Friday, September 28, 2007

What Is Spirit?

And the stories he did it with the most were the ones about the things you couldn't see or hear or touch. The ones about the souls of trees, the things that animals knew, the two-edged ways of human beings. The ones about a Spirit. (from The Story of Everything, Chapter 2)

And what exactly is Spirit?

(a) the things you cannot see or hear or touch
(b) something's inner essence, its very "soul"
(c) consciousness
(d) God
(e) all of the above

Theologian Amos Yong has counted sixteen ways the word spirit is used in the science-religion dialogue and admits he's missed a few. In the Old Story of Everything, Spirit is the very antithesis of Matter. In the New Story, it could not exist without Matter, and may not exist at all. What exactly is Spirit?

The answers are many because the New Story (first Matter, then Life, then Spirit) has many variants. Here are some:

1. Spirit concludes the story, but not as something real. This is the narrative of scientific materialism. Life is real, Matter is really real, and Spirit isn't real at all. Today the focal point of the Spirit question is the human brain. Over 350 years ago Rene Descartes said the brain--specifically, the pineal gland--was where body and soul met. But current neuroscience tells a different story, that body is real and soul is nothing more than neurological processes, which all come down to chemical processes, which all come down to physical processes, etc. Soul, at best, is (b) a metaphor for something's inner essence.

Interestingly, the Biblical understanding of soul is quite similar. The Hebrew word nephesh is translated many ways, but when applied to humans, it refers to the whole person, including the body. "There wasn't a soul in sight" captures the idea. So does the expression "in the depths of my soul"--meaning "in my inner essence." Christianity's "immortal" soul, capable of separating from the body, seems to have come from Plato, not from its own scriptures.

2. Spirit concludes the story; its meaning is (c) consciousness. Include in this category Spirit as mind, thought, intelligence, symbolic capacity, interiority, subjectivity. No matter what the name, Spirit in this sense is not "reducible" to neurological processes; it can't be boiled down to them. It may "emerge" from them, but it has a reality all its own.

3. Spirit concludes the story; its meaning is (d) God. Or Goddess or Godhead. Or Brahman or Allah or Tao or Jahweh, albeit in different roles. The Being of a thousand names and the Being of no name. The One "out there," the One "in here." The Omega (but not the Alpha). The Absolute. However conceived, this God is something more than individual human consciousness. She/he/it is transcendent.

So what exactly is Spirit? This one I'm going to wait out. Maybe for a 100 years to see how the neuroscience plays out. Maybe for 5 billion to see how the universe does. I'll table the debate between monists and dualists. I won't make distinctions the way Amos Young did. I'll simply take "Spirit" as a whole and revel in all the word's associations.

Something's going on in the cosmos that wasn't going on before. Let's call it Spirit. At this point in time, my answer to the opening question is: (e) all of the above. What's yours?




Thursday, September 20, 2007

Life: So Simple A Beginning?

And then . . . another breath . . . and fish were swimming in the creeks, and birds were flying in the air, and deer were walking on the hills. Skunks were sleeping in their holes. Things were growing. Flowers and trees. To each of them the Spirit gave a seed, its very own. To each it gave a name. And to all of them it gave the name of Life. (from The Story of Everything, Ch. 2)

Of these three questions--What is Matter? What is Life? What is Spirit?--the one about Life may be the easiest to answer. In the Old Story of Everything, Life was created directly by Spirit. In the New Story, it "emerges" from Matter and then "evolves." How is Life different from Matter? My rule of thumb: if you poke it and it wiggles, it's alive.

When you look into the origin of life, however, the poke-it rule doesn't quite cut it. What does? "Replication, mutation, and selection," says a scientist, probably a chemist. If molecule X makes copies of itself (replication), if a few of the copies are less than perfect (mutation), and if X's environment favors some of the copies over others (selection), X is alive. Why? Because X can evolve.

Biologists typically want more. X has to be enclosed. It has to have a membrane. It has to have a regulatory apparatus, a metabolism. Give it all that and it becomes a cell. Only then is it alive.

The earliest evidence of a living cell goes back about 3.5 billion years. (Take a look.) Earth itself goes back 4.6 billion. Whether the first cell originally came from outer space or whether it originated here, whether it was alone or had company, its appearance was a watershed event. Compare the Big Bang with whatever spark produced Life. One gave us a cosmos; one gave us a speck. One was immense beyond imagination; one miniscule. But the two were equal in stature.

So momentous was the appearance of Life that you can appreciate why the writer of Genesis would mark it by using the metaphor of God's breath (Genesis 2:7). Charles Darwin would use exactly the same metaphor to conclude The Origin of Species. (See the last sentence of Chapter 15.) It was, as Darwin wrote, "so simple a beginning."

But was it so simple? Not when you consider that the universe took over 9 billion years to produce that first cell--years of stars being formed and then blowing up, years of their debris coalescing into planets, and then--on one planet that we know of--that mysterious spark. The first cell's emergence was humble and obscure, but it wasn't simple.

Ah, but the second cell. That was the miracle of simplicity. All the first cell did was make a copy. It "remembered" 9 billion years of history and replicated it. There is a key in that to the whole story of the cosmos. At a certain moment something more complex--yes, something "higher"--comes into being. It incorporates what is "lower" and moves on. Something new begins to happen.

What is Life? Look at all the universe had to go through to produce the first cell. Look at how easily it produced the second. Life is the difference.



Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Trouble With Matter

"And then the Spirit . . . breathed . . . and out they came: earth and sun, moon and stars. Hills and creeks and fields. Thunder, lightning, meteors. All in a single breath. The Spirit gave a name to what its breath had made. The name was Matter."

It was a word that Grandfather hadn't used before, at least not like that. (from The Story of Everything, Chapter 2)

You can see it, touch it, stand on it, count on it. It's concrete, a reality no one can deny. You can build a philosophy on it, or a way of life. Solid stuff, Matter. So unlike the ethereal things we call Spirit.

Or is it?

In the Old Story of Everything (first Spirit, then Matter, then Life), Matter was indeed clear-cut. But in the New Story, where Matter comes first, that solid stuff gets real slippery and even downright spooky.

Problem number one: now you see it, now--mostly--you don't. Astronomers tell us that most matter is "dark." Look out into the universe and you can't see dark matter. You can't detect it with any instrument. You know it's there only because it pulls at visible matter--bending light, for example, or affecting the rotational speed of galaxies, or creating rings (you gotta see this). According to one estimate, dark matter comprises 22% of the mass of the universe versus only 4% of visible matter. The remaining 74% is dark energy.

Go to the microscopic scale and there's more trouble. Matter becomes atoms; then protons and neutrons and electrons; then particles like gluons, leptons, mesons, and muons; and then (finally?) quarks. But what are these fundamental particles? Forces? Geometric points? Chunks of space-time? Strings of energy? Membranes? In this strange world, one can only guess.

And what about "anti-matter"? It seems that every particle has an anti-particle with an opposite charge. An anti-quark to go with a quark, for example. Particle-antiparticle pairs can annihilate each other, a principle used in today's particle accelerators. That's why anti-matter is not found on earth, except very briefly. When some comes into existence, it is immediately annihilated by ordinary matter.

So what's a materialist to do? Not to mention a material girl? I can't speak for Madonna, but if I were a philosopher I'd say this. Realize that your understanding of matter is a function of the scale at which you perceive it. Realize that there are other scales. And then go on with the scale you've got, seeing matter, touching it, bumping into it.

But while you're rubbing your head, consider this. In the New Story, the stuff turns into music! Into love and hate, truth and lies, vengeance and compassion! All on its own. It needs a lot of time to do it, and only a little of it makes the grade. But if there's a you, you can be sure that some of it did.

Maybe the trouble isn't with Matter, but that we think too little of it. In the New Story, it's fertile in surprising ways. It's even a bit ethereal. It took nearly 14 billion years, but hydrogen turned into compassion. I'm rubbing my head. How did it happen?



Friday, September 7, 2007

Matter, Life, Spirit: It's the Order

Spirit, Matter, Life, thought the Story of Everything.

"Matter, Life, Spirit," said the man.

The Story winced. That was it--the very thing he would never get used to. Not the words, but the order of the words. It was what the man put first: Matter, not Spirit. (from The Story of Everything, Ch. 24)

The plot: it's how you arrange Matter, Life, and Spirit when you tell a Story of Everything. It's the order in which you put them. The order will tell you what the words mean. Which comes first? Which comes last?

We associate stories in which Spirit comes first with the Book of Genesis, but that's not exactly correct. In the opening verses of that book, Matter co-exists with Spirit. The earth is already present, although "without form"--literally a "trackless waste and emptiness." Water is present too, and a divine wind, sometimes translated as the "Spirit of God," is described as moving over it. It is only much later, in an obscure verse, that the Bible refers to God as making heaven and earth "of things that were not" (2 Maccabees 7:28).

In the Old Story of Everything, Spirit comes first. It assumes the role of creator, designer, unmoved mover, primal cause. The material universe comes out of its action. So does the living universe. First Spirit, then Matter, then Life.

In the New Story, it's almost the inverse. Matter comes first and Spirit comes at the end, with Life as the intermediary. The appearance of Spirit is so sudden and so recent that we're still not sure what to make of it. Part of the problem is that it's come out in us! We are the locus of its emergence and the only locus that we know of.

So what do Matter, Life, and Spirit mean? Philosophy, religion, and science have spent millennia on that question, but my attention span is minutes. So in the next three blogs I'll simply try to grasp their meaning in the New Story. Matter will be tough. It has a lot to account for now that it's in the lead-off position. Spirit will be tougher. It moves two positions, not one, from opener to closer. That's twice the work of redefinition. The definition of Life should be easy by comparison. It's Matter-plus. And there's the rub, of course: plus what exactly?

Make no mistake: a Story of Everything has to cover Matter, Life, and Spirit even if it chooses to call them something else. Make your story linear and put the three in whatever order you choose. Make your story circular and put whichever at the point of origin and return. Make your story hierarchical and stack the three of them up. But you've got to touch all the bases and you've got to say how you did it. Stay tuned.