Archive for February, 2010

HAPPY BIRTHDAY CHARLES DARWIN!

Friday, February 12th, 2010

I want to wish you all a happy International Darwin Day on this, Charles Darwin’s 201st birthday.Darwin1-300x200

To me Darwin stands as an example of the possibility of the triumph of reason over irrationality, and of our ability as humans to learn from observation and evidence.  Though he is held up to ridicule by those who would defend their irrational beliefs by branding him as some sort of competing evangelist, the true testimony of his life remains the astounding fact of just how many things he got right about biology, evolution and natural selection, and the support that 150 years of science has given to his theories.  As I said in my first sermon, “Because of Darwin, life on earth makes sense.  Because of Darwin, my life makes sense”.

Happy to be sharing this remarkable journey with you my fellow hominins, I remain,

the not so reverend bob.

CARTOONS FROM THE REV

Saturday, February 6th, 2010

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REVUES FROM THE REV: “Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns, and Other Delusions” by James Randi

Saturday, February 6th, 2010

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“Scientists by and large are too modest to be prophets, too easily bored to be philosophers, and too trusting to be politicians.  Lacking in street smarts, they are easily fooled by confidence artists and sleight-of-hand tricksters.  Never ask a scientist to test the claims of paranormal phenomena.  Ask a professional magician.”
E. O. Wilson “The Creation” p.104

During a reading my psychic told me that I had matured to a point in my growth that called for the release of the irrational, which he amplified as “all those irrational hopes, dreams and ideas” about what directions my life “should” go: all of the achievements and success fantasies I still devoted energy to.  That felt like truth to me, and I took it to heart.  I think I was, in fact, at a point where I could look at my life and more deeply appreciate what I actually had going without siphoning off resources to what was — let’s be honest — fantasy.

I don’t think my psychic meant for me to run as far as I did with his advice, for a short time later I realized that my belief in my psychic qualified as, well, irrational.  And so, for the second time in my life, I experienced a declension from Faith.  The first had occurred in the winter of 1987, when my Christianity (and belief in God) had quietly collapsed.  Since then I had thought that I had no enduring “Faith” left to abandon.  Turns out I was wrong.  I had transferred my urge toward Faith (in a more moderate form, to be sure) to the usual collection of  “New Age” ideas of energy, spirituality and psychic ability.  Granted, I held my new beliefs with an earned awareness that any system of belief is open to challenge and upheaval.  Still, I was surprised (I was reading Daniel Dennett’s “Breaking the Spell: Religion as Natural Phenomena” during this time) to find that I yet harbored a “belief in belief”.  That belief stopped in that moment.  And in that moment, I knew I couldn’t see my psychic again.

This was the landscape into which James Randi’s book “Flim Flam” arrived.  If you want to hold on to any cherished belief in your favorite horoscope, psychic, faith healer, palm reader or the like, don’t read this book.  I’m telling you.  If you do you will know far too much to honestly continue any of those practices.

Randi’s approach to writing is a sort of breathless survey of an astounding number of phenomenon, each investigated thoroughly (and thoroughly de-bunked) as if the world were going to end tomorrow and the list of charlatans to be exposed was far too long for the time available.  (Actually, that is a fairly accurate description of our human condition: so many false claims yet so few floodlights of reason to expose them).  The book is not a pleasant read — the man is on an un-enviable mission and (to borrow a Biblical phrase) “The harvest is great, but the workers are few”.  Even so, the man does good work, giving each participant in his study the opportunity to share in the design of the conditions of the study.  To little avail, it seems, as Randi (a professional magician by trade) is an astute observer of the tricks most of these folks employ.

What one is left with is an alarming clarity regarding the sheer across-the-board consistency of human chicanery:  there is a numbing sameness to the tricks that are passed off as evidence of spiritual or psychic phenomenon.  And that numbing sameness is the point of this book: if there were really miraculous or para-normal events going on, they should (at least sometimes) stray into a measurable level of impact that could be observed by critical individuals or dispassionate equipment.  The most damning aspect of this book is that there has never been such a recorded occurrence.  (Read about the James Randi Educational Foundation 1 million dollar challenge).

That this aligns with my own experience:  15 years as a Holy Spirit-filled Christian (and a subsequent twenty-some years as New Ager) made this book impossible to ignore.

This is an important plea for humanity to embrace its less credulous side, to release the enormous energies we divert to irrational beliefs.  Like most writers of this view, Randi is a passionate advocate for our species, and offers a moving final statement about the true wonders of our existence that we miss while we’re off chasing Unicorns:

“Knowing what I do, and holding the opinions that I do, has not made this world any the less exciting and wonderful and challenging for me, nor should it for you.  On the contrary, to know that you are an individual not put here for some mysterious reason by some supernatural means, and that you are not protected by unknown powers or beings; to know that you are a product of millions of experiments in the evolutionary process and not the result of a seed thrown on this planet by extraterrestrials — that, to me, is very exciting.  I am a responsible member of a race that reached out into space and walked on the moon, folks!  In a small way I also walked there, and so did you.  And I’m thrilled about it!

Throw away the Tarot deck and ignore the astrology column.  They are products offered you by charlatans who think you are not the marvelous, capable, independent beings you are.

Nonsense has reigned too long as Emperor of the Mind.  Take a good look.  The Emperor has no clothes!”

As I read this book, I found myself skipping around to areas of more particular interest to me, as I was getting the general idea (all phenomena were failing their “tests”).  But I found myself returning to the skipped parts later for the knowledge contained there.  Though I’ll confess that I still skipped the “psychic surgery” chapter — I could only read so much about hucksters palming chicken parts.

I recommend this book.

The n.s.r. bob

NON-OVERLAPPING MAGISTERIA: Science and Religion. By the not-so-reverend bob.

Saturday, February 6th, 2010

It occurs to me that you might wonder why I spend so much time on the question of God.  I’ve asked myself the same question.  If I consider the question of God to be a settled issue in my own life, it yet remains far from settled in the culture I live in.  Since my primary focus is the personal perspective that a knowledge of human history and Darwinian evolution can offer, it would seem best to leave religion alone,  to respect the notion of “non-overlapping magisteria” (in which science has nothing to add to religion, and religion has nothing to add to science).  Of course we know this to be — at most and in practice — a “polite fiction”.  My concern with the overlapping influence of religion and science is that religion encourages a determined belief in the metaphysical, the mystical and the supernatural.  That’s reason enough to question it, but religion goes further and actively promotes a distrust of the human intellect (and human intellectuals) that leads to the distrust of even the most widely accepted discoveries of science.

Science is not perfect, nor are it’s practitioners infallible.  It is, however, an honorable and worthy example of humankind’s highest efforts at getting to the truth of things.  It is the closest we can get to understanding reality.  If it is imperfect, it is because it is a human enterprise.  There are cases of ego or prejudice coloring theory or result.  There are also cases of outright fraud.  However, only in science does there exist a human-designed system to expose human-induced error: papers are published and reviewed; experiments must be repeatable by independent means; a consensus must be reached.  Pretty damn admirable for a bunch of hairless primates, I would say.  Consider this fine description of Science by the Naturalist E. O. Wilson:

“The power of science comes not from scientists, but from its method.  The power, and the beauty too, of the scientific method is its simplicity.  It can be understood by anyone, and practiced with a modest amount of training.  Its stature arises from its cumulative nature.  It is a product of hundreds of thousands of specialists united by the one binding commonality of the scientific method.  Few scientists know more than a small fraction of available scientific knowledge, even within their own disciplines.  But no matter:  their fellow scientists are continuously testing and adding to the other parts, and the entire body of scientific knowledge is easily available.  The invention of this remarkable engine of testable learning was the one advance in recorded human history that can be called a true quantum leap.  But it attained its preeminence relatively late in the geological life span of humanity, and only after the human intellect had traveled a long, tortuous path dominated by tribalism and animated by religion.”

“The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth” by E. O. Wilson (page 104)

Since religion (according to conventional wisdom) is not testable by scientific means, it has been suggested that Religion is, therefore, its own “magisteria” — something, well, beyond science.  Hence — Science and Religion are separate spheres with little or no overlap.  That’s fine as far as it goes, as most mainstream religion isn’t in the business of miracle cures or claiming to raise the dead to life.  But many believers do accept the veracity (or possibility) of miraculous occurrences (wherein the laws of “nature” are suspended, or overridden by a higher spiritual authority) whether they’ve actually witnessed such an event personally or not.  So we live in a climate that is sympathetic to assigning to the supernatural any number of events or occurrences, large or small, that happen next door or around the world, regardless of their verifiable natural origin (take the earthquake in Haiti as the latest example).  In such a climate — where any such claim is given equal weight — how can we expect to make any progress on real problems that affect us?

I believe one of the major difficulties the average person has with incorporating scientific knowledge into their lives is a sense that the knowledge science brings us is a sort of “moving target” that grows ever more complex with each new reported scientific discovery.  This may be the grain of reason underlying the otherwise irrational view of scientific “truth” as “relative” (as compared to the supposedly “fixed” Truths of most religions) to the end that many don’t see scientific discoveries as fixed points upon which a sure foundation can be built.  I understand that.  For in a sense the terms and systems of classification of science are arbitrary grids that are placed between us (the observer) and the natural processes we seek to understand (just as the word for “cat” is used to identify that particular animal, but the letters “c.a.t.” would not be mistaken for the animal itself).  Scientists must then put a lot of energy into carefully defining the very specific terms that they employ so that they can be clearly understood by other scientists.  For the point of the entire endeavor is to allow a subject, theory or area of investigation to be discussed in a meaningful way.

As a corollary to understanding this idea, consider for a moment your average road atlas:  Though we don’t expect to trip over an actual border line when walking from one state to the next, the lines on maps are nevertheless useful and practical tools for dividing one state from another.  Of course on closer examination we’ll find that the residents of a small border town may well share much more in common (in terms of commerce and culture) with a nearby town in another state than they will with the residents of a larger city in the middle of their own state.  Nevertheless we don’t throw out or ignore these “man made” borders because we recognize the continuity it gives us regarding everything from laws to public services to personal identity.  We naturally understand, however, that life is more complex and varied than our state citizenship alone can describe, and so we break down our sense of community into ever more concise terms:  I’m from this town, I live in this neighborhood, my kids go this school, we attend this church (which is further broken down into which particular branch of your particular religion your church adheres to) and on and on.  So scientific classification is no different: it is a useful tool that gives us shared vocabularies and agreed-upon reference points for comparison and understanding.  The system is designed to expand with the inevitable influx of new and better knowledge — so concepts tend to move from the simple (early understandings) to the more complex (better understanding based on new and more evidence).

Science is unfairly criticized by the religious as being the product and progenitor (all at the same time) of a relativistic humanism that has as its goal the destruction of belief in God and the imposition of a cruel rational relativism that will wipe away all morality.  So how do we get from curious human beings trying to understand the world to unfeeling monsters devoid of all emotion and compassion?  It’s an interesting leap of logic, to say the very least.  A leap made possible by the framework of the religious mind.  Science is, in short, viewed as a competing proselytizing religion and therefore imbued with religious qualities and intentions it does not posses because the religious worldview can imagine with only great difficulty the unfamiliar human motivations of reason and rationality.

The most extreme accusations come, to be sure, from those most threatened by the encroachment of reason and rationality, namely those who ply their trade in the mysterious oceans of the unprovable: the Evangelist or those who have a financial or temporal power stake in the maintenance of “belief in belief”.  But part of the resistance is also keenly felt by their followers who sense (quite correctly) that their familiar view of the world is going to be challenged, and fear (not so correctly) that the consequences will be horrific.

There is, I believe, a certain healthy skepticism in us (particularly pronounced in us Americans, it seems, though also subject to irrational hijacking on occasion) as regards our government and large corporations.  And yet, while we express that mistrust, we nevertheless do not desist from availing ourselves of the considerable benefits we enjoy thanks to the innovation and manufacturing power of industry and the little appreciated (but extremely rare in human history) safety and stability that a functional government and economy provides.  We have the (rather recently achieved) luxury of calm and plenty in which to complain.

I think we are not much different from the huge Bengal tiger I watched at the San Diego Zoo one afternoon, pacing endlessly back and forth across the length of his “natural” looking enclosure, his huge head swinging from side to side, stopping at each end of his linear track to glance quickly upward to meet the eyes of whichever human was stopped to watch him at the time before returning to his numb routine: deprived of the day-to-day challenges of his natural habitat, the tiger had nothing to do with millions of years of evolved predatory behavior.  I later read that the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. conducted experiments in which they discovered that the “pacing behavior” of bears there was reduced dramatically when food was hidden in logs (among other places), thus more closely approximating the bear’s natural activities.  In short: the tiger and bears were bored: They had nothing to do beside quickly eat the meals offered at mealtime and poop and sleep.
I’m convinced that we humans are no different from those bored bears: we seek security and comfort and ease (as we quite sensibly seek to avoid pain, conflict and unease), but we are not so removed from our hunter-gatherer past that we can so easily adapt to the amount of leisure time we have managed to cleverly create for ourselves.  It is a troubling admission to say out loud (after all our effort to find ease) that we have it too easy.  And so we seek stimulation to fill a void for which our long evolutionary past has not properly prepared us.

It seems, in fact, that our projection of intention onto the universe (one end result of which has been our belief in supernatural forces) is a side effect of the enormous processing ability of our large evolved brains: we don’t really have an “off switch” up there!  So now that we no longer have to run from saber-toothed tigers or cave bears, we’re a little bored ourselves and our minds turn to all sorts of fanciful imaginings.

The irony is not lost on me that — in my life as a fairly sedentary artist — I pay money for membership in a gym full of machines designed and manufactured to replicate the physical exertions my more “primitive” ancestors enacted as part and parcel of their everyday lives.  We develop diets and food additives to stave off (or at least slow down) the gradual fattening of our middles (that fattening possible only because of our amazing progress in agriculture, food preparation and safety).  We “work out” and seek recreation and stimulation to fill the years we now live long past the three decades or so most of our ancestors could have expected to see.

Our minds and reflexes evolved over millions of years to secure our survival.  The less quick, the less agile and the less hardy were plucked from our family tree by disease, disaster and toothy beast (i.e. “Natural Selection”).  As Christopher Hitchens is fond of saying of our current status in that contest: “Our pre-frontal lobes are too small, and our adrenal glands too large”.  Meaning we are modern human beings living in an age of relative safety from beast and invading horde, yet we still carry this giant bear-trap of a “fight or flight” mechanism that ends up kicking in while we’re driving in rush hour traffic, triggered by lower-level stimuli than a true threat to our survival.  We are, in essence (and beneath the thin veneer of our modernity) still looking for the attacking tiger lurking behind the next bush.

And this returns us to my initial plea for science: it is only through an understanding (and appreciation for) what Darwin called our “humble origins” that we can come to a true appreciation of what we really are, and how we really function.

A psychologist once told me of a conference speaker stating that “mankind’s last great evolutionary leap occurred during the last ice age”.  That thought opened my mind to seeing humans as modern descendants of ice age nomads.  Our seemingly intractable tribalism makes sense once you understand how much of our history we spent in small bands of extended family units (cities and nations are very recent arrivals in our experience).  There are countless other useful insights that can flow from such science-based understandings of how we got here.

I do not speak here of a pre-destination or determinism as to how humans will or should progress.  If history shows us anything it is that we are extremely adaptable.  In fact it is often as difficult to appreciate the differences between my “primitive” ancestors and my modern self as it is to accept the similarities.  For instance, our bodies have long ago adapted to cooked food.  The sheer volume of nutrients that cooking allowed us to consume played a large part in our ability to advance technologically.  (We’d have a hard slog going back to living off leaves and berries stripped from the plants of the forest, as the great apes do to this day).  Our advances in technology during the “Neolithic Revolution” may well have been a response to the new amounts of energy and free time we had that up to that point had been taken up with an endless grazing for raw calories!

Far from destroying our morality (or eroding its supposed basis in an eternal absolutes) I believe that understanding the science and history of human evolution gives us a much clearer understanding of how our ethical choices are made, and a deeper appreciation of the codes of social conduct we have discovered, developed and internalized as a species.  Far from destroying any sense of moral authority, it rather affirms the usefulness to social stability of our agreed-to laws and law enforcement (as they continue to protect us from what was once the much more common random violence of other humans).

(Want a picture of what our ancestors lives were like only several hundred years ago?  A great book on the evolution of our modern selves from the middle-ages is “The Civilizing Process” by Norbert Elias.  I recommend it as primer on just how recently the life of the average European was still — in many ways — short and brutish.)

Ignorance of science can be deadly.  I hardly find it noble to deny reality in order to preserve an ideology.  Our endless and (seemingly) harmless affection for unfounded conspiracy theories, UFO’s, “chem trails”, crystal healing, distrusting vaccines or what have you in practice keeps us from directing our creative energies towards things that really can make life better for us and our fellow humans.  While we seek stimulation in the silly (as we pace back and forth across our enclosures) half a million women die each year giving birth from avoidable complications, the globe continues to warm (at the very least in part due to us, it would appear) and almost a half of us Americans sit on our ass waiting for Jesus’ imminent return and the blessed end of this sinful world of ours.  Individual beliefs and mythologies are not unrelated to global events.  Science helps to reveal these connections: religion denies them.

Science is not the enemy.  Science is a tool for understanding, for making sense of discovery and for revealing the true mysteries of life for the benefit of us all.  It deserves attention, respect and support.  It does not deserve derision and demonizing demagoguery.  The one overarching magisteria that spans the realms of science and religion is our human existence and our individual experience of that existence.  Religion was, in essence, our early attempt at science, at understanding.  Religion is our invention.  It is a part of our heritage, our growth, and for a long time was the receptacle for our creative and literary energies.  In that, it deserves its own respect.  But we live in more complex times, in ever larger cities and nations with evolving complicated economies.  It is natural to pine for a mythical point in time when life was “simpler” (whether or not that time ever really existed).  But we live here now, in the age of science and reason, even as we shudder and struggle with shedding our superstitious skins.

Our blessing and our burden is that we are — truly — social animals.  We’re storytellers, afraid of the dark and fearful of death, and the more I ponder those aspects of our character the more I realize just how deep they go.  I could almost say it’s less a wonder that we are so given to superstitions as it is that we are capable of transcending them as much and as often as we do!

Still, here’s a vote for cultivating our reason and rationality, and taking another look at science, anthropology, archeology, genetics and biology for the understanding of our selves that such an investigation will give us.  Let religion have its place in our history, and let it contract of its own accord, leaving the natural world to the scientist that works on our behalf every day to understand it.

the not-so-reverend bob

(Copyright for commercial uses by Bob Diven, 2010)

NON-BELIEVERS GIVING AID

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010

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THE “OUT Campaign” for non-believers.

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010

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Richard Dawkins writes: “In the dark days of 1940, the pre-Vichy French government was warned by its generals “In three weeks England will have her neck wrung like a chicken.” After the Battle of Britain, Winston Churchill growled his response: “Some chicken; some neck!” Today, the bestselling books of ‘The New Atheism’ are disparaged, by those who desperately wish to downplay their impact, as “Only preaching to the choir.””

Read the rest of his letter of introduction of the “OUT Campaign” by clicking the image on the left, or the link on the right.  The campaign may appeal to you.

— the not so reverend bob