Archive for January, 2012


Sunday, January 29th, 2012

I may need to change coffee shops if this sort of thing keeps up.

The Future of Unbelief

Sunday, January 29th, 2012

For a great talk about how the future of unbelief could re-form itself, take a look at this inspiring TED talk by Alain de Botton:

SERMON “The Power of Prayer” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, January 29th, 2012

The promise is as clear and as simple as can be: “God answers prayer”.  All you need to do is ask, and the God of the universe will answer.  So, at some point in your life (with a mixture of fear and anticipation) you try it.

In my case, the first time I did this with adult intention was when I prayed the “sinners prayer”, to “ask Jesus into my heart”.  Did Jesus hear my prayer, and actually enter my heart?  I suppose I did feel different…maybe.  But over time (and with enough encouragement from other believers) I made the decision that that vague “feeling” was, indeed, sufficient evidence of that particular prayer being answered.

And so it began — this awkward un-synchronized ballet of belief and reality.

When we pray (at least as adults) we recognize that we may not know what form the answer will take.  (Frankly, we’re open to any form of answer, as long as it is, indeed, an answer).  But often the answer doesn’t come.  So naturally we ask why.  Usually we ask the person that told us about prayer in the first place.  And this is when the conditions first appear: You have to pray “believing”; You have to make sure you don’t have any unforgiven sin in your life; You have to check your heart to be sure you aren’t holding a grudge against anyone.  If that doesn’t work, you then have to become a sort of prayer analyst: does what I want line up with God’s “perfect” will for me? (I didn’t even know there were categories of God’s will for me, but you soon find out that there are!)

At this stage you might learn that God does, indeed answer prayer, but sometimes the answer is “no”.

What that really means is that sometimes the answer from God is no answer at all, and we are supposed to interpret such silence as “no”, or the cosmic equivalent of the magic eight ball that shows “ask later” when it’s little floating random answer generator shows that phrase in the window.

The "Magic 8 Ball"

(Ask a c.g.i. “Eight Ball” a question HERE).

Bit by bit we learn the complications of prayer, and the once simple process becomes almost baroque in its complexity and yet, despite all of that, the religious will tell you with a straight face that God does, indeed, answer prayer.

The example I have given is based on my experience as a Christian, clearly, but I think it holds for the entire breadth of our human experience of the “spiritual”.  For I’ve come to realize that be it New Age or Old Time Religion, the dilemma is the same: a promise is given from a teacher or sage about how the laws of the spirit world work, and we go off and try them out, then find out they don’t work as promised, and then the explanations begin.

Why do we go along with it?  Why don’t we stone the lying bastards the first time their system doesn’t work?  Good question.

For example, in the Evangelical Charismatic (or “Spirit-filled”) community, individuals regularly stand up during church services babbling in tongues or shouting out what is assumed to be a direct prophecy from God himself (or the Holy Spirit), as the crowd murmurs or shouts “Amens” of approval.  Now most of these “prophetic utterances” are in the same category of vagueness as a horoscope or the insights of a roadside psychic, and are therefore easy to interpret in a way that will very likely line up with some random event.  They are also vague enough (and so much more about the emotion of the moment) as to be easily forgotten.  There is no church agency tasked with tracking the veracity of these prophesies, and for damn good reason: were these citizen prophets to be held accountable based on the veracity of their words, we would be stoning false prophets by the dozens in the streets!

The reality is that we are a believing species, and that believing is such an important part of our social structure that even nonbelievers are loathe to call out all but the most despicable charlatans for their sins against reality.  We want to get along.  No.  More than that, we need to get along (at least within our own community, be it a family, tribe or town).

As I say in one of my films, we are able to find meaning in our stories because we already know the endings.  We tell them front to back, but we know them back to front.  That means that our pattern-seeking brains have had plenty of time to reflect and find all of the seemingly confirmatory details that make a story fit whatever tantalizing bullshit the psychic told us or the amateur prophet shouted at our last prayer meeting.

We are naturally biased toward finding meaning.  This one thing is abundantly clear about our psychology.  We may not recognize this in ourselves because it is so ubiquitous in our species — it is the existential sea we swim in.

Which is why real atheists stick out like very annoying sore thumbs.

The problem with unbelief is that — given the believing nature of our brains — it takes a certain type of vigilance to not give in to that ever-present tendency.  Because the atheist (or non-believer, if you’re more comfortable with that term) understands that the presence of the impulse toward belief does not in itself offer evidence of the existence of any real object of belief (i.e. God), but is much more plausibly an artifact of our highly-evolved social consciousness.

So when it comes to belief, the choice that most people see is between magical thinking and no friggin’ fun at all.  And the atheist feels this — for there is an unsettling sense of vulnerability that comes with recognizing that no-one “up there” is looking out for you after all (and just having that idea can lead you to worry that by not believing, fewer of the good things that used to happen will continue to happen in your life — sort of a “will the sun come up tomorrow if I don’t believe it will?” sort of thing — such is the power of the “believing brain” and our own self-centeredness).

Well, that sucks.  Especially because leaving behind the spell of belief can actually alter your reality in that — because you now view life through lenses a bit less rosy than the ones you left behind — you will see less of the “miraculous” in your life.  (Now it should be noted here that nothing about physical reality has changed, only our perception of it).

And then what do you do as a non-believer when something surprising and unexpectedly positive happens?  At times like that one can feel the residual impulse to thank God or attribute it to “intention”, or “good karma”.  It’s a funny place to be.

For to be an unbeliever is, in a way, to attempt to transcend our animal biology.  I don’t say that lightly, for belief is as strong a biological force as any of our other cognitive functions.

(Maybe non-belief appeals more to certain personality types than others, just like some pilots find flying a single-engine, fixed wing tiny airplane through an unpredictable sky onto a skinny strip of asphalt not challenging enough, and take up flying the uber-complicated and attention-demanding helicopter).

Prayer works as much as anything “magical” works, which is some of the time (which is about what one would expect from randomness, which would be — statistically speaking — about half the time).

So is there nothing to “prayer” at all?  Actually, there is something to it, but it’s not what you’d necessarily expect.

The part of “prayer” that does work is most likely the aspect of speaking things out loud that moves the idea into the part of our brain that processes audible input.  This is probably the part of our consciousness that generates that “still, small voice” in our mind that answers us when we talk to ourselves.  So we do get an “answer”, but that’s hardly a reliable substitute for the promised direct answer to prayer that God was supposed to give.

(And the fact that most humans are ready to attribute that part of their own consciousness to an outside spirit or deity — and that for those with a compromised brain such voices can become truly terrifying and destructive — is another matter).

The truth about the promise that “God answers prayer” is that it just isn’t, well, true.  We would never continue to buy a blender that didn’t blend, or an airplane that didn’t fly, so why do we keep praying to a non-existent God who doesn’t answer us?

We are, indeed, mysterious creatures.

t.n.s.r. bob


Sunday, January 22nd, 2012

My friends thought the raptor came with me. I thought he'd come with them. Turns out none of us invited him.

SERMON: “The Human Organism” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, January 22nd, 2012

Are we nearing a point when humanity may finally break free from God?

That thought came to me after cruising the web for some stirring statements by atheists (including Penn Jilette, George Carlin, Ricky Gervais and Jimmy Carr).

But to ask that question is to reveal two things about how I (we?) view the world.  The first being a persistent optimism about the power and capacity of the rational aspect of the human mind to transcend the believing brain, the second being a tendency toward utopian thinking that is the bedrock of the very belief in God whose decline the original question assumes.  Plus, it’s far too easy for us to perceive history as the revelation of some intentional destiny with ourselves as the central characters in that unfolding story.

Perhaps we should have more humble aspirations.

This is a good book for insight into the biology of ourselves and our planet.

The reality seems to be that we, as individuals, are parts of a larger organism that expands, contracts, succeeds and fails in a wide variety of locales and yet — in a collective sense — continues on.  Of course we are not part of an actual organism, but more a metaphorical one.

Our bodies, on the other hand, are actual organisms made up of a collective of innumerable smaller organisms that work, mostly, in concert.  Though the term “in concert” can be misleading as well.  For the actual coordination of our cellular minions is not managed in a conscious, directed way, but functions more like, well, an evolved stasis of mutually-beneficial interactions that balance out in a way that favors the larger organism’s survival.  In this sense, our individual existence as discrete, self-contained living beings is (fairly) viewed as an accidental byproduct of that small universe of chemical and biological transactions occurring moment-by-moment inside of us.

This is where the metaphor of us being a part of a larger organism starts to cut the other way.

We mostly sort of imagine an overseeing deity above us (or, at the least, external to us), and if you talk to the average theist, they will tell you that they do, indeed, believe that God takes a personal interest in every process that happens on the planet, and is  capable — and desirous — of intimate direction of those processes.  (If you know the Bible verse about how a single sparrow can’t fall from the sky without God knowing it, then you’ve got the picture).

But let’s now take that organizing idea and transfer it to our own human body, where we know that we do, in reality, have a conscious mind “running” things.  But to what degree is our conscious mind really “running” things at all?

Most of the natural processes that keep us alive are run unconsciously (by the brain), and within each of the bodily systems so “run” are the millions of moment-by-moment chemical reactions and cell divisions and mutations that occur without any intelligent direction at all.  These smaller processes are driven by forces that are observable but could never be called “intelligent” or “conscious” any more than we could call the flame that consumes a piece of paper “intelligent”.

We so easily mistake pattern for purpose that we can take a predictable phenomenon like the “rising” of the sun or the rainbows that appear after a rainstorm as “signs” of intelligence and direction.  It is this quirk in the workings of our brain that gave us our gods to begin with.  But to belabor the oft-expressed point: we know so much more about how things really work than we did way back then.  We therefore can now grasp just how absurd is the idea that a single, intelligent deity is really personally involved in the actions of every bacteria, blood and muscle cell in a given square inch of your gut right now (much less your entire body!).  Yet somehow just that sort of thing is easily believed by a good many of us.

(Why?  Because our awareness has always been primarily local in scope: we are the center of our own universe and therefore when we believe that God is in charge of everything we are really, generally, only imagining a handful of things or people or natural processes.  It is simply too painful for our brain to grasp the math of just how many things God would have to have on his mind at any given second were we to try to imagine the totality of everything that is happening right now on the planet Earth, let alone the Universe!)

It could be that — by this point in our history — our religious beliefs have co-evolved with us for so long that we can no more dispense with them than we can the bacteria in our intestines.  God is a meme embedded in our consciousness that can only be removed with great difficulty.  And though I believe that our morality and ethics are naturally-evolved (and therefore not dependent on a celestial authority) how can we really unravel the Gordian knot of how religion was part of our moral evolution?

The religious need, I think, the larger dose of humility in the world we find ourselves living in, as there turns out to be scant evidential support for their overarching, exclusive claim to morality, ethics, or any of the other achievements of our “better natures”.  Plus, they need to recognize how ineffective religion turns out to be by many that try to put it into practice.  The reality is that we “behave ourselves” primarily because of our profoundly social natures that put the price tag on social isolation pretty damn high.

I’m not going to hold my breath for seeing humanity move en masse into the sunlit fields of rational thought, leaving the tangled forests of belief behind.  The trend is surely in that direction, but humans are tricky creatures as a species, and any number of things can spook the herd, turning us back into the anxious primates that we are underneath all the trappings of modernity.

Still, one can hope.

t.n.s.r. bob


Sunday, January 15th, 2012

You can think you're miles away from everything. But as soon as a camera comes out, so do the Raptors.

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything” by David Bellos

Sunday, January 15th, 2012

“The infinite flexibility of language and our experience of shared emotion in reading novels and poems and at the movies must also cast doubt on whether there are any human experiences that cannot in principle be shared.  On the other side of this thorny tangle is the intuitive knowledge that what we feel is unique to us and can never be fully identified with anything felt by anyone else.  That inexpressible residue of the individual is ineffable — and the ineffable is precisely what cannot be translated”  

(From “Is That a Fish in Your Ear?” p. 151)

David Bellos is a Princeton professor with a lot to say about translation.  Now you may be like me and think that there is, indeed, something to be said about translation, but not 338 pages worth.  Which means that you — like me — would be wrong.

From the start I could tell that this is a writer who is as much philosopher as translator, and historian as much as linguist.  There is no statement about what translation is (or what it is not) that does not — it turns out — deserve the author’s clarifying attention.  I was tempted to be bored with the entire thing, and kept waiting for the moment when I was finally going to say “enough!” and put the book down.

But that moment never came.

For it turns out that there is, indeed, much to say about translation.  And, as the title suggests, when you start to talk about translation you end up having to talk about the meaning of, well, everything.

Bellos is a sneakily delightful writer.  And even as each chapter feels like falling anew down a rabbit hole chasing after wild hares of translation babble, he always brings us back with a single clarifying sentence that perfectly sets up the next chapter’s wild ride.

But how do I tell you what this book is actually about?  It is about the history, practice and future of translation from one language into another.  This seems a fairly straightforward topic.  But it turns out that as soon as you start dissecting just what makes a “good” or a “bad” translation, you are immediately thrown upon the reality that language is not the fixed target we tend to think it is.  After all, not a one of us uses our native language in just the same way, and this is bound to have implications for the poor sod that then tries to carry our thoughts, ideas, stories and jokes into another human’s language.

If you have any interest in ideas and how ideas are expressed or the myths and realities about the differences between languages, and you have a moderate tolerance for complexity mixed with a taste for precise thinking, you will enjoy this book as much as I did.

Yes, there is a lot to say about translation, and this book says it in a clear, concise and highly entertaining way.

t.n.s.r. bob

The rev gives it four Dimetrodons out of four!

SERMON: “Human Memory and the Blind Librarian that Runs it” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, January 15th, 2012

“Human Memory and the Blind Librarian that Runs it”  That could be the title of the book we may well end up writing one day about how memory — that vaunted aspect of the human brain — works.

The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli, 1781. Photograph: Public Domain

It’s disturbing enough to believe that there are goblins and malevolent spirits at loose in the world trying to trip you up.  But it is hardly less disturbing to realize that the part of our brain that manages memory is somewhere below the Blind Mole Rat on the evolutionary scale of intelligence, and is therefore not doing the bang-up job we imagine that it is.

One thing is obvious: the thing that lives in my brain and pulls from the shelf any and all of the stored snippets of experience that it “thinks” might be useful to me in whatever current drama I am engaged is nothing at all like a little person.  It is nothing like a conscious personality (or “mini-me”) with whom I am really communicating in the same way that I might talk to the help desk on the other end of my telephone call.  My little mental librarian is more like a reflex — capable of lightning quick response speeds that leave it, frankly, no time for the thoughtful reflections of a true librarian.

Though I’ve tried it many times, there is really no way of talking with this librarian of memory.  And yet we are in communication.  But I don’t know what form of communication happens at this level of the brain.  The evolution of my biology has  clearly developed a means of creating differentiated signals that can be “understood” deep in the mind’s archives.  It may well be electrical, but it could be chemical as well, or both (I am ignorant of the current level of understanding neuroscience currently has on this subject).  But whatever it is, in practical terms, the form of communication that exists between my conscious mind and my memory is damn imprecise and not always useful.  In fact, I’d go on to say that it can, at times, be less of a help and more of a hindrance to an enjoyable experience of conscious life.

I think I am so smart, when all along I’ve had this primitive, reactive, mad assistant lodged deep in my skull who has clearly evolved for speed over accuracy.  And why not?  It’s not like memory evolved for the purposes of adding richness to my experience of living.  It clearly began as something else.  This sort of ready storehouse of past experience is most likely the source of our ability to flick into fight or flight in an instant (and by instant I mean even before my conscious mind is aware of the fact that my body has decided to get the hell away from whatever trouble is in front of me).  And as we know, those that experience a few (or many) “false positives” may have run away unnecessarily, but run away they did, which means they survived the one time in a hundred when they really did need to run away.

But where does that leave me: a modern human who can go through days and months without facing a truly life-threatening situation?  I am a civilized man, trying to go about my business of driving, working, meeting other humans, socializing with a close friend, thinking that I am this wonderful bloke with a clever and refined mind only to find that I can be totally taken over by obsessive thoughts that trigger strong chemical reactions of fear or discomfort, all caused by my little blind librarian with whom I find no common language with which to communicate.

I think this is another one of those uncomfortable realities that science brings us face-to-face with: just about all of that which constitutes “me” and “my life” are unintentional by-products of my evolutionary biology.  That is the stark truth of our physical reality.

But that is not the end of the story, nor, in truth, the only story.  For our consciousness, and the way we engage life and infuse it with meaning and significance, color it with our pleasure, sweeten it with our love and with our art, is as much the story of our “life” as our biology.

But the one need not be sacrificed for the other.  In other words, the richness of life is not diminished by a recognition that it came about by a bewildering series of accidents and mutations over a nearly incomprehensible stretch of time.  But neither is it really enriched by denial of our biological, evolutionary reality.  In short: we make too much of ourselves when we demand to have been specially created by an omnipotent, omniscient being…and too little.

We are special enough as it is.  We don’t need the spiritual filigree.  On the other hand, recognizing our biological limitations, especially regarding our own brains, can actually offer us a bit of comfort and self-understanding that may, in the end, make that blind librarian resident in our skulls a bit easier to live with.

t.n.s.r. bob

A Special Request from t.n.s.r. bob

Monday, January 9th, 2012

Monday, January 9, 2012

Dearest Members and Friends of the church of bob,

The n.s.r. bob ponders his ministerial status...

THE SIMPLE APPEAL:  If you could, please take a moment to DONATE what you can to make sure we can continue meeting here every week for a sermon, cartoon and review.

THE MORE COMPLICATED APPEAL: (Feel free to skip this if the SIMPLE APPEAL did the trick!)  Honestly, this “church” doesn’t cost all that much money to run, expense-wise.  (I do have to pay for the domain and the webhosting, but that’s about 15 bucks a month).  Mostly it’s the time I need for the reading and writing and creating of the cartoons, sermons and reviews.

I like doing it.  A lot.  And that’s one reason that (you might have noticed) I’ve chosen to keep the boblog advertisement-free (I figure we get enough of that everywhere else on the web — not that I think we’re such a huge and going concern that our little “church” would be all that attractive to advertisers!)  So, when I ask you to “donate” to the church, what I’m really asking you to do is to support me as your “fake minister of a pretend church”.  (Or is it “pretend minister of a fake church”?)

Of course, we’re not really “fake” or “pretend” at all, are we?  But we’ll keep that as our own little secret.

So please DONATE by using the links provided.  (CONTACT me for snail-mailing information).

Thank you for being with me for these last two years of the church of bob!

“Bob Bless!”

t.n.s.r. bob



Sunday, January 8th, 2012

Who it is? Heck, I don't even know WHAT it is!