Posts Tagged ‘russell’s teapot’

SERMON: “Why Quibble with Religion?” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, September 16th, 2012

 

The not-so-reverend bob.

Perhaps I should not quibble with what people choose to believe about life.  After all, isn’t it remarkable enough that we are able to carry on living our busy lives under the shadow of our own imminent deaths, without demanding that we all view our predicament in the same way?  Why say things that might add to that existential burden?

As one possible answer I might turn to a series of experiments documented in the PBS series “The Human Spark”, where it was shown that a trademark of very young human children is their innate and irresistible urge to show other children how to perform a task that they themselves had just been taught.  We are natural “helpers” in this way.  Perhaps that is why we are natural “evangelists” for everything from religion to the brand of toothpaste that we buy.

We are also naturally curious and deeply social.  Listen to humans talk and it is most often a series of personal stories told one after the other, back and forth (and though women are marked as the most talkative in this regard, just see what happens when you get a group of men swapping “hunting stories”).  We can’t, it seems, get enough of stories about ourselves and each other.

Is all of this simply a justification for my preaching the “gospel” of reason and science?  Of course.  But it is also an explanation.  And explanation is precisely what science offers us.  But is an “explanation” the same as an “answer” when it comes to our most basic existential questions?

Morality and ethics have long been the domain of religion and philosophy.  Science is a rather unwelcome late-comer to that party, and has proved to be a sometimes awkward and ungainly guest.  But I think that is because it has taken some time to come to understand the difference between the questions that religion poses and science answers.

To some these two fields are qualified to answer two different “kinds” of questions (and one shouldn’t even try to answer the other’s).  Hence the popular notion that science and religion occupy non-overlapping magisteria (which is basically a gentlemen’s agreement that where religion leaves off, science takes over, or vice versa).  Which is a way for the old guard of religion to tell late-arriving science to “Keep the hell off my lawn with your beakers and such!”.  In this argument, the truths of the spiritual realm are held to be such that they cannot be measured by mechanical (scientific) means.  They are super-natural, and therefore occupy an entirely different realm than that studied by science (they are, in short, granted an exemption from scientific scrutiny).  The hard scientific view would be that anything that cannot be studied either does not exist or must await the invention of the means to measure it.  (In practice, however, many scientists will publicly, at least, leave religion — and religious claims about reality — alone)

In my view such a fictional divide (often a very polite one) is much more about keeping the peace than it is about any actual dividing line.  It is the position we take to not offend the religious powers that be.  And that, I think, is am important hint at why the divide persists: religion is a powerful force, and folks don’t want to upset it so much that it rears its ugly inquisitional head once more (or on a more prosaic level, they don’t want to offend or hurt the ones they love).

But there is also this: when science first came on the scene (and here I include the social sciences), it began to suss out the causal factors of life and physical reality (and human behavior).  But since such discussions had heretofore been in the realm of religion and philosophy (which is a “why” proposition) the “what” answers of science were naturally taken to be mere justifications for a range of human behaviors that ran afoul of commonly-accepted norms.  This was not acceptable to many.  Take the study of mental illness, for example: suddenly there were biological explanations for aberrant human behavior that did not involve questions of individual moral weakness or possession by devils.  From the very beginning science began to encroach on historically religious grounds if for no other reason than religion had previously produced its own explanations of human behavior and natural phenomenon.  Some sort of conflict was inevitable.

And so there was conflict.  And there still is, despite the obvious achievements of science.  The conflict continues because the encroachment into the magesterium of religion continues.  We now know where the earth and the “heavens” came from.  We know where humans came from.  We understand how morality evolved in social animals like ourselves.  And we know about the genetic foundations of certain physical and mental disorders, on the one hand, and the natural variations in human behaviors (such as homosexuality) on the other.  We haven’t figured everything out — not by a long shot — but we have answered a good deal of the most basic questions to a reliable degree of certainty.  And the answers turn out to be — in every case — better than the religious ones in actually explaining phenomenon.  Religion, it turns out, is really really bad at science.

Religion — being based as it is in history — cannot renew itself through new discoveries the way that science can.  Religion can adapt (as it has with quite a lot of success over the years), or re-form itself under new “brand names”.  But it cannot be a source of new discovery like science can: “new” religions are always a recycling of the one basic religious genome, if you will.  One reason this is true is that science is a study of existence that is based on experiment that can be verified.  Religion is a sort of co-evolved parasite of the human consciousness that maintains a roughly symbiotic relationship with its host.  For it to change radically would be to annihilate itself.  Therefore it can only fight for its survival against the intrusions of science and reason.

It would be easy to say that religion is, therefore, fighting a losing battle.  But that hardly seems to be the case today.  Belief in magic is increasing, even as science shows us more and more of what is really going on behind the wizard’s curtain.  But perhaps the last hope of religion — crap as it is at being science — lies in its hope that science is equally bad at being a religion.

It seems clear — in the popular mind at least– that science has not yet answered the “why” of life with its “what” discoveries (at least to the satisfaction of those used to the answers of religion and myth).  But here is the fulcrum upon which this question tips in favor of science: for perhaps the most important discovery of science has been that there turns out to be no “why” in nature beyond the “what”.  The “what” is, in essence, the only meaningful “why” we have available to us.  There is cause and effect, yes, but once you exclude intelligent terrestrial creatures, the vastness of physical reality that remains is mindless, thoughtless and devoid of the kind of intention that is essential to create a “why”.

Why am I here, then?  Well, on the most basic level, because I’m here.  But who made that happen?  No “one” made it happen.  We have now explained all but a few of the physical processes that led to my existence (a stunning mix of chance and inevitability).  Science adds to that the facts that I am a mammal (a primate) that is a species that evolved from earlier life forms, most of which did not physically resemble me (at least in a superficial way — my ancient body plan was present in my fish ancestors even if my blue eyes and soft hair were not).  The chemicals and minerals and elements of which my body is built are those which were present on the planet I evolved on.  The elements were formed, first, in the death furnaces of ancient stars that were themselves birthed in the “big bang” that began our universe, space and time.

Compare this answer to that given by the first chapter of Genesis for sheer explanatory power.

The religious believer will almost invariably ask at this point: “Okay.  Say that is all true.  Who made it all happen?”  Who?  Who?  At a certain point you come to realize that the question is a switch-up of apples for oranges (or oranges for orangutans).  What single thing about reality justifies the call for an intelligent designer “making” it all happen?  “Why” turns out to be our question, not the universe’s.

In the end, I believe, science provides us answers to the questions that can be answered.  That may sound like I’m leaving wiggle room for religion to answer the “other” questions.  But that is my point: I don’t think there really are any other questions.  If, that is, that we only accept as valid a question for which an answer can actually exist.  A question with no answer would seem to be something else: a trick, a diversion, a waste of time (like Bertrand Russell’s “celestial teapot”).

And that’s where I’ve come to regarding magical metaphysical answers for natural phenomenon: I don’t buy them as answers because I don’t buy them as questions.

Philosophy retains its place as it is the study of the “how” of human thought — the way in which we take reality to heart and make sense of it in our own hearts and minds.  Philosophy, I think, deals with the anguish caused by the question “why”, but does not attempt to answer it.  It accepts that “why” is a part of the way we think — the way we have to find a story to tell to ourselves about the things that happen in our life.

For me, gradually coming to understand that “why” was the wrong question all along did, indeed, help to answer it.  It told me I was asking an unanswerable and, therefore, un-ask-able question.

And once I understood that, I was then freed to find a much more nutritious diet of existential nourishment from science than I ever could from religion.  How?  Because science gives us more than just data.  Understanding that a genetic mutation has set one up for mental illness or heart failure does not make everything alright, for example.  It does, however, offer some hope of helpful scientific and medical intervention to improve one’s chances at a decent life.  But it also does something else that is important to a sentient being: it removes the self-questioning doubt that religion has always placed upon the sick, the odd, the different: it removes the stain of personal sin or failure as a “why”.  And in that sense modern science takes one more giant step into the hallowed temple of religion by offering comfort to the troubled.

Dumping religious dogma in favor of the more trustworthy data of science is a nearly impossible act for many humans.  It can feel like leaving behind something noble, trustworthy and beloved for something cold, confusing and brash.  Something like trading in your familiar horse and buggy for an loud and unfamiliar automobile.  But we are long past the age of scientific “Model A’s”, and those that hold on to ancient buggies when modern, reliable cars are available seem more and more out of step with reality.

Scientific knowledge, it turns out, can offer the religious and philosophical benefits of genuine consolation and comfort without the awkward cognitive price of irrational belief.  We can finally understand the “what”, and stop worrying about the “why”.  And that, I can tell you, is a good place to be.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The Dislocation of the Self” by the not so reverend bob

Sunday, June 24th, 2012

I’m going to walk myself out onto a limb and talk about a theory of mine.  I suppose I could also call it a theory of mind, because it has to do with the way we humans experience spiritual phenomenon.

As I took advantage of the shade of a weeping willow tree for a short recline on a hot Summers-day bench, I looked up through the leaves at the sky above, and felt the warmth of the sun as it dappled its way through the branches.  As I did I mused that when we look at nature, we see mostly abundance and diversity.

Because life is so profligate, we hardly notice (unless we shift our focus) the waste and the decay that is the natural corollary to that abundance.  Instead we see the product of the seed that took root (not the uncountable millions that did not).  We see the offspring of the bird that successfully mated and built a nest, and whose eggs hatched (only rarely do we walk past the egg that was blown from its nest to break on the sidewalk, or the bird who has fallen dead from out of the sky).  The result is that our mental bias toward seeing life over decay is pretty much constantly encouraged.  (This is why it can be such a shock when death comes calling very close to us: at such times we are often stunned into a disconcerting awareness of our own vulnerability to life-ending disease or injury.  This is a state of awareness that we busily work to push back into the shadows of our mind).

This is one aspect of the “why” of the way in which we view our world.  Another is our long cognitive history of attributing intention to non-intentional forces by projecting our natural mind-reading skills onto events that don’t have a mind to read.  We do this almost without thinking — instinctively feeling that a “fierce” wind is somehow opposed to us riding our bike across town, or that an “angry” storm is “threatening” to “keep us” from holding an outdoor wedding.  We have days when we are sure that every traffic light in town is conspiring to frustrate our attempts to make an appointment on time.  We pray (or ask the “universe”) for a parking spot close to the store (and utter a “thank you” when one happens to open up).  All of this is so completely natural to the human mind that the minority of humans who do not respond to the world in this way are considered suspect!

We humans are natural believers and are equipped with brains that have evolved to detect the slightest change in the demeanor of another individual of our own (or other) species.  For any of you who have endured bouts of therapy or counseling, you probably discovered rather early in that process that your brain is quite capable of jumping to all sorts of conclusions that have as their basis nothing more than the trigger of an overly-sensitive misreading of an interpersonal cue.  In short — we are actually probably wrong more often than we are right.  (But in the world of natural selection, where it is not just the strong — but the wary and the agile — that survive, a slew of false positives is not necessarily a disqualifier in the race of life).

It’s always been happening inside our hominid skulls…

The fact that we humans have the most accomplished brains of the animal kingdom tempts us to think of ourselves as having somehow transcended our biology of mere flesh and bone, synapse and stimuli.  But this is, I think, an error of judgement that has some potentially destructive side effects.  An example might be the way we merge our natural tendency toward belief and projection with reason, and come up with the idea that it’s okay for other humans to suffer and die because there is a spiritual life to come where every one will get his or her due (so that anyone who has suffered unjustly, and had this earthly life cut short, will be compensated by the creator in the “better” life to come).  (Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised to learn that I think this is a load of crap that actually diminishes the value of human life, despite the misnomer of  the “pro-life” moniker adapted by those who believe most in the next life, and think the least of this one).

Religious believers are most able to give their projecting mind free reign, limiting their “spiritual” experience only at the interpretation stage, where phenomenon is filtered to make sure it conforms to their belief system’s worldview.  They defend their interpretations of “spiritual” experience against all critics, especially those who would say that they are experiencing nothing at all.

And they are right to do so.  Up to a point.  For they are not experiencing “nothing”.  We all share a certain catalog of cognitive experiences, no matter what we believe or how we interpret the world.  But what I would say is that these things that we experience do not originate in the places we like to locate(or dis-locate) them, but are all a part of the brain’s internal work of assembling sensory input and making sense of the constant flow of data that our sensory organs take in.  In other words — the only intentional agents that exist in the world are those contained inside the skulls of living creatures.  There is no evidence of a spirit realm where intelligence and personality can exist outside of the consciousness of living biological organisms.

Of course — one must admit — there is no known way to disprove the existence of anything “spiritual”.  But then, as Bertrand Russell pointed out, there is also no way of disproving the notion that there is an invisible celestial teapot orbiting the sun (or that we were created by The Flying Spaghetti Monster).  But the retreat to that line of defense is a desperate one, and not, I think, very fruitful.  For the most basic reason that there is so damn much evidence for the handful of ways that we create this sense of external spiritual experience through our own powers of perception.  There are so many ways that our eyes and ears and brains can be fooled that it is foolishness itself to rely on our subjective personal experience alone as solid evidence for god(s), fairies or aliens.

So that when we feel the spirit of a loved one pass through us upon their death, for example, isn’t it more likely that the part of our awareness that we long ago dedicated to that person is relocating itself within the very consciousness that dislocated it in the first place, rather than that the actual “spirit” of another human being has coalesced into a softball-sized sphere of energy that took a short detour from the body of the deceased through our chest on its way to heaven?

Note what I’m saying here:  I am NOT saying that the “spiritual” experience did not (or does not) happen.  But I think the explanation of it is much more simple and direct than we tend to think.

And so it is with nature.  We are confused by the variety and sheer scope of life on earth and therefore cannot bring ourselves to see that — despite the amazing range of the shapes that life assumes — life itself is all of the same basic stuff.  We share eighty percent of our DNA with mice, forty percent with a head of lettuce.  Half of our cellular weight is bacteria.  Most of our own DNA can’t be called completely “human” at all.  And we have ample evidence that we humans are all too willing to trust our mammalian brains even when they make verifiable mistakes in interpreting our experience of living.

Once the first life got started, and found in the recombination of traits (through DNA) a way of reproducing itself, the astoundingly varied living world we see around us today was inevitable.  Not you or me (or dinosaurs or pine cones) necessarily, but something like them.  In a similar way, once brains as big as ours evolved, the idea of the spiritual — the dislocation of parts of our own consciousness — was just as inevitable.  One more example of the multitude of possible outcomes when evolution has time to work on living things.

t.n.s.r. bob