A creepy old priest-king clad in Prada slippers, flowing robes of silken embroidery and an enormous bejeweled golden hat warned Christians that the true meaning of Christmas was being lost to a sinful pursuit of “glitter.”
The man, former Hitler Youth soldier Joseph Ratzinger of Bavaria, has somehow become the leader of the Roman church supposedly established by Peter, the confidant of Jesus. (It is the birth of Jesus that is celebrated today, on the old Julian calendar’s December 25 — Winter Solstice/Mithra’s Birthdate — and now known as Christmas!) Anyway, the wealthy, powerful old man in the jeweled golden hat lectured Catholics dressed in holiday finery during a spectacular Christmas Eve mass to “see through the superficial glitter of this season and to discover behind it the child in the stable in Bethlehem.”
The Pope did not, obviously, lament the enduring presence of pedophilia in his impossibly wealthy global church. Merry Christmas! Don’t let your children get stuck alone in the cathedral with any priests!
A nice essay by philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris about the mystery of consciousness. Harris seems to believe, and I do too, that the fact that consciousness exists is proof that not everything in this world is material. That is, my consciousness may arise from chemical processes, or even be identical to it, but the fact that I experience something (which cannot be denied) shows that I am more than matter. Subjective experience is a non-material fact of life. Religious people would call this a soul (I wouldn’t, but be my guest).
The eternal question is, of course, how consciousness can possibly arise from non-conscious material (if at all). Harris compares this to the question how the universe could have come into existence out of nothing. Both questions are, in the end, probably unanswerable, but at least engaging to think about. I particularly agree with the fourth paragraph below.
You are not aware of the electrochemical events occurring at each of the trillion synapses in your brain at this moment. But you are aware, however dimly, of sights, sounds, sensations, thoughts, and moods. At the level of your experience, you are not a body of cells, organelles, and atoms; you are consciousness and its ever-changing contents, passing through various stages of wakefulness and sleep, and from cradle to grave.
The term “consciousness” is notoriously difficult to define. Consequently, many a debate about its character has been waged without the participants’ finding even a common topic as common ground. By “consciousness,” I mean simply “sentience,” in the most unadorned sense. To use the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s construction: A creature is conscious if there is “something that it is like” to be this creature; an event is consciously perceived if there is “something that it is like” to perceive it. Whatever else consciousness may or may not be in physical terms, the difference between it and unconsciousness is first and foremost a matter of subjective experience. Either the lights are on, or they are not.
To say that a creature is conscious, therefore, is not to say anything about its behavior; no screams need be heard, or wincing seen, for a person to be in pain. Behavior and verbal report are fully separable from the fact of consciousness: We can find examples of both without consciousness (a primitive robot) and consciousness without either (a person suffering “locked-in syndrome”).
It is surely a sign of our intellectual progress that a discussion of consciousness no longer has to begin with a debate about its existence. To say that consciousness may only seem to exist is to admit its existence in full—for if things seem any way at all, that is consciousness. Even if I happen to be a brain in a vat at this moment—all my memories are false; all my perceptions are of a world that does not exist—the fact that I am having an experience is indisputable (to me, at least). This is all that is required for me (or any other conscious being) to fully establish the reality of consciousness. Consciousness is the one thing in this universe that cannot be an illusion.
The problem, however, is that no evidence for consciousness exists in the physical world. Physical events are simply mute as to whether it is “like something” to be what they are. The only thing in this universe that attests to the existence of consciousness is consciousness itself; the only clue to subjectivity, as such, is subjectivity. Absolutely nothing about a brain, when surveyed as a physical system, suggests that it is a locus of experience. Were we not already brimming with consciousness ourselves, we would find no evidence of it in the physical universe—nor would we have any notion of the many experiential states that it gives rise to. The painfulness of pain, for instance, puts in an appearance only in consciousness. And no description of C-fibers or pain-avoiding behavior will bring the subjective reality into view.
Most scientists are confident that consciousness emerges from unconscious complexity. We have compelling reasons for believing this, because the only signs of consciousness we see in the universe are found in evolved organisms like ourselves. Nevertheless, this notion of emergence strikes me as nothing more than a restatement of a miracle. To say that consciousness emerged at some point in the evolution of life doesn’t give us an inkling of how it could emerge from unconscious processes, even in principle.
I believe that this notion of emergence is incomprehensible—rather like a naive conception of the big bang. The idea that everything (matter, space-time, their antecedent causes, and the very laws that govern their emergence) simply sprang into being out of nothing seems worse than a paradox. “Nothing,” after all, is precisely that which cannot give rise to “anything,” let alone “everything.” Many physicists realize this, of course. Fred Hoyle, who coined “big bang” as a term of derogation, is famous for opposing this creation myth on philosophical grounds, because such an event seems to require a “preexisting space and time.” In a similar vein, Stephen Hawking has said that the notion that the universe had a beginning is incoherent, because something can begin only with reference to time, and here we are talking about the beginning of space-time itself. He pictures space-time as a four-dimensional closed manifold, without beginning or end—much like the surface of a sphere.
To say “Everything came out of nothing” is to assert a brute fact that defies our most basic intuitions of cause and effect—a miracle, in other words. Likewise, the idea that consciousness is identical to (or emerged from) unconscious physical events is, I would argue, impossible to properly conceive—which is to say that we can think we are thinking it, but we are mistaken. We can say the right words, of course—“consciousness emerges from unconscious information processing.” We can also say “Some squares are as round as circles” and “2 plus 2 equals 7.” But are we really thinking these things all the way through? I don’t think so.
Consciousness—the sheer fact that this universe is illuminated by sentience—is precisely what unconsciousness is not. And I believe that no description of unconscious complexity will fully account for it. It seems to me that just as “something” and “nothing,” however juxtaposed, can do no explanatory work, an analysis of purely physical processes will never yield a picture of consciousness. However, this is not to say that some other thesis about consciousness must be true. Consciousness may very well be the lawful product of unconscious information processing. But I don’t know what that sentence means—and I don’t think anyone else does either.
In the past 48 hours we have learned about everything there is to know about the life of Steve Jobs from the countless obituaries. Most attention has obviously gone to his role in the evolution of Apple Computer. Other popular topics were his business and marketing genius, his difficult personality and even his love life. Some articles also briefly mentioned his conversion to Zen Buddhism and his experimentation with LSD in the 1970′s. This piece by Professor Juan Cole of the University of Michigan focuses on that topic. It highlights the impact that Buddhism and experimentation with mind-altering drugs have had on his creativity and how Steve Jobs can be seen as an example of the other America, the America that lies beyond the narrow idea of the “Christian Nation” as it was constructed by conservatives in the past decades:
Steve Jobs, who died yesterday, combined in himself all the contradictions of the Sixties and of Bay Area experiments in consciousness. It seems to me entirely possible that the young Jobs would have joined the OccupyWallStreet.org protests.
He is a one-man response to the charge that the counterculture produced no lasting positive change. Jobs’s technological vision, rooted in a concern for how people use technology or could use it more intuitively, profoundly altered our world. He used to say that those who had never had anything to do with the counterculture had difficulty understanding his way of thinking.
I’d be interested to know how that happened. There is very little Buddhism in India. Tibetan Buddhists have centers in places like Varanasi (Banares) in North India, because these monks are political or cultural exiles from Communist China. The Dalits or ‘untouchables’ of western Indian have had a conversion movement to Buddhism. Jobs is said to have gone with a college buddy to see a Hindu guru devoted to the monkey-god, Hanuman. I really wonder whether the Buddhism was not encountered in the US rather than in India, though the trip to India may have influenced his decision.
In the same period, he was doing psychedelic drugs like LSD, which he later said were very important to his creative vision.
Indic spiritual traditions were important to Jobs, especially Buddhism. The quest for states of altered consciousness, which characterized some in my generation, was central to his creative vision.
The DOS operating system was something that only an engineer could love, a set of odd commands entered on a blinking line against a black backdrop. Jobs preferred icons, and changed computing forever. He, at least, was convinced that without the liberal social and spiritual experimentation of his youth, his creative vision would not have been the same.
The conservative backlash of the past 30 years has put hundreds of thousands of people behind bars for drug use (though not for alcohol use, the licit dangerous drug), and Rick Perry’s insistence that the US is a Christian nation is an attempt to erase the Steve Jobses from American history. Herman Cain’s Islamophobia is an attempt to exclude people like Jobs’s biological father from American legitimacy. But you can’t take a Muslim Arab immigrant, a Hindu guru, Buddhist monks, and some little pills out of this great American success story without making nonsense of it. Multiculturalism and cultural and religious experimentation, not fundamentalism and racism, are what make America great. Jobs showed that they are not incompatible with that other American icon, business success. Contemporary conservatism has given us over-paid and under-regulated financiers who add no real value to anything, unlike Jobs. If the Perrys ever do succeed in remaking the US in their own image, it will be a much reduced, crippled America that can no longer lead the world in creative innovation.
Psychedelic drugs, Markoff argues, pushed the computer and Internet revolutions forward by showing folks that reality can be profoundly altered through unconventional, highly intuitive thinking. Douglas Engelbart is one example of a psychonaut who did just that: he helped invent the mouse. Apple’s Jobs has said that Microsoft’s Bill Gates, would “be a broader guy if he had dropped acid once.” In a 1994 interview with Playboy, however, Gates coyly didn’t deny having dosed as a young man.
Thinking differently–or learning to Think Different, as a Jobs slogan has it–is a hallmark of the acid experience. “When I’m on LSD and hearing something that’s pure rhythm, it takes me to another world and into anther brain state where I’ve stopped thinking and started knowing,” Kevin Herbert told Wired magazine at a symposium commemorating Hofmann’s one hundredth birthday. Herbert, an early employee of Cisco Systems who successfully banned drug testing of technologists at the company, reportedly “solved his toughest technical problems while tripping to drum solos by the Grateful Dead.”
“It must be changing something about the internal communication in my brain,” said Herbert. “Whatever my inner process is that lets me solve problems, it works differently, or maybe different parts of my brain are used.”
Burning Man, founded in 1986 by San Francisco techies, has always been an attempt to make a large number of people use different parts of their brains toward some nonspecific but ostensibly enlightening and communally beneficial end. The event was quickly moved to the desert of Nevada as it became too big for the city. Today, it’s more likely to be attended by a software engineer than a dropped-out hippie. Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of Google, are longtime Burners, and the influence of San Francisco and Seattle tech culture is everywhere in the camps and exhibits built for the eight-day festival. Its Web site suggests, in fluent acidese, that “[t]rying to explain what Burning Man is to someone who has never been to the event is a bit like trying to explain what a particular color looks like to someone who is blind.”
Gilmore doubts, however, that a strict cause-and-effect relationship between drugs and the Internet can be proved. The type of person who’s inspired by the possibility of creating new ways of storing and sharing knowledge, he said, is often the same kind interested in consciousness exploration. At a basic level, both endeavors are a search for something outside of everyday reality–but so are many creative and spiritual undertakings, many of them strictly drug-free. But it’s true, Gilmore noted, that people do come to conclusions and experience revelations while tripping. Perhaps some of those revelations have turned up in programming code.
And perhaps in other scientific areas, too. According to Gilmore, the maverick surfer/chemist Kary Mullis, a well-known LSD enthusiast, told him that acid helped him develop the polymerase chain reaction, a crucial breakthrough for biochemistry. The advance won him the Nobel Prize in 1993. And according to reporter Alun Reese, Francis Crick, who discovered DNA along with James Watson, told friends that he first saw the double-helix structure while tripping on LSD.
EDIT: Slate just published an article on the topic as well.
Here’s one interesting facet highlighted of the broad studies currently being undertaken at some prominent US universities into the effects of psychedelics on depression treatment: lasting personality change. See our earlier post The return of psychedelic research in medical science for more background.
Both Discover Magazine and the science blog LabSpaces report about one result from the clinical experiments done at John Hopkins University with prescription of the hallucinogen psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms). Sixty percent of the 51 participants in the study (pdf) show a measurable lasting personality change, in the part of personality known as ‘openness’ – defined as openness to new ideas and experiences and an ‘awareness of self and others’. The openness trait in people includes traits related to creativity, imagination, feelings, aesthetics and general broad-mindedness.
Measured on a model of personality features used in psychology, consisting of the character traits neuroticism, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness and openness, only the latter was shown to have increased even a year later. This is significant, as lasting personality change usually doesn’t occur that much in adults.
A single high dose of the hallucinogen psilocybin, the active ingredient in so-called “magic mushrooms,” was enough to bring about a measureable personality change lasting at least a year in nearly 60 percent of the 51 participants in a new study, according to the Johns Hopkins researchers who conducted it.
Lasting change was found in the part of the personality known as openness, which includes traits related to imagination, aesthetics, feelings, abstract ideas and general broad-mindedness. Changes in these traits, measured on a widely used and scientifically validated personality inventory, were larger in magnitude than changes typically observed in healthy adults over decades of life experiences, the scientists say. Researchers in the field say that after the age of 30, personality doesn’t usually change significantly.
Personality was assessed at screening, one to two months after each drug session and approximately 14 months after the last drug session. Griffiths says he believes the personality changes found in this study are likely permanent since they were sustained for over a year by many.
Nearly all of the participants in the new study considered themselves spiritually active (participating regularly in religious services, prayer or meditation). More than half had postgraduate degrees. The sessions with the otherwise illegal hallucinogen were closely monitored and volunteers were considered to be psychologically healthy.
“We don’t know whether the findings can be generalized to the larger population,” Griffiths says.
As a word of caution, Griffiths also notes that some of the study participants reported strong fear or anxiety for a portion of their daylong psilocybin sessions, although none reported any lingering harmful effects. He cautions, however, that if hallucinogens are used in less well supervised settings, the possible fear or anxiety responses could lead to harmful behaviors.
Griffiths says lasting personality change is rarely looked at as a function of a single discrete experience in the laboratory. In the study, the change occurred specifically in those volunteers who had undergone a “mystical experience,” as validated on a questionnaire developed by early hallucinogen researchers and refined by Griffiths for use at Hopkins. He defines “mystical experience” as among other things, “a sense of interconnectedness with all people and things accompanied by a sense of sacredness and reverence.”
Personality was measured on a widely used and scientifically validated personality inventory, which covers openness and the other four broad domains that psychologists consider the makeup of personality: neuroticism, extroversion, agreeableness and conscientiousness. Only openness changed during the course of the study.
Griffiths says he believes psilocybin may have therapeutic uses. He is currently studying whether the hallucinogen has a use in helping cancer patients handle the depression and anxiety that comes along with a diagnosis, and whether it can help longtime cigarette smokers overcome their addiction.
A recent study found that most people treated with a single high dose of psilocybin, the active ingredient in psychoactive mushrooms, showed a long-lasting change in personality—namely, an increase in openness. One of five broad measures of temperament used by psychologists, this quality is generally defined as openness to new ideas or experiences, awareness of feelings in the self and others, and is strongly tied to creativity and aesthetic appreciation. This is one of the first studies to link a single treatment with a drug in a laboratory setting to a long-lasting change in personality.
Although it might seem hard to believe, given the vagaries of spiritual experience, psychologists have a relatively well-defined and established definition for a “complete mystical experience:” one in which a person experiences a sense of unity with the world and other people; feelings of blessedness and sacredness; a sense of inner presence or divine force; and the feeling that what is perceived is “more real” than ordinary reality, among other qualities. Results by the lead author of this study, Johns Hopkins University researcher Roland Griffiths, have shown this can come about by taking psilocybin. But similar (or indistinguishable) experiences can occur through non-drug means, such as through prayer, fasting, sex, sensory-deprivation, etc.
People who had a “complete mystical experience” during their psilocybin trip scored significantly higher on measures of “openness” more than a year afterward. Those who didn’t have a complete mystical experience did not score significantly higher on these same measures.
Researchers say that the mystical experience brought about by drugs like psilocybin is likely responsible for the long-lasting change in openness, which the researchers say they think is permanent.
Spiritual experiences and personality traits are hard to measure. The link between psilocybin, mystical experiences, and changes in personality are also poorly understood. The results shouldn’t be taken as definitive proof that psilocybin causes permanent changes in personality.
Psilocybin can be dangerous, especially in people with underlying mental conditions, and the researchers don’t advise anybody to try this at home. Even in a carefully controlled setting, about one-third of the participants in the study experienced high levels of anxiety after taking the drug. But through the help of the study “guides” and the calming atmosphere of the controlled trial, everyone overcame the anxiety and not a single participant reported lasting ill effects from the experience
We’ve devoted attention to the subject on this blog ever since we started it, but here is once again an article from a high-profile online magazine about the renaissance in scientific research on the beneficial effects of psychedelic drugs on the state of mind of people diagnosed with illnesses such as terminal and recurrent cancer. Salon has a must-read story about the uptick on studies into this matter across top-notch universities.
If you still think subjects like psychedelic drugs are for hippies living in the 1960s, think again. As previously written about in, among many others, the New York Times, The Globe and Mail and TIME, and reported about on CNN and BBC, psychedelic research is currently in its second big phase, with medical scientists and psychotherapists from Harvard, NYU, John Hopkins, Berkeley and several European universities running research programs on it. Psychedelic drug conferences are also increasingly being convened.
This Salon article describes research projects at John Hopkins, NYU and UCLA attempting to pinpoint how psychedelics alleviate fear and anxiety in patients. In controlled settings, lsd and psilocybin are administered in order to provide consciousness-expanding experiences. Patients report very existential experiences, and come down from the trip feeling better equipped mentally to deal with sickness and death. This is, therefore, a subset of the field of palliative care.
For people interested in it, the article also provides some historical background featuring such drug luminaries, writers and philosophers as William James (The Variety of Religious Experiences), Aldous Huxley (The Doors of Perception, Brave New World, Island), and Timothy Leary. But the point to drive home is that unlike in the 1960s and 1970s, psychedelic research is currently conducted with a twenty-first century scientific focus, with a rather circumscribed goal. The goal no longer is to reform society, but to help people through appliance of medical science.
What for me was new in this piece was the info on how the current research programs on psychedelic drugs came about. Either way, I highly recommend this article if you want to know more about this highly interesting subject.
Kristof Kossut arrived at an unlikely address for his first psychedelic experience. The 60-year-old New Yorker and professional yachtsman opened the door not to an after-hours techno party, but to the bright reception room at the Bluestone Center for Clinical Research, a large spa-like space occupying the second floor of New York University’s College of Dentistry. Kossut was among the first subjects of an NYU investigation into the question: Can the mystical states of mind occasioned by psychedelic drugs help alleviate anxiety and depression in people with terminal and recurrent cancer?
Shortly before Kossut’s arrival on the morning of his session, two clinic employees entered a high-security storage room, which just happens to face a painting of a white rabbit. From a massive steel combination safe they removed a bottle containing one gram of synthesized psilocybin, the psychoactive agent animating the 200-member fungus family commonly known as “magic mushrooms.” The duo carefully measured the small container against the previous day’s weight, as if securing a store of weapons-grade plutonium. They then pill-pressed an amount of powder containing 20 milligrams of the molecule, first identified in 1958 by the Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman, most famous for his other psychedelic synthesis, LSD-25.
They delivered the pill to a converted exam room gutted of its dental chair and refitted for comfort with holistic panache: plush pillow-strewn sofa, Persian carpet, Buddha statuettes, books on spirituality and mysticism, a high-performance sound system. Only the ceiling lighting track betrays the former identity of New York City’s federally sanctioned psilocybin room.
Receiving the pill is Dr. Stephen Ross, a 40-year-old assistant professor of psychiatry at NYU Medical School and the cancer study’s principal investigator. Ross has a precise scientific manner softened by an upbringing in Southern California, where his mother (also a doctor) took him to hospice centers as a child, sparking an interest in end-of-life issues. Now director of the addiction division at Bellevue, Ross is among the youngest of a new generation of psychedelic researchers. With his cancer study still two years away from publishing results, he is already looking ahead to testing psychedelic treatments for drug addiction and alcoholism.
For now, Ross is fully focused on treating existential anxiety in people like Kossut, who lies on the couch, ready for his initiation into the psychedelic mysteries. In the research jargon, Kossut is “psychedelic naive.” After swallowing the pill Ross presents — in the cap of a ceremonial ceramic mushroom — all he can do is close his eyes, lose himself in the preselected tabla drum and sitar music, and try to remember the advice to not fight it, to move ever deeper into the light, to let go …
“It was absolutely incredible,” remembers Kossut. “The first rush was a little scary as I realized it wasn’t the placebo. That passed and next I was crossing boundaries of time and space and reality. I felt this weightlessness, this sense of being close to an unspeakable beauty that was unlike anything in my experience. For the first time since my diagnosis, I was not afraid of anything. The wall of depression that was building up day by day, the fear that I was going to die soon, that my daughter is only 8 — all those things disappeared. I wanted to stay there. I wanted it to last longer.”
It did. More than one year after his psilocybin session, Kossut reports greatly improved states of emotional and psychological well-being. “I walked out of the session happy, unafraid of death,” he says. “I don’t know why, but a transformation took place after being in that peaceful place. I relaxed. I started enjoying food again and was able to gain weight. The session taught me to be fully in the present. I’m optimistic. Mentally and physically, just better.”
This glowing report — based on a single dose of a naturally occurring, non-addictive, low-toxicity substance — sounds impossible. Surely one pill can’t succeed where months of traditional psychotherapy and antidepressants usually fail. According to science, that’s not how drugs work. It’s foreign to the model. But high success rates in ongoing concurrent studies at NYU and Johns Hopkins strongly suggest that Kossut’s psilocybin-assisted psychological rebound is no fluke. So do the findings of a pilot project conducted by Dr. Charles Grob at UCLA. Between 2004 and 2008, Grob administered psilocybin to 12 cancer patients suffering fear, anxiety and depression. His data, published last year in the Archives of General Psychiatry, showed long-term diminished anxiety and improved mood in every subject. The NYU and Johns Hopkins studies build on Grob’s pilot program with more subjects and higher doses. Midway through the research, their results are just as strong, signaling larger, multi-site trials to come.
This is the subdued, clinical language of a psychedelic science renaissance quietly entering its third decade. If its practitioners and advocates avoid the utopian claims and liberationist rhetoric that defined the LSD gospel of the 1960s, this is no accident. A new generation of psychedelic researchers understands that public and official support depends on exorcising the ghost of Timothy Leary, whose democratic acid crusade grew out of and ultimately helped destroy the first wave of psychedelic science in the 1950s and ’60s. Their goal is not to promote the legalization of these drugs or tout their value for everyone, but to revive the once-great and now largely forgotten promise of psychedelic science. And that just might, among other things, change the way we confront and think about death.
Burning Man, does it really live up to its legendary status? According to Jay Michelson of Religion Dispatch, who just came back from the 2011 edition, it does. It can be the best rave you ever visited, it can be a fullblown religious experience, or a trip to the “zoo”, but it all depends on your own input and experience, as he explains in this inspiring article on Burning Man (or how to achieve Satori):
Like any pilgrimage site, Burning Man is less a destination than a pretext for the journey. These days, of course, flying into Reno isn’t so hard—but actually opening up to whatever Black Rock City has to offer… that journey can be arduous. If you go looking for a festival with sex and drugs and dance music, that is all you will find. But if you pause to wonder why there’s a temple in the middle of it, why people come back year after year even if they don’t do drugs, or, for that matter, how it is that the art, community, and culture of Black Rock City is constructed without a Them putting on entertainments for Us, much more can be received.
Generally speaking, those who intend to be open in this way come away changed by the experience. I’ve been to dozens of “festivals,” and some of them have been very cool. But they didn’t inspire me to change my life. Burning Man did, when I first went to it in 2001. What it presents are ways of being that most of us never imagine. It’s possible to be like this, it says, to live so richly and creatively and expressively and sensuously, to be this in love with life. And once one has really seen that such a life is possible, one cannot go back to how one was.
There is no “they” in Black Rock City. Most of what goes on is participant-created. So what you are seeing is not a spectacle constructed for your amusement, but real life. This is actually happening. This is what human beings are capable of.
It’s not that every Burner comes back, quits her job, and takes up fire spinning full-time. Many longtime Burners are Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. Many others are wandering artists. Many of us are somewhere in between. But I would venture to say that every Burner who, at some point during the week stops being a spectator and starts being a participant, does come back a little more inspired, a little more aware of the possibilities of being human.
Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” (a portion of which is quoted above) relates a similar kind of secular revelation. Rilke, remember, had written a number of more intellectual, more idea-oriented poems, but he grew tired of their disembodied conceptualizations. He wanted to write like Rodin sculpted: materially, physically. “Archaic Torso” has only a whiff of metaphysics in it. The last, sudden, surprising line—“you must change your life”—emerges from the aesthetic encounter with the “power” of the sculpture. After encountering the forms of the sculpture, the poet knows that he cannot live life asleep, or according to convention. Something must change, not because it is wrong in its current state necessarily, but because change is growth, change is life.
This is how I understand revelation, whether religious or secular: one encounters the numinous, and one senses an imperative to act in accordance with it. This conception is not my own; it is the foundation of the theology of Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the great religious/spiritual progressives of the past century. For Heschel, while the senses of mysterium tremendum and fascinans were important, the phenomenology of the mystical/revelatory experience was less important than the imperative it brings about in the human heart. After revelation, you must change your life. What that change is may be inchoate at first, but that there must be a change is crystal clear.
Powerful religious and spiritual experiences are available to everyone, including people enmeshed in highly regressive religious ideologies. I go to Burning Man and am inspired to express myself more poetically, someone else goes to a religious revival and is inspired to persecute gays. What I think has to separate positive, expansive experiences from constricting ones is the degree of openness and pluralism involved. A dogmatic religionist cannot abide the inspiration of another. Unless it is within the same religious system, it is damned, or confused, or pagan, or worse. Thus the dogmatist is only left with data which confirm her existing categories of thought. All contradictory data is removed from consideration.
Whereas, any religious/spiritual progressive must be inspired precisely by the plurality of revelatory experiences. It matters that I have mine, and you have yours, and they are not the same. We can have different experiences, and both may be of value. This is not relativism—the point is not that every experience has equal value. That is ridiculous. Rather, the point is that precisely because value, meaning, inspiration, and moral imperative can be experienced in different ways, one of the first lessons we take from peak experiences is radical respect for difference.
There is no single meaning to Burning Man. The group ritual toward the end of the week which gives the event its name is left symbolically undetermined. For some, it may just be cool fireworks. For others, it is an ecstatic pagan ritual. And for others still, it may have personal meanings, communal meanings, or no meaning at all. Likewise the entire week. That there is no single meaning imposed upon this city is a big part of the point. You are responsible for your meaning-making, and you have no authority over anyone else’s. Feel your inspiration deeply. Believe in your sacred scriptures. But know that they are but one of many fingers pointing at the moon. Or the Man.
You might not be familiar with Premillennial Dispensationalism, so here it is in a nutshell: Dispensationalists believe that the Bible predicts (particularly the Book of Revelation) that Jesus will return to earth, but before that glorious event the Rapture will occure. All true-believers will dissapear to heaven in a single moment, and all the ignorant and misleaded will remain on earth where they will have to endure terrible hardships like plagues, thermonuclear war, storms, locust swarms, and demons, brought upon them by the Antichrist during a period of 7 years. Kids and young adults learn about this by reading the Left Behind series.
Now don’t worry too much, when the time of the Rapture comes and you are still on Earth, not all hope is lost, just watch this video, and if you follow the instructions, all will be fine:
If we are to believe the world view of the likes of Geert Wilders and Anders Breivik, every Muslim in the world is a radical. After all, there is no such thing as moderate Islam, and Islam is a fascist, violent ideology. Therefore, Muslims in general are a dangerous element in society.
Then how to explain this new Gallup poll, showing that of all religious affinities, American Muslims oppose civilian killings by individuals the most? Are they massively committing taqqiya, or what?
Muslims are more likely than any other religious group to disapprove of targeting civilians, whether it’s done by the government or by a terrorist group. That means their views are most in line with international law, which prohibits the deliberate targeting of civilians under any circumstances. The finding is somewhat intuitive — whether we’re talking drone strikes or suicide bombings, Muslims are often the most likely victims.
A recent poll shows Americans give God a 52 percent job performance approval rating. Only 9 percent of respondents disapprove.
The survey asked, “If God exists, do you approve or disapprove of its performance?”
A blogger for Public Policy Polling, which conducted the survey, wrote, “(The results are) hardly a surprise considering the vast majority of the country believes in an infallible deity, but some of the crosstabs are quite interesting.”
The poll also asked about God’s creation of the universe, handling of the animal kingdom, and handling of natural disasters.
But Rabbi Shmuley Boteach explained to CNN that he’s “surprised” God’s approval rating is so high. He thought some people would not be so quick to approve of God’s handling of natural disasters.
Pollsters surveyed 928 American voters for the results, which have a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.
The Huffington Post points out that God’s approval rating was higher in the poll than that of all members of Congress and media mogul Rupert Murdoch.
Mooi zo. Nu maar hopen dat de VVD en D66 ook over de brug komen. Zelden zo’n wanstaltig debat gezien als de afgelopen paar weken over de rituele slacht. Met name de op emotie en valse argumentatie stoelende pogingen van religieuze groeperingen – joden, moslims en christenen – om het debat te framen in termen van religieuze vrijheid zijn velen een doorn in het oog geweest.
Het is in principe een heel helder vraagstuk: wanneer onverdoofd slachten onnodig en voorkombaar lijden voor dieren oplevert, moet je dat verbieden. Dieren – zeker koeien en schapen – zijn hoogontwikkelde wezens die qua angst en pijn op hetzelfde niveau verkeren als mensen. Het is een toepassing van de golden rule - wat gij niet wilt dat u geschiedt, doe dat ook een ander niet – om die angst en pijn niet bij anderen, inclusief dieren, aan te brengen. Stel je maar eens voor hoe het voelt als je keel doorgesneden wordt en je 17 seconden lang doodbloedt. De wetenschappelijke consensus over het traumatisch lijden dat dieren ondergaan bij onverdoofde slacht is inmiddels wel helder. Dus de uitkomst zou moeten zijn: verbieden.
De enige werkelijke reden die religieuze groeperingen naar voren kunnen brengen om dat niet te doen – los van het zand dat in de ogen gestrooid wordt met valse argumenten over dat diertransport óók heel onvriendelijk is, dat het ‘nog niet bewezen is’ dat dieren meer lijden wanneer je bij vol bewustzijn de keel doorsnijdt, enzovoort - is dat het een inperking is van hun religieuze vrijheid. Nou, fine, JA, het is een inperking daarvan. Maar dat is helaas voor jullie ondergeschikt aan het intense, fysieke lijden van dieren.
Pogingen van journalisten als Andries Knevel en Tijs van den Brink en kranten als Trouw om te doen alsof het hier alléén gaat om oprukkende secularisatie en inperking van religieuze vrijheden zijn pathetisch. Het gaat namelijk ook om dierenwelzijn. Wat de seculiere meerderheid betreft doe je maar wat je wilt, zolang je anderen, inclusief dieren dus, geen objectieve schade toebrengt. Logisch toch?
Het is een teken van het, ondanks alles, ver ontwikkelde beschavingsniveau in dit land dat een partij als de Partij voor de Dieren, die één van de grootste morele blinde vlekken van deze tijd aankaart, het dierenwelzijn, twee zetels kan krijgen in het parlement en het zover kan schoppen.
Het is te hopen dat na het verbod op het onverdoofd en bij bewustzijn de keel doorsnijden en laten doodbloeden van hoogintelligente dieren, ook de jongetjesbesnijdenis op de politieke agenda komt. Genitale mutilatie van acht dagen oude baby’s zonder enige vorm van inspraak over het eigen lichaam: evenals bij de rituele slacht een onoirbare praktijk slechts op basis van millennia oude teksten.
Check out this enthralling short documentary about the hippie love-in in Los Angeles on Easter Sunday, 1967, entitled ‘God respects us when we work, but He loves us when we dance’. Full of flowers, children, hippie girls, dances and psychedelic folk!
Hippies and flower children dance and create rituals at the historic Los Angeles “Love-In” of Easter Sunday, 1967. This ‘60s classic documents a once-in a lifetime phenomenon, preserving all the fashions, energy and idealism of the first “alternative lifestyles.” Psychedelic special effects!
In his new book Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness, Nicholas Humphrey, a distinguished evolutionary psychologist and philosopher, claims to have solved two fairly large intellectual conundrums. One is something of a technical matter, about which you may have thought little or not at all, unless you happen to be a philosopher. This is the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness. The problem is how an entity which is apparently immaterial like the human consciousness – it exists, but you can’t locate it, much less measure it – can have arisen from something purely physical, like the arrangement of cells that make up the human body. The second problem Humphrey claims he has solved is a rather more everyday one, about which you may well have puzzled yourself. This is the problem of the soul. Does it exist? What sort of a thing might it be? Does everyone have one, even atheists?
His solution to both these problems is the same, because for him the strange properties of consciousness, the fact that for those of us that have it the world of dull matter is suffused with meaning, beauty, relevance and awe – means that it makes sense to think that we are permanent inhabitants of a “soul-niche” or “soul-world”. As the jacket blurb of his book has it, “consciousness paves the way for spirituality”, by creating a “self-made show” that “lights up the world for us, making us feel special and transcendent.” Consciousness and the soul are one and the same.
If this all sounds a little bit metaphysical or New Agey, too much like one of those tiresome attempts to bring religion and science into cosy alignment, hold fast. For what, on the face of it, looks like an attempt to validate spirituality using the language of science turns out to be a way to expand the domain of science by accounting for spirituality, and the soul, alongside consciousness in a fully materialist account. Soul Dust is nothing less than Humphrey’s attempt to sketch out a materialist theory of consciousness, and write a “natural history” of the soul.
With this I highly agree though:
The second half – less technical, more poetic and, as Humphrey admits, pretty speculative – is devoted to the question of why? What is it about consciousness, this “magical” ability to perceive and exult in beauty, meaning and a sense of awe, that confers an evolutionary advantage? His answer is simply that this magical show in our own heads which enchants the world is what makes life worth living: “For a phenomenally conscious creature, simply being there is a cause for celebration.” Consciousness infuses us with the belief that we are more than mere flesh, that we matter, that we might have a life after death, that we have a “soul”. All of these are illusions – the magic of his title – but they have real effects, by making us want to live. As for religion? In his book he argues, “Long before religion could begin to get a foothold in human culture human beings must already have been living in soul land.” “Yes,” he tells me, “I suggest that organised religion is parasitic on spirituality, and in fact acts as a restraint on it.”
While the book received a lot of positive reviews, some negative ones have also appeared. Here’s one from The Guardian, for example.
The Dalai Lama (who, I’ve noticed, has the peculiar habit of laughing about his own jokes) has a good quote once a while:
The Dalai Lama, when asked what surprised him most about humanity, answered, “Man. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”
A girl (22) from secular, mundane Michigan moves to Nashville, Tennessee, and learns that here, religion is everywhere – lowering her chances on the dating market. Meanwhile, she pens down an interesting and well-written story about religion in contemporary America.
Kinda reminds me of the Dutch book Zwarte dauwthat just came out – about a 28-year old girl from Amsterdam who temporarily moves to the strictly Protestant village of Genemuiden. She similarly encounters a faith-imbued world that is not her own.
If you got time and are interested in this subject, read this nice piece by Maggie Flynn on Salon.com:
I’d only been in Nashville a few months when I met this guy – let’s call him Matthew — at a downtown honky-tonk through friends of friends. He was sweet and charming, teaching me the two-step over a shared pitcher of beer. The following weekend, he took me on our first date to the Sunset Grill, one of Nashville’s hippest dining destinations, despite being named after a Don Henley song. In his sexy Southern twang, he ordered a bottle of wine to go with the meal.
After the waiter departed, Matthew leaned across the table, almost apologetically, and said, “You don’t mind that I ordered a bottle of wine, do you?”
I assured him that I approved of his choice. Still, he looked bothered.
“I just don’t want you to get the wrong idea. I like to unwind with a drink now and then, but I don’t drink all of the time,” Matthew said. “I bet you don’t either.”
“Not in the morning.” I laughed.
“Oh, a joke. That’s funny. But seriously, do you think you’ll drink after you have children?”
I was certain he was putting me on. I was 22, freshly graduated from college and unaccustomed to this line of questioning, especially on a first date. But he persisted. He’d enjoyed our tipsy two-step, he explained, but he was looking to plan his future. He believed in getting the serious business out of the way on a first date. I wondered how many second dates Matthew ever had.
“I don’t even know that I’ll have children,” I said.
“Is that another joke?”
The wine arrived. As if to demonstrate how moderation worked, Matthew poured me half a glass, which I definitely saw as half-empty.
“Are you religious?” he asked.
“But you believe in God?”
I drained my wine glass and reached across the table for the bottle. I gave him an honest answer, though I suspected I would never see Matthew again. I said that I really wasn’t sure. I certainly didn’t believe that the Bible was the literal word of God, nor did I buy into stories about building giant arks and visiting whale’s bellies. While I didn’t consider myself a Christian or a practitioner of any other religion, I wasn’t an atheist, either. To say definitively that God didn’t exist seemed as restrictive as saying that he did. I was a skeptical agnostic, I concluded.
Matthew listened carefully and nodded, conceding my logic, if not my position. Maybe he was an OK guy after all.
I like slow, ethereal and ambient, but this may be a bit too much for me. Nevertheless, this track by Julianna Barwick, from the similarly named album (released on Ashtmatic Kitty records, which also features Sufjan Stevens) with footage from the 1983 film Celebration: I Am All of These is still good. If you like Sigur Rós’ Jónssi Birgisson’s solo work, you’ll like this. She’s also one of those solo artists that use loop pedals to create an orchestral sound. I can think of some occassions in which it would fall completely into place.
The first episode of BBC Horizon’s Wonders of the Universe- about the way the universe will end - was already pretty awesome; watch it here. The second episode is also pretty good.
This time, it’s about (almost) the smallest particles, atoms, and how these get recycled and recycled all the time. We as people basically consist of the same building blocks that once completely different things were made of. Stars, for instance. The summary:
In the second stop in his exploration of the wonders of the universe, Professor Brian Cox goes in search of humanity’s very essence to answer the biggest questions of all: what are we? And where do we come from? This film is the story of matter – the stuff of which we are all made.
Brian reveals how our origins are entwined with the life cycle of the stars. But he begins his journey here on Earth. In Nepal, he observes a Hindu cremation. Hindu philosophy is based on an eternal cycle of creation and destruction, where the physical elements of the body are recycled on to the next stage. Brian draws a parallel with the life cycle of the stars that led to our own creation.
Next, he explains how the Earth’s resources have been recycled through the ages. How every atom that makes up everything we see, was at some time a part of something else. Our world is made up of just 92 elements, and these same 92 elements are found throughout the entire universe. We are part of the universe because we are made of the same stuff as the universe.
What is that sound in the distance? Is it… Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s Woodstock?
We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon,
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden
Light Sound Dimension biedt ruimte aan gastbloggers. Vandaag een bijdrage van geert over het voorstel van Kamerlid Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert (VVD) om hoofddoekjes voor gemeenteambtenaren, en mogelijk ook op scholen en universiteiten, te verbieden.
Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert is op het gebied van privacy een goed tegenwicht ten opzichte van ‘crime fighter’ Fred Teeven. Een interview in De Pers van vandaag – dat al veel stof heeft doen opwaaien – schetst echter een ontluisterend beeld van haar kennis op een ander dossier. In haar pleidooi voor een verbod van religieuze uitingen in openbare gebouwen vliegt Hennis-Plasschaert meerdere malen uit de bocht. Zo functioneert volgens haar de scheiding van kerk en staat niet, en kan de vrijheid van godsdienst beter worden afgeschaft.
Volgens haar is ‘de kerk behoorlijk in de staat getreden’. Hennis-Plasschaert: ‘Kijk naar confessionele scholen, de organisatie van de publieke omroep en – gevoelig onderwerp – maar het geldt ook voor ritueel slachten.’ Dit is om meerdere redenen een merkwaardige redenering. Ten eerste omdat zij voor een liberaal een nogal ruim begrip heeft van de omvang van de staat: alsof alle instellingen die overheidssubsidie ontvangen tot de staat gerekend kunnen worden. Ten tweede verwart Hennis het organiseren van een vereniging op basis van een levensbeschouwing met kerkelijke inmenging in het domein van de staat. Trouw-columnist Hans Goslinga plaatste hier een verstandige tweet over: ‘Confessionele scholen en omroepen zijn geen kerkelijke instellingen, maar initiatieven van burgers die gebruik maken van hun constitutionele rechten.’
De scheiding van kerk en staat werd ooit ingesteld om wereldlijke vorsten ervan te weerhouden bisschoppen en zelfs pausen te benoemen. Later ging dat ook andersom gelden: de kerk mocht geen zeggenschap hebben over benoemingen en besluiten van de wereldlijke overheid. De vraag of individuen in overheidsdienst zich religieus mogen uiten, is daar wat mij betreft hooguit een afgeleide van en niet zo makkelijk te beantwoorden. Enerzijds zou ik een hoofddoek dragende rechter merkwaardig vinden. Anderzijds zie ik er geen kwaad in wanneer iemand in dienst van het Gemeentelijk Vervoersbedrijf Amsterdam een ‘handje van Fatima’ om haar hals draagt. Dat zegt namelijk ook iets over de waardering van religieuze diversiteit in ons land. Maar nee, Hennis-Plasschaert neemt liever een voorbeeld aan Frankrijk en Turkije. Landen waar religie kunstmatig uit het openbare leven wordt verbannen. (En dan heb ik het nog niet eens over de druk die het Turkse leger iedere keer weer uitvoert om deze situatie in stand te houden.)
Het tweede ontluisterende aspect aan het interview met het VVD-Kamerlid is dat Hennis-Plasschaert van de vrijheid van godsdienst af wil. Wat haar betreft is het grondwetsartikel waarin de vrijheid van godsdienst geregeld wordt ‘overbodig’: ‘Want de vrijheid van godsdienst is in zo veel andere artikelen geregeld: de vrijheid van vergadering, de vrijheid van meningsuiting.’
Er zijn veel redenen om het met deze stelling oneens te zijn, maar ik wil er twee uitlichten die laten zien waarom het juist voor een liberaal merkwaardig is om het desbetreffende artikel te schrappen.
Ten eerste maakt de gewetensvrijheid – voor het eerst verwoord in de Unie van Utrecht in 1579 – onderdeel uit van die vrijheid van godsdienst. Dit klinkt nog steeds door in Artikel 6 van de Grondwet: ‘Ieder heeft het recht zijn godsdienst of levensovertuiging, individueel of in gemeenschap met anderen, vrij te belijden, behoudens ieders verantwoordelijkheid volgens de wet.’ Geloven is dus niet iets wat je zomaar ‘afdekt’ met samenkomsten of het geven van je eigen mening. Het gaat hier om een individuele vrijheid, die je in staat stelt om – in overeenstemming met je geweten en behoudens je verantwoordelijkheid voor de wet – keuzes te maken zonder dat de staat zich daar mee bemoeit. Vrijheid van godsdienst is daarmee veel meer het koppelen van een handeling aan een opvatting. Het geweten is datgene dat in contact staat met een waarheid die buiten jezelf ligt en is meer dan wat postmodernisten een ‘constructie’ noemen. Daar moet je respect voor hebben en – zeker als liberaal – van afblijven.
Daarnaast is ook het internationaal bevorderen van mensenrechten onverenigbaar met het afschaffen van de vrijheid van godsdienst. In de door de Taliban gecontroleerde delen van Afghanistan moeten vrouwen vrezen voor hun leven als zij geen boerka dragen. In andere delen van de wereld jagen moslims en christenen elkaar over de kling omdat zij niet de juiste religie aanhangen. Vanuit dat oogpunt denk ik dat er overtuigender opvattingen zijn dan het afschaffen van de vrijheid van godsdienst.
Inmiddels heeft Kamerlid Tofik Dibi (GroenLinks) met succes een debat met minister Donner (Integratie) aangevraagd naar aanleiding van het interview. Wordt dus vervolgd…