Posts Tagged ‘mind’

SERMON: “Changing Minds” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, February 17th, 2013

Philosophers over the centuries have struggled to come to terms with what a human is, at heart: are we rational or primarily emotional beings?  If current research is to believed, it would seem that the answer to that question is “yes”.  Humans are both rational and emotional.  Which means that we are often irrational for emotional reasons.  But, according to Jonathon Haidt (in The Righteous Mind, reviewed this blog), it appears that the notion that we can detach our reason from our emotions is a bit of a pipe dream, as it seems that the emotions are a vital support system for our intellect and reason.

On consideration this makes sense.  After all, both our emotions and our reason have evolved together for a long, long time.  If one or the other were superfluous, one or the other would have been cast adrift (by natural selection) a long time ago.  This by no means tells us that our particular blend of feeling and thinking are the perfect answer to meeting life’s challenges.  It only tells us that this combination is what came of the raw animal materials evolution had to work with, and that it was sufficient to the challenge of our specie’s survival.

There have been a rash of studies of late comparing the so-called “liberal” and “conservative” mind.  I have no doubt that there is validity to the comparisons that show that “conservative” minded people crave stability over novelty, and that the “liberal” minded are just the opposite.  (The potentially nefarious aspect of this news is the way in which this “fact” can be employed as yet one more cudgel to minimize the views of one’s political enemies.  Science is always influenced by the cultural ideas current in the society at large, so I am awaiting the further research that will put these findings in a more complete perspective).

But in the meantime, we are left with the realization that not all human minds work in the same way.  Certainly we are all on a limited spectrum, so we’re not really talking apples and car alarms here, but variations on a theme.  As Haidt points out in his research (described so well in The Righteous Mind), all of us humans have a moral sense, but this sense turns out to act more like a collection of different moral “taste buds” than universally-calibrated on and off switches.  Which means the thing that morally outrages me may only mildly bother you.  This, I think, is clearly true, and it is the main reason that liberals and conservatives can shout at each other all the live long day and not make a dent in each other’s views.

This is the damnable and frustrating thing about this kind of knowledge: it seems to make any idea of human unanimity appear ever more remote.  We may have moved a great distance from our original blood-kin tribalism, but we remain tribal to a large degree, and our current level of tribalism may have moved beyond the nationalism that marked the last few centuries of our history to a more ideological form of in-group identification.  Hence, the rationalist idea that one can simply educate an uninformed person with facts and thereby change that person’s opinion is proving unequal to the challenge of obliterating the many strains of dangerous ignorance that plague our species.

Of course I’m thinking of one of the great current divides, which is that between Islam and “the West” (which could just as easily be called “Christiandom”, though with much qualification).  Never mind that the fundamentalist Christian and the fundamentalist Muslim have much more in common than they would care to admit, they would certainly consider themselves as inhabiting completely opposite world views.

And this is where we can find as good of an example as any of one of the great unacknowledged barriers to a reason-based shift in worldview: identity.

Being the profoundly social animals that we are, we seek out other humans among whom we feel comfortable and understood.  And so we might join a church with a list of doctrines that we can easily assent to, and thereafter shape ourselves ever more like our fellow church members in both our moral likes and dislikes.  It’s easy to see that membership groups like this are not random cross-sections of a variety of people, but tend to be naturally self-selecting populations.  (As my brother Chuck once told me: “A church is a group of people who all share the same sin”).

And so it immediately becomes apparent why any human who has identified with one group or another would be doubly resistant to a radical change in their views on any topic that is important to their inclusion in the group.  Add to this the reality that our brains process information that comes from a trusted source by first believing it without question, and doubting it only after much extra post-hoc effort, and you have a naturally strong resistance to change.

Playing with my "Evolving Darwin" toy set on a Pacific Beach delights me, but would deeply offend others, even though science is on the side of the story these toys tell.

Playing with my “Evolving Darwin” toy set on a Pacific Beach delights me, but would deeply offend others, even though science is on the side of the story these toys tell.

There is, of course, another barrier to consensus, and that is found in those whose worldview happens to be one that does not easily align with physical reality.  I’m talking here about “faith” positions, that allow any and all kinds of physical phenomenon to be interpreted in a way that confirms religious or ideological world views.  For example, a natural weather event such as a hurricane, or the explosion of a meteor over Russia, will be taken as events with a spiritual (as opposed to a natural) cause.  This kind of thinking creates what I’d call an “insulated ignorance”, meaning it is a lack of knowledge that is active in preserving a certain informational vacuum (active far beyond the usual passing discomfort any of us feels when having to admit we were wrong on a fact).  We see this especially with regards to historic worldviews that have been carried forward into a period of history where science continues to present factual challenges that — if these worldviews are to survive — simply must not be accepted.  They are living artifacts of human ignorance, fighting tooth and nail for their very lives.

So when we look at the reality of how most humans really operate, the real question turns out to be not why more people aren’t open to changing their minds, but why we thought people could easily change their minds in the first place?

Liberal or conservative, it turns out that most humans are innately conservative (at least if we consider the “moderate” human to also be “conservative” in relation to the “liberal” members of the tribe).  In evolutionary terms, this mix makes sense.  Every tribe needs risk takers to rise to unusual challenges, but it also needs those who are more attuned to staying home and keeping the woodpile stocked and the tent mended.  And there is a reason that most religious conversations occur among the young (whose personalities are still very much in flux), and much more rarely in adults (who have already begun to “lock in” to their ideology).

I see myself as having become someone who responds to evidence, and who is willing to change his mind about things when facts prove me wrong.  Now, one could argue that I’m no better at this than any other human, but I don’t think that case would be strong.  True, I’m susceptible to all of the quirks of a human brain whose reason is linked to feeling, but I have also taken advantage of the plasticity of the brain and have developed a relationship between my feelings and my thinking so that it actually feels better for me to see that my views are aligned with our physical reality as much as possible.  For a human, I think I do pretty well on that score.  But that’s the thing.  I am still human.

And I can’t assume that others experience anything like the “positive” feelings I do when absorbing certain (potentially) unnerving scientific facts.   For instance, I feel okay accepting the reality that I am most likely not a divine or spiritual being connected to any sort of intelligent creator, or that my body is an evolved version of the body-plan of a lobe-finned fish, or that any and all sense of my self as a distinct personality will cease as soon as my brain stops working.  I’ve worked to make my peace with these evidence-based ideas.

But, then, I am not deeply invested in a church group with the added group-binding agents of a wife and children and extended family.  True, there was a time when my fall from belief was a source of conflict (and led to ruptured relationships) but that time has (mostly) passed.  I do still worry that my words or actions (as they broadcast my deeply-held views) will offend others or damage vital personal relationships.  Because, let’s face it, ours is a culture that is permeated with religious and quasi-religious beliefs, be they Christian or “New Age”, and so my (irreligious) views are always going to be at odds with the majority of my fellow humans (even most of my closer friends).  Fortunately for all of us, part of our innate social sense is to make allowance for those we love, and it is in the space carved out by such selective social blindness that we find room to stay close to each other, even when we hold very different views on important matters.

Plus, knowing that I am not immune to being wrong (I do have a human brain, after all), I have to maintain a certain humility about even the things that I am most firmly convinced are true (especially those things).  And it is this humility among thoughtful people that allows profound ideological differences to coexist without triggering deep social disruption.

There could yet be a wave of reason that will sweep across the globe, dampening the fires of religious extremism or the blinders of ideological dogmatism.  Maybe when that happens there will be enough “safety in numbers” that the more “conservative” questioning humans will be willing to jump ship, confident that they won’t be the only ones foregoing the security of their ideological group.

But in the meantime we are left with the unsettling reality that a substantial percentage of humans are resistant (to a greater or lesser degree) to the penetration into their reason of the scientific evidence as it pertains to their own existence.  Reality may, indeed, have a “liberal” bias.  But humans, most certainly, do not.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “A Map of the Mind” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, December 16th, 2012

I got emotional recently, to the point of crying (not that unusual, in my case).  No sooner had the episode begun but  there was a particular “voice” in my brain that started to chatter…rather insistently.  I did my best (this isn’t the first time this has occurred) to “disengage” my attention from that particular part of my consciousness so that I could get on with my emotional moment.  But afterwards, I began to ponder just where this “chattering voice” was coming from.  I began to think about the “geography” of my own consciousness.

Here is a good place to make something clear:  I approach questions such as this from an understanding that any and all of this mental cacophony that I experience is happening within the confines of my skull (and not outside of my self).  Still, I have a need to “place” things.  That’s only natural.  The big difference, then, between me and many others is that I don’t place any of my conscious self outside of my physical self.

So as I thought about the chatter that kicked in when I was emotional, it didn’t feel like it was coming from a “higher” functioning part of my consciousness, but from a sort of ante-room of my brain.  Having said that, I must still recognize that I am applying an imaginary construct in order to give a location to the different aspects of my functional consciousness.  This is a conceptual tool — like language itself — that allows me to create a visual sense of something that is biological and electrochemical.  Therefore there will never be an exact one-to-one physical relationship between the mental phenomenon such a framework describes and the phenomenon themselves.  But then, language has no intrinsic connection to the things it describes — what matters is that those of us using language share our catalog of word-object associations with our fellow speakers (so that, for instance, we don’t picture a pit bull when someone asks us if we like their hat).  On the other hand, we know from recent studies that certain actions are taking place within specific regions of the brain.  So my exercise in mental geography — fanciful though it is — is not without some basis in reality.

That being so, what can I know about the nature of this chatter that popped up to halt my tears?  Well, it almost seems as if it had intention, in that it appears to be a quite specific reflex that is triggered by strong emotion, almost like a too-earnest friend that jumps in with a “WHAT’S WRONG  IS THERE ANYTHING I CAN DO TO HELP AND MAKE YOU STOP CRYING RIGHT THIS MINUTE!” while what we feel like saying is: “Shut up and let me cry!”.  (Actually, the “heart” doesn’t want to say anything — does not, in fact, want to switch it’s focus from emotion to the part of the brain that is used to tell someone to “shut up!”.   No, in moments of deep emotion, our “heart” just wants to feel what it is feeling, which is a joint exercise of mind and body that, like sex, doesn’t like distractions just now thank you very much.  But then, that could be precisely why the noisy chatter is effective — that interruption, alone, breaks the hold of deep emotion on our conscious attention.  Like sleep, like sexual intensity, deep emotion — once interrupted — can be “lost”).

You’ll note here my use of the term “heart” for the seat of my emotion.  This is a rather universal exercise in placing parts of our brain activity on a conceptual “map”.  In this case, however, the emotions are displaced to a place somewhere in our chest — or gut, depending on the emotion — a foot or two away from our brain case.  This is a recognition, I think, of the sense we have of emotions coming from a certain depth of our consciousness.  They feel too deep to be taking place within our brain, and, since they are felt in our body, we place them (with some good reason) somewhere in the deepest parts of our physical body.  (In a similar, if more dramatic way, we most often displace the mid-level of our consciousness — the part that answers us when we talk to it — much further outside, or above, us).  Which just goes to show how natural is the bleed-over between our brain and body, and how natural, then, is our ability to displace aspects of our consciousness from the particular region (or regions) of the brain that they are actually occurring in.

Hannah Holmes does a great job of exploring the "quirks" of the human mind in her book (reviewed this blog).

Hannah Holmes does a great job of exploring the “quirks” of the human mind in her book (reviewed this blog).

And so what sense can I make of this mental chatter that would seem to be — if the emotions are the root of the tree —  the chirping birds in the upper branches?  I can make some guesses about what this part of my consciousness is all about — what it’s “intention” is.  And I can have some confidence that it is there for a useful reason (useful for my evolutionary success, anyway, even if it gets in the way of my emotional life).  But I may never be able to state with absolute confidence what is really going on in that part of my brain.  We are, after all, wary, reactive, emotional animals.  Understanding that fact alone immediately makes a lot of what goes on in our day-to-day experience of consciousness make some sense (even the parts that don’t seem to make sense for the kinds of comfortable lives many of us Westerners actually live).

The fact is I have no good, specific answer to give you on that score.  I do have a more general answer that may have to suffice.  But it involves a story, and a kind -of answer.

I used to be a much more anxious human than I am today.  I struggled with intrusive thoughts and periods of panic and even depression.  This led to what I refer to as my “Therapy Years”.  But the point where things began to turn around took place at a Golden Corral restaurant one night.  It must have been around this time that my therapist first offered me the idea that the “biggest thing wrong with me what that I thought something big was wrong with me”, and that the panics that gripped me were not necessarily events that just happened to me — were not, in fact, irresistible forces imposed on a helpless Bob.  This seemed far-fetched, as it felt as if a panic would always hit me before I saw it coming — like a mad monkey that suddenly was on my back — and all I could do was react after the fact.  But that night as I finished my dinner, I had turned enough of my attention to the workings of my own brain that when a panic hit me, I caught the slightest glimpse of a tiny gap between the thought I was thinking and the nearly instantaneous global bodily reaction of cold fear.  I had at last witnessed the machinery of reaction in my consciousness.  After that, it was only a matter of time before my senses become attuned to the point where I could widen that gap, and identify the thought I had had that triggered the reaction.  Then began the process of learning to interrupt the process between the thought and the panic (it turns out this can be done).  My therapist was right: my own thinking was the source of my panic.  But it was the (rather intriguing) ability to use one part of my consciousness to catch another part of my consciousness in the act that led to my coming to terms with that brain of mine.  I was learning to fight brain with brain.

Obviously, this has informed my view of consciousness as I then moved from the last years of my religious (or quasi-religious) belief to a more materialistic view of consciousness.  Having experienced many of the quirks of our human consciousness, I deeply appreciate the insights into those quirks that neuroscience and evolutionary psychology offer.  The upside of this is obvious, as such a view can free us from some of the add-on doubts and terrors — based in a belief in outside intentional agents acting upon our exposed souls — that have accompanied our evolution over the last few tens of thousands of years.

The point being that this non-externalized understanding of the brain makes analysis of events much different than the standard search for external agency that is our most common response.  Note that the phenomenon in question do not change, only the way in which they are interpreted or understood to exist.  It is a question of SOURCE, and with our determination of source comes our idea of causation or intention.

Hence, I can see this odd chattering that suddenly pops up when I’m crying not as some evil spirit, or neurosis, or critical agent, but a reflex that most likely evolved in my brain and may be more or less active in me than in the average human (perhaps as a simple tool to reduce my physical vulnerability when overcome by emotion by “snapping me out of it”).  In other words, there is a real possibility of understanding it in a nonjudgmental way, which removes from the discussion all sorts of further emotional and existential complications.  (After all, if I think the Devil is trying to seduce me away from God, then my poor mind and body are reduced to a sort of confused war zone with spies and plots and open battles taking place over my highly-valued soul.  What a mess).

Instead, I can see my brain for the highly evolved organ that it is, even though this also means that it carries within it some rather ancient operating systems, reflexes and responses that were programmed at different times in my evolution, some of which are not necessarily the most conducive to living in a relatively non-violent, non-life-threatening modern social environment.  This is the down side: the fact that we have to come to terms with the notion that — having the evolved mammalian brains that we do — we are living with a consciousness that is actually a complex, sometimes self-contradictory alliance of innumerable evolved survival responses often better suited to a lizard than a lawyer (insert favorite lawyer joke here).

And, finally, back to my allusion to the “intention” of my emotion-interrupting mental chatter that kicked off this sermon.  I have to say here that the mind’s response to stimuli turns out to be intentional in only a rather limited way.  I’ve come to understand that there resides in my brain a sort of “blind librarian” that connects current stimuli to stored experience, and in a bio-chemical version of a word-association game, yanks from our memory any and all cognitive and bodily responses in our past experience that have any possible connection to the moment at hand.  That’s why certain triggers can make people panic over and over again — even when the current situation doesn’t warrant it — and why such connections are so challenging to break.  In evolutionary terms, this makes perfect sense as a means of keeping a wary animal wary, but it can sure get in the way of relaxing and “enjoying” life.

As an aside, I can tell you from my own experience that one of the most curiously challenging parts of my own journey has been this recognition of the kind of brain we humans are actually carrying around in our skulls: That the very organ that has brought us through all of our generations of evolution — and that we rely on for every bit of our ongoing survival and experience of life — is, well, a “Kluge” (as Gary Marcus so aptly describes it in “Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind” reviewed this blog).

In general, I am obviously well-adapted to my overall species (and individual) survival, but that does not mean that I am always going to be perfectly suited to any and every situation I find myself in.  Evolution is not about perfection, but adaptability.  And so nature doesn’t care if the human brain is an amalgam of reserved bits and pieces of its evolutionary journey through every brain it’s ever been, from fish to shrew to monkey to man.  I may care, but that, in the end, is my mental problem to map out.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “A Closet Trinitarian Comes Out” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, July 15th, 2012

I’m glad that I’ve read the Bible cover to cover at least once.  And I’m also glad (now) that I spent so many years as several flavors of a Christian: an evangelical of the “Navigators” style; a speaking-in-tongues Charismatic (think Pentecostal); and a moderate Christian apologist (of the type that leans on writers such as C.S. Lewis and Paul Tournier).  For one, it puts me in a position to more deeply understand aspects of the American psyche and culture.  For another, it gives me a basis for seeing the ways in which religion got things right almost by accident.

I realized today that I’m a sort of atheist trinitarian, in that I relate to my own body and consciousness as sort of a three-layered organism.  Not in the Greek or Christian manner of body, soul and spirit, but more through a recognition of the apparent natural divisions between levels of consciousness.  Don’t worry — I have not suffered a miraculous conversion from my materialist self.  For it turns out that one does not have to wax mystical to talk about the mysteries of our experience of existence.

As I’ve mentioned in previous sermons, I once asked a psychologist friend if my brain processed information differently when it entered through my ears.  His answer was “yes”.  This, to me, is why “prayer” works (no matter who or what you are praying to): there turns out to be a difference between just thinking a thought and saying it out loud in terms of just what our brain is capable of doing about that “thought”.

Clearly, someone other than me noticed this difference, and so preachers have long taught young believers to pray out loud to God if they want their prayers to be heard.  (They are also taught that God can see their innermost thoughts, but that is an issue of exerting remote control over the believer’s behavior, I think, and therefore has less to do with the issue of answered prayer).  Even my psychic of some years emphasized that I should say things out loud, as that was the only way that my “higher self” could understand my intentions (funny that we rarely question such confident pronouncements concerning unknowable things).

Now I can’t prove that any preacher or psychic taught these things with a full knowledge that he or she was simply slapping their stamp of ownership on a copyright-free bit of natural neural processing, but certainly they have all been building upon an evolved human trait that is a quite earthly-process and not, in truth, a mystical connection with the divine.

But be that as it may, this represents a way in which the promoters of the metaphysical have got something right, even if their understanding of it is wrong.  For whatever we may say, the phenomenon of talking out loud to oneself and “hearing” a response is real.  All that I’m saying is that it is one “level” of our consciousness (by which I mean the cognitive product of the physical organ of the brain as we experience it) “talking” to another.  It is a completely self-contained process — literally.

We are in a time of increasing research into the brain, and we are to the point where machines can now be plugged into the brain to “read” (in a rather crude sense) our thoughts (specific electrical impulses) and turn those signals into actions of an artificial limb, say (or conversely, an implant that can replace the damaged parts of the ear, generating signals that the brain can be trained, over time, to recognize as discreet sounds).

As in many discoveries of science, each new revelation of underlying physical processes that are observed and understood quietly removes one more plank from the increasingly rickety edifice of metaphysical doctrine.  And yet, in an interesting way, the more we learn about how the world works, the more we can appreciate the ways in which our ancestors made sense of underlying realities that they could not explore in such a scientific manner.

And this is where I get back to the idea of the “trinity”.  The Greeks, I believe, came up with the notion of the human being made up of the body, the soul (mind) and the spirit.  Early Christians took up this system and many of us today carry on with this conception of ourselves as being made up of three distinct domains joined together for the purpose of living out our years on earth.  The body is, of course, all that is physical about us: our bones, our blood, and our organs and tissue.  The soul is the essential, immutable “you” — your personality, your likes and dislikes — the thing that sets us apart from the person next to us.  (It seems to reside in the brain, but it is not dependent on the brain, and so we call it the “mind”).  The spirit is the part of us that is non-physical, eternal.  It enters us upon our birth (or thereabouts), and departs the body as soon as the physical phase of our life ends, returning to the source from which it came (taking with it, I assume, our “soul” — at least in Christian theology).

We are learning that there are enough non-brain nerve systems in the body to build another animal-sized brain (should we want to do that).  So that our “gut” is sending signals to our brain about what’s going on “down there” (this in addition to the chemical signals of food and digestion).  So that when we talk about our body “knowing” something, there turns out to be an actual physical basis for that as well.

My high school senior photo — proclaiming the Christian “brand” with a Holy Spirit lapel pin.

What I’m saying is that there turns out to a quite genuine basis for the concepts of the body, soul (mind) and spirit being a sort of three-in-one in our own bodies.  Of course, I haven’t yet discussed the physical basis for the idea of “spirit” yet.  But actually, I have.

The part of us that we have always (historically) taken to be the voice of God (or our “higher self” or, in the case of mental illness, the “voice(s) in our head”) is that mid-level of our brain. (Here I mean in actual physical terms.  In terms of our experience of that part of our brain, we’d call it our consciousness).  This is the part of our brain that is activated when we ask ourselves a question out loud, or when we pray (which is, in practical terms, the exact same action).  This is the part of our brain that answers back in that “still, small voice”.

As an aside, I think that once we get closer to seeing ourselves as we actually are, some of the more troubling mysteries of life become less mysterious (though not always less troubling).  For example, I think that the difference between the average Christian who prays and hears God reply, and the untreated schizophrenic carrying on animated conversations with invisible others at Denny’s late at night is only a matter of degree.  The first is operating pretty normally, the second has just enough of a disorder in the brain that the normal operating system of that mid-level of consciousness is running at an unmanageable speed.  The ancients (and many of us “moderns”) may see the mentally ill as something strange and aberrant, but the truth is that it doesn’t take much of a genetic twist to turn what is otherwise a human exactly like ourselves into one we think of as less-than human.  So that the Bible stories of Jesus casting out demons and bringing the so afflicted back to their “normal” selves is not such a strange story to us if we just peel back the superfluous layer of magic and mysticism that keeps us from seeing human behaviors and illnesses of the past to be just like those that we see today.

And that is how I see the world — fairly free, now, of the filters of metaphysical belief.  Nothing about the world I see has changed, only the way in which I see it.

So one could fairly say that I still “pray”.  When I’m stuck, overwhelmed, or can’t figure out where I left my keys, I often have to stop and put my question into spoken words.  And in many cases, that other level of my brain kicks in and starts to work on the problem — as if by “magic”.

It’s tricky — as a hard-core Darwinian materialist — to “pray” in this way.  This act of talking to myself has been plastered with more brand-names than a NASCAR stock car, and there is a certain revulsion at the idea of giving any credence to the charlatans (be they well-meaning or not) who keep claiming this “secret practice” as their own.  But, in the end, why would I deny myself the benefit of this other part of my brain capacity?

When I was a young Christian, I was taught to pray.  This was the first instance of my natural capacity being sold back to me as a gift from outside of myself.  Later, there came a time when I felt that I recognized the voice of Jesus answering my prayers.  Later, still, the voice seemed to sound almost like my own.  When my Christianity came to its end, there was silence for a long time (I would ask no questions my “spirit” could answer).  Then a psychic re-branded my mind once again as my “higher self”, and we talked up a storm for years and years (this is where I really learned both the “power” and the limitations of this capacity).  When I finally moved beyond belief in toto, I grew silent again for a while, shy of the brand names still clinging to my “spirit”.

But why should I be shy about embracing this part of me that has always been, well, me?

Looking back it’s obvious that the voice that answered me has always been my own.  Perhaps that is why many have come to believe that God is not a jealous God at all, but will answer any who call on him.  These are much closer to the truth of the matter than those who are trapped within the particular “brand name” of spirituality that they have been sold.  But both of these groups are still only accidentally right about what is really going on inside our brains and our bodies.  They continue to live with an extraneous barrier between themselves and their own experience of that self.

I’ve heard many Christians sputter the nonsense that modern humanist thought is all about elevating humans to the point that they displace “God” from his rightful role as our master.  Once again, they are partly right, but only accidentally.  For I do not say that we are God (as an actual being), only that God (as an experience) turns out to be a phenomenon of our own consciousness.  And though they may not be able to appreciate it, there is a huge difference between those two ideas.  I do not exaggerate the power of our natural mental phenomenon to the level of something metaphysical, but neither do I make the more troubling mistake of disdaining and discounting it because it is not of God.

No.  For my part, I strive to simply enjoy the modest “trinity” that is my own body, soul and spirit.  Completely of this world, and as temporal as my own life.  There is wonder enough in that for me.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The Dislocation of the Self” by the not so reverend bob

Sunday, June 24th, 2012

I’m going to walk myself out onto a limb and talk about a theory of mine.  I suppose I could also call it a theory of mind, because it has to do with the way we humans experience spiritual phenomenon.

As I took advantage of the shade of a weeping willow tree for a short recline on a hot Summers-day bench, I looked up through the leaves at the sky above, and felt the warmth of the sun as it dappled its way through the branches.  As I did I mused that when we look at nature, we see mostly abundance and diversity.

Because life is so profligate, we hardly notice (unless we shift our focus) the waste and the decay that is the natural corollary to that abundance.  Instead we see the product of the seed that took root (not the uncountable millions that did not).  We see the offspring of the bird that successfully mated and built a nest, and whose eggs hatched (only rarely do we walk past the egg that was blown from its nest to break on the sidewalk, or the bird who has fallen dead from out of the sky).  The result is that our mental bias toward seeing life over decay is pretty much constantly encouraged.  (This is why it can be such a shock when death comes calling very close to us: at such times we are often stunned into a disconcerting awareness of our own vulnerability to life-ending disease or injury.  This is a state of awareness that we busily work to push back into the shadows of our mind).

This is one aspect of the “why” of the way in which we view our world.  Another is our long cognitive history of attributing intention to non-intentional forces by projecting our natural mind-reading skills onto events that don’t have a mind to read.  We do this almost without thinking — instinctively feeling that a “fierce” wind is somehow opposed to us riding our bike across town, or that an “angry” storm is “threatening” to “keep us” from holding an outdoor wedding.  We have days when we are sure that every traffic light in town is conspiring to frustrate our attempts to make an appointment on time.  We pray (or ask the “universe”) for a parking spot close to the store (and utter a “thank you” when one happens to open up).  All of this is so completely natural to the human mind that the minority of humans who do not respond to the world in this way are considered suspect!

We humans are natural believers and are equipped with brains that have evolved to detect the slightest change in the demeanor of another individual of our own (or other) species.  For any of you who have endured bouts of therapy or counseling, you probably discovered rather early in that process that your brain is quite capable of jumping to all sorts of conclusions that have as their basis nothing more than the trigger of an overly-sensitive misreading of an interpersonal cue.  In short — we are actually probably wrong more often than we are right.  (But in the world of natural selection, where it is not just the strong — but the wary and the agile — that survive, a slew of false positives is not necessarily a disqualifier in the race of life).

It’s always been happening inside our hominid skulls…

The fact that we humans have the most accomplished brains of the animal kingdom tempts us to think of ourselves as having somehow transcended our biology of mere flesh and bone, synapse and stimuli.  But this is, I think, an error of judgement that has some potentially destructive side effects.  An example might be the way we merge our natural tendency toward belief and projection with reason, and come up with the idea that it’s okay for other humans to suffer and die because there is a spiritual life to come where every one will get his or her due (so that anyone who has suffered unjustly, and had this earthly life cut short, will be compensated by the creator in the “better” life to come).  (Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised to learn that I think this is a load of crap that actually diminishes the value of human life, despite the misnomer of  the “pro-life” moniker adapted by those who believe most in the next life, and think the least of this one).

Religious believers are most able to give their projecting mind free reign, limiting their “spiritual” experience only at the interpretation stage, where phenomenon is filtered to make sure it conforms to their belief system’s worldview.  They defend their interpretations of “spiritual” experience against all critics, especially those who would say that they are experiencing nothing at all.

And they are right to do so.  Up to a point.  For they are not experiencing “nothing”.  We all share a certain catalog of cognitive experiences, no matter what we believe or how we interpret the world.  But what I would say is that these things that we experience do not originate in the places we like to locate(or dis-locate) them, but are all a part of the brain’s internal work of assembling sensory input and making sense of the constant flow of data that our sensory organs take in.  In other words — the only intentional agents that exist in the world are those contained inside the skulls of living creatures.  There is no evidence of a spirit realm where intelligence and personality can exist outside of the consciousness of living biological organisms.

Of course — one must admit — there is no known way to disprove the existence of anything “spiritual”.  But then, as Bertrand Russell pointed out, there is also no way of disproving the notion that there is an invisible celestial teapot orbiting the sun (or that we were created by The Flying Spaghetti Monster).  But the retreat to that line of defense is a desperate one, and not, I think, very fruitful.  For the most basic reason that there is so damn much evidence for the handful of ways that we create this sense of external spiritual experience through our own powers of perception.  There are so many ways that our eyes and ears and brains can be fooled that it is foolishness itself to rely on our subjective personal experience alone as solid evidence for god(s), fairies or aliens.

So that when we feel the spirit of a loved one pass through us upon their death, for example, isn’t it more likely that the part of our awareness that we long ago dedicated to that person is relocating itself within the very consciousness that dislocated it in the first place, rather than that the actual “spirit” of another human being has coalesced into a softball-sized sphere of energy that took a short detour from the body of the deceased through our chest on its way to heaven?

Note what I’m saying here:  I am NOT saying that the “spiritual” experience did not (or does not) happen.  But I think the explanation of it is much more simple and direct than we tend to think.

And so it is with nature.  We are confused by the variety and sheer scope of life on earth and therefore cannot bring ourselves to see that — despite the amazing range of the shapes that life assumes — life itself is all of the same basic stuff.  We share eighty percent of our DNA with mice, forty percent with a head of lettuce.  Half of our cellular weight is bacteria.  Most of our own DNA can’t be called completely “human” at all.  And we have ample evidence that we humans are all too willing to trust our mammalian brains even when they make verifiable mistakes in interpreting our experience of living.

Once the first life got started, and found in the recombination of traits (through DNA) a way of reproducing itself, the astoundingly varied living world we see around us today was inevitable.  Not you or me (or dinosaurs or pine cones) necessarily, but something like them.  In a similar way, once brains as big as ours evolved, the idea of the spiritual — the dislocation of parts of our own consciousness — was just as inevitable.  One more example of the multitude of possible outcomes when evolution has time to work on living things.

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: “God Brain, Dog Brain” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, May 22nd, 2011

I think that we can all buy into the idea that we have multiple levels of consciousness.  As an example: I’m one of those that can drift off into a thought while I’m driving and suddenly realize I don’t remember driving the last half of a block.  How did I do that without the car suddenly flying into the tumbleweeds?  Well, of course there is physics, with the combined forces of inertia and gyroscopic effects that tend to keep a vehicle going fairly straight most of the time, but there is still a measure of continued human control inputs that were being fed to the steering wheel and gas pedal by some part of my brain.  We tend to call this part of our consciousness “body memory”, or the “unconscious” or even “reflex”.  (Though reflex –as I understand it — is more properly the domain of the deeper part of our brain, just above the parts that keep our heart beating and our lungs breathing).

But if we consider the functions of our brain from the most basic: running the bodily processes that keep us alive; to the most abstract: the part of our brain that allows us to consider our own thoughts (as in: we are having a thought; we are aware that we are having a thought; we are having a thought about that thought; thinking about that thought changes the thought –or the process that generated that thought — thereby literally re-wiring a small part of our brain; whew!), we must come to the conclusion that there are multiple levels of processing going on inside these skulls of ours!

For the religiously minded, these different levels of consciousness are personified as mind, body and spirit (the body being the “lowest”).  So the part of consciousness that we are most familiar with — the one that converses with others and makes the grocery list — is the “mind” (in this organizational system).  For the more severe believer, our ancient animal impulses are labelled as our “sinful nature”, and therefore confined to the “body” where they can (in theory) be isolated, berated and battled (or, more often than not, happily succumbed to!).  But one level of our consciousness — the one that talks back to us when we talk to it — we make out to be God, or the Holy Spirit, the one that hears our prayers.

Science tells us that we have at least three physical, evolutionary layers of brain, meaning we have two additional (and later) add-ons to the primitive, non-reflective, yet reflexive survival brain.  The latest evolutionary addition contains the higher rational faculties, and probably is the part most responsible for our ability to be self-reflective to the degree we are.

Evolutionary psychologists will also tell you that these later developed parts of our brain serve a very important social function in that they allow us to moderate, or interrupt, our natural fearful response to strangers and reach out a slightly damp hand to introduce ourselves (as opposed to attacking them and trying to rip their throat out).

Every spiritual guru or new-age whats-it peddle their own brand-names for our intrinsic multi-layered consciousness.  What is most often sold is the notion that parts of our “self” are actually existing outside of our own heads and bodies.

(My “psychic” told me that my physical body could not contain the full dimension of my spirit.  Now this wasn’t that hard for me to swallow, as I’d spent fifteen years of my life as an Evangelical Christian.  Of course it helps that I live in a society surrounded by support for the notion of the “spiritual”.  You can’t swing a cat without running into someone talking about “spiritual things”)

Now this is not just a question of semantics.  In fact, I think it’s more a question of conception than words, though words matter (clearly, or else there’d be no point in marketing such a variety of names for the levels of human consciousness).

As I described in an earlier sermon, it was while reading Daniel Dennett’s book “Breaking the Spell”  (reviewed on this blog) that I finally realized that I had been imagining a part of my own consciousness as being external to my physical self for the last 35 years of my life.  Once I had that realization, I had the very singular experience of feeling my “spirit” re-enter my body.  (For the first time in my adult life, there was no-one and no-thing outside of myself listening in on my thoughts).

Now no actual “spirit” re-entered my body.  That would be ridiculous (but surprisingly easy) to believe.  So what actually happened?  I think that I simply stopped projecting a part of my own mind outside of itself.

If this sounds odd, take a moment to speak out loud to whatever god or spirit or higher self you speak (or pray) to.  Where is that other party in the conversation physically located?  Where do you sense him (or her) to be?  Floating around you?  In Heaven?  Next to you?

Ask the average person that question, and I’d bet a nickel most would prove to be actively imagining a part of themselves out in the ether somewhere (in some diffuse way).

We humans are magical thinkers.  There can be no serious doubt about that fact.  Just look around at the crazy shit humans believe.  At any given time, one out of five Americans is believing something stupid.  One week one in five don’t believe Osama bin Laden is really dead.  Another week it was that President Obama’s birth certificate was a forgery.  The same percentage thinks aliens are flying through our skies at night, crashing once in a while.  So why wouldn’t most people believe in angels and demons, gods and devils?  It comes pretty naturally to us.

We have God in our brain.  We also have our inner dog (or cat — take your pick).  We have our inner “critic” as well (or “the committee” as some folks call it).  We also have the faithful, non-verbal part of our brain that memorizes frequently-needed physical motions, so that we can learn to play the piano, chop an onion, hoist a baby onto our hips, or have sex in a way that propagates the species.  We also have a level of thinking that allows us to analyze our thoughts — looking for errors and false connections.  And that part of our brain can use the tools of reason to manipulate the middle-managers in our brain into correcting (or at least patching over) detrimental connections, bad file storage, and un-helpful reflexes (this is what therapy and counseling are all about).

That’s a lot to fit into a skull, but then, we humans have evolved huge, calorie-burning brains to handle the challenges of managing our three-in-one brain, of coordinating the myriad synapsis that fire off in each multi-layered social interaction.  I can just imagine the frantic communication channels that are buzzing in there as the highly rational, modern brain figures out how to talk to the middle-aged, transitional (dog?) brain that has to find a way to make sure the deep, wet, survival brain is on board with blood to the muscles, energy to the cells, and oxygen to the brain so that the whole circus parade resident inside our skulls can manage tasks such as ordering our steak medium rare at a restaurant.

God brain.  Dog brain.  Love brain.  Beauty brain.  Rage brain.  Chew-off-my-own-limb-to-save-my-life-brain.  Chew-off-your-arm-to-protect-my-child-brain.  Sugar/alcohol/drug brain (MORE!MORE!MORE!) It’s all in there.

I expect we’ve personified parts of our consciousness in order to be able to hold these parts of our self in a manageable, conceptual framework.  Makes sense.  So it probably doesn’t make that much difference whether we call a part God or dog (up to a certain point, at least, as I do think we’d be better of losing the habit of externalizing the God part — maybe fewer people would do mean things under the false belief that “God told them to do it”).

For me, for now, I might try out talking to my “selves” on the level they operate at.  I’ll talk to god-bob like, well, god.  And dog-bob like dog.  Who knows who else is lurking in there (though I expect there’s a limit to the levels of consciousness amenable to carrying on a conversation).  Again, I’m putting a conceptual template on top of a slightly amorphous reality as a sort of practical “bob’s brain” management tool.

In time I expect brain science will progress to a point where new names for the multiple levels of our consciousness will enter the popular lexicon.  Which means I’d better get my seminars and books going before someone finds a better set of names than the ones I’m selling…

t.n.s.r. bob