Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘religion’

25 FEBRUARY, 2015

What Comes After Religion: The Search for Meaning in Secular Life

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“We need reminders to be good, places to reawaken awe, something to reawaken our kinder, less selfish impulses…”

In their series of animated essays, The School of Life have contemplated what great books do for the soul, how to merge money and meaning, and what philosophy is for. Now comes a wonderful animation that builds on School of Life founder Alain de Botton’s book Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion (public library) to explore what comes after religion and how we can begin to address the deeper existential yearnings which led us to create religion in the first place — a meditation that calls to mind Sam Harris’s recent guide to spirituality without religion and the broader question of how we fill our lives with meaning.

Transcribed highlights below.

Fewer and fewer people believe nowadays. It’s possible that in a generation, there simply won’t be religion across Europe and large sections of North America, Australia, and Asia. That’s not necessarily a problem — but it’s worth thinking about why people made up religion in the first place.

[…]

We may no longer believe, but the needs and longings that made us make up these stories go on: We’re lonely, and violent; we long for beauty, wisdom, and purpose; we want to live for something more than just ourselves.

Society tells us to direct our hopes in two areas: romantic love and professional success. And it distracts us with news, movies, and consumption. It’s not enough, as we know — especially at three in the morning. We need reminders to be good, places to reawaken awe, something to reawaken our kinder, less selfish impulses — universal things, which need tending, like delicate flowers, and rituals that bring us together.

The choice isn’t between religion and the secular world, as it is now — the challenge is to learn from religions so we can fill the secular world with replacements for the things we long ago made up religion to provide. The challenge begins here.

For more on this slippery but vital question, see Alan Lightman on finding transcendent moments in the secular world and Mary Oliver on a life well lived.

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03 FEBRUARY, 2015

Bertrand Russell on Immortality, Why Religion Exists, and What “The Good Life” Really Means

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“There are forces making for happiness, and forces making for misery. We do not know which will prevail, but to act wisely we must be aware of both.”

Bertrand Russell (May 18, 1872–February 2, 1970) is one of humanity’s most grounding yet elevating thinkers, his writing at once lucid and luminous. There is something almost prophetic in the way he bridges timelessness and timeliness in contemplating ideas urgently relevant to modern life a century earlier — from how boredom makes happiness possible to why science is the key to democracy. But nowhere does his genius shine more brilliantly than in What I Believe (public library).

Published in 1925, the book is a kind of catalog of hopes — a counterpoint to Russell’s Icarus, a catalog of fears released the previous year — exploring our place in the universe and our “possibilities in the way of achieving the good life.”

Russell writes in the preface:

In human affairs, we can see that there are forces making for happiness, and forces making for misery. We do not know which will prevail, but to act wisely we must be aware of both.

One of Russell’s most central points deals with our civilizational allergy to uncertainty, which we try to alleviate in ways that don’t serve the human spirit. Nearly a century before astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser’s magnificent manifesto for mystery in the age of knowledge — and many decades before “wireless” came to mean what it means today, making the metaphor all the more prescient and apt — Russell writes:

It is difficult to imagine anything less interesting or more different from the passionate delights of incomplete discovery. It is like climbing a high mountain and finding nothing at the top except a restaurant where they sell ginger beer, surrounded by fog but equipped with wireless.

Long before modern neuroscience even existed, let alone knew what it now knows about why we have the thoughts we do — the subject of an excellent recent episode of the NPR’s Invisibilia — Russell points to the physical origins of what we often perceive as metaphysical reality:

What we call our “thoughts” seem to depend upon the organization of tracks in the brain in the same sort of way in which journeys depend upon roads and railways. The energy used in thinking seems to have a chemical origin; for instance, a deficiency of iodine will turn a clever man into an idiot. Mental phenomena seem to be bound up with material structure.

Illustration from 'Neurocomic,' a graphic novel about how the brain works. Click image for more.

Nowhere, Russell argues, do our thought-fictions stand in starker contrast with physical reality than in religious mythology — and particularly in our longing for immortality which, despite a universe whose very nature contradicts the possibility, all major religions address with some version of a promise for eternal life. With his characteristic combination of cool lucidity and warm compassion for the human experience, Russell writes:

God and immortality … find no support in science… No doubt people will continue to entertain these beliefs, because they are pleasant, just as it is pleasant to think ourselves virtuous and our enemies wicked. But for my part I cannot see any ground for either.

And yet, noting that the existence or nonexistence of a god cannot be proven for it lies “outside the region of even probable knowledge,” he considers the special case of personal immortality, which “stands on a somewhat different footing” and in which “evidence either way is possible”:

Persons are part of the everyday world with which science is concerned, and the conditions which determine their existence are discoverable. A drop of water is not immortal; it can be resolved into oxygen and hydrogen. If, therefore, a drop of water were to maintain that it had a quality of aqueousness which would survive its dissolution we should be inclined to be skeptical. In like manner we know that the brain is not immortal, and that the organized energy of a living body becomes, as it were, demobilized at death, and therefore not available for collective action. All the evidence goes to show that what we regard as our mental life is bound up with brain structure and organized bodily energy. Therefore it is rational to suppose that mental life ceases when bodily life ceases. The argument is only one of probability, but it is as strong as those upon which most scientific conclusions are based.

A 1573 painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo's, from Michael Benson's book 'Cosmigraphics'—a visual history of understanding the universe. Click image for more.

But evidence, Russell points out, has little bearing on what we actually believe. (In the decades since, pioneering psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman has demonstrated that the confidence we have in our beliefs is no measure of their accuracy.) Noting that we simply desire to believe in immortality, Russell writes:

Believers in immortality will object to physiological arguments [against personal immortality] on the ground that soul and body are totally disparate, and that the soul is something quite other than its empirical manifestations through our bodily organs. I believe this to be a metaphysical superstition. Mind and matter alike are for certain purposes convenient terms, but are not ultimate realities. Electrons and protons, like the soul, are logical fictions; each is really a history, a series of events, not a single persistent entity. In the case of the soul, this is obvious from the facts of growth. Whoever considers conception, gestation, and infancy cannot seriously believe that the soul in any indivisible something, perfect and complete throughout this process. It is evident that it grows like the body, and that it derives both from the spermatozoon and from the ovum, so that it cannot be indivisible.

Long before the term “reductionism” would come to dismiss material answers to spiritual questions, Russell offers an elegant disclaimer:

This is not materialism: it is merely the recognition that everything interesting is a matter of organization, not of primal substance.

Art by Roz Chast from her illustrated meditation on aging, illness, and death. Click image for more.

Our obsession with immortality, Russell contends, is rooted in our fear of death — a fear that, as Alan Watts has eloquently argued, is rather misplaced if we are to truly accept our participation in the cosmos. Russell writes:

Fear is the basis of religious dogma, as of so much else in human life. Fear of human beings, individually or collectively, dominates much of our social life, but it is fear of nature that gives rise to religion. The antithesis of mind and matter is … more or less illusory; but there is another antithesis which is more important — that, namely, between things that can be affected by our desires and things that cannot be so affected. The line between the two is neither sharp nor immutable — as science advances, more and more things are brought under human control. Nevertheless there remain things definitely on the other side. Among these are all the large facts of our world, the sort of facts that are dealt with by astronomy. It is only facts on or near the surface of the earth that we can, to some extent, mould to suit our desires. And even on the surface of the earth our powers are very limited. Above all, we cannot prevent death, although we can often delay it.

Religion is an attempt to overcome this antithesis. If the world is controlled by God, and God can be moved by prayer, we acquire a share in omnipotence… Belief in God … serves to humanize the world of nature, and to make men feel that physical forces are really their allies. In like manner immortality removes the terror from death. People who believe that when they die they will inherit eternal bliss may be expected to view death without horror, though, fortunately for medical men, this does not invariably happen. It does, however, soothe men’s fears somewhat even when it cannot allay them wholly.

In a sentiment of chilling prescience in the context of recent religiously-motivated atrocities, Russell adds:

Religion, since it has its source in terror, has dignified certain kinds of fear, and made people think them not disgraceful. In this it has done mankind a great disservice: all fear is bad.

Science, Russell suggests, offers the antidote to such terror — even if its findings are at first frightening as they challenge our existing beliefs, the way Galileo did. He captures this necessary discomfort beautifully:

Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cosy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigor, and the great spaces have a splendor of their own.

Art from 'You Are Stardust,' a children's book teaching kids about the universe. Click image for more.

But Russell’s most enduring point has to do with our beliefs about the nature of the universe in relation to us. More than eight decades before legendary graphic designer Milton Glaser’s exquisite proclamation — “If you perceive the universe as being a universe of abundance, then it will be. If you think of the universe as one of scarcity, then it will be.” — Russell writes:

Optimism and pessimism, as cosmic philosophies, show the same naïve humanism; the great world, so far as we know it from the philosophy of nature, is neither good nor bad, and is not concerned to make us happy or unhappy. All such philosophies spring from self-importance, and are best corrected by a little astronomy.

He admonishes against confusing “the philosophy of nature,” in which such neutrality is necessary, with “the philosophy of value,” which beckons us to create meaning by conferring human values upon the world:

Nature is only a part of what we can imagine; everything, real or imagined, can be appraised by us, and there is no outside standard to show that our valuation is wrong. We are ourselves the ultimate and irrefutable arbiters of value, and in the world of value Nature is only a part. Thus in this world we are greater than Nature. In the world of values, Nature in itself is neutral, neither good nor bad, deserving of neither admiration nor censure. It is we who create value and our desires which confer value… It is for us to determine the good life, not for Nature — not even for Nature personified as God.

Russell’s definition of that “good life” remains the simplest and most heartening one I’ve ever encountered:

The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.

Knowledge and love are both indefinitely extensible; therefore, however good a life may be, a better life can be imagined. Neither love without knowledge, nor knowledge without love can produce a good life.

What I Believe is a remarkably prescient and rewarding read in its entirety — Russell goes on to explore the nature of the good life, what salvation means in a secular sense for the individual and for society, the relationship between science and happiness, and more. Complement it with Russell on human nature, the necessary capacity for “fruitful monotony,” and his ten commandments of teaching and learning, then revisit Alan Lightman on why we long for immortality.

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14 JANUARY, 2015

A Graphic Cosmogony: Illustrators Imagine the Origin of the Universe

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From the lyrical to the ludicrous, uncommon takes on how our world came to be.

Humanity’s history of mapping the cosmos is as long as our margin of error in explaining the universe is wide. We have been wrong about so much so often and so staunchly stubborn in admitting our errors. But we have also produced works of immeasurable beauty in giving form to our awe, however rooted in illusion, and continue to dwell in awe as we struggle to reconcile conflicting explanations and pursue the truth of our origins.

In A Graphic Cosmogony (public library), twenty-four of today’s most celebrated illustrators and graphic artists each take seven pages to tell their version of the story of the universe’s origin and how our world came to be. There are unusual takes on traditional creation myths like The Book of Genesis (who needs Adam’s biologically suspect rib when there is Eve’s true-to-life vagina?), imaginative homages to evolution, gorgeous interpretations of Japanese folktales, and all kinds of fanciful alternative mythologies that fuse the playful with the profound.

In the introduction, Paul Gravett considers why the medium of comics lends itself to the story of creation so aptly:

There is something instinctual, almost primal about making and reading/viewing comics, especially highly graphic ones with few or no words. They spark a provocative clarity that taps into our inner caveman’s brain, our pre-literate child-self deciphering to make sense of the strange wonders of the everyday. And for all our scientific advances, here we are now, only a mere decade into this second millennium, and still finding fascination in the show-and-tell choreographies of pictures, lettering, balloons, captions and panels.

Rob Hunter: Luna

Rob Hunter: Luna

Rob Hunter: Luna

Rob Hunter: Luna

Brecht Vandenbroucke: Genesis

Brecht Vandenbroucke: Genesis

Jon McNaught: Pilgrims

Ben Newman: All That Dreams Matters

Ben Newman: All That Dreams Matters

Ben Newman: All That Dreams Matters

Clayton Junior: Ara Poty

Luc Melanson: Deus Magicus

Yeji Yun: Solitude

A Graphic Cosmogony, far more delightful in its sequential and tactile totality, comes from British independent press Nobrow, who have previously given us such gems as a graphic biography of Freud and an illustrated tour of how the brain works. Complement it with French graphic artist Blexbolex’s bewitching Ballad, a different kind of lyrical graphic mythology as old as the world, and this evolution coloring book.

Illustrations courtesy of Nobrow

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09 JANUARY, 2015

Einstein’s God: Krista Tippett and Theoretical Cosmologist Janna Levin on Free Will, Science, and the Human Spirit

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“How we ask our questions affects the answers we arrive at… Science and religion… ask different kinds of questions altogether, probing and illuminating in ways neither could alone.”

Seven decades after a little girl asked Einstein whether scientists pray, Peabody Award-winning journalist Krista Tippett began interviewing some of the world’s most remarkable scientists, philosophers, and theologians about the relationship between science and spirituality in her superb public radio program On Being — the same trove of wisdom that gave us Sherwin Nuland on what everybody needs and Joanna Macy on how Rilke can help us live more fully. Tippett, who was awarded the National Humanities Medal for her ennobling work, collected the best of these dialogues in Einstein’s God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit (public library) — an immeasurably rewarding compendium featuring such contemporary luminaries as Parker Palmer, Freeman Dyson, Andrew Solomon, and Sherwin Nuland.

Lamenting that we have “lost a robust vocabulary for spiritual ethics and theological thinking” in the “polite, erudite, public-radio-loving circles” of public life, Tippett writes in the introduction:

The science-religion “debate” is unwinnable, and it has led us astray. To insist that science and religion speak the same language, or draw the same conclusions, is to miss the point of both of these pursuits of cohesive knowledge and underlying truth. To create a competition between them, in terms of relevance or rightness, is self-defeating. Both science and religion are set to animate the twenty-first century with new vigor. This will happen whether their practitioners are in dialogue or not. But the dialogue that is possible — and that has developed organically, below the journalistic and political radar — is mutually illuminating and lush with promise.

Illustration from Thomas Wright’s visionary 1750 treatise 'An Original Theory,' found in Michael Benson's book 'Cosmigraphics'—a visual history of understanding the universe. Click image for more.

Tippett invokes her grandfather, a “preacher of hellfire and brimstone” with a “large, unexcavated mind that frightened him” and “sharp wit, a searching attentiveness, a mysterious ability to perform mathematical feats in his head”:

People like him became the object of erudite parody, straw men easily blown down by prophets of reason. His kind of religiosity was small-minded at best, delusional at worst, and, most damnably, the enemy of science.

The mundane truth is this: my grandfather did not know enough about science to be against it. I summon his memory by way of tracing, for myself, why I’ve found my conversations with scientists to be so profoundly sustaining. It is not just that they are intellectually and spiritually evocative beyond compare. Cumulatively they dispel the myth of the clash of civilizations between science and religion, indeed between spirit and reason, that we’ve accepted as the backdrop for so many tensions of the modern West.

[…]

How we ask our questions affects the answers we arrive at. Light appears as a wave if you ask it “a wavelike question” and it appears as a particle if you ask it “a particle-like question.” This is a template for understanding how contradictory explanations of reality can simultaneously be true.

And it’s not so much true, as our cultural debates presume, that science and religion reach contradictory answers to the same particular questions of human life. Far more often, they simply ask different kinds of questions altogether, probing and illuminating in ways neither could alone.

Hardly anything illustrates this notion more crisply than a line from the bewitching novel A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines“To see some truths you must stand outside and look in.” — by astrophysicist and theoretical cosmologist Janna Levin, one of Tippett’s interviewees, who studies the shape and finitude of the universe. In her conversation with Tippett, Levin reflects on the relationship between mathematics and truth, central to both her novel — which explores the parallels between the extraordinary minds of computing pioneer Alan Turing and mathematician Kurt Gödel — and her life:

I would absolutely say I am also besotted with mathematics. I don’t worry about what’s real and not real in the way that maybe Gödel did. I think what Turing did, which was so beautiful, was to have a very practical approach. He believed that life was, in a way, simple. You could relate to mathematics in a concrete and practical way. It wasn’t about surreal, abstract theories. And that’s why Turing is the one who invents the computer, because he thinks so practically. He can imagine a machine that adds and subtracts, a machine that performs the mathematical operations that the mind performs. The modern computers that we have now are these very practical machines that are built on those ideas. So I would say that like Turing, I am absolutely struck with the power of mathematics, and that’s why I’m a theoretical physicist… I love that we can all share the mathematical answers. It’s not about me trying to convince you of what I believe or of my perspective or of my assumptions. We can all agree that one plus one is two, and we can all make calculations that come out to be the same, whether you’re from India or Pakistan or Oklahoma, we all have that in common. There’s something about that that’s deeply moving to me and that makes mathematics pure and special. And yet I’m able to have a more practical attitude about it, which is that, well, we can build machines this way. There is a physical reality that we can relate to using mathematics.

A 1573 painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo's, from Michael Benson's book 'Cosmigraphics'—a visual history of understanding the universe. Click image for more.

When Tippett stretches this into the difficult question of whether “the fact that one plus one equals two [has] anything to do with God,” Levin — a self-described atheist — echoes Tolstoy’s quest for meaning and answers with remarkable poetry and poise:

If I were to ever lean towards spiritual thinking or religious thinking, it would be in that way. It would be, why is it that there is this abstract mathematics that guides the universe? The universe is remarkable because we can understand it. That’s what’s remarkable. All the other things are remarkable, too. It’s really, really astounding that these little creatures on this little planet that seem totally insignificant in the middle of nowhere can look back over the fourteen-billion-year history of the universe and understand so much and in such a short time.

So that is where I would get a sense, again, of meaning and of purpose and of beauty and of being integrated with the universe so that it doesn’t feel hopeless and meaningless. Now, I don’t personally invoke a God to do that, but I can’t say that mathematics would disprove the existence of God either. It’s just one of those things where over and over again, you come to that point where some people will make that leap and say, “I believe that God initiated this and then stepped away, and the rest was this beautiful mathematical unfolding.” And others will say, “Well, as far back as it goes, there seem to be these mathematical structures. And I don’t feel the need to conjure up any other entity.” And I fall into that camp, and without feeling despair or dissatisfaction.

The emboldening poetics of Levin’s orientation to the universe and its meaning — at the heart of which is the same inquiry Alan Watts tussled with in probing what reality is — comes alive in this passage from her novel:

In the park, over the low wall, there are two girls playing in the grass. Giants looming over their toys, monstrously out of proportion. They’re holding hands and spinning, leaning farther and farther back until their fingers rope together, chubby flesh and bone enmeshed. What do I see? Angular momentum around their center. A principle of physics in their motion. A girlish memory of grass-stained knees.

I keep walking and recede from the girls’ easy confidence in the world’s mechanisms. I believe they exist, even if my knowledge of them can only be imperfect, a crude sketch of their billions of vibrating atoms. I believe this to be true… I am on an orbit through the universe that crosses the paths of some girls, a teenager, a dog, an old woman…

I could have written this book entirely differently, but then again, maybe this book is the only way it could be, and these are the only choices I could have made. This is me, an unreal composite, maybe part liar, maybe not free.

Another 16th-century painting by Francisco de Holanda from 'Cosmigraphics.'Click image for more.

Therein lies the obvious question — a question raised memorably and somewhat controversially by C.S. Lewis — of free will in a universe of fixed laws. Levin tells Tippett:

I think it’s a difficult question to understand what it means to have free will if we are completely determined by the laws of physics, and even if we’re not. Because there are things—for instance, in quantum mechanics, which is the theory of physics on the highest energy scales—which imply that there is some kind of quantum randomness so that we’re not completely determined. But randomness doesn’t really help me either.

[…]

There is no clear way of making sense of an idea of free will in a pinball game of strict determinism or in a game with elements of random chance thrown in. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t a free will. I’ve often said maybe someday we’ll just discover something. I mean, quantum mechanics was a surprise. General relativity was a surprise. The idea of curved space-time. All of these great discoveries were great surprises, and we shouldn’t decide ahead of time what is or isn’t true. So it might be that this convincing feeling I have, that I am executing free will, is actually because I’m observing something that is there. I just can’t understand how it’s there. Or it’s a total illusion. It’s a very, very convincing illusion, but it’s an illusion all the same.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s revelatory work on intuition, exposing the lack of correlation between our confidence in our beliefs and the validity of the evidence behind them — something that often manifests as “the backfire effect” — Levin considers the nature of these convincing illusions to which human nature so easily succumbs:

Our convincing feeling is that time is absolute. Our convincing feeling is that there should be no limit to how fast you can travel. Our convincing feelings are based on our experiences because of the size that we are, literally, the speed at which we move, the fact that we evolved on a planet under a particular star. So our eyes, for instance, are at peak in their perception of yellow, which is the wave band the sun peaks at. It’s not an accident that our perceptions and our physical environment are connected. We’re limited, also, by that. That makes our intuitions excellent for ordinary things, for ordinary life. That’s how our brains evolved and our perceptions evolved, to respond to things like the Sun and the Earth and these scales. And if we were quantum particles, we would think quantum mechanics were totally intuitive. Things fluctuating in and out of existence, or not being certain of whether they’re particles or waves — these kinds of strange things that come out of quantum theory — would seem absolutely natural…

Our intuitions are based on our minds, our minds are based on our neural structures, our neural structures evolved on a planet, under a sun, with very specific conditions. We reflect the physical world that we evolved from. It’s not a miracle.

And yet, crucially, the lack of evidence for free will is by no means a license to abdicate personal responsibility in how we move through the world:

If I conclude that there is no free will, it doesn’t mean that I should go run amok in the streets. I’m no more free to make that choice than I am to make any other choice. There’s a practical notion of responsibility or civic free will that we uphold when we prosecute somebody, when we hold juries or when we pursue justice that I completely think is a practical notion that we should continue to pursue. It’s not like I can choose to be irresponsible or responsible because I’m confused about free will.

Six decades earlier, and long before the dawn of modern astrophysics, Anaïs Nin made a humanistic case for the same.

Einstein’s God is a spectacular read in its entirety, as is Levin’s novel. For more perspectives on the relationship between science and spirituality, step into the cultural time machine with Carl Sagan on science and religion, Flannery O’Connor on dogma, belief, and the difference between religion and faith, Alan Lightman on science and spirituality, Ada Lovelace on the interconnectedness of everything, Jane Goodall on science and spirit, and Sam Harris on spirituality without religion.

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