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Humanist Essay for June 2014
"The Songs of Unseen Birds"
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[Reprinted from the HSNM June 2014 Newsletter.]

I walk in the cool of the morning, and the air around me is alive with bird calls. I stop and look up into the trees. All the young foliage is moving lightly in the breeze and glimmering in the dappled sunlight. I cannot locate a single bird, in flight or otherwise. My ears direct my eyes to look - over there, up here, right behind me, right above me... I recognize the melodious calls of robins, the squealing of hummingbirds, cooing of doves, the twittering of the LBJs ("little brown jobs"), and a pair of blackbirds laughing back and forth. Obviously I am surrounded by birds, but my bedazzled eyes cannot make out even one.

At other times, the trail is silent, unnaturally so. The birds are keeping quiet on purpose - "not a peep," as they say. I conclude that the hawks must be hunting. I start looking and listening for them. I expect to see or hear them soon, and I often do. This gets me thinking about how many years I walked these trails, and others, and never thought much about the hidden world existing right above me in the trees. It has always been there, and there have always been people who enjoyed closely observing it. Over time, I have become one of them.

I might use the obviously present but generally invisible birds in the treetops as a metaphor for all of the components that make up the universe. Observant people have long understood that everything is made of something, moved by something. They supposed the existence of particles, waves, fields, and the like. Their conviction that physical reality could not exist as it does without such an understructure drove them to invent techniques for revealing and measuring things that are not obvious to our senses. Along the way, they had to endure a lot of scoffers. Even today, there are religious fundamentalists for whom accepted scientific discoveries about the makeup and history of the world are still unproved conjecture. They can hear the birdcalls, but refuse to make the logical leap, or even to accept the testimony of someone who has climbed the tree.

Strangely, my metaphor can be applied equally well to describe ideas that seem antithetical to science. Imagine that the twittering in the treetops represents another kind of hidden world that exists within reach of our comprehension but is generally imperceptible. Call that world Spirit. Awareness of it can come gradually or suddenly. People might go for long periods or their whole lives without perceiving it or looking for it. Meditation, like a walk in the woods, can bring one to the quiet, patient place where this wondrous world can be detected.

Like the songs of unseen birds, there are certain sensations that one may perceive and then process into the conclusion: There must be something here. I refer to dreams and daydreams, deja vu, serendipitous or coincidental encounters that feel fateful, worries that prove prescient, impulses that verge on telepathic, and strokes of artistic inspiration. Shall we naturalists, in the name of reason, reject the input from our own bodies? Reason tells me that although there is no evidence for an outside, sentient, supernatural force that creates these phenomena for its own purpose, the phenomena exist nonetheless, so there must be a source, and a natural system in which they operate. If we are creative and persistent enough, we may find ways to discover more about these experiences.

Psychology and cognitive science are already unlocking many secrets of our mental and emotional functions. Perhaps this realm is also made up of particles, fields and waves that will one day prove to be the source of magical-seeming mental transmissions and ideas. Maybe it all does boil down to chemistry. But we should be humble in our assumptions about our capacity to objectively examine and accurately perceive the structure of our own consciousness. How many more layers of reality do exist to which we have yet gained access?

Now I am wondering why I have risked my good humanist reputation to speculate on such things as spirit, telepathy and precognition. I guess because a little birdie told me.

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Copyright © 2014 Zelda Gatuskin

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