Posts Tagged ‘the human mind’

SERMON: “Splitting the Hairs of God” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, March 4th, 2012

Attempting to see the world in a materialist, scientific sort of way (which is a formal way of saying “See the world for what it actually is”) has a sort of cumulative effect on one’s perception of life.  One of the more interesting of those are the moments of rather startling clarity about former beliefs.  It is the nature of such insights that they can only come after a certain distance is put between one’s self and the spell of belief (assuming that the spell of belief has been “broken”).  This makes sense: we rarely, if ever, see things very clearly in the heat of the moment.

And so it was that I was suddenly able to see the astounding quality of fantasy that attends such notions as a creator God that has — literally — numbered the hairs on our head.  Now I can assume that this includes eyelashes and beards, but what about the some five million other hair follicles on the human body (times the bodies of some 8 billion living humans)?  And what could possibly be the point?  Such a statement of religious devotion is clearly intended to be poetic, and, like poetry, it goes straight to the heart in a warming sort of way.  That is all well and good, but both you and I know that a whole lot of our fellow humans actually believe this sort of thing on some foundational level.  Of course they don’t analyze it or dissect it — to do so would to rob the poetry of its sweetness.  So we just sort of nod in approval whenever someone repeats this chestnut, savoring the warm feeling it gives us.

And here comes another wag (me) — like that kid who pees in the pool — saying it’s all rubbish!

Now I have a conservative Christian friend who is convinced that I am deeply angry (what is it about the archly conservative that makes perceived-anger-as-instant-argument-invaidator such a fetish with them?).  But I’m not angry.  I’m incredulous!  For how can it possibly be more believable that the God of all the Universe devotes his vast energy to keeping track of the status of, say, lower back follicle number 3,452,789 than it is to accept the vast amount of scientific evidence of the evolution of life on earth?  This doesn’t make me furious — it leaves me almost speechless.

Loads of people try to dismiss champion of evolution Richard Dawkins as "angry" and "arrogant", as if that proves that his arguments are invalid.

But of course the answer is as obvious as it is perplexing:  the notion of a loving heavenly father is far more palatable to our vulnerable psyches.  It is an idea we are already familiar with from our own experiences of having had a father (or at least a loving adult in our lives).  Belief is warm and familiar, like a teddy bear.  Science is cold and unfamiliar, and snatches our teddy bears away from us.

The progression from childhood to adult belief is generally seamless.  And little wonder, really.  What is clearly the exception are those that break away from belief (generally, but not always, due to trauma or a betrayal of some kind).  This serves to confirm my own view that we humans are natural believers, and that it takes a certain amount of effort (be it catalyzed or self-motivated) to move us beyond the believing world view.

To me the answers — or, I should say, the lack of answers (in the case of religion) — are obvious.  The scientific evidence (the only “testable” kind) is overwhelming.  So why do so many of us not just fail to accept the evidence, but actively and fervently oppose it?  This is not rational.

Ah, but it is human.

I’m beginning to realize that science is challenging to internalize because it is describing phenomenon that — though truly a “part” of us — have no sensory connection to the way in which we actually experience life.  Some scientific concepts are comprehensible through our body, such as our own weight in relation to earth’s gravity, or the feeling of the wind on our skin that can remind us that air has mass.  But no matter how hard I smack my hand against a table, it’s almost impossible to really grasp that my flesh is not actually touching wood, and that what is stopping the widely-dispersed atoms in my hand from passing right through the equally-widely-dispersed atoms in the table is a bunch of electrical bonds between those atoms.

In practical terms it is much easier to just say that my flesh is solid, but flexible, whereas the table is just plain solid.  This is how we live our lives.  And when it comes to the “why” of it all, we’d rather cast our lot with a God who numbers our hairs than a scientist who splits them.

Our brains evolved according to the iron laws of natural selection, which means that there is little room for the frivolous or unnecessary in any animal that must compete for resources.  There has never been a need for us to see life at an atomic level.  For one, we are not naturally equipped to either see it or sense it in any meaningful way.  For another, we will never find our dinner or mate “there”.  Our living happens in the world of things that we can control, avoid or domesticate.  And yet (without meaning too!) we have developed these large, complex brains and the capacity for language that have brought us science and microscopes and space telescopes that have, in turn, opened up to us a world incomprehensibly more vast than we ever thought could exist.  And, frankly, our brains aren’t up to the task.

Seriously: they aren’t!

As I continue to read popular science, I find my brain stretched to its limits to comprehend what I read.  And I can almost feel our collective minds (and even the minds of the most brilliant humans) being stretched when I read about the frontiers of current research.  Maybe it has always been this way with us (at least since the start of the Neolithic “revolution”).  After all, there was a time when no human had ever seen (much less even imagined) a wheel, and yet someone thought it up.  Everything about us and our culture and our knowledge came about in that way.

But science has always, in a way, been the work of the outsider who upsets the calm of the tribe, pissing off the witchdoctor who has held sway over the minds of his followers for generations.  But it’s not just the witchdoctor who fights knowledge (he or she out of obvious commercial self-interest), but the individuals who find themselves forced into thinking things that are, frankly, very close to impossible to understand.

And yet…evolution makes sense.  In fact, it is the only explanation for life on earth that does make sense.  It’s hard to wrap your mind around, yes, but it’s not impossible with a little time and attention.  Ideas of divine creation are far more familiar to us, to be sure, woven poetically (and through tradition) into our consciousness, but they are laughable as actual theories (despite the intellectual contortions that creationists put themselves through).

But the science of our reality will always be a challenge to internalize, as it will always suffer from the internal conflict between the precision of description that science demands and the use of imprecise metaphor that is needed to make it understandable to the non-scientist.  I think this conflict is one of the foundational reasons that believers in the divine story feel less than confident about jumping the ship of belief.  For us humans, it would appear, it’s not enough that something be true.  We need to be able to believe in it too.
t.n.s.r. bob