Posts Tagged ‘existentialism’

SERMON: “Existential Redecorating” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, December 9th, 2012

It was one of those moments that could so easily have been missed.

I was describing to a friend the metaphor I use for our existential situation, living as we do in this age of science.  Specifically, that we spend a lot of our time in an “existential living room” that has a rather large hole in the wall that is open to the enormity of the universe.  And so every time we walk by that “hole” our eye is pulled toward the vast, gaping void lurking beyond the security of our (n0-longer solid) four walls and we are immediately gripped with discomfort, even dread.  The upshot being that we live with a constant reminder of our actual size (and, therefore, significance) on a cosmic scale.  It is a very real “Total Perspective Vortex” (for you “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” fans out there).  (It can also be a reminder of how remarkable it is that we are even here to have such a reaction in the first place, but this is not, I think, our primary response to reminders of our mortality).

Having described this “hole in the wall” metaphor, I said to my friend: “God is the picture we hang to hide that hole”.

I went on to say, however, that this “picture” of God does not really answer any of the questions that trouble us about the unimaginable distances in both space and time that await to challenge our mammalian brains whenever we look outside of our parochial selves.  God, for instance,  may tell us that He created us only a few thousand years ago (right after he created the Heavens and the Earth) but God Himself is eternal, omnipotent, and omnipresent.  So all that we have done is substitute God’s incomprehensible vastness — which can be no smaller, certainly, than that of all of creation — for the equally incomprehensible vastness of that creation.  What is the difference?

And that’s when my buddy said, quietly: “Because we put a face on it.”

And I was stopped in my tracks by the power of that straightforward statement.

I had to turn it over in my mind.  Was it really that simple?  Could it possibly make that much difference to our response to the incomprehensible to just stick a face on it?  I tried to find a way around the idea, seek out the weaknesses in the argument, but there was none to be found.  So simple, so elegant in its simplicity.  Yes, I realized, we human animals are so finely attuned by our eons of social evolution to reading each others faces that it turns out all we have to do to calm our terrified souls is imagine a face like ours between us and all of that unsettling void.

That is a part of why God — improbable as the idea of God actually is — works.  Because it is not just the idea of God that we are dealing with: it is the image of God.  Through God we are able to put a face between us and all that is unknown.

I have to admit that with each sermon (even as I move ever toward more clarity about how the world seems to actually work) there are often little, nagging corners of doubt in almost every assertion I make.  Not because my assertions have proven to be false, but because it is the nature of exploration that each discovery brings the discoverer to a plateau where new landscapes — previously unseeable — become visible at the edge of one’s newly-acquired field of vision.

And so even as I have substantially answered the “big” existential questions for my own life, there remain other questions to answer.  Perhaps it’s like science in that way.  Let me explain. I take the view that we live in a post-evolution age, meaning that this foundational biological theory is well-established and extremely unlikely to be turned on it’s head by future discoveries.

(I say this recognizing that there are surely dramatic discoveries to come that will make us refine the theory in important ways.  For example, just look at how our understanding of dinosaurs has changed dramatically in recent years: one scientist made the breakthrough discovery that gave a real boost to the idea that some of the dinosaurs did not die out, but evolved into modern birds.  This discovery was joined with a seemingly sudden breakthrough in fossil discoveries that show that many dinosaurs were covered by “protofeathers”.  Many of the signs of this may have been sitting in museum drawers for decades, un-noticed, until the paradigm shift got people looking for what they hadn’t been looking for before.  This is dramatic stuff.  Like the modern understanding that not all of the hominids whose fossils have been found are on the same branch of our modern-family tree, and that our “cousins” the Neanderthals, died out only a few tens of thousands of years ago!)

But none of these recent discoveries have shaken the theory of evolution.  In truth, they only make sense when seen through an evolutionary framework.  But I expect that they — like all such discoveries — have made many scientists sit up and take notice of what other possible traits and clues they may have been missing because they weren’t expected!

And it’s the same with my own existential adventure.  Because it is one thing to answer (for oneself) the question of whether God does, or does not, exist.  But such a personal existential achievement does nothing to alter the reality of the ongoing human experience of God that plays such a huge role in lives of most of my fellow humans (which makes the “question” so “big” in the first place!).  So the questions change as our understanding moves to a finer scale that is (one hopes) better suited to asking the next right question.

So I often ponder why, with the knowledge we now have about our evolutionary origins and the formation of our planet, there seems to have been so little impact on the phenomenon of individual religious belief.  Even many who fully embrace the findings of geologists and paleontologists miss nary a step in maintaining an active belief in divine agency.

I glanced at this rock wall as I drove a mountain road, and immediately saw a face (just left of center, above “.com”) in the stones.

Of course, there are scientific answers for this now as well.  We have evidence from genetic research, neuroscience, and evolutionary psychology (among other fields) that have gone a long way toward explaining the peculiarities of human behavior.  This science answers many of the “second-tier” questions that come after the “big” ones are answered, namely, the “why” of our continued religious behavior in an age of science.

The sum of this research tells me that there is no real mystery to our tendency toward belief in agency in the world, even where it is clear that none exists.  Science tells us that we find intention in nature because our brains are wired to find it (our “Hypersensitive Agency Detection Device”).  As has been said by others, the evolutionary path favors the animal with more false positives than false negatives.  We’ve survived because we are animals wary of intention in other animals, the weather, and even disease.  And wary animals are rarely punished by natural selection (on a species-wide scale, at least) for erring on the side of caution.

And so here we are, so-called “modern” humans, convinced that we have now beaten nature by somehow completing the process of evolution by evolving to a point where we are — thanks to our technology and overall smarts, well, “done” with all of that.

This is an expression of the companion to our “Agency Detection Device”: our natural human self-centeredness — the solipsism that makes it unbelievably easy to see ourselves as worthy of the attention of a vast and incomprehensible sky god.  The god whose face we hang over that troubling hole in our existential living room wall.  The hole that — as long as we are the mortal animals that we are — we know we can never really make go away.  So we drape it with the framed face of benign divinity.  Or — if we feel we can’t do that bit of cognitive redecorating — we just go ahead and find a way to live with our destined-to-be-incomplete understanding of who and what we really are, and make whatever peace we can with the wonder and vulnerability of our existence.

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: “More Confidence than Sense” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, October 16th, 2011

I was much more anxious than I would have liked to have been as I drove to El Paso.  I did my best to enjoy the drive, listening to the final chapter of a book on tape.  There are days like that, where my ability to remain calm in the moment is over-challenged and succumbs to the tendency of my dog brain to project and fret.  Still, I felt better by the time I checked into my motel room with enough time to sit for a bit before I checked in at the Arts Festival Plaza to start my street painting for the 2011 “Chalk the Block” festival downtown.

Those of us chosen as Arts Festival Plaza artists were to begin our paintings at 6pm on Friday night and work until 10pm (we were to pick up again on Saturday at 7am, and complete our paintings for judging by 2pm).  I was excited and confident as I checked in, got my materials and refused the offer of a spray bottle full of water (I was too much of a street-painting purist for to employ that device that I’d recently seen in use).  I set to work, and had my 5 x 10 foot design sketched out in white chalk in a few minutes.  I began to paint in the colors with my pastels and immediately noticed something was wrong: the surface was not taking the color well at all.

I had assumed that years of painting with pastels and chalk on asphalt and cement had prepared me for anything, and had been excused from the “mandatory” festival training session the Saturday before (my excusal based largely on that experience).  But it now dawned on me that painting on brick was another animal.  That made sense: bricks are fired masonry.  In essence I was trying to make pastel stick to chunky glass.  I had a sinking feeling as I calculated that the detailed, rich painting (of a T-Rex fossil come to life) I had envisioned was instead going to be anemic and sad.  I felt a rueful sense of the excess of my confidence: I had been cocky to think I didn’t need the training session; to think that I was better than the kids around me who were now slopping thick, soupy tempera paint all over their spaces with buckets and brushes.

Damn.  They knew something I didn’t.

Well, my feelings of self-correction aside, I needed to change my plans.  I got a spray bottle and started in to teach myself a new way of painting with the stakes as high as they could be (I had come to win this competitive event, after all: the prize money was good).  It took a while, but by the time the sun was setting, I had figured out the right combination of water and pastel rubbed onto the brick that would take on the feel of a sort of slurry, which seemed to have at least some capacity to stick to the masonry.  Good.  But now I knew I would have to obliterate my drawing to cover the space with the right colored slurry for each portion of my painting.  Not so good.  I calculated that I could recover from that.  I wasn’t out of the woods yet, but I was moving that way.  I would, however, still have to wait and see how the dried slurry surface itself would take pastel, and if I would ever get back to the quality of the painting I had planned.

By the time I had coated all of my surface, and got back to the first dry parts to see how I’d actually have to adapt my painting style to them, it was dark, and the work lights were turned on.  Much to my relief, the prepared surface took pastel well: I was back in business.  But then the glaring work lights started popping breakers, and the next two hours were spent working in various combinations of semi-darkness, and finally an odd sort of slow-motion strobe effect as watchers walked in front of the few remaining people-height lamps that shot a low-angled light across my painting-in-progress.

I kept working until 10pm in awful light, all the while wondering what terrible things I could be doing to my painting that I might not be able to correct in the daylight.  I returned to my motel room and a night of fitful sleep.

Back to the plaza at 7am, things looked okay.  All of my work from the night before held up, and I could now, truly, get to work.  After a couple of hours of painting a feeling of pleasure bubbled up through the layers of my mind.  I suddenly felt happy.  I was going to be okay.  All of the detail and depth I had wanted to include in this work were mine to create, no longer restricted by those damn red bricks underneath.  I was back in the running, back in familiar territory.  I was working in confidence again.

I remembered a line I wrote for my play about the American painter John Singer Sargent: “I’ve always had more confidence than sense.  But in the end, it’s made sense to be confident”.  Was that me, today?

I finished my painting an hour ahead of the 2pm deadline.  I had indeed had time to include all of the detail that I had planned, and was pleased with how well the final painting matched my original “vision”.  I looked at the work of the other artists that surrounded me, and those in other parts of downtown that were all competing for the Best of Show award.  I knew I had the best painting, but then I didn’t.  I began to look for the reasons why it would not be the obvious choice of the judges, and my confidence was diminished (a process, perhaps, aided by my challenged “cockiness” of the night before).

Friends from my home town showed up to be there for the judging and the award, and my social sense was kicked up a notch, navigating the complex preparations for an unpredictable outcome (which in this case, now meant bracing for a public loss witnessed by friends).

The announcement of the awards was late.  We had plenty of time to sit around and wait and chat, as I laid the mental and verbal groundwork for being okay with whatever came (read: not winning).  I had enough experience to understand the Biblical warning that “…the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”  (Ecclesiastes 9:11 KJV).  I knew that I was subject to “chance” as much as anyone else.

I didn't anticipate the problems of painting on brick.

So when the announcement finally came (in the teasing form of a description of the winning painting), all we had to hear was “T-Rex”.   In the nanosecond of space between those words and the sound of my friends erupting in screaming, I experienced the exhilaration of being chosen.  It rang like a crystal bell inside me: brief but pure.  That moment only had the time it took for my anxious friends to take in enough breath to start shouting.  After that my attention was diverted to them, even as I struggled to listen above the happy din for the sound of my name (to be sure I had actually won).  In the moments that followed, I wondered whether my cognitive and emotional experience was qualitatively any different than that of a nominee awaiting the opening of the envelope on Oscar night.

The rest was twenty minutes of congratulations, hugs, handshakes, a newspaper interview and then home to rest my sore muscles and raw fingertips.

Why tell this long story here?  What does it have to do with the church of bob?  The answer lies in the thing that was absent.

What I’ve described is just the kind of experience into which we humans almost always insert the idea of God or cosmic purpose.  It’s the sort of thing we pray about: asking for God (or spirit or whatever) to guide us or to grant favor.  It’s the kind of situation where ritualistic behavior is natural — a lucky charm or a certain kind of behavior that seemed to make something good happen in the past.

Upon reflection what was noticeable to me was the complete absence of any of that in the events I described above.  Apparently we can, in fact, move beyond belief.

I set out to win this competition, but not through prayer.  I was juried in based on both my past work and my submitted design for the festival.  I was confident, but was immediately challenged by an unforeseen difficulty that my experience and determination helped me overcome (though the event supplied the materials, I had brought along some of my own favored chalks that saved my butt that first night — a “lucky” choice my experience taught me to make).  I knew that I had the capacity to create a painting people would enjoy, and that I would likely enjoy doing it (a good indicator of final quality).  I knew from experience that my social skills were up to the interactions with staff and audience.  I had won a street painting festival in the past.  None of those factors made my winning inevitable.  But, in reality, it made my winning a distinct possibility.  To then add prayer to the reasons for my success would have shifted the 99% of my career-artist reality onto the 1% of the supposed external force I might have prayed to (or, conversely shifted all of the blame back to me had I lost, leaving none of it with the God that let me down).   Seen in that light, prayer would have been, well, silly.

The outcome of this street painting festival was never inevitable.  Though my skill and (thirty years of) experience did give me a certain objective advantage over a number of my competitors, it could not immunize me against another more talented competitor, or a system of judging that was hidden from my knowledge.

I may never know who the judge (or judges) were that made the final decision on the “Best of Show” award, much less what factors they took into consideration.  It may be that I won by a wide margin.  Or it could have been very, very close.  So it is in the complexity of life: we desire to know the hidden factors in order to calibrate our sense of reality, to draw conclusions about cause and effect.  But most of the time, we just don’t know everything that went on.  No wonder we seek a spiritual “edge” to push things our way, or to comfort us when they don’t, switching our biases on or off depending on the situation and whether our not they confirm or confront our beliefs.

I came, I saw, I worked and I won.  This time.  That’s all I know.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The Wrong Question” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, April 10th, 2011

We are not served well by the question: “What is the meaning of life”?  Not because the question is a difficult one, or too challenging to answer, but because it is a question with no certifiable answer, or , more exactly: there is no “meaning of life” to be discovered.

To continue in that bleak vein, let me suggest that he best we can hope for (in fact the best we can achieve within the bounds of reality) is to come to some sort of understanding of our own mortality, and thereby work to make the best peace we can with an end as horrifying to any conscious living organism as it is inevitable.

The problem with a truly Atheistic, materialistic and naturalistic view of existence is that there really isn’t much in the way of comfort to be had (at least not in any easily digestible form).  Many religious people know this and, in fact, use this truth as an argument for the adoption of religion.  Think about that for a moment: the truth is unsettling; therefore one should seek refuge in untruth.  Writers like Christopher Hitchens acknowledge atheism’s lack in satisfying of our natural human wish-fulfillment.  (Atheism is, by implication, an embracing of the knowledge of our true status in the universe that science offers us).  So instead they point to a certain nobility in facing this troubling reality head-on, and then going on about the business of making the lives we do have as rich and meaningful as we can.

Yes, I'm an Evolution nerd.

But if life has no meaning, how can we make meaningful lives?  That’s simple: life does have meaning to those that are living it: to you and I.  We humans get bent when charge past such earthly meaning in order to confront the possibility that the rest of the universe does not share our fascination with our day-to-day activities.  (Because, apparently, it’s not enough for us to be important to just, well, us.  We want there to be a God who cares, ruling over a Universe that is built for the sole purpose of engendering the relationship between Man and his Maker).

There is irony in this.  I would suggest that the more a human seeks his or her sense of meaning from external (eternal, divine) sources, the less meaningful (in real terms) their lives actually are.  In other words, the religious have it exactly backwards: they think that it is only through acknowledging God that our lives have meaning (going so far as to believe that a life lived for any other purpose cannot be meaningful at all).  I think the opposite is true: that the less one believes in the eternal and the divine, the more one is forced to come to terms with the here and now which, for us social animals, means making the most of our relationships with each other and the way we choose to spend our short lives.

Now I could be wrong on this — at least as it relates to humans of a different temperament than mine.  Consider the following:

“Conservatives also tend to rank high on something called “death anxiety”…  Apparently the mere idea of death causes some people to feel uncertain and out of control – anxious.  Some studies suggest that death anxiety reflects a fear that life itself has no meaning.  For someone who doesn’t enjoy ambiguity, that could be a pretty distressing possibility.”   — Hannah Holmes: “Quirk: Brain Science Makes Sense of Your Peculiar Personality” (P 218)

In addition, to a more “conservative” mind, the idea of a human set loose upon the world without the restraining influence of God on their behavior is terrifying, and they imagine that such “self-responsive” people would unerringly choose to do the darkest possible things.

And then there are writers such as Ayn Rand: popular in conservative circles for her idea that society is served best by individuals going about their selfish ways attending to their own selfish animal needs.  Conservatives seems overly fond of this idea (which seems odd when such philosophies are so often erroneously labelled as being “Darwinian” in their “survival of the fittest” ethos).

But these ideas are still operating, I would argue, within the framework of a sense of original sin and a need to justify our naturally-selfish behavior within a God-directed universe, and therefore represent an error of logic akin to how the notorious eugenics movement turned the blind work of genetics into a justification for human cruelty on a grand scale.

It is beyond dispute that we are animals, and naturally self-centered animals at that.  Yet we humans carry around comparatively huge brains that set us apart from our animal cousins, be they primate or whale, in the scope of our ability for self-consideration and reflection.  But to elevate our instinctive bent toward self-preservation to a self-serving abdication of personal responsibility is to ignore the comprehensive social nature of our human-to-human relationships.  For it is in those earthly and immediate relationships that we experience whatever hell or heaven we think we are creating, not in an imagined afterlife.

In religious terms, our instinctive behaviors are labelled as sin, or fallen, and a thing against we must strive mightily with the help of an intervening God.  This misses the point as well, and is simply a very common ploy by select humans to profit from their control over other humans hungry for answers to that damnable question: “What’s it all about?”.

This is all we can know about the meaning of life at this point: you and I are alive today, and we are the descendants of an endless series of life forms that evolved on a planet that was born out of a cosmic explosion that created a universe that continues to expand, and will continue to expand to a point at which, we assume, it will then contract again.  Before that happens, however, our own sun will reach the end of its nuclear life and explode, taking us out with it.  But even before then, the species “human” will most likely (if history is any indication) go extinct, or evolve into a new species (that may in it’s turn go extinct).  But before any of that ever happens, you and I will die a natural (one would hope) death, and our chemical components will be disbursed back into the soil, the air, and the tissue of other living organisms until such time as the whole shebang is redistributed by cosmic explosions.  We are primates, social mammals that have a need for each other’s company, and so we have developed societies and technologies to assist us in our instinctive quest for comfort, happiness and security.  Our large brains are both assistant and critic to all that we do, and within a natural spectrum of mutation and disease, each animal is born with a capacity to live life with a variety of levels of success.

That states the reasons you and I are the living consciousnesses we are, but it does not — indeed can not — answer the existential “why” that we keep asking it to.

Any answer we construct to the question of life’s meaning is going to fall short.  Even acknowledgement of that reality will not bring complete relief from the ever-present awareness of our own mortality.  We humans are, after all, pattern-seekers, and problems for which we cannot find solutions cause us real cognitive distress.  This is probably why magical thinking has evolved as a natural part of consciousness (a skill not reserved only for the young!).  Magical thinking (“religion”) enables us to calm our troubled brains by filling in the un-fillable blanks in our knowledge with malleable myth.

But we the living are a generation of humans that — thanks to science —  carry a knowledge of our place in the universe that no other generation of our kind has ever had to contend with.  And this is a knowledge that can easily overwhelm our mammalian brains, challenging even the most powerful mental magic.  And when the magic fails, we are forced, once again, to ask anew the old question: “What, then, is the meaning of life?”

I think we can cut ourselves a little slack if our minds aren’t quite up to the task — if we find that we have been asking the wrong question all of these years.  Perhaps, then, we can stop trying to figure out the meaning of life, and turn our attention instead toward making life meaningful.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Worthless” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, March 13th, 2011

“As our center disintegrates, the electronic media rise and centralize to ensure their utility as a means of expression.  Art, which exists to bring peace, becomes entertainment, which exists to divert, and is becoming totalitarianism, which exists to censor and control.  The desire to express becomes, absent the artist and in the face of the terrifying, the need to repress.  The “information age” is the creation, by the body politic, through the collective unconscious, of a mechanism of repression, a mechanism that offers us a diversion from our knowledge of our own worthlessness.”  (From Three Uses of the Knife by David Mamet)

I suspect the average human’s first response to David Mamet’s statement might be a protest of “I am not worthless!”  After all, are we not spending a great deal of societal energy on the generation of healthy self esteem, particularly in our children?  We have, it could be argued, an entire industry (or confederation of industries) dedicated to sustaining a sense of inherent worth in the human being.  The fact that we have such an industry hints at the troubling truth that Mamet is, I believe, getting at: that we all suspect, deep inside, that we are worth-less, and that we are doing everything in our power to shield ourselves from that knowledge.

Worth-less, in this sense, does not mean “bad”, “evil” or somehow unworthy of life.  And I am most definitely not subscribing to the religious notion of the human as lower than dirt unless (and until) he or she is redeemed by whatever religious practice is on sale that particular day.  It is simply the recognition that in the face of the sheer enormity of the universe and the mind-numbing depth of history, any claim on our part to a legacy that will last for more than a handful of years is patently absurd.  No matter how many times our names are carved into stone, or cast into bronze, in time any trace of our individual lives will be erased.  Even under the most extreme, best case scenario, the bronze plaque may be discovered by a future species and wondered over (just as we puzzle over the fossilized remains of extinct animals different from any we have ever seen in our time).  But is that really worth anything?

(The other unsettling aspect of worthlessness on this scale is the challenge it brings to the  notion of our lives having a larger purpose or meaning, or an impact on a global or cosmic scale.  It is an intriguing aspect of human nature that our actual lives never seem to be quite “enough”, and so we are ever angling to acquire for them the stamp of heavenly approval).

Living as we do in an age of science we are confronted daily with mountains of evidence that seem only to remind us of our transient nature as individual living organisms.  But is this the only service that such knowledge brings to us: a shattering of our cherished delusions?

As natural as it seems to be to deny the inevitability of our own eventual annihilation by death and decay — by joining together in the building of cell-phone networks and fast travel and deadlines and true-story biographies of the rich and famous among us — there is, I think, a real comfort to be found in the cessation, for a moment, of that frenetic activity in the recognition, acknowledgment, and acceptance of our own worthlessness.

Religion has learned to co-opt such moments in order turn contrition into subservience to their particular doctrine.  This is rapacious, pernicious abuse.  But again, this is not what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about a religious moment of the kind that might have existed in religion before drama was divorced from it by the act of religion suddenly coming to believe in it’s own stories as fact (thereby becoming one of the more popular ways for humans to attempt to cheat their inexorable fate).

We are worthless.  And nothing we can ever do will change that.  Great.  What now?

Well, we’re still alive.  Here.  Now.  Dancing our improbably-conscious hearts out in the days and years we have between the cradle and the grave.  Our lives matter to us and to each other, and the recognition that the value we place upon that reality is the only and sufficient value we can count on is, it seems to me, the basis of humanism.

I sometimes ponder the popular notion that the only ethical, existential choice for a human being who recognizes his or her own worthlessness is to remove themselves from life.  In short such an idea only re-enforces the idea that life is worth living only if it has the stamp of eternal impact upon it.  I think this idea fails in the same way that religious ideas do: it is just one more way of trying to outsmart an uncaring universe by showing it a thing or two by, in effect, attempting to thwart its meaningless lack of purpose for our lives by using our own death as a sort of monkey wrench in the works.  In a way this is of a kind with the fallacy of humility in any religion in which the humble servant is, by his or her (assumed superior expression of) humility, brought to the personal attention of the god of the universe!

Our solipsism is, truly, impossible to escape.

If we can manage to put all of that nonsense aside for just a moment, I believe that we can find real comfort, and a moment of peace, in the hearing of the truth spoken by Mamet.  We are worthless.  Recognizing that, we can release ourselves from the tyranny of eternity, of the struggle to discern the intentions of god, and get on with the business of living our lives as animals who have earned their right to life by sheer dint of being alive now.

Honestly, I can’t tell you that this is the way to happiness.  (For all its evils, religious belief provides effective distraction that has been finely tuned to the sorts of things we humans deeply want to believe are true).  But I can suggest that it is the path to the only genuine meaning we can hope to find in our lives and the best chance of coming to whatever terms we can with the challenges of being the conscious animal that must contemplate his or her our own existence.

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