Posts Tagged ‘religion’

SERMON: “Changing Minds” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, February 17th, 2013

Philosophers over the centuries have struggled to come to terms with what a human is, at heart: are we rational or primarily emotional beings?  If current research is to believed, it would seem that the answer to that question is “yes”.  Humans are both rational and emotional.  Which means that we are often irrational for emotional reasons.  But, according to Jonathon Haidt (in The Righteous Mind, reviewed this blog), it appears that the notion that we can detach our reason from our emotions is a bit of a pipe dream, as it seems that the emotions are a vital support system for our intellect and reason.

On consideration this makes sense.  After all, both our emotions and our reason have evolved together for a long, long time.  If one or the other were superfluous, one or the other would have been cast adrift (by natural selection) a long time ago.  This by no means tells us that our particular blend of feeling and thinking are the perfect answer to meeting life’s challenges.  It only tells us that this combination is what came of the raw animal materials evolution had to work with, and that it was sufficient to the challenge of our specie’s survival.

There have been a rash of studies of late comparing the so-called “liberal” and “conservative” mind.  I have no doubt that there is validity to the comparisons that show that “conservative” minded people crave stability over novelty, and that the “liberal” minded are just the opposite.  (The potentially nefarious aspect of this news is the way in which this “fact” can be employed as yet one more cudgel to minimize the views of one’s political enemies.  Science is always influenced by the cultural ideas current in the society at large, so I am awaiting the further research that will put these findings in a more complete perspective).

But in the meantime, we are left with the realization that not all human minds work in the same way.  Certainly we are all on a limited spectrum, so we’re not really talking apples and car alarms here, but variations on a theme.  As Haidt points out in his research (described so well in The Righteous Mind), all of us humans have a moral sense, but this sense turns out to act more like a collection of different moral “taste buds” than universally-calibrated on and off switches.  Which means the thing that morally outrages me may only mildly bother you.  This, I think, is clearly true, and it is the main reason that liberals and conservatives can shout at each other all the live long day and not make a dent in each other’s views.

This is the damnable and frustrating thing about this kind of knowledge: it seems to make any idea of human unanimity appear ever more remote.  We may have moved a great distance from our original blood-kin tribalism, but we remain tribal to a large degree, and our current level of tribalism may have moved beyond the nationalism that marked the last few centuries of our history to a more ideological form of in-group identification.  Hence, the rationalist idea that one can simply educate an uninformed person with facts and thereby change that person’s opinion is proving unequal to the challenge of obliterating the many strains of dangerous ignorance that plague our species.

Of course I’m thinking of one of the great current divides, which is that between Islam and “the West” (which could just as easily be called “Christiandom”, though with much qualification).  Never mind that the fundamentalist Christian and the fundamentalist Muslim have much more in common than they would care to admit, they would certainly consider themselves as inhabiting completely opposite world views.

And this is where we can find as good of an example as any of one of the great unacknowledged barriers to a reason-based shift in worldview: identity.

Being the profoundly social animals that we are, we seek out other humans among whom we feel comfortable and understood.  And so we might join a church with a list of doctrines that we can easily assent to, and thereafter shape ourselves ever more like our fellow church members in both our moral likes and dislikes.  It’s easy to see that membership groups like this are not random cross-sections of a variety of people, but tend to be naturally self-selecting populations.  (As my brother Chuck once told me: “A church is a group of people who all share the same sin”).

And so it immediately becomes apparent why any human who has identified with one group or another would be doubly resistant to a radical change in their views on any topic that is important to their inclusion in the group.  Add to this the reality that our brains process information that comes from a trusted source by first believing it without question, and doubting it only after much extra post-hoc effort, and you have a naturally strong resistance to change.

Playing with my "Evolving Darwin" toy set on a Pacific Beach delights me, but would deeply offend others, even though science is on the side of the story these toys tell. Playing with my “Evolving Darwin” toy set on a Pacific Beach delights me, but would deeply offend others, even though science is on the side of the story these toys tell.

There is, of course, another barrier to consensus, and that is found in those whose worldview happens to be one that does not easily align with physical reality.  I’m talking here about “faith” positions, that allow any and all kinds of physical phenomenon to be interpreted in a way that confirms religious or ideological world views.  For example, a natural weather event such as a hurricane, or the explosion of a meteor over Russia, will be taken as events with a spiritual (as opposed to a natural) cause.  This kind of thinking creates what I’d call an “insulated ignorance”, meaning it is a lack of knowledge that is active in preserving a certain informational vacuum (active far beyond the usual passing discomfort any of us feels when having to admit we were wrong on a fact).  We see this especially with regards to historic worldviews that have been carried forward into a period of history where science continues to present factual challenges that — if these worldviews are to survive — simply must not be accepted.  They are living artifacts of human ignorance, fighting tooth and nail for their very lives.

So when we look at the reality of how most humans really operate, the real question turns out to be not why more people aren’t open to changing their minds, but why we thought people could easily change their minds in the first place?

Liberal or conservative, it turns out that most humans are innately conservative (at least if we consider the “moderate” human to also be “conservative” in relation to the “liberal” members of the tribe).  In evolutionary terms, this mix makes sense.  Every tribe needs risk takers to rise to unusual challenges, but it also needs those who are more attuned to staying home and keeping the woodpile stocked and the tent mended.  And there is a reason that most religious conversations occur among the young (whose personalities are still very much in flux), and much more rarely in adults (who have already begun to “lock in” to their ideology).

I see myself as having become someone who responds to evidence, and who is willing to change his mind about things when facts prove me wrong.  Now, one could argue that I’m no better at this than any other human, but I don’t think that case would be strong.  True, I’m susceptible to all of the quirks of a human brain whose reason is linked to feeling, but I have also taken advantage of the plasticity of the brain and have developed a relationship between my feelings and my thinking so that it actually feels better for me to see that my views are aligned with our physical reality as much as possible.  For a human, I think I do pretty well on that score.  But that’s the thing.  I am still human.

And I can’t assume that others experience anything like the “positive” feelings I do when absorbing certain (potentially) unnerving scientific facts.   For instance, I feel okay accepting the reality that I am most likely not a divine or spiritual being connected to any sort of intelligent creator, or that my body is an evolved version of the body-plan of a lobe-finned fish, or that any and all sense of my self as a distinct personality will cease as soon as my brain stops working.  I’ve worked to make my peace with these evidence-based ideas.

But, then, I am not deeply invested in a church group with the added group-binding agents of a wife and children and extended family.  True, there was a time when my fall from belief was a source of conflict (and led to ruptured relationships) but that time has (mostly) passed.  I do still worry that my words or actions (as they broadcast my deeply-held views) will offend others or damage vital personal relationships.  Because, let’s face it, ours is a culture that is permeated with religious and quasi-religious beliefs, be they Christian or “New Age”, and so my (irreligious) views are always going to be at odds with the majority of my fellow humans (even most of my closer friends).  Fortunately for all of us, part of our innate social sense is to make allowance for those we love, and it is in the space carved out by such selective social blindness that we find room to stay close to each other, even when we hold very different views on important matters.

Plus, knowing that I am not immune to being wrong (I do have a human brain, after all), I have to maintain a certain humility about even the things that I am most firmly convinced are true (especially those things).  And it is this humility among thoughtful people that allows profound ideological differences to coexist without triggering deep social disruption.

There could yet be a wave of reason that will sweep across the globe, dampening the fires of religious extremism or the blinders of ideological dogmatism.  Maybe when that happens there will be enough “safety in numbers” that the more “conservative” questioning humans will be willing to jump ship, confident that they won’t be the only ones foregoing the security of their ideological group.

But in the meantime we are left with the unsettling reality that a substantial percentage of humans are resistant (to a greater or lesser degree) to the penetration into their reason of the scientific evidence as it pertains to their own existence.  Reality may, indeed, have a “liberal” bias.  But humans, most certainly, do not.

t.n.s.r. bob

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “The Great Divide: Nature and Human Nature in the Old World and the New” by Peter Watson

Sunday, January 27th, 2013

GREAT_DIVIDE_COVERThis is a deeply interesting book.  It is both a meditation upon — and a survey of — all that we know about the similarities and differences between the populations of humans that developed their cultures and societies in isolation from each other in the “Old” and “New” worlds.

Soon after humans migrated across the “Bering land bridge” into North America, that overland route was cut off by rising sea levels.  And so the populations of North and South America were cut off from those of Europe, Asia and Africa for some 15,000 years (until the Spanish “discovered” the Americas).  In this impressive book, Peter Watson takes the time to cast a clear eye on the ways in which the different conditions in the two worlds influenced the development of human civilizations, and the differences are dramatic.

Some of this ground has been covered by other authors, to be sure, but the value of this book lies in the synthesis of recorded history with the latest discoveries (which have been numerous, especially regarding ancient cultures such as the Incas).  In short — the Old and New worlds were very different.  The “old” had a broad east-west configuration, allowing the rapid spread of peoples, technologies, crops and ideas.  They also had the horse, and a wide range of useful domseticable animals.  The “new” world ran north and south, with a wide range of elevations, from mountains to ocean beaches, across a broad range of latitude.  Domesticated plants, therefore, were limited in their range.  They also had the llama as their only work animal — no ox or horse to pull a plow or to ride from village to village.

But added into this mix is the remarkable fact that some 80 percent of the worlds hallucinogenic plants occur in the new world.  In addition, South America, especially, was subject to much more extreme weather and geologic events during this historic period: hurricanes, El Nino events, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes.  Put this all together and you have one world where the gods seemed to be perpetually angry, and another where they were somewhat benign.  The ramifications for ritual and society were dramatic.

I won’t spoil the end of the story, but it gives one a truly useful perspective on how human society has developed into the teeming, technologically astute and religious confederation we experience today.

This is a dense book — it took me some time to read it.  But it was worth the time for the knowledge it gave me.

t.n.s.r. bob

The Rev gives is 3.5 out of 4! The Rev gives is 3.5 out of 4!

SERMON: “Wonder Beyond the Veil” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, January 27th, 2013

If you stop to think about it, the fact that I am writing my thoughts into a sentence that you can read and understand is nothing short of amazing.  As far as we can tell, such acts of communication are not occurring anywhere else in our solar system.  And even on our small planet, teeming with life, you and I are members of the only species that reads and writes (though whales and dolphins may very well have their own book-of-the-month club that they are very adept at concealing from us).

We naturally take for granted the things that seem to come naturally to us.  We don’t have the time, frankly, to sit in wonder at every little thing that — were we to see it in its true historical or biological context — would blow our ever-lovin’ mind.  So we spend the time we must learning how to walk and talk and drive and sculpt and dance and compute and then just get on with living our life.

But one of these times while you’re walking from your car into your house, thinking about the next thing on your to-do list, consider what underlies these regular acts that seem so effortless to us.

Walking upright is a good start.  That is quite an evolutionary change for a body of muscle and bone that began as a bacteria that managed to clump together enough to become, eventually, an actual body of a lobe-finned fish that adapted to walking on land, then developed into a small mammal, then a primate and then the upright hominid that was our great great great great grandmother.

And what about the air that flows so easily into your lungs?  It’s easy to think of that air as having no mass at all, but of course it does.  The one-ton weight of the atmosphere over our heads weighs down upon us every moment, but we don’t even notice it.  Our bones and muscles have evolved under that weight (not all of which is, exactly, pressing “down” on us) so that our density and shape and mechanical arrangements are so well suited to air’s “mass” that we only sense when the breeze blows it across our face, or when we stick our hand out the window of our fast-moving car and play our hand against the force of the air compressing in front of it .

This is where creationists stop one step short of a true sense of wonder, and invert reality when they decide to praise God for making the world so perfect for us to live in.  It’s quite the other way around, I’m afraid.  The world was not made for us.  The reality of evolution is that we were “made” for the world that we evolved in, or — more precisely — that we were “made” (evolved) in the world as it already existed.  That is the power of evolution as the result of natural selection: the things that work well in a given environment have a better chance of being preserved in reproducing life forms than those that don’t.

One could argue that the original conditions that were made possible by earth’s particular composition and location in relation to the sun were “made” just for us, but that would be pushing things more than just a bit.  For there is no evidence of intention in anything that exists — other than the animals, like ourselves, that possess consciousness.  What we can say with absolute confidence is that the conditions that came to be on Earth were hospitable to the beginning — and continuation — of biological life.  And knowing — as we now do — just how rare of an occurrence such a state of affairs is in the known universe, it is easy to be overwhelmed with the sheer luck of it all.

But the idea of such cosmic, existential “luck” really bothers a lot of people.  And so there arises in humans a deep cry for intention, and a purpose for our existence that must be rooted in some larger intelligent force.  I hear this from Christian friends who are sincerely baffled by the notion that existence can, well, exist without an intelligent, interested source.  (What they are really concerned about is how one could deal with this reality in an emotional and intellectual sense).   But this impulse toward religious belief is, I believe, an artifact of the way we have mentally and emotionally processed our physical reality over the generations, and has everything to do with our brain-based consciousness and absolutely nothing to do with the physical world.  It is a “software” issue.

Be that as it may, human belief systems are a definite social and cultural reality that is deeply embedded in our intellectual life.  And old ideas die hard.

Speaking up for science in a culture of religious belief, once can feel like a "voice in the wilderness". Speaking up for science in a culture of religious belief, once can feel like a “voice in the wilderness”.

I have often wondered at how religious belief survived the arrival of Darwin’s theory of evolution.  But others have pointed out that the end of the earth-centric view of the universe should have been enough to knock the pins out from under the truth claims of the church.  Right they are.  And I’ve just been reading about the intellectual and spiritual crisis that the discovery of the Americas caused for the Europeans (in “The Great Divide”, reviewed here this week).  For here was an entirely new world (filled with people) that — because the discovery of its existence came with no hint or mention in ancient literature or biblical texts — was completely unexpected and shocking.  It took Europe and the church a few hundred years to really get used to the idea.  And so it goes.

Every new scientific discovery erodes ancient religious claims about our physical reality.  I think that is indisputable (at least in a general sense).  But, seen anthropologically, this is not surprising: almost all of our early philosophy and religious ideology was developed in a context of deep ignorance of the inner workings of biology, cosmology and geology.  Fortunately for us “westerners”, the evolution of Christianity took a course that embraced Greek thought, and led us to the idea that the “one God” was a god who had created a nature that could be understood (as He could be understood) through continuing study (Islam — and the shamanistic religions of other cultures — held that all that could be known had already been revealed in holy books, and to seek additional knowledge was to blaspheme).

In this way, the evolution of thought in the “Old World” of Europe and Asia was open to the discoveries of science, at least until those discoveries began to bring the revealed wisdom of scripture into question.  But by then the cat was out of the bag, as it were, and, despite the excommunications and heresy trials, scientific discovery has became our primary source for reliable knowledge about reality.

Be that as it may, actual non-believers (in God or in “divine purpose” generally) remain the minority, even in America.  Most people believe in God.  And most of those believers, whether they realize it or not, tacitly accept as true scientific descriptions of the world they inhabit, without realizing the profound implications of those scientific truths.  The result being that the majority of humans, to my mind, take for granted the true miracle of their existence as a thinking, feeling, personality in a discreet physical body living on a planet hospitable to such an existence.  No, to them a wonder of this magnitude (if they give it a thought) is not nearly enough.  They require (for their sense of well-being) that there be a single great god of the universe who is just like them, and who, despite all of his necessarily awesome responsibilities and powers, must reliably bend an ear to any individual’s urgent prayer request for a good parking spot at the mall.

But the rather amazing (and counter-intuitive) point of all of this should be plain by now: the believer in God, by holding fast to a religious view of existence, actually limits their capacity to experience the true awe of seeing creation for what it really is: an expanding universe of a scale we cannot truly comprehend; a tiny, blue planet of water and air and elements born in exploding stars; the continuous, persistent non-random selection from random genetic changes that, over time (and under changing environmental pressures), transforms a bacteria into a fish, a fish into a mammal, and mammals into elephants and whales and humans that, after millions of years develop language and then an alphabet and then the technology that allows this one human to write his thoughts for other humans to read and understand.

In the larger scheme of things, one has to ask, what does it matter if people believe in God or angels (or fairies in the garden, for that matter)?  It’s not like adults playing pretend or believing in magic is going to slow or speed the final, fatal blossoming of our sun, or the eventual contraction of our universe.  No — we are blessedly powerless on those scales.  But where we are powerful is in our effect on the quality of our own lives, and, potentially, the lives of others.

And so it’s none of my business if one of my fellow humans is comfortable in a world governed by a god of their choosing.  But when so many live in that kind of world, one has to speak up for that which is obscured by the veils of religious belief.  There was a time in the evolution of religion that called for a “voice in the wilderness”, a “John the Baptist”.  What’s needed now is more “John the Scientists” to stand by the doorway that science has opened for us in the wall of human ignorance, pointing the way to the unseen wonders that await beyond.

t.n.s.r. bob

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

Sunday, January 20th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The Source of Morality” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, January 13th, 2013

I think it’s safe to say that most people — when they ponder the issue of right and wrong — think of morality as having a basis in revealed knowledge.  (Think of the “Ten Commandments” and the way that conservatives repeatedly point to them as the “Judeo-Christian foundation” of all that is good and lawful about the United States of America).

But there are a few of us (in addition to the scientists and evolutionary psychologists who study such things) that hold the view that human morality and ethics are not rooted in revelations divine, but are naturally-evolved expressions of the never-ending search for a balance between our deeply social — and incurably selfish — natures.  The rules we live by are basically the socially-active tools we employ to get as much as we can for ourselves (and our clan) without arousing countering forces from other individuals and groups.  In short, this is what cooperation is all about.  And from cooperation flows the altruism that marks the “above and beyond” behaviors that qualify as “generous” on the scorecards of human behavior.

Those who see morality as “revealed” strongly believe that anything short of a heavenly, eternal, and immutable source for right and wrong would simply prove unequal to the task of maintaining social order.  And so they believe that were the external, revealed (read: Heavenly) authority for our social rules to prove non-existent, morality would instantly lose all meaning (and, therefore, all of it’s power to regulate human behavior).  Little wonder, then, that they hold so fast to the belief that God is behind everything.

But instead of  being the actual state of morality’s affairs, this is much more a case where the belief in a divine moral source itself can, in some ways, create the reality it claims already exists.  In short, the belief precedes the reality that is held up as proof for the belief itself.  For, according to many writers, the codes of religion developed as a way to (among other aims) make people behave better when no-one was physically watching them (as populations grew, and spread beyond direct supervisory control).  I think this makes sense: the invisible, distant God is the perfect spy (the “inescapable tyrant” as Christopher Hitchens called it) that we can never really be sure is not watching our every move (and, even better, hearing our every secret thought).

Everything evolves, even ideas of right and wrong. Everything evolves, even ideas of right and wrong.

So it could well be that, upon a sudden mass realization that God does not exist (and, therefore, that morality is not sacralized by his imprint) a good many people might decide to run amok.  I think that this would be a short-lived phenomena, as those who behaved in a lawless manner would shortly run into serious legal and interpersonal issues of a very present, human kind (unless, of course, it became a society-wide collapse, which would be a much more serious issue, albeit one that occurs — one should note — with regularity in human societies, and that with God still firmly in his Heaven).

But on the other side of the fence (from the religiously inclined) are those who believe that we can use our reason to create a better system of ethics without God as the source.  I think this is correct, up to a point.  But sometimes those who eschew God as a source can go wrong if what they are really proposing is a belief that there exists in nature a perfect law that we can discover and align ourselves with.  As philosophers have noted, this is not much different from the religious seeking a revealed source to bulk up an authoritative claim for a particular brand of morality, only in this case the revelation is sought in nature.  Both are locked into a quest for an ultimate, unquestionable moral authority.

The fundamental problem we must contend with is that ethics and morality, which are really an evolved (and evolving) social tool for (evolved and evolving) social animals, exist in a natural world that is ever only “balanced” in an ever-shifting-mid-point-between-competing-forces sort of way.  Nothing is fixed in this world.  And that, I’m afraid, applies to morality as well.

If we are honest with ourselves, the truth of the relativity of morality is evident all around (and within) us.  Almost every sin we can conceive of exists on a sliding moral scale, even the most heinous ones (such as murder which can, in certain circumstances, be “justified”).  We cry for justice and plead for mercy with equal vigor.  (This is why we have juries to decide issues that, were they truly black and white, would require no deliberation at all).

The upshot of this reality is that with morality — as with our interactions with our natural environment — the best that we can do is to limit the inputs into the system that are pushing things out of “balance”, and hope that the adjustments we make are wise ones so that the ever-swinging pendulum swings in a more constrained, sustainable arc.

With humans this means combating the obvious abuses that increase human misery, and attempting to encourage the positive actions that provide opportunity for more and more humans to have meaningful lives.  (Now just exactly what makes a human life meaningful is going to have many different definitions to different people.  But this is part of the complexity of life that makes the idea of a sort of revealed universal morality so suspect: it won’t work equally well for all peoples everywhere).

So it seems that the best we can do is, well, the best that we can do.  Abandoning the idea of perfect law (whether given by God or revealed by nature) is a good start.  At least then we are starting off from a semi-solid common-grounding in reality.

So I don’t think humankind needs any new “holy books” or revelations.  And our future does not lie in our past.  Human morality and beliefs have been evolving for fifty-thousand years, and even the great religious world views that have imprinted themselves on our moral minds (and seem to be permanent cultural fixtures) had a beginning, a middle, and may one day have an “end”.  If they do end, they will not leave a world without ethics and morality (just as they did not come to a world without ethics and morality).  They will, like the systems of belief that preceded them, simply be replaced by the next and (one assumes) somewhat superior system.

People get pretty damn spun-up around morality.  We become indignant, outraged, ready to bring down the hammer of heaven upon those who flout our laws.  We could stand to calm down a bit.  Not so that we can coast off into lawlessness, but so that we can be more humane and effective in our legislation and enforcement of law.  And also that we may begin to appreciate just how much we humans have accomplished in creating the complex, cooperative societies that we have.  We’ve come a long way, baby, and when we accept a touch of humility in this area, we are rewarded with an earned sense of pride.  Even if it’s not God given.

t.n.s.r. bob

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

Sunday, January 6th, 2013

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

It occurs to me that if all that mattered was truth (that could be verified by reliable experiment) then religious belief would have died out a long time ago.

Saying something like that reveals several assumptions, however.

The first assumption would be, naturally, that we humans were purely rational creatures.  And despite how often we try appeal to our fellow humans’ rational minds, it seems like even the most hopeful rationalists would have to recognize that this marvelously analytical part of our brain is not the major force of our evolved consciousness.  (For more on this, read “The Righteous Mind”, reviewed this blog).  Any psychologist will tell you that once the fight or flight (fearful) parts of our consciousness are triggered, calm, rational behavior is nowhere to be seen (though it could be argued that fleeing on adrenaline soaked legs is a highly rational act when the danger is life-threatening — but that’s the thing — we generally experience more fear than a given situation truly warrants).

The second assumption would be that the results of scientific experiment (duly tested and confirmed) could be quickly and evenly distributed to every human on the planet.  (Another underlying assumption would be that every human would already have in place a cultural/mental construct that was receptive to scientific evidence — meaning the evidence would be accepted as credible.  But we don’t have to look far in our own circle of friends to see that even in our individual communities there is not a truly homogenous landscape of equally educated and acculturated minds).

Yes, I love science. Yes, I love science.

One of the realities of the society I see around me is that there exists only a percentage of people who are sufficiently curious about reality to happily “change” their mind when a new scientific experiment proves that an idea they held was now known to be incorrect.

I often get comments along the lines of “people’s minds are made up”, or “you’re preaching to the choir”, which are all ways of recognizing that the part of our minds where beliefs are formed is understandably conservative.  After all, the things we believe most deeply are also most likely to have a direct bearing on our survival in a seemingly capricious natural world.  (This is likely the basis for our sliding scale of trust — where we are most likely to believe someone who is our closest kin, and least likely to believe something a stranger tells us).

And being the profoundly social animals that we are, we are also natural believers.  As we learn more about how our brains operate, it has become clear that we believe first, then analyze and question after.  Meaning that once we take in a statement as “true” (from someone high up on our “trust hierarchy”) the odds of us taking the difficult extra steps that would lead to deleting that item from our “truth” list are pretty low.  (For more on this, see “Blink”, reviewed this blog).

And so we have millions of humans walking around with a mix of internalized beliefs, most of which have been acquired from friends and family, but some of which have come from other sources.  And sometimes that other source is science.

I consider us fortunate that newspapers, magazines and television programs regularly feature interesting science stories.  Every other week there is featured a tale of some new dinosaur discovery, or the latest theory on Neanderthal behavior, or the analysis of new images from a space probe.  This information — even if not taken in directly by the less-curious — can enter the consciousness of individuals by a process of “cultural percolation”.  (When I listen to Christian preachers on the radio, it is revealing just how many times they quote science when it appears to support whatever spiritual point they are making).

The upshot of this is that there are very few living humans who still believe that the sun revolves around the earth, or that diseases are caused by evil spirits.  However…I have to be cautious here.  Because even among those that have some passing acceptance (if not understanding) of gravity, or evolution, or genetic inheritance there often live, side by side with scientific truth, a whole raft of beliefs that are incompatible with physical reality.  Most often these are quasi- and outright religious beliefs that can range from adherence to great grand-mother’s home remedy for this or that ailment, or a mild superstition that makes them not walk under a ladder, to full-blown beliefs in alien (or angelic) visitation and, of course, the grandaddy of all human beliefs: God.

It seems to me that if we were to take on — as our solemn task — the eradication of irrational belief from the human population, it would immediately take on the shape of brutal human oppression (think of the re-education camps of Communist governments, or the Spanish Inquisition).  And this is where the difference between a humanist and a fundamentalist religious believer becomes most apparent: even though, as a humanist, I believe that most people would be better off with more truth to counter our natural (and abundant) fear, I shrink from risking real violence to a human psyche to accomplish such an aim by force.  The deeply religious (even if their religion is a particular political ideology) seem to have far fewer qualms in this area.

Though — it should be noted — that American evangelicals (as well as other conservative religionists) do feel as if they are under attack and experiencing oppression from a secular humanist army of atheistic scientists.  I think they are more than mildly overstating their case.

All of this brings me to the realization that I will not live to see irrational religious belief swept by reason into the dustbin of history.  For even though it is abundantly clear that religion is an evolved human activity (that we humans have always been the active agent in creating), and that it is, therefore, not “true” in any evidential sense, religion remains a sort of cognitive and cultural reality and, as such, must be accepted and understood for the phenomenon (and fixture) that it is.  And understanding this shifts my stance a bit from armored crusader to curious fellow human.

This doesn’t mean that I won’t hold my ground to resist aggressive, religiously-motivated cultural foolishness.  Neither does it meant that I’ll stop writing these sermons for those who are like I once was (questioning, or in transition out of, their religion).  Because each of us is part of the quiet “commission” to spread the best truth we can get our hands on, and point out ignorance when it becomes dangerous.

(After all, those who think God is on their side do not think it unseemly to label unbelievers “fools” condemned to Hell, so I hardly think it abusive for me to call them — when appropriate — “incorrect”).

My natural curiosity (an example of the type of brain I possess), combined with life events and circumstance, have conspired to bring me to a place where I am not simply interested in reality, but crave the truth of it.  And science is the single best tool we humans have come up with for determining what is “true” and what is “false”.  Science does not have all of the answers (though it does have the most reliable ones available), and some of the answers we now have will be modified (or discarded) by future discoveries (and I realize that I will die carrying bits of old or incorrect information in my head).  But what matters to me is that I care enough about reality to discard the old when the new arrives.  And for having that kind of brain, I consider myself deeply fortunate.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “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: “A Christmas Message” from the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, December 23rd, 2012

Living in the Chihuahuan desert of the American Southwest (where the arrival of Winter is not always obvious) one must look for the local signs of the holiday season’s approach.  We do have some trees with actual leaves that transition into Fall colors as the weather gets colder (though this year we were still in the 70’s past Thanksgiving).  Sometimes we get a dash of snow or rain.  Sometimes.  Christmas lights go up, of course, along with a selection of nativity scenes in yards and windows.  Around here the most unique feature may be the modernized electric version of the traditional “luminarias” (or farolitos) that are strung across the rooftops of adobe houses and shopping centers (the more traditional and temporary — and therefore more “authentic” — squat paper bags of sand and a single votive candle are mostly reserved for Christmas Eve itself).  Folks might stock up on the fresh crop of locally-harvested pecans for their holiday baking, and perhaps choose to attend one of the seasonal vocal concerts or theatrical performances that pack the local performance spaces.

This year a buddy of mine worked with a downtown business group, the city, and our local electric utility, to string up lights along the three newly-rennovated blocks of downtown.  The lights are “choreographed” to music played on a special FM station set up by the utility.  So as you drive down Main Street, you can get the full effect of the show.  It’s actually rather charming.  I’ve driven this lighted route several times now.  It has brought me pleasure.  I’ve noticed that a couple of the songs in the (rather limited) rotation have a distinctly evangelical Christian message.  One song in particular — by what sounds like a Christian “boy band” — proclaims (in a rather chastising manner) that it’s not a “Holiday”, but a celebration about Jesus!.

As I’ve listened to the lyrics in a lot of the Christmas music (in concerts and on the radio) I have thought to myself: what a shame.  What a shame that all of this accumulated output of human creativity that marks the music, the theater, the decorations and the tone of this mid-winter holiday had to be built upon this one religious story of a desert-living couple and a miraculous baby in a holy land.

I’ve had thoughts similar to this before.  Once, after reading a good book about the history of Norse mythology (including its eventual replacement by Middle-Eastern monotheism), it occurred to me that the Norse gods were much more interesting (and relatable) personalities than the distant monotheistic Yahweh of the Bible.  But the fact is that our Christmas is Christian because of the vagaries of history.  For whatever reasons, the Bible story was the one that “stuck”, and then it stuck around long enough to become a cultural artifact around which human artistic production naturally attached itself, until we had the accretion that is our modern Christmas.

Of course, there are counter-celebrations: The Winter Solstice and Kwanza, for example (Hanukah I don’t think would qualify in this instance, for obvious reasons).  But that’s about it.  Unless you count the commercial and secular sects of “Christmasianity” (what I’m calling the entirety of this central cultural event).  These more secular facets always stir up a certain segment of Christianity that is annually miffed about these perceived free-riders on THEIR celebration of the God-made-man-in-a-manger celebration.  But, then, the pagans (the few, the hardy that remain) are miffed that THEIR mid-winter celebration was co-opted by the Roman church all those years ago!

A lobe-finned fish -- an example of the type we evolved our upright bodies from. A lobe-finned fish — an example of the type we evolved our upright bodies from.

For years I have taken a certain piquant pleasure in the handful of surviving pre-Christian symbols that are embedded in the Jesus birthday party.  I find it a rather bracing testament to the persistence of our most basic human impulses toward celebration and community that even a religion as aggressive as monotheism has had to accommodate the practices of the pagan peoples it absorbed.  In this way, culture is like natural selection in that it (at least under ideal circumstances) retains the best products of evolution even as it continues to select new (and beneficial) innovations.

(I say “under ideal circumstances” because natural selection can only build upon what already exists, which in practical terms means that not all traits that are reserved are optimal.  In short, in evolution “good enough” is the functional equivalent of “perfect”.  And so we upright humans retain the marks of our bacterial past, or the body-plan that helped our ancient lobe-finned great-great-grandfishes locomote, or a hairy primate cling to her branch-y bed).

And so Christianity — having not so much displaced the earlier belief systems as subsumed them — becomes the newly grown tree around which the vines of art then grow.

This does not mean — by any stretch — that this one religion was the best possible one, or even the most inspiring, but by a certain point Christianity (and Islam, it’s paternal twin, as well as Buddhism and Hinduism) had become widespread enough to provide a common narrative vocabulary upon which artists could build.  In this way it’s not unlike the way in which Facebook has become the dominant social media platform.  This doesn’t mean that Facebook is necessarily — again — the best possible solution to this need for human sociability to find expression in a digital domain (it certainly has its dark and bothersome aspects), but it has become so dominant — in a field that requires dominance to exist — that Facebook has become THE platform around which we gather.  For now.

Art, being a form of communication, relies for its effectiveness on a shared set of reference points (to which the creative human can add novelty and surprise).  And so the familiar story of the baby Jesus is told and retold, abstracted, refracted, secularized, commercialized and even defiled, but the nativity narrative itself — through such use — becomes even more firmly entrenched in the culture.  It becomes “locked” in the same way that the first technological innovation to dominate becomes “locked”, and all subsequent developments must be built upon what came before, warts and all (technology, like nature, is constrained from spontaneously creating completely novel enterprises).  So when it comes to the many overtly religious threads that have been woven into our Christmas tapestry, one question becomes: how would we replace all of the songs and traditions with new (less religious) ones, without have to “un-weave the rug” as it were, and start from scratch?

And so the Christian part of Christmas is, for all practical purposes, a permanent fixture of my society.  But to be clear — this is not because it necessarily deserves to be so.  On that score, Christians could afford a touch of humility, and keep their complaints that “Jesus is the reason for the season” a bit more to themselves.  For what they fail to see is that even the Christian themes of Christmas are built upon earlier myths and celebrations so that we all are part owners of these celebrations in the deep, dark, mid-Winter, be we Pagan or Jew, Evangelical or Humanist.  And I, for one, think it is a good thing that Christmas (as we tend to celebrate it) has so many angles from which it can be viewed and enjoyed!

So there is actually no “missing” Christ to be “put back into Christmas” (he is there to stay).  The “battle for Christmas” is just a silly idea rooted in a hubristic ignorance of the realities of a history that moves on with what it’s got to work with (just like the path of evolution that re-worked the body plan of an ancient fish to give us these upright bodies that we can drape with ugly Christmas sweaters)!

I might just as well start a campaign to put the “Fisch” back in Fischmas.  Hey.  That’s not a bad idea!

One final thought: as I listened to a rendition of the “Hallelujah Chorus” on the radio today, I realized that our faculties of inspiration seems to require a belief in something greater — much greater — than our “selves”.  We humans appear to need some things to be sacred, or magical, or hopeful, so much so that we are capable of leaving our old gods behind to embrace the newest ones (or ONE).  If we look at it that way, it turns out to be the gods that change, not the festivals.  So perhaps we can take comfort from the realization that though the sign (or symbol) over the door might change, the “human church” never will.

So I wish you a lovely Solstice. I hope you have wonderful memories of a warm Hanukah, or that you enjoyed a festive Kwanza.  And of course I wish you a Merry Christmas (whether you love the story of the baby Jesus or just enjoy all of the lights and the friends and the food).  This is a festival that belongs to all of us, because, well, evolution has made us all members of the church of the human being.  And whichever denomination of that church you happen to identify with, we are all still bound together in this  great adventure of existence.

t.n.s.r. bob

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

Sunday, December 16th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Existential Redecorating” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, December 9th, 2012

It was one of those moments that could so easily have been missed.

I was describing to a friend the metaphor I use for our existential situation, living as we do in this age of science.  Specifically, that we spend a lot of our time in an “existential living room” that has a rather large hole in the wall that is open to the enormity of the universe.  And so every time we walk by that “hole” our eye is pulled toward the vast, gaping void lurking beyond the security of our (n0-longer solid) four walls and we are immediately gripped with discomfort, even dread.  The upshot being that we live with a constant reminder of our actual size (and, therefore, significance) on a cosmic scale.  It is a very real “Total Perspective Vortex” (for you “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” fans out there).  (It can also be a reminder of how remarkable it is that we are even here to have such a reaction in the first place, but this is not, I think, our primary response to reminders of our mortality).

Having described this “hole in the wall” metaphor, I said to my friend: “God is the picture we hang to hide that hole”.

I went on to say, however, that this “picture” of God does not really answer any of the questions that trouble us about the unimaginable distances in both space and time that await to challenge our mammalian brains whenever we look outside of our parochial selves.  God, for instance,  may tell us that He created us only a few thousand years ago (right after he created the Heavens and the Earth) but God Himself is eternal, omnipotent, and omnipresent.  So all that we have done is substitute God’s incomprehensible vastness — which can be no smaller, certainly, than that of all of creation — for the equally incomprehensible vastness of that creation.  What is the difference?

And that’s when my buddy said, quietly: “Because we put a face on it.”

And I was stopped in my tracks by the power of that straightforward statement.

I had to turn it over in my mind.  Was it really that simple?  Could it possibly make that much difference to our response to the incomprehensible to just stick a face on it?  I tried to find a way around the idea, seek out the weaknesses in the argument, but there was none to be found.  So simple, so elegant in its simplicity.  Yes, I realized, we human animals are so finely attuned by our eons of social evolution to reading each others faces that it turns out all we have to do to calm our terrified souls is imagine a face like ours between us and all of that unsettling void.

That is a part of why God — improbable as the idea of God actually is — works.  Because it is not just the idea of God that we are dealing with: it is the image of God.  Through God we are able to put a face between us and all that is unknown.

I have to admit that with each sermon (even as I move ever toward more clarity about how the world seems to actually work) there are often little, nagging corners of doubt in almost every assertion I make.  Not because my assertions have proven to be false, but because it is the nature of exploration that each discovery brings the discoverer to a plateau where new landscapes — previously unseeable — become visible at the edge of one’s newly-acquired field of vision.

And so even as I have substantially answered the “big” existential questions for my own life, there remain other questions to answer.  Perhaps it’s like science in that way.  Let me explain. I take the view that we live in a post-evolution age, meaning that this foundational biological theory is well-established and extremely unlikely to be turned on it’s head by future discoveries.

(I say this recognizing that there are surely dramatic discoveries to come that will make us refine the theory in important ways.  For example, just look at how our understanding of dinosaurs has changed dramatically in recent years: one scientist made the breakthrough discovery that gave a real boost to the idea that some of the dinosaurs did not die out, but evolved into modern birds.  This discovery was joined with a seemingly sudden breakthrough in fossil discoveries that show that many dinosaurs were covered by “protofeathers”.  Many of the signs of this may have been sitting in museum drawers for decades, un-noticed, until the paradigm shift got people looking for what they hadn’t been looking for before.  This is dramatic stuff.  Like the modern understanding that not all of the hominids whose fossils have been found are on the same branch of our modern-family tree, and that our “cousins” the Neanderthals, died out only a few tens of thousands of years ago!)

But none of these recent discoveries have shaken the theory of evolution.  In truth, they only make sense when seen through an evolutionary framework.  But I expect that they — like all such discoveries — have made many scientists sit up and take notice of what other possible traits and clues they may have been missing because they weren’t expected!

And it’s the same with my own existential adventure.  Because it is one thing to answer (for oneself) the question of whether God does, or does not, exist.  But such a personal existential achievement does nothing to alter the reality of the ongoing human experience of God that plays such a huge role in lives of most of my fellow humans (which makes the “question” so “big” in the first place!).  So the questions change as our understanding moves to a finer scale that is (one hopes) better suited to asking the next right question.

So I often ponder why, with the knowledge we now have about our evolutionary origins and the formation of our planet, there seems to have been so little impact on the phenomenon of individual religious belief.  Even many who fully embrace the findings of geologists and paleontologists miss nary a step in maintaining an active belief in divine agency.

I glanced at this rock wall as I drove a mountain road, and immediately saw a face (just left of center, above “.com”) in the stones.

Of course, there are scientific answers for this now as well.  We have evidence from genetic research, neuroscience, and evolutionary psychology (among other fields) that have gone a long way toward explaining the peculiarities of human behavior.  This science answers many of the “second-tier” questions that come after the “big” ones are answered, namely, the “why” of our continued religious behavior in an age of science.

The sum of this research tells me that there is no real mystery to our tendency toward belief in agency in the world, even where it is clear that none exists.  Science tells us that we find intention in nature because our brains are wired to find it (our “Hypersensitive Agency Detection Device”).  As has been said by others, the evolutionary path favors the animal with more false positives than false negatives.  We’ve survived because we are animals wary of intention in other animals, the weather, and even disease.  And wary animals are rarely punished by natural selection (on a species-wide scale, at least) for erring on the side of caution.

And so here we are, so-called “modern” humans, convinced that we have now beaten nature by somehow completing the process of evolution by evolving to a point where we are — thanks to our technology and overall smarts, well, “done” with all of that.

This is an expression of the companion to our “Agency Detection Device”: our natural human self-centeredness — the solipsism that makes it unbelievably easy to see ourselves as worthy of the attention of a vast and incomprehensible sky god.  The god whose face we hang over that troubling hole in our existential living room wall.  The hole that — as long as we are the mortal animals that we are — we know we can never really make go away.  So we drape it with the framed face of benign divinity.  Or — if we feel we can’t do that bit of cognitive redecorating — we just go ahead and find a way to live with our destined-to-be-incomplete understanding of who and what we really are, and make whatever peace we can with the wonder and vulnerability of our existence.

t.n.s.r. bob