Saturday, December 29, 2012

Beyond Belief

I haven't posted in a while, partly because of holiday travels, but mostly because I've been composing my thoughts in private messages to some of my friends. After I wrote a post about the idea of God, I got into discussions with some more conservative Christian friends, and very interesting discussions they've been. One thing that came up is the importance of beliefs versus actions. For many Protestants, it is belief alone, not actions, that determines whether you go to heaven or hell. If you believe that Jesus is the son of God, and that he died to atone for your sins, that is what gets you into heaven. Being a good person is important, but it's not what decides your fate in the afterlife. The official doctrine of many Protestant denominations is that if you live a good life, devoting yourself to helping others, but don't accept Jesus as your savior, you'll go to hell.

Clearly, whether this is true or not is a matter of no small importance (for the record, I don't think it is, for all kinds of reasons). So I was debating my evangelical friends about it. Why, I asked them, does God care so much about what we believe? Why doesn't he care as much about what we actually do? It was an interesting debate, but I don't want to discuss Christian theology in this post. What I want to talk about here is the relative importance of belief versus actions, not in a religious sense (because I'm not religious), but in the context of a secular ethics that doesn't require belief in the supernatural. Contrary to what the Mike Huckabees and James Dobsons of the world will have you believe, religion has no monopoly on morality.

My debates with my Christian friends put the issue of belief/action into sharper focus for me. I was asking them why belief itself is so important, but then I thought: Wait a minute...I think belief is important too! I'm always railing against the kind of relativism that says reality is socially constructed, and therefore truth is relative to one's culture. Sure, some things (money, national borders, etc.) are socially constructed, but not everything is. I think there is an objective reality, that it was around for billions of years before humans were, and that it's important for our beliefs to match that reality as well as possible.

But why is it important? Why do beliefs matter? Well, I've always maintained that they matter because we act on them. It matters whether you believe, for example, that animals are automatons who can't feel pain and suffering. If you believe that, you'll be more likely to treat them as such--leaving them out in the rain on a cold night, for example. If that belief is factually wrong (and I'm pretty sure it is) then your actions will be ethically wrong, because you'll be causing them suffering.

But while debating with my friends, I realized that if beliefs matter because of how people act on them, then actions, not beliefs, are doing the moral heavy lifting. Action is where belief runs into morality, isn't it? How can a belief you don't act on have a moral consequence? These questions bring me up short, because my knee-jerk attitude is that correct belief is important whether it has ethical consequences or not. I want to understand this world I find myself in as best I can, and to the extent that my beliefs are wrong, I have failed. If I went along with a some of my more New Agey friends and believed in astrology, and if that belief never had any ethical impact (which is unlikely) does that mean it's OK to believe in astrology? Lord, no! Because it's not true, doggonit! Why go through life thinking something that's not true, if you can help it?

Still, I have to admit that it's much more important to be right about beliefs with moral implications than those without them. If I told you that a hummingbird is a direct descendant of a dinosaur--that it IS a dinosaur, in strict phylogenetic terms--I'd be telling you the mainstream scientific theory of the origin of birds. Most dinosaurs went extinct, and the rest evolved into birds. But if you look at that hummingbird and say, "Dinosaurs?! No way!", it won't be the end of the world. You'll probably be an equally good person whether you believe it or not.

All these questions reminded me of the viral image at the top of this post, which I had seen making the rounds on the internet a few weeks before my debate over heaven, hell, and belief. I decided to get more of my friends' input on the whole question, so I posted the picture on Facebook, and asked: True or false? When I first saw the picture, I thought, "Wow, that's a good point". I even felt a little chastened, because I certainly do more thinking than charitable volunteering.  But not everyone agreed with me. One friend said "False", maintaining that "if you do the right thing for the wrong reason you're not being a good person". Another friend agreed, saying that if a racist and a non-racist act exactly the same way, the non-racist is still a better person. These seem like valid points to me, and I might not have thought about them otherwise (which is one reason I think dialogue is so important, but that's another blog post).

Another friend said the statement was false because your beliefs are what determine your actions. That's a good point, too, but it's not always true. For example, I truly think I would be a better person if I didn't eat meat, especially from animals raised inhumanely, like the chickens I see crammed into cages on trucks going down the interstate. But I love meat, and I hate to cook, and I go on eating meat at fast food joints. Yes, I set up an automatic withdrawal to donate a few bucks to the Humane Society every month, in the hope that they will work to make factory farming more humane, but I still eat those chicken sandwiches, with a small side order of guilt every time.  I'm NOT acting on my beliefs, and I don't act on them several times a week. So, it's true that beliefs are important, but it's not true that right beliefs necessarily lead to right actions, and that's really the whole point of the words on the chalkboard.

Another friend made an excellent point, which is worth quoting in full:  "I think perhaps it's worded wrongly to make what I assume is the intended point. It should say something like "beliefs themselves aren't enough to make you a better person. Behavior / action is required as well." I.E. you can believe we need to care for the homeless all day long, but actually have to donate to / volunteer at the soup kitchen for those beliefs to matter." This highlights a big problem I've noticed in our soundbite age: catchy slogans aren't subtle enough to capture the complexity of reality, but subtle, thoughtful statements, alas, rarely go viral (this might explain a whole lot about our world, and I'm not just talking about the internet era). Of course, her main point is that the words on the chalkboard present a false dichotomy. Both belief and action are important, especially since beliefs determine actions so much of the time. But the point of the picture is still a good one, and I'm glad it made the rounds. You can believe all day that poverty is awful, but that won't do anything unless you actually get up and try to do something to help.

So, am I actually volunteering at a soup kitchen? No. I'm sitting here writing, trying to work out what I believe, instead of getting off my butt and making myself useful. I tend to indulge my cerebral self, spending a lot of my free time reading and writing about life's questions, big and little. And to some extent, I think that's justified, because beliefs and ideas really do matter. People act on their ideas, so it's important to spend some time thinking about what you're going to act on.  Since that's true, thinking and writing can be valuable actions, because it can influence not only how you act, but how others act. Ideas aren't just powerful because they can influence one person's actions. Ideas spread and multiply, so one person can have an idea that can spread throughout the world, and cause a lot of good or a lot of bad. I've never had one of those ideas myself, but you never know, and besides, if I can gain a few insights this way, and perhaps encourage other people to have even better insights, or question potentially harmful beliefs, that's worthwhile. (That's an important point for this discussion, actually. When it comes to beliefs that cause harmful actions, the actions are the most important thing, but in a negative way. It would be better not to act on those beliefs).

Still, I probably spend too much time thinking, and not enough time doing. I've always liked the Buddhist parable where people are asking the Buddha metaphysical questions of the sort he had little time for: "Is the world infinite or finite? Does the soul exist after death?" He told them they were like a man who has been shot with a poisoned arrow. Before letting anyone remove it, the man wants to know who shot him, what family his assailant came from, what kind of poison is on the arrow, and so on. By the time he answers all these questions, he'll be dead. What he needs to do right now is forget about them, and yank that arrow out.

It's a good point. Endless speculation about unanswerable questions won't make the world a better place. Of course, some unanswerable questions become answerable if you keep at them long enough. "What is the sun made of?" was once unanswerable, but eventually it was answered (by science, it should be pointed out, not philosophy or religion). Still, speculation can only get you so far. Belief can only get you so far, even if you know for a fact that you're right. What makes ideas and beliefs matter most is the impact they actually have. I don't always remember this, but I should try to. And then I should try to do something about it.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Long Ago and Far Away: How Galaxies Disprove Creationism

Several times lately, I've found myself explaining to my conservative Christian friends what I find so objectionable about creationism. My biggest beef is with young earth creationism (YEC), which holds that the earth was created just as described in Genesis, in six days, just a few thousand years ago. In my explanations, I've been saying the same thing over and over again: YEC is objectionable because someone who is willing to believe it isn't just rejecting evolutionary biology and parts of geology--they're basically rejecting all of science.  All the major branches of science--astronomy and physics, chemistry, practically all of biology, and even anthropology and archaeology--are unanimous in telling us the earth is incredibly ancient.  I keep saying this, but I just realized I haven't really explained what I mean, by giving examples from sciences other than biology. In this post, I'd like to do just that, giving an example from astronomy.  The most distant galaxies tell us that the universe is far older, and far grander, than the authors of Genesis could have imagined.

If you get out a star map and consult the skies, you'll see that the Little Dipper is embraced by a dragon; a serpentine constellation known as Draco. Draco, however, has been conquered by another constellation: Hercules. In old maps of the constellations, Hercules is kneeling, club aloft, with his foot on Draco's head. Of course, this is all mythology--the constellations are just random arrangements of unrelated stars, but it's interesting mythology. Even if Hercules and Draco exist only in our minds, the stars are real. If you had super-vision, you could walk out at night and look right through Hercules, past the stars to the distant galaxies beyond them. If you did that, you would see what the Hubble Space Telescope can see: the great cluster of galaxies in the image above.

Take a second, if you will, to look at this image and reflect on just what you are seeing.  Those aren't stars; those are entire galaxies. When you look up at a starry sky, almost everything you see with your naked eyes is inside our own galaxy. In this image, we're looking beyond our galaxy, at a whole cluster of other galaxies. Each one has billions of stars; more stars than you could count in a lifetime. The objects in this photograph are almost too big to fathom, but here's my favorite way of trying: a beam of light goes fast enough go from New York to San Francisco nearly 100 times in a second, yet it would take that beam of light over 100,000 years to cross a galaxy the size of the Milky Way. If the galaxies in the image are like our own, many of the stars inside each one are circled by planets. There might even be life on those planets, perhaps on millions of those planets. There could be ancient, advanced civilizations, as sophisticated compared to us as we are compared to flock of geese. That's speculation, but not wild speculation. When you're looking at an image containing trillions of suns, a whole lot of things seem possible.

The big, fuzzy football at the center of the image is Hercules A, which is a giant elliptical galaxy. Like many giant ellipticals, it's grown fat by devouring other galaxies. In fact, if you look closely, you can see a smaller galaxy that may be in the process of being engulfed. Giant elliptical galaxies are huge even by galactic standards. They may contain over a trillion stars; a trillion thermonuclear fireballs, each one far larger than the earth. In fact, the data indicate that Hercules A is about a thousand times as massive as the Milky Way.

That's all very impressive, but there are countless galaxies as big as Hercules A across the universe. Why focus on this one? Because Hercules A has a secret.To see it, you have to look at it in a different light.  Literally--you have switch from visible light to another part of the spectrum, and form an image out of radio waves. In the picture below, a radio image from the Very Large Array, a set of 27 enormous radio dishes in the New Mexico desert, has been superimposed on the visible light image above.

Here we can see that Hercules A is dwarfed by twin jets of subatomic particles emerging from its center.  Each of these jets is about 1.5 million light years long, which means it would take a beam of light (and I mentioned how fast those go) about 3 million years to get from one end to the other. What's causing the jets is a humongous black hole at the center of the galaxy, weighing about 2.5 billion times as much as our sun. Matter is swirling into the black hole and disappearing, forming a giant disk of luminous plasma at the center of the galaxy, perpendicular to the jets. All this creates powerful magnetic fields, which funnel electrons and other particles out from the center of the disc in both directions.  Moving at nearly the speed of light, these particles form the jets in the image, which give off radiation in the form of radio waves.

That's all pretty astounding, even before we consider how truly weird a black hole is. We're talking about something so massive that nothing can escape, not even light.  Space and time themselves stretch and warp at the edge of the black hole until the known laws of physics break down. Physicists admit they have no idea what happens inside a black hole, and won't know until some new Einstein can unify quantum mechanics and general relativity. Respectable scientists at places like Oxford and Yale talk about how black holes might give birth to new universes, or to wormholes that link far-flung regions of our own universe by taking a sort of shortcut through space-time. So, all in all, Hercules A is rather impressive.  But I started this post talking about creationism, particular young earth creationism. What does a distant galaxy have to do with that?

First, it shows how little the writers of Genesis understood about the universe. They were smart people, but they were writing long before modern science. The earth was flat for all they knew, and the stars and planets were absolute mysteries to them. They couldn't have known that the stars shone with their own light, while the moon and planets reflected the light of the sun. They would have had no clear concept of a galaxy, even though the great band of the Milky Way would have been visible in those ancient desert skies. It would be millennia before Immanuel Kant speculated that the cloudy blobs we see in our telescopes weren't just nebula in our own Milky Way, but "island universes" in their own right. And this wasn't confirmed until the early 20th century, when Edwin Hubble realized just how far away galaxies are, and that they are all rushing apart as the universe expands. Modern astronomy has shown us a universe far grander than the writers of Genesis could have imagined. They were doing their best, but they were living in the early Iron Age. If they had had telescopes, they might have written a different story.

The other thing distant galaxies tell us about young earth creationism is that it can't possibly be true, at least if it suggests that the universe was created at the same time as the earth. If Adam was created right after the whole universe was created, he would have looked up on the first night to see a sky devoid of stars, because the starlight wouldn't have arrived yet. The closest star visible from the northern hemisphere is Sirius A, the Dog Star. It's 8.6 light years away, which means that light takes 8.6 years to get from there to here. That means Adam would have had to wait over eight years to see the first star appear in the sky. Over the years, more and more stars would have appeared, but there are some stars so far away that Adam never would have seen them, even if he lived 930 years, as Genesis 5:5 tells us he did. In fact, some of the stars in the night sky are so far away that, if the Earth really were ten thousand some-odd years old, we still wouldn't see them. Their light wouldn't have reached us yet because they are over 10,000 lights years away. And that's just what's inside our own galaxy.

If the Earth were that young, we wouldn't be able to see a single galaxy beyond the Milky Way. Our closest galactic neighbor is the dim, recently-discovered Sagittarius Dwarf galaxy, which practically hugs the Milky Way at a distance of 70,000 light years.  Hercules A, by contrast, is 2.1 billion light years away. Since we can see it in our telescopes, that means the universe is old enough for its light to have reached us--and that would have taken around 2 billion years (the expansion of the universe complicates the calculations for faraway galaxies, so that's a ballpark figure). Hercules A, then, tells us that the universe is at least 2 billion years old.

If we're seeing two-billion year old light when we look at Hercules A, that means we aren't seeing it as it is today. We're seeing it as it was two billion years ago. The farther back astronomers look, the farther they are looking back in time. If paleontology worked that way, studying evolution would be a cinch. A paleontologist could look off in the distance with a telescope and see bison in the foreground, mammoths in the middle distance, and dinosaurs in the background. That might solve the creation-evolution debate.

As remote as it is, Hercules A is far from the most distant galaxy known. The farthest known galaxy right now is 13.3 billion light years away. If we can see it, the universe must be over 13 billion years old. In fact, other measurements indicate that the universe is 13.7 billion years old. That means that we can see galaxies as they were just a few hundred million years after the universe began.

None of this makes any sense if you believe the universe only thousands of years old. If you do, the only way you can explain the fact that we can see distant galaxies is by saying God created the universe so it just looks like light from those galaxies had been traveling for billions of years. Some creationists really say this, talking about how the universe was created "with the appearance of age". In other words, according to this theory, if the Hubble Space Telescope had been present on the first day of creation, and had picked up a beam of light forming an image of Hercules A, the beam of light would have had to be created at the same time as Hercules A itself, but over two billion light years away from it. If that's true, then that seems like a pretty elaborate deception on God's part.

But it gets worse. If the light carries an image of Hercules A as it would have looked 2 billion years ago, but the universe is far less than 2 billion years old, then the light beam is showing us something that never happened.  That would mean the pictures above are pictures of something that never was.  They are just illusions created by God.  Now, some hard-core young earth creationists would actually accept this explanation. Some people really believe that things like fossils were put in place to test our faith in the Bible. These people would rather believe in a God who intentionally deceives us than believe that the universe really is far older than humankind.

Needless to say, I can't accept that. Genesis is an ancient, mythological text. Perhaps there is wisdom to be found in it, but not by taking it as literally true, because it isn't. The universe is far more awe-inspiring than the authors of Genesis could have known, and we are lucky to be living in a time when science is making its wonders known to us.  If there's a God, he's a lot greater and more sophisticated than the God suggested by Genesis, who creates a puny little universe through crude hocus-pocus. Those who believe in God and also accept the lessons of science, with its ancient galaxies and evolving earth, have concluded that science has made God greater than the ancients could have known.  This isn't a God who creates some spring chicken of a planet and fashions people out of clay. This is a God who flings galaxies. As for me, I don't claim to know if there's a God or not, but if there is, he would have to be a magnificent cosmic architect compatible with real science, not the deceptive tinkerer imagined by creationists.


A Radio-Optical View of the Galaxy Hercules A

Visiting the Very Large Array

Star Tales: Hercules

I got the argument that young earth creationism would require God to create images of things that never existed from the book Finding Darwin's God, by Kenneth Miller, a respected biologist who is also a devout Christian.

Why I'm Being a Pain About Science and Religion

Lately I've been getting a little more vocal about my religious beliefs, or lack thereof.  Since I have a lot of friends who are religious, most of them Christian, I want to explain why I've gotten so vocal. I'm not doing it to bait Christians, or to try to make them abandon their faith. I don't get any particular kick out of trying to shock people or being a rebel. I don't have the slightest wish to see Christianity, or any other religion, outlawed, though you sometimes hear people saying that's what people like me want. What I do want is to feel like I don't have to cover up what I believe. I grew up in rural Arkansas, where most people are devout and conservative Christians. If you tell people there that you aren't a Christian, they will be shocked and worried for you, whether you want them to be or not.  Because of that, I used to keep my beliefs quiet. I still do, around some people, just too avoid a conversation I don't want to have (or quite possibly in some areas, a butt-whupping I don't want to have). But at the age of forty, I feel like I shouldn't be afraid to say what I think, at least to people whose opinions I respect.

Besides, I'm worried about my country. The last few decades have seen a huge growth of fundamentalism in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, and fundamentalist Christians have gained enormous political power in this country.  They're using that power to try to break down the wall between church and state that was one of the founding principles of the United States.  Several of the most important founders, especially Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, and Thomas Paine, were free-thinking sorts who weren't Christians in any traditional sense. Jefferson even edited the Gospels, literally cutting out all the supposed sayings of Jesus that he didn't think Jesus would have said. You often hear people say those guys were Deists, but Thomas Paine is the only one who was a true Deist throughout his adult life. Still, they sure as heck weren't Southern Baptists.

Since so many of the founders were free-thinkers, I think it's vital, nearly 250 years later, for modern free-thinkers to stand up and say, "Here I am, and I'm an American, too". It's also vital that we push back against attacks on the separation of church and state. We non-religious types aren't alone in that, because many Christians and other religious people support that separation, too. They remember that the whole idea of separating church and state originally came from religious people who didn't want to be persecuted by a state-sponsored majority religion. People who want to weave religion and government back together always seem to assume it will be their version of religion that prevails. That's a dangerous assumption. If I were Catholic, Jewish, or belonged to any other minority religion (instead of a non-religious minority), I would think very carefully whether I wanted to mingle religion and government. 

I also want to question fundamentalism itself, particularly the kind of biblical literalism that suggests that the world was literally created in six days, and that Noah actually got two of each animal on earth into an ark (did he go to Australia and get kangaroos?) Those things just can't be true, and I want to convince people not to believe them any more. But that doesn't mean I want to convince anyone to abandon Christianity itself. I don't. In fact, if someone told me they had stopped being a Christian (or believer in any other religion) because of something I had said, I would probably feel a little queasy, and ask them if they were sure that's what they wanted to do. Setting aside a lifelong faith isn't something to be taken lightly, and I don't want to be the sole reason anybody does it. After all, it's not like I know everything.

What I do know is that the world wasn't created in six days, and it's not just a few thousand years old. Noah didn't get all those animals in the ark. He just didn't. Dinosaurs didn't, as some creationists say, walk the earth when people did. So, I would like to convince my more literal-minded Christian friends to abandon creationism and absolute biblical literalism (they want to convince me to be a Christian, so fair is fair). You can be a good Christian and still believe that humans, and every other living thing, evolved from simpler life forms. You can be a good Christian and believe that Noah and the flood are legends (derived from earlier Sumerian legends, in fact) and never really happened. I know a lot of Christians who see the world this way.

Some of my Christian friends talk to me about this stuff, and ask, "Why is this such a big deal to you? Does it really matter how old some politician, for example, thinks the earth is?" Yes, it does, for several reasons. First, someone who believes that Genesis is literally true is more likely to think men were created prior to women, and that women were a sort of afterthought created to give Adam some company. Biblical literalists are more likely to believe the earth was created for humans, and that we were created in the image of God. That makes them more likely to think other living things are simply here for us to use as we see fit. Worse than that, someone who literally believes in Genesis is more likely to think God created the earth with a preconceived plan, and therefore wouldn't let anything like global warming come along and ruin it.  I've heard influential politicians make this very argument. It's dangerous to think God will protect us from screwing up the whole earth through global warming, nuclear war, or some other disaster, because we really could do it.  I saw the following quote a while back (by William Gore, the 5th Baron Harlech, of all people): "It would indeed be the ultimate tragedy if the history of the human race proved to be nothing more noble than the story of an ape playing with a box of matches on a petrol dump." Pessimistic, yes, but the quote haunts me. What if the universe is littered with the bones of creatures that got just intelligent enough to blow themselves up? Survival of the fittest, indeed.

Another problem with biblical literalism is that if you believe the earth is just a few thousand years old, as young earth creationists do, mainstream science says you're making a mistake of enormous magnitude. If the earth is really 4.5 billion years old, as the overwhelming majority of scientists think it is, that means it's 450,000 times as old as you think it is. Not only that, but if you're willing to believe that the Bible is literally true when it says the whole universe was created all at once in a few days, that means you're willing to deny all the sciences, not just evolutionary biology. Nearly every branch of science--astronomy, physics, chemistry, geology, biology, anthropology and archaeology--all of them point unanimously to the fact that the earth and universe are incredibly ancient, and that even latecomers like humans have been around a few million years. I tell people this all the time, but I've realized lately I don't offer them examples. So it's time I offered a little evidence. In my next post, I want to talk about faraway galaxies, and what they have to tell us.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Of God and other Mysteries

Ancient of Days, William Blake, 1794
It's dangerous for someone like me to work in a library.  Sometimes I feel like a compulsive gambler working in a casino.  I get sucked in, taking home way too many books, and thinking about the big questions of existence more than, you know, doing laundry and going to the grocery store.  The other day I was arranging the books in the religion section, and noticed all the books about God. There were biographies of God, histories of God, books by scientists about how the idea of God is compatible with science, and books by other scientists about how it isn't.  I think about religion quite a bit, but that's mostly because religious extremism scares the crap out of me.  I haven't thought much in recent years about religion as it relates to me, because I'm one of those people who thinks you can be a happy, decent person without it.  But--and I guess this is another reason I think about religion a lot--it bothers me when I interact with religious people, often people I like, and then think about how they have a fundamentally different view of....well...fundamental reality than I do.  Someone who literally believes in the prophecies of Revelation, and someone like me who doesn't really believe in a supernatural at all; we're really living in two different worlds. Anyway, I started looking at those books about God, and decided to read some of them, to try to figure out what people actually mean when they talk about God.

Because I really didn't know.  When many people talk about God, they seem to envision some kind of heavenly father up in the sky, looking down on them and taking an active role in their lives.  Others see God as a more distant, ineffable entity; as the "ground of being", or the "first cause", or "ultimate reality".  I know people with both these views of God, and all kinds of variations in between.  So, when I hear people talking about God, I have this big, foggy question mark in my head.  "What do you mean when you say that?" I think.

Anyway, for the last 3 weeks or so I've been pondering two questions more than usual: 1. What are the most common conceptions of God? 2. Is there any concept of God that I, with my basically scientific, naturalistic view of the universe, could actually imagine existing? At the risk of killing the heart-pounding suspense of this post, I didn't satisfactorily answer either question.  I'm still confused by what people mean when they talk about God, and thinking about what kind of God I could see as plausible has left me with a terrible existential headache.  It didn't take me long to run into puzzles that leave the world's great intellects scratching their heads, and therefore leave me entirely slackjawed.  So, I'm not going to try to do some in-depth analysis of the issues in this post.  There are things I feel like I can discuss with some degree of confidence, and this is not one of them.  So I'm going to ramble, and just mention some ideas I've come across. If this post seems a little half-baked, that's because my ideas on this stuff ARE half-baked. I doubt anyone will, but please don't change what you think based on this amateurish screed.  If you follow up on some of these ideas and read people who really know what they're talking about, and then change your mind, that's different.

First, any concept of God I could believe in, or at least entertain seriously, would NOT be much like the God you find in Bible, who prefers one ethnic group over another, changes his mind, is jealous of other Gods, and so on.  The God in most of the Old Testament, and parts of the New Testament (and I have read them, though it's been a while,) seems closer to the kind of god most people these days see as pure mythology, like Zeus, Aries, or Odin.  Of course, the Old Testament was written when people really tended to believe in those kinds of gods, so this isn't surprising.  I also can't accept the concept of God, or many of the other beliefs, common to most branches of Christianity. If you look at the early statements of belief still accepted by most of them, like the Apostle's Creed or the Nicene Creed, they are full of things that are, for me and many of my peers, hard to swallow.  They affirm that Jesus was born of a virgin, died to atone for our sins (atonement being required so that God wouldn't send us all to hell for eternity), was resurrected from the dead, descended into heaven, rules at the right hand of God, and will come back someday to judge the living and the dead.  The Apostle's Creed says Jesus descended into hell.  Both talk about the resurrection of the dead, and the Apostle's Creed actually talks about the resurrection of the body--for most Christian denominations (though their members may not realize it) the standard historical belief, as set forth in the Apostle's Creed and other places, is that the dead will literally rise from their graves when Jesus returns.  Look it up.

I'm sorry, but all these things seems like ancient, pre-scientific mythology to me.  I don't say that to insult people who believe them; it's just what I think.  What also seems completely unbelievable is the idea of a three-part God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, who are of the same being but somehow distinct. This just seems made up to me, and no more believable than any of hundreds of other ideas of God that people around the world have had. Why should I believe this particular one...because I was raised in a predominantly Christian country? I don't find that convincing. The argument that, "I grew up thinking X, therefore X is true" just doesn't seem like good reasoning to me.  For one thing, anyone could make that argument, no matter what their beliefs (and they do).  Unless you believe truth is nothing but a social construction (and I don't) then if these beliefs contradict each other, they can't all be right.

But even the more subtle ideas about God run into problems.  Many people describe God as all-powerful, all-knowing, and all good.  But those things can lead to contradictory conclusions. For example, is God so all-powerful that he can sidestep logic? School kids ask if God can make a rock so big he can't lift it.  Well, they've got a point. And then there's the problem of evil.  If God is all good, why is there so much awfulness in the world? If God is both all-powerful and all-good, why didn't he, for example, stop the Holocaust, or the tsunamis in Japan and the Indian Ocean? As for human evil, people argue that God gave us free will, and that some people took that freedom and used it for evil purposes.  Well maybe, but free will is another one of those great unsolved mysteries, so I'm not sure. Besides, if God is all-knowing, can we really be free? If he already knows what we are going to do, is that really freedom? And why did he give us so much freedom to be evil anyway? I can see a benevolent God making a cosmic rule that an individual should have the freedom to hang himself with his own rope, but what is served by allowing a Hitler or a Pol Pot? (For that matter, if God can and does intervene in human affairs, why doesn't he just unambiguously show himself, in a way that convinces all reasonable people? That would solve a lot of confusion.)

Also, if God is all-good and all-powerful, why did he create, or allow to be created, a hell where people are tortured for all eternity? (I'm speaking rhetorically; I don't believe in hell).  As Robert Wright points out in The Evolution of God, you can't even argue that hell is for correction, because there's no escape--it's for eternity.  You're never going to think, "I'll be good now, I don't want to go back there!"  The ideas of a good God and of hell are simply mutually exclusive as far as I'm concerned. I can't imagine a (good) God saying that if I ask for evidence for his existence (or his Son's) instead of taking it on faith, I will go to hell.  Surely, if there is a God worth venerating, he wants us to use our reasoning powers? And surely no good God would decide that, ever since Adam ate the fruit, humans have been so tainted by this original sin that only the death--by torture--of his son would keep us from spending all eternity being tortured by demons? I've said it before, but I think that idea--that we are all born deserving to be tortured forever--is surely the worst idea anyone ever had. And once again, why should I believe it any more than I should believe in Hinduism, or Buddhism, or Islam...or atheism, for that matter? Because I'd better if I don't want to go to hell? That's just existential blackmail, and I can't imagine a decent God blackmailing us like that.

As for other arguments for the existence of God, we all know William Paley's argument from design: that surely all the intricate complexity of life on Earth proves that it was designed by an unimaginable intelligence?  Paley had an excellent the time.  There was no other reasonable explanation, until Darwin came along.  Evolution by natural selection, combined with enormous stretches of time, really can account for the complexity of life on Earth.  Even the things people have pointed to and said, "That couldn't have just evolved, it's too complex" have been shown to be easily create-able by evolution.  The eye, for example, has evolved many times, and different creatures have eyes that display the whole range of eye-complexity, from light-detecting eyespots to the amazing camera-like eyes of humans, eagles, or octopuses.  The flagellar motor, beloved of intelligent design theorists, is also quite easily explained by evolution, and does have known precursors.

Besides, if God really designed life as-is, we could reasonably ask about some of his design choices.  Why, for example, does the male urethra pass directly through the prostate gland, which is prone to swelling and blocking things up? Why are the majority of non-photosynthetic species on earth parasites? Is that really how God would have wanted it? Why don't all those animals without hands have some way to remove ticks, fleas, and mites, which can sometimes get bad enough to kill them? Life on earth is astoundingly complex, and often beautiful, but can be horrible often enough to make me question the idea that an all-good God designed it, even if I had never heard of Darwin.

There are also problems with God as the creator of the universe: the "prime mover" or "un-caused cause".  People say that if everything has a cause, then if we trace things back far enough, we must surely find a first cause.  That cause, they say, is God. Well, why does it have to be God? Why should a first cause resemble the Judeo-Christian God?  And besides, what caused God? Did he cause himself? Maybe he did, but I would really like to know how that works.  Really, as Richard Dawkins and others have pointed out, it's more parsimonious to suggest that the universe evolved from a simple state than to say it was created by God, because surely a God capable of creating a universe is more complex than the universe itself, at least initially? If we want to keep invoking Occam's Razor--preferring the simplest explanation possible--then the idea of a God creating the universe doesn't really get us there.  And it still leaves the question of where God came from, and why the ultimate cause should be something we would recognize as a God.  Still, I recently saw it pointed out that not all true explanations of the world conform to Occam's Razor.  The philosopher Adolf Grünbaum points out that Thales said that all matter is made of water. That's a nice, simple theory that conforms nicely to Occam's Razor, but reality is more complex: matter is made of over 100 different chemical elements. Of course, those are made of a smaller number of elementary particles, but the point is still a good one.

So, could it be that our universe, at least originally, was designed by some hyper-intelligent, complex being who set it all in motion at the time of the Big Bang?  Right now, we're at a point with that question somewhat similar to someone pondering life before Darwin came along.  Because there is something weird about the universe.  Respectable physicists talk about the Anthropic Principle, the idea that any explanation of how the cosmos works must be compatible with the fact that we exist.  At first, that sounds pretty trivial: if someone proposes a theory of, for example, how oxygen atoms form inside stars, that theory can't be true if it means that the universe would have turned out different than it actually is.  Another way of saying it is that we could only exist in a universe in which our existence is possible.  These statements are ways of describing what's known as the Weak Anthropic Principle (I hate the word "anthropic"--"Complex Life Principle" would be much better, and less...Ptolemaic).  The weak anthropic principle is more or less a tautology. Of course we exist in a universe in which it's possible to exist! But what keeps the idea from being trivial is that scientists actually have used it to constrain their theories: the theory has to predict results compatible with a universe in which complex life could exist, because, we are.

But there's also a more arresting and controversial version of the anthropic principle, called the Strong Anthropic Principle, which states that the the universe seems to be in some sense fine-tuned for complex life to emerge in it.  And in fact, if you changed the numbers of some physical constants just a little bit, life would be impossible.  Not only that, but the universe as we know it would be impossible. If the four fundamental forces of nature--gravity, the weak nuclear force, the strong nuclear force, and the electromagnetic forces--had slightly different values, we wouldn't be here. For example, the electromagnetic force is enormously stronger than gravity--many, many zeros stronger.  If gravity were a little stronger, the universe would have all collapsed back together again after the Big Bang. And we wouldn't be here. I'm not going to go into all the ways in which the universe had to be just so in order for complex life to emerge. You can google "Anthropic Principle" and find much better explanations than mine. Suffice it to say there are many examples.

Now, this might also seem trivial if you compare this idea to another one: that Earth seems so well-designed for life.  Earth is just the right distance from the sun, and has the right amount of carbon, oxygen, etc., to support life.  Well, sure it does, because we evolved on it.  It's not so much that the earth fits life as life fits the earth.  Of course there are many imaginable worlds (and many actually-discovered planets) where life remotely resembling Earth's would be impossible.  But it's not a big coincidence that there are planets in the universe hospitable to life, since there are apparently countless planets in the universe.  Of course we live on one of the ones hospitable to life, and of course it seems perfectly suited for life, since life evolved to fit it. There's absolutely no reason to think the earth was specially created for life.  Thinking otherwise would be to think like the puddle in Douglas Adams' wonderful quote: "Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, "This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!"

Now, why isn't the apparent fine-tuning of the universe just another example of this "puddle thinking"? Maybe it is, but it's not as simple as the case of the earth. The reason is that we're talking about things that describe the entire observable universe, not just one of many planets.  Why do we find ourselves in this particular universe, which really does seem to be far more hospitable to life than it has any reason to be? There really does seem to be something that needs explained here, though some people obviously disagree.  Several answers have been proposed.  One idea is that the universe was designed this way, perhaps by some sort of inconceivably superior being, and that life was basically part of the recipe, if not the initial ingredients. If there is only one universe, then that idea seems about as plausible to me as any other. Another idea is that it's just an enormous coincidence that the universe has the characteristics it does: yes, it's incredibly unlikely, but some coincidences happen, right?  Yes, they do, but I honestly don't see how that's much more plausible than the designer scenario.  We're talking about a gigantic coincidence here.  It would be like if only one person were allowed to pick from millions of lottery tickets, and she picked the winning ticket.

Another idea is that there are actually multiple universes, all with different characteristics.  If there are countless universes, then it's not surprising that one of them will happen to be hospitable to life, and obviously, that is the one we will find ourselves in. This is the same as the logic of why the Earth is so hospitable for life, but on a much larger scale.  But here we're back to Occam's Razer: isn't positing an enormous number of universes incredibly unparsimonious? Just as much as positing a designer, even if "he" would have to be more complex than the universe he designed? I don't know, since I don't know what a designer would be like. But I do know that there are scientific grounds for speculating about multiple universes.  According to some theories, the visible universe may be a miniscule part of a larger, possibly infinite universe, which may have different characteristics in different places.  Also, since space and time seem to pinch off into unreachable regions inside black holes, it may be that each black hole creates another universe.  Some interpretations of quantum mechanics suggest that every time  a quantum particle does one thing instead of another, the universe divides. Seriously, they say that. This sounds crazy, but other interpretations of quantum mechanics are also crazy (though maybe not AS crazy).

Anyway, there are plenty of respectable, if speculative, scientific reasons that our universe could be one of many.  There are also other, even weirder proposals, about how life and consciousness might retroactively cause the universe to come into existence and evolve life (I urge you to read The Goldilocks Enigma, by Paul Davies, which brilliantly, and mind-bogglingly, explains all these ideas).  Personally, I do think the weird fine-tuning of the universe needs an explanation, but I think the multiple-universes one is more plausible than the designer one, since it does have precedent on a smaller scale.

But who knows? Maybe there is some sort of cosmic designer who created our universe.  Maybe life is somehow necessary.  Maybe consciousness is even necessary, or preordained? If the kind of God we're talking about is the God depicted in the Bible, who is often violent and petty, then yes, I'm an atheist. I don't believe in him any more than I believe in Marduk or Isis.  But if we're talking about some kind of inconceivably grand cosmic designer, then I think it would be rash to be an atheist. Who am I to say what's out there in other dimensions, or beyond the farthest galaxies? There are still plenty of profound mysteries that we are nowhere near solving: Why is there something rather than nothing? Why does mathematics work, and where does it come from? Could it be that information, or logic, is what's really fundamental? I can imagine a universe without matter, but I can't imagine a universe where 2 + 2 = 5. Could some of these unsolved mysteries contain the key to whether there's a God or not?

One of the truly great mysteries, for me, is how consciousness works.  How is it that a certain arrangement of matter--my brain, for example--can feel like something? I can understand (at least in principle) how it can process information, but I can't even begin to imagine how this processing is sometimes accompanied by awe, or pain, or the color red.  I read recently where someone said we're about 5 Einsteins away from explaining why the universe exists at all.  Maybe so, and I think that's about how far we are from explaining consciousness--not self-consciousness, or thinking, but the actual feeling of being awake and alive.  Some people say that this amazement at consciousness is just a kind of mystery-mongering, like a sort of vitalism of the mind. Maybe it is.  But vitalism--the idea that some extra "spark of life" is necessary for life, above and beyond the physical processes of life--seems silly to me.  We may not know everything about life, but it seems perfectly explainable in terms of biochemistry and evolution and other scientific ideas.  We know the basic mechanisms of life, though there are details to be worked out. Consciousness is, I would think, perfectly explainable in terms of some mechanism, too, but we don't know that mechanism yet.  At least I don't think we do.

Some people suggest that consciousness could be a fundamental property of the universe, like gravity: that any time information is processed in a certain way, consciousness arises.  I don't know.  If that's true, could there be something "divine" about consciousness? Could it be a sort of "divine spark" in every conscious thing, as Hasidic Jews and others might suggest? Maybe, maybe not.  Karen Armstrong, the historian of religion, is always saying in her books that God could never be something easily defined in language or other symbols, and that you can only begin to know God (whatever he or she is) through practicing awareness and compassion.  In fact, she says that most of the Bible, and other sacred texts, were never meant to be interpreted literally, and that such fundamentalist literalism is a product of the modern world.  I find that last part pretty hard to believe. True, there have been people interpreting scripture allegorically and mythically ever since it was written down, but many others--probably the majority--have also thought it was literally true all that time.  The Nicene Creed and the Apostle's Creed talk about what Christians believe, and I think they mean that literally, not metaphorically.  But still, maybe she has a point about the practice thing, and that you can attain something that at least feels like "the divine" by widening your awareness, especially if that includes cultivating a sense of compassion for other conscious beings.  I'm not the most compassionate person, but I've certainly experienced awe, and it truly does have a sacred feeling about it.  Maybe if an experience feels truly divine or sacred, it really is "divine" in some sense, whether there's a God in the literal sense of a cosmic supreme being or not. But...but...what if someone gets that feeling from murdering people who don't believe in his God? That's plausible, and definitely argues against the "if it feels sacred, it is" theory.

In any case, consciousness is one of the big mysteries, and those mysteries are the reason I'm an agnostic and not an atheist.  I think we always have to stay humble about what we know, but not so humble we can't rule out clearly outmoded ideas. Yes, the old, anthropomorphic God seems totally implausible to me.  But, to paraphrase Shakespeare, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in my philosophy, so maybe some far grander idea of God is plausible.  I think about it this way: In 1900, many physicists thought the basics of physics would soon be a solved problem.  At that time, for all they knew, the universe was pervaded by an invisible ether which light moved through, the Milky Way was the entire universe, and the atom was the smallest unit of matter (if it even existed, which some physicists denied).  In just a few years, they had learned that there is no ether, that space and time are malleable and matter and energy interconvertable, that the atom is made of smaller particles, and that the Milky Way is just one of countless galaxies in a gigantic, expanding universe.  The universe turned out to be far more subtle and astounding than they had ever imagined.  I suspect it will turn out to be far more subtle and astounding than we are imagining today.

There's a lot of mystery still out there.  Is some of that mystery where we might find a God? Many theologians wouldn't like that question.  They call this the "God of the gaps", and they are right to worry.  If we only see the possibility of God in the places where there are mysteries--in the parts of the map labeled "Here Be Dragons"--what happens when we solve more and more mysteries? Does God shrink? Will we find that he doesn't exist, any more than those dragons do? Maybe. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't keep solving mysteries, and see if we find out, one way or another.  As any decent philosopher will tell you, the fact that an idea has consequences you don't like does not make that idea false.  If the possibility of God shrinks with the gaps in our knowledge, that will be true whether the theologians like it or not.  And, whether they like it or not, there are still mysteries, and I'm not ready to take the leap of faith that would be required to say there isn't some sort of God out there in them. 

But I'm not ready to take the opposite leap of faith either. I figure that if I don't know, what I should believe is: I don't know.  But that doesn't necessarily mean I want to talk you out of your religion.  Some of the more aggressive atheists and humanists argue that all religions are bad, and inevitably lead to violence and debilitating superstition. While I think they commonly lead to those things, I don't think they always do, and they also lead to good things like homeless shelters and hospitals.  Also, I've had people tell me that if they lost their faith in God, they would see no reason to have any sense of morality at all (!).  If they really think that, I hope for all our sakes that they keep right on believing. If people don't have some basic sense of morality to replace religion with, then we're all better off if they stay religious.  But not fundamentalist.  If you believe that the Earth was created in six actual days a few thousand years ago, or that your non-Christian friends are going to burn in hell forever, or that non-Christian lives are less valuable than Christian ones, then yes, I would like to convince you not to believe those things, because they can be very, very harmful.  I won't try to force you not to believe those things, but I will try to convince you.

But if you're a moderate of any religion, I may not agree with you, but I see no reason to hound you about your religious beliefs, as long as you don't try to get them written into law, or make me conform to them some other way.  That doesn't mean I think nothing should be illegal, of course.  Law and morality don't require religion, and laws can and should forbid murder, theft, and so on without appealing to religion.  If you want to impose additional rules on yourself, based on your religion, that's your business.  Basically, if you're not hurting anyone, and you're tolerating me, then I'll tolerate you. We might even be friends.

Richard Dawkins has claimed that moderate religion leaves the door open for religious extremism, because if you think it's OK to belief "moderate" things based on faith instead of evidence (e.g. Jesus was divine), then you could just as well believe extreme things without evidence (e.g. it's OK to burn suspected heretics). It's an interesting point, and while I prefer not to believe things without evidence, I don't think the slope from "moderate" to "extremist" is quite that slippery.  Most decent people are far more skeptical about ideas telling them to hurt people than ideas that don't.  But even if Dawkins is right, moderate religion isn't going away any time soon, and certainly not because some outspoken atheist denounces it. As for me, I'm not going to convert most religious moderates to my way of thinking, and I'm not sure it's a good idea anyway.  If I antagonize them, then they are more likely to see me as the enemy.  I would rather have them as allies, pushing with me against fundamentalism and extremism. Besides, many of them are truly great people, whose selflessness I would do well to emulate.  Some of them may even read this blog, and if you're one of them, and you've made it this far, then hats off to you. I hope I didn't offend.

And I'm still curious about what people mean when they talk about God.  What's your idea of God, if you have one? Tell me in the comments. I'd really like to know.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Thankful Agnostic

Every Thanksgiving season the last few years, I go through a predictable sequence of thoughts. First, I start thinking what a good idea it is to have a holiday devoted, at least in theory, to being thankful. Surely one of the keys to a happy life is appreciating what you already have? I've believed this for years, and it seems to work pretty well. Besides, I really do have an enormous list of things to be thankful for. But then I start to think, “Is 'thankful' really the right word?” For religious people, being thankful implies that they are actually giving thanks to God. But I'm not a religious person in any traditional sense, and I'm agnostic about the existence of God. So what does it mean for me to be thankful? Does the idea even make sense? I think it does.

I've believed for years that one of the most important things to achieve in life is to appreciate being alive. In fact, I think my science-centered, agnostic outlook makes me appreciate some things even more. When I think about the enormity of the universe, and how vanishingly, infinitesimally small the earth is (not to mention all of its inhabitants, however big their egos may be) it makes earth and life seem all the more fragile, rare, and precious. Then I think about how this tiny little speck we live on is thousands of millions of years old—one third the age of the universe, and hundreds of thousands of times as old as recorded history. This little speck is ancient. Venerable. Precious beyond imagining. Sure, it's a tough old world, and it's got its problems, but it truly is all we've got. Some things are cliches because they're true.

As for agnosticism, when I think that there could be no heaven or hell (and I doubt very much that they exist) then this short life we get becomes a tiny, priceless interlude between two enormous, painless nothings (funny how we spend so much more time thinking about the future nothing than the one we've already had). Just as the earth is like a jewel in the enormity of space and time, life is a jewel in the enormity of whatever comes before and after. Of course, you may think I'm wrong about heaven and hell, and you may be right. But I hope you'll agree with me that life—this life—is precious. If you believe this life is more or less expendable, because it's just a prelude to something greater, then I'd like to convince you to rethink that. Not necessarily the afterlife part, but certainly the this-life part. Still, I want to give credit where it's due. Religious people may actually be a little better at appreciating their blessings than secular types. They have rituals that remind them to stop and be thankful, and secular types would do well to follow their example.

But what does it mean to be thankful, if you're secular? I suppose it just means appreciating what you already have. It's true that I don't actually say “Thank you” to a supreme being, but I'm still appreciative and grateful for the things I have. “Thankful” may not be quite as precise as “appreciative”, but I figure it's close enough, and I'm going to keep using it. For me, being thankful relates to something I've always believed in: it's a lot better to be happy by learning to appreciate what you have than by pinning your happiness to what you can might gain in the future. Someone who can be thunderstruck with happiness when they see a gorgeous cloud formation, or hear a great song, is much richer than someone who thinks they won't really be happy until they trade their Porsche for a Ferrari. Not richer in a monetary sense, of course, just richer in the way that actually matters.

But appreciating what we already have is hard. Evolution wired us to strive and survive, not to be happy. It's hard to ever be satisfied. We let ourselves think, “If I just get that 4G phone, then...THEN I'll really be happy”. But we probably won't. We'll be thrilled with it for a few days, maybe, and then having it will just become the new daily routine. Psychologists call this the “hedonic treadmill.” What this means is that happiness has a tendency to stay constant. Most people have a sort of set-point for happiness, like a thermostat. We live through windfalls and disasters, and it turns out that after a while, we're close to the same level we were before. That's why most of us keep getting on that treadmill and running after bigger and more expensive things to try to keep getting happier. When you have that Porsche, it will start to seem mundane, so you start thinking that Ferrari will really make you happy. But then you get it, and the thrill fades. Your thermostat returns to its set point, and you start thinking about what other acquisition might really do it this time.

The hedonic treadmill may help explain how there can be so many depressed people in a modern country, where things really are a whole lot better than they used to be in all kinds of ways. Compared to most people throughout human history, we're fabulously wealthy: we have indoor plumbing, clean drinking water, enough to eat, and the reasonable expectation of living into our 80's or 90's. Life has also progressed in morality and justice in lots of ways. While there's still far too much racial hatred, the days of “White” and “Colored” drinking fountains are gone. While women still need to gain equal representation in congress, and equal pay in the workplace, a hundred years ago they couldn't even vote. We have a long way to go, yes, but that doesn't mean we haven't come a long way. Some people seem to think that if you stop to appreciate how much you've gained, you'll lose the drive to achieve more. I think that's crazy. Why make the world a better place, if you're never going to stop and appreciate how nice you've already made it? It's not an either/or situation. We can appreciate what we have while working to make things even better. 

When it comes to material things, though, it's worth stopping to ask whether getting them will really make things better, or if they'll just make us work harder for something that will seem mundane anyway after a few weeks. Maybe what makes more sense is to cultivate a habit of appreciation, to try to raise the happiness set-point our minds tend to return to. Thinking we can raise that point by endlessly chasing after stuff won't work. In fact, it'll backfire, and the dial will drop because you can't figure out why it's not higher. It's not about getting the things you want so much as wanting the things you already have.

That's how I see things, anyway. I may not be thanking “the man upstairs”, but I'm still thankful. I'm thankful for my amazing family and wonderful friends. I'm thankful I can get up out of my nice, warm bed, turn up my heater if it's chilly, walk into the kitchen and turn a dial and get fresh water. I'm thankful for my refrigerator, and that I don't have to eat turnips, potatoes, and salt pork all winter long. I'm thankful for the four-wheeled machine in my garage, which will rocket me at breakneck speeds to places that would have taken days to get to in past ages. I'm thankful I can write a scathing letter to the editor about the government, and not only will they print it, but no secret police will come for me in the wee hours. Because I was sick at my stomach a few days ago, today I'm thankful that I can eat and enjoy it. I'm thankful for my dog, who makes me smile several times a day. I'm thankful for the medicine that keeps him from getting heartworms or rabies; and for the medicine that keeps me from getting smallpox or polio. I'm thankful for all the amazing ideas people have had over the centuries, and how I can turn on my computer and instantly learn about them. I'm thankful I can post this blog, and that millions of people could (could I said) read it. I'm thankful there are more wonders in this world than I will ever be able to learn about, no matter how much I try. 

It's not that there aren't some bad thinks in the world. There are plenty, and they need to be faced with open eyes. But there are so many great things about it, too. As far as I'm concerned, whether there's any intrinsic meaning in life or not, there's plenty of meaning to be found in trying to make it better, while appreciating what's great about it already.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Dragons in my Back Yard

When I lived in Colorado, I was always looking out in the distance. I paid attention to big things there--geological formations, clouds deflecting off peaks, mountain ranges visible from eighty miles away.  Even the animals I watched tended to be big and showy, like elk, bighorn sheep, and the occasional black bear.  Now I live in Louisiana, where you don't see wide, craggy vistas or herds of elk.  So I've adjusted my focus downward, paying attention to small things--to tiny little swamp flowers, the geckos on my porch ceiling; the brawling, sex-crazed house sparrows that live under my eaves.  These things may not seem as dramatic as a snow-capped mountain range, but the difference in majesty is really more in our heads than out there in the world.  Compared to the gulf that separates the smallest subatomic particles from clusters of galaxies--each big enough that human history is not long enough for light to cross it--a sparrow and a mountain range are practically the same size.  Besides, while a mountain may have many moods, depending on the angle of light and the season, it doesn't behave.  It doesn't stand up and meet life head-on, the way the most miniscule insect does.  Small things have their own majesty, and we're all surrounded by their tiny, life-and-death dramas.

The other day, for example, I stepped out my back door and saw a green anole lizard (Anolis carolinensis) creeping across a windowsill.  It was hunting, moving its head back and forth to focus on something in a leafy vine about a foot away.  Then it leapt into the leaves, narrowly missing a wasp, which flew away hurriedly.  The anole missed that wasp, but I've seen them munch down others like popcorn.  I'm duly impressed.  A full-grown green anole is only about 7 inches long, tail and all, which means leaping a foot to catch a wasp is equivalent to me leaping ten feet to pounce on a rattlesnake.  Anoles are formidable beasts, I don't care how big they are.

Little Orphan Annie liked to exclaim, "Leaping lizards!" but I didn't actually know lizards leaped until I moved to Louisiana.  Arkansas has plenty of skinks and fence lizards, and while they can scamper away like a rifle shot, I don't ever remember them launching themselves through the air.  I was amazed the first time I saw an anole do it.  I was also amazed, sitting on my porch swing in Baton Rouge, to see a bright green anole climb out of some leaves onto a brown limb, and then fade into the limb by changing color.  Until then, I had assumed the brown ones and the green ones were two different species.

Some people call anoles chameleons, but the two aren't closely related. Both are predators who live in trees and bushes, but they have very different styles of hunting.  True chameleons creep along as motionlessly as they can, moving mainly their eyes--one eye scanning one direction, while the other goes its own way, as if it's connected to a different brain.  Anoles, by contrast, are stalkers. They move like cats, creeping sinuously down limbs and up walls.  True chameleons always have a look of  half-deranged melancholy on their faces, their eyes rolling like they're about to crack under life's pressures.  Anoles, by contrast, look focused, with a gaze that seems intelligent (though they're probably not terribly bright creatures). If you get close and watch them, they'll watch you back, fixing you with a look that seems to say, "I see you, primate--don't try anything."

Sometimes, in the spring, they'll position themselves in a prominent spot and unfurl the dewlap under their chin, trying to impress the opposite sex. The females have white dewlaps, but the males have striking pink ones, specked with little white spots.  Male anoles are tough guys, who guard their territories like prospectors watching for claim jumpers. When two males meet, it's on: they raise an otherwise-invisible crest down their neck and back, puff out their throats, and gape at each other like tiny alligators.  This transforms them into bigger, more formidable creatures; like little dragons, with patches of black warpaint appearing behind each eye.  They circle each other, turning sideways to look as big as possible, pausing to do little pushups of machismo.  As with many other territorial animals, they're better off settling disputes by bluffing and posturing, rather than fighting and risking injury.  So, some of these encounters end when the combatants decide they've established the boundaries of their territory, or when one decides it had better back down. But the scars on their noses shows that real fights do happen, and they can be vicious.  They lock jaws and try to wrench each other's heads around, while their sides heave with the effort.  Eventually, the loser retreats, and the winner expands his territory a across a little more of the yard.

Big or small, it's a rough world.  Back in Colorado, I would go camping in the fall and listen to the elk bugle at each other all night.  At first I was shocked at how primal--how mortal--the sound is.  Here are animals weighing well over a thousand pounds, bellowing at each other across the darkness, just like they did when my ancestors were stalking mammoths across some glacial plain. Those elk have never known anything but wilderness, and they're not playing around. At first I thought of that sound as otherworldly, because it's so foreign and eerie.  But that's wrong. It's very much of this world--the real world out there in the wilderness, a world without police or laws.  Our world is the more artificial one.  While I'm all for that contrived layer of law and safety we've built for ourselves, living in it can make you go a little numb.  It's good to look back into that wilderness.  It's good to feel, at least secondhand, the real weight of that fierce, ancient world.

Now, you may be thinking, "Wait, weren't we talking about lizards here?"  Well, sure, it does seem a little silly to use such language to describe a backyard lizard rumble, but for them the stakes are every bit as high as for those elk in the mountains.  The distinction is a matter of my perspective, not theirs.  To them, my backyard is the wilderness.  Even in the most urban settings, if you shift your focus down to the small things, you realize you're surrounded by wild country.  If you don't see its majesty, that's just human bias--a sort of bigotry of scale. You can find natural grandeur anywhere, if you look close enough.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Stepping Out of the Theater

"You quit your seat in a darkened movie theater, walk past the empty lobby, out the double glass doors, and step like Orpheus into the street. And the cumulative force of the present you’ve forgotten sets you reeling, staggering, as if you’d been struck broadside by a plank. It all floods back to you. Yes, you say, as if you’d been asleep a hundred years, this is it, this is the real weather, the lavender light fading, the full moisture in your lungs, the heat from the pavement on your lips and palms—not the dry orange dust from horses’ hooves, the salt sea, the sour Coke—but this solid air, the blood pumping up your thighs again, your fingers alive. And on the way home you drive exhilarated, energized, under scented, silhouetted trees."      - Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
I just got out of a movie. I'm not going to say which one, because I want to talk about how I feel sometimes after movies, without linking that feeling to any particular one.  The fact is, it wasn't a great movie, but it was visually enthralling enough to make me lose myself in another world for 2 1/2 hours. I'm not a very harsh critic of movies, and one of the main reasons I go to the theater is to walk out at the end with that wide-eyed post-movie feeling.  You know that feeling, right? You walk out feeling like a layer of scales has fallen from your eyes.  You see the world un-jaded for a while.  It's quite indescribable, and I'm not going to capture it with words. A true genius like Annie Dillard can come miles closer than I can, but even she can't describe the feeling well enough to make you literally feel like you do as you're walking out of that theater.*  In fact, I'm almost betraying that feeling by trying, but I'm going to do it anyway this time, with the caveat that I'm just scribbling, and at best pointing and saying, "Look!"  I'm no more capturing the sensation itself with these strings of symbols than I can describe the taste of chocolate to someone who has never tasted it.  The words won't make them taste it--not even close.  Even now I look at the written word c-h-o-c-o-l-a-t-e, and seeing how weak it really is.   I have tasted chocolate, of course, but I'm not doing so now,  so that word can only give me the vaguest of bleached-out recollections.  That will soon be true of the words I'm writing now, which will only give me a pale recollection of how I feel as I write them.

In a way, I'm sacrificing the post--movie sensation to words, because I'm going to sit down and focus on something other than that sensation: writing about the sensation.  That's a very different thing, and the act of doing it will help kill the sensation itself.  But it's worth it.  I'm old enough to have seen many enthralling movies, and to have driven from the theater with this feeling, knowing it will fade.  So, I really want to use words here against themselves, to talk about just how powerless they are to capture the sensation.  If you read these lines, you will think some of my thoughts, perhaps, but you won't really feel my feelings as I sit here.  Even if I read these lines in a few days, I may have a vague recollection of the feeling, but that's all.  Words can't give it back to me whole, any more than they can make me taste chocolate that isn't there. 

What's interesting about the feeling is that it's very much like I would get if I meditated for a while (I don't meditate regularly, but I have gotten a similar feeling that way--it's a lot harder than going to a movie). My muscles have relaxed in my face and throughout my body.  I haven't been thinking about my body, so it's at ease, like news anchors when the cameras aren't rolling. There's also a feeling of openness, because for the last couple of hours I've been giving my attention to something that doesn't come from me.  I go around most of the time with a mind full of abstract thoughts--representations and recollections that emerge (at that moment, anyway) from inside my brain, not from perceptions of the world around me.  The abstract thoughts crowd out the perceptions.  The way I understand this process, as someone who's read a lot of psychology, is that we can only pay attention to a few things at once.  We have a limited window of conscious attention.  So, if I fill my attention with abstract thoughts, other sensations and emotions will have to fade into the background.  Space is limited.  It's easy, especially for a cerebral type like me, to fill your consciousness with thoughts and then forget what it feels like to simply be awake and alive.  When you learn to meditate, or get engrossed in a movie, those thoughts recede and lose their stranglehold on your consciousness.

Here's the funny thing.  When you clear your mind of most of those thoughts, and let the other stuff in, what you feel can be strangely ennobling.  You feel appreciative, for one thing.  You realize just how vivid and present reality is, and how numb you can be so much of the time.  I also feel more kindly and less self-absorbed.**  Why is this?  Of course, I don't know if everyone feels this way, but I suspect many of them do.  If so, it's an amazing thing that if you wipe away some of your daydreams and preoccupations, a feeling of kindness and heightened sense of compassion is what you find underneath.  I don't know why that is (or even if it is, for most people) but it certainly is interesting, and rather encouraging.  I think it's partly because the sense of self is to some extent a learned mental construct, and self-consciousness is only one kind of consciousness.  And it can be an intrusive one.  When you form an image of yourself in your consciousness, that takes up space within your consciousness.  Sensations and emotions that aren't about self are pushed into the background.  So, when we focus on something outside ourselves for a long time, perhaps that pushy, elbowy self-image shrinks and fades, leaving more room for thoughts and feelings that aren't about us.  I think it makes more room for shared or mirrored emotions--for empathy.  It's not something I understand well, but it's powerful, and would probably be good for us all to cultivate.  That's why I'm writing this, to remind myself that even though these anemic words won't capture how I feel right now, that feeling is a big deal, and worth pursuing.

I need that reminder, personally.  I'm one of those types who's always thinking about some abstract problem, and therefore not noticing feelings and connections with others; not as well as many other people do.  To some extent I think that's justified.  I spend a lot of time on this blog grappling with questions about how people think, and how we could think better, more clearly, and more honestly.  There's a whole lot of really shaky thinking out there, so the topic of improving it is worth spending some time on. The more people think critically about claims and motives of politicians, spin-doctors, snake-oil salesmen, and fortune tellers, the less hospitable the world will be to harmful nonsense and dishonest rhetoric.

Still, I have no illusions that I have I've figured out very much.  I especially have no illusions at time like this, when something wipes all this analysis from my mind for a while, when I see how much I have to learn, and how much more there is to being alive than just cold cogitation.  Times like this are when I glimpse this feeling that I'm part of something bigger, and that I'm connected to other people in some profound way.  Sometimes I even feel like we're all part of some bigger consciousness--like we are all different ways the universe is perceiving itself.  I don't mean this in some supernatural way, or in the sense that the universe somehow cares about how my life goes.  I'm just allowing for the possibility that nature could be more subtle than we realize. Maybe consciousness is some kind of universal feature of nature, like gravity?  Maybe it's a sort of groundwater of the universe, which brains of a certain level of complexity are able to tap into and share?  And maybe not, but who knows?  I may be a skeptic, but for me that means being open-minded as well as questioning. I think those things are two sides of a single coin, which is: not thinking you know what you don't know.  One thing I don't know is why, when we succeed in forgetting ourselves for a while, we can feel more alive, more connected with others, and even more selfless.  But I think it's worth looking into.


* Reading whole chapters in that book can give you that feeling, because she describes her awe at the world so well you start to share it a little, and because you get so engrossed in her brilliance that you forget yourself.  But the point remains that a description and a sensation are two very different things. 

** Of course, the makers of the movie may have just successfully strummed you heartstrings with cleverly-chosen sights and sounds and words.  But I think there's more to it than that.  Even just meditating for a while, and forgetting yourself that way, without the manipulation of emotions you get in a movie, can give me that selfless, kindly feeling.  But I don't get that feeling from meditating very much, because, as I said, that's a lot harder than just going to the movies.  Cheaper though.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Taxes, Lies, and the King Kong Effect

 "Figures don't lie, but liars figure" - Some Unknown Sage

This morning I was reading about how you can lie--or at least mislead--with perfectly accurate numbers and graphics.  People commonly present accurate numbers in a way that gives a completely inaccurate impression.  The book I was reading quoted an editorial in 2003 by the Wall Street Journal which lamented the tax burden of wealthy Americans, saying, "taxpayers with incomes over $200,000 could expect on average to pay about $99,000 in taxes."

This is technically true, but entirely deceiving, because it implies that once you hit an income of $200,000, you can expect to make pay nearly half your income in taxes.  That's not true.  The figure of $99,000 is the average tax for everyone with an income of over $200,000--from a doctor who makes exactly $200,000 all the way up to Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.  These ultra-rich people pay millions in taxes, and that drives the average way up, even for people with very high incomes.  I had a professor in grad school who called this the King Kong effect.  If you took 14 normal-sized gorillas, and then King Kong, and computed the average weight of all 15 gorillas in your sample, your average would be a whole lot more than the average (normal) gorilla weighs, because King Kong is skewing the average.  In the same way, most people making around $200,000 per year (the gorillas) would pay much less than $99,000 in income taxes, and those with very highest incomes (the King Kongs) would pay far more.  And they will still be very, very rich.

But I don't want to suggest that only anti-tax crusaders play this game.  This afternoon, I saw this rather compelling video: Why Obama Now?  The video shows a figure based on the one below (I should point out that, while the video is based on a speech by President Obama, this graphic was not cited in the speech--I'm calling foul on the makers of the video and the graphic, not the speech the video is based on).


Here we have people against tax cuts for the rich, using the same tactic used by the Wall Street Journal when arguing for those cuts.  But what is exaggerated here are tax cuts, not taxes.  A more honest chart would continue showing higher and higher incomes, instead of lumping vastly different incomes together on the right.  A chart like that would show a gradual rise in tax cuts with income, not a sudden jump at the top 1%.  Of course, if that chart were drawn to the same scale as this one, and included the highest-paid CEOs, it would be around 75 feet across.  Those folks get paid a lot.

But that's a whole other issue, and I want to be clear that this post isn't about taxes or income distribution.  It's about deception.  Statements like the Wall Street Journal's, and charts like the one above, are deceiving--whether deliberate or not, I don't know.  But whatever side of the tax issue you're on, I hope you'll agree that deception is wrong.  Truth is what matters, not ideology.  As far as I'm concerned, the whole point of having an ideology is that it reflects what I think is true and right.  If I have to resort to deception to serve my ideology, then I've lost sight of the truth.  And then I've missed the point entirely.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Impostors of Reason

With its seven-inch wingspan, the owl butterfly is an impressive bug by any standard.  But what is really striking are its fake eyes.  It has eyespots on the underside of its wings, which mimic the eyes of an owl. Since owls prey on the birds that eat butterflies, the sight of those fake eyes is likely to give any would-be predator pause.  The butterfly is able to survive because the bird doesn't take the time to discover the deception. If the bird stopped and watched the butterfly for a while, it would realize how harmless it actually is. 

As for the owls it imitates, they have been symbols of wisdom and reason in western culture ever since the ancient Greeks associated them with Athena.  Owls actually aren't particularly wise or reasonable birds, but owls and reasoning do have one thing in common: they both have impostors.  The imposters of reason are things like anger, hard-heartedness, rudeness, and smugness.  People commonly mistake these things for rationality, when they're really nothing of the sort. They are impostors.  Like owl butterflies, they draw their power from shock and credulity. The more they're mistaken for the real thing, the more powerful they become.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Critical Thinking: What it is, and Why it's Not Just a Catchphrase

I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society, but the people themselves: and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is, not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. 
- Thomas Jefferson
Once I had a bumper sticker that said, “Think for yourself, or you're not thinking at all.”  I admired this sentiment a great deal, which is not surprising, since I had come up with it myself. Yes, I'm a little embarrassed to say it now, but I made my own bumper sticker.  I even bought some special paper to print it on. But the ink wasn't made for life in the elements, so it faded pretty quickly, and I didn't replace it. It's not that I didn't still believe it; it's just that I thought it was incomplete. After all, what good does it do to tell people to think for themselves, when so many people are terrible at thinking? I briefl considered making a twin bumper sticker that said, “...but think carefully.”  And then I thought, “That's ridiculous!”, and peeled the first one off.

As silly as my twin bumper stickers would have been, I do think both ideas are important. We live in a country where people are allowed, and even expected (in theory), to think for themselves. That being the case, you would think we would put more effort into teaching people how to think; not what to think, but how think, and how to think clearly and effectively. This sounds like a good idea, but it's pretty vague.  What exactly would we teach?  One of the first step in clear thinking is to define terms, so let me start by doing that.  The word “thinking" covers a huge range of mental processes, including concept formation, memory, decision-making, visual thinking, creative thinking, and so on.  I'm talking about something more specific. I'm talking about the kind of careful thinking that's aimed at deciding what to believe. This kind of thinking proceeds by carefully and honestly weighing the evidence for beliefs before accepting them. I'm tempted to call this “rationality” but that term, like "thinking" is also a little ambiguous. In economics, rationality is used to mean something like “optimal decision-making or action.”   Economists imagine ideal worlds in which there is an optimum way for “rational agents” to proceed in order to “maximize their utility”. This optimal strategy could easily include lying, and need not have much to do with what's true or morally right. That's not the kind of rationality I'm talking about here. What I'm interested in is honest, deliberate thinking aimed at finding what is really true, or what is really right...or at least getting as close to those things as possible.

Critical Thinking

This kind of deliberate thinking is already taught in school, though not nearly enough. It was once known as informal logic or reasoning, but these days it's usually called critical thinking. Most people have heard that term, because it's become an educational buzzword.  That's unfortunate, because it means it's in danger of being emptied of meaning by people who repeat it--parrotlike--because they like the sound of it.  But critical thinking isn't just some new educational fad that will soon go the way of New Math. It has roots going back as far at least as far as Socrates, and still has some very important lessons to offer.