Friday, February 28, 2020


The two crucial phenomena for becoming a full human being are "attachment" and "empathy."  Being a human being means relating to other humans in a very particular evolved biological way.  Attachment begins at birth when the infant interacts with a caregiver.  The feeding, cleaning, comforting, and playing with eye contact begin the creation of a particular but virtual (unseen, constructed, mental paradigm) time/space of trust and exploration.  This is what we call "liminal" because it feels like entering something like a room.  The limen is the threshold of a door one steps over into a new space.  Some people might say "numinous."

Before the human version of attachment, there was and is the attachment of animal children, both mammals and birds, who imprint with their mothers and follow them until they are mature.  If they don't, they die.  We find it both amusing and reassuring to see the cygnet babies on the river in a line behind the mother swan or the procession of kittens following the mother cat.  

Humans are more resourceful than kittens, but we all know about the orphan infants who died of lack of attachment, mirasmus.  One of the most devastating stories I know is a girl baby kept in a crib in an empty room by a maniac father who only fed and cleaned her intermittently.  She was not found until she was a teen, still in the crib.  She had imprinted on an imagined interaction with a old rain coat hanging on the back of the door.  It was inchoate and uncommunicable since she never learned to talk, had no words.

Empathy in this context is not sympathy, but a kind of habitation of another person, the key to understanding that might even be hostile but is a way of expanding and creating relationship.  "Mind melding" if you're a Vulcan, "grok" if you're a Heinlein reader.  This father above didn't have it.  These two phenomena, attachment and empathy, are personal and individual like prayer or meditation when alone.  With other people, empathy creates an expanding network of awareness and participation in groups and then in all life.  That's culture.  It's not genomic but the capacity is biological/physiological and that is genomic.

When thinking of what we call "religion" in the sense of an organized and structured group of humans, the two concepts that are key are the "map" and the "image."  (These are my terms.) The map might be through time or space or both, but it responds to the dynamic process of religion which is always transmuting even as it protests that it is permanent and unchanging.  The image is the focus, the control that unifies.  An icon.  

Damasio uses the Rappaport idea of homeostasis (it's a widely used concept) to describe life but adds to the two banks of the stream (too much and too little) by valorizing the term "Valence", which is the impetus forward of the stream of life as it seeks the future, which is governed and guided by feelings, the compass that uses both the physical and mental maps to guide the person into the future.  Valence is the feelings of the person as he responds to the culture.

I don't argue with any of this.  I think it is genius vocabulary that really helps and clarifies.  But I split with Damasio on the concept of religion.  This is not surprising since it's the subject of my MA but not his.  On the other hand he may come to it someday because I'm applying the lessons of Damasio or Quammen or others to the NATURE of religion.  Not really religion, but an historical predicate.  Damasio is still looking at the institutions that have dominated the definition of religion in the West, mostly centered on the Big Three of the Holy Land.  Everything he says about them is true, as far as I can see.  I'm a little more sceptical about "beliefs" which seem to me distributed along a continuum between "if you say so" and the rock-solid factual truth.

The Big Three religions tend to look for perpetual preservation as humans or human community.  It is very disconcerting in our times to lose confidence that continued existence is even possible, though a paradigm that includes immortality may be desirable to those who are thriving, those whose "valence" is fulfilled by "feeling."  For some, death is a relief.

But Damasio is not thinking about the felt Holy or Sacred, which is not universal, not necessary for institutions, and yet is the seed of our sense of Being.  Few if any people distinguish between institutional shared and named paradigms and -- not even the worked-out personal systems that conclude God is nature or God is love or God is good -- but the mysterious powerful moments of transcendence that some people describe.  What is THAT?  He doesn't say.

Quammen's description of the global sheet of DNA code -- most of it not just sub-human but also sub-animal, very little changed over aeons -- is that which is shared around the planet in microbes and viruses.  It even floats as fragments in the sea.  Just now we are pretty aware of the bazillions of those beings in us and around us.  It's not that they're Holy or even that they feel, but that we have elaborated/mutated/evolved from them until we are living knots or consolidations or even disruptions, complexifications that somehow exceed merely Being by thinking about it.  

Even if we are descended from E. coli, I doubt that the microbes think about us.  They just exist.  In us.  As collaborators.  Do they carry the ability to sense the Holy, something like the way they know how to search for food?  Or must one have an evolved body capable of opening up to it?  "The Force."  "The Way."  Probably only some of the population gives it any more thought than a microbe would.  As far as institutional religion goes, people with visions are a hazard.  Ask the people who over the years have had to fend off the "Emerson Avenger" intent on pointing out clerical shortcomings because one of them mocked his theophany. a vision of a "black sun."

Scientists point out that brain lesions, strong magnets at the temple, and other experiments can demonstrate a vision of Holiness that is quite convincing.  Is it just a form of epilepsy or some kind of neural disruption?  Or is it an epiphany?  I'm asking.

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