Reconciling science and spirituality

Where lies the intersection between science and spirituality? As a former evangelical Christian who one day realized he no longer believed in God, I have struggled to define what spirituality means for me now. Can I in fact still call myself spiritual? Chris Mooney of Discover blog The Intersection answers this question eloquently in an article published in Playboy (warning: the online link includes erotic visuals), The Born Again Scientist.

People have asked me whether I am a rationalist. The term makes me uncomfortable because it discounts the sense of unspeakable wonder one feels when faced with the complexity, beauty and terror of nature. I have similar qualms about materialism. What we feel is just as important as what we know. Science might one day break the workings of the physical universe into a complete set of laws and equations, however I doubt that we can ever thoroughly understand our own personal or collective inner cosmos. If magic exists, it is here. True pilgrimage happens within.

I prefer the category of philosophical naturalism. One need not resort to supernatural explanations to insist that the human spirit transcends logic. Over millions of years this powerful, untamable experience has evolved naturally: intelligence, sensory complexity, love, and capacity for awe. This also gives clues to the basis of a morality: we owe sacred allegiance to the world which bore this richness.

Tree bark gallery

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This winter I got in the habit of feeling tree bark. One weekend on a stroll through cedar woods along the Grand River, I discovered the bark of these trees is extremely soft to the touch and not especially cold, even on a bitter winter day. On my walks around the city I began taking my gloves off to explore the sensation of various trees. Smooth-barked trees like cherry and beech feel as sharply cold as the surrounding air. This gallery shows a visual exploration of bark I have made over the years.

Today I walked up to a maple I had groped a few weeks ago. The bark is rough, and I expected it to feel warm in the early spring sunshine. But my hand strayed into the unseen shady side and found instead cool moisture: either from rain earlier in the day, or perhaps sap seeping down from overhead buds. In the shadows it was coated with a patchwork of lichen like blisters of emerald and jade. On the sunny west side, the bark was indeed warm and comparatively barren.

Pukaskwa National Park 1I was reminded of the epiphytic lichens that coat the upper branches, or entire cloud forests such as this one I visited in Pukaskwa National Park on the north shore of Lake Superior last spring. A single tree is a miniature ecosystem, holding innumberable organisms in the halo of its branches.

Consciousness and eyesight

Addressing Why did consciousness evolve? Malcolm MacIver at Science Not Fiction theorizes it arose as animals left the sea and adapted to terrestrial environments. Life underwater requires short reaction times, he argues, because the range of senses, particularly sight, is limited. These circumstances don’t allow an organism to contemplate multiple futures or outcomes. In contrast, a terrestrial animal may see a predator or prey at a distance, and gains an advantage by being able to choose the best way to pursue or evade.

Lake Erie fogI suggest his argument fails to consider other animals making efficient use of senses other than sight, for example a dog’s smell or a bat’s echolocation. Sharks and other aquatic creatures rely on electroreception for remote sensing or communication, because salt water is an efficient conductor of electrical charge.

If consciousness were not useful underwater, it would follow that animal lineages returning to aquatic life would lose the capacity over time, cetaceans for example. However, whale and dolphin intelligence relies heavily on sonar for sensory input. On a completely different branch of the tree of life which does not descend from terrestrial organisms, octopuses possess powerful vision while demonstrating learning and problem-solving abilities.

Further to MacIver’s post, he argues that for “range for detailed imaging, there is nothing that beats vision.” He also mentions the theory that whales, in order to develop effective sonar, required the complex sensoria inherited from their terrestrial origins. Octopuses, in contrast, do not demonstrate the capacity for forethought so much as “powerful reactionary brains.”

The other part of MacIver’s question is: how we can modify our intelligence for more effective planetary citizenry? Good question. The role of vision may offer clues.


Climate change and the stages of grief

Today as I watched footage of the tsunami sweeping away cars, houses, lives and entire towns, a wave of sadness washed over me. Japan was well prepared as any country to minimize damage from such a disaster, but generally people are not good at addressing certain kinds of risk. We would rather not think about it. Such avoidance leads to the widespread denial of climate change. As I sat feeling miserable about the loss of hundreds of lives in Japan, I realized denial of environmental disaster may be likened to the first of the five stages of grief.

Andrew C. Revkin at Dot Earth points out this denial falls into a common pattern of behaviour. Japan has the wealth and technology to ameliorate the affects of earthquakes, but also enough temblor frequency to provoke action and preparation. By comparison, the American Pacific Northwest also faces an earthquake of devastating proportions, but public buildings have not been brought up to safety standards necessary to withstand it. Revkin compares this to our refusal to take adequate action to address climate change.

This reminds me of the K├╝bler-Ross model, also know as the five states of grief. Denial of environmental degradation is to be expected. Nobody wants to think about the worst case scenarios: our planet turning increasingly to desert, or at least we lose a quality of life we have come to expect. We have received a grave diagnosis, and not everyone handles it very well. Here is what we might expect to see across the population:

1. Denial: “These prophets of climate change are hysterical. The scientists are lying. Their research is politically motivated. There is nothing wrong here. We don’t have to change anything. This severe winter weather proves they are wrong.”
2. Anger: “This isn’t fair. Other countries pollute and devastate the environment worse than we do. Let them pay for it.”
3. Bargaining: “It’s not as bad as they say it is. Nothing is going to happen for a long time. I recycle my newspapers, so I’m already doing my part. Maybe if I buy a nice hybrid vehicle, that will help.”
4. Depression: “Okay, so the world is turning to hell. It’s too late to do anything. Anyway, I am just one person. What difference does it make?”
5. Acceptance: “We may lose some of our luxuries, but this doesn’t have to be the end. Maybe the world is going to become a lot different. I might as well do what I can to secure a better future for the next generation. I am part of this global community so it’s time I took some responsibility.”

As may be the case with a terminal illness or other personal loss, not everyone goes through all five stages. People with a strong sense of life purpose may have an easier time approaching acceptance. Unfortunately, some never move beyond denial, and fight death to the bitter end. Nobody can force anyone to see the way through. We will have to find what this means for our collective future, but the more people who take responsibility for the problem, the better chance we have of finding solutions.

Personally I tend to get stuck on depression. Where do you stand in the process?

I am saddened by the suffering of people in Japan, and encouraged by their example in preparing as best they could for such a disaster. Maybe we can learn from them.

Fern frost gallery

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It’s too bad we have to worry about energy efficiency. As new windows replace old ones in our homes, fern frost is becoming a lost memory. Fern frost is the stuff that forms on glass when humid air inside meets cold air outside. The first two images in this gallery show the enchanted sapphire forest I found on my bathroom window yesterday at dawn.

We used to see it in the windows of the house where I grew up. After I left home, I forgot these fanciful visions from childhood. Many years later I moved into a flat in an older building. The place was poorly maintained, in fact it declined during the years while I lived there. It was hard to keep the place warm in winter. One benefits of living there was seeing the winter window displays.

The structure of the formation depends on dirt or other particles or imperfections on the glass. One of the windows in the apartment featured distinctive striated feathers like those in the fifth image. Sometimes it looked more like strings of pearls. The dark third image shows the same window one night, back lit by the streetlight. Another window in the same apartment usually had a pattern of jagged plates like a jigsaw puzzle (sixth image). Every window has a unique way of expressing itself. The glowing fourth picture appeared on my office window at dawn on February 20, 2008, the day my mother died. It reminds me of milkweed seeds.

Some people call these patterns frost flowers, however that term may also be applied to a different phenomenon. When the weather turns sharply cold over unfrozen ground, it may cause plant stems to squeeze out, by capillary action, layers of ice resembling leaves or petals. I have yet to observe this peculiar beauty.

I was glad to move out of the old dive, but sorry to say goodbye to those windows. My current apartment has mostly newer ones. Fern frost can form on double-paned glass when the air outside is extremely cold, but this seldom happens. This place still has two old windows in the bathroom and hall, and I was delighted to discover this glass attracts foliage patterns much like fern fronds. It’s a nice sight to discover when I crawl out of bed on a winter morning and head for the toilet.

I must pay for the show. A lot of heat must escape through these windows. Maybe I should petition the landlord to replace them, but I’d rather not. Continue reading

Urban conservation

Here are two stories about people working to protect wildlife in urban setting (with apologies for the advertisements attached to these BBC news clips). The city of Austin, Texas, has protected its two million free-tailed bats, while generating $10 million in tourist revenue every year. Meanwhile hundreds of people in Hanoi are working to make a lake in the city more hospitable for a giant turtle nearly two metres long.

Creating time and space

Nothing feels better than time and space to work. Creative people crave it.

Weekend pleasuresI have an oak library table from the 1920s. It belonged to my mother’s great aunt, a rare career woman of that generation. In those days, only old maids had time for such things. She worked in a legal office. The desk came down to me. As a boy I stripped off the dark stain and applied a clear finish to bring out the natural aged golden colour. I like to set the desk with a view of the outside world. Even a busy street lined with ice and snow will do.

Fresh flowers used to seem too much a luxury. For years I wandered wistfully past the florists’ tables at the farmers’ market. A week ago Saturday I had the gall to ask. One bunch of deep red tulips cost only $2.50. I brought them home and retrieved a vase from a high shelf.

Recently I have been writing a nature journal to cover the winter season. I walk by the river and reflect, then come home to recount the experience. I habitually light a candle for every session at the desk. The amber flame casts insufficient light for the work, so some lamplight is required, yet the candle guides my psychological journey through the dark of the year.

Excessive clutter curses creativity. It comes hand in hand with depression. Garbage and papers distract us from the pure, clear sea in which we must swim to create something new.

I can give myself few gifts better than a clean kitchen. When I arrive home from the shop late afternoon, a clear work space invites me to spend 20 minutes assembling an interesting and nutritional meal. Then I can launch into my evening writing routine with gusto. More often than not, I find instead a pile of dishes with no open space to prepare anything. A single pot of pasta must suffice, with sauce from a jar. Then a few more things go on top of the pile.

A while ago osodecanela began eliminating clutter from his home. He made a habit of taking one unneeded object to the garbage every day when he went out. In March I will attempt the same process. I pass the dumpster en route to my car each morning. Some items can be recycled or donated. Shall we attempt this challenge together, you and I? We may need to address other kinds of clutter, too: temporal, virtual or psychological. Let’s start with physical junk as an icon of a deeper process to clear time and space for ourselves.

Not all clutter is bad. Natalie Goldberg wrote she mistrusts an excessively tidy work space. Sometimes we go too far in limiting our defintion of what is useful. A candle or a vase of tulips on a winter day may not seem like logical writing tools, but they offer an invitation. They dispel sterility, engage the senses, help escape from a purely rational process and facilitate a deeper level of consciousness.

With the right combination of elements, the desk feels like a magic wardrobe, a time machine, or a rabbit hole. With just a little effort, I can plunge into Earthsea, Lilliput, or even a real place in my mind’s eye, perhaps a quiet dock on my favourite faraway lake. Let us keep the windows and doors of the mind clear.