.
I would defend the liberty of consenting adult creationists to practice whatever intellectual perversions they like in the privacy of their own homes, but it is also necessary to protect the young and innocent. – Arthur C. Clarke