My weblog ELECTRON BLUE, which concentrated on science and mathematics, ran from 2004-2008. It is no longer being updated. My current blog, which is more art-related, is here.

Mon, 31 Jul, 2006

Traditional Ambient Electronic Music

I haven't posted a music review in a while, so here's one.

by "The Ministry of Inside Things" (Chuck van Zyl and Art Cohen)
Synkronos Music, 2006

The "Ministry of Inside Things," composed of Pennsylvania synth-man Chuck Van Zyl on electronic keyboards, and Art Cohen on electric guitar, have released another compilation of passages from their live concerts. CONTACT POINT was recorded in various places in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, including two planetaria. Chuck Van Zyl, as ambient aficionados know, is the host of the "Star's End" music program on WXPN in Philadelphia, as well as the organizer of the ambient music festival series, "The Gatherings."

CONTACT POINT follows in the "traditional electronic" style set by "Ministry" (also known as the acronym MoiT) in their previous albums and concerts. The seven tracks on the album (this time a single CD) contain a wide variety of moods and paces. It opens with surf sounds, as the first track. Track 2, "Serenity Cove," is restful, contemplative trancemusic, with a floating, modal melodic line over a slow repeating sequencer. Track 3, "Uncharted Isle," is more weird, spacey, and expansive, best listened to in a quiet dark place. Track 4, "Fortescue," is an uptempo, sequencer-driven jam, accented with looping guitar by Cohen. It's all in one minor key, sounding like the European synthesizer pop of decades past. Track 5, "River Dream," is a more experimental piece, full of eerie sound-effects including water glurp, distorted guitars, electronic bleeps, static, and multiple echoes. An even weirder element is a distorted loop repeating a clip from a Yiddish folk song. At times, "River Dream" sinks into very soft atonal minimalism, and would be best listened to on headphones. After that, Track 6, "Nightscene," returns to a more rock-influenced sequencer sound, led by Cohen's sustained electric guitar melodic line. The collection ends with "The Red Sun Rises," another evocative, gentle piece accented with natural sounds of tree peeper frogs.

This album features a rich array of tone colors, feelings, arrangements, textures, speeds, and instrumental virtuosity. But it all hangs together stylistically. These are ambient professionals and it shows in their work. If you're an ambient fan, you're sure to find lots to listen to in CONTACT POINT.

Included with CONTACT POINT in the sample package sent to me was a CD of a live solo electronic set by Chuck Van Zyl, dated October 2005. This set lasts about 26 minutes, and moves from drone electronica to hard-driving sequencers. Van Zyl provides the melodic line on keyboard over the sequence, using his wide electronic and sampling resources to sound like a flute, an electric guitar, an organ, or a more raw synthesizer sound. He also punctuates one of his more droney sections with a field recording of what sounds like a chanting sports crowd. Or is it a political demonstration? He returns to a rhythmic sequencer improvisation with a keyboard melody overlay, before he ends with a sampled choral and orchestral sound, adding a kind of majesty and even reverence to his electronic panorama. It ends somewhat abruptly, rather than trailing off into a fade. As this is all in one single modal/minor key, it holds together tonally.

This set is certainly worthy of commercial release, though I don't know whether he's planning to do it. At 26 minutes, it would have to be collected with other pieces to make up a typical hour-long CD. It shows how a talented electronic musician can continue to be creative within the "traditions" of electronic music.

Posted at 1:33 am | link

Sun, 30 Jul, 2006

Esthetique du Math

There are so many ways to do wordplay on "limits" that I don't even try. One of the first things I made sure I knew when I began my math and physics studies was that any piece of wordplay, on any word at all connected with math or physics, has already been done a million times. Therefore I have no need to do it again. But my title this time is also a piece of wordplay. The title comes from "Esthetique du Mal," a long, rambling, overfull poem about the the philosophy of existence by my favorite modern poet Wallace Stevens. We last saw Wallace doing calculus in rural Pennsylvania by graphing haystacks. Here he tries to figure out why poetry can't describe real existence. The "Mal" is a sense of "evil" that Stevens associates with beauty, but I haven't figured out why yet. I'd rather do "Math" than "Mal."

One of my goals in studying mathematics is to learn to appreciate what mathematicians call "elegance," or in general the aesthetics of mathematics. I have only had a glimpse or two of it, and I know it is a sense acquired over many years. My "Friendly Mathematicians" have not been able to explain it to me, so I'll have to discover it myself. I think I'm on the right track though. It's not only the beautiful shapes made by the graphs of functions, though that is part of it. It's in the concept of limits, where in a kind of kinetic gesture, the trail of a function's results drifts closer and closer to the limit while never quite getting there. Or in a stronger statement, the limit soars off into positive infinity or descends into black negative infinity. I think limits are elegant.

There's plenty of inelegant math too. I dare not be impolite by calling some math "inelegant" when mathematicians, unbeknownst to me, consider it lovely. But in finding limits mathematically rather than visually with a graph, the book leads me through some algebraic polynomial-pushing which seems sort of contrived. I'm too much of a beginner to make this comment. It will be revealed to me later why this is being done. Learn first, ask questions later. In my case, questions are expensive, because it means contacting the Friendly Mathematician or Physicist and reserving time with him.

I am doing limit problems now. There are a lot of them and I intend to do them all, in the way the book has taught me. In this I am indulging in rote learning, whether it is good or not, because I'm not sure where this is leading me. But I will do them with the methods the book has taught me, until they are familiar to me. Each problem contributes, atom by atom, to my sense of mathematical beauty.

Posted at 3:04 am | link

Wed, 26 Jul, 2006

The crickets are chirping like little clocks

Even though summer is my favorite time of year, I have been struggling these days with some physical problems, which I've detailed in earlier posts. They have to do with female complaints and the "change of life." Recently I started on a prescription drug (I'd rather not identify it here, but will on private request) which is known to reduce or even stop the hot flashes which were driving me crazy. The drug has worked, along with the soy extract I've been taking all along, and I hardly have any hot flashes now. But the drug is powerful and has some side effects which I will have to work through before it settles down. So my activity level has been a bit curtailed these last few days.

Meanwhile the late summer insects have awakened and are now chirping and chattering away in the warm, stuffy nights. The crickets' rhythm is like a clock to me, ticking off the precious days of warm summer before the misery of cold winter returns. I'm not looking forward to that at all. Not looking forward to heavy sweaters and cracked fingers and chilly car metal and freezing rain. Hot flashes did not keep me warm in the winter. As for the physical symptoms and side-effects, who knows. You don't get nothing for nothing, as the saying goes.

I am starting a new painting which I will be working on for at least the next few weeks. The little orange painting which you saw in the last entry is a warm-up for it. The new painting will be another space and nebula picture with geometric abstraction, plus some religious symbolism. There will be orange, but not as much as in the warm-up picture. I guarantee that it will not look like anything by Kandinsky.

In my calculus study, I am still working through the chapter on limits and finding them by computation. From the limits of simple functions, the book adds on more complexity, while instructing me on how to find the limits of polynomial functions and rational functions. I didn't know before now that the typical "quadratic equation" polynomial such as x2 + 4x + 3 is actually three separate functions added up together. Not only that, each one has a limit, and the limits can be added together too. Meanwhile, in a rational function, that is in the form 1/x, you have that abyss that faces you where x might be zero, which is a big mathematical no-no. So limits of such functions sometimes edge around and towards zero though they politely never, ever get there.

Posted at 2:08 am | link

Sat, 22 Jul, 2006

Orange Limits

I haven't been neglecting either art or calculus while I've been rambling on here about science, religion, and the mythic multiverse. I just finished a little orange painting which I present here. It's called ORANGE LIMITS, and it's acrylic on board, 11 inches by 14 inches.

As anyone who knows me knows, I really love orange. But orange's partner color is Blue, as in Electron Blue, the "complementary color" on the Color Wheel to Orange. I love Blue almost as much as I love Orange. If you stare at bright orange long enough, your eyes will have an after-image of blue. If you stare at blue long enough, your eyes will have an orange after-image. Hence I use orange and blue at the same time. And somewhere out there is a "Positron Orange" which I hope that "Electron Blue" never collides with, lest there be a huge explosion as matter meets anti-matter.

The lines of "Orange Limits" are from the graphs I've been working with in calculus, in which the outputs of functions rise towards positive or sink towards negative infinity. Other lines show a function's output as it edges closer and closer to its limit, without ever truly getting there. Now I am learning to find the limits of functions without using a graph, so it is not so artistically inspiring.

Posted at 2:44 am | link

Wed, 19 Jul, 2006

Science Religion Imagination Realities, part 5

There is a style of literature, in its modern form dating from about the early twentieth century, called magic realism, in which fantastical elements exist side-by-side with "realistic" elements, with no warning or comment by the author (or the characters!) to identify what is fantastic or "real." I say that this is the "modern" form of magic realism, because in the past, many of the greatest works of literature, from Homer's Iliad and Odyssey to Dante's Divine Comedy were written this way. Gods or spirits or saints appear to characters, who though they might be terrified or astonished, interact with them as if they were as real as any other creature. A character enters into the other world as if he were entering into another town or country in the "real" world. This is not like conventional science or fantasy fiction, where there are labels all over the cover and in the text making sure you know what it is (although many modern science fiction/fantasy writers make use of "magical realist" techniques).

I believe that the Bible and other holy texts are also examples of pre-modern "magical realism." The ancient commentators on the Bible realized that many things in the Book were not to be taken completely literally, but allegorically. Elements which a modern rational mind would consider totally fantastic exist side-by-side in the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, with more or less "realistic" narrative about kings and prophets and battles.

I also believe (and this is much more speculative) that the people of those days, along with the people who created the holy texts, lived in a much more "magically-realistic" world than we do. They regarded dreams, visions, or peculiar happenings as part of a "real" world of the divine or numinous which coexisted alongside and even "within" the physical world. This does not mean that they were literal believers in the sense that our modern fundamentalists were. They just had, as I mentioned in my earlier entries here, a wider sense of what "reality" might be. This sense of living in a "magically realistic" world may have been, as a good rationalist would say, because these ancient folk were ignorant of the true, scientifically explainable causes of all these "divine" events. They were just plain ignorant, while we in the modern age are not.

Maybe yes, maybe no. Sure, the ancients didn't know about quantum mechanics, which is pretty "magical-realistic" itself when you think about it. They didn't know about evolutionary psychology or microbiology. But they did know that the world is often composed of names, and stories, or even, as some modern thinkers speculate, "information."

I converted to Catholicism in 1979, from a secular Jewish background, after eight years of often agonizing religious searching and questioning. I have been a fairly faithful Catholic Christian ever since, even though I currently don't attend church. A Bishop would regard that as "falling away," but I just can't stand any of the church services where I am located. That does not mean that I don't pay attention to my religion and the spiritual life. I would rather learn and struggle with theological and philosophical questions than sit and listen to bad music and bad sermons. I only hope that God understands this.

I cannot speak here of all the reasons I converted, but the ones relevant to this series of essays concern art and story and symbolic actions. I first was attracted to Catholicism in Rome, where the pageantry of the colorful Papal court was on display in every major church. I was immersed for years in the glorious art produced on behalf of the Roman church, and later learned more about the glorious art produced by the Eastern Orthodox church as well. Christianity allows for such a rich artistic tradition because it believes that the physical world matters. It is not an illusion. The physical world matters because Christians believe not only that God created the world and called it "good," but that God, in the person of Jesus the Christ, entered into it as an incarnate human being. And in an allegorical sense, the world can be used as a symbol to point to divine realities.

Now do I believe that Jesus was really a divine being walking the Earth? That he lived for thirty-three years, died, and was resurrected from the dead? Well, yes, I believe this. But do I believe it literally? Back to "magical realism." I believe it as happening in a magical-realistic world, which is very close to this one, but not exactly the same as the physical world that our scientific friends investigate. There are things that co-exist in more than one world, whether holy objects, maybe even holy animals, and holy people. Jesus Christ, especially two thousand years later, is made of stories, or even "information," rather than ordinary flesh and blood. Miracles are made of stories, no matter how many people will tell me that they occurred in the "real" world and "how could I not believe" this or that. It does not matter to me what the "real" story of Jesus might have been, whether he was a cult-leader who had children with Mary Magdalene or whether he was a madman from the boiling kitchen of first-century sectarian Judaism. The real Jesus is the story that is told about him, even along with all its emendations over the years. It also doesn't matter to me that it took centuries of adjustment and sometimes open war to tell this story. If you have ever made up a story or a work of art, you'll know that it is a process that involves a lot of revision and possibly some violence (at least to your art) before you get it right. I dare to say that religion, and its scriptures and doctrines and liturgies and sacred actions, is like art.

It is not like science, which must be proven or falsified by experimental evidence. But it is also not disposable, something that would wither away under the burning light of scientific rationalism, because it comes from the same place that art does. And people are not going to stop making art, or stories, or songs, or anything else creative.

I'm not going to talk about the sociological aspects of religion, which I'm not really qualified to talk about. Nor will I lay out the obvious objections about how many atrocities were and are perpetrated in the name of religion. This is not what I'm talking about. I haven't burned a heretic at the stake in a long time. I'm also not talking about the supposed moral uplift generated by religion. I know as well as you do that atheists can be highly moral beings, in fact as they point out, they are more moral than believers because they don't believe in any divine reward for doing good.

My religious journey, which is like my artistic and scientific/mathematical journey, will last as long as I am living and conscious. I have wondered whether, if I immersed myself in the purifying cold waters of science, my attraction to religion and my life of faith would be washed away and I would emerge as a "bright" shining atheist. This has not happened. What has happened is that science and mathematics have become another transparency in the layered pages I wrote about in one of the earlier essays here. I myself live what many people would consider a "magical-realistic" life. This would be considered by some people as simply "fantasy-prone," a condition which could be alleviated by therapy and "getting a life." But our society still makes some allowances for the charming eccentricities of its artists.

I also have wondered whether I was being called (by God or some other deity) to go into science or mathematics full-time, even in my middle age, and become a professional in the field. I've been told it is not impossible, though highly improbable, and would probably take more time, energy, and money than I have left in my life. I envy the daylights out of those scientists I've encountered, either "live" or online, because their work seems to be simply more "important" than mine. When, back almost six years ago, I asked my physicist host at Fermilab what they were doing there, he replied: "We're trying to find the ultimate basis of reality." Gosh, you can't get more important than that. I'm just putting colors on panels and hanging them on walls (and hopefully the client's walls as well).

But if color and word is all I have, and I will not be smashing atoms at CERN, at least I can attest to the multivariant, multi-universal world I live in, by using the media I have at hand: color, shape, image, story, pattern. This is different from a scientist's world, which is why I probably wouldn't make a good scientist. I'm not single-minded enough. In the multiverse, the transfigured Christ co-exists with a blaze of photons. In the multiverse, the rings of protons and anti-protons in the Tevatron co-exist as rings of alchemical monads transmuting as they collide. Pythagorean divinities scatter galaxies and spin their discs, and the Angel of Mathematics announces the trigonometric identities of the Holy Trinity.

This concludes my series of essays on science, religion, and imagination. In my next post, I'll return to writing about calculus.

Posted at 2:44 am | link

Mon, 17 Jul, 2006

Science Religion Imagination Realities, part 4

The multi-layered realityverse that I have been talking about is hardly original with me, as I've tried to show with my references to shamanism and Gnosticism. In the twentieth century, there were new approaches to the idea, for instance the idea of the "Noosphere," a level of existence created and sustained by conscious beings. The Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin tried to make something spiritual and progressive out of it, with moderate success, but his efforts are all but forgotten nowadays. The most prevalent paradigm of the multiverse these days comes not from philosophy or physics, but from the Internet which brings you this very article. That is, "virtual reality."

Just about anyone who knows how to read or talk over a telephone has encountered "virtual reality," in its simplest form as a presence mediated by print or electricity. With the Internet and the fast-growing web of global communications, the Noosphere seems to be taking up an electronic existence. Physical people, mostly younger ones, are living in a multiplicity of worlds, only one of which is physical. They live in "massively multi-player online role-playing games" such as "World of Warcraft" or "Second Life" where they represent themselves with fantasy characters ironically called "avatars" (borrowed from the Hindu word for an incarnation of a god). Simpler forms of virtual reality are Websites, e-mail, Weblogs like this one, and "chatrooms," where people type in their conversations and reply in real-time.

I don't need to explain this to anyone under the age of 30, but those who might be reading this may be over 30 and have no idea that these things even exist. And as for philosophers, humanists, and many mathematicians, if they are part of the academic establishment, all of this is beneath them. Internet itself, let alone the various virtual realities it hosts, is the realm of fantasy-ridden children, idiot slacker students, and perverts. Academics, at least the ones I know in the humanities, must use Internet, and even buy things over it, but they do it reluctantly, as if it were something dirty (as sometimes it is!). The scientists have a few more clues, after all, the Net was invented by them, but they are only now beginning to see the use of Weblogs and other virtual forms of existence in their attempts to reach people other than in their own specialized communities.

So if you are still reading this, you are now probably aware that the Noosphere has happened, not by the creation of God, but by the ingenuity and desires of human beings. So where does God fit in here? Is the Divine just another layer in this big reality pastry?

Unless you are a Christian or a member of one of the many sects of Hinduism, you do not believe that God became incarnate (like an Avatar) in the physical world. God can give direct revelation to a human being (as Jews and Muslims believe) or God can communicate directly with human beings in prayer (as most religions believe), but God isn't likely to show up as a physical person any time soon (at least until the Christian Second Coming, and maybe not even then). This makes divine existence, for better or worse, a non-physical existence. How is this non-physical divine and spiritual existence mediated to us? It has to be through the very consciousness that also brings us the world of virtual presences, whether through words, stories, art, music, or any other form of presentation.

I already admitted back a couple of posts ago that for atheist scientists, this is all irrelevant. Their world is composed of physical existences which can be studied, analyzed, proved or disproved by experiment. Sure, they live in the same world that you and I do, with all those un-provable, irrational, un-analyzable realities, and some of them, for all I know, play "World of Warcraft" or other games like it. But for them, it's easier to tell the difference between real and imaginary. They don't give "imaginary" things, including religious things, the honor of being "real." But I do.

Religion uses stories, legends, images, parables, and symbols to get its message across. It uses, to use a general word, mythology. Now many Christians, especially the fundamentalist kind, are shocked to hear their religion called "mythology," but as the saying goes, "Your religion is revelation (or enlightenment), someone else's is mythology." The concept of mythology has been debased in our culture to a kind of spiritual screenplay, but mythology, like the "shamanic reality," is one of the ways in which the divine makes itself present. The one thing it is NOT required to be, at least for non-fundamentalists, is literal reporting of events.

Bizarre and terrible things happen in myths, as anyone who knows Greek or Norse mythology can attest. Bizarre and terrible things happen in the Bible, too, as well as in most other religious writings. Beautiful and glorious and uplifting things happen as well. Religious writings, if you have been following this, exist in the realm of Mythworld. It is a virtual reality. It is reached by another mode of consciousness, which may overlay ordinary reality simultaneously. In Mythworld, when weird things happen that contradict the laws of physics, you don't get out your calculator to prove that they can't happen. You pay attention to what they are trying to tell you. In Mythworld, everything is symbolic. It means what it looks like, but it also means what the author, or divine author, is trying to symbolize and teach.

The problem comes when the levels of reality are not kept separate. A fundamentalist uses the tools of rationalism (useful in one reality) to try to explain myth (in another reality) literally. Or, in the other direction, the tools of rationalism are used to disprove mythic events, in the hope that the myth will just go away. There is little that non-fundamentalists (or non-atheists) can do to convince these people. I seriously doubt that anyone of a fundamentalist type of mind is reading this anyway. All of this rambling about reality has been my attempt to place myself in the dialogue between science and religion, in the hope that I may honestly participate in both.

My next and last post in this series will be about how I personally navigate my way among the many realities, and how I view religion and the Divine, as well as the truly fundamental things of science and mathematics.

Posted at 2:18 am | link

Thu, 13 Jul, 2006

Science Religion Imagination Realities, part 3

Once you assume a "multiverse" of parallel and equally real realities, you then are faced with a number of things which need clarification. Do you mean that fantasy characters and unicorns are as important and as useful as refrigerators and cars? Does it mean that you are entitled to check out of "reality" into a dreamworld because you claim that it is equally real? This question is one of those things which are answered by common sense rather than philosophy. Sure, the physical world is primary, because that's where you live and survive physically. As I've said before, many people believe that this is all you need, and anything else is not worthy to be called "reality," only fantasy. But even in the multiverse, the physical universe has a kind of precedence because otherwise you don't survive to experience the kind of imagination and consciousness which accesses the other realities.

The next question is, what belongs in those other realities? Well, the aforementioned fantasy characters, superheroes, unicorns, dragons, and other entities are there. These are usually relegated to the limbo of "silly" and "childish" by the professional thinkers, but there are other places in this multiverse of realities which contain "higher" levels such as art, music, creativity, and spirituality. Where do creative ideas come from? Are they, as some evolutionary psychologists contend, programmed into human minds as an evolutionary adaptation to the ever-changing needs and challenges of the environment? Or are they the result of endless mental combinatorics which result in only one of a million ideas being worth pursuing? Are they in a collective unconscious such as that proposed by the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung? Or perhaps they already exist in one or more of these realities, which some creative person then accesses through the imagination?

Imagination is the key. Imagination is the central access point around which all those non-physical realities revolve. They depend on consciousness, which in turn depends on living beings. Presumably (and this is still controversial) in a universe in which conscious beings never evolved, there would be no other realities except the physical. Here's where the famous philosophical problem posed by Bishop Berkeley comes in. He's the one who proposed that things only exist if they are perceived by a conscious being. For a believer, that would mean that even if other conscious life didn't exist, God, the ultimate Consciousness, would keep the world in existence. But in a world without God, you again have to make that common-sense assumption that the "real" i.e. physical world exists regardless of whether you perceive it or not.

There is also the New Age notion, twisted out of quantum physics, that claims that perception creates reality by "collapsing the waveform" of uncertain subatomic existences, thus fixing them in one state of reality rather than another. The New Agers love to say that this means that you "create your own reality." But Real Physicists take pains (mostly in vain) to say that it doesn't take consciousness to fix the particles in a single state, only any interaction with anything else in the universe. So having a stray particle bump into something would do just as well as being viewed by a New Age believer.

But those creative physicists (and where does their creativity come from?) also have come up with their own version of the Multiverse, which I am not advanced enough, perhaps will never be advanced enough, to talk about responsibly. They talk about multiple universes and realities, but the big difference in their version of the Multiverse is that no one will ever visit or even perceive those other universes. It's possible, they hope, that perhaps a particle in a supercollider will slip into another universe from this one, but no physicist working on that collider will ever follow it and disappear into another universe. Or at least that would be highly improbable.

Living conscious of the Multiverse means that you live in a world in which things look superimposed, like those sets of transparencies that go over pictures of ruins or skeletons or engineering frameworks in books. Each page of those transparencies has another layer of images printed on it, so that as you turn the pages and place them over the original image, the ruin returns to the way it was in ancient times, the skeleton grows back its internal organs, muscles, and skin, or the engine re-assembles itself piece by piece. This is how imaginative types perceive reality in the multiverse. Yes, the original picture, the physical world, is still there and always will be. But then there are those other transparent layers. There's the folklore layer. The color and light artistic layer. The mathematical layer. The narrative/journalistic layer. The Marxist layer. The musical layer. In this consciousness-mediated multiverse, just as in the modern physicists' multiverse, there is an infinite number of potential realities. And, to bring us back to the original topic of this series, there is a layer of spiritual reality too, and that's what I'll talk about in the next entry in this series.

Posted at 3:36 am | link

Sat, 08 Jul, 2006

Science Religion Imagination Realities, part 2

What I am going to say in this entry is already familiar to many of you readers so if you like, you can just skip it. But it might be of interest to readers who don't know me personally and have never heard my often wine-fueled flights of philosophical fancy. How do you resolve the impasse between hard-headed, reality-minded scientists and religious believers? Before I even start, I will add that my solution will not appeal to "traditional" religious believers, so it will remain a "minority" or eccentric solution.

The way to resolve the conflict, as I see it, is not to accept either one way of thought or the other, or place them in "separate but equal" segregation, but to change the way you think about reality in the first place. In our modern era, which is dominated by rationalism no matter what side of the question you stand on, there is a strict dualism between "real" and "not-real," which is also called "imaginary." "Real" things are in the "real world," and you can see them, measure them, use them, eat them, break them, buy them, or do whatever we do with "real" things. "Real" things are also material and physical, though even the hardest reality guys sometimes make exceptions for things like mathematics or physical laws. For reality-minded scientific types, this is all there is in the "real" world: material, real things which can be scientifically investigated. Even music, for instance, can fall into this category as it depends on material things like instruments which produce sound.

The rest is imaginary, unreal, or "conceptual:" fictional worlds and characters, abstract qualities, stories and mental images, myths and religions. Since religion is, to a science type, non-material and composed of legends and peculiar doctrines and stories about events which do not follow the laws of physics, then it is irrelevant unless it presumes to make claims about the "real world," or tell people what to do in the "real world," at which point it can be attacked.

But what if that old dualism wasn't all there was? What if, instead of "real or unreal," there were any number of possible realities, each of them coherent and believable within their own spheres? And what if "imaginary" worlds or beings had, in fact, their own reality, accessible not through telescopes or material senses, but through human consciousness?

This is hardly a new idea, this notion of multiple realities. The Platonists of old were well-aware of it, and from the Hellenistic philosophers and mystery cults, it passed into what is known as Gnosticism, which is considered a heresy and "bad religion" by mainstream Christianity and Judaism. Gnosticism has never died, despite the efforts of the mainstream groups to stamp it out. It still has a bad reputation as excessively proud, individualistic, and snobbish, or otherwise just plain weird. Yet Gnosticism inspired a myriad of esoteric ideas and schools of thought, some of whose memory and ideas extend down to the present day, for instance, Kabbalah, Theosophy, and various "New Age" groups.

Once we get here, of course, things start to go downhill fast, as we are in shady company. But the ideas still have worth. What if, between the scientifically verifiable "real world" and the abstract existence of mathematical and physical laws, there were many layers of reality, each of them equally "real," each of them filled with things that show up in the imagination and the dreaming mind and creative consciousness, rather than the microscope?

This "middle world" has in fact been much written about by mystical thinkers over the centuries. The Sufis, mystical devotees of the Islamic world, called it the "world of seeming" or "world of images," which the great French scholar of Islam, Henri Corbin, wrote a great deal about. Corbin called it the "imaginal world," which is a nice way to name it, though it sounds perhaps too much like "imaginary." The "inner" or "middle" or perhaps easiest for us, "mythic" world isn't just for Islamic mystics; it appears in both Western and Eastern religion and philosophy. You could call it the "visionary" world, but that has the connotation of weird hallucinations. In Christianity it is sometimes called the "spirit world" or "in the spirit," but deliberate journeys of imagination and myth into this world are strictly forbidden. God alone can lift people's minds there. But that world is real, as real as anything of earth or glass or stone.

The well-known scholar (and practitioner) of shamanism (a primal form of religion practiced among aboriginal peoples) Michael Harner describes this layout of multiple realities by defining an "ordinary state of consciousness" and a "shamanic state of consciousness." The same person experiences both, sometimes at the same time. As Harner puts it in his perennially popular book THE WAY OF THE SHAMAN, "…animals that would be considered "mythical" by us in the ordinary state of consciousness are "real" in the shamanic state of consciousness…"Fantasy can be said to be a term applied by a person in the ordinary state of consciousness to what is experienced in the shamanic state of consciousness." Unfortunately, the word "fantasy" has been debased in our modern world into something childish, silly, and time-wastingly unrealistic. And scientific types would say that religion is a "fantasy." Is there any way around this?

This is where I return somewhat to the Steven Jay Gould solution. The worlds, despite being all real, are separate. They exist simultaneously, layered side-by-side with each other. But the "imaginal world" does not force its way into the "real" world and attempt to make itself conform to the "real" world's laws and experimental programs. It is there for the human imagination to reach into. And what is there? Why do we need to bother with this world at all? Isn't the "real world" full enough of wonders that we don't have to invent any more in some fantasy world and call them real? As a person who depends on creativity and imagination to get my work done, I spend plenty of time accessing this world. What appears in this world eventually gets translated into art in the "real" world. And it has a direct relationship to what goes on in both myth and religion. I'll explore more of that relationship in my next posting.

Posted at 3:44 am | link

Wed, 05 Jul, 2006

Science Religion Imagination Realities, part 1

There's so much talk and writing about the conflict of science and religion these days that I hesitate to say anything about it here. Not only would I inevitably offend someone, but I would once and for all reveal myself to be a "deluded" religious believer, unworthy to enter into the rigorous world of science. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to say something about it. I see a lot of brilliant people who just don't get it. What do I mean by this? It's going to take more than one Electron posting to set it all down. If you are bored by all this, then please mosey on over to the Edge where the really brilliant people in science and philosophy talk about this subject, and some of them actually do "get it," for instance the physicist Lawrence Krauss. I will sound silly compared to these people. But here I am anyway.

The usual "liberal" approach to the question of whether science and religion are in conflict is the now-classic "dual magisteria" form taken by the late Steven Jay Gould in his book, ROCKS OF AGES. In this small volume, Gould patiently states that religion and science belong to two different spheres, each with its own appropriate way of thinking. The wrongness and conflict happen when one of these spheres attempts to enforce its way on the other, rather than remaining within itself. So that if scientists try to impose their way of thought on religion, that's not right, and if the religious believers try to impose their way on science, that's very wrong.

But of course that's what happens all the time, and it's happening now as it has for the last few hundred years since the rise of exact and rational science. Religion states a "cosmology," that is a story about the origin of the universe. Religion also assumes that miracles which defy the laws of science, such as resurrections from the dead, happen in the "real world." Thus scientists claim that these assumptions and stories can be proven wrong by science. The claims of religion can and should be tested with the experimental method of science, and if they don't hold up, then they should be discarded as a scientific hypothesis would be.

Meanwhile, religious believers in recent centuries (again, since the rise of rationalism) have devised "scientific" or more accurately pseudo-scientific justifications for their religious beliefs, most recently Creationism and "intelligent design." Biblical literalism in its current form is, paradoxically, a product of rationalism. It's an attempt to make rational sense out of something which came from a pre-modern and essentially pre-rational culture.

So far I haven't said anything that anyone else writing about this wouldn't say, and I run the risk of being boring. Many, perhaps most outspoken scientist-writers are atheists, and some of them insist that a true scientist must be an atheist. Nothing in belief should be held without experimental proof, and if experimental proof fails to give positive results, the belief, whether in God or any other religious claim, should be discarded. The more tolerant members of the scientific community are willing to admit that in some rare cases, religion might improve people's lives and lead to ethical, helpful behavior, but that's all the support they can admit for it.

Meanwhile, the fundamentalists and the creationists, who use the media and words brilliantly and who are skilled at manipulating people's hopes and fears, have so dominated the public view of religion that a pro-science, pro-evolution religious view is nearly impossible to stand up for. The scientific types, who are threatened by the fundamentalists and creationists, naturally use their powers to combat this type of religion. If I, or anyone else, complains that the scientists are mistaking the nature of religion, I am told that their conflict is with the fundamentalists and the creationists and that I should not mistakenly think that they are criticizing ALL religion (though I have heard words exactly to this effect by many scientists), and basically I should shut up. Not that I have much of an influential voice in any of this anyway.

Are we stuck with Gould's mild-mannered "separate but equal" program, where science goes on doing its thing in the laboratories and telescopes and space probe missions and geological expeditions, while religion should stay home with humanity and take care of people's ethical and social problems? I don't disagree with Gould, but I have quite a different outlook on that solution. It is a highly personal solution that I wouldn't wish on anyone else, but in my next entry I'll share it with you anyway.

Posted at 2:10 am | link

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