Posts Tagged ‘atheisim’

SERMON: “Led Astray” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, October 2nd, 2011

I spend my Saturday mornings on my hands and knees creating paintings in chalk on the street during our local Farmers and Crafts Market.  Focused on my work, what I mostly I hear is the burble of the crowd, catching occasional glimpses of the feet of those who stop to watch or drop a dollar in my tip jar.  But I do look up from time to time.  One morning I looked up to see an elderly man walking away from me — and before I realized what was happening my throat seized with a sob that had leapt up from my chest.  In the moment that it took for my conscious mind to form the question: “What’s going on?” the reason for my reaction was delivered to that conscious mind: I was watching my dead father walk away from me.  Of course, it wasn’t my father at all, but a man of a very similar size, with a similar walk, wearing familiar colors.  It took only a few seconds before my critical mind was able to distinguish the differences between the actual man I was watching and my real father.

It’s a rather stunning illustration of how the mind works, and also how the mind can be fooled: I had glanced up with no thought in particular in my mind, and had seen a man with enough physical similarities to my father to trigger the reaction I would have had had my actual dead father walked past me at the Market.  My tears were real — my vision was not.

In evolutionary terms, it makes sense to err on the side of caution: to jump or run away first before deciding that the snake in the grass is really just a snakey-looking stick.  That same ancient instinct told my brain in a fraction of a second that I was looking at my father.  One very interesting aspect of all of this is that it happened before my conscious brain had a chance to get involved.

But this is not surprising, as recent neuroscience research has shown that, basically, the conscious mind is the last to know.  Most often our decisions are happening on the next level down, in a different part of the brain, with the net result that our bodies are reacting to the news at the same moment that the memo is being read by that part of our brain that we like to believe is in control.

We are invested in the notion that we are the authors of our fate, therefore the realization that so much of our reactions and decisions are happening on a pre-conscious level can be unsettling, as if some palace coup is afoot to dethrone our conscious mind from the role of monarch of the ship of our natural state.  The actual message is not that dramatic.  Our mind — the conscious product of our brain (or brains) — operates on several levels.  Those who study such things tend to identify them with the time of their biological evolution, from the more primitive to the more modern: the later adaptations being added to (but not replacing) the earlier brain(s).

Our brains don't always give us the correct readings.

To me it’s clear that this tells us that we are animals — complex organisms like any other on the planet, but with larger, more complex brains.  We argue endlessly about the things that separate us from the other animals, yet are always drawn back to the enormous biological and cognitive heritage that we share.  No matter how hard religions tries to resist the erosion of the temple of our uniqueness, the waves of data and science and reality continue to wear it down.

But why should this even be an issue?  Why does it seem to matter so much to so many people that we NOT be like the other animals?

The answer to that is as obvious as it is irrational: to accept that we are of a kind with every other life form on the planet makes it harder to hold to the idea that we are special creations of an infinite intelligence.  For, despite the fact that our social natures intimately entwine us with small groups of our fellow humans (an animals — our pets!), we are subject to feelings of painful loneliness in those moments when the company of others cannot protect us from the deep dark of night, or our smallness in the face of nature.  We have a deep need to not be alone, and that extends into the universe as well as into our community.

This is the primal existential terror that stalks each of us conscious beings.  Perhaps it is the force that fuels our profoundly social nature: our need to bond with each other; to form and nurture meaningful and lasting connections with friends, lovers and families; extending acts of charity to strangers we’ll never meet.

As I “saw” my dead father in the body of a stranger at the Market, we see the hand of God in random events, our brain’s stored associations with a lifetime of experience with other thinking beings triggered by unrelated sights and sounds that seem to have a shape we recognize.

I wasn’t thinking of my father that morning, but deep within me was a ready desire to see him if I could.  The fact that the experience was unbidden is the sort of detail we take to infer outside agency (“I didn’t make it happen”), which gives us the freedom to ascribe “meaning” to a random event.  The fact that my brain could even have the deep emotional response it did tells me something even more startling: that this brain of mine is willing to believe that which I know to be physically impossible: my deceased father walking through the market as if living some new, other life, that just happened to take him on a walk past his son drawing on the street.

It is little wonder, then, that we have built entire systems of belief on the quirks of our evolved brains.  We have all had these experiences, after all, and therefore have a common frame of reference for this kind of phenomena.  And it is the quality of these experiences, much more than their detail, that seems to matter most.

The more I read about the variety of human religious experience, the harder it is to hold to the idea that there is some objective spiritual reality out there that we are all given equal access to.  It sounds much more like the tales that children tell each other when they are making believe, and I would argue that it touches the same emotional and psychological triggers that such child’s play can trip: the expansive feeling in the chest, the cinching in the throat from excitement, the tingle of mystery tinged with danger, all within the safety of another’s company.

This is religion, then: the things we make up to describe the things that take us by surprise.  Whether it’s the face of Jesus on a tortilla or my father back from the dead at the Farmers Market.  Our brains are like a cosmic Global Positioning System that sometimes gives us a wild reading, and we have to go back to the old-fashioned tools to check our bearings.

In my pilot training we learned that even the reliable magnetic compass is subject to distortions: It can be affected by the magnetic field of electronic equipment in the aircraft; certain maneuvers can make it spin wildly; depending on your longitude, you have to add or subtract degrees from its reading; and every compass comes with it’s own “correction card” where you note the quirks of your own particular device.

So it is with our brains.  Mostly steady and reliable and, frankly, wondrous electrical devices, we nevertheless have to take note of the times they will lead us astray.

t.n.s.r. bob


Sunday, July 24th, 2011

Who knew that raptors were as enamoured with their reflected image as we are?

SERMON: “Well I’ll Be a Monkey’s Nephew!” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, July 10th, 2011

When I was first old enough to be aware of such things, I learned that the theory of “continental drift” had fallen out of favor with geologists.  At that time, anthropologists were also trying their best to fit every hominid bone they’d dug up into a clear, linear sequence, with Neanderthals the last of the ancient brutes to give way to us graceful modern humans.  We didn’t know, then, that dinosaurs hadn’t really completely disappeared (or that they sometimes sported “feathers”).  We also didn’t really know the age of the universe.  We had seen the earth from space, but had not yet traveled to the moon.  AIDS was twenty years in the future, and there was still debate over whether cigarettes had any causal relation to lung cancer (one of the many cancers that still carried a stigma that is difficult to imagine today).

(I imagine that every generation has been astounded by the discoveries made during their time.  11 years after the Wright Brothers flew, my father was born  in a house with no electricity, and didn’t learn to drive a car until long after World War II.)

But the march of new technologies brings with it new discoveries made possible by those technologies.  So we now know how old our universe is, and have proven by measurement both Einstein’s theory of relativity and the reality of plate tectonics (the more refined version of “continental drift”).  We have sequenced both the human and the Neanderthal genome, and now know that Neanderthals were a branch off the family tree that died out (but not before mixing their DNA with some of our modern human ancestors).  And though we’ve been unable to recover any dinosaur DNA, we have seen through current DNA and biology dinosaur’s continuation in modern birds such as the humble chicken (which is now being “reverse engineered” back into its earlier, dinosaurian form — we’ll have to see how that works out!).

But besides the “big” discoveries, what strikes me as equally significant is the slow but steady softening of our hard-edged ideas of how the world works and how living things came into being.  Take the linear approach to human evolution, where one animal form leads inexorably to the next.  We now realize just how broken our fossil record is when it comes to human evolution, and that many of the specimens we have recovered were likely not in our direct ancestral line.  We now think more broadly when it comes to the human family tree — seeing it more like a true tree with many branches splitting off from the trunk at many different points at many different times.  Of course we living modern humans represent a single branch that can trace its beginnings back to the, well, beginning.  But we now realize that not every fossilized hominid bone we find can be confidently called mom or dad.  They are often more our aunty or uncle.

Which is why I found Carol Jahme’s recent article (“Lice, sex, gorillas and genetics”) in The Guardian so bracing.  It turns out that our ability to study DNA has given us a tool with which we can estimate the time in the past when related species split off from their parent stock (when they branched off from their particular family tree).  In the case cited in this article, scientists studying the differences in the DNA of gorilla and human head and pubic lice were led to an interesting conclusion: there was clearly a lot of hanky-panky back and forth between our diverging hominid ancestors as they evolved into different species.

"That's not MY ancestor!" said the woman walking by.

This seems to me to be a bit of dramatic news, in that it calls up a sort of re-imagining of my primate-hominid ancestors somewhat akin to finding out that stolid old great-great-granddad was making a few extra kids on the side with the hired help.  But having just recently absorbed the news that I might have a bit a Neanderthal blood in me, this is just one more step into a more healthy and realistic understanding of how evolution (and, well, sex) works.

I find it all a bit exciting, especially as I realize that science is leading us ever deeper into a much more realistic understanding of life, and taking us further and further away from the mythology that has passed as knowledge for (lets be frank) most of our history as modern humans.  We are learning that certain cancer treatments, say, work at an incredible level in certain groups of patients, but do nothing for others.  In the past, we would have stopped at that fact, and called it a modestly successful treatment.  But medicine is taking the next step, and figuring out ways to determine what makes one group of humans genetically different from another, which could therefore allow doctors to test for the patients for whom the treatment is very likely to be effective, while sparing others a difficult and hopeless treatment.  This is incredible progress.  It is also technology-dependent and complex, even as it holds out promise for pulling medicine ever-more out of its own medieval roots.

All of these twists and turns — as we discover them —  begin to paint a picture of the ebb and flow and endless mixing of life, as genes mutate, re-combine in new offspring and respond to new (and old) environmental pressures.  Each and every one of us is a singular microbial ecosystem, related, yes, but also, in a way, our own unique world.  To my mind, such awareness carries me away from the simplistic, teleological ideas of our past.  The idea that such a system is the result of an intelligent creator who had us in mind from the start becomes so fanciful as to be beyond consideration.

Life is a wondrous mess — a cohesive chaos so improbable as to be considered impossible were it not for the fact of its existence.  Living in a time where we are able to come to a genuine appreciation of our true state is, I think , rather remarkable.  We will never have the experience of those who saw man make his first flight in a airplane, or ran in terror at the noise of the first steam locomotive.  No, we have become used to the advance of machines.  We have not, however, proven ourselves so adaptable to the advance of ideas about our own origins and evolution.  In that regard, we are like the Londoners who resisted more efficient coal stoves that could have cut their waste and pollution by a factor of four: they feared the new, and instead wanted to keep the comfort of the smoky, inefficient open fireplace.

And so I have to regularly remind myself that there are many who regard most of the information I’ve referenced here as false and iniquitous.  They cannot appreciate the latest discoveries about human evolution because they will not accept that humans evolved at all.  As one woman snapped when I referred to (my street painting of) Tiktaalik as one of our “ancestors”: “Well, it’s not one of MY ancestors!”.  I just hope she doesn’t hear about our hominid great-great-grandparents fooling around with their gorilla cousins!  I don’t think she’d take that too well.

t.n.s.r. bob