The Phoenix Nest

Welcome to the Phoenix Nest

Welcome to the Phoenix Nest:

Stories of the Evolution of the Material Mortal Soul

By Jim Fulton


About This Page

A Message from the Phoenix


This is a Keepable Popup

The Phoenix Nest is a place for telling and talking about stories about the soul: my stories, stories from elsewhere, traditional stories, stories that challenge traditional stories, stories from science or religion, from left or right, from fact or fiction or mythology, even your stories, if you're willing to share them. Telling and discussing these stories will take us into many areas of thought: science, philosophy, religion, politics, ethics, morality. The stories here are starting points for conversation about soul, spirit, the mind, consciousness, conscious (and unconscious and subconscious) behavior, intentional action, about acting as an individual rather than as part of a whole. The issues are too complex, too controversial, too old (or too new) to expect quick, easy, or final answers, and no such answers will be found in the Phoenix Nest. (Here be dragons that cannot be slain with only 140 characters!) Ultimately my stories will suggest ideas that seems to conflict with doctrines advocated by many writers, both from science and from religion: that there is a viable place in our understanding of human (and even animal) nature for an evolving, material, mortal soul.

Page Prerequisites
Table of Contents
Comments and Conversation

Here are the conversations I have had with people about this page of The Phoenix Nest.

For Further Reading

If you enjoyed reading this story, you might find the following interesting:

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Page Specifications
Id site_Home
Title Welcome to the Phoenix Nest
Subtitle Stories of the Evolution of the Material Mortal Soul
Keywords mind, consciousness, spirit, soul, action, science, philosophy, religion, politics, ethics, morality
Author Jim Fulton
Author's URL https://PhoenixNest/Phoenix/
Copyright 2016
Status In production since 2017/7/25
Last Revised 2018-09-10

Welcome to the the Phoenix Nest, a webbook of stories that provide a context for a dialog between you and me about the evolution of the material, mortal soul.

What the heck does that all mean?

If you don't care to read the answer to that question right now, and just want to know what's currently available in the Phoenix Nest, click here.

Why a Phoenix?

What does a Phoenix, and its Nest, have to do with anything? — nothing and everything!

I took the Phoenix as my avatar quite deliberately because it symbolizes rebirth. The Phoenix, the Firebird, is reborn in fire. The myth of the phoenix is quite widespread in this old globe. Apparently, to be reborn out of the mess we've gotten ourselves into, to start afresh unburdened by past mistakes, to get another chance, is a common ideal.

I suspect the myth underlies in different ways both a belief in Heaven and a belief in reincarnation. Born-again Christians invoke still another version of the myth (without the bird), and I applaud them for the courage to be reborn out of a life of selfishness into a life of service to Christ. That transformation always requires a spiritual pain symbolized by the fire of the Phoenix. My own inclination, however, is that just as karma in the Hindu myth requires that a soul, with few saintly exceptions, be reincarnated many times to purge itself of itself, so a single rebirth as a Christian (or any other faith) is unlikely to be sufficient.

Until we are reborn into lives in which we respect and honor and love everyone, even our enemies, regardless of those accidents of nature and nurture that we use to excuse our dislike of one another, we are doomed to a Hell of dysfunctionality from which our only hope is to be reborn again. But more about this elsewhere.

What about you? Is your life plan working out for you? Are you ready to be reborn? Into what? At what cost? The stories in the Phoenix Nest offer a glimpse of what might be beyond the flame.

What's a Webbook?

I said that the Phoenix Nest is a "webbook". What does that mean?


(By the way, this section illustrates one of the techniques mentioned above. I originally wrote the above as an ordinary set of paragraphs within this page. But I decided that I might want to invoke the definition in other places, so I moved the text to a separate file, whose contents were inserted here — on demand — when you called for the page. This is one technique that illustrates the power of webbooks.)

Why Stories?

If I came right out and told you that what I say in the Nest is God's own truth, and that to the extent that you disagree with me, you're wrong, and even pernicious, would you believe me? Of course not. You'd stop thinking about what I'm saying, and focus on crafting your reply, or just dismiss me as a crackpot and go elsewhere.

I ask you instead to think of this site as a collection of stories, because that's what they are, even if I myself happen to believe they are true stories. They are stories that present an alternative point of view. Like any story, though, they are not individual facts or assertions or opinions. Each story is an integrated whole, assembled from individual statements that mutually support one another, logically or structurally or thematically.

Many of the things I say in these stories conflict with some popular and deeply-held convictions. Indeed in some cases I say things that both the left and right of some conceptual spectrum will hotly deny, for opposite reasons. Of course I don't know how you personally will react, until you tell me, though I'm quite sure that you will disagree with me, for your own reasons, at least at first, on many if not most of the elements of these stories; that's the nature of humanity.

But even if you don't believe my stories, I hope to write them well enough that you can at least read them as an interesting fiction, an alternative world, or a what-if game. For it might well turn out that although you never come to agree with me on everything I say, you may find that some parts of the stories can be made to fit with the stories you have already adopted to explain the universe and your role in it. The welding of your stories and mine might provide the fire from which your own personal phoenix will be reborn. But that will happen only if you read enough of the story to see how its elements fit together.

This prospect does pose a challenge. If I had declared the stories as pure fiction, you could have read them through without worrying about the truth of particular statements. But now that I have marked the stories as collections of potentially true statements, assertions that you might eventually have to shoehorn into your own collection of facts about the world, then you might be inclined to notice "obvious errors" and stop reading the story, the same way that once upon a time a misspelling or a grammatical error in a student's paper would make me stop reading what they were saying, while I went through the process of correction. You might be inclined to spend all your mental energy thinking about how to refute a "false fact", and never get back to the story.

That would be a shame, and quite contrary to my purpose. For it is the story that matters. The individual statements are there to support the story, and as in any litter some might be runts that need to be culled or strengthened. There will be time for that later if we are so inclined. What I'm looking for is dialog, not debate, especially not argument over particular statements. Debates don't change minds! Reasons don't change minds! At least not in the short term, though good reasons may erode defenses over time. A dialog, however, doesn't begin with the details; it is top-down. It begins with a search for agreement that can be refined and enriched. So I will treat the pages of the Nest as stories, hoping that you will suspend disbelief, and read enough of them to see how they hang together. Then, if you want, you can tell me your stories, and we can begin to explore together which combination of stories fit the world we live in.

Out of these stories will emerge (I hope) a portrait the faith that sustains me. I use the word "faith" deliberately and advisedly. By that word I acknowledge that I believe things that I cannot prove, logically or mathematically, that I cannot demonstrate with overwhelming scientific rigor. I do believe and will argue that my faith is more consistent with what we know about the human mind and behavior, and about the world in general, than either the dualistic theologies so common since the philosophers of ancient Greece, or the reductionistic, positivistic theories of science (also faiths) of the Twentieth Century. But none of us can demonstrate the faiths we rely on to understand this world. And we all have our faith. Even the most hide-bound atheist is reduced to "That's what I believe," when confronted with push-back against their claims. We all go beyond what we can prove, and we we've done so since our ancestors first became animals, over four billion years ago.

Now if you are a true believer in any religion, including science and atheism, you might be inclined to dismiss my faith as shallow or glib, something easily "corrected" by your favorite version of a religious tract. If that is the case, then as Dear Westley, in his guise as the Dread Pirate Robert, said to Inigo Montoya, "Get used to disappointment". My faith is deep and abiding, even if it is constantly evolving in its details. It is not the ever-changing "new philosophy" of a Sally Brown! Not only will it withstand the challenges of quotations from any so-called "holy book", it provides me with the resources to return the favor by explaining why I believe what is challenged, and why a conflicting quotation, as interpreted, is mistaken. I might be wrong in aspects of my faith, and I am open to conversation and dialog, but it will take more than a slogan or a sneer, a quote or a tweet, to make me take a challenge seriously. However, if you are ready to engage thoughtfully on these issues, with mutual respect, I welcome the interaction.

What Do You Mean, "Dialog"?

Now if we are to truly interact, it can't be a unilateral monolog. I can't be an output-only device spewing words without listening to your reactions, and you can't be an input-only device reading those words without reacting. We have to engage! To encourage you to do so, I am crafting The Phoenix Nest in the form of a dialog (actually a multilog since, I hope, there are many of "you"):

  • Contrary to rules I was taught in writing courses, I use the language of conversation; I say "you" and "I" to lull you into a sense of participation.
  • At the bottom of each page, I provide a link that will allow you to email me your thoughts, evidence, and counterarguments. If you include your permission, I will attach them as a supplement to the page, and they can be the topic of a wider conversation.
  • I also have created a Facebook page for Phoenix O'Nest, where we can engage in a lighter form of repartee than the dueling monologs that email conversations can become.

So it's really up to you whether to become part of the conversation.

What about Evolution?

One thing I am not going to explain or defend here is evolution as a general theory. If you don't believe by now that life evolved on this Earth over the past few billion years, then nothing I can say, no stories I can tell, no facts I can adduce, no arguments I can make, are going to change your mind, and I have better things to do. Does that make me a hide-bound Evolutionary Fundamentalist? Of course not! Come up with a good, compelling story and I will listen. But I will not waste time on the weary, worn out, sophomoric claims that have marred these debates in the past. Been there; done that!

Be warned! The stories in the Nest depend on and build upon our evolutionary history. I will talk at some length about how the soul evolved and what that means. If you have religious scruples against such stories, if you cannot at least engage in the same kind of suspension of disbelief that you accord a writer of fiction, then the Phoenix Nest is not for you.

What's this "Material, Mortal Soul"?

If you are the kind of reader that I would like to talk with, you will find that phrase provoking, for either of two reasons:

  1. Maybe you have been persuaded that all talk of souls is unscientific and anachronistic, that the new sciences of neurophysiology and cognitive psychology have rendered the term 'soul' moot, that the word should be retired in favor of talk about the brain.
  2. Or, maybe you are quite comfortable with 'soul', but find the adjectives 'material' and 'mortal' totally contrary to what you've been raised to believe.

The stories in the Phoenix Nest are intended to challenge both of those beliefs. I will tell tales of the evolutionary emergence of conscious behavior, of choices made by conscious beings, people, and at least many animals, are agents that make things happen through choices that cannot be, now or, I think, ever, fully explained by reference only to what we know of the neurological processes in the brain. The moral of these tales is that conscious beings are individual wholes, not mere sums of their biological or physical parts, that that individuality coheres quite nicely with our concepts of ourselves and with the essential concept of the soul, when pared of the immortality that some philosophers and theologians have attached to it.

Half a century ago I studied philosophy under Roderick Chisholm at Brown University in Providence, R.I. At that point in his career, Chisholm was advocating a proposition that on the face of it seems obvious, even banal: people make things happen.Phoenix What made the claim significant was a tricky little dilemma that has challenged philosophers for millennia:

  • If our actions are caused by events, we are not responsible for them, because, given those causes, we could not have done otherwise.
  • If our actions are not caused by events, we are not responsible for them, because, being uncaused, they are merely matters of chance.

The impact of this dilemma is to make the concept of human responsibility paradoxical: whichever way we turn, it disappears. Chisholm thought that by making people, rather than events or chance, the cause of our actions, he could slip between the horns of the dilemma and restore responsibility to respectability. Chisholm referred to his thesis as agency theory, and for a while it became a topic of fashionable philosophical discussion about mind, consciousness, action, and so on, but more often than not as something to reject than accept. I myself was never persuaded by the arguments I read against agency theory, but then I could never formulate arguments that would persuade the opposition.

Since those student days I have entered and left academic philosophy, and went on to a career in information systems. When I retired, my interest in the mind was rekindled by reading several books by Oliver Sacks, which led to a foray into recent developments in cognitive science, neurophysiology, and neuropsychology. I gradually realized that this reading, coupled with ideas from information systems, had provided me with what I needed to make a contribution to the philosophy of action, to provide a defense, of sorts, to a version of agency theory. In order to explain the behavior of humans and many other animals, we have to think of them as wholes, as whole agents that make things happen. Explaining that idea is the goal of the Phoenix Nest.

Let Us Begin!

Let us then talk about human action, about the mind, about consciousness and conscious behavior. The Phoenix Nest is a place for stories on these arcane topics, stories that I have not found elsewhere in my reading. Telling, and discussing, these stories will lead us into many other areas of thought: scientific, philosophical, religious, political, moral. They will raise ideas that compete with traditional stories, from all these areas, for the soul of our national, indeed our global, mythology. The stories here are starting points for conversation. The questions they raise are too complex, too controversial, too old (or too new) to expect quick, easy, or final answers, and none will be found in the Phoenix Nest. This is a place for pausing and reflecting after reading, for the patient give-and-take of mutually respectful dialog, for reading to understand and build upon, not merely to reply and destroy.

This style of engagement on issues is not fashionable. In current news media, social media, talk shows, and so on, the goal, the only goal, is to win (or at least to appear to win, and put your opponent on the defensive), to win quickly and decisively. Winning is far more important than achieving a fair, reasonable resolution to competing positions. But if you're like me, you're fed up with the screeching of angry birds, with the shrill shrieks of militant, unyielding, uncompromising radicals, whether they be terrorists or politicians or true believers, with their quick slogans and simplistic solutions to the problems and issues of the day. The tales of the temperate take longer; they do not fit in the 140 characters of Twitterspace. They are thus ignored and easily drowned out by the racket from both right and left.

Not only will you find The Phoenix Nest unfashionably moderate in tone, you will find it moderate in the ideas it espouses. The Nest is a home for stories from the center, that is, for moderates, or those who, like me, think of themselves as moderates. Yes, I know: everyone thinks of themselves as moderate and reasonable in their opinions, especially when compared to that other guy! But I will defend this claim by telling the stories in a way that shows how my beliefs fit centrally between the poles of philosophical, religious, political, or scientific opinion.

Moreover, I will try to do what all moderates must do, what inevitably renders them vulnerable to sneak attacks: I will try to respond head-on to reasoned arguments from both poles, whether they come from professional literature, popular literature, or from your contributions to the dialog.

Now, you're not going to believe the stories I tell, certainly not all of them, and maybe not any of them. These stories are about traditionally sensitive topics — the mind, the soul, God, morality, death, sin, hell, and others — ideas that are commonly classified as religious rather than scientific. And I'll be offering some very non-traditional views about them, for example,

  • that they are all amenable to rational study,
  • that they all are aspects of this physical world,
  • that they are nonetheless not reducible to the received canon of purely physical laws,

views that conform neither to traditional religion nor to what some would call "hard science".

You probably have already staked your claim in that barren wasteland that is the border between the wilderness of religion and ivory towers of science. You likely have very definite ideas about what's gold and what's dross in the ore you are mining there. If your claim is well within the boundaries of an established religion, or alternatively across the valley in the region of natural science (in some ways another kind of religion), you may already rejected the views I have suggested above as worthless. If you are a true believer, you've also decided that reading any further is blasphemy against your true faith, or at least a waste of your time. If so, farewell. I have nothing to say to true believers. May the world be merciful in dealing with your errors.

Where Next?

The Phoenix Nest is still in development. Actually in redevelopment, since there was an earlier manifestation of it that has mostly been removed. Here is a list of what is currently available:

  • Flights of the Phoenix. This is a blog of the Phoenix's travels, with reports of what he has seen and stories of what he was thinking.
    • The Grand Fossil Tour. This is a multi-year trip around the US and Canada to see every major fossil site and natural history museum. The Phoenix wants to see for himself the evidence of the evolution of the soul.
      • Itinerary. An up-to-date plan for the Grand Fossil Tour, where he will go and what he will see, with links to reports of stops he has already made.
      • Blog. This will take you to the latest such report.

For now the options are limited, but the Phoenix plans to gradually enrich the stories he will tell on the Grand Fossil Tour, and move them to more permanent locations in the Nest.

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