Archive for February, 2013

CARTOONS FROM THE REV

Sunday, February 24th, 2013
The "Rev" and a friendly-enough Megalodon.

The “Rev” and a friendly-enough Megalodon.

SERMON: “Bad Arguments Against Evolution” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, February 24th, 2013

I was listening to a preacher on the radio the other day, making what he thought was a good case against evolution.  He spent some time scoffing at the idea that “lots of time” was in any way a key to understanding Darwin’s theory.  He gave this example: “Suppose I take all the parts that make up a watch, and put them in a bag, and just shake them up.  They won’t just assemble themselves into a watch.  Now, suppose I shake that bag for a long, long time.  See what I mean?  It just doesn’t work.”

No, Barney, it doesn’t work.  But then, again, this is a popular creationist argument (a version of Hoyle’s self-assembling 747 argument — listen to Richard Dawkin’s refutation of this argument here).

When confronted with this kind of “argument”, it’s difficult to know where to begin, as the weeds of ignorance are so thick and so tall that they almost have to be attacked in multiple directions at once.  But writing (like conversation and argument) is linear, so I must take them on one at a time.

Let’s take the most glaring example of bad logic employed in this argument (so bad, in fact, I wonder if it’s fair to call it “logic” at all).  The preacher is using a mechanical device (a watch — presumably a classic “wind-up” watch) to stand in for a biological process.  Now, to be clear, there are mechanical processes to be found and described in biology, and there are chemical processes to be found in machinery (at least on the level of the metal parts of the watch being acted upon by the corrosive effects of exposure to air, or the energy stored and released by a main spring, or the transfer of electrons that can occur between dissimilar metals) but none of these processes have much of anything to do with the physical act of actually assembling a wound-up and functioning watch.

The bite marks of a Mosasaur on an ancient, extinct Ammonite.  The fossils speak.

The bite marks of a Mosasaur on an ancient, extinct Ammonite. The fossils speak.

And biology can build “machines”, in the sense that an organ such as the heart works in a manner similar to a mechanical pump, or bacterium grow flagellum that can “corkscrew” their bodies forward through fluids.  And it is also true that both the metal gears of a pocket watch and the living heart are built up out of the same storehouse of elements that make up our planet.  But, again, these are not the kinds of things the radio preacher is considering.  For no matter how clever the analogy sounds, the gears of a pocket watch are never going to be the product of biological actions.  They are manufactured by humans through a series of mechanical steps, from mining to smelting to design then machining or casting, to polishing and final assembly.

The dubious intellectual leap that almost always accompanies the crap analogies that are the bread and butter of the anti-science crowd is this fallacious assumption of equivalency between human technological creation and biological processes.  Perhaps this error is rendered too easy for us because science almost always has to draw on metaphor to communicate it’s discoveries.  Hence the heart is the “pump”, the venous system the “pipes”, the brain the “computer”, the bones the “levers” and the muscles the “pulleys”, but always only in a metaphorical sense.  Too many of us, it would seem, invest too heavily in the metaphor — we take the description of the thing for the thing itself.

Regardless, this is what this flavor of fallacious argument does: it conveniently substitutes one kind of thing for another, then breezily jumps to a false conclusion.  In this case, the preacher touches on one of the genuine conditions for the theory of evolution to work, namely: time.  But he then jumps from evolution (the mutational changes over life forms over time) to “origin of life” questions (where did the parts of the watch come from in the first place?), something that evolution has nothing to do with.  Evolution is the description of how (once begun) biological life blossomed into so many different forms over time.  Evolution has nothing to say about how, when, or where biological life began.  But that is of no concern to this kind of creationist, as he or she has the ability to leap back and forth between arguments with no regard to whether they are addressing genuine science or not (frequently “moving the goalposts” of their “argument” in the process).

So let’s get back to the watch analogy.  Clearly, the dismembered pocket watch is a stand-in for the “primordial stew” that is thought to have produced life.  But the comparison does not hold.  For the primordial stew involves liquid water, elements, chemical reactions and the input of energy (be it solar or terrestrial heat, or the energy of lightning — all of these produced by processes that science has been able to describe).  And in this area, experiments have shown that rudimentary life could, indeed, begin this way.  (In fact, the way the research seems to be going, I have the sense that we are going to find out that the starting up of life is not really all that hard, given the right circumstances.  We already suspect that life had to begin untold numbers of times on the planet, most all of which were short-lived events — ended by the various catastrophes that have befallen our globe since it cooled enough to form a crust).

But the preacher ignores this key difference, and sincerely thinks that the “soup of life” is the same as a collection of manufactured and machined metal gears, pins, screws and glass.  True, the parts-in-a-bag scenario does at least include the input of some energy (you or I “shaking” the bag), but that is hardly the same as solar or thermal energy working on dissolved elements within a watery environment, fueling chain after chain of chemical reactions.  (If, on the other hand, the preacher were to put the actual elements of life into his rhetorical “bag” and shake it with some solar energy, he might be very surprised to open it up and find it filled with the slime of early “life”).

Why do people buy these illogical anti-science arguments?  I don’t think that question is all that hard to answer, as we see examples of this every day.  We humans are deeply susceptible to false positives when it comes to causal relationships.  We are, in fact, crap at making the kinds of distinctions between “causal” and “casual” that is the very basis of science.  But, then, that is why we developed science: to finally figure reality out.  After centuries of making guesses about why this or that occurred, we finally found a way to reliably outwit our own intellectual limitations.

But science is challenging to our natural (and cherished) intuitive faculties, not least of all because it is really good at giving very specific answers to very specific questions under very specific conditions (which, it should be noted, is not the way most of us frame our questions about “life”).  And this is as it should be.  After all, to eliminate the possibility of bias or interference (a huge issue for humans), conditions that might affect an experiment must be tightly controlled, and all possible inputs carefully limited.  And, hence, a new scientific discovery might be hailed as a sweeping new truth by the media, even as the scientific community remains deeply circumspect, qualifying their discoveries with “Well, we now know that under conditions x or y, this or that can occur”.

A lot of people, I think, find this kind of qualification (and precision) damn frustrating.  This is perhaps most prevalent in “health news”, where we are often left asking: “Well, should I drink soda or not???”  And the answer is generally a qualified one, with a mix of yes and no, depending.

And so there will always be those who can preach the simple path to certainty that unqualified assertions can pave for the frustrated human psyche.  You can see this with almost any article having to do with evolution, where you can count on someone posting a variation of the comment that “There is absolutely zero proof for evolution.  None.”

This, of course, is just about as absurd as a modern human can get.  Like the radio preacher who then went on to say that no “missing link” had ever been found, going down the “cherry-picking” laundry list of the most notorious scientific frauds (such as the “Piltdown Man” and others), ignoring the reality that for every one of those frauds, there are, literally, millions of fossils that are genuine (not to mention the fact that it was other scientists who discovered the frauds).  Again, the most glaring flaw in this argument is that every single fossil ever found is a “missing link” between at two different species (with the exception of a specimen of a species preserved at the moment it went extinct).  If evolution is understood on even the most rudimentary level, then you must realize that every living thing is a transitional species between it’s ancestors and future descendants.  (Even the preacher himself)!

That preacher also expresses the familiar misconception that the fossil preservation of past life works like a scrapbook you might keep of your children’s growth — with page after sequential page of photos and clippings of all of the years of that child’s growth.  And therefore (if evolution is true) we should find all sorts of “missing links” in the fossil record.  Well, of course, this is just what we find when we are lucky enough to explore sedimentary deposits that have occurred in perfect conditions (which generally means landscapes that are subsiding at the edges of bodies of water — where sediments eroded from land can be laid down on the sea floor, burying dead critters, layer upon layer that are not then lifted up again to be eroded away by water and weather — at least not until scientists find them eons later).  But, the Earth being as geologically active as it is, these “perfect” conditions can only exist in certain locations for a limited period of time — like strips of images torn from a much longer movie (or from thousands and thousands of movies of all of the different ecosystems and locales that are filled with life).  And we will never know how many fine fossil deposits have been worn away into dust, or remain buried too deep underground for us to find.

I recently visited the La Brea Tar Pits in central Los Angeles.  Those natural tar seeps were almost perfect traps for every kind of living thing that lived in the local environment for the last 40,000 years.  They have pulled thousands and thousands of fossils out of that site, including sloths, mammoths and saber-toothed cats, but also birds and bugs and micro-fossils.  But that was one small site in one locale that only got into the “scrapbook” game after the last ice age.  It is a wonderful window into Southern California’s recent past, but it doesn’t tell us what was happening just over the mountains to the east, or further north or south.

But this is how fossilization works: the conditions have to be right, and then the fossils have to be exposed again through later geologic action or human digging.  Most animals die in places where their carcasses are consumed by other life forms or broken down to nothing by the corrosive effects of air, sun and water.  Even with our practice of human burial, look how few human remains we have found of our ancient ancestors (and we know there were a lot more humans alive in history than we have ever found).

The hard truth is that, despite the ever-increasing number and variety of fossilized species that come to light every year, most of every lion, tiger, bear, dinosaur or ancestral human that ever lived will never be found.  Creationists see this as a dodge, but only because they have such an astoundingly simplistic view of the way the earth (and biology) actually work (as well an apparent ignorance of the sheer volume of fossils residing in the museums of the world).  This ignorance is unfortunate, and difficult to eradicate, as I get the sense that a lot of public school teachers aren’t all that enthused about the workings of evolution themselves (I know that my education on that score was mostly a self-guided adult exercise).  Add into that the active campaign to oppose the acceptance of evolution (and science in general), and there remains a ready audience for the radio preacher I have used as my example today.

(This is why I support The National Center for Science Education).

I think that part of what we are really discovering is that the process of evolution (as well as the wide variety of life forms it “creates”) is not so strange or incomprehensible is it is made out to be.  It is actually a very simple process that appears complicated only because we are so used to seeing ourselves as different from all other life forms.  I can tell you that dinosaurs no longer look strange at all to my eyes.  To me a Hadrosaur is pretty much the “wild cow of the Cretaceous”, and the T-Rex is a giant toothed bird sort of thing.  Look up pictures of the strange-looking animals that live today (you can Google “ugliest animals”), and you will see any number of living critters whose weirdness tests both our intellect and stomach.

But, of course, these strange critters exist.  Just like you and I exist.  And this is the greatest testimony the the reality of evolution: it happened.

The preacher said that evolution is not a “fact” like gravity is a “fact” (because he could see gravity in action in a way he could not witness evolution at work).  I’m sorry his imaginative capacity is so limited, because evolution is on display all around us.  True, we can’t see it happening (like we can see ice melt or gravity break the glass we drop on the kitchen floor) but the simple fact that we need a different flu shot every year should tell us something about the mutations (“guided” by natural selection) that allow species to adapt to changing life conditions.  Plus, I hate to tell the preacher that gravity, like evolution, is also a descriptive theory of a certain physical reality, and that gravity is no more (or no less) a fact than Darwin’s theory of evolution.

t.n.s.r. bob

CARTOONS FROM THE REV

Sunday, February 17th, 2013
Fortunately, it turned out the sabre-toothed cat and the sloth were just "roughhousing".

Fortunately, it turned out the sabre-toothed cat and the sloth were just “roughhousing”.

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: The Page Museum and La Brea Tar Pits.

Sunday, February 17th, 2013
A Sabre Toothed Cat skull from The Page Museum.

A Sabre-toothed Cat skull from The Page Museum.

This is a remarkable museum.  For one, it’s a beautiful (and beautifully organized) building.  For another, it has the distinction of sitting on top of the very deposits that have yielded the countless fossils that occupy the displays.

As you approach the museum you pass by a water-filled pond that was once a tar quarry.  There are life-sized replicas of a Columbia Mammoth family — one of whom has been “caught” in the tar hidden beneath the water.  This tableau is artifice, of course, but the sulfurous gasses that continue to bubble up into this still-active “asphalt seep” are the real deal, and provide a quietly stunning reminder of a still very active Earth.

Inside the circular museum, one walks past display after display of the mounted fossils that make up a rich catalog of extinct fauna that once roamed the Los Angeles area.  The tar pits (in their time) captured every kind of organism, from the truly stupendous Columbian Mammoth to delicate dragon flies.  All of the La Brea fossils show the distinctive chocolate patina of their time in the tar.  There are sloths, mastodons, condors, ancient buffalo, horses, sabre-toothed cats and dire wolves.  Lots and lots of dire wolves.

Did I mention there are lots of dire wolves?  One of the more stunning displays is a lighted wall made up of row after row of dire wolf skulls.  There could easily be a hundred of them, filling an entire wall, floor to ceiling.  (Watch the informational videos in the two museum theaters, and you’ll learn that these skulls are only a hint of the bounty of fossils that continue to come from ongoing excavations on the site).

There are not dinosaurs, of course.  The tar pits began their life-capturing career only forty-thousand years ago (which turns out to be an important time-span in the story of the extinction of much of North America’s megafauna).  And though there is likely a connection between the arrival of humans on the continent and the subsequent extinction of these large animals, there has only been one human fossil recovered from the pits: a woman from about ten thousand years ago.

I can’t say enough nice things about this museum.  It is a fine blend of location, collection and architecture.  Everything one could want in a museum experience.

The Page Museum is located in central Los Angeles, right next to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (hint: if you’re planning to visit both, do The Page Museum first — LACMA is a vast and overwhelming campus of buildings and collections).

t.n.s.r. bob

The rev gives it four Dimetrodons out of four!

The rev gives it four Dimetrodons out of four!

SERMON: “Changing Minds” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, February 17th, 2013

Philosophers over the centuries have struggled to come to terms with what a human is, at heart: are we rational or primarily emotional beings?  If current research is to believed, it would seem that the answer to that question is “yes”.  Humans are both rational and emotional.  Which means that we are often irrational for emotional reasons.  But, according to Jonathon Haidt (in The Righteous Mind, reviewed this blog), it appears that the notion that we can detach our reason from our emotions is a bit of a pipe dream, as it seems that the emotions are a vital support system for our intellect and reason.

On consideration this makes sense.  After all, both our emotions and our reason have evolved together for a long, long time.  If one or the other were superfluous, one or the other would have been cast adrift (by natural selection) a long time ago.  This by no means tells us that our particular blend of feeling and thinking are the perfect answer to meeting life’s challenges.  It only tells us that this combination is what came of the raw animal materials evolution had to work with, and that it was sufficient to the challenge of our specie’s survival.

There have been a rash of studies of late comparing the so-called “liberal” and “conservative” mind.  I have no doubt that there is validity to the comparisons that show that “conservative” minded people crave stability over novelty, and that the “liberal” minded are just the opposite.  (The potentially nefarious aspect of this news is the way in which this “fact” can be employed as yet one more cudgel to minimize the views of one’s political enemies.  Science is always influenced by the cultural ideas current in the society at large, so I am awaiting the further research that will put these findings in a more complete perspective).

But in the meantime, we are left with the realization that not all human minds work in the same way.  Certainly we are all on a limited spectrum, so we’re not really talking apples and car alarms here, but variations on a theme.  As Haidt points out in his research (described so well in The Righteous Mind), all of us humans have a moral sense, but this sense turns out to act more like a collection of different moral “taste buds” than universally-calibrated on and off switches.  Which means the thing that morally outrages me may only mildly bother you.  This, I think, is clearly true, and it is the main reason that liberals and conservatives can shout at each other all the live long day and not make a dent in each other’s views.

This is the damnable and frustrating thing about this kind of knowledge: it seems to make any idea of human unanimity appear ever more remote.  We may have moved a great distance from our original blood-kin tribalism, but we remain tribal to a large degree, and our current level of tribalism may have moved beyond the nationalism that marked the last few centuries of our history to a more ideological form of in-group identification.  Hence, the rationalist idea that one can simply educate an uninformed person with facts and thereby change that person’s opinion is proving unequal to the challenge of obliterating the many strains of dangerous ignorance that plague our species.

Of course I’m thinking of one of the great current divides, which is that between Islam and “the West” (which could just as easily be called “Christiandom”, though with much qualification).  Never mind that the fundamentalist Christian and the fundamentalist Muslim have much more in common than they would care to admit, they would certainly consider themselves as inhabiting completely opposite world views.

And this is where we can find as good of an example as any of one of the great unacknowledged barriers to a reason-based shift in worldview: identity.

Being the profoundly social animals that we are, we seek out other humans among whom we feel comfortable and understood.  And so we might join a church with a list of doctrines that we can easily assent to, and thereafter shape ourselves ever more like our fellow church members in both our moral likes and dislikes.  It’s easy to see that membership groups like this are not random cross-sections of a variety of people, but tend to be naturally self-selecting populations.  (As my brother Chuck once told me: “A church is a group of people who all share the same sin”).

And so it immediately becomes apparent why any human who has identified with one group or another would be doubly resistant to a radical change in their views on any topic that is important to their inclusion in the group.  Add to this the reality that our brains process information that comes from a trusted source by first believing it without question, and doubting it only after much extra post-hoc effort, and you have a naturally strong resistance to change.

Playing with my "Evolving Darwin" toy set on a Pacific Beach delights me, but would deeply offend others, even though science is on the side of the story these toys tell.

Playing with my “Evolving Darwin” toy set on a Pacific Beach delights me, but would deeply offend others, even though science is on the side of the story these toys tell.

There is, of course, another barrier to consensus, and that is found in those whose worldview happens to be one that does not easily align with physical reality.  I’m talking here about “faith” positions, that allow any and all kinds of physical phenomenon to be interpreted in a way that confirms religious or ideological world views.  For example, a natural weather event such as a hurricane, or the explosion of a meteor over Russia, will be taken as events with a spiritual (as opposed to a natural) cause.  This kind of thinking creates what I’d call an “insulated ignorance”, meaning it is a lack of knowledge that is active in preserving a certain informational vacuum (active far beyond the usual passing discomfort any of us feels when having to admit we were wrong on a fact).  We see this especially with regards to historic worldviews that have been carried forward into a period of history where science continues to present factual challenges that — if these worldviews are to survive — simply must not be accepted.  They are living artifacts of human ignorance, fighting tooth and nail for their very lives.

So when we look at the reality of how most humans really operate, the real question turns out to be not why more people aren’t open to changing their minds, but why we thought people could easily change their minds in the first place?

Liberal or conservative, it turns out that most humans are innately conservative (at least if we consider the “moderate” human to also be “conservative” in relation to the “liberal” members of the tribe).  In evolutionary terms, this mix makes sense.  Every tribe needs risk takers to rise to unusual challenges, but it also needs those who are more attuned to staying home and keeping the woodpile stocked and the tent mended.  And there is a reason that most religious conversations occur among the young (whose personalities are still very much in flux), and much more rarely in adults (who have already begun to “lock in” to their ideology).

I see myself as having become someone who responds to evidence, and who is willing to change his mind about things when facts prove me wrong.  Now, one could argue that I’m no better at this than any other human, but I don’t think that case would be strong.  True, I’m susceptible to all of the quirks of a human brain whose reason is linked to feeling, but I have also taken advantage of the plasticity of the brain and have developed a relationship between my feelings and my thinking so that it actually feels better for me to see that my views are aligned with our physical reality as much as possible.  For a human, I think I do pretty well on that score.  But that’s the thing.  I am still human.

And I can’t assume that others experience anything like the “positive” feelings I do when absorbing certain (potentially) unnerving scientific facts.   For instance, I feel okay accepting the reality that I am most likely not a divine or spiritual being connected to any sort of intelligent creator, or that my body is an evolved version of the body-plan of a lobe-finned fish, or that any and all sense of my self as a distinct personality will cease as soon as my brain stops working.  I’ve worked to make my peace with these evidence-based ideas.

But, then, I am not deeply invested in a church group with the added group-binding agents of a wife and children and extended family.  True, there was a time when my fall from belief was a source of conflict (and led to ruptured relationships) but that time has (mostly) passed.  I do still worry that my words or actions (as they broadcast my deeply-held views) will offend others or damage vital personal relationships.  Because, let’s face it, ours is a culture that is permeated with religious and quasi-religious beliefs, be they Christian or “New Age”, and so my (irreligious) views are always going to be at odds with the majority of my fellow humans (even most of my closer friends).  Fortunately for all of us, part of our innate social sense is to make allowance for those we love, and it is in the space carved out by such selective social blindness that we find room to stay close to each other, even when we hold very different views on important matters.

Plus, knowing that I am not immune to being wrong (I do have a human brain, after all), I have to maintain a certain humility about even the things that I am most firmly convinced are true (especially those things).  And it is this humility among thoughtful people that allows profound ideological differences to coexist without triggering deep social disruption.

There could yet be a wave of reason that will sweep across the globe, dampening the fires of religious extremism or the blinders of ideological dogmatism.  Maybe when that happens there will be enough “safety in numbers” that the more “conservative” questioning humans will be willing to jump ship, confident that they won’t be the only ones foregoing the security of their ideological group.

But in the meantime we are left with the unsettling reality that a substantial percentage of humans are resistant (to a greater or lesser degree) to the penetration into their reason of the scientific evidence as it pertains to their own existence.  Reality may, indeed, have a “liberal” bias.  But humans, most certainly, do not.

t.n.s.r. bob

CARTOONS FROM THE REV

Saturday, February 9th, 2013
"Beachcombing" can have different definitions for different species.

“Beachcombing” can have different definitions for different species.

SERMON: “A Tyranny of Choice” by the not-so-reverend bob

Saturday, February 9th, 2013

More than once I have stood in my local public library and considered all of the knowledge contained on all of the pages of all of the books that reside there.  Even in our modest municipal facility, I can feel the weight of the hundreds of volumes that I will never read, the stories I will never know, and the concepts I will never understand.  It is a rather stark reminder of the constraining power of time as it forces us to choose which opportunities we will spend the minutes and hours of our mortality upon.

And now we have the internet, and with it an amplification of an entire industry dedicated to the idea that what we human consumers lack is enough choice.  Every new personal device must now not only belong to us, but adapt to us, using algorithms to mimic an intelligence that can study and absorb our interests, needs and desires.  I wouldn’t say I find it terrifying, but it is troubling.  We have achieved a level of ease, affluence and convenience where each individual can be a petty tyrant of his own digital entertainment and informational domain.

Like all “progress” this is troubling in a paradoxical way: I do not like my options to be forcibly limited by anyone or anything, but at the same time, when are we going to recognize that we are doing to ourselves something not unlike training a bear to ride a bicycle or a chimp to talk in sign language.  Sure, with enough effort something that passes for rudimentary success can be achieved in either of those examples, but could it be argued that we had even modestly improved the quality of life for either the bicycling bear or the signing chimp?

Those who work in the technological fields (it would seem safe to assume) understand, or at least appreciate, science.  But science tells us that we are evolved mammals with quirky, limited brains.  True, we are not limited like a dog or a cow, but just because we operate on a higher cognitive level does not in any way mean that we have found a way to transcend our evolved biology (though there are those hoping to achieve just that through technology).

Unlike cable t.v., the ocean only has one channel.

Unlike cable t.v., the ocean only has one channel.

Sometimes when I open my laptop I sense the presence of a vast collection of human creative and intellectual output (and a lot of cat videos) spread out before me, and I feel it’s seductive siren-song of limitless possibility as I choose the one item (at a time) to give my full attention to.  (And make no mistake: we are not hard-wired to multi-task in anything like the way that we imagine we can.  No.  The best we can do is switch back and forth between competing stimuli, it’s just that some of us are a little bit better at rapid switching than others).  And I have something like my experience of standing in the information ocean of my library described above, only on steroids.

I think we are rushing down a road of rapidly diminishing returns when it comes to choice.  This doesn’t mean that we can do anything to stop it, really.  But it does mean that our yearning for ever more choice is bringing with it challenges that evolution has not prepared us for.  And this is the challenge of plenty.

Admittedly, there is a certain kind of pleasure in excess — in having way more than we can eat, or watch or listen to.  But this is perhaps an artifact of the many episodes of want that we’ve experienced in our evolution (this could be a cognitive analogue to our “Ice Age” body’s propensity to store fat so easily).  But despite our constant yearning for ease and plenty, ease and plenty in larger doses do not fit well with our lean, animal natures (physical or cognitive).  For isn’t it true that we appreciate the company of others most when we’ve experienced loneliness; food when we’ve been hungry; safety when we’ve been in danger?

We humans are unique in being the animals that are both aware of their existential dilemma (mortality) and have a superior technical ability that allows us to build ways to satisfy almost any desire we can generate (money may not buy you love, but it can buy a lot of things that are pretty darn close).  In essence, we create machines first for work, and then for pleasure.  The first creates wealth and leisure time, the second is the way we spend our newly-acquired (in historic terms) time and money.

This is the point where I should wrap things up with an answer to our dilemma of choice, but I don’t think there is one.  Each of us has to negotiate our own balance between the competing tensions of want and plenty — between our imagined ideal of ease and the biological reality of our physical minds and bodies.  (I, for example, pay money to belong to a gym where I exercise my body as a separate activity to make up for the ease of my daily work that would otherwise allow my frame of bone and muscle to degrade into a fatty, unhealthy lump).  And just to spice things up a bit, we have to work these things out in an environment where it is not just our money, but our time and attention and desires that are the most sought-after commodities.

We are drawn to attractive stimuli as much as any raven or laboratory mouse, but we are no longer dependent upon the whims of nature to provide the things that we crave the most (for their rarity, at least in nature — in our case, fats, sugars and produced entertainment).  It is actually an odd state of affairs for a human such as I to be able to sit down, turn on a machine, and search out a thousand videos of only that one thing I really, really like watching, and then watch it over and over and over as much as I want to, until I don’t want to anymore, and have to find something else that tickles my fancy.

I’m not one of those wags who will decry such a state as inferior to some other, more noble way of living.  Who am I to say?  This is just how things are in our lives right now (in our society, anyway).  In that way, we are no different from our ancestors who adapted to a life among domesticated plants and animals, where for the first time humans had the chance to get fat from eating too much.

Evolution has not stopped with us.  We may have found ways to protect ourselves from the more basic ravages of natural selection, but in doing so we have only created other evolutionary pressures in the form of our own manufactured technology.

The grand experiment of life on Earth continues and, like each of our ancestors that came before, it remains for us to make our own choices of how we spend our time here.  It’s just that the act of choosing itself has become much more complicated for more humans than it has ever been before.

t.n.s.r. bob

CARTOONS FROM THE REV

Sunday, February 3rd, 2013
When it gets really cold up in the hills, they start showing up in town.  And often outside of coffee shops.

When it gets really cold up in the hills, they start showing up in town. And often outside of coffee shops.

SERMON: “New Snakes in Old Skins” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, February 3rd, 2013

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. — 1 Corinthians, 13:11 (New International Version ©1984

Let’s be honest about this one thing: it often feels like there is something “greater than ourselves” at work in the world.  Whether in the thrilling experience of inspiration (when an idea seems to come to us unbidden), or when something good happens to us just when we feel certain that we needed it the most, or when we stand, enveloped the deep feeling of awe that can arise as we behold things vast or beautiful, such as a sunset or the birth of a new life.

Such experiences of the transcendent or the numinous are a part of being human.  The problem that you and I run into, however, (living as we do in an age of scientific discovery and testable evidence), is that there is absolutely no evidence to support the belief that there is any sort of transcendent personality that exists outside of the brain-filled skulls of the sentient living beings that we are.  (The other mitigating force against a warm and fuzzy view of the universe is the recognition of the more harsh realities that have carved the canyons, for instance, or the extinctions that provided opportunity for other species — such as our own — to flourish, or the many births that are neither wondrous nor “perfect”)

And it is the clash of these two realities that marks, I think, humanity’s halting progress from superstition to true awareness.  We are born into a natural conflict between the emotional power of numinous experience and the demands of our ever-better informed reason.  Such questions are not open-and-shut because we humans are not solely one or the other (meaning that we are not all brain, nor are we all heart).  Each of us is a blend of the two (and, according to recent research, necessarily so — for more on this see “The Righteous Mind” by Jonathon Haidt — reviewed this blog).

Personally, I’m at a time in my life where I am experiencing what I might describe as a “molt”.  I feel like a snake shedding his old skin — a metaphor that describes both the excitement as well as the deep (present) discomfort that accompanies the beginnings of such a process.  I’m guessing about the whole “molt” thing, of course, but based on my previous life experience, I think I may be reaching an age where the man I am today is no longer so well served by the habits of the man I have been for the last stretch of years.  Of course, I’m not changing from a caterpillar to a butterfly — nothing on that dramatic of a scale.  But it feels as if this passage might be more than the regular adjustments we make as we move through our days, weeks and months, like a hiker who pauses to confirm that she has not lost the trail.  No, I think this middle-aged snake is getting his new duds for the next stretch of slithering along in the desert.

In the same way that snakes outgrow their old skins, we can outgrow old ideas.

In the same way that snakes outgrow their old skins, we can outgrow old ideas.

As I wrote in an earlier sermon, I’ve been feeling (in many ways) like I’ve simply come full circle — returning to a temperament that was mine from the “get-go”.  But since coming that conclusion, I’ve read reports of a survey that shows that people actually change over time much more than they believe they have ( http://www.boston.com/news/science/blogs/science-in-mind/2013/01/03/the-person-you-are-today-the-real-final-you-harvard-study-says-you-change-more-than-you-think/WH83Enm8KZGd4iBaHTMKqK/blog.html ).  And being someone who has been made aware of my own brain’s tendency to “put two and two together and get five”, I pay attention to these evidence-based hints at my cognitive biases.  And so I work at applying this new knowledge to my own perceptions of my experience (in this instance, my perception of my cognitive self as not having changed all that much over the years).

And so I have to admit that one of the more unexpected aspects of writing this weekly blog (about my own process of existential navigation) has been an increased awareness of just how much my views and feelings have changed in a relatively short time.  At first this fueled a fear that I  might just research my way back into God (but that turns out to have been more an artifact of past experience than an indicator of what my future explorations would uncover, and this “fear” has dramatically diminished over time and with accumulated experience of life freed from the bias of belief).  But, still, the speed with which new understandings have penetrated my consciousness over the last several years is rather astonishing.  Part of this I attribute to being in the unusual position of having “made it my job” to think about and study this nexus of scientific evidence and irrational belief, not unlike, I suppose, the progression of knowledge one might acquire while completing a masters degree in a subject.  That may be an apt metaphor, actually, especially when you look at how many books I’ve read (and how many “papers” I’ve published) in the last three-plus years of this blog.  (In fact, I think I’m pretty close to being able to add a fake “Doctor” to my existing fake ministerial title).

(The humbling “flip-side” of this whole scenario is that I can count on my current understanding being replaced by a better one over time.  So, as smart — and well-informed — as I think I am today, I must accept that I will never get it “all” right for all time).

But let me get to the point of today’s sermon, which is this: In order to truly see the grandeur of life (as Darwin properly named it), I think we have to move beyond the twin fears of whether God does not (or does) exist.  Both of these fears are equally strong in our minds, depending on which side of the question you are coming from.  Leaving these fears behind is no easy task, as there are several powerful forces that work against such a state of mind, the most powerful of which is the reality that we have brains that are deeply susceptible to cognitive biases (that often default to incorrect conclusions based on certain attention-grabbing stimuli).  Add to that the fact that it can often feel as if our awareness extends beyond our physical body and skull.  This is interesting, especially as we consider the fact is that we can only sense the stimuli that actually make contact with our body (photons hitting the eye, sound waves the ear, tastes upon the tongue, smells in the nose, etc.).  And yet if feels as if we really can sense things from a distance.  Some of this is the action of instinct (a combination of experience, subtle smells and sounds picked up by the sub-conscious parts of our brain), but even acknowledging that, it is difficult to accept that we actually only exist inside our own bodies.  Another force against accepting this reality is that we are natural believers in any and all sorts of magic.  Magical or miraculous notions give us a thrill of pleasure or excitement simply to contemplate (and we enjoy that)!

But the reality seems to be that all of our experience of existence can be explained and described in purely biological terms.  On this level we are no different than the laboratory rat that avoids pain and seeks out pleasure.  The rest are the embellishments and flourishes of a highly complex and profoundly social brain that is very good at searching out pattern and intention in it’s natural environment (even though there is, most likely, nothing else going out “out there”).

These are the kinds of insights that only we humans living in an age of science have had access to.  But it’s just really really hard for many of us to get to a place of actually accepting the implications of the knowledge regarding our world, our bodies and our minds that we are now confronted with.  Yet I have to say here that getting to that place has rewards that are, frankly, unimaginable to the uninitiated.  This sounds very much like a religious claim of the kind I heard many times in my Christian youth: that an acceptance of God would open up a heretofore unseen spiritual world to an earthly “blind, but now seeing” soul.  That’s nice enough, as far as it goes.  But religion is a product of a much younger humanity and, not unlike the young man I once was (compared to the more mature man I now am), the conceptual tools that served us well in our civilized adolescence are not the tools that will serve us now.  We are like a snake that has outgrown its old skin but who refuses to leave it behind.  And so the snake is constricted by what was once its living self, but is now a dead, inert, hollow shell.

It seems ironic that the bare, naked, “dirty secret” of all of this is that our existence on this spinning planet of aching beauty is far more miraculous and wondrous than any God-focused worldview could ever even imagine.  Whatever its useful beginnings, religion, it turns out, has become more limiting than liberating.

Like the slithering snake stuck in its old skin, it takes some time and effort for us to get beyond the gravitational pull of our ancient religious impulse.  The irony bears repeating that religion has consistently fought against science as an enemy of truth and the liberation of the human spirit, when science turns out to be our ticket out from under the cloak of ignorance that religion continues to weave out of imagination and conjecture.  We can no more hate religion, however, than we can hate our younger, less mature selves (or our “old” skins).  Religion is part of the way that we were able to get to where we are now.  And religious belief is but one of our “old skins” that we have had to shed as we have matured over the last fifteen thousand years.  Many, of course, are not now — nor will ever be — willing to let it go.  That is a choice we can make (unlike the snake).  And so perhaps the best that we can do is choose, as individuals, to continue to learn and, when the time is right, recognize when it’s time to crawl out of our old skin and inhabit the new.

t.n.s.r. bob