Archive for July, 2012


Sunday, July 29th, 2012

Who knew that dinosaurs had any interest at all in space exploration? Or at least in murals showing shiny machinery.

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Sex and Sensuality in the Ancient World” by Giulia Sissa (translated by George Staunton)

Sunday, July 29th, 2012

In some ways I’m still wondering why (or how) I read this book.  I can perhaps account for why I picked it up off the “New Non-Fiction” shelf at the library (it had the words “sex” and “ancient” in the title).  But as to how I stuck with it — when from the start it was clearly a dense and scholarly book more than a bit above my level of scholarship on the ancient Greeks and Romans — will have to remain a mystery.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m very glad that I read it, as this book turned out to be a window for me into our earliest philosophical conclusions about ourselves as sexual, emotional and social beings.  But it was a challenging read.

For those of you familiar with Greek, Roman and early Christian philosophy, much of this may be familiar territory (though the fact that the author’s central aim is to refute some long-established notions of what this group of thinkers actually said about sex may be of value even to you).  I can only tell you what I gained from this book.

For a start, I feel like I now have a workable familiarity with the different schools of Greek thought that started the ball rolling, as it were, on our views of sex, marriage, romance, learning and society.  And this is hugely important stuff, as the book clearly shows.  For this was the bedrock upon which later Roman and Christian thought was built.

Just as the stories of the Bible are echoes and re-tellings of previous myths of the fertile crescent, the answers that the (Greek-speaking) Apostle Paul gave to the Ephesians were informed by the Greek thought that permeated his own consciousness.

Seen in that way, this book is in some ways vital to an understanding of the way that I view sex, romance and marriage today.  For I (we) have grown up immersed in the unsettled stew of all of this thought that has come before.

And there is another angle that applies very much to our own time (and our current political climate) and that, perhaps oddly, gives me insight into the stubborn resistance to modern civilization exhibited by the Libertarian and TEA Party types:  and that is the view of these ancient philosophers that the process of civilization makes the hard, dry bodies of men turn soft — that the evolution of society is an essentially feminine (soft and moist) process, and that the challenge then becomes how to maintain a distinction between the sexes within civilized society.  (I think the TEA Party is rife with this “men are men and we don’t need your stinking help” sort of attitude).

“When humans were still living in the forest, Venus set about joining their bodies together through mutual attraction, male violence, or rudimentary forms of gifts.  It was therefore sexual pleasure that started to weaken humans, particularly men; this process of enfeeblement culminated in a taste for good food and for visiting spas, and resulted in the triumph of luxury.”  (P. 154)

I think these questions (and concerns) about how “civilization” changes us are valid.  And what this book tells me is that these questions have been on our minds for as long as we have been in a position to observe ourselves as a civilized species.

It’s a dense book (it took me almost a month to read it — not my usual single week).  But even knowing that I was reading a translation, I could feel the rather delightfully clear mind of the author, and came to love the way she viewed the world and that she chose to share her views with someone so far from her field of study as me.

The book cogently covers Greek, Roman and early Christian thought on sexuality, and it’s worth reading if only to discover just how influential the words of these thinkers of the past have been on the way we still see ourselves and society.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Brain Seizures” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, July 29th, 2012

I had just dropped my truck off at the garage for a day of repairs, and had enjoyed a twenty minute bike ride back to my office downtown.  As I rounded the corner into my parking lot, I saw before me a truck that looked just like the truck I had just left across town.  But that was not my first thought.

Before I could even have a conscious “thought”, I was having the surreal perceptual (and therefore physical) experience of seeing my truck where I was not expecting to see it.  But this sight was not just the slight surprise of the unexpected, no: what was presented to my eyes was so far outside the range of pictures that my predictive brain was prepared to see in that moment that my brain kind of seized up.

I kept looking at that little gray truck — again and again — searching out the details.  I noticed the shape of the truck and the color first — both perfect matches for mine.  My eye then shifted to the details.  It had the same model nameplate.  I then looked for the black bed liner, and at first saw none, but then noticed what seemed like a line of old adhesive where one might have once been secured (which meant that my brain could not easily judge this bit of evidence).  I had to look at this detail at least three times before I was able to satisfy my brain’s aggressive impulse to see this as my truck, parked as it was in a space that mine frequently occupies.

I had never seen this truck in this parking lot before, and it wasn’t a regular visitor to my neighborhood (though I may have seen it around town — I have noticed at least one similar truck to mine on one or two occasions over as many years).

One (or both) of the two animals in this picture is very likely having difficulty processing a rather convincing delusion!

All of these things combined in that one confusing moment to set my brain to wanting to believe that this was my truck (or to figure out how it had gotten here — no matter the physical impossibility of such a thing occurring).  This impulse toward belief was powerful enough to (temporarily) completely suppress the rational part of my brain that clearly remembered having left my truck half way across town only a few minutes before!

As I got off my bike and walked into my office, I was still feeling the aftereffects of my brain struggling to deconstruct the vision of my quantum truck that was in two places at one time (or else changed location in some dramatic manner while I was riding my bike along a route different than that my magical truck took).

It’s incredibly interesting to have cognitive experiences like this, especially when one can be aware enough of it as it’s happening (or very soon after) to ponder it.  (It is akin, I think, to lucid dreaming, where one gets the rare opportunity to watch the inner workings of one’s own brain).

In this case, I got to see how it is that the brain can be tricked by unexpectedly familiar-looking things that aren’t where they are supposed to be.  In essence, I had a magical and mystical experience that was all based on a perfect mini-storm of the right amount of sensory inputs and a minor processing error in my brain.

But I don’t think my experience is an anomaly.  In fact, I think it is a perfectly normal, everyday episode of the kinds of brains we have.  We know, for one thing, that the brain works by constantly creating predictions about what we will see, say, taste or hear next.  This is how we are able to keep up in a fast conversation, or navigate traffic on a freeway.  It is also why we can be surprised (in a pleasing way) by a magician’s trick or the unexpected twist in a comedian’s joke.  It is also why we can be slow to react to the radically unexpected event (think anomalous events like a plane crash or a sudden violent act).  At it’s core — it is part of our evolved skill set for surviving in the physical world: the oblivious walk off of cliffs; the wary do not.  (And what is wariness, but a constant imagining of future events).

The most striking part of my experience with my vehicle’s doppelgänger was the urge toward belief and how that urge was able to suppress reason.  I think this is a perfect demonstration of the natural tendency toward belief that is part and parcel of being human.  After all, it seems to be well demonstrated that we are so profoundly social that we always lean toward believing what others tell us, only engaging our critical faculties after (and even then only when pushed to do so).  Mainly we prefer to believe from the start and keep on believing.  (For a quick overview of how our believing brain works, see this article by Michael Shermer).

That’s what my brain was trying to do — but the data being gathered by my critical, rational brain began to break that “belief” down.

This is like the experience I once described of seeing my dead dad at the Farmers Market (as I was painting on the street on a Saturday morning).  Of course it wasn’t my dad, but I glanced up to see an old man walking away from me who was very similar to my late father in his build, mode of dress and gait.  I merely glimpsed this man and before I knew it I was feeling my heart swell and my throat constrict with emotion.  My analytical mind pretty quickly figured out what was going on, but by then the tears had already jumped to my eyes.  It’s like Malcolm Gladwell explains in” Blink” (reviewed this blog): this middle part of our brain — that part that worked to make sense of “my” truck being in two places at once (or my dead father walking among the living) is where our split-second decisions are made, and the reasoning frontal lobes — in such situations — can only wait for the memo to get passed upstairs (even as our body is already responding to the rapid-fire signaling from the reactive brain).

After years of work — both getting to know it and learning to work with it — I have decided that I have a highly enjoyable brain.  It is creative, agile and an incredible analytical and emotional workhorse for me.  But it has its own quirks and deficits that can, at times, overwhelm me.  Seeing it for the remarkable, evolved organ that it is is the most fruitful way to appreciate it best, I think.  To see it as neither more nor less than it is.  And experiences like that of “seeing” my late father (or my truck) where he (or it) wasn’t is one of those perfect reminders of my own cognitive imperfection.  And with that comes a very humane kind of humility that can, I think, benefit anyone willing to see — and accept — themselves for what they truly are: highly evolved animals with unusually large and complex brains.

t.n.s.r. bob


Sunday, July 22nd, 2012

I’m not so worried about him fitting in a seat as I am him getting through the front door.

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

Sunday, July 22nd, 2012

There have been attempts at studying the efficacy of prayer.  The most famous one seemed to indicate that prayer actually made sick people feel worse.  (This seemed to be a case, though, of a sick person knowing that someone was praying for them, and — social animal that they were — feeling bad that they weren’t feeling better for the effort!  So we can’t say that it was actually the fault of the prayer itself.  The point here is that we have no evidence that prayer “works”, despite the volumes of anecdotal “proofs”).

In my Christian years I often heard the who-knows-how-far-from-first-hand reports of the dead being raised back to life, or the death sentence of a dread disease being reversed by prayer.  But despite centuries of such reports, there is still no scientific evidence to back up any of these claims.

But we still believe.  Why?  Well, we want to, we need to, and we are hard-wired to believe.

What is prayer?  To me (and for the purposes of this discussion) it is intentionally talking out loud to an external, invisible entity, generally thought of as God (though this applies equally to saints or spirit guides or what-have-you).  Prayer can take several forms: the intentional “thought” that one articulates only inside of one’s mind (hoping that the Holy Spirit will hear and pass the request up the celestial management chain); the “speaking in tongues” of the Pentacostal and Charismatic Christians; or the good-old-fashioned spoken-out-loud prayer.

Of all of these, the one form that actually “works” is the spoken-out-loud kind.

But this “prayer” works for the reasons I’ve written about before: it externalizes our intentions in such a way that they can be heard through the ears and thereby be processed by a different region of the brain.  This often produces a result: either an actual “answer” from that “part” of our consciousness, or; an idea or moment of inspiration that suggests a “solution” to whatever problem or question our prayer sought to address.

There is nothing mystical about this (though it can certainly feel magical!)  But the fact that this is a universal human phenomenon means that it has provided, I think, the basis for a raft of differing religious and spiritual beliefs about how the unseen world works.  Pretty much all of these are, I think, wrong on the facts.  (The only “unseen” world that does, in fact, appear to exist is a continuation of the physical world into a microscopic scale that we cannot observe unaided).  And yet there remains the reality of each of us humans possessing a multilayered brain that contains within it something we often experience as a second self resident within us.

This explains a lot about religious belief, and why it remains so universal among humans.  It also explains why those beliefs almost always fail to produce the results that they often promise.

If it were true that God answered even a fraction of the prayers offered to Him (to take the most prevalent idea of God) on a daily basis, then it stands to reason that we would see a lot more result in that arena.  We would actually see the occasional mountain moved, or the dead raised to life, or the cancer cured, or the best parking spaces at the mall totally taken up by cars with fish symbols glued on the bumper (I mean the Christian fish symbol, not the walking Darwin version I have on my truck).

This illustration of the “Miracle on the Hudson” circulated after this remarkable event. But where was the illustration of God’s hands letting the next airliner fall to its deadly end a week later?

The plain, cold, ugly fact is that we don’t see prayers answered in this clear, unequivocal way.  Leaving aside the dramatic,  miracle-requesting prayers (and the ever-present notable exceptions that prove the rule), even our “every day” supplications are only ever “answered” in that diffuse, heavily–interpreted manner that the equally oversold predictions of psychics or palm readers are: we look at our life through our own confirmation bias, and find a way to convince ourselves that a divine result has been made manifest.  In short, we are ever willing to cloak our disappointment in revised belief in order to sustain the most primary belief in the rightness of belief itself.

But what about the times that prayer does actually work?  By this I mean the times we ask of our mid-brain the kinds of things that it can actually do.

Well, therein lies the key: there are things that this “second self” can do that we can’t do on our own (“we” here meaning that front-line rational part of our brain).  One of these things is giving us “insight” into problems, almost as if we were bringing a second computer online to assist in processing (more accurately, we are bringing a “second mind” to work on the problem that not only has its own computing power, but a different processor, if you like).  And on this score, it is extremely helpful that this second mind is capable of communication in words and sentences (just like the other part of our brain that has the power to activate the voice box).

When I was still working within the worldview of my psychic, I tested out the power of my “higher self”, and found that it was, in fact, really good at helping me find my misplaced keys (for example).  But I also found that it could not help me find anything that someone else had moved from the place I last left it (interesting).  I also realized that it’s “power” was limited to my immediate surroundings (though I had a couple of experiences where it seemed to “draw in” the person I was thinking about — an experience that, it turns out, is not nearly so remarkable as one might think.  For it turns out that we actually live our lives in a rather narrow band of paths, places and people, to the extent that someone we might think of is actually highly likely to appear at any time!  For more on this sort of perceptual bias, see “Quirk”, “Kluge” or several of the other books on the brain reviewed on this blog).

As I think about it now, this all makes perfect sense — if the “person” I’m praying (or talking out loud) to is really another aspect of me living inside my brain.  The limitations of the phenomenon do not make sense, however, if we believe that we are really capable of communicating with spirits or a deity that is not limited to the short-range effectiveness of the supplicant’s physical senses!

The Bible has Jesus telling his disciples that they can wither a fruit tree if it pisses them off by not having any fruit (the tease!), or toss a mountain into the sea (Matthew 21:18-22).  The modern sects of Christianity that take these words at face value have built entire evangelism empires out of teaching believers how to produce such miracles in their own lives.  I’ve been to huge gatherings where just this kind of teaching took place.  Looking back on my experience, it is remarkably analogous to my later experiences of walking through casinos in Las Vegas and Reno — the “testimonies” of those for whom the technique of prayer has worked ring out like the sound of winning slot machines in a vast room.  In short (and by design) one only hears from the  winners!  (What a difference it would make if every losing machine let out a shriek of disappointment each time the little symbols did not line up!  This would give us a much more accurate picture of the reality of the casino — or the revival tent for that matter).

We humans are loaded with biases that are so persistent that they require the active involvement of the frontal lobes to see beyond them.  We will take the sight of two crossed sticks on the ground to be a message from Jesus, or an oil stain on a storage tank to be a vision of the Virgin Mary.  We naturally seek patterns in nature, a skill that has obviously served the physical survival of our primitive ancestors quite well, even though it produces a side-effect of this tendency toward irrational belief.

Natural selection doesn’t care what an organism believes about it’s own existence.  Though, in our case, it could be argued that our tendency toward belief must have given us some sort of advantage in the genetic arms race of evolution.  Still, the presence of a believing brain does not naturally imply the existence of something to believe in.  We act as if it does, and many believers are able to find confirmation of their beliefs in the natural world and, of course, in answered prayer.

But we humans are very selective in our memory, and we naturally remember the few times that prayer “worked” while failing to recall the much more numerous times when it did not.  In the same way we are always reading stories in the news (or seeing people interviewed on television) about those who survived some horror and credit their survival to their urgent prayers.  What we don’t see (and never will) are those that prayed and died anyway.  We only hear from the ones who made it through alive.

So we can go on about the airliner that made a miraculous landing on the Hudson River, say, depicting in an illustration the hands of God gently setting it down after a catastrophic loss of engine power, and yet remain silent about the commuter jet that crashed and burned with all hands only a few weeks and a few hundred miles away.  Do we really think that there was more (or better) prayer for God’s intercession on one plane than another?  (Clearly we do — it is one of the ways we rationalize to maintain our belief in prayer).

So, to sum it all up: prayer works.  But it works just the way one would expect to see a purely physical process within the multilayered human brain work.  With all of the wonder — and limitations — that such a reality would suggest.

Try it out with that knowledge in mind, and you will find out the true power of prayer.

That’s why I won’t be offended if you don’t waste any of your cognitive time praying for me.  Unless, of course, you’re the one who moved my keys from the place I left them!

t.n.s.r. bob


Sunday, July 15th, 2012

You never know who you’ll run into changing planes at an airport.

SERMON: “A Closet Trinitarian Comes Out” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, July 15th, 2012

I’m glad that I’ve read the Bible cover to cover at least once.  And I’m also glad (now) that I spent so many years as several flavors of a Christian: an evangelical of the “Navigators” style; a speaking-in-tongues Charismatic (think Pentecostal); and a moderate Christian apologist (of the type that leans on writers such as C.S. Lewis and Paul Tournier).  For one, it puts me in a position to more deeply understand aspects of the American psyche and culture.  For another, it gives me a basis for seeing the ways in which religion got things right almost by accident.

I realized today that I’m a sort of atheist trinitarian, in that I relate to my own body and consciousness as sort of a three-layered organism.  Not in the Greek or Christian manner of body, soul and spirit, but more through a recognition of the apparent natural divisions between levels of consciousness.  Don’t worry — I have not suffered a miraculous conversion from my materialist self.  For it turns out that one does not have to wax mystical to talk about the mysteries of our experience of existence.

As I’ve mentioned in previous sermons, I once asked a psychologist friend if my brain processed information differently when it entered through my ears.  His answer was “yes”.  This, to me, is why “prayer” works (no matter who or what you are praying to): there turns out to be a difference between just thinking a thought and saying it out loud in terms of just what our brain is capable of doing about that “thought”.

Clearly, someone other than me noticed this difference, and so preachers have long taught young believers to pray out loud to God if they want their prayers to be heard.  (They are also taught that God can see their innermost thoughts, but that is an issue of exerting remote control over the believer’s behavior, I think, and therefore has less to do with the issue of answered prayer).  Even my psychic of some years emphasized that I should say things out loud, as that was the only way that my “higher self” could understand my intentions (funny that we rarely question such confident pronouncements concerning unknowable things).

Now I can’t prove that any preacher or psychic taught these things with a full knowledge that he or she was simply slapping their stamp of ownership on a copyright-free bit of natural neural processing, but certainly they have all been building upon an evolved human trait that is a quite earthly-process and not, in truth, a mystical connection with the divine.

But be that as it may, this represents a way in which the promoters of the metaphysical have got something right, even if their understanding of it is wrong.  For whatever we may say, the phenomenon of talking out loud to oneself and “hearing” a response is real.  All that I’m saying is that it is one “level” of our consciousness (by which I mean the cognitive product of the physical organ of the brain as we experience it) “talking” to another.  It is a completely self-contained process — literally.

We are in a time of increasing research into the brain, and we are to the point where machines can now be plugged into the brain to “read” (in a rather crude sense) our thoughts (specific electrical impulses) and turn those signals into actions of an artificial limb, say (or conversely, an implant that can replace the damaged parts of the ear, generating signals that the brain can be trained, over time, to recognize as discreet sounds).

As in many discoveries of science, each new revelation of underlying physical processes that are observed and understood quietly removes one more plank from the increasingly rickety edifice of metaphysical doctrine.  And yet, in an interesting way, the more we learn about how the world works, the more we can appreciate the ways in which our ancestors made sense of underlying realities that they could not explore in such a scientific manner.

And this is where I get back to the idea of the “trinity”.  The Greeks, I believe, came up with the notion of the human being made up of the body, the soul (mind) and the spirit.  Early Christians took up this system and many of us today carry on with this conception of ourselves as being made up of three distinct domains joined together for the purpose of living out our years on earth.  The body is, of course, all that is physical about us: our bones, our blood, and our organs and tissue.  The soul is the essential, immutable “you” — your personality, your likes and dislikes — the thing that sets us apart from the person next to us.  (It seems to reside in the brain, but it is not dependent on the brain, and so we call it the “mind”).  The spirit is the part of us that is non-physical, eternal.  It enters us upon our birth (or thereabouts), and departs the body as soon as the physical phase of our life ends, returning to the source from which it came (taking with it, I assume, our “soul” — at least in Christian theology).

We are learning that there are enough non-brain nerve systems in the body to build another animal-sized brain (should we want to do that).  So that our “gut” is sending signals to our brain about what’s going on “down there” (this in addition to the chemical signals of food and digestion).  So that when we talk about our body “knowing” something, there turns out to be an actual physical basis for that as well.

My high school senior photo — proclaiming the Christian “brand” with a Holy Spirit lapel pin.

What I’m saying is that there turns out to a quite genuine basis for the concepts of the body, soul (mind) and spirit being a sort of three-in-one in our own bodies.  Of course, I haven’t yet discussed the physical basis for the idea of “spirit” yet.  But actually, I have.

The part of us that we have always (historically) taken to be the voice of God (or our “higher self” or, in the case of mental illness, the “voice(s) in our head”) is that mid-level of our brain. (Here I mean in actual physical terms.  In terms of our experience of that part of our brain, we’d call it our consciousness).  This is the part of our brain that is activated when we ask ourselves a question out loud, or when we pray (which is, in practical terms, the exact same action).  This is the part of our brain that answers back in that “still, small voice”.

As an aside, I think that once we get closer to seeing ourselves as we actually are, some of the more troubling mysteries of life become less mysterious (though not always less troubling).  For example, I think that the difference between the average Christian who prays and hears God reply, and the untreated schizophrenic carrying on animated conversations with invisible others at Denny’s late at night is only a matter of degree.  The first is operating pretty normally, the second has just enough of a disorder in the brain that the normal operating system of that mid-level of consciousness is running at an unmanageable speed.  The ancients (and many of us “moderns”) may see the mentally ill as something strange and aberrant, but the truth is that it doesn’t take much of a genetic twist to turn what is otherwise a human exactly like ourselves into one we think of as less-than human.  So that the Bible stories of Jesus casting out demons and bringing the so afflicted back to their “normal” selves is not such a strange story to us if we just peel back the superfluous layer of magic and mysticism that keeps us from seeing human behaviors and illnesses of the past to be just like those that we see today.

And that is how I see the world — fairly free, now, of the filters of metaphysical belief.  Nothing about the world I see has changed, only the way in which I see it.

So one could fairly say that I still “pray”.  When I’m stuck, overwhelmed, or can’t figure out where I left my keys, I often have to stop and put my question into spoken words.  And in many cases, that other level of my brain kicks in and starts to work on the problem — as if by “magic”.

It’s tricky — as a hard-core Darwinian materialist — to “pray” in this way.  This act of talking to myself has been plastered with more brand-names than a NASCAR stock car, and there is a certain revulsion at the idea of giving any credence to the charlatans (be they well-meaning or not) who keep claiming this “secret practice” as their own.  But, in the end, why would I deny myself the benefit of this other part of my brain capacity?

When I was a young Christian, I was taught to pray.  This was the first instance of my natural capacity being sold back to me as a gift from outside of myself.  Later, there came a time when I felt that I recognized the voice of Jesus answering my prayers.  Later, still, the voice seemed to sound almost like my own.  When my Christianity came to its end, there was silence for a long time (I would ask no questions my “spirit” could answer).  Then a psychic re-branded my mind once again as my “higher self”, and we talked up a storm for years and years (this is where I really learned both the “power” and the limitations of this capacity).  When I finally moved beyond belief in toto, I grew silent again for a while, shy of the brand names still clinging to my “spirit”.

But why should I be shy about embracing this part of me that has always been, well, me?

Looking back it’s obvious that the voice that answered me has always been my own.  Perhaps that is why many have come to believe that God is not a jealous God at all, but will answer any who call on him.  These are much closer to the truth of the matter than those who are trapped within the particular “brand name” of spirituality that they have been sold.  But both of these groups are still only accidentally right about what is really going on inside our brains and our bodies.  They continue to live with an extraneous barrier between themselves and their own experience of that self.

I’ve heard many Christians sputter the nonsense that modern humanist thought is all about elevating humans to the point that they displace “God” from his rightful role as our master.  Once again, they are partly right, but only accidentally.  For I do not say that we are God (as an actual being), only that God (as an experience) turns out to be a phenomenon of our own consciousness.  And though they may not be able to appreciate it, there is a huge difference between those two ideas.  I do not exaggerate the power of our natural mental phenomenon to the level of something metaphysical, but neither do I make the more troubling mistake of disdaining and discounting it because it is not of God.

No.  For my part, I strive to simply enjoy the modest “trinity” that is my own body, soul and spirit.  Completely of this world, and as temporal as my own life.  There is wonder enough in that for me.

t.n.s.r. bob


Sunday, July 8th, 2012

I find that if I place myself in nature and sit still long enough, all sorts of things can appear.

SERMON: “Accidentally Right” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, July 8th, 2012

The first sermon I ever gave on Evolution had in its closing statement the line “Because of Darwin, life on earth makes sense”.  At first blush that can seem a bit grandiloquent, but it is actually a reliably true statement.  Before Darwin (used in the inclusive sense of the important ideas that he famously made widely known) we were guessing at how life had become so varied and strange.  Before Darwin, even our scientists turned (with understandable consistency) to metaphysical explanations for natural phenomenon.  After Darwin, we had a means of seeing life as it really exists.

The reason we still hold Darwin in such high esteem (and the reason that creationists revile him so completely) is that his ideas turned out to be grounded in testable knowledge, and the scientific work that was able to follow and build upon his ideas has turned out to confirm the essential “rightness” of his theory of natural selection.  The same cannot be said for the medieval alchemists, the medical theories of the ancient Greeks, nor, I should say, the creation myths of any ancient religion (at least when taken literally).

Like the biologists that were (and are still) able to begin their research from the solid foundation of Darwin’s theories, I have found that same knowledge consistently helpful in making sense of my own experience of life.

For it turns out that there is, after all, a certain “harmony” to life.  From an evolutionary point of view, this makes perfect sense, as every process that exists tends, over time, to create a sort of balance between the forces that are in competition for space and resources.  Resources are a part of that balance, as are a myriad other factors from climate to geology to storms on the sun.  Though there continues a constant cycle of expansion and extinction of populations, both large and microscopic, and though the earth has experienced several global, mass extinction events, life itself will inevitably settle into some semblance of stability.

We understand the forces that create weather on our planet, but still find it incredibly challenging to predict it!

Stability is, of course, nothing but an impression — a perception that is available only to us humans (and other cognitively complex animals) when we observe the world we live in.  The sun rises, the sun sets.  December is cold (here in New Mexico, anyway), and June is hot.  The rains come on the fourth of July, and apples and chile are harvested in the fall.  But these are simplistic perceptual shorthand for the cumulative effect of uncountable ongoing processes both vast and microscopic: patterns of weather that are shaped by the rotation of the planet, fed by the heat of the sun that pumps solar energy into the vast ocean currents, and which then determines whether we’ll have floods or drought.

To the mystically-minded, the weather is an act of God.  (It might as well be for all the power we have to “change” it).

The fact is that life on earth (including our own lives) persist because we — like all life — are adaptable and able to change (either through genetic mutation through sexual reproduction or, in the case of humans, through the use of technology to alter our living environments and landscape).

I read an article once stating that most economists seemed to accept evolution from the neck down, and therefore failed to take human irrationality into account in their predictions of the behavior of markets.  I think most of us do this:  we fail to see that the “harmony” that we observe on the planet is really just a sort of a snapshot of a moment in time —  a stop-motion glimpse of the ever-renewing natural product of the living processes that create stasis only in the balance between competing forces.

Because we humans have the ability to observe and analyze our world, we frequently come to believe that our brains have somehow found a way to transcend their biology — that they are not subject to these natural forces.  They haven’t, and they aren’t.

There are many that hold that such a materialistic view of human nature degrades us to the level of animals (as if that is, a priori, a bad thing).  Nevertheless, I hold just such a view of my own (and others) behavior.  And I go further in believing that holding a falsely elevated view of ourselves is the root of many of our discontents.

Going into any situation with the conviction that our brains are the perfected product of a divine creative intelligence can be a set up for disaster.  How can we (and our poor brains) but fail to live up to that sort of performance expectation?

For if I’m honest with myself (which I always — in the end, anyway — want to be), I am wrong about something almost all of the time.  And when I’m right, I am right — as it were — by accident.

How can it be that I have survived this long (with as many loving, business and social relationships as I have) being so wrong?  Well, because the social relationships that we have — that are so essential to our own survival — are no different than the profligate and messy nature that surrounds us.

Let me explain my meaning:  Because of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, we understand that being right all the time is not at all essential to the survival of a species — being right just a bit more than the other poor son of a bitch is.  Mostly our “false positives” are fear-based (which is another way of describing “survival” or “fight or flight” responses).  What this comes down to is that it is far better for us to be wrong and run away a hundred times than to be wrong and not run away the one time we were right!

When I stop and look at the first impressions I get — the initial reactions my monkey-mind comes up with — they mostly get things wrong.  Now sometimes they can be just a bit “off”, but other times they can attribute the absolute opposite meaning to something someone has just said to me (it is a standard joke of mine that a woman can turn anything a mans says to her into an insult, and a man can turn anything a woman says to him into a compliment).  If you examine your own thoughts, I’m certain you won’t have to look very far to find your own examples (if you don’t, it likely means you’ve got an added layer of self-delusion in your particular mix — also a very standard bit of human perceptual bias).

It’s humbling for me to realize that even when I do the right thing with another, my actions are motivated by my perception of a situation that forms the basis a sort of predictive mental picture of what outcome my actions will produce.  This is how our brains work: they constantly make “snap” decisions and “predict” the short-term future, and then give us our marching orders (for more on this, read “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell, reviewed this blog).  It is only afterwards — when things have gone wrong or not turned out as we imagined — that we have to do the forensic work to understand the “why” of the failure.  But I am finding that even when things turn out right, I was wrong in almost every way imaginable about the reasons that the other person went along with my idea!

This is startling to realize.  It makes me wonder how in the world we ever make satisfying connections with each other when we are seeing things so differently!  But of course we do find satisfying connections, so clearly getting things perfectly “right” is not the most essential component of our social relations.

We humans are wired by our evolutionary past to seek out relationships with each other.  Therefore we are motivated to make the allowances for the errors in our perception and communication with each other.  The greater the desire for connection, the wider the target we present to the arrows of Eros (in the case of romantic attraction): the lesser the desire, the harder we make it for another to “get it right”.

So what’s to be done about this?  Our brains are able to take in information and reach conclusions about hundreds of situations each day with incredible speed.  This processing takes place in a mid-level of our brain just below the more recently-evolved frontal lobes (the seat of our reason).  This mid-part of the brain is the part that makes most of our quick decisions and only afterwards sends a memo to the conscious, analytical mind (more as a sort of courtesy, to let it know what the body is already doing based on the snap decision it just made).  As Malcolm Gladwell points out, in many ways the conscious, analytical “we” are the last to know what our deeper mind and body are up to.  To expect perfect accuracy from such a system is pointless.  We operate, by nature, on a sort of two-stage system of cognition, and it is the second step of that process (the rational, analytical part) that we tend to place our confidence is as the be-all and end-all of the evolved animal brain.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a big fan of the frontal lobes.  I like that I can analyze my actions and (after some years of practice) actually observe my middle-brain in action.  This does not, of course, liberate me from that mid-brain (and the emotional roller coaster ride it sends my body on at times).  But it does allow me to put just that tiny bit of distance between my instant reactions and the actions of my body or voice.

I, like many others, have long carried a secret belief that I could be just that much closer to perfect in my thoughts and actions than the next guy.  And though we like to talk about the problem of “perfectionism” we always do it in a way that is really aimed to get the spotlight off our behavior as quickly as possible so that we can get back to making ourselves “better”.  This makes sense: our fears and our instincts are what have kept us alive for millions and millions of years of evolution.  Do you think that a few centuries of social progress and civilization are going to make all of those instincts go away?

Now I have to say that our brains are good at certain kinds of prediction: I often know when someone is about to cut me off in traffic, or not stop at a red light.  In such cases my predictive brain is responding to cues and signals of a kind that would also help me stalk my neolithic prey.  But when I take that next step and try to imagine what is going on in the mind of the jerk driver I want to flip off, I can be pretty certain I have no friggin’ clue as to what that other individual’s actual thoughts or motivations were.

How can I?  Human behavior and thought is as complicated as the forces that combine to make weather, and I can’t predict that very well either.

The reality we find ourselves in is a complicated one without potential for actual resolution: we are alive because we are fearful animals, but that fear can actually interfere with our essential social relationships with our fellow humans.  In the end, the best we can truly aim for is the same sort of harmony that exists amidst the struggle for life in nature: a perception of stasis, a modicum of predictability and a dash of temporary permanence.  All of which are only imaginative approximations that allow our predictive brains to plan the next step or the next words we speak.  Even if they are only accidentally right!

t.n.s.r. bob


Wednesday, July 4th, 2012

(This opinion piece of mine appeared in The Las Cruces Sun News on Monday, July 2, 2012)

The conventional wisdom is that we are a politically divided nation, with “both sides” moving further apart, ever more determined to not give an inch, leaving the moderate “middle” a virtual no-mans land where even angels fear to tread.

What can we do about it?  I have at least one idea, and it has nothing to do with the leadership in Washington, D.C., or the political party you belong to.  It does, however, have everything to do with you and me, and it is this:

Lighten up.

I’m not asking you to change your party or your stripes or your deeply-held beliefs — I’m just begging you to take a step back from the vein-bulging rage and indignation.

Don’t want to?  Great.  Then kiss your beloved country goodbye and get ready for our next Civil War.  Won’t that be fun!

Here’s my own story of the simple (though challenging) act I am asking of my fellow citizens:  I didn’t vote for George W. Bush for President, but once he was elected, I hoped (for our nation’s sake) that he would “succeed”.  But soon I came to feel that he was heavily favoring a large (but not majority) population that shared (unlike me) his cultural, political, and religious views.  He led us into a war that I felt was questionable, at best, and reckless at worst.  I came to view him as a terrible human being.  I believed he was an idiot and the puppet of a neo-conservative conspiracy to force America into the role of an imperial power.  I demonized him, and I got angry.  I hated the man.

So when Dan Rather came forward with “evidence” of President Bush’s “draft dodging” I was ready — no, happy — to believe it.

But then there came a moment when I realized that my anger and my hatred had now become part of the problem of America.  My blind, political rage was really just a counterproductive indulgence.  Whatever George Bush’s faults as our President, he was just a man, not that much better or worse than any other.  So when I learned that the “smoking gun” that Dan Rather had shown to America was not legitimate, I stopped believing that President Bush was guilty of that particular act.  I let it go.

I’ve come to understand that those we entrust with our governance can only accomplish as much as we allow them to.  So when the citizenry is as mad and dug in as we currently are, the fallible human beings that we have elected are forced to dance to the tune our angry fiddles are playing.

So the problem that we have to solve will not be fixed by sending ever more extreme (or “pure”) elected officials to the state house or Washington D.C.  The folks we have there now are already deadlocked like two fighting dogs afraid to loosen the grip of their jaws on each other’s necks, while the rest of us languish, the economy staggers, and real people suffer as history keeps on marching, marching, happy to pass us by.

No.  The only problem we can solve is right here in our own hearts.  Only then will our most intelligent and reasonable run for office.

I pick on the TEA Party.  But, then, I have actually taken the time to get to know them and to find out what they think, believe, and feel passionately about (many of my liberal friends think me crazy for even attempting this).  And I’ve learned something important from these talks with my fellow citizens:  1) They feel deeply about what they believe, (I do not for a moment doubt their sincerity, even if I disagree with their conclusions), and; 2) No matter how hard we tried to find common ground in our conversations, I realized that there will always remain an unbridgeable gap between my view of America and theirs.

And there you have the one, historic problem of America that will not go away (even with a Civil War): there are large swaths of our population that will never agree (have they ever?).  So what do we do?  Kill each other?  Attempt to shut each other out of access to government?  That’s what we’re trying to do right now (and you can see how well it is working as China and India are busily working to displace America as the world leader in technology, education and innovation).

As much as we love to de-humanize our political leadership, smearing them as fascists, socialists or crooks, these people in our capitals are the contents of our own hearts and minds projected on a big screen.  Which means that the bad movie we are watching is not the corruption of our nation, or our government: it is the corruption of our own reason by irrational outrage and inflamed imagination.  And the only cure for that will have to come when one person at a time takes a tiny step back and recognizes that the politicians and liberals and conservatives that we are so angry at are our fellow citizens and human beings who we should treat as we would want to be treated.  Maybe then our politicians will have the freedom to do their work of making the political compromises that have served our nation so well throughout our history — the kind of compromises that show respect for the beliefs, hopes and aspirations of all of our citizens.  Even the ones we don’t agree with.

If we can do this — if you and I can do this — then there will always be hope for this nation that we all share.

Bob Diven