Posts Tagged ‘Magical thinking’

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

Sunday, October 7th, 2012

I would venture that one of the worst possible selling points for a materialist view of life is the seemingly inevitable diminishment of the experience of magic in one’s day-to-day life.

Here’s the basic calculus that seems to accompany the contemplation of a non-magical world:  if I stop believing in magic, then magic will cease to appear, and I will then lose the the enjoyable experience of magic.

When I say “magic”, I am referring to the every-day sort of small miracle, coincidence, happenstance, kismet or surprise that creates a feeling in the chest of having experienced something just a little bit out-of-the-ordinary: You think of someone, and they walk into the restaurant; you tell God you’re in a hurry, and the lights all seem to be green; a check arrives just in time so you can pay your rent.  These are events that are common to all of us (though not so common as to lose their power to impart to us that magical sensation).

These are almost always happy events.  They are also almost universally confirmatory events.  They tell us that we are living right; on the right path; in tune with the universe.  They make us feel good.  (Even the ones that tell us we were on the “wrong path”, as these, too, confirm our own feelings about a situation).

With so much cultural support for belief in magic, how do we untie this ball of existential yarn that is incident and belief?  Where do we start?

Is this cross a sign from God or a natural feature that fits a pattern our brain is attuned to?

The obvious place to start is with the materialist’s application of Occam’s razor to the question at hand: is there simpler explanation for the event in question which does not involve magic or the intervention of invisible, divine agents?  For that, the answer is almost always an obvious “yes” (I would argue that the answer is probably always “yes”, whether or not it is obvious).  For instance, the fact is that each of us lives a life in a rather restricted geographical and social area means that our paths are fairly repetitive, and the people we know and see along those paths are hardly random (as we tend to get to know people that we have actual physical contact with).  So while the odds of running into your favorite movie star at the local market (assuming your star does not live in your city) is pretty low, the odds of running into one of your friends or neighbors at the same market is actually fairly high.  Adding in the fact that you have thought about a particular friend just before running into them could tempt you to regard such a meeting as anything but random, but both the thought and the meeting are probably rather high probability occurrences (meaning that the two happen with a frequency such that both happening in close proximity is not the small miracle we might take it to be).

So we can probably fairly easily dispense with “magic” as the cause of such chance meetings.  What is more interesting is the eagerness with which our mind frame such such events as “magical”.  And this is where neuroscience comes in, in the form of a mental bias called “confirmation bias”.  In short, this quirk in our cognition produces a selective preference in the data that we give weight to.  In the case of running into a friend after thinking about him or her, this means that we first embrace the linkage of the two events, usually exclaiming “I was just thinking about you!” (whether the thought occurred in the last minute or the last week — time is instantly conflated to “make” the connection).  The other, less obvious mark of this mental bias is the highly selective blindness to the many times we may have thought about this person in the past when they did not subsequently pop into view.

Taken together, these two traits of conflating time and ignoring counter-evidential occurrences produce the sort of confirmatory “evidence” that our happy brains just eat up!  But of course, it is not “evidence” in any meaningful sense.  The connections between thought and confirmatory event are “casual” only, not “causal”, much more a product of our brain’s pattern-constructing ability than any external reality.

I think there is a simple explanation for this that does not involve the dark tinge of self-deception or delusion.  It is this:  the firing of the brain cells that magic sets off makes us happy by releasing those happy-making chemicals in our brains.  And we like to be happy (well, many of us do).

What is tricky about being a materialist (believing that there are no super-natural phenomenon going on “out there”) is that, in practice, one ends up talking one’s own brain out of a lot of fun.  And who wants to be the party pooper (especially when you’re mostly pooping on your own party, so to speak)?

This is, I think, a real issue.  But it is also a testament to just how strongly magical belief is hard-wired into our brain (or “brains”, since that single organ is more a sort of “layer cake” of systems).  It is a reminder that belief (in some form or other) is natural to us.

But here is the funny part of this (and the part that is so obvious that we can miss it): Since the events we believe to be magical are not magical, but regular, ordinary, every day occurrences, not believing that they are magical should have absolutely no effect on whether or not these magical events occur in our lives!

I’m reminded of when I finally lost my belief in God.  There was a part of my consciousness that actually asked whether there would be joy, or laughter, or sunrises in my life after that.  That sounds silly, I know, but it points to something else in the way we humans think: we really do act as if the universe revolves around us.  What else can explain the notion that our individual beliefs have the power to act on other people or objects at a distance (and therefore have the power to make something like the sunrise cease).  Shall we call it the “Tinkerbell effect” (if we don’t clap hard enough, the fairy dies)?

It’s related to what I discussed in last week’s sermon about our expectation that the world should end when we do.

But, of course, coincidence and chance meetings will continue to happen (and the Sun will continue to rise).  After all, the only condition that will change in our life is a shift in the way that we perceive those events.  And, potentially, yes, the kind of joy that we derive from them.

The other day (as often happens when I’m at the gym) I got a song idea.  This time it hit shortly after I’d begun a walk around the block.  I had no pen, no paper, and no phone (with which I could have recorded my idea).  In earlier times, I would have asked God (or later, my “Higher Power”, or “The Universe”) to (magically) “bring me” a pen.  But I didn’t do that this time.  I pondered stepping into a store on my route and asking for one, but decided to keep on walking.  I first reasoned with my magical brain that chances were I wouldn’t find a pen as I walked, but then realized that the chances were not impossible, as I was walking a path where people worked, delivery trucks dropped off goods, etc.  Sure enough, about two-thirds of the way into my walk, I found a pen.  A red pen, smashed to pieces on the asphalt.  I leaned to pick it up, but it was destroyed.

Note the stages of that thought process:  I thought to “ask” for magic.  My brain then set up the impossibility of finding a pen by sheer “chance” (while in fact there was a fairly high probability that I would find a pen, especially since I was now actually looking for one!).  Now if I were of a spiritual mindset (with my confirmation bias still in play) I would have told you that the universe gave me what I asked for!  But why was it broken and useless, you might ask?  I could answer: because my prayer was not specific enough!  (Don’t laugh — spend any time among true believers and you will hear people shamed out of their unbelief with retorts like that!)   And there you have the complete mechanism for how we make horoscopes and psychics believable: They teach us what results to calibrate our bias to, and we go on to do all the heavy lifting.

So, one could say that magic (or God) does exist.  Not in the world as a genuine phenomenon, but in the magical way that we transform random and non-random events into proof of an invisible metaphysical reality.  To lose that magic can indeed mean to lose some of the joy it brings.  At least until we can reclaim the pleasure of happy coincidence free of the burden of magical attribution.  A quest that — given the kind so brains so may of us have — turns out to be no small challenge.
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: “The First Church of Magic” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, July 24th, 2011

A friend shared a link to an article that contained the following passage:

“According to a recent survey, the percentage of Americans who claim to be Christian is somewhere north of 75 percent.

Really? Three out of four people are followers of Christ?

Let’s see, if the population of the United States is about 311 million and 75 percent are Christians that brings the number of Christians to somewhere in the neighborhood of 233 million. That’s a lot of Christians. I don’t see nearly that many Jesus fish on car bumpers. I don’t know, maybe all the Darwin fish ate them. I’m just saying something about that percentage is off. Because if there really are that many Christians, then why will some 35 million people in America go to bed hungry tonight, including 13 million children? If 75 percent of Americans are Christians, then how is it possible that 40 percent of the homeless are under the age of 18? Why are there more than 120,000 children waiting to be adopted? I could keep going, and that’s just in the States. The numbers don’t add up. Jesus said the evidence that someone is one of his followers is love. So 233 million? The evidence just isn’t there.”  (Quote taken from “Why I’m Not a ‘Fan” of Jesus” by Pastor Kyle Idleman, The Huffington Post)

Where are they, indeed?  Our most famous atheist Christopher Hitchens has made a related observation regarding the number of Americans that self-identify as Christians.  He flatly states that the numbers are wrong (making the wry observation that there aren’t enough houses of worship to accommodate anything close to the numbers the surveys claim).

Christianity pervades the very fiber of our culture.  It always has.  Without diving off into the tired battle of whether or not America is a “Christian nation”, there is no denying that that religion has been the dominant one in our history and culture.  (This is why there are groups that must dedicate their time and energy to protect our public spheres from the attempts of the religious to insinuate their beliefs into our ostensibly religion-neutral government).

It is a belief in their sheer numerical superiority that lends Christians (in this country, other religious majorities in others) their sense of historical entitlement: they demand to be honored as members of the true religion of this nation.  But it is those precisely those huge numbers that trouble Pastor Idleman: where are they, and why don’t they exert more of a moral influence in society?  Hitchen’s answer is that the numbers are wrong.  The Pastor’s answer is that there are more “fans” of Jesus than “true followers”.  I think they’re both right, as far as our general consensus of what constitutes a “true” Christian goes.  But I want to take a step back, and look at this in a different light.

To me, arguing about who is a “good” Christian is to look for fruit in a barren orchard.  The reality that underlies religion is not really the issue of whether or not God exists (though I don’t think he does), it is an issue of human consciousness: it is a question of the ways in which the human mind has clearly been hard-wired by millions of year of evolution for an innate susceptibility to belief.  I repeat: it is not a religious question at all.  Religion is a manifestation of consciousness (to borrow author Hannah Holme’s example: even dogs can have religious views — just watch how they attribute intention to that vacuum cleaner they’re barking at!).  In more simple terms: religion seems to be a product of consciousness, and consciousness is a function of the physical brain.  There is nothing else going on in there, or out there.  If the brain dies, consciousness ends (as does everything we associate with consciousness: perception, feeling, memory, a sense of self).  Therefore, if all of the conscious brains on earth were to stop functioning tomorrow, religion (and with it, God) would vanish without a trace.

Even dogs have religion.

Humans are magical thinkers, not unlike the dog imagining that a household appliance has a mind of its own.  We are different from other animals only by degrees and the harder we try to define what separates us from our animal identity, the more we discover that one animal or another shares this or that trait (albeit in a less-advanced way).  Modern neuroscience is showing us more and more about the ways in which our brains are always being fooled by what we see and hear.  We are quick and clever animals with fully-developed survival mechanisms that allow us to make instant determinations about potential threats.  But when we put two and two together, we are much more likely to err on the side of whatever conclusion gets us the hell away from danger — whether or not our math was accurate has never been the most important thing.

And so the reason so many people identify themselves as believers in the Christian god is a function of this basic tendency toward belief and magical thinking in humans, combined with the accident of being born in a country where Christianity has been the dominant religious worldview.  This is probably an equal frustration to the atheist and the committed Christian believer.  To the former, there is this annoying and pervasive sappy support for a man-made fantasy that has real-world impact in politics and society; to the latter there is this horde of humans giving mere lip-service to a life of “true” Christian service to others.

Of course our addiction to magic is not limited to Christianity.  Start talking up a materialist view of human consciousness being purely a product of the brain, and all sorts of folk get uncomfortable.  We have psychics, astrologers, card readers and healers of all kinds whose stock and trade is the magic-believing human.  Almost every single one of us is susceptible to the simplest coincidence of bumping into someone we were just thinking about, and drawing a causal connection between the two un-related events.  Why?  Because that is how our animal brain’s work.  “No!” you protest, asking “But how, then, do you explain the two things happening at the same time: my thought and the “chance” meeting?”  Random events, coincidence.  Each of us lives is a fairly small world, really, where the odds of running into the people we are thinking about is always going to be high.  Plus, we know that humans are rich in “confirmation bias”, where we tend to see outcomes that we are already primed to look for (that’s why we will believe that prayers are sometimes answered).  We also have a bias toward NOT remembering the other dozen times this week that we thought of someone we know who DIDN’T show up suddenly.

These brains we have are a mixed bag, and they have very real limits that we should probably know about.  We are lucky in that we live in a time where there is enough information out there to compile a sort of “Consciousness Owners Manual”.  For this we can be grateful that our brains are advanced enough that we can actually develop experiments that allow us to see our own flaws and absorb that awareness into the way we engage our critical faculties.  It’s becoming clear that our conscious mind is only one part of this thing we call our “self”.  And it turns out that it’s not the part of us that is always the first to know what’s going on in our world.  In fact, neuroscience experiments have shown that it’s always anywhere from one to a few seconds behind the parts of our organism that is really reacting to things and making decisions about how we feel or react.  Our conscious mind may turn out to be more like the play-by-play commentator than the athlete making the play on the field.

So I don’t see a nation packed with Christians:  I see a word populated by magic-believing, conscious animals, some of whom choose to identify with the more popular manifestations of that magic.  If we were to observe this phenomenon as aliens who had never been troubled with the limitations of the human brain, that’s how it would look.  We might puzzle over the fact that humans can dedicate so much energy to arguing the differences between their beliefs (the old “how many angels can fit on the head of a pin” thing).  This would look pretty silly to this imaginary alien.  That is, until he tried to talk a human out of his or her magic.  Then things would get real serious real fast!

Why?  Because humans love their magical minds.  To be more precise, they love the feeling that there is magic out there, and are willing to defend that magical realm against all comers, even to the point of defending other religious believers (that they would otherwise consider heretics) against the greatest heretics of all: the scientists that reveal to us who and what we really are, and who pull back the curtain and show us the magician’s hidden secrets.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Polite Fictions” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, May 8th, 2011

When I was five, our family station wagon chugged up the winding roads along the side of Pike’s Peak.  I leaned out a window, like my brothers, as we experienced driving through clouds for the first time — trying to capture a bit of cloud in a jar.  Having driven from the lowlands of Illinois to Colorado, our car was none-too-happy with the altitude, but we kids were looking forward to visiting that day’s destination: the North Pole, the home of Santa’s Workshop.

Yes, Bobby, there is a Santa Claus in Colorado.

I was five, still in the prime of my Santa Claus years, yet I don’t remember much of the fantasy-turned-reality of the actual theme park.  But then, it was Springtime, and we were in the Rocky Mountains.  Still, I know that it was more than a few years later before I learned the sad truth that Santa was a fiction that a lot of people took part in maintaining.  When I did, finally, learn the truth, I took it hard.

I think one of the reasons that there has been such a severe reaction to the likes of Christopher Hitchens (“God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” reviewed this blog) is due to his stripping away the protection of some of our more nefarious “polite fictions” (for example, that we owe a certain social deference to ministers, priests, and “holy folk” of almost any stripe).

Writers like Harris are having none of this, and perform a social function of a kind with the innocent child that proclaimed (loudly) that the Emperor had no clothes.

A “polite fiction” is, to my understanding, a (relatively harmless) lie that we all tacitly agree to participate in.  Now I’m a fan of polite fictions, as they are a strategy we’ve clearly developed to spare all of us some of the discomfort of naked public shame (for shame is also uncomfortable for any social human within range of the individual being shamed).  Perhaps it is because it’s generally thought to be beneficial that we call it both “polite” and a “fiction”, as opposed to a big fat lie.

Most of us know, I think, in our hearts, that putting on a clerical collar or carrying a Bible for a living does not a better human make.  We may want to believe it to be so, so we give the professionally religious mammal a bit of leeway to be imperfect in their role (but mostly in order, I suspect, to support our own wishful thinking).

Of course the amount of slack in this religious “leash” is pretty damn short when you get to fundamentalists.  But then, they set themselves an impossibly anti-human task of spiritual perfection, and the minister to such a tightly-wound flock accepts (as part of the bargain) that he or she will be punished severely for any public failure.  That is the un-spoken bargain struck between the leader and the led:  you support our (shared) fiction, and we will support you (our minister) with income, a car, a house, and a late-night TV program.

Sin in high places is accepted by the laity (on a subterranean level, to be sure) as long as it does not threaten the larger fiction.  (Should it break out into the open, God help the offender, for his flock never will!)

When I think of the deference we give to ministers, I am reminded of a similar social “rubber check” that we give to our men and women of the military.  Somehow, as a society, we have made the decision to offer them entry into a club that has no real benefit other than a lot of mawkish sentiment that is offered up as if it has real value, when, in fact, it costs the giver nothing (or at least very little) to give.

It’s not unlike the cheap boss that overworks their underpaid staff but once in a while tells them how great they are, and how much they mean to them, but no you can’t have a raise or a new broom to do your work (you ungrateful wretch).  Sure, it’s nice to feel “appreciated”, but nothing says true appreciation like the tangible signs of actual respect: the offering up of something of real value.  (I, for example, like a compliment as much as the next guy, but nothing convinces me you love one of my paintings like your signature on the check when you buy it).

Public deference does have a value, I’ll admit, up to a point.  Sort of like the rather amazing power a simple flower can have when presented as a gift (in the right setting, that is ; try to pull that trick when the situation calls for heavier, more costly artillery, and you’ll regret it!).

There is a difference between our polite fictions and reality, and we all know it.  We know we’re sort of playing a social game when we call someone we don’t know “Father”, and let our eyes fall down in an imitation of religious reverence.  Maybe what we’re really saying is: “Wow, you’ve invested a huge chunk of your life in a thankless and, well, make-believe job, but I want you to feel okay about that”.  (Or we’re caught up by our own magical thinking in the presence of a “holy man”).

So it’s not simply a case of the priest bullying the people into treating him like a demigod.  It is also the need of the people to keep their pantheons supplied with objects of aspiration.  That we have to populate our many Mount Olympus’s with fellow humans who do a generally crap job at divinity is just the reason we need to add in the fiction to make it work.  Why do we do it?  Perhaps we have priests because we want them to be there when we need them to support us in times of personal fictional crisis: they are the keepers of the flame of our religious fictions, reliably there while we go out and do whatever we want, trusting that someone is on the payroll keeping themselves holy and on-call (a common complaint of many a minister’s sermon!)

Humans are such interesting animals.  I’ve moved more and more to the opinion that I’m not certain that I would strip away all of our fictions if I could.  But neither would I choose to live under them.  It’s one thing for an adult to keep the idea of Santa Claus (for example) alive.  It would be another thing entirely if an adult actually believed in a literal Santa’s Workshop at the North Pole.  Or, to take it to an extreme, to stand up in front of a room full of people every Sunday in an elf costume, and proclaim the revealed wisdom of Santa as if it were gospel.

Ho Ho Holy smokes!

t.n.s.r. bob

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

Sunday, April 10th, 2011

We are not served well by the question: “What is the meaning of life”?  Not because the question is a difficult one, or too challenging to answer, but because it is a question with no certifiable answer, or , more exactly: there is no “meaning of life” to be discovered.

To continue in that bleak vein, let me suggest that he best we can hope for (in fact the best we can achieve within the bounds of reality) is to come to some sort of understanding of our own mortality, and thereby work to make the best peace we can with an end as horrifying to any conscious living organism as it is inevitable.

The problem with a truly Atheistic, materialistic and naturalistic view of existence is that there really isn’t much in the way of comfort to be had (at least not in any easily digestible form).  Many religious people know this and, in fact, use this truth as an argument for the adoption of religion.  Think about that for a moment: the truth is unsettling; therefore one should seek refuge in untruth.  Writers like Christopher Hitchens acknowledge atheism’s lack in satisfying of our natural human wish-fulfillment.  (Atheism is, by implication, an embracing of the knowledge of our true status in the universe that science offers us).  So instead they point to a certain nobility in facing this troubling reality head-on, and then going on about the business of making the lives we do have as rich and meaningful as we can.

Yes, I'm an Evolution nerd.

But if life has no meaning, how can we make meaningful lives?  That’s simple: life does have meaning to those that are living it: to you and I.  We humans get bent when charge past such earthly meaning in order to confront the possibility that the rest of the universe does not share our fascination with our day-to-day activities.  (Because, apparently, it’s not enough for us to be important to just, well, us.  We want there to be a God who cares, ruling over a Universe that is built for the sole purpose of engendering the relationship between Man and his Maker).

There is irony in this.  I would suggest that the more a human seeks his or her sense of meaning from external (eternal, divine) sources, the less meaningful (in real terms) their lives actually are.  In other words, the religious have it exactly backwards: they think that it is only through acknowledging God that our lives have meaning (going so far as to believe that a life lived for any other purpose cannot be meaningful at all).  I think the opposite is true: that the less one believes in the eternal and the divine, the more one is forced to come to terms with the here and now which, for us social animals, means making the most of our relationships with each other and the way we choose to spend our short lives.

Now I could be wrong on this — at least as it relates to humans of a different temperament than mine.  Consider the following:

“Conservatives also tend to rank high on something called “death anxiety”…  Apparently the mere idea of death causes some people to feel uncertain and out of control – anxious.  Some studies suggest that death anxiety reflects a fear that life itself has no meaning.  For someone who doesn’t enjoy ambiguity, that could be a pretty distressing possibility.”   — Hannah Holmes: “Quirk: Brain Science Makes Sense of Your Peculiar Personality” (P 218)

In addition, to a more “conservative” mind, the idea of a human set loose upon the world without the restraining influence of God on their behavior is terrifying, and they imagine that such “self-responsive” people would unerringly choose to do the darkest possible things.

And then there are writers such as Ayn Rand: popular in conservative circles for her idea that society is served best by individuals going about their selfish ways attending to their own selfish animal needs.  Conservatives seems overly fond of this idea (which seems odd when such philosophies are so often erroneously labelled as being “Darwinian” in their “survival of the fittest” ethos).

But these ideas are still operating, I would argue, within the framework of a sense of original sin and a need to justify our naturally-selfish behavior within a God-directed universe, and therefore represent an error of logic akin to how the notorious eugenics movement turned the blind work of genetics into a justification for human cruelty on a grand scale.

It is beyond dispute that we are animals, and naturally self-centered animals at that.  Yet we humans carry around comparatively huge brains that set us apart from our animal cousins, be they primate or whale, in the scope of our ability for self-consideration and reflection.  But to elevate our instinctive bent toward self-preservation to a self-serving abdication of personal responsibility is to ignore the comprehensive social nature of our human-to-human relationships.  For it is in those earthly and immediate relationships that we experience whatever hell or heaven we think we are creating, not in an imagined afterlife.

In religious terms, our instinctive behaviors are labelled as sin, or fallen, and a thing against we must strive mightily with the help of an intervening God.  This misses the point as well, and is simply a very common ploy by select humans to profit from their control over other humans hungry for answers to that damnable question: “What’s it all about?”.

This is all we can know about the meaning of life at this point: you and I are alive today, and we are the descendants of an endless series of life forms that evolved on a planet that was born out of a cosmic explosion that created a universe that continues to expand, and will continue to expand to a point at which, we assume, it will then contract again.  Before that happens, however, our own sun will reach the end of its nuclear life and explode, taking us out with it.  But even before then, the species “human” will most likely (if history is any indication) go extinct, or evolve into a new species (that may in it’s turn go extinct).  But before any of that ever happens, you and I will die a natural (one would hope) death, and our chemical components will be disbursed back into the soil, the air, and the tissue of other living organisms until such time as the whole shebang is redistributed by cosmic explosions.  We are primates, social mammals that have a need for each other’s company, and so we have developed societies and technologies to assist us in our instinctive quest for comfort, happiness and security.  Our large brains are both assistant and critic to all that we do, and within a natural spectrum of mutation and disease, each animal is born with a capacity to live life with a variety of levels of success.

That states the reasons you and I are the living consciousnesses we are, but it does not — indeed can not — answer the existential “why” that we keep asking it to.

Any answer we construct to the question of life’s meaning is going to fall short.  Even acknowledgement of that reality will not bring complete relief from the ever-present awareness of our own mortality.  We humans are, after all, pattern-seekers, and problems for which we cannot find solutions cause us real cognitive distress.  This is probably why magical thinking has evolved as a natural part of consciousness (a skill not reserved only for the young!).  Magical thinking (“religion”) enables us to calm our troubled brains by filling in the un-fillable blanks in our knowledge with malleable myth.

But we the living are a generation of humans that — thanks to science –  carry a knowledge of our place in the universe that no other generation of our kind has ever had to contend with.  And this is a knowledge that can easily overwhelm our mammalian brains, challenging even the most powerful mental magic.  And when the magic fails, we are forced, once again, to ask anew the old question: “What, then, is the meaning of life?”

I think we can cut ourselves a little slack if our minds aren’t quite up to the task — if we find that we have been asking the wrong question all of these years.  Perhaps, then, we can stop trying to figure out the meaning of life, and turn our attention instead toward making life meaningful.

t.n.s.r. bob