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[Chalice] The Evolution of a Scientific Agnostic [Chalice]

Presented April 15, 2018, by Paul Miller

Chalice Lighting:

You may possess a small light, but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men and women.

-John Murray

Opening Words:

- from The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve by Stephen Greenblatt

When I was a child, my parents told me that, during the priestly benediction that brings the Sabbath service to a close, we all had to bow our heads and keep our eyes down until the rabbi's solemn words came to an end. It was extremely important to do so, they said, because in these moments God passed over our heads, and no one who saw God face to face could live. I brooded over this prohibition. To look into the face of the Lord, I reasoned, must be the most wonderful thing any human being could experience. Nothing that I would ever see or do in all the years that lay ahead of me would even approach this one supreme vision. I reached a momentous decision : I would raise my eyes and see God for myself. It would be fatal, I understood, but the cost was surely not too high.

Several Saturdays passed before I could muster the courage. But finally one morning, standing with my head bowed, I conquered my fear of death. Slowly, slowly while the rabbi intoned the ancient blessings, I raised my eyes. The air above my head was completely empty. And I found I was by no means alone in looking about the sanctuary. Many of the worshippers were glancing around, staring out the windows, or even gesturing to friends and mouthing greetings. I was filled with outrage : "I had been lied to!"


A man should look for what is, and not for what he thinks should be

- Albert Einstein

Musical Introduction:

"Freewill", by Rush
Music: Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson
Lyrics: Neil Peart

There are those who think that life
Has nothing left to chance
With a host of holy horrors
To direct our aimless dance

A planet of playthings
We dance on the strings
Of powers we cannot perceive
"The stars aren't aligned -
Or the gods are malign"
Blame is better to give than receive

You can choose a ready guide
In some celestial voice
If you choose not to decide
You still have made a choice
You can choose from phantom fears
And kindness that can kill
I will choose a path that's clear
I will choose free will.

There are those who think that
They were dealt a losing hand
The cards were stacked against them
They weren't born in Lotus-Land.

All pre-ordained
A prisoner in chains
A victim of venomous fate
Kicked in the face
You can't pray for a place
In Heaven's unearthly estate

Each of us
A cell of awareness
Imperfect and incomplete
Genetic blends
With uncertain ends
On a fortune hunt
That's far too fleet . . .

The Evolution of a Scientific Agnostic

Like any preacher's kid, I was drug off to church and Sunday school, sometimes willingly, sometimes under protest. I learned the answers to life's big mysteries. But every answer begets more questions. Perhaps it was best that I lacked the courage or linguistic clarity to ask these questions of my parents, clergy, and teachers:

God made the Earth, but who made God? Why did God want Adam and Eve to be ignorant? Why did God test Abraham? God already knows everything about us. If God loves us, why did he pull such a mean trick on Abraham? And didn't God care that Abraham's son Isaac suffered PTSD all his life after nearly having his throat cut? Jesus died for me so that my sins are forgiven? How does that make sense? When I misbehave, do my parents punish my well-behaved brother so they can forgive me? Did our loving God really have a son for the purpose of being tortured to death? I was sure glad I had better parents than Jesus did!

The more I learned, the less I understood. Occasionally I would ask poorly articulated questions, like "Why do I have to go the church?" The answer "God gives us 7 days a week. We should give Him at least part of one day" was not at all satisfying. What I really meant was "What good does it do God for me to wear uncomfortable clothes and fidget in a church pew and sing boring songs? Do we think we're entertaining Him?" If God is with us in church, he must be as bored as I am. If I was God, I would blow off church and go to a Beatles concert.

Rebellious though I was, I really wanted to believe. At age 12, I gave Jesus the benefit of the doubt and chose to be baptized. (Sprinkled, not dunked) I tried, but it didn't stick. I had become what Reverend Krista called an agnostic with an ambivalent need for God. I wanted credible evidence for some sort of god, a purpose for life, and a soul that continues beyond our short human lifetime.

My Christian friends, and various Jehova's Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists, and Mormons were eager to save my soul, and they assured me that what I sought is true. Their arguments seemed specious at best. I studied science in college, and saw the magic of chemistry and biology explained by interactions of molecules, atoms, and electrons. Everything from planetary orbits to neurotransmitters was explainable, and in theory, given enough information and computational power, predictable. The state of all particles in the universe should, in theory, determine the state of every particle at any time in the future. Not only are planetary orbits pre-determined; so are the nerve impulses in our brains. Logically, our own actions; even our thoughts, are the inevitable results of particle states established 14 billion years ago, shortly after the Big Bang. God is dead. Free will is bunk. As a young science student, I found this conclusion abhorrent, but hard to refute.

I have been on a lifelong quest for scientific evidence of God, soul, and anything spiritual. Spiritual phenomena are difficult to test. The evidence is mostly anecdotal, statistically insignificant, unconfirmed, or just plain phony. Most of it is, but not all of it.

No one has ever devised a "God Test" to prove there is a god or no god. But psychic phenomena can be tested. If a psychic phenomenon, e.g. ESP or reading tea leaves, can be verified, we have compelling evidence for forces outside our scientific understanding. I began looking at astrology, card reading, extrasensory perception, prophetic dreams, and such with the skeptical eye of a scientist.

While at a psychic fair, I listened intently to the keynote speaker as she rattled off her prophesies for the coming year. Her bold and startling predictions ranged from early snow to an upset presidential election. This was just what I wanted; an easily verifiable or refutable set of psychic phenomena. Every one of her predictions was wrong. Not a satisfying start to my scientific survey of psychic phenomena.

Some psychics have a much better hit rate than others. We often hear a prediction that seems too accurate to dismiss as coincidence. If a prediction has a chance in a million of being correct, and it happens as predicted, this would seem to be compelling evidence for true predictive ability. However, on a planet with 7 billion people, a one-in-a-million event would happen to 7 thousand people, so what intuitively seems highly improbable is actually nearly inevitable.

So I narrowed my scientific psychic survey down to one person - me. I have learned that my psychic perception is close to zero. Assuming there is such a thing as psychic energy, it shoots through me like a neutrino, with no detectable effect. But what about other psychics' predictions about me?

My first psychic test subject was my prior landlady. I had rented the house next door to her, and she treated me like a substitute son. She was also an avid amateur astrologer. She was constantly offering unsolicited astrological advice. I wasn't sure I believed in astrology, but I knew she sincerely believed everything she said about it. I devised a test. I gave her a list of the dates when I bought 5 different vehicles, and asked her which dates were astrologically good or bad purchase dates. I only gave her the dates; no information about what vehicle on which date. She didn't know it was a test. She thought I just wanted to know what the stars said about my cars.

She eagerly poured over her astrology charts, and a couple of days later had my results. She nailed it.

"What did you buy on this date?" she asked. My motorcycle, which was the only trouble-free vehicle I had ever owned at that time. She said "That should be a good purchase, but it puzzles me. You should have gone on a trip with it." She didn't know I had ridden it to Albuquerque and back shortly after I bought it. "What about this date?" That was when I bought my ultralight airplane. Mercury turned retrograde on that day. It was the worst day of all to make a major purchase, sign a contract, or start a project. Sure enough, that airplane was nothing but trouble. It flew like a flat rock, and I tore off the landing gear twice making bad landings. Pondering the next date on the list, she asked "Did you have plumbing problems?" "No, why?" "This is the date you bought your house, wasn't it? You should have had plumbing problems." No, that was the date I bought my truck, and I had to replace the water pump once, and the head gasket twice. When a head gasket fails, the coolant leaks out - usually into the oil or out the exhaust pipe via the cylinders. In a truck, that is a plumbing problem for sure.

My magical friends are probably thinking "well, of course. There's nothing surprising about that." As a skeptical scientist, I was amazed. I have had similar experiences with Tarot readers, and various other psychics. This is compelling evidence for psychic, or spiritual activity beyond electro-chemical processes within our heads.

This was an encouraging development in my spiritual quest.

Eventually, I gave church another chance. A co-worker invited me to his church, The First Assembly of God. I found theatrics and ample opportunity for self-deception, but I didn't find God. I still don't know what church God goes to.

Eventually, I tried the Unitarian Church. I was amazed. Here was a church full of people who were smart enough to know they didn't know the answers either. At the Unitarian Fellowship in Princeton, New Jersey, I attended a Neopagan Equinox circle. It was the first religious ceremony to speak to me. I hadn't found the answers, but I had found a spiritual path.

About that time I rediscovered the love of books. It took a decade after college to recover from years of academic force-feeding. And it took until then to find books that were relevant, informative, and interesting. My spiritual quest moved from the church to the bookstore. Yep, I was a Unitarian all right.

I found surprisingly little written about objective studies of psychic or spiritual phenomena, with the exception of near death experiences. (NDE's for short) You all have heard about NDE's by now. . Even Homer Simpson had a NDE.

Although most people who have come close to death say they remember nothing, around 18% later report that "something happened." That "something" is often a near-death experience . NDE experiencers describe one or more of the following:

Now I have compelling evidence for consciousness outside our brains, which continues functioning when the brain stops. This is as close as I can come to proof of a soul. Alzheimer's patients sometimes exhibit psychic perception similar to NDErs. Evidence shows that as brain function fades, the spirit continues to function fully.

Dr. Jeffrey Long, M.D. author of Evidence of the Afterlife suggested that the brain may be analogous to a radio receiver, and the soul analogous to a transmitter.

I was making good progress on my scientific quest for spirituality. I have compelling evidence for thought and perception outside of our brains, and continuing after death. Though the empirical evidence is compelling, is it scientifically plausible? We talk of things unexplained by science as "supernatural", but they may be natural phenomena for which science has not yet found an explanation. If there is a god, a soul, and a spirit world, they may be explainable by scientific laws, though the laws have not yet been discovered. By analogy, until 1950, the heat of the sun was unexplained, though no one doubted that the sun was hot. After the discovery of nuclear fusion we know why the sun shines. Maybe someday we will know what the soul is.

The fact that we are conscious is still unexplained, in spite of amazing advances in neuroscience. Some neuroscientists assume that consciousness arises from the complexity of the system. Okay, a vastly complex information processing system seems to be necessary for consciousness as we are currently experiencing it, but is it sufficient? Would a sufficiently powerful computer become self-aware? Perhaps someday we can ask one. Psychic activity beyond the confines of our crania suggests that consciousness involves more than just neural electrochemical activity.

Long after college, I discovered the wacky and wonderful world of Quantum Physics. My college professors never adequately explained the wonderful weirdness of the subatomic world, perhaps because they didn't understand it either, perhaps they didn't want to confuse us too much, or maybe we were just too busy with practical problems, like applying Newton's laws of motion to extrapolate the trajectories of billiard balls. Years later, I started reading books by modern physicists, like Paul Davies and Brian Greene.

If all matter, from galaxies to subatomic particles behaved as it should, according to classic Newtonian physics, everything should be pre-determined. Everything, even the sparking of our brain synapses and our thoughts should be determined by the laws of physics, with no room for free will. Fortunately for us free-will champions, modern physics allows plenty of wiggle room to avoid pre-dermination. In the macroscopic world of everyday physics, where most of us live, objects move in a predictable fashion, at least in theory. A ball sitting on a shelf is unstable and may roll off, falling to the floor. But it doesn't fall until some force pushes it to the edge of the shelf. The subatomic world is different. For example, an electron orbiting an atomic nucleus may fall to a lower orbit and release a photon. That's what is happening when the electric lights in here emit visible light. The laws of physics can predict that the electron may change orbits, but we cannot predict when. At the atomic scale or smaller, many events, called "Quantum Events", appear to happen spontaneously, without any known cause; things like nuclear decay and electron tunneling, and the aforementioned electron orbital transitions. These events are unpredictable. Random. An effect without a cause. This drove Albert Einstein nuts and prompted him to say "I cannot believe God plays dice with the universe." Einstein thought there must be some hidden variable that determines when quantum events will happen.

The more I read about modern physics, the weirder it got. Quantum events don't even happen until someone looks to see if it happened. We call this the "observer effect". Without a conscious observer, nothing happens. We don't have time for a thorough explanation, and if I could explain it, we still wouldn't understand it. Neils Bohr, one of the greatest physicists of the early 20th century, said "Anyone who is not shocked by quantum physics has not understood it". Richard Feynman, one of the greatest Physicists of the late 20th century, said "Nobody understands quantum physics". My personal hare-brained interpretation is that Einstein's hidden variable may be the soul. Maybe someday I'll get a Nobel Prize for "Miller's Quantum Soul Effect". Or maybe not.

Not weird enough yet? Enter Werner Heisenberg, a morally reprehensible Nazi, but brilliant scientist who proposed the Uncertainty Principle. Particles do not have an exact location and velocity. The uncertainty of a particle's location multiplied by the uncertainty of its momentum equals Plank's Constant, 6.62607004 x 10-34 m2 kg per second, in case you want to do the math. In other words, if you were an electron, and you knew where you were at, you wouldn't know where you were going, and vice-versa. This explains the seemingly impossible phenomenon of electron tunneling, when electrons magically move to places they don't belong. Physicist Harris Walker proposed that consciousness involves electron tunneling across synapses. The synapses in our brains are just small enough for electron tunneling to have a significant effect. Is there a hidden variable that determines where and when an electron will tunnel? Miller's Quantum Soul Effect again. Maybe I'll have to share my Nobel Prize with Walker. All this Quantum mumbo-jumbo doesn't prove we have a soul, but it does leave room for the soul, or some mysterious action, within scientific theory.

We still have one more mystery. The origin of the universe. How did the universe come to be? We are reasonably sure that it all started 15 billion years ago with The Big Bang, but, assuming there was a creation event, what caused it? If there was a creator, what created the creator? This question, which seems to have no reasonable answer, has vexed me since I was a young lad in Sunday school. Neither science nor religion has an answer that satisfies me.

Why anything exists at all, remains a mystery. Equally mysterious is the elegant design of the universe. For example, the gravitational constant tells us how strongly 2 masses attract each other. If it was slightly less, matter would not have pulled together to form stars. If it was much more, most stars would collapse. Either way, we would have no sun. There are lots of fundamental constants that seem fine-tuned for our benefit. Why is the universe so precisely made? If it wasn't, we would not exist.

Any one of these 3 possibilities boggles my feeble little brain. None of them have been proven or disproven, and thus, they do not prove or disprove God.

So here I am, still walking a spiritual/scientific path, looking for answers. It has been a long trek, and I think I have made progress. I found compelling evidence for psychic activity or thought outside our brains. Near-death experiences show consciousness continuing after the brain stops functioning. Long after college, when I thought I was done studying physics, I discovered the wacky world of Quantum Physics and all its wonderful weirdness. I learned that the physical world is not so deterministic as it seemed. Subatomic events seem to be random, implying that there is a hidden variable causing them. For all we know, this hidden variable may be the soul, or spirit. The elegant design of the universe, or why there is any universe at all, is unexplained. This neither confirms nor refutes the existence of a creator creating creation.

Paul Davies concluded more eloquently than I could, in the final paragraph of his book God and the New Physics: ". . . science offers a surer path than religion in the search for God. It is my deep conviction that only by understanding the world in all its many aspects- reductionist and holist, mathematical and poetic, through forces, fields, and particles, as well as through good and evil - that we will come to understand ourselves and the meaning behind this universe, our home."

Chalice Extinguishing

Go your ways, knowing not the answers to all things, yet seeking always the answer to one more thing than you know.

- John Brigham

©2018Paul Miller

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Miller, Paul 2018. The Evolution of a Scientific Agnostic, /talks/20180415.shtml (accessed December 10, 2018).

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