Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Cougar and the Raven...and Science

I have to admit a soft spot for birds--especially crows, ravens, seagulls, and chickadees. I'll never forget the opportunity to rescue a crow with an injured wing in our backyard. It tamely let me feed it taco shells before I gently wrapped it in a towel for transport to a bird rescue facility in town. I also fondly recall giving it a drink of water with an old medicine dropper. Unfortunately, he decided to peck the arm of the bird rescue volunteer until it drew blood. (As an aside, we think this bird returned once or twice after it was re-habilitated across town. Sadly, I did not have taco shells readily at hand for the next visit.)

I give this preface, so you can understand perhaps why I sometimes enjoy reading about birds in my spare time. (In fact, as a fiction writer, it's hard to find time to read good fiction myself.) Right now, I'm almost finished with the Mind of the Raven by Bernd Heinrich. I've enjoyed the book for the most part, but one passage in the sixteenth chapter concerning an older lady named Mrs. Harnum annoyed me for its bias against those of faith. The chapter recounts strange behavior by a raven while the older Mrs. Harnum was completing chores in her yard, overshadowed by the neighboring forest. The strange raven vocalizations and erratic flying around her head caused her to follow its flight as it "buzzed" a large cougar that appeared to be stalking her from an overlooking ledge of rock. The woman called to her husband for help, and they chased the large cat away. The woman called the experience a miracle, claiming that the bird alerted her to the cougar's presence.

The author, of course, would not have the poor reader thinking a miracle may have in reality occurred, so he (plausibly) theorized that perhaps the raven was working with the cougar, and that they both wanted to chow down upon the old woman. This kind of partnering behavior as it relates to kills is apparently somewhat common with wolves, but I don't know whether, or not, cougars and ravens are known to often interact in this fashion. Whether they do, or not, is not so much the question with me. It seems plausible enough, but what seemed silly to me was the author's failure to further analyze the situation; he instead fell upon his bias against religion to point him in the desired direction. If the two animals were indeed working together, I suggest that it leads us to an even greater miracle: a wild raven and cougar cooperated in the wild to bring down an aged woman caught alone outside, but they were mysteriously foiled at their bloody plot. What really caused the woman to realize she was in danger? Looking below the surface, then, we see a potentially even greater miracle.

In a similar vein, there was recently a science show my son was watching concerning the brain. I sat down and watched it for a few minutes as it described the stimulation of a part of the test subject's brain theorized to be associated with religion and the supernatural. When the brain was stimulated in a particular way, the test subject reported being aware of other beings in the room with her. As I recall, she said she could make out vague shapes. The pleasant feeling of companionship was then followed by something described as a hot and fiery place. The interviewed scientist reported (in so many words) that this test was evidence against God and faith, as these spiritual feelings could be brought to the surface using targeted electric stimulations of the brain.

First of all, it seems to me that for the experiment to be considered valid it should be carried out simultaneously with multiple subjects. If each subject reports the exact same experience, I think it raises more questions than answers. I am not suggesting that, if carried out, each subject would report similar "presences," but to fail to go this extra step betrays a bias which colors the conclusions. To suggest conclusions based on non-simultaneous testing seems to embrace a bias against the supernatural realm.

Secondly, even if this is determined to be true and feelings of a religious or spiritual nature can be so prodded and teased from our minds, what does this really prove? Genesis 1 teaches that we were formed in the image of God. The need for God is stamped upon our very hearts and minds. The fact that this need may be associated with a particular region of our mind is neither particularly surprising nor suggestive of a conflict between faith and science. It is, yet again, simply showing us the bias against religion held by some of those within the scientific community. As St. Thomas Aquinas taught, faith and reason compliment each other, as both are reflections of Truth.

(Photo taken several years ago at Snoqualmie Summit in Washington State.)

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