Archive for June, 2012

CARTOONS FROM THE REV

Sunday, June 24th, 2012

It’s always surprising to me just how well small raptors can blend into an urban street festival setting.

SERMON: “The Dislocation of the Self” by the not so reverend bob

Sunday, June 24th, 2012

I’m going to walk myself out onto a limb and talk about a theory of mine.  I suppose I could also call it a theory of mind, because it has to do with the way we humans experience spiritual phenomenon.

As I took advantage of the shade of a weeping willow tree for a short recline on a hot Summers-day bench, I looked up through the leaves at the sky above, and felt the warmth of the sun as it dappled its way through the branches.  As I did I mused that when we look at nature, we see mostly abundance and diversity.

Because life is so profligate, we hardly notice (unless we shift our focus) the waste and the decay that is the natural corollary to that abundance.  Instead we see the product of the seed that took root (not the uncountable millions that did not).  We see the offspring of the bird that successfully mated and built a nest, and whose eggs hatched (only rarely do we walk past the egg that was blown from its nest to break on the sidewalk, or the bird who has fallen dead from out of the sky).  The result is that our mental bias toward seeing life over decay is pretty much constantly encouraged.  (This is why it can be such a shock when death comes calling very close to us: at such times we are often stunned into a disconcerting awareness of our own vulnerability to life-ending disease or injury.  This is a state of awareness that we busily work to push back into the shadows of our mind).

This is one aspect of the “why” of the way in which we view our world.  Another is our long cognitive history of attributing intention to non-intentional forces by projecting our natural mind-reading skills onto events that don’t have a mind to read.  We do this almost without thinking — instinctively feeling that a “fierce” wind is somehow opposed to us riding our bike across town, or that an “angry” storm is “threatening” to “keep us” from holding an outdoor wedding.  We have days when we are sure that every traffic light in town is conspiring to frustrate our attempts to make an appointment on time.  We pray (or ask the “universe”) for a parking spot close to the store (and utter a “thank you” when one happens to open up).  All of this is so completely natural to the human mind that the minority of humans who do not respond to the world in this way are considered suspect!

We humans are natural believers and are equipped with brains that have evolved to detect the slightest change in the demeanor of another individual of our own (or other) species.  For any of you who have endured bouts of therapy or counseling, you probably discovered rather early in that process that your brain is quite capable of jumping to all sorts of conclusions that have as their basis nothing more than the trigger of an overly-sensitive misreading of an interpersonal cue.  In short — we are actually probably wrong more often than we are right.  (But in the world of natural selection, where it is not just the strong — but the wary and the agile — that survive, a slew of false positives is not necessarily a disqualifier in the race of life).

It’s always been happening inside our hominid skulls…

The fact that we humans have the most accomplished brains of the animal kingdom tempts us to think of ourselves as having somehow transcended our biology of mere flesh and bone, synapse and stimuli.  But this is, I think, an error of judgement that has some potentially destructive side effects.  An example might be the way we merge our natural tendency toward belief and projection with reason, and come up with the idea that it’s okay for other humans to suffer and die because there is a spiritual life to come where every one will get his or her due (so that anyone who has suffered unjustly, and had this earthly life cut short, will be compensated by the creator in the “better” life to come).  (Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised to learn that I think this is a load of crap that actually diminishes the value of human life, despite the misnomer of  the “pro-life” moniker adapted by those who believe most in the next life, and think the least of this one).

Religious believers are most able to give their projecting mind free reign, limiting their “spiritual” experience only at the interpretation stage, where phenomenon is filtered to make sure it conforms to their belief system’s worldview.  They defend their interpretations of “spiritual” experience against all critics, especially those who would say that they are experiencing nothing at all.

And they are right to do so.  Up to a point.  For they are not experiencing “nothing”.  We all share a certain catalog of cognitive experiences, no matter what we believe or how we interpret the world.  But what I would say is that these things that we experience do not originate in the places we like to locate(or dis-locate) them, but are all a part of the brain’s internal work of assembling sensory input and making sense of the constant flow of data that our sensory organs take in.  In other words — the only intentional agents that exist in the world are those contained inside the skulls of living creatures.  There is no evidence of a spirit realm where intelligence and personality can exist outside of the consciousness of living biological organisms.

Of course — one must admit — there is no known way to disprove the existence of anything “spiritual”.  But then, as Bertrand Russell pointed out, there is also no way of disproving the notion that there is an invisible celestial teapot orbiting the sun (or that we were created by The Flying Spaghetti Monster).  But the retreat to that line of defense is a desperate one, and not, I think, very fruitful.  For the most basic reason that there is so damn much evidence for the handful of ways that we create this sense of external spiritual experience through our own powers of perception.  There are so many ways that our eyes and ears and brains can be fooled that it is foolishness itself to rely on our subjective personal experience alone as solid evidence for god(s), fairies or aliens.

So that when we feel the spirit of a loved one pass through us upon their death, for example, isn’t it more likely that the part of our awareness that we long ago dedicated to that person is relocating itself within the very consciousness that dislocated it in the first place, rather than that the actual “spirit” of another human being has coalesced into a softball-sized sphere of energy that took a short detour from the body of the deceased through our chest on its way to heaven?

Note what I’m saying here:  I am NOT saying that the “spiritual” experience did not (or does not) happen.  But I think the explanation of it is much more simple and direct than we tend to think.

And so it is with nature.  We are confused by the variety and sheer scope of life on earth and therefore cannot bring ourselves to see that — despite the amazing range of the shapes that life assumes — life itself is all of the same basic stuff.  We share eighty percent of our DNA with mice, forty percent with a head of lettuce.  Half of our cellular weight is bacteria.  Most of our own DNA can’t be called completely “human” at all.  And we have ample evidence that we humans are all too willing to trust our mammalian brains even when they make verifiable mistakes in interpreting our experience of living.

Once the first life got started, and found in the recombination of traits (through DNA) a way of reproducing itself, the astoundingly varied living world we see around us today was inevitable.  Not you or me (or dinosaurs or pine cones) necessarily, but something like them.  In a similar way, once brains as big as ours evolved, the idea of the spiritual — the dislocation of parts of our own consciousness — was just as inevitable.  One more example of the multitude of possible outcomes when evolution has time to work on living things.

t.n.s.r. bob

CARTOONS FROM THE REV

Sunday, June 17th, 2012

I always try to carry some (non-meat) treats in my pocket, as sometimes they’ll walk right up the fence and let me pet their snouts.

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “A Tour of the Senses: How Your Brain Interprets the World” by John M. Henshaw.

Sunday, June 17th, 2012

John Henshaw is chair of the Department of Engineering at the University of Tulsa, but clearly he is more interested than the average engineer in the workings of his own sensory systems.  And in “A Tour of the Senses” he takes us on a pleasant journey through the various types and flavors of stimulus, sensation and perception: the three necessary parts of every bit of our experience of life.

I kept thinking as I read this book “He had to do a lot of work outside of his field to write this!” (this is pure conjecture on my part and a reflection of my own bias after working and socializing with so many engineers over the years)!  But the subject of this book is something of deep interest to me, and, I believe, of deep value to any of my fellow humans that has the least interest in seeing the world (and themselves) as clearly as possible.

The book is organized into three sections (the above-referenced Stimulus, Sensation and Perception), which are further broken down into their component (and related) parts.  The book gives a very workable overview of just how our parts have evolved to do the remarkable job they do of taking everything that comes our way and turning it into electrical signals that the brain then makes sense of.  It was reading about this last part the process that made the biggest impression on me: namely the insights into the plasticity of the brain (as revealed by stories from those that have suffered damage to vital areas of the brain, for example, only to recover lost function when other areas of the brain then took up the task).

I’d call this a pleasant and informative read.  The writing is congenial, the author personable (and clearly fascinated by his subject), and there is a lot of truly fascinating information here.  I’m curious how a mechanical engineer from Tulsa gets a book on neurobiology published by The Johns Hopkins University Press (seeing that imprint is what gave me the nudge to give the book a shot), but I’m rather glad he did.

If you would like to get better acquainted with your own eyes and brain and nerves and sensors (and learn why our eyeballs perceive only the visible light spectrum) give this book a read.

t.n.s.r. bob

The rev gives it three out of four Dimetrodons!

SERMON: “The Snake in the Garden” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, June 17th, 2012

This week there was a serpent in my evolutionary Garden of Eden.

I caught part of a PBS program that documents a bunch of scientists being let loose to dissect some of the largest animals in nature (a whale, a lion and some rather huge pythons, for example).  It’s a tough program to watch (a high “ick” factor for me), and yet it is a fascinating and unusual opportunity to learn about these animals’ (as well as our own) biology.

At a point in the program I was watching, they showed the way in which the windpipe in the python was configured in such a way as to extend out the front of the mouth while the animal was swallowing another creature (such as a gazelle or an alligator), but then snugged up against the back side of the nostrils on the front of it’s skull when the animal was swallowed and the mouth was closed (imagine that your windpipe could extend all the way out to your lips along the top of your tongue, but when you closed your mouth it would angle up to form a seal against the back opening of your nostrils).  How the hell — I wondered — did that come to be?

In that moment I was seized with a troubling feeling that suddenly made me see evolution the way so many of my fellow humans see it: challenging to comprehend.  Improbable, even.  An uncomfortable feeling lingered with me for days.

Snakes alive! (From a street painting by Bob Diven)

It’s scary to allow oneself to contemplate such unsettling ideas, but perhaps it is the only way to, well, know anything.  The high school students I worked with last semester had as their “essential question” the following: “Can you know a truth without challenging it first?”.  Though awkwardly worded, I think there is something worthy in that idea.  And so I challenged my own evolutionary “truth”.  (This is sort of recurring practice of mine: I let my mind “go there” — in this case allowing it to drift freely to a world in which some sort of other force — perhaps even intelligent — made that snake thus).

The trigger for my discomfort about that damn snake has as its genesis, I think, the sort of social dualism we have built up around science and religion.  Science states that if something is not yet explained or understood, it is likely that further investigation (or the development of new technologies) will, eventually, allow us to understand it.  Religion says that any thing that science cannot explain fully must (MUST!) be evidence of the mystery that is somehow supposed to prove the existence of God.  As has been pointed out many times, the latter is what is known as an argument from ignorance.  It’s default-style construct is: I don’t know how this happened, therefore God is behind it.

And so I allowed myself to question how the process of evolution and natural selection could have possibly created the “break” between the nostrils and windpipe of that damn snake.  I could not visualize or imagine just how such an anatomical oddity could have come to be (though I’m well aware that the animal world is nothing but a catalog of anatomical absurdities — most of which I can comprehend).  But the further I let myself go toward the idea of an intelligent god designing the snake, the deeper into the quicksand of absurdity I sank.

Truly — why would an all powerful God “design” such kluged-up machinery as that snake’s anatomy?  Almost everything about animal adaptation reflects not efficiency of design, but sheer, brute adaptability (whose practical functionality then mimics a sort of “design”).  Nature does not cry out perfection.  Not in the slightest.  What it screams from every detail is the power of the living impulse that makes every living thing make the most of whatever genetic inheritance it was blessed (or cursed) with.

And we must also consider this: we only see the “experiments” that worked — the results of accumulated advantageous traits.  The others simply do not survive.

And so whatever my doubts (based purely in my own ignorance of a particular process of evolution in the case of the snake), there turns out to be no answer at all in the hollow intellectual shell that is creationism.

What I’ve ended up learning through my week or two of discomfort and doubt is this: we may, indeed, never know the exact how and why of every detail of evolution (it’s pretty certain we will never know the “all” of anything), but no matter how massive our ignorance of nature may be, it can never match the sometimes willful ignorance of those that preach creationism.

The resort to an intelligent designer is often the default knee-jerk response to anything we cannot (yet) explain in nature.  But the introduction of the possibility of such a divine agent is, fundamentally, a non-answer.  Where is the explanation for why this intelligent designer used natural means at all for any of this?  Why an exploding, expanding universe over billions of years so that one tribal shaman could be crucified by an occupying Roman authority and thereby usher in a couple thousand years of human religious enlightenment before God the Father intervenes and — in the final act — makes earth the way He intended it to be in the first place?  Why have animals breath and eat and poop and reproduce at all?  Why give humans earthly bodies when their heavenly bodies are clearly ready to be assigned?  Why put vestigial hip bones in a whale and in the snake whose progenitor — one can assume — troubled Adam and Eve in the Garden?  (A snake that might have been capable of breathing out of a tube in its mouth while swallowing a large animal for supper)!

The notion of God, then, is a tool — an effective trick to spare us from thinking about the unfathomable that surrounds us.  When it comes to explaining the world around us (or the odd anatomy of a python) God is not the answer: it is the decision to not ask the uncomfortable question.

t.n.s.r. bob

(To see the python anatomy I saw, visit PBS on-line.  The breathing apparatus appears at about 31 minutes into the program.  http://www.pbs.org/programs/inside-natures-giants/)

CARTOONS FROM THE REV

Sunday, June 10th, 2012

Is Homeland Security going to tell HER to "keep it moving?"

SERMON: “A Fish to Hook?” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, June 10th, 2012

Though I identify myself as an atheist, when it comes to the heart of my ethics, I’m a humanist.  I tend towards pragmatism when it comes to social issues, and I embrace a humanistic view as it seems to be the best of all possible approaches to making life as good as it can be for as many people as possible.  I recognize the enormous potential we humans have for cooperation and altruistic behavior.  We are capable of being very kind to each other and, on occasion, rising above the raging desire for short-term advantage and choosing, instead, to delay our instant gratification for a reward that we are (sometimes grudgingly) willing to share with others, even strangers.

As you can see by the way I describe the “good” in us humans, I do not shy away from the bad.  How can I?  I am human too, and I know all too well the impulses in my own consciousness that are necessarily modulated by that lately-added lump of brain tissue in my frontal lobes.  My motives for self-understanding are no more or less noble than my own social survival and hope for success in life and love (the two go together for us social primates).

All religions recognize the cognitive tensions (the result of mediating conflicting desires) that are our natural inheritance.  To me this tension is a not-surprising product of our natural evolution, while to the religious it is the result of sin entering into the world through our defiance of God.  Leaving aside the God idea for a moment (and looking instead at the actual evidence of our origins) why should it shock us to find powerful animal reactivity in us when we have spent most of our evolutionary history as animals living in the wild like any other?  Have you considered just how recent is our rise to modern human status?  Or the exponential increase in our numbers and multiplication of our technical and cultural achievements that is even now sweeping us forward like a flood toward our future?

Religions base their doctrines and orthodoxies on the ins and outs and ups and downs of human nature.  (They have to if they are going to a) appeal to humans, and; b) be of any practical use whatsoever).  But a mark of religions is their consistent inability to resist the temptation to re-brand whatever problems they aim to fix (or the solutions they offer) as something unique and special unto themselves.  This is not the spreading of truth: this is commercialism and team-building for the sake of building a brand.

I think Humanism is our best shot at doing the best for the most.

Humanism, on the other hand, does not (I think) go about things in that way.  It continually throws people back upon their own naturally-derived (and therefore already-owned) resources, while encouraging those that have a surplus to share with those that (through the vagaries of genetics or place of birth) have a deficit.  Churches often work to help the poor and the needy, but they are always doing it in part to increase the size and power of the church.  As the late Christopher Hitchens liked to point out, they may claim to have their eyes on the rewards in the next life, but they sure seem to spend a lot of time building up kingdoms in this one.

How many times in my Christian years was I told “the fields are white for harvest”, as if people were stalks of wheat to be gathered with sickle and wagon?  Or exhorted to be a “fisher of men”, as if people are fish to be caught with bait, hook or net and gathered into the boat?  Think about what this says about how the unsaved are viewed by the saved.

Do you want to know why American Evangelical preachers lash out so vehemently at “secular humanism”?  Because humanists are out there offering every single benefit that religion offers without the small print, the hidden costs, and the requirement to sign away your reason, your autonomy, and your eternal soul (these same Evangelicals often have as little sympathy for the religious humanists in their own ranks).

As an aside, this all points to one of the basic flaws in this whole “church of bob” concept (at least in terms of a business model): I have nothing at all to hold over anyone who might come here to read, enjoy, learn or laugh.  I have no threat of hell to wield, or any hint of a deity’s displeasure (there are very few, I think, concerned about incurring the decidedly temporal “wrath of bob”).  That’s why this “church” will never work like a real church (and it is why I’ll never be the slick preacher driving his new Escalade up to his mansion with his trophy wife, just counting the days until my evangelistic empire is brought to ruin by a shocking sexual scandal — sigh).

I go back and forth on my feelings for humans.  On the one hand, we sort of deserve whatever we get in terms of fouling our own global nest.  But, then, why should I be any more harsh on the human species of animals than I am on any other?  Did the dinosaurs “deserve” to go extinct?  No.  Yes.  I don’t know.  Anything that is living has earned its moment in the sun through dint of the eons of sheer survival and adaptation that is represented by the surviving DNA in every single living organism (including you and me).  And that is why — being an atheist and a humanist — I mourn and I ache for a life that is cut short by the willful act of another.  What right does one human have to knowingly make life more miserable for others (especially when they use some bullshit religious justification for it like: “Well, if they were innocent, God will make it up for them in Heaven” — nice)?  (I am not addressing, here, the spectrum of discomforts that some humans have with the fact that our very survival requires us to consume other life forms, be they animal or vegetable — one more “tension” we must deal with in life).

So when I attack religion (which I often do, seeing it as but the fat middle of the bell curve of human irrational beliefs of all kinds), I am not attacking my fellow humans, but rather hoping to appeal to (and encourage) our “better natures”.  Some will claim that this is what religion does as well, and I will allow that for some people religious conversion does serve as an entry-level introduction to not acting like a complete and total selfish prick.  But because religion always has (at its heart) a fearful view of the world, an enshrined sense of self-loathing, and a preening need to be the only game in town, the results are ever going to be mixed.

I think humanism, then, is the way to go.  It is not perfect — for it will always be rooted in the reality of actual human behavior — but it is the most reality-based mix of hope and evidence, poisoned the least by denial and absent the religious demand for human debasement before the throne of an imaginary totalitarian in the sky.  No humanist will ever think of a person as a fish to hook, or a sheaf of wheat to chop with a scythe.

But, then, it’s not easy to take full responsibility for consciousness — for existence.  Too little attention is paid to the challenge that simply being alive and aware entails, I think.  Like the button I saw in a store last week that said “Stuck in that awkward phase between birth and death”.  Truer words could not be spoken.

All I’m saying is this: let us each do the bit that we can to make that “awkward phase” a bit less awkward (or miserable or tragic) for both ourselves and our fellow human beings.  If we end up losing a god who doesn’t seem think that highly of us anyway in the process of achieving the fullness of our humanity, is that such a bad thing?

I, for one, don’t think so.

t.n.s.r. bob

CARTOONS FROM THE REV

Sunday, June 3rd, 2012

No shirt, no shoes, no pants, no service for dinosaurs at this Denver coffee shop.

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Forces of Nature: Our Quest to Conquer the Planet” by Barry A. Vann

Sunday, June 3rd, 2012

“The notion that humans are somehow killing the planet is absurd, although we can kill ourselves and some other fellow occupants.  As apex predators, we have the capacity to manipulate earth’s resources in ways that no other life-form can.  While on the one hand playing with fire may cause the player to get burned, he nevertheless must burn energy to survive.  Exploiting resources is a part of life.  It is how we use them that must be done with care because the earth is not fragile; we are.  From looking at environmental history, one fact rises equally from the volcanic ashes of great eruptions and the slippery slope of advancing glaciers: climate and weather are products of a complex energy system that neither sees nor knows us.  They have no consciousness or need for sacrifice on our part.  They cannot be bought off by repentance.  Moreover, climate is capricious and because it is that way, we face a future that is likely to change.  Perhaps the greatest challenge in facing the real prospect of climate change, which will happen with or without our assistance, is to shed ourselves of overly romantic and even geopious notions of perceiving weather and climate as anything more than mindless forces of nature.”  — Barry A. Vann in “Forces of Nature: Our Quest to Conquer the Planet”.

I often pick up a book based on whatever particular hole in my knowledge I want to plug with information that week.  I found this book (like I have many others) on my wonderful local library’s “New Non Fiction” shelf.

I was intrigued by the idea of getting an overview of just how we humans have met our environments over the generations.  But the first chapter read like a graduate thesis: dry and distant, and I wondered if I would just take this book back and find another, more readable one.  But I stuck with it for another chapter (ready to drop it an any time), and then another and then I found myself reading the parts where the author really hit his stride as, it turns out, a superlative storyteller.

If you’re like me, you’ll sort of endure the pages of arcane nomenclature the field (of geography) employs for the different human viewpoints on the forces of nature, which essentially boil down to the ways we have viewed natural disasters as actions of an angry god (or, more recently, of an angry and aggrieved planet).  Some of this early stuff is indeed dry, but it is still good stuff.  But then the author takes several long side-trips into vivid descriptions of several of the most dramatic convulsions that nature has visited upon us humans, and it is in these stories that the writing becomes beautiful, irresistible, sublime.  This writer may be an artist in scientist’s clothing.

Taken as a whole, I did get a deeply satisfying overview of the actual “why” of where humans have chosen to build their camps, villages and cities, and settled humanity’s experience of natural disasters:  In short, we like to live in places where bad things can — and do — happen (on low-lying shorelines of rivers and oceans, on beautiful islands created by volcanoes, on vast, fertile farmlands in “Tornado Alley”, etc.).  The author sees all of this through his perspective as a geographer, which means he sees worse on the horizon (as our populations in these areas continue to increase).  These are good truths to have in mind.

There is frequent reference to climate change and global warming in “Forces of Nature”, but not in the way you might expect.  The author is looking at the larger picture of just when (not if) our next ice age may come, and he seems to think that a bit of global warming now might just help forestall this much larger disaster coming down the tracks.  I’m not sure how to think of that idea.  (I guess I’ll need to find yet another book to lessen my ignorance on that particular proposition).

This is a very worthwhile book that will definitely expand your perspective on humans and their interactions with their environment.  Even if you skip the “dry” chapters, I’d hate for you to miss the description of the greatest earthquake known to strike the (populated) United State which hit, if you can believe it, the Mississippi valley in the early 1800’s.

t.n.s.r. bob

The Rev gives is 3.5 out of 4!

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

Sunday, June 3rd, 2012

It’s an old saw about military boot camp: they have to break you down as a civilian before they can rebuild you as a soldier.  But what is it, exactly, that they are “breaking down”?

The stated purpose of military training is to develop in soldiers the capacity to act first and ask questions later.  It’s not unlike the way that a parent might hope to inculcate an immediate response to “no” in a child so that any number of potential dangers can be averted — touching a boiling pot on the stove, running into a busy street, annoying an unfamiliar dog.

And yet we also have the idea that one shouldn’t “break” a child’s spirit in the pursuit of this kind of obedience.

Clearly we carry a sense of what it means to have a “self”, and that it is a part of us that is both essential and — to some degree — subject to influence.

One of the things researchers look for in other animals is whether they have a “theory of mind” like we humans do (meaning, in short, that they understand on some level that the other animal that they are interacting with has a mind that is having its own equivalent thoughts).

We humans develop this “theory of mind” in spades, and the theory goes that we evolved such large brains in no small part because of the need to be able to read the minds of others.  Almost everything about our cognition (that isn’t geared to basic metabolic survival) can seem to be geared toward figuring out the intentions other people (and animals).  I think that this kind of thinking is so integral to us that we don’t even realize how important it is to our sense of self.

What am I really saying here?  Let me offer this example: There are many who sincerely believe that the basis of human morality is divine law, and that without the knowledge of good and evil that is given us by God, we would be cast adrift in a lawless universe, and that every individual would, in an instant, revert to rape, robbery, murder and mayhem.  Therefore, they rightfully (at least according to their world view) fear any suggestion that a) God may not exist, or; b) that morality is at all relative, or human-based.

As a young man, I joined the Coast Guard, and experienced the reshaping of self that is military boot camp.

Now what does the above example have to do with our highly complex social sense?  I use it as an example of how that social sense has been conceptually displaced from its actual location (in our psyche) and transferred to God as the focus of its activity.  We may, in practice, behave more morally in order to please the all-knowing God of our imagination, but what we are really doing is acting as a profoundly social animal could be expected to act (with or without divine supervision): engaging in only as much selfish behavior as one can get away with without damaging essential, personal relationships.  The only difference here is that we have personified (in an external way) that part of our consciousness that is our “conscience” — meaning the level of our brain with which we carry on a conversation when we “talk to ourselves” or pray out loud.

Let’s talk about the “self” that we converse with in this manner.  The dynamic is essentially the same as if we were interacting with another human being, and that is my point:  We are moral animals because we want — no — we need to get along with our fellow moral animals.  And we have come to understand (at some point in our distant past) that we will all be much better off if we behave ourselves in a civilized manner (meaning that we respect certain group-defined limits on our selfish behavior).

And this is where our sense of our “self” and the self-limiting conscience of the “social self” come together.

For our sense of self is, to a large degree, a collection of ideas about our own personality (and moral sense) that we have gathered to ourselves over the years of our maturation.  And where do most of those ideas come from?  From the way other people have responded to us.  Someone tells us that we’re pretty, or smart, or funny, and we take that to heart (our brains are hard-wired to believe what others in our social circle tell us first, and only question it later — hence the enormous potential power of the abuser that — in order to gain control of another — tells them they are ugly, stupid or unworthy in some way).

Those that are in the business (or hobby) of selling religion are really offering a balm to the wounds that a “self” is almost sure to pick up over time.  They also offer a ready absolution (or, at least, a path to atonement) for that nagging sense of selfishness that is inherent in an animal that — no matter the modern trappings — must still feed itself and see to its basic survival needs in a most primal (selfish?) manner.

(But since we are all in the same existential boat, we humans extend to each other the polite fictions and euphemisms with which we cloak the naked fact that in order to live we have to, for instance, physically consume other life, be it vegetable or animal).

But we humans need to do this for each other, as the other animals seem not to be troubled with self-awareness in the way that we are. ( Which is why — one can assume — ants don’t need religion).

All of this leads, I think, to a certain natural instability in our sense of self.  In order to be as responsive as it is to the nuances of the behavior of others, it must sacrifice a certain degree of solidity — like the narrow-bottomed canoe designed for maneuverability in white water will not be stable in placid lake waters like one designed for such use with a wide, flat bottom.

It’s impossible to know what is in anothers mind, though we know enough to know that there is certainly something going on in there.  I figure that we all live somewhere on a continuum of psychic stability, from those that have a more simple cognitive framework that is resistant to self doubt, to those that have troubled minds that make the maintenance of a stable sense of self rather tricky.  We all have friends or family that are troubled my mental or physical illness, which can also challenge the strongest sense of self.

The journey of discovering my own self has been an interesting one.  Like many, I tried on the self of the Christian believer.  I even took a stab at being one of those re-shaped by military boot camp.  But in my quest to dig down to some existential bedrock upon which to stand as my self, I have, instead, come to an increasing realization that there is no bedrock to us at all.  How can there be when we are these temporal physical beings whose entire experience of the world is mediated through an organ of flesh and electrical impulses?

It’s a troubling thought, that.  And troubling thoughts are kryponite to a coherent sense of self.  For no matter what sins we commit (or what sins are done to us), we humans have a deep, abiding, and survival-level need to maintain a coherent sense of ourselves (just notice how hard we work to restore our preferred sense of ourselves as decent people when we have behaved badly or wronged another person in our social circle).  And this is why it matters so much what the other humans we live around think of us.  They are, in fact, the only mirrors that give us glimpses of how we come across from the outside.

There are those who say they don’t care what other people think of them.  We all nod in agreement and envy them, even if we don’t quite believe them.  The reality is that a certain amount of social power or financial success can seem to insulate the self from the power of the bad opinions of others.  But fortunes can change very quickly, and our dramas are full of stories of the suddenly rich “nice guy” that then becomes an asshole, but then loses everything and has to win back all the friends that he pissed off in his hubris (and who he now needs again).

In my case I’ve come to the conclusion that the inherent sensitivities and instabilities in my own temperament are part of what enables my creativity and artistry to be so delightfully responsive and acute — just as the most aerobatic of aircraft are the most inherently unstable in straight and level flight.  (There is a reason, after all, that artists are naturally seen as living on the social margins).

But we are all vulnerable creatures.  It is only a question of degree (just as I think that artistic talent is simply our natural problem-solving ability cranked up a few notches, and not some otherworldly ability).

Whether or not we choose to recognize it, everything we do contains an almost automatic, quiet calculation of the social cost or benefit of that particular action.  To admit this seems crass, but it is the reality that underlies the smooth social functioning of a bunch of social animals like ourselves.

And that is why I don’t think that we would stop behaving morally if God were to suddenly pack up his tents and ride off across the cosmic desert.  Sure, there would be a bunch of former uptight believers who might cut loose a bit, but they would instantly discover that it was never really God who was keeping them in line at all, but their own precious sense of self, and the very real humans who would very quickly let it be known that an asshole is an asshole, whether God is in his Heaven or not.

t.n.s.r. bob