Superscience, Tolsoy and Medicine, and Empiricism

The good thing about a blog, is that I get to treat it like a pensieve (see Harry Potter).  I can unload my thoughts and examine them later.   I no longer have to fill Facebook with the constant stream of half-baked thoughts.  I can bake them a little bit more without you feeling like you have to read it or have to scroll a little more than you care to.

Superscience

In springtime, I become very spiritual.  It’s been that way for many years.  Perhaps it is because of the season of Lent.  I participate in the forums at The Center for Progressive Christianity (TCPC) to work out my experiences and ideas.  The forum is made up of Christian humanists, atheists, mystics, science junkies, the occasional conservative troll, seekers, and me.  My viewpoints regarding the supernatural (miracles, communication with God/Jesus, divine intervention, healing) is often in the minority.  I don’t fit squarely in any sect of Christianity, although I feel somewhat comfortable in any.  I say somewhat because there’s always some bit of any sect which I am in conflict with.

A recurring debate on TCPC is on the term supernatural.  Whether it is real.  Whether or not it’s the right word.  Whether or not I’m mentally unstable for believing in spiritual phenomena which cannot be explained with science .  Here was my statement:

I believe that the concept of supernatural is an illusion.  Scientific knowledge continues to evolve.  If scientists had it all figured out, then they could go and be professors or chemists or something.  There is a gap between the ultimate reality of nature and what we’ve observed scientifically.  Of that, there can be little doubt.  The word supernatural should properly be superscience because what I’m experiencing is natural.

What we generally agree on at TCPC is that there is nothing in our Universe that is not natural or superseding what is natural, though many outside of the forum would disagree. Some mean to say that nothing which science has not observed can be real.  Some mean to say that occurrences outside of scientific knowledge are in fact natural, but not understood in scientific terms. Enter my new word, superscience (outside of science).  It is natural, but it stands outside of the scope of science. But perhaps superscience as a term is superfluous.  Google defines supernatural this way.

Supernatural:

(of a manifestation or event) attributed to some force beyond scientific understanding or the laws of nature.

Hey.  That is precisely the idea I was trying to convey with my new word superscience.  Case closed.

Tolstoy and Medicine

I’m reading War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy.  The story takes place in the early 1800s in Russia during the Napoleonic wars.  It was written in 1863.  On occasion, Tolstoy writes of someone who is ill and must be attended to by a doctor.  He makes a point of explaining the choices his characters must make regarding medicine.

He puts medicine in the category of belief.  Whether pharmaceuticals and other medical treatments work is a matter of belief.  And the more one believes, the more likely the medicine is to be effective.  The doctors insist that the success of the patient’s treatment depends greatly on their willingness to be positive about it.

I don’t really know anything about 19th century medicine or if this stems from Tolstoy’s personal opinions which may be subject to bias.  But I’m thinking of how far we’ve come in such a short period of time with medicine.  We accept that drugs work, surgery works, and more because they do.  Ultimately, it is not the science which compels us, it is the result.  However, there are some areas which we are still in the 1800s about.  We doubt homeopathy, some nutritional treatments, chiropractics, and most alarmingly, vaccination.  But what is that?  Is it because of the lack of compelling scientific evidence or is it because it doesn’t work for us?

Vaccination is a known quantity.  We know that it works beyond a shadow of a doubt, but many are concerned about unwanted effects.  I think polio, however is an unwanted effect of not taking the vaccine.  But the other stuff.  How much does belief play a role in the success of herbs, cutting gluten and dairy, and spinal alignment?  Perhaps it’s just as quacky as whatever Tolstoy’s doctors were prescribing.  Or perhaps we need to do a little more work on it.  I don’t know.  What I do know is that I’ve had tremendous results with saw palmetto and going gluten-free and I’m a huge skeptic with herbs and nutritional treatments.  I don’t think it works because I believe in it.  I believe in it because it works for me.   In a loose sense of the word, I’m an empiricist.  My experience forms my beliefs when it comes to subjective matters especially.  I believe in God because I’ve experienced God.  I believe in nutritional treatments for medical problems because they’ve worked for me.

Empiricist

The most controversial subject in my entire belief system is that eliminating gluten from my diet even though I do not have Celiac’s Disease has solved a problem for me. I’ve written about it before, but I write about it again to illustrate the way I work.  I have friends who wouldn’t dream of harassing me about spiritual matters or political matters who would write an entire book about gluten and how bogus a threat it is to prove me wrong about this.

The truth is, I’m very much a skeptic of natural solutions to medical problems.  I trust pharmaceuticals.  But I was out of ideas for a problem I was having. I take several heavy-duty meds for bipolar disorder.  They dull my senses.  My functional IQ dropped 15-20 points according to the most rigorous online IQ tests I could find.  My career as a software engineer requires a very high intellect, and I was getting very bad at my job. So I went to my psychiatrist with the problem.  We agreed that any shift in my drugs could destabilized my continued wellness.   I knew what I thought he’d say.  He’s a DO (Doctor of Osteopathy), not an MD.  A DO can do anything an MD can do, but they tend to have a more holistic approach.  My doctor prescribes drugs, but only at the minimum.  He prescribes supplements, nutrition, sunshine, and exercise with his patients.  He sees himself on the cutting edge of psychiatry, and I viewed him as a quack.  But I don’t any more.

What I thought he would say was, “No dairy, no gluten”.  Because that’s the trend.  I tend to lean toward Dr. Zorba Paster (On Your Health) on NPR.  He says, skeptically but politely, “Sure, it’s perfectly fine to try x. It will not harm you in any way.  There is no scientific evidence to support that it helps, but if it works for you then go ahead and try it.”

But my doc did not mention dairy.  He explained that wheat had been perfectly fine until the 50s when some guy got the Nobel Prize for inventing dwarf wheat, because dwarf wheat grows very fast.  The idea is that it would solve the hunger problem, and it certainly has helped.  But the problem with dwarf wheat, he says, is that it contains a much higher gluten content to the point that it is affecting some people in a negative way, gluten-sensitive people.  He rattled off a list of possible gluten-sensitive symptoms, and I certainly had a lot of them.  But the most important one was brain fog.  And this is why I was there asking him for help.

Although I was skeptical, I was willing to try it because this was a serious problem and I saw no other alternatives.  Within a short period of time, I was getting significant results.  My performance at work picked up.  The same IQ tests I took before, were showing a return of my mental functioning.

You can show me any scientific material that shows that gluten has no negative effects on people who do not have Celiac’s Disease, but all I really trust is my experience.  It works for me.  When I try to introduce gluten in my diet again, the problem comes back.  I’ve tried three times with the same result. Perhaps I wouldn’t need to cut gluten if I weren’t on such heavy meds, but that’s not going to change.

So how much of an empiricist am I?  Well the truth is, I accept most things as fact because I trust the people who are saying them either because they are in the majority or I trust their expertise.  But there are gray areas, subjective areas,  where it comes down to my own experience.  I acknowledge that  my personal experience contributes very little to the fact of a thing, but it makes all the difference in the world for me.

I understand the non-theist’s skepticism to my experience of the superscience, Tolstoy’s skepticism of medicine, and my well-meaning friends’ skepticism of my gluten-free lifestyle.  But what they might not understand is if they experienced what I’ve experienced they might see it differently.

 

 

 

 

 

Million Dollar Steak

cotton_field_west_texasEvery time we went to San Antonio to stay with my father’s sister’s family, we would take a tour of the older generation.  We visited Grannie Floss and Big Nanny in Goliad, Grannie Mac in the nursing home in Corpus Christi (which sounds like Carpus when my dad’s family says it) , and Uncle Billy and Aunt Doris in Portland (near Corpus).   That we did this, I learned later, was evidence of my father’s loyalty to family because he was the only one who really wanted to go. I suspect that my mother simply endured it.  She was prone to car sickness.  My brothers and I were awful about it every time.  We made it stridently clear that we were perfectly comfortable remaining with our cousins in San Antonio.  I was never comfortable as a kid being around the 85 and up crowd.  Too many unsolicited kisses, and too many manners to mind.  Plus, it was a three our drive on which we had nothing to do but count the little windmills up and down the highway.

My great uncle Billy lived on a cotton farm in a little house with his wife, Doris.  I learned from my father that he was in fact a millionaire.  He had found oil on his land.  But he was a very quiet, very humble Baptist man who must not have seen the value of living a millionaire’s life.  I felt a misplaced pride over his millions.  I bragged to friends about my rich, but humble Uncle Billy.  The response was nearly always the same.  “Are you going to inherit a lot of money?” “No,” I would say, and then they would frown, unimpressed.  In fact, I believe he left his fortune to Texas A&M and his church.

Uncle Billy said no more than twenty words to me my entire life, and most of it had to do with his loofah vine out back. He mainly watched pro wrestling or the Atlanta Braves.   It was Aunt Doris who made things interesting.  She doted on us more than any relative.  She was a gift giver; an unusual gift giver.  We could always count on a two dollar bill wrapped in a red ribbon.  She would often send us home with some unusual object lying around her house.  I remember, in particular, a letter opener with a peacock handle, which I treasured.  On at least one occasion, she sent my father some odd possession of hers in the mail; just something random and perplexing.  I could tell that my parents thought she was a bit of a kook.  She had no less than twenty paintings of windmills in her house.  I loved this peculiarity.  I was very interested in painting and she knew it. She would tell me about a few of them when I visited. I also made a game out of counting them all.

While we were there, we would often drive down the road toward Corpus until we would find a shrimper on the side of the road selling fresh-caught jumbo Gulf shrimp by the pound.  I came to love boiled shrimp on those visits.  On one occasion, I was shown how to prepare, boil and peel the fresh shrimp myself.

The one luxury they allowed themselves was membership to “the club”.  We only visited the club once for lunch.  Everybody there knew Uncle Billy.  They treated him like royalty.  It was clear to me at my young age, maybe 12, that he spent a lot of time at the club because he moved with such familiarity around the dining room and was greeted by all of the staff as Mr. Stark, and now I suspect that he must have tipped very generously.  He showed it off to us, mostly with gestures.  He directed us to a chef stir-frying scallops and pasta at a little station in the dining room.  This was the fanciest place I’d ever been.

At the table, my dad carried the conversation.  Being a minister, he knew how to do this.  I’d seen him make a conversation out of absolutely nothing with people who didn’t appear to know how to speak, all of my life.  Dad made it clear that this was Uncle Billy’s treat and that he had instructed us to order what we liked.  This was an important distinction for him to have made.  On a preacher’s salary, we rarely went out to eat and when we did it was clear that we were to eat on the cheap. I’d become very accustomed to ordering burgers, sandwiches, pasta, and chicken.

I looked at this menu in a brand new way. I allowed my eyes to peruse every item on the menu regardless of price.  The waiter came to me first.  I ordered the most expensive item on the menu, the blackened rib-eye well done as I had heard it ordered in movies.   Then my brother ordered cheap.  My mother ordered cheap.  My dad ordered cheap.  But Bill and Doris took my bet and ordered something equally as expensive.  I was grateful for that.

The details here are fuzzy, but I do seem to recall my twin brother casting me very disapproving looks as I ordered and perhaps whispering “David!”.  My mom might have said “Are you sure you want that?”  I sweated it out.  The lunch felt very tense to me from the moment I ordered, but I also held my head up high.  I began to imagine myself as a “club” person.  Perhaps the staff would think I was a millionaire myself.  I wouldn’t be surprised if my twin recalled me using some sort of affected speech with the waiter.

When the server finally put the steak in front of me, he asked me to cut into it.  I examined it and saw that the steak was indeed blackened, but not in the way I expected.  I merely thought it would be heavily rubbed with spices and seared.  I cut into it, not really knowing what was expected of me and indicated my approval.  It was a very tough piece of meat.

I hoped, in that moment, that the blackness of the steak was not an indication that it was heavily burnt, but as I took my first bite I was sorely disappointed.  It was indeed burnt.  I chewed, but it was no use.  I never swallowed the first bite.  I discreetly spit it out into the cloth napkin.  I dug into the potatoes and green beans instead, hoping that no one would notice.

But my dad noticed.  I don’t remember what he said, but there was something in his tone that suggested that if I was going to order something so expensive, I’d darn well better eat it.  But Billy understood.  He understood that it wasn’t what I had expected.  In as few words as possible, he indicated that he wanted to know if I’d like something else and that I need not feel obligated to eat it.  I declined to order something else.  I knew that I’d already pressed my luck beyond the pale.

On the car ride home, my twin gave me what for in the backseat, or at least that’s the way I remember it.  I suspect that he was a little jealous that I had grabbed the golden ring which had been out of his grasp due to his humility, and not for the first time.  My twin is a decent person.  He recognized the expectations made of us at the club.  We were guests.  We were not the millionaires.  We were still the preacher’s kids.  And although I recognized these expectations as well, I also recognized that Uncle Billy, the millionaire cotton farmer, could afford the blackened ribeye.

Fragmented Mind

 

1329180204987I’ve made quite a few posts which I felt were pret-ty pret-ty good.  But when I went back and reread them, I could see that my thoughts were fragmented in some way.  They were broken into pieces and not all the pieces were communicated.  Ideas which were fairly simple were made very complex because of the way my brain was functioning at the time.  Perhaps you have read something like that from me, but most likely it was deleted before you had the chance.

I can see that there is some level of inspiration and intelligence going on in these kinds of posts either on this blog or on facebook, but when my mind settles down again I can see that something was off.  There was an uncomfortable intensity and some level of incoherence.

What this likely means, is that my writing was the product of bipolar affective disorder (manic-depression).  In mania, my mind sparks with creativity but lacks the coherence to effectively present it.  When my mood gets elevated high enough, you might call this kind of writing ravings.

I have raved quite a few times over the last half-decade or so.  I’ll think that what I’m doing is brilliant,  but it is really gibberish.  Perhaps one day I’ll start a new blog mywifesaysitscrazy to publish this archive fragmented writing.  The train of my thoughts skip ahead or even jump off the track; creating a fragmented piece of my thoughts.  I’ll have a thought which results in a conclusion which result in another thought which results in another conclusion, but you might only get the first thought and the last conclusion.  This may also be the product of Attention Deficit Disorder. I don’t know.

It also means that there is a certain level of delusion.  I’ve gone back and reread things that I’ve written when manic and once in a while I can see where I thought I had struck gold, but what I found was  fool’s gold.

I’ve taken down dozens, perhaps hundreds, of these kinds of posts over the years because I felt embarrassed when I reread them.  I checked, and I’ve written twenty-two posts on this blog alone (I have a dozen blogs) that I either pulled down or didn’t ever publish.  I’m no great artist or writer, but many of the best artists and writers have had bipolar affective disorder and we get a sense of the exhilaration and suffering which goes into their work.  It’s ok to enjoy it and find meaning in it.  Many of these people refuse treatment because they don’t want to lose their abilities.  It’s a sacrifice they are making for their art

What you don’t know is that when I behave this way, people who know me best send me messages asking if I’m ok; telling me that they’re concerned.  People who know me best can tell.  I need this sometimes, because it’s hard for me to tell. Even now, when I look at some of my posts I can’t tell if they’re mad or not, nor can I tell if this post is.  I depend on my wife for this.  She is looking for  mean-spirited or arrogant/superior or incoherent or inappropriate or overly intense.  I’ve been a little tight-lipped about it because I don’t want to make people uncomfortable.    But I’m going to trust that you guys love me and don’t care that I get a little fragmented sometimes.  If you’ve never noticed this in me, then you might want to consider that you’re a little fragmented, too.

The God User Interface

firefox-everywhere

NOTE:  I took this post down soon after I posted it because I thought it was rubbish, but I also put it on  a progressive Christian forum and it sparked a marvelous conversations.  So, I’m putting back up

In the book, The Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle, the author states that he rarely uses the word “God” because it is a broken word.  It has been used and abused in so many ways that it is no longer useful or helpful when discussing the infinite being in which our Universe lives.  I would like to explore this idea; why it is the case and how we can move passed it.

We all know what a user interface to a computer is.  It’s the part of a computer system that we can see, touch, click, type, swipe, and speak to.  Every computer has an operating system that we can interact with through various apps;  on our phones, tablets, laptops, and desktops.

So why do we need a user interface (UI)?  Well, a computer thinks with zeros and ones.  Those are on’s and off’s.  It’s called binary.  Think “bi” as in bicycle. A pair of things.  UI software translates something that humans understand into something computers understand (one’s and zero’s) and vice versa.

Although the UI is part of the software, it’s really only the part by which we tell the software what we want it to do and by which the computer can tell us what it needs to tell us, but now how it is done.  Under the hood is where most of the computing happens.  Stay with me now!  What this means is that we can only use the computer in ways that the software’s UI allows us to.  And we can only use the computer in ways that the software is programmed to use it.  There are millions of interfaces out there which all serve different functions to meet our needs.

Are you still with me?  We’re getting very close.  This is where my computer science becomes a little inexact so that I can make my point.  There are infinite combinations of one’s and zero’s strung together, but a very finite combinations of the uses of a UI.  We will never fully realize the entire capability of a computer because it is limited to what humans can conceive.  There will never be a moment in which a software engineers says “Ok guys, we’re done!  There is nothing left that the computers cannot do!”  Perhaps you are already guessing what I’m about to say.  In my analogy, God is the computer.  God’s abilities, knowledge, qualities, forms, and interfaces are infinite and vastly incomprehensible.

I was born into a Presbyterian family.  I was given a particular interface to God; particular theology, particular beliefs, particular hymns, particular symbols,  particular names, particular buildings.  In college, I became a United Methodist and my UI shifted a bit.  In my 30s,  I began to meditate and study other spiritual paths.  I acquired and developed different interfaces in which to relate to God.  As an example, I learned that quieting my mind, I could experience God in a way in which I could not through worship and prayer. Meditation is an interface to God.

I hear people say that they can’t believe in God because they don’t believe in Jesus or Christianity.  They say it just doesn’t make sense to them.  It doesn’t work for them.  I also hear people say that God is so much greater than our way of relating to him/it/she; therefore, we should shed all of our names and traditional understanding of God, as perhaps Tolle is suggesting.

But the truth as I see it is that although we might glimpse the one’s and zero’s of God through spiritual/mystical experiences, in general we need a human construct, a user interface, to have a relationship with God.  And this is where we get stuck.

Think about the apps on your phone which you have deleted.  Why did you delete the app?  Perhaps it didn’t do what you wanted it to do.  Perhaps the interface was not user friendly. Now, because of this, did you ever throw away your phone?  No, you found another app which made sense to you.  You found a different interface into the same computer.

Over the years, my understanding of God and my needs of God have changed.  And over the years, my interface with God has adjusted given the changes in me, the old way of interacting with God doesn’t make as much sense to me.  God did not change, but I did.  God is still one’s and zero’s.

This idea will be rejected by many religious people; people who believe that there can be only one interface to God.  But the idea that there is only one way is losing traction, at least in America.  The SBNR (Spiritual But Not Religious) crowd it growing, and the diverse interface idea with it. The one size fits all God User Interface concept is shrinking.

If I believed that there was only one way of interacting with God, then I might not be a Christian today, because Christians can’t even agree with which God User Interface to use.  Do we go through Jesus?  Do we got through the Father?  Do we go through the God of Grace?  Do we go through the God of Judgment?  The God of Purity?  That’s just not the way I work.  I name God in the way in which I need God.  Did I need the guiding hand of a father.  The friendly companionship of a brother.  The comforting arms of a mother.  The infinite mystery.  A God of forgiveness.  These are interfaces to the same thing. And then there are those powerful moments in which God interfaces with me in ways I do not understand or would not have expected.

Also, I think that the world has fallen into the trap of thinking that God is the interface.  Remember how I said that the UI is just the part of the software we can interact with and that under the hood is where all of the real computing is happening?  God is infinitely greater than our understanding of him.  Just the word him here is a limited way of referring to God;   mainly limited by a lack of gender-neutral pronouns for another being in the English language.  And so we make God a male or a female.  God is not the interface we use to relate to him.  It is just the part of God that we can grasp with our human hands.

As limitless as God is, I do not believe he will be everything we want him to be.  He is not a random collection of stuff at our disposal.  God has some sort of fundamental character, the nature of which is subject to endless debate.  Just because I want a God who does my bidding, doesn’t mean I get it.  Ultimately, this is a poor interface which will eventually fail.  Where the God as a computer analogy fails is that the computer is a human tool designed to do what we want it to.  I do not believe God is a tool nor do I believe he is human designed.  That is my personal belief.

If the multiple God User Interface principle were  commonly accepted, I believe that there would be far fewer people who feel separated from God, or who cannot believe in a God at all based on God User Interfaces which did not work for them.  I will continue to play with this idea this Lent.  I will be examining my interfaces with God to see if there is a way to adjust my GUI (God User Interface) in a way that allows me to have a greater understanding and a fuller relationship with the infinite being which I call God for lack of a better term.

Spiritual Switch

Light Switch OnI’ve had a number of spiritual experiences over the years.  You might call them mystical experiences.  As a part of Lent 2016, I’ve been digging into my archive of spiritual writings to reexamine them.  This comes from 2009.

I believe that all life has both a physical and a spiritual nature. When you become in tune with the spiritual nature of life, you are having a mystical experience. Some are quite ordinary, while some are extraordinary. They are real, but when they are over, they feel like the memory of a dream. They are over when you place your consciousness back on the physical nature of life, which is necessary in order to function. I believe it’s possible to be simultaneously aware of both physical and spiritual nature. This is a state of enlightenment.

So, how do we become “in tune”? Many different ways.

Most of the time it’s out of our control. It seems random. It just happens. Something powerful throws our spiritual switch (so to speak).

1.) A powerful event. A trauma. A tremendous act of love. A death. A birth. A musical performance. I call these a sacrament.
2.) A powerful place. Undisturbed nature. A church. A place where a powerful event occurred. I call this a sanctuary.
3.) In the company of highly spiritual people. When your switch is thrown, my switch might respond. These people are teachers, prophets, healers, or just friends. It’s communion.

With practice, you can throw the switch yourself. Certain activities engage the spiritual self deeply enough that the switch will occur. I would break these into two categories: sympathetically spiritual and directly spiritual.

1.) Sympathetic. The activity is physical, but it often sparks a spiritual response. Singing, gardening, painting, dance, yoga, sex. These are things that don’t just happen to you. These are activities you choose to do. Do them often!

2.) Direct. This is a primarily spiritual activity. Prayer. Meditation. Yoga. Being in the moment. The lines are a little blurry, but some activities are entirely spiritual in nature. You are directly engaging the spiritual self as a means unto itself. Once you are there, you might have a more specific intent….insight, wisdom, peace, love, or simply being.

When your switch is thrown, to fully experience it awareness is important. How do you know when you’re having a spiritual/mystical experience?

  1. Time becomes relative.  If an hour feels like 20 minutes, then you may have been in a highly spiritual state.  This happens when I meditate, swim, and when I drive long distances; anytime I become engrossed in the moment.
  2. When I experience any form of ecstasy. “an overwhelming feeling of great happiness or joyful excitement.”  Many people take mind-altering drugs to experience this, but I can witness to the fact that they are not necessary.
  3. A powerful experience of connectedness.  When you cease to experience the boundaries between yourself and creation.
  4. When you experience direct contact with God (whatever that may mean to you);  visions, words, intuitions, nudgings;
  5. Your perception of your environment is altered.  When your surroundings are transformed in some beautiful way or cease to exist at all.
  6. When you feel detached from your body.  When all you experience is pure consciousness to the point that you feel unaware of your body or that you have come out of your body.

I’m sure there are many more, but these are the ones I’ve experienced.

And finally, what do we do when we have become aware of our spiritual experience?  This is where drugs and true mysticism split.  Ecstatic experiences precipitated by drugs are less likely to lead to action other than using more drugs.  A spiritual experience can transform our way of thinking, our behavior, our perspective in a positive way which could lead to positive changes in our lives.

A mystical experience should not be wasted.  Yes, they are novel to think about and talk about and become enamored with, but ultimately, we must ask the question, what good can I make of this?  What can I bring down from the mountain top into the valley when the switch is thrown?