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



Welcome to the Phoenix Nest! Hi! I'm Jim Fulton. And here in the Phoenix Nest, I am the Phoenix! This is my home on the web, where I tell stories that help me understand this world we live in. Maybe they'll help you too.


The Phoenix Nest is a place for 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 only headlines or slogans or tweets!) 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.

Table of Contents

Revision History of the Phoenix Nest Home Page

Revisions Specific to this Page

What is the Phoenix Nest?

The Phoenix Nest began as a place where I could jot down ideas that I thought others might find interesting. It has evolved into something more than that:

The Phoenix Nest is 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?

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 of 'webbook' in other places, so I moved the text to a separate documentPhoenix, whose contents are inserted here, and elsewhere, usually with a different background, when you call for the page or click on a button. This technique illustrates the power of webbooks.)

Why Stories?

I think of this site, my Nest, as a museum or library of stories, because of the quasi-fictional luster it gives to the "exhibits", that is, to the things I say on its pages. Good story-tellers tell their tales as though they were true, and that's what I will try to do, not merely because that's the way stories are told, but also because I believe them to be true. (Of course, that's also what all story-tellers say.)

The stories present an alternative point of view, an alternative reality, that just might be true in this real world of ours. Like all stories, 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.

Out of these stories will emerge (I hope), pixel by pixel, a portrait of the faithWikipedia that sustains me. I use the word "faith" deliberately, advisedly, and without apology. 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 the reductionistic,Wikipedia positivisticWikipedia theories of science (also faiths) of the Twentieth Century. But none of us can prove 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 demonstrate.

Many of my stories, and the elements within them, conflict with some popular and deeply-held convictions, maybe even yours! Indeed in some cases I say things that both the left and right of some conceptual spectrum will hotly deny. Of course I don't know how you personally will react, though I'm quite sure that you will disagree with me on many if not most of the tales I tell; that's the nature of humanity. But I don't intend to barrage you with facts, which are merely the pixels of which truth is made. 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.

But I don't want you to spend your mental energy thinking about how to refute particular elements of my stories, certainly not before the whole story emerges from those elements. There will be time for that later if you are so inclined. What I'm looking for is dialog, not debate. 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. So I will treat the exhibits in the Nest as stories, hoping that you will suspend disbelief, treat them as fiction or what-ifs. Then, if you want, you can tell me your stories, and we can begin to explore together which stories fit the world we live in.

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 melding 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.

What Do You Mean "Dialog"?

The stories here in the Phoenix Nest are, to start with, my stories, not yours. They will not fit, as they are, into your experience. For them to be of value to you, they must lead you to your own experience. For that to happen, you must involve yourself with them and with me. But if you and I are to truly interact, it can't be a unilateral monolog, like all books and almost all websites. You can't allow me to 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 multi-log 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.

By the way, if you are a true believerWikipedia in any faith, including science and atheism, if like true believers everywhere you disparage both the content and sincerity of any faith not your own, you might be inclined to dismiss my stories as shallow or glib or superstitious, 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, in the movie Princess Bride: "Get used to disappointment!"IMDbWikipedia My faith is not the ever-changing "new philosophy" of a Sally Brown!Wikipedia It is deep and abiding, even if it is constantly evolving in its details, and open to change in the face of good evidence. Not only will it withstand the challenges of quotations from any so-called "holy book" or "latest research proving ...", it provides me with the resources to return the favor by explaining why I believe what is challenged, and why the allegedly refuting quotation, as interpreted, is mistaken. I might be wrong in aspects of my faith, 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. Write me: !

What about Evolution?

Be warned! The stories in the Nest depend on and build upon our evolutionary history. I will talk at some length about the evolution of the soul, the mind, our consciousness, 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.

However, I don't plan to provide in the Nest an explanation or defense of 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!

By the way, if you are on the fence on the matter of evolution, and are looking for a readable explanation, here are a couple of recommendations:

  • Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution, Kenneth R. Miller, 1999. ISBN: 0-06-017593-1.Wikipedia This book is written by a professional biologist, who is also a self-professed devout Christian, and who takes issue with the shallow reasoning that underlies most of the anti-evolution rhetoric.
  • The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life, Richard Dawkins, 2004. ISBN: 978-0544859937. The author of this book is not interested in dialog with Christians at all; he is one of the most hide-bound, anti-religion, pro-evolution writers around. Nonetheless, this book is one of the least strident, most informative descriptions of the evolution of human-kind you will find anywhere. Like Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales,Wikipedia on which its form is loosely based, it can indeed be read like a story, its forays into evolutionary science being no more formidable than Chaucer's allusions to 14th Century English culture.

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 ChisholmWikipedia at Brown UniversityWikipedia in Providence, Rhode Island. 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 Popup What made the claim significant was a tricky little dilemma that has confounded 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 causes of our actions, he could slip between the horns of the dilemma and restore responsibility to philosophical 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 at that time 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 SacksWikipedia, which led to a foray into recent developments in cognitive scienceWikipedia and neuropsychologyWikipedia. 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.

But what's this got to do with a "material, mortal, soul"? Well, to some extent that's provocative marketing, but not entirely. It is commonplace in a wide variety of philosophical positions to deny that the person is really an object at all. It is a mere assemblage of more fundamental things (which in some theories include an immortal, immaterial soulWikipedia). I plan in the Phoenix Nest to defend Chisholm's notion that people (and perhaps some other things, such as complex animals) are agents who cause things to happen, and who can be held responsible for their actions. In essence my stories will suggest that the best explanation of human behavior requires reference to the intentions and beliefs and choices of people. Such a suggestion implies that in the world we live in, people are not mere collections that we can ignore in our meta-sciencePhoenix Note, but whole, real individual things that must be accounted for. They are material objects with mental or intentional or psychological properties. They are mortal, finite, even ephemeral on a cosmic scale. But while they live, they act, they create, they are responsible, they are their own souls.

Who Are You, Phoenix?

Wrong question, for I am not, I am only becoming. If on the other hand you are asking who I have been, and why that past self makes your present attendance to these stories worthwhile, then I can attempt an answer.

I came to the ideas I will express in the Nest, out of long experience. I lost my religious faith as a young adult. After half a century I still remember the terrible epiphany of apostasy, that sudden realization that I no longer believed in the religious faith of my childhood. I cried and grieved as though a parent had died; I no longer had the comfort of a familiar old friend telling me the world was okay, that it was in good hands.

Since these words are addressed mainly to the non-religious or the not-particularly-religious, and you’re reading it, there’s a good chance that you too have had such an epiphany, and that it still matters, that is, you still feel a sense of loss. Many people have told me of such experiences, and of their continuing search for a faith to sustain them. If you are one of them, these pages may offer worthwhile suggestions. And they are only suggestions, ideas for you to consider and decide for yourself whether and how to use them. Every person’s experience of loss of faith is unique, as is what they perceive they need (or once needed) from faith. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. I am not here to give you the truth, although what I say will be true, as best I understand it.

What you will not learn from these pages is how to go back to the simple faith of your childhood. “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”Phoenix To put it another way, you can’t go home again.Wikipedia (Well, you can, but it never feels the same as you remember). You had your epiphany in part because you grew up. You came to realize that the world you live in is a more complex, more complicated place than the stories that underlay the faith of your childhood depicted, whether that faith was religious or political. You learned that the simple answers it offered to your questions no longer suffice.

That is why I offer a conversation, a dialog, about faith in a modern, grown-up world, a world in which science is accepted as a standard for acquiring knowledge, where the laws of nature discovered by science (but not necessarily all of the claims made by people who characterize themselves as scientists) are accepted as reasonable if approximate explanations for much of what happens, where bad things happen to good people, where people who claim to believe in a loving God spew hatred and go to war with people who disagree with them about that God. Where does faith fit in this world?

But that is the question to which this entire project, this entire Nest, is addressed. For now, in this preface, you probably want some more preliminary information, like who I have been and who am I now and what kind of answers am I likely to offer to your questions.

What I Have Been

Who am I? What have I done to justify presenting my so-called truth to you? What have I done to make it worth your while to explore the Phoenix Nest? Here's some basic information about my background:

  • Ex-Academic Philosopher. I am a trained philosopher, PhD and all that (Brown University, 1970), and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Wichita State University (1970-1977). I wasn’t a very good academic philosopher: I spent too much time trying to figure out what the truth was, or seeking ways to shoehorn philosophical skills into recalcitrant freshman heads, and not enough getting publications out. But after a life of applying philosophical analysis to questions about religion, mind and spirit, I now think I have some ideas worth sharing.
  • Ex-Corporate Researcher. I worked a quarter of a century at The Boeing Company, at various locations in two states, trying ineffectually to improve the way the company built its software systems, so that they could be improved, maintained, and integrated together. In the course of that career, I wrote a number of forgettable reports that seemed important at the time. The only one that I believe has lasting value was Technical Report on the Semantic Unification Meta-Model -- Volume 1: Semantic Unification of Static Models. [ISO TC184/SC4/WG3 N175, October 1992] This was an analysis and formal logic of natural language, at least as used across the business community. It was intended to provide a basis for sharing information within and across companies. It contains some ideas that are relevant to the goals of the Nest, and it would be nice to include some of them here, but that task is way down the priority list.
  • Ex-Christian. My family was nominally, but not devoutly, Christian. When I was very young, we attended church rarely; in high school, more frequently (Fort Scott First Presbyterian Church, to be precise). But when I went away to study science at a prominent institute, I found that I didn’t have the resources to reconcile the scientific view of the world with the literal interpretations of Christian doctrines of my catechism.
  • Ex-Atheist. For many years I characterized myself as an atheist, a non-believer, but after a while, the label scratched like a hair-shirt: not because I realized the error of my apostasy, but because it described only what I didn’t believe, not what I did believe, and thereby lumped me together not only with other apostates, but also with people who made claims that were widely divergent from what I could accept. There were philosophical ideas that I did believe that conflicted with the rationalistic reductionism of many professed atheists. In any case I wanted a more constructive depiction of what I believed than the purely negative atheism.
  • Ex-Unitarian Universalist. For a few years I gravitated to the Unitarian Universalist Church, doctrinally the most liberal of religions. It did not impose any doubtful dogmas on me. I joined with the hope of establishing a social community, as well as to provide a context for conversation about religious matters, and to some extent my hopes were realized. I became quite active in the congregation.
    • Ex-Lay Minister. As a member of a UU community without a settled minister, I increasingly volunteered to prepare messages, sermons, if you will, for our Sunday services. This brought old, unsettled religious matters back to the forefront of my mind, and led ultimately to what you are reading now.
    • Ex-Ordained Minister. Technically I am still an ordained minister of the Universal Life ChurchPhoenix, but I am not trained as a theologian. Some years ago I took a class in a seminary with the thought of becoming a UU minister. Didn't work! This was a local Catholic seminary which offered programs for other religions, which UUs in the area adapted for their needs. There were too many aspects of the teachings that didn't fit into my emerging faith, and managing that tension while working full time became overwhelming. I decided that learning more about the details of the Christian story was not going to help me get where I wanted to go. So I took the modern option: I went online, filed the application, and paid my money, became an ordained ULC minister. Too easy! This is obviously the least important of my credentials. But ironically enough it is the most influential in one respect: it legally entitles me to marry and bury! And I suspect there would be tax advantages if I worked it the right way. In any case you will not find here the official doctrine of any church.
    However, in the end the tolerance and inclusiveness that was the heart of the church had an unexpected corollary: some atheists who had like me gravitated to the church for social reasons claimed to be "offended" when words like "god" and "soul" were used. Consequently religious language and religious discussion disappeared. There was no context within which to ask some of the hard questions traditionally directed to the church. What was left was banal, repetitive moralizing on the principle of tolerance, and a lot of discussion on current politics. The church I knew had become the equivalent of a ultra-liberal political action committee; and although it was polite and condescending, it had no interest in listening to pushback against its doctrines and tactics. Gradually I drifted away.

Who I Think I Am Now

So after all that, who am I now (i.e., at this moment), what is my philosophy, my outlook on life? Why should you look any more closely into my Nest? Well, mainly for the fun of it! But if you need assurances that I won't be leading you through some dark underbelly of the noösphereWikipedia, here's my elevator speech:Wikipedia

You're not going to find me in (or out of) any box. There is no brand of religion or philosophy you can apply to me and say that you've come even within a gross approximation of me, or what I believe; nor can you get any closer by saying that I am not this or that. Whatever the road, I've taken a different one.Phoenix Note If you need to enclose me in some form in order to understand me, that form won't have a single name. But it will be multi-colored. It will have a time- and context-changing mix of the following hues:

  • Naturalistic.Wikipedia My faith has nothing of the supernatural. If God cannot be found in nature, I will not find Him, and you will not find Him in these pages. Thus my beliefs are akin to those of David Hume and others who espoused natural theology.
  • Scientific.Wikipedia I have a strong respect for science, though not the dedicated focus to be a scientist. The methods of scientific inquiry have taught us too much, have been too successful, to ignore them when their ox threatens to gore my sacred cow.
  • Skeptical.Wikipedia Respect for science or scientists or anyone else, including myself, does not mean accepting their authority without carefully considering the reasoning behind any particular claim. Science, philosophy and religion are not just disciplines, they are institutions, made up of people in cooperative competition. Their zeal in the competition sometimes outweighs their care in adhering to rigorous procedures of proof. (Or sometimes they're just way off base!)
  • Holistic.Wikipedia However, let me be clear: although I am an naturalist, although I respect science, I am not an atomist; I am not a reductionist; I do not believe that everything can be explained by reference only to the laws of physics. The universe is not a mere cloud of particles flying in close formation; it is not a mere conjunction of facts. Reductionism is not a scientific discovery; it is a faith held religiously by some scientists or philosophers. I believe to the contrary that there are aspects of the world and the people in it that cannot be understood except by looking at them as wholes. I am such a whole, and so are you!
  • Pantheistic.Wikipedia Among those phenomena that require holistic thinking is the fact that I as a whole make things happen! So do you! So does everyone else! So does everything else! What we do now influences the future. All of us together create the future. What happens in this world is not fate; it is not written. Nor is it the direct will of some external, supernatural deity. You and I and everything else make it happen. We are co-creators of the future. But to be a creator is to be divine, it is the essence of divinity, of the GodheadWikipedia. In that sense, we are all divine, we are all gods.
  • Libertarian.Wikipedia Since I believe that you and I as wholes make things happen in a way that cannot be explained by reference to the state of our brains and the laws of neurophysiology, or to the state of our minds and the laws of psychology, or for that matter to the state of God's Plan and the laws of theology, that makes me a libertarian, in the philosophicalWikipedia not the politicalWikipedia sense. I believe in a strong form of free willWikipedia, a topic to which the Phoenix Nest is largely devoted.
  • Panentheistic.Wikipedia Not only am I a divine whole, I am part of a divine whole, a creative whole. What drives this world is not just the force of our individual wills, but a vortex, a vortex of vortices, set in motion by the patterns of our interactions, but coming to have a life and power and self-preserving inertia of its own.
  • Reconstructionistic.Wikipedia Some atheists talk as though the only thing that matters in religion is God, and that once that is disposed of, once God is truly dead, once science demonstrates that the world can be explained without reference to God, religion should wither away. We should, they say, stop using words that smack of that discredited religion. They are genuinely surprised, even affronted, when it doesn't happen that way, when people they thought were smart persist in their peculiar habits of faith. But the fact is that religious faith integrates people's lives in a myriad interconnected ways that science, at least the atheist's simple view of science, does not replace or even acknowledge. I use words like faith, God, soul, sin, hell and salvation. I use them systematically in a way that preserves the way they integrate humanity, but I do not mean by them what our parents means, what you probably mean. Part of my task in the Nest is to reconstruct, to redefine those concepts to fit our new world.
  • Universalistic.Wikipedia You are not going to agree with me, at least at first. And that's OK. The Universalist Church advocated the doctrine of universal salvation, declaring that God was too good to consign people to the eternal torment of Hell in the afterlife. With this aspect of their faith, including mistaken ones and the faith that one has no faith, I wholeheartedly agree: God's grace, whatever that means, embraces all faiths; no one is at risk of hell for being of the wrong religion or for believing the wrong doctrine. This is of course contrary to the doctrine of most organized religions. In these pages I will be arguing for a certain religious and philosophical and scientific point of view. If you disagree with me, you're mistaken, ! Or I'm mistaken and need your assistance in discovering my error. But I will never claim that you are damned to Hell merely for being mistaken. And I will try my best not to let my frustration over not persuading you, interfere with out relationship.

Why a Phoenix?

Why do I speak of myself as the Phoenix, and of this site as my Nest? No particular and many reasons.

I took the Phoenix as my avatarWikipedia partly as an echo of the logo of the Unitarian church I once belonged to. But it was more than that. The myth of the phoenixWikipedia 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, is a common dream. I suspect the hope 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 karmaWikipedia in the Hindu myth requires a soul, with few saintly exceptions, to be reincarnated many times to purge itself of itself, so a single rebirth as a Christian (or Muslim or Jew 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 those we might think 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.

Technology of the Phoenix Nest

This seems a good place to talk about the technology I have used to build the Phoenix Nest. The Nest was always bigger, at least in my conception, than any of the readily available web page templates could swallow. Regardless of what they offered, I wanted more. I wanted unlimited space for new pages and photographs. I wanted to do with hyperlinksPhoenix Note anything that an author of a printed document could do with footnotes. I wanted to reconceive the communication of information. If that be hubris, so be it. All it cost me was my own time. And if you're reading it, maybe it was worth it.

In my years at Boeing I had learned the rudiments of programming and web pages. I was by no means a professional at either, but I thought I could learn enough to do what I wanted in this new space. I began exploring this trade by developing a web page for the Unitarian Universalist church I belonged to. I launched the Phoenix Nest about the same time as I launched my Grand Fossil TourPhoenix, and both have been adventures, with plenty of obstacles to overcome, the web site far more than the tour.

In the process, I have relied on a number of technologies that I did not invent, and it's only appropriate that I acknowledge those technologies and their sources, and that is the primary objective of this section. Nothing I say anywhere else in the Nest depends on your knowing anything about these technologies, so you can safely pass this section by. Nerds with nothing better to do, as well as prospective webbook writers looking for ways through this wonderful, winding world of the web, and potential dead ends, are welcome to dive in.

By the way, using the right technology doesn't mean that what is written in that technology will be available wherever that technology is. Although browsers are to be found on all kinds of electronic devices, few pages in the Phoenix Nest will offer a satisfactory experience on any phone, and some will be unsatisfactory even on a tablet. For those you will need the space and memory available only on a computer. The Phoenix thinks in larger bites than small devices, let along Twitterspace, can swallow.

Web Development Languages

When you read a printed book, the technology you're using is very simple: ink has been absorbed into the fibers of the page in very precise ways. The difference between what you see and what's really there is way down at the chemical level, just as it is for most anything in our ordinary environment. Certainly the technology required to put that book in your hands — the writing, the transmission, the layout, the printing, the packaging, the shipment, the marketing, the delivery — those are complicated and evolving. But the technology of your reading the book is very simple.

That's not the case if you are reading the book on your computer or some other electronic device. There, multiple layers of technology underlie what you read, each layer embodied in code that has been written by people to present you with the illusion that you are just reading another book. You could read that code too if you wanted, but despite what was hinted in The Matrix,IMDbWikipedia that is a very hard way to grasp the meaning of what is written.

What code? Well there are at many kinds of code, typically written by different people, in different languages, with different objectives:

  • Every device has an operating systemWikipedia consisting of code that loads and executes the apps on the device.
  • Every application ("app")Wikipedia on every device, for example, web browsersWikipedia or PDFWikipedia readers, is made up of code that's designed to do things that are useful to users.
  • Different from the application code are collections of code that are used as data by applications, for example, to present a book-like appearance of words and pictures on the screen of your device. For examples, a PDF reader can read and display any PDF file; a browser can display any web page.
  • In order for that data to be available to the applications, some code has to be stored somewhere, waiting for the application to retrieve it. For simple documents — photographs, PDF files, simple web pages — the stored code is a copy of the same data used by the app, and is in the same form (the same sequences of 1s and 0s). But that's not necessarily the case. Sometimes the stored code has to be transformed in complex ways before it can be used by the application code; and changes made by the application have to be transformed before they can be stored.
  • Then of course there is the code, often interacting libraries of code in different languages, that retrieves, organizes, and sometimes transforms the stored code into the code used by your application.

When you go to a shopping web site, every page is assembled from elements stored in many different places, different files or databases, or calculated on the fly from those elements. When you buy something, the sales transaction isn't recorded in that page; it's sent to a database, where is triggers follow-on processing, concluding with the delivery of the item to you.

Underlying its beautiful appearance on your screen, the Phoenix Nest is a large collection of code. More precisely, it is the code of a web site designed to be viewed in a web browserWikipedia, that is, it is part of the World Wide Web.

The World Wide Web (WWW), commonly known as the Web, is an information system where documents and other web resources are identified by Uniform Resource Locators (URLs, such as, which may be interlinked by hypertext, and are accessible over the Internet.[1][2] The resources of the WWW are transferred via the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) and may be accessed by users by a software application called a web browser and are published by a software application called a web server.Wikipedia

The Web is one of the most transformative technologies in history. Its impacts, for both good and ill, have yet to be understood. One of the things it makes possible is to enable someone with a modest amount of training and resources, and with a lot of time to fill, i.e., some like me, to publish ideas that cannot be published elsewhere. It's the vanity press of the 21st Century. As always, whether something should be published is a whole 'nother matter entirely.

Anyway, to be read on a browser, and do everything I intend it to do, the Phoenix Nest incorporates three different kinds of code, each in its own language:

  • HTML (Hypertext Markup Language)Wikipedia. Every web page is written in this language. With HTML a page is organized into a hierarchical structure (its DOM or Document Object ModelWikipedia) that the browser interprets into elements that it can display on a screen. For example, the code
    • <div class="PColH bg-04">
      • <div class="PColC dvLeft">
        • <button class="PColBtn" data-btnShow="+" data-btnHide="&times;" title="Show this!">+</button>
      • </div>
        <div class="PHdrT dvLeft">
        • <h4>Web Development Languages</h4>
      • </div>
      • <div class="dvClear"></div>
    • </div>
    encodes the header at the top of this section, including the button you can use to hide or display the section. Note the hierarchy imposed by the nested <div>...</div> tag sets.
  • CSS (Cascading Style Sheets)Wikipedia. These determine the appearance of things on a page: colors, positions, sizes, styles, and so on. These features were originally handled in HTML itself, and simple web pages can still be written without CSS, but anything complicated requires it. CSS makes it "easy" for web-builders to make similar things look similar. For example, the CSS code
    • .PColC>button {
      • margin-left:0 !important;
        margin-right:0 !important;
    • }
    controls the size of the margins around the button in the header to this section, and in most similar headers in the Phoenix Nest.
  • JavascriptWikipedia. This is a scripting language that enables pages to be dynamic, to do things, on specified conditions. Code in scripting languages is what makes clicking on a BUY button actually execute the order. For example, the javascript code
    • $(this).click (function(event) {
      • event.preventDefault();
        var sel = $(this).attr(_data_list);
        if (sel === undefined) {sel = _toc_sel;}
        if ($(this).html() === $(this).attr(_data_btnShow)) {
        • $(sel).find(_dPColBtn).each (function(event) {
          • PColBtnTgl ($(this), _1, _fast);
        • });
      • } else {
        • $(sel).find(_dPColBtn).each (function(event) {
          • PColBtnTgl ($(this), _2, _fast);
        • });
      • }
    • });
    tells the browser what to do when you click the button in the header to this section. (And yes to you tech-savvy nerds out there: this particular segment of javascript embeds some jQuery functions.) By the way, some simple active operations, such as following hyperlinks, are built into HTML and don't required additional javascript.

Without languages such as these, there would be no internet, no world-wide web, and in my humble opinion, the world would be a poorer place. However, to make use of those languages and actually produce web pages, we need an environment of rather complex technology.

By the way, learning these languages, even as non-fluently as I do, has required me to seek help on the web. There are a variety of helpful sources around, but the one I rely on, the one I go to first, is W3Schools, for all these languages, and others besides.

Tools of the Phoenix Nest

Even with a rudimentary knowledge of web languages, getting the Phoenix Nest from me to you requires a range of different technologies:

  • Computer. Obviously I need a computer to build and view the Nest. Mine is an Apple iMac with a 23" screen and a lot of memory. Web development requires you to have ready access to many applications simultaneously. A screen whose real estate allows only one window at a time will be hyper-frustrating.
  • File Management System. This is built into every computer and its operating system. It is perhaps the most important foundation tool: it allows me to organize not only my web files, but also images, PDF files, and web links, so that I can find them when a page needs them. Good librarianship is critical to putting information on the web.
  • Web Browsers. These are applications that run on computers and other devices to display web pages on the screen. I use both Google Chrome and Apple Safari, but I am used to Chrome's features for debugging web pages, so that is my browser of choice.
  • Hosting Technologies. These are the tools that know how to get a webfile from storage and send it to a browser. As large and complicated as the Nest is, I use two hosts:
    • Local Host. This provides a web server on my own computer, allowing me to view my web pages while they are in development, without making them public on the web. For my local host, I installed MAMPWikipedia on my computer; I could not do without it.
    • Public Host. For you to see the Nest, I needed a host available to the wide world web. For that, I chose They provide web-accessible storage space for all my files, a DNS serverWikipedia that converts the URLWikipedia of the Phoenix Nest into a physical address of the Nest files, and of course the web server software to retrieve and send to your browser the files required by that URL. They a have always provided good service, fast internet speeds, and a couple of email accounts that I use.
  • Web Development Technology. This is the technology to create, edit, and integrate web pages, and to upload it to the web server. For very simple pages, a text editor and an FTP programWikipedia are enough, but for the Phoenix Nest, I needed the support of a web development environment. For that I chose Adobe DreamweaverWikipedia. It provides a broad suite of features that I rely on:
    • It provides editors for a wide set of web languages, including the HTML, CSS, and javascript mentioned above. Those editors have syntax checkers that help to avoid errors.
    • It provides a WYSIWYGWikipedia viewer that lets me see web pages approximately as they would look in a browser, and to edit those page through that view. This feature of Dreamweaver is of poor quality; the approximation to a browser is remote. Someone who is used to a word processor will be severely disappointed. But since my local server allows me to view those pages immediately in a true browser, the experience is one I can live with.
    • It enables me to manage the site as a whole, specifying all the details that local and public hosts require.
    • It enables me to upload and download files between my development environment and the public server.
    The complexity of the Phoenix Nest almost guarantees that nothing I do works right the first time, and often I take out my frustration by swearing at Dreamweaver. Some of that anger is justified, because despite its high price, Adobe never seems to understand the negative impact some of its design decisions have on the web developer; nor does it seem to listen to user complaints. Nonetheless, I continue to use it, because I'm used to its foibles, and can usually solve the problems it confronts me with.
  • Photographic Technology. I have lots of photographs in the Phoenix Nest. Most of them I took myself during my Grand Fossil TourPhoenix. These can be viewed in my reports on the Tour itself. Ultimately, I hope to present photos of fossils in an integrated virtual museum. To acquire and manage these photographs, I use the following technologies:
    • Cameras. To take the pictures, I use the following cameras:
      • Nikon D5300. This DSLRWikipedia camera has given me good service for many years. I use it mainly with a standard Nikkor DX VR 18-55mm zoom lens, which I sometimes replace with a Nikkor DX 55-300mm telephoto zoom lens.
      • iPhone 7Wikipedia. I occasionally use the camera on my phone, either because I don't have my Nikon with me, or because the light levels are so low that it actually works better than the Nikon.
    • Photo processing. After an afternoon spent in a museum, it can take me a full day, sometimes two, to get the photographs ready to display on a web page. That process involves several technologies:
      • Apple Photos. This application performs most of my photo processing.
        1. Import. The first step is to import them into Apple Photos. That's fairly automatic for pictures taken with my phone. Photos from the Nikon are imported via an adapter for the SD cardWikipedia that the camera uses to store images.
        2. Name. Some photos, especially my photos of fossils, have to be organized in my file system for ready access from several different page. To that end, I attach titles to the photographs in Photos, titles that are based on the organization of my files. These titles persist as file names through the export process below. The file system them sorts them in ways that make it easy to put them where they belong. For example, I begin the title of every photo of a Tyrannosaurus rex, with the word 'TRex'. When exported, all these photos sort together, and I can move them as a block to my folder for T-Rex fossils.
        3. Edit. Most photos require some level of adjustment before they are web-ready.
          1. Light Level. The human eye adapts to a wide variety of lighting conditions; a camera does not, at least not so well. Most photo require at least a modest level of adjustment to the light level and balance.
          2. Cropping and Level. Frequently photos need to be cropped to remove unwanted elements, or rotated so that horizons are horizontal.
          3. Copyright. I always put a copyright notice on the photos I publish to the web.
        4. Export. Finally I export the images from Photos to the folders of my web site. Usually the export is in JPEG formatWikipedia at the highest possible resolution.
      • Paintbrush. I use this old simple image editor to create smaller copies of my photographs in PNG format.Wikipedia (Photos doesn't support this precise resizing.) These are more suitable for insertion in web pages. I often make the larger JPEG images available to open in separate browser windows.
      After all this, the photos are available for inclusion in web pages. Of course, actually putting them there is another step of the writing process.
  • Touring Technology. The final kind of technology that I use on a regular basis are the tools I use to plan and execute my Grand Fossil TourPhoenix:
    • RVTrip Wizard. This browser app lets me find campgrounds and other points of interest, display them on a map, and organize them into itineraries, showing the mileage between stops. It lets me specify the number of days at each location, and calculates where I will be when. By switching to Satellite View, I can zoom in on a campground and see the actual layout of the camp sites. Many is the RV park I've rejected because the Wizard showed me that the RVs were packed too tightly. RVTrip Wizard also provides hyperlinks to Campground Reviews and to the websites for the individual campgrounds.
    • Google Maps. I have a long-standing love-hate relationship with Google Maps. Functionally it is the most complete and integrated mapping tool available:
      • It has one of the most comprehensive databases of places available.
      • It is available on computers phones and tablets.
      • On phones and tablets, it provides adequate GPS services,Wikipedia navigating me to where I want to go, especially important since I don't travel with a co-pilot.
      • Its computer version is browser based, which means that links to maps can be shared with other people and devices, and they can be embedded in web pages. (Apple Maps fails here, since its maps are locked exclusively into a Mac application.)
      Nothing else matches this combination of capabilities. Nonetheless, I use it reluctantly:
      • Google's business model in one of the most invasive of personal privacy.Phoenix
      • Every use of a Google product reports your usage to Google, including where you are and any other data they can find. For that reason, I have ceased embedding Google Maps in my web pages, because Google was getting cookies from my pages, even when a viewer didn't look at the maps.Phoenix Note
      • Google GPS facility is obsessed with shaving seconds of your trip. Often it has routed me and my trailer through residential streets, when a slightly longer route via a highway was available. A few times it has routed me under trestles too short for my trailer, twice with expensive consequences. (That's one of the perils of not having a copilot to double-check the GPS.) I do not know if Google has height and weight restrictions for roads in its database. If it does, it does not make them available in the route filtering process. It definitely should make them part of a much-more user-friendly route planning capability.

These of course are only a fraction of the applications I have on my computer and devices, but these are the ones that play an important role in making the Phoenix Nest available to you.

Let Us Begin!

Let us then talk about human action, about the mind, about consciousness and conscious behavior, about the soul. The Phoenix Nest is a place for storiesPhoenix Note on these arcane topics, stories whose plots I have not found elsewhere in my reading, or are told only in soporific pedagogy. Telling, and discussing, these stories will lead us into many other areas of thought: science, philosophy, religion, political, morality. They will raise ideas that compete with traditional stories, not only our acknowledge mythology, but stories that are often presented as factual. 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 such 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, quickly and decisively (or at least to appear to win, and put your opponent on the defensive). 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 characters allotted by 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.

I doubt you believe the stories I tell, certainly not all of them, and maybe not any of them. These stories are about traditionally sensitive topics — the soulWikipedia and GodWikipedia, moralityWikipedia and sinWikipedia, heavenWikipedia and hellWikipedia and deathWikipedia, and others — ideas that are commonly classified as religiousWikipedia rather than scientific.Wikipedia And I'll be offering some very non-traditional views about them, for example,

  • that they (as reconstructed) 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".

Now you might not like the reconstructed versions of these concepts. 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. 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 continuous redevelopment, since there was an earlier manifestation of it that has mostly been removed, and I am constantly adding to it.) Here is a list of what is currently available:

  • Flights of the Phoenix. This is an online journal (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.
      • Journal. This will take you to the latest such report.
  • Poetry of the Phoenix. I am not a poet, but there are times when what I want to say requires the language of poetry.
  • Tales of the Phoenix. On rare occasion the muse requires me to engage in explicit non-fiction.
  • In Work:
    • Virtual Museum of Natural History. This began as a plan for an integrated gallery of all the photos of fossils I have taken during the Grand Fossil Tour, and has morphed conceptually into something that I believe will be far more useful, and that is proving far more difficult to realize. But I'm working, I'm working.
    • The Evolution of the Material, Mortal Soul. The primary reason for building the Phoenix Nest was to write a story that explained and defended the concept of a person as an agent who intentionally causes things to happen, much as promulgated by Roderick Chisholm, as I suggested above in "What's this "Material, Mortal Soul?". In the course of understanding that concept, I have gradually accreted a cluster of ideas that I described above in "Who I Think I Am Now". Every one of these ideas is contrary to the opinions of prominent philosophers and scientists. So crafting a story that can sail safely amidst all these Scyllas and CharybdisesWikipedia is taking time. Though my vessel be laden like the famous Irish RoverWikipediaYouTube, I still believe I shall get to port, and one by one deliver my cargoes.

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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