Naming Every Living Creature

“So out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field…”  (Genesis 2:19-20)

“And yet man was created for this possession, he was called to it when in paradise God appointed him king of creation, invested him with the authority to give names to “every living creature,” i.e., to know them from within, in their deepest essence.  And thus the knowledge that is restored by this thanksgiving is not knowledge about the world, but of the world, for this thanksgiving is knowledge of God, and by the same token apprehension of the world as God’s world.

It is knowing not only that everything in the world has its cause in God – which, in the end, “knowledge about the world” is also capable of – but also that everything in the world and the world itself is a gift of God’s love, a revelation by God of his very self, summoning us in everything to know God, through everything to be in communion with him, to possess everything as life in him. … and again we witness to the world as a new creation, recreated as the ‘paradise of delight,’ in which everything created by God is called to become our partaking of the divine love, of the divine life.”  (Alexander Schmemann, THE EUCHARIST, p 177)

Pleiades Star Cluster

Today science continues to name created things in this world –  we name new elements, new bacteria and viruses, new species, dinosaurs and other extinct animals, as well as stars and even cosmic events.  We continue to do what God commanded humans to do from the beginning, to name things as a way of understanding and knowing them.  And, thus for those who believe, even science continues to be a means for us to give thanks and glory to God.

Faith and Reason

Though opposing faith against reason seems to be a modern issue resulting from a scientific mindset opposing faith, the difference between faith and reason has been long understood in the Church, centuries before the modern scientific age.   St. Isaac the Syrian for example sees faith as greater than reason/knowledge because knowledge really deals only with the things of this world while faith deals with things beyond this world.  Knowledge is thus limited to the study of nature, but then there exists the world beyond nature – divinity, spiritual beings, heaven, the soul.  The natural world has its edges and limits, and thus knowledge is bound and limited.  The life beyond nature is an existence which might be boundless, and thus is greater than nature itself.

“For knowledge is opposed to faith; but faith, in all that pertains to it, demolishes laws of knowledge—we do not, however, speak here of spiritual knowledge. For this is the  definition of knowledge: that without investigation and examination it has no authority to do anything, but must investigate whether that which it considers and desires is possible… but faith requires a mode of thinking that is single, limpidly pure, and simple, far removed from any deviousness. See how faith and knowledge are opposed to one another! The home of faith is a childlike thought and a simple heart… But knowledge conspires against and opposes both these qualities. Knowledge in all its paths keeps within the boundaries of nature. But faith makes its journey above nature.”  (The Spiritual World of St. Isaac the Syrian, page 257)

September 1: The Day of Prayer for Creation

Poster Creation

Since the time of the Byzantine Empire, the Orthodox Church has kept September 1st as The Church Liturgical New Year.  In recent years, following the inspiration of the Ecumenical Patriarch, Orthodox churches have also kept September 1 as The Day of Prayer for Creation.   This year, His Beatitude, Metropolitan Tikhon of the Orthodox Church in America issued an archpastoral letter on The Beginning of the Ecclesiastical Year & The Day of Prayer for the Creation, giving mutual recognition to the New Year and day of prayer for creation.   The Roman Catholic Church this year also joined the Orthodox in honoring September 1 as a day of prayer for creation.   The Church has always recognized that “The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein; for he has founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the rivers” (Psalm 24:1-2; 1 Corinthians 10:26).  We Orthodox recognize God is the creator of the world and the Lord of all the universe.  We are stewards of God’s creation.  As such, we have a prayerful responsibility for the environment.

Here is one of the traditional hymns honoring the Church’s liturgical New Year:

Creator and Master of time and the ages,

Triune and merciful God of all,

Grant blessing for the course of this year

And in Your boundless mercy save those who worship You and cry to you in fear:

Savior, grant blessing to all humankind.

(Kontakion of the New Year)

And a more recent hymn from from Vespers for the Environment, September 1:

Joy of heavenly hosts, Christ our Savior, Lover of humankind

Who brought all things into being from nothing,

And with ineffable wisdom arranged for each one

To accomplish unerringly the goal which You laid down in the beginning,

As You are powerful, bless the whole creation which you fashioned.

 

 

 

Soul, Mind, And Brain

Mind & BrainOne interesting question ponder is: What is the exact relationship between the mind and the brain?   It is a question for scientists, as well as philosophers and believers.  The materialist says the mind has no existence apart from the brain for it is merely a function of the material brain.  Philosophers and believers look beyond the material existence, to the existence of self or soul and what it means to be human.

The Fifth Century Christian author, St. Mark the Monk, reports on a conversation which deals with these very issues of the relationship between the physical and spiritual worlds.  Christians of the 5th Century were well aware that the desires and passions of the body often went against what a person willed to do by choice.  That spiritual warfare is obvious to anyone who attempts to practice self denial or self control.  The ability to exert self control was often thought to be a hallmark of the human being who was not guided by animal instinct but had free will.

The attorney then asked, “Does the flesh have will apart from thought?”

The monk answered, “It does, in accordance with what the Apostle says: ‘We ourselves were once disobedient, doing the will of the flesh’ [Titus 3.3; Eph 2.3], and again, ‘What the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh’ [Gal 5.17]. So, you see, the flesh has desire and will, and we are ignorant of this fact on account of the carelessness and assent of our thoughts. Because of this fact, not only those who neglect prayer, but also those who do not pay heed to their thoughts are injured.  (Counsels on the Spiritual Life, Kindle Location 4523-4529)

braingodWhat was obvious is that apart from the mind or the self, the body has a will of its own, which the goal of the Christian life was to control.  We are always trying to exert our spiritual will to govern the body, rather than having bodily urges control the person.  The mind in this worldview is not identical to the physical brain and the rest of the human body.  The body is capable of creating desires which might go against what the mind wants to do.

In a more recent book, Dr. Clark Elliott (The Ghost in My Brain: How a Concussion Stole My Life and How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Helped Me Get it Back), writes about his personal experience with brain trauma and the effect it had on his life.  In the book he describes the effect the brain trauma had on his spiritual life and reflects exactly on the relationship of the brain to the self and one’s spiritual life.   To be honest I didn’t find the whole book that compelling a read, but I did find this one section interesting.

DIALOGUE WITH GOD AND THE MATTER OF SENTIENCE.

Since my very early teens, I’ve had the sense of a dialogue with God. Though I did not grow up religious, praying was easy for me. I talked to God, and God listened. God talked to me (in pictures, and through intuition), and I listened. Dialogue with the spirit was easy and natural: comforting, occasionally demanding, real. Almost immediately following the crash, this dialogue disappeared. I recall very distinctly entering the small chapel at DePaul’s downtown university campus, sitting alone on one of the chairs to pray for my students, and for my ability to serve them as their professor—something I often did. In a profoundly disturbing moment I realized that there was no longer anyone there. No one was listening. I thought: These are just empty words I am saying to myself. My prayers are no different than if I were reading aloud from an auto repair manual. I felt a deep sense of loss, but in a weird way. Though I understood, intellectually, about the loss of dialogue with God, and I felt quite disturbed about how sterile my life had become because of it, I nonetheless couldn’t quite “see” what was missing. It was like trying to remember a dream. I still believed in God, but viscerally it was an entirely different experience: there was no longer anyone there. When we consider the nature of my later recovery, and the many examples we’ve seen of how our internal world is so very symbolic in nature, it becomes apparent that it was the loss of my visual/spatial ability to represent symbolic relationship that was at the heart of my troubles with God. If so, then losing the closeness to God I felt pre-concussion raises some interesting questions about our connection to the larger universe around us. Could this sense of connection be located entirely in one of the visual/spatial centers of our brains? After all, in my case I had this easy faith up until the moment of the crash. I lost it in the days after the crash. I didn’t have it for eight years. I got it back again after treatment for my concussion. This is pretty strong evidence that it is our brains—our physical brains—that support this kind of spiritual faith. What this means is still up for grabs, however. As scientists, we have to allow for at least two possibilities. On the one hand we could take this as evidence that a sense of God, and the spirit, is just an artifact of the neural, and possibly other, programming in our brains—a purely physical uprising from a locus in our heads. Certainly there are researchers who talk about the “God spot” in the parietal, and other, regions of the brain that are thought to give rise to spirituality. Some have even have claimed to have created a “God Helmet” that artificially stimulates a profound religious experience via artificial manipulation of the brain.* On the other hand, we could just as easily imagine that these parts of the brain allow us to connect to a real channel of spirituality, and that without them we have simply lost one dimension of our sensory capabilities. That is, if we lose our hearing, the world is still full of sound; in the same way, if we lose our sense of God, that doesn’t mean that God is not still out there.     ( Kindle Location 1350-1373)

Obviously the mind and the brain, or the self and the brain, have a relationship.  One enters into relationships in and through one’s physical body.  And yet, we believe that the self is not identical to the body.  The self can have a relationship with God, using the body as a means of voicing prayer and of physically moving one’s body to correspond to one’s prayer and thoughts as in bowing in repentance.  The soul comes into existence when the breath of the Spirit enters into the physical dust of the earth to cause into being a living soul.  Acts of the Holy Spirit, touching a human will register in the brain of a person.  The physical and spiritual are not in opposition to one another but rather are united in the human being.

The Human Being: A Spiritual Animal

This is the 16th  blog in this series which began with the blog Being and Becoming Human. The previous blog is St. John Chrysostom on Humans as Beasts and Saints.

“For the devil has always been eager, through these philosophers, to show that our race is in no way more honorable than the beasts.”   (St. John ChrysostomWOMEN AND MEN IN THE EARLY CHURCH, p 231)

It is not only modern scientific materialists who think humans are nothing more than another animal.  In the Fourth Century St. John Chrysostom was engaged with philosophies and philosophers of his day which had decided that humans are nothing more than a brute beast. [Certainly through the centuries many rulers have thought that human life is cheap – just look at how troops were used in warfare, nothing more than ‘cannon fodder’ and hoping to use up enemy arrows and spears before one ran out of men].   Prior to the Fourth Century Christianity had spent a great deal of its apologetic arguments against various form of Gnosticism beginning with Docetism in the First Century, all of which had denied the value of the physical nature of humans.

“By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God.“   (1 John 4:2)

“For many deceivers have gone out into the world, men who will not acknowledge the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh; such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist.”  (2 John :7)

The incarnation of God in Jesus Christ showed the extent to which God valued humanity’s physical nature.  God had created the humans with a physical body which was capable of being united to divinity.   Humans though having a physical body like any animal were viewed by the early Christians as not being merely animals.

“It is not only in our possessing a rational (logikon) soul that we surpass beasts…, but we also excel them in body.  For God has fashioned the body to correspond with the soul’s nobility (eugeneia), and has fitted it to execute the soul’s commands.”    (St. John Chrysostom quoted in WOMEN AND MEN IN THE EARLY CHURCH, p 125)

Humans have an animal body but the human corporeal nature is not controlled by or limited to the body.  Each human has a soul, the very place where divinity and the physical world interface.  God bestowed upon the human God’s own image and likeness, which is how humans differed from all other animals – humans are related to God in specific ways which other animals are not. Each individual human has a nobility and a value bestowed upon them by God:  this is certainly a great contribution Christianity offered to the world- even the “impoverished masses” are seen by God as beings to be loved and cherished and all have worth and nobility in God’s eyes, and so are also to be loved by all other humans.

“God has given us a body of earth, in order that we might lead it up with us into Heaven, and not that we would draw our soul down with it to the earth.  It is earthly (geodes), but if we please, it may become heavenly (ouranion).  See how highly God has honored us, in committing to us so excellent a task.  ‘I made Heaven and Earth,’ He says, ‘and to you I give the power of creation’ … Make your earth heaven, for it is in your power.”  (St. John Chrysostom quoted in WOMEN AND MEN IN THE EARLY CHURCH, p 146)

The human is created to be both the connection between God and creatures, and the mediator between them, enabling all of the rest of creation to have a full relationship to the Creator through the human’s relationship with God.  St. Ephrem the Syrian makes an interesting, if allegorical interpretation of the humans having both physical and spiritual qualities.  He sees these qualities as interrelated and intertwined with both the world of agriculture and the liturgical year.  Everything is arranged by God:

“… Ephrem points out that human beings possess both a physical and a spiritual side and that they need to cultivate these two aspects equally: physical labor on the land receives its reward in October, with the ingathering of its produce and the arrival of the rain after the long hot summer months of drought;  spiritual toil, however, is rewarded in April, the month of the Feast of the Resurrection—and it was on Easter eve that in many places it was the custom for baptisms to take place.  Agricultural labor and spiritual toil turn out to be closely interrelated, for October provides the oil for the baptismal anointing in April.”   (Ephrem the Syrian, SELECT POEMS, p 181)

For St. Maximos the Confessor humans share a relationship with both plants and animals, but then have beyond either intelligence and a intellect.  This gives humans a means to share in immortality.

“The soul has three powers: first, the power of nourishment and growth; second, that of imagination and instinct; third, that of intelligence and intellect. Plants share only in the first of these powers; animals share in the first and second; men share in all three. The first two powers are perishable; the third is clearly imperishable and immortal.”   (The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 13154-59)

In the writings of Saint Gregory Palamas the human naturally has a relationship with God, but if that relationship is lost or distorted, then the human too becomes unnatural and loses his/her humanity.  Being dehumanized, or becoming inhuman is in his mind a form of hell on earth.

 “‘A mind removed from God becomes like either a dumb beast or a demon.  Once having transgressed the bounds of nature, it lusts for what is alien.  Yet if finds no satisfaction for its greed and, giving itself the more fiercely to fleshly desires, it knows no bounds in its search for earthly pleasures.’ . . . Life becomes a hell, freedom a burden, and other people a curse.”  (Archimandrite George Capsanis,  THE EROS OF REPENTANCE, p 9)

Life on earth becomes a hell when we lose our godliness, even if we gain all the riches of the world.

“‘What good will it do a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?’ Christ asks His disciples (Matt. 16:26); and He says that there is nothing equal in value to the soul. Since the soul by itself is far more valuable than the whole world and any worldly kingdom, is not the kingdom of heaven also more valuable? That the soul is more valuable is shown by the fact that God did not see fit to bestow on any other created thing the union and fellowship with His own coessential Spirit. Not sky, sun, moon, stars, sea, earth or any other visible thing did He bless in this way, but man alone, whom of all His creatures He especially loved.”  (St Symeon Metaphrastis, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 34642-54)

Christian theology has through the centuries highly valued each human being and viewed human life as sacred because God the Trinity bestowed on each human being a sanctity by creating all in God’s own image and giving each person a soul and imprinting the image of God on every human being.  Orthodox Christianity continues to defend the sanctity of human life and to defend the dignity and nobility of every human being whether saint or sinner, believer or not.  Christianity is not opposed to science, but rejects the reductionist thinking of materialism which denies that humans are related to God or can aspire to something greater than our brutish animal nature.  We believe that even science shows humans have conscious awareness, consciences and free will.  As many scientists now acknowledge humans are no longer predestined by their genetics but have even gained control over some these natural forces of evolution.

Darwin caused controversy, not merely because his ideas contradicted Genesis, but because they fell foul of the way in which Genesis had been read by those influenced by the Enlightenment, for it was the Enlightenment that conceived of the human as almost exclusively rational and intellectual, and set the human at a distance from the animal. When the Fathers interpret Genesis, they see the human as sharing a very great deal with animal, and indeed plant-like, creation. The possession of reason, the gift of being in the image of God, makes the human distinctive, indeed raises the human to a position that transcends the animal and the plant-like, both as being nobler, and also as bearing responsibility for the rest of creation, but the human still shares a very great deal with the rest of creation, both animal and plant-like, and even with the inanimate”     (Andrew Louth , Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology, Kindle Loc. 1469-75)

We humans are biologically, chemically and genetically related to all other animals on earth.  However, we believe we are not only or merely animals.  We are rational and intellectual beings.  However, rationality and intellectualism neither completely define delineate what it is to be a human being, for we believe we are created in God’s image and we are embodied souls or ensouled bodies, and thus are spiritual beings.

“When we read in the writings of the Fathers about the place of the heart which the mind finds by prayer, we must understand by this the spiritual faculty that exists in the heart.  Placed by the Creator in the upper part of the heart, this spiritual faculty distinguishes the human heart from the heart of animals: for animals have the faculty of will or desire, and the faculty of jealousy or fury, in the same measure as man.  The spiritual faculty in the heart manifests itself—independently of the intellect—in the conscience or consciousness of our spirit, in the fear of God, in spiritual love towards God and our neighbor, in feelings of repentance, humility, or meekness, in contrition of the spirit or deep sadness for our sins, and in other spiritual feelings; all of which are foreign to animals.” (Bishop Ignatii Brianchaninov, THE ART OF PRAYER, p 190)

Next:  The Human Being: A Spiritual Animal (II)

Brain and Mind; Flesh and Spirit

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

Mind & BrainOrthodox Christian writers have had at times a hostile relationship with Freudian psychoanalysis, seeing its assumptions and goals as being godless and hostile to religion.

Psychoanalysis has also been held in disregard by neuroscience which has often doubted and sometimes discredited the ideas of Freud as being philosophical/religious rather than based in the scientific method or in materialism.

Despite Orthodoxy and neuroscience sharing a suspicion of psychoanalysis, the two have not found having a common enemy makes for friendship on any level.  Neuroscience has been founded in scientific materialism and to the extent that its practitioners hold to materialistic assumptions there is no common ground between neuroscience and  Orthodoxy.   In fact a number of atheists in their arguments against religion have pointed to neuroscience as having disproved any idea of a self or of consciousness.  They claim free will is a delusion created by the brain’s chemistry.

Because of these apparent oppositional ideas between neuroscience and psychoanalysis, I found an article by Kat McGowan  in the April 2014 issue of DISCOVER, “The Second Coming of Sigmund Freud”, to be interesting because it is showing some of the dividing walls of knowledge are coming down between the science of the brain and the science of the mind, and this might have implication for how believers approach these sciences. McGowan points out that:

“By the end of the 20th Century, the two disciplines (psychoanalysis and neuroscience), did not seem to be talking about the same thing.  Psychoanalysis was hostile to the idea of testing hypotheses through experiments.  Neuroscience claimed to explain the brain but ignored its finest product: the dazzling, intimate sensations of human consciousness.”

brain scanBut a few scientists have begun to realize the brain and the mind are not separable and must be understood as a whole, which has resulted in the creation of Neuropsychology which blends knowledge from both sciences into a more holistic understanding of the human.   One of  the founders of this new science, Neuropsychologist Mark Solms says the purpose is:

“to put the study of the mind back in the study of the brain … ‘What neuropsychoanalysis is all about is this: How does the actual stuff of being a person relate to the tissue and physiology and anatomy and chemistry of the brain?’”

The questions,”what is to be human?”, or “what does it mean to be human?”, become scientific questions.  They are also the questions religion has been asking for centuries.  The relationship of the ‘self’ or soul to brain tissues, to the  “anatomy and chemistry of the brain” are questions that are of great interest to the believer who also values the work of science.

“These observations, and the experiments that followed, led (Neuroscientist Antonio) Damasio to conclude that emotions are not irrational intrusions into reason.  They are intrinsic to rational thought.”

brain2The relationship between emotions and reason are issues discussed frequently in the fathers of the church.  That science might now be recognizing these issues as real  knowledge opens many doors for Orthodoxy and medical science.  The new thinking of neuropsychology should be of interest to all those who study the fathers and their discussion of depression.

“Psychoanalytic thought is fundamentally humanistic.  It honors the unique experience of individual human beings – something often overlooked by the current medical approach to the mind.”

“Depression is a perfect example.  The prevailing theory in biomedical research is mechanistic: Depression is just another biochemical problem, essentially no different from diabetes or gout.   That approach leads to the creation of dozens of medicines that tamper with serotonin and other brain chemicals – drugs that, for more than half of patients, don’t work.  ‘Pharma has dumped a gazillion dollars down the drain and never [has] come up with a new concept,’ say (Neuroscientist Jaak) Panksepp.

Like most psychiatrists, he and Solms say the place to begin is with the existential reality of depression—the soul-crushing hopelessness and despair.”

Raising LazarusThe approach being described will be of interest to those Orthodox who are interested in the relationship between Orthodoxy and medical science including psychological illnesses.  The book RAISING LAZARUS: Integral Healing in Orthodox Christianity  comes to mind

“’What is most significant about the brain, in comparison to other bodily organs, is that it’s not just an object but subject,’ says Solms.  ‘To truly recognize that has massive implications.  That’s really what’s motivated me consciously in my scientific life.’  We must embrace the fact that a brain is also a mind, that it thinks, it experiences, it suffers.  In a word, that it is us.”

The ideas of Mark Solms should be welcomed by Theists as a possible bridge between psychoanalysis, neuroscience and Christianity.   They may also have an impact on the ideas being pushed by some atheistic materialists that say the consciousness and free will have been disproven and so our efforts to deal with criminals, addicts and miscreants is totally misguided. (see my blog Environmental Clues, Shaping Behavior and Free Will)

Though some like evolutionist Jerry Coyne seem to think that modern science is the first to consider these issues, St. Basil the Great  (d. 379AD) raises similar issues in the 4th Century.

“If the origin of our virtues and of our vices is not in ourselves, but in the fatal consequence of our birth, it is useless for legislators to prescribe for us what we ought to do, and what we ought to avoid; it is useless for judges to honor virtue and to punish vice. The guilt is not in the robber, not in the assassin: it was willed for him; it was impossible for him to hold back his hand, urged to evil by inevitable necessity. Those who laboriously cultivate the arts are the maddest of people. The laborer will make an abundant harvest without sowing seed and without sharpening his sickle. Whether he wishes it or not, the merchant will make his fortune, and will be flooded with riches by fate. As for us Christians, we shall see our great hopes vanish, since from the moment that one does not act with freedom, there is neither reward for justice nor punishment for sin. Under the reign of necessity and of fate there is no place for merit, the first condition of all righteous judgment.”    (St. Basil  the Great,  A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 3624-31)

Predestination whether ordered by Fate or by genetic determinism is an old idea which Christians rejected long ago as being pagan mythology and not capable of fully understanding humanity.   We might hope that the new science of neuropsychology might be open again to the insights of those great observers of humanity and human psychology, the Fathers of the Church.  And while neuropsychology admits that both mind and brain are real, their interests in the mind/brain will continue to be different from that of Christianity which further understands that the mind and brain relationship is also looking at the soul, the very place where the Spirit of God interfaces with the physical brain/body.

“God formed the human out of dust from the ground, and breathed in his face the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”  (Genesis 2:7)

Seeing The Truth of Colors

The truths of science can help us spiritually because they can challenge our understanding or misunderstanding of the world around us.  What we see may not give us the exact insight into what is actually transpiring on a scientific level. Vision in itself is a perfect example of this as there is a difference between how we conceive of sight and what is happening in scientific terms.  Consider for example the colors we see every where and every day.  We can function perfectly well in the world with a non-scientific understanding of sight and color and can assume that things all have color in them.  But if we look into the scientific understanding we come to see the world quite differently.  Take for example the description of color and sight from  Rodney A. Brooks,  Fields of Color: The theory that escaped Einstein (Kindle Loc. 941-54)

“Colors are determined by the frequency of radiation, with red being the lowest visible frequency, followed by orange, yellow, green, blue and violet, in that order. When all colors are present, as in sunlight, our eyes perceive the result as white. The component colors of white light can be demonstrated by passing it through a prism, or by looking at the rainbow created by “nature’s prisms” (water droplets). However, and it’s a big however, the colors we see do not exist outside of our minds .”

It is actually our brains that turn the wave frequencies into color.  Our eyes translate the wave lengths into colors.  Our eyes and brains are thus constantly interpreting the world around us which help us to distinguish things and to make sense of them.   Brooks continues his description of Electromagnetic (EM) radiation:

 “EM radiation has no color; it is simply an alternation in the EM field intensity. It is only when this radiation reaches our eyes that it starts a process that turns the oscillations into sensations of color. What happens is this: There are three types of photosensitive molecule in the eye that respond predominantly to three different frequencies of light. (This is why display devices such as a TV screen are able to reproduce the full range of color using only three phosphors.) Each photosensor, in turn, is connected by a different neural pathway to the mysterious part of the brain where the sensation of color is created. However, we are not aware of the separate intensities of the three neural signals; our brain combines them to create a host of color sensations, depending on the amount of each component that is present.”

“It’s a bit like a chef mixing different flavors to create a new taste, or a composer putting tones together to create a chord, except that a good chef can detect the individual elements in a mixture and a good musician can distinguish the component tones in a chord. This is not the case with color. The component colors do not survive, but are lost to the new color sensation produced by the combination. For example, if red and blue combine to produce purple, the red and blue hues can no longer be separately identified (although they are still present). Our brains process color very differently from the way they process other sensory signals.”

The observer (you, me, any human) interprets and makes sense of the radiation waves which strike our eyes.  It is a marvelous and mysterious process in which the brain is translating the various wave lengths into the sensation of different colors.   What is also known is that other creatures on earth whose eye structures are slightly different than human eyes, “see” the world slightly differently than we do.

What fascinates me in this scientific world is the essential role of the observer in being able to see anything, let alone understand it.  Objective reality is dependent on an observer.  This is a truth which quantum mechanics fully recognizes as well.  Even the mathematical truths of the universe are there only in as much as there is a conscious observer of them, someone who can then make use of them for further action.  At the heart of science and math is the need for an anthropic principle: the observer is essential to doing math or science.  Circumference and radius only have a mathematical relationship if there is a someone to relate them and to make use of that relationship.   That is the simple truth which is reflected in Shroedinger’s thought experiment for quantum physics.

The existence of conscious beings in the universe brings us to an understanding of the universe that enables us to interact with the universe and even cause change in the nature of events.  Cause and effect are operative, but humans can and do alter the causes of things and the effects of things.  Just by observing things, we can alter the course of cause and effect.  It is an anthropic principle.  Humans are changing the course of events merely by observing them at the quantum level.  We also have the ability to change the course of events because we know how to interrelate with our universe at a macro level as well.  The mere existence of humans, or really of any sentinel beings, means the course of the universe is being altered.  Humanity interacts with the universe and affects the course of events.  The cause and effect initiated by the Big Bang is not a mindless process for it produces minds which interact withe the process and can change the course of events.

And obviously for believers, there never was a time when the universe wasn’t being observed by its Creator.  And as we know from science, the very existence of an observer changes everything.

Demons, Free Will and OCD (Again)

In the previous blog, Demons, Free Will and OCD, we encountered the work of Dr. brain scanJeffrey Schwartz, MD, who has found ways to help patients suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) to overcome their mental illness.  He has relied on the fact that the adult brain has neuroplasticity, which means the brain can create new neuropaths to overcome dysfunctional ways of thinking.  His work suggests humans do have free will and are not enslaved by any kind of determinism.  Steve Volk in DISCOVER MAGAZINE, November 2013, reports on Schwartz’s work.

“In a purely neurological sense, if determinism held sway, his patients have no free will and no hope.  The scans themselves, he says, suggest free will is alive and well.”

Volk writes in his article about Leonardo DiCaprio who in the movie THE AVIATOR plays Howard Hughes, an eccentric business magnate with OCD.   DiCaprio learned from Schwartz how to think like a person with OCD, but his efforts had detrimental effects on DiCaprio.  Volk writes:

“DiCaprio left The Aviator with an Oscar-nominated performance and perhaps a mild case of the disease. It reportedly took him about a year to get back to normal. And today, his willful descent into the illness and subsequent recovery represents one of the most dramatic public examples in our popular culture of neuroplasticity — the ability of the brain to change in shape, function, configuration or size. 

But Schwartz says mainstream science has yet to come to grips with an experience like DiCaprio’s, based on what Schwartz calls “self-directed neuroplasticity,” the ability to rewire your brain with your thoughts. This kind of power doesn’t only rescue his patients, he says. It rescues free will. 

The notion that we have free will flies in the face of much modern neuroscientific research, which suggests an ever-increasing number of our “choices” are somehow hardwired into us — from which candidate we vote for to which flavor of ice cream tops our cone.”

Schwartz’s premise for treatment is that neuroplasticity is real (we can rewire our brains) AND humans have free will (we can and do make choices in our behavior). The hope Schwartz gave his patients occurs because:

“He was teaching his patients to reattribute their OCD symptoms to some gnarled brain wiring, teaching them to see the functioning of their brain as meaningfully separate from their sense of self.”

Schwartz developed a series of steps that his OCD patients could follow to help them retool their thinking.

“But he needed a final step, something to pull them all together.  He called that step revaluing.  The OCD thoughts that patients once considered so important were to be systematically deconstructed, understood and finally revalued as, in Schwartz’s words, ‘trash… not worth the gray matter they rode in on.’  Conversely, Schwartz’s patients learned to value their alternative behavior highly.

Schwartz’s four steps worked, but it wasn’t easy.  It took, and these words struck Schwartz as key, a tremendous force of will.”

Yosemite visitors ascend toward the summit

It is the patient’s own conscious effort which made a difference.  This is what led Schwartz to change his own thinking and embrace the idea that humans do have free will.

“Schwartz believes free will is so powerful it literally influences our evolution.  …  While Schwartz believes in evolution, he says, that the mechanism of neuroplasticity, which changes the shape of our brains, has likely shaped human evolution, too.” 

ApingMankindThat human consciousness and free will is shaping human evolution is a position now held by a minority of scientists who have come to reject the absolute materialistic determinism philosophically demanded by scientific atheism (see also my blog series The Brainless Bible and the Mindless Illusion of Self).  Schwartz’s studies give evidence that the force of human will in changing and rewiring the brain is every bit as real as any methods medications to alter the brain.  As his studies have shown:

“The amount of activity in these patients’ OCD circuits had decreased to a degree commensurate with the best results achieved by pharmaceutical therapy.”

Sometimes scientific evidence challenges the most basic assumptions of scientific materialism.  Some scientists have recognized this fact and called into question evolution based purely in materialism.  There are many factors and forces in the world which act not only on the human brain but on human evolution.  As some scientists are coming to recognize these include human consciousness and free will.  Some healing – physical and mental – occurs because of the choices we make and by the force of human will.

Next: Discerning the Spirits & Scientific Materialism

The “In the Beginning” Conundrum

universeIn my blog, Science and Creation from Nothing, I referenced Steve Nadis’ September 2013 DISCOVER MAGAZINEarticle, “Starting Point,” regarding the beginning of the universe.  The article focused on the research of Cosmologist Alexander Vilenkin  whose research has led him to conclude “that before our universe there was nothing, nothing at all, not even time itself.”  Vilenkin claims that a concept of the universe having always existed, does not match the data that we know.

“Indeed, says Vilenkin, among all the ideas we’ve thought of so far for a universe without a beginning, none of them seem to work. ‘So the answer to the question of whether the universe had a beginning is yes, it probably did.’”

With Vilenkin’s ideas, one does not have to engage in an endless discussion of cause and effect trying to determine what caused the Big Bang.   He thinks the current science shows there was a true beginning.

“One virtue of the picture, if correct, is that the spontaneous creation of our universe gives a definite starting point to things. Time begins at the moment of creation, putting to rest the potentially endless questions about ‘what happened before that.’”

St. Augustine
St. Augustine

Speculating on the beginning of the universe is not just a problem caused by the modern scientific mindset of a material cause yielding an effect.  Brandon Gallaher writing in a recent issue of the St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly (“Chalice of Eternity: An Orthodox Theology of Time“) notes that in the 5th Century St. Augustine of Hippo (d. 430AD) also pondered the same question, though from a theological point of view.  Gallaher notes:

“Augustine attempts to respond to the question: ‘What was God doing before He created all things?’  To which Augustine responds:  nothing as doing (sc. creating) implies time.  Time which came to be with God’s act of creation, for God is timeless or immutable and changeless unlike creation, which is temporal, mutable and changing.”   (SVTQ  57:1 2013, p 8)

Not only is it impossible for empirical science to know what happened before or caused the Big Bang, it also makes no sense for believers to ask what God was doing before creation existed.  Our scientific and theological knowledge comes to its limit when we come to the very beginning of creation and what existed “before” that.  God in His essence is unknowable to us.  As created beings we humans can only know God in and through His creation.  And we can only know creation back to the nanosecond in which it came into existence.   Beyond or before that is really meaning to us who exist in space and time.  We can only marvel and wonder at the mystery of creation and the revelation of our Creator.

 

Genetic Disposition vs. Genetic Determinism

doublehelixBecause I frequently ponder questions like “what does it mean to be human?” or “what is it to be human?”, I find genetic studies to be fascinating for what they contribute to our understanding of what a human is.   So I read with interest the article, The Social Life of Genes, by David Dobbs in the PACIFIC STANDARD magazine. There were many “hooks” in the article that drew me in.   I recently published a couple of blogs on bees, and Dobbs’ article starts off looking at some fascinating studies in the genes of bees.  Young bees were taken from killer bee hives and put in regular honey bee hives and young honey bees were put into killer bee hives.  Lo and behold, the bees learned the behavior of their new hives.  Dobbs writes about studies done on the DNA of the transplanted bees:

“The move between hives didn’t just make the bees act differently. It made their genes work differently, and on a broad scale.

What’s more … the adopted bees of both species came to ever more resemble, as they moved through life … the bees they moved in with. With every passing day their genes acted more like those of their new hive mates (and less like those of their genetic siblings back home). “

The significance for refuting absolute genetic determinism has to be noted.  I wonder if the Jerry Coynes of the world are seeing what science is showing.  Genes may influence a great deal, but they don’t predetermine everything about any species.  These new studies tend to indicate that adherence to strict determinism is a philosophical choice, not a scientific one:  determinism is not in the biology but in one’s beliefs about biology.  As the article notes:

“Your DNA is not a blueprint. Day by day, week by week, your genes are in a conversation with your surroundings. Your neighbors, your family, your feelings of loneliness: They don’t just get under your skin, they get into the control rooms of your cells.“

A number of scientists working in epigenetics and related studies are coming to see that there are many factors which shape and change a life, including shaping and changing gene expression.

“Changes in gene expression can make you thin, fat, or strikingly different from your supposedly identical twin. When it comes down to it, really, genes don’t make you who you are. Gene expression does. And gene expression varies depending on the life you live.”

In other words, we are not controlled completely by our genes, but decisions we make and events in the world around us shape our lives in ways which preclude complete genetic determinism.  Thus, even our  thinking can modify our gene expression.

“This fresh work by Robinson, Fernald, Clayton, and others—encompassing studies of multiple organisms, from bees and birds to monkeys and humans—suggests something more exciting: that our social lives can change our gene expression with a rapidity, breadth, and depth previously overlooked.

Why would we have evolved this way? The most probable answer is that an organism that responds quickly to fast-changing social environments will more likely survive them. That organism won’t have to wait around, as it were, for better genes to evolve on the species level. Immunologists discovered something similar 25 years ago: Adapting to new pathogens the old-fashioned way—waiting for natural selection to favor genes that create resistance to specific pathogens—would happen too slowly to counter the rapidly changing pathogen environment. Instead, the immune system uses networks of genes that can respond quickly and flexibly to new threats.”

In a sense neither environment alone nor genetics alone nor evolution alone determines what it is to be human.  Rather, all these elements interact but how these interactions become expressed in the lives of individuals or species cannot be complete predicted.  Evolution itself is not this mindless and completely random passing on of genes.  Evolution occurs within the living context of organisms relating to their environments.  Some species and individuals are quite adaptive to new conditions.  Humans consciously engage the environment and even create a social environment which studies now show affect their genetic expression.   Both the individual through choices and the society we live in have real and lasting effects on our genetic make up and expression.   The biological system is creative and far more quickly adaptive than pure evolution would suggest.  While evolution calls for change over huge periods of time as a species plods through history, some noted changes can occur within a lifetime of an individual or a species as was shown in the experiment mentioned above with the killer bees and honey bees.  Dr. Steven Cole says:

“Your experiences today will influence the molecular composition of your body for the next two to three months, or, perhaps, for the rest of your life. Plan your day accordingly.”

That thought has obvious implications for those theists who do accept aspects of evolution.  If experience can influence the molecular composition of your body, then sin does have a biological effect on what it is to be human.  The world of the Fall is not merely abstract thinking but begins to describe what we experience and witness everyday in human behavior.

In Dobbs interview with Dr. Cole, the implications of this new research become apparent.

“He wanted to add one more thing: He didn’t see any of this as deterministic.

We were obviously moving away from what he could prove at this point, perhaps from what is testable. We were in fact skirting the rabbit hole that is the free-will debate. Yet he wanted to make it clear he does not see us as slaves to either environment or genes.

“You can’t change your genes. But if we’re even half right about all this, you can change the way your genes behave—which is almost the same thing. By adjusting your environment you can adjust your gene activity. That’s what we’re doing as we move through life. We’re constantly trying to hunt down that sweet spot between too much challenge and too little.”

In this thinking, one might add that repentance, prayer and fasting, and actively participating in the communal liturgies of the church become not just a way of life for Christians, but a way in which we do our own form of genetic modification!  The effects of the Fall are not merely spiritual, they are biological as well – death has become part of our existence.  Conversely, life in the Body of Christ, is not only spiritual but also a social experience which influences epigenetics, and  has biological implications for our health as well as our being.