Posts Tagged ‘human mind’

SERMON: “Wrong About the Same Thing” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, October 17th, 2010

Twice in the last weeks I’ve attempted to draw a graph depicting my (informed though subjective) impression of the tendency of Homo sapiens sapiens toward irrational belief: the vertical line represents a percentage of the population, and the horizontal line represents a continuum of belief (with the totally bat-shit crazy stuff at the far left and the completely rational evidence-based belief at the far right end of the scale).

On my first try the thing looked like a ski slope with most folks on the irrational belief side, and a slim few on the rational end of the scale.  After some discussion I’ve since revised it to be more of a bell curve, with a smaller number of people on the crazy side, a huge bulge in the middle that gradually (yet quickly) drops off to a small percentage on the completely rational end.

I was motivated to do this by the realization that even the average among us harbors any number of irrational beliefs.  A biological parallel presents itself immediately: it is almost like the way each of us carries untold bacteria and microbes in (and on) our bodies.  Or the way in which we seem (historically speaking) to most often experience mutations on a link in our DNA that is not active or critical to our health and development, only occasionally experiencing a change that threatens our existence (just as most bacteria are not a danger to the health of ourselves or others).

In the same way, I’m coming to the (not original with me) idea that irrational belief is ineradicable — just like the billions of bacteria that make up more than half the cellular weight of our physical bodies.  This, of course, begs the question: if (as science tells us) some 90 percent of the genetic material that we carry in our bodies is — technically speaking — not human, but bacterial or viral, would we still be human without it?  And if we would cease to function as discreet physical beings were we to be suddenly free of all of that “foreign” material, can we really call it “foreign” or “non-human at all?

(Of course this last point is more an esoteric than a practical concur: more an issue of perspective than anything else).

The difference, of course, between bacteria and irrational belief is that we can function perfectly well without the latter, if not the former (though it takes a surprising amount of effort to counter the tendency toward irrational belief, it can be done — unlike any attempt to rid ourselves completely of bacteria).

There are, naturally, many who would disagree, and consider HOPE so important, that they consider it a valid criticism of Atheism that it cannot provide that commodity in sufficiently digestible doses.  But these are the same that point to that huge bulge in in the middle of my “belief bell curve” as evidence that God (by any of the popular brand names) must surely exist (otherwise, why would so many people believe in Him, her or it?).

One thing that the reality of so many people sharing a belief in God (on the one hand, and the thousands of other irrational theories on the other) does, indeed, prove is not that God (or any of the other mild to wild ideas we humans believe) is real, but that it is easily possible for a large number of people to be wrong about the same thing!

Like bacteria, there are really only a few truly virulent forms of irrational belief that will kills us (or lead us to kill each other).  Even so we take care to wash our hands and take precautions that will decrease our chances of catching a cold, say, or inoculate ourselves against this season’s most likely flu bug.  (And behind the scenes, our government pours a judicious sum of money into constant research to spot the next potential population-decimating plague that is ever ready to jump us).  In the same way, each dose of evidence and reason we take into our minds boosts our immunity to the fever of the irrational.

Is it worth it?  Is it a worthy use of a portion of our time and energy to learn, to investigate, to do battle with our own natural irrationality?  I think so.  Most of the time we can endure the typical cold as a cost of being social and active among our fellow humans.  But with so many of our fellow hominids hot with various fevers of irrational belief, the more of us that are healthy in that way the better.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The Problem of Problem Solving” by the-not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, July 4th, 2010

An interesting feature of a problem-solving brain is that it’s interested mostly in, well, solving problems.  Once a question is answered, the mind is pretty much like the cat that’s killed the mouse it’d been happily tossing and chasing about for the last hour: it may linger over the now-still plaything for a moment, but it will inevitably move on to the next thing that will engage its attention.

It’s been my natural curiosity, I suppose, as much as my own emotional need to understand that’s made me the fake minister that I am today.  What began as a search for my own sense of belonging (the theme of my original sermon in “Happy Birthday Charles Darwin at the Church of Evolution with the not-so-reverend bob”) led to the formation of “the church of bob” and the launching of the “boblog”, which had the effect of both accelerating my reading and focusing my inquiry to the point that I burned through an entire catalog of questions about our evolutionary origins.  In short: I played a lot of mice to death in a relatively short time.

What followed was that sense of serenity one achieves when “big” questions are settled.  I felt a bit like a soldier grown accustomed to battle suddenly told the war is over.  Now what?

One day, in the waning afterglow of enlightenment (which can glow for days or minutes), I took stock of what emotional charge there might still be in me attached to the mention of “God”.  Turned out there wasn’t much.  This was notable to me, and I wondered how to describe it.  Suddenly I had an inspiration, and was sure I had invented a new term: “apathesistic” (meaning not an atheist, who was certain there was no god; nor an agnostic, who believes the existence of god can neither be proved no disproved; nor a theist, who believes in an active, intervening personal god; nor even a deist, who believes in an impersonal, non-intervening deity; but rather someone to whom the entire question is irrelevant).

A cursory web search showed that others had coined that term long before me.  Ah, well.  So it goes.

And so it goes with Evolution.  All of the big questions about the veracity of that theory have been proven over and over again (with new discoveries showing up every day — or, conversely, new areas of religious explanation for our existence being further eroded every day).

So it was interesting to follow the link sent me by my “conservative” buddy Steve to a website that show Native American Petroglyphs that purported to show a rock carving of a Stegosaurus that proved (PROVED!) that dinosaurs lived in North America at the time of the Plains Indians.  (Among this websites other delights is the host’s computer game in which you can sink Darwin’s famous ship The Beagle with gunfire from the Nazi-era battleship the Scharnhorst.  Hmmm).

There was a testimonial from a Native American authority about how no Indian would have made up what he (or she) hadn’t actually seen with his (or her) own eyes!  (No matter that this critter is universally viewed as a depiction of Mishipeshu the “Water Panther”, a creature from tribal mythology associated with streams and copper).

This, of course, is the same argument Creationists use with the mentions in the Bible of “Leviathon” (for example), and the popular depictions and descriptions of dragons and other mythical creatures throughout history: “People couldn’t have just made these things up!”

That being said, what I noticed most was my own reaction to the sight of the lovely Native-American rock art shown in the photos.  I easily dismissed the much weaker examples that were put forward as depicting a Triceratops or Brontosaur as truly tortured attempts by zealots to make scribbles into technical drawings, but the (presumed) Stegosaurus was something to behold.

So I looked up the name of the mythical beast on line, and read about it’s history.  (As is my habit these days, I began by checking the basic facts).  But why did I even bother exerting that much effort with what was clearly a desperate ploy by a young-earth creationist to wring scientific evidence from Native American mythology?  From where came that familiar twinge in the chest that registers as a “What if this IS true?” feeling?

That’s where I come back to my (our) problem-solving brain.

I have to conclude that my brain’s default setting is one of a very local awareness.  It pays attention to my own body and the space that immediately surrounds it.  It is constantly scanning a short list of inputs and, if nothing much is happening, it then turns it’s often impressive problem-solving capacity to anything it can put its little hands on.  That’s why we worry and get anxious thinking about future events for which we have no immediate physical information and over which we have absolutely no control.  That’s why we dream.  It’s almost as if our brain has only two settings: normal and really really fired up.

Questions and problems fire us up, and so my brain basically ignored the mountains of data and years of inquiry and treated the “petroglyph Stegosaurus” as a problem to be solved.  My mind took that image in as if it might really be a substantial piece of evidence.

Of course it’s not.  A single fact from any number of sources (is there any fossil evidence of Stegosaur bones associated with Native American sites, for example) would reveal the wishful thinking parading as evidence that this image represented.

Sure we can accept that it’s a real petroglyph, and also that there does exist a creature like it in tribal mythology.  But like all of these handful of supposedly evolution-disproving “finds”, it is two percent reality, and ninety-eight percent wish fulfillment.

But I still had to go through the steps to remind myself of that reality.  Re-mind.  Interesting phrase, that.  Because my mind was no longer actively acquiring evidence from which to form my ideas on my origins, that part of my mind had to be re-engaged on the issue.

That little tinge in the chest makes one feel like a settled issue may not be settled at all — as if a case decided by a judge is about to be overturned by a higher court.  And I had to scuttle back into the dusty-shelves to re-examine the case.

In the end (to push that metaphor) the original case stood.  (Or, to push the metaphor even further: there was insufficient evidence to “re-open” the case).

But I imagine my tinge of fear magnified when a Creationist is confronted with this ever-growing ocean of evidence that constantly beats upon the ever-diminishing island of support for the idea of a young earth with a creating god behind it.  The difference between us is not the “tinge”, or the fear of being proven wrong, but the way in which we allow our minds to play with the tempting mice of ideas.

The creationist is presented  with one more fact, one more discovery about Evolution and, under threat, re-opens the file called “Evidence for God” and reviews the answered prayers, the miracles, the strong feelings of elation and awe and decides that his (or her) evidence outweighs science.

Of course I could very likely take every single piece of “God evidence” and point to a purely natural explanation for the phenomenon without ever discounting the phenomenon itself.  So the “evidence” for the Creationist view isn’t really evidence at all, and yet it serves the function of evidence to the (admittedly less inquisitive) mind of the Creationist.

Which makes me think that the mind is more concerned with efficacy than veracity when it comes to answering questions or settling the existential issues that trouble us.

I think it is only with effort that we are able to move outside of ourselves, so to speak.  We are never, literally, outside of our own bodies and consciousnesses, but we do have a capacity to stretch the umbilical chord and take a look back at ourselves for periods of time before we are snapped back into a sort of baseline way of being, of thinking.  That’s where we get the feeling of being “stretched” when learning or wrestling to integrate a new way of thinking, or of seeing the world.

So why stretch ourselves over and over once we’ve found an “answer” that calms the mind?  The simple answer is because we have hope of finding ever-better and more satisfying answers.  Such hope may be more a product of a particular temperament or life experience than anything else.  Many of us hold back from inquiry for fear of finding something terrible for our troubles.  I know I did, many times.  But I have found unexpected (and, frankly, unexpect-able) rewards with each new discovery, so that I now regularly enjoy a mental ease and capacity for enjoyment of daily living that I could never have imagined aided — in no small part — by my understanding of my origins, my self and my place in the scheme of things.  (Which is why I’m such an evangelist of rational inquiry).

Of course we can’t spend our entire lives “outside” ourselves looking in.  We naturally seek the comfort of the familiar, the low hum of living that carries us through most of our daily tasks.  So while our brains will go nuts until we get something figured out — we are driven toward the calm of understanding.  But then we get restless.  This, it seems, is the central emotional/psychological paradox of existence for us: our minds are ever hungry for a new “mouse” because we’re so easily bored with the one we captured yesterday.  We could choose to live a less challenging life, but growth can only come from challenge.  Fortunately for us, at least in terms of scientific discovery, there remain an endless supply of “mice” out there to chase.

Or to put it poetically (and to drag a different metaphor into the mix), I once wrote this: “The euphoria of enlightenment is a passing joy.  I am certain even the birds tire in their flight above the earth”.

t.n.s.r. bob