Posts Tagged ‘reason’

SERMON: “Tares Among the Wheat” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, December 30th, 2012

“Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field:  But while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way.  But when the blade was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also.  So the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? from whence then hath it tares?  He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. The servants said unto him, Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up?  But he said, Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them.  Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn”.  (Matthew 13:24-30, King James Version)

"Wheatfield with Crows" by Vincent Van Gogh “Wheatfield with Crows” by Vincent Van Gogh

The idea for this last sermon of this third year of the boblog of the not-so-reverend bob comes from catching myself in a behavior that almost anyone would recognize as “prayer”: me, alone, speaking out loud in a way that implies a belief that an unseen entity is listening — an entity who, it must be added, is thought to be able to act upon the information I am supplying through my “prayer”.

So, it occurred to me that if we were all put under a giant microscope — all the faithful believers in God in the world and atheist me — any unbiased researcher would say that there is absolutely no difference between what I do and what the most fervent religious believer does, at least in terms of behavior.  And yet there is a difference.  But I can find myself wondering if that difference really means anything.  Have I really journeyed so far to just be like everyone else who found God and stopped there?

This doesn’t seem to fit the narrative I tell of my own “spiritual” journey — a journey marked by a beginning — and landmarks — that long preceded the idea for the “church of bob”.  But the practice of these last years of writing out (weekly) my thoughts and observations has, I think, accelerated and focused my own process and growth.  And yet, after three years in which I’ve read at least a hundred books on science (and who knows how many articles), visited a slew of museums, interviewed scientists and written over 150 sermons, it feels — rather surprisingly — as if I what I’ve really done is a lot of hard work to get back to a place I already knew.  Sort of the spiritual equivalent of a battle where bloodied troops find the reward for their efforts is to re-occupy the trenches they were forced out of in the previous battle.

I’ve written before on my view that one of the most vital tools of religion (of any kind) is the re-branding of human experience into something exclusive to a particular religious practice.  I stand by that idea.  You name any natural impulse or phenomenon of the human mind or body and you will find, in one spiritual guidebook or another, an explanation for it that instantly converts it to confirmatory evidence for whatever deity or tradition is being sold at the moment.  It would seem that just below our primal social and sexual impulses we are natural marketers.  From our early shamanism to the religions that developed as we became agricultural (and had to find ways to live together in ever larger and more complex non-kin-related groups) religion has found fertile soil in the human psyche.  But, then, how would we expect anything else from a system of ideas that evolved under conditions of cognitive natural selection as surely as birds evolved feathers and we evolved from fish?

And so it would seem that a great deal of my journey (in these last few years) has not been to acquire new territory as much as it has been to systematically disentangle the tendrils of religious associations from the behaviors that are natural to a mammal (that has a body and a multi-layered consciousness such as we humans do).  To borrow from the parable quoted above, I had to wait for the harvest to separate the tares from the wheat.

I can now recognize that what a Buddhist or Muslim or Christian or Jew does when they pray is the exact same thing that I do when I talk to myself.  The only difference between us is that they think that they are praying to an external God (or spirit or saint or the universe).  But observed on the level of behavior (and, I should add, outcome) it’s all the same.  That may bother believers, but it no longer bothers me.  I am satisfied that I now finally know who and what it is I am praying to: my own consciousness.  And every part of that conversation (save for the sound waves that travel from my mouth to my ears) takes place within the confines of my physical body.  No more, no less.

One of the major themes of my “preaching” is that this understanding takes nothing away from the wonder and magic of prayer.  Because what prayer actually is is a process of making the thoughts of my waking brain (which is informed by external stimuli, reason, analytical thought, and the emotions and desires of deeper, non-verbal levels of our consciousness) and vocalizing them so that they can be processed by a different level of that same brain.  This is why prayer works: it takes advantage of the various ways in which different parts of our brain process information (it would appear that auditory input is sent to a different processing center than internal, non-vocalized thought).  To ignore this brain trick would be to cut off one’s nose to spite one’s face, as it were.

I talk to this brain of mine out loud because I have learned from experience that it will actually “answer” me, help me find my keys, help to make things happen that I want to make happen, etc.  What I have also learned, however, is that — despite the hubristic claims of the worst of the spiritual hucksters — my mind has no power to make anything happen remotely (to effect events in other locations).  It is a purely local, internalized phenomenon.  (Believing we are capable of anything else takes us immediately into the realm of metaphysics or the “super” natural.  Something for which I find no evidence).

So you could fairly say that I talk to God all the time, and God hears me, and God answers my prayers.  Only I understand that the voice I hear is really coming from a location in my own consciousness that exists at a level that is accessible by language.  This can be hard for a believer to accept, because it would mean that their religion is but one brand name of a product sold under many other labels (and it is certainly not welcome news to the marketeers of those brands!).  And — perhaps more importantly — it means that all of the advantages of prayer are not reserved by God for the faithful alone, but are available, as it were, in their “generic” form to all.

But, then, this is where a proper understanding of what we really are as evolved mammals can, I think, make us better humans.  Stripping prayer of the impossible religious promises of mountain moving, for instance, doesn’t take anything away from us (except maybe a bit of hollow boastfulness), and removing a fictional God as the source of our supplication does not, in the end, lessen the effectiveness of our prayers.  For what was there to begin with is still there, right inside our bony skulls: the field where the tares and wheat of our awareness ripen — our own multi-leveled consciousness.

t.n.s.r. bob

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

Sunday, November 25th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remarkable.  All of it, really.

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

A “Sparrow” that fell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Daddy Dearest” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, November 4th, 2012
The “scarlet A” that has become a symbol for the atheist “coming out” campaign.

Today I lingered for a moment on a syndicated Christian radio program as the host interviewed her guest.  I listened as they reached their consensus that the explanation for atheism was the deep hurt of a father who “wasn’t there” in the atheist’s youth.  They used (my beloved) Christopher Hitchen’s pronouncement that any tales of his deathbed conversion (he only recently died of cancer) should not be believed.  The man on the other side of the radio interview said these words made him want to “crawl under my desk — for man is designed to be with God”.  To these two Christians, then, the only explanation for not believing in God was the disappointment of a disappointing “earthly” father, not reason, not evidence, none of that nonsense.

This isn’t the first time I’ve run across this idea.  If I tell an evangelical Christian that I don’t believe in God, they will almost invariably become instantly sympathetic, moved, even, as they struggle to imagine the magnitude of hurt I must have experienced that “drove me away” from God.  (It’s of little consequence to them that the entire construct of that question presupposes the existence of an actual God that I could be hurt by, or disappointed in.  But that is another matter).

Having considered and studied the nature of belief for some time, it now seems to me that belief in God is a natural part of being human.  True, belief is not quite universal among our species, but the majority of humans do believe in some power “greater than themselves” (and by this they don’t mean the powerful forces of nature).  It’s been an interesting experiment to be among the minority in this regard (and in the minority of even that minority of unbelievers by virtue of identifying myself an atheist, as opposed to agnostic).

One part of this “non-spiritual” adventure of mine is experiencing the social aspect of being in this non-religious minority within a broadly religious majority culture.  But another aspect of the adventure is the challenge of being one of those humans who — unlike some of my atheist brethren — found belief to be fairly easy to go along with until it was no longer a tenable conceptual framework.  In other words, I seemed to be quite able and willing to believe…right up to the moment I realized that God didn’t actually exist.

But that has put me in a challenging cognitive spot: between a rock and hard place, as it were.  For it would appear that I have an evolved brain that is (like the brains of the believing majority) actually wired to believe (to conjure meaningful patterns from random events by selective emphasis) and yet I am currently not actively engaging that part of my brain.  So you could say that I am, in a sense, at odds with my own biology!

But I also have what could be classified as a “critical” brain.  And I don’t mean that in a completely negative sense.  I think it is precisely my critical capacity — combined with a curiosity (perhaps bequeathed to me by my own earthly father)  — that has made me the artist and writer that I am.  After all, to progress at all in any art or profession, one must develop the capacity to evaluate one’s own performance, which in my case meant finding a balance between developing a cold eye for searching out mistakes or weaknesses in my work, and a genuine appreciation for the products of my own particular talent.  But it may well be that a brain like mine — so well tuned for creating art — is not the best brain for living in a world of belief.  In other words, having the brain that I have, perhaps my declension from belief was as inevitable as my acquisition of it in the first place!

When my Christianity came to an end, I felt like a hard-rock miner who had been manning a clattering drill for fifteen years who had suddenly broken through a rock wall that, instead of leading to an open chamber, was actually the last bit of crust on the other side of the earth, and so I found myself suddenly tumbling off into the vast void of God-less space.  In time I began to look in wonder at Christians who had believed in God all of their lives (and would likely believe until they died).  How could they do it?  Was it simply a function of my determined personality that turned the seemingly virtuous trait of getting-to-the-bottom-of-things into a boring-a-hole-right-through-an-entire-belief-system character flaw?

Could be.

But getting back to the sympathetically vapid stance of our two radio people, I can honestly tell tell them that I have no beef with God.  (But, based on my experience with such discussions, I don’t think they would be quite able to grasp what that really means).  Like when a young friend recently asked me what my chief complaint was with God.  Well, I would have to answer that I have no “complaint” with God, because, well, God does not exist as a real thing that I could have a real complaint with or about.  The question itself is built upon the same presuppositions as the “bad-daddy” atheism cause I described above.

And this is where I must make a diversion into an area where things get really tricky.

So far, we’ve tended (historically) to see things in one of two ways: 1) God exists, and we were created by Him to know Him, and it is an act of sinful “will” to ignore or deny this reality; or 2) There is no god (never was), and we just made him up anyway (and so it logically follows that we can unmake him up just as easily).  But I’m coming to see that it’s more complicated than that.  For religious belief is based on a particular approach to interpreting naturally-occuring phenomenon, that is itself built on the natural cognitive structure of our evolved pattern-seeking (and highly social) brains.  This means that what we are really talking about is a difference in the interpretation of actual phenomenon, not in the existence (or validity) of that phenomenon.  So that when we say that God doesn’t exist, the believer thinks we mean that the phenomenon that a believer uses to support his or her belief doesn’t exist, (and they simply KNOW that this is bullshit).  And I suspect that a lot of atheists make that subtle, but critical, mistake in their argument.  But as I’ve come to say: “I believe in the phenomenon, I just don’t believe in the religious interpretation of it”.

And so when I listen to folks like those on the radio today, I hear people creating an entire argument in an imaginary space that never has to make contact with reality, only with a certain shared perception of it.  And the theories and questions and challenges that emerge from that cloud end up being of no practical use to someone like me.  There is no point of useful engagement with such notions.  Threats of divine judgement are not ignored by the non-believer out of some injured-child defiance, but because they are hollow threats.  There is nothing to back them up and, therefore, nothing to get riled about.

There are multiple levels to human behavior, and they are woven together in an way that makes their untangling a tricky thing.  But this shouldn’t be surprising, for isn’t that the way of all of nature?  Ecosystems and animals live in a highly interdependent dance such that any slight change in any part of that system can trigger a cascade of unforeseen consequences.  And so it is with us humans when belief is removed from the cognitive equation.  It may just turn out to be that unbelief is an unnatural state to some of us!  This could be part of the explanation for why there aren’t more non-believers than there are: on some instinctual level folks understand the risk of leaving the security of the group think.  But then we are also curious, reasoning animals, and I am certainly not the first (or only) human to come to the conclusion that he’s been believing a bunch of silliness with no basis in fact or evidence.

But then this, to me, makes the argument against God even more compelling.  For even here there is a natural explanation that is consonant with other observable realities.  Belief in God then is not merely a delusion, but a particular kind of illusion that is custom-fit to our mode of thinking and feeling.  This, too, points to the natural evolutionary origins of belief far more than it points to an actual God.  But to understand such ideas, someone in the embrace of active religious belief would have to take several significant steps back before gaining any kind of useful perspective.  And this is an action that few, it seems, are willing to take.

So the atheist recognizes the reality of the world offered by science, but must then persevere through the discomforts of living a godless life with a brain “built” for belief, whereas the believer indulges in the easy comforts of a fantastical (yet custom-tailored) mindscape of that belief.  Two different yet related modes of human existence as we navigate our way through the remarkable fact of our existence on this planet.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “History in the Making” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, September 23rd, 2012
My late dad, born in 1914.

I once talked to my father about the changes he had witnessed in his lifetime.  He remembered when electricity first came to his family home (in the 1920’s).  The first aircraft he saw were a World War One vintage “Jenny” and a U.S. Navy airship.  His father had been witness to the Johnstown Flood of 1889.   My mother recalls being a 12-year old girl walking her grandfather across town, noticing his distinctive limp from the wound he received at the battle of Chicamauga during the American Civil War.  As a child listening to the stories of our parents, history is always the thing that happened to the generations that came before.

This makes sense, as it takes some time for current events to become “history” — years must pass before we can see our own times in any sort of of context.

It is probably a sign of my own advancing age that I now reflect on the history that I have been witness to.  As a boy the long shadow of World War 2 reached into my imagination.  My dad was a veteran of that war, and my mother had lost many childhood friends to it.  What in my youthful experience could compare to a national and global event of that kind?  Vietnam?  Hardly.  The pollution of the planet that became a signal issue of my teens?  Maybe…  But perhaps I’ve looked in the wrong places for the wrong kinds of historical events.

If anything marks our age it is the growth of our technology.  The hints of it were there in my father’s boyhood home (that had gas for lighting and cooking and heat, but no electricity).  But by the time my father was born, electricity was already on its way and would soon arrive in nearly every home.  With electricity came the radio, and from the radio came the television.  Then, in my lifetime, came the personal computer and the silicon chip, which seems to have multiplied every other invention of humankind:  the computer became something that we shake like salt into our diet of technology, from a telephone in my pocket to the jet streaking across the sky.

And the computer has helped propel scientific discovery: we can see deeper into space and deeper into ourselves.  And this is where the stunning discoveries that have occurred in my fifty-plus years living are thrown into relief.

I remember as a school boy hearing that the theory of “continental drift”, once popular, had fallen into disrepute.  I looked with fascination at the depiction in National Geographic of the brutish Neanderthal, and the charts that showed a steady, linear progression of ancient ape to man.  And I sat with my schoolmates in the cafeteria to watch, together, the flickering image on a single, small television screen, of a man walking on the moon for the first time.

But a lot has changed since I was 10 or 11 or 12.  We now know that “continental drift” is really “plate tectonics”, which is now understood as the primary force behind the creation and renewal of the earth’s crust.  We have grown in our understanding of Neanderthals, realizing that they were not our ancestors after all, but only the last of who-knows-how-many evolutionary dead-ends on our ever-branching hominid evolutionary tree.  And, though I didn’t realize the significance of it at the time, the moon landing answered the most basic unanswered questions about where our grey cosmic companion had come from.  (Before we brought those moon rocks home we did not know, truly, that the moon had been blown out of a young earth by a cosmic collision).

But there is more.  In my lifetime scientists have arrived at startling conclusions about our universe:  For one, they figured out that the universe was still expanding and accelerating, and this knowledge led to establishing the age of our universe (something that had not been firmly established before); we began to understand that dinosaurs were not quite as we’d imagined them, but some could have been warm-blooded and covered in protofeathers.

Continued discoveries and analysis has given us a much deeper appreciation for both the majesty and complexity of our evolution.  The mapping of the genomes of living creatures (including humans) has opened up an indisputable window into the relatedness of all living things.  Theories that have guided scientific exploration for centuries have been tested, refined, discarded or dramatically proven.  Our knowledge of just how much “we know that we don’t know” has exploded in exponential ways.  We stand before creation better informed than any previous generation of humans, and yet even more deeply awed at what we see and who we are.  Well, at least some of us do.

I find myself impatient with my fellow humans, particularly those who continue to actively resist the knowledge of science.  I see tribalism, fear, and a retreat into mysticism that can be frightening to behold.  We humans appear to be a mix of the most modern minds and the most ancient atavistic reflexes against anything new or novel.  But taking a wider view, it is hardly surprising that everyone is not on board with science.  The pace of discoveries has been so fast — as fast, it seems, as the advances in our technology  — that it is perhaps asking too much to expect the average person (who must still see to his or her own survival, if only in economic — not animal — terms) to keep up with it all.

By the incredible good fortune of being born into a literate and affluent society, I am able to choose to devote a certain part of my time and energy to increasing my understanding of reality.  And for this I rely a great deal on a steady stream of well-written books and articles on science and my own observations.  This information is available to anyone who wants it, yet it penetrates only so far into our culture at large.  Some of that is due to economic and educational factors, but among all of those who have the same access and resources that I have, I have to recognize that I am an individual that has made certain adjustments to his brain: I have worked to “reboot” my perceptual software beyond a system of religious belief and into a more scientific framework.  I find that this change brings me closer to a view of the world that I can rely on, even as it infuses me with an awareness of the limitations of my own cognitive and perceptive tool kit.  But this sort of awareness would appear to be that of a minority of my fellow humans.

It seems to come down to this:  those that see science as a threat to their beliefs, and those that see it as an antidote to them.  Clearly, I am happy to be rid of the virus of irrational belief (which is what I consider most religious belief to be).  Or, I should say, free from most of the debilitating effects of this most natural of diseases.  Because I will always carry the tendency toward belief that has been hard-wired into my cognitive functions by evolution and natural selection.   I will never transcend this natural condition of the human mind.  (But even here I must thank science for giving me the awareness that I am a purely physical, bio-mechanical being).

That being said, we have also discovered that aspects of our physical being are plastic — meaning that we can affect our physical condition through specific actions.  And nowhere is this more true than in the cognitive functions of our brain.  We now understand that the terrible problem of addiction comes about because of the way in which brain chemistry adapts to the hyper-stimulation of drug use (to use that example).  Our brain chemistry and behavior actually change because of our feeding it something refined and potent.  Because of the brains plasticity we can alter our responses to other stimuli, and find ways to moderate our dramatic animal responses in ways that make our lives (as social animals living together in modern, interdependent communities) more pleasant for all involved.

But, perhaps oddly, the more interconnected we have become by technology the greater the implications of our personal responsibility.  Suddenly each individual is expected to be a sort of mini-specialist in their own behavioral psychology, the physiology of their digestion, immune system, and overall physical health (as examples) — each of us a sort of an amateur self-contained scientist.

To a large extent, we have managed to absorb a vast amount of data from science.  Even the most religious will cite science as support for their ideas about how one should live (even if they deny the science that says, for example, that the earth wasn’t created ten-thousand years ago).  We manage to steer the complex machinery that is a car or motorcycle at high speeds down narrow strips of road.  We figure out every new machine or device that comes into our hands, and we consume loads of news from every corner of the world every day.

That we are, in fact, pushed by all of this data into a near constant state of cognitive semi-overload is rarely discussed.  Because of technology, science, and population growth, life has just plain sped up a lot over the last couple hundred years.  We don’t realize how fast we are going because the acceleration has not been from a dead stop: each of us joins the rat race already in motion.

In a funny way, it seems like it could be this mixture of the acceleration of the demands on our primate brains — and the physical limitations of those brains — that could bring things to a screeching halt.  I wonder how much of this we can really take?  I wonder if we will all become aware of the “wall” before we smack our foreheads into it?  Science, of course, studies such things closely.  So do designers.  After all, what is the use of one more amazing function in a fighter jet if the best and brightest young pilot is too overwhelmed with inputs and alarms and distractions to utilize it effectively?

Most of us are not cognitively challenged to the level of a fighter pilot.  But compared to our Cro-magnon ancestors, we might as well be fighter pilots.  True — our cave-dwelling ancestors faced a daily threat of death in many toothy and tusked forms that do not trouble most of us in a modern society.  But I would argue that their brains were more accurately tuned to the environment that challenged them every day.  We modern humans are actively testing the limits of our brains in ways no other generation has in this, the largest human experiment ever conducted.

Interesting times, interesting times.

I wish that humankind as a whole would just sort of get with the program and at least agree to a common understanding that science is the best thing we’ve got for understanding reality.  But humankind is not much different than a microbial mat clinging to a seashore: a collection of individual life forms that is ever renewing itself — a spectrum of the very young, the mature, and the dying that will never be all of one mind at one time.

This is the tug at the heart that is an awareness of history.  History is the shape that the entirety of human experience takes in a given time frame, but it is mainly a conception — a way of thinking about our place in the endless parade that is that history.  It’s likely that earlier “change” epochs challenged the human brain and forced its evolution from lizard to mammal.  Perhaps our time is just the latest dramatic punctuation of the Ice Age equilibrium that has carried us until now.  I know I that feel challenged.  In thought, at least, if not in my ability to avoid the gnashing fangs of a sabre-tooth in the brush.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “A Fish to Hook?” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, June 10th, 2012

Though I identify myself as an atheist, when it comes to the heart of my ethics, I’m a humanist.  I tend towards pragmatism when it comes to social issues, and I embrace a humanistic view as it seems to be the best of all possible approaches to making life as good as it can be for as many people as possible.  I recognize the enormous potential we humans have for cooperation and altruistic behavior.  We are capable of being very kind to each other and, on occasion, rising above the raging desire for short-term advantage and choosing, instead, to delay our instant gratification for a reward that we are (sometimes grudgingly) willing to share with others, even strangers.

As you can see by the way I describe the “good” in us humans, I do not shy away from the bad.  How can I?  I am human too, and I know all too well the impulses in my own consciousness that are necessarily modulated by that lately-added lump of brain tissue in my frontal lobes.  My motives for self-understanding are no more or less noble than my own social survival and hope for success in life and love (the two go together for us social primates).

All religions recognize the cognitive tensions (the result of mediating conflicting desires) that are our natural inheritance.  To me this tension is a not-surprising product of our natural evolution, while to the religious it is the result of sin entering into the world through our defiance of God.  Leaving aside the God idea for a moment (and looking instead at the actual evidence of our origins) why should it shock us to find powerful animal reactivity in us when we have spent most of our evolutionary history as animals living in the wild like any other?  Have you considered just how recent is our rise to modern human status?  Or the exponential increase in our numbers and multiplication of our technical and cultural achievements that is even now sweeping us forward like a flood toward our future?

Religions base their doctrines and orthodoxies on the ins and outs and ups and downs of human nature.  (They have to if they are going to a) appeal to humans, and; b) be of any practical use whatsoever).  But a mark of religions is their consistent inability to resist the temptation to re-brand whatever problems they aim to fix (or the solutions they offer) as something unique and special unto themselves.  This is not the spreading of truth: this is commercialism and team-building for the sake of building a brand.

I think Humanism is our best shot at doing the best for the most.

Humanism, on the other hand, does not (I think) go about things in that way.  It continually throws people back upon their own naturally-derived (and therefore already-owned) resources, while encouraging those that have a surplus to share with those that (through the vagaries of genetics or place of birth) have a deficit.  Churches often work to help the poor and the needy, but they are always doing it in part to increase the size and power of the church.  As the late Christopher Hitchens liked to point out, they may claim to have their eyes on the rewards in the next life, but they sure seem to spend a lot of time building up kingdoms in this one.

How many times in my Christian years was I told “the fields are white for harvest”, as if people were stalks of wheat to be gathered with sickle and wagon?  Or exhorted to be a “fisher of men”, as if people are fish to be caught with bait, hook or net and gathered into the boat?  Think about what this says about how the unsaved are viewed by the saved.

Do you want to know why American Evangelical preachers lash out so vehemently at “secular humanism”?  Because humanists are out there offering every single benefit that religion offers without the small print, the hidden costs, and the requirement to sign away your reason, your autonomy, and your eternal soul (these same Evangelicals often have as little sympathy for the religious humanists in their own ranks).

As an aside, this all points to one of the basic flaws in this whole “church of bob” concept (at least in terms of a business model): I have nothing at all to hold over anyone who might come here to read, enjoy, learn or laugh.  I have no threat of hell to wield, or any hint of a deity’s displeasure (there are very few, I think, concerned about incurring the decidedly temporal “wrath of bob”).  That’s why this “church” will never work like a real church (and it is why I’ll never be the slick preacher driving his new Escalade up to his mansion with his trophy wife, just counting the days until my evangelistic empire is brought to ruin by a shocking sexual scandal — sigh).

I go back and forth on my feelings for humans.  On the one hand, we sort of deserve whatever we get in terms of fouling our own global nest.  But, then, why should I be any more harsh on the human species of animals than I am on any other?  Did the dinosaurs “deserve” to go extinct?  No.  Yes.  I don’t know.  Anything that is living has earned its moment in the sun through dint of the eons of sheer survival and adaptation that is represented by the surviving DNA in every single living organism (including you and me).  And that is why — being an atheist and a humanist — I mourn and I ache for a life that is cut short by the willful act of another.  What right does one human have to knowingly make life more miserable for others (especially when they use some bullshit religious justification for it like: “Well, if they were innocent, God will make it up for them in Heaven” — nice)?  (I am not addressing, here, the spectrum of discomforts that some humans have with the fact that our very survival requires us to consume other life forms, be they animal or vegetable — one more “tension” we must deal with in life).

So when I attack religion (which I often do, seeing it as but the fat middle of the bell curve of human irrational beliefs of all kinds), I am not attacking my fellow humans, but rather hoping to appeal to (and encourage) our “better natures”.  Some will claim that this is what religion does as well, and I will allow that for some people religious conversion does serve as an entry-level introduction to not acting like a complete and total selfish prick.  But because religion always has (at its heart) a fearful view of the world, an enshrined sense of self-loathing, and a preening need to be the only game in town, the results are ever going to be mixed.

I think humanism, then, is the way to go.  It is not perfect — for it will always be rooted in the reality of actual human behavior — but it is the most reality-based mix of hope and evidence, poisoned the least by denial and absent the religious demand for human debasement before the throne of an imaginary totalitarian in the sky.  No humanist will ever think of a person as a fish to hook, or a sheaf of wheat to chop with a scythe.

But, then, it’s not easy to take full responsibility for consciousness — for existence.  Too little attention is paid to the challenge that simply being alive and aware entails, I think.  Like the button I saw in a store last week that said “Stuck in that awkward phase between birth and death”.  Truer words could not be spoken.

All I’m saying is this: let us each do the bit that we can to make that “awkward phase” a bit less awkward (or miserable or tragic) for both ourselves and our fellow human beings.  If we end up losing a god who doesn’t seem think that highly of us anyway in the process of achieving the fullness of our humanity, is that such a bad thing?

I, for one, don’t think so.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The Brain: A User’s Guide — Abridged” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, May 20th, 2012

WHAT OUR BRAINS ARE GOOD AT:

Keeping us from stepping on a rattlesnake.

Getting us to throw up when we see someone else do it.

Thinking about sex.

These are survival responses: fight or flight; mirror neurons that pay detailed attention to what those close to us are feeling, experiencing, or seeing, and; reproducing to ensure the continuation of the species.

What our brains are not good at:

Critically examining things we hear from others.

Perceiving reality without a thick filter of magical belief.

Not being fearful.

Our brains are physical machines that have evolved with us over millions of years.  They exist because they are good at keeping us alive and fruitful.  We exist because they work as well as they do.

When we started using tools to aid our survival (around 6 million years ago), we were on our way toward becoming the dominant life form on the planet that we are today.  Our advancement, however, was slow.  But over time our cleverness led us to things like fire and cooked food (which fed our growing brains while reducing the need for our huge ape-like chewing muscles, which then allowed our brain cases to expand to the limits finally imposed on them by natural selection — namely the width of the human female’s pelvis).

We are the tool-making ape, and because of the protections we have built for ourselves from the forces of nature (extreme heat, cold and disease), and our ability to alter the environments we live in (as well as the plants and animals we live with), we have spread out and flourished.  In just the last 15,000 years we went from a small bunch migrating out of Africa to the global population of modern humans we are now.

This is no small success.  But we are mistaken to lean as much as we do on the idea that our brains are more than our most advanced sensory organ — that our minds are something that transcends the physical world.  They don’t.

As I sat on a park bench today, watching a pair of grackles chase a squirrel from the lawn beneath “their” tree, and then return to their mix of mating and feeding behavior, I was reminded that, if you get right down to it, the “purpose” of life is to continue to live.  Life, by any definition, is a complex process that exists only by dint of its ability to feed itself and reproduce.  Even the most mindless of life is propelled by this innate impulse.  And we humans are no different.

But, of course, we are very different when it comes to cognition. All animals have brains, some small, some large.  And some of those animals are eerily similar to us in having a social sense and an emotional interior life.  Some even make simple tools.  But none have the self-awareness that we humans do, and I think that gives us a very singular set of existential problems to deal with.

We humans have huge brains. Okay, maybe not quite THIS huge!

In particular is the question of “why us?”  Our attempts to answer that existential question have created thousands of gods, thousands of religions to go with those gods, and creation myths aplenty — all of them stories with us at the center, revealing some satisfying aspect of our “true” purpose here on Earth.

Of course one of the problems with that approach is that we are not divine in origin (at least as far as we can tell), nor are we “intelligently designed”.  What we are is  “naturally selected” (a process that can bring about results that easily mimic what we might consider “design”).  And what we generally end up with, then, is a lofty narrative of our special creation draped over the pulsing drive of the survival-insuring primitive animal brain.  This is a recipe for conflict and cognitive dissonance on a fairly grand scale!

The fact that we are living in an age of technology and science lends support to our already-elevated view of our brain’s “designed” perfection.  Therefore we consistently overestimate the power of the human brain — to the point that many believe that with the right amount of practice, we can project ourselves across the universe, read other minds or predict the future.  At the same time we under-estimate some of the real powers of the brain: such as our natural animal wariness that can create debilitating fears, irrational thoughts and faulty perception.  Both are problematic.

The predicament that we are in is this: we are alive, we are conscious, and the only organ we have for navigating that rather stunning state of existence is a multi-layered, quirky sensory organ that retains its most primitive life-preserving functions even as it serves as the source of our most lofty, artistic and humane expressions.  Darwin wasn’t just whistling “Dixie” when he said that “…man with all his noble qualities …still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin. “  We do.  Oh, indeed, we do.

The truth is that we humans can seem to be rational only as a sort of last resort.  As I observe the battle lines of ideological debate in our current Presidential campaign, I am mostly struck by how many people are willing to take, at face value, almost any falsehood as long as it promises to support their belief-dependent view of reality.  If I could put one idea into the brains of all of my fellow citizens, it would be to embrace the true challenge that ownership of an evolved conscious mind entails, and learn to use our brains as effectively as possible (which has to include an awareness of the many quirks, biases and sensory mistakes that it is subject to).

It is a paradoxical challenge, this: using one part of our brain to figure out where the other parts of that same brain might be leading us astray.  But this is our reality: everything about our consciousness is playing out within the confines of our physical bodies.  (Though little wonder — since it can feel at times like there’s more than one person inside our head — so many of us are willing to imagine the different parts of our own consciousness as external beings, be they demons, spirits or angels).

Our brains may not be perfect, but they are certainly remarkable.  We just have to remember that they can rule us (fear) as much as we rule them (reason).  The best we can do is come to an understanding — an alliance, if you will — with the several aspects of our brain, and recognize the reality of what is happening inside our skulls.

t.n.s.r. bob

[CORRECTION/CLARIFICATION: My statement “In just the last 15,000 years we went from a small bunch migrating out of Africa to the global population of modern humans we are now.” is incorrect in that modern humans had already occupied regions of the Middle East and Central Europe before this time, but our global expansion has occurred within the last 15,000 years.  — t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “An Evolution Dialogue” By the not-so-reverend bob.

Sunday, January 30th, 2011

Recently I got a note from someone I’d known for some time.  I assumed he’d just taken a look at this blog, and e-mailed me to confirm that I was a “believer” in Evolution.  I answered in the affirmative, and the following (electronic) dialog began.  I decided to save the text as it progressed, and now want to share it with you.  I’ll use the name JOE for the questioner, and BOB for myself.

(NOTE: I have left the text un-edited, removing only the names).

JOE:  I would like to discuss the issue.

It is my understanding that mutations are mostly bad in ratio to good positive ones when you are talking about human species. The ratio is estimated at 100 to 1 bad vs good. If that is so, then how come the human is so fantastically made? Why don’t we look like freaky man. Where the results from all the bad mutations go when only 1/100 is positive. This is 1 of about a lot of questions I have regarding evolution. My intent with discussing this with you is not to create friction with you by anything written on PC. So i want you to know now, that i am seeking info on the subject. So don’t get mad at me during this OK :) ?

BOB: Sure.

I’d have to check the numbers, but accepting your ratio of “bad” to “good” mutations as correct (for humans and for all other animals), the reality is that there are vast stretches on our genome that are “junk”, or leftover DNA from our evolutionary past that is no longer “switched on” in our modern human development (though scientist’s caution that just because we don’t exactly know what they are doing there doesn’t make them junk). So when mutations occur in these areas, it has no impact on the viability of the organism. However, we are constantly enduring mutations in our active DNA, and sometimes these cause disorders from the mild to the severe, or cause death (in the womb or after).

The reality is that as amazing as our human bodies and minds are, we are not so fantastically made, but are a collection of mutations and adaptations that were “good enough” to work, some of which gave us enough of an advantage to survive better than other animals, and the bad ones weren’t so bad that we couldn’t live with them (for a good description of how badly engineered we are read “Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind” by Gary Marcus — http://klugethebook.com/).

So some of us come out looking like “freaky man”. There are humans born with supernumerary (extra) nipples, for example, or other non-life-threatening genetic throwbacks to our more primitive past. Our lower backs go bad because we’re still adapting to walking upright with the body plan of a fish, we still have tailbones, and our hiccup reflex seems to be a leftover of our amphibian past (did you know we grow a coat of fur in the womb that is re-absorbed before birth — but not always!?).

Other evidence of this is the fact that half of our body’s cellular weight is bacteria, and only about 6% of the genes in our body are actually human, the rest are bacterial and viral (so maybe we have to call them “human” too…I wonder). Yikes! We are walking storehouses of the evidence of our evolutionary past.

There are lots of good books that cover the most current understandings of human evolution that even a guy like me can understand (you could look through the REVIEWS on my blog).

I think what happens is a lot of folks have a limited or incorrect understanding about what the theory of evolution does and does not say (both on the “believer” and “non-believer” side, I might add). Obviously I love talking about this stuff.

So there’s maybe question one of the many…maybe!

JOE: Dang it i can’t type today… sorry Bob

Ok, then where did the original biological “soup” that all this began with come from? I understand the mutation process as it applies on going if you will. I know that an evolving action takes place in life, but i find it almost entirely unbelievable that life forms so complex CAN be mutated into being without a design blueprint for each species. There had to be a foreknowledge from original begins to the end product.

BOB: Don’t sweat it: who knows how many typos I’ll create here…

The theory of evolution only deals with the development of life once it got started, so it doesn’t address the “soup” you’re talking about. That’s another field (and another can of worms).

However, there’s a lot of science trying to figure out just how things did get started. The major component is liquid water and the chemicals and elements that the earth acquired (over millions of years) through the impacts of objects from space. There have been some experiments where scientists have attempted to recreate the original “soup”, and zap it with some electricity (to mimic lighting strikes) and have actually produced “life” (in a very slimy, rudimentary form). But this is still a very open area of study and conjecture.

What is really interesting is that you consider a “natural” cause (for which there is plentiful evidence) to be more incredible to believe than a “supernatural” one (for which there is no evidence). Of course you’re not alone in that, but if you can take a step back and look at the logic of it: “Because we do not (yet) know how life on earth began, therefore God must have created it” represents an incredible leap of logic.

Personally, a major component of my being able to grasp the idea of all of this complicated life emerging from such a simple photo-chemical reaction was coming to an understanding of the sheer depth of geologic time. If you think the earth has only been here for 6,000 years, then of course evolution’s a fairly ridiculous concept to embrace. But once you understand the billions of years that all of this took to come into being (and that more than half of that time passed BEFORE the first SUCCESSFUL life finally “caught on” on earth), it becomes not only understandable, but pretty interesting.

The reality is that nothing about life on earth indicates any foreknowledge or any supernatural action. All life forms are descended from earlier life forms, and each one carries in both its structure and DNA the leftovers and hints of what it once was (for this read Neil Shubin’s “Your Inner Fish”). Now some believers in God (that also accept science) take the view that God got the process started and worked THROUGH evolution. But as one early scientist pointed out, there is nothing in the evidence of life on earth that REQUIRES the intervention of God for an explanation of its existence.

(Good writers on that subject are Richard Dawkins — on the science side — and Christopher Hitchens — more on the cultural/philosophical/religious side).

I’ll attach a version of the timeline I used in my “Darwin” program that shows where we humans came into the picture. The third image from the left shows when the very first multi-cellular organisms show up in the fossil record. You’ll see it took a LONG TIME before anything more complex showed up, but once it did, things started happening (relatively) fast. (And there have been some recent surprising discoveries about just how quickly populations can change).

An evolutionary timeline using three 8-foot 2x4 boards.

Religion was our first science, really. But the truth is that over the last couple of hundred years, actual scientific discovery has gradually replaced belief with evidence. Evolution makes no claim as to whether or not God exists, it only demonstrates that life could have developed through completely natural means.

JOE: So do you believe God exist and started life and the evolution process – or multiplication of single cells as i see it, rather than the word evolution- is the truth?
I just have real hard time believing that we came from slime plus time, no matter how long time has been. I feel it is a bigger stretch that this is the truth than to believe that God created man.
When does evolution claim mankind started reproducing by conception through sexual means vs. from the fish? Or do they still believe they do?

BOB:  The first fossil evidence for sexual reproduction goes back over 1 billion years…long before fish or humans, so mankind has always reproduced sexually — we inherited that trait from our pre-human ancestors.  Unless you mean internal conception as opposed to spraying sperm over eggs that are floating at the bottom of the stream…I’d have to look that up.  But there was a long stretch of evolution between our fishy past and mammalian, modern us.

I don’t believe there is a god.  I consider the idea of god a product of human consciousness.  I think it was “slime plus time”, because that’s what the evidence suggests.  Plus, there is plenty of evidence that humans are subject to a whole range of irrational beliefs, the belief in god chief among them (Heck, I believed it for a long time myself — I was even a missionary smuggling stuff to Christians behind the Iron Curtain once!).

Yep, we live in a very interesting universe, but not one that cares one way or the other.  Evolution is simply a scientific description of phenomena and evidence — it’s not a competing “force” or personality.

JOE: You are a smart man Bob. We disagree about the existence of God but it is interesting information to me how people view these issues.

Are you educated in the sciences or is it your own personal studies through the years. I didn’t know you were a missionary at all. What turned you from our belief in God, if I may ask. You don’t have to answer of course.

BOB: I guess I’m self-educated through following my interests, working with scientists, talking with them, and a lot of reading.

Same “need to know” that made me burn a hole right through my Christianity back in ‘87. Just kept asking questions and one day found myself popped out the other side of it. Happens

JOE: I don’t follow the last paragraph.

BOB:  I was referring to the first paragraph (but not very well or clearly), meaning that it seems that I had (have) a “need to know”, or at least a need to understand why I believe what I believe, and that led me not to questioning, really, but to try to understand my faith. So I ended up reading a lot of C.S. Lewis and the like. Last book I read as a Christian was “Rediscovering the Teachings of Jesus” by Norman Parrin — turned out to be a pivotal book in my declension (or movement away from) from faith.

JOE: My goodness how can one book do that? Sorry to hear it really.

Faith is hard to hang on to, but I find it is worth it seeing as if the Bible is true, nothing in life is worth separation from eternity in paradise. Hell is no place i want to spend forever in…. with no escape. I am certainly not the model of a good Christian but i know what i believe. If you got saved by Christ at some point in your life, I believe you can’t change that unless you have a true apostate heart.

I find it hard you would wind up hating God.

hard to believe above last line.

BOB: That’s the thing: I don’t hate God.  I don’t think I have a single believing friend that can understand my experience in any other way than thinking it of as “backsliding”, or reacting against the authority of God that I know to be true, but am rebelling against.  How can I be angry at a God that doesn’t exist except in the imaginations of men?

The reality is that religious belief is a kind of spell that has to break before one can see what’s on the other side (which is, well, reality).  I appreciate the sincerity of your concern regarding eternal damnation, but as Monica Hesse put it in a Washington Post article about Atheists: “Most of them have been told, at one point or another, that they are going to hell, which, when you think about it, is a fairly pointless threat to an atheist, like warning someone that you’re sending them to Narnia.”

I agree with Stephen Hawking, who compares consciousness to a computer program: when the computer dies, the programs ceases, that’s it.  The voice I always took to be God or Jesus turns out to be the voice of my own consciousness, right here in my little brain.  That’s why I work to make the most of my life now, and do what I can to make life better for my fellow humans now.  Religion is a fairly inefficient help to humans, I think, overall.

JOE: It is kind of hard to hate what you don’t believe exist :)

I understand your points and still believe you are going to heaven. There has to be more to this existence of outer space, life on earth. What force, since you are obviously scientific in thought, outer space in its perfect place to support life.

END OF DIALOGUE.

Final thought:  There is much more to our human beliefs than reason and evidence.  The more we learn about ourselves and our brains, the more we see that the way in which our minds function pretty much set us up for belief, where our (more recently-evolved) higher reasoning faculties are often placed in the service of the maintenance of those beliefs.  In order to move beyond the spell of belief we are actually working against some fairly ancient and deeply-imbedded habits of our consciousness.  It can be done, of course, but I do not discount the disquieting effects that such “tectonic” movements of the mind can carry in their wake (awakening to an indifferent universe can make for a chilly dawn, indeed).

There’s a reason that popular surveys claim a measurable “happiness effect” of belief in powers greater than ourselves (though it looks like this effect is mostly connected to the greater satisfaction of our “social primate” needs that comes from being a part of a meaningful “community”.  See: http://www.livescience.com/health/religion-happiness-church-friends-101207.html).

The fact that most humans do believe in a range of irrational things only proves that humans believe in irrational things, it does not prove the existence of the fanciful.  But, of course, as I’ve said before: life goes on regardless of what we believe about it, and I find myself tempted to give less attention to trying to figuring it all out and more to making the most of the time I have in this life of mine.  But then, trying to figure things out is one of the things us clever primates find joy in doing.  So…

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “When Bob Gets the Blues” by the not so reverend bob.

Sunday, January 9th, 2011

This week I was trying to remember just what chemical process in the brain can block the uptake of the pleasurable impulses that are the fuel of a happy life (I’d read about this in a book a few weeks ago).  Even though I couldn’t recall all the proper names and details, I knew there was a materialistic explanation for my slightly depressed mood this week.  I also knew it was bloody unlikely I would ever really discover what it was.

We now know that we humans are chemical, electrical, walking, talking biological systems that are affected by organisms we can’t see (with our unaided eyes), our genes, the foods we eat and the daily social occurrences of our lives.  In short, we’re complicated critters: complex life forms, bubbling cauldrons of genes, bacteria, cells, fluids and electrical signals.

All of this we’ve learned, of course, from science.  There are those, I know, who argue that science, for all of it’s knowledge, cannot fill the role of religion (or even philosophy, for that matter).  (The role they speak of in this context tends to be one of consolation — an assurance of meaning).

The further I evolve in my own thinking (and scientific knowledge), the less sense that very idea makes to me.  I mean, is that sort of comfort or consolation really something we require?  Or is it more a sort of neurotic need of our evolved human (primate/mammalian) brain?

Of course I think that question answers itself in the way I’ve proposed it.

An Oklahoma school kid left this note at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, clearly not taking too kindly to the challenge that science can present to religious belief.

Belief is a “need” of our human brain.  Or, at least, our capacity for belief is most definitely wired into our circuitry.  As NYU Psychology Professor Gary Marcus describes it in “Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind” (reviewed on this blog), the human mind has evolved to process information in a certain “believe first, ask questions later” way that makes us gullible creatures that must work at being otherwise.  So when it comes to our much-vaunted capacity for reason, Marcus says: “Rationality, pretty much by definition, demands a thorough and judicious balancing of evidence, but the circuitry of mammalian memory simply isn’t attuned to that purpose.”

Rationalist that I am, then, I am not immune to the limitations of my own mammalian mind.

So as I found myself this week showing some telltale signs of mild depression, my mind immediately starting going through a list of possible “reasons”: Post-holiday malaise, something I ate (or some other natural cause I may not be able to ascertain with the resources at hand), etc.  But then (tagging along like scruffy cheats trying to sneak into the show without paying for a ticket) came the old chestnuts of irrational belief: that it was a moment of personal growth, that I was somehow on a wrong path in my life, or that I was being “taught a lesson” etc, etc.

Damn, those little guys are persistent!

Fortunately such thoughts have grown noticeably weaker (and thereby more comical) of late, but the fact that I still had such “leftover” thoughts at all serves as a corollary (cognitive) example to the leftover marks of our physical evolution, and therefore tells the tale of my intellectual evolution over the years.  But as to their “meaning”, well, it means only this: that I have a brain that stores memory in a contextual framework such that when the context of feeling “blue” was called up, the little be-speckled electrochemical librarians in my brain started sending up any idea, fact or experience that was ever connected to similar past experiences of feeling “down”.

Now the reason I was calling upon this faculty in my brain was simple: I wanted to repair it (and also keep it from becoming worse), and feel better.

The reality is that it is probably a transitory state (it did, in fact, begin to lift as I was writing this sermon), and that I would most likely never know its actual “cause”.  (If I were in a futuristic science fiction film, a simple scan would show what chemicals were off and I’d get the right shot/pill/therapeutic treatment).  So while there is most assuredly a cause, there is no “reason” (in the sense of it having a larger “meaning”), It simply “is”, due to whatever biochemical processes ginned it up.  There is no other “meaning” to it.

For purposes of clarity, I should insert here that to me “cause” equals “reason”, and adds up to the totality of “meaning” or “purpose”.  I find it a bit maddening when believers continue to insist that there is more in the equation to be filled in beyond that formulation.  (I can’t help but think of that stage of childhood development that makes every kid follow every answer with “why?”).  So someone might ask me: “Okay, we evolved, but why?”.  In answer to which I describe the process as it is currently understood (which to me satisfies the “cause/reason/meaning” equation by providing all of the information that there is to be known at this stage), which is then answered with “Okay, but why?”  As if there just has to be a higher purpose behind things (a view whose absurdity is attenuated only by the ubiquity of its adherents).

But back to the “blues”.  Because I have a lot of life experience with depression that came mostly during the years when I believed in God (or later in my “therapy”  and then “psychic” years), it makes sense that the mix of diagnosis and treatments on offer from my stored memory would be similarly medieval and primitive.  The mind is like an old attic, where the past crowds the present.

These days I’ve gotten good at doing quick personal inventories, checking my other systems for proper functioning: Diet: good.  Exercise: good.  Physical symptoms: none.  Creativity: functioning perfectly.  Sleep: Normal.  Relationships: Good.   For whatever reason, the part of my brain that works my pleasure system is running a bit behind.  Not badly behind, but worth noting.

In a way it’s like when seasonal allergies hit: at first I feel tired, maybe like a cold is coming on.  I might take a nap, take it easy for a day.  But once I realize it’s just the damn allergies, and that I’m going to feel a bit sluggish for a few weeks whether I take a nap or not, I just have to take a deep breath, and work around it. (And though a check of an allergy website or the newspaper can confirm that the local pollen count is high, I still won’t know exactly what’s making me sniffle).

I take it as kind of a exploratory adventure to step forward into life without the usual comforts of belief and meaning (or belief in meaning).  There are times it is uncomfortable, perhaps in no small measure because there is little in the way of example out there for how a human should live a life sans irrational beliefs (and also because I’m working against certain inherited limitations of my monkey brain).

As I move forward on this path, I find myself increasingly sympathetic (and therefore less judgmental) of those that choose a level of belief from the menu offered by our natural irrationality, even as I grow more comfortable and confident in my own choices.  It doesn’t mean that my path is the most enjoyable (in fact, I’ve begun to think it a much harder sell to the general public than I once did), but it does carry with it a certain satisfaction.

And though I’ve said this before, probably the most remarkable thing about leaving belief behind is just how little it changes about life.  For stripping away one’s illusions about something is a subtractive process that subtracts only the things we imagined to be there, but leaves unchanged (and unfiltered) the thing about which we created the illusions in the first place.  (So I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised that abandoning belief had so little effect on, say, the motions of the sun and moon.)

So much of the sales pitch for irrational belief is that it makes life better, easier, more meaningful.  But of course it does no such thing, really.  What it gives us (in the more extreme case) is the opportunity to attempt to limit our awareness to a small bubble of illusion which is, frankly, difficult to do (it’s pretty much impossible to keep our naturally wide-ranging curious-monkey brains confined to such small ideological spaces — though many bravely try!).

Animals get depressed sometimes.  And if I — a man who has figured out how to be happy the other 50 weeks of the year — am a little less so for some unknown (but perfectly “natural”) reason the other two, I can live with that…even without knowing “why”.

t.n.s.r. bob

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind” by Gary Marcus, by t.n.s.r. bob

Sunday, December 26th, 2010

FROM THE AUTHOR’S WEBSITE: “Gary Marcus author of the The Birth of the Mind (Basic Books, 2004, translated into 6 languages) and editor of The Norton Psychology Reader, is an award-winning Professor of Psychology at New York University, where he is director of the NYU Center for Child Language. His research, published in leading journals such as Science, Nature, Cognition, and Psychological Science, focuses on the evolution and development of the human mind.

Marcus also enjoys writing for the general public, in venues ranging from The New York Times to The Huffington Post. His newest book, Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind, will be published in Spring 2008.”

In an article in The Economist last year, a writer made the observation that when it comes  to economics, most economists — though generally accepting of Darwinian evolution — seem to draw a line at the neck, treating the human mind as a super-rational exception to the evolutionary rule expressed early in Gary Marcus’ book:

“Nature is prone to making kluges because it doesn’t “care” whether its products are perfect or elegant.  If something works, it spreads.  If it doesn’t work, it dies out.  Genes that lead to successful outcomes tend to propagate; genes that produce creatures that can’t cut it tend to fade away; all else is metaphor.  Adequacy, not beauty, is the name of the game”.

“Kluge” is slang for “A clumsy or inelegant solution to a problem”, and the reality that an evolutionary kluge is what we have for a brain is the thesis of this book.

I’ll say at the outset that I’m sympathetic to this idea, as I’ve long understood that everything about life on this planet (including us humans) represents the best that nature could do with the materials at hand and not (as those holding to a special creation mindset would argue) an example of “perfection” in any reasonable form of that notion.  And although there were a few times where I thought the author heavy-handed in the hammering home of this notion, I can find no fault with his arguments supported by plentiful examples relevant research.

My presupposition that we humans are rational creatures has been shaken of late, and this book has helped me to understand the “why” of  that confusion.  Our reasoning, rational brain is but the latest (and weakest) addition to the ancient apparatus in our skulls:

“The hindbrain, the oldest of the three (dating from at least half a billion years ago), controls respiration, balance, alertness, and other functions that are as critical to a dinosaur as to a human.  The midbrain, layered on soon afterward, coordinates visual and auditory reflexes and controls functions such as eye movements.  The forebrain, the final division to come online, governs things such as language and decision-making, but in ways that often depend on older systems.  As any neuroscientist textbook will tell you, language relies heavily on Broca’s area, a walnut-sized region of the left forebrain, but it too relies on older systems, such as the cerebellum, and ancestral memory systems that are not particularly well suited to the job.  Over the course of evolution our brain has become a bit like a palimpsest, and ancient manuscript with layers of text written over it many times, old bits still hiding behind the new.”

One great aspect of this book is the form it gives to patterns of thought and perception that we all experience.  This is helpful in two ways: the first being a greater appreciation for — and sympathetic acceptance of — our natural human (idiosyncratic) ways of cognition, and secondly; offering ways of working around the natural limitations such an evolved animal brain brings with it.

In technical terms, the book is well written and nicely organized, making it a pleasure to read.  And the scientific information is packed more densely than a Christmas fruitcake.  A particularly refreshing (and mildly surprising) aspect of the book is how directly the author takes on the “creationist” view, over and over again.  But then, writing for an American audience (where a majority of the population holds that God was involved in our making one way or another) why wouldn’t any author on such a subject deal directly with those beliefs.

I recommend this book highly, with thanks to the scientific researcher who pulled it off her shelf for me to read.

t.n.s.r. bob

CARTOONS FROM THE REV

Sunday, October 10th, 2010

I think this photo supplies its own caption! (My friend Gaea sent this photo to me).