A GLORIOUS ACCIDENT: Understanding Our Piece in the Cosmic Puzzle. The opinions of Oliver Sacks, Stephen Jay Gould, Daniel C. Dennett, Freeman Dyson, Rupert Sheldrake, and Stephen Toulmin who were interviewed separately and then brought together as a panel. The book, a transcript of the events, was the idea and project of Wim Kayzer. My used copy came from a public library in the Denver area, a place quick to take up new ideas and then quick to discard them for newer ones.
The original idea was to see to what degree these six edgy thinkers could come up with agreement about our current understanding of reality: civilization, religion, the human animal, and so on. Some of them are far out, others are very popular, and the only one I know, Stephen Toulmin, verges on the inscrutable. I took a class from him but had to drop out because all I could see was the nightsky glow from his light just over the horizon. Gould turned out to be cranky. If I could have dinner with one of them, I would choose Sacks. I knew Dennett the least and steered clear of Sheldrake the most. I kept wondering what Pinker thought.
As “idea beaters” in the underbrush of the intellectual world, they started a lot of rabbits but neither killed nor bagged much of anything. Still, it was fun while it lasted and it provides a kind of summary that many will find useful in trying to understand the gap between the wisdom received in school in the Sixties and the progress of ideas now. To change the metaphor, for we oldsters there is a serious gap between the station platform and the moving train. Indecision can be fatal. Hesitation can make you miss the train. But what happens if you join the journey?
SOME RABBITY NOTIONS OF MY OWN:
Reality is moving, fluid bits which we assemble according to our experience. If they stop fitting together, our sense of reality changes. (See Thomas Kuhn)
Progress is an illusion (this is where my generation parts company with previous ones). Change is compelled, but whether it is “better” is subjective. How much it can be controlled is problematic, as well as the problem of what to change reality “to” and how to do it.
Objects and named processes are useful and operative in our worlds -- therefore they seem “real.” Once they are "unreal" they can't be revived, despite the Pope.
A biological being (including humans) is embedded in reality by consciousness: the ability to receive and organize information. The ability to monitor the PROCESS of consciousness makes us human.
Morality, including sin and evil, is ONLY human and judged by human standards vulnerable to whatever culture seems “real.”
God, if one MUST have God and if one MUST define the concept classically, is best defined as that than which nothing can be greater (i.e. more inclusive, not more admired), therefore God includes EVERYTHING, even non-God and Tillich’s Ground of Being, and cannot be escaped or opposed because that too becomes part of God. Therefore the ultimate human morality is to act in a way that “improves” God from the point of view of the person acting, which might also include denial or destruction of God. The culture helps or hinders.
The “better” morality protects the “better” humans, however the culture defines them.
There are kinds and gradations of consciousness, greater and lesser degrees of ability to monitor process, which come and go.
What we call “identity” is the inner feeling of consciousness and self-monitoring. It does not stay the same and those whose “identity” is challenged or a little out of control are often labeled as having “borderline personality problems.” Therefore, artists flirt with this problem.
Aesthetics -- harmony and beauty -- are a direct, conscious phenomeon which are then subjected to reflection. It can be a kind of morality -- the most beautiful is the most worthy.
A major moral question is what do we owe others and why? What others? What does the culture say? (Most cultures say that we owe our children, because they are the future.)
Physiologically, the intestines or “guts” come from the same original blastosphere part (there are three, but I forget their names) as the brain and operate on the same molecular flows and switches. Eating and thinking are directly related. Therefore, it is not surprising that so many people are not just “obese” but also “fat-headed.” I’m very much aware of how much controlling my blood glucose also affects both my brain and my guts, both my ability to process and monitor process and my ability to feel subtle emotion and aesthetics. Surprisingly, my sense of smell, which is performed by a protuberance of the brain into the middle of the face.
Where does this leave me? I think I’m much better able to withstand the anxiety of the current political predicament which is full-throttle into tragedy with George W. Bush at the wheel. It also gives me a strong premonition that our real destroyer will be something subtle like bird flu or a worldwide plague afflicting bacteria or fungus, on which the pyramid of life rests. That is, we need the little small critters but they could destroy us while we were paying attention to our own affairs, which seem so much more important.
This premonition presses on me the necessity of accepting my own aging and death, the lack of any direct biological descendants (which I accepted long ago) and the silliness of expecting fine writing to redeem me -- while going right ahead with the project. (Hello, Tim!) In short, nothing to lose except my income and safety in this little village for the time being. Just over the horizon (I can see the glow) is whatever will happen when my biography of Bob comes out. This book is supposed to replace the buildings, collections, and coherent estate that have been ripped apart by profiteers. I’ll be very curious to see whether it does and how that changes the process that is me, still living -- so far.
P.S. I got to thinking of my favorite ministerial colleague in the Denver area, Sylvia Falconer. She was a pastor, therapist and story-teller who disappeared from sight. Now I read that she has developed “essential tremor,” the same thing Katharine Hepburn had, and has woven that into her portfolio, which is process-based to say the least! It works.