Posts Tagged ‘evidence’

SERMON: “A Final Word” from the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, March 3rd, 2013
Where it all began.  The first appearance of the not so reverend bob on Charles Darwin's 200th birthday in 2009.

Where it all began. The first appearance of the not so reverend bob on Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday in 2009.

Here’s what reality seems to be.

We live on a planet that is spinning as it orbits around the sun that is the center of our particular solar system.  All living things on Earth appear to have begun their life on earth.  Life is made up of the elements that were manufactured by the formation of the universe and the deaths of stars , and those elements eventually found their way to a young, coalescing earth.  Once on earth, minerals were formed from these elements and liquid water, and here life began, fueled by the energy that blasts out from the ongoing nuclear furnace that is our sun.

Once life took hold, it rapidly diversified through a process we describe as evolution through the process of natural selection, where the ever-changing challenges to survival favored the continuation of one species over another (as well as heritable traits within species), and geographic isolation (combined with random genetic coding errors) led to ever more varieties of living things, each suited to it’s own environment, each occupying a certain niche in nature.  This process has continued to this very moment, and will continue as long as the Earth remains a habitable planet.

Humans are a product of this process.  We are a species of animal that is related to every other living thing on this planet.  We are classified as mammals, and as primates.  Our closest living relatives are the Chimpanzees and Bonobos, with whom we share 99% of our DNA.  (We also “share” almost as much DNA with mice and about 40% with lettuce).

We humans are clever toolmakers who have developed both verbal and written language, which has allowed us to operate in a conceptual as well as an animal world.  Our brains have allowed us to develop technology that has dramatically altered any landscape that we have occupied.  We have, in a remarkably short time, grown from a collection of tribes of hunter-gatherers into huge, complex societies and nations.

A most notable feat of human intelligence has been the creation of the scientific method, which has, over the last few hundred years, allowed us to come to a fairly deep understanding of the reality of our biology, our world, and the universe we float in.  It is through the investigations of science that we know most of what I have just cataloged.

And yet humans also believe in the existence of God.  We have built entire civilizations and cultural institutions around our belief in gods that both created us and who control our fate.  Our first explanations of reality were mythological in nature.  (Before science gave us a means of testing propositions, one person’s guess was as good as another’s).  It would seem fair to say, at this point, that all of the early religious claims about nature and physical reality have been proven false by subsequent scientific discovery.  Yet religion and religious belief persists.

And though science has not (and can not) ever disprove the existence of God, science has shown us that there is nothing about our existence on Earth that necessitates the intervention, direction or supervision of any sort of divine agent, supreme deity, or intelligent god.  And yet the natural state of a human being appears to include a belief in such a being or force, along with a feeling that all of creation is somehow here for (primarily) our benefit.

But not all humans believe in God.

Perhaps tellingly, it is among scientists that we find the highest percentage of humans who do not believe in god(s) or magic.  Which means it is those who know the most about reality that believe the least in what we might call the “unreal”.  Yet the number of such unbelievers (including non-believing non-scientists as well) still represents a minority among the human population.  This hints at the proposition that magical belief flourishes best in ignorance.  But, since belief is coming to be understood as a sort of “default” setting of the human brain, ignorance of reality cannot be seen as the only factor in the continuation of belief in magical things.

The not-so-reverend bob waves goodbye as the Pterosaur that will carry him to his retreat circles above.

The not-so-reverend bob waves goodbye as the Pterosaur that will carry him to his retreat circles above.

Over these last years, I have explored this continuing reality of the believing human in an age of science.  Using my own experience as a means of both discovery and explanation, I’ve experienced a rather intensive period of learning and thinking that I have then turned into my weekly “sermons”.  And I find myself, now, in the rather interesting position of having “answered” the most basic questions we humans seem to have about life: Where did I come from?  Where am I going?  Why am I here?  And though I could probably go on writing a new “sermon” every week for the rest of my life (because there is always going to be a new scientific discovery, or a new popular science book, or a new personal experience to write about), I’ve realized that it’s time to re-direct the energy I’ve been putting in to this blog into other projects.  Because understanding that I am here as the result of natural processes more begs than answers the question of how best to live the life I have (though it does, I think, offer some helpful clues).

I am primarily an artist and performer.  I can now see “the not so reverend bob” as one of my creations — a champion for humane reason and science.  But playing the extroverted evangelist for evolution has been a bit of a strain on this natural introvert (a bit like a submarine doing battle on the surface).  And I think the answer to how to live my life (in this next stage of that life) comes in the form of a recognition that this artist is most effective operating below the surface (like the submarine).  And, for now, trite as it may sound, I want more love and less argument in my life.  And holding the view I do — that we only have this one life to live — I have only so much time to write my next musical or paint my next painting.  (And, besides: it’s not as if anyone’s chances at eternal life will be jeopardized by me not reaching them with the “gospel” of the church of bob)!

So let this be my final sermon on the boblog of the not-so-reverend bob.  I’ll keep the site up for those who might want to read one of my 166 sermons (167 counting this one.  Yikes!).  And I’ll always be ready, like a Minuteman with his musket hanging over the cabin door, to answer the call when needed.  But for the foreseeable future I’ll be directing my energies elsewhere.  I have other lost creative sheep, as it were, to gather up while the sun still shines.

I want to thank each of you that has visited this blog, and especially my “faithful” readers.  I hope that I have given you something worthwhile.

Bob Bless!

the “retiring” not so reverend Bob Diven

SERMON: “Changing Minds” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, February 17th, 2013

Philosophers over the centuries have struggled to come to terms with what a human is, at heart: are we rational or primarily emotional beings?  If current research is to believed, it would seem that the answer to that question is “yes”.  Humans are both rational and emotional.  Which means that we are often irrational for emotional reasons.  But, according to Jonathon Haidt (in The Righteous Mind, reviewed this blog), it appears that the notion that we can detach our reason from our emotions is a bit of a pipe dream, as it seems that the emotions are a vital support system for our intellect and reason.

On consideration this makes sense.  After all, both our emotions and our reason have evolved together for a long, long time.  If one or the other were superfluous, one or the other would have been cast adrift (by natural selection) a long time ago.  This by no means tells us that our particular blend of feeling and thinking are the perfect answer to meeting life’s challenges.  It only tells us that this combination is what came of the raw animal materials evolution had to work with, and that it was sufficient to the challenge of our specie’s survival.

There have been a rash of studies of late comparing the so-called “liberal” and “conservative” mind.  I have no doubt that there is validity to the comparisons that show that “conservative” minded people crave stability over novelty, and that the “liberal” minded are just the opposite.  (The potentially nefarious aspect of this news is the way in which this “fact” can be employed as yet one more cudgel to minimize the views of one’s political enemies.  Science is always influenced by the cultural ideas current in the society at large, so I am awaiting the further research that will put these findings in a more complete perspective).

But in the meantime, we are left with the realization that not all human minds work in the same way.  Certainly we are all on a limited spectrum, so we’re not really talking apples and car alarms here, but variations on a theme.  As Haidt points out in his research (described so well in The Righteous Mind), all of us humans have a moral sense, but this sense turns out to act more like a collection of different moral “taste buds” than universally-calibrated on and off switches.  Which means the thing that morally outrages me may only mildly bother you.  This, I think, is clearly true, and it is the main reason that liberals and conservatives can shout at each other all the live long day and not make a dent in each other’s views.

This is the damnable and frustrating thing about this kind of knowledge: it seems to make any idea of human unanimity appear ever more remote.  We may have moved a great distance from our original blood-kin tribalism, but we remain tribal to a large degree, and our current level of tribalism may have moved beyond the nationalism that marked the last few centuries of our history to a more ideological form of in-group identification.  Hence, the rationalist idea that one can simply educate an uninformed person with facts and thereby change that person’s opinion is proving unequal to the challenge of obliterating the many strains of dangerous ignorance that plague our species.

Of course I’m thinking of one of the great current divides, which is that between Islam and “the West” (which could just as easily be called “Christiandom”, though with much qualification).  Never mind that the fundamentalist Christian and the fundamentalist Muslim have much more in common than they would care to admit, they would certainly consider themselves as inhabiting completely opposite world views.

And this is where we can find as good of an example as any of one of the great unacknowledged barriers to a reason-based shift in worldview: identity.

Being the profoundly social animals that we are, we seek out other humans among whom we feel comfortable and understood.  And so we might join a church with a list of doctrines that we can easily assent to, and thereafter shape ourselves ever more like our fellow church members in both our moral likes and dislikes.  It’s easy to see that membership groups like this are not random cross-sections of a variety of people, but tend to be naturally self-selecting populations.  (As my brother Chuck once told me: “A church is a group of people who all share the same sin”).

And so it immediately becomes apparent why any human who has identified with one group or another would be doubly resistant to a radical change in their views on any topic that is important to their inclusion in the group.  Add to this the reality that our brains process information that comes from a trusted source by first believing it without question, and doubting it only after much extra post-hoc effort, and you have a naturally strong resistance to change.

Playing with my "Evolving Darwin" toy set on a Pacific Beach delights me, but would deeply offend others, even though science is on the side of the story these toys tell.

Playing with my “Evolving Darwin” toy set on a Pacific Beach delights me, but would deeply offend others, even though science is on the side of the story these toys tell.

There is, of course, another barrier to consensus, and that is found in those whose worldview happens to be one that does not easily align with physical reality.  I’m talking here about “faith” positions, that allow any and all kinds of physical phenomenon to be interpreted in a way that confirms religious or ideological world views.  For example, a natural weather event such as a hurricane, or the explosion of a meteor over Russia, will be taken as events with a spiritual (as opposed to a natural) cause.  This kind of thinking creates what I’d call an “insulated ignorance”, meaning it is a lack of knowledge that is active in preserving a certain informational vacuum (active far beyond the usual passing discomfort any of us feels when having to admit we were wrong on a fact).  We see this especially with regards to historic worldviews that have been carried forward into a period of history where science continues to present factual challenges that — if these worldviews are to survive — simply must not be accepted.  They are living artifacts of human ignorance, fighting tooth and nail for their very lives.

So when we look at the reality of how most humans really operate, the real question turns out to be not why more people aren’t open to changing their minds, but why we thought people could easily change their minds in the first place?

Liberal or conservative, it turns out that most humans are innately conservative (at least if we consider the “moderate” human to also be “conservative” in relation to the “liberal” members of the tribe).  In evolutionary terms, this mix makes sense.  Every tribe needs risk takers to rise to unusual challenges, but it also needs those who are more attuned to staying home and keeping the woodpile stocked and the tent mended.  And there is a reason that most religious conversations occur among the young (whose personalities are still very much in flux), and much more rarely in adults (who have already begun to “lock in” to their ideology).

I see myself as having become someone who responds to evidence, and who is willing to change his mind about things when facts prove me wrong.  Now, one could argue that I’m no better at this than any other human, but I don’t think that case would be strong.  True, I’m susceptible to all of the quirks of a human brain whose reason is linked to feeling, but I have also taken advantage of the plasticity of the brain and have developed a relationship between my feelings and my thinking so that it actually feels better for me to see that my views are aligned with our physical reality as much as possible.  For a human, I think I do pretty well on that score.  But that’s the thing.  I am still human.

And I can’t assume that others experience anything like the “positive” feelings I do when absorbing certain (potentially) unnerving scientific facts.   For instance, I feel okay accepting the reality that I am most likely not a divine or spiritual being connected to any sort of intelligent creator, or that my body is an evolved version of the body-plan of a lobe-finned fish, or that any and all sense of my self as a distinct personality will cease as soon as my brain stops working.  I’ve worked to make my peace with these evidence-based ideas.

But, then, I am not deeply invested in a church group with the added group-binding agents of a wife and children and extended family.  True, there was a time when my fall from belief was a source of conflict (and led to ruptured relationships) but that time has (mostly) passed.  I do still worry that my words or actions (as they broadcast my deeply-held views) will offend others or damage vital personal relationships.  Because, let’s face it, ours is a culture that is permeated with religious and quasi-religious beliefs, be they Christian or “New Age”, and so my (irreligious) views are always going to be at odds with the majority of my fellow humans (even most of my closer friends).  Fortunately for all of us, part of our innate social sense is to make allowance for those we love, and it is in the space carved out by such selective social blindness that we find room to stay close to each other, even when we hold very different views on important matters.

Plus, knowing that I am not immune to being wrong (I do have a human brain, after all), I have to maintain a certain humility about even the things that I am most firmly convinced are true (especially those things).  And it is this humility among thoughtful people that allows profound ideological differences to coexist without triggering deep social disruption.

There could yet be a wave of reason that will sweep across the globe, dampening the fires of religious extremism or the blinders of ideological dogmatism.  Maybe when that happens there will be enough “safety in numbers” that the more “conservative” questioning humans will be willing to jump ship, confident that they won’t be the only ones foregoing the security of their ideological group.

But in the meantime we are left with the unsettling reality that a substantial percentage of humans are resistant (to a greater or lesser degree) to the penetration into their reason of the scientific evidence as it pertains to their own existence.  Reality may, indeed, have a “liberal” bias.  But humans, most certainly, do not.

t.n.s.r. bob

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

Sunday, September 16th, 2012

 

The not-so-reverend bob.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The Limits of Prayer” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, July 22nd, 2012

There have been attempts at studying the efficacy of prayer.  The most famous one seemed to indicate that prayer actually made sick people feel worse.  (This seemed to be a case, though, of a sick person knowing that someone was praying for them, and — social animal that they were — feeling bad that they weren’t feeling better for the effort!  So we can’t say that it was actually the fault of the prayer itself.  The point here is that we have no evidence that prayer “works”, despite the volumes of anecdotal “proofs”).

In my Christian years I often heard the who-knows-how-far-from-first-hand reports of the dead being raised back to life, or the death sentence of a dread disease being reversed by prayer.  But despite centuries of such reports, there is still no scientific evidence to back up any of these claims.

But we still believe.  Why?  Well, we want to, we need to, and we are hard-wired to believe.

What is prayer?  To me (and for the purposes of this discussion) it is intentionally talking out loud to an external, invisible entity, generally thought of as God (though this applies equally to saints or spirit guides or what-have-you).  Prayer can take several forms: the intentional “thought” that one articulates only inside of one’s mind (hoping that the Holy Spirit will hear and pass the request up the celestial management chain); the “speaking in tongues” of the Pentacostal and Charismatic Christians; or the good-old-fashioned spoken-out-loud prayer.

Of all of these, the one form that actually “works” is the spoken-out-loud kind.

But this “prayer” works for the reasons I’ve written about before: it externalizes our intentions in such a way that they can be heard through the ears and thereby be processed by a different region of the brain.  This often produces a result: either an actual “answer” from that “part” of our consciousness, or; an idea or moment of inspiration that suggests a “solution” to whatever problem or question our prayer sought to address.

There is nothing mystical about this (though it can certainly feel magical!)  But the fact that this is a universal human phenomenon means that it has provided, I think, the basis for a raft of differing religious and spiritual beliefs about how the unseen world works.  Pretty much all of these are, I think, wrong on the facts.  (The only “unseen” world that does, in fact, appear to exist is a continuation of the physical world into a microscopic scale that we cannot observe unaided).  And yet there remains the reality of each of us humans possessing a multilayered brain that contains within it something we often experience as a second self resident within us.

This explains a lot about religious belief, and why it remains so universal among humans.  It also explains why those beliefs almost always fail to produce the results that they often promise.

If it were true that God answered even a fraction of the prayers offered to Him (to take the most prevalent idea of God) on a daily basis, then it stands to reason that we would see a lot more result in that arena.  We would actually see the occasional mountain moved, or the dead raised to life, or the cancer cured, or the best parking spaces at the mall totally taken up by cars with fish symbols glued on the bumper (I mean the Christian fish symbol, not the walking Darwin version I have on my truck).

This illustration of the “Miracle on the Hudson” circulated after this remarkable event. But where was the illustration of God’s hands letting the next airliner fall to its deadly end a week later?

The plain, cold, ugly fact is that we don’t see prayers answered in this clear, unequivocal way.  Leaving aside the dramatic,  miracle-requesting prayers (and the ever-present notable exceptions that prove the rule), even our “every day” supplications are only ever “answered” in that diffuse, heavily–interpreted manner that the equally oversold predictions of psychics or palm readers are: we look at our life through our own confirmation bias, and find a way to convince ourselves that a divine result has been made manifest.  In short, we are ever willing to cloak our disappointment in revised belief in order to sustain the most primary belief in the rightness of belief itself.

But what about the times that prayer does actually work?  By this I mean the times we ask of our mid-brain the kinds of things that it can actually do.

Well, therein lies the key: there are things that this “second self” can do that we can’t do on our own (“we” here meaning that front-line rational part of our brain).  One of these things is giving us “insight” into problems, almost as if we were bringing a second computer online to assist in processing (more accurately, we are bringing a “second mind” to work on the problem that not only has its own computing power, but a different processor, if you like).  And on this score, it is extremely helpful that this second mind is capable of communication in words and sentences (just like the other part of our brain that has the power to activate the voice box).

When I was still working within the worldview of my psychic, I tested out the power of my “higher self”, and found that it was, in fact, really good at helping me find my misplaced keys (for example).  But I also found that it could not help me find anything that someone else had moved from the place I last left it (interesting).  I also realized that it’s “power” was limited to my immediate surroundings (though I had a couple of experiences where it seemed to “draw in” the person I was thinking about — an experience that, it turns out, is not nearly so remarkable as one might think.  For it turns out that we actually live our lives in a rather narrow band of paths, places and people, to the extent that someone we might think of is actually highly likely to appear at any time!  For more on this sort of perceptual bias, see “Quirk”, “Kluge” or several of the other books on the brain reviewed on this blog).

As I think about it now, this all makes perfect sense — if the “person” I’m praying (or talking out loud) to is really another aspect of me living inside my brain.  The limitations of the phenomenon do not make sense, however, if we believe that we are really capable of communicating with spirits or a deity that is not limited to the short-range effectiveness of the supplicant’s physical senses!

The Bible has Jesus telling his disciples that they can wither a fruit tree if it pisses them off by not having any fruit (the tease!), or toss a mountain into the sea (Matthew 21:18-22).  The modern sects of Christianity that take these words at face value have built entire evangelism empires out of teaching believers how to produce such miracles in their own lives.  I’ve been to huge gatherings where just this kind of teaching took place.  Looking back on my experience, it is remarkably analogous to my later experiences of walking through casinos in Las Vegas and Reno — the “testimonies” of those for whom the technique of prayer has worked ring out like the sound of winning slot machines in a vast room.  In short (and by design) one only hears from the  winners!  (What a difference it would make if every losing machine let out a shriek of disappointment each time the little symbols did not line up!  This would give us a much more accurate picture of the reality of the casino — or the revival tent for that matter).

We humans are loaded with biases that are so persistent that they require the active involvement of the frontal lobes to see beyond them.  We will take the sight of two crossed sticks on the ground to be a message from Jesus, or an oil stain on a storage tank to be a vision of the Virgin Mary.  We naturally seek patterns in nature, a skill that has obviously served the physical survival of our primitive ancestors quite well, even though it produces a side-effect of this tendency toward irrational belief.

Natural selection doesn’t care what an organism believes about it’s own existence.  Though, in our case, it could be argued that our tendency toward belief must have given us some sort of advantage in the genetic arms race of evolution.  Still, the presence of a believing brain does not naturally imply the existence of something to believe in.  We act as if it does, and many believers are able to find confirmation of their beliefs in the natural world and, of course, in answered prayer.

But we humans are very selective in our memory, and we naturally remember the few times that prayer “worked” while failing to recall the much more numerous times when it did not.  In the same way we are always reading stories in the news (or seeing people interviewed on television) about those who survived some horror and credit their survival to their urgent prayers.  What we don’t see (and never will) are those that prayed and died anyway.  We only hear from the ones who made it through alive.

So we can go on about the airliner that made a miraculous landing on the Hudson River, say, depicting in an illustration the hands of God gently setting it down after a catastrophic loss of engine power, and yet remain silent about the commuter jet that crashed and burned with all hands only a few weeks and a few hundred miles away.  Do we really think that there was more (or better) prayer for God’s intercession on one plane than another?  (Clearly we do — it is one of the ways we rationalize to maintain our belief in prayer).

So, to sum it all up: prayer works.  But it works just the way one would expect to see a purely physical process within the multilayered human brain work.  With all of the wonder — and limitations — that such a reality would suggest.

Try it out with that knowledge in mind, and you will find out the true power of prayer.

That’s why I won’t be offended if you don’t waste any of your cognitive time praying for me.  Unless, of course, you’re the one who moved my keys from the place I left them!

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “A Fish to Hook?” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, June 10th, 2012

Though I identify myself as an atheist, when it comes to the heart of my ethics, I’m a humanist.  I tend towards pragmatism when it comes to social issues, and I embrace a humanistic view as it seems to be the best of all possible approaches to making life as good as it can be for as many people as possible.  I recognize the enormous potential we humans have for cooperation and altruistic behavior.  We are capable of being very kind to each other and, on occasion, rising above the raging desire for short-term advantage and choosing, instead, to delay our instant gratification for a reward that we are (sometimes grudgingly) willing to share with others, even strangers.

As you can see by the way I describe the “good” in us humans, I do not shy away from the bad.  How can I?  I am human too, and I know all too well the impulses in my own consciousness that are necessarily modulated by that lately-added lump of brain tissue in my frontal lobes.  My motives for self-understanding are no more or less noble than my own social survival and hope for success in life and love (the two go together for us social primates).

All religions recognize the cognitive tensions (the result of mediating conflicting desires) that are our natural inheritance.  To me this tension is a not-surprising product of our natural evolution, while to the religious it is the result of sin entering into the world through our defiance of God.  Leaving aside the God idea for a moment (and looking instead at the actual evidence of our origins) why should it shock us to find powerful animal reactivity in us when we have spent most of our evolutionary history as animals living in the wild like any other?  Have you considered just how recent is our rise to modern human status?  Or the exponential increase in our numbers and multiplication of our technical and cultural achievements that is even now sweeping us forward like a flood toward our future?

Religions base their doctrines and orthodoxies on the ins and outs and ups and downs of human nature.  (They have to if they are going to a) appeal to humans, and; b) be of any practical use whatsoever).  But a mark of religions is their consistent inability to resist the temptation to re-brand whatever problems they aim to fix (or the solutions they offer) as something unique and special unto themselves.  This is not the spreading of truth: this is commercialism and team-building for the sake of building a brand.

I think Humanism is our best shot at doing the best for the most.

Humanism, on the other hand, does not (I think) go about things in that way.  It continually throws people back upon their own naturally-derived (and therefore already-owned) resources, while encouraging those that have a surplus to share with those that (through the vagaries of genetics or place of birth) have a deficit.  Churches often work to help the poor and the needy, but they are always doing it in part to increase the size and power of the church.  As the late Christopher Hitchens liked to point out, they may claim to have their eyes on the rewards in the next life, but they sure seem to spend a lot of time building up kingdoms in this one.

How many times in my Christian years was I told “the fields are white for harvest”, as if people were stalks of wheat to be gathered with sickle and wagon?  Or exhorted to be a “fisher of men”, as if people are fish to be caught with bait, hook or net and gathered into the boat?  Think about what this says about how the unsaved are viewed by the saved.

Do you want to know why American Evangelical preachers lash out so vehemently at “secular humanism”?  Because humanists are out there offering every single benefit that religion offers without the small print, the hidden costs, and the requirement to sign away your reason, your autonomy, and your eternal soul (these same Evangelicals often have as little sympathy for the religious humanists in their own ranks).

As an aside, this all points to one of the basic flaws in this whole “church of bob” concept (at least in terms of a business model): I have nothing at all to hold over anyone who might come here to read, enjoy, learn or laugh.  I have no threat of hell to wield, or any hint of a deity’s displeasure (there are very few, I think, concerned about incurring the decidedly temporal “wrath of bob”).  That’s why this “church” will never work like a real church (and it is why I’ll never be the slick preacher driving his new Escalade up to his mansion with his trophy wife, just counting the days until my evangelistic empire is brought to ruin by a shocking sexual scandal — sigh).

I go back and forth on my feelings for humans.  On the one hand, we sort of deserve whatever we get in terms of fouling our own global nest.  But, then, why should I be any more harsh on the human species of animals than I am on any other?  Did the dinosaurs “deserve” to go extinct?  No.  Yes.  I don’t know.  Anything that is living has earned its moment in the sun through dint of the eons of sheer survival and adaptation that is represented by the surviving DNA in every single living organism (including you and me).  And that is why — being an atheist and a humanist — I mourn and I ache for a life that is cut short by the willful act of another.  What right does one human have to knowingly make life more miserable for others (especially when they use some bullshit religious justification for it like: “Well, if they were innocent, God will make it up for them in Heaven” — nice)?  (I am not addressing, here, the spectrum of discomforts that some humans have with the fact that our very survival requires us to consume other life forms, be they animal or vegetable — one more “tension” we must deal with in life).

So when I attack religion (which I often do, seeing it as but the fat middle of the bell curve of human irrational beliefs of all kinds), I am not attacking my fellow humans, but rather hoping to appeal to (and encourage) our “better natures”.  Some will claim that this is what religion does as well, and I will allow that for some people religious conversion does serve as an entry-level introduction to not acting like a complete and total selfish prick.  But because religion always has (at its heart) a fearful view of the world, an enshrined sense of self-loathing, and a preening need to be the only game in town, the results are ever going to be mixed.

I think humanism, then, is the way to go.  It is not perfect — for it will always be rooted in the reality of actual human behavior — but it is the most reality-based mix of hope and evidence, poisoned the least by denial and absent the religious demand for human debasement before the throne of an imaginary totalitarian in the sky.  No humanist will ever think of a person as a fish to hook, or a sheaf of wheat to chop with a scythe.

But, then, it’s not easy to take full responsibility for consciousness — for existence.  Too little attention is paid to the challenge that simply being alive and aware entails, I think.  Like the button I saw in a store last week that said “Stuck in that awkward phase between birth and death”.  Truer words could not be spoken.

All I’m saying is this: let us each do the bit that we can to make that “awkward phase” a bit less awkward (or miserable or tragic) for both ourselves and our fellow human beings.  If we end up losing a god who doesn’t seem think that highly of us anyway in the process of achieving the fullness of our humanity, is that such a bad thing?

I, for one, don’t think so.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Easter Bunnies and the Plaster Jesus” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, April 8th, 2012

Easter Sunday is here.  The most “glorious” event in the Christian calendar.  (Believers say this, I think, to counter the persistent popularity of Christmas among the non-believers).

My teenage memories of Easter are less of glory and more of getting up before dawn to sing in a small choir (or play guitar) at a sunrise service and freezing my ass off.  (This at a time when I could say that I saw about three sunrises a year: Easter, one day during deer-hunting season, and a “floater”).

Easter is, of course, the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Three days after his crucifixion and burial, he came back to life (albeit in a new, eternal form) and appeared to his disciples, thus confirming his claim to be the only son of God.

Or so the story goes.  Of course, as brilliant wags like Christopher Hitchens point out, even if we grant the resurrection event, it does not automatically prove any of the things Christians claim it proves (that Jesus was the son of God, that God is real, that Christianity is the one true religion, etc.).  The fact of a dead person coming back to life would definitely be an event and a phenomenon, but science would be still be left to determine what it actually “meant”.

The pagan and the sacred, side by side for Easter.

But Christians put a lot of stock in Easter.  It is trotted out as the single most vital piece of confirmatory evidence.  Without it — they will freely proclaim — Christianity would have no more moral claim on you and me than Amway.  But there’s the problem: religion doesn’t have a moral claim on any of us, no matter who may (or may not) have risen from the dead.

Before resorting to the obvious — that there is no evidence of any actual resurrection (of Jesus or anyone else) — let us step back from jumping the narrative gun and make sure that we don’t buy into the game as rigged by the religious.

The world of religious faith (and its “evidential” claims) is a human-created world in which the questions have been carefully shaped to fit the answers religion can provide.  That is how the validity of an entire belief system can be seen to actually hang on whether or not a single unusual event took place (in this case: Jesus rising from the dead).  And the resurrection is, of course, a question of faith.  And it is this faith test that is used to determine whether one is a Christian or not (according to accepted Christian teaching, only the devil will deny the risen Christ, and only a believer can affirm it).

Science (and more specifically evolution) on the other hand, does not have quite the same dramatic “do or die” belief structure.  Science does require that we accept certain things, such as a general trust that there is a reality to observe and that we do, in fact, have some ability to perceive that reality.  But beyond that it is all evidence, evidence, evidence.  Which means that “science” is not denying the divinity of Jesus Christ, it is just waiting for the evidence before coming to any conclusions.  Believers begin with the conclusions, and therefore have little to no tolerance for the endless follow-up questions that scientific rigor generates.

For though science would never claim that it is completely impossible for a dead human to live again (god knows many scientifically-minded people have tried to make that happen), we can’t help but be aware of the vast amounts of research and evidence that tells us why a dead body is, in fact, dead, or describes the rapidity with which a human brain, say, goes to crap once blood flow is stopped.

The believer might ask “What about our fellow humans who have had “near death” experiences?”  I think the answer is already there in the term “near death”.  They may have been near it, even very, very near it, but they weren’t there yet.  If they had been, they would have been, well, dead, and we’d hear nothing more about it.  (It’s like that old saw that we only hear from those whose prayers to be spared from death were answered — the others aren’t around to tell their stories).

What we clearly have here is individuals under physical stress (and perhaps actually near death) who have dramatic cognitive experiences that feel very real.  Well, of course they are real experiences.  Only a fool would deny that.  However, having said that, if nothing else something as common as our nightly dreams should tell us that our experience of reality is assembled inside our brains, so why shouldn’t a purely internal, mechanistic brain event have all the power of physical reality?

What am I saying here?  That these experiences never happened?  Of course not.  Of course they happened, but not generally in the way people think they happened (as in seeing an angel that was an actual, physical angel as opposed to the much more likely error of perception) and are, therefore, not genuine evidence of what the believers would want us to believe (just as Jesus rising from the dead — though a doubtful event — would not necessarily prove his religious claims).

Evolution, on the other hand, is an answer that has had to come from questions we didn’t even know to ask until we began to notice the evidence around us.  The theory of evolution is built completely on the study of reality, and once we had enough evidence to begin to form the theory, subsequent discoveries have only proved to confirm it.  Reality is like that: it does not require bending, shaping or shading to fit with itself (as religion does).  Science is the process of steadily stripping away any vestige of human perceptual error in order to ascertain as clearly as possible the nature of reality.  Religion is the encouragement of perceptual error in a directed way for a specified end.  (This is an example of what Michael Shermer calls “belief-dependent realism”).

In this sense science and religion could not be more different.  Religion conjures up imitations of evidence.  Why?  Because the actual evidence does not lead us to religion.

Maybe I’m just a sourpuss because I always had to work kind of hard to get into the wonder of Easter.  Though, to be honest, I think a lot of us who have tried to make religion work did (as many surely still do).  We all knew how we were supposed to feel (how could we not, we were clearly being told how magnificent the event was) but struggled to feel it ourselves.  But that is the consistent problem of religious belief: there are always a handful who appear to be able to make it work, while the rest of us put on the game face and try to apprehend the wonder that continues to elude us most of the time.

I probably hit these subjects too hard.  After all, most of my friends are gentle believers who don’t take themselves too seriously.  And things such as today’s sight of pagan Easter decorations of chicks and bunnies on a house that had a four foot statue of Jesus on the porch serve to remind me that most of humanity is pretty omnivorous when it comes to belief (much to the consternation of the fundamentalist minorities).

Maybe I’m kind of that wheedling preacher when it comes to evolution — a bit too much like those I criticize.  Except that I don’t expect others to find it all as interesting and comforting as I do.  And I certainly don’t expect them to meet me before sunrise on a frigid April morning to sing songs and hear a sermon when all any of us really want to do is get to the hot chocolate and find a warm place to sit.

At its heart, perhaps Easter is a sort of calcified human wish for magic and wonder and hope.  Maybe that is what all organized religion is: a too closely-managed, top-heavy edifice built upon innate human impulses toward mystical belief.  As the pagan Easter Bunny sharing the yard with a plaster Jesus attest, that impulse toward belief will always be a part of us.  But as the bunny and the Jesus also attest, those same impulse will never be completely domesticated by any church or temple.  Like the blades of grass that sprout up through pavement and concrete, they will rise again and again and again.

Happy Easter!

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Exploring a Universe Beyond Belief” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, February 5th, 2012

At times it feels as if I could be a small, human-sized probe hurling silently through the universe, looking back toward my earthly home and noting, from time to time, how differently it looks from an ever-increasing remove (something like that remarkable American Museum of Natural History animation that offers a mind-altering perspective on our place in the vastness of the known universe).  And as I race further from the point where my journey began, I find that my feelings about life on this planet continue to evolve as my increasing knowledge continues to feed my changing perceptions.

I can trace my launch off into existential space to the week I disconnected from the bonds of my religious belief some 25 years ago.  At that moment it felt as if some cosmic rubber bands that were stretched to their limit — and that had been keeping me attached to my beliefs up to that point — were suddenly severed, and all the stored-up energy of years of suppressed questions expelled me into the great, black, existential void of space.  Though it took many more years of floating around within the gravitational pull of belief before I finally slipped out of that particular system into the vastness beyond, my course was set.

The East Coast of the United States as seen from space. NASA photo.

This all sounds a bit hyperbolic, but as a metaphor it is apt and useful.  The truth is that the majority of humans appear to show little or no interest in moving beyond belief, and the constricted perspective that it offers in return for its comforts.  I understand that, because I can tell you from experience that the view from outside that familiar, small world is, indeed, disconcerting.

On the surface, then, that would seem to be an argument in favor of not stepping outside of that believing, comfortable world, except for one tiny problem: reality.

For many of us, the dawning of a spiritual awareness can feel like (and is often promised to be) the one great leap of faith that will ever be required of us.   After all, who ever heard of needing a “second conversion” once you’ve found THE TRUTH?  Well, you’re hearing it here.  It could be argued that human history is a record of the struggle with that second conversion: a conversion from the revealed “truth” of superstition and religious belief to reality.

In part because of the discipline of this blog, the speed of my own flight from belief has only increased, and with that increased speed has come a higher frequency of perspective shifts.  To the end that I have arrived at a sufficient distance from belief to feel like I can now see it both for what it is, and for what it is not.

And what I see in belief is a phenomenon of consciousness, spread across the spectrum of animals that exhibit in in accordance with the sophistication of their evolved brains.  We humans are the big-brained, verbal language-endowed believers, so our beliefs are naturally the more complex (though by no means qualitatively singular in all ways to our species).  But our religious beliefs are completely our own, and have no supporting source anywhere outside of our busy brains.  They are an artifact of our minds, pure and simple.  But of course, our experience of existence is not simple at all, and — artifact or not — belief is a part of that experience.

I don’t think it is my “job” to rid humanity of irrational belief.  I would have to have the egotism of a fundamentalist evangelist to think that a) eliminating belief were a feasible goal, or; b) that I was the one human of such power to accomplish that goal.  I’m afraid I am finding myself more and more in line with the feelings of our late comedian George Carlin when he sees little chance of humankind making any significant alterations in their own path.  This is not necessarily a comfortable existential place to be, but I feel like I am seeing things ever more clearly as I continue to spin out into the space that (it turns out) exists beyond belief.

I often compare my thinking of today to the way I saw the world as a Christian, remembering that Christianity made sense to me then (as it does to many now), and offered some sort of worldview that was workable.  At this more distant remove, however, I can’t see how it could work at all, and most certainly not with the knowledge of science I now have.  I think fundamentalist religion (in particular) functions best, like all irrational belief, in a certain mental environment where curiosity is dampened, and solace valued more than fact.

But to the hyper religious, my views may appear as merely a competing creed, based upon hope, fear and desire (to the same degree that their own faith is).  That is a tough nut to crack, because one always hopes to get it right, and fears getting it wrong and being found out to be a fool.  (Check out this clip of Bill Maher making the point that “Atheism is a religion like abstinence is a sex position”).

But I think it’s pretty clear that science (even with all of its faults and false-starts and revision in the face of new evidence) is the best tool we’ve got going to ascertain the nature of reality.  As the comedian Eddie Izzard so funnily put it, science has “Bunsen burners” and all of its other trappings of actual experiment, whereas believers in God have…a book.

The religious (be they old-time or new-age) don’t trust science, in part because it constantly shatters illusion.  They therefore most often accuse it of being too narrow or blind to the kinds of “evidence” that science routinely ignores as unmeasurable (and therefore not evidence at all, but belief).  In short such believers think science has (for it’s own imagined, selfish reasons) set the bar for “evidence” too high, when what science has actually done is reveal to us just how low that “bar” has been for most of our  history.

And so we find ourselves in a modern society in which a majority of our fellow citizens openly distrust science because they continue to value religion.  What can be done in the face of such a dynamic, when there are dozens of “conservative” legislators that would happily de-fund any and all governmental scientific research given the chance?

This is our social reality that fights against the revelation of our true physical reality, be it global climate change, the genetic basis of sexual preference, or the meaninglessness of “race” as a scientific term.

We are an odd bunch of animals, but once we accept that we are, indeed, animals, we are then free to see ourselves as we truly are.  Contrary to the protestations of the religiously devout, such knowledge does not debase us in the least.  It only feels like we are brought down because we have for so long imagined ourselves as creatures that we are not: divinely made, every hair of our head valued by a vast and incomprehensible sky god (that nevertheless inclines his cosmic ear to our every utterance and our every thought).

It takes only a step back to see how absurd such a belief is.  But another step away can bring us into an understanding of why we are so naturally inclined to believe such things in the first place.  One more step away and we can see that such a state will likely continue, and that there will always be this struggle between the humans that have braved their fear to see what really lies behind the mysteries that frighten us, and those that would just rather not know.

Such is our “fate”, I believe.  Like George Carlin I will always carry a glowing coal of hope for humanity within me, and will enjoy the humane, intelligent humor of the likes of Eddie Izzard.  I will be awed by the kind of beautiful AMNH animation that gives form to the knowledge of the cosmos that scientists have fought so hard to accumulate, and look for the ways that I can be a decent human being that does what he can to make the world he can affect as good as it can be.  But I will not suffer under a delusion of my specialness in the vastness of this universe (nor even on this tiny planet).

One’s response to reality will inevitably vary depending on one’s temperament.  Many just plain don’t like it.  That’s their right.  I got into this Quixotic quest in order to figure out my own place in the world, and the rest, as they say, just sort of happened.  I am as self-centered as every other animal that has ever lived.  But thanks to science I can understand, like Cyrano, that in life I “was everything yet was nothing” (everything to me, yet nothing to the universe).  And that’s just the way it is.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Faeries Under the Sink” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, October 9th, 2011

I sometimes ponder the words of the critics of evolution.  I mean those that boldly state that belief in science is, in essence, a religious act, based as much on faith as any supposed “evidence”.  There is always a place in me where this sort of critique can lodge.  After all, I have been a believer in many things, from the Holy Spirit to a psychic who told me things I dearly wanted to hear.

And so I look inward and ask: am I, indeed, only seeing the things that I want to see, filtering reality through another man-made prism?  Am I fooling myself by imagining that I am looking through a microscope, when in truth I’m observing my world through a kaleidoscope?

It’s a fair question, and I take it seriously whenever it comes to me.  My response is to not fight the doubt, the hesitation, but to allow it to stand, as it were, on it’s own two feet.  In short, I don’t prop it up with my own defensiveness.  Instead, I give it a moment to make its case.

Its “case”, however, is not really a case at all.  That evolution is simply another human belief system is one of those claims that sounds legitimate, but “sounding” legitimate is as close to actual legitimacy as it will ever get.

Science is, of course, based upon observable evidence.  Any individual scientist can formulate any hypothesis about any thing, but only after that hypothesis is proven by experiment (that can be repeated under similar conditions by other independent researchers) and supported by evidence is a new theory accepted as true (and remains ever subject to disproof or modification should new knowledge arise).  There is belief, yes, when we choose to believe the evidence of science that we have not, ourselves, personally observed.  We place a certain trust in the natural competitiveness that can motivate a scientist’s eagerness to disprove an hypothesis that they don’t believe.  This intellectual energy has been focused into a system of peer review that has proven to be the best method ever devised by humans to ascertain the true nature of reality.  Science takes conjecture and runs it through a series of rigorous tests before conferring on it the title of “Theory”.  Religion, on the other, only asks that a group of people show themselves willing to believe in someone’s conjecture about the reality of things.  There are no true “tests”, as there can be no truly controlled conditions created under which anyone can recreate a single supposed miraculous phenomenon, or prove the existence of a deity that can choose to remain invisible.  (The James Randi Foundation has for years offered a large financial reward for anyone who can perform any “supernatural” feat under controlled observation.  To date, no one has taken that reward home.)

So where does the water come from?

But let’s step back and examine the assumption underlying the statement that all belief is equal.  This would mean that my belief that the water flowing from the tap in my kitchen has come to me through a series of pipes and pumps from an organized municipal water supply, and that water itself is a liquid made up of hydrogen and oxygen is the same as another’s belief that faeries under the kitchen counter make the water by magic whenever they hear the squeak of the faucet opening.  True, on one level these two beliefs share the trait of accepting as truth a process which is not immediately (completely) observable by the person with the glass held under the water tap.  But that is all that they share in common.   Both “believers” claim to base those beliefs on evidence.  But here the two beliefs diverge.  And they diverge in the way they define that which constitutes “evidence”.

For the true believer will accept as evidence the “fact” that he believes in the water faeries, and every time he opens the tap, the water faeries have provided him with water.  He draws a non-existent causal connection.  What about the pipes under the sink?  What about the fact that they sometimes leak, requiring replacement, which further requires that the water be turned off outside the house where the water pipes branch off from the city supply?  The true “believer” will find a way to rationalize such “evidence” as a ruse, perhaps going so far as to state (with utmost confidence and not a shred of evidence) that all of that water-supply infrastructure was set in place by the faeries to winnow out the unworthy.  (Kind of makes you wonder, though, why the faeries would choose to funnel their magic-made water through such clunky mechanical means.  Why shoot it out a non-functional faucet?  Why not simply make the water appear in the cells of your body when you ask for it?  Now  THAT would be some intelligent magic!).

I’ve chosen a fanciful example, to be sure.  But it’s surprising how rapidly it becomes as plausible as any mainstream religious argument.  (Consider this idea put forth by some creationists: God put the fossils in the ground to test our faith (along, one must assume, with all of the geological evidence for the planet’s billions of years of history, not to mention the trail of earlier forms mixed in along our strands of DNA)).

So why does this argument against science as religious belief hold?  To many with temperaments different than mine, it probably does not hold at all.  But for my part, I think it has to do with both our social natures and the structure of our brains.  For it turns out that we are hard-wired by evolution to believe first, and question second.  The way neuroscience describes it, there is a near instantaneous neural response to information given to us by another human.  When someone we have a social relationship with tells us something, our default setting is to accept it as true and move on.  It takes a second, more conscious process to dislodge a bit of incorrect data.  The tricky part is that this second process is more cumbersome.  We could liken it to the ease with which junk mail arrives in our mailbox (be it snail- or e-mail), and the work it takes to get your name off a dozen mailing lists, or the effort you and I have to expend to delete every one of those junk messages.

So which came first, our profoundly social natures or our believing brains?  Impossible to say, for they are, at this stage, so deeply intertwined as to be, for all practical purposes, the same thing.  Uh oh — could  that be an example of the “irreducible complexity” that gives creationists such an intellectual hard-on?  Well, yes, it’s the kind of thing that they would interpret in that way, viewed (as it inevitably is) through the kaleidoscope of faith.  But in reality it’s just one more example of the natural product of evolution and natural selection.  For in reality, there is nothing at all about our believing brain or our profoundly social natures (or our eyes, brains or livers) that gives them any claim to perfection, or sets them out as the logical end of a directed evolutionary process.  In short, the only thing that makes the way we “turned out” appear to be the logical apex of a natural progression is the fact that we humans exist at all.  We see ourselves (and our history) through a bias built upon us seeing ourselves as living at the end of a story (that has not, in reality, ended at all).

But, really, are we any more “perfect” than a beetle, or a swan, or a bedbug?  No.  But, then, we’re no less “perfect” either.

That fact that I can look at my world and see, now, the constant confirmation of the reality of evolution is not a product of my belief system, but more a product of my knowledge of science and nature that has supplied me with enough of a basis in fact to properly deduce the source of the phenomenon I see.  In short, it is the same as knowing that there exists a city water-treatment plant (I’ve seen it), and having far too much home-plumbing experience, so that when I do turn on the tap I can be fairly confident of where my water is coming from.  Such knowledge also gives me the power to diagnose and repair a leaky faucet, or a ruptured water line, whereas were I to be beholden to my belief in invisible water faeries, I would be left with only prayers or acts of supplication when the flow of water was interrupted, alone with my beliefs in a rapidly flooding house.

And that is where one set of beliefs becomes faith, and the other a reasonable, rational embracing of reality.  One is informed by knowledge.  The other thrives best where knowledge is least.

Belief in science is not the same as belief in God.  Science is not a religion.  It has no God, only an agreement to accept as true only that which can be tested, observed or measured.  It is a body of knowledge to which every generation adds — which every generation corrects and makes more accurate.  Religion is a collection of mystical beliefs that have their origin in imagination and are forever limited to living in that realm, where they need only to be believed to be considered true.  They cannot survive in the world of science, where belief is only the starting point in a rigorous process of proof.

That’s why the invisible faeries of this world will always remain invisible, like Bertrand Russell’s celestial teapot: impossible to disprove, yes.  But just as impossible to prove.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The Loneliness of the Human Animal” by the not so revered bob

Sunday, October 31st, 2010

I keep harping on about we humans being “social animals” because my understanding of just what that actually means continues to deepen (as it has again this week).

We are — it seems to me — more than just social animals.  We are profoundly social, in the sense of the word’s definition as “coming from, reaching to, or situated at a depth” or “all encompassing”.  One could almost call it a pathology were it not so “normal” to us.

According to some primate researchers, it is just this over-abundance of sociability that has set us apart from our living primate cousins by driving us to become the speaking, marrying, educating-our-young, society-building creatures that we are.

And I use the term “driving” advisedly:  So deep is our social need that we have domesticated a wide range of our fellow animals to keep us company (more than that, to be our friends: we have taken the wild wolf, for example, and turned it into a loyal canine companion that — uniquely among other animals — is able to interpret our intentions with as little as a pointed finger for an indicator)!

The dark side to our profoundly social nature is our capacity for deep loneliness and anxiety.

It does not take much time alone (or apart from the bustle of a community) to get an immediate reinforcement of our soft physical vulnerability to danger in the form of weather or accident (vulnerabilities that we have been successful at ameliorating through cooperative societies and technology).  But just as threatening to our sense of well being (and, at times, our physical well-being as well) is our emotional vulnerability.  For even the lone wolf owes his very existence to the social bonding of the pack (and may well need the pack to survive).

Surely our primitive ancestors came early to an awareness of how small and soft we are compared to other creatures and nature in general, and that even the edges of our known world were only the beginnings of others that we could not fully explore.

We mistrust other humans that lack sociability, from attachment-compromised children that confound our attempts to overcome their inability to bond to the socio- and psychopathic who just don’t care about their fellow humans the way that we do.  We count on — in truth have to rely on — others feeling the way we do about things (and thereby assume a great deal about the intentions of others, becoming easily unnerved when proven wrong).

Out of loneliness we created God: a constant companion that is never far away (except when we need him to be).  And yet we shun those who display a naked need for others.  Neediness triggers repugnance, like a familiar suddenly made strange by a contagious disease.  We admire the loner, even as we romanticize his or her isolation from others (and the attendant imagined freedom from social responsibilities).

And we marry — we seek out the most intimate bond available to us (cushioned by ritual and supported by society, myth and media) yet are crushed to find that even this cannot completely obliterate the yawning void of loneliness for every place and time.

We are so powerful compared to any other animal with technology to keep us safe, warm, fed and productive.  With science we penetrate the wilds around us and the distances beyond our view to comfort ourselves with understandings and wonders of biology and scientific exploration (in the process — not altogether without irony — eroding the comforts of our pre-scientific world views).  But nothing changes about us: us large-brained, social primates hungry for touch and understanding and communion.

In the endless biological horse-trading of evolution and natural selection, then, it turns out that we ache as the price of our progress.

It is our constant teetering on the edge of debilitating loneliness that makes us what we are, and though we work constantly to bend our path away from the edge of the abyss, the abyss never leaves us.

This, I think, is one of the greatest challenges to living in an age of science and evidence.  For most of our human history (and continuing today) we have hung a picture of God (or gods or spirits or what have you) over the ever-present hole in our living room wall — the hole through which we catch the occasional glimpse of the vastness of the universe; where everything that we cannot control awaits; where we are forced to confront a sense of evolutionary/cosmic/geological time that stretches back so far it is practically impossible for our in-the-moment-survival-primate-brains to fully comprehend; where the facts of biology make it ever harder to hold on to a belief that we humans are what the universe had in mind when the earth was forming; and (most chilling of all) that we are, indeed, as alone in the universe as we feared we might be.

Of course no neatly-framed picture (no matter what attributes we may ascribe to it) can answer any of the questions posed by the great void ever-lurking outside the hole it is meant to hide from our view.  The picture may save us from staring the void in the eye a few dozen times every day, but the very fact we have to hang something there is itself a reminder of what lies beyond (and that our deeper psyche will not forget).

I suspect that I have harbored an un-expressed hope that I could overcome the chill of that “void” by looking right into that damn hole and figuring it out.  And I can attest that that approach has borne some fruit.  But reading as much science as I have has also led to two other things, (one of which has followed the other):  1) It has brought me up to date with a general sense of what we now know in science and; 2) It has shown me the limits of what we know, as well as a sense of the limits of what we can ever know compared to the totality of what is to be discovered (or what the writer Christopher Hitchens refers to as our process of “knowing less and less about more and more”).

Still, I would rather my yawning ignorance be the better informed kind.  If this life is “all I have”, I would rather be conscious of that and thereby spend what time, talent and energy I do have exploring that life for all it is worth.  I would rather not take the comfort of myths that numb and, perhaps, serve in the end to only deepen my fear of the unknown.

To put it another way, I choose (as best I am able) to not cover up the hole in my own existential living room wall.  I work on my courage to look right into it, to make peace with it, to live in solidarity with every other living thing on this planet whose fate is no different than mine.  I work to be open to the wonder of that, and the satisfaction it brings to my profoundly social self.  This blog is the expression and documentation of my experience of this journey that we all share.  For whatever the ups and downs, successes and failures of our social bonds in our daily lives, we are, truly, a part of a community beyond numbering made up of every living thing that has ever walked, crawled, slithered, swum or flown across this planet.

In other words, I leave the hole in the wall just as it is, and decorate around it.  For even the existential loneliness that is the wolf ever-dogging the heels of we the most sociable of animals is something that we all share.  And it is the baying of that wolf that can, at times, make the moments of warmth and comfort in the company of our fellow humans so much more to be treasured.  The loneliness of the human animal is not a flaw nor a weakness (nor a sin or the result of any fall from grace): it is the inescapable expression of the social urge that makes us who and what we are.

t..n.s.r. bob