Posts Tagged ‘naturalism’

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

SERMON: “Our Shrinking Brains” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, November 27th, 2011

I’m not sure how I feel about the fact that we modern humans have brains about ten percent smaller than our ice-age parents.  Because that’s what science is telling us.  After millions of years of growing our huge brains, they are now moving in the opposite direction.

I can look around on any given day and find any number of current human behaviors to blame on this cranial shrinkage: bad driving, talk radio, Sarah Palin.  But in the biology of life — in the “progression” of evolution through natural selection — things are never quite so simple.

The obvious fact is that there is a reason we have been able to dispense with ten percent of our brain.  Otherwise, we’d still have it.  Conversely, if our lives had become steadily more challenging, it’s a pretty sure thing our brains would actually be growing.  But what has changed so much that has changed us so much?  For in nature, there is pretty much never an evolutionary change that is not a selection for a better-adapted trait in a changing environment: if environments aren’t changing, species won’t change.  It takes the introduction of a new variable to push animal evolution: a new and invasive species, a climate shift.

In our case the best explanation seems to be our own domestication.

Now when we think of domesticated animals, we think of cows and sheep, dogs and cats and married men.  But the reality is that we humans have been domesticating our social selves for quite a while now.  Think about it: there was no New York City in the Pleistocene.  In those days we lived mostly in blood-kin bands of hunter-gatherers.  And no matter how much we’d like to make a comparison between the violence of our modern American culture and that “brutish and short” world of our Ice-Age forebears, the fact is that we humans manage a near miraculous daily feat of living cheek to jowl with masses of our fellow creatures with an historically unprecedented lack of person-to-person violence.

The n.s.r. bob ponders our shrinking brains...

In short, as we’ve learned of the enormous (mostly economic) benefits of living together, dividing our labors and extending trust to strangers, we have been submitting our genes to the selective forces of evolution.  It may turn out that we humans turn out to be even greater domesticators then we’ve given ourselves credit for by virtue of performing that task upon ourselves.

This fact confronts — in a broader sense — our continued mass denial of the reality of the evolutionary process.  A great deal of this resistance is based in belief, with most of that religious in nature.  Such belief holds that seeing ourselves as “merely” organisms adrift in some random natural process will strip us of all human dignity, and undermine any sense of universal (and therefore enforceable) morality.

To the first point, there is no “merely” about the evolutionary process.  And neither is anything at all about our biology “simple” or “base”.  I would argue that it is only ignorance that allows us to regard reductionist bronze age mysticism as a superior intellectual stance in the face of the actual wonder and mystery of life in the universe.

As to the argument for human dignity, the presupposition is that animal life is somehow worthy of disdain in any form other than human.  So the problem is not that we debase ourselves if we abandon our “special status” as divinely-created superbeings, but that we have constructed a false hierarchy for purely egotistical reasons.  For how does it truly lower us to recognize that we are walking, talking ecosystems of bacteria, viruses and cells whose chemical and electrical processes are facilitated by the metals and minerals that were born in the births and deaths of ancient stars?  (The writers of ancient holy books would have peed their pants were they to have had any inkling of such ideas to incorporate into their cosmology!)

And what of morality?  This is the big one.  The religious insist that our sense of right and wrong is divinely given.  Of course it’s not.  It’s clear from nature that morality exists in all social species.  And that is the key here: we are a social species.  Which means that if God were to vanish tomorrow (and with Him, all religious belief) there would indeed be many who would feel a certain freedom to pursue their hedonistic fantasies without restraint.  They would, however, immediately run up against the true barrier to dissipation: other humans.  The genuine control on human behavior is our own social natures: our desire — nay, our need — to be part of the group.

(The only humans truly free of this need are the psycho- or sociopath — and this is a genetic disorder, leaving those humans devoid of certain critical wiring that would normally make them give a shit about what their fellow humans think of them).

In short, were we to lose religion tomorrow, nothing at all about human morality would change.  Every single one of our human-to-human transactions would still require the same negation it does now.  Say hello to the new boss, same as the old boss.

Another unanswered question about evolution in our time is the effect of sexual selection on the species — now that women have had access to both better education and more control over their reproductive lives.  We already surmise that women are the most likely force behind producing the human male that has a larger penis (by body size) than any other primate.  And there is surely no difference between the human selection process for attractiveness or fitness and that of the bower bird or the peacock.  And now that technology is progressing at an ever more incredible rate, there is no reason to think that it, too, will not soon add its own selective pressures on the species.

Obesity is another evolutionary issue.  For there is nothing about our evolutionary past that endowed our entire species with the tools for resisting the brain-altering cravings that unlimited sugars trigger (the same parts of the brain hijacked by alcohol and other addictions).  To the end that we may be experiencing a rather dramatic selection process where a great many humans (that are prone to obesity under our modern industrialized diet) may soon be selected “out” of the gene pool.  There’s no reason not to expect that a mutation (or series of mutations) that give one a capacity for functioning well on the crap we now eat may soon spread through the population, giving those individuals that slightly-higher-than-average success rate that translates into thriving young.

All of this gets back to something I said in my very first sermon on Charles Darwin’s birthday: “Because of Darwin, life on earth makes sense”.  The theory of evolution has proven to be the best means of making sense of life on both a global and personal level.  And though it can be impossible to observe in an individual life, we have now accumulated enough data and insight to see evolution in action.  In scientific terms, we call it a theory.  The religious read that to mean “a man-made idea that’s not really true”.  What it means to scientists is a description of reality that has yet to be proven false.  Quite a difference, that.

The religious like to trot out the old aphorism that “Just because you don’t believe in God doesn’t mean He doesn’t exist”.  But the same can be said of evolution and natural selection.  The difference between the two, of course, is that evolution is the description of reality that is actually based in reality and evidence, and therefore does not deserve to be compared on equal terms with belief-based explanations for life.

But then, after these last twenty-thousand years of evolution the belief centers of our brain seem not to have diminished by even that (above-mentioned) ten percent.  But then, it may be that our capacity for religious belief was one of the traits that helped in our domestication.  Maybe it’s a cognitive leftover of evolution, like my tailbone, or my appendix, or that weak spot in my lower back that still isn’t quite used to walking upright.  And maybe I’ll just have to keep using the ninety-percent of brain I still have left to work around it.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “I Feel the Earth Move” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, August 28th, 2011

The earth rumbles, and you can bet that a lot of people will start praying.  Among the prayerful will be a number who harbor a belief that the earthquake is a message from God, most likely a call to repentance — a warning to a sinful people to “get right” with God before it’s “too late”.  (That’s what the lady I heard interviewed on the radio today said regarding the most recent “East Coast” earthquake).

Somewhere far down on the list of possible explanations for the tremors, humans will find the real one: the rather well-established fact that we live on a cooling planet.  Earthquakes are natural phenomenon that happen all the time in all sorts of places.  Some places suffer tremendous damage because of their geology, which can amplify the power of shifting chunks of the earth’s crust.  Others shake less destructively, again due to their local geology.  When an earthquake occurs in an economically prosperous region, the damage is sometimes less because the buildings are built with better materials, inspected by fairly trustworthy inspectors, and not overcrowded.  When it hits Haiti or China or Iran, well, the destruction can be terrible.

We live on the floating rocky surface of a cooling planet.

Nowhere in that equation is there any need for involving external mysterious sources for natural phenomenon.  Yet we do.  Consistently.  Incessantly.  Never stopping for a moment to consider that the intelligent being that is supposed to be the source of all existence and knowledge consistently chooses to communicate to sinful individuals with massive natural disasters that, for all of their fury and destructive attention-grabbing force, are mute, unintelligible and dreadfully ambiguous examples of effective God-to-man conversation.  (God is love.  It’s your sin that made the tornado hit your house.  It’s God’s mercy that spared your cat — a miracle of divine selection that ignored a few hundred other people in the tornado’s/hurricane’s path, such as when God’s guiding hand brought that jetliner down safely in the “Miracle on the Hudson”, while a week later another jet went down with all hands).

I hold that our response to natural events reveals a great deal about how we humans make sense of the world, and nothing about the character or reality of God.

This is the heart of what science has long said about the existence of God: He may or may not exist, but his existence is not needed to fill in any missing piece of the natural explanation of natural phenomenon.  (I’m one of those takes the view that if God is no longer necessary, then what is the point of keeping him around?)

Religion is a complex thing, as complex as the organisms that practice it.  I would like to dismiss it as a primitive habit that we would be better off to have never picked up in the first place.  I can point to the colorful tales of Nordic mythology as far better (and more interesting) morality tales then any that came out of the monotheistic Middle East.  But to be fair, the conflict between Christianity and Viking heathenism was less the brutal imposition of monotheism (that I long thought it to be) than it was a classic evolutionary battle between an earlier form of belief and a newer, more highly evolved religion.  Christianity was the exotic new species that shoved out the old one.  (As Richard Dawkins has pointed out, ideas evolve too).

The mistake people make is in assuming that one religion beats out another because it is somehow closer to some sort of ultimate truth.  But in many ways, the Viking world (to continue with that example) was probably ready for a change.  The world, after all, was changing.  Societies were evolving, the idea of nationhood was forming in Western Europe.  There were lots of reasons why a new religion could displace a less organized older one.  But, again, that explanation ranks right there with actual geology for making sense of an earthquake when the more “spiritual” rationale is much quicker to seize our attention.

Which brings me to a problem with criticizing any particular religion.  It’s a tricky thing.  Because it’s not a “thing” at all, but a behavior that is shared by many individuals, each in their own particular manner, yet related by a certain category of generally shared tenets and behaviors.  But there is no living organism or corporate headquarters for Christianity or Islam.  There’s no building to picket, no store to boycott.  Religions exist, yes, but as ideas that anyone can participate in.  (Sure there are the evangelists who feed and water irrational belief for their own (mostly commercial) ends, but even they are not the source.  They are freelance master manipulators of the human brain, trying to make a buck the best they can).

This is hardly satisfying.  It would be so much easier to attack irrational belief if there were some central plant that was sending out belief through a grid system like an electric plant.  That way we could shut down the source, and that would be the end of it.  But belief is a human phenomenon, a by-product of consciousness, a capacity latent in most human brains only awaiting an external trigger to come to life.  Belief begins in our own brains.  So irrational belief must be confronted one brain at a time.  But even if there is no actual God, we are still stuck with dealing with the believer who thinks that there is and, therefore, remains many mental miles away from understanding that the source of his or her belief rests very much between his or her own ears.

And so I come to agree with Christopher Hitchens when he says that we will never eliminate religion.  And maybe Christianity did bring some benefits to the heathen Vikings a thousand years ago.  Perhaps it was a step up from their earlier beliefs, even if the religious violence that became the new norm was only slightly less violent than that which preceded it.

The earth rumbles and dissipates the pressure built up from the incessant migration of its crust, shaking itself off to make room for the new rock being formed deep in the oceans.  And so we humans convulse from time to time, shaking off old beliefs and accepting new ones.  Perhaps Darwin’s “On the Origin of the Species” was such an intellectual earthquake, and we are still feeling the aftershocks of its publication.  The unraveling of the human genome, the discovery of the age of the universe and the blossoming field of neuroscience have all been recent shake-ups of old ideas.

Unfortunately, most humans feel the rumble of these earth-shaking discoveries and look skyward for the meaning that rests, in plain sight, right here on earth.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The Joys of Ambiguity and the Consolations of Science” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, April 17th, 2011

After the initial “scientific revolution” blitzkrieg against the ramparts of religion (where, it should be noted, religion did not fare so well), there have been attempts (by some on both sides of that battle) to raise a flag of truce.  The terms of this proposed cease-fire are drawn along the lines of the idea of non-overlapping magisterium, wherein Religion would accept the truths of science, cede the lost territory of using the Bible to explain the origins of species and the formation of the earth (as well as the causes of diseases and natural disasters) and Science would leave alone questions having to do with the existence of God and the meaning of life, as well as the role of personal confessor and consoler of the human soul.

This has never been an easy truce, nor one to which all signatories have remained within the letter (or the spirit) of the unwritten compromise.

For mainstream religion adapted to the new intellectual landscape by picking bits from the discoveries of science to spice up its sermons and lend them an air of contemporary credibility, while on the fringes the more fundamentalist believers in the Biblical account of creation simply added the word “science” to their “discipline” (while conveniently leaving out much of any true “scientific method” from their “proofs”) and dug in their heels, planting their flag proudly on Mount Irrational.  And on the Science side, many have not restrained themselves from the almost inevitable conclusion that since the evolution of life and the formation of the universe can now be explained within purely natural (if mind-boggling) means (and therefore requires the addition of no supernatural means for its existence) that there is, then, no greater being or intelligence at all.  In sum: since there is no scientific need for god, there is no god.

Obviously I fall into this latter extreme naturalist/atheist camp.

And yet even among those who have a passable understanding of what evolution tells us about our own existence, there remains a majority (if recent surveys are to believed) that nonetheless hold to a belief in God (in some form).

I consider a belief in an actual god an irrational belief, and I say that with some confidence.  However, I am also aware of another reality that has to temper any such pronouncement.  For though I consider a belief in an active, intervening and personal God to be an idea that can only exist in an ignorance of the actual evidence of biology, that “evidence of biology” (at least in terms of what we are now coming to understand of the way our evolved mammalian brains operate) suggests that our propensity toward magical thinking is as natural to our consciousness as is our capacity for empathy or aggression: in short God (both as an idea and as a perceived “presence”) is a natural by-product of consciousness.

And if God is, then, natural, can I really have a “problem” with it?  Sure, I can.  But I don’t feel like i can take it so far as to ridicule any and everyone who believes.  (Though, to be honest, there is no escaping the implied “ridicule” in my pronouncing their beliefs to be ridiculous).

Part of the reason I can’t (or won’t) actually attack a person’s beliefs is the same reason that most people would not leap into unrestrained rapine violence were they to suddenly realize there was no Great Father in the Sky watching their behavior and holding eternal punishment over their heads:  That reason being that I am also a deeply (profoundly) social animal, living among similarly social animals of my own kind, and I strongly desire to continue living among my kind in freedom and security.  (Going on a lawless rampage would quickly cost me my social standing, my career and my liberty — and all of that long before god got is eternal paws on me!)

What if I'd known all of this at 15?

Screw God, I say: the real punishment of misbehaving is (and has always been) the loss of the approbation of my fellow humans.  They have the real power to punish (forgetting, for now, the socio- and psychopathic among us that are genetically immune to such scorn from their fellow sentient beings).

Which brings me back around to an insoluble conundrum: the more science I read; the more corners of my ignorance into which science is able to cast some light, the less room there is for an actual god to hide.  And yet, the more science I read, the better I understand that the range of human personalities also has a genetic and biochemical basis, meaning that there will always be a portion of the population given to a liberal mind or a conservative mind (the conservative minded being the one that cannot comfortably function with a large does of ambiguity and that will, therefore, rely on its natural capacity for magical thinking to find evidence in a purely “natural” life for the divine).  Such as these will never join in fellowship with those of us who find a certain pleasure in the contemplation of the complexities of life that science reveals to us.

And this brings us to where science is now, I think: once more moving the fence posts that mark the ever-shrinking patch of land that the church occupies.  For the kind of knowledge that science can now supply is the kind of knowledge that no longer only informs (and tickles the more “open” mind), it also consoles.  And consolation has been one of the more popular menu-items at the religious buffet for many millennia.

As a personal example, the last two books I have read about brain science have helped me to begin a sort of mental “remediation”, wherein, like an asbestos removal team, I can begin uncovering and removing the last toxic vestiges of magical thinking that I had been culturally inclined to apply to the way my brain works.  In short, I can now recognize the mechanics of how my particular brain has stored information over the years, flavoring each memory with a charge of emotion (positive or negative) based on my personality (read: genes).

This may not sound like much, but in fact it frees me from an enormous burden, a burden that, at various times in my life, has included trying to figure out what the God of the Universe was trying to tell me through each experience, or what my Higher Power was “leading” me to (through this upset or that), or what possible cosmic “meaning” an event might be concealing.

Wow.  That’s a lot of BIG CONCERN for a mammalian brain to handle, especially when it turns out THERE IS NO SUCH THING be be concerned with!

In this sense, the ability to “see the world as it really is” has tremendous powers of consolation, as well as incredible practical utility.  I can now observe the way my brain operates without making that operation more (or less) than it actually is.  Further, it has given me tools to deal with the charged memories already stored in my brain during my more magically-inclined decades (sigh).

In short, I find that my increasing knowledge of science, and the recent reading of two books (that are basically about how mouse brains work) have given me more emotional comfort and useful tools than my 25 years of religious belief and years of therapy.  It almost feels as if the knowledge I’ve gained in the last couple of months — if given to the 15 year-old Bob — could have saved me a lot of trouble.

Oh, and did I mention the joy that such discoveries bring to a mind like mine?  Tremendous!

Sound a bit like a religious “testimony”?  Yeah, only it’s not.  It is a testimony to what lies beyond magical thinking: the joys of ambiguity and the consolations of science.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Dangerous Monkeys” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, January 16th, 2011

I’m trying to find a way to write about the recent shootings in Arizona without actually talking about them.  That’s because I find things like this difficult to really contemplate: the horror of them is a little too real to me.  Perhaps I empathize a little too clearly.

Well if I do, I also empathize with those who turn to religious beliefs to cope with (or, let’s face it — to shunt away) the sense of horror that such an act of human violence arouses.  When we consider that our brains use a contextual filing system, it makes sense to ask “where do we file something like this?”  And a workable answer (that we have evolved) could well be the “acts of the devil/acts of god” file (akin to putting it in an envelope and leaving it in somebody else’s in-box).  The fact is that there are realities that easily threaten to swamp our reason and capacity for understanding (I would put concepts like the age of the earth or the size of the universe in this category), and often it’s easier (or even necessary, perhaps) to put them in a corner and hide them behind a large potted plant.

Of course we know, deep inside, that nothing makes such realities go away, but coping strategies like these do often free up our conscious mind for dealing with the more immediate demands of our lives.

Dramatic events (like this most recent one in Tucson) reveal a lot about human behavior, and most of what is revealed comes from our reaction to the event.  In this case there is the outrage at the violence done to our sense of social cohesion that prompted so many (me among them) to denounce the inane blathering of the TEA Party types with their calls for a “second revolution”, “second amendment remedies” and Sarah Palin’s infamous “crosshairs map” (and the sadly predictable wheedling denial of actually  intending anything that they said).  Then there is the almost desperate search for the silver lining — a rush to create heroes out of the humans who acted from instincts more brave than the average (traits I also admire).

And then there is the slippery fish of the gunman and his motivations.

From the information available, it seems clear that he was slipping rather rapidly into debilitating mental illness.  The name that keeps cropping up is schizophrenia, and the rapid deterioration in the young man’s mental state reminded me of the tale my brother Ben tells in his book “Closing the Chasm: Letters from a Bi-polar Physician”.  My brother also had his first episodes of mania and depression in high school, and over time they increased in both frequency and intensity, aided by a dose of self-medication along the way.  In short — this is how these disorders blossom in us humans.

I suspect that a lot of people out there are thinking in terms of “good” versus “evil”, but being the materialist that I am I think more in terms of physical reality.  There is ever among us a certain percentage of humans that are socio- or psychopathic.  These are the people that frighten us the most, because these are the members of the tribe that don’t give a shit about fitting in with the group: they are immune to public shame or appeals to their need to belong.  We just look silly to them.  And then there are the percentage of the population that are prone to the other mental disorders such as bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia.

Before science, people had to find a way to make sense out of the “crazy” or “different” members of the tribe.  Some were seen to have spiritual powers, others as possessed by devils.  Of course, neither is true.  What we now know is that these individuals have faults in their wiring and/or brain chemistry.  There is no moral aspect to it at all, save for the morality of the thus-affected individual’s behaviors.  And there is no devil to blame, unless by that we mean the genetic mutation, or the gene-copying error (or other cause) that set the stage for the illness.

As anyone who knows mental illness will tell you, most people with mental disorders can manage their illness with medication and counseling.  Medication isn’t always efficient, and often has serious side-effects (that — one hopes — improving science will lessen over time), but it is effective.

As a social monkey, this shooting triggers a deep horror in me as I can’t help but contemplate the damage done by a bullet to a human brain.  For all that we are as a personality is contained in that organ, and contrary to what the religious might suppose, a materialistic, evolutionary view of the world makes individual lives more precious to one, not less so.  All the prayers in the world will not replace damaged brain tissue.

Of course we also know that the brain has a remarkable capacity to re-wire itself to work around damage, but still, I get a knot in my gut thinking about what lies ahead for the wounded Congresswoman.

Evil is what we call behavior that shocks, terrifies and bewilders us.  But it seems we should know by now that there are no other actors in the drama of life other than life itself: the faulty expression of a gene, a chemical imbalance, an inherited disorder.

Having said that, I do not think that any of this gives cover to the political blowhards of any stripe that will excuse themselves for any responsibility by hiding under the skirts of a diagnosis of schizophrenia in the gunman.  For our social brains (the ordered and the disordered) draw in ideas and tone from the general cultural and social atmosphere that surrounds us every day.  The religious zealot is reckless in his or her oratory because they believe that they are acting on directions from God, and that life will continue for we humans after death.  Such a preacher is not at all concerned with whether the listening believer that puts into violent action God’s dictates is similarly motivated or crazy as a loon.  As I’ve argued before, the big lie is that this sort of super-natural belief makes believers value life more than a non-believer, when in fact it seems to breed in them a callous disregard for the very real pain and suffering of those living in the here and now — the only life we KNOW we have.

To quote my own hymn: “Life is precious, life is good, but it’s not because God made it so”.  It is we humans who give life meaning, for good or evil.  We live in a natural world about which we have gained enormous understanding.  But it is also an incredibly complex and vast world which we can never completely control.  The very idea that we are not the masters of our destiny, or that there are humans who are running an entirely foreign operating system in their brains are, quite frankly, terrifying to contemplate.  All that we can do in the face of such frights is continue to work for reason, science and an appreciation for the reality that we all share in this short life.

t.n.s.r. bob