Posts Tagged ‘norbert elias’

SERMON: “Resisting Reason” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, August 15th, 2010

I’m wondering if our relationship to our own rationality isn’t a tense one.

Imagine what must have been the shock (during our human evolution) of that first moment of self-awareness: of being separate from nature and other animals; of being different, and differently endowed?  Can you not easily imagine (If you had been that early human) stopping in your tracks as if you’d been smacked between the eyes by an elephant femur?  Your world would never look the same again!

Imagine further that the moment occurred before you had a verbal language to express your shock and awe?

Of course we can’t know when that “moment” arrived in our ancestry, whether before or after language.  Or, for that matter, whether it was any different in kind or quality then what other sentient animals experience (for it seems certain that other primates, whales, elephant and dolphins, for example, have some sense of the world that they might happily share with us if they had a functional alphabet).

The acquisition of verbal language must be key, for before that we had all the same feelings we do as  modern humans, but no way to reference them, to THINK about them.  In the same way that we cannot access the memories (that must surely exist) of our own time in the womb and our first years of life, we would have had no way of cataloguing thoughts or evaluating concepts.  Verbal language was the operating system that made our minds the existential computers they have become.

Along the way we learned to cook our food, which supercharged our physical evolution (downsizing our primate guts and enlarging our human brains).  So that, in the end, we had these busy, fertile brains that were able to function as language-based filing systems for all of the emotional impulses and sensory inputs of our heretofore purely animal existence.

I wonder if our animal natures didn’t respond to the imposition of language (and the resultant organizing system it allowed) a bit like the early peasant who threw his Sabot (wooden shoe) into the big, modern machine.  For (as with any sort of progress) each new invention spells the end of a previous way of life, in ways small or large.  Each step we made into language and conceptual thought took us that many steps further away from our animal nature.  Even today, we humans have a stubborn tendency to look backward to a romanticized idea of our innocent past, be it the Biblical Garden of Eden, the small-town life of 19th century middle America, or an earlier version of Photoshop.

For whatever reasons, I have hitched my intellectual wagon to my reason, and have given it the authority to act as gatekeeper to my mind.  I have decided that I want the clearest view of reality I can get in the time I have.  And it seems more than a touch ironic that this would set me at odds with so many of my fellow hominids.  For we are prone to believing all sorts of things that we have carried with us — without question — from our deep past.  There are entire swaths of our modern American society that think nothing of judging the world by some interpretation or other of an ancient holy text.  We are loathe to let go of our beliefs in aliens, or miracles or communications from the “spirit” world.

We would judge none of these things too harshly were we to discover them among a “primitive” tribe, yet we find them among us modern (and civilized) people, who in the same breath can make a casual reference to DNA, or evolution or the latest discovery of modern medical science.  In a sentiment I attribute to Norbert Elias book “The Civilizing Process”, we carry a thin layer of modernity laid upon our (much deeper) ice-age psyches.

Each step into rationality is a step away from magical thinking.  And believe me, I understand the fear that each of those steps can dredge up from the primitive soul.  But I’m a curious type, I guess.  It’s in my genes, a general trait of our species.  At the same time, we are like any other animal that craves safety and predictability.  Perhaps the tensions that exist between our adventurous, aggressive natures and our contemplative, fearful animal selves are like the electrical bonds that keep neutrons and protons spinning around their nuclei.  (They spin at incredible speeds, ever at risk of flying off into space, which, if they could think about it, and talk about it, might freak them out a bit).

Every step into the unknown is, obviously, a step further away from what is known.  So for each truth of science I acquire, I will likely weaken the bond of a religious or mystic belief.  (Even the incurious understand this on an instinctive level, I would say).  And so, even in modern society, with all of its benefits, there are thousands who mistrust or even resist the new product, discovery, or truth.

There are, in short, a lot of us who are yet to be convinced that learning to talk and to reason was such a good idea in the first place.

t.n.s.r. bob

NON-OVERLAPPING MAGISTERIA: Science and Religion. By the not-so-reverend bob.

Saturday, February 6th, 2010

It occurs to me that you might wonder why I spend so much time on the question of God.  I’ve asked myself the same question.  If I consider the question of God to be a settled issue in my own life, it yet remains far from settled in the culture I live in.  Since my primary focus is the personal perspective that a knowledge of human history and Darwinian evolution can offer, it would seem best to leave religion alone,  to respect the notion of “non-overlapping magisteria” (in which science has nothing to add to religion, and religion has nothing to add to science).  Of course we know this to be — at most and in practice — a “polite fiction”.  My concern with the overlapping influence of religion and science is that religion encourages a determined belief in the metaphysical, the mystical and the supernatural.  That’s reason enough to question it, but religion goes further and actively promotes a distrust of the human intellect (and human intellectuals) that leads to the distrust of even the most widely accepted discoveries of science.

Science is not perfect, nor are it’s practitioners infallible.  It is, however, an honorable and worthy example of humankind’s highest efforts at getting to the truth of things.  It is the closest we can get to understanding reality.  If it is imperfect, it is because it is a human enterprise.  There are cases of ego or prejudice coloring theory or result.  There are also cases of outright fraud.  However, only in science does there exist a human-designed system to expose human-induced error: papers are published and reviewed; experiments must be repeatable by independent means; a consensus must be reached.  Pretty damn admirable for a bunch of hairless primates, I would say.  Consider this fine description of Science by the Naturalist E. O. Wilson:

“The power of science comes not from scientists, but from its method.  The power, and the beauty too, of the scientific method is its simplicity.  It can be understood by anyone, and practiced with a modest amount of training.  Its stature arises from its cumulative nature.  It is a product of hundreds of thousands of specialists united by the one binding commonality of the scientific method.  Few scientists know more than a small fraction of available scientific knowledge, even within their own disciplines.  But no matter:  their fellow scientists are continuously testing and adding to the other parts, and the entire body of scientific knowledge is easily available.  The invention of this remarkable engine of testable learning was the one advance in recorded human history that can be called a true quantum leap.  But it attained its preeminence relatively late in the geological life span of humanity, and only after the human intellect had traveled a long, tortuous path dominated by tribalism and animated by religion.”

“The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth” by E. O. Wilson (page 104)

Since religion (according to conventional wisdom) is not testable by scientific means, it has been suggested that Religion is, therefore, its own “magisteria” — something, well, beyond science.  Hence — Science and Religion are separate spheres with little or no overlap.  That’s fine as far as it goes, as most mainstream religion isn’t in the business of miracle cures or claiming to raise the dead to life.  But many believers do accept the veracity (or possibility) of miraculous occurrences (wherein the laws of “nature” are suspended, or overridden by a higher spiritual authority) whether they’ve actually witnessed such an event personally or not.  So we live in a climate that is sympathetic to assigning to the supernatural any number of events or occurrences, large or small, that happen next door or around the world, regardless of their verifiable natural origin (take the earthquake in Haiti as the latest example).  In such a climate — where any such claim is given equal weight — how can we expect to make any progress on real problems that affect us?

I believe one of the major difficulties the average person has with incorporating scientific knowledge into their lives is a sense that the knowledge science brings us is a sort of “moving target” that grows ever more complex with each new reported scientific discovery.  This may be the grain of reason underlying the otherwise irrational view of scientific “truth” as “relative” (as compared to the supposedly “fixed” Truths of most religions) to the end that many don’t see scientific discoveries as fixed points upon which a sure foundation can be built.  I understand that.  For in a sense the terms and systems of classification of science are arbitrary grids that are placed between us (the observer) and the natural processes we seek to understand (just as the word for “cat” is used to identify that particular animal, but the letters “c.a.t.” would not be mistaken for the animal itself).  Scientists must then put a lot of energy into carefully defining the very specific terms that they employ so that they can be clearly understood by other scientists.  For the point of the entire endeavor is to allow a subject, theory or area of investigation to be discussed in a meaningful way.

As a corollary to understanding this idea, consider for a moment your average road atlas:  Though we don’t expect to trip over an actual border line when walking from one state to the next, the lines on maps are nevertheless useful and practical tools for dividing one state from another.  Of course on closer examination we’ll find that the residents of a small border town may well share much more in common (in terms of commerce and culture) with a nearby town in another state than they will with the residents of a larger city in the middle of their own state.  Nevertheless we don’t throw out or ignore these “man made” borders because we recognize the continuity it gives us regarding everything from laws to public services to personal identity.  We naturally understand, however, that life is more complex and varied than our state citizenship alone can describe, and so we break down our sense of community into ever more concise terms:  I’m from this town, I live in this neighborhood, my kids go this school, we attend this church (which is further broken down into which particular branch of your particular religion your church adheres to) and on and on.  So scientific classification is no different: it is a useful tool that gives us shared vocabularies and agreed-upon reference points for comparison and understanding.  The system is designed to expand with the inevitable influx of new and better knowledge — so concepts tend to move from the simple (early understandings) to the more complex (better understanding based on new and more evidence).

Science is unfairly criticized by the religious as being the product and progenitor (all at the same time) of a relativistic humanism that has as its goal the destruction of belief in God and the imposition of a cruel rational relativism that will wipe away all morality.  So how do we get from curious human beings trying to understand the world to unfeeling monsters devoid of all emotion and compassion?  It’s an interesting leap of logic, to say the very least.  A leap made possible by the framework of the religious mind.  Science is, in short, viewed as a competing proselytizing religion and therefore imbued with religious qualities and intentions it does not posses because the religious worldview can imagine with only great difficulty the unfamiliar human motivations of reason and rationality.

The most extreme accusations come, to be sure, from those most threatened by the encroachment of reason and rationality, namely those who ply their trade in the mysterious oceans of the unprovable: the Evangelist or those who have a financial or temporal power stake in the maintenance of “belief in belief”.  But part of the resistance is also keenly felt by their followers who sense (quite correctly) that their familiar view of the world is going to be challenged, and fear (not so correctly) that the consequences will be horrific.

There is, I believe, a certain healthy skepticism in us (particularly pronounced in us Americans, it seems, though also subject to irrational hijacking on occasion) as regards our government and large corporations.  And yet, while we express that mistrust, we nevertheless do not desist from availing ourselves of the considerable benefits we enjoy thanks to the innovation and manufacturing power of industry and the little appreciated (but extremely rare in human history) safety and stability that a functional government and economy provides.  We have the (rather recently achieved) luxury of calm and plenty in which to complain.

I think we are not much different from the huge Bengal tiger I watched at the San Diego Zoo one afternoon, pacing endlessly back and forth across the length of his “natural” looking enclosure, his huge head swinging from side to side, stopping at each end of his linear track to glance quickly upward to meet the eyes of whichever human was stopped to watch him at the time before returning to his numb routine: deprived of the day-to-day challenges of his natural habitat, the tiger had nothing to do with millions of years of evolved predatory behavior.  I later read that the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. conducted experiments in which they discovered that the “pacing behavior” of bears there was reduced dramatically when food was hidden in logs (among other places), thus more closely approximating the bear’s natural activities.  In short: the tiger and bears were bored: They had nothing to do beside quickly eat the meals offered at mealtime and poop and sleep.
I’m convinced that we humans are no different from those bored bears: we seek security and comfort and ease (as we quite sensibly seek to avoid pain, conflict and unease), but we are not so removed from our hunter-gatherer past that we can so easily adapt to the amount of leisure time we have managed to cleverly create for ourselves.  It is a troubling admission to say out loud (after all our effort to find ease) that we have it too easy.  And so we seek stimulation to fill a void for which our long evolutionary past has not properly prepared us.

It seems, in fact, that our projection of intention onto the universe (one end result of which has been our belief in supernatural forces) is a side effect of the enormous processing ability of our large evolved brains: we don’t really have an “off switch” up there!  So now that we no longer have to run from saber-toothed tigers or cave bears, we’re a little bored ourselves and our minds turn to all sorts of fanciful imaginings.

The irony is not lost on me that — in my life as a fairly sedentary artist — I pay money for membership in a gym full of machines designed and manufactured to replicate the physical exertions my more “primitive” ancestors enacted as part and parcel of their everyday lives.  We develop diets and food additives to stave off (or at least slow down) the gradual fattening of our middles (that fattening possible only because of our amazing progress in agriculture, food preparation and safety).  We “work out” and seek recreation and stimulation to fill the years we now live long past the three decades or so most of our ancestors could have expected to see.

Our minds and reflexes evolved over millions of years to secure our survival.  The less quick, the less agile and the less hardy were plucked from our family tree by disease, disaster and toothy beast (i.e. “Natural Selection”).  As Christopher Hitchens is fond of saying of our current status in that contest: “Our pre-frontal lobes are too small, and our adrenal glands too large”.  Meaning we are modern human beings living in an age of relative safety from beast and invading horde, yet we still carry this giant bear-trap of a “fight or flight” mechanism that ends up kicking in while we’re driving in rush hour traffic, triggered by lower-level stimuli than a true threat to our survival.  We are, in essence (and beneath the thin veneer of our modernity) still looking for the attacking tiger lurking behind the next bush.

And this returns us to my initial plea for science: it is only through an understanding (and appreciation for) what Darwin called our “humble origins” that we can come to a true appreciation of what we really are, and how we really function.

A psychologist once told me of a conference speaker stating that “mankind’s last great evolutionary leap occurred during the last ice age”.  That thought opened my mind to seeing humans as modern descendants of ice age nomads.  Our seemingly intractable tribalism makes sense once you understand how much of our history we spent in small bands of extended family units (cities and nations are very recent arrivals in our experience).  There are countless other useful insights that can flow from such science-based understandings of how we got here.

I do not speak here of a pre-destination or determinism as to how humans will or should progress.  If history shows us anything it is that we are extremely adaptable.  In fact it is often as difficult to appreciate the differences between my “primitive” ancestors and my modern self as it is to accept the similarities.  For instance, our bodies have long ago adapted to cooked food.  The sheer volume of nutrients that cooking allowed us to consume played a large part in our ability to advance technologically.  (We’d have a hard slog going back to living off leaves and berries stripped from the plants of the forest, as the great apes do to this day).  Our advances in technology during the “Neolithic Revolution” may well have been a response to the new amounts of energy and free time we had that up to that point had been taken up with an endless grazing for raw calories!

Far from destroying our morality (or eroding its supposed basis in an eternal absolutes) I believe that understanding the science and history of human evolution gives us a much clearer understanding of how our ethical choices are made, and a deeper appreciation of the codes of social conduct we have discovered, developed and internalized as a species.  Far from destroying any sense of moral authority, it rather affirms the usefulness to social stability of our agreed-to laws and law enforcement (as they continue to protect us from what was once the much more common random violence of other humans).

(Want a picture of what our ancestors lives were like only several hundred years ago?  A great book on the evolution of our modern selves from the middle-ages is “The Civilizing Process” by Norbert Elias.  I recommend it as primer on just how recently the life of the average European was still — in many ways — short and brutish.)

Ignorance of science can be deadly.  I hardly find it noble to deny reality in order to preserve an ideology.  Our endless and (seemingly) harmless affection for unfounded conspiracy theories, UFO’s, “chem trails”, crystal healing, distrusting vaccines or what have you in practice keeps us from directing our creative energies towards things that really can make life better for us and our fellow humans.  While we seek stimulation in the silly (as we pace back and forth across our enclosures) half a million women die each year giving birth from avoidable complications, the globe continues to warm (at the very least in part due to us, it would appear) and almost a half of us Americans sit on our ass waiting for Jesus’ imminent return and the blessed end of this sinful world of ours.  Individual beliefs and mythologies are not unrelated to global events.  Science helps to reveal these connections: religion denies them.

Science is not the enemy.  Science is a tool for understanding, for making sense of discovery and for revealing the true mysteries of life for the benefit of us all.  It deserves attention, respect and support.  It does not deserve derision and demonizing demagoguery.  The one overarching magisteria that spans the realms of science and religion is our human existence and our individual experience of that existence.  Religion was, in essence, our early attempt at science, at understanding.  Religion is our invention.  It is a part of our heritage, our growth, and for a long time was the receptacle for our creative and literary energies.  In that, it deserves its own respect.  But we live in more complex times, in ever larger cities and nations with evolving complicated economies.  It is natural to pine for a mythical point in time when life was “simpler” (whether or not that time ever really existed).  But we live here now, in the age of science and reason, even as we shudder and struggle with shedding our superstitious skins.

Our blessing and our burden is that we are — truly — social animals.  We’re storytellers, afraid of the dark and fearful of death, and the more I ponder those aspects of our character the more I realize just how deep they go.  I could almost say it’s less a wonder that we are so given to superstitions as it is that we are capable of transcending them as much and as often as we do!

Still, here’s a vote for cultivating our reason and rationality, and taking another look at science, anthropology, archeology, genetics and biology for the understanding of our selves that such an investigation will give us.  Let religion have its place in our history, and let it contract of its own accord, leaving the natural world to the scientist that works on our behalf every day to understand it.

the not-so-reverend bob

(Copyright for commercial uses by Bob Diven, 2010)