Rest required for sound moral judgment

Fresno Bee

December 13, 2013

As the dark nights come early and the sun rises late, it’s tempting to feel the urge to hibernate. The natural world goes dormant in the dark months. Perhaps human beings should also indulge our winter lethargy.

Sleep is necessary for mental, physical and moral health. Research shows that sleep deprivation undermines moral judgment. One recent book — Penelope Lewis’s “The Secret World of Sleep” — argues that sleep deprivation distorts our emotions, leaving us “frustrated, intolerant, unforgiving, uncaring, and self-absorbed.”

And yet, our tradition is not fond of sleep. We celebrate early-risers for their ambition. Benjamin Franklin maintained that wealth, health and wisdom come from rising early. Moralists like Franklin tend to scold the lazy, indolent and slothful.

Criticism of sleepiness has deep roots. Aristotle held that wakefulness and knowledge were the highest goods. Sleep leaves us senseless and unaware — more vegetable than human. Aristotle seems to view sleep as an inconvenient necessity of the animal body.

Aristotle also suggests that we are only happy when we are awake. It makes no sense, for Aristotle, to say that sleeping people or plants are happy. The Greeks understood happiness as an activity enjoyed while conscious, not something to be experienced passively.

Aristotle even suggests that God does not sleep. The deity is constantly active, engaged in eternal contemplation. Human enlightenment is modeled on this sort of alert and attentive contemplation.

Given this background, it is no wonder that our scientific and technological culture tends in the direction of 24/7 wakefulness fueled by coffee and electricity. Some even want to hack their brains to reduce the need for sleep. We light the night and fill our eyes with glowing screens, craving stimulation, experience and knowledge.

But wisdom may require us to shut our eyes. The natural world has obvious cycles of wakefulness and sleep, including long hibernal periods of dormancy. Nature and health seem to require that we power-down and become unconsciousness.

This may explain so-called seasonal affective disorder. The winter blues might reflect a biological need for sleep in the dark and cold months. Imagine our ancestors dozing through long winter nights in their dark caves. Maybe it’s natural to snooze away the winter.

Furthermore, there are things to be learned from darkness, silence and sleep. There is more to human life than wakeful happiness. We are not gods, after all — we are mortal animals. Life ends in the long sleep we call death, when we finally might rest in peace, as the saying goes. Learning to accept the dark, sleepy and silent parts of life may be part of the process of finding peace and accepting death.

Author Peter Kingsley explains this in the book “In the Dark Places of Wisdom.” Kingsley describes an ancient practice — called incubation — through which people sought mystical dreams and healing by sleeping in dark caves and holy places. Mystical insight supposedly arises in prolonged incubation and experience of sleeping, dreaming and darkness.

The insight that Kingsley thinks we find in the dark is that “all is one.” He thinks that dark silence helps us understand the unity of the world, the illusory nature of consciousness, and the dreamlike quality of the world of appearances.

This is provocative. But it runs counter to the sort of enlightenment we associate with science and morality. Moral judgment appears to require clarity and discernment — shown in the light of reason. While the capacity for moral judgment may be improved by a good night’s sleep — we want our judges to be awake, not dreaming.

Nonetheless, the mystical insight that “all is one” may have moral importance. It points toward the brotherhood of man and goodwill to all. After all, in the dark we are all the same.

As the winter solstice approaches, we might find some wisdom in letting ourselves join the rest of the natural world in sleeping long and sleeping late. If someone like Benjamin Franklin were to criticize you for spending a few extra moments in bed these days, tell them you’re recharging your moral batteries, seeking wisdom and exploring solidarity with all things. You might even ask them to join you under the covers, to incubate a bit before the alarm clock rings again.

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Soul, Heaven, and Butterfly Dream

Easter is a good time to ponder what happens to the soul

By Andrew Fiala

Fresno Bee, Friday, Mar. 22, 2013 | 04:16 PM

What happens when the brain and body die? A popular book, “Proof of Heaven,” by neurosurgeon Eben Alexander offers an answer based upon an out of body experience he had while in a coma. He claims that his experience proves that death is not the end of consciousness.Zhuangzi-Butterfly-Dream

“Human experience continues beyond the grave,” Alexander writes. “More important, it continues under the gaze of a God who loves and cares about each one of us and about where the universe itself and all the beings within it are ultimately going.”

Skeptics have argued that Alexander has not really offered proof of the sort we expect from science. Are we sure, for example, that Alexander’s comatose brain really was entirely “off-line”? A further interesting question is the cultural presuppositions we see in Alexander’s account of his experience.

Our interpretations of experience, including near-death experiences, are infused with meaning that we acquire from culture. Alexander speaks of heaven and of a loving God. If he were a Buddhist or a Hindu, would he interpret the experience differently?

From the Christian perspective, when the body dies, the soul moves on to another spiritual realm. But in other traditions, when the soul separates from the body, it transmigrates, moving on to another life. How can we know which interpretation of the afterlife is the correct one?

If we left our bodies and brains behind, wouldn’t we also leave behind our experiences, memories, and cultural standpoints, including the language, images and ideas we use to interpret our own experiences? Would we recognize or understand anything without the cultural experience that the brain has worked so hard to accumulate in this life?

The deeper puzzle is the connection between soul and body. If the mind is distinct from the brain, how are mind and body able to interact? This problem has puzzled philosophers for centuries.

The philosopher Descartes proposed the pineal gland as the focal point for the interaction between the body and the soul — an appropriate choice given the location of the pineal gland in the center of the brain. But we know better now: the pineal gland is a part of the endocrine system, not the seat of the soul.

The idea of soul points toward a substantial mystery. The soul is not supposed to be a material thing. It has no size or shape or density. So how does it interact with the matter of the body? And where exactly does it go, when it leaves the body?

To explain where the soul goes, we must postulate another sphere of reality — the spiritual realm. But that spiritual realm would not be extended in space, since it is outside of material reality. The spiritual realm is not a place located in space.

Nor is it clear that the soul is a “thing” in any ordinary sense of that term. Existing things are defined in terms of space. They have location and size and mass. But the soul is not a thing with weight and shape. Nor is it clear where it is located in relation to the body, let alone in the afterlife.

And yet, the religious viewpoint maintains that the soul and the spiritual realm are more real than the material world. Alexander asserts that his experience was “real in a way that makes the life we’re living here and now completely dreamlike by comparison.”

Alexander described one part of his experience as flying on the wings of butterflies. Butterflies have symbolic meaning. It is amazing that the lowly caterpillar is reborn as a beautiful flying insect. One wonders whether Alexander’s butterflies are a metaphor or supposed to be real. Would there really be flying butterflies in the spirit realm outside of space and time?

The butterfly dream is reminiscent of a Taoist story about Chuang-Tzu, a sage who had a dream in which he felt he was a butterfly. When he woke up, Chuang-Tzu wondered if instead of being a man who had dreamt he was a butterfly, was he really a butterfly dreaming that he was a man.

Easter is a good time to ponder those sorts of questions. Can the soul really fly off to another life? Or are we merely caterpillars who dream every spring of becoming butterflies?