Broad Views, Mutual Boot-Straps and Strong Foundations

SanFrancisco
1906 aerial photograph by George R. Lawrence/Library of Congress

 

I read an interesting story in the New York Times by Thomas Fuller, Anjali Singhvi and Josh Williams entitled “San Francisco’s Big Seismic Gamble.” What most captured my attention as I read it was the different interests described and how those interests could either conflict with each other or work together to provide a more unobstructed view of the whole. The synergy of a society/community/nation allows us to live much more fulfilled and secure lives than we might alone. As Aristotle first observed, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

If one subscribes to any singular “interest” described, they would be blinded to other significant points of view. For example, if everyone subscribed singularly to the “fear of The Big One,” San Francisco wouldn’t exist as the world-class city it has become. However, if we only subscribe to “unlimited economic/business/development” as the highest good, we see codes relaxed to promote such development without looking to the broader good.

I’ll admit from the outset that I’ve never lived in the Bay area and I didn’t even stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.  I’m not making a statement here about who should or shouldn’t live there and what they should or shouldn’t build.  I’m not qualified.  Being from Louisiana, it always frustrates me when people who know little about an area ask why anyone would rebuild where another hurricane is likely to occur.   The answer is, “because it’s my home.”  A quick response to that has often been, “then don’t ask me to pay for it (via taxes, government assistance, etc.).” The facts are, as citizens of an actual country with actual people from all points of an actual economic spectrum who live from actual sea to actual shining sea, we ALL pay for it. We are all in it together. Or at least we should be.

There are many interesting things about this Times story: The rebuilding of a city following a catastrophic natural disaster. The fading memory of history. The change from “low-rise” to “high-rise”. The science of earthquakes. The fact that the AVERAGE price of a home in San Francisco is $1.2 million. The hubris of “we saw that as a symbol of the new San Francisco and we wanted the building to be at least 1,000 feet tall.” The fact that the building across the street from this “symbol” has “sunk a foot and a half and is leaning 14 inches toward neighboring high-rises” in the 9 years since it was completed. Most of this “new San Francisco” is built on ground that has a “very high risk of acting like quicksand during an earthquake, a process known as liquefaction.” All interesting. Much of it terrifying.

Ultimately, NONE of us actually “picked ourselves up by our boot-straps”. Someone made the boots and the straps. We are all standing on someone’s shoulders. Usually, this is solid support and foundation on which to be and become the people we were created to be. But also likely, we are standing on shoulders of people whom we are simply holding down. If we fail to recognize the instability of such shoulders—if we fail to realize that ALL of us are in this together and we must pull our entire community up by all of our boot-straps— I’m afraid this great society might just find it is built on a foundation that is at a very high risk of liquefaction.  That is a catastrophe that could actually be avoided.

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The Brain and Faith

An interesting article by Michael Gerson was brought to my attention in the footnotes of a book I’m reading. I was particularly intrigued by a couple of paragraphs in the middle:

“The God we choose to love changes us into his image, whether he exists or not. …For Newberg, this is not a simple critique of religious fundamentalism — a phenomenon varied in its beliefs and motivations. It is a criticism of any institution that allies ideology or faith with anger and selfishness. “The enemy is not religion,” writes Newberg, “the enemy is anger, hostility, intolerance, separatism, extreme idealism, and prejudicial fear — be it secular, religious, or political. Newberg employs a vivid image: two packs of neurological wolves, he says, are found in every brain. One pack is old and powerful, oriented toward survival and anger. The other is composed of pups — the newer parts of the brain, more creative and compassionate — “but they are also neurologically vulnerable and slow when compared to the activity in the emotional parts of the brain.” So all human beings are left with a question: Which pack do we feed?”

Thought provoking stuff… (Gerson’s full article is included below)

Religion has often unintentionally enabled scientific skepticism. The faithful will issue a challenge to science: Ha, you can’t explain the development of life, or the moral sense, or the nearly universal persistence of religion. To which the materialist responds: Can too. It is all biology and chemistry, thus disproving your God hypothesis.

To this musty debate, Andrew Newberg, perhaps America’s leading expert on the neurological basis of religion, brings a fresh perspective. His new book, “How God Changes Your Brain,” co-authored with Mark Robert Waldman, summarizes several years of groundbreaking research on the biological basis of religious experience. And it offers plenty to challenge skeptics and believers alike.

Using brain imaging studies of Franciscan nuns and Buddhist practitioners, and Sikhs and Sufis — along with everyday people new to meditation — Newberg asserts that traditional spiritual practices such as prayer and breath control can alter the neural connections of the brain, leading to “long-lasting states of unity, peacefulness and love.” He assures the mystically challenged (such as myself) that these neural networks begin to develop quickly — a matter of weeks in meditation, not decades on a Tibetan mountaintop. And though meditation does not require a belief in God, strong religious belief amplifies its effect on the brain and enhances “social awareness and empathy while subduing destructive feelings and emotions.”

Newberg argues that religious belief is often personally and socially advantageous, allowing men and women to “imagine a better future.” And he does not contend, as philosophically lazy scientists sometimes do, that a biological propensity toward belief automatically disproves the existence of an object of such belief. “Neuroscience cannot tell you if God does or doesn’t exist,” Newberg states with appropriate humility. Neurobiology helps explain religion; it does not explain it away.

But Newberg’s research offers warnings for the religious as well. Contemplating a loving God strengthens portions of our brain — particularly the frontal lobes and the anterior cingulate — where empathy and reason reside. Contemplating a wrathful God empowers the limbic system, which is “filled with aggression and fear.” It is a sobering concept: The God we choose to love changes us into his image, whether he exists or not.

For Newberg, this is not a simple critique of religious fundamentalism — a phenomenon varied in its beliefs and motivations. It is a criticism of any institution that allies ideology or faith with anger and selfishness. “The enemy is not religion,” writes Newberg, “the enemy is anger, hostility, intolerance, separatism, extreme idealism, and prejudicial fear — be it secular, religious, or political.”

Newberg employs a vivid image: two packs of neurological wolves, he says, are found in every brain. One pack is old and powerful, oriented toward survival and anger. The other is composed of pups — the newer parts of the brain, more creative and compassionate — “but they are also neurologically vulnerable and slow when compared to the activity in the emotional parts of the brain.” So all human beings are left with a question: Which pack do we feed?

“How God Changes Your Brain” has many revelations — and a few limitations. In a practical, how-to tone, it predicts “an epiphany that can improve the inner quality of your life. For most Americans, that is what spirituality is about.” But if this is what spirituality is all about, it isn’t about very much. Mature faith sometimes involves self-sacrifice, not self-actualization; anguish, not comfort. If the primary goal of religion is escape or contentment, there are other, even more practical methods to consider. “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy,” said C.S. Lewis, “I always knew a bottle of port would do that.” The same could be said of psychedelic drugs, which can mimic spiritual ecstasy.

Every religious discussion eventually comes down to the question of truth. Can we escape from the wheel of becoming, or hear God’s voice in a wandering prophet, or meet a man once dead? Without such beliefs, religion is mere meditation. Newberg’s research shows an amplified influence of religious practices on those who “truly believe.” But Newberg himself has difficulty sharing such belief. His research on the varieties of religious experience — and his scientific understanding that the brain is drawn naturally toward artificial certainties — leave him skeptical about the capacity of the human mind to accurately perceive “universal or ultimate truth.”

Yet, he told me, “To this day, I am still seeking and searching.” And that is the most honest kind of science.

michaelgerson@cfr.org