"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Search For Epiphany–The Tale of Randall Popper

Randall Popper hoped he would have an epiphany.  In fact, he thought that by focusing on a page of random numbers, a pattern would emerge, and he would discover the code of the Kabbalah leading to a Talmudic truth.  Or if he stared long enough into the low grey clouds on a late November day, a ray of sunlight would turn the dark sky a kaleidoscope of colors and reveal the soul of God.  Or if he listened to a Bach concerto enough times, the mathematical patterns would coalesce, and he would understand some fundamental element of being.

He always thought of Prince Andrei Bolkonsky who had an epiphany on the field of battle at Austerlitz, understanding as he lay dying that all men were equal; that Napoleon and the Russian soldier manning the cannons behind the berm were brothers in spirit. He hoped that he could have the epiphany of Ivan Ilyich at the moment of death when he says, “So that’s it! What joy….Death is finished.  It is no more.”

He read with interest the publications of the Eternea Foundation and the writings of its founder, Eben Alexander who had a transforming transcendental near-death experience.  Alexander, a Harvard professor and recognized neurological surgeon, said that he had a glimpse into the after life and felt  ‘sweet, soft, Spring breeze’ that was the breath of God.

He had a copy of Mont Blanc by his bed, and could recite Wordsworth’s lines by heart:

Far, far above, piercing the infinite sky,
Mont Blanc appears,—still, snowy, and serene—
Its subject mountains their unearthly forms
Pile around it, ice and rock; broad vales between
Of frozen floods, unfathomable deeps,
Blue as the overhanging heaven, that spread
And wind among the accumulated steeps
Power dwells apart in its tranquility
Remote, serene, and inaccessible:
And this, the naked countenance of earth,
On which I gaze, even these primeval mountains
Teach the adverting mind....

He wanted to climb the Alps, see the clouds part and see Mt. Blanc in the distance – powerful, immanent, and a sign that the Glory of God is with us.

“Epiphany doesn’t just happen”, said Sri Ramakrishna Rao, a Hindu ascetic who had come to Washington and presided over the Light of Asia Ramakrishna Mission. “You have to work at it and be worthy of it.”  He instructed Randall on the the Path to Enlightenment, the principles of Preparation, Meditation,and Obedience which lighted the way. The Indian sadhus who lived in Himalayan caves and rejoiced in their unification with the One, Brahma, the Universal Creator, did not get there by waiting.  On the contrary, they worked at it.  They patiently and dutifully passed through the Hindu stages of life – Student, Householder, Hermit, and finally Sannyasa.  Only then and by the grace of God would they understand the universal riddle of Creation, Destruction and Rebirth – the endless cycle of becoming.

“You are waiting for enlightenment”, Ramakrishna Rao said, “and you will never find it.” The way has been made explicitly clear in the Vedas.  Work, discipline, and faith are the only ways to the epiphany for which you are searching. “

This was a hard lesson to accept, for Randall Popper was a lazy, idealistic romantic who had things upside down.  God was meant to come to him, not the other way ‘round. Before abandoning himself to the celibate life of a monastery high in the Himalayas, he thought he would give God a chance.  If there was anything to the ‘personal relationship with Jesus Christ, Our Savior’ preached every Sunday at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in St. Louis, then Randall would chance it.  If the relationship was significant – that is, if he knelt before the divinity in humility and faith – Jesus Christ himself would show him the way.

Yet, despite his devotion, fealty, and absolute conviction in the salvation promised by Jesus Christ, no epiphany was forthcoming.

He wondered what he was doing wrong or how he had offended God.  If there was indeed a personal relationship between the sinner and the Almighty Lord, then He would certainly guide him on the path to celestial paradise.

Randall became an ascetic, left his family, and joined a severe monastic order.  The Prophetic Order of St. Clement whose home was high in the French Alps, was unsparing in its discipline and rigor.  Its discipline was Medieval, and all who served there sacrificed all to God.  There was no hot water, the beds were straw ticks covered with unrefined muslin, and the food spare, cold, and meager.

Randall knelt before the cross in the cold alpine winter and waited for a sign which never came.  He disciplined himself like the saints before him, lashing his back with horsehair and slept on a bed of broken glass and nails. He stood in the garden, hoe in hand and unweeded row of turnips at his feet, and looked up at the troubled winter sky.  “Give me a sign, O Lord”, he said crossing himself. “I will be forever your servant and evangelist if only you will acknowledge my will.”

Weary, cold,and hungry, Randall left the monastery and returned to life as he had known it.  He dismissed the teachings of Sri Ramakrishna Rao and the Good Fathers of Mercy both of whom had counseled belief, patience, and discipline. Enlightenment was not, as these self-serving priests had counseled, a matter of flagellation, endless prayer, and rigorous training.  It was simply a matter of paying attention to God’s inclinations.

So Randall ignored the teachings of Buddhism, Hinduism, and traditional Christianity; and still felt that personal epiphanies would come if one were only open to them.

It must be noted that Randall was a member of the ‘69 generation which had an overweening, absolute belief in personal enlightenment and redemption. Traditional religions were bullshit, manipulative, elitist institutions created to manipulate and exploit the ignorant. He, more literate than his fellow activists, always referred to The Grand Inquisitor chapter of The Brothers Karamazov in which Ivan challenges the returned Christ. God is a deceiver, Randall concluded, but that deceit does not deny the existence of an eternal realm. “His wisdom can be found”, Randall said, “but only in the experiential realm”, by which he meant the pseudo-occult.

Randall joined the Adherents of the Kabbalah, those ultra-Orthodox fringe Jews who believe in mystical revelation.  Far apart from traditional Jews who believed that God’s word was in the Torah and the Talmud, and that assiduous study could decipher meaning, the Adherents of the Kabbalah relied on revelation and mystical insight.

Despite months of indoctrination and rigorous study, Randall was still no better off than before. He had to conclude that God’s plan would be revealed in His own good time; and that human attempts to decipher His code of the universe were all arrogant, venal, and self-serving.

So Randall kept looking towards the heavens, waiting for the clouds to part and the Truth of God to be revealed; but nothing of the sort ever happened.  November skies turned from grey to rain without the epiphany of slanted, golden light.  Summer clouds passed without incident. Deep, obedient prayer in cold monastery cells produced no more than scuffed knees and catarrh.

“Do I have to wait for a near-death experience to find out what’s what?”, he wondered. “And what good is epiphany seconds before extinction?”

Fortunately he was only fifty-five when he had his epiphany; but it was not what he had expected at all. He was sitting front row center for a performance of Schubert’s Symphony No. 9, and during the third scherzo movement, the second violinist became so impassioned and elated that a long blonde curl came undone from its tight chignon and fell to her shoulders.  He was transfixed as more curls came loose.  The faster and faster she played reaching the climax of the score, the more transported, smiling, and beautiful she became.  Randall was elated and exalted.

At the end of the movement he was happy.  He was surprised at the pedestrian nature of his vision after so much laborious and tedious searching – his angel had no wings – but that’s what an epiphany was – revelation, but not in the gift wrapping he had anticipated.  He had been looking for enlightenment in all the wrong places.  His glimpse into meaning was no different than that of Ivan Ilyich.  “So that’s all there is to it? A loosened curl? The joy!  The joy!”

After the epiphany clouds were happily no more than clouds; sunlight no more than the warming rays of summer but glorious.  Randall gave up on the pedantically heavy texts of Schopenhauer and Kant and the tedious sagas of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and turned to much lighter fare. Life was short, as Thomas Hobbes famously said, but not at all as brutish and nasty as he thought.  It could actually be fun if one gave up trying to figure it out.

So Randall Popper had his epiphany after all. He went back to grilling steaks, voting his conscience, and hoping for grandchildren just like everybody else. He was liberated. In fact after some time had passed, he wondered how and why he had got himself so twisted out of shape because of insoluble conundrums.  He had been duped by Church and evangelists alike, but better late than never.  Who cared what happened after death after all? And if you got sent to ‘the bad place’, so be it. 

Near Death Experiences–Why The Church Doesn’t Like Them

Quite surprisingly the respected University of Virginia School of Medicine has a Division of Perceptual Studies which looks into Near Death Experiences (NDE). Surprisingly because NDEs have always been regarded with skepticism by the medical and scientific communities – not exactly hokum, but experiences that are more an explainable function of brain function than anything mystical. ‘Near death’, say skeptics, is not death.  The brain does not shut off like a light switch, and consciousness ends gradually and progressively. All kinds of explainable neurological things can happen while the computer is shutting down.


          Ian Stevenson, Founder of the Division of Perceptual Studies

The experiences witnessed by those who claim NDE can easily be explained by a form of conscious perceptual experience.  How and why these experiences occur can only be answered once science finally understands consciousness.  Firing synapses in a rich chemical bath supported by a complex physical architecture is only mechanistic.  It explains how the brain functions, but not how it generates the sophisticated consciousness that defines human thought.

The online journal The Skeptic has done meta-analysis, compiling a variety of cross-cultural studies:

Skeptics, on the other hand, believe that NDEs can be explained by neurochemistry and are the result of brain states that occur due to a dying, demented, extremely stressed, or drugged brain. For example, neural noise and retino-cortical mapping explain the common experience of passage down a tunnel from darkness into a bright light. According to Susan Blackmore, vision researcher Dr. Tomasz S. Troscianko of the University of Bristol speculated:

If you started with very little neural noise and it gradually increased, the effect would be of a light at the center getting larger and larger and hence closer and closer....the tunnel would appear to move as the noise levels increased and the central light got larger and larger....If the whole cortex became so noisy that all the cells were firing fast, the whole area would appear light.

Blackmore attributes the feelings of extreme peacefulness of the NDE to the release of endorphins in response to the extreme stress of the situation. The buzzing or ringing sound is attributed to cerebral anoxia and consequent effects upon the connections between brain cells.

Dr. Karl Jansen has reproduced NDEs with ketamine, a short-acting hallucinogenic, dissociative anesthetic.

The anesthesia is the result of the patient being so 'dissociated' and 'removed from their body' that it is possible to carry out surgical procedures. This is wholly different from the 'unconsciousness' produced by conventional anesthetics, although ketamine is also an excellent analgesic (pain killer) by a different route (i.e. not due to dissociation).

Eben Alexander tells a different story.  A practicing neurosurgeon, Alexander contracted meningitis and fell into a protracted coma.  His disease was so serious, that few thought he would live.   Life he did, however, and went on to become a successful author and inspirational speaker about his NDE.

Leslie Kaufman in the New York Times (11.25.12) reviewing his latest book writes:

During the week [of his coma], as life slipped away, he now says, he was living intensely in his mind. He was reborn into a primitive mucky Jell-o-like substance and then guided by “a beautiful girl with high cheekbones and deep blue eyes” on the wings of a butterfly to an “immense void” that is both “pitch black” and “brimming with light” coming from an “orb” that interprets for an all-loving God.

Alexander claims that his cerebral cortex – the part of the brain responsible for cognitive thought – had shut down, and that his visions could not have been anything but spiritually inspired.  He was so moved and altered by his experience that he decided to evangelize and created the Eternea Foundation to serve as the locus for outreach.

Alexander is not the first to record an NDE: 

The oldest surviving explicit report of a NDE in Western literature comes from the famed Greek philosopher, Plato, who describes an event in his tenth book of his legendary book entitled Republic. Plato discusses the story of Er, a soldier who awoke on his funeral pyre and described his journey into the afterlife. But this story is not just a random anecdote for Plato. He integrated at least three elements of the NDE into his philosophy: the departure of the soul from the cave of shadows to see the light of truth, the flight of the soul to a vision of pure celestial being and its subsequent recollection of the vision of light, which is the very purpose of philosophy. (Kevin Williams, www.near-death.com)

The cognate French term expérience de mort imminente (experience of imminent death) was proposed by the French psychologist and epistemologist Victor Egger as a result of discussions in the 1890s among philosophers and psychologists concerning climbers' stories of the panoramic life review during falls (Wikipedia). Interest in the phenomenon was desultory in the early 20th century until Raymond Moody wrote extensively on the phenomenon in 1975.

Alexander is a particularly credible source for the transcendent experience of near-death because he has been an academic neurosurgeon for the last 25 years, including 15 years at the Brigham & Women's Hospital, the Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston. Yet, say his critics, even someone with his credentials is not immune to wishful thinking.

Not surprisingly Alexander’s books have rekindled an interest in NDE because of the author - a smart, well-educated, mature and responsible scientist and Harvard professor. It is no exaggeration to say that everyone wants to know what happens after death.  Are we simply extinguished (Tolstoy thought it particularly ironic that man was created with intelligence, wit, insight, compassion, and creativity and after a few short decades is consigned to an eternity of nothingness in the cold, hard ground)?  Does a paradise of vestal virgins, clear brooks, melons, and soft breezes await us? A hell of eternal torment? Do we never die but are endlessly reincarnated until we finally achieve enlightenment and join the One?

Immortality has always been a big business.  As Ivan says in The Brothers Karamazov, the world would fall apart without a belief in immortality, especially a conditional one (“He knows when you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake”).  Christ, as the Grand Inquisitor avers, has sold humanity a bill of goods. Follow Me, and the rewards of an eternal celestial paradise will be yours.  The Church was founded on this presumption and went on, Ivan argues, to manipulate, exploit, and betray the ‘faithful’. The Catholic Church today has a vested interest in perpetuating the promise of a conditional heaven and the treat of an eternal hell. It should be happy to learn of Eben Alexander’s experiences as proof of an afterlife.

Here’s where it gets tricky. Researchers at the University of Virginia and elsewhere who have collected thousands of oral histories of NDEs have found that saints and sinners alike have the same beatific, glorious, and heavenly experience.  No matter how murderously you have led your life, you are still entitled to eternal bliss.

This is precisely what the College of Cardinals does not want to hear, for it pulls the moral rug right out from under them.  The Church has spent over 2000 years claiming that moral rectitude matters, the good are rewarded, and the bad punished.  This near-death equality is as threatening to the Church as anything in its long and storied history.

Atheists of course are displeased by the apparent credibility of Alexander and his eloquent portrayal of God; and they are upset that scientists are increasingly committing themselves to the cockamamie idea of NDE. The University of Virginia’s Medical School should lose its accreditation for sponsoring and supporting such balderdash.  If Alexander is right, their burgeoning movement will be blunted if not neutered.  Never have atheists been so respected.  Increasing numbers of nonbelievers are recorded by the US Census.  There are atheist conventions attended by thousands.  Atheist Clubs are more popular than Key Clubs on university campuses.  Skeptics – like the comedian Bill Maher – are no longer to hesitant to call out religion for the charade it is, and to expose Bible-thumping preachers for the charlatans they are. 

If there is even a teeny-weeny bit of credible information on the possibility of an afterlife, both Catholics and Atheists go to the barricades. Any afterlife which is not theirs (heaven or extinction) is apostasy and heresy.

One has to admire Christopher Hitchens, a life-long atheist who had no deathbed conversion whatsoever, and died without a prayer.  Most of the rest of us have to wonder.

Alexander himself has said that the certainty of an afterlife will not only take away the fear of death, but the fear of life.  In other words, why worry about cancer, or a heart attack when you know absolutely that you are going to a better place. 

This idea, however, is what makes such certainty very dangerous indeed.  If there is an afterlife, and if everyone regardless of race, creed, or moral history gets in, then even more horrible atrocities will be committed while we are alive than ever before.  More rapes, murders, wars, and disembowelments.

So ethicists and moral philosophers have joined the ranks of the Church and atheists in their calumnious attacks on Alexander and his NDE colleagues. Even a scintilla of belief that Alexander’s vision might be true is enough to upset the applecart.  Better shut him up quick.

So, the evidence of an afterlife is still inconclusive and will be until the moment of our demise; but we will not be able to publish it. As the old Irish saying goes, “And may you be in heaven. half an hour before the devil knows you're dead”.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Things Always Happen For A Reason–Or Do They?

“Things always happen for a reason” is an article of faith for the religious.  God has a master plan for the universe, earth, and for each one of us; and each event in our lives is not without His presence. Whether cancer or winning the lottery, events do not happen randomly.  If they did, the world would be a chaotic place with no meaning, no purpose.

Non-believers say this is hogwash.  Richard Dawkins articulated the atheist point of view when he said that the universe exhibits “precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”

He was echoing Nietzsche who observed in Beyond Good and Evil that In a meaningless, random universe the only validation of individual human life is the expression of will.

“Meaning and morality of One's life come from within oneself. Healthy, strong individuals seek self expansion by experimenting and by living dangerously. Life consists of an infinite number of possibilities and the healthy person explores as many of them as possible. Religions that teach pity, self-contempt, humility, self-restraint and guilt are incorrect. The good life is ever changing, challenging, devoid of regret, intense, creative and risky.”

In the chapter of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, The Devil – Ivan’s Nightmare, the Devil says:

Oh, blind race of men who have no understanding! As soon as men have all of them denied God—and I believe that period, analogous with geological periods, will come to pass—the old conception of the universe will fall of itself without cannibalism, and, what’s more, the old morality, and everything will begin anew. Men will unite to take from life all it can give, but only for joy and happiness in the present world. Man will be lifted up with a spirit of divine Titanic pride and the man-god will appear. From hour to hour extending his conquest of nature infinitely by his will and his science, man will feel such lofty joy from hour to hour in doing it that it will make up for all his old dreams of the joys of heaven.

In War and Peace, Tolstoy reflects on the millions of random events – some great, some infinitesimally small – that contribute to any contemporary action.  Napoleon may have thought that he and he alone was responsible for the prosecution of the war against Russia, but he was deceived:

Just as in the clock the result of the complex action of innumerable wheels and pulleys is merely the slow and regular movement of the hand marking the time, so the result of all the complex human activities of these 160,000 Russian and French - of all their passions, hopes, regrets, humiliations, sufferings, outbursts of pride, fear and enthusiasm - was only the loss of the battle of Austerlitz, the battle of the three Emperors, as it was called; that is to say, a slow movement of the hand on the dial of human history.

Shakespeare had the same nihilistic view of history. As critic Jan Kott has observed:

Emanating from the features of individual kings and usurpers in Shakespeare's History plays, there gradually emerges the image of history itself. The image of the Grand Mechanism. Every successive chapter, every great Shakespearean act is merely a repetition:

The flattering index of a direful pageant,
One heav'd a-high to be hurl'd down below . . . --- Richard III, 4.4.85-6

It is this image of history, repeated many times by Shakespeare, that forces itself on us in a most powerful manner. Feudal history is like a great staircase on which there treads a constant procession of kings. Every step upwards is marked by murder, perfidy, treachery. Every step upwards is marked by murder, perfidy, treachery. Every step brings the throne nearer. Another step and the crown will fall. One will soon be able to snatch it . . . .
From the highest step there is only a leap into the abyss. The monarchs change. But all of them -- good and bad, brave and cowardly, vile and noble, naive and cynical -- tread on the steps that are always the same. . . . .

Paul Bloom and Konika Banerjee, writing in the New York Times (10.18.14) summarize recent research that tries to explain why so many people in the face of these compelling arguments against a divine master plan still believe that ‘things happen for a reason’.

This tendency to see meaning in life events seems to reflect a more general aspect of human nature: our powerful drive to reason in psychological terms, to make sense of events and situations by appealing to goals, desires and intentions.

This conclusion seems rather limited given an even more powerful force of human nature – to find shelter in meaning.  No one wants to be Lear’s ‘bare, forked animal’ alone in an indifferent universe.  Religion and faith in a higher being that is good, welcoming, and just lets people sleep well at night.  If a tree limb falls onto the roof and kills Grandmother Wilhelmina sleeping in the upstairs bedrooms, it was God’s will.  We can mourn her, miss her, and grieve for her; but up to a point. God must have had a reason to take her, and we can never question His judgment.  Taken objectively – that is without the framework of a grand design or a nihilist philosophy – the world certainly seems to be a frightening, dangerous, and extremely perilous place.

Shakespeare understood and accepted the circular, repetitive, and meaningless course of history, and was by no means debilitated by it. The palace coups, wars, plots, murders, thievery, aggression, and political intrigue that characterized the reign of every king from John to Henry VIII was simply the backdrop for unique and compelling expressions of human will. We are attracted to Iago, Macbeth, Richard III, Dionyza, Tamora, Goneril, Regan, and many other villains because they defied conventional morality.

Tolstoy’s Napoleon is a compelling figure not because he had any real responsibility for his actions at Borodino, Austerlitz, or Moscow; but because of his strategic brilliance, his arrogance, his tragic flaws, and his oversized personality.  A meaningless world does not mean it must be populated by uninteresting characters.

All of Tolstoy’s principal characters in War and Peace struggle with meaning and purpose – as Tolstoy himself did (A Confession) – but end up like Ivan Ilyich (The Death of Ivan Ilyich) who ponders life, death and dying, and at the last moment says, “So that’s it!  What joy!  Death is finished.  It is no more”.  Levin, a major character in Anna Karenina like Tolstoy’s other characters struggles with meaning.  How ironic, he says, that man was created with wit, intelligence, insight, and humor and within a few short years lies in the cold, hard, clay of the steppes. He has the final lines of the novel in which he comes to a conclusion.  Life may be meaningless if one looks at it from afar; but we all live on two planes, and my personal resolution will come from doing good.

Tolstoy himself in A Confession is very much like Levin. Tolstoy spent many years grappling with the idea of faith, and after many decades of scientific inquiry, philosophical study, and rational dialogue with no answers, simply gave up.  Billions of men before him throughout history have had faith; and millions around him still do.  Who am I do question that conclusion?

The reason why we search for meaning is far more profound than what the authors of the Times article suggest - that the search for meaning has only a practical, immediate, almost mechanistic dimension:

The drive [for meaning] serves us well when we think about the actions of other people, who actually possess these psychological states, because it helps us figure out why people behave as they do and to respond appropriately.

Most of us search for meaning one way or another.  Most of us conclude that there is a God in the heavens above, and He causes things to happen according to his Master Plan. Far fewer of us believe that there is no God and understand that randomness is no different from diving planning.  For alien from Alpha Centauri, coming to earth with unbiased eyes events simply happen.  Period. It is we who ascribe meaning or randomness to everything.

Atheists are in many ways no different from the faithful.  Both believe that things happen for a reason, only atheists believe that the reason itself is meaningless. There is plenty of solace, however, in that belief.  It is an ironic article of faith.

Hindus don’t even bother with the meaning argument at all.  The world is maya, illusion, figments of a universe created by Brahma but which will be destroyed by Siva, then recreated by Vishnu.  Each successive universe will be different but the same. Only by rejecting not only the idea of meaning but the whole illusionary world itself can anyone hope to achieve spiritual enlightenment.

The authors have offered a teeny-weeny bit of insight into the issue of meaning; but their conclusions are obvious and expected.  We all grapple with the meaning of life and come to conclusions about it sooner rather than later.  The answers, however, do not come from the psychological empathy that they suggest, nor from God.  They come from even a cursory look at history. Tolstoy was right – the past is no more than a a series of random billiard balls banging and clacking together.  The trick is not to find meaning in what is essentially meaningless, but to have fun while it’s your turn at the table.