Monthly Archives: December 2013

Faith and Reason

It is sometimes said that faith and reason are opposite; even that they cannot coexist, that they are contrary to one another and mutually exclusive.  I believe just the opposite: that they mutually assure one another.  All faith is supported by a reason, and all reason relies upon faith.  They are never apart.  Reason relies upon faith in sensory perception, faith in logic, faith in intellectual processing, etc.  Faith is always directed by the mind, even if only intuitively, in determining what beliefs and concepts deserve faith.  I believe both concepts are so foundational to conscious existence that a worldview cannot exist without having both faith and reason.  Reason is built upon the illusion of certainty in a fundamentally uncertain world, and faith is ascribed based upon personal reasoning, which is often flawed.  So both are built upon a fairly shaky foundation.  But neither exists without the critical support of the other.

Sadly, it seems to me that often those who value faith fail to acknowledge that their faith is based upon their own reasoned beliefs, and those who value reason often refuse to acknowledge the faith in perception and logic upon which their reasoning is built.

Do I have it wrong?  Do you believe either faith or reason can function without the critical support of the other?

The Placebo Effect

In recent years, the interaction between mind and matter has become less of a speculative venture and more of a mysterious fact.  There has long been anecdotal and/or observed evidence in the form of faith healings, yogic phenomenon, changes brought about by hypnosis, etc, all of which suggests that our mental states or beliefs relate to material reality in some way. There has been plenty of verified experimental evidence to support the health benefits of meditation. This relationship between mind and matter is often classified and dismissed as mysticism.  While many of the explanations may indeed be mystic in nature, the correlation itself seems fairly incontrovertible to me.  On the quantum scale, observed behaviors like the Observer Effect, Entanglement, and Complementarity would seem to suggest that consciousness plays a role in our experience of reality.  Some dismiss these as strictly a quantum phenomenon, but consciousness continues to play a testable and verifiable role in our material existence on the macro scale, as witnessed in the Placebo Effect.

The Placebo Effect is, in my opinion, the most well-documented and incontrovertible evidence of this relationship between mind and matter.  The rate of effectiveness varies depending upon the nature of the illness, but in one of the landmark research papers on the subject, “The Powerful Placebo”, Henry Beecher cited a efficacy rate of about 35%, + or – 2% margin of error.  That is astonishing: 35%.  One in three people experienced very real psychological, or even physiological effects as the result of believing they were being made well by some agent.

Studies have continued to prove the efficacy of placebo treatments.  Most startlingly, this proved to be true even when patients knew they were taking placebo treatments, as evidenced in a PLOS ONE study on placebo effects by Ted Kaptchuk.

When I first met my wife, she would recite, “I will not get sick” and drink Echinacea.  I suppose Beecher’s research would suggest such a tactic should work around 35% of the time on average.  I was diagnosed with two herniated discs, L4 and L5, when I was 22.  I was unable to walk for two weeks, and was told to have back surgery.  I ignored the advice.  I did nothing, opting instead to rest as long as necessary.  As a lifelong athlete, this was rather trying.  Then, inexplicably, by the age of 28 or 29, my back healed “itself.”  I started playing ultimate frisbee, then basketball, and now (over a decade later) exercise 6 or 7 days a week and seldom experience discomfort.  Why did my back heal?  I have no idea.  Neither do Doctors.  I am not suggesting that my mind necessarily had anything to do with my back getting better. But that’s the point: the relationship between mind and matter, brain and body, remains largely shrouded in mystery.

Neuroscience has helped us understand some of the chemical and neural mechanisms by which this relationship works, but from all I can gather, it hasn’t yet begun to answer the deeper question of why.  I think Erwin Schrodinger effectively captured the problem with a purely physical approach to the problem with this comment in his “Mind and Matter” lectures:

“The reason why our sentient, percipient and thinking ego is met nowhere within our scientific world picture can easily be indicated in seven words: because it is itself that world picture. It is identical with the whole and therefore cannot be contained in it as a part of it.”

In this way, it may be nearly impossible to “objectively” study the relationship between mind and matter, since mind itself is both researcher and subject.

When Does Sufficient Become Excessive?

As an American, nothing drives home the modern obsession with material luxury more than Christmas.  What was once a religious holiday is… still a religious holiday.  A celebration of the material consumption that is the religion of modern America.

I suspect that, ethically, I should give everything I have to those in need.  I should live only on what is necessary to survive. At the very least, I should use my abilities strictly to help others rather than using my abilities to help increase my own level of comfort.

But alas, I am a coward.  Perhaps that’s what Jesus meant in saying “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God”.  Material comfort is an opiate. Virtually every religious tradition warns against the seductiveness of material comfort.

However, I have a wife and children.  It is both an honor and my duty to provide for them, to care for them.  In addition to providing for their material needs, I think I should educate them as best I’m able, and should provide them with every opportunity to make a life for themselves.  I believe I should not impose my beliefs upon my children.  Rather, I should give them tools for evaluating truth, tools for developing character, and let them follow their own path through life.  I hope I leave them with very little that they must unlearn later in life.  It seems to me that enacting my own fairly unorthodox views would do a grave disservice to my children (and perhaps my wife as well).

So I am a coward with an excuse.

I can try to exercise personal restraint.  I expect any attempt at “asceticism” in modern America likely resembles the “garish opulence” of yesteryear.  But nevermind.  I know there are many others who harbor or exercise beliefs that extol simplicity.  I am only now waking up to this idea.  I have been drunk with materialism for so long that I am not sure what sobriety might look like.

When does sufficient become excessive?  Where is that line?  I am not sure.  But I do feel fairly certain that my American Christmas has well and truly cleared it.  And despite the assurances of American propaganda, I don’t think that’s a good thing.

Inner Space, Ignored

To what extent has humanity’s increased understanding and dominance over our external material environment come at the expense of understanding and insight into the nature of our inner mental space?

As Max Planck reportedly said, “I regard consciousness as fundamental.  I regard matter as derivative from consciousness.  We cannot get behind consciousness.  Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.”  Erwin Schrodinger expressed similar sentiments, “The world is given to me only once, not one existing and one perceived.  Subject and object are only one.”

The scientific method has provided an excellent process for examining our surroundings as expressed in the physical universe.  It has proved to be superb at exposing false theories.  It allows us to whittle away falsehoods in the hopes of getting closer to truth regarding our physical surroundings.  Smitten by this success and the technological advances that it has enabled, it seems mankind has focused increasingly on the material world which we inhabit.  To many, it is all there is.

Is it possible that the world within our mind is as intricate and expansive as the physical world that surrounds us?

Is it possible that if humanity devoted as much time to the study of inner space as it does to the study and exploitation of external space, we would discover just as many truths about the nature of reality – perhaps truths of a very different kind?

Does the speed of discovery and tempo of modern (Western) life actively discourage inner investigation?

Is it appropriate than mankind should focus increasingly on the material world and forego what can be discovered and experienced inside his/her own mind?

Is this evolutionary “progress” revealing itself?

If not, what is the cost of this partiality?

Preferred: Truth or Hope?

If hope is in any way tied to a particular (or preconceived) truth, can truth be honestly sought, regardless of where it leads?

Is truth that begets hopelessness less useful?

Is hope devoid of truth less useful?

Of the two, assuming mutual exclusivity, which is more important to you?

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