Posts Tagged ‘rationality’

SERMON: “The Limits of Prayer” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, July 22nd, 2012

There have been attempts at studying the efficacy of prayer.  The most famous one seemed to indicate that prayer actually made sick people feel worse.  (This seemed to be a case, though, of a sick person knowing that someone was praying for them, and — social animal that they were — feeling bad that they weren’t feeling better for the effort!  So we can’t say that it was actually the fault of the prayer itself.  The point here is that we have no evidence that prayer “works”, despite the volumes of anecdotal “proofs”).

In my Christian years I often heard the who-knows-how-far-from-first-hand reports of the dead being raised back to life, or the death sentence of a dread disease being reversed by prayer.  But despite centuries of such reports, there is still no scientific evidence to back up any of these claims.

But we still believe.  Why?  Well, we want to, we need to, and we are hard-wired to believe.

What is prayer?  To me (and for the purposes of this discussion) it is intentionally talking out loud to an external, invisible entity, generally thought of as God (though this applies equally to saints or spirit guides or what-have-you).  Prayer can take several forms: the intentional “thought” that one articulates only inside of one’s mind (hoping that the Holy Spirit will hear and pass the request up the celestial management chain); the “speaking in tongues” of the Pentacostal and Charismatic Christians; or the good-old-fashioned spoken-out-loud prayer.

Of all of these, the one form that actually “works” is the spoken-out-loud kind.

But this “prayer” works for the reasons I’ve written about before: it externalizes our intentions in such a way that they can be heard through the ears and thereby be processed by a different region of the brain.  This often produces a result: either an actual “answer” from that “part” of our consciousness, or; an idea or moment of inspiration that suggests a “solution” to whatever problem or question our prayer sought to address.

There is nothing mystical about this (though it can certainly feel magical!)  But the fact that this is a universal human phenomenon means that it has provided, I think, the basis for a raft of differing religious and spiritual beliefs about how the unseen world works.  Pretty much all of these are, I think, wrong on the facts.  (The only “unseen” world that does, in fact, appear to exist is a continuation of the physical world into a microscopic scale that we cannot observe unaided).  And yet there remains the reality of each of us humans possessing a multilayered brain that contains within it something we often experience as a second self resident within us.

This explains a lot about religious belief, and why it remains so universal among humans.  It also explains why those beliefs almost always fail to produce the results that they often promise.

If it were true that God answered even a fraction of the prayers offered to Him (to take the most prevalent idea of God) on a daily basis, then it stands to reason that we would see a lot more result in that arena.  We would actually see the occasional mountain moved, or the dead raised to life, or the cancer cured, or the best parking spaces at the mall totally taken up by cars with fish symbols glued on the bumper (I mean the Christian fish symbol, not the walking Darwin version I have on my truck).

This illustration of the “Miracle on the Hudson” circulated after this remarkable event. But where was the illustration of God’s hands letting the next airliner fall to its deadly end a week later?

The plain, cold, ugly fact is that we don’t see prayers answered in this clear, unequivocal way.  Leaving aside the dramatic,  miracle-requesting prayers (and the ever-present notable exceptions that prove the rule), even our “every day” supplications are only ever “answered” in that diffuse, heavily–interpreted manner that the equally oversold predictions of psychics or palm readers are: we look at our life through our own confirmation bias, and find a way to convince ourselves that a divine result has been made manifest.  In short, we are ever willing to cloak our disappointment in revised belief in order to sustain the most primary belief in the rightness of belief itself.

But what about the times that prayer does actually work?  By this I mean the times we ask of our mid-brain the kinds of things that it can actually do.

Well, therein lies the key: there are things that this “second self” can do that we can’t do on our own (“we” here meaning that front-line rational part of our brain).  One of these things is giving us “insight” into problems, almost as if we were bringing a second computer online to assist in processing (more accurately, we are bringing a “second mind” to work on the problem that not only has its own computing power, but a different processor, if you like).  And on this score, it is extremely helpful that this second mind is capable of communication in words and sentences (just like the other part of our brain that has the power to activate the voice box).

When I was still working within the worldview of my psychic, I tested out the power of my “higher self”, and found that it was, in fact, really good at helping me find my misplaced keys (for example).  But I also found that it could not help me find anything that someone else had moved from the place I last left it (interesting).  I also realized that it’s “power” was limited to my immediate surroundings (though I had a couple of experiences where it seemed to “draw in” the person I was thinking about — an experience that, it turns out, is not nearly so remarkable as one might think.  For it turns out that we actually live our lives in a rather narrow band of paths, places and people, to the extent that someone we might think of is actually highly likely to appear at any time!  For more on this sort of perceptual bias, see “Quirk”, “Kluge” or several of the other books on the brain reviewed on this blog).

As I think about it now, this all makes perfect sense — if the “person” I’m praying (or talking out loud) to is really another aspect of me living inside my brain.  The limitations of the phenomenon do not make sense, however, if we believe that we are really capable of communicating with spirits or a deity that is not limited to the short-range effectiveness of the supplicant’s physical senses!

The Bible has Jesus telling his disciples that they can wither a fruit tree if it pisses them off by not having any fruit (the tease!), or toss a mountain into the sea (Matthew 21:18-22).  The modern sects of Christianity that take these words at face value have built entire evangelism empires out of teaching believers how to produce such miracles in their own lives.  I’ve been to huge gatherings where just this kind of teaching took place.  Looking back on my experience, it is remarkably analogous to my later experiences of walking through casinos in Las Vegas and Reno — the “testimonies” of those for whom the technique of prayer has worked ring out like the sound of winning slot machines in a vast room.  In short (and by design) one only hears from the  winners!  (What a difference it would make if every losing machine let out a shriek of disappointment each time the little symbols did not line up!  This would give us a much more accurate picture of the reality of the casino — or the revival tent for that matter).

We humans are loaded with biases that are so persistent that they require the active involvement of the frontal lobes to see beyond them.  We will take the sight of two crossed sticks on the ground to be a message from Jesus, or an oil stain on a storage tank to be a vision of the Virgin Mary.  We naturally seek patterns in nature, a skill that has obviously served the physical survival of our primitive ancestors quite well, even though it produces a side-effect of this tendency toward irrational belief.

Natural selection doesn’t care what an organism believes about it’s own existence.  Though, in our case, it could be argued that our tendency toward belief must have given us some sort of advantage in the genetic arms race of evolution.  Still, the presence of a believing brain does not naturally imply the existence of something to believe in.  We act as if it does, and many believers are able to find confirmation of their beliefs in the natural world and, of course, in answered prayer.

But we humans are very selective in our memory, and we naturally remember the few times that prayer “worked” while failing to recall the much more numerous times when it did not.  In the same way we are always reading stories in the news (or seeing people interviewed on television) about those who survived some horror and credit their survival to their urgent prayers.  What we don’t see (and never will) are those that prayed and died anyway.  We only hear from the ones who made it through alive.

So we can go on about the airliner that made a miraculous landing on the Hudson River, say, depicting in an illustration the hands of God gently setting it down after a catastrophic loss of engine power, and yet remain silent about the commuter jet that crashed and burned with all hands only a few weeks and a few hundred miles away.  Do we really think that there was more (or better) prayer for God’s intercession on one plane than another?  (Clearly we do — it is one of the ways we rationalize to maintain our belief in prayer).

So, to sum it all up: prayer works.  But it works just the way one would expect to see a purely physical process within the multilayered human brain work.  With all of the wonder — and limitations — that such a reality would suggest.

Try it out with that knowledge in mind, and you will find out the true power of prayer.

That’s why I won’t be offended if you don’t waste any of your cognitive time praying for me.  Unless, of course, you’re the one who moved my keys from the place I left them!

t.n.s.r. bob

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind” by Gary Marcus, by t.n.s.r. bob

Sunday, December 26th, 2010

FROM THE AUTHOR’S WEBSITE: “Gary Marcus author of the The Birth of the Mind (Basic Books, 2004, translated into 6 languages) and editor of The Norton Psychology Reader, is an award-winning Professor of Psychology at New York University, where he is director of the NYU Center for Child Language. His research, published in leading journals such as Science, Nature, Cognition, and Psychological Science, focuses on the evolution and development of the human mind.

Marcus also enjoys writing for the general public, in venues ranging from The New York Times to The Huffington Post. His newest book, Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind, will be published in Spring 2008.”

In an article in The Economist last year, a writer made the observation that when it comes  to economics, most economists — though generally accepting of Darwinian evolution — seem to draw a line at the neck, treating the human mind as a super-rational exception to the evolutionary rule expressed early in Gary Marcus’ book:

“Nature is prone to making kluges because it doesn’t “care” whether its products are perfect or elegant.  If something works, it spreads.  If it doesn’t work, it dies out.  Genes that lead to successful outcomes tend to propagate; genes that produce creatures that can’t cut it tend to fade away; all else is metaphor.  Adequacy, not beauty, is the name of the game”.

“Kluge” is slang for “A clumsy or inelegant solution to a problem”, and the reality that an evolutionary kluge is what we have for a brain is the thesis of this book.

I’ll say at the outset that I’m sympathetic to this idea, as I’ve long understood that everything about life on this planet (including us humans) represents the best that nature could do with the materials at hand and not (as those holding to a special creation mindset would argue) an example of “perfection” in any reasonable form of that notion.  And although there were a few times where I thought the author heavy-handed in the hammering home of this notion, I can find no fault with his arguments supported by plentiful examples relevant research.

My presupposition that we humans are rational creatures has been shaken of late, and this book has helped me to understand the “why” of  that confusion.  Our reasoning, rational brain is but the latest (and weakest) addition to the ancient apparatus in our skulls:

“The hindbrain, the oldest of the three (dating from at least half a billion years ago), controls respiration, balance, alertness, and other functions that are as critical to a dinosaur as to a human.  The midbrain, layered on soon afterward, coordinates visual and auditory reflexes and controls functions such as eye movements.  The forebrain, the final division to come online, governs things such as language and decision-making, but in ways that often depend on older systems.  As any neuroscientist textbook will tell you, language relies heavily on Broca’s area, a walnut-sized region of the left forebrain, but it too relies on older systems, such as the cerebellum, and ancestral memory systems that are not particularly well suited to the job.  Over the course of evolution our brain has become a bit like a palimpsest, and ancient manuscript with layers of text written over it many times, old bits still hiding behind the new.”

One great aspect of this book is the form it gives to patterns of thought and perception that we all experience.  This is helpful in two ways: the first being a greater appreciation for — and sympathetic acceptance of — our natural human (idiosyncratic) ways of cognition, and secondly; offering ways of working around the natural limitations such an evolved animal brain brings with it.

In technical terms, the book is well written and nicely organized, making it a pleasure to read.  And the scientific information is packed more densely than a Christmas fruitcake.  A particularly refreshing (and mildly surprising) aspect of the book is how directly the author takes on the “creationist” view, over and over again.  But then, writing for an American audience (where a majority of the population holds that God was involved in our making one way or another) why wouldn’t any author on such a subject deal directly with those beliefs.

I recommend this book highly, with thanks to the scientific researcher who pulled it off her shelf for me to read.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Wrong About the Same Thing” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, October 17th, 2010

Twice in the last weeks I’ve attempted to draw a graph depicting my (informed though subjective) impression of the tendency of Homo sapiens sapiens toward irrational belief: the vertical line represents a percentage of the population, and the horizontal line represents a continuum of belief (with the totally bat-shit crazy stuff at the far left and the completely rational evidence-based belief at the far right end of the scale).

On my first try the thing looked like a ski slope with most folks on the irrational belief side, and a slim few on the rational end of the scale.  After some discussion I’ve since revised it to be more of a bell curve, with a smaller number of people on the crazy side, a huge bulge in the middle that gradually (yet quickly) drops off to a small percentage on the completely rational end.

I was motivated to do this by the realization that even the average among us harbors any number of irrational beliefs.  A biological parallel presents itself immediately: it is almost like the way each of us carries untold bacteria and microbes in (and on) our bodies.  Or the way in which we seem (historically speaking) to most often experience mutations on a link in our DNA that is not active or critical to our health and development, only occasionally experiencing a change that threatens our existence (just as most bacteria are not a danger to the health of ourselves or others).

In the same way, I’m coming to the (not original with me) idea that irrational belief is ineradicable — just like the billions of bacteria that make up more than half the cellular weight of our physical bodies.  This, of course, begs the question: if (as science tells us) some 90 percent of the genetic material that we carry in our bodies is — technically speaking — not human, but bacterial or viral, would we still be human without it?  And if we would cease to function as discreet physical beings were we to be suddenly free of all of that “foreign” material, can we really call it “foreign” or “non-human at all?

(Of course this last point is more an esoteric than a practical concur: more an issue of perspective than anything else).

The difference, of course, between bacteria and irrational belief is that we can function perfectly well without the latter, if not the former (though it takes a surprising amount of effort to counter the tendency toward irrational belief, it can be done — unlike any attempt to rid ourselves completely of bacteria).

There are, naturally, many who would disagree, and consider HOPE so important, that they consider it a valid criticism of Atheism that it cannot provide that commodity in sufficiently digestible doses.  But these are the same that point to that huge bulge in in the middle of my “belief bell curve” as evidence that God (by any of the popular brand names) must surely exist (otherwise, why would so many people believe in Him, her or it?).

One thing that the reality of so many people sharing a belief in God (on the one hand, and the thousands of other irrational theories on the other) does, indeed, prove is not that God (or any of the other mild to wild ideas we humans believe) is real, but that it is easily possible for a large number of people to be wrong about the same thing!

Like bacteria, there are really only a few truly virulent forms of irrational belief that will kills us (or lead us to kill each other).  Even so we take care to wash our hands and take precautions that will decrease our chances of catching a cold, say, or inoculate ourselves against this season’s most likely flu bug.  (And behind the scenes, our government pours a judicious sum of money into constant research to spot the next potential population-decimating plague that is ever ready to jump us).  In the same way, each dose of evidence and reason we take into our minds boosts our immunity to the fever of the irrational.

Is it worth it?  Is it a worthy use of a portion of our time and energy to learn, to investigate, to do battle with our own natural irrationality?  I think so.  Most of the time we can endure the typical cold as a cost of being social and active among our fellow humans.  But with so many of our fellow hominids hot with various fevers of irrational belief, the more of us that are healthy in that way the better.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Which Century are We In?” by the-not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, August 22nd, 2010

I’ve jumped in a couple of times on the New York City Muslim “Community Center” debate this week.  Having become so engaged locally in political debate with the TEA Party, my primary impulse was to defend the freedom of religion pronouncements of our Constitution, and, well, use that as a hammer to pound these Conservatives that have portrayed (literally) President Obama as one who is “shredding the Constitution”.

Setting aside the extreme xenophobia that such a debate always brings out (the church in Florida scheduling a “Burn the Koran Day”, for example), I understand the unease that people feel.  The difference is, I think, that I feel an unease about any religious structure, be it Muslim or Christian, Mormon or Scientologist, as they are all monuments (to varying degrees) to irrational belief.

But on another level, churches are expressions of human community, and to the extant that this is what they represent, I am supportive.  Of course, we never get one without the other.

Leaving for now the completely irrational, our more general fear of Muslims is that they will not assimilate — that they will remain a separate society within our own.  Of course, there is truth in this, particularly among immigrants.  But this has always been the case with any immigrant population to one degree or another.  I calm myself from this fear with the fact that it is generally the second generation that become, truly, “American”.  That transformation performed, to a great extent, by the nearly irresistible appeal of our consumer society.

We are now, and have always been, a mix.  The conservative strain in our culture seems to have been forged mostly in the southern states, based on a shared Scots/Irish root system that was traumatized by the disaster of the American Civil War (not to mention earlier dislocations and humiliations in the “old” country).  So that even among these that think of themselves as true and historic Americans, there is a certain communal isolationism that is distrustful of modernity and dismissive of the “elites” of New York City, Washington, D.C. and, well, the rest of the planet.

History has a power that is largely unrecognized in our daily lives, and issues like the (so called) “Ground Zero Mosque” bring all sorts of historic memory to the surface.  Not just the recent memory of 9/11, but even our ancient human tribal nature that distrusts and violently rejects the “other”, the “outsider”.  We like to think that we live, now, in the age of reason, but I am reminded time and time again that our thin veneer of modernity rests upon the impulses and instincts of ice-age humans.  As Chrisopher Hitchens likes to say, our problem is that “Our adrenal glands are too large, and our frontal lobes are too small”.  To put it another way: we shoot first and ask questions later.

I spent a bit of time this week in a running argument on Facebook with a conservative friend (and his friends) because I thought they should stop believing things for which there was no evidence.  Of course they just called me a socialist, changed the subject, or referenced sources that were more factories of make-believe than repositories of evidence.  They felt politically attacked, but my point was the more basic one I keep making: that we can’t have a reasonable discussion of an important issue if one side or the other is ready, willing and eager to say whatever is in their mind that is not supported by evidence.

Of course a great source of the anti-science, anti-intellectual force in our society is the conservative, religious right, rooted in the American South which was not only defeated in the Civil War, but also humiliated and marginalized by the same “East coast elites” that the conservative movement criticizes today.

As I ponder the power of history, I realize that there are consistent parallels between the personal and the cultural: we are comfortable with what we are born into, and it is only through effort (a willingness to abandon the cherished falsehood for the better answer) that we progress as individuals and as a species.

In “America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism” by Anatol Lieven (reviewed this week), the author offers a quote from 1963 by Daniel Bell:   “What the right wing is fighting, in the shadow of Communism, is essentially ‘modernity’ — that complex of beliefs that might be defined most simply as the belief in rational assessment, rather than established custom, for the evaluation of social change.  But it is precisely those established ways that a modernist America has been forced to call into question.”

We see this same struggle against “modernity” in the Muslim world.  The major difference between “them” and “us” being that the American religious right is stuck in the 19th century, while Islam appears to be stuck in the 12th.

So the question becomes this: how do we all move together into the 21st century?

t.n.s.r. bob

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

SERMON: “Living the Dream” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, August 8th, 2010

One shouldn’t watch a movie like “Inception” just before writing a sermon, especially when that sermon is to be about the persistence of myth and this writer’s ongoing realization that our reliance on narrative goes much deeper than he realized.  (“Inception” is a story based on the idea that we can share our dream state with others, and from this a tale of espionage and personal redemption follows.  It’s a really enjoyable movie, but to see it on a day when it’s hitting me that we humans are so deeply enmeshed with our stories that they may be the thing we cannot actually exist without may not have been the best choice).

I’m currently reading a book that carefully (and thoughtfully) examines the shared mythologies and ideas that we Americans share: the ideas through which we have formed (and maintain) our identity as citizens.  It is a “peeling of the onion” sort of book, well written, and mostly right-on as far as I can see (so far).  It is both exhilarating to feel my understanding expand even as it feeds a lingering sense of despair about the future of my own species.  For even with my active pursuit of reason and reality, I carry the imprint of my own culture and upbringing.  I am still an American, and a citizen of the same mythologies that motivate even my most irrational neighbors.

Odd thing, that.

What it makes me think of is the powerful role our youth has on our adult desires, tastes and attitudes.  It makes me realize that our social primate nature — beside being a much deeper force than I think most of us allow — is also deeply local, and that whatever it is that surrounds us in our formative years will forever represent what triggers our sense of comfort, beauty or safety (and, conversely, fear, disgust and discomfort).  And though (in some cases) horrific events drive people to find comfort in the completely foreign or new this is, I think, not the norm.

I’ve touched on this before in discussing the area of personal growth, where in my own case I have endeavored (as fearlessly as I’m able, anyway) to inquire into what it is that really makes me happy/excited/satisfied, and to not settle for the ideas of what I think should “trip my trigger”.  While on that “path” I have found (of late) an increasing sense that most of my “triggers” were formed long ago, and I am faced with an intriguing choice of whether to abandon what naturally (by early experience) makes me “happy”, or to conduct experiments on re-training myself in new means to the same ends.

Considered in the cold light of having only this one life in which to live (and excluding the pathologic or neurotic), which is the better choice?  This is the dilemma I’ve faced of late when confronted with a persistent happiness and sense of well being that has preceded the sought-after events that were to bring about those satisfactions.  Does one go ahead and be happy, or attempt to cultivate enough discontent to continue the pursuit of the idea (or ideal)?

There aren’t complete answers to these questions, just as there may not be completely satisfying answers to all of our other questions about ourselves or life in general.

I will insert here, however, my continued annoyance at the human tendency to see behind each un-answered question the lurking presence of a mystical presence, be it god, spirit, or devil.  Bullshit.  While our fascination with the unknown as home to our fantastical projections is great as entertainment (such as “Inception”), it is crap as actual living (in my humble opinion).  The raising of the metaphysical flag each time a scientist says “I don’t know what’s beyond this” does not do our species proud, and always (always) represents NOT a leap of faith into the unknown, but a retreat back into the darker ages of our emerging reason.

(I told you I shouldn’t be writing a sermon after that movie and the book I’m reading).

But about that book: each page I turn that further explains the roots of our shared ideology as Americans feeds my secret belief that I can understand it all, and take that knowledge and affect it all.  In the end, of course, even as I add arrows to my quiver with which to attack our nationalistic hubris, I am reminded of my own “galloping jesus complex”.  Alas, it seems to be a natural human attribute to see ourselves not only as the center of the world, but to assume a certain sense of omnipotence over that world, to the end that every street corner preacher thinks that he or she is going to “save the world” (even as they struggle to keep a dozen butts in the folding chairs at each storefront service).

But it’s not just the religious evangelist.  We actually buy recycled toilet paper whose label tells us that we are “saving the planet”, and we believe it.  I saw an ad for an electric car claiming that it was “carbon neutral” (as if the mined, refined and manufactured steel, plastic, glass, solvents, paints and rubber were all found ready-to-assemble by the damn roadside)!

Of course buying the recycled toilet paper or the electric car are rational choices (and could have an accumulative effect on extending our pleasurable lives here on Earth), but my point is that we are naturally prone to an exuberant sense of self-importance that is so pervasive I find I have no right to call it a sin.

As the book I’m reading (which I’ll review next week) seems to suggest, the very myths that get in the way of our rational discussion of issues that affect us may in fact also be the necessary glue that allows so many of us to live together in the complex societies that we know as nations.  On a more personal level, it may be my own inherent sense of human importance that moves me to do the many things I do (including this sermon).

Whether I want to admit it or not, I, too, want to save the world.  And whether I want to admit it or not, on some level, I still believe that I can.  The wonder of our evolved human brain is that we can step outside of ourselves and examine, critically, our myths and ideas.  And returning at last to the metaphor of the “dream” movie “Inception”: I guess that this is the difference between the people that exercise that critical ability and the ones that don’t: the one is looking for what the dream can reveal, the other won’t acknowledge that they’re dreaming at all.

t.n.s.r.