Archive for September, 2012


Sunday, September 30th, 2012

I always try to walk a little wide of the ceratopsians.

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “The Story of Earth: The First 4.5 Billion Years, From Stardust to Living Planet” by Robert M. Hazen.

Sunday, September 30th, 2012

This has to be about the most coherent and readable book about the formation of our planet that I have read.  It made the processes that formed Earth make sense in ways that no other book has (and I’ve read some good ones).  But it also reads like a family album, or the biography of a beloved friend.  For those reasons alone I recommend it.

The bonus of the book (and the area most likely up for debate) is the fresh viewpoint that the author brings to the symbiotic connection between biological life and geology.  We all understand that without the basic elements that were gathered from the cosmos by the Earth, life could not have begun.  But it also appears that it was life itself that then began to alter “lifeless” geology, mainly in the form of minerals that then became the further building blocks of ever-evolving life forms.

Life exists in many forms and in many places on and in the earth.  We tend to think of the things that live and crawl on the surface, or swim in the sea, but the roots of living plants facilitate chemical reactions in rocks and soil to a degree that their actions must be considered a significant shaper of landscape — more so than erosion by wind and rain.

It is a way to see our planet that has an elegant and fascinating complexity to it.  Our life story is not one of life simply springing up on a watery planet that just happened to be the right distance from an energy-supplying sun, but of an interplay between chemistry, environment, time and chance that has played out over and over and over again through extinctions and near extinctions, changes in atmosphere and the chemical composition of the oceans as well as the surface of the planet to arrive at the biologically-rich world that we know today.

As one might expect, there is a final-chapter discussion of our current climate issue, but it is set firmly within a recognition of the dynamic nature of our planet:

“In the midst of these forces, our species has proved to be resilient, clever, and adaptable.  We have learned technological tricks to shape our world to our will: we mine and refine its metals, fertilize and cultivate its soils, divert and exploit its rivers, extract and burn its fossil fuels.  Our actions are not without consequences.  Every day, if we are attuned to the dynamic process of our planetary home, we can experience every facet of its intertwined creative forces.  And we can then understand how devastatingly changeable the world can be, and how utterly indifferent it is to our fleeting aspirations.”

I highly recommend this book both as a fine tale of our home planet, and as a reminder of how many important scientific discoveries about it have come in our lifetimes.

t.n.s.r. bob

The rev gives it four Dimetrodons out of four!

SERMON: “Will The Earth Die Without Us?” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, September 30th, 2012

There are times when the obvious slaps you in the face, like that rake you forgot in the yard — concealed in the grass, tines pointed to the sky — that you’ve just rediscovered by stepping on it in that particular way that rather rapidly accelerates the wooden handle’s rise toward your nose.  “Thwack”.

What I’m thinking about today is the end of the world as we most often envision it.

In the Bible, once the human story (that God has created the earth to tell) ends, the earth ends as well, with the promise that God will make a new heaven and new earth, sort of a divine version of that song “If that Earth of mine don’t shine, I’ll burn it up and give you one that’s fine”.

And though coming from a radically different point on the ideological spectrum, the rallying cry of environmentalism has been a similarly dire one: we must change our ways in order to “save the planet!”

What these examples have in common is an underlying notion that our story as humans and that of the planet we live on are the same story.  Like a jilted lover, we seem to find it unbearable to contemplate that our planet might be willing and able to go on without us!

The religious scoff at environmentalists, certain that it is human pride alone that suggests we small creatures could ever harness the power to destroy a planet that God made.  But such a critique is rooted so completely in religious belief that it cannot be taken seriously as a scientific argument.  (Environmentalists, for their part, at least base their predictions regarding the fate of our species on actual science).

But they are both fighting over the hand of the same object of affection: the Earth.

Because our planet is essential to our own existence, we have, perhaps, a natural need to lay claim to its affections.  But the fact is that the Earth was here long before we came along, and it will be here long after we’re gone.  It was no more “attached” to the dinosaurs or the trilobites as it is to us.  If Earth were capable of caring about us at all, it would very likely see us as but one in a long string of short-term lovers.  Yes.  It turns out that Earth is a slut.

And yet our obsession is such that we can’t imagine the Earth continuing without us (at least not in any recognizable, desirable form).  The religious fantasize the earth throwing itself on our funeral pyre, so to speak, having no reason to go on, whereas the environmentalist might see Earth stumbling on as a chronically-toxic dump ruined by our industrial rapaciousness, a cautionary tale to any future suitor.  But to imagine Earth continuing on as a verdant, beautiful shimmering planet, spinning as ever through the cosmos?  It wouldn’t dare!

This is how self-centered we are.  This is how important we think we are to a vast, mindless universe.  On some level, it is almost impossible for us to really accept that humanity was not the (secret) goal of evolution all along, or that God made the Earth so he could delight in our company.  Either way it only stands to reason that when we come to our end so should the Earth!

But what is there in any observable reality that suggests this should be so?  Nothing.  We may want to believe that the universe cares about what we do, but so far all of the evidence strongly suggests that it doesn’t.

But we humans care about what we do (and how we do).  And that is the only point to environmentalism that is worth anything to our self-interest: preserving and prolonging the conditions that support our existence (which naturally extends to the myriad other life forms that are a part of that web of existence).  The religious are right about one thing, even if for the wrong reasons: we will never destroy Earth.  Not — as they believe — because God won’t allow it, but simply because we are not up to such a monumental task.  But they are wrong on the other, for altering the narrow zone of air, water and soil that support life is very much within our power, and we now appear to be well on our way to creating a set of conditions that will alter the earths’ climate in ways that will visit untold misery and destruction of millions of our fellow humans (and other life).

Discussions about the end of the world are lost in a fog of ideas and conceptions of that world.  We are clearly powerless to prevent a new age of volcanism, or the eventual fiery end of Earth as it is swallowed up our Sun.  Such things represent forces of a magnitude that would take no more notice of our presence than a steamroller would of a bacterium.  But it could be that we might be able to use our technology to stave off the next (seemingly inevitable) large asteroid impact, or that we may be able to keep at least one train from leaving the station: the current trend of global warming and sea level rise.

But the argument is further muddied by the unacknowledged self-centeredness of the human psyche, in our insistence that life revolves around us, even to the extent of thinking that an entire planet will just die if we leave it.  On some level this makes sense.  After all, we are the animals that bring meaning to biology.  Not by being the actual purpose of biology, but by dint of having evolved into conscience beings that are able to contemplate such things.  And since we are the only animals in the meaning game, it makes some sense that we would project our conclusions about significance on the blank screen of the meaningless universe.  But just because we can imagine our world in this way, does not make the world of our imagination real.

(I reviewed a book that was the notable exception to the idea of a shared fate between earth and humanity (“The World Without Us” by Alan Weisman — reviewed this blog).  This book is one long science-based thought experiment in imagining the ways that the products of human activity will decay over time.  It is a rather unsentimental vision, and only for those who are ready to face the fact that earth may not shed a tear for us when we’re gone).

But by the same token, I don’t support the notion that we humans are a cancer on the planet.  This view, too, smacks of a moralistic self-loathing that is unsupported by reality.  We may be like locusts or any historic species whose population exploded at some time and who ate themselves out of existence.  These and many more species have come and gone and the Earth itself has been no worse for the wear.  The damage that we concern ourselves with has always been that which occurs in the thin veneer of biological life that coats the surface of this rocky planet.  The planet itself chugs along, re-melting and re-forming crust along deep cracks in the surface, minor ecological irritants on it’s surface having no impact on it’s molten metallic heart.

And yet, having said all of that, it remains a tragic and sad picture to imagine the Earth after we are gone.  Not because the Earth will miss us, but because we will no longer be here to enjoy our life upon it — because there may be no other animal evolved to a point to engage in the study a star, or experience a sunset as a beautiful thing.  But that is a grieving for our own eventual departure.  That is me as a social animal feeling the full brunt of being alone in a vast and mindless universe.  That is a reminder that whatever meaning we bring to existence will leave with us when we go.  Like a movie projected onto a blank screen, our impression on the Earth will last only as long as our movie runs.  The blank screen may seem to come to life for the lovely moments we watch the movie play, but it does not become the movie itself.

To be sure, everything that is in us will return to the earth and the water and the sky and carry on as long as matter exists.  But our constituent parts will never again reassemble and bring our eyes and ears and minds back to life.  In this is the recognition of the terrible sadness and excruciating beauty of existence.

Let us stop expecting earth to cast itself upon our funeral pyre out of grief.  Instead, let us cherish the life and love and meaning that are within our reach.  For, as Robert Hazen writes in “The Story of Earth” (reviewed here this week):

“If you seek meaning and purpose in the cosmos, you will not find it in any privileged moment or place tied to human existence.  The scales of space and time are too inconceivably large.  But a cosmos bound by natural laws that lead inevitably, inexorably to a universe that promises the possibility of knowing itself, as scientific study inherently suggests, is a cosmos that abounds with meaning.”

t.n.s.r. bob


Sunday, September 23rd, 2012

A bit of dino-fossil “street art” from the “Wall Street” art installation at The Lore Degenstein Gallery. Art by Bob Diven

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Some of My Best Friends Are Black” by Tanner Colby.

Sunday, September 23rd, 2012

“But God’s Holy Bible is a funny thing.  For a supposedly sacred, infallible text, it reads a lot like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel.  Just flip through and pick whichever story line suits your needs.  While the slaveholders built their economy on Leviticus, the slaves found hope in Exodus.”  p. 227

This is a book I didn’t know I needed to read, but I did.  While watching hotel-room t.v. last month, I stumbled upon an interview with the author.  I made a mental note to look for his book when I got home, and last week there it was, looking right at me on the “New Non-Fiction” shelf at the library.

The author’s story is not mine: he’s younger than I am and was raised in the deep South.  And yet, his story is mine or, I should say, he is telling our story as a nation with a deep and historic racial divide.  It would seem that I have spent so much time reading about our natural history (or our political history) that I have failed to find out just what it is we’ve been doing about racial equality in America.  Well, thanks to this remarkable book, I now know.

Listening to the author being interviewed, I thought this book would be more a chronicle of his own journey of discovery as he cultivated new friends who were black.  It is not (though I think it was good to know that the author embarked on such a journey while I was reading the book).  Instead, it is a clear-eyed chronicle of the ways we have used legislation to first marginalize blacks and then (at least in theory) integrate them into white society.

The book is a sobering testimony to the persistence of racial distrust on both sides of the black/white divide, and the terrible cost of unintended (well, some of the time) consequences of legislated “equality”.  I struggle to find the right description to get you to read this book.  I can say that my eyes were opened in a rather remarkable way.  This is a very humane book that pulls no punches, but neither does it recycle any of the standard catchphrases or accusations, except to unpack them in the clear light of day.

I feel like my own part in all of this has also been made clear to me in a way that offers me the opportunity to change it.  That is no small feat for an author.  The book is also written with a sure hand, good humor and just enough bite to make it stick.

I can’t recommend it enough.  It’ll make you a better American.

t.n.s.r. bob

The rev gives it four Dimetrodons out of four!

SERMON: “History in the Making” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, September 23rd, 2012

My late dad, born in 1914.

I once talked to my father about the changes he had witnessed in his lifetime.  He remembered when electricity first came to his family home (in the 1920’s).  The first aircraft he saw were a World War One vintage “Jenny” and a U.S. Navy airship.  His father had been witness to the Johnstown Flood of 1889.   My mother recalls being a 12-year old girl walking her grandfather across town, noticing his distinctive limp from the wound he received at the battle of Chicamauga during the American Civil War.  As a child listening to the stories of our parents, history is always the thing that happened to the generations that came before.

This makes sense, as it takes some time for current events to become “history” — years must pass before we can see our own times in any sort of of context.

It is probably a sign of my own advancing age that I now reflect on the history that I have been witness to.  As a boy the long shadow of World War 2 reached into my imagination.  My dad was a veteran of that war, and my mother had lost many childhood friends to it.  What in my youthful experience could compare to a national and global event of that kind?  Vietnam?  Hardly.  The pollution of the planet that became a signal issue of my teens?  Maybe…  But perhaps I’ve looked in the wrong places for the wrong kinds of historical events.

If anything marks our age it is the growth of our technology.  The hints of it were there in my father’s boyhood home (that had gas for lighting and cooking and heat, but no electricity).  But by the time my father was born, electricity was already on its way and would soon arrive in nearly every home.  With electricity came the radio, and from the radio came the television.  Then, in my lifetime, came the personal computer and the silicon chip, which seems to have multiplied every other invention of humankind:  the computer became something that we shake like salt into our diet of technology, from a telephone in my pocket to the jet streaking across the sky.

And the computer has helped propel scientific discovery: we can see deeper into space and deeper into ourselves.  And this is where the stunning discoveries that have occurred in my fifty-plus years living are thrown into relief.

I remember as a school boy hearing that the theory of “continental drift”, once popular, had fallen into disrepute.  I looked with fascination at the depiction in National Geographic of the brutish Neanderthal, and the charts that showed a steady, linear progression of ancient ape to man.  And I sat with my schoolmates in the cafeteria to watch, together, the flickering image on a single, small television screen, of a man walking on the moon for the first time.

But a lot has changed since I was 10 or 11 or 12.  We now know that “continental drift” is really “plate tectonics”, which is now understood as the primary force behind the creation and renewal of the earth’s crust.  We have grown in our understanding of Neanderthals, realizing that they were not our ancestors after all, but only the last of who-knows-how-many evolutionary dead-ends on our ever-branching hominid evolutionary tree.  And, though I didn’t realize the significance of it at the time, the moon landing answered the most basic unanswered questions about where our grey cosmic companion had come from.  (Before we brought those moon rocks home we did not know, truly, that the moon had been blown out of a young earth by a cosmic collision).

But there is more.  In my lifetime scientists have arrived at startling conclusions about our universe:  For one, they figured out that the universe was still expanding and accelerating, and this knowledge led to establishing the age of our universe (something that had not been firmly established before); we began to understand that dinosaurs were not quite as we’d imagined them, but some could have been warm-blooded and covered in protofeathers.

Continued discoveries and analysis has given us a much deeper appreciation for both the majesty and complexity of our evolution.  The mapping of the genomes of living creatures (including humans) has opened up an indisputable window into the relatedness of all living things.  Theories that have guided scientific exploration for centuries have been tested, refined, discarded or dramatically proven.  Our knowledge of just how much “we know that we don’t know” has exploded in exponential ways.  We stand before creation better informed than any previous generation of humans, and yet even more deeply awed at what we see and who we are.  Well, at least some of us do.

I find myself impatient with my fellow humans, particularly those who continue to actively resist the knowledge of science.  I see tribalism, fear, and a retreat into mysticism that can be frightening to behold.  We humans appear to be a mix of the most modern minds and the most ancient atavistic reflexes against anything new or novel.  But taking a wider view, it is hardly surprising that everyone is not on board with science.  The pace of discoveries has been so fast — as fast, it seems, as the advances in our technology  — that it is perhaps asking too much to expect the average person (who must still see to his or her own survival, if only in economic — not animal — terms) to keep up with it all.

By the incredible good fortune of being born into a literate and affluent society, I am able to choose to devote a certain part of my time and energy to increasing my understanding of reality.  And for this I rely a great deal on a steady stream of well-written books and articles on science and my own observations.  This information is available to anyone who wants it, yet it penetrates only so far into our culture at large.  Some of that is due to economic and educational factors, but among all of those who have the same access and resources that I have, I have to recognize that I am an individual that has made certain adjustments to his brain: I have worked to “reboot” my perceptual software beyond a system of religious belief and into a more scientific framework.  I find that this change brings me closer to a view of the world that I can rely on, even as it infuses me with an awareness of the limitations of my own cognitive and perceptive tool kit.  But this sort of awareness would appear to be that of a minority of my fellow humans.

It seems to come down to this:  those that see science as a threat to their beliefs, and those that see it as an antidote to them.  Clearly, I am happy to be rid of the virus of irrational belief (which is what I consider most religious belief to be).  Or, I should say, free from most of the debilitating effects of this most natural of diseases.  Because I will always carry the tendency toward belief that has been hard-wired into my cognitive functions by evolution and natural selection.   I will never transcend this natural condition of the human mind.  (But even here I must thank science for giving me the awareness that I am a purely physical, bio-mechanical being).

That being said, we have also discovered that aspects of our physical being are plastic — meaning that we can affect our physical condition through specific actions.  And nowhere is this more true than in the cognitive functions of our brain.  We now understand that the terrible problem of addiction comes about because of the way in which brain chemistry adapts to the hyper-stimulation of drug use (to use that example).  Our brain chemistry and behavior actually change because of our feeding it something refined and potent.  Because of the brains plasticity we can alter our responses to other stimuli, and find ways to moderate our dramatic animal responses in ways that make our lives (as social animals living together in modern, interdependent communities) more pleasant for all involved.

But, perhaps oddly, the more interconnected we have become by technology the greater the implications of our personal responsibility.  Suddenly each individual is expected to be a sort of mini-specialist in their own behavioral psychology, the physiology of their digestion, immune system, and overall physical health (as examples) — each of us a sort of an amateur self-contained scientist.

To a large extent, we have managed to absorb a vast amount of data from science.  Even the most religious will cite science as support for their ideas about how one should live (even if they deny the science that says, for example, that the earth wasn’t created ten-thousand years ago).  We manage to steer the complex machinery that is a car or motorcycle at high speeds down narrow strips of road.  We figure out every new machine or device that comes into our hands, and we consume loads of news from every corner of the world every day.

That we are, in fact, pushed by all of this data into a near constant state of cognitive semi-overload is rarely discussed.  Because of technology, science, and population growth, life has just plain sped up a lot over the last couple hundred years.  We don’t realize how fast we are going because the acceleration has not been from a dead stop: each of us joins the rat race already in motion.

In a funny way, it seems like it could be this mixture of the acceleration of the demands on our primate brains — and the physical limitations of those brains — that could bring things to a screeching halt.  I wonder how much of this we can really take?  I wonder if we will all become aware of the “wall” before we smack our foreheads into it?  Science, of course, studies such things closely.  So do designers.  After all, what is the use of one more amazing function in a fighter jet if the best and brightest young pilot is too overwhelmed with inputs and alarms and distractions to utilize it effectively?

Most of us are not cognitively challenged to the level of a fighter pilot.  But compared to our Cro-magnon ancestors, we might as well be fighter pilots.  True — our cave-dwelling ancestors faced a daily threat of death in many toothy and tusked forms that do not trouble most of us in a modern society.  But I would argue that their brains were more accurately tuned to the environment that challenged them every day.  We modern humans are actively testing the limits of our brains in ways no other generation has in this, the largest human experiment ever conducted.

Interesting times, interesting times.

I wish that humankind as a whole would just sort of get with the program and at least agree to a common understanding that science is the best thing we’ve got for understanding reality.  But humankind is not much different than a microbial mat clinging to a seashore: a collection of individual life forms that is ever renewing itself — a spectrum of the very young, the mature, and the dying that will never be all of one mind at one time.

This is the tug at the heart that is an awareness of history.  History is the shape that the entirety of human experience takes in a given time frame, but it is mainly a conception — a way of thinking about our place in the endless parade that is that history.  It’s likely that earlier “change” epochs challenged the human brain and forced its evolution from lizard to mammal.  Perhaps our time is just the latest dramatic punctuation of the Ice Age equilibrium that has carried us until now.  I know I that feel challenged.  In thought, at least, if not in my ability to avoid the gnashing fangs of a sabre-tooth in the brush.

t.n.s.r. bob


Sunday, September 16th, 2012

You never know who’s gonna’ come calling out of those Pennsylvania woods.

SERMON: “Why Quibble with Religion?” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, September 16th, 2012


The not-so-reverend bob.

Perhaps I should not quibble with what people choose to believe about life.  After all, isn’t it remarkable enough that we are able to carry on living our busy lives under the shadow of our own imminent deaths, without demanding that we all view our predicament in the same way?  Why say things that might add to that existential burden?

As one possible answer I might turn to a series of experiments documented in the PBS series “The Human Spark”, where it was shown that a trademark of very young human children is their innate and irresistible urge to show other children how to perform a task that they themselves had just been taught.  We are natural “helpers” in this way.  Perhaps that is why we are natural “evangelists” for everything from religion to the brand of toothpaste that we buy.

We are also naturally curious and deeply social.  Listen to humans talk and it is most often a series of personal stories told one after the other, back and forth (and though women are marked as the most talkative in this regard, just see what happens when you get a group of men swapping “hunting stories”).  We can’t, it seems, get enough of stories about ourselves and each other.

Is all of this simply a justification for my preaching the “gospel” of reason and science?  Of course.  But it is also an explanation.  And explanation is precisely what science offers us.  But is an “explanation” the same as an “answer” when it comes to our most basic existential questions?

Morality and ethics have long been the domain of religion and philosophy.  Science is a rather unwelcome late-comer to that party, and has proved to be a sometimes awkward and ungainly guest.  But I think that is because it has taken some time to come to understand the difference between the questions that religion poses and science answers.

To some these two fields are qualified to answer two different “kinds” of questions (and one shouldn’t even try to answer the other’s).  Hence the popular notion that science and religion occupy non-overlapping magisteria (which is basically a gentlemen’s agreement that where religion leaves off, science takes over, or vice versa).  Which is a way for the old guard of religion to tell late-arriving science to “Keep the hell off my lawn with your beakers and such!”.  In this argument, the truths of the spiritual realm are held to be such that they cannot be measured by mechanical (scientific) means.  They are super-natural, and therefore occupy an entirely different realm than that studied by science (they are, in short, granted an exemption from scientific scrutiny).  The hard scientific view would be that anything that cannot be studied either does not exist or must await the invention of the means to measure it.  (In practice, however, many scientists will publicly, at least, leave religion — and religious claims about reality — alone)

In my view such a fictional divide (often a very polite one) is much more about keeping the peace than it is about any actual dividing line.  It is the position we take to not offend the religious powers that be.  And that, I think, is am important hint at why the divide persists: religion is a powerful force, and folks don’t want to upset it so much that it rears its ugly inquisitional head once more (or on a more prosaic level, they don’t want to offend or hurt the ones they love).

But there is also this: when science first came on the scene (and here I include the social sciences), it began to suss out the causal factors of life and physical reality (and human behavior).  But since such discussions had heretofore been in the realm of religion and philosophy (which is a “why” proposition) the “what” answers of science were naturally taken to be mere justifications for a range of human behaviors that ran afoul of commonly-accepted norms.  This was not acceptable to many.  Take the study of mental illness, for example: suddenly there were biological explanations for aberrant human behavior that did not involve questions of individual moral weakness or possession by devils.  From the very beginning science began to encroach on historically religious grounds if for no other reason than religion had previously produced its own explanations of human behavior and natural phenomenon.  Some sort of conflict was inevitable.

And so there was conflict.  And there still is, despite the obvious achievements of science.  The conflict continues because the encroachment into the magesterium of religion continues.  We now know where the earth and the “heavens” came from.  We know where humans came from.  We understand how morality evolved in social animals like ourselves.  And we know about the genetic foundations of certain physical and mental disorders, on the one hand, and the natural variations in human behaviors (such as homosexuality) on the other.  We haven’t figured everything out — not by a long shot — but we have answered a good deal of the most basic questions to a reliable degree of certainty.  And the answers turn out to be — in every case — better than the religious ones in actually explaining phenomenon.  Religion, it turns out, is really really bad at science.

Religion — being based as it is in history — cannot renew itself through new discoveries the way that science can.  Religion can adapt (as it has with quite a lot of success over the years), or re-form itself under new “brand names”.  But it cannot be a source of new discovery like science can: “new” religions are always a recycling of the one basic religious genome, if you will.  One reason this is true is that science is a study of existence that is based on experiment that can be verified.  Religion is a sort of co-evolved parasite of the human consciousness that maintains a roughly symbiotic relationship with its host.  For it to change radically would be to annihilate itself.  Therefore it can only fight for its survival against the intrusions of science and reason.

It would be easy to say that religion is, therefore, fighting a losing battle.  But that hardly seems to be the case today.  Belief in magic is increasing, even as science shows us more and more of what is really going on behind the wizard’s curtain.  But perhaps the last hope of religion — crap as it is at being science — lies in its hope that science is equally bad at being a religion.

It seems clear — in the popular mind at least– that science has not yet answered the “why” of life with its “what” discoveries (at least to the satisfaction of those used to the answers of religion and myth).  But here is the fulcrum upon which this question tips in favor of science: for perhaps the most important discovery of science has been that there turns out to be no “why” in nature beyond the “what”.  The “what” is, in essence, the only meaningful “why” we have available to us.  There is cause and effect, yes, but once you exclude intelligent terrestrial creatures, the vastness of physical reality that remains is mindless, thoughtless and devoid of the kind of intention that is essential to create a “why”.

Why am I here, then?  Well, on the most basic level, because I’m here.  But who made that happen?  No “one” made it happen.  We have now explained all but a few of the physical processes that led to my existence (a stunning mix of chance and inevitability).  Science adds to that the facts that I am a mammal (a primate) that is a species that evolved from earlier life forms, most of which did not physically resemble me (at least in a superficial way — my ancient body plan was present in my fish ancestors even if my blue eyes and soft hair were not).  The chemicals and minerals and elements of which my body is built are those which were present on the planet I evolved on.  The elements were formed, first, in the death furnaces of ancient stars that were themselves birthed in the “big bang” that began our universe, space and time.

Compare this answer to that given by the first chapter of Genesis for sheer explanatory power.

The religious believer will almost invariably ask at this point: “Okay.  Say that is all true.  Who made it all happen?”  Who?  Who?  At a certain point you come to realize that the question is a switch-up of apples for oranges (or oranges for orangutans).  What single thing about reality justifies the call for an intelligent designer “making” it all happen?  “Why” turns out to be our question, not the universe’s.

In the end, I believe, science provides us answers to the questions that can be answered.  That may sound like I’m leaving wiggle room for religion to answer the “other” questions.  But that is my point: I don’t think there really are any other questions.  If, that is, that we only accept as valid a question for which an answer can actually exist.  A question with no answer would seem to be something else: a trick, a diversion, a waste of time (like Bertrand Russell’s “celestial teapot”).

And that’s where I’ve come to regarding magical metaphysical answers for natural phenomenon: I don’t buy them as answers because I don’t buy them as questions.

Philosophy retains its place as it is the study of the “how” of human thought — the way in which we take reality to heart and make sense of it in our own hearts and minds.  Philosophy, I think, deals with the anguish caused by the question “why”, but does not attempt to answer it.  It accepts that “why” is a part of the way we think — the way we have to find a story to tell to ourselves about the things that happen in our life.

For me, gradually coming to understand that “why” was the wrong question all along did, indeed, help to answer it.  It told me I was asking an unanswerable and, therefore, un-ask-able question.

And once I understood that, I was then freed to find a much more nutritious diet of existential nourishment from science than I ever could from religion.  How?  Because science gives us more than just data.  Understanding that a genetic mutation has set one up for mental illness or heart failure does not make everything alright, for example.  It does, however, offer some hope of helpful scientific and medical intervention to improve one’s chances at a decent life.  But it also does something else that is important to a sentient being: it removes the self-questioning doubt that religion has always placed upon the sick, the odd, the different: it removes the stain of personal sin or failure as a “why”.  And in that sense modern science takes one more giant step into the hallowed temple of religion by offering comfort to the troubled.

Dumping religious dogma in favor of the more trustworthy data of science is a nearly impossible act for many humans.  It can feel like leaving behind something noble, trustworthy and beloved for something cold, confusing and brash.  Something like trading in your familiar horse and buggy for an loud and unfamiliar automobile.  But we are long past the age of scientific “Model A’s”, and those that hold on to ancient buggies when modern, reliable cars are available seem more and more out of step with reality.

Scientific knowledge, it turns out, can offer the religious and philosophical benefits of genuine consolation and comfort without the awkward cognitive price of irrational belief.  We can finally understand the “what”, and stop worrying about the “why”.  And that, I can tell you, is a good place to be.

t.n.s.r. bob


Sunday, September 9th, 2012

If this is what is flying around Manhattan in the morning, maybe they should re-name it Ptimes Square!

SERMON: “One With the Universe” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, September 9th, 2012

After a long Summer that seemed determined to hold Fall at bay for at least another month, a cold front finally rolled in, packing the formerly clear blue sky with puffy low clouds that matured into towering thunderheads by the time evening fell.

The sun set, leaving the sky yet full of diffuse light that illuminated the lowering clouds with tones of soft, cool grays.  I watched the lightning that seemed to ring the city as I drove across town.  After I pulled up to the house where my bi-weekly “poker with the Episcopalians” game was to be held, I got out of my truck and took a moment to stand beneath it all.  I felt the beginnings of a downdraft from an approaching storm, and heard it grow stronger as it blew up the street toward me, rustling the leaves in the still-lush trees.

It was just a simple moment of stillness — where I became still, and the world moved around me.

As I looked up into that sky, and felt the softness of the cool wind on my skin, I became aware that I was a part of it all.  Not in a spiritual, abstract sense, but in a very basic, empirical sense:  Everything about me — every molecule that makes up the living being that is me, the tiniest surge of energy that makes it all move and breathe and think and regenerate — all of it came from the physical world I was beholding, and all of it would return to that world when I died.

I think it’s worth pointing out how qualitatively different this idea is to me than the standard notions of “dust to dust” or “we are one with the universe” (the one having the imbedded purpose of driving man to god and the other making man out to be a part god, both, as it were, either making us less or more than we are).  What I am really talking about is the deep philosophical consolation I have been surprised to find in an understanding of the science of who and what we really are.  Surprising because — according to the proponents of religion — there is no such comfort to be had except in a knowledge of god.  It turns out they couldn’t be more wrong.

Honestly, I have come to the point where this sort of existential awareness is a regular occurrence in my life.  And these occurrences are of a quality to make my previously-held religious (and “spiritual”) conceptions of human value seem rather sad and small in comparison.

This may be the hardest part of all of this to communicate to the religiously-oriented person: that the great spiritual discovery of their lives could well turn out to be only second-best to the power of discovering the actual reality of our existence.  I have to stress this point because to the religious mind anything that smacks of a materialist world view (by that I mean a view that there is nothing about us that is not the product of purely physical processes) is seen as a step backwards — a debasement of God’s creatures.  What these folks fail to understand — what they cannot, in truth, even see — is that this is a preaching based in sheer medieval ignorance (no offense to the Middle Ages!).

The “church”  has been fighting science from day one, and continues that campaign today (with notable exceptions, such as the Catholic church’s acceptance of the theory of evolution).  Even our pervasive “new age” forms of spirituality seem to use science only as a source of serious-sounding terminology to support the silliest of ideas.  (So though there may not be an inquisition-style enforcement squad with the power of capital punishment these days, we certainly don’t have the church to thank for that bit of luck).

The “rev” loving him some science…

We live in a time where the acceptance of the evidence from science is actually being pushed back by a coordinated and active assault from the defenders of religious hegemony.  America is alone among developed nations in its backwardness on this score (right there with Turkey in the percentage of our population that believes God made the world some 10,000 years ago).  This is astounding: we are moving backwards, even as we continue to live in an economy completely dependent on the products of science and science-based research — even as we live lives of a quality and safety made possible only by the discoveries of science and the technology that develops from that knowledge.

I am a materialist.  I don’t believe that an actual external personal god can or does exist.  I understand that we have far too many scientific, physical and electrochemical explanations for any and all of the cognitive phenomenon that we experience as “god” and “spirit” to ever need to invoke god as an explanation for anything of note.  I am in a definite minority in this view.  And though this appeals to the not-so-closeted elitist in me, the rational humanist in me is deeply troubled.

I think we are on an incredibly interesting trajectory as a species that is about to intersect with some other trajectories fairly soon.  As an example, I think that the evidence is clear that we have altered the planet’s climate.  I read enough science to know that the weather of an entire planet is an incredibly complicated thing to get a handle on, so I expect we will have to wait and see what predictions were spot-on, and what things we missed in our calculations.  This also means that even were we to have the brains and the will to seriously confront this impending (or already-upon-us) catastrophe, we would likely have to be very lucky to do all the right things at the right time to correct the problem.

I also read enough history to understand that our planet has experienced many climate fluctuations, some of them mind-bogglingly dramatic (we have been a total “ice planet” before).  But the breezy stupidity of the climate-change deniers (those trapped in their own “belief-dependant reality”) who cite the last ice age as reason to NOT be alarmed is, well, stunning.  It’s like saying that because a hurricane is a natural occurrence, we shouldn’t do anything to prevent thousands of people being killed by one.

And that is where I come back around to the awareness I felt standing under that stormy early-Fall sky.  The demise of me as a living thing is, in many ways, simply a return of all that I am to where it came from, and from whence it will go on for as long of a forever as I care to contemplate.  The same can be said for our species.  We will never kill this planet (our own sun will do that soon enough), and we may not end up having the power to kill off our own species in the near future.  But there will come a time when the intersecting forces of our own population growth, the limits of exploitable resources, and the vicissitudes of nature (or the solar system!) will spell the end of human beings.  We may, like the species we evolved from, carry on and adapt and eventually become something very different from our current selves.  Or we end in an evolutionary cul-de-sac.  One way or another, the age of mammals (and the age of life on Earth) will someday end.

This is not necessarily tragic, any more than it’s a tragedy that trilobites or t-rexes no longer populate the earth.  What matters more, I think, is suffering.  And this is where I think humanism has the upper hand to religious dogma.

Since we can, at best, only lengthen our time here on earth, our ultimate survival should not concern us to the point of a paralysis born of fear.  Being aware, as we are, of our own existence (in a way that no other animal has, to our knowledge, ever been), the task before us should be, I think, to do all that we can to decrease the suffering of our fellow humans.  I think this is a worthy use of our plentiful storehouse of human energy.

If we only have this one life — this single span where we are walking, talking, discreet, self-contained ecosystems of bacteria, bone and skin with this remarkable awareness of our own existence — then shouldn’t we make the most of it for the most that we can?

I have won the existential lottery.  Compared to all but the tiniest percentage of my fellow humans in history, I have lucked out to have this opportunity for an existence loaded with opportunities for pleasure, enjoyment and productivity.  I tremble to think of the pain and misery that has been the lot of most humans in history (or the millions that suffer terribly right now).  I therefore get angry with my fellow humans that act as if they have been as lucky as I have been by right of being chosen by their god, in a way that somehow pardons them from any responsibility to ameliorate the suffering of others of their kind.

But, then, we are tribal primates at our core, and the humanist impulse is a product of human minds with enough time free from terror and disease to contemplate loftier ideas.

If there’s one message I preach, it is to first get over ourselves, and then get on with ourselves — take that step out of our ancient self-centeredness that preserves itself with the cloak of religion, and walk in the sunlight of the reality of our existence that is now available to us in a way that was never available to our ancestors.  Do not resist science, but rather understand it.  Do not resist our terrifying vulnerability, but rather allow that awareness to motivate us toward kindness to ourselves and others.

Thanks to science, we can now see that religion is a rapidly deflating second-best way to view ourselves and the world.  Science is crap as a replacement religion, but perfectly useful as a ladder out of the dark pit of existential ignorance that is at the heart of fundamentalist religious belief.

We are stardust, as Joni MItchell sang, but not in an airy-fairy way.  We are literally bio-chemical systems that can only operate thanks to the way that life evolved to make use of the cosmically-manufactured materials that were available on this planet (the elements that make up that chart we all studied in high school chemistry class were born in the intense deaths of stars) blown out into the universe and collected by gravity here.  That is the dust from which we came, and the dust to which we will return.

Whether that is a satisfactory answer to our desire for a meaning to attach to our existence is rather beside the point.  That is our reality.  We use the promise of Heavenly reward or punishment as justification for moral behavior, but in practice it is just as often used as an excuse to act (or not act) in a humane way in the world.  The bleak existential reality of our lot strips away such notions, and I suppose that many make the calculation that believing in an impossible God at least offers some solace in return.  That’s hard to argue with, I suppose, especially when I understand that the alternative is not necessarily guaranteed to make one happier.

But then I’d rather understand, and have some confidence that I see things as they really are, and thereby live my life in a way that — when it ends — will allow me to be content with the real life that I lived, not the imagined one we never will.

t.n.s.r. bob