Posts Tagged ‘Michael Shermer’

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: “The Sweet Baby Llama of Heaven” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, September 11th, 2011

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

After a Sunday morning hike part way up Tortugas Mountain, I sat on a jagged boulder under a cloudy, early Fall sky.  The wind was rising and falling in that blustery kind of way that marks a shift in the seasons.  I watched the cars pass below me on the paved road that snaked around the base of the mountain, and heard their distant hiss.  I looked at the Organ Mountains to my east, and the Mesilla Valley to the west.

I began to think of the many times in my life when I went outdoors to pray.  I spoke out loud the names I had prayed to before, to see how they felt in my mouth (and to check if they had any residual charge in my psyche): “Heavenly Father”, I said, “Lord Jesus”.   Then I said: “Speak to me Holy Spirit: show me that you’re real”.  At that moment, a wind came up, whistling past me.

It was just the kind of coincidence that had helped — in the past — convince a young believer (me) that God was real.  It was perfect.

My rational brain politely intervened, reminding me again of the power of confirmation bias when it came to our natural cognitive tendency to connect two random and unrelated events into a uniform narrative.  I decided to conduct an experiment.

“Oh Holy Hamster” I said.

Nothing.  Not a whisper of a breeze.  (Obviously the wrong deity).

I tried another: “Oh Sweet Baby Llama — speak to me”.

There was only the whisper of a breeze.  But I knew what to do.

“Oh Sweet Baby Llama, you whisper so quietly that I can barely hear you.  Speak to me, oh Baby Llama, oh sweet Baby Llama.”

And the Sweet Baby Llama answered me in a blast of wind that surely could have come from no other place than the divine breath of the creator (llama).

Except of course the wind had not come from the Sweet Baby Llama of Heaven.  It was a local random (meaning non-intentional) weather phenomenon with completely natural causes that we understand because we live in an age of science.

But setting that aside for the moment, these are the kind of thought/action/belief experiments that give us chills as children and adults: The first time you get up the courage to ask a Ouija board a question; ask Jesus for a “sign”; sit down in front of a palm reader at a psychic fair; or ask the wind to answer.

C.S. Lewis described the terror of this kind of moment where one suddenly is confronted by a force one was chasing without really ever expecting to catch up with:

“There comes a moment when the children who have been playing at burglars hush suddenly: was that a real footstep in the hall? There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion (“Man’s search for God!”) suddenly draw back. Supposing we really found Him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing He had found us?” — “Miracles” C. S. Lewis

But this time I did this “test” without that twist in the base of my esophagus.  It was a rather playful interaction between my conscious, formerly-believing mind and the world that is so random as to be almost always cooperative with our whims.  Combine that randomness with an evolved brain hell-bent on making sense out of EVERYTHING and, voila, you’ve got the Sweet Holy Baby Llama speaking to one of his (or her?) believing children through a seasonal cold front moving across the face of the planet.

I know this seems silly.  But many a believer has done this trick on themselves, and walked away from it encouraged by a seeming confirmation of their beliefs.  The famous scientist Francis Collins had just such an experience where he came across a waterfall on a walk that had frozen into three distinct streams.  In that tableau he saw the holy trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Clearly none of us humans is completely immune.

What’s unfortunate is how easily we take these things seriously.  There are figures on the national stage right now (who think they should be President) who see messages from God in hurricanes and earthquakes.  We may as well determine national policy based on the reading of goat entrails and the casting of runes.  There is no practical difference (though there is clearly a huge social difference as a majority of Americans are much more sympathetic to theism than voodoo).

The thing I’m not telling you about my “prayer” to the Sweet Baby Llama is that I had years of training in how to make something as innocuous as a breeze into the voice of God.  I attended many a prayer meeting where I learned to speak in tongues, where I learned that familiar cadence of spoken prayer that includes a lot of space fillers, so that one can basically create an endless prayer that can carry you until SOMETHING happens that can be taken as a sign.

It’s hard to admit to ourselves that we are trained and duped so easily.  One comfort to our acceptance of our bald credulity is the fact that it happens to almost all of us.  Belief is truly natural to our brains.  Even some of the writers of the Bible recognized this, using it as a proof of the existence of God:

“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”

Ecclesiastes 3:11 (New International Version.  Copyright 1984.  Emphasis mine)

We do have a sort of “eternity” in our hearts.  We understand the passage of time and our the mortality of all physical life.  So why should it be surprising that a living being, once conscious of his existence, should not wonder whether or not that existence could (or should) continue outside of the physical world it inhabits?

It’s hard not to see the thread of human longing that is woven through all of our belief systems.  In this way the battle of ideas that was the war between the heathen Vikings and the Christian Kings of Europe was not a triumph of truth over falsehood, but a displacement of one model of belief by another, seemingly more “modern” one.  This process continues unabated.  For those to whom the God of the Bible is a bit too archaic, they can simply transfer their desire for transcendent beings to Aliens or benevolent spirits in a universe that desires our good.

Even people who assent to the reality that mind and spirit are purely products of the human brain are loathe to abandon more spiritual conceptions of life.  So deep is this need for belief that believers are rated higher in happiness than non-believers.  The hard, cold reality of life is that the hard, cold reality of life is easier for us to take when we can believe that there is an intelligence behind it all that is kindly disposed towards us.  But in the words of Michael Shermer:  “I conclude that I’m a skeptic not because I do not want to believe but because I want to know.”

There is no denying that staring the void in the face is discomfiting.  So is the contemplation of our own eventual death.  Yet somehow we humans — cursed as we seem to be above all other life on this planet with a conscious awareness of our own mortality — somehow manage to go about the business of living, wresting pleasure, accomplishment and satisfaction from our lives.  There is a certain wonder in this.  The life of an individual ant seems meaningless to us, but would we feel the same if that ant was building an opera house, or conducting genetic research to find cures for diseases that were attacking her fellow ants?  Probably not.  We’d think her noble.

And so we humans, believing or not, soldier on.  Helped and comforted by God, the Sweet Baby Llama of Heaven, a general sense of agency in the universe or the appreciation of our capacity to courageously accept our lot as evolved living organisms on a spinning planet of rare life in a vast universe.

t.n.s.r. bob


Sunday, November 28th, 2010

After getting tipped off to a number of great talks by great minds on the TED website, I figured I should make sure others were aware of this collection of short lectures by a wide variety of informed folk.  Naturally, my interests lean heavily toward evolution, but I expect I’ll spend some time searching other topics in the near future.

For now I want to recommend three great videos that were recommended to me recently (descriptive paragraphs are from the TED website):

1)  Helen Fisher tells us why we love + cheat.

“Anthropologist Helen Fisher takes on a tricky topic — love –- and explains its evolution, its biochemical foundations and its social importance. She closes with a warning about the potential disaster inherent in antidepressant abuse.”

2) Heribert Watzke: The brain in your gut

“Did you know you have functioning neurons in your intestines — about a hundred million of them? Food scientist Heribert Watzke tells us about the “hidden brain” in our gut and the surprising things it makes us feel.”

3) Michael Shermer on strange beliefs

“Why do people see the Virgin Mary on a cheese sandwich or hear demonic lyrics in “Stairway to Heaven”? Using video and music, skeptic Michael Shermer shows how we convince ourselves to believe — and overlook the facts.”

Be sure to let me know of any great finds you make.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: ‘The CRAZY IDEA” by the not-so-reverend bob.

Sunday, May 23rd, 2010

I’m compelled on (a regular basis) to run reality checks on my perceptions of things.  Today that involved tuning my truck radio to the AM dial, and listening to Rush Limbaugh.  I know people that listen to Rush.  It is because I know these people (some of whom I consider friends and human beings I’d want on my side in a bar fight) that I have a desire to understand what they are finding in Rush.  I listened long enough to get the idea that Obama’s true agenda is to ruin in four years the America that we and our forefathers took two hundred years to build.  Rush said that we can’t look at what’s going on now in the “normal” way that we’ve always evaluated politics.  This is something different, something unprecedented.  Rush’s opening comment was a rhetorical question: “Let me get this straight: we can’t identify the illegal aliens in this country, but we can require everyone to buy health insurance?” (adding the tag that “If you don’t, Reid and Pelosi will track you down and throw you in jail” — a fiction as there is no criminal penalty for non-compliance with the Health Care Reform Act).  Every Limbaugh sentence was seasoned with dramatic pauses, heavy sighs, and every vocal cue that Rush was wearing himself out trying to point out this web of conspiracies to true Americans and thereby single-handedly save this great nation.

It got me thinking.  In an odd moment of understanding, I realized that the “conservatives” (as represented by Rush and the TEA Party members) are actually the more utopian of the two idealogical camps we describe with the popular duality of “liberal” versus “conservative”.  The conservatives are deeply convinced that — left to their own devices — the rich and the powerful will act in the best interest of “the common good”.  The real problem is government, and too much of it.

I’ve come to think that if “liberals” are guilty of overestimating the rationality and moral potential of our species, the “conservatives” are equally guilty of underestimating our potential for selfish behavior and general mayhem.  Liberalism sees governance as a means of protecting as many of us as possible from the rapacious behavior of the (inevitable) dangerous few.  In a sense this is a blend of optimism with pragmatism.  The TEA Party view seems to be a mix of disparate elements in search of a synthesis: they want to abolish government and yet abhor anarchy;  they call any government involvement in healthcare “socialist”, yet find no inner conflict in utilizing veterans TRICARE, or Social Security and Medicare.

There is in me a pull toward finding connections with my fellow citizens.  I look for a common reference point — something we agree on.  Once established, both parties know their starting point and can get their bearings.  But each time I try to approach the inner workings of my upset conservative fellow-citizens I run into obstacles I cannot readily surmount.  Although I am able to enter into many of the feelings of those who fear domination by an aggressive government (I am an American, after all — it’s in our character to be wary), I am blocked by a boulder-field of odd and irrational beliefs that inhibit my progress toward meaningful, rational connection.

I think it’s safe to say that a high percentage of the TEA Party folks are “god fearing”, and being such, are already exhibiting an increased capacity to believe in things for which there is no more evidence than another’s word on the matter.  How can I find common ground with someone who really believes, deep in their heart, that our sitting President is not an American citizen (despite proof to the contrary), or that he is bent on destroying our economy instead of trying to fix it?  The imagined conspiracies fly so fast and so thick that it is, literally, dizzying.

There must be a certain thing about our minds that is draws us to notions of vast conspiracies.  As a friend pointed out to me, such beliefs engender a feeling of powerlessness (as in the forces arrayed against one are far too great to be overcome, so there is no point in actually trying to engage “it”).  I keep thinking of the “Baloney Detection Kit” video from Michael Shermer of Skeptic Magazine, where one of the ten testing points is the question: “Does this fit in with what I know about how the world works?”  From time to time I get a letter from the left hinting at vast conspiracies on the right, and a little sensor in my head jumps to life and says “wait a minute — this sounds pretty conspiratorial to me”.  My response, in such cases, is to not take it seriously unless (and until) I get corroborating evidence (and the evidence had better be good for such a large claim).  I’ve learned to ferret out the 5 or 10 percent that is truth and disregard the soaring, rickety edifice of conspiracy that is inevitably built upon an original thin sliver of truth.  I’m calling people on this sort of stuff all the time.  It’s maddening, because I’m just one voice giving one friend shit for some piece of internet crap that they forwarded to their entire e-mailing list without taking two minutes to see if it was bogus or not.

Once again, I think we overestimate our abilities as humans.  The more I try to keep up with science and politics and world events, the more feeble my brain seems.  Rush Limbaugh seems to think we are all super humans being held in check by Liberal-Secular-Humanist-Socialist force fields.  Every mis-step (or perceived mis-step) or lack of immediate overwhelming result from any administration initiative is held up like the severed head of a martyr by some demagogue or another.

One thing about holding a naturalistic, Darwinian view of life is that I take humans being for what we actually are: not what the Bible tells me we are, or the mystics say we are capable of.  My brand of magical thinking is to carry the rosy hope that I have the potential power to bring insights to people in a way that will make them leave aside some of their irrationality and thereby be of more practical help in the heavy lifting of managing the global and local societies we live in.  Embedded in that hope is a belief that humans are capable of becoming ever more rational the more educated they become.  Clearly, there is evidence to the contrary.  Recent survey’s show that a high percentage of the TEA Party membership is college educated.  Which makes it all the more baffling that they believe in so much crazy stuff.

But perhaps I’m unfair to pick on one self-selecting group of politically-motivated people, except insofar as they are perfectly representative of any other group of humans that are drawn together by a particular orthodoxy of irrational ideas.  This seems to be a perfectly common pattern in our species: otherwise rational people who function smoothly in their work and family lives retain for themselves one corner of their thinking for a completely loony idea: the CIA killed Kennedy; the Twin Towers was an inside job; Pterosaurs still live in a remote lake area in Africa; Noah’s Ark rests on a mountain side in Turkey;  President Obama is a Kenyan agent bent on destroying the Constitution.

It is this propensity of the human mind that has me running my reality checks — as a sort of a self-diagnostic — looking for mental “spam” or the virus of a bad idea.  Of course the power of a CRAZY IDEA is that it can never be completely disproved (and of course Science is not in the business of obliterating ideas, only showing where the weight of evidence points us — which is enough for a reasonable person).  The CRAZY IDEA demands that it be not just shown to be unlikely, but proven to be completely impossible.  This is where the CRAZY IDEA’S brilliance and durability lies.  This is why so many people can still deny the evidence for Evolution and Natural Selection with questions that Darwin answered fully over 150 years ago.

This phenomenon of belief is wonderfully skewered by Bertrand Russell’s famous Celestial Teapot analogy:

“If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.”

Of course Russell here is famously going after the idea of God, but leave off that final sentence about ancient texts and you could be talking about the 10 to 20 requests a week to the Hawaii Health Department for President Obama’s (previously verified to the satisfaction of all reasonable people) birth certificate.  Of course, I could be wrong.  Obama could be a Venusian cyborg, perfectly designed to appeal to our human need for a political savior.  Now that would be a CRAZY IDEA.  But somewhere, sometime, I could just about guarantee you, there is a human brain that would (or does) believe it.  How would you or I talk to such a person?

I have no idea.  I don’t speak Venusian.

t.n.s.r. bob