Posts Tagged ‘confirmation bias’

SERMON: “The Tinkerbell Effect” by the the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, October 7th, 2012

I would venture that one of the worst possible selling points for a materialist view of life is the seemingly inevitable diminishment of the experience of magic in one’s day-to-day life.

Here’s the basic calculus that seems to accompany the contemplation of a non-magical world:  if I stop believing in magic, then magic will cease to appear, and I will then lose the the enjoyable experience of magic.

When I say “magic”, I am referring to the every-day sort of small miracle, coincidence, happenstance, kismet or surprise that creates a feeling in the chest of having experienced something just a little bit out-of-the-ordinary: You think of someone, and they walk into the restaurant; you tell God you’re in a hurry, and the lights all seem to be green; a check arrives just in time so you can pay your rent.  These are events that are common to all of us (though not so common as to lose their power to impart to us that magical sensation).

These are almost always happy events.  They are also almost universally confirmatory events.  They tell us that we are living right; on the right path; in tune with the universe.  They make us feel good.  (Even the ones that tell us we were on the “wrong path”, as these, too, confirm our own feelings about a situation).

With so much cultural support for belief in magic, how do we untie this ball of existential yarn that is incident and belief?  Where do we start?

Is this cross a sign from God or a natural feature that fits a pattern our brain is attuned to?

The obvious place to start is with the materialist’s application of Occam’s razor to the question at hand: is there simpler explanation for the event in question which does not involve magic or the intervention of invisible, divine agents?  For that, the answer is almost always an obvious “yes” (I would argue that the answer is probably always “yes”, whether or not it is obvious).  For instance, the fact is that each of us lives a life in a rather restricted geographical and social area means that our paths are fairly repetitive, and the people we know and see along those paths are hardly random (as we tend to get to know people that we have actual physical contact with).  So while the odds of running into your favorite movie star at the local market (assuming your star does not live in your city) is pretty low, the odds of running into one of your friends or neighbors at the same market is actually fairly high.  Adding in the fact that you have thought about a particular friend just before running into them could tempt you to regard such a meeting as anything but random, but both the thought and the meeting are probably rather high probability occurrences (meaning that the two happen with a frequency such that both happening in close proximity is not the small miracle we might take it to be).

So we can probably fairly easily dispense with “magic” as the cause of such chance meetings.  What is more interesting is the eagerness with which our mind frame such such events as “magical”.  And this is where neuroscience comes in, in the form of a mental bias called “confirmation bias”.  In short, this quirk in our cognition produces a selective preference in the data that we give weight to.  In the case of running into a friend after thinking about him or her, this means that we first embrace the linkage of the two events, usually exclaiming “I was just thinking about you!” (whether the thought occurred in the last minute or the last week — time is instantly conflated to “make” the connection).  The other, less obvious mark of this mental bias is the highly selective blindness to the many times we may have thought about this person in the past when they did not subsequently pop into view.

Taken together, these two traits of conflating time and ignoring counter-evidential occurrences produce the sort of confirmatory “evidence” that our happy brains just eat up!  But of course, it is not “evidence” in any meaningful sense.  The connections between thought and confirmatory event are “casual” only, not “causal”, much more a product of our brain’s pattern-constructing ability than any external reality.

I think there is a simple explanation for this that does not involve the dark tinge of self-deception or delusion.  It is this:  the firing of the brain cells that magic sets off makes us happy by releasing those happy-making chemicals in our brains.  And we like to be happy (well, many of us do).

What is tricky about being a materialist (believing that there are no super-natural phenomenon going on “out there”) is that, in practice, one ends up talking one’s own brain out of a lot of fun.  And who wants to be the party pooper (especially when you’re mostly pooping on your own party, so to speak)?

This is, I think, a real issue.  But it is also a testament to just how strongly magical belief is hard-wired into our brain (or “brains”, since that single organ is more a sort of “layer cake” of systems).  It is a reminder that belief (in some form or other) is natural to us.

But here is the funny part of this (and the part that is so obvious that we can miss it): Since the events we believe to be magical are not magical, but regular, ordinary, every day occurrences, not believing that they are magical should have absolutely no effect on whether or not these magical events occur in our lives!

I’m reminded of when I finally lost my belief in God.  There was a part of my consciousness that actually asked whether there would be joy, or laughter, or sunrises in my life after that.  That sounds silly, I know, but it points to something else in the way we humans think: we really do act as if the universe revolves around us.  What else can explain the notion that our individual beliefs have the power to act on other people or objects at a distance (and therefore have the power to make something like the sunrise cease).  Shall we call it the “Tinkerbell effect” (if we don’t clap hard enough, the fairy dies)?

It’s related to what I discussed in last week’s sermon about our expectation that the world should end when we do.

But, of course, coincidence and chance meetings will continue to happen (and the Sun will continue to rise).  After all, the only condition that will change in our life is a shift in the way that we perceive those events.  And, potentially, yes, the kind of joy that we derive from them.

The other day (as often happens when I’m at the gym) I got a song idea.  This time it hit shortly after I’d begun a walk around the block.  I had no pen, no paper, and no phone (with which I could have recorded my idea).  In earlier times, I would have asked God (or later, my “Higher Power”, or “The Universe”) to (magically) “bring me” a pen.  But I didn’t do that this time.  I pondered stepping into a store on my route and asking for one, but decided to keep on walking.  I first reasoned with my magical brain that chances were I wouldn’t find a pen as I walked, but then realized that the chances were not impossible, as I was walking a path where people worked, delivery trucks dropped off goods, etc.  Sure enough, about two-thirds of the way into my walk, I found a pen.  A red pen, smashed to pieces on the asphalt.  I leaned to pick it up, but it was destroyed.

Note the stages of that thought process:  I thought to “ask” for magic.  My brain then set up the impossibility of finding a pen by sheer “chance” (while in fact there was a fairly high probability that I would find a pen, especially since I was now actually looking for one!).  Now if I were of a spiritual mindset (with my confirmation bias still in play) I would have told you that the universe gave me what I asked for!  But why was it broken and useless, you might ask?  I could answer: because my prayer was not specific enough!  (Don’t laugh — spend any time among true believers and you will hear people shamed out of their unbelief with retorts like that!)   And there you have the complete mechanism for how we make horoscopes and psychics believable: They teach us what results to calibrate our bias to, and we go on to do all the heavy lifting.

So, one could say that magic (or God) does exist.  Not in the world as a genuine phenomenon, but in the magical way that we transform random and non-random events into proof of an invisible metaphysical reality.  To lose that magic can indeed mean to lose some of the joy it brings.  At least until we can reclaim the pleasure of happy coincidence free of the burden of magical attribution.  A quest that — given the kind so brains so may of us have — turns out to be no small challenge.
t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The God Next Thor” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, October 30th, 2011

I think that most people who don’t believe in God self-identify as agnostic (or non-believer), even though they may well be “practical” atheists.  (By “practical atheist” I mean one who negotiates his or her life as if there is no God).

I suspect that there are also a number who self-identify as Christian who could be counted as practical atheists.  Otherwise, the preacher and evangelist would not be so troubled by the many church members who seem to be more “social” than true “believing” Christians.

(Consider this recent article in Der Spiegel about the growing number of Americans that self-identify as “non-religious”, even as our politics seem to be rushing in the opposite direction).

Of course agnosticism is the only scientifically defensible stance in the face of the evidence we have.   Scientific in the sense that since the existence of God is a theory that cannot be proven or disproven beyond a reasonable doubt, it cannot, therefore, be considered a valid scientific theory at all.  By this standard, then, true atheism remains an untenable factual stance.

But let me ask: do you think that there is any chance at all that the Norse god Thor could turn out to actually exist?

Most people would laugh at the question.  But they would not, then, label themselves “Thor-less atheists”.  Nor would they call themselves “Thorian agnostics”.  Why?  Because the terms atheism and agnosticism are reserved (in everyday use) to the question of the existence of the “one true God”.  In our everyday life, then, it seems that we don’t think it worthy to waste the terms on the thousands of extinct god ideas that have existed (and continue to exist) in our myriad human cultures and times.

And yet the vast majority of humans don’t have to think twice when asked if they believe in God.  They will answer with an emphatic “yes”.

But based on the evidence of the sheer size and age of our universe — and our incomprehensibly tiny role in that universe — isn’t the notion of a local, modestly-endowed god much more likely to be a reasonable conclusion for a human believer to adopt?  Isn’t the existence of an earth-based spirit or a demon more likely than an omnipotent God who orchestrated the birth of an entire universe 13.5 billion years ago just so that a recently evolved hominid holy man could reveal God’s plan to his fellow hairless primates two thousand years ago?

But of course these are not the actual terms under which we humans contemplate an eternal maker.  We don’t really think in terms of distances between galaxies, or billions (or even millions) of years.  In our everyday reality, the world we carry with us is almost entirely local.

That’s why I think that the only reason we can actually seriously entertain the notion of an infinite, eternal, omnipotent God is because of the fact that everything about our evolved brain and the reality of our everyday life continues to tell us that we are actually a very large presence in a fairly small world.

It is only with great effort (and pain-inducing difficulty) that we will our brains to open up to the vastness of geologic time, or the true distances between earth and the edge of our still-expanding universe, or the intricacies of our Rosetta Stone of DNA.  And even after we stretch our synapses to the breaking point, they inevitably snap back to the local, immediate level of awareness that we actually need to navigate our complex tribal lives.

This means that the God that we actually believe in, in reality, only has to be able to fill our idea of heaven with his grandeur.  We do not picture the size of the space he should actually fill (which, practically speaking, is pretty much an incomprehensibly vast reach of empty, cold, dead space).  By comparison, we live on a fly speck of a fly speck of geology spinning in a sea of flyspecks so distant from each other as to be like particles of dust in a sandstorm across and endless desert.

If we actually held a true idea of the size of space (and our size in comparison) we would A) never conceive of a God so large, or B) imagine him having the slightest interest in conducting an experiment in soulful life on our speck of a planet.

Have you blessed Thor today?

But then, our idea of God did not develop in such a mental landscape.  God evolved with us when we were even more tribal and local than we are today.  We grew up together: us and our imaginary friends, so familiar to us that even now some scientists do the mental gymnastics to stretch their idea of God to fit the reality of our existence that science (not religion) continues to reveal to us.

And that is the other rub:  Which predictions, what descriptions of life, or of the universe, or of the earth, contained in ancient religious works have proven to be true in anything other than the most poetic sense?

The reality is that religion resists the enlightening probing of science until it can resist no longer, at which point religion does its best to adapt.  On the grounds of this behavior alone, religion is suspect as a source of any testable truth.  Religion may have something to teach us about our own natures, to be sure, but only in the same as any work of literature or art (for it is closely related to those human endeavors).

For these reasons, I see no reason not to take that extra small step and call myself an atheist.  It seems no different than declaring gravity a reality (even though that, also, is still a “theory”).  In reality, the only reason I can see not to embrace the moniker of “atheist” is the discomfort it causes other human beings (for a good overview of the level of mistrust most Americans feel toward Atheists, check out the surveys cited in this article).  And I am, after all, a social animal, which means the embracing of any minority view carries with it a certain social risk.   I don’t want people I am talking with to feel uncomfortable or challenged (at least not unnecessarily).  And, as I’ve said before, there is no real cosmic harm to believing in something that isn’t true.  Sure, it may hasten the decline of our species by keeping us from confronting approaching climate-based dangers, but that’s a problem for us, not the universe.

But be that as it may, declaring oneself an atheist is not worthy of the gasps that it can generate.  It is to me a small step to take once the idea of belief itself has become (rightfully) suspect.

In emotional terms, however, the final (and most difficult) barrier to unbelief is the catch in the throat that comes when we ask ourselves “But what if God exists?”  I can tell you from experience that this is a tenacious reaction which, to me, speaks of both the long history of belief and our natural inclination toward it.  What it does not speak of, however, is the existence of God (no matter what the clever preacher may make of such a natural human anxiety).  Don’t believe me?  Ask yourself this question: “But what if Thor actually exists?”  Or “What if Athena is real?”.  You will likely not have anywhere near the same catch in the throat when Thor or Athena are involved.  Why is that?  We don’t take them seriously as contenders for actual divinity.  Why not?  Because we weren’t born in the times or cultures in which such beliefs would have been as much our birthright as monotheism is today.  That should tell us something about belief in God.

The rest of belief is made up of little more than confirmation bias and belief-dependent realism.  I’d bet you a nickel that if you started praying “in faith” today to any of the extinct gods, your reality would soon confirm their existence as it sought out the evidence of answered prayer in the hundreds of random events that fill your days, with your confirmation bias working just as well as it does for all believers, be they Christian, New Age or pagan.

As Richard Dawkins rightly points out, we are all atheists.  It’s just that some of us make an exception for the god of our choice — the God of whom we demand so little proof and so little power that it’s actually quite a wonder we need to imagine him as big as he is when a local god serve us just as well.  But that need to be the center of an infinite God’s attention is — as they say — a subject for another sermon.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The Sweet Baby Llama of Heaven” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, September 11th, 2011

The "rev" having a "mountain top" experience!

After a Sunday morning hike part way up Tortugas Mountain, I sat on a jagged boulder under a cloudy, early Fall sky.  The wind was rising and falling in that blustery kind of way that marks a shift in the seasons.  I watched the cars pass below me on the paved road that snaked around the base of the mountain, and heard their distant hiss.  I looked at the Organ Mountains to my east, and the Mesilla Valley to the west.

I began to think of the many times in my life when I went outdoors to pray.  I spoke out loud the names I had prayed to before, to see how they felt in my mouth (and to check if they had any residual charge in my psyche): “Heavenly Father”, I said, “Lord Jesus”.   Then I said: “Speak to me Holy Spirit: show me that you’re real”.  At that moment, a wind came up, whistling past me.

It was just the kind of coincidence that had helped — in the past — convince a young believer (me) that God was real.  It was perfect.

My rational brain politely intervened, reminding me again of the power of confirmation bias when it came to our natural cognitive tendency to connect two random and unrelated events into a uniform narrative.  I decided to conduct an experiment.

“Oh Holy Hamster” I said.

Nothing.  Not a whisper of a breeze.  (Obviously the wrong deity).

I tried another: “Oh Sweet Baby Llama — speak to me”.

There was only the whisper of a breeze.  But I knew what to do.

“Oh Sweet Baby Llama, you whisper so quietly that I can barely hear you.  Speak to me, oh Baby Llama, oh sweet Baby Llama.”

And the Sweet Baby Llama answered me in a blast of wind that surely could have come from no other place than the divine breath of the creator (llama).

Except of course the wind had not come from the Sweet Baby Llama of Heaven.  It was a local random (meaning non-intentional) weather phenomenon with completely natural causes that we understand because we live in an age of science.

But setting that aside for the moment, these are the kind of thought/action/belief experiments that give us chills as children and adults: The first time you get up the courage to ask a Ouija board a question; ask Jesus for a “sign”; sit down in front of a palm reader at a psychic fair; or ask the wind to answer.

C.S. Lewis described the terror of this kind of moment where one suddenly is confronted by a force one was chasing without really ever expecting to catch up with:

“There comes a moment when the children who have been playing at burglars hush suddenly: was that a real footstep in the hall? There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion (“Man’s search for God!”) suddenly draw back. Supposing we really found Him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing He had found us?” — “Miracles” C. S. Lewis

But this time I did this “test” without that twist in the base of my esophagus.  It was a rather playful interaction between my conscious, formerly-believing mind and the world that is so random as to be almost always cooperative with our whims.  Combine that randomness with an evolved brain hell-bent on making sense out of EVERYTHING and, voila, you’ve got the Sweet Holy Baby Llama speaking to one of his (or her?) believing children through a seasonal cold front moving across the face of the planet.

I know this seems silly.  But many a believer has done this trick on themselves, and walked away from it encouraged by a seeming confirmation of their beliefs.  The famous scientist Francis Collins had just such an experience where he came across a waterfall on a walk that had frozen into three distinct streams.  In that tableau he saw the holy trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Clearly none of us humans is completely immune.

What’s unfortunate is how easily we take these things seriously.  There are figures on the national stage right now (who think they should be President) who see messages from God in hurricanes and earthquakes.  We may as well determine national policy based on the reading of goat entrails and the casting of runes.  There is no practical difference (though there is clearly a huge social difference as a majority of Americans are much more sympathetic to theism than voodoo).

The thing I’m not telling you about my “prayer” to the Sweet Baby Llama is that I had years of training in how to make something as innocuous as a breeze into the voice of God.  I attended many a prayer meeting where I learned to speak in tongues, where I learned that familiar cadence of spoken prayer that includes a lot of space fillers, so that one can basically create an endless prayer that can carry you until SOMETHING happens that can be taken as a sign.

It’s hard to admit to ourselves that we are trained and duped so easily.  One comfort to our acceptance of our bald credulity is the fact that it happens to almost all of us.  Belief is truly natural to our brains.  Even some of the writers of the Bible recognized this, using it as a proof of the existence of God:

“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”

Ecclesiastes 3:11 (New International Version.  Copyright 1984.  Emphasis mine)

We do have a sort of “eternity” in our hearts.  We understand the passage of time and our the mortality of all physical life.  So why should it be surprising that a living being, once conscious of his existence, should not wonder whether or not that existence could (or should) continue outside of the physical world it inhabits?

It’s hard not to see the thread of human longing that is woven through all of our belief systems.  In this way the battle of ideas that was the war between the heathen Vikings and the Christian Kings of Europe was not a triumph of truth over falsehood, but a displacement of one model of belief by another, seemingly more “modern” one.  This process continues unabated.  For those to whom the God of the Bible is a bit too archaic, they can simply transfer their desire for transcendent beings to Aliens or benevolent spirits in a universe that desires our good.

Even people who assent to the reality that mind and spirit are purely products of the human brain are loathe to abandon more spiritual conceptions of life.  So deep is this need for belief that believers are rated higher in happiness than non-believers.  The hard, cold reality of life is that the hard, cold reality of life is easier for us to take when we can believe that there is an intelligence behind it all that is kindly disposed towards us.  But in the words of Michael Shermer:  “I conclude that I’m a skeptic not because I do not want to believe but because I want to know.”

There is no denying that staring the void in the face is discomfiting.  So is the contemplation of our own eventual death.  Yet somehow we humans — cursed as we seem to be above all other life on this planet with a conscious awareness of our own mortality — somehow manage to go about the business of living, wresting pleasure, accomplishment and satisfaction from our lives.  There is a certain wonder in this.  The life of an individual ant seems meaningless to us, but would we feel the same if that ant was building an opera house, or conducting genetic research to find cures for diseases that were attacking her fellow ants?  Probably not.  We’d think her noble.

And so we humans, believing or not, soldier on.  Helped and comforted by God, the Sweet Baby Llama of Heaven, a general sense of agency in the universe or the appreciation of our capacity to courageously accept our lot as evolved living organisms on a spinning planet of rare life in a vast universe.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The First Church of Magic” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, July 24th, 2011

A friend shared a link to an article that contained the following passage:

“According to a recent survey, the percentage of Americans who claim to be Christian is somewhere north of 75 percent.

Really? Three out of four people are followers of Christ?

Let’s see, if the population of the United States is about 311 million and 75 percent are Christians that brings the number of Christians to somewhere in the neighborhood of 233 million. That’s a lot of Christians. I don’t see nearly that many Jesus fish on car bumpers. I don’t know, maybe all the Darwin fish ate them. I’m just saying something about that percentage is off. Because if there really are that many Christians, then why will some 35 million people in America go to bed hungry tonight, including 13 million children? If 75 percent of Americans are Christians, then how is it possible that 40 percent of the homeless are under the age of 18? Why are there more than 120,000 children waiting to be adopted? I could keep going, and that’s just in the States. The numbers don’t add up. Jesus said the evidence that someone is one of his followers is love. So 233 million? The evidence just isn’t there.”  (Quote taken from “Why I’m Not a ‘Fan” of Jesus” by Pastor Kyle Idleman, The Huffington Post)

Where are they, indeed?  Our most famous atheist Christopher Hitchens has made a related observation regarding the number of Americans that self-identify as Christians.  He flatly states that the numbers are wrong (making the wry observation that there aren’t enough houses of worship to accommodate anything close to the numbers the surveys claim).

Christianity pervades the very fiber of our culture.  It always has.  Without diving off into the tired battle of whether or not America is a “Christian nation”, there is no denying that that religion has been the dominant one in our history and culture.  (This is why there are groups that must dedicate their time and energy to protect our public spheres from the attempts of the religious to insinuate their beliefs into our ostensibly religion-neutral government).

It is a belief in their sheer numerical superiority that lends Christians (in this country, other religious majorities in others) their sense of historical entitlement: they demand to be honored as members of the true religion of this nation.  But it is those precisely those huge numbers that trouble Pastor Idleman: where are they, and why don’t they exert more of a moral influence in society?  Hitchen’s answer is that the numbers are wrong.  The Pastor’s answer is that there are more “fans” of Jesus than “true followers”.  I think they’re both right, as far as our general consensus of what constitutes a “true” Christian goes.  But I want to take a step back, and look at this in a different light.

To me, arguing about who is a “good” Christian is to look for fruit in a barren orchard.  The reality that underlies religion is not really the issue of whether or not God exists (though I don’t think he does), it is an issue of human consciousness: it is a question of the ways in which the human mind has clearly been hard-wired by millions of year of evolution for an innate susceptibility to belief.  I repeat: it is not a religious question at all.  Religion is a manifestation of consciousness (to borrow author Hannah Holme’s example: even dogs can have religious views — just watch how they attribute intention to that vacuum cleaner they’re barking at!).  In more simple terms: religion seems to be a product of consciousness, and consciousness is a function of the physical brain.  There is nothing else going on in there, or out there.  If the brain dies, consciousness ends (as does everything we associate with consciousness: perception, feeling, memory, a sense of self).  Therefore, if all of the conscious brains on earth were to stop functioning tomorrow, religion (and with it, God) would vanish without a trace.

Even dogs have religion.

Humans are magical thinkers, not unlike the dog imagining that a household appliance has a mind of its own.  We are different from other animals only by degrees and the harder we try to define what separates us from our animal identity, the more we discover that one animal or another shares this or that trait (albeit in a less-advanced way).  Modern neuroscience is showing us more and more about the ways in which our brains are always being fooled by what we see and hear.  We are quick and clever animals with fully-developed survival mechanisms that allow us to make instant determinations about potential threats.  But when we put two and two together, we are much more likely to err on the side of whatever conclusion gets us the hell away from danger — whether or not our math was accurate has never been the most important thing.

And so the reason so many people identify themselves as believers in the Christian god is a function of this basic tendency toward belief and magical thinking in humans, combined with the accident of being born in a country where Christianity has been the dominant religious worldview.  This is probably an equal frustration to the atheist and the committed Christian believer.  To the former, there is this annoying and pervasive sappy support for a man-made fantasy that has real-world impact in politics and society; to the latter there is this horde of humans giving mere lip-service to a life of “true” Christian service to others.

Of course our addiction to magic is not limited to Christianity.  Start talking up a materialist view of human consciousness being purely a product of the brain, and all sorts of folk get uncomfortable.  We have psychics, astrologers, card readers and healers of all kinds whose stock and trade is the magic-believing human.  Almost every single one of us is susceptible to the simplest coincidence of bumping into someone we were just thinking about, and drawing a causal connection between the two un-related events.  Why?  Because that is how our animal brain’s work.  “No!” you protest, asking “But how, then, do you explain the two things happening at the same time: my thought and the “chance” meeting?”  Random events, coincidence.  Each of us lives is a fairly small world, really, where the odds of running into the people we are thinking about is always going to be high.  Plus, we know that humans are rich in “confirmation bias”, where we tend to see outcomes that we are already primed to look for (that’s why we will believe that prayers are sometimes answered).  We also have a bias toward NOT remembering the other dozen times this week that we thought of someone we know who DIDN’T show up suddenly.

These brains we have are a mixed bag, and they have very real limits that we should probably know about.  We are lucky in that we live in a time where there is enough information out there to compile a sort of “Consciousness Owners Manual”.  For this we can be grateful that our brains are advanced enough that we can actually develop experiments that allow us to see our own flaws and absorb that awareness into the way we engage our critical faculties.  It’s becoming clear that our conscious mind is only one part of this thing we call our “self”.  And it turns out that it’s not the part of us that is always the first to know what’s going on in our world.  In fact, neuroscience experiments have shown that it’s always anywhere from one to a few seconds behind the parts of our organism that is really reacting to things and making decisions about how we feel or react.  Our conscious mind may turn out to be more like the play-by-play commentator than the athlete making the play on the field.

So I don’t see a nation packed with Christians:  I see a word populated by magic-believing, conscious animals, some of whom choose to identify with the more popular manifestations of that magic.  If we were to observe this phenomenon as aliens who had never been troubled with the limitations of the human brain, that’s how it would look.  We might puzzle over the fact that humans can dedicate so much energy to arguing the differences between their beliefs (the old “how many angels can fit on the head of a pin” thing).  This would look pretty silly to this imaginary alien.  That is, until he tried to talk a human out of his or her magic.  Then things would get real serious real fast!

Why?  Because humans love their magical minds.  To be more precise, they love the feeling that there is magic out there, and are willing to defend that magical realm against all comers, even to the point of defending other religious believers (that they would otherwise consider heretics) against the greatest heretics of all: the scientists that reveal to us who and what we really are, and who pull back the curtain and show us the magician’s hidden secrets.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Who Cares if the Universe Cares?” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, September 12th, 2010

Here’s the deal: despite what every preacher and psychic has ever told me, I do not have any special powers to influence events.  I cannot bend reality to my will.

Of course that hasn’t stopped me from valiantly (or foolishly, as the case may be) banging my head against that wall for all of my adult life.  I have — at times — paused, rubbed my sore head, and taken a different tack or looked at it from a different angle.  But always — belief rekindled — I’d bang away some more.  And in the end, reality won.  What surprises me (at this point in my life) is just how long it took me to realize that reality always wins.

We do not live in a universe that “cares”.  Our general human response to this notion is abject depression.  Not (at least not completely) because we therefore believe the universe to be against us, or malevolent (though we think that too!), but because, deep down, it’s extremely difficult for us social animals to deal with someone (or some thing) that — literally — takes no notice of us at all.  There is nothing about the way our decidedly social hearts and minds work that would make such utter non-responsiveness tolerable.  And so, despite all the evidence, we will continue to bang our collective heads against that wall.

In our rational minds we know this.  We know how silly it is to believe in a personal God that occupies the heavens (or a spirit that resides in a tree or a stone or directs us through a Tarot card).  If we sit down and cast a dispassionate eye upon all of the religious stories that have come down to us through the ages (both the extinct and the currently active) we can’t help but be struck with the stunning similarity among them all: the telling human details (of the kind of personalities we either wish — or fear most — to encounter in the dark night of the soul); the tinny fantasies of material wish fulfillment (be it streets paved with gold, rivers of milk and honey or a tent-load of willing “virgins”); or the validation of our deepest wish that there is someone out there who is all powerful and wise and righteous that thinks that we are okay (or, more satisfying still: precious).

In short: none of us wants to be alone in a cold, un-feeling universe.

But even the preceding statement testifies to our (my) propensities in this regard:  We think the position of the UNIVERSE towards us might really matter in some way.  We actually direct whispered (or thought) pleas to an infinite God who is then expected to use invisible forces (angels) to find us a parking place at the mall (for instance).

The reality is that we live locally.  Our lives are played against a distant backdrop of our solar system, yes, and we range across our town or even our nation or globe.  But the nitty gritty, day to day events of our lives (especially those that can materially help or harm us) take place within several feet of our physical bodies.  This is the reality of our sphere of concern: not the incomprehensible “universe”; not the “world” (our concerns for the physical health of our planet, I would submit, are really extended concerns for our quite local, personal environment).

To that end, most of our prayers, wishes or intentions are geared toward those very personal (and local) events or outcomes that we would like to see come to pass.  That makes absolute sense (for — as has been pointed out by others — even our altruistic impulse has a direct beneficial effect on our own feelings of well-being, even though — or because — such acts may constitute a material sacrifice for us).

So why do we care what the “universe” thinks of us?

The recent discovery of “mirror neurons” in our brains (not just in us, but in other primates as well) shows that we are hard-wired to respond to each others actions and moods.  (As an example: we watch someone eating a treat, and the same neurons fire in our brains as when we actually eat that same treat).  Even for one such as I (who has been harping on about just how “social” we are) this is a stunning declaration of how very deeply social we really are.  (So deeply that I suddenly feel like we need a new word or amplifier for the word “Social” — maybe we could put it in all caps with an exponent at the end?).

(As an aside, It could even be argued that our impulse toward God is the attempt to satisfy the nearly insatiable hunger in us — the most social of animals — for companionship).

Speaking of our minds, this might be the time to introduce the concept of “Confirmation bias”.  I encourage you to look that one up, but in short it means that we tend to see what we expect to see.  Which in the present discussion means this: we will interpret reality according to what we want that reality to be.  So, if I am praying for someone to get better (when ill), any improvement in their condition will confirm my belief in the intercessory power of my personal prayer to a personal God.  Or, if my psychic says my life has a specified purpose, I will tend to lend more credence to any events or inputs that support that idea, and minimize those that do not.  It means we are supporting our irrational beliefs on selective data.

I once read that we humans only need a strategy to work about thirty percent of the time in order to believe it’s a good idea, and keep using it.  (So throughout human history if the human sacrifice brought good crops one out of three times, that one time was enough to keep the practice alive).  The implication of this is rather startling: “God” would only need to answer your prayers far below the percentage minimums of statistical chance (of 50 percent) to sustain belief.  Like the well-documented “Placebo effect”, our own “Confirmation bias” ends up doing most of the heavy lifting for our mystical belief systems.

The reality is this: most of what counts for answered prayer can be accounted for by confirmation bias applied to random events.  (Of course in practical human terms no event is completely “random” — whatever its actual outcome it is always the result of directed actions by conscious personalities.  No wonder we think of nature as similarly directed!).  A part of this reality, however, is that it is almost impossible for us to completely move beyond our own biases.  But we can try.

Yes, the way we respond to events can have an effect on our actions and decisions: If you walk into a situation scared, you’ll most likely select from the all the available data that which feeds your fear; walk in confident, and you will equally mis-interpret the data (though you may feel a lot better about yourself!); walk in neutral, and you’ve got the best chance of getting a clearer picture of reality.  But none of that is the same as believing that a prayer or ritualized action will actually temporarily alter the physical laws of the universe or the biochemistry of another human being.  That’s just crazy…and completely human.

When you stop looking for signs, what you end up seeing is the mixture of events, opportunities, closed doors, outcomes, false starts and successes of a life lived in the here and now: where we are in time, and who we are in place.  This, I believe, is the only path open to us for a true valuation of our own lives, and the lives of the others we encounter in our short sojourn through life.

t.n.s.r. bob

NEXT WEEK: “The Burden of Narrative”.