Saturday, May 24, 2008


I decided to get my long weekend off to a good start by adding a post to my blog, which I have been neglecting in recent weeks. I have been making adjustments to our bird feeding arrangements in the backyard to attract a greater variety of birds. In the past, we have had goldfinches in the early spring but as soon as grackles show up, the goldfinches depart. Grackles are vicious birds, responsible for killing many more house sparrows than cats claim, so it is not surprising that goldfinches (much smaller than house sparrows) give them a wide berth. I moved the niger feeder from its position near the chip and hopper feeders that attract the most birds, including grackles, up to one of our hackberry trees where it is hung with a branch hook. I worried the feeder might be blown out of the tree by a strong wind, but obliging gale force winds (gusts to about 70 miles an hour) arrived within the week and proved my fears groundless: the feeder remained in place.

Within a week the goldfinches became frequent visitors. We see them about the yard daily now, and have had as many as four at a time on the feeder. A terrific reward for the minor inconvenience of climbing an extension latter once a week to replenish the feeder. Despite appearances, the overhead power lines are in another yard, far away from my position. Our neighbors arrived home when Elly was taking this picture. She told them it was for future insurance claims. Nice!

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Einstein's God Letter

The news story widely published this week concerning a letter from Albert Einstein to philosopher Eric Gutkind in January 1955, in which the scientist makes remarks that belief in God is childish, etc., doubtless has many atheists crowing triumphantly. The USA Today article is more informative than many.

The curious point about this, a point which should give pause for thought, is that Einstein emphatically and angrily denounced atheists who attempted to use his statements to support their disbelief in God. (See Max Jammers, Einstein and Religion, pp. 96-7.) Jammer's own conclusion, and a reasonable one, is that while Einstein rejected belief in a so-called "personal God", that is, a God possessing anthropomorphic or anthropopathic qualities, he retained belief in God manifested "in the laws of the Universe as a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble" (Jammers, p. 148).

Einstein's statement in the letter to Gutkind concerning the childishness of belief in God would be consistent with his other statements about God if the term is used in the sense of a personal God who watches over humanity and to whom one should pray. In other words, the common, anthropomorophic concept of God.

The ambiguity of Einstein's remarks concerning God stem from the fact that once one has rejected anthropomorphic concepts, little can be said concerning the true nature of God. Any attribute one attempts to assign, love, intentionality, etc., is also a human attribute and thus anthropomorphic. Jammers compares Einstein's theological position with that of the 12th Century rabbinical philosopher, Moses Maimonides, who argued that the highest knowledge of God is knowing we are unable to comprehend God (paraphrased from Jammers, p. 144).

Whether Einstein could be considered a theist is something of a vexed question. He was obviously not a theist in the traditional sense, which Jammers points out. However, since he was not an atheist, nor an agnostic, and apparently did believe in some form of God, it is difficult to know how else to categorize his belief. Einstein repeatedly argued that the only definite knowledge we possess concerning God's nature is how God is manifested in the laws governing our universe. The argument indicates a belief that God in some sense is responsible for creation, which rather suggests a theistic position.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Neurological Foundation of Mysticism?

-- from The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt

"A second puzzle that Wilson [David Sloan Wilson, Darwin's Cathedral] can solve is why mysticism, everywhere and always, is about transcending the self and merging with something larger than the self. When William James analyzed mysticism, he focused on the psychological state of 'cosmic consciousness' and on the techniques developed in all the major religions to attain it. Hindus and Buddhists use meditation and yoga to attain the state of samadhi, in which 'the subject-object distinction and one's sense of an individual self disappear in a state usually described as one of supreme peace, bliss, and illumination.' James found much the same goal in Christian and Muslim mysticism, often attained through repetitive prayer. He quoted the eleventh-century Muslim philosopher Al Ghazzali, who spent several years worshipping with the Sufis of Syria. Al Ghazzali attained experiences of 'transport' and revelation that he said cannot be described in words, although he did try to explain to his Muslim readers the essence of Sufism:

The first condition for a Sufi is to purge his heart entirely of all that is not God. The next key of the contemplative life consists in the humble prayers which escape from the fervent soul, and in the meditations on God in which the heart is swallowed up entirely. But in reality this is only the beginning of the Sufi life, the end of Sufism being total absorption in God.

From Wilson's perspective, mystical experience is an 'off' button for the self. When the self is turned off, people become just a cell in the larger body, a bee in the larger hive. It is no wonder that the after effects of mystical experience are predictable; people usually feel a stronger commitment to God or to helping others, often by bringing them to God.

The neuroscientist Andrew Newberg has studied the brains of people undergoing mystical experiences, mostly during meditation, and has found where that off-switch might be. In the rear portion of the brain's parietal lobes (under the rear portion of the top of the skull) are two patches of cortex Newberg calls the 'orientation association areas.' The patch in the left hemisphere appears to contribute to the mental sensation of having a limited and physically defined body, and thus keeps track of your edges. The corresponding area in the right hemisphere maintains a map of the space around you. These two areas receive input from your senses to help them maintain an ongoing representation of your self and its location in space. At the very moment when people report achieving states of mystical union, these two areas appear to be cut off. Input from other parts of the brain is reduced, and overall activity in these orientation areas is reduced, too. But Newberg believes they are still trying to do their jobs: The area on the left tries to establish the body's boundaries and doesn't find them; the area on the right tries to establish the self's location in space and doesn't find it. The person experiences a loss of self combined with a paradoxical expansion of the self out into space, yet with no fixed location in the normal world of three dimensions. The person feels merged with something vast, something larger than the self." (pp. 235-7)