Posts Tagged ‘god’

SERMON: “A Final Word” from the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, March 3rd, 2013
Where it all began.  The first appearance of the not so reverend bob on Charles Darwin's 200th birthday in 2009. Where it all began. The first appearance of the not so reverend bob on Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday in 2009.

Here’s what reality seems to be.

We live on a planet that is spinning as it orbits around the sun that is the center of our particular solar system.  All living things on Earth appear to have begun their life on earth.  Life is made up of the elements that were manufactured by the formation of the universe and the deaths of stars , and those elements eventually found their way to a young, coalescing earth.  Once on earth, minerals were formed from these elements and liquid water, and here life began, fueled by the energy that blasts out from the ongoing nuclear furnace that is our sun.

Once life took hold, it rapidly diversified through a process we describe as evolution through the process of natural selection, where the ever-changing challenges to survival favored the continuation of one species over another (as well as heritable traits within species), and geographic isolation (combined with random genetic coding errors) led to ever more varieties of living things, each suited to it’s own environment, each occupying a certain niche in nature.  This process has continued to this very moment, and will continue as long as the Earth remains a habitable planet.

Humans are a product of this process.  We are a species of animal that is related to every other living thing on this planet.  We are classified as mammals, and as primates.  Our closest living relatives are the Chimpanzees and Bonobos, with whom we share 99% of our DNA.  (We also “share” almost as much DNA with mice and about 40% with lettuce).

We humans are clever toolmakers who have developed both verbal and written language, which has allowed us to operate in a conceptual as well as an animal world.  Our brains have allowed us to develop technology that has dramatically altered any landscape that we have occupied.  We have, in a remarkably short time, grown from a collection of tribes of hunter-gatherers into huge, complex societies and nations.

A most notable feat of human intelligence has been the creation of the scientific method, which has, over the last few hundred years, allowed us to come to a fairly deep understanding of the reality of our biology, our world, and the universe we float in.  It is through the investigations of science that we know most of what I have just cataloged.

And yet humans also believe in the existence of God.  We have built entire civilizations and cultural institutions around our belief in gods that both created us and who control our fate.  Our first explanations of reality were mythological in nature.  (Before science gave us a means of testing propositions, one person’s guess was as good as another’s).  It would seem fair to say, at this point, that all of the early religious claims about nature and physical reality have been proven false by subsequent scientific discovery.  Yet religion and religious belief persists.

And though science has not (and can not) ever disprove the existence of God, science has shown us that there is nothing about our existence on Earth that necessitates the intervention, direction or supervision of any sort of divine agent, supreme deity, or intelligent god.  And yet the natural state of a human being appears to include a belief in such a being or force, along with a feeling that all of creation is somehow here for (primarily) our benefit.

But not all humans believe in God.

Perhaps tellingly, it is among scientists that we find the highest percentage of humans who do not believe in god(s) or magic.  Which means it is those who know the most about reality that believe the least in what we might call the “unreal”.  Yet the number of such unbelievers (including non-believing non-scientists as well) still represents a minority among the human population.  This hints at the proposition that magical belief flourishes best in ignorance.  But, since belief is coming to be understood as a sort of “default” setting of the human brain, ignorance of reality cannot be seen as the only factor in the continuation of belief in magical things.

The not-so-reverend bob waves goodbye as the Pterosaur that will carry him to his retreat circles above. The not-so-reverend bob waves goodbye as the Pterosaur that will carry him to his retreat circles above.

Over these last years, I have explored this continuing reality of the believing human in an age of science.  Using my own experience as a means of both discovery and explanation, I’ve experienced a rather intensive period of learning and thinking that I have then turned into my weekly “sermons”.  And I find myself, now, in the rather interesting position of having “answered” the most basic questions we humans seem to have about life: Where did I come from?  Where am I going?  Why am I here?  And though I could probably go on writing a new “sermon” every week for the rest of my life (because there is always going to be a new scientific discovery, or a new popular science book, or a new personal experience to write about), I’ve realized that it’s time to re-direct the energy I’ve been putting in to this blog into other projects.  Because understanding that I am here as the result of natural processes more begs than answers the question of how best to live the life I have (though it does, I think, offer some helpful clues).

I am primarily an artist and performer.  I can now see “the not so reverend bob” as one of my creations — a champion for humane reason and science.  But playing the extroverted evangelist for evolution has been a bit of a strain on this natural introvert (a bit like a submarine doing battle on the surface).  And I think the answer to how to live my life (in this next stage of that life) comes in the form of a recognition that this artist is most effective operating below the surface (like the submarine).  And, for now, trite as it may sound, I want more love and less argument in my life.  And holding the view I do – that we only have this one life to live — I have only so much time to write my next musical or paint my next painting.  (And, besides: it’s not as if anyone’s chances at eternal life will be jeopardized by me not reaching them with the “gospel” of the church of bob)!

So let this be my final sermon on the boblog of the not-so-reverend bob.  I’ll keep the site up for those who might want to read one of my 166 sermons (167 counting this one.  Yikes!).  And I’ll always be ready, like a Minuteman with his musket hanging over the cabin door, to answer the call when needed.  But for the foreseeable future I’ll be directing my energies elsewhere.  I have other lost creative sheep, as it were, to gather up while the sun still shines.

I want to thank each of you that has visited this blog, and especially my “faithful” readers.  I hope that I have given you something worthwhile.

Bob Bless!

the “retiring” not so reverend Bob Diven

SERMON: “A Sense of Meaning” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, January 20th, 2013

While walking on the treadmill at the gym, I watched a morning news feel-good story about an American military neurosurgeon who was haunted by an Iraq War patient he had treated.  The soldier that landed on his operating table was “the most horribly wounded soldier” the surgeon had ever seen.  But they patched up his terrible head wound and shipped him off to Germany.  Years later, the doctor was ready to re-visit his war experience.  He Googled the name of the soldier he was sure had died of his wounds and, to his surprise, the man popped up in a T.V. interview, very much alive.

The news story then showed video from that interview of a man who looked as if someone had scooped out a third of his brain and replaced a portion of his formerly-round skull with a sunken flat plate.  But the soldier could walk and talk, despite having lost a chunk of his frontal lobe.

And though the soldier was “not up to another interview” (for this current report), there were still-pictures of him and his neurosurgeon meeting.  The doctor reported (after) that he had asked his former patient what I thought was a deeply insightful question: was he happy that he had survived?  The soldier answered that, yes, he was.

This was a powerful moment.  About as profound as can be imagined.  But, of course, these kinds of news stories aren’t really about the profound (or disturbing) aspects of these stories: they are meant to be inspirational, aspirational, “feel-good” tales of that type that allows you and I to easily borrow some added confidence (in our own resilience) from hearing of the experiences of someone who’s been through real shit.

But I don’t feel good when I watch a story like this.  I see the lingering, daily struggle (that is the long shadow of the original tragedy) that looms over the “happy ending” that we are all supposed to assent to — and move on from — having snatched up our bit of “borrowed courage”.  (I felt the same way about all of the cheering for the slightest progress of Representative Gabby Giffords after she was shot in the head).

As I watched the story of the “recovered” soldier this morning, I reflexively uttered “Goddamn war”, expressing a deep revulsion at the idea that sentient individuals had worked together to create the conditions of war under which a strong, physically able young man was suddenly and irrevocably stripped of a large chunk of his capacities.

But even as I said that, I realized that other humans were very likely watching this story and having equally strong emotional reactions that were going to be the complete opposite of mine.  Some might feel a sweeping sense of admiration for the soldier, or awe at the doctor’s skill, or anger at the bastards that set off the road-side bomb that wounded the soldier.  In short, each of us who react to a story react according to different sets of moral triggers.  As Jonathon Haidt describes so well in “The Righteous Mind” (reviewed this blog), we humans fall into one of several categories on that score (meaning that — when presented with a moral dilemma — though many of us will react in similar ways, we are not safe to assume that all humans will react in the same way we do).

Everywhere you look there is, well, our physical reality. Everywhere you look there is, well, our physical reality.

Despite this natural variation in our moral response, in practice I think that we all pretty much assume that our moral centers are the ones that are properly calibrated, and so we are often surprised when the obvious wrong that outrages us don’t elicit the same outrage in others.  This is abundantly clear in politics and social values, where, as an example, an evangelical conservative might see abortion as the moral equivalent of institutionalized genocide, yet be mystified by a progressive who sees the denial of the right of a gay citizen to marry as the equivalent of denying an African American of his legal rights because of his race.

So it would seem that the thing that we all have in common is not the particular moral issue we react to, but the strength of the reactions we have to events that outrage (or inspire) us.

It is clear to me that we are “feeling” animals.  And I would take this further and suggest today that it these sorts of experiences — when our deep emotions are attached to experiences — that are, to my mind, the source of all that we might possibly define as “meaning”.

Each of us, if pressed, could probably write out a list of the things that make life “meaningful”.  I suspect that these would be the activities (or traits) that we feel the most strongly about.  We might put on that list “a sense of purpose”, or “love”, or “meaningful work” or “kindness”.  These are the kinds of things that make us feel good in a way that we see as different from the simple satisfying of a hunger for food or a lust for sex.  These are the kinds of things that give us a specific kind of feeling — that sense of well-being that comes from a regular experience of the “higher” emotions.

What do I mean when I argue that it is the welding of our “higher” emotions to experience that forms the basis for meaning in our lives?  I realize that we might be hesitant to grant this rather mechanical-sounding point, as one of the things that makes our “higher” emotions, well, “higher” is that we attribute to them a certain transcendent quality.  Part of the reason they have such an elevated influence on us is that they come upon us in ways that are most often rare and wondrous.  They are harder to generate than the simpler pleasures of eating our favorite snack or watching our favorite t.v. show.  Like everything else, their rarity makes them precious and highly valued.  And like everything else of value, it almost follows as axiomatic that we will try to manufacture these most desired feelings (the “feel good” story I relate above is a perfect example of this).

Now to a religious person, all of this may simply sound like me trying to drag the realm of the angels down to earth.  (That’s just silly, of course, because no actual angels will be harmed by this sermon).  But many do seriously believe that a materialistic view of life (meaning that there is nothing about our experience of life that happens outside of natural processes, whether understood or not) leads to a cheapening of human life.  I hardly think this is the case, but it’s worth taking a serious look at this important point.

The fear of a materialistic view is, I think, twofold: The first being that a loss of external (divine) validation will weaken the moral bonds that moderate bad human behavior.  The second fear is that our experience of the transcendent will simply cease (this fear being a reflection of just how much we value these experiences and feelings).  Both of these fears are rooted in the assumption that morality and transcendent experience are purely products of God, of which we are passive recipients and respondents: i.e. we are not the source.

Were this to be an accurate description of reality, these fears would, indeed, be reasonable and completely valid (for then it would be true that if God were to go away, then with Him would go our treasured morality and ecstatic experience! ) But here is the tricky part of this transition from what is, essentially, our habitual practice of dislocating portions of our consciousness from inside the brain to outside of our physical selves: if we can allow ourselves to entertain the possibility that our experience of existence is actually a process occurring within the confines of our body and brain, then this deep fear of this great loss becomes meaningless and moot.  If we can allow ourselves this shift — what I would call a returning of our dislocated self to it’s true location, what actually changes is more akin to moving some colored pins on a map than actually moving any actual nations or landmasses.  Nothing essential actually changes (or goes away).  We are simply thinking about our experiences differently.

To be honest, it might be worth saying here that even when I locate (or conceptualize) my self within my physical body, I still experience my thoughts and feelings in a sort of imagined space in that body — meaning that I’m not actually sensing where each synapse or nerve is functioning when I think or feel.  So it could be argued that I am quibbling over swapping one conceptually useful inaccuracy for another, more useful one!  So why even bother with it?

As I’ve asserted before, recognizing that you and I only get this one chance at being living, breathing human beings reveals, to my mind, a truer value of life.  There is no hiding our naked vulnerability in “heavenly rewards” or “the next life”.  (Yes, our DNA carries on in our children, and our component elemental parts will be “recycled” once we no longer require them in our living bodies, but we will most likely not go on living forever as the individuals we were in life reborn by God in newly-minted heavenly bodies).

I think that — when it comes to the conscious individual experience of existence — this one life is all we get.  And it reasonably follows that there is nothing intelligent “out there” to either rely on or worry about.  An unexpected result of this word-view is the fact that I now recoil at human tragedy like I never did when I was trying so hard to be a Christian.  (Some of that may be a function of age and experience, but my Darwinian world-view is surely a large part of the equation).

None of this diminishes the value that our emotions place upon the things that are meaningful to us.  To think that would be silly as well.  Sure, what you and I value means nothing to the rest of the vast, cold universe.  So what?  (I mean that: so what?).  That also means that the rest of the vast, cold universe is incapable of passing even the slightest judgement upon us for feeling our feelings as we do (for every loss there is also gain).  We are what we are.  And a great deal of what we are is our capacity to feel deeply about things that matter to us.

All living things want to keep on living.  But we are the only animals that want — no, need — to live meaningful lives as well.  It could be argued, I think, that it is a sense of meaning that fuels our capacity to want to continue living.  And the fact that this matters to us as much as it does is, in the end, all the justification we need.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The Source of Morality” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, January 13th, 2013

I think it’s safe to say that most people — when they ponder the issue of right and wrong — think of morality as having a basis in revealed knowledge.  (Think of the “Ten Commandments” and the way that conservatives repeatedly point to them as the “Judeo-Christian foundation” of all that is good and lawful about the United States of America).

But there are a few of us (in addition to the scientists and evolutionary psychologists who study such things) that hold the view that human morality and ethics are not rooted in revelations divine, but are naturally-evolved expressions of the never-ending search for a balance between our deeply social — and incurably selfish — natures.  The rules we live by are basically the socially-active tools we employ to get as much as we can for ourselves (and our clan) without arousing countering forces from other individuals and groups.  In short, this is what cooperation is all about.  And from cooperation flows the altruism that marks the “above and beyond” behaviors that qualify as “generous” on the scorecards of human behavior.

Those who see morality as “revealed” strongly believe that anything short of a heavenly, eternal, and immutable source for right and wrong would simply prove unequal to the task of maintaining social order.  And so they believe that were the external, revealed (read: Heavenly) authority for our social rules to prove non-existent, morality would instantly lose all meaning (and, therefore, all of it’s power to regulate human behavior).  Little wonder, then, that they hold so fast to the belief that God is behind everything.

But instead of  being the actual state of morality’s affairs, this is much more a case where the belief in a divine moral source itself can, in some ways, create the reality it claims already exists.  In short, the belief precedes the reality that is held up as proof for the belief itself.  For, according to many writers, the codes of religion developed as a way to (among other aims) make people behave better when no-one was physically watching them (as populations grew, and spread beyond direct supervisory control).  I think this makes sense: the invisible, distant God is the perfect spy (the “inescapable tyrant” as Christopher Hitchens called it) that we can never really be sure is not watching our every move (and, even better, hearing our every secret thought).

Everything evolves, even ideas of right and wrong. Everything evolves, even ideas of right and wrong.

So it could well be that, upon a sudden mass realization that God does not exist (and, therefore, that morality is not sacralized by his imprint) a good many people might decide to run amok.  I think that this would be a short-lived phenomena, as those who behaved in a lawless manner would shortly run into serious legal and interpersonal issues of a very present, human kind (unless, of course, it became a society-wide collapse, which would be a much more serious issue, albeit one that occurs — one should note — with regularity in human societies, and that with God still firmly in his Heaven).

But on the other side of the fence (from the religiously inclined) are those who believe that we can use our reason to create a better system of ethics without God as the source.  I think this is correct, up to a point.  But sometimes those who eschew God as a source can go wrong if what they are really proposing is a belief that there exists in nature a perfect law that we can discover and align ourselves with.  As philosophers have noted, this is not much different from the religious seeking a revealed source to bulk up an authoritative claim for a particular brand of morality, only in this case the revelation is sought in nature.  Both are locked into a quest for an ultimate, unquestionable moral authority.

The fundamental problem we must contend with is that ethics and morality, which are really an evolved (and evolving) social tool for (evolved and evolving) social animals, exist in a natural world that is ever only “balanced” in an ever-shifting-mid-point-between-competing-forces sort of way.  Nothing is fixed in this world.  And that, I’m afraid, applies to morality as well.

If we are honest with ourselves, the truth of the relativity of morality is evident all around (and within) us.  Almost every sin we can conceive of exists on a sliding moral scale, even the most heinous ones (such as murder which can, in certain circumstances, be “justified”).  We cry for justice and plead for mercy with equal vigor.  (This is why we have juries to decide issues that, were they truly black and white, would require no deliberation at all).

The upshot of this reality is that with morality — as with our interactions with our natural environment — the best that we can do is to limit the inputs into the system that are pushing things out of “balance”, and hope that the adjustments we make are wise ones so that the ever-swinging pendulum swings in a more constrained, sustainable arc.

With humans this means combating the obvious abuses that increase human misery, and attempting to encourage the positive actions that provide opportunity for more and more humans to have meaningful lives.  (Now just exactly what makes a human life meaningful is going to have many different definitions to different people.  But this is part of the complexity of life that makes the idea of a sort of revealed universal morality so suspect: it won’t work equally well for all peoples everywhere).

So it seems that the best we can do is, well, the best that we can do.  Abandoning the idea of perfect law (whether given by God or revealed by nature) is a good start.  At least then we are starting off from a semi-solid common-grounding in reality.

So I don’t think humankind needs any new “holy books” or revelations.  And our future does not lie in our past.  Human morality and beliefs have been evolving for fifty-thousand years, and even the great religious world views that have imprinted themselves on our moral minds (and seem to be permanent cultural fixtures) had a beginning, a middle, and may one day have an “end”.  If they do end, they will not leave a world without ethics and morality (just as they did not come to a world without ethics and morality).  They will, like the systems of belief that preceded them, simply be replaced by the next and (one assumes) somewhat superior system.

People get pretty damn spun-up around morality.  We become indignant, outraged, ready to bring down the hammer of heaven upon those who flout our laws.  We could stand to calm down a bit.  Not so that we can coast off into lawlessness, but so that we can be more humane and effective in our legislation and enforcement of law.  And also that we may begin to appreciate just how much we humans have accomplished in creating the complex, cooperative societies that we have.  We’ve come a long way, baby, and when we accept a touch of humility in this area, we are rewarded with an earned sense of pride.  Even if it’s not God given.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Tares Among the Wheat” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, December 30th, 2012

“Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field:  But while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way.  But when the blade was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also.  So the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? from whence then hath it tares?  He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. The servants said unto him, Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up?  But he said, Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them.  Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn”.  (Matthew 13:24-30, King James Version)

"Wheatfield with Crows" by Vincent Van Gogh “Wheatfield with Crows” by Vincent Van Gogh

The idea for this last sermon of this third year of the boblog of the not-so-reverend bob comes from catching myself in a behavior that almost anyone would recognize as “prayer”: me, alone, speaking out loud in a way that implies a belief that an unseen entity is listening — an entity who, it must be added, is thought to be able to act upon the information I am supplying through my “prayer”.

So, it occurred to me that if we were all put under a giant microscope — all the faithful believers in God in the world and atheist me — any unbiased researcher would say that there is absolutely no difference between what I do and what the most fervent religious believer does, at least in terms of behavior.  And yet there is a difference.  But I can find myself wondering if that difference really means anything.  Have I really journeyed so far to just be like everyone else who found God and stopped there?

This doesn’t seem to fit the narrative I tell of my own “spiritual” journey — a journey marked by a beginning — and landmarks — that long preceded the idea for the “church of bob”.  But the practice of these last years of writing out (weekly) my thoughts and observations has, I think, accelerated and focused my own process and growth.  And yet, after three years in which I’ve read at least a hundred books on science (and who knows how many articles), visited a slew of museums, interviewed scientists and written over 150 sermons, it feels — rather surprisingly — as if I what I’ve really done is a lot of hard work to get back to a place I already knew.  Sort of the spiritual equivalent of a battle where bloodied troops find the reward for their efforts is to re-occupy the trenches they were forced out of in the previous battle.

I’ve written before on my view that one of the most vital tools of religion (of any kind) is the re-branding of human experience into something exclusive to a particular religious practice.  I stand by that idea.  You name any natural impulse or phenomenon of the human mind or body and you will find, in one spiritual guidebook or another, an explanation for it that instantly converts it to confirmatory evidence for whatever deity or tradition is being sold at the moment.  It would seem that just below our primal social and sexual impulses we are natural marketers.  From our early shamanism to the religions that developed as we became agricultural (and had to find ways to live together in ever larger and more complex non-kin-related groups) religion has found fertile soil in the human psyche.  But, then, how would we expect anything else from a system of ideas that evolved under conditions of cognitive natural selection as surely as birds evolved feathers and we evolved from fish?

And so it would seem that a great deal of my journey (in these last few years) has not been to acquire new territory as much as it has been to systematically disentangle the tendrils of religious associations from the behaviors that are natural to a mammal (that has a body and a multi-layered consciousness such as we humans do).  To borrow from the parable quoted above, I had to wait for the harvest to separate the tares from the wheat.

I can now recognize that what a Buddhist or Muslim or Christian or Jew does when they pray is the exact same thing that I do when I talk to myself.  The only difference between us is that they think that they are praying to an external God (or spirit or saint or the universe).  But observed on the level of behavior (and, I should add, outcome) it’s all the same.  That may bother believers, but it no longer bothers me.  I am satisfied that I now finally know who and what it is I am praying to: my own consciousness.  And every part of that conversation (save for the sound waves that travel from my mouth to my ears) takes place within the confines of my physical body.  No more, no less.

One of the major themes of my “preaching” is that this understanding takes nothing away from the wonder and magic of prayer.  Because what prayer actually is is a process of making the thoughts of my waking brain (which is informed by external stimuli, reason, analytical thought, and the emotions and desires of deeper, non-verbal levels of our consciousness) and vocalizing them so that they can be processed by a different level of that same brain.  This is why prayer works: it takes advantage of the various ways in which different parts of our brain process information (it would appear that auditory input is sent to a different processing center than internal, non-vocalized thought).  To ignore this brain trick would be to cut off one’s nose to spite one’s face, as it were.

I talk to this brain of mine out loud because I have learned from experience that it will actually “answer” me, help me find my keys, help to make things happen that I want to make happen, etc.  What I have also learned, however, is that — despite the hubristic claims of the worst of the spiritual hucksters — my mind has no power to make anything happen remotely (to effect events in other locations).  It is a purely local, internalized phenomenon.  (Believing we are capable of anything else takes us immediately into the realm of metaphysics or the “super” natural.  Something for which I find no evidence).

So you could fairly say that I talk to God all the time, and God hears me, and God answers my prayers.  Only I understand that the voice I hear is really coming from a location in my own consciousness that exists at a level that is accessible by language.  This can be hard for a believer to accept, because it would mean that their religion is but one brand name of a product sold under many other labels (and it is certainly not welcome news to the marketeers of those brands!).  And — perhaps more importantly — it means that all of the advantages of prayer are not reserved by God for the faithful alone, but are available, as it were, in their “generic” form to all.

But, then, this is where a proper understanding of what we really are as evolved mammals can, I think, make us better humans.  Stripping prayer of the impossible religious promises of mountain moving, for instance, doesn’t take anything away from us (except maybe a bit of hollow boastfulness), and removing a fictional God as the source of our supplication does not, in the end, lessen the effectiveness of our prayers.  For what was there to begin with is still there, right inside our bony skulls: the field where the tares and wheat of our awareness ripen — our own multi-leveled consciousness.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Looking at My Own Species” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, November 18th, 2012
The not-so-reverend bob…pondering.

As I continue to explore the implications of a science-based view of existence, I want to consider an issue I might classify as “quietly dramatic” — the way in which a materialistic perspective shapes my view of my own species.

If the survey numbers are to be believed (and I have no reason to doubt them), then it would appear that most of our species believes in the existence of a personal, active, supernatural deity that had either everything (or a great deal) to do with “creating” our planet, the solar system, the universe and, well, us.

This is not news.  Most of the people I know believe in some form of spirituality, whether it be the traditional God or a more diffuse form of cosmic intelligence that is capable of acting on our behalf.

And although some would disagree with me, I take the considered stand that there is nothing in the discoveries of science that would support either of these notions.  Of course you would be correct to point out to me (should you want to) that neither is there anything in the realm of science that can completely disprove those same spiritual notions.  Agreed.  But if we were to make a chart of two columns with one being “Evidence for PURELY NATURAL causes of just about EVERYTHING” and the other for “Evidence for EXTERNAL, SPIRITUAL causes of EVERYTHING (or, well, anything)”, then column 1 would be packed with a lot (if not all) of scientific discovery, and column 2 would be empty (I’m talking about actual evidence here, not our personal subjective experiences that we often interpret as being “divine” in origin).

In response to this evidentiary imbalance, there has arisen the “non-overlapping magisterium” argument that allows for two different “types” of data to be applied to two different “kinds” of reality.  This argument rests on the assumption that spiritual phenomenon exist outside of the natural world and are, therefore, impossible to measure by any of the tools of science.  This is at best a polite fiction, I think, as it allows us to have slices of our scientific and spiritual cake on the same plate, as it were.  But I don’t think this argument holds up to “modern” reality.  And even if the notion of spirituality occupying a realm beyond the reach of science were a tenable position in the past, I think it is becoming more and more difficult to sustain in the face of continuing scientific discovery.

All of which leaves one such as myself in the rather awkward position of dealing with the reality that not just a few, but most of my fellow humans believe (often rather deeply) in completely imaginary things.

How can this be?  Especially taking into account the rather high esteem we have for ourselves in the “great chain of being”?

Consider for a moment the age you and I live in, for we live in a time that is unique in human history.  Not just because we can look up cat videos on YouTube, but because we are the first generation to know so much incredible factual information about where we came from.  Seriously: every week there is an article trumpeting new discoveries about the origins and evolution of life on earth.  I read a steady stream of newly-published books (written for a general audience) that work at explaining the mind-bending wonders of how our planet was formed, or what the latest fossils are suggesting about the meandering course of the natural selection that eventually produced birds from dinosaurs and humans from fish.

But at the same time, there is not simply (an understandable) ignorance in the face of this flood of ever-surprising discovery, but determined resistance to new conceptions about ourselves that is organized, well-funded and determined.  These “push-back” campaigns from religious groups employ the rather frightening tactic of attacking the credibility of the very foundations of the scientific method.  In a sense they attempt to portray scientifically-gleaned evidence as nothing better than one godless human’s perverted opinion.  And it’s working.  Clearly, despite their professed belief that the ways of God are beyond science, science itself must be silenced because of the (actual and perceived) impact it is having on the foundations of religious belief.

Mostly we see this in the “climate change” debate.  This is less a true debate than a bunch of actual scientists on one side, and a bunch of commercial interests and believers in personal liberty and religious fundamentalism on the other whose beliefs determine the reality they are willing to accept.  The religious, at least, see science as the evil opposite of themselves, making the huge mistake of taking faith in religion to be the intellectual equivalent of faith in careful science.  But their arguments find fertile ground in the minds of millions of Americans.  Americans that have some understanding of their religion, but less understanding of science.

In the ancient battle between competing religious mythologies, science — actual science — is regarded as no more than a new myth-on-the-block.

And in this is the disquieting implication that the majority of our fellow humans who are living their lives, making decisions about who they elect to office (and the issues that they subsequently badger their elected officials about) are profoundly ignorant of the actual physical reality of their lives and the world we live in.  And it would appear that in this ignorance irrational belief not only persists, but prospers.

And so it becomes tricky to figure out just how to view these, my fellow humans.  Our species has produced (and continues to produce) stunning examples of artistic beauty, technical prowess, sheer courage, generosity of spirit, philosophical insight and scientific discovery.  And yet we are also a species of tribal warfare, ignorant fear, short-sighted selfishness and appalling cruelty.

Though the religious would disagree with me on this, it’s clear to me that, on the spiritual side, there is more heavy lifting to do to explain the mysterious disparity between our species’ highs and lows, especially when humans are held to be the special creation of an all-knowing deity.  On the scientific side, reality is accepted — as it is — as a problem to be studied that will (one hopes) yield more and more answers and explanations over time.   But for all of us, there is only the one reality of our existence on this planet, a reality that carries with it the ever-present potential for great achievement, or the bubbling over of our darker ingredients into human-generated chaos or social upheaval.

For me, a scientific, materialist view of my species gives me the comfort of recognizing and understanding a certain physical reality, and frees me from any added angst of layered-on spiritual mysteries.  But on the other hand, it also lays bare the incredible difficulty of tackling the profound challenge it would be to eliminate evil, say, from the world, especially when most of my fellow humans believe in the existence of an invisible mystery — a belief that actually inhibits the capacity to rationally interpret reality.  In truth, the real challenge, then, is much greater than the imagined spiritual one (which God is going to take care of anyway, once he makes a “new” heaven and earth).  And so I think that the materialist can not, in the end, be in any way accused of taking the “easy” way out.  Believers in God may think that non-believers have taken a lazy short-cut, (and have therefore earned some extra punishment in the afterlife) but, really, I don’t think they know what the hell they’re talking about.

To be honest about it, I’d have to say that eliminating God from the picture (though it has, for me, deeply affirmed my “right” to existence) reveals life on Earth to be a bit, well, tenuous.  And though life itself will likely go on for a long, long time, that doesn’t mean that we humans will.

There is only one reality, and it is a natural one.  So the true difference between spirituality and materialism is perspective, and the way our different sets of perceptions color our view of the one reality that we all share.  It is less and less of a mystery to me why we humans are so damn religious, and why so few choose to go it “alone” without the comforts of irrational belief.  In a way I feel a bit the detached scientist studying a curious and fascinating species, only with the sometimes unsettling awareness that I am one of that same species.  Good and bad, high and low, I have met the humans, and they are us: Noble and petty, rational and cuckoo, the most impressive and maddening life form to have evolved in the last few billion years.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Fairness in the Universe” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, November 11th, 2012

What is fair?  Definitions of “fairness” include adherence to rules or codes of conduct, or deciding issues without bias.  Like any other concept, it requires reference to something else for its definition (such as the color blue being described as the color of the daytime sky).  But how would we explain fairness (or “blue”) to a being who had no points of reference in common with us?

We act as if there is a Cosmic Standards Office which maintains an unchangeable set of rules and guidelines for us humans to follow.  We can therefore switch to immediate outrage when societal rules are broken or flaunted, and yet we all rationalize our own infractions, be they small or large.  We shout for justice, and hope that our own actions pass by unpunished.

God, of course, has traditionally been seen as the Chief Guardian of the laws of morality.  And yet there is certainly just as much variance in moral behavior in God’s followers as in the general population. Whatever the power of faith, that power is most certainly limited or, at the least, diffuse in its ability to influence the world at large.

But what if there is no God to keep of the rules?  No-one manning the phones at the Cosmic Standards Office?  What does that mean for our idea of “fairness”?  The believer in God would tell you that it means everything, for without God, there is no morality (and, in fact, according to more fundamentalist believers, no reason to be moral at all)!  This is a rather dramatic view, I think, but I can understand that some would take it rather hard were God to be proven a false idea, and would therefore take everything that they had heretofore associated with that false God to be worthy of scorn.

Fairness, then, would become a meaningless, abandoned notion (to those holding such a view).  But only because we have associated the idea of ethical behavior with God — as its ultimate source — in the first place.  The advantage of an evolutionary view of life is that we can see morality for the evolved social system that it is, independent of the idea of God (except insofar as some of the codification of human morality has become an industry of religion).

If science is correct, and we have, in fact, evolved over millions of years from earlier life forms, then it is highly unlikely that there is a C.S.O. to back up any of our moral claims.  And yet, morality exists, for we humans are most assuredly highly sensitive to behaviors that we see as “unfair”.  The existence of social mores and codes is not mysterious to the scientifically minded.  We are, after all, profoundly social animals, and we can observe versions of “our” moral behavior in other social animals, including our primate cousins.

We (naturally, I think) judge the social behavior of other animals by our own standards, always in reference to their difference from (or similarity to) our own.  We wonder why the cheetah “cheats”, or the chimp “steals”.  (But, then, we wonder why we humans cheat and steal and murder and lie)!  And so we have had to add to “God the Lawgiver” “God the Ultimate Enforcer” who has, for his own reasons, left us to duke it out with each other until he finally steps in (at the “last days”) and invites all the good (moral) humans to move into his eternal gated community where the riffraff will be kept out with pointy barbs and eternal hellfire.

(Clearly, the immoral behavior of others of our own species really troubles us, otherwise, we would never have come up with such severe and lasting divine punishments for our enemies).

As I’ve said before, one of the most remarkable facts of the removal of God from the question of human morality is how little impact it really has on that morality. That’s because the major force keeping you and me in line is the social pressure from other humans, not divine punishment.  Even the power of the police rests partly in the potential shame and public censure that would come from an arrest or conviction.  Professional criminals and psychopathic individuals aren’t bothered by the embarrassments that terrify the rest of us.  But as Giulia Sissa says (in”Sex and Sensuality in the Ancient World” — reviewed this blog), “Those that cannot blush do not belong to a community”.

And there is the thing: most of us do belong to a community, be it a family, a company, a church, a social organization, you name it.  In fact, most of us belong to a number of such communities at the same time.  And needing each other as much as we do (whether we like to admit it or not), we are constantly measuring our behavior, whether it be our words or actions, according to how much of our personal desire we can express and according to the potential for positive or negative feedback from our social groups (or partner).  We have brains that are finely tuned to the slightest nuance in expression or tone from whoever we are engaging with.  We burn a lot of calories keeping our place in the troop, as it were.

And fairness is one of those things that we appeal to in such situations.  We want to be treated fairly (especially when we aren’t getting what we think is our due), and it’s often hard for us to give up that little bit extra we really wanted to keep for ourselves in order to be seen as being fair to others.  But we all understand that exhibiting fairness is one of the lubricants to our social “rubbing along” together.

But the cold, hard reality that confronts us is that there is no fairness in the universe, except where we (and the other social animals) have put it in place.  There is balance in nature, yes, but only as a result of natural forces tending toward a sort of active equilibrium, but this is far from our notion of fairness as it would exist in the mind of an all-knowing conscious (and heavenly) being.

This is hard for us to consider, having such a long history of assuming that God is behind everything.  And though the idea that morality could even exist without God is unthinkable to many believers in God, the reality is that it does, in fact, exist.  It exists because we exist.

This is not an example of making “man” out to be “God”.  That’s just silly.  For I am not elevating man to the status of the divine, I am simply eliminating the divine from the discussion as being irrelevant to the matter under discussion.  And though humankind is not thereby exhalted to Heaven, we are, I think, lifted up a bit to a more proper place as author and keeper of our morality and ethics.

And let’s be honest: moral codes are a moving target.  They change over time and are loaded with more exemptions than a corporate tax return.  Morality is, in practice, a sort of averaging out of viewpoints that we all loosely ascribe to.  It is constantly tested, affirmed by judges and juries, or altered by courts and shifting public opinion.  (In this, it is similar to the “balances” we see in nature).  All that religion does is mark a line in the sand that is nothing but an agreement to hold fast at some arbitrary date in history when such-and-such was worthy of a public flogging.

Does this make morality (and our sense of fairness) meaningless?  Of course not.  It makes it nothing other than what it has always been: the social codes supported by a particular society at a particular time.

The advantage of Humanism over religion is that Humanism recognizes that morality is our own affair, which then allows us to direct our energies toward using reason and evidence to make the rules as useful and beneficial to as many humans as possible.  It removes the idea of God’s immovable goalposts (which were never really immovable), and replaces them with the recognition of the evolutionary nature of morality.

To be human is to be fair, and to be fair is to be human (or an ape or a whale or an elephant).  We should give ourselves credit for introducing the idea into the universe, even though the universe is annoyingly incapable of appreciating this remarkable fact.

t.n.s.r. bob

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

 

SERMON: “Space Between My Ears” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, August 12th, 2012
Detail of the asteroid in the Tombaugh Elementary School murals. By Bob Diven.

It’s been an unusually busy Summer of work over at my “day job” (that of an independent artist).  I just completed about 1400 square feet of mural for a local elementary school (the school is named after the well-known astronomer Clyde W. Tombaugh — “the discoverer of Pluto”).  Now I know just enough about astronomy to know that any attempt to show planets, stars, spacecraft and such in any realistic distance relationship would be madness to an artist attempting to create a visually arresting work of art (even the “near” objects in our own solar system are so damned far away it is mind-boggling).  So I just put things where I wanted them: some extremely (and dramatically) “close up”, and others not-so-close up.

I’m expecting criticism from actual astronomers, but that’s okay.  I understand there is a difference between the “art” I created and what I might actually see if I were able to travel across the incredible distances of space.

But — like everything else about our existence — we don’t actually picture the universe as it is (vast distances filled mostly with, well, “dark stuff”).  When asked to think of the universe, pictures of planets, asteroids, nebulae and star clusters immediately pop into my head.  My mind goes to the details of familiar objects (assisted in no small measure by the fabulous images our national space program has supplied for us to feast on over the last forty years).

The truth I’m after here is that we are surrounded at every turn by realities on a scale that can freeze up our mammalian brains (like shaking an old pinball machine into “tilt” mode).  The latest to challenge my brain is the fact that our planet does not (according to a renowned planetary geologist I know) have the resources to fuel a spacecraft that could possibly reach any other planet that is (potentially or actually) home to life like ours.  And conversely (since we must assume that other planets would be similarly limited, made as they are of the same cosmically-available building materials that our own Earth is) there is not another planet in the entire universe that can reach us.

In short — we may not actually be alone in the universe, but for all practical purposes, we are all alone in the universe.

And I could ask which is more mind-blowing: the fact that there is a statistical probability that there are other planets similarly placed and gifted like ours out there that could have evolved life?  Or that we will never, ever know about it?

I think about these sorts of things on a regular basis.  (Not all the time, of course, as my brain is as limited as any other human’s, and can only go so far afield before it encounters severe discomfort).  But each time I pick up an interesting rock, I realize that just about any random pebble I might kick off the sidewalk has enough history in it to disprove any young-earth creation theory, and just about every religious creation myth.

Our problem is not a lack of evidence for evolution and the scientific theories regarding biology, the big bang, and everything else: our problem is that we are surrounded by, immersed in, and incapable of escape from the evidence of our ancient and natural origins.  (As a rather glaring and profound example of “evolution in action”, consider the recent reports from the Centers for Disease Control that the Gonorrhea bacterium has been developing resistance to the antibiotics we have be using to treat it!)

Perhaps it is because the evidence has always been with us that we can somehow choose to continue to be blind to it.  We have had our entire history to make up stories about the occasional randomly shaped rock formation or cloud (and have had just the right kind of brains to believe our own stories).  Religion and mystical thought have been with us for as long as we can remember.  Science — true experimental, methodical science — however, has been with us for only a short time, and though we should be praising it for what it has finally revealed to us about the things that concern us most (where did we come from, where are we going, why are we here), instead science is too often treated as a blasphemous crusade led by greedy, godless villains in lab coats.

We humans are brilliant idiots.  We are clearly the most clever and innovative animals to ever populate the earth, yet in some ways we “deserve” whatever eventual extinction awaits us.  But then, we also “deserve” whatever life we have while we have it.  After all, each of us that is here today is a survivor of the eons-long struggle for existence that began with the very first living organism on the planet.  Within your DNA is that unbroken thread that has stretched through millions — hundreds of millions — of years, and is living and reproducing and mutating and adapting still.

And that knowledge alone is enough to blow another circuit in the brain.

A wide view of the North wall of the Tombaugh Elementary School Murals. By Bob Diven.

In reality, the vastness of space is no more difficult to fully comprehend than is the biology of our own bodies.  Both are impossible.  But we can achieve a certain understanding if we’ll try.  If we can open our brain up a little bit to ponder things (that we know from the start we will not completely grasp) we can, eventually, come to terms with our place in the cosmos.

There are vast swaths of our own galaxy that we will never penetrate with telescope or spacecraft.  There are questions about our own animal evolution that will never be answered (we are never going to amass and confirm, for instance, a collection of all of the fossilized animals in our direct line — and anyone who insists on these kinds of results from science is a fool).  The fact is that we know enough –  no: we know way more than enough — to see what we truly are: evolved animals on a small planet that is off in one corner of a single galaxy swimming in a sea of other galaxies in a universe that is still expanding from an explosion that began billions of years ago.

That is enough wonder for me.  Next to that reality, the idea of an all-knowing, all-powerful God is just, well, not worth considering.  The creation stories of religion lose all of their explanatory appeal when compared with the reality of our actual “creation”, and have therefore long ago lost any scientific credibility (though they retain a certain narrative and historical richness).

As for me, I choose to live a life enriched by the knowledge that so many scientists have worked so hard to bring to me.  I don’t care that every experiment has not produced perfect results, or that scientists don’t always get it right, because the process of science is valid and is, it turns out, the best thing we humans have come up with to determine reality.  And even that very human-scale achievement blows my mind.  Again and again.

t.n.s.r. bob

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

Sunday, July 22nd, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

t.n.s.r. bob

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

Sunday, June 3rd, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

t.n.s.r. bob