Category: Philosophy

Are terrorists just too religious?

Exodus’ biblical terrorist? Artist’s depiction of the Angel of Death killing all Egyptian first- borns to terrify the Pharaoh to release the Israelites.

The Manila Times, April 28, 2013

Imagine there’s no countries/It isn’t hard to do/Nothing to kill or die for/And no religion too/ /Imagine all the people / Living life in peace — “Imagine” by John Lennon

THERE is something deeply disturbing about terrorism, and it is not just the horrific killing of innocents, as in the death of an 8-year old boy and two other bystanders in the Boston bombing.

It is its nature that while it is a most gruesome deed, it is done not to satisfy the terrorist’s basest, selfish impulses—as ordinary crimes are— but for something he believes, or thinks he believes, is a noble cause, something that is bigger than his small self.

Bin Laden is most probably a megalomaniac mass murderer, but after all has been said, there is still that lingering question why a scion of a Saudi Arabian clan would devote his life and probably his billions of dollars to what he believed was a holy war against the US infidel that he even reveled in the killing of 5,000 human beings in the World Trade Center carnage.

The suspected Boston bombers—especially the 19 year-old Dzhokhar Tarnaev— could have lived a comfortable life in the US. They instead believed that they had to risk their lives to kill people for what they thought is some higher good. Timothy McVeigh killed 168 of his fellow Americans in his bombing of an Oklahoma building in his belief that this would spark a revolt against what he believed was a tyrannical US state. Terrorism seems to arise from some deep human impulse, albeit in a perverted version: Man’s need to transcend himself, to become part of bigger whole. Yes, quite ironically, it’s the same impulse responsible for much of humanity’s achievements and its religions.

You would be surprised that a defining mythic episode of Judaism and Christianity would fall under most definitions of terrorism.

In the Exodus, because plagues and infestation weren’t enough, it was the killing by the Angel of Death of all Egyptians’ first-born that convinced the Pharaoh to release the Israelites from slavery. If that were true, it was terrorism on a genocidal scale. With an estimated Egyptian population of 3.5 million at that time, that would have meant the killing of about a million innocent firstborns, from those in the cradle to the elderly nearing the grave—in order to terrify the Pharaoh.

The Old Testament indeed relates many episodes of terrorism, an indication that such atrocities were not rare in ancient times. When some Israelites began to worship other gods, Numbers 25: 3-4 narrates that Yahweh ordered Moses, to terrify them: “Take all the heads of the people, and hang them up before the Lord against the sun.”

Could all these Biblical accounts of an angry God killing innocents for His higher purpose been etched in humanity’s collective consciousness that the notion that to murder for such lofty aims is all right? Indeed, this justification was obviously that of the Spanish Inquisition, which ordered thousands of “heretics” burned to the stake. Even (St.) Thomas More, a lawyer, social philosopher, and Renaissance humanist had six “heretics”— actually the first Protestants—executed when he was Lord Chancellor.

It isn’t terrorism but a heinous crime when a gang kidnaps a tycoon’s and demand millions of pesos in ransom. It was terrorism though when the Abu Sayyaf kidnapped tourists in Dos Palmas and demanded ransom, and claim that they did it as part of their jihad to establish an Islamic state. It seems there has to be a broader, even higher purpose for a violent act to be classified as “terrorist.”

But the religious would point out that the most horrific episodes of terrorism—to broaden the use o—f the term —are those committed by atheists—Hitler most especially, if one believes he rejected his childhood Catholicism, as well as the communist megalomaniacs Stalin, Mao, and even Khmer Rouge Pol Pot.

But these mass murderers also didn’t kill for fun, or to amass fortunes. In the same manner that the faithful believe in some higher (Divine) purpose, these mass terrorists believed in something bigger than themselves (defined by what they thought by history and “rationality”), the achievement of which for them justified the killing of millions of innocents.

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Filed under: Culture, Manila Times Columns, Philosophy

A Filipina mother’s master at the Masters


The Manila Times, April 21, 2013


THAT’S Jason Day, who finished third at the Masters Tournament last Sunday in Augusta, Georgia, ahead of Tiger Woods and other golf greats like Fred Couples, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els.

It was a bit surprising that our sports journalists paid little attention to Jason, the first golfer with Filipino blood to ascend the Olympic heights of what many think is the most difficult sport in the world.

Early in the final round last Sunday, Jason even seemed on the way to wearing Augusta’s trademark green jacket of the champion, and was the leader at nine under, ahead of the eventual winner, the Australian Adam Scott and the Argentinian Angel Cabrera, who placed second. But such is the game of inches; Jason missed three putts to fall behind the two in the last three holes.

No matter, I’d bet now— as many in fact did when he finished 2nd in the 2011 Masters—that he’d be the next Tiger Woods. After all, he’s just 25, while the winner Scott is 32 and second- placer Cabrera is 43. Tiger at 37 may have already peaked.

Jason at Augusta demonstrated much of what makes golf different from other sports: supreme tranquility that seems to be meditation in motion, yet with a focused mind. With his pre- shot routine of staring for unusually many seconds at his target, visualizing the flight of ball, he plays patiently golf’s inner game. Jason’s swing was so effortless and so smooth that Tiger’s seemed to be jerky, and too tense.

In news accounts, Jason was merely identified as the “other Australian”, who placed third at Augusta with 7 under.

Jason’s parents though are immigrants to Australia. His father Alvin is from Ireland, a country known for its love of golf and which has produced over the decades some of the greatest golfers, among them Fred Daly and Harry Bradshaw. His mother is a Filipina, Adenyl (“Dening”) Grapilon from the third- class municipality of Carigara in northern Leyte, the outskirts of where the New People’s Army still operates. News accounts of Jason’s life say that his parents got together by mailing each other, and that both were workers in a meatpacking factory.

Jason’s story no doubt is another indication of how Filipinos have spread throughout the planet, so much so that Filipino blood is finding its way in the arteries of the best of the human species.

But it’s more than that. Jason’s ascent to become one of the world’s top ten golfers is an inspiring story, a classic tale of how the father provides the son the vision, with the mother taking care of the nitty-gritty of how that vision will be fulfilled.

And then, there’s the critical ingredient—the individual defying fate, and deciding, as that Wiliam Henly poem put, to be master of his fate, captain of his soul.

Jason related an embarrassing episode in his life, which reminded me of a very common practice of struggling Filipino immigrants in the US ( which actually inspired the enterprising among them to start the ukay- ukay craze in our country):

Asked by a golf writer if it was true if he wore “Salvation Army” clothes in his youth, he answered:

“Yeah, five bucks a bag. We’d go there with 10 bucks, and my sisters and me would cram in as much stuff as we could. I turned up at school one day in this shirt I had from the Salvation Army—it was this tight, button-up, short-sleeve T-shirt that was two sizes too small for me—and everyone from school teased me because they said I looked like a refugee. They said, ‘Did you just get off the boat?’ I was the only Asian kid in my school so they thought I was just off the boat.’

But as was the theme of one of my favorite movies—Woody Allen’s “Matchpoint”— sheer chance is more often as important as our will.

Jason’s career started out with his father finding a discarded old three wood in the garbage bin at his workplace and gave it on a whim to his three-year old son as a toy. Jason kept swinging it a tennis ball for hours that his Dad thought he was a natural, and could make career out of it. His father nurtured his interest, and by six, with a halfset of used golf clubs a neighbor gave, he was playing regularly at the public course near their home in the small town (population: 15,000) of Beaudesert, Queensland.

But then chance took a different turn. When he was 11, his father died of stomach cancer, a month after it was diagnosed. He was devastated, as I think most pre- teens who idolize their father would. Jason narrated that period of his life: “I didn’t really care about anything. I was very wild. I got into trouble a lot [ and] did all the bad stuff.” He had even become an alcoholic, and regularly got into fist fights at school.

Filipina mother Dening (from her Facebook page) and his pro son Jason

I don’t think his mother Dening was a golfer nor would have known that it is a sport one could make a fortune on. Still though— and probably because it seemed to her as the only way to turn around his son’s life— Dening sold the house she and her husband got to own from their working- class wages in order to send Jason to the $ 20,000- ayear Kooralbyn International School in Brisbane, a renowned boarding school with a golf program. (Another alumni is Adam Scott who won the Masters’ last Sunday.)

Jason’s mentor Colin Swatton described her determination: “Jason’s mum, Dening, did what she had to do to put him through the academy. For as long as I have known her, she has always worked one or two jobs in a bid to give Jason every opportunity to do well. She has done exceptionally well.” Jason even credits his mother for the kind of determination he had demonstrated in the golf tours, that she would methodically and ruthlessly pursue his king on the chessboard until it was cornered.

I can’t help quoting quotes to describe Jason’s life, this time the Roman “Fate favors the brave.” Swatton, a golf coach at Kooralbyn, thought he had a rare talent for golf that he became Jason’s golf guru to this day. He has been by Jason’s side in all tournaments, as his caddy.

There was another chance event for Jason, but only so since he was already into golf. In the school’s dorm, somebody left a book on Tiger Woods which related among other things that he was already a scratch player at 15 years old that Jason vowed to match that feat. Most probably it was also the fact than a half-Asian like him could be the world’s no. 1 golfer that inspired Jason.

Turning professional at 19 years old, Jason has become the world’s no. 7 golfer at 25, and I’d bet he’d be no. 1 soon, the very first Pinoy golf great.

“I want to become No. 1 in the world. I was taught in my life, by my parents, that you don’t get anywhere without working hard,” Jason said. Words not only of wisdom, but of respect.

Filed under: Culture, Manila Times Columns, PH in the World, Philosophy

Why more Filipinos are missing the mass

Source: Social Weather Stations

The Manila Times, April 13, 2013 

It’s shocking news for the Church hierarchy: Only 37 percent of Filipinos go to church weekly, according to the Social Weather Stations’ poll February 2013, and the figure has continually gone down from its peak of 64 percent in 1994.  That’s even lower than the comparable 42 percent figure in the more secular US, which inarguably is less religious and less catolico cerrado than the Philippines.

Church leaders expectedly have been in a paroxysm of protest, claiming that they see with their own eyes that their churches are full every Sunday.  They should read columnist Solita Monsod’s fascinating computations that with only 37 percent of Filipinos attending Church weekly, the country’s 6,400 churches would still be filled up every Sunday.

There are several reasons for this surprising data.

While the SWS did not provide data on the demographics of Church attendance, similar studies elsewhere show that the decline in church attendance is steeper among those in their 20s and 30s.. This means that more of the young generation have become less religious or have found church attendance irrelevant to their lives.

One reason for this is that the younger generation has access to unbelievably more information than their parents, giving them rational tools to conclude that much of the kind of religiosity of the past is simply superstition or disguised materialism,  e.g. that one can convince the Deity to give him enough luck to win the lotto or be employed abroad.  In Scandinavian countries for instance where the level of prosperity and educational attainment are high, church attendance has plummeted to single digit-levels that many churches have been sold or leased to become trendy bars and bistros.

One reason for the decline in church attendance could be logically due to the rise of agnosticism and atheism.  I don’t think though that this is the main reason. Not too many Filipinos would embrace the idea that an afterlife is as much a myth as Peter Pan’s Neverland. Nor would they junk the very soothing conviction that Papa Jesus and Mama Mary are taking care of them in their adulthood and especially in their old age, just as their parents did when they were kids.

The decline in religiosity may not really be steep, deducing from the SWS data, and going by anecdotal evidence. Rather than being atheists or agnostics, a significant number of Catholics have instead joined home-grown religious movements which promise worldly prosperity and provide new forms of worshipping – among them, El Shaddai, Dating Daan, Jesus is Lord, the Kingdom of God movements.  With its  emphasis as a self-help organization, in which unemployed members are found jobs, the Iglesia ni Cristo  appears to be expanding fast, going by the ubiquitousness of their churches.

A major reason I suspect though for the drop in church attendance is because of the drastic changes for the reason for going there: the Mass.  Starting 1969, the so-called Tridentine or Roman Rite Mass decreed since 1570 was replaced by what is called the Mass of Paul VI, after the Pope who convened the Second Vatican Council that ordered the new mass.

There were two instances that jolted me into realizing how different the old mass was with present one. When I brought my late mother to a mall thinking that she would be more comfortable by hearing mass there, she scolded me and walked out angrily: “What kind of mass is this, in a mall?” She was right, it wasn’t a gathering of the faithful – as the mass is supposed to be – but of shoppers or would-be shoppers doing a chore that would spare them the penalty of a sin.

When instead of choirs, the Ateneo chapel had singers strumming on guitars singing “The Impossible Dream” or “Blowin in the Wind” during the mass, an elderly man beside me remarked sarcastically, “What’s this, a night club?”

Pope Paul VI, in his attempt to bring the mass “closer to the people” instead removed much of the solemnity, mystery, and sacredness – whether these were authentic or not – of the Tridentine Mass.

Ancient Latin was junked as its language. However, for example, the ancient “Dominus vobiscum” didn’t just mean “The Lord be with you,” but seemed to be sacred words that transported one’s consciousness to a divine realm.  It even got worse when the masses used Filipino. “Ave Maria” just doesn’t sound as divine as “Aba Ginoong Maria”. (And that even always distracted me as I couldn’t help wonder why “ginoong” and not “ginang”, and why “Aba”, which is a term of exclamation.)

It was my dalliance with Eastern meditative practices that I realized why the church was rather clever in using Latin in its mass for centuries in all countries.  In yoga, zen and all other eastern meditative disciplines, it is the stilling of the mind that is supposed to open one to the Divine, to nirvana, satori or whatever.  But the mind consists merely of internal, un-verbalized words.  So if you become absorbed in words (e.g., Hindu and Japanese) you don’t understand, especially if they are given rhythm as in yogic mantra and Zen chanting, the mind is stilled.  No wonder Gregorian singing and Tibetan Buddhist chanting have the same eerie effect on me.

Several other aspects of the new Catholic mass have really been turn-offs for modern Filipinos. That part when you’re supposed to give others a gesture of peace is a contrived, even hypocritical one. Evolution has hard-wired us to have our inviolable body-space, and we reserve prolonged linking of our body space with another only for loved ones.  Yet the mass often requires one to hold hands even with strangers for the two or three minutes as the “Our Father” is sung.

The Catholic mass has ceased to be a venue for simulating transcending one’s ego to feel that one is part of a greater whole, whether it is a community or a Divinity. Other religious movements have been able to simulate such a feeling of “oneness”, borrowing mainly from the techniques of the American Black Churches, where the faithful are gradually fired up to some kind of collective mass hysteria that they lose their ego, and recollect that experience later as their union with god.

Instead, the experience of the Mass now is as if watching the nth replay of an old movie, interrupted by somebody who hardly really knows what real life is, yet pontificating to his captive audience how he or she should live life.

Filed under: Culture, Manila Times Columns, Philosophy

Did Jesus Exist?

The book's cover

Sunday Read: Book Review

The Manila Times, March 24, 2013

You’d probably be aghast that I devote a column to what seems to be preposterous question.

But it has been asked starting way back in the 18th century by scholars. In recent years, interest on the question has intensified with probably a thousand doctoral and masteral theses, books as well as articles both from Christian and secular universities touching on the issue. In past few years a slew of books – both academic and popular – by scholars and authors called the “mythicists’”. They argue that Jesus Christ is a myth, concocted in the first and second centuries to become the core of a new religion.

The mythicists claim we cannot simply accept the myths and even legends of pre-scientific superstitious societies but examine them in the light of science and humanity’s bank of information.  This is obvious in the case of the Greek gods. Less obvious are the cases of  Santa Claus, Robin Hood, even St. Christopher  who turn out not to be real historical people but amalgams of persons mythicized over the centuries (e.g., Santa Claus a confused mix of a 4th century German bishop St. Nicholas and the pre-Christian Viking god Odin.)

The mythicists  claim that elements of the Jesus  story have been common in myths during  that era and in that part of the world. The theme of a dying-rising God has been common in ancient religions: Osiris, Attis, Heracles, Baal.  The Persian God Mithra (who was popular among Roman soldiers) was also born to a virgin.Continue reading

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Religions and empires


The Manila Times, March 17, 2013

Painter’s depiction of the Battle of Tours, 732 A.D.: If the Christian Franks lost this battle, we would have been Muslims

It is when a new Pope needs to be elected that most people, through television,   get to witness the majesty and glory of Catholicism’s capital, the Vatican in Rome

Never mind that it was mainly financed by Pope Leo X’s so-called indulgences, basically pay-to-get-to-heaven schemes that triggered the Lutheran revolt that led to Protestantism. The Basilica of St. Peter must be the most magnificent building on earth, and as you walk beneath Michelangelo’s dome, the largest in the world that it signifies the heavenly firmament, you can very easily imagine – with the colossal statues of the evangelists, saints, and Popes looking down on you – that you’re no longer on earth but in the Palace of the Gods.

Thanks to the spread of television and in the Philippines, to the networks’ cerrado Catolico devotion, millions of the Catholic faithful watched the Vatican’s spectacle for choosing the new Vicar of Christ.  What they saw seemed unearthly scenes, and for many, a confirmation that the Roman Catholic Church indeed represents the Deity that rules all of the Cosmos.

A proselytizer would follow up an assertion of faith: 1.2 billion Catholics can’t be wrong in their belief.

The quick answer to that: There are 1.6 billion Muslims, 800 million Protestants, one billion Hindus, 800 million Protestants and other types of Christians, and 500 million Buddhists.  Scratch the surface of ancestor worship, and China (population 1.3 billion) and Japan (127 million) are atheist countries. Although difficult to estimate, atheists either of the strong or weak varieties are believed to number 1.1 billion, and by all accounts growing.

The long answer, which explains why Christianity and Islam are the two biggest religions of the world, and in one word: Empire.Continue reading

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Why no female Pope ever, never?

Poster of a 2009 film on a legendary female Pope

The Manila Times, March 15, 2013

A stupid question?  Not at all.  In fact, the question goes deep into the nature of the Roman Catholic Church.

It is a question that has even haunted, as it were, the nightmares of the Catholic Church.  Thus the intriguing reports through the centuries – dismissed though merely as legend by church historians – of a female  “Pope Joan” in the 11th century who disguised herself as a male, to be exposed, and killed, only when she gave birth in a pontifical procession.  The legend’s fascination even in the modern era is evident in that two movies have been made on Pope Joan, first in 1972 (and then more recently, a European one in 2009.

The persistence of the legend through the centuries is also evidenced by the fact that she is depicted in the Tarot as “La Papessa” (the Popess) or, obviously in order not to hurt Catholic sensibilities,  merely as the “High Priestess.”

It is the deep fear of a female Pope that explains the rumors that the last step in  the confirmation of a new Pope – portrayed in the hit TV series The Borgias —  is for the pope-elect to sit without his underwear in the sedes stercoraria, a chair with a huge hole in the seat,  so a bishop by groping can confirm  if he has balls, literally.

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ABS-CBN’s ‘Anak ng Dwende,’ GMA7’s ‘Aswang’

 The Manila Times, March 10, 2013

WITH their 6:30 p.m. slots, and with the metropolis’ horrendous traffic, I’m sure very few broadsheet readers, who are mostly from the middle to upper-class, get to watch two of the foremost television news programs that have been running ever since I can remember, ABS-CBN’s TV Patrol and GMA Network’s 24 (“Bente Kwatro”) Oras.

( Video grab from TV Patrol’s website)Korina Sanchez reporting on woman claiming her child was fathered by a dwarf.)

For the first time in many years, I watched last Friday the one-and-a- half hours of these two primetime programs, flipping from one station to the other, every time there’s a commercial, and you wouldn’t believe how many of them are. I strongly suggest you do so one of these days, and you will be either shocked, saddened, or angered.

In last Friday’s TV Patrol, a most distinguished multi-awareded TV journalist, Korina Sanchez, had a feature, maybe even an “investigative” piece, entitled Anak ng Dwende (A dwarf’s child). (I’m sure though Sanchez, a hard-nosed journalist, would not on her own touch with a 10-foot pole this story, and that some inane TV news producer just shoved this on her.)

She travelled all the way to “Sitio Tinago, Talavera town in Toledo City” (that’s on the farther, poorer side of Cebu island) to interview a poor young woman, Jenalyn Gimenez, who claimed a dwarf fathered her child, as she didn’t have any boyfriend or husband.

Sanchez reports ( translated from Pilipino): “Villagers were surprised one day when she gave birth to a child, since she didn’t even have a boyfriend. It is said that the father is a dwarf because the baby was so small, only as big as a soft drink bottle, and his ears were pointed.”

Sanchez interviewed her as she has interviewed probably thousands of newsmakers in her distinguished media career. She asks the woman: How did you get pregnant? The woman answers: “I fell asleep at the punso [a mound of earth, which superstitious Filipinos believe is a dwarf’s home], and that’s where the dwarf impregnated me.” The camera pans the yard of the woman’s home, as Sanchez voices over: “It is puzzling that there are many punsos here and it is said that a dwarf residing in one of these fathered Jenalyn’s child.”

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Explained: OBE, NDE, Heaven


A neurologist's interpretation of Michelangelo's famous painting

Sunday Read


Published in The Manila Times, February 17, 2013

If you’re not into popular science, that’s out-of-body experiences, as in when  “you” float out of your body and watch it as if it’s somebody else’s. Proof, the religious say, that you’re not just ashes (I prefer “stardust”), but a spirit, although they haven’t explained who chooses your clothes when you’re in your spirit mode.

NDE is near-death-experiences, a term which University of Virginia psychologist Raymond Moody coined for the phenomena he pioneered in researching:  experiences of those who were on the brink of death, or who claimed they had died and returned to life.  These accounts also purportedly bolster the view  that there is a kind of existence after death. His best-selling title says it all: Life After Life.

Heaven of course is heaven, through the pearly-gates, a kind of Sagada without the muddy roads and roaming dogs, and hundreds of times more beautiful of course, more clouds, with angels blissfully strumming their harps here and there.

While bookstores’ new-age sections have had this genre for decades, Heaven travelogues in recent years have become some kind of a fad, and manna from heaven for fast, imaginative writers, after “90 Minutes in Heaven” sold 5 million copies in 2005.   Each book has its own new twist of course, as in the case of  Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back,  which was purportedly related by a 4-year old to his father.  That sold 7.5 million copies last year.  However, there’s been no book so far giving us a glimpse of a purgatory or of the Islamic after-life with its 72 virgins for the martyr.

Even the news magazine Newsweek had a cover story last year titled: “Heaven is Real, a Doctor’s Experience of the Afterlife”. That turned out to be a big, free advertisement for the doctor’s book that came out a month later, Proof of Heaven.  (With that kind of “news story” it’s no wonder the magazine ‘died’ a few months later, i.e., it ended its print existence to have an after-life though in an ethereal cyberspace.)

The new twist here: This wasn’t just written by an ordinary doctor, but by neurologist Eben Alexander of Harvard Medical School.  I got turned off though when he wrote about heaven as a “place of clouds” with “flocks of transparent, shimmering” angel-like beings. Those descriptions aren’t even in the Bible but were creations of imaginative medieval Italian painters, but which have been for most Christians the stock images for Heaven, deeply etched by mothers and priests on toddler’s minds.

Hit movies have created an audience for these books, starting with the pioneering Ghost  in 1990 which started off Demi Moore’s career.  A genius of a director did a lot to get many people believe in an after life: M. Night Shyamalan with his blockbusters, The Sixth Sense  (“I see dead people.”) and Signs (Ghost mom foils evil E.T.).

The basic assumption in NDE, OBE, and Heaven accounts though is a bit difficult to accept.

Everything science has proven about human experience is that it is based entirely on this particularly glory of evolution: the brain, with its 100 billion neurons,  as many as stars in our home Milky Way galaxy.

We often forget how much we’ve advanced in our knowledge, just in the past 30 years.  Even as late as the 19th century and even for some people today, emotions were thought to reside in the heart (nope, they’re in the brain’s limbic system, the so-called reptilian brain that is one of its most primitive structure).  Asian cultures believe the ‘soul’ of a person was in the hara, two fingers above the navel.

Science has gone far in explaining mind as a function of the brain, as much as food digestion is the function of the stomach and the intestinal system,  or blood-pumping the function the heart. Epilepsy is not a demon taking control of a person, as Jesus seems to have believed in.  It is a disorder of the neural system. Neuroscience is even discovering that such noble characteristics like sympathy are not really ethereal traits but the action of special neurons they termed “mirror neurons”, which fire in person’s brain when for instance he sees another person in pain.

The question for accounts of OBE, NDE and Heaven can be put bluntly: If there is a mind, a spirit, a facsimile or whatever of ourselves which exists outside the brain or the body, what would these be made of?

Indeed, some scientists’ attempt to merge science with religion has led to rather convoluted explanations such as mind being the result the “quantum fluctuations” in the fabric of space-time.  But what’s that?  The clouds and shimmering beings the Harvard doctor saw, what would they be made of, spiritual atoms?

But what about accounts that they “vividly” the afterlife, that what they saw was more real than things they see in ordinary life, that they even talked with their loved ones long deceased?

Soul-stirring his Heavenly experiences may be, the Harvard neurologist’s account is entirely based on the premise that he had his heavenly experiences while he lay in a coma, “when the neurons of (his) cortex were stunned to complete inactivity.” (Another questionable premise: Were all his 100 billion neurons really all inactive, or only some of it, particularly those which create waking consciousness?)

The crucial question though: Is he sure that his experiences happened while he was in a coma? Or were his experiences merely intense dreams or even hallucinations he had just before or after his mind shut down?   That dreams can be as vivid as reality is an experience most people have, in which an hour in that dreamland would actually be just a few minutes in real time.

This in fact is one of the theses of neurologist Kevin Nelson in his book The Spiritual Doorway in the BrainA Neurologist’s Search for the God Experience.

The vividness of NDE and Heaven accounts, he explains is due to the obvious fact that just before shutting down, the brain perceives a life threatening situation, and thereby releases the flight or fight hormones created through millions of years of evolution, which a human feels as “emotions”. And it is “emotion” that explains most of what is vivid for us, whether it relates to memory or dreams.

Nelson’s argument is also based on a relatively recent discovery in psychology:  the existence of lucid dreams in which a dreamer is aware that he is having a dream. The experience of those with NDEs and perceiving heaven is some kind of lucid dreaming, Nelson explains.  Most accounts given by lucid dreamers, which explains such practices as “dream yoga”, is that for some unexplained reason, the emotion felt most strongly in such states is some kind of bliss – precisely the feeling Heaven-narrators report.

The calmness induced because of one’s perception that he is heaven may in fact have an evolutionary purpose: “Remaining quiet and still when the injury (made by a predator) is severe and inescapable may be an effective survival strategy – playing possum, playing dead, ceasing to struggle. Whatever its advantage it is effective enough o have become hardwired into our brainstem.”

And when you’re in a lot of stress, real stress, who do you almost automatically imagine would give you comfort? People who cared for you when you were just a helpless, pre-rational little human being:  your parents.  Thus, NDEs and I-was-in-heaven accounts often contain narratives of meeting long-deceased parents or aunts.

The book relates the many recent scientific discoveries and experiments explaining why from ancient times, humans have believed in a soul.  There are brain mechanisms that require one to have an image of oneself, so you can orient your body in space – in terms of evolution, a must for instance for ancestor-hunters who would have to have a precise estimation of the distance he would have to throw a spear to kill a saber-tooth tiger.

These mechanisms are not located in the entire brain, but only in particular part of it, so that neurologists have undertaken experiments in which electrical stimulation of this area makes a subject believe his consciousness is imbedded elsewhere. This is the neurological basis for positing a “spirit” different form the body.  Less intrusive, virtual reality devices have even been able to create the feeling of travelling out of one’s body.

And that tunnel at the end of which is a Light, a stock account of NDEs?  One’s eyes and visual cortex gradually running out of blood and oxygen, with one’s  peripheral vision shutting down first, making your vision seem like looking through a tunnel and highlighting the last glimmer of light at its end.

Nelson, Kevin, The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain: A Neurologist’s Search for the God Experience. New York: Penguin Group, 2011. (Fully Booked, Makati).

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Weeping for Stephanie

The Manila Times, January 20, 2013

Remember Stephanie Nicole Ella, the sweet 7-year old girl killed by a bullet that hit her in the head from a gun fired into the air to celebrate New Year’s Eve?

What were the odds for Stephanie to be at the wrong time and the wrong place for that bullet to end her life? Put in another way:  What are the chances for something 1 centimeter in diameter (a 45 caliber bullet) randomly propelled upwards to fall down to hit a particular small circle of 7 centimeters in radius (the top of Stephanie head) located in an area probably a million square centimeters?

What happened to Stephanie was a reverse, macabre lotto. Chances of winning in that game of choosing right six out of 45numbers  – or variables – have been computed by mathematicians to be 13 million to one.   For Stephanie though, the variables both in time and space would be billions. If the shooter had just pointed his gun a degree higher, if Stephanie had decided to wait a few seconds more before stepping out of her house, if she had just moved her head a few inches.. and so  on and so forth,  the bullet wouldn’t have hit her.  Yet it did.

The young girl’s tragedy bolsters the philosopher David Hume’s famous argument, derived from such a very old source as the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, which we paraphrase in tragic girl’s case:

Did God want to stop the bullet from hitting the beautiful innocent girl, but couldn’t? Then he is a powerless god, and therefore not really a God. Could he have stopped the bullet, but wouldn’t? Then he is a wicked, sadistic Deity.  If He is a powerful God that he could stop the bullet from hitting the innocent girl — by just deviating its flight by a centimeter, for example — and if He is All-Good that he was willing do so, then why did Stephanie get killed?  Clerics would jump up to respond: Because there is free will God gave to man. But in this case, the shooter didn’t certainly will to kill Stephanie.

I’d bet you’d get some goose pimples with this:

On the same New Year’s eve another young girl just three years older than Stephanie, Aaliyah Boyer in a quiet town of Elkton, Maryland was also hit in the head by a bullet fired into the air, termed in the US as “celebratory gunfire.”   Like Stephanie, Aaliya was watching fireworks when she suddenly slumped.  Like Stephanie, she died two days later.  On the same New Year’s Eve, in Florida, a boy three years older than Aaliyah, Diego Duran, was also hit in the head by celebratory gunfire on New Year’s Eve. Like Stephanie and Aaliyah he was just while watching fireworks until he suddenly fell to the ground.  Unlike the girls though, he survived, although with his brain damaged, one would wonder if he was luckier than the girls who died.

The Jaime Licaocos in our country  — the so-called paranormal experts and New Agers — would perhaps see Carl Jung’s idea of “synchronicity” there, or some other karmic mumbo jumbo that the three kids were together in their past lives, and he’d find some mystical explanation for the three-year difference in age of the three kids. “God moves in mysterious ways,” clerics would of course say and have said so often. What is the mystery in a life that could have been filled with many years of laughter and love yet was not?

In this age of rationality, we know that Stephanie, Aaliya, and Diego were hit in the head by bullets not because out of some mystical design, but out of pure chance.

(Of course there is also the fact that these kinds of tragedy happens only in societies with gun-cultures in which “celebratory firing” is not frowned upon.  Instances of such deaths occur only in countries with strong gun-cultures, such as, other than the US and the Philippines, Pakistan, several Middle Eastern nations, Paraguay, and Macedonia.)

“Shit happens”  — a conceptual cousin of Murphy’s Law — is probably the biggest insight of the second half of the last century.

It was once widely believed, because myths of a small desert tribe were preposterously decreed to be the words of God, that homo sapiens was created from dirt by a Deity. Most rational people now believe we are really products of chance – random changes first in a complex carbon-based molecule and then in what became DNA strings, undertaken through four billion years.

We are the best testament to the power of chance, the very unlikely convergence of so many variables.   One scientist estimated mathematically and using concrete data that chances of intelligent life like ours emerging in the universe is a very minuscule .01 percent (100 percent being certainty). Scientists have even made up a term for it:  The Goldilocks Theory, derived from that fairy tale girl’s preferred soup being “not too warm, not too cold”.  The theory – actually a conclusion – is that the factors that led to the emergence of life were so precisely right, that if just one thing were changed, we wouldn’t be here.   Just a few kilometers deviation of the earth’s 149.6 million distance from the sun, and we would have been frozen or fried”.

What were the chances of a big meteor from the vastness of space entering the solar system and hitting the earth, a very macro version of the bullet fired many kilometers away hitting Stephanie? Probably billions to one.  Yet astronomers have recently concluded that a large meteor had hit the earth five billion years ago –- to form the moon, which was nudged to such a precise distance away from the earth that the gravitational dynamics between the two bodies created crucial elements for the emergence of life, such as sea-tides and just the right speed of the earth’s rotation.

But “chance” is such a very cold idea it is horrifying.  We call it fate, if chance results in tragedy, as in Stephanie case.   We call it destiny if chance leads to some victory, as when the Corazon Aquino’s death less than a year before the 2010 elections catapulted his mediocre son to the presidency.

The ancient Greeks had brilliant insights, expressed in their mythology.  Every god in their vast pantheon was powerless before the Fates (Moirai), even the greatest of the gods Zeus, although he is portrayed as the incarnation of the Moirai.  It is not the gods nor even Zeus (which got to be the Latin Deus, the Spanish Dios and finally our Filipino “Diyos”) who really rule over men.  It is three Morai who determined from one’s birth the kind of life you’d live, its length and the manner of its ending.

Religion is in many ways humans’ coping behavior in the face of a haphazard, unfeeling universe:  That there is a Deity who would control Chance to satisfy our desires – but only if we worship it.  We pray to God to intervene in the random movement of lotto balls shaken in a container, so they’ll rest in positions representing the numbers we bet on.  Chance is transformed into Christianity’s   “God’s will”, and in Islam, “Insha’Allah” – the latter evolving, after several centuries of Muslim rule of the Iberian peninsula, into the Spanish ojala, and then into Filipino “Bahala na.”  The Greeks’ three Fates have been transmogrified into the Holy Trinity, with the tweak that in this new improved version, the Trinity can be convinced to change their minds for our wishes, just as long as we pay obeisance to them.

The uniqueness of man is not that we are intentional creatures, but that we are aware of our intentionality. We intend to do things, and we often succeed in doing things.   But those many successes create the illusion of us being the masters of our entire universe, until an equivalent of Stephanie’s bullet hits.   Her tragedy is what the very universe and our lives are about, and we tremble in that realization. To radically paraphrase the last line in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ famous poem: We weep for Stephanie, but it is also ourselves we mourn for.



Filed under: Culture, Manila Times Columns, Philosophy


THE INTERNET behemoth Google recently paid a rare tribute to a cultural icon who is ironically little admired by the generation that most uses the web. It celebrated John Lennon’s 70th birthday on October 9 by having its logo changed to a doodle that had a sketch of the Beatle, with his famous grandpa spectacles.

Clicking the logo triggered an animation of an idyllic scene, and the playing of Lennon’s greatest song “Imagine.”

And then a week later, UN goodwill ambassador Lea Salonga, sang the song at the World Food Day celebration in Rome, with the line perfect for the occasion: “Imagine a world without hunger. It’s easy if you try.”

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Filed under: Inquirer Columns, Philosophy