Thursday, April 24, 2014

Truth, Hope, and other Uncomfortable Ideas

Toro Pensant. Barcelona. Click for photo credit.
Lately I've been calling it the Philosophers Disease. It's an affliction I have. I've always been astonished by this strange world I find myself in, and compelled to understand as much of it as I can in the short time I'm here. I'm neither proud nor ashamed of this--it's just a fact about my personality. I don't actually think I'll ever succeed in figuring it out, and I could probably spend my time in more constructive ways. I know I probably irritate my religious or new agey friends, who I'm always disagreeing with. But I can't seem to help myself. It's like ponderous pondering is wired into my genes as much the need for food or sleep. I want to know what the world is really like, not just what it seems like, or what I want it to be like.

Knowing what the world is really like is, I'm quite convinced, important. After all, lots of harm has come from factual errors--think of the multitudes who have died from "cures" based on misunderstandings of the human body. Think of all the mentally ill people who have been imprisoned or killed because they were thought to be in league with, or possessed by, demons. I once read that as many as 30,000 people were killed between the 1520's and 1630's in Europe because they were suspected of being werewolves. Werewolves! This is in spite of the obvious fact that there's no such thing as a werewolf. That means those 30,000 people died--like so many others throughout history--due to tragic confusion about what's true and what isn't.

When falsehood is harmful, it's clear that truth is important. But what about cases where falsehood might not be harmful, or might even be less harmful than the truth? Is it better to cling to a belief you can't justify, and might even suspect to be wrong, if it gives you hope? Or should you reject it and be less hopeful, but closer to the truth? In other words, can truth clash with hope or optimism? I don't want to think so, but I know it can. There's a well-known phenomenon in psychology called depressive realism. If you ask people to rate how likeable, attractive, and smart they are to others, and then compare those ratings to the actual ratings of others, non-depressed people turn out to be too optimistic. Others aren't quite as impressed with them as they think. Only the depressed rate themselves accurately. I have to say, I find that fact a little depressing.

But psychological studies aren't what got me started thinking about this. The Easter season did. Christmas may celebrate the day the Christian Savior was born, but Easter celebrates the actual events that Christians believe give them salvation--the death of Jesus on Good Friday as atonement for the sins of humankind, and his resurrection on Easter Sunday. Easter, then, is the day you hear Christians talk most about the core tenets of their faith. Every year, I hear them and think, "I'm sorry, but I simply can't believe that." And every year, I feel like the Grinch scowling down on Whoville. I think, "If those beliefs give people hope, who am I to contest them?" And then I think, "But it MATTERS whether it's true or not, and that just doesn't sound true." (Bear with me. If I sound cocky now, I won't later.)

I've written elsewhere about why different aspects of Christian doctrine don't ring true for me. Here, I want to focus on one idea in particular: that God, and his Son (who is in some sense God himself) loved us so much that he saved us from death; saved us, in fact, from the eternal torment Christians think we deserve (based on original sin.) Every Easter I hear people express their awe for God's love--the love that led him to sacrifice his Son--and led his Son to allow himself to be sacrificed--all for our sake. I would be in awe too, if I could accept the reasoning. But I can't. I can't help thinking people aren't considering the whole equation. They're only focusing on the uplifting part of the story.

Let's accept for the sake of argument that God loves us and did actually give his Son to save us. Who is he saving us from, and who is he sacrificing his Son to? The only possible answer, as far as I can tell, is God himself. After all, who but God could have decided that the appropriate punishment for Adam and Eve's original sin was death and damnation? Who but God could have ruled that this punishment wouldn't just be for those two, but for all their descendants as well?* It seems to me you can't credit God for his love in saving us and stop there. You also have to credit him with creating the situation he is saving us from. Yes, it sounds inspiring and hopeful to talk about how God loved us so much that he sacrificed his son to save us. But it sounds a lot less inspiring when you say, "God loved us so much that he sacrificed his son, to himself, to save us from...himself." But that's the situation, isn't it? (If it isn't, please enlighten me.) Does it make sense to give God credit only for the warm and inspiring stuff, and not the horrifying stuff? "Horrifying" may sound like a strong word, but what else can you call the idea that a single sin should be punished by eternal torment for the sinners and their descendents?

Here's another example of this kind of unconscious deck-stacking. Often you'll hear how someone got an awful disease which looked like it might kill them. If they recover even partially, people say, "God is great!" But why are they crediting God with the cure, and not the initial disease? And what if the sick person doesn't recover? You don't often hear people say, "God let him die." But why not? Why isn't that just as plausible as "God saved him"? Why shouldn't God be just as responsible for the bad as the good? This kind of thinking is like an accountant adding up all of a company's assets and declaring it a red letter year, without bothering to subtract all the liabilities. That's faulty accounting, and I can't help thinking it's faulty reasoning.

But then, what if crediting God with the good, and not with the bad, gives people hope? What if makes their lives happier? What if it even makes them kinder to others? Let's assume--and this is a big assumption--that it does no harm otherwise.** If I'm right that this kind of thinking is cockeyed optimism (and I might be wrong), what's so wrong with it? If it helps people get through an undeniably tough world, can it be that bad? What if that kind of hope and optimism actually makes them better people, capable of doing more good than the depressive realists of the world?  I'll be the first to admit I know religious people who are better and stronger people than me, and I think part of what makes them that way is their faith in ideas I cannot accept as true. How's that for a conundrum?

I want to think that truth and optimism and hope are all compatible. But it's possible they aren't, at least entirely. It may very well be that the truth is tough to face--tougher, even, than we already know it to be. If that's the case, then what side should we err on? For myself, I have to err on the side of truth and evidence. In fact, I think it's possible to maintain hope even in the face of hard truths--it might be easier for me to be happy if I believed in heaven, but it's not necessary. But if others err on the side of hope and optimism, and if it does no harm otherwise, then I'm not going to fight them about it. Who knows? They might even be right.


* I know there's the idea that they had free will, so it was their choice to make, but if God is truly omniscient he would have known what they would choose before he ever created them. And setting that aside, God is still the one who decided what their punishment would be (unless you want to say he had no choice, and then he isn't omnipotent.)

** In the case of salvation from hell, the idea that we are born deserving eternal damnation--if false-- seems pretty harmful to me.

Werewolf statistics from The Gale Encyclopedia of the Unusual and Unexplained

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Jewel in the Void: Thoughts On Earth Day

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet.
                                                      - Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Earth and its Moon
In honor of Earth Day this year, I'd like to consider just how utterly insignificant our little blue green planet is. I mean, let's face it: it's one of countless planets orbiting one of hundreds of billions of stars in this galaxy...which is itself one of countless galaxies in the known universe. Earth is not at the center of anything--not the solar system, the galaxy, or the universe--and in cosmic terms, it's really just embarrassingly tiny. If the Milky Way were the size of the Earth, the Earth would be microscopic—far smaller than any speck of dust. In terms of its size and its location, the Earth truly is utterly insignificant.


That little blue green speck is old. As many schoolchildren can tell you, it's been around about 4.54 billion years. Let's stop and consider that number. A good way to think about the enormity of a million years is that it's equal to 10,000 centuries. Take that jawdropping stretch of time, multiply it by 4,540, and you have the age of the Earth. That's pretty doggone old. That's 1/3 as old as the universe itself. So, while it may not be impressive in size or location, Earth can hold its own with the rest of the cosmos when it comes to age. It's been around. It's seen some things.

Earth is also unique, even in cosmic terms. In the entire endless abyss of space, it's the only place where we can be sure that life exists. And it doesn't just sit around existing; it's taken the place over: from salt-eating bacteria in boiling springs, to flying lemurs, to gnarled trees that first sprouted in the time of the pharoahs, life on Earth is unceasingly inventive. And it may only exist here, on this "utterly insignificant little blue green planet." As for "life as we know it," as the phrase goes, that almost certainly exists only here. Among all those galaxies out there, I find it hard to believe that there are no other living planets. But I find it equally hard to believe that the aardvark or the baobab tree exists anywhere else.

And what about us? Where do humans fit on this ancient and unique little dot in space? Some people think we're the pinnacle of evolution, and others think we're the center of creation; made in God's image.We're almost certainly neither. Our species is one branch on a tree with several million other branches, all of which all been evolving as long as we have. We are animals, yes, but animals are just one limb of that tree. Other limbs include plants, fungi, bacteria, archaea, and various families of protists, ranging from kelp forests to amoebae. Among our animal cousins, there are others capable of consciousness, of pain and pleasure, and even rudimentary culture and morality. We are undoubtedly special, but not that special.

Besides, we're newcomers on this old, old planet. Imagine that the age of the earth were scaled to the distance across Texas: about 900 miles from the swamps in the east to the deserts in the west. One that scale, the 200,000 year history of biologically-modern humans would equal about 200 feet. You could read the sign at the border from there. Human history since the beginning of writing would cover just under six feet, and a long human life—100 years—would be a little longer than an inch.

As a species, then, we're still wet behind the ears. But my point is not that we're insignificant. My point is just the opposite. We are immeasurably significant, but so is the world we live on, and all that we share it with. Pretty much everything we hold dear is concentrated on this tiny, ancient speck in the universe. Earth is not so much a cosmic mote of dust as an infinitely valuable jewel hanging in the void. Even if life exists elsewhere in the universe, there is still only one Earth, with this particular kind of life. If life doesn't exist elsewhere, then one of the most amazing phenomena in all the light years of space exists at only one point—here.

And let's not forget culture. As far as we know, human inventions like language, literature, and music; as well as great, game-changing ideas like justice and rights, exist only on this little jewel of a world. Humanity isn't some kind of blight on the planet, or at least we don't have to be. But we will be if we don't recognize that life on Earth isn't about us. We're one little piece of it—a unique and inventive piece, but also a small and recent one. As such, we'd better learn to appreciate that life on Earth is older, more complex, and more astounding than we can ever fully grasp. It's what created us and what sustains us; now and for the foreseeable future. It's been around longer than we have, evolved more creative solutions than we can imagine, and stuck with what works. Life on Earth combines deep unity and dazzling diversity into what can only be called harmony. It's not always a benevolent or peaceful harmony, but it works. It fits together. It's stood the test of time, for a very long time. 

And our cocky little upstart species has not. Our sense of the past is short, and our sense of the future shorter. We rarely look ahead a hundred years, much less a million, even though a million years is brief by earth's standards. We should. And that's just one thing we learn from the Earth. It is, after all, a parent and an elder, not just to us, but to the entire family tree of living things. As such, it deserves our respect, our appreciation, and our reverence. With all respect to the great Douglas Adams, Earth is not utterly insignificant. For us and everything else that lives on it, it's the most precious thing in the universe.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

By the Rivers of Babylon: The Bible as a Guide to Morality

Arthur Hacker. By the Waters of Babylon
Remember in school when we learned about state symbols? Growing up in Arkansas, I learned how the state bird was the mockingbird, and the state gem was a diamond (Arkansas being one of the only states with diamonds). Those are the only two state symbols I can remember. I guess it never struck me as an important topic. But some people apparently think it's very important. In fact, lately state symbols seem to have become a battle front in the church/state controversies.

There's the situation in South Carolina, for example, where a little girl asked the legislature to name the Columbian mammoth as the state fossil. This seems perfectly sensible, because the great beasts' bones were first discovered back in 1725 in South Carolina swamps. But things went sideways when certain legislators didn't want to have a state fossil without including Biblical language in the law; language about how the mammoth was created with the other beasts of the field on the sixth day. Naturally, this was controversial, and made it into the national news. As I write, it's still unclear whether the mammoth will become the official fossil of South Carolina, and whether the law that makes it so will reference the Book of Genesis.

Now there seems to be a similar fight brewing where I live in Louisiana. There's a proposal in the House to make the Bible the state book of Louisiana. My local paper ran a story about it, and it turns out even local pastors are divided on the idea. A pastor at the First United Methodist Church said, “The Bible is a testimony of mankind’s experience with God, and I don’t think the Legislature has any business dealing with that subject. This is a divisive waste of time.” But another local pastor disagreed, saying, "“I believe that making the Bible the official state book, the people of Louisiana would follow the lessons taught in it.”

I agree with the Methodist minister, but it was the other man's comment that really got me thinking. I hear sentiments like his all the time--that we should follow the lessons of the Bible, and that it's a great guide to morality. But I'm not so sure. I agree that some parts of the Bible, such as the Sermon on the Mount, are full of real wisdom about living a moral and compassionate life. But other parts I simply can't agree with, and I don't think the people who talk about following the Bible can either. 

To explain, let me take a brief detour into music. Despite my sometimes combative stance toward religion, I absolutely love African-American gospel music. Mahalia Jackson, The Fairfield Four, The Blind Boys of Alabama, early Staple Singers...I think they created some of the most moving music ever recorded. So my Pandora station plays a lot of that kind of thing. One day, I heard a beautiful acappella version of Rivers of Babylon, by the Soweto Gospel Choir. I'm imbedding a link to it below. I urge you to listen to it--it really is beautiful.

The song's lyrics come straight from Psalm 137, which famously begins, "By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion." It turns out the song wasn't actually written as a Christian spiritual, as I thought when I heard it, but a Rastafarian one, by a Jamaican group called the Melodians (and of course, the Soweto Gospel Choir is South African, not African-American.) Whatever the case, the song is basically a part of the Bible put to music. When I heard it, still thinking it was an old American gospel song, I decided to look up the verse it came from, because I really did think the imagery was beautiful. 

And what a shock I got. Instead of describing it, I'll let the Psalm speak for itself:
By the rivers of Babylon—
    there we sat down and there we wept
    when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
    we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
    asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
    “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the Lord’s song
    in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
    let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
    above my highest joy.
Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
    the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down!
    Down to its foundations!”
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
    Happy shall they be who pay you back
    what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
    and dash them against the rock!
Suddenly and jarringly, the gorgeous lamentation beside the rivers turns into a longing for a horrible kind of revenge--and not on the people who carried the Israelites away to Babylon, but their little children. Dashing them against the rock? Is this the kind of morality we really want to be promoting? I really hope nobody today thinks it is. Not only is it bloodthirsty and awful, it directly contradicts Jesus' admonition to turn the other cheek and love our enemies. 

But there it is in the Bible, right at the end of one of the more famous passages in the whole book. That's why, when people say the Bible is a good guide to morality, I don't quite know what they're talking about. Maybe it is a good guide, but only if you have some means of deciding which parts to follow. Anyone who actually takes Psalm 137 as a guide to behavior should be locked up. I'm sorry, but that's as bloodthirsty a passage as I've ever read anywhere. And it's not that uncommon. The Bible is probably the most violent book I have ever read, and I've read most of the Game of Thrones series.

I didn't really mean to write about religion for for a while. I've been extra appreciative of all my friends lately, whatever their views, and I know I talk about this stuff too much. But I have to write when I'm inspired, and besides, the legislature in the state where I live is considering adopting--as its official book---a work that talks about bashing children against rocks! Yes, it talks about a lot of good things too, but still. Perhaps it's a debate worth having, and soon.

So here's my question to those who talk about the Bible as a guide to morality: "What are your criteria for deciding which parts of the Bible to take as a guide?" I've asked this many times, and never gotten a satisfactory answer. I don't say that to imply that there isn't one, or that I've backed anybody into a rhetorical corner. I really do want to hear their answer. If they have no answer, then I have to think they haven't put enough thought into what they're saying. If they say you have to follow the whole Bible ("you can't pick and choose," is what I often hear), then I have no choice but to conclude they're wrong. If you try to do follow the entire thing, the Bible is a terrible guide to morality. Not only does it advocate really awful violence, it's contradictory. You can't simultaneously turn the other cheek, love your enemies, and dash their children against the rocks. You just can't. So I ask again: If you think the Bible is a guide to a moral life, perhaps THE guide to a moral life, worthy of being recognized as such by our government, then what exactly do you mean? Which parts are you talking about? Because I simply can't imagine that you're talking about Psalm 137.


Could Bible Become State Book? Houma Courier

Saturday, April 12, 2014

A Sense of the Ages: Trying to Grasp Geologic Time

Two centuries ago, a young Napoleon Bonaparte convinced his superiors to let him invade Egypt. Rallying his troops before a battle near Cairo, he is said to have pointed toward the ancient pyramids on the horizon and cried, "Forward! Remember that from those monuments forty centuries look down upon you."

Forty centuries. It's a phrase that's always impressed me. And Napoleon was actually understating the age of the pyramids--even in 1798, the Great Pyramid had been standing for over 4,300 years. But it was an artful understatement. Saying "4,300 years" just doesn't give you the same visceral sense of time as "forty centuries." A century is a span we can really feel, if just barely. It's the length of a very long lifetime. So when we hear that something has been around for forty centuries, that feels like a long time indeed. And it should, because the pyramids were ancient even to the ancients. By the time the Romans built the Colosseum, the pyramids were already older than the Colosseum is today.

Yet the age of the pyramids is hardly any time at all next to the temporal chasms geologists talk about. As old as the Great Pyramid is, the Great Sphere it sits on is a million times older. That's not antiquity; it's mega-antiquity. We can't truly fathom that kind of time scale any more than we can swallow the oceans. But for some reason I keep trying, and I've found that writers more talented than me have, like Napoleon, succeeded in expressing it in ways that give us a taste of its immensity.

Consider this quote, from the excellent book Rough-Hewn Land: A Geologic Journey from California to the Rocky Mountains, by geologist Keith Mehdahl: "Earth processes that seem trivially slow in human time can accomplish stunning work in geologic time. Let the Colorado River erode its bed by 1/100th of an inch each year (about the thickness of one of your fingernails). Multiply that by six million years, and you've carved the Grand Canyon." When I first read that, I didn't believe it, and I actually got out a calculator and checked to see if it could be true. It is. Multiply 1/100th of an inch by 6 million, and you get roughly one mile--the depth of the Grand Canyon. If the Colorado River can dig down one inch in a century, that means it's dropped about a yard since the Great Pyramid was built. Compare an inch (a long life), to a yard (the Great Pyramid), to a mile (the Grand Canyon) and you start to get a sense of how long six million years really is.

The writer John McPhee (who gets credit for coining the expression "deep time") also comes close to making us feel geologic time in his book Assembling California. As the title suggests, modern geologists think California was cobbled together from many different pieces of land and ocean floor that stuck to the edge of the continent as it drifted westward. "An island arc here, a piece of continent there--a Japan at a time, a New Zealand, a Madagascar--came crunching in upon the continent and have thus far adhered." That process has been a tumultuous one, accompanied by countless earthquakes and volcanoes. "In 1906," McPhee writes, "the jump of the great earthquake--the throw, the offset, the maximum amount of displacement as one plate moved with respect to another--was something like twenty feet. The dynamics that have pieced together the whole of California have consisted of tens of thousands of earthquakes as great as that--tens of thousands of examples of what people like to singularize as "the big one"--and many millions of earthquakes of lesser magnitude."

Californians see the great earthquake of 1906 as a defining moment in their state's history--the biggest natural disaster in near-living memory. But it only looms so large because the history of the political figment we call "California" is so short. In the history of the real California--the old California that existed before the USA, before the pyramids, before the human species itself--such an earthquake is barely worth noting; it's a single beat in the long drum roll that accompanied the regions's creation.

On this scale, centuries become as fleeting as seconds. It takes ten thousand centuries to make a million years...ten thousand periods equal to the one between the Civil War and the Beatles, or the Wright Brothers and the International Space Station. A million years is a long, long time. Yet it's as fleeting compared to the earth itself as a year is to the Great Pyramid.

What's the point of coming to grips with these kinds of timescales? Why not just live in the familiar territory of months and years? Do we really need to understand epochs and eons? I think we do. Seeing how fleeting we are compared to the land around us is a good way to stay humble, and any species that needs to be taught that it's not the center of the universe is a species that can use some humility. It's not just that our arrogance is unjustified. Getting over it, and taking a longer view, could actually be key to our survival. If we want to be around for the long term, we need to understand what "the long term" actually means. As the science writer Nigel Calder once noted, "In Darwin's paleontological estimation...Chicago and Leningrad sit in the chairs of glaciers gone for lunch." He's right. Though warming is a concern in the near term, in the long term we're living in a warm snap between ice ages. Time and again, mile-high sheets of ice have swept across the sites of Chicago and New York City. Long Island is just a big pile of debris left behind when the glaciers finally retreated--a place marker, of sorts. As for San Francisco, it will be hit by another "big one" someday. And then another and another and another. If we want that lovely city to last--at least as long as the pyramids, if not the mountains--then we'll have to display far more foresight than we've shown so far in our history. But then, our history isn't really a very long one. It might even turn out to be just a beginning; a sort of childhood. And that can only happen if we grow up and learn a little perspective.