Friday, September 7, 2012

The Pen is Mightier than the Sword

Well, it's happened again. A post of mind has elicited an attack from one who seems to be threatened by what I said and wants me to stop saying it. The first attack was a response  to my post on child sexual abuse. This person seems to believe that this should be treated as a private family matter instead of as the crime it is. To be honest, I was not surprised at all by this response. It, in fact, proved the point I was making in my post.

The second, much more baffling to me, was in response to my recent Nearly Wordless Wednesday post, a photo of a statue of a serene Buddha with the caption "Om Shanti," which is a common way to say farewell in the yoga community. It basically means "Peace be with you," so perhaps you will be as surprised as I was to read the alarmed reaction that this post induced.

It began when, in a moment of gratitude after a weekend meditation and chanting retreat, I posted this photo, then posted a link to it on Google+. This elicited the following exchange with somebody I've never heard of, but who apparently has me "circled," as they call it on Google+. I will use Q to identify that person's comments, and A to label my responses.

Q: What exactly motivates, at a personal level, your attraction to "complexity" as you have here collected and described it?

A: Good question! I've been asking myself that for a long time. I was a practicing scientist for years and my interest in complex systems goes way back, to my PhD thesis, which was on developing a physical/chemical understanding of morphogenesis (the development of form and structure in embryos.) We didn't call it complexity in those days, but that's what it was. My research evolved from that early project into studies of self-organizing biochemical reactions and then to more complicated systems, such as the brain. The constant theme throughout has been a search for the complexity that is US - our bodies, our selves, our societies, etc. For me, it has been, in some ways, a spiritual quest.

Q: "spiritual quest" That is what I suspected – and why I asked. "Complexity" as it is often referenced by those seeking spiritual answers to existential philosophical questions is very different than complexity as a measure of an an attribute of information and the cost of processing at a causal level. The universe isn't concerned with (wasn't shaped by) how it feels to experience the universe. Cause and effect are an ordered affair. Cause first, effect later. It is this sort of self-centered seeking that so gets between humans and understanding the universe (any universe) for what it actually is (as opposed to what we want it to be). 

A: What I meant by "spiritual quest" is that the desire to know "what's what" in the deepest way possible is what drew me into science and toward this field of study. It really has nothing to do with complex systems science per se, but with the drive to study the universe using whatever tools I can get my hands on. You're welcome to your own opinion and beliefs, of course, but my experience is that meditation and other spiritual practices have not gotten between me and my understanding of the universe at all. I don't consider this part of my "studies" in complexity, but it might explain this particular post. I think it's okay to be a full person and both do science and have a spiritual practice as long as you keep it straight how you came to know what's what. Oh, and BTW, Om Shanti is basically a prayer for peace - so, peace be with you!

Q: Ok, tell me what you "believe" and how it has nothing to do with, and in no way contredicts empirical causal reality. What I try very hard not to do is "believe". I accept measurement and theory that doesn't contredict measurement. Period. I try very very hard to keep my personal emotional and survival needs seporate from the development of an elegant and robust abstraction of what is in the larger causal sense – to know the hierarchical difference between "want" and "is". 

That was the state of the "discussion" as of first thing this morning, but it's likely to be the end of it since I'm not going to continue to engage. I've copied his comments verbatim, misspellings and all, as an example of why I have not engaged in "discussion" of religion or spirituality "vs" science on this blog. It's the "vs" part of this I want to avoid - I see no conflict between these two parts of my life.

And, yes, the commenter is a "he" although I'm not identifying him out of some probably misguided sense of protecting the ignorant. One way to look at this exchange is as yet another example of the mansplaining phenomenon. Notice how he begins by explaining to me what the "correct" definition of complexity is. As one of the people who helped define this field, and spent much time in thought and discussion about what it should be called and what the concepts mean, I had to laugh at this patronizing swipe.

I'm not sure this is just one of those things men do, though. This seems to me to be an example of the approach used by the tribe of proselytizing atheists who don't even understand that they operate out of a belief structure. They do, of course, but the main problem is that proselytizing atheists do a great deal of damage to science. Those who cruise the web looking for what they consider unallowed mixing of science with religious and spiritual ideas are trying to convert people to their view with the same lack of subtlety, and lack of effectiveness, we see in any fundamentalist sect.

What was most surprising to me is that a photo of a serenely meditating Buddha was the trigger that brought this one on. I've come to expect attacks on open displays of Christianity but this is a first for me. I let the swipe at "self-centered seeking that so gets between humans and understanding the universe" pass in my response, although I completely understood it as an attack on the spiritual practice of meditation. Instead of asking, what would Jesus do (he would turn the other cheek, of course), I might ask, what would the Dalai Lama do?

Well, this is what the Dalai Lama has done: he has embraced science as fully as he embraces his meditation practice. He has investigated, encouraged and participated in neuroscientific investigations of the power of meditation. He does not see spirituality, religion and science as at odds and neither do I.


*Another common way to say farewell in the yoga community. It literally means "the divine in me bows to the divine in you."

Wednesday, September 5, 2012