Archive for May, 2011

CARTOONS FROM THE REV

Sunday, May 29th, 2011

"Happy Memorial Dog".  Street painting by t.n.s.r. Bob Diven.

SERMON: “Seedlings of the Gods” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, May 29th, 2011

It’s interesting to reflect that it is not only our biology that is shaped by evolution, but also our culture.

By “culture” I mean our language, our technology, our social codes, fashions and religions.  All of it.

I don’t think we generally recognize this.  I think we tend toward a conservative notion that there is a certain way things ought to be in our society — sort of an objective standard — and we ought to just get on with getting there.  The more “conservative” mind assumes that the questions (and therefore the answers to those questions) are limited and simple, the more “liberal” mind has a much higher tolerance for complexity, but still has an underlying belief that we humans are clever enough to figure things out.   In short, we all pretty much think that we (above all other animals) know how to run things.

In that regard, one of the more laughable aspects of our human character is the belief that we should –, with our wisdom and technology — be able to create even the smallest of a functioning ecosystem from scratch.

The scientific reality is that we are now able to assemble life, and will soon be able to “create” it.  The thing is this: that new life (or lives) that we create will then begin to interact with the real world (as it actually exists) and will begin it’s own adaptation as it becomes subject to the laws of natural selection (or will become an agent of the same, displacing other species with which it competes).  In time, a new equilibrium will be established, but no human on earth will have accurately predicted exactly what that will be.

We see the outcome of the sudden introduction of new life into old systems in the myriad exotic species that humans have transported from one ecosystem to another, whether it’s a rat that soon kills a dozen species of birds on a Pacific island, or a plant that takes over a forest unprepared to fight it.

This is what happens in the real world of competition for resources.  The ferocity of this competition is hidden from our view, perhaps, by the ecological balance that we often witness, where thousands of species of plants, animals and insects, in combination with climate, have, after eons, established themselves into a sort of stable order (this is the basis, I think, for much of the passive belief in Creation over Evolution).  But we know from geology and paleontology that such systems have formed over and over again, replacing earlier systems that were wiped away by natural catastrophes large and small.

Societies of humans are no different.  We, too, take our fairly stable American “social ecosystem” for granted, acting as if it has always been so and will always be just as it is, even as it continues to evolve before our eyes.  The utopians among us like to believe that newer, better human societies could be formed best from scratch, guided by this ideological bent or another.  But history has shown the seemingly natural course of every utopian society, and the result is generally a devolution into strife and collapse.

I would venture that there are certain constants in the collective human consciousness that draw us to certain states of living, and that we ignore these at our peril.  Such existential rip currents are the bane of every would-be social engineer.  Economists, it seems, are notorious for basing their predictions on the choices of a mythological “rational actor”.  Unfortunately, none of these “rational actors” seem to actually exist.  And politicians, for all of their demagoguery, are limited in power by the sheer unpredictable force of the masses of the governed.

It’s a funny state of affairs to ponder.  And it’s a state more clear to me, I expect, because I have worked so diligently to engage my own rational brain.  The result has been a new level of clarity about how we humans are partly rational and partly magical in our thinking, and that both of those aspects are our natural birthright.  And to the degree that we rail against one or the other of those two aspects of our selves may be the degree to which we add to our own unhappiness.  For the reality of our situation may be that we need both to be happy.

Now I don’ t take the view that the presence of this duality in our consciousness justifies the idea that “they must be there for a reason for it”.  Such a statement assumes a teleological, purposeful path for evolution.  Of course there is no such thing.  But what our dual nature does tell us is that there is strong evidence that our strange combination of reason and fancy has somehow aided us in our survival as a species.

But, then, one of the most basic aspects of natural selection that many people, I think, fail to appreciate, is that evolution can only work upon the raw material that is already in place (and the range of possible mutations inherent within each living genome).  Therefore, just because we retain a huge dose of magical thinking does not guarantee that it was that magical thinking that brought us through.  (The magical thinking part could just as easily be a side-show that was just never detrimental enough to get us all killed).

More likely, there is something to this imaginative part of our consciousness that has been crucial to our capacity to problem solve, and/or the development of verbal language, and that the rest is, well, extra.  We may never really know.  For now, it is enough to recognize that it is, and that this is the kind of animal we are.  We are not, by any stretch of the imagination, examples of perfection in natural design.  We are, however, examples of success in evolution, which requires only that the beneficial adaptations outnumber the detrimental ones to a certain critical degree.

The human organism exhibits all the complexity, nuance, confusion, mutations and mix of parts that one would expect from millions of years of evolution and natural selection.  Certainly no one sat down and designed us to be this way.  To borrow the creation myth: even the God of the Garden of Eden probably only meant to grow a pretty flower when he planted us.  But once planted, nature could not be kept out of it, and things got a bit out of hand!

Humanity itself feels to me like a sort of multi-cellular organism, pulsing and pushing and pulling against itself and against the limitations of it’s own existence.  And like in the rest of nature, parts of our population expand, rise up, gain education and prosper, even as others seem to be in a race backwards through history.  It’s a maddening thing to try to manage.  But our attempts at social (and self!)management are not entirely futile, for they can and do have effects on the course of human (and our own personal) social evolution.  And so we keep trying.  But as we try, it’s good to recognize that we are as powerless to re-make man according to our wishes as we are to re-make a rainforest from a genetically-engineered seedling and a chemistry set.

t.n.s.r. bob

CARTOONS FROM THE REV

Sunday, May 22nd, 2011

In honor of the day (for those of you that didn't get "raptured" on the 21st: "Near Miss" or "Whoa: That was close!" Street painting by t.n.s.r. Bob Diven.

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Why the Cheetah Cheats, And Other Mysteries of the Natural World” by Lewis Smith.

Sunday, May 22nd, 2011

This 2009 book is a collection of one- and two-page stories from the natural world, both present and past.  There is a little of everything in this book, from discoveries of new species to extinctions of existing ones (often from the introduction of non-native species by us world-traveling humans).  There are tales of animal behavior, and examples of the power of evolution and natural selection to determine the characteristics of species.

The book is organized into general categories, but really it’s sort of a pleasant hodgepodge of interesting stuff that is easy to read through in bite-sized chunks.

I notice in this book (like others of late) a distinct lack of careful proofreading, which leads to more than one page turn that does not lead to the completion of the unfinished sentence from the previous page!  I suspect this is an issue with books like this that are cranked out for the popular market.

I couldn’t find a website for the author, Lewis Smith, a journalist and author of a previous book: “Why the Lion Grew Its Mane, A Miscellany of Recent Scientific Discoveries from Astronomy to Zoology”.

The thing that stays with me about this book is the re-enforcement it gives to the raw reality of evolution, and just how specific adaptation to a particular environment can be, such that a change of just a few degrees in average temperature can doom a species, or the loss of one kind of bug can lead to the extinction of the tree species that has grown to depend on that particular bug (or bird, or animal) to carry its seeds about.  Though parts of the book are clearly meant to alert us to the dangers of global climate change on susceptible species, it reminds me that all life has ever been susceptible to the slightest change in our environment, and that we alive today are the products of that blind process.   Evolution continues.

t.n.s.r. bob

The rev gives it three out of four Dimetrodons!

SERMON: “God Brain, Dog Brain” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, May 22nd, 2011

I think that we can all buy into the idea that we have multiple levels of consciousness.  As an example: I’m one of those that can drift off into a thought while I’m driving and suddenly realize I don’t remember driving the last half of a block.  How did I do that without the car suddenly flying into the tumbleweeds?  Well, of course there is physics, with the combined forces of inertia and gyroscopic effects that tend to keep a vehicle going fairly straight most of the time, but there is still a measure of continued human control inputs that were being fed to the steering wheel and gas pedal by some part of my brain.  We tend to call this part of our consciousness “body memory”, or the “unconscious” or even “reflex”.  (Though reflex –as I understand it — is more properly the domain of the deeper part of our brain, just above the parts that keep our heart beating and our lungs breathing).

But if we consider the functions of our brain from the most basic: running the bodily processes that keep us alive; to the most abstract: the part of our brain that allows us to consider our own thoughts (as in: we are having a thought; we are aware that we are having a thought; we are having a thought about that thought; thinking about that thought changes the thought –or the process that generated that thought — thereby literally re-wiring a small part of our brain; whew!), we must come to the conclusion that there are multiple levels of processing going on inside these skulls of ours!

For the religiously minded, these different levels of consciousness are personified as mind, body and spirit (the body being the “lowest”).  So the part of consciousness that we are most familiar with — the one that converses with others and makes the grocery list — is the “mind” (in this organizational system).  For the more severe believer, our ancient animal impulses are labelled as our “sinful nature”, and therefore confined to the “body” where they can (in theory) be isolated, berated and battled (or, more often than not, happily succumbed to!).  But one level of our consciousness — the one that talks back to us when we talk to it — we make out to be God, or the Holy Spirit, the one that hears our prayers.

Science tells us that we have at least three physical, evolutionary layers of brain, meaning we have two additional (and later) add-ons to the primitive, non-reflective, yet reflexive survival brain.  The latest evolutionary addition contains the higher rational faculties, and probably is the part most responsible for our ability to be self-reflective to the degree we are.

Evolutionary psychologists will also tell you that these later developed parts of our brain serve a very important social function in that they allow us to moderate, or interrupt, our natural fearful response to strangers and reach out a slightly damp hand to introduce ourselves (as opposed to attacking them and trying to rip their throat out).

Every spiritual guru or new-age whats-it peddle their own brand-names for our intrinsic multi-layered consciousness.  What is most often sold is the notion that parts of our “self” are actually existing outside of our own heads and bodies.

(My “psychic” told me that my physical body could not contain the full dimension of my spirit.  Now this wasn’t that hard for me to swallow, as I’d spent fifteen years of my life as an Evangelical Christian.  Of course it helps that I live in a society surrounded by support for the notion of the “spiritual”.  You can’t swing a cat without running into someone talking about “spiritual things”)

Now this is not just a question of semantics.  In fact, I think it’s more a question of conception than words, though words matter (clearly, or else there’d be no point in marketing such a variety of names for the levels of human consciousness).

As I described in an earlier sermon, it was while reading Daniel Dennett’s book “Breaking the Spell”  (reviewed on this blog) that I finally realized that I had been imagining a part of my own consciousness as being external to my physical self for the last 35 years of my life.  Once I had that realization, I had the very singular experience of feeling my “spirit” re-enter my body.  (For the first time in my adult life, there was no-one and no-thing outside of myself listening in on my thoughts).

Now no actual “spirit” re-entered my body.  That would be ridiculous (but surprisingly easy) to believe.  So what actually happened?  I think that I simply stopped projecting a part of my own mind outside of itself.

If this sounds odd, take a moment to speak out loud to whatever god or spirit or higher self you speak (or pray) to.  Where is that other party in the conversation physically located?  Where do you sense him (or her) to be?  Floating around you?  In Heaven?  Next to you?

Ask the average person that question, and I’d bet a nickel most would prove to be actively imagining a part of themselves out in the ether somewhere (in some diffuse way).

We humans are magical thinkers.  There can be no serious doubt about that fact.  Just look around at the crazy shit humans believe.  At any given time, one out of five Americans is believing something stupid.  One week one in five don’t believe Osama bin Laden is really dead.  Another week it was that President Obama’s birth certificate was a forgery.  The same percentage thinks aliens are flying through our skies at night, crashing once in a while.  So why wouldn’t most people believe in angels and demons, gods and devils?  It comes pretty naturally to us.

We have God in our brain.  We also have our inner dog (or cat — take your pick).  We have our inner “critic” as well (or “the committee” as some folks call it).  We also have the faithful, non-verbal part of our brain that memorizes frequently-needed physical motions, so that we can learn to play the piano, chop an onion, hoist a baby onto our hips, or have sex in a way that propagates the species.  We also have a level of thinking that allows us to analyze our thoughts — looking for errors and false connections.  And that part of our brain can use the tools of reason to manipulate the middle-managers in our brain into correcting (or at least patching over) detrimental connections, bad file storage, and un-helpful reflexes (this is what therapy and counseling are all about).

That’s a lot to fit into a skull, but then, we humans have evolved huge, calorie-burning brains to handle the challenges of managing our three-in-one brain, of coordinating the myriad synapsis that fire off in each multi-layered social interaction.  I can just imagine the frantic communication channels that are buzzing in there as the highly rational, modern brain figures out how to talk to the middle-aged, transitional (dog?) brain that has to find a way to make sure the deep, wet, survival brain is on board with blood to the muscles, energy to the cells, and oxygen to the brain so that the whole circus parade resident inside our skulls can manage tasks such as ordering our steak medium rare at a restaurant.

God brain.  Dog brain.  Love brain.  Beauty brain.  Rage brain.  Chew-off-my-own-limb-to-save-my-life-brain.  Chew-off-your-arm-to-protect-my-child-brain.  Sugar/alcohol/drug brain (MORE!MORE!MORE!) It’s all in there.

I expect we’ve personified parts of our consciousness in order to be able to hold these parts of our self in a manageable, conceptual framework.  Makes sense.  So it probably doesn’t make that much difference whether we call a part God or dog (up to a certain point, at least, as I do think we’d be better of losing the habit of externalizing the God part — maybe fewer people would do mean things under the false belief that “God told them to do it”).

For me, for now, I might try out talking to my “selves” on the level they operate at.  I’ll talk to god-bob like, well, god.  And dog-bob like dog.  Who knows who else is lurking in there (though I expect there’s a limit to the levels of consciousness amenable to carrying on a conversation).  Again, I’m putting a conceptual template on top of a slightly amorphous reality as a sort of practical “bob’s brain” management tool.

In time I expect brain science will progress to a point where new names for the multiple levels of our consciousness will enter the popular lexicon.  Which means I’d better get my seminars and books going before someone finds a better set of names than the ones I’m selling…

t.n.s.r. bob

CARTOONS FROM THE REV

Sunday, May 15th, 2011

"Velocinapper". Dreaming of his future evolution into a turkey leg, perhaps? Street painting by (t.n.s.r.) Bob Diven.

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Paul”

Sunday, May 15th, 2011

It was a neurobiologist who told me I should see this movie.  I’d skipped it when it hit town, but reconsidered when my friend told me how funnily the film took on young-earth creationism.  It’s a testimony to my evolutionary geekiness that this was all it took to get me into the theater to see Paul.

I’m glad I went.  This movie is smarter and funnier than I thought it would be (though I’d enjoyed both Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, the two previous films of this movie’s starring duo).  Paul is basically a “road trip” picture concerning two English buddies who have come to America to visit famous “alien” sites in a rented RV.  It’s giving nothing away to reveal that they end up acquiring a genuine alien (Paul) as their travel companion.

Along the way (for reasons ridiculous and entertaining) the trio “abducts” the latently adventuress daughter of a fire-and-brimstone cartoon-character version of an Evangelical Fundamentalist father that runs a campground.  What is bracing about this film is the direct, matter of fact way in which Paul confronts the young-earth-creationist beliefs of the daughter (played by Saturday Night Live’s Kristen Wig).  I’m thinking this bold confrontation of irrational belief is due to the English sensibilities of the main players (and writers) Nick Frost and Simon Pegg.  There is clearly no fear of sacrificing an American sacred cow or two.

I enjoyed this movie quite a bit.  There is not a surplus of scatological humor that the presence of Seth Rogan (the voice of Paul) might suggest.  It’s a pleasantly over-the-top view of gullible America viewed through the eyes of a couple of average English “Joes”.  And though there is much more to the film than Kristen Wig’s characters blossoming after her “conversion” from fundamentalism, the journey of her character adds real spice to the proceedings.

Though slipping out of theaters, Paul should be out of DVD soon.

The rev gives it three out of four Dimetrodons!

SERMON: “Why Does God Exist?” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, May 15th, 2011

I listened to Christian radio on a regular basis, as I drive around town.

Why do I — an apostate — do that?  Am I just picking at an old wound?  Or testing the strength of my hard-won religious antibodies (or anti-God-ies?).  I think I listen more as an anthropologist, taking in the words, the meanings and the impulses behind the beliefs and the need of believers to share them, confirm them, even question them.

Often, listening in this way helps me to better understand the how and why of religious belief.  And so today, as I pulled up to the hardware store, it crystallized in my mind:  God exists to make us feel better.

"Here: this should make you feel better!"

Make us feel better about what, exactly?  Well, just about everything.

Our “sin”, for one, by giving us a useful term that gives definition to and, thereby, control over our less desirable impulses.  Our fear of death is another, by promising a life beyond the grave for ourselves and those we hold dear.  And then there is our life in general — by offering an external, ultimate source of validation that our individual lives have meaning and are part of an eternal “plan”.

Never mind, for now, how self-centered all of this turns out to be (even if the “feeling good” comes about through being made aware of a sin which we are then able to “repent of” and then, you guessed it, feel “better” about it!).  Part of the magic of religion is that it rebrands our emotional need and solipsism as humility as long as we proclaim an adherence to a power “greater than ourselves” (who is, of course, deeply concerned about the same self that we are!)

But believing in God is useful because it helps us feel better about other things as well, such as our tribalism, cruelty and selfishness, all of which can be justified by the act of classifying just who are the sheep and who are the goats, meaning who are the believers (deserving to be blessed) and everyone else (many of whom have obviously brought on their troubles through some unconfessed personal or generational sin).  Religion has been terribly useful in this less-than-pleasant way.  It still is.  Look at the Taliban, the Catholic Church, the Moral Majority.

This second batch of benefits is where religion gets us into trouble, for if belief in God were only about the first group, how could I really have a problem with it?  For in my life I do innumerable things to make myself feel good and happy and content with my life, so how (and why, frankly) would I begrudge another human doing the same (in a slightly different, less rational way)?

The fundamentalists of the major theistic religions naturally oppose a Darwinian, scientific view of the world because it threatens their ancient hegemony — it eats into their market share of the “feel good” market.

Let me take a step sideways into an irresistible snide remark about how many preachers have lambasted the generation growing up in the 1960’s as the “feel good” generation.  Where the “if it feels good, do it” ethos was the mark of the decline of Western civilization, as American turned away from God to follow their hedonistic pursuits.  Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!  It would be like the board of directors of McDonalds launching an ad campaign against their former customers who were migrating to Burger King by boldly announcing that the deluded sots were only giving in to their base cravings for salt, fat, sugar and empty calories, and needed to return to the golden arches before it was too late!

So, I keep circling around religious belief again and again, revisiting old, familiar places with new eyes.  And so today I see belief in God as a simple act of a human trying to feel better about life (for a great dramatic depiction of where religion begins, see “The Invention of Lying” — an otherwise average movie save for this one, bold concept that it presents).

Polls show that the number of “secular” Americans is growing.  The problem for God is that there is now a better view on reality available for the masses who would seek it.  Science does not replace religion, but it does give us the tools to undo it, to “break the spell” (as philosopher Daniel Dennett says).  And in breaking that spell, we are freed to see the world as it really is, and from that create a new sense of meaning based upon a more accurate understanding of our place in the grand scheme of things.

That more people don’t take this route says more about the unfamiliarity of it than anything else.  We are animals, which means we are not that different from rats that take the safest route from point a to point b, not the most direct.  But recognizing even that detail about ourselves is useful and, well, comforting in its way.

Science does not set out to comfort or console, but it does so anyway, as a sort of by-product, because knowledge helps us to feel more in control (or at least less lost) in the world.

So, to be clear:  I’m not anti-God.  How can I be, when God exists only in the realm of the human consciousness?  If there were an actual God behaving in the way that people say he does, that would be a problem, and we would all be well advised to organize a missile strike aimed at the throne of heaven.  But God is actually a mental device of man to alter his emotional state.  We don’t get mad at someone who eats an ice cream cone after a rough day at the office, or pours themselves a glass of wine in the evening, or listens to a favorite piece of music.  So to that extent, I would not separate a fellow human from his or her God.

Ah, but if only we could separate the benign aspects of God from the cruel and inhuman ones.  It is worth noting that many believers do manage to do this.  Not many of them are fundamentalists, however, and are therefore in as much danger from the fanatics as the apostate.  It is because of those fundamentalist believers that I openly express my atheism and disdain for irrational thought.

I can appreciate the unwillingness to believe that morality can exist without God enforcing it like a cosmic cop.  But it does, and in the words of a friend of mine: “If we really understood that, I believe we would be more likely to make truly moral decisions”.

Amen to that.

t.n.s.r. bob

CARTOONS FROM THE REV

Sunday, May 8th, 2011

"Happy Mothers Day (Minke Momma)" Street painting of Minke whales by Bob Diven.

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “why does E=mc2? (and why should we care) by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw.

Sunday, May 8th, 2011

“In science, there are no universal truths, just views of the world that have yet to be shown false.” (From the Preface)

This is a great science book, most of which I actually understood.  Everyone should have some sense of why Einstein’s formula works, and what it tells us about how the universe actually works.  I felt like I should know, so I picked up this 2009 book.

Basically, the geometry of the universe is not Euclidean — meaning the geometry we all learned in public school that exists in a world of parallel lines that never intersect.  It turns out the universe is a fed in which time and space are wedded together as they stretch, bend and do the things they do, and this well-written book sets out to tell you how we figured that out.

This involves a good deal of math, which is, frankly, about as easy for my brain to process as a brick would be to my gastrointestinal tract.  Fortunately, one need not be able to work out all the sums describe in the book in order to grasp the larger concepts (but the mathematical formulas are explained and the reader is encouraged to work them out for him or herself).

The authors offer encouragement along the way, recognizing that:

“Perhaps we should not be too surprised that nature sometimes appears counterintuitive to a tribe of observant, carbon-based ape descendants roaming around on the surface of a rocky world orbiting an unremarkable middle-aged star at the outer edge of the Milky Way galaxy.”  (Page 10)

In light of the recent announcement from NASA that they have now measured the distortions in the fabric of space by the mass of the earth that Einstein’s formula predicted, it might be good time to read this book if, like me, it’s an area of ignorance for you, too.

I would try to describe more of what this book explains, but, hey, if I could do that, I wouldn’t have needed to read this book!

It’s a fun read, really.  The authors are consistently engaging without being condescending, and impart a real sense of enthrallment with the universe they set out to explain.

I recommend this book.

The Rev gives is 3.5 out of 4!