Literature, Letterature, Liturgy

When the Hebrew Bible was first transcribed, the Jews used the newly-invented alphabet to write it. No matter whether you believe it was simply the Ten Commandments or the entire Five Books written in fire on stone by the Finger of God that Moses brought down from Sinai, or even if its core was fabricated by a bunch of authors in the 13th-8th centuries BCE, the medium must have been the alphabet.

Screen Shot 2016-07-07 at 6.20.09 PMEarliest archeological evidence, like the stone idol from Serabit el-Khadem, places the origin of the alphabet in the South Sinai (!) about sixty miles north of Mount Sinai, around the 15th-14th C BCE (!), just when tradition places the Exodus of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt.

Hebrew for about four centuries after remained a primitive alphabet, lacking vowels, or spaces between words, or punctuation of any kind. It was scrawled boustrophedon – as the ox plows the field – that is, left to right until the end of the line, then right to left, and so on.

In short, the Torah that Moses brought to the Children of Israel was one long, breathless, written word. It awaited an oral enunciation to  place the cuts between words and determine their meaning.

To quickly illustrate this, how would you read the following letters?


It would take some puzzling and context and familiarity to recognize this as

“In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.”

But lacking complete authority and assurance – nothing short of playing telepathy with the author – any reading would admit of several competing interpretations, including some that may seem at first nonsensical but may hide lurking messages if you stare at them too long:

In the big, no-nagged court doth have nine, death, or thee.

Hebrew readers to this day read texts without vowels and have to disambiguate individual words either by familiarity, or context, or memorizing them with the aid of another text with vowels. Consider the word in Hebrew דבר – DBR.  The consonants could mean dvar (word), dever (plague), davar (thing), daber (speak), dibbur (speech), and others besides.

In short, even individual words in Hebrew invite – even demand – that the reader play this puzzling game. This is the sort of game English students come into contact with in literature classes when they are asked to interpret opaque or dense poetry (John Donne’s works are my favorite) or literature filled with word play and deliberate punning, like Joyce’s Ulysses.


But I would draw a nuanced distinction and say because Hebrew words lack vowels, they are not -yet-words. This is true even when we consider the words as instructions for speech: consonants are the hard sounds stuck in the mouth that await the explosive of a vowel to be pronounced. Try to pronounce ‘T’. All you have is the instruction for placing the tongue at the top of the mouth, behind the upper teeth, waiting for a vowel for it to burst forth.

Because all words in Hebrew are to some extent not-yet-words, lambent with meanings that are always becoming, emergent, not-yet-utterable, then all Hebrew texts written without vowels – even a grocery list (see A Canticle for Liebowitz, for instance) – are a form of literarature, one might even say poetry: difficult, opaque, demanding interpretations.

Compared to the ideal of clarity we inherited from the Greeks, who perfected the alphabet by adding vowels, Hebrew without vowels is a hopeless muddle. When the eminent Yale scholar of the transition from orality to literacy in ancient Greece, Eric Havelock, declared that the ancient Hebrews could not hope to create a true (read “Greek”) literature, he was right, though for the wrong reasons. His assumption was that the primitiveness of the Hebrew mind and social organization, and the impoverishment of its alphabetic script, could not allow for the elevated thinking, clarity, and expressiveness of classical Greek.

Yet, armed with our understanding of the essential ambiguity-generating early Hebrew script, we can see that vowelless Hebrew is already a form of literature, inviting interpretation of almost every word. Indeed, the question What is literary? makes no sense as we try to apply a Greek understanding to a Hebrew communications technology and textuality. We need a whole new word for the kind of discourse engendered by these letters which form words that are never-quite-words.

Letterature… and prayer

In reading Hebrew, I propose that we are perpetually reading a kind of letterature, where sense is suspended between our decoding of the letter and our reading of the word, as we shuttle back and forth in interpretive suspense attempting, often vainly, to be sure of the intended meaning. This is really literary reading tending not towards clarity but dyslexia. As Amos Oz quipped, “There is no word in Hebrew for fiction.”

Perhaps even the truth value of any text is suspended between the ever-threatening catastrophe of  ever-promulgating interpretations that at the first reading defeats the illusion of telepathy – clearly understanding what’s in the Mind of the Author, but at another opens hailing frequencies to a very animated and dynamic metaphysical and cognitive plane.

I don’t know about how you take your literature (or should I say, how your literature takes you), but this sure feels how I take and am seized by mine, in all its debilitating pleasure and transporting joy. A good poem or a dense novel exiles us for a time to an inward realm. We read and get lost somewhere in the wilderness between multiple competing possibles and mutually-enriching meanings. If we linger there long enough and if we climb the mountain, then perhaps revelation will come.

Reading Hebrew thus becomes the Ur-type of literary reading: a devotional, a form of prayer, and the engagement with its letterature a form of liturgy.

Prophecy in Exile? We Are All Esther

What is the status of prophecy today? Can we communicate directly with God and speak for Him? Are those who claim to be modern prophets, though they speak with inspiration and profound insight, really channeling the Divine, or are they mistaking personal inspiration for the real thing?
Continue reading “Prophecy in Exile? We Are All Esther”

Entanglement, Chesed, and the Quantum Biology of Incense

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After the end of the Sabbath service meant to recall the sacrifices in the Temple, we recite a curious addendum. It’s a recipe taken from the Talmud (Kereisos 6b) for a kind of incense that was used in the Temple. It required 11 ingredients in specific measures, including “galbanum,” a terpentine-smelling extract of gum plants, and “Carshina lye,” which is toxic and can be substituted for by urine. Indeed, it sounds altogether foul, although if you knew the ingredients of the most expensive perfumes out of Paris, you’d turn up your nose, too. Likewise, together these 11 substances produced a divine smell. Furthermore, the mixture was so sacred, violating the formula by one jot was punishable by death.

Although the Amidah is meant to substitute for the Temple service, and the spreading of smoky incense was the conclusion of the service, this technical, arcane process from a relatively obscure Talmudic passage seems out of place when the rest of these Shabbat prayers are abstract, about holiness, peace, and the greatness of God.  The fact that it is so insistently technical, earthy, materialistic and sensory, even more so than the original in Exodus 30, makes it more jarring.

On a recent Shabbat (2016), R. Yitzchok Feldman of Emek Beracha in Palo Alto expounded on the mitzvah of the incense used in the Temple, ketores. He explained its connection to the kabbalistic sefira (aspect) of God called chesed, usually translated as “kindness” – but meaning much more. The ketores produces a transformative scent. It influences all who smell it and binds them together in its experience. Like acts of kindness, it emanates and spreads throughout the congregation and out into the world in unforeseen ways that bind humanity together and elevates them.

I naturally thought of the concept of entanglement in quantum mechanics. Ok, that’s weird. Let me try to explain.

Quantum Biology Breaches the Wall of Our Reality

For the last century, most physicists treated the troubling and enigmatic implications of quantum mechanics as something to be banished to the realms of philosophy and metaphysics, trying to keep the nose of the consciousness camel out of the tent of strictly causal and objective physics. Physics still largely quarantines the absurdity of subatomic shenanigans from the observable macroscopic world we live in by claiming the two realities are unconnected. The world we experience continues to behave in an orderly, Newtonian, commonsensical fashion. Things don’t change each other by magic. Reality is there whether someone’s looking at it or not. Stuff can’t be in two places at once and no where at all.

But in the last decades, this quarantine has become increasingly difficult to maintain. Science itself has stormed its own comfortable cliches with experimental results that show consciousness, human or at least intelligent consciousness, is implicated in determining reality even in the macroscopic world we experience directly through our senses.  Experiments in the 1960s and 1980s have shown that two objects separated by any conceivable  connection, even at other ends of the universe, are entangled and somehow affect each other instantaneously. Still, physics had a whole armory of ways to wall off these disturbing phenomena from commonsense reality. saying that when the quantum world interacted with a macroscopic phenomenon, that macroscopic entity “observed” the probabilistic quantum, collapsing it into a stable realism. Its formal name is “Decoherence.”

But in the last ten years, quantum biology has shown that behaviors in our familiar world of nature are directly connected to and reliant on quantum processes. The orientation of migrating birds. The operation of genes. Photosynthesis. The comfortable quarantine that has kept our sense of reality simple and free from philosophy and metaphysics has now collapsed. And that collapse is utter and complete. It can’t be confined, because it is now likely to be shown that the whole universe interacts at all levels with quantum weirdness.


One of those quantum phenomena that is impossible to ignore at the macroscopic level is entanglement: the spooky coordination between the behavior of objects that have no material, physical or any other possible connection either invisible or theoretical. Even objects – photons – that are traveling apart at the speed of light or are separated by vast distances instantaneously coordinate their reality. When one is tickled, its entangled twin across the universe laughs.

Perhaps we can get comfortable with the way this betrays our commonsense notions of reality for photons, because they are weird little buggers to begin with, both wave and particle, expressions of a probability formula that ineluctably shows they don’t even really exist in any proper sense of the word until they are observed.  But entanglement isn’t confined to photons and other sub-atomic particles. As two physicists explain in a recent book:

“We talk in terms of twin-state photons because that situation is readily described and subject to experiment. In principle, however, any two objects that have ever interacted are forever entangled. The behavior of one instantaneously influences the other. An entanglement exists even if the interaction is through each of the objects having interacted with a third object. In principle, our world has a universal connectedness.
“Quantum entanglement for large objects [like chairs or people] is generally too complex to notice. But not always.”

Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner, QUANTUM ENIGMA: PHYSICS ENCOUNTERS CONSCIOUSNESS (Oxford UP, 2006)

This wasn’t written by tripped-out tree-hugging Zen Juddhist ecstatic hippies, but by two well-respected tenured physicists at UC  (admittedly, it is Santa Cruz, but nonetheless…). Their book, published by the well-respected Oxford University Press, chronicles how orthodox physics has suppressed those enigmatic but unavoidable conclusions of quantum mechanics. And the most disturbing of these enigmas is the conspiracy between human consciousness and the way it binds our reality to the spookiness of the quantum level. Once things including human things, interact with quantum weirdness, it is entangled with it. And, by the way, everything in the universe interacts.

These aren’t just mystic metaphors  They are the serious and real, if often censored, consequences of quantum physics. They troubled Einstein and generations of brilliant physicists since, but experimental evidence shows they are incontrovertible.
The science that studies how quantum mechanics breaches the wall of biology is called Quantum Biology. One of the known ways that behavior in our natural, observable world is actually produced by quantum events is the navigation of birds. Another is photosynthesis. A third is enzymatic reactions, including those that transform the nature of one organic substance into another, like milk into cheese via rennet, or juice into wine via yeast, or flour and water into bread, also via yeast.  These have rituals attached to them in many cultures. But in Judaism, the metaphysics of their physics (or organic chemistry) is revealed, if we read it through this lens, by the halacha attached to them: cheese, wine, bread.

Another event that relies on quantum biology, and all the metaphysical implication it brings, is smell.

I always wondered why ketores is recited after the end of the Musaf amidah. It seems like such an odd and specific intrusion in the climax of the service. But Rabbi Feldman brought it all into focus by connecting the incense with chesed.  Ketores is designed to created the most beautiful, pungent, memorable, unique, and transporting scent, wafted on smoke to fill the Temple. We’re supposed to remember that Divine smell – or rehearse the rabbis’ memory of it  –  and also remember their pain at its loss. We are supposed to long for that smell as we long for the Temple, with the curious admixture of ache and inspiration, in the hope of the time when we can smell that smell again in the rebuilt Temple. Nostalgia, nostos algia, pain for home. And in the particular technical instructions for making it, we are reminded of the elaborate instructions for building the Mishkan, the Sanctuary of the Temple, in two sections of the  Torah itself. And so we are looking forward to rebuilding it.

Metaphysics in the physics (and chemistry)

The recipe for ketores specified in the Talmud, specifically the part of the formula that will produce an emanating smell I believe, is an enzymatic reaction produced by lye, which as I said above, relies on quantum mechanics. Lye, which is highly alkaline, catalyses and binds all the other ingredients into an active, dynamic new compound that transcends the sum of its parts. The siddur specifies that urine could be substituted for lye to rpoduce the same outcome, but it is undignified for use in the Temple. It makes sense: it would introduce the same highly alkaline catalysis, depending on the diet of the donor. (At the risk of boring you, lye is produced by a membrane cell chloralkali process, which is itself a quantum biological process.)
So when Rabbi Feldman taught that the smell of ketores means chesed because it spreads out and connects all of us in unseen and ineffable ways, it is literally true at the level of physics. If we dug a little deeper, I’m convinced we find equivalence between the kabbalistic meaning of chesed as universal connectedness and emotion – as Proust knew, nothing affects emotion and memory like smell – and this quantum understanding of the process the ketores formula unleashes, its entanglement and not just as a mere metaphor,  but as an actual physical process.
The G-Theory: Orthodox Judaism, Quantum Biology, and the Weakening of Orthodox Science
From the viewpoint of orthodox science, the ultimate heretical implication of quantum mechanics is that the universe is sustained by an unimaginably dynamic and omniscient Universal Consciousness Who observes every one of the infinite quantum events occurring everywhere in every sub-nanosecond and His observation enables reality to unfold. Even our Jewish heretic physicists, Rosenblum and Kuttner, completely avoid mention of the G-word, except in one dismissive, and I believe, self-contradictory sentence (“God may be Omnipotent, but he is not Omniscient” – p. 171).
However, accepting the G-Hypothesis actually does away with some fairly absurd and, so far, unprovable assertions. I think of them as contortions, illogical turns designed to preserve logic in the face of experimental and mathematical proofs that show logic’s limitations. Although these still dominate the way orthodox physics is taught today, I predict they will be short-lived: The Many Worlds Hypothesis, String Theory, and some other gyrations too technical and in the end self-contradictory to delve here (A Universal Robot Consciousness; Decoherence, as I explained above; Random Collapses of the Wavefunction, and others).
On the other hand, embracing the G-theory explains plenty of scientific mysteries without introducing any idea not consistent with what science itself has shown. It explains the “Unreasonable Efficacy of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences,” as Eugene Wigner described it in his 1960 paper. It explains the otherwise unreasonably and statistically far-fetched coincidence of constants  (Planck’s Constant, the strength of electromagnetic, gravity, and weak forces, among others) in the universe enables life to arise. It opens the door to implicating a Conscious Force in the Creation of the Universe, for which science has no satisfactory theory, and how Free Will and Determinism can both exist without contradiction.
At the same time, this vision – or scent – of a Quantum-Mechanical, Reality-Unfolding, All-Observing God moves in the opposite direction, from science to an appreciation of spirtual matters, for it gives us a pretty good understanding of what the Torah might have meant by His ineffable Name, an Unfolding Ever-Present Consciousness observing every minute event in the universe, even at the ineffable and impossibly infinite quantum level.

The end of the book, tech-mediated telepathy, and other hallucinogens

This is a heavily redacted prophesy about the end of the book and the coming of machine-mediated brain-to-brain communication I wrote in February 1993 to Kali Tal as part of a longer exchange about hallucinogenic drugs, the coming of mind-to-mind communication through VR, and other things.

Bumpercar enhanced empaths

Tools are human.

There are no technologies without humanities.

Artificial intelligence is a metaphor for the psyche. (And not much more, believe me.) Just as the idea of a psyche is a contraption of cognitive psychology and philosophy, and the brain is a concoction of neurology, so is AI just an idea of what it wants human intelligence to be. (A machine.)

Multimedia, even as virtual reality, is a metaphor for the sensorium, a perceptual gadget beholden to poetics and media studies. It’s got a wonderful future, but it’s just a stab in the dark theater of our desire to be more intimate and stimulating.

Nothing is yet quicker than the light of the slow word.

Yes, we are in the late age of print. What we whiff now is not the smell of ink but the smell of loss, of burning towers or men smoking cigars in the drawing room, thinking they are building an empire. Hurry up please, it’s time. Yes, the time of the book has passed. But it will persist to give glorious pleasure, like other obsolete forms that continually renew themselves and the soul: the poem, dance, graffiti. The book is dead, long live the book.

We will continue to read from paper just as we continue to write poems and tell stories. But we shouldn’t be so attached to the idea of the material thing called a book, which is after all just one of many technologies for delivering the word that began with scrawls on clay and stone. Think of the book as a metaphor for the process it inscribes, for getting one’s solo thoughts into many other heads, one at a time. Just one of many technologies we’ve devised to get what’s in my brain into yours and vice versa.  Tech-mediated-telepathy.

When Sony showed Discman, a portable, mini-CD the size of a Walkman, capable of holding 100,000 pages of text, a discussion on the Gutenberg listserv complained with pain, with nostos algia, wistful pain for home: “The smell of ink … the crinkle of pages…”

“But you can’t read it in bed,” she said, everyone’s last redoubt, the last-ditch argument.

Meanwhile in far-off laboratories of what Stuart Moulthrop calls the Military-Infotainment Complex at Warner, Disney or IBApple and MicroLotus, a group of scientists work on synchronous smell-o-vision with real time simulated fragrance degradation shifting from fresh ink to old mold. Another group builds raised-text flexible touch screens with laterally facing windows that look and turn like pages, crinkling and sighing as they exfoliate.

“But even the dog can’t eat it,” someone protests. Smiling, silently the techies go back to their laboratories with bags of silicon kibbles.

Swimming amidst this undertow, tilting at this windmill, we should keep alive the idea of what the book was and can be, Don Quixote. Tristram Shandy. Gravity’s Rainbow.

In an age when people buy and do not read more books than have ever been published before, perhaps we will each become like the living books of Truffaut’s version of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, vestal readers walking along the meandering river of light just beyond the city of text. We face their tasks now, resisting what flattens us, re-embodying reading as movement, as an action rather than a thing, appropriating the metaphor that we think will diminish what we love.  We should view the book as a network, a node in a network, each word an implicit hypertextual link to archeologcal layers of meaning and what has already been written elsewhere.

And as we appropriate the term, we should also colonize the territory, invade it, dominate it. The network is ours to inhabit. We will read there.

But how?

Think of what we need to get VR to work, I mean really work. You need a map of how cognitive modes function in the neurophysiology of the brain that then can be mimicked by a dumb ole binary machine, even a massively interconnected one … with enhancements (like direct electrical plugs into the brain).

As we get better and better at doing that, we’re gonna achieve some pretty good turnaround time in transcribing thoughts into evanescent images beyond words. We will produce other sensory kinesthetics (I should say performances). The time between upload and download shrinks, the kinesthetic performances become better and better at representing what’s in our heads, especially since the gear is our heads, and pretty soon you get telepathy, or tech-mediated telepathy, its asymptote.

Now amp up the part of the brain that integrates connections into feelings of transcendence – is it the dorsal raphe nucleus? — with a pattern that does something like Ecstasy or MDMA –forced massive sudden depletion of the serotonin reserves, so the big whoosh comes flooding down (or up) from the brainstem, and you get your waterbed bumpercar enhanced empath … Holy shit there’s more here than I thought. You just did it to me, that miracle:

I think I know what YOU MEAN.


The Origins of the Alphabet: Part 3

We’ve seen (in Parts 1 and 2) that the Bible tells the story of the origin of the alphabet as a gift from God to Moses on Mount Sinai.  God instructs Moses to teach this new disruptive communication technology to the Children of Israel and use it to liberate them from slavery in Egypt.  He and his brother Aaron then stage a contest of scripts in the court of Pharaoh. Pharaoh summons his hieroglyphic scribes to show that the new writing system is not so special. The war of demos takes the form of magical-seeming transformations and “signs” (the Hebrew word for “thing” “plague” and “word” are the same). Water turn to blood.  Frogs crawl out of the slime. But on the third contest, when Moses strikes the “dust of the earth” and summons “lice” all over Egypt, the Egyptian scribes are defeated.  They throw up their hands and exclaim, “This is the finger of God!”

Tissot_Moses_Speaks_to_Pharaoh.jpgBut why do the Egyptians give up now after having no trouble matching the transformation of water into blood or summoning frogs from the mud? A clue is in the nature of the transformation. Hieroglyphic signs for frogs and blood are well-known. What are pictograms for dust and lice? In Egyptian, the spoken word for lice is “tiny” or “diminutive” – the same word used for little girls. And they didn’t have a glyph for it. Nor does there seem to be a hieroglyph, even in later Egypt, for “dust.” Lice, like dust, are ubiquitous but nearly invisible little nothings. They are like the finger of a ubiquitous but invisible Deity stirring the pot of the universe and history. Kinim [כנם],the Hebrew word here translated as “lice,” is used in Israel to refer also to those tiny gnats that make a buzzing sound but which can’t be seen. In the American South, we called them “noseeums.”

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Furthermore, the letters for plague are D-B-R [דבר]. By supplying different vowels from those in traditional interpretations, these letters can also signify words or things or statements or even commandments, as in the Ten Commandments. As a word, DBR דבר is, like EHT את, a one-word demonstration of the power and facility of this new script to add abstraction and multiply layers of meanings that add complexity and even poetry to even simple texts.

Continue reading “The Origins of the Alphabet: Part 3”

The Origins of the Alphabet: Part 2

Re-reading the Hebrew Bible as the story of the phonetic alphabet

The Aleph Tav
I am the…

The alphabet and the universal literacy it enabled was the ultimate disruptive new tech of its age, especially in its environment of hegemonic empires and nomadic oral (illiterate) cultures. Because it was simple and made literacy universal, anyone could broadcast their expressions to a much wider audience. The means to own one’s own private publishing house was in anyone’s hands, much as anybody in the early years of radio and Internet could create their own channel or webpage. It could represent any language well enough. It was more abstract and enabled new cognitive powers to blossom. It invited self-reflection and self-empowerment and self-affirmation. It enabled the writing of any concept, emotion or abstraction that could be said or thought in words, and therefore opened up the interior lives of people to each other. It created a new kind of intimacy.

Continue reading “The Origins of the Alphabet: Part 2”

The Origin of the Alphabet: Part 1

We all swim in the alphabet like fish in water or birds in air, so it is hard to appreciate what an astounding communications technology it still is even after thousands of years of use. So imagine what this new flexible technology must have seemed like when humanity first discovered it around 1500 BCE.  The easy literacy the alphabet enabled must have been at least as powerful and transformative in its time as the printing press, the telephone, the atom bomb, or the computer. These inventions produced rapid, breathtaking transformations of culture, shifts in power and wealth, disruptions of society, and creation of new ways for humans to relate to the universe and to each other.

Continue reading “The Origin of the Alphabet: Part 1”

When the brain was simple

Mind to mind metaphysics in alphabet and cyberspace

The brain is a sur-rational machine for bringing worlds into collision, a metaphor device, a translation circuit for closing and opening the loop between incommensurate and mutually incomprehensible universes. In my view, it is already “meta-physical.”

Nature was finished when it invented the human brain

What is the brain? At its very simplest it is an entity that takes impressions from out there in the form of energy striking different nerve endings in the organs of the body (eyes, skin, ears, nose, mouth/tongue), converts the energy into information, shuttles the information to a central processor, a black box homuncular body without organs sitting in an ecology of incomprehensibly frothing and turbulent hormones, and somehow translates them into wholly different things in here – sensations, thoughts, flocks of birds, schools of fish, swarming, buzzing. The brain is intrinsically a sur-rational machine for bringing worlds into collision, a metaphor device, a translation circuit for closing and opening the loop between incommensurate and mutually incomprehensible universes. It is already “meta-physical.”

Before we were homo sapiens and the brain was simple, there was a neat Kantian fit between animal and environment: The rules of the world out there, its physics, were not challenged by the rules of the world in here; there was a nice match. But then through some urgency that it is just as easy to talk about metaphysically or teleologically as in terms of some deterministic chaotic evolution, the brain exploded, human-like hominids started walking upright about 100,000 years ago, looking forward, using tools, colonizing the world, creating new social structures. The brain, like some imperial culture exploding off a remote island, started projecting itself onto the world, terraforming the Earth in its own image and leaving in its wake a trail of non-bio-degradable tools and waste. Nature was finished. It was finished in the sense that it reached a fulfillment and a culmination, but it had also committed suicide, finished itself off. Not only did humans begin to massively alter the environment, but the brain also started talking, depicting, enacting versions of its experience in cave paintings, ritual dances, gestures, and a grammar of grunts. It became self-conscious. It recognized a mismatch between the world out there and the world in here: Hey! The world persists; we die! Self-consciousness and the idea of death were born in one fatal stroke. Finally, the brain framed everything it looked at: nature became a pastoral scene in the cognitive museum. The cosmos seen through human eyes was an artifice, always already available for use.

The C3 Loop

On the flip side, the human brain is a prisoner of the loop of cognition, culture and communication, caught in its virtuous cycle. We call the cybernetic device that initiated and grew in this loop language or symbolizing. Frances Hellige in his book on cognition and the brain, Hemispheric Asymmetry, describes this loop initiated by the development of language, with feed-forward and feedback components, as a sort of “snowball effect,” a cycle of ever-widening gyres that eventually embraces and creates everything between the poles of culture and the biology of the brain itself, including physiological changes in structure and size of different regions.2

In cybernetic terms, we call this a positive feedback loop. The cybernetic system (in this case, human brain) sends information out into the world-culture-environment, which feed newly intensified signals back into the (brain) system to destabilize the system anew, which in turn re-amplifies its message, like an over-sensitive microphone, and again re-broadcasts this message back onto the world until the universe screeches with the noise of the human brain echoed back to it, in it, a cyborg rock concert. It also changes the brain itself. Another researcher, Charles Lumsden, calls this process “the selective stabilization of the synapses” as a result of continuous exposure to cultural effects or stimulation, a collaboration between cultural invention and inherited genetic characteristics,” or “Gene-Culture Coevolution.”3

Neurophysiologists and cognitive scientists who study the alphabet note that its effects on the brain can even be seen in the lifetime development of individual people. The use of language reshapes the brain from womb to tomb. A whole new discipline of neural plasticity has emerged in the last few decades, showing that the brain is not the static, genetically-determined machine we once thought it to be. In other words, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny in culture-gene co-evolution as well. Studies of aphasics and dyslexics show that the brain changes physiologically and progressively after injury, suggesting that parts of the brain grow even in the lifetime of individual humans.

Fun with your new brain: the rise of the alphabet

Using different alphabets (or losing the capacity to read the alphabet), even within the lifetime of an individual, is a bit like growing a new brain. Trying a new alphabet must have been (and still is) tantamount to an ongoing progressive hallucination. It lets you think things that you couldn’t have thought before, makes connections that simply didn’t exist physiologically – for which your brain wasn’t wired – and forces your brain into different information processing patterns, which presumably involve different mental events or experiences (as physiological-cognitive research overwhelmingly shows). It’s like having a whole new brain, or at least, a brain with whole new faculties, new circuits, new wetware. Now imagine the mass hallucination of an entire culture learning how to use an alphabet for the first time. Whole tribes of people, or important segments of them, put on this new cybernetic headgear, or what I have been calling a new form of telepathy, virtually all at once. We can imagine this mass cybernetic experiment would be accompanied by social, epistemological, and metaphysical revolutions, apocalyptic prophesies, and re-definitions of the self in relation to body, mind, others, and the invisible. In short, it might provoke the emergence of a new religion.

With this perhaps absurd hypothesis in our minds, let’s take a look at the advent of writing itself. Take (in our imaginations) a time-lapse photograph of the Nile Valley before and just after the advent of hieroglyphics, or (even earlier), the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia before and just after the very first invention of writing, Sumerian pictographs around 3200 B.C. These time-lapsed films would show millions of years of desultory animal activity, including the hunting gathering and low-level agricultural activity of upright hominids after 35,000 BC. As we approach 10,000 BC, activity begins to pick up pace and organization. Clusters of hominids show tool use, primitive mound building, expressive cave painting, and cultivation of the earth, though in indifferent and almost-random-seeming patterns. Then, suddenly, around 3200 BCE, BANG! Something leaps across the chaotic bifurcation into a new order of frantic self-organization. Compressed into a few frames is an almost instantaneous transformation; blink and you’ll miss the instant. These fertile regions undergo massive terraforming along rectilinear plots. Rivers are diverted into rectangular irrigation systems. Cities emerge, themselves rectilinear. Zoom in with me now into the square-ish walls of the cities, and into the very square-ish rooms of the city, and we will find the intimate source of this sudden change. There, a row of hard stone benches, arranged regularly. It is a schoolroom for scribes! Hundreds of boys, mostly the sons of privileged nobility, sit for hours hunched over clay tablets, learning to scrawl in regular lines. Indeed, if we superimpose the scratching of these lines they look like the lines of irrigation written on the face of the earth itself, as seen from an orbiting satellite. The harsh discipline of the schoolchildren being tutored in script “canalizes” their thought processes, reinforcing certain pathways. It is hard not to imagine that what’s written on the brain gets projected onto the world, which is literally “canalized,” too.

Looking at a picture of the ancient Sumerian classroom for scribes found in Shuruppak (from ca. 3200 BC),

Sumerian schoolroom
Picture of Sumerian schoolroom for scribes from Edward Chiera, They Wrote on Clay (U Chicago: 1938)

we see familiar rows of benches and the headmasters desk up front. Then we are seized with a horrible and giddy vertigo, a terrible recognition: Five thousand years later, and we’re still canalizing the brains of our children in the same way, enforcing the discipline of writing in virtually the same methods and with not so dissimilar effects as did these ancient Sumerians, “that gifted and practical people” (as Edward Chiera calls them in his groundbreaking study, They Wrote on Clay). Sumerians invented cuneiform as a perfectly portable means to effect commerce, extend the authority of their kings, preserve metaphysical and transcendent information, and secure the stability of caste and rank.

The invention of pictographic writing by the Sumerians was “a secret treasure’ or mystery which the laymen could not be expected to understand and which was therefore the peculiar possession of a professional class of clerks or scribes,” Chiera writes. Furthermore, the metaphysics associated with this new telepathic technology becomes clear in the priestly functions these scribes served. Neo-Babylonian texts used the same ideogram for priest and scribe. Along with the script came a new mythology that, predictably, placed the power of language in the center of its metaphysics: “As for the creating technique attributed to these [new] deities, Sumerian philosophers developed a doctrine which became dogma throughout the Near East — the doctrine of the creative power of the divine word. All that the creating deity had to do, according to this doctrine, was to lay his plans, utter the word, and pronounce the name.

In fact, everywhere pictographic writing makes its advent, we find the sudden emergence of what we can think of as “tech writing empires”: civilizations geometrically akin in their compulsive rectilinearity to the hexagonal hive structures of bees. In China, among the Aztecs of Mexico or Incas in Peru, in Babylon, Sumeria, and Egypt, we see the same pattern of social, epistemological, and metaphysical organization. Along with these scripts come other inventions so predictably similar that they seem to derive directly from imperatives in the nervous system itself amplified or newly grown by use of the new cyborg device of writing: centralized authority in god/kings; monumental ziggurat-like or pyramidal architecture; hierarchies of priest-scribes; complex, self-perpetuating bureaucracies; fluid but clearly demarcated social/economic classes; trade or craft guilds; imperialism; slavery; “canalizing” educational systems; confederations of tribes into nations; standardized monetary systems and trade; taxes; and so on. Almost every conceivable aspect of empire, in its gross forms, was entailed in pictographic writing. Even the alphabet, with its greater efficiency and fidelity to speech, only seems to add abstraction and speed to what McLuhan described as the “exteriorization of the nerve net”

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What is Quantum Theology? – or – “You see that synagogue on the right? That’s the one I won’t go to.”

So a Jewish carpenter gets stranded on a desert island for 20 years. He is finally rescued, but before he’s taken off the island, he insists on taking the captain on a tour of his handiwork. He’s built a whole town by hand, you see: homes, a butcher, a baker, a tailor. The captain is amazed, and then he sees two magnificent structures on the hill overlooking the town,

“What are those two buildings?” he asks .

“Oh, those?” the carpenter says dismissively. “They’re two synagogues.”

Two synagogues?” asks the captain in amazement. “Why’d you build two synagogues?”

“See the one on the right? That’s the one I won’t go to.”

Does science invoke God?

Screen Shot 2016-04-25 at 3.04.06 PM
Tweedledee & Tweedledum

If you’ve ever been a member of a congregation that is about to split over irreconcilable differences of theological opinion, you know how true the joke feels. But I tell it to mock the division between two faiths, science and religion. As the rift between the two has calcified, it’s looking more ridiculous and dispensable, like two old enemies who need to conjure each other in order to keep some militant vitality alive in their feud, Big Endians and Little Endians.

If we wouldn’t get excommunicated either from the Church of Science or the Academy of Belief, would we ask, “Is science a proper way to worship God?” If we wouldn’t be declared a heretic, would our church permit us to grant truth to all of science’s glory?

In the twenty-first century, an alert and dispassionate science should be able to admit that physics requires a metaphysical assumption about the way the universe works. Logic is a faith in its own, and believing in a universe that can be completely explained by logic requires a spiritual leap and even a certain blindness, especially after Kurt Gödel proved the limits of logic. On the other side of the limitations of reason lies the inexplicably unreasonable efficacy of mathematics in explaining the world (as Eugene Wigner noted in 1960), the crazy serendipity of, for instance, Planck’s Constant.

At the same time, to just say science explains what it can and let God be responsible for the rest – let God take the hindmost – is a losing gambit. It protects apparently shrinking territory.

I propose here that God has positive explanatory power in both science and religion. Quantum mechanics as we increasingly understand it almost demands the invention of some God-like Consciousness. And a vital faith, especially an organized and systematic monotheistic faith in God, should embrace our evolving, unfolding, scientific knowledge of the universe as Divine. 

Yes, we risk falling into the trap laid by the fact that mysticisms end up looking like each other. The oceanic currents that course through prophets during their seizures of revelation show remarkable consistency across ages and cultures. There might even be a neural pathway in the brain that maps the mystical feeling of oneness with the universe and divine insight. (See my essay “Finding God in the Three-Pound Universe: The Neuroscience of Transcendence,” Omni Magazine 16, 70-80 (1993). Sometimes, inimical faiths have at their most transcendent depths remarkable similarities that can’t be explained by direct influence. As Steven Schwartz writes in “Islamic Sufism and Jewish Kabbalah: Shining a Light on Their Hidden History,” 

Muslims and Jews further possess mystical customs — Islamic Sufism and Jewish Kabbalah — that are so close to one another that the presumption of mutual influence is inescapable. Yet the transmission of these spiritual doctrines and practices between them is still historically mysterious.

The moral of the story is that anyone who is tempted to see support for theological constructions of the universe in quantum physics should tread carefully. That hasn’t stopped speculations by amateur physicists but professional mystics, and professional physicists but amateur theologians, to leap to the hope that quantum cosmology proves there is a God. Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics (1984),  Atoms, Snowflakes and God: The Convergence of Science and Religion (J.L. Hitchcock, 1982), The Science of God (G. Schroeder, 1998) are just three of many. There’s even an ideological rant with the title Quantum Theology (Diarmuid O’Murchu, 1987).

The God I mean isn’t a Christian God. He isn’t a Newtonian God. He isn’t a Cartesian God. He’s not the Great Clockmaker in the sky. The cartoon Western concept of God as static, perfectly rational, immutable, unitary, immortally consistent and knowable is inherited from overly-idealistic Greeks, from Plato and before him Pythagoras. They had a brilliant fetish for order and a gift for making sense. This Platonic ideal has had its splendid multi-millenial run. It gave us mathematics in all its elegance and the beautiful, aspirational dream of a rational universe that was smooth and simple and explicable and could be reduced to a Unified Answer.

Postmodern science, by contrast, calls for the non-Sense God of the Hebrews that Moses saw in the Non-burning Bush, the Dynamic Essence, forever unknowable, sometimes contradictory, receding, transcendental, yet mutable. Not One and Done, but always Becoming, involved in every aspect of the universe all the time. The grand project of our minds, the systematic quest for truth, is an expression of Divinity. A God needing interpretation as best we can by sixty-three volumes and centuries of commentary in the Talmud and the billions of words He has invited in the 1500 years since. The God that can be worshiped through science is an inconceivable God of Infinite Complexity, Abstraction, and Attentiveness Whom we can only strive to but never quite comprehend fully. This is the God who gave us the primitive alphabet for language in all its untranslatable ambiguity, not a reductive idolatrous god who gave us algebra and geometry and golden triangles and code as if the dazzling universe could be disambiguated in a cubicle. This God left clues as to the inter-connected nature of everything in everything waiting for us to enliven them with our gaze and imagination. In short, this is the God of Language, of a Holy Tongue, not Binary Code, an Author, not a programmer.

Metaphysics of the church of physics

Woody Allen said, “Love may be the answer. But while you’re waiting for the answer, sex poses some pretty good questions.” A Grand Unified Theory of Everything may be the answer, but while we’re waiting, quantum physics poses some pretty good questions, theological questions about the origin of life, the nature of mind, and the possibility that the universe collapses into this reality because Someone Impossibly Infinite to Imagine is observing every quantum event in the universe. The alternative is an equally inconceivable explanation: that every time a quantum probability wave collapses into reality, another universe is created, the so-called Multiverse Hypothesis.

There is now a serious discussion about the way quantum mechanics may be implicated with the biology of consciousness as well with the fabric of the universe. For instance, in an otherwise brilliant and lucid book, Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology (2014) Johnjoe McFadden and Jim Al-Khalidi show that quantum physics drives the biochemistry of photosynthesis, genetics, enzymes, smell, and perhaps even consciousness. This is transcendence, requiring the collapse of epistemological boundaries between macroscopic biology and sub-atomic quantum events. Yet, when the authors consider the possible role of quantum biology in how the mind arises from the brain or life from inorganic matter, they are quick to protest their orthodoxy by bracketing out any whiff of theology:

Can our new understanding of life [as having its source in quantum mechanics] replace the soul with a quantum vital spark? Many will regard the very posing of this question as suspect, pushing the bounds of conventional science beyond respectability and  into the realms of pseudoscience and spirituality. That is not what we’re proposing here.  Instead, we want to offer what we hope is an idea that might replace mystical and metaphyscial speculations with at least the grain of a scientific theory.” (p. 310)

It never occurs to these authors to consider the middle they have excluded, that the very “grain of a scientific theory” they are exploring in quantum biology is the essence of the mysticism they loathe.  Of course, they can’t. They’d be excommunicated. Or at least, denied tenure. But let’s linger on this excluded middle. At the slippery, frothing interface between mind and matter, serious physicists who are quick to disavow any theology in their science end up sounding defensive, but not convincing. If we wouldn’t get kicked out of Church of Science, would we pose that pretty good theological question: Is life, the soul, a quantum process?

NEXT: The Quantum Theology of Matzah.

(1) Philip Clayton writes, “In this brief sketch of the history of Western metaphysics,  we have seen that the problem of matter remains an unsolved conundrum. Although the problem was continually reformulated and redefined, every attempt to understand matter ends up focusing on the active principle of the intellect– that which makes understanding possible – rather than what was supposed to be understood, which was matter as qua [exactly that which is] non-mental. Again it is as if matter continually recedes from our grasp. One even wonders: could it be that matter is in essence that which cannot be understood, that which inevitably recedes from us as we approach it? Here one thinks of the notion of the transcendental signified” in the work of the influential French philosopher, Jacques Derrida. [1995b, 1998]. If the parallel indeed holds, matter is another name for what Derrida called la differánce, that which is always different from our formulations and which is always deferred into the future whenever we seek to  understand it.” P. Clayton,”Unsolved Dilemmas,” in Information and the Nature of Reality: From Physics to Metaphysics. ed by Paul Davies and Niels Henrik Gregerson (Cambridge UP, 2010: pp. 50-51).

Of course, I believe that Derrida was an anti-theological Jewish mystic and prophet, who erected an entire philosophical system, preserved Jewish ways of knowing and discoursing, and even in part Jewish ethics, by substituting a very Jewish understanding of God with the idea of differánce, but that is another long story.

(2) Thomas Pynchon, that great epistemological jokester, quipped, “…excluded middles, they’re bad shit.”  (The Crying of Lot 49).  Oedipa Maas is hung up between the poles of deterministic logic and transcendence:  “She had heard all about excluded middles; they were bad shit, to be avoided; and how had it ever happened here, with the chances once so good for diversity? For it was now like walking among matrices of a great digital computer, the zeroes and ones twinned above, hanging like balanced mobiles right and left, ahead, thick, maybe endless. Behind the hieroglyphic streets there would either be a transcendent meaning, or only the earth.” 

See also an exploration of the philosophy of excluded middles since Pythagoras and its role throughout Pynchon’s fiction in “Pynchon and the Law of the Excluded Middle” by F. Collado-Rodriguez)).