Saturday, April 12, 2014

An old flame

Barbara Ehrenreich, you could say, is a reality-based writer. Her 2001 book, “Nickel and Dimed,” is a heartbreaking and sometimes harrowing account of her first-hand experiences of how the other half lives, and in 2009 she took on the cancer-survivor industry (as a cancer survivor), in the lively “Bright-Sided.” She is also a hard-core atheist.
Her unbelief is an inherited trait, she says. So it was “profoundly unsettling” to her when, at age 17 (this was in 1959), she had a mystical experience. She walked out into the street in Lone Pine, California, “sleep-deprived and probably hypoglycemic,” and “saw the world — the mountains, the sky, the low scattered buildings — suddenly flame into life.”
Says Ehrenreich: “It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, too vast and violent to hold on to, too heartbreakingly beautiful to let go of. It seemed to me that whether you start as a twig or a gorgeous tapestry, you will be recruited into the flame and made indistinguishable from the rest of the blaze.  
She said nothing to anyone, and chalked up the incident to a mental breakdown. It took her a long time to acknowledge that her experience was not all that uncommon, and need not bring her non-belief into question.
“Some surveys find that nearly half of Americans report having had a mystical experience,” she says. “Historically, the range of people reporting such experiences is wide — including saints, shamans and Old Testament prophets as well as acknowledged nonbelievers like Virginia Woolf and the contemporary atheist writer Sam Harris.”
All visions are not created equal: It is the descriptions of, and justifications for, these episodes that differentiate them. Ehrenreich characterizes her own as something akin to what the 20th-century Protestant theologian Rudolph Otto concluded after studying the accounts of mostly Christian mystics, in that it was “beyond all question something quite other than the ‘good’.” 
It was more like a ‘consuming fire,’ he wrote, and ‘must be gravely disturbing to those persons who will recognize nothing in the divine nature but goodness, gentleness, love and a sort of confidential intimacy’.”
As Ehrenreich says, the divine needn’t enter into it at all. She urges scientists not to dismiss mystical experiences out of hand, and to think about adding the search for the source of these experiences to their search for those other elusive substances that make up the universe.
Without invoking anything supernatural, we may be ready to acknowledge that we are not, after all, alone in the universe, “she says. “There is no evidence for a God or gods, least of all caring ones, but our mystical experiences give us tantalizing glimpses of other forms of consciousness, which may be beings of some kind, ordinarily invisible to us and our instruments. Or it could be that the universe is itself pulsing with a kind of life, and capable of bursting into something that looks to us momentarily like the flame.”

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Belief on the back burner

Can you deny that there are supernatural beings and not be an atheist?
The New York Times ran the transcript of an interview conducted for “The Stone” by Gary Gutting, a professor of philosophy at Notre Dame, with Howard Wettstein, his counterpart at the University of California. Wettstein is a practicing Jew who prays regularly, and he is proof, I suppose, that one can have a rich religious life without necessarily believing in God – or, in his words, taking “a theoretical stance on God’s existence.” As Wettstein sees it (I think), belief is irrelevant to faith, and even irrelevant altogether. To paraphrase another philosopher with a similar name (Wittgenstein), what we can’t put into words we must pass over in silence.
Wettstein takes an unhelpful detour at the beginning, comparing theorizing about God to theorizing about numbers. “Even an advanced and creative mathematician,” he says, “need not have views about, say, the metaphysical status of numbers.” He cites the physicist Richard Feynman, who was supposed to have said about himself that he “lived among the numbers,” but who was unconcerned with whether they “actually” existed. But when we think about numbers we are able to describe how they work, in the form of proofs.  No such thinking can be done about God to yield results that are anything but highly subjective and abstract.
Wettstein talks about a rabbi friend of his who held that “God’s reality went without saying,” but that “God’s reality as a supernatural being was quite another thing.” (Wettstein’s words.) To watch his friend praying was to be overwhelmed, he says, by the intimacy of the pray-er and the pray-ee: “God was almost tangible.”
Gutting asks, quite reasonably, how one can pray to something that doesn’t exist. Wettstein says that “’existence’ is, pro or con, the wrong idea for God.”    
“My relation to God has come to be a pillar of my life, in prayer, in experience of the wonders and the awfulness of our world,” Wettstein says. “And concepts like the supernatural and transcendence have application here. But (speaking in a theoretical mode) I understand such terms as directing attention to the sublime rather than referring to some nonphysical domain. To see God as existing in such a domain is to speak as if he had substance, just not a natural or physical substance. As if he were composed of the stuff of spirit, as are, perhaps, human souls. Such talk is unintelligible to me. I don’t get it.”
In other words, we can’t talk about whether God exists, we can only talk about what His existence means to us. An argument like this gives sophistry a good name.
“So what is the real question?” Gutting asks, a little wearily it seems.
“The real question is one’s relation to God, the role God plays in one’s life, the character of one’s spiritual life,” Wettstein answers. These aren’t questions, they are sidestepping the question.