Posts Tagged ‘human’

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

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “The Great Divide: Nature and Human Nature in the Old World and the New” by Peter Watson

Sunday, January 27th, 2013

GREAT_DIVIDE_COVERThis is a deeply interesting book.  It is both a meditation upon — and a survey of — all that we know about the similarities and differences between the populations of humans that developed their cultures and societies in isolation from each other in the “Old” and “New” worlds.

Soon after humans migrated across the “Bering land bridge” into North America, that overland route was cut off by rising sea levels.  And so the populations of North and South America were cut off from those of Europe, Asia and Africa for some 15,000 years (until the Spanish “discovered” the Americas).  In this impressive book, Peter Watson takes the time to cast a clear eye on the ways in which the different conditions in the two worlds influenced the development of human civilizations, and the differences are dramatic.

Some of this ground has been covered by other authors, to be sure, but the value of this book lies in the synthesis of recorded history with the latest discoveries (which have been numerous, especially regarding ancient cultures such as the Incas).  In short — the Old and New worlds were very different.  The “old” had a broad east-west configuration, allowing the rapid spread of peoples, technologies, crops and ideas.  They also had the horse, and a wide range of useful domseticable animals.  The “new” world ran north and south, with a wide range of elevations, from mountains to ocean beaches, across a broad range of latitude.  Domesticated plants, therefore, were limited in their range.  They also had the llama as their only work animal — no ox or horse to pull a plow or to ride from village to village.

But added into this mix is the remarkable fact that some 80 percent of the worlds hallucinogenic plants occur in the new world.  In addition, South America, especially, was subject to much more extreme weather and geologic events during this historic period: hurricanes, El Nino events, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes.  Put this all together and you have one world where the gods seemed to be perpetually angry, and another where they were somewhat benign.  The ramifications for ritual and society were dramatic.

I won’t spoil the end of the story, but it gives one a truly useful perspective on how human society has developed into the teeming, technologically astute and religious confederation we experience today.

This is a dense book — it took me some time to read it.  But it was worth the time for the knowledge it gave me.

t.n.s.r. bob

The Rev gives is 3.5 out of 4! The Rev gives is 3.5 out of 4!

SERMON: “Wonder Beyond the Veil” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, January 27th, 2013

If you stop to think about it, the fact that I am writing my thoughts into a sentence that you can read and understand is nothing short of amazing.  As far as we can tell, such acts of communication are not occurring anywhere else in our solar system.  And even on our small planet, teeming with life, you and I are members of the only species that reads and writes (though whales and dolphins may very well have their own book-of-the-month club that they are very adept at concealing from us).

We naturally take for granted the things that seem to come naturally to us.  We don’t have the time, frankly, to sit in wonder at every little thing that — were we to see it in its true historical or biological context — would blow our ever-lovin’ mind.  So we spend the time we must learning how to walk and talk and drive and sculpt and dance and compute and then just get on with living our life.

But one of these times while you’re walking from your car into your house, thinking about the next thing on your to-do list, consider what underlies these regular acts that seem so effortless to us.

Walking upright is a good start.  That is quite an evolutionary change for a body of muscle and bone that began as a bacteria that managed to clump together enough to become, eventually, an actual body of a lobe-finned fish that adapted to walking on land, then developed into a small mammal, then a primate and then the upright hominid that was our great great great great grandmother.

And what about the air that flows so easily into your lungs?  It’s easy to think of that air as having no mass at all, but of course it does.  The one-ton weight of the atmosphere over our heads weighs down upon us every moment, but we don’t even notice it.  Our bones and muscles have evolved under that weight (not all of which is, exactly, pressing “down” on us) so that our density and shape and mechanical arrangements are so well suited to air’s “mass” that we only sense when the breeze blows it across our face, or when we stick our hand out the window of our fast-moving car and play our hand against the force of the air compressing in front of it .

This is where creationists stop one step short of a true sense of wonder, and invert reality when they decide to praise God for making the world so perfect for us to live in.  It’s quite the other way around, I’m afraid.  The world was not made for us.  The reality of evolution is that we were “made” for the world that we evolved in, or — more precisely — that we were “made” (evolved) in the world as it already existed.  That is the power of evolution as the result of natural selection: the things that work well in a given environment have a better chance of being preserved in reproducing life forms than those that don’t.

One could argue that the original conditions that were made possible by earth’s particular composition and location in relation to the sun were “made” just for us, but that would be pushing things more than just a bit.  For there is no evidence of intention in anything that exists — other than the animals, like ourselves, that possess consciousness.  What we can say with absolute confidence is that the conditions that came to be on Earth were hospitable to the beginning — and continuation — of biological life.  And knowing — as we now do — just how rare of an occurrence such a state of affairs is in the known universe, it is easy to be overwhelmed with the sheer luck of it all.

But the idea of such cosmic, existential “luck” really bothers a lot of people.  And so there arises in humans a deep cry for intention, and a purpose for our existence that must be rooted in some larger intelligent force.  I hear this from Christian friends who are sincerely baffled by the notion that existence can, well, exist without an intelligent, interested source.  (What they are really concerned about is how one could deal with this reality in an emotional and intellectual sense).   But this impulse toward religious belief is, I believe, an artifact of the way we have mentally and emotionally processed our physical reality over the generations, and has everything to do with our brain-based consciousness and absolutely nothing to do with the physical world.  It is a “software” issue.

Be that as it may, human belief systems are a definite social and cultural reality that is deeply embedded in our intellectual life.  And old ideas die hard.

Speaking up for science in a culture of religious belief, once can feel like a "voice in the wilderness". Speaking up for science in a culture of religious belief, once can feel like a “voice in the wilderness”.

I have often wondered at how religious belief survived the arrival of Darwin’s theory of evolution.  But others have pointed out that the end of the earth-centric view of the universe should have been enough to knock the pins out from under the truth claims of the church.  Right they are.  And I’ve just been reading about the intellectual and spiritual crisis that the discovery of the Americas caused for the Europeans (in “The Great Divide”, reviewed here this week).  For here was an entirely new world (filled with people) that — because the discovery of its existence came with no hint or mention in ancient literature or biblical texts — was completely unexpected and shocking.  It took Europe and the church a few hundred years to really get used to the idea.  And so it goes.

Every new scientific discovery erodes ancient religious claims about our physical reality.  I think that is indisputable (at least in a general sense).  But, seen anthropologically, this is not surprising: almost all of our early philosophy and religious ideology was developed in a context of deep ignorance of the inner workings of biology, cosmology and geology.  Fortunately for us “westerners”, the evolution of Christianity took a course that embraced Greek thought, and led us to the idea that the “one God” was a god who had created a nature that could be understood (as He could be understood) through continuing study (Islam — and the shamanistic religions of other cultures — held that all that could be known had already been revealed in holy books, and to seek additional knowledge was to blaspheme).

In this way, the evolution of thought in the “Old World” of Europe and Asia was open to the discoveries of science, at least until those discoveries began to bring the revealed wisdom of scripture into question.  But by then the cat was out of the bag, as it were, and, despite the excommunications and heresy trials, scientific discovery has became our primary source for reliable knowledge about reality.

Be that as it may, actual non-believers (in God or in “divine purpose” generally) remain the minority, even in America.  Most people believe in God.  And most of those believers, whether they realize it or not, tacitly accept as true scientific descriptions of the world they inhabit, without realizing the profound implications of those scientific truths.  The result being that the majority of humans, to my mind, take for granted the true miracle of their existence as a thinking, feeling, personality in a discreet physical body living on a planet hospitable to such an existence.  No, to them a wonder of this magnitude (if they give it a thought) is not nearly enough.  They require (for their sense of well-being) that there be a single great god of the universe who is just like them, and who, despite all of his necessarily awesome responsibilities and powers, must reliably bend an ear to any individual’s urgent prayer request for a good parking spot at the mall.

But the rather amazing (and counter-intuitive) point of all of this should be plain by now: the believer in God, by holding fast to a religious view of existence, actually limits their capacity to experience the true awe of seeing creation for what it really is: an expanding universe of a scale we cannot truly comprehend; a tiny, blue planet of water and air and elements born in exploding stars; the continuous, persistent non-random selection from random genetic changes that, over time (and under changing environmental pressures), transforms a bacteria into a fish, a fish into a mammal, and mammals into elephants and whales and humans that, after millions of years develop language and then an alphabet and then the technology that allows this one human to write his thoughts for other humans to read and understand.

In the larger scheme of things, one has to ask, what does it matter if people believe in God or angels (or fairies in the garden, for that matter)?  It’s not like adults playing pretend or believing in magic is going to slow or speed the final, fatal blossoming of our sun, or the eventual contraction of our universe.  No — we are blessedly powerless on those scales.  But where we are powerful is in our effect on the quality of our own lives, and, potentially, the lives of others.

And so it’s none of my business if one of my fellow humans is comfortable in a world governed by a god of their choosing.  But when so many live in that kind of world, one has to speak up for that which is obscured by the veils of religious belief.  There was a time in the evolution of religion that called for a “voice in the wilderness”, a “John the Baptist”.  What’s needed now is more “John the Scientists” to stand by the doorway that science has opened for us in the wall of human ignorance, pointing the way to the unseen wonders that await beyond.

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

Sunday, July 8th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, March 18th, 2012

There are ideas to which we offer safe harbor that we never really think about.  One of the most persistent, to my mind, is the craving for ease.  Specifically I’m thinking about our passed-down notions of what Heaven would be like: there will be no more death, no more sadness, no more hunger, and we will all (well, the pre-qualified all, that is) have everything that we could ever need without having to work, trade or ask for it.

Taking, for a moment, a step back from this cherished chestnut, what are the most obvious implications of this idea?  The first that comes to mind is that anything less than Heaven is somehow iniquitous.  That change (particularly actual physical change) is bad.  It seems to be a common thread in religious belief that there is — underlying all physical reality — a certain unchanging (in fact unchangeable) forged-in-iron, carved-in-stone TRUTH, and that Heaven is the certain logical perfection of a deeply-flawed temporal existence.

Once again I run into something I’ve come to understand about certain religious beliefs: the major problem with the concept of Heaven is not the obvious one (that it is not true), but that is in, in a very fundamental way, a profoundly pernicious denial of reality.  The very idea that the teeming, complex, frenetic activity of life is a condition that Heaven will put right by bringing everything to an eternal stasis is — as has been pointed out by minds greater than my own — not a description of Heaven, but rather of Hell.

One of those truths of life that I resist acknowledging is that the only things that have stopped moving, growing or changing are those that are inert or dead.  (But even then, it’s hard to think of a rock that isn’t undergoing some sort of alteration, be it ever so slowly deep in the earth’s crust or more rapidly, exposed to the erosive effects of wind and weather.  And no life form dies that is not immediately given over to a process of “natural” recycling).

The reality is that our living bodies are a walking, talking, never-ending process of death and renewal as we slough off old skin cells to make way for the new, for example.  Our teeth may be wearing away faster than they can renew, true, and our brains may not be producing loads of new cells but they are, nonetheless, ever creating new pathways and connections that make the mind itself an evolving phenomenon.  Our bodies are constantly repairing damage to our DNA caused by the cosmic rays that pass through us every day, and despite our thoughts to the contrary, we continue to evolve on a species level, as does every other living thing around (and within) us.

We are physical animals in a physical world.  Despite the scorn we heap upon physical exercise, there is absolutely no denying that we require a certain amount of activity to remain mentally and physically fit.  (It could be argued that there is much about our current levels of obesity, depression and anxiety that could be dramatically reduced if we human animals would just use our bodies as more than passive receptacles for technology and industrialized foods).

(As I’ve said before, we are not so different from the bears and tigers in the local zoo pacing off their boredom: we evolved in a physically-challenging environment.  Life in the wild may not be safe or secure, but it certainly is stimulating and tends to keep any and all animals in top form).

We humans are remarkable if for no other reason than we have developed the mental power — and through it the technological skill — to bring about the kind of reality the cold, frightened, hungry animal that we were for millennia could only dream of.

But somewhere in the Middle East, some thousands of years ago, one poor, hungry and tired soul penned an idea of Heaven as having “streets paved with gold” and rivers flowing with “milk and honey”.  We parrot these ideas in countless sermons in countless churches and Bible studies, but how many of us would actually choose gold streets and sweetened milk as our idea of an ultimate reward of comfort and ease?  But this is how we are with ideas of Heaven (be they religious or otherwise): we use them as tools to endure present distress more than as actual templates of a world we might want to inhabit, and, therefore, they need not be, well, practical nor even desirable.

And yet we have created a world with incredible ease for ourselves.  Hell, we weren’t happy with just creating an electronic device that brought the world’s best entertainers into our living room, someone designed a small plastic device that meant we didn’t even have to cross the room to turn the damn thing on.  And now we have our favorite shows on DVD, which allows us to exercise mastery over time and space as we watch them until we’re sated, skip ahead, or repeat a favorite scene.  (I don’t know about you, but too much of that, and I find myself with sudden urges to replay reality when I miss a moment in time!).

And though I am low-income by American standards, I am so loaded with goods and technology compared to the rest of the globe’s population (not to mention the mass of humanity that lived and died owning practically nothing we would consider valuable) that I have little choice but to see myself as “rich” by human standards.

But all wealth and ease is relative, isn’t it?  I heard a joke on the radio today about what is the perfect income for a trader on Wall Street.  The answer?  “A dollar more than anybody else is getting!”.

We know now from studies that we humans are so adaptive that any increase in income or the acquisition of new goods and comforts will only elevate our happiness for a very short time (hours, perhaps days), and we’ll then go on pretty much as we did before.  Some of us answer this challenge with non-stop acquisition (a trait we seem to grudgingly admire in those who can pull it off)!

But leaving aside the vapid morality of such an approach, that behavior is not simply an expression of being “spoiled” or “out of touch”, but actually returns us to our inner animal that evolved, frankly, in a challenging natural environment that required our rapidly evolving large brains to survive: having evolved with the stimulating challenge of survival, we still crave the stimulation that our natural environment no longer supplies in its most raw form.  What has happened to our species over a very few hundreds of years is that our technology has jumped us forward much faster than our Ice Age bodies and minds can handle.  In a very real sense, we have lost our way by following the technology we have been able to create, and find ourselves using our technology more and more to tickle our bored brains.

Now I’m no Luddite: I think the only way forward for us is, well, forward.  Even were we able to convince ourselves of the attainability of some mythical past “Golden Age”, we couldn’t get there.  (But neither am I fooled by the new technological utopians who have become their own priestly class, accumulating vast wealth from their impoverished parishioners).

Like it or not, history is something that is always happening to us right now, and we have only the option of facing it with the knowledge and tools that we have as it happens.  There is no template, no plan, no ideal other than the ones we ourselves conceive of.  And, that being said, there is also no Heaven in our future.  There is only the Heaven (or the Hell) that we are all part of creating in the (very real) here and now.

All that we humans can do is do our best to negotiate the present in ways that make us feel good about the way we’re going about it.  In general, that means living lives that create a bit more good than bad in the world (not always an easy result to quantify) while acknowledging the actual physical, temporal animals that we are.  We all understand this.  And we all know that there are times when life’s challenges swamp our capacity to face them with good cheer or even hope.  These are the moments we pray for a Heaven of ease (or a Hell to punish those that do bad things to us and to others).

But these are wishes to get us through the rough spots, not realities we should ever really want to see come to pass.  Besides, we are such adaptive animals that a few days of Heaven would soon have us wondering if they weren’t having a bit more fun down in the more challenging Hell.

In reality, every moment spent on “Heaven” is a moment wasted here on earth.

t.n.s.r. bob


Sunday, November 20th, 2011

Originally broadcast in 2010 on PBS, this series is now available on-line.  Hosted by Alan Alda, it documents a quest for a clear understanding of just what it is that makes us humans uniquely, well, human.

This is an entertaining and deeply interesting series in three parts.  What I found very interesting was the two schools of thought that were given equal representation: the one being that we are very similar to our primate cousins, and the other that we are profoundly different from them.  Of course, both are true in a sense, but it is really intriguing to see just what a difference the two philosophical starting points can make when interpreting data.

Alda is a good host, as he is clearly and genuinely curious about the subject himself.  I found it very worth watching, and I would watch it again given the chance.

t.n.s.r. bob

The rev gives it four Dimetrodons out of four!