Posts Tagged ‘comfort’

SERMON: “Why Quibble with Religion?” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, September 16th, 2012


The not-so-reverend bob.

Perhaps I should not quibble with what people choose to believe about life.  After all, isn’t it remarkable enough that we are able to carry on living our busy lives under the shadow of our own imminent deaths, without demanding that we all view our predicament in the same way?  Why say things that might add to that existential burden?

As one possible answer I might turn to a series of experiments documented in the PBS series “The Human Spark”, where it was shown that a trademark of very young human children is their innate and irresistible urge to show other children how to perform a task that they themselves had just been taught.  We are natural “helpers” in this way.  Perhaps that is why we are natural “evangelists” for everything from religion to the brand of toothpaste that we buy.

We are also naturally curious and deeply social.  Listen to humans talk and it is most often a series of personal stories told one after the other, back and forth (and though women are marked as the most talkative in this regard, just see what happens when you get a group of men swapping “hunting stories”).  We can’t, it seems, get enough of stories about ourselves and each other.

Is all of this simply a justification for my preaching the “gospel” of reason and science?  Of course.  But it is also an explanation.  And explanation is precisely what science offers us.  But is an “explanation” the same as an “answer” when it comes to our most basic existential questions?

Morality and ethics have long been the domain of religion and philosophy.  Science is a rather unwelcome late-comer to that party, and has proved to be a sometimes awkward and ungainly guest.  But I think that is because it has taken some time to come to understand the difference between the questions that religion poses and science answers.

To some these two fields are qualified to answer two different “kinds” of questions (and one shouldn’t even try to answer the other’s).  Hence the popular notion that science and religion occupy non-overlapping magisteria (which is basically a gentlemen’s agreement that where religion leaves off, science takes over, or vice versa).  Which is a way for the old guard of religion to tell late-arriving science to “Keep the hell off my lawn with your beakers and such!”.  In this argument, the truths of the spiritual realm are held to be such that they cannot be measured by mechanical (scientific) means.  They are super-natural, and therefore occupy an entirely different realm than that studied by science (they are, in short, granted an exemption from scientific scrutiny).  The hard scientific view would be that anything that cannot be studied either does not exist or must await the invention of the means to measure it.  (In practice, however, many scientists will publicly, at least, leave religion — and religious claims about reality — alone)

In my view such a fictional divide (often a very polite one) is much more about keeping the peace than it is about any actual dividing line.  It is the position we take to not offend the religious powers that be.  And that, I think, is am important hint at why the divide persists: religion is a powerful force, and folks don’t want to upset it so much that it rears its ugly inquisitional head once more (or on a more prosaic level, they don’t want to offend or hurt the ones they love).

But there is also this: when science first came on the scene (and here I include the social sciences), it began to suss out the causal factors of life and physical reality (and human behavior).  But since such discussions had heretofore been in the realm of religion and philosophy (which is a “why” proposition) the “what” answers of science were naturally taken to be mere justifications for a range of human behaviors that ran afoul of commonly-accepted norms.  This was not acceptable to many.  Take the study of mental illness, for example: suddenly there were biological explanations for aberrant human behavior that did not involve questions of individual moral weakness or possession by devils.  From the very beginning science began to encroach on historically religious grounds if for no other reason than religion had previously produced its own explanations of human behavior and natural phenomenon.  Some sort of conflict was inevitable.

And so there was conflict.  And there still is, despite the obvious achievements of science.  The conflict continues because the encroachment into the magesterium of religion continues.  We now know where the earth and the “heavens” came from.  We know where humans came from.  We understand how morality evolved in social animals like ourselves.  And we know about the genetic foundations of certain physical and mental disorders, on the one hand, and the natural variations in human behaviors (such as homosexuality) on the other.  We haven’t figured everything out — not by a long shot — but we have answered a good deal of the most basic questions to a reliable degree of certainty.  And the answers turn out to be — in every case — better than the religious ones in actually explaining phenomenon.  Religion, it turns out, is really really bad at science.

Religion — being based as it is in history — cannot renew itself through new discoveries the way that science can.  Religion can adapt (as it has with quite a lot of success over the years), or re-form itself under new “brand names”.  But it cannot be a source of new discovery like science can: “new” religions are always a recycling of the one basic religious genome, if you will.  One reason this is true is that science is a study of existence that is based on experiment that can be verified.  Religion is a sort of co-evolved parasite of the human consciousness that maintains a roughly symbiotic relationship with its host.  For it to change radically would be to annihilate itself.  Therefore it can only fight for its survival against the intrusions of science and reason.

It would be easy to say that religion is, therefore, fighting a losing battle.  But that hardly seems to be the case today.  Belief in magic is increasing, even as science shows us more and more of what is really going on behind the wizard’s curtain.  But perhaps the last hope of religion — crap as it is at being science — lies in its hope that science is equally bad at being a religion.

It seems clear — in the popular mind at least– that science has not yet answered the “why” of life with its “what” discoveries (at least to the satisfaction of those used to the answers of religion and myth).  But here is the fulcrum upon which this question tips in favor of science: for perhaps the most important discovery of science has been that there turns out to be no “why” in nature beyond the “what”.  The “what” is, in essence, the only meaningful “why” we have available to us.  There is cause and effect, yes, but once you exclude intelligent terrestrial creatures, the vastness of physical reality that remains is mindless, thoughtless and devoid of the kind of intention that is essential to create a “why”.

Why am I here, then?  Well, on the most basic level, because I’m here.  But who made that happen?  No “one” made it happen.  We have now explained all but a few of the physical processes that led to my existence (a stunning mix of chance and inevitability).  Science adds to that the facts that I am a mammal (a primate) that is a species that evolved from earlier life forms, most of which did not physically resemble me (at least in a superficial way — my ancient body plan was present in my fish ancestors even if my blue eyes and soft hair were not).  The chemicals and minerals and elements of which my body is built are those which were present on the planet I evolved on.  The elements were formed, first, in the death furnaces of ancient stars that were themselves birthed in the “big bang” that began our universe, space and time.

Compare this answer to that given by the first chapter of Genesis for sheer explanatory power.

The religious believer will almost invariably ask at this point: “Okay.  Say that is all true.  Who made it all happen?”  Who?  Who?  At a certain point you come to realize that the question is a switch-up of apples for oranges (or oranges for orangutans).  What single thing about reality justifies the call for an intelligent designer “making” it all happen?  “Why” turns out to be our question, not the universe’s.

In the end, I believe, science provides us answers to the questions that can be answered.  That may sound like I’m leaving wiggle room for religion to answer the “other” questions.  But that is my point: I don’t think there really are any other questions.  If, that is, that we only accept as valid a question for which an answer can actually exist.  A question with no answer would seem to be something else: a trick, a diversion, a waste of time (like Bertrand Russell’s “celestial teapot”).

And that’s where I’ve come to regarding magical metaphysical answers for natural phenomenon: I don’t buy them as answers because I don’t buy them as questions.

Philosophy retains its place as it is the study of the “how” of human thought — the way in which we take reality to heart and make sense of it in our own hearts and minds.  Philosophy, I think, deals with the anguish caused by the question “why”, but does not attempt to answer it.  It accepts that “why” is a part of the way we think — the way we have to find a story to tell to ourselves about the things that happen in our life.

For me, gradually coming to understand that “why” was the wrong question all along did, indeed, help to answer it.  It told me I was asking an unanswerable and, therefore, un-ask-able question.

And once I understood that, I was then freed to find a much more nutritious diet of existential nourishment from science than I ever could from religion.  How?  Because science gives us more than just data.  Understanding that a genetic mutation has set one up for mental illness or heart failure does not make everything alright, for example.  It does, however, offer some hope of helpful scientific and medical intervention to improve one’s chances at a decent life.  But it also does something else that is important to a sentient being: it removes the self-questioning doubt that religion has always placed upon the sick, the odd, the different: it removes the stain of personal sin or failure as a “why”.  And in that sense modern science takes one more giant step into the hallowed temple of religion by offering comfort to the troubled.

Dumping religious dogma in favor of the more trustworthy data of science is a nearly impossible act for many humans.  It can feel like leaving behind something noble, trustworthy and beloved for something cold, confusing and brash.  Something like trading in your familiar horse and buggy for an loud and unfamiliar automobile.  But we are long past the age of scientific “Model A’s”, and those that hold on to ancient buggies when modern, reliable cars are available seem more and more out of step with reality.

Scientific knowledge, it turns out, can offer the religious and philosophical benefits of genuine consolation and comfort without the awkward cognitive price of irrational belief.  We can finally understand the “what”, and stop worrying about the “why”.  And that, I can tell you, is a good place to be.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Unsettled Animals” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, July 17th, 2011

I am ever restless for comfort, yet when I find it, I am restless in my comfort.

I am not like the bear that can hibernate in a cave for dark months on end.  My limit is about 30 minutes (if you don’ t count sleeping at night).

Yet my mind easily imagines winning the lottery, or getting a big contract or having one of my projects draw national attention.  I play out scenarios of what I’d do with such imagined affluence and the comforts it could buy me.  But being a highly social animal, I also imagine the anxieties of such a windfall, including the potential shake up of my relationships with the rest of my primate troop of friends, family and community.  The conclusion I come to is that it would be a real needle to thread to enjoy wealth and the comfort it could buy in a way that would not sacrifice the web of warm relationships that have grown around me in my current life.

A VERY comfortable (and chubby) ferret.

I don’t know how many other people think about the downsides of comfort.  Perhaps they consider them trivial compared to the desire for the power to make every waking moment an exercise in ease and pleasure.  But the truth is that too much of anything — even a seemingly clear-cut good such as comfort — is not really “good” for an animal.  Any animal.  And that includes us.  For in the case of a living organism, the most complete state of rest is, well, death.

It seems to be a paradox — that the very things we desire most are often the things that will, in the end, hasten that death.

The obvious examples around us are food, tobacco and stimulants.  Of course we now know from evolutionary science why we crave sweets, fats and salts: we evolved in environments where these could often be very rare life-giving commodities, so we could get away with gobbing up all that we could when the opportunity arose.  Their scarcity provided a natural check on our appetites, so we didn’t need to evolve any self-limiting mechanism of our own, with the end result being that many of us have little capacity to battle the addictive tendencies of sugar, alcohol and the rest.

From the day our species first put hoe to earth, our ever-advancing technology has enabled us to develop ways to feed ourselves and our neighbors that has — too a large degree — liberated us from the population-limiting forces of nature.  Modern medicine has ameliorated the scourge of disease.  And our tools and machines convey us, cool and warm us, and entertain us according to our desires and schedule.  In short, we have it really good.

Normally this would be the point where the writer would launch off into a moralistic critique of ease, reflecting more than a touch of virtuous superiority as he or she describes their simple, rustic habits and how they make him/her a better, more noble human being.

Nah.  I enjoy the many comforts of modern life, even as I ponder their darker aspect.  I can reflect that it’s a small miracle that I can cook a meal at home on an electric stove (with energy provided mostly by burning primeval buried forests), in a metal pan coated with a high-tech non-stick surface.  That meal might contain fresh vegetables from a local market, beef from a Nebraska cow, olive oil from another country, salt from the sea and clean water from a tap.  I can cook it up in a big pot, and sit down in front of a television, in a comfortable chair, and eat my fill.  I can eat a piece of fruit from another state (or country, if I’m willing to pay the shipping).  I sit in a moderately comfortable room, in my factory-made clothes (themselves the product of generations of invention and innovation to make them durable, easy to wear and fasten and clean).  I don’t worry about a bomb falling on my house, or bandits or saber-toothed cats invading my cave to steal my dinner.  I can hold my fork with my left hand that, if not for modern antibiotics, would likely have been taken away by a serious infection years ago (assuming that infection — or the many others I may have avoided thanks to inoculations or surgeries — hadn’t also taken my life).

Yep, by any human or historical standard, I live like a king.

Besides, I don’t think we can roll back technology any more than we can roll back time.  I think the die has been cast, and we are on this ride to the end.

From an evolutionary point of view, our current obesity epidemic is clearly understood as occurring at an intersection of technology, food supply and culture all being consumed by an ice-age mammal with few tools for resisting the allure, taste and comfort of modern life.  There is nothing moral to be judged about it.

As a culture, however, there is still a strong tendency to see such things as questions of character — an almost religious demand of resisting sinful temptation.  But a cursory familiarity with lab mice will tell you that most of them, given the chance, will sugar (or cocaine!) themselves to death given the chance.  We’re no different on that score.

So I don’ t pass moral judgement.  Or, at least, I have no moral grounds to.  I know all too well that I have one of those addictive personalities.  That’s why I had to cut some things out of my diet.  That’s why I exercise as much as I do (I started going to a gym years ago to have something to do in the mornings so I could more easily not drink alcohol at night).

And I’ve also had to adjust my diet because of food allergies and sensitivities.  In that I consider myself lucky, as it cut out many of the things that put on the most pounds.

But there is another consideration besides weight and vanity.  We are animals.  Everything about us evolved in an environment of movement as we hunted and gathered.  The biological reality is that our bodies don’t do well when they stop moving.  Add to that the enormous boost in calories we got when we learned to cook our food (which enabled us to evolve smaller guts and much larger brains compared to our primate cousins), and many things about our current easy lives are actually nearly perfectly designed to kill us off early.

It seems an almost cosmic joke on us: that our ability to fashion into reality our primal fantasy of plenty has built a heaven for us on earth that is also part hell.

So what do we do?  Hell, who am I to say?  Go back to picking berries and eating tender shoots?  Some people do that, but it’s a often rooted in a fantasy that ignores that our bodies long-ago adapted to cooked, soft foods (we aren’t apes anymore).  Reject technology and become Luddites?  Like I said, we can’t put that genie back in the bottle.

Besides, many of us are alive today only because of the very technology, or medicine, or surgery that our kind has developed (which is another paradox, in that our very desire to save as many lives as possible has allowed many of us to sidestep natural selection — for a time, at least — which will have ramifications for our species as we travel further down the road).

I’m not a utopian in the sense of believing that there ever was a time when we humans were in perfect harmony with nature.  I don’t believe there ever was harmony (except in temporal passages, as in music).  There is always only balance, and even that is never static as populations rise and fall, resources are plenty or thin, weather patterns change, ice sheets advance, plagues appear then recede, and on and on.

It is what it is (whoa! That’s deep).  The best I can do for myself is to respect the restless animal that I am, and keep moving enough to keep my body operating at a reasonable level of efficiency.  Isn’t it telling that this kind of behavior optimizes my capacity to handle stress, and keeps the “happy chemicals” flowing in my brain (which provide a much more even and enduring buzz than any chemical I could ingest)?  I do enjoy my comforts, even as I recognize the anxious animal in me that fears getting too soft, too slow, too depressed.  (On that note I’m convinced that a large percentage of our physical and mental health issues would resolve themselves in a matter of months if every human animal on the planet started moving and eating more like the animals we really are (imagine the implications for national health-care costs!).  Of course that’s not going to happen, because we are also comfort-seeking animals, and some of us would clearly be quite content with bear-like hibernation).

Once again, an evolutionary view helps us make sense of issues that mystify the moralist.  History is not a script that we are acting out: it is a book that we are writing as we live it.  We giddily embrace our shiny new innovations and leave the scientists to analyze the aftermath.  We are animals that have found a way to forget that we are animals.  In a recent e-mail exchange, my anthropologist friend Gaea McGahee said it beautifully:

“The human animal is most unsettled, especially about being an animal – which makes every soul less human until they get comfortable in the natural world, in the garden of life and death.”

Part of that “comfort in the natural world” is the recognition that we don’t always thrive in captivity, even in a most comfortable enclosure.

t.n.s.r. bob

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

Sunday, April 17th, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

t.n.s.r. bob