Archive for October, 2012

CARTOONS FROM THE REV

Sunday, October 28th, 2012

Dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus Rex are not well equipped to help with modern tasks, such as emptying lumber from a storage unit.

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II” by Keith Lowe

Sunday, October 28th, 2012

“Revenge or forgiveness.  Remembrance or oblivion.  These postwar challenges are never carried out according to heavenly justice: there will be more unjust vengeance and undeserved forgiveness.  Already the policies of remembrance and oblivion are not pursued in a way that will serve peace and stability.  The Serbs would like to forget exactly those things that the Croats or Bosniaks would like to remember, and vice versa.  If by chance any of the sides remember the same event, it is a crime for one and a heroic deed for the other”  — (Column in the Serbian newspaper Vreme, quoted in Savage Continent, P. 373)

This is a really good book, and it is just awful to read.

Keith Lowe takes on an heroic task: to cut through all of the self-serving exaggeration of every party to World War II (including the innocent victims) in order to reveal just what all these humans were really doing to each other in the months that followed the end of the war in Europe.

It turns out that many parts of that war didn’t really end when we think they did.  There is, of course, the familiar story of Communist Russia’s clamping down on the nations of Eastern Europe.  But lesser known are the political purges and ethnic cleansing of places like Poland, Greece and Italy.  Basically, any place where large concentrations of Allied troops were not present, a terrible chaos reigned.

But even in the zones of, say, U.S. protection, there was a sort of short-term liberty for reprisals against Nazis, Fascists and even civilians.  Such “revenge” is a major theme of this fine book, and it is explored with a clear-eyed understanding that manages to walk a fine line between justification and denial.  But denial is also a theme of this tale, as nation after nation faced the post-war reality of rebuilding their compromised identities in a new world.  And to this end, the myth-making and exaggeration (or denial) of wartime atrocities became a sort of national industry.  To the end that in many countries today the truth remains nearly impossible to find.

I respect this book for its bravery and commitment to evidence, but also for its humanity, even as it reveals to us the horrors we humans are able to inflict upon each other, be it foreigner or next-door neighbor.  Well written, this book is both easy, and difficult, to read.

I highly recommend it.

t.n.s.r. bob

The rev gives it four Dimetrodons out of four!

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

Sunday, October 28th, 2012

The not-so-reverend bob…pondering.

Today I’m pondering a rather fundamental question: what has the spread of scientific knowledge meant to religious faith?  In some ways, this is the central question I keep returning to with this blog.  To me the answer is rather simple: an increase in scientific knowledge will decrease the space available for irrational religious belief.

Of course there are two basic assumptions underlying this notion, the first being that religious explanations for phenomenon occupy the same mental space that scientific, evidence-based explanations would occupy.  And therefore it becomes a rather straightforward process of replacing old, incorrect information with newer, better knowledge. The second assumption is that all humans are reasonable and rational.   As the proverb says, “Do not rebuke a mocker or he will hate you; rebuke a wise man and he will love you.” (Proverbs 9:8, New International Version, © 1984).  The formulation, then, is simple: a wise man will respond positively to new information (and even thank you for the correction)!

But obviously this is not always the case.  Perhaps all that this process of the spread of scientific knowledge is really doing is separating out the “mockers” from the “wise men”.  But for “mockers” I would substitute those that are anti-science in the face of ever mounting evidence that contradicts their beliefs, and “wise men” would be those who have successfully internalized scientific knowledge.  (In this second group, I would venture that there are many who have been able to remain both religious and reasonable, at least to the degree that their religious beliefs are of a nature as to be able to coexist with an evolutionary view of the biological world.  In these cases, science has, indeed, occupied the ground once held by religiously-inspired explanations of the physical world, but a corner has been reserved for “spirituality”, an area thought to remain off-limits to the scientific method — not because science shouldn’t investigate the spirit realm, but because science is not believed to be equipped to investigate it).

But there are those (such as myself), that see a bit more writing on the wall, as it were, and feel that scientific knowledge does not simply replace some religious knowledge, but, in fact, points out the fallacious basis of all religious knowledge.  This is materialism (which is not a deep love of buying material things, but an understanding that there are no non-physical phenomenon, and that any seemingly non-physical phenomenon is far more likely to appear mysterious only because it is presently misunderstood).  There are a lot of us out there, to be sure (a great proportion of scientists are materialists compared to the general population, but even here the majority is not complete).  But those who come right out and call themselves atheists or materialists remain a small proportion of the general population.

The huge, honking, obvious, maddening question, then, becomes this:  how in the world can that be in this modern world whose very health and economies depend on the products of science?  A world where many of us are alive only because we were administered a vaccine as a child, or were able to be treated with medicine for an infection or disease that (in an earlier time) could easily have cost us a limb or our life?  We obviously believe in science when we refrigerate our food or take an aspirin or antibiotic, or when we drive our car or fly somewhere on a jet.  And yet there is this persistent dependence on religious belief that produces the rather astounding phenomenon of half of our population still disbelieving in Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Considering the evidence for evolution, the implications of this state of affairs is enormous.  It means that over half of our population is woefully or willfully ignorant of one of the most basic truths about their own existence: many of these think that they were created as human beings some six or eight or ten thousand years ago.  They don’t know (or simply refuse to accept) that their ancestors were once small, furry mammals about the size of a shrew, or — long eons before — lobe-finned fish.

Think about this for a moment.  Has not one of the primary reason’s for religion’s existence been the story it tells us about our origins?  Isn’t it always the questions of where we came from, where we are going, and why we are here that have been considered the most fundamental to our happiness?  Religion is loved, revered, followed, fed and supported (in part) out of sheer gratitude for the answers it has provided to these questions.

But it turns out that the answers from religion to these fundamental questions have been wrong.  Perhaps not intentionally, but wrong none the less.  And not just a little wrong on the details, but off by a magnitude that makes the word “magnitude” seem insufficient as a descriptor!  We were not formed out of mud and spit by an actual, physical God in an actual, physical Garden of Eden.  We evolved from the earliest forms of “life” on an ancient planet formed out of cosmic dust and elements born in dying stars — not on a world created in seven days.  Mental illness is not caused by the possession of individuals by demons, but by genetic defects that occur in the copying of our DNA through sexual reproduction.  Diseases are not caused by the sins of the father or of the son, but by bacteria and viruses that invades our very physical bodies.  More than half the cellular weight of your body is bacteria.  We basically have the iron-rich seawater in which we first evolved running in our veins.  We still have tailbones, for crying out loud.  We now know that we share almost all of our DNA with chimpanzees, who we must regard as our distant cousins.  All of this we know, now.  And there is no telling how much more we will know by the time my short life is over.

And yet…religious belief persists.  Science is denied.  And yet we consider ourselves rational beings.  But if we were truly rational beings, and not so bounded about with wariness and distrust of those outside of our particular tribe (be that a blood family, political party or nation), we would simply weigh the evidence for the question at hand, and accept the good as a ready replacement for the old.  But we don’t always do that.  And even when we do, we do not always do it easily.

Here’s the facts, then.  Science has answered the most basic questions of our existence.  The big existential quest to find out why the hell we are even on this planet has been successful.  You and I live in the first generation of humans ever to know what we know about our natural origins.  Others have suspected it, Darwin theorized it, but we live in the age of proof of their theories.  We know.

We know, and yet…we still believe.

Make what you will of that fact, it remains a most telling trait of we human animals.  We sent scientists to find the answers to life, but we didn’t like the answers they found.  Instead of being the “wise man” thanking the scientist for his or her labor, all too many “mock” them.

My hope is that, over time, the implications of scientific knowledge will continue to penetrate our consciousness in ways that produce clearer thinking about social and political issues, instead of the kind of atavistic denial that marks most religious fundamentalism.

t.n.s.r. bob

CARTOONS FROM THE REV

Sunday, October 21st, 2012

He’s never happy when it’s a day to work our arms at the gym.

SERMON: “Getting Wisdom” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, October 21st, 2012

“Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding.”  (Proverbs 4:7, New International Version, © 1984)

The “rev” as a young Art Director in his “therapy years”.

I read that Bible verse early in what I call my “therapy years”.  I was 27, working as an Art Director for an industry publishing company, and deeply involved in my church (in fact I would soon be off on my church-supported stint as a “smuggler for Jesus” in Europe).

The immediate impact of that verse was to make me feel better about paying for my ongoing therapy sessions (with a Christian psychologist) after I had used up my annual insurance benefit for outpatient therapy.  I was facing about three months, I think, of paying full-fare for my “wisdom”, and it seemed like an awful lot of money.

I don’t regret paying that money.  I don’t miss it.  I think I made the right choice.  But I have been wondering a bit about how to quantify the effects of the years of self-examination, therapy, counseling, reading, journaling and psychic-visiting that followed.

I find I must seriously consider the possibility that much of the calm and happiness that now mark my life are as much the product of natural processes that influenced my physiology, (in most particular my brain) as they are the earned result of all of my navel-gazing.

It could be argued that the single most remarkable thing about us humans is the capacity we have to use our minds to “step outside of ourselves” and observe our own behavior.  We can act instinctively, react quickly, and yet at the same time (or shortly thereafter) notice what we are doing and analyze it.  It is a rather amazing ability, and one that we point to as a large part of what defines us as “humans”.  But at every level beneath this one (both cognitive and physiological), we are still such animals, really.  I know that we give this idea a nod in many ways, and yet I don’t know how much we really give it its due.

As a young man, it was probably obvious to everyone but me how driven my behavior was by the testosterone pulsing in my system.  I would sometimes find myself in a sexual situation that a part of my mind — had it the courage to speak up — would have asked of the rest of me: “But, do you really want to be here?”.  (The answer would, at times, have been “No”).

(Is this the dilemma that Paul talks about in the Bible as well?  “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” (Romans 7:15, New International Version, © 1984)?  Such questions troubled me as a young, enthusiastic Christian).

We know now — thanks to science — that the human brain doesn’t fully mature until about age 27.  So in that sense it’s not surprising that the late-mid-twenties marked the beginning of my “therapy years”.  I was a young professional out in the world, with enough experience to begin to question whether the way I engaged that world was really optimal.

We read about the “mid life crisis” that hits forty-year-old men, but I was a bit early for that.  And yet, when I hit thirty, I found myself in another period of re-examination.  I did a bit more therapy, and read a lot of self-help literature (which was coming out like a flood in the popular press then).  “New Age” ideas had also become popular enough to be considered “mainstream”, and so I found an easy substitute for my my abandoned Christian belief system (as well as a whole new set of “enlightened” ideas and techniques to try out in order to achieve emotional stability and “happiness”).

I worked that New Age angle for about as long as I’d worked my Christianity (roughly 15 years), eventually finding a psychic who had a technique of deeply affirming me as an individual that set me on a quest for my new Holy Grail of total self-acceptance (a quest that eventually led me to abandon the “spell of belief” altogether).

But I can remember many years made up of long, painful days trying to find a way out of depression or anxiety into a brighter world, using any tool, tip or technique that presented itself.

Eventually, the clouds began to lift.  And over a rather long period of time, I found myself feeling more and more like a complete and coherent being, a process that took a long time to get rolling but, once it did, created a sort of momentum that was its own positive feedback loop.  And then, one day, I realized that I was actually happy and getting happier, becoming increasingly content with the way I saw the world and the person I was in that world.  And one night the familiar catalog of past events that I had mulled, autopsied, and replayed in endless mental loops for years and years suddenly lost their psychic punch.  The past, it would seem, had finally slipped into irrelevance.

The story I would have told you then would have been one of pride in all of the “self work” I had done.  I was proud that I had consistently made the choice to “buy wisdom”, to look inward and face my demons and — most importantly — have the courage to be willing to be completely accepting of whoever it was “Bob” turned out to  be.  It was, indeed, a point of pride, and of no small comfort when I compared my humble external accomplishments to my peers who had families and houses and such.  Others may have gained the world, but I had gained my soul!

But now I’m not so sure.  Not about my current persistent happiness or the man I’ve turned out to be, but about just what the major factors in that process really were.

For it turns out that there is science to be considered here: for not long after my young male brain had matured, it began its cognitive decline into the decay of the thirties and forties.  But with a twist: for it seems that the aging brain works to compensate for the “Swiss cheese-like” holes forming in our gray matter by creating new synaptic connections between the hemispheres of the brain.  So what I thought was the product of my deep introspection and analysis — namely my new-found ability to synthesize thought and emotion — was more likely the result of this natural patch-work happening inside my skull.  And then, of course, there is the seemingly inevitable age-related drop in male testosterone levels (that goes a long, long way to mellowing out a man).

After a few years of those lower testosterone levels, I found myself much less the jittery lone-wolf I had been before, and was more like a cat that didn’t mind curling up and purring with people now and again.  People I had known for years almost overnight became beloved friends whom I treasured.  I became a loving man.

Then came the years when I was seeing people I knew in the obituaries every week (most in the year leading up to the death of my father at age 91).  When my dad died, I was just about exactly half his age.  Suddenly I was thrust into another period of reflection, only now I was looking back on a life of learning my professional, artistic skills from the perspective of the master pondering his path to that mastery.  And after a couple rough years of transition into “middle age” that followed, I finally decided that my primary job would no longer be my own self-discovery and growth, but that the remaining years (at least until the next phase hit) would be to get on with doing all that I could with all that I had for as long as I could.

And then finally, after all of that, I hit a time in my life where I began to feel that I had, after all, gained a good bit of wisdom.  I wasn’t ready to be a yogi on a mountaintop – – I had to much yet to do with the remnant of youth still in my physical body and brain — but I did have that sense that if it all ended tomorrow, I had, at least, achieved that much with my life.

But now I wonder just how much of that wisdom came from all of my questing and questioning, anguish and acquiring, and how much was mostly the result of having simply stayed alive long enough for my brain to move through the phases of the first fifty years of my life?  It’s impossible to know.

(In fairness to my introspective self, I think that what I am really looking at here is the issue of emotional equilibrium and emotional intelligence — the sort of self-knowing that allows us to make decisions based on a certain clarity about what we feel, desire and need, not our storehouse of general knowledge or acquired technical skills, though the former helps in the application and appreciation of the latter, perhaps more than the acquisition of the latter inevitably brings about the former).

In short, it is not impossible to believe that a good deal of what I would like to take “credit” for (in terms of my general “happiness” or “contentment”) is pretty much pure biology that I have dressed up in a contemporary “personal growth” narrative.

This viewpoint has the appeal of injecting a bit of humility into the way I view the “wisdom” I have acquired in my lifetime.  And that, to me, is a fairly good indicator of the amount of “truth” in the idea.  It’s something I like about science: it puts us in our place in a particular way.  Meaning that it doesn’t degrade us (as another person might for their own gain), but neither does it give us license to think of ourselves as more clever than we actually are.  Science is, I think, the single best mirror we have in which to behold our true selves.  Everything else is wishing and fear.

Does this mean, then, that all the reading, counseling, praying, thinking and wondering I did in my teens, twenties, thirties and forties was a waste of time, energy and money?  No, I don’t think I can say that.  After all, I had to fill those difficult years with something, and I did, at least, choose to occupy myself some useful actives (I went to art school, for example, and worked a series of professional jobs, continuing to seize opportunities to develop my natural artistic talents into professional abilities).  But when it comes to all of the “self-help” work, I think it will remain an open question whether it was anywhere near as effective as I needed to believe it was at the time!

And so I’m left with this: not knowing, completely, from whence I — as the individual I now am — sprang.

My DNA, of course, was there from the start, and I was lucky enough to have a family that saw to it that I didn’t starve or get eaten by hyenas.  I was educated and socialized by my parents and siblings so that I could make my own way in the world.  I had opportunities for counseling when my melancholic and anxious personality was more than I could handle.  I had time alone to think…and think…and think (perhaps a bit too much of that).  And I had a talent for art and expression that gave me a place to invest time and education that eventually became a deeply satisfying career.  But in so many ways I am simply a male animal that has had the good fortune to live long enough to mature through the sequential phases of childhood into a mature adult who is now able to enjoy his life free from many of the uncomfortable by-products of DNA’s insistent urge to procreate.

After eons of the biological evolution that led to my own human parents, I have navigated the tumbling whitewater of my individual evolutionary path and lived to pop out the other side — onto calmer waters where evolution doesn’t give a rip about what happens to me next.  It is a fluke of history that I am alive in a time where so many of us get to live as long as we do in this post-evolutionary land of (potentially) enjoyable existence.  And though I can’t completely credit my own wisdom for getting me here, maybe I can borrow back just a bit of that satisfaction — suspect though it is — in recognizing that I do have the wisdom to recognize who and what I am.

t.n.s.r. bob

CARTOONS FROM THE REV

Sunday, October 14th, 2012

“Main Street, Pleistocene” mural by Bob Diven showing extinct megafauna cruising Main Street. (Created for The Southwest Environmental Center)

SERMON: “Free Will and the Modern Mind” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, October 14th, 2012

The not-so-reverend bob.

A recent article in The Humanist magazine about mass murderer Anders Breivik, uses his “case” to ponder the implications that our expanding knowledge of neuroscience and evolutionary psychology are going to have on our ideas of how much free will (and independent) thought we really have.  This turns out to be not simply a question for individuals who commit horrendous acts, but for you and me, every day.

(To sum up the article, we may well have to reconsider our desire for the “punitive” aspects of our system of justice, and learn to content ourselves with isolating dangerous individuals from the general population).

To my mind there is always a whiff of determinism in these discussions.  For one, I am reminded of an apparent and recurring pattern of the overly-broad application of the newest scientific ideas to complex social issues.  (In this case the notion that any one of us brought up as Breivik was — with the same DNA — would have actually had the capacity to make a different choice than he did when he launched his killing spree).

The part of this idea that I personally find a bit chafing is how much it reminds me of a very human propensity to ascribe our bad choices to forces greater than ourselves.  In this case it becomes a sort of a cognitive Calvinism, where DNA (read: “nature”) and experience (read: “nurture”) stand in for God or the Devil.  Knowing the way we humans think, it is good to be wary of such ideas.  But having marked out that particular ditch to not “drive into”, we must next mark out the other:  we clearly are not as independent as we think we are, or — more precisely — not independent in quite the way that we think we are.

(This is ground that Malcolm Gladwell covers well in “Blink” — reviewed this blog — where he describes the way our conscious brain seems to dance to the tune of a deeper level of instinctual thinking).

What we are really facing here is not a confirmation (or repudiation) on any of the traditional ideas about our individual independence of thought and “free will”, but rather a challenge to see them in a more nuanced way.  The thing we will have to carefully consider, then, is the way in which we think about these questions.  And this is going to be tricky.

Common traps await us.  One is to think of us a automatons, dancing to our DNA.  Another is that we are merely reactive pawns of whoever knows how to manipulate our ancient Ice Age brains with appeals to tribalism, fear, or, well, it’s all pretty much fear and tribalism.

As individuals dealing with the idea of some sort of natural determinism, we can also end up back in the old game of trying to fool God (or fate, or DNA) by changing our mind at the last minute.  But then, some wag will always say that “God knew you were going to change your mind”.  So we can’t really outsmart our fate.  But is it really fate?

This is where we have to think differently about these sorts of things.  Why?  Because things are turning out to be different than we thought they were.  And because our reality is more complex and nuanced than we thought, we actually have to develop new ways of thinking about it that allow for more nuance and complexity.

This is why old-time religion breaks down before such a challenge.  It was built for a world full of angels, demons, temptations, sinful natures and redeeming sacrifices.  (But perhaps more importantly, a world where every individual was also somehow completely responsible for what were seen as their individual “moral” choices).  But that was a world that was imagined to exist under a sort of glass sphere that contained the entire universe in a very small space just above our heads.  These people did not know that brain disorders were caused by genetic copying errors, or that people could be killed by microscopic bacteria (or driven mad by a brain virus).  It all seemed like a mysterious existential crap shoot to them, and so they struggled to find a pattern — any pattern — to it all.  But even the best pattern-makers had to recognize that the race was not always to the swift or the battle to the strong (the “righteous person” could also suffer calamity).  And so we have constantly struggled with this idea a “good god” who could “allow” evil the world.

This is a question that vexes many.  And I don’t mean that lightly.  It is the rock that every believer in a deity has to find a way over or around, because it can never be moved.

Now I’m all for letting go of the idea of god and moving on, for the simple reason that traditional religious concepts are only going to hinder us from getting to a new (and more correct) understanding of these questions of morality, choice and consequence.

I think, in the end, that what we are going to find is that each of us begins with a certain potential for intelligence, talent, emotional capacity and ethical behavior which is going to be impossible to completely quantify.  The question of “nature” versus “nurture” will be continuously refined and perhaps become genuinely useful as a concept.  As the article in The Humanist pointed out, we may need to reconsider the punitive and rehabilitatory aspects of our judicial system, and face the fact that there are a certain number of socio- and psychopaths that will always have to be removed from the general population (but who we will not be able to punish or “fix” to our ultimate satisfaction).

In short,  I think we’re going to have to accept a new idea of ourselves as the captains of our own cognitive ships.  Already we understand that the conscious brain, long held to be the pinnacle of our consciousness (and the thing that sets us apart from the beasts) in many cases dances to the tune of the mid-brain’s impulses.  In some ways, it then seems, we come up with stories after-the-fact to explain our instinctual behavior.  So, maybe we’ll have to give a little less credence to these stories we tell about ourselves, and come up with some new ones as we begin to recognize the true limits and potentials of the organ that is the human brain.

t.n.s.r. bob

 

CARTOONS FROM THE REV

Sunday, October 7th, 2012

T-Rex pops out of a manhole…from the exhibition “Wall Street” by artist Bob Diven.

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “GRAVITY: How the Weakest Force in the Universe Shaped Our Lives” by Brian Clegg

Sunday, October 7th, 2012

Having just read “The Story of Earth”, I happily snapped up “Gravity” when it showed up at our local library.  After all, who wouldn’t want to understand more about this “weak” force that nonetheless has had everything to do with the shape of my body and the way that I move about on this planet in that body.

The book begins in a pleasing, breezy style that promises good things to come.  But I would have to describe my experience of reading it to my experience of reading the Bible: it started out with some really exciting stories but then slowed WAY down when I hit the books of the “begets” and the “laws”,  which in the case of Gravity meant chapter after chapter delving into the minutiae of the theoretical mathematics of Einstein’s theories of general and special relativity, as well as quantum mechanics and string and loop theory and the like.  Yikes.  Don’t show me those dry mathematical formulations and expect me to gain any enlightenment from them!

I’ve obviously revealed myself as a math-o-phobe, so to the extent that you are not like me, you should add that many grains of salt to my review of this book.  But I think that a good popular science book should keep the poor general reader’s head at least an inch or two above the water (without excluding the value of an occasional “dunk” for shock value).  And on that score I think this book fails in its mission to impress an enlightening conceptual grasp of gravity upon a general reader.

I don’t feel that I gained a useful insight from this book (an idea re-enforced by the fact that I did not mark a single quote to transcribe for this review), though the author is clearly knowledgeable enough to discuss such mind-twisting matters.  It is another reminder that it is the rarest of scholars who can effectively communicate with the student or amateur enthusiast.  They do exist, to be sure, but they are uncommon.

On the other hand, there are some excellent science writers who, though not scientists themselves, can translate the essence of scientific discovery for the rest of us.

Unless you are into math with your physics, I’d say skip this book.  There are more informative and enjoyable science books to spend your time on.

t.n.s.r. bob

The Rev give is two and a half Dimetrodons!

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

Sunday, October 7th, 2012

I would venture that one of the worst possible selling points for a materialist view of life is the seemingly inevitable diminishment of the experience of magic in one’s day-to-day life.

Here’s the basic calculus that seems to accompany the contemplation of a non-magical world:  if I stop believing in magic, then magic will cease to appear, and I will then lose the the enjoyable experience of magic.

When I say “magic”, I am referring to the every-day sort of small miracle, coincidence, happenstance, kismet or surprise that creates a feeling in the chest of having experienced something just a little bit out-of-the-ordinary: You think of someone, and they walk into the restaurant; you tell God you’re in a hurry, and the lights all seem to be green; a check arrives just in time so you can pay your rent.  These are events that are common to all of us (though not so common as to lose their power to impart to us that magical sensation).

These are almost always happy events.  They are also almost universally confirmatory events.  They tell us that we are living right; on the right path; in tune with the universe.  They make us feel good.  (Even the ones that tell us we were on the “wrong path”, as these, too, confirm our own feelings about a situation).

With so much cultural support for belief in magic, how do we untie this ball of existential yarn that is incident and belief?  Where do we start?

Is this cross a sign from God or a natural feature that fits a pattern our brain is attuned to?

The obvious place to start is with the materialist’s application of Occam’s razor to the question at hand: is there simpler explanation for the event in question which does not involve magic or the intervention of invisible, divine agents?  For that, the answer is almost always an obvious “yes” (I would argue that the answer is probably always “yes”, whether or not it is obvious).  For instance, the fact is that each of us lives a life in a rather restricted geographical and social area means that our paths are fairly repetitive, and the people we know and see along those paths are hardly random (as we tend to get to know people that we have actual physical contact with).  So while the odds of running into your favorite movie star at the local market (assuming your star does not live in your city) is pretty low, the odds of running into one of your friends or neighbors at the same market is actually fairly high.  Adding in the fact that you have thought about a particular friend just before running into them could tempt you to regard such a meeting as anything but random, but both the thought and the meeting are probably rather high probability occurrences (meaning that the two happen with a frequency such that both happening in close proximity is not the small miracle we might take it to be).

So we can probably fairly easily dispense with “magic” as the cause of such chance meetings.  What is more interesting is the eagerness with which our mind frame such such events as “magical”.  And this is where neuroscience comes in, in the form of a mental bias called “confirmation bias”.  In short, this quirk in our cognition produces a selective preference in the data that we give weight to.  In the case of running into a friend after thinking about him or her, this means that we first embrace the linkage of the two events, usually exclaiming “I was just thinking about you!” (whether the thought occurred in the last minute or the last week — time is instantly conflated to “make” the connection).  The other, less obvious mark of this mental bias is the highly selective blindness to the many times we may have thought about this person in the past when they did not subsequently pop into view.

Taken together, these two traits of conflating time and ignoring counter-evidential occurrences produce the sort of confirmatory “evidence” that our happy brains just eat up!  But of course, it is not “evidence” in any meaningful sense.  The connections between thought and confirmatory event are “casual” only, not “causal”, much more a product of our brain’s pattern-constructing ability than any external reality.

I think there is a simple explanation for this that does not involve the dark tinge of self-deception or delusion.  It is this:  the firing of the brain cells that magic sets off makes us happy by releasing those happy-making chemicals in our brains.  And we like to be happy (well, many of us do).

What is tricky about being a materialist (believing that there are no super-natural phenomenon going on “out there”) is that, in practice, one ends up talking one’s own brain out of a lot of fun.  And who wants to be the party pooper (especially when you’re mostly pooping on your own party, so to speak)?

This is, I think, a real issue.  But it is also a testament to just how strongly magical belief is hard-wired into our brain (or “brains”, since that single organ is more a sort of “layer cake” of systems).  It is a reminder that belief (in some form or other) is natural to us.

But here is the funny part of this (and the part that is so obvious that we can miss it): Since the events we believe to be magical are not magical, but regular, ordinary, every day occurrences, not believing that they are magical should have absolutely no effect on whether or not these magical events occur in our lives!

I’m reminded of when I finally lost my belief in God.  There was a part of my consciousness that actually asked whether there would be joy, or laughter, or sunrises in my life after that.  That sounds silly, I know, but it points to something else in the way we humans think: we really do act as if the universe revolves around us.  What else can explain the notion that our individual beliefs have the power to act on other people or objects at a distance (and therefore have the power to make something like the sunrise cease).  Shall we call it the “Tinkerbell effect” (if we don’t clap hard enough, the fairy dies)?

It’s related to what I discussed in last week’s sermon about our expectation that the world should end when we do.

But, of course, coincidence and chance meetings will continue to happen (and the Sun will continue to rise).  After all, the only condition that will change in our life is a shift in the way that we perceive those events.  And, potentially, yes, the kind of joy that we derive from them.

The other day (as often happens when I’m at the gym) I got a song idea.  This time it hit shortly after I’d begun a walk around the block.  I had no pen, no paper, and no phone (with which I could have recorded my idea).  In earlier times, I would have asked God (or later, my “Higher Power”, or “The Universe”) to (magically) “bring me” a pen.  But I didn’t do that this time.  I pondered stepping into a store on my route and asking for one, but decided to keep on walking.  I first reasoned with my magical brain that chances were I wouldn’t find a pen as I walked, but then realized that the chances were not impossible, as I was walking a path where people worked, delivery trucks dropped off goods, etc.  Sure enough, about two-thirds of the way into my walk, I found a pen.  A red pen, smashed to pieces on the asphalt.  I leaned to pick it up, but it was destroyed.

Note the stages of that thought process:  I thought to “ask” for magic.  My brain then set up the impossibility of finding a pen by sheer “chance” (while in fact there was a fairly high probability that I would find a pen, especially since I was now actually looking for one!).  Now if I were of a spiritual mindset (with my confirmation bias still in play) I would have told you that the universe gave me what I asked for!  But why was it broken and useless, you might ask?  I could answer: because my prayer was not specific enough!  (Don’t laugh — spend any time among true believers and you will hear people shamed out of their unbelief with retorts like that!)   And there you have the complete mechanism for how we make horoscopes and psychics believable: They teach us what results to calibrate our bias to, and we go on to do all the heavy lifting.

So, one could say that magic (or God) does exist.  Not in the world as a genuine phenomenon, but in the magical way that we transform random and non-random events into proof of an invisible metaphysical reality.  To lose that magic can indeed mean to lose some of the joy it brings.  At least until we can reclaim the pleasure of happy coincidence free of the burden of magical attribution.  A quest that — given the kind so brains so may of us have — turns out to be no small challenge.
t.n.s.r. bob