Posts Tagged ‘materialism’

SERMON: “Accidentally Right” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, July 8th, 2012

The first sermon I ever gave on Evolution had in its closing statement the line “Because of Darwin, life on earth makes sense”.  At first blush that can seem a bit grandiloquent, but it is actually a reliably true statement.  Before Darwin (used in the inclusive sense of the important ideas that he famously made widely known) we were guessing at how life had become so varied and strange.  Before Darwin, even our scientists turned (with understandable consistency) to metaphysical explanations for natural phenomenon.  After Darwin, we had a means of seeing life as it really exists.

The reason we still hold Darwin in such high esteem (and the reason that creationists revile him so completely) is that his ideas turned out to be grounded in testable knowledge, and the scientific work that was able to follow and build upon his ideas has turned out to confirm the essential “rightness” of his theory of natural selection.  The same cannot be said for the medieval alchemists, the medical theories of the ancient Greeks, nor, I should say, the creation myths of any ancient religion (at least when taken literally).

Like the biologists that were (and are still) able to begin their research from the solid foundation of Darwin’s theories, I have found that same knowledge consistently helpful in making sense of my own experience of life.

For it turns out that there is, after all, a certain “harmony” to life.  From an evolutionary point of view, this makes perfect sense, as every process that exists tends, over time, to create a sort of balance between the forces that are in competition for space and resources.  Resources are a part of that balance, as are a myriad other factors from climate to geology to storms on the sun.  Though there continues a constant cycle of expansion and extinction of populations, both large and microscopic, and though the earth has experienced several global, mass extinction events, life itself will inevitably settle into some semblance of stability.

We understand the forces that create weather on our planet, but still find it incredibly challenging to predict it!

Stability is, of course, nothing but an impression — a perception that is available only to us humans (and other cognitively complex animals) when we observe the world we live in.  The sun rises, the sun sets.  December is cold (here in New Mexico, anyway), and June is hot.  The rains come on the fourth of July, and apples and chile are harvested in the fall.  But these are simplistic perceptual shorthand for the cumulative effect of uncountable ongoing processes both vast and microscopic: patterns of weather that are shaped by the rotation of the planet, fed by the heat of the sun that pumps solar energy into the vast ocean currents, and which then determines whether we’ll have floods or drought.

To the mystically-minded, the weather is an act of God.  (It might as well be for all the power we have to “change” it).

The fact is that life on earth (including our own lives) persist because we — like all life — are adaptable and able to change (either through genetic mutation through sexual reproduction or, in the case of humans, through the use of technology to alter our living environments and landscape).

I read an article once stating that most economists seemed to accept evolution from the neck down, and therefore failed to take human irrationality into account in their predictions of the behavior of markets.  I think most of us do this:  we fail to see that the “harmony” that we observe on the planet is really just a sort of a snapshot of a moment in time —  a stop-motion glimpse of the ever-renewing natural product of the living processes that create stasis only in the balance between competing forces.

Because we humans have the ability to observe and analyze our world, we frequently come to believe that our brains have somehow found a way to transcend their biology — that they are not subject to these natural forces.  They haven’t, and they aren’t.

There are many that hold that such a materialistic view of human nature degrades us to the level of animals (as if that is, a priori, a bad thing).  Nevertheless, I hold just such a view of my own (and others) behavior.  And I go further in believing that holding a falsely elevated view of ourselves is the root of many of our discontents.

Going into any situation with the conviction that our brains are the perfected product of a divine creative intelligence can be a set up for disaster.  How can we (and our poor brains) but fail to live up to that sort of performance expectation?

For if I’m honest with myself (which I always — in the end, anyway — want to be), I am wrong about something almost all of the time.  And when I’m right, I am right — as it were — by accident.

How can it be that I have survived this long (with as many loving, business and social relationships as I have) being so wrong?  Well, because the social relationships that we have — that are so essential to our own survival — are no different than the profligate and messy nature that surrounds us.

Let me explain my meaning:  Because of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, we understand that being right all the time is not at all essential to the survival of a species — being right just a bit more than the other poor son of a bitch is.  Mostly our “false positives” are fear-based (which is another way of describing “survival” or “fight or flight” responses).  What this comes down to is that it is far better for us to be wrong and run away a hundred times than to be wrong and not run away the one time we were right!

When I stop and look at the first impressions I get — the initial reactions my monkey-mind comes up with — they mostly get things wrong.  Now sometimes they can be just a bit “off”, but other times they can attribute the absolute opposite meaning to something someone has just said to me (it is a standard joke of mine that a woman can turn anything a mans says to her into an insult, and a man can turn anything a woman says to him into a compliment).  If you examine your own thoughts, I’m certain you won’t have to look very far to find your own examples (if you don’t, it likely means you’ve got an added layer of self-delusion in your particular mix — also a very standard bit of human perceptual bias).

It’s humbling for me to realize that even when I do the right thing with another, my actions are motivated by my perception of a situation that forms the basis a sort of predictive mental picture of what outcome my actions will produce.  This is how our brains work: they constantly make “snap” decisions and “predict” the short-term future, and then give us our marching orders (for more on this, read “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell, reviewed this blog).  It is only afterwards — when things have gone wrong or not turned out as we imagined — that we have to do the forensic work to understand the “why” of the failure.  But I am finding that even when things turn out right, I was wrong in almost every way imaginable about the reasons that the other person went along with my idea!

This is startling to realize.  It makes me wonder how in the world we ever make satisfying connections with each other when we are seeing things so differently!  But of course we do find satisfying connections, so clearly getting things perfectly “right” is not the most essential component of our social relations.

We humans are wired by our evolutionary past to seek out relationships with each other.  Therefore we are motivated to make the allowances for the errors in our perception and communication with each other.  The greater the desire for connection, the wider the target we present to the arrows of Eros (in the case of romantic attraction): the lesser the desire, the harder we make it for another to “get it right”.

So what’s to be done about this?  Our brains are able to take in information and reach conclusions about hundreds of situations each day with incredible speed.  This processing takes place in a mid-level of our brain just below the more recently-evolved frontal lobes (the seat of our reason).  This mid-part of the brain is the part that makes most of our quick decisions and only afterwards sends a memo to the conscious, analytical mind (more as a sort of courtesy, to let it know what the body is already doing based on the snap decision it just made).  As Malcolm Gladwell points out, in many ways the conscious, analytical “we” are the last to know what our deeper mind and body are up to.  To expect perfect accuracy from such a system is pointless.  We operate, by nature, on a sort of two-stage system of cognition, and it is the second step of that process (the rational, analytical part) that we tend to place our confidence is as the be-all and end-all of the evolved animal brain.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a big fan of the frontal lobes.  I like that I can analyze my actions and (after some years of practice) actually observe my middle-brain in action.  This does not, of course, liberate me from that mid-brain (and the emotional roller coaster ride it sends my body on at times).  But it does allow me to put just that tiny bit of distance between my instant reactions and the actions of my body or voice.

I, like many others, have long carried a secret belief that I could be just that much closer to perfect in my thoughts and actions than the next guy.  And though we like to talk about the problem of “perfectionism” we always do it in a way that is really aimed to get the spotlight off our behavior as quickly as possible so that we can get back to making ourselves “better”.  This makes sense: our fears and our instincts are what have kept us alive for millions and millions of years of evolution.  Do you think that a few centuries of social progress and civilization are going to make all of those instincts go away?

Now I have to say that our brains are good at certain kinds of prediction: I often know when someone is about to cut me off in traffic, or not stop at a red light.  In such cases my predictive brain is responding to cues and signals of a kind that would also help me stalk my neolithic prey.  But when I take that next step and try to imagine what is going on in the mind of the jerk driver I want to flip off, I can be pretty certain I have no friggin’ clue as to what that other individual’s actual thoughts or motivations were.

How can I?  Human behavior and thought is as complicated as the forces that combine to make weather, and I can’t predict that very well either.

The reality we find ourselves in is a complicated one without potential for actual resolution: we are alive because we are fearful animals, but that fear can actually interfere with our essential social relationships with our fellow humans.  In the end, the best we can truly aim for is the same sort of harmony that exists amidst the struggle for life in nature: a perception of stasis, a modicum of predictability and a dash of temporary permanence.  All of which are only imaginative approximations that allow our predictive brains to plan the next step or the next words we speak.  Even if they are only accidentally right!

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Human Memory and the Blind Librarian that Runs it” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, January 15th, 2012

“Human Memory and the Blind Librarian that Runs it”  That could be the title of the book we may well end up writing one day about how memory — that vaunted aspect of the human brain — works.

The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli, 1781. Photograph: Public Domain

It’s disturbing enough to believe that there are goblins and malevolent spirits at loose in the world trying to trip you up.  But it is hardly less disturbing to realize that the part of our brain that manages memory is somewhere below the Blind Mole Rat on the evolutionary scale of intelligence, and is therefore not doing the bang-up job we imagine that it is.

One thing is obvious: the thing that lives in my brain and pulls from the shelf any and all of the stored snippets of experience that it “thinks” might be useful to me in whatever current drama I am engaged is nothing at all like a little person.  It is nothing like a conscious personality (or “mini-me”) with whom I am really communicating in the same way that I might talk to the help desk on the other end of my telephone call.  My little mental librarian is more like a reflex — capable of lightning quick response speeds that leave it, frankly, no time for the thoughtful reflections of a true librarian.

Though I’ve tried it many times, there is really no way of talking with this librarian of memory.  And yet we are in communication.  But I don’t know what form of communication happens at this level of the brain.  The evolution of my biology has  clearly developed a means of creating differentiated signals that can be “understood” deep in the mind’s archives.  It may well be electrical, but it could be chemical as well, or both (I am ignorant of the current level of understanding neuroscience currently has on this subject).  But whatever it is, in practical terms, the form of communication that exists between my conscious mind and my memory is damn imprecise and not always useful.  In fact, I’d go on to say that it can, at times, be less of a help and more of a hindrance to an enjoyable experience of conscious life.

I think I am so smart, when all along I’ve had this primitive, reactive, mad assistant lodged deep in my skull who has clearly evolved for speed over accuracy.  And why not?  It’s not like memory evolved for the purposes of adding richness to my experience of living.  It clearly began as something else.  This sort of ready storehouse of past experience is most likely the source of our ability to flick into fight or flight in an instant (and by instant I mean even before my conscious mind is aware of the fact that my body has decided to get the hell away from whatever trouble is in front of me).  And as we know, those that experience a few (or many) “false positives” may have run away unnecessarily, but run away they did, which means they survived the one time in a hundred when they really did need to run away.

But where does that leave me: a modern human who can go through days and months without facing a truly life-threatening situation?  I am a civilized man, trying to go about my business of driving, working, meeting other humans, socializing with a close friend, thinking that I am this wonderful bloke with a clever and refined mind only to find that I can be totally taken over by obsessive thoughts that trigger strong chemical reactions of fear or discomfort, all caused by my little blind librarian with whom I find no common language with which to communicate.

I think this is another one of those uncomfortable realities that science brings us face-to-face with: just about all of that which constitutes “me” and “my life” are unintentional by-products of my evolutionary biology.  That is the stark truth of our physical reality.

But that is not the end of the story, nor, in truth, the only story.  For our consciousness, and the way we engage life and infuse it with meaning and significance, color it with our pleasure, sweeten it with our love and with our art, is as much the story of our “life” as our biology.

But the one need not be sacrificed for the other.  In other words, the richness of life is not diminished by a recognition that it came about by a bewildering series of accidents and mutations over a nearly incomprehensible stretch of time.  But neither is it really enriched by denial of our biological, evolutionary reality.  In short: we make too much of ourselves when we demand to have been specially created by an omnipotent, omniscient being…and too little.

We are special enough as it is.  We don’t need the spiritual filigree.  On the other hand, recognizing our biological limitations, especially regarding our own brains, can actually offer us a bit of comfort and self-understanding that may, in the end, make that blind librarian resident in our skulls a bit easier to live with.

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: “Jesus Vines and Lakes of Blood” by the not so reverend bob

Sunday, August 7th, 2011

Kudzu vines on a utility pole in the shape of Jesus on the cross.  A Texas lake turns “blood red”.  Signs from God?

I’d have to do a survey, but I’m fairly confident that these sorts of stories show up like clockwork every week in the national news.  They fill a certain niche in a newscast: part humor, part social commentary, part visual interest, yet never truly mocking: they are presented in a straightforward manner, as if it were not completely unreasonable that the God of the Universe should choose to communicate a message too opaque to even qualify as “vague” through a utility pole and an invasive creeping vine, or a small man-made lake turned blood-red mud hole in drought-ravaged Texas.

The “Jesus vines” story was on the news last week, and spread like a short-lived wildfire across the nation (and the world, considering the citation in the UK’s Guardian newspaper).  This week it was the dying reservoir in drought-stricken West Texas which reached a critical mass that led to a flowering of Chromatiaceae bacteria which, according to this Live Science article, thrive in oxygen-deprived water.  It turned the water blood red.

In a television report on the red lake story, a reporter interviewed two teenage Texas girls, one of whom was quick to make the connection between a Bible verse and the putrid pond. (“And the third angel poured out his vial upon the rivers and fountains of waters; and they became blood.”  Revelation 16:4 KJV).

I guess that means we should ignore the two verses previous to that one state that the first “vial” is to be poured out on land, where it produces boils and sores on every living thing, whereas the second “vial” is then poured out in the oceans, and kills every living thing there, and THEN the third vial is accidentally spilled in a 5,440 acre (when full) reservoir in West Texas, while the other 1.62 million square miles of freshwater lakes on the earth are spared, more or less (okay, I changed that third one around a bit).

This is how our human minds work: the local is the global, and the personal is the universal.  We are solipsistic, tribal animals, bred by evolution for survival, not for the comprehension of an entire planet (much less a universe).

Photo of the "World Trade Center Cross" by James Tourtellotte -- US Customs and Border Protection

I also saw that there was a bit of news about the “cross” at ground zero in New York City.  Once again the ease with which our minds go the the deep well of belief is striking.  We think “What are the chances of a perfect cross coming to rest standing upright in rubble after the fiery collapse of two massive skyscrapers?”  Pretty good, it turns out.  Especially considering that a skyscraper is made up of thousands of crosses of steel where sections are riveted together, producing strong points that are likely to be the last parts to be torn apart in a collapse.  That one of these (many smaller ones were found surrounding the most famous one) was upright and visible could have been predicted.  In reality, the statistical probability of there NOT being an entire crop of steel crosses after such an event would be incredibly small.  God apparently works not just in mysterious ways these days, but primarily through very predictable, silly ones as well.

Of course it’s not just Christians who find symbolism and meaning in the perfectly pedestrian surprises of nature and disaster.  It is a human condition.  As much a part of us as the blind spots in our eyes, our weak primate backs or our inability to not respond to a baby’s cry.

I’ve been as much a believer as anyone else.  And maybe that’s part of the problem, and why it took me so long and so many turns to move beyond belief to — as Daniel Dennett says — “break the spell”: I was a believer surrounded by other believers.  But I did break the spell.  And though the tickle of belief will always be resident in my mammalian brain, it has a greatly-diminished influence on my cognitive life.  I have moved to a point where any nagging suggestion of my believing brain, when left to its own, is quietly beaten silly by the more quiet deliberation of my reason.

I get some mild heat about my Atheism.  Perhaps it strikes some as presumptuous or overdone.  But let’s take just a step or two back and consider this from a different perspective:  Given all of the scientific evidence we now have of the world, what is the more difficult response to understand:  taking a tangle of an aggressive, invasive vine on a human-built structure as a sign of a universal deity’s personal intervention in our lives, or seeing that tangle as a natural occurrence that strikes our pattern-seeking brains in a predictable way?  The former interpretation is a flight of fancy and is, therefore, much more stimulating to us, I think.  It’s more fun.  The latter is a sort of wet blanket on the pleasure we get from tricking our own brains into thinking wild things.  It is also more closely aligned with reality.

I think this points tp the greater drag on the spread of Atheism and a materialistic view of life: it doesn’t look like much fun from the outside.  Worse — it seems to require that all of us kids stop playing pretend.  I get that.  I also think it’s a load of crap.  Don’t get me wrong.  It may well be that in the face of actual reality — that we are simply these surprisingly conscious animals let loose in a nature that demands our demise in a very short time — there’s nothing wrong with engaging in all the fantasy we can get our hands on to keep our minds off of death and annihilation.  I can’t really argue with that, anymore that I could deny a dying alcoholic a final scotch or a diabetic one last ice cream cone.

But those of us still trying to live our lives would like it if there were more human brains focused on making life on earth as good as we can for ourselves and for others.  But, as one Mr. Hardison said in the Guardian article about the Kudzu crucifix: ‘You can’t spray Jesus with Roundup.’‘  Amen to that, brother.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The First Church of Magic” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, July 24th, 2011

A friend shared a link to an article that contained the following passage:

“According to a recent survey, the percentage of Americans who claim to be Christian is somewhere north of 75 percent.

Really? Three out of four people are followers of Christ?

Let’s see, if the population of the United States is about 311 million and 75 percent are Christians that brings the number of Christians to somewhere in the neighborhood of 233 million. That’s a lot of Christians. I don’t see nearly that many Jesus fish on car bumpers. I don’t know, maybe all the Darwin fish ate them. I’m just saying something about that percentage is off. Because if there really are that many Christians, then why will some 35 million people in America go to bed hungry tonight, including 13 million children? If 75 percent of Americans are Christians, then how is it possible that 40 percent of the homeless are under the age of 18? Why are there more than 120,000 children waiting to be adopted? I could keep going, and that’s just in the States. The numbers don’t add up. Jesus said the evidence that someone is one of his followers is love. So 233 million? The evidence just isn’t there.”  (Quote taken from “Why I’m Not a ‘Fan” of Jesus” by Pastor Kyle Idleman, The Huffington Post)

Where are they, indeed?  Our most famous atheist Christopher Hitchens has made a related observation regarding the number of Americans that self-identify as Christians.  He flatly states that the numbers are wrong (making the wry observation that there aren’t enough houses of worship to accommodate anything close to the numbers the surveys claim).

Christianity pervades the very fiber of our culture.  It always has.  Without diving off into the tired battle of whether or not America is a “Christian nation”, there is no denying that that religion has been the dominant one in our history and culture.  (This is why there are groups that must dedicate their time and energy to protect our public spheres from the attempts of the religious to insinuate their beliefs into our ostensibly religion-neutral government).

It is a belief in their sheer numerical superiority that lends Christians (in this country, other religious majorities in others) their sense of historical entitlement: they demand to be honored as members of the true religion of this nation.  But it is those precisely those huge numbers that trouble Pastor Idleman: where are they, and why don’t they exert more of a moral influence in society?  Hitchen’s answer is that the numbers are wrong.  The Pastor’s answer is that there are more “fans” of Jesus than “true followers”.  I think they’re both right, as far as our general consensus of what constitutes a “true” Christian goes.  But I want to take a step back, and look at this in a different light.

To me, arguing about who is a “good” Christian is to look for fruit in a barren orchard.  The reality that underlies religion is not really the issue of whether or not God exists (though I don’t think he does), it is an issue of human consciousness: it is a question of the ways in which the human mind has clearly been hard-wired by millions of year of evolution for an innate susceptibility to belief.  I repeat: it is not a religious question at all.  Religion is a manifestation of consciousness (to borrow author Hannah Holme’s example: even dogs can have religious views — just watch how they attribute intention to that vacuum cleaner they’re barking at!).  In more simple terms: religion seems to be a product of consciousness, and consciousness is a function of the physical brain.  There is nothing else going on in there, or out there.  If the brain dies, consciousness ends (as does everything we associate with consciousness: perception, feeling, memory, a sense of self).  Therefore, if all of the conscious brains on earth were to stop functioning tomorrow, religion (and with it, God) would vanish without a trace.

Even dogs have religion.

Humans are magical thinkers, not unlike the dog imagining that a household appliance has a mind of its own.  We are different from other animals only by degrees and the harder we try to define what separates us from our animal identity, the more we discover that one animal or another shares this or that trait (albeit in a less-advanced way).  Modern neuroscience is showing us more and more about the ways in which our brains are always being fooled by what we see and hear.  We are quick and clever animals with fully-developed survival mechanisms that allow us to make instant determinations about potential threats.  But when we put two and two together, we are much more likely to err on the side of whatever conclusion gets us the hell away from danger — whether or not our math was accurate has never been the most important thing.

And so the reason so many people identify themselves as believers in the Christian god is a function of this basic tendency toward belief and magical thinking in humans, combined with the accident of being born in a country where Christianity has been the dominant religious worldview.  This is probably an equal frustration to the atheist and the committed Christian believer.  To the former, there is this annoying and pervasive sappy support for a man-made fantasy that has real-world impact in politics and society; to the latter there is this horde of humans giving mere lip-service to a life of “true” Christian service to others.

Of course our addiction to magic is not limited to Christianity.  Start talking up a materialist view of human consciousness being purely a product of the brain, and all sorts of folk get uncomfortable.  We have psychics, astrologers, card readers and healers of all kinds whose stock and trade is the magic-believing human.  Almost every single one of us is susceptible to the simplest coincidence of bumping into someone we were just thinking about, and drawing a causal connection between the two un-related events.  Why?  Because that is how our animal brain’s work.  “No!” you protest, asking “But how, then, do you explain the two things happening at the same time: my thought and the “chance” meeting?”  Random events, coincidence.  Each of us lives is a fairly small world, really, where the odds of running into the people we are thinking about is always going to be high.  Plus, we know that humans are rich in “confirmation bias”, where we tend to see outcomes that we are already primed to look for (that’s why we will believe that prayers are sometimes answered).  We also have a bias toward NOT remembering the other dozen times this week that we thought of someone we know who DIDN’T show up suddenly.

These brains we have are a mixed bag, and they have very real limits that we should probably know about.  We are lucky in that we live in a time where there is enough information out there to compile a sort of “Consciousness Owners Manual”.  For this we can be grateful that our brains are advanced enough that we can actually develop experiments that allow us to see our own flaws and absorb that awareness into the way we engage our critical faculties.  It’s becoming clear that our conscious mind is only one part of this thing we call our “self”.  And it turns out that it’s not the part of us that is always the first to know what’s going on in our world.  In fact, neuroscience experiments have shown that it’s always anywhere from one to a few seconds behind the parts of our organism that is really reacting to things and making decisions about how we feel or react.  Our conscious mind may turn out to be more like the play-by-play commentator than the athlete making the play on the field.

So I don’t see a nation packed with Christians:  I see a word populated by magic-believing, conscious animals, some of whom choose to identify with the more popular manifestations of that magic.  If we were to observe this phenomenon as aliens who had never been troubled with the limitations of the human brain, that’s how it would look.  We might puzzle over the fact that humans can dedicate so much energy to arguing the differences between their beliefs (the old “how many angels can fit on the head of a pin” thing).  This would look pretty silly to this imaginary alien.  That is, until he tried to talk a human out of his or her magic.  Then things would get real serious real fast!

Why?  Because humans love their magical minds.  To be more precise, they love the feeling that there is magic out there, and are willing to defend that magical realm against all comers, even to the point of defending other religious believers (that they would otherwise consider heretics) against the greatest heretics of all: the scientists that reveal to us who and what we really are, and who pull back the curtain and show us the magician’s hidden secrets.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “May the Road Rise to Meet You” by the not so revered bob

Saturday, October 2nd, 2010

I’ve figured out a bit that’s been nagging at me: the memories of the times when I’ve felt a certain quality of sureness about a specific intention.  I’ve called this feeling “desire” (to distinguish between it and “hope” or “wish” or “thought”).  So I’ve defined “desire” as an authentic expression of intention and willingness that is accompanied by a certain clarity of purpose.  It does not happen all the time.  And I came to believe that — as this “desire” was an authentic expression of my true self — it was not something that I could fabricate.  Experience showed me that the universe (or cosmos, or whatever sort of semi-magical attentive field surrounded us) could not be fooled by my dressing up an idea (of something I thought I wanted, or thought I should want) as something I really did want.  My shorthand for this was “You can’t manufacture desire”.

I’d learned over time that there were a lot of things I thought I wanted (or needed), and for all sorts of reasons: maybe people I admired wanted these things, or I thought that they were necessary to my happiness, or (very often) I was afraid to admit that I didn’t really want something for fear the great cosmic spigot of material reward would be turned off for me (or turned down a notch).

But then there were those things that I really did desire — that resonated with me and would — I could honestly say — actually be enjoyable or pleasurable to have in my life.  To know the difference (between my authentic and manufactured desires) required that I explore my true feelings with a degree of honesty that was, frankly, frightening to employ: for what had remained semi-hidden would now irrevocably be known: ignorance would no longer provide a buffer between my mind and my authentic self: I would search to know what it was I really wanted.

There’s the background.  So what had been bugging me of late (as I’ve entered more fully into a materialistic understanding of life) was the memory of the times when I had this clarity of desire, and had spoken that desire out loud and seen it fulfilled within hours, minutes or days.  At the time, this served as a validation of my belief in (first) God and then (in my “psychic” years) my “Higher Self”.  But now that I’ve come to realize that there is nothing outside of myself (only my own multileveled physical/biochemical consciousness), what could explain these events of (to use the most familiar characterization) “answered prayer”?

Of course, the first thing to realize is that for each confirmatory event, there are always an untold (and — for obvious reasons — uncounted) number of times when my clear (and strongly felt) desires were met with…nothing.  (As an example: for each time I had a quick-footed dancer at-hand when my favorite two-stepping tune played at the local honky-tonk, there were a half-dozen times when I stood idly by in frustration and watched the “perfect” moment pass).

Something I wrote in a Sermon over the last weeks echoes to me now: “I have no magical powers; I cannot alter reality.  And accepting the influence of my own confirmation bias (which tallies up the wins, and mostly ignores the losses), what do I say about the time when “prayers” were answered?”

Reality is the only answer…with qualifications.

Reality is a description of that which is, and that which transpires.  It is not a force, or an energy (just as Evolution is not a force or an energy, but a description of phenomena).

The “qualification” is this: when overcome by a strong, clear desire, my attention is thus focused on it’s fulfillment (I hate to let any energy go to waste).  I begin looking for opportunities.  If I feel like kissing somebody (for example), I look for somebody to kiss.  Obviously, were I looking for something else (say advice on buying a new refrigerator), the likelihood of getting kissed on any particular day would therefore be decreased (or I’d end up kissing a refrigerator salesperson).  But if I’m looking, well, it’s a different story.

But here’s where reality comes crashing back in (as well as few other phenomenon): my “desire” does not alter reality — it does not (in the words of my psychic) “draw in the people and situations I require” — but it does alter my own consciousness (and chemistry — though that is a bit of a “chicken and the egg” equation) so that I will expend effort to steer a potentially promising situation toward my desired ends.

This is where our social natures and (recently-discovered) “mirror neurons” come in:  I’m going to gravitate toward situations with potential, which means I already have a sense of possible openings.  And whatever other party I run across might mirror that desire — picking up on my focused energy.  Now, if that other person is sympathetic to my actions, voila — I get kissed.  My prayer was answered!  If not (or if — as often happens — my range of options is limited or peopled with un-interested, non-mirroring types) nada happens and I watch the moment pass (like when I stand and watch that favorite country song pass my willing feet by).

This may not sound like much, but it helps explain a great deal to me about the uncounted moments of hope and anguish, when I had overflows of energy to share and nowhere to channel it; the thousand small heartbreaks that are a part of real life (along with those other moments when we beheld someone standing before us, full of energy and excitement for an action we had absolutely no interest in, and watched them deflate into the sadness of their own missed opportunity).

The peak moments in life are, I think, often those when our desire is clear, our energy is high, and reality is such that it seems to be cooperating with us.  These are moments of sheer transcendence.  A musician might call it “finding the groove”, the athlete “the pocket”, an artist “the flow”.  These are the numinous moments, the sublime passages of our lives.  We all know them, we all recognize them.  None of us can manufacture nor control them (though we endlessly seek them out).

Little wonder, then, that we have often associated such intrusions of overwhelming brilliance into our lives as expressions of the divine.  (I’m convinced that such moments of exhaltation are a primary source of the very idea of “god”).

But then, it is the rarity of these moments that distills their aching brilliance.  We will work for days, weeks, months, years to create opportunities for these moments.  They are the reason humans practice endless dull hours to master skills that will place them in a position to excel.

Yet they are not divine in origin, even though they are divine in feeling.  The universe does not rise to meet us.  The master does not appear when the student is ready: a person decides they are willing to become a student, and they then often find the mirroring person to teach them.  (As an example: how many times have you known someone who is simply ready to couple.  If you are not the one to mirror them that day, in a short time they will find someone, and stories of how they were destined to meet will ensue).

This is the real sense in which we “create” our own reality: We get a clear idea, and seek out the people and situations that will mirror that idea.  The degree to which we are successful is (what we might call) “luck”.  Sometimes we have to push, cajole or overcome repeated discouragement.  Other times we breeze through seemingly open doors.  (Assisted by the fact that humans tend to respond positively to confidence…while the “universe” could care less).

I’m not criticizing any of this.  This is how we are.  This is how life is.  Understanding it only makes me feel that much more tender toward my fellow humans (and my younger self who was often seized by bursts of energy and no-where to channel it).

(But then, perhaps that is what drove me to put in the years of work to develop my talents so that I could have as many of those transcendent moments “in the flow” as humanly possible.  Like in the tale of The Fisher King, one youthful taste of the divine will drive a man — or woman — his or her entire life to re-enter the Grail Castle.).

Once again, understanding the true nature of our physical reality does not — as the religious would insist — diminish us as human beings.  The opposite is true: it enables us to even more deeply appreciate the times when things “click”, and more gently endure the many times when things don’t.

May all of your desires occur in places and times where and when they can be met by those who share them and will play along as loving human beings.  Because buddy, that’s the best.

t.n.s.r. bob