Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Neglecting God

A few months ago from my studies I was told of a fascinating, though rather rare disorder of the mind - hemispatial neglect syndrome. This can occur when a person might have a huge stroke to one side of their brain and the consequence is a total lack of awareness to one side of reality. This may not sound so surprising, but you have to realize that I'm not talking about losing the ability to perceive space - like how damage to your visual cortex can cause blindness - but about the very human comprehension that there is more world on your left side.

Depending on the form of the disorder, if you tell these people to draw a copy of a clock face, you can see that it might go from 12 to 6 and totally lack the other numbers or they might try cramming all twelve into one side. They will only comb one side of their hair, will only shave half their face, will only read pages on one side of a book and will actually deny that one of their arms belongs to them! Even in their imaginations, if you tell them to recount the view of a famous street they will only report the buildings on one side. (Though if you tell them to walk up the street rather than down it, they will report only the buildings on the other side.)

This kind of disorder makes us uncomfortably aware of our own fragility, of course, but also tells us about the functions of our own awareness. It's a little unnerving to think about one's awareness of external space being tied so directly to the physical function of one's brain. It seems impossible that I could forget that half the world exists, that my left arm is my own, even if I suffered terrible trauma. I mean, I could easily see the other half of the world if I turned my head, so what would keep my from realizing it's there? I don't have eyes in the back of my head, but I am aware the universe extends behind me. These patients often don't even realize there is anything wrong with them! Even in cases where there is no sensory loss at all, this ability for awareness can be terribly affected.

Anyway, this is all fascinating, sure - but the reason I bring it up is for how it's treated. What is done for the patient is to constantly bring their attention to the affected side. For reading, if you put a red line on the margin the patient will know that he has to keep looking to the side until he sees that line in order to read the whole page. Playing catch and throwing the ball to their left side. Things of this nature to constantly encourage the patient to keep engaging the left side of the universe, directing his consciousness beyond what he perceives. Eventually, though how remains a mystery, the healthy brain tissue may take on some of the skills of the damaged brain and awareness can be extended on the side.

But the point is that these little exercises may seem absolutely pointless and strange to the patient. He doesn't necessarily think he's missing anything on his left - there's nothing there - so why should he cooperate with these kooky therapists? Even if they accept that they're missing half of reality, patients are often simply uninterested in it.

This is analogous, I think, to the function that apparently weird and pointless religious rituals can have for people. Judaism is full of chukim with rules and rituals that appear absurd to the secular and a source of amusement for the cynical. But they are not pointless. Their purpose, as opposed to the sensible moral laws or the rules that encourage benefits to the family, society or the environment, is but to be a service for God. What this means is that they are tools for stretching our consciousness beyond what we are normally aware of as far as physical reality goes, to see transcendence and ultimate value where we might otherwise see nothing. They are vehicles by which our awareness can transcend beyond merely what we see with our eyes.

Indeed, if chukim actually served a utilitarian purpose - like that kashrut was healthy - I believe it would actually completely remove it's power as a religious act. The whole mechanism by which our thoughts are raised by these acts is through being inscrutable. A utilitarian act drives no more thought beyond understanding its utility. That we understand the acts to be as if commanded by God drives our thoughts towards God.

We are born unconscious to the great noumenon beyond our senses, but through these exercises perhaps we can gain some sense of it - or at least drive our consciousness towards it. Others may be satisfied without it and still others may not believe it exists at all, but maybe they along with those patients with neglect syndrome just have no idea what they're missing.

35 comments:

Shai said...

It doesn't seem that you are using the treatment of this damage to the brain just as a metaphor, but also as an example of how through various behavioral devices we can train the brain to perceive things it otherwise would pass over. This is, I think, a wonderful observation - filled with a great deal of potential.

I would add that in the process of exploring the potential we should look at what what ritual can do, and compare it to what often it does instead.

For example, sometimes people take things to rediculous lengths by adding chumrot (such as the microscopic crustacean's in the water making it impossible to drink the water) so that ordinary mitzvot take on the semblance of chukim. The more nonsensical, the more "Torah L'shma" (because you can't argue that nonsensical things are utilitarian). After awhile, everything becomes inscrutable, including listening unquestioningly to your rebbe (das torah). One would think that if there were any place one should be able to get practical advice on living life, it'd be there.

What I'm pointing out is the there is a danger in taking the ritual as the ikkar of what Judaism is, in valuing it too much. I'm not saying you're doing this, but rather am asserting it's too often done - formalism takes on more import than substance.

Ritual's power is, I think, depended on two things:

1) A community context to sanction and value the rituals and
2) Intent to internalize the rituals to gain a higher consciousness, not confusing your purpose with impressing the community that sanctions and values the ritual.

Doing this requires practice, and it's difficult to tell whether people are doing it with the proper motivation or not. Without these, I really wonder if the potential to sense the noumenon beyond our senses is graspable. My own feeling is that too many people feel that it's adequate to "play to the crowd", and that's because of our tradition santions, it seems, doing things without intent because in the end, our tradition asserts, we will end up doing things for proper reasons. But maybe that's OK - not sure.

What do you think?

Jay said...

You expressed yourself very well Religion, any religion is mans attempt to find the meaning of his own existence. Catholics cross themselves and Jews kiss a mezuzah I believe we all suffer from "Auslander syndrome" Our indoctorination has been so intense and driven so deep in our psyche that we just can't shake the God guy. And I learned a new word noumenon

Baal Habos said...

OP, excellent post, but I think, a lame argument.

Firstly, I recently picked up a book, Mind Wide Open. I got sidetracked and did not finish it, but it is an interesting read about Neuoroscience.

As to your post, it's an interesting concept. But I think it's somewhat flawed. Sure, there MIGHT be something to it, but how do you know? In your analogy, the patient presumably sees that he's he's missing something and realizes there's the truth in what his Kooky therapists are saying, because they produce measurable results. Also the patient accepts it by the authority of the Medcical establishment which has proved itself, either in this or other regards.

With religious practice, there is neither, unfortunately.

Anonymous said...

Very well written. Basically RSRH's symbolic approach to ritual, rather than Rambam's rational approach. Possibly it's neither one nor the other, but a mix, depending on which ritual you are talking about.

XXGH.

e-kvetcher said...

I like the creative analogy, though BHB's point is very good as well.

BTW, this condition and many other ones just as freaky are described in Oliver Sacks' The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat

Aryeh said...

would you give sharia the same benefit of the doubt?

Nimrod said...

Interesting comparison, but I guess in the spritual sphere, anything goes, and any nonsensical ritual could be imbued with meaning and can qualify, such as child sacrifice.

You're losing it said...

What crap.

Orthoprax said...

Shai,

"Doing this requires practice, and it's difficult to tell whether people are doing it with the proper motivation or not. Without these, I really wonder if the potential to sense the noumenon beyond our senses is graspable. My own feeling is that too many people feel that it's adequate to "play to the crowd", and that's because of our tradition santions, it seems, doing things without intent because in the end, our tradition asserts, we will end up doing things for proper reasons. But maybe that's OK - not sure.
What do you think?"

I don't think that anybody is perfect and many times the ideal high-minded intent may not be present. However I also believe that most chumra-seekers do so not out of the hope of gaining deeper transcendence, but out of a sense of religious superiority or social pressure. There is a reason why the Nazirite asceticism was phased out of normative Jewish activity.

See the Plague of Pharisees, at Masechet Sotah 22b.


Jay,

"I believe we all suffer from "Auslander syndrome""

I think that syndrome is best described as unadulterated selfishness, where one romanticizes one's plentiful vices as literary tools to shame their family and childhood community. I read his book and find it hard to believe that anybody looks to him as some sort of hero.

I, for one, do not consider myself neurotically indentured to his masochistic kindergarden conception of the Almighty.


Baal,

"As to your post, it's an interesting concept. But I think it's somewhat flawed. Sure, there MIGHT be something to it, but how do you know?"

I think there is most definitely a noumenal realm as Kant and others well demonstrate. Beyond that it is mostly intellectual speculation as far as what that realm is like, but I have my suspicions about it through reasons that I have spoken about elsewhere.

I freely admit that I do not know and I accept this limitation, but there is still that which leads me to believe and yet more that I accept on faith.

It is simply impossible to talk metaphysics like doctors might talk evidence-based medicine.


XXGH,

"Possibly it's neither one nor the other, but a mix, depending on which ritual you are talking about."

Indeed.


Aryeh,

"would you give sharia the same benefit of the doubt?"

Benefit of what doubt?


Nimrod,

"Interesting comparison, but I guess in the spritual sphere, anything goes, and any nonsensical ritual could be imbued with meaning and can qualify, such as child sacrifice."

Hardly. There is a limit here and it stops with doing harm to others. Broadening out awareness to the transcendent does not give us license to ignore the here and now.

Aryeh said...

>Benefit of what doubt?

doubt that it leads to transcendence. just like you see halachot which don't seem to have a purpose, yet you assume the halchic system leads to transcendence. Do you give the Islamic sharia or Mormon code the same positive spin?

Orthoprax said...

Aryeh,

I think any religious act has the potential to do so. The power lies in ourselves; the acts are just tools.

Aryeh said...

And according to you no tools are better than any other tools, since the value is on the fact that it is supposed to come from god and therefore it will direct your mind towards god. Do I understand you correctly?

Orthoprax said...

Aryeh,

Some tools are objectively better than others at changing a state of mind and for each individual different acts are more meaningful than others. Since I am a Jew, doing the rituals of another religion would not only not work for me but would be a complete distraction.

These rituals do not literally come from God as commands, but are inspired through the idea of God and we act _as though_ they are orders so to mentally form a link between us and the transcendent.

The "asher kidishanu b'mitzvotav" is just Jewish parlance for the authority of a religious act. We use it for lighting Shabbos candles even though there is no inkling in Halacha that this lighting is derived from the Torah.

Yehudi Hilchati said...

Orthoprax:

Brilliant post. It also illustrates why those who give up ritual practice see less and less point in it as time goes by, and why those observant individuals who, skeptics though they be, keep feeling something spiritual that keeps them emotionally invested.

On a more basic level, mitzvah goror mitzvah, aveirah goreret aveirah.

Miri said...

Orthoprax-

"We use it for lighting Shabbos candles even though there is no inkling in Halacha that this lighting is derived from the Torah."

It's derived from oneg shabbat; there was probably also a sakanah thing in there somewhere. people used to have to light candles before shabbat so they could see, Otherwise they'd crash into things. Also, something about not being able to enjoy your food as much when you can't see it. So while there is no actual commandment in the Bible to light candles (at least I don't think so) technically speaking it is derived from the Torah.

Sorry, just nitpicking.

Orthoprax said...

Miri,

Your use of the word "derivation" is highly tenuous. I think the things you mention are after the fact rationalizations. What I meant is that there is no supposition that it is based on any of the taryag mitzvot, that it was in fact a late custom, and the "v'tzivanu lehadlik ner shel shabbat" does not refer to any believed commandment from God.

There is a high likelihood that it was instituted that way in order to distinguish Rabbinic homes from Karaite ones (back when it was a major schism) since they believed the Torah forbids all fire on Shabbos and would sit in the dark all night. This schism is also the source of Ashkenazim having "hot foods" - like chulent - on Shabbos, which would be impossible for Karaites.

Miri said...

Orthoprax-
To quote my friend Tobie who sometimes knows things: ""וקראת לשבת עונג ולקדוש ה' מכובד" which is Navi, but close enough. Lighting candles is then in the mishna shabbat- whole chapter on how- and the talmud there. Second perek, I think."

"Your use of the word "derivation" is highly tenuous."

I don't know how you use it, but the above sounds like a process to which the word "derivation" might justifiably apply.

Orthoprax said...

Miri,

Ok, fair enough. You're right. But I think it was optional before Saadya Gaon decided it was a mitzvah.

Orthoprax said...

In any case, a better example on the same principle is seen on lighting Chanukah candles which likewise have the blessing containing "v'tzivanu."

Miri said...

Orthoprax-

That is a much better example.

alex said...

"That we understand the acts to be as if commanded by God drives our thoughts towards God."

But once we realize that it's only "as if", doesn't that put some brakes on the thoughts driving towards God? Or even heading in the opposite direction, since we feel like it's just a charade?

Orthoprax said...

Alex,

It's not a charade. See, a modern understanding of God doesn't have God anthropomorphically reading off statutes. It is through an evolving Jewish interpretation of what God is through ancient times, the Neviim, Chazal and later commentators and Halachists that the acts gain legitimacy as the way Jews approach the transcendent.

God may not *want* anything, but it is good to "walk with God" and normative observance is the "prepared table" for Jewish spirituality.

If metaphorically we envision God beckoning us then Jewish observance is how Jews come close to God. Halacha is literally how we do the walking.

alex said...

"If metaphorically we envision God beckoning us then Jewish observance is how Jews come close to God."
I guess that might work for people whose starting point isn't that God truly gave mitzvot. On the other hand, it could be seen as a step backwards for those whose starting point is that He *did*.

Kylopod said...

The Flatland argument.

evanstonjew said...

Your idea has a connection with Plantinga’s discussion of evolution. If you are interested there are dozens of formulations on the internet and more serious discussions in the philosophy journals. Here are 2 places to start.

http://www.stanfordreview.org/Archive/Volume_XXX/Issue_1/Opinion/opinion4.shtml


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolutionary_argument_against_naturalism

Orthoprax said...

Alex,

"On the other hand, it could be seen as a step backwards for those whose starting point is that He *did*."

Similarly, it could be a step backwards to believe that God commanded one's ancestors for those who's starting point is that God commanded him personally.

Obviously credibility is important.


Kylopod,

"The Flatland argument."

Similar, yeah.


Evanston,

I think what differs me from Plantinga here is that I'm not arguing against the standing legitimacy of all human cognition. I do believe when we think right we can tell by our fruits - i.e. we never would have landed men on the moon if were terribly mistaken about the mechanisms of hundreds of different natural phenomena. And, really, I don't see why this power of reasoning could not be epiphenomenal. Not that I believe it is, but I don't think Plantinga has ruled out the possibility.

My discussion here is really just frank Kantian critique of reason. It's an old discussion but it seems to me that most skeptics kind of just stop at Hume as far as the philosophy of metaphysics and epistemology goes.

Harry said...

Orthopraz,
I just wanted to say how good it is to read your postings. I've been working on similar thoughts for several years now, and I think you've made some good insights. He's another example of where religion builds upon our underlying psychological and physical bodies. Cheney and Seyfarth are professors of biology and evolutionary psychology (respectively) at Penn, and have recently published an overview of their last 14 years of researching baboons in the wild. The book is called Baboon Metaphysics, and in their research they were able to gain tremendous insights on how baboons understand social relations, communications, and even postulating the degree to which baboons have a theory of mind. Brilliant.
One of their methods of understanding how the baboons reacted to different stimuli in their life (like when their offspring was eaten by a lion or a new male enters their troop) was through measuring the levels of stress hormones – which all mammals release when stressed – in their feces on a daily basis. They found many fascinating things, but one which I’ll bring here is this:

“In humans, bereavement and feelings of loss are associated with increased cortisol production, declines in immune responces and, in some cases, increased mortality (citation). These effects, however, can be mitigated by social support. (citation) Social support is also important for the health of non-human primates…. When we examined the grooming rates of bereaved females during the three months immediately following their loss, we found that their number of grooming partners and their grooming rates increased significantly compared with the months before… Apparently, bereaving females attempted to compensate for the loss of a grooming partner by broadening and strengthening their grooming networks.” It then goes on to explain who oxytocin, another hormone regulated by the pituitary gland, is increased through grooming, and counteracts the stress hormones.

In other words, baboons and humans and many other social mammals need comforting when we lose someone close. And one of the most exquisitely evolved cultural structures of dealing with grief is the mourning process in Judaism. It balances the needs for despair in the context of community, and literally brings the community to her. It gives them a place of importance in the community, and then slowly holds their hand on their way back to independence. It represents centuries of thought and experience in how to best deal with grief, and it is has evolved dramatically over the last thousand years. Jewish burial and mourning rites are radically different from those of the 2nd Temple, and those were even more different than those of the 1st temple era. They are no where in the Torah, but rather are creations of rabinnic and lay experience in dealing with grief. If you haven’t yet, please read Kaddish by Lean Wieseltheir – a beautiful personal exploration fo the history of the Kaddish. But they speak to us today as true as if we heard them at Sinai because they speak to the very core of our existence. Yes, we need to be comforted. A child needs to be held, and a dog needs a pack because its just who we are. This is Kant – that the observation can not be independent of the observer, for the observation si always colored by the lens of the observer’s make-up and experience.
Shabbat is coming in and I have to go, but I’ll try to tie this into Kantian Theory of Religion – essentially that religion, like other aspects of culture, should be observed to the extent to which it inculcates moral behavior. But maybe you’ve already covered that. In any case, looking forward to reading more of your thoughts.
Shabbat Shalom,
Harry

Harry said...

Oh, and the Oliver Sacks Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat reference was right on (a must read). Glad to see someone else thought of it!

evanstonjew said...

I agree with your remark that most skeptics stop at Hume. But I wouldn't say your remark is Kantian. You say "They are vehicles by which our awareness can transcend beyond merely what we see with our eyes....through these exercises perhaps we can gain some sense of it - or at least drive our consciousness towards it."

If you mean by transcend having a grounded conception or sense of the noumenal, Kant would disagree and call it scharmerei(sp.?; mush). I would put it the way Nagle did in The View From Nowhere...it is possible our entire conceptual scheme is off target, when measured by the way things really are outside any conceptual scheme.You can then go on to say the purpose of mitzvoth is to teach us this lesson.

I bet some yekke said this in slightly different jargon, maybe
Cohen, Issac Breuer...LOL.The Kantian way is to discredit all narratives of tzadikim ascending to heaven, moving the forces of heaven this way or that.For Kant of the Critique, reality might for all we know be very different, but there is no way to know the nature of this reality.

Kylopod said...

Alright, I'm going to play a little devil's advocate, because I'm curious how you'd respond to certain challenges. It seems to me your argument establishes at most that there could be a transcendent reality, beyond our immediate perceptions. What it doesn't establish is (a) that humans can learn anything about it (b) even if they could, that ancient religions are the way to find it.

Take your example of kashrus. Many skeptics argue that those laws evolved as some kind of ancient health code, as the Hebrews sensed people often got sick from eating pork or shellfish. As that purpose declined in importance, the laws took on other roles, as a means of separation, discipline, and ultimately transcendence.

In other words, the fact that we hung on to a law after it lost its utilitarian value doesn't prove it will help us achieve transcendence.

Orthoprax said...

Harry,

Yeah, I agree that study of our close animal relatives can tell us many interesting things about the human condition, but I'd take care and be aware of the human tendency to anthropomorphize non-human behavior.

With respect to Kant on religon itself, I must confess that I'm not so confident in his approach that moral values define metaphysical ontology. Not sure if it's a bad or good approach (though potentially a necessary one), but prima facie it seems like he puts the cart before the horse.


Evanston,

"But I wouldn't say your remark is Kantian."

Yes, you're right. I was speaking more generally with respect to his approach to metaphysics as compared to Hume. These are the two branches of modern philosophy that distinguish the "neo-atheist" movement in the Western world from the critically religious.


Kylopod,

That's alright - I like challenges. ;-)

"What it doesn't establish is (a) that humans can learn anything about it (b) even if they could, that ancient religions are the way to find it."

You are correct to say that humans may be forever cut off from knowledge of the transcendent. This is plainly true, but first off, we'll never know unless we try and secondly my argument is not really about knowledge in itself but about the receptive frame of mind that such contemplation generates. It is in the very attempt in approach, thinking rarefied thoughts, that is itself of worth. It is awareness that I stressed, not knowledge.

Now I think that virtually any activity - or non-activity - could be used to drive such thinking patterns, but I think the structure of daily Halacha and general Jewish practice is particularly well-suited for engaging it - at least for Jews ;-).

Kylopod said...

"we'll never know unless we try"

How could we ever determine whether we've reached the goal or not?

"It is awareness that I stressed, not knowledge."

Awareness of what? And how does that differ from knowledge?

Orthoprax said...

Kylopod,

"How could we ever determine whether we've reached the goal or not?"

The goal is contemplation, not necessarily conclusions. Wisdom comes from long-term consideration of an issue from different perspectives, not unexpected revelation.

"Awareness of what? And how does that differ from knowledge?"

Awareness of an object of contemplation. This differs from particular knowledge about the object. You can be aware of a presence without knowledge of what it is.

Woodrow/ said...

I've felt the pull of observance more and more over the past few years, for reasons i have never been able to intelligently verbalize. At the same time, I'm still not any less of a skeptic than I was when I was a twice a year Jew - in a way, more of a skeptic, since when I was irreligious I simply gave no thought one way or the other to doctrinal issues.

Your post helped me understand how I could move in both directions at the same time.

Rabban Gamliel said...

"In your analogy, the patient presumably sees that he's he's missing something"

How can he see he is missing something? Besides Orthoprax made clear that one doesn't realize he is missing something. If he chooses to believe the medical establishment he will but on his own he doesn't realize he is missing anything. The analogy is like us with the fourth dimension. Do we believe the scientists that there are more than three dimensions. We can but it will depend on the individual.