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.

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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 http://PhoenixNest/Phoenix/
Copyright 2016
Status In development since 2008-05-13
Last Revised 2017-05-03

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?

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.

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.

I speak of this site instead as a collection of stories, because that's what they are, even if I believe them, sincerely believe them, to be true. Much of what I say in these stories conflicts 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. 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, at least at first, on many if not most of the claims I make; that's the nature of humanity.

So I'm not going to confront you with facts. I'm sorry! With opinions! I don't want you to spend all your mental energy thinking about how to refute what I'm saying. 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 in the short term, though good reasons may erode defenses over time. So I will treat the pages of the Nest as stories, hoping that you will suspend disbelief, treat them as fiction or what-ifs, 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 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 her or his 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.

Perhaps more importantly, given the tendency of true believers in any religion, including science and atheism, to disparage any faith not their own, my faith is deep and abiding, even if it is constantly evolving in its details. It is not shallow or glib or superstitious. 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 the 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.

What Do You Mean, "Dialog"?

If I came right out and said that what I say in the Nest is God's own truth, and that to the extent that you disagree with me, you're mistaken 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.

Why Do You Keep Saying "You" and "Me"?

If I came right out and said that what I say in the Nest is God's own truth, and that to the extent that you disagree with me, you're mistaken 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.

What's a Webbook?


(By the way, this section illustrates one of the techniques mentioned above. I originally wrote the above paragraphs as a popup page that I could invoke whenever a reader was curious about my use of the term 'webbook'. I could have linked to that popup here, but decided that inserting its contents here — on demand — would better illustrate the power of webbooks.)

What about Evolution?

One thing I am not going to explain or defend here is evolution. 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.

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:

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.

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, 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 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 causes 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 as something to discard 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. That 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 screaching 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 unfashionable 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. If so, farewell. I have nothing to say to true believers. May the world be merciful in dealing with your errors.


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