Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

SERMON: “We Ancient, Modern Humans” by the not-so-revered bob

Sunday, July 1st, 2012

I’ve been reading a rather dense treatise on the views on sex and sexuality in the “ancient” world.  I’m getting a nice introduction to Greek philosophy (a subject I’ve never studied on it’s own).  But as I read the ideas of Socrates and the like, I am reminded of the book I read on the history of the Royal Academy in England (“The Fellowship and the Story of a Scientific Revolution: The Royal Society of London” by John Gribbin” — reviewed this blog), where the likes of Sir Isaac Newton ushered in the age of science in earnest.  What I’m thinking of specifically is that before experimental science arrived on the scene, nearly every idea and philosophy about human life, love, religion and nature was rooted in a rather deep (by modern standards — cavernous) ignorance of the physical and chemical reality of life on earth.  In other words, we didn’t know crap about our biological and chemical selves.

This is not something to criticize our predecessors about.  For the same existential rule applies to us as to them: we can only know what we know when we know it.  (Future generations will likely marvel in a similar manner at the decisions we made in our time regarding medicine or climate or genetics based in our own mix of knowledge and ignorance).

But then I see our own time as being still very much rooted in the worldview and philosophy of the ancient world (which continues to provide the fuel, I think, for the continuing opposition to the encroachment of scientific knowledge into our daily lives).  As “modern” as we humans are, we are still very much our ancient selves.

To put it more simply — we are still (in part) primitive people fearful of change.

One psychologist described us humans as having made our “last great evolutionary leap” during the last ice age.  In terms of our emotions, intellect and physical attributes, we are the exact same animals that re-occupied Europe after those ice sheets retreated some 10,000 years ago (with the notable exception that our brains appear to be shrinking).  But look at what has happened in our material lives since then: cities, states, nations, vehicles, electricity and medicine, all of which have played a huge part in the explosion of our population from maybe five million souls ten thousand years ago to over six billion today.

The Greeks were as smart as any of us. But before science, we were all just sort of making things up.

We’ve only recently celebrated the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s “On The Origin of Species”.  (To give you a little time perspective, Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln shared both a birth date and birth year).  So, although Darwin was not the first to come to the idea that life evolved from earlier life forms, the publication of is book is widely held to be a watershed moment in our intellectual break from the “natural philosophy” of the ancient world to the “natural sciences” of the modern world.

Looked at from that perspective, it is hardly surprising that the revolutionary ideas that science has shown to be our biological and cosmic “reality” are still working their way into the self-concept of we humans.  I have to tell you that from my perspective that I often feel that the question of religion should have been settled by the publication — and subsequent validation of — Darwin’s theory.  But then (as others have pointed out to me) the ancient religions should just as easily have been put to bed by the discovery that the earth was round or that the it orbited the sun (since both ideas flew in the face of what the received religions told us about the universe).

I heard a commentator on Christian radio today talking about the threat to God’s order that is coming from the fields of scientific research having to do with devices (now in use) that can “read” brain waves (still a far cry from reading actual “thoughts”, but useful in biometric medicine and, potentially, in other areas as well). Listening to this person, I wondered a bit at how easily even the most fundamentalist modern religious believer will accept the scientific discovery that our brains actually operate by use of electrical signals (and will use that as proof of God’s miraculous design) without ever asking the most obvious question: why do we of God’s creation function in a electrochemical way at all?

If there is a divine creator — and if we could possibly step back far enough to look at our situation with an analytical eye — we would (it seems to me) have to ask the question of why the world is ordered in such an elaborately disordered manner?  Life could be fairly described as a highly functional mess that works only because of the way life reproduces, allowing enough lifeforms to adapt to changing conditions to keep life going.  Entire species and ecosystems are dying out all the time, but because there are other life forms that are geographically near enough (and functional enough) to move into the smallest opening created by the extinction of another species, life itself continues.  Even should the most severe climate change (of the kind that floods our coastal cities) descend upon us, or the next (certain-to-appear) ice age appear (that will drive most animal populations — that’s you and me too — into an ever-narrowing band of habitable landscapes), there will be species of animals and insects and plants and microbes that will flourish in the spaces left empty by all of the those same that will inevitably die out.

This is the kind of world we live in.  This is the kind of world that has only, frankly, been able to make any sense of itself with the advent of science and the scientific method.  All of the stories that came before were simply “made up”.  Even the Greek philosophers could only sit around and guess at what made the body work.  Which makes it even more of a wonder to me that there are so many people looking to books written thousands of years ago for their answers to how the earth came to be and how humans were “formed”.

Literature from the ancient world is one thing: for, as I said, we humans are not substantially changed from the ones that wrote our first stories down in written form.  In poetry and story, we can still receive knowledge and fulfillment from ancient writers.  We just can’t learn much in the way of science from them.  And though the holy books are, in their way, incredibly useful human historical documents, they are not good natural history.

Life on earth makes sense because of scientists like Darwin and Newton and a host of others (many of whom suffered persecution from religious authorities).  The fact that we humans resist releasing our death-grip on ancient mystical memories (and creation mythologies) makes sense because we are evolved animals with brains that have spent most of their history in a magical world we had no other way of comprehending (other than through personification, anthropomorphization, and make-believe stories).   When it comes to living in a age of science, we are happy to incorporate the products of that science into our daily lives, but we resist seeing ourselves for the complex, natural organisms that we are.  Give me a pill to kill the bug that’s making me sick, just don’t remind me that most of my DNA and half of my body weight is bacteria of the very close to the kind I’m trying to kill.

I don’t consider this view of ourselves (and my own self) as an insult to humans.  I do not see how it truly erodes the dignity of the individual.  Rather, I think it ennobles us in the proper way by giving us the true credit we deserve for having accomplished as much as we have with the equipment evolution “gave” us to work with.

I can live with that.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Our Busy Brains” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, November 20th, 2011

There are a lot of things that rattle around in my brain.  But for each thing that passes before my conscious attention (for its moment to speak up for itself) there are innumerable other ideas, facts and thoughts that could lay claim to my attention but won’t, either because I’ll never be aware of them or because they’ve simply been forgotten.  Each of our individual brains, I presume, is doing pretty much exactly the same thing — picking and choosing what we notice from the constant stream of thoughts and sensory inputs that we wade through every day.  One end result being that we just never know what’s waltzing around inside the skulls of those around us!

It’s not hard to imagine that earlier versions of ourselves were probably not as preoccupied with the amount of information that we moderns are.  After all, they didn’t even know there was another part of the globe, much less what was going on there politically, socially, environmentally or geologically.  We do.  Or, at least, we do as long as a particular bit of data about a particular place is holding our attention.

True, we’re not as taken up with sheer survival these days — running from hungry wolves and such — so it’s easy to think that we’ve got some mental capacity to spare for the rest of humanity.  But do we, really?

We’ve come to a funny place, where we seem to have fetishized the human brain as a wonder, a marvel and the pinnacle of an entire pantheon of creation.  And to be sure the human brain is — relatively speaking — pretty damn wondrous.  But then so are eyelashes, and the fact that we walk upright with nary a thought to the complex and astounding muscular and mental coordination necessary to propel us forward (while not propelling us face first into the sidewalk).  Life itself is pretty improbable, if you think about, so the fact that we have these huge, calorie-consuming brains is just the cherry on top of a very large cake.

I laugh to myself sometimes when I see a news reporter on T.V. speaking so matter of fact (and with obvious detailed knowledge) about a subject you just know he or she only learned about a few hours before.  There is always a tone in their voice as if this is something that any thoughtful person would (or should) know.  Knowing, of course, that tomorrow it will be something else that we ALL SHOULD KNOW.

Life is an endless series of such discoveries, whether or not we broadcast our process on the television news.  Not a day goes by when I don’t suddenly see something in a new way (mostly as a by-product of new knowledge from a book, a friend or one of those damn T.V. know-it-alls).  And invariably, the moment I understand something, I think the entire world should know the exact same thing.

I watched a PBS program called “The Human Spark”, in which host Alan Alda attempted to answer the question of just what that “spark” was that made humans so, well, human.  In one experiment, it was shown that a major behavioral difference between human and chimpanzee toddlers, was that the young humans felt a drive to instruct their less experienced kind in a task that they themselves had (only moments before) been shown how to do.  The chimps, it seems, could care less.  Humans, on the other hand, could not care more.

A research psychologist friend of mine studies babies and their response to novel situations.  Her babies exhibit a range of reactions from excited and engaged to uninterested, so it’s clear that not even all of us humans are equally curious about the world.  Some of us just aren’t really all that interested, while others of us wear ourselves out trying to keep a million thoughts going like plates spinning on sticks (to borrow from that famous Ed Sullivan show routine).

Keeping the plates spinning. A metaphor I've employed for years.

I think about these sorts of things whenever I walk through a library.  All of those books, sitting right there, packed with all sorts of accumulated human knowledge and wisdom and poetry and prose.  And I will never read them all.  Even if I did, mine is only one small-city library.  There are millions of others, many much larger.  And now there is the internet, where we humans have been able to store an unprecedented amount of knowledge.  It can make you cry…or want to crawl into a dark hole somewhere and think about absolutely nothing for a while.

I think it’s fair to say that we current humans live in an information environment that is as much a force for natural selection as any natural environment that we have encountered in our history as a species.  Admittedly, it is not sulfurous or voracious in a way that makes it hard for us to breathe or that compels us to scramble up a tree to avoid snapping jaws (except in a metaphorical sense).  But it is an environment that suddenly sets apart those that function well under its mental challenges and those that don’t.  Our survival success, then, is now perhaps measured more in economic terms.  (Meaning that our social challenges today are what to do with a mass of humanity in which a smaller and smaller minority is racing ahead right along with technology, leaving the majority behind).

In so many ways we behave as if we have outlived evolution.  After all, isn’t it clear that we’ve won that race?  We’ve given ourselves the blue ribbon, and hand out honorable mentions to the other mammals that we find the most likable: chimps, whales, dolphins, kittens.  Because our lives have changed (materially) so much from the wild animal tableaus of nature television shows (a tableau that was once our own not all that long ago), we no longer think of ourselves as even part of the natural world.  Because we have harnessed energy and electricity and  technology in ways that most of us cannot even understand (much less explain to each other) we feel that we have somehow transcended our animal past.

Of course, the religious have long felt this separation, and have, in fact, insisted upon it as a precondition for belief.  That tells me that it is a deeply human quirk, and that maybe some of us have been itching for any and all excuses to see ourselves as special all along.

The irony to me is that we are, indeed, special enough already, by sheer dint of our survival as living things — as a species.  To try to add to that is worse than “gilding the lilly”.  It is — in some ways — obscene.

The religious believer attacks science for its reductionism — reducing us to the level of animals, denying our divinity and special status.  What a load of donkey poop.  Science, in fact, tells us just how spectacularly amazing we are, but in a real way — in a way that invokes in me both a deep appreciation for my life and a deep humility born of recognizing just how small I am in the universe as well as in the billions-of-years timeline of life on this planet.  (This, I would argue, is the antithesis of the preening egoism that says that I am of deep concern to the one true God of the entire universe).

I’ve said it before: each of us alive today is a living representative of the very first life that ever took hold on this planet.  We carry in us an unbroken chain of DNA all the way back to the first slime that pulsed in sulfurous waters beneath a red sun.  That is one hell of a family tree.  Seeing the true wonder of that, any bronze-age myth about a Garden of Eden and a stolen rib becomes laughable and, frankly, sad.  (And of course, since my brain sees it that way, ALL human brains should see it that way!)

Our brains developed as they did in order, it would appear, to favor a rather amazing capacity to read the intentions of others.  As a profoundly social species, such skills matter a great deal to us.  Somewhere along the way we mutated in a way that complimented the construction of our voice boxes, and verbal language was born.  After that, it was only a matter of time before we changed the world with our technology and accumulated (and shared) wisdom.  Now we find ourselves overwhelmed on a regular basis by the noisy world we ourselves have created, locked in our brains that are now able to create technology that threatens to become too fast and complex for the brains that created it to keep up with.

I wonder sometimes where this will lead.  How far can we go with all of this?  So far progress has consistently outpaced any prediction. People raised on horseback learned to drive cars and fly airplanes, after all.  Are we going to be any different when the next technological leap overtakes us?  There’s something to think about.  Well, for a moment, anyway.

t.n.s.r. bob