Here’s what reality seems to be.
We live on a planet that is spinning as it orbits around the sun that is the center of our particular solar system. All living things on Earth appear to have begun their life on earth. Life is made up of the elements that were manufactured by the formation of the universe and the deaths of stars , and those elements eventually found their way to a young, coalescing earth. Once on earth, minerals were formed from these elements and liquid water, and here life began, fueled by the energy that blasts out from the ongoing nuclear furnace that is our sun.
Once life took hold, it rapidly diversified through a process we describe as evolution through the process of natural selection, where the ever-changing challenges to survival favored the continuation of one species over another (as well as heritable traits within species), and geographic isolation (combined with random genetic coding errors) led to ever more varieties of living things, each suited to it’s own environment, each occupying a certain niche in nature. This process has continued to this very moment, and will continue as long as the Earth remains a habitable planet.
Humans are a product of this process. We are a species of animal that is related to every other living thing on this planet. We are classified as mammals, and as primates. Our closest living relatives are the Chimpanzees and Bonobos, with whom we share 99% of our DNA. (We also “share” almost as much DNA with mice and about 40% with lettuce).
We humans are clever toolmakers who have developed both verbal and written language, which has allowed us to operate in a conceptual as well as an animal world. Our brains have allowed us to develop technology that has dramatically altered any landscape that we have occupied. We have, in a remarkably short time, grown from a collection of tribes of hunter-gatherers into huge, complex societies and nations.
A most notable feat of human intelligence has been the creation of the scientific method, which has, over the last few hundred years, allowed us to come to a fairly deep understanding of the reality of our biology, our world, and the universe we float in. It is through the investigations of science that we know most of what I have just cataloged.
And yet humans also believe in the existence of God. We have built entire civilizations and cultural institutions around our belief in gods that both created us and who control our fate. Our first explanations of reality were mythological in nature. (Before science gave us a means of testing propositions, one person’s guess was as good as another’s). It would seem fair to say, at this point, that all of the early religious claims about nature and physical reality have been proven false by subsequent scientific discovery. Yet religion and religious belief persists.
And though science has not (and can not) ever disprove the existence of God, science has shown us that there is nothing about our existence on Earth that necessitates the intervention, direction or supervision of any sort of divine agent, supreme deity, or intelligent god. And yet the natural state of a human being appears to include a belief in such a being or force, along with a feeling that all of creation is somehow here for (primarily) our benefit.
But not all humans believe in God.
Perhaps tellingly, it is among scientists that we find the highest percentage of humans who do not believe in god(s) or magic. Which means it is those who know the most about reality that believe the least in what we might call the “unreal”. Yet the number of such unbelievers (including non-believing non-scientists as well) still represents a minority among the human population. This hints at the proposition that magical belief flourishes best in ignorance. But, since belief is coming to be understood as a sort of “default” setting of the human brain, ignorance of reality cannot be seen as the only factor in the continuation of belief in magical things.
Over these last years, I have explored this continuing reality of the believing human in an age of science. Using my own experience as a means of both discovery and explanation, I’ve experienced a rather intensive period of learning and thinking that I have then turned into my weekly “sermons”. And I find myself, now, in the rather interesting position of having “answered” the most basic questions we humans seem to have about life: Where did I come from? Where am I going? Why am I here? And though I could probably go on writing a new “sermon” every week for the rest of my life (because there is always going to be a new scientific discovery, or a new popular science book, or a new personal experience to write about), I’ve realized that it’s time to re-direct the energy I’ve been putting in to this blog into other projects. Because understanding that I am here as the result of natural processes more begs than answers the question of how best to live the life I have (though it does, I think, offer some helpful clues).
I am primarily an artist and performer. I can now see “the not so reverend bob” as one of my creations — a champion for humane reason and science. But playing the extroverted evangelist for evolution has been a bit of a strain on this natural introvert (a bit like a submarine doing battle on the surface). And I think the answer to how to live my life (in this next stage of that life) comes in the form of a recognition that this artist is most effective operating below the surface (like the submarine). And, for now, trite as it may sound, I want more love and less argument in my life. And holding the view I do — that we only have this one life to live — I have only so much time to write my next musical or paint my next painting. (And, besides: it’s not as if anyone’s chances at eternal life will be jeopardized by me not reaching them with the “gospel” of the church of bob)!
So let this be my final sermon on the boblog of the not-so-reverend bob. I’ll keep the site up for those who might want to read one of my 166 sermons (167 counting this one. Yikes!). And I’ll always be ready, like a Minuteman with his musket hanging over the cabin door, to answer the call when needed. But for the foreseeable future I’ll be directing my energies elsewhere. I have other lost creative sheep, as it were, to gather up while the sun still shines.
I want to thank each of you that has visited this blog, and especially my “faithful” readers. I hope that I have given you something worthwhile.
the “retiring” not so reverend Bob Diven
This is a remarkable museum. For one, it’s a beautiful (and beautifully organized) building. For another, it has the distinction of sitting on top of the very deposits that have yielded the countless fossils that occupy the displays.
As you approach the museum you pass by a water-filled pond that was once a tar quarry. There are life-sized replicas of a Columbia Mammoth family — one of whom has been “caught” in the tar hidden beneath the water. This tableau is artifice, of course, but the sulfurous gasses that continue to bubble up into this still-active “asphalt seep” are the real deal, and provide a quietly stunning reminder of a still very active Earth.
Inside the circular museum, one walks past display after display of the mounted fossils that make up a rich catalog of extinct fauna that once roamed the Los Angeles area. The tar pits (in their time) captured every kind of organism, from the truly stupendous Columbian Mammoth to delicate dragon flies. All of the La Brea fossils show the distinctive chocolate patina of their time in the tar. There are sloths, mastodons, condors, ancient buffalo, horses, sabre-toothed cats and dire wolves. Lots and lots of dire wolves.
Did I mention there are lots of dire wolves? One of the more stunning displays is a lighted wall made up of row after row of dire wolf skulls. There could easily be a hundred of them, filling an entire wall, floor to ceiling. (Watch the informational videos in the two museum theaters, and you’ll learn that these skulls are only a hint of the bounty of fossils that continue to come from ongoing excavations on the site).
There are not dinosaurs, of course. The tar pits began their life-capturing career only forty-thousand years ago (which turns out to be an important time-span in the story of the extinction of much of North America’s megafauna). And though there is likely a connection between the arrival of humans on the continent and the subsequent extinction of these large animals, there has only been one human fossil recovered from the pits: a woman from about ten thousand years ago.
I can’t say enough nice things about this museum. It is a fine blend of location, collection and architecture. Everything one could want in a museum experience.
The Page Museum is located in central Los Angeles, right next to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (hint: if you’re planning to visit both, do The Page Museum first — LACMA is a vast and overwhelming campus of buildings and collections).
More than once I have stood in my local public library and considered all of the knowledge contained on all of the pages of all of the books that reside there. Even in our modest municipal facility, I can feel the weight of the hundreds of volumes that I will never read, the stories I will never know, and the concepts I will never understand. It is a rather stark reminder of the constraining power of time as it forces us to choose which opportunities we will spend the minutes and hours of our mortality upon.
And now we have the internet, and with it an amplification of an entire industry dedicated to the idea that what we human consumers lack is enough choice. Every new personal device must now not only belong to us, but adapt to us, using algorithms to mimic an intelligence that can study and absorb our interests, needs and desires. I wouldn’t say I find it terrifying, but it is troubling. We have achieved a level of ease, affluence and convenience where each individual can be a petty tyrant of his own digital entertainment and informational domain.
Like all “progress” this is troubling in a paradoxical way: I do not like my options to be forcibly limited by anyone or anything, but at the same time, when are we going to recognize that we are doing to ourselves something not unlike training a bear to ride a bicycle or a chimp to talk in sign language. Sure, with enough effort something that passes for rudimentary success can be achieved in either of those examples, but could it be argued that we had even modestly improved the quality of life for either the bicycling bear or the signing chimp?
Those who work in the technological fields (it would seem safe to assume) understand, or at least appreciate, science. But science tells us that we are evolved mammals with quirky, limited brains. True, we are not limited like a dog or a cow, but just because we operate on a higher cognitive level does not in any way mean that we have found a way to transcend our evolved biology (though there are those hoping to achieve just that through technology).
Sometimes when I open my laptop I sense the presence of a vast collection of human creative and intellectual output (and a lot of cat videos) spread out before me, and I feel it’s seductive siren-song of limitless possibility as I choose the one item (at a time) to give my full attention to. (And make no mistake: we are not hard-wired to multi-task in anything like the way that we imagine we can. No. The best we can do is switch back and forth between competing stimuli, it’s just that some of us are a little bit better at rapid switching than others). And I have something like my experience of standing in the information ocean of my library described above, only on steroids.
I think we are rushing down a road of rapidly diminishing returns when it comes to choice. This doesn’t mean that we can do anything to stop it, really. But it does mean that our yearning for ever more choice is bringing with it challenges that evolution has not prepared us for. And this is the challenge of plenty.
Admittedly, there is a certain kind of pleasure in excess — in having way more than we can eat, or watch or listen to. But this is perhaps an artifact of the many episodes of want that we’ve experienced in our evolution (this could be a cognitive analogue to our “Ice Age” body’s propensity to store fat so easily). But despite our constant yearning for ease and plenty, ease and plenty in larger doses do not fit well with our lean, animal natures (physical or cognitive). For isn’t it true that we appreciate the company of others most when we’ve experienced loneliness; food when we’ve been hungry; safety when we’ve been in danger?
We humans are unique in being the animals that are both aware of their existential dilemma (mortality) and have a superior technical ability that allows us to build ways to satisfy almost any desire we can generate (money may not buy you love, but it can buy a lot of things that are pretty darn close). In essence, we create machines first for work, and then for pleasure. The first creates wealth and leisure time, the second is the way we spend our newly-acquired (in historic terms) time and money.
This is the point where I should wrap things up with an answer to our dilemma of choice, but I don’t think there is one. Each of us has to negotiate our own balance between the competing tensions of want and plenty — between our imagined ideal of ease and the biological reality of our physical minds and bodies. (I, for example, pay money to belong to a gym where I exercise my body as a separate activity to make up for the ease of my daily work that would otherwise allow my frame of bone and muscle to degrade into a fatty, unhealthy lump). And just to spice things up a bit, we have to work these things out in an environment where it is not just our money, but our time and attention and desires that are the most sought-after commodities.
We are drawn to attractive stimuli as much as any raven or laboratory mouse, but we are no longer dependent upon the whims of nature to provide the things that we crave the most (for their rarity, at least in nature — in our case, fats, sugars and produced entertainment). It is actually an odd state of affairs for a human such as I to be able to sit down, turn on a machine, and search out a thousand videos of only that one thing I really, really like watching, and then watch it over and over and over as much as I want to, until I don’t want to anymore, and have to find something else that tickles my fancy.
I’m not one of those wags who will decry such a state as inferior to some other, more noble way of living. Who am I to say? This is just how things are in our lives right now (in our society, anyway). In that way, we are no different from our ancestors who adapted to a life among domesticated plants and animals, where for the first time humans had the chance to get fat from eating too much.
Evolution has not stopped with us. We may have found ways to protect ourselves from the more basic ravages of natural selection, but in doing so we have only created other evolutionary pressures in the form of our own manufactured technology.
The grand experiment of life on Earth continues and, like each of our ancestors that came before, it remains for us to make our own choices of how we spend our time here. It’s just that the act of choosing itself has become much more complicated for more humans than it has ever been before.