Archive for the ‘Sermons’ Category

SERMON: “A Final Word” from the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, March 3rd, 2013
Where it all began.  The first appearance of the not so reverend bob on Charles Darwin's 200th birthday in 2009.

Where it all began. The first appearance of the not so reverend bob on Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday in 2009.

Here’s what reality seems to be.

We live on a planet that is spinning as it orbits around the sun that is the center of our particular solar system.  All living things on Earth appear to have begun their life on earth.  Life is made up of the elements that were manufactured by the formation of the universe and the deaths of stars , and those elements eventually found their way to a young, coalescing earth.  Once on earth, minerals were formed from these elements and liquid water, and here life began, fueled by the energy that blasts out from the ongoing nuclear furnace that is our sun.

Once life took hold, it rapidly diversified through a process we describe as evolution through the process of natural selection, where the ever-changing challenges to survival favored the continuation of one species over another (as well as heritable traits within species), and geographic isolation (combined with random genetic coding errors) led to ever more varieties of living things, each suited to it’s own environment, each occupying a certain niche in nature.  This process has continued to this very moment, and will continue as long as the Earth remains a habitable planet.

Humans are a product of this process.  We are a species of animal that is related to every other living thing on this planet.  We are classified as mammals, and as primates.  Our closest living relatives are the Chimpanzees and Bonobos, with whom we share 99% of our DNA.  (We also “share” almost as much DNA with mice and about 40% with lettuce).

We humans are clever toolmakers who have developed both verbal and written language, which has allowed us to operate in a conceptual as well as an animal world.  Our brains have allowed us to develop technology that has dramatically altered any landscape that we have occupied.  We have, in a remarkably short time, grown from a collection of tribes of hunter-gatherers into huge, complex societies and nations.

A most notable feat of human intelligence has been the creation of the scientific method, which has, over the last few hundred years, allowed us to come to a fairly deep understanding of the reality of our biology, our world, and the universe we float in.  It is through the investigations of science that we know most of what I have just cataloged.

And yet humans also believe in the existence of God.  We have built entire civilizations and cultural institutions around our belief in gods that both created us and who control our fate.  Our first explanations of reality were mythological in nature.  (Before science gave us a means of testing propositions, one person’s guess was as good as another’s).  It would seem fair to say, at this point, that all of the early religious claims about nature and physical reality have been proven false by subsequent scientific discovery.  Yet religion and religious belief persists.

And though science has not (and can not) ever disprove the existence of God, science has shown us that there is nothing about our existence on Earth that necessitates the intervention, direction or supervision of any sort of divine agent, supreme deity, or intelligent god.  And yet the natural state of a human being appears to include a belief in such a being or force, along with a feeling that all of creation is somehow here for (primarily) our benefit.

But not all humans believe in God.

Perhaps tellingly, it is among scientists that we find the highest percentage of humans who do not believe in god(s) or magic.  Which means it is those who know the most about reality that believe the least in what we might call the “unreal”.  Yet the number of such unbelievers (including non-believing non-scientists as well) still represents a minority among the human population.  This hints at the proposition that magical belief flourishes best in ignorance.  But, since belief is coming to be understood as a sort of “default” setting of the human brain, ignorance of reality cannot be seen as the only factor in the continuation of belief in magical things.

The not-so-reverend bob waves goodbye as the Pterosaur that will carry him to his retreat circles above.

The not-so-reverend bob waves goodbye as the Pterosaur that will carry him to his retreat circles above.

Over these last years, I have explored this continuing reality of the believing human in an age of science.  Using my own experience as a means of both discovery and explanation, I’ve experienced a rather intensive period of learning and thinking that I have then turned into my weekly “sermons”.  And I find myself, now, in the rather interesting position of having “answered” the most basic questions we humans seem to have about life: Where did I come from?  Where am I going?  Why am I here?  And though I could probably go on writing a new “sermon” every week for the rest of my life (because there is always going to be a new scientific discovery, or a new popular science book, or a new personal experience to write about), I’ve realized that it’s time to re-direct the energy I’ve been putting in to this blog into other projects.  Because understanding that I am here as the result of natural processes more begs than answers the question of how best to live the life I have (though it does, I think, offer some helpful clues).

I am primarily an artist and performer.  I can now see “the not so reverend bob” as one of my creations — a champion for humane reason and science.  But playing the extroverted evangelist for evolution has been a bit of a strain on this natural introvert (a bit like a submarine doing battle on the surface).  And I think the answer to how to live my life (in this next stage of that life) comes in the form of a recognition that this artist is most effective operating below the surface (like the submarine).  And, for now, trite as it may sound, I want more love and less argument in my life.  And holding the view I do — that we only have this one life to live — I have only so much time to write my next musical or paint my next painting.  (And, besides: it’s not as if anyone’s chances at eternal life will be jeopardized by me not reaching them with the “gospel” of the church of bob)!

So let this be my final sermon on the boblog of the not-so-reverend bob.  I’ll keep the site up for those who might want to read one of my 166 sermons (167 counting this one.  Yikes!).  And I’ll always be ready, like a Minuteman with his musket hanging over the cabin door, to answer the call when needed.  But for the foreseeable future I’ll be directing my energies elsewhere.  I have other lost creative sheep, as it were, to gather up while the sun still shines.

I want to thank each of you that has visited this blog, and especially my “faithful” readers.  I hope that I have given you something worthwhile.

Bob Bless!

the “retiring” not so reverend Bob Diven

SERMON: “Bad Arguments Against Evolution” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, February 24th, 2013

I was listening to a preacher on the radio the other day, making what he thought was a good case against evolution.  He spent some time scoffing at the idea that “lots of time” was in any way a key to understanding Darwin’s theory.  He gave this example: “Suppose I take all the parts that make up a watch, and put them in a bag, and just shake them up.  They won’t just assemble themselves into a watch.  Now, suppose I shake that bag for a long, long time.  See what I mean?  It just doesn’t work.”

No, Barney, it doesn’t work.  But then, again, this is a popular creationist argument (a version of Hoyle’s self-assembling 747 argument — listen to Richard Dawkin’s refutation of this argument here).

When confronted with this kind of “argument”, it’s difficult to know where to begin, as the weeds of ignorance are so thick and so tall that they almost have to be attacked in multiple directions at once.  But writing (like conversation and argument) is linear, so I must take them on one at a time.

Let’s take the most glaring example of bad logic employed in this argument (so bad, in fact, I wonder if it’s fair to call it “logic” at all).  The preacher is using a mechanical device (a watch — presumably a classic “wind-up” watch) to stand in for a biological process.  Now, to be clear, there are mechanical processes to be found and described in biology, and there are chemical processes to be found in machinery (at least on the level of the metal parts of the watch being acted upon by the corrosive effects of exposure to air, or the energy stored and released by a main spring, or the transfer of electrons that can occur between dissimilar metals) but none of these processes have much of anything to do with the physical act of actually assembling a wound-up and functioning watch.

The bite marks of a Mosasaur on an ancient, extinct Ammonite.  The fossils speak.

The bite marks of a Mosasaur on an ancient, extinct Ammonite. The fossils speak.

And biology can build “machines”, in the sense that an organ such as the heart works in a manner similar to a mechanical pump, or bacterium grow flagellum that can “corkscrew” their bodies forward through fluids.  And it is also true that both the metal gears of a pocket watch and the living heart are built up out of the same storehouse of elements that make up our planet.  But, again, these are not the kinds of things the radio preacher is considering.  For no matter how clever the analogy sounds, the gears of a pocket watch are never going to be the product of biological actions.  They are manufactured by humans through a series of mechanical steps, from mining to smelting to design then machining or casting, to polishing and final assembly.

The dubious intellectual leap that almost always accompanies the crap analogies that are the bread and butter of the anti-science crowd is this fallacious assumption of equivalency between human technological creation and biological processes.  Perhaps this error is rendered too easy for us because science almost always has to draw on metaphor to communicate it’s discoveries.  Hence the heart is the “pump”, the venous system the “pipes”, the brain the “computer”, the bones the “levers” and the muscles the “pulleys”, but always only in a metaphorical sense.  Too many of us, it would seem, invest too heavily in the metaphor — we take the description of the thing for the thing itself.

Regardless, this is what this flavor of fallacious argument does: it conveniently substitutes one kind of thing for another, then breezily jumps to a false conclusion.  In this case, the preacher touches on one of the genuine conditions for the theory of evolution to work, namely: time.  But he then jumps from evolution (the mutational changes over life forms over time) to “origin of life” questions (where did the parts of the watch come from in the first place?), something that evolution has nothing to do with.  Evolution is the description of how (once begun) biological life blossomed into so many different forms over time.  Evolution has nothing to say about how, when, or where biological life began.  But that is of no concern to this kind of creationist, as he or she has the ability to leap back and forth between arguments with no regard to whether they are addressing genuine science or not (frequently “moving the goalposts” of their “argument” in the process).

So let’s get back to the watch analogy.  Clearly, the dismembered pocket watch is a stand-in for the “primordial stew” that is thought to have produced life.  But the comparison does not hold.  For the primordial stew involves liquid water, elements, chemical reactions and the input of energy (be it solar or terrestrial heat, or the energy of lightning — all of these produced by processes that science has been able to describe).  And in this area, experiments have shown that rudimentary life could, indeed, begin this way.  (In fact, the way the research seems to be going, I have the sense that we are going to find out that the starting up of life is not really all that hard, given the right circumstances.  We already suspect that life had to begin untold numbers of times on the planet, most all of which were short-lived events — ended by the various catastrophes that have befallen our globe since it cooled enough to form a crust).

But the preacher ignores this key difference, and sincerely thinks that the “soup of life” is the same as a collection of manufactured and machined metal gears, pins, screws and glass.  True, the parts-in-a-bag scenario does at least include the input of some energy (you or I “shaking” the bag), but that is hardly the same as solar or thermal energy working on dissolved elements within a watery environment, fueling chain after chain of chemical reactions.  (If, on the other hand, the preacher were to put the actual elements of life into his rhetorical “bag” and shake it with some solar energy, he might be very surprised to open it up and find it filled with the slime of early “life”).

Why do people buy these illogical anti-science arguments?  I don’t think that question is all that hard to answer, as we see examples of this every day.  We humans are deeply susceptible to false positives when it comes to causal relationships.  We are, in fact, crap at making the kinds of distinctions between “causal” and “casual” that is the very basis of science.  But, then, that is why we developed science: to finally figure reality out.  After centuries of making guesses about why this or that occurred, we finally found a way to reliably outwit our own intellectual limitations.

But science is challenging to our natural (and cherished) intuitive faculties, not least of all because it is really good at giving very specific answers to very specific questions under very specific conditions (which, it should be noted, is not the way most of us frame our questions about “life”).  And this is as it should be.  After all, to eliminate the possibility of bias or interference (a huge issue for humans), conditions that might affect an experiment must be tightly controlled, and all possible inputs carefully limited.  And, hence, a new scientific discovery might be hailed as a sweeping new truth by the media, even as the scientific community remains deeply circumspect, qualifying their discoveries with “Well, we now know that under conditions x or y, this or that can occur”.

A lot of people, I think, find this kind of qualification (and precision) damn frustrating.  This is perhaps most prevalent in “health news”, where we are often left asking: “Well, should I drink soda or not???”  And the answer is generally a qualified one, with a mix of yes and no, depending.

And so there will always be those who can preach the simple path to certainty that unqualified assertions can pave for the frustrated human psyche.  You can see this with almost any article having to do with evolution, where you can count on someone posting a variation of the comment that “There is absolutely zero proof for evolution.  None.”

This, of course, is just about as absurd as a modern human can get.  Like the radio preacher who then went on to say that no “missing link” had ever been found, going down the “cherry-picking” laundry list of the most notorious scientific frauds (such as the “Piltdown Man” and others), ignoring the reality that for every one of those frauds, there are, literally, millions of fossils that are genuine (not to mention the fact that it was other scientists who discovered the frauds).  Again, the most glaring flaw in this argument is that every single fossil ever found is a “missing link” between at two different species (with the exception of a specimen of a species preserved at the moment it went extinct).  If evolution is understood on even the most rudimentary level, then you must realize that every living thing is a transitional species between it’s ancestors and future descendants.  (Even the preacher himself)!

That preacher also expresses the familiar misconception that the fossil preservation of past life works like a scrapbook you might keep of your children’s growth — with page after sequential page of photos and clippings of all of the years of that child’s growth.  And therefore (if evolution is true) we should find all sorts of “missing links” in the fossil record.  Well, of course, this is just what we find when we are lucky enough to explore sedimentary deposits that have occurred in perfect conditions (which generally means landscapes that are subsiding at the edges of bodies of water — where sediments eroded from land can be laid down on the sea floor, burying dead critters, layer upon layer that are not then lifted up again to be eroded away by water and weather — at least not until scientists find them eons later).  But, the Earth being as geologically active as it is, these “perfect” conditions can only exist in certain locations for a limited period of time — like strips of images torn from a much longer movie (or from thousands and thousands of movies of all of the different ecosystems and locales that are filled with life).  And we will never know how many fine fossil deposits have been worn away into dust, or remain buried too deep underground for us to find.

I recently visited the La Brea Tar Pits in central Los Angeles.  Those natural tar seeps were almost perfect traps for every kind of living thing that lived in the local environment for the last 40,000 years.  They have pulled thousands and thousands of fossils out of that site, including sloths, mammoths and saber-toothed cats, but also birds and bugs and micro-fossils.  But that was one small site in one locale that only got into the “scrapbook” game after the last ice age.  It is a wonderful window into Southern California’s recent past, but it doesn’t tell us what was happening just over the mountains to the east, or further north or south.

But this is how fossilization works: the conditions have to be right, and then the fossils have to be exposed again through later geologic action or human digging.  Most animals die in places where their carcasses are consumed by other life forms or broken down to nothing by the corrosive effects of air, sun and water.  Even with our practice of human burial, look how few human remains we have found of our ancient ancestors (and we know there were a lot more humans alive in history than we have ever found).

The hard truth is that, despite the ever-increasing number and variety of fossilized species that come to light every year, most of every lion, tiger, bear, dinosaur or ancestral human that ever lived will never be found.  Creationists see this as a dodge, but only because they have such an astoundingly simplistic view of the way the earth (and biology) actually work (as well an apparent ignorance of the sheer volume of fossils residing in the museums of the world).  This ignorance is unfortunate, and difficult to eradicate, as I get the sense that a lot of public school teachers aren’t all that enthused about the workings of evolution themselves (I know that my education on that score was mostly a self-guided adult exercise).  Add into that the active campaign to oppose the acceptance of evolution (and science in general), and there remains a ready audience for the radio preacher I have used as my example today.

(This is why I support The National Center for Science Education).

I think that part of what we are really discovering is that the process of evolution (as well as the wide variety of life forms it “creates”) is not so strange or incomprehensible is it is made out to be.  It is actually a very simple process that appears complicated only because we are so used to seeing ourselves as different from all other life forms.  I can tell you that dinosaurs no longer look strange at all to my eyes.  To me a Hadrosaur is pretty much the “wild cow of the Cretaceous”, and the T-Rex is a giant toothed bird sort of thing.  Look up pictures of the strange-looking animals that live today (you can Google “ugliest animals”), and you will see any number of living critters whose weirdness tests both our intellect and stomach.

But, of course, these strange critters exist.  Just like you and I exist.  And this is the greatest testimony the the reality of evolution: it happened.

The preacher said that evolution is not a “fact” like gravity is a “fact” (because he could see gravity in action in a way he could not witness evolution at work).  I’m sorry his imaginative capacity is so limited, because evolution is on display all around us.  True, we can’t see it happening (like we can see ice melt or gravity break the glass we drop on the kitchen floor) but the simple fact that we need a different flu shot every year should tell us something about the mutations (“guided” by natural selection) that allow species to adapt to changing life conditions.  Plus, I hate to tell the preacher that gravity, like evolution, is also a descriptive theory of a certain physical reality, and that gravity is no more (or no less) a fact than Darwin’s theory of evolution.

t.n.s.r. bob

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

SERMON: “A Tyranny of Choice” by the not-so-reverend bob

Saturday, February 9th, 2013

More than once I have stood in my local public library and considered all of the knowledge contained on all of the pages of all of the books that reside there.  Even in our modest municipal facility, I can feel the weight of the hundreds of volumes that I will never read, the stories I will never know, and the concepts I will never understand.  It is a rather stark reminder of the constraining power of time as it forces us to choose which opportunities we will spend the minutes and hours of our mortality upon.

And now we have the internet, and with it an amplification of an entire industry dedicated to the idea that what we human consumers lack is enough choice.  Every new personal device must now not only belong to us, but adapt to us, using algorithms to mimic an intelligence that can study and absorb our interests, needs and desires.  I wouldn’t say I find it terrifying, but it is troubling.  We have achieved a level of ease, affluence and convenience where each individual can be a petty tyrant of his own digital entertainment and informational domain.

Like all “progress” this is troubling in a paradoxical way: I do not like my options to be forcibly limited by anyone or anything, but at the same time, when are we going to recognize that we are doing to ourselves something not unlike training a bear to ride a bicycle or a chimp to talk in sign language.  Sure, with enough effort something that passes for rudimentary success can be achieved in either of those examples, but could it be argued that we had even modestly improved the quality of life for either the bicycling bear or the signing chimp?

Those who work in the technological fields (it would seem safe to assume) understand, or at least appreciate, science.  But science tells us that we are evolved mammals with quirky, limited brains.  True, we are not limited like a dog or a cow, but just because we operate on a higher cognitive level does not in any way mean that we have found a way to transcend our evolved biology (though there are those hoping to achieve just that through technology).

Unlike cable t.v., the ocean only has one channel.

Unlike cable t.v., the ocean only has one channel.

Sometimes when I open my laptop I sense the presence of a vast collection of human creative and intellectual output (and a lot of cat videos) spread out before me, and I feel it’s seductive siren-song of limitless possibility as I choose the one item (at a time) to give my full attention to.  (And make no mistake: we are not hard-wired to multi-task in anything like the way that we imagine we can.  No.  The best we can do is switch back and forth between competing stimuli, it’s just that some of us are a little bit better at rapid switching than others).  And I have something like my experience of standing in the information ocean of my library described above, only on steroids.

I think we are rushing down a road of rapidly diminishing returns when it comes to choice.  This doesn’t mean that we can do anything to stop it, really.  But it does mean that our yearning for ever more choice is bringing with it challenges that evolution has not prepared us for.  And this is the challenge of plenty.

Admittedly, there is a certain kind of pleasure in excess — in having way more than we can eat, or watch or listen to.  But this is perhaps an artifact of the many episodes of want that we’ve experienced in our evolution (this could be a cognitive analogue to our “Ice Age” body’s propensity to store fat so easily).  But despite our constant yearning for ease and plenty, ease and plenty in larger doses do not fit well with our lean, animal natures (physical or cognitive).  For isn’t it true that we appreciate the company of others most when we’ve experienced loneliness; food when we’ve been hungry; safety when we’ve been in danger?

We humans are unique in being the animals that are both aware of their existential dilemma (mortality) and have a superior technical ability that allows us to build ways to satisfy almost any desire we can generate (money may not buy you love, but it can buy a lot of things that are pretty darn close).  In essence, we create machines first for work, and then for pleasure.  The first creates wealth and leisure time, the second is the way we spend our newly-acquired (in historic terms) time and money.

This is the point where I should wrap things up with an answer to our dilemma of choice, but I don’t think there is one.  Each of us has to negotiate our own balance between the competing tensions of want and plenty — between our imagined ideal of ease and the biological reality of our physical minds and bodies.  (I, for example, pay money to belong to a gym where I exercise my body as a separate activity to make up for the ease of my daily work that would otherwise allow my frame of bone and muscle to degrade into a fatty, unhealthy lump).  And just to spice things up a bit, we have to work these things out in an environment where it is not just our money, but our time and attention and desires that are the most sought-after commodities.

We are drawn to attractive stimuli as much as any raven or laboratory mouse, but we are no longer dependent upon the whims of nature to provide the things that we crave the most (for their rarity, at least in nature — in our case, fats, sugars and produced entertainment).  It is actually an odd state of affairs for a human such as I to be able to sit down, turn on a machine, and search out a thousand videos of only that one thing I really, really like watching, and then watch it over and over and over as much as I want to, until I don’t want to anymore, and have to find something else that tickles my fancy.

I’m not one of those wags who will decry such a state as inferior to some other, more noble way of living.  Who am I to say?  This is just how things are in our lives right now (in our society, anyway).  In that way, we are no different from our ancestors who adapted to a life among domesticated plants and animals, where for the first time humans had the chance to get fat from eating too much.

Evolution has not stopped with us.  We may have found ways to protect ourselves from the more basic ravages of natural selection, but in doing so we have only created other evolutionary pressures in the form of our own manufactured technology.

The grand experiment of life on Earth continues and, like each of our ancestors that came before, it remains for us to make our own choices of how we spend our time here.  It’s just that the act of choosing itself has become much more complicated for more humans than it has ever been before.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “New Snakes in Old Skins” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, February 3rd, 2013

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. — 1 Corinthians, 13:11 (New International Version ©1984

Let’s be honest about this one thing: it often feels like there is something “greater than ourselves” at work in the world.  Whether in the thrilling experience of inspiration (when an idea seems to come to us unbidden), or when something good happens to us just when we feel certain that we needed it the most, or when we stand, enveloped the deep feeling of awe that can arise as we behold things vast or beautiful, such as a sunset or the birth of a new life.

Such experiences of the transcendent or the numinous are a part of being human.  The problem that you and I run into, however, (living as we do in an age of scientific discovery and testable evidence), is that there is absolutely no evidence to support the belief that there is any sort of transcendent personality that exists outside of the brain-filled skulls of the sentient living beings that we are.  (The other mitigating force against a warm and fuzzy view of the universe is the recognition of the more harsh realities that have carved the canyons, for instance, or the extinctions that provided opportunity for other species — such as our own — to flourish, or the many births that are neither wondrous nor “perfect”)

And it is the clash of these two realities that marks, I think, humanity’s halting progress from superstition to true awareness.  We are born into a natural conflict between the emotional power of numinous experience and the demands of our ever-better informed reason.  Such questions are not open-and-shut because we humans are not solely one or the other (meaning that we are not all brain, nor are we all heart).  Each of us is a blend of the two (and, according to recent research, necessarily so — for more on this see “The Righteous Mind” by Jonathon Haidt — reviewed this blog).

Personally, I’m at a time in my life where I am experiencing what I might describe as a “molt”.  I feel like a snake shedding his old skin — a metaphor that describes both the excitement as well as the deep (present) discomfort that accompanies the beginnings of such a process.  I’m guessing about the whole “molt” thing, of course, but based on my previous life experience, I think I may be reaching an age where the man I am today is no longer so well served by the habits of the man I have been for the last stretch of years.  Of course, I’m not changing from a caterpillar to a butterfly — nothing on that dramatic of a scale.  But it feels as if this passage might be more than the regular adjustments we make as we move through our days, weeks and months, like a hiker who pauses to confirm that she has not lost the trail.  No, I think this middle-aged snake is getting his new duds for the next stretch of slithering along in the desert.

In the same way that snakes outgrow their old skins, we can outgrow old ideas.

In the same way that snakes outgrow their old skins, we can outgrow old ideas.

As I wrote in an earlier sermon, I’ve been feeling (in many ways) like I’ve simply come full circle — returning to a temperament that was mine from the “get-go”.  But since coming that conclusion, I’ve read reports of a survey that shows that people actually change over time much more than they believe they have ( http://www.boston.com/news/science/blogs/science-in-mind/2013/01/03/the-person-you-are-today-the-real-final-you-harvard-study-says-you-change-more-than-you-think/WH83Enm8KZGd4iBaHTMKqK/blog.html ).  And being someone who has been made aware of my own brain’s tendency to “put two and two together and get five”, I pay attention to these evidence-based hints at my cognitive biases.  And so I work at applying this new knowledge to my own perceptions of my experience (in this instance, my perception of my cognitive self as not having changed all that much over the years).

And so I have to admit that one of the more unexpected aspects of writing this weekly blog (about my own process of existential navigation) has been an increased awareness of just how much my views and feelings have changed in a relatively short time.  At first this fueled a fear that I  might just research my way back into God (but that turns out to have been more an artifact of past experience than an indicator of what my future explorations would uncover, and this “fear” has dramatically diminished over time and with accumulated experience of life freed from the bias of belief).  But, still, the speed with which new understandings have penetrated my consciousness over the last several years is rather astonishing.  Part of this I attribute to being in the unusual position of having “made it my job” to think about and study this nexus of scientific evidence and irrational belief, not unlike, I suppose, the progression of knowledge one might acquire while completing a masters degree in a subject.  That may be an apt metaphor, actually, especially when you look at how many books I’ve read (and how many “papers” I’ve published) in the last three-plus years of this blog.  (In fact, I think I’m pretty close to being able to add a fake “Doctor” to my existing fake ministerial title).

(The humbling “flip-side” of this whole scenario is that I can count on my current understanding being replaced by a better one over time.  So, as smart — and well-informed — as I think I am today, I must accept that I will never get it “all” right for all time).

But let me get to the point of today’s sermon, which is this: In order to truly see the grandeur of life (as Darwin properly named it), I think we have to move beyond the twin fears of whether God does not (or does) exist.  Both of these fears are equally strong in our minds, depending on which side of the question you are coming from.  Leaving these fears behind is no easy task, as there are several powerful forces that work against such a state of mind, the most powerful of which is the reality that we have brains that are deeply susceptible to cognitive biases (that often default to incorrect conclusions based on certain attention-grabbing stimuli).  Add to that the fact that it can often feel as if our awareness extends beyond our physical body and skull.  This is interesting, especially as we consider the fact is that we can only sense the stimuli that actually make contact with our body (photons hitting the eye, sound waves the ear, tastes upon the tongue, smells in the nose, etc.).  And yet if feels as if we really can sense things from a distance.  Some of this is the action of instinct (a combination of experience, subtle smells and sounds picked up by the sub-conscious parts of our brain), but even acknowledging that, it is difficult to accept that we actually only exist inside our own bodies.  Another force against accepting this reality is that we are natural believers in any and all sorts of magic.  Magical or miraculous notions give us a thrill of pleasure or excitement simply to contemplate (and we enjoy that)!

But the reality seems to be that all of our experience of existence can be explained and described in purely biological terms.  On this level we are no different than the laboratory rat that avoids pain and seeks out pleasure.  The rest are the embellishments and flourishes of a highly complex and profoundly social brain that is very good at searching out pattern and intention in it’s natural environment (even though there is, most likely, nothing else going out “out there”).

These are the kinds of insights that only we humans living in an age of science have had access to.  But it’s just really really hard for many of us to get to a place of actually accepting the implications of the knowledge regarding our world, our bodies and our minds that we are now confronted with.  Yet I have to say here that getting to that place has rewards that are, frankly, unimaginable to the uninitiated.  This sounds very much like a religious claim of the kind I heard many times in my Christian youth: that an acceptance of God would open up a heretofore unseen spiritual world to an earthly “blind, but now seeing” soul.  That’s nice enough, as far as it goes.  But religion is a product of a much younger humanity and, not unlike the young man I once was (compared to the more mature man I now am), the conceptual tools that served us well in our civilized adolescence are not the tools that will serve us now.  We are like a snake that has outgrown its old skin but who refuses to leave it behind.  And so the snake is constricted by what was once its living self, but is now a dead, inert, hollow shell.

It seems ironic that the bare, naked, “dirty secret” of all of this is that our existence on this spinning planet of aching beauty is far more miraculous and wondrous than any God-focused worldview could ever even imagine.  Whatever its useful beginnings, religion, it turns out, has become more limiting than liberating.

Like the slithering snake stuck in its old skin, it takes some time and effort for us to get beyond the gravitational pull of our ancient religious impulse.  The irony bears repeating that religion has consistently fought against science as an enemy of truth and the liberation of the human spirit, when science turns out to be our ticket out from under the cloak of ignorance that religion continues to weave out of imagination and conjecture.  We can no more hate religion, however, than we can hate our younger, less mature selves (or our “old” skins).  Religion is part of the way that we were able to get to where we are now.  And religious belief is but one of our “old skins” that we have had to shed as we have matured over the last fifteen thousand years.  Many, of course, are not now — nor will ever be — willing to let it go.  That is a choice we can make (unlike the snake).  And so perhaps the best that we can do is choose, as individuals, to continue to learn and, when the time is right, recognize when it’s time to crawl out of our old skin and inhabit the new.

t.n.s.r. bob

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