Posts Tagged ‘progress’

SERMON: “History in the Making” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, September 23rd, 2012

My late dad, born in 1914.

I once talked to my father about the changes he had witnessed in his lifetime.  He remembered when electricity first came to his family home (in the 1920’s).  The first aircraft he saw were a World War One vintage “Jenny” and a U.S. Navy airship.  His father had been witness to the Johnstown Flood of 1889.   My mother recalls being a 12-year old girl walking her grandfather across town, noticing his distinctive limp from the wound he received at the battle of Chicamauga during the American Civil War.  As a child listening to the stories of our parents, history is always the thing that happened to the generations that came before.

This makes sense, as it takes some time for current events to become “history” — years must pass before we can see our own times in any sort of of context.

It is probably a sign of my own advancing age that I now reflect on the history that I have been witness to.  As a boy the long shadow of World War 2 reached into my imagination.  My dad was a veteran of that war, and my mother had lost many childhood friends to it.  What in my youthful experience could compare to a national and global event of that kind?  Vietnam?  Hardly.  The pollution of the planet that became a signal issue of my teens?  Maybe…  But perhaps I’ve looked in the wrong places for the wrong kinds of historical events.

If anything marks our age it is the growth of our technology.  The hints of it were there in my father’s boyhood home (that had gas for lighting and cooking and heat, but no electricity).  But by the time my father was born, electricity was already on its way and would soon arrive in nearly every home.  With electricity came the radio, and from the radio came the television.  Then, in my lifetime, came the personal computer and the silicon chip, which seems to have multiplied every other invention of humankind:  the computer became something that we shake like salt into our diet of technology, from a telephone in my pocket to the jet streaking across the sky.

And the computer has helped propel scientific discovery: we can see deeper into space and deeper into ourselves.  And this is where the stunning discoveries that have occurred in my fifty-plus years living are thrown into relief.

I remember as a school boy hearing that the theory of “continental drift”, once popular, had fallen into disrepute.  I looked with fascination at the depiction in National Geographic of the brutish Neanderthal, and the charts that showed a steady, linear progression of ancient ape to man.  And I sat with my schoolmates in the cafeteria to watch, together, the flickering image on a single, small television screen, of a man walking on the moon for the first time.

But a lot has changed since I was 10 or 11 or 12.  We now know that “continental drift” is really “plate tectonics”, which is now understood as the primary force behind the creation and renewal of the earth’s crust.  We have grown in our understanding of Neanderthals, realizing that they were not our ancestors after all, but only the last of who-knows-how-many evolutionary dead-ends on our ever-branching hominid evolutionary tree.  And, though I didn’t realize the significance of it at the time, the moon landing answered the most basic unanswered questions about where our grey cosmic companion had come from.  (Before we brought those moon rocks home we did not know, truly, that the moon had been blown out of a young earth by a cosmic collision).

But there is more.  In my lifetime scientists have arrived at startling conclusions about our universe:  For one, they figured out that the universe was still expanding and accelerating, and this knowledge led to establishing the age of our universe (something that had not been firmly established before); we began to understand that dinosaurs were not quite as we’d imagined them, but some could have been warm-blooded and covered in protofeathers.

Continued discoveries and analysis has given us a much deeper appreciation for both the majesty and complexity of our evolution.  The mapping of the genomes of living creatures (including humans) has opened up an indisputable window into the relatedness of all living things.  Theories that have guided scientific exploration for centuries have been tested, refined, discarded or dramatically proven.  Our knowledge of just how much “we know that we don’t know” has exploded in exponential ways.  We stand before creation better informed than any previous generation of humans, and yet even more deeply awed at what we see and who we are.  Well, at least some of us do.

I find myself impatient with my fellow humans, particularly those who continue to actively resist the knowledge of science.  I see tribalism, fear, and a retreat into mysticism that can be frightening to behold.  We humans appear to be a mix of the most modern minds and the most ancient atavistic reflexes against anything new or novel.  But taking a wider view, it is hardly surprising that everyone is not on board with science.  The pace of discoveries has been so fast — as fast, it seems, as the advances in our technology  — that it is perhaps asking too much to expect the average person (who must still see to his or her own survival, if only in economic — not animal — terms) to keep up with it all.

By the incredible good fortune of being born into a literate and affluent society, I am able to choose to devote a certain part of my time and energy to increasing my understanding of reality.  And for this I rely a great deal on a steady stream of well-written books and articles on science and my own observations.  This information is available to anyone who wants it, yet it penetrates only so far into our culture at large.  Some of that is due to economic and educational factors, but among all of those who have the same access and resources that I have, I have to recognize that I am an individual that has made certain adjustments to his brain: I have worked to “reboot” my perceptual software beyond a system of religious belief and into a more scientific framework.  I find that this change brings me closer to a view of the world that I can rely on, even as it infuses me with an awareness of the limitations of my own cognitive and perceptive tool kit.  But this sort of awareness would appear to be that of a minority of my fellow humans.

It seems to come down to this:  those that see science as a threat to their beliefs, and those that see it as an antidote to them.  Clearly, I am happy to be rid of the virus of irrational belief (which is what I consider most religious belief to be).  Or, I should say, free from most of the debilitating effects of this most natural of diseases.  Because I will always carry the tendency toward belief that has been hard-wired into my cognitive functions by evolution and natural selection.   I will never transcend this natural condition of the human mind.  (But even here I must thank science for giving me the awareness that I am a purely physical, bio-mechanical being).

That being said, we have also discovered that aspects of our physical being are plastic — meaning that we can affect our physical condition through specific actions.  And nowhere is this more true than in the cognitive functions of our brain.  We now understand that the terrible problem of addiction comes about because of the way in which brain chemistry adapts to the hyper-stimulation of drug use (to use that example).  Our brain chemistry and behavior actually change because of our feeding it something refined and potent.  Because of the brains plasticity we can alter our responses to other stimuli, and find ways to moderate our dramatic animal responses in ways that make our lives (as social animals living together in modern, interdependent communities) more pleasant for all involved.

But, perhaps oddly, the more interconnected we have become by technology the greater the implications of our personal responsibility.  Suddenly each individual is expected to be a sort of mini-specialist in their own behavioral psychology, the physiology of their digestion, immune system, and overall physical health (as examples) — each of us a sort of an amateur self-contained scientist.

To a large extent, we have managed to absorb a vast amount of data from science.  Even the most religious will cite science as support for their ideas about how one should live (even if they deny the science that says, for example, that the earth wasn’t created ten-thousand years ago).  We manage to steer the complex machinery that is a car or motorcycle at high speeds down narrow strips of road.  We figure out every new machine or device that comes into our hands, and we consume loads of news from every corner of the world every day.

That we are, in fact, pushed by all of this data into a near constant state of cognitive semi-overload is rarely discussed.  Because of technology, science, and population growth, life has just plain sped up a lot over the last couple hundred years.  We don’t realize how fast we are going because the acceleration has not been from a dead stop: each of us joins the rat race already in motion.

In a funny way, it seems like it could be this mixture of the acceleration of the demands on our primate brains — and the physical limitations of those brains — that could bring things to a screeching halt.  I wonder how much of this we can really take?  I wonder if we will all become aware of the “wall” before we smack our foreheads into it?  Science, of course, studies such things closely.  So do designers.  After all, what is the use of one more amazing function in a fighter jet if the best and brightest young pilot is too overwhelmed with inputs and alarms and distractions to utilize it effectively?

Most of us are not cognitively challenged to the level of a fighter pilot.  But compared to our Cro-magnon ancestors, we might as well be fighter pilots.  True — our cave-dwelling ancestors faced a daily threat of death in many toothy and tusked forms that do not trouble most of us in a modern society.  But I would argue that their brains were more accurately tuned to the environment that challenged them every day.  We modern humans are actively testing the limits of our brains in ways no other generation has in this, the largest human experiment ever conducted.

Interesting times, interesting times.

I wish that humankind as a whole would just sort of get with the program and at least agree to a common understanding that science is the best thing we’ve got for understanding reality.  But humankind is not much different than a microbial mat clinging to a seashore: a collection of individual life forms that is ever renewing itself — a spectrum of the very young, the mature, and the dying that will never be all of one mind at one time.

This is the tug at the heart that is an awareness of history.  History is the shape that the entirety of human experience takes in a given time frame, but it is mainly a conception — a way of thinking about our place in the endless parade that is that history.  It’s likely that earlier “change” epochs challenged the human brain and forced its evolution from lizard to mammal.  Perhaps our time is just the latest dramatic punctuation of the Ice Age equilibrium that has carried us until now.  I know I that feel challenged.  In thought, at least, if not in my ability to avoid the gnashing fangs of a sabre-tooth in the brush.

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