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Posts Tagged ‘religion’

23 JULY, 2015

The Rebellious and Revolutionary Life of Galileo, Illustrated

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How a college dropout reordered the heavens and forever changed our understanding of our place in the universe.

In 1564, Galileo Galilei was born into a world with no clocks, telescopes, or microscopes — a world that was believed to be the center of the universe, orbited by the sun and the moon and the stars. By the time he died seventy-seven years later, his ideas had planted the seed for the most significant scientific revolution in human history. In addition to his most notorious astronomical discoveries, which challenged centuries of religious dogma by dethroning Earth as the center of the universe and nearly cost him his life, Galileo also invented modern timekeeping, created the microscope, inspired Shakespeare, and even provided a metaphorical model for understanding how culture evolves.

In I, Galileo (public library), writer and artist Bonnie Christensen — who also gave us the marvelous illustrated story of Nellie Bly — chronicles the life of the great Italian astronomer, physicist, engineer, and philosopher, adding to both the finest picture-book biographies of cultural icons and the best children’s books celebrating science.

The story, quite possibly inspired by Ralph Steadman’s superb I, Leonardo, is told as a first-person autobiography narrated by Galileo himself. Christensen’s beautiful illustrations pay homage to the aesthetic sensibility of Galileo’s era, partway between the stained glass of European cathedrals and the artistic style of the Old Masters.

We meet Galileo as a blind old man, sentenced to lifelong house arrest by the Inquisition for his dogma-defying discoveries, then travel with him back in time.

In childhood, his father’s revolutionary theories bridging music and mathematics instilled in the young boy an ethos of challenging convention; at eleven, he was sent to a monastery for his formal education and decided to become a monk, which alarmed his father into sending him to medical school instead; in late adolescence, he dropped out of medical school without a degree.

For the remainder of his adolescence, Galileo was essentially homeschooled and self-taught, conducting various fascinating experiments with his father — such as manipulating the length, tension, and thickness of a string to produce notes of a different pitch.

But his voracious scientific curiosity came at a cost — by twenty-five, Galileo was already quite unpopular for doing away with tradition, from refusing to wear the professorial robes his peers wore to challenging Aristotle’s sacred laws of physics.

Aristotle, the famous ancient Greek philosopher, claimed a heavy object would fall faster than a light objet. I disagreed. To prove my point, I dropped two cannonballs of different weights from the leaning tower. Just as I predicted, they fell at the exact same rate of speed. But the public was not convinced, even in the face of scientific proof. I was not invited to continue teaching at the University of Pisa.

And yet Galileo persevered, continuing to challenge the dogmas of ancient science and religion. His seminal pendulum insight sparked modern timekeeping and his famous telescopic observations, an attraction for Italian royalty, proved that Sun, not the Earth, was what the heavenly bodies orbited.

Aware of how radical and possibly dangerous his discovery was, Galileo remained silent for seven years, during which he inverted the direction of his curiosity and used his lens-making skills to invent the microscope.

When he eventually published his findings, he did indeed incur the wrath of the Inquisition and was locked away in the hills of Arcetri, where he died a blind old man having seen the truth of the universe. His ideas lived on to usher in a whole new era of science and culture, forever changing our relationship to the cosmos and to ourselves.

Complement Christensen’s I, Galileo with the illustrated story of pioneering Persian astronomer and polymath Ibn Sina, then revisit the picture-book biographies of other trailblazing shapers of culture: Jane Goodall, Pablo Neruda, Frida Kahlo, e.e. cummings, and Albert Einstein.

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21 JULY, 2015

Neuroscientist Sam Harris Selects 12 Books Everyone Should Read

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From Bertrand Russell to the Buddha, or why you should spend a weekend reading the Qur’an.

On an excellent recent episode of The Tim Ferriss Show — one of these nine podcasts for a fuller life — neuroscientist Sam Harris answered a listener’s question inquiring what books everyone should read. As a lover of notable reading lists and an ardent admirer of Harris’s mind and work, I was thrilled to hear his recommendations — but as each one rolled by, it brought with it an ebbing anticipatory anxiety that he too might fall prey to male intellectuals’ tendency to extoll almost exclusively the work of other male intellectuals. (Look no further than Neil deGrasse Tyson’s reading list for evidence.) And indeed Harris did — the books he recommended on the show, however outstanding, were all by men.

I was perplexed, both because references throughout his own excellent books indicate that Harris reads far more widely than this unfortunate lapse of packaging makes it seem, and because he is the loving father of two small female humans who will go through life absorbing our culture’s messages about the value of women’s minds and voices. And since I believe that the best way to complain is to do something constructive, I reached out and asked him for an expanded version of his reading list that includes some of his favorite books by women. He kindly complied and offered a stimulating selection of twelve books to enrich any human life — here it is, beginning with the original eight from the show and Harris’s comments about some of them:

  1. The History of Western Philosophy (public library) by Bertrand Russell
  2. Bertrand Russell … is one of the great philosophers of his time… a remarkably clear thinker and writer… a great example of how English should be written and just a great voice to have in your head.

  3. Reasons and Persons (public library) by Derek Parfit
  4. Brilliant and written as though by an alien intelligence. A deeply strange book filled with thought experiments that bend your intuitions left and right. A truly strange and unique document, and incredibly insightful about morality and questions of identity.

  5. The Last Word (public library) by Thomas Nagel
  6. I’m a big fan of Thomas Nagel’s earlier work… He is a very fine writer — a very clear writer — and just as a style of communication … he’s worth going to school on.

  7. The Holy Qur’an (public library)
  8. Everyone should read the Holy Qur’an… Read it — it’s much shorter than the Bible; you can read it in a weekend, and you’ll be informed about the central doctrines of Islam in a way that you may not be, and it’s good to be informed, given how much influence these ideas have currently in our world.

  9. Superintelligence (public library) by Nick Bostrom
  10. The clearest book I’ve come across that makes the case that the so-called “control problem” — the problem of building human-level and beyond artificial intelligence that we can control, that we can know in advance will converge with our interests — is a truly difficult and important task, because we will end up building this stuff by happenstance if we simply keep going in the direction we’re headed. Unless we can solve this problem in advance and have good reason to believe that the machines we are building are benign and their behavior predictable — even when they exceed us in intelligence a thousand-, a million-, or a billion-fold — this is going to be a catastrophic intrusion into our lives that we may not survive.

  11. Humiliation: And Other Essays on Honor, Social Discomfort, and Violence (public library) by William Ian Miller
  12. The Flight of the Garuda: The Dzogchen Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism (public library) by Keith Dowman
  13. I Am That (public library) by Nisargadatta Maharaj
  14. Infidel (public library) by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
  15. The Year of Magical Thinking (public library) by Joan Didion
  16. The Journalist and the Murderer (public library) by Janet Malcolm
  17. Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak (public library) by Jean Hatzfeld

Complement with the reading lists of Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, Carl Sagan, and Alan Turing, then revisit Harris on the paradox of meditation and subscribe to The Tim Ferriss Show here.

Top illustration by Marc Johns

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15 JULY, 2015

35-Year-Old Emerson’s Extraordinary Harvard Divinity School Address on the Divine Transcendence of Nature

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In praise of the sentiment through which the soul comes to know itself.

I have long considered the commencement address the secular sermon of our time — the greatest commencement addresses deliver precisely the kind of well-packaged, eloquent, enchanting advice on what it takes to lead a good life that we used to find in worship services. But on July 15, 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson took the podium before the graduating class at what is now the Harvard Divinity School to deliver a powerful and immeasurably beautiful speech that bridged these two traditions — the religious sermon and the secular packet of life-advice — unlike anything before or since.

He was only thirty-five.

Found in his altogether indispensable Essays and Lectures (public library; free download) — the source of Emerson’s enduring wisdom on the two pillars of friendship, the key to personal growth, what beauty really means, and how to live with maximum aliveness — the speech is notable both for its substance and its place in time: Emerson wrote it in the midst of a deeply religious era, more than two decades before Darwin penned On the Origin of Species and formulated his theory of evolution, and was addressing a graduating class of divinity students. And yet despite that — or, rather, precisely because of it — what makes his speech so extraordinary is that he extolls a sort of secular spirituality nearly two centuries before our contemporary conceptions of it. Emerson admonishes against superstition and dogma, instead championing a “religious sentiment” — the era’s term for spirituality — predicated on moral virtue, a philosophy of presence, and a reverence of nature.

Emerson writes:

In this refulgent summer, it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life. The grass grows, the buds burst, the meadow is spotted with fire and gold in the tint of flowers. The air is full of birds, and sweet with the breath of the pine, the balm-of-Gilead, and the new hay. Night brings no gloom to the heart with its welcome shade. Through the transparent darkness the stars pour their almost spiritual rays. Man under them seems a young child, and his huge globe a toy. The cool night bathes the world as with a river, and prepares his eyes again for the crimson dawn. The mystery of nature was never displayed more happily. The corn and the wine have been freely dealt to all creatures, and the never-broken silence with which the old bounty goes forward, has not yielded yet one word of explanation. One is constrained to respect the perfection of this world, in which our senses converse. How wide; how rich; what invitation from every property it gives to every faculty of man!

Art by Christopher Marley from 'Biophilia.' Click image for more.

A century and a half before Hannah Arendt made her elegant case for how our unanswerable questions make us human, Emerson argues that these are precisely the kinds of questions sparked in the human mind when we behold nature’s beauty and with with the awe it produces in us:

What am I? and What is? asks the human spirit with a curiosity new-kindled, but never to be quenched. Behold these outrunning laws, which our imperfect apprehension can see tend this way and that, but not come full circle. Behold these infinite relations, so like, so unlike; many, yet one. I would study, I would know, I would admire forever. These works of thought have been the entertainments of the human spirit in all ages.

But from this awe, Emerson observes, springs an inquiry far more profound — one that has to do with the meaning of the good life:

A more secret, sweet, and overpowering beauty appears to man when his heart and mind open to the sentiment of virtue… He learns that his being is without bound…

The sentiment of virtue is a reverence and delight in the presence of certain divine laws. It perceives that this homely game of life we play, covers, under what seem foolish details, principles that astonish… This sentiment is the essence of all religion.

We now know, indeed, that this virtuous disposition is at the heart of the Golden Rule, a version of which is a centerpiece of all major religious traditions. Emerson considers the deeper moral impulse beneath the teachings of virtue:

The intuition of the moral sentiment is an insight of the perfection of the laws of the soul. These laws execute themselves. They are out of time, out of space, and not subject to circumstance. Thus; in the soul of man there is a justice whose retributions are instant and entire. He who does a good deed, is instantly ennobled. He who does a mean deed, is by the action itself contracted.

He turns to truth as the ultimate moral beauty:

Speak the truth, and all nature and all spirits help you with unexpected furtherance. Speak the truth, and all things alive or brute are vouchers, and the very roots of the grass underground there, do seem to stir and move to bear you witness.

From this moral aspiration, Emerson argues, springs what we call spirituality:

The perception of this law of laws awakens in the mind a sentiment which we call the religious sentiment, and which makes our highest happiness. Wonderful is its power to charm and to command. It is a mountain air. It is the embalmer of the world. It is myrrh and storax, and chlorine and rosemary. It makes the sky and the hills sublime, and the silent song of the stars is it. By it, is the universe made safe and habitable…

This sentiment is divine and deifying. It is the beatitude of man. It makes him illimitable. Through it, the soul first knows itself.

Illustration from 'You Are Stardust.' Click image for more.

In an admonition particularly poignant and timely in our era of divisive dogma, Emerson argues that spirituality cannot be taken on faith, as it were — it is not the result of preaching or dogma absorbed from the outside but a sentiment to be cultivated on the inside, a private “conversation with the beauty of the soul.” Emerson writes:

Whilst the doors of the temple stand open, night and day, before every man, and the oracles of this truth cease never, it is guarded by one stern condition; this, namely; it is an intuition. It cannot be received at second hand. Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul. What he announces, I must find true in me, or wholly reject; and on his word, or as his second, be he who he may, I can accept nothing.

Once again, Emerson astonishes with his capacity for holding duality — the hallmark of the truly enlightened mind. Here he is, delivering an address at the world’s foremost divinity school, and yet advocating for what is essentially a proto-version of the critical thinking Carl Sagan championed a century and a half later in his famous Baloney Detection Kit.

Emerson was well ahead of his time — and perhaps even of ours — in more ways than one. More than a century before Alan Watts began popularizing Eastern philosophy in the West, he argues that these spiritual-moral values are best cultivated, and have been for millennia, “in the minds of men in the devout and contemplative East.” With an eye to these Eastern traditions, Emerson envisions a new spiritual movement that integrates these ideas into Western life:

I look for the hour when that supreme Beauty, which ravished the souls of those eastern men … and through their lips spoke oracles to all time, shall speak in the West also. The Hebrew and Greek Scriptures contain immortal sentences, that have been bread of life to millions. But they have no epical integrity; are fragmentary; are not shown in their order to the intellect. I look for the new Teacher, that shall follow so far those shining laws, that he shall see them come full circle; shall see their rounding complete grace; shall see the world to be the mirror of the soul; shall see the identity of the law of gravitation with purity of heart; and shall show that the Ought, that Duty, is one thing with Science, with Beauty, and with Joy.

Emerson’s Essays and Lectures, it bears repeating, is a magnificent and existentially necessary read in its hefty totality. Sample it further with Emerson on why we resist change, the true measure of friendship, and how beauty bewitches the human imagination, then complement this particular meditation with a contemporary counterpart: Sam Harris on how to cultivate spirituality without religion.

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08 JULY, 2015

Why the Sky Enchants Us: Our Longing for Transcendence and How Myths Elevate Human Life

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“Human beings have always been mythmakers… We are meaning-seeking creatures.”

“We have such a young culture that there is an opportunity to contribute wonderful new myths to it,” Kurt Vonnegut said in a forgotten 1974 interview. Indeed, we have always used myths both to make sense of the world and to codify our civilizational intentions toward it, by building frameworks of good and evil.

A generation after Joseph Campbell’s trailblazing work on the power of myth in human life, religion historian Karen Armstrong — who studies the secular, psychological, and philosophical underpinnings of religion, like compassion and the true meaning of the Golden Rule — offers a magnificent complementary perspective in A Short History of Myth (public library).

Armstrong writes:

Human beings have always been mythmakers… We are meaning-seeking creatures. Dogs, as far as we know, do not agonize about the canine condition, worry about the plight of dogs in other parts of the world, or try to see their lives from a different perspective. But human beings fall easily into despair, and from the very beginning we invented stories that enabled us to place our lives in a larger setting, that revealed an underlying pattern, and gave us a sense that, against all the depressing and chaotic evidence to the contrary, life had meaning and value.

The Unborn Fish of ancient Indian mythology, from 'Creation' by Bhajju Shyam. Click image for more.

One of the most fascinating expressions of mythmaking in our search for meaning has to do with the sky, the sweeping mystery of which has enchanted human beings since the dawn of our species. Ancient astronomers tried to interpret it, Goethe wrote breathtaking poems for it, and Georgia O’Keeffe captured its mesmerism perfectly in a letter to her best friend: “There is something wonderful about the bigness and the lonelyness and the windyness of it all.”

Armstrong traces the origin of the sky’s ancient allure:

Some of the very earliest myths, probably dating back to the Paleolithic period, were associated with the sky, which seems to have given people their first notion of the divine. When they gazed at the sky — infinite, remote and existing quite apart from their puny lives — people had a religious experience. The sky towered above them, inconceivably immense, inaccessible and eternal. It was the very essence of transcendence and otherness. Human beings could do nothing to affect it. The endless drama of its thunderbolts, eclipses, storms, sunsets, rainbows and meteors spoke of another endlessly active dimension, which had a dynamic life of its own. Contemplating the sky filled people with dread and delight, with awe and fear. The sky attracted them and repelled them. It was by its very nature numinous, in the way described by the great historian of religion, Rudolph Otto. In itself, without any imaginary deity behind it, the sky was mysterium tremendum, terribile et fascinans [the terrible, fascinating, and fearsome mystery].

Illustration from 'The Amazing Discoveries of Ibn Sina.' Click image for more.

This, Armstrong argues, sheds light on an essential element of our mythical and spiritual consciousness: We often assume that people turn to religion because they want to enlist some higher power in bending the world to their will, to persuade a god or goddess to grant them health and wealth and immortality — but beneath this impulse lies a deeper longing for transcendence all the more resonant amid our secular culture. She writes:

This very early hierophany shows that worship does not necessarily have a self-serving agenda. People did not want anything from the sky, and they knew perfectly well that they could not affect it in any way. From the very earliest times, we have experienced our world as profoundly mysterious; it holds us in an attitude of awe and wonder, which is the essence of worship… The experience of pure transcendence was in itself profoundly satisfying. It gave people an ecstatic experience by making them aware of an existence that utterly transcended their own and lifted them emotionally and imaginatively beyond their own limited circumstances. It was inconceivable that the sky could be “persuaded” to do the will of poor, weak human beings.

And yet, paradoxically, in any successful mythology transcendence exists on a bell curve of satisfaction — too little, and we feel spiritually bereft; too much, and we feel cut off from the reality of life. Armstrong explains:

The sky would continue to be a symbol of the sacred long after the Paleolithic period. But a very early development showed that mythology would fail if it spoke of a reality that was too transcendent. If a myth does not enable people to participate in the sacred in some way, it becomes remote and fades from their consciousness.

The element of air in ancient Indian mythology, from 'Creation' by Bhajju Shyam. Click image for more.

At some point in human history, we did to the sky what we did to animals — we personified it in order to better understand its mystery and relate it to human life. Cultures around the world began praying to various versions of a “Sky God” or “High God” who was believed to have created heaven and earth out of nothing. But the underlying longing remained the same:

When people aspired towards the transcendence represented by the sky, they felt that they could escape from the frailty of the human condition and pass to what lies beyond. That is why mountains are so often holy in mythology: midway between heaven and earth, they were a place where men such as Moses could meet their god. Myths about flight and ascent have appeared in all cultures, expressing a universal desire for transcendence and liberation from the constraints of the human condition.

In order to reap the richness of these myths and their ability to elevate everyday human life, Armstrong argues, it’s important to see them as what they are — not factual accounts of real events but powerful metaphors for transcendence:

When we read of Jesus ascending to heaven, we are not meant to imagine him whirling through the stratosphere. When the Prophet Muhammad flies from Mecca to Jerusalem and then climbs up a ladder to the Divine Throne, we are to understand that he has broken through to a new level of spiritual attainment. When the prophet Elijah ascends to heaven in a fiery chariot, he has left the frailty of the human condition behind, and passed away into a sacred realm that lies beyond our earthly experience.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of 'The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.' Click image for more.

How we’ve sought to transcend the fragility of the human condition is what Armstrong explores in the remainder of the wholly fascinating A Short History of Myth. For a more playful counterpart, treat yourself to a visual field guide to monster myths and a beautiful illustrated cosmogony of ancient Indian origin myths, then revisit Bertrand Russell on immortality and why religion exists.

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