Sunday, February 01, 2004

A guy emailed and wanted to know if I'd review his self-published book. I agreed. Why not? Quality-wise, it's a gamble, but so is reading anything by an unknown author, self-published or not. So I'll give it a shot. A free book's a free book.

I'm almost done with Raymo's "Skeptics and True Believers." Wading through that odious chapter on UFOs was worth it; I love this book. Not at all your typical attempt to unify science and religion -- a task that takes up a lot of shelf-space that could be put to more productive use.

Science has yet to provide the sort of anthropocentric comfort so many human beings are looking for. Most people consider a mechanistic, impersonal cosmos intolerable, harsh, forbidding. They want their ontology cuddly and reassuring. Hence Precious Moments and the 700 Club and "Creation Science." Not to mention more faddish preoccupations like Wicca and predigested Eastern mysticism. (If you think Precious Moments should be downgraded to the list of mere fads, guess again. It's a literal cult with surprisingly deep roots.)

Raymo, like Carl Sagan, argues that there is a numinous grandeur to reality just as we find it. And there is; I experience it on a near-daily basis. I don't need "life after death" to help me sleep at night. I don't need any watchful deities to give me morality. I happen to like and appreciate the fact that I'm a flux of particles forged inside long-exploded stars, a small portion of the universe sculpted in such a way as to reflect on its own beginning and eventual end. I have an innate yearning for the intergalactic abyss, the seminal pyrotechnics of the Big Bang, the distant roar of supernovae.

To Raymo, this strange affinity for the cosmos is the essence of religious experience. The True Believers of his book's title get a distilled version of it by speaking in tongues, firewalking and doting on dubious "miracles"; I get a dose of it whenever I look at the night sky or immerse myself in theoretical physics. I even get a pleasurable tingle looking at pictures from the Mars rovers. So in this sense, I guess I qualify as "spiritual" -- although I'm as uncomfortable with that word as I am with "believer." What is spirituality, after all, but an electrochemical process confined to my brain? Let's not get too excited, here. (Yeah, maybe I'm dead wrong and consciousness somehow survives physical deanimation -- but I'm not betting any money on it. See prior essay on cryonic suspension).

Of course, if "spirit" is neurological, it follows that everything else is. Love, hate, you name it. This is dangerous territory. Maybe we're so many deluded puppets. To me, the most sensible course of action is to upgrade the human condition. Self-awareness is nice, but we can do much better; thus my Nietzschean fixation with technologies with the potential to transform us. If we ever make open contact with an alien civilization, I predict it will have taken a similar path, perhaps shedding biology altogether in its never-ending quest for the numinous. From a biological perspective, "humanity" is a dead end. The critical difference between our plight and that of Cro-Magnon man is that we can consciously direct our evolution instead of weathering nature's caprices.

The tools (i.e., genetic engineering, nanotechnology) are just waiting to be picked up and refined; the challenge, as always, is to use them wisely.

What I'm listening to:

"Murmur" and "Reveal" (R.E.M.)
"OK Computer" (Radiohead)
"Speaking In Tongues" (Talking Heads)
"Blade Runner" soundtrack (Vangelis)