Posts Tagged ‘irrational belief’

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: “The Mind of God” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, November 25th, 2012

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.  And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.  So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”  (Matthew 10: 29-31, New International Version)

I had my computer bag slung across my shoulder, and a sketchbook in my hand as I closed the truck door.  But as I stepped toward the coffee shop, I was reminded that I’d left a large plastic tub full of laundry in the open bed of my pickup truck.  So I turned around, and walked back to my truck to wrestle the heavy tub of clothing into the cab.  Pausing at the edge of my truck, I made the decision to set my sketchbook on the edge of the truck bed, but to keep the computer bag hanging from my shoulder as I unlocked the front door, lifted the heavy bin of clothes out of the bed and wrestled it into the front seat.  I locked the door, retrieved my sketch book, and resumed my short walk into the coffee shop.

So simple, so everyday, these actions I just described.  It’s the kind of thing we do “without thinking about it”.  But, of course, we do think about it.

For starters, there was a message to my conscious, working brain that reminded me of the laundry I’d earlier put in my truck.  And though I can surmise that this “reminder” was attached to memories of my practice of putting the laundry in the cab (when I’m somewhere I consider high risk for theft), the fact remains that this thought originated in a part of my brain linked to, but not the same as, my “conscious” mind.

Once that “reminder” entered my conscious mind, I paused while my reasoning brain made the rapid calculation of theft risk (in the present circumstance).  That accomplished, I then decided I would turn around and initiate the action.

Then came the calculation about how to best accomplish the task at hand.  What to do with the sketch book in my hand and the heavy bag hanging on my shoulder?  I paused for another moment as I mentally tried out a scenario of grabbing the large plastic bin with the tips of my fingers while still holding the sketchbook in my left hand, but I dismissed that idea as being unnecessarily risky.  That meant I then had to decide where to put the book before finally choosing the flat edge of the truck bed.

Having done that, I unlocked the driver’s side door (though this happened pretty much “without thought” — or, at least, any thought I was aware of).  As I positioned myself to lift the laundry, I had to sense where the weight of my shoulder bag was so as to keep my balance (this I was aware of — to a degree), and then — using the edge of the truck as a brace for my lower body –  prepare to lift the heavy bin in a way that wouldn’t re-injure my dodgy lower back.

All that done, I began to lift the bin, and I felt muscles along my torso tighten to meet the load and allow the energy of my movement to lift the tub of clothes.  It was in this moment of muscle (familiar) movement, as I was swinging the tub into the front seat, that a more abstract thought came into my mind — an idea completely unrelated to the task at hand (made possible by the bit of free space now available to my conscious mind now that all those decisions had been made).  What popped into my head (from yet another part of my brain) was the idea for this sermon, and it occupied my mind to a degree that I had no short-term memory of the final movements of this entire laundry-moving episode!

But then suddenly, it seemed, I realized I had been oblivious to what my body had just been doing with a rather heavy, awkward object, and was only now conscious of walking back into the coffee shop, thinking, once more, about God.

Remarkable.  All of it, really.

What all of this lead me to was a consideration of the “mind” of God.  I think it’s safe to say that the fundamental understanding of how God works in the world is that He is conscious of every single action or process that is occurring (not only on the Earth, but in the entire universe and, well, into whatever “beyond” there is beyond that).  Which would mean that there would seem to be nothing that God does unconsciously (or reflexively).  To trot out that old chestnut, it’s not unlike our idea of how Santa Claus knows whether every child on earth has been bad or good.  Like God, Santa has helpers, of course (in Santa’s case, elves, in God’s case, angels).  But no-one believes that these helpers are doing the thinking for their respective bosses (they are more like Odin’s twin ravens that swooped over the countryside, bringing that ancient Norse god news of his domain).

A “Sparrow” that fell.

But let us consider how the only minds we have experience of actually work.  As my rather prosaic example illustrates, we rely on a multilevelled brain in everything we do.  We tend to think of ourselves as (primarily) the conscious, analytical part of our mind, with the emotional, “gut” part coming in a close second.  And yet “beneath” these two levels are other highly active “brains”.  There is, of course, what we think of as the most basic level, the part that runs all of our “automatic” systems.  This is the part that keeps us breathing, our heart beating, our cells regenerating, our hair and fingernails growing.  This part of the brain is almost like the car we drive that keeps rolling down the highway even while our mind is off thinking about where we’re going to eat lunch.  It demands our attention from time to time (such as when we are ill or injured), and can also be influenced by our higher levels of thinking (we can hold our breath, for example, or use cognitive techniques to calm a pounding heart).  But mostly, it just runs and runs and runs without our input.  Until, of course, it stops (at death).

But “above” this level, there is an incredible, constant volume of communication going on below the level of consciousness.  Take for example the chatter between the nerve endings in the gut and the brain that regulate the myriad processes of our physical bodies and maintain the homeostasis that allows our conscious mind to be thinking about football scores or what color of shirt to wear.

And this is where I’m going with this notion of the “mind of God”.

If there is a God (and if we are truly “made in His image”) than it would stand to reason that the mind of God might operate in the way that our minds do (and every other animal with a brain of any complexity).  In short, God would have a conscious mind that can focus attention in one place at a time, as well as an unconscious mind that reminds him of this or that, and a deeper level of “mind” that sees to the hairs on your head and the sparrow dropping dead from out of the sky (as the verse from Matthew describes at the top of this sermon).  It seems to me that there is no other way the mind of God could possibly work, if it were to work at all in any meaningful, personal way.

But this presents a problem for our usual conception of how our “personal” God engages with His creation.

Think about it like this: imagine, for a moment, if you had to use your frontal lobes to consciously monitor the amount of iron in every single cell in your bloodstream at this moment, as well as the amount of glucose being harvested by your gut from your breakfast, while still keeping your speeding car in the correct lane and planning your work day.  What if, while doing all of this, you also felt it every time a cosmic particle ripped through a strand of your DNA, and you had to then consciously command the correct proteins to repair that damage (about 100 billion solar neutrinos pass through your thumbnail alone every second, according to scientists).  You’d also simultaneously be directing every molecule in your skin as it builds new body hair in every follicle (you have over three million hairs, in case you’re wondering), while also deciding when to command a damaged cell to destroy itself to protect the whole (apoptosis).  You’d also be the “mind” of every bit of bacteria in your body or the flora in your gut as the synapses fired in your brain with each thought (and then had to be re-charged before they could fire again).  And all of this (multiplied by a number that I, frankly, can not even comprehend) while paying attention to all of the things in daily life that already often stretch our capacity to its limits!

Now, imagine the mind of God doing that for every living thing.  For every rock, planet, particle and neutron.  This is what we think God does all of the time for all of eternity, while still having time to hear our prayers at night.

Suddenly I can see God as the old-fashioned hard-working father who feels put upon to have to work like a dog all day at the cosmic office and still be there for his family at night, only much, much, much worse.

Clearly, whoever came up with such a notion of God wasn’t thinking very scientifically.  But, then, when our ideas of God were formed, the workings of our own brains and bodies (and nature and the cosmos, for that matter) were opaque mysteries to us.  The Bible (along with other “ancient” religious texts) is very much a pre-science document.  Sure, we had domesticated crops and animals by then, and were employing primitive medicine, but we were doing all of this in the dark, as it were.  It was all trial and error with no knowledge of the biological processes underlying our occasional lucky outcomes.

And yet this original idea of a personal God persists.  How can that be, especially when each of us can’t help but be aware of just how large and crowded our planet is?  The simplicity of our ideas of God makes sense when we look at the complexity of our own brains, and how they have managed to evolve in a way that does not demand that we think about everything all-of-the-time.  Thanks to the hierarchy of our consciousness, I can be thinking about something else while lifting a bin full of laundry.  So I can rather easily think of the God of the Universe as a close, attentive, personal friend any time I want to, free of the dissonance of the logical barriers to such an idea.  Our minds are very good at filtering out “noise” in order to hear what we want (or need) to hear.  Our survival has depended upon it.

So it would appear that it is because we are so good at filtering that we are also so good at believing in an all-powerful (yet personal) God like we do.  To be honest, we don’t really have the time or mental RAM to try to take in the incredible complexity that not only surrounds us, but that is us.  We are natural “simplifiers”, and so in practice we give little thought to how God might actually do what we so blithely claim that he does.  And there is also good reason to let that be as it is.

Most of us have clear memories of the moment we learned that Santa Claus wasn’t “real” (I apologize deeply to any of my readers who are hearing this news for the first time).  And so, perhaps, having lost Santa, we are doubly loathe to replace the grown-up version (or to even equate the two figures).  We provide diligent support for a child’s belief in Santa (up to the day the truth finally comes out), but then as adults we (just as diligently) extend to each other nearly unending social support for a basic belief in God.  (Religion may come in many flavors and brands, but even the weirder ones still buy into the basic notion of an all-seeing intelligence “up there”).

There is an aspect to this that is actually very human.  If God is, indeed, the more durable adult replacement for childhood belief in the jolly red elf, this points to our need for belief, as well as our creativity in seeing to it that such emotional cognitive needs are met.  (I happen to think that some form of belief is actually quite “natural” to us, having the kind of brains that we do).  People such as I could have little problem with such a state of affairs if it ended there: in the warmth of a pleasurable fantasy.  But as we all know, it often doesn’t, and there are believers who take their belief very seriously in a way that weaponizes faith in a manner that produces more misery than magic.

And this is why I criticize irrational religious belief.  Not to remove the enjoyable experience of magic and wonder, but to ward off  the predatory humans who use our cognitive vulnerability for inhumane ends.  (Those whom — if He were truly paying attention to everything, all of the time — God would be flick off the planet in very short order).

I will never be able to state as absolute fact that God doesn’t exist.  This is a question that science cannot answer.  What I am saying is that our idea of God does not hold up to even a fairly low-level of scrutiny.  Some will argue that this is purely a problem with the limited capacity of humans to comprehend the divine.  But this dodges the question, as the human conception of God is the only product on offer — by their own argument they are admitting that we can know no other God than the one we know.  To me, this is the most profoundly quiet argument against the existence of any spiritual reality of the kind that we humans most often imagine: an omniscient God who’s eye is, nevertheless, truly on the sparrow, and who watches over me and you.

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

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

Sunday, October 7th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

t.n.s.r. bob

The Rev give is two and a half Dimetrodons!

SERMON: “Why Quibble with Religion?” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, September 16th, 2012

 

The not-so-reverend bob.

Perhaps I should not quibble with what people choose to believe about life.  After all, isn’t it remarkable enough that we are able to carry on living our busy lives under the shadow of our own imminent deaths, without demanding that we all view our predicament in the same way?  Why say things that might add to that existential burden?

As one possible answer I might turn to a series of experiments documented in the PBS series “The Human Spark”, where it was shown that a trademark of very young human children is their innate and irresistible urge to show other children how to perform a task that they themselves had just been taught.  We are natural “helpers” in this way.  Perhaps that is why we are natural “evangelists” for everything from religion to the brand of toothpaste that we buy.

We are also naturally curious and deeply social.  Listen to humans talk and it is most often a series of personal stories told one after the other, back and forth (and though women are marked as the most talkative in this regard, just see what happens when you get a group of men swapping “hunting stories”).  We can’t, it seems, get enough of stories about ourselves and each other.

Is all of this simply a justification for my preaching the “gospel” of reason and science?  Of course.  But it is also an explanation.  And explanation is precisely what science offers us.  But is an “explanation” the same as an “answer” when it comes to our most basic existential questions?

Morality and ethics have long been the domain of religion and philosophy.  Science is a rather unwelcome late-comer to that party, and has proved to be a sometimes awkward and ungainly guest.  But I think that is because it has taken some time to come to understand the difference between the questions that religion poses and science answers.

To some these two fields are qualified to answer two different “kinds” of questions (and one shouldn’t even try to answer the other’s).  Hence the popular notion that science and religion occupy non-overlapping magisteria (which is basically a gentlemen’s agreement that where religion leaves off, science takes over, or vice versa).  Which is a way for the old guard of religion to tell late-arriving science to “Keep the hell off my lawn with your beakers and such!”.  In this argument, the truths of the spiritual realm are held to be such that they cannot be measured by mechanical (scientific) means.  They are super-natural, and therefore occupy an entirely different realm than that studied by science (they are, in short, granted an exemption from scientific scrutiny).  The hard scientific view would be that anything that cannot be studied either does not exist or must await the invention of the means to measure it.  (In practice, however, many scientists will publicly, at least, leave religion — and religious claims about reality — alone)

In my view such a fictional divide (often a very polite one) is much more about keeping the peace than it is about any actual dividing line.  It is the position we take to not offend the religious powers that be.  And that, I think, is am important hint at why the divide persists: religion is a powerful force, and folks don’t want to upset it so much that it rears its ugly inquisitional head once more (or on a more prosaic level, they don’t want to offend or hurt the ones they love).

But there is also this: when science first came on the scene (and here I include the social sciences), it began to suss out the causal factors of life and physical reality (and human behavior).  But since such discussions had heretofore been in the realm of religion and philosophy (which is a “why” proposition) the “what” answers of science were naturally taken to be mere justifications for a range of human behaviors that ran afoul of commonly-accepted norms.  This was not acceptable to many.  Take the study of mental illness, for example: suddenly there were biological explanations for aberrant human behavior that did not involve questions of individual moral weakness or possession by devils.  From the very beginning science began to encroach on historically religious grounds if for no other reason than religion had previously produced its own explanations of human behavior and natural phenomenon.  Some sort of conflict was inevitable.

And so there was conflict.  And there still is, despite the obvious achievements of science.  The conflict continues because the encroachment into the magesterium of religion continues.  We now know where the earth and the “heavens” came from.  We know where humans came from.  We understand how morality evolved in social animals like ourselves.  And we know about the genetic foundations of certain physical and mental disorders, on the one hand, and the natural variations in human behaviors (such as homosexuality) on the other.  We haven’t figured everything out — not by a long shot — but we have answered a good deal of the most basic questions to a reliable degree of certainty.  And the answers turn out to be — in every case — better than the religious ones in actually explaining phenomenon.  Religion, it turns out, is really really bad at science.

Religion — being based as it is in history — cannot renew itself through new discoveries the way that science can.  Religion can adapt (as it has with quite a lot of success over the years), or re-form itself under new “brand names”.  But it cannot be a source of new discovery like science can: “new” religions are always a recycling of the one basic religious genome, if you will.  One reason this is true is that science is a study of existence that is based on experiment that can be verified.  Religion is a sort of co-evolved parasite of the human consciousness that maintains a roughly symbiotic relationship with its host.  For it to change radically would be to annihilate itself.  Therefore it can only fight for its survival against the intrusions of science and reason.

It would be easy to say that religion is, therefore, fighting a losing battle.  But that hardly seems to be the case today.  Belief in magic is increasing, even as science shows us more and more of what is really going on behind the wizard’s curtain.  But perhaps the last hope of religion — crap as it is at being science — lies in its hope that science is equally bad at being a religion.

It seems clear — in the popular mind at least– that science has not yet answered the “why” of life with its “what” discoveries (at least to the satisfaction of those used to the answers of religion and myth).  But here is the fulcrum upon which this question tips in favor of science: for perhaps the most important discovery of science has been that there turns out to be no “why” in nature beyond the “what”.  The “what” is, in essence, the only meaningful “why” we have available to us.  There is cause and effect, yes, but once you exclude intelligent terrestrial creatures, the vastness of physical reality that remains is mindless, thoughtless and devoid of the kind of intention that is essential to create a “why”.

Why am I here, then?  Well, on the most basic level, because I’m here.  But who made that happen?  No “one” made it happen.  We have now explained all but a few of the physical processes that led to my existence (a stunning mix of chance and inevitability).  Science adds to that the facts that I am a mammal (a primate) that is a species that evolved from earlier life forms, most of which did not physically resemble me (at least in a superficial way — my ancient body plan was present in my fish ancestors even if my blue eyes and soft hair were not).  The chemicals and minerals and elements of which my body is built are those which were present on the planet I evolved on.  The elements were formed, first, in the death furnaces of ancient stars that were themselves birthed in the “big bang” that began our universe, space and time.

Compare this answer to that given by the first chapter of Genesis for sheer explanatory power.

The religious believer will almost invariably ask at this point: “Okay.  Say that is all true.  Who made it all happen?”  Who?  Who?  At a certain point you come to realize that the question is a switch-up of apples for oranges (or oranges for orangutans).  What single thing about reality justifies the call for an intelligent designer “making” it all happen?  “Why” turns out to be our question, not the universe’s.

In the end, I believe, science provides us answers to the questions that can be answered.  That may sound like I’m leaving wiggle room for religion to answer the “other” questions.  But that is my point: I don’t think there really are any other questions.  If, that is, that we only accept as valid a question for which an answer can actually exist.  A question with no answer would seem to be something else: a trick, a diversion, a waste of time (like Bertrand Russell’s “celestial teapot”).

And that’s where I’ve come to regarding magical metaphysical answers for natural phenomenon: I don’t buy them as answers because I don’t buy them as questions.

Philosophy retains its place as it is the study of the “how” of human thought — the way in which we take reality to heart and make sense of it in our own hearts and minds.  Philosophy, I think, deals with the anguish caused by the question “why”, but does not attempt to answer it.  It accepts that “why” is a part of the way we think — the way we have to find a story to tell to ourselves about the things that happen in our life.

For me, gradually coming to understand that “why” was the wrong question all along did, indeed, help to answer it.  It told me I was asking an unanswerable and, therefore, un-ask-able question.

And once I understood that, I was then freed to find a much more nutritious diet of existential nourishment from science than I ever could from religion.  How?  Because science gives us more than just data.  Understanding that a genetic mutation has set one up for mental illness or heart failure does not make everything alright, for example.  It does, however, offer some hope of helpful scientific and medical intervention to improve one’s chances at a decent life.  But it also does something else that is important to a sentient being: it removes the self-questioning doubt that religion has always placed upon the sick, the odd, the different: it removes the stain of personal sin or failure as a “why”.  And in that sense modern science takes one more giant step into the hallowed temple of religion by offering comfort to the troubled.

Dumping religious dogma in favor of the more trustworthy data of science is a nearly impossible act for many humans.  It can feel like leaving behind something noble, trustworthy and beloved for something cold, confusing and brash.  Something like trading in your familiar horse and buggy for an loud and unfamiliar automobile.  But we are long past the age of scientific “Model A’s”, and those that hold on to ancient buggies when modern, reliable cars are available seem more and more out of step with reality.

Scientific knowledge, it turns out, can offer the religious and philosophical benefits of genuine consolation and comfort without the awkward cognitive price of irrational belief.  We can finally understand the “what”, and stop worrying about the “why”.  And that, I can tell you, is a good place to be.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “One With the Universe” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, September 9th, 2012

After a long Summer that seemed determined to hold Fall at bay for at least another month, a cold front finally rolled in, packing the formerly clear blue sky with puffy low clouds that matured into towering thunderheads by the time evening fell.

The sun set, leaving the sky yet full of diffuse light that illuminated the lowering clouds with tones of soft, cool grays.  I watched the lightning that seemed to ring the city as I drove across town.  After I pulled up to the house where my bi-weekly “poker with the Episcopalians” game was to be held, I got out of my truck and took a moment to stand beneath it all.  I felt the beginnings of a downdraft from an approaching storm, and heard it grow stronger as it blew up the street toward me, rustling the leaves in the still-lush trees.

It was just a simple moment of stillness — where I became still, and the world moved around me.

As I looked up into that sky, and felt the softness of the cool wind on my skin, I became aware that I was a part of it all.  Not in a spiritual, abstract sense, but in a very basic, empirical sense:  Everything about me — every molecule that makes up the living being that is me, the tiniest surge of energy that makes it all move and breathe and think and regenerate — all of it came from the physical world I was beholding, and all of it would return to that world when I died.

I think it’s worth pointing out how qualitatively different this idea is to me than the standard notions of “dust to dust” or “we are one with the universe” (the one having the imbedded purpose of driving man to god and the other making man out to be a part god, both, as it were, either making us less or more than we are).  What I am really talking about is the deep philosophical consolation I have been surprised to find in an understanding of the science of who and what we really are.  Surprising because — according to the proponents of religion — there is no such comfort to be had except in a knowledge of god.  It turns out they couldn’t be more wrong.

Honestly, I have come to the point where this sort of existential awareness is a regular occurrence in my life.  And these occurrences are of a quality to make my previously-held religious (and “spiritual”) conceptions of human value seem rather sad and small in comparison.

This may be the hardest part of all of this to communicate to the religiously-oriented person: that the great spiritual discovery of their lives could well turn out to be only second-best to the power of discovering the actual reality of our existence.  I have to stress this point because to the religious mind anything that smacks of a materialist world view (by that I mean a view that there is nothing about us that is not the product of purely physical processes) is seen as a step backwards — a debasement of God’s creatures.  What these folks fail to understand — what they cannot, in truth, even see — is that this is a preaching based in sheer medieval ignorance (no offense to the Middle Ages!).

The “church”  has been fighting science from day one, and continues that campaign today (with notable exceptions, such as the Catholic church’s acceptance of the theory of evolution).  Even our pervasive “new age” forms of spirituality seem to use science only as a source of serious-sounding terminology to support the silliest of ideas.  (So though there may not be an inquisition-style enforcement squad with the power of capital punishment these days, we certainly don’t have the church to thank for that bit of luck).

The “rev” loving him some science…

We live in a time where the acceptance of the evidence from science is actually being pushed back by a coordinated and active assault from the defenders of religious hegemony.  America is alone among developed nations in its backwardness on this score (right there with Turkey in the percentage of our population that believes God made the world some 10,000 years ago).  This is astounding: we are moving backwards, even as we continue to live in an economy completely dependent on the products of science and science-based research — even as we live lives of a quality and safety made possible only by the discoveries of science and the technology that develops from that knowledge.

I am a materialist.  I don’t believe that an actual external personal god can or does exist.  I understand that we have far too many scientific, physical and electrochemical explanations for any and all of the cognitive phenomenon that we experience as “god” and “spirit” to ever need to invoke god as an explanation for anything of note.  I am in a definite minority in this view.  And though this appeals to the not-so-closeted elitist in me, the rational humanist in me is deeply troubled.

I think we are on an incredibly interesting trajectory as a species that is about to intersect with some other trajectories fairly soon.  As an example, I think that the evidence is clear that we have altered the planet’s climate.  I read enough science to know that the weather of an entire planet is an incredibly complicated thing to get a handle on, so I expect we will have to wait and see what predictions were spot-on, and what things we missed in our calculations.  This also means that even were we to have the brains and the will to seriously confront this impending (or already-upon-us) catastrophe, we would likely have to be very lucky to do all the right things at the right time to correct the problem.

I also read enough history to understand that our planet has experienced many climate fluctuations, some of them mind-bogglingly dramatic (we have been a total “ice planet” before).  But the breezy stupidity of the climate-change deniers (those trapped in their own “belief-dependant reality”) who cite the last ice age as reason to NOT be alarmed is, well, stunning.  It’s like saying that because a hurricane is a natural occurrence, we shouldn’t do anything to prevent thousands of people being killed by one.

And that is where I come back around to the awareness I felt standing under that stormy early-Fall sky.  The demise of me as a living thing is, in many ways, simply a return of all that I am to where it came from, and from whence it will go on for as long of a forever as I care to contemplate.  The same can be said for our species.  We will never kill this planet (our own sun will do that soon enough), and we may not end up having the power to kill off our own species in the near future.  But there will come a time when the intersecting forces of our own population growth, the limits of exploitable resources, and the vicissitudes of nature (or the solar system!) will spell the end of human beings.  We may, like the species we evolved from, carry on and adapt and eventually become something very different from our current selves.  Or we end in an evolutionary cul-de-sac.  One way or another, the age of mammals (and the age of life on Earth) will someday end.

This is not necessarily tragic, any more than it’s a tragedy that trilobites or t-rexes no longer populate the earth.  What matters more, I think, is suffering.  And this is where I think humanism has the upper hand to religious dogma.

Since we can, at best, only lengthen our time here on earth, our ultimate survival should not concern us to the point of a paralysis born of fear.  Being aware, as we are, of our own existence (in a way that no other animal has, to our knowledge, ever been), the task before us should be, I think, to do all that we can to decrease the suffering of our fellow humans.  I think this is a worthy use of our plentiful storehouse of human energy.

If we only have this one life — this single span where we are walking, talking, discreet, self-contained ecosystems of bacteria, bone and skin with this remarkable awareness of our own existence — then shouldn’t we make the most of it for the most that we can?

I have won the existential lottery.  Compared to all but the tiniest percentage of my fellow humans in history, I have lucked out to have this opportunity for an existence loaded with opportunities for pleasure, enjoyment and productivity.  I tremble to think of the pain and misery that has been the lot of most humans in history (or the millions that suffer terribly right now).  I therefore get angry with my fellow humans that act as if they have been as lucky as I have been by right of being chosen by their god, in a way that somehow pardons them from any responsibility to ameliorate the suffering of others of their kind.

But, then, we are tribal primates at our core, and the humanist impulse is a product of human minds with enough time free from terror and disease to contemplate loftier ideas.

If there’s one message I preach, it is to first get over ourselves, and then get on with ourselves — take that step out of our ancient self-centeredness that preserves itself with the cloak of religion, and walk in the sunlight of the reality of our existence that is now available to us in a way that was never available to our ancestors.  Do not resist science, but rather understand it.  Do not resist our terrifying vulnerability, but rather allow that awareness to motivate us toward kindness to ourselves and others.

Thanks to science, we can now see that religion is a rapidly deflating second-best way to view ourselves and the world.  Science is crap as a replacement religion, but perfectly useful as a ladder out of the dark pit of existential ignorance that is at the heart of fundamentalist religious belief.

We are stardust, as Joni MItchell sang, but not in an airy-fairy way.  We are literally bio-chemical systems that can only operate thanks to the way that life evolved to make use of the cosmically-manufactured materials that were available on this planet (the elements that make up that chart we all studied in high school chemistry class were born in the intense deaths of stars) blown out into the universe and collected by gravity here.  That is the dust from which we came, and the dust to which we will return.

Whether that is a satisfactory answer to our desire for a meaning to attach to our existence is rather beside the point.  That is our reality.  We use the promise of Heavenly reward or punishment as justification for moral behavior, but in practice it is just as often used as an excuse to act (or not act) in a humane way in the world.  The bleak existential reality of our lot strips away such notions, and I suppose that many make the calculation that believing in an impossible God at least offers some solace in return.  That’s hard to argue with, I suppose, especially when I understand that the alternative is not necessarily guaranteed to make one happier.

But then I’d rather understand, and have some confidence that I see things as they really are, and thereby live my life in a way that — when it ends — will allow me to be content with the real life that I lived, not the imagined one we never will.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Speaking in Tongues to Santa” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, September 2nd, 2012

I have a memory of the first letter I ever wrote to Santa Claus.  I was probably 5 years old, and had not started school.  I can’t remember all of the details, of course, but I think I asked my mother if I could write Santa, even though I hadn’t yet learned to write.  She assured me that I could, as Santa would understand what I was asking him.

So I put marker to paper, and scribbled lines across the page, filling it with my five-year-old’s in imitation of what writing looked like.

I must have given the note to my mother, as it turned up years later in her collection of things saved from our childhoods (at enough of a remove that I was not angry that she had interfered with the duties of the U.S. Postal Service).

I can’t tell you what I was “asking” for, nor what I actually got from Santa that Christmas.  What I’m remembering is that magical state of mind where I could believe that my secret intentions could be carried by a child’s remote approximation of written language to a special man who would somehow understand what no other could.

By now you may see where I’m going somewhere with this.

The well-known “bridge to life” illustration that sold me on Jesus at the age of thirteen.

When I was thirteen I prayed the prayer shown in the back of a religious “tract” (the well-known “Bridge to Life” tract from The Navigators) and became a Christian.  About a year later I found myself at a Charismatic home prayer meeting, kneeling on the floor, surrounded by fellow believers as I prayed to receive the “Baptism of the Holy Spirit”.  (For those who don’t know, the “sure sign” of the “infilling” of the Holy Spirit is taken to be one’s new-found ability to “speak in tongues”.  This “new” language is believed to be a “secret” language with which the believer can speak his or her innermost needs and desires directly to the Holy Spirit, who is able to interpret them.)

I remember the feeling of that moment, and the burble of the unfamiliar sound of “speaking in tongues” falling on my ear as those who surrounded me prayed to the Holy Spirit on my behalf.  There was an intensity to the moment — a certain forcefulness to the voices so near my ears as they worked (I now understand) to will the Holy Spirit into me.  And soon I began to babble as well, tentatively at first, but then with more confidence as my first attempts were greeted with a swelling of the volume of those whose hands rested on my back, head and shoulders.  It all reached an electric crescendo as the act was completed — when my own “prayer language” came — and then quieted into whispered prayers and, finally, a sort of silent afterglow.

The other day — as I looked at some paintings on a coffee shop wall with a gallery director colleague– I mused on the idea that young artists can move through a phase where — lacking the maturity to make more confident marks — they may believe that any mark made on a canvas will somehow magically carry intention, even if the mark (or the collection of marks that make up the whole) lacks any accessible coherence.  As I considered this I remembered my letter to Santa and the acquisition of my prayer language, and these three moments allowed me to triangulate an idea.

In each of these three cases of magical thinking, there is a childlike thrill to uncoupling the critical mind from the seat of pure desire and then (to use the examples I’ve presented) freely splashing paint across a canvas or scribbling lines across a page or babbling nonsense syllables to an invisible spirit.  This is the joy and the appeal of magic — the kind of moments that make the skin tingle or give that widening in the base of the throat (which is where where I feel it) and offer, I think, a welcome departure from the watchful eye of our cool reason.

Little wonder, then, that they appeal to us so much as children and now — perhaps even more so for their rarity — as adults.

But a common thread to the experience of magic is this uncoupling of reason from desire — which is essentially the act of erecting a temporary barrier between two active levels of our consciousness.  What we do, in effect, is put a blindfold on our frontal lobes so that we won’t be embarrassed by whatever irrational thing we’re about to do (or, more precisely: shamed by our reason for doing it).

I think we all do (or have done) this.  And there is no shame in such pleasures (it’s why we love professional “magicians”, and a part of what we grieve for in the passing of childhood).  But the part of it that interests me today is the uncoupling aspect, and the belief-motivated actions that follow.  For when I wrote that letter to Santa (or when I first “prayed in tongues” to The Holy Spirit), I could not actually have told you what I was really asking for, because I had disengaged the part of my brain that can actually articulate anything I am thinking!

Now the teachers of these magical techniques would counter that this was exactly the point: to get my own “worldly” (read: critical, reasoning) mind out of the way and let spirit talk to spirit without interference.

The problem with that idea (and it’s a huge one) is that the “mind” and the “spirit” are not the separate entities we tend to conceptualize them as.  Well, at least no more separate than one part of our brain is from another.  The notion of a discrete trinity of mind/body/soul is a device to describe what are essentially different levels of the consciousness that are the product of the physical processes of our brain.  That we often then externalize these parts of ourselves, assigning them a sort of cosmic autonomy, is much more a testament to our propensity for magical thought than a reflection of any verifiable reality.

But oh, the magical appeal of this idea, despite the fact that there is nothing to back it up!  (Nothing, that is, except our seemingly inexhaustible craving for magic).  And to many (if we’re honest about this) the craving alone is considered sufficient “evidence” for the object we so crave.  Even the Bible offers our desire for God as proof of his existence.  But this is proof only of our desire, and the roots of our desire are not so difficult to discern.  To put it another way: would we think that a child’s belief in Santa Claus is evidence that Santa really exists and lives at the North Pole?  I think not.  And yet many adults use just this kind of “evidence” to support their belief in the divine.

Magic (and magical thinking) are curious and pleasing byproducts of this consciousness that we carry.  This is the only thing we can say with any confidence about magic.  This is the only notion of magic that reality offers us.

I realize that such a suggestion is nothing but a wet blanket to many, but I am not saying that our experience of magic is invalid.  How can any of our cognitive experiences be called “invalid”, at least in the sense of not existing or occurring?  Yet such experiences are always products of the way we perceive reality, and since we are clearly able to perceive things in ways that would never align with any physical reality (we can “see” things that are not there) such an experience alone is confirmatory evidence nothing other than the cognitive experience itself.  This is how I view everything spiritual: I believe in the experience, I differ only in the explanation.  So when someone tells me that God spoke to them, I do not for a second doubt their experience, I simply translate their God language into materialist terms:  I credit their story to its actual source (their own consciousness) and not the supposed source (God).

For I know all too well that we carry in our skulls a brain that runs several (or many) levels of consciousness at one time (though there seem to be primarily three major levels: conscious, unconscious and involuntary).  And I know from my own experience that the “voice” that we experience as god or spirit is an actual phenomenon of that level of our consciousness that talks back when we talk to it.  (In this sense, I would have to say that god does, indeed, exist, insofar as the thing we experience as god exists.  Where I would quibble is in the magical leap of making a natural cognitive event into evidence of an actual God in His Heaven).

I like coherence.  I like to make sense of as much as I can reasonably make sense of in the world.  Yet I expect I will always carry an ear for the siren song of magic as long as I live.  The difference between me and a believer is that I have come to understand that the source of the magical experience is resident inside of me, and through understanding that a large part of the allure of the magical impulse has been removed (namely that it can actually mean something or be predictive or life-changing in some dramatic way).

To give in to magic is to give in to the incoherence of a child’s scribbled letter to Santa, or a mumbled gibberish prayer that is going not to heaven, but right back to its source.  In each case we are playing with ourselves, really.  And though there’s nothing wrong with that, we don’t generally like to be seen doing it in public.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Denying Evolution” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, August 26th, 2012

It seems that the number of people denying the reality of evolution is growing, and for a hundred reasons that may all be expression of the most basic one: we don’t want to be alone.

So I’ll trot out the evidence that is so obvious we can easily miss it: the particular breed of dog or cat you have in your house (or pet rat for that matter); the banana you had with your breakfast cereal; the wheat that was ground to make your cereal; the breeds of cows from which your hamburger came; the tomato slices on top of that burger; and the ear of corn you had on the side.

Every single one of these items are the products of selective breeding, which is the intelligently determined action of humans (and, as we now know, other animals as well) upon living things with the aim of producing a desired change in the inherited traits of those living things.  This is different from natural selection in that there is an actual person fiddling (either directly or indirectly) with the genes of the plant or animal in question.  But it was the (rather dramatic) results of our meddling in nature that provided the first great clues that something was up with nature that didn’t fit with the idea of God having created each species as it was and as it always would be (immutable).

But corn was a small seed product of a grass like wheat is now, and wheat was a much smaller seed pod before it was altered by human intervention.  Dogs have been bred for particular traits, cats for color, cows for meat and milk production and tomatoes for color, size and thick skins to withstand mechanical harvesting.

All of these changes to naturally-evolved plants and animals can only happen because human farmers and breeders have been able to take advantage of the way that genetics works.  There is something in living organisms that is subject to change over time, and this turns out to be the natural reproductive process that involves the replication and recombination of genes.  Unnatural selection only hastens the natural process (and directs it in a specific direction it might not naturally take) but make no mistake: the exact same process is “directed” by purely natural forces at all times and in all places that life exists, and it always has, from the time that life began.

Although some creationists argue that what we see in such cases is not a fundamental enough change to warrant a belief in the evolution of one species into another (that the modern banana is still, essentially, a banana and not an apple, for instance), the fact of the matter is that a basic and underlying process for mutation and adaptation over time is revealed in these human-driven experiments in unnatural selection: the most basic doctrine of the immutability of creation does not hold up.

And that, my friends, is why evolution is so blatantly “true”.  What the pigeon breeder could accomplish over a handful of years, the evidence shows natural selection and the pressures of environment and competition have produced over several millions of years, turning not only a wolf into an Irish Setter but a fish into a human.  The processes at work are exactly the same, except that one is directed by another mind, the other by natural forces.  The only other differences are the timescales and the intelligence of the forces at work.

So when that idiot Ray Comfort holds up a modern banana as proof of evolution (because it was “designed” to “fit” the human hand), he is holding up a smoking gun aimed at his own fundamentalist face.  He is holding a product of 8,000 years of selective human breeding that turned a hard and nearly inedible fruit into the tasty yellow one that he is holding.  (I suppose he could argue that ancient, tiny bananas fit perfectly into our ancient monkey fists, but, well, that would be problematic for him as well now wouldn’t it?).

When people talk about “Intelligent design”, they are essentially imagining that a being (conscious in the same way that we are) intervened in nature the way that plant and animal breeders intervene in their domains.  There is a certain reasonableness to this idea, insofar as we humans behold the “end result” of eons of natural selection that can give all life the appearances of “design”.  (In truth, we could easily refer to the evolved eye of the eagle or the fang of the snake as “designed by nature” but for the implication of consciousness such a term brings with it).

We can now reasonably infer that the collection of forces and conditions that we call “nature” does it’s “work” without the need for any consciousness at all.  There is absolutely nothing about nature that requires the addition of an intelligent, thinking force to make it make sense.  So why do we try so hard to imagine nature a being like us?

Well, for the same reason that we have to have a god so much like us.

The hardest cognitive transition for us humans to make, it seems, is the shift in perspective that allows us to see ourselves as the creators of our ideas about the universe, and not the other way around: to see ourselves as the source of the intelligence we project onto the mindless canvas of nature.  Even science (based as it is in testable, verifiable evidence) has to rely on mutually-agreed upon terms that have no meaning outside of that which we assign them.  A gorilla is not really a gorilla, and a gene was not called a gene before we called it that, but we all go along with the nomenclature because we have an overriding desire to be understood when we describe something.

Now it’s easy for folks to trip up on this, and turn such a notion around to make an argument that since scientists coin new terms for their discoveries, that this is somehow the same as having made up the discoveries their terms describe.  This is clearly a defense against the troubling truths that science reveals to us.  But the problem with this sort of reasoning is that it ignores the reality that whether we named them or not, gorillas and genes would still exist (did the animals in the Garden of Eden not exist because Adam pulled their names out of his butt?).  Words are a tool we use to categorize the world in a way so that we can communicate facts and ideas and feelings to each other.  If we all decided to call gorillas “Judys” tomorrow, they would still be the same animal they have always been (only called by another name).

So much about irrational belief (be it religious or other) seems to be an effort to wiggle out of an awareness of just how precarious and passing our presence is.  Even though it will be a couple more billion years before our life-sustaining sun collapses into a white dwarf (obliterating the earth in the process) the very idea of a thing so huge and essential to our lives  (and seemingly unchanging) blasting itself into nothingness is rather troubling.

And so it’s easier to believe that all of this was created just for us than to ponder the fact that untold numbers of “suns” in other galaxies have already lived out the entire life cycle (that ours is still burning its way through).  (It is deeply troubling to contemplate that there could have been other “earths” where life also evolved and thrived, perhaps even leading to intelligent, conscious beings not unlike ourselves, who have had all of their history erased, and returned their elements to the cosmos, as we will do one day.  Despite the likelihood that none of us will live to actually see the earth meet that fate, we understand, on some level, that some living thing that follows us may be there when it does).

I admire humans.  But I admire them in the way that I admire all of life.  We are driven to live by impulses ancient and mindless, as if we, too, must expand like the universe until we can expand no further.  As humans we have the unique opportunity to observe, understand and comment on our own experience of this conscious existence.  And this is both a wonderful and troubling burden to carry.  No wonder we wish to see ourselves as fundamentally different than the ants who rush to rebuild the anthill we stepped on so casually.  But are we, really?  Is there enough difference between us and them to justify the belief in an intervention of divine forces in our creation?

I don’t think so.  Not when you look at things with a clear eye — cleared of the wishes and fears that make so many deny the facts of evolution.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Why I Preach!” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, August 5th, 2012
Why I preach.

If I criticize religious belief as irrational (which I clearly do), it is for two reasons.  For one, I see little good that can come from believing things that are not true (especially when there is so much that is verifiably true to ponder with awe).  For another, I think that there is a genuine benefit to us both as individuals and as a society in seeing ourselves for the rather surprising (and challenged) evolved animals that we now know ourselves (through science) to be.  One of those benefits includes releasing ourselves from unreasonable expectations that can flow from the notion that we are striving for a God-created “perfection” (which also releases us from the false burden of “Eden’s” legacy of irreparable damage: that we were “perfect” before we screwed things up).  Though it can be a frightening and difficult transition to move from belief to such an “acceptance”, I would not propose such if I had not done it myself, having found, on the other side, a whole new world that is rich, satisfying and, well, real.

But here I have to be honest about that “other world”.  Because it is “real” it can leave one feeling a bit, well, exposed.  To borrow one popular metaphor, it leaves one without a familiar “backstop”.  (Well, at least the sort of “backstop” most of us have been used to).  But in the larger scheme of things what we are talking about is the loss of something that never was in the first place (so we lose, in fact, nothing).  We only thought it was there: a god in the sky — in some form or other — watching over us.  What we hoped for in moments of desperation was that there was someone with more strength and power out there who would nevertheless look kindly upon us and lend us a hand once in a while.  (What can be most unsettling is the realization of just how dependent we social primates are upon each other, and the sense of vulnerability that comes with such a realization.  This was the most unexpected surprise in my journey of discoveries).

I should also make clear the distinction that when I use the term “irrational” I don’t mean that it is crazy or idiotic to believe (or want to believe) in such things.  By irrational I mean any belief that is unsupported by (or denies strong contradictory) evidence.  Personally, I understand the urge to believe.  I think it’s almost impossible to be a conscious human being and not understand this.  When I heard the bone in my foot break last December, I felt an instant and instinctual urge to ask any thing that might be listening to turn back time just a couple of minutes (really, now, is that so much to ask?).  But even in that moment, I recognized that such a plea arose from deep in my animal psyche (that part of my consciousness that recognized that I was suddenly a deeply injured animal that could not run from danger if he had to).  But that deep animal part of our brains speaks in wordless bursts that are thrust up through the cognitive strata of our middle and higher brain that must then turn animal terror into actual thoughts, words and concepts.

It is this ancient animal mind that is, I think, is the deeper wellspring of our religious beliefs.

You and I are no longer the “lizards” for whom we name this deep, survival part of our brain.  But it is good that we have such concepts in our “modern” world to remind us that though we have left our lizard (or fish, or shrew or monkey) lives far in our past, we yet carry a deep and present legacy of the brains we began with.  In a very real (anatomical and cognitive) way, we are fish riding bicycles, lizards driving cars and monkeys at typewriters clacking out Hemingway novels.

So where (and why, and how) did “religion” enter the picture?  Like so many things in our prehistoric past, we can never know when a particular cultural moment occurred.  We can only guess when the first human had the first spiritual thought.  And by spiritual, I mean the first moment that we had an experience of something like ourselves existing, invisibly, outside of our physical selves.  (The “like ourselves” part is a crucial clue to the source of our divine beings, by the way).  But knowing what I do about how our brains work (and having the sense I now have of the continuum of biological life) it is not difficult at all to imagine a moment when our first ancestors began to use their first words to describe their world.  No, this is not where religion began, for an animal does not need to have verbal language to act as if there are mysterious forces at work around them (again, I return to Hannah Holmes’ example dog barking at the vacuum cleaner as an example of an animal version of believing in “god”).  We humans are different only in that we have an added layer of processing brain that has filtered these animal “beliefs” into coherent concepts that can be shared between ourselves.

And that is the key to belief: a story must be made of an experience, as a sort of “vehicle” for the transmission (and maintenance) of any belief.  This is perhaps why Richard Dawkins refers to such universally-transmittable ideas as “memes” that can move through us (and evolve and adapt) in a manner that is very similar to that of a virus.  And as far as that goes, it matters surprisingly little whether the story is true (just as it matters naught if a virus is “good” for us), it only matters that enough of us agree on the plausibility of the story to keep it in circulation.

It is, in fact, this form of human agreement that is the glue that holds us social animals together: we tend to clump together with those who have chosen to believe the same stories we do.  I think this even goes down to the level of couples who create a story of their own relationship.  At this level, who can say what is “true” or not — what matters most is the agreement.  When our stories diverge, so can our connections to others around us.  (Look what happens when an evangelical preacher starts to declare that there is no hell, or a politician stands up for an opponent who is being unfairly accused — suddenly they are ostracized as outsiders by those who only a moment before would have defended them to extreme ends).

All this to say that belief is something that has been with us for a long, long time.  And not just as humans, but even before.  So there is no reason to think that it will go away soon, or ever.  For the biology that created belief is our own biology, and from that we cannot escape.  However — and this is perhaps the most remarkable (and, I might argue, the most interesting) thing — it seems that we can use these brains of ours to escape irrational belief!  It’s worth a try, at least.  For though religion permeates the minds of humans all over the globe, there are entire worlds awaiting discovery that religion has never — and can never — know.

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