Spirituality: A Product of the Body

“Body am I, and soul”–thus speaks the child….

But the awakened and knowing say: body am I entirely, and nothing else; and soul is only a word for something about the body.  — Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Book 1.

A day after reading what Zarathustra spoke, I saw an article in The Atlantic called The Man Who Couldn’t Stop Giving. To quote the first few paragraphs:

In the early 1990s, a quiet man named João quit his job running the human-resources department of an insurance company in Rio de Janeiro and began selling french fries from a street cart. The fries quickly proved popular, in part because they were delicious—thin and crisp and golden. Even more enticing, João often served them up for free. All you had to do was ask, and he’d scoop some into a box, no charge. What money he did take in, he frequently gave away to children begging in the street or used to buy them sweets. Day after day, he came home to his wife and son without a single real in his pocket.

In his previous life, João—a chubby man with pointy ears and arched black eyebrows—had been stern and serious, prone to squirreling money away. But after suffering a health crisis in 1990, at age 49, he wanted to live differently. “I saw death from close up,” he would often say. “Now I want to be in high spirits.” And nothing made him happier than giving. To those who didn’t know him well, he must have seemed like the embodiment of selflessness—the Saint Francis of Rio de Janeiro.

He sounds like a very spiritual person, doesn’t he? If anything would indicate that we are animated by more than just chemistry, it is the generosity and love that this man radiated.

But then the article continues,

What’s most interesting about João’s story, though, is that his new outlook resulted not from a spiritual awakening but from brain damage caused by a stroke. … [He] became “pathologically generous”—compulsively driven to give. His carefree attitude toward money led to confrontations with his family, especially his brother-in-law, who co-owned the french-fry cart. But even when his family berated him, and the cart went out of business, and he was reduced to living on his mother’s pension, João refused to stop. Giving simply made him too happy.

It turns out that one area of our brain gives us a dopamine rush when we do something generous, but another area regulates that impulse so we don’t go broke. João’s stroke knocked out that second area, so his generosity went untempered.

Isn’t it interesting that a purely physical change to the brain can produce such a supposedly spiritual result?

Maybe Zarathustra was right!

Same-Sex Marriage vs Tradition

In the last post, we heard from from John Trandem, interviewed on NPR’s Morning Edition. If we were to legitimize same-sex marriage, he said, “how would we .. be able to exclude [marriage between] two men and two women or three men or three women…?”

Marriage between one man and one woman, he pointed out, has two things going for it that these other variations do not: biology and tradition.

The last post was about biology. Now let’s talk about tradition.

We can presume that when conservatives in America cite “tradition” they mean Judeo-Christian, or biblical, tradition. This is the tradition on which conservatives like to say our counry was founded. Okay, then.

Like the argument from biology, the argument from biblical tradition has a nasty way of curling back to bite those who trot it out.

For starters, biblical tradition is firmly rooted in polygamy. The Bible mentions two wives of Moses. Abraham had an unkown number of concubines (second-class wives) in addition to his wife, Sarah. I won’t mention Solomon, who had 700 wives, because the Bible does say that kings should not get carried away like that. His father, king David, was a monk by comparison, having only 7 wives, plus maybe a couple of others that are in dispute.

But what could be greater evidence of the polygamous root of Judeo-Christian tradition than the fact that the very 12 tribes of Israel descend from Jacob’s four wives?

The predominantly Mormon state of Utah was not allowed to join the United States until it agreed to outlaw polygamy. Where were God’s culture warriors when this abridgement of biblical norms was being foisted on patriotic Americans?

In addition to wives and concubines, Hebrew men were free to have sex with their slaves. In the chapter of the Bible that immediately follows the Ten Commandments, we find God’s regulations for sex slavery. A man could sell his daughter to a fellow Hebrew, who was then under obligation to continue to have sex with her (presumably so she could have the honor of bearing children) even as he married additional women. Alternatively, he could sell her back if she did not “satisfy him” or he could give her to one of his sons if he chose.

Now there’s a nice family value: Have sex with your servant-girl and then give her to your son for more of the same.

When Arnold Schwarzenegger’s wife gave him a hard time for fathering a child by his housekeeper, where was the outcry from conservatives? (The outcry against his wife, I mean.) Why didn’t traditionalists support Arnold as he upheld the proud biblical tradition of impregnating one’s servants? He was even a Republican, for cryin’ out loud! It’s shameful how people won’t stand up for the Bible.

No study of the wondrous variety of marriage arrangements in the Good Book would be complete without mention of the final, glorious act of Moses, the great Law-Giver of Judeo-Christian tradition. This was to direct the distribution of 32,000 virgin war-captives to his soldiers and sundry others. As recorded in Numbers 31, these girls were parceled out exactly like the cattle that were also taken as “plunder and spoils” of war. It is stated at least 4 times in this chapter that Moses did all this in accordance with God’s direct command (verses 25, 31, 41, and 47).

Numbers 31 does not tell us whether any of the virgins got to update their Facebook status from “plunder” to “wife.” We can only hope. If they did, Deuteronomy 21:10-14 gave God’s instructions for how the Hebrew men were to arrange the marriage — and terminate it at will if the girl whose parents and brothers had been slaughtered by her new husband’s army does not manage to “please him” sufficiently.

We have all been horrified by ISIS’ enslavement and plunder of women in recent months, or Boko Haram’s practice of capturing girls and marrying them off to their soldiers. Why won’t advocates of “traditional marriage” speak up and tell the rest of us that ISIS and Boko Haram are acting exactly as God commanded in the Bible?

Never mind; I know the answer to that one. It’s because it’s bad when Muslims do it, but God’s righteous judgment when those in our spiritual tradition do the same thing.

By the time of the New Testament, the Jews were subject to Rome and were in no position to wage war and get wives by capturing them. However, polygamy was still practiced among both Jews and early Christians. In fact, it was pagan Rome that finally outlawed the practice.

So maybe it is Roman tradition that opponents of same-sex marriage really want? Probably not.

Maybe tradition is not all it’s cracked up to be. Maybe we’re better off thinking for ourselves.

Same-Sex Marriage vs Biology

What do you think of this exchange between NPR host David Greene and John Trandem, who owns an auto body shop in North Dakota?

TRANDEM: I don’t think it’s a matter of whether or not you legalize same-sex marriage. It’s a matter of whether or not you remove the definition of marriage. You know, if marriage is defined as an institution involving one man and one woman, that’s what it is. If you want to create a union with a man and you’re a man, that’s not marriage. And under the guise of equality, if we were to … amend the definition of marriage to include one man and one man, how would we logically and rationally be able to exclude two men and two women or three men or three women if equality is the endgame?

GREENE: Three men and three women, like three people getting married or…

TRANDEM: I’d say six people getting – well, it doesn’t matter. … The magic behind the number two [man and woman] is biology – which we’re getting rid of that – and tradition. And we’re getting rid of that.

Mr. Trandem is very articulate, isn’t he? If you listen to the audio version, you’ll also discover that he’s an earnest, decent-sounding man. But I think he might be surprised at what can unfold once arguments from “biology” and “tradition” are opened.

In this post, I’ll consider the “biology” argument. The plea to tradition will be the subject of the next post.

The argument from biology, as I’ve usually heard it stated, is not that homosexual behavior is unknown elsewhere in the animal kingdom. It does occur, although bisexuality would better describe what goes on in the vast majority of cases.

Rather, the argument from biology centers on the fact that a homosexual marriage cannot produce children. That alone, the argument goes, should be enough to indicate that such marriages are unnatural and wrong.

Really? Do those who make such arguments say that a fertile man ought not marry an infertile woman? Or that two infertile people should never marry? Of course they don’t. They know that companionship, pleasure and fidelity are justification enough for both sex and marriage. Homosexual couples have all of those.

“But at least sex in a barren heterosexual marriage looks like sex in a fertile one,” they say. “At least they are going through the same motions.”

Are the motions what’s important? If we’re making an argument from biology, isn’t the actual biology what’s important? And isn’t the actual biological result in both cases (homosexual marriage and childless heterosexual marriage) the same?

The argument from biology also turns on those who use it in a way that might strike closer to home. If we want an institution of marriage that favors reproductive success, then, like so many of our mammal cousins, we should push for marriage between one dominant male and several females, leaving the other males out in the cold.

An alpha wolf might look at our society and sneer, “Those awful humans. They let anyone mate! Even the weak get to have children. It just ain’t natural! And it’s not good for the species, either.”

In short, the argument from biology will take its aherents where they don’t want to go. Applied consistently, it will force them to prohibit some heterosexual marriages, and maybe even call the whole idea of monogamy into question.

 

Next time: the argument from tradition.

Are You Afraid of the Singularity?

I was amazed to read this week that Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, and Tesla inventor Elon Musk are all afraid that artificial intelligence poses an existential threat to the human race. Musk’s warning was the most colorful:

With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon. In all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water, it’s like yeah he’s sure he can control the demon. Didn’t work out.

Bill Gates chimes in:

I agree with Elon Musk and some others on this and don’t understand why some people are not concerned.

They are worried that artificial intelligence (AI) will advance until AI machines are able to improve their own designs, and build even smarter, more-capable machines, which will be smart enough to build even better ones, and so on. Although biological evolution has taken billions of years to produce humans, the AI stage of evolution will happen very, very quickly.

When AI has transformed our culture so much that present-day people would not recognize it, we will have passed the Singularity.

Pessimists think the Singularity will be as portrayed in the movie I, Robot or even The Matrix, in which humans are nothing more than power sources for their machine overlords. Hollywood, Hawking, Gates and Musk notwithstanding, I am not afraid of the Singularity. I look forward to it.

Ray Kurzweil’s seminal book on the subject, The Singularity Is Near, is subtitled When Humans Transcend Biology. In his analysis, humans will not be replaced by AI so much as merge with it. At first, the non-biological portion of our intelligence might consist of a specialized module or two. Think of what you could do right now if you only had Wikipedia and a few other reference sources wired directly into your brain. At a minimum, you could win Jeopardy! and make a lot of money to fund your next project.

With our augmented intelligence, we will be able to design even more improvements. Progress will be exponential. Before the midpoint of this century, according to Kurzweil, the biological portion of our intelligence will be insignificant compared to our augmentations. What we now call artificial life will not exterminate us. It will become a major part of us.

Now I ask, “Why is that so bad?” Why should we cling to the form of existence that has given us global warming, the science-deniers to make sure it continues, the Islamic State, violence against LGBT people, lynching of African Americans, World Wars II and I, the subjugation of women, a Civil War fought in part to defend the institution of slavery, the burning of heretics in the name of the Prince of Peace, and other instances of insanity stretching as far back as history can see? Even if a super-smart AI were to have no goal beyond its own survival, could it possibly do any worse?

Beyond that, isn’t there something aesthetically satisfying in letting intelligence bloom? We think we are the bloom, but maybe we’re just the seed.

Ray Kurzweil projects that intelligence will ultimately permeate the universe. Which would be smarter: to embrace that destiny, or to obstruct it? Which would bring more beauty to the cosmos?

The Islamic State, Christianity, and Holy Texts

What sense can you make of this dialog?

JOE: They say, “Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.”

MARY: Why is the Aurora Borealis visible only in the far north?

JOE: I am convinced we will have a Republican president after the next election.

MARY: I should probably have a mammogram.

JOE: Oak trees are strong and brown. Birch trees are weaker, and have white bark.

MARY: Chocolate ice cream is my favorite.

When I took an acting class in college, the professor gave us an exercise based on dialog much like the above. He paired us off and gave each pair a full page of non sequiturs. Each pair was supposed to take a week to figure out how to present the dialog in a way that made sense. We were allowed to repeat words, but not omit or reorder any. When the class met again, we were to act out our interpretations in a convincing way.

My partner was totally stumped, as were most people in the class. However, I took up the challenge and managed to cast the dialog as being about a visit to the dentist, even though dentists were nowhere in the original. (There was a sentence about a proctologist, though!)

I was able to give every syllable an interpretation that made perfect sense. Not only that, but I was sure that I had found the only solution to the puzzle. When other students assigned a different meaning, I had to give them credit for trying, but I thought they had not fit their interpretation to the text as well as I had.

In fact, had I not known that the dialog was designed as nonsense, I might have marveled at how cleverly its true meaning was woven into seemingly unrelated content.

That experience is what came to mind when I read the cover story in the latest issue of The Atlantic: What ISIS Really Wants. To hear American politicians talk, the Islamic State is not Islamic at all. They are just a “death cult.” The Atlantic‘s article argues very effectively for a more sobering view:

The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.

Yes, there are alternate interpretations of Islam. As Graeme Wood points out toward the end of the article,

There is, however, another strand of Islam that offers a hard-line alternative to the Islamic State—just as uncompromising, but with opposite conclusions. This strand has proved appealing to many Muslims cursed or blessed with a psychological longing to see every jot and tittle of the holy texts implemented as they were in the earliest days of Islam.

[The are] committed to expanding Dar al-Islam, the land of Islam, even, perhaps, with the implementation of monstrous practices such as slavery and amputation—but at some future point. Their first priority is personal purification and religious observance, and they believe anything that thwarts those goals—such as causing war or unrest that would disrupt lives and prayer and scholarship—is forbidden.

In practical terms, then, one fundamentalist group is attempting to take over the world, while the other peacefully devotes itself to a life of prayer and scholarship. Two groups have the same view of their holy text, but reach opposite conclusions about how to live.

It would be easy to laugh at the ridiculous Muslims, but we in the Christian West have not been without diversity of interpretation of our holy text, the Bible.

One thinks of Christian pro-lifers who bomb abortion clinics, while other Christians, equally devoted to the scriptures, decry that practice and focus instead on prayer, asking God to stop abortion by changing people’s hearts.

Or, on a less violent level, one is reminded of Bible-believing Christians who preach that God will heal all who ask in faith for a miracle, even as other Bible-believing Christians caution that such prayers are presumptuous.

How can people who agree on a simple, common-sense, literal method of interpreting a holy text reach opposite conclusions based on it?

Surely part of the answer is that all scriptures have some passages that point one way, while others tend toward the opposite.

However, the acting exercise also taught me that if even a nonsense dialog can be wrestled into meaning something consistent, surely a relatively coherent book like the Bible or the Koran can be made to say things that the original authors did not have in mind.

More than that, it taught me that when someone thinks he has found the only sensible interpretation that takes the entire text into account, it may be because of his cleverness rather than because the text actually speaks with a unified voice.

The Comforts of the Multiverse

I’ve  been reading Brian Greene’s The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos. What a wonderful book! This is my third or fourth time through it and I find something new to appreciate each time.

In all likelihood, there are not only multiple universes, but an infinite number of them. This is what most versions of eternal inflation entail. The evidence for inflation grows stronger every year, and eternal inflation is the most likely variety of it.

Greene’s book explores half a dozen versions of the multiverse (multiple, or parallel, universes), and most of them are not mutually exclusive. There could be several flavors of parallelism at work simultaneously.

One likely aspect of the multiverse is what Greene calls the Swiss cheese model, in which our universe is like one of the bubbles in a block of Swiss cheese. The block has always existed, and has always been infinite in extent. (To those who ask, “Where did it come from?” I would reply, “Why should nothing be the default state? If there were nothing, we would be asking, ‘Who took everything away?’ …except we would not be here to ask that.”) The block expands due to processes that I only started to understand on this reading of the book and which I won’t attempt to explain here. In fact, it has always been expanding (but has always been infinite — infinity is a strange thing). Once in a while, a quantum fluctuation causes a “bubble” to form, one of which is our universe. These bubbles are carried away from each other in the expanding block, keeping them as isolated and distinct universes.

Because this has been happening forever, the number of bubble universes is already infinite. An infinite number are yet to come.

This post is not about how all that might work. For now, I only want to dwell on why I find this idea of infinite universes so comforting.

To appreciate it, you first must grasp just what infinity entails. Think of repeating an experiment an infinite number of times. If your experiment is to roll a pair of dice, then every possible outcome would happen at least once. In fact, it would happen an infinite number of times. Double-sixes? An infinite number of them. That’s amazing, but we’re just getting started.

Suppose your experiment is to thoroughly shuffle a deck of cards. Any outcome you can think of will be represented, including the outcome of the deck sorted just as it was when the box was opened: all the spades, followed by all the diamonds, clubs and hearts, and sorted by rank within suit. In fact, that will happen an infinite number of times. It’s harder to believe than getting an infinite number of double-sixes, but it’s true for exactly the same reason. Infinity is really big!

It’s so big that if instead of dice or cards, you were to play with a finite number of atoms arranged in a finite space, then every physically possible arrangement would be among the outcomes of the experiment. What is our universe, but a finite number of atoms in a finite space? Yes, if there are infinitely many universes, then others exactly identical to ours appear an infinite number of times (assuming, Greene hastens to add, that there’s nothing special about ours, and there is no reason to think there is).

Not only that, but there are others identical to ours except for that one detail of ours that bothers you the most.

That is the first comfort: If things have gone badly here, there’s a universe where they went well. An infinite number of them, in fact.

Of course, there’s also a place where they went much, much worse, so in case you’re a glass-half-empty sort of person let’s turn to the second comfort.

The nice thing about eternal inflation is that it will go on without us. Not only that, but when our universe has finally turned cold and dark, other universes will just be getting started, while in others the first life-forms will be starting to stir, just beginning their billion-year climb up the evolutionary ladder first to sentience, then to full awareness of their world, and finally to awestruck wonder at the universe they inhabit.

Why is this a comfort? Sometimes I feel responsible for so much. I have a family that is undergoing a lot of stress at the moment, a job in which I’m behind schedule, a book I’m writing, and even a musical instrument I have neglected for several months. I take my responsibilities seriously, but it’s nice to know that regardless of how well or poorly I do, the multiverse will go on without me.

It does not all depend on me or on you, even though sometimes it feels that way.

Look to the sky on the darkest, starriest night. Think about everything you see repeated in every possible variation, an infinite number of times. Think about the entire history of this universe, again repeated with infinite variations, more beautiful than the simultaneous play of a million kaleidoscopes. To think that all that beauty will continue to multiply with or without you … doesn’t that lighten the load?

God Did Not Make Us Robots

You’ve probably heard this as often as I have:

God has not made us as robots, but has given us free will.

I happen to think that robots can have free will, but let’s set that aside for the moment. What does the believer in God mean when she says God has given us free will?

It is surprisingly difficult to define free will, but at a minimum it means the ability to make a choice free of coercion and threat.

When we see a prisoner of ISIS make an anti-Western speech just prior to being beheaded, we all realize that he did not make that speech of his own free will. He had undoubtedly been threatened with tortures worse than beheading if he did not do as he was told.

To the extent one is threatened, one does not have free will.

Supposedly God (I speak now of the God of the Bible because I live in Judeo-Christian America) is not like this. But how is he not like this? Does he make no threats?

On the contrary, consider this litany of threats from Deuteronomy 28, as one example among many. If the people do not obey God, it says, he will send all manner of curses. (Note that the text speaks of God sending curses in most cases; these are not just “natural consequences of bad behavior.”)

  • “The Lord will strike you with wasting disease, fever and inflammation, which will plague you until you perish” (verse 22)
  • “The Lord will turn the rain of your country into dust and powder; it will come down from the skies until you are destroyed.” (verse 24)
  • “The Lord will afflict you with the boils of Egypt and with tumors, festering sores and the itch, from which you cannot be cured.” (verse 27)
  • “You will be pledged to be married to a woman, but another will take her and rape her.” (verse 30)
  • “Your sons and daughters will be given to another nation [as slaves], and you will wear our your eyes watching for them day after day, powerless to lift a hand.” (verse 32)

Verses 47 and 48 conclude, “Because you did not serve the Lord your God joyfully and gladly in the time of prosperity, therefore in hunger and thirst, in nakedness and dire poverty, you will serve the enemies the Lord sends against you. He will put an iron yoke on your neck until he has destroyed you.”

Note again God’s active role in bringing this about: “the enemies the Lord sends…”, “He will put an iron yoke…”. These are not warnings of how things will work themselves out. They are threats.

The believer will respond that such chastisement is evidence of God’s love. He disciplines us because we are his children. We should worry if we were not to experience his discipline because that would mean we were not his children at all (Hebrews 12:4-11).

But when does discipline become child abuse? Would afflicting your child with sores and itches that cannot be cured be discipline or abuse? Would causing your child’s fiancee to be raped be discipline or abuse? (If the passage above doesn’t persuade you that the God of the Bible is capable of that, I dare you to follow this link to 2 Samuel 12:11 and see how God “disciplined” his child, King David. Note once more God’s active role.) Would sending people to enslave them be discipline or abuse?

“Ah, but that’s the Old Testament. Jesus gave us a new kind of relationship with God.”

Not really. Jesus only increased the stakes by introducing the doctrine of hell. As Christopher Hitchens said, “[In the Old Testament] once [God] is done with you, once the earth closed over you, that’s it. There’s no torture of the dead. Not until gentle Jesus, meek and mild, do you get that.”

Would a fiery hell, from which there’s no escape, be discipline or abuse? *

We haven’t even touched on the doctrine of predestination, which could not be taught more clearly and unambiguously than it was in Romans 9:15-21.

Let us now return to our friend the robot. Suppose he is equipped with sensors and software that enable him calculate the action that is most likely to lead to his continued well-being.

Who has free will: the person under threat of disease, rape and enslavement if he does not do what he is told; or the robot, who can take the action he deems optimal, unhindered?

—–

* – A growing minority of even conservative Christians believe that hell is only a place of final annihilation, not eternal, conscious torment. However, this is and always has been the minority view.