Posts Tagged ‘Creation’

SERMON: “Space Between My Ears” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, August 12th, 2012

Detail of the asteroid in the Tombaugh Elementary School murals. By Bob Diven.

It’s been an unusually busy Summer of work over at my “day job” (that of an independent artist).  I just completed about 1400 square feet of mural for a local elementary school (the school is named after the well-known astronomer Clyde W. Tombaugh — “the discoverer of Pluto”).  Now I know just enough about astronomy to know that any attempt to show planets, stars, spacecraft and such in any realistic distance relationship would be madness to an artist attempting to create a visually arresting work of art (even the “near” objects in our own solar system are so damned far away it is mind-boggling).  So I just put things where I wanted them: some extremely (and dramatically) “close up”, and others not-so-close up.

I’m expecting criticism from actual astronomers, but that’s okay.  I understand there is a difference between the “art” I created and what I might actually see if I were able to travel across the incredible distances of space.

But — like everything else about our existence — we don’t actually picture the universe as it is (vast distances filled mostly with, well, “dark stuff”).  When asked to think of the universe, pictures of planets, asteroids, nebulae and star clusters immediately pop into my head.  My mind goes to the details of familiar objects (assisted in no small measure by the fabulous images our national space program has supplied for us to feast on over the last forty years).

The truth I’m after here is that we are surrounded at every turn by realities on a scale that can freeze up our mammalian brains (like shaking an old pinball machine into “tilt” mode).  The latest to challenge my brain is the fact that our planet does not (according to a renowned planetary geologist I know) have the resources to fuel a spacecraft that could possibly reach any other planet that is (potentially or actually) home to life like ours.  And conversely (since we must assume that other planets would be similarly limited, made as they are of the same cosmically-available building materials that our own Earth is) there is not another planet in the entire universe that can reach us.

In short — we may not actually be alone in the universe, but for all practical purposes, we are all alone in the universe.

And I could ask which is more mind-blowing: the fact that there is a statistical probability that there are other planets similarly placed and gifted like ours out there that could have evolved life?  Or that we will never, ever know about it?

I think about these sorts of things on a regular basis.  (Not all the time, of course, as my brain is as limited as any other human’s, and can only go so far afield before it encounters severe discomfort).  But each time I pick up an interesting rock, I realize that just about any random pebble I might kick off the sidewalk has enough history in it to disprove any young-earth creation theory, and just about every religious creation myth.

Our problem is not a lack of evidence for evolution and the scientific theories regarding biology, the big bang, and everything else: our problem is that we are surrounded by, immersed in, and incapable of escape from the evidence of our ancient and natural origins.  (As a rather glaring and profound example of “evolution in action”, consider the recent reports from the Centers for Disease Control that the Gonorrhea bacterium has been developing resistance to the antibiotics we have be using to treat it!)

Perhaps it is because the evidence has always been with us that we can somehow choose to continue to be blind to it.  We have had our entire history to make up stories about the occasional randomly shaped rock formation or cloud (and have had just the right kind of brains to believe our own stories).  Religion and mystical thought have been with us for as long as we can remember.  Science — true experimental, methodical science — however, has been with us for only a short time, and though we should be praising it for what it has finally revealed to us about the things that concern us most (where did we come from, where are we going, why are we here), instead science is too often treated as a blasphemous crusade led by greedy, godless villains in lab coats.

We humans are brilliant idiots.  We are clearly the most clever and innovative animals to ever populate the earth, yet in some ways we “deserve” whatever eventual extinction awaits us.  But then, we also “deserve” whatever life we have while we have it.  After all, each of us that is here today is a survivor of the eons-long struggle for existence that began with the very first living organism on the planet.  Within your DNA is that unbroken thread that has stretched through millions — hundreds of millions — of years, and is living and reproducing and mutating and adapting still.

And that knowledge alone is enough to blow another circuit in the brain.

A wide view of the North wall of the Tombaugh Elementary School Murals. By Bob Diven.

In reality, the vastness of space is no more difficult to fully comprehend than is the biology of our own bodies.  Both are impossible.  But we can achieve a certain understanding if we’ll try.  If we can open our brain up a little bit to ponder things (that we know from the start we will not completely grasp) we can, eventually, come to terms with our place in the cosmos.

There are vast swaths of our own galaxy that we will never penetrate with telescope or spacecraft.  There are questions about our own animal evolution that will never be answered (we are never going to amass and confirm, for instance, a collection of all of the fossilized animals in our direct line — and anyone who insists on these kinds of results from science is a fool).  The fact is that we know enough —  no: we know way more than enough — to see what we truly are: evolved animals on a small planet that is off in one corner of a single galaxy swimming in a sea of other galaxies in a universe that is still expanding from an explosion that began billions of years ago.

That is enough wonder for me.  Next to that reality, the idea of an all-knowing, all-powerful God is just, well, not worth considering.  The creation stories of religion lose all of their explanatory appeal when compared with the reality of our actual “creation”, and have therefore long ago lost any scientific credibility (though they retain a certain narrative and historical richness).

As for me, I choose to live a life enriched by the knowledge that so many scientists have worked so hard to bring to me.  I don’t care that every experiment has not produced perfect results, or that scientists don’t always get it right, because the process of science is valid and is, it turns out, the best thing we humans have come up with to determine reality.  And even that very human-scale achievement blows my mind.  Again and again.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The Brain: A User’s Guide — Abridged” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, May 20th, 2012

WHAT OUR BRAINS ARE GOOD AT:

Keeping us from stepping on a rattlesnake.

Getting us to throw up when we see someone else do it.

Thinking about sex.

These are survival responses: fight or flight; mirror neurons that pay detailed attention to what those close to us are feeling, experiencing, or seeing, and; reproducing to ensure the continuation of the species.

What our brains are not good at:

Critically examining things we hear from others.

Perceiving reality without a thick filter of magical belief.

Not being fearful.

Our brains are physical machines that have evolved with us over millions of years.  They exist because they are good at keeping us alive and fruitful.  We exist because they work as well as they do.

When we started using tools to aid our survival (around 6 million years ago), we were on our way toward becoming the dominant life form on the planet that we are today.  Our advancement, however, was slow.  But over time our cleverness led us to things like fire and cooked food (which fed our growing brains while reducing the need for our huge ape-like chewing muscles, which then allowed our brain cases to expand to the limits finally imposed on them by natural selection — namely the width of the human female’s pelvis).

We are the tool-making ape, and because of the protections we have built for ourselves from the forces of nature (extreme heat, cold and disease), and our ability to alter the environments we live in (as well as the plants and animals we live with), we have spread out and flourished.  In just the last 15,000 years we went from a small bunch migrating out of Africa to the global population of modern humans we are now.

This is no small success.  But we are mistaken to lean as much as we do on the idea that our brains are more than our most advanced sensory organ — that our minds are something that transcends the physical world.  They don’t.

As I sat on a park bench today, watching a pair of grackles chase a squirrel from the lawn beneath “their” tree, and then return to their mix of mating and feeding behavior, I was reminded that, if you get right down to it, the “purpose” of life is to continue to live.  Life, by any definition, is a complex process that exists only by dint of its ability to feed itself and reproduce.  Even the most mindless of life is propelled by this innate impulse.  And we humans are no different.

But, of course, we are very different when it comes to cognition. All animals have brains, some small, some large.  And some of those animals are eerily similar to us in having a social sense and an emotional interior life.  Some even make simple tools.  But none have the self-awareness that we humans do, and I think that gives us a very singular set of existential problems to deal with.

We humans have huge brains. Okay, maybe not quite THIS huge!

In particular is the question of “why us?”  Our attempts to answer that existential question have created thousands of gods, thousands of religions to go with those gods, and creation myths aplenty — all of them stories with us at the center, revealing some satisfying aspect of our “true” purpose here on Earth.

Of course one of the problems with that approach is that we are not divine in origin (at least as far as we can tell), nor are we “intelligently designed”.  What we are is  “naturally selected” (a process that can bring about results that easily mimic what we might consider “design”).  And what we generally end up with, then, is a lofty narrative of our special creation draped over the pulsing drive of the survival-insuring primitive animal brain.  This is a recipe for conflict and cognitive dissonance on a fairly grand scale!

The fact that we are living in an age of technology and science lends support to our already-elevated view of our brain’s “designed” perfection.  Therefore we consistently overestimate the power of the human brain — to the point that many believe that with the right amount of practice, we can project ourselves across the universe, read other minds or predict the future.  At the same time we under-estimate some of the real powers of the brain: such as our natural animal wariness that can create debilitating fears, irrational thoughts and faulty perception.  Both are problematic.

The predicament that we are in is this: we are alive, we are conscious, and the only organ we have for navigating that rather stunning state of existence is a multi-layered, quirky sensory organ that retains its most primitive life-preserving functions even as it serves as the source of our most lofty, artistic and humane expressions.  Darwin wasn’t just whistling “Dixie” when he said that “…man with all his noble qualities …still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin. ”  We do.  Oh, indeed, we do.

The truth is that we humans can seem to be rational only as a sort of last resort.  As I observe the battle lines of ideological debate in our current Presidential campaign, I am mostly struck by how many people are willing to take, at face value, almost any falsehood as long as it promises to support their belief-dependent view of reality.  If I could put one idea into the brains of all of my fellow citizens, it would be to embrace the true challenge that ownership of an evolved conscious mind entails, and learn to use our brains as effectively as possible (which has to include an awareness of the many quirks, biases and sensory mistakes that it is subject to).

It is a paradoxical challenge, this: using one part of our brain to figure out where the other parts of that same brain might be leading us astray.  But this is our reality: everything about our consciousness is playing out within the confines of our physical bodies.  (Though little wonder — since it can feel at times like there’s more than one person inside our head — so many of us are willing to imagine the different parts of our own consciousness as external beings, be they demons, spirits or angels).

Our brains may not be perfect, but they are certainly remarkable.  We just have to remember that they can rule us (fear) as much as we rule them (reason).  The best we can do is come to an understanding — an alliance, if you will — with the several aspects of our brain, and recognize the reality of what is happening inside our skulls.

t.n.s.r. bob

[CORRECTION/CLARIFICATION: My statement “In just the last 15,000 years we went from a small bunch migrating out of Africa to the global population of modern humans we are now.” is incorrect in that modern humans had already occupied regions of the Middle East and Central Europe before this time, but our global expansion has occurred within the last 15,000 years.  — t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Human Memory and the Blind Librarian that Runs it” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, January 15th, 2012

“Human Memory and the Blind Librarian that Runs it”  That could be the title of the book we may well end up writing one day about how memory — that vaunted aspect of the human brain — works.

The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli, 1781. Photograph: Public Domain

It’s disturbing enough to believe that there are goblins and malevolent spirits at loose in the world trying to trip you up.  But it is hardly less disturbing to realize that the part of our brain that manages memory is somewhere below the Blind Mole Rat on the evolutionary scale of intelligence, and is therefore not doing the bang-up job we imagine that it is.

One thing is obvious: the thing that lives in my brain and pulls from the shelf any and all of the stored snippets of experience that it “thinks” might be useful to me in whatever current drama I am engaged is nothing at all like a little person.  It is nothing like a conscious personality (or “mini-me”) with whom I am really communicating in the same way that I might talk to the help desk on the other end of my telephone call.  My little mental librarian is more like a reflex — capable of lightning quick response speeds that leave it, frankly, no time for the thoughtful reflections of a true librarian.

Though I’ve tried it many times, there is really no way of talking with this librarian of memory.  And yet we are in communication.  But I don’t know what form of communication happens at this level of the brain.  The evolution of my biology has  clearly developed a means of creating differentiated signals that can be “understood” deep in the mind’s archives.  It may well be electrical, but it could be chemical as well, or both (I am ignorant of the current level of understanding neuroscience currently has on this subject).  But whatever it is, in practical terms, the form of communication that exists between my conscious mind and my memory is damn imprecise and not always useful.  In fact, I’d go on to say that it can, at times, be less of a help and more of a hindrance to an enjoyable experience of conscious life.

I think I am so smart, when all along I’ve had this primitive, reactive, mad assistant lodged deep in my skull who has clearly evolved for speed over accuracy.  And why not?  It’s not like memory evolved for the purposes of adding richness to my experience of living.  It clearly began as something else.  This sort of ready storehouse of past experience is most likely the source of our ability to flick into fight or flight in an instant (and by instant I mean even before my conscious mind is aware of the fact that my body has decided to get the hell away from whatever trouble is in front of me).  And as we know, those that experience a few (or many) “false positives” may have run away unnecessarily, but run away they did, which means they survived the one time in a hundred when they really did need to run away.

But where does that leave me: a modern human who can go through days and months without facing a truly life-threatening situation?  I am a civilized man, trying to go about my business of driving, working, meeting other humans, socializing with a close friend, thinking that I am this wonderful bloke with a clever and refined mind only to find that I can be totally taken over by obsessive thoughts that trigger strong chemical reactions of fear or discomfort, all caused by my little blind librarian with whom I find no common language with which to communicate.

I think this is another one of those uncomfortable realities that science brings us face-to-face with: just about all of that which constitutes “me” and “my life” are unintentional by-products of my evolutionary biology.  That is the stark truth of our physical reality.

But that is not the end of the story, nor, in truth, the only story.  For our consciousness, and the way we engage life and infuse it with meaning and significance, color it with our pleasure, sweeten it with our love and with our art, is as much the story of our “life” as our biology.

But the one need not be sacrificed for the other.  In other words, the richness of life is not diminished by a recognition that it came about by a bewildering series of accidents and mutations over a nearly incomprehensible stretch of time.  But neither is it really enriched by denial of our biological, evolutionary reality.  In short: we make too much of ourselves when we demand to have been specially created by an omnipotent, omniscient being…and too little.

We are special enough as it is.  We don’t need the spiritual filigree.  On the other hand, recognizing our biological limitations, especially regarding our own brains, can actually offer us a bit of comfort and self-understanding that may, in the end, make that blind librarian resident in our skulls a bit easier to live with.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Neurtinos or Nutella?” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, December 11th, 2011

Why are we here?  What is the meaning of life?  Why is there evil in the world?

Each of those questions is flawed from the start, as they generally presuppose an answer of a certain kind — a response that would be the peanut-butter to the jelly in the spiritual sandwich.  But what if we ask the universe for peanut-butter and get subatomic particles instead?  Neutrinos instead of Nutella?

From the moment that we ask these value-laden questions we are bound to be unhappy with the answers that nature has on offer.

There is no “why” simply because there is no responsible cosmic party from whom we can demand an accounting of their creation.  Or, to be more precise, there is no evidence for an intentional agent (read: creator) in the universe.  This may be the hardest thing for a human to accept (though it’s probably not that easy for a dog to accept either — you’ve seen their eyes when you try to explain that there is no more hot dog after you’ve eaten the last bite).  There is only “why” in the form of explanation, or description.  These are the questions that science answers.  Why are we here? Because we evolved here.  Why did we evolve here?  Because the life that led to us started here.  Why?  Because the conditions were right for life to begin.  The rest is filled in with the rather amazing details of genetics, plate tectonics, chemistry, biology, photosynthesis, natural selection, multicellular life forms, viruses, bacterias, reproduction, mutation, history, culture, language, economics, psychology and everything else we’ve learned to study and observe about ourselves and the world we live in.  In short, we could easily rival the most inquisitive two-year old with an endless list of “why’s”.

Religion has answered the question of “What is the purpose of man” with versions of “To know God and love Him forever”.  But the only reason that God can pass as an answer to any of the most fundamental questions about life is through a flawed understanding of what those questions really are, and the kind of answers we can expect to get to those questions.

God was clearly an early stab at “meaning” (I say “clearly” because we know that ideas of gods and spirits go very far back in our intellectual history).  And since “God” was there first, “He” has thereafter flavored the discussion, and thereby warped the questions we ask of life.  For what is there about life, the universe, and everything that gives us any expectation of the kind of answers that religion implies by the questions it asks?  Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.

The provocative title of Christopher Hitchen’s bestselling book was “God is Not Great”.  But I would go even further and say that God is small.  Because God as an idea is — when all is said and done — reductionist, limiting, unimaginative and  far from up to the challenge of encompassing the “creation” we find ourselves in.  Religion — it turns out — is all of the things the religious project onto science.  For the religious leader will pronounce (without the necessary irony) that a “belief” in science reduces humans to nothing more than protoplasm; a collection of cells; mere apes.  But we really are all of those things!  The believer in a divine creator will further state that evolution makes the incredible claim that something (life) can spring from nothing (inert materials).  The irony again is that this is what religion — not science — claims: that God, by some miraculous act, formed Adam out of dust and heavenly spit.  (Which, if taken metaphorically, isn’t a bad poetic description of how minerals and liquid water might have been energized by solar energy at the beginnings of life).  Because we are intelligent, they argue, we must have been created by an equal or greater intelligence.  Really?

The problem is that the universe is just too big (and too vast, and fast and complicated) to have come out of a mind.  Any mind.

"Thou Shalt Not." Illustration by Bob Diven.

Our idea of mind comes from our own experiences of having one, a trait which seems to lure many of us into trying to imagine what a really, really, really big mind would be like.  But our imaginings are of necessity limited to, well, what we ourselves can imagine (which is limited to our actual knowledge and past experience).  And as colorful, delightful and surprising as the human mind can be, it is a limited, physical organ.  We resist this notion when we tell ourselves that the brain itself is unlimited, if only we could teach ourselves the ways of unleashing it.  But this is pipe-dream stuff — childhood fantasy at work.

But in so many ways, we humans never get out of our childhood.  And how could we expect to, really?  We are born completely dependent upon seemingly omnipotent others, and that is a habit we never unlearn.  We are profoundly (PROFOUNDLY) social animals: we can literally feel each other’s pain due to the power of our brain’s mirroring capacity.  Our lives are these rich sensory experiences filtered through intricate and fecund inner feelingscapes.  It is, truly, a wonder to be alive.  And far, far too wonderful (and tragic, and heartbreaking and beautiful) to be compressed into the sorry, sad lump of inert platitudes that are religion’s very highest achievements.

Throughout history religion has resisted the expansion of the human consciousness by constantly reducing newly-acquired human knowledge to either the heretic’s prison or the fires of censorship.  The religious leader must be constantly herding the multiple intellects of his flock into as narrow a corral as possible, lest they stray (here their use of the term “flock” reveals its shadier tones).

Religion has always resisted science (as it continues to today).  Proven data which the preacher cannot co-opt is preached against.  And we are expected to believe that this is the path to the eternal, unlimited, bigger-than-anything-that-ever-was-or-ever-will-be-God-of-the-universe?  Can we not see the terrible irony here that a God that great should demand servile minds so small?

As Hitchens likes to point out: for a leader of believers who claim to have their eyes on the next world, preachers sure seem pretty concerned about building their fiefdoms here on earth.  As Scrooge would say “There is much more of gravy than the grave” about this God.

But what of hope?  You are surrounded by millions of your fellow humans (not to mention every other life form on this planet) that are in the exact same boat you are: facing their own mortality.  Why waste precious time on a world that is not awaiting us while ignoring the one world we actually have, here and now?

So if “why” isn’t the question we can — or even should — ask, what is?

It is the central question of Humanism: Knowing what we know, how do we go about living satisfying, meaningful lives?

That is the actual challenge we all face.  It is in the ways that we work out that answer that “meaning” is found.  And meaning, in the end, is personal.  It is, in fact, the only place that meaning can exist.  It is the only place to ask and answer the questions of “why”.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Goodbye Adam and Eve” by the not so reverend bob

Sunday, August 14th, 2011

According to this recent story on NPR, the accumulating evolutionary evidence of genetics is penetrating even into Evangelical university settings, threatening the most basic Christian tradition of a literal Adam and Eve birthing our species in the Garden of Eden:

But others say Christians can no longer afford to ignore the evidence from the human genome and fossils just to maintain a literal view of Genesis.  “This stuff is unavoidable,” says Dan Harlow at Calvin College. “Evangelicals have to either face up to it or they have to stick their head in the sand. And if they do that, they will lose whatever intellectual currency or respectability they have.”

“If so, that’s simply the price we’ll have to pay,” says Southern Baptist seminary’s Albert Mohler. “The moment you say ‘We have to abandon this theology in order to have the respect of the world,’ you end up with neither biblical orthodoxy nor the respect of the world.”

Mohler and others say if other Protestants want to accommodate science, fine. But they shouldn’t be surprised if their faith unravels.

Christians are right, frankly, to mistrust science.  Not because science is unreliable, but because science does, indeed, threaten the very foundations of religion.  One might ask why.  Aren’t Science and Religion concerned with completely different spheres of the human experience: one with physical reality, the other with spiritual belief?  There are many who support this polite fiction.

Of solid rocks and shifting sands...

The problem is that every religion makes claims about the origins of life.  Yet none of these creation stories have survived the discoveries of science intact.  Even the Catholic church (perhaps, as suggested by the NPR story above, recalling the historic debacle of Galileo’s persecution) has thrown in with evolution, and placed God back at the beginning of that natural process (where he can, presumably, sit for a while as science continues to search for just how life did begin).  Evangelical Christianity has drawn its line in the sand by claiming that the Bible is the unerring word of God, and the more devout of that wing of belief have carved out a special niche in the walls of unreason, determined to be the purest of the pure who take every single event as described in holy texts as the gospel truth.  So they believe in a literal Adam and Eve, with Eve made from a rib taken from Adam’s side while he slept.  A rib removed, it is written, by God himself.

But as others (like Christopher Hitchens) have pointed out, one aspect of what makes religion appealing to some human minds is the opportunity it presents to be part of an exclusive club, a club which has stringent requirements for inclusion.  We like this.  In fact, we like it enough that the further the things we profess to believe are from what most everyone else believes, the more we congratulate ourselves for holding firm to those beliefs.

So the religious extremist has little to lose and everything to gain by fighting the tides of popular and scientific opinion.  The fundamentalist is, in fact, entrenched in a dynamic that is fed by an antagonism toward “the world” (which can mean reason, education, community mores and the like).

There are a lot more believers in another group, however: those that are cultural believers (having been born into a tradition, as most Americans that have been raised under a pervasive Christian influence).  These are the reasonable believers, who have, by and large, been ready to admit that the Bible is mostly allegory.  These are also the ones that accept scientific evidence, and then work to incorporate it into their belief system.  They continue to believe in God, to be sure, but they don’t wear it on their sleeve (and they don’t go in for the extreme fundamentalist mindset).

It is the moderates who won’t have too much trouble abandoning the idea of an actual Adam and Eve.  But then, they have not staked their entire belief system on a indefensible position of Biblical inerrancy.  What is significant about the NPR article is that the acceptance of the genetic evidence of our evolution is beginning to penetrate the Evangelical Christian community, which is, I think, profound.  At this stage it is still at a level where the presidents of bible colleges can force heretics to resign, but the fault lines are showing.  Eventually, this might lead to the more extreme fundamentalists calving from the evangelical community like a lone iceberg from the arctic ice sheet, left alone to float in the broad ocean and, eventually, to melt away.

t.n.s.r. bob

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “How Old is the Universe?” by David A. Weintraub

Sunday, March 20th, 2011

“How old is the universe?” is one of those questions that separates the creationists from everybody else.  It also turns out to be a question that we have only recently answered (and by recent I mean during my lifetime).  But between Cardinal Usher’s attempt to use all of the “begats” of the Bible to come up with an age for the earth of about 6,000 years  and the decoding of the Cosmic Microwave Background that  showed the actual age of the universe to be some 13.6 billion years, there is a tale of science, astronomy, discovery, mistakes, corrections and dogged determination that makes the closing statement of this book a reasonable one:

Click image to go to the publisher's webpage.

“The trials and errors, painstaking observations and  brilliant insights that have led to this answer amount to one of mankind’s most impressive intellectual achievements.”

And impressive it is.   Impressive and complicated.  Reading about it turned out to be, at times, challenging for my primate brain to process.

This book is written for a popular audience, and I can find no fault with the writing.  The problem of a book like this is that the author (who is clearly in command of the information) is attempting to describe some very complex and mind-bending concepts to a big-brained animal that was grunting in a cave somewhere not that long ago  (that would be us humans).  I simply had to allow myself a pass to not completely grasp every mathematical formula (the one for determining the mass of planets, for example).  (Since i was not studying for an exam, I could afford to let the occasional formula or calculation pass, and trust that I was getting the bigger picture.  And boy, is there a bigger picture here)!

If you are like me (not an astronomer) the description of the life cycle of a star will blow your ever-loving mind.  Or sections like the following, that, in an attempt to describe how it is that all of the photons left over from the “big bang” came to be pretty much the same temperature due to the conditions of the “Inflationary epoch” of our young universe, explains that:

“…the diameter of the universe expanded from a size roughly a billion times smaller than the diameter of a proton to about the size of a softball.  This increase in volume by a factor of about ten to the fiftieth power (1050) occurred when the universe was only ten to the minus thirty-five seconds old (ten billionths of one billionth of one billionth of one billionth of a second) and lasted until the universe was about ten to the minus thirty-four seconds old (one hundred billionth of billionth of one billionth of one billionth of one billionth of a second).”

So THAT’S why all those photons are the same temperature: they were all formed during a time when the universe was really, really, really small!

(And we’re not even past the first second of our universe’s life, with over 13 billion more years to describe!)

The selection quoted above should give you an idea of what you’re in for with this book.  Expect to spend some time with it (it’s not a fast read).  Having said that, however, it’s a good read: as well and clearly written as any book on this subject could be, I expect.  It’s an enjoyable journey, and worth the effort for the moments of brain-twisting, jaw-dropping awe at the realities of the formation of everything from the carbon that is the basis for life to the origins of the stars, planets and galaxies that populate our expanding universe.

The book takes us step by step from the beginning to the end of the story (literally: the answer to the titular question comes on the very last pages!).  The book does not dawdle, or mess around.  It simply has a lot of ground (space?) to cover.

I recommend this book.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “An Evolution Dialogue” By the not-so-reverend bob.

Sunday, January 30th, 2011

Recently I got a note from someone I’d known for some time.  I assumed he’d just taken a look at this blog, and e-mailed me to confirm that I was a “believer” in Evolution.  I answered in the affirmative, and the following (electronic) dialog began.  I decided to save the text as it progressed, and now want to share it with you.  I’ll use the name JOE for the questioner, and BOB for myself.

(NOTE: I have left the text un-edited, removing only the names).

JOE:  I would like to discuss the issue.

It is my understanding that mutations are mostly bad in ratio to good positive ones when you are talking about human species. The ratio is estimated at 100 to 1 bad vs good. If that is so, then how come the human is so fantastically made? Why don’t we look like freaky man. Where the results from all the bad mutations go when only 1/100 is positive. This is 1 of about a lot of questions I have regarding evolution. My intent with discussing this with you is not to create friction with you by anything written on PC. So i want you to know now, that i am seeking info on the subject. So don’t get mad at me during this OK :) ?

BOB: Sure.

I’d have to check the numbers, but accepting your ratio of “bad” to “good” mutations as correct (for humans and for all other animals), the reality is that there are vast stretches on our genome that are “junk”, or leftover DNA from our evolutionary past that is no longer “switched on” in our modern human development (though scientist’s caution that just because we don’t exactly know what they are doing there doesn’t make them junk). So when mutations occur in these areas, it has no impact on the viability of the organism. However, we are constantly enduring mutations in our active DNA, and sometimes these cause disorders from the mild to the severe, or cause death (in the womb or after).

The reality is that as amazing as our human bodies and minds are, we are not so fantastically made, but are a collection of mutations and adaptations that were “good enough” to work, some of which gave us enough of an advantage to survive better than other animals, and the bad ones weren’t so bad that we couldn’t live with them (for a good description of how badly engineered we are read “Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind” by Gary Marcus — http://klugethebook.com/).

So some of us come out looking like “freaky man”. There are humans born with supernumerary (extra) nipples, for example, or other non-life-threatening genetic throwbacks to our more primitive past. Our lower backs go bad because we’re still adapting to walking upright with the body plan of a fish, we still have tailbones, and our hiccup reflex seems to be a leftover of our amphibian past (did you know we grow a coat of fur in the womb that is re-absorbed before birth — but not always!?).

Other evidence of this is the fact that half of our body’s cellular weight is bacteria, and only about 6% of the genes in our body are actually human, the rest are bacterial and viral (so maybe we have to call them “human” too…I wonder). Yikes! We are walking storehouses of the evidence of our evolutionary past.

There are lots of good books that cover the most current understandings of human evolution that even a guy like me can understand (you could look through the REVIEWS on my blog).

I think what happens is a lot of folks have a limited or incorrect understanding about what the theory of evolution does and does not say (both on the “believer” and “non-believer” side, I might add). Obviously I love talking about this stuff.

So there’s maybe question one of the many…maybe!

JOE: Dang it i can’t type today… sorry Bob

Ok, then where did the original biological “soup” that all this began with come from? I understand the mutation process as it applies on going if you will. I know that an evolving action takes place in life, but i find it almost entirely unbelievable that life forms so complex CAN be mutated into being without a design blueprint for each species. There had to be a foreknowledge from original begins to the end product.

BOB: Don’t sweat it: who knows how many typos I’ll create here…

The theory of evolution only deals with the development of life once it got started, so it doesn’t address the “soup” you’re talking about. That’s another field (and another can of worms).

However, there’s a lot of science trying to figure out just how things did get started. The major component is liquid water and the chemicals and elements that the earth acquired (over millions of years) through the impacts of objects from space. There have been some experiments where scientists have attempted to recreate the original “soup”, and zap it with some electricity (to mimic lighting strikes) and have actually produced “life” (in a very slimy, rudimentary form). But this is still a very open area of study and conjecture.

What is really interesting is that you consider a “natural” cause (for which there is plentiful evidence) to be more incredible to believe than a “supernatural” one (for which there is no evidence). Of course you’re not alone in that, but if you can take a step back and look at the logic of it: “Because we do not (yet) know how life on earth began, therefore God must have created it” represents an incredible leap of logic.

Personally, a major component of my being able to grasp the idea of all of this complicated life emerging from such a simple photo-chemical reaction was coming to an understanding of the sheer depth of geologic time. If you think the earth has only been here for 6,000 years, then of course evolution’s a fairly ridiculous concept to embrace. But once you understand the billions of years that all of this took to come into being (and that more than half of that time passed BEFORE the first SUCCESSFUL life finally “caught on” on earth), it becomes not only understandable, but pretty interesting.

The reality is that nothing about life on earth indicates any foreknowledge or any supernatural action. All life forms are descended from earlier life forms, and each one carries in both its structure and DNA the leftovers and hints of what it once was (for this read Neil Shubin’s “Your Inner Fish”). Now some believers in God (that also accept science) take the view that God got the process started and worked THROUGH evolution. But as one early scientist pointed out, there is nothing in the evidence of life on earth that REQUIRES the intervention of God for an explanation of its existence.

(Good writers on that subject are Richard Dawkins — on the science side — and Christopher Hitchens — more on the cultural/philosophical/religious side).

I’ll attach a version of the timeline I used in my “Darwin” program that shows where we humans came into the picture. The third image from the left shows when the very first multi-cellular organisms show up in the fossil record. You’ll see it took a LONG TIME before anything more complex showed up, but once it did, things started happening (relatively) fast. (And there have been some recent surprising discoveries about just how quickly populations can change).

An evolutionary timeline using three 8-foot 2x4 boards.

Religion was our first science, really. But the truth is that over the last couple of hundred years, actual scientific discovery has gradually replaced belief with evidence. Evolution makes no claim as to whether or not God exists, it only demonstrates that life could have developed through completely natural means.

JOE: So do you believe God exist and started life and the evolution process – or multiplication of single cells as i see it, rather than the word evolution- is the truth?
I just have real hard time believing that we came from slime plus time, no matter how long time has been. I feel it is a bigger stretch that this is the truth than to believe that God created man.
When does evolution claim mankind started reproducing by conception through sexual means vs. from the fish? Or do they still believe they do?

BOB:  The first fossil evidence for sexual reproduction goes back over 1 billion years…long before fish or humans, so mankind has always reproduced sexually — we inherited that trait from our pre-human ancestors.  Unless you mean internal conception as opposed to spraying sperm over eggs that are floating at the bottom of the stream…I’d have to look that up.  But there was a long stretch of evolution between our fishy past and mammalian, modern us.

I don’t believe there is a god.  I consider the idea of god a product of human consciousness.  I think it was “slime plus time”, because that’s what the evidence suggests.  Plus, there is plenty of evidence that humans are subject to a whole range of irrational beliefs, the belief in god chief among them (Heck, I believed it for a long time myself — I was even a missionary smuggling stuff to Christians behind the Iron Curtain once!).

Yep, we live in a very interesting universe, but not one that cares one way or the other.  Evolution is simply a scientific description of phenomena and evidence — it’s not a competing “force” or personality.

JOE: You are a smart man Bob. We disagree about the existence of God but it is interesting information to me how people view these issues.

Are you educated in the sciences or is it your own personal studies through the years. I didn’t know you were a missionary at all. What turned you from our belief in God, if I may ask. You don’t have to answer of course.

BOB: I guess I’m self-educated through following my interests, working with scientists, talking with them, and a lot of reading.

Same “need to know” that made me burn a hole right through my Christianity back in ’87. Just kept asking questions and one day found myself popped out the other side of it. Happens

JOE: I don’t follow the last paragraph.

BOB:  I was referring to the first paragraph (but not very well or clearly), meaning that it seems that I had (have) a “need to know”, or at least a need to understand why I believe what I believe, and that led me not to questioning, really, but to try to understand my faith. So I ended up reading a lot of C.S. Lewis and the like. Last book I read as a Christian was “Rediscovering the Teachings of Jesus” by Norman Parrin — turned out to be a pivotal book in my declension (or movement away from) from faith.

JOE: My goodness how can one book do that? Sorry to hear it really.

Faith is hard to hang on to, but I find it is worth it seeing as if the Bible is true, nothing in life is worth separation from eternity in paradise. Hell is no place i want to spend forever in…. with no escape. I am certainly not the model of a good Christian but i know what i believe. If you got saved by Christ at some point in your life, I believe you can’t change that unless you have a true apostate heart.

I find it hard you would wind up hating God.

hard to believe above last line.

BOB: That’s the thing: I don’t hate God.  I don’t think I have a single believing friend that can understand my experience in any other way than thinking it of as “backsliding”, or reacting against the authority of God that I know to be true, but am rebelling against.  How can I be angry at a God that doesn’t exist except in the imaginations of men?

The reality is that religious belief is a kind of spell that has to break before one can see what’s on the other side (which is, well, reality).  I appreciate the sincerity of your concern regarding eternal damnation, but as Monica Hesse put it in a Washington Post article about Atheists: “Most of them have been told, at one point or another, that they are going to hell, which, when you think about it, is a fairly pointless threat to an atheist, like warning someone that you’re sending them to Narnia.”

I agree with Stephen Hawking, who compares consciousness to a computer program: when the computer dies, the programs ceases, that’s it.  The voice I always took to be God or Jesus turns out to be the voice of my own consciousness, right here in my little brain.  That’s why I work to make the most of my life now, and do what I can to make life better for my fellow humans now.  Religion is a fairly inefficient help to humans, I think, overall.

JOE: It is kind of hard to hate what you don’t believe exist :)

I understand your points and still believe you are going to heaven. There has to be more to this existence of outer space, life on earth. What force, since you are obviously scientific in thought, outer space in its perfect place to support life.

END OF DIALOGUE.

Final thought:  There is much more to our human beliefs than reason and evidence.  The more we learn about ourselves and our brains, the more we see that the way in which our minds function pretty much set us up for belief, where our (more recently-evolved) higher reasoning faculties are often placed in the service of the maintenance of those beliefs.  In order to move beyond the spell of belief we are actually working against some fairly ancient and deeply-imbedded habits of our consciousness.  It can be done, of course, but I do not discount the disquieting effects that such “tectonic” movements of the mind can carry in their wake (awakening to an indifferent universe can make for a chilly dawn, indeed).

There’s a reason that popular surveys claim a measurable “happiness effect” of belief in powers greater than ourselves (though it looks like this effect is mostly connected to the greater satisfaction of our “social primate” needs that comes from being a part of a meaningful “community”.  See: http://www.livescience.com/health/religion-happiness-church-friends-101207.html).

The fact that most humans do believe in a range of irrational things only proves that humans believe in irrational things, it does not prove the existence of the fanciful.  But, of course, as I’ve said before: life goes on regardless of what we believe about it, and I find myself tempted to give less attention to trying to figuring it all out and more to making the most of the time I have in this life of mine.  But then, trying to figure things out is one of the things us clever primates find joy in doing.  So…

t.n.s.r. bob

REVUES FROM THE REV: “Creation: The true story of Charles Darwin”

Sunday, April 11th, 2010

CREATIONI want to take a moment to recommend a film (instead of a book this week).

I had read in reviews that “Creation” didn’t deal all that much with the actual theory of Darwinian Evolution, and was prepared for a bit of a Hollywood sort of disappointment (the kind that occurs when a beloved subject is over-dramatized and under-analyzed).  In fact I had been asked to be on a discussion panel following the film to talk about the movie and the evolution/creationism “debate”.  But no young-earth creationist could be found willing to take part, so the panel was canceled.  After watching the film, however, I was relieved that I didn’t have to take the stage for a debate over science that would have broken the lovely mood of this quite fine movie.

For “Creation” is a love story first, and it is the possible threat to the bond between Charles Darwin and his wife Emma that the unavoidable truths of Darwin’s theories represent which is the source of untold internal turmoil for Darwin through most of the film.  It plays out as a sort of psychological thriller in the sense that it does not seem at all certain that things will turn out well for anybody in this story.  Of course we know that Darwin was, eventually “forced” to publish (and there is honest debate over the degree to which his famous delay in publishing was rooted more in Darwin’s desire to have sufficient research to back up his theory, or his awareness of the impact his theories would have on his own wife’s devout Christian beliefs, or equally in both).

The film focuses on a marriage brought into crisis more by the death of a beloved daughter, and in this sense it is a drama we recognize.  The addition of Darwin’s own personal “demons” muddies the waters for the scientist, as the external pressures build on him to “publish” his revolutionary theories.  (The story is told — to a high degree — in flashbacks that are not the easiest to navigate, though I will allow that the soft confusion of this is intentionally set to bring us into the troubled mind of Darwin.  He is also in regular conversation with his beloved dead daughter, Annie, who is the voice of his floundering intellectual integrity).

I felt there was a proper degree of attention paid to those theories in overt and creatively illustrative ways (there is a wonderful passage of a most common food chain in action involving a rodent, a rotting animal skull, teeming maggots and a chirping bird).  But most beautifully (and subtly) communicated is the tension between the traditional beliefs of a society (community — family) and the social cost of discovering that there are scientific truths that shake those traditional beliefs to their very roots.  The film also astutely shows Darwin as a man of his times, taking “water cures”, and dealing with the very unscientific medical establishment of his day (for we were still years away from medicine truly moving into the realm of science — “bleeding”, for instance, was still considered a sound medical treatment).

I think the move could have been shortened a bit, but maybe that would have resulted in a bit more “Hollywood” heightening of drama.  I found the film deeply moving, and the casting of the Darwin family perfect — as if they stepped out of a series of daguerreotypes.  I recommend this film.

(For you locals — “Creation” is showing at the Fountain Theater in Mesilla through Thursday, April 15th).

t.n.s.r. bob