Posts Tagged ‘humanism’

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

CARTOONS FROM THE REV

Sunday, January 13th, 2013
My buddy sent me this t-shirt as a gift, but raptors, it turns out, can't really take a joke. My buddy sent me this t-shirt as a gift, but raptors, it turns out, can’t really take a joke.

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: “Get Wisdom” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, January 6th, 2013

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

It occurs to me that if all that mattered was truth (that could be verified by reliable experiment) then religious belief would have died out a long time ago.

Saying something like that reveals several assumptions, however.

The first assumption would be, naturally, that we humans were purely rational creatures.  And despite how often we try appeal to our fellow humans’ rational minds, it seems like even the most hopeful rationalists would have to recognize that this marvelously analytical part of our brain is not the major force of our evolved consciousness.  (For more on this, read “The Righteous Mind”, reviewed this blog).  Any psychologist will tell you that once the fight or flight (fearful) parts of our consciousness are triggered, calm, rational behavior is nowhere to be seen (though it could be argued that fleeing on adrenaline soaked legs is a highly rational act when the danger is life-threatening — but that’s the thing — we generally experience more fear than a given situation truly warrants).

The second assumption would be that the results of scientific experiment (duly tested and confirmed) could be quickly and evenly distributed to every human on the planet.  (Another underlying assumption would be that every human would already have in place a cultural/mental construct that was receptive to scientific evidence — meaning the evidence would be accepted as credible.  But we don’t have to look far in our own circle of friends to see that even in our individual communities there is not a truly homogenous landscape of equally educated and acculturated minds).

Yes, I love science. Yes, I love science.

One of the realities of the society I see around me is that there exists only a percentage of people who are sufficiently curious about reality to happily “change” their mind when a new scientific experiment proves that an idea they held was now known to be incorrect.

I often get comments along the lines of “people’s minds are made up”, or “you’re preaching to the choir”, which are all ways of recognizing that the part of our minds where beliefs are formed is understandably conservative.  After all, the things we believe most deeply are also most likely to have a direct bearing on our survival in a seemingly capricious natural world.  (This is likely the basis for our sliding scale of trust — where we are most likely to believe someone who is our closest kin, and least likely to believe something a stranger tells us).

And being the profoundly social animals that we are, we are also natural believers.  As we learn more about how our brains operate, it has become clear that we believe first, then analyze and question after.  Meaning that once we take in a statement as “true” (from someone high up on our “trust hierarchy”) the odds of us taking the difficult extra steps that would lead to deleting that item from our “truth” list are pretty low.  (For more on this, see “Blink”, reviewed this blog).

And so we have millions of humans walking around with a mix of internalized beliefs, most of which have been acquired from friends and family, but some of which have come from other sources.  And sometimes that other source is science.

I consider us fortunate that newspapers, magazines and television programs regularly feature interesting science stories.  Every other week there is featured a tale of some new dinosaur discovery, or the latest theory on Neanderthal behavior, or the analysis of new images from a space probe.  This information — even if not taken in directly by the less-curious — can enter the consciousness of individuals by a process of “cultural percolation”.  (When I listen to Christian preachers on the radio, it is revealing just how many times they quote science when it appears to support whatever spiritual point they are making).

The upshot of this is that there are very few living humans who still believe that the sun revolves around the earth, or that diseases are caused by evil spirits.  However…I have to be cautious here.  Because even among those that have some passing acceptance (if not understanding) of gravity, or evolution, or genetic inheritance there often live, side by side with scientific truth, a whole raft of beliefs that are incompatible with physical reality.  Most often these are quasi- and outright religious beliefs that can range from adherence to great grand-mother’s home remedy for this or that ailment, or a mild superstition that makes them not walk under a ladder, to full-blown beliefs in alien (or angelic) visitation and, of course, the grandaddy of all human beliefs: God.

It seems to me that if we were to take on — as our solemn task — the eradication of irrational belief from the human population, it would immediately take on the shape of brutal human oppression (think of the re-education camps of Communist governments, or the Spanish Inquisition).  And this is where the difference between a humanist and a fundamentalist religious believer becomes most apparent: even though, as a humanist, I believe that most people would be better off with more truth to counter our natural (and abundant) fear, I shrink from risking real violence to a human psyche to accomplish such an aim by force.  The deeply religious (even if their religion is a particular political ideology) seem to have far fewer qualms in this area.

Though — it should be noted — that American evangelicals (as well as other conservative religionists) do feel as if they are under attack and experiencing oppression from a secular humanist army of atheistic scientists.  I think they are more than mildly overstating their case.

All of this brings me to the realization that I will not live to see irrational religious belief swept by reason into the dustbin of history.  For even though it is abundantly clear that religion is an evolved human activity (that we humans have always been the active agent in creating), and that it is, therefore, not “true” in any evidential sense, religion remains a sort of cognitive and cultural reality and, as such, must be accepted and understood for the phenomenon (and fixture) that it is.  And understanding this shifts my stance a bit from armored crusader to curious fellow human.

This doesn’t mean that I won’t hold my ground to resist aggressive, religiously-motivated cultural foolishness.  Neither does it meant that I’ll stop writing these sermons for those who are like I once was (questioning, or in transition out of, their religion).  Because each of us is part of the quiet “commission” to spread the best truth we can get our hands on, and point out ignorance when it becomes dangerous.

(After all, those who think God is on their side do not think it unseemly to label unbelievers “fools” condemned to Hell, so I hardly think it abusive for me to call them — when appropriate — “incorrect”).

My natural curiosity (an example of the type of brain I possess), combined with life events and circumstance, have conspired to bring me to a place where I am not simply interested in reality, but crave the truth of it.  And science is the single best tool we humans have come up with for determining what is “true” and what is “false”.  Science does not have all of the answers (though it does have the most reliable ones available), and some of the answers we now have will be modified (or discarded) by future discoveries (and I realize that I will die carrying bits of old or incorrect information in my head).  But what matters to me is that I care enough about reality to discard the old when the new arrives.  And for having that kind of brain, I consider myself deeply fortunate.

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

Sunday, October 28th, 2012
The not-so-reverend bob…pondering.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We know, and yet…we still believe.

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

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

t.n.s.r. bob

CARTOONS FROM THE REV

Sunday, September 30th, 2012
I always try to walk a little wide of the ceratopsians.

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

Sunday, September 30th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Brain Seizures” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, July 29th, 2012

I had just dropped my truck off at the garage for a day of repairs, and had enjoyed a twenty minute bike ride back to my office downtown.  As I rounded the corner into my parking lot, I saw before me a truck that looked just like the truck I had just left across town.  But that was not my first thought.

Before I could even have a conscious “thought”, I was having the surreal perceptual (and therefore physical) experience of seeing my truck where I was not expecting to see it.  But this sight was not just the slight surprise of the unexpected, no: what was presented to my eyes was so far outside the range of pictures that my predictive brain was prepared to see in that moment that my brain kind of seized up.

I kept looking at that little gray truck — again and again — searching out the details.  I noticed the shape of the truck and the color first — both perfect matches for mine.  My eye then shifted to the details.  It had the same model nameplate.  I then looked for the black bed liner, and at first saw none, but then noticed what seemed like a line of old adhesive where one might have once been secured (which meant that my brain could not easily judge this bit of evidence).  I had to look at this detail at least three times before I was able to satisfy my brain’s aggressive impulse to see this as my truck, parked as it was in a space that mine frequently occupies.

I had never seen this truck in this parking lot before, and it wasn’t a regular visitor to my neighborhood (though I may have seen it around town — I have noticed at least one similar truck to mine on one or two occasions over as many years).

One (or both) of the two animals in this picture is very likely having difficulty processing a rather convincing delusion!

All of these things combined in that one confusing moment to set my brain to wanting to believe that this was my truck (or to figure out how it had gotten here — no matter the physical impossibility of such a thing occurring).  This impulse toward belief was powerful enough to (temporarily) completely suppress the rational part of my brain that clearly remembered having left my truck half way across town only a few minutes before!

As I got off my bike and walked into my office, I was still feeling the aftereffects of my brain struggling to deconstruct the vision of my quantum truck that was in two places at one time (or else changed location in some dramatic manner while I was riding my bike along a route different than that my magical truck took).

It’s incredibly interesting to have cognitive experiences like this, especially when one can be aware enough of it as it’s happening (or very soon after) to ponder it.  (It is akin, I think, to lucid dreaming, where one gets the rare opportunity to watch the inner workings of one’s own brain).

In this case, I got to see how it is that the brain can be tricked by unexpectedly familiar-looking things that aren’t where they are supposed to be.  In essence, I had a magical and mystical experience that was all based on a perfect mini-storm of the right amount of sensory inputs and a minor processing error in my brain.

But I don’t think my experience is an anomaly.  In fact, I think it is a perfectly normal, everyday episode of the kinds of brains we have.  We know, for one thing, that the brain works by constantly creating predictions about what we will see, say, taste or hear next.  This is how we are able to keep up in a fast conversation, or navigate traffic on a freeway.  It is also why we can be surprised (in a pleasing way) by a magician’s trick or the unexpected twist in a comedian’s joke.  It is also why we can be slow to react to the radically unexpected event (think anomalous events like a plane crash or a sudden violent act).  At it’s core — it is part of our evolved skill set for surviving in the physical world: the oblivious walk off of cliffs; the wary do not.  (And what is wariness, but a constant imagining of future events).

The most striking part of my experience with my vehicle’s doppelgänger was the urge toward belief and how that urge was able to suppress reason.  I think this is a perfect demonstration of the natural tendency toward belief that is part and parcel of being human.  After all, it seems to be well demonstrated that we are so profoundly social that we always lean toward believing what others tell us, only engaging our critical faculties after (and even then only when pushed to do so).  Mainly we prefer to believe from the start and keep on believing.  (For a quick overview of how our believing brain works, see this article by Michael Shermer).

That’s what my brain was trying to do — but the data being gathered by my critical, rational brain began to break that “belief” down.

This is like the experience I once described of seeing my dead dad at the Farmers Market (as I was painting on the street on a Saturday morning).  Of course it wasn’t my dad, but I glanced up to see an old man walking away from me who was very similar to my late father in his build, mode of dress and gait.  I merely glimpsed this man and before I knew it I was feeling my heart swell and my throat constrict with emotion.  My analytical mind pretty quickly figured out what was going on, but by then the tears had already jumped to my eyes.  It’s like Malcolm Gladwell explains in” Blink” (reviewed this blog): this middle part of our brain — that part that worked to make sense of “my” truck being in two places at once (or my dead father walking among the living) is where our split-second decisions are made, and the reasoning frontal lobes — in such situations — can only wait for the memo to get passed upstairs (even as our body is already responding to the rapid-fire signaling from the reactive brain).

After years of work — both getting to know it and learning to work with it — I have decided that I have a highly enjoyable brain.  It is creative, agile and an incredible analytical and emotional workhorse for me.  But it has its own quirks and deficits that can, at times, overwhelm me.  Seeing it for the remarkable, evolved organ that it is is the most fruitful way to appreciate it best, I think.  To see it as neither more nor less than it is.  And experiences like that of “seeing” my late father (or my truck) where he (or it) wasn’t is one of those perfect reminders of my own cognitive imperfection.  And with that comes a very humane kind of humility that can, I think, benefit anyone willing to see — and accept — themselves for what they truly are: highly evolved animals with unusually large and complex brains.

t.n.s.r. bob