Posts Tagged ‘creationism’

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

Sunday, February 24th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The Big Answers” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, October 28th, 2012

The not-so-reverend bob…pondering.

Today I’m pondering a rather fundamental question: what has the spread of scientific knowledge meant to religious faith?  In some ways, this is the central question I keep returning to with this blog.  To me the answer is rather simple: an increase in scientific knowledge will decrease the space available for irrational religious belief.

Of course there are two basic assumptions underlying this notion, the first being that religious explanations for phenomenon occupy the same mental space that scientific, evidence-based explanations would occupy.  And therefore it becomes a rather straightforward process of replacing old, incorrect information with newer, better knowledge. The second assumption is that all humans are reasonable and rational.   As the proverb says, “Do not rebuke a mocker or he will hate you; rebuke a wise man and he will love you.” (Proverbs 9:8, New International Version, © 1984).  The formulation, then, is simple: a wise man will respond positively to new information (and even thank you for the correction)!

But obviously this is not always the case.  Perhaps all that this process of the spread of scientific knowledge is really doing is separating out the “mockers” from the “wise men”.  But for “mockers” I would substitute those that are anti-science in the face of ever mounting evidence that contradicts their beliefs, and “wise men” would be those who have successfully internalized scientific knowledge.  (In this second group, I would venture that there are many who have been able to remain both religious and reasonable, at least to the degree that their religious beliefs are of a nature as to be able to coexist with an evolutionary view of the biological world.  In these cases, science has, indeed, occupied the ground once held by religiously-inspired explanations of the physical world, but a corner has been reserved for “spirituality”, an area thought to remain off-limits to the scientific method — not because science shouldn’t investigate the spirit realm, but because science is not believed to be equipped to investigate it).

But there are those (such as myself), that see a bit more writing on the wall, as it were, and feel that scientific knowledge does not simply replace some religious knowledge, but, in fact, points out the fallacious basis of all religious knowledge.  This is materialism (which is not a deep love of buying material things, but an understanding that there are no non-physical phenomenon, and that any seemingly non-physical phenomenon is far more likely to appear mysterious only because it is presently misunderstood).  There are a lot of us out there, to be sure (a great proportion of scientists are materialists compared to the general population, but even here the majority is not complete).  But those who come right out and call themselves atheists or materialists remain a small proportion of the general population.

The huge, honking, obvious, maddening question, then, becomes this:  how in the world can that be in this modern world whose very health and economies depend on the products of science?  A world where many of us are alive only because we were administered a vaccine as a child, or were able to be treated with medicine for an infection or disease that (in an earlier time) could easily have cost us a limb or our life?  We obviously believe in science when we refrigerate our food or take an aspirin or antibiotic, or when we drive our car or fly somewhere on a jet.  And yet there is this persistent dependence on religious belief that produces the rather astounding phenomenon of half of our population still disbelieving in Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Considering the evidence for evolution, the implications of this state of affairs is enormous.  It means that over half of our population is woefully or willfully ignorant of one of the most basic truths about their own existence: many of these think that they were created as human beings some six or eight or ten thousand years ago.  They don’t know (or simply refuse to accept) that their ancestors were once small, furry mammals about the size of a shrew, or — long eons before — lobe-finned fish.

Think about this for a moment.  Has not one of the primary reason’s for religion’s existence been the story it tells us about our origins?  Isn’t it always the questions of where we came from, where we are going, and why we are here that have been considered the most fundamental to our happiness?  Religion is loved, revered, followed, fed and supported (in part) out of sheer gratitude for the answers it has provided to these questions.

But it turns out that the answers from religion to these fundamental questions have been wrong.  Perhaps not intentionally, but wrong none the less.  And not just a little wrong on the details, but off by a magnitude that makes the word “magnitude” seem insufficient as a descriptor!  We were not formed out of mud and spit by an actual, physical God in an actual, physical Garden of Eden.  We evolved from the earliest forms of “life” on an ancient planet formed out of cosmic dust and elements born in dying stars — not on a world created in seven days.  Mental illness is not caused by the possession of individuals by demons, but by genetic defects that occur in the copying of our DNA through sexual reproduction.  Diseases are not caused by the sins of the father or of the son, but by bacteria and viruses that invades our very physical bodies.  More than half the cellular weight of your body is bacteria.  We basically have the iron-rich seawater in which we first evolved running in our veins.  We still have tailbones, for crying out loud.  We now know that we share almost all of our DNA with chimpanzees, who we must regard as our distant cousins.  All of this we know, now.  And there is no telling how much more we will know by the time my short life is over.

And yet…religious belief persists.  Science is denied.  And yet we consider ourselves rational beings.  But if we were truly rational beings, and not so bounded about with wariness and distrust of those outside of our particular tribe (be that a blood family, political party or nation), we would simply weigh the evidence for the question at hand, and accept the good as a ready replacement for the old.  But we don’t always do that.  And even when we do, we do not always do it easily.

Here’s the facts, then.  Science has answered the most basic questions of our existence.  The big existential quest to find out why the hell we are even on this planet has been successful.  You and I live in the first generation of humans ever to know what we know about our natural origins.  Others have suspected it, Darwin theorized it, but we live in the age of proof of their theories.  We know.

We know, and yet…we still believe.

Make what you will of that fact, it remains a most telling trait of we human animals.  We sent scientists to find the answers to life, but we didn’t like the answers they found.  Instead of being the “wise man” thanking the scientist for his or her labor, all too many “mock” them.

My hope is that, over time, the implications of scientific knowledge will continue to penetrate our consciousness in ways that produce clearer thinking about social and political issues, instead of the kind of atavistic denial that marks most religious fundamentalism.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “One With the Universe” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, September 9th, 2012

After a long Summer that seemed determined to hold Fall at bay for at least another month, a cold front finally rolled in, packing the formerly clear blue sky with puffy low clouds that matured into towering thunderheads by the time evening fell.

The sun set, leaving the sky yet full of diffuse light that illuminated the lowering clouds with tones of soft, cool grays.  I watched the lightning that seemed to ring the city as I drove across town.  After I pulled up to the house where my bi-weekly “poker with the Episcopalians” game was to be held, I got out of my truck and took a moment to stand beneath it all.  I felt the beginnings of a downdraft from an approaching storm, and heard it grow stronger as it blew up the street toward me, rustling the leaves in the still-lush trees.

It was just a simple moment of stillness — where I became still, and the world moved around me.

As I looked up into that sky, and felt the softness of the cool wind on my skin, I became aware that I was a part of it all.  Not in a spiritual, abstract sense, but in a very basic, empirical sense:  Everything about me — every molecule that makes up the living being that is me, the tiniest surge of energy that makes it all move and breathe and think and regenerate — all of it came from the physical world I was beholding, and all of it would return to that world when I died.

I think it’s worth pointing out how qualitatively different this idea is to me than the standard notions of “dust to dust” or “we are one with the universe” (the one having the imbedded purpose of driving man to god and the other making man out to be a part god, both, as it were, either making us less or more than we are).  What I am really talking about is the deep philosophical consolation I have been surprised to find in an understanding of the science of who and what we really are.  Surprising because — according to the proponents of religion — there is no such comfort to be had except in a knowledge of god.  It turns out they couldn’t be more wrong.

Honestly, I have come to the point where this sort of existential awareness is a regular occurrence in my life.  And these occurrences are of a quality to make my previously-held religious (and “spiritual”) conceptions of human value seem rather sad and small in comparison.

This may be the hardest part of all of this to communicate to the religiously-oriented person: that the great spiritual discovery of their lives could well turn out to be only second-best to the power of discovering the actual reality of our existence.  I have to stress this point because to the religious mind anything that smacks of a materialist world view (by that I mean a view that there is nothing about us that is not the product of purely physical processes) is seen as a step backwards — a debasement of God’s creatures.  What these folks fail to understand — what they cannot, in truth, even see — is that this is a preaching based in sheer medieval ignorance (no offense to the Middle Ages!).

The “church”  has been fighting science from day one, and continues that campaign today (with notable exceptions, such as the Catholic church’s acceptance of the theory of evolution).  Even our pervasive “new age” forms of spirituality seem to use science only as a source of serious-sounding terminology to support the silliest of ideas.  (So though there may not be an inquisition-style enforcement squad with the power of capital punishment these days, we certainly don’t have the church to thank for that bit of luck).

The “rev” loving him some science…

We live in a time where the acceptance of the evidence from science is actually being pushed back by a coordinated and active assault from the defenders of religious hegemony.  America is alone among developed nations in its backwardness on this score (right there with Turkey in the percentage of our population that believes God made the world some 10,000 years ago).  This is astounding: we are moving backwards, even as we continue to live in an economy completely dependent on the products of science and science-based research — even as we live lives of a quality and safety made possible only by the discoveries of science and the technology that develops from that knowledge.

I am a materialist.  I don’t believe that an actual external personal god can or does exist.  I understand that we have far too many scientific, physical and electrochemical explanations for any and all of the cognitive phenomenon that we experience as “god” and “spirit” to ever need to invoke god as an explanation for anything of note.  I am in a definite minority in this view.  And though this appeals to the not-so-closeted elitist in me, the rational humanist in me is deeply troubled.

I think we are on an incredibly interesting trajectory as a species that is about to intersect with some other trajectories fairly soon.  As an example, I think that the evidence is clear that we have altered the planet’s climate.  I read enough science to know that the weather of an entire planet is an incredibly complicated thing to get a handle on, so I expect we will have to wait and see what predictions were spot-on, and what things we missed in our calculations.  This also means that even were we to have the brains and the will to seriously confront this impending (or already-upon-us) catastrophe, we would likely have to be very lucky to do all the right things at the right time to correct the problem.

I also read enough history to understand that our planet has experienced many climate fluctuations, some of them mind-bogglingly dramatic (we have been a total “ice planet” before).  But the breezy stupidity of the climate-change deniers (those trapped in their own “belief-dependant reality”) who cite the last ice age as reason to NOT be alarmed is, well, stunning.  It’s like saying that because a hurricane is a natural occurrence, we shouldn’t do anything to prevent thousands of people being killed by one.

And that is where I come back around to the awareness I felt standing under that stormy early-Fall sky.  The demise of me as a living thing is, in many ways, simply a return of all that I am to where it came from, and from whence it will go on for as long of a forever as I care to contemplate.  The same can be said for our species.  We will never kill this planet (our own sun will do that soon enough), and we may not end up having the power to kill off our own species in the near future.  But there will come a time when the intersecting forces of our own population growth, the limits of exploitable resources, and the vicissitudes of nature (or the solar system!) will spell the end of human beings.  We may, like the species we evolved from, carry on and adapt and eventually become something very different from our current selves.  Or we end in an evolutionary cul-de-sac.  One way or another, the age of mammals (and the age of life on Earth) will someday end.

This is not necessarily tragic, any more than it’s a tragedy that trilobites or t-rexes no longer populate the earth.  What matters more, I think, is suffering.  And this is where I think humanism has the upper hand to religious dogma.

Since we can, at best, only lengthen our time here on earth, our ultimate survival should not concern us to the point of a paralysis born of fear.  Being aware, as we are, of our own existence (in a way that no other animal has, to our knowledge, ever been), the task before us should be, I think, to do all that we can to decrease the suffering of our fellow humans.  I think this is a worthy use of our plentiful storehouse of human energy.

If we only have this one life — this single span where we are walking, talking, discreet, self-contained ecosystems of bacteria, bone and skin with this remarkable awareness of our own existence — then shouldn’t we make the most of it for the most that we can?

I have won the existential lottery.  Compared to all but the tiniest percentage of my fellow humans in history, I have lucked out to have this opportunity for an existence loaded with opportunities for pleasure, enjoyment and productivity.  I tremble to think of the pain and misery that has been the lot of most humans in history (or the millions that suffer terribly right now).  I therefore get angry with my fellow humans that act as if they have been as lucky as I have been by right of being chosen by their god, in a way that somehow pardons them from any responsibility to ameliorate the suffering of others of their kind.

But, then, we are tribal primates at our core, and the humanist impulse is a product of human minds with enough time free from terror and disease to contemplate loftier ideas.

If there’s one message I preach, it is to first get over ourselves, and then get on with ourselves — take that step out of our ancient self-centeredness that preserves itself with the cloak of religion, and walk in the sunlight of the reality of our existence that is now available to us in a way that was never available to our ancestors.  Do not resist science, but rather understand it.  Do not resist our terrifying vulnerability, but rather allow that awareness to motivate us toward kindness to ourselves and others.

Thanks to science, we can now see that religion is a rapidly deflating second-best way to view ourselves and the world.  Science is crap as a replacement religion, but perfectly useful as a ladder out of the dark pit of existential ignorance that is at the heart of fundamentalist religious belief.

We are stardust, as Joni MItchell sang, but not in an airy-fairy way.  We are literally bio-chemical systems that can only operate thanks to the way that life evolved to make use of the cosmically-manufactured materials that were available on this planet (the elements that make up that chart we all studied in high school chemistry class were born in the intense deaths of stars) blown out into the universe and collected by gravity here.  That is the dust from which we came, and the dust to which we will return.

Whether that is a satisfactory answer to our desire for a meaning to attach to our existence is rather beside the point.  That is our reality.  We use the promise of Heavenly reward or punishment as justification for moral behavior, but in practice it is just as often used as an excuse to act (or not act) in a humane way in the world.  The bleak existential reality of our lot strips away such notions, and I suppose that many make the calculation that believing in an impossible God at least offers some solace in return.  That’s hard to argue with, I suppose, especially when I understand that the alternative is not necessarily guaranteed to make one happier.

But then I’d rather understand, and have some confidence that I see things as they really are, and thereby live my life in a way that — when it ends — will allow me to be content with the real life that I lived, not the imagined one we never will.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “We Ancient, Modern Humans” by the not-so-revered bob

Sunday, July 1st, 2012

I’ve been reading a rather dense treatise on the views on sex and sexuality in the “ancient” world.  I’m getting a nice introduction to Greek philosophy (a subject I’ve never studied on it’s own).  But as I read the ideas of Socrates and the like, I am reminded of the book I read on the history of the Royal Academy in England (“The Fellowship and the Story of a Scientific Revolution: The Royal Society of London” by John Gribbin” — reviewed this blog), where the likes of Sir Isaac Newton ushered in the age of science in earnest.  What I’m thinking of specifically is that before experimental science arrived on the scene, nearly every idea and philosophy about human life, love, religion and nature was rooted in a rather deep (by modern standards — cavernous) ignorance of the physical and chemical reality of life on earth.  In other words, we didn’t know crap about our biological and chemical selves.

This is not something to criticize our predecessors about.  For the same existential rule applies to us as to them: we can only know what we know when we know it.  (Future generations will likely marvel in a similar manner at the decisions we made in our time regarding medicine or climate or genetics based in our own mix of knowledge and ignorance).

But then I see our own time as being still very much rooted in the worldview and philosophy of the ancient world (which continues to provide the fuel, I think, for the continuing opposition to the encroachment of scientific knowledge into our daily lives).  As “modern” as we humans are, we are still very much our ancient selves.

To put it more simply — we are still (in part) primitive people fearful of change.

One psychologist described us humans as having made our “last great evolutionary leap” during the last ice age.  In terms of our emotions, intellect and physical attributes, we are the exact same animals that re-occupied Europe after those ice sheets retreated some 10,000 years ago (with the notable exception that our brains appear to be shrinking).  But look at what has happened in our material lives since then: cities, states, nations, vehicles, electricity and medicine, all of which have played a huge part in the explosion of our population from maybe five million souls ten thousand years ago to over six billion today.

The Greeks were as smart as any of us. But before science, we were all just sort of making things up.

We’ve only recently celebrated the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s “On The Origin of Species”.  (To give you a little time perspective, Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln shared both a birth date and birth year).  So, although Darwin was not the first to come to the idea that life evolved from earlier life forms, the publication of is book is widely held to be a watershed moment in our intellectual break from the “natural philosophy” of the ancient world to the “natural sciences” of the modern world.

Looked at from that perspective, it is hardly surprising that the revolutionary ideas that science has shown to be our biological and cosmic “reality” are still working their way into the self-concept of we humans.  I have to tell you that from my perspective that I often feel that the question of religion should have been settled by the publication — and subsequent validation of — Darwin’s theory.  But then (as others have pointed out to me) the ancient religions should just as easily have been put to bed by the discovery that the earth was round or that the it orbited the sun (since both ideas flew in the face of what the received religions told us about the universe).

I heard a commentator on Christian radio today talking about the threat to God’s order that is coming from the fields of scientific research having to do with devices (now in use) that can “read” brain waves (still a far cry from reading actual “thoughts”, but useful in biometric medicine and, potentially, in other areas as well). Listening to this person, I wondered a bit at how easily even the most fundamentalist modern religious believer will accept the scientific discovery that our brains actually operate by use of electrical signals (and will use that as proof of God’s miraculous design) without ever asking the most obvious question: why do we of God’s creation function in a electrochemical way at all?

If there is a divine creator — and if we could possibly step back far enough to look at our situation with an analytical eye — we would (it seems to me) have to ask the question of why the world is ordered in such an elaborately disordered manner?  Life could be fairly described as a highly functional mess that works only because of the way life reproduces, allowing enough lifeforms to adapt to changing conditions to keep life going.  Entire species and ecosystems are dying out all the time, but because there are other life forms that are geographically near enough (and functional enough) to move into the smallest opening created by the extinction of another species, life itself continues.  Even should the most severe climate change (of the kind that floods our coastal cities) descend upon us, or the next (certain-to-appear) ice age appear (that will drive most animal populations — that’s you and me too — into an ever-narrowing band of habitable landscapes), there will be species of animals and insects and plants and microbes that will flourish in the spaces left empty by all of the those same that will inevitably die out.

This is the kind of world we live in.  This is the kind of world that has only, frankly, been able to make any sense of itself with the advent of science and the scientific method.  All of the stories that came before were simply “made up”.  Even the Greek philosophers could only sit around and guess at what made the body work.  Which makes it even more of a wonder to me that there are so many people looking to books written thousands of years ago for their answers to how the earth came to be and how humans were “formed”.

Literature from the ancient world is one thing: for, as I said, we humans are not substantially changed from the ones that wrote our first stories down in written form.  In poetry and story, we can still receive knowledge and fulfillment from ancient writers.  We just can’t learn much in the way of science from them.  And though the holy books are, in their way, incredibly useful human historical documents, they are not good natural history.

Life on earth makes sense because of scientists like Darwin and Newton and a host of others (many of whom suffered persecution from religious authorities).  The fact that we humans resist releasing our death-grip on ancient mystical memories (and creation mythologies) makes sense because we are evolved animals with brains that have spent most of their history in a magical world we had no other way of comprehending (other than through personification, anthropomorphization, and make-believe stories).   When it comes to living in a age of science, we are happy to incorporate the products of that science into our daily lives, but we resist seeing ourselves for the complex, natural organisms that we are.  Give me a pill to kill the bug that’s making me sick, just don’t remind me that most of my DNA and half of my body weight is bacteria of the very close to the kind I’m trying to kill.

I don’t consider this view of ourselves (and my own self) as an insult to humans.  I do not see how it truly erodes the dignity of the individual.  Rather, I think it ennobles us in the proper way by giving us the true credit we deserve for having accomplished as much as we have with the equipment evolution “gave” us to work with.

I can live with that.

t.n.s.r. bob

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

Sunday, May 20th, 2012


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: “The Real Story of Creation” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, April 29th, 2012

There is one, huge, honking reason why we humans have trouble with the idea of evolution, and it is a reason that I think we give scant attention to: it is the fact that we exist.  Because we exist and — more importantly — are conscious of our existence, we can’t help but examine ourselves, find ourselves wonderful, and think that somehow our wonderful existence must — on some level at least — have been the point of everything that has come before us.  We are the reason for, well, life.  “Clearly” we think, “the universe had us in mind from the very start?”

"Why" the reverend asks, "should it make us feel less 'special' to have evolved from earlier life forms?"

This sounds silly and overblown, but is it really?  Don’t we start any consideration of our origins with the premise that we must find a system of “creation” that would clearly lead up to us?  In other words, the process of evolution must be as complicated as we see ourselves to be, which, under the influence of our natural solipsism, means there has to be an intelligence behind it all that is at least as clever as we are (but only more so).  And suddenly, we have replaced the idea of “life” having had us in mind from the start with the idea of The God of the Universe (who, apparently, had nothing better to do with 13.75 billions years of his eternal existence, and decided to run a grand chemical experiment to see if he could turn mass and energy into living hominins who would, occasionally, tell him how great he was).

This is not, I’m afraid, an understatement of the self-centeredness of our species, nor of the absurdity of the proposition of our own divine creation.  The truth is that we can only hold such irrational ideas because we are a natural storytelling (and believing) bunch of hairless apes, and there remains much mutual support for such beliefs among us profoundly-social primates.

But the problem is this: we have built back from the end of the story, assuming that the story began as a tale with us as the ending.  Even more fundamentally, we assume there was a story in the first place.  There wasn’t.  There was (and is, if you want to be absolutely clear about it) only nature.

By nature I mean purely natural forces, and the biological, geologic and meteorological products of those forces.  For there wasn’t even “nature” (at least in the sense that we understand it today) 5 billion years ago.  Only the cosmic beginnings of what would coalesce into our planet.

Seriously.  We now know this.

Our planet formed from dust and debris and matter and gravity and atoms and elements born in other exploding stars (that “made” the stuff our planet is made from).  This is how all of the planets and stars were formed — each of them “local” events (when compared to the vastness of the expanding universe).  And, after untold millions of years of “forming”, the mix of solid crust, liquid water (and the chemical composition of that water), the fact that we had a solid core to produce a magnetic field to hold our atmosphere in place against the forces of solar winds, and time (lots and lots of time — about a billion years after the earth “formed”), something began to stir.  Or maybe not even stir.  In the beginning it was simple photosynthetic bacteria that began to occupy the earth.

And for the next 2 billion years that was it.  That was the only life on the planet.  For 2…billion…years.  What kind of creation story is that?  What kind of intelligence is behind that?  There is the popular (perhaps apocryphal) quote that says “If there is a God, he must be inordinately fond of beetles” (having created hundreds of thousands of species of them).  But perhaps we should change that to God being “Really, really fond of simple photosynthetic bacteria”.

Here’s the rundown of the history of the evolution of life on earth as laid out by Jerry A. Coyne in “Why Evolution is True”:

“If the entire course of evolution were compressed into a single year, the earliest bacteria would appear at the end of March, but we wouldn’t see the first human ancestors until 6 a.m. on December 31.  The golden age of Greece, about 500 BC, would occur just thirty seconds before midnight.”

Most creationists either do not know the evidence for all of this, or are actively resisting it.  I expect more of the latter than the former, for even the ignorance is fed, at some level, by an innate resistance to the notion that we aren’t special in the way we prefer to imagine.

But of course we are special, and by any measurement pretty damn amazing results of a non-random process of selecting random mutations in living, reproducing species.  But we have to be clear that this is what happened.  All it takes, it turns out, for evolution to occur is the presence of DNA that is exchanged and re-combined through (often sexual) reproduction.

Mutations in DNA happen all the time, all over the genome.  But no-one is deciding what mutations will occur.  This is truly a random process — there is no predicting when and where it will happen, nor what the result will be.  Mutations are often the result of biological “copying errors” (take that, perfection of design).  But whatever the cause, those mutations are then expressed in the developing individual, and, once expressed, have entered into the race for survival, living, reproducing, competing and dying on the stage of life where natural selection exerts its unforgiving force on every living thing.

Yet despite what every creationist seems to believe, natural selection is not an intelligence (though it creates an outcome that mimics an intelligence).  It is simply describes the process whereby the reality of climate, food supply, competition for resources, competition for mates, and an animal’s innate suitability for a specific niche in the world place that animal under selective pressure.  Those that are better at surviving tend to survive and pass on their particular set of mutations.  Those that aren’t, don’t.  But conditions are always changing, so today’s winner will not always be the winner.  Dinosaurs were winners for 160 million years, but then they lost.  Big time.  Right now, we’re the winners.  Right now.

Once you take the time to understand what evolution is, and what it is not, the arguments against it are shown to be what they actually are: nothing.  I mean it — there are no valid arguments against evolution.  There are only dodges based in fear, ignorance and credulity (because of the things we want to believe about ourselves).

The reality is that there was never any plan or system in place.  Everything that we see around us is the eventual balance of forces that tends to come about over time.  Earth settled into its shape because of the materials it is made of, which set the levels of gravity where they are.  The dominant cosmic lement of carbon became the building block of all biological life.  Our bodies took the shape they did because of the mix of air we evolved in, and the gravity that gives us weight.  Our eyes evolved to work well in the kind of light we experience, our guts to the kind of food we can eat.

We are constantly taking in nutrients, feeding the bacteria that still makes up half of our cellular weight.  We carry in our DNA huge collections of genes that have been switched-off by random mutations (left in the “off” position by the selective pressures of natural selection).  In many ways, our complex and inspiring bodies are nothing more than the result of a survival “arms race” (as Dawkins put it) that began with the first bacteria competing for a place in the sun.

And DNA, it turns out, builds up entire bodies by completely local actions.  There is no blueprint, but each gene and protein does it’s own little thing and, before long, voila, there is a new living being.

How can this be?  It can be because we evolved from the simplest of life forms that gradually grew more complex (even incorporating other organisms, and turning them to our own use).  Every step of our evolution was built upon the life form we were before every mutation.  Nothing about us ever simply came into being out of “nothing” (that is, ironically, the creationist view of what God is supposed to have done).  We did not go to sleep one night as a bacteria and awake the next morning a fish, or dream our fishy dreams to awake as a primitive ape.  Evolution posits no such thing.  However, the inescapable evidence of our DNA shows the “indelible stamp of our origin” (Darwin’s famous words) — it is a record of the many different animals we were.  There is no other plausible explanation for this than that which evolution supplies.

This drives creationists crazy: it simply cannot be — it sounds too improbable and impossible.  There has to be a plan.

Why?  Who says so?  Who can say to reality “You cannot be thus” or “You must be this”?  No one has that kind of power.  Not you, not me, not the scientist (for this is the implication — that scientists are simply making this stuff up to disprove the God they hate so much).  The scientist reports what is true, what is actual, what is declared by the evidence.  And the evidence tells us that we evolved from bacteria — every one of us representing that unbroken chain of life back to the very beginning.

As Jerry Coyne puts it in “Why Evolution is True” (reviewed this week): “The process is remarkably simple.  It requires only that individuals of a species vary genetically in their ability to survive and reproduce in their environment.  Given this, natural selection — and evolution — are inevitable.”

We humans are a rather, um, late arrival on the scene of life.

Inevitable, yes.  Designed?  No.

But how could an entire human body evolve from a single cell?  As has been pointed out by another: you did it yourself in nine months.

No wonder Darwin said “There is grandeur in this view of life”.  For there is.  But in order to find it, we have to first let go of the diminished, narrow, ignorant view of life as having been created by a divine intelligence.  Then, and only then, will we see, face to face, the true story of our creation.

t.n.s.r. bob

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

Sunday, April 15th, 2012

We’ve all heard it: one half of a cell phone conversation.

“Nothing.  Just waiting to pay for my groceries.  What are you doing?”

Someone in their pajamas, at the grocery store, having all appearances of nowhere to rush to, and nothing pressing to do, nevertheless carries in her hand the technology to talk to anybody about nothing anywhere she wants to.

Our communications technology, it seems, has far outstripped our capacity to come up with something worth saying.  It makes me wonder just what it is that we’ve done with our much-vaunted ability to talk.  Though the creationists among us may see ourselves as the ultimate “purpose” of life on earth, I’m fairly certain that the rest of the animal kingdom is not (The Jungle Book’s King Louie’s plea of “I wanna talk like you” notwithstanding) desirous of our position.

Birds chatter all the time. What do they find to talk about?

Birds talk all the time.  I often wonder what it is that they find to talk about.  After all, how complex can the internal life of a grackle or sparrow be?  Maybe, for them, chirping is the calming act of repetitive sound making — sort of a sing song meditation.

Whales, I think, would really have something to say.  They live for a very long time, and must have interesting interior dynamics of affection, memory and even wisdom.  But, alas, they do not possess verbal language.  They do have a capacity for communication, to be sure (and something to say, I expect) but it is limited to clicks and rumbling sounds.  They simply have not been endowed by evolution with the mechanical capacity for speech.  Why not?  Can’t they simply “evolve” a voice box and the brain parts to activate it?

This question seems almost reasonable when seen in the light of the way evolution is often discussed in the popular press.  The language we use to describe evolution almost invariably borrows words that indicate intentionality: a shark is described as a perfectly-designed killing machine, we are told that dinosaurs evolved feathers and turned into birds, humans in higher latitudes developed blue eyes and narrow nostrils (as if they all got together one day and just decided to “do it”).

And this, it turns out, is a rather big deal, and it points us to a fundamental misunderstanding of evolution that is as maddening as it is widespread: individuals don’t evolve, populations do.

And populations evolve because of the way we reproduce: we make babies by combining the genetic material of two parent animals to form a new, single cell.  Once that cell starts dividing, there is a whole lot of copying and duplicating of genetic code going on.  And, like any such complicated endeavor, mistakes are made.  Most often, these mistakes do not cause harm.  But many times they do, and that future individual animal could be in serious trouble if the mistake is in a place in the DNA that causes a severe malformation (a missing limb, a heart condition, a lack of a pain response).

Most often such damaged fetuses are aborted spontaneously by the mother’s body before she even knows she’s pregnant (current estimates are at 50% among us humans).  But just every so often (it doesn’t have to be very often, when you take into account the long years over which evolution and natural selection have had time to “work”), a mutation occurs which provides some tiny, incremental benefit to the animal that has it.  In nature, it doesn’t take much — a touch more speed or agility, or a shred more smarts — to give you an advantage.  In fact, giant leaps of change are most often disastrous and, frankly, wasteful (there is a reason we have the body shapes we have and the huge brains to run them — but as it is we are living right at the hairy edge of disaster as women often have a very challenging time getting that huge human head safely past their narrow pelvises).

A lot of the idiocy around intelligent design has to do with a belief that one animal simply decides, one day, to turn into another animal.  And, since we don’t see that happening around us, evolution must be a fallacy.  Of course, evolution and natural selection aren’t based on decisions at all.  There is no “force” behind it that thinks about anything at all.  It is simply a process in which the success of any and all life forms is the product of the inherited characteristics of that particular life form in a particular environment.  If an environment is stable over time, then life forms will inevitably adapt to it (or fail to, and die off).  So that throughout the history of this planet, life forms that began as the most basic of units have had time and opportunity to keep on reproducing, over and over, mixing and mutating their DNA until, due to an ever-increasing accumulation of those one-in-a-million (or billion, or trillion, or???) beneficial inherited traits, you end up with entire animals built up of cooperative collections of bacteria and bone and muscle and blood.

At some unknowable and uncountable moments in our human reproductive history, the genetic frameworks for our capacity for verbal speech were set in place.  They did not evolve in order for us to speak, they just happened, bit by bit until, by chance, some sort of functional unit took shape that gave the first human that could grunt a slight advantage of the one who only squeaked and, voila, a line of grunting descendants was set to become dominant.  The rest, as they say, is history.  And this is the way that a bacteria becomes a mutlicellular creature, and then a fish and then a talking, thinking human being.

But it’s more complicated than just evolving the mechanical equipment of a voice box activated by air flowing from our lungs.  Surely the nature of our language shapes our thought.  We rightly wonder whether the internal, cognitive complexity of animals isn’t itself limited by a lack of verbal language (or, conversely, greatly enhanced by it).  After all, it is our language — our words with their shared meanings — that provides the sort of filing system of our experience of living.  Without language, I think much of our memory and ideas would remain undifferentiated, like our memories of very early childhood (or even of our birth).

(I mean, surely we were conscious during all of those early experiences, but they are ideas we had before we had words to form ideas with.  They are like digital files from our first computer in a program that no-one has anymore.  The data is surely locked in our minds, but we cannot access it).

Such is the power of language.

And this is also why we will never be able to talk to the animals.  As much as we are able to communicate with chimps and dolphins and dogs and cats, we can’t actually talk with them.  We do share a very real understanding, at times, with other creatures.  But it is not simply a problem of translation (in the way it might be when trying to talk to another human who does not speak our particular language).  For we don’t even know how whales, say, file the memories and ideas that they have.  To read a whales mind would pose the same problems as trying to recall the pre-language experience of our own birth: how can we translate thoughts that were not recorded in any language?

It’s like the aging floppy disks that I keep in now dusty boxes…well, sort of.  For though those disks carry data in an actual language readable by an actual (if out-of-date and-hard to-find) technology, they will soon be, for all practical purposes, impossible to read.  The difference is that our pre-language memories (and likewise, one assumes, the thoughts of the whale) were never recorded in a language at all.

As one scientist said to me: what we really assume in our inter-species communication fantasies is that the other animal will learn our language, and tell us what he or she is thinking.  But for that to happen, that animal would have to evolve the brain and body structures that we did.  And since evolution is not directed, there is no reason to expect them to do that over the next million years or so.  But even if they did, they would no longer remember life without language, and could not tell us some of the secrets to our own wild past that we seek.

So what we really hope for, I think, is for a dolphin to suddenly start talking to us.  But it should be obvious by now that this is a fantasy.  For that magical talking dolphin, too, would have no access to its pre-verbal memories (unless it were, truly, “magical”).  This is why the notion is such a potent subject for fantasy in film and fiction.  It’s appeal is only outweighed (or perhaps enhanced) by the sheer impossibility of it actually happening.

I think we should be appreciative of both the benefits and limitations of our unusual capacity for language.  I coo at dove, or moo at cows all the time, and talk to cats and dogs as if they have a clue.  It amuses me and doesn’t traumatize the animals.  And it serves as a kind of wry reminder that we humans are in this talking life alone, together.  Our capacity for verbal language is one of the highly unusual products of an incredible series of tiny historical mutations that had to rise or fall in our population in the living conditions of untold numbers of individual lives.

And make no mistake: our capacities evolved step by step, always built upon the body plan that came before.  There is nothing “irreducibly” complex about us.  We see analogues to our own eyes and hands and throats and minds in the animals around us.  They echo our sameness and shed light on our uniqueness.  It is a wonder that the whales would probably enjoy talking about.  If only they could.

Or maybe, like us, they’d quickly run out of things to say.  And then we’d be reduced to visiting them at Sea World where, instead of thrilling us by leaping out of water for their wet-suit clad trainer, they would instead entertain us by chattering endlessly on their own whale-sized cell phones:  “Oh nothing.  Just jumping for some fish.  What are you doing?”

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The Rocks Cry Out” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, March 11th, 2012

It seems to be the case for me that to be on the road is to be aware of natural history.

As I drive north (through south-central New Mexico) on the interstate I pass the Elephant Butte Reservoir that I know contains an outcropping of the McRae Formation: late Cretaceous fossiliferous rocks that have yielded bits of Tyrannosaurus jaws and skulls.  Further up the road is my favorite evidence of volcanism — a pert little plug of former magma that reminds me of a giant nipple protruding from the earth.  And every road-cut exposes the layer-cake of geology in which every stone or pebble tells a part of the story of the active life of the craggy crust of the earth.

My favorite, suggestive, volcanic plug in central New Mexico.

And, of course, here am I — a modern human animal scooting along a strip of pavement in a machine made of intricately-designed parts of metal, glass and polymer and fueled by the distilled carbon of ancient, long-gone forests.

The Bible says that should man refuse to recognize the evidence of God that “the rocks would cry out!”.  I can’t help but think that there is a deeper truth in this than we realize.  The rocks, do, indeed cry out, but not as evidence for a creator.  Rather, they bear mute testimony to the active, ancient history of the planet we occupy.

“Young earth creationists” are in the most difficult spot, I think.  On the one hand, they are among the more “honest” of religious believers in that they stand by their “book” unflinchingly.  They do not make accommodations to either culture or science (well, at least not to the degree that more moderate believers do).  But on the other, they must actively deny a literal mountain of evidence, for the youngest geological formations put to the test their determination to hold that the earth is about six or seven thousand years old.

So they have to deny the reliability of any of the multiple cross-referencing dating systems we have discovered (even tree-ring data takes us back some 11,000 years!).  They must also endorse the idea that God must have created the universe with light beams from distant planets, stars and galaxies (that he also created for some reason) already hitting the planet earth — otherwise our modern skies would be very, very dark indeed as we waited the billions of years some of those light beams would have to travel to reach our “irreducibly-complex” eyeballs.

The fact that we even SEE the stars is one more bit of compelling evidence for the true age of the universe.  So the reality that surrounds us is that every rock, every star and every living creature are the bearers of the evidence of our natural and ancient origins.  The elements that make up my body were formed in the deep furnaces of exploding stars.  My DNA carries the record of my evolution as a living organism from the first multi-cellular life forms that successfully colonized the waters of earth.  The rocks aren’t so much shouting as screaming at us (in their mute, polite manner).

It is a curious artifact of our natural tendency toward belief that we will not only ignore, but actively resist evidence that threatens our view of reality.  This isn’t a mysterious trait of humans — I think we understand it fairly well in psychological terms.  There is clearly something about possessing a consciousness like we do that demands that we maintain a sense of inner coherence — a unity of the self.  As rational as I think I am, I am no less the servant of this need to feel like my beliefs line up with reality.

As a result, I can wonder whether my views are driven as much by belief as any fundamentalist’s.  To be sure, my mind works to smooth off the rough edges of my own personality with justification, rationalization and — when those fail — apologies and efforts at amends with whoever I may have offended by my selfish actions.  But that being the case does it does not necessarily follow that my embrace of scientific evidence and evolution is purely rooted in my own sense of wish-fulfillment that is the root of so much religious dogma.

The obvious difference is, of course, the actual existence of evidence for evolution and our purely natural origins.  There is, yet, absolutely no evidence for the existence of any god or gods, or anything about our existence that requires such a god’s existence for its explanation.  The only hand-hold available for the theist is to believe that any gap in our understanding of life is the same thing as a mystery answerable only by god.   There is, of course, no reason this should be so.

For while it is true that science can never prove or disprove the existence of god, what it has shown is that the idea of god has become completely irrelevant to any understanding of life on earth, the existence of the earth itself, or the universe as a whole.

Science has steadily dismantled the myriad claims about the nature of reality that theistic religion claimed to have answered, leaving only the human need for something to believe in as the last sanctuary of god.

But from within that sanctuary, many believers still sally forth in an effort to discredit science, or to bend it to their doctrine.  They call themselves Creation Scientists, which rings about as sensible as Biologist Priests or Rabbinical Paleontologists (I know, I know — the terms can seem to fit a level of perceived arrogance, if not doctrine).

My motivation for using science to understand my place in the world is not a religious one.  And yet is satisfies an existential hunger in me that religion has traditionally fed.  But I would argue that religion, in the end, isn’t really up to the task of telling us who we are and why we’re here and has, actually, become a sort of intellectual anchor on our progress as humans.

And yet, returning to my awareness of biology and nature, I must recognize that there are loads of things about life that aren’t ideal or efficient — such as the convoluted paths our nerves and veins take through our bodies that are leftovers of the lifeforms our modern shapes were built upon.

Nothing in Life is about perfection — the changes wrought by natural selection are never started from scratch, but must work from what already exists.  It took us a very, very long time to change from fish to humans, but we’ve never completely left our watery ancestry behind.  And so religious belief is a part of the evolution of our consciousness and, as such, will never be completely left behind either.  Even if it gets in the way of our hearing what the rocks are really trying to say to us.

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


Sunday, December 4th, 2011

Would people accept evolution if their pies starting coming out like this? (Photo illustration by Bob Diven)