Thursday, March 02, 2006

Of Thylacines and Theosophy

[Note: This is the long one I warned you about. Any comments on subject matter or the piece itself are appreciated.]

Don't tell anybody, but I think I might believe in intelligent design. No, not the creationist folderol that the school boards down in KY and PA tried to add to their curricula – evangelism gives me agita. But I kinda think there might be more to this old universe than biomechanics can account for, even if there's not some big, bearded dude sitting on a throne somewhere all whittling wallabies out of the clay of life and smite, smite, smite.

Some might attribute this spiritual bent of mine to being born a soul miner's daughter. But although my father is a minister, he's an extremely liberal Congregationalist who believes in evolution and rarely made us go to church (mainly because he was usually getting kicked out by church boards for being too much of a liberal activist). And, yes, my mother, also, has a faith-y bent. She was recently ordained as an interfaith minister. However, as far as I can tell, that’s about 10 steps more fringe than being a Unitarian Universalist, and she doesn't even preach, except about how honouring your inner child and wheat germ are good for you. So, although the seeds for some kind of belief system are there, I've mostly come up a godless heathen with a distinct distrust of organized religion (and many other types of authority). I always figured nobody knows some one real truth about life, death and the universe that governs everything, and they're pretty egotistical if they think they do. That egotism, translated into a strong belief in a particular dogma seems to be what divides people and starts wars much of the time. So, what good is subscribing to a particular spiritual outlook, anyway? Besides, we'll all find out when we die, right? So what's the hurry? Why go off all half-cocked?

Well, it turns out that later in life this has become a struggle for me, because I like to see myself as mainly rational, but it's hard to go through some of the deep shit I have without some kind of faith in a greater meaning or purpose. On top of that, a few years ago I started having some very convincing spiritual experiences. This is not the post where I go off on all that - it's still marinating. But suffice it to say I had a long series of psychic and spiritual experiences that not only made me feel as though there was some greater connection or purpose in life, but involved inexplicable, verified proof. (Here's a hint: I got into animal communication, I was scary good at it, I could see what people's houses looked like from thousands of miles away with no information given to me, I even went "professional" for a while.) Then, several months ago, I descended into a depression after suffering a series of health setbacks and surgery and I began to question all my faith and experiences. I went from "who knows?" to "I do!" to "life is pointless suffering" at about warp speed, and it hasn't been pretty.

All of this has been roiling, stewing for the past several months as I continue to work out my health issues, what the hell I want to do with my life, how to get myself out of a soul-crushing job and into doing something I enjoy, if I even think that's possible and I whether I even deserve it. Wah, wah, wah. So, it caught my attention when I came across this little article while blog-surfing the other day.

It seems the author, one Carl Buell, is an illustrator who uses fossils, remains and physiology to create pictures of long-extinct animals. Now this is just the sort of thing that appeals to my rationalist side and I set down to slopping up with my geekarella spoon, so bear with me. He posits, more elegantly and at greater length than I will here, that evolution is basically all there is in terms of a "design" of life, because the limitations on body construction are so clear that they indicate a lack of imagination that one would expect from an intelligent creator. He mentions how closely the structure of a flipper, wing and hand resemble one another, and says that this is because nature is blind, philosophically speaking, and really only has so much to work with. One illustration he includes - and it's a nice one - compares the marsupial thylacine to the placental carnivore the dingo (although just about any canid would do). If you look at how the thylacine developed, he indicates, from a line of marsupials removed from placental creatures, and compare it to the development of the dingo, what you get is two extremely similar beasts that essentially fall into the category of "doggish", just because that's the best construct nature can come up with for surviving as mid-sized carnivores in their environments. He concludes:
All too often I hear narrators on the National Geographic, Discovery or Animal Channel refer to one creature or another as perfectly adapted to their environment. Perhaps since a species can last a long time and fit well into an ecosystem, that statement seems close to true, but individuals are evolutionary fodder. Each animal lives on the edge of the precipice, one misstep away from disease, injury and death. All that matters is that enough members of a population reach breeding age and parent the next generation.

It can be depressing if you dwell on it, and indeed, there's always a touch of melancholy present as I marvel at the natural world. But if anything, their imperfection makes the individual creatures I portray that much more beautiful and all that more endearing to me because I know the absolute indifference they face in their world; a world without the medical and technological insulation we surround ourselves with.

Why, yes, fascinating thought, my friend. But you did depress me with that, and I do tend to dwell, so let's examine it.

I strongly believe in evolution and have no problem accepting his theory - that two distinct animal families evolved into very similar bodies based on what they needed for survival. But yet... can you really definitively say that that adaptive, convergent evolution indicates a complete lack of creativity and imagination? I mean, think about it - didn't the very rules of life development and physical limitations have to be set somewhere, sometime, to begin with? Any good artist knows there is a place for rules and restrictions. Just because I say "I'm only going to allow myself to work with watercolours today" or "I'm going to use a fundamental system of punctuation and grammar so my writing can be better understood and more effective" doesn't mean you haven't put some thought and imagination into it. In fact, the very construction of certain rules and limits – which do not need to come down from on high, but rather develop through experimentation and mutual agreement amongst a number of creators (artists or writers, in this case) is evolutionary itself, and allows for even more creativity when those rules are used, restructured or broken. All in all, it strikes me as patently odd that a guy who spends his time creating illustrations that are, ultimately, somewhat speculative and require not just interpolation of facts but, yes, imagination, wouldn't think that fit into the rest of the world. It only seems to prove a lack in his imagination, if you will.

Of course, science is not supposed to be about imagination. Science is supposed to be about experimentation, and proof! Fair enough, but you've got to have the imagination to theorize and question before you figure out how to experiment. Heck, you have to have imagination to fully grok the idea of a quark, or evolution itself, lacking actual film at eleven of either. And while I do think that the principles of science and reproducable experimental results are what should be focused on in schools, I don't think it should be at the exclusion of say, philosophy or comparative religion. Do we have to throw the baby out with the bathwater? Is there some room for spiritual faith even when there's no double-blind study to prove it? I dislike mouth-frothing fundies as much as the next intelligent, liberal, feminist queer, but does that mean I have to frown on anybody who believes that we're something other than links in the food chain?

Unfortunately, in a socio-political climate where most of the discussion is heavily weighted with references to aggressive religious extremism – whether jihadism, evangelism or some other variation - it seems that, perhaps unsurprisingly, the liberal faction has taken on a strong reactionary, rationalist/scientific bent. This means that even though much of the general public seem to be willing to question traditionalist church doctrine (witness the healthy sales of The DaVinci Code, which is loosely based on modern interpretation of recently discovered Gnostic texts), among the political intelligentsia you can either have faith, which is comforting but stupid, or only science, which is smart but leaves one lacking the higher purpose in life that we as humans seem to inherently crave. So, here I was, finding myself on the horns of this particular dilemma: I want to be smart, and I want to feel like I have some individual purpose beyond reproducing my (rather ridiculous) species. Is there any safe space for both?

Here's where a strange association formed. Buell really got me in talking about thylacines. They were (or, some think, are) fascinating creatures - large, marsupial carnivores with jaws that could open like bear traps and fetching stripes on their rumps. Also known as Tasmanian tigers, they were hunted to extinction sometime in the nineteen-thirties.* He even gets bonus points for including a link to the Thylacine Museum at naturalworlds.org, a fascinating spot on the Web that contains real, if low-quality, clips of movies of what are thought to be the last surviving Tasmanian tigers. The fact that they got wiped out by humans so quickly definitely depresses me. It not only exemplifies mankind's blatant disrespect of other creatures and the environment (a sickening trait that is a frequent spur to my doubting any sort of higher meaning or divine justice), but the lack of adaptability and closeness to death of all beings Buell references in his piece. But what else here was bothering me? For some reason, some word kept coming up on the tip of my tongue to match with "thylacines," and I didn't even know what it meant.

Theosophy. What is it? Damned if I knew. I'd encountered the word, but I don't think I ever read up exactly what it meant. It was just one of those antiquated terms that came up in my habitual noodlings through 18th and 19th-century lit, history and trivia. Probably something akin to phrenology or spirit photography** I figured, some pseudo-science that went in and out of fashion and was later disproven or exposed as a predatory cult. But it kept nagging at me. So, I decided to look it up.

Here is an excerpt from theosophical.org:
The three basic ideas of Theosophy are (1) the fundamental unity of all existence, so that all pairs of opposites—matter and spirit, the human and the divine, I and thou—are transitory and relative distinctions of an underlying absolute Oneness, (2) the regularity of universal law, cyclically producing universes out of the absolute ground of being, and (3) the progress of consciousness developing through the cycles of life to an ever-increasing realization of Unity.

Huh.

Further:
These abstract ideas have some very specific and practical implications, for example the following:
  • The world we live in is basically a good place, to be used wisely, to be treasured, and to be honored: rejoice in life.
  • We develop as human beings, not by forsaking the world, but by cooperating with nature to preserve and perfect it: respect the environment and be ecologically responsible.
  • You and I are different expressions of the same life, so whatever happens to either of us happens to both of us—our well-being is linked: help your neighbor, and thereby help yourself.
  • Disharmony and evil are the result of ignorance and selfishness: live in harmony and goodness so as to teach others by your life as well as by your words.

Sounds lovely, but potentially kinda cult-y. And what does that have to do with science?
The motto of the Theosophical Society is “There is no religion higher than Truth.” That is a statement to which a scientist can subscribe equally well. Theosophists and scientists are indeed both engaged in a search for Truth. However, scientists seek for truth at the outward physical level, whereas Theosophists are concerned with Truth at an inner and more spiritual level, as taught by the great mystics and sages throughout the ages. That deeper Truth is sometimes called the “Ancient Wisdom” or the “perennial philosophy.”

The scientific and mystical methods of search also differ, being complementary rather than contradictory. Science does not need mysticism and mysticism does not need science, but we human beings need both. Yet many scientists, perhaps even the majority, do not see a need for any deeper Truth than those which objective scientific procedures discover. Others would like to have some involvement with religion but are discouraged by fundamentalist religious teachings that are inconsistent with well-established scientific knowledge. Nevertheless, many great scientists—for example Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Erwin Schrödinger, and David Bohm—have seen the need for the deeper spiritual understanding taught by the great religious teachers and mystics of all ages.

About this time I was feeling floored that this seemingly random word I’d come up with had led to a philosophy addressing the exact issues I’d been pondering as I read Buell’s piece. Still, it wasn’t quite clear if theosophy was merely a byword for a particular spiritual set of beliefs with its own subtle, discriminatory dogmatism or if there was something actually more inclusive and, yes, scientific there. I read on:
Among the features shared by science and mysticism is that both experimental results and mystical experiences must not be unique, but available to everyone under the right conditions. Just as a good scientific theory has to be tested and confirmed by several scientists working independently, so a convincing mystical experience has to be shared by a number of mystics in different cultural traditions and expressed in metaphors that may be different from one another, but are equivalent in what they represent. And like science, mysticism is progressive, being supplemented and revised by succeeding generations of investigators into the inner world of experience.

[snip]
The Theosophical Society promotes freedom of thought and encourages its members to use their own judgment and discrimination on all matters—whether scientific, philosophical, or religious. Many scientists have found inspiration and insight in Theosophical ideas, and members of the Society have always included scientists, some quite prominent in their fields. Since the Society’s founding in 1875, many Theosophists have expressed their views about scientific matters. Some of those views have stood the test of time and even proved to be prescient of current scientific knowledge. Other views uncorroborated by subsequent discoveries have been superseded by present-day knowledge.

And finally, from another page on the site:
The Theosophical Society is nondogmatic, and Theosophists are encouraged to accept nothing on faith or on the word of another, but to adopt only those ideas that satisfy their own sense of what is real and important.

Wow. So, let's leave aside the fact that there's a society founded by some folks in 1875 that discusses these things, and that some people might view this group as unscientific and a bit of a cult in itself. Here we have some theoretical concepts that allow for both a belief in science and something beyond - a safe space for those undecided or open-minded about the role of soul, as it were. It's not about telling anyone what specific god or practice to believe in, but at the same time it's not about accepting that what we can prove today with our current scientific methods defines and contains the entirety of life and beyond. It doesn't have to be either/or, black or white. We can accept that "hard" science demonstrates a lot of things quite well, but that, at the same time, humankind's experiences with spiritual, parapsychological or other unexplained phenomena can be completely valid and, perhaps, fully understood as we integrate them with scientific studies.

And the kicker is, this word, theosophy, just came to me after reading the word thylacine in an essay that pooh-poohed a world beyond science. Coincidence? Subconcious association based on a penchant for alliteration compounded with things I must have heard in the past and forgot? Or... just another unexplained little miracle, leading one human being from depression in the face of perceived pointless existence to hope for a higher purpose? Perhaps, if you will, a message from the divine?

Maybe what we feel is not quantifiable, and faith cannot be proven or disproven by its very nature. But in trying to stick to "the facts" and avoid impositional dogmatism, we may be closing our minds to learning more about a universe that, in reality, we really know very little about. After all, the scope of basic physical evolution may provide us with some explanation of our forms and actions, and even much wonder, but do we not learn from dreams, as well?

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*Some folks do think there might still be a few thylacines out there, and I highly recommend Carnivorous Nights: On the Trail of the Tasmanian Tiger for an exploration of the kind of thoughtful conservationists who hope so and a general romp through Tasmania.

** Incidentally, if you're interested in this type of spiritualism, or just the scientific exploration of the afterlife in general, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, Mary Roach's follow-up to Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers is a fascinating and quite witty read.

3 comments:

Sydra said...

Don't forget, of course, the school of PhileXophy, whose motto is "The truth is out there." It is quite possible that a Tasmanian Tiger was featured in one of their promotional videos.

Doug Stewart said...

It's official: You spend your time much more wisely than I, Gretch. You are doing some serious thinking in your spare time. Which is a good thing. I, on the other hand, am watching way too much TV. Oy.

Seriously though...interesting stuff!!

Bruce said...

Well you see, there is a theosophical (and anthroposophical doctrine) that the animals evolved from Man and not the other way around.

Look up Alfred Russel Wallace- spiritualist and co-presenter of the Origin of Species with Darwin.