Posts Tagged ‘Kluge’

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

Sunday, July 22nd, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Injured Animal” by the not-so-reverend bob

Saturday, December 24th, 2011

There are times when I catch myself moving in a way that makes me think I’m very close to a clumsy stumble.  I most often take my bipedalism for granted, but there are times that I wonder at the magic of it — how we manage all of the intricate, spit-second inputs and muscular motions that keeps us moving, standing, dancing, jumping or running.  I’m most certainly made aware of it when my toe catches something and I do one of those embarrassing trip-stumble-recover things (and then attempt to adopt a demeanor somewhat akin to a cat that has just fallen awkwardly from some perch: “What, I didn’t do that!”).  It’s at times like this that I appreciate just how fine we cut things (the truth is that my foot is probably skimming about an eighth of an inch above the ground most of the time).

In evolutionary terms, this makes sense: why waste energy lifting the foot any higher than it needs to?  As I recently heard pointed out, natural selection favors the gazelle that can just barely outrun the cheetah, not the one that leaves it miles behind.  That’s why I can look down and realize that the big bump that generally trips me up is actually a small crack in the pavement, lifted up only a fraction of an inch.  Most of the time, we judge correctly, and those times when we don’t, we’re still pretty close, and can recover our balance.  Once in a while, though, we’re going down.

When I stepped off the concrete pad down to the mostly-dirt lawn beyond (carrying my standard extra load of briefcase and gym bag) I somehow landed on the edge of my foot and kept going in a way that created a singular sharp sound of tearing that shot right into my brain.  I didn’t fall, but I stumbled, and knew I’d done something wrong.  I also knew I had only to wait a few minutes for the confirming pain from swelling in the tight compartment of flesh, bone and muscle that is the foot.

I stumbled into my studio and set down my bags, still not in severe pain, still trying to act as if what had just happened hadn’t just happened.  This was the moment when I was surprised by an urge to pray to God for deliverance, or healing, or whatever.  What I wanted most desperately to do was to roll back time to the moment before I failed to take my mode of forward locomotion seriously enough to avoid seriously injuring my foot.  I wanted to deny reality.  And in response to that desire, my brain offered me God.  Interesting.  But even in that desperate moment, my reasoning brain had to say “Thanks, but, no thanks”.

As I continued into my studio my mind raced as it double-checked all of the sensory inputs: did I really hear a distinctive tearing sound?  Maybe not.  Maybe it’s just a muscle injury (since the sound was neither a “snap” nor a “pop”).  A muscle tear might mean swelling and some damage, but I can live with that.  At least it won’t mean the expense and recovery time of surgery.  But how could a tearing muscle make a sound that would carry through skin and sock and leather boot?  Surely it’s not a tendon, I thought.  Wishful thinking, clearly, as my thoughts were mostly efforts to undo the undeniable reality of what I had just done.

But the queasy feeling in my abdomen gave confirmation that I had been deeply injured in some way, and I was suddenly like any other wounded animal.  My mind began racing ahead through my afternoon and the days ahead, working out the ramifications of my potential inability to move, work or care for myself.

But unlike an injured animal on the plain, I could go to a hospital.  Despite the pain, I was wrapped in a kind of euphoria as my body pumped adrenaline and endorphins into my veins.  It wasn’t until I was in the emergency room, talking to the nurse, that I felt my animal wariness drop: sensing safety and the care of others, my animal brain allowed the reality of my situation to sink in.  I could have cried.

I've dubbed it "The Velcro Booty of Shame".

An x-ray would later confirm the the broken foot, and a skilled human would advise me on how best to accommodate the healing of sundered bone (that was the sound I heard).  Pills were prescribed  and I was issued an isolating boot and crutches.

But even with all of the modern helps, I am still an animal used to walking, walking, walking.  Now every change of location requires a re-thinking.  Now the mind is looking ahead for where the challenges will be: what plans must be changed, what activities will have to be managed with new methods, or with help from others.

Being a social human, I have help available.  I have friends and family, and I am not an elk with a broken leg who is in danger of being singled out by a fanged predator.  I know from experience that it will take a while to get used to my injury (to feel out the boundaries of it by trial and error).  And, of course, it will most likely gradually improve.  We have all been sick or injured and we know the drill, even if we don’t yet know an unfamiliar injury.

As I write, my brain is trying to work around my broken foot, adjusting to the reality of it.  I still don’t want to believe I can’t just get up and walk.  When I sit for a while, and the foot doesn’t hurt, it’s easy to forget it’s a problem at all.  But then I stand up, or bump it against something, and realize with uncertain clarity that even if I had to, I couldn’t run from anything right now.  That is disturbing to the animal in me, for deep inside my animal brain persists.  (We have left little of it behind us in our evolution: we have only layered a more modern brain on top of it).

I’m still fascinated (and not a little bothered) by the part of my brain that — in the midst of madly scanning for ways out of my injury — pulled out the idea of God.  In a way, it confirms what I’ve come to understand about my human brain: it is, indeed, a believing brain (as Michael Schermer calls it in his book, reviewed this blog).  But it’s worth noting the conditions under which this nonbeliever was given that idea to consider.  We know that our brain files information and experience in a contextual way (see “Kluge” — reviewed this blog) and I’ve noticed that when something happens that demands a response, the brain simply pulls every file that it recognizes as having anything at all to do with the subject at hand.  This doesn’t mean that the brain will always (or even often) pull the “right” file off the shelf of memory.  It just grabs everything it can and throws it at the conscious mind like a badger throwing dirt as it digs after prey.  So, because I have past experience as a believer in God, that file was still on my shelf (and always will be, along with every other experience I’ve ever had).

But there was still an emotional component to the idea.  Though my rational mind dismissed it right away, my emotional brain really really wanted to use it.  Why?  Because I was afraid and desperately trying to construct a bulwark against the reality I was trying very hard to deny.

My mother called family members to pray for me.  And I was deeply relieved when the doctor told me my fracture would heal on it’s own, without surgery.  Were I a believer, I would have stood up in church (on my nevertheless broken foot) and called that a “miracle”, or an “answer to prayer”. (neither of which would have been true, but I would nevertheless have found a tide of intellectual support for the notion).

The reality is that I will always have a “believing brain”, and I will always have those past experiences of belief.  Never mind that there was no actual God to call upon in my moment of animal fear — at least no intelligence with the cosmic power to turn back time and undo the physical damage I had done to my own body.  I know enough now about neuroscience and the human mind to understand what’s going on in my brain during a crisis like this.  But that moment of rapid-fire thinking reminded me of the emotional pull of belief, a pull that so many humans give in to for comfort and hope.  I get it.  But, then, I think I always have.

I’m a physical animal in a physical world, and I took a bad step that overstressed the collection of bones and tendons in my foot, leading the weakest part of that assembly to give way first.  In pain and fear I wanted desperately to alter reality.  But I could not.  Thanks to helpful humans, I am helped in my recovery, which comes down to giving that foot as much rest as I can so that the physical process of healing can proceed all on its own.  We move, we trip, we are injured, we are helped and we heal and move on.

One of the most remarkable finds in ancient human bones (including the Neanderthals) has been the number of serious injuries that healed.  These are the kinds of injuries that would have disabled individuals for a time, a time during which they could only have survived with the help of their fellows.  For all the animals that are out there, it makes me feel very lucky, indeed, to be a human.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “An Evolution Dialogue” By the not-so-reverend bob.

Sunday, January 30th, 2011

Recently I got a note from someone I’d known for some time.  I assumed he’d just taken a look at this blog, and e-mailed me to confirm that I was a “believer” in Evolution.  I answered in the affirmative, and the following (electronic) dialog began.  I decided to save the text as it progressed, and now want to share it with you.  I’ll use the name JOE for the questioner, and BOB for myself.

(NOTE: I have left the text un-edited, removing only the names).

JOE:  I would like to discuss the issue.

It is my understanding that mutations are mostly bad in ratio to good positive ones when you are talking about human species. The ratio is estimated at 100 to 1 bad vs good. If that is so, then how come the human is so fantastically made? Why don’t we look like freaky man. Where the results from all the bad mutations go when only 1/100 is positive. This is 1 of about a lot of questions I have regarding evolution. My intent with discussing this with you is not to create friction with you by anything written on PC. So i want you to know now, that i am seeking info on the subject. So don’t get mad at me during this OK :) ?

BOB: Sure.

I’d have to check the numbers, but accepting your ratio of “bad” to “good” mutations as correct (for humans and for all other animals), the reality is that there are vast stretches on our genome that are “junk”, or leftover DNA from our evolutionary past that is no longer “switched on” in our modern human development (though scientist’s caution that just because we don’t exactly know what they are doing there doesn’t make them junk). So when mutations occur in these areas, it has no impact on the viability of the organism. However, we are constantly enduring mutations in our active DNA, and sometimes these cause disorders from the mild to the severe, or cause death (in the womb or after).

The reality is that as amazing as our human bodies and minds are, we are not so fantastically made, but are a collection of mutations and adaptations that were “good enough” to work, some of which gave us enough of an advantage to survive better than other animals, and the bad ones weren’t so bad that we couldn’t live with them (for a good description of how badly engineered we are read “Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind” by Gary Marcus —

So some of us come out looking like “freaky man”. There are humans born with supernumerary (extra) nipples, for example, or other non-life-threatening genetic throwbacks to our more primitive past. Our lower backs go bad because we’re still adapting to walking upright with the body plan of a fish, we still have tailbones, and our hiccup reflex seems to be a leftover of our amphibian past (did you know we grow a coat of fur in the womb that is re-absorbed before birth — but not always!?).

Other evidence of this is the fact that half of our body’s cellular weight is bacteria, and only about 6% of the genes in our body are actually human, the rest are bacterial and viral (so maybe we have to call them “human” too…I wonder). Yikes! We are walking storehouses of the evidence of our evolutionary past.

There are lots of good books that cover the most current understandings of human evolution that even a guy like me can understand (you could look through the REVIEWS on my blog).

I think what happens is a lot of folks have a limited or incorrect understanding about what the theory of evolution does and does not say (both on the “believer” and “non-believer” side, I might add). Obviously I love talking about this stuff.

So there’s maybe question one of the many…maybe!

JOE: Dang it i can’t type today… sorry Bob

Ok, then where did the original biological “soup” that all this began with come from? I understand the mutation process as it applies on going if you will. I know that an evolving action takes place in life, but i find it almost entirely unbelievable that life forms so complex CAN be mutated into being without a design blueprint for each species. There had to be a foreknowledge from original begins to the end product.

BOB: Don’t sweat it: who knows how many typos I’ll create here…

The theory of evolution only deals with the development of life once it got started, so it doesn’t address the “soup” you’re talking about. That’s another field (and another can of worms).

However, there’s a lot of science trying to figure out just how things did get started. The major component is liquid water and the chemicals and elements that the earth acquired (over millions of years) through the impacts of objects from space. There have been some experiments where scientists have attempted to recreate the original “soup”, and zap it with some electricity (to mimic lighting strikes) and have actually produced “life” (in a very slimy, rudimentary form). But this is still a very open area of study and conjecture.

What is really interesting is that you consider a “natural” cause (for which there is plentiful evidence) to be more incredible to believe than a “supernatural” one (for which there is no evidence). Of course you’re not alone in that, but if you can take a step back and look at the logic of it: “Because we do not (yet) know how life on earth began, therefore God must have created it” represents an incredible leap of logic.

Personally, a major component of my being able to grasp the idea of all of this complicated life emerging from such a simple photo-chemical reaction was coming to an understanding of the sheer depth of geologic time. If you think the earth has only been here for 6,000 years, then of course evolution’s a fairly ridiculous concept to embrace. But once you understand the billions of years that all of this took to come into being (and that more than half of that time passed BEFORE the first SUCCESSFUL life finally “caught on” on earth), it becomes not only understandable, but pretty interesting.

The reality is that nothing about life on earth indicates any foreknowledge or any supernatural action. All life forms are descended from earlier life forms, and each one carries in both its structure and DNA the leftovers and hints of what it once was (for this read Neil Shubin’s “Your Inner Fish”). Now some believers in God (that also accept science) take the view that God got the process started and worked THROUGH evolution. But as one early scientist pointed out, there is nothing in the evidence of life on earth that REQUIRES the intervention of God for an explanation of its existence.

(Good writers on that subject are Richard Dawkins — on the science side — and Christopher Hitchens — more on the cultural/philosophical/religious side).

I’ll attach a version of the timeline I used in my “Darwin” program that shows where we humans came into the picture. The third image from the left shows when the very first multi-cellular organisms show up in the fossil record. You’ll see it took a LONG TIME before anything more complex showed up, but once it did, things started happening (relatively) fast. (And there have been some recent surprising discoveries about just how quickly populations can change).

An evolutionary timeline using three 8-foot 2x4 boards.

Religion was our first science, really. But the truth is that over the last couple of hundred years, actual scientific discovery has gradually replaced belief with evidence. Evolution makes no claim as to whether or not God exists, it only demonstrates that life could have developed through completely natural means.

JOE: So do you believe God exist and started life and the evolution process – or multiplication of single cells as i see it, rather than the word evolution- is the truth?
I just have real hard time believing that we came from slime plus time, no matter how long time has been. I feel it is a bigger stretch that this is the truth than to believe that God created man.
When does evolution claim mankind started reproducing by conception through sexual means vs. from the fish? Or do they still believe they do?

BOB:  The first fossil evidence for sexual reproduction goes back over 1 billion years…long before fish or humans, so mankind has always reproduced sexually — we inherited that trait from our pre-human ancestors.  Unless you mean internal conception as opposed to spraying sperm over eggs that are floating at the bottom of the stream…I’d have to look that up.  But there was a long stretch of evolution between our fishy past and mammalian, modern us.

I don’t believe there is a god.  I consider the idea of god a product of human consciousness.  I think it was “slime plus time”, because that’s what the evidence suggests.  Plus, there is plenty of evidence that humans are subject to a whole range of irrational beliefs, the belief in god chief among them (Heck, I believed it for a long time myself — I was even a missionary smuggling stuff to Christians behind the Iron Curtain once!).

Yep, we live in a very interesting universe, but not one that cares one way or the other.  Evolution is simply a scientific description of phenomena and evidence — it’s not a competing “force” or personality.

JOE: You are a smart man Bob. We disagree about the existence of God but it is interesting information to me how people view these issues.

Are you educated in the sciences or is it your own personal studies through the years. I didn’t know you were a missionary at all. What turned you from our belief in God, if I may ask. You don’t have to answer of course.

BOB: I guess I’m self-educated through following my interests, working with scientists, talking with them, and a lot of reading.

Same “need to know” that made me burn a hole right through my Christianity back in ’87. Just kept asking questions and one day found myself popped out the other side of it. Happens

JOE: I don’t follow the last paragraph.

BOB:  I was referring to the first paragraph (but not very well or clearly), meaning that it seems that I had (have) a “need to know”, or at least a need to understand why I believe what I believe, and that led me not to questioning, really, but to try to understand my faith. So I ended up reading a lot of C.S. Lewis and the like. Last book I read as a Christian was “Rediscovering the Teachings of Jesus” by Norman Parrin — turned out to be a pivotal book in my declension (or movement away from) from faith.

JOE: My goodness how can one book do that? Sorry to hear it really.

Faith is hard to hang on to, but I find it is worth it seeing as if the Bible is true, nothing in life is worth separation from eternity in paradise. Hell is no place i want to spend forever in…. with no escape. I am certainly not the model of a good Christian but i know what i believe. If you got saved by Christ at some point in your life, I believe you can’t change that unless you have a true apostate heart.

I find it hard you would wind up hating God.

hard to believe above last line.

BOB: That’s the thing: I don’t hate God.  I don’t think I have a single believing friend that can understand my experience in any other way than thinking it of as “backsliding”, or reacting against the authority of God that I know to be true, but am rebelling against.  How can I be angry at a God that doesn’t exist except in the imaginations of men?

The reality is that religious belief is a kind of spell that has to break before one can see what’s on the other side (which is, well, reality).  I appreciate the sincerity of your concern regarding eternal damnation, but as Monica Hesse put it in a Washington Post article about Atheists: “Most of them have been told, at one point or another, that they are going to hell, which, when you think about it, is a fairly pointless threat to an atheist, like warning someone that you’re sending them to Narnia.”

I agree with Stephen Hawking, who compares consciousness to a computer program: when the computer dies, the programs ceases, that’s it.  The voice I always took to be God or Jesus turns out to be the voice of my own consciousness, right here in my little brain.  That’s why I work to make the most of my life now, and do what I can to make life better for my fellow humans now.  Religion is a fairly inefficient help to humans, I think, overall.

JOE: It is kind of hard to hate what you don’t believe exist :)

I understand your points and still believe you are going to heaven. There has to be more to this existence of outer space, life on earth. What force, since you are obviously scientific in thought, outer space in its perfect place to support life.


Final thought:  There is much more to our human beliefs than reason and evidence.  The more we learn about ourselves and our brains, the more we see that the way in which our minds function pretty much set us up for belief, where our (more recently-evolved) higher reasoning faculties are often placed in the service of the maintenance of those beliefs.  In order to move beyond the spell of belief we are actually working against some fairly ancient and deeply-imbedded habits of our consciousness.  It can be done, of course, but I do not discount the disquieting effects that such “tectonic” movements of the mind can carry in their wake (awakening to an indifferent universe can make for a chilly dawn, indeed).

There’s a reason that popular surveys claim a measurable “happiness effect” of belief in powers greater than ourselves (though it looks like this effect is mostly connected to the greater satisfaction of our “social primate” needs that comes from being a part of a meaningful “community”.  See:

The fact that most humans do believe in a range of irrational things only proves that humans believe in irrational things, it does not prove the existence of the fanciful.  But, of course, as I’ve said before: life goes on regardless of what we believe about it, and I find myself tempted to give less attention to trying to figuring it all out and more to making the most of the time I have in this life of mine.  But then, trying to figure things out is one of the things us clever primates find joy in doing.  So…

t.n.s.r. bob

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind” by Gary Marcus, by t.n.s.r. bob

Sunday, December 26th, 2010

FROM THE AUTHOR’S WEBSITE: “Gary Marcus author of the The Birth of the Mind (Basic Books, 2004, translated into 6 languages) and editor of The Norton Psychology Reader, is an award-winning Professor of Psychology at New York University, where he is director of the NYU Center for Child Language. His research, published in leading journals such as Science, Nature, Cognition, and Psychological Science, focuses on the evolution and development of the human mind.

Marcus also enjoys writing for the general public, in venues ranging from The New York Times to The Huffington Post. His newest book, Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind, will be published in Spring 2008.”

In an article in The Economist last year, a writer made the observation that when it comes  to economics, most economists — though generally accepting of Darwinian evolution — seem to draw a line at the neck, treating the human mind as a super-rational exception to the evolutionary rule expressed early in Gary Marcus’ book:

“Nature is prone to making kluges because it doesn’t “care” whether its products are perfect or elegant.  If something works, it spreads.  If it doesn’t work, it dies out.  Genes that lead to successful outcomes tend to propagate; genes that produce creatures that can’t cut it tend to fade away; all else is metaphor.  Adequacy, not beauty, is the name of the game”.

“Kluge” is slang for “A clumsy or inelegant solution to a problem”, and the reality that an evolutionary kluge is what we have for a brain is the thesis of this book.

I’ll say at the outset that I’m sympathetic to this idea, as I’ve long understood that everything about life on this planet (including us humans) represents the best that nature could do with the materials at hand and not (as those holding to a special creation mindset would argue) an example of “perfection” in any reasonable form of that notion.  And although there were a few times where I thought the author heavy-handed in the hammering home of this notion, I can find no fault with his arguments supported by plentiful examples relevant research.

My presupposition that we humans are rational creatures has been shaken of late, and this book has helped me to understand the “why” of  that confusion.  Our reasoning, rational brain is but the latest (and weakest) addition to the ancient apparatus in our skulls:

“The hindbrain, the oldest of the three (dating from at least half a billion years ago), controls respiration, balance, alertness, and other functions that are as critical to a dinosaur as to a human.  The midbrain, layered on soon afterward, coordinates visual and auditory reflexes and controls functions such as eye movements.  The forebrain, the final division to come online, governs things such as language and decision-making, but in ways that often depend on older systems.  As any neuroscientist textbook will tell you, language relies heavily on Broca’s area, a walnut-sized region of the left forebrain, but it too relies on older systems, such as the cerebellum, and ancestral memory systems that are not particularly well suited to the job.  Over the course of evolution our brain has become a bit like a palimpsest, and ancient manuscript with layers of text written over it many times, old bits still hiding behind the new.”

One great aspect of this book is the form it gives to patterns of thought and perception that we all experience.  This is helpful in two ways: the first being a greater appreciation for — and sympathetic acceptance of — our natural human (idiosyncratic) ways of cognition, and secondly; offering ways of working around the natural limitations such an evolved animal brain brings with it.

In technical terms, the book is well written and nicely organized, making it a pleasure to read.  And the scientific information is packed more densely than a Christmas fruitcake.  A particularly refreshing (and mildly surprising) aspect of the book is how directly the author takes on the “creationist” view, over and over again.  But then, writing for an American audience (where a majority of the population holds that God was involved in our making one way or another) why wouldn’t any author on such a subject deal directly with those beliefs.

I recommend this book highly, with thanks to the scientific researcher who pulled it off her shelf for me to read.

t.n.s.r. bob