Baptism, Flood Myths, and the Symbolism of Water

For K.C.

There’s some interesting symbolism to the baptism ceremony. OK, for Catholics baptism is more than symbolic, since it removes Original Sin, but for some Protestant denominations it’s purely symbolic.

These days during my morning commute I’m listening to a Teaching Company audio CD-ROM course entitled Myth in Human History, taught by Grant L. Voth. I’ve learned that some creation myths start off with a large, dark, body of water, a “sea of chaos,” out of which a deity brings the universe. A big example is the Egyptian creation myth. So the water is a sort of primeval state of potentiality, out of which the universe is realized.

(Makes me think of quantum mechanics. My limited understanding is that the wave function is only a distribution of possible outcomes, a state of potentiality, a “sea of chaos”; but you need an Observer to “collapse the wave function”, and only then does a physical event actually happen. “Wave” in “wave function” reminds me of the waves in the “sea” of chaos.)

Here’s a quote from a book I’m reading entitled Parallel Myths, by J.F. Bierlein:

“In Jungian psychology, water is a dream symbol manifest in the myths and the unconscious mind and the wisdom contained therein. Thus, our dreams of bathing in or drinking water may be interpreted as symbolic of the quest for wisdom or for communication between the conscious and unconscious mind. Another possible Jungian approach to the water motif in the Creation myths is the dawn of human consciousness.”

Water can be destructive, too — lectures #9 and 10 in the Teaching Company course are about flood myths. (Of course you’ve heard of Noah’s Ark , but have you heard of Utnapishtim’s Ark?) Still, Dr. Voth points out that in these flood myths, the world is given a second beginning after the flood recedes, and that the Flood is therefore a sort of second creation. So, one symbolic component of the baptism ceremony is of a rebirth of the person getting baptized, a new beginning.

I read or heard somewhere — possibly in one of the Teaching Company audio CD-ROMs — that in the days of early Christianity, some people thought that you shouldn’t baptize babies or children, because they aren’t fully responsible for themselves yet. They felt that you should baptize only adults, who can make a conscious, informed decision to become a Christian. And some people thought that baptism cleanses all your sins, and that you could be baptized only once. So their strategy was to have a lecherous, gluttonous, sinful life, and get baptized only way at the end, on their deathbed; that way, when they die they have a clean soul and they go to Heaven. Somehow, I doubt that God would respect their bid for Heaven.

Addendum: (09/10/10):
Sea of Chaos at the time of Creation: Big Bang Was Followed by Chaos, Mathematical Analysis Shows


For M.V.

When I had forgotten my coat at the Mane Restaurant, there was a period of about three minutes when it was uncertain whether my coat would still be there when we got back to the restaurant. I was wondering whether today was the day for losing that coat.

I mentioned that the Buddhists have a word for pain or suffering, and that the word is dukkha. And that there are several types of dukkha, one being the type that arises because things are transient — a child’s favorite toy wears out, a plate breaks, a beloved pet dies.

The Wikipedia entry states that the Buddhists distinguish between three types of dukkha. It is the second type that I was referring to, which Wikipedia lists as viparinama-dukkha, the pain that arises because things change.

I have always found that third kind of dukkha, sankhara-dukkha, very difficult to understand.

Published in: on 4 April 2009 at 4:15 pm  Comments (2)  
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Soul vs. Spirit and the Duality of Consciousness

I once read a very interesting book entitled The Lost Secret of Death: Our Divided Souls and the Afterlife, by Peter Novak. The thesis was that in ancient times, people made a distinction between soul and spirit, but that in modern times we have forgotten the difference. In a nutshell, spirit is a sort of spark or particle of consciousness or life, whereas soul is some sort of psychic capacitor which accumulates one’s thoughts and life experiences, good and bad. According to this system, human beings are made up of three things: a soul, a spirit, and a body.

Mr. Novak claims that if you do a careful reading of the Bible, you’ll find that this subtle distinction is maintained. He also listed many cultures which make the soul-vs-spirit distinction, which I summarize in the table below. I’ve also included in the table parallel distinctions that Mr. Novak makes between two types of ghosts and between two kinds of afterlife.

If I recall correctly, according to some ancient belief systems, if a person’s soul and spirit remained “attached” after death, then that person’s consciousness would survive death. Otherwise, that person’s consciousness would be lost forever. With special training (special prayers to the gods? meditation exercises? mastery of lucid dreaming?), one could increase the chances that one’s soul and spirit would remain attached after death, in which case one’s consciousness would survive in the afterlife.

A disembodied spirit without an associated soul results in a poltergeist; a disembodied soul without an associated spirit results in a haunt. I suppose that a spirit attached to a body without benefit of a soul may result in a Philosophical Zombie; perhaps a soul is required for qualia.

In the November 17, 2008 issue of the New York Times, an article appeared entitled Found: An Ancient Monument to the Soul . In there, the Egyptian distinction between ba and ka is mentioned. So, Mr. Novak wasn’t making it up!

I have also read a book on lucid dreaming (a topic of great interest to me) entitled Stop Sleeping Through Your Dreams: A Guide to Awakening Consciousness During Dream Sleep, written by Charles McPhee (a Princeton alumnus), a.k.a. The Dream Doctor. Mr. McPhee writes:

“When I worked in sleep research at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, I once asked sleep researcher Dr. Wallace Mendelson to define human consciousness for me. Much to my surprise, my existential question did not cause Dr. Mendelson to blink an eye. “Consciousness is easy,” he explained. “Consciousness is a duality. It is the seemingly paradoxical ability of being able to experience sensation and, at the same time, of being able to experience oneself experiencing that sensation.

“When Dr. Mendelson first gave me this definition of consciousness, I was unsure of what I had my hands on. Over the years, however, my appreciation of this definition has grown steadily. It is the best understanding of consciousness I have ever encountered.”

I must admit that I very much like Dr. Mendelson’s definition, too. Sometimes when people are talking about consciousness, I get the impression that they are really talking about one or the other of Dr. Mendelson’s two components of consciousness. I like the recursive aspect of the second component, that of “being able to experience oneself experiencing a sensation.” I believe that Douglas Hofstadter had a similar idea about the underlying etiology of consciousness.

I wonder whether Dr. Mendelson has written anything on consciousness. When I go to PubMed and do a search on

mendelson w [au] AND consciousness [tiab]

I find only this paper.

Another very interesting book that touches upon similar topics is Human Devolution: a Vedic alternative to Darwin’s theory, by Michael Cremo. Deliciously intriguing, and very… unorthodox, shall we say. See this paper to learn more about ancient Sanskrit metaphysical teachings on consciousness. Fascinating!

OK, here’s a table listing the words, ghosts, afterlives, and consciousness components as they relate to soul and spirit. I have added a few of my own ideas.

Ancient Christianity (?) Soul Spirit
Greece Psuche Thumos
Egypt Ba Ka
Israel Nephesh Ruwach
Persia Urvan Daena
Islam Ruh Nafs
India Jiva Atman
China Hun Po
Haiti Bon Ange Ti Bon Ange
Hawaii Uhane Unihipili
Dakota Indians Nagi Niya
Academic Fields of Study Arts and Humanities Science and Engineering
Peter Novak’s descriptions of soul and spirit Subjective, dependent, fertile, emotional, nonverbal, recessive,
passive, responsive, in possession and control of the memory. Emphasizes unity with the external.
Objective, independent, logical, verbal, dominant, active, possessing independent free will. Emphasizes distinction and separateness from the external.
Ghosts Haunts
(stereotypically, a ghost tied to a specific locale, moaning about his past life, and clanking chains like Marley’s Ghost)
(pure motive force, no emotional content, throwing things around)
Afterlife Eternal Bliss or Suffering
(Heaven and Hell; acyclic)
Reincarnation (cyclic)
Split Brain Right Brain Left Brain
Freud Unconscious Mind Conscious Mind
Dr. Wallace Mendelson’s definition of consciousness as a duality. Ability to experience sensation. Ability to experience oneself experiencing sensation.
Dungeons and Dragons Wisdom (clerics) Intelligence (magic users)

It was with great interest that I discovered that many psychic readings of Edgar Cayce (pronounced “kay-see”), “The Sleeping Prophet” (I wonder whether he experienced lucid dreams), have been gathered into a single book entitled Soul and Spirit. Unfortunately, I found it very difficult to make much sense of the readings! They are raw and largely unedited (the editors didn’t want them to be colored by someone else’s interpretations), and are very challenging to read. You can try reading a sample here; maybe you’ll do better than me.

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates states that there are three parts to the “soul”: reason, will, and desire. This isn’t quite the same as the spirit-soul-body triad, but I thought it was interesting enough to mention in this post.

Addendum (07/18/09): I just found a series of articles from 1913 entitled Spirit, Soul, and Flesh, by Ernest D. Burton, published in The American Journal of Theology. Here are the references (if you do not have a JSTOR account, these links may not work):

Spirit, Soul, and Flesh: I. Am J Theol, Vol. 17, No. 4 (Oct., 1913), pp. 563-598.

Spirit, Soul, and Flesh: II. Am J Theol, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Jan., 1914), pp. 59-80.

Spirit, Soul, and Flesh: III. Am J Theol, Vol. 18, No. 3 (Jul., 1914), pp. 395-414.

Spirit, Soul, and Flesh: III. Am J Theol, Vol. 18, No. 4 (Oct., 1914), pp. 571-599 [yes, for some reason ‘III’ was repeated; this was probably an error]

Spirit, Soul, and Flesh: IV. Am J Theol, Vol. 20, No. 3 (Jul., 1916), pp. 390-413.

Spirit, Soul, and Flesh: V. Am J Theol, Vol. 20, No. 4 (Oct., 1916), pp. 563-596

The Map Is Not The Territory

Apparently, the map vs. territory distinction was made explicit by philosopher Alfred Korzybski. It seems obvious, but becomes not so obvious when dealing with abstractions.

A computer science analogy might be, the pointer is not the data itself.

A photo of a house is not the same as the house itself.

A token X that represents Y is not Y itself.

The word “red” is not the same thing as the very sensation (qualia) of seeing red.

Published in: on 10 January 2009 at 5:59 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Does Morality Require God?

The night of December 9, 2008, I had dinner at the P.R. Grill in Pentagon City with Drs. K.H.K. and W.J.K., as well as with I.K.. An animated dinner conversation accompanied the good food. This post is a follow-up to one of the topics covered.

For I.K.

I had said before dinner (before Drs. K.H.K. and W.J.K. joined us) that I didn’t know whether this question had been scientifically studied before. Today, as I was going through my electronic notes, I discovered that a related article had been recently published in the online journal Slate. Here’s the article; it refers to this paper in the very prominent journal Science.

I also mentioned that back in college, I took a religion course (I remember it was Religion 215, but I don’t remember the name of the course) taught by Professor Jeffrey Stout. Looks like he’s still at Princeton. I also mentioned that I thought I saw his name on an office door at the religion department in Yale University, about four years ago, when I took an SPM course held there (Dr. K.H.K. took this course with me!).

No. I must have seen the name of Professor Harry Stout. I wonder whether they are related.

Now, where was I? (I seem to be losing my Markov chain of thought here…) Oh yeah. In this course, Dr. J. Stout challenged the students with an interesting device he called MacIntyre’s Fork; I believe this fork is due to the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. The idea is as follows:

If something is moral just because a deity says it is, then morality becomes rather arbitrary (the “Divine Command Theory of Ethics”); the deity is a sort of legislator of morality. If the deity says that you must kill, then killing, by definition, is moral.

On the other hand, if something can be moral without the deity’s say-so, then the deity isn’t required for morality. The deity might instead act as an enforcer of morality.

So which is it? Deity as legislator, or deity as enforcer?

Apparently, Plato addressed the question 2,000 years ago, in his first Dialogue, Euthyphro, so it’s known as the Euthyphro Dilemma. In Euthyphro, Socrates (at least, the character Socrates as depicted by Plato), awaiting his trial, poses the dilemma to a fellow Athenian.

I just love those ancient Greek philosopher guys. They were really smart.

(Note to self: I will also need to explore this.)

Finally, what is the difference between morality and ethics? Can something be ethical without being moral? Can something be moral without being ethical? To my modern ears, the word moral seems burdened with ponderous political baggage, whereas the word ethical seems lighter and free of these secondary connotations, and therefore seems less politically charged.

Published in: on 14 December 2008 at 2:47 pm  Comments (2)  
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Do Dogs Have Souls?

The night of December 9, 2008, I had dinner at the P.R. Grill in Pentagon City with Drs. K.H.K. and W.J.K., as well as with I.K.. Dinner was delicious — I ordered a spaghetti (okay, it was good, but perhaps it was still not quite as good as Ascione’s Spaghetti), while K.H.K. ordered an in-bone rib-eye steak done medium, and we split our dishes. An animated dinner conversation accompanied the good food. This post is a follow-up to one of the topics covered.

K.H.K. said no, arguing that the Bible gives no such indication.

Pope John Paul II said that animals have souls. A Google search indicates that another pope, Pope Pius IX, said animals did not have souls.

Here’s a classic quote by Will Rogers about dogs and the afterlife.

Not sure whether dogs have souls or not, but here’s one dog that certainly has spirit. When I first heard about this, I was skeptical. Maybe the so-called rescuer dog was hungry and just wanted to eat the other dog’s carcass. But after seeing the video, I’m convinced it’s a rescue operation.

This very interesting book makes a big distinction between soul and spirit. The author claims that many ancient peoples made this distinction (the Egyptians for example; see this NYT article). He further claims that a careful reading of the Bible shows that Biblical writers seem to use the words soul and spirit to mean different things. So, perhaps the initial question can be cleft into two: Do animals have souls? Do animals have spirit?

I’ll post more on the fascinating soul vs. spirit meme later. That’s a whole new thought chain.

Addendum (01/17/09): Here’s my post on the soul vs. spirit issue.

Published in: on 12 December 2008 at 10:33 pm  Leave a Comment  
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