‘Stranger than we can imagine’ – by John Higgs – Book Review

stranger-than-we-can-imagine

This is an amazing read!

It leaps from relativity to Cubism to Surrealism, to the optimism in Star Trek and the nihilism in Casablanca. It explains quantum mechanics using a hilarious analogy of Putin punching a kangaroo. From there it goes on to existentialism, individualism and the space race.

Higgs has written a factual book that manages to be a page turner. Don’t simply dip into the chapters you fancy because you’ll miss the thread. He builds up a case which connects all the huge changes of the 20th century to one theme. It’s an intellectual ‘dot to dot’ tour de force. If I’d read this book before I did either of my degrees, it would have helped SO much.

It’s a hugely entertaining read. He draws on seemingly obscure information and you wonder how it could possibly be relevant but watch out because he will circle back to it later.

For anyone my age or above, he is writing about stuff we can actually remember. For anyone younger than me this book is a most accessible and readable account of the 20th century. If the first rule of understanding where you are now is looking back to see how you got here, Higgs traces humanity’s journey through the last 100 years along the paths of science, music, culture, war, and, to some extent, religion.

Which brings me to one of the two ways in which I would dare to criticise this book. Firstly, he gives a great deal of prominence to people who were really very obscure whilst overlooking others who have been massively influential. One of these obscure people is Aleister Crawley whose ‘thelamite’ religion gets a higher profile than I feel it merits – even though he was on the front cover of the Sgt Pepper album and he was included in a list of 100 most influential British people from the 20th century compiled in 2002. I can see why Higgs gives him this profile. Crawley’s religion epitomised all the most negative traits of individualism – his guiding motto was ‘do what thou wilt’ (without the caveat of ‘so long as it doesn’t hurt anybody’). So Higgs is using Crawley as an illustration rather than trying to make a case for his prominence. All the same it’s annoying that he is referred to so frequently whilst far more outstanding examples of humanity are over-looked.

Individualism is one of the very strong themes that run through the book. The other central idea is that the 20th century was the century in which the world either rejected or found inadequate any framework or concept which claimed to give us a fixed place to stand, a way to understand the world or human beings or God or science – he calls this concept an ‘omphalos’ and it might be a belief or an idea, a deity or a scientific theory. But one by one, he charts how the ‘omplaloi’ (plural) fall through the 20th century.

So my second criticism would be that he completely overlooks the huge extraordinary, world changing rise of the Christian faith particularly through such movements as Pentecostalism. None of the positive movements that have streamed out from groups and individuals motivated by faith were noted. As early as the First World War it was the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) who provided compassion ministries on the field of war and rehabilitated 32,000 ex-soldiers into jobs of work after the war.
Ministries such as that of Oxfam arose from the catholic end of the Christian spectrum. No single stream of Christianity holds the corner on compassion.

I feel that this oversight leaves this book completely lacking in hope. Read it and you will find out all sorts of fascinating things you may not have known. I didn’t know that the most eminent researcher behind the American space programme was a bone fide Nazi who had worked in concentration camps. I didn’t know why the Beatles called themselves the Beatles, (in truth I’d never thought about it but suffice to say it’s nothing to do with insects). I didn’t know that the only ‘positive’ element to existentialism would be its emphasis on ‘living in the moment’ (Hmm – that has interesting implications for mindfulness). From the reasons for Kurt Cobain’s suicide to chaos theory and the connection between the growth of corporations and the 14th amendment of the United States Constitution, Higgs makes so much so very, very clear – yes, even quantum mechanics and Schrödinger’s blessed cat which is alive and dead the same time.

But what Higgs doesn’t manage to do is give any sense of hope. He tries. He tries very, very hard in the final chapter which is given over to a consideration of the influence of the Internet: how it has made us all so much more connected, how it has given rise to a greater accountability and transparency. In these he finds reasons for hope: he thinks that the Internet has imposed what he calls a feedback loop on our culture “we are being made to take responsibility for our choices”. Forgive me for sounding cynical, but I really don’t think the Internet has that kind of power. The Internet itself is morally neutral, like money. It can be used for good but it can be used for bad.

It came as a surprise to me that as a culture we are now beyond post-modernism. I’ve probably just been a bit slow to catch up but apparently “the entire edifice of post-modernism” has now been “routinely rejected”, if not by popular culture (of which I am clearly a part) then at least by academia. “Our current ideology” Higgs says, “stresses that of course there is an absolute“. His italics, not mine!

But don’t hold your breath, waiting for him to tell you what that absolute is. “The absolutist approach to the contradictory nature of scientific models is to say that while all those models are indeed flawed, they will be superseded by a grand theory of everything, a wonderful theory that does not contain any paradoxes and which makes sense of everything on every scale.” That such a theory might finally emerge, Higgs admits, is a leap of faith.

But for such a very erudite person, Higgs is peculiarly ill-equipped to make any ‘leap of faith’ and this is why the book leaves a lingering taste of disappointment, hopelessness and even despair. If you are someone with anxieties about the future I would not recommend reading this book.

He demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of the concept of Christian love, discussing it, as he does,  in the chapter on sex therefore equating love with sexuality in a way that totally overlooks the powerful, life transforming, self giving unconditional kind of love expressed by the God Christians believe in. Muddling  ‘Eros’ with ‘Agape’  puts him in academic kindergarten as far as understanding faith is concerned.

Which is a real shame because Christianity is very good at holding onto paradoxes -believing that two opposing things are true at the same time. These are at the heart of our faith: Jesus is “fully human and fully divine” to name but one. I loved his section on quantum mechanics: how subatomic particles can be in more than one place at one time, how they can spin in different directions at the same time, how they can move instantaneously from one place to another without passing through the distance in between and how they can communicate instantaneously over great distances.  But no one who has ever read their Bible should have any problem with any of those things!

Perhaps he should ponder Colossians chapter 1:
“for it was in Him (Christ) that all things were created, in heaven and on earth, things seen and things unseen, whether thrones, dominions, rulers, or authorities; all things were created [planets, stars, neutrons and protons] and exist through him and in and for him. And he himself existed before all things, and in him all things hold together” (v 16 and 17).

If this isn’t a description of an ‘omphalos’, I don’t know what is.  Yes, it takes a leap of faith to accept it but if the alternative is meaninglessness and despair…..?

That Christ is the connection between heaven and earth, that the coming of the kingdom of God ‘on earth as it is in heaven’ is the only reason for hope and that God can be addressed as a loving parent (‘Our Father’ or mother) not simply another version of a feudal ‘Lord’ (which Higgs takes as the reason for the ‘decline’ of Christianity, which, by the way, hasn’t actually declined at all if you take a global view rather than his short-sighted western view) – all these are substantial and in my view trustworthy reasons for hope.

So read this book – but don’t despair! There IS hope, of which I shall shortly say more…

Body, Mind and Spirit – further reflections on how spirituality intersects with our minds and bodies

body spirit mind

This blog is a further reflection on the book Cure: a Journey into the Science of Mind over Body by Jo Marchant. In my previous review, I noted how people who meditate have more highly organised and coordinated brains with higher levels of activity in the prefrontal cortex. When I read this it felt a bit like a ‘lightbulb moment’ for me, “Ahh! So that’s why I so frequently have good ideas when I pause to pray about something, especially when I pray by just putting myself consciously but silently into God’s presence”. No sooner had I thought this, than a second rather more disturbing thought came along: “so where does that leave the Holy Spirit? If praying or meditating is simply a way of making my brain function better are the ideas I have or even the sense of God that I have, simply a result of me harnessing my own psychological resources?”

In other words where is the place for the spiritual in all of this?

When I teach about skills for mental well-being I often draw the diagram above. I explain that we are not merely a body nor are we merely a mind but we also have a spirit. Each of these three parts of ourselves inter-link and each affects the other two in ways I think we do not begin to understand. Marchant’s book explores the connections between only two of the circles: the body and the mind. She appears to find no place for the spirit. She is not a Christian, so why should she?

When I draw this image I use it to teach three skills.

1. Relaxation – learning to relax is a physical skill which is good for our bodies.

2. Changing our thinking – learning to challenge negative thinking is a skill which is good for our minds.

3. Learning to pray (and by inference learning that there is someone to pray to and who or what that someone might be). This allow us to connect to an objective reality which is beyond ourselves.

Those who have no faith in God (of any variety) would only draw two circles: the body and the mind. These are lonely places to be. Sex, at its best, is a union of two people which brings us a deeply comforting sense of connection with another person. In conversation with ‘like minded’ friends we can sometimes sense a ‘meeting of minds’ which is also deeply affirming. But for the most part only we alone know how it feels to live in our own body, and only we alone have any understanding of the internal landscape of our own minds. These are lonely places. If there is a third part of me and it is my spirit then I see that as the part which allows me connect to God. God’s promise to us is that he himself will be present with us through the Holy Spirit, who fills us when we invite him to do so and brings to us the assurance that we are God’s children, known and loved by him (her). (Romans 8:16)

Nowhere in the Bible is it explicitly explained that human beings have these three circles but they are mentioned frequently in different places and it is a model I find convincing not least because the Bible teaches that we are “made in the image of God” and God is also “three in one”

trinity

Here is an image meant to help us understand the Trinity. Can you find the second image inside the first?

The second reason I have for believing in the existence of my spirit comes from watching people die. Something happens at that moment, something that isn’t merely physical and it’s not to do with people’s mental capacity being lost because frequently this is lost well before death anyway. But at the moment of death, something changes, something leaves. The essence of us departs, it does not die. This is what Christians mean by being “called home”.

So for these two reasons I do believe there is a space for the spiritual, which brings me back to the question I originally asked of this book “where is the place for the spiritual in all this?”

The risk of a book like this is that you come away from it with a very much better view of your body and mind’s potential to work together for your own well-being. In other words you think more highly of yourself. This is, of itself,  not a bad thing because we are “fearfully and wonderfully made”. But we are missing out on something when we think so highly of ourselves that we rule out any need for God. Or should I say, we are missing out on “someone”?

There is a huge amount of value in meditation but it is still a singularly lonely activity. I admire my Buddhist friends for the sense of calm detachment they can achieve but their doctrine has no personal god only an inner state of transcendence which, admirable though it may be, doesn’t seem to offer any personal meaning to my life.

Anyway Buddhists aren’t the only ones who meditate. The writers of the Psalms, those ancient prayer poems of the Jews, frequently recommended meditating.

So what is meditating? I find it helpful to think of it as ‘exercise for the mind’. If I wanted to have strong abdominal muscles I would need to exercise them by doing sit ups. If I want to have a mind that works calmly, coherently and at its best then I need to exercise it.

Christians have a very odd relationship with their minds. Partly this is to do with their strong belief in the supremacy of the influence of the Holy Spirit but partly it is also fuelled by fear. Fear that if you think too hard, you may become too impressed with yourself or too self-reliant, that maybe you might rationalise away the spiritual.

When Gordon Fee a well-known Pentecostal theologian first began to talk about the possibility of taking theological training he was advised by some of his fellow Christians that it wouldn’t be a good idea, that it would kill his spiritual passion. “Better to be a fool on fire” they said “than a scholar on ice”. Personally I find the idea of being a ‘fool on fire’ terrifying – think radicalised muslim extremist killing people in the name of their religion and you have a picture of where passion without insight can take you. Thankfully those aren’t the only two choices open to us- any number of Christian theologians could be described as “scholars on fire”.  Passionate about their faith but also loving God with all of their minds, not just their soul and strength.

Some Christians avoid their minds by preferring to pray about things instead of thinking about things. ‘Looking for a sign’, rather than ‘thinking things through’  can make us superstitious in our faith and doesn’t strengthen the foundations of why we believe. Becoming aware of the presence of God through the resource of prayer is undoubtedly a powerful tool for transformation in our lives but it is not the only tool. We need to use it AND think! When, for example, we say we want to lose weight; we might pray about this but we know full well that we can’t simply pray about it we have to do something about it  as well i.e. reduce our calorie intake. Similarly, if we want to get fit, we might pray about it but no amount of prayer will make us physically fitter unless we are willing to get off our bottoms and do some exercise. We understand this interplay between the body circle and the spiritual circle – we get it. But when it comes to the mind circle we get easily spooked and think that “simply praying about it” is all that’s needed.

In fact there are plenty of skills and exercises that can help us to train our minds (to say nothing of helpful medications that can help us stablise them when we have got seriously out of kilter). Scripture recommends that we should “take captive every thought”. There is nothing unscriptural about learning techniques that help you control anxious thoughts or help you stop yourself rehearsing and ruminating over regrets, recriminations or revenge. Learning to be peacefully aware of all the stuff that is going on between your ears is a helpful first step towards getting rid of that stuff which is destructive or damaging mentally.

So if my mind needs fixing and let’s face it most of our minds do, why should I find myself prejudiced against skills such as meditation? or even hypnosis? Not the kind that gives someone else power over my  mind or actions but the kind that helps me access the unconscious parts of my mind.  I found her definition of hypnosis and her explanation of the history of it very useful and interesting.

So did Marchant make any space for the spiritual?

In a fascinating final chapter called “Looking for God” she visits Lourdes and uncovers what she calls the ‘real miracle of Lourdes’. Even as an unbeliever,  even having debunked at least one of the so-called miracles which has taken place there, she acknowledges that “seeing ourselves as part of something bigger, or having a meaning and purpose beyond ourselves can help us do better physically”. She felt for herself a ‘powerful sense of connectedness’. She goes on to describe the kind of friendships, full of hope and companionship that are forged at Lourdes, the dignity and respect shown to human life in all its frailty. She points to the ‘miracles’ of strong social support, people sharing their lives openly with complete strangers because they meet on the  common ground that everyone is broken in one way or another, being treated with respect, making friends immediately, the sense of equality experienced by everyone – these are the miracles. She doesn’t actually say it, because she doesn’t know of it, but I wanted to shout “YES! This IS the miracle! This IS the kingdom of God in action: people being treated holistically as more than cells and molecules, people being listened to, people engaging in an act of worship that encompasses their physical senses, engages their mental energies and recognises that simply being human is their core identity.

For me being human is synonymous with being a child of God. It is my core identity, it is God’s spirit within my spirit who reassures me that I was created for a purpose, but I am part of something bigger than myself but that I am also known and loved for my unique individuality. I am ‘beloved’.

 

“Cure: a journey into the science of Mind over Body” Jo Marchant – Book Review

cure

This is an absolutely fascinating read. Written by a scientist, it explores the research into ways our minds influence our physical well-being, our tolerance of pain and our immunity. The first chapter is all about the placebo effect. So far so good, most of us have heard of this and feel slightly self-conscious about the truth that simply taking something we think will do us good, might actually do us good. But we think we have to be conned into thinking we might be getting the real thing in order for placebos to ‘work’.  However in chapter 2, we get into really interesting territory: how placebo treatments can still be effective EVEN when we know they are placebo treatments!

In these two first chapters Marchant has laid the foundation for the simple truth which she then  explores throughout the rest of the book and the truth is this: your mind can influence your physical well-being. There are psychological resources which can be harnessed which will materially affect our recovery from an illness or our ability to manage the symptoms of a chronic condition.

She is NOT talking about “the power of positive thinking” which is a concept that makes me cringe and I feel can load unnecessary guilt onto people who are already weighed down by their pain and the distress of their condition. At the extreme end of the “positive thinking” spectrum there are those people who would eschew normal and appropriate medical interventions, in my view a very foolish step. This is not a book which makes any suggestion along those lines, in fact it carries (in the final chapter) a very stark warning story about the dangers of relying on positive thinking alone.

The story that Marchant tells is about non-medical treatments and interventions which, used alongside appropriate pharmaceutical intervention, can make a huge difference. The kind of conditions she discusses are lupus, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, chronic fatigue, IBS and pain management for burns victims.  The kind of psychological treatments she explores are: (warning, if you are from a conservative evangelical Christian background some of these will give you the ‘heebie-jeebies’) placebos and the power of rituals, hypnosis, meditation, mindfulness, counselling, the power of empathic communication (positive suggestions and visual imagery) and biofeedback.

The astonishing part of the story for me was not that these treatments merely “feel” effective but that over and over again she demonstrates from research that such treatments can physically change our bodies. For example, people who regularly meditate actually grow their cerebral cortex. In other words, the physical structure of their brains changes – in a good way!

It is a deeply fascinating book, and not only if you happen to be suffering from an illness and are wondering what you could do to help yourself. A chapter entitled “Fountain of youth” explores how social isolation is as dangerous for our health as obesity, inactivity or smoking, possibly even more dangerous than these. Alongside this information she reports that in the US 32 million people live alone-27% of households. In 1985 another American survey showed that in general people said they had three confidants, when this study was repeated in 2004, 25% of people said they had none! (This theme is also very fully explored in the book “The Village Effect” which I have already blogged about Book Review: The Village Effect: why face to face contact matters by Susan Pinker ).

Every chapter had something new and thought-provoking, it would be hard to choose a favourite but from my personal perspective chapter 7 “Talk to me: why caring matters” gave me ideas I could immediately apply to those I care for. Chapter 9 “Enjoy the Moment: the Power of Meditation” was also extremely helpful. Mindfulness and meditation has been shown to reduce chronic pain and anxiety, also to reduce stress and improve our quality of life. It has been shown that when monks meditate their brains are highly organised and coordinated with neurons firing together and an increase of activity in the left prefrontal cortex which is the seat of positive thoughts and emotions.

Of course, as I’ve already said, some Christians have heebie-jeebies over the subject of meditation and mindfulness simply because those monks may not necessarily be Christians, they may be Buddhists. This book is written by someone who is not a Christian so she clearly doesn’t feel any need to justify meditation but she does tell the story of how a Buddhist medical researcher Jon Kabat Zim, recognised that many people were missing out on the benefits of meditation because they were put off by the religious baggage that surrounded it. So he stripped it of its spiritual aspects, developing a program called MBSR ‘mindfulness-based stress reduction’.

To keep this blog from becoming too long (and also because some readers will not be interested in where spirituality fits in to all this) I will write a second reflection about how the book challenged me on a spiritual level. In her final chapter, Marchant turns her attention to whether or not religious experience and belief can also affect our bodies and our brains. I confess to feeling nervous about what conclusions she might reach but suffice to say that while she wasn’t entirely ‘converted’ neither does she debunk or reject the value of spiritual belief.

To conclude this review though, I heartily recommend this intriguing and well-written book. I read it as someone who teaches people skills designed to enhance their mental well-being (the Keeping Health in Mind Course http://www.keepinghealthinmind.org.uk) and I found in it much good common sense as well as a great deal of fascinating science.

 

Stand in the light

0102cbcfa931ab2219b35ad55bc6608c88102acd69In my garden there is a gift. This gift is a beech hedge.

Every season it gives us some new joy but I think it glows brightest in autumn.

Having changed my header photo to reflect the season, I thought I’d just put up a poem in honour of trees  and all they give us/teach us.

The poem is by the wonderful Mary Oliver and it is out there in many places on the net so I hope it’s okay for me to put it here also .

I love this poem because it tells me that my only task is to ‘stand in the light’. I don’t have to get busy, or struggling to be fruitful. Trees ‘drink’ in light, turn light to energy and grow ‘all by themselves’.

I only need to stand in the light of God’s love for me and a similar transformation will occur.  Thank you Mary.

When I Am Among the Trees

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”

Is it safe to go out? or ‘3,000 to 1 Space Oddity’

Well it looked like a nice day from my bedroom window.

Even better it is my day off, I feel a bike ride coming on… better just check the forecast.

“Stock markets are crashing, sub atomic particles are moving faster than the speed of light and Nasa predicts space debris falling from the sky” Great! Thank you Radio 4.

Personally, I’m not that bothered about the speeding particles, their discovery may change the face of Physics as we know it, but probably they’ve been disobeying Einstein for a long time and the world still seems to be turning. So we’ll leave the physicists to get over-excited about that.  Sadly nor can I do anything about the stock markets. . But the space debris does bother me. I turned the radio up to hear the details. The report finished with the reassuring advice that it WAS safe to go out because your chances of being hit by anything were less than 3,000 to 1.

3,000 to 1!!! That seems kinda high to me, doesn’t that mean 1 in every 3,000 people will have space junk land on them today? Or have I misunderstood the maths? Surely, given the size of the planet and the number of inhabitants they have missed off a few noughts???

That doesn’t seem good odds at all, maybe a bike ride is not such a good idea. My fall back plan is to find a wool shop. I remembered there might be one in Northampton, and, lo, google reveals that there is. Joy.   I spend about 10 minutes trying to find Pleasant Street, Northampton in ‘Multimap’, ‘RAC routeplanner’, ‘Bing’… before it finally dawns on me that I am looking at the web page of a shop in Northampton, Massachusetts.   Well, that would be a tad too far for a jaunt on my day off!

So it’s  back to plan A. Taking the bike out and dodging the space debris, if only I could go as fast as a sub-atomic particle…

' and the guy at first base didn't know what hit him!'


Finding God… but to a deadline

Lead ion collision at the LHC - no idea what that means but it's pretty!
I really enjoyed yesterday’s story about the Large Hadron Collider. Apparently after investing ‘Mega-Enormous-Huge’ amounts of money trying to find the ‘God Particle’ (Higgs bosun) scientists have announced that if they if haven’t found it by the end of next year, it doesn’t exist!

To my untrained, unscientific ears this sounded very odd. What if the Wright brothers had declared that if they couldn’t fly a plane by 1904, it couldn’t be done? (They achieved this feat on Dec 17th 1903).

Then David (my beloved) came along and explained (he’s a physicist). Apparently they have done a lot of clever maths that says that if this particle is there to be found, it should be found within that time frame and therefore if they don’t find it, it most likely doesn’t exist.

As Martin, my vicar, later pointed out, the whole story is still a delightful case of  having your cake and eating it. If they find the particle they will be over-joyed.  If they don’t find it they will be even happier because then they get to dream up a whole new theory to account for not finding what they were looking for!  Setting aside the fact that millions of dollars have gone into this exercise in ‘not-finding’, it’s truly a win/win situation for theoretical physicists who clearly ‘always look on the bright side of life’ – I knew there was a good reason for marrying one!

For further musings of an amateur on scientific subjects you might enjoy:

‘The God Particle’  http://wp.me/pOEoK-1E

‘Petaflops, Qubits and God’  http://wp.me/pOEoK-2G