Many of us remember the old school bell (at least from stories). When it rang, we knew it was time to learn. Now that bell is a buzzer at best. But, the bell can still serve as a reminder of our ability to learn. Our friend Yitz was given a bell by his friend and teacher Zalman. The bell has dangled from the rear-view mirror of every vehicle Yitz has owned through the past thirty years. Every time Yitz drives over a bump, the bell rings. Zalman taught Yitz that every time the bell rings, it's an opportunity "uplevel" the event, to be aware of God's presence. A bump in the road, a jostle, an opportunity to learn, a chance to welcome God's presence.
Yom Kippur presumes that we humans have the ability to learn, to change, to alter our behavior. In fact, all living beings share some ability to learn about their situation and change in order to "do better the next time." Even single-celled paramecia know how to sense where food is and move in its direction. If they did not, and only moved randomly, it is likely that as many would starve as survive, but, more do survive. How is it that we learn, make decisions, and change? How are we aware of the bells ringing?
Over twenty years ago I read a book called Biblical Games. No, it's not about how to squeeze seven pairs of clean animals into the ark without getting them confused with the two pair of unclean animals. And, it's not about playing dress-up as Samson and Delilah trying to guess which time she'll get the secret to Samson's strength. The book dealt with an application of "Games Theory" to the "decisions" God makes about the creation.
One of the intriguing ideas of the book was that God created us humans with free will, because to do otherwise would have been a "dumb move" on God's part. Consider for a moment that you're God. You're hanging out with nothing to do and no-one who cares. You can do, create, anything you want. So you imagine a universe and make it real, physical, within you. Uh, OK, it looks pretty, all those cloud nebulae, black holes, sparkling stars out there. But so what, it sits there. So you add a bit of spin to it and set it in motion. The clouds swirl, expand and contract. Then you decide you'd like to "play house" with some dolls and you make a variety. Some chirp, some meow, some say bow wow. ("Clocks say tick tock..." or at least they used to.) Big deal. You could even play Sims, create humans and put them into various rooms and watch them sit and, perhaps, admire the wall paper (or, if there aren't rooms yet, they could ooh and ah at the colorful flowers in the various gardens). They all do nothing more than what you set them up to do. You have to move them from garden to garden. You stand them up here, you stand them up there. But you might have another option. Let's review all the possibilities:
So, here are God's choices:
1. Don't create the world (hang out thoroughly bored);
2. Create the world, but without humans (That would probably have been the safest, though barely interesting.);
3. Create a world with human dolls (puppets whose strings need to be pulled for anything to happen, fun for about an eon, maybe). Or,
4. Create humans with the ability to change their own program (I offered a story along these lines for Yom Kippur a number of years ago.), make choices, that is, with free will.
Certainly, if God wants to be appreciated (and who doesn't, or wouldn't want to be appreciated?), and if God's going to make something in the first place, one would expect that at least one aspect of making it is to show off the effort. Then something (or someone!) might sit up and take notice. The last option is much more exciting than creating automatons who parrot praise. That would be a waste of effort.
And so, it seems that theologically, or Jewishly speaking, we humans have been created with free will, the ability to learn, and make changes to our own program. We can ring our own bells.
What do we know about whether, how or why we can change? Franz Kafka wrote: "How pathetically scanty my self-knowledge is compared with, say, my knowledge of my room... There is no such thing as observation of the inner world, as there is of the outer world." And yet,there are many people who, throughout the past few hundred years have worked to give us a better idea of the inner workings of our mind.
Many argue after their research that all we are is a program, a very well written script. In the 1600s Thomas Willis decided to "unlock the sacred places of man's mind." His anatomical investigations from what he called his [addiction] "to the opening of heads" led to much of our current concepts of the nervous system as a network designed to transmit signals. While he maintained a materialist approach, convinced that we could cure problems of the brain by "manipulating the atoms (the materials) which compose it," he still believed that an immaterial, rational soul cohabited with its material counterpart in the brain. Later, Robert Boyle described this ethereal being as a "kind of imprisoned angel." In our day, much has changed. According to Dr. Francis Crick (of double helix fame): "You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules."He continued: "The view of ourselves as 'persons' is just as erroneous as the view that the Sun goes around the Earth. In the fullness of time, educated people will believe there is no soul independent of the body, and hence no life after death."
I'm not particularly concerned about the "life after death" part, but, I do think there is some "soul independent of the body." This is what some call "consciousness" or "self-consciousness." Questions about "what is consciousness" may be matters of faith, more than science. Nonetheless, scientists present a variety of very interesting arguments in this field.
For example (and you may argue that he was not a scientist, but,) in Freud's "Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego:" when people assemble en masse, all the raw material making up the individual psyche (libido, aggression, all those urges we have [one of Freud's stand-ins for self-consciousness]) is also present, but on a gigantic scale. And the power for rational thought is thereby dwarfed. Freud thought that the crowd is considerably dumber than the sum of its smartest members. As far as Freud is concerned, bells don't ring in groups.
However, the recent work of James Surowiecki suggests that just opposite is the case. The group consciousness is wiser than the individual. Society is able to get along from day to day because people exercise a kind of rationality as a group that allows them (or us, rather) to handle three kinds of problems.
First kind of problem: those that have definitive or factual solutions. If you ask a group of people to estimate how many jelly beans are in a jar, for example, the average of their answers is likely to be much more accurate than any given individual's guess. "random crowds of people with nothing better to do on a weekday afternoon than sit in a TV studio picked the right answer 91 percent of the time."
Second kind of problem: how groups solve questions of coordination -- for example, many of us have been on a New York sidewalk... how pedestrians on a busy sidewalk account for one another's movements well enough to avoid collisions (most of the time anyway).
Third kind of problem: we have "prosocial tendencies." Given the chance to cheat, lie and freeload, fewer people do so than one might expect.
A similar idea is expressed by Steven Johnson in his book Emergence about how the complicated behavior of brains, software, cities and ant heaps can emerge from the vastly simpler behavior of their smallest working parts -- from collections of nerve cells, bits and bytes, citizens and ants.
It seems that, once again, the whole is, in some, yet inexplicable way, greater than the sum of its parts. And, they are not talking about the Jungian "collective unconscious." They seem to refer to that "greater than" aspect of ourselves is our self-consciousness. It is still unexplained and may be the source of our fascination with the "magical fiction" of C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and J. K. Rowling. How do we deal with what appear to be the fungible boundaries between our own minds and the outside world? What do we make of the possibilities of telepathy, dreams and, perhaps even prophecy and revelation? The bell rings.
How do we explain, that, our success in life is dependent on our ability, that from our earliest years, we are able to "read minds." Babies learn which facial expressions are positive and which are negative and (some say this is by instinct (perhaps the collective unconscious?), while others suggest) they learn how to respond appropriately to each. We all have this ability. Simon Baron-Cohen developed a test. It displayed 36 pairs of eyes on a computer screen. The subject needed to identify, using multiple choice: is the pair despondent, preoccupied, cautious or regretful? Most of us are able to pass the test easily. We know of something similar from popular culture. How many of us have seen the T shirt (available in both Hebrew and English) with emotional expressions on it?
In the world outside of science, to paraphrase Mark Twain, rumors of the death of the soul are greatly exaggerated. We are not merely the script of some "Great Programmer in the Sky." How each individual "I" makes a decision to learn and change is still up to each one of us.
And, amazingly, it is not only up to us humans. Like the paramecium which can change its direction in order to find food, other (at least "higher") animals share this ability to change individual and group behavior.
The story was told by Natalie Angier:
Among a troop of savanna baboons in Kenya, a terrible outbreak of tuberculosis 20 years ago selectively killed off the biggest, nastiest and most despotic males, setting the stage for a social and behavioral transformation unlike any seen in this notoriously truculent primate.
The group's most belligerent members vanished from the scene when, after fighting over the spoils at a tourist lodge's garbage dump (against a neighboring troop), they were exposed to meat tainted with bovine tuberculosis... which soon killed them. Left behind in the troop, were the 50% of the males that had been too subordinate to try dump brawling, as well as all the females and their young. With that change in demographics came a cultural swing toward pacifism, a relaxing of the usually perilous baboon hierarchy and a willingness to use affection and mutual grooming rather than threats, swipes and bites to foster a patriotic spirit.
The troop has maintained it genial style over two decades, even though the male survivors of the epidemic have since died or disappeared and been replaced by males from the outside. The persistence of communal comity suggests that the resident baboons must somehow be instructing the immigrants in the unusual customs of the tribe.
The report also offers real-world proof of an principle first demonstrated in captive populations of monkeys: that with the right upbringing, diplomacy is infectious.
Dr. Franz B.M. de Waal: "the good news for humans is that it looks like fruitful conditions,once established, can be maintained.... And if baboons can do it, why not us? The bad news is that you might have to first knock out all the most aggressive males to get there."
Bells ring on the savanna!
If they can do it, so can we!
Gerald Edelman, Noble prize winner (in physiology and medicine) who learns here at the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla teaches: "The universe is not meaningless when considered in terms of biological systems." The higher we develop on the evolutionary ladder, the more our biological system is attuned to the ability to learn and discern greater, even ethical subtleties. We humans are not merely creatures of free will because it makes everything more interesting for God. God and the biological processes are in this together. They are in "cahoots" they are, in some ways identical. We have free will and have learned how to behave in uniquely human ways.
We know that we do more than stand around as mannequins waiting to be dressed, moved to the appropriate location and stood up to appreciate the wallpaper..., or for someone or something to appreciate us. We want more than the baboons' threats, swipes and bites. It seems that, given the chance, we'll figure out ways to achieve it.
We, each one of us, and every one of our cells, wants to achieve what scientists call homeostasis," that is a "better than neutral" state of life. According to Antonio Damasio, just like the paramecium, every cell in our body learns: First, something changes in the environment (either internally or externally). Second, these changes have the ability to alter the course of that cell's life, either as a threat to its existence or as an opportunity to do better. Third, the cell notices this and acts in order to have the most positive outcome.
We may, as Diane Ackerman writes grow like a deciduous tree, changing with the seasons, remaining, nonetheless, somehow the same. Yet, in the words of Rabbi Morris Lichtenstein whose words I often read at this season: "To the shrub a year means but an additional leaf, to the vine it means only a new cluster, to the tree a new ring of bark.... But to us a year may mean new knowledge mastered, new thoughts brought into action, new feelings set in motion, a clearer understanding of God, a closer communion with God. If this is what this New Year shall mean to us all, then shall we all have indeed a year of blessedness and fulfillment."
The bells are ringing for me and my God.