Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Spiritual Path of the First Principle

Today's Guest Author:  Rev. Meredith Garmon
Minister, Community Unitarian Church at White Plains
Main blog:  The Liberal Pulpit

To affirm and to promote the inherent worth and dignity of all beings is an exercise of the heart, a spiritual practice, and a path of deepening growth and broadening connection. In the most important ways, it’s not about what we owe them – other beings. It’s about how connecting with all beings in compassion is our own road to awakening.

My liberal arts education, enhanced by my faith tradition’s teachings (I grew up a Unitarian Universalist in the 60s and 70s) guided my thirst for self-understanding. I came to understand myself by investigating the glories and burdens of “the human condition.”  More recently, I’ve come to see that the way of self-knowledge also requires exploring “the mammalian condition,” “the warm-blooded condition,” “the vertebrate condition,” and “the animal condition” – for I am the inheritor these glories and burdens as well. Closer contact with, and awareness of, my animality, my being-ness, not just my humanity, engenders concern and respect for all beings, which, in turn, engenders my own self-awareness.

Here are two questions:

Question 1: What does it mean to be human?
Question 2: What does it mean to be animal?

Question 1 directs attention to what separates me from nonhuman animals. Question 2 directs attention to what connects me with nonhuman animals. To touch with reverence the ground of commonality with all beings, rather than to draw distinctions, expands my spirit, ennobles my heart, and grounds my soul.

This is not to deny that there are differences. There are some things we humans are really good at: like communicating learning and preserving it so we can build on it. We’re not the only species that does that, but we are really good at it. Other things, humans are not so good at. Other species have sensory and motor abilities that dwarf ours. Dogs live in a world of smells that we can but dimly imagine, and bats and dolphins live in a world of echolocation that we imagine, if at all, even more dimly. There are various differences between any two species. Quite a large part of what I am, however, lies in the connections and similarities I have with all mammals, with all warm-blooded animals, with all vertebrates.

I’m not going to truly know myself by picking out one or a few unusual skills. I know myself by grasping the inheritance I share with the gorilla, gazelle, goose, and gopher tortoise. My world is taken in through eyes and ears that work pretty much like theirs do. Many of them live in, and are guided by, a world of smells that I am mostly oblivious to – but not entirely. The fast-track connection between the olfactory and memory is something my brain also has. I hunger as they do. I am susceptible to the same fight-or-flight adrenaline surges.

Humans do have an especially wrinkled thin neocortex layer on top of our brains, yet we remain largely driven by those brain systems that all mammals have – and even those that all vertebrates have. The cognitive processes of the neocortex govern me much less than the neocortex likes to believe. Indeed, perhaps the neocortex’s greatest glory, ironically, is that it has, over the many millennia since its emergence, developed the means to investigate itself and reveal its own relative insignificance.

Millennia of assumed differences between humans and other animals have been crumbling under recent research. Roughly speaking, the assumption has been that nonhuman animals are basically machines, their behavior merely conditioned responses, while humans are more than that: free, capable of exercising intention and forming responses that transcend conditioning. Rene Descartes’ Discourse on Method (1637), for instance, influentially declared that nonhuman animals were complex organic machines without the immaterial mind or soul that only humans have. Research has been steadily closing the gap. Studies have noticed, or elicited, elaborate and intentional behavior in various species.

Other studies come at the gap from the other direction: revealing that humans are not nearly as intentional as we think we are. Of these studies, there are two – findings by Benjamin Libet and by Michael Gazzaniga – that warrant a detailed look.

The Libet Experiments. In 1983, Benjamin Libet and others at the University of CaliforniaSan Francisco, published the striking results of their experiments. In the study, participants were asked to voluntarily flex their wrist at a time of their choosing. Libet found that the neural signals for motion preceded the conscious awareness of intention to move by 300 to 500 milliseconds. “Put simply, the brain prepared a movement before a subject consciously decided to move!” Conscious intentions to move aren’t what cause our movements. This begs the question: why do our brains bother to create for us this illusion of conscious intentional control? Janet Kwasniak suggests that “the conscious feeling of intent is simply a marker indicating that we own the action.” She suggests that “this marker is very important so that our episodic memory shows whether actions” were “ours” or just happened. The memory of an event that came from me influences my neurons for the future -- we do learn from our actions and their results. If I get a pain from something I did, my neural wiring makes me less likely to do that again. But if the pain “just happened,” the effects on my wiring are different. What we call “volition” is a perception of our own behavior rather than a generator of it. The illusion of intention (or, more precisely, the illusion that intentions precede and determine action), then, is a by-product of the systems that all animal brains have for learning from experience.

It remains an open question how many other species might also generate such an illusion as a by-product of learning. Whatever the answer to that question might be, we can no longer plausibly claim, “We humans are in control of ourselves while nonhumans are machinelike bundles of conditioned responses.” Either they are not machines, or we are too – and our vaunted human exceptionalism amounts, at most, to a unique capacity to be deluded.

The Gazzaniga Experiments. Psychologist Michael Gazzaniga flashed two different images at the same time into the subject’s visual field. One image was in the part of the field that could only be seen by the left visual cortex, and the other only by the right visual cortex. The right brain saw a picture of snow covering a house and car. The left brain, at the same instant, saw a picture of a chicken claw. Gazzaniga then asked the subjects what they saw. The left brain has the language centers, so the left brain can articulate what it saw. “I saw a chicken claw,” reported the subjects. So instead of asking for words, Gazzaniga then presented an array of pictures and asked subjects to point to what they saw. Subjects’ right hands (controlled by their left brains) pointed to the picture of the chicken claw that the left brain saw. At the same time, subjects’ left hands (controlled by their right brains) pointed to the picture of the snow-covered scene that the right brain saw.

Gazzaniga then asked each hand to point to a picture of something that goes with the picture seen. The left brain saw a chicken claw, so subjects' right hands pointed to a picture of a chicken. Chicken claw goes with chicken. The right brain saw a snow-covered house and car, so subjects' left hands pointed to a shovel. Finally, Gazzaniga asked his subjects, "why is your left hand pointing to a shovel?" Now we’re in the language realm where only the left brain can express itself. If left-brain knew the truth, it could say, "I have no idea why my left hand is pointing to a shovel. It must be something you showed my right brain." Instead, the left brain instantly made up a plausible story. The patient said, without any hesitation, "Oh, that’s easy. The chicken claw goes with the chicken, and you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed."

Our brains create a running commentary on whatever we are doing, even though the interpreter module has no access to the real causes or motives of our behavior. When Gazzaniga flashed the word "walk" to just the right hemisphere, many subjects stood and walked away. When asked why they were getting up, subjects had no problem giving a reason. "I’m going to get a drink," they might say. Our inner interpreter module is good at making up explanations, but not at knowing it has done so.

Our language centers and neocortex notice our behavior, and they make up a story about ourselves – typically as heroes with certain endearing foibles. This is an after-the-fact story. The behavior came first, we now know, and the story about about ourselves as intentional, purposeful, and rational is made up after we notice our own behavior. Yet my brain makes it seem to me that everything I did was just what I “meant” to do. That’s the delusion I live in.

I wouldn’t want to lose the things my human neocortex can do, the level of detail of envisioning the future that my human forebrain creates, the wonders of language produced and comprehended by my human versions of Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas. Yet these functions are only a small part of who I am. Moreover, as attached to them as I am, they do cause problems. The forebrain that envisions the future can so easily start obsessively worrying about that future -- in contrast to the "peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief." (Wendell Berry). The language centers, creating their own little world of story loops, can leave me oblivious to the nonlinguistic awareness of each moment.

Where will deepened awareness of our animality take us? There is an emerging theology of nature that honors wildness as sacred. An earlier time described the material world as fallen, sinful, or, at best, crass. Then the scientific view has encouraged seeing the world as mechanical and inert. The emerging eco-spirituality connects in wonder to the aliveness of the world. Connecting to our own animality means attending to, honoring, and loving what in us is wild and unpredictable. Connecting to our own animality means connecting to our world. To consciously cultivate self-awareness of animality is to become more present, to become more open to the nuances of the unexpected in experience. This is the path of affirming and promoting the inherent worth and dignity of all beings.

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