Saturday, June 30, 2012

Our Need For Answers: A Review of "Prometheus"

Despite some misgivings and after reading a great deal of criticism from my fellow free-thinkers and atheists about the movie, I decided to go see “Prometheus” anyway. I’m a sucker for scifi, especially when it’s related to the “Alien” movies and frankly I was curious as to whether I’d find myself being disappointed as much as others had noted. There’s no opinion I come into contact with that I’m not willing to have a contrary one to, it’s part of being the special person I am. :)

I didn’t find it difficult to note where much of the bugaboo was centered on concerning potential anti-science elements. Certainly there’s the comment by one crew member faced with finding out that aliens had designed human beings, declaring 2000 years of Darwinism to be thrown out. That this is a patently absurd conclusion to be noted only shows the character’s lack of education and likely that of the writers as well, since evolution is about the means of said development of biology, not the cosmological question of origins. Indeed, this question of origins is precisely what ends up being focused on immediately, with the ubiquity of the cross symbol being a constant reminder that even in the future of interstellar flight there will still be those who adhere to mythologies. With this in mind, it is not so far-fetched to hear the scientist’s response to whether she has proof of her hypothesis, “I don’t know, I choose to believe.”

With all due respect to my brothers and sisters lamenting the inclusion of creationist-type pseudoscience into hollywood movies, I do not see what all the furor is about. The themes of the movie seem to be two-fold: one, humanity’s incessant search and perseveration upon the questions of their origins and two, in wanting something badly enough it is quite possible to make data fit into one’s desires and forget other potential interpretations until doom comes snarling down your throat.

The demand and seemingly innate need to answer questions of origins is the heart of “Prometheus,” with a scifi twist positing guided germination from the heavens. That there exists a religious element in this quest is far less surprising than if there had been none. Scientists, regardless of the stereotype from conservative-minded charlatans of sophistry, are not robots, coldly calculating data towards a preconceived notion that serves to undermine basic human social systems. Scientists are, in fact, a largely conservative bunch, always eager to find the next great ground-breaking discovery certainly but decidedly wary of actually doing so. In every declaration of certainty there is always at least several hands raised declaring “yes, but…” That the archaeologist in question, notably not a biologist by the way, continues to dwell in the potential safety of religious dogmatism only points to her humanity, not her scientific pedigree. In questioning origins at the species level, there is every reason to respect the history of religious answers given to this, not in the sense of their scientific legitimacy, but as a means of pointing to the power and emotional weight that such questions have always possessed.

The second theme seems to mitigate the potential hazards offered in the first, at least in my opinion. In flinging themselves with dogmatic fervor into the uncertain waters created by their hypothesizing, the characters here do nothing short than eventually declare with fear-laced trembling words “we were so wrong.” This is not an indictment against science, but a grim reminder of our human tendency to forego rational discourse in favor of immediate emotional reward. Giddy the scientists stand with their picture perfect projections, mentally saturated with the notion that at long last they will find the missing parents that abandoned them at birth, ignoring the glaring point that sometimes those parents are assholes. “Why were we asked to come on this mission?” the archaeologist asks. The answer is telling: “Wayland was always a superstitious man and wanted a true believer on board.” A true believer, one who despite gleaming walls of darkness and rooms filled with death, will blindly go forth with childlike abandon into the very jaws waiting for them, all the while believing the teeth are pearls of great price.

There is a tendency here in criticizing creative license to project greater social drama into every facet churned up. Sometimes though rather than indicating an incursion of some diabolical scheme, it merely points to the roiling maelstrom within humanity of feeling cut off from nature, of being the only creature that, as Erich Fromm indicates, is capable of feeling cast out from paradise. The ideological history of humanity is littered with cave paintings, sculptures and treatises attempting to peer behind the veil. This passion should be celebrated, but within the context of noting our tendency to see only what we want to see. Perspective does not create reality but it certainly determines how much of it we are able to take in. That is a profound gift and a source of great concern.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Our Relation to the Spiritual: Spiritual Naturalism

        I once had a co-worker of mine show a picture to me of his car and particularly the windshield. Upon it he swore the image of Jesus existed. Try as I might I could not see what he was seeing, instead noting that the windshield was catching various points of light and reflecting them. To say his disappointment bordered on the incensed would not be being melodramatic. There was a deep sense of loss in the unshared experience and consternation at my, I can only assume willful, inability to see the image he was seeing. At the time I was not without some disdain, flippantly remarking on refracted light and the brain’s tendency to make images out of disparate data, much like what one finds when gazing at clouds. However accurate at the level of neurology and psychology I may have been, the fact remains that this truth did not hold the same wonder and awe that my fellow employee felt when gazing at the picture. While certainly I did then and still find immense nearly spiritual wonder at the vast hidden qualities that the sciences continue to unfold before us, Oscar Wilde said something that resonated with me recently: “There is nothing that will cure the senses but the soul, and nothing that will cure the soul but the senses.”

        Faint images in pictures, “ghostly” qualities in faded photos, the burnt faces in toast, all reach out and take hold of our sense of imagination and wonder, casting it outward into the immeasurably vast potential for human creativity. No one looking upon the deepest parts of a natural forest, seeing the adoring eyes of a child look up at her/his mother, participate in a concert or religious service, can help but be caught up in the nebulous feeling of transcendence. Undeniably there is a neurological component to this, we can mimic it with electrodes, but while replication points to a physiological and material basis for the sensation in experience, the totality of the experience is still wholly individual. As many anecdotes will testify, these kinds of experiences are not without a great deal of power and the result is a tendency to change lives. That these experiences are so often tied to a particular religious dogma indicates both the hold religious ideology has on our lives but also the limitations we unfortunately often place on ourselves. For if anyone coming upon the aforementioned scenes may locate meaning within their culturally or socially-biased religious paradigms, then the limitation is not found in the experience but in the construction of its intent. We are all manifestations of the human and by virtue of that are participants in the creation of socially realized reality. No single ideology or principle can hold the plentitude of potential meaning available to us, no more than any single scientific theory can encompass the totality of every conceivable fact found.

        This supposedly limiting quality of science, that any theory posited is limited in its scope, is often used to buttress the fantastical claims of any number of self-proclaimed mystics and dealers of divine wisdom, or simply to support the perception-based conceptual conclusions that the toast does in fact contain the face of Jesus (why not ever Einstein?). In steps the supernatural to deal death to uncertainty and give strength to the credulous. However, the supernatural holds no referent, no shared objective object to point to and discuss. It is a solitary, purely internal concept lost in a sea of windblown thoughts due to its lack of personally-external moorings. Because of this lack of referent, there can be no dialogue and therefore no social bond or progress in understanding. The real strength of science is not in its ability to help categorize and explain facets of existence, although this gives us the fascinating practical examples of technology, but in its ability to contribute to social cohesion. Science as a means of explaining the natural is precisely why this is so. The ubiquity of nature is so profound we forget much of what occurs in our lives and don’t see in action the incredible vast quantity of events going on below the conscious level, but it all binds us together with everything else into a single natural unit called the universe. Attempting to place something like the supernatural, e.g. that which isn’t natural, into that experience does us no service and in fact only undermines what the feeling of transcendence is indicating; that there is so much more within the natural that we have yet to tap into.

        “If Spirit does exist, it will lie in that direction, the direction of wonder, a direction that intersects the very heart of science itself” (Ken Wilber, The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion). Spiritual naturalism is not an oxymoron, it simply does not assume there is only one way to define spiritual. It thus is not trapped within the limiting constraints that are inevitable once one steps away from the natural enclosure of the universe. We can and often do have a sense of the transcendent. There is no intrinsic requirement that the meaning found within it be molded by the dogmatic. Rather, let it open the mind to the wonderment that is always existent within the natural, that is always waiting to unfold in consciousness and embrace the potential in life we all take part in every day.

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