Posts Tagged ‘geology’

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

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “The Story of Earth: The First 4.5 Billion Years, From Stardust to Living Planet” by Robert M. Hazen.

Sunday, September 30th, 2012

This has to be about the most coherent and readable book about the formation of our planet that I have read.  It made the processes that formed Earth make sense in ways that no other book has (and I’ve read some good ones).  But it also reads like a family album, or the biography of a beloved friend.  For those reasons alone I recommend it.

The bonus of the book (and the area most likely up for debate) is the fresh viewpoint that the author brings to the symbiotic connection between biological life and geology.  We all understand that without the basic elements that were gathered from the cosmos by the Earth, life could not have begun.  But it also appears that it was life itself that then began to alter “lifeless” geology, mainly in the form of minerals that then became the further building blocks of ever-evolving life forms.

Life exists in many forms and in many places on and in the earth.  We tend to think of the things that live and crawl on the surface, or swim in the sea, but the roots of living plants facilitate chemical reactions in rocks and soil to a degree that their actions must be considered a significant shaper of landscape — more so than erosion by wind and rain.

It is a way to see our planet that has an elegant and fascinating complexity to it.  Our life story is not one of life simply springing up on a watery planet that just happened to be the right distance from an energy-supplying sun, but of an interplay between chemistry, environment, time and chance that has played out over and over and over again through extinctions and near extinctions, changes in atmosphere and the chemical composition of the oceans as well as the surface of the planet to arrive at the biologically-rich world that we know today.

As one might expect, there is a final-chapter discussion of our current climate issue, but it is set firmly within a recognition of the dynamic nature of our planet:

“In the midst of these forces, our species has proved to be resilient, clever, and adaptable.  We have learned technological tricks to shape our world to our will: we mine and refine its metals, fertilize and cultivate its soils, divert and exploit its rivers, extract and burn its fossil fuels.  Our actions are not without consequences.  Every day, if we are attuned to the dynamic process of our planetary home, we can experience every facet of its intertwined creative forces.  And we can then understand how devastatingly changeable the world can be, and how utterly indifferent it is to our fleeting aspirations.”

I highly recommend this book both as a fine tale of our home planet, and as a reminder of how many important scientific discoveries about it have come in our lifetimes.

t.n.s.r. bob

The rev gives it four Dimetrodons out of four!

SERMON: “The Great Disappointment” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, April 1st, 2012

“Burden of proof lies with the atheist, who must disprove the overwhelming evidence for a Creator who is immensely powerful, eternal, and personal. Simply put, I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist!”

This was a recent post by a friend on a social media site.  I pondered several responses to it, but decided to leave it be.  The problem with the answers I came up with weren’t that they wouldn’t hold up as argument, but that I kept composing them in the same sort of clever manner as the original statement.  I was writing bumper stickers to answer another bumper sticker.  And as we all know, that is a sort of never-ending smarty-pants arms race that is rarely “won”.

That being said, the original statement is worth picking apart, for it is (at its clever heart) emblematic of the truths with a small “t” that religion offers that are, in the end, swallowed up by Truth with a huge, honking capital “T” (like the small fish that is swallowed by the larger fish only to be consumed by an REALLY LARGE great white shark).

So what about the “burden of proof” that opens the statement?  Actual logic is turned upon its head here as it is the theist who is making the larger claim, and, therefore, must provide the greater burden of evidence — evidence which the second part of that sentence claims is self-evident in such a way as to make obvious the “powerful, eternal and personal” nature of God.  The final sentence is a clever turn of the never-out-of-style “I know you are but what am I” argument, which begs the atheist to begin his or her response with a statement of his or her own faith, such as “No, it doesn’t take much faith at all’.

(“Aha!” yodels the theist, “You just admitted that you employ FAITH!  See — atheism IS a religion after all!”).

The fundamental problem here is the underlying fallacy of any argument that determines the truth of a matter by how deeply one believes in a particular answer (as in “I believe in God with all my heart, and you only believe in science with your mind.  I win!”)  Clearly, the question rises from an assumption of belief-as-proof, and therefore the arguer feels completely comfortable dismissing the atheist’s deficit in the “faith” department even as he is not shy about painting that very same non-faith-based idea as a “religion”.  You can have your angel cake and eat it too, apparently.

Of course atheism is not a religion (this does not mean that no humans treat it as such, or that no atheists exhibit religious-like behaviors).  But then again, there is a strain in evangelical Christianity that is fond of denying that its own religion is, well, religion at all.  This usually takes the form (in argument) of a rather meaningless statement like “Christianity’s not a religion, it’s a relationship”.  Which seems to me to be sort of like saying “The federal bureaucracy in Washington, D.C. is not a government, it’s a relationship”.

True enough, I guess, on some level.  But what does that really mean?

The truth (in a lower-case “t” sense) is that we social humans engage in a wide variety of polite fictions that allow us to rub up against each other with a minimum of violence and friction in a crowded, complex society.  One of these fictions is an allowance for the varieties of religious belief (that we may well — privately at least — think of as silly or even dangerous).  Even one such as I finds myself reflexively addressing a priest or nun as “Father” or “Sister”.  It just seems polite, if ludicrous.  (Sort of like a grown-up version of calling a child by whatever super hero name he wants to be called that week).

But what galls the non-believers in a society (something most believers just don’t get) is when those to whom we extend these social niceties take things a step further and insist that such deference is not a gift we give each other, but a duty that all citizens must pay to the enlightened (or “chosen”) few (who are almost always convinced that they know what God wants everyone else to do).  These people we refer to as “fundamentalists”, and they come in all flavors of belief, though they are all, essentially, the same.  (Which is why a white, American Christian evangelical fundamentalist has much more in common with an Arab Muslim fundamentalist than she might be willing to admit.  If they should ever get past their hangup on who’s founder was the more divine, they would be a terrible combined force to reckon with!).

To bring together, now, the threads of the original quote with our use of polite social fictions, the bare, naked Truth of it all is this: the ONLY evidence for the existence of a “powerful, eternal and personal” God is our belief that such a God exists.  Absolutely nothing in nature that we humans have ever discovered has given us any support for the notion.  It is only the cognitive power of belief-dependent realism that bends reality into the shape of the divine.

The deeply religious (and here I think mostly of the evangelical or fundamentalist branches of belief) regularly criticize humanists and environmentalists and animal-rights activists as having made themselves (or nature) into their God.  This, to a theist, is idolatry.  And were it not for that pesky New Testament, such sins of misattribution-of-divine-power could be punished in the old-fashioned way: stoning.  But here is just one more of the huge ironies that the fundamentalist carries without complaint:  it is the fundamentalist that has, in fact, turned nature into God, not the humanist (environmentalist, animal rights activist, etc).

Think about it for a moment:  The religious believer looks at the products of billions of years of completely natural (yet nonetheless wondrous) processes of chemistry, geology and biology and personifies them into the actions of a single individual.  This is the small fish gobbling up the smaller fish, and feeling quite satisfied with itself.  But the truth of nature turns out to be the great white shark of reality that consumes all attempts to reduce it to a size and level of complexity sufficient to be contained within the idea of “God”.

Make no mistake.  Nature is a wonder.  The human body (for all of its odd quirks, switched-off DNA, and systems borrowed from our earlier bodily forms) is a wonder as well.  The existence of human consciousness is a mystery that we have begun to understand, but can not yet fully fathom or explain.  There is yet room in this world for awe and bewilderment, even in the age of science.

But unless the God who made it all possesses a peculiar and perverse sense of humor — of the kind that would make him create a universe, earth and life comprehensible only as the product of a messy and ancient constellation of natural processes (like the ultimate “trickster” god) and then demand that one species of primates (us) see past this deep catalog of misdirection and notice him lurking in the background — then there is most likely no God at all.

To many humans this would be a great disappointment, as if the fish they thought was the biggest one in the ocean turned out not to be.  But take heart: I can tell you from experience that there are greater wonders awaiting those who move beyond the spell of belief.

Religion is a world view that reduces nature to the size of God.  Because God — contrary to what most believers think — is not the biggest idea a human can have.  It is, in reality, an idea that exercises our capacities for understanding while remaining yet small enough for us to grasp: a means of compressing the vast incomprehensibility of nature into the form of a person…like us.  If the continuing resistance to the broad acceptance of the (more unsettling) discoveries of science has taught us one thing about our selves, it is that the human mind clearly evolved to deal quite well with its local environment, but is only very modestly capable of grasping things such as the depth of geological time, the vastness of the known universe or our own biological evolution.  But there is no shame in recognizing the limitations of our animal brains.  After all — as far as we can tell — we’re the only living things ever to have existed that have reached a stage of cognitive development to even struggle with such enormous ideas!

So no, it does not take a special amount of faith to not believe in God.  What it does take is a certain amount of courage to face the enormous profundity of nature.  In that there is no disappointment.

t.n.s.r. bob

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

Sunday, March 11th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

t.n.s.r. bob

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Here on Earth: A Natural History of the Planet” by Tim Flannery.

Sunday, December 4th, 2011

Despite the reputation that scientists have for being materialistic, atheistic drudges, I find a handful of them showing a strong propensity for reserving for themselves a bit of the spell of belief.  Sam Harris — famous for attacking the dangers of irrational religious belief — waxes metaphysical way about the wonders of Transcendental Meditation.  And now Tim Flannery spends most of Here on Earth (which is subtitled “A Natural History of the Planet”) referring to the collective organism that is life by the name of Gaia — the ancient Greek “mother of all life” — in ways that stray a bit far afield from the scientific.

I suppose I wouldn’t be as bothered by this if the author of “Here on Earth” didn’t spent a good deal of his first chapter upbraiding Richard Dawkins for his rationalist sins (apparently because Dawkin’s views don’t leave enough room for mythologizing or personifying the planet).  Flannery also takes the view that Darwin erred on the non-belief side, and that his co-credited researcher Alfred Russell Wallace was nearer the mark when it came to allowing room for our natural predilection towards belief to have it’s say in the theory of evolution.  (Wallace famously later became a believer in Spiritualism).

But then the book turns out not to be a natural history of the earth at all (save for a few remarkable chapters), but a mishmash of science, natural studies, dire warning and polemic for some scientifically-informed semi-mystical view of earth, life, and our somehow historically ordained role in healing the very ecosystem that we have fouled nearly beyond repair.

But enough about that.  There are at least two chapters in this book that gave me new information, and are worthy of a read (were more of the book like these chapters, I would be dancing in the streets).  One discusses the role that life itself has had in creating landscape (I didn’t know that this was a potentially greater force than natural erosion as it carries chemicals into the earth via plant roots that help dissolve rock and create soils).  Another plus is the cogent description of just how it was possible for us to bring about the climate crisis already overtaking us.  But beyond these, though, the book is a jumble.

If you want a really (REALLY) good book on a natural history of everything, get Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything” (reviewed this blog) and skip this book.  If you’re of a more “casserole” type of temperament,  you may enjoy this blend of human-centric, new-agey views and hard science.  But even for that, I suspect there are more coherent books available.

t.n.s.r. bob

The Rev give is two and a half Dimetrodons!


Sunday, November 27th, 2011

I watched this program when it first aired, and it was everything I’ve come to expect from NOVA and more.  It ran in two parts, with an addendum made up of more personal stories from the survivors.

There were several things that struck me in this show.  One was amateur video of a phenomenon geologists have described, but that I’d never seen: liquified soils squirting up from fissures in pavement.  It is an amazing thing to see, and not a little disquieting.  The other was the animated timeline map showing the location of all of the earthquakes and aftershocks that made up the totality of this event.  They appear as red dots along a series of fault lines over a period of two months.  It is a stunning overview of an earthquake event the likes of which I had not seen before.  It is also a testament to the forces of geology that so many are willing to dismiss as “acts of God”.

The program can be viewed on-line.

t.n.s.r. bob

The rev gives it four Dimetrodons out of four!


SERMON: “Nature is out to Get You!” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, September 25th, 2011

It’s true.  Nature is out to get you.

It’s easy to forget this, living as many of us do in our modern world of indoor plumbing (with clean, treated water) and safe cars (coated in polymers and pigments and lubricated with oils and grease) and comfortable clothes (some even treated to protect us from UV rays, or to shed the rain, in addition to keeping us warm).  We have the luxury of viewing nature as quaint, pure and benevolent.  It’s not.  It never has been.

Reading “The World Without Us” (reviewed earlier on this blog) had the unexpected effect of giving me an appreciation for the many man-made materials that have been developed to hold off the power of nature to break everything down into its component elements.  Granted, it is these very man-made compounds that are now polluting our oceans and water supplies.  Still, one has to admire the ingenuity of our species and recognize the reality that life and comfort must be continually wrested from the natural world.

And this, of course, is our dilemma.  We have become successful at holding back corrosion and decay and heat and cold and the dark to a point where we have altered the nature we only meant to keep in check.  Well, that may not be accurate.  I expect that most people in generations before ours did not see nature as anything other than a malevolent, capricious force.  In our time, we have gone to the other extreme and glorified this mindless constellation of natural phenomenon to a point that many of our more conservative brethren feel as if we humans are being devalued to the point of being seen as a mere nuisance to the great earth mother.

The reality is, well, the reality of it all: we are a species on this planet doing what we do both for our survival and our prosperity, dealing with a growing awareness that we cannot afford to completely tame our environment lest we choke off the very source of our sustenance.  It’s an interesting dilemma faced — to some degree — by just about every living thing there is: the parasite that ends up killing its host, the locust that consumes everything in its path, the humans that fish the seas empty.

As smart as we are, I wonder whether we really have it in our power to forestall the inevitable depletion of our resources.  Our technology seems to be on an evolutionary path all it’s own (though we humans can seem to be as much passenger as driver of that train).  Of course — as The World Without Us so cleverly shows — our technological progress  can only continue as long as we continue.  But for now — even with all of our talk of becoming “green” — the forces of cold and heat and weather that drove us to create electric cooling and gas heating and internal combustion engined bulldozers continues unabated.

Life exists in the gaps between the forces of nature.

A complication to our proper perception of the many “natural” forces at work in our world is the fact that they act on different scales of time.  In my part of the world (the Chihuahuan Desert of Southern New Mexico), we don’t see houses rot from mold and dampness, or weather rapidly from constant rain.  But we do see paint faded to dust in a few seasons by the unrelenting sunshine.  And though we can see the immediate results of corrosion in a skillet left too long in the sink or the dashboard cracked by sun damage, we don’t notice the erosion of the mountains by wind and rain and freeze and thaw, or the tumbling action of the oceans or rivers that quickly smooth the rough edges off of stones.  Even slower is the movement of the earth’s crust which — though we can now measure it precisely — moves far too slow for us to perceive it (except when we experience the earth-quaking effects of that movement).

Much of the mystery of how nature works has been dispelled by science, and some of the power of those natural forces can be temporally thwarted by paint and steel and concrete and sunscreen.  But nature persists — mindless and random but not causeless — wearing away, fading, smoothing, melting, building and tearing down.  We are soft living things finding ways to stay alive and intact in an inert world of abrasives and searching rays of ultraviolet light that are the source of both our life and our undoing.

Appreciating the raw, relentless power of nature makes the wonder of our own existence even more remarkable.  Life, it turns out, is a thing that exists in the space between the power of nature to destroy and to create.  But even that statement misses the mark, for nature has no intelligence with which to actively create or destroy, it is simply what it is.  And life is the thing that sprang up in the spaces between the abrasive sands and weathering waves, between the planet’s bubbling molten core and the dead cold of space.  It is the fruit of the first organisms that took chemical reactions that one step further to self-replication — that were able to use sunlight for energy and minerals for food.  Life found a niche in a world of inert geology and atmosphere and exploded into abundance.  Beaten back by nature again and again, it came back improved.

Nature, of course, will win in the end.  It always does.  And I don’t mean the nature of the wild things that surround us (the other living organisms such as the virus and the cockroach).  No, all life will eventually be consumed again back into the elements that made it as the universe collapses back upon itself and reforms all over again.  It’s not just the cycle of life we are a part of, but the larger cycle of the elements and energy.

But if it’s of any comfort to you: Nature is not only out to get you but — in a way — itself as well.  So don’t take it personally.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “I Feel the Earth Move” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, August 28th, 2011

The earth rumbles, and you can bet that a lot of people will start praying.  Among the prayerful will be a number who harbor a belief that the earthquake is a message from God, most likely a call to repentance — a warning to a sinful people to “get right” with God before it’s “too late”.  (That’s what the lady I heard interviewed on the radio today said regarding the most recent “East Coast” earthquake).

Somewhere far down on the list of possible explanations for the tremors, humans will find the real one: the rather well-established fact that we live on a cooling planet.  Earthquakes are natural phenomenon that happen all the time in all sorts of places.  Some places suffer tremendous damage because of their geology, which can amplify the power of shifting chunks of the earth’s crust.  Others shake less destructively, again due to their local geology.  When an earthquake occurs in an economically prosperous region, the damage is sometimes less because the buildings are built with better materials, inspected by fairly trustworthy inspectors, and not overcrowded.  When it hits Haiti or China or Iran, well, the destruction can be terrible.

We live on the floating rocky surface of a cooling planet.

Nowhere in that equation is there any need for involving external mysterious sources for natural phenomenon.  Yet we do.  Consistently.  Incessantly.  Never stopping for a moment to consider that the intelligent being that is supposed to be the source of all existence and knowledge consistently chooses to communicate to sinful individuals with massive natural disasters that, for all of their fury and destructive attention-grabbing force, are mute, unintelligible and dreadfully ambiguous examples of effective God-to-man conversation.  (God is love.  It’s your sin that made the tornado hit your house.  It’s God’s mercy that spared your cat — a miracle of divine selection that ignored a few hundred other people in the tornado’s/hurricane’s path, such as when God’s guiding hand brought that jetliner down safely in the “Miracle on the Hudson”, while a week later another jet went down with all hands).

I hold that our response to natural events reveals a great deal about how we humans make sense of the world, and nothing about the character or reality of God.

This is the heart of what science has long said about the existence of God: He may or may not exist, but his existence is not needed to fill in any missing piece of the natural explanation of natural phenomenon.  (I’m one of those takes the view that if God is no longer necessary, then what is the point of keeping him around?)

Religion is a complex thing, as complex as the organisms that practice it.  I would like to dismiss it as a primitive habit that we would be better off to have never picked up in the first place.  I can point to the colorful tales of Nordic mythology as far better (and more interesting) morality tales then any that came out of the monotheistic Middle East.  But to be fair, the conflict between Christianity and Viking heathenism was less the brutal imposition of monotheism (that I long thought it to be) than it was a classic evolutionary battle between an earlier form of belief and a newer, more highly evolved religion.  Christianity was the exotic new species that shoved out the old one.  (As Richard Dawkins has pointed out, ideas evolve too).

The mistake people make is in assuming that one religion beats out another because it is somehow closer to some sort of ultimate truth.  But in many ways, the Viking world (to continue with that example) was probably ready for a change.  The world, after all, was changing.  Societies were evolving, the idea of nationhood was forming in Western Europe.  There were lots of reasons why a new religion could displace a less organized older one.  But, again, that explanation ranks right there with actual geology for making sense of an earthquake when the more “spiritual” rationale is much quicker to seize our attention.

Which brings me to a problem with criticizing any particular religion.  It’s a tricky thing.  Because it’s not a “thing” at all, but a behavior that is shared by many individuals, each in their own particular manner, yet related by a certain category of generally shared tenets and behaviors.  But there is no living organism or corporate headquarters for Christianity or Islam.  There’s no building to picket, no store to boycott.  Religions exist, yes, but as ideas that anyone can participate in.  (Sure there are the evangelists who feed and water irrational belief for their own (mostly commercial) ends, but even they are not the source.  They are freelance master manipulators of the human brain, trying to make a buck the best they can).

This is hardly satisfying.  It would be so much easier to attack irrational belief if there were some central plant that was sending out belief through a grid system like an electric plant.  That way we could shut down the source, and that would be the end of it.  But belief is a human phenomenon, a by-product of consciousness, a capacity latent in most human brains only awaiting an external trigger to come to life.  Belief begins in our own brains.  So irrational belief must be confronted one brain at a time.  But even if there is no actual God, we are still stuck with dealing with the believer who thinks that there is and, therefore, remains many mental miles away from understanding that the source of his or her belief rests very much between his or her own ears.

And so I come to agree with Christopher Hitchens when he says that we will never eliminate religion.  And maybe Christianity did bring some benefits to the heathen Vikings a thousand years ago.  Perhaps it was a step up from their earlier beliefs, even if the religious violence that became the new norm was only slightly less violent than that which preceded it.

The earth rumbles and dissipates the pressure built up from the incessant migration of its crust, shaking itself off to make room for the new rock being formed deep in the oceans.  And so we humans convulse from time to time, shaking off old beliefs and accepting new ones.  Perhaps Darwin’s “On the Origin of the Species” was such an intellectual earthquake, and we are still feeling the aftershocks of its publication.  The unraveling of the human genome, the discovery of the age of the universe and the blossoming field of neuroscience have all been recent shake-ups of old ideas.

Unfortunately, most humans feel the rumble of these earth-shaking discoveries and look skyward for the meaning that rests, in plain sight, right here on earth.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Dog Paddling Across a Sea of Ignorance” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, June 12th, 2011

I heard a writer interviewed on Christian radio today who was talking quite frankly (for Christian radio) about the differences between male and female sexual response (in humans, I should say).  She said they were different in every imaginable way, and that the first question she was going to ask God (when she met Him in Heaven) was “…why he designed us so differently”.

The refreshing aspect of this radio interview was the recognition by this writer of certain biological realities (brought to light, no doubt, by careful scientific research).  The troubling aspect is the intellectual contortions that were required to torture these realities into an acceptable religious framework.  It made me think that one of the major requirements of religious belief is this constant reshaping of reality to belief, or belief to reality.  (Or perhaps this is really a second-level process of religious belief, to be incorporated only after outright denial has failed to keep reality at bay).

As I was enjoying these thoughts, it was natural to next challenge them as unfair and simplistic, and to therefore look for ways in which this sort of intellectual remodeling is not just limited to religion.

It is a feature of human consciousness to construct narratives about our lives, both large and small.  We seek cause behind every event that surprises us — that doesn’t fit within our understanding of “reality”.  God, it turns out, is a really, really useful device for this, for He can be generous one moment, stern the next, silent for long periods or too mysterious for our lowly, earthly minds to comprehend.  Perfect.

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

But we don’t have to harbor belief in a literal God to make use of his (or her, or its) services.  We often toss out a phrase like “it was meant to be” when something has occurred that appears (from our limited perspective) to be fortuitous.  (Never mind that many that proclaim “I was saved for a reason” are usually describing their escape from a situation that claimed some number of other human lives, which would also, then, have to have not been spared for some equivalent “reason”).

As I’ve said before, I’m coming to realize that actual reality is so incredibly complex that there is rarely any way at all for us to fully comprehend the mixture of environment, action and biology that “makes” anything happen!

Science is the best tool we have for comprehending physical and biological reality.  But for science to be reliable, it must necessarily be narrow in its focus, meaning that each experiment must try hard to eliminate as many variables as possible in a highly-controlled environment.  This is why scientists are so circumspect in their proclamations, and why the press is always getting it wrong, pronouncing “cures” when in truth an experiment has shown that chemical compound A does this or that to cell B under these specific conditions.  Over time, of course, further experiments expand our knowledge so that we do end up knowing some things with a reliable degree of certainty.  But progress is slow and methodical, and not nearly as satisfying to a human mind that can trip more easily to a God that answers to all mystery in a much more satisfying (and immediate) way.

Now even the religious struggle with complexity, and experience periods of mental and emotional anguish as they work their way through a challenging life experience.  Often this occurs when an event comes that was “not supposed to happen” to someone who believed in God, and therefore their idea of what “can” happen to a believer is challenged and, thereby, stretched.  Religion is plastic in this way, which is one of the reasons it has survived the winnowing process of (what we could call) intellectual evolution.  Sure, belief in external and invisible intentional powers could almost be called an atavistic behavior in humans by those of us who have moved beyond it, but the very fact of religion’s ubiquity and persistence is testimony to an ancient-yet-still-satisfactory software functioning in the human consciousness.

Religious or not, we all need to make a way for ourselves in the reality of life as we experience it.  And part of that “making a way” is developing a mental construct that is able to handle the surprises and challenges of life in a fairly nimble way.  The major-brand choices on offer in this regard are generally sold as “Religion” and “Science”.  Both list their promised benefits, but not their weaknesses.  Religion points out that Science offers no consolation, and that it is therefore cold and heartless.  Science points out that Religion is based on “truths” that are unknowable and, well, “made up”, and is therefore ever at risk of causing harm to humans because of its un-moveable irrational beliefs.  In practice I think that most of us build a sort of hybrid of the two, taking what we need, as we need it, while ignoring the shrill demands from priest and researcher that the two don’t mix.  (Oil and water don’t mix either, but if you shake them enough you get Italian dressing…at least long enough to pour on your salad).

Now I’m of a different sort of mind, and have fought this idea that God must be retained as — at the very least — a receptacle for mystery.  I continue to feel that there is nothing in our experience that is not based in some physical or chemical process.  However, I have also read up enough on the current frontiers of science to be amazed at how complex actual biology and cosmology is, and have therefore become aware that my primate brain will never, ever, ever, know enough to know enough about my just my own individual life: I will die ignorant of so much that I will never even have a hint at.  But for me that does not lead back to God, and neither does it lead to an abandonment of science for not being all-knowing.  No, for me it leads to a frame of mind that accepts mystery as an acknowledgement of a vast ignorance that must ever be fed knowledge by the living with the understanding that that ignorance can only be diminished, not eliminated.

In this “mindset” there is, therefore, no shame and no false pride in being human: it is, in short, an acceptance of our reality.  After all, we’re the only animals in the game that give a shit about what’s behind it all (and on that score, maybe it’s high time the whales, dolphins, chimps and crows stopped goofing off all day, and began carrying their load of the research work!).

Unlike the writer referenced at the beginning of this sermon, we are able to understand that our sexually dimorphic traits, for example, are the products of millions of years of evolution (without having to hold the question of “why” for the afterlife).  We can appreciate the endless signs of our planet’s ancient geology that surround us without having to create tortured “Noah’s flood” explanations as to why there are petrified sea shells on top of mountains in Montana.  In short, we can skip the mental gymnastics and go straight to the delight in having eliminated one more small bit of our ignorance as we float through life on the ocean of that which we do not know.

t.n.s.r. bob

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “A Fossil Tour of Las Cruces”

Sunday, March 6th, 2011

Something Permian this way comes...leaving tracks.

I find a certain comfort and satisfaction in looking at fossils of past life.  I think this comes from a bit of wonder at their mere existence, realizing that fossilization could only occur in certain types of environments and conditions.  And then there is the age of the things themselves, which can easily boggle the mind.  But mostly what I feel is a connection with the extinct life forms they represent.  They once lived: I live today.  Each bit of fossilized bone is a remnant of a single individual animal that lived for a set length of time before dying.  I, of course, will follow this same arc of life.  Chances are, however, that I will not fossilize, but will take the route of decay back into the elements and atoms that formed my body and be dispersed and re-utilized by some other life form down the road.

So, just in case any of you in the Las Cruces area share my idea of a good time, let me point out some of the nifty bits of natural history that are scattered about in the area.

Of course there is the Las Cruces Natural History Museum (located near Penneys in the Mesilla Valley Mall, southwest corner of Telshor and Lohman), that contains a few slabs of the renowned “Permian Trackways”.  (If you happen to be visiting the Thomas Branigan Memorial Library in Downtown Las Cruces, they also have a footprint on display in the southeast corner of the main floor, in a display case above the video department).

I love this Minke Whale. Check out those hip bones!

Moving on to the New Mexico State University Campus, the place is littered with some impressive (and beautiful) bits from the Zuhl Collection.

Starting with a huge fossilized tree trunk resting on the corner of Jordan and Stewart Streets (across from the swimming pool), you can stop into the lobby of the Zuhl Library lobby, and find a cast of the T-Rex “Stan”, and a dinosaur leg bone as well as a display of polished petrified wood, and some neat fossils of smaller fauna (though there is a nice display in the lobby, pieces are scattered throughout the floors of the library).

Take a walk down the “International Mall”, walking West, and just past Branson Library, you’ll find the entrance to Foster Hall.  Step into the lobby and look up to see a mounted skeleton (not a fossil) of a Minke Whale.  I love this whale.  Mostly for its two small vestigial hip bones left over from the critter’s evolution from four-toed ungulate to sea-dwelling mammal!

Brachiosaur Humerus in Gardiner Hall at NMSU.

Head north from Foster Hall, across the “Horseshoe” to Gardiner Hall, the new home of the Geology Department.  Walk in the front and take a right, and you’ll find yourself in a hallway packed with fossils and minerals on display down the length of an entire hallway.  A complete humerus of a Brachisaur, mammoth bits, and fossilized fish.  They are still organizing the displays, so many items are not yet marked, but plenty are.
If you head further west down College Drive, look to your right before you hit El Paseo for the home of the Zuhl Collection’s main display building (just east of the NMSU Police/Parking department).  A large mounted petrified log marks the spot.  This is a compact, but very impressive collection of fossils, petrified wood and minerals.

We may not be a Chicago Field Museum, but with a little bit of looking you can, literally, get your hands on some really ancient history in your own backyard.

Click her for NMSU Maps.

t.n.s.r. bob