Autism spectrum/A few impertinent questions/Could the purpose of life be to participate in the growth of the universe?

Evolution occurs in response to a changing environment, and man’s mental behavior has changed dramatically in the past few centuries. We spend our childhood sitting at desks, and dealing with abstract concepts. Could autism (and perhaps some other “mental illness”) merely be evidence of Nature’s attempts to adapt to the dramatic change in our mental life?

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As parents, most of us would do anything to spare our children unhappiness - to present them with a life free from pain and strife. I was somewhat able to do that for Tony. If the rest of us didn't have problems, we seemed to go looking for them. Guy was sent to Siberia. (By our country, not by the Russians.) After he became a physicist, he applied for a year at the university in Novosibirsk on a scientist-exchange program. He fell in love with a Russian woman with two daughters. The Soviets kicked him out of the country. He managed to return and get married, but was again expelled from Russia. He offered to live in Siberia with his family. The Soviets refused. At that time Russia was having problems with a dissident physicist of its own, and they apparently had no desire to take on an American scientist with unconventional ideas. (Guy probably would have been allowed to stay in Siberia if he had been willing to denounce the United States.) When he returned to the States, the FBI learned of his willingness to live in Russia and interrogated him. Guy told them nationalism was a major cause of the world's problems, and since he had no excessive financial ambitions, and wouldn't be bothered by the austere Soviet living standard, the world would benefit from an American scientist living in the Soviet Union.

"Where did you get such a weird attitude?" asked the shocked FBI agent. "From your parents?" Russia was still our mortal enemy, and willingness to live there was considered treason.

Not sure how to convince the FBI agent he thought up his own weird ideas, Guy ventured, "From my father, I guess." It seemed a safe answer, and his deceased father could no longer be censured for any of his son's unorthodox attitudes.

The FBI agent kept Guy under surveillance, questioning him several times during the next few months. Nevertheless he managed to return to Russia once more. This time his wife became pregnant, and the Soviets finally allowed him to bring his family to the United States. After so many trips on Aeroflot, he was penniless when they finally arrived in California. I had just returned from a year in the South Pacific, and was living in a small apartment. I hurriedly found a place large enough for all of us. While living with me, Guy first got a job working in a restaurant as a short-order cook, until he could find a position at a university. (I respect him for that as much as I do for his academic achievements.) After Guy obtained a position at a college and moved his family to Pennsylvania, he quickly acquired financial ambition. Mere fiscal survival began to challenge him. His wife is a beautiful girl, a sweet, generous, loving mother, who seems happy to cope with an absent-minded physicist, but the Russian attitude toward money was a little unique. In Communist Russia consumer goods, such as a pair of blue-jeans or a bottle of perfume, had value; money had very little. Russians didn't get evicted for not paying the rent and they didn't lose their job if they only showed up for work several days a week. As children they were taught that saving money was an evil, capitalistic practice. I watched uneasily as my daughter-in-law, when entering an American store, would exclaim excitedly,

"Oh, it's every Russian woman's dream to find herself in a store like this!" She still seems inclined to view "things" as more valuable than cash.

Guy has found providing for his increasing family of beautiful, Russian-speaking females a real challenge. (They have two more daughters.) Perhaps a slightly turbulent childhood dealing with Tony are some of the experiences that prepared him to function so serenely among his family of Russian ladies - with various financial needs

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Our society takes care of retarded people, and most of them are happy. Less unhappy than people leading normal lives, in any case – having been spared most of the daily problems the rest of us face. We visited Tony often, and he seemed content, always greeting us with a big radiant grin. Nevertheless some of his board-and-care homes seemed better than others. Once I went to see Tony and found the house where he had been living empty and abandoned. Alarmed, I rushed to a phone and called the Golden Gate Regional Center to learn what had happened to my child. I was told that the woman who ran the home had gone off on a vacation to Alabama and left the retarded men in the charge of her cousin – who turned out to be a drug dealer. The house was raided, the cousin taken to jail, and other accommodations had to be found for the handicapped residents. Actually, I’m sure Tony enjoyed all that excitement of the drug raid, rather than being frightened by it. I remembered how he laughed with delight once when I got a traffic ticket, and the patrolman observing Tony’s glee with bewilderment. After that board-and-care home was closed down, I asked Tony if he would like to live with me again. He said no. I should have believed him. “You’ll like it,” I assured him, “and I’ll cook all your favorite food.” Tony seemed more emotionally stable, and there was a day-program for retarded people just a few blocks from my apartment, to which he could walk each day. He could again attend Easter Seals recreation programs on weekends.

I think Tony found living with me boring. He missed living with other disabled people. One evening I left him alone in the apartment, and he broke all my dishes. He didn’t seem particularly upset; he merely smiled at my shock and frustration. However it seemed clear that he wanted to live in another board-and-care home, rather than with me, and breaking my dishes was merely his way of saying so. Because he was considered “difficult”, Tony was placed in a quite wonderful facility, one run by a man who took very seriously his job of dealing with handicapped people.

I never tried to protect my other children from all of life’s challenges, and allowed them to do their own growing. I was never able to teach Tony much, but I'm grateful that he has led a happy life. Unlike some more capable autistic people, Tony seemed unaware of his deficiencies. He never appeared to suffer from a lack of self-esteem. He was fortunate to be born into a family capable of laughing at his mischief. Perhaps he could have achieved a little more academically if he had been subjected to intensive psychological treatments, but if he could not live independently, contentment seems an important enough achievement. I always took advantage of any school or service offered to autistic children. But just as I knew no such treatment would have cured me of my deviations from average, I never believed they were going to cure Tony’s autism - or change his basic nature. A few autistic people apparently grow up to live independent lives, and some are apparently even of high intelligence. Those autistic individuals deserve credit for their own achievements. Education is important for all children, including those labeled autistic. However education does not cure anything, and instead of being ”treated” out of existence, autism has continued to increase dramatically in our society. Now a 55-year-old, somewhat arthritic, well-mannered gentleman (becoming bald on top), Tony recently announced he was planning "to go to college and get a job.” He understands more than we sometimes assume, but it's difficult to know how much. He never learned to read. As he became older, even speech seemed to require even greater effort. But whatever his understanding of "going to college and getting a job", anticipating it seems to entertain him. I feel a deep gratitude to special education teachers for their contribution to the sweet, sunny disposition Tony has as an adult.

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Tony was forty-one, and I had moved to southern California. He was living in a board-and-care-home in the Bay Area, and I saw him whenever I visited Sherry. Then, Sherry called one night and said Tony was in the hospital and not expected to live. He had been operated on for ischemia (inadequate circulation) in the tissues of the bowel and stomach, but the damage was too extensive to repair. The surgeons merely closed the incision to await Tony's inevitable death. I drove all night to reach the Bay Area. It was as good a way as any to spend that awful night grieving for my forty-one-year-old child.

Tony was still alive, but the doctors said he probably would not survive being taken off the respirator. It was disconnected, and we sat numbed with dread, listening to his labored breathing. Nevertheless, hour by hour, his breathing slowly became stronger and more regular.

Sherry and Nick, her step-son, Guy and his wife, Valentina. She is holding Colin, and Elena decided she should also be held. (photo)[1]

Finally Sherry said to me, "There is a cafeteria across the street, if you get hungry."

Tony suddenly regained consciousness and tried to get out of bed. "Tony, where are you going?" we exclaimed, for he was attached to a tangle of tubes and wires.

"To the cafeteria," Tony said. Eating had always been his favorite activity, and now he didn't even have a functional stomach or intestine.

Although Tony had regained consciousness, the doctors told us he would soon succumb to massive organ failure. For the next week I remained in the hospital room with Tony, sleeping in a chair. Sometimes he was alert and at other times he seemed barely conscious. The doctors explained that bacteria in his intestines would soon cause a massive infection. He developed a fistula, a drainage from his bowel, which smelled awful. He was diagnosed as dying of gangrene. We signed a “no code“, agreeing that they not try to resuscitate Tony if his heart stopped. Someone asked us to think about arrangements for disposing of the body. I suggested donating it to research, thinking Tony might somehow contribute to science’s understanding of autism. However we were told research doesn't want anything to do with a body infected with gangrene.

Once, as we sat by his bed, Sherry said sadly to herself, "Oh Tony, are you going to die?"

Tony suddenly became conscious. “Of course not!” he declared indignantly. His tone of voice and facial expression were explicit.

People of normal understanding might have died of despair during that time. However Tony had no comprehension of what was happening to him. I felt I had no choice but to accept the doctors' dreadful prognosis. However Sherry, a nurse regarding herself part of the medical profession, didn’t. She took an active role in Tony’s treatment, performing therapeutic touch on him. Therapeutic touch supposedly affects "fields" and resembles a massage without actually touching the patient. (There may be a bit of placebo involved.) Sherry’s had a friend who was an Indian shaman, and she asked him to perform prayer ceremonies for Tony. She insisted he be given antibiotics and nutritional IV. The doctors complied, even though they still regarded Tony's condition as hopeless. After a few weeks Sherry managed to have Tony transferred to UC Medical Center in San Francisco, a bigger, more prestigious facility than the little hospital near the board and care home where he‘d been living. Tony stayed at UC for the next seven months, being fed intravenously. He learned to get around the hospital with his IV pole. His personality didn't change. For instance when I visited him I noticed a big hole in the plaster of his hospital room, where he had apparently kicked it in. And I understand he activated all the fire alarms one day. But he seemed to adjust to life with an IV pole. Once he asked Sherry, "Did MASH do this to me?"

She said yes, and the answer seemed to entertain him. She bought him the MASH movie and also got him a surgical outfit, including a mask and some goggles. He would dress up like a surgeon and go stand by the surgical-suite door and greet the doctors as they came out. Tony knew he wasn't supposed to go into the operating rooms, but one day when Sherry was visiting him, he stuck his head inside the door and yelled,

"Larry, are you in there?"

Larry was the chief surgeon. The first question Tony asks when he meets someone is, "What's your name?" Apparently the surgeon had replied, "Larry". However the chief surgeon's colleagues didn't call him Larry, the nurses didn't call him Larry, and I doubt any of his patients except Tony called that surgeon by his first name.

I would never have thought Tony could tolerate all that happened to him, and all that was done to him during those months, but he appeared to adjust to hospital life. The doctors seemed reluctant to operate on Tony a second time. Any attempt to reconstruct Tony's stomach and intestines was expected to be long, complicated and dangerous, and the doctors did not seem confident of success. Finally Sherry said, "Tony loves to eat, and this is no way for him to live." She felt it might be better to take a chance on surgery, rather than for Tony to continue to exist on an IV. Although the doctors were apprehensive about its success, a second operation was finally scheduled. We settled ourselves in the waiting room, prepared to endure the hours while Tony's surgery was taking place, wondering if everyone had made the right decision. However "Larry", the chief surgeon, reappeared in the waiting room after only a short time. To everyone's astonishment most of Tony's tissues had spontaneously regenerated, and very little corrective surgery needed.

"I don't know why," the surgeon admitted with amazement, "but you'll be able to take him home and feed him in a few days."

Tony (photo)

Tony quickly recovered, having already grown part of a new stomach and intestine. Tony's body was able to organize a creative response to his injury, a complex solution that the doctors feared might be beyond the capabilities of modern medicine.

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Throughout history people have acknowledged the existence of creativity in nature, and have made up religious stories about it. However when philosophical materialists challenge religious myths, they sometimes replaced them with speculations just as fanciful. Cosmologists speculate about String theory, M-theory, imaginary time, extra dimensions, black holes, wormholes, baby universes, dark matter and reversing the arrow of time. Scientists propose parallel universes, somewhere out there where no one can detect them, and suggest that, by coincidence, we just happen to live in the one universe that appears designed for life. Anything for which they can devise a mathematical formula is considered a valid speculation. I doubt science will ever produce evidence for either multiple universes or deities. Scientists who try to describe Nature mathematically seek evidence of that illusive "random mutation" that was supposedly the origin of life. But what if living organisms aren’t mindless contraptions, and our mathematical descriptions are merely approximations of a complex, intelligent process that exceeds our present understanding? What if intelligence existed prior to physical existence? Mathematics always consists of just one correct answer, and all others are wrong (a rigid process, invented by man and without options) while in Nature, there are apparently many correct answers. Each individual is slightly different. Evidence does exist which convinces some of us that consciousness and "energy fields", whatever their nature, are involved in purposeful biological creativity. Wouldn’t that seem to suggest individual, purposeful organization rather than rather than some rigid process constrained by mathematical formulas?

Questions edit

The original images may be found on this pdf copy of the book.

Current page: Could the purpose of life be to participate in the growth of the universe?

  1. Wouldn’t volition be an essential aspect of creativity?
  2. Could an inherently creative universe, a living universe, ever be defined by mathematical formulas?
  3. How did the laws of nature originate?
  4. Are some scientific concepts too sacred to be debated?
  5. Are intelligence and creativity two separate and distinct processes?
  6. Are psychoanalytic theories profound? Or just convoluted?
  7. If purposeful creativity exists as an aspect of reality, why should we assume it is a process unique to human consciousness?
  8. Can the value of scientific knowledge ever justify enrolling people in research projects without their knowledge or consent?
  9. Exactly what technical knowledge enables psychiatrists to manipulate ids, egos and psyches?
  10. Should "normal" be equated with average?
  11. What technical knowledge enables psychologists to declare people emotionally abnormal?
  12. Are psychologists able to scientifically measure parental love? Or its lack?
  13. Is the universe, including life, an automatic, mechanical process, driven by nothing but the laws of physics and chemistry (the materialist position)? Or do other forces play a role, such as mind, consciousness, judgment and volition - most of which we presently have only have limited understanding?
  14. Should doctors and scientists refrain from expressing skepticism about theories of colleagues in other fields?
  15. Do people generally choose the challenges which force them to grow?
  16. How can we claim to scientifically manipulate thoughts and emotions if we don't even understand how such elusive phenomena relate to physical reality?
  17. What is faith? If belief that God organized the universe is a matter of faith, why isn't the materialist belief that the universe came together by some accidental, mechanical process also a matter of faith? (Or, the Buddhist belief in self-organization.)
  18. Are living creatures constantly evolving as they strive to grow and adapt? Or must evolutionary adaptations passively wait around for a random mutation to accidentally pop up in someone's genome?
  19. Should we have official committees to define scientific knowledge? Or is an ever-changing, constantly-challenged, general consensus our best way to keep our understanding of reality vibrant?
  20. Could lying on a couch and obsessing over a traumatic childhood ever be therapeutic?
  21. Would it even be possible to conduct a scientific study to determine whether psychological treatments are effective?
  22. What is racism?
  23. Does free-will exist?
  24. Would obsessing over a traumatic event ever cure any mental illness?
  25. Could a creative intelligence be an innate aspect of all Nature?
  26. What would define economic theories as materialistic or non-materialistic?
  27. Is intolerance often the result of personal insecurity?
  28. Consciousness and free-will may be defining characteristics of all life, but do we have much understanding of what they actually are?
  29. Can we do other people's growing for them?
  30. Are Western democracies civilization’s ultimate achievement?
  31. Which would produce the most psychologically stunted individuals? Being emotionally challenged? Or never encountering any challenges?
  32. Could the purpose of life be to participate in the growth of the universe?
  33. Can science investigate and attempt to describe a non-materialistic version of the universe?
Current page: Could the purpose of life be to participate in the growth of the universe?
  1. The photos used by Berthajane can be found by linking a copy on the pdf file. Click "photo" to reach the appropriate page.