Posts Tagged ‘materialism’

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

Sunday, January 20th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “A Map of the Mind” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, December 16th, 2012

I got emotional recently, to the point of crying (not that unusual, in my case).  No sooner had the episode begun but  there was a particular “voice” in my brain that started to chatter…rather insistently.  I did my best (this isn’t the first time this has occurred) to “disengage” my attention from that particular part of my consciousness so that I could get on with my emotional moment.  But afterwards, I began to ponder just where this “chattering voice” was coming from.  I began to think about the “geography” of my own consciousness.

Here is a good place to make something clear:  I approach questions such as this from an understanding that any and all of this mental cacophony that I experience is happening within the confines of my skull (and not outside of my self).  Still, I have a need to “place” things.  That’s only natural.  The big difference, then, between me and many others is that I don’t place any of my conscious self outside of my physical self.

So as I thought about the chatter that kicked in when I was emotional, it didn’t feel like it was coming from a “higher” functioning part of my consciousness, but from a sort of ante-room of my brain.  Having said that, I must still recognize that I am applying an imaginary construct in order to give a location to the different aspects of my functional consciousness.  This is a conceptual tool — like language itself — that allows me to create a visual sense of something that is biological and electrochemical.  Therefore there will never be an exact one-to-one physical relationship between the mental phenomenon such a framework describes and the phenomenon themselves.  But then, language has no intrinsic connection to the things it describes — what matters is that those of us using language share our catalog of word-object associations with our fellow speakers (so that, for instance, we don’t picture a pit bull when someone asks us if we like their hat).  On the other hand, we know from recent studies that certain actions are taking place within specific regions of the brain.  So my exercise in mental geography — fanciful though it is — is not without some basis in reality.

That being so, what can I know about the nature of this chatter that popped up to halt my tears?  Well, it almost seems as if it had intention, in that it appears to be a quite specific reflex that is triggered by strong emotion, almost like a too-earnest friend that jumps in with a “WHAT’S WRONG  IS THERE ANYTHING I CAN DO TO HELP AND MAKE YOU STOP CRYING RIGHT THIS MINUTE!” while what we feel like saying is: “Shut up and let me cry!”.  (Actually, the “heart” doesn’t want to say anything — does not, in fact, want to switch it’s focus from emotion to the part of the brain that is used to tell someone to “shut up!”.   No, in moments of deep emotion, our “heart” just wants to feel what it is feeling, which is a joint exercise of mind and body that, like sex, doesn’t like distractions just now thank you very much.  But then, that could be precisely why the noisy chatter is effective — that interruption, alone, breaks the hold of deep emotion on our conscious attention.  Like sleep, like sexual intensity, deep emotion — once interrupted — can be “lost”).

You’ll note here my use of the term “heart” for the seat of my emotion.  This is a rather universal exercise in placing parts of our brain activity on a conceptual “map”.  In this case, however, the emotions are displaced to a place somewhere in our chest — or gut, depending on the emotion — a foot or two away from our brain case.  This is a recognition, I think, of the sense we have of emotions coming from a certain depth of our consciousness.  They feel too deep to be taking place within our brain, and, since they are felt in our body, we place them (with some good reason) somewhere in the deepest parts of our physical body.  (In a similar, if more dramatic way, we most often displace the mid-level of our consciousness — the part that answers us when we talk to it — much further outside, or above, us).  Which just goes to show how natural is the bleed-over between our brain and body, and how natural, then, is our ability to displace aspects of our consciousness from the particular region (or regions) of the brain that they are actually occurring in.

Hannah Holmes does a great job of exploring the "quirks" of the human mind in her book (reviewed this blog). Hannah Holmes does a great job of exploring the “quirks” of the human mind in her book (reviewed this blog).

And so what sense can I make of this mental chatter that would seem to be — if the emotions are the root of the tree –  the chirping birds in the upper branches?  I can make some guesses about what this part of my consciousness is all about — what it’s “intention” is.  And I can have some confidence that it is there for a useful reason (useful for my evolutionary success, anyway, even if it gets in the way of my emotional life).  But I may never be able to state with absolute confidence what is really going on in that part of my brain.  We are, after all, wary, reactive, emotional animals.  Understanding that fact alone immediately makes a lot of what goes on in our day-to-day experience of consciousness make some sense (even the parts that don’t seem to make sense for the kinds of comfortable lives many of us Westerners actually live).

The fact is I have no good, specific answer to give you on that score.  I do have a more general answer that may have to suffice.  But it involves a story, and a kind -of answer.

I used to be a much more anxious human than I am today.  I struggled with intrusive thoughts and periods of panic and even depression.  This led to what I refer to as my “Therapy Years”.  But the point where things began to turn around took place at a Golden Corral restaurant one night.  It must have been around this time that my therapist first offered me the idea that the “biggest thing wrong with me what that I thought something big was wrong with me”, and that the panics that gripped me were not necessarily events that just happened to me — were not, in fact, irresistible forces imposed on a helpless Bob.  This seemed far-fetched, as it felt as if a panic would always hit me before I saw it coming — like a mad monkey that suddenly was on my back — and all I could do was react after the fact.  But that night as I finished my dinner, I had turned enough of my attention to the workings of my own brain that when a panic hit me, I caught the slightest glimpse of a tiny gap between the thought I was thinking and the nearly instantaneous global bodily reaction of cold fear.  I had at last witnessed the machinery of reaction in my consciousness.  After that, it was only a matter of time before my senses become attuned to the point where I could widen that gap, and identify the thought I had had that triggered the reaction.  Then began the process of learning to interrupt the process between the thought and the panic (it turns out this can be done).  My therapist was right: my own thinking was the source of my panic.  But it was the (rather intriguing) ability to use one part of my consciousness to catch another part of my consciousness in the act that led to my coming to terms with that brain of mine.  I was learning to fight brain with brain.

Obviously, this has informed my view of consciousness as I then moved from the last years of my religious (or quasi-religious) belief to a more materialistic view of consciousness.  Having experienced many of the quirks of our human consciousness, I deeply appreciate the insights into those quirks that neuroscience and evolutionary psychology offer.  The upside of this is obvious, as such a view can free us from some of the add-on doubts and terrors — based in a belief in outside intentional agents acting upon our exposed souls — that have accompanied our evolution over the last few tens of thousands of years.

The point being that this non-externalized understanding of the brain makes analysis of events much different than the standard search for external agency that is our most common response.  Note that the phenomenon in question do not change, only the way in which they are interpreted or understood to exist.  It is a question of SOURCE, and with our determination of source comes our idea of causation or intention.

Hence, I can see this odd chattering that suddenly pops up when I’m crying not as some evil spirit, or neurosis, or critical agent, but a reflex that most likely evolved in my brain and may be more or less active in me than in the average human (perhaps as a simple tool to reduce my physical vulnerability when overcome by emotion by “snapping me out of it”).  In other words, there is a real possibility of understanding it in a nonjudgmental way, which removes from the discussion all sorts of further emotional and existential complications.  (After all, if I think the Devil is trying to seduce me away from God, then my poor mind and body are reduced to a sort of confused war zone with spies and plots and open battles taking place over my highly-valued soul.  What a mess).

Instead, I can see my brain for the highly evolved organ that it is, even though this also means that it carries within it some rather ancient operating systems, reflexes and responses that were programmed at different times in my evolution, some of which are not necessarily the most conducive to living in a relatively non-violent, non-life-threatening modern social environment.  This is the down side: the fact that we have to come to terms with the notion that — having the evolved mammalian brains that we do — we are living with a consciousness that is actually a complex, sometimes self-contradictory alliance of innumerable evolved survival responses often better suited to a lizard than a lawyer (insert favorite lawyer joke here).

And, finally, back to my allusion to the “intention” of my emotion-interrupting mental chatter that kicked off this sermon.  I have to say here that the mind’s response to stimuli turns out to be intentional in only a rather limited way.  I’ve come to understand that there resides in my brain a sort of “blind librarian” that connects current stimuli to stored experience, and in a bio-chemical version of a word-association game, yanks from our memory any and all cognitive and bodily responses in our past experience that have any possible connection to the moment at hand.  That’s why certain triggers can make people panic over and over again — even when the current situation doesn’t warrant it — and why such connections are so challenging to break.  In evolutionary terms, this makes perfect sense as a means of keeping a wary animal wary, but it can sure get in the way of relaxing and “enjoying” life.

As an aside, I can tell you from my own experience that one of the most curiously challenging parts of my own journey has been this recognition of the kind of brain we humans are actually carrying around in our skulls: That the very organ that has brought us through all of our generations of evolution — and that we rely on for every bit of our ongoing survival and experience of life — is, well, a “Kluge” (as Gary Marcus so aptly describes it in “Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind” reviewed this blog).

In general, I am obviously well-adapted to my overall species (and individual) survival, but that does not mean that I am always going to be perfectly suited to any and every situation I find myself in.  Evolution is not about perfection, but adaptability.  And so nature doesn’t care if the human brain is an amalgam of reserved bits and pieces of its evolutionary journey through every brain it’s ever been, from fish to shrew to monkey to man.  I may care, but that, in the end, is my mental problem to map out.

t.n.s.r. bob

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “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

SERMON: “Getting Wisdom” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, October 21st, 2012

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

The “rev” as a young Art Director in his “therapy years”.

I read that Bible verse early in what I call my “therapy years”.  I was 27, working as an Art Director for an industry publishing company, and deeply involved in my church (in fact I would soon be off on my church-supported stint as a “smuggler for Jesus” in Europe).

The immediate impact of that verse was to make me feel better about paying for my ongoing therapy sessions (with a Christian psychologist) after I had used up my annual insurance benefit for outpatient therapy.  I was facing about three months, I think, of paying full-fare for my “wisdom”, and it seemed like an awful lot of money.

I don’t regret paying that money.  I don’t miss it.  I think I made the right choice.  But I have been wondering a bit about how to quantify the effects of the years of self-examination, therapy, counseling, reading, journaling and psychic-visiting that followed.

I find I must seriously consider the possibility that much of the calm and happiness that now mark my life are as much the product of natural processes that influenced my physiology, (in most particular my brain) as they are the earned result of all of my navel-gazing.

It could be argued that the single most remarkable thing about us humans is the capacity we have to use our minds to “step outside of ourselves” and observe our own behavior.  We can act instinctively, react quickly, and yet at the same time (or shortly thereafter) notice what we are doing and analyze it.  It is a rather amazing ability, and one that we point to as a large part of what defines us as “humans”.  But at every level beneath this one (both cognitive and physiological), we are still such animals, really.  I know that we give this idea a nod in many ways, and yet I don’t know how much we really give it its due.

As a young man, it was probably obvious to everyone but me how driven my behavior was by the testosterone pulsing in my system.  I would sometimes find myself in a sexual situation that a part of my mind — had it the courage to speak up — would have asked of the rest of me: “But, do you really want to be here?”.  (The answer would, at times, have been “No”).

(Is this the dilemma that Paul talks about in the Bible as well?  “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” (Romans 7:15, New International Version, © 1984)?  Such questions troubled me as a young, enthusiastic Christian).

We know now — thanks to science — that the human brain doesn’t fully mature until about age 27.  So in that sense it’s not surprising that the late-mid-twenties marked the beginning of my “therapy years”.  I was a young professional out in the world, with enough experience to begin to question whether the way I engaged that world was really optimal.

We read about the “mid life crisis” that hits forty-year-old men, but I was a bit early for that.  And yet, when I hit thirty, I found myself in another period of re-examination.  I did a bit more therapy, and read a lot of self-help literature (which was coming out like a flood in the popular press then).  “New Age” ideas had also become popular enough to be considered “mainstream”, and so I found an easy substitute for my my abandoned Christian belief system (as well as a whole new set of “enlightened” ideas and techniques to try out in order to achieve emotional stability and “happiness”).

I worked that New Age angle for about as long as I’d worked my Christianity (roughly 15 years), eventually finding a psychic who had a technique of deeply affirming me as an individual that set me on a quest for my new Holy Grail of total self-acceptance (a quest that eventually led me to abandon the “spell of belief” altogether).

But I can remember many years made up of long, painful days trying to find a way out of depression or anxiety into a brighter world, using any tool, tip or technique that presented itself.

Eventually, the clouds began to lift.  And over a rather long period of time, I found myself feeling more and more like a complete and coherent being, a process that took a long time to get rolling but, once it did, created a sort of momentum that was its own positive feedback loop.  And then, one day, I realized that I was actually happy and getting happier, becoming increasingly content with the way I saw the world and the person I was in that world.  And one night the familiar catalog of past events that I had mulled, autopsied, and replayed in endless mental loops for years and years suddenly lost their psychic punch.  The past, it would seem, had finally slipped into irrelevance.

The story I would have told you then would have been one of pride in all of the “self work” I had done.  I was proud that I had consistently made the choice to “buy wisdom”, to look inward and face my demons and — most importantly — have the courage to be willing to be completely accepting of whoever it was “Bob” turned out to  be.  It was, indeed, a point of pride, and of no small comfort when I compared my humble external accomplishments to my peers who had families and houses and such.  Others may have gained the world, but I had gained my soul!

But now I’m not so sure.  Not about my current persistent happiness or the man I’ve turned out to be, but about just what the major factors in that process really were.

For it turns out that there is science to be considered here: for not long after my young male brain had matured, it began its cognitive decline into the decay of the thirties and forties.  But with a twist: for it seems that the aging brain works to compensate for the “Swiss cheese-like” holes forming in our gray matter by creating new synaptic connections between the hemispheres of the brain.  So what I thought was the product of my deep introspection and analysis — namely my new-found ability to synthesize thought and emotion — was more likely the result of this natural patch-work happening inside my skull.  And then, of course, there is the seemingly inevitable age-related drop in male testosterone levels (that goes a long, long way to mellowing out a man).

After a few years of those lower testosterone levels, I found myself much less the jittery lone-wolf I had been before, and was more like a cat that didn’t mind curling up and purring with people now and again.  People I had known for years almost overnight became beloved friends whom I treasured.  I became a loving man.

Then came the years when I was seeing people I knew in the obituaries every week (most in the year leading up to the death of my father at age 91).  When my dad died, I was just about exactly half his age.  Suddenly I was thrust into another period of reflection, only now I was looking back on a life of learning my professional, artistic skills from the perspective of the master pondering his path to that mastery.  And after a couple rough years of transition into “middle age” that followed, I finally decided that my primary job would no longer be my own self-discovery and growth, but that the remaining years (at least until the next phase hit) would be to get on with doing all that I could with all that I had for as long as I could.

And then finally, after all of that, I hit a time in my life where I began to feel that I had, after all, gained a good bit of wisdom.  I wasn’t ready to be a yogi on a mountaintop – - I had to much yet to do with the remnant of youth still in my physical body and brain — but I did have that sense that if it all ended tomorrow, I had, at least, achieved that much with my life.

But now I wonder just how much of that wisdom came from all of my questing and questioning, anguish and acquiring, and how much was mostly the result of having simply stayed alive long enough for my brain to move through the phases of the first fifty years of my life?  It’s impossible to know.

(In fairness to my introspective self, I think that what I am really looking at here is the issue of emotional equilibrium and emotional intelligence — the sort of self-knowing that allows us to make decisions based on a certain clarity about what we feel, desire and need, not our storehouse of general knowledge or acquired technical skills, though the former helps in the application and appreciation of the latter, perhaps more than the acquisition of the latter inevitably brings about the former).

In short, it is not impossible to believe that a good deal of what I would like to take “credit” for (in terms of my general “happiness” or “contentment”) is pretty much pure biology that I have dressed up in a contemporary “personal growth” narrative.

This viewpoint has the appeal of injecting a bit of humility into the way I view the “wisdom” I have acquired in my lifetime.  And that, to me, is a fairly good indicator of the amount of “truth” in the idea.  It’s something I like about science: it puts us in our place in a particular way.  Meaning that it doesn’t degrade us (as another person might for their own gain), but neither does it give us license to think of ourselves as more clever than we actually are.  Science is, I think, the single best mirror we have in which to behold our true selves.  Everything else is wishing and fear.

Does this mean, then, that all the reading, counseling, praying, thinking and wondering I did in my teens, twenties, thirties and forties was a waste of time, energy and money?  No, I don’t think I can say that.  After all, I had to fill those difficult years with something, and I did, at least, choose to occupy myself some useful actives (I went to art school, for example, and worked a series of professional jobs, continuing to seize opportunities to develop my natural artistic talents into professional abilities).  But when it comes to all of the “self-help” work, I think it will remain an open question whether it was anywhere near as effective as I needed to believe it was at the time!

And so I’m left with this: not knowing, completely, from whence I — as the individual I now am — sprang.

My DNA, of course, was there from the start, and I was lucky enough to have a family that saw to it that I didn’t starve or get eaten by hyenas.  I was educated and socialized by my parents and siblings so that I could make my own way in the world.  I had opportunities for counseling when my melancholic and anxious personality was more than I could handle.  I had time alone to think…and think…and think (perhaps a bit too much of that).  And I had a talent for art and expression that gave me a place to invest time and education that eventually became a deeply satisfying career.  But in so many ways I am simply a male animal that has had the good fortune to live long enough to mature through the sequential phases of childhood into a mature adult who is now able to enjoy his life free from many of the uncomfortable by-products of DNA’s insistent urge to procreate.

After eons of the biological evolution that led to my own human parents, I have navigated the tumbling whitewater of my individual evolutionary path and lived to pop out the other side — onto calmer waters where evolution doesn’t give a rip about what happens to me next.  It is a fluke of history that I am alive in a time where so many of us get to live as long as we do in this post-evolutionary land of (potentially) enjoyable existence.  And though I can’t completely credit my own wisdom for getting me here, maybe I can borrow back just a bit of that satisfaction — suspect though it is — in recognizing that I do have the wisdom to recognize who and what I am.

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

Sunday, July 22nd, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

t.n.s.r. bob