navbar Home Bio Essays Teaching Photos Relations Books Videos

Essays and Book Reviews by William Grassie, All rights reserved, 2013

Share | | More



Essays

The Great Matrix of Being

The four dimensions in the Great Matrix of Being give us four ways of measuring reality -- by time, by scale, by energy density flow, and by thresholds of emergent complexity. All phenomena can be located within this Matrix... more

The Queen of the Sciences

Thresholds of Emergent Complexity as a Map to the Modern University... more

Mathematics and the Game of Thrones

In this game of thrones, mathematics certainly makes a stronger claim today to royalty than does theology or philosophy. Some regard mathematics as the rightful queen who unites all the scientific disciplines under her rules. STEM education — science, technology, engineering, and math — might better be spelled METS, putting mathematics first. Let’s examine these arguments... more

How to be a Competent Outsider?

Fluency in a nonnative language, knowledge of a foreign culture, and competence in a scientific or academic discipline are all relative concepts. We are all differently competent on a spectrum that can be both wide and deep... The larger point, however, is that we are all outsiders to someone else’s expertise in multiple situations both mundane and profound... more

Große Geschichte: Die Grundlage eines sinnvollen Engagements
zwischen Religionen und Naturwissenschaften

Die ‚Große Geschichte’ ist ein Webstuhl, auf dem wir die zahllosen Fragmente unseres mühsam erworbenen Wissens und Könnens zusammenfügen können. Der Gobelin ist erstaunlich schön und kompliziert. Das Gewebe hat eine unvorstellbare Tiefe und ist äußerst detailreich. Die Muster sind eine beeindruckende Mischung aus Ordnung und Unordnung. Außerdem besitzt dieses Gewebe eine hierarchische Struktur, die aus unermesslichen Zeiträumen, Größen und Strukturen wachsender Komplexität gebildet wird. Es ist ein magischer Teppich, der die Entwicklung der Menschheit auf einem gänzlich zufälligen Planeten ermöglichte... more

A Thought Experiment: Envisioning a Civilization Recovery Plan

What knowledge of science, culture and civilization would you most want to pass on to the surviving humans as they faced the prospect of adapting to a new environment and rebuilding their lives over many generations?... more

Energy Solutions from the Perspective of Big History

Humans now consume some 18 trillion watts of energy in a variety of forms. Every aspect of our contemporary lives depends on this tremendous flow of energy... more

History as Science

Exploring Big History requires that we systematically collect and analyze information about the past from an evolutionary and global perspective... more

Greece, the Global Economy, and Big History

As we sailed the 46-foot yacht from island to island, my thoughts were less about the Greek financial crisis and more of a meditation on the environmental collapse that began in this region with the Bronze and Iron ages.... more

Telling Time: A Correlated History of the Universe

This is the new chart for the new cosmology. It is the most comprehensive compendium of scientific facts on a single page I know. No reason to leave home without one of these map of time stuffed in your glove compartment or backpack... more

Peak Humanity

Environmentalists might applaud a planet at the turn of the next century with 2 billion fewer people than today. The economic consequences, however, could be catastrophic... more

Climates Change

What of human civilization would survive on a much-transformed planet, as some day it surely will be? Our best strategy is to distribute the hard won discoveries and inventions of science, technology, history, and culture as broadly as possible throughout the world... more

Philosophy of Science in the Comedy Club

Twice each week I descended the stairs of the Ha! Comedy Club to do stand-up philosophy of science. The basement club was painted all black and smelled of stale beer. The students sat around cocktail tables with their laptops, eager to learn what they needed to know to pass the Norwegian exam... I am sorry to report that neither the venue nor the circumstances turned me into a witty and hilarious lecturer... I tell my students to pay attention to the grand narrative of the semester, so they can better track the rise and fall of the field and the some times colorful characters, who ride on this philosophical roller coaster.

Reinventing Science Education in the 21st Century

After decades of disappointing educational outcomes, it’s time to work some educational alchemy with a real philosopher’s stone – as proposed by Alfred North Whitehead and others. Centuries of scholarship and scientific research have made us privy to a new and true creation myth, which explains who we are and how we got here. Nothing could be more romantic, more precise, and more general. We now possess the means to move our students with a sense of awe and hunger for a fuller understanding of the universe and themselves. STEM careers demand a long, often difficult discipleship that requires significant romantic commitment on the part of students, teachers, and professionals. Big History is the first step in STEM literacy in the world. Such literacy and expertise will be needed in great supply to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century. more

Millennialism at the Singularity:
Reflections on Metaphors, Meanings, and the Limits of Exponential Logic

Will the Singularity lead to the supersession of humanity by spiritual machines? Or will the Singularity lead to the transfiguration of humanity into superhumans who live forever in a hedonistic, rationalist paradise? Will the Singularity be preceded by a period of tribulation? Will there be an elect few who know the secrets of the Singularity, a vanguard, perhaps a remnant who make it to the Promised Land. These religious themes are all present in the rhetoric and rationalities of the Singularitarians... more

Resources and Problems in Whitehead's Metaphysics

This paper was presented at Metanexus 2009 in Tempe, AZ. I give an overview of Alfred North Whitehead’s process metaphysics. I show how Whitehead’s process relational metaphysics solves many philosophical problems in understanding and interpreting contemporary science. I argue, however, that Whitehead’s process metaphysics tends to (1) depersonalize God to the extent of rendering theism irrelevant and (2) naturalize moral evil in the service of evolution. I will offer a partial solution to these problems. more

In the Heavens as It is on Earth:
Astrobiology and the Human Prospect

"It is not the terra-forming of Mars that keeps me awake at night, but the anthro-forming of Terra that darkens my dreams. Can human civilization be more civil and more bio-friendly? We need to get serious about enhancing the richness and diversity of life of Earth, if we ever hope to do it elsewhere in the universe. Maybe the most significant societal impact of astrobiology is the opportunity to look back at ourselves and to appreciate in new ways the extreme good fortune we have of being able to call ourselves Earthlings." more

Entangled Narratives: Competing Visions of the Good Life,

"Every time we use a cell phone, pump 200 million year-old rainforests into the gas tanks of our cars, or travel across the continents in an airplane or via the Internet, we affirm the reality of this new scientific, evolutionary cosmology in deed, if not in thought. With this common cosmology as a basis, a hermeneutical foundation that also happens to be progressively true, our global civilization would be much better situated to solve the great religious and ideological debates of our time." more

Nationalism, Terrorism, and Religion:
A Bio-Historical Approach
,

"While much harm has been done in the name of nationalism, I want to emphasize that group identity is a normal, natural, and necessary part of being human.  One can be a nationalist without being xenophobic and chauvinistic... One of the more destructive forms of nationalism is when it is combined with BigMan governance.  In these instances, the BigMan and his cronies use nationalism as a form of political legitimation and control.  By controlling the power of the State, they are able to manipulate rewards and punishments to entrench themselves through the Alpha-Factor.  And like little chimpanzees that we are, most humans are only too happy to fall in line.  Big-Man governance, however, disrupts the dialectic of competition and cooperation, so the society stagnates, becomes inefficient, and at war with itself or the outside world." more

The Neurosciences of Religion,

A lecture given at the University of Peradeniya in Kandy, Sri Lanka on November 22, 2007: "We assume that a neuroscientific study of a cricket exemplar will be more revealing, so we select Sanath Jayasuriya of the Sri Lankan National Team to be our subject for a neuro-imaging study of cricket, assuming that this is generalizable in some way to all cricket players, indeed to all sports.  Before the big match we outfit Sanath Jayasuriya with a remote control IV, so that we can inject him with radioactive tracers in the midst of batting one of his cut short shots during a big game.  He swings the bat and hits a big one, but unfortunately now we have to stop the game, in order to whisk Jayasuriya away to the laboratory, and put him into the SPECT scan.  Don’t worry the game can resume in a half an hour, because we will have finished the scan and can begin our analysis comparing his base-state brain with his cricket-state brain." more

The Evolution of Religion,

A lecture given at the University of Peradeniya in Kandy, Sri Lanka on November 1, 2007: "This discussion of morality from an evolutionary perspective gets us close, but no all the way to our subject matter – how does evolutionary psychology explain the origins and function of religion.  Evolution requires some kind of adaptive function, otherwise why would it exist.  If evolutionists have a hard time understanding altruism, they have an even harder time understanding religion…  Why indeed divert precious labor and resources to building cathedrals and pyramids, temples and mosques?  These are opportunity costs.  The resources and labor might have been diverted to improving industry and agriculture, strengthening the national defense, improving education, and so forth.  Why divert precious social resources away from the more pressing tasks of survival and reproduction into ‘somersaults of the most elaborate sort.’  I will explore three rival evolutionary theories of religion – memes, spandrels, or adaptations -- and conclude by offering a fourth option." more

The Economics of Religion

A lecture given at the University of Peradeniya in Kandy, Sri Lanka on October 17, 2007 "...Whatever we think of economics, we need to recognize that markets are complex distributed systems with their own logics and rationalities that we cannot fully understand, predict, or manage.  Religions are also complex distributed systems, but religions point beyond themselves to questions of ultimate meaning and values.  I close by recalling the words of Socrates, “Wealth does not bring goodness, but goodness brings wealth and every other blessing both to the individual and the state.”  I am sure Lord Buddha would agree. more

Metanexus 2007: The Challenge Ahead

For me personally in my own spiritual and professional journey, I was always motivated first by the hope that this crazy and wonderful engagement between the domains of science and the domains of religion provided some leverage in a troubled world. I still believe that the constructive engagement of religion and science provides both a fulcrum and a lever to move the world in more positive directions. I discovered along the way that this is not only a powerful tool, but it also fun and endlessly fascinating activity. more

Teaching the History of Nature

There is more at stake here, than simply the future of science and science education.  Humans are profoundly storied animals.  Our deepest beliefs and values and actions in the world are constructed through a narrative thought processes.  The great challenge of the 21st century will be whether and how we succeed in incorporating the new stories of science into our normative cultural stories and our civilizations’ doings. more


The New Sciences of Religion

"The last few years have witnessed a torrent of new books by noted scientists purporting to scientifically explain religion, mostly with the intentions of explaining religion away (Stenger 2007), (Dawkins 2006), (Dennett 2006), (Harris 2006), (Hamer 2005), (Harris 2004), (Wilson 2002), (Boyer 2001).   What is religion? What is spirituality? How does one study it? How does one teach it?  What does it mean to take a scientific approach to the study of religion? Are religions healthy and functional for individuals and societies, or are they unhealthy and dysfunctional?  These are difficult questions at the center of some of the most challenging controversies of the 21st century." more

Metanexus 2006

"The juxtaposition of the concepts “science” and “religion” in our civilization is a kind of Rorschach Test for all kinds of deeply held prejudices and beliefs.  The terms are often thought of almost as antonyms and reflect a profound cultural ambivalence in our postmodern civilization. That is why we decided to create a new term, a neologism that in our wildest dreams will eventually work its way into the English language and perhaps other languages as well.  We took the Greek prefix, meta-, meaning “transcending or transforming,” and combined it with the Latin noun, nexus, meaning “connection or core.”... more

Science, Religion, and the Bomb

Present at the International Congress on Science and Religion in Tehran, Iran, May 2006. "Concurrent with the planning of this Congress has been a growing conflict between Iran and the West about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, not to mention the US invasion of Iraq on the pretext of finding weapons of mass destruction.  And so I want to address some of these sensitive political and military issues with you today, because science and religion also are also involved in these debates about international relations and military power.  In the history of nuclear armaments, science and religion intersect in multiple and profound ways..." more

Universal Reason:
Science, Religion, and the Foundations of Civil Societies

Presented at the Institute for Wisdom and Philosophy, Tehran, Iran, May 9, 2005. "At a time of heightened alienation and conflict between Islam and the West, there is an urgent need to promote a “dialogue of civilizations” as called for by President Khatami some years ago.  The thesis of this paper is that the dialogue between science and religion provides an important point of departure for such an ambitious project, in part because science provides a modest set of universalities for such a dialogue to build upon."  more

Beyond Intelligent Design

"The English theologian William Paley wrote an influential book in 1802 entitled Natural Theology: Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature.  Paley employed the metaphor of a watch discovered on a beach.  One would not know who made the watch, but one could infer that there was certainly a watchmaker.  In such a way, humans studying nature could also come to understand God as its creator and designer.  This metaphor of nature as watch is perhaps one of the most famous metaphors in the philosophy of science and haunts us to this day, as we see in the current debates about “equal time” for Intelligent Design Theory in the science curriculum of public schools." more

Ecology, Religion, and Science

"Humans have often understood the metaphysics of the universe in terms of philosophical dualism—animate and inanimate, human and non-human, mind and brain, spiritual and material. Modern science undermines many of these dualisms. Religions have promoted both dualistic and holistic metaphysics. Humanity is lost in this new understanding of the universe without a compass or a map to the great moral, aesthetic, and ecological questions. The ecological sciences are offering a more holistic vision of life—human and non-human—which has implications for more comprehensive environmental ethics." more

Biocultural Evolution in the 21st Century:
The Evolutionary Role of Religion

"We live at an extraordinary moment in the natural history of our planet and the cultural evolution of our species.  Human population has soared in the last century to over six billion.  Every bioregional ecosystem in the world has been significantly altered by humans.  We are about to embark upon large-scale genetic engineering of other species and ourselves.  Humans are a Lamarckian wild card in the epic of evolution.  Increasingly, it is not the material basis of nature that determines civilization, but our culturally transmitted belief systems and abilities, for better or worse, that will direct the future evolution of both the planet and our species." ...more

Toward a Constructive Theology of Evolution

"...Humans, as noted above, always seem to use nature as a metaphor and context for interpreting cosmic purpose and moral order.  This is no less true of Darwinism, than the earlier Aristotelian view of natural kinds and separate creation.  Darwinism seemed to support the view that the universe is governed not by a powerful and benevolent God, but by random genetic drift and natural selection.  The process necessitated an inordinate amount of suffering, death, and waste.  If God exists, then natural selection rendered God an incompetent or malevolent Creator.  Of course, the challenge of theodicy existed prior to Darwinism, but this theory of evolution multiplied the doubts of God’s goodness with the magnitude of the ages and the multitude of struggling species.  So Darwin’s theory of evolution contributed to undermining the earlier cosmological hierarchy and sense of moral purpose..." more

Science, Semiotics, and the Sacred

"...Many religions have understood language to be in some way primordial to the material constitution of the Universe.  In Hinduism, the Upanishads talk of a primal word, Om, which functions as the creative source of all Nature.  In Jewish Midrash, the grammatical ambiguity of the first line of Genesis and the extravagant linguistic creativity of Elohim, leads to philosophical speculation about a pre-existent Torah, which God uses to speak reality into being.  In Medieval Judaism, this Rabbinic tradition gave rise to the wild speculations and philosophical subtleties of the Kabbalah.  The Greeks, including Plato, drew upon Heraclitus' notion of logos, viewing the embodied word as that fire which animated and ruled the world, to explain their understanding of primeval, material language. In the Gospel of John, Christians celebrate this Word or Logos in a radical incarnationalist vision of a Cosmic Christ in whom and through whom all things come into being.  Language, the spoken word and the written word, was the ultimate medium for creation, revelation, and redemption.  Every time we communicate, we participate in a miracle of ultimate significance, or at least so our ancestors intuited." more

Hermeneutics in Science and Religion

"Hermeneutics is the branch of philosophy that deals with theory of interpretation.  It can be argued that any discussion of the relationship between science and religion is implicitly or explicitly a matter of interpretation.  This can be seen, for instance, in Ian Barbour’s (1923 - )advocacy of “critical realism” in matters both religious and scientific.  Interpretation theory necessarily stands at the intersection of the dialogue between science and religion, though few authors in the field have articulated formal theories of interpretation as part of this exploration." more

Human Creativity:
Expanding Complexities and Evolutionary Discontinuities

In this paper I examine human creativity within the context of natural history and cultural evolution.  In order to establish an evolutionary framework for examining the phenomenon of Homo sapiens, I begin by reviewing theories of evolution -- Pre-Darwinism, Darwinism, Neo-Darwinism, and what some are calling Post-Darwinism.  I favor the so-called Post-Darwinist paradigm for both scientific, moral, and metaphysical reasons.  Regardless of the processes involved in non-human evolution, however, I argue that human culture evolves in a Lamarckian manner whereby acquired innovations are passed on more-or-less directly to the next generation.  So while there are undeniable continuities with non-human nature, as well as myriad natural constraints upon human culture, I argue that there are also significant discontinuities in the evolutionary epic.  In order to understand this process, however, we need to understand that human creativity is primarily expressed as a distributed system.  I examine brains, language, economics, technology, and morality, as distributed systems.  In discussing the expanding complexities of human creativity, I pose the question of whether these rapid changes are for better or worse.  Finally, I examine religious and metaphysical issues, wondering whether a transcendent telos is expressing itself through natural history and cultural evolution and what constraints it might place upon our contemporary worldviews and world-doings. more

Human Creativity Revisited

I am grateful to Michael Ruse for his thoughtful response to my essay on "Human Creativity: Accelerating Complexity and Evolutionary Discontinuity" and also for his more colorful criticism at the recent Haverford Conference on "Gentices, Bioethics, and Religion." Ruse summarizes and criticizes my argument in three points. I shall respond in four. more

Technology, Artifical Intelligence and Social Location

"... Writers like Merlin Donald and Terrance Deacon have argued, I think persuasively, on the bases of the contemporary neurosciences and evolutionary anthropology that our human cognitive, linguistic, and intellectual abilities are fundamentally “located” outside of the architecture of individual human brain in the distributed space of culture.  For instance, this distributed understanding of cognition and linguistics can be understood in the tragic cases of otherwise normal human infants deprived of linguistic and social stimulation who grow up to be permanently mentally retard by age five." more

Postmodernism: What One Can't Know

Postmodernism and its philosophic cousin deconstruction are often misunderstood by their detractors and overstated by their proponents.  On the one hand, postmodernism and deconstruction are celebrated as the end of philosophical self-delusion, a critical attack on all oppressive metanarratives, and the final dissolution of foundational thought.  On the other hand, postmodernism and deconstruction are denounced as relativistic, nihilistic, irrational, and hyperrational.  The inaccessible philosophic language of most postmodern thinkers and the heated confusion about what postmodernism represents make it difficult for the average professor teaching a science and religion class to acquire a working overview.  And yet, at least a cursory understanding of these debates is essential to any discussion of science and religion in the late twentieth century.  So in this short essay I will foolishly go where angels fear to tread and attempt to provide a brief overview of key postmodern issues, while relating these issues to the specific problems of scholarship and teaching in the science and religion multidiscipline... more

Powerful Pedagogy in the Science and Religion Classroom

This essay is a discussion of effective teaching in the science and religion classroom.  I begin by introducing Alfred North Whitehead’s three stages of learning -- romance, discipline, and generalization -- and consider their implications for powerful pedagogy in the science and religion classroom.  Following Whitehead’s three principles, I develop a number of additional heuristics that deal with active, visual, narrative, cooperative, and dialogical learning styles.  Finally, I present twelve guidelines for how to use e-mail and class-based listservers to achieve some of these outcomes... more

Reinventing Nature: Ch 3: Hermeneutical Models of Science

...In moving to hermeneutics, I will sidestep the inconclusive epistemological debate about the status of natural sciences with it's continuous dichotomizing of philosophical objectivity and realism, on the one hand, and subjectivism and idealism, on the other hand.  By the extension of Ricoeur's work in hermeneutics, I will develop a framework for the mythological treatment of modern scientific cosmology which can help us productively reframe and reshape the content and culture of science.  This abnormal treatment of science is practically motivated by my search for the power to aid us in becoming new beings in the context of a global breakdown of ecological and economic life support systems... more

 

 

 

 

Book Reviews

Post-Darwinism: The New Synthesis

A review of Scott F. Gilbert and David Epel's Ecological Developmental Biology: Integrating Epigenetics, Medicine, and Evolution , Sunderland, MA: Sinauer 2009.

Process Ecology in Process

A Review of Robert Ulanowicz's Third Window: Natural Life Beyond Newton and Darwin (Templeton Foundation Press, 2009).

Universalism and Particularism:
Judaism in an Age of Science

A Review of Norbert Samuelson's Jewish Faith and Modern Science: On the Death and Rebirth of Jewish Philosophy, New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009.

Avatar and the Collective Unconscious:
Channeling 21st Century Ambivalence Through Virtual Reality

"Avatar involves layers and layers of ambivalence. We have a pro-peace, anti-war movie that involves enough fighting to titillate the eternal adolescent male on his Xbox. We have an inter-species love story with queer intercourse involving kinky ponytails that directly connect the nervous systems of different beast. We have an eco-romantic apologia that requires the highest of high tech to tell and sell in a completely man-made environment." more

A Teachable Moment

"
Imagine with me a semester-long curriculum for the world. Let’s call it “A Short Course on Everything for the Twenty-First Century” or more simply “Our Common Story”. Here is my syllabus, including six books that I wish all students everywhere – of all ages, disciplines, professions, nationalities, and religions – would digest, discuss, debate, and delight over together in the next six months. Call it the first “global teach-in”. It is “Our Common Story,” because it is increasingly universally true, albeit open to multiple and divergent interpretations". more

Eating Well Together:
Donna Haraway's Companion Species Manifesto

A review of Donna Haraway, When Species Meet, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2008. more

Re-reading Economics:
In Search of New Economic Metaphors for Evolutionary Biology

A review of Eric D. Beinhocker, The Origin of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity, and the Radical Remaking of Economics, Harvard Business School Press, 2006. more

Useless Arithmetic and Inconvenient Truths

A Review of Useless Arithmetic: Why Environmental Scientists Can’t Predict the Future by Orrin H. Pilkey and Linda Pilkey-Jarvis, Columbia University Press, 2007. ISBN 0-231-13212-3. more

Review of Michael Dowd's Thank God For Evolution!

Let that not deter you from perusing this book. Much insight and wisdom has been assembled in these pages. Take what you like and leave the rest, as the saying goes. And there is a lot to like, much to learn, experiments to be modified and adapted, and a refreshingly creative attempt to take the drama of the constructive engagement of religion and science from the Ivory Towers into the popular culture. Let’s hope we see Rev. Michael Dowd sometime soon on “The Hour of Power” and “The Oprah Winfrey Show”.

The Nine Laws of God:
Kevin Kelly's Out of Control Techno-Utopic Program for a Wired World

Explorations of the interface between religion and science, and therefore also between culture and nature, are ancient intellectual disciplines.  However one construes this interface, we are compelled to take into account sciences’ ever new descriptions and manipulations of natural processes.  These descriptions of nature explicitly and implicitly evolve into prescriptions for human thought and behavior.  Contrary to the positivist tradition, our scientific understandings of nature necessarily become symbolic values in our reconfigurations of human culture.  In the late twentieth century, at the end of the Cenozoic era, our techno- cultural unfolding has also become a significant factor in the present evolutionary trajectory of our planet.  The question is not whether we are going to commit the Naturalistic Fallacy, but how.  Human creativity is a Lamarckian wild card in the epic of evolution.  Metaphysics becomes politics by other means... more

Cyborgs, Tricksters, and Hermes:
Donna Haraway's Metatheory of Religion and Science

This article is a close reading of two essays by Donna Haraway on feminist philosophy, the biophysical sciences, and critical social theory.  Haraway's strong social constructionist approach to science is criticized by colleague Sandra Harding, resulting in an epistemological reconceptualization of objectivity by Haraway.  Haraway's notion of "Situated Knowledges" provides a workable epistemology for all social and biophysical sciences, while inviting the reintegration of religions as critical conversation partners in an emancipatory hermeneutics of nature, culture, and technology. more

 

 

Other Essays

How a Small Nonprofit Made Simple Tech Tweaks and Saved $176,000

This article in The Chronicle of Philanthropy details how Metanexus saved money by moving our entire operation into the Cloud. more

Easter: A Moveable Feast

Easter, you may have noticed, is not a fixed day in the calendar. While Christmas, in contrast, occurs reliably every year on Dec. 25, Easter wanders around on a given Sunday in late March or April. This year Easter will be celebrated on March 31, but in 2014 it will.. more

Big History: Engaging the New Narrative of Science

Science is progressive, and it tends toward consensus of necessity. Science discovers, illuminates, and crafts facts, and we rely on these complex facts in practical ways. Unlike religion, science is pretty much the same collection of complex facts in all cultures around the world. These facts are uncovered with considerable... more

The Universe Between Atheism and Fundamentalism

In jest I call myself "a recovering Unitarian." I was raised believing that all religions are the same, so we valued none of them, equally. While it is unfair to ascribe this view to Unitarian Universalists in general, it was true of my congregation in that time and place... more

Christmas From the Outside In

The Christmas story is subversive, so we try to render it safe and saccharine. Contrast the idea of God as some great, all-powerful Being in the sky with the icon of the helpless baby in the manger. The former, many imagine, micro-manages all the details of our lives and the... more

The Neurosciences of Bar Mitzvah

Attending a recent Bar Mitzvah ceremony, I was impressed, once again, by the wisdom of this ancient tribal initiation ceremony. The 13-year-old boy (or girl, in what's called a Bat Mitzvah) is surrounded by family and friends as he recites the Torah portion in Hebrew and offers a short sermon...more

The New Silenc Majority?

When Thanksgiving dinner conversation drifts into religious dogma, here is the way I'll respond, with a wink and a smile: "That's nice, Aunty. Thank you for sharing. But I am spiritual, not religious. I love the Brussels sprouts and chestnuts. Did you make that dish?" It is a polite way... more

Zombies Fighting Over Who is Right: A Nightmare on Main Street

Every religion, every ideology and every construct of self implies a perspective on what constitutes the good life, as well as some kind of critique of the bad. Religions would be thin gruel in a nihilistic wasteland without some blissful vision of transcendence. Political ideologies would be empty chatter without... more

Seeking Truth in a World of Competing Narratives

In today's global civilization, we are confronted with a Walmart of worldviews. We find ourselves in an entangled and sometimes toxic web of ideologies, religions, nationalisms and ethnicities. We generally resolve this cognitive dissonance by doubling-down on our own prejudices in opposition to those with whom we disagree. We tend.. more

Conflicting Ideologies and Entangled Narratives

Humans today, perhaps more than at any other time in history, are caught up in a web of entangled narratives. Globalization and communication technologies have brought a world of differences into our living rooms, classrooms and communities. People wage culture wars within and between civilizations based on these narratives, religious... more

Storied Nature of Human Nature

What are we to make of all these sacred texts with their complex origins? How should we read them today? Is there some truth to be found therein, as their followers so fervently proclaim? One option for scriptural interpretation is to read the Bible and other sacred texts as... more

Religious Liberties and Moral Ambiguities:
The Case of Contraception and War Resistance

The Senate rejected the Blunt amendment, which would have allowed employers to deny healthcare coverage to their employees for contraception or any other "morally objectionable" service. The failed amendment --to a highway bill in this case -- appeared on the heels of the recent controversies with the United States Conference... more

Redacting the Bible: A Case Study in Historical Criticism

Let's look at an example of how science understands sacred scripture by taking a closer look at historical criticism of the New Testament. What I present is very much the academic consensus after more than a hundred years of research in a variety of cognate fields -- linguistic analysis, archeology,... more

The Science of Sacred Scriptures

The vast majority of religious believers hold on to scriptures as sacred, as profound revelations, as precious guides to the mysteries of life and death. Believers believe that their stories are true -- for instance, that Moses was a real person who led the Hebrews out of slavery and received... more

Leeches on the Road to Enlightenment,

"In Buddhist terminology, I have an overactive 'monkey brain,' actually in my case more like a drunken monkey in Time Square on New Year’s Eve with firecrackers tied to his tail.  Add to that a lot of reptilian passions in my cerebellum and you understand why I approach meditation with trepidation." more

Sleepless in Tehran

"...We stayed at the Esteghlal Grand Hotel in North Tehran.  My room was on the twelfth floor.  I had a small balcony which looked out on the Alborz Mountains north of the city, still covered with snow in early May.  From the elevator side, I had a view of the smog filled sky looking south into this bustling city of 14 million..." more

Engaged Contemplation

"Some years ago, when my daughters were young [today they are college students], they came home from elementary school with a new nursery rhyme.  This was not a song that their teachers had taught them, but rather one that was passed along by the children themselves on the playground and lunchroom.  The singing of the rhyme involved a series of rubs and pinches to a companion's back, a kind of Shiatzu massage accompanied by the sing-song refrain: 

People are dying,
Children are crying,
Concentrate!
Concentrate!" more

Ten Reasons for the Constructive Engagement of Religion and Science

1) Cultural Ambivalence
2) Definitional Ambiguity
3) Metaphysics Matters
4) Relational Revelations
5) Science as a Spiritual Quest
6) The Sciences of Religion Revisited
7) Healthy Semiotics
8) Innumerate Nescience
9) Philistine Fideism
10) Moral Muddles... more

Which Universe do you live in?

"The success of modern cosmology in understanding the history and structure of the universe has led to a profound crisis in the field, which has significance for the dialogue between science and religion..." more

The Concealed God of Science

"...So if God is everywhere, than why is God so hard to perceive?  One could imagine a God who would be more like a Chairman Mao or a Comrade Stalin.  This God would have designed a universe with photographs of himself hung everywhere in nature.  We would be compelled to believe in the existence of this God, because everywhere we turned with our microscopes, telescopes, and other devices, there would be both the evidence for his existence and the secret police to enforce our acquiescence.  Everything in the universe would occur by divine order, micromanaged in five-year plans and designed in a command economy.  Some people today actually choose to believe in such a vision of God and appoint themselves to be the secret police, though we might wonder whether such a dictator God would be worthy of our admiration and love." more

And yet there is no peace

"Back in 1977-1978 I spent a very formative Junior Year Abroad at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  I was majoring in International Relations at Middlebury College, so the idea of studying in Israel made a lot of sense.  Today, I have a doctorate in comparative religion and work to promote the seemingly esoteric dialogue between science and religion.  The autobiographical and metaphoric road that led me this current work went through Jerusalem and this past December took me back again to that troubled and magical city after twenty-three years away." more

Why Science and Religion?

"Whenever someone asks me what I do for a living, I take a deep breath.  It takes more than a few words to explain what I do and more importantly why I am so passionately involved in this seemingly strange endeavor to link science and religion in constructive dialogue.  At the end of the day and the beginning of the 21st Century, the connections between science and religion are not really esoteric scholasticism, but extremely practical and profoundly existential questions, which have everything to do with our civilization’s present and future well-being." more

Time Enough for Love

How much time is enough?  One is tempted to apply John D. Rockefellers’ famous quip.  A reporter is reputed to have asked him, “How much money is enough?”  Rockefeller replied, “A little bit more!”  Indeed, more time is a good that we should wish for ourselves and others, but is it an ultimate value?

On the eve of his assassination, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about longevity in light of his twelve years as a public figure.  He had endured daily death threats and numerous attacks on his life and on his family and friends... more

Science as Epic?

The more humans learn about the universe through science, the more we must look anew at ourselves.  Science is a kind of magic mirror for human identity.  The appropriate integration and interpretation of these new scientific insights requires creative collaboration of the world’s wisdom traditions... more

Panel on Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

I am not an expert on the Arab-Israeli conflict. In the announcement that Shelley Novoseller sent out for this forum, I was identified as one of "Penn's most respected authorities on the subject."  Let me assure that I am not.  I am merely a visiting lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies teaching occasional courses on science and religion and certainly not an authority on the Arab-Israeli Conflict.  I am not published in this field and have rarely spoken publicly about it. Nor am I of Jewish or Arab ancestry.  Six weeks ago when I agreed to be part of this panel, the recent wave of violence hadn't broken out.  It was with serious reservations that I agreed at that time to participate.  Now I'm feeling only serious trepidation... more

The Simplified Keyboard

“The laptop before you is an icon of human ingenuity and progress. The QWERTY keyboard at your finger tips, however, is an icon of human stupidity and inability to change.” more

Conflicting Ideologies and Common Security:
Breaking Down the Berlin Wall

This essay was written in 1987 about my experiences and perspectives on East Germany, especially about my participation in the Olaf Palme Friedensmarsch für eine Nuclearwaffen-Frei Korridor in Mitte Europa. Includes photo collection. more

 

Selected Photos and Commentary

Bangkok
Plastic Buddhist Monks reflecting on Pratitya-samutpada,
Bangkok, 2006

I was in Bangkok to give a lecture at Chulalongkorn University for the Thousand Stars Foundation, one of our Metanexus’ partners. Among other activities, Thousand Stars is unique in building bridges between Theravada and Mahayana Schools of Buddhism. The conference was attended by Buddhists from China, Vietnam, Laos, Sri Lanka, India, and the United States.

The photograph was taken on the streets of Bangkok. I was stunned by these plastic Buddhist monks sitting in a shop window. The statues are of famous Thai monks and are rendered with remarkable realism. Each statue is about fifteen inches tall and has implanted hair, old wrinkled and scarred skin with bones and veins showing, glass eyes that seemed to look right through you. The plastic monks are meant to be photo-realistic, scaled-copies of the real thing – yours for only 6,500 Baht. “Do not touch” says the sign inside on the counter, where a young Thai Muslim woman with head cover is ready to help me buy my own plastic Buddhist monk. In the photograph, we see the reflection of the street activity on the store’s window and the scene of the Muslim sales clerk inside the shop. These layers of activity juxtaposed to plastic monks seems to convey something profound about our world and about Buddhism, albeit in a kitschy way.

The doctrine of Pratitya-samutpada is central to all schools of Buddhism. Often translated as “co-dependent origination”, the doctrine is central to Buddhist metaphysics. Everything in the universe, including our lives and our thoughts, are wrapped up in a circular web of cause and effect. Nothing has lasting substance; everything is conditioned by everything else. This metaphysics of cause and effect is often claimed to be quite sympathetic to the modern scientific worldview.

In Buddhist art, co-dependent origination is often represented as the Wheel of Life. Pratitya-samutpada, however, is not something to be celebrated, as some Westerns misunderstand Buddhism, for instance by putting an eco-romantic spin on Pratitya-samutpada. Co-dependent origination means infinite suffering, death, and rebirth. Sure there will be pleasures along the way, but these very pleasures are chains that tie us to unending Dukkha. Buddhism purports to offer a way out of Suffering by breaking the chains of desire. It is desire which propels codependent origination onward, as well as much of the Bangkok economic boom and night life.

These recently deceased and revered Thai monks have now been immortalized in plastic. Their inanimate meditation in the shop window is a commentary, however ironic, on the world around them. Wake up. Pay attention.

Kandy

Young Monks considering the world, Kandy, Sri Lanka, 2006.

On my first visit to Kandy to give a lecture to the Society for the Integration of Science and Human Values (SiSHVA) at the University of Peradeniya, I was enchanted with these young monks considering these globes on the street. Much like Irish Catholic nuns and priest a hundred years ago, these children are sent into the monestaries by families who generally can't afford to feed and educate them. If they work hard, the young monks can also hope to get preferential admission to universities, after which time many of them also disrobe.

In the fifth century B.C.E., or so the legend goes, Sidhhatta Gotama left the comfort of the palace in which he was raised. He also left behind his young wife and son. He left in search of Enlightenment and apprenticed himself to many different teachers who guided him, also astray, on the spiritual path. Eventually he discovers on his own the sublime truths of Buddhism, becoming "the Awakened One" Guatama Buddha.

Today, I wonder, would not a serious Buddhist also need to go out into the world, a much larger world than than of Sidhhatta, a world of different languages, cultures, and religions, a world of new scientific insights and discoveries. These young monks in the photograph, at least, seem enchanted by the possibilities of these multiple worlds, but are not likely to get much beyond Kandy and their local village. Presumably, the Buddha has provided them with a short-cut into a much richer inner-world, but still I think better to go forth into the world first on the search before one renounces it for the monastic life. What are these monks missing out on? And what are we missing out on by not exploring the Buddha's inner-world?

Sophia

Hagia Sofia, Istanbul, 2006

 

Bodrum

The Trojan Horse brought CocaCola, Bodrum, Turkey, 2006