Posts Tagged ‘religion’

SERMON: “Holy Science” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, December 2nd, 2012

The current “ding” on journalism is a new scrutiny on this policy that for every view expressed by one person, the reporter must find someone with an opposing view to quote in order to “balance out” the reportage.

Like so many things we legislate, there is an apparent logic and reasonableness to this.  But we end up with news that is often not representative of the actual facts under discussion.  A specialist might be interviewed for a science article, for example, but the opposing view might be nothing more than the uninformed opinion of someone who actually knows little about the issue at hand.  The reader or viewer can then be left with the idea that the specialist knows no more than the average man-on-the-street.

Not everyone thinks that this is a bad thing.  Especially when there is motive behind the actions of those who would defend their opinion not by showing that their information is better, but by painting their opposition as being no better that they are.  That way, no matter how foolish (or wrong) the less qualified speaker is proven to be, their opponent is linked to them in a sort of credibility death spiral.  This is a method of dragging the other down to your level so that if you can’t win, they still lose.

That’s what creationists do when they say that science is “only a theory”, promulgating the bad idea that a scientific theory is the same as a religious belief.  And they go further, not by proving that religious belief is valid, per se, but that science is simply a competing anti-god religion that people follow by faith.  They attempt to put everything on the level of faith — as if there is only Faith and anti-Faith.  They further portray scientists not as individuals seeking truth in experiment and evidence but merely other religiously-motivated believers using the apparent respectability of science to advance their escape from a God they wish to deny.

Lots of folks buy this stuff.  And it’s very compelling to many of us.  It is, after all, an appeal to our innate sense of fairness.  And whether we agree with a particular religious sect or not, we don’t like to see smarty-pants snobs with test-tubes beating up on the poor church kids.

For all his accomplishments, Darwin remains a respected scientist, not a saint.

Science — though made up of people as prone to belief as any —  is, however, a system designed to transcend belief with actual evidence that can inform belief to better match reality.  Religions don’t do that.  They work to persuade people with ancient stories that were made up at one time and then believed and than had to be believed as the only stories worth believing.  Science, on the other hand, proposes a hypothesis  (a story — a “guess”) that can be tested and, once “proven” to be correct, can become a theory (a story based on evidence that can be further refined as evidence confirms or dis-confirms it in whole or in part).  So a “theory” is ever on a path that can (at any time) lead to either the junk heap of bad ideas, or a designation of “truth”.  Some theories have been with us long enough (and have accumulated enough confirmatory evidence) that we consider them to be true.  (The theory of gravity, the theory of a heliocentric universe and the theory of evolution, as examples).

We’ve all seen that certain type of religious individual that likes to be regarded in a sort of semi-scientific way (as being supported by evidence in addition to faith).  This is the spiritual authority that assumes the title of Doctor, for example, and preaches the word (as given by God) but sprinkles it with references to scientific knowledge, thus borrowing from that knowledge to bolster his or her assertions (that if the flock obeys they will most assuredly see the promised results of goodness, blessings and happiness).  But this is a shadow system, based not on actual scientific experiment and evidence, but by an entrenched system of hearsay and selective memory.  Such as these want to borrow the shine of actual science without doing the actual work of submitting to the same experimental rigor.  Sorry.  No deal.

And yet the urge is seemingly irresistible — the spiritual are ever quick to pounce on any scientific study that appears to (or can be made to seem to) confirm their particular practice.  (So if you didn’t know better, you’d think the field of quantum mechanics was a kind of New Age spiritual discipline, for example).

The scientific method is not religion.  And religion is certainly not science.  We need science to be what it is.  Otherwise, we abandon all hope of determining our reality.  We will have only religious stories, not testable scientific theories.

One other point.  Darwin is the chief bugaboo of modern fundamentalist religious belief, and his “On The Origin of Species” marked as the evil book that came “from the pits of hell” to support the “anti-faith” of evolutionary science.  And yet you will not see Darwin’s book printed by the millions and broken into chapter and verse like the Gideons Bibles that lurk in the drawers of countless hotel rooms.  And you won’t see scientists treating “Origin” like Holy Scripture, either.  It is seen for what it is: an important historical document that is respected because of how many things Darwin got right, not because scientists believe that he got it all right for all time!  How could he have?  Darwin wrote his book long before the discovery of DNA, so he did not have the tools to determine the biological mechanism of the process of mutation he theorized in species.  He also didn’t have the knowledge of modern geologists who have proven the theory of plate tectonics (that explains how the continents that Darwin recognized must have once been joined could, in fact, have been joined as he imagined).  But neither is Darwin rejected for what he did not (and could not) have known.  Darwin is respected for the fact is that he put a lot of things together in a way that no-one had done before, and so he is revered still today as a remarkable human thinker who had the courage to state his theories based on the evidence he had.

History and science have proven him right.  Had science shown him to be wrong, we probably wouldn’t think so highly of Darwin today.  But his fame is certainly not the result of a conspiracy of anti-faith scientists making up evidence to support his Godless views: far from it.  Scientists relish the chance, after all, to prove each other wrong.  It is only after overwhelming evidence makes their contrary position untenable that many will assent to, well, evidential reality.

No.  Science is not the same as religion, and so it cannot be viewed as the anti-faith that the devoutly religious make it out to be.  It remains a human endeavor, yes, and will therefore remain subject to the occasional hoax, fraud or error.  But it is always better science that reveals the charlatan in the end.

I don’t think anything of human manufacture should be viewed as holy or sacrosanct.  It’s just too risky.  In our desire for things of permanence that will transcend our own inescapable mortality we are willing to bend truth to a remarkable degree.   Science, alone, stands in defiance of this force of fear and wishful thinking.  And so it should be allowed to stand for what it truly is.

This doesn’t mean that religious believers should be forced to yield to science.  Replacing one oppressive belief with another is not the point.  The point is to keep in our minds that religion and science are, well, religion and science.  And to better understand what that difference really means.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The Mind of God” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, November 25th, 2012

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.  And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.  So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”  (Matthew 10: 29-31, New International Version)

I had my computer bag slung across my shoulder, and a sketchbook in my hand as I closed the truck door.  But as I stepped toward the coffee shop, I was reminded that I’d left a large plastic tub full of laundry in the open bed of my pickup truck.  So I turned around, and walked back to my truck to wrestle the heavy tub of clothing into the cab.  Pausing at the edge of my truck, I made the decision to set my sketchbook on the edge of the truck bed, but to keep the computer bag hanging from my shoulder as I unlocked the front door, lifted the heavy bin of clothes out of the bed and wrestled it into the front seat.  I locked the door, retrieved my sketch book, and resumed my short walk into the coffee shop.

So simple, so everyday, these actions I just described.  It’s the kind of thing we do “without thinking about it”.  But, of course, we do think about it.

For starters, there was a message to my conscious, working brain that reminded me of the laundry I’d earlier put in my truck.  And though I can surmise that this “reminder” was attached to memories of my practice of putting the laundry in the cab (when I’m somewhere I consider high risk for theft), the fact remains that this thought originated in a part of my brain linked to, but not the same as, my “conscious” mind.

Once that “reminder” entered my conscious mind, I paused while my reasoning brain made the rapid calculation of theft risk (in the present circumstance).  That accomplished, I then decided I would turn around and initiate the action.

Then came the calculation about how to best accomplish the task at hand.  What to do with the sketch book in my hand and the heavy bag hanging on my shoulder?  I paused for another moment as I mentally tried out a scenario of grabbing the large plastic bin with the tips of my fingers while still holding the sketchbook in my left hand, but I dismissed that idea as being unnecessarily risky.  That meant I then had to decide where to put the book before finally choosing the flat edge of the truck bed.

Having done that, I unlocked the driver’s side door (though this happened pretty much “without thought” — or, at least, any thought I was aware of).  As I positioned myself to lift the laundry, I had to sense where the weight of my shoulder bag was so as to keep my balance (this I was aware of — to a degree), and then — using the edge of the truck as a brace for my lower body —  prepare to lift the heavy bin in a way that wouldn’t re-injure my dodgy lower back.

All that done, I began to lift the bin, and I felt muscles along my torso tighten to meet the load and allow the energy of my movement to lift the tub of clothes.  It was in this moment of muscle (familiar) movement, as I was swinging the tub into the front seat, that a more abstract thought came into my mind — an idea completely unrelated to the task at hand (made possible by the bit of free space now available to my conscious mind now that all those decisions had been made).  What popped into my head (from yet another part of my brain) was the idea for this sermon, and it occupied my mind to a degree that I had no short-term memory of the final movements of this entire laundry-moving episode!

But then suddenly, it seemed, I realized I had been oblivious to what my body had just been doing with a rather heavy, awkward object, and was only now conscious of walking back into the coffee shop, thinking, once more, about God.

Remarkable.  All of it, really.

What all of this lead me to was a consideration of the “mind” of God.  I think it’s safe to say that the fundamental understanding of how God works in the world is that He is conscious of every single action or process that is occurring (not only on the Earth, but in the entire universe and, well, into whatever “beyond” there is beyond that).  Which would mean that there would seem to be nothing that God does unconsciously (or reflexively).  To trot out that old chestnut, it’s not unlike our idea of how Santa Claus knows whether every child on earth has been bad or good.  Like God, Santa has helpers, of course (in Santa’s case, elves, in God’s case, angels).  But no-one believes that these helpers are doing the thinking for their respective bosses (they are more like Odin’s twin ravens that swooped over the countryside, bringing that ancient Norse god news of his domain).

A “Sparrow” that fell.

But let us consider how the only minds we have experience of actually work.  As my rather prosaic example illustrates, we rely on a multilevelled brain in everything we do.  We tend to think of ourselves as (primarily) the conscious, analytical part of our mind, with the emotional, “gut” part coming in a close second.  And yet “beneath” these two levels are other highly active “brains”.  There is, of course, what we think of as the most basic level, the part that runs all of our “automatic” systems.  This is the part that keeps us breathing, our heart beating, our cells regenerating, our hair and fingernails growing.  This part of the brain is almost like the car we drive that keeps rolling down the highway even while our mind is off thinking about where we’re going to eat lunch.  It demands our attention from time to time (such as when we are ill or injured), and can also be influenced by our higher levels of thinking (we can hold our breath, for example, or use cognitive techniques to calm a pounding heart).  But mostly, it just runs and runs and runs without our input.  Until, of course, it stops (at death).

But “above” this level, there is an incredible, constant volume of communication going on below the level of consciousness.  Take for example the chatter between the nerve endings in the gut and the brain that regulate the myriad processes of our physical bodies and maintain the homeostasis that allows our conscious mind to be thinking about football scores or what color of shirt to wear.

And this is where I’m going with this notion of the “mind of God”.

If there is a God (and if we are truly “made in His image”) than it would stand to reason that the mind of God might operate in the way that our minds do (and every other animal with a brain of any complexity).  In short, God would have a conscious mind that can focus attention in one place at a time, as well as an unconscious mind that reminds him of this or that, and a deeper level of “mind” that sees to the hairs on your head and the sparrow dropping dead from out of the sky (as the verse from Matthew describes at the top of this sermon).  It seems to me that there is no other way the mind of God could possibly work, if it were to work at all in any meaningful, personal way.

But this presents a problem for our usual conception of how our “personal” God engages with His creation.

Think about it like this: imagine, for a moment, if you had to use your frontal lobes to consciously monitor the amount of iron in every single cell in your bloodstream at this moment, as well as the amount of glucose being harvested by your gut from your breakfast, while still keeping your speeding car in the correct lane and planning your work day.  What if, while doing all of this, you also felt it every time a cosmic particle ripped through a strand of your DNA, and you had to then consciously command the correct proteins to repair that damage (about 100 billion solar neutrinos pass through your thumbnail alone every second, according to scientists).  You’d also simultaneously be directing every molecule in your skin as it builds new body hair in every follicle (you have over three million hairs, in case you’re wondering), while also deciding when to command a damaged cell to destroy itself to protect the whole (apoptosis).  You’d also be the “mind” of every bit of bacteria in your body or the flora in your gut as the synapses fired in your brain with each thought (and then had to be re-charged before they could fire again).  And all of this (multiplied by a number that I, frankly, can not even comprehend) while paying attention to all of the things in daily life that already often stretch our capacity to its limits!

Now, imagine the mind of God doing that for every living thing.  For every rock, planet, particle and neutron.  This is what we think God does all of the time for all of eternity, while still having time to hear our prayers at night.

Suddenly I can see God as the old-fashioned hard-working father who feels put upon to have to work like a dog all day at the cosmic office and still be there for his family at night, only much, much, much worse.

Clearly, whoever came up with such a notion of God wasn’t thinking very scientifically.  But, then, when our ideas of God were formed, the workings of our own brains and bodies (and nature and the cosmos, for that matter) were opaque mysteries to us.  The Bible (along with other “ancient” religious texts) is very much a pre-science document.  Sure, we had domesticated crops and animals by then, and were employing primitive medicine, but we were doing all of this in the dark, as it were.  It was all trial and error with no knowledge of the biological processes underlying our occasional lucky outcomes.

And yet this original idea of a personal God persists.  How can that be, especially when each of us can’t help but be aware of just how large and crowded our planet is?  The simplicity of our ideas of God makes sense when we look at the complexity of our own brains, and how they have managed to evolve in a way that does not demand that we think about everything all-of-the-time.  Thanks to the hierarchy of our consciousness, I can be thinking about something else while lifting a bin full of laundry.  So I can rather easily think of the God of the Universe as a close, attentive, personal friend any time I want to, free of the dissonance of the logical barriers to such an idea.  Our minds are very good at filtering out “noise” in order to hear what we want (or need) to hear.  Our survival has depended upon it.

So it would appear that it is because we are so good at filtering that we are also so good at believing in an all-powerful (yet personal) God like we do.  To be honest, we don’t really have the time or mental RAM to try to take in the incredible complexity that not only surrounds us, but that is us.  We are natural “simplifiers”, and so in practice we give little thought to how God might actually do what we so blithely claim that he does.  And there is also good reason to let that be as it is.

Most of us have clear memories of the moment we learned that Santa Claus wasn’t “real” (I apologize deeply to any of my readers who are hearing this news for the first time).  And so, perhaps, having lost Santa, we are doubly loathe to replace the grown-up version (or to even equate the two figures).  We provide diligent support for a child’s belief in Santa (up to the day the truth finally comes out), but then as adults we (just as diligently) extend to each other nearly unending social support for a basic belief in God.  (Religion may come in many flavors and brands, but even the weirder ones still buy into the basic notion of an all-seeing intelligence “up there”).

There is an aspect to this that is actually very human.  If God is, indeed, the more durable adult replacement for childhood belief in the jolly red elf, this points to our need for belief, as well as our creativity in seeing to it that such emotional cognitive needs are met.  (I happen to think that some form of belief is actually quite “natural” to us, having the kind of brains that we do).  People such as I could have little problem with such a state of affairs if it ended there: in the warmth of a pleasurable fantasy.  But as we all know, it often doesn’t, and there are believers who take their belief very seriously in a way that weaponizes faith in a manner that produces more misery than magic.

And this is why I criticize irrational religious belief.  Not to remove the enjoyable experience of magic and wonder, but to ward off  the predatory humans who use our cognitive vulnerability for inhumane ends.  (Those whom — if He were truly paying attention to everything, all of the time — God would be flick off the planet in very short order).

I will never be able to state as absolute fact that God doesn’t exist.  This is a question that science cannot answer.  What I am saying is that our idea of God does not hold up to even a fairly low-level of scrutiny.  Some will argue that this is purely a problem with the limited capacity of humans to comprehend the divine.  But this dodges the question, as the human conception of God is the only product on offer — by their own argument they are admitting that we can know no other God than the one we know.  To me, this is the most profoundly quiet argument against the existence of any spiritual reality of the kind that we humans most often imagine: an omniscient God who’s eye is, nevertheless, truly on the sparrow, and who watches over me and you.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Looking at My Own Species” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, November 18th, 2012

The not-so-reverend bob…pondering.

As I continue to explore the implications of a science-based view of existence, I want to consider an issue I might classify as “quietly dramatic” — the way in which a materialistic perspective shapes my view of my own species.

If the survey numbers are to be believed (and I have no reason to doubt them), then it would appear that most of our species believes in the existence of a personal, active, supernatural deity that had either everything (or a great deal) to do with “creating” our planet, the solar system, the universe and, well, us.

This is not news.  Most of the people I know believe in some form of spirituality, whether it be the traditional God or a more diffuse form of cosmic intelligence that is capable of acting on our behalf.

And although some would disagree with me, I take the considered stand that there is nothing in the discoveries of science that would support either of these notions.  Of course you would be correct to point out to me (should you want to) that neither is there anything in the realm of science that can completely disprove those same spiritual notions.  Agreed.  But if we were to make a chart of two columns with one being “Evidence for PURELY NATURAL causes of just about EVERYTHING” and the other for “Evidence for EXTERNAL, SPIRITUAL causes of EVERYTHING (or, well, anything)”, then column 1 would be packed with a lot (if not all) of scientific discovery, and column 2 would be empty (I’m talking about actual evidence here, not our personal subjective experiences that we often interpret as being “divine” in origin).

In response to this evidentiary imbalance, there has arisen the “non-overlapping magisterium” argument that allows for two different “types” of data to be applied to two different “kinds” of reality.  This argument rests on the assumption that spiritual phenomenon exist outside of the natural world and are, therefore, impossible to measure by any of the tools of science.  This is at best a polite fiction, I think, as it allows us to have slices of our scientific and spiritual cake on the same plate, as it were.  But I don’t think this argument holds up to “modern” reality.  And even if the notion of spirituality occupying a realm beyond the reach of science were a tenable position in the past, I think it is becoming more and more difficult to sustain in the face of continuing scientific discovery.

All of which leaves one such as myself in the rather awkward position of dealing with the reality that not just a few, but most of my fellow humans believe (often rather deeply) in completely imaginary things.

How can this be?  Especially taking into account the rather high esteem we have for ourselves in the “great chain of being”?

Consider for a moment the age you and I live in, for we live in a time that is unique in human history.  Not just because we can look up cat videos on YouTube, but because we are the first generation to know so much incredible factual information about where we came from.  Seriously: every week there is an article trumpeting new discoveries about the origins and evolution of life on earth.  I read a steady stream of newly-published books (written for a general audience) that work at explaining the mind-bending wonders of how our planet was formed, or what the latest fossils are suggesting about the meandering course of the natural selection that eventually produced birds from dinosaurs and humans from fish.

But at the same time, there is not simply (an understandable) ignorance in the face of this flood of ever-surprising discovery, but determined resistance to new conceptions about ourselves that is organized, well-funded and determined.  These “push-back” campaigns from religious groups employ the rather frightening tactic of attacking the credibility of the very foundations of the scientific method.  In a sense they attempt to portray scientifically-gleaned evidence as nothing better than one godless human’s perverted opinion.  And it’s working.  Clearly, despite their professed belief that the ways of God are beyond science, science itself must be silenced because of the (actual and perceived) impact it is having on the foundations of religious belief.

Mostly we see this in the “climate change” debate.  This is less a true debate than a bunch of actual scientists on one side, and a bunch of commercial interests and believers in personal liberty and religious fundamentalism on the other whose beliefs determine the reality they are willing to accept.  The religious, at least, see science as the evil opposite of themselves, making the huge mistake of taking faith in religion to be the intellectual equivalent of faith in careful science.  But their arguments find fertile ground in the minds of millions of Americans.  Americans that have some understanding of their religion, but less understanding of science.

In the ancient battle between competing religious mythologies, science — actual science — is regarded as no more than a new myth-on-the-block.

And in this is the disquieting implication that the majority of our fellow humans who are living their lives, making decisions about who they elect to office (and the issues that they subsequently badger their elected officials about) are profoundly ignorant of the actual physical reality of their lives and the world we live in.  And it would appear that in this ignorance irrational belief not only persists, but prospers.

And so it becomes tricky to figure out just how to view these, my fellow humans.  Our species has produced (and continues to produce) stunning examples of artistic beauty, technical prowess, sheer courage, generosity of spirit, philosophical insight and scientific discovery.  And yet we are also a species of tribal warfare, ignorant fear, short-sighted selfishness and appalling cruelty.

Though the religious would disagree with me on this, it’s clear to me that, on the spiritual side, there is more heavy lifting to do to explain the mysterious disparity between our species’ highs and lows, especially when humans are held to be the special creation of an all-knowing deity.  On the scientific side, reality is accepted — as it is — as a problem to be studied that will (one hopes) yield more and more answers and explanations over time.   But for all of us, there is only the one reality of our existence on this planet, a reality that carries with it the ever-present potential for great achievement, or the bubbling over of our darker ingredients into human-generated chaos or social upheaval.

For me, a scientific, materialist view of my species gives me the comfort of recognizing and understanding a certain physical reality, and frees me from any added angst of layered-on spiritual mysteries.  But on the other hand, it also lays bare the incredible difficulty of tackling the profound challenge it would be to eliminate evil, say, from the world, especially when most of my fellow humans believe in the existence of an invisible mystery — a belief that actually inhibits the capacity to rationally interpret reality.  In truth, the real challenge, then, is much greater than the imagined spiritual one (which God is going to take care of anyway, once he makes a “new” heaven and earth).  And so I think that the materialist can not, in the end, be in any way accused of taking the “easy” way out.  Believers in God may think that non-believers have taken a lazy short-cut, (and have therefore earned some extra punishment in the afterlife) but, really, I don’t think they know what the hell they’re talking about.

To be honest about it, I’d have to say that eliminating God from the picture (though it has, for me, deeply affirmed my “right” to existence) reveals life on Earth to be a bit, well, tenuous.  And though life itself will likely go on for a long, long time, that doesn’t mean that we humans will.

There is only one reality, and it is a natural one.  So the true difference between spirituality and materialism is perspective, and the way our different sets of perceptions color our view of the one reality that we all share.  It is less and less of a mystery to me why we humans are so damn religious, and why so few choose to go it “alone” without the comforts of irrational belief.  In a way I feel a bit the detached scientist studying a curious and fascinating species, only with the sometimes unsettling awareness that I am one of that same species.  Good and bad, high and low, I have met the humans, and they are us: Noble and petty, rational and cuckoo, the most impressive and maddening life form to have evolved in the last few billion years.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Fairness in the Universe” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, November 11th, 2012

What is fair?  Definitions of “fairness” include adherence to rules or codes of conduct, or deciding issues without bias.  Like any other concept, it requires reference to something else for its definition (such as the color blue being described as the color of the daytime sky).  But how would we explain fairness (or “blue”) to a being who had no points of reference in common with us?

We act as if there is a Cosmic Standards Office which maintains an unchangeable set of rules and guidelines for us humans to follow.  We can therefore switch to immediate outrage when societal rules are broken or flaunted, and yet we all rationalize our own infractions, be they small or large.  We shout for justice, and hope that our own actions pass by unpunished.

God, of course, has traditionally been seen as the Chief Guardian of the laws of morality.  And yet there is certainly just as much variance in moral behavior in God’s followers as in the general population. Whatever the power of faith, that power is most certainly limited or, at the least, diffuse in its ability to influence the world at large.

But what if there is no God to keep of the rules?  No-one manning the phones at the Cosmic Standards Office?  What does that mean for our idea of “fairness”?  The believer in God would tell you that it means everything, for without God, there is no morality (and, in fact, according to more fundamentalist believers, no reason to be moral at all)!  This is a rather dramatic view, I think, but I can understand that some would take it rather hard were God to be proven a false idea, and would therefore take everything that they had heretofore associated with that false God to be worthy of scorn.

Fairness, then, would become a meaningless, abandoned notion (to those holding such a view).  But only because we have associated the idea of ethical behavior with God — as its ultimate source — in the first place.  The advantage of an evolutionary view of life is that we can see morality for the evolved social system that it is, independent of the idea of God (except insofar as some of the codification of human morality has become an industry of religion).

If science is correct, and we have, in fact, evolved over millions of years from earlier life forms, then it is highly unlikely that there is a C.S.O. to back up any of our moral claims.  And yet, morality exists, for we humans are most assuredly highly sensitive to behaviors that we see as “unfair”.  The existence of social mores and codes is not mysterious to the scientifically minded.  We are, after all, profoundly social animals, and we can observe versions of “our” moral behavior in other social animals, including our primate cousins.

We (naturally, I think) judge the social behavior of other animals by our own standards, always in reference to their difference from (or similarity to) our own.  We wonder why the cheetah “cheats”, or the chimp “steals”.  (But, then, we wonder why we humans cheat and steal and murder and lie)!  And so we have had to add to “God the Lawgiver” “God the Ultimate Enforcer” who has, for his own reasons, left us to duke it out with each other until he finally steps in (at the “last days”) and invites all the good (moral) humans to move into his eternal gated community where the riffraff will be kept out with pointy barbs and eternal hellfire.

(Clearly, the immoral behavior of others of our own species really troubles us, otherwise, we would never have come up with such severe and lasting divine punishments for our enemies).

As I’ve said before, one of the most remarkable facts of the removal of God from the question of human morality is how little impact it really has on that morality. That’s because the major force keeping you and me in line is the social pressure from other humans, not divine punishment.  Even the power of the police rests partly in the potential shame and public censure that would come from an arrest or conviction.  Professional criminals and psychopathic individuals aren’t bothered by the embarrassments that terrify the rest of us.  But as Giulia Sissa says (in”Sex and Sensuality in the Ancient World” — reviewed this blog), “Those that cannot blush do not belong to a community”.

And there is the thing: most of us do belong to a community, be it a family, a company, a church, a social organization, you name it.  In fact, most of us belong to a number of such communities at the same time.  And needing each other as much as we do (whether we like to admit it or not), we are constantly measuring our behavior, whether it be our words or actions, according to how much of our personal desire we can express and according to the potential for positive or negative feedback from our social groups (or partner).  We have brains that are finely tuned to the slightest nuance in expression or tone from whoever we are engaging with.  We burn a lot of calories keeping our place in the troop, as it were.

And fairness is one of those things that we appeal to in such situations.  We want to be treated fairly (especially when we aren’t getting what we think is our due), and it’s often hard for us to give up that little bit extra we really wanted to keep for ourselves in order to be seen as being fair to others.  But we all understand that exhibiting fairness is one of the lubricants to our social “rubbing along” together.

But the cold, hard reality that confronts us is that there is no fairness in the universe, except where we (and the other social animals) have put it in place.  There is balance in nature, yes, but only as a result of natural forces tending toward a sort of active equilibrium, but this is far from our notion of fairness as it would exist in the mind of an all-knowing conscious (and heavenly) being.

This is hard for us to consider, having such a long history of assuming that God is behind everything.  And though the idea that morality could even exist without God is unthinkable to many believers in God, the reality is that it does, in fact, exist.  It exists because we exist.

This is not an example of making “man” out to be “God”.  That’s just silly.  For I am not elevating man to the status of the divine, I am simply eliminating the divine from the discussion as being irrelevant to the matter under discussion.  And though humankind is not thereby exhalted to Heaven, we are, I think, lifted up a bit to a more proper place as author and keeper of our morality and ethics.

And let’s be honest: moral codes are a moving target.  They change over time and are loaded with more exemptions than a corporate tax return.  Morality is, in practice, a sort of averaging out of viewpoints that we all loosely ascribe to.  It is constantly tested, affirmed by judges and juries, or altered by courts and shifting public opinion.  (In this, it is similar to the “balances” we see in nature).  All that religion does is mark a line in the sand that is nothing but an agreement to hold fast at some arbitrary date in history when such-and-such was worthy of a public flogging.

Does this make morality (and our sense of fairness) meaningless?  Of course not.  It makes it nothing other than what it has always been: the social codes supported by a particular society at a particular time.

The advantage of Humanism over religion is that Humanism recognizes that morality is our own affair, which then allows us to direct our energies toward using reason and evidence to make the rules as useful and beneficial to as many humans as possible.  It removes the idea of God’s immovable goalposts (which were never really immovable), and replaces them with the recognition of the evolutionary nature of morality.

To be human is to be fair, and to be fair is to be human (or an ape or a whale or an elephant).  We should give ourselves credit for introducing the idea into the universe, even though the universe is annoyingly incapable of appreciating this remarkable fact.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Daddy Dearest” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, November 4th, 2012

The “scarlet A” that has become a symbol for the atheist “coming out” campaign.

Today I lingered for a moment on a syndicated Christian radio program as the host interviewed her guest.  I listened as they reached their consensus that the explanation for atheism was the deep hurt of a father who “wasn’t there” in the atheist’s youth.  They used (my beloved) Christopher Hitchen’s pronouncement that any tales of his deathbed conversion (he only recently died of cancer) should not be believed.  The man on the other side of the radio interview said these words made him want to “crawl under my desk — for man is designed to be with God”.  To these two Christians, then, the only explanation for not believing in God was the disappointment of a disappointing “earthly” father, not reason, not evidence, none of that nonsense.

This isn’t the first time I’ve run across this idea.  If I tell an evangelical Christian that I don’t believe in God, they will almost invariably become instantly sympathetic, moved, even, as they struggle to imagine the magnitude of hurt I must have experienced that “drove me away” from God.  (It’s of little consequence to them that the entire construct of that question presupposes the existence of an actual God that I could be hurt by, or disappointed in.  But that is another matter).

Having considered and studied the nature of belief for some time, it now seems to me that belief in God is a natural part of being human.  True, belief is not quite universal among our species, but the majority of humans do believe in some power “greater than themselves” (and by this they don’t mean the powerful forces of nature).  It’s been an interesting experiment to be among the minority in this regard (and in the minority of even that minority of unbelievers by virtue of identifying myself an atheist, as opposed to agnostic).

One part of this “non-spiritual” adventure of mine is experiencing the social aspect of being in this non-religious minority within a broadly religious majority culture.  But another aspect of the adventure is the challenge of being one of those humans who — unlike some of my atheist brethren — found belief to be fairly easy to go along with until it was no longer a tenable conceptual framework.  In other words, I seemed to be quite able and willing to believe…right up to the moment I realized that God didn’t actually exist.

But that has put me in a challenging cognitive spot: between a rock and hard place, as it were.  For it would appear that I have an evolved brain that is (like the brains of the believing majority) actually wired to believe (to conjure meaningful patterns from random events by selective emphasis) and yet I am currently not actively engaging that part of my brain.  So you could say that I am, in a sense, at odds with my own biology!

But I also have what could be classified as a “critical” brain.  And I don’t mean that in a completely negative sense.  I think it is precisely my critical capacity — combined with a curiosity (perhaps bequeathed to me by my own earthly father)  — that has made me the artist and writer that I am.  After all, to progress at all in any art or profession, one must develop the capacity to evaluate one’s own performance, which in my case meant finding a balance between developing a cold eye for searching out mistakes or weaknesses in my work, and a genuine appreciation for the products of my own particular talent.  But it may well be that a brain like mine — so well tuned for creating art — is not the best brain for living in a world of belief.  In other words, having the brain that I have, perhaps my declension from belief was as inevitable as my acquisition of it in the first place!

When my Christianity came to an end, I felt like a hard-rock miner who had been manning a clattering drill for fifteen years who had suddenly broken through a rock wall that, instead of leading to an open chamber, was actually the last bit of crust on the other side of the earth, and so I found myself suddenly tumbling off into the vast void of God-less space.  In time I began to look in wonder at Christians who had believed in God all of their lives (and would likely believe until they died).  How could they do it?  Was it simply a function of my determined personality that turned the seemingly virtuous trait of getting-to-the-bottom-of-things into a boring-a-hole-right-through-an-entire-belief-system character flaw?

Could be.

But getting back to the sympathetically vapid stance of our two radio people, I can honestly tell tell them that I have no beef with God.  (But, based on my experience with such discussions, I don’t think they would be quite able to grasp what that really means).  Like when a young friend recently asked me what my chief complaint was with God.  Well, I would have to answer that I have no “complaint” with God, because, well, God does not exist as a real thing that I could have a real complaint with or about.  The question itself is built upon the same presuppositions as the “bad-daddy” atheism cause I described above.

And this is where I must make a diversion into an area where things get really tricky.

So far, we’ve tended (historically) to see things in one of two ways: 1) God exists, and we were created by Him to know Him, and it is an act of sinful “will” to ignore or deny this reality; or 2) There is no god (never was), and we just made him up anyway (and so it logically follows that we can unmake him up just as easily).  But I’m coming to see that it’s more complicated than that.  For religious belief is based on a particular approach to interpreting naturally-occuring phenomenon, that is itself built on the natural cognitive structure of our evolved pattern-seeking (and highly social) brains.  This means that what we are really talking about is a difference in the interpretation of actual phenomenon, not in the existence (or validity) of that phenomenon.  So that when we say that God doesn’t exist, the believer thinks we mean that the phenomenon that a believer uses to support his or her belief doesn’t exist, (and they simply KNOW that this is bullshit).  And I suspect that a lot of atheists make that subtle, but critical, mistake in their argument.  But as I’ve come to say: “I believe in the phenomenon, I just don’t believe in the religious interpretation of it”.

And so when I listen to folks like those on the radio today, I hear people creating an entire argument in an imaginary space that never has to make contact with reality, only with a certain shared perception of it.  And the theories and questions and challenges that emerge from that cloud end up being of no practical use to someone like me.  There is no point of useful engagement with such notions.  Threats of divine judgement are not ignored by the non-believer out of some injured-child defiance, but because they are hollow threats.  There is nothing to back them up and, therefore, nothing to get riled about.

There are multiple levels to human behavior, and they are woven together in an way that makes their untangling a tricky thing.  But this shouldn’t be surprising, for isn’t that the way of all of nature?  Ecosystems and animals live in a highly interdependent dance such that any slight change in any part of that system can trigger a cascade of unforeseen consequences.  And so it is with us humans when belief is removed from the cognitive equation.  It may just turn out to be that unbelief is an unnatural state to some of us!  This could be part of the explanation for why there aren’t more non-believers than there are: on some instinctual level folks understand the risk of leaving the security of the group think.  But then we are also curious, reasoning animals, and I am certainly not the first (or only) human to come to the conclusion that he’s been believing a bunch of silliness with no basis in fact or evidence.

But then this, to me, makes the argument against God even more compelling.  For even here there is a natural explanation that is consonant with other observable realities.  Belief in God then is not merely a delusion, but a particular kind of illusion that is custom-fit to our mode of thinking and feeling.  This, too, points to the natural evolutionary origins of belief far more than it points to an actual God.  But to understand such ideas, someone in the embrace of active religious belief would have to take several significant steps back before gaining any kind of useful perspective.  And this is an action that few, it seems, are willing to take.

So the atheist recognizes the reality of the world offered by science, but must then persevere through the discomforts of living a godless life with a brain “built” for belief, whereas the believer indulges in the easy comforts of a fantastical (yet custom-tailored) mindscape of that belief.  Two different yet related modes of human existence as we navigate our way through the remarkable fact of our existence on this planet.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The Big Answers” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, October 28th, 2012

The not-so-reverend bob…pondering.

Today I’m pondering a rather fundamental question: what has the spread of scientific knowledge meant to religious faith?  In some ways, this is the central question I keep returning to with this blog.  To me the answer is rather simple: an increase in scientific knowledge will decrease the space available for irrational religious belief.

Of course there are two basic assumptions underlying this notion, the first being that religious explanations for phenomenon occupy the same mental space that scientific, evidence-based explanations would occupy.  And therefore it becomes a rather straightforward process of replacing old, incorrect information with newer, better knowledge. The second assumption is that all humans are reasonable and rational.   As the proverb says, “Do not rebuke a mocker or he will hate you; rebuke a wise man and he will love you.” (Proverbs 9:8, New International Version, © 1984).  The formulation, then, is simple: a wise man will respond positively to new information (and even thank you for the correction)!

But obviously this is not always the case.  Perhaps all that this process of the spread of scientific knowledge is really doing is separating out the “mockers” from the “wise men”.  But for “mockers” I would substitute those that are anti-science in the face of ever mounting evidence that contradicts their beliefs, and “wise men” would be those who have successfully internalized scientific knowledge.  (In this second group, I would venture that there are many who have been able to remain both religious and reasonable, at least to the degree that their religious beliefs are of a nature as to be able to coexist with an evolutionary view of the biological world.  In these cases, science has, indeed, occupied the ground once held by religiously-inspired explanations of the physical world, but a corner has been reserved for “spirituality”, an area thought to remain off-limits to the scientific method — not because science shouldn’t investigate the spirit realm, but because science is not believed to be equipped to investigate it).

But there are those (such as myself), that see a bit more writing on the wall, as it were, and feel that scientific knowledge does not simply replace some religious knowledge, but, in fact, points out the fallacious basis of all religious knowledge.  This is materialism (which is not a deep love of buying material things, but an understanding that there are no non-physical phenomenon, and that any seemingly non-physical phenomenon is far more likely to appear mysterious only because it is presently misunderstood).  There are a lot of us out there, to be sure (a great proportion of scientists are materialists compared to the general population, but even here the majority is not complete).  But those who come right out and call themselves atheists or materialists remain a small proportion of the general population.

The huge, honking, obvious, maddening question, then, becomes this:  how in the world can that be in this modern world whose very health and economies depend on the products of science?  A world where many of us are alive only because we were administered a vaccine as a child, or were able to be treated with medicine for an infection or disease that (in an earlier time) could easily have cost us a limb or our life?  We obviously believe in science when we refrigerate our food or take an aspirin or antibiotic, or when we drive our car or fly somewhere on a jet.  And yet there is this persistent dependence on religious belief that produces the rather astounding phenomenon of half of our population still disbelieving in Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Considering the evidence for evolution, the implications of this state of affairs is enormous.  It means that over half of our population is woefully or willfully ignorant of one of the most basic truths about their own existence: many of these think that they were created as human beings some six or eight or ten thousand years ago.  They don’t know (or simply refuse to accept) that their ancestors were once small, furry mammals about the size of a shrew, or — long eons before — lobe-finned fish.

Think about this for a moment.  Has not one of the primary reason’s for religion’s existence been the story it tells us about our origins?  Isn’t it always the questions of where we came from, where we are going, and why we are here that have been considered the most fundamental to our happiness?  Religion is loved, revered, followed, fed and supported (in part) out of sheer gratitude for the answers it has provided to these questions.

But it turns out that the answers from religion to these fundamental questions have been wrong.  Perhaps not intentionally, but wrong none the less.  And not just a little wrong on the details, but off by a magnitude that makes the word “magnitude” seem insufficient as a descriptor!  We were not formed out of mud and spit by an actual, physical God in an actual, physical Garden of Eden.  We evolved from the earliest forms of “life” on an ancient planet formed out of cosmic dust and elements born in dying stars — not on a world created in seven days.  Mental illness is not caused by the possession of individuals by demons, but by genetic defects that occur in the copying of our DNA through sexual reproduction.  Diseases are not caused by the sins of the father or of the son, but by bacteria and viruses that invades our very physical bodies.  More than half the cellular weight of your body is bacteria.  We basically have the iron-rich seawater in which we first evolved running in our veins.  We still have tailbones, for crying out loud.  We now know that we share almost all of our DNA with chimpanzees, who we must regard as our distant cousins.  All of this we know, now.  And there is no telling how much more we will know by the time my short life is over.

And yet…religious belief persists.  Science is denied.  And yet we consider ourselves rational beings.  But if we were truly rational beings, and not so bounded about with wariness and distrust of those outside of our particular tribe (be that a blood family, political party or nation), we would simply weigh the evidence for the question at hand, and accept the good as a ready replacement for the old.  But we don’t always do that.  And even when we do, we do not always do it easily.

Here’s the facts, then.  Science has answered the most basic questions of our existence.  The big existential quest to find out why the hell we are even on this planet has been successful.  You and I live in the first generation of humans ever to know what we know about our natural origins.  Others have suspected it, Darwin theorized it, but we live in the age of proof of their theories.  We know.

We know, and yet…we still believe.

Make what you will of that fact, it remains a most telling trait of we human animals.  We sent scientists to find the answers to life, but we didn’t like the answers they found.  Instead of being the “wise man” thanking the scientist for his or her labor, all too many “mock” them.

My hope is that, over time, the implications of scientific knowledge will continue to penetrate our consciousness in ways that produce clearer thinking about social and political issues, instead of the kind of atavistic denial that marks most religious fundamentalism.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Free Will and the Modern Mind” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, October 14th, 2012

The not-so-reverend bob.

A recent article in The Humanist magazine about mass murderer Anders Breivik, uses his “case” to ponder the implications that our expanding knowledge of neuroscience and evolutionary psychology are going to have on our ideas of how much free will (and independent) thought we really have.  This turns out to be not simply a question for individuals who commit horrendous acts, but for you and me, every day.

(To sum up the article, we may well have to reconsider our desire for the “punitive” aspects of our system of justice, and learn to content ourselves with isolating dangerous individuals from the general population).

To my mind there is always a whiff of determinism in these discussions.  For one, I am reminded of an apparent and recurring pattern of the overly-broad application of the newest scientific ideas to complex social issues.  (In this case the notion that any one of us brought up as Breivik was — with the same DNA — would have actually had the capacity to make a different choice than he did when he launched his killing spree).

The part of this idea that I personally find a bit chafing is how much it reminds me of a very human propensity to ascribe our bad choices to forces greater than ourselves.  In this case it becomes a sort of a cognitive Calvinism, where DNA (read: “nature”) and experience (read: “nurture”) stand in for God or the Devil.  Knowing the way we humans think, it is good to be wary of such ideas.  But having marked out that particular ditch to not “drive into”, we must next mark out the other:  we clearly are not as independent as we think we are, or — more precisely — not independent in quite the way that we think we are.

(This is ground that Malcolm Gladwell covers well in “Blink” — reviewed this blog — where he describes the way our conscious brain seems to dance to the tune of a deeper level of instinctual thinking).

What we are really facing here is not a confirmation (or repudiation) on any of the traditional ideas about our individual independence of thought and “free will”, but rather a challenge to see them in a more nuanced way.  The thing we will have to carefully consider, then, is the way in which we think about these questions.  And this is going to be tricky.

Common traps await us.  One is to think of us a automatons, dancing to our DNA.  Another is that we are merely reactive pawns of whoever knows how to manipulate our ancient Ice Age brains with appeals to tribalism, fear, or, well, it’s all pretty much fear and tribalism.

As individuals dealing with the idea of some sort of natural determinism, we can also end up back in the old game of trying to fool God (or fate, or DNA) by changing our mind at the last minute.  But then, some wag will always say that “God knew you were going to change your mind”.  So we can’t really outsmart our fate.  But is it really fate?

This is where we have to think differently about these sorts of things.  Why?  Because things are turning out to be different than we thought they were.  And because our reality is more complex and nuanced than we thought, we actually have to develop new ways of thinking about it that allow for more nuance and complexity.

This is why old-time religion breaks down before such a challenge.  It was built for a world full of angels, demons, temptations, sinful natures and redeeming sacrifices.  (But perhaps more importantly, a world where every individual was also somehow completely responsible for what were seen as their individual “moral” choices).  But that was a world that was imagined to exist under a sort of glass sphere that contained the entire universe in a very small space just above our heads.  These people did not know that brain disorders were caused by genetic copying errors, or that people could be killed by microscopic bacteria (or driven mad by a brain virus).  It all seemed like a mysterious existential crap shoot to them, and so they struggled to find a pattern — any pattern — to it all.  But even the best pattern-makers had to recognize that the race was not always to the swift or the battle to the strong (the “righteous person” could also suffer calamity).  And so we have constantly struggled with this idea a “good god” who could “allow” evil the world.

This is a question that vexes many.  And I don’t mean that lightly.  It is the rock that every believer in a deity has to find a way over or around, because it can never be moved.

Now I’m all for letting go of the idea of god and moving on, for the simple reason that traditional religious concepts are only going to hinder us from getting to a new (and more correct) understanding of these questions of morality, choice and consequence.

I think, in the end, that what we are going to find is that each of us begins with a certain potential for intelligence, talent, emotional capacity and ethical behavior which is going to be impossible to completely quantify.  The question of “nature” versus “nurture” will be continuously refined and perhaps become genuinely useful as a concept.  As the article in The Humanist pointed out, we may need to reconsider the punitive and rehabilitatory aspects of our judicial system, and face the fact that there are a certain number of socio- and psychopaths that will always have to be removed from the general population (but who we will not be able to punish or “fix” to our ultimate satisfaction).

In short,  I think we’re going to have to accept a new idea of ourselves as the captains of our own cognitive ships.  Already we understand that the conscious brain, long held to be the pinnacle of our consciousness (and the thing that sets us apart from the beasts) in many cases dances to the tune of the mid-brain’s impulses.  In some ways, it then seems, we come up with stories after-the-fact to explain our instinctual behavior.  So, maybe we’ll have to give a little less credence to these stories we tell about ourselves, and come up with some new ones as we begin to recognize the true limits and potentials of the organ that is the human brain.

t.n.s.r. bob

 

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “GRAVITY: How the Weakest Force in the Universe Shaped Our Lives” by Brian Clegg

Sunday, October 7th, 2012

Having just read “The Story of Earth”, I happily snapped up “Gravity” when it showed up at our local library.  After all, who wouldn’t want to understand more about this “weak” force that nonetheless has had everything to do with the shape of my body and the way that I move about on this planet in that body.

The book begins in a pleasing, breezy style that promises good things to come.  But I would have to describe my experience of reading it to my experience of reading the Bible: it started out with some really exciting stories but then slowed WAY down when I hit the books of the “begets” and the “laws”,  which in the case of Gravity meant chapter after chapter delving into the minutiae of the theoretical mathematics of Einstein’s theories of general and special relativity, as well as quantum mechanics and string and loop theory and the like.  Yikes.  Don’t show me those dry mathematical formulations and expect me to gain any enlightenment from them!

I’ve obviously revealed myself as a math-o-phobe, so to the extent that you are not like me, you should add that many grains of salt to my review of this book.  But I think that a good popular science book should keep the poor general reader’s head at least an inch or two above the water (without excluding the value of an occasional “dunk” for shock value).  And on that score I think this book fails in its mission to impress an enlightening conceptual grasp of gravity upon a general reader.

I don’t feel that I gained a useful insight from this book (an idea re-enforced by the fact that I did not mark a single quote to transcribe for this review), though the author is clearly knowledgeable enough to discuss such mind-twisting matters.  It is another reminder that it is the rarest of scholars who can effectively communicate with the student or amateur enthusiast.  They do exist, to be sure, but they are uncommon.

On the other hand, there are some excellent science writers who, though not scientists themselves, can translate the essence of scientific discovery for the rest of us.

Unless you are into math with your physics, I’d say skip this book.  There are more informative and enjoyable science books to spend your time on.

t.n.s.r. bob

The Rev give is two and a half Dimetrodons!

SERMON: “The Tinkerbell Effect” by the the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, October 7th, 2012

I would venture that one of the worst possible selling points for a materialist view of life is the seemingly inevitable diminishment of the experience of magic in one’s day-to-day life.

Here’s the basic calculus that seems to accompany the contemplation of a non-magical world:  if I stop believing in magic, then magic will cease to appear, and I will then lose the the enjoyable experience of magic.

When I say “magic”, I am referring to the every-day sort of small miracle, coincidence, happenstance, kismet or surprise that creates a feeling in the chest of having experienced something just a little bit out-of-the-ordinary: You think of someone, and they walk into the restaurant; you tell God you’re in a hurry, and the lights all seem to be green; a check arrives just in time so you can pay your rent.  These are events that are common to all of us (though not so common as to lose their power to impart to us that magical sensation).

These are almost always happy events.  They are also almost universally confirmatory events.  They tell us that we are living right; on the right path; in tune with the universe.  They make us feel good.  (Even the ones that tell us we were on the “wrong path”, as these, too, confirm our own feelings about a situation).

With so much cultural support for belief in magic, how do we untie this ball of existential yarn that is incident and belief?  Where do we start?

Is this cross a sign from God or a natural feature that fits a pattern our brain is attuned to?

The obvious place to start is with the materialist’s application of Occam’s razor to the question at hand: is there simpler explanation for the event in question which does not involve magic or the intervention of invisible, divine agents?  For that, the answer is almost always an obvious “yes” (I would argue that the answer is probably always “yes”, whether or not it is obvious).  For instance, the fact is that each of us lives a life in a rather restricted geographical and social area means that our paths are fairly repetitive, and the people we know and see along those paths are hardly random (as we tend to get to know people that we have actual physical contact with).  So while the odds of running into your favorite movie star at the local market (assuming your star does not live in your city) is pretty low, the odds of running into one of your friends or neighbors at the same market is actually fairly high.  Adding in the fact that you have thought about a particular friend just before running into them could tempt you to regard such a meeting as anything but random, but both the thought and the meeting are probably rather high probability occurrences (meaning that the two happen with a frequency such that both happening in close proximity is not the small miracle we might take it to be).

So we can probably fairly easily dispense with “magic” as the cause of such chance meetings.  What is more interesting is the eagerness with which our mind frame such such events as “magical”.  And this is where neuroscience comes in, in the form of a mental bias called “confirmation bias”.  In short, this quirk in our cognition produces a selective preference in the data that we give weight to.  In the case of running into a friend after thinking about him or her, this means that we first embrace the linkage of the two events, usually exclaiming “I was just thinking about you!” (whether the thought occurred in the last minute or the last week — time is instantly conflated to “make” the connection).  The other, less obvious mark of this mental bias is the highly selective blindness to the many times we may have thought about this person in the past when they did not subsequently pop into view.

Taken together, these two traits of conflating time and ignoring counter-evidential occurrences produce the sort of confirmatory “evidence” that our happy brains just eat up!  But of course, it is not “evidence” in any meaningful sense.  The connections between thought and confirmatory event are “casual” only, not “causal”, much more a product of our brain’s pattern-constructing ability than any external reality.

I think there is a simple explanation for this that does not involve the dark tinge of self-deception or delusion.  It is this:  the firing of the brain cells that magic sets off makes us happy by releasing those happy-making chemicals in our brains.  And we like to be happy (well, many of us do).

What is tricky about being a materialist (believing that there are no super-natural phenomenon going on “out there”) is that, in practice, one ends up talking one’s own brain out of a lot of fun.  And who wants to be the party pooper (especially when you’re mostly pooping on your own party, so to speak)?

This is, I think, a real issue.  But it is also a testament to just how strongly magical belief is hard-wired into our brain (or “brains”, since that single organ is more a sort of “layer cake” of systems).  It is a reminder that belief (in some form or other) is natural to us.

But here is the funny part of this (and the part that is so obvious that we can miss it): Since the events we believe to be magical are not magical, but regular, ordinary, every day occurrences, not believing that they are magical should have absolutely no effect on whether or not these magical events occur in our lives!

I’m reminded of when I finally lost my belief in God.  There was a part of my consciousness that actually asked whether there would be joy, or laughter, or sunrises in my life after that.  That sounds silly, I know, but it points to something else in the way we humans think: we really do act as if the universe revolves around us.  What else can explain the notion that our individual beliefs have the power to act on other people or objects at a distance (and therefore have the power to make something like the sunrise cease).  Shall we call it the “Tinkerbell effect” (if we don’t clap hard enough, the fairy dies)?

It’s related to what I discussed in last week’s sermon about our expectation that the world should end when we do.

But, of course, coincidence and chance meetings will continue to happen (and the Sun will continue to rise).  After all, the only condition that will change in our life is a shift in the way that we perceive those events.  And, potentially, yes, the kind of joy that we derive from them.

The other day (as often happens when I’m at the gym) I got a song idea.  This time it hit shortly after I’d begun a walk around the block.  I had no pen, no paper, and no phone (with which I could have recorded my idea).  In earlier times, I would have asked God (or later, my “Higher Power”, or “The Universe”) to (magically) “bring me” a pen.  But I didn’t do that this time.  I pondered stepping into a store on my route and asking for one, but decided to keep on walking.  I first reasoned with my magical brain that chances were I wouldn’t find a pen as I walked, but then realized that the chances were not impossible, as I was walking a path where people worked, delivery trucks dropped off goods, etc.  Sure enough, about two-thirds of the way into my walk, I found a pen.  A red pen, smashed to pieces on the asphalt.  I leaned to pick it up, but it was destroyed.

Note the stages of that thought process:  I thought to “ask” for magic.  My brain then set up the impossibility of finding a pen by sheer “chance” (while in fact there was a fairly high probability that I would find a pen, especially since I was now actually looking for one!).  Now if I were of a spiritual mindset (with my confirmation bias still in play) I would have told you that the universe gave me what I asked for!  But why was it broken and useless, you might ask?  I could answer: because my prayer was not specific enough!  (Don’t laugh — spend any time among true believers and you will hear people shamed out of their unbelief with retorts like that!)   And there you have the complete mechanism for how we make horoscopes and psychics believable: They teach us what results to calibrate our bias to, and we go on to do all the heavy lifting.

So, one could say that magic (or God) does exist.  Not in the world as a genuine phenomenon, but in the magical way that we transform random and non-random events into proof of an invisible metaphysical reality.  To lose that magic can indeed mean to lose some of the joy it brings.  At least until we can reclaim the pleasure of happy coincidence free of the burden of magical attribution.  A quest that — given the kind so brains so may of us have — turns out to be no small challenge.
t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Will The Earth Die Without Us?” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, September 30th, 2012

There are times when the obvious slaps you in the face, like that rake you forgot in the yard — concealed in the grass, tines pointed to the sky — that you’ve just rediscovered by stepping on it in that particular way that rather rapidly accelerates the wooden handle’s rise toward your nose.  “Thwack”.

What I’m thinking about today is the end of the world as we most often envision it.

In the Bible, once the human story (that God has created the earth to tell) ends, the earth ends as well, with the promise that God will make a new heaven and new earth, sort of a divine version of that song “If that Earth of mine don’t shine, I’ll burn it up and give you one that’s fine”.

And though coming from a radically different point on the ideological spectrum, the rallying cry of environmentalism has been a similarly dire one: we must change our ways in order to “save the planet!”

What these examples have in common is an underlying notion that our story as humans and that of the planet we live on are the same story.  Like a jilted lover, we seem to find it unbearable to contemplate that our planet might be willing and able to go on without us!

The religious scoff at environmentalists, certain that it is human pride alone that suggests we small creatures could ever harness the power to destroy a planet that God made.  But such a critique is rooted so completely in religious belief that it cannot be taken seriously as a scientific argument.  (Environmentalists, for their part, at least base their predictions regarding the fate of our species on actual science).

But they are both fighting over the hand of the same object of affection: the Earth.

Because our planet is essential to our own existence, we have, perhaps, a natural need to lay claim to its affections.  But the fact is that the Earth was here long before we came along, and it will be here long after we’re gone.  It was no more “attached” to the dinosaurs or the trilobites as it is to us.  If Earth were capable of caring about us at all, it would very likely see us as but one in a long string of short-term lovers.  Yes.  It turns out that Earth is a slut.

And yet our obsession is such that we can’t imagine the Earth continuing without us (at least not in any recognizable, desirable form).  The religious fantasize the earth throwing itself on our funeral pyre, so to speak, having no reason to go on, whereas the environmentalist might see Earth stumbling on as a chronically-toxic dump ruined by our industrial rapaciousness, a cautionary tale to any future suitor.  But to imagine Earth continuing on as a verdant, beautiful shimmering planet, spinning as ever through the cosmos?  It wouldn’t dare!

This is how self-centered we are.  This is how important we think we are to a vast, mindless universe.  On some level, it is almost impossible for us to really accept that humanity was not the (secret) goal of evolution all along, or that God made the Earth so he could delight in our company.  Either way it only stands to reason that when we come to our end so should the Earth!

But what is there in any observable reality that suggests this should be so?  Nothing.  We may want to believe that the universe cares about what we do, but so far all of the evidence strongly suggests that it doesn’t.

But we humans care about what we do (and how we do).  And that is the only point to environmentalism that is worth anything to our self-interest: preserving and prolonging the conditions that support our existence (which naturally extends to the myriad other life forms that are a part of that web of existence).  The religious are right about one thing, even if for the wrong reasons: we will never destroy Earth.  Not — as they believe — because God won’t allow it, but simply because we are not up to such a monumental task.  But they are wrong on the other, for altering the narrow zone of air, water and soil that support life is very much within our power, and we now appear to be well on our way to creating a set of conditions that will alter the earths’ climate in ways that will visit untold misery and destruction of millions of our fellow humans (and other life).

Discussions about the end of the world are lost in a fog of ideas and conceptions of that world.  We are clearly powerless to prevent a new age of volcanism, or the eventual fiery end of Earth as it is swallowed up our Sun.  Such things represent forces of a magnitude that would take no more notice of our presence than a steamroller would of a bacterium.  But it could be that we might be able to use our technology to stave off the next (seemingly inevitable) large asteroid impact, or that we may be able to keep at least one train from leaving the station: the current trend of global warming and sea level rise.

But the argument is further muddied by the unacknowledged self-centeredness of the human psyche, in our insistence that life revolves around us, even to the extent of thinking that an entire planet will just die if we leave it.  On some level this makes sense.  After all, we are the animals that bring meaning to biology.  Not by being the actual purpose of biology, but by dint of having evolved into conscience beings that are able to contemplate such things.  And since we are the only animals in the meaning game, it makes some sense that we would project our conclusions about significance on the blank screen of the meaningless universe.  But just because we can imagine our world in this way, does not make the world of our imagination real.

(I reviewed a book that was the notable exception to the idea of a shared fate between earth and humanity (“The World Without Us” by Alan Weisman — reviewed this blog).  This book is one long science-based thought experiment in imagining the ways that the products of human activity will decay over time.  It is a rather unsentimental vision, and only for those who are ready to face the fact that earth may not shed a tear for us when we’re gone).

But by the same token, I don’t support the notion that we humans are a cancer on the planet.  This view, too, smacks of a moralistic self-loathing that is unsupported by reality.  We may be like locusts or any historic species whose population exploded at some time and who ate themselves out of existence.  These and many more species have come and gone and the Earth itself has been no worse for the wear.  The damage that we concern ourselves with has always been that which occurs in the thin veneer of biological life that coats the surface of this rocky planet.  The planet itself chugs along, re-melting and re-forming crust along deep cracks in the surface, minor ecological irritants on it’s surface having no impact on it’s molten metallic heart.

And yet, having said all of that, it remains a tragic and sad picture to imagine the Earth after we are gone.  Not because the Earth will miss us, but because we will no longer be here to enjoy our life upon it — because there may be no other animal evolved to a point to engage in the study a star, or experience a sunset as a beautiful thing.  But that is a grieving for our own eventual departure.  That is me as a social animal feeling the full brunt of being alone in a vast and mindless universe.  That is a reminder that whatever meaning we bring to existence will leave with us when we go.  Like a movie projected onto a blank screen, our impression on the Earth will last only as long as our movie runs.  The blank screen may seem to come to life for the lovely moments we watch the movie play, but it does not become the movie itself.

To be sure, everything that is in us will return to the earth and the water and the sky and carry on as long as matter exists.  But our constituent parts will never again reassemble and bring our eyes and ears and minds back to life.  In this is the recognition of the terrible sadness and excruciating beauty of existence.

Let us stop expecting earth to cast itself upon our funeral pyre out of grief.  Instead, let us cherish the life and love and meaning that are within our reach.  For, as Robert Hazen writes in “The Story of Earth” (reviewed here this week):

“If you seek meaning and purpose in the cosmos, you will not find it in any privileged moment or place tied to human existence.  The scales of space and time are too inconceivably large.  But a cosmos bound by natural laws that lead inevitably, inexorably to a universe that promises the possibility of knowing itself, as scientific study inherently suggests, is a cosmos that abounds with meaning.”

t.n.s.r. bob