Friday, January 16, 2009

"Am I An Atheist?" or, "Despite this lack of a non-imaginary God"

I have craved mystical experience all my life and never really had one, though my general existence has been blessed with a million moments of beauty, a few of sublimity, and a very few of striking concidence. I had the sublime and beautiful moments in various forms of course; as experiences of  love; as a response to poetry or music, and so on. Little I have experienced ever bespoke the transcendent reality of a God out beyond my desire for such a God, or beyond some uses I might want (or yearn) to make of a God. Despite this lack of a non-imaginary God, I do feel as though I have several times made it to the border between the aesthetic and the religious (those two definitely share a border, despite Kierkegaard's insistence that the ethical separates them), because something -- a special orgasm, a special performance, a special song, or something else -- quietly but insistently implied that the beauty at hand was pointing toward something profoundly supernatural that lay beyond it: but that is different from "seeing" (Plato's phrase for it in Symposium is "catching sight of") the Divine. My closest thing has been the experience of poetic inspiration, and when I teach about the Muse, I tell people "the unconscious is the Goddess; the Goddess is the unconscious." Fine, but my unconscious did not make the world, whereas God is supposed to have done so.

I said the Shema and the Viyahavtah this morning not knowing where it lands. I am not one of the people who "knows" there is a God. I almost know that there is not a God, though I also reckon that somehow there almost must be One. As Allen Grossman once said, "Jamey, you are really dim about some things." My sister Jennifer is a famous atheist author. She has decided. I can't decide. In 2007 I interviewed at a Rabbi's office at the University of Judaism because I was considering Rabbinical school -- in the same month that an atheist poem of mine ("The Round Square") was published in Free Inquiry, the magazine of the Council for Secular Humanism. I love the dance of the intellect in its efforts to come to grips with the spirit, but I also know how irrelevant all of that is to the heart of the matter. Nothing convinces but experience, and that's the part I never get. If I am davening in schul with my wife, I feel my love for my wife, for the Jews, for the world, for the old Hebrew bruchot, and my terror of misfortune and tragedy, but if I start looking for Somebody to be praying to, I just see a mirror over my head on which my ego has already written in lipstick, "Now, now, don't get silly... you will die one day, and it's an adult's work to accept that. There is no God. Any desire for a God is reducible to fear of annihilation."

There is a live album by the MC5 called Kick Out the Jams. On it, there are performances of "I Want You Right Now," "Rama Lama," and "Kick Out the Jams," that I find weirdly compelling. Especially because the subject matter is so trivial, while the ethos is so powerful and oddly lofty amid all the base hedonism. Just about every live version of Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile" and "Hear My Train A-Comin" are of this stripe for me, and I confess that when I was at Brandeis I used to feel that way about Led Zeppelin (particularly the very ending of "Whole Lotta Love" in the Song Remains the Same movie) which I had discovered strangely late in life at 21, having been obsessed with the Rolling Stones until then. And the wordless female vocal in Pink Floy'd "Great Gig In the Sky," and the wordless female vocal in John Cale's "Captain Hook," and the Catherine Naglestad performance of "Ah, Mio Cor" in the Staatsorchester Stuttgart production of Handel's Alcina, and so on. Rock and Roll meant the world to people for a long time despite the fact that it rarely mentions much of interest. That constitutes a signpost that there is something important going on in there. The Kaddish is a bunch of adjectives, but it glows in the dark like Shakespeare's best.

The atheist books are convincing to me, but incomplete; the theist books are not convincing. What they provide is paradoxes which liberate me from one box only to trap me in a larger and more comfortable one: "People say that God is the greatest of beings, but I say that God is as far above Being and Nothingness as the sun is above a fly." -- Meister Eckhardt. To me, this is Holy because it does not make sense. To me, it is useless nonsense for the exact same reason.

Two POEMS on this subject:


I have taken away the mist from your eyes, Diomedes,
Which until now was there, that you may well know
the God from the mortal.  But I still don’t.  Gods
maul and haunt and cauterize; this one they guide
and that one they whisper to, deceptively; another
they fill with secrets – math beyond the rest of us,
Cassandra’s paranoia in the truth, chess or epilepsy.
At twelve I used two mirrors, looking at my back
For a single mark of supernatural favor, good or bad.
Now glass bowls burn cool in the autumn window.
The cat sips at the soymilk in the chipped grey plate.
I hold the cloth toy bird with the long beak.  I rest
its flannel belly in my hand.  I listen for Athena.
The pipes sing but I have an explanation for that, too.

The Round Square

Why is there a world at all?  Guy stands up and says,
God made the world, and as for who made God, well,
That’s just a mystery beyond us.  Woman says,
A round square is not a mystery beyond us,
It’s neither real nor imaginary, it’s not a concept,
Not an object, neither nothing nor an Entity.
He says, that’s what I’m saying, it’s incomprehensible.
No, she says, there’s nothing there to comprehend.
He says, of course there is, and we both know it.
She says, you’re bobbing for apples of relief, love
And immortality and along comes a word. The word
Is a noun and pretty soon you’re making it the subject
Of a world of verbs, and then the miracles begin. She says,
God is logic’s corpse, a wound in reason, grammar’s empty skin.

1 comment:

  1. Here's some thoughts - sorry its long and rushed.

    Questions of Substance – Part One: Matter

    Simple substances have no parts, i.e. those 'things' or 'stuffs' that cannot be broken down into further component parts. I shall suppose there are two simple substances in the world, one of those being matter; the other consciousness (you may say the former concept is somewhat nebulous, but then so is the former). First matter. Most of the objects we encounter in everyday life are composite substances (of which there are many – trees, stars, amoebas, houses, books, etc.) in order to understand the material nature of these composite substances, we break them down, examine the properties of their component parts to figure out how they aggregate together to contribute to properties of the whole. For example, a house may be composed of bricks; those bricks are composed of chemical molecules; those molecules are composed of atoms; those atoms are composed of particles, some of which, in turn, are "composed" out of a variety of other particles such as quarks. At this scale-dependent viewpoint, we reach the wave-particle duality (the concept that all "matter" exhibits both wave-like and particle-like properties), where we can no longer distinguish further parts – i.e. it is a simple substance.

    Wave-particle duality expanded upon here:

    It makes sense that, at some point, you cannot endlessly keep splitting matter, otherwise you'd reach an infinite regress of parts within parts, within parts, and we'd have no hope of ever understanding what's at the "bottom" of it all. This is why the Greek philosophers/physicists came up with notion of 'atom' meaning 'uncuttable' – the idea that you could not keep cutting matter up into smaller and smaller pieces because there had to be an "atomic point". The Greek 'atom' is a theoretical entity (as their science had not the sophisticated knowledge and equipment to go looking for it), and should not be confused with 'atom' as we understand it today in physics, largely through the work of Rutherford (solar system model), Bohr (quantum mechanical model) et al.

    So we have reached this wave-particle duality - once we have taken everything else apart that we conceivably can. The question I would now like to turn to briefly is, is the material universe made up of individual instances of these wave-particles or is it the case that there is just one, whole wave-particle? Or, to put it another way, when we observe the activities of particles, are we just measuring localised events, or an aspect of one interconnected phenomenon? Present physics cannot give us a definitive answer, the experimental evidence cuts both ways.

    "In physics, action at a distance, or actio in distans, is the interaction of two objects which are separated in space with no known mediator of the interaction."

    Read further here:

    Questions of Substance – Part Two: Consciousness

    No one has yet come up with a coherent explanation of consciousness in terms of its nature and relationship to matter, that is to say, demonstrated that we could at least theoretically deduce the "properties" of consciousness from those complex arrangements of matter like the highly structured neurology of the brain and central nervous system. I shall not delve into detail as to why arguments that try to reduce consciousness to physical properties fail (because that would be an extremely long discussion), only I will point out that one of the ways philosophers and scientists get round the problem of consciousness is to say it is a kind of illusion, or simply to deny that it exists at all (we're 'biological machines' as some would have it).

    But to suggest that consciousness, particular conscious states, are an illusion or unreal seems a deeply unsatisfactory position, largely because we invoke such states to explain people's behaviour (as, indeed, our own to ourselves and others) and I see no coherent way to communicate - that communication can take place - in its absence. There is no communion so-to-speak without assuming something - consciousness - in common. I would further point out that an illusion is only 'unreal' in the sense that an illusion is a misrepresentation or distortion of how thinks are (like the straight stick looks half submerge in water looks bent - my point here is that illusions exist - they undeniably occur - and therefore they real. If they didn't, we wouldn't be able recall them, communicate them, i.e. identify and describe them. Similarly numbers are real, they're just not real in the same sense that everyday material objects are.

    I shall now go on to assume that like, wave-particle "matter", consciousness is a simple substance, having no constituent parts from which it arises. (You might say thoughts have parts, though not literally spatial, however thoughts are not consciousness, though you think consciously.) I turn to some interesting extracts from philosopher Colin Mcginn's paper "Consciousness and Space" to examine the implications for line of reasoning.

    Paper available here in full:

    Mcginn asks: "If consciousness is not constitutionally spatial, then how could it have had its origin in the spatial world?"

    Here he is saying that consciousness is not made up of spatially related parts – it is not like we could replace parts like one could transplant organs and swap car components, etc, in this sense consciousness is non-spatially unified.

    "According to received cosmology, there was a time at which the universe contained no consciousness but only matter in space obeying the laws of physics. Then the evolution of life began and matter started clumping together in novel ways, driven by the mechanism of natural selection. Soon, in cosmic time, neural nuclei appeared, leading to brains of various sizes and structures - and along with that (as we think) came consciousness. Evidently, then, matter fell into ever more complex and ingenious arrangements and as a result consciousness came into the world."

    All he's saying here is that, on the traditional picture of evolution (or received wisdom), the universe emerged from the big bang – all that hot plasma cools and condenses to form particles and atoms and molecules and metals and mineral and DNA stands and autonomous biological creatures and then we reach the point of complexity in the physical world from which consciousness emerges. That's the traditional picture but McGinn finds it unsatisfactory:

    "The only ingredients in the pot when consciousness was cooking were particles and fields laid out in space, yet something radically non-spatial got produced. On that fine spring morning when consciousness was first laid on nature's table there was nothing around but extended matter in space, yet now a non- spatial stuff simmered and bubbled. We seem compelled to conclude that something essentially non-spatial emerged from something purely spatial – that the non-spatial is somehow a construction out of the spatial. And this looks more like magic than a predictable unfolding of natural law."

    Here he's saying, look, the idea that something non-spatial emerged from the spatial world is nonsensical – you couldn't have predicting from our understanding of physical laws that anything like consciousness such emerge from the aggregation of particles - it doesn't add up. So what else could explain the existence of consciousness?

    "This suggests the following heady speculation: that the origin of consciousness somehow draws upon those properties of the universe that antedate and explain the occurrence of the big bang. If we need a pre-spatial level of reality in order to account for the big bang, then it may be this very level that is exploited in the generation of consciousness. That is, assuming that remnants of the pre-big bang universe have persisted, it may be that these features of the universe are somehow involved in engineering the non-spatial phenomenon of consciousness. If so, consciousness turns out to be older than matter in space, at least as to its raw materials."

    Here, I believe, somewhat clumsily, he is suggesting that consciousness does not emerge from matter, but it is all pervasive though time, space and beyond(if that is truly intelligible. Perhaps another to make this point would be say that because consciousness isn't a spatially composed phenomenon, then is cannot be contained, it neither here, nor there - is everywhere a place? What is everything contained in? The last quoted sentence is contentious :"consciousness turns out to be older than matter in space" because, arguably, matter and space emerged from the big bang (and do not proceed it) and therefore there is no 'before' space and time and no 'after' in which to place consciousness. Consciousness "transcends" space and time.

    There's a confusion between consciousness and self-consciousness (the ability to think reflexively about one's self in relation to to ones sensory environment) and just being conscious (being). This confusion is also displayed by the use of phrases like "she fell unconscious" say, when some person enters a coma. Suppose the woman in question then comes out of the coma and is able to talk and interact: we suppose that whatever consciousness is, it remained constant through the coma, even if its expression as self-conscious behaviours were temporarily subdued (i.e. there was little to no physical sign of mental activity). Sleep is not unconscious (if we take it literally to mean the total absence of consciousness): in sleep consciousness has changed, and your ability to focus on your external environ is diminished.

    Remember towards the end of the previous section we asked: So we have this wave-particle duality is the physical universe made up of individual instances of these wave-particles or is it the case that there is just one whole wave-particle? I would like to now pose the same quandary in terms of consciousness. Individual person's mental contents can differ but they also can be shared, through speech, conversation, emails, art, movement, music, touch and so on, and so on. How can we share our thoughts if we do not share them consciously? I.e. we share the same consciousness - how can I relate to, empathise and sympathise with another person if I cannot (in principle) know what the world is like for them? So an individual person can express their own unique take on the world and they can also share it, this suggests to me that at once consciousness manifesting itself individually yet also shared - something like the phenomenon we mentioned earlier:

    "In physics, action at a distance, or actio in distans, is the interaction of two objects which are separated in space with no known mediator of the interaction."

    Except we do appear to have a mediator - or at least a method of mediation - between individuals: communication.

    Consider this: suppose their are advance alien beings; they have different physiology, communication, culture, etc., what would it mean to say there consciousness different (as opposed to it's expression)?

    It's Life Jim, but Not as We Know It

    When does life begin? Something living is not necessarily conscious, cells are living, they are not conscious - or at least not in way that any one has been able to detect. Therefore a biological structure can be alive, but not necessarily capable of entertain conscious thoughts:

    "The word cell comes from the Latin cellula, meaning, a small room. The descriptive name for the smallest living biologial [sic.] structure[.]"

    A person is not merely a biological entity.

    The possibility of personhood manifests, or comes to into being, we can conjecture, when matter is arranged in sufficiently complex biological structures, specifically neurological developments of the brain and peripheries during gestation. (The size of such structures as well, as the level of complexity, appears to be a factor here to.) However, before a human being develops into a self-conscious, fully fledged, person, at some early stage in their existence (in the womb) consciousness and neurology merge and, only later in development, from this interaction, does awareness of particulars and of self in the abstract develops, i.e. a sense of themselves in relation to their immediate environment from which they are then able to interact with with the world in increasing sophisticated ways: the child develops language skills.

    "Given its exceedingly long and ancient evolutionary history, not surprisingly, many brainstem functions are present before birth and occur without the aid of thinking, reasoning, or even forebrain/neocortical participation (Blessing, 1997; Joseph, 1996cd; Steriade & McCarley, 1990). That is, the motor programs which subserve many basic and vital functions, such as the regulation of heart rate, the sleep cycle, and respiration, are essentially genetically hardwired, reflexively initiated, and produced in accordance with the brainstem's synaptic organization and internally generated rhythms which have been acquired and molded over the course of evolution. Because so many brainstem functions occur in a rhythmic, diurnal, and/or reflexive fashion, they do not require the assistance of the forebrain (Blessing, 1997; Cohen et al., 1988; Joseph, 1996c; Klemm, 1990; Steriade & McCarley, 1990)."

    "Indeed, these same reflexive and rhythmic activities are demonstrated by anencephalic infants who may possess only a brainstem, i.e. respiration, sleeping, waking, crying, leg kicking, rudimentary smiling, and even rapid eye movements while sleeping. Rather, it is only later life that the maturing forebrain begins to exert significant influence on brainstem functioning."

    In full here:

    It's Worse Than That: He's Dead Jim

    "Historically, attempts to define the exact moment of death have been problematic. Death was once defined as the cessation of heartbeat (cardiac arrest) and of breathing, but the development of CPR and prompt defibrillation have rendered that definition inadequate because breathing and heartbeat can sometimes be restarted. This is now called "clinical death". Events which were causally linked to death in the past no longer kill in all circumstances; without a functioning heart or lungs, life can sometimes be sustained with a combination of life support devices, organ transplants and artificial pacemakers."

    "Today, where a definition of the moment of death is required, doctors and coroners usually turn to "brain death" or "biological death": People are considered dead when the electrical activity in their brain ceases (cf. persistent vegetative state). It is presumed that a stoppage of electrical activity indicates the end of consciousness. However, suspension of consciousness must be permanent, and not transient, as occurs during sleep, and especially a coma. In the case of sleep, EEGs can easily tell the difference. Identifying the moment of death is important in cases of transplantation, as organs for transplant must be harvested as quickly as possible after the death of the body."

    More here:

    Our current criteria for establish death are correlative - we determine it not from our ability to directly detect its presence (as I am able to determine my own conscious states) but infer it from biological functions.

    "To state that the cessation of human life is a clear-cut biomedical process would be to refute the idea of consciousness; the soul, the spirit, the mind."

    Death, based on the theory of matter and consciousness I've outlined above, is a decoupling of consciousness from the biological organism. Now there is a strong correlation between mental and neurological activity, physical trauma such as severe brain damage usually results in degeneration of mental activity in terms of a person ability to be self-consciously aware, but just because mind isn't functioning, doesn't mean that conscious has severed it's connection from the body or vice versa.

    So, essentially, what happens when we die is that the stuffs - matter and consciousness - that once come together and went onto combine develop mindfulness of body and environment; to form a whole person, in death, separates this special connection. Matter-energy, like consciousness, I would suggest, is indestructible: it just changes form.

    Mr. Mojo Rising?

    I find it hard to believe (in terms of intelligibility; not logical possibility)the mind - the ability to attend to particulars, as distinct from consciousness (or the conscious substance minus thought if you will), could survive the death of the body. Suppose you had no sensory input from your body, so you could not locate your body at a particular place and time (all your sense of the external world ceases to function for whatever reason), how long could you survive mentally? If the mind 'lives' on after death, I think it must be a very limited existence and one that will eventually degenerate or merely dissipate with a lack of stimulation through the senses.

    I would argue that consciousness never dies because it was never born. And that we, as individual consious beings, are the manifestation of the whole.


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