God is a verb

The Thinker by Rodin

Those of us who believe in God tend to think of God as a noun. As you may recall from elementary school, a noun is a person, place or thing. God is probably not a person, unless you count Jesus Christ. Nor is God a place, except heaven is assumed to be some physical or ethereal space where God’s presence is overwhelming, sort of God’s home, you might say. Calling God a thing sounds sort of churlish since by definition there can be nothing grandeur or more magnificent than God. Given our poor definition, if we have to define God as a noun, saying God is a thing will have to do.

A sentence is made up of many parts of speech. God cannot be an adjective because adjectives modify nouns. Adverbs modify verbs or adjectives, and since God cannot be an adjective it cannot be an adverb. You can look through all the parts of a sentence and using God for anything other than a noun mostly doesn’t work. God can be part of a word and be something else. Goddamn, for instance, is an adjective and sometimes an adverb. There is only one other part of a sentence where God could work: God could be a verb.

For many of you, you are wondering what the heck I am talking about. A verb expresses action, state or a relationship between things. Dictionary.com defines a verb as:

Any member of a class of words that are formally distinguished in many languages, as in English by taking the past ending in -ed, that function as the main elements of predicates, that typically express action, state, or a relation between two things, and that (when inflected) may be inflected for tense, aspect, voice, mood, and to show agreement with their subject or object.

When you think about it though, using God as a verb makes a lot of sense. Granted it is hard to use God as a verb in a sentence, but what is fundamental about our notion of God is the notion of being in a relationship with God. If there were nothing else sentient in the universe, would God exist? Who can say, since no one would be around to detect the presence of God, but for sure it would not matter. God though only has meaning in the context of a relationship. Many of us seek to find God, and those who believe they have found God then try to understand God. This leads to a lot of confusion, however, because so many people have different interpretations of what God wants from us.

Yet if God is understood as the relationship between people, places and things, i.e. God is a verb, then clarity can emerge. This notion of God though will trouble most of us because we tend to see God as something external, all powerful, all good and unique, i.e. a noun. Saying God is a verb simply suggests it is what holds us in relationship to everything else. In this sense, we are literally part of the mind of God. In this sense, God becomes neither good nor bad, but simply is the relationship between all things, physical and spiritual. God in some sense is energy, or whatever forces exist, whether simple or complex, that hold us together in communion. This notion of God answers the riddle: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, did it make a sound? If God is a verb then the answer is yes. The tree falling in the forest impacts in some measure all of creation because God as a verb posits as an article of faith that everything really is interconnected with everything else. So yes, it made a sound, even if we did not hear it personally.

You will get no argument from scientists and not from quantum physicists in particular. Certainly no scientist will argue that every action is deterministic. Things are deterministic at the macro level. We know with confidence that our planet will be subsumed into the Red Giant that our sun will become someday, because we understand physics well enough. We also understand physics well enough to know that at the subatomic level outcomes can only be expressed in terms of probability, not certainty. Scientists have yet to find evidence of any phenomenon that can exist independently of anything else. A hurricane, for instance, requires heat and lots of water, so it is in relationship with its environment. Everything is in relation with something else, and the evidence is that every action affects everything else in the universe as well, not instantly, but over long periods of time.

Perhaps expressing a reverence for the relationship between all things is worship, and the relationship itself is God. Perhaps God is not a destination, but experiencing God is simply a matter of tuning into the relationship between all things, seen and unseen. God may feel most God-like when we feel a sense of awe from our interconnectedness. I feel it regularly. I felt it last year when I was traipsing around South Dakota’s Black Hills. I could feel it in the life of the soil at my feet and hear it in the brisk wind whistling through the pine trees. I felt it on Friday at a rest stop between Richmond, Virginia and my home in Northern Virginia when I stepped out of my car into stifling hundred plus degree heat. I feel it when the cat is on my lap, and is purring and looking at me with its adoring eyes. I felt it on Friday when I saw a broke, pregnant and homeless woman with a cardboard sign on the streets of Richmond and I felt a pang of remorse by driving by her without giving her a dollar or helping her to a homeless shelter. I feel it in the life cycle in particular, and my experiences of my encroaching mortality. I felt it when as an infant I was nuzzled up to my mother and drank milk from her breasts.

Perhaps God is simply what is. Perhaps our religious struggle is simply to come to terms with and accept what is, and to magnify and glorify the connections between all things. There are many ways to do it, but the principle method is to practice love as much as you can. This is because love certainly is a verb, and has god-like powers.

Perhaps we just need to accept the truth that God is love, and nothing more than that. Love is about enhancing the connection between all things so we are in greater harmony and understanding with each other. It works for me.

Can being “prolife” be anti-life?

The Thinker by Rodin

If you pay attention to the news you have read about the murder of Dr. George Tiller. He was gunned down yesterday at his church in Wichita, Kansas by alleged murderer and “prolifer” Scott Roeder. Tiller was one of a small number of surgeons willing to provide late term abortions. He is hardly the first surgeon to pay with his life for providing abortions and he is unlikely to be the last. In fact, the National Abortion Federation has chronicled over 6000 acts or attempted acts of violence since 1977 against abortion providers, including eight deaths. Unsurprisingly, Roeder had close connections with the most extreme elements of the so-called prolife community.

Clearly many Americans feel passionately on the issue of abortion. If convicted, Roeder will be one of the virulent ones who felt murder was justified to prevent what he saw as other murders. Moreover, if convicted there is a significant possibility that Roeder will also be murdered, not by a pro-choice supporter, but by the prolife state of Kansas, which often executes first degree murderers.

I have noticed that being “prolife” rarely means being pro all life.  I doubt you will find many so-called prolifers who are also vegetarians. Sizeable numbers, and probably a majority of prolifers are also pro-capital punishment. This seems a reasonable inference in Kansas, which is heavily “prolife” but also heavily in favor of capital punishment. As has often been noticed, prolifers seem far more concerned about making sure pregnancies are carried through to birth than they are concerned about the babies after they are born. Many are glad to saddle mothers for the cost of their unplanned or unwanted offspring too. Whether conceived as a result of rape or incest, it doesn’t seem to make any difference to these folks. It’s all about principle. For them, life begins at conception. Never mind that when fertilization occurs the blastocyst is inert for an extended period of time, unless it comes in contact with the uterine wall and then gets lucky. Even so, Mother Nature provides all sorts of obstacles to keep many pregnancies from coming to term. I have a sister who miscarried. She certainly did not want to miscarry. You have to wonder though about some in the prolife crowd. If life is sacred, should all pregnant women also be required to take drugs to reduce the likelihood of miscarriage? Should they be charged with a crime if they miscarry and had not taken all possible recourses to prevent the miscarriage? I have no doubt that to many on the extremes the answer is “absolutely”.

Mother Nature does not intend all pregnancies to go to term. This too is entirely natural. There are millions of women who have needed abortions to save their own lives. In the mind of many prolifers, since they cannot deal with moral ambiguity, it is better to risk both the life of the mother and the fetus than to ensure one of them will survive. This is being prolife.

Maybe it is just me, but I suspect that people whose moral positions are absolute about anything are mentally deficient. We know from experience that life is ambiguous. It is built into our universe at no less than the subatomic level, as anyone who has studied quantum physics knows. To survive in this world we must all come to grips with the ambiguity that frames life. And yet, to absolutists like these ultra-extreme prolifers, they would prefer to ignore this uncomfortable reality. The cycle reaches its paradoxical and tragic nadirs in incidents like yesterday’s murder of Dr. George Tiller. The very incident is both tragic and rife with irony: that for some who value life more than anything, they must take it away, thus proving the paucity of their argument beyond ambiguity.

Absolutism is bound to twist and pervert the glorious dysfunctional ambiguity which is our natural world. Consider what our world would be like if we were 100% “prolife”. At the macro level there would be many more humans on the planet than we already have, many of them with serious and lifelong disabilities. There would also be many needlessly traumatized mothers, many of them who would not survive childbirth. Arguably we cannot sustain the people we already have on the planet, as witnessed by the resultant poverty and disease which tragically kills tens of millions of us every year. To the extent we add more humans on the planet, we further erode the mutual ecosystem on which all life depends.  The result of being “prolife” is to help ensure a reduced standard of living for those of us who are already alive and to make life for future generations of humans even more wretched and miserable. Ultimately, being “prolife” means being anti-life in general, pro-misery and anti-environmental.

If we are lucky, the best result for future generations will be similar to what is already unfolding in China: compulsory family planning. This is the most humane and environmentally benign way to deal with rampant population growth and a planet that cannot sustain this growth. Much more likely though will be larger and more brutal wars, genocides and suffering on scales that are hard for us to currently fathom. This will unfold in a world of diminished resources where we all fruitlessly try to ensure we get the life we want at the expense of someone else. Whatever form of homo sapien emerges from this dark future will be far more brutish, uncaring, inhuman and anti-life than anything alleged killer Scott Roeder will dish out in a single act of murder for the sake of some insane absolutist principle.

Perhaps it is time to embrace the ambiguity which is life here on earth. It may be the prolife thing to do.

Consciousness as a two-way mirror

The Thinker by Rodin

I haven’t written about metaphysics for quite a while, mainly because I did not have much to say. Principally, I was losing interest in the subject but also I have been busy engaging in life, which I suspect is its natural purpose. Yet, occasionally something comes up in the press on metaphysics that piques my curiosity. Yesterday this article on The Human Consciousness Project was published on Time Magazine’s website. The project, led by Dr. Sam Parnia of the Weill-Cornell Medical Center involves an in-depth worldwide coordinated study into out of body experiences that some claim to have while they are technically dead, but who are later successfully revived.

I have occasional disagreements with my brother on the afterlife or lack thereof. My brother is a scientist and is trained to be skeptical, which is to his credit. Unsurprisingly, he categorizes himself as an atheist. Studies underway like this one though raise reasonable doubt. Says Dr. Parnia:

There was a cardiologist that I spoke with who said he hasn’t told anyone else about it because he has no explanation for how this patient could have been able to describe in detail what he had said and done. He was so freaked out by it that he just decided not to think about it anymore.

I think it is great that what many would consider loony science is getting some clinical study again. It may be simply my natural fear of mortality, but I have come to believe that I have a soul or spirit that is external and transcends death. For the most part, it is just a feeling, but I am glad to know there have been and are continuing scientifically rigorous studies into out of body experiences.

One obvious question is whether a person who had such an experience was truly dead. Dr. Parnia points out that death is not instantaneous and that it takes a long time for our cells to actually die after being deprived of oxygen. Most of us assume though that if there are no brain waves, no reflexes and no heart is beating that you must be dead. If our brain is not working it should not be possible for those ten percent who experience out of body experiences while being clinically dead to later report in such detail actual experiences they observed while dead. Yet, unless there is a huge conspiracy taking place (something that flunks the Occam’s Razor test) that appears to be the case. Something, let us call it consciousness, can survive the clinical definition of death and is aware.

More to the point though is Dr. Parnia’s speculation on how this could be happening:

Now, if you look at the mind, consciousness, and the brain, the assumption that the mind and brain are the same thing is fine for most circumstances, because in 99% of circumstances we can’t separate the mind and brain, they work at the exactly the same time. But then there are certain extreme examples, like when the brain shuts down, that we see that that this assumption may no longer seem to hold true. So a new science is needed in the same way that we had to have a new quantum physics.

My suspicion, as is also true with Dr. Parnia, is that as we get a better understanding of quantum physics we may begin to understand that consciousness and brain activity are actually two aspects of the same thing. Indeed, I speculated as much in this post. The better our understanding of quantum physics becomes, the more our fundamental assumptions of what is reality seem undermined.

We are all subject to our own biases, and I am no exception. The renowned physicist Dr. Albert Einstein came up with the groundbreaking theories of General and Special Relativity, which opened our eyes to a reality that we could not see. It is hard for us to believe in the reality he described: that we are bound in a finite warped matrix called space-time and that it is the relationship of objects inside this continuum that warps time and space. It’s all so abstract, like algebra, to seem real. Yet, Einstein utterly rejected the then emerging science of quantum physics because he was philosophically opposed to its nondeterministic pinnings. “God does not play dice with the universe,” he once famously said. Like relativity, quantum physics seems impossible for us to grasp. It is hard to grasp that at some small level that time does not have any meaning; that everything is probable but nothing is certain; that a wave consists of both particles and energy simultaneously and that Schrodinger’s Cat could be both dead and alive at the same instant. These are all paradoxical truths of our universe at a certain level and perspective. Our instinct is to reject notions at variance with our common experience.

We do know, as Einstein articulated, that energy and mass are interchangeable. What I am beginning to understand is that everything we perceive as real is energy in some form or another, and what we perceive as mass or matter is merely a transitory property of energy made possible by the unique arrangement of certain physical conditions in the space-time continuum.

So what we experience as our life and perception appears to be a combination of both mass and energy. Yet, since mass and energy are essentially interchangeable, it is not wholly beyond possibility that at brain death consciousness survives. The difference is that since the energy that makes up our consciousness cannot be accessed through the matter that is our brain, that those of us trapped in the mass-energy concoction we call consciousness cannot perceive it.

Death may be and I think likely is nothing more than a door from one variant of experience to another. Einstein also taught us that energy could never be destroyed. It could only change in form. Perhaps death then is like a two-way mirror. When a person stands behind a two-way mirror and he is in a lighted room, another person outside the room looking at the mirror can see him because the mirror becomes semi-transparent. Turn off the light and you just see your reflection. In both cases, two people are present. In only one case can you perceive the other.

Our soul may be like that. Our soul though may be what we really are, and our body may simply be like its shadow, a part of us and inseparable from us. Well documented after death out of body experiences suggest that something like this is occurring, as crazy as it may seem in our current reality frame. Perhaps the skeptics among us simply need to widen their lens, much like Einstein did to more perfectly describe the Newtonian universe. Perhaps we need to acknowledge a universe that is far more real than our limited intellects can grasp.

Our Wild, Wild Universe

The Thinker by Rodin

Back in March I mentioned that I was going to read Brian Greene’s book The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time and the Texture of Reality. Brian Greene is a physicist currently working in the area of string theory. Fortunately for the rest of us he is also a man who can demystify modern physics for the masses. In this book he takes the casual reader on an adventure into the nature of reality. I think you will find that this adventure is beyond the wildest ride you can imagine at any theme park. To call our universe amazing is to damn it with faint praise.

Today I actually finished the 569-page tome. Yes, it took over four months to read it. Greene is excellent at making analogies so that we laypeople can wrap our minds around something so abstract as physics. Even so this is not the casual sort of book you bring to the beach with you. I doubt you spend hours curled up in your hammock reading it, fascinating though it is. I got through it in snippets of 15 minutes or so at bedtime. I did this because I found that 15 minutes was about the maximum my brain could stretch in one day. I generally needed a day or so to process what I had learned. Sometimes I had to go back and read parts again: did he really say that?

So the book is still daunting but well worthy of the read. Physics is not a subject that interests most people. Still physicists try to describe the reality of the world that we live in, and what we observe is but a tiny fraction of the reality. Since we spend our existence in this reality you would think we would care more about understanding this box that frames our existence. Most of us think we understand reality but it takes a physicist to show us that we really don’t understand squat. The problem is that it is daunting to communicate to the layperson the nature of reality. When we think about concepts like Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity we reach for the Excedrin. We figure there is no way to understand it except to spend years learning calculus and sifting through the equations. Fortunately thanks to Greene and other writers you don’t have to. He does an excellent job explaining both the special and general theories of relativity, and this entity he calls space-time in which we live our lives. In clear analogies and illustrations you will find that you too can grasp ideas like why time slows as one moves toward the speed of light or how space itself can be curved.

If an appreciation for special and general relativity weren’t enough, the second half of the book takes us into the far more mysterious world of quantum physics. You don’t have to get too far into the quantum physics portion of the book before you say to yourself, “Gosh, this stuff is so amazing it should be in a science fiction book.” And that’s the point: what we understand about our reality really is amazing. You should be awed by the time you finish this book. Those crazy, nerdy physicists are onto amazing stuff. We have mystics and theologians who try to tell us what lies beyond: physicists are pulling back the gauzy curtains that frame our vision of reality to show us the beauty and mystery of what lies behind the curtains.

Although I am not sure Brian Greene would share my assessment I feel physicists are tantalizingly close to joining two universes that hitherto have been as separate as oil and water: science and religion. Actually I’d describe it more as physics and metaphysics. I’ll have more on this in a blog entry soon. Reading Greene’s book made me realize that we were knocking on God’s door. The mysticism that embraces much of our most profound needs and hungers is peeling away. The good news: the universe is an awesome place.

Here are capsule summaries of some of the main ideas I took away from the book. If Brian Greene were to read this review I suspect he would caveat it, footnote parts of it and say certain of my observations are in error. If so some translation errors are to be expected on a book of such depth.

The Universe is principally space pervaded by energy that we can see and cannot see. It is pervasive and it is everywhere. There is no part of the universe that is not alive with energy. The whole notion of a vacuum is a misnomer. There is no space in our universe that is untouched by some form of energy. A vacuum is an area of space with no matter in it. But as I learned about halfway through the book energy and matter truly are the same thing. We learn that E=mc2 but we don’t really understand what this means. It means that mass is a property of energy. In fact there is nothing that is truly solid. Mass and energy are bound up together. So a vacuum, even if it can be construed as empty of matter, is never empty of energy. Even an empty chamber at the center of the earth is coursing with cosmic rays. To me it is not unrealistic to say the universe itself is alive.

Moreover within this boundary of reality that we can perceive nothing ever really perishes. Form may change. I doubtless will die as a homo sapien some day but the matter that makes up this thing I call me is as external as space-time. Some of my matter will decompose into simpler elements. Some of my matter will become energy. I am never destroyed. I only change form. The big question to be discussed in another blog entry is whether I have a soul and whether that unique signature that is me survives death.

What is there to understand about quantum mechanics? Fundamentally it is about uncertainty. Uncertainty is hardwired into our universe. At the subatomic level there is no guarantee of any outcome. We can only speak about probabilities of outcomes. It seems counterintuitive that the more precisely we try to measure something the less certain we are of the outcome. But this is the undeniable truth.

And what exactly is the nature of reality? At the quantum level Greene makes the assertion that things that frame our notion of reality cease to exist. There is no time. Time can only be perceived at the macro level. Indeed toward the latter chapters we come to understand that space-time itself may be an illusion. Everything we perceive or think we perceive may well exist in a two dimensional universe. Our existence may well be on the edge of an enormous balloon.

String theory tries to tie quantum theory with the general theory of relativity. Here we enter a world of the theoretical since strings are too small to be seen: they can only be reasonably inferred. Like a dot on a picture tube of the monitor that you are reading this on there are areas too tiny to be observed. There are only mathematical models to work with. Linear accelerators may give credence to certain string theories over others but there appears to be no way to prove that strings exist. But as our models get better and as the math used in them gets more rigorous we can reasonably infer the rules by which quantum physics and that which we call particles operate.

I strongly recommend this book. Life is too short to spend ignorant of the nature of reality. What we teach in school covers a tiny percentage of the truth, and the truth of our reality is always becoming better understood. I think courses on relativity, quantum physics and string theory should be a requirement for any college diploma. It’s not necessary to be down in the weeds with the physicists on the mathematics to get an appreciation for our amazing universe. But it does take time and effort to truly have a decent understanding of who we are and our place in this thing we call reality. Books like Greene’s are invaluable. For a curious mind to get through life ignorant of such amazing discoveries means in some sense to live the unexamined life.

The Illusion of Time

The Thinker by Rodin

This article in Thursday’s Washington Post intrigued both my wife and I. It is a synopsis of a conversation between a reporter (Joel Achenbach) and Brian Greene, a theoretical physicist. This physicist, like many in the business, is working hard trying to validate string theory.

Hold on! Before you roll you eyes and click elsewhere this is actually incredibly exciting stuff. Physicists are closer than ever to being able to understand the most fundamental mysteries of life. The implications are mind-boggling.

One of the more controversial theories — which increasingly is being accepted by these theoretical physicists — is that which we call time is just an illusion. A lot of people feel the same way but physicists like Greene say it can be inferred from Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity. Past, present and future are all equally real and timeless. But what is real? It is apparently not what we think, at least according to physicists like Greene. Space is real. Mass and energy are real. Gravity is real. But time is probably just an illusion.

I won’t bother to explain their logic since I am not a theoretical physicist. But the article (while it exists in its free form online) is worthy of reading. Physicists are not snake oil salesmen. They are scientists. They are trained to be skeptical. They are trained to use the scientific method and to work out the mathematical proofs. All the pieces are not in place yet to tie together Einstein’s discoveries on the relationship between matter, energy and time and the subatomic world. But it’s not unreasonable to suggest that sometime during our lifetimes this question may be answered.

So we are going to purchase his book “The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality” this weekend. We will see what we as laymen can glean from such a sharp and insightful mind. But it is interesting how sometimes the scientific world can intersect with the spiritual and metaphysical world. This may be one of those times. In the future these two universes, often perceived to be polar opposites, may turn out to be unified after all too.

In my metaphysical reading I consistently learn that after death we live in what amounts to a timeless state of energy. In that state we can review our life as many times as we want and run it back and forth like a tape recorder. I read about astral planes and astral beings and how after death we move out of the physical plain into the next astral plain and possibly into many more. I have one friend who assures me that she has through meditation already moved into an astral plain or two.

I don’t know how much of this stuff to believe. But I tend to believe it a lot more when I hear respected theoretical physicists make aspects of it look very plausible. Those of you who have browsed through my metaphysics archive will recall an early entry on deja vu. You will recall how creeped out I was by these experiences and how on some level I know they are true. Now perhaps theoretical physicists are agreeing with me that deja vu is what I think it is: some part of my mind is aware of my future in what I perceive to be the present.

If time is an illusion what exactly is a life anyhow? The only thing that works for me is that it is an experience. Perhaps we are all trills. A trill in Star Trek is an intelligent species that lives inside another intelligent “host” species such as a human. Perhaps our individual energy is what we call a soul, and our body is the mechanism for experience. And one aspect of our body is that because of the way it is constructed it has the attribute of perceiving time.

Perhaps one life is like a breath or a heartbeat in a larger life. Perhaps we glean what knowledge and understanding we can from our symbiot (the body) then depart and jump into another world, another body and another experience.

If time does not really exist then perhaps we experience a multitude of lives all at once. Perhaps we are everything and everyone. Perhaps part of me … of us really … is President Bush. Perhaps I am also Bill Clinton. Perhaps I was also Mother Teresa. Perhaps I am the cat on my lap at the moment and he is also me. (Maybe that’s why it feels so nice.) Perhaps we are all one entity. Perhaps I am you reading this, and you are me writing this. Perhaps we truly are just an aspect in the mind of God … which means we are God.

Perhaps we are all the same thing and yet all completely different. Perhaps we truly are Yin and Yang. Perhaps we are modeling infinite diversity in infinite universes and infinite times all in a timeless place we call the now.

I hope it is so. There would be no reason to fear death. Every life would be truly part of a great and much larger adventure. And my ramblings are not complete fantasy. Because with time likely to be an illusion and with Einstein’s Theory of Relativity demonstrating that we are all intrinsically connected and related we are neither dead nor alive. We simply are: different and the same, spawning colors in a gigantic universal kaleidoscope. And it is the relationship of all these colors that is the greater truth and beauty. And it is the relationship and the larger abstract picture that is this thing we call love.