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Worrying a Fragile Social Cohesion

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In our own occupation of neurofeedback, we sometimes get to train pregnant mothers. They report that their fetus responds just as they respond to the training. As their nervous system is calmed, so is that of the fetus. This can happen from the moment that the mother becomes aware of the fetus at all. In principle, it could happen even earlier, only it wouldn't be apparent to the mother. If we are going to be attentive to biological realities, then we must acknowledge that we are dealing with a sentient being already quite early in gestation.

It distresses me greatly that the one issue that could get my party onto the Capitol steps in high dudgeon was for many years that of partial-birth abortion. This issue cries out for an accommodationist solution. The starting point needs to be that the society unambiguously opposes infanticide. This means it cannot be the mother's decision alone to end a late-term pregnancy. It does not help the cause of abortion rights to confuse that issue with what is biologically indistinguishable from infanticide. As it happens, the principle of continuity and proportionality is already imbedded in Roe-versus-Wade.

By now the Supreme Court has ruled on the matter and taken it off the political agenda. But that decision only proves the point. Had the issue not been framed in terms of women's rights, the Court would likely never have taken it up in the first place.

Gay Marriage

There are many in California who suppose that if Proposition 8 had gone the other way matters would be nicely resolved in the State. Our national experience post Roe-versus-Wade should alert us to the likelihood that it would do no such thing. We see the rifts that this issue is causing even within the religious communities themselves. It would be nice if an accommodationist solution to this issue would get more of a hearing at the political level where even more heterogeneity prevails. With strong feelings on both sides of the issue, a winner-take-all solution is not in prospect, and should not even be sought.

An accommodationist remedy lies in the application of the principle of separation of Church and State. The State would absent itself from the entire issue by largely leaving marriage to be defined by the various religious institutions. The State would only handle civil unions, and instead of issuing marriage licenses would only issue permits for civil union. State restrictions, such as against child marriages and polygamy would be effected through permitting restrictions on civil union. At the level of the State, then, there would once again be no legal distinction between gay unions and others. All would be on the same footing. But we avoid the wrenching issue of how to define marriage that can never be resolved with finality in a highly diverse and fragmented society.

Sometimes an accommodationist remedy has only transient utility. "Don't ask, don't tell" in the military is a case in point. Very few expect that policy to have any permanence. Similarly the decision years ago to treat homosexuality as a mental disorder was at best a step up from its status as criminal behavior. It served merely as a transitory accommodationist stepping stone to more general acceptance. But such incremental steps were regarded as progressive at the time, and were probably needed. California still has a sixty-year-old law on its books mandating that a cure for homosexuality be found. They meant well.

Intelligent Design

We have recently been treated to a spate of books arguing against the proposition that the religious perspective has any defensible intellectual support. The vantage point from which these arguments proceed is the scientific perspective generally, and the materialist hypothesis specifically. The materialist hypothesis is that all of observable experience is subject in principle to understanding based on scientific laws that do not require, and in fact exclude reference to, any kind of non-material agency. The counter-argument of Intelligent Design is denounced as unscientific. But that argument is a red herring. Of course it is unscientific! It stands with both feet outside of science, and does so quite deliberately.

Since the proponents of the materialist hypothesis no doubt value their skills in logic, let me use a logical argument. The enterprise of science is necessarily materialist by assumption. Indeed it could not be otherwise. To intrude miraculous interventions into the discussion would be pointless because these cannot be studied scientifically. One cannot, however, prove completeness for the enterprise of science when that completeness is already there by hypothesis. The completeness of science will remain a matter of hypothesis, one that will always lack final proof. To put it another way, one cannot prove completeness of the system from within the system. We ran into the same problem with mathematics. Given a set of axioms, there will always be theorems that follow from the axioms but are not provable. The system is never provably complete.

Now the proponents of what we may call the conjecture of Intelligent Design try to bring scientific data to bear in opening the door to belief in sentient agency. And that puts the argument on scientific turf where they can be flogged with abandon. The argument should be left as one "in principle,' and then we should each go our own way. Stephen Jay Gould, the late paleontologist and President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science pointed the way to a solution: Science and Religion represent independent magisteria. Neither can prescribe for the other.

Nobelist Steven Weinberg once said that when he looks at the cold night sky he is struck by the meaninglessness of it all. But it is not science per se that drives him to that impression. Speaking as a scientist, Weinberg stipulates that science and religion are not incompatible. The scientific orientation calls for humility in making claims, and for sticking to provable hypotheses. In practice, however, scientists often maximize their claims and react with hostility to alternative perspectives. This is true all across the board, at every level, although this typically involves issues not in public view. Contrary or inconvenient evidence is often deliberately kept out of view.

This is particularly true of observations that might hint at a contradiction of the materialist hypothesis. Consider the observation that the mother of a soldier in Iraq may have had an immediate, visceral sense that her son has been gravely injured. These events happen. They are not reproducible, and they cannot readily be brought into the laboratory. But they also cannot be dismissed. Such events testify to the proposition that consciousness is not limited to the interior of the dura mater, the membrane that enshrouds our brain.

The existence of mental telepathy cannot be denied; yet this fascinating area of inquiry has largely been ignored by scientists. This is contrary to what ought to happen. If anything violates the existing scientific consensus, it ought to draw increasing attentions from scientists until the conundrum is resolved. The existence of mental telepathy implies either the non-local existence of consciousness or something even more bizarre, such as the notion that space and distance do not apply to consciousness at all. This is not quite as bizarre as it sounds, because we have already come to terms with the fact that the flow of time does not apply to the photon. The photon that arrives at our retina after traveling five billion years across space has in its own reality spent no time at all. For the photon, there is only the present moment. For the photon, time is compact. Similarly, perhaps, space is compact for consciousness.

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Siegfried Othmer is a physicist who over the last 33 years has been engaged with neurofeedback as a technique for the rehabilitation and enhancement of brain function. He is Chief Scientist at the EEG Institute in Los Angeles. Coming to (more...)

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