SERMON: “Resisting Reason” by the not-so-reverend bob

I’m wondering if our relationship to our own rationality isn’t a tense one.

Imagine what must have been the shock (during our human evolution) of that first moment of self-awareness: of being separate from nature and other animals; of being different, and differently endowed?  Can you not easily imagine (If you had been that early human) stopping in your tracks as if you’d been smacked between the eyes by an elephant femur?  Your world would never look the same again!

Imagine further that the moment occurred before you had a verbal language to express your shock and awe?

Of course we can’t know when that “moment” arrived in our ancestry, whether before or after language.  Or, for that matter, whether it was any different in kind or quality then what other sentient animals experience (for it seems certain that other primates, whales, elephant and dolphins, for example, have some sense of the world that they might happily share with us if they had a functional alphabet).

The acquisition of verbal language must be key, for before that we had all the same feelings we do as  modern humans, but no way to reference them, to THINK about them.  In the same way that we cannot access the memories (that must surely exist) of our own time in the womb and our first years of life, we would have had no way of cataloguing thoughts or evaluating concepts.  Verbal language was the operating system that made our minds the existential computers they have become.

Along the way we learned to cook our food, which supercharged our physical evolution (downsizing our primate guts and enlarging our human brains).  So that, in the end, we had these busy, fertile brains that were able to function as language-based filing systems for all of the emotional impulses and sensory inputs of our heretofore purely animal existence.

I wonder if our animal natures didn’t respond to the imposition of language (and the resultant organizing system it allowed) a bit like the early peasant who threw his Sabot (wooden shoe) into the big, modern machine.  For (as with any sort of progress) each new invention spells the end of a previous way of life, in ways small or large.  Each step we made into language and conceptual thought took us that many steps further away from our animal nature.  Even today, we humans have a stubborn tendency to look backward to a romanticized idea of our innocent past, be it the Biblical Garden of Eden, the small-town life of 19th century middle America, or an earlier version of Photoshop.

For whatever reasons, I have hitched my intellectual wagon to my reason, and have given it the authority to act as gatekeeper to my mind.  I have decided that I want the clearest view of reality I can get in the time I have.  And it seems more than a touch ironic that this would set me at odds with so many of my fellow hominids.  For we are prone to believing all sorts of things that we have carried with us — without question — from our deep past.  There are entire swaths of our modern American society that think nothing of judging the world by some interpretation or other of an ancient holy text.  We are loathe to let go of our beliefs in aliens, or miracles or communications from the “spirit” world.

We would judge none of these things too harshly were we to discover them among a “primitive” tribe, yet we find them among us modern (and civilized) people, who in the same breath can make a casual reference to DNA, or evolution or the latest discovery of modern medical science.  In a sentiment I attribute to Norbert Elias book “The Civilizing Process”, we carry a thin layer of modernity laid upon our (much deeper) ice-age psyches.

Each step into rationality is a step away from magical thinking.  And believe me, I understand the fear that each of those steps can dredge up from the primitive soul.  But I’m a curious type, I guess.  It’s in my genes, a general trait of our species.  At the same time, we are like any other animal that craves safety and predictability.  Perhaps the tensions that exist between our adventurous, aggressive natures and our contemplative, fearful animal selves are like the electrical bonds that keep neutrons and protons spinning around their nuclei.  (They spin at incredible speeds, ever at risk of flying off into space, which, if they could think about it, and talk about it, might freak them out a bit).

Every step into the unknown is, obviously, a step further away from what is known.  So for each truth of science I acquire, I will likely weaken the bond of a religious or mystic belief.  (Even the incurious understand this on an instinctive level, I would say).  And so, even in modern society, with all of its benefits, there are thousands who mistrust or even resist the new product, discovery, or truth.

There are, in short, a lot of us who are yet to be convinced that learning to talk and to reason was such a good idea in the first place.

t.n.s.r. bob

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